eye of the storm ~ chapter 8

For the record

Chapter Eight 

Pensacola Beach, Florida 

            Grace hesitated. She knew she had entered a danger zone. A better person would meet the conflict head on. The setting sun made streaky patterns across the sky and into the water. 

She stood, slung her backpack over her shoulder and grinned at Jess. “Race you to the water.” 

Jess laughed like a little boy and took off after her. 

They walked and talked about the hurricane drill. 

“Are you really concerned there might be a big one this year?” Grace asked. 

“I’m always concerned, but I’ve been studying all the models, and this new tropical storm, Bart, has my attention. It’s early in the season for a big storm, and usually you’d think the water is still too cool for a bad one, but this year we hardly had any winter at all, and the spring so far has been hotter than normal, too. Have you ever been in a hurricane?” 

“Sure. I grew up in central Florida, but we were a hundred miles inland, so wind and rain were a problem, but we never worried about storm surge, thank goodness. I can’t imagine being on this barrier island during a major hurricane.” 

“Well, that’s why we have these drills every year.” 

Something caught Jess’s eye out in the water, and he pointed. “Look, Grace, dolphins.” 

“Oh, my God, they’re beautiful.” Grace watched the dip and sway of the sleek gray mammals. She moved closer to Jess and whispered. “Where do they go when a hurricane comes?” 

Jess angled his body slightly to protect Grace from the cool breeze that had begun to kick up. “In some ways, they’re luckier than people. Bottle-nosed dolphins are incredibly smart. They have keen senses that tell them when barometric pressure changes so they’ll know a storm is coming. That’s when they close ranks, swim closer than usual in their pods and head out to sea. They’ll stay there until the storm passes. 

“Every now and then a mother and her baby will get stranded in shallow water, but that’s rare. They’re smart and intuitive. We could learn a lot from them. I’ve been watching them and swimming with them in the Gulf since I was a kid, but it still gives me a thrill to see them.” 

The soft, silvery light that comes during a certain time just between sunset and twilight lit Jess’s face. It’s not harsh or metallic, more like liquid mercury. He solemnly observed the dolphins breach the waves and disappear from sigh. Grace watched Jess. Her breath caught in her throat. How can you be afraid to lose something you don’t have? 

“Jess?” The breeze ruffled his dark hair. Rays of the sinking sun shot sparks close to the water’s surface, spraying out in all directions. They stood together, their widened pupils quivering in wordless communication. Grace took a deep breath. “We need to talk.” 

“Yes, we surely do.” Jess gently took her chin in his hand and bent his head toward her mouth. Impulsively, her mouth lifted toward his. 

They were suspended in time for only about twenty seconds of real time, but it was one of those forever moments when synapses fire rockets and light up emotion centers in two persons’ brains, instantly creating irrevocable neural pathways between them. It has been called a coup du foudre, literally, a “thunderbolt.” Most of us have heard of it as “love at first sight.” When it happens, the couple is instantaneously transported into a deep chasm of brilliant colors and deafening sounds. They fall as two separate people, but emerge shaken to their core and melted as though by a metallurgical process into one. Neither knows at that moment that they have been lucky enough or cursed enough to fall in love at first sight. 

Grace twined her arms around Jess’s neck and the tender kiss that began with a soft pressing of lips warmed to a simmer and then boiled over. Jess pulled back for a moment, put both of his hands on either side of Grace’s face, looked deeply into her eyes and kissed her again. When his tongue lightly moved over her lips, she moaned softly and opened her mouth to welcome this unexpected intimacy. She moved her hands down to the small of his back and pulled him closer. Jess moved his hands to Grace’s waist, his arousal unavoidably apparent. That seemed to cause them both to remember they were standing on a public beach at dusk. They pulled out of the clinch. Looked hotly at each other and fought to regain control over their ragged breathing. 

Jess pursed his lips in a low whistle. “Wow.” 

“I’ll say. Where did that come from? We must both need to get out more often.” They laughed. 

The Grace stepped out of the embrace, her countenance clouded by anxiety. She gave Jess a bleak look. It was time. 

“Hey, what’s wrong, Grace? You went from happy to sad in ten seconds flat.” 

“Can we walk, Jess?” 

“Sure, let’s head toward the pier. What’s up?” 

“Well, it’s just that you don’t know anything about me, Jess. You might not like me at all when you learn why I came to Pensacola.” 

“Hush,” Jess said, placing his right index finger on her lips. “Look, I’m almost thirty years old. I’m not a kid. I know we don’t know much about each other yet. What I do know is that there is something unusual happening here. Whatever you’re worried about, we can work it out. Trust me?” 

“I’m inclined to, Jess, but . . .” 

“Okay, then. I get to go first. Then we’ll stop in a Evangeline’s for a drink, then you can tell me about yourself, and we’ll walk back to our vehicles and head back to town. How’s that for an itinerary?” 

Grace caved. “I can see how you got yourself elected mayor. Okay, we’ll do it your way. Just don’t blame me later.” 

Jess laughed. “How bad can it be? Good. Now that’s settled, I get to talk about me.” He laughed like a child anticipating show and tell day at school. “I was born on a dark and stormy night . . .” 

“Silly,” Grace smiled. 

“Yes, that I am,” Jess said, taking her by the hand. “Let’s walk.” 

“Have you lived here your whole life?” Grace asked. 

“Yes, the whole Harper clan is here, including my grandparents. My granddad’s father was a native, too, and his great-grandfather emigrated here from Ireland.” 

“Gosh, I can’t imagine having a family with roots like that,” Grace said. “Oh, I meant to ask you if serving as mayor is a full-time job.” 

“No, it’s not. I’m a community banker full-time. I run the Trust Department for First Community Bank and Trust downtown. It’s my Uncle Marty’s bank, and it was founded by my grandfather.” 

“I guess you have brothers and sisters, too?” Graced watched stolid sea gulls and petite sanderlings pick their way through shells on the sand, occasionally darting with their long beaks to snatch up an edible tidbit. Thousands of pastel coquinas washed in on the white sand with each wave. 

Jess raised his chin and ran a hand through his hair. “Sure do. My brother, Grant, is a couple years older than me. He used to be an FBI agent in New York, but missed home, the beach, and the south generally, and came back and started his own private investigations firm a couple of years ago.” 

“Any sisters?” 

“Oh, yes.” Jess smiled and rolled his eyes. “The twins.” 

“Twins!” Grace said. “How cool. I’m an only child, and adopted to boot, so the whole idea of siblings is very exotic. How old are they? Are they identical?” 

“Kate and Belle just turned twelve. And yes, much to the confusion of everyone, they are identical.” 

“They’re a lot younger than you and Grant.” 

“Yep. They’re our half-sisters.” Jess stopped walking and touched his right hand to Grace’s left shoulder. “Look there.” He pointed with his left hand. “See the ghost crabs?” 

Grace bent down to get a better look. The diminutive crabs were nearly transparent. Their eyes poked out on skinny stems. They really did look ghostly, especially washing in the pearly twilight, scuttling along at water’s edge. 

“Oh my God, Jess, look at the sunset. The water looks like a bed of diamonds.” They stood side by side watching the show. Every step down this road is making it harder to tell him. Maybe I’ll just quit my job. 

“How old were you when your parents were divorced?” Grace asked. 

Jess hunkered down in the sand. He picked up several large pieces of broken shells and began to chunk them into the water. “They didn’t get a divorce.” 

“But . . .” Grace started to say, but stopped when she saw the pained look on Jess’s face. Without even thinking, Grace reached out and put her hands on his shoulders. “Oh, Jess, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so insensitive.” She squeezed his shoulders, then moved her hands and stepped to the side, feeling suddenly clumsy. 

Jess stood up, dusted the damp sand from his hands and looked at Grace. His eyes were wide open, the pupils large. He held her gaze for a long moment, his mouth tight. Then, he took a deep breath and smiled a hurt smile that made him look like a vulnerable young boy. He spoke quietly. “It’s okay. It happened a long time ago.” 

