The Librarian and the Janitor

by Phoebe Wilcox

There is occasionally a man and woman whose chemistry is so powerful that they have no business ever being in the same room together, unless of course seismic shifts, uncontrolled wildfires, and fierce inexorable magnetism is their final intention. When these sorts get together they could wind up in the ladies room of whatever school, hospital, church or library they happen to be in, and making love on the little sink in the big stall at the end. The librarian thinks that the situation in the library bathroom could get quite out of hand if given the opportunity. They could end up accidently pulling the sink right off the wall.

She's in love.

Who knows why or how these rare and beautiful cataclysms of the heart happen?  They are never predictable, they're just storms that roll in out of nowhere and douse the landscape in a whirl of warm, wild spring rain that exalts the senses and awes the mind.  When she thinks of the janitor the librarian feels vitally alive.  She wonders if there are people in the world who've never fallen in love, who go their entire lifetimes without experiencing that glorious feeling.  If there are, she feels sorry for them.

She'd been having love affairs with books every day for years, but this is different.  This is a rapture of the soul.  

She wants to look into the janitor's eyes and ask him if he has a hammer, ask him if he could help her wind her soul like a silk scarf around it, and mention (as she perches atop the sink in that last bathroom stall) that this afternoon her soul happens to be tucked out of sight somewhere very close by, but that she thinks he could find it if he tried.  Go straight, you can't miss it, she'd say, caressing his razor stubble.

But she doesn't really do or say any of these things because the library is empty today, the janitor is downstairs at the police station and doesn't know that she is in love with him, and she is in the middle of nostalgically ruffling through some of the cards in the old paper card catalog.  The old card catalog is beautiful and efficient but it became outdated.  Even country-bumpkin libraries had to get networked into the county's cyber system sooner or later so her little library eventually acquired a single emblematic computer.  She kept the outdated paper card catalog in case the computer crashed.  The old catalog's case and drawers are made of oak and gleam as it sits across from a row of windows in the dust mote-strewn light of early afternoon.

Maybe she should dust.  If she chooses to read, she'll feel compelled to pick Wuthering Heights and she's not sure she has the fortitude for it.  She goes looking for a rag and some polish.

The librarian is unmarried.  She is thirty-eight years old and lives down the street in her familial home with her aging hemiplegic mother and a cat named Whiskers, "Whisky" for short.  She doesn't drink whisky or any other alcohol herself, but her mother does, every day at four o'clock, precisely half a tumbler.  The librarian loves her mother and is a devoted daughter.  She has made a vow that her mother will live out her days at home, rather than in a nursing home, as this is her mother's most keen wish.  The librarian and her mother are eccentric in that they do not have a telephone.  In an age of faxes, cell phones, blackberries, and voice mail, they choose to keep their hands clean of any extra noise.  She is a librarian as her mother was before her.  They like quiet.

There was an opportunity for romance once, when she was in college.  She met a boy on campus who wanted to take her picture.  He was an art major and very idealistic about his future.  He said he wanted someone "plain" to shoot, and then he was going to go from the proofs to a larger work, a stained glass project.  He would brighten her up, complicate her in the name of art.  She would be rendered in glass.  She knew she was plain and was grateful that he seemed so enamored of this.  Her hair was long and straight, her eyes pale, and she had an apologetic, slightly-oversized nose.  The boy took several pictures of her over the course of two afternoons.  He took her picture on a park bench and in the door of the campus chapel.  He was quiet but appreciative and at the end of this episode he asked her for her phone number.  She lived with her mother then too, an hour's drive from campus and without a phone.  They had never had a phone.

"Oh," he said, "Well, here's mine then."

They had a couple dates and one sweet kiss in the back of a movie theater.  The kiss was nice.  It was tranquil, with a very slight tinge of flame at tongue's edge.  The lights came on in the theatre and cut it short but neither of them minded too much.

