MY shift began at seven a.m., three hours before the library opened to the general public. Seven was early for me, and I usually arrived at work about one minute to seven—or right at seven, or about one minute after seven—something that began to earn me gentle, half-hearted reprimands from my supervisors.
We were a skeleton crew in the mornings. If I was scheduled to work the sorter—which is what we called the immense machine that processed almost all of the returned library materials—I had to snap right to it, however groggy and dragging and still-in-dream-mode I felt. We were assigned to the sorter in pairs, and it was against policy to operate the machine alone, so as soon as I kicked my backpack and jacket into my locker, my partner would ask if I was ready, to which I would give an affirmative groan. Then, depending on who was closest to the main computer, one of us would awkwardly call out “running” and double-click the start icon. With a clunk and clang, the sorter would come to life, and the books, and CDs, and DVDs would all start zipping down the conveyor belt—not unlike the flood of chocolates in that famous scene from I Love Lucy. Once the returns had dumped into the appropriate bins, my partner and I would fine sort them as quickly and accurately as possible.
If I wasn’t assigned to the sorter, that meant I was on shelving. In that case, I would grab a cart of books, all of which had previously been dealt with at the sorter, and head off to the appropriate section of the library to put them away. We were supposed to just take whichever cart was next in the queue, but most of us cherry-picked in some way—maybe to skip an area that was chronically messy, or maybe to avoid a cart of picture books, which were a particular destroyer of the lower back.
In the mornings, empty, the library had a different aura. The high ceiling and tall stained-glass windows felt churchlike. With no one around, there was a stillness and quiet that clarified just how active and noisy the building was during the day. I found it difficult—especially on rainy, winter mornings—to resist leafing through the books on my cart, or to stop myself from pulling books off the shelves, titles I’d never noticed before, and just start reading.
I liked the third floor best. The third floor was fiction. At the time, in addition to my library gig, I was also working on my story collection, Close Is Fine. Proximity, order, place—these were the ideas circulating within me.
Though the practice had stopped years ago, the library once labeled short story collections with little red-and-white stickers that said, fittingly, Short Stories. Anytime I spotted one—whether I was on my cart, or in the stacks, or even working the sorter—I’d make sure to survey the collection it was attached to, and if I couldn’t look at it then, I’d make sure to set it aside so I could study it later. Often, there was a sense of serendipity with these books, as if they knew what had been troubling my mind and had come to find me.
I did this one other thing on the third floor. I’d always make a detour to the spot where Close Is Fine would go if it ever found publication, which in this case was right between John Treherne’s The Walk to Acorn Bridge and Hans-Ulrich Treichel’s Leaving Sardinia. When I got there, I’d reach up and wedge my hand in and make an opening. I’d step back and let my eyes go a little crossed, and I’d force myself to see it: the title running down the spine, with the Cutter, the label on which the call letters were printed, at the bottom.
I didn’t stare long, only a few seconds each time. But I stared hard. And I’d do it four or five times a shift. I tried not only to picture the spine, but to also give the book volume, and mass, and physical form.
Here, if you are wondering, I will confess to having seen the movie The Secret, which I borrowed from the library. It is the only time I’ve ever watched something and simultaneously thought, This is completely true and This is completely bullshit. But I was trying to do more than just Secret my book into reality, anyway. What I think I was really trying to do was to define my choices and priorities and teach myself commitment and patience—the stuff that writing is. If you really want to do this, I was reminding myself, you know what it’s going to take.
Although we were supposed to be straightening up the stacks as we worked, I always left the hole I’d made for my book. Sometimes when I returned, the gap would still be there. Most often, though, someone had pushed the books back together, tight and flush, the way our supervisors wanted.
In that case, I’d simply reach up again and put the space back. Then I would say to myself: Make the thing that goes there.
–Originally delivered as part of the Crazy 8s Author Tour