by Vincent McCaffrey
From Hound, by Vincent McCaffrey.
Death was, after all, the way Henry made his living.
The books he sold were most often the recent property of people who had died. Book lovers never gave up the good ones without cause. But then, the books which people sold willingly were not the ones Henry really wanted. The monthly public library sales were stacked high with those—the usual titles for a dollar apiece, yesterday’s best sellers, last year’s hot topics.
But not always. Occasionally, some relative—often the child who never cared much for Dad’s preoccupation with medieval history or Mom’s obsession with old cookbooks—would drop the burden their parents had so selfishly placed upon them by dying, and there they would be, in great careless mounds on the folding tables in the library basement or conference room. Always dumped too quickly by a “volunteer” from the “friends” committee, with the old dust jackets tearing one against the other.
Like encounters with sin, Henry had occasions of luck at yard sales, though not often enough to waste a weekend which might better be spent at home reading. His favorite haunts were the estate auctions, and the best of these were the ones held at the very house where the old geezer had kicked the bucket. And there was always that thin network of friends who knew Henry was a bookman—who heard of book lots being sold and passed the word on. Albert, of course, had been a regular source for this, simply because his trash-removal business so often involved houses being sold where the books had accumulated over the years and the dead were recently departed.
Henry had spent the half hour since they had first arrived at the Blue Thorn talking about death. Albert had said nothing in response. He would not be provoked. Tim had busied himself counting receipts.
Henry studied Albert’s darker reflection next to his own pale face in the mirror across the bar. There was no visible reaction. Albert’s eyes were down on his glass. Henry knew that look from a thousand glances over a chessboard. That stolid brown face might not give much away, but his eyes were his weakness.
Henry pursued, “You know, the end might come too late for some people. They stay too long. All the good is over for them. With others, killing would be a kindness. I’ve seen them. Dying can be such an ignoble event. I go into their houses afterward. I see the decay of the things that once made them proud. No one really wants to die, I guess, until it’s past their time and all the dodging is over. Dying is just the final alternative.” Then he moved his thought at an angle, like an overlooked bishop from a neglected corner. “Maybe that’s what makes murder the solution to so many problems.”
Albert ordered a second pint before heaving an unhappy breath at the subject matter.
Tim wiped up the tale of the glass after he set the ale down, and then stopped, a frown of thought wrinkling his open forehead. Smaller than either Albert or Henry, he leaned over the bar between them, on his forearms, as if suddenly wanting to express a confidence. Henry looked down on the freckles scattered over the bald center of Tim’s head and thought of islands on a pink sea.
Tim tapped the counter in front of his nose with his crooked index finger. “My uncle Jerry died in an accident on the job. Steel beam caught him the wrong way. But get this. Only the day before, he called my Aunt Deirdre into the dining room and asked for a sheet of the special paper they kept for answering invitations and the like. Then he sits down and, out of the blue, he makes out his will. Even calls my cousin Frankie over to notarize it. Can you believe that? He must have had a premonition.”
The subject of death had only occurred to Henry because everyone seemed to be dropping dead lately—or nearly everyone. He had heard from his dad last week about Mrs. Levine, a childhood neighbor. She was a large-breasted woman Henry always pictured with half-framed glasses hanging on a silver chain around her neck—the glasses in constant danger of being swallowed in her cleavage. And then “little” Greg Dunne, who had run the Gulf station for as long as Henry could remember, had passed away the week before. People had been telling Greg to lose a hundred pounds or so for years. Now Henry’s favorite gas station was closed. Where else was he going to get gas when the book orders were light and he needed credit?
Finally, this morning, Henry had been awakened by a commotion downstairs as they carried away Mrs. Prowder, his landlady. Her arthritis had turned out to be more than just that. In any case, death did not seem like an uncalled-for line of thought while drinking with his friends.
Albert suddenly nudged him with his shoulder and spoke in a scold as Henry fought to keep his balance on the stool. “Mrs. Prowder wouldn’t hold with an attitude like yours, Henry. She knew her time was coming. There was no fear in her eyes. She just enjoyed each day’s chance to observe whatever came her way. She could see the pattern to things. She cared for the living and let death be damned.”
To Henry, Mrs. Prowder was now a piece fallen off the table, where the puzzle of his own life was already in disarray. He was being pushed. Shoved. Like a kid in the schoolyard. He was supposed to be more mature. Grown-up. Adult. Even though the slightly out-of-place, off-center, ill-fitting, everyday discomfort he had first felt as a kid in high school was still with him. He was getting close to forty, for Christ’s sake.
He looked at Albert in the mirror. “Jeez, that’s just like you, Albert. It all makes sense to you. Just a part of life, right? It’s like you have this root that goes down into the earth so deep you never get off balance. Why can’t I see it that way? To me it’s like something was stolen.”
