Love and Death in the Library
Mrs. Buckner was the librarian at the Oakwood Grove Elementary School (home of the Buffaloes). She was universally adored by students and faculty and she loved her job—she was naturally good with children and an enthusiastic lover of books. When asked, Mrs. Buckner would tell people that her favorite writers were Jane Austin and William Shakespeare, but really they were Madeleine L’Engle and Stephen King.
When the weather was nice, she liked to ride her bicycle to school
Her husband (Mr. Buckner) had died years earlier, unexpectedly, of a heart attack at age 39. The couple never had children and Mrs. Buckner never remarried. She still lived in the same little red brick house she and her husband had bought when they moved out to the country 15 years earlier.
Oakwood Grove was a small, rural town buried deep in the prairies and cornfields of the Middle West. Oakwood Grove Elementary had a total enrollment of 500 students, kindergarten through eighth grade (high school students were bussed to the nearby town of Evergreen Lake, home of the Panthers). This was Mrs. Buckner’s favorite aspect of her job: she was able to work with small children all the way up through to the eighth graders. She was able to watch all these little kids grow up and to be a part of each child’s life. Reading to them when they were young, introducing them to Anne of Green Gables, Judy Blume, Where the Red Fern Grows, her beloved Madeleine L’Engle, J.R.R Tolkien, and later Mark Twain, Jack London, Harper Lee.
It was a responsibility she welcomed and a job she did not take lightly.
Mrs. Buckner took great pride in her library and it inevitably became a favorite place for all the students. In addition to its dark, cavernous rows of bookshelves (housing an impressive collection that had been painstakingly augmented and maintained by Mrs. Buckner), every inch of the library was deliberately designed to fire a child’s imagination.
There was a gigantic Oxford English Dictionary on a Romanesque stone pedestal with a footstool in front of it so even the most diminutive of students could (carefully, with Mrs. Buckner’s supervision) step up and consult the mammoth tome.
The “Reading Room” occupied the northwest corner of the library, the floor of which was littered with big pillows, cushions, and bean bag chairs, all surrounding Mrs. Buckner’s red plush Alice In Wonderland–looking recliner. It was from here that she liked to preside at the younger students’ story times.
The "Map Room” took up the northeast corner of the library and featured walls covered in (you guessed it) maps, a collection of giant color atlases, a small collection (four) of large spinning floor globes from different eras resting upon elaborate hardwood stands, and a bookshelf full of travel books depicting a wide variety of faraway, exotic locations like Europe and Seattle.
But the first thing that most students would mention if you asked them about Mrs. Buckner’s library, the thing that really stood out and was truly unique, was the ferrets.
Brother and sister ferrets, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane lived Labor Day to Memorial Day each year in a large, dual-story cage near the library’s front desk. During the holidays, summer, and weekends, they lived with Mrs. Buckner in her little red brick house.
Ferrets are social creatures, and unlike hamsters and gerbils, which should remain almost exclusively caged, ferrets should be allowed play outside their cages for a good portion of each day. So, for at least three hours each school day, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were allowed relatively free run around the library.
Several sensible precautions were taken for the safety of the children and the animals. A volunteer student guard was posted at the door (which had to remain closed) and a sign with a picture of a ferret that read “Please Knock” was posted outside the door. Students were not allowed to touch the ferrets without the supervision of an adult. They were not allowed to pet Wild Bill at all (easily distinguished from his sister because male ferrets are so much larger than females) because he would occasionally nip and scratch at people. Jane, however, loved to play with the children and was always gentle and patient.
Library orientation each year included a lecture on ferret protocol for all students.
Because of these precautions (and a laundry list of others), the generally sweet disposition of the animals, and the ever-vigilant watch of Mrs. Buckner, there were no ferret-student incidents to speak of, and the animals became a beloved pair of unofficial mascots for the Oakwood Grove Buffaloes. Students loved to follow the ferrets around the library and watch them play with their toys and wrestle with each other. They loved to gently stroke Jane’s soft fur. They loved to watch the ferrets sleeping peacefully in their cages, where sometimes their agile paws would cover their sincere little faces as they slept.
One sunny spring day Mrs. Leonard led her class of first graders, single-file, into the library for the students’ weekly scheduled library time.
The first half-hour of their library time was designated “free read.” Students were encouraged to browse the stacks, check out books from the library, and to sit quietly and read. However, many students filled this time by chatting with friends, playing with the brick-a-brack scattered around the library, or (under the strict supervision of their teacher or Mrs. Buckner) playing with the ferrets if they were out of their cage.
