Nantucket Essays


by Robert P. Barsanti

The last beach day came on Saturday. Hurricane Leslie was threatening Bermuda in tiny steps. Her winds had stirred the waves off of Cisco and the cold front that would keep her away was spinning off tornados in Brooklyn. Throughout most of New England, rain and lightning threatened. But, on the island that time forgot, those two storms combined to produce one last beach day.

As so often happens in September, the day shone and glittered. The Canadian air had come down ahead of the rain and cleared out the sky. Just out of reach, puffs of humidity blown up from the hurricane formed into clouds, rolled, and then broke up over the water. At the house, the door blew open in the southwesterly wind and flung the papers around the room. The pictures rattled, the other doors swung open, and the ghost of summer past wiped its sweat on the fridge before settling into the sofa. The boys and I looked up from our computer screens, grabbed the damp swim suits off the line, and headed out for a beach.

Save for a trick of the shadows, a smell in the air, and an empty Cliff Road, it could have been July. We found a parking place at Lincoln Circle, assembled the beach bag, and descended below the cliff to Steps Beach. In the lee of the bluff, summer remained. The storms and tides of the last week had swept the eel grass and kelp back into the Sound. In their place, the bikinis and the yoginis posed on their towels. The yellow labradors bounded into the water after tennis balls, but they were the exception. Most of the beach was still. The ladies with the big hats chatted between the beach chairs, the recently retired CEO’s raced through their works, and the ocean barely moved. From shore to two hundred yards out, murmurs of four or five stood or floated. No shouts, no calls, no sweep of rolling surf; just a unending, billowing, low-hanging series of clouds tumbling over the cliff and disapparating over the sand.

Normally, we did not swim at this beach; the water was far too sedentary for us. The boys and I enjoy playing in humorous violence of the south shore. We shout “Kitchen!” and “Boiled” when one particular wave catches us unawares and spins us up the sand. Over the course of many summers, the boys have learned the kung fu of crashing waves and sweeping tides. They have also been pinched by crabs, stung by jellyfish, and amused by sand fleas. The waves shoved us through the hours, through the afternoon, and through the summer. Every day was different. One day there was a sand bar, one day there was red seaweed, one day there were big waves, one day there were crabs. The days dripped from our pockets and drifted up on the rug.

Not this beach. This beach was protected from all of that, tucked in underneath the bluff. In the stillness and the silence of Steps, time slipped out of gear and descended into a warm pool. The waves did not beat time on our heads, but eased past us. We had stepped into an Eastman Johnson painting and onto broken seashells.. The moment hung.

The two boys walked out onto the sandbar. The conversation continued to rattle. Behind them, the ocean stretched out and still. After a minute or an hour, a fishing boat motored by on low throttle a mile or so off shore. I watched the waves slowly approach the boys, wash past them, and then roll up the beach. One caught an errant flip flop and floated it out into the water, but the shoe sat for minutes. Far beyond the shoe, the boys, and the boat, one feather of cloud trailed over the mainland. It didn’t move.

I watched the boys on the sandbar. Young, hairless, and enwrapped in the intricacies of Percy Jackson, they waited at the edge of the ocean.

Earlier in the day, both boys had competed in their first triathlon. They had swum five hundred yards of Dionis Beach, biked up to Lincoln Circle and back, then run one mile up the bike path. We cheered them out of the water, we watched the “changeover” onto a bike, then a final “changeover” into a run before they returned to Dionis sweaty and exhausted. We stood with water bottles and towels, silent at the masterwork of time and ashamed of ourselves. We could no longer keep up with them. These were the boys that we outraced in the yard, guided on their bicycles, and supported in the water. And now, in a flash of light, they were running and biking further than we could anymore. One father staggered after his daughter on the finish line. She cried at the pain of finally finishing: he grinned at his legs and wondered where their speed had gone.

The rest of us stood quiet in this moment of the morning. Time had flung us along, as it always does and the child was father to the man. They stood before us with numbers on their calves, medals on their necks and t-shirts in their hands. This was how it was going to be. In another month, in another year, there would be a different race when they would be faster and more skillful. They would now have technique and equipment and split times. The race was now theirs. We stand on the side of the road, measure, and bear witness.

That was what I was doing at Steps Beach that afternoon. In that golden hiccup of time that Nantucket allows, on this last beach day, these two boys stood on the sandbar. If time was going to let this moment stretch out into the evening, I should ease back and take the light while I could.

Articles by Date from 2012