The unemployment insurance was going to run dry at the end of the week. My room in Washburn’s tinderbox of a three-decker had to be paid for every seven days, in cash, a weekly reminder of just what the two of us were worth. I’d found the room in Washburn’s after I had to give up the studio apartment where I’d moved after losing the condo. My economic and residential slide was about to end where all slides do.
The condo had five rooms, not counting the state-of-the-art bathroom, plus a view of the western end of a park. The spanking new building was now as empty as a Detroit factory. I hadn’t worried a bit about covering the mortgage, the furniture, the car payments. Wasn’t I on my way? “You’ve found your niche,” my dying mother had said when I landed the job, entry-level but with prospects. The word niche wasn’t exactly pleasing to my ear; it made me feel both trapped and diminished. But I shrugged off this sign of the narrowness of my mother’s expectations because she was so ill and, I could see, relieved. My future had become yet another thing of which she could let go, like television and the reading group. It comforted her that her only child had found a little nest in which he could snuggle for the long haul, secure amidst the world’s whirlwinds. So my success, I felt, was bringing her closer to the end she wanted. In fact, she died only three weeks after I landed that once-promising ex-job of mine.
What with the cheap calories, inadequate toilette, worn-out wardrobe, and the effects of nearly two years of anxiety and rejection searching for any sort of work, my appearance could not be called prepossessing. Even if I should be lucky enough to be granted an interview somewhere, I wouldn’t look to a personnel officer like much in the way of human capital. And, to boot, it was November.
One morning at ten I decided to head to the convenience store for a loaf of bread and pint of milk. Winter was in the air, a winter when I’d be on the streets. The wind blowing in from the ocean stung, as if there were little tacks in it. A young man with an exiguous beard and dressed in a green parka that must have ended before he was born was stationed at the corner handing out flyers. Most people shifted aside and nobody looked at him.
Unemployment changes your attitude toward flyers handed out on street corners—also voting, traffic lights, police officers, children, dogs, patriotism, advertisements, cell phones, college students, sports utility vehicles, and the weather. With respect to flyers, all you see is the twenty bucks the poor hander-out stands to make and you wonder how long before he tosses the things away and finds a place to get warm or drunk or high. As I drew near him, the scruffy young fellow looked me up and down in an almost offensive way. In fact, I was about to point this out to him when he thrust a flyer at my hand and said the last thing I expected. “Here, take it. Pretty sure it’s meant for you.” It goes without saying that the unemployed, especially the long-term jobless types like me, are the very people flyers aren’t meant for; and, since we don’t care to be reminded it of this, we don’t take them. I laughed. “Meant for me, eh?” Still, I took the paper and read it as I continued down the sidewalk.
He wasn’t wrong. In block letters that reminded me of old wanted posters, it read:
9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The Longman Center
421 Cod Street
The Hesiod Corporation
Longman Center is cavernous, rented out for car and boat shows, high-tech exhibitions, and political conventions. I had been in it once, back in my salad days—when salad was a side dish. My company sent a bunch of us junior executives to hear a famous business guru explain why commerce is really Buddhism by another name.
It was just short of noon when I arrived at the Center. The place wasn’t merely filled; it was teeming like steerage in a coffin ship, if the coffin ship happened to be the size of an aircraft carrier.
A mob milled at the entrance—unorganized, noisy, passively resentful or nervously hostile. Once inside, however, we desperados were greeted by young, well-coiffed people in red sports coats with the logo of Hesiod Corporation stitched over their hearts. We were funneled into queues as if we were a new army there to be shorn, to be issued uniforms, canteens, helmets and rifles. I shuffled along between an uncomplaining and patient obese woman whose legs I feared might buckle and a thin, hyperactive fellow with a mustard-colored mustache. He pestered me with questions. “So, what kind of jobs are they offering? What are they looking for? Shit, I forgot to bring my résumé—you got yours? Hesiod, aren’t they into energy or is it finance and insurance? You know where their home office is?”
There were long tables set end-to-end with chairs on either side. Those used by the Hesiod personnel were padded. The interviews lasted no more than two minutes after which most of the applicants departed with shoulders slumping, mouths muttering, eyes tearing.
It made me sad that the obese woman had trouble fitting on the hard plastic chair. I was afraid it might break beneath her; it made me feel a little indignant. Before I could see what happened to her though, I was myself motioned to an identical chair well down the line.
