Anna’s mother was a gluttonous reader and gorged on the written word constantly; when she wasn’t reading the magazines and papers right off the shelf at the little train station newsstand she and Anna’s father operated, she was reading a library book. The first thing she would do when they moved to a new town, every six months or so, was get a library card. Anna loved to read, and especially loved libraries. Though she wasn’t as fanatical a reader as her mother, she liked from a very young age to sit and breathe in the dusty red must of paper and pulp.
Anna’s mother would usually drop her off in a cavernous children’s reading room of a library every Wednesday, no matter what town they were living in, and then go and scoop up romance novels, cook books, books on botany and books on the history of textile design. She racked up several dollars worth of overdue fines in every town, sometimes mailing little checks here and there to cover up her guilty heart. She was just so scatterbrained.
One Wednesday when Anna and her parents were living in Seattle, her mother dropped her off for story hour, checked out a dozen or so books, and left the library without her.
It wasn’t intentional, she wasn’t trying to rid herself of the quiet, small, seven-year old Anna. She simply thought that her daughter was sitting on a stool at the newsstand; her little legs tucked underneath her, drinking a bottle of Coke that her father had given her. She really didn’t remember that Anna was sitting peacefully in a circle with seven children that she didn’t know, listening to a pretty young librarian read a chapter from The Adventures of Peter Pan. She didn’t feel her mother leave the cavernous library and was completely engrossed in the story. The librarian was reading the part when Tinkerbell is dying, her little limbs shivering and weak, her bright little eyes and dancing light is fading. The librarian peers dramatically over the book, imploring the children in a frantic voice if they believed and to –
“Clap your hands, don’t let Tink die!”
Anna of course was the first one to clap. She clapped her hands until they stung and she clapped until the other children had stopped and turned to stare at Anna, her eyes scrunched up tight, her lips pressed into a pursed little line. The librarian raised her voice a little and continued with the story, and Anna was pulled out of her fevered frenzy of fairy salvation. She stopped clapping and listened to the rest of the chapter, put two books that she had picked out under her arm and walked up the stairs to find her mother.
Her mother, of course, was not at the front desk as usual. She wasn’t in any of the reading rooms either, and she wasn’t on the front stoop. Anna’s hands, still a bit red from clapping so hard for Tinkerbell, suddenly flashed in a sweat. Her stomach dropped into her patent leather Mary Janes; she felt like she had to pee. She tried to remember what her mother was wearing that day: was it the little red pillbox hat and the grey suit? Was it the black pencil skirt and white blouse? What color gloves did she have on? All of the women that were in the library looked frightening to Anna, like they might snatch her up and scratch her with long, painted nails.
With quivering knees Anna walked to the front desk, where a tall, bony, middle-aged man was flipping through pages of returned books, looking for damage or gum wrappers or pastel Photochrom postcards used as bookmarks. Anna felt a little brave in her desperation, and though fear shook her stomach and tightened her voice, she was able to speak plainly and maturely,
“Please sir, my mother is lost. She’s quite short and pretty and carries a yellow purse and her name is Mary.”
The man, who was actually the head librarian and covering the desk while the pages and clerks were having a baby shower in the back room, looked down at Anna and didn’t smile at her. She had such a serious expression on her face, and he felt like a smile or a pat on her blonde head would be too condescending.
“I haven’t seen anyone of that description, young lady. Have you looked in the lady’s room?”
Anna nodded and lowered her chin, which was just starting to quiver. “I did. I looked in there and everywhere else. I even went to the front steps, though I’m not supposed to go outside alone here.”
The head librarian walked to the phone, a solid black one that was usually used as a conduit to place books on hold, to answer questions about the library’s hours, to inquire as to whether a purse or a briefcase or a doll had been left in reference or nonfiction. He dialed the police, and spoke in a low voice so not to scare the little girl. “Yes, this is Albert from Seattle Carnegie. I’ve a little girl here whose mother has left without her….about six or seven…I don’t know, hold the line, please.” He cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to Anna, “Young lady, are there any more of you? Any siblings with you?”
