Four Past Midnight - 5 - The Library PolicemanStephen King
THREE PAST MIDNIGHT:
A note on 'The Library Policeman'
On the morning when this story started to happen, I was sitting at the breakfast table with my son Owen. My wife had already gone upstairs to shower and dress. Those two vital seven o'clock divisions had been made: the scrambled eggs and the newspaper. Willard Scott, who visits our house five days out of every seven, was telling us about a lady in Nebraska who had just turned a hundred and four, and I think Owen and I had one whole pair of eyes open between us. A typical weekday morning chez King, in other words.
Owen tore himself away from the sports section just long enough to ask me if I'd be going by the mall that day - there was a book he wanted me to pick up for a school report. I can't remember what it was - it might have been Johnny Tremain or April Morning, Howard Fast's novel of the American Revolution - but it was one of those tomes you can never quite lay your hands on in a bookshop; it's always just out of print or just about to come back into print or some damned thing.
I suggested that Owen try the local library, which is a very good one. I was sure they'd have it. He muttered some reply. I only caught two words of it, but, given my interests, those two words were more than enough to pique my interest. They were 'library police.'
I put my half of the newspaper aside, used the MUTE button on the remote control to strangle Willard in the middle of his ecstatic report on the Georgia Peach Festival, and asked Owen to kindly repeat himself.
He was reluctant to do so, but I pressed him. Finally he told me that he didn't like to use the library because he worried about the Library Police. He knew there were no Library Police, he hastened to add, but it was one of those stories that burrowed down into your subconscious and just sort of lurked there. He had heard it from his Aunt Stephanie when he was seven or eight and much more gullible, and it had been lurking ever since.
I, of course, was delighted, because I had been afraid of the Library Police myself as a kid - the faceless enforcers who would actually come to your house
if you didn't bring your overdue books back. That would be bad enough ... but what if you couldn't find the books in question when those strange lawmen turned up? What then? What would they do to you? What might they take to make up for the missing volumes? It had been years since I'd thought of the Library Police (although not since childhood; I can clearly remember discussing them with Peter Straub and his son, Ben, six or eight years ago), but now all those old questions, both dreadful and somehow enticing, recurred.
I found myself musing on the Library Police over the next three or four days, and as I mused, I began to glimpse the outlines of the story which follows. This is the way stories usually happen for me, but the musing period usually lasts a lot longer than it did in this case. When I began, the story was titled 'The Library Police,' and I had no clear idea of where I was going with it. I thought it would probably be a funny story, sort of like the suburban nightmares the late Max Shulman used to bolt together. After all, the idea was funny, wasn't it? I mean, the Library Police! How absurd!
What I realized, however, was something I knew already: the fears of childhood have a hideous persistence. Writing is an act of self-hypnosis, and in that state a kind of total emotional recall often takes place and terrors which should have been long dead start to walk and talk again.
As I worked on this story, that began to happen to me. I knew, going in, that I had loved the library as a kid - why not? It was the only place a relatively poor kid like me could get all the books he wanted - but as I continued to write, I became reacquainted with a deeper truth: I had also feared it. I feared becoming lost in the dark stacks, I feared being forgotten in a dark corner of the reading room and ending up locked in for the night, I feared the old librarian with the blue hair and the cat's-eye glasses and the almost lipless mouth who would pinch the backs of your hands with her long, pale fingers and hiss 'Shhhh!' if you forgot where you were and started to talk too loud. And yes, I feared the Library Police.
What happened with a much longer work, a novel called Christine, began to happen here. About thirty pages in, the humor began to go out of the situation. And about fifty pages in, the whole story took a screaming left turn into the dark places I have travelled so often and which I still know so little about. Eventually I found the guy I was looking for, and managed to raise my head enough to look into his merciless silver eyes. I have tried to bring back a sketch of him for you, Constant Reader, but it may not be very good.
My hands were trembling quite badly when I made it, you see.
