Read The Twelfth Child Online

Authors: Bette Lee Crosby

Tags: #General, #Fiction

The Twelfth Child (23 page)

BOOK: The Twelfth Child
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Three days later Abigail did mention the fact that she was looking for work.  “I’m a writer,” she said, “but, other than working for Miss Ida Jean Meredith, I’ve no experience.”

“You worked for
Ida Jean Meredith
?”

Abigail nodded and said nothing of how she’d been a hostess at Club Lucky for the past three years.  “Until she died.”

“Why, her poetry is magical – pure genius!” Miss Spencer was suddenly aglow.  “We have three of her books right here in this library.  One of them autographed!”

“The newspaper said that’s not qualifying experience.”

“What do they know?”

“They wouldn’t hire me – not even for obituaries.”

“Peasants!  No vision!  A person of your experience shouldn’t waste their time writing chit-chat destined for the trash bin!”  

From that moment on, Miss Spencer took a great interest in Abigail.  “We’ve a wonderful new book on architecture,” she’d say, “now,
that’s
what you should be reading!”  But Abigail still grabbed hold of the Richmond Courier the first thing each morning and ran her finger down the help wanted columns – acrobat, juggler, tug boat captain – when she’d finally determined there was not a single job she could qualify for, she’d offer to help Miss Spencer.  She spent hour after hour rolling a metal cart with a squeaky wheel through the aisles, reaching up to the highest shelf and squatting to the lowest to replace each book in precisely the right place.  When the cart was empty of books, she studied the Dewey decimal system so she could sort the index cards.  On several occasions Miss Spencer even allowed her to handle check-outs.  Abigail loved the sound of the date stamp thunking down against a card – it seemed so sturdy, solid as a house made of bricks.    

By August, the stack of dollar bills in Abigail’s shoebox had grown noticeably smaller, despite the fact that Gloria was paying more than her share of the expenses.  Abigail started to worry and took to considering employment listings she had previously passed by – she’d let her finger linger on the advertisement for draftsman, wondering precisely what such a job might entail, then she’d considered the opening for an elephant trainer, thinking, how hard could something like that be?  Shortly before Labor Day, she got to feeling truly desperate and asked Gloria if there were any other openings at ChickenCastle.  As it turned out, Mildred, the cashier, had developed a spur on her tailbone and could no longer sit for such long hours, so she’d given her two weeks notice.

Early the next morning, Abigail walked into ChickenCastle and asked if she might have the job.  That afternoon she went back to the library.

“I missed you this morning,” Miss Spencer said.  “We’ve a number of books to be replaced in the stacks, and some overdues you can check on.”

“I got a job,” Abigail said despondently.  “I won’t be able to help anymore.”

“With a book publisher?” Miss Spencer asked anxiously.

“Not exactly.”

“A periodical?”

“ChickenCastle.”

“What do they publish?”

“Nothing.  They sell fried chicken.  I’m going to be the cashier.”

“Cashier?” Miss Spencer echoed, looking as if she was about to fall over in a dead faint.  “A girl of your ability?  A girl with aspirations of becoming a writer?”

Abigail shrugged.  “At least it’s a job.”

“Lord-in-Heaven!  A person who’s worked with Ida Jean Meredith, dishing out fried chicken!”

“I won’t be
serving
the chicken,” Abigail answered.  “I’ll be the cashier.”

“Absolutely not!” Miss Spencer snapped.

“I’ve already got the job”   

“Well, you’ll simply have to tell them you can’t accept it.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I need you here at the library.” Miss Spencer started clacking the overdue stamp down on a bunch of books like a machine run amuck.

“But,
this
job doesn’t pay any salary.”

“It does now!  You start today.  Assistant Librarian in training.”

“In training for
what
?” Abigail asked, looking as if it were virtually impossible for her to have heard what she heard.

“No,” Miss Spencer exclaimed, reversing herself.  “Not in training.  You’ll be hired as a full-fledged
Assistant Librarian!
  And in November, when I retire, you’ll become
Head Librarian!

