“Fuck. We’re going to be late.” Melinda Gordon grabbed her light blue summer jacket from the sofa.
“Don’t curse, Mom. That’s a bad word.”
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Her husband, Brad, raised two hands towards Melinda. One hand clutched her Milano bag and the other a keychain with a flashing trisected circle fob.
“You’re an angel.” She beamed and leaned into Brad for a moment. Melinda inhaled the scent of him as his rough beard scratched her cheek.
Their daughter, Amber, squeezed in between them.
“Mom. Where are you going?” Amber, at sixteen, stood nearly as tall as her mother.
“Just to the school library. I’m meeting the PTA to sort out some books.”
“Can you bring me one back?”
“I know you love reading, baby, but we can go to the store this afternoon. I don’t think you’ll like anything from the school library.”
Amber gave her a quizzical look, but she knew better than to argue with her mother about anything to do with the PTA.
Melinda slowed to a stop outside a large Beaux-Arts-style house set back from the main road just in time to meet the diminutive, yet upright, woman waiting for them.
“You ready, Mrs Chen?”
“Yes. Thank you for picking me up.” The elderly lady, wrapped in a Dior parka, pulled the car door closed and adjusted the purse on her lap. “It smells wonderful in here.” And as if sensing something behind her, “Hi Brad.” She waved a hand towards the back seat of the car.
“We just had it cleaned. Have you got the list?”
“Of course, dear. I asked around the other Board members.”
“Since we have to do this. We must be prepared. They’ll try every trick in the book to get one over on us.”
Sunlight streamed across the dashboard as Mrs Chen pulled a folded piece of ivory-coloured paper from her purse. She adjusted her reading glasses, squinted at the neat printed font, and cleared her throat. “From the original twenty-five, we added ten more.”
“Are they all as abhorrent?” Melinda’s gaze switched from the neat rows of three storey houses to the paper clutched by the passenger next to her.
“Some are worse,” Mrs Chen tutted. “This one about some coloured boy. It is full—and I don’t use that word lightly, Melinda—full of sex.”
“Forcing our children to read this. It’s beyond me, Mrs Chen.”
“Precisely. And this one. It’s offensive from the get-go. Listen to this. Gender Queer.” Her lips turned down in a scowl.
“And they wonder why the kids are confused when they get to high school? They can’t even be who they were born as.”
“I couldn’t get past the title.” Mrs Chen sighed. “It’s terribly offensive. How can they use such words? Don’t they know what these words mean?”
“Christ!” Melinda slammed her hand on the steering wheel. “I’m sick of this. These are our children.”
“It’s awful, dear. In my day, we had Judy Blume and Betsy Byars. They did perfectly well without making every book about…sex.” She glanced behind her as if she might be caught cursing by a passing policeman.
Melinda pulled into the shaded parking lot outside Maple Wood school alongside a gleaming SUV. She lowered her window and waved as four heads turned towards her. Three women and a tall man with a stoop encircled a large car in the parking lot.
Brad trailed in their wake as the six of them marched towards the double door leading into the library.
Mrs Chen smiled sweetly at Miss Jones, the white-haired and bespectacled librarian stood behind a rosewood desk at the entrance to greet the incoming squad of PTA members.
A book in a plastic case declared ‘Book of the Week’ and caught Mrs Chen’s gaze immediately. Her head bobbed up and down as she consulted her off-white list of books.
“Get that out of my face.” Mrs Chen waggled her finger at an orange and green book nearest the door leading into the YA section of the library.
“I will not.” Miss Jones remained rooted to her spot. Arms folded across her chest; she would not be intimidated by these vitriol-spitting menaces. She had survived numerous government initiatives, the worst of school board members and the uproar about To Kill a Mockingbird, and she was not afraid of these bullies.
Melinda placed both hands on the desk and smiled until her eyes disappeared into her cheeks.
“Miss Jones. As an elected member of the Executive Board, we have a mandate to check the library for harmful books.”
