I laughed. “there are a lot of young adult books lately, Mr. Callahan. kids love reading now.”
He shook his head. “Who knew?” Mr. Callahan already had a book in his hand.
“Mr. Callahan, I’d like you to meet Ben.” I gestured to Ben, and Mr. Callahan grabbed Ben’s outstretched hand.
“Hello, son,” he said and took his hand back. “strong grip on you, good to see.”
“Thanks,” Ben said. “I’ve heard a lot about you and I wanted to meet the man behind the legend.”
Mr. Callahan laughed. “no legend here. Just an old man who forgets things and can’t walk as fast as he used to.”
“Is that for you?” Ben asked, gesturing to the book.
“Oh, no. My great-granddaughter. I’m afraid I’m a bit lost in this section. this book takes up a whole shelf, though, so I figured it’s pretty popular.” Mr. Callahan held up a copy of a supernatural franchise. the kind of book that gets the kids reading in the first place, even if it is insipid, so I couldn’t knock it. He had the third book in his hand, and I had a hunch he couldn’t tell that the whole shelf was actually four different installments with similar covers and motifs. His fine vision probably was not what it used to be, and they probably all looked the same.
“That’s actually the third one,” I said. “did you want me to find the first one?”
“Please,” he said.
Ben gingerly grabbed the book out of his hand. “If I may, Mr. Callahan.” He put the book back in place and stopped me from picking up the first of the series.
“I’m categorically against all books about vampires in love with young women. those books always make it seem like being bitten to the point of death is a form of love.”
I looked at Ben, surprised. He sheepishly looked back at me. “What?”
“No, nothing,” I said.
“Anyway,” he continued, focused on Mr. Callahan. “I’m not sure it’s the best influence for your great-granddaughter. I can only assume you want her to grow up believing that she can do anything, not just sit around lusting for the undead.”
“You’re exactly right about that,” Mr. Callahan said. When Mr. Callahan was a child, he was probably raised to believe that women were made to follow men, to stay home and darn their socks. now, he was an old man who had changed with the times, who wanted to reinforce for his great-granddaughter that she should not stay home and darn socks unless she wanted to. It occurred to me that you could see a lot in a lifetime if you stuck around as long as Mr. Callahan. He had lived through times I’d only read about.
Ben grabbed a bright blue book from the display. “Here you go. Just as popular, ten times more awesome. It’s got love in it, but the love is secondary to actual character development, and you really love these characters. the girl is a hero. I don’t want to spoil anything, but bring tissues.”
Mr. Callahan smiled and nodded. “thank you,” he said. “you just saved me a tongue-lashing from her mother.”
“It’s a really good book,” Ben said. “I read it in two days.”
“Can I check it out, elsie? or . . . how does that work if you’re closed?”
“Just bring it back in three weeks, Mr. Callahan. It will be our secret.”
Mr. Callahan smiled at me and tucked the book into his coat, as if he were a criminal. He shook Ben’s hand and walked away. after he cleared the front door I turned to Ben.
“You read young adult novels?”
“look, we all have our idiosyncrasies. don’t think I don’t know that you drink diet Coke for breakfast.”
“What? How did you even know that?”
“I pay attention.” He tapped his temple with his pointer finger. “now that you know my deepest, most embarrassing secret, that I read young adult novels written mostly for thirteenyear-old girls, do you still like me? Can we still go out, or have you just about had enough?”
“No, I think I’ll stick with you,” I said, grabbing his hand. the phone rang again, and Ben ran and picked it up.
“los angeles public library, Fairfax Branch, reference desk, how may I help you?” he said arrogantly. “no, I’m sorry. We’re closed today. thanks. Bye.”
“Ben!” I said after he hung up. “that was unprofessional!”
“Well, you can understand why I didn’t trust you to do it.”
What was that all about?” ana says as she finishes her pancake.
“I . . . I got a little overwhelmed there. I just wasn’t ready for it.” I pick up the phone and dial again.
“los angeles public library, Fairfax Branch, reference desk, how may I help you?” It is still nancy. nancy is round and older. she’s not a professional librarian. she just works the desk. I shouldn’t say “just.” she does a lot of work and is kind to everyone. I can’t imagine nancy saying an unkind thing about a single person. she’s one of those people that can be sincere and neighborly. I’ve always found the two to be at odds, personally.
“Hey, nancy, it’s elsie.”
She lets out a blow of air and her voice deepens. “elsie, I’m so sorry.”
“I can’t even imagine—”
“Thank you.” I cut her off. I know that if she keeps talking, I will hang up again. I will roll into a ball and heave tears the size of marbles. “Is lyle around? I need to talk to him about coming back in.”
“Absolutely.absolutely,” she says to me.“one second, sweetheart.”
It’s a few minutes before lyle answers, and when he does, he steamrolls the conversation. I can only assume it’s because he’s more loathe to have this conversation than I am. no one wants to be the person telling me of my responsibilities right now.
“Elsie, listen. We get it. you take as much time as you need. you have plenty of vacation days, sick days, personal time saved up,” he says, trying to be helpful.
“How much my-husband-died time do I have?” I ask, trying to lighten to mood, trying to make this okay for everyone. But it’s not okay for everyone, and the joke lands like a belly flop. you could fit a city bus in the length of the awkward pause between us. “anyway, thank you, lyle. I think it’s best that I get back into my routine. life has to go on, right?” I am all talk right now. life can’t go on. that’s just a thing people say to other people because they heard it on daytime tv. It doesn’t exist for me. It never will. there will be no moving on. But people not living in the valley of a tragedy don’t like to hear this.they like to hear you “buck up.” they want to say to your friends, to your co-workers, to the people you used to ride elevators with, that you’re “handling it well.” that you’re a “trooper.” the more crass of them want to say you’re a “tough bitch” or a “hard as nails motherfucker.” I’m not, but let them think it. It’s easier on all of us.
“Well, great.you just let me know the day.”
“The funeral is tomorrow morning and I’ll take the rest of the weekend to rest. How about tuesday?” I say.
“Tuesday sounds fine,” he says. “and elsie?”
“Yeah?” I say, wanting to get off the phone.
“May he rest in peace. We can never know God’s plan for us.”
“uh-huh,” I say and hang up the phone. this is the first time someone has mentioned God to me, and I want to wring lyle’s fat neck. to be honest, it seems rude to even mention it to me. It’s like your friend talking about how much fun she had at the party you weren’t invited to. God has forsaken me. stop rubbing it in how great God’s been to you.
I put the phone down on the kitchen table. “one down,” I say. “Can I take a shower before the next one?” ana nods.
I head into the shower and turn on the faucet, wondering how I’m going to start this conversation, wondering how it can possibly go. are my parents going to offer to fly out here? that would be terrible. are they not going to offer to come out here at all? that would be even worse. ana knocks on the door, and I turn off the water. I’m sure she thinks that I’ll never get out of here on my own, and I don’t want to give her any more to worry about than I already have. I can get myself out of the damn shower. For now.