The Ballet Flats of Satan — Jonathan Tuttle
After a long career Lou had terrible arthritis. She kept her wrists in canvas braces and used the index volume of the Catholic Encyclopedia to prop up her keyboard. On days the ache was too much, Lou happily packed up a few minutes before five o’clock, especially on Wednesdays, when she still had places to go after work. Her coat was ready on the back of her door, her paper lunch bag folded in her purse. All that was left for her this Wednesday was to sweep a handful of magazines into the recycling bin and cross out their titles on a long To Do list.
“Lou, could you cover the evening shift tonight?” said the director, smiling in the doorway. “Barbara’s got shingles, and Judy’s on a cruise. I would have asked Lee, but her son is finally getting his black belt.”
This was not the first time this had happened. Like the last time Lou said, “My church has Bible study on Wednesdays.”
“You’re at First, is that right? That’s an old building.”
Lou forced her lips into a smile. She thought about asking where the director attended, which she already knew was nowhere.
They had worked at the library for almost as long, though the director had the younger-looking face. Her sandy blonde hair was braided almost to her waist, and she wore whatever outdoorsy or athletic footwear was considered trendy to sport inside.
“Thanks, Lou, I—”
Lou said, “Ok,” cutting short the apologies.
“Still finding things to withdraw?” The director, rather than leave, pointed to a wheeled cart empty save for two small books.
“We’re weeding the ones that haven’t been checked out since 1975,” said Lou.
The director picked up the book with the picture of an old monastery on the cover. Flipping through the pages, she ignored the date due slip, which was good. Lou had no idea when those books were checked out.
“Last exams tomorrow, so have fun!” said the director, waving as she turned.
Once she was fully out of sight, Lou shot back a fistful of chocolate-covered almonds. Her hair—mostly gray—was short, but she grew out the bangs a little. She blew them up now with a long exhale, and she reached for the phone. Pastor John was doing Galatians tonight, and Lou seemed to recall the church treasurer took good notes. She wondered if the treasurer would fax her notes to the library.
“If you don’t mind,” said Lou, twisting the eraser-end of her pencil against her scalp. “I can you send you mine if I’m ever allowed to go back.”
She thanked the treasurer, hung up, and quickly it dawned on Lou that everything she had to work on that night involved her hands. She took up her pencil and a Coke, her To Do list, and the two small books from the otherwise empty cart. It was nice to see the cart cleaned off now, she thought. She had made fast work of it. Only a few days before it was weighed down with every architecture book relating to the Roman Catholic Church the library owned, all naves and transepts, ruined basilicas and mausoleums. These two were the only two books left, and she could rely on them to ease her into that night’s work. The painting books were next to go.
Lou slid the Encyclopedia volume out from under her keyboard as well and, cradling it in her free arm, waited for a group of students in pajamas to pass her office. Before another group could follow Lou said, “Excuse me,” and continued on to the reference desk. She walked with her feet shoulder-width apart, and she was broad-shouldered. The cut at the back of her long denim dress waved open, and her sandals brushed the carpet.
Asa, upstairs, clicked his campus-issued laptop shut and hid it under his backpack. By the oversize section across the room he pushed two chairs together to make a couch and slid down so that his arms rested above his shoulders. He gave himself five minutes and told himself that if no one were to go into the closest aisle, he would go back to studying.
He read the graffiti penciled on the wall, which was always there. Eventually a student worker pushed a cart of books past him. The student workers hardly ever stopped. He filled the time thinking, first about the biochem exam he probably failed that morning and then about everything else. If his grades began to slip and his scholarship was revoked, he would have to go back home. But then if he did go home, he could see his mother. He hadn’t seen his mother since he left Iran for the States three years ago. But he wondered if she would want to see him. He didn’t include pictures in his emails home, and so she didn’t know about the short hair and the polo shirts. She certainly didn’t know that given the choice of pronoun in English he had chosen “he” and that he was the only student in the all-girl’s school to do so.
Five minutes became ten, and Asa had to admit it was time. He swung back his legs to climb out of the chairs, and just then Jessica, the art major, turned the far corner of the aisle. He stayed still. Any movement would either draw attention or tempt fate and cause Jessica to walk away. While looking down at his phone, Asa kept her in the corner of his eye, repeating in his mind, Please pick up a book.
He had never seen Jessica there before. And he had never met her, but the school was small enough to connect names with faces. She had a concentration, Asa thought he remembered, in fashion. She was certainly fashionable. She wore skinny, black jeans, ballet flats, and a denim jacket with the sleeves rolled up. Her long, brown hair bowed out from under the collar.
