A work of fiction
By Holly Pretsky; illustration by Abi Censky
I work in a library because it didn’t pan out with my startup sticker business. I used to make bumper stickers about atheism: evolving homo sapiens in tie-dye colors and stuff like that. It didn’t work out, so I went back to school for library science. Everyone else in my graduating year made a long distance book club and I wasn’t invited to be in it. I don’t mean to sound dramatic or self-pitying or anything like that. But I do want to clarify that literally every single other person in my library science graduating class (seventeen people) is in this long distance book club and I was not invited to be in it. Now I work at the library in my hometown in the children’s books section organizing and decorating for different holidays. For example, around Christmas I put up this metallic Christmas tree and hang a generic Kwanzaa flag behind it and hang Star of David string lights in the windows. For Earth Day I put up the metallic Christmas tree next to the recycling bins. For the Fourth of July I display historic American children’s books in the branches of the metallic Christmas tree. It is very difficult to disassemble the metallic Christmas tree.
I am 38 years old, six years older than my father was when he died unexpectedly. When I was younger I didn’t see my age this way. When I was 21, for example, I didn’t think, “I’m 21 years old, eleven years younger than my father was when he died.” My father died of an air embolism while scuba diving. I once said this to someone I sat next to on a plane who cheerfully turned to me and said “Tell me something interesting about yourself!” That was kind of an ass-hat thing to do I guess. I picture it less frequently now, the death of my father that is, but I have a pretty clear image of what it looked like: the controlled descent into blue gloom, the fat on his neck and face rippling, the darkness, the panic, the frantic, out-of-control ascent after he got freaked out. The tiny air bubbles forming in his veins, moving to his lungs, rupturing his alveoli, creating bigger air bubbles, traveling directly to his brain. I’m not exactly sure what happens after that or why it’s a problem to have air bubbles in your brain (I felt satisfied with my research after learning the word alveoli), but apparently it was and he died. He was 32. I wonder sometimes what my father would have done with the six years he didn’t have that I have been given so far. Six years is a pretty substantial amount of time. Bernini, after all, sculpted Apollo and Daphne in three years, and I learned recently that the pilot episode of SpongeBob was written within two weeks. My father could have sculpted two Apollo and Daphne’s, or written 156 episodes of SpongeBob within those six years.
Today is my 38th birthday. It is a Tuesday. It’s Story Day at the library, and the October theme is “Creepy-Crawlies and our Favorite Dollies.” I was feeling pretty tired as I got toward the end of the flyer-making process, so, below the title, it reads “Come read about creepy things, bugs, and guts and bring your favorite plastic or stuffed friend to share in the fun!!!!!! There will NOT be show and tell. Our dollies are invited purely as moral support as we read about creepy things. This is not about showing off our dollies. Parents beware of small chokable dolly parts. Like Bratz doll feet that come clean off.” Looking at it now, I cross out the last part and write in magic marker: “Bratz dolls not allowed.” Not many people read the flyers—I usually print them late and only manage to put them on the community board in front of the library the night before Story Day. Each week, Maria, the reference librarian, gets on my ass about this. She’s in charge of the community board and is very concerned that it remain “au fait and current.”
The mission of Story Day is threefold: to encourage community members between the ages of four and seven to think about important world issues, to attract first-timers to the local library and to garner enough small-change donations to continue to feed and house Ruth, the library’s guinea pig. Ruth is a pretty huge motivation for me, honestly. Some days she’s the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. We’ve been co-workers for almost a year now, for around 44 story days.
After the eight or so children trickle in trailed by bleary-eyed parents, Story Day today begins the same way as always, with the Story Day anthem.
“One, two, three! Stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories stories!” It’s to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” The lyrics were originally more complicated, but some parents complained when their kids felt left out because they didn’t know the words. I’ve become exceptionally good at picking my battles in this line of work.
“Ok do we know what time it is? Ruth time!” The response to this announcement (despite the fact that it is made in the same way, at the same time every week) is hysteria. Brian falls on the carpet and convulses. Avery lets out a sustained and focused scream, (“RUTH!”), while banging her Bratz doll’s head on the floor. Peter pulls his finger out of his nose in a gesture of joyful abandon, flinging his booger onto Mariah’s face. Mariah does not notice the booger, too focused on tearing off her jacket and throwing it across the room as she falls to her knees and wails (“FINALLY.”). Several dollies lie abandoned on the floor.
