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For Delta Librarian, The End

Times Staff Writer

It’s not easy to escape the Delta. People have been writing songs for 100 years about how hard it is to escape, especially this part of the Delta, where the crushing poverty and the heat storms and the ghost towns get hold of you and won’t let go.

Some used to hop a train out, but the trains don’t stop here anymore. Some worked their way out, but jobs have gotten scarce. Few dreamed of escaping through books. Then Ronnie Wise came along.

How many have learned to read because of Wise? He lost count long ago. Hundreds, maybe thousands. He doesn’t care. As director of libraries for Bolivar County, one of America’s least literate places, where 41% of 40,000 residents can’t read, Wise keeps his mind on what needs doing, not what’s been done, which might be why he looks so cranky.

He glances out his office and spots someone headed toward Fiction, meaning another reader will soon discover the picklock words of Flannery O’Connor or Joseph Conrad, another person will soon escape the Delta, using one of Wise’s libraries as the point of departure. Such is the hope, anyway, that’s given shape to Wise’s last 30 years.

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It’s a long time for anybody at one job, 30 years. For Wise it feels like 130, because he’s spent most of it fighting arsonists, bureaucrats, censors, racists, tornadoes, apathy, poverty, thieves -- and mold, that insidious green carpetbagger. He used to enjoy a good, clean fight, but less so lately. Lately, the hours have felt like days, the days like compressed eternities.

But eternity ends today. Come 5 o’clock, Wise is taking early retirement. For once it’s his turn to escape.

No one knows just why Wise is retiring, or what happens next, to this part of the Delta or to him, and that might be another reason he looks so cranky. Every escape, after all, is an anxious and secretive undertaking.

Then again, Wise always looks cranky.

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People just don’t realize the stress of a Mississippi librarian’s life, he says. People don’t understand what it takes to keep those front doors open -- or what’s at stake if you don’t. Reading, Wise believes, is life. Illiteracy, therefore, is death. He witnesses its stranglehold every day. Shopping at the grocery store, standing in line at the bank or post office, he’s constantly accosted by strangers trying to conceal their secret behind the same lie. “Excuse me,” they say. “Forgot my glasses -- could you tell me what this says?”

People call him a librarian, and he surely looks like a librarian, with his sedentary frame, thick eyeglasses, fastidiously trimmed hair and goatee. But, deep down, he feels like something else, something more. He feels like the Sisyphus of Mississippi. He feels like a superhero in one of his beloved comic books, even though he fights the forces of darkness with little more than night classes and meager grants, and he loses more than he wins; 30 years of that would make even Spiderman cranky.

So thoroughly has Wise devoted himself to crusading for literacy, to creating a book-lined fortress in the middle of the book-starved Delta, that everyone around here figured he’d die among his books. “Just felt like it was time to close this chapter of my life,” he tells them all with a tight smile.

A nonexplanation, which keeps questioners at bay. Precisely as it’s meant to do.

Wise doesn’t like to talk about his reasons, or his feelings, especially when it comes to his 10 libraries, which he loves like the children he never had. Some things go beyond words, even for a divorced 55-year-old librarian who’s dedicated his life to the furtherance and cherishment of words.

He’ll admit this much: He’s done with the Delta. Born in Memphis, Tenn., raised in Webb, Miss., he’s never lived anywhere else and he’s ready for a change. He hates change, clings to his 1986 computer and keeps phone numbers in his checkbook because he refuses to figure out his cellphone, but today he’s making the biggest change of all. Leaving the Delta. He’s proud of his home, and desperate to escape it, and the contradictions about him only start there. Kind and rude, eloquent and reticent, he’s an altruistic loner, a misanthropic do-gooder, a study in inscrutability straight out of Eudora Welty or William Faulkner.

He’s a literacy crusader who’s hard to read.

But there’s a strange look in his eye today, a faint gleam that suggests this day could be different. Maybe, before 5 o’clock, with nothing to lose and no consequence if he offends anyone, Wise will stop concealing his secret. Or at least drop a hint as to why he’s leaving.

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Such is the hope, anyway, that gives shape to his Last Day.

*

He used to love his job. Even back at the start, when he first got hired to drive the county bookmobile. It was 1976, three years after he’d graduated from Delta State, and though he earned peanuts, he felt important, because every time he piloted his cargo of novels and Bibles through the cotton fields, people with no running water and not enough to eat would come racing out to meet him.

