The Library Book: A Grim Fairy Tale
by Bethia Sheean-Wallace
“It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya? It pours. Man it pours.” Albert Hammond once said he wrote those words in London with the help of his friend Mike Hazlewood when the penniless youths were dreamily envisioning a trip to Los Angeles. As things go, the iconic lyric about a yearned for pilgrimage to the land of opportunity has been inverted to a despairing vision of the California dream.
Chapter One: Out of the Woods
Katie showed up at the library one minute until closing Friday night. To be clear, I didn’t know her name was Katie at the time, or that her fate would weigh so heavily on me. But on with the story. It was pitch dark out. Orange County shivered and squelched under an early winter storm. Katie looked very much like someone who had not enjoyed any shelter that day, her face bloodless except for a reddened nose. On closer inspection she was sopping wet—her jeans, jacket, and the grossly malformed and distended backpack she struggled out from under and let fall heavily to the floor. With a familiar self-loathing I approached, said hello, and quietly informed her we were closing. She gasped, eyes wide. What did she see in me, yet another messenger of bad tidings? I asked her if there was anything she needed. As if I had it to give. She didn’t feign indifference at this, but rather asked for the location of a nearby shelter. Even my battle-weary, empathy-fatigued heart was suddenly much heavier. She pulled a sodden pink bandana from her pocket and daubed at her leaking eyes.
Katie was probably in her early twenties, more than ten years younger than my daughters. She looked healthy and “clean”; as if her health and habits were mine to judge. In handing her the standard ‘pocket guide’ resource directory pamphlet with an ordered list of over-extended agencies, services, shelters, and food pantries—a pamphlet which may or may not have been entirely current or accurate—I was exercising the full extent of my assistance as a county librarian. I honestly could not even tell her where the nearest shelter is, because that information changes as if by random chance. If random chance manifests in the form of NIMBY-mobbed city council meetings. My job was done, having reached the limits of my jurisdiction as library staff in a community where the public library functions as a day shelter for the significant population of Orange County economic refugees experiencing homelessness.
The library closed and went back out into the stormy night, in an unlit park where a small but staunchly territorial community of urban-lite rebels resided. At its core this group numbered roughly half a dozen young men and one woman named Sam; a problematic male-to-female ratio from Sam’s point of view, as she explained to me in unnecessary detail. They ran off the previous park-residents who protected one another with admirable allegiance. Yes, that group was much larger and did enjoy drinking parties, circling their wagons—shopping carts, bicycles, modified pull-along wagons and strollers—every night around their tarp and nylon tent camp. They were proudly boastful of their distaste for street drugs. This current group was younger and seemed harder, their faces branded by sores, their grimy clothes hanging loose on bony frames. They’d taken to sporting horned headgear fashioned from tree branches and freely brandished an arsenal of innovative open-carry weapons in the park; pipes, hockey sticks, rebars, and tire irons.
If I believed in prayer, Katie would have featured heavily in my entreaties to our negligent and lazy God.
Chapter Two: Superheroes Wear Masks
On Saturday morning I unlocked the library doors and immediately ambushed Number 24 as he crossed the threshold barefaced. “Would you like a mask?” I offered up the box of disposable face masks which I knew damn well he was well acquainted with. He never showed up prepared with his own. In fact 24, whose name was Rudy Biggs, seemed determined to perform this mask-defiance ritual every morning. “We are under a mask mandate again,” I explained, pretending that he was not so much noncompliant as he was uninformed. I also wanted to seize the opportunity to broadcast to the other rain-soaked patrons entering the lobby that the mask-mandate sign on the door is current. Well, it is an updated sign from last year, but still. As per the ritual, Mr. Biggs responded to the proffered masks with a well-practiced eye-roll. He exhaled with exaggerated potency—the asshole—tilted his head and cast his gaze heavenward in an attitude of long-suffering disbelief. His umbrella dripped on the tile between his shoes.
“Alright, alright already!” he griped, as if finally broken down by some long-winded harangue. With a sigh well-heaved, he pulled a mask from the box then headed ponderously towards the patron computers. Number 24 lumbered along with some difficulty, his tall, broad frame carrying an excess of flesh while the bum knee and hip he often complained about gave him a lopsided, rolling gait. His progress was slow but the visual impression was one of great motion, his bulk swaying and heaving as he lurched from side to side. His long gray beard and skinny braid swung wildly with every yawing step.
