Buck and I saw the older model gun-metal bronze pick-up truck first. It sat between the path to Back Beach and the rocks Maine folk call a beach. It is a beach, of course, just not the barefoot-friendly confectioner’s sugar I know in Pensacola. Some might call it a beach with character.
The old man wasn’t tall or short. He wore faded dark navy twill long-sleeved coveralls. He stood holding the rim of a barrel, staring inside.
We found a large boulder built for two and sat. We listened to the sussurant surf. We talked quietly. I watched the old man pick up an armful of kelp. He moved slowly and dropped it in the barrel. I saw him move from the line of seaweed to the barrel several times. Then he twisted the barrel over to the truck, put his arms around it, slung the barrel upward onto the tailgate, and pushed it into the truck bed beside a second one.
After awhile, our bottoms grew numb and cold from sitting on the round rock. We moved toward the water, picking our way carefully among the rocks, the broken urchins, the lone thick rubber glove, the mussel shells and bits of shattered light bulbs. We watched a great blue heron take up a place by a tidal pool with the stolid gulls and preening cormorants.
Approaching twilight brought no-seeums. We turned back toward the path to the main road and the cottage.
The old man had three plastic crates on the rocks. He filled each one with kelp, then trudged back and forth to the truck and dumped them into the second barrel. Just as we passed, he looked up and spoke. “It’s fertilizer.”
Buck and I stopped, turned back toward the man. The three of us converged at his truck.
“Lots of minerals in seaweed,” I said, admiring the glistening green-gold brimming from the full barrels.
Buck spoke to the man. “You use it for compost?”
“Yes,” the man said, “The soil here is thin, so you have to . . .”
“Amend it.” I thought this sentence, not realizing I had spoken aloud.
He nodded. “Yes. Amend it.” He took his time with the word, as though it was one he liked, but hadn’t heard for a long time.
A bug landed on the man’s forehead. Buck said, “There’s a mosquito on your forehead,” and reached as if to brush it away.
The man waved it from his face. “That’s the least of my problems, but thank you.” He and Buck were like old dogs greeting one another. “Where are you folks from?”
“Pensacola, Florida,” Buck said.
“I played football once in Tallahassee at Florida State University. It was hot. The humidity made everything wet. We lost.” He almost smiled.
He was on the South Carolina team at Furman University in 1956. I tried to identify the man’s accent, or rather lack of one. He told us he and his wife had come to this “godforsaken island” from North Georgia, up near Chattanooga, Tennessee. They planned to stay for a little while, maybe two years. He smiled this time, a pretty good one that revealed the young man.
“That was forty years ago. We raised all our kids here. It was a good place for kids. Great schools. Safe.”
“That’s no small thing in this world,” I said.
He had a penetrating way of looking at a person. He nodded. “Yes, that’s true.”
We three talked about nearby Flying Mountain and Echo Lake.
Another mosquito landed on the man’s temple. Buck reached out in a gesture full of a sort of masculine tenderness. The man inclined his head. Buck pressed the mosquito against the man’s skin with the palm of his hand and killed it. Buck looked at the smear of the man’s blood on his hand.
“Thank you,” the man said.
“I’m afraid I bloodied your hair,” Buck said, then wiped his hand slowly, almost a pat, on the front shoulder of the man’s worn coveralls. “Blood brothers,” Buck said. They chuckled.
“Yes,” the old man said.
We stood together without speaking for several seconds. The man spoke first. “Well, I guess I’ll finish my work.”
We pivoted to find our way home in the gathering dusk.