I look out the window at the October sky for about three seconds, reminding myself that this is not my path, invoking Mother Mary as I steel myself to complete just one more Story Day. Mother Mary is what I call the statue of library founder, Mary Irene Derenlaw, that stands outside and is visible from the children’s section window. She was a colonial school teacher who punished students by writing Satan on their foreheads with hot wax. I pray to her several times each day. Please Mother Mary, give me the balls to do this one last time. Then I’ll quit and find my way. My 38th year, setting sail. Six years more than my dad. I inhale and then shush and shush the kids until I feel lightheaded. They sit in an inner circle on small, stained, suede bean bags.
“Ok legs out, let’s make a Ruth Ring!” They all spread out their legs so that their feet touch those of their neighbor, forming an enclosed circle. I squeeze Ruth into her ball. There is no humane way to do this. I try to coax her in initially by putting a kernel of food inside the ball. When she doesn’t fall for this (she’s way too experienced), I try tickling her behind her ears, but ultimately I have to kind of jam her in through the hole, against her will. This usually happens. It’s just the ugly reality of the job. As I do this, I’m always worried one of the parents will say something or raise an eyebrow maybe, but no one has ever noticed. After I get Ruth in the ball, we roll her around the circle for about 25 minutes. I don’t know how Ruth sustains herself. The distance she travels in proportion to her body size is probably something comparable to a 10K at least, and she doesn’t train at all from what I can see. She just sits burrowed in her wood shavings for pretty much the whole rest of the week. During Ruth time, most of the parents cross their legs and stare at the screens of their cellphones. Each Story Day I tell myself I need to remember to bring a boom box and play Sesame Street songs or something because stretches of five minutes occur sometimes where no one says anything, and all we have to listen to is Ruth’s little nails scratching on her plastic orb and her little lungs wheezing away.
Today, an interloper walks in, a person I’ve never seen on a story day—or any other day for that matter—in my life.
He’s a very small man with an infant strapped to his chest in one of those Baby Björns.
“Excuse me, is this Story Day?”
Usually I would tell this man that Story Day started 25 minutes ago, and that we’ll be finishing up soon. I would tell him that Story Day is intended for children between the ages of four and seven to encourage contemplation of current events, that he may consult the community board outside the library for more details on programs for younger children. But today is my 38th birthday and I like that he’s wearing plaid shorts, and I like his tiny little legs poking out of them, so I say, “Story Day indeed! You can have a seat if you like.”
He hesitates, then gives a salute. “Thanks.” He points to his face. “Greg.”
A mother looks up from her iPhone and watches Greg cross the room. As I watch her watch him, I feel the most puzzling tingle of murderous rage. He settles down between Mariah and Peter. The mother smiles, points at the Baby Björn, “How old is he?”
I pick up a metal box filled with Lincoln Logs and hurl it at her face.
Actually, I pass around Ruth’s collection basket for the parents’ donations. I gather the plastic orb into my arms and set to work calmly and maturely extracting Ruth from it.
“He’s 11 months.”
“He’s so cute, look at those cheeksters!”
“Ok everyone! Now I’m going to pass around some animal crackers and we are going to gather around and listen!” I scream. Maybe a bit loud, but probably not too much louder than I normally would have screamed it. If I normally screamed.
I have chosen a post-apocalyptic picture book for today for the Creepy Crawly theme by my favorite children’s author: Timothy Tonsilston. The story is called “Melanie’s Bones.” I clear my throat. I’m proud of my Story Day story voice. I like to think of it as Melissa Block meets Barack Obama meets Fräulein Maria. I am thankful that Greg has arrived in time to hear it.
“Melanie’s bones are in tip top shape. She lives on an Orchard in Charlotte, North Carolina. One day, the apocalypse happens and Melanie—”
I see the mother leave her chair and sit down cross-legged next to Greg. I can’t be positive, but I think I see the very tip of her elbow graze his knee. I clear my throat again.
