Autumn 1986

“First, we need traumatic events.” Angel riffled a small stack of index cards, cut the deck, and handed half of them to Nelda. “Let’s write some down, one per card, and then we’ll choose the best two.”

“‘Best’?” Nelda smiled wryly. “Like, what’s a good trauma? Getting hit from behind with a sackful of money?”

“Forgetting you have an exam, showing up late for it, realizing when you get there that you’re naked, and getting an ‘A’ on the test anyway…and then landing a date with the cutest boy in the class. Because he admires your mind!” Angel said. The two of them dissolved into laughter for a while.

“That’s not a trauma. Except for the date part, I have that dream all the time!” Nelda said. 

They dissolved again.

“One more rule,” announced Angel, catching her breath and holding her pen up. “No more than five…no, three words a trauma. Right now we want to kiss!”

“Um…” Nelda looked at Angel, leaned a little back from the paper- and book-strewn table. “We what?”

“Oh, no, no, not me!” Angel hooted. “Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. KISS.”

“Oh. Oh! Right.” She blushed.

“We don’t want to get lost in the weeds. We’ll have plenty of time for that later.”

“Okay. Can I get a drink first? I’m thirsty. And I don’t like to kiss with a dry mouth.”

“And who have you ever kissed? Never mind: we don’t want to explore that trauma.” She laughed; Nelda desperately tried not to blush again. “Go ahead. There’s plenty of coke in the fridge. Glasses above the toaster-oven.” Angel pointed.

Nelda pushed her chair back and got up. “You want one?”

“Yeah, sure. There’s ice, too. Unless one of my roommates didn’t refill the tray.”

Nelda opened the freezer door. Inside were a couple of boxes of frozen peas and an ice-cube tray, barely fitting within the small space left by inches of caked on frost. “Don’t you ever defrost this thing?” she asked, wrestling the tray out and lifting the lever to crack the ice-cubes free.

“No. Not my job. I’m on dust and vacuum patrol; Donna, my roommate, is on kitchen duty this term.” She lowered her voice, glanced from side to side, even though she and Nelda were the only two in the apartment. “She’s a real slob. Half the time I have to re-wash the dishes after she finishes.”

Taking a pair of glasses from the cupboard above the toaster-oven, Nelda examined them suspiciously.

“Those are clean: I washed those!” Angel said.

Nelda plonked a few cubes into each glass, opened the sink’s tap and refilled the tray. She was about to put it back in the freezer, when Angel shouted, “No. Dump that out. The tap water is terrible here. Tastes like swimming pool water. Use that for ice!” She gestured toward a plastic jug on the counter by the old refrigerator.

“You have to buy drinking water?” Nelda looked astonished.

“No, we don’t have to. We want to. If you ever tasted what came out of those pipes, you’d want to too. Trust me.” She got up and opened a cupboard below the counter and took out a small stainless steel pot. “Look at this,” she said, handing it to Nelda.

She dumped the tray’s contents in the sink, put it down, and took the pot. The inside was covered with white deposits. “Oh, dear!”

“Yeah, I let some water boil away in it and that’s what was left behind. I haven’t got around to scrubbing that stuff out yet.” She paused, considering. “I think I’ll need sandpaper. Or explosives.”

“You could boil some vinegar in it. Or mix some baking soda and cream of tartar and salt and scrub it with that.”

“Well, listen to you, Missus Suzie Homemaker!” Angel struck a pose. “When I scrub my pots, my husband always prefers that I wear heels and a string of pearls!”

“And nothing else?” Nelda teased.

“No! Nothing else! When my manly man husband comes home from a hard day of firing people and driving his race car, he deserves a treat!” Angel giggled and sat back down.

Nelda opened the refrigerator. “I don’t see any coke,” she said.

“Sure there is. Right in front of you!”

“I see some 7-Up,” Nelda said doubtfully.

“That’s right. Oh, of course. You California girls call it ‘soda’ not ‘coke’.” She affected a thicker Southern drawl. “Ya Damn Yankees!”

“Well, what do you say when you want an actual coke? Do you ask for a ‘coke-coke’?”

“Close. A ‘co-cola’.”