Rudy Biggs seated himself at computer station 24, his customary spot, presumably because it required the least effort to reach from the entrance. The library staff spent a good deal of time administering to the exacting needs of Mr. Biggs. Out of earshot, most of us referred to him as Number 24 which was naturally abbreviated to 24. I knew Rudy Biggs would avoid making further contact until he signaled staff for assistance which he did throughout the day, every day. Such encounters routinely involved deescalating a tense situation. 24 could rocket to the highest reaches of fury at the speed of light, raging at the puzzling and punishing machine at his fingertips. Maybe this is why he couldn’t seem to retain any of the answers and solutions to his very many questions and difficulties.
With any luck, our Mr. Biggs wouldn’t meet up with any insurmountable operational challenges during this opening hour, after which I would be safely tucked into my cubicle away from the public space and computer 24. Proving that if it weren’t for bad luck, et cetera, his hand shot up within minutes, his face grim. I noted this, his customary signaling-the-teacher method of summoning help, but I was otherwise occupied. He took to waving his hand wildly, like a kid who needed a restroom hall pass. I was busy hunting down our very popular copy of The Art of War for a guy who couldn’t believe he would need to register for a library card to borrow it. At this point 24 whistled and rapped on the tabletop. There was everything annoying about this.
By the time I reached him, his face mask was in the intentionally vexatious chin-guard position. “Could you pull up your mask, please?”
“I can’t breathe with this thing on.”
The mind reeled. Still, I bothered to respond, something I pretty much ceased doing ages ago, “I wear it all day at work. None of us like it.” I was well-aware that this strategy just might work with young children who may listen and learn from it. In other words, it was a wasted effort.
“You know, breathing in a mask makes you sick.” 24 could barely get the words out, he was that weary. It’s almost as if I was the one who had been wearing him down with my bullheaded ignorance day after day. I waited until he pulled up his mask before I stepped forward to assist him with a social media issue. This meant I had the crucial task of walking him through the series of mouse-clicks required to block someone on Facebook; the uncalled-for explanation involved a 35-year-old son whose mother he had abandoned the moment he got wind of the pregnancy. The son had “busted” him by way of a popular ancestry tracing service, and as luck would have it this “offspring of questionable origin” turned out to be “crazy”. As I turned to go, my work done, Mr. Biggs slumped dolefully in his chair and spit up one last pearl of wisdom for my benefit; “And you know the vaccines spread COVID.”
I let it go, resigned to the idiocy of misinformation and disinformation which has managed to render him illiterate to reality. If only he knew how hard his tribe has worked to school me on COVID over the past two years, and what a triumph it is that I haven’t responded by throwing an absolute fit. Not even once. As I left 24 to his social media activities I sighed to recall the inferred authority of expertise I once wielded as an adult services librarian, the earnest questions, the expectation that I could help plot a patron’s journey through the wondrous landscape of literature but also information, knowledge, and clarity. Butting up against the behemothic industry of fake news and bearing witness to the rise of the post-truth era, my admission that I cannot change what propaganda has wrought burns like acid.
Chapter 3: Señora’s Shiny New Carriage
Señora Aracelli Espinoza’s life was changed for the better when she could no longer make it from the parking lot to the library entrance—a furlong’s distance—under her own power. I was accustomed to seeing her slow solitary progress up the gently sloping sidewalk, a tiny crooked figure leaning on her trusty walker. She would pause to rest every few feet, her face shadowed by the huge floppy brim of her yellow hat. I didn’t recognize her at first when she rolled in out of the rain tucked under a bright red umbrella held aloft by who I would learn was her great nephew Tomas, square of jaw and shoulder. He pushed her lustily along in a shiny new wheelchair with Tomas’ wife Alejandra—small, soft, and round in a striking contrast to her husband—leading the parade and greeting everyone in sight; including two of the antlered park denizens slouching under the overhang by the front door, who instantly stood straighter and beamed at her. As the trio breezed into the lobby Señora Espinoza loudly held forth on her extensive knowledge of this library branch, with which she’d been acquainted for over 45 years.
Señora introduced her cheerful entourage, gushing that they were living with her now and she had never been happier. She boasted that Tomas and Alejandra were responsible for helping her “go digital”. Not only could she borrow all her favorite magazines and read them right on her tablet, she even learned how to enlarge the font. She was listening to eAudiobooks on her “very smart cell phone”, which she “almost never” needed help with. I arched my eyebrows, impressed. We are nothing if not adaptive, as evidenced by the fact that Señora Espinoza had transitioned to digital reading materials to accommodate her deteriorating eyesight, and I had developed a wide range of upper-face nonverbal communication expressions while masked.
