The Old Man Who Went to the Library

We went digging in the dirt to find some art of the past that sounds like the present. We came back with this short story by Timothy G. Turner.


 Photo Credit: Provenance Online Project.Licensed CC-BY.
Photo Credit: Provenance Online Project.
Licensed CC-BY.

Mr. Ross slid far down in the long, narrow, old-fashioned tub, bringing his toes out on either side of the faucet. They rose from the water, opaque with soap, as if they were detached from him.

The toes were sixty-seven years old. The faucet was not much younger, being the kind in vogue when Mr. Ross was in his thirties. He remembered it well, the squarish design with the letters H and C cut in the metal on a little extension at the top of either handle.

How many times had faucets changed their style since his youth? The thought annoyed Mr. Ross, for he did not like the idea of growing old.

Again he contemplated the toes. At least the styles in toes had not changed.

Such was the posture, such were the thoughts of Mr. Ross of an early spring morning in Los Angeles.

Such an antique bathroom in such a new city was not so strange if you knew Bunker Hill. It rose in the very center of the old part of Los Angeles, a barrier that has annoyed motorists and city planners for two generations.

Left on the top of the hill was a piece, caught intact, of the era when men wore stiff collars, women pinned their dresses on, and children had their legs covered.

No more perfect petrification of the ’90’s and early 1900’s could be found in any western American city, not even in San Francisco, where they cherish, even reverence, mustiness. In Los Angeles the spanking new is reverenced, and Bunker Hill was only tolerated, for the most part ignored.

Mr. Ross lived on the top floor of the old tourist hotel on the Hill, and so this fine morning as he lolled in his bathtub he was on the very highest point in Los Angeles. Mr. Ross lived in one of the cheaper rooms of the old hotel, but one with its own bath. As long as his allowances on the annuity permitted it he would have a bath. In that he would be the gentleman if he went hungry for it.

He washed his own socks and underwear, which being knit he could dry and do without ironing. The starched things he fetched himself to the little Japanese laundry.

His food cost him an average of ninety cents a day. He had figured it out many times; it always came to around ninety cents.

And there lay Mr. Ross gazing at his toes, considering his toes as he wriggled them. But he thought thoughts far removed from ancient bathtub faucets and ancient toes.

Here he was nearing the final chapters of life. On the whole, life had been kind in all but one thing, love. Strange thought for a toe gazer, but thoughts often defy the fitness of things.

There was a chance of love, but he lost it. There was Mary, the one before the one he married, Mary always somewhere in his recollection and now in recent years recurring persistently, like the theme in an opera. Here suggested. Now complete and free. Again lost while the hearer groped in vain through the heavy chords to find it again.

The sad truth was, Mr. Ross admitted, he had always been in love with Mary. Perhaps if he had married her they would have developed along the same lines, enjoyed that mental companionship which age cannot damage but sometimes makes more keen. They could have enjoyed things together, the things Mr. Ross especially liked, books, the reviews, lectures, the art exhibitions. Mary had been interested in those things, he recalled. Yes, she had had a mind.

Back East, when Mr. Ross was just starting in with the firm, life had been keen and sweet. Reared in the suburbs, he had come to the great city with its romance and bustle. He would work hard and, freed, hurry home on the new elevated in time to dress and meet her.

Often they would hold hands as they rode through Central Park while the crack of a whip, cast from high up and behind them, punctuated with perfect regularity the cadences of the hooves. This to two hand-holders was the poetry of motion. Then that first evening in the hansom cab when they had kissed.

Here Mr. Ross’s left toes wriggled and came in collision with the faucet, and he rose to dry himself. As he shook each foot, dog-like, while climbing out of the tub he wondered how it had come that Mary and he had never gone through with it. Somehow they just didn’t. She had left for a trip to Europe and when she came back he was especially busy at the office. Just petty circumstances.

But what are circumstances that do such things, thought Mr. Ross? Small things that have us in a vise?

It was petty circumstances that led to his marriage with another, made his fair success, as successes are judged by the world.

Chance had led to his interest in books and that development of the mind which had increased in volume as the energies of the body slowed down.

Now at a ripe age he was not alone, for he daily associated with the world’s very finest companions, whom he could always find at home, homes built of that heavy buckram that public libraries use.

