Autumn 1986

Develop two character biographical sketches, no longer than one (1) page for each, supplying date and place of birth, schooling, occupation. Include one (1) major trauma for each that changed their lives. Then write a short scene of no more than two (2) pages in which the characters have an argument that is informed by their respective traumas, but in which the traumas are never explicitly mentioned.

Nelda looked at the syllabus again and shook her head. This was the first assignment? Really? Her shoulders slumped. It seemed beyond her.

She sat in an archway of the colonnade fronting the building, listening to the shuffle and chatter of students coming in and going out, her bag at her feet, the syllabus on her raised  knees. “He’s nuts,” she muttered.

“Hi,” said a soft voice. Nelda turned her head: the graceful girl from the class was talking to her.

“Hi. You’re…um…don’t tell me. Angie, right?” said Nelda.

“Angel.” The girl was tall—taller than Nelda, certainly, who barely exceeded five feet in height—and very slim, at least from the waist down, her legs clad in black tights. Above those she wore a baggy embroidered peasant blouse, emerging from which was a thin, long neck surmounted by a cat-like, almost elfin, brown face with large brown eyes, all crowned by dark, close-cropped curls. Her smile was broad, confident. “And you’re Nelda, right?” She grinned more widely, revealing a gap between her front teeth. “I’ve never met anyone with that name before,” she said, her voice just tinted with a Southern accent.

Nelda smiled back. “I haven’t met any, either,” she said. “There was my father’s mother: she was named ‘Nelda’, but I never met her.”

“So, um, this assignment…”

“Yes, I know! What the hell?” Nelda said, rolling the syllabus up into a tight cylinder and slapping it against her other hand like a baton. “It’s more like a term project!”

“You know, Reingold didn’t say we had to do it all on our own.”

“What do you mean?” Nelda looked confused.

“We could, I dunno, toss ideas around. Look at some books and stories and get some ideas that way. I don’t see the word ‘original’ anywhere in the assignment.” She laughed.

“You mean plagiarize?” Nelda was shocked.

Angel laughed even louder. “No, silly, just get some ideas. Or use real life. Maybe take someone you know and change a few things around. Look, wanna to get some coffee and talk about this? Or lunch? I don’t have any other classes today until 2.”

Nelda shoved the rolled syllabus back into her bag and climbed down from the archway. “Sure.”

“I’m not really hungry,” said Angel as the found an empty table under the blooming jacarandas outside near the cafeteria. “But you go ahead and get something while I hold the table. I’ll just get coffee from the vending machine.”

“Eww. Have you had any of that stuff? I did. This morning. It tastes like crap!” Nelda looked over at the bank of vending machines with distaste. “Look, I’ll get something for me and pick up a coffee for you. Watch my bag,” she said, digging her wallet out and heading to the cafeteria.

“Cream and sugar,” Angel called after her. “Or milk. Not picky.”

A few minutes later, having pushed through the throngs inside and managing to retrieve a chicken salad sandwich, a cup of coffee for Angel, and a cup of water for herself, she stood in line, waiting to pay. In another line she spotted Reingold, holding a tray and talking with a well-dressed woman with a large necklace of alternating amber stones and shiny black beads. Reingold gesticulated somewhat theatrically, almost dropping his tray, and the woman shook her head. For a moment his eyes met Nelda’s, but he didn’t seem to recognize her. She looked away, paid, and quickly found her way outside back to the table she and Angel had commandeered.

“Here’s your coffee,” she said, putting down the tray. “Is creamer okay?” She handed Angel the cup and a handful of creamer packs and sugar packs, along with a red and white plastic stirring straw.

“Sure, love the chemical aftertaste. Makes me feel alive!” Angel said. She spilled a little coffee out of the cup onto the bricks under the table, dumped all the creamer and the sugar into the cup, stirred it, and then sucked up a small mouthful of the brew through the stirrer. “Bzzzzzzz!” she exhaled happily.

Nelda took a bite of her sandwich, looked surprised, swallowed unhappily, and lifted the bread off the top. “Who puts a pickled hot pepper on a chicken salad sandwich?” she complained, and lifted the offending article off and put it on her plate.

“It’s Mexichicken salad,” said Angel. “You should have asked for naked chicken salad. Haven’t you eaten here before?”

“No,” said Nelda. “This is my first time.”

“Really? Really?! Are you a transfer student or something?”

“No, I’m a first-year student,” said Nelda, suddenly embarrassed.

“A freshman! Really! And you got into the workshop?” Angel looked more closely at her. “How’d you swing that? I thought it was limited to juniors or above.”

“No, you just have to meet the pre-reqs. I finished them in high school. Advanced placement.” Nelda looked even more embarrassed.

“Wow! A prodigy!” She said theatrically.

Nelda wanted to crawl under the table. “I guess.”

“I bet you skipped a couple of grades, too, right? You don’t look more than fifteen!”

