The Man Stacks Books
by ST Harker
The man stacked books. They started small. A few little book stacks on tables here and there left at the end of the day. People do that. Shelver Becca called me in one day to look at them.
He's just piling things up, she said.
Well, it's only what, like, ten books? We can shelve those. I helped her shelve them, looking at the X-Files conspiracy book and the Encyclopedia of Astronomy. Interesting titles from someone who liked to study the stars and pop culture. Things I would enjoy.
Becca rolled her eyes as we shelved and said, It's the third day I've shelved the same books. And Brenda said they were here this weekend, too.
Circulation liked to complain like that, though. Target patrons that might be a problem. I would wait until I could see the guy for myself. I told Becca to let me know when he was here.
The next day she came and got me.
The weirdo's here.
Thank you. Which one?
The stacker, she said and left my office.
I walked across the library. My office is on the second floor with the nonfiction shoved back next to the closet with the brooms and the mops. I know when the janitors come in. The stacker was in the reading alcove, a little balcony overlooking the children's department and the circulation desk. The library was built not thinking of child predators or teens looking down librarian shirts.
He sat at the table alone beside the stack of books. More than ten today, the same galactic collection of materials plus William Shatner's TekWar series. I didn't even know we had those. Or why.
He wore a shirt too large for him, the stripes doubling up across his narrow chest. His beard was a patchy black, hair cut short. His eyes had a rheumy searching slick quality, yellow and dark brown and lost. Something in his look made me feel dirty and off. When he saw me he nodded and went back to his books. I left him in search of Mr. Albert.
Every library has a resident old man. The man who the community takes care of because the man has decided not to take care of himself. Maybe his wife died and his children were raised wrong. Maybe he never had anyone but himself and a love of books. Mr. Albert lost everyone he knew in a plane crash and picked up a bottle. On bad days, I woke him up from the chair or square of tile where he slumped. On good days, he was a fountain of information.
Mr. Albert knew everyone in the transient community. He was a regular at the library, at the soup kitchens, at the church food banks. When the police needed a man found, they came to Mr. Albert. I went to the magazine section and asked about the stacker.
No good, Mr. Albert said.
What do you mean?
I mean the man's no good. Ain't got anybody, no friends. Don't talk, don't play cards, won't even sit next to somebody at dinner. Got a man like that, he don't know no good.
The police know him?
They talked to him, I hear. Haven't done nothing.
Thanks, Mr. Albert.
Stay frosty, the old man said and went back to his copy of Sports Illustrated.
The next day the stacks were bigger. The day after the stacks were bigger than that. It got to be the man would stack books around himself, hiding behind them like a fort. Left, right, and front. Ten books tall. Brenda and Becca complained. He would not put the books on carts, even. The stacks would grow and grow taller and taller.
Motherfucker is building a house, Becca said one night at closing as we took the books down and loaded them onto carts.
Language, Becca. I'll talk to him.
The next day I walked up to the stacker. He had one wall built. He built from one side to front to side, not from bottom to top. He went through the books, I saw, adding to them when he finished and getting faster each day. The old X-Files conspiracies and astronomy books were on the bottom while other books on ancient Egypt now lay on top.
Excuse me, sir, can we talk?
The man raised his head and looked at me with wet, yellow eyes. Sure, he said with a gravel voice.
I have had some complaints from the shelving staff about the stacks you leave at the end of the night, I said.
He kept his eyes on me. One hand turned a page that contained star charts of a galaxy I could not pronounce.
I need you to place the books on a cart as you are done.
He nodded, once. Twice. Turned back to his book. His hand turned the pages with a mechanic motion. If he was reading, he did so with the same gusto as a geriatric dancing to a forgotten song.
Thank you. I walked away and told Brenda I had talked to him. At close the stacks were still there. Same for the next day and the day after.
Sir, I said. Can we talk?
Those eyes on me again. His gaze going through me and on me, a blanket of cold detached empty eyes filled with a diseased gaunt closeness.
I asked you a few days ago to not leave the books laying around when you leave for the day, I said. I almost said your books.
He said nothing. His hand made that same right to left motion, page after page. Eyes on me instead of the book. We held each other and inside one of his eyes something moved. In the dark pupil a thing, a small thing, moved. Flashes of worms and of horror movies spun in my head. I wanted to leave there quick and fast and dirty and not look back. Page after page turned with the soft sound of sliding sickness. All of it wanting me, pushing me to leave, to just get out and go. I had doubt and pain then and all the thoughts in my head hurt too much and wormed and slithered and staring into that man's eye and whatever stared back made me want to cry.
I'm sorry, sir, I said. But you'll have to leave. You can come back tomorrow, but I'm going to have to limit you to only a few books at a time.
Page after page. Stopped.
Okay, he said. He said that and he got up and left. Walked past me and left the library. I cleaned up the books, put them back on the shelf one by one. After all, it wasn't many books.
I never saw him again. Not really. Sometimes I thought I did. Walking my dog downtown and turning a corner and there he would be. Pushing a cart of books or computers around the library and around and around and there he is. Alone in the library after hours and the stacks are dark and from in the dark a page turns. That sliding sound of wood pulp and ink against wood pulp and ink.
Sometimes when I look at the sky, my eye hurts a little and something inside moves. Something looking out from within me. On days like that I go to the cool library and find a book about the stars and I dream of home.