She had heard rumors of the storyteller, but since Lydia was a cynic who does not believe in magic or miracles, she had a hard time with remaining objective when she heard people talk about Shem Bobannick.
He was a street person who came into the downtown library where he spent the cold days of winter napping near the radiator of the ancient public library.
Since he was usually at the door when we opened, Shem requested to volunteer to read to the young children. The children would come in for story hour, but Mr. Spagnelli, who had done the job for the past three decades, had passed away. There was a sign in the window advertising for a replacement. Seeing the sign had brought Shem to apply for the position.
Lydia Harper was the head librarian. She had Shem fill out a card that required him to fill in his name and address. When he got to address, he hesitated, which Lydia Harper could not help but notice. She had a parade of patrons come into her library who were unhoused. They would use the library as a day shelter since the shelter fed them breakfast before hustling them out into the streets to wander until sunset. Some of her staff had seen Shem asleep in one of the cushioned chairs. Sleeping patrons were awakened and told to leave as part of the library's vagrancy policy.
"Do you have a phone, Mr. Bobannick?" She asked him when he handed her the card.
"No." His voice was deep, resonating with denial.
"I'm afraid that is required, because you may be on call." She pointed to the empty entry on the card he had just filled out.
He turned his head as he did not wish to look her in the eye in this instant. "I'm afraid I do not own a phone."
"It is required-" She began, but he stood up shaking his head.
"I understand if you don't want me as a volunteer, but I would appreciate it if you do not make me feel less than human in the process." He looked at her with his sad dark eyes that were filled with a wide variety of stories.
"I'm sorry you feel that way, but we have rules in this library." Her voice was curt and filled with the authority of her position as head librarian.
"Sorry I wasted your time...ma'am." He tipped his dirty, battered pork pie hat as he walked to the exit. As he passed the security guard, he tipped his hat, "Sam."
"Mr. Bobannick, how are you?" Sam smiled and nodded.
"I have been better." He chuckled. "It's getting colder."
"I know, I felt a chill in the air this morning." He remarked as Shem pushed the heavy door and exited the library.
Curiosity got the better of her and she went to talk to Sam. Sam's jovial expression changed when he saw his boss walking toward his station.
"Sam Obtonavich is it?" She leaned on his counter.
"Yes ma'am, what can I do for you?" He said in his most professional tone.
"I was curious about that man you were just talking to." She pointed to the door he had just exited.
"Shem Bobannick?" Sam's expression became a question mark.
"Yes, he filled out a volunteer card." She shrugged.
"I've known him since my aunt used to take me to story time at the library where we used to go." He told her. She tilted her head as her expression became interested in possibly learning more about the strange man who told her he wanted to tell stories to the children. Sam continued, "His stories were always the best. I loved going."
"Really?" She was intrigued by Sam's testimony. "Thank you, Mr. Obtonavich."
"Anytime, ma'am." Sam tipped his cap.
She walked into her office holding the card Shem had filled out.
Lydia Harper was A pragmatic practical person known for her attention to detail which were attributes of a fine head librarian. She prided herself as one of the best since her library was the main branch in town. She enforced the policies as fairly as she could. She felt it was her duty to make sure that those who used the library as a place to flop and lounge the day away were shown the door. Mr. Bobannick was one of those who needed to be shown the door from time to time. She would not let her library become a place for the unhoused to gather.
When she first started nearly twenty years ago, this had not been a problem, but over the past few years with the pandemic and skyrocketing inflation, more and more people joined the ranks of the homeless. Now they were now supposed to be referred to as unhoused according to the city policies.
She looked at the address Mr. Bobannick had put on the card. She would use her GPS to see where this place was during her lunch hour. It was worth a look.
She was surprised when the neighborhood turned out to be a middle class neighborhood with brownstone apartments. Children were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. It reminded her of the neighborhood she had grown up in. Curiosity got the better of her, and she decided to see who lived at this address.
She had no problem finding the number on the door that matched the one Mr. Bobannick put on the card. Using the door knocker, she knocked on the navy blue wooden door. An elderly woman opened the door, smiling. She asked, "Can I help you?"