“I sit under the orchid tree in the backyard and listen to books I have been wanting to read for years. My eyes, you know. They finally failed me.” Señora Espinoza smiled at the memory of reading words on a page. I nodded and told her that the good news just made my week. And I meant it. Maybe my month. Señora laughed over the tumult of the driving wind and rain when she recounted the drama at home, what with the garbage strike coinciding with the storms—the clustered rain bands rolling in from the sea, bumping one another forward. The street had flooded and buried her driveway in mud. Tomas and Alejandra shook their heads at the very idea, shrugging off the details of their misadventures. Señora crossed herself as the rain intensified, sounding like mighty applause overhead.
“Tia Abuela, it’s just rain, and our garden needs the rain,” Tomas assured her over the racket, squeezing Señora’s bony shoulder. Aracelli said she hoped the garden, and the house besides, didn’t wash away altogether. “El señor es bueno,” Tomas considered, “the Lord is good.” Señora Espinoza pressed her hands together and nodded, but her eyes were smiling.
“Speak English over there, if you don’t mind!” Rudy Biggs thundered. The trio froze then turned toward the voice in unison. 24 stared back hard, lifting his hands in a questioning gesture. His mask was dangling from one ear. Alejandra snickered. Tomas snorted. They looked from one to another, smiles hidden under their masks while their eyes, fairly dancing, gave them away. They kept their heads down and giggled amongst themselves but the laughter gained vigor and momentum, as laughter does. The wind gusted sideways, driving the rain against the tall windows like the lashing of whips. They paused, eyes widening, and guffawed.
Number 24 shook his jowls and fumbled to detach the elastic mask-strap from one large, furry ear. He made a show of hurling the paper mask to the floor. It fluttered softly down. He cussed; loudly savoring one racist epithet longer than should be necessary, absurd and jarring; a discordant note in a sweeping orchestra of sound. And no one cared.
Alejandra and Tomas clung to one another, gasping. Señora Espinoza was doubled over in her chair. They were senseless to the fact that the laughter was spreading like a contagion, as laughter does. I was quickly infected at the service desk, even behind the plexiglass barrier, even when 24 was really pissing me off. From the lobby the laughter spread to the nonfiction collection, overcoming a pair of teenagers browsing the graphic novels and a young woman seated cross-legged in the middle of the poetry aisle, books fanned out around her. A mother and daughter with armfuls of celebrity biographies were the next to succumb. Skimming over the heads of solitary patrons nosed into the study carrels, the laughter coursed through the large prints and the classics where a purple-haired library assistant was parked with her shelving cart and the elderly Vietnamese couple who always dress identically were making their weekly selections. From there it was a short journey to the fiction stacks, the mass-market paperbacks, and world languages. Patrons staggered like drunks, leaning on bookshelves and one another. The men and women milling around the DVD shelves and the periodicals’ racks were doing their best to keep quiet, clapping hands over masked mouths, shoulders shaking, and eyes streaming. Then the laughter made a slow lap around the internet computer stations where people rocked in their seats and drummed the tables. Rudy Biggs crossed his arms and scowled. He stood, lifted his chair over his head and hurled it at the microfilm file cabinets behind him. It struck with a dull thud then fell to the carpet. Mr. Biggs roared at the ceiling then stormed outside without his umbrella. His mask was stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
The laughter rollicked through the main floor and galloped up the stairs where it barrelled into the childrens’ library, then rolled through the teen lounge where the high school kids crowding the tables “doing their homework” exploded into a loud and gleeful, if not exactly reverential, chorus. The red-faced librarian, busy with the after-school rush, gasped and wiped her eyes while the wet wind rattled the balcony doors, looking to find a way in.
Chapter Four: The Big Bad Wolf
When Katie came to our community library in search of shelter that stormy Friday evening, only to be turned back out again, she never made it out of the park. Later some reliable and not-so-reliable eyewitnesses reported seeing her in the company of Sam and the antlered boys weeks before, as if she was just one of the gang, a girl gone wrong. By then there were a lot of false and malicious rumors being boastfully circulated, by people who claimed to know. Her presence in the park the following day, however, necessitated the attention of an army of first responders who cordoned off the crime scene with excessive military inefficiency involving miles of yellow tape and enough boots on the ground to trample the surrounding landscaping to mud.
