He feels more than sees the woman standing next to him before he finally looks up. She whispers “Excuse me, but if you keep looking at my son, I’m going to have the librarian call the cops.” He whispers “I beg your pardon?” “My son. You keep looking at him. I want you to stop.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t been looking at anyone.” “I’ve been watching you, I’ve seen you. Just stop.” “I think you’ve got the wrong guy.” “Every time I look over here, you’re stealing glances his way.” “Where, exactly, is this son of yours I’m supposed to be looking at?” “Right next to you.” He looks. “The guy snoring with the book on his gut? He’s eighty if he’s a day.” “Not over there. Here.” She steps aside, he looks. He sees a teenaged boy sitting two carrels away, earbuds in, writing something in a notebook. She whispers “And don’t try to act innocent.” “Look, I assure you, I haven’t been looking at him, I haven’t even noticed him, and even if I had I’d have no reason to...what are you accusing me of?” “I’m not accusing anybody of anything, I’m just saying, he’s sixteen, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble.” “I haven’t done anything.” “That’s what I’m trying to prevent.” “Prevent what? What do you think I am, some kind of pervert?” “I didn’t call you a pervert.” “You’re suggesting it. You come over here, you bother me, you tell me to stop doing something I’m not or you’ll raise trouble, and the kind of thing your suggesting is a perversion, or an illness, or a predisposition of some kind, all from which I assure you I do not suffer.” “I see the looks.” “Again – these looks you keep harping on. I’ve had my nose buried in this book for I don’t know how long.” He checks his watch. “Jesus, eighty minutes.” “You haven’t had your eyes glued to that thing the entire time. It’d be impossible. Well, not impossible, but nobody does that. Your attention wanders, you might look out the window, you might stretch, you might flick the grit out of your eyes, you might take of your glasses, rub the bridge of your nose, start reading afresh, you might be struck by a side thought and look around, absently, noting who else in the library.” “And I’ve done all that?” “Yes, but every time you do, you look over at my son for a few seconds longer than I’m comfortable with.” “Even if I were to admit to doing what you say, which I’m not, even if my gaze has landed on him a few times, which it hasn’t, I’m saying if it had he would not have meant anything to me other than a teenager sitting in the corner doing homework. I’m not interested in children, not in the way you’re suggesting.” “What are you saying I’m suggesting? That you’re a pedophile?” “You mean ephebophile.” “A what?” “Ephebophile. A pedophile is attracted to children. An ephebophile likes young men, adolescent boys.” “That you should even know that word is disturbing.” “Disturbing?” “Who would know that word other than someone who actually is a child molester?” “Child molester! Wait a minute, lady, who said anything about molesting children? Your son’s presence fifteen, twenty feet away from me comes as a complete surprise. If I noticed him, it was peripherally, out of the corner of my eye, a human- shaped blob that meant nothing more to me than that – a human-shaped blob. I’ve been very intent on this book because my father told me a guy he used to work with said there was a photo of my grandfather’s tailor shop in here and my father couldn’t find the book in the stores so he told me to look it up next time I’m at the library, so here I am, and here’s the book, and here’s the photo of my grandfather’s shop, and as I find books of photos relating to the history of Chicago completely fascinating, I’ve been looking through the whole book, looking at photos, reading captions. In other words, totally absorbed.” “How do I know that’s true? Everybody’s got a story, especially if they’re out to do something unsavory. For all I know, that’s your gimmick. You come in here, grab the same book every time, pretend to be immersed in it, but really your attention is on everybody else, you’re looking to see who’s come in, seeing if they’re male and of a certain high school age, and this place is convenient for that, seeing as how it’s so close to the high school and open till nine on school nights. And as for that book, for all I know you wrote the thing, that’s why you know it so well, or you’ve read it before so can be conversant about it if someone should ever confront you about your behavior and you say you’ve been absorbed in the book.” “What kind of mind do you have?” “Me? A cautious, observant one, I hope. And you never answered my question about that word, how you know that word and what it means.” “Ephebophile?” “Exactly.” “It’s Greek. I teach classical languages. Latin, Greek. See?” “Oh, come on. Who does that?” “I do. I can think of several other people who do, too, although it’s not that big of a field anymore.” “What, at a college?” “University.” “You seem awfully young to be teaching at a university.” “Thank you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to be left alone.” “Fine, fine. I just wanted to caution you. And you should be thankful I stepped in