I sighed as I leaned back against the hood of my car. “We did it.” I said to my companion who was leaning next to me. “Can you believe it?” “ I am so tired I don’t know what I believe,” Monica replied. We both stared at the beautiful building in front of us; the new Eastbrook Public Library. We, along with a staff of thirty or so employees had just finished setting up in the new location. Everyone from the librarians to the caretaking staff had spent the last 10 hours unloading boxes and stacking the shelves. The new furniture had been unloaded a few days ago. Tonight the staff had finished placing it in its right location under the supervision of the head librarian, Sylvia Watkins. The techs had finally set up the computer stations. We were all dead tired. We had been working steadily from 10pm to 7am. That’s right, we worked overnight so that the library would only have to be closed for one day. And that almost killed Sylvia because the Eastbrook Public Library had never closed for a day in its entire 20 year history.
It was open 10am to 10pm , Monday through Sunday. It was open for every holiday. A hurricane bearing down on it would never convince Sylvia that closing the doors might be the sensible thing to do. “It’s just wind,” she would say. “Or it will pass us by.” Yes, Ms. Watkins was eternally optimistic that any plan she hatched would be successful and that even Mother Nature wouldn’t dare interfere with her plans. Only the intervention of the City Manager had stopped her from staying open during the move. But, she did get her way in that the library would not close for more than one day. Meticulous plans had been made so that the packing and moving could be accomplished on Monday night and the library would reopen on Wednesday morning. And that is why thirty people worked through the night on Tuesday to unpack all the paraphernalia a library needed along with its massive collection of books, av materials etc. She had been involved in every aspect of the building’s design. This new library had been Sylvia’s dream and it would ultimately bear her name.
She insisted that the new location have 2 working fireplaces and beautiful upholstered chairs in the reading area. She chose the paint colors, the furniture, the window dressings. She got her way in almost everything she set out to do for several reasons. She was a formidable opponent. Standing at five foot eleven in her stocking feet, Sylvia was intimidating looking, not just because of her stature, it was her overall appearance. Her dress was a combination of hippie and gyspy queen. Her tightly curled grey brown hair hung down almost to her waist. She didn’t just walk, she strode. But under her outward appearance was a far seeing, intelligent and very capable woman. And Ms. Watkins, despite being a tyrant to her staff, had endeared herself to the community. Under her direction the library had become the model of what every library should be. And the key was service.
Sylvia insisted that our patrons be treated like royalty. If a patron wanted information on any given subject not only was the appropriate book or web site found, the exact location of the pertinent information was shown to the library user. If we didn’t have a book someone wanted, Sylvia would have it ordered. Eastbrook was a wealthy community and Ms. Watkin’s demands on the city budget were high. But she had devised a unique way of dealing with fiscal restraint. Out of the thirty people working there, she was the only salaried employee. The rest of us were casual. So when city hall told her to tighten the purse strings, she would walk through the library and tell select individuals to go home for a week. And if you were employed on a casual basis, you were only paid for the days you worked. This was how Sylvia budgeted, And for twenty years it had worked.
Monica and I were now looking at her crowning achievement. Two stories high with big glass windows, the Eastwood Public Library was an architectural beauty. It had a fountain out front and floodlights that shone on its sleek modern facade. The old library had been housed in a downtown building that once had been, a hundred years ago, Pilgrim’s Pharmacy. It had character but this new library had class.
Our reverie was broken when a familiar shape called out from the front doors, “Oh good, you’re still here, Wendy. You’d better go home and get a few hours of sleep. That new librarian, Susan, Sharon, whatever her name is just up and quit. Honestly, I don’t know why you recommended her for a job here. Anyway, she’s gone so I need you to work the Reference Desk in the morning. See you at ten sharp.” That was only two and a half hours away. “Sylvia, I shouted back, “there’s no way I am….” But she was gone. “I’m getting out of here before I get roped in as well.” Monica said as she ran to her own car. “I am already booked for tomorrow afternoon. Bye Wendy.” “Damn, damn, damn”, I cursed to myself as I got into my own car and slammed the door.
