Jul/Aug 2022  •   Fiction

Books of Many Covers

by Mark Williams

Public Domain image

What with Warren's indiscretions, Ricky's ear infections, and my apprehensions, I was starting to sound like a country song, an old one—"Your Cheatin' Heart," "Misery and Gin"—not the ones I described as rock and droll in a company email that cost me my job.

The company is a well-known Nashville label, and I was a well-worn cog in its A & R wheel. One day, after listening to a dozen or more demos, I sent the email to my ex-husband and ongoing philanderer, Warren Ziegler. Twang with no thang, Warren emailed back. Warren had been a studio pedal steel man at said label before seducing the recording engineer's wife.

My emails were monitored. I had no memory of signing a no discussion of talent, spoken or otherwise clause when I signed on.

"I'm sorry, Dulce, but you did. And if we don't let you go, what kind of example will that set?" asked Mick Derringer, the HR guy we called Single Shot after Carrie-in-accounting dumped him. ("He can only fire once, all right," she'd said.)

I knew my termination had little to do with the email. My six-year-old had been sick with another ear infection the past week, the last week of October. Faced with a choice of discovering talent at work or ministering to Ricky at home, work played second fiddle.

Warren and I had separated in June. He and our dog, Ferlin, a husky, had moved into a one-bedroom apartment in our complex. "To be close to Ricky," Warren made clear.

Close or not, Ricky changed. What kid doesn't when a parent moves out? It was summer, and Ricky played outside with Ferlin every day. I could understand why Ricky's dark brown hair lightened, and his doctor said sunlight can cause eye color to change. In Ricky's case, his blue eyes turned grey. But the changes didn't stop there.

Before Warren moved out, Ricky called girls "yucky." But soon after Warren left, Ricky said Sally Peterlein and Alyse Vanhoose were his best friends. The three of them had play dates. He invited them both to a sleepover. Threw a fit when their parents said no.

Warren was attracted to tall, dark-haired women who, it seemed to me, were allowed a few additional pounds for each year under forty. It did wonders for the self-esteem of tall, dark-haired (now with help from Revlon), 45-year-old me. Over my objections, Warren sometimes brought whichever young thing with him on his visits to see Ricky. Ricky called them "Daddy's girlfriends." I guessed Ricky's interest in Sally and Alyse was his way to impress his father.

But if impressing Warren was Ricky's objective, how did his recent obsession with YouTube Math Antics and Science Channel fit in? (Warren would think boson should end in an m.) Whenever I switched stations, Ricky lost it. Once, he threw a pillow at the TV screen and shouted, "Bollocks!"


I could only take so much Science Channel. To satisfy Ricky, I bought the Froggipedia app for his iPad. I watched romcoms while he dissected frogs and read aloud fun facts. I learned when a frog eats, he blinks to make his eyeballs drop and make his food go down.

I came from a family of musicians. My father played guitar. His father played banjo. My mother played dulcimer and named me Dulce Melody. Before my job at the record company, I'd worked the music reference desk at a Nashville library. After Single-Shot fired me, Warren said he knew a guy who knew an Owensboro, Kentucky, librarian who was looking for an assistant. I thought a new job in a new town might be best. For Ricky and for me.

My Skype job interview went well. I took a virtual tour of The Four Seasons Apartments and rented one for winter. I'd stood Warren for 12 years. I supposed I could stand anything for a season.

Our divorce was final in mid-November. We split the furniture and kitchenware. Warren got the dieffenbachia, the Jeep, and Ferlin. I got the fichus, the Civic, and, thank God, Ricky. Still, as I began packing, the Cary Brothers' song, "You are the Loneliest Girl in the World," kept playing in my head.

Pulling a loaded U-Haul up I-65, I topped out at 50 and didn't hit Owensboro until almost 5:00 that night. I made it to The Four Seasons office a half hour before closing. Parked underneath a streetlamp, I grabbed a jar of Skippy's, sliced an apple, and opened a juice box. Before I went into the office for our keys, I locked the car and told Ricky, "Dip your slices in the jar and honk if anyone comes near."

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away," said Ricky.

I hadn't heard anyone say that for years. And I doubt he'd heard it on Science Channel. "Where did you hear that?"

"In my head."

I heard songs in mine.

As I returned to our car with our keys, I noticed three teenage boys sitting in a stairwell. I gave them each $10 to help me unload, and an hour later, Ricky and I were installed in apartment 3F.

I'd been up since four that morning. I hadn't smiled all day. Weeks, more like. But two glasses in to a bottle of twist-top Merlot, sitting on the couch beside Ricky, I mussed his hair and cracked one. I had told Ricky he could watch What on Earth? before bedtime. As he turned away from watching the effects of Chernobyl's meltdown on Swedish reindeer, he looked up, smiled back, and said, "God loves to see us happy."

I had not attended church since the week Princess Diana died. (There was someone who walked through minefields.) I'd taught Ricky God started everything and left the rest up to us. Warren and I were married at the gravesite of George Jones, where the studio band—minus Warren but with his consent—played "He Stopped Loving Her Today" as a recessional. God was not high on either Warren or my playlists.

"Who told you about God, Ricky?"

"My friend in my head."

"The same friend who told you about apples?"


My imaginary friend, Skittles, flew away when I was five. "What's your friend's name, Ricky?"

"I don't know."

The next day, I enrolled Ricky in a neighborhood school. As the principal accompanied us to Ricky's first grade classroom, it struck me Ricky had grown a little belly. His walk was more of a swagger.

Ricky's teacher, a handsome man with green eyes, a full head of wavy, gray-blonde hair, and a distinguished five o'clock shadow at 8:00 that morning, greeted us in his classroom doorway, "Nice to meet you, Ms. Ziegler. I'm Walt Whitman."

"Walt Whitman?"

"My father, Carl Whitman, met my mother in a Nineteenth Century American Poetry class. My sister's name is Emily."

I had lived in three different states by the time I entered high school. I knew how difficult it was to enter a new school in mid-term. "Be a big boy," I told Ricky, who, beside Walt Whitman, looked anything but.

Looking up, first at his teacher, then at me, Ricky said, "No gains without pains." I started to ask him if the friend in his head had said that, but I could worry about Ricky later. I was due at the Davies County Public Library, where I'd soon learn the only books I would be stacking were people.

I'd heard about the Human Library. The idea had started in Denmark and spread around the world. We had considered starting one in Nashville. People—transgenders, bigenders, black activists, Buddhists, nudists, Romas, Sikhs—would volunteer to tell their story to anyone who wanted to listen. If I were to go to a Human Library, I might sit down with a sex addict to gain a better understanding of Warren. Or listen to a situational lonely person to learn about myself.

"How do I go about choosing the books?" I asked Marylyn Whetstein, a trim woman who wore her blue-black hair in the shape of a helmet. I imagined a Tennessee Titans T on the side.

"Facebook, our website, The Messenger-Inquirer. Walk downtown on a Saturday night. It's up to you Dulce," said Marylyn. "The more diverse the books, the better."

I found six books in seven days.


A bigender pharmacist, a public defender with HIV, a homeless vet, a Guatemalan immigrant, a body modification extremist (think pins, tattoos, tattoos with pins), a Sudanese refugee, a librarian, and her six-year-old son walk into a bar. No joke. I thought it might be nice for my books to read one another. This bar, The Owensburrow, had a Happy Hour and a restaurant-side where Ricky could join us at a large, candlelit table.

With no suggestion on my part, Ricky sat beside Akifa, the Sudanese refugee whose white hijab framed her dark beauty. (Warren would have sat beside her, too.) I ordered two pitchers of beer, three sparkling waters, mozzarella sticks, and onion rings. Conversation ensued.

By pure coincidence, Andy the bigender pharmacist and Gordon the HIV positive attorney knew one another. Gordon bought his antiretroviral drugs at Andy's store. Aside from Andy, their employees, Gordon's doctor, and Gordon's wife, no one knew Gordon had AIDS until he signed up to be a book at our Human Library.

"I'm 65 years old. It's taken me this long to realize no one is normal," said Gordon. "Which means abnormality is normal. Which means everyone is normal. Right?"

"Absolutamente," said the Guatemalan, Mateo.

"I've decided to share my abnormality with anyone who wants to listen," Gordon continued. "Maybe it will help them recognize their own."

"I'm treated best when I'm at work," said Andy. "This seems like a chance to learn why people feel so threatened when I'm not filling their prescriptions."

"Cheers," said Vick the homeless vet, who'd been stationed with British troops in Kabul.

Gordon looked at Jeremy and said, "Forgive me, but you can understand why people might feel threatened by you. Can't you?" In the candlelight, Jeremy's lip studs flickered.

"Like these pins are going to jump out and stab them?" said Jeremy.

Up until now, Ricky had done nothing other than stare at Akifa. But I realized he'd been listening when he looked around the table and said, "What you seem to be, be really."

