“Closed: NO TRESPASSING!“
I stood facing the faded red letters on the front door of the corpse of the Sparta Library, and considered what to do next. On the off chance there happened to be someone, anyone, still working in the building, I gave a few hard knocks. No response. No surprise. I knew it was a long shot from the condition of the building. The blue roof was starting to chip and peel, the pathway was strewn with litter, and the grass was threatening to overtake the small brass butterfly statues in the front lawn, frozen in flight and unable to escape.
After a moment’s thought, I detoured from the pathway, hefting the well-worn copy of E.E. Cummings' collected poems, and peered in through the side windows as best I could, wiping off months’ worth of grime with the side of my hand. Clearly, no one had been in there for weeks at least. The library I remembered, quiet and sparsely occupied even back when I was in high school, was no more. All I could see through the haze of the windows were a few empty shelves and an old Clifford the Big Red Dog cardboard likeness in what used to be the kid’s section.
Stymied again. That’s what I get for waiting 8 years. The sun was just starting to set on an unusually hot June evening. Frustrated, but realizing that an out-of-towner skulking around the old library after dark might look more than a little suspicious, I decided to make a strategic retreat to Mom and Dad’s place. I wasn’t really an out-of-towner (I lived in Sparta, Iowa from birth until I left for college), but in a town of roughly 7,000 I was no longer a part of the daily ecosystem. Spartans seemed to have an eye for outsiders. Though you don’t quite know everyone in a town that size, you generally see the same faces at the grocery store, church, the bar (if you were part of the drinking faction of the town), and there was a kind of innate alarm sense when a new face was thrown into the mix. I still recognized my fair share of faces, but I had only been back sporadically in the last 8 years, so I was no longer on the “safe-face” radar.
I found myself at my parent’s door, having taken the walk home subconsciously from deeply ingrained memory. I must have made that walk to and from the library hundreds of times. I had practically lived under that blue metal roof through 7th and 8th grade, and while my visits tapered off as the usual high school hormone-induced shenanigans led me to spend less time at my second home, I still visited the library at least once a week during the school year. Being careful not to pull the old screen door off its hinges again, I stepped inside my parent’s old, but well-maintained ranch-style house, and was greeted by the usual Andy Griffith re-runs on the tv and my dad straining over a jigsaw puzzle that looked to be some kind of western landscape.
“Artyyyy!” my dad called, without taking his eyes off the landscape, “you get struck with any inspiration while you were out on the town?” I was on summer break from my first real teaching position at the university. It had been a great first year teaching literature courses, but I was yearning to get back to writing, though I had a complete dearth of material. I had decided to come back home for the summer in hopes of picking up some really solid novel fuel. And to finally take this damn book back.
“Nothing today, Dad, but I feel something coming!” I replied, slipping Cummings onto the table by the door. “Hey Dad, just out of curiosity, when did they library shut down?”
“Oh I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think it was long after the plant shut down. When half the town lost their jobs, their first response wasn’t to go pick up the newest best seller, ya know what I mean?”
“So that would’ve been, what, two years ago now?”
“Seems about right, why do you ask?”
I was dreading the question but decided honesty (with a twist) was the best policy. “This is probably going to sound crazy, but I checked out a book my senior year of high school, and I never returned it. I’ve had it ever since, but never got around to bringing it back. Just thought I’d try and finally check it in.”
At this, Dad looked up from his puzzle, eyebrows raised in amusement.
“Huh! That explains the pile of mail they sent you after you took off for college. We figured it was junk mail, the kind they always used to send about programs and camps and all that, right? We just tossed it, but who knows, Art, with the fines you must have racked up over eight years, maybe you coulda kept the place open!”
“Har har, thanks Dad.” I said, with an eye roll. “Do you know what they did with the books?”
One eyebrow cocked a bit higher. “I think they packaged them up into lots and sold them on the cheap. You’re really serious about this huh?”
“You know me, just a tad obsessive.”
That was all true, but not exactly the reason I was so hellbent on returning the book. I had checked out this particular book with a particular purpose; and that purpose was Caitlyn Miller. I’ve been bookish my whole life, so as one might imagine, in a small football town I never exactly burnt it up with the ladies. Caitlyn, though, was something else. We went to the same schools from elementary on and were more often than not in the same classes. We became close friends. She was beautiful, which I found attractive, and she was brilliant, which drove me wild. I could never get up the nerve to tell her though. Finally, during senior year, I developed a characteristically dorky, hopelessly romantic plan. I knew she loved poetry, E.E. Cummings in particular, so in our last week, I checked out his collected works, intent on finding the perfect poem to memorize and spring on her when the moment was right. I finally settled on the classic, “I Carry Your Heart with Me,” and read it over and over until I had it down cold. The week came and went, however, and I never found the right moment. More accurately, I could never gather up the guts to make the moment right.
We stayed in touch over the summer, and I held on to the book like a talisman, telling myself I would keep working on the poem, and execute my plan. Predictably, the summer came and went, and I still had said nothing. The due date on the book came and went, too, but I couldn’t bring myself to check it back in. It seemed like the act of final defeat. When it came time to leave for college I took it with me. Cat and I stayed in touch, though we went to different schools, and our emails and texts became more infrequent over time. She studied elementary education, and I went on for my doctorate in literature. All the while, I kept telling myself I would tell her, but it just slipped further away. She had married a few years back, and though I got an invite, I couldn’t make myself go to the wedding.
