written by: Christopher Johnson
When I was a teenager—sixteen, to be exact—I worked at the public library in Elm Park. It was my first job, and we all remember our first job. I loved this job—loved working at the library. As I worked, I could let my mind roam freely over an entire open field of ideas, memories, impressions, obsessions, hopes, dreams, and expectations of the future. I loved shelving the books, making sure that they were in the correct order according to the Dewey decimal system, ensuring that 974.8312 followed 974.8310. Even the musty odor of older books appealed to me. I remember an edition of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe that had been published in the 1920s, and when I opened the book and held it up to my nose, I smelled the distinct odor of fifty-year-old pages, smelled the days of yore when Ivanhoe and other knights roamed the land and saved virginal maidens and performed other feats of derring-do-all that were somehow brought back to life by the odor of the pages of the book.
I had been working for about a year at the Elm Park Public Library, which had been built in 1961 to replace the original Carnegie Library. The new library brooded with serious Doric columns that bespoke serious things going on inside. It stood steadfastly at the center of the gentle ridge that formed what everyone called Uptown Elm Park, the highest point in Cook County, Illinois, and the heart of the leafy middle-class suburb that lay just outside the grasping claws of the desperate and dangerous city of Chicago. Elm Park was the antithesis of Chicago—a sanctuary, peaceful, quiet, law-abiding, a little bit boring, with blocks of bungalows and colonials that had been built in the 1890s and early 1900s.
This job—this library job—made me feel so very important. I was in the fullness of adolescence, one day feeling grandiose and practically omniscient, the next day waking in a wallow of self-doubt and self-criticism. I should be getting A’s instead of B’s. I was too shy and awkward around girls. I should help my mother more with housework because she was so weary with twelve-year-old Charlotte and five-year-old Bobby. I should not talk back to my father. I should not make smart remarks in algebra and joke around and pass notes, as juvenile as it sounds. I should pay attention in Mass instead of thinking about the Bears and about the girl who was sitting three rows in front of me and whose hair cascaded down to her waist like a Niagara Falls of gold.
The job at the library was my respite from all that. I had graduated from just shelving books and was working behind the desk, checking out books to patrons—a position of responsibility for which I had yearned and worked hard. Mrs. Ross approached the desk. She was short and squat and walked with little pitty-patty steps, and her gray hair swooped up like angels’ wings. “How are you, Ulee?” she asked. “How are your parents? How are your brother and sister?”
“Fine. Fine. Fine,” I answered.
In her hands, she carried a stack of books a foot high—all mysteries. Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Patricia Highsmith. “How do you read all these, Mrs. Ross?” I asked. “Especially in a week!” For, like clockwork, she would return them all next week and then withdraw another stack of mysteries. “Who’s your favorite detective?” I asked.
“Oh, Poirot, without any question. He’s so elegant, and such a genius,” she said, with the inebriation of love.
Mrs. Ross pitty-pattied away, having checked out her mysteries, and I pictured her at night, reading those mysteries and staving off the loneliness that she must have felt as a widow. For Mrs. Ross was, I imagined, Elm Park’s very own Eleanor Rigby. By working at the library, I was developing my powers of observation of people. I was learning to notice details, for I was certain I was going to be a novelist or a playwright—I wasn’t sure which—and either profession would require outstanding powers of observation.
I loved exploring the archives of the library. They were located on the second floor, directly above the fiction section with its pages of make-believe. The archives, by contrast, were the repository of the reality of the past—old newspapers narrating the founding of Elm Park after the Civil War–ancient magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s that dated back to the 1800s.
Some fellow student would bring a reference slip to the check-out desk. Maybe it was a request for the entire year of 1945 of the Elm Park Weekly Caller because said student was researching Elm Park residents who had served in that grand and heroic war. I would climb the stairs, unlock the gate that guarded the valuable archives, and enter the musty world of the past. I would inevitably be distracted, flipping through old issues of Life magazine in which doctors endorsed Camel cigarettes to relieve sore throats, marveling at ads in Time that touted Chevrolets for $800.
