Three of us for dozens of years were tight as a fist. No one could break us up, and a few had tried that on a few futile occasions, even when we gentlemen were fly fishing on one or more of the local streams, dawn afloat, May alive after a harsh winter and a tough early spring. Patterns were set betwixt us, like specialties of the house or garage or personal workshop, toil and turn at obstacles and unfinished tasks were before us who by each one’s choice in life’s work had brought the gifts of ideas and applicable and talented hands to extend those gifts. For each one of us possessed odd and different talents in electrical, mechanical and brute strength applications and peculiar other interests like coin and stamp collecting, scrap book organization and minimal, but touching artwork by a loving touch, family interest passed down from a parent or an older sibling.
But the sea, above all things on the face of the earth, called us as if we belonged to it … dipped, doused, and blessed in it and by it by fathers that we assumed had been so dipped, doused and blessed, kind of a chain of command, dare, do and get done.
Eddie’s call came at 4:00 in the morning. His whisper, not wanting to wake his wife, said “Great storm at sea last night. Want to check the beach?” There was a stretch in his voice, a need seeking its own echo, a call for companionship … even if there were no payback. I could picture him silent in his domain, five boys still asleep, his rugged little frame moving soft as a shadow, not a speck of alarm about his person.
An awakening grace also said it was Saturday.
That’s all it took in the darkness beside my wife, turning, stretching, eyes blinking, rolling over, going back to sleep. She knew it was Saturday too, her children sleeping as well.
Once before, after a storm out on the Atlantic, we had found a dozen quahogs at Nahant Beach, picked them off the sands with an assortment of sea clams on the mile of curving beach along the causeway linking islanded and insular Nahant to the City of Lynn. For years we had swum at Nahant Beach, had evening cookouts, and watched the girls for long, hot summers measuring how their beach wear changed with the years … sometimes within a week of mutual attractions. The beaches and the rivers had their own calls.
In silence, in darkness until I reached the kitchen, I left a note for my wife: “Storm at sea last night. Will be at Nahant looking for quahogs to stuff and bake. Eddie called. Ray and I are going.”
The morning was special. A summer nip climbed in the air, saying, as ever, that Saturdays are full of expectations. Salt was finding its way inland. Some of it, we knew, was imagined, manufactured by similar minds and hungers, but salt has a reasoning power that seems to say, “Why not?”
We did not bring baskets or bags, but hurried to view the scene, not to be left out of the treasure yield the storm and Father Atlantic might have tossed onto the beach. Each of us possessed his own picture of the find, the magnitude or the false call of a storm falling short of an entire beach. On the way, in Ray’s car, an old green Studebaker that smoked and made strange noises, we talked about grinding them up for baked stuffed quahogs for munching during TV hockey games, or for freezing them, after being ground up, to use in Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. Some would be earmarked for adding to the menu of a corn and lobster clambake classic in one yard or another, and a large copper pot loaded with seaweed sitting atop two camp stoves … in some selective site we had not yet discovered. Romance comes in many forms, like expectation, delivery, consumption.
There was no traffic in our five mile ride to Nahant, the sun just burping over the horizon, Europe halfway through its day, hastening, beckoning, saying goodnight sooner than later. And we were beach-bound. We would meet Europe and the Atlantic, and whatever they would bring our way, in a long curve of sandy land.
We hit the beach, as we drove onto the causeway, and were stunned. There in front of us was the mother lode. As far as we could see, along the strand, the beach was littered with quahogs and sea clams, all sizes, all thicknesses, spread out as vast as spilled riches from a kingly chest. In joy and surprise we screamed at each other for not bringing baskets or plastic bags to carry off the loot. Hunger tantrums made way on us; famous past meals in the mix, coming gatherings with a collection of friends not fazed by our riches, but admittedly jealous of the find. The forgotten taste of baked stuffed quahogs in one of our back yards came back in a hurry, the flames low and unhurried, the tastes higher than the hog’s. Tabasco sauce, a glass of wine or a glass of beer, a kiss from the wild Atlantic was a kiss from a cook parading about like a chef at a gala seldom reached.
Scrambling for anything to carry Atlantic’s loot back to the trunk of the car, we found an old pair of wading boots and two old work jackets. We rushed up and down the beach, filling all the limbs of those boots and the jackets, lugging them to the car. We filled the trunk and then the back seat. It was exhausting work, running back and fro, waiting for the hungry crowd to come over the horizon, to get their share, as if Europe itself had salted the sea for us, fed the long journeys for our treat.
We thought the morning was as complete as it ever could be, the three of us, Pine River fisherman, trout fisherman, who were mesmerized by sea food … cod, tuna, haddock, lobster, clams, shrimp, sea clams, quahogs, the catch of the day.
But, in another wake-up call, another step in this grand day, another surprise beyond surprise, along the paved walk of the strand, on an old-fashioned skinny-tire bicycle, going slow, studying the beach, came an elderly gent. To say he wore a shirt and tie, on a Saturday, and a blazer, would say little, for he came to us as if he was actually scripted for us out of an old Adolph Menjou movie, or a Fred Astaire dance special. He sat regally, properly, thin and upright on the seat, seams in his trousers as though but minutes before those seams had been pressed by a steam iron into implacable place. His shoes shined like new pennies. On the bottoms of those pant legs, the cuffs folded as neat as table napkins for the royal meal, a pair of old fashioned pants clips were carefully set in place as if measured for the fit. Something told me, in an unknown voice, magisterially, soft but magnetically, that he was on the same hunt we were on, but a whole lot neater by long habit. We asked him if this was his regular morning constitutional, from insular Nahant back behind him for a mere mile, to pedal the causeway out and back, to keep fit what was an 80 year old body, at least.
“Not really,” he said with a soft smile, a gentleman speaking. “My wife, Mirabel, we’ve been married almost 60 years, sent me out to see if I could find two or three quahogs she could stuff and bake tonight, in the late evening most likely. Oh, she had a light in her eyes, she did, a proper light, and I know she’d find a nice bottle of wine secreted some place in the house, and we’d have ourselves a grand evening. Rich salt air, a little wine, music from a favorite old opera right from The Met or from La Scala itself, and baked stuffed quahogs. It can’t get any better than that.” He shook his head very lightly, and added, “It mustn’t.” He smiled the soft smile again. He was not out to beat anybody in any part of this small world.
The old man, we believed forever after, had found Nirvana and Utopia.
Ray, quick to spread his wealth, opened the trunk of the car. Quahogs, like huge coins, spilled onto the pavement. We filled the little basket sitting across the handlebars of the old gent’s bike. A dozen quahogs, loaded with promise, sat like the riches of the Orient.
The air was special. Saturday was special.
Eddie said, “Do you want us to follow you home and make a special delivery, a big delivery.”
“Oh, dear, no,” the old gent said. “That would only spoil it.”
To a man we knew what he meant.
We never saw him again.
We never saw the beach littered like that again.
We never made that trip again, time having its way, and mortality.
But I think about it often, and all the players on that special Saturday.
Banner Image: By NOAA Restoration Center, Tom and Louise Kane. (NOAA Photo Library: r0021111) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons