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Jois Child
Friend of the Truckee Library
image by Amy WohlfarhtThings People Leave in Library Books

There were too many books crowded into the county’s branch library so the librarian asked Rose McIntyre, a new Library Assistant I, to sort through the shelves for “dispensable books.”

“Anything not checked out in two years, and, in Reference, anything older than 10,” the librarian said.

Because the library was busy all day, six days a week, it was impossible to make time for this chore during open hours. Even if she wasn’t scheduled to work, if she came in, she knew, she would end up helping patrons who wanted to gather investment tips, check e-mail, return movies and browse new arrivals. That left Sunday afternoon. She would have solitude then and she could wear her favorite weekend overalls.

The task proved more difficult than she imagined for the simple reason that few of the books met the two-year requirement. When she scanned the bar codes of each old, nondescript, dull-titled volume, she found that someone had checked it out. She didn’t know who, because the library didn’t track patron borrowing habits, but she began to imagine a curmudgeonly patron whose purpose in life was to check out books that should be retired from service.

At 4 p.m. she sat on a low library stool and surveyed her progress. Half a box of books was all she had managed. She picked up the top volume and flipped through its pages. About two-thirds of the way through, the pages parted to reveal a bookmark. Rose examined it: a two-part receipt for dry cleaning at a local shop.

People leave all sorts of things in books Rose knew from her short library career. Librarians had stories about exam crib notes, pressed plants, programs from plays and Christmas pageants, matchbooks, napkins with doodles, notes, phone numbers, even $20 and $50 bills. But never a ticket for dry cleaning that apparently hadn’t been collected.

Rose slipped the claim into her overalls pocket and started on another shelf. Clearly, she would need more Sundays to finish the task.

Monday on her lunch break, Rose stopped at the dry cleaners.

“This is silly,” she told herself. “After two years, there won’t be anything here. They’ll think I’m crazy.”

But there was something: a brown leather jacket. “We usually don’t keep things,” the cheerful woman at the counter said, “but this is so nice . . . I just couldn’t . . . and see ” you did come back for it!”

Rose started to explain that it wasn’t hers, but the woman behind the counter went on. “I’m so glad, now, that I kept it!” She glanced toward the back of the shop and lowered her voice. “Had to hide it from the manager a few times.” She laughed. “There. I knew someone would come for it.”

So Rose took the jacket home, feeling vaguely guilty. She hung it in her hall closet, then got it out and went through the pockets. In one of them she found a plastic bag holding what must have been the pocket contents. There was a half pack of Dentyne, a penknife, 87 cents and a library card. With a name.

Rose frowned at the screen. She had typed “Sebastian Perotti” into the database name search field. “No match.” She swiped the old library card through the magnetic reader for a second time. “Invalid or Inactive Card” the screen said. Rose shook her head and tapped the card on the desk top.

Brent Okalla, her coworker, leaned over her shoulder to look at the card. “Probably just inactive,” he said. “Looks like an old card. They’ve loaded only active users into the new system. Here, let’s see.”

With a few keystrokes he produced an answer. “Yup. Look…inactive for a couple of years. Still has a book checked out: ‘A Field Guide to Stone Walls’.” A few more keystrokes produced another screen. “The system thinks it’s lost.” Brent shrugged and turned away to answer the phone.

“Hmmm,” said Rose. When her desk shift was over, she slipped into the sorting area and reached into her box of discarded books. She lifted out “A Field Guide to Stone Walls,” by J. D. M. Woodock, published 1981. Who would want it, anyway? She slid it into her tote bag.

At home, Rose Googled Sebastian Perotti. She got results, but only in Italian and Portuguese. A genealogy search told her that the Perottis who immigrated to this part of the U. S. were shoemakers.

“Big deal,” she muttered, shutting down her laptop.

Two weeks later, Rose filled in on a Saturday shift. Saturdays were always busy in the morning, then quiet, then busy again starting around mid-afternoon, then quiet again. “Go figure,” thought Rose as she puzzled over Sebastian Perotti and watched the last of the morning crowd troop out the door.

