When she started working at the library we all knew she would be different
. Most of us got our jobs by default
- we could not get graduate assistant jobs, or could not get research grants or just could not get hired by a real business to do real things. So we ended up at the Memphis
city library doing whatever we were told to do by the ever serious, somber administration.
Not Melinda. She wanted to be there. Asked to be there and likely, had to beg to get to work there. She had graduated only a few months previously with her earnest library science degree from Illinois Wesleyan and had contacted a cousin who lived here in town to set up the interview. She swore lifetime devotion to all things organized and documented. Melinda was nothing if not sincere, so I am sure this came across right away. Still, the whole: 'She's a yankee and we don't know her' would have doomed her if she had not produced a reference from a great Aunt and vice president of the Junior League.
Melinda came to work before us and worked later. She spoke only when spoken to and only in the practiced whisper of someone who had spent their life in public places that required respectful conduct . Although those words fit her, they were not hers. They were written in large script on the door of the main entrance, and were part of the general "things to tell people" all employees were reminded of on a general basis. We received a lot of instruction on how to tell people to act. Most of us didn't really believe in the whole behavior policy, but Melinda certainly did.
Melinda was born to the job. She was eager to help, but unobtrusive. Friendly, but not exactly cheerful. Melinda ran a help desk that was more like a "duty counter." She had quiet, serene brown eyes set on a unremarkable face. She was not heavy, but not slim. Her hips and ankles were too large, too soon and her glasses sat in front of always pulled back hair and served to further distance her glance from those who tried to get to know her--she was set back, at arms length- all the time.
One day there was an extended discussion of our dress code. It was the middle of an extended heatwave and those of us who worked upstairs had found ourselves increasingly damp because of the NO shorts-No short sleeve rules. The aniquated AC system ceased to be effective above 95 and Western Tennessee was passing that daily around 10 am or so. Not surprising, the administration would not budge, but they did encourage ladies to wear skirts and yes, hose was optional. None of the men seemed especially pleased, but I set up an office pool to see when and if Melinda would actually trade her traditional khakis for a skirt of some vintage. I ended up having to turn all the money back on a technicality.
It's a skirt I said, trying to elicit at least a grin or a blush. I failed.
"No, they're culottes" she said in a calm, slightly defiant tone.
So, they're shorts, and so you are violating the rules? this seemed almost unspeakable, but I couldn't stop myself.
"No, they're culottes," she repeated, a little more insistent this time, putting away last night dropoffs and moving behind the main desk as if a buzzer would soon go off if they were not placed on the proper cart in the next five seconds.
So, they're no shorts,and they're not a skirt so you are wearing clothes that defy description-is this a word test? My peers laughed but she didn't, clicking away from us, down the hall with a stack of periodicals.
I asked her assistant later what the ruling from administration was and she just put a finger to her lips and mouthed "tellyalater" without speaking. Lipreading was sorta necessity at this job.
At the end of the day I noticed that Melinda had infact, gone home and changed, and was now in a calf length khaki skirt, obviously purchased at the same Dowdy 'r us store as the rest of her wardbrobe. She acted like she didn't see me but I waited until she looked up and I was actually able to catch her gaze-
Would you like to go have a drink with us? Circulations and research are having a little get together next door at the Hyatt-could you come?
A small smile, pulling some hair around her right ear which was not, of course, out of place-"I don't drink..." she started to say. But I cut her off.
You could come and drink ice tea and I'll put sugar and lemon and a sprig of mint in it and we can pretend you're having a julep-It'll cool you off, what'd you say?
She said yes. Several times in several ways.