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Jeff Abbott

Do Unto Others

1

It was really rude of Beta Harcher to argue with me right before she got killed. Downright inconsiderate if you want my opinion. The woman acted like she had a toll-free line to Jesus, so you’d think she would have had forewarning of her fate. Plus she went on her tirade in front of folks, which caused me all sorts of grief later. Fortunately I’m not a man to complain about the lack of trump cards that life deals you. The day she died was a typically humid, sunny spring day in central Texas. I’d been running an errand and I was in a cussing mood when I got back to the library. You see, coming back from the pharmacy, where I’d bought Mama’s medicine, I’d tripped over a damn baseball bat some kid had left in the small ballpark next to the library-and I’d nearly planted my face in the grass. I picked up the bat, looking around for a batless kid, but didn’t see the owner. I figured whatever little Billy Joe or Bobby Jack had lost his equipment would come wailing about it soon enough, so I took the bat inside. The Mirabeau public library was its usual hub of activity. Shelves of dusty, unread books made a place scintillate. I walked in, nodded to some of the regulars, winked at a couple of the pretty ladies, and dumped the bat into my little office behind the checkout counter. I surveyed the library. In Mirabeau three’s literally a crowd, so we had ourselves a horde that morning. Old men sat in the periodical section, slowly scanning the papers and frowning over progress. A couple of book-minded youths from the high school fed their spring break reading habits in the science- fiction section. In the most distant corner of the library, the gossipy ladies of the Eula Mae Quiff Literary Society (led by the one and only Eula Mae herself) quietly pretended to discuss the latest offerings in romance literature while chatting about their neighbors. All in all, a quiet group, idling away several hours in the coolness of the books and avoiding the smothering spring humidity. I’m not usually found at the checkout counter, but since I didn’t have a staff I didn’t have much choice. The last chief librarian, the much-loved Miss Eugenia Pollard, had died three months earlier; and her staff had departed for greener pastures. One had taken a job as chief librarian in nearby Bavary; the other had gone off to be a country singer in Houston. I, of course, was the one left warbling the blues-although their departures had left the job available for me. My assistant, Candace Tully, was only half-time and was at a dentist’s appointment this afternoon. The only advantage was I didn’t have a staff continually pointing out how everything had been done under the golden touch of Miss Eugenia. My own library experience had been ten years earlier, working part-time in college at the Fondren Library at Rice University; so I’d brought a certain… flexibility to the work. Flexible meaning that I often didn’t know what the hell I was doing and just rolled with the punches. Fending off my desire for a cigarette with a wad of Juicy Fruit gum, I sat behind the counter and unfolded my many folders. One was of resumes and applications for my unfilled staff; one was a grant request I was working on to the U.S. Department of Education to get money for a literacy program; another folder held the layout for our monthly newsletter (much of it devoted to children’s activities); and the last contained a request from the mayor (my boss) to take a look at the Library Rules and Policy, since Miss Eugenia hadn’t updated that particular document since Reconstruction. I attacked the resumes first; the sooner I got help, the much less stressful my days would be. It was the Juicy Fruit that caused the commotion. Beta Harcher resented folks sinning right in front of her. And since I was chewing gum and not reading religious literature, I raised Beta’s ire. I knew she was standing there for a full minute, waiting for me to look at her, so I kept my eyes lowered. It didn’t work. “Mr. Poteet!” she snapped, not bothering to modulate her voice. That irritates me. After all, it is a library. I try to keep the noise down, even if most of my patrons are hard of hearing. I’m a librarian now (although not by training, and my respect for the profession has grown by leaps and bounds). I looked up at her. She was in her early forties-but carrying all the sins and worries of her neighbors had aged her. Once she might have had a delicate, doll-like face; now lines of worry and pinched anger marred her forehead and cheeks. Shots of gray streaked her thick dark hair. I’d wondered what kind of body might be lurking below her frumpy clothes. It was hard to tell beneath the dark, shapeless jackets and the Bible she constantly clutched to her bosom. Her blue eyes gleamed with shiny, repressed indignation. I suspected her righteousness was going to be all over me like white on rice. I popped my gum and picked up the book stamp, as though I expected Beta to actually check out a book instead of lighting a bonfire underneath one. I saw the hardback novel Beta held in her quavering hand.

“Goodness, Miz Harcher.” I smiled my public relations smile. “I didn’t know you liked English literature.” “This isn’t literature, mister.

This book is obscene.” “ Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence? Oh, Miz Harcher, that’s a classic.” I gently tried to take the book from her hands, but she wouldn’t let go. She didn’t want to miss a chance to wrestle with Satan. “Classic smut, you mean.” She slapped a familiar piece of paper on the counter. The last sixteen times she’d done this, I’d sighed. Now I fumed. “What’s this?” I asked, all innocence.

“Another Request for Reconsideration of Material.” Beta smiled. I glanced at the form; she had filled one out for Lawrence’s Women in Love. Just as she had for books by Mark Twain, Jay McInerney, Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alice Walker, and others. We’re open-minded folks in the New South, no matter what the media might have you believe. If you object to something in the Mirabeau library, you can fill out one of these requests for reconsideration. We didn’t get them often; at least we hadn’t until Beta went on her empty-the-shelves campaign. I scanned her latest report, written in her creepy thin handwriting; no, she admitted she hadn’t read the whole book (“it liked to make me gag, so I couldn’t finish the Godless trash”); her estimation of the main idea of the material was innovative (“promote sex outside of marriage”); and in her judgment the book would have a deleterious effect on the youth of Mirabeau (“it’s liable to make them want to fornicate before they get halfway through”). I leaned back in my chair. I’d had enough of this harassment. “Look, Miz Harcher…” “I know my rights, Jordan Poteet.

Talking to you isn’t going to satisfy my complaint. You got to call a meeting of the Materials Review Committee.” I groaned. If someone files a request, and I can’t resolve the problem, I have to call a meeting of the MRC, which consists of me (naturally), the chairman of the library board, and another member of the board. Beta had demanded sixteen meetings thus far and hadn’t gotten one book off the shelves.

I decided to try polite reason with her. “Miz Harcher, no one considers Lawrence obscene these days. Why, you can go to the big universities in Austin and College Station and they teach him there.”

This academic recommendation didn’t sway Beta Harcher. She flipped open the book to a passage of dire sin she’d marked with her bony, blame-pointing finger. She lectured me like she was calling fire down to the pulpit. “Not to mention that the title itself suggests unnatural acts, but listen to this: ‘The thought of love, marriage, and children, and a life lived together, in the horrible privacy of domestic and’-here she puckered her sour face-’connubial satisfaction, was repulsive.”’ She glared at me. “This book is antifamily.” I sighed. Miz Harcher hadn’t consulted Noah Webster on what connubial meant, but it sounded decadent enough to warrant her attention. Her harangue riveted everybody. I could see Old Man Renfro and my other elderly regulars look up from their reading. Eula Mae Quiff and her groupies watched, more interested in local passions than those described in the bodice rippers they discussed. Gaston Leach stuck his head out from behind the science-fiction stack, ogling the scene through his bottle-thick lenses. Ruth Wills, a local nurse, glanced up from the card catalog. Biggest crowd in the Mirabeau library in three days. Beta loved an audience. I’d seen her poking around the shelves the past couple of days, sniffing out depravity, and now she’d made her move. “And you know chewing gum’s not allowed in the library, Jordy Poteet!” Beta Harcher added, taking on all transgressions in her immediate vicinity. “I’m trying to quit smoking,” I explained, hoping for a little mercy. “And as the librarian, I allow what I like in this library.” I tried to puff out a bubble to piss her off, but Juicy Fruit’s not built for blowing. “The city council might argue with that.” Beta shook the offending volume of Lawrence in my face. “If the city councilors want to fire me, they can. Women in Love is not obscene, Miz Harcher.” She pulled out her big censorship gun. “Oh, really, Mr. Poteet? I think the God-fearing folks of Mirabeau’d like to know what else goes on in this book.” She leaned her face close to mine and I could smell her unpleasant breath. Probably chewing brimstone as a mint. “Men. Wrestling in the nude together.” She enunciated the words carefully, making sure I understood their import.

“Yes, the two men in the book wrestle. It shows their friendship,” I explained patiently. “They don’t have sex.” My twentieth-century Brit Lit professor surely would’ve found Beta a challenging pupil. “Why don’t you really

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