Another piece of Reality Fiction.
It was a perfect beach day. It was just hot enough that the mild breeze was not really needed. When Brad had taken his salt-stained Hobie out for a sail early that morning, the opaque green water was at room temperature, with a light chop on the surface. Nice. The background rhythm of the waves finding shore was hypnotizing, and the sound of the “winged rats” fighting over trash scraps nearby was very beachily seagully. As he lay back on his chair with the sun rat-a-tatting on his face, he began to feel totally relaxed. He needed to. This week had been rough, and the next one would be worse. He squished the sand beneath his toes and turned up the volume of the music on his iPhone, found a beer in the cooler, and opened his book. Now, that was multi-tasking.
He heard their approach through his earbuds from stage right.
“Morty, did you bring the shrimp salad?” the woman inquired.
“Yeah, whadda you think?”
“That you’d forget it again.”
“That was ten years ago. Gimme a break, Sheila. Geesh.”
“Let’s put the towels here.”
“Do I have to draw you a picture? Here!”
Morty dropped some hotel towels and a beach bag a few yards away. He looked over at Brad and then back at the inadequately-sized towels before spreading them on the sand. He adjusted his Speedo unselfconsciously. The gut hanging over them seemed sadly unanchored. Not worrying about the perceptions of others for a change felt nice to him, to the detriment of those that witnessed this manifestation of it.
“Sheila, ya need some lotion?”
“Of course I need lotion,” Sheila said nasally. She raised her whiny voice a level. “Kids, you’re not getting in the water until you get your Coppertone. Get over here. Now!”
Two pasty-looking children wearing orange water-wings ran up excitedly, kicking up sand as they came. They came close enough to Brad that he received a generous portion of it.
“Crap!” Brad said silently, trying futilely to brush away the grit that now covered his body. He looked over at the intruders for any semblance of apology, but they were oblivious. Sheila squirted the wriggly kids randomly from a brown bottle as they first filled their buckets with sand, then dumped it back out. They looked rheumatically pale.
When she felt that the children were sufficiently slathered, Sheila called out an order: “Morty, get my back.” Tourists’ love for suntan lotion overuse helped to keep the swim shops profitable. The kids, sensing their release, ran noisily back to the water.
“Ya want it now, or after the shrimp salad?” Morty said, expectantly.
“Did I ask for it after the shrimp salad?”
“Alright. Geesh. Lemme get the sand outta my socks first.”
Sheila lit a cigarette. “We need to pay for another day tomorrow.”
Morty dumped the sand out of a sock, then put it back on, followed by a sandal. He repeated the action with the other foot. “Okay, I‘m done,” he reported.
Morty lumbered over to Sheila, who had flipped onto her stomach on one of the towels. Smoke rose from her cigarette, fouling the fresh ocean smell.
“Am I s’posed to do this while that’s lit?”
“It’s not oil, you moron. Put it on.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know. Geesh.”
“That girl in the deli said that their shrimp salad is rated the best in town.” Sheila declared. “We’ll see. How good can it be in a city this size?” Virginia Beach, though the largest city in the state, constantly drew criticism from Northeastern visitors for its lack of “big-city” badinerie. This supposed inconvenience didn’t stop them from visiting in such herds that they comprised the largest demographic group in the city’s vacation industry, though.
Sheila threw what was left of her lit cigarette over her shoulder, narrowly missing Brad. He disbelievingly watched the potentially dangerous still-lit butt fly by his head. He shook his head, disgusted.
“Crap!” Brad exploded, aloud this time. “Damn tourists!” He glared at the couple and walked to the water. He needed to wash away the sand that now covered him, anyway. The tourists, seemingly clueless to their own coarseness, did not appear to notice either his anger or his exit.
Brad waded through the ocean for a few yards, then plunged in fully, slowly swimming deeper and deeper. He began to relax again. He had been exposed to out-of-towners ever since he could remember, so he had a pretty high tolerance level for them. He knew that they were a necessary evil in a resort town that depended on the cash flow that they generated, but he still got annoyed at their ways occasionally. It was more like the mosquito on a camping trip type of irritation than anything else, though. A few more minutes alone in the ocean, and he would be fine.
