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SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER
By GRACE OCTAVIA
DAFINA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Grace Octavia
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe second fire started on a regular day.
Summer was coming and the teenagers in the library were getting restless. The new Georgia heat was making people crazy. Not to mention it was Friday, and that brought with it a particular kind of recklessness.
"And get this, girl." Sharika, my coworker at the triple-wide barn-sized library flicked her pink and yellow airbrushed fingernail tips in my face for some kind of dramatic buildup. "She up and killed herself. Just did. Shot herself in the head ... or maybe the stomach." The air conditioner clicked on and hummed, making her get louder. "In the stomach!"
She paused and looked at me for a second, her dark brown face in a tight frown beneath the harsh halogen lights that hung over the help desk. She was thirty, short, and probably fifty pounds overweight, but you'd never know it by how she carried herself, switching and always with one hand on a poked-out hip. She was funny in a way that women like her just could be. The kind where her high self-esteem was to hide low self-esteem. But smart. She could recite classes in the Dewey decimal system like poems. Had a quick temper though.
"Isn't that some shit? She killed herself," she said and a hand went to her hip.
Behind her, I could see a cheerleader and her boyfriend padding rather suspiciously down the hallway toward the bathroom.
I nodded at Sharika and made a mental note to look after them in a few minutes. When I'd selected library science as my major in graduate school, I never imagined I'd end up chasing hot teens out of the slender bathroom stalls of a tiny satellite library. But then again, I don't really recall what I did imagine I'd be doing here.
"Now that's a damn shame. Killed herself over that man. Fuck that!" Sharika went on. "Won't catch me killing myself over some fool. I have too much to live for."
"Shssh!" I warned, elbowing her. "Somebody might hear you up here cursing."
She rolled her eyes and looked around the half-full, square-shaped reading room where we were both librarians. Four long, wooden tables, which had been donated to our location when the main library downtown underwent renovations, made a large square in the middle of our dwindling and aged stacks of books. It was 3:33 in the afternoon and, besides us, the only other adults in the library were Mrs. Harris from the seniors romance book reading club and Mr. Lawrence, the neighborhood misfit. For hours, we watched as the hot teens took turns trying to sneak off to the bathroom and back stacks for secret rendezvous, Mr. Lawrence pretended to look for jobs in an upside-down, week-old newspaper that no longer carried a classifieds section, and Mrs. Harris faked reading Their Eyes Were Watching God as she secretly spied on Mr. Lawrence.
"You don't think these two old folks cuss?" Sharika shot, her backwoods Augusta drawl purposely positioned to bite at every syllable she uttered. "Please, they could and would cuss both of us under a bus. Don't sleep on old people! They'll cut you first and cuss you last!"
Sharika giggled at her joke and I couldn't help but smile. She was crazy, but so right. Reverend Herbert George II had had a way with words, too, especially when he'd had some drinks in him.
"But really." Sharika swiveled her seat around to mine. "I just feel so bad for her. Why would she do that? Kill herself for some man? They were divorced already. It was time to move on."
"How long were they married?"
"And you said there was another woman?"
"Yeah, apparently he'd just gotten engaged to some tramp ... some whore. And how she found out: stumbling on their wedding registry at Target?!? At Target?"
"Why did she look up his name?" I asked the obvious question, trying to seem a little concerned with Sharika's tale. Every day with her had a new story. And sometimes it was hard to tell if the story was based on real life or a book. She told both just the same. And if you missed a step, she'd happily start right back up again. It was important to feign some kind of attention.
"You're missing the point," she announced.
"Which is that there's no reason to kill yourself for a man. I don't care who he married or who he left you for. There's just no reason. Life goes on. Shit, she could've found a better man ... and the way things are going today, she might've been able to get a better woman!" She pulled a few wispy strands of her blond bangs from her eyes, and I considered for the third time that day that maybe someday someone who really loved Sharika would tell her that blond just didn't work for her. My skin is two shades lighter than hers and the most diversity I see in hair dye is jet black and just black. She calls me a "Plain Jane," but at least I'm not a grown woman walking around with blond bangs. I wear my hair cut at the ears and curled under: early Michelle Obama style. I know it gets ... regular ... but it's functional. And my husband couldn't care less about things like that.
"Is this one of your friends?" I got up from my seat at the mock mahogany counter and placed a stack of returned movies on Sharika's reshelf cart.
