Readers

by Rachel A. Brune

Dwight hated walking into the living room and facing his wife’s completely non-virtual collection of books, displayed unfashionably in the first space in the house their guests would see. Even as newlyweds, he had barely tolerated her need for the physical nature of the books, and after a few years quit making excuses to guests for the queer habit and instead insisted that all visitors come around to the side of the house.

If she read any of the books more than once, he would have been less agitated when he thought about it. More often than not, though, he would walk into the room and find her sitting in a chair nodding over her own reader, immersed in yet another new virtual purchase.  Dwight had once, just as an experiment, taken one book from a bottom shelf and hidden it, to see if she would notice. She had not spoken a word, but two days later, he found his closet in disarray and the book back on the bottom shelf of the collection.

Rhonda caught him in there late the night of their tenth wedding anniversary, tipping back the dregs of the latest social gathering.

“How much do you think these are worth?” he asked, running his finger along the length of spines. Some were well worn and broken, others virginally smooth underneath the soft pads of his fingertips.

Rhonda shrugged and held the door to the hallway open, hinting that it was time for him to put down his drink and head down the hall to bed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Most of them were mass-market publications.”

“Not everybody collects these things,” said Dwight. “Where do you think they’ve all gone?”

His attention had been piqued by an offhand comment from one of their guests, a man of some standing from Dwight’s office whom they invited mostly because it was the smart thing to do. But the man’s attention was enough to set the wheels of potential avarice turning.

“What about this one?”

Rhonda winced to see the alcohol in her husband’s glass slosh dangerously close to the volume he wrenched from the shelf. His hand closed around the book, causing him to angle his wrist awkwardly as he held it up for her to see.

“It used to be quite valuable,” said Rhonda, weighing honesty against the chances of Dwight remembering anything about the evening through the next morning’s hangover. “But nobody buys books these days, so the prices have fallen quite a bit.”

He stared at her, uncomprehending. She stepped two paces toward him, and he held up his hands in surrender. The gesture caused the liquid in his glass to slop on his sleeve. He tried to fit the book back on the shelf, but his lack of coordination defeated his one-armed attempts to replace it, and he settled for sliding the book horizontally into place to lie on the shelf atop its siblings.

Later that night, Dwight safely sleeping in the bedroom after the obligatory, half-hearted attempt to physically celebrate their nuptials had passed, Rhonda sat at the table and re-read the notice on her reader. Their state allowance had been halved yet again, consequences of the economy and her recent fall from grace. Or, at least, her plummeting position in the Elementary Instructor Ratings.

She sighed. When she assigned the “Book” report, she knew not many people understood her obsession. At least for old, real books made of paper. Most everyone, but especially her young students, understood the concept of “books” to mean the digital works that appeared on their screens when they downloaded a purchase. “Books” had never gone away, simply transformed venues. Her attraction to the “real” thing was as confusing and abstract as would be a strange desire for old vacuum tubes and dial-up modems outside of the Museum of Technology and Innovation. She took her students there. Or used to, until the low ratings struck it from the curriculum.

***

“Well if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s faculty meetings will never start on time.” Jane’s mouth was full from something she was snacking on, but the sarcasm came through loud and clear.

Rhonda turned as her fellow instructor slid into the seat next to her. The two sat in a long row of women in front of an array of video screens. Since the consolidation of the old school districts into federal zones, faculty meetings were held in huge teleconferencing systems. It was less a meeting than an experience in fighting boredom while some administrator carried on a one-way conversation with a faceless league of uninterested instructors. The Zone 3 Administrator, Michael Greene, could indeed be counted on to be at least ten minutes late, which meant that fully half of the screens were still blue to indicate the viewers had not yet logged on. Rhonda had been waiting for almost half an hour, screen live, wondering why she herself couldn’t stop showing up ten minutes early for everything.

“Heard you got downrated,” said Jane. “That’s some wet toast.”

