On a sunny afternoon in late September, I, the librarian and curator of the vast and renowned Fitzgerald Collection, stood before one of the stained glass windows and watched a throng of businesspeople hurry out of their office buildings and swarm the little public park in order to secure their usual benches next to the magnificent marble putti that pissed high arcs of water into the fountain. Uniformly shrouded in solemn gray suits, pale and glassy-eyed from hours and years and decades spent inside a hive of cubicles, the men and women now stretched their legs and smiled as they nibbled on hotdogs purchased from the corner vendor, sipped lattes and designer waters, intermittently commented on passersby, and all but ignored the vast wall of clouds gathering on the horizon, great, billowing, lead-colored things that, at least for a moment, looked like mountains with craggy granite peaks and snow tipped caps before metamorphosing into a hundred other phantasmagoric shapes—anvils, mushroom clouds, the monstrous swells of an angry sea.
Up until then the day had been a tranquil one, warm and pleasant, but as the clouds gained momentum and blew in off Lake Erie, sparrows suddenly went silent and fluttered out of treetops. A gust of wind stirred branches and rattled windows. Newspapers swirled high in the air and disappeared down the deep canyon of 9th Street, a cyclone of sordid celebrity gossip and astrological twaddle. Flower petals and candy bar wrappers and Styrofoam cups bounced along curbs and into alleyways.
The people in the park lifted their noses from their tabloids and glossy magazines, but they did not run for cover, not even when the marble putti spurted a joyous mist all over their dry-cleaned suits. The weather in our fair city changes from moment to moment, and the people probably believed that things were sure to improve, and besides, it's hard to find a seat with a panoramic view of the lake, so they stubbornly gripped the benches with their fingers, held their chins high in defiance of Mother Nature and their fellow citizens, and waited for the thunderheads to blow over. It wasn't until a billboard promoting a sophisticated brand of vodka was torn from the side of an old warehouse and ascended into the gloomy sky like a mutant bat flapping its gigantic wings that the people began to stir, perhaps believing that any storm that had the audacity to tamper with American commerce should be taken seriously.
As if to confirm this theory, the wind snapped a row of telephone lines one by one, a thousand jabbering voices, buying and selling and bickering, all silenced at a single moment in time. Bright white sparks rained down on the traffic inching along Superior Avenue. A delivery truck struck the corner of a building and a dozen kegs of beer burst through the tailgate, bouncing down the sidewalk, crushing signposts, toppling trash cans. White foam doused a group of bored and sullen teenagers on an informative architectural walk. They opened their mouths wide and licked their lips greedily before their guide, an elderly parish priest, shook his fists at the sky and hurried them into a bus.
The snow started to fall then, heaps of it, heavy wet clumps that accumulated into dirty yellow hillocks, and the people in the park, still protecting their seats, territorial as dogs, murmured with irritation and grudgingly stood to leave. They plodded across the street, lifting their legs through the small drifts that had already formed, closing their eyes against the lash of cold air, their tears turning into jagged little icicles that dangled from cheeks and chins. They raised their hands, crying out in pain as birds dropped out of the sky and bounced off their heads. The downtown streets soon became barren of life, a vast tundra, ghostly and windswept, alien as the Martian snowcaps. Only the humps of cars parked along the curb remained.
From my warm and protected vantage point I could see only an impressionistic white blur. A swarm of insects, in an attempt to escape the storm, gathered along the windowsill and, like brave soldiers faced with a sudden cold snap on the front, keeled over and died. But the people were more determined and clever. They managed to navigate their way through the inexplicable blizzard and found their way up the steps of the library. Inside the grandiose entranceway, which was adorned with gigantic bas-reliefs of Gilgamesh and Odysseus and Don Quijote and Hamlet and Harry Potter, the small shivering group chattered with wonderment.