Señora Espinoza, Tomas, and Alejandro swore up and down that it was a miracle that they discovered Katie at all. The rain was still falling in blustery sheets when they left the library Saturday afternoon. Tomas’s attention was drawn to a pink bandana snagged in the indian hawthorn bush off the path. It hung limp and wet, but what stopped Tomas cold was the sight of the lurid smears and spatters of red. He likened it to a red flag, a signal. Within moments he was standing in the rain-swollen creek, calling 9-1-1.
Alejandra would say that Katie appeared to be sleeping. Her clothes were in tatters, skin drained of color. She was stretched out in the fake stony creek bed of the fake pond, obscured by the non-native African fountain grasses amid the artfully arranged concrete boulders. Dark bruises covered her like a rash, a ruby bracelet of blood glistened at her hairline. By the time she was strapped onto the gurney, Katie opened her eyes. Her teeth were chattering and she was speaking with the EMTs. My legs went weak at the news, blood roaring in my ears as my heart seemed desperate to climb my throat.
The antlered park denizens were roughly rounded up and hustled away to the county jail—their very presence symbolizing laxity by city and county law enforcement. They would all be cleared of any suspicion in the violent attack on Katie, but they would never return to the park.
I was not present the following day when Mr. Rudy Biggs was interrupted during his computer session by a half dozen lethally accessorized deputies. He was quickly and smoothly escorted from the building. The story grows complex as details emerge, because there is no such thing as a simple story and a simple ending. What we learned of Rudy Biggs was that he was a former USC football star, a big deal back in the 70’s, whose bell was rung so many times he had been receiving SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) his entire adult life. His attorney would argue temporary insanity defense due to the presumption of CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy brain disease) for his client; a condition that can only be confirmed post mortem The trial would play out as trials do, the world suddenly keenly obsessed with the reckless activities of a young woman who searched one night for community shelter, without success, while sympathizing with a man whose mental illness compelled him to commit a violent act against a woman half his size. Sam told anyone who would listen that Rudy Biggs was a slow moving but powerful predator who would lay in wait. He had attempted to assault her on more than one occasion, only to be threatened with the knife she always kept on her person, which appeared in her fisted hand as if by magic. The city police and county sheriff’s deputies dismissed her.
Local news media didn’t concern themselves too much with investigating the details of Katie's life. She was deemed expendable, an assumed drug addict and homeless sex worker. Neither of these claims would prove true. The myth that Katie lured Rudy Biggs—a red-blooded man who just couldn’t seem to help himself—into acts of sexual violence made it into the body of an eye-popping op-ed in Orange County’s faithfully-conservative daily newspaper. This assumption was refuted as the ugly details emerged, but the court of public opinion had little sympathy for the young female victim. The crime against Katie wasn’t flagged as news of interest in the national spotlight but one ‘leftist’ (honest, fact-faithful) OC journalist bothered to investigate Katie’s background and published a thoughtful, earnest bio of her in the Los Angeles Times. That is when I learned that after her parent’s divorce when she was in kindergarten, her mother was arrested for Class D child abuse, neglect, and endangerment. Katie spent several years in juvenile purgatory known as the Foster Care System where she experienced horrors that only adults can visit on a child. She managed to ace high school and earn a merit scholarship to Cal State Fullerton, but her mother was “rehabilitated” and thrust back into her life.
Chapter Five: Sleeping Beauty
The day Katie returned to our library again in late spring, a mere week after the breaking news of Biggs’ felony conviction for rape and assault, was the day we learned Rudy Biggs was dead due to COVID complications. Katie was the last person I expected to see. She walked briskly into the lobby, her eyes bright. She was sober, collected. Her otherwise pale as bone complexion was complemented by a rosy crescent scar, an upside down smile high on her brow. The planes and angles of her face were sharper. She walked with the hint of a limp. Without preamble she introduced herself and shared the “ironic” news that her assailant was dead.
The news did not whip up a storm of laughter in the library. A solemn atmosphere prevailed. Maybe the staff was secretly relieved that Mr. Biggs would never settle into the chair at computer station 24 again, or maybe that was just me. The mood, heavy and cloying as the June-gloom weather, quieted the building. The stillness even floated upstairs to the children’s library where the toy corner remained orderly and vacant. The murmur of voices in the teen lounge could barely be heard over the soft clicking of fingers on keyboards.
“I’m okay, you know. I really think I am.” Katie could read the concern in my eyes.
“That night. I could see you were worried about me. That really stuck with me, meant a good deal to me. I was almost tempted to ask you for a ride. If you can believe that.” My eyes filled. I knew, right then, that I would not have risked opening my car door to a stranger, and that was a razor sharp blade that went clean through me.
“I called my mom. After you all closed. My phone was dying. I was so cold! I could barely feel my fingers. My mom laughed at me. She hung up on me.” Katie’s eyes reddened and she waved her hand in front of her face, as one does. She cleared her throat. “But not before she supplied a pretty raw introduction to what I would read about myself on social media, not to mention Orange County’s favorite fucking newspaper.”
Her eyes went wide. “Sorry. Language.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, but it wasn’t a happy laugh.
“My mom said I was getting what I deserved. With of course the requisite slut shaming phraseology. She wanted me to suffer the consequences of my actions. A night on the streets would do me good. She cackled like a fucking witch. Jeez. There I go again.”
That is when I had to press my hands to my wet eyes. I offered her the box of tissues, while taking a handful for myself.
“You’re a survivor,” I said lamely, hating the cliche. “I mean it. I read the article about you in the Times. I was so glad that you were not portrayed as some martyr. Or as some cautionary tale; yet another example of what women shouldn’t do. As if rape is the de facto condition around which all women must conduct themselves. It made me think about how much we glorify our classic ‘heroes’; soldiers, cops, firefighters. Not to mention athletes. Men, and sometimes even women, who are treated as warriors for doing their jobs, who are not always heroic, or even warrior-like—whatever that is—at all. It made me realize that heroism isn’t a uniform and a job. Surviving is the hard part. If that isn’t heroic I don’t know what is.”
Katie’s eyes smiled as she nodded. She didn’t wipe away her tears. She told me about her new job in San Luis Obispo. She was looking forward to settling far from her mother and Orange County. “My visit to this library changed my life in some pretty horrible ways. Talk about a branching point in my life story! I have to live in my story, I cannot escape it. And who knew that there is sometimes justice in the courts and the universe?” She explained that she had to see the library and the park one last time, including the fake creek where her angels, Señora Espinoza, Tomas, and Alejandra had found her and called for help. Her scar reddened. My eyes were stinging and my nose was running. Crying in a mask is just awful.
We waved goodbye. Katie strode out the door, back straight and head high. The mild hitch in her step, a slight slue to the right, reminded me that she was still healing. She paused briefly on the walkway, in view of the deep green fake pond with its overabundance of geese and waterfowl, turtles piled like rocks at the rough concrete edges. I was overcome by how tiny and vulnerable she looked, and was glad when she turned her back on the pond and walked out of sight.
Katie couldn’t know that her story—a story conceived and executed by a real life monster—had transformed the park and the library itself. I never sat on the lopsided bench near the pond to read during lunch anymore, not even when the ducklings and goslings appeared for however long it took before they were snatched away by predators. She couldn’t know that my own guilt and gut-clenching dread had contaminated the environs, so much so that I was just marking time to retirement—serving out the year until my birthday when I would qualify for Medicare. For a full two weeks after the crime I couldn’t stop shaking, as if chilled to the bone. Every morsel of food was nauseating. I was so sleep deprived I experienced visual and aural hallucinations; auras and singing voices, trails and buzzing. I could not begin to imagine how Katie ever rose from her hospital bed and walked back out into the world. As to how to begin to understand the confused mind and aggrieved heart of Mr. Rudy Biggs who even refused to wear his mask in the courtroom; causing expensive, exhausting delays—there was no mental or emotional space left for that.
By the afternoon the marine layer had burned off. As the colors brightened, our moods lifted. It was if Katie gave us all permission to carry on, to the best of our abilities. I wished I could tell her that. I managed to laugh when a woman old enough to know better told me she would never be injected with a vaccine containing microchips, and I told her I wouldn’t either. The very idea! She sneered and I realized that this stranger’s naked mouth looked obscene to me. Darlene, a woman as weathered as the Marlboro man, sat down at Computer 24. We hadn’t seen her in ages, not since the antlered boys had run her group out of the park. I was relieved to see she was still kicking. Darlene withdrew a mask from the box I offered, then slipped it over her gap-toothed grin.
Bethia Sheean-Wallace has been working in the stacks in libraries from Florida to California for twenty-five years. She writes like a fiend about everything from poetry to politics and always has. She was born and raised in Los Angeles in a time when Orange County was considered the home of Disneyland, orange groves, and John Birch Republicans. She has been married for four decades to a fellow hippie and has three adult children, one daughter-in-law, and one wee grandbaby.