Ellie, An Epilogue
by Reine Dugas Bouton
Her retirement party was a sad little affair, but, thought Ellie, most retirements were nothing short of tragic. Really, all of them. An ending, and an official announcement of old age, one foot in the grave and you, nearer to death’s door. The library break room was decked with crepe paper braids hanging limply from the drop ceiling, a cake with smeared red icing, and a tray of finger sandwiches, which looked a week old. Ellie wanted to yank those braids down and blow her nose in them. She sniffed.
A hand patted her shoulder. Arnold. Looking maudlin, he said, “We’ll surely miss you.” His white-collar shirt, yellowed around the neck and under his arms, was part of his uniform, that and black pants, which he wore every single day for as long as Ellie had known him. He was a year younger than her, but looked about ten years older, if truth be told. His thin, pointed face nodded at her, “Yes, yes, we sure will.” Pat, pat.
Ellie had worked at the regional branch of the New Orleans library for thirty years, and had been forced, because of budget cuts, to retire, although she wasn’t ready to do so any more than a lamb go to its own slaughter. No, she had nothing else to do with herself, no place to go, and would, if left to her own devices, work until she couldn’t walk on her own two feet, damn it. While this whole ordeal made her seem ancient, she certainly didn’t feel that way, but she was downright steamed, as though this retirement and old age were being force fed to her whether she wanted them or not.
And, in case anyone cared, she did not.
Arnold’s hand resumed its patting on her shoulder. “What will you do?” His breath smelled like stale milk, like he was rotting on the inside and Ellie resisted the urge to pull away.
What would she do? On her own for the past fifteen years, this job was all she had to do with herself day in and day out. Eventually, Ellie gently pulled her shoulder away, made herself face him, breathe in his decay.
“I have no earthly idea.”
Staying at the library until closing, not wanting to leave, knowing it would be the very last time, the ending of endings, she collected her belongings from her locker and, clutching the box, her sweater and coffee mug, and moved along the stacks like a lost child in a forest.
Indeed, she had always been enchanted by a library, her whole life, it seemed, and treated it with reverence and awe. Now she knew the place intimately—it almost felt like a relationship, possibly the longest she’d ever had. Mystery was the busiest section there, all the old timers coming in every few days to get a new book. They sure loved a good mystery, those coots. Fiction and nonfiction, biographies separate from the rest. Then, large print, a growing category and one, which she’d recently, unwillingly embraced. She shifted everything to one arm, to have a free hand to straighten any wayward books she spotted. How she loved those books. Everything in its place, at least usually. Ellie felt like she’d put her hands on every single book in this entire library, at least once, if not a dozen times. The books were like a part of her, and while she would certainly continue to read, it would be as one removed, somehow not connected in the same way she’d been before.
Taking a deep breath, Ellie smelled the musty paper smell that she’d come to love, remembering the first old book her father had given her — Anna Karenina — and how she’d opened the pages and inhaled deeply.
“What are you doing?” he’d asked.
“Smelling the words,” she’d said. He laughed and touched her cheek. Ellie clutched the book to her chest tightly. Yes, she would miss smelling the words in this old place.
“You ready?” Dorothy called, her usually flat voice, warbly and soft.
“Yes,” Ellie said.
As she walked toward the door, she saw Dorothy, a tall gawky girl, crying. Her nose red, tears welling up behind her glasses. When Ellie came close, Dorothy threw her arms around her and said, “It won’t be the same without you!”
“Oh, it’ll be fine,” Ellie said, patting her back. More patting, for God’s sake. So much patting on sad days. “You watch. Just fine. You’ll hardly notice I’m gone.” Dorothy sniffled. “After all, I’ll be back. I’ll come visit. I’ll have to get books to read. Won’t I?”
Dorothy nodded and finally pulled away. Wiped her nose along the length of her forearm.
“Ok then?” Ellie asked, stretched out her left leg slowly — her knee throbbed like a war wound from standing all day on tile floors.
