The Librarian

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  1. The Librarian
  3. It was a hot humid summer wednesday, when Beatrice caught the kid watching porn on the library computer. She was sorting books on a nearby bookshelf. Eight thirteen point eight oh five, Melvil decimal system. Romance fiction. She was slotting each book haphazardly, stopping at the occasional bodice ripper that had a picture of a big city, or of a pair of fancy underwear or--her personal favorite--a pair of unaffordable heels, on the front cover. Mostly there were body shots of beefy young men with abdominals that looked like they could make music. She had long ago stopped reading the blurbs on the back since they were mostly all the same, instead she would look over the shelf and watch the little kids coming inside to cool down. Girls in strap-tops and plastic sandals that screeched on the linoleum; boys in wife beaters or t-shirts sticky with sweat.
  5. The computers were just on the other side of the shelf, what everyone called the “quad” because there were four of them arranged in a square and separated by wooden dividers. She couldn’t see the monitor, it was beneath the table--which had a transparent glass part where the user could see the screen. But it was obvious with the way the other boys were crowding around and laughing that something was up. Middle schoolers never get excited about homework or looking up an ISBN number. She had suspected computer games at first, which was frowned upon but reluctantly tolerated, especially in these summer months when school was out. But she felt like throwing her weight around, maybe just asking how long he had left on the timer and the kid kept hissing at the others to shut up, which made her suspicious. And she had been under the AC all day, and her skin felt like it was shriveling; she needed a distraction.
  7. They scattered as soon as she approached and the kid tried his best to close out of the window but the computers were ancient and the system lagged for a full second, putting the whole obscene thing into plain view. She wasn’t even sure how he had done it, since there were filters installed to prevent just that kind of thing, but the kid was terrified. He kept eyeing the glass doors, and leaning forward in his chair, like at any moment he was going to bolt, but he never did. He just looked at the dirty laces on his sneakers and bit his lip.
  9. “Is your mom here?”
  11. He shook his head.
  13. “I can see her right there.”
  15. He shook his head again, harder, as though she might believe him if she shook harder.
  17. “The computers aren’t for this kind of stuff and also you’re way too young,” saying it made her feel old, precisely because she wasn’t old, only twenty-four, and because it wasn’t even something she believed.
  19. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Please don’t tell.”
  21. “Get up,” she said. He did. She sat down and closed out of his session, with the image of two perfectly shaped breasts, like two little balloons defying gravity, lingered in her imagination.
  23. He was a thin kid, tall, at least as tall as her, and he moved and gestured like a puppet that had been made entirely out of string. He wore glasses with thin metal frames, with square lenses that tapered at the edge. His braces had come off recently, and his teeth were straight as piano keys and he liked to run his tongue over them whenever he was uncomfortable, as he was then.
  25. “Look at me,” she said.
  27. He looked at her, running slowly over her closed-toed sandals more suited to the municipal swimming pool than a place of learning, and her track pants and her t-shirt two sizes too big for her, which hid the littleness of her breasts and over her chin and cheeks, which her father always said were too square for a woman and finally to her eyes, where they held.
  29. “Please don’t tell,” he said and she saw tears welling up in him that had not quite reached his eyes, but soon would. Yet, he stared, straight in her eyes, as though to put two pins through them as through the wings of a butterfly on a corkboard.
  31. “Don’t do this again,” she said and she went back to her cart. The kid went on staring after her until she reached the shelf and looked back, then he grabbed his bag and bolted.
  33. ***
  35. The kid was coming by every day now. Early morning or mid afternoon and pretty soon matching her shifts down to the minute. He hovered around her, trying to be inconspicuous, pretending to look through books by running his thumbnail over the spines or sometimes just taking a book out and sitting down on the floor next to a shelf she was working and trying to read it right there. Some days her eyes would stray to the titles: Atlas of the Human Circulatory System, The Modern Combustion Engine, 5001 Chess Tactics puzzles. He was becoming quite the eclectic pretender.
  37. Then she caught him staring at her a few times, over his thin black frames, and then she just knew and accepted that he was staring at her all the time. They never spoke, but she started painting her nails and began wearing sandals with a little heel in them and started wearing flower-patterned dresses that were three different colors. Some days she even wore shorts and lipstick and a smooth plastic hair band. All of this was unconscious and gradual, unnoticeable, maybe inevitable.