“Be my guest.” Mrs Jones shrugged. “You won’t find any harmful books here.” Her hand firmly gripped Lawn Boy, protected from the PTA by its plastic casing and Miss Jones herself.
The hunting mission began. They scoured the shelves like blood hounds sniffing out a fox. The prey were books. Tasteless, bitter, nasty books filled with rotten ideals and pollution for the fragile and impressionable minds of their children.
An hour later, they returned to the desk. Melinda cleared her throat and tapped her jewelled fingers on the wooden countertop. Miss Jones turned around slowly to face six pairs of glowering faces eyes and down-turned mouths.
“Miss Jones. In this library. A library for our children,” said the stooped man, running a hand over thinning hair before smoothing out his knitted green sweater. “We have conducted a search.”
“You could have used the computer, dear. Every book is catalogued there.” Miss Jones smiled amiably at him.
“This is not a joke.” Melinda’s pursed lips threatened to implode under the pressure placed on them.
“Of course not. Reading is for pleasure. And learning. Expanding your worldview, some say.” Miss Jones raised both eyebrows and glanced back and forth between her interrogators.
“From what we have found, therefore, we are left with no other choice but to act.” Frank blustered and turned to one of the other members of the Board stood behind him. “Angela, the paper if you don’t mind.”
The youngest, blondest member of the Board wrapped in tight, neon Lycra passed the list of offending titles to him.
“Of the thirty-five titles listed here, this library contains thirty of them. This is an abomination.”
“An abomination,” parroted Mrs Chen, as she elbowed her way forward. “Miss Jones, I have known you for over twenty years. I never would have thought you, of all people, would be harbouring such filth in your library.”
Miss Jones removed her glasses and let them hang on the chain around her neck. She folded her arms neatly across her chest.
“Mrs Chen. Melinda. Frank. And sorry, I don’t know who you others are. This is not my library. This is a library for students at this school.”
“Then why are you filling it with such dangerous filth!” Melinda’s voice rose as if to meet the grand heights of the scandal they were investigating.
“My son comes to this library. But not for much longer,” the woman in Lycra added.
“How old is your son? Mrs…?” Miss Jones waved her hand at the woman.
“Oh, you must be Frankie’s mother. He’s a delightful boy.”
“Well, yes. Thank you. He’s in the tenth grade.”
“He’s often in here,” Miss Jones said.
“Look, Miss Jones. You are a reasonable person. You must see that these types of books are unsuitable for the eyes of our children.”
“Says who?” Miss Jones pulled herself up to all five foot five of her height. “I often see Frankie, and Kevin, as a matter of fact, here. In the YA section.”
“Kevin?” Mrs Chen tensed at the mention of her grandson’s name.
“Yes. Many young people come here and seek out the books that appeal to them.”
Mrs Chen narrowed her eyes.
“What are you suggesting? I would be very careful about—”
“About what, Mrs Chen? Suggesting your grandson reads books?”
“These books might, or they might not be for students like your son. Or grandson. But they were written for someone. What about those children who they are actually written for? Did you stop for a moment and think about them?”
Melinda gripped her husband’s arm and through gritted teeth said, “Brad. Say something.”
“I agree. Well, I think some of the books should be kept out of reach of…well, just anyone.” He ran a hand over his chin and grimaced at Miss Jones.
“They are not children’s books. Mr Gordon, there are rules here. YA and New Adult can’t be checked out by just anyone. The student must be sixteen or older.”
Melinda chomped down on the gum in her mouth. Her nostrils flared and she raised a salmon-pink nail at Miss Jones.
“That’s just it. Anyone can access them.”
Miss Jones turned her back to Melinda to conceal a smile. She returned with an iPad in her hands.
“Do your children have access to the internet?”
Melinda’s face scrunched up like she had been offered a bite of some foul cheese.
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“I see the library much like the internet. It’s a treasure trove. It’s a voyage of exploration. And the students are the ships, if I may, who on occasion need some steering and direction. That’s why we have sections. If I see someone younger than sixteen in YA, I’ll ask them if they are okay and need help.”