He shut up at the whine in his own voice. But it was true. It was something that had gone missing. Something not where it belonged. What was the pattern to that? He’d spent twenty years trying to stay out of the shadow of the frickin’ Catholic Church and managed to run right into it again and again. Not that he was going religious. No. Not that. He had just turned around and noticed the empty space there behind him and wondered what the hell he was doing with his own life. Yes. It was as if he were living in a dream world. He played with his books and the years went by. And who cared, anyway? Did anybody actually read the stuff? They just collected it. Most of his clients were damned speculators. They didn’t love books, much less what they contained. What good was there in that? His old boss, Barbara, had it all over him on that score. The ones who really loved the books liked to browse, dip into a page here and there, and feel the cloth and smell the paper.
Henry heard the whine in his brain now.
His eye caught Albert’s in the mirror. His friend scanned the scene at the bar for anyone who might hear. The stools to either side had emptied since they arrived.
Albert spoke in a voice that barely reached Henry’s ear. “You remember Patty?”
Henry leaned in. “Your first wife, Patty?”
Albert adjusted himself on the stool. “I got word from her brother that she died last year.”
Henry put down his glass, his mouth open.
Tim moved in close again as well, already speaking. “Albert. You never said anything.”
Henry said, “I’m sorry.”
Albert shook his head. “I had nothing to tell. Alice knows. But I haven’t even told Danny and Junior yet. I don’t know how to tell them.”
Albert sat back on his stool now until the wood popped.
Henry asked, “What happened?”
With Henry’s face just over Tim’s shoulder in the mirror, Albert looked at Tim. “Drug overdose, probably. You don’t want the details. Let me say that .… But that’s not the point. I didn’t bring it up for that reason. Henry thinks I’m the Rock of Gibraltar. The big guy. He’s been coming to me like I’m his stand-in parish priest since we started playing chess together back in the seventies. I’ve always got all the answers, right?”
Henry studied his glass self-consciously.
Albert nudged him again. “He doesn’t remember. Back then it was different. Back then we used to argue politics all the time. I was angry at the world. I was blaming everybody else for what was happening to me. I was a piece of bad work. That was when I was with Patty.”
Henry said, “I remember,” and offered a smile.
Albert turned to him. “You remember. You remember holding me up when she left. You used to babysit Junior at five in the morning so I could do my rounds with the truck.” He wiggled a finger at Henry while looking again at Tim. “This man changed Junior’s stinking diapers. Junior still remembers when Henry walked him to school. …” Albert sat forward on his stool again, looking through the mirror, only at Henry now. “You want answers to things you don’t even have questions for, son. Hear me? And when I have a problem like that, I go ask Alice.… And she tells me to sit on it.”
Tim said, “Alice is a rock.”
Albert said, “Alice is the hard place.” But he let a smile slip after he said it.
There was more to it, though, for Henry. More even than the passing of Mrs. Prowder.
Henry had just gone to another auction the day before, this one in Connecticut. Mostly furniture, but a fine collection of books as well. He had missed out on several lots of mysteries—Hammetts and Chandlers and Cains. He seldom had that kind of money to spend anyway, but he had gotten what he could realistically have hoped for—three lots of lesser-known authors in dust jackets from the same period. The Mission-style table the books had been stacked on had sold for eight thousand dollars. Henry paid eight hundred for the books.
He should have been satisfied. Reasonably satisfied. Resigned, in any case. He could not easily dismiss from his mind seeing Dashiell Hammett hardcovers in that kind of condition. He had never even seen a first printing of The Glass Key in the dust jacket before, much less held it. But the three lots he had gotten were good enough. He was still busy convincing himself of that when he had gotten home the previous evening.
Mrs. Prowder leaned forward from her chair and looked out the open door of her apartment on the first floor as he passed in the hall, the white of her hair like a flag where it had come loose from the comb.
As always, she asked, “You were successful?”
She loved to hear reports of his adventures. She did not care so much for the accounting of books he had found as for descriptions of the homes he had been into and people he had seen.
He had answered, “Not as much as I hoped. Enough, I guess.”
She appeared to be tired. She had asked none of her usual questions, but said, “Don’t be discouraged. It’s more important to keep trying. Sometimes the success is hidden in things, and you only find it out later on.”
Henry’s mind had been on the books, and he was not sure he had even said good night to her. He would miss that.
“Miz Prowda,” as she always introduced herself, owned the narrow four-floor brick on Chestnut Street. It was just one in the row of close single-family town houses built while John Quincy Adams was still president. Henry liked the simple and unpretentious brick faces. They were classic now, but once they were only average in a time when averages were higher. Mrs. Prowder lived alone on the first floor and rented the rooms above to single men. Her door was always open—she had said that the first day—and it was, with a clear view of the front door and the stairs. She appeared to know everything that went on in the lives of her tenants and was not shy with her comments. She was a Yankee, with a touch of Down East in her voice and a no-nonsense approach to any subject.
