It was an honest mistake.
Michael Modlum, long-time bachelor and full-time Central Branch patron, had not paid attention to the buttons on the elevator when he stepped aboard the already opened space. And then it dropped. Usually, he would have walked up the single flight of stairs to the fiction section, found a chair in an area not too hot or bright with sunlight (difficult on that day), and tried to read whatever had been left behind on a table or shelf nearby. But it was a much more tiring day and he felt he deserved the elevator. He was heavy in the waist and did not have any habits that would have taken care of that problem. He deserved this.
Yes, he did.
He found himself in front of a mother and her two daughters when the doors open.
“Excuse me, I…”
The mother did not speak, stepping past him with her children who were both smiling and giggling at the strange man in his cardigan and plaid shirt. It would have been too embarrassing to admit the truth and he did have a curiosity about the one part of the public library he had no reason to enter.
“Sorry, I just got off…”
He had not finished his thought when the door closed on him and he realized that there were children everywhere. Had they heard what he said? He stared up at the lit numbers that moved further and further away from this floor.
A young woman was addressing him. In all the time that he had visited the building, he never had more than a short dialogue with anyone on staff. She was dressed quite casually for a woman he could now identify as the main attendant at the desk. Would he say she was attractive? Better not to have that thought now.
“Um, yes. Yes?”
“May I help you, sir?”
She was not judging him, but he would have to say or do something to make this moment pass. He would have to choose…
“I’m sorry, sir. What was that?”
“Oh, I was just thinking of…”
“’Choose Your Own Adventure’ books?”
“What…um, sorry? What?”
At least she smiled.
“No problem, sir. Many of the adults who come down here without their kids forget what the young ones want. Let me show you.”
Okay, that was all on her. She made the assumptions there.
And then she led the way to a long shelf filled with paperbacks. There were two boys who looked like they were about to hit each other, but quickly found peace when the woman stared at them, and then ran out to the main play area. She smiled again and waved a hand over the shelf.
“These are the most popular titles. What is yours interested in?”
Well, he better play along with this.
“Oh, uh, fantasy, monsters, spies; those sorts of things.”
“Excellent! They’re going to love these!”
“Thank you. Um…”
“I will let you…choose.” Again, a warm smile and a little joke at the books’ expense did not hurt. She walked away to the desk, her grace and a hint of vanilla filling in the air behind her.
He was not completely clueless. Mr. Modlum knew all about these books. When he was a young boy, his parents had forbidden him from reading them. As a curious child, he had to ask why and was rewarded with a slap and his mother’s warning that they were just a waste of time; something that would keep him from doing his violin practice or finishing his homework. His father approved this action and nodded over his ledger and figures as Michael looked away from the yearly catalogue they received in the mail.
That was forty years ago…
That was a long time ago…
His parents were both long gone and he had never thought about…
He picked up a copy and opened it.
This is what he was forbidden to read?
Michael was angry, and it was beginning to show. He had been wise enough to leave the children’s section (young adult, indeed) with a limit of books that could be taken out and returned in two weeks. But he had not headed home right away.
No, he could not do that.
In his usual space, he carried his books to a favourite seat, placed them on an already overcrowded table and began to read.
He began to get very angry.
There was nothing in this that would have distracted him from his lessons, homework, or painful moments with the violin. There was nothing scandalous or salacious in any of the books.
There was only a set of surprises for him; there were only moments he wished he had experienced as a child.
Quickly, he saw that he was willing to let his character expire and then return to the beginning of the books and start all over again (no temptation to keep his place with his thumb so that his character could go back and improve on a bad decision). By the end of that afternoon, he had figured out a successful path through half of the books in front of him. And there were still others that he would soon be taking home (the library would close in an hour that Sunday).
One by one, he finished all of the books he had already checked out. He had not noticed some of the patrons around him who walked away when they saw this old man’s choice of reading material. And he would not have cared. In fact, he would have kept on reading and rereading everything in front of him if the lights had not flashed and the regular announcement had not been heard:
“Dear patrons, the library will be closing in…”
He stood up, looked around at the now mostly empty space, and walked down the main stairwell to the exit. There were still plenty of people in there trying to decide what to leave behind; what to check out. One family had two kids loaded with books and CDs as they stepped through the security gates. And if he had not noticed it, he would have just followed them out.
The little girl was holding, on top of her pile, a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
That seemed to be a sign.
The stairs leading down to the children’s section were still open (he knew that they were usually the first ones to be roped off).
Was she still there, the woman with the glasses and the smile?
Was there something there that he had missed?
Michael stood at the main gate with his choices.