by Robert P. Barsanti
I took the wrong turn today. I was driving out to Madaket and headed behind the Boy’s and Girl’s Club and up Pleasant Street when the time of the season, a Red Defender 90 with the top off, came to a halt in front of me. Before him were a string of expensive cars bought for the trip to Great Point and Nobadeer, all idling and creeping up to the Five Corners Stop sign. They have returned. Driving on-island becomes more challenging in the last weeks of June. For those of us who live out here year-round, we get used to a more informal manner of driving. You slow to stop signs, you round the corners a little too wide, and you touch the gas a bit more than you should. Then, when the schools empty, the boats fill, and the aqua bicycles come out, you relearn all of those skills you convinced the trooper you knew when you were sixteen. At the same time, they, the visitors return to the island with skills sharpened on the highway; I-84, the Pike, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Nothing in the anonymous urban riot prepared them for rotaries, four-way stop signs, and the sure knowledge that the pick up truck you flip off on Surfside Road will park next to you at Fortieth Pole.
Thirty minutes of caution later, I parked outside the Madaket summer house of a retired Texas judge and his actively employed gardening wife. They had been on the island for hours. She had a skid of flowers next to her, a trowel in her hand, boots on her feet, and deadly intent. He waited on his new deck. They did not own a mansion. He had bought it forty years ago when he wanted a place to sleep in between fishing trips. Since then, it had been improved and updated so that it was weather tight and grandchildren proof. The building remained a fisherman’s house, just one that had married well. No second story view, no master bedroom with viewing deck, no outdoor kitchen, but a brown patch in the yard where the boat trailer spent the winter and a brand new deck.
He wore his jeans and a blue polo shirt. He hadn’t burned or tanned yet, and he hadn’t put his hat on. His shirt still had the folds from the packaging. He had four surf rods before him, with the appropriate tools, and a sweating beer. He opened his cooler and put one on the table for me. I opened it, at one o’- clock in the afternoon, and had a sip. He knew why I was there. On his new deck.
Overhead, the sky gleamed like a new car. A light wind moved the shrubs and his neighbors’ hedges. In the distance, the surf tumbled and spun on the south shore. An outboard motor idled just off the town pier. The pogies were here. I told him. Someone brought in a thirty-pound striper just off the Great Point Rip. He had heard something like that. He hoped the wind would stay away. Not scatter the bait fish. Then he reached for his check book.
In my kinder moments, I knew how it was. Down in Galveston, he got the mail and thumbed through the phone bill, the cable bill, the electric bill, and the Visa bill (“Who spent two hundred dollars at the Kroger?” “It was for your birthday party, dear.”)
Somewhere in that pile of bills my handwritten, itemized bill for a deck appeared and settled into the recess of his mind. Perhaps he felt it asked for too much. Perhaps he felt that he could have done this himself and shouldn’t have to pay anyone all that money. Perhaps he just forgot. Nantucket and striped bass were a long way from the Gulf of Mexico and Highway 45. I am his employee. He is my boss. Then they flew up and came out on the island and the rest of the country slipped over the watery horizon. The divisions and the titles slipped away for a moment, and I returned to being a friendly face that he trusted. I returned into the warmth of his We. Or, more accurately and more emotionally true, he came back to Us. With a silent and unspoken shame, he pushed a generous check to me and, without looking at it, I tucked it into my pocket. Then he thanked me for getting the boat ready and invited me out for blues should I want to join him. Perhaps another time. We celebrate a great deal out here on the Fourth of July. The high season is at last upon us and all of the rental cars are out. Everyone who wants a job can get two. The water on the south shore is warming, the sand bars are forming, and you can still get a parking space. We aren’t sending hordes of young people into war, we have a place to put our pillow, and the trains are too far away to wake us. At night, from Sconset to Madaket, you see stars, hear surf, and smell salt. We are here.
The best of American traditions, on the Fourth of July, celebrates the soiled supremacy of “We, The People.” Out here, we pack into the downtown, lawyer and criminal, doctor and patient, client, customer, clerk, and chief. Then, we get hosed down by the firemen and children. Every individual, perched on their own niche of the org chart, is endowed by his a creator to get soaked down to the lowest common denominator. The water washes away the high ceremony onto the cobblestones with the sunscreen and the Skin So Soft, then spills it all into the Atlantic.
The change isn’t permanent. Most will go back onto their perch before the week is out and will do their best to prove the illusions in their wallet and in their garage are true. But the truth bursts above us that evening. You and I, native and visitor, client and customer, are united into a dark sweaty We under the bursting, spinning stars of an eternal July night.