By: Ed Nichols
I left my motel and walked up the beach, turned in front of the pier and walked over three blocks to Al’s Café. It was going to be a fine day. A few cottony clouds moved out of the way as the sun brightened. It would be hotter in the afternoon. I ordered two eggs over light with a sausage patty, grits and toast. After eating, I slipped off the stool and went outside for a paper. People were already about on the sidewalk and in the parking lot—hats and sunglasses on, toting beach chairs and coolers, headed for the beach. A fun day planned. Back inside, I drank more coffee and read the St. Petersburg Times.
“Anything in that,” Al asked, motioning to the paper.
“Not much,” I said.
And he was right, nothing much of interest. I noticed several typos, and of course sentences too long. No one is teaching reporters the power of short sentences anymore. There were a couple of items in the paper that could be converted into a short story. Perhaps, perhaps not. Later, back in my room, I wrote hard for four hours. Polished one short story and rough drafted a new one.
Then I went for a walk on the beach. Today I felt like something good had been accomplished. Although I knew it could easily be an illusion. Today’s hard writing might have been in vain—something that tomorrow, or next week, I might delete from my computer.
I slowed as I noticed a woman standing, angle-deep in the edge of the ocean. She was just staring toward the horizon. Not moving. I stopped and watched her for a moment. I figured she might turn and look at me, but she didn’t. She just kept staring, as if she was watching someone way out in the water, or a looking for a boat. But there was no one there, and no boat. Small waves lapped against her legs. The water was very clear and she was very pretty. My age or a little older. Continuing to glance at her, I walked slowly toward the pier.
The pier was beginning to get crowded: people fishing, tourists bumping into each other, pointing at the hotels and condominiums up and down the beach. Pointing at the occasional boat leaving Clearwater Harbor. I found an empty bench and sat so I could see over the railing and watch the woman standing in the water. She had moved very little since I first noticed her. Maybe this is her way of relaxing. Meditating. A psychological thing—like walking on the beach was for me. I had been living at the motel for two weeks. I walked the beach several times each day, yet this was the first time I had seen her. Maybe this was her first day here, or maybe I had just not noticed her before. It doesn’t matter. For some reason though, I couldn’t stop watching her. Even from this distance, she looked as still as a stature. Suddenly she began to walk slowly into deeper water. I stood up and leaned on the pier railing with both arms and stared. How far out was she going to walk? She stopped when the water reached her waist. She held her arms straight out. She hardly moved, even when the waves splashed against her and soaked the flowery cover-up she was wearing over her bathing suit. She stood for a long time. Occasionally shifting her weight and moving a few steps sideways. Keeping her feet from sinking in the sand, I thought.
The sun was higher and I was ready for something to drink. I stopped watching the
woman, glanced to the people walking on the pier, and decided to leave. Enough of the strange woman, I decided.
Walking down the pier steps, I looked to my right and saw that she was walking toward me. I figured she was now going for a walk on the pier. Curious, I waited until she was closer before I turned away. She was only a few steps from me when she stopped and said, “Hello.”
I thought she must be talking to someone else, but when I turned around she was staring at me, smiling. I smiled back and said, “Hello.”
“I saw you watching me in the water,” she told me in a smooth, southern voice.
“You were just…I don’t know. At first, I thought you might be distraught, or something was wrong. But, then—”
“It’s okay. I didn’t mind.” She laughed. “I was going through a little ritual. I do it every time I come to the beach.”
“Sort of. And distraught was not far off either. Clearing my mind of things, things I no longer want to remember.”
“Letting the ocean wipe them away.”
“Absolutely,” she said.
She was very pretty and her eyes were the color of the water. And she had a familiar
look. A way of holding her head, and the way her lips parted when she smiled. She reminded me very much of someone I might have met or known.
“You’re not from here, right?” I asked.
She laughed again. “No.”
“The pure southern accent sounds like middle Georgia, maybe South Carolina.”
She reached and touched my arm. “My word, you’re pretty good. I was born and raised in Greenville.”
“Of course. There’s not a Greenville, Georgia is there.”
“There is.” I paused a moment. I pointed up the beach to a small building. “Would you like to join me and have a cold beverage at that beachside bar?”
“I would, indeed. I am really thirsty,” she said.
We selected a table near an open window so we could see across the white sand to the Gulf. In the distance, several sailboats moved steadily up and down the coast. I ordered draft beer and she wanted a glass of water, then a rum and Coke. I told her I was sorry I had stared at her. She smiled and said, “It’s okay. It’s funny,” she added, “no one else stopped, or stared.”
I laughed. “I guess it didn’t seem strange to anyone else.”
“Yea. Right,” she said smiling. That’s when I noticed the small wrinkles around her eyes, crow’s feet. Her face gave me an impression of wisdom, and perhaps hardship, too. Every time she smiled, her eyes sparkled and the wrinkles deepened.
