High School Teacher Edith Baker vacations with eight other teacher friends at Daytona Beach, Florida each Summer with a double purpose; the private getaway beyond the women's shared good times being far more precious.
The elevator doors opened. In a wild scramble, eight middle-aged women burst forth from the confines of the mirrored cubical into the hotel lobby; a few shouting, some laughing, all talking at once.
Edith Baker looked forward to these few vacation days each summer at the familiar beach hotel with her accustomed work/play companions, not so much because of their time spent together as time spent apart. And-- had anyone noticed to ask— she would have had difficulty explaining the expression of excited anticipation on her face when the group’s first breakfast buffet together ended.
It was a little before nine when the chattering flock of high school teachers rode down from the restaurant atop the resort hotel, their high-pitched voices echoing through the hotel’s lobby as they separated into chattering clutches and headed off in different directions. Four sun worshippers, in appropriate swimwear with classic cover-ups, flocked onto the beach carrying oversized towels, trendy water bottles, and current bestseller books—early birds seeking an unclaimed umbrella. Three sightseers in walking shorts, tee shirts, and matching baseball caps, two of them casually dangling disposable drugstore cameras from their wrists, squeaked their way through the double glass doors in Reeboks and Nikés to the tour bus waiting in the portico, their destination clearly displayed, thereon: INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY RACE MUSEUM.
Left behind in the lobby throbbing with activity, the remaining member of the obstreperous group smiled, thankfully, at the on-duty desk clerk, whose name tag announced, invitingly: “Melinda. Ask me!” |
“Sorry, Melinda, if our party seems overly exuberant this trip. It seems the older we get the louder we become. We forget we’re not the only guests, here.”
Melinda reached for the jangling phone as, with wide-eyed sincerity, she assured the regular yearly guest, “No problem, Mrs. Baker, no problem, at all! Good morning, Hotel Windward. Melinda speaking. How may I help you?” Melinda listened for a moment, then replied, “No problem, sir, we accept all major credit cards.”
Mrs. Baker turned away. How true ! These days, nothing seems to be a problem anymore for anyone! Not anymore! Not for anyone! Mrs. Baker mulled over the modern idiom, curiously: “No problem” it seemed, worked for everybody, everywhere, in every situation, except in her high school English class.
The universally accepted “Thank you” once received a reciprocal, “You’re welcome.” The apology, “I’m sorry” once received a generous, “Oh, that’s all right” or “Think nothing of it.” But, not anymore. Now, the answer to anything and everything was, “No problem!”
Mrs. Baker, typically attired in her vacation white slacks and matching baggy shirt, carried no book nor towel, no drugstore camera nor trendy water bottle. She walked outside and circled the crystal clear unoccupied swimming pool just once. Glancing out at the broad, white sand beach, she pinpointed her companions’ location and waved acknowledgement before heading off, alone, up the vacant stretch of beach away from Hotel Row and towards the quieter deserted sands.
Under a dazzling sun, she paused long enough to tie her sandals together and sling them over her shoulder, immediately enjoying the squeak of warm sand between her bare toes, the song of the sea breeze in her ears, and the delicate salty taste of ocean spray.
It always seemed so long between trips! She reached up and removed her coif-controlling combs, releasing her long, naturally curly but artificially blonde hair to blow free in the ocean breeze…once more, celebrating yesterdays.
“I’m coming, Sam!” she shouted, lightheartedly, and immediately began to pick up her pace. Once more, she had managed to slip away from her vacationing companions for that very special, very private annual meeting, completely undiscovered.
From such a distance, the aging palmetto thatched open-sided fishing shack set back against the dunes appeared more mirage than substance. It seemed to waver like an illusion before her squinting eyes but as she drew nearer she remembered that it truly was a simple hut of only modest proportions. The faded sign over the broad entrance still read: “Sam Pepper’s Place,” though fainter now.
Having chased her mirage for well over two miles, she was finally gratified that the shanty lay only yards away. It had never looked like it offered much in the way of comfort even when it was lovingly built forty-plus years ago, back when oceanfront property was far less precious than today.
But she knew from more recent visits that the shack offered much more than shade for her, and the tinkle of ice against glass coming from inside was most persuasive as she stepped into the cool shadows of Sam Pepper’s Place.
Moments after settling gratefully into a complaining wicker chair, she poured a tall glass of iced jasmine tea from a large-mouthed thermos that had been placed on her wobbly wicker table. The tea was delightfully fragrant and refreshing after her long trek, just as she had known it would be. Yes, the routine was always the same. Always, exactly as she had called head and requested that it be.
The other occupant of the hut — the gangly, bewhiskered, white-haired man holding the other tinkling glass — sat looking out to sea from the only other table. Halfway through her cooling drink when he turned to look at her, she acknowledged him with a smile and a nod.
