Town at the End of the World
by Shelly R. Fredman
The first time I walked the slip of sand that is Wellfleet Harbor, I huddled in the wind against my college professor. He had summered in the town for years, and for our first and only night away together, he wanted to introduce me to its peerless stretches of sandy dunes, its raw, roaring ocean, its timeless fishing village rhythms, and perhaps the whisper of permanence he felt in this place and knew could never be ours.
We walked the empty shore—it was May, before the tourists come—and I ate my first oyster as we faced the steel-gray waters. He had picked it off the beach, a lark, and urged me to slip it into my mouth and swallow it down. A romantic gesture in a storybook place, but I never ate an oyster again. I still remember the slippery muck sliding in a lump down the back of my throat, only to sit in my belly, uncomfortable, weighted. Alive.
It was love at first sight for me and the town, though, and I returned that June with my appropriately aged college boyfriend to post signs in both the grocery store and the liquor mart saying that we wanted work in exchange for lodgings. I got a job babysitting for two tow-haired children, Jesse and Becky, as they led me into the woods to all the hidden kettle ponds—cold, clear remnants of the glaciers that once blanketed Wellfleet and speak even now of a time beyond time. My boyfriend worked bagging groceries at the IGA on Highway 6. We only had one car, and I needed it for the children, so he biked to do his shift at the grocery each day.
I’ve been returning to Wellfleet almost every summer since. Even after I married yet a different man, who initially wasn’t thrilled to idle in this place—the beach town where I’d bedded my radical political science professor and spent my first summer away from home with my boyfriend. But there is something about this town at the edge of the world that speaks deeply to some of us, whispers to that innermost harbor, calling us home, and I think my husband somehow knew that and didn’t argue. The ones who have always lived here have a name for people like me: wash ashores. Those who have traded their original places for this one.
My father was not a fisherman. Early on, though, he took us to the Ozark waters near St. Louis. My happiest memories of childhood are those sun-drenched days when our family was whole. My sister and I, before my brother was born and my parents’ marriage began to end, there, in our bright-orange life jackets, packed up against my mom in the backseat of the boat, water lightly spraying our faces; my father, a stand-in for Hemingway, at the wheel, his coal-black hair flying from his face, and all of it sealed in wind.
In Wellfleet now the boats bob in their slips, promises of journeys to be had. They speak to me, like Emily Dickinson’s slant of light, there in a funereal darkness, of possibility. I don’t want to ride the boats—I’m a girl in love with the ocean from the shore, who achieves seasickness at the slightest tilt of a vessel from side to side. But I love to watch schooners and skiffs glide in and out of the harbor, that endless coming and going, venturing into the unknown, and always, or maybe not always, returning home.
This last trip to Wellfleet, I watched as a fishing vessel came in at night. I imagined the boys from that boat, all dead in the movie A Perfect Storm, with George Clooney among them, returned to us again. Alive. Hearts pumping, a full load of fish in the hold, returned to wives, lovers, mothers, friends.
My college professor lover died this past year. He died as he lived, without pause or regret. No slow, encroaching onslaught of illness for him. A split-second heart attack and he was gone. When we had been together, in a seminar classroom or afterward, eating blintzes at the Deli Haus café on Commonwealth Ave., he had a habit of running his hand through his silver hair and cocking his head to one side in a kind of nonchalant way that was anything but. His face was chiseled and strong and looked almost Cherokee, though he was born in Brooklyn. I longed to see him run his hand through his hair once again. I’d half-imagined, for years, a last visit, a phone call, a final run toward him, and some final words that would close forever what we had been to each other. No. I checked the Internet almost daily, but there was no word of even a funeral. A true patriot of the Left, a fighter for human causes both large and small, and an idealist—his ending made a kind of sense to me. He wouldn’t have wanted to take up space.
So this last one was the first trip to Wellfleet when I wouldn’t have to worry about running into him outside the Wellfleet General Store, my husband’s arms loaded with groceries, and that interminable pause when I’d need to decide whether to stop or to simply ignore him instead, walking away without a word. Or perhaps enduring, once again, a tension-filled encounter between all of us on the darkened steps outside the church, after the professor had spoken at a rally to end the war in Iraq. This is Wellfleet. They still have rallies here to end the war.
I wouldn’t have to relive the discomfort of that conversation, the long silences just after I introduced them yet again. The defeated look in my husband’s eyes as we walked away.
And me, somehow still standing on the steps back there, with a crowd all around us, trying to make it all right, trying to hold together an impossibly torn reality, an accretion of the imaginary and the real, and the remnants of a marriage that has always held this shadow in it: the route I didn’t travel, the other one, nearly gone. All of this meeting here in Wellfleet, on a dark and moonless night: the scent of pines, the brightly lit church windows, and this peaceful, timeless place that will always, please, have its fishermen and its clams and its marshes, filling in by the clock of the tides.
Turns out this last July was our best ever. After all these years—it must be twenty-five—of leaving and returning to the town each summer, there is still the piercing golden tones of the dunes, especially just as the sun sets and the crowds abandon Newcomb Hollow. Then it’s just the gulls and us, and a lone umbrella way, way down the beach, perhaps another stranger fallen in love with the way the light leaves the surface of the earth here.
