A Small Place
by Reine Bouton
Pausing in a closet that smelled of floor wax and pine oil, Lavander put his music on and swiveled the dust mop in and out of the aisles until everything shined again. He made sideways figure eights and gave the mop a good shake, something he’d done his whole life. The last of the librarians had closed up the place, moving slowly as they shelved books and shut off computers. By the time he got to the third floor to work his way down, the Magnolia Branch Library was pretty much empty.
Every once in a while, there would be a stack of throwaway books left for him in the bottom of the closet—books that were torn or so old they couldn’t be checked out or donated. Rubber bands held them together because they were fragile, showing they were worth keeping together, not trashing. Lavander was glad to bring them home. Tonight he got books by Eudora Welty, Herman Melville, and Franz Kafka. Although he had never heard of any of those writers, the books looked like antiques, and he flipped through the yellowed pages with satisfaction.
As he started emptying trashcans and scrubbing toilets, he checked to see that there was not one bit of dirt on the floor. It took him about four hours to clean the entire library, but he didn’t mind because he needed the money, and it was nice that they trusted him with the whole place. Tonight, like every night, he worked without stopping, and when he was finished, he would start at the top again and work his way down, spot-checking to make sure that everything was right and in its place. The rows of books were straight and long, and as he weaved his way in and out, Lavander felt like it was a maze he’d finally figured out.
The last thing he’d do at the end of his shift was return the books he’d checked out for the girls. Thumbing through the pages for a stray bookmark or scribbled note and finding none, he’d slip them into the return bin—romances for his wife, Rose, and mysteries for Mama. His daughter, Tisha, who was smarter than all of them, devoured books like candy. Though he was no reader, Lavander had a fondness for them— the books themselves, that is. The way they looked and felt. What they meant.
Gone with the Wind, the last book to go in, seemed different, and if he wasn’t so careful, he might have missed the square white card that fell out. The magnetic kind that the stores put in merchandise to set off an alarm. No check-out envelope pasted to the back cover. This is a nice book, he thought as he turned it over in his hands. Top quality. Thick leather cover, gold writing, and delicate pages. Puzzled, he held on to it, deciding to bring it back with him.
His house was dark and sleeping when he got home, a lingering smell of the night’s dinner in the air, which was a comfort. The right side of a double house, it was a small place in the Seventh Ward, a rough neighborhood, but they’d staked a claim and made it into something good. No neighborhood in New Orleans was free from trouble, yet their entire street had somehow banded together to make sure the kind of people who caused trouble stayed away. Their house wasn’t much to speak of but they had taken care of it. Rose had sewn delicate lace curtains to cover up the bars on the window. She’d made rag rugs out of their old t-shirts to hide the scuffed hardwood floors and covered the well-worn sofa with Mama’s orange and yellow afghan. The rooms rose around them like a happy embrace and, at least here, they were safe from the world.
Walls were lined with bookshelves Lavander had made out of discarded lumber he’d found, and he’d filled them with all of the throwaway books he’d collected over the years. In his free time, he mended them. They really were fine books—hardback, canvas-covered, sometimes even leather covered books—and Lavander patiently and lovingly made them whole again, creating a small library just for his family. His daughter didn’t make a big deal over the books like his wife and mother, but he didn’t let that bother him.
Lavander sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a piece of coconut cake, and this book. It had to be Tisha’s but he didn’t know where she would’ve gotten it or how she would’ve paid for it. Lately, she’d become so quiet and was in her room all the time—he missed the closeness they once shared. He remembered when he was little, how she’d watch him drive away to his day job, her tiny face in the living room window looking so sad, her hand waving like it was the end of the world. When he’d come home, she would run up to him and wrap herself around his leg as though he were a tree. He’d say “Where’s my favorite girl? Where is she? Sheesh, my shoes sure is heavy today, don’t know what’s goin’ on!” He would clump around for effect. “Tisha! T! Where are you?” Ignoring the giggling at his feet, Lavander would go on like this for minutes, playing the game, until she’d had her fill and would tug on his pants.
“I’m right here, Daddy!” Laughter like happy hiccups. “How you don’t know?”
“I guess cuz you light as a feather.” He scooped her up and threw her in the air. “My favorite lil’ feather.”