“Snow in September…” “I knew I should have moved to Florida…” “This is what you can expect living in this part of the country…” “I wish I'd brought my lunch along, this might last awhile…” “Oh, my poor feet are freezing…” “High heels are a pain in the ass, aren't they…” “Normally, yes, but these were on sale and besides they're so cute…” “Did anyone see that candy ass in the tight pink shorts, the one roller blading down the street…” “Wind musta pushed him a good 30 miles per hour…” “Never saw anything like it except maybe for that time in Saskatchewan, now that was something to behold…” “I don't suppose the mayor will get the streets plowed anytime soon…” “The government isn't prepared to handle something like this…” “Those city employees are so goddamned lazy…” “They're all union, you know, no-good unions…” “Maybe I'll read a book while we wait…”
The people brushed the snow from the lapels of their business suits and went their separate ways. Many browsed the shelves or hunted for books on odd weather phenomenon; some grumbled and stomped their feet at the entranceway and refused to budge until the snow dissipated and they could return to their offices; some visited the restroom; some sought out private nooks so they could smoke cigarettes without detection; some found comfortable chairs in quiet corners and nodded off; some merely wandered aimlessly through the echo-filled corridors; many of them, never having been inside the library before, were delighted by the sculptures and winding marble staircases and vivid tapestries and the lamps, hundreds of lamps, all arranged in perfectly straight rows on the long mahogany tables, their green shades casting a soft light that was conducive to quiet contemplation.
An hour elapsed, lunchtime was over, and the people gathered again at the entranceway where they watched the snow continue to mount outside. In hushed tones, they spoke to one another, their voices more subdued, tinged with doubt and worry.
“I should call my boss…” “Did you try your cell phone, mine isn't working…” “We should find a TV so we can watch the news…”
They approached me with their request. “A TV?” I said from behind my desk. “Well, yes, indeed there is a TV, but it happens to be in the director's office and she isn't present right now. Her office is strictly off limits. Even to me. And I am in charge of the illustrious Fitzgerald Collection.” I waved my hand around the room. As the caretaker of these rare volumes, I had complete control over the endowment granted by the aging philanthropist Herbert Quint, the sole survivor of the Edmund Fitzgerald catastrophe, an eccentric gentleman eager to preserve brittle volumes on witchcraft and the occult, labyrinths and mythology, folklore and gnosticism; there was even one scared text from the pagan days of ancient Persia bound in human flesh that could only be touched with a gloved hand and sterilized tweezers; in short, just the sorts of books that might offer up some kind of revelation about a storm that seemed almost supernatural in its ferocity.
I scanned the faces all around me. “You've heard of it of course, the renowned Fitzgerald Collection?” They hadn't but this made no difference to my overall argument. “Well, these are rather unusual circumstances so I'm sure the director will understand. Only be sure not to touch anything. The director is very particular. Try not to breathe if at all possible.”
I led the dour group to the third floor and once inside the director's office I turned on the TV. The mayor stood at a podium, her hair and makeup in perfect order. She asked for calm, assured the citizens that the storm would soon die down, things would be back to normal by evening, but for now, she said, people should remain clam, stay put, the roads were impassible. Then the mayor stepped away from the podium and the broadcast suddenly switched to a game show in which a female contestant in a string bikini alternately giggled and shrieked as she made her way through a gauntlet of other women in string bikinis. They spanked her with wooden paddles while a group of muscle-bound men cheered them on and high-fived one another. I turned the TV off. “We'll check again in an hour or so,” I said.
“No!” one woman snapped. “Try another channel.”
I bristled at her tone but pressed the remote. The game show reappeared. Now the men, with their hands tied behind their backs, licked whipped cream off the women's bellies. I quickly pressed some buttons. A smiling news anchorman, his teeth bleached bone white, claimed that this was the worst storm to hit the city in over one hundred years of record keeping, then he turned to a local historian, a balding man in a cheap suit, who jabbered on an on about freak storms, the Donner Party, cannibalism, how to build an igloo.
