Our little island had been abandoned, spurned by the tourists in the dying days of September. I lingered along with the nice weather, plucking the last figs from our tree on my way to the beach. In the afternoon Joe would bike down and put his chair next to mine, the last of the regular crowd. I could read a few pages of his large-print mystery before we walked to the water’s edge to go swimming. He took the temperature with his feet, an accurate reading that descended steadily, causing us, one day, to acknowledge the autumn. We traded our observations of passing time, the yellowing basil, the smell of burning pine. At 91, he was a master of the present moment. Time seemed to slow down when he took a nap. He would look up at the sun, even as it was about to set, and say, “Plenty of time.”
Joe left for Florida on a Wednesday, chasing his endless summer in a white minivan, just ahead of a nor’easter that swept mine away in a haze of wind and rain, as if he could sense it coming. I felt the chill through the window, thumbing through summer snapshots in the soft light. The clock’s sweeping hands dissolved into the binaries of light and dark, taking with it any sense of time. Beyond that, there was only the distant sound of church bells whose chimes I never bothered to count, ringing in the fog.
When the sun returned it cast a sepia glow over the sand, the dune grass, turning everything blonde like an old photograph. I had never considered the island in autumn. As a child, I used to think it disappeared. I realize now that it is only the people who disappear, pulled back to their lives in the calendar year, crowding the turnpike the morning after Labor Day. Anticipation of future days draws time rapidly. Seasons began, one on top of the next, a chain of beginnings rather than ends. Tulips replaced poinsettias replaced mums, changed after holidays by some benevolent gardener who worked while we slept. Where flowers and nature are concerned I’d grown accustomed to the ascendant, the novel cheeriness of each season marker, repeating each year without a grander notion of its passing. I’d never seen a withering poinsettia, and time’s downward momentum was hidden from us like a corpse to make the rise seem eternal. No surprise, then, when the landscapers arrived every week to work the lawns of the disused houses, keeping them trim and green for no one in particular. Meanwhile, the morning glory snaking around the balcony had shed its last blooms and the basil had yellowed and gone to seed and the juniper berries grew bluer everyday. I lounged on the patio waiting for the morbid truths, the slow decay that allowed me the beauty of the present moment.
Amidst this scene the crash of the ocean could still be heard, perhaps even louder now, as if the cold air were a better conductor of its sound. I caught the view from the top of the dunes, dragging my chair into a scene I didn’t quite recognize. Each day the tide would bring something new, waves of jagged shells, driftwood, a wandering tribe of horseshoe crabs. Birds claimed the beach: plovers tiptoed the surf, massive gulls with faces like undertakers. The clouds would part for a few minutes at a time to reveal those richer shades of blue born out of the cold, a palate unknown to the tourists. I sat there with a pile of books I barely read and a journal of empty pages with no pen, feeling for the first time the summer’s pale ghost drift across the water.
Every few days I would leave the island for supplies, returning to a world that had left me behind. As I drove down the boulevard, my only connection to the mainland, the autumn of crunchy leaves, scarecrows, and decorative gourds appeared on the horizon. Grocery stores advertised turkeys a month in advance, pulling me away from the delicate sense of time I had created. Crossing the bridge I knew I would come right back, but I still felt sometimes that I was leaving it forever, or that it was leaving me. I thought of Joe sitting on the beach, somewhere in Florida by now. Plenty of time.