Everyone had a right to knowledge. Rosa had convinced herself of this.
For five years in her twenties, she plead with seventh graders to learn English grammar. She never doubted her maxim. The student-teacher ratio (which, on some days, was only slightly higher than the ingrate-fool ratio) was the real problem. A “promotion” to central office taught her otherwise. Two quick years there left her forehead scarred and the responsible wall as yet unmoved.
Her truth yet unconfined by that branch of dysfunctional bureaucracy, Rosa took it to the streets. She hired on as a junior librarian with the county. The pay cut was just the price of principle. Her first encounter with the public in their library stamped confirmation on what she knew. Gabriela, writing a paper on Vonnegut for a community college class, was glad to have some reference help from her old seventh-grade teacher. That glow carried Rosa through the first week. No matter that, of the next fifty inquiries she fielded, twenty-eight were looking for the wi-fi password, seventeen needed help with a computer or copier, four needed directions to relieve themselves, and one simply wanted to talk, having locked his keys in the car.
The bloom was off this rose, too, by February. In just four months, she’d learned to hate Mondays. They were open late, and the dark of winter made her shift all the gloomier. As she was closing one week, the mystery section decided to live up to its name. Reaching for the light switch, she met sounds and smells worthy of the cryptic tomes nearby. Both were coined by a middle-aged man with his boots on.
His insulated coveralls ended at a knotted beard and dreadlocks bound with a paisley bandana. He snored, his obstructed airways hiding behind a copy of The Fierce Urgency of Now from the recent releases shelf. Rosa’s nose declared in no uncertain terms his need for a shower. She gently touched his shoulder. He growled, gurgled, started, apologized.
“Um, we’re closing now,” she squeaked. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Awright, awright! A fella’ knows where he’s not wanted,” he said. “Mighty cold night to turn me out, but I specs you just doin’ yo’ job.”
“Yes sir. But you can come back to read anytime between nine and five tomorrow.”
“Read? Haw! Sho’ baby, jus’ keep tellin’ yo’self dat.” He gathered up his oversized knapsack and staggered through the parking lot into the night. Rosa’s adage held timidly, and only in a most idealistic corner of her mind.
The following Monday, Rosa’s nose was on the alert again, announcing her friend’s return. This time, two long hours remained before she could ask him to leave. On a reading desk in the back corner, he sat with his feet propped on a chair. Two companions (minus the dreadlocks, plus trucker hats) huddled nearby. Instead of snoring, she heard conversation in the impassioned “whispers” that so many patrons effected, managing to be louder and more distracting than open speech. No pretense of proper use of the library was with them now, just the three and their strained chatter.
Making a show of reshelving, Rosa wheeled a cart past biographies to stake out a spot in general fiction suitable to eavesdropping.
“You eat yet?” the young one said.
An older man who looked like Randy Johnson in Larry the Cable Guy’s outfit replied, “Naw, but I been to the Walmart for a block a cheese. D’you see the loaf of bread and marshmellas I left by the tent flap?”
“Seriously, dude, we hadn’t had nothin’ good all week, and you’re gonna eat cheese and bread again?
“Aw shut up. I don’t see you comin’ up with anythin’ else. ‘Sides, I got half a can a coffee left. We can get us some water from the creek and brew that up, if you get a fire goin’. It won’t be so bad.”
“Why’re you always after me to make the fire? I grew up in Tampa, man. I’m not a cub scout. There’s no dry wood left under that bridge either way.”
“Don’ you mouth off agin…”
“Listen at y’all, snappin’ an’ bitin’ like an old married couple,” Rosa’s original acquaintance chuckled. “‘Steada buyin’ food, you shoulda been checkin’ out dem cigarettes. I got five cartons wit’ what I nabbed from da people on da street cawner yesterdy. ‘Em’ll sell for twice what I give for ‘em anywhere in town. Dat’s how you gon’ git some betta eats.”
“Naw man, I cain’t do such as that anymore ‘count of I been seein’ the big picture of what Jesus is doing for me,” the tall one broke in.
“Shoo’ man, whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout?” Rosa wondered if all drifters naturally curbed their language in libraries or if he had taken notice of her sensitive ears lurking behind a row of Dean Koontz potboilers. “You never had no scruples befo’ now? Whas the Good Lord got to do wit it?”
“Lemme tell you, I was all set to watch the Super Bowl down to the shelter Sunday night. I wanted to see it real bad, but the Lord He wouldn’t lemme get up. I slept through the whole thing in the tent. I waked up and was real mad at Him fer lettin’ me miss out, but He helped me get straightened out. He showed me how I gotta be livin’ better, not wastin’ no time on no football nor nothin’ like that.”
The kid piped up again, “Dude. God doesn’t care about football, and He doesn’t care about you. Even if he did, don’t you think He’d have better things to teach you than not to waste time watching TV? You live in a tent under a bridge for cryin’ out loud.”
“That’s ‘tween me and the Lord, Junior. And don’t you go badmouthin’ Him agin.”
“No offense, dude, I’m just sayin’….”
“Well I knowed it was the Lord what made me sleep too long, and so I gotta live right so He sees I done heard Him.”
“Yes sir, you’ns is as bad as an old mamma an’ diddy fightin’ ‘bout goin’ to church! You been under dat bridge too long together,” dreadlocks cough-laughed again. His hand slipped into his pocket, emerging with a battered Samsung. “Whas the wi-fi password in dis place? If we gon’ sit here an’ fuss all night, I gots to get some tunes streamin’.”
At this, the laughter gently rattling deep within Rosa made a break for the exit. She caught it just quickly enough that only a horsy snort spluttered out. It was enough to blow her cover. All three men looked at her through the slit between shelves.
“That funny, lady?” the kid shot out. “You sneak in on everybody’s conversations or just bums like us? If you don’t want us here, go someplace else. We got rights, you know.”
“Lay off her there, buddy,” the tall one said. “You don’t know that she been snoopin’. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ ‘member!”
“Don’ mind her, y’all,” her friend spoke up. “She the same girl dat tossed me out in the cold las’ week. She prolly jus’ doin’ her job, jus like then. Ain’t dat right, sweetie?”
“It your job to keep people like us outta here, huh?” asked the kid, his sad-sweet eyes cutting through any face-saving responses she could muster.
“No, um, no. I, I was just putting these books up. I don’t mind you at all. I’m just trying to help people,” she said, studying her toes.
“Sure, sure.” He rolled the sad-sweet eyes.
“C’mon you two, le’s jus’ leave her be. What’d you say ‘bout cheese and coffee? She gon’ run us off legally here in a minit anyhow.”
They got up to leave. The tall one, ducking under the exit sign turned to say, “I’ll pray for you, sister,” with an unfeigned smile.
Everyone had a right to knowledge, Rosa knew. Even her.
The preceding is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real or imagined persons is entirely intentional, since I was at the library too.