Hermes at The Spouter Inn

I was in the middle of a blissful summer, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was between jobs, careers really, and more importantly, between girlfriends, or, if you prefer, women of interest, significant others, special lady persons. They say that a man’s brain reaches its maturation point at twenty-seven years, and, at that very age I was really feeling it. Bad luck, personal catastrophes, and a paucity of viable options, forced me to face the fact that if I wanted to be a writer I bloody well ought to create an environment for myself where I could do just that. So, I saddled up, and headed due north for an island called Clovelly, on a lake named Lovesick, in a country called Canada.

I arrived there spiritually hungry, heartsick, and starved for brain food. Gradually, my mind began to open what felt like huge empty vaults that needed filling. The more time I spent crawling back into my own skin, getting to know myself, the more I began to explore what I had been doing with my life up to that point. And what had I done? Well, I had learned the value of hard work, and, that sometimes it doesn’t get you anywhere. I also learned that I had great compassion and was capable of selfless love. I had walked away from two brutal car accidents and was nearly done in by a third. My heart had been broken, and then it healed. And, of course, was broken again.

I was not in need of new experiences. I had those aplenty. I had stood atop Pisa’s leaning tower and looked down. I had stood in the chapel in Rome and looked up. I loved Wordsworth, and Eliot, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, Alexander Pope, Keats, Steinbeck, Hesse, and Bob Dylan, yet I felt unschooled. What I needed was to be alone, to assimilate all that had happened to me. I needed to read deeply and to think more deeply. My second-hand car was now filled with second-hand clothes, a beat-up guitar, and boxes and boxes of books. I would return someday, I knew that, but I would not be the same man who had fled the scene. Fine, let’s meet the new guy and give him a leg up.

So, I was in the second year of this hermitage when the phone rang. It could only be a relative, someone from the mainland, or one of the few hand-selected peeps who actually knew where I was. Usually, I could tell by the time of day who was calling. If I was reading, or writing, or just gazing at the universe, I would let it ring.

But a guy gets lonesome.

“Jimmy! I found you!” a woman’s voice, full of relief and surprise hit me in the ear. Damn if she didn’t sound familiar.

“Hey there, so you have,” I said, clueless as to who it was.

“Well it’s a miracle! Strangely, all the information you gave me when you left town turned out to be wrong!”

“That’s hard to believe,” I plopped into a chair praying for a clue. The late summer sun shimmered on the rippling waters outside. Birds were chattering. The breeze off the lake was divine.

“Well, forget about it, the good news is I found you, and do you know what month it is?”

“August?”

“That right, and…?”

“And…the Perseid meteor showers are about to start any night now, should be dazzling if it’s not too cloudy.”

“And, Mister Forgetful, we have a date!
That voice. Pleasant, playful. She knows she’s fucking with me. But she means it. Yes. Green eyes. Long red hair. Petite. Earnest. Sprightly. Unrelentingly sprightly.

Suddenly I’m sitting at a trendy bar outside Washington, DC. A year ago, late summer, early autumn.

That voice.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

“Did ya now?”

“Remember? At Tommy’s party the other night you said you loved baseball. You said you liked to pull in here for happy hour Tuesdays and scalp tickets. And voila! It’s Tuesday and I have two tickets to Baltimore/Boston up in Charm City tonight, We have a date!

She was right. I had gone home for a month or more to see my folks, cash a few checks, maybe…catch…a…ballgame.

It all came flooding back. Triple-sec, Rose’s Lime Juice, good vodka. Local bands, movies, a day trip to a battlefield, a picnic, her place, my place, somebody else’s place. Her… name…is…

“JANE!” Jane Smedleton, “SMEDLY!”

“There you go! Now who’s a good boy? You remember!”

“You know I’m in Canada.”

“Of course, and you know I’m in Bethesda. And you also know that before you left, I told you that the third week in August I always visit my cousin and her husband in Nantucket for a week, and you agreed to meet me at Hyannis Port next Friday for the Ferry to the island.”

“But, Smedly, that was years ago.”

“Wrong. It was just eleven months ago.”

Right.

“But, you know, a guy forgets.”

