by Beth Browne
It was written on a small plastic table in a shaky pencil stroke: Sandy’s table. I think that’s how I guessed his name. It wasn’t until much later that we found out his real name. He commanded a spot on the beach near the parking lot of the vacation rentals, tucked into a V-shaped section of unpainted picket fencing whose original purpose was to protect the dunes. On the far side of the “V” he had a large piece of driftwood decorated with shells. He had collected some nice large whelks, a piece of an iridescent fan and a few of those big sand colored clams that are so common on Carolina beaches.
He always had two chairs set up, with the table between them, often laid with a battery-operated radio set to an AM news/talk station and his large red plastic restaurant water cup filled with warm beer. Along with these he kept a small cooler, a white five-gallon bucket and a tackle box. Some days he fished. Some days he set up his stuff at the water’s edge but judged the fishing no good and never put out a line. Maybe he didn’t have bait that day.
One day we went up to what my kids called The Beach Store. A block from the beach, the kids thought it was beyond cool to be able to go in a store with no shoes on. Beach stores have special rules, I explained. We needed some sunscreen because I had neglected to bring any since it was December. I hadn’t expected the mild stretch of weather we were enjoying.
I asked Sandy if he needed anything at the store. He took me aside while the kids ran circles around us and said he was embarrassed to ask me. I tried to imagine what he could possibly want that would be embarrassing. Condoms? That would be embarrassing. Hemorrhoid medicine: Also very embarrassing. Maybe he wanted me to buy him beer. Would I refuse?
“When you go in,” he explained sotto voce as the kids flew off down the sand, “to the left of the door, behind the counter.” Oh dear, I thought, here it comes. “There is a little case of sandwiches. Turkey is good. They are wrapped in plastic, you know?” I breathed. A sandwich. A sandwich is embarrassing? I guess if you’re living on the beach, having to ask for food is embarrassing.
Up at the store, we picked out packages of cheese crackers for the kids, admired a colorful plastic fishing set and paid too much for sunscreen and a sandwich. At the last minute we picked out a package of mini chocolate covered donuts as a treat.
Back across the squeaky sand, we delivered the sandwich to Sandy where he sat contemplating the surf, but not fishing. He got a big kick out of the donuts and joined the kids in consuming several. The tide was coming in and threatening the little table and chairs so the kids and I pitched in and helped him shift up the beach. I took the extra chair as if it were there just for me. Maybe it was. It was a green plastic molded chair and the arm was broken. It was still good for sitting and I was quite pleased to have a chair and not have to sit on the sand and get my butt wet. I had not thought to bring a beach chair to the beach in December.
While the kids splashed in the surf and fed crackers to the ever-growing flock of sea birds, Sandy pulled out his wallet, a fat handful of leather, cards, papers and whatnot. He showed me a photo of his ten-year-old daughter and said she had been “Miss Folly Beach” some years back. He was very proud of her and remarked on her beauty as he gazed at the photo. I wondered what his eyes looked like behind his mirrored sunglasses. His skin was very dark from the sun and he was missing more than a few teeth. I wondered what he was like ten years ago and what woman had become pregnant by him. He called her his wife and I wondered what woman would marry this man. From the wad in his hand, he produced a blank piece of paper and asked for our address. I pulled out a pen and gave it to him.
One day we saw him in the parking lot. For a minute I didn’t recognize the man with the lovely blue eyes. I had never seen him without his sunglasses. I wondered how old he was, my age? And I wondered whether he had once been handsome, with his blue eyes and a tan. He told me once that he was a Cherokee Medicine Man and I thought it was entirely possible. He was a quiet, thoughtful man who seemed not to have an aggressive bone in his body.
The next day he took me aside again. I tensed. “It’s embarrassing,” he said again. Oh dear, I thought, what now? “Now, I don’t mean to be critical, now,” he began in his Lowcountry drawl. “That sandwich was OK,” he shook his head and held out three fingers, “But man, three dollars for that sandwich is just too much.” Ah, a kindred spirit! While I fervently agreed with him, he went on to explain that for three dollars I could get a whole loaf of white bread and a package of turkey and he could make six sandwiches. He knew exactly how many slices of bread were in a loaf and the cost. I had no trouble persuading the kids to make the hike to the store with me.
