Thursday, May 11, 2017

Peanut Island, Trevor, and Politics

Tuesday’s weather was one of those travelogue-featured Florida days, relatively low humidity, light winds out of the east, temperature reaching the mid-80’s, just a perfect day for boating, especially as the weekdays features light “boat traffic.”  It’s gotten to the point where I will not even go out on a weekend when the “crazies” seize the waterways, their uneducated or inconsiderate boat handling making for dangerous, uncomfortable going at times.  Being responsible for one’s wake is unheeded by many.

But I’ve digressed.  So Tuesday dawned a beautiful day, a day to be on the water, to escape the constant political drumbeat, and to enjoy what led us to Florida in the first place.  Ann was busy, so that meant going out on my own.  In this area, there are a few choices for a solitary journey.  First, go up or down the Intracoastal or go out into the ocean and do the same.  In other words, take a ride, but that doesn’t appeal to me anymore unless I’m taking someone who would like to see the sights.  Another option is to drop a hook at an anchorage, probably in northern Lake Worth, sit in the shade of the tee top, and read.  I can go swimming off the boat, but prefer someone with me to do that although I normally have no difficulty getting off or on the boat.  The third, more preferable option is to go to a beach, only reachable by boat, in that case either Munyon Island or Peanut Island.  The latter is further and the boat needed a run anyhow, so off to Peanut I went.

It was the right decision as the island was mostly deserted……just what I sought, some peace and quiet.  Brought a sandwich and some Perrier, tied the boat up at the floating docks in the Peanut Island Boat basin, and then walked the quarter mile or so to “my” beach, with a beach chair and reading material. This consisted first of the Wall Street Journal which to me nowadays is “light” reading except for a few articles and the second collection of short stories by William Trevor who I haven’t returned to ever since the election and getting sucked into the abyss of political news.  Time to turn to an old friend to accompany me on my island and forget about everything else.

His second short story anthology Selected Stories consists of ones he wrote later in life, many when he was my age, so I particularly relate to them. As an “Anglo-Irish” writer his shift seems to be more towards where he grew up, Ireland, and not where he lived most of his adult life, England.   He is indeed an Irish story teller.

After a swim (or more like floating) in the clear Bahamian-like waters of Peanut Island, passing by the “Waterway Grille” at a mooring (want pizza at the beach? - just tie your boat up to this houseboat), I had my lunch and dispensed with the WSJ and then settled down with my companion, William Trevor.  

I read and pretty much reread his story Widows, classic Trevor, a story about a slice of life of persons of no particular interest, attribute, or fame, everyman in his naked self.  The story starts off with such a memorable line, immediately bringing you into the story: Waking on a warm, bright morning in early October, Catherine found herself a widow.” Her husband, Mathew, died in his sleep right next to her.  Then in one sentence you get a good idea of both of them:  Quiet, gently spoken, given to thought before offering an opinion, her husband had been regarded by Catherine as cleverer and wiser than she was herself, and more charitable in his view of other people. 

He was well thought of, organized and professional as a seller of agricultural equipment.  He even anticipated the inevitable day when they would be separated by death: Matthew had said more than once, attempting to anticipate the melancholy of their separation: they had known that it was soon to be.  He would have held the memories to him if he’d been the one remaining. ‘Whichever is left,’ he reminded Catherine as they grew old, ‘it’s only for the time being.’…Matthew had never minded talking about their separation, and had taught her not to mind either.

It is not until the funeral that we are introduced to another key character, the other widow (after all the title of the short story is Widows) and that person is Catherine’s sister, Alicia.  She had been living in the house with Catherine and Matthew since her own philandering husband had died nine years earlier.  So there is now the contrast of a happy marriage and Alicia’s unhappy on.  The sisters are now alone in the house.  Alicia is the older, and their relationship seems to be reverting into one before their marriages, the older helping, guiding the younger.

Until the other major character emerges, a painter, Mr. Leary, who brought no special skill to his work and was often accused of poor workmanship, which in turn led to disputes about payment.  Weeks after the funeral he comes by the house to discuss an outstanding bill, an embarrassment because of the death.  He explains that work he had done for Matthew on the house, for cash, £226 to be exact, had not been paid.  Catherine clearly remembers withdrawing the money in that exact amount for Matthew to give to him, and even has the bank records to that effect, but Mr. Leary asks whether she had a receipt.  Mrs. Leary always issued a receipt and there was none in her receipt book.  Are you sure the money was delivered to Mrs. Leary?  The reader is left with the insinuation that perhaps Matthew used the money for something tawdry or at least careless.  Catherine and her sister think that this is just a clever scheme by the Leary’s to be double paid.  She ignores it for awhile but still ponders the possible reasons and then a statement is delivered by mail that the amount is past due.  And that’s part of the genius and wonderment of the story: we never really know whether it was paid or not and if not why (although one is left with the feeling it was).

Catherine is tortured by this knowing a statement will come month after month and finally declares to her sister her intention to pay the bill (probably again).  Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished.  And knowing her sister well, Alicia knew that this resolve would become more stubborn as more time passed.  It would mark and influence her sister; it would breed new eccentricities in her.  If Leary had not come that day there would have been something else.

So, in a sharp turn in the story, the spotlight now shines on the relationship between the sisters. This is another Trevor technique of shifting the story suddenly to the real one: an old power struggle to a degree, Alicia being the older and when they were younger considered the more beautiful.  Why shouldn’t things return to the way they were? The disagreement between the sisters, to pay or not, reaches a climax one night.  They did not speak again, not even to say goodnight.  Alicia closed her bedroom door, telling herself crossly that her expectation had not been a greedy one.  She had been unhappy in her foolish marriage, and after it she had been beholden in this house.  Although it ran against her nature to do so, she had borne her lot without complaint; why should she not fairly have hoped that in widowhood they would again be sisters first of all?....By chance, dishonesty had made death a potency for her sister, as it had not been when she was widowed herself.  Alicia had cheated it of its due; it took from her now, as it had not then.” Talk about great writing.  That last sentence is a gem.  And that is what Trevor’s writing is all about, the commonplace, but those profound moments in each “everyman’s” life.

So, my day at Peanut passed with natural beauty and my renewed “friendship” with William Trevor, to be revisited as time permits.  I packed up, walked back to the boat, the late afternoon sun now beating heavily, boarded the boat and went north on Lake Worth back to my dock to clean up the boat and get ready for dinner with friends.  It was a day away from Twitter and current news so it was not until I got into the car with our friends that I learned that FBI Director James Comey was abruptly fired by Trump, the details of which as we get deeper and deeper into it are as bizarre as any fiction I’ve read.

It seems to me that the next few days are decisive as to whether we will (as we have up to now) accept this as the "new normal" or some courageous Republican Senators draw the line at this and insist on a special prosecutor.    If you switch back and forth between Fox and MSNBC you would think we are living on two different planets.  The assistant White House press secretary was waxing eloquently that the decision was oh so, so, swift and decisive.  Just her kind of man!

The disingenuous letter from Trump cited the “recommendations” of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.  The latter said Comey should be fired because of the way he handled Hillary Clinton emails!  But the most bewildering part of Trump’s firing letter is the following sentence:  “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”  In other words, I’m firing you because of how you helped me get elected, not because you are leading the investigation into my ties to Russia, and I need to get a partisan FBI director who will do my bidding.

Here's hoping our Republic survives instead of stealthily slipping into an obedient dictatorship.