Rhonda shrugged. It was a familiar gesture. Her ratings never started the school semester very high to begin with, and had steadily declined ever since she had started instructing five years ago. There had been the incident with the baseball player, whose grade she had changed from failing to a passing “C,” not realizing that his parents and community wanted and expected an “A.” She had fixed it of course, but her initial naiveté set up her reputation as the teacher who was not only boring, but didn’t understand grades and how they related to the real world.

The Administrator’s blue screen finally darkened and resolved to his image. Rhonda and Jane put their headsets on and turned up the volume. Rhonda tried to pay attention, but found her thoughts drifting as the Admin called roll and began rehashing the minutes of the last faculty meeting. That one had taken nearly four hours, and she was pretty sure that she was not going to miss anything by not paying attention.

They were going to have to move, Rhonda thought. With the diminished salary, they would not be able to afford the place they were staying. If there were some way they could justify the dwelling for a federal subsidy, they might have a chance, but federal opinion was that three bedrooms and two rooms was too much space for two people in the first place. Downsizing would be expected. Unless, of course, she and Dwight upsized their family.

***

Rhonda had left her reader on the kitchen island.  She came home to find Dwight frowning at it.  He looked up at her expectantly as she walked in. She placed her small bag on the counter beside the device. Its green light blinked with the scores of student essays her charges were sending to her, essays that she would spend most of the night reading, grading, then re-grading to fit the scores with her students’ parents’ expectations.

“This could be a good thing,” said Dwight. She looked at the screen, viewing her downgrade notice with detachment.

“Did you make anything for dinner?” she asked, noting the lack of dishes in the sink.

“I knew you had the faculty meeting, so I went out after work.”

Rhonda sighed inwardly and resigned herself to scrounging a random snack later. There was some fruit in the refrigerator, she thought. Maybe a sandwich. Dwight set the reader down on the surface and gently placed his hands on her shoulders.

“This could be a sign, honey,” said Dwight.

Rhonda steeled herself. “It’s not a sign, Dwight.”

She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice. It was going to be a long night of essay grading, and a fight wouldn’t make it any more pleasant.

“But this would be the perfect time,” said Dwight.

“I’m not a mother,” said Rhonda. She refrained from mentioning that they had discussed this subject many times, including before they got married. They had, in fact, had many long discussions about their expectations regarding finances, children, religion, all the things couples were supposed to talk about before they got married. She had thought she was clear, but shortly after the ceremony realized that the two of them had been simply talking. What they had not been doing was understanding the other’s side of the conversation. As a result, they continued their discussions past their wedding, past the eager infatuation of the first year or so, and on into the slog of eternal couplehood. Their discussions had gotten more heated, and then less heated. Finally, they settled into a series of short phrases, well-rehearsed codes of argument, until new material arose as grist for the conversation.

“I have plenty of friends who thought they didn’t want kids until they had them,” said Dwight. Rhonda thought of his friends, and how she felt a little sorry for Dwight as he watched his colleagues embark into fatherhood.

“I’m tired,” said Rhonda. “That meeting went on forever.”

***

The day’s lesson was safe territory, at least for the time being. The students—half in attendance, half staring mutely through the videoscreen mosaic above her desk—had some modicum of interest in the history of organized sports in the federal states, and Rhonda thought that maybe her week’s ratings wouldn’t slide as grievously as normal.

As she taught, the instant feedback bar scrolled across the screen on her desk. There was a satisfying amount of green in the “Interesting Choice of Material” and “This Lesson Held My Attention” Likert scales. The columns measuring instructor engagement and interpersonal computer-mediated communication remained depressingly red.

Looking up at the screens, she attempted to catch the eye of one of the students. Any student. She flitted her gaze across the screens, lingering long enough to catch the eye if possible, but not so long that the student would be uncomfortable, exactly as she had learned in her first tele-education class. Their eyes remained glued to the graphics she was pumping through the feed—and the digital distractions endemic to their desktops. Even the students sitting in front of her managed to immerse themselves in their material, avoiding her eyes. She sighed and sent a mass text with the homework—a short essay on the historical sports team of their choice. The muffled groans reminded her that the students preferred multiple choice. The feedback bars across her desk turned uniformly red as the students trudged out of the room, the line of videoscreens above them fading to black.

