Standing on top of a bookcase I survey a cavernous room filled with row after row of such bookcases. The rain in my clothes trickles off of me like a thousand runny faucets. The PLIT PLAT of water drops is almost deafening in the vault silent room. I almost crack my head open sliding in the growing pool of water on the hard wood that drains via a tiny rivulet with growing force down the open bookcase to the shelves and the books below on its way to a resounding SPLAT on the floor.
Taking a deep breath and shivering from cold, I draw myself up uncomfortably inside my soaked clothes and look for a way down. A ladder at the end of the row seems the best way. I grab the wooden rails and place my feet carefully on the top rung, swinging my weight around. Safely mounted, my food slips, and I go clattering down the rungs all at once and stumble awkwardly onto the floor.
The room is dead and dark, except for the bank of windows on the far wall. The shelf beneath the windows goes on for some one hundred feet, and shelf after shelf of many hundreds of hard bound volumes extend the width of the room divided by a single center aisle leading to an arched doorway, the main entrance from the hotel. A cold shudder passes through me. I’m not sure whether being indoors is a good or a bad thing.
“Full use of our amenities,” the clerk said. I don’t recall anything about a hotel library, and find it astounding that such a collection should be maintained by a hotel. Who gets a chance to read here when one is constantly being shuffled about – this room’s taken, that room’s booked in an hour, sorry it must’ve slipped my mind, dinner at twelve, a ridiculous hour? It seems there’s nothing but rules in this hotel. Oh, well. I’m alone here. Perhaps I’ll get lucky and find my book and get some reading done.
I head down one of the rows and drag my finger down the river of book bindings. The movement sends wisps of dust trailing down the aisle. I hear sounds like a cart on wheels one row over and an idle hum lilting meekly in taciturn fashion, out of key, huskily, as though the possessor of the voice is not in complete possession of the melody.
Rounding the end of the row, a lumped over gentleman comes into view, intently gazing down on a collection of books in his dusty old return cart. I try to get his attention by clearing my throat and waving. He angles his grey cardigan sweater back towards me so that his silver whiskered face is turned away from me. He moves with a sort of limping rhythm that betrays his humming ability. He is not in possession of the song, but rather the song is in possession of him. And he seems lost in a fog where only the odd song and a cart full of books exist. He reaches down and picks up one of the volumes, carefully checking the number on the binding to make sure that he has the right address, then slowly and with great effort he raises an arthritic hand with skin loosely enveloping a strained ensemble of distended tendons, ligaments, and bones. He winces with a darting pain at his shoulder as he lifts the binding with great care and concentration, and with his other hand pushes aside the heavy dusty volumes on the shelf and carefully wedges the book in the open space. The motion of the book ejects a puff of dust, which spreads over the librarian and promptly launches him into a conniption fit of upper respiratory spasms.
“Are you alright?” I ask, running towards him. I place one hand on his shoulder to steady him, and pat his lurching back.
He jolts upright and turns a confused eye toward me, taking me in completely at a glance. His eyes glisten sharply upward at me though thin bifocals, the blood engorged rims of his eyelids strain with many wrinkles as if to keep his eyes from popping out of his head.
“Oh, oh, my… Yes… Excuse me!” He says with welcome relief. He smiles at me, though reservedly, and after wiping some bit of drool from his lips with a rumpled stained handkerchief he offers me his hand gently, “Jones… librarian,” he introduces himself, “with pleasure.”
“Thank you,” I say, taking his hand in mine, “the same.”
“I don’t recognize you,” says Jones. “You must be new.” And placing a hand over one eye he scans me carefully up and down.
“My name’s Jonathan.”
“What? Speak up. That’s my bad ear. Here, try this one.”
“Jonathan.” I say with volume.
“Oh! Jonathan… a fine trustworthy name, Jonathan! Not too many the likes of you in this place… a fine specimen, too. Do you like books, Jonathan? Eh? Are books your thing?” He whispers and leans in with a conspiratorial wink above his bifocal rims.
“Yes,” I chuckle, “in a manner of speaking, I guess books are my thing.”
“Oh good, good!!!” Jones chuckles and shakes his fists and hops up and down like an excited child.
“Actually, I wonder if you might help me. You see, I came to the hotel today with a book, a very special book, and now I’ve lost it. I can’t seem to find it. I was hoping maybe some one found it and brought it here.”
“A book? Someone brought a book?” Jones says, head darting this way and that, searching for the would-be book depositor. “Which one was it?”
“It was a leather bound volume, a limited edition of Paradise Lost.”
Jones curiously draws an index finger over his quivering lips and looks perplexed at the floor. His eyes focus like two drills, and he turns a deep breath inward as if through sheer concentration he could make the floor splinter.
“Paradise Lost… Paradise Lost… Hmmm… Don’t have any books by that name.”
I’m aghast… dumbfounded… Is this a library on some other planet I’m not aware of? “Paradise Lost? Certainly you’ve heard of it.”
“Nope,” Jones says, shaking his head with absolute certainty. “I don’t think I have.” He places both hands on the cart and begins to push it around the end of the aisle.
“Well, I find that hard to believe,” I say following him, “it’s a classic.”
He waves a hand as if to correct me. “Look around you. Look at this. Over twenty thousand volumes, almost half a millennium of mental anguish, torture and sublime ecstasy spilled out on paper! I know them all, backwards and forwards, inside and out. Trust me, Mr. Jonathan. I’ve read all of the classics… know everyone of them by heart… never heard of one called Paradise Lost!”
“You’re joking. It’s a great English epic poem by Milton, John Milton, and you mean to tell me you’ve never heard of it?”
