Mames sat behind a counter that curved like an arthritic snake along one wall of the Hamilton-Dalton Public Library, separating the staff from the patrons. Mames was staff. There were, on this late fall afternoon, no patrons.
Albert called out to her. “Mames. Coffee?” He was in a tiny room hidden behind a shelf of folders which at one time had been vital but were no longer touched. Every few months, Gloria, the head librarian, would tut-tut over the folders, mumble something about storage, and dismiss them as ornamental relics best left alone. Truthfully, over the few decades since their last use, the contents of the folders had become a mystery but not a compelling one; no one knew what was in them any more, and no one was curious enough to pluck any one down from the shelves to see what was in it.
Mames turned her head slightly, rested her chin on her shoulder, considered. “No,” she said after her moment of contemplation. “I think I've had enough.” Mames hadn't touched coffee in three years.
“Suit yourself,” Albert replied. Mames could hear Albert opening cabinets and running water. “It's so slow today. How you stay awake is your business.”
“The game,” Mames called back. “Everyone's at the game.” She opened a stick of gum and began chewing it, the most active she'd been in an hour.
The computer screen next to Mames's hand had drifted off to sleep. Pictures of the library cycled at random intervals, proof that the library was, at other times, of some use. Pictures of people sitting at the computer terminals that were, in reality, lined up on the other side of the serpentine library counter between the young adult and the dvd stacks. Pictures of children gathering around a storyteller—Mr. Haverford, delightful man if a bit too enthusiastic in his weekly performances. Pictures of the library's honest, neat exterior and the singular graceful elm tree shading its door. And pictures of the staff of the Hamilton-Dalton Public Library, staff past and present.
The same slide-show, at various points of progress, ran on all the computer screens staring back at Mames from beyond the counter.
The coffee maker began to brew, sounding like a bullfrog with a sore throat. Albert emerged from the tiny room, slipped around the shelf of relics, and took the seat next to Mames. “We should close on game days,” he said. “The people who don't go to the game take the opportunity to go shopping or something. I used to go to the movies because no one else was there. I could sit anywhere I wanted.”
Mames nodded. “And you could put your feet up and relax.”
“We could watch a movie.”
“Gloria would kill us.”
“Gloria is probably asleep upstairs in historical fiction.” Albert made the joke without realizing his correctness. Gloria was, in fact, taking a nap on the second floor of the library, in the overstuffed cloth chair, a cart of books beside her with her collapsed chin resting on her chest. “We could finish all thirteen hours of I, Claudius and she'd still be asleep.”
“Or we could watch five minutes of it and she'd pop out of a puff of smoke and kill us.” Mames tapped a random key and the computer screen snapped to attention. The last book requested, according to the screen, had been Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. 10:52 AM. Checked out by Robinson, T. Due to be returned November 19th.
Albert read the screen and said, “I sometimes wonder if that book shouldn't be in the how-to section.”
They heard the front door of the library open to their left, and turned as an older gentleman ambled down the short hallway. He was dressed for summer—the day, though closer to winter than summer, was warm. Albert whispered, “Socks and sandals,” and Mames giggled.
The older gentleman nodded as he passed the counter, and took a seat at one of the computers directly in front of Mames and Albert. Sat for a moment without touching anything. Seemed to stare at the slideshow playing out before him. Glanced over his shoulder. “Goddamn Gordon Haverford,” he commanded. Stood.
“You need help?” Albert asked the man's back.
“No,” the man responded as he moved to a computer closer to the dvds. He sat down again, nudged the mouse, and the slideshow melted away. “If I do, I'll ask.”
The strangled croaks of the coffeemaker reached a crescendo, and Albert returned to the tiny room. Mames signed in to her Twitter account to update her status: There are days where I feel like I'm sitting shiva in a cemetery.
Three people liked her status before Albert returned, his mug of coffee steaming and putting out a scent of scorched almonds so faint and so inviting it made Mames inhale more deeply than she intended—she meant to draw in as much of the scent as she could but all that happened was that she swallowed her gum and coughed.
On the second floor, Gloria snorted herself awake. She blinked a few times, taking in her surroundings, the dull colors of spines lined up like soldiers, and thought to herself, We should just close on game days. Then she stood up, pulled the cart close, and pushed it down the aisle. Each book was transferred from the cart to its proper place among the spines.
