Figures and Facts: Immutable Economic Principles
Warren Millard may have been the only one in the office who didn’t know what was really going on, but that wasn’t because he was stupid. He just never expected duplicity. So when the meeting finally adjourned, Warren thought nothing of the fact that Margaret said, “Gina? Could you stay behind a moment?”
Margaret Prestler had the following words crammed into the space under her name on her desk nameplate a person had to bend down and squint to read them “Managing Director of the Free Public Library of the Town of Watkins, Kansas.” Margaret had been hired by the Town Council to make the hard decisions. In seven-and-a-half months on the job, she had let ha the staff go. Excluding herself, she was down to four: Warren, who sat all day at the checkout counter; Carlotta Majorca, the Assistant Managing Director; Harvey Lang, the janitor and maintenance man; and Gina Bright, who was hired by Margaret’s predecessor to the job of Arts and Education Outreach Coordinator. Warren never exactly understood what she did. But once she arranged a field trip for a group of schoolchildren during which she lost control of the kids to the point where she ran to the bathroom in tears. Harvey took over from there and did a better job, too. Margaret told her, “No more field trips.”
Now Gina sat at the table picking at her cuticles and looking much the way she did before the children broke her down. The others filed out. All that could be heard was the rainwater as it dripped from the leaking roof into a bucket set in the corner of the office.
At last Warren suspected something when he joined Carlotta and Harvey standing at the water bubbler. From there they had a view through the office’s half-glass wall of the delicate slope of Gina’s shoulders.
“I hope she doesn’t start crying,” said Harvey, a concerned man with a wiry build and a gray moustache.
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” Carlotta said. Part of her job was keeping the books so she considered herself indispensable. So far her calculations were correct. “She’ll be alright. She has a husband to fall back on. Doesn’t she?”
“They split up,” said Harvey. “Uh-oh. There she goes.”
“I hope Margaret’s got a full box of Kleenexes in there,” said Carlotta.
When Margaret appeared suddenly from behind the wall, they dispersed.
Warren went back to what he did most of the time: checking the information in the library’s computerized catalogue against the information on the physical cards of the old catalogue. It wasn’t a job that needed to be done, but it gave him something to do. There was a time when more people came to his counter with a video or a book for him to check out or check in. He would swipe the barcode with a gun that emitted a red line of light, and the computer would beep to signify all was as it should be.
Gina came out of the office. Her face was gleaming with wetness. Her steps were deliberately silent. She plucked tissues from a box she kept in her desk drawer. Harvey went up and offered some kind of hushed consolation.
Some time later, Margaret emerged. By now everyone was used to her bent body, which somehow brought to mind a misassembled coat rack, and the odd walk she wrung from it. Her pelvis jutted noticeably from her left side yet scarcely had a presence on her right. Her breasts hung unevenly and her shoulders didn‘t line up either. It was as if she’d been left that way by disease or an accident or something else she never talked or was asked about.
“I need another bucket in my office,” she announced to Harvey. “There’s another leak.” He went straight to the basement to get it. Margaret made no remark about her never having lived in a place where it rained so much, but she had said that many times before.
As she turned, she spotted Gina, who was still there working at her desk, her eyes still red. “Gina,” she said, “What are you doing?”
“There’s this paperwork…” she said.
“You were let go, Gina. Didn’t Carlotta cut you your severance check?”
“Yes. And it’s for two weeks more than I’ve worked. So I owe you two weeks of work.”
“It’s alright, Gina. That’s why it’s called severance pay. We’re not paying you for work. We’re paying you for the severance.”
“No, Gina. Now please clean out your desk and be on your way. Okay?” She looked like she had more to say, but she didn’t say anything. As always it took a moment for her and everyone else to realize that the sirens outside were sounding. They always started slowly, then built in pitch and volume until at full blare, warning the community that a tornado might be coming. They stood atop a pole outside the Methodist church, just feet from the library itself.
Margaret rolled her eyes. She always seemed a little appalled when everyone would just drop what they were doing and scamper to the basement like mice for whatever period of time it took to shut those things off. Her first time she had no idea of the custom, coming as she did from the Pacific Northwest. Carlotta had to explain that it was a safety measure. “Good Lord,” Margaret said. “The basement?”
Fortunately for her the library had a large and fairly clean one that was designed to be a fallout shelter back when the building first went up. The basement had room for bunk beds and provisions of food and water, none of which where there now of course, and could comfortably hold a twelve or fifteen people, enough apparently to repopulate the earth in the event of a nuclear holocaust. There was still a sign on the wall attesting to the room’s former purpose, but the red and yellow colors of the tri-coned symbol for radioactivity were too grime-encrusted now to draw much notice. Now it held some extra bookshelves, a floor buffer in disrepair, mops and buckets and boxes filled with rolls of toilet paper. In the far corner, pipes the width of two men swooped down from the ceiling. Harvey also had a small workstation down there, consisting of a table with a snake-necked desk lamp and a small rectangular radio atop it. The black swivel chair had ripped seat padding. Harvey leapt from it and said, “Sirens?” They were impossible to hear in the basement.
Margaret was the last to come down. She had to lock the front door, and was obviously in no great hurry. That first time Carlotta pointed out their practice of leaving the door unlocked so people on the street could come in for shelter. “If somebody steals my computer,“ Margaret said, “who do you think will be responsible for it?”
They were down there more than twenty minutes. The only sound was Gina’s uncontrollable weeping. Harvey gave her his chair and put a hand on her shoulder out of support, but nothing could stop her.
The Beautiful Madness of Emily Dickinson
The sight of Warren walking the streets strapped with his black backpack was a familiar one to the people of Watkins, who made a point of waving to him from their passing cars. Warren had a car, once. For four-and-a-half glorious months after his mother died, he drove everywhere in her old Ford sedan until the transmission fell out as he sped along a highway about ten miles north of town. Somehow he was never scared as the car skidded to a safe stop. And he didn’t look back on the loss of his mobility as any kind of bad luck since it was Emil Drucker, the closest thing to a friend he’d ever had, who stopped to give him a ride.
The wind picked up and he had to shield his face from the driven rain as he passed the houses on the east side of town. These were good, solid, tended homes with basements, which were preferred in a prairie town surrounded for hundreds of miles by flat lethal expanse. They appeared to stay perfectly dry in their cocoons of yellow porch light.
Beyond those was a narrow stretch of road lined on one side by sunflowers that towered despite the rain and on the other by arid earth plowed into parallel lines. Farther off, obscured by the gray, there were silos and barns, fences, idle tractors.
Past the farmland the road turned to gravel. The houses were much fewer out here. When they did pop up they were rugged and lived-in, built for surviving, almost more outposts than homes. Warren had seen them vast and modest, kept up and run down. What they all had in common was their isolation.
