[Note: I first wrote this essay several years ago, but this is my first time sharing it on a forum as public as this one.  The names have been changed, but the story is still true.]

I’m working the late shift, alone on the top floor of my branch for the last two hours of the day.  I’m listening to the clicking of computer keys, the squeaking of book truck wheels, the engines of passing buses outside, the clerks talking on the main floor, and the guard telling the children downstairs to stop running and stop making noise.  A man is sleeping in the reference section; his snoring is intermittently loud and then soft again.  One of Mr. X’s more obsessive patrons asks if he’s here tonight, and some of the light in his eyes goes out when I tell him no.

I see her out of my peripheral vision when I’m helping another patron, a flash of pale skin and dark hair.  I’m not sure if it’s her, but I know that it could be, and I feel my breathing pattern change.  The other patron leaves, and I look up to see that yes, it’s her.  Marigold.  I turn to my computer screen, but not before noticing the sores around her mouth and the unkempt hair.  She is my age but looks older.  I reserve a book for her, and while I type I watch her son picking up the golf pencils one by one.  When he starts talking to her and showing her the pencils, she tells him, “I want to pay attention to you, but I can’t right now.”  She repeats this several times, and then he stops interrupting her and waits patiently instead.  While we talk, the interactions she’s had with me and my colleagues over the last few years are percolating in my brain.  The time she accused our staff of not helping her to find her lost keys and later called to complain about our rude behavior.  The time she was sitting with her son over by the picture books and we felt sorry for him because she was behaving so erratically.  The time she asked for leniency for her child’s library fines because the boy’s father had just died.  Usually giving too much information, but sometimes not enough.

She asks me for books that are similar to one she read by Philippa Gregory, and I say I’m not familiar with her work but that I’ll look online.  I am trying to focus on what I’m doing, but there is a fog of mercy surrounding me, wrapping itself around my heart.  Mercy for Marigold, for her son, for the man who may be dead or who might just be a story she told to get out of paying a fine.  As I start typing, Marigold starts talking, the words pouring out of her mouth.  Too much information.  She tells me that she’s been taking a five-year break from school because of health problems.  That she is going back to school as a history major.  That she wants to sit in the front row and be the first one to raise her hand whenever the teacher asks a question.  She demonstrates what it will look like when she eagerly raises her hand in class and then she says, “Like it always used to be.”  I feel like I’m going to cry.  I shouldn’t know so much about my patrons.  I shouldn’t care about them.  I shouldn’t care that she’s trying to rebuild a broken life.

I start taking the first few steps to get to the What Do I Read Next? database when Marigold interrupts me and says, “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but –” and that snaps me out of it.  Like a cold bucket of water in my face, that’s all I need to hear to break the grip this spirit of mercy had on me.  I’m back to being a librarian again.  A professional.  If Marigold wants me to use amazon.com instead, then that’s what I’ll use.  Transaction complete.

And yet I wonder if she would act differently towards me if she knew who I was.

When I was in 6th grade, Marigold transferred to St. Katherine’s School, and quickly became one of my best friends.  There was Lynne, Stephanie, Marigold, and me.  Beth and Grace and a few other girls were on the edges of our group, but the four of us were the core.  We used to wear denim jackets over our Catholic school uniforms, and the boys would come up to us in the schoolyard and ask us if we were in a gang.  We used to buy pins and records together at the local record shop.  We went to the Pink Floyd laser show at the Hayden Planetarium.  We played Wizard of War and Frogger and Pac-Man at the local pizzeria.  From 6th grade to 8th grade we were inseparable, but we led very different lives.  Marigold and I only lived a few blocks apart, but it was like we were in different universes.  My parents micromanaged my life, and they always knew where I was.  I would call Marigold’s apartment, and her mother wasn’t sure which of her children were home, and where they were if they were out.  Both of my parents told me on several occasions that they thought Marigold was a bad influence, but they wouldn’t go into the specifics of why.  The closest they ever got was when my mother told me that she thought Marigold looked like a heroin addict.  We were in 6th grade at the time.

After we graduated from St. Katherine’s, we went to different high schools and Marigold and I lost touch.  We didn’t see each other for years, until we ran into each other one day on South Broadway.  I was living with my (then) boyfriend and going to college, and I was in my old neighborhood doing some errands for my mother.  Seeing Marigold that day I realized how far our paths had diverged since we’d last seen each other.  Her pupils were like pinpoints, and she was strangely animated.  She talked about having a regular role as one of the live actors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show downtown.  She talked about getting over her heroin addiction, and about how methadone was just as bad.  She asked me if I knew what she was talking about, and I didn’t know what to say.  All I could think was that my mother had been right all along.  It was the last time Marigold recognized me.

Now I deal with her as a patron, and every time I do I feel like I’m in disguise.  I’m afraid that she’s going to ask for my name some day, and then she’ll know who I am.  Would she be nicer to me if she recognized me, or would she expect special treatment?  I remember her as that smart girl with so much promise — the girl that she wants to be again.  I wanted to cry when we were talking tonight because we started from the same place, and because I know a fraction of what she’s survived in her life.  I held my emotions together while I was at work, but when I got home and my boyfriend asked how my day was, I really lost it.  He asked me what was wrong, and I said Marigold’s name.  He’s heard me talk about her many times before, so he understood.  He said, “There but for the grace of God” and I nodded.  Something like that.