More Short Stories

Linda Rome

Keeping Watch

I was surprised when he called and said he was going into the hospital Tuesday for surgery. He just wanted me to know, he said. I hadn't spoken to my father since my mother's funeral, but when he said he didn't know how he was going to get to the hospital, I said I'd drive him.

When I got to the house, he wasn't ready. He was still in his pajamas puttering around the kitchen. I had to knock at the door for him to let me in.

"I thought you'd be late," he said, as if I were a child that had never grown up.

The place hadn't changed at all. All the lights were off except the one over the kitchen table. I didn't take my coat off. I just waited until he went upstairs to change, and then I sat at the table, waiting for him.

Sometimes it seems I've spent my whole life waiting for him.

We'll go to the circus next year, sweetie, when Daddy's feeling better. I don't want to go to the zoo without your father, dear. We're a family, and besides I don't drive. My mother could use not driving like a whip to keep us in place. And Daddy just always had to work. And drink, I found out later. Yes. And drink. While we waited for him to come home.

But that was a long time ago. Daddy hasn't had a drink in twenty years. Well, seventeen years, six months and eighteen days at last count. He's a reformed man. Now he drinks coffee. And he still tells me what the hell to do. Like he has a right.

He'd lost weight. Maybe cooking for himself doesn't agree with him. He's actually skinny. And nearly bald. I remember him so big, larger than life, larger than my life anyway. He came into a room, he filled it up. He had an opinion on everything and he always knew who was right. Him. I was sure that hadn't changed, so I was careful to keep my mouth shut.

"We don't have to be there until seven-fifteen," he said, when he came back downstairs. "You want coffee? I can't have any, but I made you some."

"No, thanks." It only took ten minutes to get to the hospital. What the hell did he have me come so early for?

"Are you working?" he asked. He was putting a toothbrush into a little leather case.

"Sure. How else would I pay my bills?"

"I just wondered if this would make you late for work."

"I work second shift. I told them I might be late today."

"I appreciate you taking me. I could have taken a cab, if it was too much trouble."

There wasn't anything to say to that. I'd offered. Then he gave me the key to his house and his car, and instructions about the plants and the mail and paying his bills. I thought, how long does he think he'll be gone? I wasn't planning on moving back in with him, I just offered him a ride.

He asked after my sister, Patsy. I told him I didn't know anything about her. After she moved to Georgia, I lost track of her. I guess he did too, but it seemed funny. I thought she'd at least stay in touch with him.

It seemed odd to be there again. I thought I'd never go back, and suddenly I had a key to the place again. I thought about going upstairs and going through my mother's drawers, just to see what she had hidden under those neat little piles of cotton underwear. But Dad probably got rid of that stuff long ago.

In the car we didn't talk at all. He kept looking out the window like it was all new, like he'd never seen it before. Of course, some of it was - at least to me.

There was a new fire station and a new YMCA. And the old outdoor mall where we used to go grocery shopping was half-empty, the store windows naked and gaping without a purpose, even though a developer had come in and renovated the fronts. It looked like a facelift that had worked on only half the face.

Too little, too late.

Like me and my dad. After that first surgery I tried to start over with him. I tried to forgive him. I didn't know what to say to him, so I brought him flowers.

But he didn't care. He just laid in that bed looking at me, waiting, like there was something I'd forgotten to do. Like he knew some terrible secret and he would never tell me what it was. He couldn't tell me then either. Finally he just turned his head away, and I left.

Afterwards my mom said I shouldn't have done that. That he wanted to talk. But I didn't do it right.

I never did anything right as far as he was concerned. My grades weren't good enough. 'I was smarter than that.' He wanted me to go to college. He wanted me to live his life right for him, since he'd fucked up his own.

But I didn't. I lived my own life, doing what I wanted to do. To hell with him.

Of course, I know some people think I screwed up. But at least they were my own screw-ups. Not his.

Anyway, when we got to the hospital, I went in with him. First we sat in the lobby on some green chairs that looked like upholstered beer kegs. We were the only ones there and it seemed silly, sitting in the dark, almost like waiting for the hospital to wake up. He kept clearing his throat like he wanted to say something, but finally he just got up and walked down the hall. He looked over his shoulder and kind of motioned for me to follow, so I did.

At the admissions office they told him to just go on up to the fifth floor. They were all cheery and chipper like he was something special instead of just another paying customer. I overheard him asking about the one woman's grandchildren as if he knew her. The phony bastard!

I'll give that to my dad. He always knew how to win over the ladies. If it had skirts on it, he was right there. Smiling and panting and wagging his pecker like it was gold.

In the elevator, he said, "The fifth floor is where your mother was."

He meant when she was here dying, but what difference did it make? I watched the numbers on the elevator dial climb to five. Anyway, where was he when she died? Probably with one of his "ladies."

He knew the nurse at the desk and she gave him one of those hospital gowns that tie in the back and told him to change in Room 521. He was in the bed by the window. I waited around in the hall not exactly knowing what to do.

"When's he scheduled for surgery?" I asked the nurse.