There was a ceiling fan above us, and we were very comfortable. For a while, I thought she might leave after she finished her drink. Go back to the beach, or wherever she came from. But she didn’t. We talked for two hours. I told her my name and that I was a writer from
Atlanta. That I had given up a nice job with a big corporation, six months ago. “The company
that made half of the liquid in your glass,” I told her smiling, without any regret in my voice.
She told me her name was Clarice Meadows, and that she was considering moving to Florida. Maybe here. Or maybe Key West. She thought she might visit there, soon. And, she might go back to teaching. Our talk was easy and we were relaxed with each other. We had been to similar places in Atlanta. But it was obvious we did not know any of the same people. I told her about my failed marriage. She told me about her abusive ex-husband. Neither of us had children. She was the Godmother to her best friend’s two children in Greenville. But she hadn’t seen them in awhile. We watched the sailboats and sat in silence.
I debated a minute before asking, “Would you like to go fishing tomorrow?”
She laughed. “Are you serious?”
“Oh, yea. Have you fished much?”
“All the time, when I was growing up.” She pointed toward the Gulf. “Never in the ocean, though. My dad used to take me. Different lakes in South Carolina.”
“Sea trout fishing is good around here, I’ve heard. And there are several guides at the Clearwater Harbor Marina.”
“Let me go back to my room and check my social calendar first,” she said, smiling. “I’m kidding. It sounds like fun. Let’s do it.”
Later that afternoon, we walked over to the marina, and I hired a fishing guide. I liked him right off, and he had a good boat. Twenty-four foot, with a small galley below deck. It was immaculate and his rods and reels were shiny with no rust. Once, several years back, I had hired a guide in Brunswick, Georgia. His boat had been dirty, rods and reels in bad shape, and the fishing trip was not very successful and not much fun. I had sworn that in the future I would pay more attention if I ever hired another fishing guide. We walked back to the beach. I pointed to the motel where I was staying. She pointed further down the beach to the tall condominium where she was staying. I walked her to her condo, and then walked back to my room.
The next morning was a little overcast when we met at the marina. Our guide, Captain
Jim gave us a quick look around his boat, explained where we were going, hoping to find trout and maybe redfish. After leaving the harbor, we headed straight out for a mile or so, and then turned north. We passed Honeymoon Island and went a little further. He cut the motor and put out the anchor just off Anclote Key, near the mouth of the Anclote River. Captain Jim helped us get set up on opposite sides of the boat. While we fished, he told us about the river and the history of Tarpon Springs, which sits inland on the river. “The sponge capital of the world,” he said.
Clarice caught her limit before I did. We both had our limit by noon. I teased Captain
Jim for helping her catch her limit first. He provided us with sandwiches, fruit, and bottled water for lunch, and then we headed back to the harbor. Captain Jim and I filleted the fish at the dock and then we walked over to his friend’s small restaurant and went in the back door to the kitchen and handed the fillets to the cook. That night the restaurant cooked our trout. We invited Captain Jim to join us, but he declined. We ate several fillets, some baked and some fried, and drank a good bottle of wine. We walked on the beach and then sat for a while on the same bench I had sat on the day before when I watched her. Then we walked to her condo. We talked and I kissed her on the cheek, and then I walked back to my room
The next day we had breakfast at Al’s Café and walked north on the beach until we reached Caladesi Island. Walking back, she put her arm around mine, and I felt her body. I caught the smell of her clean hair, and the thought—perhaps hope—raced across my mind: I want to know this woman. We spent the day on the beach and the pier, and in the beach bar. That night, walking to her condo she seemed to be lost in thought. Several times we stopped, and watched the boat lights on the horizon. Our last conversation that night ended with her telling me, “My grandmother told me once, ‘A broken arm will heal, but a broken heart will not.’ What do you think?” she asked. I told her that her grandmother might be right. That I didn’t know. She smiled and told me that she wanted to sleep late. We promised to meet for lunch. That was the last time I saw her. The next morning, the motel manger brought a letter to my room. I sat on the bed and opened the envelope.
I am leaving this morning. Being with you this week has been special.
When we first met, I felt like you were there on the beach just for me.
I don’t know where, or when, I’ll land. You have given me hope.
Take care. And keep writing.
Each day, after writing hard, I walk up the beach with my chair. I sit near where Clarice stood that first day in the ankle-deep water. Some days, I read. Other days, I just stare out to the ocean. Mostly though, I watch people walking up and down the beach.
Ed Nichols lives outside Clarkesville, Georgia. He is a journalism graduate from the University of Georgia. He is a short story award winner from Southeastern Writer’s Association. Ed’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Every Writer’s Resource, Fiction On The Web, Short-Stories.me, Vending Machine Press, Floyd County Moonshine Magazine,Beorh Quarterly, Belle Reve Literary Journal, Work Literary Magazine,Drunk Monkeys, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, The Literary Yard, Decades Review, Swamp Lily Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Literary Orphans Journal, Front Porch Review, Chiron Review, Snapping Twig, Deep South Magazine, and The Literary Hatchet.