I wasn’t thrilled to volunteer at the library that summer, even in the slightest. If it weren’t for the damned pack of cigarettes Mom found. Even worse, they were Colleen’s cigarettes. She’s the one who forced me to try one behind the Winn Dixie after volleyball practice. So after a merciless lecture from Mom and a biblical sermon from Dad, I either had to volunteer at the community church every day cleaning the pews and dusting off chalkboards in the musty Sunday school rooms or volunteer at the library. The last novel I think I ever read for pleasure, was Holes in seventh grade only because I saw Shia LaBeouf in the movie on tv and thought that would help me understand it more. The worst part is I just got my license but after Mom took that away she had to drop me off at the library every day and ask Mrs. Wendell to keep a close eye on me. Ironically, Mrs. Wendell had a glass eye and barely got off her stool even to head to the faculty lounge for her lunch break. “Hi Melissa, are you excited to do some reading today?” Mrs. Wendell asked, giving me eye contact like a twitching chameleon. “Yes. ma’am.” I said to her nose just to be safe. “Good, go put your belongings inside a locker in the faculty lounge and come meet me in the Children’s Literature section.” Great, kids. I thought sarcastically while hanging up my backpack inside a locker. I had no idea how to interact with kids. All I knew was they were sticky, cried, and sometimes smelled of poo. Mrs. Wendell had a metal book cart already piled high with classics like Dr. Suess and Roald Dahl. I glanced at the covers and recognized a few titles I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. The Curious George books put a smile on my face. “Okay, Miss. Melissa, I think we should start off with about five or six of these. This group tends to like picture books.” I nodded trying to amuse her and peeked over to the sitting area. There were about 30 folding chairs lined up in an auditorium style facing my big office chair. The ugly brown carpet had mysterious stains on them and I noticed there was an aroma similar to blue cheese. This really was a dreadful place and I couldn’t believe I would be here almost every day for the rest of summer. At least I got Sundays off unlike church. But even that day was filled with mass and Sunday school classes my Dad taught. The loud hissing of vehicle brakes could be heard from outside. I could see through the wall length windows a white bus with Maple Oaks Care written on the side. But instead of expecting a stampede of wild children, the sounds of canes and walkers clattered the tiles of the front entrance. They weren’t kids at all. “This is everyone.” Mrs. Wendell said while trying her best to escort them to the sitting area. There were two nurses’ aides wearing lavender scrubs trying to escort them but they looked like they wanted to be somewhere else. Old people? I thought to myself. Why would they be coming to a library? Were they really that incompetent? Or bored? At least I got the poo thing right. I waited in my office chair as the last senior was seated. Senior was the proper term Mrs. Wendell whispered to me before returning to her stool who was probably missing her. “I’m going to read some Dr. Suess to you.” I said without trying to sound like I was speaking to toddlers. “Has anyone heard of Dr. Suess?” I asked gingerly. Most of the seniors were gazing in different directions. I noticed a man wearing a lanyard with a note pinned to it that said, “I have Dementia, please be patient with me.” I felt a tickle in my throat. My voice sounded a bit quivery as I read the title of my book. For some reason, I didn’t want to look at them. I got through Green Eggs and Ham, Oh The Places You’ll Go, two Berenstain Bears, and the book Snow although it was probably 90 degrees outside. I stacked and restacked the pile I just read to seem busy, that way I didn’t have to look at anyone. How long were they going to be here? I gazed upward and saw most of them resting their eyes except a friendly looking woman in a blue pillbox hat. She smiled at me. I smiled back timidly and went back to repiling my stack. “What time is it?” The man with the lanyard asked. It was the first time anyone had spoken during the entire visit. “It’s 3:55.” The man nodded. Before 10 seconds went by he asked again. I responded by reading the time again. Finally after what seemed like an hour and being asked four more times what time it was the nurses' aides reentered the library sucking the last bits of soda from their Big Gulp cups and tossing them in the trash. They started helping the seniors up one by one. In the car, Mom asked me how my day was. “Fine, I guess.” I looked out the window at my young neighbors who were running into their sprinklers. “Your dad and I thought we could take you to dinner tonight. We’re proud of you for helping at the library this summer.” “Sure.” I said still thinking about the seniors today. Halfway into my Pizza Hut dinner, I troubled both my parents. “How did my grandparents die?” Dad sipped his Bud Light, temporizing the question. Mom chimed in. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to really know your grandparents. They all passed before you turned six.” It was true. Both my parents were the last to get married out of their siblings and both sets of my grandparents had my parents late in life. “But how did they die?” My parents looked at each other vacillating until Dad gave in. “Well, your mom’s parents had high cholesterol from all the oil and fat in their diets and had heart attacks.” “Richard.” My mom scorned him. “Sorry.” He mouthed. “My parents had a disease that made them forget things. It wasn’t curable and it sort of made life challenging toward the end. It was called Dementia.” I knew it. My parents had mentioned Dementia before but only briefly. But I didn’t really know what the disease was. The only time I saw it was in the movie The Notebook, which I just realized now was also a book.
