The writing lab was on the third floor of one of the oldest buildings on campus. At one time it had been an actual laboratory, and it still had a black painted lab workbench along one of its walls above a row of cabinets. The workbench was punctuated by several sinks, and gas and high voltage power outlets intermittently interrupted the wall above it. The sinks were covered with plywood sheets, also painted black, the gas outlets had been stripped of their valves, and the power outlets were concealed behind screwed-on caps. Hanging above the workbench was a large hand-drawn poster of a keyboard with various keys labeled “back,” “save,” “reverse,” “screen page,” “word,” “sentence,” and so on.
Most of the lab was filled with tables arranged in three rows. On the tables sat boxy gray computers, four apiece on each side of each table. Busily typing students occupied seats in front of most of the computers, although a few of the seats were still free. The click-clack of keys was almost drowned out by a rhythmic ripping noise coming from two dot-matrix printers at one end of the black worktable. By the door to the lab sat a desk supporting another computer: the monitor almost concealed the student stationed behind it.
“Photo ID?” said the student.
“Oh, yeah, wait a sec.” Nelda rummaged in her bag, found her wallet, and took out her student ID. A dark thumbnail image of Nelda glared morosely out at her from the card. She handed it to the student who examined it.
“Open lab hours for another forty minutes before the next class. You can take station…” He looked around. “Four.” He looked at the card, typed something on his computer, then put Nelda’s ID into an open card box next to the computer. “Have you been here before? Do you have a disk?”
“Uh, no, I…no, I haven’t. Sorry.”
“No problemo,” said the student. “You can buy one for a buck.”
Nelda took a dollar from her wallet and handed it to the student, who pulled a cashbox out from one of the desk drawers and put the bill in it. From another drawer he extracted a small cardboard box and opened it, taking from it a black floppy disk in a plastic-coated paper sleeve. “Papers Disk,” said the label on the disk.
“Have you…no, right, you said you haven’t.” He opened a folder that sat on the desk beside the card box. “Here,” he said, handing her a few photocopied pages stapled together, and, separately, from a second folder, a long thin sheet of paper about the same width as his computer’s keyboard. This sheet was a smaller version of the keyboard poster on the wall. “Instructions and keyboard chart. Write your name and student ID number on the disk—use a marker, not a ballpoint. Here.” He handed her a small marking pen and Nelda carefully wrote her name and number on the desk label, then handed him back the pen. “Check in with me, uh, Zelda, when you leave to get your ID card back; we can keep the disk safe for you if you like for the next time you come in. If you do take it with you, make sure you don’t fold it or bend it or get it wet or dirty; these things are fragile. Keep it in a disk box. If you don’t have a disk box, you can put it between the pages of a book. A big book, one with hard covers is best. Holler if you need any help.”
“Thank you,” Nelda said, and then, as she headed for the computer with a big “4” taped to the side of its monitor, muttered in a voice too low to be heard above all the clicking and ripping noises, “and by the way, my name is Nelda.”
She sat down and began to read the instruction sheets. “Jeeze. This day keeps getting better and better.”
“So, how was coffee with Glen?” Nelda looked up at the silhouette of Angel’s curl-capped head that was blocking the westering sun.
Nelda groaned. “I think I will kill you for making that suggestion,” she said, putting down her Econ book.
“Oh, no, sweetie, that good?” Angel sat on the bench beside her.
“He’s an idiot. And he drools!”
“Well, kinda. It always seems like there’s a little bit of spit at the corner of his mouth. It’s disgusting. And now he thinks I’m interested in him. He asked me for my number!”
“Did you give it to him?”
“I told him that the phone company had deallocated my line and I wouldn’t even have a number for another week.”
“‘Deallocated.’ That was fast thinking,” said Angel.
“Actually, it’s the truth. I should have moved into the dorms. My brother wanted me to, and I applied for a dorm room, but instead I’m in a teeny little apartment that my mom got me in a building that her company owns. The building staff there watch out for me. Or spy on me for her. She pays them to.”
“I didn’t know you had a private apartment! We should work there next time!”
“No, it’s really teeny. Just a room, a bathroom, and a hotplate. Used to be an office. The rest of the building is offices.” She sighed.
“Wait a minute, you live in an office building?!”
“Yeah. A small one. It’s down in the Village. The Richardson Building. My mom has an office there, too, though she usually hangs out in her main office in Beverly Hills. She said it was a perfect compromise: I can be on my own and still be safe. She likes it because, like I said, she has people who can spy on me, and I can walk to school. Mom doesn’t want me to take any buses, says they’re not safe, especially at night, and she doesn’t want me to drive. Anyway, I can’t drive. No license. She wouldn’t even let me take the test.”
“Oh. Sorry.” They sat in silence for a few moments. “So, um, did you get the bio written?”
“Yeah, I did it last night. I wanted to type it up and revise it before I showed it to you, but…” She went back to rummaging in her bag and pulled out her spiral notebook. “Here it is,” she said, ripping two pages from the notebook and handing them to Angel.
“I can barely read this,” Angel said, looking the pages over. “Don’t you have a typewriter?”
