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Mountains by William Gibbons

Library Love Lost

Denning Powell

Joe, the late-shift librarian, stands behind the check-out counter. He pores over a newspaper, highlighting words in yellow marker. Occasionally he shifts his weight from one leg to the other. Occasionally he looks out at the nearly deserted library main floor. No waves for help; it’s a slow night. Occasionally he wipes an eye, then goes back to the paper.

A flash of color at the entry slips into his peripheral vision. As footsteps click across the tile he highlights one more line before looking up. A good-looking woman in jeans and a bright print shirt looks around as she strides in, then smiles at him. He pushes the paper under the counter’s parapet.

“Carol, hey! Welcome back! We heard you’re coming back to work at the Health Center. So that’s true?” Joe reaches his hand out.

Carol takes his hand, but leans over the counter to kiss his cheek. “Fourteen years around the world, Joe. Time to come home.”

“Ah. Your mom? Her health?”

“Oh, partly. But Afghanistan... just... it got to me.”

“I hear nobody put more time in Doctors without Borders than you, ever. South America, Africa... we lost track.” Joe smiles at her.

An announcement sounds over the PA system: “The Library will close in TEN minutes.”

“Oh! Quick, Joe. I just got off the airplane, and it looks like you’re totally re-organized here. Where are the Conard yearbooks now?”

Joe points. “Upper stacks, right there...” He watches her run off.

Carol climbs the stairs, finds the high school yearbooks, pulls one out. She flips it to a picture of a young man, strokes her fingers along it, murmuring. “Twenty-some years of missed chances, Josh... husbands and wives that didn’t work out... we were the perfect couple... why didn’t it happen?”

A tear drops on the yearbook page. She brushes it off, flips to another page showing her younger self with a young Joshua behind her, his arms encircled under her breasts as they sang into a microphone.

“Scandalized the whole damn school with that song, didn’t we...?” Carol remembers, singing softly to herself into the empty library stacks:

“Deep in my soul, I’ve been so lonely... All of my hopes, fading away...”

Another tear falls on that page. As she brushes at it the page flips, showing a loose newspaper clipping someone put there. It has a photo of a smiling soldier in a green beret. She turns back to Josh’s younger picture, holds the clipping beside it, comparing. She smiles and goes back to the page with the two of them singing.

“They almost threw us out for that song. Then you went to West Point. And I went to pre-med, and...” Carol sings again, remembering more words:

“I’ve longed for love, like everyone else does... I know I’ll keep searching, even after today...”

The lights in the stack flick off, leaving only dimmer light coming up from the main floor below. Another PA announcement sounds: “The Library will close in FIVE minutes.”

“...and then, Josh, our one magical night in Kandahar... you said you were getting out of the Army, going home... that we should meet in the Library... where we first met...” Carol sings more of the song:

“... longing for shelter from all that we see...”

She strokes the picture, closes the yearbook, hugs it to her breast, crying.

“Well, I just got off the airplane, love. And here I am. And I’ll be here tomorrow, and the day after, and...”

Arms enfold Carol from behind, desert camouflage fatigues rolled up to the elbow. A green beret shadows Joshua’s face. Carol sighs, starts to turn in his embrace.

“No,” he murmurs, “just let me hold you, like I did back then...” He sings softly in her ear as they sway together:

“So here we are, babe, what do you say... We’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow... We’ve got tonight, babe... Why don’t you stay?”

Carol turns in his arms and they kiss, thoroughly. Finally she pulls back.

“Been waiting long?” she asks.

“No. A couple of weeks.” He brushes an errant tear from her cheek.

“You’re out of the Army now.”

“Fair to say.”

“But still in uniform?”

He smiles. “Old habits die hard.”

“Like still sneaking up on people?”

“I’m a spook, love. That’s what Special Forces do.”

Another PA announcement sounds: “The Library is now CLOSING.”

Carol turns, slides the yearbook back onto its shelf. When she turns back Joshua is gone. As she walks down the stairs his voice tracks her, coming from different places, singing:

“We’ve got tonight...”

She responds: “Who needs tomorrow...”

“Let’s make it last...” he offers.

“Let’s find a way...” she agrees.

The ceiling lights cascade off from the back of the library forward, following her. She waves at Joe in passing.

“Turn out the lights...” Joshua sings.

“Come take my hand now...” Carol offers.

Joe watches her leave, puzzled, not quite hearing what she said. He pulls the newspaper into the full desk light. It shows a big spread of pictures and stories about the hometown hero, Major Joshua Jacob Christensen, US Army 5th Special Forces Group. Words are highlighted in yellow marker: operating in the south of Afghanistan... Silver Star, posthumous... burial with full military honors... died in the service of his country... Joe whispers his sadness to her retreating back:

“I’m sorry you missed the funeral, Carol. They beat the drum slowly. They played the fife lowly. Just like it says. It was truly beautiful. I cried the whole time. I loved him too, you know. Our whole class did.”

Carol pauses at the front door, ready to walk out into the darkness. Her right hand moves out from her side, open.

“Come take my hand now...” she sings.

Carol’s hand clasps. She walks out alone, but two voices sing together in close harmony:

“We’ve got tonight, babe... why don’t we stay...”

Joe switches off the desk light.

A refrain drifts back into the library from the empty darkness outside, voices interwoven:

“We’ve got tonight, babe... why don’t we stay...”


{Note: Song lyrics from We Got Tonight by Bob Seger, c1978.}

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