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A Christmas Carol 394.26

ISSUE:  Winter 1973


My name is Jane Schreiber; five evenings a week I sit behind the reference desk in a west side branch of the public library and answer readers’ questions. These are mainly about the location of the public facilities. We keep both locked. There is a master key at the desk, but patrons must leave some form of identification—a library card will do—until the key is returned. We insist upon this because we have had certain troubles here in the past. After twenty years of library service I still do not know just what it is about libraries that induces tumescence in some people. But I am no longer surprised. The quietest of old men can suddenly come leaping out, like shy satyrs, from behind the fiction stacks with odd expectant faces. “Please close your zipper,” I tell them, “before I am forced to call the janitor.” They are disappointed; lessened in some important way. I know this and I am sorry. But we cannot have them back there startling old ladies and high school girls who have to give book reports. It is a forgiveable act, but unsightly. That is the loveless way things are.

This is an old library branch; it has been in the neighborhood for sixty-eight years. Our building is small and we still have wooden shelves. Above the stacks green-shaded lights hang on cords from the ceiling. From time to time there have been proposals that we install fluorescent lighting. But so far we have not. Fluorescent light is hard on the eyes, it would show our grime and shabbiness… it buzzes. While strong light might solve certain problems, it would make everything uglier. We cope.

I am the regular evening librarian, then there is a desk clerk to check out books, and often a page shelving. My present desk clerk is Allen. He is Japanese and goes to City College during the day where he is getting an M.A. in psychology. Allen recently joined Mensa. Both of these advantages give him a feeling of superiority over me who have only my degree in library service, but make more money. Paging three nights a week, we have Louis, a plump Negro teenager whose mother buys his shirts in Macy’s and refuses to let him grow his hair Afro style. On a winter night, with the radiator spitting in the background and the library smelling of dry bindings and wet wool, the three of us are hardly objects to excite the least demanding of perverts. There are trails of slush on the brown linoleum from the door to the check-out desk, and an interior humidity rises around the radiator where Louis’ mittens are drying. Their leather palms crack. Somehow this reminds me that need new boots and I wonder if I should get high ones. My ankles are rather straight and my legs are thin, so I suspect it would be a good idea. Louis is pushing a book truck from behind the desk. He has grabbed the wrong end and the wheels swivel uncontrolled. I resist an impulse to put him right—he’ll figure it out. Louis is a solitary fat boy of no special ability, the single indiscretion of a middle-aged mother who works for the telephone company. From infancy he has been overfed, passive, and considered a nice enough colored child to integrate St. Timothy’s School. He has been wearing little white shirts all his life. I nod encouragement—take the other end, Louis—that’s right. The library is quiet tonight, nearly empty be­ cause of the snow. Behind the photocharging machine Allen turns another page of his Behavioral Concepts text. I look out the window. Outside the night is dark except for snow falling, eddying visibly under the street lights. Heat rises from the radiator under the window sill. I stare. Reflected in the black glass are our green-shaded lamps and shelves. Beyond them I see rows of lighted windows in the rooming houses across the street. Snow falls. Parked cars along both curbs are now hooded with accumulated drifts, and further up, on the avenue, traffic has slowed almost to a standstill. Occasionally a car tries to turn down this street and its tires spin on the unpacked snow. I suppose I should be doing the month’s statistics, but I continue to stare out the window. We have twenty minutes until closing and only two patrons. A middle-aged woman in a matted fur coat and a head scarf stands, flat-footed on wet molded shoes, in front of the mystery section, browsing, and at one of the wooden tables, Mr. Laufer is reading this week’s STERN—reflected—NRETS. It is very slow. I like the evening hours and always request them. That is probably why I am not promoted; they largely forget about me. Allen turns another page of his book. Louis is silent in the stacks. I know he is back there reading instead of shelving books, but tonight I don’t much care. It is as if the snow has proclaimed a holiday. No one even bothers to pretend. Usually Allen and Louis go about their jobs with the preoccupied air of disguised princes, confident that this library is not their proper estate. They are merely waiting. I wonder if I am not waiting too? Like all the movies of my childhood? The handsome and distinguished scholar hurriedly turns the corner of the stacks colliding with the librarian. Books scatter into the air and her glasses are knocked to the floor. As they stoop to pick up the broken pieces of glass their eyes meet. He gasps, “Why Miss Schreiber, you’re beautiful…!”