The gravel turned to mud. The house where Emil lived was a relatively grand two-story structure perched at the end of the dirt road behind a dense cluster of trees. No light or other sign of life emitted from it since Emil always kept the shades down, the curtains drawn, and the porch light off.
Emil met him at the door. “Get in here and get your wet things off. Why don’t you ever use an umbrella? I’ll help you with the backpack. Wow, it’s heavy this week.”
“I think you’re gonna like these ones. Some of them look really interesting.”
“Hang your stuff in the bathroom to dry. I’ll be in the den.”
That was where the TV was. Emil was sure to be flipping the channels looking for blobs of green, yellow and especially red in a halting trek across the screen. All the local stations had interrupted their regular shows. Young men with haircuts and rolled-up shirtsleeves spoke urgently:
Stay away from windows and glass doors
You can see the super cell, uh hold on a minute, let me just bring it up here, well if you could see it you’d see it moving over the county
At 6:59 trained spotters reported a funnel cloud two miles west of Route 246
Like no other person Warren had known who wasn’t from around here, Emil worried when the weather turned bad.
Folks in the following counties should be heading for their basements or the lowest floor of the building
“I hope the sirens don‘t go off again,” Emil said. “I hate when the sirens go off.”
Warren took off his sneakers and settled into the plush reclining chair next to the sofa Emil was on.
Emil said, “It doesn’t bother you at all that at any time the sky out here could just open up and strike you dead?”
Of course Warren had never thought of it quite like that — Emil had the gift of making him see things in a different way. But the undeniable fact was that had Warren had lived nearly every second of his twenty-six years in Watkins and had never seen a tornado. No one he knew had been affected by one in any way. He had never even heard of one ever hitting Watkins. When the sirens went off, his mother would look up from her Soap Opera Digest and say, “Nothing’s going to happen, Warren,” and every time she was right.
Once, however, when he was almost too young for memory, Warren was playing in the field behind the house he and his parents lived in before his father committed suicide. He was sitting in the tall grass pretending to be at the bottom of the ocean when his ears popped and he looked up at a greenish haze that suddenly congealed in the air. The wind kicked up abruptly. Low clouds circled directly above him. At one point he reached up to take the hand they seemed to be extending to him. Then he heard his father calling his name, and he sauntered inside thinking of buttered toast sprinkled with cinnamon.
Emil got up to check on dinner. He had said last week that he would order a ham and from the aroma Warren could tell it had arrived. Emil could afford to get almost all his food through the mail, or delivered in some other way. Emil had been more or less an undetectable presence in Watkins in the year since he showed up. He only left the house at night, and even then only when compelled. He made supper once a week in exchange for Warren bringing by books from the library. Measures of thought and care went into the cooking, and it was always the best meal Warren had all week.
After the meal they settled in the den to talk or sometimes watch TV. They also drank. Among the many things Emil had opened Warren’s mind to in the past year was the red-wine hangover. But Warren loved the flutter he got ensconced in that afghan-draped recliner listening to Emil go on —he seemed to know something about just about everything — and listening to himself go on as well, usually at Emil’s prodding though not always.
“Gina was let go today,” he said. “Just like you said she‘d be.”
“I worry about what will happen to her,” Emil said.
“She’ll land on her feet.”
“No she won‘t, Warren. I keep telling you Gina’s not like the others. She’s fragile. She took it hard, I‘ll bet.”
Warren nodded. Emil had predicted that, too. He also knew that Harvey would be the only one to try and console her. Emil never met any of the people Warren worked with, but through Warren he had come to know them intimately. He had a limitless curiosity when it came to the people at the library, and Warren always answered his questions in the way most natural to him — honestly and completely. He said more than he knew he did, and he knew more than he would have thought.
Emil was of the firm opinion that the Town Board’s hiring of Margaret Prestler was the death knell for the Watkins Free Library. That was, he said, the fate that befell the last three libraries she managed. She seemed to have carved out a niche for herself as the person who was hired to hasten those eventualities, to shut down libraries in towns looking for ways to ease their financial straits. He said her resume listed jobs at small-town libraries in one- or two-year intervals: Bremerton, Washington; Berne, Idaho; Sandstone, Colorado.
How did Emil know all this?
“You can find out anything about anyone these days online,” he said.
That was alarming news to Warren, but it turned out to be not exactly true. Warren had his own key to the library, given to him years and several directors ago. No one ever asked him to give it back. Sometimes, on weekends or holidays, he would let himself in and spend time on the library’s one internet-connected computer. His breath was a little quick when he typed “Warren Millard” into the search engine, but all that came back was the phrase does not match any documents.
Warren regarded his weekly get-togethers with Emil as a kind of good deed — bringing books and companionship to a near shut-in. Emil had done as much for him. When the dark-haired dark-eyed man with the crooked jaw and the odd East-coast way of talking stopped to help him that night on the highway, he became the first passing motorist in Warren’s memory who did not merely wave at him.
When Warren accepted the offer of a ride back to Watkins, Emil had seemed off-kilter in some way, maybe even a little scary. But as they drove along, Warren came to appreciate the intelligent and kind person he really was. They hit it off and Warren felt so at ease that he accepted Emil’s invitation to his house for a glass of wine. From there it wasn’t long before they were naked. Warren wasn’t inexperienced sexually he was driving home in fact from a highway rest area he had been visiting since he was nineteen and he found he could be quite passionate and even commanding when he was aroused enough. His ill-fitting clothes concealed a naturally solid physique: thick cylindrical limbs, a robust hairless chest, and a dimpled rear end that for the time at least was free of pimples and cellulite. Not that he’d had a lot of chances to show his passion or his physique. The rest area more often than not was a bust, as it had been that night.
They had sex a couple of times after that, but it was obvious neither of them were as turned on as that first time. Their friendship grew, however. Emil was a wonder. He knew so many things and had been to so many places. At one time, he actually lived in New York City, making him the first such person Warren had ever known. At the same time Emil never acted condescending toward Warren and was always eager to hear what he had to say. Warren never met anyone who stirred so many emotions in him.
So it was a shock to learn that Emil was, in effect, married. That is to say, he was in “a long-term committed relationship” with someone. Emil rather casually let it drop as he made something to eat for them after their third and final sexual encounter. The someone turned out to be a chemical salesman who spent a lot of time on the road. At first, Warren felt deceived. Around the house there was no evidence to suggest the presence of any chemical salesman. There was no snapshot on the fridge, no second toothbrush in the cup on the bathroom sink. And then there was Emil’s failure to mention him up until then.
