Hidden Late Fees
By abandoned station
I was doing a mediocre job at cleaning my room. Picking up the obvious and easy things off the floor. Suddenly I discovered a library book under a t-shirt that I’d completely forgotten about. It wasn’t a great book, but it was helpfully displayed on a ‘hot reads’ shelving unit and the picture on the front – a crude illustration of a bird pecking at a hapless worm – piqued my interest so I gave it a chance.
It didn’t take.
Plodding along for the first three dozen pages, I found I didn’t care about the people doing whatever they did, or the writing style, and that’s pretty much what a book is if you get right down to it.
Because it was a library book, I didn’t regret my non-purchase. I only lost a bit of my time and the weight the book added to my bag to bring it home.
And then I promptly forgot about it for much too long a time.
So when I did find it I shuffled through my memory trying to remember the due date and it instead struck me that I had already renewed it once the last time I re-discovered it on my floor.
I muttered a healthy bit of profanity and although I couldn’t pin down even that altered due-date I knew I had missed it and so slotted in enough time during my daily errands for me to bicycle to the library to return it and pay the fine.
I like my record being much cleaner than my room.
So after going to the bank but before going to buy some superglue I locked up my grey giant in front of the Windermere Avenue branch and walked inside. While the exterior looked identical to all the other times I stopped by, the interior was apparently going through a complete renovation. The only dominant feature was thick opaque sheets of plastic protecting us patrons and employees from the dust and work, the building’s walls becoming a cloudy distant feature that might no longer exist at all. The way the plastic was arranged I had to walk through a thin maze to find what now counted for the checkout/return counter. As I approached a middle-aged woman with a hard hat rose from behind and beneath the counter, holding a tattered old book.
“Can I help you?”
“Ah, yes I would like to return this overdue book”, I said, holding it out expectantly, waiting for her to take it.
But she turned away and said, “come with me please.”
“Wait, can’t I just give it you?” I called after her, not moving from my spot.
“I’m afraid not”, she said, about to disappear around a plastic sheet, “move to your right and take a left.”
I was tempted to simply leave the book on the counter and leave but I really wanted to get the fine out of the way and figured that she was just leading me to wherever they kept the computer or cash register during the renovation so I followed her orders.
At no point did this feel like a library. When I made the correct turn I found her waiting for me expectantly, holding a second hard hat in her hands.
I followed, and we rounded another corner and the makeshift corridor created by plastic sheet walls ended at a makeshift plastic sheet room with a table in the middle and chairs on opposing sides.
“Please take a seat.”
“Well can’t I just give this to you, pay, and leave?”
“This is the proper way”, she said, handing me the hard hat as she went to sit down in one of the chairs.
I took it and then said I didn’t understand and she replied that if I just sat down it would all be explained.
I reasoned that there will always be another chance to buy superglue, and sat down, pushing the book towards her. She paid it no heed, and instead gave an order:
“Tell me what happened.”
“I don’t understand”, I said blankly.
“With the book. Your relationship to it. Why it’s late.”
Perhaps I could have caused a fuss, or just left a dollar beside the book and walked away (paying ten cents over what I calculated was the entire fine), but I felt as curious about this entire ordeal and why she seemed to be concerned about me and the book. So I explained how the book suckered me in with its cover, how I eagerly began reading it but found it lacking quite early on. How it slowly descended from my bedside table to my desk to my floor. How it eventually became hidden beneath the random objects of life, re-discovered, renewed, and then hidden again.
The woman’s face did not change at all as I explained this. When I finished she remained silent. At first I kept quiet as well, imagining her to do some sort of intense thinking, maybe about my psychological profile, as I might be a typical candidate for returning books late. Perhaps she was about to give me some sage advice about myself which I would use to propel myself to greater heights.
Instead she closed her eyes and after a continued silence that I was about to break, she finally said:
“Do you realize the people you’ve hurt?”
This is not what I expected, and at first I just blinked at her, letting the words roll around in my head to make sure I heard them correctly.
“I’m sorry?” I began, twisting the second word into a question, before adding, “I don’t… do you mean there were people who had the book on hold? Because it was only three days in the end.”
“Late is late, one day three days or thirty days”, she began, slowly opening her eyes, “but I am referring to the entire system that you seem to be thumbing your nose at.”
“The library system and beyond. The checks and balances of our bureaucratic wonderland. The intricate workings of the geopolitical economic decisions that affect one and all. We all play a part.”
She begins to stand up.
“Wait”, I say, pushing my chair back.
“And you’ve forgotten your lines.”
This felt like two things. A moment that she had rehearsed several times before, and that point in an action film where I was suddenly going to have a gun pointed at my face.
I instinctively raised my hands in a ‘don’t shoot’ gesture.
“Look, I think you’re overreacting.”
“Whether you considered or not that I might do so in your shattering of the rule sets is of little interest to me.”
“Well I’m not trying to make an excuse here. I’m perfectly okay with paying the fine.”
“So you admit your guilt.”
She sits back down.
“And you accept the consequences.”
“Sure”, I say, glad that we were making headway into understandable waters, “I’ll pay the fine and get out of your hair.”