"Dawn, I told you this is from the book I read last night," Sharika answered. "Have you been listening to me? God, I just feel so sorry for the woman. Like for feeling so down that she thought the only way out was suicide. That's awful. And how did everybody miss it? Her friends? Her family? No one knew she was about to put a gun to her head? I've never been that caught up and I don't plan on getting there either."
"Oh, come on! You're speaking like a single woman who's never been in love," I said. "After having been married for twelve years, I can kind of understand her—the character. This woman wasn't just caught up. She was in love and she lost it. That can be devastating for anyone. I don't support suicide, but nothing will make you contemplate catching the first bus out of here like heartbreak. I know that. Ask any of those fools jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge."
I slid the last book from our return bin onto Sharika's cart and she jumped up from her seat to tug it away.
"Again," she said, playfully cutting her eyes at me. "I ain't been nowhere near such a bus, and I don't plan on getting directions."
"You get back to me when you finally fall in love," I replied. "When you find a man you love and he breaks your heart, you get back to me about that bus."
I sat and watched Sharika attempt to walk away, readjusting her too-tight yellow skirt as it rode up with each step. When she first came to the library, after the last co-librarian—a white woman from Athens who'd burst into tears one day when one of the teens called her a cracker—quit quite expectedly, I thought little of Sharika. She seemed too flashy and too loud to really be interested in being a librarian. But after just days of working beside her, I saw that Sharika, who was just three years younger than me, might have been more qualified for the job than me. While "business" and "acumen" and "customer" and "service" were words that seldom came together in her mind, she was a voracious reader who coveted knowledge from words like soap-opera fans do the story lines of their favorite characters. She was one of those people who could read Giovanni's Room in one evening and come back to work the next day talking about it as if it were the most interesting thing she'd ever read. The most interesting thing about that, though, was that she was always doubting her skills. She'd been talking about going back to school for her doctorate in library science for years, but she could find every excuse in the world not to: the programs were racist, the best ones were too far away ... But I thought she was just scared of something. Of someone seeing what I saw every day and not being able to look past it to see who she really was. Yeah, she needed some polish, but the passion was there already.
I clicked on my computer screen and looked at my desktop photo, a picture I'd taken with my husband during a camping trip to DeSoto Falls a month before. His head leaned into mine. I was peeking over at his silhouette and smiling. I could see the sun setting in his sunglasses. Reginald had taken the picture with his cell phone, and since I still hadn't picked up the prints we ordered from our digital camera, this was the only shot I had. He kept begging me to go to Target to get them, but I never had time.
Except for the hot teenagers, hours in our little library were unpredictable. Sometimes they were unacceptably slow since the only thing to do was watch people argue over computer terminals and fall asleep as they pretended to read a book about screenplay writing or starting a marijuana garden. And other times, time ticked like a bomb as the drama of simply having different kinds of people crammed into the only remaining library in Augusta's poorest neighborhood promised full frontal action: a lovesick girl might discover her boyfriend making out with his ex-girlfriend in the reference section; Mr. Lawrence might decide to take a long afternoon nap and snore so loudly that it sounded like a demon was about to climb out of his mouth.
"So, you think she should've killed herself?" Sharika asked as we ushered the last few stragglers out of the library before closing.
"No. I didn't say that," I said. "I just pointed out that I know how hurt she must've been. Love is an amazing thing. And when you've been married for a long time, divorce is like ... it's like failing at what everyone said will be the most major thing you do in your life. So you don't want to let go."
"Then why are so many people getting divorced?"
"Lack of focus. Forgetting what they signed up for. It can be any number of things," I answered, helping her stack a few books people had left on a table onto her cart. I pulled the keys to the front door from the pea green cardigan I kept at my desk for afternoons when the air-conditioning in the library got a little nippy. "I'll lock up out front," I added before leaving Sharika to tidy the rest of the floor.
On my way to the front door, I decided to check out the bathroom to make sure none of the teens had been left behind; we'd unknowingly locked a couple in the library for the night once before. When I went to pull the swinging door, it flew out quicker than I'd expected and I could tell someone was pushing from the other side.
"Oh, shi—" I groaned, feeling the corner of the door scrape the top of my penny loafer. I looked down at the damage and was ready to scold the fast cheerleader and her boyfriend with the short, raggedy dreadlocks that I'd seen sneaking off earlier, but when I looked up, instead there was Mrs. Harris standing in the doorway. "I'm so sorry," I apologized, embarrassed that I'd almost cursed in front of her. "I didn't know you were in here. We've closed. You can come back in the morning at—" I stopped myself, noticing that Mrs. Harris hadn't said a word and she looked even more surprised than I did. "Is everything OK?"