A fortyish woman sat before me, looking down at papers and wielding her pen like a scimitar. Her lank hair was brutally cut a few inches below her ears as if by a guillotine and her long nose made me think of an organ pipe. She steadied her pen and quickly demanded my name, age, and state of health. She still hadn’t looked at me.
“Sex male,” she said and ticked off a box. “Final year of education or name of degree?”
I told her.
“What was your last job and when did it end?”
I told her that as well. Why not?
She moved on to the next box needing a check. “What sort of books do you like to read?”
“I prefer ones written in or, better yet, translated into, English.”
This provoked a look at me, quite a dour one.
“Very well.” She pointed to the screened-off area. “Go there. They’ll tell you what to do next.”
I didn’t trouble to thank her. Anyway, she was already readying her forms for the next candidate.
At either side of the opening in the screened-in area stood a stripling and a maiden in their red Hesiod jackets. They looked about fifteen, smooth-faced, eager, apple-cheeked. Each held a stack of paper and a box of pens. They welcomed us one at a time. I got the maiden. There was red in her hair. She handed me a sheet of paper printed front and back, and a ballpoint.
“It’s just a little test. Nothing major,” she said encouragingly and pointed at the paper. “You write your name there and answer all the questions as best you can. Then return the test and the pen to the person at the front. All there is to it.”
It was like elementary school, neat rows of small chairs with desk arms, but I felt the opposite of nostalgia.
I took a seat and looked at the paper, front and back. I remember there were twenty questions in all. I can’t recollect all of them but I wrote some down that night when I returned home from dispatching a meat loaf dinner at the Omega Diner. I scribbled the questions on the back of the flyer, which I found folded up in my jacket.
1. Business is to wealth as
a. oranges are to orange juice
b. war is to devastation
c. solitude is to inspiration
d. tuberculosis is to poetic talent
2. Frenchman is to foreigner as
a. crayfish is to spider
b. the Sombrero Galaxy is to the Milky Way
c. women are to girls
d. Rottweiler is to canine
3. Despair is to loneliness as
a. sadness is to depression
b. happiness is to joy
c. boredom is to ennui
d. libido is to lust
4. (Circle your answer or answers.) Would you tell a lie to protect
a. a family member
b. a co-worker
c. your employer
d. a stranger?
5. Which is the worst for you:
a. dark chocolate
6. (Answer Yes or No.) Do you see others as abnormal in so far as they
are unlike you?
7. Napoleon Bonaparte was a war-loving tyrant of overweening
ambition but also a talented, hard-working leader who spread the
ideals of the French Revolution, established salutary legal reforms, and
inspired both high art and high fashion. What is your opinion of
8. Do you ever talk to yourself? If so, how many times a week
do you do it out loud?
9. Where is Indiana University of Pennsylvania located?
10. Why is December 10 a significant date?
11. What was Buffalo Bill’s real name?
12. What is your favorite variety of tree?
13. What is the difference between obedience and submission?
14. Do you think employees owe more, less, or the same level of loyalty
to their employers as employers owe their employees?
I imagined Hesiod’s extravagantly paid staff of social scientists devising this quiz, all devoted to the metrics of human response and enemies of disruptive individuality, people for whom every exception proves some rule. What did I think of Napoleon Bonaparte? The real question I needed to answer was the one Mustard Mustache had asked, What are they looking for?
I did the best I could, handed in the test and the ballpoint to another Hesiod adolescent. He motioned me to the back where there was yet another screen; the whole rear of the hall was a labyrinth. On the other side of the screen was a waiting room with upholstered chairs and three small tables. Here I sat for half an hour with others who had made it through the sieve. Reading material had been considerately placed on the tables, a heap of pamphlets and newsletters: A Brief History of The Hesiod Corporation, The Hesiod Chronicle: Works and Days, Hesiod’s Holdings and Partnerships, Sustainability Programs at Hesiod, Annual Report of The Hesiod Corporation, Philanthropy at Hesiod, Holidays at Hesiod. I learned that the Corporation was big, had many enterprises, made a lot of money, operated everywhere under the sun, threw extravagant office parties, cherished the environment and that, wherever they set their feet, fostered community development, labor harmony, and furthered the cause of cultural understanding and peace on earth. Amen.
From time to time a youthful Hesiod employee emerged from behind yet another screen, called a name, and told those who responded either that they would not be detained further or invited them to step through.
I was invited into the sanctum sanctorum. Behind a gray table sat a tall, manifestly unhappy, balding man. He was a dead ringer for the foreman of the construction crew on which I’d worked the summer of my senior year, a man who monitored me for the least slip so that he could growl “College kid!” and make the other men laugh.