Jess took her hand and they walked along in silence for several minutes. Lights were coming up at homes and businesses all along the shoreline. Families and couples of all ages walked, sat in beach chairs, or jogged. They passed one family with the young-looking mom and dad spreading out a blanket and beginning to unpack a picnic basket while their two young children sat nearby and filled small pails with sand. The kids screamed with delight when a wave washed up to bathe their pudgy legs and fill the newly dug holes with salty water. 

“My mother’s name was Kate – Katherine Powell Harper. Nobody even knew she was sick until it was too late. Ovarian cancer.” 

“I’m so sorry, Jess. How old were you?” 

“Fifteen.” They kept on walking. Jess squeezed Grace’s hand, then dropped it and pointed toward a small restaurant up ahead. Tiny white lights strung around an outdoor deck and up into palm trees flanking it twinkled in the approaching darkness. A ruby-toned neon sign flashed: Evangeline’s Beach Shack. 

Jess flashed a bright, pain-free smile at Grace. “Evangeline’s makes the best margaritas on the beach. Sound good?” 

“Sure does. This is shaping up to be the law school graduation party I never had.” 

“Great. Then it will be my turn to quiz you about who you are. Maybe I’ll even find out what genie in a bottle sent you my way.” 

Grace still felt uneasy and dishonest about leading Jess on, but went with the flow and switched emotional channels along with Jess. 

“Hey, isn’t Evangeline your step-mom?” 

“Herself.” 

“She’s gorgeous.” 

“Yes, and more than that. She’s got a great heart. She saved our family’s life, especially my dad’s. I honestly don’t know what would have happened to us without her. People come into your life for a reason, Grace. You just have to trust it.” 

The outside deck was filled with a combination of locals and tourists. Jess took Grace’s hand again. “Come on. Let’s sit at the bar. Okay with you?” 

“Sure.” 

“I think it’s the best seat in the house,” he said. “Great for people watching.” 

Two bright-eyed, black-haired, olive-skinned young girls yelled out, “Jess!” and came toward them at a dead run, nearly colliding with a serving carrying a large tray of empty margarita glasses from the deck. They wrapped long arms around him and then noticed Grace. They tilted their heads in the crazy-making identical twin way, and started to giggle. “I’m Belle,” said one. “And I’m Kate,” said the other. Their mischievous dark brown eyes fixed on her as they blurted out in unison: “Are you our brother’s new girlfriend?” 

Grace was fascinated. The girls looked just alike, but the one who identified herself as Belle had long straight hair, dangly plastic earrings made to look like a rainbow, and was dressed in a pomegranate-colored tank dress. Very girly. Kate, on the other hand, was dressed in khaki safari-style Bermuda shorts with a matching short-sleeve jacket with shoulder epaulets. She wore ankle-top hiking boots. Her hair was chin length and curly. She had a camera and a small pair of binoculars strapped crosswise across her chest. 

Grace felt tongue-tied. Evangeline strode toward them and rescued her with a big smile. “Kate! Belle! Mind your manners.” She extended lovely, long tapered fingers to Grace. “I saw you with Jess at the drill today. I’m so glad he brought you to see us. Follow me. There’s space at the bar. Come get settled and then we’ll talk.” 

Grace watched as Kate and Belle each grabbed hold of Jess’s hands. He pretended to resist as they dragged him toward the bar. He grinned over his shoulder at Grace, mock-helpless. 

“Homework time, girls,” Evangeline said. “Run along, now, and leave Jess and his guest alone.” 

Jess and Grace settled onto cherry wood bar stools with leather seats and backs and shiny brass foot rings. Evangeline instructed the bartender to make two margaritas. 

Evangeline pulled up a stool beside Grace. “Sorry to be in such a rush around here. Let’s start again.” She took Grace’s hand and patted it. “I’m Evangeline Harper, Jess’s step-mom and friend. Welcome to my funky beach shack. Please call me Evie.” 

“Thank you, Evie. It’s a pleasure to meet you.  I’m Grace Ann Ringer. I just moved here from central Florida – a small town called Brandon. This whole day has been very unusual, to say the least. The twins are adorable.” 

Evie laughed. “Those two are a mess. They keep me on my toes. Sometimes they’re too smart for my own good. They think their big brothers are their own personal property. Grant’s married, but since Jess is single, Kate and Belle are endlessly fascinated by any female he shows up with.” 

Grace cut her eyes around at Jess, but the Mayor was studying the menu with great concentration. “Hey, chere,” Evangeline put her hand lightly on Grace’s arm, and spoke in a low voice, “If you think Jess is good-looking, wait ‘til you see his father. Whoa, that man is ooh la la.” 

“Evie, cut it out. You’ll scare Grace away,” Jess said. 

“Oh, shoot, I’m just having a little fun.” 

“I don’t mind,” Grace said, smiling at Evie. 

Evie glanced at her watch. “In fact, I’m about to take the girls and head home to meet Ryan for dinner. He should be finishing rounds at the hospital about now.” 

“Jess told me Dr. Ryan is an orthopedic surgeon.” 

“Yes, and he won’t leave that hospital until he’s seen every one of his patients”. Her eyes glimmered. “Good man. Good, good man.” She jerked her head toward Jess, leaned in to Grace and said quietly, “Him, too.” 

Grace didn’t know what to say. This kind of open emotionality was totally outside of anything she had ever experienced. 

Evie threw one arm over her shoulder and the other over Jess’s. “Okay, kids, I’ve got to run. Order yourselves something if you’re hungry.” She took Grace’s face in her hands. “Come again, soon, okay?” 

“Thanks, Evie. I’d love to.” 

Evie was already calling for the twins. “Bell! Kate! Get it in gear, now, your dad will be waiting for us at home.” 

And with that, Evie blew right out of there like some benign tropical storm, throwing kisses and smiles to her regular customers along the way. Kate and Belle danced behind her as though they were following the Pied Piper. 

Grace suddenly felt exhausted. “Whew!” she said. “What a whirlwind day this has been.” 

“Yes, and I know just the medicine for this kind of a day.” Bobby the bartender handed her an icy, pale green margarita in a wide-mouthed, stemmed glass. A wedge of juicy-looking lime was balanced on the edge. 

Jess picked up his and proposed a toast:  “To the best hurricane drill ever!” 

“I’ll drink to that.” They clinked glasses. 

“Hope you don’t mind,” Jess said, “but while you and Evie were talking, I went ahead and ordered us a small West Indies salad to share. It’s a specialty of the house. If we’re still hungry after that, we’ll get another one. 

“I’m still stuffed from that feast we had a little while ago, but I have to admit, that sounds scrumptious, Jess. Thank you.” A basket of warm, toasted garlic bread slices arrived just then, followed by the chilled crab salad served on a bed of shredded lettuce in a white, shell-shaped dish. “That looks amazing,” Grace said. “About the only seafood I’ve eaten in the last three years of law school at Chapel Hill has been tuna salad.” 

 “So, Grace Ann Ringer, enough about me,” Jess joked, “who are you, little lady, and what are you doin’ in my town? Tell me what I want to know, or you’ll be out on the range with the coyotes and no horse tonight.” 

Grace held up her hands. She smiled, but her eyes were solemn. “Okay, Mr. Mayor, no need for threats. I’ll tell you anything you want to know. It’s awfully noisy in here, though. Can we get a to-go coffee when we’ve finished our salads and find a picnic table down the beach on the way back to the parking lot?” 

“Good idea. I know just the place.” 

After dinner, Grace and Jess took their coffees and walked down to the water’s edge. They walked north along the shoreline until they reached the public fishing pier. Wood bench seats were built in the whole length of the pier, but they were crowded with people fishing, families playing and tourists hanging out. Jess spotted an empty picnic table a few more feet down the beach. 

“Let’s grab that table before somebody else has the same idea.” 

They jogged over and sat on benches facing each other. 