I loved as well being the gatekeeper for the Books Behind the Desk—the row of literature deemed too erotic, too pornographic, too dangerous to be allowed to pollute the regular stacks and attract casual browsers, especially teenagers, to initiate themselves into the secret ways of sex contained in the pages of D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. Some fellow student would approach the check-out desk with a Special Request form for Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Tropic of Cancer or the Kinsey Report. The student would hand me the Special Request form and avert his eyes. “Er, can I get this?” he would ask, avoiding stating the title of the book as if saying the title aloud would consign him to one of the inner circles of Hell. I, entrusted with all the bureaucratic authority of an employee of the City of Elm Park, would ask for an ID that proved the borrower was at least sixteen years old. For that was the minimum age to gain access to those notorious Books Behind the Desk—the filthy books that were our initiation into mysterious and forbidden adult worlds.
Lately, I had been happier at the library than at home. Home was a conundrum—a puzzle. There was tension at home, and it had grown worse in the past year. We were at dinner—Mother and Father at each end of the table, Charlotte and Bobby on one side of the table, me on the other side. Right out of Leave it to Beaver or Ozzie and Harriett. The nice little nuclear family. Father wore his striped tie, which he had loosened, and his white dress shirt with the top button undone. He was quiet as he ate his ground beef casserole and salad. His face was round, his eyebrows thick and black but beginning to be flecked with gray. His face resembled a mask to me—it seemed impervious to touch or to feeling.
I looked at Mother. She was quiet, too. Her face was long and narrow, her lips pale, her green eyes drained. She picked at her casserole as a child would. She wore a drab brown dress. I noticed that the top was wrinkled. She pushed the food around on her plate.
Charlotte took after Father with her round face and blue eyes. She was serious. She ate her casserole dutifully. Her blue eyes reflected something. She believed in doing as she was told.
Bobby was Bobby. His eyes played with mischief. He moved his fork through the casserole as if it were a boat. “Don’t play with your food, Bobby!” Father barked.
Bobby sighed and said, “Okay, Dad.”
Usually Father asked us how our day was, and we told him. But tonight he didn’t ask. Mother and Father seemed angry about something, but I had no idea what. I tried to think—had I done something wrong?
Bobby started pushing his food around on his plate again, going “Putt, putt,” making like a steam engine pushing the noodles and ground beef around. Mother looked at him with a ferocity that shocked me. “Don’t do that, Bobby!” she snapped. Her eyes were weary and seemed less green than they used to—less full of life. What was going on, I wondered.
I looked around the dining room. At either end of the room hung pictures that Mother had painted years before—watercolors. One depicted a stream flowing through woods, and the woods were the most intense green that I had ever seen, and the water in the stream sparkled, and the color of the painting was suffused with a warmth that reminded me of baked cookies. The other painting was of a barn surrounded by corn, and a man was carrying a pail into the barn. His face was strong and sturdy. A few months before, Mother and I had been in the dining room together, and I had asked her about the paintings. “That’s your grandfather,” she said.
“I know,” I said, “I recognize him.” I looked at her. “When did you paint these, Mom?” I asked her.
“When I was in my twenties.”
“Did you like painting them?”
“I loved painting them very much. Very much.”
“They’re neat,” I said. “I don’t mean ‘neat’. They’re . . . uh, they’re lovely. ‘Neat’—that’s such a kid word. They’re really beautiful.”
“Thank you, Ulee,” she said. When she said it, there was something in her that was faraway, that wasn’t quite there, that was traveling through the past, that was on some boat or airplane traveling very far away, that was sad. I almost asked her why she looked so sad, but for some reason, I didn’t dare to ask her. I felt in that moment that I knew something about her that I hadn’t known before. She kept looking at the paintings, and then I could see a small glistening in the corners of the eyes, and she wiped away the glistening and smiled at me and said, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that in front of you. I‘m really sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. I felt like I wanted to do something to make her feel better, but I didn’t know what it was. There was something unreachable about her, something that was sliding away from me, from us.
Now, at the dinner table, the feeling of tension continued–something subterranean, like termites gnawing away at a building, bit by bit, inch by inch. I looked at Charlotte. She and I could talk. We were always able to talk. Now she was just as silent as everyone else. She looked at me, and she shook her head slightly as if to say, “Not now.” She bent her head down and obediently ate her casserole. I continued eating, but without tasting. The silence continued. It was agonizing, excruciating. I wanted to tell Mother and Father about my day at the library, but I felt like they would get angry with me.
