Chapter 3

Cheering Up Wendell


“And so, you see,” I concluded. “That explains everything.”

Wendell wrung his hands with frustration. “No, it doesn’t explain anything! What was the point of that anecdote?”

“The point, Wendell, obviously, is that I didn’t go about telling everybody I was planning to steal the skull of Phineas Gage. Because I didn’t tell you, Wendell. Because I don’t trust you, Wendell.”

“Well, that doesn’t make me feel very nice!”

“In my defense, you wear neckties. And, if it makes you feel any better, I probably told everybody in the building about the heist except you. But only because everybody else is pretty nice.”

“And I’m not?”

I shook with exasperation. “You’re a middle manager! How many times do I have to accidentally mention that I have problems with authority?”

“You don’t seem to have a problem with any of the other middle managers,” he complained peevishly.

I clicked my tongue; he was being mawkish.

“Come on, Wendell. You have to admit that the other managers are pretty ineffectual. Most of them can barely manage themselves, let alone a library. You, on the other hand – you’re different!”

“It’s true,” he muttered petulantly. “I am different from the others. I’m good at this. And you know what? The truth is – they envy me.”

“They should envy you. You’re the worst kind of career bureaucrat this library has probably ever seen. I would go so far as to say you have a rare and special talent for mindless chicanery.”

He still looked downcast, so I stood, went around his desk and put my hand on his shoulder.

“Come on, cheer up, Wendell. You’re the only manager in the library who aggravates my ‘Pathological Problems With Authority’, don’t forget. That has to mean something!”

He smiled, suddenly sheepish. “That’s … really nice of you to say.”

“It’s the truth,” I continued with stern admonishment. “Look at you. You’re a career politician in the wealthiest university in the world. And you wear neckties. Every few evenings you go out to Harvard events and network with people. You’re climbing a management ladder, Wendell. And you also wear neckties. You know what? This all makes you a villain in my book.”

“Oh, stop it,” he said, smiling immodestly. “Does it really?”

“Of course it does. Now I don’t want to see you feeling bad just because I didn’t let you in on my plan to steal the skull of Phineas Gage. I was never going to tell the likes of you, Wendell, because, basically, you’re a force for evil – understand?”

“Thank you,” he said gratefully. “You know, it means a lot for someone of your ilk to say that.”

“Don’t mention it.” Then I reached up and pulled one of his books from the shelf behind me, turned it around so the spine faced the wall and squeezed it in randomly on a different shelf altogether. I was settling contentedly back into my armchair when we heard a discreet knock at the door. A woman of immoderate prettiness peered in and asked Wendell if she could take a fifteen-minute break.

“I haven’t seen a patron in the last half hour,” said Astrid, flicking a smile in my direction.

I am not easily rattled, but smiles like Astrid’s have been known to make the males of our species do all sorts of silly things to prove their genetic worth. Inspired by a smile like hers, men have tumbled from cliff-faces, burned up inside rocket capsules, or gone missing at sea. Countless others have even found themselves tangled up in mortgages and parent-teacher meetings.

I stared at the shelf and tried to be invisible.

“Take as long as you need,” Wendell told her pleasantly, getting up and strolling out to the Circulation area. When I was certain Astrid had left, I crept out of his office and sat down on one of the tall swivel chairs behind the front desk.

Astrid, I knew, was responsible for purchasing all the library’s medical journals. Her office was on the fourth floor, but I wasn’t surprised to find her here today; whenever the library was short-staffed, librarians often liked to come down to help at the front desk. After all, there was no better place to catch up with colleagues and exchange gossip.

Wendell and I were meanwhile enjoying a long, comfortable silence when a tall figure came lumbering by like an unhurried bear.

“Rufus!” we exclaimed. He smiled lazily and loped towards us.

“Any word from the Director?” he wondered, yawning, and looking like he’d just woken up from a nap.

Everyone was hoping that the administration might close the library early today as a Christmas present to the staff.

“Not so far but I’m crossing my fingers,” said Wendell. “It would be great for morale.”

Rufus nodded. “It would be, but perhaps the Director will do it anyway.”

I didn’t know too much about Rufus. He’s one of the reference librarians who inhabit the second floor. He is far too computer-savvy to ever need my services, so I didn’t get to see him too often.

Tall and thickset, Rufus is as striking as he is unassuming. He has a long and fastidiously neat beard and wears the same midnight-blue corduroy overcoat to work each day, regardless of the weather.

Rufus also seems to know just about everything. For example, did you know that a group of ferrets is called ‘a business’? Or that the average water bear can survive in space – without a space suit – for ten days? Thanks Rufus!

