Painfully Employed

Push, pull, bend, stretch, crouch, carry, crawl. Upstairs, light filters in and the peace is something you can almost hold in your hand were it not already grasping three plastic-coated hardbacks in a basketball grip or piano finger stretch as you skim the romance section L’s. Lauren, Laurens, Laurent. Lace and Leather, Last Chance, Let Go, Lord of the Manor.  Slide and shift. Return to cart, drink water to stave off the dry heat, wipe nose running again from book dust with crumpled tissue, think about adding hand sanitizer to my “mobile office” but dread the alcohol scent and dry skin. Avoid breathing too deeply near the dirty gentleman sunk deeply into a cushioned chair. Where does he go at night? Palm four more books, M’s this time, ugh, these are on the bottom shelf, the worst. Go back for cart and pull it behind me to give me leverage when I have to stand back up with my weak leg. My Camelbak falls, bounces, and I sigh deeply as I lean down and pick it up, prompting a grunt from the man in the chair. I am well aware that he must resent the several minutes per day that his privacy is disturbed by pages with their rattling carts, crinkling book covers and pull lists, whispering almost inaudibly those pesky middle alphabet letters H – I – J – K – L.

Straight fiction is better, the best actually. Closest to the large window looking out over the small cheerful parking lot and the steeple of the police station, the area is filled with dusty natural light, no occupied easy chairs, and shelves and shelves of shiny potential I must force myself to not examine except for alphabetizing purposes. The handsome college student training me on my first day said his technique is to take a photo, then add it to his reading list later. Yes, we are allowed to have our phones on us, and even use them, quickly and discreetly. Today, a miracle: a recently published novel I hadn’t been aware of by my favorite author, Margaret Atwood. The Heart Goes Last. I don’t even skim the flyleaf but do look at the publication date: 2015. Not a great year. I certainly wasn’t paying attention to much. “The Heart Goes Last”? Did she actually write a more traditional relationship novel, her first since the late 70’s? Stowed on the bottom of my cart for checkout with another gorgeous find, a hardback graphic novel entitled Sick. I shelve a Faulkner, Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night, the inevitable several Pattersons. The only sound is change clinking into the copy machine and occasional coughs and quiet conversation from the reference desk. Always an undercurrent of something pleasantly nostalgic and vaguely musical, almost the sound of an early 80s video game, the source of which I haven’t yet identified.

Documentaries. The wall between two large windows, to the left the parking lot again but from the new vantage point, the library’s back entrance; to the right the city administration building. “Cash For Kid$” – not about the scourge of sexual slavery as I expected but somehow more disturbingly a corrupt county judge who was paid by a private prison to lock up minors with misdemeanors, for years, after Columbine. I shudder. Storm chasing, 9/11, the Titanic, “Founding Brothers” about the fraught and intricate relationships which became again so intriguing after the success of Hamilton the musical.

But here it is: a wave of heat that starts at my chest and spreads upward through my neck, pebbling my face with dots of sweat. 11:15. An hour and 45 minutes left. The backs of my calves ache, my feet hurt, my heart pounds. I drink more water and think about a bathroom break. We get 15 minutes, but I usually split it into 3 smaller private moments in between timed carts, splashing cool water on my face here, tossing back some pills and a slurp of yogurt there. New releases, popular DVDs / CDs, and collecting from the book drop are not timed. I don’t know if the time slips are a way to make pages mindful of the fact that we are always on the clock, no matter how isolated and lost in our thoughts we may feel? Probably wise. I am being timed but I decide to use the upstairs bathroom anyway. “Paper towels are no longer dispensed due to repeated vandalism. We apologize for the inconvenience.” I took my last half imitrex this morning upon waking with head pain but I try to push aside this troubling thought. I am more out of meds than I have perhaps ever been in my life. A dangerous limbo at a dangerous time. The pieces came together almost perfectly with the job and new study, but not quite. My face in the mirror is flushed.

After sliding the rest of the documentaries into their Dewey decimal prescribed locations I carefully maneuver my cart, more rattly now that it contains just a water bottle and two books I want to borrow, toward the elevator. The cart with the sign “Place any unwanted books on this cart. We will shelve them for you!” is empty. Almost as many carts in a library as books. A man sits at a carrel, his iPad propped up, headphones on. That unwashed smell emanating from a bearded man in a stocking cap, dozing. The elevator dings and opens. Bang, rattle, out of the elevator, floor, carpet, maneuver around displays. Back to “circ,” to have my time slip initialed and place the empty cart at the back of the line, put my books to be checked out with my bag in my supervisor’s office, take the next cart to be shelved and move each up into its new location in the queue. It’s a children’s cart. More difficult, louder, warmer. No getting into a “zone” here, except occasionally in nonfiction, but I see I have Holiday, Readers, and Picture Books. I initial my time slip, check “children’s” (they know it takes longer) and write “12:15.” I will not get this whole thing shelved, which I hate, because the sad remainders get shifted all the way to the back again, a system I wonder about, since hypothetically the same books could be neglected for days.

