Stanley Salt scratched his patch of silver hair, combed forward to cover as much cranium as possible, and attempted in vain to drown out the sound of Saturday morning Kid’s Corner. All those runny-nosed ear-picking monsters making sudden noises, leaving the mild scent of diapers lingering in the air. And just as bad as those sticky little bipeds, the volunteer readers. Glossy haired, over-perfumed young women with shining new wedding bands, thinking they are doing something nice for the world.
The children, those scabby-kneed savages, weren’t amused by anything that didn’t have a screen. There was one now, poking at the glowing screen, ignoring the story told by a real live person in favor of a device that would have him near-sighted by twenty-five and blind by forty.
He was slouching again. Mustn’t slouch. It was his New Year’s resolution. Bracing a hand in the small of his back, just above his brown belt cinched to the tightest notch around his narrow waist, Stanley straightened his brittle spine one vertebrate at a time.
The sliding doors opened with a swish, a gust of cold air ruffling the leaves of the holiday poinsettia on the desk. Stanley looked up quickly, anticipation churning the chamomile tea in his stomach, but it was only a teenager. He bestowed his best calculating stare upon the young woman approaching. Her hair was much too long, reaching in a dark straight pony-tale down to her backside, and her eyelids were covered with a glittering purple substance.
“Hi, I have the wrong book.” The waif slid a book across the counter.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Horrifying.
“Turns out I need the version without the zombies,” she said, not bothering to pause for him to ask her how he might be of assistance. “First time I came in—I don’t think you were here, I bet you’d have helped me find the right one, because the first time I came I got another wrong one.”
“There’s only one.”
“I knew there was a Darcy in it,” she prattled on, speaking so fast her words seemed to blur together, “and at first I didn’t have the book list with me, but I remembered from the movie that at the end Kiera Knightly keeps getting called ‘Mrs. Darcy’ by the dark brooding guy. So I just looked up that and I got something called Mr. Darcy’s Daughters but apparently he’s not supposed to have daughters yet either.”
Stanley sent her the glare he usually reserved for neighbors whose dogs were about to soil his front lawn. “Follow me.” He led her to the Austen section, in Fiction, in the A’s. How difficult could it be, really? He had heard of that new film from several years ago, heard the scenery was beautiful. But who had two hours to sit in a dark theater, can’t hear anything, can’t talk to anyone, and besides, that is valuable reading time.
Miffed by his obligation serve such patrons, he tugged one of the copies of the correct book from its home on the shelf. “Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen.” He pointed to the cover. “No zombies, no sea monsters, no vampire.” He pointed to the inside cover, following the words with his finger, slowly so she might be able to follow as he read, “‘One of the greatest love stories of all time.’”
The girl grimaced. “It’s gotta be better than that one with the guy on that boat in the jungle.” She snapped her gum. “You know, looking for that other guy who turns out to be dead anyway.”
Stanley winced.“Heart of Darkness.”
“Yea that.” She grinned. “Hey, you know your stuff! It’s like you went to school for this!”
“I did,” he grumbled. He sent up a silent apology to Jane Austen at being forced to hand over her masterpiece to this perfect specimen of why people should need to pass a test to receive a library card. The volume would probably come back dog-eared, maybe a diet coke spilled on the binding, a gum wrapper stuck inside the pages.
At long last, the herd of children was claimed by parents and escorted from the library. Mrs. Interster, the part time librarian, entered in their wake. “Deborah, I’m taking a break,” Stanley said, heading for the back. He fixed himself a cup of chamomile tea; forty-seven seconds in the microwave, one packet of honey, stirred twice. Clockwise. He inhaled the damp, comfortable scent.
He settled into his favorite chair with the New York Times, the Saturday crossword already half finished beneath the point of his pert pencil. Fifteen glorious minutes of tea and words, words and tea. His ham and cheese sandwich was cold and spongy as ever.
When he heard the soft chime of the bell at the front desk, Stanley sprang from his chair; only one person ever bothered to ring that bell. He took a moment to smooth the front of his white shirt and straighten his black tie.
Beverly was there. She smiled at him as he approached, stretching her hand across the counter to press his own. “Stanley. How was your holiday season?”
“Much the same as ever.”
“I’m sure that was lovely. She placed a hefty tome reverently upon the desk. Wuthering Heights.
“How was your Christmas re-reading of the Bronte collection?” he asked, not even bothering to check between the pages for refuse and old bookmarks as he slid it onto the shelving cart. Beverly always returned her books in perfect condition.
“Superb as always. My girls never disappoint!” She placed Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall atop the desk, and Stanley happily returned them and slid them onto the cart, again unchecked.
“What can I help you find?”
“I need a special favor from you today, Stanley.”
He straightened his spine. “Nothing I can’t find.”
“Oh I know, but this may be a challenge even for you! Now, I have taken it into my head to read some Alexandre Dumas.”
“Is that so?”
“Starting with The Three Musketeers and at least as far as The Man in the Iron Mask. But you see, I want the full translation. None of these abridged versions. I want the whole thing, every stroke of the sword, every clandestine plot, every translated syllable!”
“I enjoy the edition Pevear translated. Has an authentic ring to it, lots of vigor in the word choice,” he said, fingers flying over the keys of his computer as he searched for the volume in question.