The bookmobile was a movable oasis, Wise says, a rolling sanctuary. Built-in wood shelves. Central heat and air. Even a little sitting area. After lingering as long as they dared, people returned reluctantly to their trailers and shacks, hugging their newfound treasures to their chests.

One day Wise pulled his bookmobile into Pace, a tiny town where the streets ran with raw sewage. He parked across from the abandoned bank. All at once a storm descended. Skies turned hellishly dark; fierce winds kicked up. A young teen, Jennie Washington, came running out. She should have stayed indoors, Wise says, but Jennie just had to have a book. Because Jennie had nothing else.

Whenever Jennie was about to read, she’d say: “I’m going into this book.” Wise recognized her as a kindred spirit, a fellow lover of escape. “The poorer a person is, the more they want escape,” he says. “I think it’s been that way from the beginning of time.”

As Jennie left the bookmobile, hugging her new romance novels, winds pried loose the facade of the bank. Bricks suddenly rained down on Jennie. She fell, curled around her books, killed instantly. “The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wise says.

It was Jennie who first taught him that books can be a matter of life and death in the Delta.

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After attending night school to earn a master’s in library science, Wise was promoted in 1986 to library director for all Bolivar County. Now he felt more than important. He felt called. Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, was also dead last in literacy, and the poorest and least-educated part of Mississippi was the Delta, that fabled alluvial plain, which includes Bolivar and 18 other counties. Wise looked around and saw 20% of his county unemployed, 40% living below the poverty line, 90% of children qualifying for free or discounted school lunches -- and he felt that these numbers, all numbers, grew straight from illiteracy.

So he became a librarian on a mission.

His first move was to resurrect Bolivar County’s adult literacy program. Classes were held in the main library, in downtown Cleveland, the county seat. Overnight the library became so crowded with men and women learning to read that some tutoring sessions took place in broom closets. Desperate for more room, Wise asked the mayor to let him have the old train depot, which was sitting abandoned a few blocks away. The mayor agreed, and Wise set about converting the depot into the Cleveland Depot Library -- a kind of literacy triage.

Besides being one of the happiest days of Wise’s life, the ribbon-cutting at the renovated Depot was a triumph for everyone in the Delta who cared about books. January, 1994. “Raining cats and dogs,” Wise says. “Dark as a dungeon outside. That didn’t stop the place from being full of people. All day long. They’d come in drenched, soaked to the gills, and we still had a great time.”

Soon Wise remodeled again, tripling the Depot in size. He used grants and donations to fill out the needed $440,000, a fortune in a rural economy so weak that the high school marching band performs at the opening of a new Walgreens.

He didn’t stop with the Depot, however. Bolivar County hadn’t added a library branch in 30 years -- Wise added four. He hired new librarians too. When he took over as director, every branch librarian was white. As he prepares to leave, all but one are African American. He installed computers with Internet access, the first public library in the Delta to do so, and offered free videos, an innovation that left people agog. He launched summer reading programs, handed out prenatal “literacy kits,” arranged for people to receive free reading glasses and eye exams.

He even persuaded Archie Comics to publish a special comic: Archie, Jughead and the gang visit the Cleveland Depot, where they meet Bertha, a composite of all the real adults learning to read there. Wise, a lifelong collector, knew how effective comic books could be in teaching adult nonreaders -- especially if the comic book was about the nonreader.

Ten years ago, Wise and his staff created the focal point of his literacy effort: a tutoring program for children falling behind in the beleaguered local schools. The class holds 70, and the waiting list is long. Tuition is $30 a week, but scholarships pay half for those in need.

Gradually, Wise felt the momentum start to turn. And yet he also felt the strain. His face was turning permanently red, his beard prematurely white. He felt unappreciated, though it’s possible he had an outsize appetite for praise. His discontent went as unnoticed as his good works.

“Folks around here, they don’t know what Ronnie did,” says former Cleveland Mayor Martin King. “They say, Ronnie who? But they know that library.”

Few things weighed more on Wise than having to beg the Legislature for money. Politicians kept a tight rein on the new surge in library grants in the 1990s, Wise says, and they tended to bestow their bounty on “pet” libraries in white suburbs, rather than poor libraries in the Delta, which mainly served black patrons.

Despite his mounting frustration, however, Wise didn’t slow down. He still worked seven-day weeks, still thought nothing of driving to the far reaches of the Delta to buy the perfect rocking chairs for one of his branches. But after all his preaching about the virtue of “lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness,” darkness was closing fast.

