Between one thing and another, I missed the boat parade. First, a house needed to be turned over and, while I was at it, dishes needed to be cleaned. Then, the Burma March to the dump, then a hundred other things before I stood at the top of Step’s Beach, in sunlight a Millionaire couldn’t buy, and watched the flocks of sailboats inch away to the horizon. At more than a mile, the race was competitive geometry, where one white triangle tried to inch ahead of another. Under the blue of August, with one long feather from September, Peak Nantucket lay out on a Sunday.
I never learned to sail. Almost every thing is better learned when you are young, when time grows in red bunches and embarrassment washes past you in a gust of laughter. I grew up near a lake that had a dozen day sailors laboring across it at any moment of the summer. The Quannapowitt Yacht Club was irony on a shed, next to three floating docks. I knew sunburned class-mates with dirty sneakers who could help me with the cleats and the sheets, but other things poached the fruits of the calendar then the summer ended. Now, in the fullness of age, the free summer hours come singly and green and my pride can only take so many dunks in the water. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board, and every man wishes for more time.
Peak Nantucket comes too late. Most of the summer comes wrapped in fog or bathed in rain. The ocean water remains just a bit chilly, the corn is a little small, and the tomatoes come from the hothouse, not the field. Then, just as the ferry reservation comes around the corner and the last house guest leaves, the sky clears, the waves build, and the tomatoes have dirt on them. From June, summer is one long anticipation building to a final set of days when it all comes together and the Bonita cluster at the bar. And here it is, in all its violet urgency.
Many miss it. The calendar turns a week too early, and they return to patrolling the fields of Colby, Middlebury, and Gettysburg. They put their car on standby and wait for Parking Lot Attendants of the Sea to drive it on and drive it off again in Hyannis. Or there is more work somewhere else. Already the lines are shorter, stores are closing earlier, and the End-of-Season parties descend to the beach. September comes for everyone at their own time in their own way. To be at the peak is to be at the end—the summer has built to this glory. And the glory will last an hour, a day, even a week, and then the moment will ripen and fall.
The majesty of the August moment casts a long shadow of shame. A day like this, graced and perfect as it is, should be of use, more than the emptying of trash, the sorting of recyclables, and the making of lunch. Life is a series of choices. Somewhere in my past, possibly on Lake Quannapowitt, I made the wrong choice in my life and lost the opportunity to crew on the Shangri-La, hiked out over Nantucket Sound, in the rushing August wind. Other choices that I could have made would have left me on a fairway and not in the rough or in my pocket. Every morning, I am eighteen years old when I wake up and the ensuing years seem to be clothes that I put on for my work. Choose another pair of pants and Reagan is president again: the years are a costume I wear to entertain the world. If I could wear my old chinos and Middlebury sweatshirt, the calendar would reset all of the choices back to Quannapowitt Lake.
Of course, that sweatshirt doesn’t fit. Nor does my father’s sweater, the handknit Icelandic sweater that was knit for me, nor does my first real suit, nor do any of my work shirts from The Muse or The Chicken Box. Time fools everyone but the mirror.
And the caretaker. So I went to the last house off of Cliff Road and emptied the trash cans, mowed the yard, and reset the property for the last tenants of the summer. By the time the rest of the errands had been completed and the back of the truck emptied, the sail boats were returning, the sun was over the yard arm, and the peak of August was settling into cocktail hour.
So I assembled the team, pulling them off of the various screens in their lives and headed west. Hurricane Gert, on her way to Ireland by way of the Gulf Stream, had brought big waves, odd birds, and jellyfish up to Madaket. Running before the wind, the waves tumbled over each other on the way in and out of the beach. Each surfable wave had to rise up over the one coming back from the beach and avoid the cross waves diving at its feet.
I lit coals in the grill while the rest of the team shucked corn, sliced tomatoes, and set up a dinner blanket on the sand. Once finished, the team stepped into the rolling water while I eased back into the old beach chair and settled into the sand.
These jeans still fit, as does my dump Polo shirt. This costume would do. The days will come when it won’t, when the shirt will have to be nicer, with a collar that hasn’t been frayed and a front without ketchup stains. The tomatoes are firm and flavorful today, as is the corn, and the tuna burgers. Peak August stretches its shadows over the choices, and, for once, they seem right.