and we had this civilized conversation, somebody else might have called the police or had the library staff ask you to leave, and when you resisted the scene would have escalated into something embarrassing and ugly and then the police would’ve been called absolutely, if you didn’t run out of here.” “What can I do to prove I’ve no interest in your son, sexually or socially?” “Stop looking at him.” “We’ve been through this. I was not looking at him, certainly not with the intent you seem hell bent on superimposing on it. I have no sexual longings for children of any age, nor do I have any sexual longings for the male sex.” “There’s nothing wrong with homosexuality. If my son’s gay, that’s fine. He hasn’t said he is or he isn’t, but if he does someday, I’d be okay with that. I’m not saying I suspect it of him, although you’ve got to admit it’s hard not to suspect it of anybody in this day and age, as it’s so much in the news because of all the controversy over this and that and the stories about the hate crimes, and I’d just die if I got a phone call someday telling me Jayson had been beaten up because he was gay or possibly maimed or killed, I’d just be beside myself, not because it happened because of his sexuality, but because it happened.” “And I feel the same way.” “You don’t even know him.” “No, but I’d feel the same way if what you just described happened to any young man or woman – or any older man or woman, for that fact – because of their sexuality.” “That’s why I’m begging you to leave him alone.” “This is really too much. Stop talking like it’s a done deal that I’m a sexual predator.” “You don’t have children, you don’t know what it’s like to be worried.” “How do you know I don’t have children?” “If you had children you wouldn’t be sitting around in a library for nearly an hour and a half on a Tuesday night. And you’ve no wedding ring.” “There are so many flaws in your reasoning I’m not going to even bother listing all of them, because basically you’re wrong on so many levels. While I’m not married now, I was married, for four years, then my wife died of renal failure, and with her the little girl she was about to deliver, the little girl who would’ve been my daughter. Now, up until my wife and daughter died, I spent all of my waking hours worrying about the child I would’ve had, worrying about every step of her as-yet unbegun life, from SIDS to playground scrapes to schoolyard abductions to date rape to prostitution, I mean I imagined it all, every way her life could’ve gone, the sunny and the dark, although mostly the dark because, as you said earlier, it’s hard to think of anything but the bad in the world in this day and age when everything on television is all sadness and violence and hate and god knows what else. So yes, I do know, in a way, what it’s like to be worried.” “I’m very sorry for loss, although you seem a little young to be a widower.” “That’s twice you’ve told me I seem too young to be something. How old do you think I am? I can’t be much older than you.” “I’m not telling you how old I am.” “And I’m not asking. I’m thirty-eight. My tragedies happened six years ago. That’s not so old. It’s perhaps too young for that sort of emotional upheaval, but is there really a right age?” “I suppose not.” “All right, then.” “But – again – as far as I know, you’re telling me a story, making it up about your wife and daughter.” “Well. Fine. Call the cops. They’ll get the truth out of me. And then I’ll sue you for defamation of character. Go on. Accuse away, see how far it gets you. You want to be protective of your son? That’s great. But what kind of complex are you giving him by accompanying him to the library? Huh? Protective is one thing, but over-protective is another. He sits in one end of the library and you’re at the other, or you’re circling him, wandering up and down, judging anybody who comes near him or looks his way, the women are hookers and the men are perverts. Is that it? You’re a vulture, a buzzard. Let the kid alone.” “Just shut up.” She goes to her son, taps him on the shoulder, gets his attention, points to her watch, then walks past the man to collect her coat and books from a far carrel. She disappears around the farthest shelf of books. The man sighs, looks at his watch, goes back to his book. He reads two sentences and closes the book, shoves it away, lets his gaze wander to the window and the soft darkness outside. A folded note drops on his desk. He looks up to see the boy walking away, following the route his mother took moments ago. The man looks at the folded note, his ears hot, his stomach leaden. He doesn’t know if he should touch it, open it, read it. He doesn’t know if he should leave it there, unopened, for someone else to find and possibly throw it out or read it, reading god only knows what is inside. He doesn’t know who is watching him. He doesn’t know what to make of it. Or of anything.
-- Jon Steinhagen is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists and published author (print and online) of fiction, recently in Midwestern Gothic and Remembered Arts Journal. A collection of his stories, The Big Book of Sounds, was recently published by Black Lawrence Press.