by Josh Rank
The book cart had a squeaky wheel that regulars like Mrs. Baker would jokingly shush. Jack didn’t mind that most of the people he met at the library were twice, sometimes three-times his age. It was quiet, for the most part, and the small conversations in which he found himself were harmless.
“Hey Jacky,” said Mrs. Baker. “How’s the pictures going?”
Jack slid another non-fiction book onto the shelf and turned towards her. She stood with her arms cradling a magazine. “Oh, it’s fine.”
“Working on anything?”
“Actually, yeah.” He spoke quietly.
“It’s another dream, isn’t it?” Mrs. Baker came into the library every day. Her husband died a few years earlier. She told Jack about him and about the dog they had raised together. The companionship of the dog was nice, but she still needed to have the give-and-take of an actual conversation. And since Jack worked almost every day, he found himself in a sort of involuntary friendship with her. Not that he disliked speaking with her, he just didn’t have a choice.
“Yeah. Yeah it is.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a night sky. But there isn’t a moon.”
“You mean it’s cloudy?”
“No, no clouds. The stars are out. There are a few street lights but it’s mostly dark, like up by the forest. There just isn’t a moon.” He continued shelving books as he spoke.
Drawing was very important to Jack. Ever since grade school he’s had a problem finding the words to keep a conversation going. Basic interactions were difficult, but he eventually figured out enough phrases to move through a conversation without seeming rude, or worse, stupid. He got in the habit of drawing out his dreams because they seemed to be a window into something he couldn’t understand. Of course, nobody really understands dreams.
In high school, he had a dream about a flying cat. He was walking down the street when it flew out of a tree and landed on the sidewalk. Jack took a step toward the cat, which sent it flying over the tree and out of sight. The next day, he drew it. It took him two weeks to finish. Each line was drawn slowly with pencil. The shading took the longest, but that was his favorite part. It felt like he was adding a new dimension to each object, making a ball instead of a circle. He set the picture on his desk when it was finished and gave it no more thought. Once it was out of him it was done. Only when a visitor would come to his place, usually a family member, would he glance back at it and offer a vague description of its origin. That is, of course, unless someone like Mrs. Baker pulled it out of him through incessant questioning. She caught him sketching one day at work and hasn’t let it go ever since.
But there’s an aspect of drawings like the flying cat that Jack hasn’t told Mrs. Baker or anyone else. A couple months after finishing the drawing, and having basically forgotten about it, he saw a cat walking down the sidewalk on his way home from work. Stray cats are fairly rare in this small town, so he watched it out of curiosity. It wandered along the sidewalk ahead of him for a block and a half before it walked underneath a fence set up outside of a construction site. Jack stopped walking as the cat walked up to the half-built house and jumped through the second story window. He couldn’t believe what he saw until his drawing of the flying cat flashed into his mind. He remembered another drawing of a snowstorm in the middle of July from a couple years before. After finishing the drawing in the middle of the night, he glanced outside and saw a handful of snowflakes blowing through the air while the rest of the town was asleep.
“So did the moon, like, disappear or something?” asked Mrs. Baker.
“I, well, I don’t really know. But it’s not there.”
Mrs. Baker slowly nodded as if thinking it over.
He grabbed the last book from the cart and put it on the shelf. He felt a shock go through his hand after setting it down. It didn’t startle him, though. This was nothing new. He shook his hand a couple times and wiped it on his pants.
“Hand fall asleep again?” Mrs. Baker asked him.
“Yeah, well kinda. Like I said, it doesn’t really fall asleep. It just sorta tingles sometimes.” He had always thought of it like static on a TV tuned to a channel that wasn’t broadcasting. It was just white noise but instead of a sound or the blurry visual, it was the physical equivalent. Hand static.
“I don’t know, Jack. You might should get that checked out.”
“It’s been happening for almost a decade. If it were a problem I feel like it would have shown itself by now.” He looked down at the empty return cart and turned towards the front desk. The squeaky wheel announced his intention.
It wasn’t a far walk to his apartment from the library. Jack never considered his hometown to be big, but it wasn’t necessarily tiny. Everybody knew mostly everybody else and families had long local histories. His parents, for instance, owned a bar and worked in it every day Jack could remember. They lived in an apartment above the bar, which was where Jack had grown up. He moved out after high school because he didn’t like the noise that came with it. And now, as he frequently did, he stopped at the diner next to the post office to grab a sandwich for dinner.
“Jack!” said the woman working behind the counter as he walked in. Barstools lined the countertop and some booths sat beyond that. “The usual?”
