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A view from the ferry. All photographs from Islesboro, Maine, by Cheryle St. Onge for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

A view from the ferry. All photographs from Islesboro, Maine, by Cheryle St. Onge for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

[Letter from Maine]

Island Time

Tides, teens, Travolta

I am here out of season. I will never know what the island is like in full swing, though I catch hints of it in the weeks after Labor Day: the purposeful thrum of lobster boat engines, the teens in tennis whites floating out of the Island Market and back to courts where dress codes and decorous silence are observed. The dock ramps and floats towed off and hauled up in sheltered coves at very high tides. The sudden eyeless darkness of the houses at the southern end of the island, where nearly every building is a third or fourth residence. Beyond the August days blazing over the sea, the sprawling old summer places, which tend to be stretched out on a north–south axis to maximize sunrise and sunset, take on a mournful, translucid quality. Through the wavy panes the sun tracks parallelograms across the floors and drafty walls and the formal furniture that the elderly and the dead were scolded for sitting on when they were children.

Now the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current more often mix in a soupy fog. The hurricanes and gales arrive, causing power outages that last from seconds to days, the precise combination of the waves’ peaks and the wind’s knottiness dictating ferry cancellations. Blowdowns are epidemic. The topsoil is shallow, and thus too are the root structures of the trees. The forest is almost all secondary, spindly pine and spruce less than a century old, reclaimed from the era when the island, like much of Maine, like much of the Northeast, was field and meadow. It feels less wild than rewilded.

Islesboro’s winter population, down from a summer peak approaching three thousand, is officially about five hundred, but that is probably too generous, because it counts some year-round residents who overwinter in warm places and some who stay but essentially hibernate once seasonal employment has dried up. (Clearing fallen trees provides one of the only forms of perennially reliable low-entry winter work.) When an unknown party thinks I do a bad job parking in an empty lot on an empty island, a note is left under the wiper: “Why the fuck would you park like this? Go back to Florida!” But someone with a Florida plate (in this case, used-car happenstance) could be an islander who has mysteriously driven his winter car north up through and past the titanic conurbation that hugs I-95 from Baltimore to Portland, into the yawning cold, which would make the note-writer’s exhortation sound almost solicitous: Why would you choose to be here now?

Please stay in our house as long as you like, a friend with perhaps too many houses has said. I have happily accepted. It is the pre-vax autumn, an autumn of city people going rural and real estate going crazy; here as elsewhere, here like nowhere else.

I sense something touchy and brittle as the community thins down to a skeletal version of itself; also something flexible, resilient. The boundaries of private property become a little porous, with authorized and unauthorized hunting on untenanted land, curious house-peeping and bushwhacking, and the unabashed use of summer residents’ undrained pools. Amid the creosote smoke of a beach bonfire, a winter caretaker shakes her head at her clients’ ignorance: they don’t recognize their own property when she sends them a photo that wasn’t taken from the back deck (“They haven’t really delved”). Another bonfire-goer describes the hallways of the house where I am house-sitting with disquieting accuracy (“I’ve been in that sauna before,” another year-rounder tells me). None of it is really harmful, I think. It is more like a kind of glue.

A resident of Islesboro suggests I watch The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, a 1976 TV movie in which John Travolta plays a teen who was born with no ability to fight pathogens. His mother asks how long he’ll have to remain shut off from the world. “Until we discover a treatment,” answers the doctor, “until he develops an immune system of his own, he’ll have to remain in his protected environment.” After some awkward experiences venturing out of his hermetic bedroom to attend high school in a hazmat suit, Travolta ultimately abandons all protocol, hoping he has somehow acquired enough immunity. (After the movie, he dates the actress who plays his mother.)

The suggestion is as much inside joke as world-historical wink: Travolta lives on the island. Sometimes. He and Kelly Preston bought one of the old summer estates in 1991, after Kirstie Alley bought her own place here. I am at loose ends for things to do, and on the island as well as back in the Big World people keep telling me that an unproductive writer in a huge empty house in the bleak coniferous off-season wilderness is very The Shining, ha ha. Against my better judgment I undertake to write about the island, but getting beyond the historical society butter churns to tell the subtle, intimate stories of the community would require endless, painstaking work. On the other hand, I could on the slimmest pretext and with the vaguest purpose go bumble around John Travolta’s house (“Nineties journalism,” a friend says).

