All right, maybe my book fell a hair or two short of greatness and, for sure, it hadn’t sold very well—even my parents, went my standard joke, waited until it was remaindered before buying their copy. Still, my book had made it onto a library shelf. A LIBRARY SHELF!
And now it wasn’t there anymore.
Of course since this was a library—the main branch of the New York Public Library—I might reasonably have concluded that the book had been borrowed. But I couldn’t give any substance to that possibility.
I’d been making frequent visits to my achievement from my apartment in the Village for two years—this time on a sudden impulse in the middle of a relentlessly fierce winter that had otherwise discouraged such excursions (and, I should add, just a month after my father’s death and on a morning after a late-night party at which I’d had too much to drink). But for all of these two years the book had remained in pristine condition. It had never been withdrawn, nor, as far as I could tell, had it even been opened. No, I knew with certainty that no one had taken it home.
Probably still a little drunk, definitely frayed and sick to my stomach—and now with a developing panic to compound this condition—I reached behind the books that had flanked the single copy of mine. Then I checked the entire shelf—and the shelves above and below it. After that I searched the full length of both sides of the aisle and rummaged through piles of books that were stacked on the floor.
Nothing. And no, no one was seated at the reading tables.
Near to distraught, I looked for a librarian. Two middle-aged women—one short and dowdy with close-cropped gray hair, the other tall and lean—were standing behind the checkout desk. But stationing myself as I did right in front of them (and on legs from which the blood was all but gone), they paid no attention to me. They were having a personal moment.
“Helen,” the tall one was saying, “you told me it was ‘extraordinary.'”
Helen, clearly irritated by the tall one’s remark, shut her eyes. “Yes, Sylvia, I said that. I did say that. And actually, if you want to know the truth, I think it’s better than extraordinary. If you want to know the truth, I think it’s sublime.”
“WELL?” Sylvia said. She seemed on the verge of tears. “Then I don’t understand—I don’t understand why you’re doing this, Helen.”
“Sylvia,” Helen said, “why are we talking about your ass now? You know your ass isn’t the issue. You’re doing your spacing out thing again, aren’t you? I told you what it is; it’s your ANKLES. They’ve started to make me cross. I can’t help it.”
My own crisis and my hangover notwithstanding, I was, of course, compelled to take a look. Sure enough, Helen had a point on both counts. Sylvia’s ass, though it was hyperbole to describe it as sublime, was quite exceptional—at another time I’d have undoubtedly taken notice of it on my own. And Sylvia’s ankles were, no question, a nettlesome sight. They had only the merest hint of definition. Indeed, when Sylvia, demonstrably piqued, suddenly turned and marched away, her calves appeared to descend directly into her shoes.
If it was apparent that Helen, who was pressing her palms against her temples and rolling her neck, was herself more than ready to leave at this point, she could indulge in no such luxury. With Sylvia’s departure it was left to her to face me.
“May I help you?” she said wearily.
But before I could speak, Sylvia, coat in hand, was back.
“I’m going to lunch, you fucking asshole.”
And then she was gone again.
“Have I come at a bad time?” I said.
Helen managed a wan smile. “No,” she said. “Well, yes. But no—it’s all right.” She took a quick, and I thought wistful, glance at the elevator banks.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. I’m looking”—my voice was shaking and sweat was pooling in the hollows of my underarms—”for a missing book.” I gave her the title.
“Missing?” Helen brought her screen up.
“It’s not where it should be,” I said. “You haven’t maybe…discarded it, have you? That doesn’t happen—does it?”
“DISCARDED it? What do you mean? That’s ridiculous. We don’t DISCARD books. What a question.” Helen studied the screen. “There’s no record it’s been taken out.”
“Of course,” I rasped. “No record.” And it was at this juncture that the aggregate of my anxiety, my dyspepsia and the frustrations I was experiencing became too much and licensed by Sylvia’s language to loosen constraints on my own, I blew, you could say, what remained of my cool.
“Helen,” I heard myself blurt, “this is BULLSHIT! This is beyond the fucking PALE. It’s egregious enough that some books here go totally ignored for years and years. But what about the chance that posterity will acknowledge them, Helen? Have you bothered to observe all the stone and marble when you come to work—the enormous ceilings and the Latin inscriptions and shit? This is supposed to be a sacred place. It’s supposed to provide, in its implicit assurance of permanence, the opportunity for nothing less than an author’s immortality. And you know what? It’s just a fucking BUILDING now!”
Helen looked at me then in a very peculiar way, and I knew she knew who I was.
“I’m sorry,” she said with a surprising and disarming gentleness. “I’m sure the book will turn up. Why don’t you try again in a few weeks?”
But while Helen’s tone succeeded in softening my attitude, I wasn’t quite done.
“My father,” I said, “he never finished it, Helen. He never finished his book.”
I don’t mind telling you that after that I had a very bad time of it. I awoke each morning with the kind of heartache I thought was reserved for breaking up with the love of your life. Staying inside as much as I could, I turned off the phone and slept a lot. I was in a major depression.
Although Helen had said to wait a few weeks I could wait no more than one. Despite a monster snowstorm, I braved the streets and an erratic subway and returned to the library.
My book’s floor was nearly empty because of the weather, but a stifling heat was nonetheless blasting from the radiators. Quickly removing my coat, I looked around for Helen and Sylvia. To my relief two other women were behind the desk and there was no sign of Helen and Sylvia.
Approaching the stacks then, I recognized the spine from thirty feet away. And my heart threatened to bolt from my chest.
It was BACK!
And not only was it back, but I discovered, upon rushing to it and taking it in my hands, that while it bore no withdrawal stamp it had obviously been read as well. Some person (or persons) had actually made notations in it.
“OK,” was the listless and ambiguous judgment—WAS it a judgment?—next to one highlighted paragraph on the first page I opened.
And then, several pages later, I found, “???”
This I didn’t like seeing at all because it meant I maybe hadn’t done my job.
And the marks on two subsequent pages were no less dispiriting—an apparent lottery number and what I had to allow was a not bad caricature of Barbra Streisand.
A half-dozen pages later, however, and adjoining another highlighted passage—one of my own favorites, in fact—was a word I could not have brought myself to wish for.
At first I felt like weeping. Then it occurred to me, and I was right back in the depths, that it was Helen who’d done this—that, following a charitable impulse (the very last thing I required!)—she had located the book and created this moment for me. But would a librarian deface a book? No, that didn’t, and under any circumstances, seem feasible. That was, if you thought about it, way off a librarian’s spectrum.
I felt like weeping again. It wasn’t possible, was it, that the book had been in its place all along, that I’d suffered some kind of alcoholic derangement and INVENTED its disappearance?
But if there was a mystery here it was a mystery that I was hardly inclined to investigate. In fact, it would be awhile before I wanted to come to the library again.
After running my fingers across the breadth of the smooth jacket, and knocking my knuckles on the sturdy hard cover, I carefully placed the book on its shelf. Tapping it once, I turned and walked away—and then I paused and looked back at it.
When I got outside I realized that I hadn’t put my coat on yet. But I didn’t need it. Standing on the library’s top step in howling gusts of freezing snow, I felt no discomfort.
I felt indestructible.
A former contributor to The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, Robert Levin is the author of “When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot: A Miscellany of Stories and Commentary” (The Drill Press), and the coauthor and coeditor, respectively, of two collections of essays about jazz and rock in the ’60s: “Music & Politics,” with John Sinclair (World Publishing) and “Giants of Black Music,” with Pauline Rivelli (Da Capo Press).