It was sometime in the 1980s, and the three of us were tight as a fist. Eddie’s call came at 4:00 on a Saturday morning. Not wanting to wake his wife, he whispered: “Great storm at sea last night. Want to check the beach?” I knew he had called Ray already. Eddie’s internal clock told him practically every day of his adult life not to miss anything the dawn brought along behind it.
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.”
Once before, after a storm out on the Atlantic, we had found a dozen quahogs on the mile of curving beach along the causeway linking islanded and insular Nahant to the city of Lynn. We picked them off the sands with an assortment of sea clams. For years we had swum at Nahant Beach, celebrated with evening cookouts, and watched the girls on long summer days.
This morning was special. A summer chill nipped the air, saying, as ever, that Saturdays are full of expectations — all you have to do is keep your eyes on the faintest line of the horizon.
We did not bring baskets or bags — that would have called for too much organization — but hurried to view the scene, not to be left out of the treasure the storm and Father Atlantic might have tossed onto the beach. On the way, in Ray’s old green Studebaker that smoked and made strange noises, we talked about the quahogs we might find, how we might grind them up and bake and stuff them for munching during TV hockey games or for freezing for Thanksgiving stuffing. Some would be earmarked for a corn and lobster clambake classic in one yard or another, with large copper pots loaded with seaweed sitting atop several joined camp stoves.
On our five-mile ride to Nahant there was little traffic, the sun just revealing itself over the horizon, all of Europe halfway through its day.
We hit the beach and were stunned: In front of us was the mother lode. As far as we could see, along the strand stretching away from us in a long curve, the beach was littered with quahogs and sea clams, all sizes, tossed like stars, fragments of an inordinate explosion.
In joy and surprise we screamed at each other for not bringing baskets or plastic bags to carry off the loot. The forgotten taste of baked stuffed quahogs came back in a hurry. Tabasco sauce, a glass of wine or beer, a kiss from the wild Atlantic. Wives would bustle, demanding condiments as varied as kitchen wallpaper, tastes born of appetite, experience, aromas brought back from mothers no longer with us.
In the trunk of the car, scrambling for anything to carry them in, we found an old pair of wading boots and two old work jackets. We rushed up and down the beach, filling all the empty limbs, lugging the brimming boots and jackets back to the car. We filled the trunk and then the back seat. It was exhausting work, running back and forth, bracing to see the hungry crowd come over the horizon to get their share.
The mind drifted to the lobsters, clams, shrimp, and catch of the day stuffed and baked, broiled in the backyard over an open fire and matched with August treasures from our gardens.
But in the second wake-up call of the morning, along the paved walk of the strand, on an old-fashioned skinny-tire bicycle going slowly, came an elderly gent, studying the beach. He wore a shirt and tie and a blazer — on a Saturday. His shoes shined like a car bumper just out of the wash. Clean, creased, neat as rows of peas in the garden, he appeared as if he were ready to perform a ceremony or judge a criminal case. He was thin and wiry but not squirrelly. Something told me this straight-standing man was on the same hunt that we were, but likely it was more of a mission, a command he had accepted. The neatness came by long habit.
We asked him if this was his regular morning constitutional, from insular Nahant, 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. He told us that his wife, Mirabel, was sitting at home, waiting. They’d been married almost 60 years and she’d sent him out to see if he could find a couple of quahogs she could stuff and bake that night. “She knows her weather patterns,” the man said. “The tide climbing and leaving the rocks of Nahant, what happens out at sea she can read sitting back here in a house she’s lived in for more than 60 — I’m not sure how many — years.” If successful in his search, he told us, Mirabel would pull, like magic out of her hat, a nice bottle of wine from someplace in the house, and they’d have themselves a grand evening. Rich salt air, a little wine, music from a favorite old opera, and baked stuffed quahogs. Lip-smacking was in order. “It can’t get any better than that.” He smiled that soft smile again. He was not out to beat anybody.
The old man, we believed at that moment between the tides and forever after, had found nirvana and utopia.
Ray, quick to share 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.
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.
Tom Sheehan is in his 95th year and is the author of 53 or 54 books. He lives in Saugus.