Stranger in the Village

Life keeps hitting the stands.  Having spent the weekend in Boston, I’m now in the small town of Stonington, CT, five miles east of Mystic and just west of the Rhode Island border, on a small peninsula that gestures towards the Block and Long Island Sounds, staying in an Airbnb just around the corner from the James Merrill House at 107 Water Street, which I’ll get a tour of tomorrow morning.  I’m surrounded by water on three sides: harbor, sound, harbor.  Something out there towards or beyond the breakwater keeps making a beeping noise; it sounds like a mechanical buoy that is regularly struck.  I don’t know what it is or what its purpose is.  It’s 12:45pm on Tuesday, May 28th, the day after Memorial Day.  The flag at the point, where I sat in the sun yesterday for some time just after getting into town, was at half-mast for the holiday.  Several people sat on the small beach and on benches and chairs and talked and looked at the sea as the holiday wound down.  I sat on a stone wall and rolled up the sleeves of my t-shirt and the hems of my shorts.  The flagpole rose above a memorial to a repelled British invasion of 1814, part of the War of 1812, a stretch of American history about which I know little.  It was sunny and hot yesterday, but today it is cloudy and rain is in the forecast.  There will be thunderstorms later tonight.  I’m rereading King Lear in advance of seeing a production of it on Broadway on Saturday.  It occurs to me that in all my years in and subsequent visits to Ashland, I have never seen this play staged before, and it’s been some time since I last read it.  With Merrill’s house in view from my window, and so with spirits in the air, I am keeping my senses attuned to my surroundings, keen to pick up on any signals that might come in via the bat radio.  Storm still.

Highlights from the train ride down from Boston yesterday:

  • Traveling south out of Boston, sitting on the left hand side of the train (facing the front) in a window seat, so as to be able to see the sea when it came into view, I was also treated, shortly after we left South Station, to the sight of a plane approaching Logan that seemed to hang in the air motionless, out above Boston Harbor, moving directly north as we moved directly south at a rate that seemed like it was many times faster than the rate at which the plane was moving, as it hardly even seemed to be moving at all, but instead seemed like a toy plane hung from a string in a diorama. 
  • Looking directly out the window at everything going by us quite quickly (trees, lots, wires, streets), I thought of the speed at which life seems to be going by or happening now, at 40, and only a week away from 41, where the approach of the latter age has found me much more thoughtful on the subject of age than the former did. 
  • The perfume of the woman sitting next to me led to it dawning on me that I rarely find myself in close proximity to women wearing perfume, or at least the kind of perfume one associates with upscale department stores and high end boutiques, where my strongest memory of this kind of perfume is from when, when I was about ten, my mom and dad went out one evening when my mom was supposed to attend a school function with me, so that I was upset at being home with my siblings and a babysitter, where when my parents came home I confronted my mom as soon as she came in the front door, though before I could even say anything she realized what had happened and embraced me, apologizing in her black evening wear, smelling strongly of the perfume she favored, Fendi. 
  • Then, overwhelmed by how quickly everything was going by before me, I looked up out the top of the window towards the sky and saw the small, scattered clouds moving across the window stage right to stage left at a much slower rate, so that they would remain in its frame for minutes instead of less than a second like the trees, though I never did actually track a cloud’s passage from edge to edge so as to gauge precisely the rate at which the heavens drift compared to the rate of terrestrial things.
  • Noticing, then, the clouds that were further off, out over the sea and so closer to the middle than to the top of the window, I observed how one could see them as it were through the leaves and branches of the quickly speeding by trees, as though these were themselves transparent, insubstantial as clouds, or rather more so, the rate at which they were passing being so quick as to create the impression of continuity in the breaks of sky between branches, leaves, entire trees, rendering those clouds which were behind the trees always visible, or at least always seeming so—noticing all this, I felt confounded.
  • So I listened to music, looking out the window, my iTunes library (I am old) on shuffle and making for strange and delightful transitions.  I noted the occasional sparkles from sunlight in the oversized train-track gravel that lines train tracks, a kind of quartz-looking rock that winks in the sun as do the waves in a body of water, as I’d note two hours later while sitting at the point in Stonington and trying to read the dancing sparks of sunlight on the harbor’s face. 
  • Passing by parking lot after parking lot, I was struck by the lights in them: long vertical poles that bifurcated at around fifteen feet or so to form distended “Ys,” one lamp at the end of each curious neck, each looking down at the vehicles beneath it. 
  • I read graffiti while listening to Amy Winehouse.
  • A billboard said “Injured? Call Rob” with a number. 
  • A street bridge with protective chain link grating, across which a solitary figure was walking in a hunched posture, seemed to jump over our crowded train that sped beneath it.