"Eleven forty-five. The doctors like to have them come in early in case there's a change in the schedule. There's coffee and juice in the waiting room across the hall. Help yourself." She turned back to her charts like it was the most normal thing in the world to ask someone to wait four hours for an appointment.

I went in the waiting room.

A waiting room, for God's sake! A room to sit in or stand or look out the window at the real world while your life is on hold, waiting for some change, death or birth or even health. I poured myself some orange juice and sat on one of those orange molded chairs that hook together at the sides like paper clips. A TV hung in space at ceiling height in the corner by the window. It was turned down so low you couldn't hear it, and the images seemed bight and shiny and insubstantial, Jane Pauley's mouth opening and closing like a fish at the glass boundary of the aquarium. I wondered what she was saying, but not enough to turn it up.

A Japanese woman sat across from me. She looked worried and I wondered whose life was hanging in the balance. Her son's, her husband's? The man in the corner, reading the paper, puffed furiously on a pipe, as if the smoke were a shield. He looked perfectly calm, but his eyes darted back and forth over the words like a restless bird.

There was a couple, middle-aged, who sat one seat apart from one another, as if they expected whoever they were waiting for to return momentarily and resume his accustomed seat between them. Quintessimal parent figures: no juice, just dough.

I finished off my drink and went out into the hall. I knocked on the door of the room my father had disappeared into; then opened it cautiously. He ws laying in the bed, covered with a sheet. His eyes were closed, like he was pretending to sleep.

"Your surgery's not scheduled until 11:45," I said. It sounded like an accusation, but I didn't mean it like that. "I mean, it'll be a long wait."

He kind of shrugged and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders.

"You cold?"

He nodded.

I looked for another blanket in the locker and finally pulled one off the empty bed by the window. I threw it over him and in a few minutes he stretched out his legs like he was comfortable for the first time.

"It's sleeting," he said.

I looked out the window. The day had dawned a murky gray with pale shafts of sunlight on the trees near the horizon. Now a slushy rain slanted across the sky, threatening snow. The hospital room with its bright lights and silent hum of efficiency seemed to belong to a another world.

"It's been a mild winter," I said. "Some of the birds didn't even go south. I've been feeding two geese who decided it was warm enough here to stay - or maybe they were too tired to fly any further."

"You always did like animals," Dad said. "Especially wild ones. Remember those baby squirrels you raised with a bottle and then we came home one night and they'd made a nest in the cushion of my favorite chair?"

He chuckled. "The whole living room was covered with tufts of cotton that they'd pulled out of the hole in the cushion, and they were burrowed down inside the cushion with just their heads peeking out.

I started to say I remembered how angry he'd been, how he'd shouted and made me clean up every bit of white fluff while the two squirrels cowered in the cushion, afraid to come out. But, the lines in his face were smoothed out with a happy look of reminiscence, and suddenly I remembered he'd never made me pay to repair the cushion the way he swore he would that night.

"You want the TV on?" I asked. I fiddled with the dial of the remote control that hung on a cord wrapped around the bed rail. The TV blared on. The red frames of Sally Jessy Raphael's glasses filled the screen. Again the sensation of watching fish inside their bowl came over me as her mouth opened and shut in soundless gyrations. I turned the sound up.

"How should we treat parents who sexually abuse their children? Is incest child abuse? Or is it a special form of parental love?"

I jabbed the channel changer. Monkeys chattered in African treetops. I felt my heart pounding. He looked at me, kind of surprised, but I turned away.

A nurse came in to take his temperature and blood pressure. When he opened his mouth for the thermometer, my stomach turned at the sight of his thick, gray tongue.

I started to feel sick. Maybe it was the hospital smell or not having breakfast. A hard knot was burning in my gut.

I mumbled an excuse and went into the lavatory. I turned on the cold water and let it run.

I splashed water on my face. My heart wouldn't stop pounding. It sounded like bells in my ears. I sat down on the toilet and leaned my head against the sink.

Just like I did that night I was fourteen and Daddy came home drunk. I'd fallen asleep on the couch, watching the late movie. He stumbled in, bumping into the banister at the foot of the stairs, muttering to himself, banging open the closet door. At first I don't think he knew I was there. He went into the kitchen. I heard the refrigerator door close, the whoosh of the released vacuum when he popped the top off his beer. He flipped off the TV and flopped down on the couch next to me. I pretended I was still asleep. I could feel him watching me, but I kept my breathing steady and my eyes lightly closed. After a few swallows he lay down next to me and started stroking my hair. His fingers were rough and caught in my hair and tickled my eyebrows. I moved as if I might wake up, but I didn't open my eyes. I remembered when he would carry me to bed after I'd fallen asleep in the car. I would snuggle against his chest: it was the safest place in the world. Suddenly I smelled his breath close to my face. He was kissing me, first very softly, then suddenly harder. He pressed himself against me and pushed his tongue into my mouth. I gasped, a hot, stunned feeling in my chest. I pushed him away. He fell off the edge of the couch onto the floor. I ran upstairs and locked myself into the bathroom. I brushed my teeth again and again, but I couldn't wash away the feel of his tongue.

I followed the intricate checkerboard of the houndstooth tweed of my skirt. Yellow, green, brown strands woven together to make light and dark, foreground and shadow. I could hear the television murmuring through the closed, bathroom door. I wondered how long I'd been in there.

I stood up and washed my hands. Then sucked water from my hands, sloshed it around my mouth and spit it out. I looked in the mirror.

It was as if I didn't recognize my face. For a moment, just a moment, I looked like I did that night: I had a round, pudgy, adolescent face with frightened, angry eyes, then, it narrowed, became thinner, smoother and my eyes focused clear and hard, and I guess, still angry. And then, I splashed my face with water and looked again and I was just me. Plain, private, plain Jane me.

You know, I never married. Never wanted to, never needed it. Oh, I'm not a virgin or anything. I've had guys - you know, slam, bam, thank you, ma'am. But I've never let any have me. Not really. Who needs it?

I dried my face on a towel in the little alcove above the sink and went back into my father's room. The nurse had left and he was turned away on his side. His hair was all rumpled in the back and gray.

Thin and old and sick. And suddenly that's how I felt. I couldn't forget that thin, sharp-faced girl in the mirror. Had I ever really looked like that?

I sat down in a chair by the bed and clicked the TV off. For a long time I looked out the window, watching the snowflakes drift down. I realized I didn't even know how serious an operation this was.

Actually it wasn't like him to be so quiet. I mean he was always talking, telling you this or that about that or this. And after he stopped drinking, it was even worse.

Oh, I remember the night I moved out. The first time. Before my mom died. He was hell bent for leather that night. 'I was going to put my mother in her grave the way I was carrying on - sixteen year old girls don't just up and walk out of the house - and what about school - and how would I live - and where?' It was pretty standard stuff, but his eyes were on fire and when I told him where he could put his precious, sodden opinion, I thought he'd choke me with his bare hands.

I remember Patsy standing by the front door like she was guarding it. Her face was puffed up like a balloon and she grabbed on to me and wouldn't let me go. I smacked her across the face with my free hand and then I ran because I could feel him coming after me like a train on a track. He never did catch me. I didn't come back for three days.

The nurse came in then, carrying a 'little cocktail', she called it. "Your surgery's been moved up, Mr. Linden," she said. "Just take this to relax you - we'll be in in a few minutes to transfer you to the second floor."

He looked kind of shaky when he sat up to drink the medicine, but then he grinned at me and winked. "Better than Scotch," he said, hoisting the plastic thimble like a champagne glass.

I had to ask him. "How serious is this?"

"Not very," he said.

But there was a stillness in his face that reminded me of the surface of a pond after you've tossed in a stone, after the ripples have settled, and the water is quiet again, shimmering with the memory of disturbance.

"How long will you be in here?"

"If everything goes well, I should be home tomorrow, or the day after."

Now he looked away from me, out the window, at the falling snow.

"It's a simple operation, really."

He looked like he wanted to say something, something momentous, something that would change who we were or at least acknowledge something hidden between us like love or grief or something important that we had lost in a moment's inattention. But he didn't.

"Remember to call your sister," he said. And then he closed his eyes.

And I felt the waiting, the waiting for a sign of what I don't know: a tear or a word or a shrug. Something to tell me we mattered to each other or didn't.

In the silence there was only the ding of the elevator in the distance like the insistent and mysterious ding over the hum of shoppers in an old-fashioned department store. Like the old Sterling-Lindner where we went every Christmas to see Santa Claus. I wore a green wool coat with a velvet collar and a velvet beret, and as the oldest, I held Daddy's hand as we walked up under the magnificent Christmas tree that filled the center of the store. The lights sparkled like crystal and I felt as if I were a princess walking up the steps of her castle with her Prince Charming, as if all this shimmering beauty were arranged especially and only for me. From Santa's lap I would look out past the elves, over the picket fence, to the parents, until I caught my father's eye. A secret look passed between us. I was his favorite, his beloved. I whispered my wish in Santa's ear.

Two nurses and an orderly wheeled in a narrow cart. I stood up to move out of their way and then realized that they were moving him onto the cart.

"You can wait in the main lobby, miss," the orderly said. "The doctor will come down after the surgery."

And before I could say wait or stop or something, anything else, they wheeled him down the hall.

Should I have ridden with him in the elevator? It seemed too late. So I went back into his room and opened the door to the locker where he had hung his clothes. I didn't recognize them. Even now I couldn't tell you what color shirt he wore or if his coat was brown or green. But the smell of them choked me it was so strong. It seemed to fill the room like a genie out of a bottle. I slammed the locker shut.

What if he died? What would I do then? How dare he be sick and not even tell me what was wrong! Call my sister! Why didn't he call her himself? Why did he always leave other people to clean up his messes? While he went his righteous way, never saying he was sorry for anything. He'd die without saying he was sorry.

I remember the worn, ashamed way Mama would look when he stumbled in drunk. I remember how she'd lift her head when she'd go to AA with him, her eyes puddles of misery, while her lips smiled and she wondered how many of the women in the room he had slept with.

