Melville picked up his coffee mug with the picture of the ship on it and took a long, solid drink from it. In all this time I hadnít noticed it there on the floor between us. It occurred to me that the liquid it contained must indeed have grown quite cold by now. Once again, mustering up all the cleverness my mind and heart contained I broke into conversation with him.
"That must be quite cold by now," I said. "I could call a steward and have him bring you another one."
"No," he said simply, still taking in the air-chilled brew in the mug. "Itís merely tepid. I can tolerate it."
"I like mine hot," I told him.
"Some like it hot," he said smiling, "while others prefer it at room temperature."
"And you like it that way?"
"I like it when its there, when itís free, when itís ready and I am also ready for it."
"Thatís very philosophical," I said.
"I donít think you really know what philosophy is and what itís fore," Melville told me.
"What do you mean?" I frankly thought, and still do think, that philosophy is what I do best, taken in small doses, digested and regurgitated in my work.
"Well, in the tales in your book," he said tapping the cover lightly, "you often resort to simple statements while reflecting on the bigger issues. You shy away from the plunge. You limit your imagery, thereby limiting your philosophical possibilities."
"Youíre reviewing my work for me," I said.
"No. Iím commenting on your use of short sentences."
"It so happens that I have one sentence in that book that takes 138 words to complete."
"It matters very little," he said. "Itís only one sentence."
"Why should philosophy be complex?" I asked him. "Why canít it be brought into the realm of understanding by the reader?"
"You donít want to shortchange them, do you?" He grinned as he said that. I thought about the low price my publisher had set for the book and felt my teeth grinding just a bit. It had sold for $11.95 when it was first published, but now I was finding it on E-Bay for $85.
"I think they got a bargain at that original price," I said to Melville.
"Moby Dick originally sold for $1.50 and the critics thought it too expensive."
"As usual, Melville, they were wrong."
My new friend threw back his head and roared with laughter. His right hand slapped his right knee and his amusement at what I had said infiltrated every muscle of his body. He was literally rocking with merriment and I found myself gently joining in with him, laughing at what I had said, at what he had said.
Two passengers trundled by, their shorts riding up in their crotches as they slow-jogged around the deck. Melville watched them approach, watched them pass by. His laughter slowed to a walk as he watched them. His head turned slowly, in their rhythm, at their pace, to see them disappearing down the long promenade. When they were out of hearing and his laughter had ceased, he turned his blue-eyed gaze to me.
"In Melvilleís day no one dressed that informally. One never saw legs at all. At least not in public society."
He said this with a sort of sadness in the voice.
"In fact," he continued, "I donít think Melville ever saw that much leg anywhere at any time, after he left the south Pacific."
"Typee," I said. "Omoo."
"That always seems to me to have been his happiest time."
"You would think so, wouldnít you?" he said with a half smile. "But perhaps you forget that he married, had four children, lived for thirteen years at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and wrote his greatest novels during that time. He wrote them there, in the country, in the cold weather and the warm, far from that place of his youth. Possibly you ignore the years of his poetry, the writing that engrossed him for the last part of his life, the years when his children grew, matured, married, died and yet he wrote and he published and he was acclaimed by a very different group of literati."
"No, I havenít forgotten any of that," I responded. "But I think he was happiest on the islands among the people of nature, the people who lived without clothing, without possessions, who loved freely and well."
"Youíre a romantic," was all he said.
"So was Melville," I said, adding quickly: "then."
He studied me for a moment and the moment grew into a minute. Or so it seemed to me as I sat there in silence waiting for a reply.
"You love this Melville," he said. He said this as though it was an accepted fact and not his own private theory.
I blushed. Iím sure of it. I felt the warmth rising out of my neck and into my cheekbones. He had caught me out in a subject that made me shiver.
"No," I said. "I love the experience and his ease in addressing it in literature."
"Your color betrays your true feelings," he said, gesturing upward toward my reddening face.
"You canít put much store in the truthfulness of a blush," I offered. "After all, it was just embarrassment that caused the physical reaction."
"Embarrassment? Or honesty?" He was studying my face, my body for the language of response.
"The former," I said quickly.
"How can I be sure?" he asked me.
"Thatís the perfect question for the perfect moment," I said. "I donít understand how I can be here talking with you. Melville has been dead for a long time, but youíre not dead. Youíre alive, very much alive."
"So you canít be Melville, right? This is an illusion, probably brought on by the beard, right?"
"Do you really think thatís all this is?"
I took a breath, thought about it and said, "Yes."
When he stopped laughing he reached across the abyss and grabbed my hand. I could feel the heat in his body through that slightest of touches. This man was very real, very much alive, and really sitting here with me.
"Do you really?"
"Are you Herman Melville? Or a descendant of his perhaps? Yes, of course, naturally, that must be it."
"Is that what you believe? Are you being honest with yourself?"
"Stop it!" I said. "This has been fun, but its over. Iíve enjoyed most of this chat but you cannot be Herman Melville and Iím not about to continue this charade any longer."
I stood up, took my book and started to walk away, but the next thing he said stopped me dead in my tracks.
"If I was Melville and wanted to talk about your work and your future, would you stay a little longer?"
"Youíd have to give me proof," I said.
"How could I prove it to you?"
"Explain something that no one understands in Melvilleís work."
"My work isnít meant to be explained. Itís to be experienced."
"So," I said, turning to face him again, "youíre already claiming to be Melville. Thatís a step you havenít taken so far."
"I donít usually meet men who have such vision, such perceptive natures."
"Well, youíve met one today, Melville."
"And you will stay and talk with me?"
I gave it a momentary, fleeting thought. "I will."
"Thatís better," he said as I sat down again. "Now. Where to begin?"