Library in Paradise

Atauloma, looking east from veranda

photo: J. Enright

Twice a year, around equinox, Stefan had the kids clean the books. They didn’t like it, but it wasn’t about them. He had them take down each book, clean it with a rag, check it for insects, and put it back where they got it. Ruth was better at it than Aaron and didn’t complain as much. He had to watch Aaron.  Stefan didn’t mind the spiders. It was termites mainly. These Polynesian termites liked books. If they got a colony started, they could quickly and secretly destroy a shelf of books, turning them into blocks of cement-like castings, leaving just the spines and bindings intact as if nothing had changed. He had learned the hard way.

Stefan took pride in his library. His wall of books was his favorite decoration—hard-cover history texts mostly, biographies, World War Two, complete sets of Dickens, Twain, and Will Durant, and his prize collection of classic sci-fi. He was sure no one else on the island could match it. Books weren’t a big thing here. There was not a single bookstore. There was a Christian shop where you could buy Bibles and such along with a good selection of the wide neckties ministers liked to wear and assorted Savior posters. There was a public library, but there was a good chance that the book you were looking for had been stolen or never returned.

The Peace Corps had brought Stefan to the islands several decades before, and he never left. He stayed on to work for the government. He guessed it agreed with him. He had not found a reason to leave. His salary, while humble by mainland standards, afforded him a first-class lifestyle here. His job was a mindless, undemanding sinecure. He was like a token white man, kept on by inertia. The years just slipped by in identical days.

There were the occasional cyclones, of course, when his library needed to be protected. He had perfected that emergency drill. He and the kids had it down. As long as the roof stayed on, they were fine. Stefan got all his books in the mail. Oftentimes that took a while, so that when a slip appeared in his P.O. box saying he had a package to pick up, he couldn’t be sure what book it was. They were like presents that way, a surprise he got to unwrap. The feel and smell of a fresh, unopened book, its dust jacket still pristine. Something he would have forever.

He never loaned out books. They were his alone. That would be like pimping for his daughter. But then no one ever asked. He knew no one who would, and visitors to the house were rare. Stefan had learned to keep his distance. Friendships with islanders always led to trouble of one sort or another, and most whites were just passing through, gone before you got to know them. It paid to be polite, but no reason to overdo it. The kids had native friends, high school classmates, but they knew enough not to come by.

There were days when Stefan did not go into work. No one seemed to miss him. He would stay home and read. He often did so on days when the cleaning woman came. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her—this one had not yet helped herself to any of his belongings—but he thought she did a better job if he was there. He could never remember their names—except for that one he had had to report to the police after her teenage helper daughter had stolen and amateurishly tried to forge and pass some of his checks.

But this day the house girl did not come. Stefan checked; it was Thursday, her usual day. He had no way to contact her. This irritated him. Nothing major, just that he liked scheduled events to occur as scheduled. The new book, on the African campaigns, could not hold his interest. He decided to go out, to the P.O. to check his mail. He left the house unlocked in case she did arrive.

He was rewarded. There was a package pick-up slip in his P.O. box. He wondered what it could be. It was too soon for the Jay Gould biography. You had to go to the P.O. back door to pick up packages, hand your slip to the man at the desk. This time the man asked to see Stefan’s driver’s license, as if he had changed from the person he had always been. The package was addressed just to his surname. It felt too light to be a book. A surprise paperback?  He thanked the man and left. Two other uniformed men were waiting by his pickup truck in the parking lot. They took the package from him and told him he was under arrest. One of them put handcuffs on him. They were too tight.

 

Stefan did not know if the lawyer he got was good or not. How would he know? He’d never needed a lawyer, not even for the divorce. The charge was serious: felony importation of prohibited substance—methamphetamine—with intent to sell. The judge was kind enough—first offense, long-time resident, family man–to keep him out of the vile local jail by setting bail at what Stefan’s pickup was appraised at and taking his passport. Stefan was supposed to be grateful. A hearing  date was set.

The return address on the package was bogus, of course, but it had been mailed from San Diego. Stefan didn’t know anyone in San Diego, but his islander ex-wife was somewhere in California. When the lawyer learned that Stefan had two teenage children, he posited that perhaps the shipment was meant for one of them. That didn’t make any sense, because Stefan always picked up the mail and would have opened it, thinking it a book. Besides, Aaron wouldn’t be involved with anything like that, would he? The lawyer also wondered if Stefan had any enemies—his ex-wife, say—who would like to frame him.

This made Stefan laugh. Where would she get that kind of money? What had the police said? Street value ten grand? And if she had that kind of money or the drugs, she sure wouldn’t have wasted it on him. The lawyer told him the drugs were not worth anything like that. There wasn’t that much and they always exploded the street value. In addition, the meth was of poor quality, stepped on too many times. It would be worth next to nothing back in the States. Garbage, he said, good for only third-world export or setting someone up.

If indigenous justice in the islands had always been swift (and often fatal), the imported variety was anything but. Preliminary hearings, injunctions, changed court dates, amended charges. Stefan got his first lawyer bill, with the warning that non-payment would mean end of services. Stefan had been terminated, or rather, his government position had been eliminated. His only possessions worth anything were his books. He got on-line to his usual sites, only this time he was selling not buying. His first-edition, signed sci-fi would bring the most. They went first. The P.O. was suspicious of all the books he was mailing out.

At one of his court appearances, the judge, a new one, concluded the proceedings with a speech blaming white outsiders—he used the local slang word for Caucasians—for the drug epidemic among the island youth. He noted that the post office had reported that Stefan had received many such packages before, by the grace of God, he was caught. How long had he been poisoning their community? They were a warrior people. They could resist any external enemy, but this was a different sort of enemy, the insidious outsiders among them, with their evil introductions, attacking them, eating away at them from within.

Stefan wondered about his chances for a fair trial. The minimum sentence was five years. He had no real defense beyond the fact he knew nothing about the package and that when the police had ransacked his house, including his library, they had found nothing collaborative—no other drugs or paraphernalia or stashes of cash. Then, three days before jury selection was scheduled to begin, his lawyer came to him with news.

“I got it,” he said. “I know what happened. I can’t tell you how I found out. I have my sources. You were never supposed to receive that package. It was addressed to you because you received many packages that size. Someone at the P.O. was supposed to intercept this one. If it happened to get sniffed out before that, you get busted, not them. Well, the system failed. Their interceptor took a sick day and missed it. Who knows how many times it had already worked?”

Exoneration. Only, he could not use the story in trial. “I know what happened, but I don’t know who. And even if I did have names, I couldn’t use them. Hearsay. Not to mention I have to live here and I’d be accusing unnamed persons—related to everyone—to a conspiracy to commit unreported crimes in a public office. That tool is not in my defense attorney’s tool bag. Plus, I have to live here and argue in that court again.”

Stefan forbade the kids from coming to the trial. They wanted to, to show their support. Seeing as he had no other supporters, they would have been on their own. The paper’s headline read, “Drug Kingpin Convicted.”

 

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