No more than a week ago she had remarked, “Did Eliot and his acrobatic girl friend disturb you? He’s a lot healthier than he looks, isn’t he? I wish he was more considerate. He kept me awake all night.”
Eliot lived below Henry on the second floor, but thankfully he heard little of that.
Mr. Elwin Prowder had been dead for twenty years but lived on in continued anecdote as Mrs. Prowder compared observations of her tenants to incidents in her husband’s life. Those comments usually involved something small, like a better way to carry the boxes of books Henry was often moving in or out the door to the street where the inclined brick sidewalk passed the bottom of the steep granite steps. The week, years ago, when he first moved in, the comments had started.
Those steps could be a logistical challenge, with Henry’s van parked illegally to the side of the narrow street, blinkers on, and nowhere to leave the books in the close passage of the halls above. Every armload had to be carried all the way to his third-floor apartment.
She studied his frenzied unloading and spoke to him as he passed. “My Elwin would make a pile on the sidewalk first, hikers be damned.” Then, “My Elwin would put the smaller boxes down first so you can level out those stairs to one side and stack quite a bit all at once.” Then, “Once my Elwin used a straight-backed chair to carry up all my mother’s china to the attic after she passed. He put his belt through the slats and held the top rung like this against his back.” She demonstrated, her arm crooked over her opposite shoulder. This suggestion was ingenious, a kind of rigid backpack that might work for large boxes of books as well, and Henry decided to put a version of it to use on some later occasion.
A few years ago Mrs. Prowder had called to him from her chair as he came in the door. Her arthritis was keeping her from getting up that day, but she adjusted some white strands of hair over her ear in a gesture of civility.
“You know, a young man like yourself should be careful. When you hit your thirties you can get lonely without knowing it, because you’re working harder just to keep busy. I know you don’t have a girlfriend. You never go out on Saturday night. You go to the movies alone. If it wasn’t for that friend of yours—Albert, is that his name?—you’d never go out at all.… You know, once my Elwin was set upon by an older woman. She wasn’t as old as I am now. She was fifty or so, the wife of a State Street banker, and they lived just up the way near where the little grocery used to be on the corner of Revere Street. Elwin was a good-looking fellow, much like yourself. Much like yourself in many ways. Same chocolate hair. Always a little surprise in his eye over what the world was offering. And I was awful big just then with Mary, my youngest, and had to be careful. At that time…” She looked toward the window to find the thought. “Truman was having his hissy fit with MacArthur, I believe. Well, some women can just smell a man who hasn’t spent his passion lately. She came to see Elwin at his office. As you know, Elwin was a lawyer and had his office just down on Charles Street, where the liquor store is now. She stopped him in the street on the way to the grocery store to talk, and then she had him in for tea one Saturday afternoon so that he could look at some family papers. She was a marvel. Well, poor Elwin didn’t know what hit him. He was the guiltiest man I ever saw. All the while he was giving me more attention than I could handle. He was as sweet as a puppy. But I knew something was wrong. He started to whistle. Do you whistle? Elwin whistled when he had something on his mind. He was whistling up a storm for the short while it lasted.” Mrs. Prowder pursed her lips and blew a thin note that became a silent mime before she gave it up. “Well, then it all came out about two years later. There was a scandal. Mrs. Sears—oh, I shouldn’t be telling you her name, should I?” She paused with mischief in her eye. “Oh, well. Too late. Mrs. Sears was caught in bed with one of the grocers, by her own husband. It became a scandal because her husband immediately had the grocery shut down for a permit violation. The grocer fought back, and it got into the papers. I read the story to Elwin out of the newspaper over breakfast and saw him turn a shade of color. I knew my Elwin. It didn’t take long to get some details out of him.” She held up her hand like a traffic cop. “This is just a bit of caution. You have to watch out for older women. Especially at your age. They will have their way.”
This was all said to Henry with no real prompting. She could not have known he had been seeing Morgan Johnson. The Johnsons lived blocks away on Marlborough Street. In any case, he had only gone there to deliver the books Morgan purchased at the auctions. With Mrs. Prowder’s caution, Henry could not escape the thought that there was some hidden power possessed by older women—an ability to read a man’s mind—which was passed on through the generations and unbeknownst to mere men.
Sitting in the Blue Thorn, staring at their reflections in the mirror across the bar, Henry reviewed much of this in his head as he had done many times since the morning. Now there was the news of Patty. Poor Patty. Lost Patty.
