Posts Tagged ‘identity’

The Angry Librarian: A Short Story Set in South Portland, Maine

June 22, 2018

 

The last few days have been wet here in southern Maine. So Monday afternoon I skipped my usual puttering in the garden after work. Instead I walked over to the town library between showers for a little reading before going on to our church in the shoe store. I needed to check some references for next Sunday’s sermon on the transformation of Saul into Paul the Apostle.

On the way I joined up with Bernie Bastardo. We both work at the supermarket. I clerk for center store and he humps trash to the back and cleans for maintenance. I’ve been full time there for ten years now, since I came east from Kansas. Bernie works part time, off and on, pretty much when they need someone in a hurry.

When I met him, Bernie was dripping wet.

“What happened, Bernie?”

“Hi, Bro. I had some wine to warm up and fell asleep on my bench by the duck pond. That last squall caught me napping. I’m heading to the library to dry out.”

“You know, Bernie, drying out might be a good idea. I’ve been meaning to tell you, the store needs help and they will take you back on maintenance for the summer.”

“I’m good for now, Mike.”

Our town has a newish library they built when the economy was good. That’s been a while. The library’s nice. It has a lot of windows to let in the sun. The inside is all one open space like the main hall of a church.

Once we got inside we saw Rufus and Chip at the computers. They also work at the store.

Chip clerks natural foods. He’s skinny and smooth talking, so the health-conscious ladies think he is healthy in mind and body. Actually he loves over-priced gourmet cheeseburgers and the women who serve them.

Rufus is a big good-natured guy. He stocks several stores for the beer distributor. Ours is usually his last stop. If a guy lends Rufus $100, he’ll get it back. If a gal makes a date with Rufus, he might go off drinking after work and forget to pick her up. The young ladies at the store don’t want their divorced moms dating Rufus, but when they are out for fun, they like to party with him.

They both show up sometimes at our ministry in the old shoe store downtown. We call it The Shoestring Chapel. It’s interdenominational, of course, and no one gets paid, but it has helped some of us change our lives. We put together a pretty spirited band with an old drum kit, two or three electric guitars and a whole lot of plastic recorders.

“Chip. Rufus. I knew you guys got off work, but I didn’t expect to see you at the library!”

“Brother Mike. We lost our smartphones. So we’re here to check FB before happy hour.”

“You both lost your phones?”

“Yeah, we were doing the bars Saturday night with two girls we met in the Old Port. Sunday morning we realized our phones were gone.”

A red-haired librarian in her thirties was hovering nearby watching us. I’ve talked to her a few times. Her name’s Katie. She’s Episcopalian.

The guys checked their messages and posts.

“Nothing from those girls,” said Chip, “and nothing about our phones.”

“Well, happy hour starts in thirty minutes,” said Rufus. “So at least we can relax and have some fun.”

“Yes,” I said, “or maybe, in view of what happened Saturday night, you might want to make a change and stop by the chapel for a while.”

Rufus put up his hands. “Whoa, Mike! It’s not like we passed out and the girls took our phones. We just lost them. And we did have a lot of fun!”

That was when the librarian came over. Katie is a well-built lady, but packaged not to show it.

“We are discussing the wisdom of drinking,” I told her.

“I think you gentlemen might be more comfortable in the group study area in back. This way, please.”

There is just one long table in that area and a dweeby guy was working on his laptop at one end.

“You can talk to each other in here, but, please, use your inside voices. This area has only a partial wall and we have other patrons.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “We appreciate your suggestion.”

Chip caught the librarian’s attention with a sweet smile. “I can’t help but notice,” he confided, “that sweater really goes well with your blue eyes.”

Katie squinted hard at Chip and left.

“Well, Brother Mike,” Rufus observed, “if we hadn’t gone drinking, I guess we’d still have our cells.”

“The Bible doesn’t say don’t drink, Rufus, but Proverbs does say, ‘Look not on the wine when it is red.’”

Rufus reflected. “Probably means drink white wine. You get less of a headache.”

“It could mean drink a white Zinfandel or a rosé,” suggested Chip. “If you remove the skins from red grapes, the wine doesn’t become red.”

I cleared my throat. “I think the wine they were supposed to drink wasn’t red because they added water. They needed some alcohol in their water to kill germs and stay healthy, but they didn’t need full-strength wine. They didn’t need to get drunk.”

Bernie had looked puzzled listening to Rufus and Chip. “Most of the wines I drink have grain alcohol added, which is clear, but they are still red.”

Chip smirked. “That red must be coloring, Bernie. I don’t think your wines ever saw a grape. Probably raw ethanol and water.”

“Maybe a little diesel for flavor” added Rufus.

The guys had a big laugh.

“Hey!” Bernie protested, “Wild Irish Rose is not that bad.”

The librarian’s face reappeared in the doorway, scowling. “I’m not sure this conversation about drinking is appropriate around young people. And a PUBLIC library is not an appropriate place to discuss religious morality. Or lack of it.  Please keep it down!”

“Sorry, Katie,” I said. She left abruptly.

Chip’s gaze followed her. “Not a bad looking woman. Love those flashing eyes. Wonder what her sign is.”

“Skull ‘n crossbones,” offered Rufus.

The guys all laughed.

