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Suzanne Kamata


Tragic Women

Juliet Capulet, Hester Prynne, Billie Holiday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In between phone calls Hannah Jane is making a list of tragic women. The clear bubble on the phone lights up, signaling a call. Hannah Jane picks up the receiver. "Richland County Public Library. How may I help you?"

"I need to know the capital of Burkina Faso," a boy says. Hannah Jane hears desperation in the voice, guesses that it's a junior high school student working on a report at zero hour.

This is a question for the Reference Department, but Hannah Jane knows the answer. Recently she's become an expert on African geography. She goes ahead and tells the kid "Ouagadougou." Then she spells it.

The boy doesn't say thank-you. A lot of people take the library for granted these days.

Hannah Jane hangs up the phone and writes down her name. Besides being a compulsive list-maker, Hannah Jane herself is the most tragic person she knows.

 

Phone duty is only part of her job. When she isn't relieving Dottie, blowzy Dottie off on her long, long lunch breaks ("Oh, so sorry. I lost track of the time"), she's on the third floor with Estelle. She's cloistered with the spinsters, beyond a door that can only be entered if one knows a secret code. Actually they aren't all spinsters. Estelle is divorced. She's alluded to Hannah Jane once or twice about her disappointing marriage, her Mexican divorce. When Estelle talks she prefers to go further back in time, recalling days of hats and white gloves, when everything was just so, a la Emily Post. And Jimmy. Jimmy's not a spinster, although he is quite spinsterish - at times bitchy, at others prissy. Cassie, the staff artist, seems the most likely to have a love life. She's young, in her late thirties, maybe. She wears brightly colored socks and keeps her hair cropped and dyed Marilyn Monroe blonde. Once she'd gone out with Blue River, the famous local artist whose painting hangs in the stairwell, but Cassie says she hasn't been on a date in seven years.

"Has that Tom been bothering you again?" Estelle asks when Hannah Jane returns to her desk.

Hannah Jane shrugs. "No, not really."

"I think there's something wrong with that boy," Estelle says, even though Tom is thirty years old. "He's not right in the head." She taps her forehead softly with a lily-white hand.

Hannah Jane nods and looks around her desk for a letter that she can get Estelle to sign, something that will change the course of this conversation.

Tom has been seen talking to Hannah Jane, hanging around the reception desk when he should be shelving books. Hannah Jane knows that it looks bad to the patrons--slackers on the library payroll, taxpayer's money, blah, blah, blah...She's even tried to shoo him away.

"I don't care if I get in trouble," Tom said. "I want to talk to you."

"But I'll get in trouble," Hannah Jane said between gritted teeth.

Finally, she agreed to go see a movie with him just so he'd leave her alone at work.

 

In the morning when Hannah Jane arrives for work the street people are already there, pressed against the front door, waiting to get in. They've most likely spent the night at the shelter two blocks away, on the other side of the Baptist hospital, but they aren't allowed to stay there during the day.

Hannah Jane uses the service entrance at the back so she doesn't have to step over their lumpy bodies. She can see them through the glass once she's inside. They are yearning not for books, but for warmth and comfortable chairs. Sam, the Security Guard, has been authorized to kick them out if they are found sleeping or drunk. They know this and they are careful.

Once, when Hannah Jane was on the first floor gathering information for the monthly newsletter that she and Estelle put together, she saw an unshaven man in two or three layers of clothing holding a newspaper upside down. Like bedouins, they carry everything they own on their backs. She could have reported him to Sam, but she kept her mouth shut. Where would he go? He might freeze to death outside.

Before she goes upstairs, Hannah Jane peruses the new books for a moment. She is thumbing through pages, inhaling fresh ink, when she catches a glimpse of them out of the corner of her eye. The street people huddle there, just beyond the glass like animals in a cage. She is compelled by curiosity. She approaches the main door slowly

as if she might spook them with sudden movement. The people gathered there straighten up from their slouches and the dull glaze leaves their eyes. Hannah Jane knows that she is being a tease. She doesn't have a key, couldn't let them in if she wanted to, but she goes closer and closer.

She spots Bertha at the head of the pack. That's not her real name, but Tom dubbed her "Bertha" early on and the name seems to fit. She is a formidable figure with bulky limbs, bigger than the men. Her hair is dry and yellow like straw. When she grins Hannah Jane sees that she is missing teeth. Her big body, wrapped in a moth-eaten coat, is smashed against the glass.

Hannah Jane sees that she is holding a book. At least one of themcan read, she thinks. She catches a flash of the book's title, something about witchcraft. An involuntary shudder runs through her body. She turns away quickly and goes upstairs where it's safe.

