It was Saturday and my clothes had not dried completely from being soaked in the rain. Heavy gray rain clouds reflected silver-blue in the many deep puddles. I was heading to the newly renovated junior high library in search of the meaning of a word. The building was dark. I checked the door, and to my surprise it was unlocked.

“Hello,” I called into the darkness.

No answer. I stepped in. The door swung closed behind me.

“Anybody here?” I called out again as I headed toward the card catalog on the farthest wall.

No answer. Each footstep fell silent on the carpeted floor. The only sound was the gurgling of a fish tank on the checkout counter. A large black goldfish with feathery fins and enormous bulbous eyes stared at me suspiciously.

The dark enveloped me as I headed deeper into the room, making a normally comfortable and friendly space feel ominous and foreboding. I slipped past each aisle of the tall bookshelves that formed long, narrow pathways that faded into blackness, each seemingly harboring something sinister, something hidden and ready to spring out as I passed.

I stopped and cupped my hands around my ears as I strained to listen. Somewhere ahead I heard the sound of rustling, and now I noticed a faint yellow flickering glow coming from the darkest row ahead.

“Hello,” I called, but my voice was only a whisper.

Something furred and weighty scraped along the carpet in lumbering steps that began growing louder. Before I could scream it was on me, heavy and damp, smelling like death itself.

I had come to the library in search of the meaning of a word — not just any word but one given to me in a dream days earlier. I had no idea what the word — obsequious — meant or why it had been presented to me while I slept, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important to learn everything I could about this strange, unwanted gift.

When I woke up from the dream I couldn’t hold onto the word as I transitioned from sleep to wakefulness. Only that morning, when I’d climbed to the top of a tree during a rainy windstorm, had the word come back into my memory in a flash as if it had always been there. Determined not to forget, I had repeated it over and over, breaking it down into its syllables — ob-se-que-ous — and spoke them aloud as I walked. My hope was to find someone at the library who might help me learn everything I could about the word’s meaning and find clues as to why it had been thrust on me.

Words had always been important to me. I was fascinated that sounds convey meaning and that this meaning is slightly different to everyone. I wasn’t the only one. At my friend’s home we’d pull down a tattered heavy dictionary and flip through the pages.

“Who made up all these words?” I asked Brendan’s mother on one such day.

Looking up from her book, she squinted her eyes and smiled, her gray hair spilling over her shoulders.

“Nobody and everybody,” she said. “They’ve evolved over time, and their meaning never stays the same for long.”

“That’s messed up,” Brendan said and turned the page.

She laughed a sweet, high-pitched laugh.

My friend closed his eyes and pointed skyward with his index finger. It was our game. He’d point to a word randomly and then we’d see which one of us knew its meaning.

“OK, ready,” his mom said.

He thrust his finger down and opened his eyes.

“Transcendentalism,” he said.

I had no idea what the word meant, but his mother rubbed her brow and smiled.

“Not sure of the meaning exactly, but I know early American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau called themselves transcendentalists in the mid-1800s.”

He handed her the dictionary.

“It says here,” she said, reading, “that it’s a belief in the inherent goodness of people and nature but that institutions have corrupted the purity of individuals, that people are at their best when truly self-reliant and independent.”

She handed him back the book. It was so heavy that it pulled his hands down to the hardwood floor.

“Ouch!” he cried.

“Words can be heavy,” she said.

We had all laughed. But there was no laughing now. In the dark library I’d been pummeled by a large hairy beast that had begun licking my face with a slobbering tongue that I’d recognize anywhere.

“Brendan, get your dog off me. She stinks like hell,” I said, trying to push his Golden Labrador, Brandy, away.

“I thought I’d been caught,” he said, rushing up with a flashlight in his hand.

“What’s that smell?” I asked.

“She found a skunk this morning in the vineyards,” he said.

The dog finally relented and peeled away. I sat up slowly, raising my arm to give it a quick sniff.

“You gotta get that thing washed,” I said.

He shrugged.

“Hey, you know they have records and headphones here you can use for free?” he said. “I’ve been listening to them on weekends. The door’s normally left unlocked.”

Brandy had rolled on her back and was now twisting back and forth on the new carpet.

“Good to know, but I’m here to find the meaning of a word,” I said.

Making circles with his forefingers and thumbs and putting them to his eyes like eyeglasses he made a goofy expression.

“That’s why my mom loves you,” he said. “You’re a complete dork.”

Just then the lights flickered on. Startled for only a moment, we quickly scrambled crablike down the aisle of books, Brandy following odoriferously behind. What happened next is another story.

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Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart and went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D in biology at CU and became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. tfcarl@gmail.com