Note to readers: Faye still has no idea who the mysterious woman is who talked to her when she was regaining consciousness. (She had blacked out and fallen against a desk while choking on a hard candy while alone in an office.) Faye’s face is still a mess from her fall. She is getting ready to go back to the University to do some research. Mabel is the babysitter/housekeeper, Becky is her five-year-old daughter, and Peter is the husband.
“Honey, you’ve gotta put a little more make-up on that face. And you need to comb your hair down over it a little or people are going to think that husband of yours hauled back and belted you one.” Mabel had just come in and was standing akimbo peering into Faye’s face, which was still morphing from red to black and blue. Faye hadn’t thought it looked so bad when she finished with the foundation and powder usually only wore for special occasions.
“No one who knew Peter would think that he would hit me. That he would hit anyone.” Faye realized as she spoke that this was true and recognizing the truth of it made her happy.
Mabel agreed with her. “You’re lucky there. I went to my Al-Anon meeting last night and some of those poor ladies come in looking pretty pitiful. Sad. They tell us that we aren’t responsible for the drinkers in our houses, but no one’s told the drunks yet.”
Faye knew that Mabel went to Al-Anon meetings, but that Pip and Harry didn’t go anywhere. Faye often thought that the most responsible thing that Mabel could do for herself would be just to leave her family, but that didn’t seem to be an option. Only Hostess seemed to be an option and was sure the only reason that Mabel brought a lunch bag everyday was to have some unobtrusive way to bring in the Twinkies. She had cautioned Mabel about corrupting Becky with her addiction of choice, and there had been no sign that Mabel was disobeying. Faye thought that she must eat her Twinkies in the bathroom.
It was after eleven, and the kindergarten bus would drop Becky off within the next half hour. Fay hadn’t had any obligations at the University that morning and she had used the excuse to stay home and do some reading – still working on The Master and Margarita, where people were appearing and disappearing and literally losing their heads with a fair regularity. None of it was strange enough to make her forget her own strange visitor of the day before. Faye was glad she wasn’t due in the journal office until three. She closed her books and decided to spend some time in the library stacks and the carrel assigned to her as study space. Faye was unlikely to run into anyone there who would even notice the remnants of yesterday’s accident. Her lunch (hummus sandwich and an apple) was in her tote. She was eager to get out of the house, but – as usual – Mabel looked like she wanted someone to talk to. She decided to reciprocate Mabel’s kindness of the day before and sat down at the kitchen table, motioning for Mabel to join her.
“Do those meetings help?” In the old days, every conversation Faye engaged in had a subtext: maybe this person will give me something that I can use in a story. Faye realized then that she really must be thinking of writing again, because she could feel her listening apparatus on full alert. While the interior Watcher seemed to be napping, the Writer seemed to have woken up and was back to constant surveillance.
Regardless of Faye’s motivation, the question pleased Mabel and she plunged right in as she struggled to button up the old red sweater she kept in the broom closet. “It helps just to see that there are other people just as bad off or worse than me. There is a powerful lot of misery out there. But how can you just not feel responsible for your husband and your son? Don’t know. They don’t do what I tell them, that much I know – long since gave up telling them. But I can’t help worrying and wishing. How do you help wishing?”
“Good question. How indeed?” Faye knew all about wishing for things. For years, she had wished she could have written another novel. She wished she were a better mother. She wished Becky liked to be with her as much as she liked to be with Mabel. She wished Peter were more interested in the things she was interested in. She wished she were thinner and smarter and didn’t have trouble sleeping. But as she listened to Mabel, she realized that she didn’t have too many wishes for herself at the moment. She did wish things would improve for Mabel though, and it occurred to her that she felt more compassionate than usual. Again, maybe it was because her Watcher was giving her a chance to get out from under scrutiny, putting other people under the searchlight for a change. Faye and Mabel talked for a few minutes more about how Becky was doing, whether she was ready for a bike, and slowly circled back to Mabel’s family.
Mabel sighed. “Anyway, Al-Anon does help. Gets me out of the house.”
Faye smiled and patted Mabel pudgy red hand. “That’s where I’ve got to get. Out of the house.” said Faye picking up her purse and book tote. “Becky said she wanted to play with Sam today, so you might want to check with Marge when they get off the bus. It would be nice if they could spend some time outside today – it will be too cold for much fresh air soon enough.”
Mabel pulled her sweater close around her and moved her weight from one leg to another. “Too cold for me already, I think. But I’ll get them down to the park if you want. Should be a little warmer after lunch.” Faye would have felt bad if she hadn’t thought that a walk to the park would even better for Mabel than it would be for Becky and Sam.