This particular day, to the delight of the first graders, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were out of their cage and sunning themselves in one of the windows overlooking the playground. A group of students gathered around oohhing and ahhing at the cuteness of the two little critters with Mrs. Buckner towering responsibly over them.
Billy Davidson, however, and a few of his six-year-old cohorts, thought it would be fun to accost chubby little Ed Wosniak in the U.S. History section and to make him cry by invoking threats of that ancient tactic of the bullying trade, the wedgie. “Edd-ie Wedg-ie … Edd-ie Wedg-ie …” was chanted in unison.
Mrs. Leonard heard the chants and put an abrupt stop to it, issuing Billy and his friends each a check mark (three check marks in one week equaled after-school detention and a note home). It was Billy’s second check mark of the day.
But it wasn’t just Billy—all the kids were wound up. Not only was it a Friday, but it was one of the first warm spring days of the year. After a remarkably long, cold, snowy winter, students were extra rambunctious at this first sign of warmer days, and ready to let off some steam. Mrs. Leonard had her hands full all day keeping them on task. She was grateful this was her class’s library day, because for that one hour she could take a breath, defer to Mrs. Buckner, and relax (ever so slightly) with another adult in the room to help supervise the children. Then, once the free read time ended and Mrs. Buckner’s story time began, there was nothing to do but sit back and rest for a glorious half hour: maybe her favorite half hour of the week.
Mrs. Buckner had been reading the first graders E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web since Christmas. It was a book she read almost every year throughout her tenure, always to the first graders. She found if she didn’t introduce the children to Charlotte’s Web in first grade, they had already seen the movie by second grade and she had missed her chance.
So, on this lovely spring day, when Mrs. Leonard’s high-spirited first graders were finally gathered around the Reading Room to hear the next installment in the adventures of Wilbur the pig and his friend Charlotte, they were not the cross-legged, wide-eyed little angels Mrs. Buckner and Mrs. Leonard hoped for. They were chatty and fidgety, looking longingly out the windows and scheming.
Mrs. Buckner really couldn’t say why she did it after it was all over. Maybe she thought it would get the students’ attention … that if she reclined and relaxed she could perhaps startle, then coax the students into relaxing as well.
As she pulled the lever that worked the mechanism on the big plush red recliner there was a surprising, loud crunch and a horrible, shrill shriek. Frantic clawing at fabric. A gurgle.
Mrs. Buckner knew what had happened right away and went rigid. Mrs. Leonard and her first graders didn’t realize exactly what it was until they caught the awful sight of Wild Bill dragging his mangled and bleeding body out from under Mrs. Buckner’s chair. His hind legs were crushed in the mechanics of the chair. Blood and bile were pouring from his mouth and his guts looked to be hanging out from his side.
Complete pandemonium ensued.
Blood-curdling, high-pitched screams. Horrified little faces. Children racing this way and that, falling over each other, hysterical, crying real tears. Thomas Crealey threw up, followed by Stacy Howard, followed by Pamela Masters, who projectile-vomited on a particularly treasured antique globe in the Map Room. Poor Cody Anderson wet his pants. Mrs. Leonard tripped over Lucy Wallace, who was curled up in a ball sobbing, and badly wrenched her knee.
When the students started screaming, Mrs. Buckner was shaken from her paralysis and leapt awkwardly from the reclined chair. Trying her best to ignore her beloved pet in its last messy death throes on the carpet, she attempted to attend to and comfort the children. Then, when Mrs. Leonard went down, Mrs. Buckner walked briskly to the intercom switch on the wall and called the principal’s office for help.
Poor old Mrs. Jeffries, sitting on the other end of the intercom outside the principal’s office, couldn’t hear Mrs. Buckner over the wailing and screaming of the children. But her 30 years of experience in educational administration told her that something was very wrong in the school’s library. She burst into the principal’s office and informed Mr. Parker that there was an emergency.
Mr. Parker ran down the hallway to the library with Mrs. Jefferies clucking and puffing behind him. When he got there and took in the scene, he instructed Mrs. Jefferies to immediately fetch the school nurse, Mrs. Reilly. As Mrs. Jefferies turned to leave, Mr. Parker called out to her, “You’d better grab Marty too. Tell him there’s a mess in here.”
Marty was the head custodian and groundskeeper at the Oakwood Grove Elementary School. He had been promoted to that position two years ago after old Nate, who was at Oakwood Grove for nearly 40 years, finally died.