“Yes please,” Jack said with a slight nod. He sat on a bench next to the door and waited for his chicken salad sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries to be thrown together and placed in a bag.
The front door opened and Beth Wagner walked in. She was a grade below Jack in school so he had known of her for quite a while. They had never said a word to each other despite Jack’s infatuation. He felt they could be kindred spirits, if such a thing exists. She didn’t draw like him, but she sang. She took every solo she could in the school choir and it was her voice that first made Jack take notice. A voice that he wished would say his name in a favorable manner, but he couldn’t bring himself to start a conversation. Although she excelled in choir, people outside of her small group of friends rarely heard her speak. They would pass in the hall, both acting as if the other didn’t exist.
She walked to the counter and ordered the soup of the day, tomato bisque, which was promptly scooped into a Styrofoam container. She paid and the woman behind the counter called out:
“Hey Jack, here you go.”
He stood from the bench when Beth abruptly turned around with her soup in front of her. He knocked into it with his shoulder, sending it pouring from the lid onto Beth’s hands and down her sleeves.
“Oh, oh!” she said.
“Sorry! Sorry I’m sorry,” Jack quickly said. He reflexively cupped his hands beneath the soup as if trying to save it from spilling onto the floor.
“Oh Jack, my shirt.”
He looked at her for a moment, shocked she knew his name.
“I’m sorry. I, I just…” He didn’t know what to say. He had never spilled soup on someone before.
She sighed and set the container on the counter. “Don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” she said in a way that Jack knew to mean it wasn’t fine. That he should worry about it. She walked out of the door after getting a new container of soup, leaving Jack standing next to a sweet-smelling, red puddle.
“That’ll be eight bucks,” said the woman behind the counter. Jack sighed and paid for his food.
He spent the night working on the moonless drawing and repeating the soup incident in his mind. Did she really know his name? Did she hate him for spilling the soup? Did he have something to say to her if he ran into her again? The static in his hand crept back up. He shook it out and picked up the pencil to finish the drawing. An hour later, he went to bed and dreamed of Beth singing onstage.
The next day, Jack sat at one of the community tables in the library. The returns were finished, nobody needed to be checked-out, and Mrs. Baker hadn’t come in so he had time to sketch. He had just started, so he only had the outline of the stage and a microphone stand when he looked up and saw Beth walking past his table. He immediately dropped his pencil and looked guiltily at the paper in front of him as if she could see what he was planning on drawing. But, of course, she had no way of knowing that she would fill the large empty space on the right side of the paper and beyond that, she hadn’t even glanced in his direction. She had no idea he was there.
Jack watched as she walked into the biography stacks in the non-fiction section. She disappeared around a corner and Jack couldn’t concentrate. He wanted nothing more than to walk over and speak with her. He could apologize and help her find her book. It would be so simple if he could only bring himself to stand up.
But his legs remained bent, condemning him to remain seated while his mind tried to drag his body along the imagined route to Beth. He should have been used to this; he’s experienced the same thing since he first took an interest in the opposite sex. The familiarity of the situation almost made it comforting, except the comfort came from familiar anxiety.
Jack heard a noise behind him and turned his head. Mrs. Baker walked into the library and was greeting his coworker by the front desk. He knew that if she saw him he would have no chance of breaking free from her conversation. Even worse, she might ask about his drawing and Beth could overhear. Before he knew what he was doing, he stood from his chair and started walking away from Mrs. Baker. It just so happened the opposite direction of Mrs. Baker led to the non-fiction section. He made it about half way down the aisle before Beth rounded the corner on the other end. They both stopped walking and momentarily averted their eyes as if it could make the other person disappear.
“Oh, hi.” Jack finally said.
She nodded and smiled a little, but it seemed like an unconscious polite deflection.
“I, uh,” he glanced behind him and saw Mrs. Baker walking toward the computers. “I work here, y’know?”
Beth looked at him and nodded again. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah. I don’t just spill soup on people all day.”
She smiled again, but this one seemed real.
“Can I help you find something?” Jack turned his eyes toward the book spines to his right. He was in the musical biographies.
“Um, sure.” She took another step forward and searched the titles to her left. “I’m looking for a book on Ella Fitzgerald.”
Jack nodded. “Oh, okay. Well, let’s see.” People tended to be more interested in the fiction books than the musical biographies, but he had shelved a few titles in this section. Give him a topic and he could at least point you to the general area of most anything in the library. It took him a couple minutes, but he eventually pulled a book from the shelf.
