Jewish World Review Dec. XX, 2003 / XX Kislev, 5764
Winner Takes All one for the books
By Libby Lazewnik
My usual day is Friday, right after school. This time, I went on Thursday instead, as I'd finished last week's stack of books and didn't think I could survive a whole night with nothing to read.
As my best friend, Tzippy, was walking home with me, she came along.
"How many are you planning to take?" she asked, as the pile of books in my arms grew taller. "It'll take you a year to read all of that!"
"Only a week," I said calmly. I picked up another book and began reading the flap.
Tzippy is not a reader. In fact, she doesn't even own a library card. It suddenly occurred to me that here was a golden opportunity to get her interested. My eyes searched the shelves, looking for something to tempt her.
I plucked a book out, glanced at it briefly with a smile, then held it out to her. "This book is fantastic, Tzippy. I must've read it six times already. Why don't you try it?"
"Oh, you know me. I'm not into reading..." But her eyes strayed curiously to the cover.
The flap material was exciting enough, and I was persuasive enough, to make her relent at last. "All right, I'll give it a whirl," she laughed. "You'll have to borrow it for me on your card, though. I don't have one."
"Why not?" I asked, leading the way to the front desk with my books five in all.
She shrugged. "Never got around to it, I guess." She waited while the librarian checked out our books. Before we left the building, I handed Tzippy hers. "Remember, this has to be returned by the due date. Otherwise, there's a penalty to pay."
She tucked the book into her backpack, and we started for home.
The weight of the books in my arm was pleasurable, as if I were carrying a sealed treasure-box. I couldn't wait to get home and open the box to inspect the goodies that lay inside...
We reached my house first. "Guess I'll come in for a while," Tzippy said. That's the kind of friends we were no formal invitations necessary. I smiled at the idea, opened the door, and ushered her in. The living room was peaceful for a change. I soon realized the reason for this: My four younger brothers were out back, enjoying the lingering sunshine of this spring day to play ball.
"Mind if I dip into a book?" I asked Tzippy, sinking onto the couch. "Just for a minute. This one looks really good..."
She said it was okay with her. "In fact, I'll check out my book, too!" She went to the front door, where she'd dumped her backpack, and pulled out the book. She came back holding it gingerly, as though it might bite. Seating herself in the armchair, she began by reading the flap again. Then she studied the dedication and acknowledgments. Finally, she cautiously opened to the first page and began to read.
I watched her a moment, smiling to myself. When I saw her well and truly absorbed, I turned with a sigh of satisfaction to my own book.
For a time, peace reigned supreme.
I'd reached Chapter Three when the back door burst open and my brothers poured in. Instantly, our peace was shattered. The boys chased each other, scuffling and laughing, through the living room. With another kind of sigh, this time, I closed my book. Tzippy did the same.
"Come on, Tzip," I said. "Let's go to the kitchen and have a fruit or something." The mention of any other kind of snack, I knew, would have ensured us the pleasure of my brothers' eager company. I put my book down with the others, and Tzippy left hers on the arm of her chair. Hastily, we made for the relative quiet of the kitchen.
My mother was working late tonight, and dinner was simmering in a crock-pot on the counter. Tzippy and I peeled oranges, chatting as we ate. Then we went up to my room, where we chatted some more. The windows were becoming glazed with darkness when Tzippy, with a glance at the clock, announced that she had better get home.
We picked our way around the boys, who were now sprawled across the living-room floor, playing board games. The noise was less intense, but the mess of playing pieces and toy money and other game paraphernalia more than made up for it. At the front door, Tzippy retrieved her backpack, and we said good-bye.
As I made my way to the couch to retrieve my library books and school bag, one of my brothers asked when Ma was coming home, another asked when was dinner, and a third and fourth began squabbling over whose turn it was. Clutching my things, escaped up the stairs to my room.
In a moment, I was lost in my book again. Some time later, a boyish clamor from downstairs told me that Ma was back. I hurried to set the table for supper.
We weren't the only ones. The lure of free books is something, apparently, that few readers can resist. I certainly couldn't. I walked up and down the crowded aisles, trying not to knock down the precarious piles of old books heaped everywhere. One by one, I found ones that I wanted some old favorites, other new and promising prospects.
My brothers, with Ma's help, all found books for their various age levels. Daddy, who works as an accountant, even found some books on finance that he was interested in reading. All in all, we did very well. It was hard to stagger out under the weight of all the books we selected. The back of the minivan was piled high with them as we left to have the ice-cream we'd decided to treat ourselves to.
It was, I decided happily as I licked my cone, one of the best Sunday outings we'd had in a long time. Even sweeter than the ice-cream I was eating was the prospect of curling up with the zillions (well, almost) of books I'd found.
