The moment I walked through the front door, I knew. That deep, abiding quiet, and the sense that the outside world couldn't reach me here. I was like someone chased by demons across the threshold of a church, stepping into the library that first time. I could have turned around, right there at the door, and stuck my tongue out at the world.
Can't catch me.
I didn't do it, and besides, the world wasn't watching. Couldn't find me anyway, could it? I'd already changed my hair and makeup, my clothes, my voice, and even the way I walked. I'd changed my name, too. I'd been Jane but I was Margo now. I liked Margo. Jane would have turned and stuck her tongue out, but Margo never would. No, Margo simply stood in the vestibule, shoulders back and head held high like a queen.
I hadn't spent much time in libraries before then. It was quiet as a nighttime ICU ward-maybe quieter, without all the noise that goes with slow dying: the whoosh of respirators, the mechanical beeps of infusion pumps. I stared up at the high, vaulted ceiling and around at the egg-white walls, then sat down at one of the public computers. I checked the want ads and saw one for circulation clerk right there at the Carlyle Public Library. I toiled over a cover letter and résumé for an hour or so, then handed them in at the desk. "I was so happy to see this job come up," I said to the stout, red-haired woman there. She seemed managerial, but I learned later that Liz was just a just a regular staff member. "I can't imagine a more peaceful work environment," I went on, waving my arm around. She chuckled a bit, as if I'd said something funny. But from what I could tell, the library was just that: quiet, anonymous, orderly, and sane. From the grandness of the old building to the way the light slanted through the high windows that afternoon, I knew I'd landed in a cozy, carpeted, outdated vault, and I loved it on sight. The job was what I wanted, too: helping people. Not the way I'd helped them before, at the hospital, but still. I would be serving others. When I'd glanced around at the careworn souls sitting at the monitors that day, I'd known there would be plenty of work for me here, plenty of helping to do.
Liz and I struck up a conversation. I told her how long I'd been in town, how much I was enjoying the weekend farmers' market-though I hadn't even been-and the birdsong outside my window every morning. She seemed like the bird-watching type. I told her I'd seen cardinals, wrens, and woodpeckers, though the only birds I'd really seen were the pigeons in the parking lot of my Soviet-era apartment complex, pecking at the ground. I' told her a tale about moving from Indianapolis, where all I could hear was the roaring river of cars. I told her I'd hated it, hated the overrated canal walk and the seedy downtown, and had moved for a much-needed change. Liz and I were laughing like old friends before long, and she said she'd put in a good word for me.
And now here I am, two years later, checking out patrons' books, DVDs, and audiobooks, answering their questions about overdue fees with patient grace, policing the computers where I myself sat that first day, making sure the guy in the baseball hat who comes in on Fridays doesn't watch porn while he's pretending to job-search. I understand now why Liz chuckled that first day; the library is peaceful, on the whole, but disturbances happen. Patrons shout into their cell phones, throw tantrums over lost books, or hide, half-naked, in hidden corners of the stacks. I'm never bored here-the way I thought I might be when I first arrived.
I sneak up behind Friday Guy, as we've come to call him, and lean right over his shoulder so my breath is hot on his neck. "Hey," I say. He jumps and fumbles, tries to click screens to cover up the giant tits I just saw bouncing before my eyes. Then he looks up, red-faced. Sweating, even in the cold of the main room. "You know the rules," I say, drawing up to my full height. "Yes, ma'am." I feel a deep tickle when he calls me ma'am and obeys me like a scolded dog. "I'm watching you," I tell him. "Yes, ma'am." He blinks up at me with his sad gray eyes. After a long pause, I walk away.
Liz and the younger clerk, Nasrin, watch me return to the desk, triumphant. "You're amazing," Nasrin says, shaking her head in wonder. I just shrug. "You should have seen the double-Ds he was ogling today," I say, lifting my eyebrows. Nasrin covers her mouth as we all stand there, the two of them giggling like children. I don't even bother being discreet-I'm laughing my deep laugh when Friday Guy slinks past the desk, still red-faced, carrying plastic bags full of loose papers as usual. Every time I think: He won't come back. He'll find some other unsuspecting branch, one without a Margo. But every Friday, he's there, eyeing those tits, waiting for me to catch him. I guess he likes the game of it.
I like the game of it, too. My nipples, tucked inside my padded bra, get hard every time we perform our little ritual. It isn't like my hospital days, but it's better than nothing.