This means I must assemble a crack team. There is Dylan, a thirty-six-year-old Virginia transplant who went to seamanship school in Florida and has worked the full marine circuit on Islesboro for a decade now, and will transport anything anywhere. He was once paid a handsome sum to drive two cocker spaniels to Washington, D.C., and on another occasion spent a week on his charter boat, the Island Raider, chauffeuring two idle people he discovers I know from New York (“He kept waggling his penis at her,” Dylan reports, and I clarify that they aren’t really friends so much as nightmares). I insist that we must also have a plucky teen if we are to engage in some intrepid snooping, so Dylan recruits Shamus, a sixteen-year-old with several years of experience on lobster boats, who seems understandably confused about my intentions but generally cool with the plan.

I find myself thinking often about the teens of this weird island in these weird times, teens like elsewhere, teens like nowhere else.

Earlier in the year two teens crashed their car and were unhurt, but cut power to half the island for “days” (more like a few hours). A man from a fancy old family wrote on Facebook that the teens had been tipsy, and that he wished to kill them, for which he was expelled from the yacht club.

Now the teens hoot in the night somewhere past the spruce, down in the pool house. In the afternoon they invite me over from the main house to their party with “chips and soda,” but I decline, and then at three in the morning I lie awake, wondering whether I should offer them a ride home.

The teens have put up a sign renaming Beckett’s Landing joint point.

The teens have donated their senior trip money to help set up vaccine clinics.

The teens have their own lobster boat and have been selling their catch directly to David Geffen’s yacht.

The teens (and a few recent ex-teens) tell me, “You learn how to operate in different ways and make peace with who you don’t really like,” because your graduating class might have three members. They tell me, “I was fifteen, in Paris, and I realized I didn’t know how to make friends.” They tell me, “People are not really dating, or it’s not worth it.” They tell me, “Parents are a bit relaxed about mainland significant others and sleeping over, because transport is so hard.” They tell me, “I saw Travolta drive away once, I saw his reflection in the mirror.” They tell me, “I never saw him, he was always around the corner.” They tell me, brightening with the prospect of gossip, “There’s this one time, at school—no, that’s not really anything.” They tell me, “The deeper you get, the smaller it gets, until you find me there.”

Islesboro sits in Penobscot Bay, at the northernmost extent of the Midcoast. The town of Islesboro includes roughly fifteen smaller islands apart from the main island, also Islesboro, which was called Long Island until the late nineteenth century. The island, which is about half the size of Manhattan—another reverse synecdoche when it is called “the City”—consists of two comparably sized lobes, north and south, joined by an isthmus that narrows at high tide to about forty feet, where riprap on the Atlantic side prevents storm surges from washing out Main Road.

Before the emergence of modern vacation travel, high-minded rusticators had ventured north to places like Bar Harbor and Islesboro, seeking the salubrious energies of the coast they’d seen in landscape paintings. In the 1880s they were followed by the Gilded Age rich, who inaugurated an estate-building hobby that saw its last sustained boom between World War I and the Depression. Men who had worked the land and sea now found positions as coachmen, gardeners, and winter caretakers; those who still fished now had steady customers for the summer; women who had lacked formal employment staffed the kitchens and laundries. After World War II the holiday scene shifted away from the linen and silver and servants carted up from the Main Line and Back Bay—Typhoid Mary had been brought to work in an Islesboro household—and a new economic symbiosis between the islanders and summer people emerged. Generations of one island family might work for one summer clan. Some of the gentry might prosper and over the decades expand their presence to additional households, while others might go penniless and turn over their properties to those still or newly rich.