I don’t wear glasses.

Dr. Kurosato, in recognition of your valuable achievement in motivational research, the Nobel Committee…

Nobel prizes are not given in psychology.

“Louis, the brothers have elected you minister of war.” In the background, the establishment burns—its buildings look strangely like St. Timothy’s Upper School. “All power to the people.”

“Miss Schreiber, will you please call Louis to the telephone. This is his mother.”

As I say, we are merely putting in time here, waiting to take our rightful places. Any day someone may recognize us. Oh where are you?

The radiator continues to sputter soothingly. Reflected in the window I see the woman in the fur coat cross carrying a stack of mysteries to the check-out desk. Her shoes suck against the floor. Mr. Laufer shuffles out the door saying good night to Allen, who ignores him. I turn to look at the clock on the wall. Ten minutes to go. I start putting away last month’s circulation figures. At this moment the glass interior doors, still gently wushing from Mr. Laufer’s exit, are violently pushed inward and the little Puerto Rican superintendent from the condemned building across the street lurches through. His coat hangs open showing a gray shirt and pants wet from snow. He stops just inside the doors, feet apart, swaying, catching himself, eyes cheerfully unfocused. Drunk. Suddenly he sees me across the room and beams with recognition. He knows me. We always nod to each other when I pass his building. He is out on the stoop in all weather, looking glazed, talking aloud in Spanish. Most of the apartments in the building have been vacated, and their windows are covered with sheets of gray metal nailed to the frames. The city is planning urban renewal in this area; only a few tenants have refused to leave. I think he must still live there somewhere in the basement—the super’s apartment? I have seen a light down there at night. I do not know if he is employed, or has just refused to leave. He has come in the library before; he wants to talk, but he cannot speak to us. I think he must wander about the neighborhood, and is drawn at night, like a stunned moth, to our lights. I watch as he sways gently left to right, then suddenly lurches off sideways, heading into the stacks. I look at Allen who immerses himself deeper in his Behavioral Concepts book. Dammit—it is his turn. I stand, smoothing my navy blue skirt, and head toward the stacks after the little Puerto Rican. He has gone in between the 400’s and 500’s. Although we have a large collection of books in Spanish, I don’t think he wants to read. I turn down the aisle and spot him back there, in the shadows just beyond the light of the hanging lamp. He is swaying between the tall, upright shelves, and he smiles as he sees me approach. He has a paper bag in his hand from which a bottle neck protrudes, and he begins un­ screwing the cap.

“We’re closed,” I say, walking toward him.

He smiles, nodding in agreement, and proudly shows me the bottle. A pint full of thick, yellow-brown liquid. Its sweet smell crosses the dry air.

I smile. Very nice. “Cerrado,” I repeat firmly.

He lowers the open bottle and carefully wipes its mouth with the hanging tail of his shirt, then extends it toward me. His eyes swim happily.

I hesitate.

Yes, yes, he nods.

I reach across, taking the bottle from his weaving, extended hand and sniff it—sherry. Putting my head back I take a quick swallow. It is strong. Too sweet.

He looks pleased.

“Bueno,” I say to him. “Gracias.” Then I take the cap from his other hand and replace it over the bottle’s mouth, screwing it tightly shut, twisting the paper bag up around the neck again. Still nodding my head and grinning idiotically, I put the pint back in his overcoat pocket. God knows what friend I’ve made, but I’ve avoided a scene. Taking his arm, I propel him forward, and my friend and I walk unsteadily out of the stacks.

Allen is staring as I carefully escort the little Puerto Rican to the exit. “Gracias,” I say opening the doors and shoving him through. As the doors part, he pauses between them and pulls the pint out of his overcoat pocket again. Holding it up he gives me a knowing wink, then turns and weaves through the lobby toward the street exit. I watch to make sure he gets past the locked restrooms and the stairs leading up to the children’s room.