Finally, mercifully, dinner came to an end. I dragged myself from the dinner table, happy to escape the tension hanging over the table like the black crepe at a funeral. In our family, I was realizing as I grew older and became more aware, things unsaid outweighed things said. I could sense when my parents had had an argument. Mother’s eyes grew cold, and she murmured to herself, and she slammed dishes and silverware into the dishwasher, and she walked hard on the linoleum floor of the kitchen, her heels stabbing the floor like stilettos. It was as if a cloud had gathered over the house, and we were waiting for the clouds to unleash a torrent. I was forever looking for clues to her mood. I could read the expression in her eyes, the manner of her walk, the twist of her mouth as she muttered things under her breath.
I felt singularly responsible for Mother’s moods. I existed in her psychological shadow, and as I look back, I realize now that the library was my ticket out of her shadow. Father also lived in the psychological shadow that Mother cast. His eyes were haunted. He lived with a sadness that he camouflaged with a quick, benign smile of beguiling artifice. He would challenge us to pancake-eating contest at breakfast, and when Mother glared a disapproving eye, he looked away in contrition.
After dinner, Charlotte and I did the dishes together, I rinsing them with my characteristic thoroughness, and she stuffing them in wayward fashion into the recently purchased dishwasher. Bobby disappeared into the family room to watch The Brady Bunch. As we conducted the ritual of the dishes, I was dying to ask Charlotte why there had been so much tension at dinner. We proceeded through the ritual—my dipping the food-laden dishes under the flowing water to rinse them, she plummeting them into the dishwasher.
After the dishes, Charlotte disappeared upstairs to her bedroom. I followed her. On the way, I passed Mother, sitting alone on the sofa in the living room, reading a novel, kicking her foot up and down, twirling her hair. The air around her said, “Don’t talk to me.”
I climbed the stairs and knocked on the door to Charlotte’s bedroom. In a soft voice, she said to come in. I sat on her bed, waiting. “That was weird,” I finally said.
“What was weird?”
“Oh,” she said. “You don’t know what happened, do you?” She took a deep breath as if she were going to do a deep-sea dive and plunged in. “While you were working at the library this afternoon, Mother put Bobby down for a nap. Or at least she tried to put him down for a nap. But he didn’t want to. He was crying and kicking and screaming, ‘I’m too old to take a nap!! I’m too old to take a nap!’ Mother got real mad, and she spanked him. She spanked him hard.
“Then she left him. He cried for a while. Then it got real quiet in the bedroom. Real quiet. Mother came upstairs to look in on him. Then she screamed bloody murder! She hollered so loud that I think you could hear her all the way down the block. I heard Bobby start to cry all over again. I ran across the hall. The door was open. I looked inside. Bobby had opened all the drawers in his dresser and pulled everything out of them—all the pants and T-shirts and socks and stuff—and he’d dumped everything on the floor in a great big pile! Everything! All over the floor! He’d taken out everything that was hanging in the closet, too. It was all on the floor in a huge enormous pile! I almost laughed, it was such a big mess!
“Bobby was standing in the corner with his thumb in his mouth, and his face was to the wall. I looked at Mother. She looked at me, and her eyes were daggers! She yelled at me, ‘Charlotte, get the hell out of here!’
“She started screeching at Bobby. Bobby ran past her and down the stairs. Mom ran after him until she caught him and started spanking him. I ran downstairs. Bobby was howling, and Mom was crying her eyeballs out!”
Charlotte looked down into her lap, trying to remember everything that had happened. “Mother came back up, dragging Bobby by the arm. She had hold of Bobby by the arm. She was dragging him up the stairs like he was Raggedy Andy. Bobby yelled, ‘Mommy, you’re hurting me! You’re hurting me!’ Mother let him go. She screamed, ‘And where in God’s name is Ulee?! He’s at that goddam library!’ She started sobbing!
“Mother kept sobbing she was so angry! She made Bobby put all the stuff back into the dresser and the closet. I tried to help, but she turned and hollered at me, ‘Charlotte, stop it! You didn’t do this! You didn’t make this mess!’