Those days seemed far away, like brushed away dust, and now, Lavander could hardly get more than an “Okay.”
The light was on in his mama’s room and the door cracked, so he walked in. Her room was basically a closet they’d built out to make a space for her. Although it was compact, everyone always ended up in the kitchen or in there because that’s where she was, which made it the coziest spot in the house.
“Hey, Mama,” he whispered.
“Well hi, my baby. How was work?” She reached toward him for a kiss.
“Oh, fine. Same ol’, same ol’. Quiet. Dusty. Lotta books.” He chuckled.
“That’s a library for ya,” she said. “Did you like the cake?”
“Oooh yeah.” He pushed his belt beneath his barely rounded belly. “It was real good. Reminded me of Tee Lou’s.”
“Yes indeed. I wish Tisha would help me, learn how to do it ‘fore I can’t anymore.”
“Aww that’s gon’ be a long time still,” he told her, pulling the cover up around her shoulders. “You got a lotta cakes and cobblers in you yet.”
“How’s little miss? I hardly ever see her these days.”
Lavander shrugged. Mama lay there like a child herself, taking up less than half the bed, white hair escaping her braids in crazy spirals all around her deeply-lined face
Then, he said, ” Found this book tonight. Don’t know where it came from.” He held it out to her.”You know?”
“She shook her head. “Tisha’s been readin’ that. Looks real fancy.”
“Too fancy.” He flipped through the pages. “Don’t know where she woulda gotten it.Can I just say that I don’t like this teenage business one bit, Mama? I was never that moody, was I?”
Mama started to laugh so much that she shook under the covers. “Oooh, no Lavander. You was just an angel. A perfect … lil … angel.”
“All right, that was a dumb question.” She was still laughing when he got up and kissed her on the top of her head. “This angel goin’ to bed now. Don’t know why I thought I could ask that.”
He awoke to the smell of bacon and his wife humming in the kitchen. Lavander noticed that the book was gone from the table where he’d left it, and his daughter’s plate was cleared.
“Where’s your daughter?”
“Good morning to you, too.” Rose walked over to kiss him. “She left already. You too slow old man. And why she’s my daughter today?”
“Well, she’s a girl, and all you girls make us boys crazy, that’s why.” Rose put her hand on her hip and gave him a look. “And, some book showed up that I never seen . Expensive. Don’t know where it come from. She’s always in her room, and I think she’s up to no good. Wanna know if some boy’s giving her presents.”
His wife slid pancakes on a plate, added two crisp pieces of bacon, and poured him a cup of coffee. Her trim body moved around the kitchen with ease.
“Well I’m sure she’s not up to nothing. Just ask her about the book, Lavander.”
“If I could have five minutes to ever talk to her, I would.”
Rose sat at the table and drank her coffee, amused at his growing pains. She watched him eat his breakfast—his hair was graying a little on the sides, he moved a little slower too. Deliberate, that was her Lavander. From the moment she met him, she was drawn to his strength and sense of purpose. He was walking down the middle of the street, flipping a coin in his hand, and he saw her, gave a wave and said, “How you doin’ today?” Not crude or aggressive like all the other boys. And she couldn’t help but smile and wave back. “Just fine, thank ya.” He kept on walking like he had somewhere to go, and Rose wondered if she’d see him again. And here she was all these years later, wondering at his gray hair.
When Lavander came in from his night job, Tisha was in her room with the door closed and music playing. He tapped on the door.
I’m doing homework. Be out in a while.” Her voice, no longer childlike, was faint and dismissive
Lavander knocked harder, and she swung the door open, shouting, “Dad!”
“I know, you’re busy. I got the message, T.” He walked into the room.
“Uh, I’m doing homework?”
“You better change that attitude right now.”
His daughter was tall and thin, the beginnings of curves starting to show, a sprinkle of pimples on her cheeks. She was at once a child and a young woman—an unsettling contradiction for Lavander.
“I saw that book you had the other day. Gone with the Wind. Where’d you get that?”
She stood and started straightening her room—a dead giveaway: his daughter never cleaned her room without being told. Ever.
“My friend loaned it to me. Why?”
“Oh, just curious. Looked like a nice book is all. I see you still got it over there. You almost done?”
“Yeah, just about.” She sat down. “It’s pretty good, even though it seems kinda crazy that things were like that back then.”
