“It is not the destination but the journey that counts.”  Leonard Woolf wrote that. I’m not a cynical man, but I think he got it from somebody else.

My only journeys now are to Maine. I enjoy driving. In fact, it is right up there with fly-fishing: mind free, and out of reach of the world. But I let you in whenever you care to accompany me. You know I always do. You always knew I would.

Twelve hours door to door from the West End Avenue apartment to the quiet side of Mount Desert Island. Bass Harbor to be accurate. And then a bit onwards to Pretty Marsh. I like the scenic route, going. Take the shortcut to Somesville on the return. Bill and Clarence are up there already. At our camp, my paradise. Well, really, a rambling colonial house that was once in my family. We all share it now, as a home base away from our homes. From there, Seal Cove and Bass are our usual fishing spots. And sometimes we row out to Gotts Island for mussels picked fresh right off the pink rocks at low tide. We used to dive for sea urchins, too, when we were young, but now we are getting on. All that gear too much of an effort for us retired city guys. Bill’s still a banker, Clarence a journalist, and me, Prof. Emeritus of English and Comp. Lit., Columbia, as you well know.

Bill remains the happy bachelor. Reared on Maine summers, as you know, with that large banking family of his. He likes to revert to being the Down Easter. Big bucks. Clarence, as traveling journalist, never had much to do with his wife; we hardly saw her socially, at any rate.  Kept her off to the side, you might say. And me with my Mary. She stopped coming up with me years ago, when grandkids and her volunteer work in the city seemed to interest her more than rattling around in our big house and cleaning whatever we caught. After I load the Jeep I drive a couple of hours northeast out of the city, make a pit stop around Danbury, depending on weather and traffic. Then I augment the food situation with things Mary will never pack for me.  Those long sticks of spiced beef jerky, corn chips, chocolate bars…the sort of things you can eat with one hand while driving. And a couple of fat cigars.

After that, I sometimes pee into a jar— the flow of my thoughts, so to speak. That way I can pull in right on the dot.  We three make bets on my arrival time. I phone from the apartment just as I’m making the last trip down to the car.  I like to keep to my record of twelve hours, door to door.  After Danbury the mind is free. No stops then but for gas at those few remaining full service stations. And the quick stop in New Hampshire for discount booze. They rely on me to replenish the liquor stash at the house, you know. Glenlivet for Bill, Bushmills for Clarence, John Jameson for me. Drive right up to the loading dock and the boys bring out the cases. No need to get out of the car or to break the reverie, so to speak.

But I am so glad you are driving with me now, Martha. Seems the only time I can really unburden myself is when you are beside me. You don’t always show up, you know. Now that you are safely laid to rest, you are with me more than ever.  Or is it only that I finally feel in control behind the wheel again? This old Jeep and I have been together so long we’ve exchanged molecules, like the bicycles in The Third Policeman. As if we were one body. Good of you to turn up like this.

Can’t wait to stand on the rocks at Seal. Listen to the waves coming in, and going out. “That long withdrawing roar….” You remember? Makes me think of all we’ve experienced, memories washing back in, and then withdrawing out to sea, that Sea of Faith.  Uh, here, …will you hand me that empty jar, darlin’? There, the tall…never mind. I can reach it— just. Soon as I get round this truck. Ha-ha! Piece of cake. Ahhh…pissing into the wind at seventy miles an hour, so to speak.  Ahhhh. There. Now, Martha dear, take a gander at that.  Remember this ole one-eyed snake, eh?  We did have some wonderful moments, just the three of us, eh?

Now, then, where was I?  Where am I?  When we get to Belfast I’m going to fly right by. No sentimental stops on this trip. Not even—especially not—that lovely little colonial with the faux paintings around the fireplaces, wide pumpkin pine floorboards, and that terrific attached barn at Swan Lake we took while Mary was down in Florida tending to her dying parents. You painted in that barn or in the field beyond, filled with yellow flowers. That was paradise. Now the lake is too noisy with those rowdy young people. Swan Lake, indeed. Anyhow, you were no longer available after that. Thanks to Bill….

But my Mary, she’s a good little woman. I think she never knew a thing. After I got so sick missing you she nursed me back to some sort of sanity. I quite lost my head there for a while. But then there was the absence of you: paradise perduto.

You asked me to lunch in midtown.  Remember how you did it? Needed to talk in the middle of the day about something you said was important. Remember? I could have killed you! Bill, of all people. You said you were tired of being my “back-street woman” (pace Fanny Hurst), that you were no longer happy in our “illicit affair.”  That’s how you spoke. Said you wanted marriage. To Bill. My buddy. Said you wanted someone to “build a life with.” Damn. And so you did. For a while. Didn’t last, though, did it!