The preindustrial charm that drew visitors, writes the journalist Colin Woodard, was actually a state of postindustrial decline from which Maine has never recovered. Much of the region’s economy withered after the Civil War, with changes in transportation, refrigeration, and construction technologies triggering a collapse in granite quarrying, shipbuilding, logging, fishing, and ice-harvesting. Between 1860 and 1910, Waldo County, of which Islesboro is part, lost 40 percent of its population. The wealthy families who set up seasonal outposts on the island sought to preserve its fallen bucolic condition by, for example, banning cars until 1933 and putting forward legislation to prevent the year-rounders from junking up their yards with the stuff of life. Another long-standing relationship was thus established: the sullen pride of salt-of-the-earth islanders rubbing up against the pretensions of summer folk.

For the rich, the scene became a kind of anti-Newport, meaning the money was very much there, but subdued: the island’s yacht club is an ontologically dilapidated shack yet is by some accounts the most exclusive institution of its kind on the East Coast. I meet Francie Train, probably the last grande dame of Islesboro’s heyday as a low-key treasure of Wasp seaboard frolic, a time when you’d have J. P. Morgan running aground in his yacht, Taft and Lindbergh and Hepburn and the Kennedy boys and Nixon passing through. In the Sixties it was a world suspended in erotic tension, the lightly worn high polish, the toniness and hedonism, the rules and the breaking of rules.

In Francie’s more staid 1930s girlhood, filled with flounder fishing and soporific dances, she would take a buckboard (or, on occasion, a surrey with a fringe on top) up-island, where her great uncle, George W. C. Drexel, had built his mansion atop Coombs Bluff, away from the down-island Dark Harbor crowd who didn’t want to be disturbed by his racket-making racing boat, Argo, which was the world’s fastest until it wasn’t, at which point he scuttled it to keep it out of incompetent hands. It was the Drexel mansion—known in the understated Islesboro term of art as a “cottage” and effortfully given the Swedish-derived name “Gripsholm”—that eventually found its way into the hands of John Travolta.

Michael Hutcherson, a year-round resident, the one who urged me to watch The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, tells me a story.

He and his wife, Pam, are getting ready to go to bed when they hear cars racing down to the end of their gravel road.

“Nice cars, not redneck cars.”

It looks to Mike like a party.

“ ‘Goddamn frat kids,’ I think, and go out. Don’t take a flashlight, don’t want to scare them.”

A little red Jetta wagon pulls up, this odd man with no chin in the driver’s seat.

“A woman pops her head out of the rear window and says, ‘I’m really sorry, we got our car stuck at the end of the road, is this your property? Don’t worry, we called Cliff, he’s going to pull it out later.’

“I look over to my right and a Rolls-Royce is in a ditch with one wheel in the air. A vintage Silver Shadow.

“I say, ‘Oh, that’s Travolta’s car.’

“ ‘Yeah yeah, I know, I’m Kelly Preston.’

“Then I look in the passenger seat and see Travolta with a baseball cap pulled down really tight. ‘Ah, I know, that’s my car.’

“So then she goes into this whole spiel trying to explain why they were driving around at the end of our road in the middle of the night, and none of it really makes sense unless you understand these people are kind of like . . . space aliens. They do not do drugs or even drink, they’re totally straight. They just do things like this all the time for no reason. And they’re frequently locking their keys in their car. It’s exceptionally rare for them to be seen off their property, even on their property, in the daytime—there’s this whole lore about how they’re vampires or something. Anyway, they had some friends in town and were driving around trying to show them a house for sale.”

Mike assures them that there are no houses for sale nearby. But Preston is sure of it.

“ ’No, there’s one that’s definitely for sale. A pink house!’ ”

Mike tells her that there’s a pink house next door, but it’s definitely not for sale.

“ ‘Okay, we’ll just drive up the road. I think it’s around here somewhere.’ ”

Fifteen minutes later Mike gets a text from his friend Josh: “ ‘Hey, the weirdest thing happened, we got bum-rushed by Hollywood people. Did they stop by your place? They said they knew you.’ ”

Josh also explains to Mike that the chinless driver of the Jetta was an actor on the show Friends named David Schwimmer.*

So they’ve turned up at Josh’s place. Out jumps Travolta. “ ‘Oh hi, it’s me, don’t worry—John Travolta. It’s me, John Travolta.’ ”

They explain they are looking for this mythical house for sale.

