McGuffy’s Third Eclectic Reader

The day Queen Elizabeth the First was eaten by the goat was the same day the earthquake laid waste to the public library. Countless books were mangled, crushed, warped, torn, twisted, soiled, stained, soaked, stolen, trod upon or otherwise ruined, and although, to the girl’s surprise, their loss meant little to her as compared with the loss of the stout yellow library building, with its whitewashed shutters and shimmering steps, the quake might save her a little money were she to tell a lie. That is, were she to claim that she’d returned the Queen to the library just before the earthquake struck, rather than having left Her in the bicycle basket at the edge of the cove to be eaten by the goat, the girl might not be held responsible for paying a fine for the Queen’s destruction. With this in mind, it seemed possible, even likely, that the girl had wittingly induced the goat’s eating of Her Majesty, which was completely untrue, even though she missed the library building much more than she missed the actual books. There it stood in her heart: the bright yellow gone building. Its musty high dark passageways frosted with sun-motes. The quaint requirement that you needed to put on shoes “prior to entering.” The jumble of used pedicure flip flops (the librarian’s sister worked for a pedicurist at a neighboring cove) in a crate near the doorway in case you owned no shoes. The slap of flip flops on wood, the rubber tabs poking upright between splayed toes, the oily brow of the unhappily plain librarian with her oily-looking ears. The pages of books pressing firmly against each other, the covers of books wedged tightly against each other, the spines of the books with their helpful rows of Dewey Decimals lined up so near one another, the wooden cart with squeaky wheels, the smaller cart with quiet wheels but one of them crooked, the millions of words face to face with each other, only not any longer, and so on and so on, the yellow edifice still upright in the girl’s heart, but on earth no longer.

Whenever the girl, engaged in research for the writing of her school report, had opened the book Lives of the Monarchs: Hail to Good Queen Bess, and come to the picture of the skinny-faced Bess with her starched doily collar, her hair as poufy as the cushions fixed to the chairs in the reading room (there were only two chairs, since the third was in use as a stepstool, its cushion smuggled home by the librarian to make a pillow for her son), the girl could hardly restrain herself from growling, since what right had such a turkey-necked person as the chalky-faced Queen to be written about in library books, when so many other more handsome (darker) people were left completely out of them. Such a stick-ish looking lady in such silly, fancy clothes, written over and over again about! The Queen’s father, the King, declared women unfit to be monarchs at all, which ended up being in Good Bess’s favor, unfortunately, but which sufficed as the central “argument” of the girl’s report. The stolen cushion might have made it permissible to tell a lie about the book’s return to the library, since lying to a librarian who stole cushions off chairs was better than lying to one who didn’t, unless maybe it was worse, in God’s eyes, to take advantage of that first falsehood by telling your own. Anyway she was gone, the plain-faced librarian, mangled, crushed, quaked to bits. How surprising for the girl to find herself, days later, missing the dead woman, missing telling her “Good Afternoon,” then rhyming, “What you got in your snack bag today, Miss Poulée?”

The goat eating the book was the girl’s fault, a result of her leaving it in her bicycle basket and propping the bike against a chunk of cement at the side of the road for a moment while exploring the new public washrooms at Bishop Cove. The bicycle’s kickstand was rusted through. The bike basket was woven of strips of pink plastic that had been scissored, then woven, from a torn flap of shower curtain, and though the girl wasn’t exactly proud of her inexpert handiwork, she did like the color. In America, the children were all given plug-in scissors with brightly colored handles and serrated blades that cut the paper in a motorized zigzag, but hers were ordinary rusty sewing scissors from which she’d thought to scrub the rust with a coconut husk, so as not to weave a basket engraved with rust stains. The new washroom was divided into equal halves, one for girls and one for boys, the doorways not yet marked for gender and between which you told the difference only by walking through one of them and finding either Edmund Cupido’s glorious male feet showing from under the door of a cubicle, or hurrying into the second half and sitting down in the empty stall with a belly cramp you hoped was something far more gratifying than an ordinary stomachache, but no luck. The cement walls held matching chrome sinks under louvered openings that were too high to see through to look at the cove. Small birds nested amid the louvers on one half of the building, while on the other sill a lizard lay sunbathing. There wasn’t a mirror, but the water ran astonishingly fast from the tap in one half of the washroom and then, after Edmund crossed the road to loiter in the parking lot outside the grocery store, the water ran uncommonly warm from the tap in the other. The whole thing had been the generous gift of the Saint Veronica Master Conch Club, as was engraved on a plaque bolted into the wall. The Conch Club gave money for scholarships, too. The girl’s Uncle Martin was valet at the club, parking government limos for nineteen years. Everyone knew how good and generous The Conch Club was until you sat on a bench in a rare cool breeze in your valet uniform, lost your job, and joined the other unemployed in the grocery store parking lot, who nevertheless managed to look important.

