Taking refuge from the blizzard

‘March of the Penguins’ never seemed so real.

The Island Theater during a snow storm in 2002. — Peter Simon

It was an unbelievable boon for us year-round citizens of Oak Bluffs when the Island Theater, at the foot of Circuit Avenue, stayed open throughout the winter of 2006. Though the grand old movie house had served the town ably since it first screened high-tech silent movies, traditionally the management could barely wait until the last cars drifted away on the ferry on Labor Day weekend to switch off the Island’s lights, throw a canvas tarp over the popcorn machine, and padlock the front doors.

But in this particular winter, a perfect storm of movie opportunities broke for Bluffsters: The Capawock, on duty in all four seasons for the spoiled townsfolk of Vineyard Haven, would be closed for repairs. What repairs? you might ask, revealing that you’d never sat through the first 10 minutes of a Capawock feature, only to have the screen go dead, never to be reanimated — at least not that night.

My beloved ex-husband Marty Nadler and I were there for a screening of “Hoffa,” with Jack Nicholson in the role of the fabled union boss whose long-ago disappearance has never been resolved. We’d sat at the edge of our seats up until the last few minutes, when mobsters descended on the doomed boss, and it didn’t look as if they’d be taking him to Little Italy for a five-course starchy dinner. And then the sickly Capawock projection booth gave up the ghost, and we never learned how Hoffa gave up his ghost, at least as far as the filmmakers were prepared to speculate.

This new brief fling of winter 2006 movies in Oak Bluffs filled me with hope and joy. I lived on Chapman Avenue, just down the street from the Ocean View Restaurant, with a view across a well-trod field to Our Market and, beyond its red and gold neon sign, a vista of the lonely, lovely, empty harbor. I owned a store called Sun Porch Books, about three-quarters of the way up Circuit. I could stay open during the winter or curl up at home with a stack of heavily discounted books. Over a weekend in February, I might sell a mass-market copy of a John Grisham paperback and a few greeting cards to a nice lady running late on her Christmas thank-you notes, but basically the only point of flashing the OPEN sign was to enjoy off-off-season company, which we all know is primo.

To sum up, for a car-free struggling bookseller, with an empty nest — unhitched from marriage, son in college at BU — the opportunity to walk a short distance along a deserted winter harbor to a working movie theater was a prize beyond reckoning. I resolved to watch any and all features without animated or comic book characters.

For a weekend in February, my dear friend, ex-nun Margaret Maes, was set to visit from her waterfront eighth floor apartment in Revere, north of Boston. Margaret, tall, with an elegant long neck and short (really, still nun-ish) brown hair, had quit the convent in her early 20s when she observed the other sisters fighting over the TV remote control like all humans the world over. Now she was a therapist, a seeker — we called each other our spiritual director — with a big honking laugh, and, perhaps because of her early religious training, an inability to swear. A big SUV cutting her off in traffic would elicit a “Whoa Nellie!”

So Margaret was coming, but so was a storm. That didn’t stop us; she and I and my sister Cindy had tromped together across the frozen winter tundra of the Boston Common to catch a screening of what my sister called, through frozen jaws, “Carrots of the Pirabbean.” Margaret made it to Chapman Avenue before the winds kicked up and the ferry closed down. I had a big pot of red lentil and coconut milk soup on the stove. We ladled up our bowls, heated some Texas toast, then headed over to the Island Theater to catch “March of the Penguins.”

A single boat was moored in the harbor, and the rising wind picked up its slackened halyard and pinged it repeatedly against the mast. Both Margaret and I thought we’d be set with a few layers of clothing under heavy hoodies, but the walk, with swirling frost nipping our eyelashes, called for a tucking in of chins, hoods pulled tight, footsteps hastened.

And then, of course, once we sat before the emperor penguins of Antarctica, we saw what true cold could mean to sentient beings on this planet. A band of thousands of these Big Birdishly big birds trekked up from mushy snow fields to a big solid island of ice (sound familiar?), where the serially monogamous couples produced one egg and, in −70° temperatures, stashed the precious bundle of egginess between Dad’s feet (those guys are awesome!), while Mom trudged off again into the bleakest, crappiest, freezingest weather you’ve ever seen, to dive for fish in the open sea, at the same time hoping to avoid being devoured herself by big, mean leopard seals.

The constant unremitting cold is both archenemy and avenging angel, forcing couples to cope together through blizzards and blue veils of wind blowing through the penguin colony, more ferocious than anything ever dreamed up in those movies with comic book or animated characters. At the end, after the credits rolled and the lights came up, Margaret and I turned to one another as if we’d just run out of lamp oil and eaten the last of our sled dogs. In a feeble voice, I expressed dismay for a newborn cutie-pie of a penguin baby who’d been snatched by a pair of northern giant petrels.

Margaret looked surprised: “I thought he was the lucky one!”

By the time we slid our hoods up over our heads, the nor’easter was raging. And that lonely boat in the harbor? The halyard now banged the mast like the last supper bell in Hades. We braced ourselves, speechless against the pain of the frigid night, two human versions of the emperor penguin, as we scurried past the black roiling waters of the Oak Bluffs Harbor, the popcorn-fragrant movie theater behind us a distant memory.

At least we didn’t have to dive for fish; there was plenty of red lentil soup and Texas toast awaiting us at home on Chapman Avenue.

Margaret Maes died a few months ago, at the poignantly youngish age of 57. It was a fast-working cancer. One of her quirks was a mad urge to hug seagulls, about as likely to happen as canoodling with cuttlefish. But still, I always think of Margaret when I watch a seagull alight on the sand where a hug would be conceivable, though still improbable. And if I ever have the great honor of standing beside an emperor penguin, surely memories of Margaret will be rife.

Here’s to all good friends who deign to spend a weekend with us in the winter, knowing there’s stuff to do here, if you’re willing to walk along a blustery shore. And yes, the Island Theater stands ready to be demolished, but we’ve got the renovated Strand. Do you think …?