I do not love mankind.
People think they’re interesting. That’s their first mistake. Every retiree you meet wants to supply you with his life story.
Thirty years ago a woman came into the library; she’d just heard about oral histories and wanted to string one together herself.
‘We have so many wonderful old people around,’ she said. ‘They have such wonderful stories. We could capture them on tape and then maybe transcribe them—don’t you think that would make a wonderful record of the area? My father, for instance, is in a nursing home . . . ’
Her father, of course. She was not interested in the past, but her past.
‘If I wanted to listen to old people nattering on,’ I told her, ‘I would ride a Greyhound bus across country. Such things get boring rather quickly, don’t they.’
The woman looked at me with the same smile she’d had during the entire conversation. She laughed experimentally.
‘Oh Miss Cort,’ she said. ‘Surely you didn’t mean that.’
‘I did and I do,’ I answered. My reputation even thirty years ago was already so spoiled there was no saving it. ‘I really don’t see the point in it, do you?’
I felt that if those old people had some essential information they should write it down themselves. A life story can make adequate conversation but bad history.
Still, there you are in a nursing home, bored and lonely, and one day something different happens. Instead of a gang of school kids come to bellow Christmas carols at you, there’s this earnest young person with a tape recorder, wanting to know about a flood sixty years ago, or what Main Street was like, or some such nonsense. All the other people in the home are sick to death of hearing your stories, because, let’s be honest, you have only a few.
Suddenly there’s a microphone in your face. Wham! Just like that, you’re no longer a dull conversationalist, you’re a natural resource.
Back then I thought, if you go around trying to rescue every fact or turn of phrase, you would never stop, you would eavesdrop until your fingers ached from playing the black keys of your tape recorder, until the batteries gasped their last and the tape came to its end and thunked the machine off, no more, and still you would not have made a dent on the small talk of the world. People are always downstairs, talking without you. They gather in front of stores, run into each other at restaurants and talk. They clump together at parties, or couple up at the dinner table. They organize themselves by profession (for instance, waitresses), or by quality of looks, or by hobby, or companion (in the case of dog owners and married people), or by sexual preference, or weight, or social ease, and they talk.
Imagine what there is to collect: every exchange between a customer and a grocery store clerk, wrong numbers, awful baby talk to a puppy on the street, what people yell back at the radio, the sound the teenage boy outside my window makes when he catches the basketball with both his hands and his stomach, every Oh Lord said at church or in bed or standing up from a chair. Thank you, hey watch it, gesundheit, who’s a good boy, sweetness, how much? I love your dress.
An Anthology of Common Conversation. Already I can tell you it will be incomplete. In reference works, as in sin, omission is as bad as willful misbehavior. All those words go around and end up nowhere; your fondest wishes won’t save them. No need to be a pack rat of palaver anyhow. Best to stick with recorded history.
Peggy Cort is crazy, anyone will tell you so. That lady who wanted to record the town’s elders, the children who visited the library, my co-workers, every last soul in this town. The only person who ever thought I wasn’t is dead.
Let me stop. History is chronological, at least this one is. Some women become librarians because they love order; I’m one. Ordinal, cardinal, alphabetical, alpha-numerical, geographical, by subject, by color, by shape, by size. Something logical that people—one hopes—cannot botch, although they will.
This isn’t my story. Let me start again.
I do not love mankind, but he was different.
He was a redhead as a child.
You won’t hear that from most people. Most people won’t care. But he had pretty strawberry-blond hair. If he’d been out in the sun more, it would have been streaked gold.
He first came into my library in the fall of 1950, when he was eleven. Some teacher from the elementary school brought them all trooping in; I was behind the desk, putting a cart of fiction in order. I thought at first he was a second teacher, he was so much taller than the rest, tall even for a grown man. Then I noticed the chinos and white bucks and saw that this was the over-tall boy I’d heard about. Once I realized, I could see my mistake; though he would eventually develop cheekbones and whiskers, now he was pale and slightly baby-faced. He wasn’t the tallest man in the world then, just a remarkably tall boy. Doctors had not yet prescribed glasses, and he squinted at faraway objects in a heroic way, as if they were new countries waiting to be discovered.
‘This is Miss Cort,’ the teacher said, gesturing at me. ‘Ask her any question you want. She is here to help you. That is what librarians do.’
She showed them the dusty oak card catalog, the dusty stacks, the circulation desk I spent hours keeping free of dust. In short, she terrified them.
