by Walter Giersbach
I stepped from the air-conditioned bus into another world. Humid air made me recoil as I dropped my bag and stared at the shimmering white courthouse, the blank-faced stores, the dusty asphalt of an empty street. This was Arlos Creek, a town too indifferent to insert a possessive apostrophe. I’d been chased here by Josie’s angry words, the ghost of my ten-year old son Zachary and the rejection of editors. I was now going to be challenged more as an anthropologist than a librarian assigned to a place the world had passed by.
The library was an architectural crypt to the town’s antebellum past. Once a residence, the reading room to the left of the foyer was filled with shelves of worn novels, upholstered chairs, and a rack with half a dozen magazines. To the right, a room with diminutive table and chairs was dedicated to children. I visualized how my Zachary might have looked at a small table deciphering a large book.
The librarian behind the checkout desk smiled as though I was an angel delivering her medication. Miss Alba — my correspondent — was the only name I knew in town.
“You must be Alexander,” she said.
Of course I was Alexander. How many other strangers came here? Did I sound rankled as I introduced myself? Well, I was totally pissed at my stupid audacity asking to come back to the land of swamps and magnolias, chitlins and grits where I was raised.
The charter I had invented was to energize the town by jump-starting an outreach program. I’d invite speakers to impart their wisdom about quilting, barely-remembered battles and contemporary issues. There would be a media center. A membership drive.
The library, I had stated in my request for money, was a bastion of culture that had to respond to the fickleness of a generation more interested in texting messages and downloading tunes. My grant was funded by a paltry few dollars the government hadn’t spent on wars in godforsaken places. As Miss Alba guided me through the building, I wondered if my grant might better have been spent to blow people up.
I turned Day One into a thorough cleaning of the place and arranging books according to the Dewey Decimal System. I pointed to Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man shelved next to the fundamentals of drawing. And something had to be done about the bathroom’s rusty toilet and a storage room overflowing with stacks of newspapers and unsorted books.
Miss Alba was angelic, with her white hair, translucent skin and blue-veined hands. A shimmery silk dress hung on her thin body, but her aura projected an other-worldly sense of courtesy and pleasant agreement alien to the rough edges of Southerners I remembered.
Miss Alba said vacantly, “Tidying up. That’s nice, Alex. And see if you can open some windows. It’s going to be a doozy of a hot day.”
Key meteorological term: doozy. The wet air hung like a beach towel over the pavement outside. I wrenched opened the windows to a town that lay empty, a Grant Wood watercolor bereft of people. I couldn’t hear a sound as I stuck my head into the heat, searching for a breath of air under the zinc-colored sky.
I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked down into the face of a child about twelve.
“You the Yankee?”
I blinked and sat down, now on a level with her freckled face. “Guess so. But I’m from Virginia, so maybe I’m not a total loss.”
“You a Yankee all right,” she stated, and walked backward with a satisfied smile.
A guffaw came from a dim corner of the room. My audience was an antique man whose head barely rose over the book he was reading. Grizzled hair hung over the shoulders of a once-white jacket. I raised my eyebrows.
“Forgive Scout’s curiosity,” he said. “To children, the stranger invites an adventure, while to an adult it signals a warning alarm. Imagination is everything.”
“I can imagine a cold beer and air conditioning,” I said with unrepentant sarcasm. The heat had to be the cause of the torpor here. Who could think rationally with sweat pouring off your face?
The old man ignored this. “Have you never complained about waiting for a train? Now, imagine a small child grumbling about having to hang out in a railway station, a cavern of wonder and mystery, a palace of poetical pleasures visited by iron-wheeled dragons twice a day?”
I smiled grimly at the coot as Miss Alba called me to the front of the room. After I’d retrieved the carton she wanted, I came back to engage the old man, but he was gone.
My first event was to enlist a smart young kid named Henry Fleming to describe the arms and tactics at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Repeating rifles were a key to pushing back the bluecoats and their muzzle-loaders, but Lee saved the day by dividing his troops. My audience of three men sat with thick hands lying in their laps like hams. They watched, raptly, until the kid finished, then filed out of the room without a word.
A week later, the county health department offered me a young doctor who talked about medical marvels being invented in the outside world. Four men and women sat in the folding chairs, wordless. I envisioned these silent townspeople considering the disaster these miracles with odd names would have on their savings tucked up in Mason jars.
Each evening, as I thanked the speaker, I noticed the antique man exit the shadowy room. He hadn’t occupied any of the two dozen folding chairs during the programs. Where the devil had he come from?
By the start of the second week, I began wondering if Arlos Creek might be a construction of wonder and mystery, a palace of poetical pleasures. Might be, I allowed cautiously. Perhaps there was a way to alleviate my despair over an unremarkable past and an unpalatable present. It was the antique man’s point that I should invite the willing suspension of disbelief.
