FICTION | Bookfucker
Dear library patron: According to our records, the material(s) you recently checked out is overdue. Please return said item(s) at your earliest convenience to avoid unnecessary penalties. Forgive us if you have already complied with this request.
Dear library patron: We hope you have enjoyed Gonorrhea: A Biography. This notice is to inform you the item in question is past due. Please return said item(s) promptly. Unless remedied, action will be taken. Thank you for supporting literacy.
Dear library patron: We hope you have received our previous notices of the overdue item(s) in your possession. You may be interested that today I saw an older man, handsome, a silver fox as they say. The first thing he does when he picks up a book is smell the pages. He will crack the spine to wedge his nose deeper for a more sustained olfactory pleasure. Oh, him? Lucy shrugs, that’s just Bookfucker. Waiting at the Circulation Desk I imagine Bookfucker approaching and even though he doesn’t ask I offer my spine for cracking and other contours of my body where he might wedge his nose. A book and a woman cannot be so different.
Dear library patron: Did you recently lose a pair of dentures? Lucy discovered them in the bathroom sink following the bi-monthly meeting of the Association for Genital Integrity. No sooner had we posted the sign than elderly patrons appeared asking to try on the missing teeth. We hope you are our Cinderella.
Dear library patron: This is a friendly reminder that the material(s) you recently checked out remains past due. Did it fulfill your needs? Did it exceed your expectations? We hope so. Please remember that borrowing a book is a privilege. Failure to acknowledge this privilege may result in punishments outlined in the contract you signed. Drop boxes remain available for your convenience.
Dear library patron: Lucy wears low-cut tops, glittery pumps, and red lipstick. I wear white sneakers and a cardigan. I want to look grandmotherly. Fashionable people have a 38% increased risk of dementia.
Dear library patron: Would you be so kind as to return Sokonoff’s Theorem? It is a first edition. Last month, the author came for a book signing. While we were waiting she explained Sokonoff was her husband and he discovered mathematical proof that time is an invention, an illusion. I laughed and told her sometimes I feel that way working in a library. I never remember arriving or leaving. If I open my eyes I am here. My husband killed himself, the woman said. We stared at the clock.
Dear library patron: There is real pleasure in wandering a library. I weave between the maze of rows, walk through doors, listen to the echo of my voice in stairwells, crawl inside dumbwaiters. On most days the geometry of this place suppresses the urge to walk in front of a bus. But I have no particular affection for books. My father read me a great many bedtime stories, all of which induced sleep. Except Bluebeard. I have always been intrigued by love stories.
Dear library patron: The Circulation Desk is a kind of pornography. Patrons approach sheepishly, like hungry children, eager to watch me inspect pages for defects, caress the spine, titillate the edges with a fingertip. There is a silence between us, and yet there are words. Will you take me into the civil war history stacks and ski your tongue over my frigid nipples? Receipts and signatures are exchanged. Our transaction finished, I signal for the next patron to approach the counter. It is 9:17 A.M.
Dear library patron: A woman arrives at the library dressed exactly like the Queen of England. As she passes, I curtsey and whisper, God save you.
Dear library patron: Today I asked Lucy: You don’t think he actually intercourses with books, do you? She smiled, shrugged. Leaning close she whispered, They don’t call him Bookfucker for nothing. Later I wondered: how might one fuck a book? Our instruction in middle school Health class was conspicuously nonexistent in this regard. The problem is not as dire as Adam, east of Eden, with Eve lying on the grass beneath him, his eyes alternating between the abyss above and the abyss below. I sneeze. You should take a sick day, Lucy says.
Dear library patron: Somewhere there is a mathematical proof that says the tolerability of other people is directly proportional to the quantity of words leaving their mouth.
Dear library patron: A magician performed for the children today. He wore a cape and waved his wand. The children laughed and applauded. I was hoping to see real magic, but his expertise seemed restricted to balloon animals. Has he read A Brief History of Ballooning? Perhaps that is where he learned to shape an elephant and umbrella. Perhaps a woman is not so different from a balloon and can be wrapped around a bedpost, or twisted on the floor until satisfied with the knot of her own existence. When the children left the magician asked if I wanted to see real magic. I followed him down one of the aisles when suddenly he spun around and kissed me.
Dear library patron: Between the second and third floor is a half-floor accessible by a stairwell in the northwest corner. I count six steps. This leads to other stacks and little offices, a library within a library. At the end of a hallway on this half floor is a door nobody opens. That’s where Bookfucker goes, Lucy says with a wink. I think she’s wrong. I think behind that door is the end of the world.
