The dead fishermen washed up on the jetty on a Friday evening in July. No one recognized the three of them although if you’ve ever seen someone who drowned you know that they don’t look the same.
My friend Bert and I were on the boardwalk when we saw the commotion. It started with a couple who went out on the jetty to have a romantic picnic and found the bodies and ended with the arrival of cops and a Coast Guard cutter. I could still see the picnic basket out there, a dot on the horizon next to the bodies laying under a tarp.
Word spread quickly along the beach that the bodies were fishermen. Their clothing gave them away.
“Maybe there’s more of ‘em, Alice,” Bert said, licking his chocolate ice cream cone. The ice cream was leaving two streaks of brown on the sides of his mouth, giving him a vertical moustache. I would have pointed this out to anyone else but Bert wouldn’t care. He’s a natural born slob.
“Dunno,” I replied, feeling a bit sickened by the whole thing.
I lived here my whole life and this was the first time in my short fifteen years I saw human bodies wash up on shore. We had dead sharks, sea gulls and jelly fish scattered among the shells but this was different.
Our beachfront wasn’t large by most standards. Most of the sand eroded away during the last hurricane ten years ago and although some was replaced it seemed to be a losing battle. Pelican Beach’s beach was shrinking and the locals started calling the beach itself Pelican Breach because of all the legal wrangling that went on at town meetings. The new condo owners, whose units touched the north side of the beach complained that they didn’t spend all that money to have nowhere to sunbathe except on an eroded piece of private beach while those who used the public beach like my family wanted to buy back what little beach was left that was sold to the condo owners.
I personally felt like God owned the beach anyhow. It just never seemed right to me to have to turn around when my foot touched the tiny piece of sand marked “No Trespassing! Private beach – For condo owners only”. Having grown up in Pelican Beach, the loss of the north part of our shoreline still caused me heartache and I’d learned to avoid going near it.
“Race you!” Bert yelled, tossing his unfinished cone onto the boardwalk. He ducked under the metal barrier and dropped down onto the sand of the beach.
I followed slowly. I knew I could easily beat Bert because I ran sprints on the girls’ high school track team. So I gave him a head start, watching as his gangly legs pumped up sand as he headed toward the water. As I dropped to the beach from the boardwalk, I looked over at the jetty again.
I watched as two of the cops lifted the bodies up, placing them into the back of a yellow dune buggy.
“C’mon!” Bert yelled. He was nearing the water now and running backwards, watching me.
I ran toward him and we both pushed each other into the waves, flailing our arms around like baby sea lions. Bert was wearing a red pair of swim trunks which I grabbed at the waist and tried to pull down as he reached for my halter top. I cut him off with a karate chop with one hand as we both fell into a wave. With the other hand I managed to yank down his swim trunks to his knees and he stood up before realizing it.
“Alice!” he shouted, running onto the beach, tripping over his trunks and comically trying to cover himself by pulling them back up.
I pointed and laughed, then swam into the next wave. The water was cold for July but it was late in the day. I could see the sun beginning to set as I turned over on my back and rode a few small waves.
“What now?” I heard Bert suddenly ask as he paddled up next to me. Then I too recognized the hum of a helicopter above. It must be from the nearby Coast Guard base, I thought, peering up into the sky.
But it was a Channel 8 news copter hovering near the jetty. “Guess they caught drift of our beach news,” I said.
“Real funny. I hope they didn’t catch me running around the beach naked.”
“The dead bodies are much more interesting,” I said, rolling over and peering back at the jetty. The dune buggy was making its way off the jetty slowly, creeping toward the beach. “Always wanted a ride in that dune buggy.”
“Heck of a way to get it,” Bert said. “My last dying wish – to ride in the dune buggy.”
We both went silent as the dune buggy reached the beach, made a right and drove only yards away from us toward the nearest street entrance. Bert made a mock salute and I yanked his hand down. “Stop that.”
“What? I was honoring the dead.”
“It’s not funny,” I said, heading out of the water.
“What? You’re leaving?”
“I don’t feel like swimming right now.” When my toes reached the sand of the beach I began to run. I ran along the beach toward the jetty, intent on passing it without looking. I kept running faster, suddenly annoyed by my inability to go blank like Coach Jenkins told me to. “Leave everything else behind you as you run,” he always told us as we took off for a race. “Put it all out in front- that’s what counts.”
But it wasn’t working right now. I kept picturing the bloated bodies of the fishermen. Did they have kids? Maybe teens my age? Or were they barely adults themselves, maybe kids I went to high school with a year ago? Where were they from? And what made their boat capsize?
So I concentrated on what was in front of me – each step my right foot took, my left foot. As my foot landed I heard the sound the sand made and felt the grains between my toes. On my right I overheard the ocean lapping at the shore like a scattered crowd urging me on.
It was too late when I realized I had crossed the line into the north part of the beach, the private strip owned by the condo association. By the time I saw the dark blue awning of their club house, I had long passed their “No Trespassing” sign.
I came to a complete halt in front of their club house and stood like a deer frozen in the lights of an oncoming vehicle.
“Young lady,” a voice said behind me.
I turned and saw an elderly woman standing there. She was wearing one of those old fashioned bathing caps. It was white and had pink and yellow plastic flowers on top. To this day I can’t remember what else she was wearing. I just stared at that ghastly bathing cap, fixated because my grandmother used to wear one of those when she took me to the beach before she died.
And I began to cry uncontrollably. I stood there, tears streaming down my face.
“Now, now,” the woman said, putting her hand on my back. “It’s alright, dear.”
“But they’re dead,” I sobbed.
“Who’s dead?” she asked.
“The fishermen. On the jetty.” I pointed feebly toward the jetty in the distance and saw the woman strain to look over.
“A news copter. I suppose Pelican Breach will be filmed for posterity tonight,” she said lightly.
I smiled weakly, wiping away my tears.
“My name is Shirley. My husband was a fisherman,” she said, sitting down on a perfectly white wooden bench in front of the club house. “He ran Captain Jack’s fishing and sightseeing boats for many years.”
“Your husband was Captain Jack?” I asked. It never occurred to me that any of the condo owners were locals. “So why do you live here?”
“Well, my husband and I spent all our money on his boats. We rented. And when he died I wanted to be close to Pelican Beach so I bought a condo.” She patted the bench and I sat down next to her. We stared out at the ocean together for a few minutes. “Those fishermen – do you think the sea took them deliberately?”
“No,” I said emphatically. “Their boat probably capsized – in an accident. Or they had a mechanical failure.”
“My husband used to say that the sea claims its own. He felt it was an honor to die at sea. Not an honor he especially wanted to happen too soon, mind you. But he asked to be buried at sea. And I’ll bet you those men’s families might wind up returning them to the waters, strange as that might seem.”
I peered out over the ocean. The oranges, reds and light purple hues of sunset now framed the darkening waters. It all seemed so peaceful that it was difficult to piece together that the sea could drown anyone. It seemed more likely to sing them a lullaby.
“I suppose the sea doesn’t make a bad resting place,” I said.
“Could do worse. Let’s take a walk,” she suggested.
So, arm in arm, we strode along the now private north beach together, picking up shells, comparing our finds. When I picked up an almost intact conch, I handed it to Shirley. “You better take this. I wouldn’t want to get in trouble since I found it here.”
“Take it,” Shirley said, frowning. We walked along a bit. “I think,” she said, “you should know that I’m selling my condo next week.”
“Why?” I held the conch up to my ear to hear the sea.
“When I bought the condo, I had this romantic notion that I could own a piece of the beach at last,” Shirley said.
“I don’t think people can ever own a beach, “ I said.
Shirley’s sighed. “Well we could debate that point. Technically I have a piece of paper that says I own where you’re standing. But I am weary of defending my 1/32 portion of land.” She turned and stared out at the sea. “It’s not just that locals like you feel we took away your beach. It’s that the ocean is nipping away at it too. Some days it seems as if someone is trying to tell me something. Perhaps God is taking back the beach.”
I shrugged and waved my arm toward the rest of the shoreline. “The whole beach is eroding, not just up here.”
“Less for all. And I suppose I don’t want to be a part of that.”
It was dark now. “I need to go home,” I said suddenly, cradling the conch in my left hand and putting my right hand out awkwardly to shake hers. “It was very nice to meet you, Shirley. And thanks for talking to me about the fishermen.”
She pushed my hand down and embraced me in a bear hug, holding onto me a long while. “There. Take the conch with you as a sign of conquest over the condo people. Show it off to your local friends. “
“I will,” I said, smiling as I ran back down the beach, past the “No Trespassing” sign.
“Where were you?” Bert asked, emerging from the shadows.
“North beach,” I said, falling into a leisurely walk by his side.
“And you took that?” he asked, yanking the conch out of my hands, turning it over. Shrugging, he said “Lucky you didn’t get caught.”
“It’s from the sea,” I said. “It doesn’t belong to any particular beach.”
“Let’s race!” Bert yelled, taking off.
I smiled and waited a few moments before following him.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan