It was a pristine morning. The harbor and the docks opened themselves into the ripening bouquet of autumn—when the colors swayed and vibrated between reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and browns. The caffeine smell of early morning issued from the silent hull of the ship while harbor waves treaded delicately. Passengers shuffled onboard and took their seats: the Nantucket Fast Ferry was guaranteed to arrive in Hyannis Port within two hours.
Some minutes passed, and the doors of the ferry closed. Everyone was inside, sitting calmly in the rows of nylon. Next to the front row window sat a man. He was complaining about something, and in the reflection of the window his withered hands trembled, subdued by the cold iron voice of his once bewitching bride, who sat next to him—a sweet looking woman in her early eighties, wearing a pale gray sweater and chic blue foulard. She had on dazzling pearl earrings.
She began to shout as she stood up and Why don’t you quit whining! made the room swell with bitter feeling and Jesus, just STOP it already! words that pounded against his wilted ears. She walked off.
The solitary profile of his once handsome face was barely visible from behind the tall ferry seats, but the hands—they stood out in the light against the tinted windowpane. Slowly, they worked at the muffin and tried to make the pieces drag themselves up to his mouth. They were hands that betrayed themselves—now scraggy and pale but clearly once muscular and commanding. The thin glass veins struggled to lift the wrapping from the baked treat that was his breakfast. It seemed that somewhere behind the back of the chair, a mind was pulsating intense decrees to make even the most basic movements possible. Deliberately, the pieces began to disappear. The ferry pushed off from shore; it would be only two hours until it reached Hyannis, and no more.
His wife came back and, bending over him, forced a coffee into his hand. As it spilled out he gasped and cursed her Well good JOB! in his own emaciated way. Furious, she ripped the cup out of his hand and You can take care of yourself, all right! threw it into the trash bin. What should have been a moment of sympathy—an old shell of what had once been a tall rugged man now unable to even hold his own coffee—deteriorated quickly into GET UP, it isn’t a big DEAL! something pitiful as he looked up at her and with a crack in his voice begged her Please don’t, you’re embarrassing me… for just one moment of understanding, of unconditional love.
Where were his children? They had probably dropped the two of them off at the ferry and fallen back into their own circuit, their own youthful life filled with its own host of first-world problems and just enough good health never to really notice how good it all was. But the circuit would again come round, and in twenty or thirty or some number of years they too would be dropped off on some ferry by their own children and face the cold unforgiving Atlantic, alone.
That was the way of Nantucket—of countless other islands that catered to the wealthy—where fathers’ houses were bought by children at good rates and then updated and redone in ways that were fashionable and modern. The parents then became strangers in their own homes, no longer movers and shakers but now pushed aside to make room for fast-paced dinner parties. Gradually, the children began making more and more money and the parents stopped earning anything, relying on the image of what used to be—the oh-so-important appearances of manifold wealth and importance. Draped over their threadbare bodies rested expensive suits of impeccable cloth—articles from a bygone era when they triumphantly swarmed upon the islands and felt like they were somebody.
Unsure of what else to do, his hands—sufficiently greased from the ferry-bought breakfast—began to search for something to clean themselves with. They looked this way and that, one finger haphazardly prodding the blue blazer lapel before deciding not to further sully the wardrobe. The jacket was as traditional as they come: navy with gold buttons, probably bought at Brooks Brothers some ten years earlier. It hung loose, with pockets of fabric sagging across the shoulders of his frame.
Unable to bear this slow, unproductive effort, his wife shoved some napkins his way. After several seconds, his hands grasped the old crumpled paper, now brown and worn with the refuse of the blueberry muffin. He worked diligently, as if the one thing he had left, the one quantum of control that he still possessed, was his ability to keep his hands clean and civilized.
Finished with their work, they fell back into place at his sides, gone from the light of the windowpane. The ferry continued onward: the engines humming, steady, consistent.