Nelda opened a can of soda and poured some in each glass, carried both glasses back to the small table and sat down, handing one of the glasses to Angel.

“To trauma!” Angel announced, holding her glass up in a toast.

“Death and destruction!” answered Nelda. She took a sip, picked up her small stack of cards. “Let’s race. See how many cards we can do in the next five minutes, starting…now!”

Angel put down her glass, picked up a pen, and started scribbling. Nelda did the same. A few minutes later she said, “Time! Pens down!”

Angel dotted an i on her card and put down her pen. “Okay. Let’s see what we have.” She grabbed Nelda’s stack and her own, shuffled them together, and started to read: “‘Car crash.’” She flipped a card. “‘Broken hip.’” Flip. “‘Fall from tree.’” Flip. “‘Trapped in elevator.’ That doesn’t sound so traumatic,” she said.

“Depends on who you’re trapped with,” said Nelda. “I only had three words to work with.”

“Judges?” Angel asked an imaginary panel. “They’ll accept it. Okay, moving on. ‘Very messy divorce.’ Oooh, good one!”

“Wait, I didn’t write that one!” Nelda protested.

“No, I did. I’m allowed to admire my own work. ‘Miscarriage.’ Nice one.”

“Thank you.”

“‘Train wreck.’ Isn’t that too close to ‘car crash’?”

“No.” She paused. “I’ve been in both. They’re really quite different.”

“You have? Tell me more!”

Nelda pulled up her left pant leg and rolled down her stockings. A thin, barely visible scar trailed down her calf. “Got that when I was visiting relatives back East and was in a subway accident.”

“Gracious! Was anybody killed?”

“No, it wasn’t much of an accident. Actually, that happened when I fell down climbing out of the subway car. No one else was really hurt but it was scary down in that tunnel in the dark.” She thought back, her expression darkening. “The car crash was much worse, even though I got out of it without a scratch.” She paused. “That’s when I lost my dad.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Yeah, well…” She trailed off. “What else have we got?”

“‘Dead child.’ Oh, sad! Let’s see. Um. ‘Mugging.’ ‘Food poisoning.’ Wait, that sounds unpleasant but hardly traumatic.”

“I threw up all night and was in bed for a week. I can’t even smell seafood anymore without wanting to hurl!”

Angel took a pen and crossed out a word. “Let’s just say ‘poisoning.’ Gives us more maneuvering room. ‘Earthquake.’ Yeah, those can be scary. ‘Gunshot wound.’ Yep. ‘Plane crash.’ We have a bunch of crashes here.”

“Hey, you wrote that one!”

“I’m not criticizing, just commenting. ‘Divorce.’ Oh, you wrote that too. Mine said ‘messy’; much more traumatic! ‘Child abuse.’ Yeah, that’ll leave marks on your soul. ‘Rape.’ Sure, goes without saying.” Angel gathered the cards back up. “I think we have enough to start with,” she said.

“Or to play the worst game of bridge ever: Rape, no trump!” said Nelda.

“As long as I’m not the dummy. All right, next. We need two characters. Sex? Mixed or not? If not, which one?”

“Women, I think,” said Nelda. “I don’t think I could handle a guy.”

“Ha! You never know until you try!”

“Writing a guy, I mean. Sheesh! I haven’t been around many guys. Like I said, I lost my dad when I was a kid, and my brother was way older than me. And I went to girls’ schools, so…”

“Okay, two women. No, wait. I have been around guys, so I can write that part. Besides, how can you expect to be any kind of a short story writer if you can’t write about half the human race?”

“Um. I can learn?” Nelda looked downcast.

“Yes, you can. Say, we do have a couple of boys in the class, you know. Tomorrow why don’t you sit by one of them and ask him to have a coffee with you after class?”

“Ask a boy out?” Nelda looked appalled. 

Angel chortled. “Sweetie, you are asking him to walk a hundred yards with you to get a cup of coffee, not to dinner and dancing and some sweaty time in a Motel 6! Look at it as research.”

Nelda looked embarrassed and dubious. “I’ll think about it.”

“Try that Lake dude. He looks harmless.”

“I said I’ll think about it.”

“Okay, all right. Anyway, I’ll write up the guy’s bio, you do the woman’s, and then we’ll exchange and critique. Sound like a plan?”

