Photo by Thiranun Kunatum on Shutterstock
"Paganini", a precocious and flamboyantly gay man, moves in with his elderly grandmother and takes a minimum wage job at an old Carnegie library in a dying rustbelt city. After befriending a fellow library patron, they form a horror book club to talk and write about monsters through a lens of queer theory. Conversations around sex, romance, vampires, ghosts, and Frankenstein's monster unveil the complicated and broken realities of queer attraction between Paganini and his friend. The boundaries of reality and story blur as Paganini wrestles with the guilt of a collapsing friendship.
At least working at the Middle Rapids Library ain’t so bad. It’s one of those fancy Carnegie libraries with brass chandeliers and porcelain tile work and stained-glass windows — all misplaced decadence for this rust-belt town. It’s pretty much a gothic castle complete with ghosts, labyrinthine hallways, black walnut paneled doors, dusty portraits of old, rich dead men no one wants to look at, and, most mysteriously of all, a turret housing the town’s large, defunct clock. There are no stairs to the turret — you’ll need to get a 40-foot ladder, prop it in the middle of the stairwell, and climb through the trapdoor on the ceiling. This story could have been a classic gothic romance, but the fluorescent lights erase all that eerie extravagance (not to mention that most of the wooden shelving has been gutted, replaced with sexless industrial metal mountings). Nonetheless, I’ll try my best to give you decrepit medieval fantasy wrought with gloom and decay. Let’s pretend the crying children by Picture Book Corner are banshees screaming for love through the walls.
I’m a library page, peon to the research and circulation staff. They get to surf the internet all day on salary while I shuffle books hither thither collecting minimum wage. But I ain’t no general page. I am the Page of Fiction. I love my title and play the part as best I can. I even got this fitting pageboy haircut. I remember Tessie grunting “that’s a different look” as I walked into the library bright-eyed for my first day of work. If Tessie hadn’t been my new superior, I would’ve snapped back —“Different? Debatable. Classic? Absolutely: Audrey Hepburn, Betty Page, Andy Warhol, Twiggy, Sonny and Cher all sported a pageboy cut. Beyond Modernist fashion, this flat bowl cut is the timeless style for medieval pages,” I said in some other dimension as I kept my mouth shut, smiled and shook her hand in this one. To match the haircut, I knitted myself a wool tunic — extra itchy because I was aiming for St. Francis realness. Choosing to live in Middle Rapids over New York City is practically opting into a vow of poverty.
Tessie doesn’t laugh or smile nor make sudden movements and can’t be surprised. Her skin is ashen and clammy, her hair is long and wiry, her hands are swollen, her eyes are glass, unflinching. She could be a walking corpse, summoned by an evil necromancer, doomed to shuffle perpetually behind the circulation desk, reciting lists of overdue books for all eternity. It’s all work all the time, and she hates it. Every task is completed with a sigh as if the chore list only grows longer with each passing hour. I’m frustrated by her apathy; why are some folks so concerned about seriousness when there’s already too much of it? We live in a theatre of seriousness, everyone trying to prove their mask is the most serious and mature mask among the masks. But peeps gotta remember the seriousness of play, the importance of invention and silliness — play breaks down the barriers of expectation, opening up new possibilities between each other and our environment. Play is one of the best ways to rebel while retaining a breath of humanity.
I’ve tried my hand at light-hearted conversation with Tessie, but it’s fruitless:
“Hey, bumblebee! What’s the buzz?”
“I’m busy. Why are you chitchatting?”
Perhaps she’s acutely aware that all society is pure artifice, violently rigged by oligarchs, forcing humans to fight one another as a distraction while the super elite dine on rhinoceros steaks and moisturize their skin with crude oil, diamonds, and the blood of starving children. Forget Countess Elizabeth Bathory; the vampires today are exponentially more evil. Whereas I self-medicate with medieval pageboy drag and an appreciation of Moby Dick, Tessie stares directly into the abyss.