Still he missed a more earthy companion with whom he could exchange impressions of these booky associations. Despite his mental activity, he was bitterly lonesome, a lonesomeness even keener because of that activity of the mind.

Mary, yes, he felt sure, Mary would have been just such a companion, for love combined with thought is very sweet.

Mr. Ross shaved with his sharp, old-type razor which he had had from those days when men were taught dexterity with that peerless tool. He had had his breakfast as was his custom, before the bath, breakfasting in state in his pajamas. This was accomplished with an outfit got at the five-and-ten with which he made coffee and toast.

When dressed, Mr. Ross proved to be a fine-looking old gentleman, a little seedy in spite of his care, for poverty always has a way of peeking out someplace. He had taken up calisthenics when he left off tennis, and kept up the habit. He did them while the coffee brewed.

He was straight from the heels of his shoes, which he never allowed to run over, to the top of his spine, which he kept encased in a stiff wing collar, always fresh, and with its associate, the tie, always exactly in place, thanks to the assistance of a plain, single-pearl pin, Mr. Ross’s only piece of jewelry.

He even had given up his watch, the cost of having it cleaned was so great. Then he learned that he did not need a watch ; the hour made no difference to him, and there were clocks everywhere anyway. How many things we use through mere habit, he thought.

Mr. Ross picked up his pile of library books to be returned and started off. He had been having poor hunting lately.

And, oh, that woman in History, the one with the school-teacherish squint. What right had she to say that to him? He had asked for the new biography of Nero, for Roman history was one of his hobbies, and she had remarked on how strange it was that “everybody nowadays” was only interested in wicked people, that they couldn’t supply the demand for Billy the Kids, etc. What right had she to slur a customer’s tastes? He later had thought of many tart things he might have replied to her.

These thoughts had accompanied him down the long, musty hall from the west wing to the elevator cage.

Old John who ran the elevators gave Mr. Ross as cheery a good morning as his lumbago would permit. Los Angeles, that asylum for the aged as well as resort of sun-tanned youth, has many like John, but of varying social grades. Bland climate, cheap living, a large city where one can live independently or, going to state picnics and lonesome clubs, find companionship of a sort in plenty. Usually there are some relatives around within call, and now and then they come with the children, come from a hundred miles around in their cars, from barren new subdivisions, from little agricultural communities, from piles of California apartments, mostly “singles,” where life has a Pullman car compactness, strangely popular in a land where there is so much room.

But Mr. Ross as we have seen was not of the generality, was not one of these. Old John recognized this, resented it a little, for he always found himself respectful in the extreme to this guest of the old hotel. But they always chatted continuously while the poky elevator with many a thump and wheeze subsided to the first floor.

Young Martin, the clerk, respectfully saluted Mr. Ross, whom he considered the most distinguished guest of the hotel. Also, Martin was Mr. Ross’s favorite. The lad came of a family of some prosperity in North Side Chicago before the market broke, and the hotel-clerking job was to him a potboiler while he studied law.

Mr. Ross and young Martin often talked of books and plays, for the clerk had a taste for such things. He read what Mr. Ross suggested.

Martin leaned over the desk when Mr. Ross came up and said eagerly: “I’ve really got to decide right away whether we are to marry. Got to decide, Mr. Ross. Now, honestly, what do you think about it? You know all the f acts,” the lad concluded rather foolishly.

Mr. Ross had often heard of Martin’s sweetheart, had met her once or twice. She was employed in an office. There was nothing to prevent their marrying in the modern fashion while both kept their jobs.

Mr. Ross placed his armful of books on the desk and pondered. His long, lean scholar’s face showed a sincere interest.

“Don’t know what to say,” he began. “Don’t know why you shouldn’t as things can be done nowadays. Yet when you marry you are in for it, you know. You both are mighty young. Humm. Coming back soon if anybody calls,” he added with a sort of business formality, for he was not expecting any calls.

The two clean-shaven faces smiled at one another. Both were alert faces, though one was wrinkled and leathery; in fact, both were equally young faces if you looked into the eyes of them. Both looked out at things with enthusiasm, enjoyment, wonder. Mr. Ross’s had a little less wonder, for the play was getting familiar. The lines had differed but the plot was the same.

