Deep in the stacks
of the eighth floor of the main library
at the underfunded state university,
a wild-eyed, bearded man sweated and paced,
grumbling under his breath.
No windows, tiny aisles
old hardback books with faded red, green, gold covers,
stale air, musty yellowed pages,
dark brown tile floor,
flickering fluorescent lights.
He was getting more impatient now,
scanning the titles,
moving a thick index finger across the books’ spines,
finding the place where it should be,
but it wasn’t there.
There wasn’t even an empty space where it had been,
just irrelevant volumes lined up like soldiers.
Maybe it had somehow slipped behind the others?
He pulled out some books, first stacking them neatly on the floor,
then ripping them off the shelf and throwing them furiously.
When the shelf was bare,
he stared at it dumbly for a second,
gaping mouth, breathing heavily.
Then he collapsed miserably to the floor.
Rachel was working that evening,
scheduled to end her shift at nine.
Then her boyfriend would pick her up,
and they would drive back to their apartment
on the edge of town,
probably in a tense silence
because they had been fighting.
Before her work for the night was finished,
she had to shelve a cart of returned books
on the eighth floor.
She wheeled the heavy cart to the aisle
where she found the wild-haired man
wearing some high school track team t-shirt
that didn’t fit so well, stained at the armpits,
and faded, muddy jeans and muddy white sneakers.
It looked as though everything he was wearing
had been donated, and he didn’t smell so great,
and Rachel braced herself
to tell the guy he was going to have to leave soon
and maybe to tell her manager
if he tried to make a scene.
He had dark brown, wounded animal eyes.
She wheeled her cart closer and saw the mess he had made.
Holy shit, she said under her breath.
(She was in a library, after all.)
They faced each other,
broken, middle-aged man
and fresh-faced college student,
and not knowing what else to do,
Rachel asked, “Can I help you?”
The man smiled wanly.
“You can’t. I’m dying.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rachel replied.
She could tell from his tone that he was serious.
“Should I call for an ambulance, or…?”
“There’s nothing they could do for me,”
the man explained.
“My disease is very rare,
so rare that it’s been lost to history,
and certainly wouldn’t be understood by
some idiot doctor in Indiana.
Anyway, there’s a cure…a cure in one of your books,
but it’s not here.”
“Um…” Rachel replied,
not sure what to make of all this.
She should probably refer him to a reference librarian,
but Shelley would kill her if Rachel gave her
some crazy man at 8:45 p.m.
“Do you have a call number?”
He handed her a crumpled piece of paper.
She looked at the bare shelf.
“You didn’t see it there?”
“Well, let’s go look at the catalog,” she said with a sigh.
“Maybe it’s a rare book? It could be locked up on the tenth floor.”
She reached for his hand to help him up
and noticed the angry red sores on his arm.
“If there’s a cure in here, we’ll find it,” she assured him.