If I walked three quarters of a mile up to the next main intersection and took the southbound bus, I could get out at the public library and have another air conditioned space to spend time in. I’d worn out the couple of books I brought with me – the only books I owned, anyway, and buying more was out of the question. Besides, living in a place like Phoenix, you learn quickly to jump from air-conditioned space to air conditioned space. I was one of the lucky ones in that I’d still managed to hold onto my room at the Lost Dutchman; but a guy can only spend so much time looking at the same four walls before he starts to go a little nuts. Since I technically didn’t have a permanent address, getting a library card was out of the question; but I could spend a few hours there, reading books off the shelves and relaxing.
There wasn’t a time I when I could remember not liking libraries. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of summers there. I’d wake up, throw on some clothes, and tell mom I was going to ride my bike. Then I’d ride into town (I wasn’t supposed to) and hide out in the library, reading books. I had a card, but I didn’t check anything out to take home, otherwise I’d have to explain it and I’d get in trouble. Mom used to take Ruby to the library all the time, and she asked me a lot if I wanted to go. I always said no. First of all, I didn’t want the little old biddy of a librarian to say something that might get me in trouble; but mostly, I liked keeping it to myself. Nobody knew I went there. I liked being able to go there and not having anybody know where I was. It was like being free. The library was my place. Mom had church. Dad had football. Ruby had – whatever the hell she did. I had the library. It was MINE.
The Public Library had a decent selection of books to choose from, and I jumped around depending on my mood. I was surprised by the large selection of poetry, but disappointed by most of what I read. Sometimes I read fiction. Biographies. If I couldn’t find something I was in the mood to read, I’d read the paper – usually the Washington Post or the LA Times. Never the local rag; I picked that piece of shit up once. That was enough. Local news was easy enough to guess anyway. More foreclosures. Higher unemployment figures. More brown-skinned people harassed. More businesses folding. Fewer places to hide.
I found an interesting read and settled in to an empty chair in the corner, near the historical section. If I wasn’t too conspicuous, I could stay in the library through the heat of the day. The staff didn’t scare as long as you weren’t noisy and didn’t scare the other patrons. I’d even seen people come in with a sack lunch, eat a sandwich, and read for hours. I envied them a little – their little sandwich and their bottle of juice. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a decent sandwich. I didn’t like thinking about it, either.
The book I chose was nothing too heady – a hard-boiled crime yarn by Lawrence Block called A Diet of Treacle. I liked his stuff when I read it before. Crime and detective fiction are good reads when you want to relax and not think about things. They’re unsentimental, bare-boned, and the ending always made sense. Plus there’s an added benefit: you’re less likely to run into people who want to sit down with you can have some deep critical discussion. People like that wander the classics section in search of other unknown self-proclaimed literary critics to commiserate with. I despised that shit in school. I hated it more out of school. Like once, I was there reading Sister Carrie. I’d never read Dreiser and that was supposed to be his best book. It was long, but once you get into the plodding rhythm of it, it’s readable. I was about a third of the way through it when I was interrupted by the warbly, throaty voice of a woman.
“It’s a great novel, isn’t it?”
I looked up, annoyed. Novel. A book is a book unless it’s literature. Then it’s a NOVEL. I never understood that. The voice belonged to a mannishly large woman wearing one of those sack dresses that any woman can wear and no woman looks good in. The thick round glasses gave her moon-shaped face a mole-like look. She was smiling at me. I didn’t notice a staff ID around her neck. I made like was getting ready to leave.
“I was just leaving,” I said, closing the book. “Sorry.”
She laughed. “No, silly. I don’t WORK here. Although I AM here enough that they might as WELL pay me.”
I’m avoiding the heat. What’s your excuse? “Oh.”
“No,” she went on. “I was just coming back here, looking for the new biography on Sarah Hemming and I noticed what you were reading. What do you THINK about it?”
I think you have a gay ex-husband. “Uh, I don’t know. It’s okay, I guess.”
“OKAY?” She was nearly incredulous. “How can you say that it’s just OKAY? You must not be very far into it.”
