Lucy Slade

Julia Klatt Singer

Most people who met Lucy Slade thought she was insane. When asked if she liked swimming, “boiling corn” was her answer. On a hot July day that is what the city lakes smelled like to her; a big pot of boiling corn.  Added to it, the smells of wet sand, baby oil.  The wet sand and baby oil were each linked to other memories—cats dead in the street, her sickly baby brother, her mother shaving her legs, the basement of her grandfather’s store.  These memories evoked other scents and odors, linking together Lucy’s life like a city map. “Did she have a happy childhood?”  Vinegar, aspirin, and cool soil came to mind first.

No, Lucy Slade wasn’t insane.  It was the world around her that had lost track of its senses, something she could never do.

At 43, Lucy had come to accept the fact that she’d never quite fit in, that people didn’t want to hear about the smells around them, how alive they are, all that they carry.  Neighbors hardly noticed the long willowy woman with a slight underbite, clear chestnut eyes and yarn-like hair the color of knotty maple.  No one but Lucy knew that she smelled like rainwater.  No one stared, even when she stopped to sniff the bricks (hints of rusted iron and twine) of the carriage house she lived in.  She was a quiet woman, a modest dresser, wore mainly beige and ivory, sometimes white.  Nothing about her demanded attention.  She lived on her own.  Kept house and held a job at the public library.  Stayed out of the way.  Kept her stories to herself, much like the books that surrounded her in the stacks.

She loved the smell of books.  Old musty one, new ones still smelling of ink, paperbacks that carried the odor of every hand that had touched them—like buses did—and the ones wrapped in yellowing cellophane that reminded her of cemeteries. 

She wasn’t allowed a desk job, but instead had spent the last twelve years shelving books in the lower vaults.  She was quite good at it—never misfiled a book and often found ones out of place and put them where they belonged.  Some that had been lost for years.  She spent six hours a day in the dimly lit stacks, climbing up and down ladders, walking the silent streets of this city of books.  She liked working.  She shelved and retrieved as many books as the three other stackers did together, and never complained about the darkness, the dank damp cavernous room, the dust, the dullness tinged with grave-like sounds.

Lucy loved her job until last week.

Janice Weathermore, one of the check out ladies, decided to search Lucy’s bag on her way out of work on Thursday.  Lucy carried an assortment of books—all the ones she like the smell of—and Janice made a big show of checking to see if they were library materials that Lucy was trying to steal.  A coffee-laced Nancy Drew mystery, a volume of Neruda poems that smelled like oranges, three paperbacks that reminded her of her mother and the latest Vogue were laid out on the counter.  Janice seized one of the paperbacks and barked to Lou Ann in circulation, “Isn’t this one of the missing titles?  “Love’s Sweet Surrender, by Pauline Hamilton?  It’s YA-Young Adulterous,” she added with a giggle.

Lucy felt her throat tighten, her skin heat up.  Felt all of the eyes of all of the library workers and the line of customers waiting to check out books behind her, on her.  A sour smell rose from Janice’s direction.  A smell like cat vomit.  Lucy felt her own stomach tighten.  She needed air.

Janice was one of those agelessly plump women.  The only thing thin on her was her nose, and her sense of humor.  Her dyed blond hair showed gray roots, and she often looked like she had just seen the ghost of her dead high school principal.  Janice had lovely pink lips, lips that looked as though they had just been kissed.  Unfortunately she was one of those people whose mouth naturally frowned.

“Leave the poor thing be,” Lou Ann said from her chair across the lobby. “We aren’t missing that one.”

Some kind woman in line behind Lucy helped her load her books back into her bag.  Lucy walked home slowly, avoiding all cats, breathing in as much fresh air as she could without hyperventilating.

 

On Good Friday the library was closed and Lucy didn't have to go to work.  Three days she tried to forget the smell of Janice and what had happened.  Three days she was grateful not to have to work.  She had always dreaded holidays in the past.  Even the books smelled sour now, the ones that Janice had touched.  The Vogue magazine no longer held its new inky perfume, underneath sat something cheap, dirty.

On Easter Sunday, after having dinner with her brother Leo's family, Lucy was reluctant to go home.  Usually the medicinal nature of her brother and his family drove her out, but today it felt like a chaise lounge--uncomfortable and difficult to get in and out of, but lovely, to have.  Especially if you looked at it from across the room, far enough away that the scent of it is faint, familiar.

When Leo's oldest son asked her what she thought about the local baseball team's new pitcher, she replied, "Moth balls."  He found this hilarious and sought her commentary on the entire team.  Even Lucy saw the humor in it and was soon laughing with him.

Monday morning came and Lucy headed off to work.  She slipped in quietly, avoiding the check out desks located to the left of the front doors by entering with the janitor, who smelled like cinnamon and shoe polish, through the service door.  She went down to her floor and waited patiently for the first request. 

It was for an older volume of Norwegian poems, located with the rare books.  As Lucy carried it to the book elevator, she noticed an interesting thing.  The paper the request was written on smelled like motor oil, and the book, like kerosene.  Lucy paused.  Stood completely still.  Waited for the overhead light to flick off.  Then, breathing in the scent of the book and the slip, Lucy let herself go.

