Irene

Back when I still shelved books for far below a living—well, read books or whispered about them with my co-workers between the stacks—I knew this peculiar bird of a woman, Irene who worked in adult reference.

Irene always wore homemade things—earrings of two crooked figurines woven from sharp wire, a speckled feather broach with a flimsy emerald in the middle, or a sweater patterned with different shapes and colors of eyes. She was like one of those storks you see along the highway that juts out from a pond on two long stilts, with a brightly colored bill that doesn’t blend well against the back fall of soft, pastel greens.

But there Irene sat behind the reference desk, attempting to bleed into invisible reeds. She was always surprised when a patron approached her. “Excuse me, do you think you could help me use the print card?” a patron would ask. In her thick-rimmed glasses, her eyes readjusted as if light was shined directly into them, and she looked desperate to fly.

It must have been hard for Irene to thrive eight hours a day in a building completely surrounded by glass on all sides. Under the green, limey lights, there were books filled with songs and rhythms sung by birds of paradise, the poets she idolized.

I remember taking big fish gulps of air in my car before coming into work. I did this a lot to prepare myself for a long silence that was usually punctured with the unsure, rampaging thoughts of a growing person. Once, I saw Irene’s face from the employee door window. There was no color in her cheeks, and her eyes welled wildly, bulging with whiteness. Her gray face staggered back and forth, and her bottom lip trembled. She looked beyond seasick—more like she just discovered a corpse, or something worse. Though her stare lingered in my direction, our eyes never met.

Irene had disappeared before I had the chance to meet her at the door. Once I clocked in, I rushed over to Irene’s desk on the other side of the library. I demanded to know what it was she saw in the window, and why she was staring like a seer with a horrific vision. She was confused, like I just informed her that I had seen her sleep walk. After a long time, she seemed to come to her senses. She said, “I didn’t even know you were working today—you aren’t even on the schedule. I had this weird feeling. I could feel you all the way from here behind my desk. I just knew you were here.”

One time she discovered me writing a poem in the break room. She made a strange cooing sound and cocked her head sideways as if to hear the words I scribbled onto the paper. And once again our eyes missed one another’s. She looked like a little girl who wanted to share a secret, but didn’t know how. Irene told me she tried writing for herself, but she stopped because she got a “little carried away.” Somewhere along the way, she misplaced something and had to retrace her steps. By the time she went back to her trail, the breadcrumbs were all gobbled up—by birds if I were to guess.

A few years later, I heard Irene had a run-in with death. She never married or had any kids. She donated one of her kidneys to a man she hardly knew. Her body seemed to know it was missing something and put up a fight. I have a hard time imagining doing the same—offering my body for harvest while it’s still alive—to help a stranger.

These days I hear Irene is lighter, even flightier than before. She’s somber when she stares out the windows. I hear she has begun to write again.

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