This week’s challenge was a random pop on a television website. I drew “Loss of identity”. Worked well, because I met the guy in this story on the beach one day. Actually, I found out later it was a woman but the story had solidified in my head beforehand and I never changed it. So here is my second Terribleminds flash fiction challenge, this one a story about lost identity. It’s not quite the cliche’d loss of identity storyline but it worked for me…and sorry for the word count. I went over by about 50%. Probably needed another edit but hey, it’s flash fiction, right?
I decided on the beach house before Ethel had even died and I’m ashamed of that. It’s not like I wanted her dead, though, I just understood that it was inevitable. Just like my death will be soon enough. I could see it, the life, leaving her body every day. Cancer. The Big C. She gave up. I guess I gave up on her too. But that was five years ago, and I love her still. We all want to create our own demons, just to have something to wrestle at night when we should be sleeping. In many ways, I want to feel guilty for surviving her, and enjoying what little is left of my life.
Walking the beach like I do is extending my life, I have no doubt about that. Not just physically, although the exercise can’t be bad for me. I relive my youth every day out there. I want to take you with me today. You have a one day pass to the eyesight of an 87 year old man. A man with no regrets, except time.
I’ve not set an alarm for years. One of the best things about retirement is that I get up when I damn well please. I was up late last night, smoking cigars and watching boats go by. I always wonder where they are headed, what they have for cargo, the stories of the people on board. Sometimes I stay up till dawn, just watching boats go by. So 10:00 am was a pretty early start today.
Anyway, who needs an alarm clock with an 87 year old back and hips? No, they will tell you when it’s time to get up. More urgently than an alarm clock. I suppose it’s lucky for me anyway, it isn’t my prostate waking me up. Hell, you don’t care about that anyway. Sorry.
I’ve got a closet full of the same damned clothes. I don’t wear shorts, I don’t wear jeans, and I don’t go anywhere that requires me to dress up other than the funeral home when another friend or family member dies. Don’t take that to mean I’m feeling sorry for myself, because I don’t. I’m old. The alternative to getting old is much worse. Time’s going to move with or without me, so I’m hanging on to this train as far as it will take me. Point is almost every pair of pants I own are khaki casuals. I guess at 87, I shouldn’t care. I just find it funny, every time I buy pants it’s the same thing I already have. Habit.
Get those khaki pants on. The hips hurt, the knees hurt. I wad the pants up on the floor, step into the legs, wiggle my feet until I feel the carpet under both of them, and use the old gaff hook to pull ‘em into reach. I don’t even have to bend over, at least not for the pants. Button up shirts are easier on the shoulders, and my arthritis rarely interferes with buttons.
Socks and shoes are the kickers. I keep a stool by the bed, just for socks and shoes. Sit on the bed. Put the sock over the end of the foot, put the foot on the stool, lift as I pull the sock over the heel, then pull it up. Repeat. Step into tennis shoes-I’ve got some really comfy New Balance tennies. Sit back down on the bed, tie them, get the Panama hat on, and it’s time for my walk.
I live about a block off the beach. I cross the street every morning on my way to the strip of sand that I call home. It’s not home because of the time I spend there, it’s home because of the quality of the time I spend there.
I go to the beach every day because it is the only place that I can kick time square in the ass. Every day, I walk this Georgia Island beach, and every day I see what you will see with me today. Sometimes I walk several miles to find it, sometimes it’s right here in front of the public pathway. I find my youth, my family, and my life.
The tide is out. There’s almost 100 yards of beach between the dunes and the water. The sound of doves cooing on the street is replaced with the sound of the wind and the waves and the gulls as I get out onto the main beach area. There aren’t a lot of people out at this time of the morning but the ones I’m looking for are always here. I pass the kite fliers, the twenty-somethings throwing a football and drinking beer, and find my target: A family of four, playing in the surf.
