In the LibrarybyAdrian Leverkuhn©
I was drifting through time in the library of a small village in Vermont one November afternoon, enjoying the swirl of leaves on tawny grass outside as autumn winds shouldered their way along the steep-walled valley that hemmed-in the little town. I was trying my best to ignore the pile of books on the table beside me. I had been looking for something in those books, some truth I'd never known, perhaps couldn't know. The library was housed in a musty old colonial building, and the old building sat in forlorn glory in the fading afternoon sun, waiting - as she always had - to be discovered. I remembered the place from my childhood. It had always been a beautiful red brick temple of truths known - and truths yet to be - and here she stood, shunted off to the side of a little quad in this somewhat too-quaint New England village.
I guess you know the kind of place I'm talking about here. Old wooden floors adorned with tattered sage-colored oriental rugs, the oak reading tables worn smooth from the turning of pages as new seekers acknowledged their right to continue the journey. Comfortable if threadbare overstuffed chairs lined up in military precision under a huge window - this capped with a dramatic arched stained-glass window depicting a scene from the Revolutionary War. The air inside the library had been worn clean by the passage of time, warmed by bronze lamps whose ochre shades cast an amber glow over the old wooden shelves that lined the walls. I remembered those lamps, always lined up in silent majesty on the tables. I had always thought they looked like sentinels on guard, watching the room, guarding the truths that remained hidden within the pages and pages of books. Each book waiting to be opened, explored, but always under the care of the soldier-lamps.
Released. Maybe the truth was waiting for release.
And of course, let me not forget to mention at this point the librarian.
She was, well, an older woman. Not quite as old as the building, but I could have been mistaken about that. So familiar, too. Let's be charitable and leave it at that. I think even the leaves that rattled by on the lawn outside tried to calm down as they passed by the library for fear of disturbing the silence of her space. I'm sure anyone, or anything, would never have risked upsetting the old woman as she sat behind her counter. I've never seen such a scowl in my life. Unforgettable. I looked up at her once and she was - smiling - at . . . what? Me?
There was a clatter - and of course I jumped - as steam found it's way through rusting pipes to old green radiators along the walls, and heat rattled into the room, chasing drafts of cold air across my feet. Anyway, I looked up when the pipes began their music, and I looked out the huge mullioned window onto the unchanging scene outside. I could see a schoolhouse across the way, kids let out for the afternoon were running away from the building like they had been held in confinement all day, and shadows cast by the mountains were advancing across the scene like Napoleon's armies. Relentless? Would that be inappropriate to describe the passage of time in a library?
A woman walked out of the schoolhouse and headed across the quad toward the library. She was fifty-ish, and appeared out of place in her surroundings. Most of the women who walked by the library that afternoon were dressed in newish jeans and rugged plaid shirts, and to a one they were wearing what looked like rubber boots. Functional in the extreme, these women were dressed as good utilitarians might be in any agrarian village, attired as if to be prepared to shovel snow off the roof, or help milk the family's cows each morning before getting the kids packed off to school. The scene only became incongruous to me when these women settled into their pachydermic Volvos and tore out down the street in a cloud of diesel soot.
Not so this other woman.
She was wearing a brown suit, and in concert with her auburn hair she looked like a woman out of time. She drifted across the landscape as in a world apart; she looked like the women in old family photos I had seen taken in the 1940s. Even her jewelry was - different. She looked like a throwback to another time. Elegant might be going too far, but up against the agrarian locals she looked positively astonishing . . . like Audrey Hepburn walking into a truck stop. I could say the woman looked sexy, but there was - even from my vantage in the library that chilly autumn afternoon - something tentative in the way she moved. Something that said she was unsure of herself, unsure of her surroundings. Maybe she was a woman trying her best to look professional, but the sunglasses that obscured her face couldn't quite hide the impression of familiarity that washed over me as she walked along the sidewalk outside the library.
