"Seeing there is in every being a soul common in nature with all other souls .. it is easy to understand that cardinal motive of human life which is a tendancy and a striving to absorb or be absorbed in or be united with other lives and all lives. This passion for losing ourselves in others or for absorbing them into ourselves .. is the greatest expression of the law of Solidarity." Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888).
The Murphy Lightburn Library in Williamsburg in Brooklyn is a hexagon about the breadth of a baseball infield, or at least from its home plate to Second Base, and there you will find three reading points, each in themselves a wooden hexagon of inward-facing low booths between nose-height shields of Plexiglas, which are made of Polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA, being a synthetic polymer of methyl methacrylate.
Equidistant between the three reading points, in the centre of the room, you'll find my reception desk (a square in itself, although often surrounded by returns still remnant from the weekend, you'd be forgiven for seeing it more an amass or a melange). I work here from 9:30am until 6:00pm three variant days per week, days which have been arranged to fit in with my studies.
Midweek, two people are required at the reception desk. One of us is usually booking out whilst the other files those returns along the shelves which flank each wall of the hexagon, or the propeller of six spines, bookshelves which point inwards, towards the reading points, from each corner of the building. From the outside, the building is matt white, with oblique and modernist angles borrowed from the kind of Baptist church you might watch as you pass it on a freeway, heading out of an affluent, entrenched Louisiana suburb. And, as you'd imagine, there are trolleys and footstools and steps too. We haven't had internet access, as I write.
What I'm gathering up to tell you is that this happened last Tuesday. Tuesday was a stand alone day, meaning I hadn't worked the previous day and would not work the following. Therefore a part of me wasn't fully connected to the work I had to do and part of me was suspicious that the Monday people had left outstanding stuff deliberately, knowing that I would have forgotten to complain about it by the time our paths crossed again on a matching shift. And part of me felt that I could probably get away with doing the same, if I'm honest.
It was almost opening time, after 9:50am, and I was scraping a lot of snow away from the steps outside. In the staff room a kettle was boiling. Snow had been coming down hard all the previous night, and for weeks. But, despite the weather, a few of our regulars had already slipped inside the library. Possibly due to the fact that it was mid-January, with little cheer and with Christmas visitors and families returned to their own out-of-town homes and feeling their duties had been done, our more elderly regulars had been visiting the library almost every day. One of them, a Mr Silver, had asked me if I wanted a chocolate dripped croissant from across the road. I let him inside, and made to follow.
Now, some of the regulars, as you might imagine, have their regular seats on their regular reading points. Each point is chosen for specific and often genuine reasons. Some people require almost immediate proximity to the heat, some need all the natural light they can get, some simply love the idea of stability and continuity. Some, I suspect, like the idea of getting tetchy when something is denied them on occasions. Although they don't seem to know one another, they've found a silent pattern.
"Billyburg's going on its ass out there." Within the safety of the library, Mr Silver shook himself. He was, at one time, he had informed me, a jockey. Now he was forced to wear a KAFO leg brace with a foot plate, which gave him a very uneven step, one which had scooped snow and ice behind him and through the doorway.
"Let me." The other librarian on that Tuesday, Mosse, loped up from behind the reception desk and gave the door a firm tug to.
The thing that happened happened while I was in the staff room watching the boil of the kettle. Around the time of Mosse's tugging, a big shelf of ice and snow fell from the edge of the roof. The initial roar was a pleasant sound, in truth, but the subsequent punch of ice against the woodwork of the doorframe shook us into a new kind of awareness, and left everyone present trying to imagine the sheer weight that had descended.
"Jeeps." Mr Acey, another regular visitor, tried the door. "It won't budge. I can get an inch and then.." We looked through the inch of opening.
"Give it a kick, Bob."
"If we can get something L-shaped around there, we could chip away at it."
"What is L-shaped?"
I went back to the staff room and, in an alcove to the right hand side of the fridge, I tested the emergency door. But, easing the long handle off its rest and downwards, I also found very difficult to disengage the locks. Mosse came in soon after and neither of us were sure if something was frozen or in disrepair.
"The guy has been called." I explained to the assembled library members. "He may be half an hour."
"Half an hour?"
"It looks big." Mr Acey had pulled a footstool up to the frosted seashell shapes in the glass beside the doorframe, and perched himself there. "It looks like an iceberg. It's just sitting against the door like an iceberg person. Maybe it is a person. A frozen person."
"Those roof sections. Stuff lies. What the heck is the idea behind a roof like that?" With his overcoat unbuttoned, Mr Stalling had returned to pacing back and forth.