Any pretense at merriment had gone from Grace’s face, and the one margarita she had drunk wasn’t enough to make her forget what she had to say to Jess. 

He picked up on her mood immediately. “What’s worrying you?” 

She removed the plastic top from her coffee, and took a tentative sip and looked Jess in the eye. “It’s my job.” 

“Your job? Aren’t you a lawyer?” 

“Yes, in fact this is my first job since I graduated last month.” 

“That sure doesn’t sound like a problem.” 

“You don’t understand,” Grace said. 

“Okay. Explain it to me.” Jess put his coffee down and leaned toward her with his forearms resting on the table. 

“The first file on my desk at Brautigan, Hansen, and Lee is to work on securing all the permissions for the new town planned for 30,000 acres in the mid-county.” 

“What?” Jess stood up. He went from relaxed to agitated in ten seconds. 

“Jess, please. Sit down. There’s more.” 

“I don’t think I need to hear any more. Look, I’m sorry, but tonight was a mistake. We shouldn’t even be talking. It’s a conflict of interest.” 

“Please. At least let me finish.” 

Jess sat back down and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve got one minute. Talk.” 

“The most important part of my job initially is to persuade Tom and Sally Harper, um, your grandparents, to grant the county a right-of-way easement through their property so that West Sutter road can be straightened out and extended to link to the new town site and a new interstate highway ramp to make an east-west corridor for hurricane evacuation.” 

“Is that why you came out here today? Did they send you to try and soften me up?” 

“No!” 

Jess was on his feet again. His face was flushed with anger and his eyes had turned cobalt as the Gulf in winter. “Hurricane evacuations, my ass. That’s the way Barrows and his boys sold it to the county. I feel like a damn fool, rolling out the welcome wagon for the developers’ bird dog.” He spat the words out like bitter herbs and swung one leg over the bench as if to leave. 

“Wait,” Grace pleaded. “Can’t we talk about this?” 

Jess swung the other leg over and stood up. He folded his arms over his chest and glowered down at Grace. “We’ll talk about it, all right. We’ll talk about it when my grandparents sue the pants off the county and those vulture developers. Should give you plenty of job security down at that Skin-ums and Cheat-ums law firm you hooked up with.” 

“Damn it, Jess, that’s not fair.” Grace stood up, tripped on her own foot, and fell into him. 

Jess caught her, held her stiffly at arm’s length, then pulled her to him hard, bent down and kissed her roughly. She twisted and pulled away at first, then kissed him right back. Jess broke it off and shook his head. “Damn!” 

He spun around and stalked off back up the beach toward the parking lot, leaving Grace stunned. This was worse than she thought it would be. 

She thought about running after Jess. She even moved a step in the direction he was fleeing her. 

Then she stopped, put her hands on her hips and just stood there watching the angry man walking away from her. Suddenly she was angry, too. Of all the arrogant, obstinate jerks. She blew air out of her cheeks. Forget him. I’ve got a job to do, and by God, I’m going to do it. 

Grace sat back down to finish her coffee and pretend to enjoy the dregs of the sunset. And to be sure Jess was gone by the time she got back to the parking lot. 

Grace picked up the pace as she walked back to her truck from the beach picnic table. The last rays of the sunset were gone, and it was almost dark. There were still a lot of people out walking or having beach blanket suppers. 

She walked close to the water. The hard-packed sand felt good to her bare feet. She began to jog and then broke out into a wind sprint. She ran until her breath came in huge gasps. Laugh or cry? Laugh or cry? Laugh or cry? Grace felt so worked up, she wasn’t sure what would come out of her mouth. 

Laugh! She bent over double laughing, still breathing hard from the exertion. Oh, boy, you showed yourself for a small town girl, today! Way to go, Grace Ann. Kiss the Mayor and make him – mad! I guess P. J.’s my sworn enemy now, too. Oh, well. 

Grace threw her head back and laughed some more. She never saw the sallow, skinny man wearing baggy jeans and a Red Man cap watching her from the nearby pier. 

adaptations in the era of Covid-19

So masks were difficult to find in the early days. Thank goodness for our local Buddhist community who went to work sewing beautiful, useful face cloths. Now, of course, they are widely available and even more widely argued about. When or whether? Helpful, useless, or possibly even harmful? Cloth vs. paper. Whatever you do, don’t touch your face.

Then there is the learning curve. I saw a woman speaking at a local county commission meeting — one of the first in-person but socially distanced masks-optional ones we have had since the phased re-opening started. She sat in the audience, mask in place. But when she walked to the podium to speak her mind, she removed the mask. At first, she held it gingerly in her left hand, letting it dangle by one of the ear-holds. But as she grew increasingly agitated during her allotted three minutes, she began to ball the mask up in her fist, gesticulating with both hands, voice rising. At last, spleen fully vented, she returned to her seat and reapplied the mask to her face.

Watching a re-run of the meeting video from home, I shook my head and sighed.

Like many folks, Buck and I are assembling a small collection of masks, from an ancient N-95 that was still in its original packaging and had been languishing in his tool shed for years, and a package of the ubiquitous pale blue paper surgical ones, to ones you pull over your head and pull up to cover your nose and mouth. My current favorite is a cloth one made by two local women. It’s bright yellow with navy blue squiggles. But the ones I’ve ordered for both of us may (I hope) be the best yet. They are cloth, with a vinyl window over the mouth area, and were originally designed to help hearing-impaired folks – like Buck – as they augment their hearing aids by reading lips. Fantastic adaptation, and I like the idea that our smiles won’t be hidden in the grocery store or other public places.

We are still spending most of our time at home, but that is really not much of a change for us. We are both fit and healthy, but in the older cohort for whom catching the virus could mean more than a bad day at the beach.

So we’ve made some other adaptations, too, including deliveries of frozen wild salmon and white fish from Wild Alaskan. We signed up for an every-other-month delivery, but I am finding we’re eating a lot more fish and loving it, so I keep bumping up the shipping date so that now, on our third box, we’re getting a delivery about every six weeks. This is something we’ll continue, Covid or no Covid. Same for deliveries of frozen chicken directly from Purdue Farms. The first box was a terrible disappointment, because the dry ice was completely melted and so was all the chicken. I hated the waste, but can’t fault the company. They were dealing with huge issues in trying to get their product to customers in pristine condition despite hiccoughs in the shipping chain and delivery timelines. Purdue Farms’ customer service was fantastic. They offered me a refund or a new order. I took the new order, and it arrived with extra insulation and dry ice in perfect condition. Most of the order was free range and organic, packaged in convenient serving sizes. It’s great. So far, we’ve made a teriyaki-style stir-fry from a package of boneless chicken thighs, fajitas from chicken tenders, and lemon-herb marinated boneless chicken breasts cooked on an indoor grill pan (photos below).

something in the marrow: a tip for writing memoir

Earlier today I was deep in the mine-shaft of memory and ancient blog posts, looking for one thing but finding ten others, when this one-sentence post from 2010 stopped me in my hunt.

Even when you have picked over the family bones for every scrap of meat, every scent like a starving hound, something in the marrow waits to tell you more.

eye of the storm ~ chapter seven

For the record

Chapter 7 

Mary Alice Berringer sat with her friend, Aileen Smathers, on the porch of The Nutmeg Bakery Café in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. It was the first week of May, perfect weather to enjoy outdoor dining before the crush of Florida people hit the pretty valley seeking relief from hot summer temperatures. 

Aileen and Mary Alice had been friends almost their whole lives, and now they were enduring widowhood together, too. It had never mattered that Mary Alice had co-founded Berringer Software Company with her late husband, Troy, and one of the richest women in North Carolina, and Aileen hadn’t worked outside her and her husband’s modest home since their children were born. 