“It’s got a silly name, but this should be pretty good.” He handed her the book.
“Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat?” she said, turning the book over and reading the back cover. She smiled. “This should work.”
Jack pulled another book from the shelf. “Here’s another one that—” He swung the book towards her and accidentally bumped the first book from her hands. Both of them fell to the floor.
“Oh no, I’m sorry,” he started saying again as he bent down to pick up the books.
“It’s okay.” She bent down as well.
They reached for the second book at the same time and briefly brushed their palms together like they were going to shake hands but changed their minds at the last second. Jack felt the static grow again and pulled his hand back. She did the same thing. Jack watched her shake her hand as if she had been pinched.
“Are you okay?” Jack asked.
“Oh,” she looked at her hand and smiled a little. “It’s nothing.” She shook her head.
“No, what is it?” His heart was racing. It was tough for him to be so straight-forward but he had an idea that couldn’t be true.
“It’s just,” she trailed off. She remained quiet for a minute and then took a breath as if she had made up her mind about something. “It’s this silly thing that’s been happening to me for a while now. I think it’s bad circulation or something. It’s kind of hard to explain.”
“Can I guess?” They were still crouching even though they had picked up the books.
“Sure,” she said.
“Does it feel like part of your hand falls asleep, but only for a short while?”
She narrowed her eyes.
“And does it just go away all of a sudden, without that weird waking-up tingle?”
“How did you know that?” she said quietly.
He held his hand out to her. “Because it happens to me, too.”
She took his hand and the static came back. He could tell she felt it, too. They held their hands together like that for a minute before she withdrew. Her eyes were wide and she was breathing through her mouth. They both stood up. Nothing was said.
“Jack, is that you?”
He heard Mrs. Baker behind him. He knew he only had a few seconds. Before he could talk himself out of it, he said:
“Can we hang out on Friday?”
She turned her eyes toward the shelves of books and lightly bit her lip. “I don’t know…” She let her sentence trail off.
Jack knew Mrs. Baker would appear at any moment and pushed himself without thinking. “We could just go for a walk or something. It’s supposed to be nice.” His heart felt like it was beating loud enough to distract the elderly couple reading the daily papers on the other side of the library.
Finally, Beth nodded and almost smiled before Mrs. Baker came up behind him.
“Who’s this? Are you two friends? You sure look friendly.”
Jack turned towards her and nodded. Beth walked past them as Mrs. Baker started talking to Jack about a TV show she had watched last night. After a minute, Beth came back and handed Jack a piece of paper with her phone number on it.
Two days later, Jack rang the buzzer on apartment 203. The light coming through the peephole winked at him and then the door opened, but not all the way. Beth slid out and closed the door.
“Hi,” said Jack.
She nodded and said a small hello before walking down the hallway toward the front door.
The night was warm. There was a slight breeze and the moon was a bright spotlight following them everywhere they went. They walked mostly in silence, with Jack occasionally offering bits of conversation and Beth responding with no more than two sentences at a time. Many people would feel uncomfortable with such a slow moving dialogue, but Jack felt at ease. Most of his days were filled with near-total silence punctuated by Mrs. Baker’s tidbits of information, so even a slow-moving conversation felt nice. In fact, if he were required to participate more than he currently was, he might feel overloaded and eventually grow lethargic. But as it was, the flow of their interactions suited him perfectly. Although he didn’t know how to ask her, he suspected Beth might feel the same way.
There was no plan as far as activities went, and it felt good to simply enjoy the night together. After a half-hour of walking, they found themselves near the park at the edge of town. It consisted of a small woods that could almost be called a bog or a swamp. The ground was frequently soft and moist so the trails leading through the woods were elevated, wooden paths. It resembled a collection of small bridges except there weren’t guardrails and the paths were no more than a few inches above ground.
Beth hesitated at the entrance to the park. Jack turned around after taking a few steps and stuck his hand out to her.
“C’mon,” he said.
She glanced around and let out a deep, quick breath. She took his hand and he immediately felt the static grow on his palm. Her hand shuddered a bit when he grasped it, and he guessed she could feel it, too.
“I was surprised the other day, in the diner,” Jack said as they entered the park, still holding hands.
“Me too. I never had soup thrown on me before.”
Jack’s breath caught in his throat. “No, I mean when you said my name. I just, I don’t know. I didn’t know you knew it, y’know?”
“Why wouldn’t I know your name?”