For the last eight years, I had carried this stupid book around, clinging to the ridiculous idea that I would call her up, profess my love, and she would be suitably swept off her feet. But it was past time to move on. Time to let it go and return the book. I needed to close the chapter.
I would not be easily deterred in my quest for closure. The next morning, I decided to go out on a limb and give the old librarian, Annie, a call. To my surprise, she picked up on the second ring.
“Hey Annie! This is Arthur Hanes! I don’t know if you remember me, but…”
“Oh hun, of course I remember you! You were at the library more than I was! How are you, sweetie? Still keeping your nose in the books?”
“Yes ma’am, as much as time allows anyway! Listen, I have a strange question for you.”
“Strange questions make the days more interesting, whatya got?”
“Well, I heard that when the library closed down, you packed up and sold the books by lots. How exactly did you do that? By author or genre, or what?”
“Let me think… Oh yes, that’s right, we packed them up by genres and sold them that way. Better to sneak in some of the less popular books with the big sellers. I’m sneaky like that.”
“Ok, great! I’m really going out on a limb, but do you happen to remember how many poetry lots you had? The truth is, I accidentally kept one of the library’s poetry books after high school, and I’m a little anal about stuff like this. I would like to get it to whoever would have picked it up had it still been at the library where it should’ve been.”
At this, Annie giggled “You always were a little strange. Oh, I mean in a good way! Even before the end, we sold books off by the droves to help stay afloat, so by the time we closed I think we only had one lot of poetry. We sold them off during the pandemic, so I didn’t see who bought them, but I can do some digging and get you a name and the delivery address!”
“Annie, you are a saint! That would be great!”
I took my book down to the coffee shop on the square and waited for Annie’s text. As I nibbled my scone, I flipped it open again, and aimlessly let my eyes glide over the lines. Just as I finished my second latte, my phone buzzed. The text was concise, reading simply “Ms. Garnett, 1901 E 17th St. N.” Looks like I get to pay Ms. Garnett an awkward visit. I didn’t recognize the name or the address, but after punching it into my phone, it wound up only being a short distance away. A pleasant night rain and the hangers-on clouds had cooled the morning down to a more tolerable temperature, so I threw on my tweed blazer and decided to walk.
Walking down the old sidewalk, I found myself thinking about Cat, and reciting the old poem in my head.
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)…
I had simply waited too long with Cat. I let my anxiety get in the way, and now I needed to let it go.
i fear no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet)…
I ran to catch a gap in an oscillating sprinkler superfluously watering an immaculate yard.
Here is the deepest secret nobody knows… i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
As I finished the poem in my head, I paused in front of Ms. Garnett’s house. It was a cute little place; a white ranch-style with navy blue shutters, a well-trimmed lawn, and fragrant lilac bushes on either side of the small porch. I had intended to just leave the book on the doorstep but realized that discovering an old poetry book on her doorstep would be even more bizarre than hearing my little story. I didn’t have any paper or a pen on me, so I would have to knock, and explain my strange mission to Ms. Garnett. With any luck, she would be a sweet old woman who would smile at my peculiarity, take the book and let me go on my way.
I took a deep breath, pressed the doorbell, and nervously glanced around the porch. I was admiring the sconces when I heard a familiar voice from inside the house.
“Art? What in the world are you doing here?” said the voice, sparkling with pleasant surprise. I looked at the door and froze, staring at a still breathtakingly beautiful Cat. Her dark hair was pulled back, but the curly ringlets fell over the left shoulder of her yellow sundress as she leaned against the doorway.
“Cat? I’m so sorry, I, uh, I was looking for a Ms. Garnett, but it looks like I’ve got the wrong house! It’s really great to see you though, how have you been?”
“What are the odds! And no worries, you’ve actually got the right place; Garnett was my ex-husband’s name. I’ve been meaning to get down to the courthouse and get it changed for a year, but it’s just such a hassle, and the kids all know me as Ms. Garnett.”
“Oh that’s right, we haven’t talked in so long! I’m a kindergarten teacher over at Sparta Elementary now, can you believe it? It’s surprising just how little that place has changed since we were kids. But hey! No need to stand out there, would you like to come in?”
I stepped into Cat’s quaint but tastefully furnished living room, and we sat facing each other, I on her floral-patterned sofa and her in a matching wing chair.
“So what brings you here?” she asked cheerfully, crossing her legs and resting her head on a delicate, slender hand.
“So, you already know I’m a little crazy, but this will confirm it. I checked out this book from the library our senior year, and I’ve kept the damn thing with me ever since. It has been driving me crazy, so I decided while I was back visiting I would try to return it. Once I realized the library had shut down, Annie gave me your address and told me you had purchased what was left of their poetry lot, so I just thought I would bring this down to complete the set.”
She laughed pleasantly and took the book as I handed it over. “Oh I love Cummings! He’s still one of my favorites! But why on earth did you check this out? I don’t remember you being much into poetry. And how have you hung onto it this whole time?”
Heart pounding, I swallowed nervously. Here was one more chance, and I wasn’t about to let this one go. It was time to tell her. This conversation was past due. I took a deep breath, and began…