Everything, Sam Peebles decided later, was the fault of the goddamned acrobat. If the acrobat hadn't gotten drunk at exactly the wrong time, Sam never would have ended up in such trouble.
It is not bad enough, he thought with a perhaps justifiable bitterness, that life is like a narrow beam over an endless chasm, a beam we have to walk blindfolded. It's bad, but not bad enough. Sometimes, we also get pushed.
But that was later. First, before the Library Policeman, was the drunken acrobat.
In Junction City, the last Friday of every month was Speaker's Night at the local Rotarians' Hall. On the last Friday in March of 1990, the Rotarians were scheduled to hear - and to be entertained by - The Amazing Joe, an acrobat with Curry & Trembo's All-Star Circus and Travelling Carnival.
The telephone on Sam Peebles's desk at Junction City Realty and Insurance rang at five past four on Thursday afternoon. Sam picked it up. It was always Sam who picked it up - either Sam in person or Sam on the answering machine, because he was Junction City Realty and Insurance's owner and sole employee. He was not a rich man, but he was a reasonably happy one. He liked to tell people that his first Mercedes was still quite a distance in the future, but he had a Ford which was almost new and owned his own home on Kelton Avenue. 'Also, the business keeps me in beer and skittles,' he liked to add ... although in truth, he hadn't drunk much beer since college and wasn't exactly sure what skittles were. He thought they might be pretzels.
'Junction City Realty and In - '
'Sam, this is Craig. The acrobat broke his neck.'
'You heard me!' Craig Jones cried in deeply aggrieved tones. 'The acrobat broke his fucking neck!'
'Oh,' Sam said. 'Gee.' He thought about this for a moment and then asked cautiously, 'Is he dead, Craig?'
'No, he's not dead, but he might as well be as far as we're concerned. He's in the hospital over in Cedar Rapids with his neck dipped in about twenty pounds of plaster. Billy Bright just called me. He said the guy came on drunk as a skunk at the matinee this afternoon, tried to do a back-over flip, and landed outside the center ring on the nape of his neck. Billy said he could hear it way up in the bleachers, where he was sitting. He said it sounded like when you step in a puddle that just iced over.'
'Ouch!' Sam exclaimed, wincing.
'I'm not surprised. After all - The Amazing Joe. What kind of name is that for a circus performer? I mean, The Amazing Randix, okay. The Amazing Tortellini, still not bad. But The Amazing Joe? It sounds like a prime example of brain damage in action to me.'
'Jesus, that's too bad.'
'Fucking shit on toast is what it is. It leaves us without a speaker tomorrow night, good buddy.'
Sam began to wish he had left the office promptly at four. Craig would have been stuck with Sam the answering machine, and that would have given Sam the living being a little more time to think. He felt he would soon need time to think. He also felt that Craig Jones was not going to give him any.
'Yes,' he said, 'I
guess that's true enough.' He hoped he sounded philosophical but helpless. 'What a shame.'
'It sure is,' Craig said, and then dropped the dime. 'But I know you'll be happy to step in and fill the slot.'
'Me? Craig, you've got to be kidding! I can't even do a somersault, let alone a back-over fl - '
‘Thought you could talk about the importance of the independently owned business in small-town life,' Craig Jones pressed on relentlessly. 'If that doesn't do it for you, there's baseball. Lacking that, you could always drop your pants and wag your wing-wang at the audience. Sam, I am not just the head of the Speaker's Committee - that would be bad enough. But since Kenny moved away and Carl quit coming, I am the Speaker's Committee. Now, you've got to help me. I need a speaker tomorrow night. There are about five guys in the whole damn club I feel I can trust in a pinch, and you're one of them.'
'But - '
'You're also the only one who hasn't filled in already in a situation like this, so you're elected, buddy-boy.'
'Frank Stephens pinch-hit for the guy from the trucking union last year when the grand jury indicted him for fraud and he couldn't show up. Sam - it's your turn in the barrel. You can't let me down, man. You owe me.'