He felt more than slightly maudlin and tried to shake it off by speaking up loudly. “A good pint of ale is worth living for.”
Tim shouted, “Hear, hear!” from a table where he was serving someone else.
Albert nudged Henry with his shoulder and spoke in lower tones. “All you need is a woman of your own. All you need is a hug, but I’m not about to give you one. Alice would object—” He stopped short and turned to Henry on the stool. Henry could feel Albert’s eyes directly on him. “Shit. This isn’t just about old Mrs. Prowder, is it ? Does all this have anything to do with a woman? Are you having problems with a woman again?”
Henry opened his mouth and let it hang as he tried to find the right words, knowing Albert would interpret them the way he wanted. “Morgan Johnson called me last night. She wants me to look at her husband’s books.”
Albert turned to the reflection in the mirror, then heaved another sigh. “You need a younger woman. At least pick on someone your own age. It’s healthier.”
Henry defended himself. “I’m just looking at the books.”
Albert said, “Then stay away from the books in the bedroom.”
The books he had purchased at the auction had cost Henry twice what he had wanted to spend, but then they were still worth a great deal more. He would just have to find a way to get his money back a little faster. There were several ways he could think of to accomplish that in how he presented the goods. He had played with this in his imagination as he unpacked them onto what would be called his kitchen table if he had a kitchen and not a kitchenette. He seldom used the space for eating, and his desk was already occupied with the remains of a previous batch.
He first organized the books in short stacks, faceup, directly below the ceiling light which illuminated the whole of his apartment. He could offer them as a group, as authors of the 1930s. Most were women, like Bess Streeter Aldrich, Vicki Baum, Dorothy Canfield, and Fanny Hurst. He could offer those separately as key figures in twentieth-century women’s literature. He could even ignore the content and offer some of them for their Deco dust jackets and design.
He had speculated about this into the late hours, recombining the blunt colors of the covers and the bold typography of the titles for the visual effect that might be most eye-catching on his web site, until he was interrupted by the ringing of his phone.
He had not even said hello before she spoke.
Her voice was just the same, as if he had spoken to her only the day before.
He managed to say, “Hello.”
Her voice lowered with recognition. “Hello.”
The moment was short, but many thoughts ran together.
“Morgan. How are you?”
She let one of her brief silences go by. She had always been good with silences. “Fine. A little lonely.”
He said the obvious. “I heard. I’m sorry.”
Her husband, Heber Johnson, had died some months before—was it in the early summer? Henry could not remember in the confusion of the moment. He seldom read the newspapers, and someone had told him after the fact. Heber had been eighty-four; once the most fearsome literary agent in Boston at a time when Boston bank money still financed the films made in Hollywood. A bullish figure in a silk suit and black felt fedora, Heber always had the ever-present cigar in hand, and by the late 1950s he had made the New York writers come to him. Even in his old age, his name had commanded respect. His authors were always published, because his authors always sold well.
She said again, “I’m fine.” And then, as if to convince him, “It was a long time coming. How are you?”
“The same. Of course. You sound good.” That was not what Henry meant to say. He added, “It’s good to hear your voice.” But she was not calling for a chat. “Tell me what I can do.”
She might be over sixty now. Henry had never known her age. Heber Johnson had married her when she was still in her early twenties.
She answered, “You can look at Heber’s books.… I’m not selling them. I’m donating them—to Boston University. But I need them appraised. Honestly appraised. Not to scam the insurance company or the IRS. I need to know what they’re really worth. A fellow from the university was over last week, and they have agreed to keep the collection together. It would be an appropriate memorial to Heber . And I hate those weaselly appraisers. The fellow from the auction house who looked at the furniture yesterday turned my stomach. He was practically begging for me to pay him off for a lower estimate so I could cheat on the estate taxes. You know how it is. …” He could hear a weary breath in the pause. “Sure, I’ll be taking a tax deduction. Certainly. But we haven’t been doing well for some time, so there isn’t a lot we need in the deductions department. You know Heber had gotten worse. He was bedridden for the last year.”
Henry told the lie. “No. I didn’t. I’m sorry.”
Of course he had known. Why hadn’t he called her? Why hadn’t he offered some moral support, at the least? But she let him get by with it.
“I don’t know exactly why it matters now. I just thought …” Her voice disappeared again.
He could not remember that voice ever sounding weak. The point was that she wanted his advice. She wanted his help, now.
He said, “If you need the money, you should sell them.” He had to say that much. He was pretty sure the money made no difference to her. He waited for her to answer.
Her voice lifted at the thought. “I don’t. Not really. I have some family problems to take care of—nothing I can’t handle. And my son Arthur is doing well. He’s made another film. He’s managed to stay off drugs and stay married, and he has two kids now. I’m a grandmother! How unlikely is that! And he wants me to come out there to live. I put the condo up for sale, and I’m going out to California officially for a visit. If I like it, I’ll stay. When I’ve paid all the bills and the government gets through with me, I’ll still have more than enough, I think.”