He brought her red roses for an anniversary once. I remember that. And after Granny died, he let Mama pick out a new living room couch and matching chairs.

I don't know. He was still my father.

The nurse said the surgery would be about forty-five minutes.

I gathered my coat and went down to the main lobby.

Still my father, I kept thinking. I didn't pray for him. I just kept thinking, he's still my father.

He would die and he would still be my father. No matter what I did or he did, I couldn't unmake him, forget him. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow would come and when he was dead I would still carry him with me. The color of his eyes, the shape of his hands, the secret midnight binges: all mine by right of birth.

Sometimes at night after the first fifth of Southern Comfort I walk out into my backyard, out to where the yard slopes away into the marsh, and I lay down in the grass. I listen to the night sounds. I think about the slow, hidden pockets of quicksand. Waiting for me. I'm very careful then. I dig my nails into the grass and hold on to the earth, feeling the world as it spins in the vast blackness of the universe, holding tight to its course around its star, holding tight. And the whole fate of the planet and of myself depends on my hold onto the earth, onto myself, not to slip any further, but to hold on until the sun fulfills its promise of another day.

I waited in the lobby for a long time. I watched the snow turn to slush as the sun heated up the day. There was an everyday back and forth that seemed incongruous: technicians, doctors, families, and hospital supply salesmen met, chatted, talked and sold and I was not part of it. It didn't seem real.

When I checked the clock, it had been two hours.

I didn't know what to do, whom to ask. Who do you complain to? Hey, you jerk of a doctor, this is supposed to be a simple operation. It's taking too long.

.I went into the snack bar and had a cup of coffee. The woman next to me dumped four sugars in one cup.

"It doesn't mean it's not going well," she said to the Candystriper behind the counter. "I mean, the last time he was under for three hours and in recovery two. It just depends on what they find. How complicated it is. And when you've been under for a long time, it takes longer in recovery."

"It's just the waiting's hard. My son wanted to wait with me, but I told him no. It's hard to take off and lose a day's pay and I'm sure everything will be allright."

She looked over at me. She had wispy hair and her face looked as if the make-up held it together. Her blue eyes opened very wide. "I'm sure he'll be allright."

I don't think she was really talking to me, anyway I didn't answer. I looked at the floor and pretended I hadn't heard, and when I looked up, she was paying for her coffee at the register, and walking out the door.

I wished I'd kissed him good-bye.

At three hours I checked at the desk and they said he was still in surgery

.I don't know what I expected. Or what I thought was happening. He'd always been such a constant for me. I never questioned his existence. I just reacted to it.

My touchstone of reality. My weathervane. When he was sober, I wasn't; when he was drunk as a fish, I was cold-eyed straight. It's true. I didn't start drinking until after he'd stopped. And I never let him see me drunk.

Only once. The night I broke up with Jerry. I came to the back door and pounded on it until he came down and let me in. I remember cursing and crying and banging on the door. I had to get out of the rain. It must have been two or three o'clock in the morning and I'd driven my car until I'd run out of gas and then I'd walked and walked. Nobody stopped me. I walked down the middle of the street in my nightgown and raincoat. No shoes and a bottle of vodka in a brown sack.

"I left the bastard," I said, as I lurched into the back hall. I raised my bottle high in victory and Daddy tried to wrestle it away. Mustn't try to part a drunk from his bottle.

I sucker punched him with my free hand and brought my knee up under his groin with all the force of a woman who's just been dumped can muster. He went down and I poured the rest of the vodka on his head. My mother was standing in the kitchen in her bathrobe, her hands over her mouth, making little mewing sounds. I ran out into the rain again. And slept the night in the park.

It was five hours before the doctor came down to the lobby. He was a young man and he still had his operating scrubs on. We didn't even know each other and it seemed odd that he should have been the last one to see my father alive. He said something about congestive heart failure and made me sit down. He said a lot of things I don't remember and then he left.

I've been sitting here a long time.

I guess I'd better call my sister.

 

A Library Tale

The kids at school think I'm crazy when I tell them. But it's true. The library's a wild place. Sometimes I can hardly wait to get there to see what's happened next. They just look at me funny - it's boring, they say. There's always something happening, I tell them.

Like Monday night when the flasher was here. Tammy was the page on the floor that night - she's new since Christy left thinking she had a better job lined up at Waldo's and then they didn't call her after she'd given her notice and she ended up at the nursing home changing bedpans - not something I would do for minimum wage, but anyway! How was Tammy supposed to know what to do when that girl told her the guy reading the newspaper was weird?

I mean, what's weird? There's Toilet Man who hangs around the library every Tuesday afternoon, wandering up and down the stacks, carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee that he never seems to drink. Then he locks himself in the bathroom for so long, once Sherry had to knock on the door to tell him his ride was here, and he still didn't come out for ten minutes. I mean, sometimes he spends the whole time in the bathroom. Once he said to me, "I like a clean bathroom." Out of the blue, mind you. Yep, I said. What could I say? I like a clean bathroom, too. But in a library? When another patron needs to use the bathroom, we give them the key to the ladies room.

