ONCE my mother’s fine for overdue library books came to a grand total of, I think, something like $179.00. This was in spite of a year of my constant nagging about the Notices, which kept piling up on the kitchen table by the salt and pepper shakers. Having that pile meant I could never go to the Leroy Street branch of the library, near Hudson—my favorite, since although it was at least twenty blocks from home was also right next to the Leroy Street Pool.
It meant, too, that we were becoming criminals, as the edges of the notices transmuted from a cowardly yellow to a violent red. We would never be able to pay such a sum. We were doomed to life in the shadows.
Then she had a brilliant inspiration: we would say the books were lost and pay the actual, lesser, cost of replacing the books. This would make us liars, but somehow respectable liars. Not the cheapest solution for me, since I was called upon to lend her the money from the dollars I had slowly accumulated walking a fat old Schnauzer named Otto after school for a fashion editor who lived right off Sheridan Square. It was now July and my funds were somewhat stagnated since Otto and his mistress were away for the summer. However, my mother’s logic was irresistible and I agreed to participate in her scheme.
At last, $37.50 the poorer but happy, I was once again able to go swimming and to the library, hair dripping chlorine onto long oak tables, releasing fumes of furniture polish and Waterman’s ink. It was a bit tricky, combining swimming and reading. I worried that my sandaled feet still reeked of the disinfectant that we had to wade through on our way to and from the open-air pool, and it was often hard to concentrate with my head still aching from the wall of noise created by dozens of wildly thrashing kids jammed together in the tepid and not altogether clean water.
The pool was usually wall-to-wall kids, splashing and jumping and groping. Sometimes you got touched at a place on your body that made you jump in surprise. The hot, wet poolside concrete smelled of cigarette butts when you tried to lie by the edge of the water and get a tan, and the little pebbles they mixed in it to make it less slippery left tiny pockmarks all over your calves and thighs and back. It was a pleasurable kind of pain, to lie on that hot, wet, rough cement and inhale the tobacco-y perfume of the teenagers who had just moved on.
In the library, afterwards, when the chlorine had dried on your skin and hair and the late afternoon light came in through the high transom windows, there was no rush to be anywhere else.
And there was always a book you hadn’t read yet. There always would be, probably.