Nantucket Essays

Red Wheelbarrow

~ by Robert P. Barsanti ~

As ordered, a pile of rich loam appeared at end of the driveway on Tuesday morning. The loam had come from the dump, created from the garbage and trash of the previous hundred years of half eaten sandwiches and rotting milk. Give food enough time, and it will dream itself back into dirt. By Thursday, the first green shoots of something were curling around the edges of the pile. By Saturday, the shoots had become stands of poison ivy and beach grass. It would need to either be moved, mowed, or pruned.

By September, the guests have returned to other homes. Their cars are heavier for sand, for mildewing towels left in the far back, and for rolling Nectars that rattle under the passenger seat during tight turns in the parking lot. Everything else they left on island. The lobster shells remain at the back of the garden, where someone assumed nobody would ever find them. Aside from seagulls, rats, and a few wandering dogs, they might have been right. They left dirty sheets, half empty containers of half-and-half, Clamato, and Fish Eye Chardonnay. The furniture remains on this side of serviceable, propped up by bound copies of Reader’s Digest and an old phone booth. When I walk through the houses, I make up a punch list of work that could be done, that should be done, and that must be done. Invariably, the work that gets done isn’t on any of those lists.

For nine months, Nantucket lives in screen savers, calendars, and behind the eyelids. The owner sits at his desk, spinning a pencil from tip to eraser to tip, on hold with his insurance company, and his thoughts retreat to an evening on the porch with a Whale’s Tale, a tray of crackers, and Philbrick. The weather remains fine, the air cool, and the wicker chair sturdy. When I call him about replacing the broken closet doors, the Garfield shaped watermark over the kitchen, or the rotted, sagging chairs, he mentally puts the Philbrick down, sips the beer and can’t understand it; Entropy is the dreamer. In his mind, everything is just great. “I don’t think you need to do anything really big, but you know,” he says. “We should probably put some more loam and fertilizer on the lawn.” We walk around in a dream until we trip over the warped step. Next summer, when he drives up to the front door, he will wonder why I never took care of the chairs. But the lawn will be well fed.

Everything runs down a bit faster out here. Entropy has set up a branch office next to the cable company, but it sends out the trucks more often. Nantucket is an island built on sand, overrun with poison ivy, and smothered by salt air. In the summer, humidity soaks the walls and breeds Jackson Pollack spreads of mildew and black mold. In the winter, weeks of high wind are interspersed with frozen pipe mornings. Entropy, however, never creeps in on your golden memories, when the beer is cold, the air is warm, and the only sand remains in your sneakers.

Entropy had made a delivery to this house some time before the loam got dropped off. Inside the garage, behind the croquet set and the beach umbrella, the wheelbarrow had received a flat tire. Amid the desiccated mice cadavers and architecturally valuable spiderwebs, the tire aged, creased, and spilled its air. I brought it out into the humid September air, interred the mice into the Hydrangea, then flipped the wheel barrow over.

There is a moment when the dream remains fresh in your mind and magical thinking takes root; could I just use the wheelbarrow even with the flat tire? Unfortunately not, said the coffee voice. Could I just get it refilled? Sadly, no. Could I do that fire air trick with some WD-40? The coffee voice just crosses its arms. Is there any way to avoid a trip back into town in order to buy a new tire? The question answered itself. Before I left, I checked that the shovel remained serviceable and that nothing had burned on the far side of the house.

Everything wears down. Everything corrodes, warps, grinds, and settles to the ground with a final sigh. Then, in the arms of a final collapse, creeping life eats away at the engineered order. On Meadow Lane, a full mile from any paved road, an engine block slowly transforms into rusty life in the heart of a blackberry bush. Some farmer hoisted it out of a car or a tractor and left it for a moment, then the dream took over, and the island has been nibbling on it ever since. While we close our eyes and live in the dream of what we want, the sand, the cold, and the wet take what they can. Every structure on island, from the windmill to the golf courses to the finest house on Baxter Road may as well be castles made of sand, waiting for the incoming reach of the tide.

Unfortunately, the waking work of our lives is to keep that tide away. Be it measured in time, gasoline, energy, or money, we push Entropy out the door, down the driveway, and back out onto the street. We bleach the sheets and the walls, we drain the pipes, we reshingle and repaint so that our created world can remain straight, true, and clean for another week, month, or year. Our waking life struggles against the gray and the cold.

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. So much depends upon an afternoon of minutes spent in quotidian toil on the mean and the mundane; each step placed in a well rehearsed dance. I have done nothing so timeless and elemental as moving a pile of dirt from one spot to another: so will my children and my childrens’ children.

Sixty dollars later, I returned with a solid rubber wheel and returned the wheelbarrow to usefulness. Then shovel by shovel, load by load, the loam that had been a generation’s garbage was brought into the backyard and spread, shovel by shovel, load by load out onto the a lawn that clung to life inches over the eternally shifting sand.

Articles by Date from 2012