It had been quite a day for Mr. Penny. First he’d been struck by that—was it a van, or an ambulance? The ambulance came after. Yes, he was certain of that. There were flicky lights and a siren. Only there wasn’t a siren. He could hear it going off so loudly, now, in rhythm with the bright lights. But that wasn’t how it was, was it? It’s good to be truthful, even to yourself, but a brain will fill things in. Someone had told him that, once. It’s like doing a hard crossword puzzle and plugging something in, like “grassicle,” just to finish it. Mr. Penny had been guilty of that once or twice, as well.
Hmm. It had to be that white van, just in the side of his eye. He wasn’t watching. Most people are so good at stopping that Mr. Penny hadn’t bothered to check. Next time he’d be more careful.
The people mulling about him, and then what? He couldn’t remember. He’d been stuffed into the ambulance, of course, and driven to St. Mary’s Hospital (that’s where he was now), but that was just his brain filling things in again.
No, he could remember. Little tidbits. The cold hands opening up his clothes. Someone yelling “Ah! ” right into his ear, of all places. He was in the hospital now, but . . . wasn’t there something else, in between?
There was something. They’d stopped somewhere.
Mr. Penny squinted. They hadn’t found his glasses yet. But this was more for remembering, that sort of squinting. He didn’t feel like reading.
Mr. Penny stopped squinting. He just about smiled. Now he remembered.
They’d stopped at the library. Just Mr. Penny had gone in. The ambulance men had either waited with the ambulance running, or gone on ahead and picked up someone else. It didn’t particularly matter. A lot of people get run over in a day—and really, Mr. Penny was feeling much better.
He walked up and down the aisles. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Mr. Penny enjoyed old books. There was just something about the old ones. They looked a lot nicer than the newer ones. They were grabbier; you wanted to handle them. There weren’t many things better than the odor of an old book. If it was a good odor, it was a good book—in the book of Mr. Penny. It was just as much an experience and a pleasure, the smelling, as the reading. The best books smelled like nutmeg, he always thought, and the worst like glue and vinegar.
These books were all the large, leathery kind (leather was a nice smell too), old, and in excellent health. It’s a good thing they’re library books or they’d be too expensive. The man at Caterpillars, a used bookstore, always wanted a fortune for his. Mr. Penny was about to pick one up when he spotted something leaning against the shelf next to him. A ladder. He’d nearly kicked it, by accident. He followed the rungs up (with his eyes).
“Hello,” said the woman at the top of the ladder.
Mr. Penny squinted. She was a long way up. The ceiling was higher than he’d expected, a lot higher, and the woman was close to it. Fumbling with something. Mr. Penny had fallen off a ladder once, as a child. It was awful. The ladder itself had fallen. There was no one to hold onto it. Mr. Penny held onto this ladder tightly.
“Still haven’t found it yet,” called the woman, turning just her head.
“Oh,” said Mr. Penny. “Keep looking!” He wanted to encourage her.
“I’ve checked . . . every shelf from the floor to the ceiling, pretty much.”
“Good for you,” he said. Sometimes all a person needs is a little encouragement.
“I’m trying my hardest, believe me. I’m doing everything I can.”
Mr. Penny was fond of librarians (they’re so helpful), but he didn’t often see one who was quite that devoted. She was plugging and unplugging books from the shelves like a telephone operator. But that was before his time.
“Oh! ” she cried.
Mr. Penny looked up. A book hit him right on the forehead. He got an instant headache.
“Did that hit you? ”
Mr. Penny rubbed his head. He bent over and picked up the book.
“Are you alright? ”
The name of the book was . . . . He couldn’t remember it. He tried, but he couldn’t.
The ladder rattled. Mr. Penny looked up—and then down, very quickly. Though he hadn’t meant to, he’d looked right up the librarian’s dress. She wasn’t wearing a thing underneath.
“I’ll be right down. Just have a seat.”
