Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Scenes from a failed novel: The adversary

(The following pages were found among several hundred sheets of print-out spilled in and around a dumpster near the one-time offices of St. Martin's Press in the storied Flatiron Building in Manhattan, in the early 1990s. The decision to release these materials now was inspired by Lance Mannion's recent meditation on writerly discipline and inspiration. For other excerpts from this doomed work, go here.)
The name plate on her desk identified the circulation desk librarian as Dorothy Wormel. She was fifty-ish, with greying hair cut unflatteringly short and straight, dressed in typical Pacific northwest fashion: layers of natural fibers, finished out in wool socks and Birkenstocks. The aimed-at effect may have been natural and woodsy; in her case it was pugnaciously frumpy. She was studying a computer printout, accordion-folded into a stack about three inches thick on her desk. If she was remotely aware of Maggie's presence at the desk, she shouldered that distraction aside like a pro.

Maggie waited for what felt like a decent interval, then cleared her throat.

"Excuse me?"

Dorothy Wormel remained precisely as she had been sitting, except that her eyes snapped upward to meet Maggie's over the rims of her reading glasses. Maggie actually made a slight yipping noise and stepped back. The regard behind that glance had hit her like a concentrated blast of arctic air. She fought down the reflexive impulse to shiver.

"I'm trying to locate a book that's in the catalog but not on the shelves. Can you tell me if it's been checked out?" She tried to give one of her pleasant, business-like smiles. The librarian briefly strafed the printout with her gaze, then stood and walked toward the counter. Mercifully, she was looking at the list in Maggie's hand, not at Maggie. Maggie didn't feel quite ready to stand up to one of her glances again, especially at point-blank range. Maggie turned her list around and tapped her finger next to Jaeger and Prinz's book.

"Just a moment," said the librarian, not quite concealing her disdain, although whether it was for Maggie personally or simply for anyone who would interrupt her pure contemplation of the Dewey Decimal System, Maggie could not have said.

She moved to a computer terminal at the end of a counter. As she entered the book's catalog number, Maggie stepped cautiously nearer, surreptitiously watching the woman's stare, so intent that even the computer screen seemed to flicker in a cowed way before her.

"The book is checked out," she said shortly. Her eyes slowly turned toward Maggie. Maggie braced herself.

"Can you tell me when it's due back?"

The librarian focused her lasers on the terminal again. "It was due July 19th."

Maggie's jaw dropped. "But it's March!" The librarian offered no response.

Maggie tried again. "It's been overdue for"--pause for some quick mental arithmetic--"eight months?" The librarian apparently regarded this as a rhetorical question. "Who checked it out?"

The librarian stared unblinking. "We do not release that information. If you like, I can put an R. C. on the book."

"An R. C.?"

"Yes, a return call. We send the person a notice that the book has been requested. That person then has seven days to return the book to us. When it arrives, we notify you."

"Do you think a person who's already kept the book eight months too long will find this notice compelling?" The librarian seemed to treat this question as rhetorical, too.

Maggie shrugged. "Okay, fine. Please put a call on the book for me." The librarian took Maggie's name and address from her student I.D.

"Thank you for your help," said Maggie, as she lifted her book bag off the counter. The librarian apparently chose not to consider this sarcasm. She was already back at her desk, studying the printout. Maggie turned to go, then stopped and turned back toward the counter.

"Excuse me, but could you answer one more question?" The librarian turned her dissecting-probe gaze back on Maggie. "Can you tell me roughly how much eight months in overdue book fines would add up to?" Then the librarian gave Maggie a look even more alarming than her reptilian gaze: she smiled faintly. "It doesn't matter. It's university policy that faculty members are not charged fines for overdue books." She returned her attention to the printout. Maggie waited for the chill to pass over her body, then took her book bag and headed for the library lounge in the basement. This was too much to take on an empty stomach.