As Faye entered through the security scanners – scanners to protect the books and not the people – she found herself musing about the structure where she spent so much of her time. The library building at the University of Massachusetts was a symbol of both purpose and folly. The mid-seventies era building was a twenty-eight-story tower faced in brick. It was purported to be the tallest university library in the world and the second tallest library. While it is fairly obvious that brick is incongruous on a skyscraper. (Faye thought one might get away with a facade of brick on a house or bank, but even then, it is anachronistic. The absurdity of its use on the elevated library had been compounded and demonstrated by a dangerous failure in human engineering. For many years, the weight of so many small clay blocks stacked so high caused random bricks (or pieces of bricks) to pop out of the facade, endangering the lives of any approaching or fleeing scholars. Thus, until the problem was alleviated many years later, the University had erected fences around the building for a distance of fifty yards or so, with only one protected walkway wending its way into the dangerous heart of the campus. The library became a fortress which one could only approach carefully and under cover. Now the fences were gone; but memory survived, and no one lingered in the shadow of the imposing tower.
In the end, Faye thought, the actual building might be considered on its way to redundancy. The digital revolution was freeing students from the need to do physical research in real books and musty journals. Increasingly, if it couldn’t be accessed through the library’s on-line link, it didn’t exist. The computer commons (which took up more and more space every year) hummed with life, while the library stacks were just as dead as moveable type or a shuttered corset company. But Faye loved the physical contents of the library. She loved to find the call number for a book she was interested in, locate it in the stacks, and then move back and forth and up and down in the shelves, looking to see what was there that she had even known enough about to include in her digital search.
Faye knew the library in a way only true book lovers know. For one thing, there was the aroma – old books smell like old paper and glue and have a moldy musk about them. This combination stimulates the larger bowels to a very predictable degree in some people, something having no scientific explanation other than perhaps it is linked to the time people have spent reading on the toilet. And there was a physicality to books, real books, that was over and above the content. Certain books by their colors or shape beckoned to Faye from the shelves; some books automatically fell open to a previous reader’s favorite passage when held by the spine. Many books were marked in the lightest pencil (with stars and checks and notes in the margins), like someone putting a provisional answer in the cubes of a crossword puzzle. Other textual victims were maimed in blue or black ink, scrawled over in a heavy hand that was secure and vain enough to want their opinions noted by all subsequent readers. Some books carried an old “Date Due” form pasted in the back cover and one could see (in the early years) how many times it had been trotted in and out of the library. All the books had now been disfigured by the affixed bar code, which was the way the automated library knew where a book was, when it was due back, who was accruing fines. Bar codes looked incongruent on 19th century copies of The Divine Comedy; but surely Dante would not have been surprised by anything of which humans were capable.
Computers thought they knew everything that Faye was reading, but, in actuality, no one knew. No one could track the stacks of books she took back to her carrel to thumb through and put on the “return shelves” for restacking by work-study students. This undocumented wandering and winnowing through the stacks was the most important thing of all; the sad thing was that Faye was often alone in her wanderings, while the computer commons were mobbed with students using search engines instead of their feet.
She had come into the “PN” section on the 11th floor to find a book about the radical feminization of Faust (probably a trendier and more aggressive critique than the kind of thing she had in mind, but she hoped that it would give her some new ideas on where to look for female Faust figures). As usual she surveyed the books on the same shelf, but found herself amid texts about women and feminism and holding in her hand the only book on the shelf relative to the Faust legend. Some grand categorizer had decided that the gender angled outweighed the Faustian angle for this particular book, but Faye was glad as she found a few interesting things that she would have missed otherwise. She had just picked up a set of lectures by Carolyn Heilbrun when the lights in her aisle went out. The lights in the dim stacks were on timers, so as not to leave such barren wastelands lit up and burning energy all day. When you went down an aisle, you switched on the light, which stayed on for ten minutes. Faye started to head down the aisle to start the cycle when she realized someone was standing in front of the light switch, backlit by the window at the end of the aisle. That someone flicked on the switch again, and Faye dropped the two books in her arms as she recognized the woman from the day before.
“Hello. Remember me? Pauline is the name.”
