There are days when I ‘m that leaf, swept along in the swirls and eddies of a spring-fed stream. Some weeks, the leaf is my boat. I peer over the edge, use binoculars to focus on each new shore; discover new worlds; rediscover familiar ones. All sense of time is lost. It’s time to anchor awhile and reflect.
I have learned why many writers grow beards if they can, leave their hair long and wild or short and haphazardly chopped; why they’re often thin and pale, and talk out loud to themselves while brushing their teeth or mutter beyond the bathroom door. And something else is at play. Did you ever see one of those millennium countdown clocks that were popular the year before the 20th changed to the 21st? We were living part-time in Rice Cove in Canton, North Carolina then. One of those damnably mesmerizing clocks was in our tiny local post office there. Buck acts like a man with an atomic clock imprinted on the insides of his eyelids. And not just with his manuscript. There are friends to see, karma to serve.
And so, we set sail in the old black town car, a cruising bath tub, from one end of Florida to nearly the other. I have brothers and a sister in the middle of the state I would like to see — need to see — but this was not that trip.
First stop was Gainesville, one night flying low. We brought a hotel picnic for our friends: big ole’ shrimp from Joe Patti’s Seafood. We poached and peeled them Saturday night before leaving Sunday morning, the 10th. Buck made a fiery dipping sauce, me a fresh Cole slaw with pineapple slivers for a surprise of sweet, and they went into the cooler with store-bought potato salad and goat cheese. A canvas bag was stuffed with crackers, Brazil nuts, almonds, oregano to sprinkle on the goat cheese, and our staples of peanut butter, dried fruit and trail mix bars. The venue was strangely perfect for distraction-free talk, which was just the medicine. It was a standard Residence Inn style room, so there was a sofa, coffee table and pull-up chairs.
Next stop was a mini-retreat for two in a motel at the base of the Charlotte Harbor bridge in Punta Gorda. The weather was coolish, windy and gray. Perfect. Buck picked up a book I brought in my other canvas bag, the one stuffed with food for the mind, and I haven’t gotten it back since. It was Sol Stein’s classic, Stein on Writing.
Wednesday, we drove another seventy miles south, to Naples, to see one of two remaining high school chums of Buck’s, and his wife (surely one of nature’s life force spark plugs). Each morning, I left their villa early to walk Old Naples, remarkable manicured real estate, down Park Shore Boulevard across the bridge separating Venetian Bay from Inner Doctor’s Bay, then right on Gulf Shore Boulevard, past Park Shore Marina, all the way to the end, where a walking path links to the Gulf or back across the bayou and to Crayton Road, which is the one I chose. Breakfast and a hot ping-pong match with friends awaited. Yes. Ping-pong. First time in more than forty years. Astonishing fun. Lots of laughing, jumping, stooping, and heavy breathing. Puts you in the moment and keeps you there.
Laconic joggers crossed the bridge, and couples walked their (mostly tiny, mostly white) leashed dogs along the wide sidewalks, poo bags discretely at the ready. Almost every person I encountered looked me in the eye, smiled and said “Good Morning.” I met a couple with their sweet-faced rescue dog, Bliss. They are best-selling authors and psychologists, Dr. Basha and Dr. Jeffrey Kaplan. We walked and talked together and parted with exchanges of email addresses and hugs. Delightful people. I hope to see them again.
Someone said of this core of downtown Naples: “Nobody works.” Not true, of course, since it takes a subtle army of gardeners, mechanics, restaurateurs and other service workers to keep up this Garden of Eden, like some exotic aquarium, for all the folks here who are Somebody or were Somebody in real life. The grass here is always green. And if it isn’t, it is swiftly removed and replaced with fresh sod, new palms and flowers — whatever it takes to sustain the aura of wealth and serenity.
I know. I talk like a peasant. And why not? I am one, and proud to be. It’s beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed these walks and the interesting, nice people I met along the way. It is pretty, but insular, with its own form of genteel regimentation. I might chafe at the hidden fence. Might.
There was no fence, hidden or otherwise, separating these birds from their morning fishing. Buck made the same walking circuit with me later that day and the next. We saw these beauties on the Seagate side of Venetian Bayou.
The walks and scenery were stimulating. I had a case of cabin fever in the pine woods and didn’t even know it. It was a gift to be blasted out of my comfortable study. Best of all was the company of our good friends and their mellow Weimaraner, Maggie Moo. I needed a good dog fix in the worst way, and I got a joyful one. Nothing like an under-the-chin puppy kiss.
Roy and Bette spoiled us with delicious food, (including lobster tails they caught while diving in Key West, tossed with garlic, tomatoes, basil, Brie, and pasta — whoa), and most of all inspired us with their good natures, love for each other, and zest for life.
We planned to return straight home from Naples Saturday morning, a long but do-able drive. An email changed our trajectory, and we ricocheted from Naples, hugged Lake Okeechobee’s shoreline for a ways, then shot up the east coast on I-95 to rendezvous with friends aboard their Nordic Tug, True North, at Cocoa Village Marina.
That’s Tom Conrad, captain of True North. He and Patsy are friends from Pensacola who have not permitted a challenging illness to keep them from their dream of living on their trawler. They are veteran cruisers of The Great Loop. Even now, Tom makes a 5:00 a.m. weather report much relied upon by other boaters.
We joined Tom and Patsy for a visit on board, and then walked a few blocks to Cafe Margaux for dinner. Our server, Andy, was a wise-eyed raconteur, from Kentucky via many years in New Orleans until he was up-ended by Hurricane Katrina. After dinner, we returned to the boat for pie and more talk.
We returned to True North Sunday morning to find the galley smelling like a high-end bistro at brunch time. Patsy had “whipped up” a homemade mushroom and Gruyere quiche and a fresh fruit salad for us. My first coffee of the day was there, on the water with sunlight streaming through the windows, in the presence of my lovin’ man and our good friends.
It was nearly one o’clock when we left Tom and Patsy for home Sunday afternoon. We made it as far as Tallahassee, when fatigue, blowing rain, and darkness caused us to stop overnight. The bridge over Escambia Bay leading us home Monday morning was a bright ribbon over lovely, familiar waters. Neither of us would trade anything for the touchstone of being with Roy and Bette, Tom and Patsy, and Neal and Elaine, but home is home and we’re happy to be back in our own bed. Buck is in his cave, furiously editing. He says Sol Stein has caused him a lot of trouble. High praise. As for me, I needed some fresh Florida scenery and culture to confirm words written for my character Grace’s own road trip to south Florida.
I wasn’t online while we were gone, except to check weather, driving directions and occasionally, e-mail. It will be a pleasure to catch up with you all and see what you’ve been up to.