Physically, they couldn’t be more different, either. The white-haired Aileen was a quintessential “mama” type, medium height and huggably soft. Her figure suggested she was a fine home cook who enjoyed tasting her own cooking. Mary Alice was more like a stork, tall, all angles and planes, her hair chemically maintained in the natural copper red shade of her youth.  Despite her usual command presence, Mary Alice’s vibrant personality normally became girlish and totally spontaneous anytime she was with Aileen. 

“Oh, my, don’t that look good,” Aileen said as a nice-looking young man sat a Waldorf chicken salad with fresh fruit and poppy seed bread on the table in front of her. 

“I’m sure it is,” Mary Alice murmured as she picked at a fillet of perfectly seared tuna on spring greens. She put her fork back down, sighed, patted her mouth with her napkin, and took a sip of iced tea. 

Aileen’s wise eyes knew what the trouble was. She lost her husband more than five years ago, but for Mary Alice, the loss was fresh and still an open wound. 

Mary Alice looked up to see Aileen’s eyes on her, and tried to smile but her eyes filled with tears. Aileen’s hand reached out across the table to grasp Mary Alice’s. 

“I’m sorry, Aileen. I thought I was ready. Guess I’m not.” 

“You just take all the time you need, honey. Would you like to leave?” 

Mary Alice squeezed Aileen’s hand, then let go, twisted her neck around like an athlete, took in a deep breath and exhaled, then picked up her fork. 

“Hell, no, Aileen, Troy would be embarrassed to see me acting like some little school girl. Let’s eat this good food.” 

Aileen chuckled. “Well, in that case, I’m havin’ a big old piece of that coconut pie I saw in the case when we came in.” 

“It’s been so long since I’ve eaten a dessert, Aileen, my system would problem go into shock. But you have that pie, and I’ll at least have a cup of that fancy coffee The Nutmeg’s so proud of.” 

“Atta girl,” Aileen said. 

Troy Llewellyn Berringer died in a bizarre car crash on a narrow mountain road six months earlier. He had just turned 70 years old. The years of mountain hiking, running a business with the love of his life, Mary Ann, and a commitment to diet and exercise kept Troy looking and feeling at least ten years younger. Same for Mary Ann, who, at 68, looked no older than mid-fifties. 

They had been seriously thinking about selling the business and their home and becoming world-travelling nomads for a while. 

“Why not?” Troy had said. We’re fit. We feel great. We’re sure as hell not ready for the porch and slippers routine.” 

Their doctors told them that they were likely to live past one hundred, given the pristine state of their blood work and lifestyle. They laughed together about that and decided maybe it was time to sell the business and go play, especially since they didn’t have any heirs. 

Well, there was Mary Alice’s nephew, Rory, and he wanted in the worst way to inherit the business from them, but neither Troy nor Mary Alice could quite see their high tech baby in Rory’s rough hands. And since their only daughter disappeared 25 years earlier, they felt like they would rather sell it to a well-managed corporation who would continue to run the business responsibly and retain their long-time employees. Either that or offer the employees a chance to buy themselves out. 

The day of the accident, Troy called Mary Alice from his Rotary Club meeting in Waynesville to ask her to meet him at Patrick Condon’s office at 1:30 that afternoon. Pat was in his mid-nineties, but still came into the office almost every day to make sure the legal interests of his long-time clients like Berringer Software were taken care of. 

Mary Alice remembered how excited Troy was when he called. “Hey, woman, you’ve got to meet me over at Pat’s office today at 1:30. He’s got the papers on an offer from a buyer for the business!” 

“Really?” Mary Ann said. “Wow! How is this happening so fast? We haven’t even looked for a buyer.” 

“I know, I know, but apparently somebody whispered in somebody else’s ear and Pat got a call. Can you be there?” 

“Sure, Troy. You won’t have time to come back to the office first so we can go together?” 

“Wish I could, sugar. I got a call from somebody I need to see between Rotary and Pat. Probably nothing, but I got to go.” 

Mary Ann felt a familiar pain. Even after 25 years, every month or so they would get a call or letter from somebody saying they knew where Ann Mathis Berringer, their missing daughter, was. Sometimes the person making the contact was genuinely trying to be helpful, even though they were always mistaken, but most of the time it was some scurrilous scam artist out to make a buck on their suffering and loss. Either way, though, Troy would go to the ends of the earth to find the tiniest clue that might lead them to their daughter. 

“Of course, my love. I understand. I’ll see you at Pat’s at 1:30. 

And that’s the last time she ever heard her dear Troy’s voice. 

“Mary Alice, where’d you go?  Earth to Mary Alice.” 

“Oh, Aileen! I’m sorry. I swear, it doesn’t take anything for me to drift off into a cloud of memory. I guess you’ve been there, too?” 

“I sure have, darlin’. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wish one of them clouds of mem’ry would just take me right on up to heaven so I could be with Jack again.” 

Going on without Troy is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Aileen. At least you have your girls and the grandchildren. Does that help at all?” 

“Oh sure, and I’m thankful for them. Don’t know what I’d do without them. Still, when it comes time to shut the lights and turn back the covers, there’s no hand to pat mine and tell me, ‘Sweet dreams, Aileen.’” 

The two old friends sat and looked at one another. Finally, Mary Alice said, “Yes, well, I sure do need Troy’s wisdom right now to know how to handle selling the business and how to handle Rory. It’s delicate. He’s been a little too helpful ever since Troy died. Feels like he’s trying to take me over, and the business, too.” 

“I haven’t seen Rory in a long time. How old is he now?” 

“He turned 50 last month.” 

“Fifty! I can’t believe it. Did he ever get married?” 

“No, he never did.” 

“I don’t guess he’s likely to have any young ‘uns at this stage, then.” 

Mary Alice chuckled. “No, I can’t imagine Rory being a daddy. He’s like a kid himself, in a lot of ways. More interested in his toys than other people. He tries to keep it quiet, but I know he’s a regular over at Cherokee, and he goes down to Biloxi frequently, and even Las Vegas several times a year.” 

Aileen leaned forward and whispered. “He gambles?” 

“Oh, yes. And that’s not all.” 

Mary Alice signaled the server for the check. “He’s sneaky, Aileen. I shouldn’t be talking like this about family, but to tell you the truth, in my heart you’re the closest thing I’ve got to family, now, and I just have to tell somebody.” 

“My word, Mary Alice, what is it?” 

Mary Alice signed the check and waited until the server was out of earshot. “He’s pressuring me to make him CEO and give him 50% ownership of the company. He wants me to retire and let him run all the day-to-day operations of the business. Says I’ve ‘earned’ it.” 

“Well, you have. That’s true.” 

“That may be. But I don’t trust my nephew not to raid the company to pay for his fun, and run the business into the ground. I’m not going to stand by and watch that happen. I’d much rather sell the business to a reputable buyer like Troy and I planned; someone who will keep our employees and continue to grow the business.” 

“Does Rory own any of the stock now?” 

“No. Troy never felt comfortable with selling or giving away any of our stock. Rory’s always been on a salary with full benefits and a bonus schedule.” 

“Does he do good work?” 

“Well, okay,” Mary Alice sighed and reached for her purse, “but the hard truth is, if he wasn’t my late sister’s son, we would have run him off years ago. His job I more of a “make work” position than a necessary part of our operations.” She scraped her chair back and stood up. So did Aileen. “I need to get back to the office.” 

The friends walked out to the gravel parking lot. They were parked side by side under a spreading oak tree. “I’m so sorry you’re having this trouble,” Aileen said. 

Mary Alice smiled and hugged her. “This, too, shall pass. Thanks for listing. I promise to be more cheerful next time.” 

“You call me if there’s anything I can do.” 

“Will do. Say hi to those girls for me.” 

“I surely will. And let’s get together again soon.” 

spot prawns – spot on

Okay, so I was a little nervous about the spot prawns after reading about the roe, planning them for my turning 69 birthday dinner and all that. No pressure, right? Well, check out the photo. I froze the shells for later and can tell you that the prawns were beautiful, absolute perfection. I only sauteed them about 20 seconds each side in a little olive oil and butter, then put them into a bowl, added lemon, white wine, Thai basil, red pepper flakes, capers and garlic to the pan. Wow. Served with tomatoes, whole wheat thin spaghetti, and asparagus. Maybe a glass or two of white wine. The prawns were tender and sweet.

