Scratch the lede posted earlier. This congealed as a visit to the ghosts of Faulkner, Capote, Williams, Harper Lee. Comments appreciated. First draft, 1900 words.
Leaving the air-conditioned bus at Arlos Creek was an exit into another world. I recoiled from the blast of humid air, dropped my bag and stared at the shimmering white courthouse, the blank-faced stores, the dusty asphalt of an empty street. Arlos Creek, the town too poor to afford a possessive apostrophe. Behind me was an echo of Josie’s angry words, the ghost of 10-year-old Zachary and the rejection of editors. Ahead, I was going to be challenged more as an anthropologist than a librarian assigned to a community the world had passed by.
The library stood as a monument to the town’s antebellum past. Once a residence, it now served other purposes, including those I was going to introduce. The reading room to the left of the foyer was filled with shelves of worn novels, a single reading table, and a rack with just six magazines. To the right, a room with diminutive table and chairs was dedicated to children. I visualized how Zachary might have looked at a small table with a large book.
The librarian, sitting behind the checkout desk, smiled as though I was an angel delivering her medication. Miss Alba was my lifeline—a name for the only person I knew in town.
“You must be Alexander,” she said.
Of course I was Alexander. How many other strangers came to her library? Did I sound rankled as I introduced myself? Well, I was totally pissed—at my audacity asking to come down to the land of swamps and magnolias, chitlins and grits. The charter I invented was to energize the town by jump-starting an outreach program. I would invite speakers who could impart their wisdom about quilting and barely remembered Civil War battles and contemporary issues. There would be a media center. A membership drive. The library, I had stated in my request for money, was a bastion of culture that had to respond to changing times and the foibles of human interest. My grant was funded by a paltry few dollars that the government hadn’t spent on wars in god-forsaken places. As Miss Alba oriented me to the building, I wondered if the grant might better have been spent to blow people up.
I suggested that Day One be given over to a thorough cleaning of the place and properly arranging the books according to the Dewey Decimal System. Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man had been stuck next to the fundamentals of drawing. And, someone had placed Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in a section on agriculture, perhaps the only reason it had escaped the book burners! Something had to be done about the bathroom with a rusty toilet and the room filled with stacks of newspapers and cartons of unsorted books.
Miss Alba had white hair, translucent skin and blue veins in her hands. A shimmery silk dress hung on her thin body, but under the exterior she presented an other-worldly sense of courtesy and pleasant agreement alien to the rough edges of the townspeople that must live here.
Miss Alba said vacantly. “That would be nice, Alex. And see if you can open some windows. It’s going to be a doozy of a hot day.”
Key meteorological term: doozy. The wet air hung like a beach towel over the asphalt outside. As I wrenched at the windows, I watched a dog chase a cat, and both were walking with their tongues hanging out. Arlos Creek lay empty, a Grant Wood water color bereft of people. A ghost town whose windows stared blankly. Not a sound came my ears as I hung my head out for a breath of air under the zinc-colored sky.
Was there a wheelbarrow large enough to bring culture to these rednecks? With unrepentant sarcasm, I told myself the best thing to come out of this part of the country was Interstate 40. The heat had to be the cause of their deterioration. Margaret Mead and Dr. Livingston would agree. Who could think rationally when sweat poured off my face at the first movement?
I felt a tug on my sleeve and looked down into the face of a child about twelve.
“You the Yankee?”
I blinked and sat down, now on a level with her freckled face. “Guess so. But I’m from Virginia, so maybe I’m not a total loss.”
“You a Yankee all right,” she stated and walked backward with a satisfied smile.
A guffaw came from a dim corner of the room. My audience was an antique man whose head barely rose over the book he was reading. Grizzled hair hung over the shoulders of a once-white jacket. I raised my eyebrows.
“Forgive Scout’s curiosity,” he said. “To children, the stranger invites an adventure while to an adult it signals a warning alarm. Imagination is everything.”
“I can imagine a cold beer and air conditioning,” I said abruptly.
The old man ignored this. “Have you never complained about waiting for a train? Now, imagine a small boy complaining about having to hang out in a railway station, a cavern of wonder and mystery, a palace of poetical pleasures visited by iron-wheeled dragons twice a day?”
I smiled charitably at the coot as Miss Alba called me to the front of the room. After I’d brought the carton of books she wanted, I came back to the front to engage the old man, but he was gone.
My first event had to do with a smart young kid named Henry Fleming, who described the arms and tactics at the Battle of Chancelorsville. Repeating rifles were key to pushing back the bluecoats who, the Union feared, would simply waste ammunition. My audience of three men sat with thick hands lying in their laps like hams. They watched—raptly, I thought—until the kid finished, then filed out of the room without a word.
