Nantucket Essays

Comfort in Crowds

by Robert P. Barsanti

I made a mistake.

In the last week of July, I slipped out for a downtown dinner, then with the cash left in my pocket I went to get ice cream. The evening was young, the line was short, and luck perched on my shoulder. Alas, I was behind a Beautiful Man in an Impeccable White Shirt. With his brother. And six madras-clad children. The children sat on the counter. They switched from cup to cone. They tasted the chocolate peanut butter yogurt. They tasted the chocolate. The traded taste spoons back and forth. They requested almonds. Then they requested butterscotch. Then they didn’t tip.

Behind him, we rolled our eyes. We stood back and let the drama play out and when the money had been handed over and the ice cream distributed, the Beautiful Man looked back at the line he held up with the barest flash of recognition. August is here. It came early, before the cleaners had finished with the house, then tracked sand and clothing into the kitchen. It parked the Land Rover in the front yard, dropped all the boogie boards on the lawn and then headed off to the store. Even now, it is tracking through the parking lot, following the loaded carts, and waiting for the backup lights to start.

It is our month. The golf courses are in full bloom, as are the restaurants and the gardens. The Hydrangea have weathered through the searing heat of June and July. With the aid of a discreet and well-timed water system, they preen like poodles in the front yard. The hedges have been plucked from a geometry book and placed along the roads. We have become a sand bar of people with Platinum American Express cards, iPhones, and status updates. Each morning, the sun rises into a calendar photo and sets amid an oil painting. Let August be August. Let it come with corn and flavored vodka, tomatoes and waist-high ocean swells. Let them buy sandwiches and beach chairs and surfing lessons for the kids. February would certainly be a lot more painful if there was no August.

And yet, August has come in so robust this year that I hold off on going to town or getting groceries. The summer sun shimmers off the road, the humidity drips from the screen, and I am hidden behind the shades and the electronic screens until Jerry Lewis comes on the television. It’s a good time to slip over to Coatue.

August comes to Coatue on the backs of mosquitoes and green heads. Time jerks and slips on the little sandbar. The seasons are measured in birds and eggs, crabs and flowers. The Osprey have claimed the towers and have filled them with twigs and chicks. The immature gulls pop up and strut in the safety of the dunes. The Oystercatchers guard their square of sand.

The Handsome Man has not come out here, nor has he brought the brood with him. They have slipped down to Nobadeer and Cisco where the bugs are smaller than a thumb nail and the parking is a lot better. His realtor, his plumber, and his trashman are down on the south shore as well. Coatue isn’t a place for people to stay for long. We can travel inside the big trucks or in the middle of a cloud of insect repellant, but not for too many minutes without To visit Coatue is to see what the people saw when they came to the island: windy, treeless, and full of birds. The deer hide in the seagrass and the clouds whip overhead. You would have nothing to burn, nowhere to hide, nowhere to go; to live out here is to huddle into a cliff face as a swift does.

Coatue doesn’t hate humans; it just doesn’t care. The crabs wave at us as we pass. They aren’t cheering us on, they just want to eat. When you see the water lapping at the beach on the sound side, or flowing in the tide in the harbor, you see the dull progression of time, freed from clocks and calendars and measured in high tide lines and dead shells.

From Fourth Point, the green heads could cover Main Street, the clock tower, and the tank farm. The homes in Wauwinet, Pocomo, and Shawkemo loom more impressively, but even they look as remote as the boats in the harbor. Even further out, away from the sand and shore, Nantucket in August is a
suggestion of a dream. The old Loran towers blink on the horizon, as does the odd flash of light and the even odder Cessna coming in for a landing. Otherwise, you live in a world of water and sky.

Somewhere to the east lies hundreds of miles of dank, cold, and opaque fog. Somewhere under the shimmering surface swim herds of bluefish, seals, and sharks. And you float above them due to the cleverness of some engineers and the indifference of a bored god. To see the island as a sailor, is to see a blessing on the water. The mansions, lawns, and flagpoles mean firm ground, smooth water, and cold beer. To trade the rolling deck, or the deep sand, for the cobblestones and the brick of Main Street would be a warm and human change.

The crowds of August might be welcome then. All of us humans, dressed in pink pants and backwards hats, might be just the right things after a hermitage of sand. As the thunderheads bear down from the west, you might even be grateful to be standing in line for ice cream, in the fading heat of an August day. Even if you have to be behind the Beautiful Man with the White Shirt and
six Madras clad children.

Articles by Date from 2012