There is a map of the world marked by hundreds of colorful pins in Benjamin Ringer’s bedroom. He has never been to most of the locations, but his clothing has. His favorite pair of jeans was sewn by somebody in Bangladesh and inspected by “72.” His undershirts were assembled with delicate touch in Honduras. His pajamas first entered the world in Malaysia. Benjamin tracks every country his clothes have traveled from and finds out everything he can about them.
One day, those pins will be replaced by passport stamps. The words he’s read will become experiences that he can own and share with readers of his bestselling travel guides. As of now, however, Benjamin’s travels are limited to the library. It is there that he gathers any information he can about the countries his clothes come from. Eventually, his wardrobe will contain an item of clothing from every country in the world. But presently, Benjamin settles for pins on a map and goes about his daily chores.
Chores don’t really bother Benjamin. There’s a certain level of comfort in the rhythm of the dishwasher. There is no better method of drowning out distracting thoughts and noises than the hum of the vacuum. And doing the laundry is the most rewarding of all his household duties. It is when he sorts through his dirty laundry that he can take time to examine the labels and imagine the world where his clothes were created. Who placed the final stitches in his denim jacket, and what did he think of it? Is it something he would wear? When he is done working for the day, does he go home to a wife and kids?
The last question is one that Benjamin has mulled over for the past four years. Just six days after his eighth birthday, Benjamin’s father didn’t return home. This was disconcerting for many reasons, but primarily because Benjamin’s father was the most predictable and steady person he knew. He came home at the same time every day with a kiss for Benjamin’s mother, a hug for Benjamin’s younger brother Danny, and a handshake for Benjamin. His father asked the same series of questions and offered the same set of attentive eyes and ears in return.
Each day his father didn’t return, Benjamin’s mother slipped further away. She was no longer joyful or alive, cheerful or free. She was emotionless. She didn’t neglect Benjamin or Danny. Their needs were still provided for, but neither one of them had heard the sound of her laugh since their father disappeared.
Except for one day, nearly two years ago, when they were all sitting down for dinner. Benjamin’s mother suddenly burst out giggling, which startled him at first. After some effort, his mother was able to compose herself long enough to relay a story about how Benjamin’s father, who was delirious with sleep deprivation following Benjamin’s birth, once mistakenly put whipped cream on his sandwich instead of mayonnaise. The three of them chuckled together for a few minutes before the grim reality of their situation enveloped them again.
That’s part of the reason Benjamin takes comfort in his chores. They’re predictable and steady. They’re rewarding. They help him ignore how sad he is. He’s able to maintain a routine part of their lives without causing more disruption.
After his father’s disappearance, Benjamin found some solace in going through his dad’s things. His junk box full of trinkets from childhood, his work notebooks, his photographs. And his clothes. Benjamin went through every single item of clothing his father owned and inventoried them on a map. That’s how it all started. He begged his mother for a map and pins and started tracking where his father’s clothes had been, desperately hoping that he could find him.
The last time Benjamin went through his father’s things was nine months ago. That was the day the police came to notify the Ringers that the investigation into the disappearance was closed. Benjamin’s mother didn’t say anything, but she hadn’t really said anything in years. Benjamin was quiet, too. Despite the silence, Benjamin still had trouble hearing the officer when she suggested that families in these situations often find some comfort in holding a funeral service. The suggestion was not brought up again until two weeks ago when Benjamin’s grandmother, without any discussion, made plans at McCutcheon’s Funeral Home. The service was scheduled for tomorrow. Benjamin’s mother offered no protests and showed no signs of belief that her husband would return. She just remained seated at the kitchen table, allowing a slight nod of her head to affirm the plans.
Benjamin didn’t believe his father was dead. He couldn’t. His father was out there, somewhere, trying his hardest to return and Benjamin needed to help him. But Benjamin didn’t know where to start. The investigation was closed because, despite the reward, there were no leads. His father had vanished, leaving no clues behind. All Benjamin could do was cling to the hope that his father would return home, just like he always used to do.
To prepare for the funeral, Benjamin once again went through his father’s things. He wanted to find something symbolic to place in the empty casket. In his research of the various countries that manufactured his clothing, Benjamin learned about how the Egyptians would bury things alongside the dead that they would presumably need in the afterlife. Benjamin scrutinized his father’s closet in search of something that could be useful to him, dead or not. He found the token he needed in the bottom of the box that contained his father’s childhood things. A compass that his father used when he went fishing. It had always helped his father find his way back home, no matter how far he had wandered. Benjamin hoped that it would work its magic yet again.
After putting everything back in its place, Benjamin went to Danny’s room. Danny was busying himself with the construction of an extensive wooden block village. He peered up at Benjamin through twin castle spires and smiled his father’s smile. Benjamin didn’t know if Danny wasn’t aware of what tomorrow was supposed to symbolize, or if he had adopted his mother’s ability to avoid the subject. For all of the upheaval and grief the Ringers had experienced over the past four years, Danny seemed largely unaffected. He was happy, sweet, and incredibly caring. He was predictable and steady. Just like his dad.
“Hey, Danny. Let’s get your outfit ready, okay?”
Benjamin, with Danny’s approval, chose a pair of khakis and a polo shirt with red, green, and yellow horizontal stripes. Although traditional, black didn’t seem appropriate. Not to celebrate the life of somebody who might not even be dead. Not to mourn their father, who brought color to every inch of their lives. It was Benjamin’s way of showing that he wouldn’t believe his father was dead.
At 1:45 p.m., the limousine arrived to transport Benjamin, Danny, their mother, and their grandmother to the funeral home. Aside from greeting the driver, no words were exchanged. Benjamin’s mother stared out the window. His grandmother cast an occasional uneasy glance in his direction. It was 1:53 when the limousine pulled up to the building, and Benjamin found himself grateful for the short ride.
The funeral director met them on the front steps of the porch to provide a brief outline of the service. When he was finished, he offered the Ringers a moment alone with the empty casket to say their goodbyes. Benjamin thought the idea was a bit absurd. But when it was his turn, he pulled the compass from his pocket and placed it inside the casket, quietly hoping it would somehow guide his father home.
The service was standard. Reverend Allen read through the prayers and thanksgivings. He offered generic words of comfort regarding Benjamin’s father’s character. There was no eulogy, as his mother had turned down the offer to speak and nobody else was asked. After the service, friends and neighbors filed slowly past, leaving a trail of awkward condolences behind. The words “we’re sorry for your loss” were uttered frequently, which pleased Benjamin to a degree. Perhaps nobody believed his father was really dead. Perhaps they did not know what to believe.
The ride back home was similar to the ride to the service. No words were exchanged, no emotions conveyed. Everything was, in its own way, steady and predictable. Just like it had always been.