Harry Profitt Pease finished the mowing of the library’s lawns, the carefully rationed movements of his afternoon a masterpiece of ergonomics. The last swallow from the final can of the sixteen-ounce Seadog six pack went down simultaneously with the final spin of the riding mower.
Harry was a part-time permanent fixture at the Valiant Memorial Library. In intervals of sobriety he had even been seen washing the windows and swinging a mop in the entry hall. In all his years as the Valiant’s quondam sexton Harry had come to look upon the trustees’ monthly check as his personal entitlement program. The Valiant’s endowment was being eaten up by inflation with each passing year, but of small change there was sufficient to cover the day-to-day expenses: rough-and-ready gardening, storms and screens in season and the occasional heavy lifting.
As the blades of the ganged reel mower heads bounced over a final tussock, Harry pulled his machine to a halt behind the frilly Victorian bandstand and carefully positioned the last empty can behind him on the saddle. “Rest, oh my chariot.” A turn of the key, then total, dead quiet. The following cloud of white and blue exhaust hovered and dissipated; there was a few seconds’ pause as his hearing returned, then the world welled up around him, filling the ringing silence. Too late to go and shoot baskets. He hitched up his suspenders and looked back on the perfect pattern the mower had laid out with its last 180 degree turn. A neat semicircle, satisfying. Where there had been engine noise was now birdsong, distant children’s voices and the slam of a car door from the Red and White parking lot. The good life.
The beer left a pleasant haze and a mild residual buzz, and Harry Pease sat and pondered, watching the lights on his multi-band scanner. Long shadows in the afternoon, the time of rest with the smell of gas, grass, sweat and Seadog wafting heavenward. “Lord, I have labored and now I seek my ease.” Harry’s pronouncement of the work ethic. Work, now play. But before play, rest.
A Velcro strip on the dash plate held the scanner on the riding mower. There was a Velcro strip on the dash of Harry’s truck, too, because you never knew when something might happen. Nothing was happening now, no activity on the bands, just the march of red LEDs on the sequencer, and it was good, good to sit at rest in the afternoon and watch the lights in their chase from left to right. Harry sat on the mower listening to the police and fire bands until dusk.
Alma Nightingale’s flower print sashaying down the hill called Harry from his reverie. If pressed, he would have admitted to dozing off. The determined swing of Alma’s hips brought her through a budding bower of sycamore and maple gapped with the stumps of great elms. Her progression reminded Harry of youth and joy. He switched off the scanner, dusted the drying debris of scattered clippings off the knees and out of the rolled-up cuffs of his coveralls, and moved down the hill.
Their paths crossed at the after-hours book return box—a regulation government mailbox painted blue and welded shut. Vandals had regularly dumped snow into the box in the winter, and in the summer, the library’s hours being so inconvenient, the few pensioners in the neighborhood who did check out books returned them at the desk. It was a monument to well-intentioned futility. The trustees eventually had given up on the box, and during a meeting later written up in the newspaper, in which they hotly debated the proposed sale of the heirloom grandfather’s clock from the library’s foyer had, with no objections, no abstentions, voted to call in Harry with his acetylene torch to close it forever. The meeting broke up in acrimony over the clock. A faction that favored selling it to buy books for a children’s reading program adjourned to the WilCo Diner for coffee. The clock, the children’s books were never spoken of again. However, the after-hours book drop got welded shut, removing forever a relatively innocent outlet from future generations of vandals who, deprived of this middle ground criminality, would move directly to larceny, grand and robbery, armed.
“Oh, hello, Harry.” That was all. They had gone out a couple of times in high school when Harry was a basketball star. Alma had married Vern Nightingale, a reliable man. Harry’s star had fallen on bad times.
Harry recalled that Alma had asked him to fix a broken washing machine once. Was that last year or last week? Anyway, he should by now have a replacement machine for her in his sights. Maybe he did; things got confused. “Hiya, Alma. Still keeping my eyes peeled for that washing machine you’re after.”
As a child young Alma Nightingale had daydreamed a life beyond hanging the laundry, beyond the Red and White, a life worth writing down. At sixteen she bought an empty book—padded pink satin covers with a clasp—and had faithfully kept a tally of everyday doings all through her sophomore year. Her life, the lives of her friends and all she knew, were dull, common, ordinary, boiled ham and buttermilk uneventful, their yearnings without substance except for those things she would never write in a book for fear of an unauthorized reader prowling through her possessions. Alma wished she had the spunk to make things up. Instead she put it by.
She had picked up the diary project again when in her thirties, feeling quite the young matron with the kids out of the house and the strangeness of free time in the middle of the day that was hers and hers alone to fill as she pleased.