Brad started the swim back to the shore with a casual sidestroke. After a few minutes, he realized that he wasn’t going anywhere. He began treading water, puzzled. Oh, an undertow! Undertows were a constant occurrence in any beach town with active wave action, and were usually not very dangerous. They were tricky, though. Brad had failed to pay attention to conditions, which was a critical factor in the beach-going equation. He remembered that two lifeguards had drowned just the year trying to save someone caught in one. Brad had been a good swimmer for his entire life, but that did not translate into anything but better odds.
Brad began swimming parallel to the shore, as he knew that you were supposed to. Every few yards he felt himself being pulled back and under, so he would stop and tread water until he got his strength back. He abandoned his weak sidestroke and alternated the stronger freestyle and backstroke, sometimes just floating a bit when he got really winded.
Brad attempted a route toward shore again after he had gone a hundred yards or so. It worked! He had broken free! He began to freestyle it again, taking his time. After about fifteen minutes, he was able to touch bottom, so he waded the rest of the way to the beach. He had to walk a long way back to his previous spot, but was so glad to have somehow endured the ordeal that the hike didn’t bother him.
When Brad finally reached his beach chair, he fell on it, exhausted. He groped in the cooler for another cold beer, drained it, and put on his earbuds. Whew! It was a quiet struggle for his life, but a real one, nonetheless. Brad closed his eyes and took a deep breath, silently thanking God for his survival. He felt a few drops of water hitting his face. He opened his eyes.
Peering down at him were the faces of two children, one on each side. They were staring at him expectantly. One of them was holding a dripping object in his outstretched hand, directly over Brad’s head.
“Mister, what is this?” he said.
“Yeah, what is this?” parroted his little brother.
Brad looked at it. “It’s a sand crab. Go see your mother.” He lay back in the chair with his eyes closed again, turning up the volume on his iPhone.
Despite the loud music blaring through his earbuds, he could still hear the tourists.
“I don’t care that guy over there said.” sniveled Sheila. “Go play by the water, and throw that thing in there, or we’re going back to the room.”
The kids scampered off in a mini-column.
“Did you see that guy in the ocean?” said Morty, throwing a thumb toward Brad.
“Yeah, he was in there a long time.”
“I didn’t even know that it was him until we finished lunch,” Morty offered sincerely. “I thought that he was a shark.”
“There was too much celery in the shrimp salad. “ Sheila observed. “Plus, the mayonnaise wasn’t homemade. It was a rip-off.”
“The shrimp tasted fresher than at home, though.” Morty defended. “Plus, the crackers were good.”
“Gawd, you’re an idiot.”
Brad silently prayed for a sprinkle. Even a short rain always sent the tourists to their rooms. Locals like Brad knew that a cloudburst at the beach was usually just a momentary refresher, so they stayed in place. It was really important for him to relax, especially now.
Brad’s highly-anticipated trip to Manhattan was finally happening. Brad had recently been named the IT manager of the year in his division for the fifth consecutive time, and had been asked to interview for a regional manager position. It paid almost double his current salary, and it also came with great benefits. Most importantly, getting the job would free him financially to finally marry his college sweetheart and start his family, which he badly wanted to do. Marrying Janie just felt totally right to him now–it was time in his life for the next big step. He had been stressed out for weeks about this interview, which would take place in five minutes. He sat silently in his company’s Manhattan corporate office, trying to stay calm.
Brad’s briefcase held a plethora of performance charts, award confirmations, and testimonials from his major clients. It even contained a PowerPoint presentation that he had carefully prepared summarizing his accomplishments, just in case. Unfortunately, the company required that he fly to New York, and he had a profound fear of flying anywhere. He usually took AMTRAK to avoid the feeling of a total lack of control, but since corporate had sent him plane tickets, he had no choice.
