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“Would you delete this patron record for me” – a library supervisor’s request to Help Desk sounded simple. The supervisor apparently couldn’t get rid of a redundant entry herself. This occurred quite frequently in Axel’s experience and the reason often was broken links or broken holds on a patron record, which had to be either reinstated or cancelled.
Axel, himself looking like a book just off the printing press, always glowing, glossy and smelling of freshness, with a whiff of superiority and a certain sharpness to him, pointed ears and an accurate goatee, perked up. When he first started working for Solace, a library software company with headquarters in Dublin, his place was in the depths of the office, in the tight midst of teacups, chairs, serviettes, spilt coffee, gossip and elbows, but as he was gradually gaining seniority (and with it a blend of boredom and an insurmountable amount of meetings where he never met anybody but only heard their voices online), he crept more towards the front. That’s where he sits nowadays, with a distant gaze aimed at wall-length windows, from which he observes the steadily flowing river and takes a picture of an occasional rainbow. Too bad, the white smears of raindrops are often seen in his snapshots posted to social media, but he willingly encased himself in this glass software menagerie, refusing to join “Dryads with drinks, Puns with pints” as he once summed up the beerful – not so cheerful – Irish life to his cousins in Sweden.
To avoid crass crowds, Axel stayed in the office until after hours. He had been employed by Solace for ten years already and knew nothing would ever be fixed. His strategy – refined in the course of the decade – was to play a waiting game. Then a meticulous metadata specialist, who reported a non-functioning shortcut, would acquire grey hair and a dandruffed itch to retire, forgetting about his aging service request in an often dead-linked Solace portal… Or a systematically annoyed systems analyst with anal-retentive traits who bombarded the Help Desk every morning with silly questions to prove that the Help Desk never helps, would switch jobs and start managing software for stocks… SLS (Solace Library Systems) would outgrow itself, get upgraded and then introduce newborn bugs. Old bugs would be absorbed by the newly bred bugs, and recent hires’ vigour – by severe burnout.
“Delete this patron record for me” – the easiest service request! Display a record from the back end, examine it for a curiosity, press “Delete” and close the ticket. Axel felt an inflow of energy. Now it’s essential to grab and assign it to himself as quickly as he can, to make sure nobody rushes ahead. His statistics will improve by one point in a matter of seconds.
The books that were withdrawn held on to life, extending their orphaned library notes like hands begging – if not for mercy, for understanding – and even in this comatose condition kept their commas intact…
The lonely events in the library calendar (a reading by a self-promoting, never self-doubting author, a dynamic gathering to learn about dialectic behavioural therapy, a “Rent a person” event where a human could be checked out as a talking book) somehow got separated from their due day and floated in cyberspace…
Duplicate patrons, those double O’Donnells erroneously entered into the system, confused the software by their sorrowful shadows… Late magazines issues pretended that they already stood on guard on a shelf… Axel wished his life consisted of a lighter load of tickets he could easily handle. These were the issues he could fix right away, instead of sending bugs to software developers and waiting for years, as though Developers were Deities who simply watched what was happening under them but did not intervene…
Assigned to “Axel Lindquist.” Priority: “Medium.” Status: changed from “Need Attention” to “In Progress.” The ticket is his!
He clicked to see its expanded version and read:
“Patron Laura Lavelle p1447808 has passed away.”
For a moment he stared at the sequence of numbers in disbelief that something as interesting as death had entered his boring realm, but then decided to get to the technical part first: how to get rid of this record. His own mother passed away unexpectedly during the security check at Landvetter airport, raising her arms in an x-ray machine and collapsing right on the spot, on the way back to Ireland, after visiting her two younger brothers August and Stieg.
In an old grainy photograph covered with age spots like a human, Stieg, in short overalls, with missing teeth and scratched skinny legs, held a stuffed toy in his hands (the button on the bear represented a nose). August, who always envied his sister’s voice, managed to whistle during a school concert where she was a soloist (is it a paradox that now he works for the rail and owns the whistle?). Mum didn’t keep any pictures of him. With their stressed Scandinavian punctuality, the brothers made sure their older sister Lykke was quickly buried in a second-hand grave, a custom in Gothenburg cemeteries, so that when Axel arrived for the funeral, he learned that August’s and Stieg’s busy schedules didn’t let them wait and made him feel useless. What a sad irony, his Mum’s sunny voice muted again by her sibling claiming his sister believed in afterlife and preferred a grave to an urn (this was not true).