 

This is how she met Tom: She was sitting at the reception desk, reading an article about Elizabeth Taylor in French Vogue. Poor Liz, she was thinking. Poor, beautiful Liz, her life a string of heartbreaks. There was a man, one she'd never seen before, with a trolley cart full of biographies on the floor. He must be the new shelver, Hannah Jane thought, looking up from her magazine.

He pushed his cart near the reception desk and looked at the open magazine. "Elizabeth Taylor, huh?"

Hannah Jane ran her finger over a picture of the actress as a youngster perched on a horse in her "National Velvet" role. "She was really beautiful."

"You're beautiful, too," he said. "You skin is so perfect it doesn't even look real."

Hannah Jane looked up, startled, and saw that he was staring at her. His eyes on her face felt more intimate than touch. She could feel the blush rising to her hairline.

 

Tom appears dangling something between his thumb and forefinger. "Look what I found!" he says, eyes alive with devious pleasure.

Hannah Jane stares, numb with horror.

"A used condom!" Tom proclaims, as if she hasn't figured it out yet. He has the same sort of enthusiasm others might exhibit for a fifty dollar bill found in the street.

"Sex in the stacks. My, oh my. I wonder who? Bertha?"

Hannah Jane doesn't want to think of the vagrants writhing around on the scratchy carpet among the biographies. This is not a seedy hotel. The library is a place to read and study. Then she shakes her head. She is thinking more and more like Estelle every day.

"Ugh!" she says, averting her eyes. "Throw that thing away."

Tom grins, then drops it in the wastebasket right next to the desk! Where she'll be forced to look at it for the next hour! When Tom disappears behind the bookshelves again she crumples some sheets of note paper and covers the odious sight.

 

Hannah Jane says "please" and "thank you." She addresses library patrons as "sir" and "ma'am." Even the homeless people. When she nearly bumps into Bertha in the stairwell one day she says "Pardon me, Ma'am." Bertha just grunts and shoves past her trailing an odor of unwashed armpits. A saintly smile appears on Hannah Jane's face.

Tom says "I can't figure it out. Either you're sappy and shallow, or you're deeply sad."

Hannah Jane likes him better for this. She becomes aware of his keen perception. Not just anyone would be able to figure out that her unfailing politesse and her regulation cheer are simply a cover for despair. She will not degrade her sadness by discussing it during the morning coffee break. The lonely childhood, the lover gone to Africa, the failed expectations - these are not things to be talked about and trivialized. She does not want to hear the little homilies about time and wounds, or the home remedies for heartbreak which the ladies on the third floor would surely offer. My pain is immortal, she thinks. It will outlast even my body.

Hannah Jane had a miscarriage. While on foreign study in the South of France she'd gotten herself knocked up. No, no. She hates that phrase. Elle est devenue enceinte. Yes, that's better. Everything sounds better in French. Le pere etait un Grec. A handsome Greek with eyes the green of the Aegean Sea, or what she imagined the color would be. He was virtually the same size as Hannah Jane. They'd worn each other's clothes. Love was a turbulent twisty thing. She hadn't been able to get a grip on it then, as now. She came back from France, bled the baby out, and now she has no idea where that man is.

 

During her morning break Hannah Jane visits the children's room. She moves conspicuously through the rows of bookshelves, looming two feet higher than the little kids. Hannah Jane is oblivious, struck by nostalgia. She wanders among her old friends--Babar, Madeline, Amelia Bedelia, Curious George. "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?" she wonders. Who is she kidding? Her childhood was marred by a mother who didn't love her enough because she couldn't stop wetting the bed. "I'm going to have to go to the hospital," her mother said once while stripping the sheets off the mattress. "You're making me sick in the head." Hannah Jane had imaginary playmates and a stutter. She is

nostalgic for a childhood she never had - maybe that of the saucer-eyed little boy, the one there with the curly blonde hair, dressed in designer clothes. Hannah Jane observes him for a moment, imagining his life. He's probably one of those kids studying violin by the Suzuki method. His mom gives him granola bars and unsweetened fruit juice at snack time. He'll grow up watching PBS. He's got that son-of-Yuppies look about him.

He's holding a book, one of the Doctor Doolittle series. Now there's a story, thinks Hannah Jane. She remembers the strange animals, the Pushmi-pullyu, kind of how she feels about Tom. He is at once alluring and repulsive to her.

