She used to call on Friday evenings. As soon as I’d get settled at the reference desk after cataloging books all day, the phone would ring. If Rich were there, he’d smirk and walk away, knowing who was on the other end of the line.

“Hello, who’s this?” she’d brusquely ask.

“Hi, Vera, it’s Sean,” I’d say.

Over time she’d come to recognize my voice and would even start asking for me if I was not the one who answered. She was suspicious of new people, but it didn’t faze her for long. The first time I talked to her, I was bewildered. She began listing off seemingly random phrases. Slowly I realized they were crossword clues. She was not unfriendly, although neither would I characterize her as friendly.

She’d often argue about the correctness of the answers I provided. Over time, though, we developed a hesitant rapport. I was surprised when my irritation at her long-winded calls suddenly gave way to comfort in how she helped pass the time on slow Friday nights. I began spending my Friday lunch hour working my way through the newspaper’s daily crossword puzzle so I would be prepared for her calls.

The first time she stopped calling, I wondered where she’d gone. From talking with some of my colleagues, I found out that she was periodically institutionalized at the state hospital. She’d disappear from the phone lines for several months, and one day she’d start calling again like normal. No one seemed to know the details. Well, probably someone did, but I never heard them. I kind of didn’t want to know.

Some of the staff had even met her before. At one time she was well enough to come to the library. I discovered other bits and pieces from talking to my colleagues. For instance, they told me she owned one of those hand-held computers used for helping solve crosswords, which begged the question of why she called at all. Behind her disengaged and often hostile manner, was she really just lonely?

Sometimes while on the phone with her, I’d hear a male voice in the background. She’d occasionally refer to him or say something to him, but never explained who he was. I think his name was Harold, but I may be confusing my memory of these phone calls with the movie Harold and Maude. In my head now, Vera sounds like Maude, but in reality I think her voice was harsher. The years have softened over that roughness in my recollections, like they’ve done with other jagged edges of the past.

I wonder sometimes if Vera still calls the library. I wonder if she ever asked about me after I left. There were so many people I never said goodbye to before I ran from that town. Of course I could find out easily enough if she’s still around. But I don’t really want to know, in the same way that I didn’t want to see her in person. For me, she was a disembodied voice on the other end of the line, someone I could count on to be the same every single time, someone who wanted something from me that I could actually provide. She was an odd piece of the absurd puzzle that comprised a not altogether pleasant period of my life. Somehow she fit in there, though, just like all the other odd pieces did.

Leave a comment


  1. There used to be a lady with some kind of mental illness or disability that would ask me for help picking her fruits and vegetables.

    • It appears that people in need of help tend to gravitate toward you. You must project an air of approachability.

      • During high school it was said that I looked aloof. It’s only since I was taken care of by a psychologist who specialized in emergency assessment (meeting people under stress) that I’ve become more open to other people.

        • I’m pretty sure I’ve looked aloof my entire life. Certainly people have told me at various times and in various ways that I look unapproachable. But, see, over the phone it’s hard to perceive that.

  2. How mysterious…

  3. Richard

     /  July 30, 2012

    Brings back memories. Don’t think I ever helped Vera that I remember but being at the desk brought about plenty of opportunity to interact with some very interesting people.

    • I changed her name, but I’m sure if you’d helped her you’d remember, regardless of the name. I definitely miss the reference desk sometimes for the very reason you mention. Helping people over email isn’t nearly as satisfying.

  4. Richard

     /  August 4, 2012

    Tried to email this, but I’m having trouble finding your email address….

    On a slightly related thread, just saw on the Times Record News site (what does it say about me that I still keep up??) about Saladeli closing a few days ago.

    Nice place from what i remember. I enjoyed getting to chat with you during lunch there back in 2004.

    • That was one of the few places a vegan could eat in WF. I think the time we went out to lunch there was one of maybe three times I ate in a restaurant during the entire time I lived there.



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