No Quarter To The Troll
You swear you're no communist, fascist, phalangist or anarchist; if you were, you've cast it behind you and come home. You swear you've not thought, dreamed, heard plots against us, against our city, our parish, our old brick square where this Library stands.
You name old friends, lost relatives, folk passing by, schools you've gone to, teachers too eager, factories you've worked (even part-time after school), organizers who tempted you, off-road towns you visited, tour guides you got friendly with, characters you met who returned your visit and were too curious.
You hand over your driver's license (if applicable), your marriage license (if applicable), your birth certificate (if applicable). You give numbers, your street address, your apartment (and if the door faces the stairway), your telephone, your post office box, your army dog tag, your graduation/wedding/birthday-ring product code (here again, if applicable).
You sign the application, disclaimer, waiver, and wait.
They call you. You walk through a cold passage to a cold room. Two candles on the table; between them, an open volume. Through the dust you almost make out: "Bibliogr- " Raise your right hand (don't slouch), swear: "No quarter to the troll behind the shelf." Sign again -- right there -- and you're a full Employee (IIIa).
"It's up to us" -- his words slide across the table in the Employees' (I-IV) cafeteria. "Together we'll carve out this constipation in the Library's bowels, pour dry beer on their mad dream to corner the alphabet. Together we'll smash the windows, let Homer, Shakespeare, O'Neill, Ionesco fly free. Together we'll unchain them from the dust. The force that lids this tomb shall crumble, thanks to us. Pleased to meet you, hope you like it here, glad to find a guy full of spunk I can work with."
By the time they hunt him down and drag him off and order a truck to the park, the books he freed have flown. The pilgrims have rescued them to fulfill their mission, or to keep warm.
Her eyes ask if it's the right place. How do I answer?
"Excuse me," she says. "I found them in my boy's room when he went back to college. I hope he isn't overdue."
"Two, four, six . . . twenty-eight cents, ma'am."
She sighs, shakes her head, digs out the change. It looks like I'm hovering. I don't want it to look like that. (Some do, it makes their day.) I want her to know, I want everybody to know, I want the girl in Document Restoration to know I'm human too, not -- anyway, I want to say That's okay, ma'am, forget it. (A few blocks from here twenty-eight cents on the floor isn't worth the time and backache to pick it up; a few blocks further, it is.) If she's human too . . . "And what's 'forget it' supposed to mean? What are you trying to pull? I want your supervisor."
"Twenty-seven . . . eight. Here, young man."
"You give refunds?"
"Discounts, maybe. It's my boy, I don't think he got his money's worth out of those books."
"Well, that's not -- "
"Listen, he goes to college, so you know he's no dummy. But now he wants to call it quits -- Escape, he says, if he can figure where to. He says, 'Ma, I can't stand being an IBM card, I can't stand eating prison food in the cafeteria, I can't stand all those -- [what he called them I can't repeat] -- blabbering like they know it all, I can't stand to gobble up and vomit book after book after book.' So I ask myself, this is the great education me and his father worked for all these years? Or is my kid a dumbbell? So I ask him what he'll do with his life, and he says run off and be a hermit, of all things."
Me too. If I didn't cut myself all the time, if my lean-to stayed up, if the trout came when I called, I'd be one too, a damn good one, a hermit to remember.
"Sorry ma'am, we don't give refunds."
The job description for Employee (IIIa) includes checking in/out, dusting, sorting, carrying, stacking, computing fines on and repairing books. Not reading -- only on break. You used to have to sweep, mop, carry out the garbage, keep up the heating-ventilating system the best you knew how and monitor the metal detectors. But the Board figured that was overdoing it, with so many out of work.
They planned to advertise for dyslexics (for whom the words won't sit still, even when you sit on them) and silent watchers (who never learned to read, if their school discouraged it) to do the maintenance in and under the Library, to catch the spirit of the written word and get to be real people; so close to real, no one would know.
Who read the ad, got a job.
Your wife and your three children, and their college paid for and your house paid for and your cars paid for and you're not forty yet. How do you do it on your Employee (IIIc? V? VI?) salary?
(Quietly) "Outside income."
So why waste your time here? The world's wide open, the sky is yours.
(Quietly) "This place amuses me."
Not lazy or dull or trapped-and-pinched by rust, but dim by choice, as if he'd learned from masters of slowness, as if getting even. Soothing, wrong partner for the evening shift. Your lids grow fat and your mind wilts and you know how he'll conquer the world. But you need him when ringed by wild beasts, outside the zoo at night. His voice droops low for anyone's "What?" Lower for "Huh?" We only imagine who he is.
