HOMAGE

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A Very Short Story by Richard Balthazar

            As usual we had lunch together at the house after my morning at school.  I was rarely ever at home with the wife and kids except at mealtimes because of long hours in the library working on a dissertation and late nights as a security cop in tremendously deserted places.  She and I had soup and sandwiches by the window looking out on our rock garden, blasted under January ice, and there was time after to play with my young daughters.  Time out from articles in esoteric languages and from monotonous rounds through lumberyards and ball-bearing factories.  We even took a little walk down the sloping sidewalk in the snow, the girls in danger of rolling down the hill in their snowsuits so round.

Back in the library, I felt at home in the stacks in my comfortable carrel, a woven-wire scholar’s cell bright with two windows on an attic view of the quadrangle, my quiet eyrie for annotating bibliographies.  Till three I sat there gloriously undisturbed over Czech contributions to the field, and then I had to look at a Russian dissertation.

Since it couldn’t be taken from the reading room, I went through the secret stack ways back out into the world of people.  At the reference desk I dutifully signed for the volume, lugged it down an aisle, and took a seat near the middle of a long table.  Books were scattered un-shelved around the table.  Reluctantly I set to reading and in relative peace managed a couple pages, at which point a guy came to sit at the end of the table on the other side.  He made a lot of noise pulling out his chair and draped his blue coat over its back.  Since there was a lamp stand down the center of the table, I couldn’t see his head, only his ivory fisherman’s sweater.

Later I looked up from my reading to think about an interesting ramification.  The guy was slouched with his book in his lap, his fine hands holding a blue ballpoint over the page.  Now, under the bottom of the lamps, the lower half of his face was visible with a faint growth of mustache.  In my forced diligence, I dismissed the temptation and read a few more pages.

Eventually I leaned over my long yellow pad to note something, and having noted, I found that I could see the fellow’s whole head:  long dark hair, some shades darker than his mustache.  It curled around his ear.  A straight, fine nose and bright, dark-rimmed eyes of a light blue.  In the moment that I watched, his eyes closed for a second, then popped awake again.  The afternoon was getting to him.

His lapses became more frequent, and soon he swung his jeaned legs and feet in brown socks up on the corner of the table, sliding down in the chair into an unobstructed view.  For several minutes I didn’t read, didn’t think about anything, just waited while his eyes were closed.  Then he opened them wide, yawned, and rubbed his cheek.  He ran his finger along his lips, nodded again, bent his head and held the book in his lap as though to read.  Several times he attempted to go back to the book, or wake up by looking around.  Once he even looked toward me, and with the reflexes of a fly, my eyes dropped back to my page.

A millisecond of pale blue.  At next glance he was asleep again.  Sometimes his brown toes gave little twitches.  After a few minutes, he took his legs down off the table, looked at his watch, and turned a couple pages with a yawn.  Then he laid the book on his green book-bag and rested his head on his arms, facing away.

Putting the distraction into perspective, I tried to go back to the grind of the Russian’s sloppy scholarship.  It had to be read, but more often than not, I found myself staring under the lamps.  The guy jerked in his sleep, his hair thick and fine, spreading over his ivory forearm, compelling even with his face hidden.

I stealthily lifted the yellow page of my pad and wrote on the bottom of the next:  “You are beautiful.”  Knowing I shouldn’t, I tore it carefully, but crooked and too loudly.  Carrying the note as well, I returned the dissertation to the reference desk, my diligence gone up in smoke.

When I came back to the table to retrieve my pad, he hadn’t moved.  I stopped to pick up one of the books on the end of the table near him, replacing it near his book-bag, and laid the note awkwardly on the green canvas of his bag, swiftly checking down the table that I hadn’t been seen.  Taking up my pad, I started away, the scrap of yellow paper gleaming beside his incredible hair, a star that no eye could avoid seeing.  Leaving the room in a state of nerves, I hid myself away in the carrel to let things take their course without me.

By the window I leaned on the sill, gazing out into nowhere.  All I’d seen was his right eye; perhaps his left was a deep mahogany brown.  But there was a world in that eye, a lake shining in fir trees, a translucent and tranquil pale sky.  What shining birds hover over it, in it?

Coming round from the reverie, I feared that when I’d left, he might have seen me.  He’d surely have found the note by now and might know me even from that one glance.  Nonetheless, as I sneaked out of the building, I was drawn to peek into the reading room.  From its glow over the tables, I knew my note was still there.  His head was still down, and there it burned, searing yellow.  I turned quickly and hurried out.

At home while helping the baby off with her snowsuit, I was certain that now he really was reading the note.  There was the sense of having my prayer of praise heard.  On purpose, I left a little early for work to stop again at the library on the way.

In the reading room, new people were scattered around our places.  In the middle of his area of the table it lay, crumpled and browning like a leaf, no longer bright.  I just stood there looking around at the people, while its dull yellow edges curled up, shouting its abandoned message to the vaulted ceiling.

Tonight was to be another twelve rounds in the spring factory.

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