Seeking Out Old Ben Bow
I had an evening to kill. Things in The Village weren’t likely to heat up for a while, given that most of the Villagers pretty much keep vampire hours. And things in The Town had long since buttoned down, with people getting ready for evenings of fish boiled and consumed, teeth brushed, prayers offered, and flannel nighties donned for the impending 8.5-hour trip through Slumberland. “Early to bed and early to rise, and you’ll fish for cod ’neath sunny skies,” they all say. Actually, they don’t — but they could.
So after enjoying my dinner of once-frozen, prefab chicken nuggets roasted on a stick over an open fire that doubled as a source of cooking heat and a funeral pyre for mosquito carcasses, I threatened the Island Car to life and headed off to look for the infamous Ben Bow.
Ben is the old guy that people in The Town mention every now and then. As near as I can tell, he is exactly what I am most afraid of — the human embodiment of a life spent and withered with nothing to show for it. He’s ancient, empty, and alone, and it took every wisp of my journalistic courage to go in search of him. Somewhere in my mind was the thought that if I looked at him, he would somehow steal my young, robust life and trap me in his dusty, expired one. But another voice in my head said that I might lessen my fear by facing this horrific example of it.
The townsfolk told me that Ben lives by himself in a small house overlooking the ocean to the north of The Town. They said that his house used to overlook The Town itself, but that one day, after his wife died, he was so consumed by grief and so dismayed at the sight of people going about their normal lives — buying groceries and taking walks and puttering around their fishing boats — that his house just up and turned its back on Grand Seal Island, choosing to gaze at the bleak and unforgiving sea. I drove north for just a minute, and ahead I could see a small, simple house with its back to The Town and its porch overlooking the endless, rolling mockery of the waves. It had to be Ben’s place.
I parked my car amidst the weeds and grasses that were engulfing the strip that must once have been his driveway, and I called out to see if anyone was home.
No surprise. I wasn’t expecting some cheery, silver-haired chap in a jaunty beret to fling open the door and usher me in for sherry and pound cake. From what I’d heard about Ben Bow, he was probably the gloomiest eccentric on the Eastern Seaboard.
I hollered again, and again I was answered by the crying of the seagulls and the pounding of the surf. I figured that Ben had gone off on a beach walk or something, so I decided to tramp around to the porch and sit there for a while. Like I said, part of me was determined to face my future fears.
The sun was sagging toward the horizon, but the summer sky stays bright over Grand Seal Island until well after 9 o’clock. The porch was enmeshed in black plastic mosquito screening that had been tacked up with a staple gun, and it was obvious that the guy who did the job was short, in serious need of a solid stepladder, half-blind, and susceptible to frequent bouts of vertigo. The black mesh buckled and draped like a dented fender, and the mosquitoes and black flies buzzed in holding patterns outside the enormous gaps, waiting for air-traffic control to signal their turn to head in.
The screen door hung at an arthritic angle from its frame. I pulled it open and stepped onto the porch.
Even though the porch was entirely surrounded in screening, without a single solid wall on three sides, the air smelled faintly of urine and phlegm. The odor, stale even in the salt breeze that strained through the black mesh, carried undertones of talc and that blue liquid that old-timey barbers dunk their combs in. It was obvious I had found the right place. I shuddered and took a few more steps inside.
The overhanging roof and the black screening made the porch dark, and I blinked a few times as my eyes tried to cope with the sudden loss of the sunshine outside. I gradually focused on an old glider — the kind of porch swing that slides back and forth on tubular metal runners — and I sat down. I pushed and pulled with my feet, sliding back and forth in a straight horizontal line. It was like riding a drawer. I figured that Ben would totter back eventually.
I was right about Ben’s impending presence, but I was wrong on the timing. As my eyes continued to adjust to the gloom on the porch, the dreary grey gave way to muted light. And I could see Ben Bow sitting on a lawn chair not six feet away from me.
He lets his age show, in these days since cancer dragged his wife from his side and left him alone on Grand Seal Island. As he sat there, silent, on the porch, undisturbed by the barging in of some ambitious mainland reporter with a canvas shirt and a pair of gaudy Tevas, he seemed content to let dust settle on his shoulders and the evening stretch slowly past his eyes. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, the old-man stubble on his chin coarse and grey. He wore a button-down business shirt, dingy white cotton, with a brown cardigan sweater buttoned up over it. His slacks were grey, his socks white, his shoes scuffed in places but otherwise shiny black. The dim light held back detail, but I was sure he had hair growing out of his gnarled ears and a slight bit of glisten at the end of his bulbous nose.
He turned slowly to look at me, as though I were some keepsake that he remembered just then that he owned. He leaned forward and reached with great effort toward a plastic coffee table next to his chair. He picked up a small cardboard box, his shaking hands rattling the contents like maracas.
He extended the box toward me.
“Cookie?” he asked in a quiet voice that hovered just above a whisper. I stared in horror.
Sometimes, the miracle of walking through walls requires little more than a simple gesture. I was pretty sure that grief-induced dementia wasn’t contagious through the sharing of lemon crèmes, though, so I took a cookie from the box. From the brittle texture and near-total absence of any identifiable flavor — it certainly didn’t give the impression of lemon or cream — I guessed that the box of cookies was probably a memento from his wedding day.
I ate it anyway.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Edith5545: I know just how he feels. I’m a widow, and after my Avery died, I didn’t want to talk with anyone. People stopped by at first, but the visits grew less frequent over time. Now people don’t stop by at all. That’s why I bought this computer, so I could keep in touch with the world. I can’t drive, so this computer and my television are my only real contacts with other people. I know just how he feels.
Comment — Anaconda6645: Because he offered you the cookies, you can file a claim against him if you get sick. The law is clear on this.
Comment — George Reynolds: I remember old Ben Bow. He was ancient when I left the island several years ago. It is a shame about his wife, though. She was strange but always lively and fun.
Comment — Gemstone: Godspeed, Ben.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.