“Chemicals?” Warren had said, trying not to act so alerted to the trouble ahead. “What chemicals?”
“Chemicals,” Emil had explained. “Chemicals that companies need.”
“I don’t know who they are. Manufacturers of things.”
Emil shrugged. “Trash bags. Bug spray. You know, things that have chemicals in them.
“Well that could be just about anything.”
“I suppose. It bothers you?”
“I just don’t know why you waited until now to tell me that you’re in —— what did you call it? — a committed relationship? I guess your committed relationship can’t be too committed, I guess.”
“You think so?”
“I mean, you sleep with other people.”
“That has no bearing on my relationship with Tim.”
Tim. Warren had not reckoned that the chemical salesman had a name. It was more bad news. But with the sharp pain came a clarity that made the words so easy to articulate: “I guess honesty has no bearing on your relationship with Tim either. I mean, you don’t mind sneaking around on him.”
“Who’s sneaking around? Tim knows all about you.”
And Warren had neither the wiles nor any longer the clarity to say anything but “He does?”
“Of course. I tell him everything. And he tells me everything. We have an open relationship, but we’re still committed to one another. Besides, you and I aren’t having sex anymore. We’re friends now. But if you feel you can’t be friends with someone like me then please don’t allow me to offend your sensibilities any further.”
They fell silent awhile. Now that Warren thought of it, he had noticed a faint chemical odor whenever he came in the house, though it always disappeared after minute or two. He said, “We’re not having sex anymore?”
“Not after tonight. I thought that was pretty obvious.”
It was, but it still hurt to hear it. Because by that time Warren had come to believe he was in love. At a later time, Warren would calculate a total of seventy-five hours — the length of time between their second and their third encounter — when he was convinced of it, when his world was convulsed by it. It was a glorious feeling that Warren had never experienced and he was forever grateful to Emil for inducing it in him even despite the many more much less pleasurable feelings that followed.
As Warren grew to discover his friend’s peculiarities including his intense aversion to going outside during the day Warren found he could be helpful to him. At his own suggestion he began to bring him the books, checking them out himself with his own library card. The computer reminded him of the last book he took out, a manual on car repair, nearly seven years ago when he first started working at the library. But he was happy the card was getting some use now, happy at the system’s beeps of approval, happy to make Emil happy. For his part Emil always returned the books in one week‘s time.
Emil requested specific books, mostly about art and history, but library’s collection was modest and it took him only a matter of weeks to go through the titles that interested him. After that he seemed willing to read anything.
“Surprise me,” he told Warren. “Bring me whatever you like. You must have books that you like.”
That seemed a logical assumption, Warren having worked at a library since he got out of high school. But of all the books that had passed through his hands, only a very few piqued his interest enough for him to open them. He told this to Emil and got only an unbelieving stare in response. Usually Emil was pretty good at disguising whatever he found appalling about Watkins and its people, but at that particular moment he seemed caught off guard. He actually went slack jawed. “I mean, no one reads the books,” Warren said. “I mean, no one has read them in a long time. People don’t come in very much.”
The night ended the way it always did with Emil unpacking the contents of the backpack. He always made a bit of a show of it. “Oh my,” he said. “My my my. Doors and Window Frames. Look, it’s got illustrations. Oh look at this. And this. The Origin of Species. You‘ve outdone yourself again, Warren.” Emil would then assist in carefully packing up the books from the previous week. Warren would return them to the library the next morning.
Emil drove Warren home. It was late enough that Emil could go out. A sparse rain dotted the windshield.
Emil dropped him off at the entrance to the trailer court. He had never asked to come inside Warren’s trailer strangely, his curiosity rarely extended to Warren’s home life nor had Warren ever invited him in.
Play the Piano in Ten Easy Lessons!
Warren arrived at the library in the morning hung over and a few minutes late. But the rain was heavy on the way in and everyone was looking a little disheveled and disoriented. He joined his three remaining co-workers, who were standing around Gina’s desk.
“Why didn’t you say anything to her before she left yesterday?” Margaret said.
“I never saw her leave,” said Carlotta.
Gina apparently left without ever cleaning out her desk. It looked exactly as it always did. There was the blotter she wrote notes all over, the tinted plastic cup that held her pens, the stapler with the rainbow handle that she brought in from home. A picture of an unsmiling toddler stood in a small golden frame. Gina’s light blue sweater was still draped over the back of the chair.
“Call her and tell her to come get her things,” Margaret said.
“I did, but the number we have for her isn’t in service,” said Carlotta. “And we don’t have an e-mail address for her.”
Margaret got her bothered look, which was usually followed by some exasperated assault on Carlotta’s competence.
“I’ll just put it in a box and mail it to her,” Carlotta said, sorry she ever brought it up.
“No! The postage account is low. Leave it for now. If she doesn’t come back for it today, throw it out!”
Carlotta and Harvey exchanged a mildly shocked glance as Margaret hobbled away.
Warren turned but Carlotta called him back. “Nice of you to join us this morning,” she said.
“It‘s nice to see you too, Carlotta,” Warren said, realizing too late that she was being sarcastic.
She rolled her eyes and handed him a book with a dusty green cover. “Margaret wants you to find out who took this out last,” she said.
He already knew. It was one of the books he himself had checked out for Emil several weeks ago. “Okay,” he said, “but how come?”
“She didn‘t say.”
Warren took the book to his counter, wondering if there was something wrong with it. He opened it. What he exposed made him gasp loud enough for Carlotta to glance up at him.
The text on both pages on every page had been blacked out with a marker. Letters, words, sentences, paragraphs drawn though, rendered unreadable, gone. Captions, copyrights, footnotes, bibliographies all that was spared were the page numbers, left to absurdly count off the nothingness. Warren could only be hung on it, his mouth agape, his nostrils flared, and his eyes unable to blink.
He collected himself until Carlotta lost interest. As soon as he was able to do it casually, he retrieved his backpack from under the counter and checked the books he had just gotten back from Emil. One by one, he discovered that their texts had also been blacked out.
The sickening truth began to overtake him.
He tried to feign nonchalance as he went to the stacks and checked books from weeks past. All was as he had feared. The revulsion in him grew until he thought he might throw up. He stumbled his way to the bathroom and once inside with the door closed was able to breathe normally again. He had worked at the library long enough to know that harming the books in any way, even scribbling in the margin of just one page, was anathema. Books were sacred objects designed to give people knowledge, enjoyment, meaning. Warren felt as if he had stumbled onto a field of rare songbirds that were only, senselessly dead.
Raps at the bathroom door jolted him. It was the only bathroom in the building and was used by both the men and the women. The doorknob was tried. “Warren?” It was Carlotta. “Are you alright in there?”
