“You can only take so much off, but you can always put more on.” - Somebody, somewhere.
I like the cold. I would rather a frost be in the air and on the ground than have the air sticking to me in the hot, humid Mississippi way it does. I am built for the cold, a furnace naturally heating me year round to the point where my resting temperature is around 99 rather than the standard 98.6.
I grew up in an old house with no central air. Our heater was a wood burning stove that sat in the living room. On really, really cold nights my parents and sister and I would pile in the living room with sleeping bags. The rest of the nights were spent under blankets and quilts handmade by aunts and grandmothers past. I like that kind of heat, that body warmth that comes from blankets and robes and sweaters and a warm fire on a cold night. The heat of being close to someone, even for a brief hug.
The Mississippi cold is different from other parts of the world. That humidity that makes the air unbearable on the blistering August dog day afternoons sticks around deep into the winter, only being pushed off when a storm blows in. The cold, wet air does not stick so much as it freezes you. Makes it hard to feel as it worms its way into you deep to the bone. That’s where blankets and robes and sweaters and all that other come to play. In the middle of the night, wrapped in a cocoon of warmth, that humid ghost air has no way to haunt you.
But other things can haunt you. They can even knock on your door.
I opened my front door at a little past ten in the morning. I had been asleep, deep into my vacation schedule of sleeping the day away and staying up all hours of the night. With the library closed for the holidays and my vacation days piled up, I had taken the past two weeks off. Nothing like a little rest and relaxation for someone to ruin with a loud knock to the door.
“My god, I thought you would let me beat the door down,” Natalie said.
I wiped one hand across my eye and held the door with the other. I almost closed the damn thing.
“Good morning to you to, Nat,” I said, waving my hand toward the inside. She pushed past me and a rush of cold air came with her as well as the sweet smell of her honeysuckle perfume. I closed the door.
“I tried to call.”
“Yeah, I’m phoneless until February, remember? Coffee?” I asked.
She nodded, looking around to find a place to sit. She picked up a sweater off my computer chair and sat. I have to admit, on my best days I am not a great housekeeper but give me a couple weeks of vacation to marinate with nothing to do and I become an outright slob. Clothes, mostly sweaters and socks, littered the floor and couch, thrown after coming in late from nights at the bar. There was at least one beer bottle on every flat surface without a cushion. I will spare you the details of the kitchen and bathroom.
I prepped the coffee and found two clean mugs that I had hidden from myself in the dishwasher. The little machine started making sucking sounds and a warm smell of breakfast blend filled the kitchen. My stomach did an impression of an angry tomcat, but I resisted the urge to grab a handful of cereal from the box on the fridge. I had a guest and some semblance of manners.
“So, what can I do you for?” I asked Natalie.
She sighed, taking off her scarf and folding it, “I want you to come to the party tonight.”
“Oh,” I said, thinking about the best way to turn down her offer.
“Fuck no,” I said.
All class, that’s me.
Her shoulders dropped and her forehead wrinkled, “He wants to like you, Evan. He’s a really good guy. You should give him a chance.”
“Look, I got nothing against the guy, but I really don’t wanna go to that party. I could make up an excuse, but you know me well enough to know how much I hate that place.”
“Just make an appearance. Some facetime.”
I scowled at her and went back to the kitchen. If you had told me six months ago that I would ever give Natalie Ford such a dirty look, hell, even that we would be talking again, I would have called you crazy. But that’s time, I guess. At one point, we had been friends, then lovers, and now she was the circulation librarian at the Banned Library. We had gotten over most everything in our past, for the most part, and moved on as friends. Time, either swift or slow, changes all things. Now she was playing the part of my protector.
I poured the coffee into two cups, a little milk and sugar in mine. The sugar stuck in one big clump in the shaker so I had to bang it against the counter. It felt good to get out a little aggression. Natalie took hers black.
I walked back in the living room and handed her the cup.
“Look, Nat, I know you want everything to be hunky dory, but I’m gonna pass.”
“So what are you gonna do tonight? Sit around here reading and smoking?”
“No,” I said, “I’m gonna go to the bar and sit there and read and drink and smoke.”
“Ain’t life just.”
“People are starting to talk, Evan. Like you don’t even care about the library anymore. You shut down after...”
She didn’t finish her sentence, so I did.
“After Betty died? After that business with Darling? After getting arrested? Then the board hires a whole new staff without me or Mom’s consent. I’m still here. I’m doing my job. What else do people want?”
“They want their librarian back. You used to give a damn.”
“Is this why you woke me up? I was having a really nice dream, you know.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she said.
I looked at her and noticed bags under her eyes. Her brown hair was not as bouncy, less cared for than usual. She had the look of someone who knew something that weighed her down, kept her up at night. I knew the feeling.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, “And not about me. This isn’t about me. You sleeping okay?”
She shook her head and stood up. She took a sip of coffee and frowned at the cup. Then she put it down on the desk.
“Just think about coming tonight, okay?” she asked.
I looked up at her. She looked tired and afraid. I took a deep breath and nodded.
“Good. Do you good to go somewhere where actual people are,” she said.
“You don’t think I keep myself good company?”
She smiled, “I think you get yourself into trouble.”
She walked to the door and opened it. I followed, pulling my robe tighter around me to brace for the rush of cold air. She turned to me.
“I hope you do come,” she squinted at me, “probably with a haircut first. And a shave. Possible delousing in general.”
I rubbed the chin hair I had allowed to grow with abandon and felt the hair curling around to tickle my ears as I moved my head, “You don’t like it? I was thinking of joining a biker club, running guns or something.”
“Oh, I think it’s sexy,” she said, causing a quick stir somewhere deep inside me, “But you are starting to scare the old ladies, Mr. Reference Librarian.”
“Wouldn’t want that. They are the bread and butter of the library world.”
“Damn straight. See you tonight,” she said and walked out into the parking lot.
“Maybe,” I called after her.
“Do it or I’ll tell your mother to pay you a visit,” She flashed a grin over her shoulder, opening her car door.
“That’s just mean, man. Mean,” I said with a smile and closed the door.
I looked through the eyehole in the door and confirmed what I thought I had seen. The car had been on, staying warm and a man had been sitting in the passenger seat. Dark thoughts crept up in my brain and I pushed them down. Her business, not mine. Not anymore.
I went back to bed, burying myself under the covers and waited for the Man in Red to start his assault on my dreams once more.