THE WHOLE UGLY incident began with an attempt to return an overdue library book, which is never pleasant, let's face it.
There was a time in this country when such a chore would not lead to a full-blown inquisition, but apparently those days are over.
In any event, as soon as I handed the book to the former prison camp commandant behind the desk, her face seemed to harden.
"This book is overdue," she said icily.
This was not news to me and yet I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of contrition, particularly when she picked up a wooden ruler and began tapping it softly against her knuckles.
"Forgive me, Your Worship," I said. "Uh, how much is the fine?"
"Seventy-five cents," she said, in a voice implying that anything less than a horse-whipping was incredibly lenient.
I paid the 75 cents, all the while keeping an eye on that ruler. She had not yet begun to wave it bolo-style over her head, but I figured it was just a matter of time.
Suddenly, as I was about to leave, the woman let out a soft gasp.
"Did you draw this little beard?!" she demanded.
Sure enough, someone had drawn a beard on the author's picture on the back inside flap of the dust jacket.
It was a pretty neat beard, too, thick and full, like the beards the Smith Brothers wear on the box of cough drops. But I couldn't take any credit for it.
"What about the sunglasses?" she said.
"Beg your pardon?"
"The sunglasses! Somebody drew little sunglasses on the author, too."
By now a small crowd had formed behind me. People were murmuring and giving me hard looks.
Let's face it, nobody likes a book de-facer in their midst. You want to see a mob pick up flaming torches and go on a rampage, point out some poor fool at your local library and scream: "There's the guy who drew those breasts on Lincoln!"
In fact, I kept waiting for someone to loop a length of rope over a ceiling beam and shout: "Let's string 'im up right here!"
"I didn't draw the sunglasses, either!" I said. "Honest!"
The librarian looked at me the way you would at a roach walking across your cheesecake.
"I hope that's true," she said at last.
Now before we go any deeper into this dreck, let me say this.
There was a time in my life -- I'm not proud of this -- when the idea of drawing little beards and sunglasses in books was not completely unfamiliar.
This time was known as high school. Most of my friends outgrew the compulsion to deface books by the time they reached fifth grade, but with me it took considerably longer for some reason.
Back then, if you handed me an illustrated collection of stories by, oh, Harriet Beecher Stowe, I'd go to work decorating the characters with mustaches, beards, sunglasses, cigars stuck in
their mouths . . . the whole nine yards.
jTC Oh, the shrinks would have a field day with that one.
The shrinks would probably say that anyone doodling in an illustrated book of Harriet Beecher Stowe stories is secretly trying to fill the emptiness in his life.
Personally, I think I was just bored. Although you never know. One time in metal shop class, our assignment was to make a brass candle holder. Instead, I made a blowgun with three metal-tipped darts accurate up to about 15 feet. That tells you something right there.
The point is that any defacing I might have done took place many years ago, at a time when I was young and impressionable and -- this goes without saying -- incredibly stupid.
Since then -- and I would swear this on a stack of Bibles, although unfortunately there are none around now -- I have defaced no books or periodicals.
All this I explained to the librarian, as the crowd behind me grew even more surly and impatient.
For a moment, she seemed lost in thought. This is a favorite trick of angry librarians. They lull you into thinking they're preoccupied, and then suddenly lunge at you with the ruler, hoping to pluck out an eyeball or sever an artery.
"All right," she said at last.
"Am I free to go, Your Worship?"
She nodded her head. I sprinted for the exit, although not before overhearing that the guy in line behind me had actually lost his book.
You could almost hear that ruler whistling overhead.