Mr. Penny sat down in the soft chair. There was a beautiful soft chair—two chairs, actually—in the one corner, by the fireplace. He hadn’t noticed them before.
Mr. Penny blushed. It wasn’t because he’d looked up her . . . . She was a beautiful woman. From so far down, he hadn’t realized it. The mint was stuck in his oesophagus (that’s what it felt like).
“Oh, dear,” she said, stepping up to Mr. Penny. “Are you sure you’re alright? ”
Mr. Penny nodded. It hurt a fair bit, but he’d be fine. That’s how it always was with him.
“Some wine, Mr. Penny? ”
She had a lovely voice, this librarian. Before he could say, “Yes, please,” she’d handed him a big glass full of wine, and set the bottle down between them. There was a coffee table between them. Then she sat down across from him. The fire in the wine sparkled.
Mr. Penny took a drink. It was strong, puckery wine. The last time he’d gotten drunk—he wasn’t really drunk—he’d slid off his chair and down under the table. People forgot about him.
“How is it? ”
“It’s good,” he said. It was dry wine, and he didn’t much care for dry wine. But you lie a little more when a woman is smiling at you.
“It’s a very good year,” she said, gazing into her glass.
Mr. Penny nodded, gazing into his. Wine was all the same to him. He swallowed a little more of it. Good, puckery wine. It was hard to get down.
He lifted the glass to his eye. The whole room was red, now. He used to do that a lot as a child—only with grape juice. It still worked.
When she wasn’t watching, when she was drinking, Mr. Penny had a good look at the librarian. She was older, but beautiful. He was never any good at guessing ages. Perhaps she was still young. She was beautiful. She had kind eyes. That was always the thing that mattered to Mr. Penny. Not a lot of people have kind eyes. She had a pearl necklace too, this woman. She wasn’t the usual librarian. But this wasn’t the usual library, either. There’d been some renovations.
Mr. Penny took another gulp, the smallest one possible.
“Oh, Mr. Penny,” sighed the librarian. “I am so sorry.”
She looked so very sad, now, that Mr. Penny felt sorry for her. The people with the kindest eyes also have the saddest ones.
“It’s just a book,” he answered, rubbing the spot on his head (it was his bald spot) where he’d been struck. It hardly hurt anymore.
The librarian smiled, but—so sadly! If you’re feeling too much, you’re suffering. Someone had told Mr. Penny that once, too. It seemed truthful.
“I tried, Mr. Penny,” she said. “I really tried.” Her hair fell down when she said that. She was very beautiful.
Mr. Penny nodded. It was true. She was so energetic. He took another sip of wine—and coughed.
She smiled again, this lovely woman. Some of the sadness was gone.
“You’re feeling sleepy now, aren’t you Mr. Penny? ”
Mr. Penny lifted his head back up. After all that wine, he was. The power of suggestion.
“I could almost sleep,” he said, rubbing his forehead. That’s how tired he was.
“Then why don’t you? ” said the librarian, softly.
“Here? ” said Mr. Penny’s eyes, before he even had a chance.
Soft laughter. But it was sad laughter, too.
“You might as well, Mr. Penny. You might as well.”
The last time Mr. Penny had fallen asleep in a library, he’d been shaken awake by a frightening old man. The man had told him that table, the one Mr. Penny had fallen asleep at reading, was his table, and no one else could sleep at it. He gave Mr. Penny some advice: that if he wanted to keep healthy, he’d better not sit there ever again. There was profanity as well. Mr. Penny decided he’d take the man’s advice. He hadn’t been to the library since—until today. But there was no one else in the library that he could see.
Mr. Penny took another big gulp of wine. He smiled. He felt like he was on a ship. He’d never been on one.
The librarian tilted her head curiously, like a dog.
The man in the chair laughed. It was him. Mr. Penny. Only he felt different. Is it even me?
He shut his eyes, just for a second. Then he slid down onto the floor, and fell asleep.
