I had already checked the book out but wanted to stay inside and get myself into it. It was about a man whose legs would fall off whenever he boarded a train. A plane, his arms. A car, his eyes. It was a sort of mystery. They would always reattach when he was somewhere else, but never quite the way they were before. A sort of surrealist mystery, I suppose. Not in our world. I didn’t like it very much. The ending was obvious: eventually he would enter a woman and his penis would fall off. All novels were about penises falling off, I always said. If they weren’t literally, it was OK. There was no danger because I could argue they were figuratively. Novels were stupid in that way, and I was smart because I made them stupid.
I made them. That doesn’t sound right. I don’t mean to implicate myself. They were not a part of my life. I rather read novels about novels. They were about something else. I liked paper, and they created paper about paper. Gluttonous, I thought, and that makes for great paper. Excess, overflow. Paper coming out of paper coming out of paper. Then, processed. Contained in a room. A room where people can go inside and look at the paper until they’ve had their fill. And then they can go into a different room, somewhere else, and do something else.
This book was not about any of that, though, and I figured I could do without it. But something about a man falling apart interested me. Bodies bottle themselves up, and I find that embarrassing, like wearing vertical stripes. I liked the idea of a body disentangling, spilling out onto the sidewalk, or someplace else it’s not meant to be. It’s fine, if you ask me. I would even like everyone to look at me as it happens: me over there, by the cracks; me over there, by the parking meter; me over there, under the streetlight. I want them to make me the guy who fell apart on the sidewalk in front of everybody. Make me a guy who did something, somewhere. Make me—
On second thought, there was already a book about it. I would have to find my own thing. Architecture, maybe. Or content, create content, like on Twitter. Recently however, I’ve become tired of making things. Making makes too much of myself, and that is too libertarian for me. Paper producing paper, that’s different. I want that. One is more real. Paper doesn’t say anything at all. It doesn’t lie or tell the truth. All it does is produce and sort and reproduce. That is the real thing; that is the real world. So I decided to bring the book home, to my house, my room, my shelf.
George W. Buckley is a bad guy. I read it in a book once. 3M used to make grinding wheels. Actually, they used to sell a mineral which was used to make grinding wheels which are used in grinding machines. But it wasn’t real. They were selling some other rock. They eventually made sandpaper instead. Not much of a difference. Grinding machines are tougher, I guess. But they grind just the same. Sandpaper is like any other paper, in this way. And if you are in the paper business like 3M, it’s natural you might enter the oil business, the war business—and most importantly for our purposes, the tracking business. Alas, the smallest of repercussions of this being the beep on my way out the door.
I had stolen a library book, of all things a library book, is what the beep said of me. I maintain I had checked it out. It must have been the fault of 3M.
The self-checkout was not at fault. It couldn’t be. It was self-contained, digital. It was the tattle-tape, the physical. The physical was always at fault. It makes everyone a thief, and that was not the way I wanted to be made. In fact, I wished 3M would stay out of my making completely. But here was I made: an asshole, a dysfunctional degenerate who didn’t check out his book. Here was me: out of order, out of the loop, out of sync.
I had to find a librarian.
Here was my plan. To go up to one and tell her, “It seems my book is magnetized.” That is what I will do. I will ask, “Will you demagnetize me?” And that will fix me, and I will leave. Besides, navigating libraries has always been a special skill of mine. I, myself, sorted myself and was sorted myself, by function, organ, etc., and all as arbitrarily as books, so it came naturally. Melvil Dewey was a bad guy too, I should say. But I don’t implicate librarians in his crimes. They could help me pass through the doors, and if I did that I could be somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else. Yes, I’ll do just that, my plan.
Between the exit and the elevator, I had not found anyone. There was a boy sweeping, but I was not looking for a sweeper. I had found no one. Librarians should themselves be tracked, I thought. We could have a big display board, one by every door, with a screen, a map on it, and the librarians are little dots on the map. You could see where they were going, and you could meet up with them. That would help finding one. Alas, I hadn’t yet. And the salt-suited janitor was not helpful when I asked, “Could you be one?”
“One, someone—who could help me with something a librarian should do.”
“Depends. I can do things librarians can do. I’m not a librarian, though,” he told me like I would think a librarian would do the job of a janitor.
“I need my book demagnetized.”
“And that’s the job of a librarian?” he asked dimly. “That sounds like the job of a demagnetizer.” He had a point. Was there a demagnetizer somewhere, I wondered? Then I realized that was ridiculous.
“I imagine the librarian becomes a demagnetizer every time they demagnetize a book. A librarian, a precarious demagnetizer. I guess, for your sake, my question is do you know where the precarious demagnetizer is?” I regretted being so confused.
“We don’t have a precarious demagnetizer.”
“Do you have a librarian?”
“Of course. This is a library. But I’m a janitor,” he said before going back to sweeping. “You might want to check the front desk, up a floor in the back.”
Of course, no librarian would be on the bottom floor with sweepers and the like. I’d have to take the elevator up, up to the floors where the people who make something happen reside, and that’s what I wanted: something to happen, to not just talk in circles with a janitor forever, but to actually do something. I’d need a librarian for that. They would sort me out.
There were three elevator shafts. I gave myself the job of finding the one least likely to fall. That was always a fear of mine: the elevator lines coming out of place, plummeting me and my small talk to our death. Although sometimes I considered it mercy, today I did not want anything to get in my way. It was hard, choosing a shaft. They all looked the same, but I always had a feeling about one or the other: that this one, even though it could, probably won’t make me die, and it was never the one that first arrived. I wondered if the character in the novel, if his digits would fall off or maybe his muscles if he boarded with me—the book had not yet explored something internal falling apart; it was always an outer limb or of the sort. I wanted to know how the author would describe his kidneys coming undone or a ventricle. I liked the idea of his body disentangling behind the scenes, only later coming out of his nostril, his sockets and the like, creating the long-awaited public crime scene, finally external like a yoke, happy to be out there for everyone to enjoy. I noticed one of the shafts, on the door, had a slight chip in the paint: the white top layer revealed a red bottom. It not only reminded me of the novel, but also of the employee attire at a retail store I frequented, so I decided that was the best functioning. I boarded shortly after and hit the second level, the button, that is, which goes to the second level, or which takes me to the second level, and I waited.
Whenever a door opened, I liked to imagine they were just screens, now filled by something other than white plaster. Not a scene in the sense of a world out there, but in the sense that it was something which was meant to be watched, not even the scene but the object itself, the screen, which was and is a door. This fantasy was always complicated by my stepping through, but I maintained it. While immersed in this, the elevator doors closed on me; and before I could hit the button, I began moving again, probably on my way to pick up someone else, somewhere on a different floor. The elevator had no idea I hadn’t deboarded. I was a voyeur to its mechanism: this is what it would be doing without me—going to pick up someone like me who wanted to go somewhere else, and then it would do it again, when the next person came and wanted to go. It was necessary for it to privilege certain people and destinations, and I was not one of them at this moment. It was perverted. My being there. I was out of line. Out of place. Ruthless. When the doors opened again, I felt embarrassed, like I had been walked in on sweeping, or something else I wasn’t supposed to do. The woman who boarded didn’t even look at me: perverted as I was. But then she said something, something to the pervert. I believe it was because even though I was crooked, she still registered I was a part of things and had information for her:
“Going down?” she said.
“Well I was going up, but then I went more up than I meant, so now I’m going down.”
I had decided to say this, rather than a functional yes, because in a sense my going down was only to service my desire to go up, and I thought anything less than that explanation was a lie.
“The second floor.” She hit the button.
“It’s funny. I feel like an elevator operator,” she said, almost insultingly.
“Do you think I’m the elevator operator?”
“No, of course not. That hasn’t been a job since a while.”
“Well, the elevator is operated somehow.” The doors opened.
“Operated by people, yeah.” I was about to explain to this woman that elevator operators were in fact people, but she cut my almost-talking off: “I mean, I suppose the operating has always really been done by the elevator itself, but now everyone can help it along and make sure it goes to the right place, without any intermediaries.”
