He drank. He drank to dull the pain, real and perceived, that had accumulated in mind, body, and soul like lime from hard water over the years. He drank at work, to anesthetize himself from the legions of stupid who would approach him at the Reference Desk. How these people even had enough brain cells to find their way to a library, he had no idea. And the questions. Oy, the questions.
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“Do you know where the nearest post office box is?”
“I can’t get the computer to work.”
Those were the fucking worst—the technical questions. It meant he had to get up from his chair, the twinge from his hip to his spine jolting to the base of his skull like an electric shock, conditioning him to hate these people even more. Today it was the old lady who could never get the hang of sending an email. Again.
“Where is the nice lady who helped me last time?” the old lady asked.
“I killed her,” he muttered under his breath, then louder for the old lady to hear, “What’s the problem?”
“Someone stole the email.”
“You have to type in the website for the email provider that you use. What is your email address?”
“I don’t remember. You all are supposed to know.”
“Lady, if I knew everyone’s email address I would be a very rich man. Come back tomorrow with a notebook and pen and I will teach you for good.”
“But my daughter only will talk to me through email!”
He rolled his eyes, pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, and pulled out a book of stamps. “Here. A present from me to you. Send snail mail to your daughter today, and come back tomorrow with a notebook and pen ready to learn.”
Before the old lady could respond, he heard a shout from the computer lab and staggered toward it. A teenage boy had nearly fallen backward from his chair at the sight of two enormous breasts on the computer monitor. The librarian sighed, covered his eyes, and bent toward the boy. “This is a public computer lab,” he whispered. “Please log out of that and leave.”
“For real?” the boy gawked, struggling to hold back his laughter.
“Refusal to turn that off is sexual harassment. You are making people uncomfortable. You are also what, thirteen?”
“I can’t watch this in the teen lab cos of the filters.”
“Turn it off, young man.”
“Are you a faggot?”
The librarian pulled his SmartPhone out of his pocket, began to press 9-1-1, and the boy hopped up and bounded out the door in three leaps like a kangaroo. As soon as the boy left, the librarian closed the browser, logged off the computer, and taped an “Out of Order” sign on the monitor. He grimaced as he stood back up and straightened his bow tie, and startled when he saw the library manager approach him with a wide eyed young lady with blue streaks in her hair next to her.
“Charlie, meet Eva,” the library manager chirped. “She’s a library school student.”
“Charlie, Eva is a great admirer of yours. Part of the reason why she went to library school here in town is because, based on all you have written and done, she wants you to be her mentor.”
Charlie gave Eva a hard stare. The girl wore platform shoes, red and black striped tights, and short denim overalls. As she gazed up at him like a puppy, he counted five silver rings in her face—three in the eyebrows, and two in her lower lip. “You must have me confused with someone else,” he told Eva, “because I would never encourage anyone to show up on their first day of work with shower curtain hooks on their face.”
Eva smiled even broader at him, and the library manager placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Why don’t you sit down here in the lab for a moment, OK? Charlie, come into my office.”
It was a long time since he had visited Monica’s office. She had two kids now, as he could see from the new photos on her desk. Some new plants. And of course, books from ceiling to floor. Charlie knew it was just for show, or because she liked to pick through the donations and weeded books and fill her office with what she liked. Charlie knew that Monica was a reader, and he could respect that.
Monica did not sit in her chair. Instead, she leaned on her desk as Charlie stood. “Do you remember when you first came to work at our library, Charlie?”
“It was a different world back then.”
“But really, not so much. You and Eva have more in common than you think. Let her shadow you for a few days; you can have her help out with whatever you like.”
“So I have no choice. I have to do it or else.”
“You can give her a trial period. Get to know her. She has a lot of strong skills—this is her resume.” Monica handed Charlie a folder from her desk.
Charlie sighed, took the folder, scanned the resume. He paused at something and his mouth worked for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “we’ll see what this kid is made out of.”
Monica smiled. “Just talk to her, find out what she wants to learn, work out a schedule and a plan. That’s all. I appreciate it.” She walked toward her office door and opened it. “Let her know that I have some work to do, but I wish her luck.”
When Charlie returned to the computer lab, Eva was still there, looking at her phone. He cleared his throat, and when she looked up he startled, for she had removed her facial rings. So she was serious, indeed. Just young. He glanced back at the Reference Desk; Judy was there now for her shift, so he had to talk to Eva now. He straightened his bow tie again, and said, “Monica showed me your resume. Why in good God do you want to work in a public library?”
Eva’s smile left her face, and her voice was deeper than Charlie had anticipated.
“I was homeless once,” she told him. “The library saved my life. And now it’s time that I pay it forward.”
“But you’ve done some great work at other places. Digital humanities, open access, data analytics…you won’t be doing any of that here.”
“I know. I want to do real library work.”
Charlie squinted at her, looked around him, and spread out his arms. “You think this is a real library? This is a zoo. An insane asylum. A homeless shelter. A porn den! No real library work goes on here!”
Eva smiled again. “You’re just being modest. Lots of real library work happens here. Library work is about helping people, not just doing research. I bet you helped a lot of people during your time here…the library certainly helped you, just like it helped me. I read your book–”
Charlie froze. “That wasn’t me.”
“It was. Just under another name.”
Charlie glared at her. “I don’t want to talk about that here. No one knows about that, you understand?”
“Well, I know. And I don’t hold it against you. I’m like that too, just the other way, you know?”
He stared at her for a moment, looked closer. Noticed the electrolysis scars under foundation, a slight bulge of an Adam’s apple.
“Look…this is a rough neighborhood,” Charlie told her. “The kids say mean things, whatever comes into their head. We’ve had patrons throw things at staff, the police are in here all the time.”
Eva frowned. “Did you not hear me the first time? I said I was homeless. I know all about rude and stupid. You think just because I’m little and cute I’m gonna cry if some kid calls me a name?”
I did back then, Charlie thought. “Don’t expect to teach them anything,” he told her. “When they want to learn something they will come to you. And you will be amazed what they don’t know.”
“Wow,” Eva snorted. “That’s some serious racist, classist, elitist statement you made right there.”
“I’m no saint,” Charlie shrugged. “I’m just trying to survive. You’ll understand if you stay in this business long enough. Anyway, I need the most help during after school hours and weekends—can you do that?”
“That works. Three to six on weekdays, and all day Saturdays. OK?”
“That’s good for me. We start tomorrow. No jewelry, and sensible shoes, please.”