Wednesdays and Saturdays were senior reading time at the library. The days in-between were filled with sanitizing the shelves and making calls on a landline to those past due on their book returns. “So Mrs. Wendell, what happens if someone doesn’t return their library book?” I asked while we shared a tray of cupcakes her daughter dropped off before working at the Hair Cuttery. She was really into Pinterest and used her baking contest wins on Vera Bradley. “At our library, we just give them an outstanding fee of $4. At other libraries, they can arrest them.” “Get out.” I said almost spilling cake from my mouth. “We should totally do that here!” “I don’t think that will happen. We don’t get many delinquents. Unless you count those folks over there.” I peered over at the study tables. There were half a dozen middle schoolers pretending to read books while Mr. Jaladi, my former history teacher, was supervising them over his copy of Golf Digest. “Who are those kids?” “Mr. Jaladi teaches summer school. But the kids who got detention in summer school have to come here as punishment.” Summer school and detention? I felt sorry for the kids being forced to come to the library.
It was Saturday and Mrs. Wendell already had her pile of books ready for me. She added about five more than last time and included my favorites, the Curious George books. I missed how Mom would snuggle into bed with me and read each night. She would always laugh when I mimicked George’s monkey calls. After the seniors were seated and I answered what time it was a few more times, I immediately picked up one of the yellow colored books. It read Curious George Goes to the Hospital. Better not. I thought, shuffling it under the pile. I chose a safe bet called Curious George Flies a Kite. “This is George, he lives in the house of the man with the yellow hat.” After delighting in my own memories I completed the book and glanced around the room. Only the lady in the blue pillbox hat was looking in my direction smiling. I grabbed another book. Curious George Visits the Zoo. “And finally there were the elephants with floppy ears. Brrrrt!” I trumpeted in my best elephant impression. Some of the seniors laughed. I suddenly felt warm in my stomach. “Wait here George and don’t get into trouble.” I howled like a monkey, just like how I did with Mom. More seniors laughed. I only had four Curious George books but I read and reread them making as many sound effects as the books had written. Most of the seniors laughed as I wailed like a sea lion, honked like a steam engine, and even scratched myself while mimicking George’s cry. As usual, once we were done, I was asked what time it was and responded this time by saying “reading time!” The seniors laughed, including the man who probably didn’t realize what he just asked.
It was Monday and I took my lunch outside on the patio facing the metropolitan street. I was in the seventh chapter of The Notebook while munching on my PB and J when I heard a familiar voice. “Mel! Mel!” Down on the sidewalk was Colleen sitting on her mountain bike. “I don’t want to talk to you, Colleen.” I shouted indignantly. “Where have you been all break?” “Thanks to you and your stupid cigarettes I’m stuck volunteering at the library all summer.” Colleen laughed maliciously. “Are you for real? Oh man, that sucks big time. Those weren’t even mine, they were Zach’s.” “Well, you and your stupid brother can screw off!” She grinned wickedly. “Hey now, that’s not very nice talk for a preacher’s daughter.” I chucked the rest of my sandwich at her which she dodged throwing her shoulders to the side. “Let me know when you’re done working here and we’ll do something unforgettable this summer.” “Don’t hold your breath!” I yelled after her as she fled the stop sign and peddled down the street.