Only Ellie wasn’t so sure she’d be back. It might be too hard, like seeing an ex-lover after a long time. But still. She would want to, only not under these new terms. She’d be a mere patron, not allowed to walk behind the desk, stamp indigo due dates on the back of books, give stickers to children, open boxes of new books like it was Christmas morning. No, she’d simply be able to find a book and check it out. Like everyone else. While she knew she shouldn’t think of it that way, that it was silly, she still did. Embarrassed in a way, she felt jilted, gypped, thrown away like an old rag and she was enraged about it all. Like Granny Weatherall probably would feel if she really existed. Ellie pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, thinking of how she always relied on books as reference points in life and in everything — didn’t know what she would be or do without them really. They were her life. Which made this old library the perfect place for her to be, and made her leaving more painful than if it were a mere job someplace else. She ached at how much she’d miss this old place.
Most of all, she would miss playing detective — watching someone walk in the door and trying to decide what they’d check out. Sometimes it would be a strained or angry look on their face, and she would correctly guess Divorce for Dummies or How to Get out of Debt. A rumpled college student with a slip of paper clutched in his hand and sure enough, he’d check out a pile of books on a social issue: the death penalty, minimum wage, censorship. All of the blue-hairs would either get genre books — mystery or romance—or bestselling authors, Sheldon or Steel, the old men always going for Patterson, Grisham, Ludlum, or Follet. That was her favorite part of working there, reading the people, guessing what they were after. She’d rather watch than do in life, and working at the library, from the vantage point of being behind the desk, gave her the perfect opportunity. She imagined it might be the same as working behind a bar or a post office counter — the perspective was different, looking out but being protected at the same time. Safe and maybe a little empowering. Yes, she would miss it.
Finally home and in the tub, she soaked her swollen knee in hot water, watched it float like a mushroom. Three ibuprofens and a glass of red wine had barely taken the edge off. Feeling depressed and empty, she soaked her body until the water turned cool and she had no other choice but to get out or freeze. But her flannel pajamas were soft and made her sleepy, so she climbed into bed pretending this was any other night and reached for a book. Welty’s Losing Battles sat on her bedside and she thought about picking it up — she liked Gloria’s sassiness but felt a little too much like Granny tonight and so didn’t. Instead she would continue Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job, about a man who found himself designated Death, or at least that’s what she’d gathered from the first few pages. It was silly and light and just what she needed. Upon checking it out, Dorothy said, “You’re getting that, Ms. Ellie?” as if it were written in Japanese or possibly Sanskrit.
“I don’t know. Just don’t think you’d like it?
“Why?” she’d asked again, although she knew.
“I don’t know.” Again. “Just don’t think you’d like it?”
Dorothy repeating herself translated to Ellie, “Because you’re too old, you bat.” But she didn’t call her on it. She’d stopped doing that a long time ago because if she countered anyone’s commentary on or reaction to her age with anything less than the sweet old lady glazed look and nod that she’d perfected, they thought she was crazy. Better to be thought of as old than crazy, she’d finally concluded. It was pleasure enough for her to witness them making fools of themselves. Part of her playing detective — observing the idiot show, she called it.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” Ellie reassured her. “I’ve heard he’s a lot like Chuck Palahniuk, whom I like a great deal. Have you ever read anything by him??” A little passive aggressive, she realized but tough patootie, Dorothy deserved it. Why shouldn’t she read whomever she wanted no matter how old she was or how far out it was.
“Ms. Ellie, of course I have! Fight Club, Lullaby, Diary. Geesh.”
Ellie nodded, walking off with the Moore book. “Yes dear, those were good, but my favorite was Choke.” And didn’t look back at Dorothy’s face to see whether the word choke silenced her or that this old bat’s favorite book might really truly be about a sex addict. Didn’t matter a whit — she just waved and went out.
