Ryan Scott

The Lionel Whittledowne Memorial Library

               At the end of a dim corridor in the basement of a low-rise building, you’ll find the library. A large iron gate guards its entrance. Its dark green paint is flaking. The iron beneath is rusted.
               When tried, the gate may give the impression of being locked. Give it a shove to open. If this doesn’t work, pull the coarse rope hanging nearby to summon the librarian. No hours are posted, and the rope is itchy to touch. Strands of rope fiber often stick to clothes or skin. A hand-written sign immediately inside the library invites visitors to deposit the fibers in a box. This is assuming the librarian lets you in.
               Visitors need a library card. Those without one can have it made on the spot. They only need to provide a lock of hair, a photo of a beloved family pet, and a pressed leaf or flower. People don’t usually come with these items. If this applies to you, the librarian will direct you to look up your name in the card catalog where you may find, for example, a lock of black curly hair, a photo of two mice called Romulus and Remus, and the pressed slightly rotting leaf of passiflora edulis. This is by far the most efficient way to join. Bribes of hard salted toffee, Tyrolean cheese, or cognac of any sort will also work.
               The card catalog cabinets are about five paces in front of the librarian’s desk, where, apart from an adjustable desk lamp, she keeps a stuffed pine marten. The cabinets are made of oak and are paired back to back in four long rows that stretch for a considerable distance.
               Attached to the passiflora edulis index card is a small Ziploc bag containing an inch-wide ring of barbed wire. Cross-referencing this with passionfruit uncovers a ticket stub for a now defunct funfair.
               Items stored in the reserve collection require you to fill in one of the request slips kept on top of the cabinets. All the pencils are 2B, blunt or broken, and covered in bite marks. Romulus and Remus is in the reserve collection.
               The librarian offers commentary with each loan. “This’ll be lovely”, “That shirt is not flattering,” and “Have you spoken to your parents today?” are examples of what she says. Requesting Romulus and Remus will elicit, “Fancy yourself a scholar, do you?” after which you will be shown a grainy 8-mm pornographic film. The two actors – Will Hungus and Homeboy Erectus – wear plastic laurel wreaths and speak in stilted Latin while performing. The card Romulus gives a street address, and Remus comes with a bag of mustard seeds. The actors’ names are not mentioned in the catalog at all.
               The sweet funk of old books pervades the library, though only one book is on loan – a visitor’s log empty except for a simple drawing of a kite (or diamond) with a vertical line part way through the middle and rope fibers lodged in the groove where the pages meet. The log is held in the reserve collection under Mice. The librarian claims not to know where the smell of the other books comes from.
               The catalog cards are not arranged by title or author. People’s names are mixed in with the names of objects and lengthy topic headings. For example, Makovský, Mr., which is another reserve item, is filed between Making Excuses for One’s Life and Maladroit Dance Moves of Certain Social Groups.
               The Makovský items are an old thesaurus dust jacket, two bookends and an illegible hand-written draft of what may be a story. Filling in the request slip for Making Excuses for One’s Life allows a visitor to temporarily borrow an ornately engraved fob watch. The librarian’s accompanying remark is “What a gentleman and/or lady you are!” before she counts down from ten to one. When she finishes, you return the item. She and the watch are not synchronized.
               Taped to the card Maladroit Dance Moves of Certain Social Groups is a key to a hotel room located about two blocks from the library. In the room is a coin-operated telescope. The coin slot is jammed with pink gum, and the telescope is fixed in position to look at the street. Beside the telescope on a small circular table is another visitor’s log, this time with a drawing of an upside-down heart (or peach) and more rope fibers. To get there the librarian tells you to use the address on the Romulus card.
               In order to get back into the library at this point, the librarian may demand you become a member again. Toffee, cheese, or cognac comes in handy now.
               You may be wondering who Lionel Whittledowne was. Searching the library named in his honor offers no clues. His name doesn’t turn up on the catalog cards – no Whittledownes do. There is one Lionel, though it’s not advisable to borrow the associated item unless you’re interested in breeding pigeons.
               Other non-existent entries include Art, Death, Life, Love and Politics. Some of these words, however, appear in longer entries. Death of Disco is the entry for a vial of ash, Death Disco – a stuffed seagull, and Politics, the Love and Terror of – a plastic promotional bag emblazoned with the word POP. Inside the bag is a purple glittery wig, a box of used Crayola with the red missing and the snapped-off end of the blue, and a postcard from The Hague, its message written in a language neither you nor the librarian can understand.
               Meaning of Life has nothing stuck to it, and the librarian claims there is nothing in the reserve collection either. Meaning of Life, The (film) grants access to an audio tape with the label scratched off. The tape contains a recording of children trying to recite lines from a film about aliens, but they keep bursting into laughter. They continue until they’re called for lunch. Visitors will need to locate the card Mitchell, Marcus to get the tape recorder.
               Alien and various derivations of this word fill one whole drawer. If you request the item Alienist, you will be taken to a small room immediately to the left of the librarian’s desk. The room, which is empty except for an office chair, is lined with plastic sheeting. A cream pie will be loaned directly to your face. The pie is filled with pine-scented shaving cream. The crust is edible.
               Under Pie you will find creased playing cards and a single twenty-sided die.
               Under Pine is the message See under Pine Ridge, Pine Gap and Pine Furniture. Those entries will uncover jigsaw puzzle pieces from unrelated puzzles.
               Under Jigsaw is a lock of black curly hair, a photo of two mice and the fragment of a dried European maple leaf.
               All this research will no doubt make you hungry. Fill in a request slip for European Maple Leaf. You will be treated to a three-course meal at the librarian’s desk, with the stuffed pine marten looking on. The courses are cold fruit soup, grilled duck breast in juniper sauce with purée of celeriac and a tub of store-bought rice pudding, caramel flavored. The wine is an Argentinian Malbec.
               A stroll up and down the aisles, perhaps checking random cards, will aid digestion. At some point, the librarian will call out that the leaf referenced on the card Jigsaw is in fact a Japanese maple.
               On the catalog card for the aforementioned tree, written bold in felt tip, is the simple message: MIND YOUR HEAD.
               Recovery from whatever the Malbec is laced with takes between two and three hours. The recovery area is a back alley on the other side of town. An eye will be bruised. A rib will feel broken, but an x-ray will reveal it is not. In your pocket will be a penny with both sides worn smooth, half of a blue Crayola and a baby’s tooth, all together in a Ziploc bag along with a blank catalog card.

Ryan Scott's translation of Jiří Kolář's A User's Manual is published by Twisted Spoon Press.
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