Library Days

Mike Nagel

I’d been looking for a place to go. A place that wasn’t a) my office or b) my couch. I needed a third place, a c) place. For a while, my third place was Trinity Hall, a bar across the street from my apartment. But that was getting unhealthy, both physically and financially. My liver hurt. What I imagined was my liver. I didn’t know where my liver was. But I had some new pain in my lower back that hurt worse after a night of heavy drinking. Which, I’ll be honest, was every night. All the sudden, you’re a drinker and you’re 28-years-old. So I thought, maybe my third place should be Starbucks. I went there and looked at my laptop. I told myself I was writing a novel. It was a nice thing for me to say. I stared at my screen for an hour not writing a novel. Then I went home and sat on my couch not writing a novel. My life is the three or four places where I haven’t written a novel. Then my wife quit her job to get her PhD and some friends threw a birthday party I wasn’t invited to. A lot of people died in horrific, newsworthy ways, but mostly explosions. And while most nights after work I took a left on Bryan Street and got on the train, one night I took a right and walked to the library.

I don’t mind telling you that I was in a precarious mental situation at the time. Depressed and anxious. An aspiring alcoholic. By 2:00 p.m. I needed a drink. My fears simmered on a low but constant heat. I worried about my cholesterol levels, the good kind and the bad kind. I worried about my liver. I worried, when I stood near train tracks, that someone was going to sneak up behind me and push me in front of a train. But most of all, I worried that I was going to die and someone would say to someone else, “Well, I hate to say it, but what did he expect?”

The downtown Dallas library is big. Eight stories. The books put off a smell like water damage. There are a lot of books so it’s a strong smell. The paper dries out the air. People go around coughing like it’s a hospital ward. After I’d walked around for twenty minutes, a librarian handed me a map with all the floors laid out next to each other like houses on a city block. Like a neighborhood. On the 7th floor, there was an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. I read later that it’s the least guarded copy in the country, and I believe it. I once met a library security guard who talked about nothing but the people he’d found having sex. It was clear that books were not the first thing on everybody’s mind.

“You want help finding what?” the librarian asked.
I repeated: “A book.”

I started coming to the library more often. I came during lunch. I read the first pages of books and put them back on the shelf. I got very good at the alphabet. It felt like an accomplishment to find the book I was looking for, the one book I wanted, among so many I did not. That’s mostly what a library is: the books you don’t want. The hunt for a book can be more satisfying than the book itself. This is a catch and release pond. You take a book and then bring it back. You read the books and then you forgot what you read. It’s mostly pointless. I stood among the thousands of books I would never read containing the millions of things I would never know. I dragged my hand across their cellophane spines.

In May, I walked to the library in the shade. Down Ervay, past Commerce. I stopped at Neiman Marcus to look at the window display. The mannequin was caught in a breeze. (She was always getting herself into these situations.) Newspapers were suspended all around her, sucked up into the crepe paper sky. Behind me, a garbage truck released its air break. Garage doors rolled up and down. The city hummed with utility and function. City workers were digging a hole while afternoon shoppers spooned melting gelato into their mouths.

I was sweaty when I got to the library. The air-conditioning turned my sweat into salt. A quick glance back at Sodom and you’re nothing but a pile of Morton’s. I dropped the book down the book chute and went upstairs to find another. I repeated this walk every few days with a different book in my hand, a book that I had either read or not read, it didn’t matter.

And I began to feel there was a sort of madness about the library. These people had a few screws loose. They whispered to themselves. The whispers sounded like chanting. They wore filthy clothes and carried dirt-stained backpacks. They passed out in the middle of the aisles. You had to step around them. They read John Grisham and the Bible and old issues of Car and Driver. You got the feeling they were waiting something out. The heat maybe. Or their lives. They were in the city but not of it. Refugees from the functional world. I found nonsensical messages in the elevator, scratched deep with fingernails. And one day, an old man stood at the checkout counter screaming about drones. He spit on the floor, pointed at the security guard, and yelled, “Fat!” And I thought, Oh, the library is a nut house. And I was a card-carrying member.

One night, I stayed late at the library reading Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. It was a small paperback, falling apart along the spine (consider, for a second, the anatomic connotations of books: the book’s spine, the text’s body; consider how many old books were bound in human skin; it’s possible my attraction to books is more sexual than intellectual; am I bookish? maybe I’m just a perv). A bug-eyed librarian told me it was time to go. That’s when I noticed there was a dead man sitting next to me. He’d been dead for hours. His chin was on his chest. The librarian shouted into his ear and then gave him a little shove. “Time to go,” he said.

I suspected that someone was living in the library. I found a toothbrush near the Žižek. A pile of groceries near the Michelin travel guides. The library is big. There are places to hide. But could people make a life for themselves here? Here with the books? And more importantly: is that what I was doing? J and I had recently decided not to have kids. She would get her PhD and I would walk back and forth between the kitchen and the couch carrying various types of snacks. I see now that we were accepting the uselessness of our existence. We were, I felt, making literature of our lives.

In June, the music started. Triumphant classical compositions blaring from loud speakers hidden near the entrance to the library. The music seemed to be in a constant state of crescendo. It further separated the library from what I had started to think of as the Rest of the World. The music’s volume grew as you got closer and faded as you walked away. Past Commerce St. you couldn’t hear the music anymore.

One day, I found a note written in the margin of a book. It said: “Hi.” Underneath it, I wrote “Hi” back. Later, I saw that that book had not been checked out since 1969.

Of course, not everything that happened in the library really happened. But the library is a great place for things not to happen. A nice change of pace from a Rest of the World, where things happen all the time.

Did I come to the library or was I drawn here? Drawn by the books, maybe. The free, smelly books. Books that were already written. I am more reader than writer. I see that now. And I am driven by some insane belief that the next book I read could be the one I’ve been looking for my whole life, the one I hope to read before I die. I was looking for a book. I didn’t know which one. Benabou, maybe. Or Lethem. Or Major. Or Salinger. Or Hardwick. Or Infant. Or Sebald. Each was just disappointing enough for me to keep looking. Each was just satisfying enough for me to continue to believe.

In July, the Neiman Marcus mannequin took a load off and laid back on a Victorian-looking couch, her right arm draped casually behind her head, drawing attention to the diamond necklace between her plastic breasts. Nearby, a few police officers were killed and the city got real quiet for a few days, but then it got loud again. The city workers finished their hole and started a new one. Traffic was stop-and-go, but mostly stop. J took an upper-level statistics course. I asked her the statistical likelihood that we would have sex that night. She said chances were good. I was paid what I was worth. A client sent cookies. The flywheels and cranks beneath Dallas kept spinning. If you got really quiet, you could hear them go. The hum of a city operating at maximum efficiency. And a man walking through it all, about my height and build, whispering to himself in the rhythm of an incantation.


About the Author

Mike Nagel's writing has appeared in The AwlSalt HillaptThe Paris Review Daily and elsewhere.