Phillip Parotti

Last Rites

    In looking back, I feel certain that Hampton Hawes always intended to be the hero of his life.  Given that assumption, why he picked me to be his literary executor, I can't say.  At the time, I was new to the faculty, on probation during the period leading up to my tenure election; that situation offers, perhaps, the explanation.  New to the department, with the sword of Damocles poised over my head, I wasn't likely to refuse, and Hampton—Ham as he was known to his colleagues--knew it and settled on me for that reason.
    “Flynn,” he said to me over a morning coffee, “within a fortnight, my intention is to engage with my solicitor for the purpose of updating my will.  I should like to appoint you my literary executor.  Said duties promise to be mildly arduous but, one hopes, professionally invigorating.   Shouldn't think you'll experience so much as a spot of bother.  May I count upon you to accept?”
    I don't know whether the practice derived from his having taught the Edwardian novel for four decades, from his overly precious character, or from the fact that he simply cherished the sound of British expressions, but when speaking,  Ham used as much British vocabulary as he thought his auditors could bear.
    Considering the fact that I was only in the second year of my five year probation, I knew that I was caught.  Nevertheless, I tried to throw the hook.
    “Dr. Hawes,” I said, trying to make myself sound incompetent, “I don't know the first thing about being a literary executor.  I would fail you.”
    “Nonsense, old chap,” he said, throwing his head back.  “Anyone with your grasp of literature—a word he always pronounced as lit-TRA-chure—is sure to perform splendidly!  Piece of cake, really.  Light attention to copyright.  A keen eye kept to potential film or translation rights.  Some slight supervision of my biographer when a proper nominee sets to work.  Could be a muddle about one or two of my papers, one supposes, but I have arranged all publications, letters, records, and so forth with meticulous care, so your duties will call upon you to act as a mere gatekeeper to said biographer and whatever visiting scholars wende a pilgrimage to my door.  What!”
    “Who is your biographer?” I said.
     “I am narrowing a list of candidates,” Ham said, smoothing the petals of his bow tie.   “Finding the correct person is so very important.  One looks for a consummate stylist, of course, but biography demands so a sharp, analytical mind and such attention to detail that few candidates prove suitable.  Once I have made a choice, the name will be made known to you.”
    Unable to throw the hook,  I allowed myself to be landed. Hampton Hawes offered me a single European handshake to mark the moment.
    Two weeks later, wearing the same tweed suit that he had reputedly ordered from a London tailor—an event, I was told, that coincided with the beginning of the Korean War—and the same bow tie that I had seen him smooth on the day he asked me to act on his behalf,  Hampton Hawes  clutched his chest and slumped dead at the base of his podium before a class that had been struggling with Nostromo.  Without a family to mourn him, Ham died as he wished to, in harness.  A nephew,  the actual executor of his estate, drove down from San Francisco and took charge of the arrangements.
    “I'll give him this much,” the nephew said to me, “my uncle kept excellent records.  And in the will, his intentions are clear.  According to one provision, money has been set aside to pay his rent for the next two years.  The apparent intention is to afford his biographer surroundings and ample time in which to complete his work.”
    “And who might his biographer be?” I asked.
    The nephew, a man with a no nonsense attitude, said, “No idea.  You'd better ask his lawyer.”  And with that, the nephew departed and never returned.
    Two days later, I visited with Ham's lawyer for the sole purpose of asking about my responsibilities as his literary executor.  
    Chester Montrose had been around town for a long time, often attending to legal affairs  for members of the faculty.  On the day I visited with him, he was forthright.
    “I doubt that you are going to have a great deal to do,” he said.  “I've been to Dr. Hawes' apartment.  I suspect that you will be stunned by the order in which you will find his papers.  And while we're discussing it, here are his keys.”
    I took the keys.
    “In so far as I know,” Montrose said, “there's no outstanding business connected with his literary ventures.  Familiarize yourself with his papers, and then, I think that you can turn the keys over to his biographer and consult with her as you think necessary.”
    “Her?” I said.  “You have a name?  Dr. Hawes died before he informed me.”
    “Ever heard of Heather Crawley?” he asked.
    “Yes,” I said.  “She's written popular biographies of Byron, Keats, and a few others.  Last I heard she was doing something on Faulkner.”