            The rain has just begun; it’s 3pm.  I’ve been writing intermittently, between stretching sessions, a bit of Lear, and a YouTube interview with Stephen Yenser conducted by Langdon Hammer on Merrill, the two of them sitting on the third floor of the Merrill House, the north windows of which I can see from my own window now.  The bell of a nearby church just tolled three times; it has the least resonant toll of any church bell I’ve ever heard.  It’s more of a brief clang with the faintest hint of a resonant toll; it seems impoverished and is very pleasing.  Last night I listened to it strike twelve times at midnight, counting each relatively quiet stone-like clamor.  Later today and this evening the old bell (for it sounds tired, though untiring) will contend with the patter of raindrops on my loft’s several slanted sun windows, and also with thunder.  The houses I can see from the window I’m looking out of are yellow, dark green, light green, and two shades of gray.

*

This past Saturday in Boston I woke up, had coffee, walked for a little while, sat and read, walked, browsed in a bookstore, walked some more, browsed another bookstore, got a small basket of fries and walked while eating them, and returned to the place where I’d sat and read earlier in order to sit and read again: the Boston Common.  It was about four o’clock and it was hot and sunny, though some clouds would come in later.  Earlier in the day I’d sat by the Frog Pond, but its water was foul and there was a sour smell to it, so now I sat on a bench along a path beneath the hill with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on it.  There were shady leaves above me and I had the bench to myself.  If I sat on its right side, I was in a dancing shade, if I sat on the left, I was in the sun, so I periodically shifted myself a foot to the left or back to the right again.  There were a lot of people about; it was the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend and the weather was, for now, perfect.  Part of the hill was covered in thousands of small, planted, upright American flags.  Their general import was clear but I did not know what their specific import was; I failed to read the placard.  People streamed by ceaselessly on the pathway in both directions.  My bench, like all of the benches that lined the pathway, was green; people sat on the other benches, too, in couples or in groups of three and even four.  I was reading The Awakening of My Interest in Advanced Tax and occasionally checking in on the Yankees/Royals game on my phone.  I would read for a short while and then take in my surroundings; then I’d check the score of the game and then once again absorb all that was happening around me, or try to, and then read a little more.  This irregular cycle continued for over an hour.  I was in love with everything I saw and tried and tried to soak it all in.

            To my left and just barely in sight where the pathway I was sitting on intersected with another pathway, a man played an Erhu near a food stand that sold pretzels; I could smell the pretzels and hear the two-stringed tune of the instrument wind its way through every other sound that assailed me: conversations, footfalls; the roll of a skateboard; a stereo in the field behind me where several people were kicking about a soccer ball; and the hundred birds singing their songs in the branchways of the trees.  The Erhu never ceased.  I sat facing the hill, on which many people sat in shade and sun, some in groups, others in pairs.  Two young couples in particular caught my eye, one, midway up the hill at eleven o’clock from me, very much in love, the other a little ways down from them and to their right, closer to me but at ten o’clock, and clearly in the midst of a more tense moment.  They weren’t touching each other at all and sat on the hill with their feet pointed towards its base with a good six inches between them, whereas the two above them, regardless of how they changed positions over the hour, always made sure that their bodies were in some close physical proximity to one another, touching, in fact, as even when they sat similarly side by side with their legs extended down the hill, his right leg was aligned against her left (in both cases the man sat on the woman’s left). 

            Small, scattered clouds dotted the sky, but at this point the sun shone much more often than it hid.  Above the birds there would be an occasional plane.  In the stream of people going by there were individuals, couples, families, and groups of friends, and I heard many languages being spoken, all of them besides English being unintelligible to me.  The bits and pieces of conversation I heard in English covered a variety of subjects (—the clock has just struck six times here in Stonington; I’ve had another coffee, another shower, and written several postcards since I began writing—), from American history to the vagaries of love and from the frustrations of friendship to the logistics of getting through the day: where to go next and how to get there and what to do and who to see.  I couldn’t hear the couples on the hill.

            The smell of marijuana occasionally overpowered the smell of pretzels and gave me the very distinct sensation of being outside a concert venue before a show begins.  More rarely and more fleetingly I would smell cologne and/or perfume.  There were many children and many strollers, and no two strollers were alike, like credit card machines.  Encouragingly, much fewer people were on their phones today than on Wednesday evening just outside the Common on Boylston Street.  I saw a variety of handbags and purses when I occasionally looked up more briefly from my reading, only waist-high, not for a long break for the purpose of once more deliberately basking in my surroundings but just to as it were take a quick breath after one sentence or clause before continuing with the next.  I also saw, in this manner, the occasional flowing scarf- or shawl-like garment, trailing from a neck or torso like whatdoyoucallit gossamer.  There was a bicycle every now and then.  There were people dressed in attractive summer styles, some of them especially eye catching.  They were dressed and walked in such a way as to be looked upon and admired and then almost at the same time looked away from, intimidated.  I looked upon, I looked away from; I read, I looked again.