He eases up from what calls itself a desk, slogs through the tar pool he knows is there, to the service desk where a citizen waits.
(Smiling) "Greetings, citizen; how may I help you?"
(Dazzled by the smile) "Uh, I need a book abou--"
"Sure, see those shelves?"
He pivots gently, more authority than you realize, and slogs back through the tar. He wants to grin, you know he does, maybe later.
"Place the day's receipts in the envelope, seal it, write the amount on the front," and don't get clever. Miss Hertz (Executive VI) won't tolerate error, the hint of an error, the twinkle in anyone's eye that warns her it's coming.
It's a slow rainy day, few stagger in to borrow or return. None pay overdue fines, reservation fees, restricted-shelf access fees, buy Library sweatshirts or book bags, offer deductible donations -- no receipts at all for the day, and she's not there for me.
I'll have to seal the envelope with nothing in it and have to write $0.00 on the front. Wasting a good envelope. (She's an enemy of waste, as if we're friends of waste.) The register tape an Employee VII hands her when she stomps in every morning already tells her the news two seconds before she finds the envelope right where I always leave it, under the knife on her desk, her idea.
But still: "Place the day's receipts in the envelope, seal it, write the amount on the front" -- "don't-be-clever" implied in her firm voice, and this dull day's receipts come to $0.00.
Knowing her and knowing me and knowing us, I sigh, no twinkle in my eye, and leap into the dark.
"Head first next time," she snarls from her desk next day.
Mrs. Bell (Executive V) is mellow, mostly, but it's hard work for her. (We don't know yet about the death growing inside her.) Miss Hertz, you know, doesn't try. Or does, who can tell? Anyone's smile is an insult. Anyone's joke --
Mrs. Bell's mellow again this morning. Miss Hertz is Miss Hertz.
Mrs. Bell: "You missed one last night."
Miss Hertz: "Oh?"
Mrs. Bell: "Ed Morrow interviewed Mae West in her apartment. Her age, she still looks good."
Miss Hertz: "Oh?"
Mrs. Bell: "Her place is fabulous. And her bedroom -- the walls, the ceiling even -- all mirrors."
Miss Hertz: "Oh?"
Mrs. Bell: "And Ed Morrow, with a straight face, asks Why."
Miss Hertz: "Oh?"
Mrs. Bell: "And Mae says, 'I like to see how I'm doing.'"
Miss Hertz: --
[Duck, for God's sake --]
She explodes. But what shakes the room's not her anger or what passes for it, but a big fat laugh --
"God bless her, she's wonderful, she's wonderful!"
"Yes, yes," agrees Mrs. Bell, choking, dying, laughing.
I understand; some of it.
Clouds grumble, cry, streets glisten. Hug or fight the wind, it respects you.
No one reads, steals, lugs back books, sneaks in with coffee to spill in the angriest corners. Flowing-grained tables (run your eyes and fingers over them) rest smoothed of binder-clips, elbows, knives, coffee cup rings. Captain-sized chairs miss the butts of the wise and the bushed. Books sleep shelf-wise, dog-eared, Masora-spined, Smyth/perf-bound, butt-threaded.
Guards fight back sleep at the turnstile.
The Strange sense a slow day, few come.
Depending who, it's a day to yawn home or hang around the Library or avoid the Library or chase the subway to both ends or pop it off the trestle or scoot under the awnings on the boardwalk or slip into a movie, don't feel guilty.
"How many books checked out?"
"Lousy weather. Incoming?"
"Two." (Skip the helmet and flak jacket.)
Sure, but pay me now and watch me dog-paddle across the square and along the boardwalk, wake my skull in the rain.
Sure, tell me tired sun beats cool rain, beach-grit in your crotch outshines cool cheeks, beats snowballs, parkas, lonely rinks, all the air you ever hoped for, underwear that won't melt.
They fall for drowsy chocolate fruitpies, miss out on pretzel's wake-up-and-blink; cheer girls who brag an inch too loud they're virgins, cauterize the others.
("It's how God swings it, you'd think He'd tell you.")
Can't say, leastways don't recall.
The bookstacks are full of hope, and air conditioned, keen with the cool sting of the morning that died hours ago. All they wrote, give or take a few odd thoughts, squats on the shelves like icecubes in the freezer, shivered, expecting, "What new drink?" And icicles drip off the edges of the shelves like the pancake syrup you spilled, and it oozed --
"Touch us," whisper the sprites and spines and dust-jackets and shadows. "We'll suck the smoke from your fogged-up brain, smoke from other folks' barbecues, wipe the grease from your glasses so you SEE, don't squint. Hold us, wake up cool. Sunrise in the snow was this, in the numb-nosed, numb-fingered wind, when your mackinaw loved you, your boots the first and only in the snow, ten miles ahead of the world, then nine, then eight . . . We'll bring back mornings."
