Monday, May 18, 2020

The Library in White Cedar by Edward Ahern

John Willman attends the death of a library, and stands to inherit its books; by Edward Ahern.

The two-day drive from Connecticut to White Cedar, Michigan was endless neon chain links - the same motels, gas stations, and restaurants sprouting up about every ten miles along the interstate.

I was on my way to assist at the funeral of the library in White Cedar. My great, great grandfather, Thomas Willman, had provided the money to build the library and on his death had bequeathed his books to it. He'd specified that if the town closed the library the books should be returned to his heirs. I was the only surviving descendent the town had found, and I'd rented a large SUV in case the books were worth claiming.

Cathy Bender, the town librarian, had been the one to call. Her voice had that slight midwestern nasality that some easterners find annoying but I had always liked.

"Mr. Willman, praise the Lord I was able to find you. We need to talk about the Willman books in our library."

"Call me John, please. What about them?"

"White Cedars can't support the library any more, and has to close it."

"Maybe get some cultural aid money from the state."

"Ah. Well, they're radical Democrats and we're solid Tea Party, so they don't look too kindly on us."

I paused. "Well, Cathy, I could be classified as one of those rad libs."

There was a pause on her end. "Well, you seem nice anyway, John, we just won't talk politics."

Or religion, I thought.

Cathy and I spent the next fifteen minutes talking safely if boringly about White Cedar and its recent activities. Her voice had a pleasing brook burble to it, and I let her flow.

I drove into town the late afternoon of the second day. The main street had only one traffic light - a flashing yellow. Many of the store fronts were papered over, and those still clear-glassed looked grimy. White Cedar was dying, one organ at a time, and it was the library's turn.

There were no pedestrians, and the only hint of congestion was at the gas station cum convenience store. Beer sales apparently were still good. I parked in the overgrown lot of an abandoned Kmart and called Cathy.

"Cathy? It's John Willman. I just got into town."

"Depressing isn't it, John. The nearest motel is about seven miles down the state road, in case you've changed your mind about staying with me. My place is no Marriott, but it's comfortable, and I could use the money. I have WiFi."

After two days of blurring Motel Six, Days Inn and Red Roof signs, I wanted local. "Still forty dollars a day?"

"Yes. Is that too much?"

"It's fine. I'm guessing meals aren't included?"

"No, but the diner down the street is open early to late and could use the business too."

It took a full three minutes to drive to her house. She was waiting on the front porch. "We've talked so much on the phone, John, I feel like I know you."

Cathy was petite, slim and short haired. We said hello again and hugged because it seemed the thing to do. She felt nice. We walked my bags up to an upstairs bedroom and came back down into a front room stuffed with old furniture. She called it a parlor. "I can do credit cards, but if you pay me by cash or check it saves me money."

My check book was seven hundred fifty miles away. "Ah, no problem, I'll just hit an ATM when I go for dinner."

I looked at Cathy more closely. She'd graduated from forty, but then so had I. Her expression had a weathered, inquisitive quality, as if despite bad treatment she was still open to experience. "Look, if you haven't eaten, would you mind coming with me to dinner? You could fill me in on the library and what we need to do. My treat."

She didn't bother to protest, which I liked. "Sure. I haven't eaten there in weeks."

The diner had a faint background aroma of rancid grease. Cathy said first name hellos to the other eaters and the waitress and introduced me, although I assumed that they already knew who I was and why I was there. She didn't drink alcohol, so neither did I. After we'd coated our stomachs with fried food, we started talking about the library's last rites.

"Once the elementary school closed and the kids started getting bussed to Smithdale, the library emptied out. There's no money to fix the building or buy books, hasn't been for years. My title is librarian, but I'm just an unpaid caretaker.

"A book merchant will take all the other titles, John, but at thirty cents apiece. We'll get four thousand dollars, which will barely cover closing up the building and paying off the utility bills. Except of course for your great, great grandfather's collection. That's in a separate room. Doris Lunning, the last real librarian, limited access to the collection to what she called 'serious scholars.' Nobody claims to be that in White Cedar, so the collection just got dusty."

I was familiar with dead ends - the childless remnant of the Willman line, with family records and photos mailed to me as other relatives had passed on. Records that included a listing of the books in the Willman collection. I'd emailed the descriptions to two dealers for initial appraisals.