“I‘ll be right out,” he called. He sat on the closed toilet and tried to steady his breathing.
Then he heard Margaret. “Other people have to use the bathroom, too,” she said.
He took one final deep breath and opened the door. He immediately wished he had flushed the toilet first, or washed his hands, or sprayed the air freshener. That would have made everything seem normal.
He slid past Margaret, who was holding a glossy magazine, without making eye contact. “We thought you might have drowned in there,” Carlotta said. He avoided looking at her, too.
He made it through the morning unable to concentrate, sitting at his post with his fingertips motionless on the computer keyboard.
At lunchtime, a man in a suit came in. He closed his umbrella and look around at the library before coming up to Warren to say, “Can you tell me where I might find Margaret Prestler?”
“I’m right here.” Margaret was standing outside her office door. She had her coat on and her purse hanging from her straighter shoulder. Warren heard her tell Carlotta that she would be gone for a couple of hours. Carlotta smiled, apparently without realizing it.
A few minutes later, Carlotta was the one to leave. She came up to Warren and said, “Think you can hold down the fort for a little while? If there’s any problem, Harvey’s in the basement.”
So Warren seized the opportunity to get on the computer in Margaret’s office. “You can find out anything about anyone these days online,” he had heard. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what the internet search might bring up about Emil Drucker, but he wondered why it took him until now to even think of it.
It turned there was a fair amount of information on Emil, though much of it was disjointed and fragmentary. He was able to learn Emil was an artist when he was in New York. He was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1971, and attended the Rhode Island School of Design on a scholarship. There was a lot on some museum exhibition called “Ten Artists under 30 to Watch,” of which Emil was one. He found an article featuring a picture of a younger Emil with no beard and long hair and smiling like he had never seen Emil smile in Watkins. Standing next to him was a well-dressed woman in her fifties with bright golden hair pulled back tight into a ponytail and an almost garish pink lipstick. She was, according to the caption, “Anita Schenk-Rasmussen, Owner of the Anita Schenk-Rasmussen Gallery in Chelsea.”
Emil was an “environmental artist.” It took some googling to find out what was meant by that, and while Warren never came across a plain-speaking definition he did absorb the notion that art could be your surroundings, if arranged just so, and that Emil was at one time considered a master of it.
Once, the artist had taken the space of the gallery and made it look like the procedure room at an abortion clinic. Warren saw the pictures and read what people had to say about it. Apparently the duplication was eerily exact down to the stirrups and the boxes of latex gloves (both regular and powder-free) to the medical-waste disposal unit affixed to the wall. Emil titled it “Oh No You Don‘t,” which to Warren didn’t make much sense. But people who wrote as if they knew what they were talking about praised it. “It even smells like a medical office,” one wrote. Another said, “You feel like you’re trespassing in some place you’re not supposed to be.”
There were other exhibitions, and apparently it became a bit of a craze in some rich New York circles to have an entire room of an apartment or summer home transformed by Emil. A set of photos showed one of them clearly, a room in a mansion on some island that Emil had made look like the inside of a burned-out warehouse, complete with charred remains, sagging ceiling and real soot on the floor and walls that had to be replenished every so often. This was not mere interior design, as Emil himself was quoted as saying, adding that this was not a room you could use for anything or even be comfortable in for any length of time. “It has no function,” he said, “other than to be experienced.” The mansion’s owner, a small bald man with reptilian features, was quoted as saying, “Emil is unparalleled in his ability to transport us to strange, forbidden places.”
But the fame was not to last. Suddenly there was a spate of extremely harsh writings. The very people who loved Emil, it seemed, had turned on him. One project in particular was savaged. Warren couldn’t quite get a clear picture of the actual content. The work itself seemed murkier, less defined. It didn’t even have a title. Maybe the best sense of it came from one of the less vicious writers who said Emil had tried to depict a place no one had ever seen before, or a place that only he had seen, or possibly a place only he could see.
But many more said Emil had lost his touch. Warren had to look up the word passé, which he realized he knew once he learned how it was pronounced. Maybe the worst review was the one that said, “The show is symbolic of an artist who has run out of ideas.” After that, new mentions of Emil Drucker were hard to come across although he kept looking until Carlotta returned and he had to sign off the computer.
At closing time, Warren grabbed his jacket and headed straight for Emil’s. Nothing of what he read excused what Emil had done.
Of course he was soaked by the time Emil’s house came into view almost an hour later. The rain had fallen in hard pellets that made his face feel like it was on fire. Along the way he had imagined himself barging in, but for now he only stood in the mud, breathing hard. He didn’t even notice the lights were on or the blinds were open or the reflection off the shiny roof of a second, unfamiliar car parked out front. He crashed up the porch steps and pounded on the door. A shocked-looking Emil pulled back the curtain. He looked as though he couldn’t make out who was out there. He opened the door a crack and said, “Warren?”
Warren pushed the door open, pushed past Emil, looking around the room wildly. “Where are they?” he said.
“Warren, what’s the matter with you?”
“Just tell me where they are!”
“The books, Emil! Where are the books?”
Emil looked as though he had stopped breathing.
“I want them back, Emil. I’m not going to let you destroy any more books.”
“Warren . . . , ” Emil said, “ . . . I haven’t destroyed anything ”
“Just shut up! I don’t believe anything you say anymore!” And then, past Emil’s shoulder, Warren spotted the six books on the mantle of the fireplace. They were lined up flush. The first one had a bookmark poking from it. He grabbed it and opened it to where the divide was. Immediately a rush of still-fresh ink enveloped his nose and mouth and made him a little dizzy. The text on the left page was entirely blacked out. The right page had just three lines left on the bottom.
He slammed the book shut. He held it up with both hands, just inches from Emil’s head. “What the hell is wrong with you!?”
But then he detected that familiar chemical odor, only stronger than it had ever been before.
Tim was standing on the threshold to the kitchen. The man was large, hulking almost, with broad shoulders and a stomach that strained the buttons of his shirt. He had some gray at his temples and his smooth face showed an easy smile that seemed incongruous with the situation. It was the smile, Warren thought, of a salesman.
“Emil,” he said, “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
Emil looked ashen. He spoke in a low voice: “Tim, this is Warren.”
“Hello, Warren,” Tim said. Warren felt small as the big man bounded forward and squeezed his hand. Past him Warren could see into the kitchen. He could see the steaming pot on the stove. He could see the set table, the bottle of wine, the candles flickering.
“We’re just sitting down to supper,” Tim said. “Why don’t you join us?”
“No, Tim,” Emil spoke up. “I mean, I don’t think that would be good.”
“Nonsense. He’s a guest in our house.” He turned to Warren. “Of course, if there’s any more of that sort of behavior, I’ll break you in two.” He said this with his gentle smile, but there was no mistaking utter seriousness of his tone.
