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Alice Mattison

The Library Card

Shelley and Robert's older daughter, Johanna, is five, and she has just learned to write her last name. Now she may have her own library card. On a Saturday afternoon, Shelley and Robert and Johanna and the baby, Lily, go downtown to the library.

The children's librarian is shelving books when they come in. "Spooks," she calls to them. She doesn't mean anything bad, she means that just now she is interested in ghosts, though it's not October. Shelley and Robert and Johanna and Lily (who is asleep in the Snugli on Shelley's chest) must wait while she leafs through a book to find the most delicate, most peculiar illustration. "I haven't thought about this book in years," she says. "It fell into my hand. It was a favorite of my sister's."

The book is dense with fat paragraphs. Shelley doesn't think Johanna would like it, or, really, that she would, and she'd have to read it aloud. She busies her hands with Lily and at last the librarian puts the book down. All celebration and flourishes, she takes an application for a library card from her desk. Johanna promises to take care of the books she borrows, and then she settles down to write her name, while her father, who taught her to do it, watches but does not allow himself to comment. Johanna's name has many letters--she has Robert's last name, Horowitz--and she writes each of them large. Her name doesn't fit in the allotted space and she must write the t and the z in the margin below.

"It's a good thing we didn't give her a hyphenated name," says Shelley, whose last name is Simpson.

"When I was eight," says the librarian, "the girl with the longest name in my school was Constance Mastropietro. Constance is a surprisingly long name for only two syllables."

Johanna gazes at her and hands over the form. The librarian looks at it and says that they must now go upstairs to the adult library, where the woman at the desk will type up Johanna's library card.

"Come on, Mommy," Johanna says. "Bring Lily." They all climb the stairs and wait while a middle-aged Hispanic woman finishes typing something. Then she takes Johanna's application.

"It's illegible," she says abruptly. "She can't have a card."

"But the children's librarian approved it," says Shelley, who is confused. It is true that Johanna's signature is illegible. Of course it is illegible.

"Sorry," says the woman. She turns back to her typewriter. Shelley doesn't know what to do. She is filled with an astonishing rage, which she can feel in her hands and arms and shoulders as if something palpable had been injected into her body.

"Wait a minute," she says. "Wait a minute." She would like the woman--who is ignoring her--to die, and she would have sworn a moment ago that nothing this woman could do would make Shelley want her to die.

"Will you please listen to me?" says Shelley, in a voice so loud and angry that there is a shocked hush, for a moment, around her in the main room of the library, where people are consulting the card catalogue, checking out books, and talking quietly.

The woman turns. "Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to leave the library if you insist on making a scene."

"Will you listen to me?" says Shelley, only slightly more quietly. "My daughter has been practicing all week. This matters."

"I'm sorry," says the woman.

"Don't you want children to read library books?" Shelley is shouting. She is angry at everyone she can think of except Johanna and Lily, whom she clutches as if she thinks the Snugli might fall off. She is angry with Robert, who is standing at an angle that could mean he is just someone waiting to speak to the library worker. Shelley moves a hand in his direction as if to turn him.

Lily gives her first waking-up cry, and Robert speaks.

"This lady shouldn't have to decide about Johanna's card," he says smoothly. "Is there someone else we can ask?"

"My supervisor is in there," the woman says, and points to the reference room, where a young black woman is sitting behind a desk.

"Thank you," Robert says. He takes the application and goes into the reference room. Shelley moves a little away from the desk. She sees Robert explaining, and then the librarian in the reference room laughs. "Sure," Shelley hears her say. She takes the application from Robert and then returns it to him.

He comes back to the desk, not smiling but looking eager, as if he is the sort of person who is always willing to follow elaborate directions if he can just be sure he will be praised for it. He is not that sort of person at all.

"She initialed it," he says cheerfully to the library worker, pointing to the corner of the application.

"Well, all right," says the woman. She types a library card and hands it to Robert, who hands it to Johanna. Then they all go back to the children's room, though Lily is whimpering by now. Johanna says she will select books quickly. Robert follows her to the shelves and Shelley seeks out the librarian.