“I remember you. I don’t think I knew your name.” Faye paused, while Pauline just looked at her. “I wasn’t even sure that you were real.” Faye still wasn’t sure. This elegant creature in a lilac pantsuit was surely the best-dressed person this library had seen in decades. She looked like a stray from a top-tier fund raiser at the alumni house, and certainly not like she belonged there in the dusty stacks. Faye still harbored doubts that she was there. Here. Anywhere. She wondered whether she was suffering from a residual concussion or something worse. Maybe she had a brain tumor that had caused her to choke, to fall, to conjure up Pauline.
“I’m real enough for your purposes. I talked to my boss about your request, and she thinks it might be doable. Do you want to sit down so we can go over the details?”
Pauline gestured to a study table pushed up against the wall, a table meant for a single student but for some reason there were two molded plastic chairs pulled up to it. Faye picked up her books and went to sit next to Pauline.
“First, we agree with your request. Life will be easy. Easier. My boss says that she has already taken care of it and so you should notice a difference soon, if you haven’t already.”
Faye thought about the last twelve hours and realized it had seemed easier. Somehow. She held her tongue though. It was all probably something to do with hitting her head, changing pressure points in her brain.
“There is a cost though. You need to write. We don’t care what else you do, but you need to produce six books for us within the next twenty-four years – we will make your life easier; you will produce a book at least every four years, not an onerous target. More if you want. But if you make public the terms of this contract, the deal is dead. If you miss a deadline, the deal is over. The easiness is gone. You will never write again. You will never be able to write again. For legal reasons – and maybe for other reasons. And we retain the right to monitor your topics, your themes. We may even suggest something ourselves. We don’t have anything specific for this first novel – you might want to come up with an idea or two yourself.”
Faye decided to ask only easy questions. “I have an agent. What about my agent?”
“We’ll take care of your agent. Don’t worry. And don’t feel bad – how long has it been since you’ve heard from Clair anyway?” Faye was not sure what that meant, and she had no idea how this woman knew the name of her agent, who indeed had been incommunicado for over a year. But Faye liked Clair and hoped there was no nastiness in whatever was going to happen.
“How about a book contract? Will I get paid for my books? What happens at the end of twenty-four years? And, by the way, I have never heard of a twenty-four year book contract.”
Pauline smiled broadly, nodding at the book in Faye’s hand for some reason. “Think of it as a six book contract. With deadlines. That will be standard, with standard royalties and income from movie deals whatever. You will be treated fairly. But, as for the rest of it, there is a price to pay. At the end of twenty-four years, you will write nothing more. Nothing new. It will be over. Really over.”
Faye did the math in her head. She would be almost sixty years old. It seemed far away. And the deal seemed unenforceable.
“Because this is what we have to offer.” Silence. Pauline seemed to think there was no need for further explanation. She sat calmly with her hand crossed on her lilac knee.
Faye finally gave in and spoke. “Why would I want to do this?”
“So you can get what you want. So you will write again. You are not writing now. You have not published anything since your first “promising” novel ten years ago. You seem to have no plans to start. You can either continue to not write or you can write until you are fifty-nine and then stop. You may have other choices, but those are the only on the table right now.” Pauline patted the desk in front of her as if there were a contract in front of them.
Faye felt like she was being forced into two decisions at once – two hard decisions. She had to decide if this woman were real and sane and could do what she said she could do. If she were not and could not, there were no more decisions to make. But . . . She wanted to write, but even more than she wanted to write, she wanted to be at ease, feel like she belonged in her own life. Hadn’t she given up writing in the first place to try and get that back? To reclaim that feeling she hadn’t had since she was a small child? If she had to write to recover it – or, even better, it she could have it and do what she most wanted to do besides…. that would be something. And twenty-four years seemed like a very long time to someone who doubted her own hold on reality in the short term.
“Yes,” said Faye and strangely thought about Molly Bloom, about her complicated sad life and her famous assent, the conclusion that all of Joyce’s survey of life came to: Yes to all of it.
Pauline told her Faye that she would get back to her, but perhaps not personally. She had given Faye a strange e-mail address and told her to send any ideas she had for her next book, but not to expect any responses from that source. Pauline had then disappeared around the end of the stacks, running her fingertips along the backs of the very dusty volumes of medieval literary criticism as she went. Faye waited to hear the chime of the elevator, but never did. Faye sat for a long time in the plastic chair, waiting to be sure she could stand up competently, waiting to see if she woke up from a very real dream. She gradually felt balanced enough to move around, but she still seemed to be on the same plane where the white-haired woman had visited her. If it had been a dream, she was still dreaming. Faye stood in the stacks and wondered what she had gotten herself into, what she would write about. She wondered, but she did not worry. And she did not immediately begin second-guessing her decision, and this felt very different indeed.