“This is silly,” I said and flipped the channel. A teenager, his face lost in a constellation of acne, sat in front of a snickering audience, wept into his hands, confessed that he'd slept with his fiancée's mom, had gotten her pregnant, forced her to have an abortion. The audience roared laughter.
I shook my head, but the people, who didn't seem to mind this kind of chicanery, made themselves at home. Some sat on the leather sofa, some on the corner of the desk, some on the floor, some on the windowsill. They watched sitcoms and talk shows and infomercials until, one hour later, as promised, the mayor reappeared and made a statement. Everything was under control, she said. According to the weather bureau things were sure to improve, the main thoroughfares would be cleared, vital services restored. I was about to turn the TV off when one of the men grabbed my wrist, clenched it tight. “Just leave it,” he said. He leaned forward and raised his eyebrows in a most confrontational way. His breath stank of garlic.
Evening came. Even though the office itself was quite warm and offered adequate protection from the arctic winds tearing through the city streets, the men and women bundled their suit coats around their necks and trembled. Everyone wished to be home, cuddling with spouses or lovers near a crackling fire, comforting their children under cozy blankets, stroking faithful dogs that whimpered with fear. In silence each offered up a prayer, asking that the storm finally subside. But I knew that the gods, like men, were capable of learning, of retaining and synthesizing information, and over the course of unfathomable eons they had learned, perhaps painstakingly, having made the treacherous error of placing themselves at the center of human consciousness, that in the end it was best not to meddle in the affairs of mere mortals. And so the heavens ignored the pious pleas of the group and continued to hurl large chunks of ice at the library and threatened to shatter its stained glass windows. The people curled up in the dusty alcoves of the director's office and drifted in and out of sleep, anxiously awaiting word from the mayor, listening dreamily as the TV erupted from time to time with the squawks and giggles of young men dressed in gorilla costumes who loitered outside a grocery store and pulled horrendous pranks on unsuspecting shoppers.
The next morning, our necks stiff and aching from a night spent tossing and turning on cold marble floors and in high backed chairs, we were confronted by the sad fact that there was no food. One look outside confirmed the seriousness of the situation. Overnight, snow had piled up against the front doors. There was no sign of city employees, no snowplows, no police, no paramedics. No sign of the National Guard, tanks, trucks, helicopters. The city was a wasteland of white dunes. I saw an opportunity to be heroic and directed the group to a vending machine in the basement. Everyone applauded. One woman even kissed my cheek, but my happiness soon turned to horror when the men grabbed the machine and toppled it to the floor, smashed the glass, distributed the cookies and crackers and licorice without bothering to insert money. I begged them to keep order, reminded them that eating was not permitted upstairs among the books, but the group, though grateful to gorge themselves on chocolate cupcakes and cheese doodles, seemed short-tempered. Not wishing to elicit their anger, I crept off the distant Fitzgerald Wing and delicately removed a candy bar from the top drawer of my desk, part of my secret stash. If I wished to help these people and serve as their leader I would need to restore my strength.
By early afternoon the bags of pretzels and potato chips were gone and some of the women wept. One man walked in circles, round and round, hitting his head against a wall, whispering strange things under his breath, incantations or curses, I wasn't sure which. Three men decided to brave the elements and go for help. They pried open the doors, just enough to crawl outside, and scaled the drifts of snow. The screaming storm curled around them like the claws of a prehistoric beast and they disappeared into the subterranean gloom. But I knew, perhaps we all knew, that they would not return, victims of their own stupidity and the mythos of American machismo.