"She wouldn't type the card up at first," she says. Her voice shakes.

"Really? I should have taken it up myself."

"She said it was illegible."

"I could read it perfectly," says the children's librarian. "And I have terrible trouble with handwriting. I could never be a mailman."

When Johanna has chosen four books and the librarian has stamped them out, they leave the library. Shelley is still angry, but she can see around the edges of her anger. She could push past it, or she could enter it and have a fight with Robert. They cross the Green toward the Mall. It is winter, and the Green is windy and bare. There is old snow here and there. It is a raw, cloudy day--Shelley hopes for new snow. Lily is crying quietly. Johanna has handed her books to her father and is chasing pigeons across the Green. She is wearing a red jacket with a hood, and she has red boots on, and a red plaid skirt, pleated, like one Shelley remembers wearing as a child. Around her neck is a blue-and-white muffler that was knitted for her by Robert's mother.

"Well, that worked out," says Robert, and Shelley's hand moves quickly to Lily's back.

"I hated what I did. I hated what you did," she says.

"What was wrong with it?"

She cannot explain. "First you just stood there."

"I was letting you do your bit," he says.

"You think I wanted to yell like that?" she says. "And then you manipulated her."

Now he is angry, too. "I gave her a way out. People like that, you have to give them a way out."

"Don't you see how conniving that is? And it made it worse that she was Puerto Rican."

"Racial tolerance requires that I scream at her?" They have reached Chapel Street, and Robert takes Johanna's hand--she has come running to catch up with them. They cross together. "Look," he says to Shelley, "it doesn't matter that you lost your temper."

"That's not what you really think," she says. She is teary, and Lily is crying now--she wants to be nursed. They go into the Mall and up the escalator, and then they come to Picnic on the Green, where there are tables and chairs, and take-out food shops lining the walls. The windows look out across Chapel Street at the Green--over near them, it is almost like being outdoors.

Shelley takes both children and chooses a table. She finds a tissue in her pocket and blows her nose. Robert goes to buy food. He will bring chocolate milk and a cookie for Johanna, tea for Shelley, and coffee for himself. Shelley takes Lily out of the Snugli and then the baby starts to cry hard. She takes the Snugli off and opens her coat. She pushes her chair back from the table, and shrugs her coat off as well as she can, shifting Lily, in her pink nylon bunting, from one arm to the other. She pulls her sweater up a little and puts Lily in position to nurse. Lily's mouth fastens immediately on Shelley's nipple, and Shelley feels the release and relief of her sucking.

"They had the tea you like." Robert has forgotten they were having a fight. One of the shops carries tea bags, but not always Shelley's favorite, cinnamon.

Lily turns her head at the sound of Robert's voice, letting go of the nipple. Shelley coaxes her back to the breast. Lily turns again to find Robert, but then goes back to sucking on her own, while Shelley dangles the tea bag in the hot water with her free hand. Johanna is talking about the people she can see waiting for the bus on Chapel Street below them--a woman with twins in a stroller, another woman who looks something like her kindergarten teacher. Robert sits down and takes the lid off his Styrofoam cup of coffee.

Shelley is thirsty. The tea will be good. She slips her free hand in between herself and Lily to unzip the bunting a little, and then she eases the hood off Lily's head. She strokes Lily's smooth dark head and feels the pulse under the soft spot move as Lily sucks industriously.

Then Robert says, "I wish that didn't bother me, but it does."

"What bothers you?"

"Breastfeeding in public."

Shelley looks around. There aren't many people in the place at this time of day. "Nobody cares," she says lightly.

Suddenly his voice is low and urgent. "Shelley, when I came along, she was turning her head in every direction, and your entire breast was exposed."

"Oh, it wasn't. That was just for a second--"

"How do you think it looks--"

"Nursing--" she begins. But she had forgotten her anger. It comes back. "If you cared about your baby--"

"Stop it," he says. "I said it was something I couldn't help feeling, I didn't--"

She doesn't want to listen or, this time, to cry. Now she wants to overwhelm him with argument.

"Daddy." Johanna is shaking his arm. "Daddy, read me this book." She has finished her milk and cookie and has been looking at the library books. He looks annoyed, but he does begin reading aloud in a low voice. The book is Lyle the Crocodile.

"Listen to me!" Shelley says. She waits restlessly, ripping pieces off her empty Styrofoam cup while Lily nurses on the other side, and then she straightens her sweater, being careful not to expose her breast--but surely she is always careful--and burps the baby on her shoulder.

"We have to go," she says, finally. Robert is reading the last page of the book.

"Mommy, my scarf!" says Johanna. "I lost it."

"You must have been sitting on it." Shelley is distracted from her anger, and they look for the muffler amid the tangle of their coats. It is gone. "Did it come off when you ran after the pigeons?" she says.

They all stare hard out the window and across the Green, and Robert says he can see something blue and white. It is just starting to get dark outside. "Wait here," he says. "I'll go get it."

It doesn't make sense for Shelley and the children to wait, because their car is parked near the library, and they will all have to cross the Green anyway. But before she can say anything, Robert has sped away from them.

"Can I go, too?" Johanna says, but Shelley says no. Johanna is restless, but after a short time they can see Robert at the corner. He crosses Chapel Street. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that his family can see him, and he doesn't turn to look, but Johanna and Shelley watch his progress, fascinated, as if he were on television or in a movie. Shelley notices the way Robert walks--he moves his arms and keeps his head down. He's wearing a navy blue watch cap. Does he keep his head down because he's looking for the scarf, she wonders, or does he always do that?

Then Shelley notices that someone walking on the path is waving at Robert, and she sees that it is their friend the children's librarian, who has finished work and is crossing the Green in the twilight on her way home. The librarian waves and waves, but Robert, heading off to the right, not walking on the path, doesn't see her, and as Shelley watches him go farther away and her come closer (at Chapel Street the librarian turns away from the Mall and disappears), she imagines how Robert might see the librarian and forget Johanna's scarf, now invisible to Shelley in the twilight (though Shelley never actually saw it) and run toward the woman, who thinks he is a kind man, the sort of man who'd go look for his child's scarf when it's lost, not the sort who'd rush off without sense when if he'd just stayed and helped her get the children organized they could all cross the Green together. Shelley could take both children and meet him coming back--there is no real reason to sit here--but it is as if she cannot, and now she pulls her anger around her like a dark quilt. She rests in her anger at Robert, who is ashamed that she nurses Lily in public, and in her mind she sends him at an angle from his path and straight into the arms of the children's librarian, who rises up on her booted toes and skitters to meet and embrace him.

That is Robert, then, a trivial man who is probably having an affair with the librarian, a man who thinks breasts are secrets.

But Robert has reached the scarf and now he picks it up--it is the scarf--and in the deepening darkness they can just see him wave it in the air, signal with it and even dance with it for their benefit. He has realized that they'd be watching, and though he is ashamed of her honest working breasts, he isn't afraid to make a fool of himself dancing alone on the Green, which makes Shelley so angry that her anger falls over the top--the top of what?--into whatever is on the other side, a kind of tiredness with laughter in it. She laughs at Robert. He must have been a wreck in the library: embarrassed, of course, when she yelled and thinking he shouldn't be.

"Can you put on your coat?" she says to Johanna. She often manages alone with both children, and she knows how to lay Lily on the table and then stand blocking her, in case she chose this moment to learn to roll over, while she puts on her own coat and buttons it. She ties Lily's hood and zips her into the Snugli again and then she can help Johanna with her hood. She puts the library books under her arm and takes Johanna's hand, and they all go down the escalator and outside. It's snowing. It seems less cold than it was before, as if the snow in the air could keep away the cold. Shelley crosses Chapel Street with her children and starts across the Green. Robert has seen them and is almost there, running, holding up the scarf in case they have somehow managed to miss seeing it so far. Snowflakes touch Shelley's face, soft ones. It was a terrible mistake to marry Robert, for he is not perfect, and she will have to pound him with her words and tears so many more times before she fixes him, so many hundreds of times.

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