Slip slidin’ away
Slip slidin’ away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away – Paul Simon
Sebastian told me this morning that we were going to the University library today. This is not a surprise, because we go at least once a month. It is an outing for us which we usually plan a week or so in advance, but not this time.
“Why didn’t you tell me until this morning?” I asked him over our oatmeal with blueberries.
“I’m sure I did tell you. You just don’t remember. And, does it matter dear?” Sebastian spoke sweetly, but he always speaks sweetly even when he’s reminding me to put the milk back into the refrigerator or that I’ve agreed to give up driving. I actually might like it better if he got angry with me once in a while.
“No.” He’s sweet, so I’m sweet. “It doesn’t matter. Shall I pack our lunch or are we going to the cafeteria?” We love the college dining commons; students surely don’t appreciate how meal plans have changed in fifty years.
Sebastian got that look again. “It’s June. The dining commons is closed. I made some sandwiches this morning – they’re in the fridge. If you want, you can pack the bag and fill the thermos with the leftover coffee.”
I’ll do those things and Sebastian will check and make sure I did them right. Which is probably a good thing.
I used to prepare lists of books to look at when we went to the university. I would only take out about a quarter of the books on the list, but had a grand time lugging them to a carrel and skimming through the tables of contents and perusing indexes. I can’t comprehend enough to read those kinds of books anymore. Mostly I read books that I’ve read before and often I don’t even finish those. Concentrating is not easy.
I got everything right in packing our lunch and Sebastian seemed happy as we drove through the hills to the campus. I don’t miss driving; after my last accident, Sebastian told me no more, but I didn’t mind. It’s much nicer to ride in the car and make up stories about the houses we go by. We go through some poor countryside where everyone has clothes lines – sometimes in the front yard. You can tell a lot about people from what is hanging up to dry. Or what is missing. I guess even poor people use paper diapers now, because you never see them drying. When my kids were little, the diapers took up the whole line, and I had to wait for them to dry (they were the most important things) before I put the clothes out. How many years has it been since I’ve had a clothes line? I asked Sebastian if we could have one, but he said it was against the regulations of our housing association.
When we got to the library, the alarm went off as we went through the metal gate. The man at the desk stopped it. I got muddled for a minute and thought we were at the airport. Sebastian turned and started to talk to me in a loud voice.
“This is the only way out of the library – you can wander around anywhere you want, but just remember that if you try to leave without me, the alarm will go off.” The man at the desk looked up confusedly, and it occurred to me that the reason Sebastian was talking loudly was for him to hear. I am sometimes a bit mixed up, but I am not stupid. Sebastian wants that man to stop me if I wander off, which seems unfair and silly. First of all, I love the library and I’m not going anywhere. Second, if I wanted to get out, I would find a way.
We put our lunch and Sebastian’s bag on a table in the reading room and Sebastian went off to use the computers. It was nice and quiet; hardly any students were around. I headed for the new book shelves to see what people were writing these days, but not with much hope. The fiction writers seem to be writing about young people and the non-fiction writers are either writing about what bad shape the world is in (as if we don’t know that) or about some group that is badly treated. When we were marching for black people to get their rights and for women to give up their bras, we had no idea that the list of victims would go on and on. But I did find some art books with beautiful color plates. There was one on Georgia O’Keefe and another one about Mary Casals. I don’t think either of them had any children, but O’Keefe drew flowers and bones and Casals painted mothers and babies. I thought about that for a while.
Sebastian came and got me at noon and we took our lunch outside to the garden. We have a favorite bench there near the roses, but a girl was talking on her cell phone there, so we had to perch on the side of the fountain and eat our sandwiches and grapes. I was a little confused when lunch was over and asked Sebastian if he’d paid the check yet. He held up the picnic bag and raised his eyebrows at me. I decide that I am going to leave him alone for the rest of the time we’re at the library. Sebastian says he needs another hour or two in order to finish his research and get some copying done. He tells me that we will meet at our table in the reading room at 2.
“Do you want me to write that on a note?” he asked. “You can keep it in your pocket.”
I am mortified, but I say yes and stuff the scrap of paper into the back pocket of my jeans.
After Sebastian leaves, I sit and watch the fountain for a while, but then decide to go down into the basement. In the University library, they have a very old part of the collection – which still uses a different classification system – in the basement. I love the old books. Most of them are bound in leather and smell very old. I think they are lonely. They are mostly books of their time and apparently no one thought they were worth reclassifying and taking upstairs. It’s also a little scary – there is a mechanical system that lets the stacks collapse against each other to make more room. If you need to get between two stacks, you have to turn a wheel that looks like the ones they used to use to shift train tracks. The wheel moves easily and the massive book stack starts to slide away from its neighbor. All mechanical, no electronics. It’s silent. And scary. A sound stage for horror movies. Silent horror movies.