Those who wisely chose to stay behind returned to the director's office and stared blankly at the television screen. A middle aged woman, her face as taught as the strings of a guitar and orange as a tangerine, smiled at the camera, wouldn't stop smiling for even an instant, and described the miraculous benefits of the new and improved Juicer Supreme 4000. Never in the history of mankind had there been an invention of this sort. Taste the difference. Satisfaction guaranteed. And as she performed a demonstration, one of her false eyelashes fell into the whirring blades. The wonders of live television. I flipped to a local station. The mayor stood at the podium, looking not unlike the woman on the previous channel, and just as she was about to reassure us all that everything was perfectly all right, that the city was in no danger, that the storm wasn't as serious as it may have seemed, the electricity flickered once, twice, and then went out altogether. A simultaneous gasp filled the room. I tried to comfort the women but felt awkward hugging them, squeezing their shoulders, and so I left them to their private pain and misery.
I went to the secluded Fitzgerald Wing, sat at my desk, chewed a candy bar with great deliberation, savoring the peanut butter, and felt the cold settle into my bones. The boiler was no longer generating heat and a draft crept through the corridors. Without a light to read by I became restless. I knew of no other way to occupy myself. My routine for nearly forty years had been to sit in a comfortable chair with a challenging book and spend hours deciphering the author's inscrutable meaning. Dante and Milton, Borges and Joyce, these were my sole companions. I had no other intimacies, had never made love to a woman, took a vow of celibacy when I was born (my face is nothing to write home about except perhaps as a sort of cruel joke), and I had neither the courage nor the inclination to find a woman who would reciprocate my feelings, if I was even capable of amorous feelings. Some people probably regarded me as a pathetic creature, but I was perfectly happy with a life of intellectual curiosity and interior monologue. The trick, I discovered, was to transform that interior monologue into a dialogue in which I conversed at length with my heroes. I was never short of imagination and once dreamed of becoming a writer, but the act of writing takes a great deal of self-discipline, and I've always been a man of many weaknesses, temptations, cravings. Besides, there were simply too many books in the world; it wasn't for me to add another to the already insurmountable pile. It occurred to me that writers, like the snowflakes falling outside, were practically infinite in number; they accumulated outside the library door, desperate to get in, threatened to overwhelm and crush us under their weight, and I dreaded joining their ranks, a writer indistinguishable from a million others. It was the reason why I'd become a librarian, to shut the door to trash and allow in only the finest works of the human imagination. But now those mediocrities were beginning to trickle in, more and more of them, and my colleagues scrambled to stock the shelves with their tripe—cookbooks, self help books, diatribes about this or that political figure, coffee table books about high school football, books about Jesus and Lazarus and Mother Theresa and English royalty, books about computer programming and the internet, books that trapped us in our place in time forever, locked us into an invented history, made us believe that our instant of existence was the only one that mattered. The times may have been interesting, yes, but the books said nothing about them, didn't represent the era as a whole; they were just fragments of a larger picture, a random dot in a pointillist painting, utterly meaningless outside a proper context.
The hours passed and at some point I must have fallen asleep. I was suddenly roused by the marching of feet. The group of men and women surrounded my desk, demanding warmth. Their teeth chattered, their breath coiled through the air like a nest of vipers. I shrugged my shoulders. “What can I do?”
“Well, you better do something….”
“Yes, you know this place better than we do…”
“There must be an alternative source of heat…”
I pointed. “There is a fireplace…”
“Yes, of course…”
“I can't believe we didn't think of that before…”
I raised my hand. “But there isn't much wood. Besides, the fireplace hasn't been used in years, in decades. It's a relic, merely decorative. I'm not even sure it works. In any case, this wing is strictly off limits to anyone but scholars and academics.” The people closed in on me. I felt someone's knuckles grind into my back. What choice did I have? The people gathered around the fireplace, a gaping black space with an intricate hand-carved marble mantle, and they placed the logs inside, using old newspapers as kindling, but the flames, while comforting, were only temporary. After a short while they dwindled and died.