Nelda put down the sandwich, and reached for her bag. “Sixteen. Seventeen next month,” she mumbled.

“Easy, sweetie! Don’t be shy! That is soooo cool!!” She took another hit of coffee. “Listen, I’m really glad we met. I think between the two of us we can do some serious damage.”

Nelda looked confused. “Damage?”

“Metaphorically,” said Angel. “Between your brains and my…oh, whatever it is that I’ve got, but it was enough to get me into the workshop, so it’s something…I bet we could write some really cool stuff together.”

“Together? But…”

“Didn’t you read the whole syllabus? Collaboration is allowed, you know, as long you ask ahead of time. Page 8, under ‘Working Styles’.”

“Oh.” The thought of working with someone had never occurred to her before: she’d always been a loner in school—none of the other kids wanted to hang out with the “little geek.”

“I mean, we don’t have to work together, but it could be a lot of fun. It helps to have a partner when staring down the Great White!”


“Great White. The blank page.” She looked around dramatically. “It has teeth, you know, and it thirsts for blood!”

Nelda laughed. A partner. Maybe, even, a friend. This was something new. The big campus felt a little less big and intimidating than it had a few hours earlier. “I know where I can get a spear-gun,” she said, and took another bite of her sandwich.

Spring 2042

It took him the rest of the morning and more than a small part of the afternoon, leafing clumsily with cotton-clad hands through the books that Cove had requested, finding the references that he’d listed, and then finding the books to which they’d referred—he’d had to ask for Sheila’s assistance each time when that happened, and each time he’d had to wait until Cove sent back his approval for those additional book requests—and for all of them capturing shots of the relevant pages and passages to send back to Cove.

Herbert, having finally escaped the basement warren, sat in a pool of tree shade at a table near the cafeteria that lay just west of the library, sipping coffee and vaping. From time to time a jacaranda blossom drifted down onto the table from the shade-casting tree. 

He didn’t feel quite like hiking all the way down to the south shuttle drop to catch a ride back to the marina just yet, and the prospect of then having to ride his bicycle all the way back to his apartment from there had even less appeal. He wondered when the financial aid office would finally recover enough from its moist mishap to get around to cutting him his next scholarship check. If soon, maybe he could kick this internship to the curb: he’d have enough money, then, to get by without it, though it would also mean an unwelcome conversation with his faculty advisor.

Oh, well. He could catch the shuttle later—they ran until early evening—and it was pleasant to sit here under a tree on a warm spring afternoon and watch the students go by, scurrying to class or searching for tables to occupy for a late lunch or for study. When he got tired of that, he shut his eyes and watched the red and black flickers on the inside of his eyelids as the breeze rustled the tree’s leaves and let scraps of sunlight fall upon his face.


He opened his eyes. Sheila from Special Collections stood on the other side of the table, holding a tray with a small salad and a bottle of water on it. “Mind if I sit here?” she asked.

He looked around and saw that most of the nearby tables were occupied. “Not at all. I was just taking a break before heading back down to the shuttle stop,” he said, somehow feeling that some explanation of his indolence was necessary. “I guess I should take off now,” he continued. He took a final sip of coffee and slipped his vaper into one of his pockets.

She put her tray down, first brushing fallen purple-blue blossoms from the tabletop. “Thank you.” She sat down. “You don’t have to leave on my account,” she said, taking a sip of her water.

“No I wasn’t…I mean, I don’t have to leave. I’m off for the rest of the day, but I have to go back to the DMP and get my bike and…you don’t need to know any of this, do you,” he stumbled on, once again seeing a captive laugh dancing behind her lips.

“No. But it doesn’t mean I’m not interested,” she answered, letting the laugh loose. She took a bite of salad.

Through his embarrassment, he regarded her as a vagrant breeze gently tousled her pixie-cut sand-colored hair and brought another small shower of jacaranda blossoms fluttering down. One landed on her salad, and she plucked it off, examining it. “Lovely, but not for eating, you,” she told it, tossing it away. She looked back at him. “I still love this time of year, but that doesn’t mean I want to eat its beauty,” she laughed, her green eyes crinkling.

“Maybe they should have nasturtium trees here. You can eat those blossoms,” he offered.

“Yes, but they aren’t any good for shade. They’re ground plants, not trees,” she explained.

“Yes, but maybe they could grow them in hanging baskets. Hang ’em from the trees. Make a tasty flower buffet out here.”

She laughed again. “Nah, the squirrels would just shit in the baskets and that would not be any good at all!”

“No, I guess it wouldn’t.”

She addressed her attention to the salad for a few bites. Herbert wasn’t sure whether to leave or to stay. She was pretty, and definitely more pleasant to spend time with than the anonymous shuttle passengers who almost certainly populated his immediate future.

“How long have you…” he began, just as she said, “How long have you…” They both stopped.

“Please, you first,” he offered.

