Robert M. Coates’s “The Hour After Westerly”:  A “road not taken” — or was it?

The writings of Robert M. Coates are unknown to the average reader these days. The last time I taught from a high school anthology of literature that contained one of his stories was in 1977 — a harrowing tale about a middle-aged married couple harassed by a gang of teenage thugs.

In my years since, as an adjunct professor teaching college English courses, I have never seen an anthology that featured any of Coates’s work. A few years back, his “Hour After Westerly” could be accessed online and I occasionally assigned it to my students before it disappeared.

Vintage copies of a collection of his short stories can be found on — but they range in price from $175 to over $900 — not an attractive buy for most readers. Coates died in 1975 and may be one of those interesting writers who flourishes for a time — many of his stories were published in “ The New Yorker”  in the 1950s — but eventually fades from fashion and disappears from the general literary scene, known only to a few who may discover his work in an old anthology found in a second-hand bookstore or at a garage sale.

Some of his stories approach the realm of myth: “The Law” is the Law of Averages that suddenly goes haywire and creates world-wide chaos, followed shortly by the Law of Diminishing Returns; in “An Autumn Fable” a hunter encounters Greek gods ensconced in a log cabin in the New England woods

 But his most frequent theme involves a male approaching middle age who is suddenly confronted by curiosity and sometimes regret about a life choice he never made. One thinks of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” in which the direction of the poet’s life is compared to a path he took at a symbolic crossroads to which he can never return.

Yet Coates sometimes adds an extra dimension — literally since Time is the Fourth Dimension — adding a provocative “quantum theory” twist for the phenomenon known as “déjà vu.” He raises the eerie possibility that somewhere in the past the protagonist or his “doppleganger” — a mystical double — did indeed take that alternate road and in some bizarre warping of reality the two lives briefly blend into one.

I first encountered “The Hour After Westerly” when I was in eighth grade and passed part of a long family road trip working through an anthology of fantasy and science-fiction tales, the title of which I have long ago forgotten. Most of the stories dealt with encounters between humans and various aliens or creatures of the human imagination — some benevolent, some not — and often featured clever or shocking plot twists.

But “The Hour After Westerly” was different. For one thing, the protagonist is one of Coates’s standard weary, middle-aged males with whom a 13-year-old would have a difficult time identifying. For another — despite the lilting, often poetic language in which the story is written, it is a tale in which the central conflict remains elusive and very little really seems to happen

This latter critique is one I frequently heard from my students who read it, and I again wonder if even twenty-somethings are perhaps too full of energy and optimism — or naivete — about their futures to come to grips with Coates’s melancholy musings about opportunities lost.

And although it is not a ghost story, the author’s elegiac descriptions of the seaside and regret with the passage of time are haunting in the most profound sense of the word. It is that quality that made the story memorable even when I was an adolescent and continued as I grew older and occasionally found myself rereading the story and musing on various “roads not taken.”

A middle-aged district salesman named Davis Harwell is the story’s protagonist. As the story opens, he is driving on the Boston Post Road to his home west of New Haven, Connecticut — a route he follows perhaps too frequently in a job that is becoming numbingly routine — on a late July afternoon after business in Providence, Rhode Island.

Described as a “methodical man,” Harwell has calculated that the trip will, as usual, require some three hours, getting him home around 7:30 in the evening, taking him along the Atlantic coast through wooded areas, salt marshes, and small villages. He will arrive in time for dinner, which will please his wife Edna, but there are hints early in the story that the marriage involves some friction as he tries to balance her “demands” with those of his business.

But, within a few hours, Harwell finds himself sitting in a small roadside restaurant some distance beyond Westerly, Rhode Island about to dine on fried scallops and glances at his watch to discover that it is several minutes past eight o’clock — and he is still a considerable distance from home.

At this point Coates says — in supreme understatement — “This was the beginning of a curious episode in Davis Harwell’s life.” There is at least an hour that passed during his drive from Providence toward New Haven of which he has no memory — or that is at least his first reaction.

Yet, as he sits eating his fried scallops and pondering the missing time period, he begins to have a vague recollection — what he describes as “a sudden parting of a fog” — of a group of small houses and a church with a clock in its steeple reading 10 minutes to six.

But he cannot remember leaving the main highway nor would he have any reason to have done so. Aware that his wife had expected him home by 7:30, he phones her and being unable to give a rational reason for his lateness he tells her, “I was held up.”

“HELD UP!” she almost screams — and, given the ambiguity of his statement, it is not surprising that she has taken it to mean that he was a crime victim, but the rather insensitive thought goes through Harwell’s mind that “she was always getting wrong meanings” — perhaps an additional hint of a shaky marriage. 