Every day, when I find them, the tears well up. There’s always a family of four out here in the surf that matches what I had exactly. A teenage girl, probably 15 or 16, attractive wife, little boy age 6 or 7, and the 40-something man. As I approach, I slow down just to take them in. I’ve stopped without even realizing it. The little boy throws himself into the waves, sometimes getting through them unscathed and sometimes getting knocked off his feet. The whole family revolves around Little Boy. Teenager and Dad might go into the bigger surf for a bit, to take on bigger waves and body surf. Mom stays with Little Boy, who all the while is squealing, yelling, punching waves. He jumps into one but tries to dodge another. Salt gets in his eyes, he tries to wipe it out. Today, he needs help from Mom to get the sting out. “Do you want to go back to the shore and get a towel?” The answer is almost always no; what if the perfect wave comes along and I miss it? Teenager and Dad come back from the big surf and they all orbit Little Boy again. Inevitably, I get noticed by the father. I’m obviously not a threat, I’m an old man and I’m dressed like one. He looks up at me, as I’ve now stopped on the beach and I’m just standing and watching them. This father, like most, keeps an occasional eye my way but I think he understands. There is the most brief and complete communication that passes. No words are spoken, nor would they be heard over the surf. He’s saying I don’t consider you a risk. I’m saying enjoy what you have.
To say it’s all fleeting is too simple, it’s a cliché without meaning. I’m watching because for just a moment I can get lost in your family, 40 year old dad. I can go back in time 40 years and be with my family again, through you. I can be with my teenage daughter again, and have no knowledge of the constant, dull, throbbing agony that courses through the life of a man that has lost a child. I can be with my little boy, when fishing and baseball and fighting the waves at the beach were important to him, as was being with his daddy. Before I knew about his perversions, his boyfriend, and wondering if he is still alive and if so, where is he today. I can be with my beautiful wife. Before time broke us both down. Before the seconds of the clock worked on us both like a constant sand blast, eating away the health, our youths, our lives. Before cancer took her away. I get about five minutes of this every day. Please, father, don’t take it away. Let me serve as your warning. When you get that sunburn, when the sand has chaffed your crotch and you don’t want to come back out tomorrow because the games are childish and boring, and it’s physically uncomfortable, let me serve as the reminder: go anyway. Every exhale is a memory if you make it so. Those kids will break your heart someday. Let them be what you live for now. Because some day, if you are lucky, you will have to put your pants on with a gaff hook. And you will walk through a lonely world, trying to bring back the memories. Don’t let the opportunity to make those memories get away. You’ll never remember watching reruns of Seinfeld at the beach, but you’ll never forget that little boy’s squeal when the wave takes him down. Some day, the memory of that little boy’s squeal may be the only thing that keeps you from putting on some soft music, drawing a warm bath, and slitting your wrists.
To stand and stare too long is not appropriate. It’s ok to look in the window of someone’s life, but pulling a chair up to the dinner table is too much. I start walking down the beach again, hoping to find another family that can give me another five minutes of what I so desperately need.
There they are, this time the girl is in her 20’s but still vacationing with her parents. The boy is about 12. They are crabbing with father, just the three of them. I slow and watch, but don’t entirely stop this time. As I’m passing, the boy sticks his finger out to let the crab pinch him. He squeals and does a little peepee dance, shaking the crab back into the water. “Don’t throw them back in the water, damnit, what’s wrong with you?” “Sorry Dad, we’ll catch more.” The fathers never realize that what just happened, those few seconds, are the prize. The boy has all the wisdom here, Dad, not you. Who gives a damn about the crabs anyway? What is their value, compared with the value of what is going on around you? Don’t bitch at him; laugh at him. It’s your God-given right, and you all deserve it.
This is the end of the island. My only choice is to go back now. I pass the crabbing family again, just as the boy throws a crab at his sister. She runs away about four big strides in the knee-high water, screaming “Skylar threw a crab at me! I told you to quit that!” She splashes back at him angrily. This time, at least, the father just picks up the bucket without complaints. “Let’s go, guys, we have enough.” I hear the screaming and squealing continue and slowly fade behind me.
The family of four is just coming out of the surf in front of me. Little Boy is running in front, all knees and elbows and indifference to anything but the moment. Teenage Girl is next. “Stevie, don’t go too far!” Mom and Dad are last, and we meet each other on the beach as they walk to what marks their territory. Their towels, beach chairs and sand castles sit above the surf line. Dad’s eyes meet mine, as they did before. I can’t tell if his eyes are wet from the surf, not at first. His eyes linger on me just slightly too long and I realize with absolute certainty that he understands. The surf can hide tears well. He reaches out to hold his wife’s hand as he gives me the slightest hint of a nod and passes me. He still has his identity. But the second hand is ticking, like a blast of sand. Each second, one little grain of sand. And it will never stop.