    “I wouldn't know,” Montrose said, “but Hampton's last note to me said he had contacted a publisher who had contacted Ms. Crawley, so sooner or later, you'll hear from her.  When you do,  make whatever arrangements you think necessary.  I won't stand on your shoulders about this, but keep me informed.  When the work is done, according to the will, Hampton's papers are to be turned over to the university library for storage and preservation.  At that point,  also according to the will, you'll be released from your duties; final disposition of the papers is left to the discretion of the university's librarian.”
    I waited for the commencement of the Christmas break, and then, with time to study the materials under my care, I walked to Ham's apartment and unlocked the door.  Save for the fact that the cleaning lady had visited, everything in the apartment remained as Hampton had left it.  Décor and furniture seemed pure 1950s.  The carpets were of good quality, two of them Persian, none of them showing much wear.  A multitude of bookcases lined the walls, all of them filled with the sorts of books that college teachers could afford, paperbacks that would sell well in used book stores.  Here and there, one saw paintings,  most of them created by art students at the university.  Within that narrow range, Ham seemed to have been discriminating; the works were attractive without being original.  
    After satisfying my curiosity about the living room, I went into Ham's study, and there, finally, I received a jolt.  Montrose and the nephew had been right: Ham's papers were arranged in meticulous order.  Along a single wall, standing side by side, I counted eight four-drawer file cabinets with individual drawers carrying labels such as “Medical records,” “Army Records,” “Records, Graduate School,”  “University Contracts/Papers,” “Fracture Correspondence,” “Publication Correspondence,” “Fiction Manuscripts (Unpublished),” “Fiction Manuscripts (Published),” “Scholarly Essays (Published),” “Scholarly Essays (Unpublished),” and so on.  Along the back wall of the room, stacked floor to ceiling in uniform boxes, I found Ham's Income Tax records dating back to 1946, the year in which he had been discharged from the Army.  Along a third wall, another bookcase held multiple copies of the two published issues of Fracture which Ham had edited, the only issues ever to see light, as well as multiple copies of a 1958 monograph that Ham had published about Howards End.  On a second shelf, I found contributor's copies of some journals and little magazines in which Ham had published scholarly essays, short fiction, and poetry.  The remainder of the shelves were empty, as though waiting to be filled. 
    To satisfy my curiosity,  I opened a file drawer labeled “Poetry (Published).”  The drawer contained nine folders, each one holding draft manuscripts and revisions for an individual poem along with acceptance letters from the little magazines in which the poems had appeared.  I next opened a drawer labeled “Poetry (Unpublished)” and found it overflowing, and then, acting on instinct, I pulled out a drawer labeled “Publication Correspondence” only to discover dozens of  files crammed with hundreds of letters of rejection.  A sense of apprehension led me to repeat the search with regard to fiction, and there, I discovered that Ham had published a total of only eleven short stories whereas the drawers labeled “Fiction Manuscripts (Unpublished)” contained more than 322 individual manuscripts.  On impulse, I turned to the bookcase flanking Ham's desk and withdrew an issue of Fracture, the defunct literary magazine that he had founded and edited.  I don't suppose that it took me ten minutes to read through eight or nine of the poems with which he had opened the issue.  The poems were pedestrian, the lot, and I thought two or three of them were actually quite bad.  Mrs., Miss, or Ms. Crawley might think otherwise, and I felt relieved, knowing that final judgments could be left to her.
    Three days later, Ms. Crawley— a single, professional woman of middle age—telephoned me from Sacramento, told me that she was acting on behalf of Pebble and Mansfield Book Publishers, and asked if we could meet in Ham's apartment at some hour near the end of the week.  I put myself at her disposal, and we set a time.
    When we met on Saturday morning, I found Ms. Crawley, to be exactly what her voice on the telephone had conveyed, a serious writer with a professional approach to her work.
    “I make my living by writing books, Dr. Flynn,” she said, showing me a pair of penetrating eyes.  “Thus far, I've written five for Pebble and Mansfield, so after Dr. Hawes spoke with them, the senior editor contacted me and suggested that I might investigate the subject.  The eventuality, as you well know, developed sooner than anyone had a right to expect.  I'm sorry for it, but here I am.  Were you a particular friend of Dr. Hawes?
