The Incident Report: An Excerpt

Martha Baillie

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Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report is available now from Tin House Books.

Incident Report 1

The time was 2:15. A young man swaggered into the library. On his shaved head he wore a grey tweed hat. The words Love and Fuck, printed in large, dark letters, decorated the back of his green army jacket. His black boots added weight to his presence. A small, fine-boned man, his eyes were the pale blue of a summer sky. Chains of varying thicknesses and degrees of intricacy, each link handwoven from copper wire, hung from his shoulders and crisscrossed his chest. He settled himself in a chair by the large window, behind the paperback spinners. At 4:15 he came to the desk and asked to borrow, “please, if possible,” a small hand-held vacuum. “I’ve got some shavings I’d like to clean up,” he explained. For the preceding two hours he’d sat, stripping electrical wire with the aid of his pocketknife. I brought him the battery powered Dust Buster from the shelf at the back of our workroom. I could think of nothing in the Rules and Regulations to prohibit me from lending it to him. He thanked me, and, crouching down, cleaned the debris from the carpet surrounding his chair—his territory of responsibility.

Incident Report 2

The time was 11:15 AM. A slender woman with unusually dry and pale skin entered the library at an angle. She slipped in sideways. All of a sudden she was there, moving forward, lightly on her feet, as if prepared to elude an attacker. Her restless, almost colourless eyes took in her surroundings. She approached the Reference Desk, where I sat scrolling through the e-mails suspended in my In Box. “Where are your career information sheets?” I indicated two thick black binders. She peered in the direction I was pointing, but made no move to cross the room. “Shall I show you the binders?” I offered. “I see where you’re pointing. I’m not a fool.” Her voice snipped the word “fool” from the air and pasted it on my forehead. I lowered my eyes. The female patron in question set off on her journey. Several minutes later, she returned. “Those binders,” she informed me, “are black.” “Yes,” I agreed, “they are.” “Then why did you say they were purple?” She leaned forward to make it clear that no route of escape was available to me. “Did I?” “You did. You said, ‘those purple binders over there.’ You knew they were black but you lied to me. ‘Those purple binders,’ you said.” I muttered my apology. “I didn’t intend . . .” She cut me off. “You did. You said purple, those purple binders. You knew they were black, but you told me they were purple.” “I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear.” “You were perfectly clear. Purple binders, you said. You lied to me.” I attempted to distract her from the subject of colour by asking, “Were you able to find what you wanted?” She glared at me through her white eyelashes. I repeated my question. “Were you able to find what you wanted?” She held my gaze with her hard little eyes, now the colour of dirty snow, and considered my query. “It’s not my abilities that are in doubt, but yours,” she informed me. “I asked you a simple question, and you lied to me.” The anger in her voice dragged, like a fingernail across a blackboard. I shifted my attention to her collarbone. She spoke her final judgment. “You should be put outside in a cage on the sidewalk.” Again I lowered my eyes to the computer screen in front of me, and read, but the words had become hollow gourds, little seeds of shrivelled meaning rattling inside them.

Incident Report 3

This morning, the first to arrive, I unlocked the back door of the library, shouldered my bicycle, and descended the narrow stairs into the dim basement. The grey metal box fixed to the wall opened easily to reveal two vertical rows of stiff black switches made of a hard plastic. I started at the top and moved down. Each switch, succumbing to the pressure of my thumb, produced a loud “click”—a sound of finality—as it flipped from “Off” to “On.” Throughout the library above me, lights lit up. Nothing irrevocable had occurred. At the end of the day the lights would go off again. And yet for a few seconds I’d experienced certainty and a fleeting sensation of power. Sounds are more convincing than most of reality. My name is Miriam Gordon. I am an employee of the Public Libraries of Toronto. I am thirty-five years old and a “Clerical,” or that is how they referred to me until last month when they changed my title. I am now a “Public Service Assistant.”

Incident Report 4

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump palm of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her for her gift.

Incident Report 5

In the library workroom, a schedule hangs from two clips. As always, the day has been divided into compartments, as if it were a train about to set out on a well-planned voyage along shining rails. My initials have been pencilled into many of the little boxes that correspond to each hour between 9:00 AM and 8:30 PM. We, the staff, don’t always greet the public with enthusiasm. We don’t feel, every one of us without fail, that we are travelling out, embarked upon an adventure, and yet there we are, inscribed in our little boxes, as if the day were pulled by a solid locomotive. Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear—small as a cherry stone, it cracks open behind my breastbone. I don’t want the fruit. With each quick breath the fear grows, a rustling of leaves in the cavity of my chest. But soon I’ve washed, dressed, drunk a cup of tea, eaten a piece of toast, and am on my way to work, riding my bicycle in a prescribed direction.

Martha Baillie is the author of four novels and has been published in Canada, Germany, and Hungary. Her poems have appeared frequently in journals such as Descant, Prairie Fire, and the Antigonish Review. Her nonfiction piece “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach” was published by Brick: a literary journal. Her most recent novel, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, was published in September 2014 by Tin House Books.