"If it is a frozen person, they might have been trying to break in."
"It has nothing to do with the roof, Bob. The roof is neither here nor there." Mrs Kalinka hadn't even set down her stack of returns.
"Of course it's the roof. Some of it is practically concave. Shallow. Something you'd throw on a pagoda." Mr Stalling tried the door again with his shoulder. "If I didn't have about a dozen shots under my shoulder blade last week I could shift it. What's that young fellow sitting there for?"
Mosse said that is was probably best to wait for the guy.
"It's starting to snow again." Mr Acey adjusted his woollen hat further down onto his head, after making sure the door was firmly closed.
"We came here to do whatever we came here to do. I'm going to do it." After setting her returns on the counter, Mrs Kalinka wandered away.
I must point out that I hadn't really gotten to know any of the people there that day, beyond Mr Silver. "Allie, here's your croissant. You might as well have it." He gave a theatrical widening to his eyes. After that, I told everyone I would make each of them some coffee for the inconvenience, and Mr Silver accompanied me across the library.
As Mosse began to read behind the counter, Mr Stalling looked at Mr Acey. He looked around the room, then settled onto the footstool. "People don't mend these days. They're too proud to mend. They throw away. A roof you can't throw away."
For a moment, Mr Acey didn't seem to know what to say to this but turned on the footstool until his back rested against the door. "I mend. My socks is almost all mend." He reached to slip off one shoe, to demonstrate, but Mr Stalling had taken his wallet out and leant over to offer him a photo.
"My granddaughter. Do you have grandchildren?"
"No, I don't." Mr Acey began scratching his calf instead.
"No? I have two sons. Two sons and one granddaughter."
"No. I never did, no. It's how stuff goes. How'd it work out for you?"
"How stuff goes? Let me tell you, the family is a crock. Can I tell you something, I'm fuggin terrified. My wife doesn't even remember their names. Can I smoke? Allie?" He shouted. "Can I smoke? These are exceptional circumstances."
He patted his pockets but, finding nothing, he drew back a large mouthful of sparkling water from the liter bottle he had been carrying - "A crock.." - and he rinsed it around and down his throat.
"It goes from so mad no-one can scratch to a Thanksgiving dinner where everybody is talking but nobody says anything they really have to say and everybody's thinking a thousand little things about it. I wish little Markie Mark hadn't grown up so fast. I wish he was still ours. And Markie Mark can tell. Course he can. Like the disappointment in two brothers' eyes. They're ashamed to be grown up now. Ashamed someone seen them running around as kids and knew them inside and out, knew them as carefree and careless and now they're ashamed of the fun they can't be caught having. The reason why is like light, it's such a delicate understanding, and it's almost painful to look at. And it bends your friggin head. That's why people say nothing and that's why the family is a crock."
Mr Acey raised his eyebrows, upturned the centre of his mouth in consideration of what he had just heard, and then looked down. "I had a brother but he's not around." He said.
"It's hell. They've been hell. They hate each other. Two brothers and they hate each other now. They won't be at their mother's funeral. Even that." Mr Stalling took another drink of water.
"Bob, would you leave him alone and help me find something?" Mrs Kalinka then emerged from between the propellers of bookshelves.
"I'm talking? Talking. Can a fellow talk with another fellow?"
"He's only talking, Mrs Kalinka."
Mr Stalling rubbed his face. "When people can't talk, that's when trouble starts. That's why everybody's sitting on the subway thinking about ripping somebody's face off."
With his eyes flitting quickly between both of them, Mr Acey stood up to see-saw raised palms as he recounted something.
"Say, only recently, there was a man, who fell onto the subway tracks but he got up but got caught at the waist between the incoming train and the platform and it twisted him round, yeah from the waist down about five or six times, they say. He was still alive, but they had to tell him that when they moved the train back? His bunched-up insides would collapse and he would ninety nine percent die. He was purple. So they gave him a phone and he called his fiancée and his family and everything. And then they had to move the train. And he just thanked the paramedic for the morphine and everything, and they say he looked up to the roof and started to cry, then went pure white, the kind of white no-one ever goes, and then he died."
"Holy God. That's putrid." Mr Stalling looked towards Mrs Kalinka, who was now standing beside him. "That's miserable. Are you ready to rock? You got the idea. I'm not reading here today, I'm taking out." He stood, then stretched, then ran a finger across the newspapers as he passed them. "These are yesterdays. I'm taking out."