He transferred to another college around the time that she lost his phone number.  She'd walked downtown to the phone booth in front of Blini's Deli, feeling obligated to at least search the two-by-two diamond plate floor for it, but it wasn't there.  She had never bothered to transfer it to her address book.  And now the boy was claimed by the universe.  It was okay.  She was not in love with him.

Sometimes she would walk past the wire racks of paperback romance novels in the library and wonder what it was all about, the intricacies of intimacy, physical intimacy.  She didn't know if she'd ever know.  There was one cover that had a brawny man with his shirt buttons half undone; he had long wind-blown black hair and one of those masculine romance-novel faces that is supposed to mean business.  No one is ever giggling on the cover of a romance novel.   The man is rugged and smoldering and the woman wilting in his arms is wearing colonial-era clothing that is�of course�falling away to reveal the swell of her bosom, and her head is thrown back in rapturous anticipation of things to come.  It reminds the librarian of the janitor.

Maybe she should go into the bathroom and see if she can break something so that she'll have a reason to call him.  But she'll have to be careful.  If she tinkers with the sink and causes a water pipe problem it might be necessary to call a plumber and she is not in love with the plumber.  Her uncle is this town's only plumber.

The janitor's eyes make her feel like she is all stretched out in outer space, with one arm trailing through Orion, another dipping into the Little Dipper, and her legs spreading through Cassiopeia.  It's the big bang, but a library-quiet one.  She feels like he answers her internal questions with more questions and then makes the last answer magical.  It's a dream sublime and it makes her want to tear the cloth of reality away to get at him.

Right now he would just be sitting downstairs in the gritty police station talking about sports with the cops.  They all like to watch football games and then analyze them afterwards.  They'd be eating chocolate covered mini-donuts and ribbing each other about this or that with some soap opera or CNN on in the background.  The janitor wears blue coveralls that are never very dirty.  The library doesn't have a lot of janitorial exigencies.  She wants to be his only exigency.

She wonders if it would be okay to bother him to change a light bulb.  But that's too easy.  There are five stepstools in the library and she can reach any light bulb she wants with any of them.

She goes back to the card catalog to look up books on heating and electricity.  She spends most of the afternoon in assiduous research on the most efficient and gentle means of bathroom-plumbing sabotage, looking for a problem that will be too minor for her uncle but too involved for her.  At last, exhausted, and cast into a state of wishfulness that is akin to hunger, she puts the books away, and arrives at her own simple solution.

The bathroom mirror is trimmed in wood painted white.  She watches herself go by, a virgin with a burning fuchsia hope, her cheeks pink with plotting.  She knows too much time has gone by and that she is really going to follow through with this.  Even if she fails, she knows he won't ever tell anyone.  That's what she likes about him.  He is laconic.  The other men holler and eat donuts while he, alternately, eats pretzels and speaks quietly, in even tones, tones any librarian would love.

The bathroom is small with just two stalls, the small one, and the larger one for handicapped use, the one with the grab bar on the wall and with its own special sink.  She enters the last stall, stands in front of the sink, removes the silver post earring from her left ear and drops it deliberately down the drain.  Then she stands for a minute smiling and blushing at herself, covering her mouth, mirthful and amazed.

BIO: Phoebe Wilcox is a lifelong resident of Eastern Pennsylvania. The first chapter of her novel, Angels Carry the Sun, has been published in Wild River Review, and an excerpt from a second novel in progress, The Use of Flower Symbolism in Feminist Art and Literature, has been published in Wild Violet.  Her story, �Carp with Water in Their Ears,� published in River Poets Journal has been nominated for this year�s Pushcart Prize.  Recent poetry may be found in Blue Collar Review, Word Riot, Gloom Cupboard, and is forthcoming in Fiction at Work, VISIONS, The Battered Suitcase, The Northville Review, Waterways, Counterexample Poetics, Glossolalia, Sixers Review, 13th Warrior, and in a chapbook of the River Poets.  She has also been the recipient of a James Michener Scholarship award.