‘Fiction is on the third floor,’ she said. ‘And biography is on the second.’ I recognized her; she read Georgette Heyer and biographies of royalty and returned books so saturated with cigarette smoke I imagined she exhaled over each page on purpose. I wanted to stand by the exit, to whisper in every eleven-year-old ear, just come back. Come back by yourself, and we’ll forget all about this.
At the end of the visit the tall boy came up to talk. He seemed studious, though that is too often the word we give to quiet, odd people.
‘I want a book,’ he said, ‘about being a magician.’
‘What sort of magician?’ I said. ‘Like Merlin?’ Recently a teacher had read aloud from The Sword and the Stone, and they all wanted more stories.
‘No,’ he said. He put his hands on the circulation desk. His fingernails were cleaner than an ordinary eleven-year-old’s; his mother was then still alive. ‘Just tricks,’ he said. ‘I want to make things look like they disappear. I looked in the card catalog under magic but I didn’t find anything.’
‘Try “conjuring”,’ I told him.
We found only one book, an oversized skinny volume called Magic for Boys and Girls He took it to a table in the front room. He wasn’t clumsy, as you might expect, but terribly delicate. His hands were large, out of proportion even with his big body, and he had to use them delicately to accomplish anything at all.
I watched his narrow back as he read the book. After an hour I walked over.
‘Is that the sort of thing you wanted?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said, not looking at me. The book was opened flat on the table in front of him, and he worked his hands in the air according to the instructions, without any props. His fingers kept slowly snatching at nothing, as if he had already made dozens of things disappear, rabbits and cards and rubber balls and bouquets of paper flowers, and had done this so brilliantly that even he could not bring them back.
It’s been years now, and nearly every day I dream up my hours and meetings with James Carlson Sweatt. I am a librarian, and you cannot stop me from annotating, revising, updating. I like to think that—because I am a librarian—I offer accurate and spurious fact with no judgment, good and bad next to each other on the shelf. But my memories are not books. They are only stories that I have been over so many times in my head that I don’t know from one day to the next what’s remembered and what’s made up. Like when you memorize a poem, and for one small, unimportant part you supply your own words. The meaning’s the same, the meter’s identical. When you read the actual version you can never get it into your head that it’s right and you’re wrong.
What I give you is the day’s edition. Tomorrow it may be different.
I lived then, as now, in Brewsterville, an unremarkable little town on Cape Cod. Brewsterville lies halfway up the spit curl of the Cape, not close enough to the rest of the world to be convenient nor far enough to be attractively remote. We get tourists who don’t know exactly what they’ve come out to see. These days we have little to show them: a few places that sell home-made jelly, a few guest houses, a small stretch of beach on the bay side. Our zoning laws keep us quaint, but just.
Once we had more. We had James Carlson Sweatt walking the streets. Some people came out specifically to visit James; some came for the ocean and happened upon him, more impressive than the ocean because no philosopher ever wonderingly addressed him, no poet compared him to God or a lover’s restless body. Moreover, the ocean does not grant autographs. James did, politely, and then asked how you were enjoying your visit.
Everyone knew him as The Giant. Well, what else could you call him? Brilliant, maybe, and handsome and talented, but mostly doomed to be enormous. A painter, amateur magician, a compulsive letter writer, James Carlson Sweatt spent his life sitting down, hunching over. Hunching partly because that’s the way he grew, like a flower; partly to make him seem smaller to others. Five feet tall in kindergarten; six feet two at age eleven. He turned sixteen and hit seven foot five the same week.
The town is talking about building a statue to honor James, but there’s a lot of bickering: for instance, what size? Life-sized puts it at about the same height as the statue of the town founder, who’s life-and-a-half. Some people claim it’ll attract tourists, who even now take pictures in front of the founder. Others maintain that tourists will take a picture of any old thing. ‘Who’s this behind me?’ a lady tourist asks her husband, who is intent on his focusing.
‘Pilgrims,’ he answers.
For some people, history is simply what your wife looks good standing in front of. It’s what’s cast in bronze, or framed in sepia tones, or acted out with wax dummies and period furniture. It takes place in glass bubbles filled with water and chunks of plastic snow; it’s stamped on oversized pencils and alluded to in reprint newspapers. History nowadays is recorded in memorabilia. If you can’t purchase a shopping bag that alludes to something, people won’t believe it ever happened.
Librarian (like stewardess, certified public accountant, used-car salesman) is one of those occupations that people assume attract a certain deformed personality. Librarians are supposed to be bitter spinsters, grudging, lonely. And above all stingy: we love collecting fines on overdue books, our silence.
