Arlington (“Arlee”) St. John was a rotten book collector. He was, too, a rotten man but to his credit he kept that aspect well hidden ‘from the average’ as he called them. He did this ‘well hidden’ best by shadowing his local Maine village “the Boiled Dinner Set” (his title). He did this shadowing wearing crisp, clean. locally pressed... aged... and very worn at the collar... Oxford cloth... button down collar ...old... all cotton... made in USA... by a “They are well known” for their collar roll... shirts.
First off... I am not bothered by rot or... ‘rotten’. It is, to me, a foundation aspect of my antiquarian... love.
As for Arlee’s old shirts, his ‘housekeeper’ (of forty-two years) gave me “all of them”; a large lump of... some washed, some not washed and... none ironed ‘his old shirts’ “To use as rags you want them?”
“Of course I want them.” I said and... took them, still have them and... have yet to use them as ‘rags’. I don’t know what to do with them. Yet. I have them all on one plastic hanger... hanging up in one of the sheds... on our property... on the coast of Maine.
“HE” the ‘housekeeper’ said “NEVER bought a new shirt after he moved UP HERE (1969). JUST WORN OUT these old shirts he brought with him UP HERE. I’d SAY ‘TIME TO GET SOME NEW ONES’ and he’d just shy me away. That man kept a firm grip on his money I tell you I was lucky to HAVE SHOES from him so I let his old shirts alone for the most part. I’d IRON DOWN the (worn) collars. You can have those reversed I told him; double the life but THAT TOO cost him his money and he kept a tight fist to that. I stopped my mention of his shirts TWENTY YEARS ago and I’m proud to be alive to say that to you.”
“He was a rotten man.” I said.
“Now I don’t say that about him. I can’t.”
“How about ‘he was a rotten book collector’?
“I’ve never tried that.”
“You don’t have to try. It’s the truth.”
“Well I just thought you should LOOK at his old books. He always TALKS of you about his old books you know. I mean ‘did talk’. ‘WHEN I’M DEAD’ he’d say ‘HE’S THE ONE WHO WILL KNOW’ his old BOOKS he always SAYS.”
“Yeah well I KNOW his books alright and HE knew I KNOW’D them more than HE ever know’d them and HE KNOW’D too that I KNOW’D THEM be ROTTEN BOOKS. And he know’d I know’d he be a ROTTEN book collector TOO.”
“He said to me that ‘SO MUCH’ would be that but you’s still SEE ME STRAIGHT. On them old BOOKS of his.”
“You won’t need doing MUCH if you LISTEN RIGHT.”
“Right mind you I AM so say it out STRAIGHT. HOW do I EVER rid this HOUSE of ‘em.”
“Being YOUR house now ain’t it.”
“It’s being SETTLED.”
“NOT the biggest house of dreams IS IT.”
“He bought it TOO with his fist clenched TIGHT. I remember seeing him do that then. I said I’d be the ONE in there THAT DAY for he be... in this house... just up across from Mama’s and she’d CRY if I’d move away any further. She’s dead now and I want THIS simple place and WE GIRLS will SELL HER’S NOW (the mother’s old house). Now if I can get his OLD BOOKS BE GONE I’ll have ALL that SHELVES to put my ‘Nicky’s’ (her life time collection of knick-knack ...junk) on”.
“You’s a rich woman I hear.”
“WHO hear you?”
“I hear they say you OWN HIS BANK”.
“Don’t you TELL MOTHER. I’d did MY TIME FAIR AND SQUARE. Now it be just me and my Nicky’s. HE, himself, said he’d be BOILED DINNER one day and HE IS THAT this day. I know you know THAT TOO. He boiled your dinner TOO I know. That’s why I trust you with these Damny Books.
“Damny Books”? You know him?”
“I know him TOO. He PINCHED ME. When I was SEVENTEEN. On my BIRTHDAY he did that; PINCH ME. Damny... is a NASTY MAN.
“He pinched you?”
“Pinched MY TIT”.
“That’s not what I said to him. MY HAND SET HIS FACE RED. Mama: She throw’d the STOVE WATER on HIM. “DAMNY: YOU GO” she told him. Five years later I started here for Mister St. John. I’ve been that way ever since. No one can say I haven’t.