It seems I am in love with a ghost. Not unusual for a man my age. The ghost of our love, or at least of my love….  No, not unusual. Friends and loved ones drop away like the “sere and yellow leaf” of the Bard. I too am about to drop off. To sleep. Perchance to….  Must keep both eyes on the road. Though I could gaze upon your lovely face all day, Martha, for that eternal moment when you smile back at me with your two glancing eyes.

We’ll turn up that radio. Talking heads. Interviewing David of the “Talking Heads”—would rather hear the music. Me, I’m a talking head, all my life.  And then there is the taking of heads….

The Celts did it, my tribal ancestors. Irish warriors in the days of Cuchulain, who tied their enemies’ heads to their horses’ harness, then set them up on poles by their doors. Then there was the Welsh Bran, the godlike giant whose talking-head-on-a-platter traveled by boat to Ireland and back to Wales. Better off than old John the Baptist, eh?

And then the guillotine. They say it has been proven the head retains consciousness after it’s been severed from the body. Death isn’t absolute when the head rolls along, as did poor Mary Queen of Scots’, or bounces into a basket. All those disembodied faces staring at each other, mouths working, grinding their teeth in inarticulate agonies. Still some electrical juices left in the brain.

In an experiment I read about, two Enlightenment philosophers agreed that when the one lost his head he’d keep blinking, while his friend recorded the number of blinks and timed with his watch.  There were over twenty blinks. Augenblicken. Moments between living and dying.  To know, as a severed head, that the situation is irreversible. How ghastly. Or, perhaps a comfort? No more responsibilities, at any rate. Makes one shudder to think on it.

Is our head the seat of the soul?  Might be why some cannibals like brain best. They take on the power and wisdom of the person.  Or was it just for the flavor?  And the shrinking of heads, say, in the Amazon. To diminish the power of the original owners?  Or for easy storage?  And then there was Willy Yeats’ “A Severed Head.” And his notion of “dreaming back.” Ever read that late play of his? Old father, his hated son, the mother’s ghost in a window of a house fallen into ruin, pacing where no floorboards remain, dreaming back eternally over her betrayed life?

Do I bore you, my dear? I can see through you, you know. You are transparent.

I’m full of stories, others’ stories. Yes, stories in literature are our stories, too. Universals. Archetypes. Literature makes order out of the chaos of life. I used to talk quite a lot in my classes about Universals, what makes great literature last….  Am I rambling, my dear?  Sometimes I really seem to lose my head.

Very well, perhaps I ramble. But really I am mentally walking around. My identity. No. Beyond that. The essence of the nature of what it is to be human. But, when I discover or uncover that – alethea – will there be nothing left to think about, nothing to discuss? Nothing to recount or rehash. Language, in its more artistic forms, to which I have devoted my professorial life, will then have become superfluous and there can be no “story.” And stories are what we crave. The form of a story, the working out of details that pull our emotions into a shape we can contemplate. Like sculpture, or a veil between us and utter reality. What Eliot said: “man cannot bear very much reality.” And so we drive through clouds of verbiage; words can bring alive anything, anything we can imagine.

 

Oh, well, let’s change the radio station, then. But I am not about to drop the subject.

Clever. No. Wise of you to pick a public place, a fancy crowded restaurant in midtown for your pronouncement. No scene from me, anyhow. What could I do but talk, eat, drink, talk. That’s about all I ever did anyway. Talk and project hopeless notions and daydreams of what might be or might have been for us. You wanted more and had found your chance. “A partner in life,” I think was your phrase.

I say, will you look at that! Genuine Airstream. Big one, too. Always fancied owning one. Dear Mary, however, never was a fan of camping nor of travel. She put the kibosh on that scheme. Like Odysseus, I yearned for adventurous journeys; metaphorically slaying enemies, sacking cities, outwitting monsters, conversing with gods. Actually, it appeared that he didn’t relish having to leave home and do all that; otherwise, he wouldn’t have come up with that Trojan horse idea. He just wanted to get home to Ithaca and stay there, in his kingdom with his family. I need another analogy.

Faithful comrades he had, though, as do I. In the end, it’s the men who stick together. At least nowadays. Even Bill and I.

Odysseus’ enemy was Poseidon, god of the sea. The sea personified.

I love the sea. Boats creaking, endless music of water, the play of light and dark. Distant wheezing of dolphins in the evening. I am nothing like Odysseus, except in one way. Both of us learned, in the end, humility.