I did not love collecting fines; I forgave much more than I collected. I did not shush people unless they yelled. And though I was, technically, a spinster, I was only bitter insofar as people made me. It isn’t that bitter people become librarians; it’s that being a librarian may turn the most generous person bitter. We are paid all day to be generous, and no one recognizes our generosity.
As a librarian I longed to be acknowledged, even to be taken for granted. I sat at the desk, brimming with book reviews, information, warnings, all my good schooling, advice. I wanted people constantly callously to approach. But there were days nobody talked to me at all, they just walked to the shelves and grabbed a book and checked out, said, at most, thank you, and sometimes only you’re welcome when I thanked them first. I had gone to school to learn how to help them, but they believed I was simply a clerk who stamped the books.
All it takes is a patron asking. And then asking again. The patron you become fond of will say, I can’t believe you have this book. Or even better (believe it or not), you don’t own this book—is there a way I can get it?
Even at age eleven, twelve, James asked me how to find things in the catalog. He told me of books he liked, wanting something similar. He recognized me as an expert. Despite popular theories, I believe people fall in love not based on good looks or fate, but knowledge. Either they are amazed by something a beloved knows that they themselves do not know; or they discover common rare knowledge; or they can supply knowledge to someone who’s lacking. Hasn’t anyone found a strange ignorance in someone beguiling? An earnest question: what day of the week does Thanksgiving fall on this year? Nowadays trendy librarians, wanting to be important, say Knowledge is power. I know better. Knowledge is love.
People think librarians are unromantic, unimaginative. This is not true. We are people whose dreams run in particular ways. Ask a mountain climber what he feels when he sees a mountain; a lion tamer what goes through his mind when he meets a new lion; a doctor confronted with a beautiful malfunctioning body. The idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian when I was in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. ‘I don’t think there’s such a book . . . ’ a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book.
Unromantic? This is a reference librarian’s fantasy.
A patron arrives, says, Tell me something. You reach across the desk and pull him toward you, bear hug him a second and then take him into your lap, stroke his forehead, whisper facts in his ear. The climate of Chad is tropical in the south, desert in the north. Source: 1991 CIA World Factbook. Do you love me? Americans consumed 6.2 gallons of tea per capita in 1989. Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States. Synecdoche is a literary device meaning the part for the whole, as in, the crowned heads of Europe. I love you. I could find you British Parliamentary papers, I could track down a book you only barely remember reading. Do you love me now? We own that book, we subscribe to that journal, Elvis Presley’s first movie was called Love Me Tender.
And then you lift the patron again, take him over the desk and set him down so gently he doesn’t feel it, because there’s someone else arriving, and she looks, oh, she looks uninformed.
He became a regular after that first school visit, took four books out at a time, returned them, took another four. I let him renew the magic book again and again, even though the rules said one renewal only. Librarians lose reason when it comes to the regulars, the good people, the readers. Especially when they’re like James: it wasn’t that he was lonely or bored; he wasn’t dragged into the library by a parent. He didn’t have that strange, desperate look that some library-goers develop, even children, the one that says: this is the only place I’m welcome anymore. Even when he didn’t want advice he’d approach the desk with notes crumpled up, warm from his palm, his palm gray from the graphite. He’d hold it out until I grabbed the wastebasket by its rim, swung it around and offered it to him; his paper would go thunking in.
James was an eccentric kid, my favorite kind. I never knew how much of this eccentricity was height. He sometimes seemed peculiarly young, since he had the altitude but not the attitude of a man; and yet there was something elderly about him too. He never returned a book without telling me that it was on time, and, every now and then when he returned one late, he was nearly frantic and almost angry; I didn’t know whether it was at me for requiring books back at a certain time, or at himself for disregarding the due date.
He’d been coming in for a year when I finally met his mother. I didn’t know her by sight: she was an exotic thing, with blonde wavy hair down her back like a teenager, though she was thirty-five, ten years older than me. Her full cotton skirt had some sort of gold-flecked frosting swirled over the print.
‘My son needs books,’ she said.
‘Yes?’ I did not like mothers who come in for their children; they are meddlesome. ‘Where is he?’
‘In the hospital, up in Boston,’ she said. A doleful twang pinched her voice. ‘He wants books on history.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Twelve-but-smart,’ she said. She wouldn’t look me in the eye and trilled her fingertips over the edge of the counter. ‘Ummm . . . Robert the Bruce? Is that somebody?’
‘Yes,’ I said. James and I had been discussing him. ‘Is this for James? Are you Mrs Sweatt?’