Nelda’s shoulders drooped and she hung her head. “No. I thought I’d type it up today at the computer writing lab, but they use some weird program for word processing, and I couldn’t figure it out before the lab closed for a class.”
“You know how to use computers? That’s cool!” Angel regarded her. “Where’d you pick that up?”
“I thought I knew how to use them, but like I said…” She shrugged. “I guess I could have asked one of the people in my building if I could borrow a typewriter or use one of the word processors there, but I didn’t finish writing it until late and I didn’t have any time this morning.” Another shrug and a sigh. “Besides, I want to keep a low profile there. I don’t want to owe any of them any favors; that’d be just what my mother would want.”
“Sweetie, it sounds like she loves you and just wants to keep you safe.”
“Like a straitjacket wants to keep me safe.” She turned to Angel. “You know, I was accepted at Harvard, but my mom said it was too expensive and she didn’t want me going that far way. But we really could have afforded it. It’s really because she thinks I’m still a kid. I had to argue for months and months just to get her to agree to let me live near campus on my own instead of commuting. It was when I reminded her that I would have to take two buses to get here from home, and sometimes late at night, that she finally caved in.” She paused. “Actually, it was Ben who came up with that argument. My brother.”
“Oh, right, the ‘way, way older’ brother you mentioned.”
“You have a good memory!” said Nelda.
“I pay attention. It’s what writers do,” said Angel, preening. “Look, let’s get to the library and get this copied, and I can also give you a copy of the bio that I wrote. Then I have to scoot. Some of us have to work for a living! We can meet up tomorrow for lunch and exchange notes. Sound like a plan?”
“Yes.” Nelda paused. “Can we meet in the student union for lunch? I don’t want to risk running into that Lake idiot.”
“Sure. You know, I’m really sorry about that. I thought he was harmless.”
“Oh, he is. Just disgusting. And, oh, I don’t know…intense. It was only coffee, but he acted like it was a come-on! Are all guys like that?”
Angel laughed. “Most of them!” She thought for a moment. “Maybe only eighty percent.”
“This is it?” Herbert looked at a single metal bookcase, six shelves high. Paper books, some with soft covers, some with hard, resided on the upper shelves, but the bottom three held large white plastic file crates, all sporting paper labels, handwritten in several different hands, to which strips of barcode had been pasted.
“Doesn’t look like much,” Herbert said.
“Auntie Nell moved around a lot, and she wasn’t much for collecting stuff. But everything that was in her office when she died is here. Except for some family photos and awards.” Sheila gestured toward the bookcase with a white-gloved hand.
Herbert reached his similarly gloved hand toward one of the upper shelves, halted. “May I?”
“Go ahead. Gently. Some of those books are in bad shape, and a lot of them have bindings that are shedding pages.”
He picked up a paperback with a yellow cover. “North American Box Turtles: A Natural History,” he read. “Box turtles?” It opened to a couple of well-thumbed pages that had faintly penciled notes. “‘b.t. could gobble pois omlt,’” he read aloud, haltingly.
“Research for one of her stories. I forget the title, but the murder victim in it was a herpetologist.”
“Interesting.” Herbert gently closed the book and put it back on the shelf.
This was not quite how Herbert had expected the evening to go. He’d planned to buy them a nice, but inexpensive, supper down in the Village and then maybe catch a movie. Instead, Sheila had suggested that they eat on campus (“Really, all I want is a salad,” she’d said, “and I love the salad bar in the union!”) and together they’d walked down to the student union’s food court. Herbert was intrigued at the care with which she navigated the salad bar and constructed her meal (“Plating is a deceptively complex art that isn’t as honored as well as it deserves,” she’d laughed, individually placing cherry tomatoes and croutons around the edge of the paper bowl which already contained a carefully arranged array of various vegetables). Herbert, on the other hand, casually grabbed a dish of spinach lasagna from under the heat lamps—and skipped the complimentary garlic bread (“just in case,” he thought). He paid for both meals, and they went out to the balcony where the sun, still a couple dozen degrees above the horizon, was beginning to cast long shadows.
He found her remarkably easy to talk to, and they ate slowly, exchanging stories and commonplace observations about school, about work, about life. He wasn’t ordinarily much of a conversationalist, but somehow she made him feel urbane and witty, and several times he was pleased to see that he’d managed to coax her hidden laugh out to play.
The more they talked, the more he realized that she was really smart. Really smart. It wasn’t her vocabulary or anything else he could actually pin down, but no matter which way their conversation went, she could engage knowledgeably. Frankly, he would have found her intimidating if it weren’t that she seemed so comfortably delighted to be chatting with him.
When they were almost done with supper, he mentioned that he was reading one of her aunt’s Sonia Rigby stories.
“Which one?” she asked.
He told her, and she said, “Oh, yes, God, that one! That one is pretty dark! And twisted.” She paused. “On the other hand, that describes most of her stuff, really. Auntie Nell was the last person you’d expect to see riding a sparkly unicorn over a rainbow meadow,” she said. “Oh, oh! You know, speaking of twisted, when she was working on Tangled she spent a lot of time researching string tricks and string art. She taught me how to do a cat’s cradle and a Jacob’s ladder. I remember an owl picture that she made from thread when she was writing that book. It used to hang on the wall in her office. Its eyes followed you around the room; it scared me when I was a kid until she took it down and showed me how it was put together. I bet that it’s somewhere in the collection. Do you want to see if it is?”