Henry had met the son once. More like his father than his mother.
“Okay. Sure. When do you want me to come over?”
Her voice regained the positive control he’d always admired. “Well, that’s the problem. I thought I had lots of time. But I received a good offer on the condo last week. That means I’ll have to be out of there a little sooner. With the holidays coming, it could be confusing if we wait till next month. I’m guessing it would be best done this coming week. Can you manage that?”
He could. Oddly, the first thought which occurred to him was that he should quit smoking immediately, so she would not be disappointed in him. The thought was broken by the sound of a voice in the background.
Henry said, “Where are you now?” His eyes went to the clock by his bed. It was after ten.
She answered, “In the house on the Cape. I haven’t stayed in Boston since Heber died.” But he could tell she was distracted by something else.
It was odd how things happen. He had even been thinking about Morgan at the auction that day. But then, he often thought of her.
He had first met her as Mrs. Johnson when he still worked for Barbara at the bookshop. Morgan had come into Alcott & Poe looking for “yards of books” to fill the shelves in Back Bay condominiums owned by people who did not read. Barbara ran the best used bookshop in Boston and understood the need to sell stock in quantity—she was always struggling with the Newbury Street rents—but she hated interior decorators. She called them “furniture dealers” and passed the job of helping Morgan off on him.
Henry had liked Morgan immediately for her forthrightness.
She directed him to “Skip the best sellers. I want copies of the good books by the midlist authors who earn a living, day in, year out, with their typewriters.”
Henry liked the arch of her eyebrow, which made her skepticism at some of his choices seem so obvious without a word. He had liked the agate green and brown of her eyes. She used them to see and not just look, and this had made him uncomfortable on a few occasions.
Morgan once asked him, “What kind of books do you keep at home?” after rejecting one of his recommendations.
He had fumbled for the right explanation. “Favorite authors—but only in editions I like. Reference books, of course.… I don’t collect, really. I don’t care much for the untouchable quality of first editions.”
She liked that answer and added, “An untouchable book is worthless. Who do you read? I bet what I’m looking for is exactly what you read.”
No. His habits were rather parochial, he knew. But that was that.
He had confessed his orthodoxy. “Mark Twain. Trollope. Yeats. Robert Graves.” Then he had told her hesitantly, “I’ve just begun to read all the Shakespeare plays, first to last . I’ve always meant to.”
She looked at him very seriously, as if her words should not be ignored. “You must read your Shakespeare out loud. It is the only way to understand the brilliance. There is music in the language that gives it meaning. You don’t want to miss that. Pretend you’re John Gielgud. If it drives your roommate crazy, find a new roommate. Shakespeare is more important.”
Like a teacher, he thought.
He defended himself too quickly. “I live alone, so that’s not a problem. I’ll give it a try. I’ve actually never thought to read it aloud.”
She had backed away then and looked at him from head to toe. “I’m surprised you live alone. You’re smart. You’re a very handsome man. You shave. I notice you bathe regularly. You stand up straight. You laugh at my little jokes. All you need is someone to show you how to dress . Go to London and live for a year. You’ll find a good English girl there who’ll fix your wardrobe right up.”
Morgan was a lean woman, arms slender with muscle showing instead of loose flesh. She stood very straight herself, almost soldierlike, he had thought before learning that her father had been a career naval officer. She was strong and enjoyed showing it, the same way Henry’s sister, Shelagh, used to rebuff his help. Morgan carried her own choices to the register, grasped in stacks between her sagging hands and raised chin. And there was always her voice—her voice so very sure of itself.
The very first day she had explained it all shamelessly. “These people I buy for don’t read. They are cretins. But I have to buy good books for them anyway. I have to make it appear that they have taste. I’ll give them credit for that. At least they want to appear civilized, and they have an idea what that looks like. So that’s my job. If I buy a lot of leather bindings, then everyone will know they’re phonies. They really want to be taken for what they are not. They want the books to look used and appear that they’ve been read, but in a condition that says they take care of them. These are not the intellectual slobs who hold a book with one hand while eating dinner with the other. These are people who buy five-thousand-dollar dresses to go out to fund-raisers for the poor, where they write a check for five hundred bucks so they can congratulate themselves on their generosity. … I’m sorry. I apologize for sounding so cynical. But I need your help. Who knows? Maybe some rainy day, they’ll read one of these books and it will change their lives—or at least make them want to read another. It’s possible.”
He had gotten to know her then, and on her repeat visits, but not well until several years later. After Henry had left Alcott & Poe and was selling books on his own, he had encountered her at an auction. Then it was like meeting a lost friend on the field of battle.
