Contest #91 shortlist ⭐️

La Tempestad

Submitted into Contest #91 in response to: Set your story in a library, after hours.... view prompt

127 comments

American Latinx Inspirational

Spring, 2021

The end of the day begins when the roar of the vacuum starts up in the back rooms of Lakewood Library. It blends into the familiar sounds of the two librarians on the last shift reshelving books and swiping old cards, before locking the glass doors behind them. It blends into the sounds of rush hour passing by and heading home to dinner or to night shifts. It signals to my brain that the day is over and there is one last thing to do before I can go home, fold the laundry, count the bills, and make dinner.

The vacuum is old and weak; it no longer pulls as strongly as it should. I have to run over lint and spilled jelly (which is not allowed in the library) six times, counting, before it disappears. I walk all through the library, from the far back with the ivy-covered windows and the outdated newspapers, to the front, with the RFDA detectors and the brightly colored children’s section. I pull the plain carpet pattern one direction, then the other. I try to make all the lines parallel so that it is obvious someone has vacuumed.

After a few minutes of the familiar rhythmic motion and noise, I straighten and look around. The building is almost empty except for myself and Carmen, silent except for the AC and the vacuum, and smells like old plastic book covers and Thieves’ Spray on the study tables. I’ve vacuumed this floor every evening from 5 to 6.30, Monday through Friday, fifty weeks a year, for eleven years. Since Carmen was just nine months and learning to say “Hola.” And in the day I reshelve books and straighten the newspapers in their stands.

Every day. Eleven years. 

I am overcome by despair. It is darkness. Our bishop at Immaculate Concepción talks about the dark night of the soul, when there is no spiritual life except despair. I stand, bent over from the weight of eleven years’ working and paying bills and folding laundry and cooking boxed pasta, in front of the great library window. Throughout the years I compare myself to the writers around me, when the hum of the vacuum begins to bore into my brain. I can never aspire to be like them.

Carmen sits on the bright red loveseat in the children’s section, her bare feet pulled up and a book balanced on her knees. She walks here from school at 3.25 every afternoon except Fridays, and sits in the same seat reading until 5.30, until we drive home and she does homework and I do the bills and the laundry. We eat dinner and I clean and we go to bed. On Fridays she has choir and walks over at 4.30 and reads for an hour. 

It is too late for me to be like the great writers, but it is not too late for Carmen. 

Reluctantly, I bend over again and continue the motion, back and forth, humming to myself to limit the vacuum’s damage to my ears.

The sun has begun to set and looks like a destructive dancing flame, barely below the narrow treetops. I can see it through the ivy-covered window behind the newspaper section, as I move backwards through the study tables. I usually ask Carmen to wipe those down. She will sigh and slide off the loveseat, go and find a rag and Thieves’ Spray, and lightly touch the tables with both. But she brushes crumbs and paper scraps off and makes the tables smell good and that’s what matters.

A week ago I took her to Gold Rush Cafe for breakfast on Sunday, a quarter mile away from the library. She told me she was almost done with the children’s section. 

“¿Eres demasiado viejo?” I asked, drawing my fork across the swollen, buttery pancakes. 

“No,” she said, looking around in case anyone has heard me talk in Spanish. “I've just read them all.”

I smiled. “Esa es mi chica.” I took a gulp of coffee. She drank her milk. I remember when I first got the job at the library, reshelving books, vacuuming, and cleaning the bathrooms. Carmen was just a baby, and so was I, just a girl fresh from Venezuela. She would sit with the Cat and the Hat books in the corner by the stained glass windows as I tried to teach her to read over the noise of the vacuum. 

My girl is so smart, I think. I look at her out of the corner of my eye as I move closer to the front. She goes to the Arts and Sciences Magnet School downtown, for free. She taught herself to read in English after I taught her Spanish. She writes these little poems and paints them on the partitions of the library bathroom. She thinks I cannot tell, but I know her handwriting. 

She writes pretend love notes in the books, too, when she thinks I’m not looking. I know the other librarians love reading them, watching the love stories develop. My Carmen is a writer. 

