Authors: Michael Cunningham
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #History, #United States, #Massachusetts, #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Northeast, #State & Local, #Sports & Recreation, #Walking, #ME, #NH, #VT), #New England (CT, #RI, #Provincetown (Mass.) - Description and travel, #Cunningham; Michael, #Provincetown, #Provincetown (Mass.), #MA, #Walking - Massachusetts - Provincetown, #New England (CT; MA; ME; NH; RI; VT)
Some members of the P-town population (it is, by the way, perfectly all right to call it “P-town”) live according to a central simplicity as absolute as creed. They prefer earnestness to irony, the local to the immense. Provincetown lives at a bemused distance from the rest of the country. It does not quite consider itself American, and in this regard it is probably more right than wrong. Last summer I found a pair of quotation marks at the flea market in Wellfleet. They had come from a movie marquee. They were eight inches high, glossy black; they had a bulky, elderly symmetry. I gave them to Melanie, believing she’d know what to do with them. She was on her way to California then, and she took one pair of quotation marks with her, to leave behind in San Francisco. She keeps the other pair in Provincetown.
LTHOUGH IT’S BETTER
known for its gayness than for its heterosexuality, Provincetown is home to a considerable quotient of straight people, and everyone lives pretty much in peace. Just as the Log Cabin Republican not only can’t ignore the existence of stone butches but buys his coffee from one every morning, straight people and gay people are all passengers on the same ship and couldn’t remain separate even if they’d like to. At its best Provincetown can feel like an improved version of the world at large, a version in which sexuality, though always important, is not much of a deciding factor. For several years, long ago, I played poker every Wednesday night at the home of Chris Magriel, a woman in her seventies who lived in a den of paisley shawls, embroidered pillows, and elderly stuffed animals. I was coming out then, unable to broach the subject with my family, and when I told Chris I thought I was gay, her milky blue eyes deepened in thought and she said, “Well, dear, if I was your age, I’d want to try it, too.” She didn’t embrace or console me. She simply treated it as the matter of small concern I’d hoped it might be. I told her about the man I was dating. She said, “He sounds very nice.” Then we started laying out food for the other poker players, who were due to arrive at any moment.
In summer the straight tourists are generally as amused by the more flamboyant members of the population as they are meant to be. It’s common to see someone taking a picture of his mother, a champagne blonde in jeans and Reeboks, with her arm cheerfully around the shoulders of a man dressed as Cher. Last summer in the West End I passed a drag queen who was flyering for a show (
is a nonverb you hear frequently in Provincetown—it refers to the act of distributing flyers that advertise a show, often involving costumes to excite interest in same). The man in question, an extremely tall man wearing Minnie Mouse eyelashes and a blue beehive wig that made him just under eight feet high, stood before a raptly attentive boy about four years old. “All right,” the man in the wig said, “but this is the last time I’m doing it.” He lifted his wig off his head and showed the child the crew cut underneath. The child fell into paroxysms of laughter. The man replaced his wig and walked on.
ROVINCETOWN’S LARGE, DISORDERLY
party of transients, émigrés, tourists, summer homeowners, et cetera goes on at an almost total remove, in every sense but the geographical, from the generally more settled lives of the people who were born there and who are mostly the descendants of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. When the whaling industry was annihilated by the rise of petroleum oil in the mid-1800s, Provincetown became a fishing village, and the population came to be dominated by the Portuguese whose families had fished for centuries. They thrived there until recently, when the waters around Provincetown were almost entirely fished out; now many of the Portuguese American citizens live in several small enclaves on the far side of Bradford Street. The more prosperous among them run most of the operations that require year-round residence. They operate the gas and oil companies and own or staff the banks and markets and drugstores. When, in her 1942 book
Time and the Town
, the only book I know about Provincetown, Mary Heaton Vorse referred to them as “Dark faces on the streets, beautiful dark-eyed girls who love color and who make the streets gay with their bright dresses and their laughter,” I suspect she meant it as a compliment. These “colorful characters” are now the old guard, the town’s most respectable and conservative citizens. The same names, some of them Anglicized more than two hundred years ago, appear over and over again on the tombstones in the town cemetery: Atkins, Avellar, Cabral, Cook, Days, Enos, Rose, Tasha, Silva, Snow.
I think the sea is a useless teacher, pitching and falling
no matter the weather, when our lives are rather lakes
unlocking in a constant and bewildering spring. Listen
a day comes, when you say what all winter
I’ve been meaning to ask, and a crack booms and echoes
where ice had seemed solid, scattering ducks
and scaring us half to death. In Vermont, you dreamed
from the crown of a hill and across a ravine
you saw lights so familiar they might have been ours
shining back from the future
And waking, you walked there, to the real place
and when you saw only trees, came back bleak
with a foreknowledge we have both come to believe in
But this morning, a kind day has descended, from nowhere
and making coffee in the usual way, measuring grounds with the wooden spoon, I remembered
this is how things happen, cup by cup, familiar gesture
after gesture, what else can we know of safety
or of fruitfulness? We walk with mincing steps within
a thaw as slow as February, wading through currents
that surprise us with their sudden warmth. Remember
last week you woke still whistling for a bird
that had miraculously escaped its cage, and look, today
a swallow has come to settle behind this rented rain gutter
gripping a twig twice his size in his beak, staggering
under its weight, so delicately, so precariously, it seems
from here, holding all he knows in his mouth
N ADDITION TO
its human population, Provincetown is home to a number of thriving animal contingents. It is a big dog town, the sort of place where local dogs (a standard poodle named Dorothy, a black Labrador mix known as Lucy, the long-haired dachshund of the portly man who walks the streets in caftans) are as thoroughly known in their idiosyncrasies of being as the residents and are just as likely to be greeted by name if they saunter into a shop or café.