But I like the old books, so down I go. There’s a computer terminal at the foot of the stairs to access the catalog, but this is the one section of the library where they have also retained the old card catalog. It exudes its papery aroma right beside the sterile screen. I open the catalog at random and start fingering through the yellowed cards looking for one that someone has made an annotation on.
“Important!” someone has scrawled on the index card for essays by Bolingbroke, Henry St. John (Viscount).
I actually know who Bolingbroke is. He was a friend and ally of Jonathan Swift – both of whom were, in a sense, exiled. Bolingbroke for political reasons to Europe and Swift to Ireland. I’ve read some of their letters, although I cannot remember any particulars except that Bolingbroke was unfortunate enough to have a long-lived father so he did not get his inheritance until he was a very old man indeed. Swift, whose father died before he was born, thought this was quite unfortunate.
I found the appropriate stack from the hand written labels on the ends. I slowly turned the wheel, and the stacks moved infinitesimally slowly until there was a crack of light between them. But there was also a strange shadow. As I continued to rotate the wheel and the bookcases continued to separate, the shadow became a man and the man moved toward me.
The man’s hands were cupping his ears as though he needed help to hear even though no one was speaking. Although he was fatter than I would have expected, I recognized him right away. He was old and dirty and angry-looking. Not surprised though – Jonathan Swift looked at the seventy-eight-year-old woman at the end of the shelves without the least sign that he was out of place or confused or even overly interested. I too was remarkably calm, more concerned for my sanity than for the presence of specters who had been wandering for over two centuries.
It was not surprising that I recognized him. In my youth, I had spent three years working on an academic study of the man. I had read everything he had written, a lot of what was written about him, concentrating on his old age. And it was in his old age that he appeared to me now.
Neither of us spoke for a long time. He stared and shook his head as if trying to get water out of his ears. I just wished he would go away. I had spent much of my time in the last few years wishing things would go away – things like the giant floaters in my eyes, the pouches under my chin, the brown spots that were blossoming all over my body. Attention – even negative attention – seemed only to make these things worse. I closed my eyes and then opened them again, but he was still glaring at me. He leaned forward as if he thought I was speaking but he just was not hearing it. I felt like I should say something.
“You look like Jonathan Swift.”
“Louder.” He took another step forward in an effort to hear me.
“You appear to be Jonathan Swift.” My voice echoed in the basement stacks.
“I know that.” He thumped one of his hands down on the table. “Who do you appear to be?”
Good question that. I had to think for a minute, and then I gave him my name.
“What are you doing in this library?” Or in this century, I thought.
“Where should I be? And what business is it of yours?” This was an irritating man.
“I suppose it’s none of my business, but this is my time not yours so I just wondered why you came.”
“I didn’t come here of my own accord. You must have brought me here. So I guess you just gave me some of your time.” His hand thumped on the table again, but this time he was laughing, guffawing through his nose and rocking back and forth, sending body odor all over the place. He obviously thought he was hilarious. I was not so sure. Do figments of the imagination have an odor? I suppose there are all those Virgin Mary’s that smell of roses. I needed time to think, and so I started to walk away, but I could immediately hear and smell him following me.
In what seemed like another lifetime, I had written a dissertation about Jonathan Swift. He must be stuck in my memory banks. “I did a lot of research on you once, but I don’t remember much anymore. But I don’t know why I brought you here. I forget a lot of things.”
“Dying from the top down, are you not?” He peered at me, and I said nothing. I recognized the quote though.
He didn’t even blink as he went on. “I used to say that I was like a tree, I would begin to die at the top. It was in my family. And that is what happened, but you probably know all about it.”
“My family too.” My father had gone this way; visions of him wandering the halls of the nursing home looking for his office haunted me.
“It wasn’t so bad. Really not. Didn’t have to put up with anyone anymore. Didn’t have to preach or do anything. Sometimes things made more sense than when I was sane. And very many things are better off forgotten. Many things. When it was over, I realized I should have enjoyed it more.” When I still didn’t say anything, he rubbed his nose and continued.
“It was like being a baby again. I did not enjoy my childhood. Horrid. But when I started going bad at the top, everyone started taking care of me. It was like having a second chance.”
I should have said something, asked questions, found out if he had ever actually married Stella, but I did not. Swift gave a loud harrumph and hobbled back into the stacks which seemed to autonomously roll themselves closed again.
I don’t know how long I stood looking at the place the old man had been, but all of a sudden Sebastian was there telling me that it was 2:30 and he had been looking all over for me.
“Did you find any books to check out?” he asked.
I looked down at my empty hands. “I guess not.”
“Well, come on then. We’ll get ice cream on the way home.”
Sebastian charged his books out and put them in his duffle bag. Soon we were on the way to the parking garage, then in the car and on the way to Cherry Orchard for our treat. Life seemed normal, despite my strange visitor.
I put my hand on my husband’s arm. “Sebastian, do you think I had a horrid childhood?”