  39. Sometimes she would say hi to him, which lit him up and had him sliding his tongue over his teeth like a snake the whole rest of the day. He would say hi shyly back and eventually he would start following her cart around, trailing it by the sound of its one squeaky wheel that never ran straight. Eventually they would start talking, because shelving books took so little and so long. They repeated the same kind of conversation in many different words, did it look like rain, did she have any siblings, did she like working at the library, did he like any of his subjects at school.
  41. One day he brought her a diet coke--maybe he’d seen her drinking it with her deli sandwich, maybe he had guessed--she drank half of it and gave it back to him and the kid stared at the lip of the can and slowly put his lips on the opening and sipped with his lips full out, like he was a hummingbird sipping nectar. She started talking about her father and because he wouldn’t ever interrupt her, the conversation went on deeper than she had meant it go.
  43. “What’s renal failure?”
  45. “It means he has a problem with his kidneys. He has to go every other day to the hospital to get dialysis.”
  47. “What’s that?”
  49. “That’s when they put all your blood into a machine to clean it and then put it back inside.”
  51. “They can do that?”
  53. She nodded. “It’s expensive.”
  55. “Can’t you just get a new kidney or something? I saw that on TV once, there was a guy who gave his son his kidney and it saved the boy’s life.”
  57. “He won’t take mine.”
  59. “Well, I didn’t mean yours but...why won’t he?”
  61. She shoved a book so hard into the shelf that several books around it popped out and fell to the ground. The smiling young girl on the cover of “An Introduction to Family Planning” stared up at her. Next to that a book on adoption laws in the state. She sighed and put the books back and rolled the cart along. The kid followed, silent.
  63. “What’s a travelogue?”
  65. “Why?” he had seen her reading them at lunchtime, she knew. It was the only kind of book she read.
  67. “Just asking.”
  69. “It’s a book about places. A person goes out to visit a place like Egypt or Jerusalem or Death Valley and he writes about all the stuff that he sees, landmarks, buildings, people, food he eats, stuff like that.”
  71. “You like them?”
  73. “I don’t know,” she tied up her hair into a bun and began rolling the sleeves of her dress down, feeling a sudden chill. She wanted to tell him to stop asking so many questions. “Makes me feel like I’ve been to those places, I guess.”
  75. “I’m sorry about your dad,” he said. “My dad works all night so he’s always sleeping during the day and he gets mad when someone wakes him up.”
  77. “Is that why you come to the library so much?”
  79. He began poking his tongue against his upper lip. “I used to go to the lake. You ever been to the lake?”
  81. “No,” she said. But she was thinking about the smell of pine needles in the water and the way  the feel of cutting through the stillness with an oar went all the way up your arm to the back of your head, what she imagined felling a tree was like, but gentle.
  83. “You’ve never been to the lake?”
  85. She shook her head.
  87. “I go swimming there all the time. My mom always says there’s leeches in there and even though I don’t really believe her I never go too far away from the shore. Some people even say they throw bodies in there, concrete shoes...hey can I ask you something?”
  89. “What?”
  91. “You won’t get mad?”
  93. “What is it?”
  95. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
  97. “That’s personal.”
  99. “OK.”
  101. “No, I don’t.”
  103. He didn’t say much more after that. He trailed behind her like a hiker with a guide, smiling, laughing at the smallest thing with all his straight perfect teeth.
  105. ***
  106. She hadn’t seen the kayak in two years, since her father first got sick and lost his job. And since Walker had moved on to New York to take the bar exam. It was leaning on the wall in the basement, with half an inch of dust all over its smooth yellow-almost-orange body. Spiderwebs crisscrossed the two cloth seat-backs, but the spiders were long gone. She pulled it free from a box of old tools and a powersaw and a sander and a pile of old two-by-fours that had been there also two years untouched. It’s shape reminded her of a slice of mango.