Allen is standing up now, leaning over the counter to make sure he doesn’t miss anything. I turn away and, as I pass the check-out desk, for Allen’s benefit, lower my eyes and discreetly hiccough, raising my hand slightly toward my mouth in embarrassment. Allen’s eyes blink behind black rimmed glasses. He is not quite sure.

At this moment, Louis and his book cart roll indolently out of the fiction stacks. Only a few books have been shelved; the rest are covered with cake crumbs. I reach behind my desk and start to pull switches. The hanging lights over the stacks go out, one by one. It is time to go home.

Four days later, the day staff puts up the Christmas tree. We arrive at work to find a small artificial tree (city property) with a single strand of lights and a few ornaments, standing in the middle of one of the reading tables. Thin strands of tinsel weep from its bent branches and sooty cotton batting is stretched around beneath to cover its stand. Louis looks at it doubtfully. “Maybe we ought to send that back to the bindery,” he finally says.

I smile at his joke, and Allen hurries in ten minutes late. Allen does not acknowledge us because I am not supposed to have noticed that he wasn’t here all along.

Propped up on my desk I see a note from the day librarian. “A degenerate got in today and wandered upstairs into the Children’s Room greatly upsetting Miss Conner. Please keep an eye out.” I sigh. That sort of thing is an occupational hazard, but it does seem to upset the new staff. “When you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all,” I tell the younger librarians. Perhaps this makes them think I have had a randy past. My past is my own business. I have a younger married sister in McKeesport and two nieces. We had one other sister but she was retarded. Happy and mongoloid in Pennsylvania. I pull out my chair and sit down behind the reference desk. Outside it is nearly dark—a mid-December evening gone warm; last week’s snow melts into watery soot. The air itself feels sapped, and the atmosphere condenses over the pavement in listless seep. Unseasonable. I look away from the window. Another evening is beginning.

It drags. By a quarter past eight we have had only six patrons—mostly to return books. The stores are open every night now for Christmas shopping, and people are too busy to read. I hate extended holidays and have bought myself theater tickets well in advance, to fill the two long weekends we will have this year. I often devise elaborate and unnecessary schedules for myself to fill time, rather like those orders of monks who rise voluntarily several times during the night to pray, mortifying their flesh. I believe they are wholly mad—still one must observe something. Our heat, turned down for the thaw, suddenly comes on. Steam grinds up behind me and the radiators begin knocking sociably. Damn these old pipes. I stare across the room at the little artificial tree above the reading table, supporting four round ornaments in its thin branches. Yes, I think, you and I are being dragged out for one more holiday season—and don’t we look it. I have been invited for Christmas dinner again with the Evanses, a childless couple who both work in Manhattan. I knew Thelma in college. They usually invite me and an elderly bachelor neighbor of theirs who used to teach Shakespeare at one of the city universities. Sometimes there is another childless couple, and very often, the most recently divorced woman from Thelma’s ad agency—who will become tearful after the brandy. I suppose there must be a lot of people in Manhattan like us. Thank God we don’t all have to meet.

The radiator is banging vehemently now, as if it is occupied by a maddened genie. Allen pretends not to hear and hunches behind the charging machine with his book. Louis is back in the workroom making up a truck of books to shelve and helping himself to the day staff’s ribbon candy. I turn round in my chair cursing the radiator and try to turn down the steam to lessen its banging. The radiator is hot, covered with abrasive grit. I pull a wadded Kleenex out of my jacket pocket—lint flies, a loose aspirin rolls under the desk—and wrap it around the knob to get a better grip. While I am bending over the radiator, struggling to turn its valve, my Puerto Rican friend arrives. I lift my head to see him heave through the doors and stop just inside the room. He is in his usual cheerfully unfocused condition. Aha, he spots me. A smile flows across his features, and he pats his overcoat pocket conspiratorially, swaying, looking toward the stacks. Behind the check-out desk Allen is watching me intently. It is his chance to show me up. He always tells me I do not understand the motivation behind my actions. Allen analyzes my motivations with a kamikaze devotion. I pause, still bent awkwardly over the radiator. The little super gives me a wink, and lurches off into the stacks again. Resigned, I straighten up to go and bring him back. But before I can take a step, Allen is hurrying around the check-out counter. He doesn’t trust my weakened morals to resist? Why, I actually think he means to spoil my fun! Good grief. I stand uncertainly, still holding the sooty Kleenex as Allen disappears into the stacks after the Puerto Rican. Voices back there. Louis pokes his head out of the workroom to look. We hear a scuffle. A splash. Glass breaks… shatters… and Allen backs hurriedly out of the stacks. His carefully combed black hair is fallen over his glasses, his face is shocked. Louis and I hurry to look down the aisle. At its far end the little man is standing-still swaying like a weighted toy, hands dangling by his sides. Empty. We have sweet sherry all over the 700’s.