“Hey, bros,” I said, “Katie’s just doing her job.

“Oh-oh,” said Rufus, “she’s back.”

“I told you to keep it down!  I’m sure you are bothering this gentleman on his laptop.”

“But,” said Rufus, “he’s only looking up Casual Encounters on Craig’s List.”

The dweeb looked up and smiled, “w4w.”

“We are considering how much Christians should drink,” I explained. “It’s a delicate question and people need to joke to relieve their tension.”

Katie was not appeased. “I’m afraid this study room is not an appropriate place for an AA meeting.”

“But, Sunshine,” Chip objected, “we’re not alcoholics!”

“At least not reformed alcoholics,” laughed Rufus.

Katie looked at me. “I guess you haven’t gotten them to take the first step, Brother Mike.”

“They aren’t actually alcoholics, Katie. And AA meets in the old church on the ridge. You know, the one that lost its bell tower and has the bell sitting on the grass.”

“Now wouldn’t that church be a lovely place for THIS meeting.”

“Oh,” I said.

NOW, please!” commanded the librarian.

Rufus laughed. “We’ll go quietly.”

“That would be the first quiet thing you have done.”

As Katie escorted us down the poorly lit stairs and out the door, we noticed that the last showers had stopped. The sky had lightened and there were blue patches among the clouds. Rufus and Chip took off for happy hour. 

Chip smiled back at me. “See you at the market, Brother Mike, but let’s not talk any more this week about whether Christians should drink.”

“Right men!” said Rufus. “Time for action.”

Bernie and I looked back and saw that Katie had withdrawn into the dark stairway.  You could still see her shadow watching. She looked delicate. Like a deer hiding.

Bernie smiled. “I bet Katie would like to go for a walk with us.”

“She can’t do that, Bernie. She has to stay at her job.”

“No, she doesn’t have to stay. And she doesn’t want to.”

“But she will stay, Bernie.”

“Yes, I guess you are right. But I’d hate to see her stay here for her whole life.”

“A librarian could be exactly what Katie wants to be. She could be happy among her books, and she may not want to change.”

Bernie shook his head. “She wants more from her life.”

We walked past Holy Cross, the tank farm, and the marina, all the way to the harbor lighthouses. We watched a tanker leave and an island ferry come in and dock across the river.

Bernie became reflective. “People need to feel free to live the life they want.”

I thought about my life. “When I lived out in Kansas, I had a different life. I was a night clerk at a Best Western and sat around all night alone.”

“So you quit!”

“Well, it wasn’t that abrupt. But you are right, Bernie. I had to find something I wanted to do. I had to find a way of life I wanted to live. My loneliness led me to change my life.”

I glanced over at Bernie. “Are you comfortable living the life you live?”

“Yes, for now.”

“And so, I think, are Chip and Rufus. But we can all create a new life for ourselves. Live and act like someone we’ve never been. Someone we didn’t know we could become.”

“I don’t want to lose who I am, Brother Mike. People think I’m just a bum, but I don’t want to lose the way I think and feel. I am who I am.”

“I think I am still who I was back in Kansas. If I had to become a night clerk again, I would be lonely again. But I’ve changed the habits of my life and how I interact with people, and now I am happier. My life feels different but I still feel like me inside.”

Several fishing boats were coming in for the day. Watching them took me back to the cattle I would watch moving leisurely along the fence lines in Kansas. There was something quiet and purposeful, something eternal about the boats and the cattle as they followed their familiar course into evening.

And I realized how the waves of water that had grown into swells reminded me of the waves of the land across the plains. I missed looking up at night into the bright, starry heavens from those dark, thinly populated plains. I loved the expansiveness of the hills in Kansas and of the ocean, and I loved that huge sky above them both.

“Hey, Mike! Look over by the lighthouse.” Bernie pointed toward the jetty going out to Spring Point Light. “That librarian must have gotten off work.”

I saw a slender, red-haired figure walking serenely across the granite slabs out among the waves.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Maine Coast. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Maine Coast. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

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A Man with Boxes

July 28, 2017

 

In an old box a man is writing your name
        with a crayon
He will put his old shoes in the box
        and close the lid

At supper your food will taste of sweat
        and leather
At night you will be afraid of the dark
and by day you will gasp for air

You will walk in your sleep
and wake to find yourself in a strange city
You will remember things someone else forgot
and your thoughts will come like postcards
        in an unknown tongue

One hot day a man with a box will stop you
His smell will be warm and close
You will melt like a crayon into his box

Somewhere outside the man is cashing checks
        in your name
He wears new shoes
Under his arms        old boxes

 

First published in West Branch.

 

Discussion

This poem is written in the second person. I don’t use second person much because some people find it presumptuous. But I believe it works in cautionary poems like this one, and the wonderful poem “Oh No” by Robert Creeley, which begins:

If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit

for yourself only, in a nice chair

“A Man with Boxes” also employs magic as a vehicle for its development. But it isn’t about magic. I think the poem is about identity and freedom, and about the potential for losing both. It is also about people who take prisoners.

 

"Old Shoes 1" - photo by Mike Smetzer

“Old Shoes 1” – photo by Mike Smetzer

 

"Old Shoes 2" - photo by Mike Smetzer

“Old Shoes 2” – photo by Mike Smetzer