She bit her lip. I hadn’t figured James for the offspring of a lip-biter. ‘Do you know Jim?’ she asked.
‘Of course,’ she repeated, and sighed.
‘He’s here every week. He’s in the hospital? Is there something wrong?’
‘Is something wrong?’ she said. ‘Well, nothing new. He’s gone to an endocrinologist.’ She pronounced each syllable of this last word like a word itself. ‘Maybe they’ll operate.’
‘For what?’ I asked.
‘For what?’ she said. ‘For him. To slow him down.’ She waved her hand above her head, to indicate excessive height. ‘They’re alarmed.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry.’
‘It’s not good for him. I mean, it wouldn’t be good for anyone to grow like that.’
‘No, of course not.’
He must have known that he was scheduled to go to the hospital, and I was hurt he hadn’t mentioned it.
‘I was thinking Mark Twain too,’ she said. ‘For him to read. Tom Sawyer or something.’
‘Fiction,’ I said. ‘Third floor. Clemens.’
‘Clemens,’ she repeated. She loved the taste of other people’s words in her mouth.
‘Clemens,’ I said. ‘Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens. That’s where we file him.’
Before his mother had come to the library, I hadn’t realized that there was anything medically wrong with James. He was tall, certainly, but in the same sweet, gawky way young men are often tall. His bones had great plans, and the rest of him, voice and skin and balance, strained to keep pace. He bumped into things and walked on the sides of his feet, and his hair would not stay in a single configuration for more than fifteen minutes. He was not even a teenager yet; he had not outgrown childhood freckles or enthusiasms.
They didn’t operate on James that hospital visit. The diagnosis: tall, very. Chronic congenital height. He came back with more wrong than he left with: an orderly, pushing him down the hall, misjudged a corner and cracked his ankle.
He was twelve years old then and six feet four.
A librarian is bound by many ethics no one else understands. For instance: in the patron file was James’s library card application with his address and phone number and mother’s signature. It was wrong, I felt, to look up the address of a patron for personal reasons, by which I mean my simple nosiness. Delinquent patrons, yes; a twenty-dollar bill used as a bookmark in a returned novel, certainly. But we must protect the privacy of our patrons, even from ourselves.
I’d remained pure in this respect for a while, but finally pulled out the application. I noted that James had been six when he had gotten his card five years before; I hadn’t even seen Brewsterville yet. He had written his name in square, crooked letters—probably he’d held the pen with both hands. But it was a document completed by a child and therefore faulty: he’d written the name of the street, but not the number. If I’d been on duty, such sloppiness would never have passed.
However I could telephone his mother for library purposes. The broken ankle promised to keep him home for a few weeks, so I called up Mrs Sweatt and offered to bring over books.
‘I’ll pick them up,’ she said.
‘It’s no bother, and I’d like to wish James well.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘Don’t trouble yourself.’
‘I just said it’s no trouble.’
‘Listen, Peggy,’ she said. That she knew my Christian name surprised me. There was a long pause while I obeyed her and listened. Finally she said, ‘I can’t do too much for Jim. But I can pick up his books and I intend to.’
So of course I resigned myself to that. I agreed with her; there was little she could do for him. Every Friday—his usual day—I wondered whether James would come in. Instead Mrs Sweatt arrived with her big purse, and I stamped her books with a date three weeks in the future. Mostly she insisted on choosing herself—she seemed determined that James read all of Mark Twain during his convalescence—but she always asked for at least one suggestion. I imagined that it was my books he really read, my choices that came closest to what he wanted. I’d sent Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky; Mistress Masham’s Repose by T. H. White; Hiroshima by John Hersey. Mrs Sweatt was always saying, ‘And something else like this,’ waving the book I’d personally picked out the week before.
‘How’s James?’ I asked her.
‘Fine.’ She examined the bindings of a row of books very closely, her head tilted to a hunched shoulder for support.
‘How’s the ankle?’
‘Not healed yet?’
She scratched her chin, then rucked up the back of her skirt like a five-year-old and scratched her leg. ‘He’s still keeping off it,’ she said. ‘Ambrose Bierce. Do you have any Ambrose Bierce?’
I looked up the card for the magic book; James had not been in for three months. Surely an ankle would knit back together in that time. Maybe Mrs Sweatt was keeping James from the library, had forbidden him to come. It wouldn’t be the first time. A certain sort of mother is terrified by all the library’s possibilities.
I was meddlesome myself: I decided to cut off James’s supply of interesting books. He was one of my favorite patrons—that is to say, one of my favorite people—and even this early in our friendship, the thought of never seeing him again was more than I could bear.