Nelda took a deep breath. “Sure. Onward!”

Spring 2042

This time when Cove sent him on another Special Collections excursion, Herbert was more eager to go. Also this time, he put his bicycle on the shuttle’s bike rack, so in case he finished up late (a possibility he didn’t necessarily dread) he wouldn’t have to ride the shuttle back to the marina and then pedal two-thirds of the way to campus to get home.

Paradoxically, as summer got closer the onshore flow became stronger and the morning cloud cover thicker, so even up at campus as noon approached the overcast remained: the sun, when it did manage to break partway through, was little more than a shiny white disk in a field of gray that you could stare at for seconds at a time without pain. Herbert biked up from the shuttle stop to the library and arrived only a little bit winded and only a little bit sweaty.

He was disappointed, however, when he made his way down to Special Collections: instead of Sheila, a spare dark-haired student worker sporting a barely post-adolescent sketchy beard and wearing a grungy dark green tunic was the one who wordlessly handed him the gloves and then took him beyond the second door. Herbert sat down at the small desk to which he was escorted, took his book out, and brought up Cove’s current reference requests, as the student (“Doug,” the dark-haired student mumbled when Herbert asked) brought him the first three of the seven volumes that Herbert was to check today and plopped them unceremoniously on the desk.

He was more disappointed when, at the end of an hour, he hadn’t managed to track down a single one of the references that Cove had asked him to find in the third of the volumes of bound periodicals he’d been asked to look at. He called softly over to Doug, who was sitting, feet up, at a desk at the other end of the aisle from Herbert. “Hey, are you sure this is volume six?”

“Six? The pull request said five.”

“Dammit,” Herbert muttered. “He told me volume six: 1981.” He double-checked his book. “Yes, that’s what he sent me.” He got up and walked over to Doug. “See?”

“Sure, fine, that’s what it says, but that’s not what he sent us in his request. He’ll have to request it again.”

“You couldn’t just…you know, bring this volume to me?” He gestured at the page in his book.

Doug bristled as much as his sloping shoulders and slack posture allowed. “No. I can’t. I can only give you what the pull request says.”

“Okay, okay. You can take this one back, then.” He held the heavy volume out to Doug who took it with a surly sigh.

Herbert echoed Doug’s sigh as soon as he was gone, and sent a message to Cove from his book, telling him that he would need to make another request. He waited for a minute or so, but no response appeared on the message page.

Doug shambled back to his desk, and Herbert went up to him again. “Say, is it okay if I go out and get some lunch and come back in a bit?”

Doug regarded him with indifference. “Sure, fine. Your access is good till five.”

“Can you keep an eye on my desk so no one puts any of the volumes back while I’m gone.”

“Yeah, sure, fine. But I go off-shift at two, and it’s one-thirty now, so…” He shrugged.

“Thanks. You’re a pal,” said Herbert. He went back to his desk, picked up his book, and left.

There was now a blue tinge to the thinning gray cloud cover, and the sun was no longer a safe object to regard unblinkingly when Herbert emerged. He walked down the library steps and turned right toward the north campus cafeteria. At this time of day, nearly all of the tables were still occupied, both inside of the cafeteria and out, but mostly with studying students rather than dining ones. Still, the lines inside would be shorter.

Herbert got a plate of cheese enchiladas and Spanish rice: the enchiladas had spent more than their fair share of time on the steam table and the rice was drier than Herbert liked, but the price was low enough that he didn’t feel quite justified in complaining. He picked up some flatware and a napkin and scouted for a place to sit outside.

There was a small sequestered alcove behind the cafeteria’s north entrance that had a few unoccupied tables—not serifl for people watching, but good for undistracted dining. Herbert took the table farthest from the entrance and sat down, opening his book: undistracted dining was frankly more than this lunch deserved.

He thumbed to the current novel he was reading, one of Nelly Goody’s earlier, and exceedingly violent, Sonia Rigby stories: Tangled Up in Death. He had to admit that she had a flare for spare, evocative, dynamic prose, but there was a lot of rage that throbbed just beneath the surface of almost every passage. He admired the writing, he thought, especially since this was only Goody’s, what, third? novel in the series, but he wasn’t sure if he liked it very much. He did notice that the prose was gripping enough that he discovered he had finished eating without noticing that he’d taken a single bite.