Only mornings, stuffed with hopes not cool enough. Books tremble in their dreams in the breath of the air conditioner, but the street says noon.
The kid cried when his finger got stuck in the door to the Research Room. They'll hurt, doors will. Won't let you in, won't let you out, slam you if your mind's wandering, or if you're paying attention, with tax. You suck sawdust shoving them open and there's no water on the other side; or it's Old Jake's storeroom, supposed to be a highway.
In my free time I'm under the Room's pale yellow lights researching for Stan and Willy and maybe myself on gods, giants, gnomes, sorcerers, shamans, oracles, heroes and golems. Metatron, warped angel of the Zohar. Venerable Mountain Man, father of assassins. Hurundu, noiselessly ascending ninja. Goroba-Dike holding, like testicles, the lost ears of his brothers-in-law. Theseus, who slew the Minotaur but lost an ass in Hades. Beowulf. Grendel. The flying shaman of Ulan Bator. Icarus, whose wax melted. I'll use it, wherever I'll find it, to fly me out of here.
Stan says it's the hero who sells the tickets -- tougher and smarter and luckier than us but if he's not us, he's not a hero.
Gunther of Antioch's final draft of l302 (Loeb's translation, l878) has seven-hundred of them, "none mistaken for one's neighbour, some exceeding worthy, some assuredly not," classifies them by size and shape, natural and supernatural talents and aptitudes, corporal and magical resources, moral and spiritual qualities, manner of presentation to the world, and manner of death.
And adds, perhaps to hint his hidden manuscript, his volume 2: At times a hero won't die, though weary of triumph, who'll sail for an island you remember now, or follow a lover under the sea; or roam his turf in darkness, doing what darkness requires, and riding on.
Or sleep, his beard growing, twisting, curling, till his nation's cry wakes him.
And then they're sorry.
Some days, can never tell ahead, fog seeps through the floor and rises into the Research Room, and won't seep out the windows. My eyes want to shut it out but have to stay open or a guard comes by to nudge them open for me. Find a better way for them to tell the weary book users from the homeless sleep-seekers. The better way's not to tell.
I yawn and squint, and the words in my head take longer to squeeze down to my hand and pencil and out to the paper, and by then the words are tired, won't flow like promises, like deep sleep, like proud rivers, deep ocean swells. It budges like mud, a ripple if the wind is strong; or stumbles, Old Jake's empty bucket, rock-rock-rock downhill.
No clear reason why this fog rises fast and won't seep away, doesn't matter if I slept or ached last night, or if the girl in Document Restoration smiled or ignored me this morning, or if pancakes/eggs/juice or just coffee, thanks, hit the spot, or if how I waste my time during break is exceeding worthy or assuredly not. The Room wants more concentration than it deserves.
The other explanation is my heart's not in this. If not in this, in what?
After they caught me -- like they caught the rest -- I spent time in a world that took ideas seriously. If a lawyer defended the poor he was a masochist denying himself the pleasure of generous clients. If a jock dropped his ball too soon he suffered from a failure-drive no pep talk ever overcame. If a kid refused or was too eager to click into his father's business, check out an unresolved Oedipal conflict in that house. If an amputee didn't yet want to try out his new limb before the bug-eyed public the problem was his negative self-image ("Let's talk, soldier. Cigarette?"), not the need to practice more with the damn thing.
Older libraries keep the city alive, leave their fire-proof candles in the window. Cozy, like haunted keeps, with cracks in the wall, thank God, for air. I sneak there to track down out-of-print copies of ballads of David of Sassoun or Xingua the Magnificent or to breathe. The flying shaman soars.
Back in our own Room it budges like mud, a ripple if the wind is strong, not like promises, deep sleep, proud rivers, deep ocean swells.
"Hey you -- I mean -- guess I got to call you 'Sir.' Tell me this: My friend there says there's no such word as conFERence. But it's in this book almost on every page."
"Uh, like how?"
"Like here: 'At the conFERence of the allied generals --"
"Oh, that's CONference, not conFERence."
"So there's no such word conFERence?"
"Uh, no." (You never know for sure, so watch it.)
"No such word, can you beat that? Now they're throwing in words that don't exist."
Let's face it, the hour that mattered back in high school was Spanish 3, because she sat in the next row, easy to watch because her eyes didn't say I'd better.
Cool it, here comes Mr. Contreras.