“Help? You are condoning this behaviour!” Mrs Chen’s earrings rattled as she fumed.
“What behaviour, Mrs Chen? Looking for books? But of course; that’s my job.”
“You are helping children look at pornographic material.” Her knuckles glowed white from clutching her purse.
“I noticed Kevin has a new iPad. He told me you bought it for him for Christmas. Is that true, Mrs Chen?”
“What has that got to do with it?”
“Well, an iPad has more access to more pornographic material than any book here. And we don’t have those types of magazines here. If you catch my drift.” She winked at Brad who squirmed.
“An iPad? He uses it solely for research and educational games.” Mrs Chen squared her chin and clutched her bag closer.
“Did you install parental control software on it?”
“Of course not. He’s almost seventeen…” Mrs Chen trailed off.
“In this library, our library, if I notice someone in the wrong section, I can check their student ID, and anyone not of age can be redirected. We are responsible enough to only allow those in our care access to suitable material.” She eyed Mrs Chen who shrank back.
“You are a nasty piece of work.” Melinda narrowed her eyes at Miss Jones.
The elderly librarian placed both hands on the counter.
“And you, Melinda, are a nasty bitch. Get out of our library.”
The PTA meeting ran for three and a half hours, over lunch, at the Astoria Hotel. Its members decreed that the thirty listed books would be removed that afternoon from the library in order to protect the youth of Maple Wood.
The glass doors slid open and the book squad, bolstered with sixteen members, marched in double rows and planted themselves in front of the desk. Melinda’s daughter, Amber, shuffled behind her parents in an attempt to melt into the bodies and disappear.
Melinda stormed to the nearest shelf and, holding the purple copy of Better Nate than Ever, barged through the line of twittering PTA members.
“We are here to remove all copies. Of this one.” Melinda held the book out in front of her like a Satanic charm, “and all others like it.”
“If you need to censor me then do so.” Miss Jones took the book from her hand and placed it back on the counter. “But don’t trap your children in the same spiral of hate that you are stuck in.”
”Hate? This isn’t about hate. I’ll have you know the man who cuts my h—”
Brad turned to his daughter. “Amber. Don’t interrupt your mother.”
“Hey, Amber.” Miss Jones grasped Amber’s hands in hers.
“Miss Jones, I’m sorry about all of this.” She nodded her head towards her raging mother.
“Don’t worry, Sweetie. Your old mom just doesn’t know what she’s afraid of.”
“That is it!” Melinda shoved Amber out of the way and drew herself up in front of the librarian.
“You have said enough, Miss Jones. You need to think very carefully about your tone. And more importantly think very carefully about your position here at Maple Wood.”
Amber, her thumb stuck in her mouth, stood behind her mother while Brad cooed and rubbed the small of Melinda’s back.
“Let me tell you, Miss Jones. The short-sighted parents at this school, allowing their children to be exposed to these pushy writers, will be sorry.” Melinda pulled away from Brad and crossed her arms.
“Sorry that they grew up to be more accepting of others? I don’t think so.”
“They are being forced fed by pushy writers with an agenda!” Mrs Chen raised her fingers in air quotes.
“I think the only one with an agenda here, Melinda, is you.”
“Demanding they grow up in five minutes. They are not mini adults,” Melinda raged and gestured towards her daughter.
“There’s the one in your class, Amber, isn’t there? And by the way he dresses, he doesn’t know if he is a boy or a girl.”
Amber started to cry.
Brad edged away from his wife.
“Honey. Honey, what’s wrong? I know, I know. This woman is infuriating.”
“Mom. In my class, Pauly. They are non-binary.” Amber sniffled.
Melinda snorted. She flicked back her hair. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish.
She stooped to gather up Amber’s books and bag that had been knocked off the desk.
“They?” The only word Melinda could utter through her disbelief.
Regaining some semblance of her old self, Melinda closed her eyes momentarily and took a sharp intake of breath.
“You can’t possibly understand what they mean, Honey. They.” She spat the last word as if it caused her discomfort.