Abigail’s mouth fell open – if a person wasn’t going to be a writer, the next best thing was to spend every day in a building filled with wonderful stories.  She was starting to imagine herself reading every single book, not once, but twice.  Maybe when she became
head librarian
, she’d stay here all night, reading until her eyes could no longer hold themselves open and then she’d fall to sleep in the back room.

“No need to argue,” Miss Spencer said.  “My mind’s made up!”

 

D
uring the month of October, Abigail propped open the library doors to catch the breezes of Indian summer.  The scent of late blooming roses and fresh mown grass settled into the bindings of books, and Miss Spencer forgot to put out her bowl of Halloween candy which had been the tradition for decades.  Mister Wimple, the groundskeeper took to sneezing seventeen times in a row, a condition he claimed could only be attributed to summer allergies.  The balmy weather lasted through Thanksgiving, and most folks had begun to believe that winter was not going to come to Richmond that year.  However, on the last day of November, the day that was to herald Miss Spencer’s departure from the library, an ice storm rolled in sometime before dawn and the air turned bitter cold.  When Abigail woke early in the morning, there was a crackling of ice stuck to the bedroom window and she started to worry it could be a sign.  “A sign of what?” Gloria had asked, but Abigail just shrugged and mumbled something about not knowing who’s at the door until you’ve already opened it. 

“Go ahead and laugh,” she told Gloria, “but just you remember when Club Lucky closed.  I
knew
– first thing in the morning, when I saw the sky, I
knew
there’d be bad luck headed my way.”

“Silly superstition!” Gloria laughed, and then went about ironing her uniform.  

Abigail wanted to believe Gloria was right, so she focused on thoughts of how she’d start up a children’s hour with nursery rhymes and fairy tales, but the image of Mother Goose flying around on a witch’s broom popped into her head and she knew for certain it was going to be
that
kind of a day.  “Oh dear,” she sighed as she wrapped the opal pendant she’d bought as a retirement gift for Miss Spencer. 

The library was still dark when Abigail arrived, which to her mind was more cause for concern since she’d never known Miss Spencer to be late.  Using her brand new key, Abigail unlocked the front door and snapped on the light.  She retrieved three books from the depository box then walked into the back room and hung her coat.   After she had set the coffee pot on to brew, Abigail placed the box tied with blue ribbon in the center of Miss Spencer’s desk and waited.  By ten-thirty she was practically positive something was wrong – something drastic, for Emily Spencer would not allow herself to be delayed, especially on this day when there was to be a going away party in her honor.  Abigail watched the clock tick off the minutes, each longer than the one before, then at eleven o’clock she dialed Miss Spencer’s home number, even though the library telephone was supposed to be used for business calls only.     

“Hello,” a husky-voiced male said.

“Uh, hello,” Abigail stuttered.  “May I please speak to Miss Emily Spencer?”

“Who’s this?” he asked.

“Abigail Lannigan, the assistant librarian.”

“Oh.”  The man hesitated several moments before he spoke again, “I guess you haven’t heard.”

“Heard?”

“Emily passed away late last night,” the man said, his voice sounding low as the center of the earth.

“Oh, no . . .” Abigail stammered, but by that time the man had hung up. 

That night, after the library doors were closed and locked, Abigail took the opal pendant from its box, walked to Saint Paul the ApostleChurch and dropped it into the poor box.  She sat in the darkest corner of the last pew and cried for almost three hours, mostly for poor Miss Spencer who had been cheated out of her last hour of glory; but partly for herself because being the head librarian didn’t feel anywhere near as good as she had thought it would. 

 

G
loria had been working at Chicken Castle precisely three years on the day Fred Bailey walked through the door, sat down at the counter and ordered the fried chicken combo.  She knew this for a fact because on that day the girls surprised her with a frosted cake that read
Congratulations.
   Having already carved off several pieces to pass around, she was just about to stick her own fork into a slice, when he smiled at her.  It wasn’t as if a man had never before done such a thing – working at Club Lucky it had been a nightly occurrence – but Fred’s smile was different, it made her toes curl under.  She smiled back, and then stood there with a forkful of cake suspended halfway between the plate and her mouth.  

“Your birthday?” he asked.

“Third anniversary,” she answered.

“Your husband’s a lucky man.”

