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Oct/Nov 1998 Fiction

Mary Anne's War

by Pete Armstrong


The woman's blue windbreaker seems familiar to Sandy: the white stenciled logo cracked and faded off the breast pocket, the hood's drawstring hanging long on one side, the faded navy blue elastic cuffs resting on the table. Sandy thinks she recognizes the woman's hair, dirty brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that lies between the woman's shoulders like an unwashed sock. And that motion she makes with her tongue, scraping it against the bottom of her two front teeth as if trying to strain a layer of paste off its surface.

"I know you, don't I?" Sandy asks.

"Come on," Mary Anne says, shaking her head.

With the sun streaming in through the slats of the blinds angled down against the morning the two woman sit across from each other at their table, dead center of the library's reading room to give Mary Anne a complete view of all the day's activity. It is a square room with eight or ten heavy tables in the middle. Half of these are occupied, some with students sifting through piles of hardcover books, some with older gentlemen reading over the day's newspapers. Against the walls homeless men, mostly black, sleep hunched over in study cubicles, the grime on their clothes accentuated by humming fluorescent lights overhead.

"Don't I know you?" Sandy asks one more time.

"Oh Jesus, Sandy," Mary Anne says. "Let's not go through that again."

"Go through what again?"

Ignoring her, Mary Anne looks over a magazine. It is the same magazine she leafed through yesterday and the day before, and she turns each page quickly, flinging them from right to left. She stops abruptly halfway through, presses her palms down on the magazine as if pushing hand prints into wet concrete, and then examines the full page advertisement spread out flat before her. A blonde in black dress, her legs crossed, a drink in her hand, poses on a bar stool. She smiles as men in expensive suits form a semicircle around her.

Mary Anne twirls the magazine, passes it across the light brown veneer table to Sandy and points to the ad. "Would you just look at that?"

As Sandy scrutinizes the ad, her eyes moving over the page like a child's, Mary Anne notices once again that her friend's skin is both pink and white: sunburnt and freckled on her face and forearms, glowing pale under her chin and around her eyes. Her hair, held back by a doubled elastic bank, is the dull maroon of thickening blood and has the doughy texture of clay. But to Mary Anne, who studies Sandy often and knows every crease and crinkle in her face, ever mole and freckle on her body, the hair is always a stunning, magnificent auburn.

But even without her sight Mary Anne would have been aware of Sandy. She has a distinct smell, like the smell of a wet dog, not unpleasant but familiar, and it acts as a tether, an instant connection Mary Anne can pull whenever she feels the need to draw or to be drawn closer to Sandy. When they are unable to sleep together, when they sleep in separate beds, on cots or on the unheated floors of crowded shelters the scent keeps Sandy within Mary Anne's reach. On those nights they do share a bed, Mary Anne lies awake with this scent wrapped around her body like a cotton sheet. She places a hand gently on Sandy's back and feels the warmth of her skin as auburn hair spills over a bundle of clothes or a rolled up coat. Sandy's breath floats in the darkness like music Mary Anne listens to until she closes her eyes and falls asleep.

"Didn't I see this picture yesterday?" Sandy says. She too remembers the model, the way she curves gracefully on the bar stool. And the dress that fits tightly to her body, cuts down between her breasts and follows the curve of her hips. Sandy remembers the thin black straps over the model's shoulders, the shadowed pits of her collar bone, the flow of the woman's arms, one held back on the polished wood bar, the other outstretched with narrow muscles tapered down from square shoulders. And those long red tipped fingers wrapped around a tall glass beaded with moisture from the ice and, Sandy guesses, gin.

"Yesterday," she says. "I saw it yesterday, I think."

"I know. I showed it to you," Mary Anne says. "Do you think I forgot? You forget things, Sandy, not me. But you still don't get it, do you? Look at those men." She places a cracked-skinned finger onto the magazine, covering the model's head with her jagged nail. "Look at the way they stand around her. Dogs!" Mary Anne leans forward and pushes the magazine closer to Sandy. It dangles over the metal rim of the table. "And what's she smiling about?"

Sandy stares at the ad again. She scratches her head and then chews on her index finger. "Is it gin?" she asks, tilting her head and tucking a stand of hair behind her ear.

Mary Anne rubs her eyes. "Yes, Sandy. It's gin."

"I thought so." Sandy smiles and moves her leg closer to Mary Anne's. Their feet almost touch beneath the table but Sandy, squinting, pulls hers back and says, "You look familiar. Don't I know you?"

"Come on, Sandy. Be serious. Sometimes I think you..."

A phone rings, sounding foreign and misplaced in the library. It rings again. No one moves. It rings a third time and finally, from behind an etched nameplate, the Head Librarian folds his newspaper. He does so loudly, pulling the paper taut, shaking it twice to eliminate the wrinkles and then folding it back on itself so his current page remains opened. He runs his finger along the edge to set the crease and folds the paper in half once more. The phone rings two more times as he swings his legs down off the industrial, gray-metal desk and lifts the receiver.

"Public Library," he says brusquely. In the pause, as he waits impatiently to respond to the caller's question, the hum of the fluorescent lights descends from the ceiling and the room seems to fill with electricity and tension.

"This is the Twenty Second Street branch," the Librarian says, his time wasting. "You want the main library, Tenth and G Street."

Another pause, followed by "It's in the book."