Closer to the middle of the aisle, Jessica finally stopped and leant down; eventually she knelt down. Already Asa could feel warmth spreading across the side of his face. Jessica’s leather messenger bag crumpled at her side. She took a huge, cloth-covered volume from the bottom shelf and, starting at the back of the book, let a few hundred pages fall into her lap.
Seeing this made Asa think he could hear each fiber in the paper curling. The base of his spine pulsed like an ember, and a tingling sensation danced up his neck and scalp like the top of fire. For the first time that day, for the first time since the last time he saw someone turning pages, Asa’s mind slowed.
The exam, his grades, and his body shrunk from view. Sounds across the top floor, of FaceTime conversations and plastic wrappers taken out of plastic bags, softened. Asa felt comfortable enough even to sit up and see if he could make out any of the artwork Jessica was studying. He saw a man with a sword dressed in orange and blue. Red plumes sprouted from his helmet. Jessica turned to the last pages, to a spread of stone men pointing to a clouded sky, then closed that book.
Find another, thought Asa. But Jessica, holding the book in her arm and glancing again at the top shelf, walked out of the aisle. I moved too much, Asa thought; I jinxed it. He pushed his feet against the cushions, separating the chairs. His thoughts resumed. There would be hours before the library closed: time to review his mistakes in biochem, to imagine his mother worrying and his host mother whispering when he left the room. At lunch that day his friends didn’t even try to stop him from asking Katie if she needed a ride home for break, and they should have. He and Katie had barely ever spoken, and he didn’t have a car. It was a stupidly obvious question.
Walking through the aisle of art books, he remembered a rumor he once heard that Jessica won a bet by trimming her fingernails with a paper cutter. Apparently she walked into the backroom of the library, without asking, to where only the librarians could go. She found the paper cutter on the mail table and laid her palm down on the grid while her friends waited for her outside. I wouldn’t have followed her in either, Asa thought.
Lou found it hard to work right away. She fixed a printer jam, but mostly she read People. The girls who ran the anime club picked out the peanut butter cups from a bowl of candy on the reference desk. A sign beside it said, “Study hard! You’re almost there!” and Lou herself unwrapped a caramel.
She had done the two small architecture books first thing, but they only took a moment. She clicked a series of boxes in the computer marked “delete,” stamped the books “withdrawn,” and set them aside. It did nothing to convince her that she should be somewhere else by now.
Biting one end of her glasses, using it to unstick some of the candy from the roof of her mouth, Lou forced herself to move on to a dog-eared, highlighted page at the back of the Catholic Encyclopedia. There, under the heading “Art,” a list of painters’ names went on for three pages and in ten-point font. Lou’s hands felt heavy. Beginning at the top of the first column, she typed the painters’ names one by one into the catalog to see if it returned any especially Catholic-looking books. If it did, she squeezed their call numbers onto her To Do list.
One of the Fra Angelicos was checked out, she found. She put a star next to the number on her list and went on down the column—to Roselli, to Pinturricchio, artists Lou had never heard of. It just proved again how useful the Encyclopedia was compared against her memory. She was always underestimating the Church’s reach. She’d be upstairs simply browsing in the 300s, in anthropology, and there would be something Catholic; it was like running your hand along silken moss and feeling human hair. With the Encyclopedia as a guide she could nose out the Catholic physicists in the 500s and the Irish farmers in the 600s.
Arriving at Titian, Lou found another book checked out and by the same student who had checked out the Fra Angelico and a few of the others. It was a little odd. The college had certainly been shedding its Baptist image over the last few years, but Lou couldn’t think of a professor who would assign so much of this material: pious, feudal lords, rigid angels’ wings. Curious, Lou brought up the campus directory—which now included pictures—and typed in the girl’s name.
Jessica, an art major and a senior, seemed pretty, not the smiling-type, but pretty. It wasn’t anyone Lou recognized, but then it was a picture of Jessica as a freshman. Lou hit print and cut out the grainy black and white photo. With a square of Scotch tape, she fixed it to her list.
Across the room girls leant over the circulation desk to distract the student workers on duty.
“You do not look like her!”
“She’s like me in ten years!”
Lou brought the two withdrawn books with her across the room, reflecting proudly that she had reached the painting section in only a matter of months. And since she had done extra today, Lou reminded herself, she could do less tomorrow.
Someone had left the coffee maker on in the back, and the remains of a lasagna lunch were still in the staff sink. She dropped the two small books onto the mail table and picked up a box cutter. Throwing out a hardback meant first removing the covers, which couldn’t be recycled. She lined up the first book square in front of her, opened it, and stuck the blade into the slim gap between board and endpaper. Once the cover was free from the spine, she picked up the book by its pages, like a chicken by its open neck, and flipped it over to sever the back.
