Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Library Hour... a story

[Written in 1999 after a few years of work at my local library; inspired by true events but any resemblance to real persons, alive or dead, is almost coincidental. Not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but my former colleagues might find it amusing.]

I hear the familiar tap of his cane on the tile floor while filing video cards in their rightful places.  The sharp sound changes to a muffled thump as the tile of the lobby becomes the carpet of the library's fiction and nonfiction area.  For ten seconds longer, I flip aimlessly through the cards, searching for nothing, attempting to look busy because I know I am about to be interrupted.

Nina is on her lunch break. Debbie is desperately busy with one of our more demanding patrons, Mrs Rogstill, in the genealogical research department.  Until one o'clock, I am the only clerk working the front desk. The joys of this solitary task are already proving themselves in the fifteen minutes since Nina's departure. 

At the moment I'm keeping a close surveillance on both Chuckie Harris and Dave Furnby.

Chuckie sits at one of our internet stations, busily devouring web pages with titles like "How to Build Your Own Explosives: Cheap Options", and "Easy Nail Bombs for the Beginner".  

Dave progresses through the room, moving without a sound.  He never speaks, at least not in the library. He spends hours stalking along our neatly arranged shelves, obsessively rearranging the books to suit his own personal tastes, exhibiting a functional dislike of the Dewey decimal system of organisation. We staff have privately dubbed him "The Sorter".

After completing hasty security checks on both Chuckie and Dave, I turn my attention to a stack of books waiting to be checked in. John's cane draws closer, but I have work to do; I refuse to look up.  He is at the desk and saying "hello" in his wrinkly voice before I acknowledge his presence.

"Hello, John," I respond shortly, swiftly running the scanner over each barcoded book.

He begins to talk, running through the usual preliminaries which always precede any conversation with him.  They generally consist of inquiries about my health; an observation on my continued thinness, which John, a virtual skeleton, considers worrying; and a remark on something he has recently read in the newspaper.  Today, the newspaper comment expands into the conversation he wishes to have.

"Miss Frederick..." Customary pause before continuing.

I sort the books I've just checked in and arrange them on the book cart.  

"Yes, John?"

"Well, I was wondering... about that article you wrote for the paper last week on the double funeral for the murder-suicide case..."

My writing assignment covering a recent controversial murder-suicide, as a part-time employee of our local newspaper, is not exactly something I'm overjoyed about discussing.

"Yes, John?"

"Well, I was wondering... that must have been a difficult story to write, but you made it very fair for both sides of the equation... where exactly did you get your sources for the story?"

I smile briefly, and try to sound matter-of-fact.

"John, you know that's confidential!"

He can tell he's pushed his luck.  "Oh yes, yes, of course... Miss Frederick?"

"Yes, John?"  I open the case of a returned CD to check its condition.

"It must have been a difficult story to write." He clears his throat and waits expectantly.  He's fishing for information, and we both know it.

I key in the CD's barcode to check it in before replying.

"Well, John, I must admit that I had to do some selective reporting on that one," is my unashamed response.  His prying is beginning to annoy me, and impishly, I want nothing more than to stir him up.

It works.  Instantly, he becomes visibly disturbed, nervously clearing his throat several times and abstractedly shifting his cane about.

"Now, now, Miss Frederick... I don't know about that," he murmurs worriedly.

While I wait for John to decide what to say next, I file the CD in its place on the bookshelf opposite the main desk.

The sudden rattle of ice cubes in a plastic cup heralds the arrival of another of my favourite patrons.  As I turn back towards the desk again, facing a more-agitated-by-the-moment John, Charles Wilkinson toddles up. He greets me jovially, as usual, as if we've known each other for years, and takes a noisy sip from his local gas station acquired insulated cup. He throws a surreptitious glance about the room as he does so, clearly hoping someone else notices him drinking his forty-ounce beverage in the library, taking smug note of the surprise and awe on their faces at the wonder of his exclusive privilege.  I hand the internet sign-up sheet to Charles, mentally noting John's hovering presence.

Unfortunately, Chuckie Harris is still installed at the sole working internet terminal, unheeding that he's gone considerably beyond his allotted time.

Charles is already on his way over to the humming computer, and I hastily follow, lest Chuckie challenge Charles and violence ensue.

As I poise to confront Chuckie, Charles stands off to one side, rocking back and forth on his toes in a Pentecostal fashion, thumbs firmly installed in his belt loops.  He sighs contentedly, obviously refreshed by his icy beverage, which he has placed in its usual spot on our main desk, a concession we reached with him months ago in spite of our "No Food and Drink" policy.

"Chuckie, your time is up, and Charles has signed on for the next slot," I begin firmly, knowing this might take a while.

Chuckie's gaze remains glued to the screen, bloodshot eyes skipping over a title that blares, "Simple Pipe Bombs for Beginning Artists".

I raise my voice to a moderately loud tone. "Chuckie, your internet time is OVER."

His gaze begins a slow, creaky ascent from the position it has been in for hours, and he looks me full in the face, mouth open in dumb astonishment.

"Charles is the next patron signed up for this terminal," I explain patiently.

"What the hell?" Chuckie's voice cracks adolescently at the end of this brief query.

"Your internet time is up, Chuckie, and I need to ask you to leave."