A week later, the county health department offered me a young doctor who talked about medical marvels with odd names invented in the past decade. Four men and women sat in the folding chairs, wordless. I envisioned these silent townspeople considering the disaster these miracles would have on their budget.
Each evening, as I was thanking the speaker, I noticed the antique man leave the dim room. He hadn’t occupied any of the two dozen folding chairs during the program. Where the devil had he come from?
By the start of the second week, I’d convinced myself Arlos Creek might be a construction of wonder and mystery, a palace of poetical pleasures. Might be, I allowed cautiously. It was the antique man’s point that I should invite the willing suspension of disbelief.
I had hoped to rescue my investment as a redneck librarian by measuring the climate of hopelessness that enveloped a place whose very geography was blasted by coal companies, falling farm prices and spiraling interest rates. And then my fevered brain began to sizzle with an other-worldly amazement.
My thesis came together when I walked down the street to buy cigarettes. I’d stay to listen to other patrons. Sometimes, I hung out suspiciously at the café while old men drank coffee and sifted through memories of what might have been and what never happened.
I became caught up in the story told by a man named Bishop—never a first name—about a Randolph Abernethy and the ghost of a British soldier he met on the pike one stormy night.
And there was the hair-raising tale of Molly O’Hearn and her lover. A fellow with no teeth recounted that with glee, making me wonder if Molly lived over the next hill until the toothless one mentioned this happened in 17th Century Ireland. These were characters—real or anecdotal—who would live forever here.
At night, I’d go back to the Jackson Hotel, a two-story frame building in which I was the only guest. And I began writing out the stories in longhand under the single electric light on the table. This was a different topic than my memoir of Zachary’s death, a book into which I’d poured my soul and that angered Josie.
The tales often started as simply as a farmer cautioning, “Don’t get het up like Agnes Calloway.” Agnes, Miss Alba told me, had a run-in with a state senator a hundred years before, gulled him into investing her money before luring him to suicide. Yesterdays in the timeless Arlos Creek might have taken place before the residents’ ancestors embarked from Scotland or Ireland or England. The calendar stood as still as if it were a Southern Gothic Brigadoon. No one paid any more attention to me—the Yankee—than if I had been a spirit wafting across the town square.
I clutched at the anecdotes with a despair. I couldn’t imagine living in this alien world, but I was cursed to return home shortly to confront my failures. My charm was being facile. Words came too easily, but they lacked the substance to make them meaningful. Josie had left because she sensed my protestations of love for our dead son and her were cribbed from a short story. Editors who read my fiction saw immediately that I had no truth to impart, no insights to share with hungry readers. Friends began realizing that my conversation was amusing only when I was paying for drinks.
I was a hollow man, gone now to an empty world. Decades earlier, Tennessee Williams might have been describing my flash of intuition, my recognition of the underlying dreadfulness in modern experience. I had brought my demons with me on the bus to Arlos Creek.
Days were spent wandering the too-small rooms of the library, aligning books, retyping card catalogue entries, tidying the minutiae. It was now my library, at least until Miss Alba returned from Biloxi.
“I don’t think she’s coming back.” The antique man stood in front of the checkout desk. “I think visiting her sick sister was a ruse. She’s gone back to her novel.”
“No,” I corrected him, “she said it would be a matter of days.”
He smiled. “Poetic license. You’re our librarian now.”
“Who the hell are you to tell me who I am!” That wasn’t a question, but a zealous statement. I would never be one of their community.
“I know who I am. Name's Horace Benbow. But you don’t sense yet who you are.”
“Why’s that name familiar?”
“You may have heard it—read it—before. William Faulkner gave it to me. The way Harper Lee gave birth to Scout. You met her your first day here. I’ve been here for—well, I don’t know how many years. Certainly the 1930s.”
“You’re immortal?” The stupid B-movie word escaped my lips.
“I prefer the term timeless,” he said. “And I invite you to join me. Join us. I think it was Gavin Stevens who says in Requiem for a Nun, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ And, you’ll enjoy Joel Knox, who is really,” he smiled conspiratorialy, “Truman Capote’s unconscious, intuitive self.”
“Old man,” I said, “you are certifiably crazy.”
“Would you like to see your son, Zachary?” He winked, a gesture that suddenly blinded me with anger. “Don’t get hot and bothered, Alex.” He held up his hands defensively. “Your memoir is going to sell. You’ve brought Zachary back to life. He’s coming in the door now.”
I saw him then, my boy with the too-long hair and laughing blue eyes who never had a chance to live and bite life in the ass before the cancer ate him up.
“Dad?” he said in recognition.
I rushed to the door and let him fall into my arms, barely hearing the antique man describe the benefits of being the librarian at Arlos Creek.
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