Decades ago, in her first position, withdrawing hardbacks like this made Lou nervous. It didn’t seem right to destroy a book. Like her peers Lou entered the profession as a book lover; they had almost magical properties to her then. But she was on guard now against anyone who believed in magic. That the book in front of her bore the library’s property stamp, that it might be read or even dusted made Lou nervous, not withdrawing it. It should never have been printed in the first place.
“Do you know where the dumpsters are?” she said to one of the girls behind the desk. She explained where to find the pages and boards and which should go in which dumpster.
Whenever Asa woke up from a nap inside the library, he assumed it was because a librarian was shaking his feet, telling him he had to leave. Four days before Christmas he bolted upright from his usual, makeshift couch, ready to apologize, then sunk back into the cushion. There may have been a few other international students in the library, but there was no one around Asa. There was still no one in the aisle of art books.
Asa walked through it on his way to the bathroom, trying to remember which of the bottom shelves Jessica had been looking at. One of them was empty now. She’s busy, he thought. He picked up a book, listened for the binding to crack, dragged his finger down the inside of the title page. It didn’t have the same effect. He wondered what it would be like to have someone sit down in his chairs, wait for him to turn a page, and then pretend to look away. He wanted Katie to sit down.
Katie had brown, curly hair, round cheeks. She wore thick, patterned skirts and frizzy sweaters. She must have been in one of Heather’s classes, or Cassie’s, because she had eaten a few times at their table in the dining hall. Although Katie didn’t talk as much as they did, she was quick with laughs and listened intently, like she was trying to overcome their impression of her shyness—but without speaking. Asa couldn’t understand why Katie was spending time with girls much dorkier than herself, but then she was a transfer student, and maybe she had to start at the bottom.
Asa returned the book to the shelf. His friends thought he was funny. If he eventually made her laugh enough, at the dining hall or studying—laugh a lot—maybe she would sneak up behind him in the library and kiss the back of his neck.
Among the carrels grouped together in the middle of the floor only one had postcards taped to the sides—likely Jessica’s. The shelf held a row of art books, and there was a pair of jeans folded under the chair. Although the carrel wasn’t in the same direction as the bathroom, he went towards it.
The taped-up postcards were of Biblical scenes, monks, nuns. A hand press and a dozen blank badges lay beside an open Moleskine notebook. On its pages were slim men and women. They wore jeans and jackets, but also red skullcaps, black capes, and jewelry. A man carried a rack of votive candles on his head like a jug of water while a woman angled flowers into her habit.
The jeans beneath the desk had the same satin-lined pockets as in the drawing. Two sets of rosary beads were tied together and sewn across the waist. Asa knelt beside them. It was the denim, he found, that had given Jessica’s carrel the smell of spices and snuffed candles.
Downstairs Lou had her headphones on, her Walkman by her keyboard. The church treasurer had not only faxed her Bible study notes last week but graciously recorded the whole of Pastor John’s talk on Galatians and sent over a tape. It had been at Lou’s side for the better part of the week, and she tried her hardest to listen again now, but unfortunately the tape competed with a conversation she had just had with the director. The director, who was supposed to already be on vacation, poked her smiling face into Lou’s office once again and asked this time not just if Lou could work yet another Wednesday evening but if Lou could work all the evenings between New Year’s and the start of the next semester.
“It’s just that Barbara’s still in and out of the hospital,” said the director. “And Judy wants to spend another week in Turks and Caicos. And Lee is taking her son to nationals.”
“Nationals?” said Lou.
“He’s the best in the state.”
Lou’s eyelids slackened.
There was a provision included that Lou would never work an evening of spring break, and although she agreed, that didn’t make it worth it. She was supposed to be helping after New Year’s with the lock-in for the youth group—the Augusteens. She was going to bring the cups.
“Sorry again,” said the director. “We’d be closed the full three weeks, and no one would have to come in, but then there’s the international students. They like to stay in the dorms as long as they can.”
The international students. Lou looked out at the computers after the director had left, and there they were, emailing home, giggling with each other. She went on listening to her tape, and she tried to visualize Pastor John, his trim, uniformly-colored beard, his palms held out as he spoke—as if he were generously handing you the things he said—but the image would inevitably fade into an image of the director, and Lou finally had to stop.
The hum of lights and computer fans on the first floor was audible again now that exams were over. Lou worried it might put her to sleep. Passing the copy room on her way to the desk, she heard the drone of the microform machine as well. No one ever used the microform machine. The reels suddenly wound to top speed, piercing the white noise, and clicked to a halt.