‘This looks difficult,’ said Mrs Sweatt, looking at a translation of Caesar’s Wars.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I thought he was bright for his age.’
‘Of course.’ She tucked the book under her arm. ‘Half of it’s in Latin,’ she said under her breath.
If they ever want me to teach a course entitled ‘History: the Dull and the Punishing’, I have the reading list all worked out. Bulwer-Lytton, the poems of Edgar Guest, cheap novels whose morals were that war was bad but sometimes resulted in lifelong love between a soldier and his girl. We owned the complete works of a certain nineteenth-century lady author who drew quite a few more morals out of history than that: her books were called things like A True Friend of Christ and Daisy, a Girl of the West. I chose fiendishly well, and sent the books home with the unfortunate Mrs Sweatt, who brought them back unread.
‘This one’s close,’ she’d say sometimes. ‘But not quite. How about the Civil War?’
I gave her Gone with the Wind, which I knew James would never be able to stomach.
I won’t pretend that I was in love with James right away. He was only a boy, though one I liked quite a bit.
Well, now. Only this far into the story and already I’m lying. In juvenile magazines they feature close-up photographs of things that are, like love, impossible to divine close up for the first time: a rose petal, a butterfly’s wing, frost. Once you’re told what they are, you can’t believe you didn’t see it instantly. So yes, I loved James straight off, though I didn’t realize it then. I know that sounds terrible, the sort of thing that makes people think I’m crazy or worse.
But there was nothing scandalous about what I felt for James. I am not a scandalous person. No, that isn’t true either. Given half a chance I am scandalous; later facts bear that out. But life afforded me few opportunities in those days. He was not even a teenager and more than half a foot taller than the average American. I was almost twice his age and I already loved him.
There’s a joke about that. A forty-year-old man (it’s always a man) falls in love with a ten-year-old girl. He’s four times her age. He waits five years; now he’s forty-five, and she’s fifteen and he’s only three times her age. Fifteen years later he’s sixty, only double her age. How long until she catches up completely?
I love that joke. It reads like a chart, like the grids that were eventually printed in medical journals, describing James’s growth, at age ten, age twelve, steady intervals of time and quite nearly as steady in inches. Imagine it: my age on one side of a chart, James’s on the other. How long until he catches up?
James and I met at a particular, happy time in his life. He was just six foot two, remarkably tall but not yet automatically noticed on the street. At school, yes: he was eleven, and this was the year that the tallest kids in the classes were girls, and the boys, innocent of adolescence, occupied the front row of class pictures, the far right hand side of gym-class line-ups. James always knew where he belonged in such indexing, but he wasn’t strange. Out in the world, he just seemed like a nice, naïve, full-grown man.
In 1950, when I met James Carlson Sweatt, I was twenty-six years old, without any experience of love whatsoever. I don’t mean beaux; I’d had those, stupid boys. In college I’d had friends and boyfriends, was invited to parties and asked to the movies. I wasn’t objectionable, not then, but neither was I exceptional: after graduation I never heard from a single college chum. In library school I had a few after-class-coffee friends, but that was it.
Then I moved to Brewsterville. Suddenly that part of my life seemed to have ended: I felt quite sure I would never hear an affectionate word from another human being in my life. Most days I spoke only to my library patrons, which is one reason I loved my work—it kept me from being one of those odd women discussed in books about odd people: her neighbors saw her only as a shadow on the street, then she died, buried beneath newspapers, movie magazines and journals filled with imaginary conversations.
Even with work I was odd enough. Every morning I walked along the gravel path from my house to the sidewalk, thinking, is this who I am? A lonely person? I felt as awkward as a teenager most days, as if Cape Cod were one big high school that I had enrolled in too late to understand any of the running jokes. My life was better in many ways than it had been in high school, I knew that. I worked harder, which was a blessing; my skin had turned up pleasant enough. I had been kissed.
But I still dreamed of kisses that I knew wouldn’t be delivered and I grew morose as I waited to be stood up by nobody in particular. I was aware that I didn’t know anything about love; every morning I realized it again.
And then I met a tall boy.
If I were a different sort of woman, I would point to fate. I would claim that I understood the course of the rest of my life the minute James walked into my library. But if I were a different sort of woman, I wouldn’t have needed to cling to the weekly polite visits of a tall boy, or to wonder what went on in a house with painted flowers on the side, dreaming of the day I might be allowed back in.
