Avon Lake, Ohio: A Boy Among Books

This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

I arrive by bike at the Avon Lake Public Library, on Center Road, next to Miller Creek near the high school and half a mile south of Lake Erie.  It’s an old two-story house that has been converted into a library.  It has a flat-roofed porch and an addition added on the back.  The house roof is covered in wide horizontal bands of tarpaper that run parallel to the white clapboard siding.  The library sits snug against the flat landscape on the north coast of Ohio.  The men who settled here cleared the pin oaks to plant apple orchards and Concord grape vineyards that sweetened in the late harvest due to the warm autumn temperature of the lake.  In the fall, during the football season, on a cold clear night the air is thick with a scent like grape jam.

The July morning is warm already and it will be hot by early afternoon.  I get off my one-speed bike and push down the kickstand with my right foot.   Mine is the only bike here, on the front lawn, near the large evergreen shrubs.  I leave my tackle box in the front basket and lay the fishing rod and reel across the handlebars.   There are three cars parked in the cinder lot.

I sit on the lowest of the three steps that lead to the porch.  The shoelace on my left Converse sneaker is getting loose and I want to make sure it’s tight.  I untie it, pull the laces, and retie my shoe.  I have shorts at home, but I like my dungarees better.  My dad told me that he didn’t get long pants until he was in high school, so I feel grown up for an eight-and-a-half-year-old boy.  I walk up the three steps to the porch.  To the right of the screen door is an aluminum glider under the windows, its green canvas seat looks well-used by people who sit outside, reading or waiting for someone to check out or return books.

A small bell rings once as I open the screen door to enter and rings again as I close it.  The librarians can hear someone enter from wherever they are on the first floor.  I stand and wait at the oak desk just inside the front room. In my pocket are eight pennies, two for each book, each book two days late.  I’m bringing back Billy and Blaze and Blaze Finds the Trail.  I like the way Blaze is such a smart horse, always helping Billy.  I wish I had a horse.  I can walk through the woods near my house to a farm where they keep a brown horse with a black mane and tail and a miniature horse colored like a Palomino.  I pull grass from my side of the wire fence and hold it out to them.  The larger horse comes over and I pet his nose while he takes the stalks of grass from my hands.  If I bring apples I pick from one of the deserted orchards, the small horse will come for one of those.  I like the way Clearance William Anderson illustrates the books he writes.  I like that he uses his middle name.  I wish the pictures were in color.

The clock ticks.  10:22.  The calendar on the wall says 1957.  Warm air from the west comes in through the screen door behind me, and from the south through the screened window to my right.   On the desk is a deep wooden tray marked Returns.  The Town.  Peyton Place.  Horton Hears a Who. I read that. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  What Johnny Can’t Read.  No, that’s wrong.  Why Johnny Can’t Read.  The summer library assistant, a high school girl with a pony tail and dark-rimmed glasses, comes out of the back room.  She puts the pennies in a small box that she puts in the desk drawer.  She returns to the back room without saying a word to me.

I walk past the desk to the staircase that takes me to the second floor, which is the children’s section.  The steps are narrow and the walls close.  It’s dark halfway up.  I emerge from the stairs through what was once a trapdoor, into the low-ceilinged, slant-walled half-story of an attic.  Book shelves line the walls and two back-to-back sets of bookcases run down the center, taking up almost the whole length of the second floor.   It’s like a long playhouse filled with books.  In the winter, because there is no heating duct to the second floor, it is so cold I can see my breath.

It’s hot up here today.  Only the north window opens all the way.  Because the window ropes are broken, the other window, the south one from which the air is moving, is barely held open with an old book.  It’s stuffy and the air is musty with the scent of old books. I see dust motes in the sunlight.  Sweat begins prickling at my temples.  I start walking among the books, feeling sweat dampening the back of my neck by the hairline.