Today she was teamed with Ellie Schmidt, who worked only on Saturdays and who had be doing this for about 20 years. Ellie was in the work room, sorting through newspaper clippings for the historical files and Rose was at the circulation desk when Ellie’s daughter came in. Ellie came out to chat and Rose wandered back to the work room. In a few minutes, Ellie leaned around the door.

“I’ll take the desk now, dear, all right?”

“Sure,” said Rose, and she turned idly to the newspapers spread out on the work table. A headline caught her eye: “New Library Opens.” A black and white photo showed a half dozen men and two women at a ribbon cutting ceremony. Reading the caption she saw the name Sebastian Perotti.

He was third from the left, a slight man wearing a tweed cap. He stood next to Henry Schmidt.

Rose made a cup of tea for Ellie, opened a Pepsi for herself and hoped that no patrons would come in for awhile. She had some serious gossiping to do.

“Oh, Sebastian,” Ellie said. “He had a shoe repair shop downtown. Such fine hands he had … artist’s hands. He retired, you know, but he still did small jobs for his friends. He and Henry were great friends.”

She sighed, remembering.

“He was a widower. His daughter moved away, married a dairy farmer, of all things. His grandson used to visit a lot. Then there was some sort of family trouble. I don’t know what it was. A couple of years ago he just got in his RV and drove away.”

Sebastian Perotti had left town completely. Rose found no trace of him except for the remnants she held: his library card, the leather coat and “A Field Guide to Stone Walls.”

The oddness of this interrupted her weekend reading. She slipped Sebastian’s library card into her book and retrieved the coat from her closet. There were scratches on the lower parts of both sleeves, and a mended tear in the left front lining. She slid one arm in, then the other, and shrugged it on. Definitely too big.

Looking in the mirror, she thought about the picture of Sebastian Perotti she had seen in the paper. He was a slight man, and his dress was what you might call “conservative dapper.” This would not have been his coat.

Turning, she hugged the coat around her, looking over her shoulder into the mirror. Who would wear a coat like this? Ellie had said a grandson visited often. Rose slid the coat off, discouraged. Tomorrow, she would take it to the thrift store.

And so she did, reluctantly, handing it over to a volunteer at the donations desk. “Nice coat,” said the woman. “Are you sure you want to get rid of this?”

Back at work, Rose changed the status of “A Field Guide to Stone Walls,” from “checked out” to “lost.” She looked up the replacement price and was not surprised to find it was out of print. The library would not replace it anyway, so she simply paid the fine. Sebastian Perotti no longer had unfinished library business.

His library card first marked Rose’s place in “The Shipping News,” then in “Bell Canto,” and “The Poisonwood Bible” one after another. One afternoon, home from work with a miserable cold, Rose snuggled under a down comforter, sipped hot tea and finished reading “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

She needed cheering up, but there was nothing else in her apartment to read except “A Field Guide…” waiting right there on her night stand. She picked it up and turned the pages. She read about granite and limestone, hard work, hammers and chisels. About two-thirds of the way through the first chapter an added sheet with a pen-and-ink illustration had been taped carefully to the right-hand gutter.

It was a sketch of a half ruined stone wall with vines growing up it. A ragged wall end exposed a jumble of smaller stones between two precisely layered outer walls. On the opposite page, Rose read, “Stones for the outer walls are carefully chosen and fitted together. Filling the inside is called hearting the wall. Some wall builders refer to this as ‘keeping the heart up.'”

The book yielded up a half-dozen more sketches, each ink on fine paper, each matching the text where it was added. Each bore on the back the initials S.P., dates between 1995 and 2002, and a cryptic notation that Rose decided must be a location key. Coopers SE4, said one. M.V. 7mi. br. said another.

Why, she wondered, would anyone mount these exquisite drawings in a library book . . . unless they weren’t planning to return it. And why would someone return it without checking it in?

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