The chrome wasn’t yet rusting but it would be, soon. Both toilets flushed perfectly. There were several rolls of extra toilet paper on a shelf in the girls’ side, but on the boys’ side, no soap, since why bother with soap if boys never troubled to wash their hands? The soap on the girls’ side would run out soon, so it was wonderful, even if she was disappointed by her belly cramp being not at all gratifying, to wash her hands in the soft pink bubbles for a minute or two, a pink identical to that of the bicycle basket as if the two objects shared a luminous essence, or, as the glorious Edmund Cupido might call it, “alumineth ethinth,” since Edmund lisped. Queen Elizabeth the First had bathed only once per month, “whether I need it or not!” the Queen had proudly exclaimed. The girl dried her hands on her school uniform and then, noticing the paper towel dispenser for the first time, rinsed her hands all over again in order to dry them on one of those crisp paper towels, and then rinsed them a third time, since there were so many towels, and it was lovely to be in the presence of so much water gushing forth, when at home at the pump, all you got was a belch and a paltry, cold trickle. And the sea all around. For not only the mucky sewer of the brackish Bishop Cove, but the blank, blue, never-endingness of open water. She spun the faucet knob further and further around, until it seemed the whole ocean sluiced over her knuckles, her fingers in thrall to what turned out to be the total unstoppability of the endlessly gushing water, since when she turned the knob backwards in the other direction, the water didn’t stop coming but only swelled like a pudding, and when she spun the knob forward again, it came loose in her hand. Plus, the thickened water turned suddenly dark, as if not from the sea but from between the girl’s legs in the rich, cleansing flow her mother had promised in one of many (but not enough) airmail letters, which she wrote from abroad during lulls (although there were no lulls) in her clothes-ironing and silver-polishing and bed-fluffing in the American house where the ridiculous closets were larger than houses.

Soon the silty dark clots filled the little chrome sink and spilled onto the floor, pooling in places the girl wouldn’t have noticed if not for them filling so thickly with fluid. The floor was cement. Her sticky sandals would warp in the heat next day. She laid the twisted-off knob atop the paper towel dispenser, pulling out as many towels as she could in both hands and mopping the floor before stuffing a few up the faucet itself. But the tap kept gushing, so finally the girl simply strolled proudly out of there, her head aloft with gratitude as if the stream really were her own womanly flow, which had been awfully late in coming, so late that she had practically despaired of it, and grandly waved the goat away from the basket of turned-over books on the tipped-over bike. The Good Queen lay in tatters, and the far more cherished McGuffy’s Third Eclectic Reader, which was a gift to the library not from The Conch Club but from the girl’s own Sunday School class, lay in chewed-up pages here and there, the garlanded cover half-open, half-swallowed. (Let me get my hat and cane and we will take a ramble. Oh, said the man, laughing, if you wish it, I will make some wheels for your horse. But mind, when it is finished, you must let me see it. But, you ask, why are they called hummingbirds? Whenever a word is imperfectly enunciated, the teacher should call attention to the sounds composing the spoken word. When you approach the spot where one of these birds has built its nest, it is necessary to be careful.) It was a Roman-nosed goat, not even a pretty, dish-shaped one. How daintily it moved along the stony beach, until it paused to tilt its face at Edmund Cupido, who stood across the potholed road in the parking lot at the grocery store, gazing so vividly in the girl’s direction that all the other loiterers turned their heads away. It was that same afternoon the earthquake struck. Just a miniature quake with a Lilliputian reach, as if only the library building, or the books themselves, or maybe only the harmlessly oily librarian, appealed to it. The girl’s bicycle “thurvived,” and so did the grocery store and the washroom. The goat and the pink bike basket were “thaved,” as Edmund, days later, liked to remind her. And of the tumbled debris that was all that was left of the stout yellow library edifice, McGuffy’s First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Eclectic Readers were never seen again.

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