With such a wealth of reading material to keep me busy, my library books took a definite back seat. I'd already finished three of them by that Sunday; now I skimmed the other two and then asked my mother if she'd mind dropping them off at the library for me, at her convenience.
"I'm not planning to visit the library again this week, or anytime soon," I laughed. "Not with that stack of books I just brought home!"
"How long do you think it'll take you to read them all, Gila?" one of my brothers asked teasingly. My whole family knows what a fast reader I am. "Two days, or three?"
As it turned out, it took six weeks.
It was on another Sunday, exactly six weeks after our visit to the bookstore, that I closed the last book. That'll give you an idea of how many of them I'd taken.
Tomorrow, I planned, I'd stop in at the library on my way home from school. The free books had been fun, while they lasted. Now it was back to my old routine. I found myself looking forward to it.
But the only feeling I had when I stood in front of the librarian's desk the next afternoon was dismay.
"Overdue?" I echoed, bewildered. "But I haven't been here in ages! And my mother returned the last batch I borrowed.
I'm sure of it!"
She pointed at her computer screen. "There's only one book that's overdue. It should have been returned three weeks ago."
She read me the title.
My face grew even blanker. "But I didn't even take out that book! I read it a million times last year, but not " Suddenly, I broke off. "Wait a second. That's the book my friend borrowed, on my card!"
The librarian looked at me disapprovingly over her half-glasses.
"You should never let books be borrowed on your card unless you're sure you can trust the person to return them on time."
"I did trust her..."
"Well," she sniffed, "I'd suggest you speak to your friend. I'm sorry, but I can't let you take out any more books while the fine for this one remains unpaid."
With that, she turned her back on the pile of books I'd so eagerly selected, leaving me standing there with my jaw hanging open.
Regretfully, I left my pile on the checkout desk and left the building.
Tzippy hadn't walked home with me today because she'd had an appointment at the dentist's. With rising impatience, I paced the house until I figured she'd be home. I snatched the phone and dialed the number that was as familiar to me as my own.
"Hi, Tzippy! It's Gila. Listen, there's a problem. You never returned that book to the library."
"You know the one you borrowed on my card, that time you came to the library with me? Remember you started reading it my house?"
"Oh... yeah. Now I remember! What ever happened to that book?"
"That," I said with growing irritation, "is what I'm asking you."
"Let me see..." I could picture Tzippy closing her eyes, thinking back. "I was reading it in that chair in your living room... Then your brothers came storming in... Yes! I remember now. I left it on the arm of the chair. Didn't you see it there?"
"No! Why'd you leave it there, anyway? Why didn't you take it with you when you left?"
"On my way home, I realized that I'd forgotten to take it.
But, to tell you the truth, I wasn't so crazy about reading it in the first place. I figured you'd return it along with your other books. I meant to say something to you the next day, but I forgot."
"That was irresponsible of you, Tzippy. You should have returned that book yourself, or at least given it to me and asked me to return with mine. Now we have no idea where the books is and you owe the library a three-week's over due fine!"
Tzippy began to sound upset. "What do you mean, I owe? I left the book in your house, for you to return. I didn't lose that book!"
At the words, 'lose that book,' I realized that the problem was more serious than I'd thought. A missing book could cost a fortune to replace. "I'm going to see if I can find it," I said grimly. "Then we'll talk."
"There's nothing to talk about." Her tone was stiff. I hung up without answering.
A quick search of my bedroom revealed what I'd already known: Tzippy's book wasn't there. I hurried down to the living room. The book wasn't on any of the shelves, or behind the couch. At last, on a hunch, I pushed back the easy chair in which Tzippy had been reading that day. Voila!
There lay the book. It had apparently been knocked off the arm of the chair probably by one of my brothers in the course of a heedless game and then kicked under the arm-chair, where it had been resting peacefully until now.
I rushed back to the phone. "Tzippy? I found it. Thank goodness, at least you won't have to pay for the whole book. Now, if you'll just "
"Just a second," Tzippy interrupted. "You don't seem to get it, Gila. I'm not the one who has to pay for the overdue book. I left it in your house, for you to return. I'm not the one who left it lying around for weeks!"
"Are you kidding?" I screeched. "I borrowed that book on my card, as a favor to you! I didn't want it for myself. I've read it a million times. It was your book, and it's your responsibility to pay!"
"I don't agree. And I'm not paying." Tzippy can be stubborn when she thinks she's right.
"You have to pay." So can I.
I drew a long breath, and forced myself to speak calmly.
"Look, Tzippy. What's the big deal? Twenty-one days, at twenty cents a day, comes to just four dollars and twenty cents. That's not a lot of money."
"It's the principle of the thing. I don't owe the library anything, so why should I pay?"
The argument was going nowhere. "Look," I said between gritted teeth. "I'm going to ask my father what he thinks. You do the same. Then get back to me, okay?"
