Nantucket Essays

The Communion of Morning Coffee

by Robert P. Barsanti

You can get anything you need on this island before eight o’clock in the morning.

In the summer, we bring too many people onto the island, take their money, rent them cars, and then say a little prayer that nothing bad happens. And generally nothing does. However, sanity requires that we learn where the crowd is going and then make other plans. We need to zig when Connecticut zags. If we can be flexible and considerate, the island can be great.

If we can’t and insist on leading all of our friends and family through our agenda for the best island vacation ever, then we deserve to stand in line for a waffle cone full of Brownie a la Mode.

If we want breakfast out here, we need to be seated and with coffees in front of us by eight o’clock in the morning. At that hour, the vacationers are enjoying the relative quiet of the morning or their livers are filtering the toxins of the night out as fast as age will allow. The roads are busy, but with workers on bicycles or runners bouncing through their “Morning Workout” playlists.

At seven-thirty, the Downyflake had warm sugar donuts, four waitresses, and one silent flashing television. If the last election proved anything to me, it proved that I needed “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” a lot more than I needed twenty-four hour news coverage and chyrons. Nobody else minded, or watched, the flashing screen. I shared the counter with one young man with a pork pie hat and an older man who drank a small orange juice and ate dry wheat toast. One table held four men that were either on their way to a golf course or a fishing boat. In another booth, in the back corner, a young mom and two very squirmy boys colored some books. One older man sat alone near the window, weeping.

He had seen some years and lost some hair. He wore a white dress shirt with a t-shirt under it. He wore brown slacks, loafers, and looked at his fingers. Before him, he had a cup of coffee, a dish of scrambled eggs, and a donut.

He wept with dignity. He didn’t sob, sigh, or moan. He wasn’t consoling or coaching himself. Instead, the tears flowed down his cheeks to his jawline, where they dripped onto the table.

All of us watched him. We didn’t stare, precisely, but we were aware. We were his lifeguards; we didn’t know if he was drowning, but we were ready to help.

He was in a space between. On one hand, he was puddling up the table. On the other hand, he didn’t appear to be in need of any immediate help. He could eat his eggs, even though he seemed overcome. He maintained a delicate sorrowful distance, as if he were behind the wheel of a car at a light.

We waited for an invitation to approach. A word, or even a glance at any of us. None came.

Finally, Maureen, the waitress with a streak of green in her blond hair, slipped up to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He tilted his head towards her, then he put his hand on top of hers.

After a moment, he withdrew his hand and nodded. She patted him, walked away, and then returned and poured him more coffee.

We settled back into our seats. We were not needed. Or, more precisely, we were not invited. We were needed, otherwise, he would not have come to the Downyflake for his scrambled eggs and coffee. We were there for our consideration and our communion. His grief had become monstrous, but bearable in the community of coffee. And he had given us a moment when we could be of use, a moment when we could care for him. But after that moment, he finished his coffee and donut, left the majority of the eggs, parceled out some bills from his wallet, and then left. He didn’t look into any of our faces.

Then, the hour changed and the lines of men and children in shorts built up at the donut counter. Orders were given, received, fulfilled, and then quality checked for accuracy. For all of the energy of the three women behind the counter, the demands became complex and the process slowed. The line built up out of the side door.

The golfers (or fishermen) paid and left. The young mother shuffled her boys to the door and made them say “thank you” to the waitress. The dry toast and orange juice finished, as did the pork pie hat. As did I. Another line was building for table service and I had no need to inconvenience someone else. Still, I asked Evie to help me with a half dozen donuts, and she brought warm ones from the kitchen.

The Downyflake parking lot makes sense in October and June, but becomes overwhelmed into madness during July and August. The lot only allows one car to move one way or another at any one moment; success requires eye contact, problem solving, and turn taking. Kindergarten skills. Yet, kindergarten isn’t in session in July. I backed out of my space and let a waiting Jeep pull in. Then another Jeep followed that one; I backed up another car length and let her grab a neighboring slot. Then, a third Jeep came face to face with the grill of my decrepit pickup truck. The driver wore sunglasses and looked into my face. Then he leaned on the horn.

I smiled.

Reality peaked above the horizon and dawned on Marblehead. He turned and slowly backed up. Which caused the Highlander to retreat. Which pushed a Land Rover back out into Sparks Avenue and away from the restaurant. I zagged my way through the waiting cars, then out to the road, and then back to the safety of my own house and overgrown hedge.

You can get anything you need on this island before eight o’clock in the morning. You have to wait for grace to approach, stretch your hand out to it, and accept what you receive. But God help you if you are late.

Articles by Date from 2012