It grew pitch-dark the night someone set fire to Wise’s library in Shaw, south of Cleveland. “Numbness and horror,” Wise says. “Here’s this thing you’ve nurtured, and grown, and now it’s no longer there.” Months later, someone did it again. Then someone set fire to the library in Gunnison. Books that didn’t turn to ashes were ruined by smoke and water. An old man came by days later and loaded the ruined books into his pickup: He burned them for heat all winter.

Three library fires and still no one arrested. With a wry smile, Wise says a few charred libraries don’t seem to be high-priority in these parts. He takes a generally wry view of local law enforcement. “When my house was broken into,” he says, “the policeman who showed up wrote the police report on his hand.”

It’s no easier to bear when nature is the vandal. A tornado once damaged the busiest branch in Wise’s system: the local prison, where 4,000 books, and a sporadic book club organized by Wise, keep the men from going mad. “A mind can be a terrible thing,” says Oscar Lindsey, the prison librarian, “and a book can keep you from twirling around inside it.”

Lindsey has spent the last four years locked up on a drug charge, and he couldn’t have survived the time without books, he says. He’s particularly indebted to one book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” which briefly melted the bars of his cell. “I picked that book up, for some reason, and I saw something: My situation is not as dire as I squirrel it up to be.”

Others have engineered more dramatic literary escapes, Lindsey says. “I have seen a guy come in, he had no education, could not read or write. He left here reciting Kipling.”

Prisoners read books until they fall apart. Therefore, like ancient scribes, they must gingerly preserve and repair each volume. They go through gallons of Elmer’s glue each year. “I’ve learned a lot about cellophane,” Lindsey says. “Let’s say today I get a new John Grisham. I know it’s going to be hot. I’ll tape around the outside and that’ll give me six months extra on the book.”

As Wise’s proxy behind bars, Lindsey recently wrote Wise a letter. Typed, formal. After congratulating Wise on his escape, Lindsey asked if, before leaving, Wise might send more checkout cards for the prison circulation system. It helps to keep careful track of which convicted thief has borrowed which book.

The day after receiving Lindsey’s plea, despite all he needed to do before leaving town, Wise drove out to the prison and personally delivered a fresh batch of checkout cards.

*

He begins his Last Day -- June 30, 2006 -- as he’s begun every day: 7:30 a.m., eating breakfast in the library back room. Eggs and grits from the Citgo down the block. At 9, he unlocks the doors and people stream in. Sometimes he finds them waiting in the parking lot when he arrives.

They go to Wise for books, yes, but also answers. They want wisdom, and Wise is seen as the local dispenser. They treat him as a cross between Google and the Delphic oracle, and he remembers them all. The man who brought in his buffalo nickel and asked what it was worth. The mother who brought in her daughter and asked what she was worth. (The daughter wrote poetry, and the mother wanted to know if the poems were any good before paying to submit them to a contest.) The man whose teeth were so rotted, he couldn’t concentrate on the page before him.

Wise led the owner of the buffalo nickel to a coin collecting guide. He advised the mother that the poetry was good but the contest was a scam. He found a dentist to fix the man’s teeth for free.

Maybe it’s all too much for one librarian. Maybe Wise is retiring simply because he’s overwhelmed, because even the mythic library of ancient Alexandria, said to hold a copy of every book in the world, might not be adequate to solve the problems of Bolivar County.

One-third white, two-thirds black, Bolivar County has a long history of ignorance and hate, made doubly tragic by its parallel history of genius and hope. This is where freed slaves -- including Isaiah Montgomery, son of a favored slave of Jefferson Davis’ family, who was granted access to the Davis plantation library -- founded a landmark community just for blacks. This is where Freedom Riders came in droves during the civil rights era, registering voters and laying the groundwork for all kinds of change, including Freedom Schools, makeshift classrooms where African Americans could finally learn.

This is where the blues was born, and raised. Bolivar County is to blues what Philadelphia is to democracy. The founding fathers -- W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton -- drank and caroused all over this county, and not 10 minutes from the Depot sits a hallowed farm, Dockery Plantation, where musicians from throughout the South came to blend moans and chants and spirituals, all the disparate sounds of an enslaved culture, into one hauntingly American plaint.

Then they all hopped a fast train out.