Grudgingly, she said, "Okay," and hung up.
My father, when I told him about it, was thoughtful. "It's really not a good idea to let other people borrow books on your card, Gila. It can lead to problems."
I sighed. "I know that now. But isn't it Tzippy's responsibility to pay, Daddy?"
"I think that the issue is not a hundred percent clear, either way. She left the book here in good conscience, and in clear view, expecting you to return it. Of course, she would have been better off handing it to you and asking you to return it... but she still left it here in good faith.
"On the other hand, you let her use your library card in good faith, too, and you never saw the book she'd left because it had been kicked under the chair, through no fault of either of yours. Tzippy forgot to tell you about the book she'd left and you forgot that you'd taken an extra book out on your card."
"So what's the verdict? Who's in the right here?"
"I'd suggest," Daddy said, "that the two of you work it out between you."
And that, when I finally heard from Tzippy later, was pretty much what her father had said, too.
"Well, fine," I said. "Let's work it out. You pay for the book."
"No, you pay for it!"
We were both good and steamed up by now. We each clung to the "principle of the thing", determined not to give in. This was War winner takes all! We hung up on each other again, and I stomped up to my room to brood.
I took out my "piggy bank", which is not a pig at all but rather a heart-shaped box that once held chocolates but now guards my hard-earned babysitting dollars. Being just 12, I've only just started babysitting, and each job is precious. I figured rapidly in my head: At four dollars an hour, $4.20 represented an hour and twelve minutes. An hour and twelve minutes spent feeding the Reichner baby his cereal and then cleaning it up when he spit it out again; an hour and twelve minutes spent chasing the Schwartz twins around the house and thinking up ways to keep them from fighting; an hour and twelve minutes telling interminable bedtime stories to the Greenberg girls, and waiting in vain for their eyelids to start drooping.
So money was an issue. But there was an even more important one here. There was my pride. Call it self-respect, if you want. I didn't think I'd done anything wrong, and I did believe that it had been Tzippy who'd been negligent here. I refused to pay her fine for her and then go on our merry way, as though none of this had happened.
I went to bed that night in a state of righteous indignation. It was hard for me to fall asleep, though partly because of my fight with Tzippy, and partly because I had nothing to read....
In school, I began to feel the effects of our fight. Tzippy and I sat next to one another but did not exchange a word. At recess, a cold cloud seemed to envelop her, and I know there was a similar one around me.
Shabbes (Sabbath) was the worst. On that day, I was used to spending all of my free time with Tzippy. I spent this one alone.
On Monday, a week after my futile attempt to get Tzippy to pay the library fine, I found myself staring bleakly at myself in the mirror. Life felt empty. My mother had let me use her card to take out some library books, but for the first time in years I didn't feel like reading. I didn't feel like doing much of anything, these days. What was the point?
I had an urge to pick up the phone and call Tzippy. My finger literally trembled as I imagined doing it. But what would
I say to her?
I forced myself to remember my hard-earned money an hour and twelve minutes' worth.
I held fast to my pride.
Wearily, I climbed into bed, and fell asleep almost at once. Sometime in the middle of the night, I came suddenly wide awake.
Everything was so still that I could hear the house creaking and moaning to itself as it tried to settle down. My mind was still, too, not caught up in its usual round of thoughts. Quiet wrapped me up, outside and in. And, in that stillness, I had a flash of clarity.
What I realized was this:
I had my hard-earned money. That's one.
I had my pride. That's two.
But I didn't have my friend. So I didn't have much at all.
Take two, subtract everything that really counts... and you're left with a big, fat zero. A simple equation... But then, I'd never been very good with numbers.
"I owe an overdue fine on a book," I told the librarian (a different one, this time). I gave her the title, and my library card.
She scanned the card and looked at the page that flashed onto the computer screen.
"Oh, that's already been paid," she told me sunnily. "There are no charges listed here."
I blinked. "But but that's impossible. I owed three - no, make that four weeks' worth. And I know I didn't pay it yet!"
"Well, then," she said, "Somebody else must have." She smiled at me, then transferred the smile to something, or someone, over my shoulder.
There stood Tzippy, just inside the library door, looking embarrassed and pleased at the same time. When she saw me looking at her, she came forward.
"I was just about to leave," she said. "My mother's waiting in the car."
"You you paid the fine?"
She nodded, looking down. "Uh-huh."
"But I just came in here to do that!"
She looked up with a grin. "Sorry. Beat you to the punch."
I stood there, looking at her, and not knowing what to say.
She said it for me. "Want a ride home?"
"Sure," I said gratefully.
We passed through the library doors together. As we left, I glanced back. I don't know which was brighter that librarian's smile, or the stab of joy in my own heart.
It didn't matter, either way. The important thing was, I had my friend back.
And so, I had everything.
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© 2003, Yated Ne'eman