Minimum wage. What a beautiful phrase. It meant that there was only one direction for me: up, toward maximum wage. Although my job – sorting books at the city library – was tedious and mind-numbing, something a machine would someday do better, I considered myself lucky to be surrounded by a sea of literary masterpieces. Hugo, Dickens, Steinbeck, Pinkwater. Someday, I knew, the glorious books I would write would also pass through the hands of minimum-waged admirers.
My official job title was a “page.” I’m pretty sure this was borrowed from feudal order, intended to break my spirit by reminding me of my place a slave, but I didn’t mind, not when I got to handle works of art like The Fluffy Bunny.
The pictures, a mixed medium of pen and ink and water colors, were, in themselves, Caldecott worthy. But what really moved me was the story. In fact, I read it so many times, I knew it by heart.
The fluffy bunny lives in a hole. The outside world is big and scary, but the fluffy bunny decides to be brave. He smells the flowers. He hears the birds. He feels the sunlight. The fluffy bunny is glad he left his hole.
So I wasn’t actually supposed to be reading on the job, and sometimes I got in trouble with my supervisor. In fact, after my third warning, I kind of got fired. Which was devastating, because the library was my home away from home. While I was an employee, I didn’t have to pay any fines, which meant I could hold on to The Fluffy Bunny for as long as I liked, which I did. But now, two years overdue, I had to return it.
But as fate would have it, I was on my way to the book drop when something beautiful caught my eye, and my heart skipped a beat. She was wearing a red apron and a metal name tag. Miss Teresa. I guess you could say I stalked her, but we don’t like to use that term in love stories. I admired her from a distance. It turned out that she worked in the children’s section as a storyteller. She and her coworker would lay out a blanket, ring a bell, and little tykes would gather around for stories and puppet shows. I knew I was meant to be there when, at the end of the show, Teresa announced that the library was looking to hire another storyteller.
I didn’t hesitate. I filled out the application and got an interview the very next day. (Thankfully, the children’s department didn’t communicate with the circulation department.) I told my prospective supervisor, Bertha, everything she wanted to hear, about how much I love books and children and how I’m very good at choosing age-appropriate material and would never dream of breaking the fourth wall. And, well, they must have been really desperate, because soon I was dawning my own red apron with my own metal name tag. No longer a lowly page, I was now Mister Steve, making a whopping ten dollars per hour.
The best part was cramming into the tiny puppet stage next to Teresa, playing out fantasies with furry creatures on hour hands. For those magical moments, time seemed to slow down and, never mind the plethora of fussy children, there was only us. And Bob. Mister Bob was the other storyteller, and he also had a thing for Teresa. Mister Bob was tall, dark, and handsome. Mister Bob didn’t like me, and I didn’t like Mister Bob. When we played pat-a-cake, he went out of his way to make sure that he was the one clapping Teresa’s hands. When we played Ring Around the Rosy, he preferred to break the circle rather than hold my hand. It wasn’t even a ring.
Once the three of us were performing a puppet show of Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf (Mister Bob) had just locked Little Red (Teresa) in the closet when the hunter (yours truly) came in to save the day. Only Mister Bob surprised us with an alternate ending. The wolf bit the hunter’s jugular vein and pronounced him dead. Mister Bob then informed the audience that the wolf and Little Red were married and lived happily ever after. Afterward, I complained to Bertha about this scandalous adulteration of a children’s classic, but she just informed me that Mister Bob was the senior storyteller and therefore was allowed more creative liberty than others … namely me.
As if Mister Bob’s uncouth storytelling wasn’t bad enough, he constantly violated the rules, talking too loud and bringing food and drink into the library. To cover up his crimes, he would stuff his junk food into the puppets, further cementing his role as the only one who could play the Big Bad Wolf or Papa bear, because the rest of us didn’t want to get melted chocolate on our fingers.
