Short Story Prompt: “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville.
The Library Director, Mrs. Wheeler, escorted the new acquisition librarian through the large stone building. Stopping at each of his colleague’s desk, she introduced Jason. They were friendly, each in his or her own way. One stood and shook hands. Another gave an enthusiastic hello. Still another shared her appreciation for the new hire. “You’re going to love it here. Our patrons are the most wonderful people. Very supportive.”
Then they moved on, the director pointing out different features of the hundred-year-old building. An arch here, some restoration work here, a special collection in this room. Along the walls were pictures of contributors and former directors of the library as well as paintings by local artists.
The two descended to the basement. After meeting several technical service workers, they came to a small office at the end of a hall. Shelves of books and papers lined the walls. Still more books and papers cluttered the small desk. Mrs. Wheeler led him around to the woman whose head was barely seen above the stacks of clutter. With her gray hair pinned into a bun, she wore a gray dress, not as gray as her hair but still gray.
“This is Mrs. Henderson,” the director said. ” She is our Inter Library Librarian. And she has been with the library the longest.” There was a bit of nervousness in her voice as she introduced the woman.
“Nice to meet you,” Jason said.
The woman continued her work, not acknowledging either the director or the new librarian.
Mrs. Wheeler then led him to his office. The shelves and his desk were empty as if they were waiting for his arrival. She introduced him to Sarah, his assistant, hard at work at her desk working her way through her in-box. She stood and shook Jason’s hand.
Over the next few days, Sarah helped him get situated and familiarized him with the different library processes. He came to appreciate her sunny disposition and the bright colors she wore. It seemed that she must have quite a collection of scarves. She never wore the same one twice. In the break room on the second floor, his colleagues were friendly, treating him like he was one of a large family. Even the director joined them from time to time. But he never saw Mrs. Henderson.
One day, he asked about her. “Nobody seems to know,” Case two tables over said. “She’s a loner. Never socializes. Never talks. Guess she likes her solitude.”
“We drop an ILL request in her inbox,” Margaret, a reference librarian, said. “Several days later it magically appears in our inbox.”
“She does her job. If she wants to be left alone, we leave her alone. But it’s sad to be so isolated. I would think.” Case finished peeling his orange.
“Seems nobody sees her come or go,” Margaret again. “She’s like some phantom who has made her home here.”
One Monday morning, Jason stopped at a florist on his way to work on a hunch. He bought a rose with a vase for it. He came to Mrs. Henderson’s office. It appeared that she wasn’t at her desk, then he saw her behind her desk hard at work. “Good morning, Mrs. Henderson.” He sat the vase and the rose on her desk. “I thought you would like a rose.” The older woman did not acknowledge his presence.
For several months, this became his ritual. On his way to work each morning, buy a flower, greet Mrs. Henderson, remove the previous day’s rose from the vase, put in a new one. Then one Monday she wasn’t at her desk. She wasn’t at her desk Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. At the end of the day Friday, there was a staff meeting.
“Mrs. Henderson is no longer with us,” the director announced. “Last night the police found her dead in her apartment.”
Over the weekend Jason searched for an obituary. It was missing from the local paper. On Monday, every was told that the library would closed the following Saturday. There would be a memorial service at St. Anne’s Catholic Church. Mrs. Henderson’s ashes had already been dispersed according to her wishes. But it was the least the staff could do to honor such a loyal employee.
At the service, many of the long-time staff spoke a few words. Mrs. Henderson had gotten a near impossible book to find. A patron wanted a special edition of another book. The woman had gotten it. Again and again, each of her colleagues spoke well of the mysterious woman. Then the service was over.
In the months after the service, the library hired a new Inter Library Loan librarian. The new woman, a recent Library Science graduate from a local university, was pleasant enough. Extremely efficient, as well. The shelves were cleared and her desk nice and neat. Occasionally Jason would stop by her office to say good morning. But it wasn’t the same as saying good morning to the gray-haired woman. He took to missing Mrs. Henderson. It was like having a piece missing from his life. Things just didn’t feel right. From time to time he thought he had seen Mrs. Henderson out of the corner of his eye as he passed her office. He would look, but she wasn’t there. Only the new woman.
Then one morning, a yellow rose in a vase was on his desk. “Where did this come from?” he asked Sarah.
“I don’t know. It was there when I came in. It’s such a lovely rose, isn’t it?”
Jason smelled the rose, then said, “Yes, it is.”