It wasn’t the opportunity to sit in the dark with Sheila that he’d hoped for, but it sounded better than his own vague plan for the evening. Truth be told, he was interested. “I am a leaf on the wind,” he said in response.
“Oh, Wash!” she laughed. “I promise there won’t be any harpoons!”
And that’s how they found themselves deep in Special Collections’ bowels instead of in a movie theater.
He picked up a few more books and looked through them. All of them contained marginalia to some extent; Goody apparently was an inveterate marker-up of books, and the ones archived here bore the traces of her research forays in the service of her novels and stories. He gradually came to realize that most of the books on the shelves had been published before the end of the century’s first decade: she’d probably switched to ebooks and web research around that time.
Sheila, meanwhile, had wrestled one of the white plastic crates down from its shelf, put it on a table, and lifted the lid. A stack of file folders took up most of the interior, and a couple of loose-leaf notebooks. She replaced the lid, heaved the crate back onto its shelf, and grabbed another one.
“Gah!” Herbert almost shouted. The book he was looking at contained a series of gruesome pictures of dissected body parts: Surgical Pathology Dissection: An Illustrated Guide was its title. Copious handwritten notes surrounded the photographs in the craniofacial section. He wondered which of Goody’s books had had the benefit of her research on this.
“I think it’s this one,” Sheila said. She lifted a stack of flat boxes out of the crate. The first two contained various bits of desk-drawer detritus (“I can’t imagine anyone cares what kind of staples she used,” Sheila mumbled as she lifted a half-empty box of them, “but I am sure there are fans who’d buy them!”). The third box, however, contained what she was after: a small wooden frame containing an angry looking owl that was composed entirely from colored threads that stretched between and twisted around pins set into the frame’s light gray backing. She propped it up on one of the shelves. “There. Say hello to Athena!”
“Wow!” said Herbert. “She does have fierce eyes!” The owl portrait reminded him of the novel he was still reading, and with it the murderous psychopath of the story who liked to bind his victims in bizarre and elaborate ways—he imagined Goody patiently working on the owl as she meticulously worked out her gruesome murder scenes. He felt chilled and became acutely conscious of the many shadowy areas around them here in the archives.
He tore his eyes away from the owl (which, nonetheless, continued staring angrily at him) and looked down into the crate. He noticed two colorful plastic boxes, one smaller than the other. He’d seen boxes like them before at the DMP: Could they be…?
“Sheila, can we take a look at those?” he asked.
She lifted the two boxes out, and opened the larger one. “A floppy disk!” they both said.
“I wonder what’s on it?” Sheila asked, carefully sliding the disk out and squinting at the label. “It says ‘Papers Disk’ and it has her name on it.”
He stood behind Sheila (who, though a little dusty, smelled wonderful!) and peered over her shoulder. “No, I think it says, ‘N. Goudy,’ not ‘Goody,’” Herbert said.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s Auntie Nell. Her last name was ‘Goudy,’ but she changed the spelling when she first got published. Told me once that people always pronounced her name ‘Goody’ anyway so why not make it easier for them.”
“Huh. Oh, yeah, right, I remember you saying she changed her name. I’m an idiot.” Herbert looked more closely at the disk. “It’s an old 5 ¼ inch disk,” he said. “They stopped using those almost forty years ago, but this one is probably even older if she was still using her real name back then.”
Sheila turned her head, bringing their faces close together. For a moment, Herbert irrationally thought she was going to kiss him, but her eyes, though sparkling, were thoughtful rather than amorous, and she asked, albeit somewhat throatily, “Do you think there is any way we could find out what’s on this?”
He cleared his own throat. “I don’t know. There were a lot of different computer systems that used these kinds of disks back then, and they almost all had incompatible ways of recording stuff on them.” He paused. “And even if we knew the system, we’d have to know what apps she was using, too. Most apps had their own ways of doing things as well.”
She slid the disk back into the sleeve, and was about to put it into the box again.
“Wait,” Herbert said. He looked inside the box and saw a slip of paper. He pulled it out. It was a handwritten receipt for one dollar, and it was stamped with “WPWP Lab.”
“What’s ‘WPWP’?” asked Sheila as Herbert showed it to her.
“I don’t know. But it’s a clue!” he said. He pulled out his book. “May I? I mean, you are in charge of the Goody Collection.”
“Of course, Herb,” Sheila said. “I’ll send you the paperwork in the morning.” She grinned and she first held up the receipt and then the disk as he snapped a couple of pictures.
“Thanks. I’ll see what I can find out,” he said.
“Thanks!” She put the disk and receipt back in the box, put the box back in the crate, and sealed it. As she lifted it back onto the shelf she said, “By the way, I wasn’t kidding about the paperwork.”
Herbert laughed. “I know.”
Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Cohen—All Rights Reserved