"Out of the mouths of babes," said Gordon.

We would meet again at the library in ten days, a Saturday. I explained to them the library conference room would be reserved for us from 10:00 until noon. Each of them would be assigned a chair, with the nature of their story described in an adjacent placard. Bigender Pharmacist, Sudanese Refugee, Homeless Vet, and so on. The chairs would be spread throughout the room and paired with an empty chair for the listener. We were just about to leave when Ricky stood, shuffled his feet on the restaurant carpet, and pointed at Akifa.

"Don't you dare," I said.

Ricky had recently discovered static electricity. Our apartment had a kind of close-knit shag. The restaurant carpet sufficed.

"Akh," said Akifa as her left cheek sparked.

As if a switch had been turned on, Ricky informed Mateo the Guatemalan plateau frog lives in cloud forests. Turning to Andy, Ricky explained the male Darwin frog swallows his mate's tadpoles and keeps them in his vocal sac for 60 days before coughing up an army of small frogs.

"Very cool," said Andy. "An army?"

"They're called that because frogs keep in groups to stay safe," said Ricky.

"That's what they wanted us to believe," said Vic to Ricky. Vic explained he was driving a Humvee in a convoy of twelve. They were just outside of Kunduz when the truck behind him hit a landmine and killed three men. "A lot of good a group did those guys," Vic said.

When he finished speaking, everyone was silent. But Vic kept staring at Ricky for 15, maybe 20 seconds. Then Vic turned away and, one-by-one, looked at the rest of us before turning back to Ricky. After another 15-or-so seconds, Ricky nodded. Vic nodded back, and they stood.

"See y'all next Saturday," I said. "Ten o'clock in the conference room. Hot drinks and snacks at noon."


The Thursday night before the Human Library's Saturday opening, my phone rang.

"Dulce Ziegler?"


"My name is Larry McCoy, ambassador to the schools from The Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum."

I knew Owensboro was home to The Bluegrass Hall of Fame. I was looking forward to taking Ricky when I had time.


"Yes, to schools. I'd like to talk to you about your son, Richard."


"What?" said Ricky, lying stomach-to-floor with his feet kicked up behind him. He was working on what he called his magic squares, which I assumed he'd picked up on Math Antics. He would draw a large square, divide it into three rows and three columns, and ask me to put a number between one and ten in any of the nine squares. Then he'd place a number in each of the remaining squares so each row, column, and diagonal would add to the same sum.

"The Bluegrass Hall of Fame has a program where we reach out to the schools and familiarize every child with a guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, and a fiddle," said the ambassador. I went to Ricky's school today. He said he's never played a guitar. Has he?"

"What kind of guitar?"

"Acoustic, electric. A guitar."

"He used to fool around on his father's pedal steel, but I wouldn't say he played it. His father took Ricky to the studio a few times. Someone might have taught him some chords."

Ambassador McCoy said he had handed a guitar to Ricky and, with no instructions, Ricky launched into "A Frog He Would A-wooing Go." Chords and lyrics.

"He has a thing about frogs," I said. "And he used to watch Sesame Street. He could have learned it there."

"I think a frog would have been a-courtin on Sesame Street, not a-wooing. Then Ricky segued into 'Barbara Allen.' He nailed two major chords, two minor chords, and a G7."

After Ricky's performance, the first-grade girls put down their instruments and gathered around Ricky. "Most first grade boys would have been embarrassed, especially with the other boys laughing at him," said Larry McCoy.

"Let me guess. Ricky loved the girls' attention."

"Ate it up. He played another song for them."

"What did he play?"

"'Highland Laddie.' Ms. Ziegler. We need to talk."

We agreed to meet the following day in my office at the library. When I hung up the phone, I asked Ricky to sing "Barbara Allen." Ricky stood and, with his hands clasped around his belly, in his little-boy soprano voice, sang,

'Twas in the merry month of May, when green buds were swellin'. Sweet William on his deathbed lay, for love of Barbara Allen.

What was happening to my son?


At 1:00 the following day, Larry McCoy ducked his head and entered my office. Tall and lanky as he was and carrying a banjo at that, he reminded me of Opry legend Stringbean. Folding himself into a seat opposite my desk, Larry McCoy said, "I'll get right to the point, Ms. Ziegler."

"Please, call me Dulce. I'm named after a dulcimer, by the way."

"Larry," he said, extending his stringy right hand. "Dulce, your son is exceptional. I'm sure you know that. But over the years, I've met hundreds of children. Never one with Ricky's talent."

