Harold and the Ashes
Julie replied, “I like simplistic thumbnail sketches. Ron was a nerdy kid who was brutalized and humiliated in a hillbilly Kentucky town. In response, he had a need to show the world something. The world didn’t cooperate. As failure on all fronts loomed, he got a fast car and drove desperately. Finally, he killed himself and his wife.”
That produced a moment of silence. Howie then said, “I was the one who suggested the toilet solution for the ashes. That was after I asked Tim if he could remember anything good about his father, and Tim couldn’t.”
“I can see the reasoning. However, I had a more complete view of Ron, and, Tim willing, Sharon and her guardian have deputized me to deal with the ashes. Is that okay?”
Tim had no objection, and gave Julie the fairly large cardboard box with the ashes. He also found an old book bag with handles to carry it.
That settled, Audrey said to Julie, “Things are coming together amazingly. I gather you were the father’s lover, and Tim’s mother’s lover has also popped up.”
“Yes. When I visited Sharon and Doris, we talked about this man, Harold, the owner of the bookstore. I met him about six months ago.”
Tim found himself newly surprised, and asked for details.
“When Ron’s private detective found out about his wife’s trysts, he was intensely jealous, and also curious. So I said I’d go around and buy a book and get an impression.”
Audrey replied, “I met him at the funeral, but he was totally broken up, so I didn’t learn much.”
“I was browsing in the store, and opened Gore Vidal’s book on Abraham Lincoln. I’m apparently descended from Mary Todd Lincoln, who was a bit of a disaster, so I was looking to see what Gore said about her. Harold came up to chat, and, when I explained, he said I shouldn’t disown an ancestress without reading at least three books about her. He was rather fun, and I stayed a while. But, of course, I had to tell Ron that he was gay and only interested in females for companionship. As a general thing, I lie with reasonable plausibility, but I don’t think Ron believed me.”
Tim replied, “Since I missed the funeral, I wouldn’t mind meeting Harold.”
“Let’s go together. For the sake of symmetry, I should at least think about seducing Harold. But I don’t want to be pushy, and you can help me break the ice.”
Amid laughter, Tim agreed.
It wasn’t easy to park in the North End of Boston, but Julie, wedging in between two cars, was able to push one back into the car behind it, thus creating space. This was a maneuver Tim hadn’t seen before, and, enjoying it, he replied, “If the person in the car behind is here when we come back, we can claim that the car in front pushed us back.”
“I’ll be outraged that anyone could do such a thing.”
As they approached the store, Julie said, “I bet this is the first time in history that a son and his dead father’s lover have visited his dead mother’s lover.”
“Could be. Are we going to just poke around for a while or tell him right off?”
“Intuition will guide us.”
The store, a fairly large one, had an incredible number of books from floor to ceiling in every direction. Tim could tell that they were mostly pretty good books grouped under little signs mirroring the various academic departments. There seemed to be three people working, a young man and woman who were obviously assistants, and a man about forty five, a little rounded and of medium height. He reminded Tim of his freshman chemistry lecturer. That man had delighted in creating multi-colored explosions in front of the class, but it looked as if an explosion here would set off a conflagration.
Julie didn’t seem to be thinking in those terms, and went up to the older man to ask, “You are Harold, aren’t you?”
When he assented, she replied, “I’m the descendant of Mary Todd Lincoln who consulted you. You advised not to disown her without having read at least three books.”
Harold laughed, clearly remembering the incident. At that moment, Tim realized that Julie was really quite a pretty lady with big green eyes, a lithe body, prominent breasts, and interesting facial expressions. It wasn’t surprising that a man would remember her. She then exploded her bomb. “There’s also something else. This is Tim, Susan Hastings’ son, and I’m his father’s former lover.”
Tim was quick, breaking Harold’s fall as he staggered back and tripped over a stack of books lying on the floor. He wound up in a sitting position on top of scattered Regency novels, and was actually speechless for a few seconds. As Tim helped him up, Harold said,
“According to the philosopher, Bradley, time is one damned thing after another. Won’t you come back to my living quarters for some tea?”
As they assented, Harold waved to the young woman assistant, asking her to take over for a bit.
The sitting room behind the store was quite pleasant with big old-fashioned windows and furniture that looked as if it had been in the family a while. There was a sideboard with tea and coffee things, and a hot-plate. When Harold bumbled a bit, Julie moved to take over. Tim suspected that his mother had done exactly the same thing. As she filled the pot, Julie said, “Tim and his friends were thinking of putting Ron’s ashes down the toilet.”
Harold, smiling for the first time, said, “I’ll help them!”
“Of course, I have somewhat different feelings. I wasn’t in love with Ron, and there was certainly a financial motive on my part. But he was mostly good to me, and he has left me a lot of money. I would have continued with him, at least unless and until I found someone who really excited me.”
“I had an intense hatred of him. Now more than ever, if you can hate the dead.”
“Sure. You and Tim have some common ground. I did realize his shortcomings, and I knew he wasn’t good to his wife and family. I did try to get him to do some things in that area. If, for no other reason, I didn’t want to have to listen to his complaints.”
“He complained about Susan?”
“Often. He knew she was with you a lot, and he was intensely jealous.”
“How did he know?”
“Private detective. That was when I came to your store. I told him you were gay even though I knew you weren’t.”
“I hardly know what to think.”
“I’m a manipulator. I hardly know how I’d manage if I weren’t. Tim, on the other hand, doesn’t have to manipulate anyone. Neither does Sharon.”
“Susan was very proud of you, Tim. Also of Sharon. She wanted us to meet, but she thought it would be unfair to put the burden of knowing me on you. Of course, she could have brought you unknowingly to the store, but she thought that would be sneaky. She may have hoped that you’d find your own way here.”
“I might well have. I like old bookstores, and I’ve heard of yours. It’s just that, without a car, I don’t get far from Harvard Square.”
“I might logically be located there, except that I think of myself as a bookseller to amateur, rather than professional, scholars.”
Julie asked why, and Harold replied, “In the past, graduate students in history, of which I was one, were trained to be archive rats, seldom seeing the light of day. The emphasis was on exhaustive searches, and such searches are no fun. These days, a lot can be done on the internet, but it’s still rather depressing. My idea is to set someone up with the memoir of a fascinating person from the past, something long out of print, and let the reader get to know the memoirist and his or her life and times.”
“That’s attractive. I’m not about to delve deep into the stacks of a massive library, but I’d be happy to take a book home and relax with it after work.”
It seemed to Tim that he was himself an amateur at heart, both in football and in scholarship.
When they left, Julie said to him, “We’ve got the ashes in the car, and I’ve got an idea.”
“Oh-oh. I’m beginning to think that some of your ideas may be dangerous.”
“Never! Anyhow, one of your father’s complaints against your mother was that she didn’t help him rise socially.”
“I never heard anything like that.”
“You know, people at one end of the social scale think the people at the other end are all the same. When he married your mother, he was under the impression that she knew all kinds of important people who’d invite him to their houses and give his firm business.”
“I guess she was fairly well connected, but she didn’t have the least interest in people like that. We just saw the kind of person she liked.”
“Sure. There was a massive failure of communication, but also great frustration on his part. We can fix that.”
“After he’s dead?”
“There’s a posh cemetery near here where all the kinds of people he wanted to chum with are buried. We can just tool up there in my little car and scatter his ashes among them.”
Tim started laughing, and couldn’t stop. He then got hiccups which wouldn’t go away. But that didn’t prevent the scattering of ashes in the snow that had just begun to fall.