The student at the machine had her back to Lou, but reaching for a box of film, she pulled her hair behind her ear. Lou was reminded of the photo in the campus directory, the one now taped to her To Do list. She was thinner now, if it was her. She wore her jeans well above her hips, something Lou had seen a few other girls doing. Lou wondered if she might not already know something about this student: isn’t she the one who trimmed her fingernails with a paper cutter? People like her just like whatever’s weird.
The film had stopped at the front page of the local paper, from some time in the 1920s. At the top of the screen a woman had her arms around the winning jockey, and in a picture beside them a well-tanned Bishop accepted the kiss of a priest.
“Please don’t keep your ginger ale so close to the machine,” said Lou.
Jessica smiled and moved the bottle.
The smile had an air about it, an attitude that made Lou think she definitely was the girl in the photo. Lou turned the list in her hand so the image on it faced her dress.
“Do you need help with that?” she said.
“No, I’m fine,” said Jessica.
Lou waited to see if the girl would continue scrolling to the next page or if she would zoom in on the picture of the Bishop, read the caption. Instead of doing either, Jessica sifted through her pencil case. There were only a few moments in which Lou could comfortably stand there without drawing attention to herself. They passed.
At the reference desk Lou felt her wrists ache, and she hadn’t done anything taxing. It was stress, she knew. She had failed to account for the newspapers; the failure stung her, and she couldn’t bear adding another task to her list at the same time she was trying to cross them out. There isn’t even space, she thought. In crunched capital letters, between “Magazines” and “Movies,” she scratched the word “Microfilm.”
Out of the corner of her eye Lou saw Jessica leave the copy room for the stairwell. The metal door slammed shut, and Lou pushed her chair back from the desk.
The microform machine was off now, the bottle of ginger ale in the trash, and in the recycling bin beside it were a few crumpled-up print outs, some with the pictures removed. Lou spread them across the top of a filing cabinet and found just what she feared: datelines from Rome, Milan, 1922, 1928; pictures of seminarians on Vespas, girls before Mass; Catholic, stylish youth.
Asa inhaled again, this time getting tree sap and vanilla from the jeans beneath Jessica’s carrel. He reached out to touch the jeans. The pants seemed comfortable, neither rough nor smooth. He brought his hand back quickly and stood up. Turning around to head to the bathroom, he found Jessica standing opposite.
Jessica’s eyes went quickly to Asa’s feet and up again. The look was impersonal and without confrontation, like a doctor’s glance. Asa saw in it his own narrow wrists, his waterlogged running shoes. As with everyone he felt he had to pass through Jessica’s perception of him as if it were a floor-to-ceiling pane of glass.
“I like your pants,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Jessica.
She stepped forward to put her coat and bag on the chair, and Asa quickly moved out of the way. No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t leave. He had been caught, and he had to deserve his way out.
He introduced himself, but Jessica did not. “I think I’ve seen you in the art building,” he said. “Are you a fashion major?”
“Yes,” said Jessica.
“That’s cool. I have a friend who wants to do ceramics.”
Jessica opened a square, red book from the top shelf of her carrel. In it the figure of a man in the desert waved a walking stick at a sky full of demons.
“Intense,” said Asa.
“I got an email I had to return it.”
She turned the page. The paper hung in the air for a moment before she flattened it with all five fingertips from the spine to the edge, and Asa’s neck tingled, just as it would have were he sitting in his comfy chairs. And Jessica too turned the page exactly as she would have in the art aisle, with the same patience, the same calm expression. Maybe this was the face Jessica had when she knew she was being watched.
Jessica slid the book into her bag. Asa, thinking the situation had been somewhat smoothed over, recognized this as an opportunity to apologize and leave, but before he could Jessica took a sheet of paper from her bag and handed it to him. On it dark and grainy photographs from old newspapers had been cut up and pasted one over the other. A priest blessing cats was given the long legs and high heels of a pantyhose model, and beneath him loops of black cursive explained that Jessica was auditioning models for her thesis show.
“Are you interested?” said Jessica.
“Do you know anyone who would be?”
“I don’t know any models.” Asa thought of his friend Cassie, who was always pulling her Dr. Who shirt over her stomach when she laughed. “Don’t the fashion majors usually just model for each other?”
Jessica shrugged. “And I want to put up a bunch of these fliers. Do you know anyone that could help with that?”
“Definitely,” said Asa, making up for saying no. “I can ask.”
Jessica handed him a stack.
