(Continued from Chapter 18.3 – Done With Lists & Excuses – to start book, scroll to “Chapters” in right side bar.) After driving north, then south, for forty minutes, unsure of where to go, Veronica heads for the Tenafly Public Library. Though not quite the ideal private refuge she pines for, its floor-to-ceiling windows ushering in rivers of sunshine and its spacious, silent halls lined with books and works of art make it the best place she knows of in this neck of the woods to put her thinking cap on.
It also has a state-of-the-art children’s room complete with games, toys, computers, and a mesmerizing fish tank that she hopes will keep Luc and Céleste occupied long enough for her to not only reflect on the puzzle she needs to piece together, but also to browse the community job board in the lobby and reference books about résumés and careers. Because with no savings, no artwork to sell, and the prospect of outside help nothing but a slippery slope, she needs to work.
On past visits, she’s glanced briefly at the job board, noting its eclectic announcements for everything from housework, babysitting, dog-walking, and elder care to freelance film editing and local theater set design. Set design sounds right up her alley, she thinks, her heart skipping with hope. Certainly better than a dull office job where she’d stare miserably at the clock all day waiting to bolt at five, or a job teaching the present perfect tense, which she barely understands herself, to befuddled adults. If she’d wanted that job, she would have taken it on the spot.
Oil paintings of rugged battles frozen in time, of pioneers toiling in great Western prairies or pausing in gardens decorate the library’s lobby; behind it, exhibits of eclectic work by local painters hang among the main-floor book stacks. Pushing the double stroller up the handicapped ramp and in the door, she absorbs the peaceful echo of silence reverberating from these elegant tributes to the mind and the imagination. Luc and Céleste, who fell asleep during the car ride and didn’t wake when she transferred them to the stroller, begin to stir. She jiggles the handle rapidly with the old “shake-em-and-bake-em” stroke that she prays will add at least another ten minutes on to their precariously short nap.
In the lobby, her hopefulness collapses into a thick lump of despair: Luc wakes and starts whining for his cuddly, which she doesn’t have, and the job board is gone. Summoning the dregs of the adrenaline rush that has propelled her, lately, past so many other spur-of-the-moment obstacles, she whispers, “We don’t need your blankie, Duke. We’re at the library. Let’s go read some books.”
How much easier it is to pursue something you’d like to own, to buy, or to rent, she thinks, crossing the library’s main floor, than to figure out how the heck you’ll use your own two hands and brain to generate the income to pay for it. The simple disappearance of the job board in the lobby has left her reeling with anxiety and doubt: can she possibly find a job that won’t feel like a set of shackles, that won’t make her want to call in sick every day so she can stay home to watch TV and nap? How long will it take? Would anybody truly want to employ her? She has nothing but rudimentary office skills, rusty at best.
In the children’s section, Céleste’s eyes pop open beneath the bright fluorescent light. Unstrapped, she scampers across the room to bang on the keyboard of a computer and wiggle its mouse. Bouncing a disconsolate Luc on her hip, Veronica paces alongside the bookcase displaying this month’s “Librarian’s Picks,” reading aloud the titles of the half dozen or so featured books to calm him down. Their vivid cover illustrations remind her of the editorial meetings she once sat in on, the production checklists she ticked off under tight deadline pressure, and all the other harrowing steps she helped coordinate to turn an illustration’s final proof into a finished product, pages bound. The lump of despair in her chest thickens, obstructing her breath. Meetings, checklists, deadlines, and harrowing steps are part of almost every job. If she’d had the chance to stay home with her kids, she might have battled twinges of boredom and emptiness, but she’d have risen above the drudgery of employment to become the CEO of her own private world.
Rounding the corner of the bookcase, she spots a hauntingly familiar style gracing the jacket of a book bearing a round, gold sticker in one corner: the emblem of a prestigious literary prize. Her ribcage squeezes. Beneath the title, in an inconspicuous, blocky font, is the name Brenda Gray.
Impossible, she thinks, struggling to reconcile this name with her former boss’s pale, narrow face. There must be another author-illustrator by the same name. She snatches the book, flips it over and scans the back cover’s inner flap. An unmistakable thumbnail shot of Brenda, smiling pensively from behind the same old horn-rimmed glasses and sleek, platinum-blonde bob, leaps jeeringly from the bottom-right corner. She wants to scream, to cry, to turn and run. In the past five years, while she has floundered, her old boss has become a literary luminary. Brenda’s probably touring the country right now, signing autographs in schools while Veronica’s on the verge of applying for jobs cleaning other people’s toilets.
The book is called The Stonecutter’s Gift. Its jacket illustration shows a timeless, European village of thatched-roof cottages. In the foreground, a young girl dressed in a tattered burlap dress belted at the waist stares at a pile of rocks. Her expression oozes with melancholia so palpable it seems to rise like mist from the page, with spellbinding undertones of the stoic lucidity that comes from battling hardship. If Veronica saw her in the street, she’d want to scoop her up, kiss her cheeks, and take her home.
“How ’bout this one?” she says to Luc, taking it to the sofa, wishing she had the steel nerves required to pretend she never saw it. Céleste scurries over, and both kids listen, mesmerized, as Veronica reads them the story of Liora, a young girl who lives alone with her father, Peter, a stonecutter. Peter can’t afford to buy Liora gifts or toys, but instead offers her stones, which she keeps in a growing pile. Though dispirited by the pile, which reminds her of the things she doesn’t have, Liora learns over time to appreciate the stones’ hidden virtues, including their many entertaining uses, and to cherish the hope they embody that if she becomes skilled in carving through their hard surface, one day, she might uncover a nugget of gold.
“Read it again, Mommy, read it again,” Céleste begs.
Tears spring to Veronica’s eyes. “Wait. There’s more.” She opens the back cover and taps a finger beneath the thumbnail photo of Brenda. “This lady wrote the book and drew the pictures. Let’s hear who she is.”
“A lady wrote it?” Céleste asks.
“Yeah,” Veronica breathes. “All by herself. Books are made by people.” She peruses the short blurb about the author. “It says here that the lady who made this book is named Brenda Gray, that she lives in Rhode Island with her family, and that The Stonecutter’s Gift is her second book for children.”
Céleste yawns. “Now read it again.”
Veronica hands the book to Luc. “How about if we go find the other book this lady wrote instead?” Before leaving her publishing job, she saw the galleys of Brenda’s first book but never read it. She can’t even remember what it’s called.
She walks to the librarian’s desk and rings the bell, mind whirring. Brenda lives in Rhode Island. She must have stepped down from the corporate ladder years ago. She probably earns a comfortable living from advances on her books, including fancy add-ons like movie rights and licensing agreements. To think Veronica used to scorn her dry, nose-to-the grind ways, when in fact, those very ways enabled her to stick it out through thick and thin and produce the art that she knew welled in her soul. Now her art’s in full bloom, and she has a husband, a family. She has it all.
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