The small, snuggly town was named Life Magazine’s #1 Place to Live in America a stunning seven years in a row. Maple Grove defined quaint, rural, and rustic. Its streets weren’t tree-lined; its trees were street-lined. Happy smiley faces everywhere, children and adults, a Ward, June, Wally, and Beaver behind every door.
Everyone knew everyone. The barber was the butcher’s uncle, the fireman was the baker’s brother, and the teacher was the student’s aunt. The children all played together in cheery harmony, the men tossed horseshoes behind old man Thompson’s barn, the women knitted colorful quilts for the fall festival, and everyone sang in the church choir. Maple Grove ran a close second to heaven itself.
The last known worry to darken its doorstep was the troubling disappearance of little Sally Brown’s kitten, Winky, in ’52. The entire town sprung into action as posters with the cuddly kitten’s likeness were distributed, search groups were organized, and a prayer chain was hastily stitched together in a dramatic effort to find the wayward Winky. Remarkably, in just three frantic hours, Winky was found sleeping in tall grass in the widow Jenkins’ backyard. The joyous celebration went on for three days, and the second week in July will forever be known as “Winky Week” by Town Board Proclamation.
But…beneath the placid surface, behind the carefree front, hidden away from all those happy faces, there lurked a dissatisfied soul, a restless mind, a troubled creature, cursed by a nagging event, insignificant to most but overwhelming for Herb- his fly in the ointment, the monkey wrench in the works, the pea under twenty mattresses- bearing the responsibility for a lost book. Time offered no remedy, a happy home life gave no solace, and monthly visits to his shrink in the big city hours away provided no cure. Confession is good for the soul.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned. My last confession was yesterday.”
“Yes Her…I mean, my son, and what are your sins?”
Groundhog Day for Herb and Father Mel. Breach of duty. Herb’s repeated baring of the soul seemed preferable to Javert’s hop into the Seine. Father Mel was a patient man, and he came to view their morning meetings with a touch of humor, treating each session as though it was the first.
Herb didn’t quite comprehend a priest’s ability to absolve sin. Most penitents restrict their spilling of wrongful deeds to those committed since their last confession while Herb kept reverting to ground zero no matter how many times Father Mel forgave him. He never left the church feeling completely exonerated, and he felt the sheer volume of pardons might finally relieve him of his burden.
“Well, Father, it was late in the day, near closing time. I was straightening up the checkout counter when this little boy appeared holding a copy of ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. He was a funny-looking kid, maybe nine or ten years old with disheveled red hair. He told me he wanted to check the book out, but that he had left his library card at home. He was crying because he promised his sick little sister he would start reading it to her that night. I felt…”
At this point, Herb always started to choke up.
“Go ahead, my son, continue.”
“I felt so bad for the little guy, and even though lending out a book without a card was strictly prohibited, I let him take it. He promised to come back the next day with his card…and…and…he never returned! He never brought his card in…and…the little bast…I mean, the little kid never brought the book back!"
“I’m not sure that was a sin, you know, the way we describe it, but…”
“Oh no, Father, this was a sin. I violated our policy. I knew the rules. In fact, I helped write the rules. What I did was very wrong.”
“Ok…if you say so. God forgives you. For your penance, say three Hail Marys, Two Our Fathers, and one Glory Be.”
“That’s what you’ve been giving me Father, and it doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe something a little stiffer this time?”
“Ok, double it, but that’s my final offer.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Herb’s wife, Martha, understood. She didn’t like it, but she understood. In all the years that had passed, she was the only one besides the good priest who learned the secret of the overdue library book. She knew Herb was an odd duck when she married him- punctual to a fault, organized to a curse, and detailed to a disorder- so the obsession with Huckleberry Finn, although a bit bewildering was not something totally unexpected.
Herb implemented many household rules that Martha saw as overcompensating for that error of omission so many years ago. Strick inventory was maintained on all the children’s clothing right down to their socks and underwear. Logs were kept at the front door chronicling the departures and arrivals of family members, and the children needed to sign for any recreational equipment to be taken off the premises.
Martha showed great tolerance, compassion, kindness, and empathy, for Herb’s peculiarities, and she never wavered in her willingness to assist her husband in his battle with his relentless demons.
“Herb, it was forty years ago. You have to let it go.”
“Herb, the cost of the book was a very tiny percentage of the town’s budget. The book was easily replaced so no real harm was done.”
