A Little Book of Holiday Comfort
To say that Benjamin Webster had been unaffected by the great accident that had happened in his city would be a lie. Like so many others he found himself walking the concrete canyons like a ghost afterwards, as if the ashen dust would never be fully able to go away. His whole life had been spent there nurturing other people’s finances until it had all come to a dead halt.
Can one day change a person’s whole life?
A day came when Benjamin longed for the sea air he had known in childhood. That was the day he looked down at his fancy leather briefcase and decided to leave the system he had known since college. He looked at his fancy leather chair, and his fancy glass topped desk, and the fancy wet bar in his office and his fancy secretary Jane, and he said, “Jane, book me a house down in Nag’s Head will you?”
“Certainly,” she replied.
“I need a month away from here.”
“Have you ever been there before?”
“Once when I was a very little boy.”
He leaned back in his chair and already he could feel the burden lifting. The city had torn his heart to pieces over the landscape of his life. What he had in mind was a fishing pole. Thoughts of the day his father had taught him to fish off an old pier embraced themselves in his mind. That quizzical look Jane had thrown at him made him smile. Dad I miss you so much, he thought.
“There is nothing for you to do down there, Benjamin. Are you crazy?”
“No, I feel better than I have in a long time.”
“You are a city boy, Benjamin.”
“I know Jane, just book me a house, will you?”
“Don’t you think you should at least choose where you will be staying?”
The little cottage faced the sea and stood on stilts, as many of the houses did. It braced against the winds and was weathered almost into the grey of the sky. Salt spray over cedar had burnished it silver, and aged. Old and peeling white trim greeted him at the door. It hadn’t been opened in years, maybe since 1967. He’d wanted the oldest one, for that is what he remembered. The year his father had taken him to Nags Head he had been only ten, with freckles and a crooked grin. It was on his birthday that year, and a fishing trip had been planned. Ironically, Jane had picked the very same house he’d stayed in. As if time survived by pickling things in brine.
Jane hadn’t realized she had chosen the exact house, for it was only one amid the many. She simply handed Benjamin the flyers. Her boss hadn’t been the same since he lost his fiance to the flames. Though a decade or more had passed he had buried himself in work every day. That’s all he did was work, endlessly. At night, he looked out over the city from the sterility of his glass tower like a king. But there was no queen, for she was gone. Beth had been his dream. She had been his princess. She had been the one he had picked the engagement ring for from Tiffany’s. The towers had taken her, just as they had taken so many others that day. Swallowed her whole into the sea of ash, buried her alive under the ruins. He hadn’t been able to feel anything since.
Benjamin ran his hand along the door, and up the shingles. A storm was blowing in and he could see the clouds banking off just at the horizon. He shivered a little as he opened the door. Would the ghost of his father be there to greet him?
It only took a second before he had a little fire burning in the wood stove. The old brass lamps were still there, mariner’s lamps, and he set about lighting them one by one. Dad, he thought. Remember how you gave me a sip of your hot buttered rum that year. It made me feel like such a man. We caught those Red Drums off the old pier. You said if I was old enough to catch a fish that size, why surely I was old enough for a taste of what the other fishermen were having.
Out on the dune that lay before the cottage was a little black and white speck. The rain began and the sea oats were blowing hard as they lashed against each other in the wind. From the warm confines of the cottage Benjamin watched the speck move and huddle down as it ran to a house and hid away under the foundation. It was a tiny cat. Poor little thing out in all that wind alone, he thought. You’ll be needing some cream. Many wild things lived along the shores of the Outer Banks. Benjamin had never seen a feral cat before. It was later that night at The Pelican’s Lair when he did raise a toast to his father, that the bartender told him that there were many such little cats foraging by the sea. “They live off what washes up from the waves,” he’d said. How different these were from the diamond collared felines in the city apartments in New York.
“Any use trying to feed them?”
“You can try,” the bartender laughed.
“What’s good tonight?”
“Depends what you are in the mood for.”
“Macaroni and cheese?”
“There’s a side for you, and we make the best in town.”
The bar was long and gleaming in the low light of the dusk. The little tables were starting to fill up with couples, but Benjamin didn’t mind. The chowder would be wonderful if the taste was anything like the scent of the place. Warm, was how it smelled. Warm as if it had been drenched in golden light and graced by time.
“I think I’ll try those two for tonight,” he said. “And another hot buttered rum. My father brought me here as a very young boy for my birthday once. We fished off that pier.”
“Y’all came back down here to see us then?”
“I’ve got the very cottage we stayed in once.”
“Plannin’ on catching some big ones are you?” A stranger dressed in Wellington boots and overalls had slid onto a bar stool three seats down and he joined in the conversation.
“Well Sam Weatherington how have you been,” said the bartender extending his hand. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“I know, it’s been too long, is how I feel.”
“Jessica let you take a day or two off?”
“That she did.”
“I might as well introduce you to our newest visitor,” the bartender said. “You’ll be wanting to know Sam if you plan on fishing Jenette’s anytime soon.”
Benjamin extended his hand into a hearty shake. “It’s been years since I’ve been here again.”
“Nice to meet you, Sam. I’m Benjamin.”
“Sam runs the best cafe on the Inner Banks, near to Mattamuskeet.”
Ben hadn’t seen a bowl of chowder like that in ages. It smelled as if the sea had swum freshly into the potatoes and cream. But that was only a precursor to the heaped platter full of Macaroni and cheese. It was the kind that the chef had taken great care to make.
“You call this a side?” Benjamin laughed. “This is enough for ten people.”
“That’s one of our specialties.”
“Oh, this is good,” he said.
It wasn’t long before the bowl and the plate were empty, and all that was left were the empty packets of oyster crackers he had crumbled over the top and a few saltines as well.
Benjamin Webster felt warm inside. It was the first time he had felt something take away the cold of the last years, where all the pain had been since he lost Beth. In the glow of the restaurant he’d lost himself a little. The glow in the eyes of new friends in other men. seafaring men who understood that silence that men need, even citified men, from time to time.
“I’d best go and find some cream for the little cat. Know anyplace near here?”
“There’s a little store about a half mile up the road near Milepost 22, just on up the road a way. They’ll still be open.”
“This has been a really wonderful first evening, and I thank you for it,” Ben said. “I better see about that little cat.”
“Hang on just a second.”
The bartender began to fish around in the cabinet behind him. He turned with a great flourish of a smile and said, “I thought you might like a little something sweet to finish off the day.”
It was a piece of Maple Sugar candy, the likes of which Ben had not seen in years and years. It was shaped as a real maple tree leaf is shaped, and as golden as the sands along the beaches he’d seen on the drive down. The trees had just been turning that week, and as he crossed the border into North Carolina the road had stretched before him like an endless open map that headed back to childhood and fun times that he remembered.
“My father loved this candy.”
“So did mine.”
“My grandmother had that every single year I can remember.”
“So did mine.”
“You still had it.”
“We like to keep to old traditions ’round these parts.”
Ben smiled broadly, the kind of smile you feel when all is right with the world after a good meal among friends. When you are that warm, that everything feels dipped in glow, as if gold dipped was something that applied to emotions. He was in touch with the real treasure that night. The kind of treasure that memories hold for people. It’s not a tangible thing like gold, but it is the sort of thing from which the truest gold is spun.