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Fiction Sad Drama

The library was as dark and silent as a closed book. Miss Motte sat alone in the shadows and ran her fingers lovingly along the slick-worn surface of her oak desk, across which so many books had passed to be checked out and checked back in.

 “The Grace Longfellow County Library,” Miss Motte whispered. She was accustomed to keeping her voice low, a lifelong habit from being the head librarian here for more than thirty-three years. She shook her head in futile denial, as if to rid her thoughts of what had just occurred. But the reality of this blatant rejection plagued her.

“It’s just not fair!” she exclaimed louder now, slapping her palm on the desk. Then her shoulders sagged with exhaustion, and every muscle ached as if she were coming down with the flu. She felt so used.

 But what did she expect? Did she think they were going to dedicate the library to her?  “The Essie May Motte County Library,” she whispered a little louder. It didn’t even sound right. Still, it had always been there in the back of her mind, a bronze plaque affixed just to the left of the double glass doors, golden letters gleaming in the morning sun, her name gleaming in the sun.  So that every passer-by, every patron, old and new, would know. And they would stop in to congratulate her, or beam at her when they checked out their books. Saw your name on the pretty gold plaque, they would say. Very nice. You deserve it. Such an honor!

She had imagined it from the moment she had answered the ad for a librarian, confidently skipping up the three steps, her sensible shoes tapping like a dancer, the local newspaper tucked under her arm, dressed in a second-hand beige suit she had purchased just for the interview. The City Council had hired her on the spot, impressed by her knowledge of literature and professionalism.

Now it was never to be.

“So unfair,” Miss Motte repeated, quieter this time, uttered to no one.

She had poured her life into this library, expanding the Children’s Section in her second year, chairing countless fundraisers, writing to the City Council for supplies. Some days, and most weekends, she would stay long after closing, strolling the aisles among the shelved books, pulling one out and reading a random page. She’d find a ‘lost’ book and return it to its rightful place in the Dewey Decimal System.

Sitting under the bare lightbulb in the claustrophobic back room, just a closet really, she would catalogue books and pen library cards and labels in her thin, neat cursive. Or later, peck away on the typewriter she had convinced the City Council to purchase, which was so much more professional.

She sighed. The welcome banner and crepe-paper streamers from the afternoon dedication ceremony still hung from the ceiling, pale in this dim light, like torn paper ghosts. Miss Motte recalled the stifling closeness in the main library room, packed with people; It had been standing room only, including the mayor, city officials and other members of the community. And all attention had been turned to that woman.

Grace Longfellow.

She had stood right where Miss Motte was now sitting, had used this desk as a makeshift podium for her acceptance speech.  Wearing a tight-fitting red suit that revealed too much thigh, and much, too much cleavage, she had read from hastily scrawled notes. She hadn’t even bothered to remove her sunglasses. Miss Motte could still smell traces of her pungent perfume.

“Although I don’t live in this delightful, little town,” Grace Longfellow had begun, addressing the many who stared with rapt attention, “I can’t tell you what a wonderful honor it is to have this wonderful library named after me.” Her voice rose and cracked slightly, as if Grace Longfellow might cry, but her eyes were hidden behind her dark glasses, and people could only assume her emotional sincerity and gratitude.

Miss Motte, sitting in the back of the room, a smile pasted hypocritically to her face, thought Grace Longfellow overly dramatic and badly in need of a better vocabulary.

“I’ve often driven past libraries and said, now there’s a wonderful place,” the woman continued, seeming to have quickly regained her composure. “Why, I’ve always adored books.  I’ve read so many wonderful stories like …” and Grace Longfellow turned her head, scanning the shelves, searching for something, the title of a book perhaps, “… like some of these wonderful books here,” she finished. Admiring murmurs rose from her adulating audience.

You don’t fool me, Miss Motte thought. Just because the widow Grace Longfellow, once married to the very wealthy, very dead Mr. William Longfellow the third, had donated a modest sum of money to the library, the City Council didn’t have to go and name the building after you.

This all began on the happenstance that this woman, Grace Longfellow, once married to a famous politician, found herself in this small Midwestern town. She was thirty-six at the time of her husband’s passing, and she intended to travel the world with the millions left to her from his estate. Apparently, her travels took her through Creekbed, Michigan, just passing through on her way to more sophisticated places.

Nonetheless, the local newspaper got wind of her overnight stay and had cornered her at Creekbed’s only inn (a real celebrity in our little town). Surrounded by reporters shouting out questions, she turned her powdered face to the cameras, wrapping her mink stole closer about her shoulders despite the stifling heat in the lobby. Microphones were thrust expectantly toward her pouting, red lips.