I didn’t want to go (so much) this time. I don’t know why. Craving something new instead—that trip to Positano my husband, Carmi, and I never took, or perhaps even California. Not looking forward to the sameness of the days, the rituals—a bike ride, a dip in the pond, a trip to the ocean with book and umbrella, a fried clam lunch at Mac’s Shack, where you can taste the sea somehow huddled beneath the crunch and grease. Where greedy children slurp ice cream, and tourists and seagulls crowd the picnic tables. Where you can study the way the land bends and ripples this close to the edge of the continent, fine wisps of sand stretching into nothing but blue.
Maybe I was just suffering a lack of vitamin D, which the doctor has documented and seems to be a northern climes epidemic. Too little sun up here on this side of the world. Or maybe I was wiped out from watching the frantic, last-minute packing of the last of the children, my daughter, to her last summer of camp.
Still, the place worked its spell. We stayed for two weeks in a white-shuttered colonial on Main Street across from the church. The morning heat of Jean and Brailsford’s garden—the flowers are Brailsford’s, the lettuces and herbs are Jean’s. They are wash ashores too, in their sixties now, and we grilled steaks and created Pasta Vongola for them in their kitchen with the golden wood-plank floors. Riding a bike down a road lined with nothing but pines, the scent building in the wind as you fly by. The deep, cold blue of the ponds—Long Pond and its swarms of children, or Gull Pond, almost empty, and the way I watched my husband plunge in after a hot, heady ride, wanting and dreading the icy feel of the water, knowing it will be so good if only I can make myself go down.
The upstairs bedroom window in the house we stay in, where a picture of Georgia O’Keefe on a motorcycle used to grace the walls and spoke to me of possibility, the idea that you can create your life, not just stand idly by and watch it happen to you. Now there are watercolors on these walls, a row of cows lolling home after a day in the fields. And a high tree climbing outside the window, all green, all sky, a relief to the red brick courtyard of my New York City life now.
There are birds here, and butterflies making their way between the flowers in the garden. Lilacs thick with honeybees, and goldfinches too. Brailsford knows all of the names of the flowers. I only know the sounds of the birds and study their different voices, their constant songs that tell me, always, it will be all right.
Carmi and I walked one day out over Uncle Tim’s bridge, pausing to watch the empty marshes. We looked down into the mud, and he commented on its yuck. I liked the way it teems with life, all the hidden riches. Creatures scuttling, building, doing their thing. Crabs moving sideways through their days, hell-bent on that odd existence, looking always askew at the world.
And one night, after too many fried clams, too many mounds of coleslaw and fries, I begged Carmi to take me to the pier to walk at sunset. We’d never, in all those twenty-something years, done this before. They’ve laid out a new promenade at the Harbor, and so we strolled beneath an almost full moon, away from the crowds slurping ice cream at Mac’s, toward the rows of houses lined up in the darkness facing the bay and, far off there, the curl of Lieutenant’s Island. Each of the five or six houses glowed yellow, lit from within, like a still, small heart beating at each center. The moon on the water cast a sparkling path that nearly reached us, and again I found myself wanting to bless the place and its beauty, and reflecting upon what it is about any place that makes us want to call it home.
I lived in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, almost my whole life, but I don’t love its landscape or its trees and sky. I return to the Midwest thrice yearly for its people—family and friends, women I have come to love through a lifetime of raising children and call sisters—threads of connection that have been spun out between us and continue to tangle and weave. Carmi and I made a late-life move to New York City, and though I often catch myself rushing at breakneck pace up the subway stairs at 72nd Street, just like one of the locals, I am not a New Yorker. I am still mostly amazed that I managed to move my family to this place. I want to pinch myself when we walk by the splashing fountain at Lincoln Center or edge past yet another set of beautiful people crammed around the sidewalk of a West Village café. I live here! But it is not home, and in some sense I think it never will be. Its colossal scale, its reach, its mythic proportions outstretch my imagination and my ability to hold on to any one thing.
We bought a summer A-frame in Wellfleet this past September. It’s an odd choice for home for a Jewish girl raised in the landlocked Midwest. My fathers never sailed off to sea, and my grandfather, who journeyed from Russia at nineteen, described his Atlantic crossing with doubt and terror. My mother never stood at land’s end, watching for a glimpse of a skiff, a corner of white hull. So Wellfleet isn’t personal and its history isn’t mine. Except in the way that oceans, skies, and mud flats have always been ours. I claim it as a human being, claim her rumbling waters and rains, her slow, encroaching tides, the way she offers herself up slowly, deeply, like a lover, like a man you met in college who never should have loved you but did, and who lives in you still—dead, gone, alive.
About the author:
Shelly Fredman’s writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune Magazine, Best Jewish Writing, Natural Bridge, Tikkun, Forward, and Lilith. She is a guest contributor for NPR’s On Being, and won the Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism. She graduated from Washington University with an MFA in fiction and has spent a good deal of her career teaching and writing. She had the pleasure of studying with Ursula Hegi and Anne Bernays. Previously an editor at Jewish Light newspaper in St. Louis, she now teaches essay writing and literature at Barnard College. When she’s not writing or teaching, she can be found enjoying a swim, biking, or studying spiritual texts.