Launching a literacy crusade from a train depot was an act rich in meaning and irony, one that spoke to the historical contradictions of the Delta. A train whistle is evocative everywhere, but in the Delta that high lonesome note goes straight to the heart, because the Delta wasn’t livable, or leave-able, until the first tracks were laid down.

Much of the American frontier was at least passable by foot or wagon -- but the Delta remained remote as the moon until the late 1800s. Then, like sunflowers along the epic river that forms Bolivar County’s western border, towns sprang to life along the route of the Yazoo-Mississippi Valley. They configured their streets, even their identities, around their depots. Just as suddenly, however, those same towns lost their vitality, as the very trains that tamed the Delta began taking people away -- to Chicago, to New Orleans, to war. Thus, the train was a bringer of both excitement and exodus, of progress and pain. And right there, on the old weed-choked tracks, Wise built a library that brought the same things, to himself as much as anyone.

He doesn’t remember when it became more pain than progress, when he realized that for every person who walks into a library, who signs up with a tutor or earns a graduate equivalency diploma, hundreds more don’t come, or don’t stay. Like so many Delta librarians and educators, he felt overmatched one day, powerless against the freight train of history.

The source of illiteracy is slavery, he says, plain and simple: Before the Civil War, Bolivar County had more slaveholding plantations than any county in the South. Slavery begat illiteracy, he argues, illiteracy perpetuates economic slavery, and the cycle simply remains unbroken.

Should anyone disagree with his view of history, he gets very cranky.

*

Wise is clear about one reason for his retirement: Audrey Pearson. “I couldn’t leave until the right person was here to leave the library to,” he says.

He hired Pearson two years ago to be his literacy coordinator, and earlier this year he began grooming her to take over when he retired, though he didn’t tell her when that might be, or why.

Pearson, a 39-year-old mother of two, a Delta native, occasionally wears a Wise-like expression, a sour look that says: Oh hell. Unlike Wise, however, she’s candid about the cause of her crankiness: worry. She lies in bed at night worrying that she can’t fill Wise’s shoes.

All this week, Wise and Pearson have been touring the county together, visiting the branches, trying to make the transition smooth. They ran over to Mound Bayou, where the library shares space with a thrift shop in which you can buy a wedding dress for $3. They went to Shelby, where the homey old library -- its walk lined with crepe myrtles, its shelves lined with first-edition Faulkners -- is the only sign of life. Wise recently saved the building from the wrecking ball. “They were gonna run the four-lane through it,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Like hell.’ ”

They drove to Merigold, the county’s oldest library, where they got a bracing refresher course in the many guises of illiteracy. Wise and Pearson met with Billy Latham, 77, former library trustee. He showed them around, detailing improvements he hoped to make, patting the library as if it were an ailing friend.

Then Latham beguiled Wise and Pearson with stories about eccentrics from Merigold’s past, like Elam the Rat Catcher: Whenever folks found a rat in their house, they’d pay Elam to catch it -- until someone realized it was the same rat, over and over. After “catching” it, Elam snuck back and reinserted it, so customers would have to call him and pay him again. Folks thought their town was infested, but they’d just fallen prey to a con man with a pet rat, a reverse Pied Piper.

Wise and Pearson howled.

Moments later it came up that Latham didn’t have a library card. A library trustee without a library card?

Fact is, Latham said slowly, “I cannot read.”

Silence.

“You just told me something I didn’t know,” Wise said, frowning at his feet.

More silence.

The three then filed out of the library, past the untouched poems of Robert Frost, past the pristine biographies of Bismarck and the Bronte sisters, past all the books arranged so neatly and lovingly on Latham’s shelves.

*

Wise stomps around the library in his leather moccasins, handing out the last monthly paychecks.

“Sooo,” one staffer says. “Last Day?”

“Yep,” Wise says.

End of conversation.

He quickly retreats to his office and shuts the door.

He’s not close with his staff at the main library -- 13 women who dust and order and check out the books. Most have been making faces behind his back all day, counting the minutes until 5 o’clock. They complain that Wise is hard to work for. Ill-tempered, condescending, remote, quick to pat himself on the back, slow to praise others. At last night’s retirement party, Wise didn’t change any minds with his speech, thanking none of his staff by name and saying not one thing intimate or revealing. When it was over, one staffer turned to three others and whispered: “Free at last.”

She was not referring to Wise’s escape, but to theirs.

