I work in the public library destroying books. For six hours a day, I stand in the basement over two trash cans, or trash barrels, really, given their size. I use a boxcutter. It’s a lot like shucking oysters. That’s how I can best describe it. I open the book and make two quick slits along the binding. Then I pull out the pages and throw them in one barrel and put the covers in the other one. It’s just like shucking oysters only you throw everything away. I can keep whatever books I like but mostly they’re bad books. If they’re in good enough condition I keep them and sell them to the used book store. I only destroy hardcover books. They take up the most space.
Sometimes I go help mop the floors. The head of maintenance is very old. He has a handful of teeth or less. They stick crooked out of his gums. He is very nice but it is difficult to understand him when he speaks. Sometimes he just leaves a note on the side of the mop bucket telling me where to go. Some days we just go out back and smoke cigarettes when we should be working. I follow his lead. He’s worked here a long time. Most days, when I’m working with him and not down in the basement destroying books, we split the three floors. I mop in the stacks, he mops the reading and CD listening rooms. We mop the bathrooms. He mops the men’s room. He tells me to mop the ladies room and check the bins for “nasty stuff.” He gets uncomfortable talking about things like that. Sometimes there are little empty liquor bottles or even needles in the trashcans. Most days I don’t mop. I just destroy books.
Most days after work my friend Bradford picks me up. He works as a security guard at the art museum the city runs. We get off at the same time. Bradford is tall and wears black boots. Sometimes he has a limp in his left leg, other times he walks fine. He picks me up in a Volvo he bought from his step-brother. The paint is peeling around the wheel wells. Sometimes smoke comes through the air vents and we have to roll the windows down, even in the winter. When he picks me up, there is always a case of beer in the trunk. I give him two tablets of my medication to cover my half of the beer and then we drive to the parking lot near the civic center and walk down to the bridge.
Today, Bradford says: “I have something to show you.”
We are sitting in his car in the parking lot. Bradford is smoking a cigarette hand-rolled in an elegant cone. I am smoking a filtered cigarette. Bradford smokes more than me but less than the old janitor at the library.
“Okay,” I say. I decide to grin. “Show me.”
“Not yet,” Bradford says. “It’s somewhere else.”
“Oh,” I say. “That’s okay.”
I follow him down the path behind the civic center. The beer is in a brown paper bag. I hold it against my chest. Usually we drink until it gets dark, skipping stones on the skinny river under the bridge, and then we go home. There’s a lot of trash on the path. Empty soda and liquor bottles, bags of chips. This makes me think other people must come down here, but I have never seen anyone besides me and Bradford. Maybe there are furtive teenagers watching from the woods. Sometimes when the barrels get full and I wheel them out to the dumpsters I catch teenagers back there smoking pot. I tell them they should be more careful and they shuffle their feet. Sorry sir, sorry. Then I hear them giggling when I go back inside. Once there was a man asleep back there. I yelled at him to get up but he didn’t move. When I came back out a few hours later he was gone.
We walk across the tall concrete wall that you have to cross to get to under the bridge. I always let Bradford cross all the way before I get on. It’s narrow. I assume one of these days one of us will fall and break our arms on the rocks. In my mind it is always Bradford falling. I always have to carry the beer which I don’t think is quite fair but I have also never complained.
Bradford doesn’t stop under the bridge where we usually stop, where the rocks are worn smooth and good for skipping. I stop there and put the beer down. Bradford beckons me.
“What,” I say.
“That thing,” he says. “That I wanted to show you.”
“Oh right,” I say. “That thing.”
We walk through the tall brush. I can’t tell if we’re on a path. The grasses seem flattened here and there but we zig-zag apparently without regard. I lose sight of my friend. There is rustling all around me. I have a brief sensation of being surrounded.
“My friend,” I say, “I can’t see you.”
He shushes me loudly, I think through clenched teeth. He is right next to me, crouched down over a little suitcase. His hands are raised up like he’s trying to catch a toad before it hops away.
“What’s in there,” I whisper.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” he says, in a regular voice.
He unzips the suitcase and inside is a boy. I think the boy must be about fourteen. His hair is cut very short, almost shaved. He is naked except for a pair of very small red gym shorts. I don’t understand how he fits in there. He must fill up every inch of that suitcase. There’s a smell like the river where it flows slowly. He is so asleep he doesn’t notice us unzipping his home, looming and gaping over him.
