The Librarian's Lot
by Tom Sheehan
“Special delivery, Ma’am,” the man said, handing Gladys Towbridge the packet of mail he’d extracted from her mailbox. His casual smile matched his clothes, comfortable and durable. “I’m looking for a room and was told at the depot I’d get accommodations here. I left my bag there just in case. I am Augustus Emberly. I’ve come a long way and would rather not move on right now.”
“Your reason for coming to town, Mr. Emberly?” Her hand out. “I’m Gladys Towbridge.” His hand was gentle, unsought of serious labors, firm. “This is my establishment.” Gladys did not feel strange as she stood in the hallway in her housecoat.
“On the way to wherever, Ma’am. It’s not the destination, as been said, but the journey. I like new places, new people. You provide meals?”
She was direct, leaving no room for unasked questions might later prove embarrassing. “Do you work, sir? Afford rooming costs, meals? Have references?”
The door was open, mail in her left hand. Behind her, carpeted stairs rose neatly in a crimson mirage. Scatter rugs sat at the foot of the stairs. The banister showed steady wear. A painting of small boat managing blue water of the Gulf and a cloudy sky hung at the head of the stairs. Kitchen aromas parceled through the air, condiments saying names. But she caught him breathing deeply, catching and knowing the air coming in from the Gulf. She felt the familiar likeness of someone she’d known a long time ago.
He said in a pleasant voice, “I can pay whatever, in advance, meals included, as long as they’re decently cheap. I’m a retired librarian, no great paying job, but I’m a saver, get by with a good lamp, a good book. I believe in public libraries. There’s one about, I trust?”
The catch was in her throat. She thought he had seen it.
Moments earlier, from behind her front door, Gladys Towbridge had seen him in front of her house, looking about, nondescript at first glance. With an eye from landlord experience, she noted him not carefully dressed, not to her taste. He wore a brown blazer with frayed collar, a dark shirt open at the neck, and darker trousers. Gladys thought he had somehow faded from a far place, re-emerging at her doorstep. There had to be something about him of concern. Everybody has a story, she believed, like every roomer she’d had. Ones who hadn’t, she couldn’t remember. They were the handful that came, stayed, and moved on, without message or mark. They‘d not know they were not making history, that they didn’t count.
She had given preliminary approval; how he closed the chain link gate, dropping the latch in place, tilting his head at the clink of it, noting the lawn newly cut, the small hedges trim, nodding his head in slow annotation. When he looked at the mailbox and the red flag lifted in signal, he had looked toward the door. He had seen her, she nodded. The man extracted mail from the box, put the flag down, and started up the walk.
Gladys agreed again that he’d already made points. Being alert and thoughtful, a kind of history of him was being written. Yet, if he were looking for a room, why had he no belongings? No book under his arm. Not even a copy of the Clarion that might have directed him here. He looked to be in his sixties, healthy.
“What is it that makes you move on? Anything I should know before I let you see rooms available?” As his eyes blinked, she knew she’d hit a spot of interest. “Second floor front. First floor back with a porch outside.” The knob of the door with oval glass was still in her hand. On the stairs the sun threatened steps upward, seeking out rooms on its own.
Augustus Emberly looked up the blue and maroon mirage of the stairway, as neat as the route to the stacks in a past library. A sigh moved from his lips, and then his past. “I was indicted last year for supposedly molesting a child, in the library I loved. It was unimaginable, malevolent. The charge was dropped, but I was let go early on. As God is my holy judge, I did nothing. I don’t know why the boy said what he said, but his parents, after talking with my lawyer, said they’d drop the charge. I think they had specific reasons for doing what they did, right from the outset.”
“Why would someone do that, Mr. Emberly?”
“The lawyer said when they heard I had little money in the bank, they couldn’t get out of the office fast enough.’They tore out of here,’ he said. They found out this family had initiated a dozen suits over the years. They had sued a builder and a train company and a ship’s personnel, and a host of others. But my job was gone, not that I would move back. And so I move on, always looking for a new place, but near the Gulf.”
The two strangers, past their middle years, felt a change in the air, a shift of neutrons, a small current at work. At this small point in the universe, at this juncture, at this door, in the front hall of a modest rooming house with but two vacancies, a convergence had taken place.
She closed the door and said, “I’d like to show you something, Mr. Emberly.” Down the hall she led him, beside the stairs, down a blue and maroon runner to a door under the stairs. The word grotto groped for space in his mind.
An array of books greeted him, spines leaping titles at him, row on row, wall on wall; books covered the landscape. Every square foot was covered with books. Sunlight fell through a tree, splashed spiders on two easy chairs sitting under hanging lamps. Elegance offered old signatures; surely Tiffany had formed them. Colors gathered in glass. Leaded inserts were exquisite. A Queen Ann table held an empty cup and saucer.
“Sir,” she said, “there’s thirty years’ worth of reading here and I’m about to start back through. I certainly could stand some reading company.”
Tom Sheehan lives in Saugus, Massachusetts, and has had two of his books published in North Carolina and two in Virginia. He’s also read his work in Winston-Salem and Charlotte. Sheehan leans on his Southern connections for this story, which appeared in the now defunct Catalyst Magazine in 2009. Read his previously published story Receipt at Ogden’s Twist in Deep South here.