Tom's forehead, made broader by his receding hairline, is often sheened with sweat, giving him the look of someone ill or demented. Also, he has an unattractive paunch. Hannah Jane is, however, attracted by his intelligence, occasionally amused by his cynicism. She finds herself wanting to impress him. She enjoys his attraction to her, but she doesn't want it to complicate her life. A line from a poem by Sylvia Plath comes into her head: "your body hurts me as the world hurts God."

She has been losing weight. Sorrow has carved hollows in her cheeks. In the mirror she sees someone who has become glamorously gaunt. The shadows under her eyes reflect the black clothes that she likes to wear now. Hipbones jut from beneath her skirt.

 

Hannah Jane makes a list of things she has in common with Jackie O. A Greek man. Study in France. Literary aspirations. Big black sunglasses. An Irish-Catholic from Massachusetts. Her Irish-Catholic

hadn't been a politician, but he'd interned at the State House. Close enough. He hasn't been assassinated, although she sometimes imagines horrid deaths for him - a plane crash, flesh-eating bacteria, a car bomb. He isn't buried in Arlington National Cemetery or anywhere else. He's alive and well in Africa - Dakar, to be exact.

 

Hannah Jane isn't sure what she's doing parked outside the house Tom lives in at ten o'clock on a Saturday night. She's bought a six-pack of beer and she carries it with her to the door.

No one answers her knock at first. Lamplight from inside spills onto the yard, but that doesn't mean that anyone's home. They might be trying to ward off burglars. She feels crestfallen, though she can't say exactly why.The beer becomes heavier and heavier. "What am I thinking?" she asks herself. She should be at home in her pajamas watching old movies on TV.

Before she has time to change her mind the door opens, and there's Tom. His hair is wet. Hannah Jane smells soap and shampoo.

"Hi!" Tom says. He grins and ushers her inside. "What a surprise! I'm glad you came."

Hannah Jane feels guilty. She would be more comfortable if he were less happy to see her. "Don't expect anything from me," she wants to say. Instead she gives him a dopey smile and follows him up the stairs.

She is surprised by the absence of objects in Tom's room. It's more like a monk's cell, stark and bare. A twin bed covered with a wool army blanket is pushed against the far wall. The only other furniture is a desk and the chair that goes with it. Hannah Jane counts three library books and a couple of letters.

"Where are all of your things?" she asks.

There is a braided rag rug on the hardwood floor. There are no dirty socks lying about, no skin mags, no old newspapers.

"I don't want to be weighted down by possessions," Tom says.

Hannah Jane has never met such an ascetic before. Tom suddenly seems pure and saintly. Like Ghandi.

"Have a seat," he says, sitting on the bed.

Hannah Jane chooses the chair. She pulls two beers free from the plastic rings and offers him one. He takes it,but holds it unopened while Hannah Jane yanks the pull tab on hers. She really needs to loosen up. Being here makes her feel weird.

"I was writing a letter to some friends of mine in New York," Tom says. In his own surroundings he is cool and placid. "They're artists and they said I could work for them in their studio as kind of an assistant. Cleaning brushes, running errands, that sort of thing.I need to get away from here."

Hannah Jane asks the names of the artists. When he tells her, she is filled with awe. She remembers their names from one of her glossy magazines. They are famous and Tom knows them. For the first time she realizes that Tom must know many interesting people - rich and brilliant people. Hadn't he said once that Isaac Asimov had come to his house for dinner when he was a kid? She may be nothing more to him than a flimsy diversion in this two-bit town. How could she have ever thought that she had so much power over him? Estelle has no idea, she thinks. Tom is probably a genius.

She has nothing important to say, no celebrity friends whose names she can drop. Somehow, after another couple of beers she starts to tell him The Story of Her Life. She even tells him about Alex.

"He didn't even break up with me properly before he went to Senegal. We'd been talking marriage and then I ran into him in a bar.He was with some French woman," Hannah Jane says. "He didn't even say good-bye."

Tom, who has been listening patiently until now says "He sounds like a jerk."

There is really no way for Hannah Jane to respond.

Tom says "Come sit by me."

Hannah Jane is embarrassed at having babbled. He must think she's an idiot. She is grateful for his invitation. She gets up and sits down beside him. The mattress is stiff.

 

Tom is pining.

"I knew this would happen," he says. "Why don't you like me?"

The trolley cart full of books stands abandoned across the room. Hannah Jane prays for a phone call so that she won't have to answer. The phone doesn't ring.

"I know what it is," he says. "You're worried about AIDS. That's it, isn't it? I've been reading those articles in the magazines that you're always hauling around."