Sometimes it's easy to look at other people and imagine - to construct - a whole life based on what you see in the briefest flash of time. Maybe it's just daydreaming, or wishful thinking, but whatever it is, it's easy. Not the truth, but easy nonetheless. Sometimes it seems like an autonomic reflex, and I caught myself holding my breath as the woman walked down the street and disappeared from view. I returned to my stack of books, reluctantly, if you want to get right down to it, because there was something about the woman that struck a chord somewhere deep inside me. I ached, positively ached, when she turned the corner at the end of the block and was gone.
What kind of life had the woman lived? Was she a teacher at the school across the way, or perhaps a reluctant mom called in for a parent-teacher conference? Was she going home to put supper on for her husband and kids, maybe stopping off at the little grocery down the street before heading home? No doubt her family had a Golden Retriever and she drove a Mercedes. Maybe she was one of those rich New York transplants escaping the tedium of life on the lower east side, and her father had been a stockbroker living in Stamford.
Yes. Easy to fill in the blanks when there's nothing to go on but memory.
I left the library when it closed at four thirty, and the librarian was nice enough to let me leave my books with her so I could resume my work the next morning. I think, though I'm not sure about this, she might have smiled at me when I asked her where a good place for dinner might be found. She pointed toward the main street out the front doors and said there were two in town, and just down the street a bit, but neither was worth a Goddamn. Then she laughed. Humor in Vermont is a ferociously misunderstood thing.
And sometimes it's funny, too. But why did it feel like the joke was on me?
I walked out into the cold evening air as the street lights came on, and immediately felt a snowflake on my face. I understood in that crystalline moment why Vermonters have a delicious sense of the absurd. Almost three weeks until Thanksgiving, and it was going to snow. What could you do but laugh in the face of that. The prospect of six months of snow on the ground ought to be enough to make anyone come unhinged.
Even if you had a Volvo.
I walked down the street toward a little diner that was tucked in between an upscale used book store and a camera shop that had seen better days, and I stopped to look at a couple of old cameras in the shop's storefront window. There was an odd assortment of new auto-focus gadgetry and old chrome rangefinder cameras - a couple of Leicas stood out, as I recall - and I thought that was odd. People usually didn't part with a Leica unless they died. After a moment thinking about the implications of that insight, I turned and looked down the street.
Snow hung in golden globes around the street lights lined up down the sidewalk, but was otherwise lost in the blue light of the fading sunset. Only a couple of other people were out in the snow, and the air felt very - quiet. The snow was, I felt, settling over the village, putting it to rest for the evening. It was one of those moments that felt so familiar to me. Like the past was framed against the present in a never changing photograph. Time is such a funny thing. I shook off the thought and turned toward the diner. I remembered the place well. Dad had always taken us to the place for pancakes on Saturday mornings.
I walked into the diner and shook the stuff off my coat, then hung it up on a well worn rack to let it dry off. The procession of green vinyl booths still lined one wall of the place, all empty, while a faded red-topped lunch counter sat on the other side of the room, separated by a narrow gulf of black and white floor tiles that looked older than just about anything on the North American continent. I looked at the signs posted on the empty booths - No Singles Allowed - and then at the two or three single men and women splattered out along the counter. It looked like a lonely night shaping up. Hell, this place was the living personification of lonely. I hadn't been lonely until I walked into the place, and suddenly I was tormented by unrequited loneliness!
I took my place at the counter. Gotta know your place.
No one was behind the counter, though I could hear some work going on in the kitchen area in the back of the place. I looked at the menu scribbled on a whiteboard . . . clam chowder, boiled corned-beef and cabbage with new potatoes, meat loaf and mashed potatoes . . . your basic New England Nightmare menu.
The waitress walked out from the kitchen. It was her. The elegant woman dressed in brown that had walked out of the school a little over an hour ago. Now she was wearing a waitress's uniform.