“Yes, I do so miss my dear husband. He loved to read,” she added, slightly wrinkling her nose at this mundane waste of time. But then the idea had struck her in her newfound fame. “That’s why I intend to make a substantial donation to your local library,” she blurted. “Yes, that’s what I’ll do,” and lightbulbs had flashed and popped. The newspaper had printed her every word. She made good on her promise that next morning and left soon after.

It was at one of the City Council’s monthly meetings that the subject of the donation was brought up. “I feel, in light of the recent donation by Grace Longfellow, that we thank her in some way,” one member said.

“What do you suggest?” another asked.

“Since the money was meant for the library, I say we place a commemorative sign there,” the member responded.

“Why not simply name the library after her? It’s been the same since before the turn of the century, soon after this town was founded,” another said, and the room began to buzz with excitement. “After all, it’s about time we put the old name to rest.”

“I agree,” said another. “We’ll rename the library after our generous benefactor and have a gold plaque made with her name on it as well. I propose we vote on this today. After all, the old sign on the library wall is outdated, crumbling in places, letters missing even. What better way to upgrade the library’s look, thus enhancing the town as well?”

The proposal needed no more discussion, and all voted unanimously in favor. Preparations for a dedication ceremony were made, and the plaque requisitioned from a local merchant. The council secretary got in touch with the traveling Grace Longfellow, and informed her of the good news, setting a date for her return and acceptance.

Miss Motte had been sitting at her desk when Mayor Collins had ushered Grace Longfellow into the library on the eve of the dedication. The mayor’s reddened face was glistening with perspiration, and he was panting heavily. He yanked a handkerchief from his back pocket and blotted his forehead. Miss Motte thought he might be having a heart attack.

“This heat wave we’re having,” he said to Grace Longfellow, who stood before him, ignoring him, cool and calm, her eyes roaming the layout of the room. “The librarian, Miss Motte,” he continued, and Miss Motte had stood, extending her hand – it was what one did when one was introduced. But the self-absorbed Grace Longfellow had turned away without so much as an acknowledging glance. Her cell phone was ringing. She snatched it from her sequined handbag with practiced dexterity. Grace talked rapidly, holding up one index finger in the mayor’s face, as if to say, “Hold on,” the nail sharp and long, a gaudy shade of red.

She chatted, moving toward the exit, and Mayor Collins had followed. Evidently, she was done here. Out on the sidewalk Grace Longfellow finished her call just as the mayor caught up to her.

“Well, what do you think?” he wheezed.

“Just a short speech?” she asked. “Tomorrow at noon?”

“Yes, yes,” he puffed. “All preparations are completed. The board members and some of our best patrons will attend.”

And so it was, and so it had been done. Grace Longfellow had held up the polished plaque at the end of her speech, while her audience clapped with approval, and she handed it to the mayor to be mounted to the outside wall the following day. Miss Motte had glowered at the travesty.

Now, as the hour slipped nearer to midnight, the librarian laid her cheek against the cool wood of the desk. At least the odor of strong perfume had at last vanished. Instead, the calming scent of timeworn books and aging paper was all she could smell. The library’s hushed environment soothed her aching heart as it always could, and brought a tranquil stillness to her troubled mind. She closed her eyes, feeling so very tired, and let her thoughts take her to faraway places, to Manderley and Camelot, to Pearl Buck’s China, and Jack London’s Alaskan wilderness.

It began to rain, at first just a light sprinkling, then harder, beating down on the roof and spitting against the windowpanes. Outside, on the library wall, the original sandstone frame broke off into chunky fragments, and the rain continued to beat harshly against it. The words carved into the stone over a century ago could not be read now. In moments, the last of the lettering crumbled to the ground.

Inside the library, Miss Motte drifted off, at one with the silence, at one with peace.

Tomorrow, the Motte Memorial Library would get a new name and a bright new golden plaque. But the town would never forget its original organizer and very first librarian, Miss Essie May Motte, buried for nearly one hundred years now in the town’s cemetery on the hill.

August 11, 2022 18:17

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2 comments

Whitney W.
16:05 Aug 17, 2022

The first line of this story is FANTASTIC!!! I once took a class where we had to find the first lines of novels that stuck with us-this will stick with me :) I also loved when she gets lost in thoughts of Camelot and the Alaskan wilderness. It's so perfectly librarian.

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Carolina Mintz
19:30 Aug 17, 2022

Thank you, Whitney. I recently found this website, looking for outlets where real people read my work, hoping for feedback, good or not-so-good. Yours will always remind me, that yes, the first line must pull your reader in, as well as a good ending.

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