I met the old man at the library.
It was a hot summer day, middle of May, and as I locked my bike up at the top of the steps, watching the warm, subtle gust of the wind rattle the leaves of the palm trees towering above, scattering the slivers of sunlight across the newly paved sidewalk, I sensed the twinge in the air that signifies another school year coming to a close.
Not that it mattered to me, though. For me, school had been coming to a close since the ninth grade when I finally fulfilled my promise to never return to the classroom and to finish my education through the Internet.
Besides the staff, the library was vacant when I entered. It was the perfect time to hit it, just an hour before school let out, giving me long enough to beat the horde of high-schoolers solely coming for the free Internet access and having already avoided the flux of the elderly that tended to linger, crowding the aisles as they cautiously made a selection they more than likely would forget to finish.
As I made way for the fiction, a clear idea of what I wanted on mind, I felt something tickle my nose and then quickly invade it with a scratchy and vile persistence. I turned down the last row of fiction, V-Z, and discovered the source.
Propped against a fixture of books was a tall man. He was dressed nice, but hardly overdone. His tweed coat and slacks didn’t scream out “fake!”, but still managed to radiate a casual elegance. Beneath a gray mustache and a chaotic mop of silver and gray hair resembling the world’s entire stock of runaway chimney smoke, was a burning cigarette pulsing a bright orange amidst the dull white and beige of the carpet and bookshelves.
Periodically, he pulled it from his wrinkled lips and twirled it between his fingers, letting long, thin wisps of smoke waft through the spaces in the bookshelves.
I stepped towards him, my head twisted as far as it could get around my neck in an attempt to avoid the smoke. He was standing right where I wanted to be.
He raised a bushy eyebrow at me as I got close and gently stepped out of the way so I could crouch down and run my finger across the titles on the spines of the books, lowly muttering each one under my breath as I drew closer to what I was searching for.
“What are looking for?” he asked behind a puff of smoke that gradually swallowed my face.
I pulled a small paperback from the shelf and stood back up. I lightly shook the book in his direction. “This,” I said. I hesitated for a moment then added, “What are you doing?” I nodded at the cigarette.
He twirled it around and eyed it curiously, as if it had suddenly appeared between his fingers. “Committing suicide, I suppose,” he said.
“You know,” I whispered, “you’re not supposed to smoke in here.”
He took another drag on the cigarette followed by another cloud of smoke that seemed to billow out from his mustache. “Says who?”
“Well, uh,” I looked around nervously, as if the answer were waiting for me somewhere amongst the books. “Look, I’m allergic,” I pleaded.
His eyebrows raised again. “Oh.” A faint glimmer of sadness flooded his eyes. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” I said.
“You like him?” He pointed down to the book in my hand. The cigarette had suddenly vanished.
I glanced down at the cover of the book.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I had to read two of his stories for school. I wrote a paper on one. My teacher”—it was hardly worth explaining the ins and outs of virtual school for the sake of a conversation—”said this was his best.”
He shrugged. His bony shoulders popped up against the fabric of his jacket. “It’s a good one. I’d give it an A-plus.”
My face contorted and I looked at him in bewilderment. He began to lank away down the narrow aisle.
“Well, let me know what you think,” he called out over his shoulder.
* * *
I returned to the library a week later and dropped the book down the return chute and made my way for Fiction V-Z again. I looked around for the old man as I scoured the titles. I figured he had to be an employee. No bum dressed that nice and no normal person was that weird. He was definitely a librarian.
He must have the day off, I thought as I pulled the next Vonnegut from the shelf. Jailbird.
“Well.” A gravelly voice backed with all the world’s experience was behind me. “Did you like it?”
I stood up and spun around but already knew what I’d find. Standing there in the middle of the aisle, a grinning giant with hands plunged deep in pockets that seemed to have no end, wiggling his toes in his loafers, was the old man.
My mouth opened and went to answer him, but I stopped myself. I wasn’t sure of what to really say. Yes, I had liked it. A lot. I was pretty sure, at least. But why?
“It was…I’ve never read anything like that. It was…different?”
It came out like a question. I couldn’t tell if I was sure of myself or seeking affirmation.
He flashed me a light smile that radiated with a comforting assurance and tapped the hardback in my hands.
“You’ll like that one,” he said. “I like that one.”
* * *
“It wasn’t as good,” I told him.
I looked up at him and saw for the first time since our initial meeting when he apologized for the cigarette, that deep-seated sadness lingering in the depths of his eyes and pouring from the wrinkles in his skin.
“Oh,” he whispered.
“What about this one?”
I turned over the book that was lying on the table and watched his eyes come down on it. Some of the sadness vanished behind a devious grin. He nodded, the curls of gray atop his scalp bobbing with life against the lines across his forehead.
“That one, that one,” he chuckled, “that’s a good one. Another A-plus.”
I smiled back. “Good,” I said as I lifted the book off the table. I looked down at it one more time.
* * *
He looked at me from across the corner table where we both sat and smiled as my hand rested on another one, Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! He giggled. I didn’t know why, I really had no reason for it, but I joined him. And we both laughed as quietly as possible amidst the silence of the library until he broke into a coughing fit.
“I told you,” he wheezed. He let out one final, pitiful hack into a cupped hand and looked back up at me. “I told you it was a good one.”
I smiled and nodded. “I even had my girlfriend read it.”
