We were both oddballs in ways that folded us, like pancake mix and eggs, into the batter of kindred spirits. Steven Ellis first came into my bookstore in November 2005. He noticed that I stocked Nathaniel Hawthorne titles, and we were off and running in the first of many long conversations.
Steve had appropriated Hawthorne growing up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, close to the author’s old stomping grounds. I too had taken Hawthorne to my heart; he’d been, in his early rascally days, what we now call a “washashore” to Martha’s Vineyard, his family having sent him away from home to find himself. He’d displayed absolutely zilch signs of a great writing talent, so an uncle put him to work as a horse dealer in Edgartown.
He took a room at what is now known as the Edgartown Inn where he had an affair with his landlady’s daughter, a passionate young woman who bore him an out-of-wedlock daughter.
He wanted to marry the girl, but her kin, if you can imagine such a thing — considering the immortal talent he was to become — rejected young Hawthorne. The baby died. Not too long ago, researchers discovered, in the Edgartown cemetery, a small coffin with remains buried alongside Hawthorne’s long-ago sweetheart. Mother and daughter may have formed the template for the characters of Hester Pryne and daughter Pearl in The Scarlet Letter.
I won’t recount any one conversation in which Steve and I indulged because I’d be obliged to set aside a full book to do it justice. In short, we both loved to split hairs about areas of mutual interest that would have made most people squirm.
On a rainy afternoon, I’d make a cup of hot chocolate for each of us, and as we eased into opposite sides of the pink floral couch of the bookstore, we might turn our noggins to a list of Henry VIII’s wives — Steve taught me, “Divorced, Beheaded, Died / Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” — or the first emperors of ancient Rome, with one of us musing, “It was Augustus, then Tiberius . . . “ “Did Caligula come next, or was it Claudius?” and the other of us might have quipped, “A.k.a. Derek Jacobi.”
We both loved Rome, in fact, and had spent months at a time there, Steve, it turned out, had enjoyed part of his many Roman holidays living inside the Vatican. He was some kind of exclaustrated cleric. He taught me that word, exclaustrated. It means living outside a religious order, but still affiliated with it; in other words, freedom without dishonor. This worked perfectly for me, an unofficial nun in the secular world, the kind who lives in her own apartment and can wear whatever she likes, within reason.
Steve and I were the same age — both born in 1948 — but he seemed a much older person. He was tall and rotund, with a silver beard and aristocratic bearing. He wore tailored slacks with crisp creases, English pullover sweaters, and scarves. He reminded me of an African American Orson Wells and, in truth, he was just slightly on the pompous side. In an odd way, I thought he deserved to be.
A heart condition caused him to walk with a cane. In fact, he hardly seemed to mind stepping into the shoes of an elderly man. He often lunched at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging. After that he would buy a little something from the antiques store on Tuckernuck Avenue. The last part of this triptych routine was a visit to my bookstore.
Whenever he went missing for a week or two at a time, it seemed to relate to a stay with his father in Haverhill. His mother was somehow absent from the picture, and only when I read his obit did I learn that he had once been married. He had no kids but was fond of his nephews. Steve had inherited a lovely old house from an aunt in Vineyard Haven. He’d shown me pictures of it only because a rafter of wild turkeys once invaded his front yard, which sounds quaint until it happens to you.
Steve once told me one of the eeriest true ghost stories I’ve ever heard. I’ll try to recreate his scholarly, old-school style as I set it down for you:
I was set to attend a conference in an old monastery high in the
mountains, about an hour’s drive from Boulder, Colorado. There was
no longer a religious community installed there, so they closed it up every
winter, and opened it in the spring for meetings and retreats.
I took down the date of the event, but I got it wrong somehow, and
booked my flight a day before anyone else did. I received word back that
it was not a problem, that the day staff from the village had been getting
the place organized. If I didn’t mind spending the first night alone in the
monastery, I was welcome to come up early.
[This would have been a perfect time for Steve to take a reflective pause. He was a riveting story-teller with a sonorous tenor voice. He reminded me a Joseph Conrad narrator who could recount a novella-length tale until dawn, and no one at the dinner table would throw a biscuit at him, or make a sound other than to pour a fresh glass of good port].
I was tired from the flight, and even wearier from the long, twisting
drive up the mountains in a rental car. I reached the wrought-iron gates
which, thankfully, stood open. The sun was just sinking toward the
surrounding mountain peaks, and that last bit of amber light beautifully
illuminated the massive stone walls. The stone itself, even without the
sunset, was a golden color. The whole place had a Knights Templar feeling
When I pulled up through the porte-cochere, two brass lanterns
glowed on either side of the high wooden doors. A caretaker emerged,
showed me where to park, then led me through the front hall the size of
a train station.
The place was awash in gloom. The caretaker switched on only
enough wall sconces for us to make our way up the grand staircase and
through a maze of corridors. Finally he showed me into my room — very
comfortable, with a four-poster bed, dark mahogany furniture, and some
tattered but noble old Persian carpets. I moved around the chamber,
switching on every lamp because, by then, the sun had dropped well
below the mountains.
No light whatsoever came through the recessed Gothic windows.
The caretaker said he was heading back to his cabin behind the
main building. He asked if I remembered the route we’d taken to get to
my room, and then described how to find the dining hall downstairs. “Most
of the food supplies won’t be brought up until tomorrow but there’s bread,
butter, eggs, and a few cans of this and that in the pantry, if you want to
I’ll admit, immediately after the caretaker had gone, I toyed with
the idea of locking myself in my chamber and staying put until daylight.
Up until that evening, I’d only had the haziest sense of the existence of
ghosts but, alone in that vast silent monastery, I couldn’t help thinking that
all the spirits from a hundred-mile vicinity — dead monks, cowboys,
ancient Indians, and even the Donner Party — were massing inside the thick
walls for the night.
However, as often happens with me [and here he patted his Orson
Wells tummy under the dark cardigan], I was finally overcome with hunger
pangs, and suddenly nothing else mattered.
[part II of Soulmates from Here to Eternity continued (and concluded) in the next installment of The Ghosts Lady’s Ghosts: the private collection]