“One day, the apocalypse happens and Melanie finds herself in the dark because the power has gone out. ‘Mom! Dad!’ yells Melanie, ‘Why won’t the lights work?’ But Melanie doesn’t get an answer. Instead she hears—”
The mother reaches into the Baby Björn and strokes Greg’s child’s face.
“Instead she hears the dogs all throughout the neighborhood barking at one another. She starts to feel a little queasy. Melanie has never been through an apocalypse before—”
Greg and the mother giggle quietly. I begin to panic.
“And then Melanie dies and lives happily ever after.’ Wow wasn’t that something! Thank you everyone for coming to Story Day! And for bringing your dollies!” Three of the eight parents in the room seem to have noticed that I abridged “Melanie’s Bones.” The rest of them glance up groggily from their cell phones and begin to zip coats, open strollers, and collect dollies. Greg stands up.
I look at Ruth, now safely back in her glass cage next to the children’s encyclopedias. Her only excursion this week is now behind her, and consisted of being forced to sprint around a circle of children while contained in a transparent orb. I think about Melanie from “Melanie’s Bones,” franticly searching her dark house for absent parents. I think about my dad. I think about these past six years. I look outside at Mother Mary in her colonial hat. Mother Mary, grant me the courage to knock Greg’s socks the fuck off his tiny little feet right now. I approach Greg, narrowly sidestepping Mariah as she snaps her Bratz doll’s feet back on.
“Greg, hi, are you new to this library?” He looks up from wiping animal cracker crumbs off the Björn.
“I am. Well, my wife—ex-wife actually now I guess—she comes here sometimes with Eli but I haven’t been yet, no.”
The word is “ex-wife” is like a chunk of brownie dunked in caramel syrup bookended by huge bites of ice cream. It’s like winning the lottery. It’s like the voice of God piercing through the clouds at the same time as a colossal orgasm. I lift my eyes to his brownish gray ones. I take a moment to remove my reading glasses then a breath.
“Greg, today is my birthday. And I would like to go to lunch with you at 12:15.”
I recover from a complete blackout about two minutes and 45 seconds later. I take stock of the situation: standing at the entrance of the library, waving limply, right hand clenching a piece of paper… I look down at it.
It all comes flooding back to me. We’re meeting at the Crab Shack at the beach at 12:15. I am having lunch with Greg Baby Björn, thereby commencing the rest of my whole life. 38 here I come! I am given pause for a moment as I consider how I will raise Eli, what kind of methods I should employ. A happy face chart perhaps? At the end of the week if he has all happy faces I’ll give him a pickle or something. I wonder about helping him to become bilingual, maybe in Mandarin or Portuguese. Or trilingual in both Mandarin and Portuguese. I decide to Google “Rosetta stone baby” later. I jog back into the library, checking the clock as I go: 11:05am. The children’s section is looking somewhat disorderly: crushed animal crackers, Ruth turds, multiple abandoned dollies, Lincoln Logs, and various books litter the floor. The broken circle of bean bags remains. There is a new, dark stain by the computer desks. I pick my way through it all, seize my bag from underneath the librarian’s desk, and make a beeline for the exit, ducking past Maria’s desk before she has time to look up from her Sudoku puzzle.
I’m home before I can think about the consequences of leaving work early unannounced, which can range from a forced public apology at the staff meeting to an unwanted leadership role (“Calendar organizer”), none of which seem at all consequential in comparison to what’s to be gained here. This is my first date in probably three years. I check the stovetop clock: 11:18. I change into a tube dress, then into overalls, then briefly into a pant-suit before changing back into my librarian skirt. I drop and do seven push-ups. I gargle some Listerine, pinch my cheeks, and curl my eyelashes. I put on the song “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder and dance to it in front of the mirror for about two minutes before sprinting out the door back to the car. In the car I take a moment to decide that I am going to be the sexiest woman in the world for the next two hours.
Greg is standing outside the Crab Shack when I arrive at 12:07pm, Björn-less, smoking a cigarette. The Crab Shack is a giant shell-shaped building with a children’s playground inside. I had my sixth birthday here and vomited on the slide.