I vacillated over whole wheat vs. white and settled on white. I knew that was what he wanted because he had told me how much it cost. Exactly. $1.49. The whole wheat was more money, but I worried about embarrassing him further by buying a more expensive loaf of bread. We got the loaf of white, the turkey, potato chips for the kids and a bigger box of donuts with a variety of toppings. At the checkout we picked up some postcards and a locally produced calendar with historic photos.
Sandy was delighted and we shared the donuts with two young men who had come on the scene while we were gone. Sandy introduced them by name, as his friends. At 10 am, they too carried mysterious beverages in brown paper bags. Were they headed for a life on the beach with no teeth? They couldn’t be much over 21 and they obviously knew Sandy fairly well. I wondered if they were the next generation of Sandys.
The day before we left, Sandy asked the kids if Santa was coming to see them. I could tell he was fishing around for information because he wanted to give them a Christmas gift. I caught my breath when he asked them if they had bicycles. He was begging money for food. Where did he think he was going to get a pair of bicycles? To my immense relief, the kids told him they already had bicycles and Sandy frowned in disappointment. Then he looked at the sand for a minute.
“What about scooters?” he asked. The kids looked at each other.
“Nope.” they said, no scooters. I started to protest that we don’t have a paved driveway to ride them on but Sandy continued.
Slapping his thigh in disbelief, he said, “You don’t have no scooters?”
Soberly, they shook their heads.
“Ya’ll come down tomorrow, now, before you go. Sandy’s gone have a present for you.”
I tried to think of a way to protest. I didn’t want to think about how Sandy would procure two scooters because I knew it would not involve an exchange of cash.
The next day I got up early and started packing. It was raining and Sandy was not in his usual spot. I thought we might get away without seeing him. I worried that the kids would be disappointed if he did not produce any scooters, although I had warned them not to get their hopes up.
As I went out to take a load to the car, he appeared. He helped me carry the bags down the stairs but said he would let me load the car. He sat in our deck chair and looked out at the sea through the drizzle while I hunted around for super balls and playing cards under the furniture.
When I locked the door to the condo, he became animated and insisted we “wait right there.” He disappeared and came back with two scooters. Slightly rusty, but perfectly serviceable, the kids were thrilled and rode in tight circles in the carport while Sandy and I looked on in amiable silence. I tried not to think about where the scooters had come from. Sandy was delighted to watch them whiz around each other until the time came to say goodbye. I put the scooters on top of the suitcases and shut the hatchback. The kids gave Sandy big thank-you hugs and told him they loved him.
“I love you, too,” he said, “and ya’ll write to Sandy, ya hear?”
While the kids were buckling up in the back seat, I gave Sandy a farewell hug and asked him what I could do for him. This time, he was not embarrassed.
“Kin ya spare me a twenty? A twenty’ll get me through the week.”
* * * *
We were all in a flurry over Christmas preparations two weeks later when the postcard arrived. It was dog-eared and unstamped, but somehow the post office had prevailed.
“Hey, miss U hope U have a great xmas I found 3 shark’s teeth I’ll send U 1. Can’t wait to see U again But we’ll keep in touch. Write me, send me your change so I can get some bait. Gone to have fish fry Fri. Write me ya’ll” On the other side of the card we learned that Sandy’s real name was Marvin. His address was General Delivery.
I couldn’t help but worry about Sandy. The weather had turned much colder and I wondered how he would manage on the beach in really freezing weather. The kids each tucked a precious dollar of their allowance in an envelope with a handmade thank-you card for the scooters. I put a twenty in mine. Maybe it’ll get him through one more week of living on the beach. Maybe he could buy his daughter a belated Christmas present. I know that you’re not supposed to give homeless people money. But in the end, all we really have to offer is friendship and love. And it seemed to me that that was all he really needed.
Bio: Beth Browne’s writing has been published in various print and online journals and she was the recipient of a 2008 Regional Artist Project Grant for Literature. Ms. Browne divides her time between her great grandfather’s 1887 farmhouse near Raleigh, NC and a charming cottage on the Eno River near Durham, NC. She is currently working on her seventh novel. Her blog is at: bbwomenswrites.blogspot.com.