Warren found himself unable to respond, unable to keep from being led to the kitchen and a seat at the table. He was still holding the book as almost instantly a plate of food appeared before him, then silverware, a napkin, a glass of red wine. Tim was sitting where Warren always had, in the chair at the head of the table. Emil sat to his left, looking down at his food, arms at his side.
Tim said, “I‘m glad Emil has made a friend out here, Warren.”
“We’re not friends,” Warren said abruptly. “I thought we were, but we weren’t.”
Tim smiled imperturbably.
“Are you from Watkins?” he said.
“Don’t you already know that?” Warren said. “I thought Emil and you told each other everything.”
Emil looked up at the air in front of his face, then down again. Warren thought it was the first time he had ever seen Emil for the gaunt shell of a human being that he was. The pathetic sight of him sent a remorseful twinge through Warren, but his own pain was more acute, and with it came the spiraling lucidity he had experienced only once before, when he first learned of Tim’s existence.
“We do,” Tim said.
“Then you already know I’m from Watkins. And that I work at the library. And that Emil and me have been to bed together three times.”
Emil let out a barely audible sigh.
“And I’m sure he must have told you that he’s been destroying all the books in the library one by one and that I‘ve been helping him do it because I was too stupid to ever crack open a book. I was too stupid to realize I couldn‘t trust him.”
“He didn’t use those words,” Tim said, “but he told me about the project.”
“The project? It’s a project? Is that what he calls it?”
Emil stood up suddenly, his chair knocked on its back. He held the table as if to steady himself, then he slowly turned and walked out of the room.
Warren shot to his feet. “Hey!” he said. “Don’t you walk away from me like that! Not until you’ve answered for what you’ve done!” He was been conscious of how loud his voice was getting. He had heard the scraping of Tim’s chair against the floor. He was aware of being raised from his own chair until he felt his shirt tightening around him. Tim, with one hand, had grabbed his collar and was now dragging him toward the door.
“I gave you a chance to be civil in my house,” Tim said, “and you went and blew it.” He opened the door and literally tossed Warren out. Warren stumbled down the porch steps and fell hard on the muddy ground.
It all happened so fast that he needed a minute there on the ground to recollect it. He was saved from any injury by that solid physique of his. He picked himself off the ground and brushed off as best he could. As he walked away, he heard shouting from inside the house.
Walking home in the rain, he could scarcely manage the forward momentum. A passing driver waved. He didn’t wave back.
And later, despite his exhaustion, he laid in his bed awake, listening to the rain as it hit the trailer roof.
The alarm clock read 11:34 when he heard a car driving into the muddy road that ran through the trailer court in the shape of a horseshoe. The headlights sliced through the cracks in the blinds over the kitchen sink and rode across the trailer wall. It had to be Emil. Warren let him knock on the door to the point where he was rattling it and calling his name. Warren grew concerned that he would wake up the people in the next trailer, so he let him in.
Emil looked as though he had been crying. His face was drawn and his eyes were raw. His hair and the shoulders of his coat were dampened by the rain.
Emil had never been inside Warren’s trailer never mind the courtyard. Warren always felt a little ashamed of his circumstances. Now, with Emil finally here, nothing about the place seemed to matter at all.
“I’m sorry about Tim,” Emil said. “Are you hurt?”
Warren didn’t answer.
“As you saw, he’s my protector.”
Warren wondered what it was that Tim was protecting him from —unless it was from people he’d wronged, people who demanded an explanation for something he‘d done. “I just wanna know why,” Warren said. “Why would you do something like this?”
Emil eyes quickly overflowed with tears. His lips parted with a moist snap when he tried to speak.
“I thought . . . I mean . . . I was hoping…”
Warren shook his head at the incomprehensibility of it. He tossed a box of tissues in front of Emil. Emil took half a dozen and pressed his entire face into them. When he pulled them away, Warren was alarmed and a little frightened by the shattered landscape of his face.
“I lost myself, Warren,” he went on. “I lost hold of myself. I mean, I was afraid . . . ”
“ . . . That you’d lost your touch?” said Warren.
“My ability to make reality bend,” said Emil.
“So this has something to do with what you used to do back in New York.”
Emil nodded. He seemed in no way surprised that Warren had looked into his past.
“Except that this isn’t one of your art exhibitions,” Warren went on. “This isn’t the house of some guy with more money than he knows what to do with. This is a fucking library, Emil. How could you do this?”
“It was you that gave me the idea for this project, Warren,” Emil said. “It was you who told me no one ever read the books. No one ever checks them out, you said. I thought was all coming together, all beautiful and sad and…perfect.” His voice began to shudder again. “But I was wrong. Maybe I worked too slowly. Nobody should ever have found out, not before the project was finished. But somebody opened a book and everything is ruined now. My instincts were wrong.” He leaned forward. His knees buckled and he slid down to the floor.
It was not in Warren’s nature to keep from easing a person’s pain if it was within his power to do so. “I found out by accident, Emil,” he said. “I dropped one of the books when I was reshelving it. It just fell open. There’s nothing wrong with your instincts, Emil. They were right.”
Of course, he didn’t really know how the book came to Margaret’s attention.
Emil wiped his eyes with his hands. A smile trembled on his lips. “Thank you for telling me that. It’s very kind of you. You’re a very kind person, Warren.”
“So you do understand what I’m saying, don‘t you?”
Warren thought a moment, then said, “I think so.”
Emil continued to sniff and shudder, but in a short time he had stopped crying altogether.
“So I can finish the project,” he said, his voice low and scratchy.
“What? I didn’t say that.”
“I know. I’m asking for your help, Warren.”
Warren started to shake his head no, but before he could say anything Emil said, “I’m sorry about not telling what was going on before now. But if I’d told you, you would have said no, right?”
“That’s right. And I’m saying no now too. I can’t let you ruin any more books, Emil.”
“No one is reading them.”
“Well, somebody could someday!”
“No, Warren. Those books are heading for the local landfill, or they’ll be pulped. Either way, no one’s ever going to read them again.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes I do.” Emil came up next to Warren. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this like this, but the Town Council voted today to close down the library next week. Margaret will probably make the announcement tomorrow.”
“You’re a liar. You’d say anything just to get me to do what you want.” He said this even though he did think it was strange when Margaret left for lunch with that man in the suit and didn’t come back all afternoon.
“It was posted on the town’s website earlier this evening,” Emil said. “I’ve never been wrong about the library, you know that. But if you don’t believe me, you can look it up yourself.”
“At the library, when you take me there tonight.”
There was a gall about Emil that could leave Warren feeling choked.