Anna shook her head, aware that the man was most likely talking to the police. She kept turning around in circles, scanning the room with eyes that were beginning to leak uncontrollably. “Just me, sir.”
The head librarian spoke into the phone, “Just her. Best send someone to escort her home, if anyone is there. Do you want me to ask if anyone is there?” He covered the mouthpiece again and asked Anna, “Is there anyone at your house? Do you know your address?”
Anna chewed on a pointy hangnail and swallowed hard. She hoped words came out of her mouth and not a big, babyish sob. “No sir. My parents have a newsstand at the train station. My father is there working.”
The man smiled now, glad that there was a concrete place that he could send the girl to. She was making him nervous, all children made him nervous whether they were lost and crying or not. He spoke to the police again, “Her father runs a newsstand at King Street Station. Fine. That’s just fine. I’ll tell her, and thank you.”
He hung up then, and Anna later remembered liking the affirmative, heavy clack of the phone as its handset went home to its base. She felt her breath evening out, the tears subsiding, and her chest was no longer tight.
“A police officer is coming to walk you to your father’s newsstand, and to talk to him for a minute or two. If you like, you can sit behind the counter and wait for him?”
Anna bit a piece of dried skin on her chapped lip and shifted the picture books under her right arm around a little. “May I check these out first? I have to do it on my mother’s card. Can you look her up? Her name is -”
“Mary. I recall you saying her name is Mary. What is her last name?” The head librarian had his importantly busy and official hat on again, and was speaking to Anna in a strange, less kind voice.
“Mary Rosenblum. I don’t know our address, in case there’s more than one Mary Rosenblum. We just moved here from San Francisco. My mother won’t be in trouble, will she? She’s just flighty. My father says so all the time.”
The head librarian looked at Anna fully for the first time, squinting his eyes a bit behind small spectacles that were befitting a man of his position. What he saw at his front desk was a solemn looking little girl, in the usual white cotton dress worn by most young girls, and black shiny shoes that looked new. She looked well-cared for, not like a child whose mother didn’t help her wash her face in the morning or lay out hair ribbons for her. “I don’t think she will. Now, I’ve found your mother in my big patron book here…may I see your books? I’ll stamp them and they’ll be due on the fifteenth.”
Anna stood on her toes and handed him the books, which were both well-worn and about animals in the Arctic. “I’ve checked these out before,” she said. “I like how these animals grow white fur in Winter. I like that they change.”
The head librarian stamped each book and gingerly handed them back to Anna. “Thank you. My name is Albert, and what may I call you? You should really get your own card, you know. You can check out ten books of your own at a time.”
“My name is Anna. And I’ll ask my mother when I see her about getting my own. We move a lot, she might not think it’s a good idea.” She smiled at Albert and walked over to the revolving doors to wait for the police man to walk her to King’s Station. When he arrived to collect her, Albert sighed in relief and walked over to speak to him.
Anna was looking up at Albert with big, frightened eyes, unsure about the big policeman and the darkening sky outside. It was going to rain and Anna didn’t have anything to put the books in, so she tapped Albert on the arm and whispered to him,
“Do you have a bag? Or something I can put the books in because it’s raining outside and I don’t want to mess up your books.”
Albert patted Anna on the shoulder and turned to walk behind the front desk. Anna noticed that he limped a little, and wondered if he had had polio like her father did when he was a boy. Maybe she would ask him next time she and her mother came to the library. When Albert returned to Anna’s side, he was carrying an olive canvas satchel that had “Albert Fisher” stamped in black on the front flap. He gently lifted Anna’s two books on animals of the Arctic from where she had them clutched tightly in her arms and placed them inside the satchel.
“Here,” he said. “Just please bring it back when you return the books on the fifteenth.”
Anna smiled a bit wobbly at Albert, said thank you, and stood stiffly at the policeman’s side, turning the satchel’s clasp nervously in her hand.
Anna and the officer left, and walked for what seemed like forever to the train station, where her mother was sitting on the stool, drinking a Coke and crying.