Henry Watson

Fairlee Creek, Maryland

Lately I’ve been thinking of Henry Watson.

My second year of college, I lived in a little town called Fairlee, which sat on a hill overlooking Fairlee Creek on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Back in the day, the Eastern Shore was a wild place. Not wild like Las Vegas. Wild like the Wild West. Anything could happen there. The law was there to protect you, not to bother you too much.

So we could speed through the country roads, skinny dip in Fairlee Creek (which was really a small bay), and shoot pool fearlessly with strangers. Leave our doors unlocked. The world was our oyster.

One day, my roommate Jet and I were sitting on the front porch of our one-story ramshackle apartment, one half of a duplex several miles from the college scene. Our place sat on a gravelly road that led to Fairlee Creek.

Down the road came a thin man in an ill-shaped suit and a clean, worn white shirt. A handsome face for an older man with significant stubble. He carried himself like nobility. He stopped and asked us, as our porch was practically right on the road, if he could have a cigarette. I gave him one. We passed the time of day, and he was gone with his ever so slight limp. He was wearing leather shoes.

After that, I spotted Henry occasionally walking from town out to Fairlee, about five country miles, with a bag of groceries. I’d give him a lift home. Sometimes he stopped by the apartment for a smoke. Henry Watson didn’t say much, and as I recall some of what he said didn’t make sense. He’d drift off into reveries about Princeton, or his father, sometimes politics. He was proud of his heritage.

One day, he asked me into his home, a stately old home on a bluff of Fairlee Creek. Much of the furniture that had been there was gone. But one elegant wood-paneled room he had reserved for mementoes — his degree from Princeton and some odds and ends that had belonged to his father. Many of these were in a half-opened suitcase on the floor, as if they had just arrived. Or were soon to leave.

Another day, Henry Watson asked me into his home and offered me something to eat. When I said yes, he lit a fire in the kitchen’s enormous hearth and took out some slices of white bread that he laid carefully across the firewood. We ate toasted bread and jam, with a little tea from an old black wood-fired kettle. The room turned rosy with twilight, and when I left, it was nearly dark.

I moved from Fairlee after just a few months. Or rather, during a holiday trip to San Francisco, I returned to find that my roommate had moved us into a farmhouse in the middle of 50 acres of corn fields. I saw Henry much less often then. And eventually not at all.

Why am I thinking of this gentle man?

I recently moved into my family home. My mother was living elsewhere, and no one wanted to sell the place. I owned a home elsewhere that I couldn’t sell, in a town I could no longer live in.

The other day, I realized that Henry Watson had moved into his family home probably after his father had died and left it to him. Henry probably had just enough inheritance to live on, which was good, because Henry didn’t seem mentally capable of holding down an ordinary job.

We had something in common, Henry and I. We were refugees of a sort, and we came to live amongst our families’ memories, their old furniture, and their ancient tintypes and photographs to see what could happen next.

I suspect that I never saw Henry after dark because he had no electricity. I suspect that he used his wood hearth for heat as well as cooking and light. Sometimes I wonder whether I could survive as well as Henry did, in his situation — a wayward genius for whom the world had little use or recognition.

And so it is that I think about Henry Watson. I wonder how he made his way after 1976, when I graduated from college. And whether he is still alive, still showing off his little plaid suitcase with medals from Princeton.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl Johnson
    Feb 26, 2011 @ 09:22:18

    Oh Henry – a man whose outward appearance did not represent the fullness of his being. Again your writing still emotions inside. I am thankful for your ability to paint a picture that shares a part of yourself maybe not expressed elsewhere.

    I was glad to see a new blog. I love your work.


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