Michael Mount | Longreads | Month 2019 | 25 minutes (6,236 words)
The home I moved into was not what you might associate with Martha’s Vineyard: it wasn’t a sweeping palatial estate near the ocean with views of crispy white foam. It was a simple shingled house tucked far in the woods, sitting in a rustic subdivision near a graveyard and just beyond the commercial centers of the Island, with power lines cutting an artery through its backyard. I schlepped my things inside, bubbling with optimism about what my year of rest and revelation would bring. My housemate was a 70-year-old man who helped me move my luggage while screaming at the Patriots game every time he walked by. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that he asked questions.
“Most people don’t move out here until May,” he said. “What are you running away from?”
“Just New York.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said, laughing.
It was September of 2013 and I had left everything in Brooklyn. All of the carefully assembled Ikea furniture. My job. It all seemed to recede behind me on that final glimpse from the ferry that morning as I watched Woods Hole, Massachusetts, shrinking to a pinhole. All of the chaos and the heartbreak of summer in New York was like a muted roar — Facebook would remind me, but I had every reason to forget.
Some families have houses on Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t. My friend from home (home is a distant place) had moved to the Island last year to work full time for an agricultural non-profit. I did not know her well but her suggestion came to me in a time of need:
“If you hate New York so much,” she said, “you should move out to the Island for a winter and write your book. There are tons of writers out here.”
I was 24 and as weightless as dandelion molt. Leaving a job meant nothing. My longest relationship had been eight months long. I knew one person on Martha’s Vineyard and — it seemed — only a few more in New York. It hardly felt like a sacrifice. Those in New York whom I told about my plan expressed two contrasting perspectives: “Why would you do that?” and “I’m so jealous.” I chose to listen to only the latter.
It only took two trips to the car to carry all my things into the old man’s house. He seemed fine with me renting the room for next to nothing — if anything he was enthused to continue renting past Labor Day, to have company at the end of the season.
That evening we watched Tom Brady smear the Jets. During commercial breaks he fiddled with a small police scanner sitting beside his armchair; there were distant calls for drunk driving or speeding incidents. When it was time to eat he walked slowly to the kitchen and boiled two hot dogs, piling them on a paper plate.
“No dishes this way,” he said. “Bachelor life.”
I started a job at a famous bakery you’ve probably heard of or even have a t-shirt from — it’s become emblematic of summer life on the Cape. The manager asked me if I had experience and I told her I’d worked at a bakery when I was in college. She let out a pensive sigh and swiveled in her chair, procuring a w-9.
It was September of 2013 and I had left everything in Brooklyn. All of the carefully assembled Ikea furniture. My job. It all seemed to recede behind me on that final glimpse from the ferry that morning as I watched Woods Hole, Massachusetts, shrinking to a pinhole.
The off-season economy mainly consists of a few jobs sustaining the year-round population. The fabulous summer lawn parties had ended. The seasonal workers had drifted away like confetti, headed to Thailand with twenty thousand dollars in their pockets, back to college, or to ski patrol jobs out West. Only the necessary workers — doctors, nurses, teachers, cops and carpenters — remained on the Island. Them, and the bakers.
“They put me in this office right next to the bathroom vent,” the bakery manager said, throwing up her arms.
Her office was a Kafke-esque tribute to bureaucracy — towering stacks of tax documents cascading into piles of yellowing recipes, a single small Microsoft desktop buried under all the paper.
“Do you think they’re trying to tell me something?” she asked, spinning around.
While I was filling out my employment verification, a small fight broke out in the front of the restaurant because someone didn’t realize our donuts weren’t gluten free. The manager seemed uninterested, and turned back to me.
“You start next week,” she said. And then as if by after-thought: “Why did you move out here in the middle of the off-season?”
“I was thinking about writing a book,” I said.
“Oh, one of those,” she said. “You know David McCullough lives here?”
“David McCullough?” she said, scoffing. “He’s a famous writer.”
“What did he write?”
She paused for a moment.
“I don’t know.”
Fame and celebrity seemed to loom large. Islanders talked about conversations with and sightings of celebrities from the summer in the way that tribal elders weather myths through constant telling. The summer stories loom well into the fall, growing in magnitude with every reiteration.
But I saw not a single celebrity that first month. In fact, I hardly saw anyone at all. To get to work I walked through a graveyard, conversing with the dead Mayhews and Athearns and Allens, the old families who had come out to the Island and colonized it in sprawling family trees. My shift began in the evening, so it was dark by the time I made it through the rows of dead.
The Bakery seemed to employ only misfits and second-chancers, people who had failed career endeavors or been fired from other restaurants. Bam, my supervisor, was a stoner who claimed to have the largest DVD collection on the Island because the drugs he ordered from Silk Road (the now defunct dark web site) always came in DVD cases — less detectable that way. He had given up that career, however, after a horrendous acid trip that ended in hospitalization and shots of Thorazine. Anthony, the head baker, was a recovering alcoholic with a Karate passion. For hours he would silently tend to the sourdough starter and challah, his big hands braiding it artfully. Melvin, the dishwasher, looked like a career bodybuilder. He labored to walk, his gigantic body tight and lumbering.
The life cycle of yeast dictated our eight-hour shifts. We mostly moved in silence, blasting NPR until 9pm, then classic rock until midnight. We produced everything in bulk: hundreds of donuts, dozens of loaves of bread, racks of cookies. We consumed flour by the barrel, yeast by the pound, chocolate one giant bag at a time. The industrial mixer twisted up 60 pounds of buoyant, golden dough and I cut it into what became hundreds of floating fritters. As the low notch on the totem pole, I started at the deep fryer, fishing the donuts out of hot oil. Everyone has to start somewhere.
We were technically allowed one break per shift, but after the manager — the thin woman with the bathroom office — left at 6pm we had free reign of the world. As long as the work got done, we could smoke as much weed as we wanted in the parking lot, which is exactly what we did.
On my first night I recall eating a donut in the darkening parking lot, listening to Melvin, sitting across from me on an overturned bucket of icing, describe his infatuation with the bowl of chowder in his hand.
“Best thing on the menu,” he said. “I would shoot it in my veins if I could.”
He knew, and didn’t care, that the clam chowder came in a bag, shipped straight from the Sysco factory in Houston, Texas. There was something emblematic about the flagship bakery of Martha’s Vineyard selling Texan chowder to New Englanders at a premium. But we all wanted to believe in the storied legacy of the Island, so we were willing to swallow the myth.
Martha’s Vineyard is nearly 25 miles wide at its widest, or about twice as wide as the length of Manhattan. Though the island loses surface area every year to erosion and hurricanes, it’s still 89 square miles, roughly the same as metropolitan Boston. It’s significantly larger than Washington D.C. (68 square miles) and Miami (55 square miles).
It’s easy to think of an island as a small, claustrophobic place, but Martha’s Vineyard is expansive and seemed to constantly yield secret roads and beaches. There are six small towns within it, and far more forested acreage than coastline. Within those fields of grain and old forests are hundreds of dormant vacation homes inhabited in the off-season by caretakers and Islanders. Some of them labored away the cold months at minimum-wage jobs while living in $10 million homes.
Dukes County (the single county of the Island) is the site of homes for Larry David, Jake Gyllenhaal, Spike Lee, Amy Schumer and many others. It’s the emblematic vacation destination for democratic presidents. It’s the site of Ted Kennedy’s famous Chappaquiddick murder — where a boozy night ended with a young woman drowning in a senator’s Oldsmobile. But the poverty of the Island isn’t revealed until the summer dissolves away and the service industry is laid bare.
In the vernacular of the Island,wash ashores (pronounced washashores, as one word) are migrant laborers like me who moved out for a season or for an extended period of time. Islanders were born here. Everyone else is a tourist. Custies. Visitors. Ferry trash. They landed at Oak Bluffs and Edgartown and bought the t-shirt that, when worn back on the mainland, proudly proclaimed “I’ve been there.” To the Islanders, all the scrubs who come over on the ferry are the same. It doesn’t matter how much money you bring — if you came over in the summer, you’re categorically the same. Even if you’re a Kennedy, you’re still a visitor.
The off-season economy mainly consists of a few jobs sustaining the year-round population. The fabulous summer lawn parties had ended. The seasonal workers had drifted away like confetti, headed to Thailand with twenty thousand dollars in their pockets, back to college, or to ski patrol jobs out West.
I followed the migration path of the wash ashores, scuttling from one house to another, living month-by-month in search of something cheaper. After spending September with the old man, I moved into an old farmhouse with two women — Candace and Glory — two wash ashores in their 30s. We lived in Christiantown, a section of the northern part of the Island where the Wampanoags, the native Indian tribe, were forcefully converted to Christianity. Down the road from our house was an eerie white church sitting in the middle of a field, surrounded by stone Wampanoag graves.
Candace was an agricultural savant, a resourceful gardener and cook who made all of her money tending to greenhouses during the summer. She’d recently ended a 10-year relationship and was perfectly content spending evenings reading Game of Thrones and drinking scotch.
Glory was a permanent nomad, and for her this was just another stop. She traveled with a whole caravan of art projects in the works, paintings, instruments, small dog, fabulous arrays of clothing and costumes, a whole jewelry-making station complete with crystals and tools. Her projects in a band and projects as a jewelry designer and projects as a singer and as a dancer and as a performance artist had all, in their own special ways, gone astray. She had come to the Island from Portland from San Francisco from Boston from L.A. from New York. She told stories of celebrities she had met before they were famous and how ugly they were in real life. It was unclear what she was doing on the Island other than running from her last home, attempting to get her newest small-press project off the ground. Nothing ever came of it.
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Through the fall we would sit on the spare couch that belonged to the wealthy landowners, and Glory would denounce the wealthy landowners. Candace would make a fire with one hand, a glass of scotch in her other. Glory would spout personal conjecture and conspiracy theory in the same breath.
“They actually blew up the levees in New Orleans during Katrina,” Glory said. “To drive all the poor people out. And now they’re doing the same thing here. Have you noticed the blast rock up by Lambert’s Cove?”
We would watch the fire burn in the wood stove, eating the leftover donuts that I brought home from work.
“I shouldn’t even be saying this,” she whispered. “The government is listening to us through our phones.”
But we knew no one was listening.
In New York I was pursuing dreams of getting ahead, attempting to climb some giant hill. But living on the Island was an exercise in maintaining — you could never go faster than 45mph on any of the Island roads, and you would end up exactly where you started if you never turned.
As more wash ashores washed ashore, I was able to move up in the production hierarchy. In October a young man named Max, who had flung away his past in Texas, became our new donut producer. He seemed perfectly content smoking weed in the parking lot with Bam and Melvin; by the end of our shifts they moved at a caterpillar pace, hypnotized by the beautiful radials of icing in the mixing pots.
Max was a wide-eyed 23-year-old who expected nothing from the Island and was gleefully surprised at what he found. This was the end of a long road trip for him. His cousin from Austin, who had been out here before, had promised Max some sort of illusory “wealth” or “success” on the Island, and they had road-tripped out together at the end of the season only to find the closed t-shirt shops and the vacant marinas and the first frosts creeping over wildflowers. It was reminiscent of the tragic vitality of a Steinbeck novel — of the poor migrant workers who chase some dream to a place they’ve never been, only to find more dust.
But Max fit in just fine. He loved the chowder and he didn’t really seem to mind being poor. He talked about Texas as a provincial backwards place — where he was pulled over by “coppers” for smoking “dope,” which made me wonder if this big-bearded man really was just the last of the hippies, who was only a few decades late on making the pilgrimage to the Cape.
Best of all, he didn’t complain about working the donut line. I gladly moved up to unleavened pastries and bread, while Max took the hot oil burns in stride. By the time Halloween rolled around, we were a well-oiled machine, a furnace of productivity.
The Island was kissed by fall in that spectacular way that so many writers had been enamored with — the self-immolating trees flared up and the graves were buried under red and yellow leaves. The big cold rains came. The sun was setting towards the South. The fields of grain in the middle of the Island turned an almost iridescent purple. Suddenly you could see farther. The specks of glowing white houses were distant placeholders on some unreachable horizon.
Giving up everything wasn’t that bad after all. Even though I had made virtually no progress on my “book,” work chugged along as one starry night passed into the next. With Max, the bakery climbed into a new gear of efficiency, and we were sometimes able to clock out early. But one cold evening he came to work late, covered in bruises. He explained, with casual aplomb, that he no longer had a car.
“I had to take the bus,” he said. “Last night I pinballed my ride through the woods.”
After eating a donut he added:
“I was pretty stoned.”
“What the fuck happened?” Anthony asked. We were all waiting for the juicy details.
“I just walked the rest of the way home.”
In the same way that his car did, Max seemed to pinball through life. But that easy freewheeling vibe would harden with the weather.
“People change over the winter,” Bam told me, his hand on the mixer. “The same people giving you hand-outs are suddenly reaching in your back pockets.”
Bam did not talk often. He moved quietly about his tasks, punching down dough. He started every shift with ruthless efficiency, working faster than anyone else to compensate for the copious smoke breaks he took. By the end of the shift, once he was properly stoned, he had slowed down to a crawl.
“How much did you make at your old job?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, embarrassed to talk about my pathetic executive assistant position in the city. “Like 35k a year.”
Leaning against a sack of flour, he whistled. “What I wouldn’t give to make 35k a year,” he said.
We made $12 an hour. A cocktail in Edgartown or Oak Bluffs — the only two wet towns on the Island — was $12. The off-season residents paid the prices set for the summer vacationers, only they did so without a billionaire’s salary. Rent was the only place that they could find a cut: the cost of housing fell drastically at the end of the summer, but, of course, shot back up after Memorial Day. Otherwise, everything cost the same in December as it did on the Fourth of July.
The Bakery seemed to employ only misfits and second-chancers, people who had failed career endeavors or been fired from other restaurants.
There’s a saying on the island: “If you bought it, someone brought it.” Factored into the cost of any commodity — gas, groceries, even flour and yeast — was the price of ferrying it across the channel. We paid premiums for anything that arrived on our shelves, as well as the premiums of carting out waste. The endeavor of living on the Island after September, therefore, seemed borderline insane: we were paying vacation-level prices to work for minimum-wage at a bakery that primarily sold t-shirts. Complaining, however, became mundane at some point. We had all chosen to be here, for one reason or another, to chase something past the water’s edge.
The Islanders like Bam, who were raised in the system, knew only this life. They could try moving to the mainland, living cheaply, pursuing dreams in a landlocked town. But where would they start? Often with no college education and few connections off Island, the locals seemed permanently marooned in vacationland. Besides, this was where their family and friends had grown around them, and it would be foolish to throw that away. It seemed like the ecosystem would sooner go extinct than evolve, but everyone was perfectly content with that inevitable future as long as we made a buck and ate well.
The nights would stumble forward, and sometimes, at 10pm, I would look at the stack of fritters that had materialized in front of me. Bam went to the parking lot in 30-minute intervals to get high and by the end of the night he returned with gunmetal gray eyes, hypnotized by the revolving dough. He was often silent for extended periods, but one night he was engaged in an unusually long staring match with the mixing bowl.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I lost a glove in the dough.”
We stood looking at the 60 pounds of swirling cookie dough in which, presumably, there was a latex glove.
“What should we do?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.
“If we throw it away we’ll have to start over,” I said. “We could be here until four in the morning.”
“Bake it,” he said. “No one will know the difference.”
Martha’s Vineyard shrinks every year — the Island loses its coastline and dunes to the forces of erosion. There’s really nothing keeping it there, anyway — no bedrock, no barriers. It’s just a big pile of sand.
During the tumultuous 2012-2013 hurricane season, the southern bluffs lost an average of a foot of ground a day. Houses that were built hundreds of feet inland from the shoreline were suddenly 10 feet away. It wasn’t the first torturous storm season for the Island, and certainly not the last: every year Martha’s Vineyard is shaped by the forces of storms and erosions, with new ponds and inlets forming. Chappaquiddick, a picturesque island within the Island, was created only because of disappearing sand bars. Now, the majority of Islanders see coastal erosion as the greatest threat in their lives on the Island.
Sediment transport and erosion are only being expedited by rising shorelines. The Gay Head lighthouse, an iconic monument at the Southwestern “Gay Head” cliffs (named long ago), was moved for the second time in 2015. All six Island towns contributed to the effort, and more than 1,000 individuals donated a combined $2,000,000 to move the lighthouse 134 feet back. The first time it was moved was in 1844, at a cost of $386.87. It will, no doubt, be moved again.
Islanders have created something temporary, beautiful, a desperate attempt at piling up enough sand to have something worth clinging to. It was all this constant fight against erosion, against the forces that sought to tear the Island apart.
Just as the physical topography of the Island changed, so did the social strata. Visitors and newly washed-ashore residents seemed to be still looking for that nebulous core of the Island where they kept all the celebrities and the spectacular parties, but in the winter none were to be found. There were occasional mentions of a sighting of James Taylor’s son or daughter (James himself had left the Island long ago), but not much else in the way of celebrity gossip. That famous ethos was washed away like the sand.
The summer brought money but, ironically, the fall and winter brought life. Most of the off-season wash-shores were farm kids, crunchy college graduates in Blundstones and Carhartts who worked at one of the many farms: Mermaid, Whippoorwill, Morning Glory, Tea Lane, North Tabor, GOOD. There weren’t any big parties, but there were potlucks heavy on gourds. On the weekends we shopped at the Dumptique, where the best of the regional landfill was salvaged and put on display in a makeshift thrift-store. You could walk away with as much as you could haul — all for free.
One night I got too stoned on pot cookies at a vegetarian potluck. Another night I went to a pop-up poetry reading. There were bonfires and live music was never in short supply. Pub trivia was a regular thing, as were jaunts up to the freezing fire tower in the Christiantown woods. One night I followed a farmer back to her cabin and we piled into the top bunk — at dawn I woke up alone, as the farm staff had all left at sunrise to dig up the last of the kale.
I seemed to have a harder time explaining to people why I’d come out there, and a harder time convincing my friends back home. I got better at saying, “I don’t know.” More importantly, I got better at letting go.
Anthony always referred to the Bakery as a t-shirt shop that also sold bread. As soon as you thought of the job in those terms it felt purposeless, absurd. But if you stopped thinking about what you were doing, it seemed to take care of itself. The flour kept coming and I returned to that gymnasium-sized bakery every day at four and left at midnight. Eight hours seemed to disappear in the form of inertia and entropy transferred to dough. Anthony was technically top of the chain of command, and I have no doubt that without his zen perspective on baking, the wheels would have long ago fallen off the operation.
In November a failed screenwriter named Jonah joined us. Jonah had flung away the noblesse spoils of New York in favor of a life of solitude and concentration — although how much noblesse and spoils he had thrown away we really never knew. It seemed like he had left nothing for nothing, idling away the second act of his career.
Jonah was a peculiar addition. He didn’t think of the bakery as a job; he thought of it is a creative residency. He talked to us like we were dying to hear about whom he knew from Hollywood. “Charlie Kaufman is actually shorter than you would imagine,” he might say. “Terrence Malick is actually a Harvard graduate, which you might not imagine.”
Night after night he dipped his hands in baby powder and diligently applied his own brand of gloves (he was allergic to latex). Max was able to move up from the donut line; Jonah, however, was hardly a replacement. He moved slowly and gave us impromptu lectures on cinema. Certain pieces on NPR would trigger long flashbacks and voluntary exposés about his experiences meeting an iconic actress, or otherwise tedious explanations of screenwriting that caused him to forget what he was doing — his pile of muffins were drastically smaller than anyone else’s. He bragged about having coffee with David McCullough, driving past McCoullough’s house every day on his way home.
One night Anthony put his muscled hands on top of Jonah’s, gently but forcefully guiding them to roll out another rope of fritter dough.
“This is how we work,” Anthony said. “Exactly like I would show my eight-year-old.”
Jonah worked silently for the rest of the shift, pausing only once in a while to put baby powder on his hands. He grabbed a croissant at break time, pronouncing it the way the French would, with the soft suffix.
When Melvin sauntered over from his dish cave, eyes bloodshot red, he watched Jonah slowly buttering his “cwassahn” with a bread knife. He turned to me, speaking in what he thought was a whisper:
“Who’s the retard?”
As it got colder, the production numbers at the bakery steadily decreased — by December we were no longer making hundreds of pastries, and we finished the shift well before midnight. Snow lined the roadways and was like frosting on the sparkling branches of trees. There was a sense, driving home at midnight, that I could be hurtling through space.
After the first cold snap Glory poured vodka down the drains to keep them from bursting. I watched the weather eagerly. Candace showed me how to split cords of wood. One night I helped my friends move their minivan out of a snowbank trench with an axe and a wedge — they’d skidded off the darkened road. Despite the difficulties, though, there was something magnificent about those months. It felt like the connections we forged were stronger than anything you could have made on a manicured lawn in August.
Loving someone is hard work. Loving a place is just as hard. You had to stop thinking about it in terms of winning or losing.
The Bakery stayed open all the way until New Year’s. Bam and Anthony and Melvin and Max seemed to love working near the ovens even more. Jonah, however, didn’t make it. He quit abruptly. It wasn’t the kind of grandiose exit you’d expect from his Act III: he just stopped coming to work, the pile of non-latex gloves sitting unused at his station.
No one demanded an explanation.
The winter and early spring ground forward in a delirious push, each day an exercise in waiting. We watched the icicles beginning to thaw into puddles. We smoked weed in the farmhouse and watched countless hours of Netflix. Glory’s premonitions about the ghosts of Wampanoag Indians seemed to come true when the paintings fell off my walls one night and I awoke to find them all on the floor.
“I told you so,” she said. “This place is haunted.”
The production numbers fell and so did our billable hours. In the end, I didn’t last much longer than Jonah at the bakery. By the spring, I hopped ship for a job with better pay and a better office environment: yard work.
Evelyn ran a landscaping crew. She was responsible for preparing vacation homes for the start of the season, mulching yards and edging beds. It wasn’t the most glamorous position, but after six months indoors, nothing compared to sunshine on my skin again.
We rolled countless wheelbarrow loads of mulch in March, and in April we started digging trenches for gardens. The cold days got warmer, not only because of the change in seasons, but because I spent all of them swinging a hoe or kicking a shovel.
Evelyn was a long-standing washashore who, like Anthony, had been on the Island so long now that it would be impossible to go anywhere else. Her strength was matched only by her seemingly unbreakable mental fortitude — she could go for hours at a time without saying a single word or taking a break, making countless trips with wheelbarrows across expansive yards.
The fugue state of her job never seemed to faze her. All of the houses were dark and empty, but she brought color and life to their gardens, turning up their soil in bursts. In the afternoons we took coffee and sandwich breaks on the long docks of multi-million dollar homes, watching the still surface of their bays.
One day, on break, she looked up from her novel, struck with a semi-sudden epiphany. “How’s your book going?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I forgot what I was writing.”
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes in The White Album. “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five.”
What is the story on Martha’s Vineyard, a disappearing sandstone cliff being gobbled at by myriad hands, a little outpost to sell t-shirts and indulge in myths? What are the three acts of a place where the Kennedys exist alongside the Anthonys and the Bams, where the donut oil is kept hot all night and some distant radio is constantly blaring an American ode to Tom Brady? What is the story for the people who remain after Labor Day, the ones who work to feed themselves and the others around them? Some of them were born there, the children of hippies and old-school settlers, and some of them were like Jonah and me — washashores who sought the photographic negative of everything that wasn’t New York or Los Angeles. We were all roommates, inextricably, between the passage of the last ferry and the first one in the morning, locked up on that embattled little spit of land.
But we all had to face the truth that there was nothing keeping us there. What was the pinnacle of the Island’s story? If it committed suicide, what would its sermon be? Perhaps it would be a meditation on the fact that bags of clam chowder from the Sysco factory in Houston could be repackaged and sold with a $30 t-shirt and a $4 donut and we could all go home rich. Perhaps it was that my brother would end up working the whole summer at Morning Glory farm, employed alongside other shirtless 18-year-olds in the road-facing field, and caramel-tanned housewives bought the boutique kale they grew. Perhaps it was the former Exxon oil executive who moved out to Martha’s Vineyard to bankroll a mobile-chicken-slaughter suite, or the giant named Monroe who played Scrabble and packaged hog meat. Perhaps it was this: the very Max who wrapped his car around a tree in the winter had a child with the girl who worked the front counter of the bakery; they’re together to this day.
The story told itself in food and drink, but rarely in money. I returned to the Bakery months later, near the beginning of summer. The parking lot was full of litter, the sky a bleached orange. The days were long again and it seemed like we watched the taillights racing to their homes long after the sky darkened. Anthony sat on the trunk of his car, burning a joint, talking about the starters that he cultivated over the winter months.
“What are you feeding tonight?” I asked.
“Sourdough,” he said. He had added new tattoos to his arms and they moved when he talked. “It basically feeds itself.”
In June, I moved out of the big house. Candace and Glory moved out of the big house too. The fabulous migration had already begun. The big people came back to their big houses, and the service industry shuffled back into bunk beds and little houses.
In the summer I worked at a restaurant that was, by any standards, better than the Bakery. And yet there wasn’t the same kind of drama. People were good at their jobs and the summer blessed us with so much capital that no shortcuts in production were ever necessary.
One day, on break, Evelyn looked up from her novel, struck with a semi-sudden epiphany. ‘How’s your book going?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I forgot what I was writing.’
For three months our story wrote itself — we made money hand over fist. There were long shifts and long hangovers. My 25th birthday party was broken up by the police for a noise complaint but an Islander was able to talk to the officer — his friend from high school — about letting us carry on. Candace was twisted on liquor and we took a handful of fireworks to the sound and nearly set a boat on fire. July Fourth, a week later, was doused in rain and I remember dancing around a rich girl’s house in West Chop wearing only an American flag — the snow and woodsmoke seemed like part of another decade when we watched the hazy fireworks through the screen porch.
Knowing people on the Island meant you could cut billionaires in line at the bar. You could go to private beaches. You knew secret beaches that were better than the private beaches. Summer vacationers often gloated about their favorite hide-aways and coves — but those places were usually for ferry trash and MVHS kids looking to smoke weed and party. We were proud of our insider status and we wore it in vain, like a badge of honor.
Summer had obliterated two things: the sense of calm, and the sense of community. Yes, the parties were bigger and brighter and you saw far more people, spent the evenings drinking and moving. The dances were great and endless. But most Islanders’ favorite day is Labor Day — when the crowds clear out and the warm fall winds come in again, bringing with them the last of the thunderstorms.
It was a strange revolving door of wealth and privilege. I recall cooking for two of my friends from Brown who were on vacation. I don’t quite know what they assumed I was doing. Perhaps they thought I was doing either performance art or some type of cleanse. They made it clear that working a service job was utterly unthinkable two years out of college.
“How long have you been on this island?” one of them asked, stunned.
“About a year.”
“I would have killed myself by now,” he said.
The ending of the summer came too soon — it was one enduring iced coffee, a few long kisses, fourteen dances by the Chappaquiddick pier, dozens of fires on the sand and hundreds of oysters. Short nights trying to break the digital “Watch Your Speed” meter beside the Menemsha harbor, running 100-meter dashes like we might finally be able to stop the clock. I cooked thousands of eggs and burgers. I had countless fleeting conversations with customers who came from as far as the West Coast to resurrect memories they had as children on the Island. Candace and I laid the stakes and sheeting for a greenhouse of tomatoes and the Exxon oil man taught me how to bleed chickens. I learned how to hide Smirnoff Ice in a pile of potatoes and how to walk home in the absolute dark. I cut bushels of collard greens and biked underneath the soaring crescents of planes leaving the provincial runway. The cool fall wind came and brought with it storms. Eventually I had to say goodbye to all that, because I had gotten what I came for, or never found it, and that perhaps was better than the ontological process of finding anything at all.
An island is what you imagine it to be, and the group with the biggest shared vision was able to plow the others. The Wampanoags were plowed for Christianity; the small shops were plowed for the Bakery. Glory was plowed out of her home year after year by the capitalist forces she simultaneously loathed and suckled. Evelyn and I plowed the little saplings to make way for roses. And storms plowed all of the Island to sea, one wave at a time. There is a mystical vision that you can partake in, where, if your hands are strong enough, you can still work on that loom.
Loving someone is hard work. Loving a place is just as hard. You had to stop thinking about it in terms of winning or losing. People like Jonah came out hoping to get something. And I might have been like that too at one point. But I would learn that a community relationship is less like a movable feast and more like a sourdough starter — you have to feed it if you want anything in return.
On my last evening the little car was loaded once again with bags of clothing and possessions. I stood on the rocking port of the ferry, watching the Island shrink to a pinhole. I watched the mysterious crowning forest of Christiantown disappearing, and, with a sudden pang of guilt, I realized there was something I had forgotten to do all year:
I never met David McCullough.
* * *
Michael Mount, a novelist and screenwriter based in Asheville, is the recipient of grants and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, and The Orchard Project. He is a graduate of Brown University and the University North Carolina School of the Arts, as well as a “graduate” of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.
Editor: Sari Botton