Even Bill and I, after you were gone from both of us, reforged our comradeship in grief and the old mutual interests. Besides, his family for a time owned my family house at Pretty Marsh before the three of us, taking in Clarence, formed a joint ownership, a Rights of Survivorship agreement. Last one standing gets it all. So to speak.

Wonder what Clarence will cook up for our dinner, my welcome back feast. Not fish, I hope. Leg of lamb would be nice, with saffron and rice. And a few bottles of Coastal Red. Recall once he gave us seal flippers. That’s right. Pan-fried, dredged in flour and butter. Not our seals, of course. Got ‘em frozen by airmail from a cousin in St. John, some Jackie Tar of a long-lost relative who could fiddle like the devil. A fellow Acadian. Sending coals to Newcastle. Once you cut away the meat, there were the bones like fingers of a severed hand on your plate. Hail and farewell, a seal’s fate, sealed.

 

And so, my dear, you went off to marry Bill, and I continued on with my Mary. As if nothing had happened. She never guessed. Although I sometimes wonder. After all, I went into a serious funk and had to explain it away to her. How could you? Bill, of all people, that confirmed bachelor. After a few years, of course, he wanted a divorce. Or did you? But I’m lapsing into fantasy. Bad habit of mine, working on hypotheses, reacting emotionally to unproved premises . . .

And then when you were lost again, in that sailing accident….  No. You survived that. Then got so sick afterwards. I couldn’t bear it that you were suffering so. Just a simple pressure of the soft pillow for a little space of time. To take away your inspiration.

Anyway, won’t you look at that roadkill?  State should set up schools to teach critters to look both ways before crossing. Or are they suicidal creatures, rushing from the safety of the trees into the paths of our metal monsters? Kamikaze raccoons, possums, deer, coyotes, dogs and cats, groundhogs, squirrels…snakes even. You never see a mountain lion lying dead by the side of the road.

And so, my dear, why did you leave me? Was Bill a convenient “out?’ Before Bill, I could always lure you back, I, the skilled angler. Yet after Bill, you never took up with me again. Said I was too mechanical regarding sex. Said I was not erotic or sensual. I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about. Said you wanted passion. Well, I needed you passionately, but you called it lust. Just wordplay? But actions speak. Louder than words. And we never had…what? You wanted more but not from me? I wanted more. Of you. But upsetting my life, dear Mary, all our settled arrangements, was out of the question. Would I take the chance and do it all differently? If we could turn back the clock? I’d have to be a different kind of man to do that. And that is what you really wanted. A sensuous, erotic, passionate man. Which I really did think I was. But you said it was just neediness, emotional greed on my part.  A hedge against old age. An illusion to keep death out of the mirror. That you were a feather in my cap to show off to pals and discrete colleagues. My secret love. We: not a couple, not “legitimate,” not enough for you. You had no spouse waiting at home, as did I. No cushion, no complacency of sharing the home fires with a trusted mate. No one to share holidays and weekends. I could see your point. But what else could I do, what else should I have done? I had only good will toward you, always. You do know that, don’t you? I just couldn’t bear to see you suffer so….  Oh yes, I, the experienced angler, could always reel you back in when you pulled away. Until you swam away for good. You couldn’t bear it anymore….

What are you doing, dear? Can’t see the road with your head in front of mine. What, a kiss? Oh, a kiss. So deep, as if you and I were exchanging our very essence. You do take my breath away, more than ever. You darling girl. You never kissed me like this before, with an open mouth.

You wanted me to understand your world, but all I did was talk to you about mine. Except in a few instances. I recall you describing weekends painting alone in your studio…. You said, “As the bow approaches the strings of its violin, so the brush-edge gently, surely attacks the line on its canvas.” The sensuousness of making. And I wondered how you could keep all your knowledge and abilities in your head, the music, the painting. You said that the painting, the music, was in your fingers, that the body remembers….

 

Oh, go away so I can think in peace. Am I thinking aloud, or am I speaking silently? Free-associating. Just when I get to a point of touching on something important…. You are listening, at any rate. Always listening and looking at me like that. No helpful suggestions, Martha? No anecdotes to distract me? Remember how I used to sing to you, from that opera, “Martha?” Mar-tha, Mar-tha, I am call-ing…do, deedee da do de daaaa. You got tired of that, too, after a few years.

Yes, we are well on our way. Time for the first of two forbidden cigars. From the Danbury pit stop.

Ahhhhh….  Love that first hot spicy hit, smoke rolling around in the mouth and out the nostrils. Attempt a smoke ring, once it gets going. Stinging haze. What was it Mallarme said, about his cigarette smoking? He wanted to put a little veil between himself and reality. Symboliste. Living in one’s head. All anyone does, really.