He stayed a little while longer in the library but left before his usual time. He couldn’t be comfortable there knowing he would have to leave for break the next day. It would be better, he thought, to go to his dorm, wake up in the morning, and get Christmas break over with: the ten days he would spend in the frilly, childhood bedroom of a girl he had met only once. For a moment he hated the library. He was amazed at the sadness of the fact that the library, the scene of his stressful overachieving and settled-for escapism was, when compared to his host family’s house, perhaps the best part of his life.
He saw one of the librarians near the parking lot. She kicked off her sandals and stepped onto a ledge a few feet above the dumpsters. Her dress blew back in the breeze. She lifted her waistband to pull out a large, square book and tossed it into the air, where it hung spinning before crashing into the dumpster. Asa walked back to his dorm.
The first Wednesday of the new semester Lou volunteered to take Judy’s shift.
“Don’t you go out Wednesdays?” said Judy. “Is it church?”
“I’ll have them over on the weekend,” said Lou. “Go on, take the night.”
Lou sat at the microform machine just as she had each evening since New Year’s Day. She felt like a permanent feature of the copy room, like the wrappers in the trash cans no one ever emptied, like the unframed artwork gifted by the class of 1988. Her fingers had small cuts on them that she got from grabbing at the loose end of microfilm as it thrashed around the spool.
To focus on the newspapers in the evenings Lou took advantage of the students not being there during the day and pushed through what was left of the books. She finished the 700s and, working faster than ever, scrubbed fiction and geography. She finally went up to Jessica’s carrel herself and recalled all the books Jessica still hadn’t returned. It occurred to her then she no longer needed her guide for the books; the Catholic Encyclopedia index was the last book to go. It had its covers removed like all the others, and they went into a pile for the students to toss.
But even without books, Lou found, Jessica still wouldn’t be lacking in material. The newspaper seemed obsessed. Only a page would go by before Lou saw another picture of a Bishop or a slew of babies baptized at the little church downtown. At first she considered throwing out an entire roll of film, maybe all the film, tell the director it had been infected with mites.
How do they do it? she thought. Catholic culture was an atmosphere overcast with something more solid than clouds, lowering itself upon all things, even a formerly Baptist girls’ college. By the time Lou crossed through the word “Microfilm” on her now wrinkled To Do list she’d be twenty years after her circled retirement date, all her co-workers would be twenty-four, and every print book in the library not eaten by the internet or comfy chairs would have ossified.
But if she withdrew all the film, she’d be tossing all the bits about the good churches, including her own. For now Lou concentrated her energies on the front pages, which were often splashed with something Papist. She listened to Pastor John’s sweet remarks to the youth group this evening, as it gave her mind something to grip onto while her hands busied themselves. And Pastor John was an antidote to the often-depressing material. Scrolling now through the winter of 1922, Lou was confronted by a stringy length of white smoke battling the rain over St. Peter’s.
Lou took the film out from under the glass and, isolating the little chimney, snipped it out. It only took a moment then to splice the film back together, and she went on scrolling. She laughed at the sight of an embarrassed-looking Pope riding around on roller skates. She laughed again at Pastor John’s joke. She let a few skullcaps slide by since they were photographed in consultation with American leaders, but an image on the front page of a Sunday in February made her stop. It even made her wonder if she should go back and check again for anything this terrible. She stared at the image of a young woman slumped in the first pew of a New York church, knees bent, head bowed.
It must have been dark there; perhaps the church was only lit by candles, because the picture was taken with an enormous flash. It washed out the girl’s already pale cheeks. Still, you could tell she was beautiful—dark hair, hooded, doleful eyes. She wore a veil, a bow. Her wounds appeared in the usual places, most gruesomely along her side. The puddle of blood beneath her gave the impression to Lou of a wide, black hole.
Outside the library Asa’s breath came out fogged, Katie’s too.
“Have you seen this movie?” said Asa. “It was supposed to be Heather’s pick tonight, but I begged.”
They each carried plastic bags of candy and soda from the gas station. Asa suspected that his friends, Cassie and Heather, knew this was the first time he had ever been alone with Katie. It’s probably exactly why they had been sent out in the first place.
To warm himself Asa closed one fist in his pocket and took long strides. He only wore a hoodie. He had spent twenty minutes in front of his dorm room mirror that night discovering that all the jackets he owned looked dorky, awkward. Standing there reminded him of his first few months as a freshman, when he hung a sheet over his mirror. He thought the day might be smoother without it. The feminine parts of his reflection annoyed him, and the masculine parts stood out to him uncomfortably. The sheet came down once he found new friends, but he wondered in times like these if it shouldn’t go right back up. He put on his hoodie that night instead of any of his jackets, didn’t bother to look at himself in it, and didn’t put on a hat or gloves. But he brought his backpack.