“We require a few particulars. Date of birth, approximate height, weight, and” here he added a phrase redolent of battlefields and Appalachia, “next-of-kin.”
I answered and he filled in his form then looked up at me.
“We may have a job for you,” he said. “Know anything about boats?”
“Sure,” I lied.
In a voice as unexpressive and metallic as the table at which he sat, he said, “Good,” then made an official note of my fib.
The job paid all of a hundred and fifty dollars a week but came with a three-room apartment, plus modular bath, in the old Carter warehouse. This Victorian red-brick edifice stood across a cobbled alley from the dock where I was to tie up my refurbished lobster boat, the Caroline V. Mr. Harkness, a supervisor who did very little supervising, told me I was welcome to help myself from the ample stocks of food in the warehouse, which was supplied with an industrial-sized freezer, though he warned to expect random audits. Room and board, it was all in the contract. Unless I failed in my duties, or the Hesiod Corporation changed its enormous mind, I was guaranteed two years employment, including membership in the company’s medical and dental program, with an option to re-up should the project proceed.
It would be a lonely job, Harkness said, and physically taxing, so Hesiod gave me both a physical and a psychological. I was to do all the loading and off-loading myself. A dolly would, of course, be provided and the boat furnished with block-and-tackle. Oddly, I was given no test of my fitness to captain a boat, my knowledge of maritime law, harbor currents, channels, or sandbars. All such matters were covered in a 372-page printout, spiral-bound so as to lie flat. The Caroline V had her own radio but, according to Harkness, most of my communications were to be carried out by cell phone. When I asked, timidly, about licensing and insurance, he said airily, “Oh, the Company will take care of all that.”
I was to see to the boat and guard the warehouse, but my chief duty would be delivering supplies to sixteen of the twenty-one islands that were spread over the harbor, the ones that were large enough to have names. On each of these bits of land another newly hired Hesiod employee would be living. The company had thrown up a small, winterized house on each island and installed a small dock, all identical. My first responsibility would be to drop these people off at their posts, then bring them provisions according to a rotation schedule. Supplies would be delivered to the warehouse, also on a regular schedule, as detailed in another spiral-bound printout. Harkness handed me a map of the harbor, told me at which dock I was to fill up the Caroline V with diesel fuel and that charges would go directly to Hesiod, then to his leave.
Apart from my ignorance about operating the boat, how to keep the thing from sinking, running aground, smashing the docks and what to do in foul weather, it was pretty much straightforward.
The first thing I did after Harkness’ departure was to head for a waterfront bar and look about for the person I needed. I found him in Captain Martin, retired tugboat skipper, a man who combined the bitterness of deposed emperor with the joy of a six-year-old. He was more than willing to take me and the Caroline V for a spin around the harbor. He leaped at the opportunity to get behind the wheel and, like some of my professors, he could deliver a fine lecture even with a few drinks in him. As for me, I was just as eager to play the apt pupil; so Captain Martin and I got on very well. I studied my printouts and tried a few solos around the islands the week before four islanders—my first passengers—were to show up.
What Hesiod was up to was never told to me. Of course not. Harkness was so evasive that I could see he didn’t know either. My first speculation was a romantic one, that I was part of some sort of secret psychological research (“The Crusoe Experiment” I dubbed it). Next, I thought the new islanders would be assigned to gather meteorological data and information on currents. But this was as absurd as the Crusoe idea. One night, a couple of weeks after all my charges were installed on their tiny domains, I stopped by the bar where I’d found Captain Martin, who could be relied on to be there whenever I stopped by. “Take a look at this,” he said, leaning across the table with a groan and tapping his forefinger on a newspaper headline. According to the article, the Hesiod Corporation had tried to purchase the islands outright, but the State refused, offering the company a six-year renewable lease instead. It was obviously a political compromise of some sort, said the reporter. As she knew no more about Hesiod’s intentions than I did, she also speculated. Hesiod could be looking at a sewage disposal system, checking out the potential of tidal energy; they might be planning a wind farm, shellfish aquaculture, even a harbor theme park. It’s possible that Hesiod’s bosses themselves, while they wanted the islands, didn’t know precisely what they wanted with them. Maybe one division of the concern had plans that some other division hadn’t approved or was trying to undermine. Meanwhile, in the legislature Hesiod had its allies and enemies and the Senate minority leader was foremost among the latter. According to the reporter, unable to block the deal entirely, he insisted as a condition of the lease that the islands be occupied year-round, a ridiculous and expensive proviso which he hoped would scotch the deal but didn’t.
