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Four Past Midnight - 5 - The Library Policeman, Page 4

Stephen King

  Sam shifted from one foot to the other. He didn't want to spend the afternoon listening to a lecture on How Your Library Works for You, but hadn't he invited it? He supposed so. The only thing he was absolutely sure of was that he was liking Ardelia Lortz less and less all the time.

  'The Iowa Library Association sends us a sheet every other month, with reproductions of about forty posters,' Ms Lortz continued relentlessly. 'We can pick any five free; extras cost three dollars each. I see you're getting restless, Sam, but you do deserve an explanation, and we are finally reaching the nub of the matter.'

  'Me? I'm not restless,' Sam said restlessly.

  She smiled at him, revealing teeth too even to be anything but dentures. 'We have a Children's Library Committee,' she said. 'Who is on it? Why, children, of course! Nine of them. Four high-school students, three middleschool students, and two grammar-school students. Each child has to have an overall B average in his schoolwork to qualify. They pick some of the new books we order, they picked the new drapes and tables when we redecorated last fall ... and, of course, they pick the posters. That is, as one of our younger Committeemen once put it, "the funnest part." Now do you understand?'

  'Yes,' Sam said. 'The kids picked out Little Red Riding Hood, and Simple Simon, and the Library Policeman. They like them because they're scary.'

  'Correct!' she beamed.

  Suddenly he'd had enough. It was something about the Library. Not the posters, not the librarian, exactly, but the Library itself. Suddenly the Library was like an aggravating, infuriating splinter jammed deep in one buttock. Whatever it was, it was ... enough.

  'Ms Lortz, do you keep a videotape of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 5 in the Children's Library? Or a selection of albums by Guns n Roses and Ozzy Osbourne?'

  'Sam, you miss the point,' she began patiently.

  'What about Peyton Place? Do you keep a copy of that in the Children's Library just because some of the kids have read it?'

  Even as he was speaking, he thought, Does ANYBODY still read that old thing?

  'No,' she said, and he saw that an ill-tempered flush was rising in her cheeks. This was not a woman who was used to having her judgments called into question. 'But we do keep stories about housebreaking, parental abuse, and burglary. I am speaking, of course, of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears,"

  "Hansel and Gretel", and "Jack and the Beanstalk." I expected a man such as yourself to be a little more understanding, Sam.'

  A man you helped out in a pinch is what you mean, Sam thought, but what the hell, lady - isn't that what the town pays you to do?

  Then he got hold of himself. He didn't know exactly what she meant by la man such as himself,' wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he did understand that this discussion was on the edge of getting out of hand - of becoming an argument. He had come in here to find a little tenderizer to sprinkle over his speech, not to get in a hassle about the Children's Library with the head librarian.

  'I apologize if I've said anything to offend you,' he said, 'and I really ought to be going.'

  'Yes,' she said. 'I think you ought.' Your apology is not accepted, her eyes telegraphed. It is not accepted at all.

  'I suppose,' he said, 'that I'm a little nervous about my speaking debut. And I was up late last night working on this.' He smiled his old good-natured Sam Peebles smile and hoisted the briefcase.

  She stood down - a little - but her eyes were still snapping. 'That's understandable. We are here to serve, and, of course, we're always interested in constructive criticism from the taxpayers.' She accented the word constructive ever so slightly, to let him know, he supposed, that his had been anything but.

  Now that it was over, he had an urge - almost a need - to make it all over, to smooth it down like the coverlet on a well-made bed. And this was also part of the businessman's habit, he supposed . . . or the businessman's protective coloration. An odd thought occurred to him - that what he should really talk about tonight was his encounter with Ardelia Lortz. It said more about the small-town heart and spirit than his whole written speech. Not all of it was flattering, but it surely wasn't dry. And it would offer a sound rarely heard during Friday-night Rotary speeches: the unmistakable ring of truth.

  'Well, we got a little feisty there for a second or two,' he heard himself saying, and saw his hand go out. 'I expect I overstepped my bounds. I hope there are no hard feelings.'

  She touched his hand. It was a brief, token touch. Cool, smooth flesh. Unpleasant, somehow. Like shaking hands with an umbrella stand. 'None at all,' she said, but her eyes continued to tell a different story.