'I run an insurance business!' Sam cried. 'When I'm not writing insurance, I sell farms! Mostly to banks! Most people find it boring! The ones who don't find it boring find it disgusting!'
'None of that matters.' Craig was now moving in for the kill, marching over Sam's puny objections in grim hobnailed boots. 'They'll all be drunk by the end of dinner and you know it. They won't remember a goddam word you said come Saturday morning, but in the meantime, I need someone to stand up and talk for half an hour and you're elected!'
Sam continued to object a little longer, but Craig kept coming down on the imperatives, italicizing them mercilessly. Need. Gotta. Owe.
'All right!' he said at last. 'All right, all right! Enough!'
'My man!' Craig exclaimed. His voice was suddenly full of sunshine and rainbows. 'Remember, it doesn't have to be any longer than thirty minutes, plus maybe another ten for questions. If anybody has any questions. And you really can wag your wing-wang if you want to. I doubt that anybody could actually see it, but - '
'Craig,' Sam said, 'that's enough.'
'Oh! Sorry! Shet mah mouf!' Craig, perhaps lightheaded with relief, cackled.
'Listen, why don't we terminate this discussion?' Sam reached for the roll of Turns he kept in his desk drawer. He suddenly felt he might need quite a few Turns during the next twenty-eight hours or so. 'It looks as if I've got a speech to write.'
'You got it,' Craig said. 'Just remember - dinner at six, speech at seventhirty. As they used to say on Hawaii Five-0, be there! Aloha!'
'Aloha, Craig,' Sam said, and hung up. He stared at the phone. He felt hot gas rising slowly up through his chest and into his throat. He opened his mouth and uttered a sour burp - the product of a stomach which had been reasonably serene until five minutes ago.
He ate the first of what would prove to be a great many Tums indeed.
Instead of going bowling that night as he had planned, Sam Peebles shut himself in his study at home with a yellow legal pad, three sharpened pencils, a package of Kent cigarettes, and a six-pack of Jolt. He unplugged the telephone from the wall, lit a cigarette, and stared at the yellow pad. After five minutes of staring, he wrote this on the top line of the top sheet:
SMALL-TOWN BUSINESSES: THE LIFEBLOOD OF AMERICA
He said it out loud and liked the sound of it. Well ... maybe he didn't exactly like it, but he could live with it. He said it louder and liked it better. A little better. It actually wasn't that good; in fact, it probably sucked the big hairy one, but it beat the shit out of 'Communism: Threat or Menace.' And Craig was right - most of them would be too hung over on Saturday morning to remember what they'd heard on Friday night, anyway.
Marginally encouraged, Sam began to write.
'When I moved to Junction City from the more or less thriving metropolis of Ames in 1984
and that is why I feel now, as I did on that bright September morn in 1984, that small businesses are not just the lifeblood of America, but the bright and sparkly lifeblood of the entire Western world.'
Sam stopped, crushed out a cigarette in the ashtray on his office desk, and looked hopefully at Naomi Higgins.
'Well? What do you think?'
Naomi was a pretty young woman from Proverbia, a town four miles west of Junction City. She lived in a ramshackle house by the Proverbia River with her ramshackle mother. Most of the Rotarians knew Naomi, and wagers had been offered from time to time on whether the house or the mother would fall apart first. Sam didn't know if any of these wagers had ever been taken, but if so, their resolution was still pending.
Naomi had graduated from Iowa City Business College, and could actually retrieve whole legible sentences from her shorthand. Since she was the only local woman who possessed such a skill, she was in great demand among Junction City's limited business population. She also had extremely good legs, and that didn't hurt. She worked mornings five days a week, for four men and one woman -two lawyers, one banker, and two realtors. In the afternoons she went back to the ramshackle house, and when she was not caring for her ramshackle mother, she typed up the dictation she had taken.
Sam Peebles engaged Naomi's services each Friday morning from ten until noon, but this morning he had put aside his correspondence - even though some of it badly needed to be answered - and asked Naomi if she would listen to something.