So Tammy went back to straightening the J's and I must have walked right by that flasher guy when I was putting away the periodicals and I didn't see anything. But the next day when I got in, Tammy was in Mrs. B's office and Sherry said Tammy was in trouble. Apparently when the girl got home, she told her mother and her mother called the library. I guess she was really upset. I don't blame her - I mean, who expects a flasher in a library? But on the other hand, what can we do about it? I guess behind the newspaper this guy had unzipped his pants and pulled himself out in the open and was just waving his thing around like an extra hand - hello, how do you do to whoever he thought should have a good look. Well, it's not something you see everyday. The mother said her daughter was afraid to come to the library again - maybe she'll be traumatized for life and why hadn't we stopped this guy?

He was wearing a light green windbreaker and khaki pants - he was kind of young, maybe in his twenties, the girl said, and he'd said something to her like 'Wanna lick my dick' which I think she must have made up! I mean, people don't actually talk like that, do they?

Anyway, he had short blonde hair and didn't wear glasses, and really he could have been anybody. But Mrs. B called the police and filed a report. And they came right over on Tuesday afternoon to talk to Tammy because she was the only one on the staff who had actually seen the guy.

"I was scared," she said later, when we were in the stacks shelving the 600's. "I thought maybe they were going to arrest me because I hadn't reported him, but they just had pictures for me to look at. They wanted to see if I could identify him. They said they had a pretty good idea who it was."

"Could you?"

"I wasn't sure. I mean, I didn't go over special to look at him."

"How come you didn't tell anybody?"

"It's like I told Mrs. B. The girl didn't actually say he was flashing. I mean, she said he was weird."

I didn't say anything - especially since we'd all gotten the lecture that afternoon from Sherry about how we were supposed to tell the person in charge if anything 'weird' happens - like we've only been told that a thousand times - so we all should have known it anyway, but we're being told again - not only for our protection, but for the patrons, and on and on. But I still wondered why Tammy hadn't asked what the girl meant by 'weird.' I mean, I think I would have. But then, I'm just naturally nosy. At least that's what my mother says. She's always telling me to mind my own business, and I tell her I am minding my business - can I help it if people like to confide in me? I mean, I'm just a good listener. She rolls her eyes, but it's true.

So I asked Tammy if she'd seen this guy since he was in the other night, but she said no. Sherry said she knows who it is - that the guy comes in here all the time and sits by the Magazine Index, reading the newspaper. She's always thought he was weird, she said. But I don't understand why someone would do that. What's the point?

I think it would be funny. If I had seen him, I think I would have laughed. But then, I've got brothers - and a boyfriend. Not that I've ever seen them do something like that, but still… Actually, now that I think about it, it's kind of creepy. Most of the desk staff think it's funny - especially Sherry. All of them act like it's just one of those things, and we're supposed to call the police the next time he comes in. But I keep wondering why he did it. He must know it's against the law.

"The police said the guy they thought it was had just been released from the Detention Home for Sex Offenders," Tammy said.

"The Detention Home? Then he must be younger."

"Yeah, he's our age, the police said, I mean, seventeen."

The next few days everyone was on the lookout, but he didn't come in again, and after a while, I forgot about it. I couldn't look at everyone wondering if he was the one.

One day while I was double-shelving the romance hardbacks because we've run out of room since the bond levy didn't pass, someone asked me if we subscribed to Outdoor Life. When I turned around to say no, but we could get it for him at one of the other branches, it was him, with his uh, well, with himself right out in the open again. I tried not to look, but he was holding it up stiff in his hand, and asking me again about Outdoor Life. No one else was around, and besides, he was turned toward me, and I was in the corner with the hardback romances. He was looking at me with a pleased, isn't this nice, expression.

"Why are you doing that?" I asked.

He kind of shrugged. "Isn't it pretty?"

Well, now, I've never actually looked at a penis before, up close and in the light, brothers and boyfriend notwithstanding, and I admit I was curious. It was a deep carmine color, smooth, with a ridge at the top like a swollen lip, and at the very top, a squeezed shut slit like an eye with an eyelash in it. It wasn't ugly. And he looked so proud of it, like it was his favorite pet dog, or his only friend, showing off the only trick he knew. I'd never seen this guy at school, even though he was my age.

"Don't you go to school?" I asked.

He shook his head. "I'm not very good in school. Besides, I've been in DT - you know, the detention and treatment center for sex offenders."

"It doesn't seem to have worked," I said.

"It keeps me off the street." His voice sounded odd, but I decided he was joking.

"What do you mean? If you don't stop doing stuff like this they'll send you to jail! Do you want to go to jail?" I sort of hissed at him like when my brother does something really stupid.

He shrugged as if it didn't matter one way or the other.

'Well, you'd better zip up your pants!" I said, trying not to look at his penis which had flopped over during our conversation. "Nobody likes to look at another person's, uh, private parts, unless they've been invited. I mean, unless they have some sort of special relationship. Well, you know what I mean. It's not nice!" I was hissing again. "You scare people."

He looked confused, and then he patted himself back into his jeans, and leaning back, pulled up the zipper.

