I’m headed for Cleveland Public Library’s West Branch on Thursday morning, November 16, one month following my wife Maeve’s cremation. It’s beyond nippy, it’s bloody freezing. Unfortunately, I’m wearing only the blue wool suit she liked, without a topcoat. She bought it for me when I became a full professor at Cleveland State in 1981. It’s still in remarkably good shape, although the fabric is frayed near the pants pockets.
Once inside the door, I linger at the vent blasting warmth, standing well out of the way like an eighty-five-year-old should who’s had his time and ought to be dead—that’s what the eyes of so many seem to say, if they alight on me at all. The soaring high ceiling with its central skylight, the tall, paned windows is inviting, but it’s the scent of ink and leather that most intoxicates. Today the aroma is bittersweet, like the sweat of hard labor mingled with roses well past their prime. Closing my eyes, I inhale deeply and shiver. I was right to come here today.
I proceed to the reading area to which we’ve made our morning pilgrimage for the past twenty years since retirement. Though Maeve wasn’t ready, being ten years younger, she retired when I did, at sixty-five. Hard to believe these daily pilgrimages were her idea, since it’s me who’s addicted to The New York Times, for which I see no reason to pay.
“You’re a cheap bastard, Lee,” she’d say, with a sly grin, cueing my usual rebuttal.
“Well,” I’d retort, “I have been known to economize on occasion.” Then I’d snap the crisp pages of our dumbed-down daily apart, sending the sharp scent of ink deep into my sinuses. But I always saved the best part of my brain for the real reading experience. Nothing like The Times to get synaptically, syntactically aroused.
Today, though, I can’t bear the thought of reading bad news just yet. I’ll just sit here in silence for a while, a mile away from the apartment we shared since downsizing in ’96. At home, Maeve’s too close—her clothes, her perfume’s scent, her voice inside my mind. Among the sounds of gently clicking keyboards, turning pages, quiet greetings and muffled conversation, maybe I’ll be able to forget for a few moments that she’s gone and believe she’s simply stepped out to the ladies’.
I drop into the brown leather Chesterfield against the wall and remember how she sat erectly in the lavender wingchair by the window so that she could bird-watch between paragraphs in the Geographic and New Yorker, before bounding off to research children’s authors for the book she was always going to write. We’d arrive just after ten and sit in silent literary intimacy until 11:45, when she’d rejoin me, we’d stand and stroll to Leibowicz’s Deli for lunch. Afterwards, I will return home. I do not want to face Abe Liebowicz and his gorgeous daughter who’ve prepared my pastrami on rye and Maeve’s bagel with cream cheese, cucumber and onion since the cowboy actor disastrously inhabited the White House. Here at the Public, I’m invisible. Exactly as I prefer.
But now one of the reference librarians is making a beeline toward me. It’s the young one with the scrappy black beard and hair ski-sloping down his forehead. My pity meter hums to life and I try for my sternest face, the one with forehead furrows Maeve was forever trying to smooth away with silken fingers. He slows, a thirty-something sporting black-framed glasses, perhaps sensing my disapproval. He’s wearing a tie but also blue jeans, a look I abhorred in my younger colleagues.
“May I?” He points at the chair beside me.
“It’s your library,” I say, shrugging. “I’m merely a patron.”
He sits on the edge of the chair and leans toward me, weaving his long fingers together.
“And a very loyal patron, too, sir. You usually visit every day. Until lately, of course.”
At least he keeps his voice low. I hate attracting attention in a public setting. The boy seems nervous, his hands even shaking a little. He looks a lot like Michael, who, at his age, also had long straight hair and a beard before he disappeared following our last argument during the first Bush’s administration.
“Your wife, she—” he begins.
“Died and was cremated a month ago exactly,” I finish for him, as if he is my son, who’d not responded after I’d left the awful news of his mother’s passing on his voicemail. I’d discovered his number in Maeve’s little secret book, as I’d known I would. Now the boy librarian is hanging his head. Maybe he’ll go away. But no; now he’s looking up at me like a mournful Bassett hound.
