Suction prevented the towering glass door from opening on Irene’s first tug. After a glance at the scuffed face of her digital watch and the hours posted on the placard, she grasped the brass latch with both callused hands. Bracing her feet, she pursed her thin lips and put her back into a firm yank. The seal finally popped and a gust of chilled air swirled through the opening, countering the late summer’s suffocating humidity. With a shiver, she clutched her purse and notebook to her shirtfront and entered.
Rubber mats muted her thick-soled sandals on her initial pad through the library’s metal detectors, their red and watchful lights steady. The marble floor, however, caused her cautious steps to echo.
At a circular desk plopped into the center of the arched foyer a goateed gentleman with a receding hairline looked up from his computer screen, his tapping on the keys slowing.
“Morning,” he said with a smile between his salt and pepper beard. He lifted his hands from the keyboard and fetched a pencil from the rut above his ear. “How can I help you?”
Glancing to either side, Irene tiptoed to his counter. Keeping her voice at a far lower pitch, she glanced up and then back down, perusing his desk’s collection of crisp magazines.
“I’m…I’m looking for your local newspaper section.”
He nodded and plucked a scrap of note paper, the lead of his pencil poised. “Any particular date range?”
Irene watched the tip waver over the pristine sheet. With a gulp, she dragged her gaze up, past his name tag with Newman in white letters, and locked upon his chin.
“Ah,” he jotted the year and circled it for good measure. “That’ll be the Chronicle. We only have those in hard copy.” Motioning to his right, Newman strode through the swinging door enclosing his mahogany desk. “Let me show you where—”
“It’s all right,” said Irene, waving her hand with vigor. “If you can just point out the way, I’m sure I can find it.”
“It’s no trouble. We’re always quiet first thing in the morning.”
He closed the entrance to his fortress of reference tomes and glowing monitors. “Are you looking for a particular issue?”
“Sort of,” whispered Irene.
She fell in line while he led by a cluster of computers and then a row of cubicles. Stacks flanked either side, the musk of age and paper floating on the air.
“Perhaps there’s a way we can narrow down—”
Irene shook her head and cut off his line of inquiry. “I just want to see the papers.”
Newman’s grin stretched, like a pulled rubber band. “All right.”
They walked in silence the rest of the way to a blocky map case sprouting from the tiles. A laminated map of the United States occupied the waist-high top.
“You can see the labels here,” said Newman pointing to the front tabs on each drawer. “They’ll give you the date range of the newspapers inside.”
“I understand” said Irene, finding the set up similar to those of the countless previous libraries she’d investigated. She glanced about and spied a nearby span of vacant table with a doused lamp and tucked in chair.
“But if you are looking for something specific,” said Newman, “it might be easier to find by looking through the catalog or in one of our databases.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” said Irene.
Newman twirled his pencil, and then returned it to his ear. “You know where to find me if you have any questions.”
Bobbing his head, Newman started back toward his desk.
“Ah…Thanks,” said Irene.
He glanced over his shoulder, a more authentic smile bunching his cheeks. “You’re welcome.”
Irene waited until he vanished behind the stacks and his footsteps quieted. His taps resumed, their faint pecks like rain on a tin roof. With a long exhalation she uncurled her arms around her notebook and slipped her purse’s straps from her bowed shoulder. She set both onto the table beside the map case and then faced the drawers. Pointing a finger with its chipped nail at the front tabs, she navigated down to the fourth drawer, her weathered jeans straining at her hips and knees.
Metal shrieked against metal when she pulled out the shelf. She stopped halfway, let the echo die, and then nudged the drawer the rest of the way, wincing with every steel yelp.
Disturbed newspaper edges fluttered and a puff smelling of autumn’s dying leaves brushed against her cheeks. The pages settled and beneath the Marshall Chronicle header the date of January 6, 1840 clung. Articles about local events, damage caused by a fire set to ward off the winter’s cold, and the proceeds gathered from the Christmas festival dominated the four columns.
Collecting the issue with care, Irene supported the flimsy pages and laid them quickly upon the table. She flipped the sheets until she neared the end, where advertisements mixed with birth, death, and wedding announcements. Following her finger, she noted names, addresses, and the brief summaries about the lives of the one or two who had arrived or passed on in the previous days or weeks. None carried any of the names within her notebook and ingrained under her fading blonde locks. Closing up the issue, she set it to the side and went back for the 13th.
