The Dewey Decimal System

Christopher Kuhl

There’s an ironing board and a cheap guitar on the front porch. And a big-butted ’71 Plymouth Duster, the paint completely dulled, up on blocks in the side yard. Wade doesn’t like any of this: it makes them look like white trash, but he knows they’re not. They don’t hang out at bars where the women stand around showing their midriffs even if they haven’t got the body for it. His mother doesn’t tease her hair. His father wears a tie when he goes to work. And Wade himself doesn’t wear muscle shirts or torn jeans; his t-shirts are immaculate and his crisp jeans look new, though they’re not.

Wade’s brother Lyle bought the guitar just so he could learn to play “Stairway to Heaven” and get some groupies. But he never got it right, so he abandoned it. It was the same with the car: he got it for $200 because it didn’t run. Lyle thought he knew how to make it run, but again he was wrong, so it sits fading and rusting away, and Lyle is no closer to getting a girl.

Wade doesn’t have a girl either. But maybe that’s because he’s still living at home and doesn’t have a job or car. His father slips him a couple twenties every week, and he makes a little more cashing in beer cans and bottles he finds every Monday at the make-out place just out of town. He rides out there on an old ten-speed bike with its too-loose chain and a big plastic garbage bag and then, when he’s filled the bag, he goes to the recycling plant and gets eight or nine dollars. All in all, it’s not a bad way to live.

Wade’s father, however, is not as content with this life as Wade is. His father thinks it’s high time he got a job and moved out. But Wade dropped out of high school—and what kind of job could he get that would support him in a place of his own? His mother tells his father to leave him alone, that it’s clear Wade is a thinker, that he sits on the porch all day watching the street action, thinking. She doesn’t know what he’s thinking about, but she’s sure it’ll lead to something big. At least he isn’t throwing money away on things that he thinks will get or charm a girl. Although, Wade’s mother says, he has plenty of charm if you just give him a chance.

His father is not satisfied with this assessment. If Wade wants to think, let him get a job at the gas station: there’s a bunch of philosophers for you; they certainly don’t give you any service. Sure, it’d be minimum wage, but maybe he could share an apartment, or rent a room in someone else’s house. Wade hears all this and his mind goes blank except to wish they wouldn’t fight so loudly, especially over him; he thinks they might as well be white trash and live in a trailer park where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Beat-up old trailers resting on cinder blocks, with black plastic skirts hiding the emptiness underneath.

                                                             * * *

One evening, sitting as usual on the porch, Wade sees it. The moon, full, orange and huge, just hanging where he could almost touch it, lighting up everything around him. It’s late September. Wade knows this must be the harvest moon; he remembers learning about it in fifth grade science class. And he remembers it’s called the “harvest moon” because its long period of strong light helped the farmers get their crops in: that was social studies.

It’s getting chilly. Wade is thinking now: about the moon, the earth, the sun. He has a lot of questions, but no one to answer them. Certainly not Lyle, even though he graduated high school last spring; not his mother, who is constantly shifting things—furniture, knick-knacks, pictures; not his father, who’s an accountant and couldn’t care less about the moon or Wade’s questions.

Wade decides he’ll go the next day to the local library. Surely a librarian, surrounded by books all day, must know everything. What else would she have to do except read, interrupted by the occasional request for a new library card or a particular book, like
The Catcher in the Rye, a book Wade read as a sophomore, the only one he liked. Maybe because of all the “goddamns” and because Holden was also shiftless, although in a different way—more desperate—than Wade, who is a lot of things, but not the cursing kind of desperate.

At the library Wade is overwhelmed by the old metal bookshelves, floor to ceiling with old, dark books. He doesn’t know where to start; he doesn’t even know how to frame his questions: he saw the harvest moon and just wants to know why? And what? Why, and what “what”? And the library seems to be empty. There’s no one at the beat-up old desk at the entrance; he doesn’t see anyone in the rows of books.

He’s about to walk, no, run out, spooked by the shelves, the books, the quiet, when a fiftyish woman materializes. Wade now feels trapped; he’s going to have to ask his questions. But how? Before he can figure it out, the woman—the librarian—asks him kindly, not at all as formidable as he thought someone spending her life in this kind of space would have to be, if he has a library card. Wade hesitates; he doesn’t, but he’s stunned, too stunned to answer the simple “no” that is required of him. Dry-mouthed, unable to speak, he shakes his head. “Well then, we’ll have to get you one. What’s your name, young man?”

Wade spits it out and something gives way in him. Then his name, address, and date of birth are typed up, and before he can make sense of it, the woman is thrusting a card into his hand, complete with his information and a metal strip bearing a number. She explains about borrowing books, time limits, returning books—undamaged—by the due date, late fees. Lost, he feels like he’s made a terrible mistake, shoves his library card in his back pocket, and half-runs out the door.

                                                             * * *

That night the harvest moon is out, even bigger, if possible, and Wade’s chest constricts. He has even more questions, not just about the harvest moon, but about the earth and the sun, lots of questions he didn’t ask in grade school, that didn’t occur to him then, maybe because his teachers seemed to suggest there were no other things to know than what they, the teachers in every grade, told him. But Wade has more and doesn’t know how to answer them. No one he knows has the answers or even asks such questions. They’re perfectly content to live out their lives rooted in gravity—what is gravity, why don’t people on the bottom of the earth just fall off?—a gravity of mind and heart.