April rain poured down that Monday like a judgment. The first islanders staggered up the cobblestones with their luggage, straggling in one at a time. The two women looked sad, the men even sadder, and all of them were drenched. They would have walked a long way from the subway. I felt like a host to a bunch of refugees and tried to make them comfortable. I set out crates to sit on while they dried out.
“Two years,” sighed Mrs. Jasinski, a fiftyish widow who looked to me as if she could stand up to a good deal more than a spring shower.
“Three for me,” said Mrs. Jackson, whom I recognized as the obese woman from the Longman Center. She hadn’t lost any weight.
Pete Voricelli looked about twenty-five, near my own age, a carpenter who had lost his first and only job a year earlier. “My older brother’s,” he said, pointing to an old Navy duffle bag at his feet.
Mr. Glatthorn, less forthcoming than the others, allowed that it was a pity about the rain and wanted to know when we’d be leaving.
“The supplies are already on the boat,” I said cheerfully, attempting to sound encouraging and competent. “How about we have a cup of coffee first?” I was in no hurry; I was hoping the sky might clear up.
So we had a chat. It turned out we’d all been hired that day at the Longman Center. We laughed about the test and compared our answers to the questions we could remember.
“I chose the elm,” Mrs. Jackson said. “They took the last one down the year my Ralph passed.”
“Osier,” said Pete. “Always liked the sound. Osier.”
“Beech,” said I. “No, copper beech.”
“Spruce. Blue spruce.”
“Well, we won’t be seeing many trees from now on. Hey, what was all that about Napoleon anyway?”
“And how about that business with loyalty? What was that?”
We figured out the only thing we had in common, apart from desperation, was the lack of a family. “Must have been that next-of-kin question,” said Mrs. Jasinski, nodding her head.
“And the willingness,” Mrs. Jackson added. She impressed me, did Mrs. Jackson, as an earth mother, a wise woman. She reminded me of the earliest piece of art we’d been shown in my Art History class, the tiny and colossal Venus of Willendorf. “When you’re alone you never think you can be more alone,” she observed, “and then you find, well, yes you can.” A month later, in a speech like the messenger’s in a Greek tragedy, she told me why she no longer had a family.
Their luggage didn’t amount to much. Mrs. Jackson had two small suitcases, old-fashioned ones of stiff cardboard. Glatthorn had a big green contraption with a single wheel.
I went aboard and started up the engine, then came back for their bags and stowed them under a tarpaulin while everybody huddled just inside the entrance to the warehouse. Visibility was poor, and I was filled with dread.
Pete dashed across the cobbles and jumped on board. “I’ll cast us off,” he offered cheerfully, like a little boy who’s made a satisfactory leap of faith.
The other three needed help to climb the two thick planks that served as a gangway. Glatthorn had a bad back; Mrs. Jasinski was frightened of falling in the water. Mrs. Jackson went last. She had a bad hip that gave her gait a seafarer’s roll. The planks bent under her as she gamely took my hand. “We go down, we go together,” she said with an affable grin.
I could see by the way they eased up in the cabin that they trusted me. The water was gray and choppy, the island docks unlighted. The day before I had made a run past their four islands, but that was in bright sunlight and calm water.
Pete sensed our short trip wasn’t going to be an easy one. “I’ll take lookout in the bow,” he whispered to me. “Good man,” I said gratefully, and he brightened right up, like a watered violet that had been dying of thirst.
I had to double back a couple of times. The harbor was a slate-colored waste with specks of filthy yellow foam. It felt like the voyage—what with my errors and the unloading and getting each of them settled—took the whole day. Yet I was back in the warehouse apartment by two. I opened my last pale ale and fried some eggs and bacon. Then I fell asleep and when I woke moonlight was glinting off the bottle I’d left by the window.
With fine weather, the next couple of days went more smoothly. The islanders arrived on time; I had the boat ready. They were mostly quiet, resigned, steeled for their two years. They all looked hungry. I expect they opened the cartons of provisions I deposited in their cottages before I was back on board. The Caroline V and I were getting accustomed to one another. As my fear of sinking her waned my confidence grew and I began to feel real affection for the old girl.
On Thursday, three of the last four arrived together, as appointed, at nine a.m. This lot were almost cheerful, determined to make the best of things, bucking each other up, cordially kidding around. George Gissell told us jokes while we waited for the last to arrive. This was a young woman, who loped down the cobblestones in a pair of red high-tops, two athletic bags hanging from her broad shoulders, apologizing all the way. She had close-cropped hair and was the tallest woman I’d ever seen, so tall I hardly noticed how pretty she was or how miserable.