Provincetown also boasts a considerable cohort of stately cats, more often than not white with bold black markings, like living Franz Kline paintings, descendants of a long-gone ur-cat. The cats possess, in toto, whatever remains of the placid, burgherish entitlement of the old whaling captains. Dogs, though abundant in Provincetown, do not rule, at least in part because strictly enforced leash laws, which apply even on the beaches, keep them forever relegated to the status of pet. They are named and numbered—they are always at least slightly humiliated. The cats, being freer and more ubiquitous, are not visibly owned at all, and they travel the streets and beaches with aristocratic certainty. They are beauties, these cats. There is, in Provincetown, almost no visible evidence of the scrawnier, more ferretlike and skittish specimens—I can only imagine that those nervous, bony types are relegated to alleys and backyards by their more prosperous brothers and sisters, the great glossy fifteen-pounders with royal heads and heavy, voluptuous tails who are never spooked by dogs or pedestrians; who are prone, on occasion, to nap in the middle of a sun-warmed street.
As for wild animals, Provincetown is most prominently host to a thriving population of skunks. Skunks are everywhere there. Since they are nocturnal, you won’t ever encounter a skunk in daylight, but if you walk around late at night, after eleven or so, when the streets have begun to empty, you can hardly avoid seeing one or two or more. Though they fully possess their own animal dignity and sport those white stripes that go incandescent in the streetlight, they are not the most imposing of creatures. They are among nature’s pedestrians and trash-pickers. They waddle brazenly back and forth across Commercial Street, right in the middle of town, scavenging. If you leave them alone and go about your business, they will do the same.
The residents dogs know better, but visiting dogs, being uninformed about the consequences, often chase skunks, and of course, just when they’ve got one cornered, as they are congratulating themselves on their courage and skill, the worst happens. One summer Kenny and I were having dinner with friends when our host’s Scottie was sprayed by a skunk. Since the dog’s owner was too drunk and stoned at the time to do much beyond register his dismay, Kenny and I took care of it as best we could. We had heard tomato juice was the only remedy, and so we rounded up all the tomato juice we could get from the neighbors, though we had to fall back on ketchup, tomato puree, and tomato soup, since actual tomato juice was not available in the required amounts. We put the dog in a tin basin and poured all the tomato products over her. It worked, more or less, but I can tell you that a skunk’s spray, close up, has a quality entirely different from those zones of reek you may have passed through on highways. It is worse than foul. It is the smell of annihilation. It has no parallel I can think of. It isn’t rot, it isn’t sulphur or ammonia; it is just indescribably bad, in a category of its own. You taste it when you breathe. You feel it infiltrating your nose and lungs. It was, in its way, a remarkable experience, though I wouldn’t care to repeat it. It was a reminder, the most potent one imaginable, that nature is very good at what it does; that that which survives is so clearly meant to do so.
If skunks and cats are the petite bourgeoisie of Provincetown, its most stolid and crankily respectable nonhuman citizens, other animals live there at a more ephemeral but insistent remove. On the remoter edges you may see a fox every now and then, bright russet, usually standing so still (it will have heard you coming as if you were a freight train) that you may not be sure, at first, that it’s a living thing at all—it is the very embodiment of the word
. I have seen deer out in the dunes and, once, a doe and fawn browsing among the grass in the cemetery.
A hardy population of racoons and opossums and the occasional coyote moves more furtively than the skunks but with similar determination among the scraps and leftovers of late-night Provincetown. Late one night last summer, when my friend James and I had gone to retrieve our bicycles from where we’d left them, on the lawn in front of the Universalist church, an opossum came out of the bushes and stood directly in front of me. It was young, not by any means a baby but far from fully grown; it was an adolescent. It stood less than two feet before me, looking at me with an expression neither friendly nor fearful. It seemed merely curious. It was pale gray, almost white, with a shovel-shaped head, a nose the color of a pencil eraser, and eyes that were perfect black beads. We made eye contact. This has never happened to me with a wild animal. Automatically, without thinking, I reached over and touched it, gently, on the top of its head. I wasn’t petting it. I was trying to acknowledge it, to be polite, the way you might try to communicate not just your friendliness but your beingness to an extraterrestrial. It was foolish; I did it without thinking. The opossum’s pelt was rough but not unpleasantly so, like the bristles of a paintbrush. It didn’t bite me, but it did not like being touched; touching it had clearly not been the correct gesture. Still, it did not bolt away in terror. It simply slipped back into the bushes, and I went on to catch up with James.