From this now much closer distance she looked tired. Her auburn hair was streaked with faint traces of gray, and dark, puffy shadows lined her eyes. I caught my breath. Something . . . She almost looked as if she had been crying not too long ago. I looked at her as she carried a plate to the man on my right. Pretty decent looking corned-beef. Hmm. She put the plate down, said she'd be right back with me as she slid a glass of ice water my way, then disappeared back into the bowels of the place.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Her name was Patty McKaig. We had gone through school together, like kindergarten through high school, then back in the early seventies we had gone off to Dartmouth together. She had fallen in love with me then, or so she professed one Saturday afternoon before the annual autumn slugfest with Harvard, and we had spent a lot of time together in the Caribbean one summer. She had been cute, she had been nice as hell, but we had gone our separate ways. Hadn't we? That time in the Caribbean together, something tugged at me when I thought of those days and nights with her. I hadn't thought of her in twenty years. Right?
Now she looked pretty in an odd, unencumbered way, but she looked weathered, maybe hardened. Like she had loved once, and lost. One too many winters in Vermont, maybe, or was it something more. Hard to say, you know, to fill in the blanks when there's some truth to get in the way.
She came out with another plate, this one destined for a really pale woman at the far end of the counter. I wondered if I should keep quiet or run from the place while I could, but she came to my space at the counter and leaned over. Her breasts had . . . grown. Yeah. Grown. Nice vantage, too.
I love subtle body language. Always been a sucker for cleavage.
"Hey, Patty. Howya doin'?" I looked at her left hand, looked for a ring there. Nothing.
"What have you been up to?" She looked at me with eyes that seemed to sparkle for an instant.
"Came back to do some research at the library. Some family stuff."
"Yeah? Your Dad?" I nodded, knowing what was coming next. "How's he doing? I heard about, well, you know, I guess everyone did . . ."
"He's doing fine, Patty."
"Is he going to stay in Washington?"
"Yeah. What are you up to?" I asked, wanting to change the subject as quickly as possible.
"Law school. Third year."
"Is this homework?" I asked her, looking around the diner.
"Yeah, Tom. Homework." Her face flushed with anger. "Know what you want?"
I looked at her intently for a moment. No one's ever accused me of being tactful. Or even nice, for that matter. Doing Dad's dirty work in the Senate, so it was said, had come too easily to me. They had no idea. She was looking at me. Waiting.
"To eat. You know. Restaurant. Food. Eat." Yep, I'd stomped on her toes, alright.
"How's the chowder?"
"Like Bookbinders, Tom. Best in town." She was going to get into this.
"Corned-beef looks good."
"Well, then, chowder and the boiled New England plate, maybe some hot tea?"
"Right." And she walked back to the kitchen.
There was a disused New York Times in a pile of discarded papers by the door, and I walked over to give it a look-see. Another article about Dad and his heart attack - still front page, too - and an editorial about what it meant for the coming primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. Would he still be able to run for President? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
I sat at the counter and read an op-ed piece on the violence spiraling out of control in East Africa as famine and Islamic militants took their toll on the defenseless once again, while another fat-cat regime - this particular one backed by China - financed the escalating bloodshed in Kenya as yet another wave of Marxist revolutions was heating up there and, oh boy! Now in South Africa. Chavez and the Marxist remnants in Cuba had started a nice pan-America communist movement that was enjoying widespread success, and now China was agitating in Africa. Fun. Who would want to be President with all this bullshit happening?
Page two, another influence peddling scandal breaking on the hill, this time a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee in the sights of Justice Department investigators. Ah, well, the more things change . . .
Patty slid a cup and saucer next to the newspaper, and I looked up. "What kind of tea you want?"
"Hmm? Ah, English breakfast if you've got some. Cream?"
"Saw you coming out of the school this afternoon," I said when she came back with the red tea bag and a little pitcher of real honest-to-Betsy holstein cream. Vermont is good for some things, after all.
"Yeah, I'm working there three afternoons a week. Tutoring."
"Money's tight. Hard for fifty something yacht-yuppies to get financial aid, you know."
"Well, second thought, you're probably the last person in the world who would know that, right?" Off she went. Back to the kitchen. One of the guys down the counter was looking my way, and I returned the favor.
"Buddy, she don't like you too much, huh?"
"Maybe it's my deodorant," I shot back at the man.
"Nah. Patty's always had a low tolerance for assholes," another man said.