“Oh no,” Gloria quickly clarified, “it’s the third anniversary of me working here.  I’m not married, not one bit married.”

“Then I’m the lucky man.”  He locked his gaze into hers and smiled again. 

It took Fred almost two hours to finish off the plate of fried chicken.  He’d nibble on the tip end of a wing, then ask where Gloria was from; he’d chew a shred of coleslaw fifteen times then inquire as to what movies she liked; he’d order up another cup of coffee and ask if she liked to dance.  In addition to the chicken combo, he ate two pieces of the celebration cake and drank twelve cups of coffee that afternoon.  By the time he finally left, Gloria was so starry eyed she put a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop a grilled cheese sandwich and served a slice of apple pie with pickle.

That night she told Abigail, “I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.”

“Marry?” Abigail echoed with astonishment.

Gloria nodded.  

Within a month, Gloria and Fred were keeping steady company.  Before the year was out, they married and moved into an apartment building three doors down.

Abigail went back to living alone.  Night after night she’d sit at the kitchen table reading, forgetting to make dinner, and filling herself with the promise that someday soon she too would meet the man of her dreams.  At times she’d slip off to imagining the look of him – tall, sandy-haired, eyes the color of a summer sky, a voice so melodious that birds would cease their singing to listen.  He’d love children and insist they have a houseful, three or four girls and a like number of boys.  They’d live in a white clapboard house on the far edge of town, a house with a picket fence and rose garden.  She even conjured up a rusty-hued Irish setter that in the evening would walk to the end of the drive waiting for his master to return from work. 

Each morning Abigail set aside her imaginary family and went to work at the library.  She unlocked the door at precisely nine o’clock and snapped on the lights, exactly the same way as Miss Spencer had for fifty years.  She spent the early hours at the circulation desk, organizing, cataloging, stamping overdue notices and watching for the sandy-haired man to walk through the door – it would stand to reason that if Gloria’s future husband had wandered into ChickenCastle, hers would one day show up at the library.   But it was mostly older folks who came, older folks and schoolchildren.  Old men with thick eyeglasses and hearing aids sat for hours on end reading the Richmond Courier, white-haired women browsed books on gardening and quilting, students ran in and out quickly, interested only in the book they’d been assigned to read.   “You might like to try
Gone With The
Wind,”
Abigail suggested to a number of women, but they took a look at the thickness of the book and right away shook their head.   “Why, it would take a year to read a book
that size!
” one woman commented, then she asked if the library had anything on the making of bundt cakes. 
 
       

Some days Abigail sat behind the circulation desk for so long that her foot fell asleep and started prickling pins and needles – she’d shake it a few times and stomp a bit, then start off walking in and out of the stacks.  At first she’d walk through Fiction, but the sight of all those wonderful stories going unread saddened her so she eventually switched over to History. 

After two years of watching and waiting Abigail started to grow discouraged; she set aside tales of romance and started reading stories of women such as Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt.  She read the free-spirited poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and focused on the fact that women such as Pearl Buck and Margaret Mitchell had written best selling books.  She resurrected the thought of becoming a novelist and bought a journal to make note of ideas for her first book. 
Heroine refuses to marry man she doesn’t love and runs away from home
, Abigail wrote on the very first page; but that seemed rather lame in comparison to the adventures of Scarlet O’Hara, so she crossed it out and went on to the next idea. 
Heroine is dying and hero carries her outside for one final look at land she loves
– also crossed out, too similar to WutheringHeights.  After that, there was a run of ideas that went on for thirty seven pages, one thought after another, all crossed out.  She was jotting down her thoughts for the story of an adventurous young girl and a wild horse, when a husky voice asked if the library had a city map.

Ordinarily she might not have bothered to look up, she might have simply gestured toward the back wall where such a map was displayed, but this voice lacked the shakiness of the old men and it lacked the high-pitched squeal of an adolescent boy, it was the rich round dulcet tone of a gentleman.  Abigail raised her eyes and looked into the face of the handsomest man she’d ever seen.   They stood eye to eye, him no taller than her.  He had the look of Rudolph Valentino, dark eyes and slicked back hair.  For a long time she stood there studying him and wondering why in the world she’d spent all those years looking for a man with sandy colored hair.

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