I push the vacuum under the shelves and between the plastic chairs. I don’t mind her being embarrassed of me. I was embarrassed of my parents. She still loves me. I do it because I love her.

Wind blows through the skinny, brackety pecan branches and ruffles through the ivy on the windows, just barely budding with life after a cold winter. I always feel so peaceful after hours here in Lakewood. There is wind and cleanliness and silence except for the occasional page-turning from the children’s section. The caladiums outside move in the breeze and rush of cars. The small bookish building sits on an isthmus amid a sea of asphalt and rush hour, calm and patient and quiet.

She has read so much. Much more than I have in my forty years. I only did six years in primary school in Caracas, and then I worked at the tire shop for four years in San Cristobal before I got pregnant and came to the United States. Carmen is thirteen and in the ninth grade -- they let her skip eighth -- and has done nearly twice the schooling I have. If we were in San Cristobal right now she would be in the tire shop flirting with the motorcycle boys. 

When Carmen sees me looking at her, out of the corner of my eyes, she stops scribbling into the margins of Danny the Champion of the World. I smile and keep my eyes on the blue-and-orange carpet blocks.

After I finish with the adults’ and young adults’ sections, I take a break from the noise and flick the vacuum off. 

“Limpia las mesas, Carmen,” I say, louder than I meant to after half an hour of vacuum noise. 

“I did the tables yesterday!” she says, groaning, but she puts her pencil behind her ear and dogears her page. 

“Los necesito limpios, todos los tardes.” 

She knows that; they have to be cleaned every afternoon. She sighs loudly but goes and finds the rag and the spray. I follow her and get the bucket of cleaning supplies and get ready to tackle the bathrooms. The two dark brown doors are covered over with flyers and advertisements, all kinds of events and parties and dances and shows. I open the door to the women’s with my elbow. It’s already pretty clean because I did it yesterday. And the day before that, and the day before that. Antier is the Spanish word, a very succinct way to say the day before yesterday. 

The once-beige walls are boring no more. Three years ago Carmen brought supplies from art class and painted the walls white. Then after it dried the night, and no one noticed the next day, she came with dark purple, red, yellow, blues, greens, many shades of brown, and started to paint desert plants and small brown people watching colorful hot air balloons float into the ocean-colored sky. She wrote down the poems she had memorized for fun and the ones she had written, calligraphy on the inside of the stalls. 

A few weeks later someone else added a sunset and a cactus plant to the floor in the men’s. And a poem to the mirror in the women’s. And more and more added over the weeks and years. Carmen is proud of herself but not as proud as I am. My strong little Carmen.

The clouds knit together tightly outside the thick glass in the children’s section. The wind begins to pick up and shakes the narrow trees violently. Carmen stops wiping the tables to say, “It’s going to rain, Mama.”

“Ya, ya lo sé,” I say from the depths of the men’s restroom. The door is open so I can see the window and Carmen’s motionless form. “Es sólo una tempestad.”

“I know it's just a storm. I’m not scared.”

“Nada como las tempestades en Venezuela,” I say. 

“You even had hurricanes there,” Carmen says, a little more cheerfully, but she doesn’t move from the window. I know the feeling. I too have stood there, one small tired woman in the face of a thunderous, black tempest that comes raging down the dry creekbed, flooding the cracked streets and dousing the poorly-built houses. I know what it is like to stand helpless, tiny, before something so majestic and godlike. I feel as purposeless as I do amid old shelves and the works of countless successful writers and statesmen and businesswomen. 

“Sí, y los odiaba,” I say. I hear her laugh. She would have loved all the storms in Venezuela, unlike me.

Carmen is so short before the darkening clouds and the towering windows. She has on a bright yellow dress that contrasts with her dark skin. I stand slowly when finished in the bathroom, put away the cleaning supplies, and head back to the vacuum. I have about fifteen minutes until it is time to head home. On the way back to the vacuum I pass by Carmen and touch her hair gently. 

“Te quiero,” I say. 