Cathy wore what looked to be an engagement ring on a right-hand finger. She caught my glance and puckered her mouth. "It's what you're guessing. Six years of un-bliss and a divorce. He was a jerk and I kept the ring. He left town."

"Kids?"

"No, thank the Lord. Although I wanted them."

"Same story, different perspective. She left me for another guy, but did give the ring back. Keep it in my hope chest."

Cathy laughed. The resonance was pleasant. Then her expression tightened into serious.

"I've talked with the mayor about the Willman books. They were, after all, willed to the town. Wouldn't it be the right thing us to find another home for them? You could just sign a waiver giving the books to us."

I wondered. If they were trying to get legal rights to those antique books there might be something more to them than paper lice.

"Sell them off, you mean."

"Yes, but as a collection that would be housed in another library, and would live on as a collection under the Willman name. You've seen what our town has become, we're in desperate need of funds. It would be beneficial for both you and us."

I studied the four wilted French Fries left on my plate. "Interesting possibility, Cathy, but before I decide on anything, I need to know what the books are worth. It'll take a few days to hear back, and meanwhile I need to go through the library and verify their condition."

She touched my hand. "That sounds like a polite no. Please don't slam the door on us, John, leave it ajar while we keep talking."

I realized I didn't want to go back to suitcases and WiFi. "Is there any place left in town where you can watch me drink?"

She laughed again. "We haven't sunk quite that far. There are two bars, one for the beer and shot crowd, and one with cocktail napkins under the glasses."

"Upscale please."

We could have walked to the bar, but I drove. Cathy also knew all five people there, and introduced me as 'the Willman heir.' I cringed, because it made me sound like someone ripe for donating.

She ordered cola, I ordered scotch and soda. We avoided discussing the library, and peeked into each other's lives. I knew she was a born again Christian and staunch conservative, which took several other topics out of play.

Cathy described losing her last job when the local car dealership closed, and having no immediate prospects for a new one. I downplayed my position in an academic think tank, but she called me out.

"Don't give me that false modesty. I looked you up. You're a senior fellow. And a successful politician before that." She said it with a forgiving grin and I shrugged admittance. Our chatter quick-stepped from topic to topic, and I reluctantly called it a night after two drinks. I didn't want the one cop on night shift to bust me for DWI.

On the drive back she offered to provide breakfast before we went over to the library, and I immediately accepted. Back at her house, we settled into saggy cushioned easy chairs in the living room. She kept surprising me. She'd gone to college on a scholarship, and used her teaching degree to get a job at the town elementary school. A job that disappeared when the school closed. The well-used house we sat in had been her parents and grandparents. Cathy was attached and beholden to a town that would, like her husband, leave her. When we stood up, I wanted to kiss her cheek, but just shook hands before I went upstairs.

Once in bed, lights off, I realized it was too dark and too quiet. I missed my overdeveloped suburb and its white noise pacifier.

I smirked after coming downstairs the next morning. We were both dressed in flannel shirts and jeans, ready for dusty work. Breakfast was healthy-yogurt, juice and whole wheat toast, and I guessed that Cathy had eaten her chicken-fried steak the night before as a gesture for me.

The library building, a small Victorian, sagged both outside and in, and water stains blotched the paper on several walls. The building was uninsurable and probably uninhabitable. I raised an eyebrow at Cathy and she shrugged. "I warned you we were on hard times."

The Willman collection was in an interior room, musty but still dry. It needed to be moved soon, before the cloth covered electrical wiring or a water leak attacked. But even dusty and unused it was impressive. Three hundred fifty books, about half of them leather bound, with several outsized folios. According to my list, the last book had been added in 1902.

I'd brought my laptop, and I held it up toward Cathy. "Do we have service?"

"We pirate internet from the auto supply store next door. They know about it, of course."

Small towns are without secrets, and I assumed last night's house sharing was already under discussion. I'd started taking cell phone photos and sending them off to the book appraisers, when an overdue thought struck me.

"Cathy, I'm guessing you've already had the collection evaluated?"

She paused. "Sort of. We couldn't afford a real appraisal, but sent a list to the book dealer in Grand Rapids who's buying all the other books."

"What did he offer for the Willman lot?"

There was a longer pause. "Twenty three thousand. We have no idea if that's fair."

"Neither do I. But I will. The two companies I'm using won't be bidding on the lot, so they'll hopefully be honest."