Why did any of us stay? For the professional staff it was because the Eastbrook Library was a world class public library and had even been written up in “Library Journal”. But the same can’t be said for the rest of the staff, the turnover was incredibly high. Sylvia had demanding standards. If she was annoyed with someone or displeased with their work, she didn’t talk to them, she shrieked at them. I had been on staff for six years and was regarded by many as Sylvia’s second in command. All that meant was that I had stuck it out far longer than anybody else. Although she was wonderful with library patrons the same could not be said of her rapport with her staff. They came to me, often in tears, when Sylvia had been particularly hard on one of them. I was pretty thick skinned and if I happened to be the target of Sylvia’s anger, I just stood there and listened. I was also known to, on occasion, disagree with her. I didn’t use this super power very often but I think it gained me a modicum of respect.
Once in our new location Sylvia seemed more mellow. During the first few weeks she loved to show the patrons all the new features that she had added. We would see her gliding by with a bevy of followers tailing after her. Our Ms. Watkins was very pleased with herself and I had high hopes that this mood would last. The other staff also noticed the change in their boss. It only lasted until she found the body in the library.
The day of the incident, as I came to think of it, I ran into Sylvia’s new secretary in the library parking lot. We walked towards the library together. “So how are you getting on?” I asked her. “It’s a lot different than my last job, “ she admitted. “My last boss wasn’t quite as …” “Demanding,” I filled in. “Yes, that’s a good way to put it.” She gave me a weak smile. I looked at her and thought to myself, “ Poor thing, she won’t last a month.” She was just a little mouse of a thing. Sylvia was going to chew her up and spit her out. We made our way up the stairs. The lights were on which meant that Sylvia was already there. She liked to get there early to survey her realm. My words not hers. Her routine was to make a coffee and then walk through the library before settling down in the wingback chair in front of one the fireplaces. It was her moment of peace before we opened the doors.
As Eleanor and I walked through the doors I could see that Sylvia was not in her accustomed chair but kneeling on the floor in front of it. “Sylvia?” I queried. She looked up and madly began beckoning to me to come over. “What’s wrong?” I asked as I began to approach. “Hurry!” she said. As I got closer I could see that she was trying to blot up a dark liquid from the cream colored carpet and seemed to be talking to herself. The look on her face was one I had never seen before; she looked frightened. “Whatever is going on,” I asked. In response she pointed a finger at the chair in front of her and I heard a weak voice, a very angry voice say, “Don’t point your bony finger at me you stupid woman!” I looked over the chair. The voice belonged to Dr. Steven Jordan, a long time member of the library and a personal acquaintance of mine.
He was a well respected doctor in the community but had recently suffered a stroke. I hadn’t seen him since the incident but the change in his voice caught me off guard. We sang in the Community Choir together and now his lovely baritone voice was reduced to a low rasp. I walked around the chair and dropped down in front of him next to Sylvia who for some reason was still mopping the carpet spill with the hem of her dress. The empty coffee cup next to her told me that she had dropped her coffee cup. “Dr. Jordan, are you all right?” “No, I am not,” he said not unkindly. “Eleanor, do you have your cell phone with you?” The secretary had followed me in and was now standing behind the chair. She nodded and reached into her coat pocket, pulled out the phone and passed it to me. “What are you doing?” Sylvia squeaked. “I am calling an ambulance” I replied, “or have you already done that? “He’s fine, he doesn't need an ambulance, do you Dr? You’re just a little distressed at the moment. How about I go and make you a nice cup or tea or would you rather coffee?” she simpered as she started to rise from her kneeling position. I had never seen her like this but I knew that saccharin tone was not going to earn her any points with the man I knew. I could see him bristling. He opened his mouth to speak but I gently interrupted. Looking from one to another I said, “What exactly happened here?” Dr. Jordan picked up his cane and none too gently gave Sylvia a poke in the thigh. “This woman,” he rasped, “locked me in the library overnight!!” Oh Lord. I turned to Sylvia, “You did what?” I mouthed.
Several years ago, someone had almost gotten locked in the old library. He, however, had made it to the front door just as the last bank of lights was being turned off. He angrily reported the incident to Ms. Watkins the next day. She had been furious with the staff member concerned and had since repeatedly reminded all of us of the necessity of looking everywhere before locking up. We were to be especially careful with ensuring that the washrooms were empty. We had a completely female staff so when it came to the men’s restroom we were told to open the door slightly, call out loudly and then flick the lights off and on. I was flabbergasted that Sylvia had been so careless.