She immediately made her case. “Your old boss, Barbara, wouldn’t help me. She tried, but she doesn’t think like you. She started picking out a bunch of classics. I tried to tell her how that would look artificial. I think she took it the wrong way. So now I’m out here trying to buy books just like you.”
In fact, she had not really been looking for the same kind of lots. He had no use for the common good books. He only wanted the unusual and uncommon things he could sell in his catalogue to other book dealers. When she started showing up at one of the larger auctions in Northampton, they sat together. They began having dinner together after previewing the lots and before the actual auctions began. The auctions were held at the old hotel there, and often ran late.
It was on a rainy night in January, when Henry had worried out loud about driving back to Boston on icing roads, that she had simply stated the fact.
She said, “I’m staying put. I’ve rented a room. And I think it would be very nice if you would stay as well.” With her eyes fixed on his own.
Because of her style, the way she walked, the words she used, he had assumed she had come from old wealth.
He had known people born and raised in wealth all his life. It was the nature of his hometown, divided as it was between the Village and South Brookline. Growing up in Brookline meant that he had been in the homes of the rich with friends from high school long before he was a book dealer. And more importantly, he had seen their books. Henry had observed their indulgences and divided them into two types. There were the ones who reacted against their breeding by becoming rude and arrogant slouchers, who assumed too much and expected everything. Morgan was the other type.
She wore clothes he thought were high fashion until a remark he made about a green dress he liked, when he had learned it had been bought in Paris almost twenty years before. She wore jewelry, a diamond ring which had belonged to her grandmother, and sometimes her mother’s favorite pearl necklace. She wore no perfumes, but he could not forget the scent of her for days after they had been together.
It was an odd and disquieting relationship, which had only lasted a year. He never really saw her in Boston, but often at the auctions. When she ended it, she had done it in the kindest way.
“I love you. You’re a foolish book hound to have gotten involved with an old bitch like me. You’re really too innocent for a man your age. But my first love is my husband. I’ve been selfish enough. Being unfaithful has been a little harder on me than I thought it would.… I’m not saying that to make you feel guilty. This was my doing. I needed you more than you needed me. But it has gotten to be more than I can handle.”
Her husband needed her care. He had suffered another stroke. He was incontinent. They had not slept in the same room for years because of his coughing and fitfulness at night, but Heber needed her to be there now.
In fact, it was Henry who had been wrought with guilt.
He had never really thought about marriage. He had, in fact, purposely avoided thinking much about it. His life was simple and peaceful, and he had liked it that way. He had been in love before—passionately enough to want to be with someone all the time. He had survived those experiences—though he was not really sure he had survived his relationship with Barbara yet. He was still feeling like an escaped prisoner who might be tracked down.
Now he had been responsible for the unfaithfulness of another man’s wife. He could not excuse himself for acting out of love. Not love as he wanted it to be. He certainly liked Morgan more than any woman he had met since Barbara. He liked being with her. And he enjoyed her—like a dessert, he thought. One could live without dessert. One should not break moral codes for the pleasure of dessert.
But his feelings for Morgan had been new to him. He might have loved her if she had wanted him to. She was an extraordinary woman. But she had never allowed any real intimacy beyond the physical. She had kept the greater part of her life separate from him, seldom speaking of it more than was necessary. And he was happy to have her companionship. He had not spent time with a woman since leaving Alcott & Poe.
Unfortunately, they had too little time together. She was always rushed. He never saw her when he delivered the books at her apartment building—only Fred, the useless superintendent, who stood and watched while holding the door—except for the last time, when her son, Arthur, had been there visiting and had helped Henry unload. Arthur had been inquisitive about his mother’s new profession. Henry had said little and played the part of delivery boy.
Henry drove to the auctions in his rusting blue Ford van, arrived early, and examined each lot in the preview carefully, taking notes even on things he knew he would not buy, if only just to learn a little more about them. Morgan arrived in her Jaguar with little time left, walked around the room at a steady pace, and took no notes. It was completely a matter of first sight with her.
At dinner they spoke about films or books they liked, or some gossip she had heard about an author. She enjoyed gossip. She seemed to have read everyone. These were untold stories, some she had witnessed, and others from her husband, about writers and other agents and publishers. He had suggested more than once that she should write a book of her own.
Her opinions were far more defined than his, and always had the sound of finality.
Once, she surprised him with “Updike will be forgotten within a few years of his inevitably overblown obituary notices. The term ‘a writer’s writer’ really means he holds little interest for the general public, and I don’t even think the high-lit types really like him. For a writer so proud of his stylistic control, he seems to have a limited idea of what he’s writing about.”