I looked to the front of the library. No one had seen us.

"I don't mean to scare anyone," he said. Then he stood up and walked away. He was taller than he looked sitting down, and slighter, but good-looking in a quiet sort of way.

He was out of the building before I remembered we were supposed to call the police. I decided that since he was already gone, they wouldn't find him anyway. In fact, I forgot to tell anybody, and later, when I remembered, it seemed too late.

"You liked looking at it," he said, the next time I saw him. We were back in the adult fiction.

Now it was my turn to be confused. "No, I didn't!"

"But you looked at it. And you looked at me. And talked to me. And you wouldn't have otherwise."

"You don't know that," I said.

"Yes, I do. Girls like you don't talk to guys like me. You're smart and pretty - I'll bet you're even going to college. You wouldn't look twice at someone like me, unless - "

"Unless what?"

"Unless I did something to catch your attention. Like I did."

"Is that why you do that?" I asked. I stopped pushing the Tom Robbins books to the end of the shelf and looked at him.

He looked right back at me for a moment, then looked away. "No," he said. He fingered a book on the shelf. "Maybe. I don't know."

I didn't know what to say. So I didn't say anything, which is unusual for me - just ask my mother - but I didn't know what to think. I mean, he was probably right. I probably wouldn't have talked to him - I already have a boyfriend, and besides, when you're a good student, you don't usually talk to kids who aren't. I mean, they're not in your classes, and when you do talk to them, they act as if you're condescending to them, even when you're not, and it just gets too complicated.

"Well, I wouldn't want to make friends with someone who's always in trouble," I said.

"Don't you ever get in trouble?" he asked.

"Sure."

"So?"

"So, what?"

"So, what's the difference? Do you expect never to make any friends just because you get in trouble?"

"I don't get into that kind of trouble. I don't break the law. I've never hurt anyone!" I pulled the book cart to the next range of shelving, keeping it between us.

His face twisted in two directions at once: his mouth turned up in a disbelieving laugh and the muscles around his eyes fluttered as if he were going to cry or maybe squint ironically.

"You don't know anything about me," he said. He kept his voice low, but he sounded upset.

You just want attention, I was going to say, but something stopped me. Instead I asked, "Where do you live?"

"I don't live anywhere," he said.

"Do you live with your parents?"

He shook his head. "They're long gone."

I didn't understand. "Well, the people at the Detention Home wouldn't just let you out with no place to go. Someone must be responsible for you. And I bet you're supposed to be going to school."

"Yeah, I'm in Vocational Ed over at Adams. We get out at one." He shoved his hands into his pants pockets.

The reference librarian came down the aisle with a patron, and as they maneuvered around us, he left. He gave me a sharp look as if he wanted to say something, but didn't get the chance.

I was shelving biographies the next time he came in.

"Do you ever read any of these books?" he asked.

"Sometimes," I said. "I like biographies. I like finding out what people did with their lives, what happened to them."

"I like science fiction. Figuring out what might happen in the future." He picked up a book on the shelving cart. "Saving the world from total destruction, maybe even the universe."

I lifted an eyebrow like my mom when she means she doesn't believe you but she's too polite to say anything. "Too hokey for me."

"Different worlds, different people. Whole new species even. Someplace other than here anyway."

"What's wrong with here?" I asked, knowing I sounded like a Pollyanna but I get tired of everyone dumping on Smithville just because it isn't Hollywood or Paris or someplace famous. "If you want the world to be different, you have to make it different. That's what my mom says. Make a difference." I moved away toward the 900's.

"I didn't mean to make you mad," he said, following me.

"I'm not mad."

"I was just talking."

"Well, I was just talking, too."

We looked at each other and then, I don't know why, I just smiled. He looked so worried and I wanted to reassure him. "I talk a lot," I said. "It doesn't mean anything."

"You talk about your mom a lot." I didn't answer him.

"I don't have a mom. It must be nice having a mom." Something in his voice made me look at him again to see if he was mocking me, but he wasn't. His eyes were serious and they had gold flecks in them I hadn't noticed before.

"What happened to your mom?" I asked.

"She left." He shrugged. "She didn't want to be a mom anymore."

"How do you know that?"

"She ran out on my dad and me, that's how. But I remember what it was like before she left. How she'd take me to the park and make supper and fold my clothes. She had soft hair. The color of honey." His voice was dreamy and kind of drifted off and I wasn't sure if that's how it had been or how he'd wanted it to be. It sounded nice, though, and I told him so.

"Course, she was also a whore." With that he shifted his skinny shoulders and sucked his face up in what I think would be called a leer. "She'd do anyone." And then he was gone.

I thought about reporting him. He'd scared me there at the end, but I was afraid to tell Mrs. B. I'd been talking to him without telling anyone, not just once, but a few times.

In the staff lounge on my break I asked Tammy if she'd seen the flasher since that first time.

"No," she said. "I think he knows we know who he is."

"Why do you think he does it?"

"Because he's a pervert. I don't know." She shrugged and looked at me as if I should know better, as if someone like that didn't deserve thinking about, so I dropped it.

