In The Stacks

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From In The Stacks:

I’M A LIBRARIAN, so of course I was picking melted plastic out of the 3D printer when I heard the news that Maisie Martin had died.

I wandered out of the maker space, past the robotics lab, around the VR cave, into the music studio. We do have books in this library, lots of them. But these days, we have more than books.

Maisie was dead, so it was time, at last, to break down the synthesizer.

3D printers, LEGO robots, VR goggles: these offerings are not, among well-funded public libraries, uncommon. The Big Red Synthesizer is, by contrast, unique. Before it was Maisie’s instrument, it was my headache.

The music studio, I could handle. Generally, it was reserved by various squads of scruffy teens. They howled and tittered behind the glass and left the production computer’s keyboard greasy with Cheeto dust.

Every so often, one of them would spy the Big Red Synthesizer, enormous, as long as a Fiat, parked against the back wall of the studio control room. It was a fugitive from the 1970s, ancestor to the tools inside the production computer. Packed with knurled knobs set beside pulsing LEDs, it might have been ripped from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Every so often, one of the teens would creep out of the studio to ask: Hey, uh… how do you use that thing?

I would confess: I didn’t know. The synthesizer’s markings, “VCO” and “VCF” and “LFO,” were as inscrutable as an ancient tablet. Jacks yawned open, ready to receive the cables draped over hooks on the wall. According to what logic would those cables be inserted? I had barely weathered the transition to USB-C. I had no idea.

The teens would fiddle. Generally, their efforts produced only silence, and they retreated back into the computer. Once, a girl with stringy hair and long fingers summoned a yowling square wave, so banshee-pure that it punched through the soundproofing and filled the library. I jogged to quiet the noise, but she pulled the plug before I arrived, frightened by her own sound.

There was, as far as I knew, just one patron who understood the use of the Big Red Synthesizer, and her expertise made up for all our ignorance.

Maisie Martin, 83 years old, was a virtuoso.

Her career had bloomed and faded before the internet, so there wasn’t much to find about her, except the stub of a page on the university website naming her a Professor, Emeritus in classics. She had written a book about the muses, far too obscure to be included in our collection. Her hair was cut short, her expression set serious, but she was never unkind. She simply had things to do.

Maisie kept a schedule. Wednesdays were library days; synthesizer days. After being delivered by a young chauffeur, she would walk slowly to the front desk and sign her name in the studio logbook, her handwriting smooth and elegant. (The scruffy teens could barely make letters.) After she disappeared inside, there would, for twenty or thirty minutes, be silence. Maisie was plugging the right cables into the right jacks, rebuilding her composition.

I’d once spied her through the glass, consulting her notebook. She had reproduced the face of the Big Red Synthesizer in neat lines, photocopying the drawing dozens of times; on each copy, in red ink, she drew the paths of the cables as she plugged them in.

I asked her once how she composed for the synthesizer, and she replied:

“For a piano, you write a song. For a synthesizer, you invent a patch. I have been working on my patch.”

It made her sound like a farmer.

Every Wednesday, after she had rebuilt her patch, she started it playing. I could hear it only faintly through the soundproofing. The bass pushed through in big, slow waves.

Sometimes the scruffy teens would be waiting when Maisie emerged. She would give them a curt nod, and they would nod back. Neither camp seemed particularly impressed by the other.

What was Maisie making in there? There’s a code of honor among librarians: let patrons do their thing. The patrons who wanted to tell you, told you; they could not, in fact, be quieted. Yusuf Naber’s research on penguin behavior was undertaken largely, if not totally, for the opportunity to report its daily progress to the librarians. (Yusuf was ten.)

As for the rest? Brilliant Ayesha Rossi built stacks of history books, one age leading her to the next and the next as she rebuilt the whole story of humanity in her head. Ubiquitous Barbara Turner wormed her way through the mystery shelves, following a path as circuitous as an Agatha Christie plot. These patrons’ intentions, I did not know. I only saw their outermost contours, in the shape of resources requested.

Maisie Martin’s contour was a straight line. Every Wednesday, she came. Every Wednesday, she built her patch, nudged it along, broke it down.

Every Wednesday except for one.

It was the library’s policy that you should leave the studio as you found it. I reminded the scruffy teens of this policy again—and again—and again. I swiped my fingers across the keyboard, showed them the orange glow. They shrugged and smirked and promised to do better.

Maisie needed no such reprimand. In fact, she overdid it. No one else used the Big Red Synthesizer; she could have left it configured, the tangle of cables dripping in place, spaghetti-like, from one Wednesday to the next. But always, after thirty minutes of reconstruction and an hour of work, she spent her final thirty minutes removing all the cables and hanging them neatly on the wall, arranged in order of ascending length, from six inches to four feet.

The closest I ever came to divining her purpose was the day I said to her: “Maisie, you can leave the cables plugged into the synthesizer, if you want. No one else uses it.”

She shook her head. “Oh, no. Building it helps me understand it. I wouldn’t get anywhere if I skipped that step.”

I should have known, therefore, that it was a Wednesday unlike any other—that the world was about to change—when, at the end of the day, I poked into the studio to turn off the lights, and found the synthesizer still wired up.

On the table in front of the machine, a piece of paper had been laid, folded into a little tent, and on it a a note was written in Maisie’s unmistakable script:


Feeling weirdly panicked, I buttressed Maisie’s delicate note with a larger one, printed in the official library font, laminated with the official library laminator:


Link to the rest at In The Stacks