After he fibs that his business had taken longer than he had expected — he hangs up. But the missing time and the foggy recollection begin to frighten him; he feels a sense of loneliness and loss and he experiences the odd feeling that, in some undefinable way, he is no longer the same person who started out on the drive.

A few weeks pass and, on an early evening, Harwell is again driving his sales route between Providence and New Haven but a possible new account has caused him to divert from it. Late summer has passed into mid-September and Coates writes evocatively, “The country was beginning to take on its autumn coloration; there was red in the sumacs and the climbing ivy along the roadside, and, in the fields beyond, the high grasses were beginning to turn brown ….”

Like Harwell himself, the landscape is in middle age. He suddenly finds the little cluster of houses and the church he had foggily remembered that evening in the restaurant and notes that the clock on the steeple reads 25 minutes to six.

The author writes, “He felt a strange sort of freedom” and with the impulsiveness of a much younger man Harwell heads out onto a broad, flat stretch “with that look of limitlessness about it which meant that the sea was its boundary.” He finds that every aspect of the sunlit landscape around him “seemed new in a way that no similar things had looked to him before.” The possibilities do indeed seem limitless.

As Harwell drives farther out onto the headland toward a small scattering of summer cottages, yielding to his curiosity about the mysterious allure of the scene, Coates compares him to a sailor setting his boat’s prow toward a new shore “as if something unexpected was about to happen.” Clearly this is an experience well outside of his life’s normal — perhaps tedious — routine, and it is as he approaches the little cottages, Coates tells us, “that the strange thing occurred.”

On the lawn in front of one of the cottages is a tanned woman in shorts and a snug jersey “doing something to a row of flowers.” Like Harwell, she is middle-aged, with hair that is either very light or graying — “but she had a slim, attractive figure and her legs and arms were long and brown and fit-looking.”

As he approaches, she stands and appears to be waving to him — or is she just brushing back her hair?  Through his rear-view mirror he can see that she is still watching him as he passes and though he seems certain he has never seen her before he is seized by the desire — Coates calls it “a compulsion” — to pull over.

He is a methodical, practical man and realizes this is a foolish impulse so he of course drives on. Yet almost at once, the author tells us, “All the sense of adventurousness left him …he was simply a man who had taken a wrong turning somewhere on a journey.”

To “right” that “wrong turning,” Harwell stops at a small tavern a short distance up the road from the cottages to ask for directions. It includes a 1950s-style dance hall, which is separated from the bar itself by a broad trellis and features tables set for the last of the “summer people” who will descend on it come Saturday night.

He is spotted by the lone bartender who greets him with a hearty “Well, HELLO!” It is obvious that he thinks he recognizes Harwell, the implication being that he has not seen him for a while.

Harwell’s insistence that he has never been there before and wants only to ask directions is met by the bartender first with some incredulity and then subtle suspicion as though for some nefarious reason Harwell is trying to avoid recognition.

But Harwell is adamant and the bartender gives him directions back to the Boston Post Road after saying, with some obvious irritation, “Okay, we’ll play it your way.” Thus he makes his “right turn” and goes back to his usual life.

But Harwell is not through with his obsession with that hour lost after Westerly. Some weeks later, he deviates from his business route once again to return to the cottages.

Coates’s dreary evocation of the changed landscape is vaguely ominous: The colors in the leaves have faded, the fields have withered, the sky is darker. The formerly limitless table land seems empty, barren, and lonely.

The clock in the church tower reads 8 minutes before 6:00 but Harwell’s feeling of exhilaration and exploration are gone. He parks in front of the cottage where he had seen the attractive woman who appeared to wave to him and walks past the little garden at which she had been digging.

But of course she is not there, and the cottage is dark and deserted — like all of the other cottages around it. Harwell feels the bare, wintry look of the scene and in the air is the somehow foreboding feeling of rain blowing in from off the sea.

The sky is growing darker still when he passes the bar again — that crucial period between 5:00 and 6:00 having passed. But he knows the way back to his normal route now and does not need to ask directions.  And besides — Coates tells us —” it was far too late.”

Raising the question, of course: Too late for what? Here is a man in middle age, his life’s choices having taken him to a rather dull, routine occupation and a marriage that appears to be approaching some critical point.

Suddenly and briefly, he is vaulted into a kind of twilight zone where he encounters an attractive woman of middle years whom he associates with summertime and flowers and feels an irrational compulsion to pull his car over. A bartender insists he recognizes him, apparently from past visits to the dance hall — with the woman?

Logically,  these events do not make sense. But Coates offers the possibility that somehow some other “self” of his protagonist has chosen a path that he did not, and in a strange twisting of time and reality the two lives have momentarily collided in that mysterious hour between 5:00 and 6:00 on an evocative stretch of the New England coast.

Harwell has had a brief glimpse down that “road not taken” and his own choice of a literal road seems, sadly, to have brought him to life of  tedium and regret.

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