“If you see a pervert in this building, it is your job to kill it,” said the head librarian. “First, isolate the pervert, then extinguish it. Quietly.”
They were two women wearing sweaters, sitting at a narrow table.
“Naturally, this procedure begs discretion,” the librarian continued. “But this is a state-funded institution, and we are pardoned by the governor. The removal of these patrons is a requirement of the job. You may never have to do it, but you must not hesitate if called to use force. Let me demonstrate.”
The librarian held up two fingers. She showed Sara what to do.
“One fluid motion,” said the librarian. “Dead.”
She handed Sara a packet of library policies.
“Do you have any questions for me?” the librarian asked.
Sara had many.
“The pervert will reveal its status immediately,” said the librarian. “There will be no confusion. Disposal is out back. I can show you on your way out.”
The librarian placed her palms flat on the table. She did not move. Sara asked the only question on her mind.
“What if,” said Sara, “the pervert is someone you know?”
“Do you fraternize with perverts?” asked the librarian.
“No,” said Sara. She did not fraternize with anyone. But still she wondered.
“Listen. When a guardian of knowledge joins this branch, she will stop at nothing to defend the accessibility of information from those who seek to destroy it. This is a safe space, and to maintain it we must make personal sacrifices. To answer your question, the librarians at this branch do not ask each other that question.”
Sara walked home beside evening traffic, slouching to hide her tremendous height. Sara was a giant. Her hands were gentle spatulas. Her feet little boats. Her hair was a huge, yellow shrub, and her voice could fell birds. This was why the librarians wanted her: she looked like a man and looked like she could kill a man. But she still didn’t know if she was brave enough, when the time came, to kill a pervert.
Sara had always wanted to be a librarian, and she had fucked it up. She shrunk from the librarian’s intensity, the vegetable odor she emitted. Her hand, when Sara took it, bore the lumpen calluses of a grave digger.
Under the librarian’s gaze, Sara felt exposed, dissected on ice. On the sidewalk, she feared someone would throw a can at her from a moving car. Her body was wide and quick to bruise, if someone were to try. No one ever had, but it was only a matter of time. When the can hit, it would be welcome. Her fears would be answered. Maybe then she would finally feel relief.
When Sara got home, she found a note under her door. A line of red text on a notecard.
WORK STARTS TOMORROW AT EIGHT.
BACK ENTRANCE ONLY.
Sara peeked in the rhododendrons, but no one was there. How had the librarian moved so quickly?
Sara shut the door and closed the blinds. She wanted to celebrate, but she ate the same meal she always ate: the gray beans of a bodybuilder. Then she rocked herself to sleep in the recliner. She dreamed of the librarian’s face and felt a thin, vibrating fear.
The next morning the librarian told Sara to call her Punch.
“That’s Spit at the desk, and that’s Bile.”
“Who’s that over there?”
“That’s Judy. She’s a volunteer,” said Punch. In the corner, Judy flicked her tongue between her fingers. Sara looked away.
These women had a hardy musculature about them, like a scrubbed potato. The word that came to Sara’s mind was starch.
“You know you don’t have to be a Sara,” Punch was saying. “You can be yourself around us.” And she flashed her tooth. She had a long one.
“I’m straight,” Sara said. “I mean, I’m celibate.” She blushed. “I’m a conscientious objector.”
“Sure, Sara,” said Punch. Her face tightened again, but Sara could sense her disappointment. People assumed things about Sara. They wanted her body in one of two shapes.
Punch dug around in a drawer and pulled out a pair of latex gloves.
“These may be a little tight, but they’ll stretch out.” Punch grinned. “You’ll start on intake. It’s easier because you’re in the back.” She led Sara through the shelves to a small, dim closet. The florescent light buzzed. Green fluid dripped from a crack in the vaulted ceiling.
The florescent light buzzed. Green fluid dripped from a crack in the vaulted ceiling.
“These are the books turned in after hours,” said Punch. “You’ll take the books out of the gurney and shake them by the spine, and let whatever falls out, fall out.”
Punch shook out a presidential biography, and a syringe fell on the floor.
“Those you will need to dispose of in the black bin,” she said.
Punch showed Sara how to access the online inventory, her breasts resting on Sara’s shoulder.
“If you have an emergency, the safe word is ‘Alison Bechdel,’” said Punch.
She white-knuckled Sara’s shoulder and walked out. Sara watched Punch’s hips move in her loose pants.
Sara was wet.
Just like that, big, straight Sara was inducted into a conspiracy of leatherdykes. A nest of leatherdykes, a fraternity, a feast of leatherdykes. The library a theatre of pain.
Sara had seen them before, but never in civilian dress. She lived near a blacked-out building called SLICK, where no man dared enter. There was a little yellow sign on the door advertising a tickle contest. It had been there for years. Some nights the leatherdykes filled the street with their smoke and cackling, one hand still holding the whip.
Her coworkers’ cardigans hid all manner of secrets. Sara just wanted to fit in. But how? She spent most of her life trying to appear smaller, but next to the librarians, she was soft and weak. It was a discomfort she enjoyed.
Slowly, Sara began to understand the librarians’ world. She mimicked their loud and bawdy humor, their spanking and slapping, the way they used their tongues to eat yogurt. She observed the unidentified vials that lined the bathroom shelves, the routine darting into the break room.
Judy was the sub, the darling, and Punch the ringmaster. Spit and Bile were equally violent, and their brash physicality was a language Sara knew from her upbringing in sports. Watching Punch and Judy leave together at the end of the day, Judy on a thin, silver chain, filled Sara with a longing she had never known. Spit chewed Bile’s ear until it bled behind the Xerox machine, and Punch and Judy were always announcing their descent to the closed stacks. They wanted Sara to feel surrounded.