"Yes I am Lydia Harper and I am trying to find Shem Bobannick." She proclaimed.
"I believe that's what I've been told." Lydia nodded.
“He’s not here right now.” She wiped her hands on her apron, adding, “He usually comes a couple times a week for dinner.”
“Hmpt.” She put her finger to her lips.
"You know he ain't been the same since his accident." She shook her head, "He's my late sister's boy. Thelma overdosed when he was in high school. He never got over it. Dropped out of school with straight A's." She paused, there was a catch in her throat. "Got shot in the head when some boys held up the convenience store where he was working at the time. He was lucky to survive, but he ain't been right since then."
"Sorry to hear that." She closed her eyes.
"Why you be innerested in him anyway?." She looked at Lydia through one eye.
"He wanted to volunteer at my library reading to the kids." Lydia crossed her arms across her chest.
"He always loved doing that." She chuckled, "That boy's got a good heart."
"Is he able to do it?"
"Ahh, he's the best there is." She smiled as if she was letting Lydia in on a big secret.
"Here's my card." She handed the elderly woman her business card, "Tell him Mrs. Harper is looking for him."
"I surely will." She glanced at the card, "Boy shows up every now and then when he's hungry."
"Thank you." Lydia nodded as she stepped away while the woman closed her door.
"Aunt Flora told me you wanted to see me." He was waiting outside her office the next morning. He did not seem pleased that Lydia had paid a visit to his aunt. "Why did you go see her?"
"I wanted to consider your volunteering to read to the kids." She told him. He rolled his head and ended up staring at the ceiling.
"You didn't seem innerested when I filled out that card." He crossed his arms across his wide chest just like his aunt had done when Lydia visited her the day before.
"I was told that you love reading to the kids." She leaned against the door frame to her open office door.
"I do. I do indeed." His face broke into a grin. "They are always so excited when I read to them. They still believe that there is magic in a good story." His dark eyes began to twinkle as he spoke. Then, remembering his rejection earlier in the week, his smile disappeared, "But all you seen was my dark skin when I come the other day. Folks then find I am homeless and they is done talking to me."
"Your aunt told me about your mother and your accident." Lydia was afraid he'd leave in anger.
"Accident? Wasn’t no accident. She ought not tell them stories about me like that." His face was twisted in anger.
"She wanted me to understand." Lydia held out her hands in a gesture of empathy.
"If my mana hadn't died on drugs. If I hadn't got shot in the head, would you even be talking to me?" He fumed, "Probably not. You are one of those people who walk by without even giving me a second glance. Everyone of us don't want to be there, but we is. Each of us has our story. Now you know mine. The other day you could not wait to get me out of your office."
"I'm sorry." She was fighting the urge to cry.
"Me too." He sighed as his anger was spent. "If I fall asleep in this place, you have one of the guards walk me out. We all tired. We all been beat down. When we need someone to speak up for us, all we get is silence."
"I want you to read to the kids." She pleaded.
"Lemme give it some thought." He shook his head and walked away. Lydia told her assistant she had business to take care of.
"Alright Mrs. Harper." She nodded.
Lydia began to follow Shem as he walked back to the camp they set up in the middle of the park, but now the police were taking control of the park again, after all it was public land where mothers brought their children. Two policemen dragged a man out of his tent by his feet and put him in the backseat of their patrol car. He was not wearing shoes. Once the door was closed, one of the officers went over and put the man's things in a trash receptacle.
"Hey man, that's my stuff!" He cried out the open window. His hands were handcuffed behind his back.
"Maybe you ought to get up earlier." The cop behind the steering wheel laughed.
As she watched in horror as his worldly possessions were put in the dumpster as the other cop laughed, she noticed Shem was looking at her with a smug expression on his face.
Silence eventually overcame the park as the police did the job the public expected of them.
When she got back to her office, Shem was waiting for her.
"What did you think?" He asked.
"I did not like it." She walked into her office still shaken by what she had seen in the park.