“You have a key. I know you do,” Emil said.
Emil then outlined a scenario in which Warren allowed him access to the remaining books in the middle of the night. “Starting tonight,” he said. “Right now. Please, Warren.” Emil’s voice cracked when he said Warren’s name, and Warren grew concerned that he might start his sobbing again. “There’s no time to wait. If I start tonight, I can finish the project before the place closes down for good.”
Warren had almost been worn down. Admittedly, something about the whole endeavor excited him the two of them together all night like that, and with Tim nowhere in sight. But there was something more that he didn’t understand: “If these books are never gonna be read again, why is to so important that you finish them. I mean, who will ever know?”
“I’ll know. That’s something I have to know if I’m ever going to move on. If I don‘t finish this, I‘ll never be able to finish anything again.”
Warren sighed. This time he wondered about his own ability to understand what Emil was saying.
“You’ll know, too,” added Emil, touching his arm.
The Big Sleep
In darkness and rain the structures of Watkins scarcely existed under street lamps the reddest shade of yellow. Emil once said that driving through them reminded him of a darkroom where no images were forming. Warren told him to try driving through them in the daytime some time.
There was not much talking. Warren was tired, yet he had hardly ever felt more awake. He was also a little nervous. And he kept thinking about the books. Back when he was unaware about what was really going on, he actually took a certain joy in picking them off the shelves, checking them out with his check-out gun, walking them to Emil. He’d liked the purposefulness of it. And more than that, he got to see and touch all these books that had gone ignored for so very long. Most of them had blank faces of woven cloth of one solid color, red or black or green or blue. Some of them smelled faintly of decay. Sometimes the binding was hanging or had fallen off completely, leaving no indication of what the book was about.
And he wondered why he had not been inclined to find out what was on the inside of them.
The library stood at the corner of an intersection that helped constitute downtown Watkins. On the opposite corner stood the town’s largest church, denomination Methodist. Farther down the street was the building where the Town Council conducted its business.
“You’re passing it,” Warren said.
“We’re not going to park right in front of the place,” said Emil.
They left the car behind a closed liquor store some three blocks on. Emil opened the trunk and took out a large flashlight and a crumpled brown bag.
“What’s in that?” Warren said.
“Markers,” Emil said.
He came prepared, Warren thought. It was almost as if he assumed this very outcome.
They walked briskly through the alleys behind the buildings. They saw no one. No car drove by on the main street. Warren had played in these same alleys as a boy, usually by himself. He’d never seen them at this late an hour.
A downpour ensued. Emil swore, saying he should have brought an umbrella. Still, they tried to look as though they weren’t hurrying somewhere.
At the door Emil acted as lookout while Warren dug out his key ring. Inside Emil halted at the red alarm box attached to the wall. “Don’t worry,” Warren said. “It doesn’t work.”
Warren guided the way, refusing Emil’s flashlight. He didn’t need it.
They went straight to the stacks, which consisted of no more than a few dozen upright metal units that were mostly full. Although he had given Emil the impression that he chose the books carefully, he picked any given week’s six based on a random formula involving a book’s catalogue number and its position on the shelf. He had no trouble keeping track of it in his mind.
He held the flashlight and watched as Emil set himself up on the floor and went immediately to work. He moved swiftly and precisely and with a focus Warren had rarely seen before. The black marker made a light scraping sound as it flawlessly obliterated everything in its path. The pages turned fast at regular intervals. Emil did not stop to admire his handiwork.
Warren left the flashlight with him and headed for Margaret’s computer. He quickly found the web page of the Town Council.
Of course everything Emil had said was true. There were even transcripts from meetings that showed how Margaret not only failed to defend the library, but also actively participated in discussions about possible new uses for the building, about which a fast-food franchise had expressed interest.
He sat back in Margaret’s chair. The library was the only job he’d ever known. He didn’t know what he would do now. Most of the kids he went to high school with had either moved away or gone to work at the pasta-making plant up by the highway.
For a long time he didn‘t move. He may even have dozed a bit. The roof was leaking again and water was dripping into the bucket that had been left in Margaret’s office. But in the stillness he also heard sounds from the building he never noticed during the day, or even at any other time he’d been in the library by himself. Pipes clanked and whooshed. Snaps and taps and hisses disappeared into the air as soon as he heard them. There was even, he imagined, a scarcely audible voice, but he knew Harvey often forgot to turn off his radio in the basement.
He opened his eyes suddenly. He leaned forward and typed Emil’s name into the search engine on the computer screen. Rereading the articles and seeing the pictures again helped him understand what Emil was doing now. Seeing the interest in Emil and his work drop so suddenly helped, too. He moved further towards the present than he could the first time and he did come across one small mention of Emil that was new. He found it in a gossip column at the New York Post website, dated less then three years ago.
“The artist Emil Drucker was taken to Bellevue Hospital last night after what police and neighbors called a suicide attempt. According to a neighbor in Drucker’s Upper East Side co-op, Drucker’s companion, Tim Ward, commandeered a taxi on 63rd Street to get Drucker to the hospital. Drucker was reported in critical condition.”
Warren read this same paragraph many times over. There seemed to be something new and disturbing in it each time. Finally he had to shut down the computer to get away from it.
He couldn’t help but think of his father. As a boy, he was told by his mother that he died of a heart attack. But later his mother confessed that he drank bleach after she told him she was planning to leave him.
He returned to Emil in the stacks. He almost looked like a stranger, knowing what Warren knew now. He was sitting on the floor, bent over. The flashlight stood on its end, leaving a misshapen circle of light on the ceiling. A marker had run dry. Emil took a fresh one from the bag and uncapped it. The strong toxic rise reminded Warren of Tim.
Emil had gotten through several good-sized books. Warren picked them up to reshelve them. One he opened. The lines were precise and straight yet unmistakably rendered by a human hand of undeniable skill. The lines went only where they were needed, and there was never an extraneous mark on any page.
Around 4:20, Emil suddenly shut the book he was working on and sat up straight. Even in the weak light, the dark circles under his eyes were clearly visible. He indicated he was ready to stop for the night. He wanted to get out and be home before the sun rose. That was at 4:47. He had looked it up on the internet.
Warren made sure nothing appeared out of place. It was still raining when they left. They dashed through the alley and Emil did not complain about having no umbrella. In the car they shivered a little.
On the drive home Warren said, “I’m sorry about barging in like that at your house last night.”
“And I’m sorry about saying those things about us having sex. It was stupid of me.”
Emil didn’t respond.
“It’s okay, isn’t it?” Warren said. “I mean, Tim already knew about it, right?”
“Actually I hadn’t gotten around to telling him yet,” said Emil.
Warren went silent.