“Yes”, I said, digging out my wallet, “it’s thirty cents a day, right? So ninety cents?”
“Well that’s the basic fee”, she said slowly, doing a wonderful job at hiding any amusement in her voice, although her shoulders and cheeks gave her away, “there’s hidden late fees that can be added on at the librarian’s personal discretion.”
And silence overcame us again, and I actually made a glance at the way out, down the plastic sheet corridor that brought us to this makeshift room. She did not seem to acknowledge my movement, but I’m sure she saw it.
As she did not elaborate, I asked if she wouldn’t mind doing so.
“Well as it is a complicated world, it can be a complicated process, considering and putting into practice these hidden late fees.”
This skirting the issue was not very impressive to me. I was feeling rather toyed around and was tiring of whatever this was. Finally. I was kicking myself for letting this go on for so long. I have things to do. Superglue is waiting, as is the rest of my life. I just stood up.
“I think I’ll just pay the fine at another time, actually. Maybe when the library is back to normal.”
“Well I strongly suggest we settle the matter now”, she replied with a smirk she displayed like a Picasso, “but if you think that’s in your best interest…”
And I realized I was in someone’s delusion. Maybe I was never supposed to come into this library. That there should have been a locked door with a sign that said ‘closed for renovations’. That I should have been tipped off as soon as I stepped inside and found the whole place upended and replaced with fake hallways and rooms.
So without another word I turned and walked out of the fake room and marched down the fake halls that for some reason seemed much longer and winding this time around. It should have been the reverse of the instructions I was given by the supposed-librarian earlier. A right then a left. Or was it…
I didn’t want to retrace my already hesitant steps and find myself in front of her again and instead plodded forward, somehow trying to recollect all the t-intersections I traversed on my way into that horrible non-room.
No luck. I was clearly lost.
“What’s going on?” I asked the slowly swaying plastic walls around me, wishing I had the book, that I was still at home, that all of this was the dream of some corrupt scheming librarian that would end as soon as she wakes up.
I begin to run. I imagine that something is chasing me and because it’s within the realm of possibility at this point since I can toss most things I was sure of out the window my heart begins to race and I make frequent glances behind me to make sure the monster isn’t about to tear at my skin.
Then I get a brainstorm. These walls aren’t real. They’re opaque plastic sheets. They are what’s keeping me in this mock prison. I stop running and find a slit between two of them. I push apart the sheets and step inside and find myself back in the makeshift room and there she is with a knowing smile, arms folded, leaning back in her chair, hardhat now resting on the desk beside my book.
I think I was surprised for all of three seconds before reasoning aloud, “Well, of course.”
“Yes…”, she began, but added nothing.
“Let me out of here.”
“Shall we discuss you hidden late fees?”
“Don’t make me…”, I started, but then it was my own turn to trail off. What was I going to do? Threaten her with what? Attack her? That seemed horribly wrong. Even if I was desperate and mortally confused it seemed like such a scummy thing to hold over her head. But whatever she was holding over me seemed to be pretty scummy. Still, I didn’t want to hear myself say such words like, “beat you up”. Not yet anyway.
“Don’t make you what?” she asked.
“I don’t know”, I responded honestly, “what’s your… what are the hidden late fees?”
“We can discuss them now?”
“I…I’m not making any promises”, I said, imaging some of the worst things in the world. Room 101 and all that.
“Your fine of ninety cents”, she began, pursing her lips for a moment before adding, “and dinner. You and I. I choose the restaurant and you pay.”
Usually when people say something I didn’t fully hear or understand I say ‘excuse me’ or ‘I’m sorry’. This time I just spat out a, “What?”
“Dinner at seven. Nothing too formal, but a collared shirt would be appropriate. Drinks afterwards if it feels right. Nothing more than that.”
We stared at each other. I was processing this and picturing it in my head. Sitting across from this woman ordering appetizers. It seemed very strange.
“You’re serious”, I check.
“Of course. This is a serious matter.”
“And if I say no?”
“You’re free to try and leave…again”, she replies, suddenly not interested in pursuing the conversation any further if I was going to be cool towards her proposition.
“Nothing more than that”, I repeat, “that’s what you said.”
“I have your…word.”
“This is official library business. I wouldn’t dare go back on it.”
I look around the fake walls and stare at the book and then her and then wonder about welching on the whole thing after saying yes. Seemed almost as rude as considering hitting her.
“Excellent”, she says, suddenly sitting up in her chair and resting her hands on the desk all prim and proper, “that will be ninety cents.”
I dig out a dollar from my pocket and she takes out her change purse and gives me a dime.
“Have you heard of the restaurant Bymark?”
I said I had.
“Be in front just after seven. I’ve already made reservations.”
I didn’t ask any details and just left. It was one left and a right and there was the entrance door. The weather seemed okay.
Dinner was okay. A bit awkward. She talked a lot about her job and how she hates working during renovations. I ate slowly and drank quickly. Afterwards we went for one drink at a nearby martini bar and that was it.
|Our conception of the universe is limited to ourselves|