The conversation was flowing easier now. It could have been their seclusion from the rest of the town, the atmosphere of the park, or the static they shared with their touch.
“I mean, well, we never really talked before.”
“Jack, we went to school for so long.” She paused. “You knew my name, right?”
“Yeah, but that’s different. You were always in choir. Doing the solos and all that.” The wood made slight creaking noises as they wandered along the winding paths through the trees. Moonlight dotted the trail and Jack could see stars when he looked up, which compensated for the lack of artificial light within the park. “Do you still sing?”
She sighed and let go of his hand. The static ceased as soon as their hands parted. “When I’m alone. In my car. Or at home.” She crossed her arms but kept walking. There was a shift in her tone. This topic bothered her.
“Have you looked into…” but he couldn’t think of anywhere for an adult to sing. Choir? A band? At the very least, karaoke?
“To tell you the truth, what I’d like more than anything would be to go to the university. To leave this town behind and go find something new. Something exciting.”
“What’s stopping you?”
She thought for a minute before responding. “I can’t leave. I just, I don’t know, can’t.”
She didn’t need to explain. She couldn’t leave for the same reason he couldn’t leave: She wouldn’t let herself. It was too big of a step. For someone that has to talk themselves up to order food at a restaurant, changing cities is unthinkable. And it’s not something that can be overcome by forced exposure like a person afraid of heights going for a ride in a hot air balloon. This is part of who they are, both Jack and Beth, at their core. It doesn’t matter if the town doesn’t offer everything they could ask for. It’s all they have.
Jack took her hand, instigating the static. He led her forward, without saying another word, until they reached a clearing. The path widened to what could be called a deck and there was a bench behind them. The clearing stretched in front of them for about fifty yards and fanned out in a half circle. Tall grass peppered the marshy ground throughout, dotted above with a cluster of fireflies. He said to her the same thing he had been telling himself since he realized he would never leave his hometown.
“You can’t be everywhere. So you just have to let yourself be where you are. We are here. And most likely, this is where we’ll stay. But there’s nothing wrong with that.” The static between their hands pulsed like a heartbeat. “This place is just as good as any, and if you can’t be happy here, then you won’t be happy anywhere.”
Beth looked over at him and started to smile but was interrupted when the moonlight started to dim.
Jack looked above them. Beth followed his glance.
The moon was large, peppered on both sides with an unlimited amount of stars. Slowly, as if breathing out the light that illuminated their walk through the woods, the moon continued to dim until it disappeared in the sky.
“Jack! What’s going on?”
“Hold on,” he whispered. He looked around himself and noticed that his drawing had come to life. There was no lunar eclipse. The moon hadn’t been knocked out of orbit by an asteroid. It had simply disappeared. And now he found himself standing on the wooden deck in near-dark with the stars dotting the sky above and the fireflies dancing in the field.
“Look.” He let her hand go and gave her a little push. She took a step forward and he took one back. “You’re on stage.” He could make out her figure in the dark. The fireflies looked like a giant crowd, perhaps holding up lighters as if asking for an encore. A slight breeze rustled the tall grass and if you heard it just right, it sounded like applause. Her shoes clicked on the wood as she turned around and even though he couldn’t see her face, he knew she was smiling.
“Jack.” Her voice came out shaky, in a quick burst. “This is perfect.”
“Go on. Give them what they want.”
Her shadowy figure nodded in the dark and turned towards her screaming fans. It was a simple song. One that Jack had heard before but not one he could name. He lowered himself onto the bench and listened as her beautiful voice echoed through the trees. There wasn’t another person for miles and under the cover of darkness, Beth sang perfectly. When she finished, Jack stood up and walked to her side.
“Take a bow,” he whispered.
After straightening back up she put her arms around Jack’s neck and the moon grew until it was restored to its former brightness.
“How did you know?” she whispered.
“But you weren’t surprised?”
“I’m always surprised.”
He took her hand, igniting the static, and they walked out of the park and back into town.
The next day, Jack called his parents and suggested an improvement to their bar: Live music. They had a jukebox stuck in the corner behind the pool table and thought nothing more of it. But Jack convinced them to¸ once a week, slide the pool table to the side, rent a PA, and let Beth sing three or four songs of her choice. After a couple weeks, a patron volunteered to fill in on guitar and another on drums so she wouldn’t have to sing over a recorded track. She didn’t become famous, but she never sang to an empty house. Jack sat in the barstool closest to the makeshift stage every week and always clapped the loudest, even if his hand felt like it was falling asleep.