But I couldn't help thinking about him. I wondered if he meant it when he said he didn't have any place to stay. The autumn nights were cold and I imagined him in his windbreaker huddled on a park bench or in a church doorway. I wondered if someone in our church would take him in. I wondered if I should ask my mother, but ours is a small town, and homelessness is a big city problem.

I didn't see him again and after a few weeks I forgot about him. The news at the library now was a guy we dubbed Newspaper Man. The reference librarian pointed him out to me. He was an older man with a greasy crewcut and shabby clothes, overalls, I think, no socks and grubby loafers. He came in every day or so and parked himself near the magazines. He would read one and pile another one on top of that, then start another, placing it carefully on top of the growing stack. At the same time he had a pile of the daily newspapers on his table. Later we realized the newspapers were missing.

At first we didn't connect it with him, but one day the circ staff was checking videos out to him, when they noticed newspapers, oddly folded, stuck under his arm.

"Are those yours, sir?" Sherry asked.

He ignored her.

"Sir?"

Without a word he walked stiffly to the front of the library near the periodicals and dumped the crumpled newsprint onto the table. Turning, he stalked out the front door. Three of the day's newspapers were creased into tiny triangles like overstuffed fortune cookies.

The next time he was in the library, the children's librarian hovered near the periodicals, straightening out-of-place issues, just to keep an eye on him. When someone asked her a question, he slipped out the door. She raced after him.

"Sir, those magazines belong to us! You forgot to check them out!"

He swung his bulk around to face her, towered over her, in fact, but she didn't back down, and again, he went back into the library and unloaded his haul onto the nearest table. There were three magazines, and just like the last time, two of the daily newspapers wadded into tiny, thick paper footballs.

"Why is he doing that?" we all wondered. And how did he manage to fold them into such small shapes without anyone noticing? We heard he was making the rounds. He'd been spotted at two other branches, but was stopped before any papers disappeared. The triangular shapes of the newspapers after his visitation were as inexplicable as crop circles.

The first snow of the season came early that year on a Friday night, and I had to work even though I would rather have been at the football game. It was quieter than usual. Because of the weather, everyone said, and at eight o'clock, we closed up quickly. There was only Mrs. Kirchner and her three children still in the stacks and then, even they were out in a couple of minutes. The reference librarian had a long drive ahead of her and was in a hurry to leave. So was Tina at the circ desk, and I was on my way to the game. I'd promised my boyfriend I'd meet him there. The three of us walked out to the parking lot together. The snow was coming down hard as rain.

"I forgot my book bag," I told Tina. "I have to go back and get it. You don't have to wait for me."

"Are you sure?"

"Uh-huh. Go on." I walked back across the parking lot. Tina and Mrs. Dawson's headlights flashed by and I turned and waved. Fumbling in the dark, I picked out the library key and opened the door.

"I haven't seen you in a long time," a voice behind me said.

I jumped. I hadn't heard a car pull in the parking lot or seen anyone walking. "You scared me! Where did you come from?" It was the flasher, although I didn't think of him that way anymore. I'd learned at school his name was Chase, like Chevy Chase, only that was his first name. His last name was Adkins and he was from Tennessee

"I'm sorry I scared. you. I just wanted to say hello." He looked into the darkened library. Only the security lights were on. "Did you forget something?"

"My book bag."

He pulled the heavy glass door open with a flourish.

"After you," he said.

I went in and he followed, the door clicking shut after us. I felt funny letting him in the library, but what else could I do?

"You shouldn't be in here," I said.

"It's warm in here."

He did look cold. He was wearing a windbreaker and jeans, and they looked wet, as if he'd been outside in the weather for a while.

"What were you doing here?" Hanging around the parking lot, I wanted to add, but didn't. After all, it's public property.

He shrugged. "You don't usually work Friday nights."

I flipped the lights on in the staff room and grabbed my book bag out of the locker I shared with the other pages. The slam of the metal door seemed loud in the empty library.

"How do you know that?" I asked.

He shrugged again and walked out into the library. Following him out, I turned off the lights and closed the door to the staff room. But he wasn't there. I couldn't see him anywhere, and most of the library was shrouded in shadows.

"Hey, come on! I promised my friends I'd meet them at the game."

The furnace rumbled on in the quiet, but otherwise there wasn't a sound.

"This isn't funny," I said, but he didn't answer. I walked into the circle of light by the circulation desk. I couldn't leave him there. I didn't know what to do.

I could feel my heart beating fast. I didn't know if I was angry or scared. I knew where the switch box was to turn on the lights, but I didn't want to do that. I was afraid I'd get in trouble, if someone saw the lights on after hours.

"Come on!" I called out again, but my voice sounded small and unsure. I repeated myself, forcing my voice to sound stronger. "I'm not in the mood for games, so let's just go!"

I walked toward the stacks past the reference desk, then stopped.

He slipped up behind me and put his arms around me, holding me tight.

