In the library one day for a program on local history, I saw a familiar face come out of the elevator, a face I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years. I eyed his library nametag to confirm it was Milburn, his slightly moving lips further verifying the identity of my former classmate, who had often been witnessed in high school muttering to no one in particular and who still seemed to have invisible portable walls surrounding him, only showing enough awareness of others to avoid collisions. Milburn rarely spoke in high school and did not respond with language or eye contact when addressed. When forced to speak on occasion in class, his muffled words did not come across as his real voice, only their constriction hinting at the hidden inner Milburn. Legend had it that he always carried an eraser in his pocket, and I remember wondering if the eraser was related to the mystery of why he behaved the way he did. Sitting in the crowded room during the program I was distracted by the thought of Milburn’s silence and how he could have managed to endure while remaining as he’d been in school, a voluntary mute with an aversion to knowing anyone or being known by anyone.
Was I right in thinking he hadn’t changed? Maybe he was married and had grown kids with children of their own running around his house, the place alive with human activity. I couldn’t imagine it, and I went back to the library the next week, curious to see how he conducted himself, if he ever made eye contact or showed any reaction at all to staff or the public.
I settled into a chair for over an hour with the latest news magazines but saw no sign of Milburn. I got up, browsed the shelves, and chose a few history books. I carried them to the checkout desk and filled out a library-card application. I told the talkative young man at the desk that I’d spotted a former classmate who worked there, recognizing him partly because of his muttering.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “He mutters but seldom speaks. I try to talk to him sometimes. He’s been working for twenty-some years downstairs in processing. He had to talk at one of our staff meetings, and he struck me as wishing he could disappear. Very tidy desk, carries an eraser in his pocket, you can always see the bump. He did make a joke once. Someone described a patron as thin, and he said, ‘with three n’s.’ Some people didn’t get it, others laughed, surprised he’d spoken up, and their laughter ruffled him. He’s polite and wouldn’t hurt a fly, I don’t think, but he might whisper to one. I doubt if anyone has ever seen the inside of his refrigerator.”
I left with the books, embarrassed I’d heard so much about Milburn and ashamed I’d wanted to hear it. What was I thinking going in there to snoop on him, the last person who’d want to be snooped on?
I retreated to my house, where I’d lived alone for years following my amicable divorce, amicable because my ex-wife was so happy to be rid of me. I wouldn’t talk to her and wouldn’t listen, she said, and I thought of the house as a fortress where I was not to be disturbed. I couldn’t argue with what she said, and I didn’t argue, which further frustrated her, though if I had argued I could have expressed my suspicion that many people sought refuge in their homes and treasured time when they could be left alone to brood, free from the eyes and voices of others. I also didn’t tell her I preferred to limit my arguments to arguing with myself, a full-time endeavor.
Among the issues rolling around in my head, I admit, was whether or how much I was like Milburn and whether I could learn something from him that would help me justify my aversion to speaking, to being heard, to hearing the opinions of others, about me or anything else, or on the other hand, whether I could learn something that would make me finally see I was on the wrong track and needed an overhaul of my outlook and conduct. The trouble was that Milburn was unlikely to say a single word to me, much less reveal any insights, if he had any, so I had no rational basis for indulging my curiosity about him.
The sight of the history books I’d checked out began to annoy me, reminding me I’d borrowed them as a pretext for talking to someone about Milburn. Tired of trying to ignore them, I got in my car and drove to the library, the books on the passenger seat. I circled the building and found the outside drop on its west side, near the staff door. As I pulled around the drive two young women emerged, talking to each other, sharing a laugh. It hit me I could be arriving at or near closing time. I shoved the books in the drop and noticed in my rearview mirror others walking out the door, a thick drizzle starting to come down. There was Milburn behind me, a couple of people speaking to him, offering him a ride, I guessed. He shook his head, continued on foot, no car, probably striving to reduce his carbon footprint, and any other kind of footprint. I drove away, picturing Milburn getting himself wet. I took a spin around the block and squinting past my windshield wipers spotted him ahead, his shoulders hunched forward. I rolled up near him and lowered the window. I said I was a library user, said my name, mentioned our high school, asked if I could give him a lift, not a problem, I was already headed the same direction. He didn’t turn, merely raised a hand and shook it, like shaking his head but a step removed from involving his mind directly in the refusal. I kept going, wondering what could have been in his mind as I spoke and wondering why I’d asked him. Did I want to see where he lived? Was that a creepy idea? I’d known he wouldn’t break down and hop in the car. I’d wanted him to see me, to tell him my name. On the way home, I imagined going to the library to see if he’d glance at me and what look would be in his eyes if he did. Could I answer whatever questions he might be thinking?
I resolved that it would be too intrusive to speak to him again unless he spoke to me first. I wouldn’t want Milburn coming at me with questions so why should I ask him questions he wouldn’t care to answer. And I wouldn’t go to the library with some murky purpose related to him. Didn’t I have better things to do? In fact, doing nothing, I argued to myself in defense of his privacy, was better than what I’d been doing.
I avoided the library for weeks. One evening I saw Milburn at the grocery store, his head turning in my direction, and I swung my cart around and went the other way. Still, the quiet of the library stuck with me, people going about their business, speaking only when necessary, anyone allowed to enter at will, no questions asked about who belonged there and who didn’t or what thoughts they held at bay. I returned and sat at a table with a newspaper, my back to people, minding my own business.
I didn’t see Milburn until he was alongside me. He held something out to me, looking only at my hand, face blank. I raised my hand and he put it there and then walked away without a word.
It was an eraser.