            The buildings on Boylston behind me looked over the scene.  From one of their rooftops one would have had a view of lawns crisscrossed by pathways, here and there obscured by the leaves of trees, the Common streaming with people moving in all four cardinal directions and all their variants, and others temporarily stationary, and then those permanently stationary in the gated cemetery in the southeast corner.  I thought of the task of the writer being to account for things as they are, to record and register them accurately and minutely.  Raising my eyes just off the page I saw sandals; painted toenails; matching running shoes (a couple); a little Japanese girl in a pink princess costume holding her mother’s hand; bare legs and covered legs.  I closed my eyes.  I opened them and looked up higher, before me, towards the hill.  Both couples were still there.

            It was definitely an argument at ten o’clock.  They hadn’t touched each other once, nor had either even tried to touch the other.  They were not siblings, or cousins, or friends, it was clear.  They spoke without looking at each other for the most part, she almost always continuing to look straight ahead, he looking either straight ahead or just a fraction of the distance towards her.  Dark sunglasses obscured her eyes so that it was hard to see what she was looking at, making it sometimes seem, disconcertingly, like she was looking at me.  She had long straight hair.  At present, her knees were raised and she had her left arm and hand around them while her right arm was bent at the elbow in such a way that her right hand was up by the right side of her head: it was a posture of indifference, bespeaking the unlikelihood of being persuaded.  She continued to look ahead and spoke less than he did; when she did speak her mouth hardly moved and it may have been difficult even for him to hear her.  His knees, too, were currently raised, and he had both arms wrapped around them and was talking with his head at that slight angle in her direction, but clearly unwilling or unable to look her in the eyes and entreat her to look at him.  Every now and then he would make a gesture with one arm, a gesture of incredulity and insistence and attempted reason. 

            A more comprehensive cloud mass was now beginning to encroach upon the Common, but the sun was still shining.  Higher up the hill the happier couple was arranged thus: the man lying on his back, the woman lying on her back perpendicular to him, her head resting against his rib cage.  She looked up at her phone, which she held in both hands while smiling.  I looked at them and smiled; I looked at the others and tried to discern what was happening.  The woman had now taken off her sunglasses and stretched her legs out along the hill; she placed the sunglasses in her lap and fidgeted with them as she stared downwards at what her hands were doing rather than to her left.  The sound of the Erhu continued to come from down the pathway. 

            These two people in a tense moment on a beautiful day now had my attention and were at the heart of all this movement.  I put my book away.  The Yankees had won.  Now he did look towards her but she still looked away, ahead, out towards where I was sitting.  I might have liked to have left by now, but I couldn’t; I had to see how they would leave: one before the other, or both together.  Another child in a stroller was pushed by.  Many people had shopping bags.  As the fraught young man on the hill continued talking he also continued to sometimes lift his left hand a few inches above his knee and gesture with it.  His main gesture I called The Philosopher’s Accompaniment, a gesture that means, “this follows from this.”  The possibility of a happy resolution seemed to be receding, not approaching.  I saw children with balloon hats; pairs of people occasionally stopping to take a selfie with the historic Common as a background; backpacks.  One of her legs was now crossed over the other at the ankle and its foot was moving back and forth in the manner of someone who is bored and waiting for something new to transpire.  She continued to look straight ahead with her sunglasses still in her lap, from time to time saying something in brief response to his more lengthy disquisitions.  He was now in a somewhat classic posture, both legs bent, but one along the ground, one above it, with one arm wrapped around the raised knee and the other propping him up in the manner of a kickstand.  Then he moved the arm wrapped around the knee (right arm, right knee) up and rested his right hand on his left shoulder.  He was silent now and continued to not look at her. 

            I saw a pair of Vans; a beret; a UConn t-shirt, a Nintendo t-shirt.  A guy with a Red Sox tattoo.  Many, many water bottles.  I looked down and listened to the Erhu sing; the sun was weakening.  Then, when I looked up again ten seconds later, they were gone.  Before me was the hill, with fewer people on it now as the cloud cover had begun to come in.  The happy couple had left several minutes ago; I had watched them walk up the hill.  Now my eyes, in a panic, quickly scanned the hill looking for the quarrelers.  There they were, off to my left, walking in the direction of the old man playing the instrument.  He had his hands in his pockets, her arms were folded across her chest.  Their backs were to me; there was a good foot between them as they walked towards Charles Street.  I had the impression that they were not speaking as they walked and that something inevitable between them had just been both firmly acknowledged and yet forestalled.  Perhaps, I thought, they’d see it through.