“But it’s alright,” Emil said.
The car pulled up outside the trailer court. Emil said, “I’ll pick you up here tonight at 11:30, right?”
“Right,” Warren said.
He was not late for work that morning. Even though he slept only a couple of hours, he was anxious to get there. Emil had said after all that Margaret would make the announcement today. And indeed, she came out of her office an hour into the workday and made the following speech:
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you all. The Town Council has voted to close the library. I know this is not exactly a surprise to most of you. This will take effect one week from today. You’ll all be getting severance packages. I wish they could be bigger.”
She went back to her office and closed the door. Harvey disappeared into the basement. Carlotta sat at her desk and made a phone call. Warren stood at the checkout counter. He was thinking of Emil, how he was asleep at home, in bed with Tim maybe.
Later in the afternoon, just before closing, the sirens went off. Everyone filed to the basement. Harvey was nowhere to be seen until he stumbled from behind the enormous pipes. He appeared surprised, with crumbs of food falling from his moustache. “Sirens?” he said.
There was no speaking. Margaret stood closest to the door, propped against a wall with her arms folded against her chest and her head down. Carlotta brought paperwork down with her to read. Harvey sat at his desk. Warren leaned against one of the shelving units, wondering if Emil was freaking out or just too tired to hear anything.
The Short Fiction of Herman Melville
Every night of the following week Emil picked up Warren at 11:30 and they spent the night in the library. Emil was for the most part not talkative, although when Warren told him about Margaret’s announcement he did say, “I’m sorry I was right.”
Emil worked nonstop through the night. Warren had offered to assist him in some way, but Emil said the work had to be done by him. So Warren passed the hours surfing the web or napping in Margaret’s chair or just listening. He was a little disappointed that his nights with Emil had not been as intimate as he had allowed himself to imagine.
Emil was at his most relaxed during the early-morning drives back home, more how Warren remembered him from that night he came to his rescue on the highway. He sat exactly where he was sitting now, on the passenger side of Emil’s car, seatbelt on at Emil’s insistence. Then as now he Emil drove with one hand while the other was always doing something else — fiddling with the radio, adjusting the rearview, putting his hand on Warren‘s knee when he had a point to emphasize. Warren saw now that he had loved him from the start.
Toward the end of the week, however, Warren began to notice a change in Emil. A heaviness seemed to have descended on him. His hair grew ever oilier and stuck to his forehead and his beard became untended to. He drove with both hands tightly gripping the wheel, as if steeling himself. He spoke only when spoken to, and then in the tersest terms. This went on for a couple of nights until Warren, before getting out in front of the trailer court, “Is there something the matter, Emil?”
Emil looked over at him. He started to say something, but stopped. He looked straight ahead again.
“You’ve made good progress on the books,” Warren said. “You said a couple nights ago you were closing in on the last of them.”
“I’m not sure . . . ”
“But tonight is the last night before the library’s last day. I think you should try to finish tonight.”
“Maybe you’re right.” He wiped nothing off the dashboard.
Warren went on, “That way the collection will be there, finished, before the closing. I don‘t know why, but that seems better than finishing it after.”
He gave Emil a chance to respond but all he did was squint into the gathering fog. At the same time, Warren could tell he didn’t want to say goodbye just yet.
“Do you want to come in?” Warren said.
Emil shook his head no. Warren could see the trouble gathering behind his eyes.
“Do you want me to just stay here with you for a minute?”
Again, he shook his head no.
So Warren got out of the car and shut the door behind him. He leaned to the window and said, “See you tonight?”
Emil nodded neither no nor yes, but said, “I don’t know, Warren…”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure . . . I mean, it occurred to me . . . ”
“What occurred to you?”
“That maybe you were right. That maybe this makes no sense. Maybe this means nothing.” The doubt had an almost flattening effect on Emil’s face, and the tears seemed almost pressed from his eyes. “Maybe it’s just wrong.”
“Emil, you weren’t wrong,” Warren said. “I was wrong. I was the one who didn’t understand. You were the one who understood it perfectly.” Snot was visible under his nose so Warren leaned through the window and opened the glove compartment where he found some of those small rough coffee napkins. “Don’t let this happen, Emil,” he said. “Don’t let anything ever stop you.”
Emil cleaned his face and nodded yes for once. They said goodbye and Warren watched as he drove off into the gathering fog.
That night, Warren paced the trailer, growing ever more anxious. It was ten minutes after midnight and still Emil had not driven up.
Warren longed to call but did not want to talk to Tim. So he decided to go there.
He had an umbrella. Emil had left him one earlier in the week and told him to keep it. But though he didn’t get soaked walking through the dark, he did feel a chill afflicting him from the inside. He took to the middle of the road and jogged to Emil’s house. The wet gravel, when he came to it, made no sound under his feet. He stopped where the mud began, breathing hard, the house some thirty feet ahead. He was suddenly reluctant to go any farther– Tim was huge, after all.
But he pushed himself through the mud and up the porch steps. Both cars were parked out front. The main door was open and through the screen door he saw Tim standing with his back to him. Suddenly he turned around, spotting Warren at the door.
The first thing Warren noticed was his face. There was no trace of a smile on it anywhere. He had let it settle into its unforced state, which just happened to look like exhaustion. He walked up to the screen and said, “You.”
“Where’s Emil?” Warren said. The question erupted involuntarily. He quickly modified the tone. “I mean, he was supposed to meet me earlier.”
“He’s not coming tonight.”
“But we’re running out of time. I mean, the
“He’s not coming tonight,” he said.
“But why not? I mean, this is very to important to him.”
“He’s in no shape to go anywhere. Look, Warren, I really appreciate everything you’ve done, your willingness to help Emil. And I really thought you were helping him. But I think now it would be better for you to leave.”
Warren looked past Tim. He didn’t know why he didn’t see it before, but now he did. Cardboard boxes taped up and stacked four and five high. The TV and the recliner gone from the den. “You guys are moving,“ he said.
“Emil didn’t tell you? He told me he told you.”
“I thought coming out here would help calm him down. But it hasn’t been working. He’s very delicate.”
“I only want to do what’s best for him. That’s why we’re moving back to New York.”
Even in the short time Warren had been allowed to speak with Tim, he could see the man was plainly, hopelessly in love with Emil Drucker. But Emil had descended the stairway just then, wrapped in a bathrobe and barefoot. His face had the most harrowing, hollowed-out appearance and he moved with seeming difficulty. It took a moment for Warren to be sure it was even him.
He froze on the stairway when he saw Warren at the door. Then he broke into a wail and began to swoon on the steps. “What have I done!?“ he screamed. “What have I done?“ Tim ran over to catch him. Emil collapsed into his embrace, sobbing and writhing, and then fought against it, all the while asking what he had done.
