by Tim Gilmore, 6/11/2021
1. Late Afternoon Skin
I was so embarrassed. She was so pretty. She was so pretty because she was so pretty and so smart. I actually called him “Kay-mus.” She was kind. And that made her prettier. And she was so smart. I’d known he was French. I’d read the damn novel, but hadn’t understood the colonial significance. I said his name like I thought you’d pronounce an Ancient Roman. She said it was “Kah-moo.”
She worked in the Children’s Department, back of the library. I worked mostly at the front circulation desk. I’d stack paperback Harlequin romance novels in the back and roll them out to the reading room floor, so the same women who’d checked them out several times already could rent them again. She’d occasionally float, if her work finished up early, like some witchy ethereal figment from her lair to ours, and talk with us at the end of the day, afternoon dimming toward evening.
She said things about which colleges she’d sent her applications that I didn’t understand. She was graduating Douglass Anderson School of the Arts, nationally ranked, and I, Nathan Bedford Forrest, post-suburban slum school just more black than redneck, named for an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
A lot of the D.A. kids were picking senior quotes for the yearbook from Ginsberg that year, she said. I’d read “Howl.” I could quote the line that’s meant so much to me much of my life: “with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.” That line, I’d understood, defined art.
My own “senior quote” sounded already to me too melodramatic and adolescent. “Green cows never catch hives.” I could have left it Dadaist, but dove headfirst into teen angst explication, ending it, “Why make sense if no one can make sense of me?” I blush.
Outside the tall plate glass windows at the front of the library, afternoons dipped golden into gloaming. The sand-colored brick arches before the windows admitted what fading sunlight they chose. That light on her particular late afternoon Filipina skin shone like something brand new that yet haunted me, Edenically, from ancient waning hours.
2. Interior Determinations
“The building’s interior determines its outward form,” says architect Ted Pappas, “and its primary purpose or function dictates the rest.” In his 1974 design for the Charles W. Webb Wesconnett Library, Ted included a plant-filled interior courtyard, open to sunlight and air, community meeting rooms on either side.
The entrance portico to Webb Wesconnett consists of a series of yellow brickwork arches, strangely both massive and light. Pappas chose a golden tan color for the brick, similar to what he’d used on St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church six years before. The brickwork looks earthen but sunlit, ancient but new.
Above the five banks of windows spanning the front of the library, four protruding arches connect each brick stanchion to the next. In between the arches score deep-cut radial lines and the dentiling at the library’s front corners leads to recessing of the sides. Together, these details give the portico an added sense of dimension. So do reflections of the portico in windows. If you face a single brick stanchion, with its separate sets of arches rising to either side, the stanchion becomes a trunk, with arches radiating up and out like petals or fronds bursting in both directions.
3. Left Behind
I visited the library years before I worked there. I was eight years old, in third grade, attending Temple Christian Academy. Mr. Cobb drove the class to the library one day in the school van, a “field trip.” Must have been 1982.
Looking back, I suspect the way my mother spoke to Mr. Cobb was flirtatious, but I didn’t recognize it as such. He was young, too young. He told my mother once that his arms hadn’t stopped growing. He crawled across the classroom at the end of the school day, roaring, kids climbing over his back, falling down and laughing. When he left the school, suddenly and without explanation, I mourned him, looked him up in the phone book and dialed his number. I hear the surprise in his voice, strange and distant.
I don’t remember what I did wrong the day he locked me in the school van, just that all the other children left the van with Mr. Cobb and went inside the library. I remember trying to keep pace of time, how immediately time got away from me, how I wondered how long they’d been inside, how I wondered about the Rapture, the Second Coming, the event, so I’d been taught, when Jesus would come back to earth, hovering, so I pictured him, in the sky, and bring all true Christians, living or dead, away from this planet and into Heaven.
I always feared I’d be left behind, but fear meant a lack of faith. Since it was our faith and God’s grace that “saved” us, a lack of faith meant you’d be left behind. So I tried to hide my fear from myself. I was terrified of the fear.
I popped a ventilation lever and opened a side window. I said something, crying and slobbering, to a man getting out of his car. The man rushed into the library. Mr. Cobb came back out to get me. I don’t remember what happened after that.