Maybe Wise is leaving because he’s lonely. Besides having no close friends at the library, he seems to have none in town. His habit after work is to head straight home to his comic books and DVDs. Sometimes, on the way home, he’ll stop for a fifth of gin and exchange a few words with the liquor store clerk, Melvin Smith, one of the Depot’s great successes.

Years ago, working at a nearby chicken joint, Smith was on the verge of a promotion. Instead, the owner gave everyone a pop quiz, which revealed that Smith couldn’t read. He was fired on the spot.

Despondent, Smith lay on his couch for days. Then he heard about the Depot. He marched down, signed up, and before long he’d read 150 books. In time he accompanied Wise to the governor’s office, to testify about the Depot and the good it was doing. Wise, however, isn’t close with Smith. Consequently, Smith doesn’t know Wise is retiring today, and didn’t attend last night’s party.

Same goes for 53-year-old Utha Mae Robinson. Though she calls the Depot “a blessing,” she’s not sure who Wise is or what he does.

Robinson attended classes at the Depot last summer, trying to earn her high school diploma. That first night, walking through the door, she was so nervous that she might as well have been walking straight into the Mississippi River. As class started, she grew more nervous still. “The things the teachers were teaching,” she says. “I had not heard of such.”

Her other problem was fatigue. Classes were held in the evenings, so Robinson made the drive from Drew, 30 minutes east of Cleveland, after a long day managing her secondhand store. The more fatigued she felt, the more trouble she had concentrating. Though she had completed a year of high school, Robinson reads far below high school level. “I guess the president says, ‘No child left behind.’ Well, I guess I’ll say: I’m the one that fell behind.”

Still, Robinson felt powerful, smart, just sitting in that Depot. Her daughter noticed the change right away. Robinson was suddenly speaking differently. She used to speak low and soft. Now she spoke up.

Robinson noticed changes too. Road signs leaped at her. Headlines beckoned. After 53 years of silence, the world was speaking up. Even her own name looked different. “I could always write my name,” she says. “But the difference is, now I know why my name says what it says.”

All this week, while Wise has been packing, Robinson has been reading. Seated at her cash register, she keeps a book open on the counter, a dictionary at her elbow. The other day she was struggling mightily with “defraud.” The definition just didn’t fit the sentence she was running her finger along. She wished she had a person handy, someone who could help her decipher “defraud.”

Whether or not she became a proficient reader at the Depot, Robinson became a better teacher. A Sunday school tutor, she’s now more alert for signs of shame in her students. She asked a first-grader not long ago to read aloud from the Bible. When he stumbled, other children laughed. The boy looked devastated, but Robinson rushed to reassure him -- and, by extension, herself. “That’s all right,” she told him again and again. “I mess up all the time.”

By coincidence, the boy was a nephew of the Depot receptionist, Brenda Trotter, whose mother plans to enroll in literacy classes soon, and whose husband is the best friend of Smith, the liquor store clerk. Trotter never read to her children until she worked at the Depot; now she reads to her youngest every night, and marvels at how much sharper he is than the others were at his age. Her husband calls him “Little Ronnie Wise.”

All of which would come as news to the real Ronnie Wise.

*

Many simply assume Wise is retiring because he’s getting married. But he was pondering retirement before he met his fiancee, Michele Teper, a film researcher who lives in Los Angeles.

At noon on the Last Day, Teper pops her head into Wise’s office. (She flew in to attend the retirement party and help Wise pack.) Time for lunch, she says brightly.

Teper first met Wise in 1999, while working on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Researching trains in the Depression-era Delta, she came upon the Depot’s website. She dialed. Next thing she knew, she was talking to a very cranky Delta librarian, who asked if Teper had any job openings at the research firm she co-owns.

They talked a short time later. They e-mailed. Talked again. But this was no typical flirtation. They didn’t come face to face for two years, and never exchanged photos of themselves. Instead Wise sent Teper photos of his library. “I was stunned to see that beautiful building,” she says.

Wise and Teper will marry a few weeks after his Last Day. A small ceremony in Hawaii. Some of the music will be from the soundtrack of “O Brother.” Then they will move into her apartment in West Hollywood. Wise will keep his house in Cleveland, for now, and store his 30,000 comic books. Beyond that he has few plans. He talks excitedly about the array of choices awaiting him in Los Angeles. He thinks he might take surfing lessons.

