That morning, Emmy walked into my library and I became part of the story. Only a footnote, maybe, or a witness. I’d call myself a specter, a ghostly presence hovering at the edges, gleaning the crumbs of the story without contributing to its unfolding—but Gideon and Leona, Emmy’s not quite departed but certainly deceased parents, have their own spectral part to play in Emmy’s tale.
The Nicolet Library had always been my special place. During the guided imagery experiences I had doing my college days, where instructors taught relaxation techniques by calmly, quietly saying, “Imagine your favorite place, a safe place where you are totally at ease and happy, I saw myself sifting in my favorite carrel at the Nicolet Library, fiction paperbacks surrounding me on three sides, all the flutterings and squeaks of the old books and older building absorbed by tons of paper. I learned to read, whole books—chapter books, as the kids say now—by the end of first grade. Some of my fictional friends are more real than the people I know in “real” life.
Emmy was the exception to that. We met when I was placed in Emmy’s third grade class. I was a year younger, but I could read anything the teacher put in my hands. I missed too much school—before modern allergy pills, it was difficult to control allergies to trees and mold when living in a national forest. Ironically, the missed school put me further ahead since I had more time to read. While I was something of a novelty to most of my new classmates, who as eight year olds could drive fishing boats and shoot chipmunks but had never read anything without Dr. Suess’ name on it, Emmy accepted without comment that the drummer I marched to a beat not often heard in the Northwoods. I was much older before I realized that Emmy welcomed me because she never quite fit in, either. My infirmities were quickly obvious, being small, and pasty white with allergies, forbidden to share in all the outdoors activities our peers thrived on. Wiry, bronzed Emmy, eldest daughter of the town’s only hardware store owner—a crucial business in our community, where even grocery shopping was usually not done locally—Em should have been the Queen Bee, but that didn’t quite fit her, either. It just wasn’t obvious at first.
Emmy always seemed so quiet and calm in the coolness of the library. The quirky, stately building affected many people that way. A small stone castle built by a logging baron, it was a private residence until after World War II, when the baron’s descendants left for bigger cities and brighter lights, donating the building to the city of Nicolet for a library.
I saw her waiting for me at the counter. She was doing three cleansing breaths, then some slow should rolls. I suspected that she and Rory had finally met up.
“I wondered if you’d show up early today,” I greeted Emmy.
Emmy’s lopsided smile told me volumes. “1 must be the hottest topic since Kennedy was shot.”
“No. Since the Beatles breakup, maybe.”
“How’s your Mom?” Emmy was one of the few people who realized how poor my mother’s health was, who knew that if there were any options, I’d be working at a big university library. But duty called, and so I spend my days at the same library where I first read Little Women. Love didn’t bring me home, and it didn’t keep me here, but duty did. Because Michela Metlzer had Parkinson’s, Nicolet Library got me--a full-time, trained staff member at a bargain basement price instead of the series of volunteers, mothers and grandmothers who staffed most libraries around here. In the Northwoods, winters could be long if you didn’t have a good book handy, but few libraries had staff members who committed to building a quality resource center. Most library staffers were happy to have enough copies of the bestsellers and R.L.Stine to get everyone through the winter. So I got to be queen of my castle, almost literally.
‘Is it true--you just quit?” I don’t tend to dwell on things I can’t change, so I don’t spend much time discussing my mother’s health.
“It’s not official yet. I’m using some vacation days I had. Steve wants me to think this through--his words--before I do anything rash.”
“You’ve never done anything rash.”
“I’ve never thought so, at least. But maybe Steve needs a few days to get use to the idea.” Elderly Mrs. Gorski came up to the counter to find out if the new Danielle Steele book had been ordered in large print, so Emmy went to the computer terminal beside the magazine racks.
The library had been one of Emmy’s favorite haunts since she was a little girl. The copy of Sam and the Firefly that she memorized as a six year old was still on the shelves, a little bit worse for the wear. She and I spent many Saturday afternoons looking through these shelves and reading over each other’s shoulders while her siblings and friends swam off the Arden’s dock or tramped down a trout stream. Emmy did those things, too, but usually not with a gaggle of kids. Just the select, the special—or the related by blood. It’s hard to avoid them.