Marty was quiet and dependable, a good worker. He kept to himself and did his job. He was friendly, never rude, but not social. He was not interested in cultivating friendships with other employees of the Oakwood Grove school system, nor with the residents in the area, because he always had one eye on the way out of town.
Custodian, as it turns out, was not Marty’s dream job.
He did not grow up wanting to someday spend five days a week cleaning a school. But after his divorce Marty found himself stranded with no money and no prospects, nothing but a mountain of debt, a run-down two bedroom house he didn’t want, and an unemployment check after they closed the Maytag factory where he worked. Not a lot of jobs in a small town in the middle of nowhere—Maytag’s exit, along with several other area-wide plant closings, had left the region economically depressed. He needed to find some way to save up some money so he could get something going and try to figure out what to do next.
Marty had been a shift supervisor at the factory. The only work he had been able to find after he was laid off was a job as a janitor at the elementary school, and he knew he was lucky to find it.
The job had its benefits: it had health insurance; it was fairly stable, as long as he showed up on time every day and did his work; the pay wasn’t terrible—considerably less than he had been making at the plant, but enough to live on and to pay down his debt to his lawyers and the bank every month. His wife—ex-wife—had remarried shortly after their divorce, so he no longer had to pay alimony. Then, when Nate died and Marty was promoted to head custodian and groundskeeper, he started making enough to put a little away each month and start building a bankroll.
With a little luck the housing market would pick up. Maybe a new plant would open in the old Maytag facility. There was talk. If Marty could get anywhere near what he owed on the house, he’d sell in a hot minute and get the hell out of town. Then he would be able to finally start over instead of treading water, living in that same little house he bought with his ex-wife and cleaning up the disgusting messes 500 students left for him each and every day.
There were some disgusting messes that Marty could now delegate to his fellow custodian and direct subordinate, Paul, whom he was allowed to hire after he was promoted. But there were only two of them for the whole school. Marty still had to get his hands dirty every day, just like Nate had before him.
It was not unusual, in the course of a day’s work, for Marty to clean up a child’s vomit. It happened several times a year, even in a school the size of Oakwood Grove. It was also not unusual, a few times a year, to have to mop urine off the floor. Or other bodily fluids, blood usually. And the lunch room looked like the floor of a circus when the students were done with it every day.
But to have to clean vomit, urine, and ferret blood and guts from the same room on the same day was a rare occurrence indeed. Marty felt confident not even old Nate had ever faced something like that.
He stopped the cleaning for a moment and surveyed the scene. The library was empty and quiet now. The parents of Mrs. Leonard’s first graders were picking their traumatized children up early from school and Paul was off fetching more carpet cleaner and trying to locate a box suitable for the final remains of Wild Bill. It was just Marty, Calamity Jane in her cage, and the rather messy, dismembered corpse of Wild Bill on the floor.
He had cleaned up the vomit first because of the smell. He assumed they would bury the ferret, since that was what they had done when Mrs. Wesley’s second grade class’s guinea pig, Max, died last year. He hoped the ground was thawed enough to dig the hole.
Marty heard the door open and turned, expecting to see Paul. It was Mrs. Buckner.
“Hi Marty,” she said softly. He could tell she had been crying. She was holding a crumpled tissue in her right hand.
“You alright, Mrs. Buckner?” He regretted the question immediately as Mrs. Buckner welled up with tears. She sniffed and dabbed her eyes with the tissue.
“I’ll be okay. Thank you, Marty.” There was a pause. “What are you going to do … with …” Mrs. Buckner trailed off, choked up.
“Oh, we’ll bury him. Don’t worry, Mrs. Buckner. There’s a nice spot at the edge of the grounds, past the soccer field, under a big oak tree where we put Mrs. Wesley’s guinea pig.”
“Max,” Mrs. Buckner’s eyes glistened with moisture.
“That’s right.” He paused, not knowing what to say. “It’s a nice spot.”
Mrs. Buckner walked over to the cage where she had locked up Calamity Jane. She opened the door, whispering and cooing to the ferret comfortingly, then scooped the slender little creature up and slipped her into a travel carrier she kept under the cage.
“Can you get rid of the chair for me, Marty?” asked Mrs. Buckner. “I don’t want it in here anymore.”
Marty assured her that he would take care of it. Mrs. Buckner took a quick last look at the corpse of Wild Bill, then took Jane and walked out.
Marty and Paul buried Wild Bill under the oak tree beside Max the guinea pig. Marty cleaned up the chair the best he could and gave it to Paul, who was extremely happy and grateful to have it.