It was to be expected over time that the islanders and I should get to know one another. After all, I was the only human being they saw and, in a sense, we were colleagues. Most wanted to tell me about themselves, some resisted doing so. I never asked, or had to. I discovered that Joe Geritas was a veteran who couldn’t stand civilians, though he made a half-hearted exception for me. Susannah Rothman ran toward me at the dock one morning, almost hysterical, threw her arms around my neck, and confessed that she’d survived a fire that killed her husband and son. This must have been cathartic because, after that, she was mostly fine. I was always bringing books and paper to Paul Rheinach, who told me he’d spent fifteen years eking out a living as an adjunct professor at half-a-dozen schools. He said he was a “member of the proletariat of the spirit,” admitted he had a Ph.D. but asked me never to call him “doctor.” Pale, thin Jamie O’Brien was raised in a Franciscan orphanage and fancied himself a Christian hermit of the old school. He ate only cereal, lettuce, macaroni and cheese and looked it. One day he blessed the Caroline V. Mr. Simentera, an immigrant, lost his job when the fisheries died. He admitted that he’d grown morose but insisted that he had never been violent—in fact, he insisted on this point so vehemently and so often that I doubted it. His wife and children went back to Cape Verde with his father-in-law, who warned him not to even think of following them.
Sooner or later I heard everybody’s story. Curiously, only two of the islanders ever asked about mine: Mrs. Jackson, who said I could call her “Ma,” and the tall woman, Cicely Weston, though, in her case, it took the best part of six months before she did so.
Most of the islanders were obsessed with food. Their tastes, like their strolls, narrowed. For example, Mr. Glatthorn ate little beyond soups and bread. When I managed to bring him some a soup bone or a fresh baguette, he almost leaped with joy. George Gissell became a vegetarian and took all the parsnips I could spare. Keith Saunders, an aging rich kid at thirty, banished by his family for what he called “good and sufficient reason,” kept trying to reproduce the Italian sausage with onions and green peppers his father had bought him at the ballpark when he was seven. “I think the trick is steaming the rolls and cooking the onions and peppers so slowly that they taste exactly the same.” Keith lasted only three months, by the way, but wasn’t the only one of the islanders who quit. He was replaced by Mr. Simentera, the ex-fisherman, who wouldn’t touch seafood of any kind. What he loved was beef and vegetables and a thick, old-country chicken soup called canja. Mrs. Jasinski had brought her grandmother’s 1936 edition of The Joy of Cooking but only used three recipes: sole Veronique, stuffed chicken breasts, and beef goulash, for which I found her a tin of sweet Hungarian paprika.
Cicely Weston, on the other hand, never spoke of food at all; she just took whatever I gave her, even when I began to include a variety of delicacies, like duckling, aubergines, artichokes, herring in wine sauce, and, most consequentially, a double-chocolate cake I presented to her one blustery November afternoon.
“Why the cake?” she asked.
Cicely favored sweatpants, fleeces, and loose sweaters. On her island she let her hair grow out like Rapunzel’s. Thick and straight and chestnut, her hair called attention to the femininity her wardrobe denied. I doubt she was aware of this but I certainly was. I avoided standing too close to Cicely. She stood well over six feet, and I suppose even a man more sure of himself than I’ve ever been might be intimidated. She wasn’t unfriendly; I would say she was brusquely polite.
I told her that I was fond of double-chocolate cake and thought she might be too. “It’s just the golden rule as applied to dessert,” I said.
It was a lame joke but it made her smile.
“I must be your last stop. I always am, aren’t I?”
I admitted that she was. In fact, I had arranged things that way but couldn’t have said exactly why.
Cicely crossed her arms, looked down at me. When she tilted her head her hair fell over half her face, like a movie star’s. “Well, why don’t you come up to the house and have a slice. It’s cold. I’ll give you a cup of coffee for the ride back.”
It was late, and the days were, as they say, drawing in. I ought to have refused; I should have been steering the Caroline V to her berth.
On one wall Cicely had hung a framed photograph of a flat green field with a romantically decaying barn in the middle of it. This was the chief distinguishing feature of her abode. All the houses were identically furnished by Hesiod: a sharp-edged table, chairs of light wood, a love-seat and matching easy chair that would have looked at home in a bail-bondsman’s office. The dimensions of these cottages were not extravagant; Cicely had to stoop to pass through the doorway and, had she wanted, could have painted the ceiling without the aid of a step ladder.
