The phone rang. Flo hates it when the front desk directs calls to our desk, the way they disturb the tranquility of the library. She usually picks ups before the second ring. I’m not so sensitive about the tranquility; most of our patrons are hunched over computers, earphones on. I spend more time trying to figure out how to get some application functioning than I do with books. Computer games are much more involved than they used to be, and many if not most of our patrons spend their time playing them, including the geezers although they’re usually playing something simple like solitaire. Here they are in a garden of books and they’re flying warships around zapping invaders. You can hear the brain cells dissolving through their headphones.
The ringing continued. Where was Flo? Maybe in the Ladies. Earlier she mentioned some digestive issues related to a goose dinner. The one thing about Flo that is not-nunlike is that she has no inhibitions about discussing bodily functions. I know her internal weather better than my own. I’ve never had the nerve to ask her to inhibit herself. She has narrow shoulders and wide hips and is about six ten. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. I worked with her for at least a year before I heard her laugh. The prompt was a Roz Chast cartoon with a dorky family plopped on a couch facing a TV, the caption Kwality Time. With that laugh, shared as it was, our relationship blossomed. “Kwality time” is our go-to euphemism for a variety of library activities, although it’s narrowing down to gawking at porn.
Ten, eleven, twelve rings. I put down the book I was shelving, a novel by Danielle Steele. How does that woman do it, crank out page after page, and who reads that crap? Is it fair to call it crap if I have never read a single sentence? It was challenge enough to fit the volume into its proper alphabetical slot on the roost of her shelf. Since the mid-last century female writers have taken over the shelf-bending tasks of literature, the Janet Evanovichs and the Joyce Carol Oateses and what’s her name, the one my ex-wife put in the CD player on our drive through Nevada, which I made her extract toute de suite.
I forget names. I used to be excellent at this kind of recall. My first job with books was working in a mail-order bookstore, perusing column after column of the Antiquarian Bookman, the lists of books sought by mad collectors and laity both. If we had the desired book on our shelves, I’d send out a postcard with a price quote. Talk about Antiquarian. Certain titles recurred again and again. Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffmann. Touch Me, by Suzanne Somers. If I had found Touch Me in the thrift store where I browsed the shelves on my way to work, I would have quoted it at $500, but I never found a copy. Limited edition, I suppose.
Whoever was on the line wouldn’t give up. Even the game-addled were stirring and looking around. I went behind the desk and picked up.
“Yes?” I said sharply, hoping the caller felt the barb.
“Is this the reference desk?” A woman’s voice, timid, hesitant.
“No, it’s the cat cemetery,” popped into my head. “Yes, it’s the reference desk. Can I help you?”
“I hope you can.”
“Shall we find out? What’s your question?”
“Do you have any books on dreams, how to interpret them?”
“I’m sure we do,” I said, though I was only partly sure. Partly sure would classify as that figure of speech I can never remember the word for, a core of contradiction in the mashup of words. You can’t be partly sure. “Give me a second and I’ll look in the catalogue.”
I was right, the library had four books on dream interpretation, one in English, three in Spanish. The English one was overdue seven months. When I informed the woman, she said, “I had a dream last night and it was so vivid that I would like to know its significance.”
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“No. I’m Vietnamese. Second generation. Can I tell you my dream? I don’t remember much.”
What could I say? “Sure.”
“Thank you. I came down the stairs in our house, which was odd since our family house was only one story. My mother had moved all the furniture to the side. I asked why and she said, “We should have a Christmas tree. An authentic tree’.” I was happy to hear this. When I was a child we had an artificial one that I was so ashamed of. You put it together and took it apart after Christmas and put in the box. We saved money that way. The only thing that was like a real tree was it lost some of its needles each year.”
“Then what happened?”
“I felt compelled to buy my mother a Christmas tree, but I had no money. My family was destitute. My mother was one of the boat people.”
Her honed elocution and phrasing indicated someone well-educated. If her mother was a boat person, she was probably near my age, maybe late-thirties. I was forty-three. Why didn’t she just google her dream? “Were you successful?”
“I went out the back door. In real life there used to be an empty lot across the alley from our house full of weeds and discarded furniture that vagrants set on fire twice or three times a year. In the dream the lot was full of Christmas trees. I decided to steal one, and this was upsetting because I knew it was wrong but I also knew that it was very important to bring a tree home.”
“I don’t know. That’s as much as I remember. I think my anxiety and the sense of urgency woke me up. Do you think the dream is a positive one?”
I said if I had time I’d take a look in our dream dictionaries. I figured my Spanish was adequate to the task. Pop reference books are always written with the simple-minded in mind.
I wrote down the woman’s telephone number as Flo settled back into her chair behind the desk. “That was a new one,” I said to her after I hung up. “A woman wanting me to tell her if the dream she had was a positive one.”
“Did she think she was calling Bellevue?”
“Who knows? Our only dream dictionary in English was due ten months ago.”
“When I started out as a librarian, I used to worry that the shelves would fill up and there would be no more room.”
“And that was before Janet Evanovich. How are you feeling, better?”
“I was a regular, or irregular, Eden Phillpotts down there. Got that goose out of my system.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said, and gladder to hear no more.
Eden Phillpotts: a good get for the pun, the onomatopoeia and for the fact that Mr. Phillpotts wrote over 100 novels in the span of his long life. A shelf-stuffer supreme, now relegated to obscurity. It was a rare day when someone hankered for an Eden Phillpotts in the Antiquarian Bookman.