Marty felt real sympathy for Mrs. Buckner. He knew she was a widow, that her husband had died tragically. He imagined that she was a sort of kindred unlucky spirit, someone like him that fate had tapped to shoulder difficult burdens alone.
That afternoon, unable to get the blood stains completely out of the carpet in the library, Marty replaced a large section of carpet so Mrs. Buckner wouldn’t have to see the blood there the next week at school. He then found a sturdy old wooden chair in the storage room, cleaned it up, brought a pillow in from home that he knew would work for the seat, and placed it where the recliner had been. He even cleaned out the ferret cage, putting down fresh wood chips and cleaning out the ferrets’ litter box.
The next day, Saturday, Marty drove 20 miles to a pet shop in a neighboring town. He purchased a young, freshly neutered male ferret. The ferret was playing cheerfully in the cage in the library Monday morning when Mrs. Buckner arrived for work. Marty was also waiting there for her.
“I hope you don’t mind,” explained Marty. “I have a friend who owns a pet shop.” This was a lie. “If it’s too soon or you don’t want him, I’ll take him back today.”
Mrs. Buckner looked in the cage, then looked at Marty. “You did this?”
“Like I said, I have a friend,” said Marty looking at the ground, embarrassed.
“What’s his name?” Mrs. Buckner asked.
Marty grinned. “Well, I thought I’d leave that up to you, if you want to keep him. But sticking with the theme, I’ve been calling him Billy the Kid.”
Seven years later, three weeks before eighth grade graduation, the Oakwood Grove Student Council was trying to meet after school to put the finishing touches on their plan for that year’s commencement ceremony. The meeting had to take place after 5:30 p.m. because two of the student council members had baseball practice after school. They had just begun their meeting in Mr. Kilroy’s science classroom when, only a few minutes in, Student Council Treasurer Ed Wosniak knocked over a large jar containing an octopus in formaldehyde.
The sight of the octopus lying there on the classroom floor was vaguely reminiscent of something, though none of the students mentioned it.
Because of the smell and the mess, they were forced to evacuate the room. Student Council President Bill Davidson asked Principal Parker where they should meet while Paul the janitor (who had just been preparing to go home for the evening when the principal called him, and was not exactly thrilled to be delayed) was cleaning up the mess. Principal Parker suggested they try the library.
So the Oakwood Grove Student Council proceeded to the library. Bill Davidson held the door open for the rest of the students, who entered the library single-file.
When they were all inside and the door had just shut behind them, there was suddenly a loud, shrill shriek from Student Council Vice President Pamela Masters. Everybody looked at her, alarmed. She pointed to the Map Room.
There was Mrs. Buckner, leaning forward over a table, holding her breath and staring at the students. Marty, head custodian and groundkeeper, was standing behind her, pants down around his knees, panting slightly.
Everyone stared at everyone else silently for a moment.
Then there were gasps all around. A quick flash of skin from the Map Room, a blur of movement and the rustling of fabric. Marty zipped up his pants and buckled his belt. Mrs. Buck rearranged her dress.
“Oh my God!” said Pamela.
“Oh my,” stammered a rosy-cheeked Mrs. Buckner, horrified. She didn’t know what to do.
Marty tried to reason with the students. He explained that he and Mrs. Buckner had been dating for years now and that they thought they were alone in the library. “We certainly got carried away and I’m sorry you had to see that. But sometimes that’s what adults do when they love each other.”
Mrs. Buckner put her hand on Marty’s shoulder, the glint of a tear in her eye.
It was no good, and Marty and Mrs. Buckner both knew it immediately. They were caught, in flagrante delicto, by a group of minors, in a public grammar school, in a very small town. They knew there was going to be trouble.
Parents were at the school the next morning, puffed up and irate. Marty and Mrs. Buckner’s resignations were regretfully, but hastily, accepted that day. It was agreed that since they were leaving the school, no charges would be pursued against them. They would leave Oakwood Grove the following year, together, for Seattle, Washington.
Three weeks after the resignations were accepted the commencement ceremony at Oakwood Grove Elementary School (home of the Buffaloes) was held. Student Council Treasurer and Valedictorian Ed Wosniak stood before the school and addressed his teachers, classmates, and relatives. As his speech neared its conclusion he said, to the agreement of several students present on stage, “I would like to thank our wonderful school librarian, Mrs. Buckner, who isn’t here today. I can say, in all honestly, that when I look back at my time here I believe it was in the library that I learned the most.”
Copyright 2009, Matt McCarthy
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