She poured the coffee, sat down opposite me at the table. From the way she kept brushing the hair away from her face I could tell she was still not used to its length. She cut the cake, placing big slices on plates for us both. She forked a small piece of the cake into her mouth.
“Glad you like it.”
“Oh yes. Nice of the Company to give us all a treat.”
I didn’t like to tell her that the treat was on me; that all of them—aubergines, herring, etc.—were. On the other hand, neither did I wish to lie to her. So I decided to change the subject with a question she was bound to answer.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m just an Oklahoma farm girl.” She was quick to denigrate herself, I noticed.
I pointed to the photograph of the field and the falling-down barn.
“Not our place, but still a little reminder of home.”
“Oh, you know. Yellow school bus to limestone school in the morning morning, chores and homework in the afternoons, trips to town and the occasional rodeo on weekends. I had a normal childhood, I guess, which means I lived the healthy, unconscious life of a little animal.”
“Sounds nice. So, when did you become conscious?”
She smiled. “In sixth grade I shot up eight inches and the other kids backed off. I felt gross, out of proportion, you know, just plain clumsy. I can’t say when it was for you, but in Oklahoma sixth grade was the start of the whole boy-girl thing.”
“And the excruciating self-consciousness that goes with it.”
She nodded once, like a cowboy. “Isola, that’s Italian for island. I felt isolated, so this isn’t. . .” Her words were swallowed up inside her coffee mug, one of the thick white ones supplied by Hesiod.
“I remember sixth grade,” I said.
“Of course you do.”
“It was like a European court that had just found out about love and sonnets.”
“Yep. And on that emotional hothouse I looked down from outside.”
“Boys are insecure,” I offered.
She rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it,” she said, meaning there was no need to tell her about it. “By eighth grade I had two inches on my father. He did what he could. Set up a basketball backboard for me, one of those things with a base you fill up with water. Lemons to lemonade, I guess he figured. I gave up on my classmates and went in for hoops. I also discovered books—you know, real ones, the kind they don’t assign in middle school. An orange ball for the body and long stories for the soul.”
“For me it was Crime and Punishment.”
“I liked that one too, but in those days it was the novels by Victorian ladies I loved. They bore me out like friends. Well, of course they did; they were written by misfits.”
“One of my old teachers said it’s the books we read between fifteen and twenty-five that count.”
“In that case, I got an early start.”
“Was it escapism, all that reading?”
“You bet. But maybe I’m like your old teacher. I think it matters whether the books are good ones, even if you’re reading them in a bad way. Don’t you?”
It was growing dark. “Go on,” I said because I knew she wanted to and because I liked her accent.
“Well, let’s see. Around the time I began on Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, the high-school coach found out about me. Boys wouldn’t come anywhere near, but I was just the apple of Coach Harmon’s eye. He was an old physics teacher, about to retire, but he put it off until I graduated and we’d won two state titles.”
“Shucks,” she said with a twang, “’tweren’t nothin’.” She made a wry smile.
“So, what next? Recruiters?”
“My suitors, yes. Oh yes. Plenty of ‘em. I picked the school with the English department that offered the most courses Brit Lit courses. I fell in love with Thomas Hardy my first year. Senior year I wrote a thesis on the other novels of Mary Shelley and we made it to the Final Four, though not the truly final two, let alone the definitively final one. Still.”
“Yes, still. And then what?”
“Oh, I’ve had a busy post-graduate life. I played in Italy for a year. For Lucca. Lovely place. The Italian men were aggressive, up to a point. They gave me a nickname.”
“All the girls got one. Mine was La Mandriana Gigantesca which means the enormous cowgirl. Then I got hurt. Came home. Did a stint as a hostess in a steak house owned by a pal of Coach Harmon’s. You can imagine how that went.”
“Not well, I take it?”
“Not for long either. Flew to Greece for a tryout when I was almost all healed but the glory that was Greece sent me packing.” She paused. I waited. “While I was there a tornado killed my parents who loved me, but not my sister who didn’t. Linda was in the panhandle with one of her boyfriends.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“You know when I was being lonely in high school, Linda said to me, ‘Well, Sis, being so tall, that’s a problem you’ll never outgrow.’ Not really funny, is it? I found an assistant coaching job in Iowa, and that was good until the funding was cut. That’s when I moved east and, well, you know the rest.” She looked around. “Now I’ve got my own little house and a little bank account.” Again the wry smile, “And a man who delivers chocolate cake. Not so bad.”