Meanwhile, Hal sits behind Reference answering strange questions over the phone: “The weather in Santiago, Chile, today is 62 degrees Fahrenheit, 16.5 degrees Celsius, partially cloudy with 0% humidity.” “Tenskwatawa was a younger brother of Tecumseh. In his early years, his name was Lalawithika, which means ‘The Noise-Maker’.” “It’s got 4.5 stars on Yelp. Yes. Yes, turkey clubs are on the menu.” No matter your question, if you call the library’s number and ask for reference, Hal will be there to answer with a warm voice. I wish I had his job, sitting on my ass all day googling curiosities for strangers over phone. He’s got that grandfatherly charm to him, complete with a potbelly and bald patch, always eager to start a friendly yet banal conversation: “Would you ever have a toucan as a pet? My wife says she wants a toucan or a parrot, but I don’t understand why we can’t just get a dog.”
“I don’t understand the desire to put beauty in cages,” I reply. “We spend our entire lives extolling the virtues of freedom, but the moment we see something beautiful and pure and free, we lock it in a cage, claim ownership over it, and deny it all possibility of independence. Is it because we’re jealous?”
“Hmmm, interesting point. Did you know toucans can live for up to 20 years?”
Niki is the page of nonfiction, so she’s usually sequestered to the other side of the building, though we occasionally bump at circulation. She’s in high school and committed to all-things basketball. She reads basketball, watches basketball games on YouTube, wears basketball accoutrement, and talks basketball with Hal. I have a hard time striking up a conversation with her because I don’t know if we have anything in common. I usually lead with a fact about myself: “When I was in high school, I was a band geek.”
“Cool. What instrument did you play?”
Sports is alien to me and I know Niki must have a variety of interests beyond sports, but I’m not sure how to break that social barrier. I try keeping it general: “So, you like Middle Rapids?”
“I’m from New York.”
Our common bond is our age. Sure, she’s 16 and I’m 28, but we’re the only employees under 40, so it must be a bond of sorts.
And then there’s Jo, who assists in Circulation. If it weren’t for her, I’d be a real loner here. Jo’s obsessed with the architecture and history of the library. When Tessie’s not around, she spirals into morbid stories about workers who’ve died while constructing this building back in 1899. “Their bones are buried beneath the concrete foundation.”
She’s always eager to talk about Middle Rapids with newcomers. During a lunch break, she took me to the archives in the basement and whipped out turn-of-the-century maps, explaining how Middle Rapids was a rambunctious little city back in the day. Everyone thought this place was going to be the next Toledo, so Carnegie donated a library here in anticipation of that: “But we cut down all the ancient forests and that was that. Economy plummeted, population plummeted, now our industry is soybean mostly sold to Yum! Brands. I wish I could’ve seen this town in its heyday, back when the library’s bell rang with each hour. You know, the turret was originally planned to be an astronomy observation deck with a telescope and everything. But last minute, they decided it would be more useful as a clock.”
“Why are the stairs to the tower gone?”
“There never were any stairs — a rather heinous oversight on the architect’s part! The bell stopped chiming way before I was born, but I’ve heard it ring. The ghosts have given it a good knock only a handful of times throughout my life.”
I loved listening to Jo pepper the library walls with mystery. She transformed the daily droll of sorting books on shelves into heart-palpitating grand guignols: “Behind the 600s rack is an old door that hasn’t been opened in decades.”
“Where does it go?”
“No one alive today knows. Some say it was the old-censored book room that locked away titles like Fanny Hill and Women in Love.”
“Some say it was an office, forever closed off because a bloody, pulpy murder stained the walls with the unwashable scent of excrement.”
“Some say it leads to a secret passage to the old morgue because the first Head Librarian was also a practicing mortician.”
Above the circulation desk is a dusty portrait of Lord Carnegie, framed in gold leaf. His stark white beard eerily follows me. I have mixed feelings about him. On one hand, he is a celebrated philanthropist who gave away fortunes upon fortunes for the public good, championed Black business leaders, and spoke against American imperialism. On the other, he squeezed profits from the poor with monopolies, exploited people to work for pittance, and violently quelled unions. Cynically, was his philanthropy an act of penance for his abuse of the common worker? I scratch an armpit under my hairshirt.
