We had promised the boys milk shakes at the Yale Street Grill, which has a soda fountain, stools topped with red naugahyde, and signed photographs of Ricky Skaggs and Wolf Blitzer on the wall. Our waitress, Maria, made Michael and David’s shakes from scratch as we watched. Both clogged their straws and got brain-freeze. The point was to feed them, yes, but also to freeze another memory of Houston, where we lived for four years.
As I was paying the bill, the cashier told me her credit card machine was down. I paid cash and she said, “Bless you, darlin’.” I assured her my sons were satisfied customers and would not contribute to her troubles, and she said, “Things can always get worse, son.”
Next we took the boys to the park we visited the day we arrived in Houston seven years ago, and I walked across the street to an antique shop with an “OLD RARE BOOKS” sign in the window. The books were dusty and unsorted, and the lighting was dim, but I skimmed the shelves and spied a pale volume I recognized but had never seen before – The Spirit of Man, published as a wartime morale booster in 1916 and edited by the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. I found the fourth edition, from 1923. I knew the title because of the contribution by Henry James, who became a British citizen in 1915.
In a moving gesture of fraternal devotion, James contributed an excerpt from “The Will to Believe,” an essay by William James, his beloved brother who had died in 1910. Bridges’ book was published in January 1916. Henry died Feb. 28 of that year. Here’s a passage from the excerpt Henry chose from among all of his brother’s works, a passage reminiscent of Lambert Strether’s great cheer of encouragement mingled with regret in The Ambassadors:
“These then are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”
In the car I looked at the book more carefully and found a red-and-gold label affixed to the inside cover:
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York.”
I worked as a science writer for RPI from 1999 to 2001. Yvor Winters writes in “A Spring Serpent”:
“He needs but move to live,
Yet where he was is gone.”