Gloria stood for a time staring out the second storey window. The Hamilton-Dalton Public Library, at the corner of Elm and Pine Streets, was across the street from the Dalton-Hamilton Public Park, with both the Dalton Center for the Arts and the Hamilton Building at its flanks, and Gloria peered down on the park and felt the Center and the Building at her sides and wondered to herself just who, exactly, the Hamiltons and the Daltons had been, and why they seemed to have fought over naming rights in a town not named for either of them. Hallsville was perhaps the only town in the country without either a Dalton or a Hamilton in its telephone book. Albert, Gloria thought, would probably say Hallsville was the only town in the country that still bothered with a phone book at all.
The park took up an entire block, and was mostly brown now with the season. Paths pushed into the park at all four corners and met a circle around a tiered water fountain spitting a geyser of water into the air. A young woman was sitting beside the fountain, staring at her phone. Beside her was a stroller. To Gloria, the stroller looked like a Conestoga wagon.
She took the elevator down and emerged behind the old gentleman, who was typing at the computer with two aggressive index fingers. Gloria surveyed the ground floor of the library and saw only sunlight spilling in through windows and dust circling the stacks like buzzards. She smelled the coffee, and she heard Albert mumbling to Mames. She squinted a bit, and could see a few words on the computer screen, the fruits of the old gentleman's persistent labor: “stop sign is sorely needed”.
Either a letter to the city council, she thought, or a letter to the editor.
Behind the library counter, Gloria asked Mames to make sure there was paper in the printer. “I think we have a letter-writer,” she said flatly. “The kids were printing out reports all day yesterday, and he looks like he might be producing a thirty-pager. Put in a new ream—the way he's typing he might need a few drafts before he gets it right.”
Mames got up and walked over to the library's only printer, kept behind the desk to assure all who printed paid their due. Albert asked, “Have a nice nap?”
“Yes, Albert.” Gloria smiled. “I had a nice nap and you know you're not to have coffee at the counter.”
“The old man doesn't like Mr. Haverford.” Albert lifted his mug but did not move from his chair. “He's hoping God damns him.”
Gloria placed a finger to her lips. The old man said loudly, “Smites him and then damns him!” and continued pecking at the keys.
“Albert.” Gloria gestured to the tiny room. “Coffee. Go.” She watched as Albert disappeared behind the shelf of relics, then sat down on his vacated chair. Mames ripped into a fresh ream of paper. The printer began to hum before she'd returned to her own chair, and the older gentleman appeared at the counter.
“Should be four pages,” he said.
Mames smiled, returned to the printer, collected his prints, and handed them to him. “Done?” she asked.
“Don't know,” he replied.
When she sat down, Mames noticed Gloria had typed out her own message on the computer screen between them: What the hell does he have against Mr. Haverford?
Mames slid the keyboard to herself and typed Who knows.
And that was how the next hour passed. The older gentleman would type, print, retrieve his papers, return to the computer. Mames and Gloria, joined from time to time by Albert, typed out an elaborate exquisite corpse of a tale about the old man and Mr. Haverford. Occasionally, Albert or Mames would say something out loud meant to conceal their true minds or perhaps to ease their own guilt over the baseless suppositions. Each nonsensical bit of conversation-- “You really think so?” or “The roast cooked too long”--sounded to them like this: “We are bored and we've nothing else to do but make up a reason for this poor old man's hatreds and vendettas.”
The tale on the computer screen behind the library counter spread itself over fifty-three pages. All three had contributed. It was Gloria's idea to add a subplot about the Daltons and the Hamiltons, and Mames's idea to bring in aliens, while Albert stuck to details of weather and clothing. They slid the keyboard between themselves at an increasingly excited pace, chuckling or gasping together, and eventually forgot to say anything else aloud. Their shared biography of the old man, who in their story was named Havisham Bartleby and hailed from a distant planet where the idea of rain was unknown, passed the time better than a nap.
And the older gentleman collected the last draft. He paid for his prints, jogged his thick stack of papers on the counter, and ambled back along the short hallway, out the front door, into the shade of the graceful elm.
Gloria closed the fictitious biography without bothering to save it. The old man's hidden life turned into a warning on the screen: If you close without saving, all changes will be lost. Do you wish to close without saving? Cancel. Save. Close.