A Very Rough Draft of Jim Harstad’s Memoir, ON HE RODE — Chapter Forty-Nine

It’s kind of amazing how fast I start feeling normal by starting my day in a neighborhood among normal people who prepare to go normal places and do normal things. And how good and normal “normal” can feel. Do Kerouac and Kesey feel normal? Would they feel normal tooling around Boston behind the wheel of Ford’s stamped-tin Falcon? Somehow I think not. But somehow I find myself feeling comfortably normal not really tooling but more like toodling Grandma Duck style.

Well, why not? The Friendly Folks at Ford make it easy — FordoMatic tranny, power steering, AC, etc. — all the easy-driving accoutrements Miss Chevy lacked. But Miss Chevy was a looker — though not to Whitey, who begrudgingly garaged her under his cedar trees. Things would be more normal for him without her. For me too, to be honest. Maybe I’m done with lookers. Isn’t it about time?

Or at least maybe I’m done with only-lookers, things and people that promise a lot more than they seem willing or able to produce. We all know what I mean. Mary is not like that, more an also-looker, she who is smart, generous, kind, hard-working, AND good-looking. And of course anyone so endowed has a right to expect a partner to at least try to be deserving of an honest exchange of goods and services. It seemed to work for us. We’re getting along so well it seems normal. Very normal.

As a doctoral candidate Mary’s busy schedule leaves only discretionary absences and weekends for shared adventure. Which means I’ve got free time and a free car in a town with as much history as any. Let’s look around.

While I might sometimes look and act like some Melvin Goombah just in from Planet 9, I remind myself that I hold a BA in English from a very reputable university and am not without imagination and intellectual curiosity. I keep telling myself that as I find my way to the Hawthorne-storied House of the Seven Gables.

In short, it’s not the luxurious manse that I expected. The seven gables threw me off. I’m not sure I know what a gable is, but seven of them attached to a house sounds like a lot. I’ve been to Europe and know what a flying buttress is. Gables turn out to be a lot smaller and less imposing. The rooms are small, the ceilings low, and though I don’t quite have to duck my head to go through doorways, I do turn a bit sideways. It’s a doll’s house that must have been occupied by people a head shorter than us. It’s hard to imagine family life going on in so physically constrained an environment.

But then it occurs to me that the first house I remember from small kid time had three tiny rooms and how warm and snug the four of us were there. I try to remember plot, character, scenes from Hawthorne’s novel but come up empty. Did I ever actually read it? I don’t know. And anyway, it’s time to pick up Mary, share my adventure.

Somehow she manages to look crisp and energetic after a full day of serious work. Another plus. Credit the restrained professional attire and the natural, easygoing good-will-towards-all intelligence. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the future of mental health therapy. “You can keep driving,” she suggests, getting into the passenger side. “I like being able to look around.”

“And giving me directions?”

“And giving damned good directions. Where’d you go today?”

I tell her about my House of the Seven Gables experience. “I don’t know whether to admire Hawthorne more for doing so much with so little or to just kind of dismiss the whole thing.”

“Hawthorne? Or literature in general?”

“No. Neither. Just something to ponder.”

“Added, no doubt, to a long list. How about tomorrow? Did you say Thoreau?”

“Walden Pond it will be.”

“Turn left at the next light.”

“I try not to make left turns.”

“Try to make this one.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t, I said I try to avoid them. But you compel me,” I say, neatly completing a perfect left turn.

The morning is again summer-bright as I drop Mary off in the middle of a campus-like complex that lacks only the unbridled energy of a university to actually be one. Beautifully manicured, green and tidy, the concrete paths occupied by desultory pairs and trios of mute sleepwalkers. Mary ignores them as she strides purposefully toward her office, and they ignore her.

My own sense of purpose seems compromised by comparison. When was the last time I read anything by Mr. Henry David Thoreau? Nothing recently, to be honest. Have I even read all of WALDEN? I don’t know. If so, what did I think of it? I don’t remember. Thoreau could be one of those “great” people whose aspirations are to be more admired than their achievements. Of what I have read, what do I recall?

“Thoreau, what are you doing in jail?”

“Emerson, what are you doing out of jail?”

Human rights. Did that scene really happen? Really? Maybe I’d better do some serious reading?

Anyway, I go to Walden Pond, which is roughly the size of Tiger Lake, for Olympic Peninsula types, but with freeways and railroads much nearer. I like that the pond itself still looks reasonably natural and authentic and that Thoreau’s cabin has escaped desecration. Crude to be sure. Like camping out. I try to imagine myself as Thoreau, sitting in his doorway watching the conflict he later wrote as “The Battle of the Ants”. Cool. Makes me part of history.

I make it back to the mental hospital earlier than anticipated and kill time by reading a magazine article about a Middle Ages community that all got high on LSD produced accidentally on rye bread. Then I go for a walk towards Mary’s office, where I stop at the top of a broad flight of stairs overlooking the complex. I stand for quite a while, over six feet tall, baldheaded, black bearded. It seems I must cut a compelling figure.

Those walkers, those dozing pairs and trios sleepwalking in slowly developing streams all heading towards me and my stairs. Is this happening? Really? Suddenly I realize Mary is behind me. “Oh . . . my . . . God!” she gasps. “Let’s go.”

Mahalo for reading!

Talk story

Leave one comment for A Very Rough Draft of Jim Harstad’s Memoir, ON HE RODE — Chapter Forty-Nine

This website uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to its use of cookies.