“Mysteries,” says the sign above the shelves. From rows of books below, John Parker removes one hardback, examines the cover, opens to a page, not the first page. He reads a few lines, riffles to another page, reads more.
His hair is thinning; some red, some gray. Wire-rimmed glasses, aqua sweater, gray trousers.
His watch tells him 6:45. This Mission Hills branch stays open tonight — it’s Monday. He slaps the book closed, reshelves it, glances to his left. The library is almost deserted. Tiny voices — two or three — from the children’s section, Washington Street traffic, just outside the door. Washed-out light through high windows. For a moment, nothing happens.
John sees the door swing open. Two women, under 40, walk in, turn left into the children’s section. Each carries a purse, a book. They reach a certain table near John, seat themselves.
John turns back to the shelves, lifts an arm, aiming for another book.
Two months ago, John read a posted bulletin in the Mission Hills branch public library. The library was seeking a qualified volunteer to lead its monthly book discussion group. The senior librarian, who launched the enterprise four years ago, hadn’t time enough for its proper management. John Parker — accountant, part-time poet — stepped forward and was enlisted.
At John’s first meeting with the group, he passed out nametags. For that month’s reading assignment, to prepare for tonight’s discussion, they chose The Rules of Life, by English novelist Fay Weldon. Some members had read other Weldon novels, like The Heart of the Country and The Shrapnel Academy. John spread notice of the choice with a pile of homemade fliers, set on the library’s checkout counter, inviting the public to attend tonight’s meeting.
Nearly 7:00. John sits at the head of two child-sized tables butted end to end. Photocopied pages from The Rules of Life rest on his notepad. Joan and John F. sit to his left; to his right Patty, Lee, Lucy, and Doris.
Lucy and Lee, the early arrivals, chat quietly. The two, along with John F., are longtime regulars. The rest are first-timers.
“Okay,” says John, “I think we can start.” He places palms on the table. “Will everyone give me their first reaction to Fay Weldon?”
Lee glances at Lucy, turns to John, shows thumbs down. “No way!” she says.
“I agree, John,” says Lucy. “Left me so cold.” Lucy wears glasses and a gray sweatshirt. “I felt like throwing the book out the window. I’m, like, ‘Who publishes this?’ ” Shakes her head. “John, I’ve also read Heart of the Country, and it just meandered on and on about this divorced woman sleepin’ around with one guy, and her friend’s sleepin’ around with another guy, and half their crowd were on the dole.”
“Well,” says Lee, “I also read The Shrapnel Academy.” She wears a shirt and slacks. Has a pixie’s voice. “It takes place in a graduate school for military officers; and these people have a banquet on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. There are supposed to be ten servants living downstairs, but actually a hundred are living down there, and they’re plotting against the bourgeois people upstairs. One of them brought their dog, so at the climax of the novel, they disembowel the dog and grind him up and make pâté and serve it as a midnight feast. Anyway, it ends up the whole place blows up from a bomb one of ’em has invented. It was a great ending, but —” she inhales, cocks her head — “it was bizarre.”
“I have a question.” Joan looks 50. Dark skin, black hair, high nasal voice. “What does the laundry mean?” she asks John. (The assigned book’s central character is obsessed with laundry.)
John is distracted; he sees a long-skirted woman approach the far table. “Hi. You’re new, and you are…?”
“Jane,” she says, seating herself on the end. She’s middle-aged, with severe eyeliner, polished nails.
“Jane? Did you read this assignment, Jane?”
“I missed,” Jane starts, unsurely, “the point of it all.”
In unison, the others explode into laughter.
As convulsions ebb, Lee says, “Her writing is very precise. In The Shrapnel Academy, she has these fantastic things — plot, counterplot. It takes technical expertise to manage bizarre characters and somehow get them to interrelate, and I thought blowing up was a nice way to finish.”
“John, did you like it?” asks Lucy.
John smiles. “Oh, I love The Shrapnel Academy.”
“Didn’t it bother your stomach when they were cuttin’ that dog?” she asks.
“I think your stomach should be bothered once in a while,” he says.
“So,” Lucy wonders, “what was the point of Heart of the Country? These people are all unhappy and all on the dole and all divorced and messin’ around.”
“It’s a rather inaccurate picture of life in England,” replies John.
“But then,” says Lucy, “all this weird stuff — in another novel, this woman is writing the book from the nuthouse because she’d killed this other woman on this funky float?”
“I find that is what life is like,” John says, soothing his temple. “Maybe you live in a different world than I do.”
Lucy stares ahead. “I don’t know about your world,” she says softly, “but life isn’t like that in La Mesa.”
“Anyway,” John concludes. He searches his sheaf of photocopies, pulls one out. “What do we think of this?” John reads, “ ‘One of the great rewards of my life has been the discovery that there is always a better lover than the last.’ ”
Finally, Lee says, “I haven’t discovered it.”
Faces mask emotion.
“It’s a possibility,” she adds.
Lucy half whispers, “I couldn’t say that; I’m monogamous.”
“It might be that you learn —” Joan wavers. “As you grow older, you learn more, and you appreciate more, and so” — her eyes search for help — “what makes a good lover is what you think about the person? Or.…”