He made it there, though; the Valium had worked, basically knocking him out from departure to arrival. In fact, Brad had still been somewhat looped upon his alighting in the city yesterday. Today, though, he was typically confident and highly alert. He was nervous but knew that was normal.
“Mr. Jackson? Mr. Grant will see you now,” chirped the CEO’s attractive secretary.
“Thank you,” said Brad, striding confidently toward the open office door.
He quickly scanned the CEO’s opulent surroundings. “Boy, it’s bigger than my first apartment,” Brad said to himself. Sunlight filled the corner office, making him blink.
A large well-dressed man stood up behind an even larger desk and forwarded his hand. “Mr. Jackson? I’m Mr. Grant,” he said enthusiastically. “We‘ve been looking forward to meeting you. Please take a seat.”
Brad sat on the edge of the overstuffed chair, his briefcase beside him. He watched anxiously as Mr. Grant’s eyes scanned his resume, making small talk as he did so.
“I trust that you had a pleasant flight and that your lodgings proved comfortable. Did you find a nice restaurant last night? We’ve got thousands here in Manhattan.”
“Well, not really,” Brad admitted. “I got in after nine last night and had to be here early, so I just ordered Domino’s. I ate a great bagel sandwich in the cab this morning, though.”
“Domino’s?” Mr. Grant said incredulously. “At nine? In the city that never sleeps?”
“I didn’t t-think about it, sir. In Virginia Beach, most places stop serving food after eight.”
“Virginia Beach? I was just there last week.” Mr. Grant took off his glasses and squinted at him. “Funny, I didn’t even notice that on your resume. It’s a nice city, but a bit parochial, don’t you think?” He looked at Brad more closely. “You look familiar, and I didn’t even go by the branch. Odd.”
Brad examined the nameplate in front of him. Mortimer Grant, it declared.
His eyes shot to the photograph on the credenza behind Mr. Grant. It was of Sheila and the two brats!
Brad hadn’t recognized Morty in his tailor-made suit and perfectly groomed haircut, but he tried to stay cool. “Well, Virginia Beach is kinda old-fashioned, but it is my hometown.” He pointed to the picture. “Nice family. Are they yours?”
Morty burst out in laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s my big sister Sheila and her kids. Dad left the majority share of the company to her in his will. You’d never know it, but we’re very close. In fact, making me the CEO here was her first act after taking over last year.”
“You really should stick around for another day to meet her,” Morty continued. “She’s the one that took me to Virginia Beach last week after Raoul and I split, to cheer me up. I wanted to go to a place where I could mourn the issues in my private life anonymously, and she loves that place. She and her ex used to go there all of the time.”
“Since we have that trade-off arrangement with the Hilton on the Beach now, it also makes fiscal sense for us to go there—it’s cheap,” Morty further explained. “We just spent a week there in an oceanfront suite, charged everything to the room, and it cost us nothing but a few hours of future IT consulting time. I plan to strongly encourage all of our managers to go to the Hilton there when they need to unwind. A relaxed manager is good business.”
Brad had a “eureka” moment. He had been going to the private beach at the Hilton as often as he could ever since his branch had landed the resort’s IT accounts six months ago. Their beach was clean and sparsely crowded, and their seafood restaurant was great, so he liked to take advantage of one of his company’s managerial perks by utilizing their client’s luxury services. The low probability of his having encountered the big bosses from corporate at his hometown beach now made sense–the Hilton there was becoming the company’s retreat! Brad thought it best to maintain a low profile about their previous anonymous encounter and to keep his focus on landing the regional manager position, so he remained silent.
“You have to promise me one thing, though.” Morty continued, now looking at Brad seriously. “Listen carefully. Your career depends on it.”
“A-a-anything!” Brad stammered.
“This company values top managers who can think critically and act quickly on correcting mistakes. Don’t ignore the fully-stocked limo that we send to you and end up eating a bagel in a smelly cab. Be sure to take the car tomorrow. Also, find a nice restaurant for dinner. They’re everywhere.” Morty grinned. “Domino’s, honestly.” He shook his head.