Directions to Myself
Here, the road hugs the ocean. The water comes and goes from view because the coast is shaped like a hand with hundreds of fingers, the road tracing the edge of the palm. When visible, the shore is a pile of seaweed-covered rocks, the water between 30 and 58 degrees and some shade of metal no matter the month. The ocean floor is covered with barnacles, mussel shells, and the spiky domes of dead anemones. Water shoes or old sneakers are recommended if planning to swim, along with a healthy sense of personal limits. Islands are farther away than they appear.
The sale is in the next town. My son, who is five, sits in the backseat. He’s already announced: He’s going on this errand against his will and won’t be having any fun. I promise I’ll be quick once we arrive, but I need to drive slower than the speed limit because of the frost heaves. They crack through the asphalt each winter. They wreck the shocks on cars already corroded by the salt the snowplows scatter, to keep everyone’s tires from sliding. Even so, people in a hurry end up in the woods.
Nature is always warning: Slow down. Time is moving quickly, why must you move so quickly through it?
We find a parking spot near an electrical pole and walk past a person carrying a plastic tricycle and a rusted Weedwacker. Inside the barn, people politely jostle for position to inspect the offerings, displayed on tables and stacked in boxes. Objects on this peninsula travel in a slow orbit through the houses. Most of our possessions once belonged to people up and down the road. I know which house the rice cooker came from, and the raincoat with the broken zipper, and the amateur portraits of Napoleonic-era naval men. Things leave as well as enter. Our former front door is now the front door of a house we pass on the way to the grocery store.
I steer my moody son toward a basket of pendants and bracelets and rings because that’s where his happiness is reliably located. I don’t even think it counts as a trick to lead him here.
The used books table, where my happiness is located, is half covered in kitchen appliances so old that the task they were meant to ease is impossible to even guess. Art hangs on the wall, including a few framed charts of the area and a grid of knots in a shadow box. Each knot is identified by a bronze plaque. The Surgeon’s Knot. The Strangle Knot. The Marlinespike Hitch. A friend hurries by with an armful of sheets—you should totally get that! she says, out of breath—but I already own a shadow box with a bronze plaque. I’ve recently started to envision the yard sale that will be thrown after my death. I need to curate my posthumous image now, so as not to be inaccurately seen as a person obsessed, for example, with shadow boxes.
Today, the majority of the books on the table are last century’s self-help bestsellers and the usual selection of nautical and navigation books. These comprise the local canon. Most appear to never have been read, because people tend to want only to find themselves.
I sort through the piles. A few of the books I’ve bought at previous sales: Games People Play, Chapman Piloting and Seamanship, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them,
and A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast.
It doesn’t count as doubling up—or, rather, won’t compel future strangers, acquiring my belongings for one or two dollars, to get any wrong ideas about me—to buy an earlier edition of A Cruising Guide
, because mine is from the 1970s, and this one is from the 1930s. At a glance, the spirit and methodology remain unchanged. Both give directions by telling little stories, often a mix of history, bigotry, gossip, hearsay, and lore. The warnings issued are stern and incessant; the outlook, given the Guide
is written for people on vacation, refreshingly fatalistic.
Eternal vigilance, the Guide
reminds, is the price of safety.
Instead of compass headings, the Guide
describes how to enter dicey harbors using local landmarks such as “the high brick chimney of the sardine factory” as points of orientation. Some ledges are marked by actual shipwrecks.The Guide
also functions as a self-help book, its cautious wisdom transferable to people, lost or not, without plans to ever leave land.
It is no place for a stranger except in daylight and fair weather.
The approach is through a narrow channel where the tide runs hard.
There are a number of attractive anchorages, some of them of no value in a storm.
My son digs through the answering machines and calculators on the electronics table, the once shiny, future-hearkening machines now dusty and sucking up light. In addition to a bracelet and a ring, he chooses a DVD box set of a ’90s television show that’s available online, plus we own no machine to play the discs. I grab the Guide,
a bracelet, a cellophane sleeve containing what look like giant ceramic teeth, and a ziplock bag of postcards featuring reproductions of famous Annunciation paintings.
Outside, people are chatty as they exit the barn, burdened with cast-offs reincarnated as a windfall. Someday everything will reenter the economy, and increasingly cause perplexity. What is this palm-size rectangle with the cracked black screen? My son carries the DVDs in front of him like a divining rod pointing toward the shortsighted past. So much change occurs in fifty years, and even five. Wrecks disintegrate. Sardine markets decline and chimneys topple. The directions for entering a harbor may no longer advise keeping the tall pine to starboard, because the tree was struck by lightning, chopped down, used to build a barn like this one.
We drive back along the coast, the Reach to our right. This is how we find our way around the peninsula—over which shoulder is the water? But even that’s a conditional rule of thumb. Salt ponds, rivers, and extreme tides spiral and extend in all directions. The Reach—named because of the southwest wind that blows through it during the summer, allowing the old schooners to travel the length without changing the set of their sails—stretches between the mainland and an island so vast it looks like the mainland. At both ends are bays leading to the same ocean. Determining from which direction the tide flows and ebbs requires a rethinking of tides completely. Here, the incoming tide moves clockwise; the outgoing tide moves counter.
In the backseat, my son is talking about squirrels and how many taste buds they have. They grow even more,
he says, if you feed them sandwiches.
My son and I share many similarities. We both apologize to inanimate objects when we drop or break them. We both worry we’ll be abandoned by everyone we love if we stop making cheerful conversation. We are both, given this anxiety, sometimes misunderstood. Recently, a great-uncle told him, You’re just like your mother. You don’t listen. You talk too much.
I’m half-listening to my son because, to our right, the fog is rolling in. This almost never happens. I grew up ninety miles south of here. When I was younger, the fog was an unpredictable but regular guest. It could arrive in June and stay until September. Each year, it was a question: Would there be any summer this summer?
We don’t ask this question anymore. Something warmed or cooled. Regardless, the fog rarely appears and so this place has become increasingly unrecognizable for being so easy to see. When people say their memories of childhood become erased the older they get, I think: My childhood memories were of erasure, of summers spent in a blank. My parents, in the late ’70s, decided to buy an old wooden sailboat. It was the equivalent of a used camper van that we drove up and down the coast. My family spent April and May getting the boat ready to put in the water. We sanded and varnished the mast, the boom, the coaming, the rails.
Then we would launch the boat and wait for it to fill up with the Atlantic. The unknown was not if, but how much.
I’ve since learned, because my neighbor is a boatbuilder, that a boat’s first days in the water, and its first times under sail, are called sea trials and shakedowns. These are to identify problems so that they can be fixed. But that’s not how it worked with our boat, which came with the slightly concerning name (we did not, due to superstition, change it) Second Chance
. The boat, throughout each summer, sprung new leaks. The engine was always being fixed yet never was. The point, it seemed, for us and for it, was to live with the problems, to atone for whatever mistakes made by the previous owner that necessitated this reprieve, and to be constantly evading conviction for crimes we’d inherited. Every day on the ocean was a stress test of luck, preparedness, and skill.
We named our dinghy, which trailed off the stern, Last Chance.
In my final accounting, the danger, wonder, and thrill outweighed the moist discomfort of being stuck inside a fogbank with family members who were rarely more than twenty feet away, and more commonly within seven, for days on end. My brother’s math doesn’t agree. Recently, I told him that I wanted to acquire one of the sailboats that were abundantly for sale nearby or even free. Every fourth house had one tarped, on blocks, in the yard.
If you do that, he said, your children will hate you.