They were out there on New Year’s Day. Four white boats lined up near the eastern jetty, pulling scallops out of the water. Two men worked in each boat. They aimed the nose of the boat into the incoming tide and worked the winches. Each pull brought up crabs, eel grass, miscellaneous odd shells and critters, along with three or four scallops. Then they dropped the dredges and started again. It was not work for me, but it was work and it paid and nobody told you to wear a tie tomorrow.
The wind blew, the temperature hung over freezing, and the clouds hung low enough to fog the windows. A Nantucket winter stretches November out to six months. Snow doesn’t fall. It gets whipped over from the Cape until it crashes into a tree or a building. Then it turns to rain and the white cover melts into the cold and gray scrub pines.
January is the saddest month. January collects the Christmas trees, trashes the elementary school decorations, then tosses them into a D.P.W. Truck. January brings bills and thin paychecks; it holds the W-4s out before you. It cancels the boats, grounds the planes, and eliminates the Patriots.
Winter sends you inside to the workbench and the keyboard. All summer, you work outside. The roof needs new shingles, the clapboard is warping, and the tourists won’t save themselves from work or champagne. You climb a ladder up into the ocean breezes and the hot sun of August. To January, however, you shut the door and cover the windows with plastic. You start in the bruise of morning and leave in the draining gold of evening. You escape into your work.
We can’t be what we are, we must be what we do. What we do is who we are. Craftsmen walk past the Dreamland, put a hand on the clapboard, and say, with pride, “I built that.” A cook watches the meals slip out on the hands of waiters with a warm glance. Even the scallops, zip locked into one pound bags, have pride of labor. Someone caught me. Someone opened me.
Very few of us are living the dream. Our twelve year old would snicker and roll his eyes at the sell-outs we became. We were going to leave and act, not pour coffee. We were going to write novels, not teach elementary school. The Masters degree does little work with PVC pipe and copper fittings.
But the trick of being an adult is to let your dreams seep into your days. Someone needs to get the health insurance, the groceries, and the Visa bill; but the actress can still smile her best stage smile at the young couple at the seat near the fire. The novel can float through the day and then be caught on paper in the evening. A life spent in nature, with friends, and without hesitation, can be had in the back of a scallop boat.
Our friends call us into our work. They wait for us on that scallop boat, or pickup truck, or on the other side of the counter. At this time of year, every seat has a familiar name and every lit window has a history. The men who drink your coffee at the Downyflake in the morning are married to the women who smile when you are stocking shelves at the Stop and Shop. When I was a bouncer at the Muse, I escorted the fathers out the door on Thursday night, and then gave vocabulary quizzes to their sons in the morning. In January, you work with your old friends and your old enemies. They pass in and out of the doors until awkwardness fades into civility.
The rest of America works with strangers. They commute in from New Lebanon and Needham with a bag lunch and a set of ear phones. They are nice enough, pleasant enough, and private enough to give their professional demeanor a latent warmth. On island, we know too much. We know ex-wives, arrest warrants, and bankruptcies. Unclenchable private horrors and grand victories get passed around like a dog eared newspaper. We love them still. We worked for them and now they work for us and then we will switch again and again. The waitress you tip in the morning will be the mojito drinker who tips you that night. Probably with the same money.
Grace glimmers in the winter; January leaves crusts of time for an avocation. Time stretches into the darkness; time for knitting, for reading, for learning to make apps for Android. In the silence of a still telephone, you can take the leftover wood from that new house in Shawkemo and create an inlaid chest for blankets. Dreams don’t die in the dark of a January afternoon, they expire in the flickering light on the sofa. Childhood dreams slowly dehydrate in Oprah’s smile and Chandler’s twinkle.
In January, the morning unfreezes and lightens. A wind blows from the northeast and whitecaps the harbor. The boat rocks, cracks, and melts in the slow preparation, and then heads back out into a following tide. We stand together and face the gray of another day.