On a Thursday afternoon as I was sanitizing the top shelf of the Art and Culture section I noticed a book lodged in between the shelf and the back wall. It was a book about street murals. The dust on it was an inch thick so I figured I could pass another hour cleaning, but then I decided to explore the pages. There were breathtaking murals of garages in Pittsburgh, bridges in Columbia, and even inside the building of a homeless shelter. That’s when I inspected the barren and chipped wall before me and got a glorious idea. “Mrs. Wendell, what if we painted a mural on the wall?” She swiveled over on her stool and glimpsed at the empty wall considering it. “I’m not much of an artist.” She shrugged. “Well, I could do it. Maybe the seniors could help out?” Mrs. Wendell shook her head. “We can’t let them do physical labor. If someone gets hurt, Maple Care could sue.” It was an arduous amount of work for me. But as my eyes scanned around the library I saw the perfect group for the job. “Mr. Jaladi? Can I have a word?” Some of the middle schoolers pinned their ears in our direction trying to eavesdrop. “How would your students like to help me paint a mural?” He sighed unfavorably. “I don’t think so, Melissa. These students need full discipline, they’re hazardous.” I peered over at them. One boy was busy picking his ear with his pinky. That night I went home with a stack of books on psychology, criminology, and art therapy. I even found one on how physical activity can help convicts. I didn’t have an exact book pertaining to my situation but I figured I could find enough evidence to bring to Mr. Jaladi to convince him. After a lengthy plea and just plain begging, Mr. Jaladi gave in. Mrs. Wendell prepped us with the paints from the Girl Scouts Club that met every Tuesday. I took the liberty of sketching our future masterpiece and led the middle schoolers in an activity that made us forget we were all incarcerated.
We only had 10 Curious George books so I had to read and reread them. I attempted to read them Clifford but the seniors barely stifled a chuckle when I woofed like a dog. By then I had memorized every single book and graduated to acting out each page. Some of the seniors laughed while most of them clapped their hands in amusement. Then one day as I began performing Curious George gets a Medal again the lady with the blue pillbox hat remarked, “We already did this one.” “Mrs. Wendell!” I sprinted towards her after the seniors had left. For once we had a long line behind the desk of people checking out books. My patience was erupting. Finally, I got to her. “Mrs. Wendell, one of the seniors, remembered something. She knew the book we already read. Mrs. Wendell sighed and placed a gentle hand on me. “You can’t believe everything they say, Melissa. At this point, all they say is just nonsense.”
The next day only two students were in detention with Mr. Jaladi. “Mr. Jaladi, where is everyone?” I asked while tying my paint stained apron around my waist. He seemed proud reading his Time magazine. “They didn’t get in trouble today.” I caught direct eye contact with the two boys. They tried to force back giggles as they put their heads in their books. I marched up to them. “We’re going to get this mural done. You boys go get your classmates and bring them back here. Tomorrow is the showing and the whole community is invited.” They hesitated. “What are you waiting for?” I spooked them out of their seats and watched them rush out the door returning with triple the amount who usually come. “That’s more like it.” I was dabbing the maroon color into my portrait when I saw out of the corner of my eye both my parents. “Mom, Dad? What are you doing here?” “Pickup time was 4:00 and it’s almost 4:30.” Mom said, taking a peek at the mural with a modest smile. “I guess I lost track of time.” “Did you do this?” Dad asked beaming. “Well, not the whole thing but it was my idea.” They actually looked proud for once. “Your Dad and I have noticed how well you have behaved this summer and wanted to lift your punishment a day early and take you to the movies tomorrow. We even made reservations at your favorite restaurant afterward.” I picked at the dried paint under my fingernails deciding. “Actually, I think I have a better idea.”
It was Saturday and the mural was completed. The library was crowded with members of the community admiring the artwork while indulging in frosted cupcakes. Mrs. Wendell’s daughter was serving them and frequently pulled out her business cards to community members from her Vera Bradley wallet. Mr. Jaladi was even present and fraternizing with the middle schoolers' parents. I was snacking on my third cupcake while showing my parents the sitting area where I read all summer when I saw Colleen meekly enter the building like a lost puppy. “Hey.” “Hi.” She mumbled. “I wanted to say I’m sorry. It was my fault for everything and I don’t want to put you through that again. Forgive me?” My stomach tickled with relief. “Isn't that what Jesus always said?” She pinched my cheek and dipped her finger into my cupcake frosting, snagging a taste. Right on schedule, I heard the sound of vehicle brakes. The seniors shuffled inside perplexed by what everyone was admiring. The nurses’ aides shared the cupcakes with the seniors and made sure everyone had a comfortable view of the mural. I noticed the lady in the blue pillbox hat staring adoringly at it. I stood beside her as we both marveled at the painted tree with the herd of multicolored animals. Curious George was posed in the center. “You know,” she said to me. “That bluebird reminds me of the one I had when I was a child.”
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The attention to story structure in this story is brilliant. It flows well with the interconnections between the seniors and the students. I also like the way you describe the library. Especially the part about the smell of blue cheese! Haha. I would say though that there was an error with the dialogue with the parentheses. You forgot to put it on the rest of the sentence. It's towards the end of the story. Just make sure you keep on eye on that next time.
Thanks, and noted. I think I'll have to proof read better next time lol
This made me think of my grandparents. Well done. Your American writing style is very creative as well. Nice job.