And on Friday, Punch dropped by intake, asked if Sara had plans. Sara was sitting on the floor, surrounded by the filthy things she had found inside of books. Needles, nails, sliced beets. Condoms, little pieces of ham.
There were books run over by cars. Books with singed corners, still smoking. Books dipped in glue, books growing hair. Books clotted with Vaseline, or mayonnaise, or blood. Sara held each book by the tail and threw it in the bin. Punch watched, unimpressed.
“I know what you are going to ask, Punch, and I consent,” said Sara. “But first, you will have to let me watch.”
Judy strapped to a table at SLICK, her legs splayed. Punch raising the whip. Sara gasping in the back row, the breath knocked out of her. It was a display of power she had never witnessed before, and it fulfilled her totally.
Sara feared that orgasming to her coworkers’ performance would change the dynamic at work. And it did, because the next day she was promoted to shelving. Punch assigned her the children’s section. For the first time, Sara had to interact with the patrons. They gathered around small fires in the stacks. They peeked out at Sara from behind their igloos of books. The patrons wore pelts of unknown furs, and some carried small animals they intended to eat later. Sara feared they would slit her heels defending the only home they had.
“Approach slowly, and do not make eye contact,” Punch instructed. “If they want something you are holding, give it to them. Just give it to them and back away.”
The library was a cold, barren tundra that yielded no buffalo.
One day, shelving the children’s dinosaur books, Sara tripped over a man’s head. He was naked, erect, and freshly dead.
“Just in time,” Punch said behind her. “This one may look small, but it’s dense.” Punch stretched her shoulders, did a few squats, and took a dead leg in each hand. She nodded at Sara to take the arms. The man’s body was covered in fine, blond hairs, and his pale tongue crept out of his mouth. It was the longest tongue Sara had ever seen. Sara took the man’s hands. She felt a grim sense of duty, and that was it.
Together the librarians carried the pervert to the dumpster.
Sara returned to SLICK on the weekends. At first, she sat in the back row, but she began to come closer to the stage. Sometimes she even took off her coat.
Sara was happy! She grinned at her naked body in the bathroom mirror, the grin of a volcano preparing to destroy a remote village. She teased her hair. She wore shoulder pads. She allowed herself more space on the sidewalk.
At work, Sara hummed dirges in the stacks. She found it had a soothing effect on the patrons. If she could put them to sleep, they would disappear into their igloos, and she could shelve with impunity. As she stepped over a campfire, she noticed a disturbance in her section.
Look at me, said a voice two shelves over from Sara, in the Ps.
Sara did not look. Not at first. If she looked, there would be consequences.
Look at me, the voice said again.
It was Sara’s job to look. If she did not look, if she did not address the matter, she would fail as a guardian of knowledge.
“Do not make eye contact,” Punch had said.
Sara bent down to fit a book on the bottom shelf. BRITISH BABY FARMING 1850-1891. Down on the floor, she looked through the shelves and made direct eye contact with the penis. Her vision was cut off after about ten inches, but that was all she needed. Its foreskin was the same color as the khaki coat surrounding it. It was a big one, a fatty finger, tapered and pink like a subterranean rodent. She flinched. The penis began to speak. It took care to articulate each syllable. It spoke in the language of all penises, but Sara knew its speech was intended only for her.
Look at me, it said.
I looked, said Sara.
You are not looking, said the penis.
Sara glanced at the penis and dry-heaved into the reference books. She looked both ways down the aisle, but no one was around. The library was silent except for the penis. It bobbed occasionally. A vein pulsed on the shaft. Nothing else moved.
“Alison Bechdel,” said Sara, but no one answered.
If she pretended that she did not see the pervert, maybe another librarian would see it first and kill it. But Spit and Bile were at the circulation desk, Punch was on break, and Judy was useless.
Zip it up now and we’ll pretend this never happened, said Sara.
But Sara, said the penis. Don’t you remember me? Don’t you remember the dirty things we used to do together?
The penises of Sara’s life flashed before her eyes. Big ones, wet ones, skinny ones, fat ones. Penises that flopped after five minutes. Penises that rose again. Penises that sneezed, gasped, or jumped. The dead man’s penis in the children’s section.
Sara’s sex life was a long string of failures. She always thought something was wrong with her. That she was too big, or too bored, for it to work.
How does it feel to live a lie, Sara? asked the penis. How would your coworkers feel if they knew that you were betraying the accessibility of knowledge to a penis?
Sara trembled against the shelf. At least there were no children in the library. Well, there was one child, but it was watching porn in the computer lab.
What about your zero-tolerance policy? the penis asked.
Sara held up two fingers. She tried to remember what Punch had shown her so many weeks ago.
You think you’re a leatherdyke now, said the penis. You think you’re too good for me. But you and I both know that you’re the same old Sara, too butch to be straight and too scared to be butch.
Sara’s whole body was tense and ready to strike. The librarians would be pleased with the kill, and she would finally belong. But she wanted to kill the pervert her way. She wanted to pulp it with her fists. She wanted to yank the scrotum off its body. She wanted to fracture its skull with her steel-toed boot.
Sara imagined the can, flying through the air in a sunlit arc, cracking against her skull. If only divine intervention would prevent her from doing what she wanted to do so badly. She folded into a fetal position, making herself as small as possible.
Fuck! said Sara. I can’t do it! I can’t kill it!
Then she heard a crash as the penis slid to the floor. One hit, and it was dead. After a few seconds, Punch was on her knees, staring at Sara through the shelves.
“You are broken,” Punch whispered. “Now the real work can begin.”
Sara Kachelman is the author of the art book Autopsy of the Sewing Machine. She is an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Contact her at sarakachelman.com.