“Why didn’t you take good care of Lykke?” Axel heard from his uncles when he emerged on the porch. “She always had the tendencies of a bag lady, with her hippie mentality, Chinese medicine and cheerful songs – but with a son working for a well-heeled software company, she could have dressed better and not come here in summer dresses when we were fighting the snow! Besides, she expected us to warm the place but had no money to help us with heating… you can collect her belongings from the attic … her flute … her sheet music, tons of unsold CDs … has anybody listened to them? See what you want to keep and what you want to throw out … we have a trash collection tomorrow and can help you to get rid of her things.”
His intention was to stay with them three more days to learn more about the little girl Lykke, the one who sewed several rows of buttons onto her favourite doll’s dress (“Impractical,” August observed) and altered stocky August’s sweater to suit small-statured Stieg (“It made me look like a stuffed condom,” Stieg mentioned) – but the brothers, now grownups, already checked the bus schedule for his departure, despite the fact that he took a week off work at Solace to offer them consolation.
THE SON REPORTED THE DEATH OF THE PATRON – BUT WE ARE UNABLE TO GET RID OF HER RECORD. WHEN WE TRY, WE GET THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE: PATRON CANNOT BE DELETED, HAS ITEMS CHECKED OUT TO HER. HOWEVER, WE ARE NOT AWARE OF ITEMS AND HER CURRENT CHECKOUT TAB LISTS ZERO BOOKS. COULD YOU PLEASE HELP?
At 12 p.m. Axel stared outside, again skipping his lunch break. The river Liffey was wrinkled by the wind, the windows kept morning tears of rain. At 8 a.m., exiting his bedsit in South Dublin, he had spotted cars with icicles on the roof.
From 9 a.m. until dusk, he spent his time among cranes. Two green ones on the left of the Custom House, a massive, sugary white architectural structure embellished with a national flag like a cake. A blue crane to the right. If he swivelled on his chair, he could spot a cream one with the words “dac-interiors” on its boom. And in the distance there was one green and one red. Strangely enough, Axel had never seen any new buildings, but had heard that the housing situation in post-“Celtic Tiger” Dublin was so insane that strangers, students, chance-seekers had to settle for bunk beds, up to three per each room.
The cranes – that every day splendidly moved their arms in the sky doing an invisible job besides his glass shelter – were photographed by him and posted to social media, together with cracked pavement and city crackheads with their mechanical gaits (skins stretched on the drums of their faces), always with sores and often in pairs, glued to each other by an endearing drug romance.
Did February just turn into March? With a Swedish passport and blond eyelashes, with the hair the colour of rye, Axel existed in the blue skies of Ireland, as high as the tenth floor, floating among bushy clouds and multi-coloured cranes, in the scaffolds of broken holds, links and duplicate patrons. Hiding behind MARC tags and diacritics of diabolically difficult alphabets, guarded by patches, software versions, upgrades. Commandeering seasons with his thick Bible of UNIX commands.
He checked the dead patron’s record. What did she read? Was there an additional meaning to her last book that made her descent into death easier to accept? It said one of the items was checked out in 2014. He tried to retrieve it – but the bibliographic record was purged in 2015. The second book was checked out in 2016 and returned on an unknown date but never found by library clerks. There could be another phantom record attached to p1447808. A broken link, a glitch in the system, some extra byte, extra bit, extra piece of e-flesh that wouldn’t let the system ever forget about Mrs Lavelle.
Surprisingly, she was born on April 23, which was his birthday too, except that he was thirty years her junior. Was the Universe trying to say something to him?
Axel went to the canteen, poured himself a decaf espresso, admiring his cuff links. Inherited from his Mum, his voice sounded almost angelic; he was the only one in their department who never lost his temper talking to customers. Many others were fired immediately for sounding angular, arrogant, angry, on edge.
Ran his internal utility to dissociate the dead body from anything that still reminded of life. From Michelangelo’s drawings, from Umberto Ecco’s Name of the Rose, from Baricco’s Silk, from Kerouac’s On the Road, from Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, peeling and peeling layers and layers of monographs, magazines, books, anything that reminded the system that a record once belonged to a human.