At a bulletin board outside the dining hall, empty save for a poster reminding students not to walk alone at night, Asa slung his backpack to his chest. He took out the fliers Jessica had given him before break. Facing Katie, he flipped through them.
“These are for my friend,” he said. “I told her I could help.” He lined up the image of the priest, the priest’s tights and high-heels, with a corner of the board and then, not seeing any pins, reached into his bag for tape.
“Nice,” said Katie.
Asa stepped back to admire it with her. Their breath lingered at the top of the streetlight. “Cassie’s going to say we’re late,” he said, and he started to move on. He had made himself look ok.
They took the path around the dining hall. As they passed the main doors Katie pointed and said, “Shall we put some there?”
“Where?” said Asa.
“Just on the doors.”
“Are they allowed on the doors?”
“I mean, people will notice them there.”
Asa waited too long to say something. “I’ll get the other bulletin boards first.”
Katie smiled, and they went on following the path.
In the dorm Asa’s friends snuggled in the middle of their common room, while Katie lay on one side of them and Asa—the only one not in pajamas—sat on the other. The girls laughed and shouted back at the screen, but Asa said little. He didn’t like that they were talking during the movie, and he even resented the movie.
Cassie shot popcorn at his head. “Come cuddle!”
“Katie needs a cuddle!” said Heather, and Cassie’s laugh bounced back from the ceiling.
Asa thought: why didn’t I just put a flier on the doors?
Before the credits he got up and said he had to study. His friends told him not to, like they always did. He said he’d hang out later, when things were less busy, and left without saying goodbye.
Asa had only seen Katie studying in the library twice before. It didn’t make him think any less of her. Katie’s absence in the library was the sign of a better-ordered mind than his. Still, he wanted to see her there now. Sitting back in his two comfy chairs, Asa focused on the end of the art aisle and placed Katie there just standing, facing away, holding one hand in the other below the small of her back. Asa laid his head on the armrest. He watched as Katie unclasped her hands and reached beneath her skirt. She pinched gently and pulled her underwear to her knees, and, when they dropped to her ankles, she took one step to her right, leaving them on the floor. Asa looked and listened for the number of people with him upstairs. It was possible he was alone. And it was too late for faculty or visitors to be on campus. If he wanted to touch himself, he would at least be alone in the men’s room.
The toilet seat in the staff bathroom was cold even after fifteen minutes of sitting on it. Lou brought her feet in under her knees. She kept thinking about the young woman she had just seen in the microfilm, bleeding in the New York church. The article gave the nuns’ version of the story. According to them, the girl was at prayer after a Saturday morning mass. As she prayed a beatific smile spread across her face, and her clasped hands were slowly sealed with blood. From her shoes a little stream trickled to the aisle. One nun noticed, the younger one, close in age to the girl herself. But she was too frightened to approach. She told the other nuns, and they watched. Afterwards they said she smelled like flowers.
Lou pulled up her dress and washed her hands. She reminded herself the girl probably just got “in trouble” and decided to end it all in church. Put up a statue, and it’s only a matter of time before some sick person wants to imitate it. But the mumbo-jumbo, Lou thought, it’s still so frightening—to think that all the penguins did was watch, play with beads. They just stood there, stuffed with the arrogance that comes from an insider’s knowledge—of power structures and family secrets, what to say and when to stand at church. Everyone involved had lost themselves in the nonsense. Holding her hands under the dryer, Lou felt how tired she was. But she wanted to get that image out of her head. She could do another roll of film.
She wiped her hands on her dress and flipped the lock. The door slowed as it shut behind her, coming to rest on Lou’s heel as she stood staring at a flier taped to the men’s room door opposite: a clerical collar, a wide-brimmed hat, two gray eyes twinkling back at her. The name on it was plain under the grotesque image. This wasn’t here when I came up, Lou thought. Quietly she peeled the rolls of tape from the door.
Inside the men’s room all three stalls were closed. Lou tilted her head but didn’t see Jessica’s flats in any of them. One by one she tapped the doors to check the locks, and each tap was enough to slowly swing the doors open. The first and second stalls were empty. The third was empty as well, but just above the toilet paper was another priest, another pair of high heels. Lou stabbed the cassock with her fingers and tore the bottom half of the flier from the top.
“You need me to work tonight?” she said the next morning.
“No, no. Barbara’s got it,” said the director, standing at Lou’s door.
“I’ll be here in any case.”