I had to earn this swagger, though. I didn't start out swishing through the aisles, expertly managing Friday Guy and others. When I first started, I was clueless, fumbling, and forgetful. I made rushed notes on a legal pad, things like:
DO NOT renew patrons' computer time more than once, for more than an hour
Password for scanner is: SCANTHIS
Checkout forms for hot spots and tablets in drawer to my right
Must take elderly/infirm patrons downstairs in elevator with smallest key on ring
Call the non-emergency police number for someone acting out but not dangerous
Call 911 for someone dangerous to himself or others
The last two items tickled me, but I'd held my face still as Yvonne, our director, explained what could differentiate one situation from another: realistic threats of violence, a weapon suggested or in sight, crazed appearance or language. She used the male pronoun for every scenario she described, so I wrote it down: he, he
. And she was right, for the most part; the only times I've punched the numbers 911 into the phone, it's been for men. Men can never keep their violence to themselves.
But incidents like those were and are rare, though even ordinary scenarios flustered me back then. When someone approached the desk without books in hand, it meant they had a question, one I wasn't sure I could answer. I tried to draw on my nursing expertise, but a nurse isn't much good in a library. And I wasn't supposed to be a nurse, of course; I was supposed to be an "experienced library assistant," like my résumé said. So I bluffed my way through as best as I could, and if Liz, Nasrin, or Yvonne caught me in a slip, I'd just say that my last library had different systems for everything. They accepted my ignorance-welcomed it, even. They were endlessly forgiving and kind. Quick to swoop in and rescue me from disgruntled patrons, though most of the patrons were patient with me, too, telling me I had a beautiful smile or an infectious laugh even when I was failing to help them. They used my name when they learned it, and that made me feel seen. Well, "seen" in the safest way possible; they saw me as Margo, or Ms. Finch-not as Jane, of course. Some days I felt the way I had in my earliest nursing days-when my uniform was a crisp, bright blue and I'd swell with pride at the slightest praise. For those first few weeks at the library, I let myself be as ignorant and swaddled as an infant; it felt like floating in a nice, hot bath.
I've always believed in the restorative properties of baths-for my patients and myself. I've bathed many a human body in distress and seen the wonders that steam and hot water can work. Even when the file said "sponge bath only" I would defy it and fully bathe the poor soul. They needed it, didn't they? And I was strong enough to handle their bodies on my own. It was a bit of a struggle, but we all need to be immersed in water, cleansed and petted by human hands. A sponge bath just doesn't cut it. Though I would limit myself to sponge baths if I were under close observation, as I often was in the final days at one hospital after another. I would start off cheerful, energetic, everyone's favorite new colleague. Eventually, though, they'd start to look at me too long. Whisper when I left the room. They would ask me things like, What were you doing in Mr. Hammerson's room? Why have you checked this and that out from the medicine supply? Why haven't you noted here and there what you've done in the file?
They also interfered with my patients' baths-but they couldn't interfere with my own. Back at home, I'd close my eyes in the tub and sweat out the rancor and suspicion they eventually piled on me, from one place to the next. Sacred Heart. Green Grove. Union Community. Highland Medical. Spring Hill. Each one started as a paradise-like the names suggest-but ended in quiet fury and disgrace.My
disgrace, I remind myself.
But Margo tries not to linger in the past. It does her no good. She was wronged; she moved on. Movement is key, I've found. To always be moving, wherever I am-even in circles sometimes.
I sweep by the computer aisle whenever I can, for instance. Push in the empty chairs with my hip and straighten the stacks of notepaper and tiny pencils arranged near each station. As I make my rounds today, a rumpled old man leans back and calls me over, his sad eyes brimming with almost-death, his need to be held-and possibly bathed-tugging fiercely at my insides.
"Miss, can you help?" he asks. When I reach him, I put my face close to his and look at his screen. I smell his sour breath, the unwashed scent of his clothes, and don't falter for a second. I inhale deeply through my nose so he'll know I'm not repulsed one bit. Not even one tiny bit. "The screen froze," he says. I push a button here and there, toggle the mouse back and forth, then sigh. "We've got to shut this thing down and start it back up," I tell him. "Sometimes that's all it takes. Don't you worry." I make the screen go black. Then I punch the power button and bring it back to life. His face lights up like he's seen the workings of a god. "Thank you, miss." "Of course." I hold him with my eyes, probing those pathetic depths, then I let him go.
Do I feel a twinge of frustration?
Those eyes, begging me for help. I want to help—the way I used to. But I left the last hospital in the dust, and that's how it should be. No—should be
doesn't matter. That's how it is
. Margo doesn't live in some imaginary world where Jane goes on doing her rounds. Margo lives in the real world: the library. To prove it, I grab a stack of books to reshelve, tell Nasrin I'll be back. But when I've found my rhythm-locating each book's spot, sliding it into place-the hospital sneaks back, seeps into me: the peaceful night-shift realm I used to inhabit amid the honeycomb cells of the ICU. I would roam back and forth, back and forth, practically gliding on those smooth, polished floors, checking pulses here and there, resting my warm hand on a sleepy head. Leaning down to feel a faint breath on my cheek, my lips.