  'Well then . . . I'll be getting along.'

  'Yes. Remember - one week on those, Sam.' She lifted a finger. Pointed a well-manicured nail at the books he was holding. And smiled. Sam found something extremely disturbing about that smile, but he could not for the life of him have said exactly what it was. 'I wouldn't want to have to send the Library Cop after you.'

  'No,' Sam agreed. 'I wouldn't want that, either.'

  'That's right,' said Ardelia Lortz, still smiling. 'You wouldn't.'


  Halfway down the walk, the face of that screaming child

  (Simple Simon, the kids call him Simple Simon I think that's very healthy, don't you)

  recurred to him, and with it came a thought - one simple enough and practical enough to stop him in his tracks. It was this: given a chance to pick such a poster, a jury of kids might very well do so ... but would any Library Association, whether from Iowa, the Midwest, or the country as a whole, actually send one out?

  Sam Peebles thought of the pleading hands plastered against the obdurate, imprisoning glass, the screaming, agonized mouth, and suddenly found that more than difficult to believe. He found it impossible to believe.

  And Peyton Place. What about that? He guessed that most of the adults who used the Library had forgotten about it. Did he really believe that some of their children - the ones young enough to use the Children's Library - had rediscovered that old relic?

  I don't believe that one, either.

  He had no wish to incur a second dose of Ardelia Lortz's anger - the first had been enough, and he'd had a feeling her dial hadn't been turned up to anything near full volume - but these thoughts were strong enough to cause him to turn around.

  She was gone.

  The library doors stood shut, a vertical slot of mouth in that brooding granite face.

  Sam stood where he was a moment longer, then hurried down to where his car was parked at the curb.


  Sam's Speech

  It was a rousing success.

  He began with his own adaptations of two anecdotes from the 'Easing Them In' section of The Speaker's Companion - one was about a farmer who tried to wholesale his own produce and the other was about selling frozen dinners to Eskimos - and used a third in the middle (which really was pretty arid). He found another good one in the subsection titled 'Finishing Them Off,' started to pencil it in, then remembered Ardelia Lortz and Best Loved Poems of the American People. You're apt to find your listeners will remember a well-chosen verse even if they forget everything else, she had said, and Sam found a good short poem in the 'Inspiration' section, just as she had told him he might.

  He looked down on the upturned faces of his fellow Rotarians and said: 'I've tried to give you some of the reasons why I live and work in a small town like Junction City, and I hope they make at least some sense. If they don't, I'm in a lot of trouble.'

  A rumble of good-natured laughter (and a whiff of mixed Scotch and bourbon) greeted this.

  Sam was sweating freely, but he actually felt pretty good, and he had begun to believe he was going to get out of this unscathed. The microphone had produced feedback whine only once, no one had walked out, no one had thrown food, and there had only been a few catcalls - good-natured ones, at that.

  'I think a poet named Spencer Michael Free summed up the things I've been trying to say better than I ever could. You see
, almost everything we have to sell in our small-town businesses can be sold cheaper in big-city shopping centers and suburban malls. Those places like to boast that you can get just about all the goods and services you'd ever need right there, and park for free in the bargain. And I guess they're almost right. But there is still one thing the small-town business has to offer that the malls and shopping centers don't, and that's the thing Mr Free talks about in his poem. It isn't a very long one, but it says a lot. It goes like this.

  ''Tis the human touch in this world that counts.

  The touch of your hand and mine,

  Which means far more to the fainting heart Than shelter and bread and wine;

  For shelter is gone when the night is o'er, And bread lasts only a day,

  But the touch of the hand and the sound of a voice

  Sing on in the soul always.'

  Sam looked up at them from his text, and for the second time that day was surprised to find that he meant every word he had just said. He found that his heart was suddenly full of happiness and simple gratitude. It was good just to find out you still had a heart, that the ordinary routine of ordinary days hadn't worn it away, but it was even better to find it could still speak through your mouth.

