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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 then 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 entered. "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 passions 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, unbeknownst to mere men.
Excerpted from Hound by Vincent McCaffrey Copyright © 2009 by Vincent McCaffrey. Excerpted by permission of Small Beer Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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