He is once again full of sweaty intensity. Try as she might, Hannah Jane finds it impossible to summon a ghost of the lust or compassion or respect or whatever she'd felt the night before when they'd kissed on Tom's bed.

"What difference does it make?" she says. "You're leaving town anyhow. You said so yourself."

"Just say the word and I'll stay."

She believes him, but she won't ask.

A week later Hannah Jane gets an envelope in the mail with no return address. For a moment she thinks that it's from her departed lover, returned from Africa. Her heart begins beating faster even though her head says "It can't be. The handwriting is different."

Hannah Jane opens the envelope and pulls out a medical report. "Patient number 04500274 is HIV-negative," it says. At the bottom in ball-point ink: "I love you the most, Tom."

He doesn't give two weeks' notice. One day while Hannah Jane is sitting at the reception desk a new shelver appears. This one is a sinewy young black man who calls Jimmy "girl."

 

Hannah Jane is on the first floor checking out a book when the commotion begins. She feels a draught on the back of her neck and knows that someone has entered through the main door. No big deal, nothing special. She turns and sees that it's Bertha. At first Hannah Jane doesn't notice anything out of the ordinary, but then a yelp breaks through the hush of the library and she sees that Bertha is holding a tiny baby against her chest, under her raggedy coat.

She's stolen a baby from the hospital next door, Hannah Jane thinks wildly. Images of witches from Grimm's fairytales leap into her head. Bertha, grotesque and demonic, might have eaten Hansel and Gretel. That baby could be a changeling.

On this day Bertha doesn't even pretend to read. She plops into a vacant chair and takes off her coat. She doesn't even flinch when the baby starts to wail louder than trains, louder than sirens. She doesn't seem to notice, while unwrapping the baby from a threadbare shawl, that all eyes are riveted upon her. Bertha cradles the infant in her hammy arms and rocks her body forward and backward. Hannah Jane can almost believe that she is a mother.

In the background the clerks are making phone calls. The librarians are hissing "Where's Sam? Where's Sam?" Jaws slacken and eyes bulge further when Bertha pulls up her dirty sweatshirt to reveal loose, floppy breasts. She positions the baby and begins nursing it. Hannah Jane can hear the baby's greedy suckles all the way across the room.

Then, all at once, Sam appears, and a cop comes in off the street,and another woman comes rushing in through the door. The woman, who seems to be some kind of social worker, tries to take the baby out of Bertha's arms. Bertha snarls at her and bares teeth. She is more wolf or bear than human, Hannah Jane thinks. A great she-bear

protecting her young. Any minute now Bertha will trundle off to her den, eluding all attackers.

But this doesn't happen. The policeman and Sam hold Bertha back while the social worker moves in for the baby. Her coos and clucks are drowned out by the baby's fierce cries. It all seems wrong somehow, but Hannah Jane can do nothing to stop the course of events. Before Bertha is led out of the building, lurching and thrashing, she jerks her head around and their eyes meet. Hannah Jane lifts her hand and waves. The gesture is inappropriate, but she can think of nothing else.

 

Tom has already been gone for two months when the post card arrives in the mail. On one side there is a sepia-toned photograph of a Native American in full tribal regalia. On the back Tom has written "I've been traveling cross country with a manic depressive debutante that I met in New York City. It's been fun using her Daddy's credit card, but I've had about all the emotional abuse I can take. I think about you often." Hannah Jane reads the message twice. She misses him more than she can say.

She takes out a sheet of white paper and sits down at her desk to write a letter. She wants to write that she's sorry for everything that didn't happen between them. She is sorry for hurting him and for not loving him.

There is no one else she can talk to about Bertha and how she appeared with her baby. Bertha hasn't been in the library since Sam and the policeman held her arms and the social worker took the baby away, but Hannah Jane remembers that day as if it were five minutes ago. She will never forget the look in Bertha's eyes, a mixture of resignation and fear,when she turned back for one last glance. She will never forget the tender way Bertha rocked the baby and held it to her breast nor the way she snarled at the social worker. Bertha is simply a woman beaten down by the hard breaks of life, trying to hold on to what she wants, to what's hers. Bertha has virtually nothing but her fierce spirit. Hannah Jane envies her this. She wants to have something in her life for which she would kick and scream and snarl. In that instant she can't help but admire Bertha. Suddenly she is the most admirable person Hannah Jane can think of.

Now that she has her pen and paper arranged on the desk, she realizes that she doesn't have Tom's address. There is no point in writing this letter. Maybe it's just as well. Hannah Jane knows that they have no future together. They really have nothing in common.

She decides to start a new list. At the top of the paper she writes "Heroic Women." The title is enough for now.

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