The librarian was illiterate
(No. 117) Chapter 8 from The Lost City of Desire -- A self-schooled librarian offers a version of the truth
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Chapter 8: The Libray
I loved Terence. No one was as important to me as he was. Well, not since my folks left. Obviously. But even before they left my dad and I would visit Terence, and I’d look at the pictures and the little kids’ books on the shelves. Terence liked to see me learn.
“At least if you read then it won’t disappear,” he said.
The strangest thing about Terence was that he was probably the first illiterate librarian in the history of the world. He’d taught himself how to read a few words over the years, but mostly he just had a feel for books and magazines.
We walked along 19th Street to his building, which had a hand painted sign over the front door reading: Libray. He’d misspelled it probably 30 years before. Through the open door you could see the old wide-plank floors and a marble fireplace and bookshelves set against white walls, the shelves stacked neatly with magazines, and documents and books. We stepped inside to find Terence sitting at the far end of a long table wearing a pale yellow suit, his thick hair falling in fat ringlets. He used a jar of special oil to get it that way.
“Sarah darling,” he said, rising from his seat and coming over to give me a very gentle hug hello.
“You smell good,” I said.
“I love it.”
Joe just stood there dumbfounded.
“Maybe you never saw a black man before?” Terence said.
“It’s not that,” said Joe.
“But you have a look of amazement in your eyes. Why?”
“Is it true you can’t read?” Joe asked.
“Joe!” Carmen said.
“It’s fine,” said Terence. “Yes, it’s true. At least it used to be true, when I founded this place. But I’ve learned a bit over the years. For instance, Sarah has taught me mountains!”
I felt embarrassed. I was always surprised when people brought up Terence’s illiteracy. But then I realized I was the one who’d told Joe about it in the first place. I’d thought I was giving him some important info, but in truth, I was the gossip, the talker here.
“Make yourselves at home -- Check this out,” he said, handing Joe a couple of Life Magazines from the 1970s.
I took a book on Renaissance Art from a shelf and sat with Joe at the big table. He really got into the Life pictures, but I could tell he wasn’t reading the text. It made me wonder if maybe he, too, couldn’t read. Made me wonder if maybe he saw an ally in Terence. Carmen and Joe stayed up front with Terence, talking, it seemed, about the world across the wall, and the past.
I picked up a few words and phrases of their conversation, words like dominating, fundamentalist, violent, hatred, religious leaders, cut off, manipulate, make a lesson of us, and cement power over there.
“You mean they didn’t build the wall to keep us out so much as they built it to keep their people in?” Carmen asked him.
“That’s it, sister,” he said.
“So they say we’re like, diseased, immoral, dirty and corrupt and that’s why they want to keep us out? And that’s what keeps all their citizens in line and doing what they want instead of coming over here where we’re pretty peaceful?”
“They’re afraid that if we got what they have, like all the technology, electricity and whatnot, that there’d be no stopping us,” Terence said. “They have to keep us away. And demonize us as apostates.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Of course,” Terence said. “But long before the separation, way before the wall. It was nice over there.”
“It’s big, right?”
“It goes on forever, all the way to California. They’ve got factories and farms and cars and TVs and all the things we used to have here. They recovered early, and they’ve been developing that world all these years. They are modern, so you say. They are advanced, if you want to think of it that way. They are capable. And I bet they’re pretty darn miserable,” he said.
I tended to believe Terence, but on this I was unsure. I didn’t really know anything. I knew a terrible virus had wiped out millions. They’d built the wall to stop the spread. They’d kept it long after it was needed, expanding on it always, and now it just served to keep the Westerners in power.
“Have you met any over here? Any who snuck out?” Carmen asked.
“They get shot if they try to come. And why would they want to come to this bombed out place? So, no, I haven’t met any. I’ve heard, for sure, that some came over. There’s a village of them living right up near this side of the wall. They are led by a wizard kind of lady, a prognosticator – she looks to the future. And she didn’t have to sneak out -- the government over there kicked her out. They didn’t like the way people flocked to hear what she had to say. So now she’s up in the woods, near what used to be the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She’s like a guru, you know. Anyone who wants to know all about that stuff just has to go have a visit. La Gloriosa -- that’s her name.”
This was the same name Tara had given me.
“How far is that?” I asked, walking over to join them at the table.
Terence went to a shelf and pulled out a Rand McNally road atlas from the 90s, and opened it to a map of upstate New York. I’d never really spent much time with maps, but the lines kind of made sense.
“Here we are,” he said, pointing at Manhattan, just across the Hudson from New Jersey. His finger led up the Hudson, past Kingston, and then west, following old highways all the way to the wall.
“About 90 miles,” he said. That’s equal to about 1,800 city blocks. That’s Manhattan end to end 20 times, but in the mountains. Doesn't sound like much but it would take you a few days, at least.”
Joe took it all in. Carmen, too.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s cross that wall. I mean, what’s keeping us here?”
“I don’t know,” Carmen said. “I like it here.”
“I’m gonna do it with or without you,” I declared.
“Tell me, Terence,” Joe said. “How did it all happen?”
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