Thursday, August 6, 2015

2015 Summer Library Series: My Dear Library by Ben Cartwright

Welcome back to the Summer Library Series.  It's August, that part of the summer that is both full-on summer and the inevitable decline toward autumn. And so it is with this season's library series here at What She Might Think. All summer, writers have been sharing their childhood memories of the library: wild horses gone still in streamscigarettes left for an attic, the refusal of returning books, the fear of betraying one library by checking out the books of another, and the small, enormous political acts of reading what others don't approve of.

We now move to a series of dedications, letters, summonings of the past, with writer Ben Cartwright. Enjoy!

Envelope, photograph by Dingler1109,
used under CC license

My Dear Library
Ben Cartwright 
Dear Spokane Valley Library (1980),
My mother was losing it.  School canceled for a week, noonday sky black and missing the sun's round punctuation, so faces covered in surgical masks (because of St. Helen's) we clambered into the Volkswagen bus.  Ash in the streets made crests and troughs under our tires.  Laneless, we stuttered over Sprague, crept around the S-curves of Main, wipers set to high and accomplishing nothing.  My mother, driving blind and sobbing, triggered a sympathy response in my sister, and their chorus of lamentation as I held my finger to my small mouth, made the noise a librarian makes when she (the ones I loved were always she) tells the world to remain silent, to keep a kind of order, for a while.  Your square door was lit yellow and bright.  It was the end of the world.  I left the van first.
The Cartwright Family, used with author's permission.

Dear Spokane Valley Library (1984),
In the old building, the Children's Section was a separate room.  The yellow backs of Nancy Drew's jeremiad were like a magnet.  We took turns looking at the pictures pressed into the vinyl of the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack, scratched and unlistenable, never checked out more than once by any given family, a found portal.  I'm sure the separate room was dangerous, maybe the reason for the new building.  Vague memories of adults being ushered away, men being questioned about who belonged to them, whom they belonged to. 

On our island of the Children's Section, in the old building, I learned to play with others.  A boy swears he will pee in the corner, next to the oversized picture books.  My sister tells him she's a witch, feeds him one of the allspice she keeps in her pocket, says she'll grant him a wish if he swallows.  Once it's down, we tell him never to pee in the library again, or she'll say the word, and a thousand tiny spiders will hatch in his insides, make their way through membrane and sinews, come pouring out of his ears, his eyes, his small and doglike instrument he uses to destroy the public good. 

Years later, she earns her Master's in library science, and I lead undergraduate students into the stacks in a university library, in another state, another time zone.  I tell a student on his phone that he can leave, can get into his father's Escalade and drive off, without a grade; that this is a library, and you don't do that in here.  I offer extra-credit if they read anything banned.

Dear Spokane Valley Library (1990),
My sister is a library page, and her spies are everywhere.  Still, my quiet and troubled first girlfriend placed my hand on her breast, underneath her shirt, while watching Edward Scissorhands, so I turn to you.  I am discrete, and know the call numbers.  I start with anatomy, but those books are like a deer trail that starts somewhere you think you know, and then leads you into a ragged clearing where there isn't any outlet, only forest, the peeling skin of birches, an impenetrable wall of Ponderosa Pines.  I turn to psychology, and understand now, that I was reading the Kinsey report.  I find a terror of unknowing, a gulf I am not ready for.  In graduate school, I think of this as "the fear"—the wave of books you never understand, the reading of which would outlast you, and take another lifetime.  Offering to shelve what I've pulled, my sister's friends tell their friends, who tell their friends, who tell their friends what I'm reading--the library pages a perfect system of babble, like the voices that spoke to Joan of Arc from the brook.  My sister throws a library page party at our house that devolves into laughter.  None of them were in the theater, after being driven there and dropped off, unkissed, lost in the dark, hand trembling and pressed against what Solomon called gazelles.

Dear Spokane Valley Library (2014),
I am relieved for your tables with the single chairs, each with private outlets, a ziggurat of essays to grade before me, a place that is not my home, where I will not fall asleep.  I hear the new building is now old.  Like a selkie, you will be changing skins, but I remember you best when you traveled from wave to wave, crest and then undertow.  This is not to say I will not vote for you to change.  Once, I slipped outside beyond your loading dock, in the dark, smoked my first and only cigarette near your dumpsters.  The friend who gave it to me is buried.  I don't know what it means.  Another time I drove across the country, and married the first girl I saw in town.  She was reading a book.  She wore red socks, and looked like a librarian.  Thank you.
Ben Cartwright
Ben Cartwright grew up in Spokane. His work has appeared in many fine places, such as the Seneca Review, The Stinging Fly, Midwestern Gothic, Diagram, Verse Daily, DMQ Reviewand Matter Press.  He has his PhD from University of Kansas, where he taught for a number of years; he also taught in Tianjin, China and now teaches at Spokane Falls Community College.  Currently, Ben is writing a speculative fiction novel set in 19th century Tianjin, China titled An Amah in Victoria Park.  You can follow him on Twitter here.
If this is your first time travelling with the Summer Library Series, you can catch up by visiting all the places we've been this season: Philadelphia, Washington, Switzerland, Iowa, and Texas. Past seasons of the series are housed here. The series will continue through August, so please check back next Thursday, and share with friends and strangers until then.