“Next day Cliff and Laura came and hauled the Rolls out and took it up to the junkyard, and there it sat for God knows how long.”

Left: A wind sock at the airport. Right: Islesboro Central School

There’s a hypothetical anecdote I hear from several people on Islesboro: “If you get stuck in a ditch and you’re a Biden supporter, and your neighbor who’s a Trump supporter comes along, he’s still going to pull you out.” The political orientations remain the same each time, which seems a bit trite—the effete lib having his soymobile rescued by some diesel-guzzling alpha. But to be fair, the one time I actually see something like this happen, it’s Josh Linscott, an enthusiastic Trump guy—and, relevantly, a talented mechanic—using his enormous truck to rescue a mud-mired 1983 Toyota Supra with stickers of anime pinup girls on it. (I’ve heard that Josh’s wife is like a beautiful mermaid, that she’d go fishing with her baby in a sling on her lobster boat, which Josh tells me he has fitted out with a 454 big-block Chevy engine.) So, fine, even though he’s being paid, I will grant that the stereotype holds up.

Drivers on the island wave at one another as they pass. The styles vary: one finger, two fingers straight, two fingers in a peace sign, four fingers subtly hovering half an inch above the wheel, full-blown jazz hands. After a while people know your car on sight.

The political scientist Benedict Anderson proposed that being a part of any community beyond “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” has required a shift into abstraction. And here, with a three-mile moat, it does seem possible to know everybody, to experience that kind of social totality.

The Maine-ism “from away” denotes a resident who was not born here—or even a resident whose parents weren’t. On the islands the mainland itself is a category of lesser belonging and legitimacy. So while there are obvious divisions between the more recently nativized islanders and the old-line Mainers whose salty opacity constitutes its own social barrier, committing to the island—taking the plunge and toughing it out as part of the tiny year-round population—actually grants newcomers an accelerated forgiveness for their away-ness. After all, the flighty cosmopolitan summer people, even those who only rent, are hardcore in their own fashion, committed to a sustained, insular community. There’s almost nothing to do on Islesboro once you’re here. There are no tourists, and it’s been decades since there was a hotel, a B&B, a bar, or even a proper restaurant.

Until the midcentury there were multiple post offices, scout troops, a bowling alley. More recently, deep ties to the mainland in commerce, employment, and transportation have left the island with less reason to maintain its own resources. But even though Islesboro has the shortest ferry ride in the state system, unless you get to and from the island on your own boat (rare and impractical) or your own aircraft (John Travolta), you are still subject to the daily vagaries of mechanics, vehicle space, and even fiscal volatility, as inexplicable rate hikes shock household budgets and usage patterns. That rigidity produces as strong a community as you might imagine, with multiple resilient networks of support, yet also one of the most fragile.

Here are just some of the ways that things fit together or fall apart: the summer community creates a flush tax base (for the entire county, in fact); the tax base makes it possible to have an excellent K–12 school; the school makes the island attractive to working-age adults who have or will have children; these families become the stable year-round population that supports the summer community. But high property values make it difficult for year-round residents to afford housing, and prices have further increased not only with the boom of the past two years but also with the arrival of gigabit broadband access, which has enticed remote professionals. The costs to keep the school going would start to look insane if enrollment (currently eighty-six) dropped below, say, half that; you lose the school and you lose the physically capable adults who man the volunteer fire department, which means it’s now a problem to get property insurance, so maybe property values sink, and it’s more or less over, a hollowed-out, nonresidential rock in the sea.

“For me, the hope is the island goes back to having restaurants and pubs and music and different people doing different things and vitality,” says one year-rounder, a child of back-to-the-landers, whose influx in the Seventies buoyed the population of Islesboro and the rest of Maine. “The greatest fear is that the critical mass that you need to have those services won’t be reached and we’ll slip into the darkness of decline.”

The groovy mystery crew and I have decided that an amphibious approach would be best. We launch from a beach on the island’s southern lobe, just below the Narrows, to make our way up and across Sabbathday Harbor in a little skiff, the Soar Loser. First at a gentle putter and then at full throttle, we float past lobster-haunted coves whose seaweed jungles gently perforate the water’s surface, past jagged promontories reaching for their long-lost kin on the west coast of Ireland, past a group of houses oppressed by the gray sky but which in brighter days and earlier decades appeared on at least one sun-drenched New Yorker cover. In the distance I try to make out Bear Island, where Buckminster Fuller had a Victorian house without running water, and where he built several prototype geodesic domes.

