Little Library

Tsk, I knew that woman. She used to live in a mountain of papers and books down by the French Quarter. Knew her husband, too. One of those academic types that fell off the wagon and thought he could make the streets work for him instead of letting them take him. They always think like that. The woman, her name was Dell, followed in her husband’s footsteps and the two landed in the arms of the city streets. She’d work the block until the threat of sunrise, her smeared rouge cherry lipstick bringing out her bloodshot brown eyes. It’s said that each night she went home she’d tear out a page from one of her books, marking the days and adding to the mountain. Crazy woman must’ve liked the sound of ripped pages and the sight of yellowed paper littering her floor. Those books were the only thing that poor woman had; Lord knows she didn’t have herself.

In the end, the two became a ghost story of sorts; something the children like to whisper to one another in the dead of night. But it’s really Dell and the ashes she left behind that haunts the city. I sat on this very porch when they first moved in, exactly like you folks are now. You said you had a daughter? Hmph, then I’d listen carefully. Wouldn’t want her meeting the same fate now.

Dell used to be a secretary or what have you, used to leave the apartment without a lick of makeup on that heart-shaped face. But apparently typing didn’t offer enough to pay the bills, or maybe the streets were better than any run of the mill nine-to-five. In any case, she did what the streets required and became a woman who was both snake and snake-charmer.

One night, the husband got caught. He used to mug people, down to the very last dime. He wasn’t prepared to see that tonight’s victim had the same ebony skin that reflected his own. Turns out that the black man was bait, some undercover nonsense, and the husband was arrested without bail. They caught Dell too, but she got off easy, contained for a few days before someone got her out, Lord knows who. My bet is on one of her little customers. But without her husband, that woman could hardly stay afloat.

That’s when it started. After a few days, Dell realized that she wasn’t working the streets but that the streets were working her. Ruth told me she saw her once: dark bruises covered her once thick thighs and her head was riddled with bald patches, her raggedy blond wig clutched tightly in her fist. I saw her myself on a street corner when I was out running errands. By the look in her eyes I would’ve thought she was dead. And that’s what she was. A dead woman walking.

Oh, don’t mind the rocking chair, I know it creaks real loud. I like to say it’s her way of screaming at me. Now…You okay, little lady? You looking a little faint. I can get you some sweet tea, you like sweet tea? Hmm, if you’re sure. Now what was I about to say… oh that’s right.

In the months that passed, Dell got crazy. Always crying and muttering to herself, deep gashes running along her cheeks that no makeup could hide. People thought it might’ve been one of her customers, but I saw the red bits underneath her fingernails. I always knew she wasn’t right in the head, me. Dell stopped talking to people, and soon enough, she was only a ghostly thing that no longer knew daylight.

Six months passed before the night of the fire. The air was so muggy that night it was like you were always breathing in an exhale. Dell wasn’t working the streets anymore, too old and not enough business after she done lost her mind. Money had always been tight, and without her husband or the streets to fall back on, Dell could no longer afford the roof over her head. But she couldn’t afford to lose it either.

I’d bet she took her time with it. She probably sat cross-legged on the floor as she tore out the last page of the final novel, the sound scratching that itch of hers just right. She probably breathed in the scent of paper and ink, taking it all in one last time. Then she’d lift the match, her hands trembling as she attempted to light it. Once, twice, three times. The flame finally leaping to life on the third strike, it’s comforting heat only a small preview of what was to come. Then Dell probably let the match flop from her fingers onto the page covered floor and watched in awe as the flame danced from one to the next.

People say she lied down on that floor amongst the burning pages and let the orange flames make her body curl, too. Others say she sat in an armchair in the corner, where she was always working, and simply watched until the flames came begging at her feet. But no matter what people say, she always did have one thing. That little library. A fiery, blazing blot that lit her up like nothing else ever would.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice (detail)

Jasmyne Johnson is an aspiring writer currently studying Creative Writing at Louisiana State University.