Last Friday at the Library 

Last week, on my break from work after finishing a friend’s book, I watched a building burn. It was next to the church, across the street from the funeral parlor, and down the street from the library. I had to tell three different people to stop cutting their hair in the stacks that week, and each of them had put their cut hair in their pockets. My neighbor and his students were assaulted by the police. The burning building seemed to be the next in this line of rapidly escalating signs. That Saturday, driving away from the library and the burned building, someone on the street fired a gun over my car. I put my head down and drove away. I didn’t drop my cigarette.

Until that night with the burning building, I had never read a friend’s book. Nothing personal, not really. It’s hard. The writer who know you as your friend, and the writer you know as a worker begins to collapse into themselves, compressed, dismembered, into this one small object.

My friend wrote about driving around where I lived, sometimes less than a few miles away from me, doing those ceaseless little city errands that are “buying drugs.” I didn’t like that my friend had been here without me, even though her book was eight years old and our friendship only five. A person that was her, but wasn’t her, doing things we both did, next to each other. I felt exposed, even though this had nothing to do with me, my life, my Atlanta. But I had read her book and a building had caught fire, three people had cut their hair, someone had shot at someone on the street home, my whey faced neighbor.

When I started working here, at this small branch, I thought I could easily adjust to find pleasure in this transparently secret occupation, because what writer doesn’t hide themselves inside their words? Librarians hide or reveal themselves through the words of others, the words of others they place just so for the people they serve, the way they handle materials. The information I glean from the books that pass through my hands is frighteningly intimate. I know about pregnancies, I know someone is trying to come out, I know someone is going on vacation, I know someone is dying. I know so much about the worlds around me that will never touch me aside from this one small transfer from my hands to theirs. I can predict the future with these transfers. I watch them play out as I send books to other branches, satisfied with the outcome when they come back. It’s the most startling pleasure I’ve ever experienced as a words worker, so unlike anything else, and I still don’t know what to do with it.

I go looking for my friend’s book in the catalogue, the one I read as the building burned. I memorize the call number, and look at the stacks where this version of her would live in my library, how different it is from where she lives in my home library. I close the catalogue. I don’t pull and move the books around in my stacks. I don’t do anything. I want to rip through the records, to see if I can get a glimpse of what is at the end of the line of the burning building, the hair cutting, the gunfire, the hurt students. I want something to assuage my own fear of the future, which isn’t the fear of death.  How do you look up that kind of book?

I attend to my duties. I carefully pack the books from my branch headed out across the city, lining them up in alphabetical order, for the couriers who will complete my part of the transfer, and unpack the talismans the couriers have left for me, prophetic fragments from the others across the city.

I man the desk.

A rail thin man is saying that the DVD of The Metropolitan Opera performance of Die Walkurie he’s returning doesn’t work. The Mendelssohn CD doesn’t work either he says. They aren’t from our branch, they are headed out of my hands. The man is completely obscured, hat, gloves, sunglasses, mask, pants, socks. It is 90 degrees outside. I tell him I’ll send a note. Patron said neither the DVD or Mendelssohn cd played on any of his devices. I sign our call sign and place the note and packing slip in the DVD’s security case and into the box for the courier. I try not to think about the George Smiley book I’m reading or the book I’m not writing.

The next person who approaches the desk has a trash bag full of books from his dead mother’s apartment and wants me to take all of them. The scanner by the door said there was one. I find it, cover missing, and decline the rest. I tell him we’ll return the book to its original library, because it seems the most neutral, death adjacent thing I can say. He leaves with the bag.

I go home.

This week at the library, I read the manuscript for my friends second book. I like this one a lot. Selfishly, because I know this version of her. There is a story at the beginning, a story she told me the night we met in those New Hampshire woods, over the expensive gin I bought to impress her with. There are familiar faces. There is a lot more, and also a lot less gore than I was expecting. I counted the things that made us the same. We named our chickens the same way, her Carlotta bloodless and headless while she disemboweled her, my Carlotta dead of old age.

It’s quiet at the desk, maybe because of the weather, as I let my mind organize all of this new information labelled K. I don’t know how old she is, but I claim her as a millennial anyway, because when you spend so much time that rural and that poor, we probably encountered the same technology at the same age, no matter how many years actually separate us. She’s writing a book and I’m not writing a thesis and she lives in a van, so our communication is sporadic at best. I still keep her message bubble pinned in my phone, next to my sisters and my editor.

The last time we spoke, I tried to convince her to watch the movie about the teenage cannibals in Kentuckiana. I was trying to write a feral 19 year old girl on a bus, Indianapolis, Terre Haute, all the places that belonged to her, that I just borrowed for a bit, for my own personal crises. I imagined that we were there together at the same time, because time, singularity, coincidence, all behave differently when you’re that poor and that isolated. Teenage K was there killing her chicken Carlotta the same time I was there, learning how to be human again with a stranger. I looked out the window and saw her there, blonde, because I love her most as a blonde, standing in waist high grass, the corner of her mouth lifting in recognition as I drive by.

Did you watch cannibals I said. Not yet, she said. Going to be staying in a house soon, will watch it then.

I knew she didn’t watch scary things while she was in the van.

I think I’m going drive through Indiana again, on my way back from school, I said.

She had read my first attempt at the Indiana chapter in a basement in Brooklyn, with all my friends from Music/Sound and my thesis advisor. She was only in New York for a second, to catch a flight to Indiana. She had said she liked it, this wrangling for school. Liked the mechanism. I wanted to share this experience with her, wanted to show her that we had always been together, separated by nothing as intense as space or time, but just the thin glass of a bus window. That we were really friends. I didn’t want to double, or compress, and recreate the panic K’s book had created in me. But a movie is not a book, so different from a book, and maybe I could be a cannibal next to her dead chickens. That Obama was president and there was an iPhone but all I had were some tapes and quarters for the payphone, a 1993 trip taken 15 years late, 15 years into her time. That I had been in Indiana and Berlin and China and New York the exact same time she was, and that when we met in the New Hampshire woods, time was finally allowing us to catch each other for a chat, for something more than glances. In her van, in a hotel room, in our friends ramshackle mansion in Syracuse, it was 2001, it was 1993, it was 2008, all of ourselves finally catching up into single beings, so we could read each others books.

She watched the cannibals.

Is it you? She asked. I saw the birth certificate and — 

Close enough, I said.

That was my childhood in Indiana she says. I smile at my phone and think, yes, and I was there.

She sends the manuscript, with the cannibal roadtrip still unplanned.

I read it all in one go at the desk, absolutely gone for this strange fundamentalist girl in a field, killing animals.

So, are you going to do it, the trip, after school? After your book is done, she meant.

Yes, it’s now or never, right?

We had said the same thing about going to talk to her cousin in prison about publishing last year, on my drive to school, and he killed himself my first week back on campus writing and while K was in the woods nearby writing. I tried to reach her as soon as I heard, but she had no reception in her van or the woods. In her book, she says she was walking in the woods when the New York Times told her. I think this is a funny writer family trait but I don’t say that when I finally do get ahold of her.  

Next week is my last one, at the library, until school is done. I’ve planned the cannibal trip. I’m going to see K somewhere, somehow,  and stop in Kentucky, to stay in a different ramshackle mansion with a different friend. I don’t know what the timeline is like, but I have my book ready. I’m excited for her to read it, I think she’ll like it.