All the downstairs walls in the castle-like mansion were torn down years ago, making the main part of the library all one room. One turret bedroom was my office, another was storage. The most recent change was when a former pantry became the computer center, boasting an old desktop computer donated by my cousin from Milwaukee and a newer, fancy computer with a juiced up graphics card. The older computer was mainly used by students wanting a simple word processor for a research paper; the Cadillac was in demand since it played the newer games and was online.
The computer was where Emmy headed. The library and the local on-line access company worked out a deal where patrons could have an e-mail account through the library for a small fee. For a slightly larger fee, web page design and storage were also available. Emmy had both e-mail and a web page, which would have shocked her brother Rory. After months of resisting, he only recently let his accountant computerize the hardware store’s financial records. He still didn’t use the program himself, and would have been shocked to learn that Emmy knew the accounting program he was using and two others. He thought he was embracing the future. I was probably the only person in Nicolet who knew that Emmy had not only stuck her toe in the shallow end of cyberspace, but was swimming at the metaphorical deep end of the cyber pool.
By bolstering the library budget with bake sales and a summer ice cream social--complete with pony rides—I managed to keep the bestsellers on the shelves, software fairly current and a smattering of books related to residents’ interests and needs. The sections on wildflowers and hunting were unusually large, matching the locals’ interests; the section on the arts had a set of biographies of famous artists that the Rasche boy who liked to draw donated when he moved to Chicago, but that was long enough ago that there was no book about Andy Warhol. Students at Nicolet High School believed that art ended with Georgia OKeefe, and the library couldn’t prove otherwise. That’s how small libraries are. With the Internet, though, and Wisconsin’s excellent interlibary loan system, we could equal almost any library in America. I really believed that, and worked hard to get the community to know it, too.
Guide books to the area always mentioned the library. Its design and history made it a candidate for the Historical Register, someday--if the Library committee could keep up with repairs instead of junking the old building in favor of one of the new, sleek, generic designs most of the neighboring communities built. The library, officially the Arthur Library, was originally the Arthur Mansion, designed by a Chicago architect to Timothy Arthur’s specifications in the mid-1880s. Mr. Arthur, who owned the logging camp that was the first settlement in the area, eventually, boasted of a Northwoods empire that included a paper mill and a department store chain, which began with the General Store they ran for their lumberjacks.
Stones were plentiful in this part of the Northwoods, huge stones dragged hundreds of miles by glaciers. As the lumberjacks cut down the giant birches and pines nearly a century ago, the first Mr Arthur--Timothy Arthur--had the giant stones collected. When his wife, three sons and two daughters joined him in the wilderness, they lived in a small model of a French castle built entirely from native stones. Turrets in the front of the house were bedrooms, with a parlor, a den, a dining room and a large kitchen in the main section of the building.
All the Arthur children left Wisconsin when they grew up; they preferred concrete under the soles of their shoes. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur, inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s generosity in starting county libraries, willed their house to the county with the provision that a public library be housed in it. Thus, Nicolet County became the first county north of Milwaukee with its own library.
“Ten new messages on server,” blinked the screen. Emmy typed in her password, then started reading messages. People often revealed themselves in their choice of email names. Today, she had a message from Shakespeare waiting, another from Smurf, and one from a new penpal, Murphy.
Scrolling down, she read Shakespeare’s new poem. He kept experimenting with different genres. Hopefully he’d realize soon that he was no poet. He wrote good letters, though. Smurf was griping again about her job--a favorite theme. She explained once to Emmy that she chose Smurf as her name because Smurfs were small and cute, like her, but Emmy and I wondered if the blue was a subconscious metaphor for her disposition. We suspected that Smurf was depressed and used their e-mail correspondence as a form of free therapy.
