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Essays
Volume 40 Issue 22 • Nov 22 - Jan 2011
now in our 40th season

Storm Home

by Robert P.Barsanti

This winter, Nantucket has slipped further away from America.  The sky has lowered, the wind has picked up and the boat stays tied to the slip in Hyannis with its lights low and the parking lot empty.  Stuck on the other side, on the mainland, you can only look through the gray to the channel markers and the whale road back to the island.  Tonight, you can’t get there. 

Sooner or later everyone gets stuck on the wrong side of the Sound.  Sometimes, the traffic heaps up in front of you on Route 24 or seizes up for a half hour of quality cell-phone surfing before the Bourne Bridge. More likely than not, however, the wind has turned, the fog has descended, and six foot swells are breaking on the shoals in Nantucket Sound. I have a whole series of phone calls I make, starting with the Hy-Line, then the Steamship, before hoping for the flight…then I surrender and call a hotel.  For islanders, this means a night of Chinese food, a walk around the mall, a dip with the kids in the hotel pool, and another night in the wash of orange lights and traffic mutter.  Safe, warm, and awash in MSG, Hyannis is the storm home.  When the clouds break and the wind dies, the islanders will all be headed across the water.

They come back to a quiet island; the season has been switched off. Our island home makes a lot less noise than it used to.  The saws and nailguns no longer call to each across the moors.  The pickups quietly ooze oil and air in the driveway.  Even the scallop boats and their “make and break” engines rock with the tide.  No one is working.  The realtors don’t sell the land, the excavators don’t dig the basements, the contractor doesn’t build the house, the builders don’t go out for drinks, and the bartenders don’t buy surfboards.  Instead, the natives list their toys in the classifieds, and they wait for the phone to ring.  It is a quiet season. 

The boy and I walked downtown on a Sunday.  On Cliff Road, we heard the Nobska’s horn from the departing steamship and the bark of a dog down by Tuppancy Links, otherwise we had the road and the afternoon to talk of school, sport, and Sonic the Hedgehog.  He took one half of the double yellow line and I took the other. 

Downtown, the boy and I joined the parents and swimmers from Marshfield.  They swarmed around downtown in their yellow and black.  They had to spend one extra night on island enjoying the hospitality and the entertainment of the Atlantic.  Now, they were pecking through the downtown in search of amusement, entertainment, or just something to do. At most of the stores downtown, the winter special was darkness.  They had visited a t-shirt store, a book store, the liquor store, and finally settled on the drugstore.   The swimmers spun around on the stools and licked mid-winter ice cream cones.  A father looked out over the cobble-stoned Main Street and sky; he asked “So, do you think we can get home tonight?”  Later the Eagle slowly answered his question with a slow roll and nod. 

Thousands of us on the mainland get a different answer from the steamship.  We sleep in beds in Bellows Falls, in Springfield, in Fair Haven, and in Hyannis.  There is a market and a mall here, there is a place and a paycheck and a life not unlike the life we once lived, but it’s not home.  Home is that patch of sand we left; we still hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell and tides beat through our sleep.
We no longer sleep at home, but we dream of it.  Our island home is no longer real; we realize that.  The Atlantic Café no longer has wing night, the Tap Room doesn’t serve cheese soup, and Orange Street Video disappeared in a flurry of red envelopes.  Gilles has left the counter, Mimi is no longer among her books, and Brownie’s bench has been empty for some time.  We still see them there.  We like our hometown more when we are away.  Memories flicker like trick candles when the boat rounds Brant Point.

It’s all a trick, we know.  The island is better without us.  The boat passes, and our names are forgotten.  We do not crowd the streets, jam the stores, or litter the beaches.  The moors are that much more beautiful, the harbor that much more handsome without us to clutter it up. Going the wrong way on 495, we know this in the sane Vulcan of our mind.

Right now, we are preparing campaigns and presentations, we are building and we are designing, we are grading roads and papers.  America needs the work that we do, and the bank needs the money that we make.  We couldn’t live on island; we don’t have the work or the time or the energy or the money.  And it’s all true as we look at that dark eastbound highway on the other side of the divider.  This life is our life.

But we have another life, a better life waiting for us on Nantucket.  It waits for us in our old haunts, in the smile of old friends, in the taste of a cold beer and the bite of northeast wind.  America is our storm home.  For weeks, months, and years, we eat our Chinese food, wander the mall, and hear the distant mutter of the highway.  One day, when the wind dies down and the boats start running again, we will head back.

I’ve been working for twenty-five years to come home.

 

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