"I promise not to tell the children those stories like the one you just saw this morning." He said, "Stories are what we use to give our listeners hope. That's the magic of the storyteller, to bring hope that someone cares."
"How can you believe in magic when you live the life that you do?" Her eyes were glistening tears.
“Magic comes with the sunrise of the promise of A new day. A day when maybe things will get better." He winked as he smiled.
"The children need to hear this." She unexpectedly reached out and grabbed his arm. He did not pull away.
"They will hear this if they be ready to believe the magic. Stories don't mean nothing without it." He smiled again.
"Would you bring that magic? Some of them come from homes that are broken. Some of them need the magic you speak of." Lydia explained.
"I ain't no different from three days ago when you showed me the door." He nodded.
"I didn't understand." She shook her head.
"Now you do."
"Yes, I saw it. I saw what you wanted me to see. The part of the story that most people are afraid to see." She nearly shuddered.
"Do you want me to share that magic? I've been telling these stories for a long time." His laugh made Lydia feel that she met the storyteller who used the magic to heal the wounds and scars that came with life like the morning she woke up to a note her husband left on the kitchen table. In that hastily scribbled note he said that he had found someone new who could give him what she could not. Since that morning, Lydia did not want to have another relationship. Relationships only brought pain. Instead she threw herself into her work which was more faithful and rewarding, but in doing so she had sacrificed the joy of having someone to share your life with. In his own way, Shem had reminded her of that joy she had turned her back on long ago. As she wiped the tears from her eyes, Shem gave her a warm smile, "I saw the hurt in you the moment you shook my hand. Your hand was cold to the touch and I knew your heart had given up."
“You don’t know what it’s like…” She felt guilty as soon as the words left her mouth.
"When the doctors told me about my brain injury, I told myself I would do the best with what I has left." He folded his head, "Now most folks would pity me and call me an unfortunate homeless man, but that ain't how I feel."
"How do you feel?" She asked.
"Blessed that I am still alive. Them doctors called me lucky, but I feel blessed. Each of us is called to make the world a better or worse place, but most folks choose neither, content to get on with their lives without bending A single blade of grass in their passing. The path I choose to walk, like Robert Frost says, I am the better man for choosing the road less traveled."
She watched him leave, tipping his hat to Sam as he departed. Once he was gone, she closed the door to her office, sat down at her desk and wept bitterly. After that there was a knock at her door. She opened the door and her assistant Rose Richert was standing there looking quite concerned, "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, thank you for asking." She smiled which startled Rose since she had seldom seen Lydia smile.
"That strange man you were talking to earlier, said he'd be by in the morning to read to the kids." Rose still had a bewildered expression on her face, adding, "Is that okay?"
"It's fine, Rose." She chuckled. Again this surprised Rose since she had never heard Lydia laugh since her husband left her.
Just as he promised, Shem Bobannick arrived at ten straight up to read to the children. Standing in a concealed alcove, Lydia listened as he read from Dr. Seuss about the places you would go. His voice was tender and warm. All the children were listening intently as he read, some of them were even smiling as he read.
When he finished reading, he closed the book and looked each of them in the eye. He cleared his throat and spoke to them, "How many liked this story?"
Every hand went up.
"What is he saying?" He asked and pointed to a little boy who shot his hand up in the air.
Coming to his feet, the boy said, "He's saying that we can go wherever we want. It's up to us."
"Correct." Shem laughed, "What's your name?"
"Lee." The boy answered before he sat down.
"Always remember that." Shem nodded, "We are the captains of our own ship. Now I have a book about a pirate who meets someone who changes him from a bad guy to a good guy. Do we want to hear this story?"
The children cheered.
"Not so loud. We are in a library." He put his finger to his lips to remind them to be quiet.
Lydia walked away. She had seen his magic for herself, but she had a lot of work waiting for her on her desk.
"He's pretty good, eh?" Sam said as she passed by his station.
"He's just what we needed." She agreed.
Sam smiled and nodded in agreement.
No one will disagree that our stories tell of the path we have chosen, often, as in the case of Shem Bobannick, it's often the road less traveled.
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