I googled Eden Phillpotts and decided I should read dip into the ocean of his oeuvre after reading this inspirational or perhaps aspirational aphorism: The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to sharpen. I suppose one could also find the aphorism depressing, given that wits appear catastrophically duller in these terminal days of empire. Mine included. Our branch was devoid of his books but the main had twenty or so. I put a request in for Devonshire Cream, a comedy in three acts.
While on the machine, I also googled female murder mystery writers. There she was, Mary Higgins Clark. Eject that CD or you’ll have to walk across Nevada, I threatened my ex. The stray factoid corralled, what would I do with it?
There were a couple of other fence jumpers. In Top Twenty Figures of Speech, coming in at number 14, the elusive oxymoron. I debated whether to explore what Touch Me fetched on the market these days, to find out if the longing for the poetry of Suzanne Somers was a hardy perennial, but my self-image as a conscientious public servant won the day and I got back to work.
There were behavioral issues that afternoon in our little asylum and I forgot to call the woman back. I meant to, going so far as to locate the three dream dictionaries in Spanish, one of which made it into my backpack which I was surprised to discover at home after work. Did I steal this book? After grazing leftover lasagna, I settled in to do some research. I started by looking up Navidad. Nothing. Naufragio was there, however Shipwreck. Es muy importante analizar el escenario del naufragio. I should hope so.
I paged over to Árbol. Representa la síntesis de la comunión entre el ciel y la tierra. That sounded positive and it was what I’d tell the woman. If you’re going to spout rot, might as well put some lights on it. The fact that most Christmas trees are amputated from la tierra, and are as dead on arrival as the artificial one of her childhood was a detail to ignore. Dreams aren’t sticklers for realism.
It would have made a fine tale if that night I had had a corresponding dream, a companionable echo of her dream but there wasn’t a trace of one when I awoke. Nor was it likely, given my holiday outlook. Humbug. If I heard “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” one more time I would have to kill something.
Nonetheless I thought about the woman’s dream all morning, doing what any smart Jewish kid would do: analyze. The going downstairs, the moved furniture, the mother who needed to be pleased. Christmas was probably the least important signifier. I pictured a difficult mother, still alive, demanding. Her daughter was trapped in a caregiving role, both living in a state of loneliness and perceived scarcity. Was it projecting or transference?
In ways a therapist would find obvious it started to seem like my dream.
Lunchtime rolled around and I hadn’t contacted the woman. Each time a call came through I was prompted, and each time I procrastinated. Then the call came. Flo, after some puzzlement, handed me the phone. “Your dream woman, I surmise,” she said.
“I am sorry to bother you again,” came the voice, unaccountably familiar. “I had a different dream last night. Can I ask you about it?”
“In this dream my mother and I were on a train. It was night and impossible to tell where we were going. Then the train stopped and it was daylight. We got off and my mother saw someone on the platform she knew. It was her piano teacher when she was a girl and they ran toward each other and embraced. They were sobbing.”
“What was your feeling?” I asked like a discount therapist.
“Bittersweet. Happy and sad.”
“It’s natural to be sad having lost so much for so long, but overall it sounds like a very positive dream. Travel. A reunion. Music.. You seem to be making a healing journey in resolving past issues of conflict.” I paused and when she didn’t respond, added, “Like the tree in your other dream, you are gaining your authentic self.”
“Do you think so? I had the same thought, though it still worries me that I stole the tree in the other dream. Or was going to, anyway. Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”
“Not at all. I hope you have happy holidays.”
Flo snorted when she heard me say this, but it isn’t like I am a total scrooge. That night walking home—it was already dark at closing time—I found the trees in the windows beautiful and the lights on the houses too. Something about the season, in spite of the disgusting excess, tapped into a stillness at the heart of things. Why belittle it? Peace on earth. A worthy dream.
Resolving past issues of conflict. Right in my wheelhouse. I was starting to feel intact again after a difficult break-up, something I didn’t foresee or desire. My “dream woman” was fate’s way of saying, time to move on, find the music teacher of your youth.
In case the woman called back, I looked up ladrón in the dictionary. Thief. El ladrón de los sueños simboliza en parte el miedo que nos oprime por la falta de confianza en la vida. “The thief in our dreams symbolizes in part the fear that oppresses us when we lack confidence in life.”
It was a new year.
One February day, when the weather outside was summery, I was staring into my computer screen and I heard that unmistakable voice in dialogue with Flo. I slowly turned, my heart like a crazed rabbit hopping in my rib cage. My illusion of an elegant, fashionable woman with short black hair and an air of refinement shattered. This woman was hefty, in sneakers and unflattering tights. Her short black hair had a narrow streak of blue running down one side of the part.
I sort of hoped—there it is, another oxymoron—either you hope or you don’t—that she would seek me out that afternoon. She disappeared in the stacks and I didn’t see her again that day, A week later she was back. If not for the blue streak I would not have recognized her. She had on the kind of suit women wear to the office to blend in with the men, not something people usually wear to the library. She looked away quickly when our eyes met.
I had the feeling something didn’t happen that was supposed to, something magical.
Last night I had a dream in which thieves stole the wheels off my Subaru.
You can get a signed hardback edition of Touch Me in dust jacket for less than two hundred dollars. I am not sure how to interpret this.