“She made Bobby shove all the stuff back into the drawers. He just shoved it all back in, and then she hung up all the shirts and stuff that had been in the closet, but it was all mixed up and everything. Half the clothes fell back down on the floor. All the while, Mom was sobbing, and Bobby was sobbing, and my heart was beating like it was going to jump out of my chest.” She looked at me. “Ulee, I was scared. I was scared of what Mother was going to do.
“She went downstairs and called Father. I could hear her all the way from upstairs. She yelled at him how he was never around when she needed him! She kept yelling at Father. Then she started hollering about you, how you’re never here because of your damn library job. That’s what she said. Because of your damn library job!”
When she said that, I felt a stab in my heart. I stared at Charlotte. I closed my eyes and shuddered. “She really said that?” I felt this weight of guilt, as if I somehow were responsible for what had happened.
A little later, after I left Charlotte’s bedroom, I was in our bedroom, doing my homework. Bobby wasn’t there; he was downstairs watching television. Always television—filling up the empty hours. Father walked into the room. He sat down on the bed and looked at me, wordlessly, as I sat at my desk. His lips were thin slits. Sadness surrounded his eyes like a wraith. He looked past me. He could not look into my eyes. His shoulders slumped. As he sat on my bed, only a few feet away from me, he looked at his fingernails as if something were wrong with them.
He took a deep breath and said, “Ulee, you’ve got to quit your job at the library.”
I shut my eyes. “But Dad,” I wanted to say, “It wasn’t my fault with happened with Bobby. It’s not my fault that Mom can’t control Bobby. It’s not my fault what Bobby did!”
I felt as if my insides were caving in on themselves. I was collapsing, like a building with no inner structure. There was no sorry, no feeling of regret from him. I wanted to object, but I couldn’t force myself to. I felt myself falling . . . falling.
Father got up and left the bedroom. He said nothing else. There was an indentation in the bed where he had been sitting. Over the next few days, our family settled back into something like normalcy, except it wasn’t normal. At dinner, everyone was silent, like in a mausoleum. Bobby behaved himself. Mother had more than the usual amount of Scotch to drink before dinner. She teetered-tottered as she walked back and forth in the kitchen, preparing dinner, her heels stabbing the linoleum floor.
After dinner, we children did our homework and watched television. Father slumped in his easy chair, a beer sitting like a grenade on the beige coffee table next to him. He slumped in the chair and raised the beer methodically to his mouth and sucked in the beer and watched television. He seemed mesmerized by the electronic images that cantilevered from the television and pierced his eyes.
We were five islands, separated by vast stretches of churning ocean. Mother sat by herself in the living room, reading or sewing. She sat on the sofa with her legs crossed, twirling her hair nervously. She had a whiskey next to her. She read for a while and then stared into space—at some spot far, far in the distance.
At the library, I put off telling Mr. Sylvester, the library director, that I had to quit. I knew that he liked me. He had a goatee and wore wire-rim glasses, and his two front teeth were separated by a slight distance. He had a low-key voice—a gentle voice—in which he would give me my directions for the day–to work behind the checkout counter or shelve books. He had asked me where I was thinking of applying for college. His office was enclosed in glass, just to the left of the checkout counter, like a fish in a fish bowl. He saw everything.
I threw myself more passionately, more obsessively, into the work. I shelved the books vehemently. I shoved them into their appointed spots in the stacks. I stamped the due dates with unnecessary force. I sorted magazines and shoveled them into their proper spots in the magazine racks. The library was my escape. More than ever, I realized that I loved being surrounded by magazines and books—loved the musty odors, the marbled surfaces of the covers of old books, the stiffness of the paper, the dangers cast by the dirty books that lurked behind the counter. In the library, I felt surrounded by eons of civilization. I felt important.
After a couple of days, Father asked, “Did you quit the library job yet?” He asked it curtly. Harshly. Coldly.
I stared back at him, defiance creeping into my eyes. “No,” I murmured. “I forgot.”
“Well, don’t forget, damn it. Resign tomorrow. Tomorrow!”
I kept putting it off. I sank into the work and purposely forgot to talk to Mr. Sylvester.
Father continued asking me. I simply murmured that I forgot.
