Skeletons of leafless trees hid an image behind their boney fingers. Naked reminders of a recent past whose season had turned chilly to warn of another Chicago winter not far away.
Heels of the man’s shoes clicked against cold concrete as he made his way under the globe lights that illuminate the path to the street full of commuting traffic. He passed under the limbs of those trees that could be nearly as old as the castle across the street. Seven massive arched windows are wide open eyes in the face of the stone structure. Immobile stoic stares became larger and more accusatory taking on the life of seven angels that grew larger with the man’s approach. Both east and west wings are tall Gothic towers that have stood guard for the angels since 1912. The same team that built the Art Institute of Chicago dreamed up the look as they worshiped European masters who gave birth to King’s College at Cambridge. To be considered one of the greats and fit in with the in crowd, the hot architects of the day included stone carvings of the coat of arms of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Stanford and others that would create an instant legacy.
As the man entered, he removed his stocking cap and nodded to the librarian, “Evening,” he said. “You as well, Abe,” she answered.
Abe stood mesmerized for a moment; the same as every evening to absorb the view of the interior of the cathedral. Table after table, each with four lampshades glowing for book lovers to rifle through and enjoy one or more of the nearly twelve million volumes housed in the University of Chicago Library system. Abe walked quietly along the center isle between the rows of tables on his nightly journey to some back room hidden away from students locked in battles with words and sentences that will soon be graded and judged for their merit. Just as he passed a young woman sitting with her back to him, he glanced at the screen on her tablet and recognized a commercial novel written not to reveal some higher intelligence, but to pull the reader into a fantasy. Abe stopped. His proximity distracted her, “Excuse me,” she said.
“Sorry, not being nosey, it’s just unusual to see someone here reading for pleasure instead of study.”
Defense hardened her stare enough for Abe to get her message.
“I’ll let you get back to it,” he said and shuffled past on his trek to nowhere important.
Those large temple windows turned into black holes as the night grew and the woman watched Abe across the room as he pushed a wide dust mop over the shine of the polished floor. She closed her tablet, gathered her bag, armed her way into a camel overcoat, wrapped her red scarf around her neck and headed to make her exit. She stopped at the librarian’s desk, “That creepy old man. Is he safe?”
“Abe? Good Lord yes, He’s as sweet an old grandpa you can meet.”
“Well, he stood over me watching me read. It felt funny.”
“He meant nothing.”
“Did anyone do a background check on him?”
The librarian laughed and answered, “Abe was a tenured professor here until he retired twenty years ago. His background check is just fine.”
A few nights passed until the young woman returned to her table and opened another novel on her tablet. Across the room once more she saw Abe pushing his mop chasing dust mites. She left her table to approach Abe, “Pardon me, I did not mean to be rude the other evening.”
“No problem. A person should not be interrupted when reading.”
“It’s just a novel. No big deal.”
Abe balanced on the mop handle, “Just somewhat unusual seeing a young person here to read for fun, when you could be perched in a booth at Starbucks.”
“This old library has better atmosphere,” she answered.
“You feel it too?”
“The spirit of all these authors and the millions of thoughts they expressed.”
She took that in, “I guess that’s one way to look at it. By the way, I’m Abigail.”
“Now that is an important name,” said Abe. “Hebrew if I am not mistaken. Means the father’s joy.”
“I go by Abby.”
“I go by Abe.”
“What’s that short for? Abraham maybe?”
“Much older. Parents named me after Abram. Hebrews said the name meant exalted father. How’s that for having something in common. Here my name means father and yours, the father’s joy.”
Abby chuckled, “You use that line on all the women you meet?”
“My days of using lines are long gone. Let’s sit a minute.
Abe, looking older, rested into a chair resisting any assistance from Abby. “The thing about my age,” he said, “old men look back on the young man they used to be, and see the legend they had of themselves that no one else sees or cares about.”
“I heard you were quite the legend around here,” she pauses. “Professor.”
“Long time ago.”
“So, now you decide to be a janitor?”
“Well, this place is more home to me. I suppose if I have to do housework, it may as well be here.”
“Why does this feel more like home?”
“Could be there is something in the air. Mornings when my shift is over and the sun barrels in here in wide bars. You ever notice all the dust particles in sunbeams? Yeah. That gives me a reassurance I’ll have something to do when I get back in the evening. There will always be more dust. I have come to believe that the atmosphere is full of ideas as well as dust.”
“What did you teach?”
“Ever hear of the term Semitic studies?”
“I can’t say that I have.”
“That some kind of bizarre religion?”
“Not at all. The study of the history of Semitic speaking people. Arabic, Hebrew, all kinds of ancient languages. The library is named after a prominent leader in that line of study.”
