The library was flooded with book donations. Mountains of cardboard boxes filled the basement, ferried from hatchback and truck-bed, down the elevator, to gather dust with their kin. Before they could be set on narrow tables at the annual book sale, the books needed sorting.
That year, there was a plague.
Many elderly patrons hadn’t made it through the winter.
Many of their personal libraries were brought by children or grandchildren to the library.
It was Marsha’s job to sort the thousands of hardcovers and paperbacks that composed the lives of departed library card holders.
First, she divided them: fiction and nonfiction. Then by genre. PopLit. True Crime. White Man War Stuff. Horror. Cookbooks. Occult.
For a relatively straight-laced, affluent community, there were a surprising number of titles in the last section.
Marsha’s father had passed during the plague.
She wasn’t allowed to wait by his bedside, wasn’t allowed to say a parting word in person, only to weep through a phone screen, unpronounceable syllables of grief. For a librarian, she was ashamed how inarticulate those final love-filled sentences were.
The nurse said he was too far gone to understand.
Marsha didn’t know if the nurse’s words made her feel better or worse.
She promised to never bring her father’s books to the basement. No, she would keep those at home, in the in-law apartment her husband built. She’d visit their pages when she grew lonely, when she wanted to relive his favorite narratives.
It started the only way it could have. One morning, words burbled from the piles of occult texts, the books on Crowley and shamanic practices, the tarot and exorcism. The voices spoke in familiar tones: Judith who’d always requested historical fiction, Bernard who loved spy thrillers, Eunice who never met an amish romance she didn’t like. Their voices draped over one another, lamenting their current state, the words they tried to leave behind, but didn’t, that last feeling of being alone in a room that smelled of bleach, white curtains instead of windows.
Marsha, instead of retrieving the holy water pastor Michael recommended, spoke soothingly to the books, quieting Judith, Bernard, Eunice, and all the other patrons who she vaguely remembered based on their genre preferences.
When one table fell silent, the next took up the call, an incessant yammering swimming from beneath closed covers. The classics went on the longest. Poetry the shortest.
After an hour, she gave up trying to calm them all, ignoring the speech flowing around her.
The plague thrived. Boxes were still ferried down the elevator by circulation staff.
If she didn’t hurry, she’d be overwhelmed and the system would crumble, and maybe her colleagues wouldn’t get that twenty-five cent raise they depended on or their healthcare would dry up. Much depended on the annual book sale, so Marsha continued to sort, adding new voices to the choir.
At home, she sat in her father’s living room, reclining on his couch that still smelled of cigarettes and ginger ale. The shelving unit her husband built stood across from her, boards sagging beneath the weight of her father’s books. Marsha sat, staring at the titles, waiting for the first to speak.
After an hour, she pulled the cord on the end-table’s lamp. Sun had set and her father hadn’t shown up for her to recite her practiced farewell. Eventually, she stalked to her side of the house and prepared a stew for dinner, something warm to ward off the cold.
Marsha did this for months. It became her post-work routine. She’d speak to the books in the library’s basement, calming the spirits, only to come home to her father, or lack thereof, and fail to do the same.
She had promised him she’d never get rid of his library. It was one of his greatest prides. He was a librarian from back in the day of card catalogs and microfilm. He’d taught her to read, to value stories, to understand the world one sentence at a time. Later on, he tutored her while she pursued her MLS, proofreading essays on collection development and archival preservation. They’d been close, two bookish people in a world that underappreciated a good read.
For such a man, there was no greater joy than well loved shelves of novels and short stories, histories and philosophical treatises.
It killed her to fill the trunk of her Subaru with his collection. The boxes, bags, and crates.
She didn’t see any other way.
The books only spoke in the library’s basement and there was still a story to tell, a final goodbye she desperately needed.
It took three trips to liquidate the shelves, to transfer the entirety of her father’s life into the damp basement. Once the last crate was unloaded, she sat on her sorting stool, waiting for his voice to join the rest.
She knew exactly what she would say when he arrived.
He could take his time.
There were another thousand books to sort while she waited.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, The Southwest Review, Catapult, Wigleaf, Uncharted, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Tiny Nightmares, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere . To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on Instagram @farrenkopf451 or on TikTok @CoreyFarrenkopf or, if you aren’t exhausted by all of that, the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.