Mr. Penny saw red. He wondered . . . if he was looking through his glass again. No. This is different. He couldn’t move it away. He couldn’t move. This would’ve been worrisome, only— Mr. Penny didn’t feel like worrying.
It’s like there was a red light. The light was brightest right above him, and almost black-red at the sides. The shapes in the wine (he kept thinking of it as wine) were the people moving over him. He thought. He could only hear—well, the sound was like swimming, or when you dunk you head in the tub. Had he fallen into the bottle? This had happened to an uncle of his. But that was only a joke.
There was a sound like . . . a whale. Singing. It was sad and interesting. It should’ve been. He’d never heard a whale sing, except on television. He was just beginning to enjoy it when it stopped. A sound cut in, like people talking. He couldn’t quite make the words out. They were talking too quickly, like Frenchmen. Then he couldn’t hear a thing, because—his ears were ringing!
Someone poured more wine over him.
Mr. Penny fell asleep.
There was a man with a briefcase. Walking. He had to hurry, because . . . Mr. Penny wasn’t sure why. But it had to be something important. He was holding the briefcase so tightly, he was walking so quickly. What a handsome, well-dressed fellow.
When a car stopped beside him—the light had turned red—he looked at the window. Yes, his hair was alright. He touched it anyway. The woman in the car smiled at him. She wasn’t beautiful, but Mr. Penny smiled back.
Was he ever going, now! He was running! He ran right past the people waiting on the sidewalk. He jumped off the curb and—but Mr. Penny wasn’t paying attention. There was another man crossing the street, much further down, with a dog, the sausage kind. Then man and dog stopped, though they weren’t finished crossing. They were staring at something. The sausage dog’s eyes were sticking out. It was barking. The man was shouting something.
That was it.
People were talking. They were off in the clouds somewhere, where he couldn’t see. If he was still drunk, he was in the bottom of the bottle.
He wished he was back home. Whatever that was. Anywhere. This wasn’t even anywhere.
The clouds stopped talking.
This wasn’t the best place to be.
Mr. Penny was sitting by the fire again—it was in a different spot, this time—and the woman was sitting across from him, as before. The wine bottle was back on the table between them, along with two empty glasses, dirty glasses, which accounted for how drunk Mr. Penny was feeling. He never could handle his liquor.
The woman laughed. Nothing sad about it. Really, she seemed to be in much better spirits. Mr. Penny was glad to see it.
“What?” he said. He didn’t know what she was laughing at. He hadn’t been paying attention.
The woman shook her head.
“You didn’t ask,” she said, laughing again.
Mr. Penny thought.
“Ask what? ” he said.
She breathed through her nose and said:
“What I was looking for.”
Mr. Penny had no idea what she was talking about.
“Oh,” he said.
“I’d just about found it, Mr. Penny,” she said, her voice turning serious. “Just about.”
Mr. Penny nodded. He wasn’t sure what else to do.
The woman looked at him now, so sadly. He wondered.
She stood up. She walked past him. Her dress moved around like wine. Mr. Penny wondered. She must have been fetching something.
She was gone a long while, the woman. He was getting nervy. He picked up the bottle and looked through it, at the fire. The world is red, he thought. He was about to set it down when—
“Now you’ll have to find it,” whispered a voice in his ear. That startled Mr. Penny so much that he woke up.
There were five or six people standing over him, looking down at him seriously. He didn’t recognize any of them. They were staring, too.
“What a bunch of sad sacks,” he thought. And then he thought, “It’s rude to stare.”
But they kept on staring, the people, and looking so solemn. Not one of them cracked a smile or said “Hello.”
Mr. Penny was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He felt that mint sticking in his throat.
“If only they’d stop staring,” he thought, trying his best to swallow the mint.
And a doctor, it looked like, was there, and another doctor, standing over him. Staring. He kept waiting for them to say, “You’re going to be quite alright, Mr. Penny” or “A few days, and you’ll be good as new.” That’s generally how things went, for him.
Or was it?
For the life of him, Mr. Penny couldn’t remember.