“Want to grab a coffee?” Jane poked her head in the room.

Rhonda switched her screen off. She felt vaguely guilty about the red bars. She didn’t want Jane to see them, wasn’t up to dealing with the expressions of sympathy and mutual commiseration at the state of student appreciation and federal education these days.

“Can’t,” said Rhonda. “Lesson plans.”

Jane grimaced. “They’re a pain. Want some help?”

“No,” said Rhonda, and then, because she worried Jane might think her abrupt: “Thank you.”

Another teacher called to Jane, who leaned back from the door to answer the greeting. She looked in the room, then back at Rhonda. “Well, good luck with those lesson plans.”

“Thank you,” said Rhonda. “Good night.”

Rhonda waited until Jane had left, listening to her footsteps as she hurried back down the corridor to catch up with her friend. She quietly collected her things, checking her reader for any messages from Dwight before stuffing it into her bag.

“Ten years.” She said the words aloud, rolling them around in her mouth. They slipped from her mouth and faded quickly in the flat, bright light of the empty room.

***

Dwight thought ten years was long enough to wait, and told her so over dinner. Their menu had become as routine as all the other important parts of their life. He left his peas on the side of the plate as he did every Friday night, placing his fork and knife over them. Rhonda used her utensils to scrape up the last of the vegetables from her own plate.

“It’s time to make a decision,” he said. He rested his elbows on the table, twisting the stem of his wineglass between his thumb and middle finger.

“I’m not having this conversation again,” said Rhonda. “We agreed. Two salaries, no kids. That’s the sort of life we said we wanted.”

“Things change,” said Dwight. “Ten years, and you’re barely making the same salary as the first-year instructors. Heck, your friend Jane—she’s what, been teaching eight years? She makes twice what you do.”

Rhonda arched an eyebrow. She hadn’t been aware Dwight discussed her salary with anyone.

“There’s only one way we are going to keep this house without that salary,” said Dwight.

“We don’t have the room.” Rhonda rested her forehead in her hand.

“We do have the room,” said Dwight. His voice was even and well-modulated. “It’s full of your useless crap.”

In the quiet that followed, Rhonda gathered their plates and took them to the kitchen. The clinking of the china in the sink set her nerves on edge. She listened to the sounds in the other room as Dwight pushed his chair away and headed to bed.

***

The library wasn’t such a large room. The shelves took up about a third of the space that would be available if they were removed. A real estate agent had pointed that out at a party, throwing around words like “functional space” and “resale opportunity.”  Rhonda wondered what those words even meant.

She stood, silent, at the shelves, running her finger along the length of the spines, some well worn and broken, others smooth underneath the soft pads of her fingertips—her stack of books not yet read.

Here was an anthology of American short stories, smelling of glue and paper in an old blue cloth binding. Her grandfather had kept it at random from a college literature course. Its neighbor—tattered in green cloth and cardboard and falling apart—an autographed copy of a biography of Abraham Lincoln by Ida Tarbell. Two shelves below, a paperback copy of Stephen Hawking’s book, which she kept meaning to read.

She inhaled. The scent took her back to her grandparent’s basement down at the shore, shelves not dissimilar from these lining the wall, a dehumidifier bucket crankily catching the moisture that the machine sucked from the air. Even so, some of the books still showed a few scars where she had cleaned the mold from their covers. Most of these books had come from that inheritance, and Rhonda shivered a familiar frisson of pleasure as she thought of the worlds contained in their neat, even gray lines.

She pulled a book from the shelf, a well-worn copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It fell open to a passage, the spine broken in to where she had taken an extended pause in her reading, years ago. The pause had left its permanent imprint in the pages. Rhonda glanced impatiently over the words, letting them slide off her concentration. She closed the book and put it back on the shelf.

“Ten years.”

