Comedy Stories

The Dewey Decimal System

It’s a rare thing to find fulfillment in maintaining order, carving it out of chaos, keeping the Barbarians outside the gates. But it’s been my life’s pursuit.

Case in point, I return from my lunch break to find all hell has broken loose in the library. How much anarchy has been unleashed in the quarter-hour it takes me to eat my egg salad sandwich is staggering, but it’s all part of my Sisyphean struggle to thwart the laws of entropy.

I escort two homeless women in need of a shower to the community bathrooms, but not before ensuring I have NARCAN on my person. I manually shut down the computers to the puzzlement of two older gentlemen who have circumvented the library’s porn filters. I clean up fast food trash carelessly thrown into the book depository’s drive-thru window. I frown at two teenagers making out in the study carrels like they have invented the French kiss.

“A-oh-fee?” A patron incorrectly reads my name badge aloud. He has an Eastern European accent. “A-Yoh-fay?”

Out of sheer irritation, I ignore him.

“Oh-if-ee?” He makes another attempt, interrupting my reverie. I continue my vain attempt to declutter the library’s long reading tables. Order out of chaos, indeed.

I’d long grown immune to thoughtless patrons scattering books hither and yon as if their mothers would be round to tidy up. However, leaving discarded items out is far better than lazily shoving them back onto the wrong shelves. As if Melvil Dewey himself didn’t devise a nearly perfect decimal system to house our compendium of knowledge! 


“It’s Aoife,” I turn, correcting his pronunciation. I give him my thin, indulgent librarian smile. “It’s an old Gaelic name. You may pronounce it Ee-fa.”

He flushes red.

I stand, hands on hips, taking him in. He is tall, my height, burly, thrice my width, but I am thin as a garden rake.

He grins, grizzled and gray with piercing hazel eyes, looking both apologetic and uncomfortable.

“Ee-fa,” the man repeats. “That’s a graceful name.”

“My mother thought so.”

“Ee-fa,” he says again. “What of all those extra vowels?”

“Historically, I believe they’re there in case the Brits want to expropriate them—along with everything else in Ireland.”

The man bitterly laughs. “You sound like my grandfather kvetching about the pogroms.”

“Well, throughout history there’s usually a usurper around ready to usurp,” I reply flippantly. “I believe any book on the shelves in the mid-900s will prove our mutual point. Military History. Ancient civilizations through the 21st century. If I can help you locate something specific, please let me know. Otherwise, you’ll excuse me.”

“I do need something.”

“Oh?” I arch an eyebrow.

“Let me introduce myself properly. My name is Oskar Raskind, and I’m not here to check out books, Aoife. I’m here to return them.”

I turn and point in two different directions like an airline stewardess. “There are return boxes inside the library near both exits. If you need further assistance with returning the library’s resources, please see the circulation desk.”

“I don’t know that librarian,” he hesitates, looking over at Frances. Frances exudes a sense of profound disappointment. On cue, she looks over her bifocals at the few library patrons like they are felons.

“Frances is very helpful.”

“I don’t want to ask her my question.”

“What question do you need to ask, Oskar?” My curiosity is piqued.

He looks at the books in his hands. “These books are long overdue. Maybe a year. Probably longer.”

I look at the way he is holding them. Tightly gripped. I feel the need to rescue the books, so I reach out. He reluctantly hands them over.

“The library has an amnesty program,” I reassure him. “Don’t worry about the fees. So, let me see what you have here,” I say quietly.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. 

The Little, Brown Handbook of Grammar. 

Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus.

“I will pay the fines,” he says. “I just wanted to return them for my wife.”

“Your wife?”

“She wanted to write her memoirs before—” Oskar shrugs his shoulders.

“I understand,” I say because I do.

I’ve seen eyes like his before. Patrons with those types of eyes usually want books on the shelves around the 155’s. Developmental and differential psychology. Traumatic experiences. Bereavement. 

It is clear Oskar has suffered. Love makes us vulnerable, I suppose. It is also true that I haven’t loved like others have, but I do understand loss. There are things one chooses to forgo when he or she wants a life of order. Amidst the quiet tidiness, sometimes another person’s random or unpredictable behavior would be welcomed.

I put my hand on his arm. “Your wife must have been quite intelligent. She chose some very good resources to help her write well.”

“She wrote her stories in longhand when she wasn’t in pain. I typed up the pages for her. It made her happy.”

I nod.

“In the end, she just wanted to eat fruit—and chocolate! Oh, she would eat chocolate by the kilogram.”

“We have that in common,” I say. “Death by chocolate seems an appropriate end.”

“My wife was so ill for such a long time,” he adds. “It was almost a relief when—”

We look at each other. He’s shocked at what he’s revealed, putting one of his hands to his mouth—to take back the words.

But I understand. When we don’t have someone to talk with, we end up disclosing the deepest secrets of our hearts to perfect strangers.

I cried in the arms of a cashier at the dry cleaners on the day my father died.

I never stepped foot back inside the place again.

🜋 🜋 🜋

A week later, I still think of Oskar, overjoyed when I spy him coming into the library.

“Aoife,” he says, smiling, showing all of his teeth. He is carrying a pretty green and red gift bag.

“Oskar!” I reply, coming down from a stepstool. The books can wait to be reshelved.

“I wanted to thank you for helping me with my overdue books.”

“Oh, it’s—it’s no trouble at all.” I find myself stuttering. “Your tax dollars at work.”

“I brought you this.” Unceremoniously, he hands me a gift.

I take it, pulling out a heart-shaped box, more appropriate for Valentine’s Day than Christmas.

“Chocolate-covered strawberries. I hope you like them.”

“Oh, I’m sure I will. I love them,” I confess.

Frances looks over her glasses at us, calculating how close we are standing together, diplomatically looking away.

“Aoife, do you think we could have dinner together sometime?”

“Sometime? When is sometime?”

“Tonight. We could have dinner sometime tonight.”

“I’m off at 6:00,” I whisper conspiratorially, putting my hand on his arm.

“I will come by at 5:30 and wait for you in the periodical section.”

“Perfect,” I say because it is.

He gives me a little wave as he leaves. I stand there and look after him, long after he’s left.

“Who is that?” Frances asks, but I ignore her.

At sixty-three years old, I am holding a box of chocolate-covered strawberries. 

“I said, who is that?” Frances repeats.

“That is Oskar Raskind,” I say, grinning like a schoolgirl.

“Hmph,” Frances grunts, returning to stamp overdue notices.

As for me, I walk to the stacks in the heart of nonfiction to find the books Melvil Dewey has systematically organized for me.

Carefully arranged in the mid-650s is what I am looking for: Management of personal and family life. Social skills. Care of face, skin, hair, nails. Dating. 

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