“Your girlfriend?” he said. “Do you love her?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
He shifted in his seat and stared at me harder than ever before. “Then why,” he whispered, “are you so sad?”
I darted my eyes away from him and focused on the speckled carpet below. “I,” my words came out mumbled, slurred, stacked and packed apprehensively into jumbled heaps, “I’m not sad.”
He leaned forward and rapped his nails lightly on the table’s wood surface. “Lonesome, then.”
I massaged two fingers into my chest against the aching spot the doctor had time and time again assured me wasn’t a heart condition but an anxiety issue.
“But why?” he nearly pleaded. “You’ve got an extended family, don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” I sighed.
He tapped a spindly finger on the beaten cover of Slapstick.
“Trust me,” he said, “this is hardly self-help. It’s worth a D at the most.”
I took my hand off my chest and buried it in my pocket—something I had picked up from him.
“It’s getting better,” I said, my head still turned away from him, now focused on the kids out of school chatting loudly over computer monitors.
He touched my hand. It got my attention and I turned back around. He flicked his eyes at the book.
“Him?” he asked. “He’s helping?”
I swallowed. “Yeah,” I said. “He…He makes me laugh. I don’t worry so much.”
“You worry about a lot, don’t you?”
I batted my eyes. I hardly felt like crying, but there was something there, pushing my eyes and pressing against my chest, pinching at my throat.
“I worry most about the world,” I said. “I’m afraid where we’ll end up…and how we’ll get there.” I lingered on my words for what felt like too long before I continued, “I’m scared to die.”
He turned his head and looked out the window. I couldn’t see his face, but I didn’t need the reflection to tell me it was there: that immeasurable sadness carved in each crease of his skin that formed whenever he laughed or smiled; a tremendous loneliness engulfing him with each solemn thought built and built by a lifetime not of missed opportunities and failed dreams, but of crippling realizations in moments of should-be bliss.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I’m afraid I never will.”
* * *
The rest of the summer went by much the same. I would see the old man each time I went to the library. Sometimes we would talk, other times we’d just exchange brief glances; him frowning at Breakfast of Champions and Palm Sunday, smiling at The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night.
I never saw him help another patron. I never saw him at the front desk or standing next to one of the computers, ready to badger someone under the guise of helping them find they were looking for. He was always just roaming the aisles, quickly breezing past the rows of books, lingering at other times and tipping some off the edge of their shelf, gazing at them with nostalgic eyes and a crooked smirk that shimmered with an ancient admiration.
The last time I ever saw him was in August. The air had changed and you could sense the dread, excitement, and anxiousness of returning to school all mixed together into one potent concoction. You could see its side effects on nearly every passing face.
I went into the library, moved down the aisles, weaved through people, my eyes searching for that curly mess of silver hair. Finally, I found him in front of the return chute, eyeing it emptily, despondent at the world around him.
He heard me approach and turned around. “You’re done. That’s everything,” he said, nodding down at the book under my arm.
“How’d you like it?”
I gripped the pages tightly. “It was my favorite.”
He smiled. That same smile as always, assuring you the road ahead was nothing but a mere joke.
“Well, if that’s not nice, I don’t know what is. But I guess I’ll have to be going now.”
“No,” I hissed. I could hear my voice echo through the library, but when I looked around no one had seemed to have noticed. I flashed him an apologetic look.
“We need you,” I said.
“You need me,” he replied.
“No. We all do. You made it harder to worry.”
“Please,” he chuckled. “I threw a custard pie at the face of the world and I think I might have even missed.”
I told him I was beginning to worry again, how the night before I read a news article citing the IEA’s discovery that in five years global warming will be completely irreversible. I told him of how hard it was to sleep, of the ill images sweeping my mind: people fighting each other with guns and fists, penguins and polar bears helplessly watching their icy homes erode as they prepared for a coming death they could barely comprehend, the flames of the world failing to be doused by the tears of future children that will never have the chance to be born.
“Those are some truly harrowing thoughts,” he said. “You’re feeling alone again, aren’t you?”
“Don’t. You’ve got a lot to cherish and a lot less to worry about. Don’t worry too much about the world. We’ve been trying to kill ourselves for too long and we keep messing it up. It’s embarrassing, but I think we’ll be all right.”
He turned his back to me as I dropped the book down the return chute.
“Goodbye, Kurt,” I whispered.
“Bye,” he yawned.
I watched him slink towards the automatic doors, digging into his pockets for a pack of Pall Malls and drawing one into his mouth. The doors parted for him and out he walked.
As I pedaled home, I felt empty. A piece of myself had been removed. That same feeling you get when you take off a piece of jewelry you’ve worn for years—an abstract nakedness.
I got home and wandered up the stairs to my room. As I turned the switch on the lamp and pale light burst across the white walls, I looked down to the tiny black bookcase at the corner of my bed where the recent purchases rested so innocently.
There they all were: Deadeye Dick, Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus, Player Piano. I pressed my palm against my chest. The pain was gone and I knew it wasn’t coming back. I smiled at the row of paperbacks.
I was lonesome no more.
Most recently, Travis D. Roberson was the third place recipient in the non-fiction category of the 2011 Porter Fleming Literary Contest. His work has also appeared in Title Goes Here:. He is a contributor to the science fiction blog Beyond Metaphors, and spends most of his free time doodling on private property. He lives in Winter Garden, Florida.