Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ms. Constance

While living out our month by the lake, we were hampered from living our modern lifestyle by one middling fact - we had no internet. I shouldn't say we had no internet, because that isn't strictly true; we had dial-up. But once you have crossed over into using broadband, there is no going back.

Once a day, we would check e-mail, an hour's activity at least. If I decided to blog and did not have a pre-made post waiting in the wings, that hour could stretch to two. Most of those hours were spent staring out the window, watching boats pass with screaming children careening behind on various shapes of tubes. When a page would load, I would quickly read or write whatever e-mail was at hand, click the appropriate button, and go back to watching out the window until the next page appeared. The internet, like life that month, was slow.

Since Joy was in the middle of registration for fall Kindermusik classes, such a slow internet was not merely an inconvenience, but a detriment to her business. So, we sought out other means of procuring the internet. In a small Arkansas town, that meant the local public library.

The library had just moved into a new home, a narrow but surprisingly deep storefront in a freshly-built strip mall that was slowly sucking business away from the old one right next door. We drove to the new residence on a Monday afternoon around 4:40, figuring that although the library would soon be closing, we might have time to procure a library card. No such luck. The library's hours, clearly etched on the glass front door, were Monday, Wednesday, Friday, from noon until 4:30 and Saturday mornings from 9:00 until noon. Caught off guard after our years of 24-hour Wal-Marts and late-night Taco Bell runs, we retreated home until Wednesday.

Two days later, Joy ventured out alone while Sam napped. She discovered that the library was one single room, with shelves at least six feet high lining three sides of the room and identical shelves lined up at an angle in its middle. Three computers dominated the remaining wall, two for internet access and one devoted to the card catalog. The back corner was given over to children's books, videos, and DVDs, which meant that the shelves were half-height and a cozy rug stretched over the industrial carpet, inviting browsers to plop down and read a while.

Two other features caught her eye as she walked in: The first was a rack of fishing poles; in that small lake-hugging town, you could check out a pole for an activity that, I suppose, was as quiet and reflective as reading so was a natural fit for the library. The second was desk in a small alcove next to the entrance's airlock. And at that desk, presiding over the comings and goings of the library and, realistically, the entire town's populace, was Ms. Constance.

Ms. Constance's name, like the adults in the Harry Potter novels. was wholly appropriate, - as far as I could tell, she never left her desk. The shelves were angled so that, with the help of ceiling-mounted circular mirrors certainly swiped from a dying convenience store, she could monitor if books were reshelved after being slid from their spots or, following library policy, placed on top of the shelfs for later collection and redistribution. Each of the computers was pivoted so that she could see each screen, noting the internet traffic that came into her library. You came to Ms. Constance for help, never the other way around. The library was her domain, and she ruled it completely.

That muggy Wednesday afternoon, Joy approached her desk, armed with a piece of mail that proved we were living in town, for at least the month. She wasn't the only one after a library card that day, so Ms. Constance waved her hand at Joy for her attention, and exclaimed that she would only be saying this once, so be sure to listen up. She went on to explain that anyone wanting a card needed to have a personal reference, so Joy needed to be thinking of who could provide that for her. Taken aback, Joy put down her mother (at the local address) and hoped that close relatives would suffice. They did, and Joy received her card along with a list of rules and regulations for the library and, most importantly, internet usage.

The two computers were numbered capriciously; there was no indication on the physical computer as to which was #1 and which #2. Ms. Constance would simply tell Joy which computer she should be on and which one was #1 (or #2) for that day. Joy would then sign in and commence her work.

Being that close to the desk allowed Joy to hear the interactions between Ms. Constance and her patrons. Everyone who entered greeted her warmly and asked after her husband, who, evidently, had recently undergone surgery. Ms. Constance, as befitting her name, always replied, "Well, he's in a lot of pain." Following this interchange, Ms. Constance would change the subject, invariably asking after the book the patron was reading and if they were enjoying it. Most responses included a remark on how much they enjoyed it since it didn't have any of that cussing or foul language. Ms. Constance would shake her head in agreement and suggest a new book that the patron might pick up. She knew what everyone was reading, had read, and might be interested in reading.

I learned firsthand Ms. Constance's interest in reading habits when I attempted to find a book in the library. I had recently finished Under the Banner of Heaven and knew that the paperback version contained a response to the book by the Mormon Church. Wanting to read that response, I approached the card catalog and began to type.

"You don't want to do that," a voice to my right said, "I can find it a lot faster than you." Suppressing the urge to tell her I had used an electronic card catalog a time or two in my life, I told her the title of the book I sought.

"I haven't heard of that one," she responded. "What's it about?" I told her while she discovered that the library did not currently have a copy, but one could be sent from another branch in a few weeks. I declined and backed away until a few minutes later, when I returned with a book for Sam I wanted to check out. I handed her Joy's card and she looked quizically at me.

"You don't look like Joy to me." I explained that it was my wife's card. She responded that she'd let it slide this once, but she was going to call me "Joy" from then on until I got my own card.

This was at the beginning of our, and mostly Joy's, trips to the library. More, so much more, to come.


jeanetta said...

i can see it now... your new novel... the collective comments of ms. costance

alicia said...

Sounds like Ms. C. is workin' her library Old School. Reminds me of a story I heard of a librarian in rural Wisconsin named Marion (for real) who had perfected the fine art of pointing and never getting up. Also reminds me of a line from the comic strip, Unshelved: "I am not a buffalo! I do not roam!"

Anonymous said...

Delightful story! Reminds me of our long conversations about Ms. Constance while we were visiting all of you at the lake in July.