He hangs up and then scans the room. Those people awake look quickly down into their books and magazines or out the windows. Those asleep continue to do so, some snoring, others groaning softly as if caught in the middle of a dull, reoccurring dream. With elbows on the table Mary Anne rests her head in her hands, her eyes darting between Sandy and the Librarian.

The Librarian yawns, stretches, puts his feet up on the desk and snaps open his newspaper. The library is again silent, silent to everyone but Mary Anne. Over the last six months she has waged a covert war against the Librarian's authority, a war of shelved books turned backwards, magazines stashed down neglected aisles, sex manuals slipped into the children's section. Skilled at moving quickly, Mary Anne usually waits for the Librarian to go into the bathroom or to talk on the phone. She then penetrates into the library's deepest corners, moving so stealthfully even Sandy is unaware of her absence. And with her attack completed, a book left on the floor or a magazine turned upside down, she returns to her table to plan the next offensive.

Mary Anne pulls back her magazine and says to Sandy, "Doesn't he know he's supposed to be quiet in here?"

"Who?"

"Didn't you hear that?"

"What?"

"The Librarian."

"What's that?" Sandy asks.

"Sandy, this building is a library. A library is run by a Librarian. That man over there," Mary Anne points using the magazine to shield her finger, "that's the Librarian. Don't you see him?"

Sandy follows Mary Anne's finger, sees a man direct a woman without looking up from his paper. She notices first his skin, deep brown and wrinkled like the tobacco leaf wrapping of a cigar. She remembers him and his beautiful brown skin. But even more, Sandy remembers this man's voice. He speaks in tones both high and low as if a grown man and a little boy lived within his body.

"Who," she says, "him?"

"Of course him. Who else?"

"I like his voice," Sandy says.

"I'm not talking about his voice. I'm talking about the way he pushes people around. That man's on a power trip. Don't you see him watching us, checking out everything we do?" She lowers her voice and leans closer to Sandy. "I haven't told you this yet because I didn't want to scare you, but at night, after he makes us leave, he looks at all the books and magazines we had on our table just to see what we're doing."

"How do you know?"

"One night I stood outside and watched through the window. He closed the shades and turned down the lights but I could still see him go from table to table collecting all the books. He stacked them on a rack so he could check if we did anything to the pages. And then he put them back on the shelves. Didn't you ever wonder why the tables are so clean when we get here in the morning?"

"No."

"He wipes off the tables and vacuums the carpet to cover his tracks but I saw him. He won't say anything, not yet, but he knows it. He looks at me sometimes like he suspects I caught him. I'm telling you, he's crazy."

"Who's crazy?"

"And what's worse, he thinks he's in charge of everyone. Not only them." She swings her finger around the library. "I wouldn't care if it was just them. But you and me. He thinks he's in charge of me."

"Who is in charge of you?" Sandy asks.

"Of me? No one."

"How do you know?"

"Watch." Mary Anne pushes her chair back, walks over and grabs a book off a table. With an eye on the Librarian she pretends to read. When he turns a page of his newspaper Mary Anne slips the book on a shelf. She then sneaks down the aisle, slithers against the far wall and circles around the back of the library. After hiding briefly behind the magazine rack she returns to the table, ponytail swaying against her back as she slides into her chair.

The Librarian has not looked up once from his newspaper.

"See," Mary Anne says under heavy breathes.

"Where did you go?" Sandy asks.

"Do I have to explain everything to you, Sandy?" Mary Anne whispers. "I reshelved a book and that Librarian, that man whose voice you like so much, he didn't do a thing."

"So?"

"So! Those signs say you can't do that. It's a rule. But I did it anyway. I told you he's not my boss."

"How do you know those signs say that?"

"I read them," Mary Anne says. "Can't you read?"

Sandy points to the sign on a nearby table. "I...I can't see that far."

Mary Anne picks up the sign on their table. "Can you see this far?

"Usually," Sandy says. "But I...I forgot my glasses.

"You don't wear glasses, Sandy."

"I used to, I think. I'm not sure."

"Well, that's what the sign says. 'No Reshelving.' That's the rule, the law. But I did it anyway." She looks over her shoulder. "And another thing, the book I reshelved, it was all about flowers but I put it in fiction. What do you think about that?" Mary Anne leans back in her chair, skims her tongue across her teeth and smiles proudly.

"What's fiction?"

"You know, fiction, not real, fake stuff about fake people. Stories."

Sandy moves towards Mary Anne. "If it was just a story why'd you tell it to me like it really happened?"

Mary Anne's smile withers. "Are you that dumb, Sandy?"

"I just don't like it when people lie to me."

Mary Anne wipes her lips with a sleeve of her windbreaker. "Just forget it," she says and opens the magazine to the gin ad. "And I didn't lie. I just wanted to prove to you no one's the master of Mary Anne."

"Who's Mary Anne?"

"Who's Mary Anne? I am! I'm Mary Anne!"

"Oh," Sandy says. "Hello, Mary Anne. I thought it was you."

The Librarian continues to read his newspaper. Mary Anne decides her war can wait. She stretches her leg out under the table until her foot touches Sandy's. She takes a deep breathe and on top of the air comes the smell of wet dog. She smiles at her blotchy skinned, magnificently auburn haired friend.

"Hello, Sandy."

 

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