He did his work at night, always uncertain whether he’d let the day slip by or was getting a jump on the next. Should he scramble to make up for lost hours, or could he afford the confident measure of easy strides? Appeals through the blinds into the dark offered no help. In the half-light he ventured out for supplies, to shops that always seemed just opening or just about to close. He often managed to be surprised which, and it had been getting worse lately.
There was an all-night diner where he occasionally took a nervous meal or just cups of coffee. At one point he realized he had become a regular and had to lay off for a few weeks because things had gotten too chummy with the other regulars, some of whom were every-nighters such as he was in danger of becoming, and others who passed through on obscure rotations. It was on the verge of turning into a sitcom about the folks who worked at the all-night diner and the loveable eccentrics who came in as customers. He didn’t care for sitcoms, and he didn’t like being treated with presumption. That was the thing, everyone in the diner thought they knew him, somehow. If it wasn’t like a sitcom it was like an AA meeting, your anonymity was beside the point because your sin was plain.
But especially it had become necessary to avoid The Librarian, that miasma of rose water and body odor with whom he would have to discuss Russian Literature. He was a painter but for some reason she had the fixed idea that he was a poet. She wasn’t really a librarian, he understood, but rather a homeless Russian immigrant who slept in the library during the day, between PG3476.A324 and PG3476.Z34, holding unconscious colloquy with Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Gogol (it was a branch library so the heavy-hitters were close together). She said the spirits of these writers spoke to her in her sleep, and one afternoon they had revealed to her that he had a Russian soul. Clearly she was unhinged, or at least not hinged in the usual places, which amounted to the same thing. She wore a string of paste pearls that he had once, in a moment of terror, mistaken for an insane smile.
Fortunately it was possible to walk by the diner and reconnoiter who was there before deciding to go in, although his night vision had gotten so bad lately that these sorties now took him to the very edge of the diner’s lights, in danger of being spotted and waved in. He reassured himself, however, that the interior reflection on the diner’s windows was bright enough that the occupants would have to be really looking in order to recognize him. He remembered all the times he had spent contemplating this interior reflection from his seat in his booth, how superimposed over the buckled pavements and parking lot and shrubby borders outside was the ghostly brightness of an alternate-universe diner much like the one he sat in, one which looked somehow less substantial, yet substantially cozier, than the real-diner universe inside.
And anyway it was always possible that he would run into The Librarian on the street. She was at the diner most nights but not all; he would class her as a semi- to almost-regular. Nights when she did not appear were evidently taken up with entertaining crowds of guests with vodka, zakuski, and artistic conversation in the vast and well-appointed dacha of her disordered mind, fits which appeared to other people as the muttering and solitary roaming of dark streets. Sometimes there would be dancing. More than once he had crossed to the other sidewalk or turned a corner just in time.
He never told The Librarian that he’d painted her portrait. He had painted it from memory, from all the times she’d shoved herself with the plastic bags of her moth-eaten sweaters into the seat across from him, and because he could not bring himself to look directly at her face over the table he had studied her reflection on the interior surface of the window. Thus had she sat for him, and from memory he had painted her or rather her reflection and she had come out looking like Anna Akhmatova, doyenne of the Silver Age, in an incongruously Edward Hopper-esque setting. This portrait was his best work, and he knew that when the walls fell down it would go on hanging there, framed in the fires. The night assured his better self that they would come into their greatness, he and The Librarian, but otherwise it counseled a long patience. For now the day was in charge.