It was an awful day to be going to Vinalhaven.
Driving rain and wind bounced the ferry across Penobscot Bay. It took strong bum muscles to keep me in my seat. And only stronger face muscles kept me from unmanning myself in front of my fellow passengers.
(Nearly 30 years has passed since that trip and as I labor over this sentence, trying to shoehorn in a little wit, I’m swaying in my chair. Talk about muscle memory....)
Samuel Johnson said, “Being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned.” I knew jails. I’d been on ships. I felt his pain.
When we finally arrived, the other passengers and vehicles pretty much evaporated and I found myself alone on the side of the road. And even though it was early in the day, it was dark and wet and foggy and the unmistakable Barnabas Collins vibe had me a little chilled.
It was my first trip out there, but I’d already learned a lot about the place. It was very much like the Charlestown projects from which I sprang: Closemouthed people, by nature and nurture both, many of whom were all yahned up in vendettas as old as the island itself. Indeed, there was a whole goddamned peapot full of folks all bungled up in the gripe that brought me there in the first place.
Sides had been chosen. It had complicated things. It always does.
The fellow I’m to see – Robert Indiana -- was an island unto himself through a combination of fame, wealth and eccentricity, which was how he preferred it. Imagine: By my reckoning, he’s an island on an island, currently marooned on an island of anger, disgust and legal and moral jeopardy. In short, Robert was jammed up with the law.
I told you it was complicated.
I’m there to wrangle a confession or two and suss out the facts. It’s what I did. And I was doing it for the late Dan Lilley, who was then (and in many minds remains) the consensus Heavyweight Champ of the Maine Bar. Consequently, as I stood there in the drizzle waiting for my ride, two things were certain:
One, when I left the island, I was gonna be carrying the truth in my pocket – or as near to it as possible – because that was what I’d been tasked with, and working for Dan, there was very little room for disappointment; and two, considering the general lack of sartorial awareness I’d already seen, I was the best-dressed guy on the whole danged landmass.
Oh hell yeah. No question. My genuine London Fog raincoat covered my impeccable suit and tie and on my head, the only legitimate scally cap north of the New Hampshire tolls.
After a bit, a Renfield type, whose name, frankly, doesn’t escape me, pulled up and off we went. Nary a word or even a grunt passed between us during the brief ride. He brought me to the door – and boy, do I mean door — of the Odd Fellows Hall/Star of Hope Lodge and dropped me.
Now, considering the morbid architecture and atmosphere, I’m half-expecting a Lurch type to answer the door, which would have been a real gas because everyone knows I’m the Lurch archetype. I’m huge. I’m scary. I buttle well. I can dance. I know a girl named Wednesday. No brag, just fact.
But no, Robert answered my knock wreathed in a cloud of El Producto White Owl Dutch Master, which is second only to Parodi stogies for the nastiest smoke out there.
From here, everything I saw, learned, said or heard once I crossed Robert’s threshold and our many subsequent meetings is privileged. And though everyone on the defense side of The Rumble (the best and most accurate way to describe his subsequent trial and acquittal) except me is now dead, it is not my privilege to waive. Not that I would.
I will say this: He was hardly, hardly, hardly the worst character in my Rolodex. Spookiest? Maybe. Maybe, not. It could have just been the weather....
That brings us to today – and the point of this essay. Robert has passed and his fortune is being batted around by a platoon of lawyers like an orca does a seal. It’s what they do. I’m not blaming them. If I were still in the business, I would have done my best to find a way to involve myself.
Dig it: I’ve never yet envied another’s rice bowl. That doesn’t mean I don’t like rice.
Dig this, too: Considering the case at hand and the entirety of what I know about him, it would have been easy to take over Robert’s life. Even at his sharpest, he was a mark, especially if you knew the lyrics to his (many) secrets or were practiced in the art and science of the strong-arm. I’m sure, as he slid deeper into his dotage, it wouldn’t have taken much effort at all.
You’ll never hear that about him, which is precisely why I’m mentioning it. It needs to be said.
I understand there’s a serious move afoot to close the upcoming probate hearing concerning the disposition of his estate for this reason or that, but I suspect that’s just billable hours talking. Then again, who knows.
What I do know is there’s the fetid odor of a Dickensian pawnshop polluting this case and Robert’s bedclothes are on the counter, if you catch my drift. That alone should be more than enough to keep the courtroom doors open -- if only to air out the Star of Hope Lodge. Heaven knows it needs it.
Pete McDonald lives in Boston and is retired from the motion picture industry