Murphy, her newest friend, seemed to be very young. “Dear Emmy, Do you really think things work out? Do you believe there’s a force watching over us--May the Force be with you and all that? I have to make a decision, and the answer to that question matters. Write soon.” Murphy wrote Emmy for the first time two days ago. She found Em the same way everyone else did, by surfing the web. Emmy’s web page was titled “My Letter to the World,” a not so subtle reference to the Dickinson poem which greeted everyone who found her in cyberspace.
“This is my letter to the world/That never wrote me/The simple news that Nature told/With Tender Majesty.! Her message is committed/To hands I cannot see;/For love of her, sweet countrymen,/Judge tenderly of me!” The visitors to Emmy’s web page were an eclectic bunch of odd people who connected in various ways with the earnest Dickinson poem. Shakespeare was perhaps her most regular penpal, but there was a cast of twenty some that she heard from regularly. Murphy was the latest addition.
I noticed Emmy typing slowly as she sat at the computer. Taking a moment to stare into space, then typing a bit, backspacing and staring again. Emmy usually typed quickly, confidently, but if her new friend Murphy was as young as she sounded, Emmy might wield more influence than she intended to, even though they were still virtually strangers. Emmy finally settled on a reply: “I can’t answer for you. It’s not my job to define your truth. But for me, yes. There is a Force. God, goddess--label it how you will. But I need sacredness in my life, and I respect the sacredness in others. I go to church some, mainly because I enjoy singing, but even more important is carving out my relationship with the Undefinable Mystery. Since I live on a lake in a woods, I find sacred places in my backyard. I don’t have a clue what your decision is or how my answer fits with your quandary, but there it is. Just know that I think each person wrestles with those questions her own way, and we don’t arrive at the same answers, just as we consider different experiences while we contemplate the answer. Stay in Touch. Emmy”
I read some of their mail at times because Emmy often had me download and print it to bring her if she didn’t have time to come get it. By proxy, her friends were my friends, but again, they didn’t know it. I was a specter even in the cyber world. Even though Emmy used the library computers almost daily, she didn’t own a computer. She said it would be excessive, un-faithful to the legacy of simple living taught by the philosopher Thoreau, she said once—and she doubted that the passive solar electrical system of the elderly camper she lived in would support a computer. I’m not sure which factor really determined that she wasn’t going to buy one. Finances weren’t the problem, I knew. Emmy lived more frugally than anyone I’d ever meant, and I knew how much in demand her clandestine Web page design services were.
“There you are. Miriam said we’d find you back here.” Rory’s wife, Anne, sneaked up on Emmy, which showed how absorbed Emmy was in her letter writing. I had been surprised to see Anne come in. She didn’t frequent the library unless one of her kids had a book report due. Anne’s dress shoes clicked loudly on the title floor. As always, Anne looked as if she belonged on a tennis court or golf course, not in a library. The Loon Country Club would fall apart if not for Anne and her set, running social events, organizing happenings, and generally representing the upwardly mobile middle class in the Northwoods, which sounds like a contradiction in terms.
It wasn’t, though. An amazing number of doctors, lawyers and successful businessmen from the cities—Chicago and Milwaukee, mainly--owned large houses on waterfront property in the county. Often they or their families would spend most of the summer “up North,” then eventually retire to the house on the lake during the summer, Florida or Arizona during the harsh Northern winter. While these visitor-citizens enjoyed a bit of local color, there was a limit. The Country Club was a place for people like them to meet, and for them to bring business associates they have flown in to fish or hunt while conducting business on the side. A few local families, like Rory and his wife Anne, would get sucked into the whirl of this social set and nearly forget that a real town existed outside of it.
“Are you alright, dear? We’re worried about you, you know.” I knew that Anne’s country club friends thought she was a paragon of compassion and tolerance towards Em, but Emmy read the subtext differently.
“Don’t worry, Anne. I’m fine. Just time to make some changes, that’s all.” Emmy liked Anne, in theory, but could only tolerate her seemingly affectionate fussing in short bursts. Anne, with her pressed khakis and carefully highlighted hair, was a different species than Emmy even though they grew up together.
“Still--quitting your job is a bit drastic, don’t you think? Take up a new hobby, or go on a fun vacation. Maybe even try dating, you might be lonely.”
“Hey, Auntie Em!” Katey came around the corner, evidently looking for her mom. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Orthodontist appointment in Green Bay. See?” Katey bared her teeth, displaying her new retainer. “If this works, they won’t make me have braces.”
“We stopped here before she goes back to school because she’s supposed to be working on a research paper.”
“A U.S. President, Our choice.” Katey’s voice was flat and she rolled her eyes. Presidents did not affect the thirteen year old’s world in any important way. “Do you know how to use that computer? We get extra credit if we do it on computer, but I don’t know how to use the word processor.”
“I can help. When you’re ready to do your rough draft, call me. We’ll come here and you’ll finish the project in no time.” Emmy and Katey had been close since Katey was a baby. Through some game of genetic hopscotch, Katey was more than Emmy’s niece. Even though reticent Emmy and breezy, effervescent Katey might seem drastically different at first glance, they understood each other. Although Em made a point of treating all the nieces and nephews--Rory’s two and Amy’s three--equally at Christmas and birthdays, Katey was the only one who asked to spend occasional weekends at the lake, fishing and learning yoga poses. Katey was the one Emmy talked about with me. I didn’t even remember the names of Amy’s sons; Emmy always refered to them as “my sister Amy’s boys,” even though they only lived in Green Bay.
“I am surprised to see you here. I didn’t know you played around on the computers. They scare me, a bit. I’d probably accidently set off a bomb or something if I tried to use one.” Anne looked at her watch. She needed to get Katey back to school before algebra. “Come on, Katey. Let’s check out those books and get going. And Emmy, come for dinner this week. Tomorrow. Promise? And maybe we could make plans for a shopping trip--Milwaukee? A weekend, even? That would perk you right up. If you want, we could even invite your friend.” There was the slightest hesitation before Anne waved in my direction, acknowledging me. Em sighed as Anne began to move away. I knew Emmy didn’t enjoy spending time with Anne. Dinner meant a lecture about eating right, which should include red meat sometimes, don’t you think? And a trip to Milwaukee would be the last thing Em wanted, especially if following Anne to malls and boutiques was the agenda. Everything Emmy needed, she had right where she was.
“Mom, didn’t Dad want Emmy to come meet that guy from Chicago—the one from last week?” Katey seemed sure that Rory wanted Emmy to meet someone. A blind date? Her family was worried.. .or wondering. I’m wasn’t sure which. “I know I heard you and Dad...”
“No, No. I can’t imagine what you’re talking about. You’ve confused something we said, I’m sure.” Emmy was messing with her computer, but I noticed that Anne wouldn’t make eye contact with Katey or me as she pulled Katey away. “We’ve got to hurry. You’re going to miss history if we don’t get you back to school. I’ll call you, Em. We’ll make plans.” As she waved bye to me, Anne quietly lectured Kately about keeping family business private.
“But Emmy’s family,” Katey protested as the heavy oak door swung closed behind her.
“Em--Emmy?” Emmy jumped, apparently unaware that I had padded up behind her. “Several kids are waiting for the computer. It’s research paper time, and if you...”
“Five minutes, ok? I’ll finish up fast.” I motioned to the Carter boys that they could have the computers. They had not been willing to ask Emmy how long she would be—whether due to shyness in general or reluctance to talk with Em in particular, I’m not sure. Saving, closing, done. Emmy gathered her files and guide books into the worn hemp backpack she’d used for years, then followed me to the front desk, gearing up to disrupt my life.
“Got a minute? I have a proposition.” Miriam’s eyebrows raised and the corners of her mouth twitched.
“You’re not who I was hoping to be propositioned by, but I’ll listen,” I quipped, then realized there might be people listening. I didn’t need any controversy—and people already wondered about too many details of Emmy’s life.
“The upstairs turret, the one that used to be a nursery-is it still empty?”
“It’s junky, boxes and stuff, but I don’t use it.”
