“This time, can you pick out a fictional book, one with chapters, please?” she says, prodding and impatient. Both boys stop short in front of the glass doors and look back at her, silently pleading. Their bodies instinctively turn toward the section filled with factoids, statistics, and world records. Their shoulders slump and they sigh, eyes rolling up in disgust, but stubbornly they move along.
The automatic doors swish open, bringing a gust of air inside with them, a spill of summertime humidity thick as glue. The circulation desk sits empty, stacks of books in queues, waiting to be checked out.
The sound of children’s laughter and the sight of bubbles ascending and popping explain the empty seats up front. Storytime sends echoes of Wheels on the Bus spinning around in her ears, the words comfortable as an oversized sweatshirt. She sees a group of chubby-limbed boys and girls dancing in circles, falling down and getting back up again, carefree and unencumbered, and she feels the pang of a memory. Was it not so long ago when hers were this delicious? When they held her hand so tight, out of fear and love at the same time? Now they’re scrolling TikTok, forgetting their deodorant, arguing, eating everything in sight and leaving none for her. Stomping off to their musty cave of a room and sealing themselves inside.
“Mom!” the older one calls from two stacks away. How many times did they get the please use your inside voice talk in preschool? It seems they never learned to regulate their volume. And this is the library, after all, the quietest of places. She peers through the stacks, bracing herself for the inevitable shushing, but no one seems to care. Next to her, an elderly woman shelves books from a steel cart, their plastic covers crinkling, as glasses dangle from a chain and bounce off the embroidered buttons of her sweater. She nods a hello as she slinks behind her, moving toward her favorite section.
She patiently waits as another patron thumbs through what seems like every available book, and then she is able to slide effortlessly toward her literary wonderland: historical fiction. Running her hands along the shelf, passing covers with heroines of eras past –spies in tweed skirt suits, maidens delivering clandestine messages in cumbersome petticoats, bell-bottomed rebels with fists raised in protest. She could lose herself in all of them, a different time, a different life.
She aches to lose herself in any of those stories, but seems instead to have lost her boys. She starts to panic, but remembers they are not toddlers anymore, and they are not unpredictable. She heads straight for the back corner and finds them crouched down like lanky little monkeys, thumbing through back issues of Sports Illustrated.
“Busted!” she says and they turn to face her. “I think magazines, while enjoyable, do not count as chapter books. Come with me and let’s go see what’s on display in fiction,” she says. They lag behind her, hunched over, walking with their arms swinging aimlessly. She turns around to ensure they are following her and then almost collides with a tiny wisp of a woman. “You look lost,” the woman says, peering up at her over her cat eye glasses. “Can I help you locate a book or are you ready to check some out?” she asks. “Oh, thank you, that’s ok. We were on our way to the young adult fiction section, trying to get these guys here to level up to chapter books,” she responds.
“Yep, you’re almost there. Right straight ahead,” she says. “Actually, if you can see Rod over there, Mr. Storytime, it’s right behind him and the kiddos.” They all shake their heads in silent acknowledgment and walk that way.
She looks ahead and sees Mr. Storytime as he rises from his crisscross applesauce position, gently shedding clinging children from his lap and arms. It takes him so long to stand up that when he's finished, she realizes he's the size of one of the sturdy oak trees that surround the building. He turns to face them, and upon seeing her surprised face, moves closer with a welcoming smile.
“Hey guys! Hey Mom. How’s it goin’? You guys finding everything you’re looking for?” The boys silently nod their heads yes, but she puts a hand out, interrupts them. “Actually, these two here were looking for some really good YA fiction. Do you have any recommendations?” she asks.
And with that, his face lights up and a smile blooms across his lips. “You know I do!” he says, chuckling, reaching out for a fist bump. He turns to start walking and beckons with his bear paw of a hand for them to follow.
The younger one slices his high-pitched voice through the silence. “Sir, you are really big! Are you a wrestler or something?” he asks. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry about that,” she says and cuts her eyes at her son, admonishing him. Mr. Storytime laughs softly and shakes his head. “It’s ok, don’t apologize. I like people who ask questions. Curiosity is a beautiful thing,” he says. He looks down at all three of them and shifts his eyes, settling on each face for a moment while he continues.
“You’re right, I am big! And that’s because I used to play football. I was an offensive lineman at UNC and then I played professionally for the Broncos for a few seasons,” he says. “But I got injured and couldn’t play anymore, so I came back here, back to where I was born and back to my first love, books!” The world immediately folds in on the children like a weighted blanket. Their eyes stop blinking. They are enraptured.
Mother and sons follow him through the maze of shelves, a trusted guide, a giant Pied Piper of pages. He stops abruptly and crouches down to grab a thick, heavy book from the bottom shelf. “Now this is one of my favorites. It’s actually written by a man who lives right here in town. It’s about a boy your age,” he says as he points at the older one, “who takes on the god of thunder!” She lets out a little laugh, thinking about how they’d already have one hand on an Xbox controller if she'd suggested that book, but somehow Mr. Storytime is selling it. Their eyes go back to blinking, and they nod their heads, their mouths gone slack, taking in every word.
He hands the book to the older one who clutches it close to his chest like a treasure. She watches as he leads them on a guided tour, both of them getting more excited with each book he puts into their outstretched arms. They rack up such a haul that he retreats for a moment and comes back with an oversized tote bag.
She plops down on one of the semicircular couches in the children’s area and cracks open the love story from World War II. She settles in and turns down the volume in her head. The kids are definitely safe with the guy whose job it was to protect the quarterback at all costs.
A deep baritone and excited whispers tug her back to reality, and she looks up to see her children beaming. “Alright Mom, just bringing your professional readers back to you now,” he says and turns back toward the boys. “Listen guys, keep it up, ok. Keep expanding those minds of yours. There are so many worlds to explore!” he says and ambles back toward the front, stopping to pat a few toddlers on the head and high-five some older kids surfing on the computers.
As the kids mill about near the entrance, she watches as the lady checks out her books, running each one under the scanner at a snail’s pace. “So, that Rod is amazing!” she says. “He’s singlehandedly convinced my children to check out their weight in fiction books!”
The librarian looks up and smiles. “Isn’t he wonderful?” she says. “We like to call him The Keeper of Books.” She waits as the printer spits out the due date receipt and hands it over. “Thank you,” she says and turns. “Let’s go, boys.”
On the drive home, she hums to herself, lost in thoughts of a woman from many decades ago, entangled in espionage and a secret affair. She steals a glance in the rearview mirror, notices the iPhones flung thoughtlessly onto the console. Her gaze falls to the boys, each holding a book tightly in their hands, absorbed in the words on the page, and smiles at her unexpected good fortune.