    “I couldn't say that,” I said.  “We were colleagues.  When Dr. Hawes approached me about doing this service, I wasn't in a position to decline.”
    “I see,” Heather said.  “Well, I'd like to drive here next week, put up in town, and spend several days going through his papers.  Let's call it a preliminary investigation to see if a biography is warranted.  I'd also like to meet with some of Dr. Hawes' other colleagues and any of his particular friends that you might be able to name.   I wonder, too,  if you might guide me around the town and the university so that I can absorb some of the atmosphere in which Dr. Hawes lived and moved?”
    “Of course,” I said.  “In so far as accommodations, nothing has been moved from the apartment, the linens are clean, the rent is paid, and if you wish to stay here where you can be close to your work, no one will interfere.   I'm authorized to lend you the keys.”
    “Most kind,” Ms. Crawley said.  “I accept the offer.  Now, if you don't mind, what can you tell me about Dr. Hawes?”  And with that, she removed a tape recorder from her bag.
    I hesitated.  Finally, I said,  “My knowledge of Ham is limited.   I know he was born in Wisconsin and grew up on a farm.  I think he also went to college there.  During the Second World War, I know that he was in the Army because I have heard him mention it, but in what capacity he served, I can't tell you.  Afterward, he went to graduate school in New York and came here in 1950 after the Korean War started.  He remained here, teaching freshman writing and the English novel, throughout his career.  I think his colleagues liked him, but as a department, we don't socialize much.  I served on a committee with Ham, and he made useful contributions.  I've been told that he had a kept a flat top haircut during his first decade on campus; during the Sixties, he apparently allowed his hair to grow out, and when he founded Fracture, he allowed it to grow toward something like British length.  With regard to speech, he affected British turns of phrase.  He used words like 'lift' for 'elevator' and 'beastly' for 'awful,' and he invariably referred to this place as his 'flat.'   I couldn't call him an imposing figure, but I liked the man, and I'm sorry that he is gone.  That's as much as I know.  I'm sorry; I don't suppose I've been very helpful.”
    “Yes you have,” Ms. Crawley said, switching off the recorder.  “You've given me a nice start.”
    “Let me hand you the keys,” I said, sensing that Heather Crawley was done with me and anxious to start work, “and then, you may come and go as you like.  Should you need anything, please call me, and when you are ready for a tour, I'll be happy to show you around.”
    I think Ms. Cralwy spent the remainder of that day with Ham's papers.  She returned a week later, calling me early on a Monday morning to let me know that she was in town.   And then, I didn't hear from her again until Friday evening when she telephoned to arrange our tour for the following day.
    “The work goes well?” I asked when I picked her up in front of Ham's apartment.
    “So so,” she said, not giving anything away.  “As you saw for yourself, there was an Everest of material to be climbed through.  Had Keats, Bradstreet, or Bret Hart left that much behind them, I might have had an easier life.”
    “Ah,” I said, and then, I pointed out the town's little theater which happened to be coming up on our right.
    “Hampton Hawes wrote and directed two one-act plays for that theater,” she said, “both of them in 1969.”
    My surprise was genuine.
    “They were not well received,” Heather said, her voice projecting an even tone.  “I read both, on Wednesday.  I'd guess the works failed because the habits of mind that Dr. Hawes attempted to dramatize looked back to the mid-1950s.  After the TET Offensive and My Lai,  that can't have been very convenient.”
    “No,” I said, “I don't suppose so.”
    With Main Street coming up, I began to point out restaurants, places of business, civic buildings that might reflect “local color,” and then, we drove up the hill to the college where I took Ms. Crawley on a walking tour of the campus.
    “It's a lovely setting,” she said as we strolled around the quadrangle.
    “Yes it is,” I said.  “I imagine that's why Ham chose to stay here, why he didn't move on to one of the larger schools.  In his day, I think he might easily have done.”
      “It might not have been as easy as you imagine,” said Ms. Crawley.  “In fact, he did try to get out, did try to move on.  He simply couldn't find any place to take him.  I think he counted on the Howards End monograph to raise him to the next level.  It didn't.  That must have been hard cheese, but there it is.  I've also had a look at his scholarly articles.  They don't add up to much.”
    “Trapped, was he?”