Lou came in early just to stare at her To Do list. She would probably go on studying it when she worked late that night. It looked useless. The borders of her project were already extending; now the very things she sought to get rid of were multiplying. The collection was breeding, and each new generation was marshaled against her.
“Did you get the email I—”
“Lou, did I forget about withdrawing this?” The director held up the loose boards of the index volume of the Catholic Encyclopedia, her hand on the stain Lou once made when she spilled a Coke on her keyboard. “Diane found it cleaning up the circ desk.”
It’s my fault for relying on students, thought Lou. They can’t even find a dumpster. “Yes, that one was on our list,” she said.
“The reference weeding?”
“Print reference. You wanted to put more chairs in.”
“Did you get the email I sent last night?” said Lou.
The director lowered the Encyclopedia cover. “About the fliers, thank you.”
“We had several meetings about that, student activity fliers only being allowed on the downstairs board, and in my opinion this student knew she was acting against our policy.”
“Do our students read our policies?”
“In my opinion this was really vandalism, ma’am, and disrespect, as well as trespassing into the men’s restroom.”
The director paused. “I’m not sure anything disciplinary is required here.”
“Isn’t that something for the honor committee to consider?” Lou had been leaning her chest against the desk, but she sat up straight in her chair now. “This is the student I told you about, the one who was so slow returning books after several professors requested them.”
“Ok, if you send me the student’s name, I can email her and I can speak with her.”
“I’ll do that. I found fliers on the ceilings, ma’am. I found them inside the lids in the toilets.”
After the director left Lou returned to the list. In a bottom corner she wrote down the word “fliers” and then immediately crossed it out.
“Can you try this one?” said Jessica, walking a black button-down shirt to Asa. They were in his dorm room. Jessica had just come up with a suitcase full of clothes.
In the dining hall that day she stood over the one empty chair at Asa’s table, out of nowhere, and asked if he was busy.
“A little,” said Asa, counting his papers and labs.
Jessica said no one had contacted her about modeling yet.
“I put some fliers up in the library.”
“I heard,” said Jessica, which Asa didn’t question, in part because Jessica was already explaining how “she needed to see the clothes move.”
“I could probably take a break,” said Asa, after Cassie and Heather chanted, “Do it!”
Asa held the shirt now by the white clerical collar Jessica had sewn into the top and turned to face the full-length mirror. He looked at the hairs between his eyebrows, at the hollow space between his collarbone and his neck. He glanced at Jessica in the mirror to see if she was looking, but she was laying out more clothes on his roommate’s bed. He put his arm into the shirt.
“Actually,” said Jessica, “you might have to change into it. It’s pretty tight.”
Asa was only wearing a t-shirt. “Oh, sure,” he said.
He estimated the number of steps from the mirror to the bathroom. Would it be awkward if I turned and shut the door? he wondered. More awkward than if I just stood here and took off my shirt?
“Are there pants I should change into?” he said.
“No, the ones you’re wearing are—”
A knock came from outside, and Katie was already walking in. Asa looked to see if Jessica would be irritated, but she said hello, cheerfully.
The shirt Asa wore playing basketball that morning, he noticed, was hanging out of his laundry basket. None of his clean clothes were folded. There were sandwich wrappers on his desk, a tangle of cords; his headphones had earwax on them.
“We were just… I was going to change into this shirt.”
Katie nodded, hands in her lap and swinging her legs off Asa’s bed.
His passport was on his desk too. Asa concentrated on that. It was almost full; if he got kicked out of school, he could get another stamp. But then with the “F” on the first page he wished he didn’t have that passport. He let these thoughts lead him away while he gripped the bottom of his shirt and lifted it above his waist, his navel, his binder. Immediately after it cleared his hair Jessica was there to sling the button-down behind his shoulders like a cape.
“And tuck it in?” said Jessica.
Asa brought his jeans an inch beneath the waistline of his boxer-briefs, revealing bony hips and the full extent of his ghost-like happy trail, then pushed in the ends of Jessica’s shirt.
“Now this,” said Jessica, offering a black leather jacket. She took a Polaroid camera from her bag and held it to her face. “Can you walk towards me?” she said.
Keeping Katie in his peripheral vision, Asa stepped forward.
“And can you hold your hands behind your back? And drop your hip?”
Asa resisted internally, unsure he even knew how to stand like one of his sisters, but he assumed his weight on one leg and leaned to the side.
The camera flashed.
“Nice,” said Katie. “You look hot.”
Leaving his dorm room Monday morning, Asa could feel the pressure of the semester increasing. The results of his last exams were posted over the weekend, and while he wouldn’t have to leave the country now—he was even given an award by his department—those results could not wave away the spring exams. He had his first class that day at noon, giving him four hours in the library to prepare as well as to help Katie with a paper. He told her to meet him first thing Monday morning, the second the library opened.
