|The "new and improved" Pensacola Beach Pier, nearly eight years post-Ivan|
I see him out there, this early in the morning, holding his own against the wind. The parking lot is mostly bare. A few lifeguard vehicles and police cars are still parked at either end. The drunks who littered it last night with empty bottles and epithets, at home will sleep ’til noon. They’ve lost it, their time here. Season’s over too soon. Vacations are cut short; construction project’s on hold. Island’s full of sorrow. The workers and the tourists have left. Old man will be gone tomorrow.
My shoes come off to trudge through sand collecting in drifts and heaps. I want to see him from the beach, from a distance. Then I’ll pay a dollar to walk out and greet him and say goodbye for keeps. A Category 4 will hit the shore in 24. Hours are all that we have left together, this old man and me.
I take my time, though, as I slow to savor moments. They’ll be on my tongue every time I face a salty breeze to cast my line into the sea. His form will appear in my mind as it does now. Broad-shouldered and weather-beaten, tall as ever above the waves, he will look down on surfers and sunbathers, silent to them but full of stories for me.
Now I walk up the ramp, shoes in hand, to find the bait shop empty and my path barred by a padlocked gate. Of course, the workers are gone. Buddy, I’m too late. Who but a fool would be out here, the wind gusting 70 miles an hour and more, heaving signs up the road, leaving hinges without a door? No matter. I’ll wait for him to come to me.
He does, too. Here’s another story for you. Write it down while it’s fresh in your mind, brand-spankin’ new. Don’t let it rot in there, stinkin’ like a fish outta water will after a day or two. I’m tellin’ you, man, don’t worry if it don’t sell. It’s more important to let ‘em know. All the ones who come here, they can’t tell. They don’t see me like you do. Those blinders must come off. Their vision ain’t so clear.
I laugh, and then I cough. The sand blowing ‘round makes each breath seem dear. You mean to tell me I’m some kinda messenger? What do I tell them, don’t you dare build anymore? You know they won’t listen. The sounds of bulldozer and concrete mixer are music to their ears. It's all money in the bank. And it’ll fund their later years. You know, when they finally go—to nursing homes? “Assisted living,” they call it now. Never heard of it? Well, you won’t be going there. You’ll be safe from all that sh—
It. The wind, carrying my words away, has brought the waves up higher; tide is coming in. I drop my shoes to raise my hands. Might as well bear it with a grin. My way is blocked to meet him there, but he'll come close to me. She'll bring him here, piece by piece (board by board)--his old lady, the angry sea. It's hell. She’s done so here and there in other years before. I take it that she’s mad at us, I yell. Then I cup my ear to hear him talk, and close to him I bend.
He trembles in the wind and winks once more as I hear him say: It’s the way we build, the message that we send. Come one, come all! Don’t visit for the day. We’ve built this place for your convenience. We insist that you must stay!
The beach, the real one, you see, is nearly, quite clearly, reaching
The Very End