I am leaving the library when Miss Fowler stops me, peering through her glasses like they are windows in a house where she lives alone. She says, “Charlie, a patron saw you ripping up books.”
“I didn’t,” I say. These words sound true, but Miss Fowler holds up The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Bits of paper flutter from its edges like snow.
I know a man in that book. He was trapped underground, dying in the dark and the antiquated language. He coughed then. He rustles in the pocket of my windbreaker now.
From elsewhere, Miss Fowler says, “Give me the pages.”
“I am going to take him outside,” I announce. I declare. Declare which is like clarion call which is of trumpets. “I am going to take him into the light.”
“Look,” Miss Fowler says. Her lips blow bubbles of words into the air: crisp, faceted ones like replacement and thin-filmed ones like expensive. She speaks to me like I am a child. Like operations can smooth these cracked, dark hands, like damages can topple the twenty-seven precarious years stacked in my name.
Oh, this one’s a heartbreaker – perhaps because Charlie is so familiar.
In her One Story introduction, editor Hannah Tinti talks about her mother’s assertion, as a librarian, that a library is a “lifeline to the community”. I spend a fair amount of time in my local public library, and I’m amazed at how patient and helpful the staff always is, no matter what my problem: a book isn’t where it should be, the photocopy machine is out of paper, can I get a copy of this article from a 1955 journal out of print for 40 years (a PDF was in my inbox the next day). But they also are very good at ignoring people who are a bit off-kilter. People like Charlie. There’s a Charlie in every library, I think; sometimes, it’s me.
Charlie is a 27-year-old Vietnam vet (the story is set in the 70s, the Carter administration per the newspaper headlines Charlie reads) with wounds both visible and unseen. PTSD wasn’t much of a thing back then; unfortunately, it’s still often overlooked, or misdiagnosed, or ignored, even today. I’m not sure if that’s Charlie’s problem, if he has brain damage or some kind of other issue (this isn’t a diagnostic story), but his reality is made of words. Words become real. Fortunato is trapped in the pages of Poe, begging for release. Without words, Charlie collapses on the floor.
I go to the library because it is full of words, and I trust words. They make things real.
These are the things that I know to be true:
1. The past and future exist through stories
2. The stories are made of words
3. Words make the future and past existThis means: if I went to the VA clinic yesterday I can say, “I went to the clinic yesterday.” Then there it is, in your head, like a real thing: a little image that is me at the clinic. I could also say, “I went to the zoo yesterday,” and then that would be real in your head instead. You would not know the difference. I might not know the difference. I couldn’t believe the words I went to the zoo or I could believe the words I went to the clinic. Maybe both are true.
The conflict ratchets up when a librarian confronts him about tearing Fortunato from the book; things escalate, and he ends up in jail for a day and a half, but worse, he’s banned from the library. He has no more words. Charlie’s pain is very real to me.
I found the resolution to be beautiful: he is reunited, by the grace of another librarian in another library, with the original book, Catch-22, all that was left of his friend from combat:
The pages flutter like crazed butterflies. I look down and see through the high whine in my ears that my hands are cracked and through the cracks I see names. Jimmy Metcalf. Lucas Johnson. I see the way the light reflects on the water where they found that little bathing. I see the song Joe Crispin played on his guitar in Quang Tri, and how it got stuck in everyone’s head for days…. And I see the way the air gleamed pink after Jimmy stepped onto the mine – the tiny click and then the sky blown apart and the whole world set singing, flashing white in the sun, pieces of flesh against the green like cherry blossoms in the first light of spring: so pink and bright that your heart ripped in half at the beauty.
One half says, the trees on fire
The other half says, the trees are not on fire.
Maybe both are true.
I see this book inside Jimmy’s hat and then me taking it and writing down these words, a story hidden inside another story. I see the pages fill while the doctors patched up my leg and the skin scabbed over my arm.… And I see the book on the plane, carried all the way home until I landed on American soil, and the chapter ended and I closed it.
But then, here it is. On the table. In the library. And here I am.
“This book is gone,” I say again.
“No,” the librarian says, slowly. “It was just misplaced.”
If only the rest of what has been misplaced can be so easily remedied. The implication, I believe, is that it can be. But it may take time for the pieces to be found.
The notion of words becoming reality is something akin to the philosophical school of idealism, where reality consists, not of things, but of our perception of things, our ideas about things. I just happen to have completed a mooc that included a bit of work on idealism, so it was fresh in my mind. Carried to the extreme, as in Borges, it can lead to absurdities (yet I see a great deal happening recently that reminds me strongly of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”; absurd, no?). At one point, Charlie demonstrates this for us:
I fling my notebook into my bag and dash for the door. I catch a blush of autumn in my periphery, and my steps to not falter. I vanished into the late afternoon light.
You believed me, didn’t you? You saw me in your brain, vanishing. Which means that for one minute it was true, and now it exists, and will be true forever.
But what also happened is this:
I believe the now-discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might also come into play here, a theory that one’s language determines the concepts one has available; that is, one’s reality. This was also the underlying premise of the recent movie Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life”. I’m also unable to forget the “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” adage when I think of Charlie; he knows a great deal about sticks and stones, but he also knows about the power of words. As in, the first librarian’s ability to say “You can’t come back to the library” (in linguistic terms, a speech act).
But none of that academic stuff has anything to do with Charlie; he’s connected to words, to a particular book, as a way of coping with horrific trauma, as a memorial to his friend. And while all the language and philosophy is more than interesting, it’s still the emotional punch that makes this story work so well for me.
My blogging buddy Jake Weber looked at the story from the viewpoint of a litmag editor in his Would I Have Published This Story? series (WIHPTS) on his blog “Workshop Heretic”. His comments are very much worth reading for good insight into Charlie’s struggles and growth, and how the story incorporates them.