“It’ll be here by Wednesday,” he assured her.

“Bless your heart!” Beverley exclaimed, but in an appropriate decibel for the library. She squeezed his hand. “I will be counting the minutes! Have to go take Lucy out now. We are heading for the park today; it’s her half birthday you see.”

“Make sure you wrap up, it’s frigid.”

And with a swish of the sliding doors, she was gone.

Monday morning, the Mettersville Public Library parking lot held only a handful of cars when Stanley maneuvered his white ’88 Volvo into a space. He grimaced when he caught sight of a familiar Cadillac in the handicapped space. It was impossible to miss the O’Leary Cadillac with its “I’d Rather Be at the Lodge” bumper sticker and the scent of a fresh wax wafting from it. Perhaps Richard would be busy with his latest companion, allowing Stanley to avoid the exchange of mundane pleasantries.

Mrs. Jana Smith, the thirty-something head librarian of the Mettersville branch, greeted him with a chapped smile. He remembered when she had worked in the system over summer vacations as a high school and college student. She was Miss Jana Mulany then, but she still wore her hair in the same tight blond ponytail which pulled her forehead upwards. “I was just about to put this in the bin,” she said, handing him the thick volume.

“No need, no need,” he said with haste, trying to avoid what was coming next. In vain.

“This for your lady friend?” She lowered her voice. “It is, isn’t it?”

He was half way through a grumbled protest when a strong hand clamped onto his rigid shoulder.“Stan the man!” Richard O’Leary crowed. He was a short, stocky man, and had to reach upwards to clasp Stanley’s shoulder. “When you’re not on the clock in your own little literary prison, you’re checking out the competition, eh?” He burst into a full-throated chuckle, cut short by a rumbling smoker’s cough that filled his green eyes with water.

“And what brings you all the way to this part of town?” Stanley demanded.

“Brought my sister,” he said, motioning to the fragile, blue-haired Olivia O’leary browsing the books-on-tape. “She lives down the street, but the doctor says she can’t be doin any more driving, so I take her over when my schedule allows. What ya got there?” He motioned to the novel clutched to Stanley’s side. “Some light reading? Ha!”

“It’s The Three Musketeers,” Jana volunteered.

“Is it, now?” Richard peered at the worn cover. “So it is. That wouldn’t be for the lovely Bev, would it?”

Stanley winced. If he couldn’t take the time to pronounce her whole entire name—and a lovely name too—he had no right to call her anything at all. “It may be, Richard. Now if you’ll excuse me. Jana, good to see you.” He was thankful he had made an escape before Richard had time to invite him to the lodge for lunch, as he always did, but the interaction still left him irritated.

The prickle of annoyance pervaded as he drove home and grew larger as the afternoon proceeded. It was a tangible beast by the time he was thawing a ready-made meatloaf. Richard’s eyes raking the volume bound for Beverley kept splaying across his eyelids.

He settled in his large black chair, placed his dinner on the small side table, and opened his Wordsworth anthology to his marker. Exactly six poems later, he brought his cleared plate to the sink, rinsed it, and placed it in the dishwasher. Richard, he imagined, seldom ate at home. He took all his meals at the lodge, the ones he wasn’t sharing with a female companion. Stanley shook his head.

He changed into his grey pajamas, noted the placement of the second hand on his wrist watch, and brushed his  thirty-two teeth—all still his own—for exactly one minute. He set his alarm, and pulled the white comforter all the way up to his chin. He lay staring at the white ceiling, the same ceiling he had stared up at each night since he moved into the one-bedroom apartment in 1978, after his mother passed and he had sold her big old house on the east side of town. Beverly lived on the east side of town now. He knew it would be cozy and snug, walls painted in warm reds and browns, soft thick rugs. She and her Lucy would be there now.

Tuesday afternoon, Stanley’s stomach was cramping and his temples ached with a dull persistence that no Advil could banish. To make matters worse, he was plagued by Richard’s presence again.

In he strutted, cherry wood cane shining in the late winter sunshine as he made his way to the biggest chair. He didn’t so much as glance at the stacks, just reached for Car Culture Magazine. Stanley glared. He was so comfortable, as if he was sitting in his seven-bedroom house on the reservoir, a house only he lived in, mind, and that beast Bailey. He could have imagined it, but it seemed Richard was peeking at him over the top of his glossy magazine. Stanley narrowed his eyes, watching Richard stretching his knobby legs out in front of him, scratching his balding scalp, adjusting his shining false teeth. Three quarters of an hour he sat, flipping through that pathetic excuse for a publication. At last he stood to leave, stretching his arms as though he’d just been lifting weights rather than turning pages, a large dramatic gesture. Some sort of paper debris tumbled unheeded from his pocket, though Stanley was incredulous as to how Richard could have possibly not seen the papers flutter to the ground around him before he strutted out the sliding doors.

In a huff, Stanley went to dispose of the garbage Richard had left behind, but he paused, wrinkled paper in hand, midway to the garbage can.

It was a flyer for a movie viewing and discussion to be held at the local university. “A Night with Dumas: Examining timeless classics through the lens of film.” The date was the coming Saturday.

