Elsie Dustbunnie’s Retirement Party
(an outtake from Released by Amber Polo)
“Thank Melville,” Liberty Cutter whispered, glancing through the crowd at the withered woman who looked as old as the long deceased Mr. Dewey. Elsie Dustbunnie’s retirement ritual would soon be over. For seven years, Liberty had counted the months, days, weeks, and hours until the disagreeable Director of the Shipsfeather Public Library stepped down.
Elsie had run the blood-red brick Carnegie library for over thirty years. She knew where all the books were and where the town skeletons were buried.
Liberty planned every detail of Elsie’s party from the commemorative program booklet to the beige paper napkins. Now guests from all over Ohio filled the library, more out of fear of Elsie’s flawless memory than an obligation to honor the vintage librarian. Serious-suited men and women in flowered dresses filled the main reading room as tight as an over-crowded book shelf. The town’s dedicated bibliophiles and devoted bookworms had better things to do than put on the dog for the meanest woman to ever send out an overdue notice.
Harold Dinzelbacher, Chairman of the Library Board of Trustees, stepped to the podium with smarmy grace. As he introduced state dignitaries, politicians, and local businessmen, his wolfish grin made Liberty shiver.
She crossed her left leg over her right, swung one chic orthopedic shoe, and daydreamed through the State Library Director’s speech taken right out of Toastmaster’s Treasury. He looked thrilled at the chance to be certain that the state’s oldest living library director actually stepped down. But not enough to write a fresh oration for the occasion.
When the State Director finished, Harold took the microphone and Liberty brought her attention back to the podium. Harold’s shining gray eyes turned to Elsie and he began the celebratory retirement speech, avoiding customary words like “beloved,” “esteemed,” and “well-liked.” Elsie never did one thing to endear herself to the town’s library patrons or staff. She ran an old-fashioned library as out of date and out of touch as the Bunnie herself. Worst of all, Liberty had never seen her boss read a book. Elsie once announced that her job was to keep the books on the shelf not to send them out the door with any fool bookworm with eyes to read.
Elsie straightened as tall as her twisted body allowed and lurched to the podium. Liberty smelled the old lady’s perfume, that distinctive mix of library paste and mothballs that reminded her of dead flowers. A scent that had always alerted her to the Bunnie’s approach. Snatching the microphone from Harold, she grasped it tight, and looked out over the crowd. Her eyes glinted with surly glee. “Thanks Harry,” she squawked and screwed her mouth into a shape more snarl than smile. “You can’t get rid of me so easily. Now I’ll have time to concentrate on more important work.” Her false teeth dislodged and the Shipsfeather Chronicle photographer caught a toothy grin for posterity.
Liberty couldn’t imagine Elsie’s retirement plans. For as long as she’d been the tyrant’s assistant, the Library Director had never shown interest in any hobby or activity outside the library she ruled with an iron date stamp.
But Liberty had plans. Step by step, she’d make changes to bring the library into the modern world. Besides new books and up do date technology, she’d add gold highlights to her chestnut hair and never coil it up into that practical bun again. Un-sensible shoes and sexy underwear would become part of her regular wardrobe. She’d banish the dull colors that turned her green eyes khaki drab. And she’d stop worrying that she looked too young to run a library. Who cared if patrons mistook her for a page, she was thirty-five, with fourteen years of library experience.
Harold regained control of the mike and swallowed. “After a long and thoughtful search…”
Liberty held her breath and shifted in her seat. Everyone in town knew Liberty would be named director.
The Board Chairman rubbed one knuckle across his jaw to mime deliberation. “I am proud to announce the selection of Ms. Dustbunnie’s replacement.”
Liberty uncrossed her legs, lifted her butt off the rented folding chair, and prepared to stand. For seven years she’d readied herself for this moment. She’d dump her collection of shapeless dresses in the Goodwill bin the instant Elsie checked out her last book. Disguising her youthful appearance by dressing like the town’s only Library Director had been her calculated ploy to win the job.
“…the Library Board’s Search Committee has selected Dr. Belle Lettres as our new Library Director.”
Stunned, Liberty folded back onto her seat. Her face flamed and her heart sank into her belly. “Dewey be dammed.” The curse slipped out and the woman next to her glared.
Harold talked on, unaware he’d just destroyed her dream. “Dr. Lettres completed her PhD dissertation from the University of St. Barths. She will take up the helm at Shipsfeather after a much deserved vacation in the south of France.”
The crowd applauded. Liberty didn’t know the Board had been conducting a search. That’s what she got for being too busy to read the employment classifieds in the library publications stacked behind her desk or check online listings. The Bunnie watched her, rheumy eyes as beady and malicious as ever. That bitch had known and hadn’t given her a hint. What had she ever done to deserve her boss’s last mean-spirited act?
Suddenly dog tired, Liberty stumbled into the Children’s Room. Through tear-fogged eyes, she set out punch and sandwiches shaped like books and fanned one hundred and fifty “Elsie Dustbunnie, Library Director, 1975-2008” napkins. The beige and brown color scheme she’d envisioned as an antiquarian book theme now looked funereal. She didn’t care. Dustbunnie was gone and Liberty soon would have a new problem.
She waited as the smell of warming tuna salad overlaid the usual aroma of old books and wet coats. Speeches droned on until a burst of applause spilled from the reading room. Lightheaded, Liberty, short enough to avoid notice, slipped into the back of the crowd. She wished this whole fiasco over like a book with a sad ending.
Mayor Rhoda Sue Rufus held up one crimson-taloned hand. “I am pleased to usher in a new era for our prosperous Town of Shipsfeather.” Her hennaed head bobbed and her freckled face flamed the exact color of her hair as she continued her exuberant campaign oratory. “Our town will break ground for a new library in only three years. That will be a good day for Shipsfeather. A good day for books. Oh yes, and for readers.” The mayor raised both arms over her head, expecting a political rally response, and received scattered applause.
Guests ate, drank, and left quickly. Liberty, in her sweaty brown dress, pulled a drooping beige crepe paper streamer from the book stack labeled “599.77 Wolves to 636.77 Dogs.” The date for the new state-of-the-art library had been delayed, again. She pulled the streamer tight.
Harold sidled up. “Liberty…” The streamer snapped back and whacked his face. He disentangled himself and rubbed his five o’clock shadow that seemed to sprout like clockwork by noon. “You must be happy we’ll soon have a new director to take the burden off you.”
Liberty didn’t trust herself to answer. She might scream, or more likely, break down and cry. With a yank, she pulled a puckered streamer from the range marked “658 Management to 662.2 Explosives” and forced a tight-lipped nod.
“You’ll also be happy to learn I’m giving you the title Interim Director during the…interim.”
She absorbed his words. As Assistant Director she was already one step below Director. She didn’t need another title.
Harold seemed to mistake her silence for enthusiasm and continued, “I’m sure you understand there can be no stipend. The new director’s salary will deplete our coffers.” He reached to pat her shoulder. She flinched. “You’re so dedicated.”