We waited at the librarian's checkout, I with two books on middle-age jogging and she with an armload of Nancy Drews spilling onto the floor. Nancy Drew. "The Hidden Staircase." "The Secret of Red Gate Farm." "The Clue in the Jewel Box." I didn't seem so long ago that I ate Nancy Drews as if they were potato chips. Nobody could write like Carolyn Keene. Or so it seemed.
The little girl laid her books along the table, her card ready; I hunted mine among dry cleaner stubs. Conversation would disguise my floundering.
"Which ones have you read?" I began.
She opened a cover, showing me the list. Immediately, we began checking them off like old times.
"Which was the last one you read?" she asked.
The titles are printed in smaller type now and set in columns in order to fit them on one page. I pointed to a title roughly halfway down the first column.
"Ooooooh," she said."You've missed some good ones."
I nodded. I guessed I had. I began again.
"What about Dana Girls Mysteries, do you read them? They're by the same author."
Her voice was hoarse; I'd never seen eyebrows turns up at the inside edges before.
"Oh, but Carolyn Keene isn't . . . ."
Her eyebrows crashed. She froze as if she was a doe and I, the headlights. Anticipated hurt registered in her face; silence was loud in its stillness.
Memories took my body, catching hairs along the back of my neck. Growing up; the doors of childhoor slamming in my face: Was it biological or was it Carolyn Keene? As a child, I could depend on Carolyn Keene. She provided action-packed books. Real mysteries. She spiced my otherwise dull existence. Grown-ups broke promises but Carolyn Keene never let me down.
For me, telling had broken a friendship. Not between me and Carolyn Keene but with my upstairs neighbor, Denise Horton. Behind her tear-streaked red face , Denise swore and crossed her heart and hoped to die or stick a needle in her eye and all the things that kids do to pledge truth. I wouldn't believe her. I said Carolyn Keene would never let a reader down; never use a fictitious name or have someone else write her books. Authors were real, everyone knew that.
Like most authors, years pass. One hopes that, with the years, we get a little smarter, or tougher. I accept Carolyn Keene now for who she is: Franklin W. Dixon, Laura Lee Hope, Victor Appleton III, and a few others. I know that underneath those names lies Edward Stratemeyer, who invented Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Rover Boys, Bomba the Jungle Boy, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and more. I've learned that when Statemeyer died, his daughter, Harriet Adams, took his place behind the typewriter. That Stratemeyer, Adams, and their pseudonyms are responsible for some one thousand books, most of which were plotted, outlined, and handed out to ghostwriters for completion.
Standing in the library, I could see Denise and me in the young girl's eyes. We were wearing white short short's funny stripped tie-back tops; we sat on concrete apartment house steps, our skinny spider legs sprawled out. We wore white cotton bobby socks with navy blue sneakers. As usual, we were surrounded by battered Nancy Drews.
"As long as I live, Denise Horton, I'll never speak to you again or share the same books," I shouted. Something left me that day. I never saw another rumble seat.
Now my feet slid inside my shoes. I had the power, I could take it away -- the unthreatened, totally imaginary world only children enjoy, where trust, goodness, and triumph over evil is commonplace. I could snatch it away by saying Carolyn Keene makes a fast buck off kids.
The girl pushed her stacks across the counter, turned, and stared at me, her eyes glistening, expecting the worst.
I stumbled over my words, anxious to check out, to leave this girl with the television eyes.
"Carolyn Knee," I said. "I wouldn't mind having that name. Kids actually read her books."
She shrugged her shoulders and sighed.
"I thought you were going to say Carolyn Knee was dead and she was a man now, " she said. "That's an awful lie! I mean, she writes the best books -- better'n any TV show."
I mumbled something in agreement and grabbed my two books while the librarian's brown spotted hands slapped Nancy Drew across the counter, inserting cards with a jungle rhythm. If a smile passed her face, I missed it.
We left together, the little girl I. Despite her armload, she managed to open the glass door.
She walked home; I drove. She would only have refused the ride. Politely. We tell our kids: you can't depend on strangers.