Cape Cod

Low tide. Umbrellas dot the beach
in shades of watermelon red, sky blue, and lemon yellow.
The sand bar, completely exposed, lies
like a long spoke poking out into the water.
The bay is warm enough to swim in.
A baby, trailed by its mother, crawls in the shallows,
dipping its nose in, then shaking
its head back and forth violently, like a dog.
The heads of fathers bob in the deeper water;
relaxed, they float on their backs, spout water,
and bellow like sea lions to make their children laugh.
A woman, thin, gray and frail,
is wheeled onto the beach in a deck chair;
an old sea bird, she flings her head back,
taking long, slow, deep breaths, grateful to simply be here.
The beach is casual, disorderly, adrift
in shifting dunes, blowing paper, and washed-up seaweed,
black, briny, and tangled, like mermaid’s hair.
Kites dip in the wind, balls are tossed back and forth,
fortifications go up and come back down again,
everyone doing something, if only to lie immobile
on bright towels and, like yesterday’s ad
for suntan lotion, brazenly worship the sun.

Yesterday, as the sun went down, we spread
a blanket on the sand bar and ate lobster rolls
to celebrate your birthday, almost come.
It was too windy to light a candle, even one,
but did you remember to wish for something?
Suddenly the light changed, turning grim, gray and wild,
as a storm blew toward Truro from Boston.
The tide reversed itself, the water ice-cold,
but you stripped down for a swim,
your long, slow, sure strokes taking you far out,
your head no bigger than the dot on the letter “i,”
Celia and I retreating, wrapped in a beach towel.
At the horizon, you turned and swam back in,
barely beating the rain, and I let out the breath
I hadn’t known I was holding.

Today the light is just right for Sunday painters
or someone more serious, a Seurat or Cézanne
painting promenades and bathers over and over
with everyday titles like La Plage or Sur la Mer,
hoping to capture life’s moment with a few
brushstrokes of color. Yes, it’s easy after a few weeks here
to believe we know this place, to feel it’s ours,
but if we drew a picture in the sand and signed our names,
it would all be gone by tomorrow, the way we’ll be
when we pack the car at dawn and drive to Baltimore.
Still, three children do just that, raking out
giant letters and hieroglyphs in the sand,
unreadable at ground level but probably legible
from the tiny plane that ferries sightseers all day
back and forth from Provincetown to Buzzard’s Bay.
What? What do they say?
Climbing the steepest dune on all fours, a clumsy quadruped,
I can make them out, a few words, a date,
that defy, or underscore, the transience of our stay:


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 1, on page 39
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