"Sure, honey," she said, her voice more sweet than usual. She flashed a bright smile, but didn't move and held the door only half opened. Her shirt was misbuttoned.
After a second, I tried to push the door open, but she held it steady.
"Are you sure everything is OK?" I asked again.
Her smile quickly dissipated.
I pushed the door again, this time with much more force, and it swung back so hard, it should've slammed against the wall inside of the bathroom, but it stopped short.
"Ouch," a male's voice cried.
With equal surprise and concern, I stepped into the bathroom to see who was behind the door.
"Mr. Lawrence?" I looked from him to Mrs. Harris and back. His shirt was completely unbuttoned. "You two?"
"No, no, not that, honey," Mrs. Harris tried to reassure me with her smile.
"Not that? What do you mean, Maggie?" Mr. Lawrence asked.
"I mean, it's not what she's thinking," she answered.
"The hell it's not," Mr. Lawrence said. "It's everything she's thinking!"
"Chuck!" Mrs. Harris looked down and suddenly desired to rebutton her shirt.
"Look, I don't really care what it is," I said sternly, "as long as it doesn't happen in the library. You two are too old for this."
"I know," Mrs. Harris agreed shamefully. Her shoulders sank and she went and stood beside Mr. Lawrence as if they were teenagers.
"I mean, do I need to take away your bathroom privileges like I do some of the kids from the school?" I asked.
"No," they answered together.
"Good," I said and it was all I could offer in such an off situation. There were no parents to call. They were the grandparents.
I rushed home, ready to tell my husband all about the senior bathroom tryst. Reginald was raised in Augusta and Mrs. Harris had been his third-grade teacher. He'd never believe she was canoodling in the bathroom with Mr. Lawrence. But my rush was put to rest when I turned onto our street. I could see through the rosebushes on the corner that his rusty green work truck wasn't parked in the driveway, and I hardly needed to stop to read the note on the front door to find him. He'd taken the twins to the park.
The other thing the doctor with the gray beard in the white coat couldn't tell me about my son's autism was why his twin sister hadn't gotten it and if she ever would. He told me to keep a diary and bring her back in six months. Seven years later and my daughter, Cheyenne, was still OK. But really we'd all been affected by autism.
"Here you are," I said, finding Reginald sitting on the end of a bench of a long row of babysitting, BlackBerry-holding dads.
Reginald was a big man. He came from big Southern people, and had muscular, broad shoulders and the kind of lacquered black skin that made him stand out-even in a room full of black people.
"Oh, hey," he said dryly before clicking his phone closed, and I could tell in just those two words that it had been a bad day.
I looked out over the muddle of bright playground equipment. Kids were everywhere, screaming and pulling. I saw my daughter's red shirt at the top of a jungle gym. It was a three-walled clubhouse where she and her girlfriends, too old to continue to enjoy the sand and slides and too young to sneak off to the bathrooms, kept court.
"Where's R. J.?" I asked.
"Sandbox," Reginald said, pointing his phone in the direction of a sea of babies and toddlers and preschoolers scooping sand into pails. In the middle of the tide was a ten-year-old in a dark blue hoodie. His head hung low.
"He had a bad day?" I asked to confirm.
Reginald got up without speaking and walked me halfway to the sandbox.
"The school called me to get him early," he told me. "I had to cancel two jobs."
"Oh, babe, I'm sorry," I said, feeling a little pinch in my gut.
"I really need you to get off early so you can get them from school," he said. "It's killing me. Especially now that it's about to be summer. More light equals more hours and more grass to cut."
"What am I supposed to do?" I said this with a straight face as I waved at the mother of one of Cheyenne's friends. "I can't ask Sharika to close the library by herself. She already opens alone so I can get the kids to school."
"Just do something," Reginald commanded. He came in closer so the woman couldn't hear him. "And stop making it seem like I'm the bad guy. I'm just trying to get us ahead a little. I'm starting to feel like I can't do anything big because I'm so busy dealing with all of this stuff." He gestured to the sandbox.
"Stuff? You mean our kids?"
"You know I don't mean it like that. I just need you to have my back. That's all I'm saying. We can't get what I want us to have if you don't support it. Is that so bad? Is it so bad that I want more for my family?"
"I never said it was bad," I said. "You're just starting to sound a little different."
Excerpted from SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER by GRACE OCTAVIA Copyright © 2011 by Grace Octavia. Excerpted by permission of DAFINA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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