It smells mainly of pages, ink, and dust. Thousands of books line the shelves, their spines a temptation I cannot resist. I run my fingertips along them, feeling the bump and slide as the titles spill past. Silence hangs thick in the air. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to stand on a table and scream at the top of my lungs to shatter that heavy silence. But I know I would not do it. I’d feel sacrilegious doing something so reckless.
When I first came here I didn’t know what was behind that deep purple expanse the librarians leaned over while they smiled and I handed over books, my card gripped tightly in my fist. Now I could see over the counter and even move behind it—a place I never imagined myself when I was only eight.
I was part of the great mystery: how books got re-shelved. I suppose I always knew that a person did this, but a part of me wanted to believe that the stories knew their places and would nestle in the stacks like birds at roost.
“It’s really a boring job,” Jordan told me the first day of training. “Nothing ever happens. But whatever. Some of the people who come in here are . . . interesting. So that’s something.” He led me to the back door, right next to the adult non-fiction section. Punching in the code, he pushed through and I followed, not realizing I was holding my breath.
“Back here is where all the books come in and out. There’s an employee bathroom here I like to use instead of the public ones in the lobby.” He paused by a copy machine and a floor-to-ceiling shelf full of multi-colored paper. “We dye all the paper here ourselves,” Jordan said. He looked over his shoulder at me, expecting something. I gave a nervous laugh, my stomach preparing to join Cirque du Soleil.
“It’s a good job to have on the weekends because it gets boring.” He waited a few seconds before bursting into laughter. “I’m just kidding. That would be insane. You don’t really have to do anything here; just make copies of request slips sometimes.”
Jordan showed me the employee break room where it would be my job to do the dishes and take out the trash. He spit out rapid-fire instructions on how to send off late notices in the mail. I gulped. “Don’t worry,” Jordan reassured me, “you’ll get the hang of it.” Those first weeks it took me about half an hour to finish returning a cart full of books, and Jordan’s words echoed with painful hope in my head.
“Ten minutes,” I told Logan, looking at the timer on my phone.
He sent a crooked smile my way and flipped his untamable curls. “Beat that! Ten minutes from start to finish. I don’t think you can.”
I smiled at the challenge. “Don’t be too sure.” Grabbing the cart from him I began loading it with adult fiction. Logan tapped his wrist where a watch would have sat and I ignored him.
“I don’t think you can do it, Olivia.”
“Logan, I didn’t talk to you while you were doing this. It’s almost not fair,” I said, quickly shuffling the books, separating the James Lee Burke books from the James Patterson ones. I had been working at the library for almost two years and I could alphabetize in my sleep.
I wheeled the cart out to the stacks and proceeded to speed walk up and down the aisles, slamming the books into their proper spaces. Logan strolled along behind me.
“There!” I straightened up from returning the last book, a Kurt Vonnegut, to its rightful home. Logan frowned.
“Well?” I urged. “What’s my time?”
He mumbled something. I leaned closer, cupping a hand over my ear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. You’re going to have to say it again.”
“Nine minutes and thirty seconds,” Logan grumbled.
I pumped a fist into the air. “Take that!” I pushed the cart back to behind the circulation desk and started pulling adult non-fiction off the shelves.
“This is so not fair,” Logan said, slowly pulling juvenile non-fiction from its overcrowded shelf.
“I won fair and square. You have to put all of that away.”
“What are you two doing?” Jason, our supervisor, asked as he strolled into the room. His hair fell in a curtain around his face, the salt and pepper mane free of its usual ponytail.
“I beat Logan and now he has to put away the JV non-fiction.” Logan mumbled something. Jason laughed.
“You two are ridiculous.”
“But you love us anyway,” I said with a smirk, pushing my now-full cart out of the room. I remembered when I started working Fridays. Logan had seen me filling my cart, went to find the schedule and then stared at me for a whole minute before I finally asked what he was doing.
“Are you sure you’re supposed to be working right now?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m sure. Why?”
He squinted at the schedule, shook his head, and squinted at it again. “I never work with anybody.”
“Well,” I said, brushing past him with my cart. “I suppose you’ll have to get used to it.” It took me all of three Fridays to finally ask him to stop re-shelving all the books before he left. We only overlapped for an hour and a half and I had to keep myself busy for a whole two hours after he clocked out. When I confronted him about it, he didn’t say anything, but he put most of his books onto my cart and never took all the books again.
Jason was leaning against the empty counter when I returned. “Olivia, did you know that outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend, because—“
“—inside a dog it’s too dark to read. Groucho Marx.” I finished for him.
Jason crossed his arms and laughed. “Man, and I was going to pass that one off as my own.”
I smiled and shrugged. “Sorry.”
“What are we going to do without you?” Jason asked, sobering up a bit.
“I don’t know. I’m sure you’ll find someone else to replace me.”
Another co-worker, Jesse, was sitting by the phone and she scoffed. “No way. You are irreplaceable. Who else is going to make fun of Logan with me?” Jesse twirled a strand of blonde hair between her fingers. I remembered when Jesse started working here—hired not long after I was. One Saturday, we were stuck with nothing to do and made paper airplanes to race in the genealogy section.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to find somebody,” I repeated.
“Where are you going again?” Jason asked.
“Corban University. It’s in Salem, Oregon.”
“I wish you could go someplace closer and still work here,” Jesse said.
“The stacks are going to be a mess without you,” Jason added.
“You have Logan at least for now. Other than that I don’t know what to tell you guys. Maybe I can come back and work during the holidays?”
I sat in my car looking at the squat utilitarian structure painted a color that couldn’t decide if it was blue or gray. Years of memories were contained within that building. I never liked leaving it behind, but had resigned myself to this fact. It would always be a sort of home for me—the secluded stacks, the regular patrons at the computers and the librarians all mixed together to form something special.
I finally got out and pushed through the stubborn glass doors. “I’m back.”
Ellen Kersey says
Olivia – That is an amazing story. Your use of detail is to be envied. I laughed! I sighed. Thanks for sharing this story.