But chaos could erupt from the heart of this quiet, too; suddenly I'd find myself standing by a patient's bedside as commotion descended: hurried footsteps, shouted directions. I stayed calm, soothing the forehead or hands of a struggling one, shushing them gently, steadily handing this or that to the doctor while keeping my eyes locked on the terrified eyes. I'd show them my shining face and my beatific smile and they clung to it, hung their souls onto it, and sometimes they gripped my arms with their wasted claws and literally held me, and I let them. They needed me. I was their living, breathing saint: their nurse. Even if I couldn't save them. Even if, at that point, no one could.
"The ones that die are the lucky ones," I once said to Donna, the head nurse I considered a friend-a close friend, the closest friend I'd ever had. I said it right after an "untimely death," one that had rattled everyone-even the patient's neglectful family. They said she was doing okay two days ago
, her eldest son choked out through tears. From what I'd seen and from what the day nurses said, he'd only visited twice, and both times he'd sat in the corner staring blankly at game shows on the hospital TV. He didn't kiss her brow or talk lovingly to her the way I always did, in the quiet of night. I saw how lost she was, how alone. I saw what she needed in the pools of her eyes when they stared up at me in the muted light.
I hadn't meant to say what I said to Donna out loud, but I had, and there was no taking it back. A small part of me thought she might agree, but she stared. "Really? You really think that, Jane?" she asked. Like she'd never considered it herself. Like she hadn't seen how they shuttled so many sad, crippled, hurting souls from the ICU out through the main doors into cruel sunshine and wished them well, sent off to linger alone in some shadowed room until time finished them. They may as well have given them a great shove into the busy parking lot and left them wherever they fell. The untimely-death woman didn't appear to fit that mold-not to a casual observer like Donna-but I'd witnessed the woman's suffering firsthand. Maybe she would have gone home and recovered, but to what end? There were crueler fates than a quick death. But Donna didn't get it, or couldn't stomach it, or just couldn't admit the truth of it to herself, so I told her I was kidding and left it at that. She opened her mouth to say something more but then closed it and shifted her eyes away. Usually, Donna and I could chuckle over anything. But that time she pursed her lips and took a sip of tea.
Through the years, I’ve learned to be careful. Careful what you say and to whom, careful how you carry yourself at all times. I carried myself regally on my rounds, and then let my hair down and laughed hysterically in the break room. Always had a tale ready to cheer up my fellow nurses. Made-up stories of my love life, raunchy jokes, lies and more lies. Sometimes they laughed until they cried. "Jolly Jane," they said, shaking their heads and wiping their eyes. "Tell us another one. No—don’t!"
"Did I tell you about the time my ex-husband lit his own pants on fire?"
"The old man in 307 waved me over just now, beckoned me close, and then he squeezed my tits like two melons! Dropped right back to sleep after that, like he’d had his snack and was satisfied."
"That raving homeless woman who was in the other night kept telling me she could turn her piss into wine! I asked her to bring me a cup."
I’d have the whole room rapt, or in stitches. Nurses needed help, too—they were tired and traumatized by all they’d had to touch, see, smell, and do. They left the break room feeling renewed; I saw to that. I was holding the hospital—whichever one it was at the time—up and afloat in the palm of my hand. And they knew it, every one of them knew it, but it didn’t stop them from chasing me out, pitchforks in hand.
Closing my eyes for a moment, I relish having escaped, having found my way to the library. Late Friday afternoons tend to be quiet, but I can still drift on the tide of familiar sounds: the soft clatter of fingers across keyboards, the thud of books landing in the return slot, the ruffling of pages, the mechanical whoosh as the front door opens and closes, sealing us inside. Standing here, swaying a little, I feel as relaxed as I might after a long vacation. I never felt this way at any hospital; it was a great burden, you know, helping so many for so long. Jane loved it, but it hardened her. Margo is softer, and less hurried, too, in her dealings with patients. Patrons. Patrons
. It shouldn’t matter what we call them, really; they’re the same in the end. Patrons
will land in hospital beds at one point or other—for sickness, for surgery, for death. I can’t touch them the way I touched patients
, though; I might pat someone on the hand or back, or possibly squeeze an arm, but that’s as far as it goes. Sometimes I miss the heft and smell of flesh other than my own, the rigors of my practice as a nurse, but I tell myself how lucky I am, to be a librarian.
Sticklers would say I’m not
a librarian—I have no official degree. Liz lords it over me sometimes, though it’s not as if patrons know the difference. To them I’m Ms. Finch, the librarian
. I even bought reading glasses that hang on a beaded chain around my neck. I love raising them to my eyes to peer down at the book title a patron has written down, or at the monitor of a troublesome computer. "Thank you, Ms. Finch," the patrons always say, with some reverence, when I’m wearing my glasses. Instant gravitas.
Copyright © 2023 by Laura Sims. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.