  'We small-town businessmen and businesswomen offer that human touch. On the one hand, it isn't much ... but on the other, it's just about everything. I know that it keeps me coming back for more. I want to wish our originally scheduled speaker, The Amazing Joe, a speedy recovery; I want to thank Craig Jones for asking me to sub for him; and I want to thank all of you for listening so patiently to my boring little talk. So ... thanks very much.'

  The applause started even before he finished his last sentence; it swelled while he gathered up the few pages of text which Naomi had typed and which he had spent the afternoon amending; it rose to a crescendo as he sat down, bemused by the reaction.

  Well, it's just the booze, he told himself. They would have applauded you if you'd told them about how you managed to quit smoking after you found Jesus at a Tupperware party.

  Then they started to rise to their feet and he thought he must have spoken too long if they were that anxious to get out. But they went on applauding, and then he saw Craig Jones was flapping his hands at him. After a moment Sam understood. Craig wanted him to stand up and take a bow.

  He twirled a forefinger around his ear: You're nuts!

  Craig shook his head emphatically and began elevating his hands so energetically that he looked like a revival preacher encouraging the faithful to sing louder.

  So Sam stood up and was amazed when they actually cheered him.

  After a few moments, Craig approached the lectern. The cheers at last died down when he tapped the microphone a few times, producing a sound like a giant fist wrapped in cotton knocking on a coffin.

  'I think we'll all agree,' he said, 'that Sam's speech more than made up for the price of the rubber chicken.'

  This brought another hearty burst of applause.

  Craig turned toward Sam and said, 'If I'd known you had that in you, Sammy, I would have booked you in the first place!'

  This produced more clapping and whistling. Before it died out, Craig Jones had seized Sam's hand and began pumping it briskly up and down.

  'That was great!' Craig said. 'Where'd you copy it from, Sam?'

  'I didn't,' Sam said. His cheeks felt warm, and although he'd only had one gin and tonic - a weak one - before getting up to speak, he felt a little drunk. 'It's mine. I got a couple of books from the Library, and they helped.'

  Other Rotarians were crowding around now; Sam's hand was shaken again and again. He started to feel like the town pump during a summer drought.

  'Great!' someone shouted in his ear. Sam turned toward the voice and saw it belonged to Frank Stephens, who had filled in when the trucking-union official was indicted for malfeasance. 'We shoulda had it on tape, we coulda sold it to the goddam JayCees! Damn, that was a good talk, Sam!'

  'Oughtta take it on the road!' Rudy Pearlman said. His round face was red and sweating. 'I dam near cried! Honest to God! Where'd you find that pome?'

  'At the Library,' Sam said. He still felt dazed ... but his relief at having actually finished in one piece was being supplanted by a kind of cautious delight. He thought he would have to give Naomi a bonus. 'It was in a book called -' But before he could tell Rudy what the book had been called, Bruce Engalls had grasped him by the elbow and was guiding him toward the bar. 'Best damned speech I've heard at this foolish club in two years!' Bruce was exclaiming. 'Maybe five! Who needs a goddam acrobat, anyway? Let me buy you a drink, Sam. Hell, let me buy you two!'


  Before he was able to get away, Sam consumed a total of six drinks, all of them free, and ended his triumphant evening by puking on his own WELCOME mat shortly after Craig Jones let him out in front of his house on Kelton Avenue. When his stomach vapor-locked, Sam had been trying to get his housekey in the lock of his front door - it was a job, because there appeared to be three locks and four keys - and there was just no time to get rid of it in the bushes at the side of the stoop. So when he finally succeeded in getting the door open, he simply picked the WELCOME mat up (carefully, holding it by the sides so the gunk would pool in the middle) and tossed it over the side.

  He got a cup of coffee to stay down, but the phone rang twice while he was drinking it. More congratulations. The second call was from Elmer Baskin, who hadn't even been there. He felt a little like Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, but it was hard to enjoy the feeling while his stomach was still treading water and his head was beginning to punish him for his overindulgence.

  Sam put on the answering machine in the living room to field any further calls, then went upstairs to his bedroom, unplugged the phone by the bed, took two aspirin, stripped, and lay down.

  Consciousness began to fade fast - he was tired as well as bombed - but before sleep took him, he had time to think: I owe most of it to Naomi ... and to that unpleasant woman at the Library. Horst. Borscht. Whatever her name was. Maybe I ought to give her a bonus, too.