“I read about her passing in the Plain Dealer.”
Despicable newspaper. But before I can verbalize my disdain, he says the most astonishing thing.
“Your wife had the most gorgeous hair.”
I’m speechless and he reads me like—ha—a book. While I gape, he stumbles on.
“Just like my gran’s before she passed.”
The comparison barely registers. I’m seeing Maeve’s wispy silver mane, gleaming from within like a sunlit afternoon cloud glimpsed from a plane’s window. Her hair was her most striking feature as she aged. And that’s saying something for my wild Irish rose.
“She lost it,” I rasp, “all of it.”
“But,” he rushes on, “to me she remained as beautiful as a goddess. She magnified the light and gave it back twenty-fold.”
I fix him with my most testicle-shrinking glare. “Huh! As if you knew my wife.”
Amazingly he nods, smiling tightly.
“I did know her. Since I came on board eight months ago, your lovely wife and I have been having sort of an affair.”
I can only imagine what I must’ve looked like, judging by his sudden alarm.
“Platonic, I assure you! But passionate in its way, intellectually. I confess, though, I found her mature beauty as astonishing as her mind.”
And now I am astonished by my own curiosity. I ratcheted my glare down a few degrees, apparently sufficient for him to continue.
“Even after your wife lost her hair, I found her more stunning than ever, with her colorful hats and headdresses, but I never got up the nerve to tell her so.”
Then he lowers his gaze, apparently losing his confidence, just as Michael used to, avoiding my eyes when I was berating him over his latest failure. This boy, though, quickly recovers, grinning mischievously. “During our daily salons.”
He looks almost gleeful now, his whole body rocking.
“Shortly after I began here, we began meeting back in one of the empty meeting rooms, where I take my 10:45 break. I don’t like the break room. Well—” He blushes exactly the way Michael did, over the silliest things. “I mean, I don’t like some of my colleagues and their . . . well, gossip. But anyway—”
His hands explode from his lap, so agitated or animated has he become. I’m mesmerized.
“The first time she poked her head in and asked me what I was reading—I told her Joyce—and we had the most incredible conversation about Dublin, life and literature. She knew Ireland!”
For three seconds he almost accomplishes what not even the phone calls of her few living colleagues did and I’m in danger of weeping.
“She told me,” I manage to croak, “she was doing research while I read.”
He nods. “That was one of the things she told me not to tell you.” Again that damned disarming grin. “But I can’t help it if you’ve deduced the truth, can I?”
The lad even giggles. During his confessions, my mind has worked overtime. Did my mate ask this son-surrogate to approach me, maybe even to—I shudder—“look after me?” To maintain some semblance of dignity, I strive for the stone face I showed students or colleagues trying to get a rise from me.
“I suppose not.” I lift a hand. “I never did see any proof of her so-called ‘research.’”
“She said our salons kept her from being bored while you read.”
I absorb the small slap. I’d never considered the possibility she wasn’t as enamored as I was of our daily expeditions. Had she come along just to look out for me? Just because I’d fallen a couple of times of late, both due to rising too quickly. I’m struck dumb by the revelation. My interlocutor stares past me to Maeve’s window before turning back and leaning forward.
“I thought you two were the most handsome, the most . . .”
The mid-morning light catches his face, erasing the beard and at least two decades from his age. His eyes are robin’s egg blue, just like hers—and our son’s. I think of eleven-year-old Michael the time I took him to Cedar Point, how he showed me the excitement and innocence he usually kept hidden from me, though his reticence had returned by the time we left the amusement park to drive home in silence. But his surrogate before me won’t shut up.
“I thought the love between you seemed the most infinite I’ve ever witnessed. Eternal.”
Glancing toward the window, I see Maeve is there, watching cardinals flit beyond the glass. The boy beside me now seems consumed in thought, as if I’ve asked him to explain astrophysics. Feeling him staring, I return my gaze to his now distraught countenance. His presence has begun to oppress me. He murmurs a litany:
“Odysseus and Penelope, Troilus and Cressida, Helen and Paris, or . . . Adam and Eve, God’s first couple.”
