And that a man might be an island after all.
[Yet another taste of A Republic of Books, more of which can be found elsewhere on this ethereal site.]
I had some reason a few years ago to think about Eden and man’s lost innocence and whatever is the cause of this that we can know. And all that thinking was the making of a book, one of the several that are now lost in the ether file. But let me tell you a little about that.
I once knew a fellow, I’d called him Ethan in the story, who had grown up on the coast of Maine and for much of his youth and early manhood had lived on one of the larger islands there. He was a good fellow, bright, friendly, strong and handsome and naturally charming in his ways. Because employment on the island was limited, Ethan took any job that was offered but more often than not he could be found painting one of the hundred summer homes that city dwellers kept there to have in order to enjoy their own taste of Eden each year, or else rent out to other fortunate families who could afford the price of admission for a week or two in season. But Ethan was also handy with carpentry, plumbing and electrical matters, all things he had learned early in life at the knee of a father, or uncle. Thus, his place in life was set for him like a place at the dinner table.
Now Islanders might be surprised to learn that they had been living in Eden all this time, while struggling to take care of themselves and their families in that distant place, but as I came to understand from small vignettes and incidental tales, this island was, for all intents and purposes, as close to Eden as any of us are likely to get. Even the harsh and damp winter months took on a glow in my head, with the description of driftwood fires and banshee winds, and families gathered close in the kitchen around ample food from steaming pots and a large and cracking iron stove that had once served the purposes of a small hotel there—lobster and potatoes, baked apples and corn bread, all hot from the oven, along with pies and puddings, and anything else that might be fried in the bacon grease. In the spring of every year the houses of the summer folk were made ready for, and in the fall, each had to be battened and drained. But I was always most enchanted by his descriptions of winter—the desolate Wyeth-like beauty appealed to me I suppose.
This was a place blessed by freshly made airs and newly minted suns, where the wind spoke in the languages of Babel and sang from the eaves in most weather, and the grass patterned itself in weaves to clothe the earth, frost grew in beards on bald rock, buoys muttered through brothy fogs and seagulls boasted too loudly of their prerogatives.
Unlike the original Eden, there was no high and mighty to dictate the rules. There was a father to set example and a mother to please, uncles to entertain and aunts to avoid (because they always had a chore in mind), but on the whole, Ethan did what he wanted.
And too there was no librarian at the twelve-by-twenty shack, set back on a hillock of grass and thistle and goldenrod, that served as the public library to the island but was well stocked with the abandoned volumes of the summer visitors and the donations of the families that lived on the island year round. This became Ethan’s refuge from needy aunts as well as his daily break from the smell of paint or backed-up plumbing. Few other people came to take advantage of the shelves of books, because there was sailing to do, and tennis, fishing, shopping on the mainland, and other things more important.
A little scrap wood and a few pieces of coal and the one room of the library became toasty in any weather. He even knew how to get the toilet running because he had worked on that himself. In winter, Ethan lay in the sun filled squares made by the window panes on the floor. In summer, he pushed the window open by the bench at the wall and lay there in the constant breath of sweet and salted grass. He read War and Peace and Peyton Place and the Count of Monte Christo and The Stand. The longer the better. Short books were a cheat to him and hardly a chance to enter some other world before it was over. Les Miserables was his favorite. Great Expectations the second. His own instincts tended him toward the classics, but other impulses often egged him to the literary side-roads. Because these were so often left by the summer visitors, he also read the more interesting parts of the ‘bodice-rippers.’
Often, especially in the summer, he would stay up at the library in the bright of the evenings and wish while he read that a girl might come up the path and through the door who also dreamt of things beyond the shores of their own experience.
The one room school house was still in use at this time, not so long ago, before the children of the island were forced to ferry each day, back and forth to the mainland, and the harsh realities of a municipal education. The advantage to this was that his teacher, Miss Henderson, knew him well and fed him extra books on the subjects Ethan loved the most. And it was this same Miss Henderson, tall and thin and wispy haired, who was Ethan’s first true love.
Luckily, she understood this and kept him at bay.
But there were several island girls who were not as shy. True, they each lost interest in Ethan’s talk of far away and long ago while they were intent themselves on the here and now. But from them he learned what he needed to know but could never ask. Soon enough though, one of the lobsterman’s sons, or the ‘too cute’ Post Office Clerk who came weekdays with deliveries, or a male member of the summer contingent, would end the affair with him and the girls would move on. And then too, each summer, among the visitors who came, there was always a girl to catch his eye as he painted a porch or fixed a light switch, and was old enough to be interested in sudden romance. It was one of these girls, in fact named Melody, who finally caused Ethen to leave his paradise.
Ethan was smart and easily passed the college entrance exams that Miss Henderson made him take. And then when that turn came, he left the Island for the wilds of Orono and the University there, which is as far from Eden as any place could be. But Melody went to school there too and beckoned.
Unfortunately, Melody was also more interested in the tune of the here and now. She was stolen from Ethan by a business major whose father ran a small chain of hardware stores.
When I first met Ethan, he had completed only two years of college and arrived in Boston in need of work and a quick paycheck. I was cleaning out a small warehouse at the time, one of the several I kept to store my gains from auctions and estate sales, and this being years before my encounter with Jack, I hired Ethan immediately.
He was a sad fellow at this point, lost, and far from finding himself. He had tried some kinds of drugs at college and lost interest in his studies. He had had several more affairs. He was not reading so much as going to the movies and this had hardened him with a Hollywood cynicism. He had happened onto my shop by accident while looking for another address that had advertised for a handyman. I asked him if he liked books.
His answer was interesting. “What there is to like.”
“What’s your favorite?”
I was surprised when he told me he liked Victor Hugo, and I questioned this until I was sure he was not pretending.
“Have you ever read John McPhee?”
“Yes. I like most of them okay but I like the western ones about the geology and the history out there best. In Suspect Terrain is my favorite. I went out to take a look a few years ago. Pretty good.”
“Have you read Boswell.”
“I couldn’t finish his Life of Johnson, but I liked the London Journals an awful lot.”
“When can you start?”
Easily one of the shortest job interviews I ever had.
Ethan seemed satisfied for awhile but it was clear he wasn’t happy. Out of curiosity or a desire to help or both I started to inquire as we moved boxes from hither to yon or he worked in the store shelving new arrivals or awaited a customer at the register. It was at that point that I got the story I have related here.
As much as I needed the man’s help, I quickly started feeling guilty for standing in the way of his return to paradise. It was clear enough to me that he did not belong in a Sodom-like Boston or any other of the many Gomorrahs he had wandered through after leaving the Island. In my own crude way I started a campaign of reminding him of what he had lost. I got him to talk about his childhood and his teacher on the island, whom I learned had moved away after the school closed and married, and about the library, and of the sweet and sour smell of salt grass, and tap of stones caught in the last play of a wave on a beach, and the small voice of an unseen lobster boat visiting the nets out in a fog, and the burst of a wave between a cleft of rock and the rainbow after, and the total stillness of a winter morning when it’s too cold to move a body safe beneath the bed quilts.
After a year or so, Ethan returned to the Island to reassess what he had learned and what he had lost. And it was on that very first visit that he went up to his old haunt, the library, and opened the door there to the stale odor of disuse and the dried plumbing from the toilet. He opened all the windows wide and swept the dead ladybugs and flies from the floor and properly filed all the donated books that were below the slot next to the door, and got the water running in the toilet. And after several hours he had hardly finished this when a young woman came to the door looking for something to read.