Although I had not spoken out loud, Sylvia turned on me. “We don’t know exactly what happened,” she snapped. “He may have followed me through the doors this morning unbeknownst to me. He’s had a stroke for Pete’s sake, he may…” Then I snapped. “Sylvia, shut up!” I have never before or since told one of my bosses to shut up. My reaction was instinctive. I was sure she was about to stick her foot in her mouth and find herself faced with a lawsuit filed by Dr. Jordan. Eleanor gasped and Dr. Jordan let out an almost inaudible giggle. Sylvia started to talk but I raised my hand to stop her.
“Dr. Jordan, can you tell me what happened and if you are in any distress right now?” Sylvia rose to her full height, glared at me and stomped off in the direction of the library offices. “Eleanor,” she shouted, “what are you waiting for?” The poor girl looked at me, terrified, but she trotted obediently after her boss. “Dr. Jordan, are you okay?” He tried to smile. “I’m fine,” he said, “but you are in trouble.” he said in a raspy singsong voice.. “I’ll deal with it.” I said. “Steven, have you been locked in the library overnight?” “I was in the men’s room when the lights went out. When I stuck my head out of the door, I saw her ladyship go flying through the front doors. By the time I got there the door was locked. I called after her, but my voice isn’t as strong as it used to be.” “ You don’t own a cell phone, do you?” Are you suggesting that this is my fault because I don’t own one of those things.” “I wouldn’t suggest any such thing. Our phone system shuts down at night,” I said. “I know,” he said sadly. “My dear girl, I am going to get out of here now, go home, and go to bed.” He started to get up but his legs buckled and he plonked back down into the chair. “I really think I should call the paramedics and have you checked out,” I said. He began to protest but I interjected, “What would you do in my position? What happens if I let you go and you collapse at home?” “Make the call, my dear,” he said, patting my hand. I called, and after hearing the story, the paramedics said they would send someone over.
“I gave that boss of yours a fright this morning,” he giggled. “I was sound asleep when she plopped herself onto my lap. She screamed and dropped her coffee. And do you know what her first concern was, the damn carpet.” “Well, I am not sure that is exactly true and to be fair,” I said, “she was startled to find you there. People react to stress in different ways. I am sure that given a few seconds to calm herself she would have seen to it that you were alright.” At that moment I heard the door buzzer and then a couple of members of staff pushed on the door and came in. Normally the door stays locked until 10:00 am on the dot. Staff had to buzz to be let in. But guess who had forgotten to lock the door behind her when she came in that morning? Not only were staff members straggling in, our early birds were right on their heels. Then I heard a voice say, “Coming through, people,” as a policeman and two paramedics bearing a stretcher made their way into the library.
Sylvia flew into the entranceway with Eleanor on her heels. “Be a doll and take these men over to where Dr. Jordan is sitting,” she said to her poor secretary, as she patted her on the shoulder and gave her a little shove in our direction. “I’d like a word, Ma’am,” said the police officer. “Of course, of course, just give me a second please.” She smiled at him and then addressed the group that had assembled in the entrance.” Ladies and gentlemen,” she started, “we have had a little medical emergency. As you can see it is being taken care of. So please, go about your business but avoid the lounge area for the moment. Thank you for your understanding.” People gawked in our direction but slowly moved off. Meanwhile Dr. Jordan had been loaded on a stretcher and was being wheeled towards the front door with me following close behind. I heard voices murmuring, “It’s Dr. Jordan.” The policeman tried again to speak to Sylvia.
“I understand Ma’am that this gentleman was found locked...” He didn’t get a chance to say more. Dr. Jordan raised his head off the stretcher, pointed a shaking finger directly at Sylvia. I stopped breathing. When he spoke he said in a voice as strong as he could muster, “Thank you Ms. Watkins, if it wasn’t for your speedy intervention I might be leaving here with a sheet over me.” His audience gasped. Then without anyone else seeing it, he gave me a sly wink. I knew he could sing but I had not known he could act. The assembled crowd clapped loudly and Sylvia had the courtesy to blush. Then she turned to me and said in a too sweet voice, “I had some wonderful assistance.” Everyone beamed at me. “I smiled graciously and looked at Sylvia and said, “I am going to accompany Dr. Jordan to the hospital. See you tomorrow?” “You have had a traumatic morning, Wendy. Why don’t you take the rest of the week off.”