Wayne knows that the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library downtown opens at 10 a.m. on Tuesday-Saturday and never one minute earlier, not even when it’s raining and there are a dozen plus-citizens waiting to get inside. The building is eight stories, cube-shaped, neutral-toned. He’s read up on the architecture: it’s known as Brutalist, taken from the French words beton brut, or “raw concrete.” Chinese elms line the street outside the entrance. They have minty-looking leaves that swim prettily in the morning breeze.
When he first started showing up at this library, Wayne arrived empty-handed. Now he carries a notebook like some of the other patrons. He has tried to make journal-type entries but every time he’s started an entry, his own life doesn’t seem all that interesting to him. He’s never wished to be a writer and that is true now more than ever. He doesn’t believe that the other people with notebooks in here are professional writers. Writing in notebooks is just something they’ve come here to do.
Before entering the library, all backpacks and briefcases are searched for drugs and weapons. The security guard who looks like Lou Rawls will see Wayne and his notebook and wave him on through. Wayne sometimes finds himself on the second floor of the library where there are knee-high, four-person tables and even shorter wooden stools. These tables are situated near the shelves that hold current editions of hard-copy magazines. The magazines are about beauty or health or fitness or the entertainment industry or politics or America or great things to do in an America city or international destinations or international politics. There are signs on every floor that read,
No Eating No Drinking No Sleeping
On one occasion, Wayne broke the sleeping rule. He’d been scratching out a sentence in his notebook and then he laid his head on his arm for only a moment. There came tapping on the table. A security guard. “Wake up, please.”
Wayne sat up, cleared his throat. He said, “I was. I’m … awake.”
This morning he’s not sleeping when his ex-wife Jackie sits down across from him at one of the second-floor tables. “Hi, Wayne,” she says.
“Hello?” He has his notebook open in front of him.
“Pretty morning outside.”
“Why yes, I think it is.”
“I heard you might’ve lost your job.” She speaks in her regular, non-library voice.
“I guess I did.” Wayne glances at the table to his right; a bald black man wearing eyeglasses sits in silence, reads a newspaper.
Jackie has shoulder-length, shiny blond hair, and clear blue eyes. He hasn’t seen her in a year. She studies his face. “Marcy Freeman said she sees you standing outside the library waiting for it to open. Every morning. Looking lost.”
“I’m waiting for the library to open. How is that lost?” Though he knows better, he speaks in a non-library voice, too.
She nods to the notebook. “What are you doing, scribbling down your last will?”
He’s not in love with Jackie any more. But her presence has changed the rhythm of his heartbeat. “So, I was downsized,” he says. “That’s all, it’s done. You have the day off or something?”
“Hardly.” She tosses her head. She wears a silky, cerulean blouse. “Just took a break to walk a few blocks. See about this. You appear to be OK, anyway. Marcy made it sound like you were standing around outside, staring off into space.”
“I’m not sure I can deny that.”
“I’ve never thought of you as a poet.”
“You shouldn’t now.” She shakes her head. He turns the notebook back a page, to some stuff he’d written the day before, pushes that in her direction.
A man with a red face and a white beard sits erect in a chair turning the pages of a novel fast. It seems like he’s looking for a certain passage. It seems to be of the utmost importance.
A man sits at a table with his head bowed, his fingers to his forehead. There’s nothing on the table in front of him.
The sunlight pouring in through the east window this morning is pretty overwhelming.
He says, “Not fancy. I just see something and write that down. A few of the guys in here are furious. Can fill a notebook in an hour. You ought to see them go. You didn’t have to come over here and check on me.”
She pushes the notebook back to him. “Actually, I did. You have leads on anything? Come on, let’s get moving here.”
“I don’t stay in the library all day. At noon, I ride the train back to Midtown, go to my apartment, get on the Internet, send emails, make calls. I have about two to three rock’em-sock’em hours a day. I do all that in the afternoon. In the mornings, you let working people do their things, be productive.” He gives a quick smile, one she doesn’t return. “When you ask for a favor, always do it later in the day …” He shrugs. “There’s research about that.”
“Why haven’t you called me? I can ask around, too.”
“Would you ask me? If the shoe …”
A security guard arrives at their table, smiles, and holds a finger to his lips. He nods in a polite way to Jackie and moves away from the table. She leans forward, says, “This is loud?” Wayne decides to write something:
Jackie doesn’t seem to understand the rules of the library.
He holds up the notebook so she can see. She whispers, “Ha, ha motherfucker,” then sits back again. Wayne sets the notebook in front of him. He writes:
A woman I know sits in the chair across from me.
That blue is her color.
He feels his heart sink. He doesn’t show it to her, then turns the page.
Then he writes:
Jackie needs to get back to her own office.
He holds the notebook so she can see it. She says, “OK, sure.” Since he’s been out of work there have been moments where he has felt the despair that someone who once worked but now doesn’t is bound to feel. When he thinks about the job he once had, he sometimes thinks of it as trivial. With Jackie sitting across from him now, he understands why he had a job. He almost feels like he did when he had a job. While he’d had a job, he wasn’t ambitious. But with a job came explanations, answers. Wayne isn’t philosophical. When Jackie left, some of those went with her. There was a reason his job specifically was downsized. He supposes she can put together a lot of this on her own.
“Things OK with you?” he says, trying to sound offhand.
“What? Yes. Yeah,” she says. “Right now, as far as my plans go, I’m ahead of schedule. Don’t you worry about it.” She glances past his shoulder. Across the floor are the microfiche file cabinets; they are metallic, bright red and bright blue. Maybe the guard is standing in front of those right now, holding a finger to his lips.
“I’ll come to see you if the well runs dry,” he said.
His expression might’ve turned syrupy because she appears impatient. “Just don’t feel sorry for yourself.” It’s a familiar accusation.
He nods to the notebook. “I’m not,” he says.
“Hooray,” she says teasing, looking a little tired.
They sit without speaking. Her eyes go to the notebook, to the page that has the line about her getting back to her own office. “What am I missing out on?” she says, once again in a normal speaking voice. Judging by her expression they’re both surprised by what she’s said. He understands she’s not talking about a life with him.
“Well, this, I guess.” He isn’t talking about himself.
She probably understands as much, is glancing now in the direction of the information desk. “I’ll come back here in a week. If you’re still here, I’m dragging your ass back to the street.”
“OK,” he says.
“I gotta go.”
“I mean, it’s written right there.” She points. “Don’t get up.”
He does, partway. “Jackie.”
“Sweetheart,” she says. She touches her fingers to her mouth in a blowing-you-a-kiss gesture though she doesn’t pucker her lips.
Then she walks past the other tables, for the top of the staircase, starts down. There’s her head and shoulders and then her head and then she’s gone. It turns silent. He sits again, turns his notebook back a page.
A woman I know sits in the chair across from me. He can’t help but picture Jackie; he thinks of them studying together in a library, back when they were in college. He wants to write another line but instead he murmurs, “Don’t you worry about me.” The bald guy glances his way, but he’s a regular, too and gets who Wayne is talking to. There can be some muttering to oneself here; security forgives it. Wayne thinks of books they both read in college, tries to recall the title of one in particular, a novel that mystified him at the time. About a salesman in the Industrial Age. Will Jackie remember? If he phones her about such a thing she’ll probably accuse him of wanting to talk about something else.
He closes his notebook, carries it at his side as he heads for the information desk. The older gentleman seated there is smiling as he approaches.
Andy Plattner has a new story collection, Dixie Luck, forthcoming with Mercer University Press.