  He heard the telephone start to ring downstairs, and then the answering machine cut in.

  Good boy, Sam thought sleepily. Do your duty - I mean, after all, isn't that what I pay you to do?

  Then he was in blackness, and knew no more until ten o'clock Saturday morning.


  He returned to the land of the living with a sour stomach and a slight headache, but it could have been a lot worse. He was sorry about the WELCOME mat, but glad he'd offloaded at least some of the booze before it could swell his head any worse than it already was. He stood in the shower for ten minutes, making only token washing motions, then dried off, dressed, and went downstairs with a towel draped over his head. The red message light on the telephone answering machine was blinking. The tape only rewound a short way when he pushed the PLAY MESSAGES button; apparently the call he'd heard just as he was drifting off had been the last.

  Beep! 'Hello, Sam.' Sam paused in the act of removing the towel, frowning. It was a woman's voice, and he knew it. Whose? 'I heard your speech was a great success. I'm so glad for you.'

  It was the Lortz woman, he realized.

  Now how did she get my number? But that was what the telephone book was for, of course ... and he had written it on his library-card application as well, hadn't he? Yes. For no reason he could rightly tell, a small shiver shook its way up his back.

  'Be sure to get your borrowed books back by the sixth of April,' she continued, and then, archly: 'Remember the Library Policeman.'

  There was the click of the connection being broken. On Sam's answering machine, the ALL MESSAGES PLAYED lamp lit Up.

  'You're a bit of a bitch, aren't you, lady?' Sam said to the empty house, and then went into the kitchen to make himself some toast.


  When Naomi came in at ten o'clock on the Friday morning a week after Sam's triumphant debut as an after-dinner speaker, Sam handed her a long wh
ite envelope with her name written on the front.

  'What's this?' Naomi asked suspiciously, taking off her cloak. It was raining hard outside, a driving, dismal early-spring rain.

  'Open it and see.'

  She did. It was a thank-you card. Taped inside was a portrait of Andrew Jackson.

  'Twenty dollars!' She looked at him more suspiciously than ever. 'Why?'

  'Because you saved my bacon when you sent me to the Library,' Sam said. 'The speech went over very well, Naomi. I guess it wouldn't be wrong to say I was a big hit. I would have put in fifty, if I'd thought you would take it.'

  Now she understood, and was clearly pleased, but she tried to give the money back just the same. 'I'm really glad it worked, Sam, but I can't take th - '

  'Yes you can,' he said, 'and you will. You'd take a commission if you worked for me as a salesperson, wouldn't you?'

  'I don't, though. I could never sell anything. When I was in the Girl Scouts, my mother was the only person who ever bought cookies from me.'

  'Naomi. My dear girl. No - don't start looking all nervous and cornered. I'm not going to make a pass at you. We went through all of that two years ago.'

  'We certainly did.' Naomi agreed, but she still looked nervous and checked to make sure that she had a clear line of retreat to the door, should she need one.

  'Do you realize I've sold two houses and written almost two hundred thousand dollars' worth of insurance since that damn speech? Most of it was common group coverage with a high top-off and a low commission rate, true, but it still adds up to the price of a new car. If you don't take that twenty, I'm going to feel like shit.'

  'Sam, please!' she said, looking shocked. Naomi was a dedicated Baptist. She and her mother went to a little church in Proverbia which was almost as ramshackle as the house they lived in. He knew; he had been there once. But he was happy to see that she also looked pleased ... and a little more relaxed.

  In the summer of 1988, Sam had dated Naomi twice. On the second date, he made a pass. It was as well behaved as a pass can be and still remain a pass, but a pass it was. Much good it had done him; Naomi, it turned out, was a good enough pass deflector to play in the Denver Broncos' defensive backfield. It wasn't that she didn't like him, she explained; it was just that she had decided the two of them could never get along 'that way.' Sam, bewildered, had asked her why not. Naomi only shook her head. Some things are hard to explain, Sam, but that doesn't make them less true. It could never work. Believe me, it just couldn't. And that had been all he could get out of her.