Up ahead Asa saw a piece of paper taped to the library door. He thought to apologize to Jessica for not putting a flier there himself. Approaching it, he could see the flier was one of Jessica’s, but it was different from the ones in his stack. This one featured a long list on ruled paper. Some of the items were crossed through, some weren’t. One had a thumbnail picture beside it. It looked like it could have been a picture of Jessica. The eyebrows were the same, the attitude. In a corner of the flier, in different handwriting, was the same text asking for models that appeared on Jessica’s other fliers.
It seems busy, thought Asa, and he admitted to himself he liked the ones he put up better. He checked his watch to see if it was eight yet, and as he did the lock shifted in the door. Behind it a librarian was pushing on the bar. She placed one sandaled foot outside and, without saying good morning or even making eye contact, ripped the flier off the glass. Asa watched her shut the door again.
Lou didn’t linger on the backlit face of the girl outside. She turned over the flier, expecting to see a hermit or an apostle or an Italian noblewoman brooding over a skull. Instead Lou saw her own crimped handwriting. She saw the square picture of a freshman Jessica, printed out, taped over, and photocopied.
Immediately she checked, and inside her office the original To Do list was face-up in her desk drawer, exactly where she remembered leaving it. She reached for it protectively, folded it, along with the copy, and slid it into her dress pocket. Though there wasn’t any point. There could be copies now lining the refrigerator.
By the mail table Lou stared out the window at the director’s empty parking space. Too many things had to happen at once; Lou didn’t know how to order them. Back in her office she typed an email to the director. She said she had spoken to the student in question re: fliers and that “the entire situation should be dropped.” She added, “Mercy is called for here.”
She went upstairs. She hurried twice down the center of the collection, first looking west and then again looking east, for fliers on bookends or fliers taped to endcaps. She checked the vending machines and the bathrooms. Everything was clear.
Sitting at her desk again, Lou let her eyes rest and wander the first floor. She didn’t see Jessica or the director, but then she had just been walking all over the library; her back was always turned to something. After twenty minutes she got up again.
She cycled quickly through the library three or four times that morning. With her eyes fixed down the aisles of books the endcaps passed like shutters closing. Every aisle was like the same aisle re-photographed. She saw in a flash the receding rows, the splash of sunlight at the windows, and her vision would go dark as another range went by. On her last circuit of the library that morning one such flash of an aisle caught Jessica, seated at a table. But immediately an endcap passed as Lou walked on, and the image was replaced.
Asa was sitting by the windows, looking over Katie’s shoulder and giving encouragement as she typed. Jessica, opposite and with a pad on her lap, casually sketched. Asa wanted to color code his psych notes, and he asked Jessica for a few of the pencils spilling from her case.
“I don’t think they like having fliers on the library doors,” he added. “Was that a new one?”
“Yeah,” said Jessica.
“From the newspapers?”
“I found it in a drawer.”
“I like it.”
By the last row of the 900s Lou’s pace had eased. She took care now not to disturb anyone who might be studying. And as she was walking slower, she tried to slow her heartbeat and her thoughts as well. There were things to be grateful for. Jessica was a senior and would graduate in just a few short months.
Going down the stairwell and back to her office, Lou continued to study in her mind’s eye what she caught of Jessica in that split-second image: the sketch pad—no fliers—a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other. Her hair was drawn over one eye, and the other was open, cast upwards, and looking back at Lou. There would be no other fliers like the last one, Lou understood. The girl now airily drawing only wanted to scare.
The little piece of film about the stigmata in New York, her project’s only trophy, hung down from the metal shade around Lou’s desk lamp, the film lit up like a slide. Lou sat at the edge of her chair, her hands on her knees. The lists, original and photocopied, were in front of her, along with the usual spray of books and magazines. There, the cord of her headphones was wrapped around her Walkman, and Lou decided to listen to whichever of Pastor John’s lectures was cued up. But her hands remained on her knees. Her breath remained shallow.
Across the table from Asa, Jessica seemed to work for relaxation only, if it could be called work, and with a kind of boredom that couldn’t be distracted. Asa watched her curl a corner in her sketch pad. She turned the page, paused, and the touch gave its reliable shiver. Asa became relaxed himself. He leant closer, so that his chin was soon floating above Katie’s shirt, and he kissed her on the back of her neck.
Jonathan Tuttle is a writer and librarian in Richmond, Virginia. His work has been published in Pif magazine and Commonweal.