She turned toward the window. “Oh, look. Night. You’d best push off.”
And so I did.
I see now that we weren’t really employees at all but the employed unemployed, the useful useless.
So far as I could make out the Hesiod Corporation had no clear use for their lease but couldn’t bring themselves to give it up either; and so, inertia being the most powerful force in the cosmos, things just went on month after month. I felt at ease with the Caroline V and mastered my charts. My rotations turned into routines.
What did they do, the islanders? They read, painted, played solitaire; they wrote bad songs and worse poetry; they remembered and forgot. They tried gardening, knitting, carpentry, cartooning. After three months, somebody at the company thought to supply radios and three months and two months after that, televisions.
I think the islanders were mostly unaware of how this sort of life changed them, made some stronger, weaker, more or less thoughtful. Some saw their two-year contract as salvation, their island as a refuge; others felt they were serving a sentence. And some grew to cherish their islands the way of misanthrope does his dog, a chatelaine her castle.
It’s not surprising that the young hermit was the first to crack up, though not the last. When I arrived one morning he was hopping up and down at the dock stark naked. He pleaded with me to take him ashore. “Non sum dignis! Non sum dignis! For the love of Jesus, get me out of here.”
Mrs. Jackson—Ma—took a fall and ripped up her knee. By the time I arrived it had swollen up like a Dostoyevsky novel. Getting her aboard was difficult but she kept calling me “sweet thing” and never once complained. She apologized for putting me to so much trouble and said she knew they wouldn’t let her back. It was like being orphaned, watching her go off in that taxi.
Mr. Glatthorn turned morose; Mrs. Jasinski whined; neither lasted out the year. What was that analogy? “Business is to wealth as . . . solitude is to inspiration”?
There are many ways of being alone, and from the outside they all look the same. Solitude can shade into loneliness and loneliness may congeal to solipsism. I doubt that any of the islanders became thoroughgoing solipsists, but several of them developed egos puffed up like poor Mrs. Jackson’s knee. Solipsists are humble, despairing, lonely, disconsolate, skeptical, rare; egoists are rancorous, arrogant, gregarious, never in doubt, and common. To achieve these states of soul an island isn’t required, but isolation does speed things up.
Say a woman is lonesome and longs to be married, to be half of a couple. What a preoccupation she can make of it, and how many forms her sense of deprivation can take, anything from fantasizing about her ideal mate to becoming a man-hater. Yet, even if she manages to struggle her way to resignation, her awareness of being alone will matter more to her than anything else. That would be Sheila Grillo, a plain woman of thirty-seven who replaced the hermit God spit out.
Suppose a man cuts himself off from everyone, lives alone, joins in no one’s joys or sorrows and keeps his own to himself. Is such a recluse rebelling against the human condition—that of a social species, after all—or is he only being more honest about it, admitting that, at bottom and in the end, we are alone? I imagine that sooner or later, if he remains on his own, he will arrive at the latter position because it justifies him. My condition may not be a happy one, he will say to himself, but at least it is more truthful than that of those who laugh it up at a dinner party. The nothing I have is more honest than the pitiful consolations of . . . next to nothing. Would that, perhaps, be me?
I became a regular at the bar where I answered questions about the islanders, politely denied knowledge of Hesiod’s intentions, listened to superficial, zealous opinions about politics and baseball and went home early.
In January, the Caroline V sprang a couple of leaks and had to go into dry dock. I was assigned a retired, charmless tugboat. It reminded me of an old stevedore who had drunk, smoked, and sworn for too many decades. If the thing ever had one painted on its stern, its name had worn away. I was surprised by how much I missed the Caroline V and the resentment I felt for this sluggish, lumbering tug, whose engine sounded like an elephant with bronchitis. There was no sympathy between us.
“Where’s the Caroline?” the islanders wanted to know.
I had become a skipper, and the bond between captain and craft is the same whether the vessel is an aircraft carrier or a Boston whaler. I played with classifying the islanders as boats. This one was a speedboat, that one a tramp steamer. I decided that Cicely Weston was a tall ship, maybe a bright and graceful brigantine. Her ever-lengthening hair caught the wind like a topgallant.