'Sure, I guess so,' Naomi had replied. She looked a little worried, as if she thought Sam - whom she had briefly dated - might be planning to propose marriage. When he explained that Craig Jones had drafted him to stand in for the wounded acrobat, and that he wanted her to listen to his speech, she'd relaxed and listened to the whole thing - all twenty-six minutes of it - with flattering attention.
'Don't be afraid to be honest,' he added before Naomi could do more than open her mouth.
'It's good,' she said. 'Pretty interesting.'
'No, that's okay - you don't have to spare my feelings. Let it all hang out.'
'I am. It's really okay. Besides, by the time you start talking, they'll all be - '
'Yes, they'll all be hammered, I know.' This prospect had comforted Sam at first, but now it disappointed him a little. Listening to himself read, he'd actually thought the speech was pretty good.
'There Is one thing,' Naomi said thoughtfully.
'It's kind of ... you know . . . dry.'
'Oh,' Sam said. He sighed and rubbed his eyes. He had been up until nearly one o'clock this morning, first writing and then revising.
'But that's easy to fix,' she assured him. 'Just go to the library and get a couple of those books.'
Sam felt a sudden sharp pain in his lower belly and grabbed his roll of Tums. Research for a stupid Rotary Club speech? Library research? That was going a little overboard, wasn't it? He had never been to the Junction City Library before, and he didn't see a reason to go there now. Still, Naomi had listened very closely, Naomi was trying to help, and it would be rude not to at least listen to what she had to say.
'You know - books with stuff in them to liven up speeches. They're like . . .' Naomi groped. 'Well, you know the hot sauce they give you at China Light, if you want it?'
'Yes - '
'They're like that. They have jokes. Also, there's this one book, Best Loved Poems of the American People. You could probably find something in there for the end. Something sort of uplifting.'
'There are poems in this book about the importance of small businesses in American life?' Sam asked doubtfully.
'When you quote poetry, people get uplifted,' Naomi said. 'Nobody cares what it's about, Sam, let alone what it's for.'
'And they really have joke-books especially for speeches?' Sam found this almost impossible to believe, although
hearing that the library carried books on such esoterica as small-engine repair and wig-styling wouldn't have surprised him in the least.
'How do you know?'
'When Phil Brakeman was running for the State House, I used to type up speeches for him all the time,' Naomi said. 'He had one of those books. I just can't remember what the name of it was. All I can think of is Jokes for the John, and of course that's not right.'
'No,' Sam agreed, thinking that a few choice tidbits from Jokes for the John would probably make him a howling success. But he began to see what Naomi was getting at and the idea appealed to him despite his reluctance to visit the local library after all his years of cheerful neglect. A little spice for the old speech. Dress up your leftovers, turn your meatloaf into a masterpiece. And a library, after all, was just a library. If you didn't know how to find what you wanted, all you had to do was ask a librarian. Answering questions was one of their jobs, right?
'Anyway, you could leave it just the way it is,' Naomi said. 'I mean, they will be drunk.' She looked at Sam kindly but severely and then checked her watch. 'You have over an hour left - did you want to do some letters?'
'No, I guess not. Why don't you type up my speech instead?' He had already decided to spend his lunch hour at the library.
The Library (I)
Sam had gone by the Library hundreds of times during his years in Junction City, but this was the first time he had really looked at it, and he discovered a rather amazing thing: he hated the place on sight.
The Junction City Public Library stood on the corner of State Street and Miller Avenue, a square granite box of a building with windows so narrow they looked like loopholes. A slate roof overhung all four sides of the building, and when one approached it from the front, the combination of the narrow windows and the line of shadow created by the roof made the building look like the frowning face of a stone robot. It was a fairly common style of Iowa architecture, common enough so Sam Peebles, who had been selling real estate for nearly twenty years, had given it a name: Midwestern Ugly. During spring, summer, and fall, the building's forbidding aspect was softened by the maples which stood around it in a kind of grove, but now, at the end of a hard Iowa winter, the maples were still bare and the Library looked like an oversized crypt.