“Of course, I never expected you to remember. But when I found out where you are, I sent a letter to your local post office addressed to Hold for Jim Patterson. Pick it up, your directions and times are all there, I already have ferry tickets, 3PM Friday next. Now look, I’ll call again tomorrow. Bring a raincoat. As you always say, ‘More Later!’” and she hung up, I could hear her laughing as the phone hit the receiver.

Smedly. She’s one of those you’d never see coming. It’s like falling for the old trick where someone touches the top button for your shirt and when you look down, they knock your nose with a knuckle. And falling for it every freakin’ time they do it.

I must admit, I like women who are a tad smarter than me. And in this case that meant smart enough to know when not to expect too much that is. Smedly had that crisp East Coast intelligence I’ve always admired, and a concomitant twinkle in her eye that wasn’t accustomed to taking no for an answer.

Come to think of it, I hadn’t had a twinkle in a while.

Of course, I had no intention of going to Nantucket. Smedly was great and all, but if someone else pulled the stunts she did you’d never go for it. To be honest though, she and I got along well. She was a talker. Good sense of humor, a little sardonic. Smart. Her perspectives were surprising, mildly insightful, and aside from her low opinion of my personal life-decisions, we agreed on almost everything else. She hung out on the periphery of my old gang of cheloveks (read cronies.) Anyway, I knew Smedly dated around, that was fine, so did I. Plus, sooner or later I would head back up north and who knew when I’d return.

So, as I sat there, with her sprightliness still echoing and thrumming in the air all around, for the life of me, I couldn’t think of one goddamn reason not to go to Nantucket. I had even read Moby Dick, and believe it or not, really liked it.

In those days I was driving a used custard colored Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a meringue colored top. My peeps all called it the Boston Cream Cutlass. It was a sweet ride, lots of horses under the hood, big wide wheel-base, rear wheel drive, leather bench seats. After bombing around the country in that boat for a couple of years I had only this to say about the American automobile industry; a beautiful and magnificent era ended the day they stopped making cars you could fuck in. But I digress.

As fate would have it, at the appointed hour, I found myself standing at the Hyannis Port docks with her letter in my hand, a raincoat over my shoulder, and a small duffle bag with a clean change of clothes, a couple of books and a journal.

I looked around. No Smedly.

Hmm, thought I.

Had I ever stood her up? If so, then this is payback. But I had never stood anyone up, knowingly. I stood there wracking my brain when the Ferry Boat blew its horn, fucker was loud. Still no Smedly.

Just as I was imagining how I would spend the weekend, maybe up in Boston, or looking up old college palls in Worcester, damned if an airport taxi didn’t pull up and out she got, beaming with satisfaction that, as usual, all her plans had played themselves out to a tee. Tight white capri-style jeans and strawberry heels to match her strawberry hair. A baby-blue sweater over a tank top with something gauzy tied around her middle. Giant bug-eyed sunglasses, her signature. She carried a purse and a small baby-blue suitcase. Lavender perfume.

I was cooked.

Smedly had a good job. I can’t remember what it was, but I do know she was good at it and it paid well. I was living off quarterly dividend checks from an investment I had made when I cashed out of a brutal manual labor gig a few years earlier, plus real small monthly checks from projects I had worked on in between. A friend’s couch or rec room here and there augmented my living situation; my folks weren’t much help, but might throw me a fish if they saw bubbles in the water from where I went down. What I’m saying is, for the career-minded female I might have been a fun date, but I was in no sense of the word, a “catch.” I was pretty up front about it. Smedly would frisk me to make sure I brought date money before we went out. Not kidding.

I had also suffered a couple of dismal failures and unexpected tectonics in my love life over the last long stretch, so given my current state of affairs “getting serious” wasn’t really much of an option. I discouraged it both in public, and in the mirror. So naturally, I didn’t see it coming.

Ah, the sea. Or at least the fishy/salty splashing mist from the water in the Sound spraying in my face on our way to the island. Smedly took the little flask she knew I carried in my jacket pocket and pulled on it like a sailor. She liked to make out in public too, I had forgotten about that.

Her cousin and family lived in a big grey house on a street tightly packed with big grey houses. Mr. Rogers – the kid’s TV guy – lived three houses down. Everyone was on the lookout for him, but courteous enough not to acknowledge him except with twitters and smiles. There were daily reports of him at the market, or out for a walk, or leaving the nearby apothecary.

Smedly’s cousin had prepared a sitting room with curtained glass doors and a fold-out couch as a guest room for us. It was sweet. Her family was sweet. They had a toddler – a curly-haired little girl – and she was sweet. There was a new baby, too. Sweet, sweet, sweet. Dinner was fun. It was the kind of pot-banging, fridge-slamming, kids-a-laughing, plate clanging affair that you don’t realize you miss if it’s been out of your life for a while.

After dinner the little girl, in her pj’s and ready for bed, crawled up on my lap with a stack of books and I read them all to her while everyone had after -dinner wine. We giggled and laughed and spoofed on each story with me changing little details in every other episode and her scolding happily, “That’s not how it goes!”

The little girl was starting her second week of nursery school in the morning. The biological ramifications of that news meant nothing to me.

Poor fool.

That following day, Smedly and I did girlfriend-boyfriend stuff. We rode bikes, explored the island, held hands, had a candlelight dinner in the little town, and crept back into the house after midnight and made love on the floor.

The next morning everyone in the house, except me, woke up with the poops.
Good Christ, it was awful. That sweet house full of sweet people had turned into a gruesome infirmary overnight. A five thousand square foot defecating chamber. Adult footsteps running in the rooms overhead. Kids screaming. Bathroom doors slamming, toilets continuously flushing, kids crying, and poor Smedly. The washing machine in the room next to ours was running continuously. I would have run some errands for them, but I couldn’t drive dad’s standard transmission.

So, I expressed my most heartfelt sympathies to one and all and went sight-seeing.

First stop was the whaling museum. I didn’t know that when Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, the great author had never set foot on the island of Nantucket, from whence the whole saga begins. I also had never seen up close the harpoons the 19th century whalers used. These were mounted up on the walls above reach, lengthy, with heavy looking hooked iron spearheads. Worse still, is the imaginative reality suggested by the rowboat they had there on display.

So here you go, I thought, you’re going to get into this boat with these guys, y’see, and here, take this harpoon, long like the balancing pole a tight-rope walker might use tiptoeing between sky-scraper rooftops! Now, we are going to row out into the roiling ocean, right up alongside this water-monster, big as any dinosaur, and you’re going to poke it with this thing, got it? The fish has a couple of feet of blubber under its hide so poke’m good. If all goes well, we’ll be home in a year or two and you’ll be goodly paid. I must have been muttering some version of that soliloquy because a pleasant older couple, clean, with library quiet in their voices, looked at me askance and scuttled timidly away.

There was a cute little bookstore down the street from the museum. One of those ma & pa places that used to be everywhere. A labyrinth of rooms with different classifications stenciled on note cards tacked above each doorway, all neatly arranged according to their customers’ tastes. I found one of their many editions of Moby Dick, the one with illustrations by Rockwell Kent, and read snippets from the later chapters.

“Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan? Ahab’s harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh’s. Methuselah seems a schoolboy…I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, un-sourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale, which, having been before all time, must needs exist after all humane ages are over… Are you a believer in ghosts my friend?”

Wild good stuff methinks!

The store was closing. How long had I been standing there? On my way out I bought an astronomy magazine; maybe I could get some stargazing in some night if the weather was right. I also checked to see what Henry Miller titles they had. I’d recently had towering epiphanies reading his first two books, and was deep into his third, Tropic of Capricorn. I noticed they had a fresh new Grove Press paperback edition of it on their shelf, and that made me smile. I had the same edition in my back pocket.

My tummy was rumbling, it was time for dinner. The season was changing. The days were getting shorter. Northerners always go into a brief shell of mourning when they realize summer is about to abandon them, always too soon. And now the sky was a darkening gray that matched the gray shingled roofs and houses all around. And as lights blinked on here and there, as the air grew cold when the sun ceased to warm the moisture in the breezes, I looked around and there it was.