She was back in her grandfather’s garage.  It was the summer of 1957 and Lucy was waiting for him to finish pumping up the tires in her new bike.  It was her birthday present, this red two-wheeler, and she was seven years old.  Her grandmother had braided her hair that morning, and tired a ruby ribbon on the end of each braid.  Lucy’s thin sand colored hair usually hung limp down her back, but with the braids she could flip her hair over her shoulder.  She liked watching the glossy red out of the corner of her eye. 

Grandfather’s garage was dark and cool.  Full of all sorts of odd, old things.  Wooden wheels, rusty tools, a yoke, a horsewhip, and six horseshoes.  Kerosene lamps sat on the ends of the workbench, leaving dark oily rings on the wood.

 

Lucy walked to the section that contained the rarely requested history books. Lights flicked on as she moved through the stacks.  Following her nose, she found a volume on the history of the bicycle that also smelled like motor oil and kerosene, and added it to the Norwegian poems.  On the bottom of the slip she wrote,

“Thought you might enjoy this book too, L.S.”

 

Book check out volume increased by 50% that month and many of the borrowers started commenting as they waited in line.  Many patrons returned their books early so they could request a few more, hoping to receive another present.  The additions Lucy sent thrilled most of the readers because they were often something they’d been searching for without being able to name it.  The books brought back memories that had been packed away long ago.

Lucy had inspired Naomi Evenson to start needlepointing again.  Rodney Hill took up bread baking. George Hamilton, in the memory of his grandfather, was riding a bike again at 70.  Lilian Zambowski was painting landscapes.  Max Synder was keeping bees.  Cecil Black was writing a play about his boyhood neighborhood. C.B. Smith was thinking about bull riding after reading the travel guide to Spain Lucy had sent him.

One woman asked Janice who L.S. was, showing her the note Lucy had written her about the Greek mythology volume with the engraved color plates Lucy thought she’d enjoy.

“Lucy.  Lucy Slade is the only employee with those initials,” she replied.  “Although I don’t think Lucy’s got enough upstairs to write her own name.” 

 

After hearing and overhearing dozens of patrons commenting on how great Lucy was, Janice decided to request a couple books herself to see what Lucy recommend she read. On her next cigarette break, she told Sherry, the new check-out girl, her idea.  Janice would use a fictitious name, so Lucy wouldn’t know it was she who was requesting the books about the clinically insane.  Sherry would pick them up before their next break.

Lucy sent three additional books.  A giant picture book of cats with a slight case of mildew, a copy of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome that smelled like ice, and a travel guide to Branson, Missouri that smelled like Jean Nate’ perfume.  On the bottom of the request, Lucy wrote, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Sitting outside the library on the bench near the bike rack, Sherry and Janice laughed over the selections and note Lucy had sent.  As Sherry paged through the books, Janice felt a wave of anger, then sadness wash over her.  “I need another cigarette,” she said as she crushed the one she had been smoking with the heel of her tennis shoe.  The sun slid behind a cloud, and Janice felt damp.

“These books stink, you know, like… a cat’s litter box and…” Sherry wrinkled her nose.

“And Jean Nate’,” Janice flicked the butt of her second cigarette into the bushes to the left of them.

“Jean Nate’.  Right.  God I wore that in 7th grade,” Sherry coughed as she laughed.  “Thought I was so grown up.  I stole it from my big sister.  Of course she smelled it on me and told my mom.”

Janice was only half listening.  Her head was throbbing.  “Got in a lot of trouble, did ya?”

“Nah.  Just had to give it back and take a bath until my mom couldn’t smell the perfume anymore.”

Janice could picture Sherry as a thirteen year old now.  One of those girls that never got in trouble.  One of those girls that was cute, even with a zit or two.  Like her baby sister, Nora.  Pampered.  Never grounded.  Never got the belt.  Never humiliated in public like she was.

Janice, at thirteen, had prayed for breasts.  She was a large, cubby girl, but none of the fat ended up on her chest.  She knew that being popular with the boys meant having breasts, if you weren’t attractive otherwise.  But God never answered her prayers.  She too had stolen Jean Nate’, but she stole it from the Ben Franklin downtown and got caught.  Had to sit in the manager’s office until her mom got off work, and came to pick her up.  She was then lectured by both the manager and her mom, and ordered never to set foot in the store again. 

When they got home, her mom whipped her with her belt, spelling out Jean Nate’ with each whip, as her sisters watched.  She knew what she had done was wrong, and knew also that her mother whipping for this was wrong too.  But her mother liked drama, and whipping Janice for the attempted theft would keep the other girls in line.  Her mother told Nora and Emily and Teresa and Paula that if they were smart they wouldn’t eat too much like Janice and then they wouldn’t need perfume to get the boys’ attention.  She prayed to God to strike her mother down, but again he remained silent.

Janice bummed a third cigarette off Sherry.  She used to love the smell of a just lit match, even liked the cigarette smoke in her shampooed hair, but today she waved it off in Sherry direction.  Flicked her ashes into the wind the way her mother used to, not caring where they landed, who they burned.

Lucy smelled the cigarette smoke as it drifted in the only open window of the break room.  Four floors up, the smoke traveled, carrying with it the scent of tree leaves opening, the earth warming up.  She wondered if she was the only one that knew that you can only bury, ignore and forget so much.  There will always be a piece that will linger.  A faint memory, like the scent of lilacs in bloom, of a hundred candles burning, of fabric crisp and new--never been washed—or some other smell you no longer remember, but will one day encounter and with its lofting odor so much more will come.  That much was certain, of this Lucy was sure.