This is a story I had started for last Thursday, but wasn't quite ready then. I'm not sure it's ready now either, but it's a hell of a lot better than it was last week, so here it is. It was inspired by my having to return to work after three weeks off, enjoying time with my family and lots of early summer fun.
The ship had returned in the middle of the night with none of their families there to greet them. A midnight arrival was not uncommon, but a full week ahead of schedule was about as unusual as it got. The fishing had gone well this season and their hull filled faster than any voyage a single crewmember could recall.
As he had made his way on foot through the sloping streets, away from the Oceanside, the town grew steadily quieter. He turned the corner and the Gustaffsons’ house stood between him and the bright lights of the dock. For a second he found it possible to forget that he was in a harbor town whose population relied so heavily on the work he had just been doing for the past month. Right then, it looked like any other sleepy little village.
He smiled before continuing down the middle of the street, a practice he enjoyed upon late night returns. He felt like it was a special privilege, one of the few that his career afforded him. It made him feel for a short time like the most important man in town, the type of man who could walk where he pleased when he pleased.
While he enjoyed such moments when they came, fame and stature were not a priority in his life. Had that been the case, he would have tried hard to own a storefront there on the streets that lined the shore. He would have focused like the mayor on catering to tourists and participating in festivals. His feet would have stayed on land. Instead, he left for months at a time and tried to make a better life for his family, for his children. That was what mattered most to him. He didn’t want to see the place where he had been raised, the place where his children were born, become desolate and barren like so many of the once thriving harbor towns they passed each time they set sail.
Soon, he saw the light flickering in the window of his home. Walking up hill, fifty-pound bag over his shoulder, he quickened his pace. He walked up the steps to his own front door and took note of the large pile of melted wax on the windowsill. There was a wick at its top that stuck out from a barely noticeable stump of a candle. It was the remnants of thirty days worth of candles his wife had kept burning while he was away.
The first thing he would do in the morning would be to scrape the lumpy mound of wax from the sill, to remove the reminder of how long he had been away, how much time he had missed. But at that moment sleep called to him.
He licked his thumb and index finger and pinched out the flame. Then he showered as quickly and quietly as possible before climbing into bed beside his wife. She didn’t awaken but welcomed his arm around her in the midst of sleep. It was as if he had been next to her the whole time and had simply rolled the other way for a while. He fell asleep almost instantly to the smell of her hair, a welcome scent after smelling little more than fish for the past four weeks.
When he woke, it was to his wife holding his face in her hands and smiling. She had tolerated his schedule for many years so he was mildly surprised to see tears in her eyes. He put it down to the shock of his early return and before a word could be spoken between them, the rushing footsteps came down the hall and burst into their room.
The children had noticed his bag on the floor of the living room where he had dropped it in a heap. As the four of them bounded one by one onto him, his wife wiped her eyes quickly and began jumping on the bed with them.
Shortly, the smell of bacon and coffee filled the house and the three youngest children, all daughters, sat at the kitchen table almost perfectly still. Each head was turned toward the stove where his wife and oldest child, his only son, helped prepare breakfast. The breakfast of bacon and waffles with their choice of topping had become the traditional way they welcomed him home.
While they all waited excitedly for their plateful, their father took a paint scraper to the wax at the window. By the time it was his turn to carry an empty plate to the kitchen to receive his waffle, the mound was gone and he had swept the flakes of wax from the floor. It was as if it had never been there, as if he had never been missing.
The rest of the day saw baseball with his son and reading books to his daughters, letting the oldest of the three girls read a book to him. It was a perfect first day back on land.
That night, once the children were all in bed, they stayed awake until the sunrise, talking, catching up on all that had happened. Sometimes he even thought it was more enjoyable to hear it told in his wife’s voice than to have experienced it himself. He loved watching the emotion and the light in her eyes as she spoke of things she was particularly happy about.
How he missed her whenever he was away. Some women could never handle the schedules of their fisherman husbands. Just as the neighboring towns along the coast that had fallen into disrepair, they had watched many marriages struggle and sometimes collapse.
For sure they had had their share of troubles. When money gets tight, everyone argues. But their biggest fights came when he tried to pretend he hadn’t been gone. It made her feel insignificant. He had learned over time that they couldn’t pretend their lives were more normal than they were. He became better at acknowledging all that she had done in his absence and she had developed a way of bringing him up to speed without guilt.
In the meantime, they lived like thirteen year olds at their first sleepover. They stayed awake talking each night as long as they could. When the youngest of the girls came into their room, they didn’t bother trying to return her to her own bed. If one of the kids even mentioned wanting to try something new they did their best to make it happen. If there was a carnival within driving distance, they went to it. Every meal had dessert.
One day, while out shopping, his wife silently picked up a new box of candles from the bottom shelf. It was while he was talking with their son about something he wanted and if he hadn’t been trying to sneak a peak of her bending down to get the box in those jeans that fit her just right, he wouldn’t even have noticed that she had done it. But after she dropped it into the cart, she glanced up and noticed he was staring right at her. She dropped her eyes in obvious disappointment that her stealth hadn’t worked. She didn’t want to remind him of how difficult it was when he was gone right then, but having the candles in the window was important to her. It served as a constant reminder that he would be back eventually and that she burned inside for him until that day.
With her eyes down, she hadn’t noticed how quickly he moved to her side. Suddenly, his arm was around her waist, pulling her close to him. With his other hand at the small of her back, he kissed her, bending her backwards slightly in his enthusiasm. “Gross,” their kids agreed and they continued shopping, his wife’s cheek’s flushed red. They held hands until it was time to enter the check out line.
Knowing he would have to leave again added a sense of urgency to their lives. Each day was lived to its fullest, no feeling kept inside. When they were together there was no time for hang-ups. No day could be wasted. He brought her flowers and massaged her feet. She cooked him his favorite dinners and left him love notes. Anything that could be done together was.
He was truly home. Some of his crewmembers couldn’t wait to get back to the ocean. They relaxed and fattened themselves up on land, but the sea called to them. It was who they really were. It was the opposite for him. He was a husband and a father who happened to be a fisherman by trade. His natural state involved his family. That’s where he would choose to be.
Sooner than it seemed it should the day came for him to leave. His girls threw their arms around him, called him daddy and cried. His son kept a brave face but kissed his cheek and said, “I love you, dad.” In the early morning hours, a more passionate goodbye had been shared between he and his wife. Now, in front of the children, she kissed him and said, “See you soon.” Then she went straight to the window, placed a new candle on the sill and lit it.
As he stepped out of the front door and into the street he watched a single bead of wax slide downward. He knew the symbol was important to his wife and would never deny her its comfort. But he was more than the pile of wax that built in his absence. He was her husband. He was the father of their children. He was the one who cleaned off the windowsill when he came home and made everything better.He walked down the street and turned to wave to them on the porch again before he disappeared out of sight behind the Gustaffson’s house at the corner. He already looked forward to returning home soon.