But the new odd thing was not something within the library – at least that’s what Johannes thought at first. A subdued, soft-spoken man in his early sixties, he had lived in some of the world’s greatest cities – Berlin, London, Singapore, New York. The only child of a wealthy couple, he had attended private schools. The three of them lived off the income of a successful furrier business. He had traveled extensively with his parents and never felt the rancor or rebelliousness many children in circumstances similar to his had harbored. He loved them deeply and when they grew older he had spared no expense in prolonging their lives, first in retirement communities, then in assistant living facilities. The business had long since been sold, and it cost what remained of their entire fortune to provide them with the best care throughout their extended old ages. Now he lived hand-to-mouth, working as a security guard at a hospital where he earned barely enough to maintain his minimal expenses and the cheap studio apartment he rented over a downtown coffee shop. He was neither bitter nor happy, but was resigned.
One of his greatest pleasures was the library. Its storehouse of books, computers, music, newspapers and magazines – all for free – represented an enormous treasure to him and he had suffered during the time it was temporarily downsized for a year and then closed for over a month during renovations and expansion. It wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say that as far as he was concerned, if for some unthinkable reason the library had closed for good, it would have meant the end of his existence.
The first time he sat in the luminous glass atrium under the uncanny lamps in that lofty space, he was so overwhelmed he couldn’t focus on the sections of the old New York Times he collected at work, but found himself sipping coffee and simply absorbing the refined atmosphere, watching the people who drifted past like bright fish in an aquarium, letting his mind drift in fabulous directions. The splashing sound of the newly restored Little Water Girl fountain in the entranceway outside was most hypnotic. During his second visit he managed to read a bit more (collected stories of Maupassant this time), but was still so entranced that he found himself drifting into a meditative sense of complete comfort and well-being. The third time he sat in the café, he read more steadily, growing accustomed to his new haven. But this was when he first noticed something odd.
He had been sitting and reading, sipping coffee, gazing occasionally at the dark-red Victorian brick facades across the street. He had strolled past those buildings hundreds of times and had never realized that rows of small, mullioned windows of colored glass glittered in the sun on some of the upper floors. In fact he was quite sure they were new. Yet how could that be? He had never noticed them before. He shrugged it off as one of the many self-deceptive tricks of aging. Perhaps he had just never studied them from this angle. In subsequent visits, however, he noticed other changes across the street – since when had there been a blue awning over the coffee shop, for example? And on the second floor of the public market, which had recently withstood its own renovations, he could clearly see windows crammed with trees and flowers, when he knew for a fact there were only lots of tables up there lined on the interior by a pizzeria and other vendors.
The next day, before he went to the library, he stopped at the market house, mounted the long wooden staircase to the second floor, and found it to be exactly as he had known – an open room with tables, chairs, and stalls with clever names such as Kamasouptra, Peanut Butter Jelly Time, the Pie in the Sky Pizza and Rock City Coffee Roasters. No plants, trees or flowers in sight. Well, perhaps there had been some sort of special event, he reasoned. The city was constantly transfiguring itself in that way.
He was immersed in the tail end of one of the French tales and was feeling rather sleepy, despite the dark roast he was imbibing. When he looked up a sort of carnival in the square had commenced – people dressed in bright festive clothes were strolling about and children – a multitude of children – were playing some sort of game with large green balls and hoops. There was music too – an accordion player and a guitarist and a singer and ladies dressed in fancy dresses were dancing, swinging to and fro, accompanied by men in striped shirts. How completely odd this was. Some sort of Society of Creative Anachronism, he supposed. But it looked positively Parisian – a far cry from medieval jousting or Civil War skirmishes. Excitedly he grabbed his book and went inside to the circulation desk where he approached Babette, the former dancer. “Look,” he gasped breathlessly, “In the square. Over there. What’s going on?”
Babette looked up from her pile of books. She gazed past him and then looked up. “Mr. Kappel,” she said mildly, “That’s nothing but some kind of protest going on. Nothing that unusual. Are you feeling yourself today?” Her look of confusion turned to one of apprehension, and then concern. “Perhaps you’d like to sit down.”
“Oh, no, no, quite all right. I just dozed off for a moment, I’m afraid,” he muttered and staggered off, out the door and onto the sidewalk where he could clearly see that yes, indeed, there was a scraggly mob of people with picket signs, protesting health care reform or the incessant wars or excessive taxation. There were no musicians or costumes or children playing with hoops. He immediately went home, called in sick to his evening shift at the hospital, and lay down in the dark with an ice pack on his forehead. He feared he might be losing his mind.
He didn’t venture back to the library for several days. He took brisk walks, bought expensive salads he couldn’t afford and sat in the coffee shop below his apartment. But everything was as usual, the same buildings, the same sorts of people, everything in its place. No sudden changes or manifestations or hallucinations. Perhaps he had fallen asleep that day. The more he walked and the more spinach he ate, the more he was convinced that was the case.
Still, he felt apprehensive the next time he entered the new archway and walked past the newly restored statue of the young girl with the bare feet, an endless spray of water pouring from a bowl in her hands to the basin below. He returned the Bowles, smiled broadly at the librarians and took his time selecting a book from the special section of books recommended by the library staff – The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, a novel he had always meant to read. He signed it out, carried it into the bright café, took off his heavy wool coat and gloves and sat down at his table. It was late April and unseasonably chilly outside.
Casually he sat down, crossed his legs and commenced reading about life in England: “At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live. For some 25 kilometres the road runs amdist fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland. The market place, broad and lined with silent facades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents had described.” He pretended to be absorbed in the narrative, though the truth was he filled with trepidation, afraid to look over at the square. Afraid of what? Afraid that things would have changed, or that they might be the same? The second he considered the latter possibility he immediately raised his woolly, silver head.
The changes were vast this time. It was a new city, grown from within the old. The square itself had become a park with tall flowering chestnut trees that looked to be at least 100 years old. And the people – he could see immediately they were European. The bleak old Victorian buildings had given way to lovely, colorful houses painted in blues and greens and yellows with slanting rooftops and window-boxes.
This time Johann didn’t even consider sharing his vision with any of the other patrons or the staff. No, now he was quite content to sit and watch the transmogrification of the past, present and future as it unrolled before his eyes – a miracle of time and space that defied all reason and yet, he realized, made perfect and absolute sense. He turned back and gazed around the cafe. The other patrons, a mixture of young, middle-aged and elderly Portlanders, including two Somalis, and one Cambodian, were all immersed in their own separate journeys through time.
Copyright 2010 by Annie Seikonia.