Tim struggled to keep hold of his lover. He looked back at Warren and said, “Get out of here! Get out of here now!”
Warren stumbled back, down the porch steps, into the rain. He had dropped the umbrella on the porch at the sight of Emil, so of course he was soaked when he arrived at the library. He was intent on finishing Emil’s project.
The first thing he did was head for the basement. He was a little surprised to find not only Harvey’s radio left on, but the light down there as well. He rifled through Harvey’s desk until he found a black marker, then bolted up the steps.
Of course he knew exactly where Emil had left off. He grabbed the next book in sequence. He took a deep breath and sat on the floor, suddenly feeling he was about to take on was something very solemn. He thought he had a sense of what it meant or at least used to mean to Emil.
He uncapped the marker. He breathed only through his mouth so he wouldn’t smell the ink. He trembled a little when he opened the book.
But every page had already been crossed out. How could he have miscalculated like that? He was so sure he had the order of the books so clear in his mind. He shelved that book and took the next. That was all crossed out, too, as was the next one, and the one after that. All of the books, he quickly came to find out, were finished. He stumbled from the stacks wildly alert.
He looked up, toward Gina Bright’s desk, when he thought he saw some movement in the darkness. He stepped closer. The desk was still appointed with Gina’s things, as it had been all week, when much larger problems made everyone forget about it. However, there was a notable difference now: Gina was sitting at it.
“Hi Warren,” she said.
She was wearing a pair of oversized men’s pajamas. Her hair was short and flat against her head. She appeared older than Warren recalled.
“What are you doing here, Gina?” he said.
“I’ve been living here Warren. In the basement.”
“Because I had nowhere else to go. There’s a cot down there, and Harvey brought me a hotplate.”
“He insisted. When my husband left, he left me with nothing. He even took our daughter. I couldn‘t keep up the payments on the house by myself. Everything sort of fell apart at once, I guess. Harvey said why don‘t I just stay here until I get back on my feet.”
“How long have you been down there?”
“A couple of months, about” she teared up here “I can’t seem to do that. Get back on my feet, I mean.”
“So all this time you’ve been here?”
“It‘s okay, Warren. I know what you and your friend have been doing and it‘s okay. I think, actually, it’s more than okay.”
Warren fell back a little, stunned that someone else knew what only he and Emil had known, what they had done together.
“When you and your friend didn’t show up tonight, I knew something had happened. And I knew how important it was that the project be finished. At first, the lines I made were too uncertain. I kept having to go back and touch up where parts of letters were still showing. But after awhile I developed a rhythm. It was good to be able to make myself useful. Anyway, I hope it helps your friend to know that the project was finished before the library closed for good.”
“I think it will, I hope. Where are you gonna go, Gina?”
“My mother’s. In Topeka. Probably.”
“It’s good she can take you in.”
“No, it isn’t. She doesn’t want me there. She told me not to come. And I wouldn’t if there was someplace else.”
So Warren then thought that he had been let in on a secret shared only by Gina and Harvey. He would not have thought much more about until recently. But now his mind pushed on to the most logical conclusion.
“Are you and Harvey?”
Gina glowered at him. “Are me and Harvey what, Warren?”
“He’s a married man, Warren.”
“He’s got kids.”
“It’s a terrible thing for you to think,” she said.
“I mean, we’ve never actually done anything. I mean, we’re friends is all.” She plucked some tissues from the drawer where she always kept them. “What are you going to do, Warren?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ll find something. You’re young. You’re strong.”
“I sure don’t feel that way right now.”
“You look tired.” She got up and made her way to the basement door. “Go home and get some sleep.”
Later, in the trailer, all those deferred hours of sleep had finally caught up with him. He was so thoroughly exhausted that he slept for hours on end without moving a muscle. Even the lightning that lit up the trailer and the winds that swayed it failed to wake him.
When he did awake, he had no idea of the time. His neck ached when he lifted it to see the clock radio. It read “8888,” which meant the power had gone out and come back on.
The light from behind the window blinds said daytime, but a part of the day when Warren was not usually home. After a long stop at the toilet it was as if his body had been waiting for days to rid itself of the water he realized he was hungry. He checked the food in the small cube of a refrigerator on the floor by the sink. The milk smelled.
He flipped on the TV. The first thing he learned was that a U.S. Marine had won the showcase spin-off on The Price Is Right. That meant he should have been at the library. A prickly revulsion moved over him. He had never been so late to work without calling in, and he felt obligated even on this, the library‘s last day. He grabbed the phone and dialed, not knowing what he’d say. It took him a minute to realize there was no dial tone.
He took a quick shower and when he came out the noon news was on.
A line of severe weather that stretched from Oklahoma to West Virginia
The weatherman was dressed in his usual suit coat and sounded a little bored.
Four dead in Ohio as a result of twisters. Tornadoes also reported in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana
Around Kansas no reports of deaths or injuries. About the worst in our area was some torn-up roofs and widespread outages spread over a wide area
Warren dressed and hurried to get to the library. He was stopped in his tracks when he got there. Two Watkins Police cruisers were parked outside. The entire building was ringed by yellow police tape. He ran up to where he saw Margaret, Carlotta and Harvey standing. Of the three, Carlotta was capable of telling the story.
The body of an unidentified woman had been found in the basement that morning by Harvey. The police said it was a suicide.
“Unidentified?” Warren said. “They don’t know who she is?”
“She blew her head off with a 45 magnum,” said Carlotta. “There’s nothing left but teeth. Pretty gruesome. Harvey’s really upset.”
Warren turned to Harvey. He standing off at some distance, leaning against one of the police cars. As Warren came closer he could see that he was crying. His eyes were bloodshot and his fat face a dangerous-looking red. He was trembling. Warren said nothing. He just patted him on the back and sucked in his lips when Harvey looked at him.
Warren waited around a little longer. At some point he noticed Margaret had disappeared, and that he’d probably seen the last of her. Then there was nothing for him to do but leave. The library’s last day had come to an unexpectedly early end.
Instead of going home, he went to Emil’s house. He wanted Emil to know the project had been finished. He was hopeful that Emil would be helped by knowing it. He decided he wouldn’t tell him about Gina, at least not yet.
But when he got there, both cars were gone and the doors were locked. The view from the windows showed the house to be empty — no furniture, nothing on the walls. Emil was gone.
The fast-food franchise that had planned to take over the library pulled out when the building was discovered to be structurally unsound. Rain had collected on the flat roof and a portion of it even fell in. The town lacked the funds to develop the site by itself and so the library remained, condemned and shuttered, the books still inside.
Within the week, Warren found work at the pasta plant.