It rained every day that summer. It was as if someone left a hose running in the sky. Main Street flooded, being downhill from the rest of the town, so we did without Main Street. It was hot despite the rain, and we had a hard time finding anything to do.
We should have been playing baseball and football in the fields, but our playing fields were drowned, and no one wanted to play in the rain. There were the swimming holes, but why go swimming when you could get wet by stepping off your porch? We tried playing in attics and basements and garages, but we were soon sick of model airplanes, checkers, and marbles. We invented a new game called ‘Name the Villain,’ where we sat in a circle and tossed a hacky sack around, naming comic strip villains. You couldn’t say the same one twice, and if you couldn’t think of one when you were tossed the sack you were out. We thought we could never run out of villains, but we did. Finally, everyone stayed home, watching TV and wishing desperately for summer to end.
But for me, television in the summer, no matter how much it rained, seemed wrong. Besides, my father lost his job, being one of the unfortunates who’d worked on Main Street, so he sat in the living room with the TV on loud so he couldn’t hear the rain, with the phone beside him in case it rang saying he could go back to work. But it was still raining.
My mother took a job at a diner on Second Street where it was not flooded, partly because we needed money, but mostly to get away from the TV and the man in front of it.
My sister couldn’t stand it and moved next door to her best friend Myrtle’s house, only coming home at night before dinner.
Usually, when something bad happens, after it’s over everyone talks about it. They share their stories about what they did, and how awful it had been, trying to outdo each other, enjoying the disaster in retrospect. But that summer was so bad no one talked about it. Afterward occasionally someone would say, “That summer when it rained so much,” and they’d break off because everyone glared at them and turned away. After a while I think everyone else thought they’d dreamed that horrible summer. That terrible, dreadful, wonderful summer. But I always remembered it. If I had only one summer to remember, that would be the one.
It was the summer I fell in love.
With my father downstairs, gripping the armrests of his chair, punching the volume button higher and higher and hearing the dripping anyway, and my mother at the diner, and my sister next door, and my friends holed up like bears in their dens, I grew desperate. I was almost too bored to breathe. I lay on my bed, my body too heavy to twitch, the energy washed out of the world, and I felt myself begin to go insane. The edges of my mind seemed to be tearing, and silent screams filled my ears. I was trapped inside myself forever, I would never escape. I was so, so heavy, but I wasn’t tired. I was dreadfully awake. Suddenly I knew that if I didn’t do something I was going to go to pieces. Making yourself move quickly when you have no energy is one of the hardest things you can do. It’s like reaching out and grabbing energy from the air, re-creating a force inside you. I hurled myself off the bed. I had to go somewhere, do something hard. I looked around my room. All my comic books were piled in one corner and slipped in among them was a dark, hard backed book. It was brown and worn, but not worn from my use. The teacher had given it to me as summer reading, and I hadn’t thought of it since unpacking my book bag the last day of school. I’d never been very good at reading, and that dull book looked like a very hard thing to do. I grabbed it from the stack, scattering the grimy-edged comic books, and ran to the attic. I sat by the window looking down on our swampy yard and opened the book. It was called Around the World in Eighty Days. The pages were yellowed and had a pulpy texture, unlike the glossy pages of my comic books. The writing was small and black and all the same. I began to read. By the end of the first page I forgot everything. I was in London with Mr. Phileas Fogg. I’d never met anyone like him. I read for hours, only running down to the kitchen for some apples and a bowl of cornflakes. Let it rain, I was riding through a jungle on an elephant, racing across a white plain on a snow sailboat, tearing over a breaking bridge on a train.
By the time I got around the world the light had faded and I was reading with my eyes inches from the page. My mother was calling me. I tried to focus. I was bewildered to be back after the trip, after all I’d seen. I stared at the book in my hands. This small brown rectangle had taken me around the world.
I went down to dinner and my mother asked where I’d been. I said, “Around.” We sat down and ate the warmed-up green bean casserole my mother had made on Saturday. My mother and father didn’t look at me, or anyone else, but my sister, who, I noticed, had cut her hair, gave me several odd glances. I wasn’t surprised. I expected I looked different.
Nearly every night that summer I’d dreamed that the roof broke open above my bed and the rain poured down and our house filled with water and we were all drowned. But that night I dreamed of Phileas Fogg and his companions on their wild adventure.
In the morning, I searched the house for books, but found only several cookbooks, a book on gardening, and the owner’s manual for our car. I thought of re-reading Around the World, but it didn’t seem right, like it was somehow too soon. The wonder was too fresh; I needed it to stay in my mind exactly as it was. Finally I remembered the library.
It was a plain gray building at the end of Gwendolyn Street. As far as I could remember, I’d only been inside once, when my sister was invited to an ice-cream social when I was little. I remembered the silence of that place, great walls of books blocking all sound, a dim smell of dust in the air. I had felt trapped. I couldn’t imagine a more boring place. Now I ran the five blocks through the rain as if it was the last of the eighty days and I was nearing London.
I pushed through the double front doors into the library. There was an open space at first, and the desk, and then the books. Rows and rows of books, shelves reaching up towards the ceiling. My head went dizzy thinking of the things that might be inside those books, and knowing I would never be able to read them all.
“Can I help you?” The librarian asked. She was older than my sister, but younger than my mother and had brown hair. I needed help. I had no idea where to begin.
“Do you have any books by the person who wrote Around the World in Eighty Days?” I asked, realizing I hadn’t even looked at the writer’s name.