Usually, however, and despite the breadth of his general knowledge, he really didn’t have much to say for himself. I often saw him drifting around the library deep in thought. In short, his is a fairly mysterious figure and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he is secretly a warlock.

“Where did you go to university, Rufus?” I asked him now. “Was it Harvard?”

He smiled benignly.

“Our Human Resources Department doesn’t generally hire Harvard graduates. They have very elevated standards.”

“Is Harvard not a good school?”

“Well, it’s not terrible,” said Rufus.

I looked at Wendell.

“He’s right,” he said. “It’s really not terrible. And some of the students are bright, to some extent at least. Rufus, what was the name of that really bright student who used to come in here? The one from India?”

“Kuldeep.”

“That’s the one! He could locate books all by himself. And he was always so friendly and –”

“I don’t understand,” I interrupted. “I thought this was a good school.”

“And it is … from a certain point of view,” Rufus reassured me. “You see, what we do here is provide an environment in which the scions of wealthy families can mingle, you know, and really – get to know each other.”

“You see, Shea,” said Wendell, leaning comfortably against the desk, “in our country, it is highly important that you know the right people.”

Rufus nodded. “You can’t put a price tag on introducing your children to the right people.”

“Well, technically you can,” said Wendell. “That is Harvard’s business model, after all.”

“Very witty,” smiled Rufus.

I dislike rolling my eyes, but sometimes these people leave me with no choice.

“But this is a school, isn’t it?” I demanded.

“There is an educational component,” said Wendell with a nod.

“And there are students here, learning things?”

Wendell nodded. “Oh definitely.”

“We have some of those,” agreed Rufus. “You can never have too many.”

“Some of them work very hard, too,” said Wendell supportively.

I hadn’t had much interaction with the students – my job was to help the staff and the occasional faculty member; these duties kept me too busy to even notice the students. Well no, I did know one – a mousy girl called Piper who was always on the fourth floor looking distracted and frazzled.

“You should go home, Piper,” I’d invariably tell her, laughing. “You’ve been in here far too long.”

“I’d love to, believe me,” she would say. Then she’d hold aloft a medical textbook and declare, panic-stricken, that she needed to understand the next three chapters by tomorrow.

“You work too hard. You need to go easy on yourself.”

But Piper always shook her head. “I need a break, but not yet. There’s a lot of pressure on me right now. My last semester didn’t go very well. I cannot fail this next exam…”

I can’t say I honestly understood. Whatever future Piper was working for seemed hardly worth the hassle.

“I know this one student,” I told Wendell, “who works very hard, and –”

“Well, if she’s a medical student she has to.”

“The medical students are expected to learn things,” said Rufus seriously. “In fact, it is absolutely required.”

“We don’t let them practice medicine, otherwise,” Wendell agreed. “Just think of the malpractice suits!”

By this point, I had had enough. “But I’ve met all of these smart people here!”

Wendell and Rufus blinked at me. “Who, the students?” they asked in unison.

“Well, I meant the staff.”

They looked relieved.

“Of course we’re smart,” said Wendell, looking at me narrowly.

Rufus put his hand on Wendell’s arm. “I think Shea is asking where so many of the world’s smartest people came from, if not from here. The answer is everywhere, Shea. The smartest people in the world are educated in public schools and colleges. Small towns and villages all over the world. If many of the world’s smartest people wind up working here, it’s because Harvard poached them.

“Harvard is brilliant at poaching people, dude. Faculty from other institutions. Luminous luminaries like myself, who have published an awful lot of richly informative scientific analysis. When Harvard poached me, I decided to become a librarian.

“Which isn’t to say they always hire the best,” he added, looking dubiously at Wendell.

“One day I shall run this library,” Wendell uttered ominously, “and you will rue the day.”

“And the sky will burn, our crops will wither, and death will stalk the land. Something like that?”

“Stop reading my diary, Rufus.”

Shrugging, the reference librarian yawned, shook our hands and announced that he was going to head up to his office and have a little nap.

We watched him galumph up the stairs.

I considered following – my office was on the second floor as well – until I remembered that a seething gang of law-enforcement goons was probably waiting for me up there with their police-issued axes at the ready.

I sat down on the stool again and kicked my legs absently. Wendell eyed me carefully.

“You know, I have never asked you this, but I’ve occasionally wondered what brought you to the United States in the first place.”

“A girl.”

He beamed at me. “Ah-ha! This sounds like a love story!”

“That’s how it sounded to me too. Do you want me to tell you the story?”

Glancing at his watch, Wendell became sad. “Perhaps not now, I was thinking about getting some folks from Inter-Library Loan to cover the Circulation Desk so I can take an early lunch –”

“Alright, I’ll tell you now, then. I won the lottery.”


chapter 4 continues …