That, perhaps, is all you need to know. I was not a different sort of woman. Right there you have my life story, because my life is beside the point. Most lives are. Just as Barlett’s is not interested in the librarian’s quotations, Who’s Who is not interested in the librarian’s life. In a big library you will find dozens of biographical dictionaries: South American women writers, Scottish scientists of the eighteenth century, military men and psychologists and business-people; the important citizens of every country.
You will not find a volume marked Everybody Else.
You will not find me in any reference source; your finger will slide along index after index, under Cort, under librarians—American, but you won’t find the slightest reference to me.
You might be tempted to ask, but I’ll tell you: it’s a colorless story, one that no one could possibly be interested in. By now it’s outdated and probably riddled with lies. If somebody wrote the story of my life before James (and it would be a short book, repetitious and unillustrated) I would not buy it; I would not have it on my shelf. It would be a waste of the budget.
I was a librarian when I met him. That much is important. I had my library, which I loved and despised. All librarians, deep down, loathe their buildings. Something is always wrong—the counter is too high, the shelves too narrow, the delivery entrance too far from the offices. The hallway echoes. The light from the windows bleaches books. In short libraries are constructed by architects, not librarians. Do not trust an architect: he will always try to talk you into an atrium.
Space is the chief problem. Books are a bad family—there are those you love and those you are indifferent to; idiots and mad cousins whom you would banish except others enjoy their company; wrong-headed but fascinating eccentrics and dreamy geniuses; orphaned grandchildren; and endless brothers-in-law simply taking up space whom you wish you could send straight to hell. Except you can’t, for the most part. You must house them and make them comfortable and worry about them when they go on trips. And there is never enough room.
My library was no exception. It had started its life in 1880 as a nice, one-room building; almost immediately the collection was crowded. The town started to tack on additions: a skinny hall, a dusty reading room, two stories of stacks with frosted-glass floors. These floors—an invention of the nineteenth century—were composed of panes cloudy as cataracts which only allowed close-up objects to show through. On the second floor you could see the glow of the light bulbs that lit the first floor; on the first floor you could see the outline of people’s feet by looking up.
The panes of glass were always cracking and had to be replaced with wood. The shelves went right through the floors, and there were gaps where they met the glass panes, which meant that a man on the first floor could look up the skirt of a woman on the second if he were so inclined, and at least once a month, some man was.
The tiles teared up at a hint of moisture; the slender-throated plumbing choked on the daintiest morsel. The roof leaked. There were staircases that led nowhere.
I came to the job fresh from library science school. Purgatory would have seemed quite an adequate set-up to me then; I would happily have issued cards to the not-quite-condemned and the not-yet-blessed and thought it a vast improvement over the dullness of catalog class. I loved that building when I first met it; I suppose I continued to love it the way a woman will love a husband who sticks around while she silently prays he will leave or die. Indeed until 1950 the library occupied much of my heart and mind. When we were apart, I wondered what wrong-headed thing it would insist upon in my absence (bursting a pipe, inviting birds through broken windows); when we were together, I cursed it and made apologies for its behavior to visitors. Before I met James Carlson Sweatt, the library was my best comfort and company. I was a fool for that library.
We are fools for whoever will have us.
I did see other people. My patrons, for instance. Pharmacists are the same, I guess—you learn the dirty little secrets of what’s wrong with your customers and what might possibly cure it: shy men who want to read about wars, any war at all; fading women who need a weekly romance. Plenty of people came in more than once a week. Mr Mackintosh, a widower, fancied himself a writer and wanted me to read his stories. I read one; it was about a stripper. Mrs Carson was on her fourth husband; I wondered when she had the time to read her bestsellers. A nice couple brought in pictures of their dogs, fox terriers, natty dressers—the dogs, I mean, not the couple. My landlord, Gary, a tragic man whose wife had left him eight years before, came to read magazines once a week.
I had my co-workers too, who some days I forget. I see myself alone in the library, alone with the patrons. Pride does this. At the library I worked with two other people: Astoria Peck and Darla Foster, both part-timers. Darla was a twenty-year-old who’d have been better suited to waitressing. I don’t know why I hired her, other than the fact she was my sad landlord’s daughter. Darla shelved the books, put the daily papers on the forked wooden spines that rested in metal stands, worked the front desk when I was busy. She had a rear end as big as an opened dictionary, and a bad attitude.
Astoria Peck handled most of the library’s technical processes—repairing books or sending them out to a bindery, if they could be saved at all; cataloguing; billing. Like me, she was a librarian (that is, she had a master’s in library science), and had for many years worked at the elementary school. Once she hit forty, she said, she got tired of the smell of children.