The beach is October Tuesday quiet today, with seagulls drifting lazily overhead. There are only a couple of old people doing Tai Chi on the shore. Greg and I side hug and exchange a couple of pleasantries (“Thanks for coming,” “Long time no see,” and so on). Seized by a sudden inspiration Thank you Mother Mary, I say the following:
“What do you say we walk along the beach for a while before lunch?”
Greg assents, and begins to remove his sneakers and tube socks. He has the hairiest legs I have ever seen. I think about how my sheets at home are brown and how I initially thought maybe having brown sheets would be weird, but how well they would match Greg’s leg hair.
“So Greg, you must have thought I was kind of crazy back there, huh?”
I walk a little bit ahead of him, one foot in front of the other so my hips do the Marilyn Monroe thing.
“I realized I never quite got your name,” he says.
I bend to pick up a sand dollar and realize it’s alive still. I jump and hurl it into the surf and then collect myself.
“Like of Arc.”
“Like Joan of Arc.”
“Oh yeah. No one’s ever said that before.”
He thinks I’m like Joan of Arc! I can’t remember exactly who that is or what she did, but I’m pretty sure she was hot. The ocean stretches out before us for miles and miles. I shiver as the water laps up over my bare toes. The hair that remains on Greg’s head rustles in the wind. The sun beats down on us from almost directly overhead. Greg sniffles loudly, then swallows.
“I got officially divorced two days ago.”
“That must be pretty hard.”
“You ever been married?”
“Nope. There have been a few close calls, you know, but nope, just me.”
He looks at me and doesn’t say anything. I add, “Just me sailing along. I’m 38 today.”
“Wow and a dad already.”
“Yep. Married when we were 27. Eli was born a year later.”
I stoop and pick up an oyster shell.
“You know, these are supposed to be good luck,” I lie. I give it to him. He looks at it for a moment and then throws it into the surf.
“You know Greg I’ve been reading a lot lately about how important it is to teach kids another language? Really it’s—“
And then Greg kisses me full on the mouth. He grabs the back of my neck and we’re kissing and all of the sudden my arms are all over his back and I’m thinking that this has got to be the best moment of my life. To think! This morning I was practicing reading “Melanie’s Bones” in the mirror and worrying about my upper arm skin and now, a woman kissing a man on the beach. I try to wrap my ankle around his leg and then decide against it, pressing my foot back into the sand. His mouth tastes like cigarette smoke, which is kind of gross, but it’s been so long since I’ve kissed anyone! He pulls his face away from mine and looks at me for a moment. The moment starts to feel too long. I should say something! Something big!
“Greg, what do you say we go for a swim?”
Then, almost without thinking about it I’m stripping down to my underwear and jumping into the surf, as though I do this all the time. In reality, I’ve never done this before. I’m wearing my old underwear that go way up my butt. But maybe that’s best because they’re more secure. My boobs fall out of my bra for a brief moment as a wave collides with my body. I come up coughing with my hair over my face. Greg is close behind me and he is so hairy, and his boxer shorts have bananas all over them. We wade out into the surf.
“You’re crazy!” Greg says.
I start to laugh a sultry laugh but it gets caught in my throat. I see them before he does. They look like panty hoes at first, like a huge shipment of panty hoes fell overboard some cargo ship. Jellyfish. Tons of them floating just below the surface of the water. I should have screamed probably but instead, a panic takes over my body and I find myself silently riding a wave back to shore and then sprinting out of the water. I’m suddenly dripping wet on the shore, holding my face in my hands and looking back at hairy Greg, who is screaming, “Oh fuck! FUCK OW.” As he raises a flailing arm I see one tentacling around his elbow, another sliding down his shoulder. He doesn’t see me where I stand watching. “You can do it!” I scream. That was a stupid thing to scream. I jump up and down in the sand a couple of times.
By the time Greg finally gets out of the surf he is on all fours, giant purple tracks along his ribs and arms. He collapses on the wet sand, coughing violently. “What the fuck? Why didn’t you help me?”
I don’t know what he expected me to do. I also don’t know why I didn’t do it. He rolls over and adjusts his soaking banana boxers.
“Just go.” He says. Or maybe he doesn’t, but I hear it anyway.
I pull on my librarian skirt, now damp and sandy. I turn around and head toward the parking lot. I wonder if saving Greg would have been my six-year accomplishment.