She had plunged into September by the time Newman reappeared.
“I thought these might be of interest to you,” he said. He plopped a trio of dust smeared tomes onto the table. “They’re a composite history of the area in the mid-nineteenth century completed through a WPA project during the Depression. It’s a little easier to navigate that the newspapers, and more robust than the census, especially for that time period, with business records, residences, and obituaries I’m not sure they’ll ever get around to digitizing.”
Irene’s heart fluttered. “Obituaries?”
“Yes,” said Newman. He seized volume three and began flipping through the sheets of onionskin.
Irene neared and watched the near translucent papers crinkle and fall flat.
“Here we are,” said Newman. He spun the tome on his wide palm, up righting the beginning of an obituary section cast in a typewriter’s dented script. “They’re arranged by date and then name.”
Reaching up, Irene stopped short of taking the book.
“Please,” said Newman, inching the tome at her fingertips, “go ahead.”
She managed a weak smile and took the tome in both hands, wary of its weight. Her gaze sank into the opened page despite the ding sounding at the entrance.
“If you’ll excuse me,” said Newman.
Irene nodded absently, and noted his departure in passing. She drifted down to the chair she’d yet to occupy and set the book before her. Gulping down a sudden rise of nerves, she collected her pencil and drew her notebook along side. With her left hand she turned the pages and scanned the columns of names, dates, and summaries typed decades earlier. She jumped to the R’s in 1840, then again in 41. She didn’t come across a Robinson until 1852, but the name stopped her search short.
Madelyn Robinson nee Tremont, born March 1823, died November 23, 1852 due to complications during the birth of her third child, a girl, who also perished. She is survived by her husband Leon Robinson and their two children Paul, 7 and Martha, 4.
“Tremont,” whispered Irene.
The image of a woman on her death bed floated into her thoughts. Shaking away the vision, she etched the name into her notebook along with those of the children and husband. She drew a circle around Madelyn and a line across her penciled web to a Ruth Tremont with a daughter of the same name and age. Additional arrows pointed back to an Ada whose lineage walked back further generations and into townships thousands of miles away. She traced the line back around, where it led in the opposite chronological direction, into more recent history none of them could have fathomed.
Irene sat back, staring at the web of people denoted on the college rule and the completed circuit connecting them to her name written in her cramped script at the bottom right corner.
The seat beneath her and the tiles at her feet suddenly gained a sense of solidity. She placed her pencil aside and laid her hand atop the sheet as if somehow the touch might further bond her to the past and the people who had come before. The proof of their ties, however, would make all the difference in how her future would unfold.
She grinned faintly at the security she anticipated from the evidence hidden beneath her hand.
Mr. Jenkins, she reflected, can’t argue with fact.
Plumping her chest with a deep inhalation, she stood before weariness or exaltation gained the upper hand.
There was still work left to be done, she reasoned.
She packed away the newspapers and closed up her notebook. Tucking a scrap of paper in the gully of volume three to mark the page, she then slung her purse over her shoulder. She collected the two unused tomes and balanced the third on top. After making sure to push in the chair, she headed back to Newman’s counter.
“All done for the day?”
“Yes,” said Irene. She deposited the three volumes onto his desk. “I found…I found the name I was looking for.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Newman. “Had you been looking long?”
Is a lifetime long? she wondered.
“For a few years. It’s been a kind of…of a pet project.” She tapped the leather face of volume three. “You don’t have a photocopier here do you?”
“Of course,” said Newman. “Just around the corner. Ten cents a page.”
“I’ll be right back then.”
She hugged the tome and walked briskly to the indicated alcove. A dime deposit and swoop of neon-green light later and she held the replicated page in her hand. She tucked it into her notebook before returning to the desk.
“Thanks again for your help.”
Newman accepted the volume with a broad grin. “It’s my pleasure. I hope we’ll see you again.”
“I’m sure you will,” said Irene. “I…I like to pay my debts.”
He cocked his head. “Debts?”
“To pay back those who help me out.”
Newman seemed taken aback. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know….” Irene reigned in her excitement over who else she might be able to award with the funds she might soon be able to access. “You…you helped me find an important answer. I won’t forget it.”
Newman adjusted his grip on the tome, his cheeks flushing beneath his bristles.
With a weaker mimic of his smile, Irene dropped her gaze and turned. She headed for the doors and out into the summer heat with the evidence of a wintry death in hand and a long harbored hope about to be birthed.