But I wasn’t afraid of Mister Bob. At the first chance, I asked Miss Teresa out on a date. I impressed her with a candle-lit picnic, and together we swung in my homemade hammock. Unfortunately, the ropes couldn’t hold the weight of the two of us, and when we slammed against my concrete patio, Miss Teresa sort of broke her tail bone. Another time we went skiing in the mountains, holding hands while flying over white powder. It was heaven. For me at least. I regret that this was Miss Teresa’s first time on the slopes, and I was a very bad ski instructor. When, the next day, she showed up at work wearing a leg brace and covered in bruises, I overhead Mister Bob say, “If you keep going out with this guy, you’ll end up dead.”
The next day at work, Mister Bob had another surprise. When it was time to pull the magic bunny out of the hat, instead of introducing the letter of the day, the bunny was holding a bouquet of flowers for Miss Teresa. This was getting serious, and I knew I had to act fast. So, not too many story times had passed before I had a surprise of my own. Planted within the paws of the magic bunny, hidden within the magic hat, was a little, green box, and within the little green box was a twenty-four caret gold … coated … engagement ring. I was on a student budget. Though the ring did have a one-hundred percent genuine cubic zirconium.
As we approached the end of story time, my heart began to pound. The only thing remaining before the entrance of the magic bunny was the puppet show. I was Pinocchio, Teresa was the fairy, and Mister Bob was the whale. All was going well. It looked as if Pinocchio was going to escape from the whale and achieve his dream of becoming a real boy, until, to everyone’s horror, the whale bit off Pinocchio’s head. For me, that was the last straw. “Why, Mister Bob!?” I cried, and in the act of throwing up my arms, I accidentally knocked over the puppet stage, which, upon hitting the floor, snapped in half.
Of course, Bertha was standing in the background, her arms folded. Murdering Pinocchio was one thing, but breaking the fourth wall – literally – in front of a hundred traumatized children … well … let’s just say I knew that this would be my last story time. In the corner of my eye, I could see Mister Bob’s devilish green. He must have known I was planning something big, and I’d fallen for his bait.
But there was still time. “Don’t worry, children,” I said, “the fairy cured Pinocchio’s head problem, and everyone lived happily ever after. And now it’s time for a visit from the Magic Bunny.” Before Mister Bob could intervene, I pulled out the top hat, stuffed my hand into the puppet, and, with the help of the children, spoke the well-known incantation. “Magic bunny, please come out.”
And he did. With the little green box on display, I fell to one knee. “Miss Teresa,” I said, “will you –”
That was when Mister Bob, staring at me, put on the alligator puppet and, with a single chomp, devoured all five of the finger puppet monkeys, a subtle way of saying, “I will kill you.” Did I mention that Mister Bob was bigger and stronger than me? Anyway, I stuttered, and Mister Bob took full advantage of the opportunity. He fell to one knee, took Miss Teresa by the hand and said, “Will you marry me?”
“Oh,” said a shocked Miss Teresa. Then she turned to me. “But what did you want to ask me, Mister Steve?”
“Um … will you …”
And then, just to drive the point home, Mister Bob picked up Pinocchio’s severed head and crushed it with is free hand.
“Will you …” I continued, “… marry Mister Bob?”
Miss Teresa looked between the two of us. Perhaps she thought Mister Bob was her only chance. Perhaps Bob had also threatened to crush her skull, but whatever the reason, she said yes, and my life was over. Mister Bob then proceeded to put my engagement ring on Miss Teresa’s finger, and the audience cheered. Meanwhile, I walked to the employee’s work room and threw off my apron and name tag. Before Bertha could fire me, I quit.
And then it was back to my lonely path. On my way out of the library, a sensor was tripped, an alarm went off, and the security guard asked to see what was inside my backpack. The Fluffy Bunny. Wow. They’d canceled my employee status really fast, and no longer was I exempt from paying fines. Though it broke my heart, I had to return the book.
But when I put my hand into the book drop, I just couldn’t let go. Suddenly I felt something tugging from below. “Sir,” said a voice from the other side of the wall – the woman who had taken my old job – “please let go of the book.”
“I can’t,” I said. And so the tug-of-war ensued. In the end, she won, pulling me right through the book drop.
“What are you doing, sir?” she asked as I was carried across the conveyor belt.