Dear library patron: To avoid suspension, I complete “Workplace Violence Prevention” training. Apparently, fisting a magician’s balls constitutes “violence.” Who knew? These two things are equally true: there is no other place in the world I’d rather be than a library, and if only some stranger would hit me senseless with a dictionary.
Dear library patron: As a librarian, I am trained to scrutinize the signatures on the back of library cards to detect fraud. I find handwritten signatures an antiquated tradition too easily fabricated and society would benefit from a more modern form of identification. I would prefer patrons make an identifying mark with their genitals. The testicles of men are quite distinct, as are feminine labia. To be sure, the body is a Rorschach blot. Sometimes I imagine Bookfucker’s testicles swatting my cheeks. They are like bearded oranges shriveled from the sun.
Dear library patron: I love the silence of libraries. In a world of radios and television and other babble machines, the library is a sanctuary, a cathedral. Here one may stray into thoughts without the tyranny of making them into words. Thoughts are an intercourse with silence. Words are alphabets of affliction.
Dear library patron: Sometimes I think Bookfucker has figured out a way to avoid this web of words and thoughts. As if fucking is the only way to avoid being fucked.
Dear library patron: My mother was a real furnace of thought. Always a word and smile. She stopped talking after seeing a young woman leap from the highway overpass into oncoming traffic. A produce truck swerved, then flipped, spilling hundreds of watermelons onto the highway. Cars backed up for a mile. A boy and his father were the only victims, both decapitated when they went through the windshield. They found the bodies but the heads catapulted onto the highway and were lost among the watermelons. A few days later my father came home carrying one—half-price! he smiled—and I ate until my stomach was round and just a little pink.
Dear library patron: It is easy to forget there are men in the world. They are like the unicorn: pleasant as a picture in a children’s book, but disappointing in the flesh. The library is full of women. There are grandmothers, widows, divorcées, fiancées, whores, virgins, housewives and mothers. Where do so many women find the time to exist?
Dear library patron: You lie, the girl tells her lover. They’re in periodicals. She has pink hair, tattoos. He dances on sidewalks all over town waving those Going Out of Business signs. I’ve been watching them argue for ten minutes. The boy reaches out to feel her face. She does the same. Until now I have no idea they’re blind. I watch them take turns reading the skin like braille. Where else but a library can we find the sadness of bankruptcy and be bankrupted by sadness?
Dear library patron: When I was a girl I swallowed a nickel. My dad rushed me to the hospital where they took an X-ray. Until then I had no idea I was real. It’s a shame nobody can see inside me. There’s an awful lot to think about in there. The doctors told me I could watch them cut me open. Count backwards, they said. I made it to six. I woke up with a scar on my belly shaped like the hook of a question mark. It was a dirty trick, one I have not forgiven. Please make time to return the past due items, otherwise your account will be suspended. Despite precautions, mistakes occasionally occur. If you believe an error has been made in your case, please bring to the library—or mail us—this notice and your library card.
Dear library patron: Before my current position, Lucy gave me a tour of library. She tested me on proper shelving techniques, the Dewey Decimal system, alphanumerics, the mathematics of fiction and nonfiction. Other questions were more difficult: What are the two acceptable weather patterns? Do you approve of the library’s policy on extraterrestrials? If you are alone in a room with two beds, which do you sleep on? What is the first thing you do if the horse you are riding dies? My score is still the highest of any librarian. When it was over, Lucy gave me a hug. She gave me a set of keys that opened all the doors, even the ones to half-floors. Always knock, she said, you never know what these fuckers are doing behind closed doors.
Dear library patron: A library is a microcosm of democracy. One of our duties is to preserve the sanctity of the books so that freedom may endure. Once a month we inspect the collection. So far I have found the following inside the books: One slice provolone cheese. Enema tube, used. Forty-seven Russian rubles. Army supply list. Three pubic hairs. Blood test results. Six molars. First-in-show ribbon. Juvenile starfish. Suicide note. Four-leaf clover. Wedding invitation. Bar soap. Sonogram of fetus. Winning lottery ticket. Divorce papers. Why these little seizures of anarchy give me pleasure I cannot say.
Dear library patron: The library is quite cold. Outside the sun is a hot blind thing. More and more patrons enter. I used to believe they were escaping the heat, but as I watch them wandering the stacks I think they come to escape other people. They handle the books carefully, unaware they have come for a pleasure only the inhuman can provide.
Dear library patron: When was the last time I left the library? I cannot remember. It appears increasingly obvious I am dead and the library is some kind of purgatory, a phase between where we are going and where we have been. My presence here must be a cosmic error, a mistake on the part of some God, but one without rectification. The only way to leave the library, I have determined, is to locate the word that sums up my existence. One word hidden within all these books. Say the word and I will be free of this hell.