Cathy left me alone in the Willman room and went over to the desktop computer at the checkout desk. After I'd sent off pictures and details I started browsing through the records, trying to get a feel for who my great, great grandfather had been. His obituary was fulsome with praise, but family gossip had told of a cunning and ruthless businessman. I wondered if the library building and the impressive books had been his repayment to all the townspeople he'd skinned.

As I was gingerly leafing through the books, I got an email back from Dulters and Wilkins, one of the appraisers.

"Advisory on the Thomas McKinney History of the Indian Tribes of North America, three volumes 1838, 1842 and 1844, inscribed by McKinney to Henry Clay and containing pasted-in Ex Libris bookplates of Henry Clay, signed by him. Impossible to provide formal valuation without physical examination, but initial indication unsigned is $170,000 and signed by author and Henry Clay $225,000. Other valuations to follow."

I stared at nothing. The book dealer Cathy had mentioned would have at least a vague idea of the value of the McKinney books, which meant either he was playing the town of White Cedar or Cathy was playing me.

She'd left me alone in the Willman room and after another hour I realized I wanted her company and walked over to the main desk. She was watching videos on her cell phone. In the three hours we'd been there not another person had entered.

"Lonely work."

"And I usually shirk it. I stay home, and just leave a sign on the entry door that anyone who wants to use the library should call me so I could open it up. No one does."

I wondered if it wasn't equally boring at home, but said nothing. I lifted the countertop hatch, went into librarian territory, and sat at a desk facing Cathy's. "You should get out of here."

"And go home?"

"No, move out, find a town with a pulse, and get the teaching job you deserve."

She showed me that smile again. "And leave all this? I get by, sort of, on alimony and some left over money. Nobody would buy the house, so I'd just have to board it up and abandon it. Except for college, everything I know and am is here, including my church Moving away would be like abandoning a sick relative I should be caring for. Does that sound stupid?"

"A little. But I've never had the relationship with place like you're talking about. Look, let's get out of Sleepy Hollow this evening. Bentonville is less than an hour away and according to my laptop has six restaurants and a multiplex theater. Could I entice you into a movie and dinner?"

"Well aren't you suave. Of course. A woman my age shouldn't turn down a date."

Once we'd locked up the library, we stopped back at Cathy's house to change before heading out. The speed limit plus ten conversation was haphazard, because our frames of reference not only didn't overlap, they almost didn't abut. Her temperament suited me, but I was a fervently liberal atheist intrigued with a born-again Tea Partier. Despite that, we laughed a lot.

After we'd left the restaurant and gotten into my car, I turned to her.

"Cathy, I need to tell you up front that I'm going to keep the Willman books. I feel about the books the way you feel about White Cedar. I want to shepherd them for one more generation. I'll be leaving in a couple days and will pack them up and take them with me."

I studied her while I said this. She looked relieved rather than disappointed. "I had to ask about them, but that's fine, they're your books, after all."

"It's great that you understand. I need to make a quick stop at the pharmacy before we head back."

The ride back was quieter, the conversation more piquant. We'd only met the day before, and my departure was already in sight. Once back in her house we sat close together on the living room couch.

We kissed, lightly, and then again more seriously. Without words we began to gently explore each other, the geriatric sofa complaining about our shifts in position.

Cathy leaned back slightly and looked at me. "Does your pit stop at the out of town drug store mean what I think it does?"

"Afraid so."

"I appreciate your discretion." She smiled, and we resumed, two long abstinent adults relying on muscle memory. Once we subsided and snuggled together, the sofa got its revenge, and my twisted back began to cramp. Eventually I gave up and suggested she could share my bed, but she turned me down.

"Your neighbors will talk no matter what we do."

"Of course, but I don't want them confirming it by seeing two shadows in an upstairs bedroom window."

We kissed and I went upstairs, carrying my wadded-up clothes in one hand.

The next morning, I realized how much I missed a comfortable, not quite-fully-dressed conjugal breakfast, helping each other to set places, and serve the meal. In Connecticut I didn't even have a dog.

"If you're willing to give me the library key, I can finish up with the Willman collection by myself, Cathy. But if you're not busy I'd love to have you there with me. We don't even have to talk about Thomas Willman, who by insider accounts was a bastard."

Her half smile revealed slightly uneven teeth that I found winsome.

"John, I'm feeling guilty about last night, and hanging out together is maybe not a good idea."

"Please. Don't leave me alone with these mummified books."