Henry had read no more than a few short stories by Updike and had little luck over the years selling his work. His own judgments were more practical. Because he had not really gone to college, beyond a few night classes at Northeastern, he had never taken any stock in those authors who were the darlings of academia. And over time he had found, without exception, that the writers he was most passionate about were also the ones he sold most easily.
Another time she said, “Who’s good?” And he had answered without thinking, because it was the book he was reading then.
“Nick Tosches. Have you read him? He’s very good. Edgy.”
“Difficult man,” she answered. “I’ve met him.”
This had sparked him. “The good ones are all difficult, aren’t they? Each in their own way. But they’re difficult for a reason. Tom Wolfe. Harlan Ellison. They’re not alike. They’re fighting for their lives. Everything is FDA-approved now. Homogenized. Pasteurized.”
To Henry’s bewilderment, Morgan found this kind of off-the-cuff criticism enchanting. She seldom argued with his pronouncements, especially after encouraging him to talk about the authors he read and to explain the reasons he liked them. To entertain her—to see the curve of amusement in her eyes—he stretched his opinion in hyperbolic flares of dissatisfaction with the current state of literary affairs, making high crime out of lapses in creative effort, and capital offense from a waste of talent.
One night he had brought a bellman to their door because he had spoken too loudly for too long. “Where is our Dickens? Where is our Trollope? What challenge is there to investing supernatural powers in an automobile when the world is in need of explanations and our religions have failed to answer? Where are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky when the dating habits of an air-head sell in the millions? What pleasure is there in a Cold War fantasy about the life and death struggle of a cardboard spy when the intrigue and game of our time needs a Dumas and the upheaval of history cries for a Victor Hugo? Why are we cursed with mediocrity and obsessed with the dissection of literary mice just as we stand on the doorstep of the stars?”
He could bring the smile to a laugh if he worked at it long enough.
At first she appeared surprised that there was a rationale beyond the accepted judgments of the literary establishment. She took his homegrown opinions as interesting vernacular aberrations—even cute. Why was Kipling so underrated and James so favored by the critics? Why was Thornton Wilder so often ignored? Was it impossible to overrate Mark Twain?
Once when they were together, he had stood up on the mattress above her and posed with his hands in the air as if holding an imaginary book to the light.
Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun
That will not be deep-search’d with saucy looks,
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others’ books.
He had said it to show off his attention to her sincere advice of long ago. He had finished his set of the Yale Shakespeare and had already begun rereading the ones he liked best. Love’s Labour’s Lost had become his favorite. He should have been embarrassed at his poor delivery, but she sat up from the bed, one hand extended dramatically toward him, and hardly missed the beat.
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights
That give a name to every fixed star
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
He took her hand and kissed it. She was so much brighter than he was ever going to be.
His anger had brought him to his knees then. “Then why read? Why care about them? What does it matter what they write? Isn’t it just for the little pieces of the puzzle that might be found there? For the little pleasure of another voice? Why do books matter at all? If the godfather’s only search is for fame, what does it matter what name they give the stars? It’s all a waste of time. We’re better off wallowing naked in the grass by day and huddling in caves at night. The light of a television is more than enough to have sex by.”
But she had picked up the quote again. “‘How well he’s read, to reason against reading!’”
He was astonished, as he often was. “It’s only wonder, not reason. I’m in awe. I lie on my bed at night and read as if my life depended on it. And it does, even if it’s a mundane life—but I’m talking about what goes on in my head. It doesn’t matter whether it makes me laugh or cry, so long as it fascinates me. It doesn’t even matter if I agree with what the author is saying, so long as I can talk back. There is no conversation with most of them. It’s all one way. ‘Now listen here. Hear me, and shut up!’ But with the good ones, I lie there and wonder at all the things the words have made me think about that I never would have imagined before. I’ve even thought —once, when I was reading a book by Joseph Conrad, The End of the Tether, I think; a dark little story—and suddenly he said something. I can’t remember the line exactly, but the old captain sits down with his Bible—no, his dead wife’s Bible, with his finger in the leaves, but closed and held on his knee, and begins to remember her.… I had just done that. The very same thing. I had just been reading Yeats and stopped to hear my own mother’s voice in my head. It’s like having a conversation with someone without the rush of time.”
Soon enough, she became intrigued by his explanations, and then fascinated with the connections she could see between Henry’s dismissal of New York literary judgment and her husband’s dislikes for the people for whom he worked.
She often quoted her husband’s words. She called the literary establishment “The Self-Obsessed” because Heber did, and Henry adopted the term as his own. She held her own opinions as only that—opinion—subjective personal reactions. She never defended them afterward and wasted little time in explanation.