I was about to say something back to her – what, I had no idea-- and she grabbed the book out of my hand. “Oh,” she said. “You’re getting into the good part of it. So what do you think? I think Dreiser does a good job at painting an objective picture of…”
I tuned her out. I didn’t know what I thought of the book but I wasn’t all that interested her take, either. Everyone’s a fucking expert. She was going on about how Carrie may have been one of the earliest examples of a modern woman in literature. I was looking around for the best way to get around her.
“… and I think it’s just AMAZING? Don’t you think it’s just AMAZING? Wait until you get to the part – no I shouldn’t spoil it for you. But I think you’ll think it’s pretty amazing, too.”
“I think its okay,” I repeated. “Decent read. He takes for fucking ever to say what he means to say, but it’s an okay read. I think he needed an editor.”
She was aghast. “How can you say that?” She pointed to the book. “This is REALISM. He’s painting a GRAND PICTURE. Every little bit. Every detail. It’s all IMPORTANT. Otherwise…”
I pointed out of the large window behind me and interrupted her. “THAT’S real.” Then I pointed at the book in her hand. “That is a book written by a guy who looked at reality through a window. So of course he could pay attention to the color of people’s shoe laces. He had nothing better to do.”
She left me alone after that. I still saw her in the library when I was there, but she was careful to avoid me.
A couple of pages into the crime book I was reading, I looked up and saw one of the staffers go by, pushing a cart full of returned books. She was maybe sixteen or seventeen. She looked incredibly bored. The gig probably didn’t pay that much, but at least she got to work in air-conditioning. Plus, it wasn’t some mindless office job where she was lost in a labyrinth of cubicles occupied by people who were tied to their computer screen for eight hours a day. And it sure as shit couldn’t have been as bad as working in a factory. No a/c, and by the end of the day your feet are sore from being on them all day and your back is killing you because you were standing on a concrete floor all day. I’d had to work a couple of days the week before, and the temp agency had stuck me in a warehouse punching out little plastic parts. I never knew what they were for, and nobody told me. Of course, I thought, she probably has to answer a lot of stupid questions, too.
She looked up and saw me looking at her. She nodded. I nodded. She went back to shelving books. I went back to reading mine.
After another hour or I started feeling the heat pouring in from the large plate glass window behind me. I decided to get a drink of water and take a piss. I left the book on the seat so people would know it was taken; I’d seen other people do that, so I didn’t feel like I was being too much of a prick. The restrooms were near the front door, and the nearest water fountain was in the children’s section near the back wall. I didn’t hurry. The library was filling up. There were kids all over the place; parents who were trying to keep their kids entertained and away from television and video games, but were wearing themselves out in the process. Tables and chairs were full of people like me who were simply trying to stay out of the heat. I took a piss and got a drink of water from the water fountain. The water was warm and tasted like minerals.
When I got back to my chair, it was being occupied by a kid. He’d knocked the book I’d been reading on the floor, and he was sitting there reading a Batman comic. He was maybe eight or nine. I looked around. There was no adult in sight who could be responsible for the little brat. He looked up from his comic briefly, stuck his tongue out at me, and went back to reading.
Sometimes there’s no winning. I knew I was in the right; I’d saved my seat. But I also knew if I said something about it, I’d end up being kicked out of library. Or worse. I was thinking something about a cliché I’d heard before; about how sometimes retreat can be the better part of valor. It sounded like bullshit the first time I heard it. It still sounded like bullshit.
Outside, the heat was really piling it on. The sky was cloudless, and there wasn’t even a breeze. I told myself that it was probably good that the little asshole took my seat; I could catch a bus soon, maybe stop by the bar for a cold beer.
“Excuse me? Sir?”
I looked up. There was a woman standing under one of the trees outside the entrance to the library. She was holding a clipboard and wearing one of those sun visors that women wear when they don’t want to mess up their hair. She looked overly primped, prepped, and fussed over – the way aging wives look when they’ve given up on nutrition and resorted to surgery. She was decked out in red shorts (that matched the visor and her socks) t-shirt with a picture of the American flag on it.
Fuck. I tried to walk by and ignore her. But she knew she’d already made eye contact. There was no escape.