“We're out of wood…Is there any more wood…”
I shook my head. “No. I'm sorry. We'll just have to stomp our feet.” But the people did not accept this. They randomly pulled books from the shelves without examining their contents, without leafing through the pages, without noticing who wrote them or when they were published. I shrieked, “Are you all mad! These books are rare! These may be the only copies in existence! Please. If you must burn something, go to the popular reading section. Down the hall. Take what you want from those shelves.” And so they did. They tossed stacks of books into the flames, great big piles of paperback novels, and I was glad to see those pages crumple like dry leaves and disintegrate into ashes. The Fitzgerald Wing grew cozy, and that night, despite the occasional moans and whimpers of those poor souls in the throws of vivid nightmares, I slept soundly at my desk.
The third day brought wild speculation.
“It's obviously a nuclear winter…”
“Those barbarians finally got us…”
“It's the end times, the apocalypse…”
“Global warning my foot, just look outside, there's your proof that global warning is bogus…”
“It's a government plot, I heard about it on the radio…”
“They say the ice age never really ended, otherwise we'd be living in a warm climate like the dinosaurs right now…”
“I'm hungry, is anyone hungry…”
“We're all hungry, just be quiet would you…"
“Warm your hands here by the fire, it's the best any of us can do right now…”
A week passed. And then two.
The group survived on moldy bread found in the employee lounge, a jar of grape jelly, some stale crackers. From time to time I tiptoed over to my desk and reached in for another candy bar. This was evil, this was corrupt, this was immoral, but I was hungry and the people had long ago ceased to be civilized, their tempers as brittle as the ice forming on the radiators. Even though I took precautions and munched on the bars in a distant restroom, my breath stank of chocolate. There was really no way to disguise it. At last someone sniffed me out.
“Hey, why do you spend so much time monkeying around your desk…”
“Yeah, what do you have in there anyway…”
“Okay, pal, let's see…”
I stammered, said it was nothing, told them to stop, keep away, but the salesmen, the alpha males of the group, grabbed me by the collar and shoved me aside. I fell to my knees, was nearly trampled to death as they tore the drawers out of my desk and spilled the contents on the floor, antique quills and ballpoint pens and and shameful books of erotica buried under innocuous legal pads. No one seemed to notice or care about these things. Only the candy bars interested them, and like a pack of salivating jackals they gnashed at the wrappers with their teeth and crammed the candy into their mouths. Crumbs rained down on my head, and one woman who had not been aggressive enough to get her claws on a bar dropped down and licked crumbs from the corners of my mouth. I shuddered. I could smell her hair, still fragrant after all these days. The salesmen lifted me to my feet, threatened to put me on a spit, roast me alive over the flames.
“Yeah, fat man, you look pretty tasty to me…”
“Yeah, we can roast his fat ass and have enough food for a month…”
“It wouldn't bother me at all, I'll personally gut him…”
“Naw, we'll barbeque him, guts and all…”
“I'll eat his liver, that's what I want, mmmmmm….”
I giggled nervously. “Gentleman, please. I experienced a moment of weakness.”
One man turned my desk over. “You got a turkey dinner hidden away in here…” He examined every inch, tapped the wood to find any hidden compartments, sniffed the air, made a gobble-gobble sound, bobbed his head like a turkey. Poor fellow. He was clearly insane. But by then many of us had lost our minds.
Hallucinations were commonplace. One woman believed she was Noah's wife. We were all trapped on an arc, she said, but all would be well in…how many days did the flood last? She wasn't exactly sure and no one had the strength to page through Genesis to find the correct chapter and verse. One of the men harassed and tormented her, an obvious non-believer, and he demanded to know who among us was Noah. Who had the direct line to god? She pointed to me, but the man never unleashed a volley of insults and sarcastic remarks. Why I do not know. Maybe he sensed there was some truth to what she said; after all, with my new beard I was beginning to resemble Noah. But because no one had bathed in two weeks many of the men looked like Old Testament patriarchs staggering hollow-eyed through a decimated landscape.
