“Hey, you guys remember how good air-conditioning felt?” Ted, wiped the copious sweat above his eyes onto the back of his hand. It was immediately replaced by more sweat on his brow.
“Hell, yes,” drawled Mitch. “Thanks for reminding me. You’re a real a-hole, you know?”
“Thanks, Mitch! I appreciate that. It helps me feel cooler when I think of it; that’s all.”
Josh shook his head. “You two quit your jawboning and help me move this stack into the shade. It’ll be cool there.”
Ted snorted. “Not by much. Matt, give us a hand.”
The four walked over to the jumble and grabbed about four or five each and wandered over to the remaining shady corner of the rubble-strewn building that had once been the Doltzville Library. They struggled, but managed to get their bodies onto the painted concrete floor. Mitch struggled the most. Basically, he fell the last foot and a half, lost his balance and spilled his stack into Matt who spilled his stack into Ted who spilled his stack into Josh who spilled his stack onto Mitch’s lap.
“Thanks a lot, you idiot! You dropped your whole frigging stack onto my ball sack!”
“Yeah. Yeah. Like you have one. Let’s get this done so we can get back home for our bourbon ration!” Ted winced and swallowed hard, once again wondering how he had ever ended up with these three dolts sorting books.
He grabbed the closest two tomes and held them up next to each other. It was a tough choice, but the left hand book was definitely a bit more reddish and the one on the right, was a bit more orange. Easy enough choice. He mentally patted himself on the back. But in doing so, he mentally hurt his rotator cuff. He winced but managed to shake off the imagined pain.
Ted picked up two more. Another tough choice. He chewed on his tongue but finally decided the one in his left was more of a pine green while one in his right hand was almost a dark khaki. He glanced around the room. “Hey guys, where the hell is the khaki stack?”
Josh spat on the floor. “Find your own damned stacks, Ted. We have our own work to do.”
Mitch shuffled his stack this way and that way trying to start with the easiest pair. “Screw it,” he muttered under his breath. This is too hard. “Hey guys! Let’s not go too fast. What the hell is that racket?”
The racket grew to an almost deafening roar. Ted covered his ears to try to block out the noise. It didn’t work. Josh squeezed his eyes tight hoping that if he made it dark enough, he wouldn’t notice the noise. That didn’t work. So, he made it even darker by covering his eyes with his hands as well. Still the noise grew in intensity. None of them had heard anything this loud since — since before. It bothered Matt so much he felt nauseated so he quickly used his soiled hands to cover his mouth. Mitch thought it might help to cover up the noise with more noise so he screamed as loud as he could.
At long last, the noise abated. Had any of the four actually served in military combat, they might have recognized the noise for what it was — a helicopter landing on the expansive treeless lawn of the Doltzville Library. Once the noise stopped, they didn’t show the least bit of curiosity about what had caused the ruckus and went back to their book sorting task.
Josh’s brows knitted as he struggled with a particularly difficult distinction between a purplish black cover and another one that was more of a blackish purple. Their deliberations were interrupted as the front door of the library swung open. In marched a platoon of heavily armed guards.
The soldiers formed into two parallel lines and stood at attention. The commanding officer strode down the line and over to where the four sprawled on the floor. “What in the name of all that is holy is this mess? This library isn’t in order at all! You were supposed to have been done organizing the books a week ago.” He glanced around the room. “What the holy hell? The books aren’t even in the stacks. Which one of you — gentlemen — is in charge?”
Ted glanced at Mitch who glanced at Josh who glanced at Matt who glanced at Ted. It constituted a Circle of Jerks. But no-one would claim to be in charge. At last the three younger men pointed at Mitch. As though on cue, they said in unison, “He is!”
The colonel walked over and stood in front of Mitch. He put his strong arms beneath Mitch’s forelegs and jerked him upright. The colonel felt a twinge as he did so but nothing registered on his deadpan. “Well?!” Barked the colonel. “What do you have to say for yourself? I’m not a frigging librarian, but these books don’t look organized to me! They certainly aren’t in the stacks, are they?”
Mitch swallowed hard. All these guns made him nervous. He had always wanted lots of guns in the hands of ill-trained malcontents. But not in the hands of trained soldiers.
Well, he consoled himself that he had lied his way out of worse jams than this, so he began to answer with one of his six distraction patterns. “Well, Sir, our orders were to put the books in stacks and this, as you can clearly see, we have done. There are some edge cases we really need more expertise to settle on. Josh here, for instance is trying to decide on whether this book is more of a purplish black or more of a blackish purple.” Then, he added as an afterthought: “Sir!”
“What exactly do you think all those shelves are for?”
Mitch followed the line of the colonel’s hand. “Shelves? For…knickknacks I suppose. My wife collects knickknacks. I’ll bet yours does too.”
The colonel shook his head and muttered inaudibly. “Those are — never mind. You’re extremely behind schedule, but how are you cataloging them? By Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress?”
Josh’s eyebrows shot up incredulously, “Congress has a library?”
The colonel’s eyes darted back to Josh like the mythical Jewish Space Lasers used to light forest fires. Josh looked down and bit his lip, regretting he had said anything.
Ted spoke up. “Sir, is that a trick question? We organized them as they should be organized. By color.”
“What?!” Screamed the colonel. “By color? What the hell is wrong with you people? They’re supposed to be organized by what the book is about — what’s inside. Good Lord, my four year old grand-daughter knows that!”
“But Sir,” objected Matt. “How do we … what do you mean? What a book’s about? What does that even mean?”
“You read the books, decide what each one is about and categorize it. What’s wrong with you people?” The colonel glared at them each in turn, beginning with Matt and ending with Mitch.
Mitch straighten his shirt against his sagging plastron and frowned. “A reed? Like in a clarinet?”
Matt chewed on his lip, savoring the taste as though he were painfully biting the lip of a teenage girl. “Maybe you mean like a reed that grows by a riverbank?”
The colonel strode over to Josh and snatched the blackish purple book out of his hand. (Or, maybe it was the purplish black one). He snapped the book open to a seemingly random page. “Here! Read! Like this.”
The colonel’s strong baritone rang out as he recited the paragraph.
“What made that an interesting situation to discuss for my intro psych class was that it was never the people who actually had the right of way who did the honking and screaming. It was always (so far as we observed) the people who sailed right through the new — and unseen — stop signs! These stop signs were in plain view.”
The colonel stared. Then, he shook his head. “Look here. Here’s a title.” He jabbed his finger on the title to emphasize his point. He did a neat little toss of the book in the air and flipped it a half turn. Then he pointed to the back. Here’s a description of the author. Here’s a summary of the book. You read these to help you decide what the books about. But in all the time you’ve had, you could have read the books cover to cover. Or at least skimmed them. That’s how you categorize it. Not by the color of the cover. I’ve never heard such a stupid thing in my life. Anyway, get your gear.”
The four stared at the colonel and then at each other. But no-one moved. Not until the colonel shouted, “MOVE!”
The four of them grabbed their gear and scrambled onto the bus. The only seats left were at the back, near the toilet. Which stunk.
Once they were under way, Mitch said, “Read. How ridiculous.”
Matt nodded. “I agree. That’s what we did in college. There’s no need to do that now.”
Josh nodded in agreement. “Yeah. Ridiculous. Think how much work it would be to understand what’s inside a book and organize them by what they’re about. It’s absurd. Putin never told us to read.”
Ted added in hushed tones. “Hey, something is going on. Did you guys see the markings on this bus? No confederate flag. No swastika. Not even a bloated orange deer tick. Just an old style American flag. What’s that about?”
That sat in silence for a time.
Ted couldn’t recall the last time he had ridden a bus. Then, it hit him. He had been in high school. Yes, he had read back then, he remembered. In fact, he admitted to himself, he had actually enjoyed it.
But it was hard. Much harder than simply following orders. He looked over at Mitch and whispered, “Do you think our coup could have failed? Is that what’s going on? Otherwise, why the American flag?”
Mitch seemed to retract his head down into the folds of his high-necked sweatshirt and he pulled the hood over his pate.
After getting no response from his co-conspirator, Ted stared out the window. It rained heavily and the windows fogged ever more during their ever-darkening night ride. He liked the fogged windows. It helped him block out his worries as well as the stench of the over-used toilet. The rumble of the wheels gradually lulled him to sleep.
He awoke to the screech of the wet brakes as they pulled up to their final destination. He stared outside. The monochromatic sodium flood lights lent an air of magic and mystery to the black barbed wire atop the high concrete walls of the maximum security prison outside. Still half-asleep, he wondered idly whether someone had made a wrong turn along the way.
Someone had. And that someone was Ted himself.