Bah! Christianity was always a bone of contention between Maeve and me, until I gave up one day and told her I’d forgone atheism and become an agnostic. (Proof positive that I would’ve done anything for her.) “You have not,” she scolded, swatting my arm with her daily devotional book. The thought comforts and I nod, letting my wife’s admirer and our son’s doppelganger know I’m not too seriously offended to be compared to the alleged God’s alleged first male creation.
“I won’t bother you any longer, Mr. Landreth. I know that you prefer silence to conversation here at the Public, but I just had to let you know how much I’ve appreciated your loyalty to our—” He spreads his arms as if to hug and I instinctively shrink—“humble repository of knowledge.”
His face has regressed to a hangdog look. His hands fall back to his knees and I see they’re shaking again worse than ever. After hesitating a moment—are you sure?—I reach over and place my liver-spotted hand atop his trembling fingers. It’s what Maeve always did to shush me when I went on about “things that don’t matter,” which, to her mind, included just about everything I read in the Times.
Avoiding a glance at the window to see if she’s watching, I say, “No bother.”
“Well,” I add, “you may bother me no more than twice a year.” I see his dismay. “All right, once a month, if it’s to sing the praises of my wife’s hair—or eyes or mouth or dimpled chin. But let us say nothing of—” I cut my eyes to the front door, the desk, the increasing traffic.
Nodding, he closes his eyes, and I’m left holding the hand of a possibly gay man in public. To bear it, I imagine us from a more historical perspective: two men mourning a woman worth starting a war over. Yes, Maeve was Hellenic, a goddess, but also a seventh-grade teacher who put up with adolescents—and a husband who didn’t worship her nearly enough until he woke up one morning and . . .
After a few more moments, the boy’s shaking stops and I remove my hand. He stands, looks awkwardly about, then directly at me, almost a challenge. Suddenly I want him to excoriate me, fling into my face every time I made my son, wife or students shed tears. But he relents, nods formally, and saunters back toward the desk. Before he reaches it, he halts abruptly and turns back toward me.
“By the way,” he says, “my name is Damon.”
Daemon: a lesser deity or guiding spirit such as those of ancient Greek religion and mythology. The allusion makes me smile; I feel forehead furrows unfold.
“And I am Lee.”
My wife was the only person whom I ever allowed to use the diminutive, and here I’ve gone and given it away to this stranger just because he reminded me of the Greeks.
“Well, then.” I cut my eyes left. “Now I have an appointment with—”
“The Times. Yes, I know.”
What else did she tell him, secrets I’d thought only we shared? But I didn’t care, if sharing secrets led to connection with a literature-loving boy who preferred a soundproof room to loose-lipped colleagues.
“Have a great day, Lee.”
“You as well . . . Damon.”
When I nod this time, he returns to his place behind the desk. If I completely believed in God, I would ask him: What have I done? I see Maeve’s grin twist upward. Made a friend?
After another minute or two, I stand and hobble painfully over to the ink-smelling sheets hung on wooden racks like holy scrolls drying in the desert sun. Surely it’s neither sacrilege nor blasphemy to my wife’s memory if I scan the Times until it’s time to walk to Liebewicz’s for lunch? Yes, I’ve decided that today I’ll go. I’ll answer Abe’s questions and receive his pity as graciously as Maeve would’ve, had I expired before she. It’s the right thing to do. Another day I’ll penetrate the library’s labyrinth to find her confidante. For now I’ll ponder the wonder of this day’s Times and glance no more than absolutely necessary at the lavender chair by the window.
My fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in many anthologies and literary journals such as Main Street Rag, Still: The Journal, and Blue Mountain Review. My novel The Psalms of Israel Jones won the 2010 Hackney Award for an unpublished novel and was published by West Virginia University Press in 2014. Since retiring from college teaching in 2011, I hike, bike, write and read religiously in and around the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio.