“Good Night, Irene”
Irene rubbed her narrow shoulders through her black cardigan. The sun was setting outside the library’s long glass wall, the sky turning pink and purple as the late summer light faded. She always felt ten degrees too cold at work during the summer, especially up on the higher floors. “This place has its own weather system,” she thought.
She looked down at the book cart she’d been pushing and picked up the first two books. Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, Dewey Decimal 530s, Physics. She shoved them into their spots between the others in the shelf then pushed the book cart around the corner to the next aisle. A hair short of five foot three, she had to put her back into it to make the heavy wooden cart move. As she pushed, she stuck out her bottom lip and blew her brown bangs out of her eyes, then straightened up and tucked her chin length hair behind her ears. She surveyed the four dozen books on the cart waiting to be shelved: an easy night’s work, except that seven more carts awaited shelving in the bookcart alcove. She thought briefly of the reference librarians, Patrick and Frances, sitting at the front desk all evening, not getting up to move unless a patron asked for help finding a book.
Irene grabbed Stephen Hawking’s “The Nature of Space and Time” and reached up for the top shelf, but it was closer than she expected, forcing her to abbreviate her reach. In fact, it was almost at her eye level. She slid the book in between the others and reached for another. “Oh!” she said. The top of the cart was farther down than she expected, forcing her to stretch. “What in the…” she said aloud. She looked at the floor and saw that she was hovering slightly above the gray carpet. Looking straight down as she was, it was difficult to gauge precisely how high she was floating, but she was definitely floating. She pointed her toes down toward the floor and her feet softly sank, landing back on firm ground.
As she felt the floor pressing back under her shoes again, she took a deep breath and gave her head a little shake. She got light-headed in the stacks from time to time – maybe she’d let her breathing get too shallow, which, combined with not having time to eat until after the library closed at nine, sometimes gave her a floating sensation.
Irene pushed the cart, moving on to the 580s: Plants. She picked up a book on anemochory, about trees that disperse their seeds via the wind. “What a romantic way to reproduce,” she thought. She pushed the book into its place on the shelf and pictured groves of cottonwood trees on riverbanks in the spring, the air filled with wafting cotton-puffs cushioning tiny seeds. She shelved a few more books about trees, wondering as she often did precisely what it was that motivated people to check out the specific books they did, and pushed the cart to the end of the 500s. She picked up several books on birds and shoved them in among the 598s.
She moved down the aisle shelving books, making her way back toward the glass wall overlooking the city lights. The sky was darker now and the lights of City Hall, a gothic building across the plaza below, caught her eye. She stared at the lights as she pushed her cart, only looking at the shelves long enough to slip each book into place. Patrick crossed her mind, Patrick who often wore pants that clashed with his shirt, apparently on purpose, which made it hard for Irene to look at him below his neck. He was very tall though, and when he was talking to her, her shortness made it difficult to look anywhere else. She liked things to aesthetically work together, like they shared a visual theme, and when they didn’t, she felt itchy around her eyes. But she liked Patrick’s long thin nose and square black-framed glasses, so she made an effort to look only at his face and ignore his pants.
When she reached the end of the next aisle, she left her cart there and walked to the glass wall. She looked up at the sunset-illuminated clouds, then down at the city square below, and then at her feet. She inhaled sharply and froze. She was wearing her favorite shoes, a pair of black and white saddle shoes, and they were definitely two inches above the floor. She tried to push her toes down to the floor, but instead of reaching down toward carpet, she pushed herself up. She straightened her feet into a flat position and flexed her toes up. She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them and looked down. She was still hovering above the floor. “What is going on?” she whispered to herself. She took a step backwards away from the window, and rose two more inches. How could she not feel solidity beneath her feet yet still push against whatever was below her? She pressed her palms into the window glass and looked down to the ground outside.
“Can anyone else see this?” she whispered. “Is this what a stroke feels like?” She looked around for witnesses, but there was no one nearby. The reference librarian’s desk sat at the front of the wide middle aisle bisecting the stacks, hiding her from the line of sight of Patrick and Frances.
“Am I crazy?” she wondered aloud. She couldn’t figure it out. Did she trust her eyes and the space she saw below her? Did she trust the sensations in her feet? She took two steps away from the center aisle and jumped. She landed six inches lower than she’d been. “Ah!” she breathed, “a way down!” This was another amazing discovery. She jumped again, a little harder this time, and landed on the floor. She pushed down and stood in the air again! Experimentally, she reached out her right foot and took a step toward the stacks. She tried a small skipping jump and by the time her left foot hiccupped behind her right, she was back on hard carpet. She pumped her legs up and down as if climbing an invisible ladder, stepping higher until her eyes were above the dusty top of the long metal bookshelf.
Irene loved to move unseen among the stacks, putting books back in their places for patrons to find and check out again. She saw her job as keeping knowledge in fluid motion throughout her community; the department responsible for checking books in and out was called Circulation after all, which wasn’t, she thought, a coincidence. The inconspicuousness of the job suited her and she took it seriously. In that moment, however, all she wanted was to shed her invisibility. She needed know if anyone else could see the space beneath her feet, or if it was all just in her head.
Irene walked to the end of the aisle, paused, and before she lost her nerve, walked around the corner, not stopping until she stood in front of the reference desk. Adrenaline and exuberance replaced the disbelief in her head.
“Hey,” Irene began. She hated the unexpectedly high pitch of her voice. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Ahem. Hello.” Frances looked up from the books she was sorting and peered over her glasses at Irene.
“What’s up?” Patrick asked without looking up from his computer monitor.
“Um…” She waited to see if he’d look at her. He didn’t. “Um.” She looked for a response in Patrick’s face, thinking about the six inches of space between her saddle shoes and the carpet.
He finally turned to face her. “What do you need?”
“I’m going to take a break.” Patrick didn’t reply. “Just so you know. In case you need me.”
“Congratulations,” he said. He turned back to the monitor.
She stood there, her heart pounding, still waiting for them to notice, but they didn’t, not even after Patrick turned to look at her again with raised eyebrows. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “Okay then.” She turned around and walked back to her cart. She checked over her shoulder once to see if they were watching her go. They weren’t.
Irene slipped around the corner of the stacks, finding the cart where she’d left it. She sighed and stood in the air, not sure what to do next. “Books are waiting,” she thought, and she began pushing the cart through the biography section toward the employee offices, her heels sinking a little with each step as she moved against the weight of the cart. Just before she got to the alcove where the rest of the book carts waited, a woman called out to her from the last aisle.
“Hello! Can you help me?”
Irene wasn’t expecting the question, and she stared dumbly at the woman for a moment before she could reply. “Sure,” she replied, “of course. It’s alphabetical by the subject’s last name. Who are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for something on Philippe Petit.” The woman continued to scan the books as she spoke.
Leaving the cart behind, Irene walked down the aisle toward the woman until she reached the Ps. “Here,” she said, tracing her finger along book spines as she searched, “this is the book you want.” She pulled it off the shelf and handed it to the woman.
“Thank you, dear,” the woman said, taking the book from her. “My daughter is doing a report on him. He walked on a tightrope between the World Trade Center Towers in the seventies. Used to be very famous.”
“You’re welcome,” Irene replied. “He sounds interesting.”
The woman nodded and walked away with her book. “She didn’t notice either,” Irene thought. Her forehead felt sweaty so she blew on her bangs again. She thought of Patrick, wondered if he was still staring at his computer screen. She pushed her head up and her toes down until she could see over the tops of the shelves to where Patrick and Frances sat. She pushed herself up a little higher and quietly climbed up on top of the P section, letting her legs dangle over the other side of the shelves, her heels resting on the L’s. She peeled off her cardigan, dropped it on the floor, and let the air conditioning blow cold air onto her bare shoulders. It felt good so she rested there, watching the librarians at their desk and the three patrons at the public computer terminals, their eyes all fixed on their screens. None of them noticed her perched there.
She waited until she felt impatient. “I have to do something!” she thought to herself. Carefully standing up in the air, she jumped again and again, landing lower with each jump. She wobbled backwards halfway down, but caught herself on a shelf of books, a few of which tumbled to the ground and thumped loudly as they hit the floor. She kept jumping until her feet were a foot off the ground.
Feeling ten feet tall, she walked away from the fallen books and her cardigan, stopping in front of the employee elevator. She hit the UP button, waited for the doors to open, hit the button for the top floor. The floor of the elevator stayed below her feet as it pushed her up past the rest of nonfiction and Special Collections, delivering her to the sixth floor. She walked past the open door of the Library Director’s office and down the hall to the library’s rooftop balcony where the staff took their smoking breaks. As she stepped out into the twilit night, the air felt still and warm and close, the heat coming as a shock after the library’s icy interior.
Irene walked to the edge of the balcony, its wide wall coming up to her ribcage, and looked down at the sycamore-lined street below. Step by step, she climbed the air until her feet were level with the top of the wall. She stepped onto the wall and let herself rest there, her heart pounding. She slid her toes to the edge of the wall. “I’m crazy,” she thought to herself.
Keeping her eyes straight ahead on the City Building across the street, not daring to look down, she took a single step, resting her right foot on the air in front of her. She put a little weight on it; still it held. She’d never been so terrified. She took a second step, carefully placing her left foot next to her right. She took another step and pressed her hand to her chest to slow her heartbeat.
“Hey!” She startled and, looking behind her, saw Patrick standing on the balcony holding her sweater in both hands. “What the fuck are you doing?!” he yelled.
“I don’t know!” she shouted back. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
Patrick stared in disbelief. “You forgot your sweater.”
“No!” She jumped again and landed lower.
“How are you doing that?”
“Like this!” She jumped again, then turned and skipped out into the wide open space. Patrick looked down and screamed. In the intersection below, the traffic light turned green and cars raced past. She looked back at him. “You should pay more attention!” she shouted.
“What are you talking about?!”
“It doesn’t matter!” She skipped in a circle through the void.
“You already said that!”
“What?!” He could barely hear her. He looked down at his pants.
“Don’t tell anyone!” she shouted at him as loud as she could across the widening gap between them. “It’s a secret!”
“Secret?!” he shouted back, then muttered, “No one would believe me.”
Irene leapt and jumped as the stars winked into life in the sky above her. “I’m dreaming!” she shouted, and laughed because it wasn’t a dream at all. Leaping through the air, turning, singing, laughing, she danced her way down to the shortest sycamore tree at the front of the library. Standing a little above it in the air, she tried an experimental back-flip and landed on her butt. She laughed again and bounced down to the tree. She sat in the tree and caught her breath, her heart slowing as she leaned against its leafy branches. Two teens stood on the nearest street corner holding hands, waiting for the light to change. They watched her in surprise but didn’t seem to believe what they were seeing. Across the street, half a dozen people were waiting for a bus, and had suddenly grown very quiet. Irene giggled and pretended to climb down out of the tree, though in truth she was walking on air. A white-haired homeless man sat on a bench clutching a backpack and a black bag near the front entrance of the library, staring at her as she descended.
“Hello,” she said brightly, nodding to him as she walked past. He didn’t reply. She made her way back into the library, climbed the stairs back up to the third floor, and stepped out of the patron elevator in front the reference desk. As usual, Frances looked at her over the top of her glasses. “I’m going home early tonight, Frances.”
“Are you ill?” Frances asked in surprise.
“No, no. Everything’s great.”
“Well you can’t just…”
“Irene!” Patrick walked quickly towards them from the employee offices.
“She says she’s just leaving,” Frances began, “even though she’s not – ”
Irene took her cardigan from Patrick’s hands. “Thank you,” she said.
“What just happened?” Patrick asked.
Irene pushed herself up with her feet until she was high enough to look Patrick in the eye. “You were there,” she replied. “Didn’t you see?” She smiled at him. “Good night.” She turned and walked back to the employee offices and the staff elevator.
“But…” Frances’ mouth gaped open.
“Irene!” Patrick said as he watched her go. She didn’t turn around.
She rode up to the roof again, stepped out under the now-dark sky, and climbed the air up to the top of the wall. Atop the tallest tower of City Hall, there was a statue of a blindfolded woman holding a scale. Irene stepped off the wall and ran towards her through the empty space, oblivious to the traffic streaming by underneath her. Laughing as she closed the gap, she reached the statue of the woman and grabbed the unmoving scale. She looked back at the library across the street, its lights blinking on and off as the custodians moved through it, and saw the small figure of Patrick on the rooftop balcony. He looked around but he couldn’t see her there, perched on the statue. She turned around, away from him, and stepped out into the air again, this time going up, the stars growing closer with every step.