I am lost among library stacks when I hear the voice—“Puh . . . puh . . . ”
—a deep and halting baritone of a man unsure. Two rows over, maybe three. It’s hard to tell with all the books. The beauty of a library is that sense of aloneness you find even when surrounded by so many people. There is no ruckus, little noise. You get to thinking there’s no one else anywhere around, and what can happen in that book you’re after, that author, can seep right out of your mind and across your lips in pieces, like this:
“Puh . . . puh.”
Me, I’m looking for a Ray Bradbury. Even I get into the act (“Brad . . . Brad . . .”) before I find it, there on the bottom shelf. I stoop when I hear, “Puh . . . pig.”
Now another voice alongside the man’s, softer and almost grandmotherly: “Yes, very good. Keep going.”
So here I am, crouched in the Ba-Br aisle of the fiction section inside the county library, wondering what I’m going to do. Because I really should mind my own business. Get my book and be on my way. But now the man’s voice is going again—“Kah . . . kah . . . ”—and I don’t want to go on my way, I’ve even forgotten about Ray Bradbury, I only want to know what’s going on. My mother would call it sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong. I call it natural curiosity, which is a vital part of being a writer.
“Cow,” the man says.
And the other: “Excellent! Yes, now the next.”
I stand. Walk out of the aisle past Ba-Br and Ca-Do and all the way beyond Faulkner and O’Connor, where I stop to peek. Sitting at a carrel tucked away in the corner of the room is a white-haired woman in a floral print dress and a man wearing faded khakis and a plain white shirt. In front of the man is a picture book, a bright orange cover with blue letters that spell Let’s Go to the Farm!
The woman leans over, rattling the silver chain fastened to the frames of her glasses. She smiles and waits as what is happening here slowly dawns upon me. This man is learning to read.
You may be surprised. I’m not. Scattered all around these mountains are folks who manage roadways by the shapes of the signs they drive past rather than the letters printed on them. They run their mail over to the neighbors to get the bills read. They sign their receipts with a simple X.
“Huhh. Or . . . ”
This isn’t some hick over there. Not some rube from the holler. He looks like a dad fresh out of the suburbs, a guy who likes to putter around in the garden every weekend before playing eighteen at the country club.
“Orse,” he says. Then: “Horse?”
The way he looks up, it’s like a school kid begging his teacher to nod her head. Eyes wide as though questioning the hope he feels, desperate to know if it’s justified. If it’s real.
“That’s it exactly,” she says. “Well done.”
When the woman smiles, it is as if a dam bursts inside him. The man leans back, creaking the chair, grinning so wide that I grin myself. “Horse,” he says again, looking not at her but at the shelves upon shelves of books around him, a lifetime of stories waiting to be told. Whole worlds to explore. He does not say it, but the words are plain on his face: everything seems so BIG now. So . . . wonderful.
And I stand here peeking around the corner, thinking of everything this man is about to experience. All those characters he is about to meet, all those lands he is about to visit, all those lives he is about to live.