The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 4

The Night Bookmobile

by Audrey Niffenegger

The Night Bookmobile

The first time I saw the Night Bookmobile, I was walking down Ravenswood Avenue at four o’clock in the morning. It was late in the summer. The sky was the terrible Chicago orange-purple color at that quiet time of morning when the cicadas have given up but the birds haven’t started in yet. I’d been walking for about an hour. I had started at Belmont and then I was at Irving Park Road. There are two trains that run along Ravenswood, the Chicago-Northwestern and the Ravenswood El, and periodically one of them would run up behind me and ahead of me with nobody in it. I was starting to feel a little peaceful, a little tired, so I kept on walking.
          On some blocks of Ravenswood there are houses, and on some blocks there are factories. The houses were all dark, as you might expect. The factories were like sleeping robots. Everything was very clean and slightly wet, because it had been raining around three, which is when Richard and I had the argument. So I was out walking around in the cool end of the night, and I saw the Night Bookmobile.
          It was sitting at the corner of Ravenswood and Belle Plaine. I didn’t know it was the Night Bookmobile, of course. It was an enormous, battered Winnebago, all lit up and thumping out “I Shot the Sheriff.” I like Bob Marley as well as the next person, but there was something pretty peculiar, almost scary, about hearing it played really loud on a deserted Chicago street at that hour. I paused infinitesimally, but I didn’t want whoever was in the Winnebago to think that I was pausing because of them, so I started walking again. As I passed, the door opened and I glanced in. There was an elderly white man sitting behind the wheel, drinking tea and reading a newspaper.
          I must have been staring at him, because he looked at me over his bifocals and said, “Would you like to see the collection?”
          Now you might be wondering if it was at all safe for a woman like me, not very tall, not very old, not a black belt in karate, to be wandering around alone like this in the wee hours. All I can say is, at that time in my life I used to do it a lot and no one ever bothered me. So when the old gentleman inquired whether I cared to see the collection, instead of shaking my head and continuing on, which is what any sensible girl would have done, I said, “What collection?”
           “The books,” he replied, handing me a card. It read:


           “The Night Bookmobile?” I said.
           “At your service.” Mr. Openshaw made a sort-of-pretend bow and turned off the music. I stepped up into the Winnebago and past him, and peered into the back of the camper.
          It seemed larger from the inside—much larger. There was a long, red-carpeted aisle down the middle, and on either side of it, from ceiling to floor, were the books. The lighting was subdued and pleasant. The whole place smelled of old dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog, which I like. I looked back at the librarian. He was reading his newspaper.
          I turned to the books. The section I was standing in was full of children’s books. I drifted along, noticing textbooks mingled with picture books, and an assortment of books you don’t usually see in libraries: family Bibles, photo albums, telephone books. Some of the books had catalog numbers on their spines, some didn’t. The books weren’t arranged by subject, and some of the numbers seemed to belong to different systems. In fact, the books seemed to belong to many different libraries. I wondered if Mr. Openshaw was running around stealing books from all these places and putting them in his Winnebago.
          I moved farther along the aisle. Then I noticed something strange, which was that every book on the shelves was familiar. That is, I had read all the books. I mean, I’m a pretty avid reader, but I had never been anywhere, even my own apartment, where I’d read everything. Everything. From Jane Austen to Paul Auster, from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook to The Raw and the Cooked to my college biology textbook, every book on the shelves was familiar. I even saw a lot of books I’d forgotten I’d read, Judy Blumes and Agatha Christies. And then I saw my diary.
          I took it off the shelf and opened it. On the first page was the date, December 25, 1976. “Dear Diary, Hello. I am at Grandma Eloise’s, it is Christmas . . .” Over my painstaking purple-ballpoint-pen handwriting was rubberstamped THE LIBRARY. I walked back to Mr. Openshaw.
           “This is mine,” I said, showing the diary to him.
          He smiled gently. “They’re all yours,” he said.
          I get inarticulate when I’m amazed. “Huh?”
           “This collection consists of all the books you’ve ever read. We also have all the periodicals, which are in the next aisle, and ephemera—cereal boxes and such—which are in Section C, to your right.” Mr. Openshaw took off his glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. “It’s a very complete collection.”
           “But how—were you waiting for me?”
           “No, not exactly.” The librarian stood up, his knees cracking. “Dear me.” He led me back to the books. “You see, the Library, in its entirety, comprises all the printed matter ever read by anyone alive at this moment. So we are quite ready for any patron.”
          Suddenly a bell rang. It sounded like a kitchen timer. “Oh, my,” said Mr. Openshaw. “I’m afraid the Library is now closed. ‘Hours: Dusk to Dawn,’ you know.” He took the diary from me and replaced it on the shelf. I wanted to protest, but instead I said, “Can I check some books out?”
           “Oh, I’m sorry, but the Library’s collections cannot be loaned to patrons. There’s not enough staff, you see, to administer all the fines that would accrue.” Mr. Openshaw herded me toward the entrance, and I could see through the windshield that the sky was much lighter. “I’m really very good at returning books on time,” I told him as I climbed out of the Winnebago.
           “I don’t doubt it,” the librarian assured me as he started the engine and turned on the music. “Holiday in Cambodia” blasted from the speakers, and I wondered if the Bookmobile housed everything I had ever listened to as well as everything I had read. Mr. Openshaw gave a chipper little wave as he drove off. Ravenswood is not very wide, and the Bookmobile gave the impression, gliding down the street, of a large egg sliding slowly through the body of a snake. I stood and watched until it turned a corner and disappeared.

The sun was shining as I let myself into the apartment. I stood in front of my bookshelves and there were all my books, haphazardly crowded together as always, needing dusting, as always. I was running my finger across my broken-backed set of The Lord of the Rings when Richard appeared in the doorway of our bedroom. He had gone to sleep in his clothes. His hair was standing up and he was blinking at the sunlight. Somehow I always loved him best after a fight, and right then I couldn’t even remember what we’d been fighting about.
           “Hey, Lexi,” Richard said. “Where ya been?”
          So I told him. “You won’t believe this . . .”
          And he didn’t. He sat at the kitchen table and ate the fried eggs and bacon I cooked. He listened without interrupting, which he was good at. But when I concluded triumphantly with “. . . and there are all my books, right where they’re supposed to be!” Richard just rolled his eyes and smiled. “No shit, Alexandra,” he said.
           “No, really, it was a real bookmobile, and look, the librarian gave me his card!” I put my hand in my back pocket, but the card wasn’t there. I had lost it. How could I have lost it? I wanted to cry. Richard made the face he always made when he thought I wasn’t being reasonable, a face that said See what I have to deal with here?
          That was when I decided to keep this Night Bookmobile thing to myself.

Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night. Teenage years reading—trying to read—books I’d heard were important, Naked Lunch and The Fountainhead, Ulysses and Women in Love . . . It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly.
          I went back the next night. I stood at Ravenswood and Belle Plaine for six hours, by myself. I brought a book with me, The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. I’d read it a few times, so I figured it would already be in the collection and I could compare the copies. When the sun came up I went home.
          This happened more times than I can count. I gave up looking for the Bookmobile on that particular corner and began roaming the city aimlessly at night. Richard accused me of seeing someone else, and I couldn’t convince him otherwise. He moved out. I found myself alone in the apartment, alone with my books.
          I began reading all the time. On the El, on my lunch hour, during every meal, I read. I looked forward to finding each book again someday on the shelves of the Bookmobile. I wondered if Mr. Openshaw was impressed with my choices, and my dedication. Like a pregnant woman eating for two, I read for myself and the librarian.
          Years passed.

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