Yet tonight, no book satisfied her, which was unusual, and she lay in bed, forcing her eyes shut for hours before sleep — her last thought was a moment of panic, as if she teetered on narrow ledge, heart fluttering, breathing shallow until suddenly, kindly, sleep enveloped her and saved her from knowing what happened next.
Upon waking at the insistence of her neighbor’s yipping dog, Ellie found herself in a strange predicament — that she had nowhere to go. It was a heavy feeling, not at all liberating like that weekend feel when you get up on a Saturday morning and as much as you might like your job, are happy to have a morning to be lazy, stay in pajamas, and do a lot of nothing. No, today was not like that. It was a ‘what’s next?’ day, where, for the life of her, she had no answer. Her house was quiet, and she stepped gingerly around the stacks of books that shimmied in columns up almost every available vertical space. She’d finally relinquished the fight against the growing piles of books — like an addict, she eventually gave in after many half-hearted attempts to resist the lure of buying them. Although she routinely brought home books from the library, she could hardly resist used and rare bookstores, scooping up first editions of the books she loved and buying used copies of the ones she knew she’d want to read again and again. The stacks of books, while dusted and tidy, created a kind of maze that she could now almost navigate with her eyes closed. Not caring that the overabundance of books might look bizarre, they comforted her and since no one much came over anyway, Ellie reveled in them, constantly touching the surfaces as she brushed past them.
After fixing a cup of coffee with cream and lots of sugar, she sat at her kitchen table. She stayed there for a while, drinking and looking out of the window, watching cars fly by as if there was a fire to put out. And then she sat some more. Ellie didn’t know what to do with herself — either for the moment or for the week, month, or year. Or her life, really. No plans had been made, no lists, no ideas. How could she let this happen?
When there was a knock on the door, Ellie sprang out of her chair, almost grateful because at least answering the door was something to do. God this was going to be hard. She almost cried.
“Ellie! You awake??” It was Martha, her neighbor, who sounded like a chicken and moved like she was a hundred and ten years old.
She opened the door and Martha stood there, hunched over, four-pronged cane in one hand, bundt cake in the other that usually held a cocktail. “I brought you a banana caramel bundt. Figured you could use it today.”
“Thanks, Martha. That was sweet of you. C’mon in.”
Martha shuffled slowly into the house, looking a little like Tim Conway in a Carol Burnett skit. Ellie resisted the urge to laugh, and decided she’d try to be kinder in her retirement.
“Well? How’s it feel then?” Martha asked.
“I’m not sure yet, but I don’t think I like it?”
“Whaat?!” she clucked. “Don’t like it, you say? Why on earth not? It’s what everybody ever wants, works their whole life for, isn’t it? Well? Isn’t it?!”
“Gosh, Martha. I guess.”
“Of course it is. Don’t be silly.”
“I’m not, only I don’t think that people know what it means. Really means. At least I don’t. It’s just that I’m having a hard time figuring out what to do with myself.”
“Cut me a piece of that will you?” Ellie fixed her a coffee and slice of cake. “Aren’t you having any?”
She wasn’t really hungry but in keeping with her just-made decision to be kinder, took a slice, and then a bite, which was tasteless to her. “It’s … delicious — so nice of you.” Only she would’ve preferred a slice of direction, if truth be told.
“What’s all this hooey anyway? You do what we all do, Eleanor. Sleep late. Garden. Visit. Play cards. Possibly knit. Drink. I mean, what is the problem?” Crumbs flew out of her mouth as she chewed and lectured. “Act your age for God’s sake. You’re old. Enjoy your last years.”
“What? I’m serious. Start having a cocktail in the afternoon. Makes everything better m’dear. You’ll be dead before long, so you should try to live it up the best you can. Break some rules even. Just don’t sit around moping!”
“All that is fine. I mean, I could start having a cocktail, I guess, but that other stuff. Just doesn’t seem like it would fill the day. Or be a whole lot of fun either.”