“Well, I don’t know how right on the money it is history-wise, but you’re right, the plantations and war times was crazy indeed.” He asked, “Which friend loaned it to you?’
“Ronnie. It was Ronnie.”
Lavander saw the lie on her face—he could always read his daughter. “That’s a mighty nice thing to be buying and then lending to your friends.”
Tisha started cleaning up again, and said, “I don’t know Dad. What’s the big deal?” She stuffed dirty clothes into a plastic hamper already filled to the top. “I have to do some washing. And then I got to study.” She dragged the hamper out of the room, and Lavander was left standing there, wondering why she was lying.
Later that afternoon when Lavander tried to talk to Tisha again, the quiet in the house exploded into slamming doors and shouting.
“I did not take the book!” Tisha yelled from behind her bedroom door.
“You get out here and have a conversation with me! And no yellin’. That’s not any kinda way to talk to your father,” he said. “I know when you ain’t telling the truth. So just tell me.”
At that moment, Rose walked in with her arms full of grocery bags and stopped short when she saw her husband and daughter. Mama was at the table with her hands folded in her lap, watching.
“What’s going on here?”
Tisha came out and then they started talking at once, their words mixing and making no sense, escalating to try to be heard. Then Lavander held up his hand.
“I’m trying to find out the story ’bout that dang book. And I think your daughter ain’t telling the truth,” he said to Rose.
‘Tisha?” Rose asked and walked over to where they stood. “You gonna stand there and not tell the truth to your daddy, with your grandma sitting right over there? Is that what you doing?”
The young girl didn’t speak for long moments, her inner struggle visible on her face.
“I hate being poor!” I’m sick of it. We never have anything, and I have to watch other people get things I can’t have. I know you’re doing what you can. But you don’t know what it’s like.” She dissolved into hysterical tears. “So, yeah, I took it. That big old store won’t notice it’s gone anyway!”
Mama shook her head, “Lord, Lord.”
Rose said, ” Wipe your eyes and come over here and sit down.” Tisha threw herself in the chair next to Mama.
“So you’re trying to tell us that you stole some book because you don’t like bein’ poor,” Lavander said.
Tisha sniffed. “Well it sounds different when you say it like that.”
“You just said that!” Lavander said
“There ain’t no difference in this situation,” Rose said. “You steal something, it’s wrong. No matter how it’s said or why it’s done. You know this, whether you hate being poor or not.”
“You hate being poor so much, committin’ a crime ain’t exactly putting you on a track to riches,” her father told her.
“Grandma!” Tisha begged, “You know what I mean, don’t you?”
“If you ‘spect me to take your side, young lady, you sadly mistaken. I don’t support stealing in no situation. You want more money, then you do good in school and lead a right kind of life.” She stood and put her chipped coffee cup in the sink.” If you askin’ if I know what you mean about not liking bein’ poor, then maybe I do. But what you got ain’t bad.”
Tisha started crying again. Mama said, “Don’t mater what kinda clothes you wearin’ when you got a momma and daddy like this. You lucky. A warm house, good food, a whole shelf full of books if you wanna read so bad. What more you want, girl?”
“I just want some new things sometimes, is all,” Tisha said.
“You get new things. What are you talkin’ about?” Rose asked
“Better stuff! Not put together books or clothes from the Goodwill!” Tisha cried.”Whatever. It doesn’t matter.” She crossed her arms and sat there.
“You right about one thing,” Lavander said. “It doesn’t matter that you don’t have new fancy things. This is the best we can do. And I’m disappointed that you not thankful. This is not how we raised you.”
They all sat there, no one saying anything. Finally, he told her, “Go to your room. You got some thinking to do.”
Standing up, not meeting anyone’s eyes, she said, “What’s gonna happen?”
Lavander almost laughed. “What you think’s gonna happen? First you takin’ that back to the bookstore and apologizing for stealing something that wasn’t yours. Next—”
“What?” she screamed. “I am not.”
Lavander stood, towering over her. “Oh, yes you are. This ain’t open to discussion. Go to your room. Now.”
The day was rainy and unforgiving as Lavander and his daughter walked down the street to catch the bus that would take them to the bookstore. He held a black umbrella high enough for both of them, yet she moved only close enough to him to stay dry. They exchanged no words that morning, and Tisha, carrying the book wrapped in a plastic grocery bag, moped as she followed her father.