Reading the entries from twenty years earlier, a year’s worth of round exercise book script riding the blue lines, Alma remembered wondering as she wrote, Will I ever read this? What sort of person will I be when I read this?
She had had an image, a spiritual template of the woman she would become in maturity, a woman like the summer people she saw each year—sophisticated, a busy wife and mother, a woman at home in the world wearing jeans, casually unconcerned with the appearance she presented to the world—a kerchief about the hair driving a station wagon on her many errands. These women and their children came in early June, their arrival heralding the start of the summer season. They opened houses, spoke authoritatively with electricians, nurserymen, carpenters, plumbers, the deliverers of bottled gas; they and their money were in command. Slim and stylish with a dab of potting soil on the cheek, a stray lock of hair springing from under their bandannas, they drank in the afternoons and bought gin and scotch at the state agency liquor store. These women kept diaries, wrote, some painted all through the summer—seascapes and landscapes that to Alma were startlingly good, well executed. These were women who did things well, who were beautiful, worshippers at the shrines of their own inner fires.
In August the husbands arrived by train from Connecticut, New York City and Philadelphia, pale and overweight wearing khaki pants that had been ironed just like dress pants with creases, sweaters that had been dry cleaned, not blocked and dried on towels on the floor over the cold air return. The men got off the trains smoking king-size cigarettes to be met by the station wagons. The couples kissed. The men wore belts, not suspenders. The husbands put on floppy hats and pottered about their yards, drank in the afternoon and played tennis—mixed doubles with other couples from away—on the asphalt courts behind the high school.
At sixteen the blank pages had been a duty, a responsibility to her future self. She had seen herself years hence, a stylish matron weary of ceaseless involvements and obligations, seeking sound advice from her younger self, slipping back into the silent past and rediscovering how things really were before they got complicated.
Things had never become complicated. Alma’s husband died punctually and in good taste after thirty years of boring fidelity. There was a modest annuity.
Alma found herself thinking of Harry often—more often now that Vern was gone—as the years piled into decades separating them from their high school romance. Was it a romance, really, or had they only gone out together a few times?
The smells of fresh cut grass and oily exhaust with the roar of a two stroke engine two blocks away had said Harry was doing the library lawn. He had been at it for hours and that meant he was drinking. Riding circles and massaging the turf till the beer or the gas gave out.
They met at the useless blue book box, both feeling a vaguely remembered call of the glands. Alma had put on a flowered print silk dress, a summer frock, and wore her hair up. Too early for silk, but down parkas and thermal underwear cramped her style; she had a lovely throat and shoulders.
“A... washing machine. That’s nice.” Mild surprise although it was he she had come to see.
“Gotta go, Alma.” Harry, embarrassed at being drunk, did not meet her eyes and dived into the open bulkhead doors that led to the library’s cellar.
The wonder of the approaching 21st Century was not totally lost on the Valiant Memorial Trust Free Library of Willipaq, Maine, U.S.A. A hundred-year-old brick building and a superannuated librarian, thirteen volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, a Britannica, a World Book and the complete works of Louis L’Amour in paper and hard back, and yet Mrs. Gladstone, the librarian, wanted more. She dreamed of a computer lounge where patrons might log on to the state catalog and browse electronic books with the click of a mouse. “Buck Rogers and Willipaq, Maine,” she confided to Alma Nightingale as they despaired the future over sherry and cookies one evening, “Are ships that bump in the night.” It was Mrs. Gladstone’s second sherry and she was tiddly. The library was open afternoons Tuesday through Thursday, noon to eight on Friday when slides were shown in season. Against possible future need, an opaque projector was kept at ready in the attic. “The overhead projector brings such life to a flannel board presentation,” Mrs. Gladstone remarked, the seminars and meetings that big city libraries hosted never far from her mind.
The trustees felt their responsibilities keenly but not actively, for the local library was a popular legatee. With every will probated yet another bequest filled out the shelves with more mysteries, westerns, romances in paperback, and the timely passing of a quirky science fiction collector had filled one bay from floor to ceiling with book club editions. The trustees were solid men, steady and with a sense of history. They felt the Valiant Memorial could afford to wait and let attrition pack its stacks with poundage.
Joyce Gladstone, at an age when the obituaries were the first item turned to in the paper, avoided that page, apprehensive lest her interest precipitate another vanload of books. Sometimes the thought of Harry Pease and his collection of Popular Mechanics and Playboy magazines stalked her nights, interrupting her blameless sleep. She dreaded finding Harry’s name listed among the newly dead.
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