“Hmph. It’s fine with me. Don’t know what you’re talking about.” She got up and started hobbling around the room. “You could deal with all this crap, for one. What do you need all of these books for? Purge dear. Get rid of this stuff.”
“Not my books!”
“Well do something with them — you’re like a goddamn Hoarders show. Do you ever watch that? It’s one of my favorites. Makes me feel so normal. Really.” She poked a stack with her cane. “Donate those things or something. That’ll keep you busy for a good while. I mean, look at this place! And it might save you from being on that show. That’s the last thing I want to see, is my neighbor on Hoarders. Or wait, maybe I’d like that. Yes, yes, actually I would. It’d be a hoot!”
“Ok Martha, ok. I get what you’re saying, but I like my books. I am not donating them. Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out, and I promise I won’t end up on that horrible show.”
“Wonderful, dear, not horrible. Please.” Ellie was standing at the door. “Oh, so you’re ready for me to go. You can just say so, you know.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I’ve got a lot to do with all that gardening, playing cards, and drinking.”
Martha waved her hand at Ellie, annoyed. “Alright, alright.”
“Thank you for the bundt!” Ellie called out after her. If this is what her days were going to be like, she’d have to find some reason to get out of the house or she might turn into Martha, God forbid.
A week later and Ellie had done a whole lot of nothing. Mostly, she shifted from one spot to another in her house, reading books. In seven days, she’d read twelve books, some even twice. The Thorn Birds — how could she love that book so much. Her grandmother had given it to her when she was just a teenager, and Ellie remember being both mortified and titillated at the idea of a handsome young priest having a torrid fling with a young girl. Next, she did something she hadn’t done in a while — had four novels going at the same time. She used to love to do that — it was always interesting to see how four random books could begin to connect in some way after a point.
But then, like a kid getting a new toy, she grew less excited about the prospect of spending endless hours with her beloved books and had become despondent. As much as she tried, Ellie couldn’t think what to do. Trying as hard as she could, even writing ideas down, she could not find the answer, and finally, resigned, simply stopped trying in the middle of the second week. Her days were whittled down to brief visits filled with inane conversations with Martha and whatever unappealing food she brought over, meaningless errands, and reading.
One early morning, feeling in a haze, she was barely awake because she’d taken sleep medicine — unable to fall asleep at night lately, she’d resorted to drugs. Well, not really drugs, but Sominex, which was almost the same as a serious drug, in Ellie’s eyes, who was and always had been a rule follower and prided herself on her ability to manage her health according to The American Heart Association guidelines. The house was still dark when Ellie woke, and stumbling into the hall, she didn’t see the tall stack of books she’d moved there, away from Martha’s prying eyes, and so she tripped, falling right onto them. The hard corners stabbed her, and as she tumbled on top of them, she cried out.
“Damn it!!” Propping herself up, she kicked at the books with her foot, sending the rest of them in a heap. “What am I doing with all of these books anyway? It’s ridiculous! Who does this?? A crazy cat lady, that’s who.” She picked one up, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance??” and threw it down the hall. Took two heavy, leather bound books and hurled them away. Grabbed another, “Things Fall Apart? Yes they do! Mr. Achebe, you have no idea” and she flung that one into the next room. Crawling on her hands and knees, she moved down the hall, knocking down every stack of books she came upon, with a big angry grunt each time. The tallest stack, she kicked with her bare foot toward the bottom, sending the top toppling down onto her. Like one possessed, Ellie knocked the books away, not caring about pages she ripped in the process. Standing, she held a book in each hand, “ Metamorphosis — you had it good and you didn’t even know it, you little cockroach,” and tossed it into a pile. “Ayn Rand, you sassy thing, I’ll show you We the Living — how about we the angry, we the retired, we the bored out of our ever loving minds!” and dropped the book, stomping on it with her bare foot.
“Oh wait, I really didn’t mean that,” she picked up the book, straightened the wrinkled page, and held it close, anger finally waning, turning into warm tears. Her breath hiccupped under the violence of her sobs, yet she could do not stop.
