The Room

The man sits in a room not quite square. It has pockets along the walls, somewhere for small children to hide were they to intrude on this private place. The carpet is industrial and worn, stained where coffee and wine have fallen and added rings of darkness against the pile. There are bookshelves, split between green cold metal, and wood, warped and stained light. They vary in height and surround the man casting uneven shadows from the weak overhead light, in contrast to the antiquarian books in dark oiled morocco bindings, rich browns and tan, one or two vellum. There are no windows. On the walls are paintings of steamers and sailing ships; an overdue square rigger coming in rusted and beaten, home to London, a China tea clipper departing Foochow, the fantail stern of a steamship from the early 1940's freighter.

One chair and a foot stool, centered; soft shaped with worn fabric, a long abandoned pattern of green and blue. The fabric is crushed. The seat cushion, once proud, sags from years of weight. The arms are short.

A table fits over and slides to the chair, allowing a person to read. The table is nondescript, scrap but appropriate to the task. The man spends his money on other things.

On the table there is one book, a lamp for illumination, pipe and holder, an ashtray, wood matches. A tobacco tamper. Behind the chair a record player and simple speakers, songs on vinyl from time erased by some, prized by this man in his late 70's. The songs of Paul Robeson’s baritone, melodies that got Britain through the blitz and bombs, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday with Goodman. When the music plays there is a feeling of melancholy. The solos run and dance in the clouds. There is sadness in the instrumental phrases.

The hirsute Irishman is chosen...

Tonight is the time for a meerschaum pipe, decided by discussion and agreement with himself. He loves the fine expressive carvings, the color from heat and hand, the faint taste of decades in the cake. Which one to smoke? The smiling Friar, the Nubian woman? Not this evening. The Pasha with the amber stem and a long beard? Again, no. The hirsute Irishman is chosen, the color a gentle white, large enough to hold comfortably and contemplate the history of the green island. A favorite, it came from a friend who knows life's cycles of sun and snow. The face has a mole on the side of his nose, the mouth holds a cutty clenched under a mustache. He has a beard, scarf and porkpie hat with hair escaping. There is life in the figure, more than a century old. He shall never grow old.

A man smoking a pipe of a man smoking a pipe. The tobacco is aromatic vanilla and custard. Black cavendish offers brown sugar, grass, citrus with drops of honey from cavendish and Virginia. Creamy vanilla custard topping is the star. When the man releases his breath, the smoke spirals up, drifting to the side, touching and bouncing away from the walls. The taste on the tongue is different than that on the nose and the room fills with the sweetness of fruit and cake. The air darkens slightly. His puffs are regular: draw in, hold, exhale, think.

Shakespeare was 35 years old when this book was published, Elizabeth long on the throne.

In appreciation of the Irishman and his race, he selects from the shelves a volume printed in 1599, the Second Edition of Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques And Discoveries Of The English Nation, the first great English collection of travels, the beginning of empire and world domination painted red on false globes. Shakespeare was 35 years old when this book was published, Elizabeth long on the throne. The book is massive, 1800 pages, bound in contemporary polished calf with a central arabesque device on the front board, border lines an inch from the edges, untrimmed. It has great presence, in that distant century the property of important men with inscriptions of owners, one a judge of the high court of admiralty, from 1600, who passed the book to his son. Inside the front cover is a neat signature of the second cashier of the Bank of England, a shelf mark location where the book slept three hundred winters in a manor house where wars were begun and the empire grown. After that the book crossed the western ocean to the new world and collectors whose names are lost. There are no other records of provenance. The book came to our man from an auction that featured Greek religious texts in a Manhattan basement. Hakluyt is not a book for novices. It is a foundation book, to be loved.

Hakluyt has rested on the tables and beds of men who live as long as this book survives, the property of… would have been read in cold rooms with fire and candle, a throw rug over shoulders and a hound for company on the floor. Those men left quill marginalia in a secretarial hand, perfect and tiny, circles and swirling lines. Pipe and print, a holy combination.

It is the age of exploration, small ships heading into the unknown, recorded on cloth made paper, accounts of storm, battle and seas unnamed. A few come back with riches, courted and given audience, telling adventures beyond imagination, low talk mouthed to the ears of courtiers and ministers. Ship's logs and memory, words written in black letter with dreams realized, missing, drowned in the southern seas.

He lights and keeps the pipe's bowl glowing with flaring matches. The ash grows, white rough powder, a cone of carbon. The muted euphoria increases. The smoker sits with legs crossed on the stool, worlds in his hands. Letters change from metaled impressions cut into paper, lift off the page, images moving with the grace of birds above dark roiled swell. The calendar rolls back, lifetimes captured in layered stop motion. Here is Frances Drake and a hundred more, brocaded and ragged, armed and scourged by disease, the obsession of treasure and discovery. He will return in triumph. Most die unmarked on sea and shore. All this visible in risen smoke.

The man's fingers and eyes trace the decades of the 16th century. Thinking of young Thomas Cavendish on his way back to England in triumph from the Philippine capture of the Manila Galleon in the 1580's, his eyes lose focus. In his mind, the bullock carts filled with gold and silver halt before the castle on the river Thames, banners and trumpeters in line. Grooms hold the snorting oxen’s tossing leads, crowds cheer heroes from horizons where dragons be.

The man continues reading. Another part of an hour and his attention diminishes, the effects of the pipe and the voyages before him. The bookshelves and walls bend, ecstasy of the smoke a ragged cloud on a summer day. The past has begun to envelop him. Stay longer and he might not return to his room and present.

His head drops to his chest, the promise of the tobacco fulfilled, voyages complete for the evening. The Irishman with cutty gently slides onto the Hakluyt, pages open at Drake's pillaging raids against the Spaniards and what will become the Panama Canal in 400 years. The last wisp of smoke climbs to the ceiling. In this nearly square room, man, pipe, book, they all sleep in peace.

David Gerstel
Sarnano, Italy
January, 2023