These beauties came flash frozen as an add-on in our monthly box of wild fish from Wild Alaskan Company.

eye of the storm ~ chapter six

For the record

Chapter Six 

Pensacola Beach, Florida 

Grace never imagined she would spend the Saturday after her second week of work at Brautigan, Hansen, and Lee flat on her back on a stretcher out at the beach with bandaged eyes and fake blood smeared on her cheeks, arms and legs. 

“Let’s get you into the ambulance, sugar,” a gruff male voice said. She felt dizzy as the stretcher lifted and she was awkwardly dropped. “Sorry about that, darlin’,” a whiskey and cigarettes female voice said. “We’re kinda new at this. Are you okay?” 

“Uh, sure. Is my part over yet?” 

“Not quite, sweetie. Not ‘til we get the all-clear from our team leader.” Grace felt a calloused hand pat her own hands which were clasped over her mid-section. “You just relax. Won’t be long, now.” 

Yikes. If they had dropped me in the parking lot, I really would need to go to the hospital. 

Grace relaxed and thought about what happened so far today. An astonishing array of people walked around with hard hats and clip boards. There were emergency medical vehicles, utility company ladder trucks, and volunteers including elementary school children who giggled and made faces at each other as they were painted with fake blood. Lively seniors wore “We’re Ready for Anything” tee-shirts. A convoy with National Guard troops stood by. The last thing she saw before her eyes were bandaged was a line of folding tables with folks typing away at laptop computers under a tent with the county logo on it. 

When Grace left the condo at Balconies on the Bay that morning at seven o’clock to drive to the beach, she felt like a teenager on Spring break. If this is work, I’m going to love it. Bill Hansen, one of the senior partners of her new law firm, assigned Grace and several other young lawyers to represent the firm as community service volunteers in Escambia County’s annual hurricane preparedness drill. It was serious business, of course, but she looked forward to a day of playing make believe on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. 

Surrounded by so much water, Grace felt like she was sailing by the time she was at the mid-point of the “Three-Mile Bridge.” The bridge traversed Escambia Bay to connect Pensacola with the chic bedroom community of Gulf Breeze, which she was told had the best schools and subdivisions in the area. Gulf Breeze was set on a finger of land in Santa Rosa County that insinuated itself between the mainland town of Pensacola and the barrier island of Pensacola Beach, both in Escambia County. The peninsula spanned more than 40 miles between Escambia Bay on one side and Santa Rosa Sound on the other. 

Grace was blown away by the beauty of the sparkling cobalt water. Her pick-up truck felt tiny on the long bridge and swayed slightly when convertibles and SUVs sped past her. 

She drove slowly through Gulf Breeze, taking it all in. The medians were lined with majestic Royal Palm trees. The restaurants, marinas, and shops all looked new. 

Just before hanging a right turn onto the short toll bridge that crossed Santa Rosa Sound to Pensacola Beach, Grace noticed a large hospital and medical offices complex on her left. She smiled at the huge, funky 1950’s style neon sign that sported a cartoon bill fish pointing the way to the beach. This bridge was only about a mile long. She pulled over into the break-down lane for a minute to take in the view. Just past the toll booths, there were tall hotels and condominiums that looked like tropical wedding cakes and a great-looking combination restaurant and marina called The Grand Marlin. Large water tanks beside a sound-side marina were painted bright blue with murals of leaping dolphins on them.  Now, this really feels like a beach should. Grace flipped down her visor to use the mirror to reapply a light peach lip glaze and was struck by how much she looked like a happy young kid. She laughed and stuck out her tongue at her reflection. 

Grace was eager to find the hurricane drill site. She left the condo early in hopes of having time for a quick look-around and maybe a short walk on the beach. Once through the toll place, she spotted a convenience store, parked and came out a few minutes later with coffee and a package of soft oatmeal cookies. 

She followed the curve of the main road to the left and saw a big parking lot where drill organizers were setting up tents, tables and signs. Grace pulled in to the far end of the parking closest to the beaconing Gulf of Mexico. She glanced at her watch, then grabbed her coffee and cookies, along with a lightweight cotton cardigan, locked up the truck and made a beeline for the sandy beach. She wore mid-thigh-length khaki cargo shorts and one of her usual black tee-shirts. It was almost the middle of May and the day would get hot later, but right now, at 7:30 in the morning with a breeze blowing off the water, the light cotton sweater tied around her shoulders felt good. 

Grace stepped out of her flip-flops as soon as she moved from asphalt to sugar white beach. Oh my God, I’m in love. She squiggled her toes in the damp, soft sand. She could feel her short hair curling in the windy, humid air, but she didn’t care. It felt great. She walked until a glance at her watch told her it was almost time for the drill to start. Better get a move on. She jogged back toward the asphalt and retrieved her flip-flops. 

She put her cardigan in the truck, grabbed a water bottle and started walking toward the crowd gathered around the tents. But she wasn’t sure where she ought to be, so when she saw a guy with a clip board and a name tag looking at her as she walked in his direction, she smiled and said, “Pretty morning for a hurricane drill.” 

“Pretty morning for just about anything,” the fellow said in a deep baritone voice. Great legs, good build, nice voice. Too bad that hard hat and mirrored sunglasses cover up his hair and eyes. Grace felt a pleasant buzz. 

She introduced herself and asked for directions. He pointed her in the right direction, but they got interrupted by some guy waving and hollering and walking in their direction before her almost new friend could tell her his name. Couldn’t that guy have waited another minute? 

 Grace thanked the fellow for his help and jogged off in the direction of the Red Cross tent. 

And now, here she was, laid out like a mackerel, name tag stuck to her black t-shirt. Grace was pretty comfortable in the ambulance with her flip-flopped feet and coral-colored toenails sticking out in the breeze. The crowd noise outside faded and she shook herself when she heard someone snore. Oops. That was me. Grace laughed at herself and hoped no one else heard. 

“Hey, you don’t need to wake up on account of me. I just have a couple of questions.” Grace jumped when she heard that vaguely familiar baritone. She peeked under her eye bandage to identify who it belonged to. 

The morning sun created a slight glare through the open ambulance doors, but she could make out a guy with a clipboard and a hard hat, wearing a pair of goofy, retro, mirrored sunglasses. It was the guy she met in the parking lot earlier. 

Grace tugged at the eye bandage and yanked it off, pulled in her legs and sat cross-legged. She squinted up at Mr. Hard Hat. “Hi there! We almost met earlier. Can you recognize me with all this fake blood?” 

He laughed. “Are you kidding? I’d know you anywhere. You’re the bright-red-pickup-truck girl.” 

“Yep, that’s me, all right. Did you say you have questions?” 

“Just a couple. It’s a survey for the drill.” 

“Okay. Does that mean I can come out now?”  Grace scooted toward the opening. There’s no graceful way to get out of an ambulance. 

He laughed and offered an arm. “Of course. May I be of assistance?” He slipped one hand under Grace’s elbow to steady her as she hopped out of the ambulance before she had a chance to answer. 

“Thank you, kind sir.” 

“You’re quite welcome, Miss Ringer.” 

“Grace, please, but who are you?” 

“I forgot we didn’t get that far earlier.” He pulled off the hard hat and stuck out his hand. Forgive me, I’m Jess. Jesperson Powell Harper, at your service.” 

Grace’s eyes widened. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harper.” 

“Jess, please. Mr. Harper is my dad. Well, actually, he’s Dr. Harper, but my Granddad is Mr. Harper. Anyway, I’m a volunteer today, just like you. They’ve got me filling out these survey forms to assess how things went today.” 