They entered Barnes and Noble, and after asking for the manager, met a man wearing a plaid vest and bowtie.
Lavander stepped aside, pulling Tisha forward. “My daughter has something to say.”
The manager fixed his blue eyes on Tisha and waited.
Lavander, too, looked at her. He had stepped in many places where he didn’t belong, and as he grew older, slowly he had learned to navigate all of those foreign territories. It was as if a compass directed him, and he hoped that his daughter would develop this skill eventually because as of today, she had not.
Tisha said, “I stole this book from your store,” and handed over the plastic-wrapped sign of guilt.
The manager said, “I’ll need you to come with me.” He led them back through the racks of books to a small office. Taking the book out of the bag, he inspected it, flipped through the pages, and set it aside.
“What is your name?”
“Tisha Jackson,” her voice wobbled.
The manager made a note on a tablet. “Your age?”
“I’m sixteen.” Tears started coming. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking! I know it’s wrong. I promise I never did anything like this before, ever.”
“Not only is it wrong, but it is a crime.” He handed her a tissue. As she continued to cry and wipe her nose, Lavander and the manager locked eyes, and Lavander saw him give the smallest nod. It would be alright. “We don’t take shoplifting lightly here.”
The manager lectured the sobbing girl for several minutes about how shoplifters were prosecuted, saying that he should really call the police. Tisha looked to her father, panicked, but he only shook his head. Finally, the manager said, “You’re awfully young to have a criminal record, and I want you to think about how that would affect you and your family.” She nodded. “Since this was your first offense, I’ll let you off easy, Miss Jackson. Our book mobile goes into neighborhoods where people aren’t as lucky as you, and we hand out books. If you volunteer every Saturday morning for a month, I won’t press charges. Mr. Jackson?”
Lavander was glad someone else was telling his daughter that there were more unfortunate people than they were—maybe now she would believe it. “That sounds like a real good idea,” he said. “Thank you for understanding. I hope that you,” he looked at his daughter, “learn a lesson from this.”
Tisha could only nod. The manager stood and shook Lavander’s hand, telling him, “Thank you for coming in. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”
Although Tisha said nothing as they headed home, eventually she hooked her arm through her father’s. Lavander was grateful for the moment. Though he felt bad for not being able to give her the things she wanted, he also recognized that they were simply things, and that as she got older, he had no doubt she would be able to have what she wanted and do what she wanted with her life. But she would have to make better choices. Then, she would find the place that was right for her.
Two nights before Easter, and as Lavander got ready to go to the library, he heard the girls in the kitchen. The scent of vanilla was in air. Music was playing and their voices were soft and easy. He hated leaving home on nights like this.
Mama and Tisha were standing at the counter, rolling out a round of pie pastry.
“You got to go from the center out, like this,” Mama said, showing the girl the way.
Rose was at the stove, stirring a pot. “You two better get a move on or this custard’s gonna burn right up.”
“I’m trying,” Tisha said. She was awkward with the rolling pin, and Mama smiled at her effort. Then she helped Tisha put it in the pie plate and cut off the excess.
“Ladies, I’ve got to leave you,” said Lavander, going around to kiss each one. “Smells real good in here tonight!”
He put his arms around Rose’s hips, his head over her shoulder, watching her cook. “Whatcha making me?”
She bumped him with her hip. “Oh uh uh. You? This is just for us girls. You don’t like no custard pie.”
“Don’t like? I know you messing with me,” Lavander laughed and kissed her. He walked out of the little kitchen, watching his family.
“What you do with these scraps? Throw ’em away?” Tisha asked her grandma.
“No, no girl. You can use those. Make little tarts. They the best part. Got to use every little bit,” she said and gathered all of the pieces in her old hands to roll them together again.
Reine Dugas Bouton is from New Orleans and has taught at Southeastern Louisiana University for the past 18 years. She especially enjoys teaching Southern literature and creative nonfiction writing. When she’s not at home, she teaches abroad in Italy, Ireland or France. Her fiction has been published in The Big Muddy, Acentos and Deep South, a few years ago. This story is from a linked collection of stories about the impact books have on people’s lives.