Her smile this time was open. "I suppose I have to keep an eye on you so you don't steal any of our valuable volumes."

"Atta girl."

We washed up the breakfast dishes and drove over to the library, where I reviewed the texted appraisals and answered questions that had come in since the day before. There were some other pleasant surprises.

I took flattened cardboard boxes, interleaving sheets and tape out of the SUV, then started folding the boxes into shape and filling them with Willman books. Around noon I drove over to the quick mart, bought a couple drinks and premade sandwiches and brought them back for our lunch. The sandwich bread had the consistency of the cardboard I was assembling.

I started in as we were finishing our colas. "Cathy, I'll be leaving early tomorrow morning, so no breakfast please."

She said nothing, her expression a sad-serious it hurt to see.

"But I hope we can go out to dinner again tonight."

She still said nothing.

"We're so different I think we'd be throwing knives at each other before the end of the month, but I also think you're wonderful."

She stood up in silence and walked over to me, cupping my cheek in her palm. "Have you ever made love in a library?"

"What? No."

"Neither have I. But I've thought about it. There's a skinny sofa in the librarian's office."

I locked the front door and we walked together into the back office. The settee barely had room for two posteriors, let alone two torsos, but we made do. Afterwards we stuffed the car with book boxes, cleaned up at her house and had another diner dinner. This time I tried with a Greek salad, but I didn't think a Greek would have recognized it.

Once back at Cathy's house we sat on the sofa again, but just talked. For hours. When I finally went up to bed, I'd learned a great deal more about her, but still had to stand outside her viewpoints. She was like a Japanese scroll, with beautifully brushed kanji whose shapes I could admire but remain unable to appreciate the meaning of.

In the morning, after coffee, I gave her a gentle goodbye kiss. "I've left a three-volume set on the bed upstairs, Cathy. They're yours to sell. A book a night, seems a fair room rental. There's a card inside the top book from a book appraiser - I've told him you'll be calling.

"You could give the money to the town but there's not nearly enough to save it. There is enough to resuscitate you - get a teaching job someplace that deserves you. You could always come back and spend summers here, the winters probably suck anyway."

"You said you were going to keep the books."

"I lied. I needed to see if you knew the books were valuable and were playing me."

Her expression hardened and quickly softened again. "I passed, so you made one?"

"Something like that. Whatever you decide, in summer, who knows, maybe I'll call with a yen for your local chicken fried steak."

She laughed again, and I carried the sound with me out to the car. The smell of old leather and paper permeated the interior on the drive back, reminding me that the rest of the Willman collection would allow indulgence in expensive habits for some time to come.

7 comments:

  1. Another interesting slice of Americana, several intriguing stories lately on rural and small town American life in the magazine, one from Maine, one from Louisiana, and this one, which is also about an at first unlikely but then believable relationship between two seeming opposites on the surface who turn out quite compatible.

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  2. A sweet romance that follows the romantic plot arc perfectly, from opposites clashing-then-attracting to the toned-down sex to its requisite happy ending. Don't normally flag nits, but some of these are too amusing to pass on.

    "great, great grandfather"
    This noun, as written a few times, means either your great-grandfather was a great guy or that your grandfather was a really great guy. Should be great-great-grandfather.

    "Wouldn't it be the right thing [for] us to find another home for them?"
    Just a missing word, not that funny, but since I'm at it...

    "four wilted French Fries"
    Neither French nor Fries is a proper noun, so just french fries.

    "The well-used house we sat in had been her parents and grandparents."
    This is hilarious. I'll leave it to the reader to determine why.

    "She was like a Japanese scroll, with beautifully brushed kanji whose shapes I could admire but remain unable to appreciate the meaning of."
    This isn't a nit. I just really like this elaborate simile in all its clunkiness.

    Enjoyed the read.

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  3. The slow moving pace of the story matched the town itself, which I found interesting.

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  4. I enjoyed this tale, simple and to the point. The two characters were much more alike than they appeared on the outside. Well written.

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  5. Great story. Even better the second time I read it.

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  6. Reminded me of my own tiny home town. Really enjoyed the notion that it is possible to form a connection between two people with different belief systems.

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  7. I think there are legions of women, particularly teachers, too anchored to even try to drift, much less explore. Their tryst will be a watershed moment in her life, but too late to lead her toward any sort of enlightenment. He won't be back, but, she's satisfied. This is a very well told story. Thanks

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