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I do not love mankind.
People think they're interesting. That's their first mistake. Every retiree you meet wants to supply you with his life story.
An example: thirty-five years ago a woman came into the library. She'd just heard about oral histories, and wanted to string one together herself.
"We have so many wonderful old people around," she said. "They have such wonderful stories. We could capture them on tape, then maybe transcribe them. Don't you think that would make a wonderful record of the area? My father, for instance, is in a nursing home—"
Her father, of course. She was not interested in the past, but her past.
"If I wanted to listen to old people nattering on," I told her, "I would ride a Greyhound bus across country. Such things get boring rather quickly, don't they."
The woman looked at me with the same smile she'd had on the entire conversation. She laughed experimentally.
"Oh Miss Cort," she said. "Surely you didn't mean that."
"I did and I do," I answered. My reputation even thirty-five years ago was already so spoiled there was no saving it. "I really don't see the point, do you?"
I felt that if those old people had some essential information they should write it down themselves. A life story can make adequate conversation but bad history.
Still, there you are in a nursing home, bored and lonely, and one day something different happens. Instead of a gang of school kids come to bellow Christmas carols at you, there's this earnest young person with the tape recorder, wanting to know about a flood sixty years ago, or what Main Street was like, or some such nonsense. All the other people in the home are sick to death of hearing your stories, because really let's be honest you only have a few.
Suddenly there's a microphone in your face. Wham! Just like that, you're no longer a dull conversationalist, you're a natural resource.
Back then I thought, if you go around trying to rescue every fact or turn of phrase, you would never stop, you would eavesdrop until your fingers ached from playing the black keys of your tape recorder, until the batteries had gasped their last and the tape came to its end and thunked the machine off, no more, and still you would not have made a dent on the small talk of the world. People are always downstairs, talking without you. They gather in front of stores, run into each other at restaurants, and talk. They clump together at parties or couple up at the dinner table. They organize themselves by profession (for instance, waitresses), or by quality of looks or by hobby, or companion (in the case of dog owners and married people), or by sexual preference or weight or social ease, and they talk.
Imagine what there is to collect: every exchange between a customer and a grocery store clerk, wrong numbers, awful baby talk to a puppy on the street, what people yell back at the radio, the sound the teenage boy outside my window makes when he catches the basketball with both his hands and his stomach, every oh lord said at church or in bed or standing up from a chair. Thank you, hey watch it, gesundheit, who's a good boy, sweetness, how much? I love your dress.
An Anthology of Common Conversation. Already I can tell you it will be incomplete. In reference works, as in sin, omission is as bad as willfull misbehavior. All those words go around and end up nowhere; your fondest wishes won't save them. No need to be a packrat of palaver anyhow. Best to stick with recorded history.
Now, of course, I am as guilty as anyone, and this book is the evidence. I'm worse; I know my details by heart, no interviews necessary. No one has asked me a question yet, but I will not shut up.
Peggy Cort is crazy, anyone will tell you so. That lady who wanted to record the town's elders, the children who visited the library, my co-workers, every last soul in this town. The only person who ever thought I wasn't is dead; he is the subject of this memoir.
Let me stop. History is chronological, at least this one is. Some women become librarians because they love order; I'm one. Ordinal, cardinal, alphabetical, alphanumerical, geographical, by subject, by color, by shape, by size. Something logical that people—one hopes—cannot botch, although they will.
This isn't my story.
Let me start again.
I do not love mankind, but he was different.
He was a redhead as a child.
You won't hear that from most people. Most people won't care. But he had pretty strawberry blond hair. If he'd been out in the sun more, it would have been streaked gold.
He first came into my library in the fall of 1950, when he was eleven. Some teacher from the elementary school brought them all trooping in; I was behind the desk, putting a cart of fiction in order. I thought at first he was a second teacher, he was so much taller than the rest, tall even for a grown man. Then I noticed the chinos and white bucks and saw that this was the over-tall boy I'd heard about. Once I realized, I could see my mistake; though he would eventually develop cheekbones and whiskers, now he was pale and slightly babyfaced. He wasn't the tallest man in the world then, just a remarkably tall boy. Doctors had not yet prescribed glasses, and he squinted at faraway objects in a heroic way, as if they were new countries waiting to be discovered.
"This is Miss Cort," the teacher said, gesturing at me. "Ask her any question you want. She is here to help you. That is what librarians do."
She showed them the dusty oak card catalog, the dusty stacks, the circulation desk I spent hours keeping free of dust. In short, she terrified them.
"Fiction is on the third floor," she said. "And biography is on the second." I recognized her; she read Georgette Heyer and biographies of royalty and returned books so saturated with cigarette smoke I imagined she exhaled over each page on purpose. I wanted to stand by the exit to whisper in every eleven-year-old ear, Just come back. Come back by yourself and we'll forget all about this.
At the end of the visit, the tall boy came up to talk. He seemed studious, though studious is too often the word we give to quiet odd people.
"I want a book," he said, "about being a magician."
"What sort of magician?" I said. "Like Merlin?" Recently a teacher had read aloud from The Sword and the Stone, and they all wanted more stories.
"No," he said. He put his hands on the circulation desk. His fingernails were cleaner than an ordinary eleven-year-old's; his mother was then still alive. "Just tricks," he said. "I want to make things look like they disappear. I looked in the card catalog under magic, but I didn't find anything."
"Try 'conjuring,'" I told him.
We found only one book, an oversized skinny volume called Magic for Boys and Girls. He took it to a table in the front room. He wasn't clumsy, as you might expect, but terribly delicate. His hands were large, out of proportion even with his big body, and he had to use them delicately to accomplish anything at all.
I watched his narrow back as he read the book. After an hour I walked over.
"Is that the sort of thing you wanted?" I asked.
"Yes," he said, not looking at me. The book was opened flat on the table in front of him, and he worked his hands in the air according to the instructions, without any props. His fingers kept slowly snatching at nothing, as if he had already made dozens of things disappear, rabbits and cards and rubber balls and bouquets of paper flowers, and had done this so brilliantly even he could not bring them back.
I may be adding things. It's been years now, and nearly every day I dream up hours and meetings with James Carlson Sweatt. I am a librarian, and you cannot stop me from annotating, revising, updating. I like to think that—because I am a librarian—I offer accurate and spurious with no judgment, good and bad next to each other on the shelf. But my memories are not books. Blessing if they were. Then maybe someone would borrow one and keep it too long and return it, a little battered, offering money for my forgiveness, each memory new after its long absence.
My memories are not books. They are only stories that I have been over so many times in my head that I don't know from one day to the next what's remembered and what's made up. Like when you memorize a poem, and for one small unimportant part you supply your own words. The meaning's the same, the meter's identical. When you read the actual version you can never get it into your head that it's right and you're wrong.
What I give you is the day's edition. Tomorrow it may be different.