The Author

by Robert Levin

Okay, maybe it fell a little short of greatness and, for sure, it hadn't done very well - even my parents, went my standard joke, waited until it was remaindered before buying their copy. But my book had, amazingly enough, made it onto a library shelf.

And now it wasn't there anymore.

Of course since this was a library - the main branch of the New York Public Library - I might reasonably have concluded that the book had been borrowed. But I couldn't give any substance to that possibility.

In the two years I'd been making pilgrimages to my achievement from my apartment in the Village (this time on a sudden impulse in the middle of a relentlessly fierce winter that had otherwise kept me from such excursions) the book had remained in pristine condition. It had never been withdrawn, nor, by all appearances, had it even been opened. No, I knew with absolute certainty that no one had taken it home.

Feeling myself beginning to panic, I reached behind the books that had flanked the single copy of mine. Then I checked the entire shelf - and the shelves above and below it. After that I searched the full length of both sides of the aisle and rummaged through piles of books that were stacked on the floor.

Nothing. And no, no one was seated at the reading tables.

Near to distraught now, I looked for a librarian. Two middle-aged women - one short and dowdy with close-cropped gray hair, the other tall and lean - were standing behind the checkout desk. But though I stationed myself right in front of them (and on legs from which the blood was all but gone), they paid no attention to me. They were having a personal moment.

"Helen," the tall one was saying, "you told me it was 'extraordinary.'"

Helen, clearly vexed by the tall one's remark, shut her eyes. "Yes, Sylvia, I said that. I did say that. And actually, if you want to know the truth, I think it's better than extraordinary. If you want to know the truth, I think it's sublime."

"WELL?" Sylvia said. She seemed on the verge of tears. "Then I don't understand - I don't understand why you're doing this, Helen."

"Sylvia," Helen said, "why are we talking about your ASS now? You know your ASS isn't the issue. You're doing your spacing out thing again, aren't you? I told you what it is; it's your ANKLES. They've started to make me cross. I can't help it."

My own crisis notwithstanding, I was, of course, compelled to take a look. Sure enough, Helen had a point on both counts. Sylvia's ass, though it was hyperbole to describe it as sublime, was certainly exceptional - at another time I'd doubtless have taken notice of it on my own. And Sylvia's ankles were, no question, a nettlesome sight. They had only the merest hint of definition. Indeed, when Sylvia, demonstrably piqued, suddenly turned and marched away, her calves appeared to descend directly into her shoes.

If it was apparent that Helen, who was pressing her palms against her temples and rolling her neck, was more than ready to leave herself at this point, she could indulge in no such luxury. With Sylvia's departure it was left to her to face me.

"May I help you?" she said wearily.

But before I could speak, Sylvia, coat in hand, was back.

"I'm going to lunch, you fucking asshole."

And then she was gone again.

"Have I come at a bad time?" I said.

Helen managed a wan smile. "No," she said. "Well, yes. But no - it's all right." She took a quick and, I thought, wistful glance at the elevator banks.

"Okay," I said. "Okay. I know this is strange. I'm looking" - my voice was shaking and sweat was pooling in the hollows of my underarms - "for a book that seems to be missing." I gave her the title.

"Missing?"

"It's true that you sometimes . . . you know . . . destroy them, right? Is it possible that's what's happened here? There've been articles about this."

"DESTROY them? That's ridiculous. We don't DESTROY them. What a question." Helen brought her screen up. "There's no record it's been taken out."

"Of course," I rasped. "No record." And it was at this juncture that, my anxiety and the frustrations I was experiencing having become, I guess, too much (and with Sylvia's language freeing mine of any inhibitions), I blew what remained of my cool.

"Helen," I heard myself say, "what exactly IS this shit? It's egregious enough when some books here sit totally ignored for years and years. But when the chance of any future acknowledgement gets amputated just like that, that's a fucking outrage. And while we're talking about the future, what about fucking posterity? Have you thought about fucking posterity, Helen? People are supposed to be able to come and find an author here, even - EVEN - after he's croaked. I mean do you ever take notice of all the stone and marble when you come to work? Of the enormous ceilings and the Latin inscriptions and shit? This is supposed to be like a sacred place. It's supposed to hold, in its implicit assurance of permanence, the promise of nothing less than an author's fucking immortality. And you know what? It has LOST ITS MYSTIQUE!"

Helen looked at me then in a very peculiar way and I knew she knew who I was. (How many authors had something like this happened with in her career?)

"I'm sorry," she said gently. "I'm sure the book will turn up. Why don't you come back again in a few weeks?"

I don't mind telling you that I had, after I left the library, a very bad time of it. I awoke each morning with the kind of heartache I thought was reserved for breaking up with the love of your life. Staying inside as much as I could, I avoided the phone and took little nourishment. I was in a major depression.

Helen had told me to wait a few weeks but I could wait no more than one. Despite a monster snowstorm, I braved the streets and an erratic subway and returned to the library.

My book's floor was nearly empty because of the weather, but a stifling heat was nonetheless blasting from the radiators. Quickly removing my coat, I looked around for Helen and Sylvia. To my relief someone else was behind the desk and there was no sign of them.

Approaching the stacks then, and with no small trepidation, I recognized the spine from thirty feet away. And my heart threatened to bolt from my chest.

It was BACK!

And not only was it back, but I discovered, upon rushing to it and taking it in my hands, that while it bore no withdrawal stamp it had obviously been read as well. Some person (or persons) had actually made notations in the margins.

"OK," was the listless and ambiguous judgment - WAS it a judgment? - next to one highlighted paragraph on the first page I opened.

And then, several pages later, I found, "???"

This I didn't like seeing at all because it meant I maybe hadn't done my job.

And the marks on two of the following pages were no less discouraging - an apparent lottery number and what I had to concede was a not bad caricature of Barbra Streisand.

A half-dozen pages later, however, and adjoining another highlighted passage - one of my own favorites, in fact - was a word I could not have brought myself to wish for.

"WOW!"

At first I felt like weeping. Then it occurred to me, and I was suddenly back in the depths, that it was Helen who'd done this; that, indulging a charitable impulse - the very last thing I required! - she had located the book and fashioned this moment for me. But would a librarian deface a book? No, that didn't, and under any circumstances, seem feasible. That was, if you thought about it, way off a librarian's spectrum.

I felt like weeping again. There was a mystery here, but it was a mystery that, intriguing as it was, I was hardly about to pursue. In fact, it would be awhile before I wanted to come here again.

After running my fingers across the breadth of the smooth jacket, and knocking my knuckles on the sturdy hard cover, I carefully placed the book on its shelf. Tapping it once, I turned and walked away - and then I paused and looked back at it.

When I got outside I realized that I hadn't put my coat on yet. But I didn't need it. Standing on the library's top step in howling gusts of freezing snow, I felt no discomfort.

I felt indestructible.

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