The chair upon which he is sitting rolls violently backward as he forcefully pushes himself away from the computer.  He stares at me, defiance harshening the angle of his frown, his lip protruding sulkily in an almost babyish manner.

I return his glare sternly.

Suddenly he stands up and stomps away, grumbling and spitting descriptive swear words as he makes his exit.

Charles, who has watched the scene with self-righteous relish, makes no comment as he settles himself unperturbedly into the chair Chuckie has so violently vacated.  He clicks the "x" in the box at the top right hand corner of the screen to rid it of Chuckie's recipes for destruction.

I return to the desk, mentally attempting to regroup in preparation for ever-lingering John.

John has barely opened his mouth when Alvin Smith appears through the double doors.

He is returning videos, and plunks two of them down on the desk in front of me.  

"Thur wuz one o' these I didn't like," Alvin starts a protest as I take the videos.  He seems to relinquish them rather reluctantly.

"Oh, really?" I say conversationally, hoping to get Alvin talking long enough to cause John to tire of lurking.

"Yup.  Think ya oughter git rid of it," Alvin says firmly.

"Which one was it?"

"Wal, now, don't rightly know.  Wuz one about, lessee here... Th' John Wayne 'un."

I give the titles a brief glance.  "Rooster Cogburn and the Lady?"

"That's th' one.  Don't think ya oughter 'ave hit no more.  Warn't as inter'stin as t'other Rooster 'un."

"I don't recall having another one of these."

Alvin's grimy beard sticks out with knowledgeable indignation.

"Ya do too!  I've 'ad it here - from this 'ere liberry!"

Should I press the argument further with Alvin?  Out of the corner of my eye, I can see John moving his cane about restlessly, brow still furrowed over disturbing thoughts about my manipulative reporting tactics.  Ah, Debbie has arrived.  Yes... John starts talking to Debbie.

"I'm sure you have, Mr. Smith.  I just don't recall having that particular movie."

Alvin sighs deeply and straightens his coat collar.

"Thanks for letting us know about the movie," I say in a conciliating tone.

"Thet's jist my 'pinion.  I allays got n'pinion."

With that, Alvin leaves in a dignified manner, leaving a slight odour of something trailing in his wake.

Full security assessment required.  

Charles is safely clicking away at weather maps, his cup obediently stowed in a corner of our desk.  Dave methodically arranges the books in the pet care section by removing them and randomly replacing them in the middle of an adjoining row.  Debbie has slipped back to the demanding presence of Mrs Rogstill and John is lying in wait again.

I sigh, and in a brief fit of frustration at the slow clock, rattle the handle of the cash drawer.

I needn't have worried about John.  

Through the double doors, with the delicacy of an approaching tornado, rushes the influx that is the DelVechio family. Five-year-old Gracie runs for the decorative globe, and turns it violently.  Toddler Joey attacks the paperback spinners, sending them flying off in all directions.  Dominic, aged seven, hasn't even made it into the room, but remains in the lobby attempting to climb the Venetian blinds, Tarzan-style.

Mother Cynthia piles books onto the returns desk.  "Hi," she chirps.  "Stop that, Joey!  Well, it's a nice day out today, isn't it? DOMINIC, COME HERE NOW!"

Joey races out of the room and Dominic sprints in.  Gracie stands at the far wall, near the restrooms, examining the glass-paneled fire alarm box.

The bell on the elevator clangs repeatedly.  Joey hollers, "Ma! Ma!" He is trapped inside, and the door keeps opening and shutting because his finger is pressed convulsively against the buttons.  Cynthia darts in to retrieve him, emerging with the child upside down under her arm.  She is laughing.  "He is such a riot!"

I watch with a tight-lipped smile, feeling somehow unable to join in with the hilarity of it all.

Meanwhile, Dominic has joined Gracie at the fire alarm, and he lifts her up so she can better observe the tiny red box, which is protected by a thin layer of glass, and will summon fire engines to the premises if broken.  Instinctively, I start in their direction, but distraction appears in the form of Joey, who has energetically removed a book from a shelf to my left and flipped it open, instantly ripping out a page.  I remove the book from his tight grasp, and leave him with his still-laughing, apologetic mother.

Whoop! Whoop! The fire alarm begins to shrill, blocking out all other sounds.

By the time the DelVechio family leaves, accompanied by jovial firemen, Cynthia laughing all the way out, the time remaining until my lunch hour has dropped away. The short hand on the clock nearly points to one.

"Miss Frederick..."

"Yes, John?"

"I understand you must go to lunch soon, but may we discuss your selective reporting tactics tomorrow, upon my habitual daily venture to this library?"

"Of course, John, " I reply brightly.  

John turns in acquiescence, and the thump of his retreating cane resounds upon my ears, which are still ringing from the fire alarm.  

Three minutes until one.  

The clock ticks loudly, taunting me with the seconds until the lunch hour arrives and releases me to the quiet of the staff room.  

Is it really the clock ticking? Or is it the click of Charles' mouse?

No, it's the bookends clanging softly as Dave religiously rearranges the books in the 820s section.

[Note: Somehow in this story I failed to include the library patron who liked to check books out steal books by depositing them down the front of his trousers before making an exit.] 

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