It seemed strange at first that libraries had security guards. Like if ice cream parlors had bouncers. And not just guys looking after everyone, not just tougher librarians—real guards with uniforms and utility belts. Back in his library days, the guards seemed impertinent. At least at first. Samuel would be sitting in some quiet room that smelled like dust and coffee, and it would be silent. Maybe the music coming through someone’s headphones, maybe the abrasion of a book being pulled off a shelf, but mostly silent. And then those big boots would come clumping in and the guard would do a round of the room, not scrutinizing anyone, exactly, but definitely letting everyone know he was there.
Samuel liked the rooms with no windows the best. Fluorescent lights that hummed, odd nooks for pipes or closets, usually on the third or fourth floor—those were his favorite. If he could see outside he felt exposed and cold; he might as well be on the street.
In library rooms there were chairs with tables and chairs without tables, and there was a kind of person for each kind of chair. The people who sat at tables had laptops and paper. They seemed hurried and kept looking at their watches, like they had somewhere to be, or wanted to have somewhere to be.
The people without tables sometimes held books and sometimes held nothing at all. They seldom had anywhere to be. Samuel sat in chairs without tables. He liked the grody grey armchairs with wooden arms. He liked their odd obtuse angles that made standing up harder than sitting down. They were chairs that were meant to be sat in for a long time, and he did. The only trouble with the security guards was that the regularity of their rounds meant they knew exactly how long everyone had been sitting there. It was the same guard every day, more or less, young and pinched-faced, and each of them knew when they looked at the other that they had seen one another before. Every time the guard glanced in his direction he was making a mental note, and he knew that Samuel knew he was making a mental note, and it made Samuel uncomfortable. He had seen the guard throw out guys just for sitting there too long, just because they hadn’t looked busy enough. That was why Samuel always grabbed a newspaper on the bottom floor or a book from off the shelf, but the floor he liked the best was stocked with biographies, and he had found he didn’t give a damn about any of the people on the shelves.
In fact, the people not on the shelves were far more to his liking. They were, people who, like him, didn’t belong anywhere else. There were women with bruises on their faces and kids who didn’t want to go home. There was the woman who spent every day reading the entire newspaper, the woman who came in panting, the woman who whispered to the scarf she was knitting. There was the guy who sat and meditated, the one who fastened his belt every time he stood up, the person who stared at their phone until it ran out of battery. Samuel had never talked to a single one of them, and he loved them all.
Yes, it seemed odd at first that libraries had security guards, until he realized it was because there was no cost to be there—in fact their entry had no provisions as long as they were quiet. There weren’t security guards to prevent vicious library brawls or the theft of books or laptops. Probably those things happened but Samuel never saw them. The library had guards because over time the people who didn’t belong anywhere else started to feel like they belonged there, or rather that there belonged to them, and ownership was a tricky thing.
Samuel was careful. He never got there right at opening, or left right at closing, and he never came or left at quite the same time. If he could manage it, he skipped a day now and then. But that winter was a cold one and it was hard to sleep, hard to shake the fear that his blood would freeze in his body. So he was tired. All the time. When he got to the library that day he sat in a chair with a table, really just so that he could prop his body up on something with his arms. He didn’t mean to put his head down. He didn’t remember putting his head down. He missed the blinking lights that warned the people on the third and fourth floors that the library was closing, and he missed the clattering sound of the keys on the guard’s utility belt coming up the stairs.
They were calling him sir. That was partly why it took him so long to wake up. The hand on his shoulder is what did it. He panicked, really, is what he did, and he shouldn’t have. He couldn’t stand being thrown out of any more places—places he’d owned or places he’d merely loved. He clutched at the table and said the word “No,” several times, which was bad enough, but it was “This is where I live,” that was his undoing. The panic gave the guard the righteousness to haul Samuel’s scrappy body out of the chair and pull him down every stair like he was a rolling suitcase.
“I know your face,” the guard said, and Samuel noted as the guard pushed the front door with one hand and Samuel with the other, that had never heard the guard’s voice before, “and I don’t wanna see it in here no more.”
The street was dark and it was cold. The library doors locked, and Samuel’s only connection to the inside was the light on the sidewalk from the windows.