Jane was walking on Eastern Parkway calculating her debt to the Brooklyn Public Library when she saw a toilet on the sidewalk. It was a fairly ordinary toilet, white with pink flowers strewn around the seat. It must be a specialized recycling day, Jane thought. She knew such days existed, for ink cartridges and air conditioners, for example. Still, it was odd to see that toilet, which had likely been discreetly hidden away for years, now on display. Jane continued walking. She wondered why she had checked out all those books in the first place. As she’d watched the librarian scan the barcodes, she hadn’t been able to picture herself actually sitting and reading them. She had hoped somehow that she would be temporarily replaced by a different version of herself, more practical and studious, someone who would read the books and return them on time. Now she owed the library fifteen cents times the number of books times the number of days plus the cost of the copy of War and Peace that she’d forgotten at the Laundromat where she had, in fact, not read a page.
Jane saw a second toilet. No, two more toilets. They were sitting side by side like old men watching the city pass by. One was taller and a little grayer than the other. If toilet recycling days did exist surely there must not be very many of them, thought Jane, and so it made sense that anyone with a toilet to recycle would take advantage of a collection day whenever one arose. But how many people really had toilets to recycle? Jane was twenty-nine and had never needed to dispose of a toilet.
The next building Jane passed did not have any toilets. There was, however, an accent table, painted the blue of photographed Caribbean coves. On the table was a coffee mug with lipstick on the rim and a magazine folded open. The coffee cup still had coffee in it. The magazine article was an explanation of how to turn plastic shopping bags into more fashionable plastic shopping bags by cutting and crocheting. Jane looked around to see if there was someone nearby wearing pink lipstick and slicing up shopping bags. There wasn’t. She slid the magazine into her purse. She had never been the type for arts and crafts, but it seemed possible that she might decide to learn.
She wasn’t looking where she was going, which she knew one should always do in New York. She was instead pushing down the corners of the magazine, trying to zip her purse. Because of this momentary distraction, she banged her calf on the side of a bed. The bed was positioned across the sidewalk, the head up against the fence of a brownstone and the foot resting on the curb. A fleshy colored duvet covered the bed, and rolled up in the duvet was a man. He opened his eyes and looked around before noticing Jane and glaring irritably at her.
"Can’t you let a person have a bit of peace and quiet?"
"I’m sorry," Jane said. "I didn’t mean to wake you." She did feel bad, though it seemed to her that the truck which was just then clattering by made a great deal more noise than she had, and she hardly felt it was fair for the man to place all of the blame on her. Jane waited until there was a break in the traffic, and then she stepped into the street and walked quickly around the bed. She thought it was odd that he had a bed outside, but she supposed it must have gotten too hot in his apartment. Or too cold. You never could tell with these old buildings.
She should have gone back to the Laundromat, she thought. But by the time she had noticed she’d forgotten the book, she’d figured someone else had probably already taken it. And when she realized that that assumption had only been an excuse for not going back outside and that the book had probably still been there, it was several hours later and she decided that, at that point, there really was no point in going back. It occurred to her as she was walking that she hadn’t been to the Laundromat since and that the copy of War and Peace might still be there. She wondered if maybe she should wait to go to the library, since it would be ridiculous to pay the fine for losing the book and later discover that she hadn’t lost it. Then she would be stuck with the copy of War and Peace, which—she was ready to admit now—she would never read.
She was approaching an intersection and looked ahead to see if she would make the light. Between her and the light was an oven with a woman’s back, hips and legs poking out. The woman’s top half emerged. She was holding a cookie tray. Jane could smell the cookies. She wondered how the oven was getting gas, out on the sidewalk like that, but then she noticed an orange extension cord. Underneath a table, a little boy was playing with the cord, trying to get a toy bicycle to balance on it. A helmeted Barbie doll lay on the ground next to him, dressed in pink spandex bike shorts and no top.
"Would you like some cookies?" the woman asked Jane.
"They’re gluten-free, but I promise they don’t taste like it."
"No, thank you," Jane said. She heard shouting, strangely staticky, coming from across the street, near the Brooklyn Museum. When she looked, she saw that there was a sofa perched on the steps. Two people were sitting watching TV.
"I know people think gluten-free food is no good, but these are good, I promise," the woman said. "Aren’t they good?" she asked the boy. He nodded but looked unconvinced. "He was just diagnosed a few months ago," the woman said. "It’s been hard for him. No Lucky Charms, no cake, no cinnamon toast."
Jane looked at the boy. She worried that by refusing she would imply that she didn’t believe cookies could be good without gluten.
"I guess I could have just one," she said.
"I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist," the woman said, "once you really thought about it. Only they still have to cool off a bit."
Jane sat at the table. The boy leaned up against her legs. She didn’t have children herself and his body made her uncomfortable, with its combination of softness and tiny, sharp bones.
"I know who you are!" the woman exclaimed suddenly, looking at Jane. "I was sure I’d seen you before and now I remember."
"I don’t think we know each other," said Jane.
The woman went over to a bookshelf which Jane hadn’t noticed before and took out a thick volume wrapped in a translucent library cover.
"You were carrying this at the Laundromat," she said and handed Jane her library copy of War and Peace. "Just goes to show you," she said.
"Show you what?" Jane asked.
"Oh, I don’t know. How the world is, I guess. The cookies should be cool enough now." She spatulaed one off the sheet and handed it to Jane. "You don’t mind my fingers, do you?"
Jane took a bite. It tasted sandy and formed a paste in her mouth that stuck to her gums.
"It’s good," she said. "It doesn’t taste gluten-free at all."
"See," the woman said to the boy.
"Thanks for returning the book," Jane said. "And for the cookie."
"I’ll see you at the Laundromat," the woman said as Jane crossed the street.
Jane tried to force the copy of War and Peace into her purse, but it wouldn’t fit. The woman must have known, she thought. She must have noticed that there wasn’t a bookmark. Of course Jane might have been done with the book, moved the bookmark to another book, but then why would she have had it with her at the Laundromat? The conclusion was unavoidable: the woman knew that Jane had not read War and Peace and probably knew that she did not intend to read War and Peace.
As Jane walked, she began to sense that everyone she passed knew. She felt them watching her, looking at the cover of the book, looking at her and thinking, "She’ll never read it. She thought she would read it but she won’t, and she should have known she wouldn’t."
Jane was in front of the library now. The shelves had been moved outside, and they looked oddly precarious, though she knew they must be as stable outside as they were inside. She walked over to a table and whispered to a man sitting there, "Is anyone using this chair?" He shook his head. Jane sat down. She opened her overdue copy of War and Peace and started to read.