I hoped to rescue my investment as a redneck librarian by measuring the climate of hopelessness that enveloped a place whose very geography was blasted by oil and coal companies, falling farm prices and mercurial interest rates. And then my fevered brain began to respond with an otherworldly amazement.
My thesis was stitched together more tightly each time I walked down the street to buy cigarettes or a cold drink. I’d stay at the café to listen to other patrons, hanging out while old men sifted through memories of what might have been and what never happened.
I became caught up in the story told about a Rev. Abernethy and the ghost of a British soldier he met on the pike one stormy night. And I was snared by the hair-raising tale of Molly O’Hearn and her lover, recounted with glee by a geezer with no teeth. Made me wonder if Molly lived over the next hill until the toothless one mentioned this happened in 18th-century Georgia. These were characters — real or anecdotal — who would live forever here.
At night, I’d go back to the Jackson Hotel, a two-story firetrap in which I was the only guest. I began scribbling out the stories in longhand under the single electric light on the table. This was a different topic than my memoir of Zachary’s death, the manuscript into which I’d been pouring my soul. Perhaps my neglect was what angered Josie.
The tales often started as simply as a farmer cautioning, “Don’t get het up like Agnes Calloway.” Agnes, Miss Alba told me, had a run-in with a state senator a hundred years before, gulled him into investing his money before luring him to suicide. Yesterdays in the timeless Arlos Creek might have taken place before the residents’ ancestors embarked from Scotland or Ireland or England.
The calendar stood as still as if it were a Southern Gothic Brigadoon. No one paid any more attention to me — the Yankee — than if I had been a spirit wafting across the town square. This was a good place to die, but you wouldn’t want to live here.
I clutched at the anecdotes with the hope of a would-be writer reaching for a lifeline. I was a father who’d lost his son, a husband without a wife. Why isn’t there a word for such soulless people?
While I couldn’t imagine living in this alien world, I was cursed to return home shortly to confront my failures. Josie told me my charm was being facile. Words came too easily, but they lacked the substance to make them meaningful. Josie left because she sensed my protestations of love for our dead son and her were cribbed from a short story. Editors who read my fiction saw immediately that I had no truth to impart, no insights to share with hungry readers. Friends began realizing that my conversation was amusing only when I was paying for drinks.
I was a hollow man, gone now to an empty world. Decades earlier, Tennessee Williams might have been describing my flash of intuition, my recognition of the underlying dreadfulness in modern experience. I had brought my demons with me on the bus to Arlos Creek.
My days were spent wandering the too-small rooms of the library, aligning books, retyping card catalogue entries, tidying the minutiae. After hours, I borrowed Miss Alba’s battered Royal to type furiously on my collection of stories from Arlos Creek. Now it was my library, at least until Miss Alba returned from Biloxi.
“I don’t think she’s coming back.” The antique man stood in front of the checkout desk one evening, although I thought I’d locked the door. “I believe visiting her sick sister was a ruse. She’s gone back to her novel.”
“No,” I corrected him, “she said it would be a matter of days.”
He smiled. “Poetic license. You’re our librarian now.”
“Who the hell are you to tell me who I am!” That wasn’t a question, but a zealous statement. I’d never again be one of their community.
“I know who I am. Name’s Will Falls. But you don’t sense yet who you are.”
“Why’s that name familiar?”
“You may have heard it — read it — before. William Faulkner gave it to me. The way Harper Lee gave birth to Scout and Stephen Crane created Henry Fleming. You’ve met ’em. I’ve been here for... well, I don’t know how many years. Certainly the 1930s.”
The stagnant hot air in the library was replaced by a chill that swept over me. “You’re immortal?” The stupid B-movie word escaped my lips.
“A more literary term would be timeless,” he said. “And I invite you to join me. Join us. I think it was Gavin Stevens who says in Requiem for a Nun, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ And, you’ll enjoy Joel Knox, who is really,” he smiled conspiratorially, “Truman Capote’s unconscious, intuitive self.”
“Old man,” I said, “you are certifiably crazy.”
“Would you like to see your son Zachary?” He winked, a gesture that blinded me with anger. “Don’t get hot and bothered, Alex.” He held up his hands defensively. “The memoir of your son is a best-seller. It brought Zachary back to life. He’s coming in the door now.”
I saw him then, my boy with the too-long hair and springtime blue eyes who never had a chance to bite life in the ass before the car crash took him away.
“Dad?” he cried in recognition.
I rushed to the door and let him fall into my arms, barely hearing Old Man Falls describe the benefits of being the librarian at Arlos Creek. Then I registered on the man’s words.
“What memoir? It’s still in manuscript!” I insisted.
“No, Alex, not yours. Your wife’s. You were driving the car and you didn’t survive the crash either.”
Copyright © 2009 by Walter Giersbach