P1447808 Last updated: 01-17-17 Created: 07-02-07 Revision #: 15565
01 EXP DATE:12-30-17 02 BIRTH :04-23-51 03 CUR ITEMA: 0 04 CIRCAC:02-02-17
05 COUNTY: 8 06 HOME LIBR: b 07 CUR ITEMB: 0 08 LANG PREF:
09 TOT CHKOUT:2379 10 MONEY OWE:€ 8.00 11 CUR ITEMC: 0 12 TOT ATTEND: 0
13 TOT RENWAL:1424 14 BLK UNTI: – – 15 CUR ITEMD: 0 16 WAIT ON REC: 0
17 CUR CHKOUT: 0
18 MESSAGE SON REPORTED DEATH OF PATRON 1/17/17 INH
19 PATRN NAME LAVELLE, LAURA
20 ADDRESS 3 Edgewood Lawns Blanchardstown Dublin 14
21 TELEPHONE 087-450-4842
22 NOTE 3 books rtd with evidence of bed bugs – dlc/htc 12/21/16
23 NOTE Thu Mar 20 2014: Claimed returned .i2701001 on Thu Mar 20 2015
24 NOTE Sat Apr 30 2015: Claimed returned .i3719515 on Unknown Date
25 P BARCODE 21432096500222
Was it the money she owed to a library? Just like his Mom who lived on the dole and always redesigned clothes for him or bought them in charity shops instead of purchasing anything new.
Axel changed 8 euros to 0:
10 MONEY OWE: € 0.00
Then tried to delete. Nothing changed. The record refused to obey. Axel examined the record again and again, straining his eyes covered by the angelic flocks of the rye-coloured hair. Evidence of bed bugs? Were they the culprit? Maybe these insects, rather than illustrated National Geographic journals with pictures of the Blue Mosque and the Colosseum, were not letting the record go to the abyss!
He deleted the note “3 books rtd with evidence of bed bugs.” Inspected the record. She lived in North Dublin, in Blanchardstown, a working-class area. Her flat was possibly freezing cold, with blotches of mould. Liver spots on the ceiling, on sagging skin. Somehow the value of the books she read in his eyes had diminished, after he deduced that Mrs Lavelle had possibly lived in such filth. Or was she like his Mum, a penniless but positive soul in a flowery dress, with faith in everything natural, with henna-coloured hair, relentlessly writing down haiku in leatherette journals?
He pressed “Delete” several times. Laura Lavelle should have been gone a long time ago – and he together with her. Should have been home by 9 p.m. today, when the landlord turned on the central heating for exactly one hour, allowing everyone to get warm right before crawling into bed.
Axel kept trying to delete bytes and bits of the record, stripping it of its flesh, of details, of invisible titles of books that were read, of notes that circulation clerks were methodically adding … and finally only the remains of the record, the certain stubborn, skeletal stub, were visible:
P1447808 BIRTH :04-23-51 16 CUR ITEMA: 0
’02-21-2020,-,-,0,5,2,0,0, – – ,0001c ,-,-,0,$0.00,0,0,
As much as he tried, he couldn’t get rid of these strange additional zeroes that appeared when he used one of his tools. He simply couldn’t.
Night fell over Dublin. The last 49 bus, parked at Trinity College across the Guarda Station, was ready to swallow Axel and bring him back to Rathfarnham. The driver checked his mobile behind closed doors waiting for the clock to say 23.20. Then he pressed the button and the doors opened wide, but his only passenger was amiss…
Axel sits in the skies above Dublin, watching a cavalcade of large orange trucks scampering about like insects below. The Custom House is jubilantly lit during the night. The trucks are blocking the road, preparing for St Patrick’s Parade. Surrounded by the silence of resting cranes, glancing over the darkness of the Liffey, not wanting to return from the top of the skyscraper to the cracked pavement, he wonders what it is, this invisible force, something beyond human reach, something that surpasses his technical knowledge, something above his UNIX and his SQL statements, something not in touch with his jovial Java upbringing, something that still attaches this dead patron to life.
Bilingual essayist and fiction writer Margarita Meklina was born in Leningrad and shares her life between Dublin, Ireland, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Meklina is an author of six books in Russian (two of them in collaboration with Lida Yusupova and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko) and two, the YA novel The Little Gaucho Who Loved Don Quixote, and a collection of short stories A Sauce Stealer, in English. Meklina’s awards include the Andrei Bely Prize (2003), the Yeltsin Center’s Russian Prize (2008), the Aldanov Literary Prize (2018) and the Norton Girault Literary Prize’s Honorable Mention (2019). With Anne Fisher, she co-curated “Life Stories, Death Sentences,” a folio of LGBTQ+ literature translated from Russian and, together with The Brooklyn Rail/In Translation, facilitated a multilingual reading in New York City, to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall riots.