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 I walk all through the library, from the far back with the ivy-covered windows and the outdated newspapers, to the front, with the RFDA detectors and the brightly colored children’s section.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.