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Nantucket
Essays
Volume 40 Issue 12 • July 22-28, 2010
now in our 40th season

Our Landscape Is Their Luxury

by Robert P.Barsanti

The houseguests come in July and they blacken the walls like mildew.  We invited them down in the months when the snow blew up against the glass, when it seemed like a good idea to reconnect with Uncle Billy and his family.  When the day and ferry finally arrive, we welcomed them with clenched teeth and crossed fingers.  A good houseguest arrives with a bottle of bourbon, a bag full of steaks, and an urge to wash dishes.  And when you can smell the lobster shells in the trash can, then it’s time for goodbyes, t-shirts, and penny tosses.

I know why they want to brave the bridges and sail the Sound.  I watch the weather reports and I see the pictures of heat shimmering up from the asphalt.  If I was holed up on the third floor of a three-decker on Elm Street in Springfield, hoping for a thunderstorm or a busted water main, I would also go through the Christmas card list for anyone with a house near a sea breeze.  On-island, the calls start in late June.  First comes the call “just to see how you’re doing,” followed by the call inviting you out to Billy Junior’s middle school graduation party next year, which brings forth pregnant silence.  And so they come.
Meanwhile, we are working.  The slicer has broken, the Irish girl who promised to stay through Columbus Day has given her notice, and camp gets out a half hour earlier than it advertised.  The refrigerator is sweating, the laundry is growing spots, and spiky plants erupt in the lawn.  More often than not, my houseguests find themselves alone with a towel, some old bikes, and a brand new map from Young’s.

Uncle Billy and the Brood did not arrive last week.  Instead, two old friends came to visit in the most painless way; they stayed at the Barnacle Inn.  I drove the old jalopy down to the steamship dock, braved the Yukons of Connecticut and the Escalades of New York, collected the luggage and the loved ones, then negotiated downtown traffic, with its texting bicyclists, madras walkers, and meandering Mercedes and, after a long moment behind a Suburban trying to squeeze into a space far too small, I zipped around the rear bumper, scurried up Orange Street, took the turn and brought my guests back up Fair Street to ivy covered inn walls.

“Wow.” They said.

My mind leapt to all of the astounding things they had seen tourists do in traffic during the last fifteen minutes.   Instead, they looked up.  A waxing moon lay beyond the glowing town clock.  Both were framed by the St. Paul’s tower and the leaves of the oak trees.  A wind blew up and riffled the leaves.  A higher wind blew a thin sheet of cloud over the moon.  We watched until the sheet had passed, then came inside.

The Barnacle Inn never left the seventies.  In its foyer, sets of sofas and chairs frame coffee tables and not televisions.  The walls are lined with books, a stack of board games rests in one corner and a coffee machine pops along in the other.  On one table, two different people had taken a turn at the daily Times crossword, only to leave it for an unknown third.  When we sat, the room had settled into a pleasant, after dinner silence when books were read, jigsaw puzzles labored over, and Monopoly empires were founded.  Nantucket was at its Yankee best.

And I had missed it for twenty-five years.  

Whether we have time for it or not, houseguests kick us out of our ruts and send us rolling down the meadow.  The laundry will mildew, the bills will mellow with age, and the answering machine will glut itself to a beeping and flashing silence.  Meanwhile, the houseguests have dragged us out for a few hours at Fat Ladies Beach.  In the quiet of the boiling surf, we see the island as they do. 

Uninterrupted miles of beach punctuated by a few hundred towels.  Children giggling in the cart-wheeling violence of the breakers. Surfers standing and riding a few seconds before the cresting wave.

To them, the beach is what it isn’t.  It’s not backed by a road and a honky-tonk T-shirt/salt water taffy/tattoo mall.  It’s not hedged in by fences, white ropes, and discreet security guards.  It’s not jammed with the every mouth-breather in the tri-county area.  Our landscape is their luxury.  And it takes an afternoon in their eyes to see that it is our luxury as well.

The true wealth of a Nantucketer is counted out in calendars. For us, island living is a thousand year picnic, but to them, it ends in a few hours.  We will always have tomorrow’s sunset and next year’s blueberry harvest.  If fog rolls in, we can go to the beach or the golf course tomorrow or even next week.  But our houseguests will be back in New Haven then, waiting in traffic on the I-91.  Nobody plants daffodils, or hydrangea, alongside the interstate.

So, for their picnic, I drove them out to Pocomo Point.  We slid past the darkened summer palaces and out to the sand spit.  The kiteboarders skimmed the water, lept up into the southwesterly wind, and then skipped to a landing, before turning at Coatue and skimming back.  The Wauwinet boat motored up past Abram’s Point, while town had shrunk to a dream.  Overhead, the puffs of light fog spiraled under the afternoon sun.  We banqueted on Italian grinders in the luxury of the island.
Some people work fifty-one weeks a year in order to spend one week on Nantucket.  Those people take the four-thirty fast ferry back to the mainland.  The line extends down to the Gazebo, but is polite and orderly.  They file onboard, find a seat, and discreetly make camp.  They are sunburned, they are smiling, they are a touch sad.  As the boat makes its turn in the harbor, they get out the books or the newspapers.  But, before they submerge into their own worlds, they walk out onto the back deck and throw pennies at our treasure.

 

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