Sunshine and sea breezes

Thu, 08/11/2011 - 6:42am

It is really getting silly, this business of the Mansion Road. Last week I expressed annoyance that people seemed not to realize it is not a two-lane road; this week I reached the head of it and found a car with Connecticut plates across, the driver out of his seat, talking to cyclists. Thing is, there is a very wide shoulder immediately to the north of the Mansion Road entrance, not a few yards or even feet away but immediately adjacent to it.

He was paused, but stopped; not speaking out the window but standing in the road.

Verizon, my other distraction, is now on strike — specifically, the landline division, the one with which so many of us on Block Island have had difficulties. The big New York paper cites the company’s claim that it “is performing so badly that it needs large-scale concessions” and it is a moment before I realize they are talking profit margins, not actual performance.

It seems here to be not on-the-ground performance but the unreachable faceless voices one eventually gets on the phone, after several rounds through menus and holding patterns constantly interrupted with “we value you business . . .” Every exchange I hear repeated by others, I'd think impossible but for my own experience.

It is strange, this business of strike, in a place where there is not even anymore a permanent presence. There is a sign that would be easy to miss, at the driveway to the unobtrusive telephone building on Old Town Road, a sort of half-hearted effort that is not especially eye-catching. The familiar white truck has been out; I’d probably not have noticed but for the news that the driver and rider are particularly unfamiliar. “Management,” I am told. What I want are those voices that deliver belief-defying assessments, I want them to tell me, when I call about service that goes out when it rains, that my account cannot be flagged for a rainy day, but that I have to call in advance when I see a forecast of rain.

There is a flash of light off to the northeast, which is becoming commonplace, the edge of a storm passing just out of range. The grass is still green where it is old and not mowed too often, and the foliage is abundant, it is spring-time lush. Blackberry vines billow out over the lane, grass grows tall beside the road, the wild briars and grapes and knotweed are thriving in a summer filled with sun and showers. The tomatoes are filled with fruit, albeit green fruit, but filled nonetheless.

The hardy flowers of August, the black-eyed Susans, are especially vibrant this year, deeply yellow with solid brown button centers. I try to ignore the Joe-Pye weed in the field, the mass of purple that is not the summer milkweed but this Rhode Island native that is as sure an indicator of time passing as the sudden reflections of the sun on car windows as they turn around the fountain, a flash that did not happen a month ago.

This is the season of the rose of Sharon trees, old, plain, running — like the beach roses — from white to pink then to an additional hue, a deepening shade of purple. There is nothing notable about them, nothing to distinguish them as they move from winter bare to summer leaf, they haven’t any soaring glory or regal allure. They are like the lilacs that bloomed in the long-ago spring, old fashioned and simple; but while the lilacs are highly anticipated, by the time the rose of Sharon trees flower, they come as a surprise. They seem almost an after-thought, awakened by the thunder and reminded that they, too, have a moment — a month — to shine.

Today was the Historical Society House Tour. In my earliest memories it was old houses, very old houses, before the building boom and careful restorations. It was revived and became a major event, tours that tended toward the grand and new. Today the two have been merged, the old, the newer, every year the listing a testimony to the extraordinary generosity of the owners who are willing to let strangers walk through their rooms to benefit the most local of organizations.

The conversation differs every year, depending upon where I land and with whom I share hosting duties. Today I was at a big house hidden by a hedge on the other end of the island, where I rarely travel.

It was, we all realized as we talked in the lull before the visitors arrived, huge in our memories, this great house that sat on a sharp bend and was throughout our childhoods curiously vacant. We all knew the owner before the current ones, who bought it without being wholly sure what was behind every door, a leap of faith if ever there was one. It was the one before him that we tripped on, unable to remember until someone said the right name, memorable once spoken, recalling that he had worked with her father who tended two of the big hotels.

It was a house that we only later learned had also belonged to a local family, some degree of grandfather of classmates. It was big, striking, and it was wide open, at least on the ground floor, and we could see through it, in the days before all this greenery grew up shielding houses from the road. An architect, another man with a memorable name, bought it and everyone was hopeful but nothing much ever seemed to happen. The sun shone through and passers-by on the road could see the addition of spiral stairs. Some windows were altered but it continued to have about it an oddly unfinished air — and only as I write that line am I wondering if it was ever completed inside, or if it was just a striking shell. Of course I am writing in the middle of the night and cannot call anyone who would know with certainty.

It doesn’t really matter; the house by Painted Rock finally moved into hands that brought to it the glory it deserved but never attained during those years of memory. Especially on this most perfect day of sunshine and sea breezes, whatever might have been intended by some previous owner was of little consequence.