“The book wasn’t that good anyway.”
“The book probably brought great happiness to the little boy and his dying sister. (She had no idea of the gravity of the girl’s illness, but ‘dying’ sounded more impactful than ‘sick’.) Better that than collecting dust on a shelf.”
In one desperate act, Martha resorted to an ill-conceived measure of deceit.
“Look, Herb! I found your missing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn behind some boxes in the school basement!”
The ploy was doomed when the keen-eyed Herb noticed the date of printing was fifteen years after the little red-headed rascal absconded with the book.
Reimbursement and replacement were nonstarters. Herb lent the book out without proper documentation. The book…that book needed to be returned. It was a Herculean struggle of conscience, the stuff that writers of tragic novels swoon over- a man so principled and dedicated to duty that even the smallest transgression disrupted his very existence.
Herb published notices in the Classifieds seeking the return of the book. He offered a reward. Many unscrupulous characters brought him a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he immediately spotted them as fakes as they lacked the iconic Maple Grove Library mark which he personally designed and affixed to every book that crossed his desk.
Herb attended every book swap meet within driving distance of Maple Grove in search of the purloined publication. He joined a record fifty-two book clubs and sent flyers to every second-hand bookstore and thrift shop in the Midwest. As the years went by, Herb stopped red-headed men on the street and studied their faces hoping to recognize a feature. It was all for naught.
To prevent a future mishap, Herb installed security cameras on the premise and required a photo ID for all checkouts. But the cow was out of the barn. Herb continued to perform his duties flawlessly, but a day did not go by that he didn’t wonder about the whereabouts of the missing book. Father Mel might have been in the business of forgiving him on a regular basis, but poor Herb couldn’t forgive himself.
Fifty years of near spotless performance, unequaled dedication to the task, the heartfelt appreciation of an entire community, all were to be celebrated at Herb’s retirement dinner. But the haunting image of the little red-headed boy walking out of the library with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tucked under his arm made Herb feel unworthy of the tribute.
“I’m going to decline the award, Martha.”
“I’m sure they’re planning on giving me some kind of an award at my big dinner, but I’m going to refuse to accept it.”
“Why? What are you talking about, Herb?”
“I don’t deserve it. I failed in my duty. I broke a sacred obligation to this town when I let that little red-haired demon walk off with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve confessed to Father Mel many times, but Saturday night I will come clean with the entire community. Truth is good for the soul. It’s the only way.”
Out of love for her husband, Martha kept her thoughts to herself.
The dinner was the biggest event in Maple Grove in a month of Sundays. Everyone who was anybody was there. Even the nobodies showed up. There wasn’t a soul in town who didn’t know Herb and hold him in high regard. They were all brought up on Herb’s books.
Father Mel gave the invocation, the children sang songs, the guests were treated to a scrumptious chicken dinner courtesy of farmer Thompson, and every woman in town happily watched the guests down their homemade desserts. Words of high praise were bestowed on Herb by a multitude of town officials, and finally, Herb was presented with a very official-looking Proclamation of Appreciation and a gold leaf bookmark. The entire crowd stood and cheered as Herb walked to the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemen…friends…I need to…”
A middle-aged man walked toward the raised dais. He was holding something in his hand.
“I have something else for you!”
Herb immediately noticed the red hair.
“When I saw the story in the paper about this banquet, I remembered something from a long time ago. I took out a book and never returned it. I dug through some old boxes in my attic, and I found it! I thought it would be a nice gesture to return it tonight.”
The curious crowd looked on as the man reached up and handed a book to the stunned honoree. Herb couldn’t believe his eyes. It was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the book he had agonized over for so many years. He held it in his hand like a precious stone as he recalled that late afternoon misstep, the sleepless nights, the terrible anguish he suffered for so many years. Martha’s eyes welled up with tears, and Father Mel made the Sign of the Cross as he had just witnessed a miracle.
“Thank you…I don’t know what to say. That was so thoughtful of you after all these years.”
“No problem. I’m the guilty party. I just wanted to settle things up.”
The man turned to return to his seat.
“Hold on, sir.”
Herb reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn sheet of paper.
“That gets the book back, but we still have the matter of the unpaid fines for the overdue book. According to my calculations, you have accumulated fines of $2,518.27. This isn’t over until you pay up.”
Martha and Father Mel both dropped their heads.