The books in the children’s section are arranged by how well a child can read. The shelf starts with picture books and early readers.  Fun With Dick and Jane.   Lassie and Her Day in the Sun.  The Cat in the Hat.  Curious George.   I move on to the illustrated books where I stop and look for Blaze and the Gypsies. It must still be checked out.  I’ll look again next time. The Lone Ranger and the Ghost Horse. Molly the Rogue.  First Book of Space Travel.  Freddy the Pig and the Baseball Team from Mars. 

Walking along the row of books, I hear the floor creak.  Its sound echoes off the low ceiling, like someone saying words aloud.  I stop.  The hot breeze rattles the frame of the window, making a humming sound.  The screen vibrates back like an answering whisper.

Next in line are the chapter books.  Because they are bigger and have their titles on the book spine, I can read the titles without pulling them from the shelves.  My mother has a small bookshelf in her sewing room with three shelves of books.  Grown up’s books.  I took some down to look at because the titles sounded like they’d be picture books.  The Long Goodbye.  The Little Sister.  The Big Sleep.  But there we no pictures.  And they weren’t for kids.

I read each case of chapter books like it is a page of a story, left to right, top to bottom.  I pull out Tales from Shakespeare.  The book makes a cracking sound as I open it.  The illustrations look really old.  Most of the stories are people’s names.  I keep this one in my hand as a move down the row.  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  The cover has some kind of submarine.  Now I carry two books.

A fly buzzes around my head.  A bead of sweat rolls into my eye and I feel the salt sting.  My feet are hot and my sneakers feel tight.  It’s too hot to stay and I want to be outside.  The fly is buzzing against the window, bouncing off of it, trying to get out.  I go down the staircase and check out my books.

After I close the screen door behind me, I stand on the porch, feel the wind against my face, neck, arms.  I sit on the glider, set my books next to me.  It’s a hot breeze, but it feels cool after being upstairs.  I stand up and walk to my bike, get my rod and reel, my tackle box.  I carry them in my left hand and hold the two books in my right hand.

Behind the library, past the cinder parking lot, is a wide concrete bridge made from pouring concrete over a huge steel culvert.  It’s almost as long as school bus, through which Miller Creek runs.  Because the yard is flat, the creek is below me, down about ten feet of broken shale from where I stand looking.   It takes two trips to get the books and fishing stuff down to the creek.

The inside of the culvert feels like going into a cave.  Along the one side is a bank of concrete where I sit down.  It’s cool and shady under the bridge.  The scent of muck is strong.  Miller Creek slows and widens here in an under-bridge pool about three feet deep.   Small schools of minnows scatter and dart.  On the other side of the pool, I see a few mud chimneys the crayfish have built.  But what I’m looking for in the water are bluegill, or if I’m lucky, a catfish.

I release the reel on my fishing rod and when the line goes slack I remove the hook from the eyelet at the tip of the rod and free the line.  The red and white wooden bobber gets removed because I don’t want to fish close to the surface for bluegill.   I open my tackle box and use pliers to squeeze an extra lead sinker onto the line so the hook will lie on the bottom where the catfish feed.  I take out a plastic bread bag, reach in, and remove a piece of white bread.  I break off a piece the size of a movie ticket and roll it into a tight ball that I work on to the hook.  I’m ready to fish.

After setting the rod down, I pick up the books I’ve brought down from the library.  Read the titles to myself.   I settle on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  I cast my line, watch it sink, loop the slack around my index finger.  If a catfish strikes, I’ll feel a quick tug.  I open the cloth cover of the book and begin to read.

Robert Miltner

Robert Miltner is Professor of English at Kent State University and he teaches fiction and poetry in the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing program (NEOMFA).  His prose poetry collections include Hotel Utopia (New Rivers Press Many Voices Project award), Against the Simple (Wick chapbook award), Eurydice Rising (Red Berry Editions award), and And Your Bird Can Sing: Short Fiction (Bottom Dog Press).  His nonfiction is published or forthcoming in Los Angeles Review, Diagram, Mochilla Review, Buried Letter Press, Research for Life (Kent State University), and Silver Apples of the Moon: Art and Poetry (Cleveland State University Press). Miltner edits The Raymond Carver Review.