“Oh, such a gentleman!” She took another bite, another sip of water. “So, the DMP. How long have you worked there? I haven’t seen you before today.”

“I just started. I’m an intern there.” He paused. “A paid intern. My advisor worked it out for me because the flood carried my scholarship check out to sea this term.” He stopped again, wondering why he was telling her so much. Maybe because she looked interested, which was something of an unusual experience for him. Most girls—women—found him exceptionally uninteresting.

“Well, I’m glad they sent you this time. I hate when whatsisname, Brian?…”


“Yes, him. Cove. When he comes to Special Collections. He’s so rude and impatient; you’d think he was faculty and not just a grad student. And I once caught him sneezing on one of our books!” she said in mock horror. “He said it was dusty. I told him he should think about wearing a mask if dust bothered him so much and he gave me such a look! But who wants to open up a book years from now and find it full of dried scholar snot? It’s just disgusting!” she went on, looking even more horrified and disgusted, and then immediately, and with obvious delight, ate a big forkful of salad dripping with dressing.

Herbert cracked up. “I’m so glad you made me wear gloves today!” He paused. “Anyway, about you. How long have you been at Special Collections?”

“Oh, forever and a day. That is, since the start of the school year.”

“Do you like it?”

“It pays the bills. I’m not really all that interested in the work, but I like the people—the ones I work with in the department, that is, not patrons like Br—um–Ryan Cove. Wonder why I keep wanting to call him Brian.” She shrugged and took the last bite of salad left in the bowl.

“Not interested?” Herbert looked puzzled. “I thought you were a library student,” he said.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’m studying design!”

“But I thought you had to be a library student to get a job in Special Collections.”

“No. Well, usually you do, but not always. I came along with one of the collections.”

“Okay, I’m confused.”

For the first time, Sheila looked a little embarrassed. “It’s a long story. Oh, maybe not long, but it’s a story, anyway.” She pushed her salad bowl away and swallowed the rest of her water.

“Sorry, I don’t need to know,” Herbert told her. “It’s really none of my business.”

“That’s okay. It’s just…sorta…well, I don’t know. You see  it’s like this. My family made a big donation to the library last year, but one of the conditions was that I get a job there.”

“But if your family has so much money, why…?”

“It wasn’t money. I mean, I can afford my tuition and stuff. We’re not poor. It’s just that the donation wasn’t money. Have you heard of the Goody Collection?”

“No. What’s that?”

“You never heard of Nelly Goody?” She looked astonished.

“Oh, sure. Mystery writer, right? Deadly Shrike was one of hers, wasn’t it? And those Sonia Rigby stories? Was she also a collector? What did she collect?”

“No, no, she wasn’t a collector. The collection is a collection of her papers and stuff. She was my grandfather’s baby sister. I guess that makes her a sort of aunt or great-aunt. I just knew her as Auntie Nell.” She looked wistful. “She taught me how to tie my shoes. And sometimes when she visited she would tell me really great bedtime stories. Until Daddy told her to stop because he said they would gave me nightmares.” She frowned. “They didn’t. Give me nightmares, anyway, but he didn’t like her, and her stories didn’t help me go to sleep.”

Herbert sighed. “Don’t hate me, but I don’t think I’ve read any of her books. I did see the Deadly Shrike movie, though.” He paused. “That was not a good date,” he said. He thought back: the movie was the least of the problems with that date, but Sheila didn’t need to know that. “So, you’re name is Sheila Goody?”

“No. It’s Anderson. But my aunt wasn’t Nelly Goody, either. I mean, she was, but that wasn’t her name. It was just the one she used for the books.”

“So Nelly Goody was really Nelly Anderson?”

“No. She was my mother’s aunt; Anderson is Daddy’s family name.” She waved her hand, dismissing the question. “Not important. Anyway, when she died a few years ago, she left her stuff to my mom, and my parents decided—Daddy decided, and Mom went along—to donate the papers to the university as long as someone from the family would be one of the collection’s curators. And  since I was thinking of coming here to college…well, they all worked out a deal that the library would hire me as the family watchdog over the collection, just to make sure that they were treated respectfully and that the school wouldn’t sell any of the rights or publish anything embarrassing that they might find in the collection. And they also let me waive the university admission requirements. Not that I needed to waive them—I got really good grades in school—but…” She blushed and looked away, fidgeting. “Anyway that’s the story.”

“Oh.” Herbert’s watch tapped him. “Look, I have to start walking if I’m going to catch the next shuttle back to the marina. But it was nice meeting you!” He stood up.

She stood up too, and took her empty bowl and bottle and deposited them in the recycle bins. “It was nice meeting you, too, Herbert! I’m sure we’ll meet again, since Brian, shit, Ryan! is currently banned from visiting Special Collections.” She pointed at her nose. “You know why.”

“I do.” Herbert smiled, pretended to start to sneeze and grabbed his nose. Sheila laughed and waved as he walked away.


Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Cohen—All Rights Reserved