Since the library closes at three p.m. on Christmas Eve, Allen, Louis, and I must hold our celebration the night before. They are my staff and I have tried to find them each a small but appropriate gift. Louis’ is a black wool beret with black leather trim. I have seen him secretly admiring the photographs of black militants in news magazines. I don’t know how it is going to look with his navy blue St. Timothy’s blazer, but I suspect the effect will be interesting. If his mother refuses to let him wear it, he can always keep it in his drawer here. For Allen I have bought an enormous, thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. Assembled it will form a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting. Ten hundred tiny jigsaw pieces covered with dribbles of paint. The box calls it “The World’s Most Difficult Jigsaw Puzzle!” and states that the record time for its assembly is eighteen hours; “Test Your I.Q.” I start to wrap the puzzle box in lime­green tissue paper, and then I pause. I carefully raise the lid, remove a single jigsaw piece—and drop it in the waste basket. Replacing the lid, I fold tissue around the box and tie it with silver ribbon. That ought to keep Allen busy.

A half hour before closing on December 23, we lock the outside doors and Allen, Louis, and I have instant coffee and fruit cake in the library workroom. Mr. Laufer has given us the fruit cake and his blessings. We pull chairs up to the sorting table, and while water boils on the hot plate, we exchange presents. Louis and Allen hand me a plain box tied with a huge red Christmas bow. Inside, pale gray stationery and envelopes are held neatly by tailored, navy-blue ribbons. It is quite nice, heavy, rather formal stationery. One could write condolences on it. Is this how they see me? I thank them both saying how much I need writing paper, and I pass the fruit cake around.

It is only eight forty-five when we finish, but I tell Louis and Allen to go ahead and leave. I will lock up; I have a few things to finish first. Allen looks suspicious. Outside, a light snow that began falling earlier is now sticking to the pavement. “Go ahead,” I tell them, “before the snow gets worse.” Louis is already buttoning his brown herringbone, Boys Dept overcoat—chubby size. He stops in front of a hand mirror the day librarians keep propped at eye-level on the workroom shelf, and puts on his beret, adjusting it to the proper angle. Louis studies himself. I tear a paper towel off the roll and wrap up the last chunk of fruit cake. “Here,” I tell him, “… to eat on the way home.”

He stuffs the cake in his coat pocket and then, in the doorway he turns to me, touching the beret in a confident gesture, and gives the black power salute.

I salute in return. It definitely does something for him. I hope his mother won’t be too upset.

I wait until I am sure that Louis and Allen are outside, before I straighten up the workroom and slip on my coat. Quickly I cross the brown linoleum to the reference desk and pull out the bottom drawer where I have hidden a brown paper bag. I take a bottle of sweet sherry out of the twisted paper and drape the red ribbon bow from my present around its neck. Replacing it in the paper bag, I switch off the library lights and pick up my handbag from the desk. The library is dark now, except for the pale glow of street lights reflected off the snow. But I know my way to the door.

I am going to leave the sherry just inside the basement entrance, beside his door—perhaps it will make up for the bottle we broke. But suppose he is there, I think? Suppose he invites me to share a glass with him? What then? I can hardly refuse. If he asks me. But only one. Outside on the stoop. Only if he insists.


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