The compartment’s metal door rumbled as it rolled up. The deputy senior property manager steadied it, made sure it was secure in the open position.
“Okay, Russ, let’s go,” Spencer ordered as he switched on an overhead single bulb.
“It’s Russell, sir,” the young man said as he stepped into the cramped space just past the threshold. He felt queasy. He circled in place, staring at the detritus of someone’s life crammed into the rear of the unit.
“This junk is for disposal,” Norman Spencer said. “Trash,” he declared. He tossed a picture frame to the floor, came to an upside-down coffee-table with four spindle legs protruding at slight angles. “Trash,” he proclaimed.
Russell looked at the deputy. “But don’t we have to give anything usable to charity, or see if any other tenants want it?”
Spencer turned around. His face was turning red. “What?”
The deputy looked bored; he checked his watch, stretching his wrist from under his white cuff. His jacket was draped over his other arm. “It doesn’t matter,” the man said.
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?” He looked at his boss, the owner and manager of Spencer’s Storage. “You made me read all those print-outs about the Seattle Housing Authority and disposal of property. How do you know there isn’t a valuable book in here, maybe a first edition or something?”
It was almost noon, and the deputy was hungry. He grunted loudly and walked a few steps out into the corridor.
Russell felt self-conscious as he stepped over to one of the pillars of books balanced on an old, cherry desk. He bent and studied the spines, almost all of which were encased in original dust-jackets. “For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, Rebecca by Daphne du … Mor … er….”
“That’s ‘du Maurier,'” the deputy pronounced, his back to them. He retrieved his phone, flitted his fingers over the screen. “Our office has already completed our inventory, and the entire estate is valued under $5,000 after we deduct the expenses of removal, storage, and the appropriate taxes and probate costs.”
“Well, I’d like some of these books,” Russell said.
“You can’t have ’em,” Spencer said. “No one wants this shit.” He paused a moment, threw out his arms. “Forgot the bags!” He walked back past Russell and stopped, jabbed an index finger and thumb, like a gun, in the young man’s face. “I’ll be right back. Don’t you take a damn thing, you hear me? And put your rubber gloves on. This is your first week on the job, so I’m cuttin’ some slack.”
Russell opened his palms towards his boss. “I’m cool,” he said. But he wasn’t. He thought he was lucky to find this summer job. Spencer’s was an indoor public storage facility, with fifty units, some as small as 5 x 4 feet, others as large as 10 x 20. He had imagined all the reasons why people might need to stash their belongings in one of these painted, cinder-block rooms; he figured the owners would eventually return and retrieve their property. But he discovered that Spencer did a lot of business with King County and the SHA–storing the material goods of people who died without wills, without family or friends.
He noticed a marble urn with a faded photo of a dog taped to it, corrugated boxes heaped with kitchen utensils, a stack of drawers balanced at right angles, one on top of the other. “This is a person’s whole life,” he muttered to himself. “Like he lived this whole life and died old and alone and everything that he loved, saved, counted on to give him identity, is just swept up and tossed in here, and now we’re throwing it all away.”
“What’s that?” Spencer asked as he reappeared. He threw some extra large plastic bags at Russell. “Start filling these up. And put on your gloves.”
“Where did that government guy go?” Russell asked as he awkwardly pulled on Latex gloves.
“Had to go meet someone for lunch. He doesn’t usually stay.” He huffed as he moved his bulk, climbed over some ancient magazines.
“Mr. Spencer, please, no one will know. You’re going to throw it all out anyway. Let me have a few of these books.”
He stopped, straddling a pile of blankets and bed linens, trying not to fall. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” he said without turning around.
Russell’s heart thudded. He darted his hand into a nearby laundry basket filled with paperbacks and grasped the first book he found. He brought it close to his face. The Way West, by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. “Cool,” he whispered. He unzipped his Tyvek coveralls just enough to slip the book inside.