Last April, before heading up for the summer, Rutherford “Ruthie” Lodge, age 99, of Chestnut Hill, Mass., settled down to reflect on the passing of Hannibal McDougal who had died during the winter at age 101, and on the long history the two shared. It had been thus, these parallel lives, ever since Rutherford commissioned the building of the “cottage” high on the bluff back in 1926 and had taken on young Hannibal as caretaker.
Linen writing paper embossed with “Above the Fray,” under which appeared an ink rendering of the cottage as viewed from the shore below, was at the little writing desk in each of the nine waterfront guest bedrooms, each also with a bath and an expansive view of the Thoroughfare and North Haven village with the Camden Hills looming over its shoulder.
Out back, beyond the fray as it were, and looking out over the clothes yard, were six small and sparsely furnished bedrooms and a bath reserved jointly for the butler, chauffeur, house maid, cook, scullery maid, and governess. The “help,” as they were known, were transported up to the island each spring from Chestnut Hill. A few days later the “family” would follow, settling in comfortably to their freshly quaffed summer accommodations.
A final swig propelled him to the corner cabinet where he kept a 12-gauge shotgun.
Accustomed at the time to selecting from among a broad field of supplicants, often Irish immigrants, to fill out the ranks back in Massachusetts, Ruthie was unaccustomed to the contrasting nature of applicants from North Haven and Vinalhaven. Following each interview, he’d found himself feeling somehow diminished and by the middle of August had settled apprehensively into a kind of subservient mindset, as if the course had been set and it was he who was being scrutinized.
Toward the end of August, desperate to have someone in place by Labor Day, he’d offered the job to Hannibal, who seemed the least suspect of the lot, and Hannibal, after re-negotiating the salary, restricting the hours during and the reasons for which he could be called, and generally doing Samuel Gompers proud, accepted and then began a long and tumultuous marriage of independence to interdependence.
During the next half century Ruthie or his wife Grace, often in a great huff and usually with good cause, terminated Hannibal’s employment several times and Hannibal resigned as frequently.
One morning, during a contentious summer, Rutherford re-hired him in spite of the fact that he hadn’t been fired. But an hour later, Grace did fire him after he invaded her tea party and behaved inappropriately to one of her guests.
Hannibal retired to the boathouse, a sanctuary over which he exercised dominion and to which he often retreated to lick his wounds and observed that the North Haven Dinghy races, directly offshore, were laboring through one false start after another.
A final swig propelled him to the corner cabinet where he kept a 12-gauge shotgun. He bellowed through a megaphone that it was high time they got underway, discharged several rounds above the assembled boats and watched with satisfaction as they scattered, some directly downwind along the course, others otherwise into the wind and still others on a hasty tack for the lee shore.
Ruthie, who was a volunteer monitor, went charging up the ramp and, unaware that Grace had just fired him, told Hannibal that this was the final straw.
Eventually, the relationship between them came to resemble any of several good solid island marriages.
Rutherford, alone now since Grace had passed away a few years back, had broken his hip and, for the first of 77 summers, would not be returning to the Fray. His old nemesis and frequent solace had died at just the right moment.
Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven where he serves on the town select board. His books include Away Happens and As the Crow Flies. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.