‘They smell like bad cookies,’ she told me. ‘Go ahead, get a good whiff.’
I demurred, which was never enough for Astoria. The next child through the door prompted her to nudge me—’Go ahead.’
Astoria had been told once that she should go to Hollywood; she never did but she also never forgot the suggestion and wore her hair and make-up like a movie star. She was the type of person who relied very much on what other people told her about herself. She’d been informed, variously, that she was a card, an enigma, a heartless woman. Her mood depended on what was last said to her; it prevailed until the next assessment. Her husband told her she had beautiful legs, and she was happy; her niece told her she had big ears, and she was devastated.
‘I have big ears,’ she told me mournfully. ‘I’m a big-eared woman.’
Astoria and I were bound together by our terrible struggles with the library building and the troubles it caused with the town manager, who, when we wanted our book budget increased, said that he’d been to the library, and the shelves were already full. He’d look at a repair bill and say, ‘What did they fix that toilet with, gold?’ Between the building, which was falling to pieces, and the town manager, who was solid rock, we were left to setting out buckets for leaks and fixing wobbly tables with books we were going to throw out anyhow, books that had not circulated in thirty years. For some reason, though, a table leg square on a dust jacket seemed to patrons the highest recommendation; they wanted to take those books out, accused us of neglecting great works.
Mrs Sweatt started coming to the library for herself, for romance novels and women’s magazines. She nodded at me shyly, sneezed in the dust. You could hear her sneeze in the stacks from anywhere in the library; it sounded like a reproach.
‘What is her name?’ I asked Astoria. ‘She calls me Peggy, but hasn’t even told me what her Christian name is.’
‘That’s it,’ Astoria said. ‘That’s what everyone calls her. I guess when she and her husband got married, they called each other Mister and Missus—you know, like any honeymoon couple—and they just never got out of the habit. Then other people picked up on it.’
‘She’s not from around here.’
‘No,’ said Astoria. ‘Heavens, no, Midwest, somewhere. Came out on vacation with her parents, met Mr Sweatt, stayed. He could have swept any girl off her feet, that one. Charming, a fast talker. Nobody could figure out what he saw in her.’
‘Well,’ I said.
‘I mean, she was this sort of tragic character—even then she was, I’m not sure why—and Mr Sweatt was a boisterous, friendly guy. A bad guy who made himself seem nice sometimes, or the other way around, you know the type?’
No, I said, I didn’t.
‘He left. About six years ago, maybe. Just disappeared out west. That’s where ex-husbands go, right? There must be whole ranches of ex-husbands out there, leaning on corrals and drinking too much gin.’ She laughed. ‘And now here’s poor Mrs Sweatt. Drinking a little too much herself, actually.’
‘She thinks it’s a secret. But listen to her purse when she walks by. Slosh, slosh.’
‘I don’t listen to purses,’ I said. ‘Purses are a private matter.’
Shy, sensitive-to-dust Mrs Sweatt. Her arms and legs were plump, as if her heart did not want them to get too far away, and sometimes she seemed to limp. I thought her marriage must never have been happy; I couldn’t imagine her enjoying the company of a boisterous man. And if you were boisterous, it would be hard not to torment Mrs Sweatt, who did not have a sense of humor in the way most people do not have a sense of French.
In our town we did not measure time in years but in winters. Summers were debatable daylight; winters were definite, like night. In the dark privacy of winter Brewsterville’s citizens were more likely to drink, weep, have affairs, tell off-color jokes, let themselves go.
Then summer came around again, and they ironed their best pants, sewed on buttons popped by eagerness or an extra five pounds and got back to work.
It wasn’t that nothing happened during the tourist season, simply that summers were so crowded with quotidian incident as to appear identical to one another. The tourists came in. Every year one had a heart attack in a restaurant; several were accused (rightly or wrongly) of shoplifting a souvenir ashtray from one of the souvenir-ashtray emporiums; dozens tried to seduce coffee-shop waitresses and succeeded or didn’t, depending on the coffee shop; and an even hundred tried to get library cards good for one week, despite living in California, despite a remarkable lack of identification. And then the summer ended, and the tourists left, and it was as if the town itself had just returned from a vacation somewhere far off, having never sent a postcard to keep all of us up-to-date on its seasonal goings-on.
There was the winter of 1951, with the bad ice storm (unusual for us) during which, Astoria said, Marie at the post office got stranded and then pregnant with a boyfriend from Hyannis at the only inn open year-round. James was twelve and just under six foot four. The following winter there was barely any snow at all, and the used bookstore closed up when the man who owned it shot himself. Nobody could understand why, with the weather so pleasant for a change. James turned thirteen. Next the winter of 1953. His growth was like weather, some years worse than others: he grew six inches between his thirteenth and fourteenth birthdays, and Brewsterville lost power four times in thunderstorms.
Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, what I’d mostly known previously was what everyone did: his height. The tall boy, our town giant. I knew that height well, of course: Astoria had given me the details. When he was a baby, strangers thought he was retarded because he was so slow for his size. The hems on everything he wore were deep as most people’s pockets, so they could be let out, and his pockets were twice as deep as his hems.
I’d been captivated by his height, and the heroic way he seemed to bear it. Now I learned he was interesting in many unconnected ways. I could write an encyclopedia on his enthusiasms and how they accumulated, complete with dates and cross-references.
‘What’s your hobby this week?’ I’d ask.
‘I’m thinking about model building,’ he’d say. ‘But not from kits. I want to start from scratch, so I need books on battleships.’ Or, ‘Gardening.’ Or, ‘I want to make my own root beer. Are there recipes for things like that?’
He was fond of the sorts of books that I’d loved as a child, huge omnibuses of humor, pranks or science experiments. A serious kid most of the time, he allowed himself to get silly at strange moments.
He came in one day wearing a plastic nose, ordered from the back of a magazine, underscored by the falsest mustache I’d ever seen. (All his life he loved what you could get through the mail. Eventually he had dozens of degrees from correspondence schools and was a mail-order minister several times over.) The nose was beaky and sharp and coming loose at the edges. I said, ‘You look like the canary who swallowed the cat,’ and he laughed his mustache right off. Every now and then he’d approach the desk with a glass of water filled from the bubbler in the hall and would ask me, in a reasonable tone of voice, to put my hands out or turn my back for a second. I explained to him that I wasn’t born yesterday. Astoria, however, was a perfect pigeon, and I more than once had to rescue her: she’d set her hands, palms down, on the circulation desk, and James had balanced a glass filled with water on each, and then whistled his way to the back of the library. James introduced me to my first joy buzzer, and Astoria to her first whoopee cushion. I knew better than to accept candy from him: I knew it would be rubber or bitter or explosive.
Nevertheless I was the town librarian—less a woman than a piece of civic furniture, like a polling machine at the town hall, or a particularly undistinguished mural—and even those years had a sameness to them, uninvolved in gossip as I then was. I have had to consult one of those medical charts to see during which year he grew six inches. James was a library patron then, a cherished one, but when I saw him on the street with his friends, a rare summer sunburn across his nose, or, in the fall, heading toward his house with a bag of groceries, or, in winter, pulling on a knit cap that his mother no doubt insisted on, I was only one of the many people who knew him; everyone knew him.
My own life went on in this way. I woke up, cleaned my apartment, went to work, came home. I almost always had a book in my hand, to shelve or read or consider.
James’s life went on too. He grew. That was his life’s work. He got the glasses he needed. He acquired a camera and carried it by the neck strap all around town. I saw him making his way down the street clicking pictures. The year-rounders were used to him, but tourists stopped and stared.
Summers made even me feel as if I were becoming famous. That is, people took my picture constantly. That is, I kept accidentally stepping into the frame as a tourist took a picture of something else. These are the two truths of tourists: they walk slowly and they must record their slow progress down the street. I appear in family albums, in slide carousels, sometimes a blur and sometimes a sulky stranger. When I ate my lunch on a bench outside the library, they thought me particularly picturesque and photographed me on purpose.
They loved James, of course, and asked to take his picture, usually alongside a wife. He allowed it as long as they returned the favor. He really was becoming famous; usually they asked his name so they could write it on the back of the snapshot. Mother, Niagara Falls, 1949. Minna, 1950. James Sweatt, Brewsterville, Cape Cod, 1954.
He never recorded the names of the tourists; what made one different from another? He read books on developing photographs. He became a boy scout, the world’s biggest. He wrote a prize-winning essay on community service. He played basketball, of course, and was always described as the star. By this they meant tall. Any number of the words used to describe James just meant tall.
Certainly things could have continued thus, and I would have completed my life never knowing the lack. Or rather, I would have kept my relationship as it was with James, finding him books and recognizing a lack and counting myself lucky for that. Lacking things was what I did; I might as well lack something interesting. I felt in those days quite set apart from the rest of the human race who regularly got what they wanted and complained anyhow.
‘The Giant of Cape Cod’ is taken from Elizabeth McCracken’s first novel, The Giant’s House.