Here is what I know but am afraid to tell her: I would run and hide from that storm. I would drive home quickly and go to bed and pray I am not overwhelmed. Carmen, my Carmen, will stand before that storm and glare at it. She will watch it and let it fill her and give her courage. Because if she has the resolve to face down a storm she has the resolve to go to college and rise far. She will not feel despair looking at the books of purposeful people, she will feel inspired. The storm is just a storm. She knows that and that is why she will not look back. 

I bend and pick up the vacuum again. After this I will lock everything up, turn off the lights, and we will drive home in our beat-up blue Toyota. I will sort the bills and worry and do the laundry, lock the front door and close the shutters, cook the dinner, make her do her homework and study for her tests. My back hurts and my knees cramp and I can barely breathe for the worry and despair. I am so small, insignificant. But I will do my best. I will pay the bills and vacuum the floor and fight down despair, because of her. Because of Carmen.

April 26, 2021 00:57

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

127 comments

Zilla Babbitt
00:57 Apr 26, 2021

It's been long enough and the prompt was great. Please critique hard, this one was difficult to write. Gracias!

Reply

I.B. Dunn
15:20 May 07, 2021

Yay!!!! You were shortlisted. I may be a little biased but I think you should have won. Congrats on your triumphant return!!!!

Reply

Zilla Babbitt
21:41 May 07, 2021

THANK YOU!😱🦋

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
I.B. Dunn
19:27 Apr 27, 2021

Zilla, this was a triumphant return to Reedsy. It was a brilliant way to interpret the prompt. It's genius is it's simplicity. I think most people were thinking of something unusual or supernatural to write about. You showed the beauty in the ordinary. You showed the great potential of the child and how none of that potential would be realized without the mother. Mom is the hero of this story and we know there is another hero to come. I missed you already but reading this story makes me miss you on Reedsy even more. Come back more of...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Scout Tahoe
14:58 Apr 26, 2021

This mother’s pride for Carmen is heartwarming and so inspirational. Your writing style was light and airy but also dripping with emotional cargo. The one thing I was confused on was your description of their house or library at the beginning and it didn’t really tie into the middle or the end. Also, I don’t agree with Abigail on the Spanish, it’s not distracting, only confusing. Not the parts where Carmen translates it with the background information, but when the mother replies to that. For example, when she asks Carmen to clean the tables...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Cholmondeley Frink
01:08 Apr 26, 2021

Lovely. Sadness and love well done.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Rachel Smith
11:32 Apr 26, 2021

I liked this. You captured the mother's despair for herself and her hope for her daughter very well. I found it very moving. I haven't managed to do a story like this, that takes place in a short space of time and is mostly internal. Difficult to do I think.

Reply

Mehral Nasibi
06:24 Oct 11, 2021

I agree, I have been thinking of different kinds of short stories I should write but I have not come to a conclusion yet 🙁

Reply

Rachel Smith
07:01 Oct 11, 2021

Just pick one at random and get writing! If it's terrible, it's still worthwhile practice. 😉

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
A.Dot Ram
15:33 Apr 26, 2021

I read this story out loud (tired, focus issues) and there were places where my voice caught and trembled. The emotion in this story is real and strong. I relate to it hard as a mom. Broad strokes it's wonderful. You've painted a really detailed world inside the library and around it. Is the library downtown, to be walkable from Carmen's school? I guess there are trees out the windows in downtowns, too, but i was more picturing a busy suburban area. My critiques are all in tiny details like this. "Black glass doors" was awkward to read aloud...

Reply

Show 0 replies
06:11 Apr 26, 2021

So the story is about a mother fighting to raise her daughter to be a better person. All else follows. I get that fear that pulses through the mother when she sees Carmen and how she contrasts her life with that of her daughter's. It's beautiful. I like how you make us feel everything from the old rusty vacuum noise and the noise from the children's section. I like how you added bits of a different language, yes, but sometimes it got distracting. I got snippets when I read the next paragraph of what the meaning might be but it was quite co...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Maggie Deese
21:02 May 07, 2021

Haven't been on here in a minute, but congratulations on your shortlist, Zilla! Fantastic and heartwarming story!