Finally, feeling bad about possibly damaging one of her favorite books, she suddenly came out of her tantrum, the likes of which she’d never thrown in her life, not even as a child. Ellie looked back down the hall at the destruction she’d wrought. It looked as though a tornado had come through, with hundreds of books littering the floor, a slipper haphazardly hanging from a small wall table, and papers or bookmarks, emptied from their secret spots among pages and scattered everywhere. She started laughing at herself, thinking maybe she’d crossed over and that she’d better do something about it fast.
The library loomed large in front of her, and it took all of her strength to move her feet forward. The word groveling came to mind, although she kept telling herself that asking to volunteer was altruistic rather than pathetic. She had spent the rest of the morning cleaning and reorganizing her books, putting each one carefully back in its place for even if they appeared randomly arranged, they were not. Then, Ellie made the decision that what she missed most was the library and so she must swallow her pride and try to do something about it or else she would turn into Martha or worse.
Martha, who reacted with shock at the idea, said, “You’re doing what?? Are you crazy? You just got out of that joint.”
“I know, but I need something to do. Besides, I miss it.” Ellie caught herself almost whining, wasn’t sure why she had to justify herself to anyone, but that was exactly what she was doing. She heard the garbage trucks squeal outside of her house, the men’s inarticulate shouts to one another and to the driver to move along; Ellie thought that while it was a nasty job, at least they were mobile, which was more than she could say for herself. Her world lately included only the rooms in this house.
“I’m fading Martha,” she said.
“You’re being dramatic, is what you mean. Why, Eleanor, can you not accept your lot in life with grace and aplomb like the rest of us old ladies?? What is it about that musty old library that keeps you going back? Is it really that exciting to shelve books and stamp the goddamned label on the back? Lord.”
“Well,” Ellie started.
“Or is it that whole I want to be a part of something hooey. Because if that’s the case, you can come on over, get your nose out of these books and socialize with my card group. We’ll make you feel needed or whatever the hell it is that you’re craving.”
“Martha,” Ellie started, and continued to go round and round with her well-meaning yet annoying neighbor until she was able to usher her, once again, out the door.
As she neared the library, it felt so odd, like she was a stranger in her own story as she stepped over the worn threshold, walked through the security gate and toward the desk, only to ask a person she’d never seen before if Dorothy or Arnold or anyone — anyone at all — she knew was still, hopefully, there. For although it had only been a short time, this place felt foreign to her like an alternate universe of sorts, until Ellie heard a screech and saw Dorothy, waving her long arm at her, seeming happy to see her.
“Ms. Ellie!” she called out, louder than they were ever supposed to talk in the lobby, Ellie noticed, secretly pleased. “Ms. Ellie, you’re back!” The girl wrapped her in a hug and Ellie realized how much she missed this place and its stacks of dusty, handled books, but more than that, missed being touched. When you live alone, and the days stretch into weeks and then months with no one to touch you, not even a pitiful pat or a hug let alone a kiss or something more, a part of you just withers so that you almost forget how good arm feels around your shoulders, Ellie thought. So even an awkward hug by this bony young girl made Ellie almost weep in gratitude.
After a conversation catching up on both of their relatively small lives, Ellie wandered to the back to see Mr. Gibbs, the branch manager, to ask him for something to do with herself for the love of God.
He was seated at his desk, and when Ellie entered the dim box of a room, he barely looked up, nodded, and said, “Hello, Eleanor. What brings you by today?” Nonplussed, thinking there might be a little more warmth or welcome, she found she’d lost her voice.
“Well?” he said.
“I was just … ah … wondering if I could come back as a … um … volunteer?” Not knowing where this nervousness was coming from, she made her hands into fists, trying hard to steady herself.
Mr. Gibbs looked up for a split second. “No, we’re good.”
Not that she expected an overwhelming reception from this man who had been her superior for the past eight years, but this was downright rude, she thought. The buzz of the fluorescent light above her, the scratch of his pen filling out the inventory report, and all Ellie could do was back out slowly.
But then, something held her, perhaps desperation, perhaps anger, and before she could help herself, she told him, “Well I think that’s just plain shitty of you.”
The pen stopped, and squinty green eyes behind thick glasses moved up to her face finally. “What did you say??”
“I said it’s shitty of you. That’s what I said. Mr. Gibbs. Ralph. That’s exactly what I said. After all of the years I put in here to dismiss me like that. It’s awful.”
“Eleanor, I don’t know what’s gotten into you but we don’t need any volunteers right now. We just got a bunch from the high school around the corner and they’re working out fine. So … take your “shitty” comment and go try to volunteer someplace else. Sorry. You’re supposed to be retired now. Enjoy it.” Shrugging his fat shoulders, going back to what he was doing, Mr. Gibbs continued to ignore her as though she wasn’t even there. She had an urge to jump across the desk and bite his red, fat ear.
Removing herself before she said or did anything she might regret, Ellie, walked through the lobby and out of the front door.
Martha’s house was stifling, and the three women, wearing sweaters or wraps, were sitting around the table were tapping cards and sniffling so much, Ellie thought she might scream.
“My trick,” one of them said.
“Christ Margie,” another one said.
Ellie couldn’t keep them straight, because they all looked … well, generically old. Even though she knew that she herself probably looked much the same, she sincerely hoped she did not look like these petrifying women.
“Eleanor, you’re out,” Martha said. And she happily put her cards down, clearly not paying attention or caring much either.
“I’m going to get another cup of coffee. Anyone want one?”
Mumblings all around, and then Ellie was free, alone in the kitchen. These card games were tedious, she thought, and regretted ever saying she would give them a try. Martha’s kitchen was a study in blue and white, so many Dutch dishes hanging on any available wall space and cobalt bottles lining the shelves. Ellie wanted to pull one down and smash it on the counter, but resisted the urge and poured herself a cup of coffee instead. She peered around the corner at the card-playing women.
Why does this happen to people, she wondered. It’s awful. She couldn’t imagine anything more boring than sitting around playing goddamn cards day in and day out. There had to be something more than this. Surely. But what else were women of their age, all alone, supposed to do? Ellie never considered this before, preferring to spend her time and energy with her books either at home or at the library. No, she never speculated about the future, and it had finally caught up with her in the shape of this mundane and tedious scene.
The three women hunched over the table in varying degrees of crookedness, looking like Macbeth’s three weird sisters, toiling over a pot of plastic chips.
“Eleanor doesn’t look like she’s doing well,” the tiny one said. Maybe her name was Ruth. Or Hecate. No, that would be Martha’s nickname.
“Shh,” Martha told her, “she’s just in the kitchen. She’ll come around eventually — just in denial, that one. Give her a little time.”
“I bid two,” the fat one said, throwing blue chips in the pile, and then biting noisily into a cracker.
“I’ll see you.” More chips flying.
“There’s no sense fighting it, for God’s sake,” the fat one told the group. “You can’t stop time from moving. No one can. The only thing to do is accept it with grace.” The others nodded. “Like we all have. Nope, there’s no choice in the hand you’re dealt.”
Ellie spied on them, reading them, and thinking they looked like they were already half dead with their permanent set gray hair, reading glasses, and pale pink frosted nails. Their skin was dry and wrinkled like old paper, barely held together by loose polyester clothing, falsely bright to camouflage what they claimed to accept. With grace.
Grace, my backside, Ellie thought. And with that, she slipped out of the side door, ran through Martha’s yard as one possessed, and into her own house, locking the door against those women, time, and the whole world.
