The Riverside County bookmobile came to the Alpha Beta parking lot on Fridays from 2:30 to 4:45, and I would sit there on the long strip of carpet in the air-conditioned hum reading books not appropriate at all for me, full of death — until the poor librarian who not only drove the coach but also checked out books and kept an eye on the patrons announced that I had to go down the black rubber-grooved steps and head home.
It was 1970, I was 9, and those hours were my own. There were four younger siblings at home but no one wanted to come along, and I was not made to take them. I was thrilled to walk alone through the vacant lot tall with wild oats and yellow mustard, across the railroad tracks where my friends and I set pennies and crouched nearby while trains melted them into copper, which seemed more valuable as a hot smeared oval than one cent. I slid down a rain-made fissure into the deep arroyo that served as flood control and then across the asphalt toward the thrumming engine of the bookmobile.
Bookmobiles had been a fixture of rural American life since the 19th century, when horse-drawn book wagons stenciled with gold lettering read “Free Library.” There were low-slung black panel trucks in the 1930s, side doors open to shelves, with children sitting on the wide fenders turning pages.
In the Riverside Public Library recently, I read the catalog from the Gerstenslager Co. in Wooster, Ohio, which built bookmobiles for the nation. Children and adults stood in line to ascend a few stairs and be inside a real library, albeit one with shelves set on a slight incline, so books wouldn’t fall out when the coach was moving.
My local brick-and-mortar library had a small bookmobile starting in 1958. Then, in April 1970, Gerstenslager sent a letter proposing the new coach unit — for $33,000. I saw the agreement signed by city officials to buy my beloved bookmobile.
The blue-green schedule was in our kitchen. An owl sat at the base of a tree, reading a book, two indeterminate rodents (one with huge eyelashes) on a branch above, sharing a smaller book, and the tiny bookmobile leaving with a puff of smoke. BOOKS for EVERYONE, the schedule said, listing 25 stops.
I read all of the children’s books on those inclined shelves. But no one paid attention if I sat on the carpet, near the bottom shelves, which held teen books, and read terrifying stories. Lois Duncan’s “Ransom,” about the kidnapping of an entire school bus. Paul Zindel’s novels set in New York, where old men died and teenagers used hallucinogenic drugs and had sex. I began “The Outsiders,” by S.E. Hinton. In the first pages, Ponyboy, a poor kid growing up in Tulsa, Okla., is attacked by rich kids, called Socs. For revenge, Ponyboy’s friend Johnny stabs a Soc, who dies in a puddle of blood.
I was scared of school buses. And madras. I had no idea what madras was, but the Socs wore madras when they tried to kill Ponyboy. I loved Ponyboy. My neighborhood was full of Ponyboys, who were not at the bookmobile. They stole lumber and grew marijuana and drank beer; one teenager up the street shot a bullet into his front door to make a peephole.
Death was in my favorite childhood novels: Beth dies of scarlet fever complications in “Little Women,” and Francie’s alcoholic father freezes to death in a gutter in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” I cried each time I read those scenes. On the Teen and Adult shelves were different deaths. Murders: violent, random, evil, calculated, and committed by humans who hated each other, who had fallen out of love, who were sociopaths. Fear, Alfred Hitchcock once said, “is an emotion people like to feel when they know they’re safe.”
I moved on to the shelves labeled Fiction, where I found a popular series of books: “Alfred Hitchcock’s Tales of …” Suspense. Mystery. Murder. I brought none of these books home; I read them there, while patrons stepped around me, and then slid them back onto the slanted wooden shelves above their designations. I was terrified of bathtubs, men on trains, poisoned drinks (my stepsister had a ring with a secret compartment for poison!), islands (where men hunted each other), pearls, ghosts and revenge.
I would walk back home in a dreamy, frightened daze. In the arroyo, stepping on the mud flats, I imagined coyotes racing toward me. Up onto the train tracks, I breathed in the creosote of the wood. What if someone pushed me from behind and I hit my head right there on the same metal rail where we laid pennies? I ran past the pepper tree where older teens drank Coors, where someone parted the branches like a beaded curtain in a doorway now and then to peer outside, to make sure that I was nobody. I was nobody. I ran faster.
You’d think I would have been afraid of the actual train, the flasher who accosted me on the way to school, the boys in my class who cornered me in the huge sewer pipe on the playground. But no — because of fiction, I was afraid of pearls, which could strangle an elegant woman.
I read James Michener and John le Carre and Agatha Christie, too young to know the division of story and safety, or imagination and metaphor, but these seeped into my consciousness like the Rit dye bath into which my mother and I dipped jeans to make them new again. I never knew that madras was an innocent cloth until I was grown.
I was 10, then 12, then 14. I rode the school bus for field trips, and no one kidnapped my classmates and me, because we were poor kids. I walked to school, over a wooden footbridge crossing the canal in the orange groves, where a boy later drowned. Murdered people were found in the trees. The Zodiac Killer took a young woman from a library. My friend’s father was hit while riding on his motorcycle in heavy fog and then hit again four more times before anyone stopped. When I was 18, a friend took his life by standing in front of a train on those same tracks where the traces of our childhood pennies had evaporated.
And I turned into an ordinary girl afraid of real death, who took refuge in books. I read, and then, eventually, I wrote stories, not to revel in fear and death but to make sense of them. Somewhere deep in my head was the cool trembling of the bookmobile, where I curved my spine against the slanted shelves to stay out of the way of the others who passed by on their way out into the bright world.
Susan Straight has published 10 novels. She is finishing a book set on Prince Edward Island, and a story collection set around the Golden State Freeway.