"He has musical genes, I guess."

"I'm sure he does, but you don't understand. This goes way beyond genes. And it's not just his musical ability. I don't know how else to put this, but do you believe in reincarnation?"

"You can't be serious."

He was. How else could Ricky play that way with no practice. How would he know the words to old—17th century!—songs. And when he'd asked Ricky if he would consider performing for others, Ricky had said, "What's a sundial in the shade?"

"Has he ever said anything else unusual?" asked Larry. "I also heard Ricky telling one of the girls, 'Women are books and men the readers be.'"

"He could have learned that from his father," I said.

"Do you know who first said that, Dulce? Do you know who wrote music, played guitar, and was known to read lots of books, both kinds?"


The next day was opening day for our Human Library. In addition to Andy, Gordon, Jeremy, Akifa, Mateo, and Vic, I'd found a bipolar barista, a Wiccan priestess, a liberal anarchist, a Chinese exchange student, and a mute copy editor who communicated on his iPad mini.

That night, I found Ricky on the balcony waving his spindly arms above his head. He was facing cold December winds that, had they been any stronger, would have sent him flying. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was opening his pores. He was taking an air bath.

Soon, sirens were blaring and our power went out. In my bedroom closet, with thunder crashing and the crack beneath the closet door strobing with light, I wrapped Ricky in my bathrobe and held him close, half-expecting him to ask for a kite, some string, and a key.

Walt Whitman had called me in to Ricky's school and told me Ricky had organized a cafeteria boycott protesting cold pizza (the next day the pizza was hot), but I had thought little of it then. Now it all made sense. The sayings. The obsession with math and science. Would Ricky write an almanac one day? Lead a revolution? Become ambassador to France?

An hour later, the sirens quit. Ricky had fallen asleep on a pile of dirty clothes. I picked him up, lay him in my bed, and fell asleep beside him. At 2:00 AM the room lit up, and my bedside radio—which I had left on, too—announced a tornado had barely missed town.

I had asked everyone to come to the library at 10:00 that morning—a cold grey day, four days before Christmas. Aside from Vic, everyone showed up. Plus, Gordon's wife and Mateo's teenage son. But given half the town was still without power and the other half was likely cleaning up debris, only four books were checked out: Akifa by Ricky; the young barista by Mateo's son; the exchange student Zhang Chen by me (he said the Mandarin characters for Dulce translate to elegant music fortress); and the Wiccan priestess by Ambassador McCoy.

At noon, all of us pulled our chairs over to a long table in the corner of the conference room, where I had set out refreshments. I was taking a bite from a blackberry muffin when I noticed Ricky sitting at a small table by himself. He was drinking hot cocoa and writing on a sheet of paper. "What are you doing, Ricky?" I asked as I walked toward him.

Ricky had drawn a line down the paper. At the top, Ricky had written: "Why Wolde Vic Come/Not Come." Under "Wolde Come," he'd written, "to be with friends," "to be in warm place," "place to tell story," and "snacks." Under "Not Come," "storm," "thunder," "lightning," "scared." With his lips lined with chocolate, Ricky said, "We have to go find him."

"Where would we start?" asked Larry McCoy, who, along with everyone else, had gathered around Ricky's table. "He could be anywhere."

Without missing a beat, Ricky looked up at my boss and told her to find a map of downtown Owensboro. Marylyn hopped to. When Marylyn unfolded the map and placed it before Ricky, he got right to work. With all eyes on him—no one seemed surprised a six-year-old had taken charge—he divided downtown into nine squares.

"We'll look here," said Ricky, writing"Akifa and me" in the top middle square—where the courthouse sat and what locals called The Blue Bridge (more of a pale grey) crossed the Ohio River into town.

"Nice try," I said, crossing out "Akifa" and writing "Dulce."

With some help in spelling, Ricky continued by paring names in each square. With squares still empty, Andy said they'd give their partner a call.

"We'll go together," said Larry McCoy, smiling at the witch, Tamara.

"I'd rather go it alone anyway," said anarchist Harold.

Before we left, Ricky turned his paper over and told us to write down our names and cell numbers. He said he'd leave the list at the front desk. If anyone found Vic, they should bring him back to the library and give everyone a call. He said to meet back there in two hours, with or without Vic.

With no traffic and, at Ricky's insistence, a disregard of red lights, I drove a mile up Frederica Street in little more than a minute. "Park here," said Ricky, just outside the courthouse. I'd no sooner parked than Ricky jumped from the car, pointed, and said, "You go that way. We'll meet in back." Then off he ran, shouting, "Vic, it's me—Ricky!"

