Nantucket Essays

The Oldest Member

by Robert P. Barsanti

They brought the Oldest Member down to the beach after his nap. He didn’t want to go.

They were all there and he knew why.

The Oldest Member was turning 98 today. The number was absurd, as is any number over 75. His mother had had the consideration to give birth during the month of August, so that his family always had a good reason to visit when the water was warm, the surf was high, and tomatoes were plump. Had the great blessed stork visited her a few months earlier, and had he been born in March, he suspected that his birthday would not be quite so well attended.

There was another reason. .

They had chosen this beach on the south shore because the bluff wasn’t six feet off the beach, and he could step down. They wanted him in a wheelchair, with big inflatable pink tires and an umbrella, but that wasn’t happening. Instead, with Amelia on his left and Emily on his right, he took off his shoes and walked (well, shuffled) down into the sand, then stepped over to his chair. He touched the girls only once or twice. They all exhaled.

Earlier, there had been an argument. One of his daughters knew that he liked his restaurant where he knew the waiters, and they would have his Lobster Bisque, and where there were bathrooms within a few steps. Another had proposed having a tent and a caterer at the house. But then, the Variant raised its head. The Oldest Member had been vaccinated, as had everyone else but the Red Hat Son-in-Law. And while he was hard to tolerate, nobody want to be responsible for drowning the Red Hat in his own spit. Least of all his kids.

So an absurd seat for the Oldest Member had been prepared. He was seated in the deep shadow of an orange umbrella, cushioned and propped on a thirty-year-old porch chair. Then, a pink cupcake was put in one hand and a red solo cup of Prosecco in the other. He smiled at them all, sipped one, then bit the other. Assured that he was alive for the moment, his children went back to their own affairs.

They were placed in a broad semi-circle, with the Oldest Member in the center, under his umbrella, shrouded in a long sleeve shirt and capped with his wife’s straw gardening hat. Before them were towels, coolers, blankets, and children. He could identify almost all of them. His children and their respective others returned to whatever they talked about, with forgotten books on their knees and beers in their hands. They were, after all, his kids.

Their children, though, had not noticed. On this day, a sandbar had formed and the waves were breaking fifty yards off shore, then they stumbled and bubbled onto the beach. Two boys, both predator thin and brown, were racing skimboards along the water. Out in the surf, the youngest had boogie boards to wrangle onto the waves while the older ones body surfed the waves in until they had to shake sand from their bikini tops. One little girl had a green bucket and a shovel; she was filling her pail with sand fleas.

Anna had done that, with their girls, on the same beach, in the same water. She had given them all garden trowels and set them to digging until they caught ten fleas each. The bugs were the size of their thumbs, but much more wiggly and disgusting. Anna would hold them and show them to the girls in all their ickiness. The Oldest Member held that sizzling memory while it burned.

She was gone. Anna had drifted off into a fog, one moment at a time until nothing was left but the wrenching in his heart and something brass on the mantel. For a while, he would forget, then the moment spun to her and his heart would get torqued into a familiar knot.

Overall, he had been lucky. He had been in Europe when they died of the cold, of the stupid, of the wicked. And they were dead, sprayed over barbed wire, hung from light posts, crushed in tank ruts. And it hadn’t been him. Later, he had been lucky with the cancer, he had been lucky with his heart, he had been lucky when pneumonia filled his lungs and stayed. He had lived through the beeping polar night of the hospital and through the long dark vigil in the mind. In the end, though, he had been unlucky. He had had to watch her go first.

He closed his eyes.

They were all gone. Brothers, cousins, parents, friends, clients, rivals, enemies, and Anna. Gone.

He remained. With a refilled cup of fizzy wine, a half eaten cupcake, and his wife’s gardening hat. He was an absurd medical exhibit, kept alive by skill and chemistry, forgotten by everyone but his lawyers.

He knew the other reason they were there. He was 98.

The Oldest Member opened his eyes and they looked away. He drank more wine and watched the girls on the waves. They ducked under a breaking wave with a kick of their feet and she was there. Anna’s genetic soul breathed in all of these girls. They wore bikinis (which she never would) and their hair was too long (she kept it short), but they were her in the waves, her on the sand, her with the fleas. The dead lived.

When he saw his children, he saw her as well. Older, heavier, and worn but Anna. The spirit burned deep inside the house.

He knew why he was here.

All his life, he had been a boat. Early on, he had powered through choppy seas and had been heaved and shoved by swells and tides. But now, his boat cruised through a smooth harbor and cast a long wake. The wake spread wide and moved fast and he could see it now, spread out behind him.

The Oldest Member would see them all again next year.

At a restaurant. With bathrooms.

Articles by Date from 2012