“He’s a runt,” Bradford says. He’s smoking another cigarette. I hope no ash falls on the boy.
When we get back to the bridge our beer is gone. Bradford admonishes me.
“I left it right there,” I say, pointing to the spot where I put down the bag.
“I know that,” Bradford says. “The problem is that someone took it.”
I pick up a rock and get seven skips down the river. That is a pretty good amount given how fast the current is right now.
“A man,” Bradford says, bracing himself against a leg of the bridge, “should guard his property.”
The next day I destroy three hundred and twenty-six books and mop the second-floor stacks. The stacks have glass floors and are always the coolest part of the library. I don’t know why the old janitor avoids them. I also don’t know why certain books are chosen to be destroyed. Some of them have not been taken out in decades, or are in tatters, or cover sensitive material in insensitive ways. But others are fairly new, or have been taken out many times recently. Each day I am able to destroy more books. I am becoming more efficient. When the old janitor brings me the third cart of books, he says “good job” or at least that’s what I think he says. I decide that’s what he said and grin.
When I started this job sometimes my arms would get tired from all the slicing.
That doesn’t bother me anymore. The muscles in my wrists and the backs of my arms have gotten very big. Once I struggled with a set of dictionaries and had to take a break for a few minutes, but other than that, it hasn’t been much trouble. Today I find two books that I think the used bookstore might buy. I hope that one day I will see someone sitting on a bench in a park reading one of the books I sold them. I won’t say anything, I’ll just think I saved that book from under my knife and now you are enjoying it and smile to myself.
Bradford doesn’t pick me up after work. That’s okay. He doesn’t pick me up every day after work, just most. I don’t know what he does on those other days. Maybe he goes to the river and drinks on his own. Maybe he skips rocks. I take the extra two tablets of medication I have that night and sleep very well. I dream that the boy in the suitcase is sleeping on a huge stack of hardback book covers, so tall it reaches up over the bridge.
When Bradford picks me up the next day he says he has something to show me again. His car gives an extra cough when he turns the engine over. A little smoke comes out of the front grill.
“Is it the boy in the suitcase?” I say.
“Yes,” Bradford says, “but no.”
Instead of going over the wall we go around the back end of the civic center. It gets very narrow. The civic center sits at the top of a flood wall that protects the city from the river. I estimate the wall at thirty feet tall. That is a long way to fall. Bradford taps me and points at the brush beneath us. I can see the base of the bridge where we drink from here.
“This is a nice view of the river,” I say.
“It is,” Bradford says, “but look where I’m pointing.”
The brush is stirring all around, like a dozen little critters are blindly dashing through it. Toward the center is the suitcase, the grass around it packed flat. The old janitor from the library is cutting through the brush. He leaves a hamburger box and a soda next to the suitcase. When he leaves, a snakey little arm comes out and grabs them.
“So that’s how he eats,” I say.
“Starvation,” Bradford says, cupping his chin, “is an awful way for a man to die. Your body starts to break itself down. It eats your fat, then your muscles. Eventually it will break down your own tongue, and, in extreme circumstances, parts of the eyeball.”
I decide to nod seriously.
We go back down under the bridge to drink. Bradford skips a stone twelve times. Twelve is his record. Mine is ten. I think that someone is watching us.
I tell Bradford: “I think there’s eyes on us.”
He gives me a bad look. I sip my beer. While Bradford tries to beat his record I look up into the trestles of the bridge. The boy is up there. I can’t see his eyes but I imagine them dark and stork-like. He is very thin, but even so, I don’t understand how he fits in that suitcase. He must fill up every inch.
When me and Bradford get back to the parking lot there is a crowd. They are circled around something bright. We sit on the wooden fence at the edge of the lot and take out the last two beers. The people are gathered around Bradford’s car. It’s on fire. We sip our beer and watch the flames spread from the hood into the driver’s seat, and I am glad to have a friend.
Eli Todd died at the age of 23 in October 2016 in Brooklyn, where he lived and worked. He graduated with honors from the creative writing program at Pratt Institute in 2015 and was the recipient of that year’s fiction prize. He taught and worked at Young Writers Workshop, a residential program for high school students run by the University of Virginia. In Eli’s own bio for this journal in 2016, he wrote that he was “interested in ghosts, accents, and weather patterns, especially in relation to his native New England . . . [and was] working on a collection of short stories involving those things.”
“The Library” appears in our issue, Physics (Summer 2017)