Out of the Mouths of Babes

Estelle Berg was even more out of sorts than usual, if that was possible. She had decided, on this perfectly lovely autumn afternoon, to go to the library to pick up the book she had on hold and probably another one or two. As she stood waiting for Mrs. Corcoran at Circulation to find her on-hold copy of the latest James Patterson book, a throng of children came rushing in the front door, book bags banging and loud chattering disrupting the whole quiet, dignified atmosphere of the Hallstrom Public Library. Estelle glanced up at the clock. 3:30. They must have all just been released from the grade school a couple of blocks away.

“Here you go, Mrs. Berg. You were smart to request a Hold on that Patterson book, we can’t seem to keep enough copies on hand.” Janet Corcoran smiled and handed the book to Estelle. “All checked out for you.”

“Isn’t there some sort of rule about being Quiet in the Library?” Estelle asked, frowning at the children heading toward the bank of computers at the near edge of the Children’s Department.

“Oh, isn’t it wonderful to see the young people so interested in books?” Janet smiled at Estelle Berg, hoping she would see the positive side to the children’s exuberance. “That’s such a pretty cardigan you’re wearing. Is it new?”

Estelle glanced down at the bulky dark green cardigan she wore to ward off the first of autumn’s chills. She was a thin person, had been all her life, and so was used to dressing warmly at the first drop in temperature. 

“Actually, it is new. Thank you.” Estelle paused—then realized she had been deliberately sidetracked and spoke sharply to the pleasantly plump Mrs. Corcoran. “It would be wonderful if the children were quiet about it. Some of us prefer our library to be quiet, calm, peaceful.”

 Estelle turned away, somewhat flummoxed about which direction to turn. She wanted to go over to the display of new books, but it was right next to the Children’s Department and she just plain didn’t like the noise those brats were making. It completely disrupted her usually serene visit to the nice, quiet library.

But she had little choice. She couldn’t go home with only one book; she’d be back in just another day or two. Estelle moved deliberately over to the two displays of “New Releases,” determined which one was Fiction (she never read Non-Fiction, the world was a horrible enough place without being reminded of it by some hot-shot journalist) and began looking for some of her favorite whodunit authors. Estelle loved the smell of these new books. A book that was really old or else really new, had a distinctive fragrance that invited a reader’s inspection. Thankfully, the children seemed to have quieted for the moment—she glanced over to the department and saw that several of them were settling in at the bank of computers at this end.

“Let’s see… Brad Thor, Lee Child, oh! here’s the new Laura Lippman!” Estelle picked up the book to read the blurbs on the back.  

In that very instant, the momentary quiet was shattered with joyful exclamations from children at the computers. Estelle turned to scowl at them, but of course they paid her no heed. She tried to concentrate on reading what the New York Times Review said about the Lippman book, but couldn’t even begin to think.

Estelle didn’t hesitate. She marched right over to the Children’s Department. A smallish person, a very young man seemed to be in charge, situated as he was behind that department’s Circulation Desk. Thomas Blair, his nametag said. Director – Children’s Services

“Mr. Blair,” Estelle addressed him directly, firmly, even though he was smiling idiotically at her. “May I request that you keep these young people in your charge in some sort of proper library decorum?” It wasn’t really a request, it was a directive.

“It’s that Dr. Seuss Fix-Up the Mix-Up game,” he said, as if that explained everything.

“But you’re allowing them to disturb other library patrons,” Estelle pointed out.

Thomas Blair looked around for other library patrons who were being disturbed. He saw none. “There’s a very quiet reading area over on the other side of the Circ Desk,” Thomas Blair said.

Estelle could not believe the brush-off she was receiving from this impertinent young man. She had half a mind to report him to the Director of the Library. She knew where his office was up on the third floor. She might do that the next time she was here, but today she had to hurry home to get ready to go to her monthly bridge game. She was already wasting her time—she could see—trying to reason with this particular library employee.

Estelle turned on her heel and headed for the Circulation Desk to check out the Laura Lippman book. By this time, several people were ahead of her in line. She stood a minute, wondering if she should just bag it and pick up the Lippman book when she returned the Patterson book. But that would mean an extra trip. She hesitated, and just as she was about to get in line, one of the little noise-makers from the Children’s Department came up to her.

“Do you know how to check out a book by yourself?” asked Emma—peering at Mrs. Berg from behind her large pink-framed eyeglasses. “So you don’t have to stand in line,” Emma explained to Mrs. Berg, who looked confused. 

This child looked to be six or seven? Or eight? Estelle had long since lost her ability to guess at the age of children. She had long brown braids and big brown eyes behind those ridiculous spectacles.

“I can show you,” Emma offered. She actually took Estelle Berg by the hand and led her a few feet away to one of the library’s new-fangled machines with blinking lights and ominous slots. Estelle noted the child’s little hand felt soft in her own rough, callused hand.

“Do you have your library card?” Emma asked, pushing up the sleeves of her denim jacket. 

Estelle mutely nodded yes and showed the card to the little girl.

“Just put it in here so the machine can read your barcode,” Emma explained.

Estelle did as she was told, with Emma’s guidance, so the library card was facing in the right direction.

“Then you put the book over here so the machine can read its barcode.” Emma took the book from Mrs. Berg and demonstrated how to properly position the book. She pushed another button to indicate the transaction was complete, and out came a piece of paper, which Emma handed to Mrs. Berg.

“The Due Date’s on there. That’s so you know when you have to bring it back,” Emma told her, very matter-of-factly. She pushed those big glasses up on her nose.

“Well.” Estelle was almost at a loss for words. “Well, thank you.”

“Next time, you’ll be able to do it all by yourself,” Emma predicted. She reached down for the Big Bird book bag she had set on the floor. The little girl turned to go. 

“Yes, thank you. You’ve saved me considerable time.” Estelle said, summoning half a smile from somewhere deep inside herself.“Have a good day.” Emma waved and smiled a BIG smile as she went off in the direction of Children’s Services.

Mary Ann Presman

My first job as a teenager was as a library page, for 70-cents an hour. Loved it! Eventually, I turned into a copywriter, and also worked as a radio disc jockey and TV weatherperson. My previous short story collection, “The Good Dishes,” was published in 2019.