Shelf Life


Amy Allison


If a thread runs through my life that if you pulled it, everything would unravel, it is books. In my apartment, where I live alone, without even the memory of a wife, they outnumber everything else. And when I’m not at the apartment, I’m at the library, cataloguing its special collections or, on a weekend like this, roaming its shelves, listening to the promises of book titles.

Listening until they’re silenced, abruptly, by a coughing fit.

I’m ready to dismiss it as a ghost catching cold in the drafty stacks, but it starts again. I look past the row of shelves to the room beyond, floating in fluorescent light.

There he sits, at a darkly gleaming table, coughing into the sleeve of his bomber jacket. Once the coughing stops, he’s back to reading the book he grips in his blistered hands. Sweat clings to the stubble above his upper lip.

A girl sits across from him, scribbling in the margins of a paperback. Her hair falls in bright waves over her face. Seeing only the words flaring in his brain, he’s blind to her. He’s also blind to the meteors incinerating above the roof and to the molten seas roiling under the floor.

If he leaves the book carelessly on the table, I’ll have to return it to the shelves. It cannot be allowed to be missing.

I make a show of flipping through novels I pull from the stacks, then put back. All the while I listen. The man turns a page of the book, and I hear a blast of leaves scuttling along a gutter. His fingers drum the cover, and I shudder from the thunder.

Dust gathers in the corners of the room. It spirals into galaxies. 

The girl and her paperback flee the room.

Finally, a chair scrapes the hardwood floor. I look up from the book I’m resisting. He enters my line of sight and pauses there, standing in stark profile at the end of the aisle. As usual, I’m easy to ignore. He slides the book onto the top of the bookcase, among the husks of insects.

The tread of the man's boots fades. I suppress an urge to rush to fill the space now empty of him. I force myself to slow my steps to reach the spot. My heart is beating in my throat so I want to scream by the time I touch the fraying binding.

Its musty smell plunges me in memories. The loosened pages. The dark swollen ink. 

I feel a familiar chill as I pass through the library’s halls echoing with the beating of wings.

The children’s weekend librarian, named Mercedes, I think, is startled to see me. I may have said to her once that primary colors, which dominate the walls and tiny chairs of the children’s wing, depress me. Passing by Mercedes’ desk, I smile and wave, which startles her more. She doesn’t notice the book clutched in my other hand.

I return the book to its destined place on the shelf, against the far wall. Again Mercedes notices nothing.

The earliest toy I remember, and my favorite, was a yellow plush thing that wore glasses. I described it not long ago to distant cousin of mine, and he said to me, “Oh, of course, the bookworm.”

Funny. All along, I thought the thing was a snake.

Amy Allison is a writer living in California.

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