***

Dwight woke to the most embarrassing thing his wife had ever done. The Saturday morning sun shone brightly down on the impeccably landscaped green of the housing district as he stumbled downstairs in his pre-caffeinated haze. Movement outside the window stopped him, and he looked twice to make sure he saw what he thought he was seeing.

Rhonda used her hip to nudge open the front door. Her hands were busy holding a cardboard box stacked high with books.

“What are you doing?” Dwight didn’t realize he was shouting until his wife jumped and almost dropped the box. She tightened her grip on the load, pushed the door open, and went outside.  Belatedly, Dwight realized she was taking books out of the house, not, as he feared, bringing in more to be added to the already monstrous collection.

He sighed in relief, until he realized she had set up a folding card table at the end of the driveway. He opened the door and stomped out to the end, trying to appear as if he and his wife disagreed often on Saturday mornings in their pajamas. In their driveway.

“What are you doing?” Dwight kept his voice down. “The HOA was pretty darn clear about yard sales.”

“I’m not holding a yard sale, Dwight.” Rhonda’s tone was dismissive, as if Dwight was no more than one of her students, and not a very bright one at that.

Dwight stood there as his wife returned to the house. She had been at work for a while—boxes were packed and stacked around the card table. A hand-lettered sign hung off the edge of one of the boxes. It read: “Free to good home.”

Rhonda deposited another box next to the overflowing stack.

“What are you doing?” Dwight asked again. “Nobody is going to want any of this stuff.”

“You wanted the room,” said Rhonda. “You’ve got the room. You can give me one more day.”

She unfolded a camp chair and set it up beside the table. Propping her still-shapely legs on one of the boxes, she selected a novel and began to read.

“These are all going to still be here until the end of the day,” said Dwight. “You should just let me take them to the recycling center.”

“Go back in the house, Dwight,” said Rhonda. “I made you coffee.”

***

Dwight was correct. At the end of the day, all the books were still at the end of the driveway. Rhonda waited until the sun had set before standing up, stretching to work out the kinks. She had caught a bit of sun on her face and neck, and slapped a mosquito. It was getting cooler.

It was still light enough out to read. She picked up a book one last time, read a few sentences, then closed it and put it back on the pile.

Dwight watched from the kitchen window. She smiled a crooked, halfway grin, to see him frowning so hard. She wondered if the lines etched on his forehead were from worry about her, or about what the neighbors were thinking. She smiled wider.

The books were dry, and the day had been hot. Rhonda didn’t bother with any sort of starter. She pulled a book of matches from her pocket, a small packet like the ones they used to sell in bars, or give you at the supermarket when you bought a pack of cigarettes and a couple of magazines.

She lit the first match and tossed it onto the pile. It burned steadily, then caught a paperback cover, accentuating the colors on the lurid frontispiece as it flared and crinkled them into black ash.

Rhonda struck another match. This one she placed carefully on the right side of the stack. The little flames started to creep toward each other across the vast paper landscape.

The third match sputtered and died, blowing away in the little evening breeze that sprung up. She sheltered the fourth match, and it lit easily. She shielded it with her body as the conflagration took, held and began to dance in earnest.

***

“Rhonda!” Dwight’s voice was drowned by the flames. They reached high enough in the air to provide a welcome spectacle to the entire neighborhood. He danced around the blaze with his home fire extinguisher, trying to remember where he was supposed to aim the stream, which seemed completely useless in quenching the fire. “Rhonda!”

Sirens announced the arrival of the firefighters. They pushed him professionally away from the burning collection, and into the arms of the federal police who wanted to know what he thought he was doing, setting a blaze like this in a residential area and if there was some underlying political message behind the event. And, what in the world was he doing with all of those books?

Dwight looked for his wife, but she was nowhere to be found.

Notes…

Rachel A. Brune writes short fiction, long fiction, songs, screenplays, poetry and operations orders. A former Army journalist, she lives in North Carolina with her husband, two dogs and three cats. She blogs her adventures, writing and otherwise, at http://www.infamous-scribbler.com.

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