It is the shortest day of the year. We have timed our landing for low tide since the dock at Gripsholm will long have been packed up for winter and a king tide here can reach fifteen feet from low.

“Shamus, why aren’t you in school?” Dylan thinks to ask.

Shamus, sitting in the bow, says that this is one of his home days in his remote-learning rotation, though he is allowed to attend additional in-person classes if he wants, since he needs to catch up on some coursework. He mentions that he once saw John Travolta on the ferry or the Quicksilver (the passenger boat that sometimes supplements the state ferry), but didn’t know who he was, just some old guy.

I wonder whether there is something uniquely undignified in being a man approaching forty trying to snoop around John Travolta’s house with a teen on a school day, but the collegial respect that Dylan shows for Shamus—something that makes sense in places where kids, like Shamus, start making good money while still in high school—closes years of difference. When it comes to matters of labor and class, the teens of the island, I have found, are sensitive and astute.

“My brother and his friend hang out with summer kids,” one teen tells me. “It’s becoming more relaxed but still pretty rigid—more that the awkward losers among the summer kids want to hang out.”

“I realized a summer or two ago that I knew a lot of summer kids’ names and who their families were and who their friends were and connected to, even who they were dating. It felt like I had grown up parallel to them.”

“When you got to be about twelve it was over. You didn’t see them anymore. It was over.”

“I was babysitting, carrying this kid, and the mother was talking to me, and one of the woman’s daughters, this girl, came in with her friend, and they say to each other, ‘Are you going to the spaghetti dinner tonight at the Tarratine Club?’ And the other girl was like, ‘Yeah, I’m so excited.’ And they don’t talk to me or acknowledge me, but they’re also talking to the mom. They’re in their own world. I was older than twelve. Then I went that night and worked that spaghetti dinner and saw them there.”

I have all the same heard Shamus’s grandfather Bill credited with turning the school from a “place where you went to sober up” to a place that gave the island kids a good shot, if they wished, at attending the same fancy colleges as the rich summer kids, a kind of leveling the island hadn’t seen since World War II.

We haul the boat onto the shore and Shamus, thoughtlessly lissome, clambers up the crosshatched piles to the pier while Dylan and I, mindful of our joints, gingerly pick our way along the steep wave-cut scarp above the beach until we join the path uphill.

As a precaution against the unlikely accusation of trespassing, Dylan has written Travolta a postcard, which he will deposit at the front door. Since we have no actual business being there other than a debased Scooby-Doo adventure, the pretext becomes our actual business.

Once, Dylan mentions as we walk up the hill, back when he was driving the Quicksilver, Travolta was describing his house in Florida, which is part of a fly-in community with its own runway, and said, “Wait, let me show you some pictures.” But instead of going to the photos on his phone, he just googled “John Travolta house.”

In front of this house, which can land helicopters but nothing fixed-wing, we find a solitary disused SUV and an open gate. The building is dour and imposing, a creepy Tudor revival in manifold reptilian shingles and dull grays against the gray sky, separating the thickly forested hillside that tumbles down to the sea from the too-manicured landscaping with a circular drive and wrought-iron fencing. Aristo in the front and survivalist in the back. There used to be a full hedge maze, Francie tells me, maybe still is, hidden somewhere.

I hope there is no need for anyone to call the cop on us. Fred Porter, Islesboro’s public safety director, is the only full-time law enforcement officer on the island. In the Nineties, he tells me, when he came back from California, he worked in landscaping, and one day he was outdoors on a job and heard jet engines and looked up and saw a 707 flying so low that the landing-gear doors were visible. “At the time I thought it was something operationally going on,” he says. Maybe some kind of low-profile government or military thing, since the aircraft lacked clear markings. But it was just John Travolta, buzzing the island. “I can’t believe how low the jet was. The FAA had a field day with him. It’s the ballsiest thing he ever did.”