    “Academically, yes,” she said.  “I think he founded and edited Fracture in a last attempt to get out, and the magazine folded.”
    “Lack of funds?” I asked.
    “Lack of merit.  The magazine never had more than one hundred subscribers, although Dr. Hawes tried to make the numbers look better by including the two hundred other little magazines with which he arranged exchange subscriptions.”
    “Ah,” I said.  “To be honest, I read the first issue of Fracture before we met. I didn't want to predispose you by saying so, but my view reflects your own.”
    She stopped then, looked out across the quadrangle toward the administration building, exhaled a bit of air, and turned to face me.
    “Let's go back to the flat and talk turkey,” she said.
    “Fine,” I said, and in that moment, I think I knew what was coming.
    Seated in Ham's flat, facing one another across a low table and with a mug of coffee in each of our hands, neither of us felt anxious to begin, but we were adults and knew that we had to get on with our business.
    “You speak,” I said, “and I'll listen.”    
    “Right,” she said, putting down her mug.   “I'm sorry to say this, but I see no market for a biography about a moderately good man who lived a steady life with so little accomplishment.  If I set out to create rather than document character, I might find material for a novel about failed aspirations, but a biography of Hampton Hawes won't float, and that's what I am going to tell Pebble and Mansfield.”
    “I think I anticipated that,” I said.
    “On the subject of character,” Heather continued, “I've interviewed sixteen of Ham's colleagues, and there isn't a one of them who has been able to tell me any more about him than you told me when we first met.  To me, that makes him more an object of pity than high regard, and pity doesn't make good biography.”
    “I take your point,”  I said.
     “I think he tried,” she continued, “and I think he tried hard, but his talents proved wholly insufficient to support his aims.  Here and there, he scored a minor success.  A few of his poems were published; a few of his short stories were published.  He founded and edited, for one year, a literary magazine.  He wrote and produced two one-act plays, and he published—I think the number came to six—scholarly articles and a monograph which barely allowed him to hold his head up professionally.  As a teacher, he appears to have been average.”
    I nodded in affirmation. 
    “If you look at his early life, his life before he came here,” Heather continued, “the signs are clear.  Nothing that Hampton Hawes achieved in high school or college marked him for high achievement.  In academics, in sport, in civic activity,  he seems to have been a participant,  never a star.  He obtained an army commission on the strength of his college degree,  but he also spent the war in charge of an office of clerk typists at a supply depot in western Iowa.  No commendations, no overseas service, no adventures, no decorations. I wish to take nothing from such men who did their duty during the war, but their kind of service, no matter how necessary, hardly makes gripping biography.  
    “Understood,” I said.
    “With a man like Hawes, one might have hoped for a late bloomer,” Heather said, “so as I started through the records, I held hopes that Ham would finally break out in graduate school.  Nothing of the sort happened.  I've been through his transcripts, and from what I can tell, he seems to have struggled through graduate school on the basis of adequate but uninspired work.”
    Once more, I signified an affirmation.
    “Hampton Hawes excelled in one thing and one thing only, Flynn.  He kept better records and made more preparations for assisting a biographer than any person I have ever studied.  But I can't write the biography he intended, and I don't know who could.  The tragedy here is that his life was bland.”
    “The blessing,” I said, “is that he never knew it.  I'm guessing that he died with his illusions intact.”  And then, unable to stop myself, I said,  “The rest of us should be so lucky.”
    “Quite true,” she said.
    Four weeks later, I contacted the head librarian at the university, arranged for a mover, and saw Ham's papers transferred from his flat to the library where, until the catalogers and the archivists could take a look at them, they went into storage.
    Slowly, winter gave way to spring, and spring to summer.  During the summer, I spent several weeks in England researching some First World War diaries in preparation for writing an article.  When I returned. days before the commencement of the new academic year, the rush  involved in beginning the fall semester absorbed me.     
    And then, on an October morning, as I walked to my office from the parking lot behind the library,   I saw several university employees, all of them students, emerge from the building's lower level and move toward the dumpsters.  Each of those students pushed a heavy freight dolly stacked high with boxes.  As I watched the boys move their loads toward the rusting bins,  no more than a few seconds elapsed before I recognized the boxes as the same cartons into which the movers and I had packed the last remains of Hampton Hawes' life.

THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS

© 2015 by William Ray