Oh the kids in here are tired and hungry. Shelving the thin, difficult to place skill level readers I listen to a couple of siblings squabbling over a puppet show performance they want to put on for their bored, couldn’t-care-less father (but I’ve been in his spot, having to force that enthusiasm, thinking wistfully about the carefree person I used to be). The children’s voices remind me of my own daughters’ near constant maneuvering for dominance. “But that was just practice!” “It’s my turn now!” “I want to use the dragon!” “We have to show Daddy.” “But I’m not ready! Wait are you going to be the bat or the princess? I’m the dragon.” Here are some T’s with two yellow dots. Nearly impossible to alphabetize within the letters; some of the books are thinner than pamphlets. I stand up and my calves scream, my heart pounds, my bad foot tingles angrily encased in its tight sock and tennis shoe. I wipe my sweaty forehead with my sleeve. 12:35. How many of these picture books can I shelve in 25 minutes? Forget the mid-level fiction on the bottom of the cart. I sigh and maneuver over to the low shelves of picture books. A tiny pig-tailed toddler darts out of the castle and is startled. I smile reassuringly into her wide eyes.

“Say hello, Brish,” or some other weird name I can’t decipher, and manage to not roll my eyes at this other young dad’s hopeful tone. How many SAHDs are here today? Usually hoping to find just-as-eager SAHMs, I suppose a middle aged, exhausted but intriguingly tattooed cart-wielding librarian will do as well in a pinch. I don’t look up but smile at Brish. Hello! I say sweetly, and she predictably runs back into the castle.

Wells, Steig, Rausch, Prelutsky, Miner. I am challenging myself to finish the top of my cart. The argument among the obviously intelligent (homeschooled?) older kids building something out of cardboard bricks becomes more heated. The language of children who aren’t aware any adults can hear them; it sounds made up and musical, magical, even in frustration. I can’t recreate it though I wish I could, until the inevitable crash and wail. “You RUINED it! Laaaaaane! Why do you always do that!” The youngest runs to tell and I hope there is someone to tell, there sometimes isn’t. “He learns what he observes,” a tired voice explains to the child but for the benefit of everyone else. Time for them to go, I think, they are hungry. But no, a quick scolding and they are back to it. Carle, Brown, Brett, Berenstain. 1:02, I did it, I’m done and I’m exhausted.

Happily, the page coming in to replace me will finish my children’s cart. He hasn’t seemed to like me, but is charmed by my delight that the books won’t be relegated to the back of the line. “I’m their saviors,” he says. When I check out my books, the women in circ who is also new says something judgemental about Sick and I am so shocked I almost think she must have been talking about something else. Surely they are trained to appear to take no notice of what is being checked out? Whether it is a graphic novel with an unpleasant cover or the Fifty Shades of Gray quartet for the fifth time? In fact she does shake her head rapidly and I think she says “I know better.” Yes, yes you do, lady.

I shoulder into my sweater, way too hot indoors but it is windy and spitting snow. I am so freaking tired, but when I get home I have to catch up on my main from-home job, which is ostensibly far more important as I am the ad coordinator for a local online news journal, not to mention the theatre group and migraine.com stuff. I post some obits too and call about tomorrow morning’s appointment. I pick up X in 45 minutes, and need to touch base with Zo’s ride tomorrow and how am I going to go to that appointment and then to work with no meds? Maybe my PCP will still call me in something as requested, it’s only 2:00. I finally read the flyleaf of the Atwood book. Ha! Of course. A dystopian near future after a financial crash; homeless people are offered comfortable houses for six months and prison for six months; the protagonist falls in love with someone who works at the prison. What a strange amalgam of my day, but reassuringly typical Atwood.

I pick up X, come home, finish the work I was doing and think about how lying down for a bit won’t hurt. The girls will be at my parents’. I burrow fully clothed under my feather comforter and dream guilt dreams about having dinner with my family. The next thing I know I hear my daughters laughing hysterically in Zo’s room. In a fog I check my phone; it is 7:45 pm. No prescription was called in. My throat goes thick with tears and panic. I’m going to have to cancel the appointment.

The books I checked out sit on the floor by the bed, in a neglected pile.

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