“Sir? Excu-u-u-u-se me? Do you have a moment for your children?”
I didn’t know I looked so paternal. “I don’t have any.”
“But that doesn’t matter; the safety of America’s children is EVERYONE’S responsibility.”
Uh-huh. “I have to catch the bus, lady.”
“It won’t take that long,” she smiled. Her porcelain veneers were blinding in the sun. “I’m sure you won’t miss your bus.”
She had managed to grab a hold of my elbow. I could’ve pulled free and walked away. The only excuse I can give is that her unnaturally large (bought and paid for) boobs hypnotized me. “Are you registered to vote?”
“Would you be interested in registering?”
“Are you a resident of Arizona?”
“Then you care about our state and the issues that affect it?”
She hurried on. “Did you know,” she talked like she was preparing to tell me something shocking, “that this VERY library – paid for in part by tax dollars – subscribes to PLAYBOY MAGAZINE?”
“Really?” Who knew?
“Yes!” She clearly thought she had my attention.
“I didn’t see it on the magazine rack.” I definitely would’ve noticed.
“They keep the issues behind the counter,” she pouted and made a face liked she’d just swallowed something bitter. “Hmm! Can you imagine? They HIDE them because they KNOW there’s something wrong with it! Disgusting perverts!”
While she went on with her tirade about how pornography was a societal ill and led to drug abuse and child abuse and date rape and children born out of wedlock – I didn’t bother to ask her how that chain of events tied together – I studied her a little more closely. I wondered if her anti-porno stance was something deeply felt or maybe a response to, oh I don’t know, finding her husband’s stack of porn dating back to the good ol’ days when Suzanne Sommers (Three’s Company years) posed for Playboy? Maybe she found some porn on Junior’s computer during the weekly sneak and peak to make sure he’s not on drugs. She didn’t strike me as a religious freak – but they’re harder to spot than they used to be.
“…and I’m circulating this petition to send to the library insisting that they stop spending tax money on SMUT!”
She paused and took a breath. I took that to mean she was finished and that it was my turn to talk.
“But they’re behind the counter. Right?”
“Ye-e-e-s,” she drew the word out. I could tell by the way she pursed her Botoxed lips and squinted at me that I was responding the way she expected. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
“So it’s not like they’re sitting out with the Ladies’ Home Journal and Time Magazine, right? Anybody who wants to look at them has to go to the circulation counter and ASK… right?”
“Yes,” she said. “They’ve turned OUR public library, the repository of all our best cultural ideas, into a dirty book shop!”
Clearly, I thought, you haven’t read anything in a while. “But they’re not going to just give those magazines to ANYBODY? I think the children are safe. The librarians seem like okay enough people.”
“But how do you KNOW?” she countered. “Do they do background checks? How do we know that the people working there aren’t PERVERTS? We have to take the library back! For the sake…”
“...the sake of the children,” I finished for her. “Look,” I said, leaning in, “it’s hot here. You’re not going to get a lot of signatures on a day like today. Why don’t we go somewhere air conditioned, have a drink, and you can tell me why this is so important to you.”
She recoiled from me and screeched. “PERVERT!” she screamed. “You’re one of THEM! A DIRTY DISGUSTING PERVERT!”
“Come on, hon,” I said. “Let’s go get a drink. Relax.”
“I’M A MARRIED WOMAN! AND YOU… YOU… YOU’RE JUST A NASTY DIRTY PERVERT! GET AWAY FROM ME! PERVERT! TERRORIST! COMMUNIST! FAGGOT!
“Now is that any way to talk?” I asked as I walked away. “That’s not very Christian of you.”
She screamed and hissed some more. I got to the bus stop just in time to watch the bus pull away. The thought crossed my mind to run after it; but it was too hot and there was no way the bus was going to stop anyway. Neither of my options was all that appealing. It was too hot to stand there, even under the shelter. It was too hot to walk. As I stood there, considering my options, I felt the sweat evaporate off of my skin. Cars sped by, splashing hot air and exhaust fumes in my face. The lingering stench of exhaust made it difficult to breathe.
I decided to walk.