Once she told him that, inexplicably, Heber had always liked Westerns, but she had never developed a taste for them. Henry, who had been introduced to Western fiction by his buddy Albert, tried to convince her to read a few of his favorites, which finally she did, and admitted reluctantly she liked them. Soon he had her reading Elmer Kelton novels, and Clair Huffaker and Jack Schaefer. He had even persuaded her to read Owen Wister’s The Virginian, and then she wanted to talk about it all night, like a girl with a crush. She had a way of suddenly seeming very young.
She had said, “It’s a better world they’re in. It’s a world of men and women and right and wrong. It’s so civilized. It makes me want to cry.”
It interested him when it came out that she seldom saw any manuscripts for Westerns these days—probably because so few Western movies were being made.
“Hollywood matters,” she answered. “What’s good for Hollywood is good for America. The books are not bought for themselves, but because of what they can be used for.”
Morgan Brown had started working for Heber Johnson as a reader soon after getting her master’s in literature at Boston University. She had worked as his assistant for the rest of his life. It had only been in the last ten years, as Heber’s schedule slowed down, that she began to look for other work.
“I really hated being an agent. I hated making decisions about people’s lives. Heber depended too much on me. If I said no, he said no. I never negotiated any deals. I just made the decision that made the negotiations necessary. I think Heber started hating the authors, though he never said so. It wasn’t like the way I feel about the people who own the homes I decorate. That’s more disdain, not hate. Heber simply didn’t want to read the work of his clients anymore, with all the complaining and the moneygrubbing afterward. He would get them a hundred thousand dollars more than they had ever made in their lives, and they would whine about his fifteen percent. Their greed colored his view of them.”
Then her face had changed with an urgency, as if she had not said all that she meant and to get it right mattered. “But Heber hated the publishers who encouraged it all even more. ‘It’s all about the money,’ he said. They could be marketing breakfast cereal. They all used nice words to the feature reporters to explain how they loved books and the romance of publishing and then turned around to their desks and signed another author who could churn out thrillers by the half dozen, or a self-help book which just happened to be like one already on the best-seller list, all the while some sap in Poughkeepsie slaves away at night trying to write the next great American novel, never knowing there is no chance in hell it will ever get published without passing muster in the marketing department—you know, the marketing department: where they tell him that the woman Raskolnikov kills has to be young so the story will appeal to the right demographic.”
Her voice had wavered with the kind of passion he wanted to hear. He could feel it in his spine when she broke through the reserve and her words came more quickly. She paused as if to contain the memory, but could not. “Though I seldom saw all that. I always loved the other part—not talking with the authors—just reading their work when it was still new and no one but they and I knew yet how wonderful it was … or how bad. …” She took a breath, and then another, and the words slowed again. “When he stopped negotiating as often, I had less to read. Getting into a new line of work was natural. And you know, we had moved so often over the years. New York. Beverly Hills. Back to Boston. We even lived in Vermont for two years. I had decorated at least twelve homes just for ourselves. It was the only other thing I knew about. And it has paid so well since.”
Henry knew, from very early on, that theirs was not a permanent relationship. But he had ignored the thought. The kind of matter-of-fact affair he had with Morgan seemed almost perfect to him. Until it was over.
The end had been unexpected. Her announcement had come one morning, after little sleep and much talk. He was not sure he truly understood then, even as she drove away.
Afterward, he endured the first bout of depression he had ever known. He had not wanted to get out of bed in the morning, and was too tired to read at night. His appetite for food disappeared. He stopped going to the Blue Thorn and nursed his bottled beer at home. Albert had shown up at Chestnut Street several times—spending more time talking to Mrs. Prowder than to Henry.
Gently mocking, Mrs. Prowder had frowned at Henry as he passed. “You are getting too thin. And you are smoking again. I thought you had given up that nasty habit. You need to find yourself a good Italian girl … I know that Lisa, who works at the Finnian’s Drug Store. She’s a pharmacist. Very pretty. Very patient. She puts up with me well enough. You must have noticed her. She was dating a doctor, but that’s over. …”
In time, Henry had solved the problem with a daily walk from Beacon Hill to the Blue Thorn in Inman Square, and a liberal application of fresh ale. He had begun to smoke again, and lingered longer at the book sales.
But the thought had occurred to him often since, that he was living an apparently pointless life. Morgan had gone back to caring for her husband, after years of being instrumental in the publishing of the very books Henry sold—and he would continue selling them, making a basic living with just enough left over for gas.
What did he do that could not be done by others? The pleasure he felt before in his job was suddenly ephemeral. He liked to think he had some hand in preserving good literature for future generations. A high cause. But this sounded better than it felt. He never blamed his depression directly on his loss of Morgan. He had always thought of her as a catalyst.
From Hound, by Vincent McCaffrey, published in hardcover and ebook in September 2009.