I often found myself wondering how things were for Cicely out there on her island. She seemed to me to be doing all right. She told me she didn’t bother with the television but liked the radio. She would sometimes give me titles of books, mostly novels and books of philosophy. She read Isak Dinesen, Charles Dickens, a lot of David Hume. Once she asked for a book of poems by a woman named Szymborska. I thought I’d read a few of them before I gave the book to her. The poems were easy to read; and one led into the next so that, before I knew it, I’d read them all. Cicely assumed these books, like the delicacies, were provided by Hesiod. It pleased me that she didn’t know that I’d bought them myself.
The day I gave her the book of Szymborska poems we sat for a while on the dock. The gulls were noisy and the water was green.
“Come on up and have a cup of coffee and tell me a little about yourself,” she said over the coughing of the idling tug.
It was a carefully phrased request. You may have noticed how the words, “a little,” will keep you from confiding much of anything. They’re a polite way of laying out the narrow parameters of one’s interest. Still, you don’t have to accept the boundaries. Cicely wasn’t asking for my life story but, I decided, something intimate. Tell me just one thing; just make it crucial, essential.
Up at the house she sat at the table with her hands on her knees, bent slightly forward.
“When I was in college I dated a girl named Diane. She had a long neck and pale skin. We were both juniors when we met. That was in April. Springtime had kind of messed with my mind, my solitude. I was withdrawn and had been since I turned twelve. In college I lived alone, ate alone, studied alone. But that April, well, you know, I caught spring fever. I was bursting with ideas and hormones. I felt like my head was going to explode or just float up into the sky. So, for two weeks, I lived by a metaphor. I took to wearing a tie, to keep my head in place. I only had the one. It had been my father’s, one of those old-fashioned wide ties, solid black. Diane, whose hair was nearly the same color, came up to me in the Quad where I’d been sitting on the grass trying to read a textbook on German history. I couldn’t concentrate. ‘Why the tie?’ she asked.
“We saw each other every day until the semester ended. She was off to be a camp counselor and I had a construction job. Remember when jobs weren’t so hard to get? We wrote and phoned all summer. We discovered books together, music, paintings. In September we picked up where we’d left off. We had no secrets, no unshared thoughts or enthusiasms. It was a new experience for me.”
I looked at Cicely, who was leaning further forward. “It felt like love,” I said. “You know, like belonging.”
“Okay, that’s how it was. That spring I took her to an expensive restaurant, asked for a table in the corner, and I proposed. She patted my hand. The one with the little jeweler’s box in it. She looked embarrassed and said no.”
“Did she say why?”
“She may have wanted to, but I didn’t stick around to let her. I tossed money on the table, got up and left.”
Cicely leaned back in her chair and was quiet for a minute, then she put her hand on top of mine, just as Diane had done. We’d never touched before. I felt something like an electric shock.
“I’m not going to re-up,” she said solemnly and removed her hand. “In fact, I’m going to leave next week. I have to.” She mumbled so that I heard her with difficulty. “My sister’s very sick. She called last night.” Cicely got to her feet, and I felt like a dinghy overshadowed by a liner.
Though my knees almost failed me, I got up too.
“Look, can we please go to bed?” she asked. “I’ve been thinking it over and decided it would be wrong not to.”
Once upon a time, philosophers set the ordered domains of their dreams on islands cut off from the foolish, corrupt mainland where some people had no jobs. These islands of sanity—old Utopia, New Atlantis—were fashioned from their creators’ hearts’ desires, illusions they wished would become realities without believing they could. Islands can be like that. They also make serviceable forts, penal colonies, pest houses, quarantine stations, little prisons of doom and exclusion—Swinburne and Angel Islands, Devil’s Island. Once upon a time, the pious colonists of Massachusetts Bay herded the Indians they had converted out into their harbor, on to Deer and Long Islands, where most died, probably in accord with the secret prayers of the panicked denizens of the City On A Hill.
On the bright October day I took Cicely Weston off her island home I realized that the Caroline V had been mine. I never got her back. The company decided to junk her. Cicely leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, bravely hefted her bags, then vanished into the middle of the continent. I never saw her again, either.
There was no re-upping for anyone. Evidently, the Hesiod Corporation was never able to settle on a plan for the islands. They surrendered their leases and the legislature, after searching for a more profitable alternative, voted to declare the harbor islands a park.
After I’d helped Mrs. Jackson and her ruined knee down the gangway and unloaded her suitcases, after the taxi I’d called to take her to the hospital had pulled up on the cobblestones, she nearly enfolded me with her girth and with the hug came a warning. Holding me close, she whispered in my ear, “Remember, sweet thing. Some people, wherever they are, is an island. Watch you don’t turn into one of them.”