The first trip Rut made out of the State of Maine was to the Mayo Clinic to have the hole in his heart sewed up. The hole was there from the start but he was in his 70s and had been popping nitro tablets for years before they figured out what ailed him. Rut had never been what you might call an energetic man. He hauled his gear, maintained his boat, fetched the mail over and back to the island all at a measured pace. Rut didn’t seem to mind how long it took to get from here to there. Hand on the wheel, eye on the compass even on the calmest, bluest day. His old boat knew the way, the Margaret-Caroline trundled across the bay and back like an old cow swaying along between pasture and barn. He fussed about the weather. It was sure to breeze up or set in a thicka fog. He fussed about the trips he had yet to make and passengers who were sure to be late. He fussed about the tide. His life ruled by its ebb and flow. No matter which way he was headed it was on its way the other god damned direction. Every time he had a load it was running out and away and sure to mean a trip around the little island and by the time he got in he’d have to leave the powerboat on the mooring and shift every god damn box and bag into the punt and row the whole of it ashore and there wouldn’t be a soul down there to help haul it across the god damn rockweed and didn’t he take a tumble one time but the mail bag never touched the mud, not even a corner of the bag by godfrey.
Course the whole island was waiting for him down at the shore, marking his slow progress across the bay and eying the tide making across the bar between the islands. Nodding to one another because for sure and certain Rut was going to miss the tide and have to run around the little island. They were there to catch hold of the big punt when she scraped ashore. Rut with the oars in his hands and the US Mail beside him calling on them one and all to mind the eggs and that box has a tear. Then the whole lot of them in a straggly line, from 6 and three-quarters to eighty-eight carrying the boxes and bags across the clamflats and Rut calling out behind with the grey canvas mail bag slung over his shoulder to have a care and mind them groceries because Old Lady Parker is counting on those Pecan Sandies and he don’t want her coming after him now does he.
“Old Les always said Rut was an old man even way back when they were in grammar school.” Dickie grinned but he never said it except when we were 30 miles offshore and not a frigging soul in the watery world ‘cept us unless you count the blackfish spouting and gannets dropping like dive bombers.
“Course he’s gone and lost a few years drinking that goddam Old Duke and those piss warm Buds,” said Mick as we lowered salted herring in brim full five-gallon buckets to Dickie aboard the Deborah-Jayne.
“Fountain of youth that is,” grunted Dickie covering the buckets to keep out the ravening gulls.
“Jaysus Benjoy,” Rut told me one day not long before the big trip, eyeing the steep bank of loose cobble and stone between him and his scrap of dooryard above the high tide line. “I got to take a pill just as soon as I step outa the goddam punt. Never fuckin’ mind put one foot before the other.”
He tipped out two from the brown plastic vial and tossed them back, swallowing them down with the last warm dregs of the Bud he’d started that morning and left wedged between rail and plank for just this contingency. Swallowed, blinked a time or two and then headed up, hipboots sliding back in the beach stone, losing half of every step. He managed half the distance before he stopped.
I took my time loading groceries and feed for the hens in my little cart. Moving slow to keep an eye out for him. Only the two of us out on the island this time of year. Only me to make sure he made it home. I watched him stop and turn carefully so as not to lose any of the hard won altitude. Watched him tip his hat back, wipe his forehead. Watched him take his glasses off and polish them. There we stood. Two men on an island with the setting sun behind and the open sea to the southward, as alone as two souls could be in last decades of the Twentieth Century, two separate points on lines as vastly separate as the bright jet trails stitching the early evening sky. Apart and yet framed in the same moment. He dug in his back pocket for the little brown vial of pills . Tipped one or three out, straight into his mouth this time then nodded like he’d just had some long running debate settled and turned to the slope again.
I watched until he’d made the door, set his hipboots off to one side and stepped through in his stocking feet.
Never mind it was early October and not a breath of wind, by the time I got my groceries settled in the wheelbarrow to lug up the hill he’d been to the woodpile and carried in an armload of sticks, got down on all fours to scrounge out a handful bits the axe had sliced off for kindling and by the time I was above the fringe of trees and could look back down the hill a thin curl of wood smoke rose from the rusted metal chimney.
“Rut, whyn’t you use some old gas or something to get that Christly fire going,” Mick demanded. Something about watching a grown man on all fours set Mick off.
“Oh Jaysus deah,” Rut looked up at Mick his eyes big and round behind his glasses. “I’d like to set the island on fire starting her up that way. All it takes is just one spark, dry as it is. Why I knew a feller down to the wharf lit his fires that way. Blew the fuckin door right offa the stove. No by the hoary eyed Christ you can’t go starting a fire like that.”
Mick laughed then but the next day he came up to the house on Young George’s four-wheeler towing a trailer he picked up in someone’s dooryard. He had me sort and load and hauled half my woodpile down the hill and across the beach for Rut.
I found a school program in the walls of parent’s house from the end-of-year student speaking contest at the Gott’s Island school. I can’t remember what poem, essay and speech each scholar was slated to speak. I imagined the picture the teacher might have taken if technology had allowed her. The classes of 1918, in their Sunday finest, ranged in front of the little clapboard building at the top of the hill carefully lined from the tallest all the way down to young Rut. A single row of pupils no longer than their school was wide. In my imagination, a girl in pigtails has her hand on Rut’s shoulder like he might have blown away off down the hill if a good gust came up. His face is set and serious, wanting to please but hoping, praying for any Christly way to get out of having to stand in front of the whole damn island and say his piece.
He was eight that year. In just a few years the village would be abandoned. The island left to dream alone. It’s people scattered as dandelion fluff in the wind. For a lifetime Rut stayed on. His heart, like his watch, keeping a different pace, keeping its own time.