“William Rainey Harper to be exact. He was a member of the Baptist clergy and Chicago's first university president.”
Abby listened to old Abe gush on and offered, “You speak of him with some admiration.”
“The scholarly study of religion became the man’s mission and legacy.”
“Did you want to be a minister? Being at the Divinity school?”
Abe took a deep breath and stood leaning on the mop handle, “Actually, all my studies pulled me away from that.”
“I see.” She said. “Sounds like science won over spirits.”
Abe did not respond. Instead, he thought about his belief that God did not want another religion, there were too many, and most did nothing to give God what was really wanted. Abe had come to understand that God wanted relationship way more than religion. That was a belief he could not be allowed to opine as the professor to his students, all of them eager to become the next great champion of some religion. He finally broke the silent stare and told her, “That’s a discussion better saved for another day when there’s more time.”
The final click of the lock on the main entrance door echoed to make the last sound that night as Abe had offered final salutations to the librarian who was carefully bundled and prepped for the night air. His rituals complete, Abe made his way back to his private sanctuary of mops, cleaning supplies, and an old stuffed chair he had coaxed from management. On evenings when the dust particles rested, he could sift through a favorite volume or two that had once been his resource for lectures. And, what wonderful lectures they were. He truly did have fanciful memories of the legend he once believed he was. He turned everyday colloquialisms into deep passages of meaning and purpose.
He had loved challenges in his classroom, especially from young students who made remarks about languages that degrade people and failed politically incorrect tests of the day. On one such occasion, a student took him to task for a point he made referring to an old wives tale. The highly offended student claimed that sexist insult should be stricken from ever being used again. In that exchange, Abe quoted from the Bible a statement from Paul that reads, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.”
After stating the quote, Abe asked if the Bible should be re-written. Then, using his training as a Semitic he pointed out the word ‘wives’ was not limited to married women, but in fact derived from an old word ‘wif’ which translated meant woman. The idea being that women would often give advice to younger people in the form of a clever saying that could easily be remembered the same as a bumper sticker. The larger lesson was to stop being hung up over the little things and think of the larger influence of doing godly acts.
Abe sat back and sunk into the cushions of his easy chair. The book he had been reading lulled him into that state between alert contemplation and fading into a place of peace, quiet, and darkness. The book spread open across his chest face down, his reading glasses slipped down his nose, his head dipped, and the universe rose around him. Particles of dust swirled in gentle whirlwinds, and he started to see through some microscopic vision the whole of the universe. He could clearly see the sum total of black particles that exist in a rising tide that floats the solar system in a sea of galaxies across a vast expanse of billions upon billions of galaxies; all connected in a mutual levitation. That time of night had become a favorite part of the man’s day to become still, isolated from the noise and distractions, far away from his past filled with trials, hopes and dreams. In those moments, he could sense the presence of companionship. Words grew into sentences in his mind and he heard, “I have a purpose for you.”
“I’m too damn old,” he thought. “Where were you all those decades ago when I could do something?”
“Look around Abe. You see it.”
“Some call it the ether that binds all matter together.”
Of course Abe had dabbled in the new ager’s ideas of connectivity, then the quantum theories about the entanglement that offered the belief that all intelligence from all people that ever lived exists in the ether; and can be tapped. The thought that all questions have answers, and our lives on earth are not to invent solutions, but to discover them, find them locked in long veins of consciousness strung across the universe. Disease, hate, anger, jealousy, confusion, all those distractions have answers. Just keep looking. Want to seek advice from inventors passed, sociologists with no audible voice, Lincoln, Moses, Paul, Buddha, Mohamed, maybe even Jesus. Just ask. They’ll show up.
“Stop,” he heard. “Stop thinking. Just be.”
“What is it you want me to do?”
“All your work, all those lectures, papers you wrote, all of it was just preparation for the next great achievement I have in mind for you.”
The next morning came. Abby had been busy with all of her multi tasking of this and that. She had some feeling welling in her with thoughts of Abe and looking forward to the evening, another chance to question the professor with the mop. Finally, the day turned and snow began to dust the path beneath the tree limbs reflecting sparks of light from the street light globes. Particles, snowflakes, falling faster and faster, like the wide ribbons of sunlight making all those dust particles illuminate and land, so Abe could rise to his purpose dusting away the great accumulation every evening. Abby greeted the librarian, “Wow, it’s really beginning to come down.”
“Just what we need,” the lady joined the conversation as she looked over the rim of her reading glasses.
“Can you call Abe up front?” Abby asked. “I have had this huge question for him on my mind all day.”
The lady removed her glasses, leaned her hands on the counter, “I’m so sorry dear. Abe passed in his sleep last night.”