A Kind of Paradise

December 23, 2014

Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” Libraries are fascinating places, full of knowledge and mystery. Think of a library you’ve been to in the past. It could be the local library you went to as a kid to look at picture books, or a library you visited once to kill time. Take this library and use it as the setting for the beginning of a new story. Consider the librarian on duty, the regulars, the dark corners, and old books with strange, scribbled notes. What brings people to this library? What are they trying to find?
— from The Time is Now
weekly writing prompts emailed from Poets & Writers, Week 52, 2014

holibadge-snowmanThis morning I attended my fifth session at the physical therapy center where I’m being treated for sciatica. I’ve had this condition for a very long time. Symptoms come and go, and the way it affects my activities and my enjoyment of life varies. In recent months I’ve experienced pain and difficulties with mobility severe enough to mention it to my doctor and to seek help, rather than to shrug and think, well, you’ll have this. The sessions have been helpful, showing me the ways, both literal and metaphorical, that I have been carrying myself huddled and shallow rather than open and eager to breathe in air and energy and life itself.

The writing prompt quoted above landed in my mailbox on December 18. I did my last real fiction work on November 28, meeting a submission deadline with only minutes to spare even though I had struggled toward it all of November. I read only two short stories in December. Depression, and the holidays, and depression during the holidays meant that I had neither the concentration nor the will to make the fall into fiction. The suggestion to imagine a library caught my attention. I thought about end-of-semester hours during the Christmas seasons of my college years, how there would be extra work stations in the hallways and stairwells, how the microfilm readers got so much use they were always warm to the touch and the green-bound volumes of the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature were never completely shelved in order, but lay about on tables and carts.

After the PT session I drove to the Cleve Fredericksen Library in Camp Hill, the borough my parents bought a house in just before I entered 11th grade. It’s a toney, affluent suburb, developed in the 1920s by the sons of the old money in the city just across the river. Our house was new construction off to the north, modest still by Camp Hill standards, although the houses on the street where we lived now cost ten times what they did in the mid-sixties.

The library then was about 900 square feet in the basement of the high school building. Now it occupies a handsome two-story structure with soaring ceilings, comfortable chairs, ample workstations, and wi-fi. Its services are free to anyone who lives in the county, and to people like me, who have privileges through Access PA.

I had a book that needed to be returned. I’d already made one renewal on Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a memoir of working in the funeral industry, but had read only the first chapter. (See above notes on lack of concentration.) I wanted to renew it again, but someone else wanted it.

I walked around in the stacks for a while. There were the normal number of patrons for a weekday, mostly older people, most likely retired, and fewer young mothers with preschool children in tow, since there was no story time this week. I found two books of Christmas stories, one a set of humorous essays by David Sedaris, the other a short tale by Donald Hall based on his memories of Christmas in the 1940s. Both had been recommended to me for holiday reading, for different reasons.

I wanted to call someone’s attention to the book I was returning, so it could be marked for the Hold shelf right away. Thus I was standing at the circulation desk instead of using one of the automated checkout stations. You don’t really have to present your books to a librarian anymore, watch as she or he removes the catalog card from the pocket glued to the inside back cover, and then stamps it with the due date and records your borrower’s information. As introverted as I am, I sometimes miss that kind of interaction with library staff.

As the woman who was serving me looked up the information for the Hold on the cremation book, I became aware of a strong, unpleasant odor of, mostly, stale cigarettes. Really strong. I turned my head and saw, a few feet away at the next checkout station, a man in a rumpled raincoat, with unkempt hair and a sparse straggly beard. You don’t often see patrons like that at this library. There are some who would say you don’t see people like that in Camp Hill.

On the counter between the patron and the library clerk was a stack of at least a dozen DVD cases. The clerk was working on a dozen or so more, opening each one to observe the contents and then running the barcode through the check-in/check-out machine.

“You just took these out on Sunday,” the clerk said to the scruffy patron.


“Did you watch them all already?”

“Oh yes,” said the man. Every time he moved, more cigarette aroma seemed to shake itself up from his clothing. With almost all public places gone smoke-free these days, it’s an odor I’ve grown unaccustomed to.

“And you want to take all of these out?”

The man indicated that he did, and pushed the next stack across the counter.

We concluded our business at the same time, and walked toward the entrance together. The automatic doors whooshed open, and our feet made pinging sounds on the metal links of the drain carpet in the foyer. Outside, he turned right, and I walked straight ahead to my car. I stopped for him at 19th and Walnut. I thought he was headed toward Market, the busy main drag where the bus stops are. Instead, he crossed in front of me and started up the hill, into a neighborhood of stately houses set on embankments of ivy and pachysandra. His stack of DVDs, a good 40 hours’ worth of entertainment, was tucked under his arm. He was smoking.

Take this library and use it as the setting for the beginning of a new story. . . . What brings people to this library? What are they trying to find?

He’s just a slob like one of us, I thought. Just a stranger on the bus tryin’ to make his way home.

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