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Mr. and Mrs. Hougart; Real Books; An interesting look at the stars.

Mr. Hougart was almost a relic of the past. When he and his wife had students over to visit, they put out colorful fabric napkins, even if they were just serving ice-cream. They had been at Standish for almost 50 years, during which time Mr. Hougart, known to his peers as Jay, had taught every course in secondary English at one time or another. Eventually he settled on indoctrinating only the first and fourth years. “I am your Alpha and your Omega,” he told freshman who were lucky enough to be placed in his Rhetoric and Composition course. “If you make an A in this course you are automatically guaranteed a spot in the storytelling workshop three years from now. That is a year long course, as this will be. My expectations of you are great, because I expect great things from you.” He was a god of sorts to students, honored summer after summer during alumni reunion weekends.

The Hougart residence sat at the base of the JV boys lacrosse field, a short walk from campus. Originally built in 1821, it was home to several generations of a farming family that had once owned some of the property Standish now occupied. Great pains had been taken to preserve the historical nature of the house, though it contained some modern amenities. Plumbing added in 1915. Triple paned glass windows in 2022. Mrs. Hougart planted bulbs every fall along the front walk, and in the spring their explosion of color attracted many a Photography 101 student.

Inside, young visitors stared in wonder at the walls, every available space of which was covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In the back of the house, the smallest bedroom had been converted to Mr. Hougart’s study, where the very best of their books were kept behind glass, along with his music, which was mostly vinyl. An ancient stereo sound system with waist-high wooden speakers sat on either side of his plain desk opposite a low couch with a thick glass coffee table. His advisees through the years shared a special education in classical music that was not part of the regular curriculum.

The books themselves were the envy of many institutional libraries, such that Mrs. Hougart’s alma mater, where she now taught Post-Colonial Literature, had attempted to secure them in trust as part of her tenure. Instead, the couple had decided to leave them with Standish, as they had traditionally been an amplification of the school’s own library, especially for Mr. Hougart’s students, who were required to go beyond the typical level of research for their papers, that is to say, beyond the Web. “Digital sources,” he was found of saying, “count as 3/5ths of a printed source, so you do the math.” It was all part of his elaborate scheme to woo students to his own library, where he instilled a love for real books and guided their research with the Hougart collection. In the living room there was an antique secretary desk with a rubber stamp and due date cards, which Mr. Hougart used with much official pomp and ceremony to lend the book out. “Now Chace, that book is worth $500 on today’s market, so don’t damage it. I would hate to have to send a bill to your parents.” New books were after all, hideously expensive, especially considering their carbon costs. Most of the Hougart collection was grandfathered in. The couple enjoyed antiquing in the summer months, which was code for buying other used grandfathered books. Recently, the school had their library appraised for a small fortune, the Standish Examiner reported. When the time was right, they would be added to a new room in the school library; preliminary design details were being worked out over the winter break by Jay Hougart himself, at this very moment at his desk.

“Time will tell,” he said as he erased part of the sketch he was toying with and redrew the placement of the central study table. Outside his office window, fresh snow was thick on the frozen flower boxes. It had stopped falling only an hour ago. He should go out and brush them off, he thought. Rising from his desk, joints popping, he walked stiffly to the door, and down the hall to the kitchen, where he found his wife sitting at the table wearing her robe and fuzzy moccasins. She was waiting for the tea kettle to boil and reading a book. An Irish Setter lay near her feet, sprawled across the dark green and black slate, his nose touching a burgundy tile. In the corner of the kitchen, a modern efficiency cast-iron stove made crinkling sounds as the gravity fed dispenser rotated and dropped a few more wood pellets into the fire box. “I thought I’d go wipe off the flower boxes,” Jay said to his wife as he sat in a chair across from her to tie his boots. “You want to go out, Bailey?” The dog raised his head half-heartedly, not wanting to leave the warmth of the kitchen, or his mother’s side.

Laura Hougart finished the paragraph she was reading and slipped a silk bookmark between the pages. The kettle began to sing. “Careful not to slip,” she said, rising to tend to her tea. “Would you like a cup of cocoa?”

“That would be nice,” Jay said as he finished knotting his second boot. “All right Bailey, let’s go.” The dog continued to look mournfully at him. “Come on, pup.”

“Bailey,” Laura said, not even looking at the dog. “Listen to your father.” Without hesitation the dog stood and was by Jay’s side.

“Now you listen,” Jay said, scratching behind the dog’s ears.

“Don’t forget your parka,” Laura said.

“Yes, dear.”

Outside, Jay braced himself for the cold against his face, his breath steaming in front of him as he and Bailey crunched across the snow on their way around the back of the house. At the window, his office looked warm and yellow, the paintings on the far wall welcoming. Without gloves, he brushed off the layer of snow on the flower boxes, revealing his desk, his papers, the mug of pens and pencils that sat on the corner. His hands were frozen cold and he shoved them deep in his pockets. “All right, Bailey, do your thing and let’s get back inside.” Bailey had already trotted out to a favorite shrub and relieved himself and was half way back to the door when Jay Hougart slipped on an icy paver and landed hard on his arm, feeling the break all the way up to his shoulder. For a second, before excruciating pain and the urge to vomit, his eyes opened wide, and he was struck by how crisp the stars looked, with a clear swath of the outer Milky Way crossing the sky like a fine mist.

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