And Wade realizes, suddenly, and all because of the moon’s entry into his life, that yes, he is a thinker, but (he also wonders) what good is it going to do him when he can’t, and doesn’t know anybody who can, answer his questions? Suddenly, scared, he realizes his only hope is the library and the woman who made his card. He will have to go back, tomorrow, before the moon slivers away.

                                                             * * *

In the morning, he thinks he’ll have better luck, look like a thinker, if he puts on something other than a T-shirt and jeans. He chooses a blue button-down shirt and a pair of chinos, puts on dark socks and shoes instead of sneakers. He stands in front of the mirror to survey the effect, the transformation, smooths down his hair, and is, all in all, pleased. All he needs is a tie and he could be working at a desk in his father’s office. Not that he wants to, but he could, he looks like he could.

He goes downstairs and heads out to the porch. Sometime since last night, Lyle has thrown a pile of oil-stained, hole-ridden T-shirts and torn jeans on the ironing board. It’s not clear whether they’re destined for the laundry or disposal. Suddenly, Wade is disheartened. Even in his good clothes, he feels like the librarian will see right through him and know that he didn’t graduate high school and still lives at home, jobless, without a car or a girlfriend, and a mother who can’t stop moving furniture. Why would she want to help him?

He sits on the glider, not knowing what to do. Lyle bounds out the door, down the steps, calling “hey!” and then he’s gone. His mother comes out, looks around, and then goes back in, all without a word. His father, complete with a tie, comes out to go to work and notices Wade’s appearance. “Nice look, boy. Got a job interview?” and slips him an extra twenty. Wade doesn’t say anything; how could he even begin to explain? But he expects that when he comes home without a job, that he dressed up just to go to the library, his parents will start arguing about him again, and Wade will just want to crawl under the porch, get lost in the darkness that seems to be his life.

But then he pulls himself together; he’s got a lot of questions to answer before the moon disappears. He hops on his bike and pedals into town and, complete with his library card, but no more sure of how to ask what he wants to know, enters the library. What he needs, he thinks, is a book on the moon and the earth. So he starts wandering through the stacks, overwhelmed at the variety of books, unable to find what he wants. Suddenly, silently, the same gray-haired woman, the librarian, materializes again beside him.

“Can I help you, young man?”

Startled, Wade blurts out, “The moon was large and orange last night and the night before. Why? Why don’t people fall off the bottom of the earth? Does the earth turn into a sliver like the moon does? Maybe my questions are stupid. But you’re a librarian, right? I need a book. Maybe two or three. But nothing too hard.” Here Wade stops. This is the most he’s spoken in weeks to anyone, and he worries that the librarian, like everybody else, will think he’s stupid along with shiftless.

But the librarian seems to take Wade’s barrage of questions in stride. She suggests they sit down, and she’ll try to help him. And she does. First, she tells him that even though she’s a librarian, she doesn’t know everything. Second, she assures him that his questions are very good ones, and that even scientists don’t know all the answers. And third, she says a library is a “temple of knowledge,” a temple holding a collection of many thinkers of many times and places, and that being a thinker means being a questioner, “Like you, young man.” Wade takes this all in, and feels as though he might really be a thinker; he certainly has questions. “But,” says the librarian, “with so much knowledge in one building in so many books, there has to be a way to organize it, so you can find the kinds of books you need for the kinds of questions you have. And that way,” she says, pausing, “is the Dewey Decimal System.”

A system? This scares Wade; how can he understand a system? Then the librarian shows him an outline: humanity’s knowledge, ideas, and artistic creations are broken into ten major categories, each category having a number; the division of each category breaks down into nine subcategories, each of which is divided into nine specialized topics; then more decimal points break down the specialized topics even further. “In short,” says the librarian, “the Dewey Decimal System is hierarchical, moving more and more deeply, from the general to the specific. Shall we try your questions on it?”

The librarian is so kind, so clear, and the system so orderly that Wade thinks he will cry. This is what he wanted but had never known existed. It beat sitting on the porch, watching life go by randomly; it wasn’t random, you could order it; that was the thing his nearly white trash family didn’t seem to know or care about. Order. No cars on blocks. No ironing board piled with oily, torn clothes, no warped guitar on the porch, all of it threatening in its disarray. Wade thinks he’d like to live at the library, it’s so perfect. He finds his books, using the system to get to 523.3 and 523.4, picks out three that don’t seem too hard, checks them out, and pedals home.

That night, reading, Wade starts spinning. The moon orbits the earth, which spins on its own axis, and at the same time orbits the sun. And the sun spins on the tail of the Milky Way, which is itself sailing through the universe. Everything is dizzying; the universe is expanding, black holes are swallowing other stars, other stars are exploding. The universe itself is a big Dewey Decimal System, and Wade is perched on all of it, moving further and further into the decimals at the speed of light.


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