The King of Aloe Vera
An Excerpt by Tomas Moniz
In which we meet the protagonist Reyes Miguel Calderón and learn of his appreciation for libraries, his fight against blindly following the Dewey decimal system and his run in with the cigarette butt bandit
Rey loves the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library on 24th and Bartlett and his only remaining weekly obligation: a volunteer shift in the kids section.
He appreciates the building’s architecture with its huge arched windows and art deco chandeliers in each of the four stories, the wood floors and eight foot tall industrial shelving crammed with books, the various community meeting rooms lined with posters of celebrities exhorting people to read, the gilded metal drop slots. Despite the security station hastily installed at the entrance, the library’s a welcoming place for everyone, information free and accessible, books and magazines and technology stations and newspapers from across the country (though he proudly continues to have a home delivery subscription to the SF Chronicle). Outside: grey stone and a massive ficus tree, the leaves from which Rey has a weekly battle sweeping away. Even the encampment of the homeless who crowd the opposite sidewalk, Rey doesn’t mind. He recognizes many of the residents from the numerous other encampments that line so many streets in this neighborhood including his own: Shotwell Street.
In fact, Rey can proudly name all the branches, and begins to: Anza, Bayview, Bernal… as he considers the cart of returned kids books to shelf, but is interrupted from his metal exercise by Alma, the branch manager, an irritatingly upbeat young woman with glasses, the frames thick and chunky and fashionable.
Alma says, Hello Rey. Please remember our conversation. Thank you and I appreciate you so much.
Rey mumbles, Yesyesyes but thinks: Does any kid ever search alphabetically for a book?
He wheels the cart back to the kids room: carpeted with a floor that undulates providing small hills and berms that children can climb on or roll down and lean against as parents read books out loud.
Rey over the past few weeks has been arranging the books by color. The joy that rushes through him when he tells a kid who ventures into the section: want a purple book? A green one? The child almost always laughs. The parents always either look bemused or act irritated.
Of course, Alma has patiently reprimanded him a few times not only for this choice of book organization but for others he’s attempted in the past as well: shelving by size, shelving in piles, shelving randomly to encourage surprise and cultivate acceptance, all ideas soundly rejected by the library establishment.
Rey knows Alma coddles him because he’s in his 70s and a volunteer at the branch for the past decade, and generally Rey would never lean into that coddling, but because it gives him a bit of autonomy he acts surprised and compliant.
I just thought that kids might like to learn their colors while also selecting a book.
That very well may be true, but Rey, they also need the consistency of being able to find a book in its proper location. You remember what that’s like.
I most certainly do, Rey says nodding yes exaggeratedly .
Alma then adds, And Rey, perhaps you can also remember that you have a few books overdue as well.
She pats his shoulder and arches her eyebrows.
Despite the chagrin Rey feels at the library’s lack of imagination, of vision, he cherishes his time here.
After begrudgingly shelving them all correctly, he rolls the empty cart back to the elevator, and in front of him is another reason he loves the library: kids. Waiting at the doors, pushing the down button over and over is a child wearing a Batman outfit. He holds a Batman doll. He’s radiant. The kid looks at Rey and whisks his cape around his face.
Rey says. I love your Spiderman outfit.
The kid looks at Rey like he’s foolish, but Rey smiles wide.
Rey struggles with this desire in him to show affection through teasing, to needle for attention, to set up contention as a way to connect. He blames his father. Sometimes his mother. It’s the final reason he loves the library, the countless hours spent in the San Leandro Main Library as a child, a refuge from his father when he was around and from his mother when she was angry.
Which was respectively infrequently and often.
The adult with the child intervenes saying, Are you Spiderman?
The child laughs like some wild thing.
They all enter the elevator.
The adult says to Batman, Can you push the number three for me?
The kid bounces like he’s waiting for more numbers to push, like he’s been told he can only push the numbers people request.
Without missing a beat, Rey says, Can you push the number ten for me.
Even though he’s going to the first floor and despite the fact that there are only four floors in the building.
The kid stops bouncing, staring at the four buttons, and makes this growl, something between frustration and delight.
The adult looks at Rey.
Rey smiles and says, No one else is here, just push them all.
Outside on his break, Rey notices once again a handful of cigarette butts lined up in a little design to the left of the entrance, clearly within the 100 foot No Smoking Zone. Every shift he sees that someone creates shapes and lines with discarded filters. He leans down to study the creation because the culprit clearly does it with forethought, even using half smoked cigarettes to create longer sides for the shape of a rectangle or maybe it’s a zero or perhaps an outline of a box. Rey can’t tell. He gets a slight sense of satisfaction at their failure.
He’s noticed similar cigarette butt designs adjacent to his very own stoop. Rey considers if this is a trend: smokers creating images with discarded filters? Regardless, Rey reads them like a taunt. Like who brazenly and cavaliery leaves them so carefully designed. Like obviously the person could have picked them up and removed them. But no: here they are.
He looks around. He eyeballs the sidewalk tents looking for someone with a guilty presence. He wonders if it’s personal.
He decides to take the elevator the four flights up to the staff room to get the so-called broom, with its cheap white plastic handle and green synthetic bristles, to sweep up the butts. The elevator door opens and a person stands ready to exit. Rey’s unsure whether they’re a man or woman because of the SF Giants hoodie pulled up over their head. That should have been the first warning of trouble: the SF Giants, Rey a lifelong Oakland A’s fan. But then he sees the cigarette dangling from the person’s lips.
Rey can’t prevent himself from reacting. In fact, he doesn’t really even try not to.
He says, You have to be kidding me.
The person says, Relax. It’s unlit.
And steps past him but pauses.
I know you. You’re Rey. You live on Shotwell. I do too.
I know everyone who lives there. I’ve never seen you.
The person removes the cigarette and looks directly at Rey and he does recognize her, no longer a sullen teenager sauntering up and down the sidewalks before and after school hours or hiding out on his stairs.
She says, Wow. Why are old men always so arrogant? I’ve basically lived my whole life on that street.
I’m not arrogant, Rey says.
I hope I never get old. Looks like somebody might be…, and she proceeds to tap the side of her head making her eyes wide and round,…getting a little soft.
She then steps away from the entrance and fake inhales as the elevator door slides shut.
I have a perfectly effective memory, he raises his voice but she’s already gone.
In the staff room, he grips the broom, remembering the multiple requests he’s also filed for the library to acquire an actual broom like the one he once made, one with effective corn fiber bristles and a sturdy wood handle, but this too has been denied without response each time.
Nobody appreciates the wisdom of old men. It’s wisdom not arrogance.
And then it hits him. He puts two and two together. How could he have not immediately seen it: the line of cigarette butts in front of the library as well as right next to his stoop.
The young woman basically admitted her guilt: that she lives on his street.
Coincidence? He thinks not.
However, maybe she’s correct: his ability to deduce conclusions has faltered. The evidence was all right in front of him and he worried more about defending his memory rather than using his intellect.
He pictures his To Do list that he’s been compiling for over a year, aptly titled Loose Ends and Final Wishes, all the necessary things to accomplish before October 1st. Although it disturbs him to add to rather than subtract from the list, the possibility of catching the cigarette butt criminal in the act delights him: catch the bandit.
And just to be safe, Rey, after sweeping up the evidence, approaches Alma like a concerned patron to lodge a complaint about a young hooded woman smoking within the smoke free zone.