“Special delivery, Ma’am,” the man said, handing Gladys Towbridge the small packet of mail gathered in a rubber band he had extracted from her mailbox. His casual smile matched his clothes, she thought, comfortable, probably durable, warm enough to cover some extremes. “I’m looking for a room and was told at the bus depot that I might find accommodations here. I left my bag in a locker in case that was not to be the case. My name is Augustus Emberly. I have come a long way today and would rather not move on right now.”
“Your reason for coming to Saxon, Mr. Emberly?” She put out her hand. “I am Gladys Towbridge.” His hand was gentle, warm, not given to serious labors, but firm in its grip. “This is my establishment.” Gladys did not feel funny using a word almost unwieldy in itself, beyond itself, as she stood in her meager hallway in her housecoat.
“It’s just on the way to wherever, Mrs. Towbridge. It’s not the destination to me, as it’s been said by many others, but the journey. I like new places, new people. Do you provide meals?”
In her way she went right at him, leaving no room for unasked questions that later might prove embarrassing, or at least wished upon. “Do you work, sir? Can you afford rooming costs? The cost of meals? Are there references I should consider?”
The door was still open, the mail in her left hand. Behind her the carpeted stairs rose neatly in a blue and crimson mirage. A small scatter rug sat its introduction at the foot of the stairs. The banister shone with welcomed and steady wear. A painting of small boat managing blue water and a cloudy sky hung on the wall at the head of the stairs. A kitchen aroma, a light lunch perhaps in the offing, parceled itself through the air, condiments saying their names.
“I can pay whatever you want, in moderation, in advance, meals included, as long as they are cheaper than local restaurants. I am a retired librarian, not a great paying job I must say, but I am a saver and do with little comforts other than a good lamp and a good book, though I own none. I firmly believe in the public library system. I trust there’s one about?”
The catch was in her throat. She thought it possible he had seen it.
Moments earlier, from behind the glass of her front door, five-years widowed Gladys Towbridge had seen the man pause in front of her rooming house, looking casually about, somewhat nondescript at first glance. Gifted with a good eye, or one that an innkeeper or landlord’s experience had given an edge to, she noted him not very carefully dressed, at least not up to par for her taste. He wore a plain brown blazer with a frayed collar (the blazer unusual for the broad wheat lands about her small town), a dark shirt open at the neck, and darker trousers.
It came to Gladys, in quick judgment, that he had somehow faded from some far place to re-emerge at her doorstep. That meant that there had to be something about him that was of concern, that should be of concern. Everybody has a story, she believed, which was true for just about every roomer she ever had. The ones who hadn’t she couldn’t remember, those being the rare handful that had come, stayed, moved on without message or mark, the kind that would not know they were not making history, that they were not among the missing. Not now. Not ever.
But for this newcomer, she had given preliminary approval; the way he closed the chain link gate after him, dropping the latch carefully in place, tilting his head at the clink of it locking home, noting the lawn newly cut, the small hedges trim, nodding his head in slow annotation. When he had looked at the mailbox and the red flag lifted in signal, he looked toward the door. Gladys knew he had seen her and she nodded. The man in the brown blazer had extracted mail from the box, put the flag back down, and started up the walk.
Gladys agreed again that the man had already made points with her. He was alert and he was thoughtful and a kind of early history of him was already being written. Yet, if he were looking for a room, why did he have no belongings? No satchel. No book under his arm. Not even a copy of the Fort Wilcox Clarion that might have directed him to her rooming house. He looked to be in his sixties and healthy. What would that something be?
“What is it that makes you move on, Mr. Emberly? Is there anything I should know before I let you see the two rooms I have available?” As his eyes blinked at her directness, she knew she had hit at a spot of interest. “Second floor front. First floor back with a porch outside,” she added as punctuation. The knob of the door with the great oval glass in its frame was still in her hand. On the stairs the sun was threatening to take steps upward, to seek out rooms on its own.
Augustus Emberly looked up the blue and maroon mirage of the stairway, as neat as the road to heaven or the route to the stacks in some library of the past. A sigh moved from his lips, and then his past. “I have been indicted in the last year for supposedly molesting a child, in the library that I loved. It was unimaginable, malevolent, deadly. The charge was dropped but I was let go from my position early on. As God is my holy judge, I did nothing. I don’t know why the boy said what he said, but his parents, after some talk with a lawyer, said they would drop the charge. Which they did. I think they had specific reasons for doing what they did, from the beginning.”
“Why would someone do that, Mr. Emberly? Why hurt another with such accusation?”
“The lawyer said when they heard I had little money in the bank, they couldn’t get out of the office fast enough. His words were, ‘They tore out of there.’ Then they found out this family had initiated more than a dozen suits over the years. They had sued builder and train company and a ship’s personnel and an oil company, and a host of others. But my job was gone, not that I would move back. And so, I move on, always looking for a new place.”
The two strangers, obviously past the middle of their years, felt a quick change in the air, a shift of neutrons, a small current at work, knowledge being exchanged. At this small point in the universe, at this juncture, at this door, in the front hall of a modest rooming house with but two vacancies, a convergence had taken place, was being met. Gladys Towbridge closed the door and said, “I’d like to show you something, Mr. Emberly.” Down the hall she led him, beside the ornate stairs, down the length of a blue and maroon runner to a door under the stairs. The word grotto groped for space in his mind.
When she opened the door a vast array of books greeted his eyes, shelves full of books, spines leaping titles and names at him, row on row, tier on tier, wall on wall, books covered the small landscape. Big books, small books. Tall books, short books. Thick books, thin books. Every cove, every inlet, every plain, the palisades and facades of bold promontories, the ocean itself, were covered with books. At one window the sunlight, falling down through the leaves of a tree, splashing faint spiders on the white doilies at their backs, two great easy chairs sat under hanging lamps. Surely Tiffany himself had formed them. Colors rainbow-freed gathered in clasps of glass, in nuggets and remnants of their round world. At a mid-table, armrest high, a cup and saucer exposed themselves from a recent engagement.
“Sir,” she said, “There’s thirty years’ worth of reading here and I’m about to start back through it again. ”