And who am I in my head? A collection of quotes? A mélange of memories? Hank. Me. Howell Evans, Professor Emeritus. Retired. Just plain Hank, now. Cannot know the self except in relationship with others, the world. Who said that? As we cannot perceive light except as reflections from particles in space? I like the analogy at any rate.

Strange, feel as though I’ve quite lost my head, my train of thought.

Seems we have all we need, now. Whiskey in the back, more than enough snacks…where was I? Particles in space, you and I, reflecting light….  Light of my life.

Kittery! There’s the sign: “Welcome to Maine the Way Life Should Be.” Life.

Wonder if Clarence has started on the brightwork. We left the deck untouched under the tarp, and that old canvas tonneau cover hasn’t been taken off for two years. You know we found the old Hirschoff catboat in a barn and got it for a song. Now comes the work. Could take the rest of our lives. But the kayaks and canoe will be fine. Tackle boxes, waders full of mouse nests, no doubt. Can’t wait to get there. My old home. Then his. Now ours. But what is “mine?” What can we own except our experiences?

Persons in literature are called “characters,” but they are as real as the people we’ve known in life who are not now alive. But they are not dead, either, while they inhabit our imaginations. Molly and Leopold Bloom are more real to most Joyceans than their own neighbors. These “characters” are not ours except in the mind, the spirit, in their effects on us. We cannot own them: they possess us.

 

Ellsworth. Tricky curves here. Won’t be long now, darlin’.  Past the Roadkill Café, over the water onto Mount D, soon along Somes fjord, through Southwest, by Seawall and Bass. Remind me to check the clock then.

Red setting sun beyond the Causeway off to your right. See, Martha? Sun sets late up here in summer. Red Maine light is glowing like a halo around and through you. My dear, you are the light!

The sea, the sea! Now we are really where we want to be, my dear.  Look, waves crashing at Sea Wall. Tide’ll be coming in at Bass. And at Seal. Should pull into Greater Downtown Pretty Marsh on the dot and win my bet. Twelve hours door to door with a few minutes to spare. If I can just get through….  Got to ease up on the gas pedal, though. Never know what might obstruct the roadway, trailers coming out of put-ins, locals making those unnecessarily wide slow turns, like this old coot ahead of us in his rickety pickup full of old lobster traps. Something could fall off onto the road. You see? I’m looking ahead, straight ahead, and not only into the past. When we were happy together. Yes, we were.

Dear child. Oh, I know you were only twenty years younger and a grown woman. So now you know my true age! But I always saw you as an innocent, good soul who needed my help, who needed me. Yes, and so I tried to help, to make you somewhat dependent. Not completely, of course. But enough so you wouldn’t pull away.

I could have killed you for putting an end to that happiness, that delight! And for the humiliation I felt. I felt, Who the hell did she think she was, eh? You knew who I was, my career, my reputation. Oh, yes, you had your own skills and successes and important friends, too. But dammit, I was a giant in my field. And a man. And you, the little woman. Or not so little. Your life before me, young motherhood, early widowhood, your past pains, joys, griefs—experiences beyond my imagination or interest.  You said my “lack of experience” was an invisible wedge between us. Well, it was you who put it there! I was interested in a good time, in giving you a good time, distractions from work and cares. I wanted us to feel young together and part of something special. I wished you only happy thoughts and you threw them back in my face! I could have killed you!

Nice and easy does it, Hank. Do you never stop smiling, my dear?

Yes, I see now. We are together again and now nothing can change it.

 

Here we are. See, Bill’s fancy car’s there, Clarence’s truck, too.

Better go, Martha, dear. But wait. Before you do, I want you to know that I am a happy man, now. A content man. Back in paradise. That’s right…. Be seeing you….

“There he is!” Bill is shouting from the porch. “Hey Clarence, he’s right on time, just before dark.”

Clarence is putting his face up to my window and staring. He wants me to get out.  “Unlock the damn door, Hank!  Come on, ole Buddy.”

My hands are frozen against the steering wheel.

“Hank!  Get outta the goddamn car!” Now he is yelling, steaming up the cold glass. “Hey, he’s just sittin’ there, staring straight ahead.”

The two of them are rocking the Jeep, trying to wake me up.

I don’t want to get out, don’t want to move. So good to gaze once more at the rhythmic heaving ocean: the Cove, our wine-dark sea.

Alison Armstrong has published short fiction, poetry, essays, art and literary criticism since the 1970s and two books, The Joyce of Cooking (1986) and a volume of textual scholarship (1993) in the Cornell Mss of WB Yeats series. She teaches in the Humanities Department at SVA.