Presenting her card, Mrs Kalinka sighed. Mosse swiped it, stamped her books, and Mrs Kalinka leant into the reception desk.
"We were only talking." Mr Acey sat slowly back onto the footstool, against the door. "I'm not sure if we've spoken previously."
"No, we haven't." Mrs Kalinka scratched the back of her neck. "Are you reading today or taking out?"
"I believe you like history and also Utopian theory. I see you at the science sections, right? But mostly Utopia." Mr Acey recollected in a mostly acted way, then unlocked his fingers to form softly clenched fists, as he puckered his mouth to one side.
She didn't meet his look. "Yes, you see right. Thank you, Mosse."
"I'd remember if we'd spoken previously. Are you sure? I'm a fairly anonymous kind of person."
"Oh, I know lots about you. I've seen you." Mrs Kalinka gestured to the shelves, looking past him towards the door.
Mr Acey looked up and smiled broadly. "A lot? What do you know? You know a lot?"
We returned at this point. I had the coffee cups formed on a tray, Mr Silver had found some packs of biscuits in cupboard. "Splendid. Splendid." He and I set everything down on the reception desk. "Sugar call."
"Two for me." Mr Acey slid to his feet.
"Nope." Shouted Mr Stalling.
Mrs Kalinka had been gradually distracted by a silhouette moving against the glass. "No, thank you."
"Hello?" Called the silhouette.
"Frank?" She said, stepping forward.
"Nats?" The stranger bobbed down and around on the other side of the folding multiplicity of raveneli seashell shapes.
"Frank, we're locked in. Can you shift that thing?"
"Nats, it's a monster."
"I'll try. It's as big as I am and then some more."
"Is that the guy?" Mr Stalling strode a return, looking with concern at Mr Silver. Mr Silver looked at Mr Acey. Mr Acey looked at me, then at Mrs Kalinka. Mrs Kalinka looked at the door.
"It's Mrs Kalinka's friend." Mr Silver then passed Mr Stalling a cup. "He's going to try."
"Frank?" Mrs Kalinka moved right up to the glass to try to keep her eye on the new arrival. "Frank?"
"Maybe he's gone to get something?" Mr Acey knelt on the footstool to listen at the door. "I can't hear anything. I can't hear anything at all."
"Frank?" Mrs Kalinka called a little louder.
Mr Stalling tested his coffee and looked at me with shoulders fixed into a shrug. I looked over for Mosse, who had disappeared with a trolley to file some returns.
Mr Silver settled back onto the right hand seat of the nearest reading unit. He adjusted his leg until his leg brace and foot plate sat neatly in front of him, and he brought out his notepad and pen and he wrote.
"Dear Frou Frou
Yesterday your eyes were lit up and lovely but today I sensed sadness there. What pains you, my angel? 'What does he know?' I hear you say. 'How could he ever understand? Shake your business and pour it, Silver.' Well, listen up. Because I'm not just the thing you see.
Sure, I've been the golden guy. I've been carried on the crowd, toasted and adored. But I have also fallen, been drunk back by the sea until I thought that I would never surface. I have been forced soup through straws, opened an eyelid for my own last rites, slowly found consciousness only to realise that I would never ride again. To avoid thinking I let myself drown again. Now, beneath its shimmer, I am eternally seeing the surface, till the spectre of my glory days returns to snatch me under. I drown every day and, in dreams, I dance at my own wake. That is what I know. That is what I understand.
I see warning signs in you. You drum your fingers and watch the world making its way past that bakery window, wondering if this is why you came to America. You thirst for champagne, celebrities, the high life. Sure, you will meet many lover boys, bragging chiselers of the heart. Each a golden child in someone's eyes, using a learned universe of promise to get what they need. And you will play along.
You have come to America looking for a future full of possibilities, but you must understand that the ways can be hard fought and treacherous. A woman can love too much, and find herself brittle and burnt. You will be a woman before you realise and I would cast myself across the racetracks before I'd watch you take to the mephitic back streets of disappointment. Sometimes I think that all we need for love is a clear run, we'd love everyone if they'd only stop throwing blocks in our path. The world is a whirlpool and I know that you could find in me an emotional rock, and one that could save your life.
You are the surface, Frou, shimmering and touchable and at very long last. And I can be your rock. I'm here. And I will - one day, when you least expect it - emerge to save your life.
Mr Silver looked over his shoulder briefly. He swung his leg brace out and, gripping the reading unit, he hoisted himself in awkward stages into a standing position. He reread that day's letter, folded it three times, and placed it into the waste paper section, beneath his table.