  108. She brought it outside to the backyard and went at it with the hose, peeling the dust away, shattering the cobwebs. Then she cleaned up the oars and the seats with a big round sponge. She soaped everything down and scrubbed until she could see her own face on the smooth wet surface, and she was proud of owning such a thing.
  110. Her father called for her, asking for water and the sound of his voice scared her, like when he’d caught her in the basement with Walker that one time and he’d screamed at her and tried to stripe Walker with his belt, even though they hadn’t been doing much of anything. She couldn’t herself understand the fear now because it was not the same, it was a harmless little thing now, it was like being afraid of a butterfly just because it was a bug. She thought about that butterfly the entire drive, all the way to the lake. When she met the kid, smiling, waving at her and running up to help her take down the kayak and mount it on the water, she understood the butterfly, understood it as something inside of herself, and in the end her fear vanished.
  112. They cut through the water until the smell and sting of barbecues and pine needles and the chatter of motorboats died down into echoes. The lake was full of little islands and there was no spot on it that she knew where one could turn around and see only water, there was just no escape from it, the earth. But at least there was silence, not even the song of birds, just wind, just water.
  114. The kid had rowed his best all the way with her and he was leaning back and taking breath now, and putting his hand over the side, chin pressed hard on his shoulder. He tapped the wrinkled surface with his fingers and watched the ripples go out. “It’s warm,” he said.
  116. “Gets colder on the bottom,” she said.
  118. “I like your suit,” he said. She was wearing a blue one-piece that Walker had bought for her--she couldn’t remember when, it felt too long ago. He used to say that he liked the way her skin looked in it, which she couldn’t understand, which she thought sometimes that it was a joke at her expense, and maybe she didn’t get it because she wasn’t as clever, but he knew exactly when to say it, and he knew how to curve it so that it made her feel special, and that was always more important. She looked at herself in the water, touching her square chin, thinking that maybe there was a button or hinge somewhere she could click and it would come off.
  120. Then she slipped in and swam out a little from the boat while the kid watched her. Then the kid put his whole hand in the water, testing it a little, wondering if he would be allowed in it too or maybe wondering if there were any leeches. Finally he looked at her, lying on her back and kicking her feet like a penguin. He took off his shirt and his glasses and jumped in.
  122. “You were right, it is cold,” he said.
  124. “It’s alright. Beats air conditioning.”
  126. “Hey, can I ask you come you have a boat?”
  128. “Why wouldn’t I?” she drew herself up and pushed the water between them. He got closer. Or maybe it was a trick of the waves.
  130. “You said you’ve never been to the lake.”
  132. “So?”
  134. He shook his head sadly, and the tiny droplets on the ends of his hair shone briefly as they scattered and went their separate ways. “Never mind.”
  136. “It’s not mine,” she said, rubbing the sides of her shoulders, as though the lake water was a kind of ointment. Now he was really close, and it wasn’t a trick of the water.
  138. “OK,” he said. And he craned his head forward and kissed her, inexpertly, uncertainly, but unreservedly. And she was swept up, she felt her bowels rise inside her as he put his arms around her and they bobbed together from the water. Then she felt the heat on her back, on her neck, the sun--and she pulled away violently. The kid was scared again and she was scared and she struck him across the cheek. Not hard, but with the water, it made a big sound.
  140. She swam back to the boat, even though she didn’t want to go back to shore yet. The kid followed her and didn’t say anything and even rowed his best all the way back. He was running through his teeth and blinking, looking like he was so sorry that he was going to cry. Maybe he was crying already and he was just good at hiding it and it was just hard to tell with all the water. When they reached the shore he was good enough to help her put the kayak back on top of the car and then he toweled off and put his shirt on and wiped his glasses down slowly in little circles, like a watchmaker polishing an expensive watch, and ran off without saying goodbye.
  142. For the rest of the summer, whenever the glass doors opened and the sound of outside traffic came in briefly, she would perk up. She would crane her head out from between the shelves and stand on tip-toe to see who had come in. Sometimes she did catch herself, and felt foolish. But he never came back. She went by the lake a couple more times, with the kayak, and even went out into the water, like he would find him there waiting for her, but her father found out and though he said nothing beyond the fact that he knew she was going to the lake, she stopped going. She wished he said goodbye. They never do.
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