Jones stops cold in his tracks as if enthralled by some impending cataclysm. His silvery brows cascade downward in a primal effort of concentration, and his eyes appear to rotate like tumblers in some gigantic combination lock about to unlatch itself. Suddenly his back lurches straight up, and a single crooked index finger launches in mid air.
“Limnot! You mean Limnot!”
“No… John Milton.”
He throws his hands up and smirks as if, of course, it was no mystery at all, and resumes pushing his dusty book laden cart. “Oh, I know what book you mean. You mean Ostle Sidepaar. Yes, of course I’ve read that book a hundred times. Beautiful book… such marvelous language, such awesome drama. Clash of the titans! The fierce rivalry of good and evil, and the destiny of mankind hanging in the balance! What sweet suspense! We have it in several languages, actually. It was a favorite here for many years. We used to read it at literary gatherings, huge buffets with salmon croquettes and butterfly cut shrimp and huge baskets of fruit. Umph! Yes! Hundreds of people lined this hall, standing room only! Utterly spellbound, some cheering, some booing and hissing! Oh, but Blix’s men ruined it with their constant policing everybody. Blix did it! He turned everybody off! Broke my heart, that Blix! He used to be such a nice man until his wife died and Livion offered him his clerk’s job, then he showed his true colors, I’m afraid, and fascist colors they are! Now nobody gives a damn about the classics anymore. Oh well, you know the classics. They’ve all gone down the intellectual shitter! Mens mentis, ‘the brain thinks’… Ha! Mens Shite, I say!” He ends dramatically, his bushy eyebrows twisting and his finger pointed into the air.
In the midst of this diatribe, Jones raises himself precariously on tip-toe and strains magnificently for the top shelf. He nearly tumbles backward. I reach out to steady him and pull the volume down myself.
“Oh thank you,” he says with a huge sigh of relief.
“You could use the ladder.” I suggest.
“And who will carry it around for me, you?” He asks with a chuckle and a weary shake of his head. Then he looks at me seriously. “You know you’d make an excellent assistant. I could teach you everything about these books. We could use a young person like you to help take over. I’m getting too old!”
“I’m just looking for my book.”
The ancient librarian’s shoulders fold and all the hope drains so that his face takes on the appearance of a husk. He shuffles his feet moving the squeaky cart forward like an old wheel that has turned for a thousand years without any maintenance. “Oh well, nobody goes to the top shelf anyway, all the books up there are books nobody reads, and besides it’s too tall! My God you could dislocate your vertebrae just thinking about it! It’s not worth it. Livion’s architects have no sympathy for the short people of this world. But you’ll see! One day it’ll all come crashing down on them, and there won’t be anybody but short people to design counter tops and shelves from now on!”
He’s in flight on a gravity defying whim of reason which decrescendos down the row of books and closes at the end. I get my last glimpse of him there, and marvel at that old relic. My eyes fall to the bound volume in my hand, an edition with a gold leaf emblem declaring the title and its author, “Ostl Sidepaar by Nohj Limnot.” Amused, I open the book, and to my continued amazement find the words and all the letters scrambled as if some wind had come along to confound any reader who attempted to plumb the text. I thumb through the entire book only to find every word and letter twisted and rearranged. My hand reaches for another dust bound jacket, and another, and another. In each case the entire text has been completely unscheduled.
“How odd,” I mark, and notice from the corner of my eye a familiar eerie shifting shape lunging toward the door. I rush down the row to investigate, and to my amazement see the same large dark figure I had chased only minutes before down the stairwell! Has he been here all this time, perusing the collection? I head after him. I want to speak to him, to find out who and what he is!
“How odd indeed,” a familiar voice cuts me off. From round the end of the bookshelf Blix, the clerk, appears. His white face is a mask from the grave, his hair slicked back with despotic efficiency. He is not the infirm clerk I saw who first greeted me in the lobby, but the maniac who appeared briefly during the murder of the fly. The apparition stops me cold in my tracks.
“You were missed at dinner.” The Clerk bites.
“You must be Mr. Blix.” I say, somewhat amused, finger pointed casually at his face.
A minuscule snarl ripples across his lips and disappears in a vain attempt to maintain human decency. “Blix,” he quips, “Who told you that?”
“He did.” I say, pointing in the direction of the librarian.
The Clerk rolls his eyes and grabs me by the arm, leading me toward the door. I am disdainful of his approach, but nevertheless feel an obligation to explain, “Well, I’m missing my book actually. I thought it might be here… You know, there’s more than one room four thirty one in this building.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the clerk scolds me. “Besides, what’s in a number, Mr. J? They may as well be crazy eights, adding up to an eternity you’ll never see, let alone comprehend; you’ll spend it, like the rest of us cycling mindlessly through birth and death, without any hope of any knowledge for avoiding it. As for your book, Mandolin told me. It’s a shame. But rest assured we’ll find it.”
He is rude and condescending, talking to me as if I were an insubordinate child, in short, an inadequate host.
“We frown on antisocial behavior.” He continues, before changing his manner completely, becoming almost congenial. “And I must admit to being disappointed that you’re not more, well how shall I put it – adventurous? Really, we spend so much time inventing new diversions, Mr. J. I think you would really be pleased if you availed yourself of the opportunities. You don’t know what you’re missing…” He has whispered this to me with all sincerity and earnestness, as an insider telling describing some latest secret bit of news. “Come with me.” He says tugging my arm. “We can still get you dinner from the kitchen, though I must confess to you, Mr. J, the chef is really quite put out.”
By the door, a huge heavy hardwood masterwork with finely beveled and etched leaded glass, the clerk pulls a thick bath towel from a hat tree and hands it to me.
“He has prepared a delicious meal, one that will no doubt take you by surprise. You’ll be late for the party, a shame, but no matter,” he says, opening the door. “You must be well fed first.”