I didn't struggle. When I was a little girl, my father had played a game he called "I've gotcha!" with me. He would hold me as tight has he could and I would try to get away. The harder I pulled against his hands on my wrists, the more it hurt, and the harder I twisted in his grasp, the more force he needed to keep me captive. But when I stopped struggling, after a while, my father's hold always loosened, and sometimes, not always, I could get away. So I held still, and I could feel Chase's body, bony and hard, up against mine, and his arms like steel bands around my chest.

"Let me go," I said.

"Why?" he asked, and I could feel his breath against my ear, soft and warm.

"Because I asked you to."

I felt a moment's hesitation, an almost reflexive relaxation of his grip on me, but before I could react, his muscles hardened again.

"I don't want to," he said. He was pressing himself against me hard.

"You're hurting me."

"No, I'm not. It feels good." His hands were crossed over my chest kneading my breasts like a kitten suckling its mother. "Let it feel good."

"No…No!" My voice was loud and adamant, but I felt hot like I do after kissing my boyfriend and I didn't know why because I wanted him to stop and he wouldn't and I knew I shouldn't feel so turned on but I did. "Stop it!"

"You like it!" And he stuck his tongue in my ear. No one had ever done that before and it felt wet and disgusting. I pulled my head away and forgot my resolve not to struggle, straining against his arms, kicking back at him with my feet. My heel caught his shin and he yelped.

"Let go!" I shouted, and he shoved me away from him. I gouged my thigh on the corner of the reference desk and whirled around to face him.

"I thought you liked me," he said. His hair was sticking up and he sounded out of breath.

"I thought I did, too." I rubbed my leg, feeling a knot where there'd be a deep bruise. Hugging myself, I covered my breasts. "Why are you acting like this?"

"I like you," he said, stepping closer.

"Stay back. Stay away from me."

He stopped. "I'm sorry if I hurt you. I was just playing around."

I didn't say anything.

"I'm sorry, really." He reached out, touching my arm, stroking it.

"We'd better go," I said.

But before I could move, he stepped even closer, his face nearly touching mine.

"Forgive me," he said. I could see his lips move in the reflected light of the streetlight, and feel a kind of charged atmosphere around him, like one of those lightning globes, and then he kissed my mouth, really gently, not touching any other part of me, and I kissed him back.

I didn't mean to. It just happened.

He put his arms around me and kissed me again and it was sweet and exciting. Dark and secret. His penis was a hard bulge against the bruise on my leg. I pulled back from him.

"We'd better go," I said again, and this time he put his arm around me and started walking us toward the back door. For a moment it seemed warm and friendly between us, innocent, I guess. We were close enough to the glass door in the back to see the snow drift down in the glow of the lights rimming the parking lot when he pinned me against the concrete wall with both hands digging into my shoulders. My head bounced against the concrete hard enough to make my ears ring.

"One more kiss," he demanded, then pressed his lips against mine, trying to force my mouth open with his tongue.

I wrenched forward, balling my fists, slugging him in the side as hard as I could. I heard our teeth clack, and then I kicked him. He lost his grip on me, and I ran out the door, pushing down the thick metal bar, hardly aware that I did it. I'd dropped my purse with my car keys in the scuffle, so I ran up the driveway toward the street, praying I wouldn't slip on the slick surface. I stopped on the front sidewalk. A few cars passed, driving slowly in the first snow of the season, and there were a few people walking on our tiny main street, no one I knew, but it didn't matter. Here everything was normal.

I was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened. Instead I walked the half mile to the high school, looking over my shoulder a couple times, afraid he was behind me, but he wasn't. I could hear the cheers of the crowd rise in the night like smoke over a campfire. At the gate I realized my ticket was in my purse somewhere in the library, so I walked home. I told my mother I'd forgotten my purse at the library and before I realized it everyone had left and I was locked out.

She took me over in the morning and I retrieved my car. And my book bag. Which had been put in the lost and found, probably by the cleaning lady. Mrs. B said from now on the last ones out would always go out to the parking lot together and make sure everyone's car started or that no one had forgotten her car key. She said I shouldn't have had to walk home in the snow and all and I almost told her then what really happened but I couldn't.

Soon after that night we had a rash of lost CD's and videos. The computer would say an item was on the shelf, but we wouldn't be able to find it. This happened over and over until we finally realized someone must be stealing them. We thought it was probably teenagers, but we couldn't figure out how. Privately I worried that somehow Chase had devised a secret way into the library on the night I'd let him in, and that each night after we closed, he found a way in out of the cold and was rooting through the library's videos and CD's, stealing them to sell for food. Then one day Tammy told me it was the cleaning lady, that she'd been taking videos and CD's home without bothering to check them out. She got caught one night when Mrs. B dropped in unannounced at eleven o'clock on a Sunday night just to see why the corners of the staff bathroom were grubby enough to start an ant farm in. The cleaning lady brought everything back, but she still got sacked.

I never saw Chase again either at school or at the library, though I was on the lookout for him. I heard later that he'd been sent to reform school or whatever the social workers call it now and I thought maybe he would be glad at least to have a roof over his head, but probably not. My mom says I'm a soft touch. I just shrug and she shakes her head. Not so much anymore, I want to tell her. But I don't.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Linda L. Rome


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