“I need a space to work in. I know I can’t expect to use the computer here all summer when kids will want it to play on.” I nodded, relieved that I wasn’t going to have to broach that subject with Emmy. “But since I’m going freelance, I need access--regular, possibly for long stretches of time.” Emmy had a plan, and I was struck by how resolute and organized she seemed. “If I bought a computer, could I use the turret room as my office? I know it’s irregular, but I really need the space and you’re not using it.” The words came fast once Emmy got started.
I was not sure Emmy realized exactly how difficult a favor she was asking. The library was a public resource, and giving away space to a private enterprise... I didn’t want the possible hassle. On the other hand, Emmy made sense.
“I don’t imagine you could pay rent, could you? Then I could explain to the library board that we’re renting out office space. We could go through official channels to avoid any problems.”
“I can’t pay the going rate for office space, at least yet. Maybe later...”
I knew idea could work in theory, but I was not sure how to do it expediently. “You’d buy your own computer?” Emmy nodded. “And have your own phone line?” Emmy nodded again. “1 don’t know how, but we’ll figure out something. Order your computer and I’ll see what I can think up.”
Emmy smiled, “I’ve already given out this phone number to one or two people. If I get any calls, take a message.”
Why did I even think about it? Emmy had decided even before she asked me. “Is there a train track on my back? I feel like I’ve been railroaded.” Emmy smiled again, her Cheshire cat smile. “I haven’t heard it all, yet, have I? C’mon--what else are you up to?”
“Well, since you ask.. .here’s an idea. I get the turret, free, but I officially can be a grant writer and teach a few computer classes. Unpaid, of course.”
“For technology--there’s money out there, and you don’t have the time to look for it. Or for anything else, literacy, children’s lit, workshops, whatever.”
“I bet the board would go for it.”
“With the Indian reservation right here, and the national forest, I suspect there’s money available to start programs we haven’t even dreamt of. I want to be flexible, but in return for space, I could at least see what’s out there.”
“And teach a few computer classes.”
“And I know where we might get five computers donated--not brand new, but as good as anything you’ve got now.”
“This is bribery, right.?”
“If I’m going to run a computer workshop, we need more than one viable computer.” Emmy explained that the University of Wisconsin was upgrading computers again, and she had already registered the library to receive five of the cast offs, listing herself as the Technology Liaison for the library.
“I guess we’ve got your official title. I’ll get the board to rubber stamp it all next week. Or have you done that, too?”
‘I did mention to Steve Calvert when I resigned that I want to volunteer at the library.”
“It’s just a coincidence that he’s on the library board, of course.”
“Certainly.” The bell on the front door rang, and Delores herded six kids through the door, her three and their friends.
“Remember--quiet. It’s a library. Two books each, and don’t take all day.” Delores turned to Emmy and me. “Sorry to disturb everybody. The heathens all have book reports due the end of the month. Hey, Em, you shoulda been up at Jingles last night. Seemed you were all the boys could talk about.”
I was surprised by Delores’ bluntness. I always thought that Delores was like Shaker furniture: nothing fancy, no veneer, but solid and dependable without any surprises or hidden agenda. We had never been close, but I liked Delores and thought Delores liked me all right, too. And I knew I had never her Delores be mean or rude to Emmy.
“So I hear. Rory showed up at my place before the early birds even thought about looking for worms. He seems to think I’m about to disgrace the family name.”
Delores laughed, “So what’s your plan? I heard tell about some circles over by cornfield south of Wausau--rumor is that you’re heading that way to join the mother ship.”
“It’s not scheduled to come back for me yet.”
“Be careful saying things like that, girl. People already wonder about you, living in that camper with a big house next door. No electric, no heat--if this were Salem, there’d be a gaggle of girls pointin your way and callin out that Goody Arden bewitched them.”
I looked at Delores, realizing with a start that Delores’ joking remark was more right than Emmy imagined. As I watched Emmy unlock her bicycle to ride home, a mile on the highway, a half-mile to Jingles, turn into the deeper woods, then about a half mile through almost budding birch trees to the camper, I mused on Delores’ warning. This wasn’t Salem, and people had elbow room for individuality. I was sure Delores was only joking.