Mr. Ross walked out and sniffed the morning fog, which had not yet lifted. He passed down a street of shade trees with its frame houses, adorned with the wooden crochet and colored glass of their period.

From all sides over the edge of the hill there came to his ears the gentle rumble of a city. It got louder and louder as he progressed, for he was making for the south edge. Mr. Ross paused at the top of the concrete steps that would bring him down onto Fifth Street, opposite the public library. He paused, as often was his custom, to admire that building. Its low walls with their perfect balance were softened to beautiful tones by the fog, as if seen through some delicate theatrical drop.

Mr. Ross, of catholic taste, had studied architecture enough to sharpen his appreciation. This building was “modern,” but he liked it. The sight thrilled him. A jewel of a building. How could any structure so small, as nowaday standards go, be so grand? How little mere bulk meant after all.

But more than esthetically thrilled, Mr. Ross became sentimental. Suppose Mary were standing there with him, enjoying it all? When that wave of feeling passed he began to feel lonesome again.

Then he felt rather foolish. A man of his age! And he shook off his mood and hurried down the concrete stairs.

Below on the through street all things were changed. Here the fog softened nothing. Outlines were sharp. Things were in terrific motion.

It was the going-to-work hour, a little late, and past Mr. Ross as he waited for his chance to cross swept file after file of motorists, honking their horns and bringing up their cars in agonies of screeching, for since the depression a favorite economy had been to leave brakes unlined.

Here came two yellow monsters of streetcars, one after the other as if in hot pursuit, lumbering with the noise of empty freight cars, bolts loose, bearings squeaking. These were filled to standing with other people work-bound. The motormen kept clanging their gongs whether or not anything was in the way.

Such was the twice-daily parade of moving people to and from their homes, homes spread over miles upon miles of countryside, brand-new homes, the greatest expanse of domestic newness the world has ever known.

Mr. Ross standing there on the curb was not one of these. He had come from the quiet haven of Bunker Hill, and now he had crossed the street and stepped into the quiet, which seemed to envelop him like some material substance, of the library. The racket of the street had pummelled him for less than five minutes.

Once more in the quiet, his mind resumed the mood, and again he thought of Mary. He must not forget to look in the trough in Literature. Then a gust of bad air from Magazines struck him, subterranean, musty air, and something worse—the smell that to dogs is the smell of man.

Every room in the library to Mr. Ross had its characteristic smell, in proportion to the number of these hangers-on, and depending on how well the ventilating system was working. He found Science was best of all. Magazines was on the ground floor, just off the street. One had to climb stairs to get to Science.

He turned into Newspapers and heard the ceaseless, soft rustle of wood pulp sheets. Here he stopped and stared. At the door he came face to face with Mary.

They knew each other instantly, and stood stock still for one of those moments that seem so long, that are long, if feeling is the gauge.

Mr. Ross felt a strange glow move down from the top of his head to his heels. It reminded him curiously of the feeling that followed something the doctor had once given him. But he felt it must have been the same sort of sensation he had had when he was very young and in love.

Then, all of a sudden they began to talk, both at once and a little hysterically, asking those trivial questions that most people ask in spite of themselves under such circumstances.

The roomful of lonesome men and women reading their home-town news frowned at them for talking. So they went out and sat down on a bench in the parkway.

As they talked of the old days it seemed to Mr. Ross that the concrete bench swayed like a hansom. The balmy California sun had come out and shoved away the fog, bringing out the sharp, even green of the lawns.

They were the lawns of Central Park. She looked as young and pretty as she had in those days.

Mr. Ross felt happy, happier than he could ever remember. Miracles do happen, he told himself. Here it was. Here was Mary.

He noted that she carried books under her arm. Now they could read together. Now he could indulge in that great pleasure of the real student—that of talking it over with a like-minded friend.

“What are you reading?” asked Mr. Ross with that relish of the bookman for peeking at titles. Now they would have a good chat.

“Some Greek philosophy,” she replied.

“Do you incline toward the Stoic or the Epicurean?” he asked.

She looked a little puzzled. “Oh, I am reading,” and, hesitating, she glanced at the book, “Pythagoras. That’s it. You know I have taken up numerology, and he was one of the early authorities.”

“Numerology?” said Mr. Ross, astonished.

“Yes,” she went on. “I have changed my name, and have gotten great results from it already.”