“Yes, but I’m afraid that’s not all. I also…well, it’s embarrassing, but I need it to be in large print. You see, my grandkids gave me one of those e-readers for Christmas because you can make the font as large as you want by sliding your fingers around on the screen. I just can’t enjoy it, though. There’s no substance to the thing.” She removed the offensive object from her magenta hand-bag and dangled it between her thumb and pointer finger. “Nothing to it, you see? Besides, I want everyone to know what I’m reading. How am I supposed to impress the distinguished gentlemen of the library when they can’t see that I am reading The Count of Monte Cristo? For all they know I could be perusing that awful soap opera magazine or that Shades of Grey business.”
“Of course no one would think…” Stanley faltered at the horrifying concept. He felt his dry cheeks turn crimson. “I will track one down for you,” he concluded, returning to the search.
“Thanks, Stanley. I’ll be in my chair.” She took her usual place in a faded brown chair by the window across from the main desk, the sunlight filtering through her hair, dyed red since her natural color faded two decades ago. She selected the latest National Geographic from the periodical stand.
Ah, Beverley! Such poise, such wit, such appreciation for quality literature! For sixteen years he had quested for her books, sought out unusual authors and special editions, wrestled them away from private collections so that she might smile on him with her pale blue eyes and squeeze his hand across the counter. Sixteen years, Saturday afternoons at one fifteen and Wednesday afternoons at four, their rhythm like a glorious literary clockwork! Requests and returns on Saturday, pick-ups on Wednesday, prompt and reliable. Except, of course, during Samson’s illness. Then she had been more sporadic, sometimes coming in later or earlier than her usual time. The week of his funeral, she had missed Wednesday all together. But that was five years ago now, and she hadn’t missed a trip since. Of course, he wished she wouldn’t venture out in the severe weather or when she wasn’t feeling well. Even with a violent cold, in she came, scarf ensconcing her slender neck, the tip of her gently sloping nose reddened by frequent tissue use.
The thought of her worrying at the opinions of the other men who frequented their sanctuary, their suspicions of her reading romances—unthinkable! Why, they weren’t fit to tie her orthopedic shoes, those bent old fossils. There was Winston McFee with his gnarled yellow teeth and shuffling gait, Dominic Giangilo with almost no teeth at all. They were nothing to look at or speak to for that matter. Gary Hogart, sloped shouldered as he was, was kept on a tight leash by Bertha; they had just celebrated their sixty-fifth anniversary. And then, there was Richard O’Leary.
That philanderer, that shameless braggart, flaunting his cherry-wood cane and brandishing his wallet, real Florentine leather, stuffed to bursting with pictures of his twelve grandchildren. Ever since Meave passed nine years ago he had become insufferable, out to the Country Corner Diner breakfast special every Sunday morning with a different lady friend, picking them up from daily mass or the weekly trip to FoodMart. Shameful. They even sometimes invited him.
Of course, Stanley had been asked on a number of outings by his own lady friends. But he was not about to accept an invitation offered by a lady! Oh no, the others might find it forward thinking, but he knew what it was; plain bad manners. The man, any man worth his salt, did the asking.
Richard, though, had no qualms about outings with his women friends, regardless of who did the asking. Richard O’Leary was always eavesdropping on the conversations of the library’s decent patrons, using every bit of filched information for his own unsavory purposes. Like the time Beverley had requested a book on dog breeds. She had been thinking of getting one, she explained. For the companionship. And for the exercise, since the little thing would need to be walked several times a day. “Have to watch my figure,” she had added. Nonsense, of course. Beverley was a solid woman; she had born five children, after all.
Richard had swooped in like a vulture. He brought Bailey, his big slobbering Golden Retriever, to the library the very next Wednesday. Brought it right through the sliding glass doors. Sure, it didn’t bark, but the thing panted so loud that it covered the sound of Richard’s wheezing, and that was no easy feat. It had rubbed its lean, dander-infested body against Beverley, covering her pressed black slacks with clumps of long blond hairs and trailing lines of drool onto her knees. Beverley had only laughed and patted the stupid animal’s nose, stroked its ears.
“Soft as silk!” she had exclaimed as the beast attempted to devour her hand with a thick, wet tongue.
Animals. Disgusting. His parents had frowned upon pets, and for good reason. “If the Good Lord had intended us to live among beasts, He would have kept us all on the ark together,” his mother used to say. Stanley had wanted a rabbit once, found it in the yard one spring morning, shivering, one leg bent oddly out of shape. It had fit in his eight-year-old palm easily. Had sliced through the tender pad of his right thumb with its big rodent teeth easily too.
Richard had sworn the dog was his home security system, but watching the thing with Beverley, Stanley was sure it would sooner lick an intruder to death than sound any sort of alarm.
Beverley had picked a mid-sized model, some kind of poodle and spaniel mix she named Lucy after her favorite television program, I Love Lucy. Richard had given her a tiny key-chain picture frame from the show with a picture of the little creature in it. She had kept it on her key chain ever since.
The computer blinked out its results; one copy of the unabridged, large print version of The Three Musketeers. It was out in Mettersville, on the far side of the township. It would take them one full day to process the request, and at least two days to send it along to his branch. Would it arrive by Wednesday at four? Possibly. He’d go pick it up himself, just to be sure.
He cleared his throat, and Beverley lifted herself to her feet. She moved so naturally, none of the stiffness of synthetic joints or the grimaces of failing battles with arthritis.
“Did you work your magic?”
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