Nantucket Essays

The Two of Them

by Robert P. Barsanti

The grandson’s plane left at three. They had waited with the young man at the airport, whiling away a couple more hours as the airline people shrugged and smiled. The air conditioners were buzzing away, and neither of them had been inside the terminal in ten years. The grandson, now 25, checked his phone, made calls, tried to make connections.

She wandered through the airport shop, shopping for nothing, but keeping her eye open for anything. He just stayed on the bench, watching the fog roll over the runway. There was nothing to be done. You were a number in a math problem where the answer was Houston. You couldn’t change the problem. By two-thirty, the sun poked through and by three, his plane had taken off over Nobadeer.

His wife had watched him. Not studying, not examining, but with an occasional glance of reassurance. She was taking attendance. The Reds he liked to wear on-island, sneakers, a thrift shop special shirt, and a bucket hat. It had been sixty years. Most of which had been spent watching him slip into or out of one uniform or another: a navy uniform, a scientist’s white coat, and then suit after suit after suit. They were gone now, like tears in the rain. Her husband retired from the office with champagne, a letter, and a cardboard box. For two years, the suits hung for some consulting, some conferences, and then they were all gone, but one.

All along, his wife knew that he was this ragamuffin under it all. His underwear had worn out a year ago, his shirts were clean but threadbare, and the pants…he had collected almost eight pairs of Reds along the spectrum from brick red to white. When he walked, he held up his belt. On the bench, he scratched at the crossword puzzle and waited for his wife to finish shopping.

Her husband was also keeping tabs. She had remained the same size for almost sixty years, barely five feet tall. Today, she wore white slacks and a candy apple red blouse with a matching hat. He appreciated the hat; he could find her at a glance. His wife was a sharp dresser. She wore bright colors and whites, with scarves and makeup and jewelry. Everyday, his wife walked out the door expecting to be photographed.

The grandson hadn’t been to the island in fifteen years. Remarriage had taken their daughter to Colorado and into a career of mathematics and building projects and airline miles. They could visit, of course, and often did for weeks at a time. She had talked of a condo in Boulder, but nothing had come of it. At that time, the boy had been fifteen. His step-father was taking him into the mountains. Everything that they knew involved water and flat horizons. They didn’t belong in a circumscribed world.

But there had been an island time. An unspoken understanding had developed around the unravelling marriage and the spinning young man fifteen years ago. They would take care of him. For a few summers, he came to the island and there were boogie boards and sailing lessons and a swingset in the backyard. Still, today, the swings sagged, the sunfish remained suspended in the garage, and the beach gear faded in the corner.

After all, what was the house for?

They had soared on the wings of luck. When they bought the house, after a Christmas bonus before the dot com bubble, they picked a cape on a crest of a hill on the “right” side of Tom Nevers. In that first summer, the night had stars, Sconset, and Sankaty. Over the years, other houses filled in the dark, but those years faded to black on most nights. It had always been a summer house; it had never become an investment or a rental property. The doors didn’t close in the heat and the electric register smelled in the cold. They kept leaving later and later in the fall.

For a while, the guests had been incessant. Brothers and sisters came, with nieces and nephews, and everyone packed into the Explorer and rolled off to Madequecham or Nobadeer. Friends, colleagues, and neighbors, happy to be free of the mainland heat, got picked up at the boat, saw the island for a few days, and took the two of them out to the Languedoc. On some summers, the guests only slowed down into September. Looking back, it had been great fun. Then it slowly ended in ebb and flow of the years.

The grandson had been the first guest in years, and they squired him around. You only rediscover your favorite places when you show them to someone else. Otherwise, they sit in the forgotten familiar. So, they went back to Madequecham, without the boogie boards but with the old chairs. They went to the Sconset Market for ice cream after a striped bass dinner on the porch. An afternoon at the Whaling Museum, a morning at Greater Light, and an early evening looking for earrings. She held her tongue and asked no questions.

They had no expectations of the grandson. Time had washed that pressure away. He wouldn’t tell them about the coworkers getting 888 Blueberry Vodka, about their daughter getting a “Juice Bar” Tee shirt, about the lady who would get new earrings. They did not mention the past, nor did they pluck it from the sand when it arose. He kept his own counsel. Somewhere in his mind, cobblestones and gray shingles were matching up to the sumptuous air-conditioned suburbia of Houston. They did not ask if he would be back. But they thought it.

On the last night, they had stopped at the Chicken Box early. They had never taken their young grandson here in his first iteration, and may not have taken him now, but for the band. The Savage Brothers, complete with horns, began their first set while the retirees were still awake and could dance to Motown and swing. So they danced as they always had, fox trotting, swirling, and moving through a sparse floor. The bartenders and bouncers watched, unnoticed by the two.

At sixty years of marriage, they no longer noticed. They didn’t notice other people, they didn’t notice other places, they didn’t notice money or respect or the special linen napkins they gave you at the club. They only saw each other. Each was sufficient and complete. Time had worn it all away, until each other remained.

When they left the airport, they drove back to Tom Nevers in the intermittent light, alone on the road, and together.

Articles by Date from 2012