4. Vanished Courtyard
In both the Regency Square and Webb Wesconnett Libraries, 1972 and ’74, Ted used the same chessboard lighting, hiding HVAC features alternately between light squares. He incorporated plantlife as an interior architectural element, built spacious arcades out front. He designed a concave wall of skintled brick as visual terminus from the front entrance, a partition, he told Brick in Architecture Magazine, “constructed of bricks projecting at differing degrees with random voids to excite the pattern.”
At Webb Wesconnett, Ted designed a courtyard paradoxically both interior and external. I relate strangely to this lost design element. I remember it, though I was never there. The library board disposed of this best space at Webb Wesconnett before it hired me, but somehow I dearly recall it. What recollections might reconcile such deeply emotional discrepancies, might bridge both sides of this homesick anachronism, I can’t imagine.
Sifting through old photos, negatives and contact sheets, I find a young Ted Pappas pictured from above. It’s two years before I was born. He’s sitting on the floor in the Regency Square Branch Library. He wears tennis shoes and perches his elbows on his knees. It’s a momentary playfulness Ted doesn’t remember, staring up at us from half a century ago.
Which somehow places me in that courtyard, reached only in my memory from outside. I’ve strong emotional attachment to an exterior deeply internal to the overall library design. When Ted asks me if I remember it, I can’t accurately answer. We’re looking into the courtyard through that old cover of Brick in Architecture. I do remember. But it was gone before I was there.
5. True Crime
There was news that Saturday morning. “No news is good news,” they said. I worked every other Saturday. That morning, since I wasn’t scheduled to work, my friend Leslie drove me to the library to pick up my paycheck.
News was. The head librarian was dead. I thought back to everything he’d said. I’d had more than one drawer of the clip file cabinet open when he came up behind and admonished me, “One poor woman was nearly crushed to death,” when she’d opened too many drawers and the cabinet fell forward. I saw Jan Linder, my immediate boss, standing behind him, rolling her eyes. One particularly slow day, as I sat at the circulation desk and read a biography of Cezanne, he asked just slightly mockingly, “A little light reading?” I took to hiding in the stacks in back, or out on the floor, in the Dewey Decimal 100s, reading Nietzsche and William James, and the 700s, reading of Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp and Hannah Höch.
But now, that Saturday morning, Jerry was dead. I remembered his reaction to a friend of mine asking for the book The Occult Roots of Nazism—“Did you just make that title up?”—just as I remembered Jan’s puzzled response to a patron asking for books about “spontaneous human combustion”—“You mean…people just…blowing up?”
Now Jerry was dead and his adopted son had killed him. What did that mean? What could possibly possess someone to do such a thing? Library workers mentioned mental illness, said Jerry was planning to evict him that day. Somebody had seen the body bag brought out of the house. I never knew more.
For years I’d been buying my favorite writers—Lovecraft, Ferlinghetti, Rimbaud—at Chamblin Bookmine, before hunting mythology titles through that labyrinth walled with books. When I found Radu Florescu’s and Raymond McNally’s In Search of Dracula and Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur, I also found the name Jerry G. Dukes stamped inside. Like some necrophagous ghoul, I was eating the remainders of the personal library of the main librarian from my part-time high school job. His books still fit amidst the thousands I’ve bought since.
6. Office Hours
For it’s still my favorite room in the library, even if it no longer exists.
Even if it’s not so much in the library as out of it. It never was inside-out, but outside-in.
Place is where space happens.
You enter beneath the side arch of yellowed brick, all the old film red and gold. Between the large round yellow brick planters winds the pebbled path. The curved lines bring you further inside the garden, bring the outside further in.
The hollies and small palms, prehistoric cycads, grow all shades of green and green the shade, sunlight dappling through open beams.
This is the place. Not the Mies van der Rohe chairs by the skintled brick wall inside, courtyard through plate glass as rear wall. This is the place you’ll find me. In this courtyard that no longer exists. In this grotto I so lovingly remember but never did visit. When you’re ready to transact business, to have me tell your fortune, to hire me to write your life, I’ll be here, any time of day or night, holding office hours, waiting. Sleep desists. Place persists. Always I’m waiting for you.