My Annual Library Call of Shame

16 Mar

I force myself to p

I find libraries deeply puzzling. On the one hand, they are free. Yet somehow, when you don't return books on time, they actually turn out to be quite expensive. Puzzling. I still love them, though. Photo by Alexandra Hanson-Harding

I find libraries deeply puzzling. On the one hand, they are free. Yet somehow, when you don’t return books on time, they actually turn out to be quite expensive. Puzzling. I still love them, though. Photo by Alexandra Hanson-Harding

I force myself to punch in the library’s number.

“Hi,” I snuffle into the phone. “May I please talk to Ellen?”

“May I tell her who’s calling?””

“It’s Alexandra.”

“Who?”

“I’m . . . um, somebody who owes the library a lot, I mean a LOT (dramatic sigh) of books.”

“Alexandra who? Can I have your last name?”

“Oh god it’s so EMBARRASSING. Do I HAVE to tell you???”

“Umm, okay, I’ll just see if she knows.”

A minute passes. I hear fumble fumble. Ellen gets on the line. “Oh, Alexandra, what are we going to do with you?”

“I knowwwwwwwwwwwww, it’s my annual Call of Shame. Once again,  I didn’t return like a jillion books. From last summer. And I’ve been doing this nonsense since I was a child. ”

“The problem is that I had to pay some of the other libraries in the system for the books you didn’t return…”

“Don’t worry, it’s not a problem. It’s just a number. Just tell me what I owe you and I’ll write the check. The gimongous yet hunormous check.”

“I just wish I didn’t have to charge you so much…”

“No, no, no, it’s all my fault. I bring this on myself. It will be good for my soul to do penance…It’s just that I get so afraid to call you.”

“I don’t know why you get so afraid.”

“I don’t either. It’s not as if I think you’re going to unhinge your jaws like a snake and eat my head. All you ever do is look at me with your big eyes and feel sorry for me and act really nice. Maybe that’s the hard part.”

She laughs. Nicely. Because she is so, so nice. I wonder if it would be better if she were cruel.


“I know it’s really complicated trying to figure out what I owe because I took books out from so many libraries in the system,” I say, “And now I gave you complicated work because that’s the kind of horrible, horrible book-not-returning person I am. So you don’t have to rush. Just tell me when you figure it out and I’ll get you the check right away.”

“Why don’t you tell me your cell phone number,” she says. “That way the information will be a little more . . . private.”

“You mean, so my husband won’t have to hear it?” I said. “You’re a genius, Ellen.” Of course, he’d see the check. But at least he wouldn’t be hearing whatever the horrible number was spoken OUT LOUD for his amusement. If he dares to be amused. Which might be the shortest and most tragic moment of amusement ever.

   “So—you’re never going to take out books from the library again, right?” the husband asks as I get off the phone.

   “Of course I’m not,” I say. “Don’t you think I ever learn ANYTHING?” Much as I said the same thing last year, right after signing the check of shame and delivering it into Ellen’s gentle hands.

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