Perhaps, rather than being chased away, we might even be welcomed! Perhaps when Dylan and Shamus and I walk up to the door like salt-rimed carolers, Travolta, resplendent in evening dress, will greet us, invite us in warmly, and treat us to a sumptuous meal at a magnificently laid table, then explain the rules of the game and give us a two-minute head start.

It occurs to me to ask Dylan what’s on the postcard. A request for a signed headshot, he says. Sort of in recognition of another adventure. An adventure shared, it just so happens, with John Travolta.

Gripsholm Cottage

It was right around Christmas. That is, when Travolta was always sure to be in town: dozens of family members would show up and the house would run a twenty-four-hour kitchen so you could order whatever, whenever. (This atmosphere of extravagant festivity is why Travolta appears in a book-length Christmas Carol adaptation written by the island’s state representative, Vicki Doudera, in which he goes about his holiday shopping on the mainland and manifests as the three spirits who visit the lady Scrooge: Tony from Saturday Night Fever is Past, Edna from Hairspray is Present, and, inexplicably, George from Phenomenon is Future.)

“Travolta would go back and forth, chartered, so it would be just he and I on the Quicksilver,” Dylan explains. “They have reverse schedules—I guess other famous people do this, like their night is our day.”

It’s maybe nine at night, and Dylan, having just taken Travolta across the bay, plans to visit his girlfriend while killing time on the mainland.

“I see him coming back from his car, and he’s going, ‘Oh, it’s a zero, this is a zero.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, what?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t have my key, it’s a total zero.’ It’s a specific phrase from the era of his youth, or maybe it’s a Scientology thing. So anyway, we’re like, looking at each other, and he’s like, ‘Where are you going?’ And I’m like, ‘Where are you going? I’ll take you wherever you want.’ So we hopped in my ’91 Volvo, full of shit. And I’m like, ‘All my stuff is in there.’ He’s like, ‘Ah, I don’t care, whatever.’ ”

They head southward along the coast, the mufflerless Volvo roaring.

“I took him to the tennis place. He hands me an Aquafina. I considered keeping that.” (This may be why Dylan’s car is so full of junk.)

“He plays tennis for an hour. When we were parking, he’s like, ‘Just pull in there’—a handicapped spot—‘it’s okay.’ ”

They hit T.J. Maxx. They hit Walmart.

“We’re driving around doing this stuff for like two hours, and on the way back, I ask, ‘Do you care if we go by my girlfriend’s house?’ ”

Travolta, again, is fine with whatever.

“So we’re going out to her house in the middle of the woods and he’s just texting. And I realize he’s driven around by strangers all the time, so he’s perfectly comfortable to get in a strange car and go wherever. I think many people driving into the woods at eleven-thirty at night in Maine . . . I don’t know.

“We get to the house and I’m like, ‘Do you want to come in for a second?’ And he says, ‘It’s your battle plan.’ ”

Dylan has not given advance notice of his visit.

“I go upstairs, Denise is just conked out. Doesn’t know I’m coming. I wake her up. ‘Hey, John Travolta’s in the kitchen.’ She’s like, ‘What?’ And we go down. And that’s when we decided we were together, because he referred to her as my girlfriend.”

We deposit Dylan’s postcard, and decide our task is complete—this far, no further. We make our way back to where we put in. After Shamus is turned over to his dad, Dylan offers a final Travolta insight: “So yeah. He’s a pretty normal . . . like, he’s weird. But he’s really into leasing vehicles? Because it’s, like, such a deal?”

Overestimating my means, Dylan asks whether I want to buy Gripsholm. Word on the island is that the place is already for sale. I ask a broker and he says yeah, low-key though, not public. Kelly Preston died of breast cancer earlier in the year, and for a while people started seeing Travolta around a little more, because it takes two to maintain a peculiar upside-down schedule and stay happy in isolation, and I guess it was the end of the place for him; his life (from the roughest, uninformed reckoning) became smaller. By the next year, all the staff will be let go. The wealthy part-time residents, with their renovation and caretaking and groundskeeping needs, are the mill in this town, so the genius loci is also an employer. He is gone now, and the waves gnaw at the shore and the island slowly sinks into the sea.