"Buenos dias, jovenes. Let's see, today we continue Jose Santos Chocano. As most of our poets, as most of us with any sense --" (He grows taller.) "-- Santos Chocano was offended, to say the least, by Yankees meddling in his nation's affairs. Those verses of his you enjoyed the most, their bumpity-bump, what you call lively rhythm, were in truth his mockery of Anglo-Saxon verse, in his ears clumsy and superficial. Well, now that you are insulted -- "
"Chastised, 'castigado,'" says the bravest (=smart ass) student. Mr. Contreras smiles.
"-- we will hear his 'Cancion del camino,' for which he always had a tender spot. It is short, but a long poem puts us to sleep, eh? And what does the poem say? A man rides through the thick selva. It grows dark. He pauses to witness strange lights, hear strange voices, 'bitter, intimate and sad,' whatever that means, eh? And something at his shoulder or hidden in his soul tells him he shall sleep no more in the lonesome inns that dot the selva. I don't know, either. Will he sleep outdoors, beyond the inns, to know again first-hand the lights and the voices? Or will he ride his poor horse through the night to escape the cursed selva forever?"
Contreras shrugs, the bookman's shrug, the back porch whittler's shrug.
"What lives in his mind? Nothing. (Don't be shocked.) He is a gourd we fill with our own feelings. The haunting voices sing not to the lonely rider in some distant deep and savage selva; they sing to us, in the deep and savage selva of our own lives."
It fills my bones, it -- makes sense, if that's what you call it. But I can't talk, can't find the words to fit.
Mr. Contreras won't admit we're gum-chewing clock-watchers (why not?), thinks we're apprentice poets playing with the tools.
"Our traveler rides a 'potro,' not 'caballo,' which is, and is not, the same. Our dictionary says potro's a colt, a pony, a child's wooden horse, a -- where was I? -- an implement enjoyed by the Inquisition, and anything to bother or molest one."
He skips "a gynecologist's examination table," thank God.
"And back home, when we say 'El pobre esta en un potro,' roughly, 'The poor guy's stuck on a dead pony' -- it means he's on a road in the mid-nowhere, and the signs lie."
I'm stuck on a dead pony. By the time he calls on me to give the culminating insight (if not me, who?) I'm drained thin; broth, not soup. His sad eyes call me Informer.
Be thin or they'll notice you. Their eyes can say Informer too.
I got stationed deep in books. Not what I signed up for, but close enough. Shut the books and the cactus dies, the back door jams, the bridge sticks, the cars back up, strangers look worse every minute. You've felt his heat, that guy who tries -- (the light not bright, not dim, just wrong; the spry young words jump off the page, turn back to help the old ones jump) -- who slams his numb book on the jail floor and kicks it till the pages scream -- who knows you've kept more than your share.
It dawned in the Research Room that day at two in the afternoon in the shadow of pencils, 3x5 cards, notepads, book request slips and Brother Christopherson's massive "Personal Correspondence [Nihil Obstat] of the Medieval Popes" (Antwerp: Soncino & Truebner, l893). I'd been reading between the lines looking for the Jewish boy, the chess prodigy kidnapped by church folk who couldn't stand all that brilliance wasted, who was raised by them and wound up Pope. The Pope one day challenges a lonely old man to a game of chess. The old man watches the Pope's moves, finds his son.
Had there really been that Pope? What number? It was all there. If not that, something else.
I knew/hoped the thing would rise and grow and flower, fertilized by all the crunched-up try-again notebook pages bubbling up out of the wastebasket. What would rise? Money. (A tool, a bridge, mortar.) Recognition. (Walk forever under jealous eyes.) To thrill and sigh, a job well done. (They'll smile because it's not them who's drunk.) To stoke the storm in the den of the bibliographers. To burn the eyes and weary the butts and stoop the shoulders of scholars and seekers. To burden the bins with more to be honored and shelved. To stir the coughs, to stir the silence, to stir the dust.
I couldn't doubt my doubts, or fight them; they rippled under a strong wind. I remembered what I came here for, old debts and missions unaccomplished. I heard our restless horses' whinny and stomp, my brothers' laugh, their wineglass/buckle's clink, gearing up again, shouting for me.
We ride through poplars and aspens, on a planet I'd thought was too far, on slopes above valleys where tall grass waves. Push back my hat -- pull it off -- fling it high . . .
What went wrong? What brought me here -- and left me back there.
And made me swear and sign this place's oath: "No quarter to the troll behind the shelf." I looked behind the shelf. No one there, just me.
And then I forgot how to read.
A. Y. Tanaka