I liked that idea: without any intermediaries, just the machine and the person, the precarious elevator operator. At this point, we had gone on too long and the doors started closing again. But she was fast and stuck her arm in between. I imagined it being chopped off, but they opened and we joined the scene outside, all together.
“You must be a librarian,” I said.
“No, I’m a student.”
“What does that mean?”
“I go to school.”
“No, but I mean, that’s not your job.”
“Well no, I work on the side.” On the side, that was interesting. “I strip.”
“You know, I’m a stripper.”
“To pay for being a student.”
“Well, I suppose. I like to think I enjoy it.”
It occurred to me right then that if every novel had been about penises falling off, all writing had to be oriented toward this. That seemed to be a problem with paper. A problem that perhaps a proper sorting out could fix.
“It sounds wonderful to me, to be up there.”
“It can be fun, sometimes liberating and empowering, that sort of thing people say, I guess: you know, taking your top off, removing your bottoms in front of everyone.”
“Sure, panties or whatever.”
“You make me want to do it.”
“I couldn’t. I’m no student.”
That seemed to confuse her, and it looked like she wanted to go off somewhere, so I carved out an awkward moment where I would fumble around like I had nothing else to say, so as to signal her allowed departure.
“Well, I’ll see you around!” she said, before leaving to go be a student somewhere down there in the stacks.
I stood there for a moment before remembering I had a purpose on this floor: to find a librarian, and I was in the best place to do it—naturally, the library, and on the main floor, even better. This was the place where librarians were, where they are, in the library stacks. At least, since the invention of the self-checkout. Sure, it’s made things more efficient, but there still couldn’t be self-checkouts unless there were also librarians to check you out. They would just be checkouts then.
It’s just as much the same with stacks and libraries. The stacks were parts on top of parts which made a whole, a whole which is one part, made up of parts, of the many parts that make up the library, its own whole.
Librarians made something whole out of themselves, too, but not necessarily as they pleased. To make something out of what makes us, that is what they do, what I try to do myself: being in a self-making world, I thought about it often. I don’t mean to be so pretentious or ponderous. My mind shifted erotically, maybe in a bid to be more primal, less thoughtful, sell more. I wondered if the librarian had a jumping rope. If she had a treadmill with a podium for reading. If she would watch the nightly news when she jumped rope, or listen to a podcast about history. It was her breasts I pictured during all this. But I was learning a lot in this fantasy too: about the Greeks and what happened in my town that day. What happened in the latter relied on the happening of the former, and the line connecting these two manifested itself in the reporting. I was learning and fantasizing. It was hot. I was made hard—not by the librarian, but by the lines and the dots and their connection. My standing there for a moment became standing there for minutes. When my fantasy ended, I realized I had been staring at the wall, just white plaster.
Elsewhere on the wall was one of those book look-ups. Of course, it was software that would lead me to whatever dots I wanted to connect. It was like a dating app for self-making. It maybe even had porn. But I didn’t have time to find out. Luckily, there was a button to page a librarian. Can you imagine? I loved the idea. I pressed it and imagined the inner mechanism working: circuit boards and code igniting a wave aimed toward another mechanism with its own circuit boards and code. I had to imagine. I had no idea how anything around me really functioned. Black boxes. Was circuitry even involved? I couldn’t tell ya. It would be just the same to imagine the screen had blood and organs and my press inseminated it, birthing a librarian just for me: a technological vulva of sorts. I was imagining a rapidly-aging creature, going from the fetal position to standing upright, electric goo streaming down its body, growing a cardigan out its skin, glasses out its eyes—this is what I was imagining when the librarian turned the corner.
“How can I help you,” they said. I didn’t respond. I had never seen someone so beautiful in my life. They were indescribably beautiful. They were indescribable. It was almost a crisis: I had no idea how to fit them into my consciousness. They were outside it all, vibrating at a different frequency. In fact, they seemed to disrupt all frequencies. This was all corny, I’m sure. But I was OK with that. I felt I had almost accomplished what I set out to do, and I was happy. That is, until I realized I would have to find something to do after this was done, and that terrified me. For a brief moment, I would be between tasks: as soon as I was demagnetized, there would be an instance of directionlessness, no force to drag me somewhere else; there would be nothing to labor upon. The goal of the goal then, I thought, was not to complete the goal, but to get to the penultimate step; the ultimate step would place me outside the arrangement, the last of my power, my capacity gone. It is the next-to-last I sought, and the next-to-last was the librarian. It was all horrific.
