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CLIFF HOUSE A GONER?
May 15, 2013
Rumor has it the quintessential Nantucket manse known as Cliff House is days from falling into the ocean. A heartbreak, to be sure. It’s the only original and complete pre-1978 building left on the northernmost portion of Baxter Road.
For anyone living under a seashell, the home is all the way over in Sconset, atop a bluff and a few beats from Sankaty Head Light and the famous golf course where you can find a certain hoodied NFL coach swinging his clubs.
Besieged by decades of erosion, Cliff House is a lovely old place that has aged a century in the past year alone. There was Hurricane Sandy last fall, followed by the cruel February blizzard, and a ruthless nor’easter in March, which brought winds exceeding 90 mph. In only eight months, Cliff House has lost over fifty feet of bluff. That’s half a football field, ladies and gents. The hoodie guy would tell you that.
As most know, town shaker Cissy Codman owns Cliff House. Cis claims to have some tricks up her sleeve, sand recycling and barricades and such. And while we’re obsessed with Cissy and her tricks, whatever grand plans our favorite Sconseter has devised must be okayed by a bevy of local and state interests. By and large, islanders don’t want the barricades. The Summer People do. And Cissy Codman is a little bit of both, living here mostly year-round but being a Bostonian at heart.
They say hope is gone but we at Island ACKtion find that a hard pill to choke down. If anyone can save the bluff, it’s Cissy. No doubt, she’ll move heaven and earth to get what she wants. Let’s pray the earth doesn’t move first.
Stay tuned, Nantucketers. This fight isn’t over. Personally, I’d put my money on a spunky sexagenarian who never seems to sleep.
Corkie Tarbox, lifelong Nantucketer, steadfast flibbertigibbet. Married with one ankle-biter. Views expressed on the Island ACKtion blog (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al.) are hers alone. Usually.
Only Cissy Codman would pick someone up at the airport on a bike.
“Bess!” she hollers, pedaling up. “Elisabeth!”
Cissy is in her standard uniform: khaki shorts, denim button-down, beaten-up Keds. Her hair is tucked into a Red Sox baseball cap.
“Oh, Bess, you are beautiful!” she says, and then annihilates her daughter with a Cissy-grade hug. Vigorous. Aggressive. Almost punishing. “I expected so much worse, given the divorce.”
“Pending divorce. And Mom? A bike?”
Bess is too flummoxed by the mode of transportation to grouse about any backhanded compliments, which are a Cissy Codman specialty. Bess is used to them, and to the bike as well. None of it should come as a surprise, yet Cissy always catches her daughter off guard.
“Do I need to rent a car?” Bess asks, and wheels her suitcase out into the sunshine.
She shades her eyes with one hand.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Cissy says. “This is Nantucket, not LA.”
“Okay, but I live in San Francisco, which is four hundred miles from Los Angeles and basically like living in a different state. Also, you realize we’re at least five miles from Cliff House?”
“Just over seven,” Cissy says. “I have a basket on my bike, though!”
Bess glances down at her suitcase. It fits in an overhead compartment, but definitely wouldn’t in the weather-beaten wicker box dangling from Cissy’s handlebars. Not to mention, Milestone Road is one boring, interminable shot out to Sconset. To bike it without luggage is hassle enough.
“Cis, do you really think I can fit this…” Bess gestures toward her suitcase. “Into that?”
The bike basket is so lacking even the Easter Bunny would complain.
“I didn’t expect you to bring so much,” Cissy says.
Bess leans in for a second hug. The first one came at her so fast she didn’t have a chance to hold on.
“It’s great to see you,” she says. “I’m glad a few things never change.”
Bess pulls back.
“I love that you think you can drive the entire world on those scrawny legs of yours,” she says. “But, seriously, we need to explore other options.”
“Who raised such a princess?” Cissy asks with a grin. “Sheesh. Too much time in California. I can’t even tell you’re from New England anymore.”
She latches on to Bess’s suitcase and tromps out toward the street—guiding the luggage with one hand, her bike with the other.
“I can carry that!” Bess calls.
Cissy quickens her pace, the curly, salty blond ponytail bobbing through the hole of her hat. Bess flattens her dark, straight bangs, as if in response.
“I’m not sure why you’re here,” Cissy calls over her shoulder, “so far in advance of your cousin’s wedding. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to see you. But aren’t you supposed to be working?”
Yes. Working. That’s exactly what she should be doing. It’s the same argument Bess made when her father called.
“Well, Dad says…” Bess starts.
“Oh please.” Cissy makes a snort-puff sound. “Your father exaggerates as a rule. He probably did his best to raise your hackles, to make the situation seem irreparably dire.”
Bess shakes her head. “Dire” is one word. “Catastrophic” is another.
“Elisabeth, you have to drag your mother out of that house,” he’d implored only seventy-two hours before.
“Why can’t you do it?” Bess had asked. “She’s your wife.”
“Please. She stopped listening to me years ago. You’re the only one who can help.”
Though it sounded suspiciously like a compliment, it wasn’t one at all. No, Dudley doesn’t believe his middle child capable of swaying one very stubborn and immovable matriarch. His faith in Bess is more practical, rooted in his daughter’s ability to show up on short notice, at least compared to her siblings. She’s no Clay, the big brother, who works a gajillion hours a week at their dad’s hedge fund and has two young kids and a demanding, nine-months-pregnant wife who makes a full-time job of issuing summonses and demands.