The tap water was down to a mere trickle, and the foul odors of a dozen people, each one oddly unique, drifted through the air and merged into a single, overwhelming stench. We took turns bringing in handfuls of snow from outside and melted it near the fire for drinking water. I could taste the storm in each sip, taste the anger of vibrating molecules, the final unadorned truth of the cosmos, and I grew drunk on the stuff, felt like an expatriate after a night on the town with only a bottle of absinthe to guide me through the labyrinthine streets of a medieval city, and even I, the librarian, sometimes found myself lost among the books, their spines dancing with firelight and shadow. From time to time I had brief moments of lucidity, even divine revelation, and it was on one of these occasions that I realized that the popular books were nearly gone. We would need to find another source of energy or face the one eventuality no one wished to discuss.
“Please, everyone, gather round,” I said. A dozen emaciated figures crept from the shadows and shuffled toward my desk. “I think the time has come to face facts. There seems to be little chance that we will be rescued. Something cataclysmic has happened. Forces are at work that we cannot comprehend. And without food it is only a matter of time before we succumb to starvation. However, we don't have to die like animals. There may come a day, hundreds of years from now, when this library will be discovered under a sheet of ice, and the books we leave behind will be of great interest to future generations. Therefore I propose that once the popular books are gone we should let the fire die…and we with it. Let this library be our gift to posterity.”
There was a moment of silence before someone rasped, “To hell with you.”
“Please. This may be our last decision as a civilized people …”
“Why should you be the one who gets to decide which books stay and which books go…”
“Yeah, this is America, this is a democracy…”
“We should all be allowed to choose…”
“We can all make a selection…”
“Right, we'll each take turns choosing books…”
“The books that we the people feel are important…”
“Yes, why should some stuffy elitist decide what future generations read…”
There was no negotiating or compromising with them, and they went about their business in an orderly and efficient manner. One person at a time was permitted to select a book from the shelves. For my part I chose to rescue as many of the rare volumes from the Fitzgerald Collection as I could, but as a result of this fateful and maybe even quixotic decision I had to endure the vision of Sophocles and Euripides smoldering on the popping and hissing embers, Shakespeare and Marlowe vanishing forever. I glimpsed the surviving titles and shuddered—“Cookin' with Tabasco!” “356 Daily Prayers for the Born Again Christian,” “Greatest Rock Legends of the ‘60s,” “How to Be Successful in a Workaday World,” “The Big Book of Crossword Puzzles,” “Mysteries of the Incas,” “The Astrologer's Handbook,” “Classic Cars of the Smithsonian” “The Leftist Conspiracy.” All of this was democratic indeed, very egalitarian, though I wondered how many masterworks had been lost through the ages in just such a way. Trembling there by the fire, it occurred to me that what I was witnessing was not the destruction but the creation of a new library. The Bible and the Odyssey may have been created in a similar manner. These were not books in the strict sense of the word but were in fact small libraries that professed to but in fact did not preserve in an accurate way the cultural heritage of a people, their folklore and mythology and history.
The fire raged on all that night, but I watched this cultural conflagration with a glimmer of hope, maybe because hope is the last thing left that I sense is human in myself. So I can only hope that somewhere in the world another library survives intact, and I can only hope that the group will not discover these scraps of paper hidden in my desk drawer. They are my plea to our descendants, should any come along, begging their forgiveness for our unpardonable crimes. They also serve as a final testament, professing that ours was not an entirely hopeless generation of misfits and scoundrels whose existence centered around the insidious and unholy cults of fame, fortune, and religious zealotry but one that occasionally sought refuge from the raging storm of human fervor through an appreciation of the rare, the beautiful, the sublime.
Kevin P. Keating is a native of Cleveland, Ohio where he worked as a boilermaker, a bookie's apprentice, a maintenance man, a landscaper and a painter. In the evenings he went to graduate school, eventually earning an M.A. in English. Now he teaches composition courses at Baldwin-Wallace College during the day and writes fiction, sometimes long into the night. His short stories have appeared in many literary magazines, including Exquisite Corpse, Slow Trains, Fifth Street Review and The Oklahoma Review.