The Spouter Inn.

A painted wooden sign hung on links from a harpoon arm jutting from the wall above the door where a single lamp lit the way.

It was a cozy little pub turning-over from afternoon to supper. Some woolly musicians were setting up on a small stage to the right, taking their time, peppering each other with jokes and jibes as they uncoiled cables and set up monitors. The bartenders and wait staff were changing shifts. The place was filling up quickly and after a brief stop in the loo, I phoned Smedly’s cousin’s house to check in. Everyone was puking and pooping simultaneously, now. No need for me there.

There was only one spot left at the bar after I hung up. I took it, and ordered a rye and soda, no fruit.

On my right, the handsome older couple I had seen at the museum smiled wanly, made room, then turned their backs and didn’t make eye-contact with me the rest of the evening. On my left, a guy about my age, was elbows on the bar, forehead in his hands, dark hair spilling through his fingers, a glass of straight whiskey, neat, in front of him, staring intently down at a book he was half-way through, glued to the page. He was making low guttural sounds of surprise and astonishment.

That was oddly comforting.

“Have the fish sandwich,” the bartender gave me the QT. Okay. I sipped my drink and thumbed through my magazine.

When the fellow on my left’s fish sandwich arrived, he closed his book, and looking around noticed my magazine.

“You an astronomer? If you are you’ve come to the right place. The skies here at night are dazzling. If the weather is right. There’s an old lighthouse at the other end of the island, no longer used to warn ships, of course, but they’ve got a pretty good telescope up there, and on Sundays for two dollars you can climb up and have a look.”

“No, not an astronomer by any stretch, but I do love star-gazing and I like to keep up with any news of asteroids and comets heading this way,” I smiled. “So, thanks for the tip. Sunday’s my last night so I’ll definitely give it a whirl. So uh, what are you reading?”

“This!” he slapped his paperback down in front of me. The cover had a black-and-white photo of an elderly man in tweed smoking a pipe and flipping through a manuscript of some sort, most likely of the book itself resting before me. It had a broken spine, turned down pages, ballpoint ink marks where his hasty underlinings had skipped off the page. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by C.G. Jung.

Looking at that book, I felt we had somehow slipped out of or side-stepped time. I looked at the young man beside me. He had become Hermes, the trickster messenger god, delivering the goods, take it or leave it.

“You’re like me,” I chuckled, “I really use a book, I mean.”

“Yeah? Well, this is the best book I’ve ever read. It’s changed my life. The only book I ever finished reading and went right back to page one and read it through again. I’m looking through it now, can’t seem to part with it. Do you know this guy?”

“Only tangentially, something to do with Freud, maybe? I have come across the name frequently, I’ll say that.”

“Well, this guy kicks Freud’s ass! When they met, Freud was so amazed at this man’s capacities for pure thinking that Freud passed out!”

“Like they had some kind of brain duel?”

“Exactly! And this is his way of looking back and sharing his secrets, how he invented whole new avenues of psychology, how he could figure out what drove people insane. When he was a little boy, the first dream he ever remembers is finding an old stone stairwell in the forest that led down to a long underground tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel was a giant cock standing straight up! His ability to reason led him to conclude that religion is bullshit.”

“Kinda like this guy,” and I slapped Tropic of Capricorn down in front of him. “I’m half-way in and it’s already the best book I ever read.”

And we were off to the races. He ranted and raved, in a good way, about the collective unconscious, archetypes.

“Jung had a pencil box when he was a schoolboy, and the box came with pencils and a ruler. Well, he carved a little figurine from the ruler. He even made a little woolen jacket for his new friend to wear. Jung had a stone he carried in his pocket, as little boys will, and he painted the stone half black, half white, and kept it in the pencil box with the little man and he hid them on a beam in an attic where he wasn’t allowed to go.  Think about it, man, no one in the whole world knew about his secret little man. And whenever he was down, or afraid, he would think about him, and know he was safe. Years later, he would wonder about his patients in the insane asylums and wonder where they had hidden their own little secret selves.”

“I tried reading Freud’s book on dreams but that kind of writing, the prose itself, I mean, makes me apoplectic,” I frowned.