Neither is Bess like last-born Julia, known almost exclusively as “Lala” owing to a multiyear inability to pronounce her own name. Sweet Lala is in the Sudan helping refugees, because baby sisters with Harvard degrees and privileged upbringings can do that sort of thing. In sum: Lala has nothing to prove.
“I can’t fly cross-country right now,” Bess told her dad. “I have to work. To get all of my shifts covered would inconvenience multiple people.”
Not to mention that her personal life is in a state of bedlam, though Bess did not disclose that to him.
“I’d love to help,” she lied. “But it’s not feasible. Have you tried Clay or Lala?”
“Absolutely not. I’d never ask either one.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.”
“Aren’t you going to be on-island at the end of the month anyway?” he asked. “For Felicia’s wedding? Leave earlier.”
“Dad, I’m a physician. I can’t just bail.”
“Don’t you work, like, three days a week?”
“Three shifts,” she said. “Which are longer than an average workday.”
“You work in the ER.”
“The ED. It’s really more of a department than a room.”
Her dad was getting frustrated, as Dudley Codman was prone to do when things weren’t going his way. The man was loud and intimidating, like a dictator or the head of a drug cartel. But it all unraveled when somebody crossed him.
“Elisabeth,” he said with a beleaguered sigh. “Have another doctor cover for you. No one plans to see you specifically. Don’t random people just show up with a stab wound or whatnot looking for anyone with a pulse?”
“Also a medical degree. And we have precious few stab wounds. But I get what you’re saying.”
On some level, her father was right. It is simple to trade shifts, and unlike her colleagues, Bess isn’t opposed to working holidays. In fact, she prefers it. She likes doing people favors, plus emergencies tend to be better during times of celebration. There aren’t so many drug seekers and paranoid moms.
“I’m already taking off Memorial Day weekend,” Bess told him, counting backward in her head.
If she did as asked, she would arrive ten days earlier than planned. That was no kind of option.
“And finagling time off for Flick’s wedding was a major coup,” she said. “They sort of expect me to work holidays.”
“Why? Because you’re a divorcée?”
“Almost-divorcée. And it’s not quite that blatant. But, yes.”
“Listen, I don’t have time to argue,” he said. “You’ll go to Nantucket, help your mother pack, and drag her out of that crapshack she calls a home. Now, if you’ll excuse me, one of my companies is about to release earnings and I’m positive they’re going to post a miss.”
“Dad, I’ll talk to her when I’m there. I’ll call her tonight! Surely nothing will happen between now and—”
“Listen, Bess,” he snapped. “If you don’t go, your mother will end up in a pile of rubble on the beach.”
Dudley’s intrinsic mobster was leaking out.
“We’ll spend months trying to sort out which pieces are bones,” he went on. “And which are rocks.”
And then the line went dead.
So, “dire”? Yes, he made it seem quite dire, right down to the shards of bone.
“I don’t know, Cissy,” Bess says now, once she catches up to her mom, a sixty-five-year-old lady who can outrun her three kids and probably half of the Nantucket High track team. “Dad made it sound pretty treacherous.”
“If it were that bad, don’t you think he’d be here?”
“He says the house is going to fall over the bluff.”
“As if I’d let that happen.”
Cissy jams her fingers into her mouth and emits a sharp whistle. Two terrified seagulls flap away from their telephone-pole nest. She whistles again, and then juts her thumb out toward the road.
“We’re hitchhiking?!” Bess yelps.
“Don’t be such a pansy.”
Bess stands openmouthed, a bead of sweat crawling down her back. There goes Cissy Codman, folks driving by must think. Up to her usual antics.
Bess’s mother is famous on that island. No, infamous. When Bess returned to the island to finish high school, Nantucketers almost seemed surprised that Cissy was something more than a municipal agitator.
“My mom will be here in thirty minutes,” Bess might say.
“Your mom?” was the reply. “You mean Cissy?”
“My mom wanted me to drop this off.”
“Who’s your … Oh, ha ha ha. Why didn’t you just say Cissy?”
And so Bess started just saying Cissy. It was a joke, but then it stuck. Her mother didn’t seem to mind, or even notice.
“Cis, let’s rent a car,” Bess says. “Obviously no one’s keen on picking up a couple of grifters and this isn’t exactly a thoroughfare.”
“Have a little patience, why dontcha? Honestly, Bess.”
Bess sighs, though a smile slips out. God, she adores that crazy woman. Bess fixes her eyes on the horizon. A few cars motor by, then nothing. She grows hot and impatient. How much longer will they wait? Alas, fortunately or unfortunately—Bess cannot decide—a white, wood-paneled truck appears in the distance. It approaches and then rolls to a stop.
“Is that…” Bess says.
“Just friggin’ fabulous.”
Cissy drops the bike and then the suitcase.
“Go to hell, Chappy!” she screams, and raises both middle fingers.
“Polished as ever,” the man says, and leans across the passenger seat to leer at them through the open window. “What a mess, eh? Well, Bess. Welcome home.”
“Thanks,” she mumbles.
“Here, hop in.”
“This is fucking perfect,” Cissy grouses, but she throws the luggage and bike into the back nonetheless. “I guess you’re the only option, on account of my daughter’s baggage situation.”
Baggage situation, Bess thinks with a smirk. How painfully appropriate.
“Are you even allowed to drive?” her mother asks the man, their neighbor Chappy Mayhew, as they rumble away from the airport. “Don’t you still have that DUI conviction on your record?”
Chappy laughs and shakes his head. Bess can’t help but smile. Yep, she’s in Nantucket all right. Or, as Cissy would say, it’s “just fucking perfect.” Welcome home indeed.
Copyright © 2017 by Michelle Gable