Ben Franklin or not, he wasn't going anywhere without his mother. "Vic, it's me—Dulce!" I shouted, following Ricky close behind.

Halfway around the building, Ricky disappeared down a stairwell. When I got to the railing, I looked down and saw him ripping apart a black trash bag—expecting to find Vic's belongings, I guessed.

"Bugger that," said Ricky, tossing the bag aside, then running up the stairs.

After circling the courthouse, we were walking up Frederica toward the river when Ricky saw the Bluegrass Museum on the left. Despite last night's storm, a few cars were in the lot and some people were going into the building. It was just outside the square Ricky had assigned us, but he insisted we go.

As we approached the museum entrance, an old man with a fiddle waved us inside with his bow. "Welcome to The Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum," he said before playing a few bars of "Cattle in the Corn."

Ricky waited until the man finished, then asked, "Have you seen a man in a big grey coat? His name is Vic."

"What does Vic look like, young man?" the old man asked.

Ricky looked at me and said Vic was my color (I self-tan to hide wrinkles) and about my height (five-eight). Ricky said Vic had blue eyes, a crooked nose, and a scar on his left cheek. He described Vic's hair as "shaggy." Pointing at a poster of Jerry Garcia (whose roots had been in bluegrass), Ricky said, "He has a beard like that man."

"Can't say I've seen him, son. But I'll keep my eye out. My good one," the old man said with a wink.

"Tell him to come to the library," said Ricky.

The old fiddler turned to me and asked, "Anything else?"

"What he said."

If I had been asked to describe Vic, I would have stopped at homeless. But then I hadn't stared at Vic like Ricky had. As Ricky and I walked east toward our square, I asked, "What went on between you and Vic at the table that day—when you stared at each other for so long?"

"Vic has our backs."

"How do you know?"

"He thought it when we were thinking."

"When you were looking at each other?"


Ricky said his plan was to walk to the bridge and then circle outward. He said he had chosen this square because of the street's name. Veteran's Boulevard. He thought Vic might have chosen it, too. As we reached a kid's playground on our left, I asked, "Whose backs did Vic have?"

"Everyone at the table."

"What were you thinking?"

"I thought to him that we have his back, too."

As we walked along the playground fence, a coal-filled barge was heading west on the Ohio, just to the north of the kid's park. "Vic, it's me," Ricky shouted. As if in answer, the barge gave two toots.

Everyone must have been sawing tree limbs at home or visiting the museum. The playground was empty. To our left, we passed tube slides, jungle gyms, and tree forts. A Galapagos-sized, fiberglass turtle stretched its neck up toward a rope bridge, swinging in a light breeze. We had just reached the easternmost part of the playground when Ricky stopped. Inside the fence, a wall of four black stone slabs read, "Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom."

"Vic would feel safe here," said Ricky as he opened a gate and started walking in the direction we had come. Through the playground, this time.

Ricky looked into every tube slide and climbed into each tree fort. We had just passed by the turtle and under the rope bridge, nearing a sign reading "Sprayground," when a tall, green tailfin came into sight.

Even from where we stood, facing the fiberglass fish's long tail, I could see its large mouth was open. Large enough to house a homeless man? Who knew? But Ricky was off and running. Bouncing, even. The playground floor was made of cork. Ricky ran to the fish, flew by its fins, and ducked into its mouth.

Once, while fishing with friends in Alabama, I saw Warren cast a single lure into the water and reel in two smallmouth bass. This largemouth had lured Vic in with shelter. With Vic as bait, it lured Ricky and me in, too.

Vic was huddled beneath his greatcoat in the fish's gullet. Lifting the coat from Vic's face, Ricky said, "A father's a treasure. A brother's a comfort. A friend is both." Ricky's father was no treasure. Ricky was an only child. It was Ben Franklin speaking, no doubt.

"Oorah," said Vic, feebly.


The following Thursday, Larry McCoy called me at work. He had been to Ricky's school again, but this time Ricky had trouble with the easiest chords. And when Larry asked Ricky to sing "A Frog He Would A-wooing Go," he didn't know the words.

I had already noticed Ricky didn't seem as interested in Froggipedia, Science Channel, or Math Antics. And since comforting Vic in the fish's mouth, I hadn't heard anything odd out of Ricky's. Also, no magic squares. No mention of Sally Peterlein or Alyse Vanhoose. Even stranger, Ricky's eyes were turning blue; his hair, back to brown. His tummy was losing its pooch.