*

Now it’s Wednesday afternoon, I had my tour of the house this morning, and I’ve spent the afternoon walking around town, reading Lear, and editing and sending to friends photos I took in and of the house, where the décor is stunning, the colors wonderful, the hundreds upon hundreds of books and records mesmerizing, the rooms all small and cozy.

            I’ve been struck by many lines from the first three acts of Lear.  From Act I, Lear’s remonstrance to Goneril, “You are too much of late i’th’frown”; from Act II, Kent’s “Nothing almost sees miracles / But misery”; and from Act III, Lear’s “The tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else.”  I keep marking references to sight, to nothing, and to difference, which I now see form a kind of French braid that holds the entire play together. 

            Tonight I’ll go to the Mexican restaurant across the street and have chips and salsa, enchiladas, and a beer.  Tomorrow I’ll catch the 10:56 to Penn Station.  I hope to browse in a bookstore or two in Manhattan, and maybe buy a new pair of shoes before going dancing in the Village.  Birds are chirping outside, and someone is hammering something nearby.  Before I came back to my loft after the tour, I sat in the town square and drank a cup of coffee and read several of the short scenes of Act III, circling all of the instances of the question, “Who’s there?”  It’s both the question that famously opens Hamlet and the first thing asked by JM and DJ when they sit down for their first Ouija session in Ephraim: “Who was there?” . . . “‘Is someone there?’” . . . “Was anybody there?” 

            I felt no strange sensations in the house this morning, though, no hauntings or the presence of spirits lurking in any of the house’s nooks and crannies.  I was a tourist taking pictures.  Cynthia walked me through the several rooms, of which there are fewer than ten, all small (the largest being the rooftop studio that Merrill and David Jackson added on to the pre-existing structure of the building), and then she left me to stroll from room to room on my own at will for fifteen minutes, pointing my smart phone at walls and furniture and the spines of books and records, at pictures and mirrors and the many knickknacks placed throughout the apartment, items bought or found by Merrill and Jackson, or things given to them as gifts by friends.  According to the Fall 2018 newsletter for the house, Merrill was not so much concerned with any “decorative overall design” in terms of how all of these small objects were placed; instead, the “governing purpose” to which he adhered was attunement to “the force field of the invisible spirit world linking beings.  A tiny object given by a friend would be left just where it was placed when the gift was made and would not be subsequently rearranged for a prettified effect.”  There’s something plain about that that I like.  I would’ve liked to have spent the entire day in the house, to have been able to examine more thoroughly the books, records, furniture, pictures, artifacts, art, and the manner in which all was arranged.  I would’ve liked to have sat on the fainting couch in the sitting room and read for a little while.  I would’ve liked to have closed and then opened again the “secret” bookshelf door that leads from the small telephone room to Merrill’s study.  I would’ve liked to have talked to the air throughout the day, and to have seen if anything wayward, untoward, or strange might have transpired over the course of the hours rolling by.  When the sun briefly came out in the afternoon, I might have gone out onto the rooftop deck and sat in a chair and absorbed the sun’s rays.  It might have occurred to me to play a chord or two on the piano, but I would not have done so because I don’t actually know how to play the piano.  I might have enjoyed very much making a meal in the small, very ordinary kitchen, and I would have laughed quietly a little more at the monogrammed towels in the bathroom; “once a millionaire’s son, always a millionaire’s son,” I might have said.  No doubt I would have tipped several books off of the shelves and carefully flipped through them, attentive to any marginal notes Merrill might have made.  (I was delighted that in my actual, quite brief visit, I was at least able to spot, quickly and easily, in the floor-to-ceiling shelves of books that covered an entire wall in the study, Volume One of The Letters of Virginia Woolf.)  I might have even been inclined to leave a small trinket somewhere discreet, a gift, nothing even visible, hardly, perhaps just my prized, ornate paperclip that otherwise sits in my backpack with loose change and only very occasionally serves any practical purpose.  That would’ve been within the bounds of decorum, I think, as when I left on Wittgenstein’s gravestone in Cambridge, or on Proust’s in Paris, similar tokens of affection and thanks, a small silver rendering of Ganesha, the Hindu deity who removes obstacles, that Kevin gave me, and an earlier, similarly ornate paperclip, this one spiral (the one I have now being rectangular), respectively.  Instead I took my pictures and marveled in the touristic fashion of one who moves through a sacred space quickly.  Maybe tonight, or some other night, I’ll have a dream born of the experience that will leave me shaking my head in bewilderment in the morning, a dream, perhaps, in which the resuscitation of lost love is possible, or one in which things that confound us daily miraculously fall away.  I will wake up in the morning and try to remember Rob’s number.