Obviously, the best part about working at the library is all the reading time. If you want to be a wizard, be a writer; writer’s augment reality, shifting everyday perspectives, conjuring hallucinations. It’s no coincidence that the vocabulary of magic is entwined with the vocabulary of language. To cast a spell is to spell out a word, or to speak it into existence (spiel from German). To enchant something is to cover it in song (chanter from French). Hexes are in poetic hexameter. A magical grimoire is a grammar book. The beginnings of modern language must’ve been psychedelic once our ancestors figured out that you could refer to things that weren’t physically present. For the longest time protohumans were pointing at trees and talking about those very trees until, one day, someone started talking about trees when there were no trees around. What a shock it must’ve been to conjure trees directly into the mind’s eye. Soon we were conjuring dragons when someone said “dragon” and ghosts when someone said “ghosts” — dragons and ghosts became as real as the trees.
I want to be a wizard one day, folding in the edges of reality, sparking fear and euphoria at the uttering of a word. A wizard with the right incantation can uproot our sense of self and transform us into birds of fire. That’s what I want to do. I want to change the way we dance through life. (Don’t be afraid but I have a secret to confess. . . you’re reading my first spell! You’ve been enchanted and can’t turn away. I don’t know if it will totally work though. I’m still an apprentice, a lowly page. Part of this spell involves explaining the spell, hence the need to reveal to you what I am doing. I want you to join me, not in the walking sleep but in the living dream. I am writing about you.)
A story, though fictitious, is never the product of an isolated imagination; it is always sourced from that sacred well of mitochondrial memory. The wizard summons the most elementary fears and dreams trembling within the marrow of every human, stirs them in a bubbling cauldron of prose and poetry, and spices it up with a few allegories and alliterations. What we have is an elixir. A powerful author vivifies. It is an elixir of such profound quality that, in the midst of reading, we are no longer who we thought we were, and we are speechless to explain. Sure, you can summarize Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower; for example, you can talk about her themes of risk and freedom and the allegory of collapsing civilization and the spiritual insights of God as Change, but you can never articulate the fundamental medicine locked within the book. Read it and feel the heart clench and be caught in the wonder and desperation that Butler is, in fact, writing about us — about you. The average author is a demiurge of worlds, but the great author writes about the readers who read them. Their stories mirror the flesh beneath the flesh. They who know we are all of one flesh.
“Okay, that sounds interesting, but what’s the story about?” puzzled the middle-aged woman as she stares at the cover of The Parable of the Sower I just placed in her hand.
“Well,” I hiccup, “it’s about an inquisitive girl living in a dystopian future where drugs and poverty have consumed the country.” I have a headache and I’m so ready for this day to be done. “Her family tries to convince her that everything is fine, but she doesn’t buy it. She rejects her family’s religious beliefs and carves out a new path. And so, the novel inquires: what is at the root of faith and how can we use it in the face of adversity?”
The lady scratches her bellybutton under the bald-eagle-clutching-American-flag-USA! Tee shirt and asks, “I’m looking more for a thriller-type novel.”
“Well, James Patterson is over here.”
At the end of my day, I pick up groceries from the store, mow the lawn, water the nettles, then relax with GramGram on the sofa just in time for the game show. Just us two old ladies knitting sweaters on a musty, orange corduroy couch, watching Jeopardy! “It’s simply not the same,” she says, “since Alex Trebek died.”
Don’t worry GramGram, your grandson is dabbling in the art of magic. In this story, Alex Trebek is still on television, and he still has a sexy mustache.
“Oh, he’s such a cutie,” she laughs.“I’m glad he grew back his mustache.”
Yes, he is, I think to myself. We knit sweaters into the night. Mellow crickets and the voices of chatty neighbors carry on the summer wind.