“I checked out this book, but it seems the strip is still magnetized,” I responded after my daze, unsure if I should’ve just stayed silent, claimed it was an accident. I could have said something like, “I birthed you by mistake. You have no place here,” a lie of course. It was interesting to me though, an accidental birth—uselessness. It was taboo, for me. It almost made me horny, in a way that had no end, no climax, no cum, and that’s what was so hot: it existed all cerebrally, for later, a later which never comes—it avoided the ultimate; it never ended… it was like paper, maybe—
“Follow me,” they said, interrupting the conclusion of my thought. I watched their ass as they led me to the end. Like everyone, I had heard stories about the shits you get as you die, and I felt in that moment a profound intimacy with the concept of the rear end. It really was—it was the end—but it was the voyeurism, the fetishism of the next-to-last, that I was compelled to; I was compelled to the rear of that formulation, the former, the penultimate. Watching this ass would lead me to cataclysm; hence it was the watching that I desired. It was precum that embodied the reproduction of cum for me—not in the biological sense, but the superstructural sense, and after all isn’t that what biology is: reproduction, not in the literal sense, but the ideological? The reproduction of labor, the reproduction of thought. Thought is what was hot because it had no conclusion. Lacking to fuck that ass was a negation creating creation, and that made me hard. My perversion however would soon lack structure, as the librarian moved behind the counter, concealing their ass, where the unremarkable machine that would bring me to my last step sat with a banal stability.
“OK, give it here,” they said. “Oh, The Man Who Fell Apart, an excellent book.”
“I know how it ends,” I replied. “But I’m excited to read it, still.”
“I didn’t interpret it that way,” they responded, as they placed the book in the machine.
“What do you mean?”
“Having an ending.”
“There’s a last page, isn’t there?” I said with a chuckle, before the crank of the demagnetizer caused a pause in our conversation. I looked down; the book didn’t look different at all, but it interested me less.
“I don’t know. I never finished it,” the librarian said as they handed it over.
I felt a perverted impulse to continue the interaction, even though the purpose had been fulfilled. If I said anything more, it would no longer be as a patron; it would be personal, and it would rip the librarian of their role. They would immediately lose themselves and the crisis—the crisis which caused this brief creation—would be solved. I hated the idea.
The librarian reset the machine and asked, “Anything else?”
I was shattered and replied, “No.”
I had seen that which made up the librarian—stacks and machines and paper, all with the precariousness of a dream and the ass of an alcoholic’s next-to-last drink—as congealed with this sublime mass of pus that overwhelmed any attempt at determination. And I preferred paper for paper’s sake.
I walked back to the elevator thinking about a day when one could possess the language to assign this, a language without too much fuss, fewer spidery implications, void of any magnesis; but that language, I imagined, would inevitably fall apart just the same, and the only thing left would be the paper which birthed it and ate it up.
It no longer mattered to me what elevator I chose. They were all built by the same alien hands, and I had no way of knowing them or their work. I had no idea how the elevator operated. The button to call it, magical to me. The door suddenly opening on a new floor, a miracle. Who was I to pick the right one? No investigation, no right to speak, I had read in a little book once, a book that didn’t just sort and produce, didn’t gesture at anything without end. Now, back where I started, I no longer could withstand the magnetized debris that filled every shelf around me.
I swiftly walked past the man who was sweeping, past the self-checkout, past the 3M sensors, and out the door. The police were waiting for me: reports of a stolen book. I looked down and saw The Man Who Fell Apart was stained red. My body had opened up with blood. The bullets stripped me apart. The last thing I remember was sneezing. There was pollen in the air.
Yet my penis was flaccid and static. Still, it had remained, and would continue to somewhere else, doing something else.
— Jonathan Allan lives in New Jersey.