“I don’t even known anymore,” I said. When I got to the end of the conveyor belt, another page took a look at the book in my hand and said, “This book is severely damaged. It needs to be discarded.”
“No,” I said, “I love this book.” And so another tug-of-war ensued, and, in the end, she won, pushing both the book and me down the garbage shoot.
I landed in a dumpster in the parking garage, finding myself nicely sequestered among the newspapers, soda cans, hamburger wrappers, and stinky diapers. I was happy to resign myself to fate until I realized that there was something alive in there. “Hello?” I said.
“Hey,” returned a gruff voice. And then, rising out of the trash, covered in banana peels and melted ice cream, was the dirtiest man I’ve ever seen. It was Harry, the town bum. “How’d you end up down here?” he asked.
I replied, “I lost the girl I love to the man I hate.”
Harry nodded knowingly. “That’s how I got down here too.”
“I used to sort books back in the day.”
“I loved a librarian named Beatrice. But she left me for George the janitor, whom she left for Mister Darcy. Now she’s an old maid, and I’m a bum. I shouldn’t have known you can’t marry a librarian. But once you give your heart to the library, it will never leave. That’s why I’m here.”
“Well,” I said, “at least we have each other.”
“I don’t think so, kid. This is my dumpster. Go win your girl back.”
“I tried, but he’s a big, bad wolf.”
“Learn from Little Red Riding Hood. When the wolf eats you up, cut yourself back out.”
“That’s not how the story goes. The wolf locked Little Red in the closest, and then the hunter saved her.”
“Son, you’ve obviously been the victim of watered down storytelling. The true Grimm’s fairy tale involves scissors and plenty of blood.”
I couldn’t believe it. The children’s department had been using me to spread propaganda. Thinking of Mister Bob, the ultimate tool, further adulterating the classics with completely unnecessary violence, as opposed to the proper, culturally-celebrated violence, my blood began to boil. “Thank you, Harry,” I said. “It’s time for the library to see just how Grimm I can be.”
The next day, at story time, Miss Teresa and Mister Bob were behind the puppet stage. Papa bear (Mister Bob) was in the process of devouring Goldilocks, when I stepped in. “That’s not how the story goes,” I said.
“Oh, Mister Steve,” said Papa Bear. “You’re not supposed to be here.” Then in a more hushed voice: “Quick, Teresa. Call security.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I said, drawing closer to the puppet stage.
“Why not?” asked Papa Bear.
“Did you ever hear about the five little ducks that went out to play? When the mama duck said quack, quack, quack, not one of them came back.”
“Yes, I know the rhyme.” Papa bear was growing impatient.
“I’m not finished. When the daddy duck said quack, quack, quack, the five little ducks came waddling back. You can’t hide what you’ve been doing forever, Mister Bob. The show is over.”
At that, Mister Bob was so angry that he threw Papa Bear right at me, a truly terrifying sight. For a moment I panicked when I saw those terrible teeth and claws springing toward me. But then, inspired by my love for Miss Teresa, I pulled out my knife and and flung it. Time seemed to slow down as every child took in the gruesome sight. And then, just before Papa bear devoured me, the knife tore open his belly, exposing torrents of fluff, candy bars and a can of soda.
A gasp fell over the audience. “Yes,” I said. “Mister Bob has been hiding food and drink in the library.” And at that, a horrified Mister Bob came out from behind the puppet stage. He threw off his apron and name tag and ran right out of the library, never to return.
As the scandalized crowd went their way, Bertha approached me. “That was not age-appropriate, Mister Steve.”
“Yes,” I admitted, “but very true to the original folktales, and that makes it all right.”
“It looks like we’ll be needing a new storyteller. Would you like to come back?”
“Done and done.” I then approached Miss Teresa. “So … that ring you’re wearing is actually mine. Will you marry me instead of Bob?”
“Okay,” said Teresa, because I didn’t have enough time in this story to develop her personality. And that, children, is how I met your mother and how I became a storyteller. And the moral is, no matter what Harry the bum said, librarians are hot. You should totally marry one. Thank you.