Who would buy such a spooky house? The prestige market still favors these original palatial residences, known by the names of their first owners, which “sell before they’re sold” among those already connected to the island—but the canonical cottage has a wide sweeping lawn down to the water. Travolta’s place was more like this when the house was built, but now the steep path to the shore is overgrown with trees, which would appeal if you wanted an extra buffer against the world, extra privacy, but makes it harder to find a buyer among the gross new rich guys. “How many John Travoltas are there?” another broker puts it to me. No man is an island, but some men are John Travolta.

I visit the property of David Sleeper, a onetime solar power wizard who has gone into assisted living. His possessions are being auctioned off. “A beautiful mind,” the auctioneer tells me, meaning the unwinding of the end rather than the beauty in the decades of completed or abandoned projects, the notes, diagrams, and shot-up targets all over the hayloft office of the barn. For sale are Fritz Lang–futuristic oscilloscopes on wheeled carts; four half-refurbished royal-blue saltwater-cooled diesel generators; tiny diodes in a tray of heat-shrink terminals, semicircles of white and silver like eyes harvested from wondrous insects.

The auctioneer and a few intrepid buyers are from the mainland, so the auction starts late, since the ferry had to be pressed into service for a medical emergency last night and the crew can’t work more than twelve hours a day, which means they had to skip the first sailing this morning. (An ambulance can commandeer the ferry, but in really bad weather the ferry can’t safely operate, so they will try to find a lobster boat that can take a gurney over.)

The beautiful antique firearms are what has drawn outside collectors, but the market for much of the smaller and cheaper stuff is deformed by the demand-side suppression of the ferry fee. I win an odd lot of tools and parts for $10 and a Danish teak side table for $20. Like Travolta, I cannot resist a deal. And in the amorphous plenitude beyond the deal lies the free. On a throwaway table are several folders of Sleeper’s personal photos from the Seventies: almost no people, some dogs, numerous marine sonar units, blurry features across an indistinct distance, water and land gone all muddy and milky. None of it has the melancholy allure of ephemera, of lives lived and packed up, but all the same I take the whole batch, with the hoarder’s conviction that there is more purpose in the world if every discrete scrap of any value might be loved or at least held on to.

One of the buildings on the property, what would have been the main house, is badly fire-damaged. When it happened a few years ago, in a grilling accident, the Quicksilver was out on the water—Sleeper was known to get on the boat with his dog and with a pistol on his hip and painstakingly write out a check for the fare at the end of the trip rather than have it prefilled—and the captain, a former fire responder, spotted the smoke immediately.

Fire emergencies don’t allow for the same improvisation as medical ones. It works to have just a few physician assistants or nurse practitioners full-time, but you can’t have a one- or two-man fire crew. Medical professionals (except for the EMTs who also do fire duty) have singular job descriptions, whereas fielding a fire department takes a village. At times they already don’t have enough people to enter a burning building legally.

Murt Durkee, the fire chief like his father before him, oversees the crew and a splendid fleet of trucks that range from state-of-the-art to antique, with molded plastic bodies or pinstriping in real gold. But like many Mainers and particularly many islanders, Murt has several jobs, which vary with the seasons. He is also a general contractor and carpenter (a few days before I leave, he helps me identify a weird old screwdriver from Sleeper’s auction). He watches houses as a caretaker. He cuts and sells wood, neat little bundles of split kindling that I’ve seen by the roadside. And, if you make it to the end on-island, Murt, also the town gravedigger, will bury you. Murt once responded to a fire in which an old woman died of smoke inhalation, and Murt buried her. Murt built a house for a man, and when the man died, Murt buried him. In the winter, the ground is hard, and heavy equipment is needed, but if the ground is soft and the body has been cremated, the burial is easy, and Murt can do it with a shovel.

As I am about to leave, my car breaks down, and Josh Linscott sets me straight. I cover the Steinway, draw the blinds, and dump the fireplace ashes and the last of the dead mice out in the snow. I find myself back on the mainland, fighting the urge to wave.

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June 2024

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