“I don’t really”—Amber shifted her weight and gripped her arms around herself— “But that’s okay. I don’t need to. But that’s what Pauly prefers, so I don’t really mind.”
Melinda glanced at Brad, then glared at Miss Jones.
“See. It’s already happening. Come on Amber. You will not be coming back to this library. Ever.”
The automatic doors closed on Brad and Amber who trailed after Melinda back to their car.
A shadow fell across the plate-glass window at the entrance to the library. A six-foot-five man stood in a sharp suit and polished brown shoes. He stepped forward, casually, into the library.
“A collection of parents. It must be the PTA.” The principal drew out the final syllable as he approached the desk.
“Mr Auster. Thank goodness you are here.” Mrs Chen reached out a hand and rested it on his arm. “We are here about the books.” Her eyes flashed and a forced smile played on her lips. The other members of the PTA murmured about help arriving to take on the wicked librarian.
“Yes. I heard about the book collection.”
“Yes. Yes.” A collective murmur rose from the crowd.
“There are thirty of them, correct?”
“That’s right.” Mrs Chen said. “We can start with that one. Right there.” She pointed at the purple-covered book sat on the desk.
“Miss Jones. Please gather up all the illegal books and hand them over to the PTA.”
Her hands clasped together as if in prayer, Miss Chen grinned. “Thank you. Thank you, Principal Auster. We knew we could rely on you.”
“My pleasure, Mrs Chen. I would hate for our children to be exposed to anything illegal.”
“That’s right. We feel the same. But Miss Jones here, well, she believes—”
“Mr Auster,” Miss Jones said, “it’s the illegal books I should hand over?”
“Yes. Silly woman. Hand them over,” Frank muttered, to the assent of the PTA.
Miss Jones picked up the purple-covered book from the desk. She came around from behind the desk and moved across to stand in front of the sixteen members of the PTA.
“There.” She waved her hand behind her at the empty desk. “Those are the illegal books in this library.”
The crowd rolled their eyes, shuffled their feet and turned towards the principal.
“I told you, Mr Principal. She is being impossible. We are simply trying to clean up this place and make it a safe space. And now she is disobeying your direct orders. It’s abhorrent!”
The principal looked from Miss Jones to the empty desk, and back to the expectant face of Mrs Chen. He moved one polished shoe in front of the other and was behind the desk facing the PTA straight on before he spoke.
“Do you know what is abhorrent, Mrs Chen? You. And You. And You.” He pointed a finger at the sixteen.
“No.” He slammed his hand down on the counter. “You are abhorrent. You are twisted. You are not safe. You are creating and propagating fear. You are polluting the minds of your children. You are dangerous to the students of this school. You”—his eyes flicked from face to face—“You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
The stunned crowd looked down at their feet like scolded children. All apart from Mrs Chen, whose chin jutted out in defiance. Miss Jones stood at the entrance to the YA section clutching the purple-covered book to her chest. A smile played across her lips.
“But you said—”
“What I said, Mrs Chen, is any illegal books could be removed. These books are not illegal. The only thing illegal here is members of the public trespassing on school property.”
“I…. we are members of the PTA.”
“Not any more you’re not. You are all summarily dismissed. Your services are no longer required. And as I am sure Mrs Gordon is eagerly expecting your call, Mrs Chen, you can also inform Melinda her position has expired due to the actions of the PTA in the library today.
“Now. Get out of our library.”
As the sun began to set over the car park, dusky light peeped in through the doors, and Mr Auster helped Miss Jones arrange a number of brightly coloured books in the plastic holders at the entrance to the YA section.
“You know, if you were my librarian, Miss Jones. I would have come out decades ago.”
“I was always here you know. But I wasn’t head librarian then. I remember you though. Well, kids like you. The little gay boys. They’d head straight for the anatomy books in the biology section. No one looks at them apart from the gays and nerds.” She chuckled to herself.
“You know what you are Miss Jones?”
“What’s that dear?”
“A fucking saint.”