Dear library patron: Bookfucker is also searching for his word. This is why he fucks all the books. To fuck something is to name it, to be saved from it.
Dear library patron: During story hour the children listened attentively to the tale of Mr. Bluebeard and how he gives his wife a key to every room in the house but makes her promise not to open the door to one special room. Of course, the minute he leaves she waltzes inside and finds the bodies of all his previous wives splattered on the walls. The boys took turns pretending to strangle the girls. One girl didn’t want to pretend to be dead and said she was just sleeping until her prince kissed her awake. Very gently I whispered in her ear, You’re living in the wrong story. She cried.
Dear library patron: The library is a barbaric institution. Would you go to a birthday party, browse through the assortment of children and, selecting one at random, take it home hoping it could feed you, bathe you, clothe you, let it into your secret spaces? Among the ancient Romans unauthorized literacy was punishable by blinding and a month hard labor in the charcuterie trade. Save the date! Next week is the end of the annual Young Readers Summer festival. First prize for most books read is a ribbon along with a coupon for a free basket of hush puppies at the Mad Cow Burgers & Fries. There is still time.
Dear library patron: There is no proof Bookfucker engages in obscene behavior with books. They appear unviolated. Today I watched him. He browsed through a copy of The Prayers of Anselm of Caligarsky. Is a prayer the same as intercourse? I wanted to ask. When I turned the corner to come up the aisle he was gone. Perhaps he left in a hurry having discovered something about prayer he wasn’t expecting. Perhaps he was never there. Later, when the library was almost empty, I tried praying in the same spot where Bookfucker was reading, but nothing happened.
Dear library patron: Bookfucker arrives at precisely at 6:00 P.M. We close at 8:00 P.M. He has predetermined which stacks he will visit and with which books he will intercourse. I wonder if punctuality is foreplay or merely a quality of being fucked.
Dear library patron: Toska. Fernweh. Onism. Hyggelig. Ya’aburnee. None of these are my words.
Dear library patron: They say heaven is a library. If this is true, then before we came here God must have rounded up half the spirits and given them a papercut between the thighs. You are women, he said. Circulation is the closest we get to heaven on earth. Sometimes I’ll discreetly remove a page from a book and give myself a papercut. My thighs and stomach are covered in little white scars. Other times, I stuff wads of paper inside me so one day God may know this body is no longer his to imagine.
Dear library patron: Why do men shake hands and not cocks? This seems like a missed opportunity. After using the toilet I don’t wash my hands. I shake hands with patrons when the opportunity arises, wondering how recently they’ve used the toilet and whether our intimacies are in orbit. Sometimes after using the restroom I will wander the stacks and introduce myself to our patrons. It is like losing my virginity over and over.
Dear library patron: Yesterday, between Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Nonfiction a man showered. He had a bucket and a bar of soap.
Dear library patron: Lucy’s specialty is monsters. Mine is romance. We all have our literary gifts. During Halloween she decorates the horror stacks with cardboard cutouts of ghouls and zombies and werewolves. Most of the people who visit that section are pale and fat, like they’re hoping a book can intercourse them out of their skin. Lucy reads three horror books a week. That’s the thing about monsters, Lucy says, you’re never finished with them. She’s been writing her own horror story for years. It’s about a house. Not a haunted house with ghosts, or a house that comes alive, or even a house that drives people crazy. It’s an old house, full of dust and mites that slowly kills its occupants with asthma, a house so lonely it induces indigestion. Lucy swallows her pills. Acid reflux is hell, she says.
Dear library patron: After story hour the children practiced with watercolors. You should have seen their pictures of all the secrets they would keep behind a locked door!
Dear library patron: I stand outside the door and wait for Bookfucker to open. I would not object to being flayed, garroted, disemboweled, asphyxiated, even decapitated with my head preserved in an aquarium of formaldehyde. I find these suitable trajectories for any marriage. But I will not be ignored.
Dear library patron: There is a woman who comes on the second Tuesday of every month to lick the pages of the latest National Geographic issue. After many months I summoned the courage to ask why she licks the pages and she said, a little embarrassed, that she hoped to taste those faraway places.
Dear library patron: Story hour has been discontinued. The future of democracy is in jeopardy.
Dear library patron: Lucy says Bookfucker’s wife died in childbirth and then he gave away the child because the sorrow was too much. There are many fuckers in the world. Bookfucker is just one of them. I do not know what I am.