Maybe he’s retiring because he’s fallen in love with Los Angeles. Maybe, like so many others, he’s fallen under the city’s spell, its siren call. Maybe. “Ronnie will never talk about his private life,” Teper says.

And she’s not exempt from his reticence. Wise has still never told Teper that his father couldn’t read. Then again, Wise’s father didn’t tell Wise until late in life.

It happened when Wise’s father asked for help reviewing some legal papers. “I was probably not in the best of moods,” Wise recalls. “I said, ‘You got your glasses on. Why don’t you read it?’ That’s when he said, ‘Son, I have trouble reading.’ ”

After all those years spotting the telltale signs in strangers, Wise had failed to recognize them in his own father. For a moment he couldn’t speak.

But I’ve seen you sitting here every night with a newspaper, he stammered.

I just figured, his father replied, that sitting with a newspaper was what a father’s supposed to do.

That was the true start of Wise’s literacy crusade. “From then on,” he says, “I started looking at people like, you know, this could be my father.”

Wise did tell Teper about his father’s retirement, how his father bought a cottage at Enid Lake, two hours from here. After a life of hard toil, repairing cotton gins, Wise’s father became a different person out at the lake. The stress fell away like a curtain, and Wise was able to get to know the man. They went for long drives, talked, laughed. It was bliss. For six months. Until a storm descended on Enid Lake.

Wise’s father sheltered under a tree, but a bolt hit the treetop, shot down the trunk and spread through the roots, killing Wise’s father.

Maybe the inspiration for Wise’s literary crusade is also the cause of his early retirement. Maybe Wise’s father, who taught Wise about the pain of illiteracy, also taught him that retirement is an escape no man should postpone too long.

Maybe the father is the reason the son is hard to read.

Asked where he’s headed tomorrow, what his first stop will be after his Last Day, Wise’s face softens. From cranky to wistful.

He and Teper are going on a picnic, he says.

Where?

“Enid Lake.”

*

Wise returns from lunch and locks himself into his office. He writes a few last letters, makes a few last phone calls, then looks up at the clock. “Gosh,” he says, “40 more minutes.”

Pearson hurries over from the Depot and accompanies Wise to the bank, where they transfer control of the library accounts. Bankers flock around, offering congratulations. “I feel like people are saying ‘congratulations’ but it’s somebody else’s life,” Pearson mutters as they return to the library.

“That’s how I feel,” Wise says.

Five o’clock. The library closes. Staffers slip away. No tender goodbyes with Wise, who is preoccupied anyway. “Here’s the library’s Wal-Mart card,” he tells Pearson. “Here’s the fuel key. Here’s the key to the director’s office.”

“I don’t have the code to the security system!”

He gives her the code.

Finally he begins to pack his office. He takes down his diploma, his old movie posters, leans them against the front shelves. As Wise removes an item, Teper carries it out to his double-parked Pontiac Vibe.

When nothing is left, Wise looks around and says to no one: “Well.” He hugs Pearson stiffly. “Goodbye.”

Wait. Just one more look. He makes one last tour of the library, gazing at the books, addressing them silently, like a roomful of dear old friends.

Pearson kills the lights. They leave by the side door and stand on the curb, listening to the hissing insects. Wise’s eyes are glassy, his face a shade redder.

“Want to check the book drop one last time?” Pearson says.

He shakes his head, not realizing she’s kidding.

He climbs into the Vibe, turns the key, lowers the window. “Call me later if you feel like it,” he says.

She nods.

Here it comes. If Wise is going to say something, if he’s going to reveal anything, the time is now. He pauses. Sighs. Then, like a locomotive hitched to a long chain of boxcars, he pulls away slowly.

Pearson watches him round the corner. Never did say why he left. Oh hell. Doesn’t matter. Whatever reasons any of us have for being one place and not being another, there comes a moment when reasons don’t mean a thing, because we’re all right where we are.

She turns and faces the library, her half-smile not concealing her worry. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t escape now. Besides a husband, two kids, a mortgage, she just inherited all of Wise’s problems. Arsonists, bureaucrats, censors, racists, tornadoes, apathy, poverty, thieves and mold. Not to mention all those people out there who want to read but can’t.

She walks to her car, head down, and it’s clear that the furthest thing from her mind is why Ronnie Wise retired.

She’s too busy thinking about Monday.

Her First Day.

j.r.moehringer@latimes.com

Times staff photographer Francine Orr contributed to this report.


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