She took a seat at a table and looked over her list again. Wormel had let it slip that it was a faculty member who was holding onto her book. The odds were good that only one professor was both theoretically interested in postmodern critique and relentlessly self-centered enough to keep a library book for almost a year: Emile Thoreau. Maggie felt her spirits slip slightly lower. Emile Thoreau, self-conscious "bad boy" of the art history faculty; Emile Thoreau, whose French accent came and went according to the number of sophomore coeds present in the class; Emile Thoreau, tenured champion of the masses, and ass-grabber extraordinaire. Maggie groaned to herself. Emile Thoreau, Volvo Marxist, who believed that, after The Revolution, he would still be entitled to drive an import and nail his grad students. Still, if he had the Jaeger and Prinz book, maybe she could borrow it from him. She fished a quarter out of her copy machine bag and walked over to the pay phone. His number was listed, and she dialed it. Thoreau's answering machine took the call. She hesitated, then hung up. If he did have the book, leaving him a message would only give him time to move the book into the bedroom and dim the lights. Maggie shuddered.

She sat down again and pondered her list. If she couldn't get the Jaeger and Prinz book, she could still get the MacReady article through the interlibrary loan service. Since she had all the bibliographic information, it should be easy to obtain a photocopy from another university library in two or three days. She picked up her book bag and returned to the main floor.

At the information desk, she held up the maimed journal like a specimen of road kill. "Is this where I report mutilated books?" she asked. The student worker nodded. Maggie showed him where the missing pages of the MacReady article had been excised. He dutifully recorded the information and took the book, or what was left of it, to a rolling cart. Maggie thanked him and crossed the main floor to the interlibrary loan office.

Clearly, interlibrary loan was not where the big players were to be found. It was a small and windowless cubicle, little more than a desk, a computer terminal, and a phone. The man behind the desk looked faintly surprised that anyone had found him. Unlike Dorothy Wormel, he had no name plate on his little desk to identify himself.

"I'd like to order a copy of a journal article," said Maggie as she sat down across the desk from him. The anonymous little man nodded shyly and pushed a pen and a form toward her.

"Fill this in with as much information as you can, please." Maggie scanned the form and quickly recopied the information from her list onto it. The man seemed startled when she finished so soon, and he ran a suspicious eye over the form, but it was clearly complete. He smiled briefly and turned to his computer. He tapped in an entry, looked at the screen with vague surprise, compared the information there with Maggie's form, and then looked at Maggie. He seemed faintly disappointed, not so much for her as for himself; he was a fisherman who at last had a nibble on his line, only to find his bait gone.

"There's no need to order this article," he said, almost wistfully. "We have that journal here in Anderson in the stacks."

"Well, actually," said Maggie, "someone cut that article out of our copy of the journal." The poor man looked genuinely shocked. It took him a moment to recover. Then he frowned.

"But the journal's still listed as being in circulation by the main library computer." He nodded toward the screen. "I can't order it for you if the computer says we already have it." He smiled apologetically.

"So how do I get to see this article?"

"You have to report it to circulation. Once circulation declares the book missing or damaged, and I get that confirmed here"--he tapped the screen--"we can order the article for you whenever you want."

Maggie felt her blood run cold. "Circulation?" She drew a little closer and lowered her voice. "Is there any way of doing this without going through Ms. Wormel?"

The nameless man shook his head gravely, in deep and sympathetic disappointment. "And she pronounces it 'Wor-mel,' not 'Worm-el,'" he added sadly.

With powerful misgivings, Maggie retraced her steps to the circulation desk. Dorothy Wormel had apparently not moved since their last interview. Maggie hesitated at the counter, mustering her resolve. She arranged her face into a smile.

"Excuse me, I'd like to report a damaged book."

The librarian silently turned her gaze toward Maggie, like gun turrets swiveled toward their target. She said nothing for a moment while they computed strike trajectories.

"Do you have the book here?"

"Well, no, he has it over at the information desk." Maggie turned and nodded toward the desk, and noticed to her dismay that there was no one there now. "But I have the catalog number and the citation," she added, turning back to Wormel. "And I can tell you which pages have been cut out."

The librarian shook her head slightly. Coming from her, it seemed like a hysterical outburst. "We have to process the physical book here before it can be listed as damaged." Maggie felt her blood pressure going back up again. Wormel went on. "In the meantime, I suggest you order the missing material through interlibrary loan."

"But they won't order the article there until you list the book as out of circulation here!"

For the second time that day--and perhaps, thought Maggie, the second time in the decade--Dorothy Wormel smiled. It was not the easy smile of someone practiced at smiling, but it was all the more effective for that.

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