Personal Best: Elegy to a Friend
In this 1985 essay our late, beloved columnist recalls his own unknowable neighbor.
I had a telephone call early this morning, telling me that my friend, the lobsterman, had died. I hadn’t been aware that he was even sick, but there was nothing unusual about that; a lot of mystery enshrouded his life and he probably preferred it that way. But the shock of loss makes me incapable of realizing yet that the little house across the water from my island is no longer occupied by this man, and already I feel that a great deal of color has drained out of the cove, leaving it like a color photograph that has turned to sepia with age.
In death we often see people as heroic in size when in life they were quite ordinary. In my own vision, the lobsterman was always a little larger than life, a portrait too large for its frame. This had to be because of his nature, since in physical size he was not a large man at all and in recent years had shown signs of shrinking, of drying up. But he was always cynical, always irreverent, always smoking, always drinking a little too much, always talkative, and always helpful and considerate. Display of emotion made him uneasy; he probably likened it to some weakness of the human spirit. Last spring when I returned to the island after a long absence, he brought me six lobsters. “You’re too damned cheap to buy them,” he said, proffering the gift and turning to go. I knew that if 1 had made the slightest gesture of trying to pay him he would have been deeply offended.
Life is not easy for any person who takes his living from the sea, but my friend’s life was filled with hardships that I think would have staggered most people. Although totally absorbed by the sea, he was not oblivious of those who lived by land and always in his mind was the understanding that his destiny was linked with that of people from whom he was separated by huge differences of temperament and tradition. Two years ago, in a dense fog, his outboard motor failed and he was forced to spend the night drifting aimlessly in Casco Bay. It was a chill night, filled with rain showers, and his open boat provided no shelter. After he had been found by searchers the next morning and brought home, I paid him a visit. He was sitting in his living room, smoking as usual and drinking a beer. When I commiserated with him over what must have been a sobering experience, he shrugged his shoulders as though it were commonplace. “Big problem was that I couldn’t get my cigarettes lighted,” he said. “My damned matches were wet.”
Appearances, in the lobsterman’s opinion, were shallow; he couldn’t be concerned with them. His house was in a constant state of disorder and his lobsterboat — before he gave it up and started hauling just a few traps in an open boat with an outboard — looked like a derelict that would sink at any moment. This grotesquely patched and repaired object — generally agreed to be the worst-looking boat in Casco Bay — now lies beached in the small yard behind his house to which it had been hauled for repairs that were never made. One day while the boat was gently nudging my wharf as the lobsterman and I were talking, I suggested that he name the boat Pride of the Cove. He thought that over a moment in silence, then his face broke out in a grin. “Isn’t she a beauty?” he asked. There was a genuine trace of pride in his voice.
A few years ago in an accident, the origin of which remains a mystery to me, he had to walk through knee-deep mud with a broken leg to reach his house. I was told by people with him at the time that the profanity set something of a new local record for sustained inventiveness, for originality, and for endurance. A day or so later, I called on him with a bottle of bourbon to wish him a speedy recovery. He was sitting up in bed, his leg proudly extended in a cast. “How do you feel?” I asked. He ignored my question. “What’s in the bottle?” he inquired politely.
There was an oracular ring, both touching and authoritative, to almost all of the lobsterman’s pronouncements, and while I always listened to him with unconcealed admiration, I knew in my heart that what he didn’t know for sure he had no hesitation in creating out of whole cloth. But he did possess the knack of separating the true value from the spurious, he could foretell the weather with an accuracy that science has not yet been able to match, he could fix any mechanical thing that was repairable, he took pride in his distrust of local, county, state, and federal governments, and he wondered aloud, in our conversations conducted at the foot of my wharf over bottles of beer, why the world had turned out so poorly after a fair start. “People have become mean,” he said once, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and placing an empty bottle carefully on the deck of the float. “Just plain damned mean. Nobody wants to work anymore and nobody wants to help people anymore. It’s everybody for himself, and that’s a hell of a way to live.” He was not trying to show off with any profound thoughts; he was simply responding honestly to his vision of life.
Any elegy I would ever undertake to write about this cove where I spend a large part of my life would have to take important note of the lobsterman; he was a person of consequence who invested the place with a strange kind of subjective virtue. When I heard of his death this morning the first thought that entered my mind was the line from John Donne’s haunting verse: “ . . . and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
- By: Caskie Stinnett