Cape May autumn

Cozy Morley’s Way to Cape May is bursting with shades of orange, red and gold this time of year. On a weekday, as you would expect, the traffic is as thin as the frosty air. The seashore after the summer is hauntingly beautiful, and touched by the sadness that visits an empty ballpark after the crowd has left.

The Victorian town seems more at ease with the quiet than some of the other hurly-burly seashore towns in the off-season. The picturesque quality of Cape May gives it a life the others don’t have in the fall. On a Thursday, a good number of shops are open, as are a fair number of good restaurants. But on this windy and unseasonably cold day, Cape May has already put on its winter persona.

The sky is the color of slate and the cold wind has kicked up sand that gathers in small piles on the boardwalk and adjacent avenue. That’s when you see them. Not many of them, because it is too cold on this October day. Their morning walk is hurried. Older couples. Not the young, lithesome 20-somethings who populate the seashore in summer. Huddled together. Sweatsuits mostly on this blustery day. Hair blown about by the wind.

In the Mad Batter, the eggs and slab bacon fit nicely with the fall morning. The hot coffee is mostly decaf, for delicate nervous systems. The pace is slower. You ignore the too-intense waitress who hovers nearby asking every five minutes if you are finished eating so that she can clear the plates. She seems not to remember that this is autumn and not mid-July, when hordes of people wait in line for a table. She will have to be patient. Time has slowed and the older patrons have taken up patience as a lifestyle.

And on Oct. 23, 2003, Cape May belongs to them.

It is too cold to sit on the benches in the main square for shopping, so the couples enter the shops together, the men trying to feign interest in the potpourri and candles while the women browse. One saleswoman tries to interest a shopper in sinus beads to treat her headaches. When the merchant sees she won’t be making a sale, she puts some of the yellow-colored beads in a tiny cloth sack and gives them to the shopper as a sample. "You’ll be calling me for more," she says, almost as if she really believes it. The shopper hands the tiny sack of beads around to her husband and their friends, and each takes a whiff of eucalyptus and lemongrass.

The stately Virginia Hotel is the evening’s destination. The Ebbitt Room is reasonably busy for a cold weeknight in October. They dine on fennel-dusted scallops and beef tenderloin and sea bass. The desserts are moist chunks of green-apple cake in a pool of cinnamon-flavored custard. The room is a romantic glow, and off in the nearby lounge, you can hear the faint sounds of a tinkling piano.

After dinner, you can sit in cushiony chairs before the fireplace and listen to the lush piano of Steve La Manna play everything from Van Morrison’s Moondance to the theme from An Affair to Remember. The fire slowly dies to embers as the night ends.

The next morning is the clear day where you really can see forever. The Atlantic Ocean shimmers and glistens like glass. And you see the couples again, walking together with exaggerated good-exercise form. Fists clenched. Arms swinging. Sweatpants and sneakered feet. Ageless lovers on the shore. Together as maybe they never were in their youth, when there were so many demands on their time.

They stride the boardwalks and the beaches in the Cape May autumn in what is, after all, the autumn of their own lives. Feeling the preciousness of one another at this moment in time. Not the kind of lovers they put on postcards, unless sent to you by the AARP. Yet a sign that some love survives the infirmities of age — that love can even survive the cynicism of our times.

Cape May autumn. When you almost believe that you can defeat time.