The sun had cooled, veiled by haze, so I decided to go to the pool instead of the beach. Dave was snoozing, his tan skin striking in contrast to the white sheets and pillow. I scrawled a note on a paper napkin, placed it on the floor, and anchored it with a round black bottle of Captain Morgan’s Cannon Blast Rum. He was sure to see it.
It was good to be on vacation.
I descended the echoing cinder block fire stairs of the Holiday Inn on Lido Key, and pushed open the heavy metal door. Vaguely improved by a few listless palms and surrounded by cement knee walls that block the wind, the pool area is not our first choice, but a possibility on chillier days.
Swathed in yellow towels, my fellow vacationers, slick with sunscreen and squinting at phones, reclined on blue lounge chairs lined up against the wall. A cluster of men in Hawaiian shirts sat on stools at the bar. A little girl, sun-toasted and grinning, flipped her long braid over one shoulder and dove into the pool.
I glanced over the wall and across the boulevard to the beach with its white sand, soft as flour. A smattering of sea birds, white bellied and gray of wing, with funky spiked crests and stoic expressions, faced into the wind and tried to ignore the children who ran among them with shrieks and flailing arms. The green Gulf waters rolled and splashed frothy milk along the shore.
Chilly or not, having considered my options, I opened the gate, waited for a car to pass, and crossed the road.
Jim was stretched out on a lounger under a red umbrella by his rentals stand, peeling a banana.
“All right! Stocking up on potassium, I see!” I said. This was a topic of conversation continued from yesterday when Jim experienced a sinking spell. He’d chugged one of his power drinks and wound up feeling woozy; so woozy it had been hard to lug umbrellas and loungers down the sand for those wishing to rent them. Dave had filled in for a time to allow Jim a breather.
Jim is fifty-seven and his enthusiasm for the gym is apparent in his ruddy-skinned, well-muscled body. He stands and walks as if lifting a barbell, with a heavy gait, massive shoulders bowed forward, and his arms slightly curved. He speaks with the twang of his home state of Alabama and his broad, ready smile reveals prominent teeth.
“How’s your day been?” I went on, referring more to his health than events.
He shook his head and took a bite of banana. Chewed. Gazed out to sea a bit before turning to answer. “You just missed it. Almost got into a fight.”
What? This guy is friendly. He flirts, chatters on, and delivers a stream of wise-ass, inappropriate jokes. A fight! “No way! What happened?”
“Well, this couple came onto the beach and dumped their stuff onto some empty chairs. When I told ‘em they were welcome to ‘em, but they were rentals, ten dollars a chair, they wouldn’t pay. Turned into this big thing… with me insistin’ and them arguin', and the woman, she told me to shut up!”
“Whoa. What a drag.”
He hung his head, shook it thoughtfully, and said, “It got loud, I guess. Some of my other customers told me they had my back if it got bad.” He put his hand to his chest, over his heart, and continued, “Thing is, I’m going to hold onto this now. It’s gonna bother me. That couple’s gonna come back from their beach walk and either say something nasty, or walk right by, ignorin’ me. But I’ve got to let it go. This other lady who saw it all told me, ‘you don’t know what’s going on in their life, what happened earlier in their day.’ Helps me some to think of that.” He jerked his head toward the shore. “You want that empty chair down the beach? It’s on me.”
“Thanks, but the towel’s fine. I’ll only be here for a little while. I’ll grab the chair and bring it in for you though.”
“Nah. It’s my job.”
We walked toward the empty lounger together and he picked up one end, preparing to drag it back to his stand. The haze had lifted and the sun shone, delightful with late-afternoon warmth.
"There they are,” he whispered.
I turned to follow his gaze, but between the distance, my near-sightedness, and the tint of my sunglasses, I couldn’t see the couple well. They looked to be about forty, moderate build, pale. First day of vacation maybe. Hadn’t relaxed enough to be polite. They gathered up their yellow Holiday Inn towels and headed across the beach toward the hotel.
“I get it that people get frustrated. Hell. I get frustrated too.” He chattered on, digging way back for examples at school, work, and with women, his gaze flickering periodically over my shoulder.
He stole a look past me and exhaled in relief. “They’re gone. I used you just now. You know that?”
Actually, I did.
“Yep. Kept you here, jabberin’. Used you. Saved me havin’ to sit there while they stalked on by, starin’ straight ahead, or worse.”
“And we’re having this nice chat while they’re stuck with their poison,” I said.
“Thanks for stayin'. Helped to talk this out… to get it out.” He inhaled deeply through his nose, blew a stream of air through loose lips, and leaned forward to drag the chair across the sand, leaving two narrow tracks in his wake as he trudged away.
Who came up with that “Sticks and stones” ditty? Maybe some kid in a show of playground bravado, but in life, it’s not true; words have power... for good or ill. Jim’s a big guy. He’s been around. But he was hurt by that exchange.