By William Metcalfe
The other day, I unexpectedly came upon one of those pathetic figures shown in brutal news photography or featured in ads for humanitarian charities. Finding her alone in the dark of an underground parking garage in a large, well-financed public library was unnerving.
When my wife and I arrive at this library, we separate. She rides in the elevator to an upper floor for a look at new audio books and videos. Sealed in another, I journey downward to the underground. The reason why I spurn a library overflowing with interesting material for this low-ceiling garage is free books. Two tall, metal bookshelves are maintained for these freebies. They support hundreds of used books given away to whomever, patron or not, finds interest in one, or many. The offerings are quite diverse. On sun-filled spring days, romances might rule. On balmy days, spirited, self-help opuses support each other. Spiritual guides are often secreted near the floor where one kneels to search for them. Name a category of literature; it will appear on these shelves. One day, you will be elated to see the metal shelves bending from the weight of your preferences. Other days, you despair when encountering what only the unlettered paw through.
This is not a cheerful section of the new library. The floor of the garage is raw concrete scarred by faded black strokes of repair. The impinging ceiling and its supporting pillars are formed from the same barren material. Under foot, the flooring is stained with oil, dirt and sticky splotches of fallen sodas. Scraps of trashed paper lift their tattered edges upward like sails on a barren sea. The bluish florescent lighting provides no comfort. This is a space to move through quickly.
Most library patrons do hurry through. They pretend to ignore the free book browsers, but their sideways peeks give them away. The books are used. Their history is apparent in their appearance. Scavenging is not considered a noble act.
The bookcases are in a room that has no reason for existence. It is casually, almost temporarily, attached to a cement wall of the garage. The other walls are glass. This small room has two doors. One accesses the garage itself. The other slides open to reveal an elevator, by this means, one is transferred from this claustrophobic chamber to the spacious, well-lit space of the main floor of the library.
When I step out of the elevator, I turn to my right to check, with anticipation, the fullness of the shelves. My evaluation is interrupted by the presence of two conjoined cloth bundles that have been dropped on the soiled, cement floor. The larger is clumsily rounded; the other inexpertly mashed into a square. Sewn scraps of fabrics form their exteriors. Their myriad colors are muted, dulled, as though muffled by dust. It is as if they have rolled for miles on rural roads before coming to rest at this place.
Carefully, I step around the smaller bundle to begin my search for cheap reads in the other case. From the corner of my eye, I see a shriveled, shaking arm extends from its owner's shroud. From that rounded scrap heap, a wrinkled hand strains to reach the lowest shelf of the bookcase. My ivory hands, unlike the one below mine, is out of place in this gloomy room.
My memory proffers hundreds of news photos of refugees, lugging tattered bags jammed with their final possessions. Their straining hands, stretched wide open like screaming mouths, are reaching desperately out for food and water. The headline names for categories of disaster flood my mind. What this hand received, I cannot say for I withdraw my damp eyes in order to search for benefits for myself.
My search is perfunctory. Among the torn paper-backed covers and pages in the case I examine, I know I would find little. After I have smoothly shuffled towards the other bookcase, I realize I might have moved too close to the person on the ground. When I turn my head slightly to gauge our separation, I see that the bundles have silently vanished. Glancing over my shoulder, I can see the larger bundle has drifted to the far corner of the room and has been transformed into a small, aged woman. Her hooded head peaks below my shoulders. She clutches the small bundle fervently as though it were her child who might flee into darkness or death. She turns her body to allow me to see only the ragged patches of her robe.
As I move to the front the abandoned bookcase, the elevator door opens. I refuse to turn for a final view of the woman. Instead I pull several interesting books from the shelves and drop them into my bag. Then I wait alone for the elevator, to find my wife again.
When I reach the main floor, I return some library books and look through the new acquisitions. In my bag, I have several magazines I wish to donate to the library. On the main floor, the library maintains a small room containing books and magazines for sale at reasonable prices. These are newer, more popular publications, normally arranged by subject. I always head straight towards the histories, bypassing the current fiction and the large revolving racks in the middle of the room. Each rotating rack is devoted to genera of popular fiction: westerns, mysteries, etc. At the base of one rack, I rediscover the two bundles. In the good light, I observe a wrinkled hand at the end of a scrawny arm grasp a lurid romance and caress, with a trembling finger, the naked, white chest of the purported hero.
For many years, William Metcalfe’s writing stagnated as he co-raised three children, worked full-time as a picture framer and hobbied as an artistic photographer. Twelve years ago, with his first computer, he realized that he could type his stories, thus they would become legible and could be shared.