Between Traffic and Wind
It is a time of year between the traffic that becomes ambient noise — a background we do not notice, but think we do in the blaring horns and foolishly loud motors and pounding speakers — and the constant of our winter lives: wind. Now, after the morning cool is displaced by mid-day warmth and car windows roll down, we hear the staccato of nail guns, and the distant buzzing of a saw cutting, cutting, cutting.
Years ago, I first noticed roses of October on Oswald's barn on the west side of Corn Neck Road. They were that soft peach, a hue falling somewhere between softer shades of pink and yellow and, at first, I thought them some last rose-of-summer sight that would be gone the next day then wondered if they were real as they clung to the faded wood in the lowered sunlight.
Even in my days of trying to cultivate flowers, I never tried roses. They seemed too much like those hats of the ladies of old Boston, which had to them nothing as plebeian as a purchase; they were not bought, they were simply had, and anyone foolish enough to inquire of their origin was scorned.
Roses were a gardening sub-culture, requiring far more focus and commitment than I was about to give them.
But, since that year, I have made an effort to look around and usually find a rose or two in bloom, by chance or by design. There is one at the backdoor of the Harbor Church I notice when discouraged by the intense focus of the ladies’ cleaning after the summer and in anticipation of welcoming guests for Roll Call Dinner.
I fled — unable to come to terms with yet another mystery of that place of bottomless mysteries, this time the rehanging of panels of lace, freshly laundered, on the sparkling clean glass of the French doors between Fellowship Hall and the Sunroom; some require a pair of curtains, others only one, a fact one either knows about or stands there, baffled at fabric which simply does not fit.
And there I found the rose, more yellow than not, on a climbing vine. They happen, little gasps of summer, in October, and while I am no longer surprised, it remains a delight to find one.
There are no roses on the barn that, of course, is not really a barn anymore, on the west side of Corn Neck, but the light is such that I notice other things on that stretch of road I have to remind myself exists, north of the entrance to the transfer station. Especially today I notice ornamental grasses with great feathered heads, glowing white, capturing the slanted afternoon sun, a stand planted, marking the entrance to a house or houses.
It is a sort of cleaned up, brought under control, version of the phragmites I had noticed earlier, glowing in the slanted morning sun over in the far southeast corner of my front lot. There was a little pond there, once, now it's more of an occasional mud hole, and while it seemed a bit late for it, I thought at first what I was seeing, albeit through lacy curtains, was that early day mist that can rise from — and define the location of — low, damp places.
It was just phragmites, not that mystical and fleeting layer of timeless white mist that is always as unexpected as fireflies and roses in October. The same tall wild plant that rose along the Mansion Road, against a bright blue sky.
There was a time we used to just drive down and park and meet the boat, without any concern of being in the wrong place, or walking on the wrong side of some barrier and ending up in a closed space. It was a midday gathering in winter, a Friday evening event in summer. We gauged the passage of the season by the amount of sunlight when the Quonset pulled in at eight o'clock, in abundance in June, and slipping away until that inevitable late August night when streetlights were glowing and there was a chill to the air.
We would go down when someone we knew was leaving and a fall memory, completely without the detail of who was departing, is of people carrying great bunches of phragmites onto the boat, again without a recollection of who but with a certainty they were being carried back to New York City. There would be armloads of bittersweet, and probably even sprigs of autumn olive, before we realized how dreadfully invasive they could become.
It is one of those losses we cannot quantify, watching the parade on and off the boat, when people brought and took away only what they could carry, before the convenience of boxes and the explosion of stuff everyone seems to need at all times.
It is a another casualty of another convenience, the stern loaders that have so changed life on Block Island, and the increasing imposition of regulations necessitated by increased numbers and that overarching blanket of liability concerns. Old photographs show not only the wharfs — and cars driving up and down them — but also people on the deck of the bow of the side loaders as they arrived, and visitors searching for the friends and relatives who were looking back from the dock.
The ritual, especially on Friday nights, did not end the first time a stern loader backed up to the ramp, but the feeling was different, even as we persisted, going down to stand on the pavement and greet faces familiar by sight if not in name. But the numbers began to change, the familiar patterns fell to progress and people found they had other things to do.
The closest I come these days is checking the stand-by line on summer weekend mornings, filled with cars belonging to people hoping to get off before their later-in-the-day reservation. They may still carry phragmites to remind them of Block Island all winter.