“Not changed! Not Mary!” he cried.

“Yes, I am now Constance Frances,” she said, “and I vibrate so much better.”

It seemed that the fog was settling again. That swaying, hansom-wise, of the concrete bench had ceased.

This fog was suffocating, Mr. Ross felt. Fog had never done that to him before. It seemed to press on him from all sides. It felt like a weight on his forehead, on his chest. But could it be the fog, after all? How could fog do that?

Of course it was not fog. Now Mr. Ross realized what it was. It was the old weight of lonesomeness coming back, with a greater pressure than he ever had felt before. So that was it.

Mr. Ross turned and looked at Mary again. He was surprised to see her dressed like a young woman, though she was little younger than he, dressed and made up with the most horrible, as it is futile, attempt to cheat the years.

That delusion often strikes the aging under the California sun. He noted that the collar of her coat, which she carried, was soiled.

On and on she talked. She, too, had made the library her club. Strange that they had not met before. She, too, went to lectures. But contrasted with his rugged rationality, she had gone in for numerology, raw-food diet, absent-healing swamis.

“You must come down to hear Dr. Smithen at Trinity Auditorium,” she ran on. “He can breathe through his hair, it’s all in the rhythm.”

He told her of what he had been doing.

She, too, had attended the lectures by the visiting astronomers from Mt. Wilson Observatory.

“How strange that we never saw one another there,” she said. “I find those talks a great help in understanding astrology.”

The lines deepened on her face, the light shifted so the liquid powder showed and Mr. Ross noted again the too young clothes, the clash of two discordant colors.

“How queer, how remarkable, how almost mystic,” she gushed, “that we should not have met before in this funny, ugly little library.”

“Funny? Ugly?” exclaimed Mr. Ross.

“Yes, don’t you think so?” she asked. “It’s so squatty.”

When they parted she gave him her address. He pleaded he could not give her his. He was about to move, he said, and didn’t know the number of the new place. But she would hear from him soon.

Mr. Ross entered the old tourist hotel out of breath. He had walked up instead of going around Hill Street and coming up on the “flight” as he usually did. But always before he had come up with a pile of books. Now he had no books. He had not even seen the book reviews. He had forgotten all about the book reviews !

But Mr. Ross was not in a funk. He still had his sturdy step and cheery eye.

The lobby was still deserted but for young Martin back of the desk, and the two men, young and old, smiled again the natural smile of friends, the smile that comes without the smiler knowing he smiles.

Mr. Ross sat down. The only evidence that he was flustered was that he sat down in the carved Chinese chair. Nobody had sat down in it for years. Just to look at its impossible seat and the sharp corners of the arms would scare away any prospective sitter. But Mr. Ross sat in it instead of one of the old mission chairs with their upholstered but well-shaped contours.

Aside from the shadow of an uncomfortable look on his face there was no evidence that he suffered.

“Well?” said young Martin, and gave Mr. Ross an appealing look, as one chronically ill might give some great physician. “Well, what do you really think?”

Mr. Ross began judiciously.

“You know, I have been thinking,” he said, “about this problem of yours. Well I should say marry her, if you think you two care that much. Go ahead.

“If you make a go of it you will be happy, as happy as one can be in this puzzling world. If it fails, still good, for you will have it over, will be harboring no illusions. Oh, dear boy, don’t have illusions for someday, someday—have it over with, boy, quick.”

Now Mr. Ross seemed excited.

“Try growing up, try developing together, for one should grow up all along, to the very end. You are dead, dead when you stop growing up.”

From far down the hill came the sound of the Bible Institute chimes, the Bow Bells of Los Angeles. “Go ahead and marry,” Mr. Ross commanded. “Why not? You eat your food while it’s hot, don’t you? Don’t wait for it to get cold—perhaps spoil.”

He turned away from the puzzled young man. Martin needed little urging to make up his mind.

“All right,” he called after Mr. Ross, “you just see, we’ll be married before Sunday. You’ll see, Mr. Ross.”

But Mr. Ross scarcely heard. He had entered the elevator and had coughed politely for Old John, leaning against the grating half asleep, to rouse himself.

“You weren’t out long,” said Old John. “Any news?”

“No, John,” said Mr. Ross. “Not a thing. I’ve just been down to the library.”

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