He pushed his plate away and closed his book and saw a someone with a sandy head of pixie-cut hair heading toward the cafeteria’s entrance. “Sheila?”

The pixie-cut stopped and turned. It was Sheila. “Hi,” she said and walked over to Herbert’s table. “How are you?”

“Fine, good to see you again,” he said and motioned to an empty chair. “Do you have time to sit for a bit?” He heard the rhyme even as he said it and felt suddenly awkward.

She laughed. “I’d love to, but I go on shift in…shit, a minute ago!” She turned to leave.

“Wait, I’m done and I’m heading to Special Collections myself. I’ll walk with you.” He quickly bussed his plate and flatware to the recycle bins and trotted after her.

As they walked, he told her of his frustrating experience with Cove’s mis-numbered pull request.

“Oh, yes, that’s Doug. He loves his job so much that he savors it by only doing as little of it at a time as he can get away with. But he’s right, technically: you don’t have privileges for requesting items, just reading privileges.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“But, but…” Sheila said as the climbed the steps to the library’s entrance, “I have staff privileges. One of those privileges is that I can request the volume you need: as long as you look at it under my direct supervision, there isn’t, technically, a problem. As a level-one curator, I’m allowed to get things for readers when they ask—at my discretion.” She paused. “So does Doug; in fact, he’s a level-two curator, so he has even more privileges. But he’s also an asshole, so don’t expect him to exercise them for you unless there’s something in it for him.”

They took the stairwell (the elevators were still not running, but now it was because they needed “operational adjustments” according to a better-printed sign).

“Wait here for a moment.” Sheila waved her key at the door and went in. Herbert waved his watch a minute later and the door unlocked for him.

“Yes, sir, may I help you?” Sheila grinned when he came in, but before he could say anything, she handed him a new pair of gloves. “Come right this way, sir,” she continued, and, as he pulled on the gloves, she opened the second door and beckoned him inside.

“You’re late,” he heard Doug grumble at her as they entered and Herbert made his way to his assigned desk. 

“Sorry. I’ll make up for it by leaving early this evening,” she said sweetly. Doug grunted and left.

Herbert opened his book to the messages page, but still saw no reply from Cove. “Dammit,” he said again. He grabbed the next volume on the stack, consulted his notes, and began slowly turning the brittle pages of the bound periodicals. It was hard to keep it open while he took notes, but a small hand holding a soft fabric bag in a subdued floral pattern entered his field of vision.

“Try this,” Sheila said. The bag was full of sand or small weighty pellets of some kind, and was just heavy enough to hold the volume open to the page he was consulting.

“Thank you!” He looked up and smiled. She smiled prettily back at him.

“Now, what volume was it that you really needed to see?”

Herbert consulted his book. “This one.” He pointed. Sheila nodded and went off into the stacks. She came back a couple of minutes later.

“Here you go, sir,” she said and then rolled the chair in which Doug had been sitting down the aisle so it was close by Herbert’s desk. “I’ll have to watch while you look through that one,” she said.

“That’s fine!” Herbert answered, somewhat more enthusiastically than the occasion warranted. The tiny laugh that lived behind her smile came out to play.

He removed the book weight and closed the volume he was looking at and opened the one Sheila had brought. After a few moments, he found what he was after: the reference he needed was right where Cove said it would be. Herbert took a snap with his book. “Gotcha!” he murmured. He closed the volume and handed it back to her. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” she answered, and took the volume back from him. As she turned to reshelve it, he plucked up his courage and asked, “By the way, what time do you get off tonight?”

She grinned at him, and then made a moue of disappointment. “I’m here until 9 tonight, I’m afraid.”

Herbert sighed. “I have to leave before dark. I’m biking home. But maybe we can, I dunno, have lunch or dinner together some time soon.”

“What about tomorrow? I’m off at 4 then.”

As far as he knew, Herbert didn’t have any reason to come to the library the next day, and he was slated to be at the project offices until 5 then, so he said, “Perfect. Meet you on the steps tomorrow!”


Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Cohen—All Rights Reserved