“Well, don’t forget, damn it!” he snapped. “Tomorrow!”
Saturday came. I started to leave the house. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“Uh, I have to work today.”
He glared at me. “Goddam it, you haven’t quit yet?”
Mother was in the other room. She had overheard. She said, “You mean he hasn’t quit yet?” The words were directed at Father.
“No!” he thundered. “But he’s going to!”
“We need you around here, Ulee,” Mother snapped. “I need you around here.”
I stormed out the door, pushed open the garage door, grabbed my bike, careened it through Elm Park, locked it in the bike rack at the library, jammed my card into the time clock, took my place at the checkout counter. I took a deep breath. I was sweating from the furious ride. Saturday. The library was packed, people lined up at the checkout counter. The clot of suburban humanity. The ladies with their mystery novels. The men with their books about how to tune up a car. Teenage girls checking out The Great Gatsby for school. Teenage boys checking out Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting. Lined up at the checkout counter, waiting for their books. Me and Mrs. Calliope, the woman with the perfectly coiffed gray hair and the silver glasses and the blue-and-green dress, patiently working beside me to check out books and collect fines.
Then—Father. On the other side of the checkout counter, separated from me by three feet of counter space. Glaring at me, with anger that charged the room like a black cloud. His teeth clenched. Staring at me, his eyes as fierce as a wolf’s. Thundering, in front of everyone in the room, “Goddam it, Ulee! I told you to quit this goddam job!” His words exploding through the room with venomous anger.
The people in line—the library patrons—staring at him. Staring as one. Glaring at Father, who stood frozen after detonating those words. They gaped at him, their mouths opened, shocked, couldn’t believe their eyes and ears. Frightened of Father. The normalcy of the library shattered. The people stood, stock still, and gawked at my father. And me, blasted with shame, suffocating with humiliation.
Mr. Sylvester then, in front of the counter, next to Father. He’d seen all this unfolding from his glass-enclosed office. Rushed out of his office, walked briskly up to Father, who was standing like a statue, breathing heavily, seething with anger. Mr. Sylvester went up to Father and in the kindest, gentlest voice possible, said “Mr. Newman, may I have a word with you?” He turned to me and said with utmost tenderness, “Ulee, why don’t you take a break.” He led my father, guiding him with the sweetness of an angel, into his office. All this time, Father had not looked at me. He sit down in Mr. Sylvester’s office, across his desk from him. They started to talk, and my Father waved his hands vehemently in the air.
I . . . frozen with humiliation. Mrs. Calliope had started to check books out again. She whispered, “Ulee, please take a break. I can take care of these people.” Everybody in the room, staring at me but trying not to stare. Me, still frozen with humiliation.
Finally. . . finally, I was able to move. I left . . . ran out, on the verge of tears, not looking at anyone . . . not looking at the patrons or Mrs. Calliope or Mr. Sylvester and especially not Father.
Pedaling furiously home, cursing my father. Reaching home, throwing my bicycle to the floor of the garage, rushing in the back door of the house, careening down the stars to the basement, slamming shut the door to Father’s workshop, shoving the bolt shut behind me, sitting on the workbench. And weeping, sniffling, wiping the snot and the tears away with the sleeve of my shirt, ashamed, humiliated, that this should happen in front of so many people—never able to face them again! Never! And feeling the anger well up in me—poisonous, venomous, broiling—and feeling something that I did not want to name, something violent.
Gradually, over the next few days, the anger subsided, like the poison from a rattlesnake bite being sucked out. I went to the family dinners. The family rituals slowly resumed. But the shame, the humiliation didn’t subside—they went into hiding. Father was silent. Said nothing to me. But he avoided me. He avoided my eyes. I looked in the mirror and saw reflected my shame and my father’s shame. He would not look me in the eyes. My mother avoided me. She said nothing. Life resumed. It went on. I helped with chores around the house. Days passed. The pain, the humiliation slowly subsided. When I went to the library, it was as an outsider. I entered, I took out books. I looked longingly at the stacks of books, the stacks upon stack of books holding and guarding the accumulated wisdom of the past. I sighed, and a tear crept like a thief into the corner of my eye. I wiped it away, shook my head, left the library, pedaled furiously into the future.
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