Amnesty at Last

Originally published in Truffle Magazine.

Short story

Paula Doyle was headed to her neighborhood branch of the New York Public Library to return the book she’d held onto since 1983. Periodically, the New York City Public Libraries offered such amnesty days, when they’d waive the late fees on books to get back more of what belonged to them.

 

Paula was not the kind of person to keep a book so long. Well, she wasn’t until she realized that was precisely the kind of person she had become. This was something she had come to terms with. The book had hidden in the bottom of a cabinet behind her photo albums and her costume wig for that one role she had, so it was easy enough to move through her apartment and never remember that part of herself. In fact, she’d had to look hard for it on this amnesty day, so hard that it was already four PM, and she didn’t know how much longer she had.

 

Her apartment hadn’t always been a wreck. Her search for the book exacerbated it, sure, but she realized that she’d begun to live among her things, preserving relics for the lives she had not led.

 

She’d checked out the book on a lark, inspired by the call from her agent that she had an audition for a minor role in a Christmas movie. It was her first audition. Ecstatic, she went out for a bodega coffee, bacon egg and cheese and walked her city. She ended up at the library and checked out Housekeeping. Her older sister Kathleen had recommended it. Kathleen was a reader, a librarian herself, and she was always sharing book recommendations that Paula ignored. But now Paula would be the person who followed up with her sister. Paula would be the person who cinched the audition and ascended to fame. 

 

She spent days practicing her line. The role would have her sell the child protagonist a bus ticket, smacking gum in her mouth behind the glass partition. In her apartment, she chewed and chewed wads of cinnamon Trident, pacing, checking the leaves of all her plants for signs of over or under-watering.

 

She passed the audition. She toasted with her friends. She reported for shooting and saw herself on the big screen, blushing when she thought other theatergoers might realize, that was her! In the theater! The movie was quoted, referenced every which way. It became a cult classic, and her moment counted among its most memorable.

 

She waited for another call. In the meantime, the book had never been returned, never been opened. She couldn’t be a failed actress and face the librarian. So she held onto it for the time being. Soon she would have a plan in mind.

 

Now, the plan was to return the book before the library closed. It was Saturday, co-ed day at the Russian Turkish Baths. She knew which days of the week to look for gay couples, pink-cheeked at her diners and bodegas afterwards. At an intersection, clouds plumed from an orange and white steam tube, and Paula realized she’d gone all day without eating, so concerned with her search for the book. Bacon egg and cheese, that was the ticket. Her bodega was the only place that still had some at this hour. She dug in her pockets, in her pocketbook for change and only came up with a wadded dollar bill.

 

There was a CVS across the way. When her time came to cross, she darted ahead of the other pedestrians, weaving through plastic bags carried on the city’s breath.

 

She went straight to the register. There was no line. Today was her day! She snatched the first pack of gum she found and slapped her debit card on the counter.

 

“I need cash back.”

 

The cashier indicated the screen, so Paula tapped the button for forty dollars. The register cranked out a receipt, unspooling its mind onto the paper. The cashier caught the tail and folded the length into itself as it sputtered more and more. It was longer than Paula by the time he handed it to her, reading the top coupon. “You got the good one.” He held it to Paula’s face. Ten bucks back, she had, indeed, gotten the good one.

 

Stepping outside, she scanned the rest of the receipt to see if she could rip away any of its length. As wind fluttered its tail, she decided to keep it intact. It was really something, perhaps the longest receipt she’d ever received. 

 

On the news, she had read about a woman receiving a love letter from eighty years prior. The city tittered and found the children of its addressee. Perhaps this receipt would be the next New York thing, what would get her in the news, laughing alongside Savannah Guthrie in the morning. Maybe they’d recognize her and ask her to reprise her line from the Christmas movie, Where to, kid? 

 

Holding the receipt between her fingers, she unwrapped the pack of gum. Another gust of wind coursed down the haunches of the buildings and onto Paula. It snatched her receipt. The paper slithered in the wind, in syncopation, then twirling, nose-diving, rising up again along unseen parabolas. Paula realized she was running after it. She conjured the line.

 

Stop that receipt!

 

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a receipt!

 

Paula followed it for three blocks, but the wind was too strong, the receipt had risen too high. As if it heard her contemplating surrender, it vanished over the top of a building.

 

Paula spun on her heels to face the wind, pressing against the plastic bags and condom wrappers that were joining the throng.

 

The last time the New York Public Library system had held an amnesty day, Paula had had every intention of sliding Housekeeping across the counter with a meek apology. By a twist of fate, that day she heard about an open audition for a New York “Neighborhood Lady,” a tertiary character on a sitcom. She lined up first thing, the book in her bag. She would head straight to Tompkins Square and the library after. But the line never assented. She waited until an intern disbanded the crowded. She got pancakes at a diner and held onto the book to stick it to the man. 

 

But today she needed to let it go. She needed to know that she could let it go. Because her sister had visited her apartment and gaped at the clutter, said, Maybe you could get on a hoarding show. Because maybe someday somebody else would actually read this book that had only ever been an artifact in her home. Because maybe the air inside her cabinets would shift when she set it free.

 

She would make it. She felt herself making good time. It was one of those days when she knew exactly when and where to cross the street to maximize efficiency. The wind seemed to tow her along. The universe had sided with Paula and her endeavor to make good on her promises. On a breeze, she’d ride the magic receipt to the library, hopping off to dart in before closing.

 

When she arrived, the door wouldn’t give. She yanked each one. She checked her watch, 5:02. She thrust the book on the bench, assessing it. Maybe she could drop it in the slot and they’d honor the amnesty promise. Maybe she could leave it on the bench, claim it stolen.

 

She scooped up the book and dropped it in her purse. Cutting through the park, she eyed the gay couples clustered on the lawn.

 

If they knew her well enough from outside the Russian Turkish Baths, if they thought to watch her vanish down the block, they’d see her billow into her bodega, hope against hope that they still had what she wanted.