Dear library patron: Our bodies are sixty-eight percent water. We lose fourteen milliliters with every breath. The library has an extensive collection of books on amphibians. Did you know the axolotl, a species of salamander, is terrestrial at birth? As it ages it sheds its legs and returns to the water as a tadpole, maturing into childhood. How often I have walked these library aisles immersed in the problem of our own inadequate evolution.
Dear library patron: Today, an old couple built a fort in the middle of the library with pillows and blankets. They lay there quietly whispering about things I can’t understand.
Dear library patron: Often during my lunch hour I will take the key Lucy gave me and find new places to put it: nostrils, asshole, mouth, ear, cunt. I know something inside me has opened, but I am not sure what.
Dear library patron: Yesterday, Bookfucker intercoursed with Modernity and the Napoleonic Imagination. Looking over the pages I find no trace of Bookfucker’s existence. No stains or smudges. No dog-eared pages. No scent. No indication a fucking has occurred. It is like he is a ghost. I do not believe that things unseen are more vital than those we see. I wonder if fucking and ghosting are the same thing. If Bookfucker were to fuck me, would I be different in a measurable way, or just another footnote in the biography of my life? According to the footnotes, Napoleon was the first to attach a bomb to a balloon. Can you picture the townspeople as the balloon descended? They must have mistaken it for a falling star. We cannot hope to be Napoleons, but we can hope to be balloons.
Dear library patrons: Today, I am made of paper. Bookfucker scrolls me up, takes me to the children’s picture books aisle where he unfolds me like a doll, licking my clit until he gets a paper cut. His tongue bleeds and bleeds. But I am no Pinocchio. Despite all his efforts, his blood fails to turn my paper into flesh.
Dear library patron: Papercuts are an occupational hazard. Suddenly there it is: a thin slice of flesh. They say on the fingertips is a higher concentration of nerves than an entire elephant’s body. And yet a papercut is oddly satisfying. Because they are accidents? I’ve been brought to my knees by papercuts. They sing, those raw nerves exposed to air. So much pain pressed through such a shallow wound, doing all the things for us that Christ failed to do.
Dear library patron: Just before closing today, a gentleman approached the Help Desk with full makeup on his face. He requested a librarian to help him remove it.
Dear library patron: Once I went to a museum of medical curiosities. There were pickled conjoined twins, genital warts strung on a necklace, amputated fingers. In a display case was a woman’s nervous system, carefully dissected from all her flesh, her body arranged like threads spun from some fairy-tale nightmare. Would anybody collect me? I would not object to being skinned. I am pale, unfreckled. They could flay me. Hang me on the third floor like a tapestry next to the skeleton. It was donated by the local biology teacher. It’s missing eleven bones and two teeth. We call him George.
Dear library patron: Vemödalen. Jijivisha. Altschmerz. Kairosclerosis. Sonder. None of these are my words.
Dear library patron: Today there was a bomb scare. Lucy says the world is full of wackos and perverts, but she doesn’t understand the menace of libraries. This is where we banish all our awful thoughts, our perversions, our secrets—all bound and blotted inside books. Sometimes I imagine a bomb going off, the words escaping their pages, drowning the world in a black river of type.
Dear library patron: Mamihlapinatapei. Mamihlapiatapei.
Dear library patron: I have not seen Bookfucker in weeks. Perhaps he found his word. If so, I am happy for him. Perhaps there is no book of life on the shelf for me, just words doomed to float like castaways on the ocean of my mind. I do not know. I am comforted by the hope there are yet hallways and nooks in the library with other women like me. Satisfied. Unfulfilled.
Dear library patron: It is with great sadness that we had to suspend the account of one of our patrons. It could happen to you too. We caught her tearing out pages from the books and turning them into paper cranes. Senbazuru, she told us. One thousand origami birds held together by string. If I finish them, the woman said, the gods will grant me a wish. But you’re not Japanese, Lucy told me. Later, after Lucy goes home, I finish folding the last paper crane and, after whispering my wish, put it in the desk drawer. The next morning, the paper crane is gone.
Dear library patron: Please disregard all previous correspondence. There has been a clerical error. The items have been successfully renewed. Thank you for your patronage.
Ryan Habermeyer's debut collection of short stories, The Science of Lost Futures, won the BoA Editions Short Fiction Prize (2018). He received his PhD from the University of Missouri and an MFA from UMass Amherst. His prize-winning stories and essays have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, his work most recently appeared in or forthcoming from Copper Nickel, Fugue, Bat City Review, Hotel Amerika, and the Los Angeles Review, among others.
Photograph by Chris Lawton