Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part VII
“Hi, are you a librarian?” I queried the woman focused on a book behind the desk.
“No, I’m only pretending to be one because I’m casing the joint for a heist. Libraries are renowned in the criminal world for their vaults of cash,” she replied without looking up from her book.
I had never really met any librarians before, but weren’t they supposed to be nice and friendly?
After a short pause, she darted her eyes up from her book and found me standing there, confused. She sighed, “Yes. You caught me. I’m a librarian. What gave it away? The little sign on the desk that says librarian?”
“I’m, ah, looking for some books on hot air balloons?” Nothing about this interaction was going the way I was expecting it to.
The confusion must have shown on my face because she snapped her book shut, smiled, and replied, “Well, don’t look so deflated. You’ve come to the right place.” She looked at me expectantly.
“You get it? Deflated? You’re looking for hot air balloons?”
“I, ah, I think I can find it my—”
Another sigh. “Hot air balloons would be filed under travel and aviation. Unless you’re looking for stories about hot air balloons. I know of some great classics you should read.”
“I think the travel section is what I’m looking for. Books on how they work or, like, a how-to guide or something.”
“Ugh, boring.” She rolled her eyes and frowned, “But, I’ll take you.” She stepped out from behind the checkout counter and that’s when I noticed her….eccentric…clothing choices. From the desk, she appeared to be all severe and business-like. When she stepped out, however, her jeans—if they ever were jeans originally—had stitches and patches everywhere. It was a cacophony of fabrics and colors, completely contrasting the plain, crisp, button down I had seen initially from the waist up.
They looked more like quilt-work than pants. One leg was all different shades of red from the leg down with the stick lines going every which way. The other leg was a rainbow of various tartan patterns, as if she were building a collection of Scottish family heritage pieces. And yet, somehow, her knees themselves were exposed to holes—literally the only place where it seemed like patches and stitches would’ve been needed.
I followed this living tapestry as she guided me through the labyrinth of shelves. At one point I heard her say to herself, “How-to guide? Take a big balloon, add hot air, done. The how-to is in the title, dude.” Then, a little louder and directed at me, “You sure you want the how-to guide section and not fictional stories of hot air balloons? It’s a niche motif and most of them are written by old racists, but they still make for great stories.”
“Maybe some other time. I need to learn how they work first, and how to fly one.”
“Alright, if you say so,” she said, then under her breath, “nerd.”
Now, reader, forgive me, but I never realized how beautiful a library could be. I was expecting a run down, dark, stuffy old building full of books. Instead, this entire place was an art piece made of glass and light. I felt like I was stepping into some grand hub of humanity and learning, the centerpiece of the city. Were they all like this? If so, my biggest regret in life is not spending more time in libraries.
If everything went according to plan, however, I’d be seeing a lot more of this place over the next few weeks. Last night, Moog and I set everything into motion.
He admitted that, at first, he felt anger and frustration creeping up when I told him that the Boss was making me manager, but he quickly realized that this was simply a stepping stone to something greater.
“The Boss,” he explained to me, “never had any managers in the time that I’ve been working there. He’s always had an iron grip on the decisions that get made.” So, the fact that he had appointed anyone (let alone me) manager, was a sign that The Boss was starting to change his ways. A sign that all was not lost.
“So, that’s point one as to why this is a good thing,” Moog held his finger up. He then directed the finger at me, “Point two, you don’t know the first thing about managing, man. Which means that, if you’re the official manager, I’m gonna end up the unofficial manager.”
Moog was right. I liked making drinks, and I was slowly getting better at making sushi plates, but I had no sense for managing. The thought of planning out the inventory, marketing, branding, building a sense of character and personality to the bar, that was all Moog. I didn’t have any ideas, plans, or direction I wanted to take the bar in. Moog did.
“Which is fine, man, because you never had any intention of staying here in Seattle forever, anyway, right? We gotta get you back up in the air.”
So, the plan was that Moog and I would partner on managing the place. I offered to split my new income, but Moog refused, on one condition.
“No, man, you’re gonna need the money. The five grand that Alice is sending you will be a good start and should be enough to fix up your balloon, but if you don’t have some cash saved up, then you’ll just be in the same stuck spot at the next place you wander into. And not every city has a Moog as gracious as me to help you out, man.” He smiled, “So, you keep the extra cash on one condition. When it does come time for you to leave, and we have a big cry fest going away party full of emotional speeches and crap, you make sure The Boss makes me the manager this time to replace you. He obviously likes you for some reason, which means you got his ear, man. Convince him to see me for me, and we’ll be even.”
Once I’d received the money from Alice, Moog and I would get to work on fixing the balloon. My job now was to figure out exactly how to fix it, and how to fly it.
Which brought me to the library.
I wasn’t sure where the travel and aviation section was, but we seemed to be taking the long route. We walked around and around in what seemed like an endless spiral. The librarian led me off the main thoroughfare and through a narrow passage of shelves. As we walked through the cramped area, she reached up, grabbed a book, and tucked it under her arm without even looking up or missing a step. She obviously knew where every single thing was around here.
We stepped out from the crowded rows of shelves and into the more open area, bobbing and weaving around people, desks, and reading chairs as we kept walking through this beautiful maze of free knowledge.
Finally, we stopped at a quiet section—I guess all the sections of a library were supposed to be quiet, but this one was exceptionally so. There was no other foot traffic around us. The chairs were empty. She brought me to one shelf.
“So, this,” she gestured to the rows of books, “is section 629.13. These are all our books on hot air balloon engineering. There’s another section over there,” she pointed a few shelves away, “that’s 797.51, our section on hot air ballooning as a sport. So, here, you find how balloons work. There, you’ll find out how to fly them.”
She held up the book that she had grabbed and tucked under her arm earlier, “However, after you get bored or lose you mind among all the stuffy textbooks—which will happen, mark my words—you should read this, and you can thank me later.”
She handed me the small book. It both looked and felt old, as if a light breeze would turn it to dust. The title was Five Weeks in a Balloon.
“Here’s a reading chair for you,” she gestured past the shelf, “and, if you come to your senses and like that book, let me know and I’ll save you from your wretched life of how-to guides and decades old manuals.” She looked me in the eyes, “you don’t have to live like this,” there was a sarcastic drama in her voice…but not as much as I would’ve liked. And with that, she made some odd, fake courtesy gesture and went back to her librarian duties. I watched the strange artwork of random patterns and stitches until she vanished behind a corner, leaving me alone to the books.
Over the next few days, I got really familiar with the place. If I wasn’t working the bar with Moog, I was here at the library going through manuals. The librarian was there every day as well, with differently patterned and stitched pants every single time. She would occasionally swing over to check up on me. I didn’t want to admit it to her, but she was right. Manuals and textbooks were a snore fest. In college, I assaulted my brain with paragraphs made entirely of run-on sentences and dense walls of text where every word was at least six syllables longer than it needed to be. I didn’t think I’d ever have to suffer through that again, and yet, here I was.
Thanks to the mundanity of the textbooks, my mind kept wandering. I was sitting in one tiny corner of a library filled with dozens of worlds on each shelf, dozens of shelves in each room, and what felt like hundreds of rooms.
It reminded me of the summer nights I spent sleeping in the open air when my adventure first started. Looking up at the symphony of stars, thinking, there are seven billion lives and even more stories on this little rock alone. How many more works of art and stories are occurring out there, unseen by anyone at all?
If a star beyond our sight explodes with enough raw and violent energy to end a thousand worlds, but none of us notice, did it really happen?
If an author pours his whole being into a story, only to be forgotten in a dark, dusty corner of a forgotten bookshelf in the vast universe of a library…
By day three of my self-existential mental wanderings, the librarian had won. I picked up the book she recommended to me, Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne, if only to preserve my sanity.
I nearly jumped out of my chair. She must have seen me reading the book and come over to gloat. She caught me at a crucial moment—the main characters had just been consumed by a violent storm over mainland Africa.
I put the book down. “It’s a fun story, but I’m still trying to figure out how they managed to travel so far and so long by balloon.”
I was expecting a sarcastic comment, but instead she said, “It was a specially made invention. It ran on hydrogen and water so that they never ran out of gas.”
“Yeah, I get that part. And it’s too bad balloons don’t run like that it real life. But it’s the part about how they were able to predict the wind patterns to move in the direction they wanted so consistently and reliable. I can’t make my balloon run on water, but I need to know how to navigate the wind if I’m going to get where I want.”
“But, that’s what’s so fun about balloons!” She took a seat across from me. Today, not only were her pants covered in random fabric patches, but her cardigan had two patches as well—at the elbows, “The not knowing. Going wherever the wind takes you and seeing what happens. That’s what makes them such great plot devices. The unpredictability,” she leaned back in the reading chair, “Hot air balloons are a lot like real life when you think of it that way.”
“A lot like real life? Don’t you want to have any control over things?”
She laughed, “Do you honestly think you have any control over anything that happens in your life?”
“I chose to come to the library. I chose to sit down, read, and learn. And I’m choosing what to do with my future,” I crossed my arms in defiance, but in my head, what she said started tugging at my brain.
The smile she was wearing was a lot like Moog’s the night I told him I was going to be the manager: devious. “Are you sure you chose those things? Why did you come to the library? And why this one, in Seattle? Did you choose to be in Seattle? When you came here a few days ago, you said you needed to learn about hot air balloons. You said you needed to learn how they work and how to fly them. You didn’t choose to. No one chooses to sit here for days reading stuffy old textbooks. No, you have to, for some reason.”
“No, I don’t want to have control over things,” she continued, “because I know that I can’t. And you can’t. You’re going where the wind takes you just like the rest of us, whether you believe it or not. You might as well be some character in a book,” she held up the novel, “acting on the author’s whim.”
The tugging at my brain turned into full fledged memories. I thought about how helpless I felt about my whole situation. About what happened in Omaha. About the storm. About my crash landing here. Was I in control over anything in my life?
No, there had to be more. There had to be control. I had to learn how to control my impact on those around me.
“I’m not some book character doing whatever the author says. I’m a person with will, with choices. With a purpose and the ability to control my life to get to that purpose.”
She put the book down, “Choices and purpose. That’s called a plot.” She tilted her head as she leaned forward to stand back up, “Every good story has one, even for side characters like you.”
“Wait, side character? I’m a side character?”
“Of course you are. Everyone’s a side character in someone else’s life. It all depends on perspective. In your story, I’m probably just some librarian without a name.”
She got up to leave, and commented over her shoulder, “In my story, though, you’re the side character.”
Thanks for reading! Part VIII will be out in two weeks! Check out the whole series thus far here.