This all happened six months ago. Larry McCoy, who ducks into my office every now and then, thinks we all have a certain number of deeds to accomplish. That in spite of all Ben Franklin did in life, he was a deed or two short. It sounded like something Tamara might say. The good witch and Larry are a thing.

The day of Vic's disappearance, all of my Human Library books were happy to welcome him back. Hugs all around. Zhang Chen bowed. Soon, even Vic was smiling. If Ben Franklin was right, God was happy. Maybe He does have a hand in things after all.

Vic spent three nights on our sofa before moving into apartment 3D. Between Marylyn Whetstein, Larry McCoy, my books, and me, we paid for a one-month deposit, a second month's rent, some clothes, and a bed. For the first few weeks, Vic ate all of his breakfasts and dinners with Ricky and me in 3F.

One night, halfway through a pizza, Vic said loud noises cause him to see the Humvee exploding in the back of his mind, "Like through a rearview mirror." One crack of thunder, and he's blown back seven years, ten miles east of Kunduz. Ricky was right, Vic had spent most nights behind the Gold Star Memorial's stone slabs, but the thunder drove him to huddle in the fish. The thunder and the guilt it inspired. "I must have missed that mine by inches. Why them and not me?" Vic asked.

I told him the important thing is he survived. "What matters is what you do now," I said.

"That's something Epictetus might have said," said Vic. "Pass the sriracha sauce, please."

Vic explained he graduated with a degree in philosophy from Western Kentucky University, compliments of an ROTC scholarship. With his degree and military record, he was a shoo-in for a job at the library. Up to now, he's still stacking books. But it pays for his apartment. And he's hoping to move up to Development and Acquisitions one day.

"Like what mommy did with music," said Ricky at dinner last week.

"And what she does with people now," said Walt Whitman.

Not long after Ben disappeared, Walt invited me to a Kris Kristofferson concert in Evansville, Indiana, about 40 miles downriver from Owensboro. Since then, Walt has helped me make it through some nights, you might say. A framed calligraphic print above his bed reads,

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on,
and you may contribute a verse.

Walt's ex-wife, a high school guidance counselor, left him for an industrial arts teacher. It's early in our relationship, but I think Walt might have found the lucky penny Chris Stapleton sings about in his song, "Starting Over." I told Walt Whitman he's my "four-leaf clover—in the grass."

Now that Vic is on his own, he only comes to dinner every few weeks—sometimes with Katy the barista.

Miles moved to Louisville, where he reads copy for the Courier-Journal. Harold, my anarchist, thought Saturdays from 10:00 to noon were "too constrictive." Otherwise, the rest of my books—plus an Imam, a Free Will Baptist minister, and an autistic savant who can play all 14 Bach fugues backwards—meet every Saturday. Every other Wednesday night we meet at The Owensburrow for dinner.

If I were to get a sheet of paper and write "Losses/Gains" at the top, under "Losses" I'd write, "Ferlin Husky." Under "Gains" I'd write, "Walt Whitman," "Marylyn Whetstein," "Larry McCoy," and, with respect to Dolly Parton, "My Books of Many Covers."

The first few weeks after Ben's disappearance had been upsetting to Ricky. He didn't understand where the man in his head went. He didn't understand why he couldn't play guitar or didn't know the words to songs he'd sung. I told him a wise man had lived inside him for a while. "We think he came to help you find Vic and help all of Mommy's books become friends," I said.

Ricky stared at me for so long, I thought Ben might be back. But all Ricky said was, "Cool."

Ricky's musical ability, his expressions, his obsessions with science and girls—it all came and went. His hair darkened. His eyes turned blue. But a few weeks ago, as Ricky emerged from a winding, yellow tube slide at the kid's park, I asked him if he remembered anything he'd learned when Ben was inside him. "Like what is a group of frogs called?" I asked.

"An army."

"And why is it called an army?"

"Because they stay in groups to stay safe. Like our books do."

Ricky was right. Our books don't limit themselves to Saturdays and Wednesdays. Four of them—Andy in their skirt, Jeremy in his pins, Akifa in her hijab, and Tamara wearing black eyeliner—have joined a mixed bowling league. They call themselves The A𐐒normals. The rest of us A𐐒normals cheer them on. Last week, Andy jumped for joy after bowling a turkey. Three straight strikes. When he came down, his skirt flew up, and a man in the next lane whistled. Come join us. Bluegrass Lanes. Friday nights at eight.