Reply

Zilla Babbitt
21:40 May 07, 2021

Thank you so much! 🤯

Reply

Maggie Deese
23:53 May 07, 2021

I know you must be excited!! Go celebrate with some cake tonight!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply

Hi!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Jaisa Farmer
12:01 Apr 30, 2021

Amazing, If this were a book I would defiantly read it.

Reply

20:25 May 09, 2021

Hello, Jaisa. Who are you? Are you new to Reedsy? What are your writing goals? Thanks :)

Reply

Jaisa Farmer
13:34 May 14, 2021

Hello, I am Jaisa Farmer I'm in 6th grade and I love reading and writing. I am new to Reedsy and so far I really like it. I would like to be an author for horror books or crime. Your-welcome :)

Reply

19:13 May 14, 2021

It's ok that you hit it too many times, I did that once before, too. You can delete the comments below this one and keep this comment. I like horror stories. I can't wait to see what you come up with!

Reply

Jaisa Farmer
22:50 May 15, 2021

I deleted them, thanks for understanding. Could you possibly tell me a little bit about yourself? I would like to be online friends, since there is a lot of drama between me and my friends rn. LOL

Reply

Jaisa Farmer
02:13 May 16, 2021

Hey Em, how do you feel about this weeks contest? I'm not to fond. But I have a story in mind.

Reply

Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Kat Sencen
03:47 Apr 30, 2021

I loved this story! I almost forgot how good your work was during your break!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Mazie Gray
19:19 Apr 29, 2021

I read the, like, link in your awesome bio. (I'll stop there, haha.) I absolutely loved it, and it had me laughing more than once. :D -Brooke

Reply

Show 0 replies
03:04 Apr 29, 2021

Zilla this is amazing! You are such and AMAZING writer, good luck on your writing journey!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Rachel Loughran
09:39 Apr 28, 2021

This was amazing, such a strong bond between mother and daughter. I loved this. Also, I learned "Anteayer", which I will be using! What a useful word! Personally I liked the Spanish interludes - there was enough context around them in English that I got the gist, and the story felt more authentic for them.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Rachel Loughran
10:31 Apr 27, 2021

This was beautiful!

Reply

Show 0 replies

Great work Zilla! It was a beautiful piece, and I can see a lot of hard work in this emotional piece. Loved it!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Helen Ross
16:30 Apr 26, 2021

ahh I love this! I know someone commented about too much spanish but I've been learning for a few years and was proud of myself for knowing it all haha!! the relationship between Carmen and her mum is so sweet and well written, I especially liked the simple details such as carmen checking that no one heard her mum speak spanish.

Reply

Show 0 replies

Aww this is beautiful! (And FINALLY a new story gurl!!! I also just submitted on this prompt so it was kinda cool how we both took it in completely different directions.) You infused sadness with love really well together and the end is both inspirational and sweet <33 I love the lines “ Carmen, my Carmen, will stand before that storm and glare at it. She will watch it and let it fill her and give her courage. Because if she has the resolve to face down a storm she has the resolve to go to college and rise far. ”, not to mention the name Ca...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Avani G
11:47 May 02, 2021

Happy Birthday!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Izzie P.
15:01 Apr 29, 2021

Hello from North Carolina! This was such a descriptive story, and I found it pleasant to read. I have a question: What would you tell a beginner writer? Just asking, I need some advice. If you can, please critique one of my stories- I'm going off of the creative railroad track...

Reply

Zilla Babbitt
15:08 May 11, 2021

Hiya, Izzie! What would I tell a beginning writer? Read! Read and keep reading. I think a lot of people these days when asked this stuff (ahem, Billie Eilish) will tell you to write, keep writing. It is common these days to think you must find your own voice before you can write. No, you have to read and imitate the great writers and through them, through reading many kinds of writers and poets, find the way you write. Read and keep reading.

Reply

Izzie P.
15:39 May 11, 2021

Thank you so much. I definitely read. Have you heard of speed reading?

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply