You bring it home in your pockets and shoes and empty the sand onto the kitchen floor. Tiny grains ground down from continents. On the windowsill is a jar full of sea glass and inside the jar you have your favorites—and not all are smooth and perfect and blue.
It can’t all be about ocean policy and rules and all the things we do wrong—the giant garbage island spinning in the Pacific, and the fall of the albatross. . .
But it is.
Early summer on a beach—Gracies Cove, Block Island–a group of young adults, college-aged, and a man with his guitar, another with a drum. Around a fire, they sit on driftwood too big to burn drinking canned beer—the bluffs like a shield behind them cast the glow of the fire outward. Montauk Light, across the Sound, is barely visible in the haze of dusk. The smell of pot hangs in the air, along with cigarettes, burning wood. Heads fall back laughing, mouths open, teeth and lips. The young man on the guitar plays well, his fingers finding the chords—a Neil Young tune—before his eyes do. Behind him, the sea at his back—the roll of the ocean, the rise and fall, miles of blue and green. Sandpipers’ feed frantically in the wash—racing dusk—their beaks in the sand probe like sewing machines.
“Look at them,” she says.
He turns from the fire. He sees the skittering birds, a group of fifteen, right at the tide line—then turns and watches her, sees the profile of her face, the bend of her nose.
“They run away so fast, every time a wave comes,” she says. “I don’t think they ever get wet.”
He looks at the rip in her jeans, the one on her thigh, looks at the white skin, skin still pale from a long winter and a cold spring.
“I love it here,” she says.
They stand up and walk away from the fire, the warmth and light. The man playing guitar doesn’t look up. None of them do. Down the beach, she puts her hand on a giant piece of driftwood worn flat as tile by years of drifting and rolling, a great tree dislodged from a river bank in some other place, inland Connecticut, Brazil, Wanchese, N.C. “My god,” she says. “Smooth as glass. Feel that. It’s incredible.” He watches her hand. Her hand moves across the eroded grains.
It can’t all be about LNG terminals, cap-and-trade theory, offshore wind farms. It can’t all be about next year’s quotas, mackerel, scallops, and squid. Can’t be about the exact value of every container aboard every container ship inbound and outbound from Shanghai, Singapore, Rotterdam. . .
But it is.
Wintertime, Sandwich, MA. Once again, he has no car, no license. He spends most of his time at sea, catching lobsters more than a hundred miles east of the Cape, on Georges Bank. The boat is gone nine days at a stretch. The work holds him together. Without it he’d be dead.
Dean is 46—home now, standing in the center of his tiny rental, drunk and high on something else. Only his houseplants seem alive. His mother comes by when he’s out fishing and waters them. If she didn’t the plants would be dead. Dean’s hair is stuck to his forehead. His hands and forearms shake. He keeps rubbing his nose, his hair, his arms. In the living room on a table the shape of a sperm whale, he burns candles like someone preparing for a séance. The room reeks of sage. He’s always talking about how his apartment needs to be smudged again—that the spirits have turned against him.
On the table is an abalone shell Dean uses as an ashtray. The shell is filled with butts, some burned to the filter, others half-smoked. He reaches for one. The inside of the abalone shell is the color of peacock feathers. Dean leans back in the sofa and exhales.
There’s lots of wind that blows on Georges Bank and the best months for lobstering there are the winter months—November through January. The captain Dean works for doesn’t even bother listening to the marine forecast, just goes. They fish on a schedule: nine days out, two days on the dock. Winter gales hammer them every trip. The boat rolls and rolls. Everything on it is bolted down—the stove, the refrigerator, the coffee pot, the toaster. Everything in the engine room. You sleep with two pillows—one under your head, one for your face, so you don’t get a bloody nose when you fly up and face-plant the bunk above you.
The beating Dean takes offshore he feels is a form of penance for the things he does ashore. A gale replaces the confession booth. At home Dean has nailed a crucifix nailed to almost every wall. He talks of threesomes—orgies—girls in their 20s. He says they go to his place after last call to get high. The girls in his stories are always hot—smoking hot. “You wouldn’t believe it man,” he says. “If these walls could talk…”
But you ask yourself, really? Does the Atlantic puffin taped to his refrigerator–the one he cut from a National Geographic during a brief stretch of clarity—really see all those panties come flying off?
Puffins, like many seabirds, winter offshore. “One night one landed on deck,” Dean says. “It was blowin’ a gale. Bird must’ve got lost in the decklights—found it behind some bait barrels. I held it in my hands before I released it. You’ve never seen anything as beautiful. I have no idea how something so fragile can live in a place so hard.”
It can’t all be about Administrations, Departments and Agencies, NGOs, World Banks, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, Maersk shipping, Panamax Tankers—seven billion of us and climbing. . .
But it is.
Dead-low water. The mud flat is totally exposed, not a drop of water on it. The steamer clams are deep in the sediment, waiting for the return of the tide, and the oystercatcher birds wait for a steamer clam to rise before the tide has come.
Across from the mud flats on a dock, next to the Great Island Bridge, a man and a woman, with a child, stroll the docks.
“Look!” says the child. He points into the water at a school of silversides—a slender-bodied baitfish. The family stoops down together and look into the green water at the school of silver fishes. The child, a boy, gets excited and claps his hands together. The sun is going down, a radiant sky—and people on a raised deck with plastic palm trees and tiki torches drink cocktails from tall glasses and watch the sun go down. The family walks back to the parking lot. The smell of dried seaweed at the bulkhead, the smell of diesel, and fried clams, the strong smell of tide and marsh, and the woman says, while holding her husband’s hand, “I miss the ocean. You forget how much you can miss a place…”