I gave my left pit a sniff. It was getting pretty warm down there.
I finished dinner and got some more tea, settled in with the Times and read at the counter for a while. After a bit Patty came by and slipped a check under the little saucer and walked off, and she never said a word. I turned it over. Maybe eight bucks and change. I slipped a hundred out of my wallet and folded it up under the check and walked hurriedly out into the night. It was really coming down now. Huge, fat flakes drifted slowly down, the nice dry snow was now about ankle deep on the sidewalk, and it was about a three block walk back to the Inn where I was staying. I turned up my collar and set off through the night.
The Inn was a huge old place, really special around Christmas, and as I approached the rambling old three story monster it looked simply magnificent in the chaste snow. Huge and quite probably ancient spruce trees dotting the grounds were now beginning to sag under the weight of all the new snow, and soft amber light arced from prettily decorated windows through the night, casting equally soft shadows on the now white yard. I stopped and looked at the scene, oblivious to the wet snow that was beginning to run down my neck.
I heard footsteps in the snow behind me.
She walked up beside me and stood in silence, apparently taken in by the simple majesty of the scene, as I was.
"I never tire of the beauty of this place." It was all I could think of to say.
"I was always surprised you left," she said.
"Are you off, now?" I asked.
"How about a coffee? Maybe something Irish?"
"Sounds about nice, Tom." I held out my hand and she took it, and I walked with her into the Inn.
We sat in the old bar, our truce holding firm. Logs popped in the fireplace, the dancing light played on her face, and she really did look as beautiful as I remembered.
"So, did you ever marry?" she asked me after a while.
"No. Never saw the need. How 'bout you?"
"Once. Didn't take."
"Someone up here?"
"No, that Drake kid - from Britain. You remember? He had that Swan, was going to go around the world."
"Oh, yeah. Him? That I would have never guessed, Pat. What happened?"
"I don't know. Just your run-of-the-mill abusive Brit. Hated women, loved his mother. That kinda thing."
"How long did that last?"
"Ah, not quite a year. We made it down to the Antilles, but that Swan was the wrong boat. Way too deep, you know."
"Anyway, his mommy wanted him home, so off he went. He came back a few weeks later all ashen faced and told me he had to divorce me, that his Mum would never tolerate a Yank in the house, and that was that."
"Sounds lucky you got out when you did."
"Yeah, maybe. But he was fun."
"Oh, life was just fun back then, Tom. You remember how it was."
I did. It wasn't a question.
"It was fun to play the privileged class, you know, enjoying their privileges," she said, and that sounded funny coming from her. She had hated that about the people at Dartmouth and down in the islands, and it wasn't self-loathing, either. She had always been on the outside, looking in. Her family had usually been just one bad harvest away from starvation, but she had made it into one of the first coed classes at Dartmouth the new fashioned way, with great grades and a scholarship. Unlike so many of us back then, she hadn't had an academic agenda; she had just wanted to learn everything she could. Admirable, in a looney kind of way. I took her with me to Antigua in March of our senior year, and she loved it there, loved the bohemian vagabond life of the live-aboard community that called that neck of the woods home, and she had talked me into going back down there the summer after we graduated.
It had been good.
I had a date at Harvard Law that September, and she decided to stay down there when it was my turn to head north as summer drew to a close. That had been that. Fast forward twenty eight years, and here we were, getting bombed on Irish coffee at half past one in the morning in front of a fireplace in the middle of Vermont. Did I mention that life is strange sometimes?
She rubbed her eyes, I looked at my watch. Almost two.
"Can I walk you home?" I asked.
"No, I live here."
"Here?" I asked incredulously. "What does that set you back?"
"I do night audits on the weekends, and help run the personnel office, the legal end, anyway. I get a roof over my head and a couple of bucks here and there for my services."
"So, let me see if I've got this right. You tutor at the school in the afternoon, wait the counter in the diner nights, and work here on the weekends? And you're going to law school when, exactly."
She laughed. "I do get a little run down. From time to time."
"Well, can I walk you to your room?"