Of all the low, scheming, manipulative tactics! To use Beverley’s interest in good literature to lure her to such an event, under pretense of intellectual enrichment. Oh, but once he got her there, there was no question of what he intended! A request to see how that nice new dog of hers was doing, and yes, wasn’t that key chain a thoughtful gesture? A suggestion for coffee on Thursday, perhaps broadening to every Thursday. Maybe coffee would eventually move to Saturdays at one fifteen, and then Wednesday afternoons would become dog-walking time together…

This had to be stopped. But how? Stanley fretted, so preoccupied that he accidentally set the microwave to 37 seconds instead of 47, resulting in tepid chamomile. Sipping the disappointing brew, he debated possible ways to thwart Richard’s intentions.

There was only one way to save Beverley from this cane-wielding menace; he would have to ask her himself, before Richard had the chance. Oh, to see the look on Richard’s face when he asked Beverley only to discover he had been overtaken! Yes, that was just the thing.

And yet.

In all their years of comfortable intellectual understanding, of his heroic procurement of hidden volumes, he had never asked her to accompany him to anything at all. Could he risk offsetting the beautiful balance of their relationship, one based on mutual understanding of the greatest art form of all time; literature? What if, in conversation on their evening out, he discovered she never read the books at all, just skimmed the beginning and end? What if he found she wrote notes in the margins? Stanley shook his head; he knew she was incapable of such blasphemous acts.

But what if she said no? Because he was just the man with the power to find her what she needed, like Dorothy’s wizard, and she didn’t want anything to do with the man behind the curtain? He looked at his distorted reflection in the microwave door. Scrawny, stooped, old. None of Richard’s zip, no sir, not here. She would say no. Of course she would.

On Wednesday morning, Stanley set his alarm thirteen minutes earlier than usual. He spent extra time after his shower rubbing the q-tip around his ears and ran his razor over his chin twice, to be sure not to miss a single whisker. He put on his best shirt, the blue one, and checked his hair in the rear view mirror an extra time before stepping out of the car.

Each time the sliding door whispered of someone’s entrance, he snapped to attention behind his computer. Deborah eyed him with suspicion but withheld her inquiries, for which he was grateful. He could only finish half of his chamomile tea and passed up his break alltogether. At last, four o’clock arrived. There she was, hair a vibrant color of recent dye, pale blue eyes sparkling beneath blue-shadowed lids.

“Good afternoon, Stanley. Do you have something for me?”

He produced the volume from beneath the desk, just as the Cadillac pulled into the handicapped space outside.

He cleared his throat. “Yes. Beverley…” Out in the parking lot, the Cadillac door opened, cherry wood cane protruding from the front seat. Stanley stuttered on. “I was wondering if…” Richard was heaving himself to a standing position now. Not much time left.

Beverley looked at him, a question in her eyes. “Yes, Stanley?”

Richard was approaching, stepping up the curb, the doors about to hiss opened. “If you wouldn’t be inconvenienced,” Stanley managed.

A grin broke out on Richard’s face as he spotted Beverley at the counter. He even tipped his hat to Stanley.

Stanley pressed on, determination steeling his voice. “Would you like to attend this lecture with me at the University on Saturday evening? It’s about the film versions of Dumas’ works. Parking will probably be atrocious and it will be hard to hear a thing, the way those guest lecturers mumble—”

“Oh, Stanley I couldn’t do that!”

Stanley’s heart was beating at a rate much faster than its prescribed approximation of fifty-two beats per minute. Richard, standing just behind Beverley, paused. He raised a singly, unruly eyebrow at Stanley.

“Ah. I see,” Stanley pressed onwards, ignoring Richard’s blatant gloating. “Yes well, it would probably have been terrible in any case—”

“No, no, you misunderstand!” Beverly said. “I couldn’t possibly see the film before I finish the book. Can’t go giving away the ending. But once I am finished the book, perhaps you could find us a copy of the film? To watch together, I mean?”

Stanley straightened his spine. His quandary now was of a different nature. Did this still count as his invitation? Technically, his own invitation had initiated this second one. And as he would be responsible for procuring the film through the library, he would have to set the date and time of their viewing. Perfectly acceptable.

Richard was pretending to look at the books for sale by the door, but Stanley knew he was listening.

“I could arrange for that, I believe,” he said, allowing a small smile.

Beverley pressed his hand. “What a perfect motivator! Now I will be doubly inspired to get through this in a reasonable amount of time. I can only renew once, after all. I will look forward to it, Stanley,” she said, and headed for her chair.

Such poise, such dedication to the role of the reader, such attention to library renewal policy! His fingers itched to begin the search for the film, but he did have to wait until she had read the novel. And there stood Richard, mouth slightly opened, staring for just a moment before his customary grin broke over his craggy face.

“Well done, Stan!” said Richard as Stanley shushed his inappropriate volume. “I meant to tell you about that lecture myself; saw it in the paper yesterday and thought you might like to take our lovely Bev to it. Forgot to mention it, ya see. Glad you stumbled across it yourself. I should have known you’d have already thought of it.” He winked. “We’ve all been waitin for ya to ask her to something for chrissake.”

Stanley Salt watched Richard as he settled into the biggest chair. Who did that cane-wielding, Cadillac driving ruffian think he was fooling? He went to the back and made a fresh cup of chamomile, indulging in extra honey, and was even tempted to hum while ringing in the returned items. He resisted, of course. Humming was quite disruptive the library.


Image: Adapted from Flickr, “Loughborough University Library” by username: Loughborough University (loughboroughuniversitylibrary), under the Attribution 2.0 Generic license.