Grace still couldn’t see his eyes or much of his face, but she enjoyed getting a closer look at Jess’s tanned, muscular legs, plus she was standing close enough to him to smell a subtle herbal scent, and then there was that voice. Nice time to be covered in fake blood and bandages, damn it. 

Jess asked his questions, putting check marks on the clipboard. “Are you new in town?” 

Grace cocked her head and gave him a crooked grin. “Is that question on your clipboard?” 

Jess smiled. “Nope, but I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen you before.” 

Oh, wow, my first come-on since I moved here. She was about to bat that ball back into his court, when someone shouted. “Jess! Jess! Miss Agnes fainted. Can you help?” 

Jess looked over and saw the perennial volunteer and well-known birdwatcher Miss Agnes slumped over. “On my way!” Jess hollered back. 

“Is she okay?” Grace asked. 

“I expect so. This happens every year. Too much excitement for her, I guess. Sorry, I’ve got to go.” He turned to go, but turned back to say, “Stick around for an early supper over there.” He motioned to a big yellow tent that looked like a beehive of activity. “It’s for all the volunteers.” He flashed a big grin. “I’ll find you.” 

Jess turned and sprinted over to the crowd surrounding the semi-conscious elderly woman who passed out. She thought about going over, too, but realized she would just be a gawker. She saw Jess with his arm around the lady helping her to sit up while an emergency medical technician listened to her chest with his stethoscope. 

Grace looked at the yellow food tent Jess had pointed out to her, and decided to find a public restroom where she could do some much-needed repair work on her face. Cargo shorts were great because of all the pockets. She had tucked in a few essentials before leaving the condo earlier: a couple of moist towelettes, tinted moisturizer with sunscreen, concealer, blush and lip gloss. She washed off the fake blood, threw away the bandages, and fixed her face. The hair’s hopeless, but at least I won’t frighten small children now. 

Even before she emerged from the restroom, Grace heard the unmistakable sound of live music. She joined the crowd as volunteers converged on the big yellow tent. A gaggle of rag-tag musicians played rough, happy music with a toe-tapping beat. It was like nothing she ever heard before, an odd mix of fiddles, accordions and rhythmic rasping sounds. It was infectious. Folks broke into impromptu jigs as they drifted toward curlicues of delicious-smelling smoke rising from cookers at either end of the tent. Drawing closer, she heard shouts of “Aiyee!” and lyrics that sounded half-French and half-English. 

Curious and hungry, Grace stepped inside the tent and could hardly believe her eyes. At least a dozen beach restaurants were set up to feed all the volunteers an early supper. Long tables festooned with banners identified each restaurant and were arranged so volunteers could walk through the line with a sturdy paper plate and graze to their heart’s content. She saw signs for Flounders “Better to have floundered and lost than never to have floundered at all,” Peg-Leg Pete’s, Crabs We Got ‘Em, Evangeline’s Beach Shack, and a bunch more. 

She ogled the food and moved to the irresistible beat of the Zydeco music. Someone took hold of her elbow. It was Jess Harper. 

“Hello again,” he said. 

 “Is Miss Agnes okay?” 

“Oh, yes. Poor thing lost her home to Hurricane Ivan back in 2004. She was already a widow when that happened. She comes out to help with the emergency drill every year, but I think it brings back a lot of bad memories, and at some point in the day, it’s just too much for her and she has to rest in the EMT tent for a while and chill out.” 

“She’s got some grit to come out and volunteer, given what she’s been through,” Grace said. 

“Her and a lot of other folks,” Jess said. 

Grace nodded over at the food set-up. “This is fantastic. What a spread!” 

Jess laughed. “The beach businesses throw this party every year. It’s the secret weapon that guarantees lots of people will participate in the drill.” 

“I can see why. I’m already thinking about next year.” 

“Hungry?” Jess asked. 

“Are you kidding? I’m starved!” 

“There’s one thing I need to do first. Would you grab a couple of plates and hold a place for me? This’ll only take a few minutes.” Jess turned and disappeared into the crowd. 

The music stopped with a flourish of high, sweet violins followed by enthusiastic applause. Grace looked up to see a tall woman with a crazy swirl of long black hair at the microphone. She looked somewhere between 40 and eternal, like a beautiful femme fatale from another century, a chic gypsy. 

The woman waded into the crowd with the band’s microphone in her right hand, her left hand coquettishly on her hip. Grace wondered what was coming next. 

“Bonjour à tous mes amis et bienvenue à la plage. Good afternoon, my friends,” she translated, “and welcome the beach. I’m Evangeline. I run a funky little bar and grill down the beach that some of you know all too well.” She laughed, a deep, rolling sound. She waggled a long red fingernail at several in the crowd. “For sure, I mean you, chere, and you. 

“Enjoy the party and bring your families and friends out to see all the great beach businesses. We need the money.” Evangeline spoke in a light Cajun accent with a husky voice that could charm a snake. 

The crowd clapped and hooted. She tamped them down, hands stretched out in a downward motion. “Chill now, all y’all. I’m supposed to introduce somebody important now, so listen up.” 

Knowing chuckles spread through the crowd. Much to Grace’s surprise, Jess Harper approached the microphone. “Put your hands together for the downtown guy, my stepson, Jess Harper, Mayor of the fair city of Pensacola!” 

Mayor! That cute hunk? Grace’s mind was officially blown. 

Evangeline threw back her head and laughed. Mayor Harper removed his sunglasses and blushed to the roots of his wavy black hair. He took a bow to the accompaniment of good-natured whistles and cat-calls. 

Finally, Jess cleared his throat, and spoke in a baritone honeyed bourbon voice. “Okay, okay, settle down, everybody. For all of you that don’t already know it, I’m Jess Harper, and I’m here to tell ya’ll that what we’ve done together today might save some lives when the big one hits. Lots of you were here when Ivan tore our home all to heck and gone. This beach looked like a bomb hit it. I got word a little bit ago that the weather service is predicting an ugly storm season. In fact, they’re keeping a close watch on the second named tropical storm of the season. It’s ‘Bart.’ Let’s hope and pray he doesn’t turn into big bad Hurricane Bart.” 

“Thanks for coming. And thanks to all the great beach folks who have, once again, thrown a heck of a free party for all the volunteers. Can I get an Amen?” 

The crowd erupted into a chorus of “Amens,” whoops and applause. 

“Oh, and one other thing. All this great music you’ll be boogieing to is provided free by several of our local bands, so be sure to go by and shake their hands.” He paused a beat for effect. “They probably wouldn’t be mad if there was a dollar in it.” Laughter from the crowd and a chorus of “Yeah!” from the musicians. “And after you’ve enjoyed this fabulous food, stick around if you can and stop by one of these fine establishments for an adult libation or a desert and coffee, or both.” Jess grinned, and everybody laughed and clapped some more. 

“Okay, then, laissez les bon temps rouler! For those of you new to our neck of the woods, that’s Gulf Coast-speak for ‘Let the good times roll!’” 

Grace gaped at Jess as he strode towards her and nonchalantly took a plate. “You didn’t tell me you’re the mayor,” she said. 

“You’ll still eat supper with me, won’t you?” 

Grace had an image of a town mayor as some cheesy politician with a bad comb-over, glad-handing voters and kissing babies. “Oh, sure,” she giggled. 

“Turn back around then and don’t hold up the line. I’m hungry as a bear.” 

Grace held out her plate as servers heaped it with sample-size portions of shrimp jambalaya, smoked mullet, cheese grits, grilled Cajun hot wings, a miniature crab cake, cole slaw, fried oysters, and shrimp etouffee with Louisiana long-grain rice. She kibitzed with the restaurant folks as they put delicacies on her plate. “Thank you. Thank you so much. Everything looks and smells great. Is that a copy of your menu? Can I take it with me? Ooh, thanks. Yum.” 

Jess laughed when he saw her plate. “Good God, girl, when’s the last time you ate?” He gestured over to a guy at a picnic table on the water near the tent. “Hey, there’s my buddy, P. J. He’s staked out a table for us. Follow me.” 

“Sure,” 

Hey, P.J. what’s up, man?” 

“Nothing much.” P. J. looked at Grace. “Eat that while it’s hot. His Lordship the Mayor will fetch you a glass of iced tea, right?” P. J. grinned at Jess, who bent low in a mock bow. 

“Absolutely. You two get acquainted and I’ll be right back. Right back. Got it, P. J.?” 

P. J. grinned wickedly and dismissed Jess with a wave of his hand. Jess put his plate down beside Grace. “Don’t worry. P. J.’s bark is worse than his bite. Besides, I’m pretty sure he’s had all his shots.” 

“Hey, big guy,” P. J. called after Jess. 

“Yeah?” 

“Corky made a vat of gumbo. Bring some.” 

“Will do,” Jess said. 

Grace had a shrimp halfway to her mouth. “Gumbo?” 

“Gumbo. Loaded with shrimp, crab, oysters, and Cajun soul. Not to be missed.” P. J. watched with amusement as Grace contentedly munched her way through the loaded plate. “Well, I know you’re beautiful and I know you’re hungry and I know if Jess likes you then I will, too, but one thing I don’t know, and that’s your name.” 

Grace grinned, put down her fork, and stuck out her hand. “Oh my goodness, where are my manners? I’m Grace. Grace Ann Ringer.” 

“Nice to meet you, Grace Ann. I hear the south in your voice, but I can’t quite pin down the neighborhood.” 

Grace started to speak. 

P. J. held up his right hand, palm out. “No, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” He put both hands on his temples in mock concentration. “Chapel Hill, North Carolina via Hillsborough County, Florida?” 

Grace was stunned. “Yes! How could you have possibly guessed that?” 

P. J looked very pleased with himself. “Saw you walk up to the red pick-up truck just before the drill started, talk to Jess, and head out to get bandaged and painted up for the drill. Saw you talking to my buddy, Jess. I could tell his ears were up, so I walked by and checked out your tag and your campus decal. 

Grace didn’t know whether to feel flattered or put out with this likable, impudent fellow. “What do you mean, Jess’s ears were up?” 

P. J. was about to answer when Jess threw a leg over the picnic table and sat down with a tray full of glasses filled with iced tea and Styrofoam cups of fragrant, hot seafood gumbo. 

The three of them ate in near silence for a few minutes. It was 5:30. The sun angled toward center stage almost due west over the silver blue Gulf waters. 

“Well, Grace Ann, Jess, I got to go. Minnie Pearl’s waitin’ for me at the boat.” 

Grace cocked her head. “Is Minnie Pearl your girlfriend?” 

The guys laughed. Grace asked, “What’s so funny?” 

Jess spoke first. Minnie Pearl is P. J.’s bloodhound. So ugly she’s cute. She supposedly guards the marina P. J. manages.” 

“You manage a marina?” Grace turned back to look at P. J., who was gathering up his plate, napkin, plastic fork and spoon, gumbo cup and iced tea glass to throw away. 

“Sure do. Love it.” 

“Sounds like a dream job.” 

“Yeah, mostly it is, except for a few drunk assholes, uh, I mean jerks, who come around on the weekends with their fancy boats and trophy wives and stink up the place.” 

He gave Jess a look. “You know who I mean.” 

Jess scowled. “Yeah, I do.” 

P. J. got up, threw away his debris in a nearby container, then came around to shake Grace’s hand. He took her small, long-fingered hand in his big rough paw. “Nice to meet you, Grace Ann. We didn’t get to talk much, yet, but I have a feeling I’ll be seeing a lot of you with this here dude.” He jerked his head in Jess’s direction. 

P. J. released Grace’s hand, took a step toward Jess and clapped him on the shoulder. “You be good, now. Don’t do nothin’ to run this gal off. Unless I miss my guess, she’s a keeper.” 

P. J. loped off and fired up his enormous black big Dooley crew cab truck. Jess grinned and shook his head. “That P. J. He’s a hot mess.” 

“I can tell. Have you known each other a long time?” 

“Oh, yeah, sure. We just about kicked out the sides of the cradle together. 

“Grace laughed. I swear. I thought the country folk in North Carolina had some funny expressions, but I do believe you’ve got them beat.” 

“Where did you say you come from?” 

“I’m not sure I did. I grew up in a nice little central Florida town called Brandon. It’s pretty much in the middle of the state. Got my undergraduate degree from Florida in Gainesville.” 

“Oh, no,” Jess said in feigned horror. “A Gator.” 

“Yep,” but after that I went to law school, and just graduated from UNC Chapel Hill.” 

Grace and Jess heard the roar of a big truck engine and saw that P. J. was headed back in their direction. He lowered the truck window and called over to Jess. 

“Are we still on for tomorrow morning out at your grandparents’ place?” 

“You bet. Ten o’clock good for you?” 

“Uh-huh. We’ll figure out how to throw a clod in the churn of those damned out-of-town developers that are trying to get the county to run a road through the farm.” 

“Thanks, P. J. We’ve got to stop those sons of bitches,” Jess glowered. “Bring Minnie Pearl when you come. We’ll see how she takes to my new pup. And come hungry. Granny said she’d have some lunch for us after we walk the woods.” 

Jess and P. J. didn’t notice Grace’s reaction. She sat up straight and drew in one corner of her lower lip, which she sucked on while she listened to words that felt like glass shards raining down on her. I have a file sitting in my new office with those “sons of bitches’” name on it. The law firm represents them, and I’ve been assigned to bird-dog this project. Grace felt nauseous. Here I am, enjoying a cozy supper on the beach with the Harper’s sexy grandson, like some spy. Damn. Sounds like the end of a perfect beginning. 

“Grace? Hey, Earth to Grace!” P. J. broke through her trance. “Where’d you go? 

Grace shook herself and smiled. “Sorry, P. J. Guess I must have zoned out for a minute. Nice meeting you. Catch you later.” 

“Right back at you. Later.” 

“That P. J.’s smart as a tree full of owls,” Jess said, and began to gather their plates. 

Grace’s hand made contact with Jess’s when he slid his right hand over the table top toward her to get her gumbo cup. “Jess?” He stopped in mid-air and looked straight into her eyes. 

“Yes?” 

She couldn’t get the words out. Just a few more minutes of heaven, then I’ll tell him. “Thanks for being so kind to me today.” Before she could withdraw her hand, his left one came over on top and sandwiched hers between his. 

“First time I’ve actually enjoyed one of these drills, thanks to you.” Jess squeezed her hand gently, and then released her. “Hey, look at that. Is this your first beach sunset?” 

“Yes, and it’s even more gorgeous than I imagined.” 

“There’s hardly anything better than a walk on the beach at sunset. Do you have time?” Jess asked. 

Grace gazed at the sandy beach as the sun dropped lower toward the water. A walk on the beach. I’ll tell him there. Maybe he’ll understand. Maybe he won’t get angry with me. Maybe this won’t end the way I think it will. 

Grace looked solemnly at Jess. “I can’t imagine anything I’d like better.” 

Late June at Longleaf Preserve

I’ve been walking from house to gate nearly every day for twenty years. That third of a mile each way is the same and different. The halfway point on the gravel road is a natural spring that flows 365 days a year. The spring originates just slightly east of the low point in the driveway, flows under the road via a culvert, and then flows west until it merges with a marvelous swamp.

I tell the seasons by what vegetation is waxing or waning along the road. In late June, the fox grapes (scuppernongs) are ripening and the American Beautyberries have put on tiny, grapelike clusters that presage Fall.

All sorts of mushrooms push their way through the loamy forest floor and I marvel at their many incarnations.

A variant of what must be a white slime mold catches my eye. It is draped over an embankment and very nearly looks like a mask covering a human face. Do you not see the eyes, the mouth?

At seven this morning, the air was laden with moisture; the temperature was already in the mid-eighties. Strangely, the heat and humidity were almost a sensual pleasure, and the strong French Roast coffee beans that I had ground and left to brew while Lou Lou Belle and I walked were just that, no question.

eye of the storm ~ chapter five

For the record

Chapter Five 

Pensacola, Florida 

Jess awakened slowly to the delicious feeling of a warm tongue licking his neck, then his chin, then his chest, then his . . . “Angus! Stop that!” Jess laughed and shifted Harper’s Angus Blackvelvet, a 12-week-old black Labrador retriever pup, so that he was splayed out on his naked chest. He squinted through the white plantation shutters of his downtown loft apartment, and then looked at the lighted dial of his wristwatch. It was 5:50 a.m. Jess rubbed Angus’s soft ears and stretched lazily in the comfortable California King bed. 

Angus was a gift from his grandparents, Tom and Sally Harper. They had Angus’s sire and dam, Duke Blackvelvet and Spunky Darlin’, at the old home place on a Longleaf pine preserve in the midsection of the county. Jess’s brother, Grant, had a pup from the litter, too, and had named the poor dog Goober. Hate to go through life with a name like that. Thank God I’m just Jess to most folks and don’t have to go around with my full name: Jesperson Powell Harper. Now there’s a handle that would scare away almost any woman. 

“Hey, ouch, Angus, that smarts.” Angus peppered Jess’s fingers with his tiny puppy teeth. He wiggled and yipped, and his tail whipped from side to side. “Okay, I get the message, little guy. Let’s go for a short walk, then breakfast for you and I’ll hit the shower. Today’s the hurricane drill. I’ve got to head out to the beach.” 

An hour later, Jess was in the driver’s seat of his Jeep. Angus was at what Jess referred to as “doggy day care.” Mrs. Brinkley next door was his go-to puppy sitter. She thought she was too old to get another dog, but it was clear she missed the hell out of having one. She took care of Angus and got her “dog fix” and Jess could rest assured that his pup was well cared for in his absence. Once Angus graduated from obedience school, Jess planned to take the pup to his office at the bank and even to City Council meetings. He figured there was nothing as effective as a fine Labrador retriever to improve the image of a banker and politician. 

Jess fixed himself a thermos of coffee and a trail mix bar as a take-along for the ride out to the beach. When he turned on the ignition, the radio was already tuned to the local drive time favorite, C-ROCK, the country/rock station all the locals called CROCK. They served up a mix of music and talk from the CROCK Jocks. Everybody under 65 listened. Some even older, like his Grandma, Sally Harper. She loved it. As he headed for the beach bridges, a popular tenor crooned about how love was standing right in front of him. Yeah, right. Don’t I wish? Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. I must be getting old. 

It took Jess about 40 minutes to get to the drill site. He planned to keep a low profile during the drill itself, and just wander around with a clipboard checking on things. His speaking role as Mayor of Pensacola didn’t come until the end, when all the volunteers and government participants would gather and he would address them on behalf of the city. The County Commissioners and members of his own council would all be there electioneering, too, no doubt. 

The sight of the thin barrier island sandwiched between the placid sound and the unstoppable Gulf of Mexico never failed to provoke in Jess a nightmare image of a tsunami rolling over, drowning everything in its path. 

Jess swallowed the last sip of his coffee and eased his bright blue Jeep into a diagonal parking space next to a tomato-red Ford F-150 pick-up truck in the big lot nearest the beach. He reached over and picked up his clipboard from the passenger seat, got out and locked the Jeep. 

Fire trucks, ambulances, and several fleets of Gulf Power, telephone and cable trucks were set up around the fringes of the parking lot. Volunteers swarmed. He saw a school bus emptying a gaggle of excited kids and next to it several vans from local retirement centers disgorging their cargo of enthusiastic seniors who volunteered to help. He knew many of the senior folks lived through Hurricane Ivan that scored a direct hit on Pensacola Beach in 2004. Their wisdom would be helpful when the next big one came along. Glad to see a good turnout. I’ve got a bad feeling a big one may hit this season. 

Jess was about to walk to the big tent housing the Governor’s emergency training team when he saw a striking young woman jogging his way. 

She was a tall, angular girl with short copper-colored hair. She ran with a purple flip-flop in each hand and closed the distance between them fast. She wasn’t paying any attention to him, though. He watched as she took both flip-flops in one hand and fished for something in a pocket of her cargo shorts. Just as she reached the asphalt, she came out with a key ring sporting a pink plastic flamingo and veered slightly toward the red pick-up. 

“Jess! Hey, Jess, come on. We’re about to get started.” Ben Jones, his executive assistant, stood by the big tent, calling over to him. 

The young woman looked up at Jess and smiled. “Pretty morning for a Hurricane drill,” she said. The sibilance of her voice startled him. It was low-pitched, musical. 

“Pretty morning for just about anything,” Jess said. The girl took a water bottle out of her truck and walked toward him. 

“That’s why I got here early – to take a walk on the beach.” By this time, she was right beside him. She stuck out her hand. “I’m Grace. Grace Ann Ringer. You look like you’ve been to this rodeo before. I’m supposed to be a victim today. Can you tell me which way to go?” 

Jess stood there half tongue-tied for a few seconds, starting stupidly at Grace. He was vaguely aware of his Executive Assistant, Ben Jones, a few feet away waving his arms and shouting for him to come to the big tent. Jess wasn’t sure that this stranger was actually beautiful, but the whole package came together in a way that stunned him. The wild hair, high cheekbones, gold-flecked green eyes full of smarts and curiosity, and that mouth – nothing angular about that full, soft, peach-colored mouth. C’mon, Jess, stop staring. 

“Um, yes, ah, oh sure, you need to go over there to the small tent with the Red Cross symbol on it,” Jess said, pointing. “They’ll fix you right up.” He was about to introduce himself, when he saw Ben walking rapidly toward him. 

Shoot, damn his time anyway. “Guess I’d better go. Catch you later.” 

“You bet.” Grace flashed a smile that made Jess go weak in the knees. “Thanks for the help.” She took off toward the Red Cross tent at a relaxed trot. 

Ben caught up to him. “C’mon, Mr. Mayor,” Ben said. The Governor’s rep is here and the TV crew wants a quick shot of the two of you together.” 

audience of one

I’ve never put much stock in birthdays as milestones, but I turned 69 today and that is striking me as a big deal somehow. The thought keeps piercing my comfortable laziness that I’ve got a year to get ready for the decade of my seventies. And that every moment counts.

So what do I want to do with this “rest of my life” question? Do I even want to address the mortality thing, to dream, dare and become — or bumble easily along admiring the sand as it flows to the bottom of the hourglass?

The decade of my fifties was a hotbed of creativity. By the close of 2010, I had become a pioneer blogger with a healthy readership and the joyful sharing that was part of those innocent, largely non-monetized times. We were all learning, and amazed at the interactive “message in a bottle” technology that brought us to each others’ shores within minutes. Several of my essays and flash stories were published, too. I dared to start calling myself “writer.” I even started writing a novel. Who hasn’t, right?

But it all slipped away. That energy. That fire. There was an imperative to write. to play the piano as I once did, and later, to create art. Can I get it back? Do I really want to? After all, I am in love and happy. But that hourglass troubles me, and what might have been. Is it possible to reclaim the creative life that was once my guiding light?

What will you bring to the table when you’re only performing for an audience of one. . .?

― Srinivas Rao, An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake

We are living in a strange time, where people — even writerly folk — are less inclined to give one another the benefit of the doubt; to be curious about one another rather than judgmental. A brittle time.

It goes against my old blogger grain to keep this journey I’m setting out on this morning private. But really, who else would find it interesting? It’s fascinating to me, of course, an audience of one.

Buck and I have nearly completed a three-year project to wrest full private property rights to our land back from a county stealth zoning overlay, (another story, more exciting than it might sound and full of more turns than a Western North Carolina mountain road). I have high physical and mental energy, drive, focus, and the sheer desire to reclaim a creative life.

Let’s get after it and see where it takes us.