He cocked his head and, grinning, finally spoke. “How’s your tea? Sweet enough? Need more ice? Want a refill? I saw you come in, you know.”
She marveled at the briskness of the sea breeze, and how Sam Pepper had managed to hold onto his gracious smile all this time. “Thank you, no,” she replied, politely. “My tea is fine.”
He nodded. “Long as you’re sure. I can see you get more if you’d like. I mean, for free, of course.” He grinned broadly then, folding new creases into a time-leathered face.
“Maybe later,” she smiled back at him.
“Name’s Sam Pepper— same as on the sign,” he said, a little embarrassed. “I mean—that’s why I asked about your drink. I’m not just being forward or anything like that.”
“I understand,” she smiled, putting him at ease by turning her attention to the antics of a small white sea bird chasing foam along the water’s edge.
She sat back and allowed the accumulated worry and strain of the past year to flow from her. Sam looked better than she had anticipated. Older, sure — but not sickly. It was good to be back with him again.
“Actually, I was hoping you’d like to talk some,” he offered, unexpectedly. “Of course, I won’t bother you if you’d rather I didn’t. It’s just that I don’t get too many chances to talk to new people, and I do enjoy talking.”
“Of course, I’d love to talk, Mr. Pepper,” she answered, warmly. “My name is Edith Baker. You may call me Edith, if you’d like.”
“If you’ll call me ‘Sam,’” he agreed, chuckling at his good fortune. He moved to join her at her table. They talked amiably, then, sharing lunch from a picnic basket Edith found tucked beneath Sam’s abandoned table.
They shared unrestrained childlike laughter and silly anecdotes. After all, Sam was only five years older than Edith. They talked of little things: ice cream cones with twin heads—made to carry double scoops; and red and black licorice whips; and jaw breakers—multicolored, as they shrank; and big, red wax lips that tasted of peppermint when you finally chewed them.
They dredged up bits and pieces of adolescent joys, of backyard swings and roller skates. Of youthful flirtations. Of singularly happy moments in marriage. Maturing families—grown and scattered and growing still—no names, no places, no specifics.
No mention of Sam’s divorce.
When the sun finally slid behind the dunes, stretching the shack’s long shadow on the wet sand until it reached the incoming tide’s orange and red shallows, Edith knew it was time to go.
She stood, fighting back tears that would have come unbidden at their parting, if allowed. “I must get back to the hotel before dark, Sam Pepper. I’ve enjoyed our visit — more than you know.” She held out both hands towards Sam. “Would it be forward of me to ask for a hug before I go? I haven’t had a good hug…since I don’t remember when! I just think it would feel really good, you know?”
“Me, too,” Sam agreed — breaking into another, seemingly, affectionate grin as he opened his arms to her.
“I know,” Edith said, and she wrapped her arms around her brother and held him very, very close for a long and loving moment. Life happens to us, all, Edith reasoned, bracing for this separation. But she would not feel sadness nor unhappiness, leaving Sam. Their visit today, as always, had been a joyous celebration of their lives! No funereal dirges or tearful elegies for them.
“I come here when I need to restore my spirit,” Sam had said to her of the oceanside hut one summer thirty or thirty-five years ago, when he was bright and capable. “Isn’t that what brings you here, Sis?” he had asked, stretching his strong, browned body in the sun.
Remembering, now, she whispered, “No, Sam Pepper, it’s you, who continues to bring me here. You restore my spirit.”
The van would be back again by now, waiting in the parking lot above the dunes. The driver, standing on the rise, watching for her signal, would fetch Sam up to the van and ultimately back again to the nursing home.
There, where the kindly doctor in the Alzheimer’s wing, when she had asked for Sam’s prognosis, had said, “My dear, there are no guarantees. Not even for tomorrow. Not for Sam — not for any one of us.”
She stepped from the shack, waved to the waiting driver, and watched as he began his descent down the sea-oat strewn sandy path that ended beside Sam’s shack.
Having completed this well-planned and finely executed routine four times before, she was certainly well acquainted with it by now. Over her shoulder she called out loudly to the driver without looking back, “Thank you! You’ve been very kind!” Then she set out on her long hike back to the hotel.
“You’re very welcome, ma’am. It was my pleasure!” came the young driver’s crisp reply.
Abruptly, Edith Baker stopped still and reveled in the wonder of that second momentous experience of the day.
Her incredulous, jubilant laughter carried on the ocean breeze until she reached the hotel; and when she entered the busy lobby, windblown, shoeless, and out of breath, Melinda asked in a concerned tone from behind the desk, “Is everything all right, Mrs. Baker?”
Edith Baker, renewed and exhilarated by her triumphant day, punched the “UP” elevator button and assured Melinda, “No problem, Melinda, absolutely no problem, at all!”
--Published in Mature Years Magazine, Fall, 2000