Not quite knowing what had brought her back after what happened last week, Ellie felt as though she might almost be invisible as she walked gingerly through the rows of stacks to the fiction section. Her eyes filled with useless tears, and she felt all the frustration of the past few weeks well up in her. It was quiet and still in the row where she stood, and she was grateful that no one needed a Grisham book, because that’s right where she was, and she did not want to smile politely or even make eye contact with any patron of this library. Nor did she want to speak with any of the employees of this library. This musty old library. The shelves were perfectly organized and Ellie resisted the urge to knock the entire row on the floor and stomp on them. She never felt so dismissed in her life, and all of the anger of her old age and retirement seemed to bind her so tightly, she could hardly move or breathe.
Two young boys laughing and playing chase zipped behind her, the only activity around. And then, without thinking, Ellie removed Runaway Jury, looked both ways, and turned behind her and shelved it next to Jonathan Kellerman’s books. She walked down a bit further, purposefully pulled a book from the shelf, momentarily enjoying the sliding feeling of it moving from its tight space, and stepped a few feet away, stuffing it between two books where it had no business being. For the next two hours, Ellie walked up and down aisles taking books out and putting them where they did not belong. With a methodical focus, she effectively handled at least a third of the books in that section. And when she was finished with that, she walked to the water fountain, got a sip of cold water, nodded at the new person behind the desk and went casually, innocently, like the old lady everyone believed her to be, into the Special Louisiana Collection.
Edith was working the desk but had her nose in a book and so didn’t see Ellie enter. That one was the quintessential grumpy librarian, Ellie thought, always shushing patrons, frowning and pointing her crooked finger toward the framed rules on the wall. Ellie spied on her from a space in the shelves, the books opening to make a spot for her to hide and watch. Her dour face depressed Ellie and the only small pleasure she got was in thinking, you’re only a few years behind me and then it’s no man’s land for you too sister…. All of the times she had watched and analyzed patrons, suddenly she wondered if they had watched her as well. Doubtful, for why would they care?
The back row was deserted and without even thinking or planning it out, Ellie reached up and took one of the rare books down, Italians in America, the cover material soft and frayed at the edges, pages yellowed with age. Letting the book fall open in her hands to page 128, Ellie carefully, purposefully took the paper by the corner and pulled it back slowly, feeling the gentle rip at the binding, the give of the fibers and before she knew it, the page was loose in her hand. She closed the book and licking the back of the page, folded it in half.
Stealthily, like a child in a forbidden room, she weaved in and out of the stacks opening and tearing until she’d compiled a large stack of miscellaneous pages that made no sense together, told no story at all, and shoved them deep in her purse, burying them. Remorseless, surprisingly so, she left the room and out of the library as one who can’t see or hear, knowing she’d never return, not after this.
She felt betrayed, deceived, discarded by the world and furious with herself for having no plan, not even the simplest to-do list, decided she would indeed do as Martha suggested, and sink into her old age, accepting that she was as useless and meaningless as those pages she’d ripped from the place they’d belonged.
The flames grew higher, the torn library pages perfect fodder for her anger. After they turned to ash, she decided to add more. Now, Ellie watched as her books burned in a big pile in the middle of her backyard, occasionally pushing a falling chunk of paper in with her stick. She felt nothing, not one thing, and observed the annihilation as one removed. Without even thinking, she came home today after a bridge game at Martha’s, and started a fire. Methodically, she had carried out armloads of books and put one at a time on the fire. They were almost done. The stacks slowly disappeared from their place, the walls of her house, to reveal nothing, no secret story.
She held close the last of the books, her beloved Anna Karenina. At least it used to mean something to her. Now, though, she threw it violently on the fire, and walked away without a backward glance.
Reine Dugas Bouton lives in New Orleans and teaches English at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. She has published mostly scholarly articles and creative nonfiction pieces and is the editor of “Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding,” a collection of essays on Welty’s novel of the same name. More recently, she has been writing fiction and says this story is about a woman who would prefer to live in a book rather than the real world, and when she realizes this isn’t possible, her life has already passed her by.