“Jules Verne? Yes, they’re over in fiction under V.” Seeing my hopeless look in the direction of the mazes of books, she smiled and came out from behind her desk and led the way.
We walked into the walls of books. They towered up on either side like the Red Sea. I tried to read names, but we went by too fast. Their titles were often written in gold letters with swirls added in everywhere. I liked the ones with plain green or red letters because I could read them, but the swirly ones looked more interesting.
We stopped by a shelf of hard, black books, and the librarian ran her hand down the middle shelf and pulled one out. It was hard and black like the others with plain gold letters. It was called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Phileas Fogg had gone around the world, but never under the sea. I reached for it, held it in my hands, feeling the weight of the words. But then the librarian pulled two more books from the shelf. One was medium size, called Journey to the Center of the Earth. The other was very thick, and its title was The Mysterious Island.
“This is the sequel to 20,000 Leagues,” the librarian said, holding up the fat one, “so you’ll want to read that first.” I looked at those books, and I wanted them too. “I can only take one at a time, right?” I said.
“Why no, you can take several if you want, and if you don’t have them finished in two weeks you can bring them back and renew them. Do you have a library card?” I didn’t, so she took me back to the desk and took out a small, blue card of heavy paper with the words ‘Library Card’ printed on it in bold black letters. Below them, in smaller print, it said ‘This card belongs to:’ and there was a blank space below it. The librarian gave me a pen and I wrote my name on the card, then she added me to her big brown book of names, stamped my books, and told me I could come to the library anytime to get books or read.
“Normally I would warn you about keeping your hands clean and taking care of the books, but I don’t think I need to.” She smiled at me again, and I walked home through the rain, the three books hugged under my jacket, feeling like the king of New York.
While everyone else said the summer was lasting forever, I didn’t notice the time. I read all the Jules Verne the library had, then at the librarian’s suggestion, (her name, it turned out, was Miss Celia Walters), I started in on Robert Luis Stevenson. All summer I read, discovering new worlds every day, I was a million times better than Columbus.
I suppose really everything went wrong that summer. My sister finally told my parents she wasn’t coming home anymore, and my mother told my father she wouldn’t either if he didn’t get a job. So he got a job driving a laundry van, and he hated it. He came home every night and turned on the TV, (a habit by then), and complained about the job, loudly, to be heard over the TV. Then Mom would ask how he would like to serve rude, depressed people all day, and it was worse than before. I sat at the end of the table and thought of David Balfour and Alan Breck.
I spent the days alone in the house or I went to the library, but either place I had friends about me; people more real than the ones I knew, and half-finished adventures.
One day when I was walking back to my room from another visit to the library, a fresh stack of good-smelling volumes under my arm, I met my sister coming out of her room, carrying a heap of clothes.
“Need help?” I asked. She handed me a load of skirts and shirts. She called them ‘blouses.’
“How do you stand it?” she said, as we walked out together, her arms full of shoeboxes.
“I read,” I said. It didn’t sound like much.
“Read?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve been going to the library and reading a lot. It’s like, if this is your whole world right here, it’s pretty bad. But if you’ve got other worlds, a hundred other worlds, what happens here doesn’t matter so much.” I couldn’t explain the way I wanted.
“Well, I’m glad you’re ok,” she said. I wished I could think of something to say to her. We carried her things through the rain to her friend’s house. There was a young man in the living room. Upstairs, as I set down her things in the guest room, she said, “I might as well tell you so long as you don’t tell Mom and Dad. I’m getting married.” I stood still. I hadn’t thought of her as being that much older than me.
“Aren’t you too young?” I asked.
“I’m sixteen. That’s old enough. We’re getting married and moving out to Jack’s Uncle’s farm in Virginia. He has a job for him and a house for us to stay in. Jack’s twenty.” I looked up at her. She was still taller than me. She looked proud and scared.
“Well,” I said, “I hope you’ll be happy.”
“Thank you,” she said, and grabbed me tight for a moment, my nose pressed hard against her shoulder. Then she let me go and pushed me out into the hall. I walked downstairs and the man in the living room smiled at me. He looked a bit like I imagined David Balfour. He shook my hand and I said good luck and walked home.
Dad got fired the next day for being rude to his customers, and went back to the TV. Mom didn’t seem to care either way anymore. I went upstairs to spend a while with pirates.
My sister wrote a letter to me from Virginia, telling me about the farm, horses, cows, pigs, chickens, fields of sweet corn in the sun. She wrote most about the sun. I looked out at the rain. Maybe the rain would wash away our town, maybe it would pour down until the paint ran off the houses and the wood softened to pulp and seeped into the ground, and nothing would be left but piles of nails and roofing tile. I opened my book. It was called Great Expectations. Miss Walters had recommended it. But after a while I closed the book. I wanted to read forever and ever, and forget about my tiny corner of the world, but I kept thinking of my sister in Virginia. I hoped she was laughing. Laughing in the sun.
I walked down to the library. I stopped at Miss Walter’s desk.
“What can I do for you today?” she asked.
“Is there anything I could do here?” I asked. “I mean any sort of work I could help with?” She looked at me a long time. “Yes,” she said.
For the rest of the summer she taught me how to re-shelve books, to sort them, to mend broken bindings. I worked until I knew the system and could shelve books as fast as Miss Walters.
It kept raining. Some other people left. My mother went to visit her Aunt in Arizona. I wasn’t sure if she would come back. I read and I worked and started to write a little and some days the rain even looked beautiful. There were other worlds out there, and some day I would go find them, and I would write my own and share them, but right now this was my world, and I was going to live in it.