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May is Short Story Month, and we’re taking the opportunity to share short gems of writing from Alberta publishers and writers. Today’s Sunday Short, “Lending Library,” is from Border Markers by Jenny Ferguson (NeWest Press 2016). Told in thirty-three flash fiction narratives, this book is fractured like the psyches of its characters, all keen edges and tough language. It’s a slice of prairie noir that straddles the line between magical and gritty realism.
The Edmonton public library discarded their too worn for regular service books on the steps of the federal prison once a year in May, a form of routine spring cleaning. That’s what they did with the ones without covers, the ones missing a chapter or two, the books covered in layers of multi-coloured highlighter that had leaked through the pages. They also donated books nobody bothered to take out. Grooming Tips For Dog-Owners and Olympic Water Polo: Techniques from the Masters had found their way onto the prison book cart, care of Edmonton taxpayer dollars and some librarian culling the collection with a sense of humour.
Chuck didn’t used to read. The last library he’d been to was with Bill in the basement of the city hall building. Chuck was sure that he’d never stepped one foot into the library at his high school. There was no reason to be there in Chuck’s mind. Now, the library on wheels was one of the highlights of his week.
“What are you looking for?” Rickie asked from the comfort of his welded metal bunk. His voice was consistently strained as if there was something wrong with his voice box, something a little deformed. Rickie said it was nothing, normal, no story at all.
“Just take the one with the babe on the cover and let the cart move down the line,” Orson, the guard pushing the cart said, his tone curt. It was Sunday. Most libraries were closed on Sundays. Not here.
Chuck answered both men patiently, “I’m looking for something worth reading. Something with a little intelligence.”
“Lansing, you’re a snob,” Orson said. He selected a book and handed it through the bars with a click of his tongue like he was chastising a child or a horse that would not jump. “Take it, or leave it.”
“Critical Theory Since Plato?”
“Nah, I’ll take it. Probably won’t understand six words in a row, though,” Chuck said. “Get myself smart while I’m locked up.”
“You think you’re getting out?” Orson asked. He got behind the cart and began to push it down the hall toward the next cell, not waiting for a reply.
“Thirty-six days after my forty-third birthday, I will be. Maybe earlier if—”
“Kid killers don’t stay out long. That’s if they get out at all. That’s if they leave this place alive. The other cons don’t like kid killers.”
“Thanks for the encouragement.” Since Orson knew Chuck from back home, he used that knowledge to mediate the uncomfortable feeling settling into the phlegm in his throat.
“Don’t thank me. Read your book, asshole.”
Yep, Chuck thought when he flipped the book open to the title page: Donated Care of the Edmonton Public Library Systems of Greater Edmonton. Their motto: Learning Through Reading. The spine hadn’t yet been broken.
“You actually gonna read that?” Rickie asked. He sat up on his bunk, swung his feet over the edge.
Chuck opened the book somewhere near the middle and creased the spine, enjoying the feeling of the crack. Then he tossed it onto his bed. “What’s the point, eh, Rick?”
“We could play some cards? I got my hands on that Marilyn Monroe deck you’ve been hearing so much about. But it’s only in my possession for a week before I’m contractually obligated to return it.”
“I’ll play anything but Crazy Eights.”
“It’s the only one I know,” Rickie said, shuffling the deck with precision. “Besides poker, and you’ve got nothing left to lose to me.”
Chuck walked to the bars to look down the hall at Orson and the book cart moving on down the line. — would be a week before he saw those books again. Sunday. There wouldn’t be anything different about next time either. Just another Sunday.
“Lending Library,” from Border Markers by Jenny Ferguson. Copyright ©2016 by Jenny Ferguson. Reprinted by permission of NeWest Press.
Jenny Ferguson (she/her) is Métis (on her father’s side) and Canadian settler (on her mother’s side), an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice armed with a PhD. She believes writing, teaching, and beading are political acts. Her debut YA novel, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, is forthcoming from Heartdrum / HarperCollins in Summer 2022.