“Me too! Jung has written scores of text books, for scientists and such, but this is his closing statement, man, this is his summing it all up, his own self psycho-analyses, plain, concise, to the point, non-clinical, he’s after the humanity, and unlocking dreams, of others as well as his own, is a big part of that. So, for him, it’s the story un-told we have to discover and then get to the root of. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting in there with compassion and honesty, but also with the do or die courage to face your very own worst enemy, your own unknown self, man!”

“Sounds like a dirty business,” I laughed. By now the band had started and we adjourned to a drafty verandah where we could stay revved, drink whiskey, and chain-smoke cigs, without having to shout over the music. “I think I’ll follow your example with Jung and when I get to the end of Capricorn I’ll just turn it over and read it through again. His paragraphs are whole pages long and you get the feeling that his thoughts are about to run away with the writing, but there’s story to it. You eat, sleep, drink, screw, and deal with whatever life throws at you, and it throws everything at you. He’s honest about being a man preoccupied with getting laid. All his experiences are tossed into the telling of everyday conundrums; he’s taking life as it comes with no over-riding principle to guide him other than getting by well enough to write it all down. His plan is to have no plan at all. He’s written a primer on the sanctity of desperation. Like your man Jung’s memoir, it’s the goddamnedest thing I ever read.”

Eventually, my friend took his book and melted away. I wanted to make sure everyone was asleep when I went back to poopie palace, so I returned to the bar and caught the band’s last set.

I took a long way back, strolling through Nantucket after midnight, back to the big grey house on the street of big grey houses. I smoked a couple of cigarettes on the back steps and ruminated on the course of my day and the passion of my Hermes-like Jungian stranger at the Spouter Inn. I thought about the frosty ghostlike couple from the museum, the band I had heard, harpoons, and listened to the quiet whispers of wind singing quietly all around me. I could taste the big wide ocean just beyond the rooftops. Then I crept back into the house. All was quiet, the atmosphere seemed clear, the dryer in the laundry room was rolling and tumbling, then it stopped. I crawled in next to Smedly and fell asleep.

I woke up late. The place was empty. Smedly left a note saying that everyone was feeling better and they had gone on errands. My tummy was rumbling in a strange and uncomfortable fashion. After a shower I stood in the bathroom brushing my teeth, I heard a noise behind me. A loud splat on the near wall. Fuck me if I wasn’t power-blasting last night’s fish sandwich uncontrollably all over everything! As I was cleaning it up, I barfed.

The proper anti-pooping medicines were by now at hand, but it was still another couple of days before I was anything approaching okay. I stayed in the bathroom. I slept in the tub.

Our last night there, feeling better, Smedly and I went down to the old lighthouse, paid four dollars and climbed the stairs to the telescope. Seeing Saturn for the first time is an oh wow moment for even the most disinterested person, and as we went back outside Smedly took me in her arms under the early autumn stars and kissed me in a way she never had before. Looking down into her eyes, there was something new there, too.

“I’m not going to say it first,” she sighed in my arms.

I almost said, “Not going say what?” But it dawned on me what she meant. My heart sank.

I could, but I just can’t, I thought. As my eyes searched hers, I know I was looking at her like the Scarecrow looked down at Dorothy, with kind, sorrowful, eyes, on the Wizard’s balloon platform, just before she left Oz.

Her shoulders sagged, she stepped back. The love-light in her eyes dimmed. “You’ve done this before,” she said. There was a knot in my throat I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. If I had thought of something to say, I would not have been able to say it.

The next morning, before leaving Nantucket, I stopped into the little book shop and purchased a copy of Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung. When I checked the shelf that held books by Henry Miller, I noticed their copy of Capricorn was gone.

Smedly and I took the ferry to the mainland, drank hot chocolate, and cuddled arm in arm as we watched the island slowly fade away. I gave her a ride to the airport. When we parted, she gave me a sad little smile and said quietly, “…but you know me…” and got on the plane.

When she was out of sight I nodded, yes, I do.

It was a long ride back to the Lovesick Lake.

The book was astonishing.