While Rita was in the water there was a shark sighting. The red flag was raised on the pole by the lifeguard station, up where the sand covers the thick grey roots of the sea grape that hold the dunes together, and the path that leads to the parking lot where Sedge had parked his car.
He’d come up the pressed-pine boardwalk by the bathrooms and the outdoor showers, where blond-haired girls in bikini tops, braces, and board shorts rinsed their feet; past the dirty sand playground and the strip of coarse St Augustine grass along the road that separated the ocean beach from the intra-coastal.
The lifeguards, in red bathing suits and white shirts, steered their dune buggies down to the water and waved the bathers out. The low waves curled in slowly; the water was warm for March and the beach was crowded.
Rita came out, running, dripping; breathing heavily, sand sticking to her legs, and in her hair. She dried off and wrapped the towel around her thick waist. Looking at Sedge all the while.
She told him she thought they should leave.
People stood, shading their eyes against the glare, some under wide beach umbrellas, looking out to where a flurry of gulls hovered. Where they thought they would see the shark.
Sedge figured it’d be Katharine the Great. The great white he tracks with an app on his cell. She’d been pinging for a week off of Jacksonville and then two days ago once off of Vero.
Rita had been married to a guy who had flown for TWA. Then Delta. He was away more than he was home. She lives alone now. Sedge never got the full story about him. He thinks of TWA flight 800 that went down off Long Island when he was living there and then the plane that went down in the Potomac one winter evening.
‘Sedgewick’, she said. ‘Let’s go now. Please. I don’t want to stay here any more.’
Too often, she reminded him of all of the needs and pleas, and personal debris he’d left behind in one place or another.
‘You go’, he told her. He offered to meet her for a drink later, up the coast, nearer to her rental. At a bar off of A1A where they met one night and where they danced for hours in the dusty parking lot and where she asked him what he did for a living. He said he was an ethologist.
The lifeguards rode up and down on the hard sand where the water was blue white. Clear. Like in ads for Bermuda.
Rita says she wants them to go to Bermuda. To get away.
Though he knows exactly what she means, he says, ‘You think there are no sharks in Bermuda?’
‘No, that’s not it. I don’t mean now. Someday.’
‘Someday.’ He says, ‘Maybe when I can afford it,’ thinking that that would appease her.
‘We can afford it. Maybe you can just pay it off over time.’
‘We?’ he thinks? He cannot see himself going on a trip with her. It’s not the money. At some point he will have to find a way to let her know that.
Katharine had been tagged in 2013 in Cape Cod. She makes her way south from there or maybe Nova Scotia each winter. Alone. And then back up north in the summers. Three thousand miles each way.
He says, ‘I like it here.’
The red flags are still up but some people begin to pack up their chairs and coolers. Disinterested, now that they had missed seeing a big one. Seeing what it might have done.
Rita has fallen asleep on her towel. He doesn’t wake her. He slips on his Yankees hat with the tightly curved brim pulled low above his eyes and he walks down the beach, thinking he might go in.
Sometimes, on afternoons like this with Rita, sometimes with others, he feels like he just wants to disappear. To keep walking. Mostly, though, he walks only a mile or so, weaving in and out of the surf, skittering pipers.
Men with grey hair, rough, grizzled feet, and sun-browned skin like his nod to him in their Panama’s and Salt Life tee shirts as they pass. He nods back. They share a kind of smile that younger men do not.
He once drove down to Key West looking for something: a new life. One different from the one he’d been dragging along behind him for fifty years. He ate hogfish like the locals and drank beer and mojitos like he heard Hemingway had done, and looked at the women: the women looking for men who were looking for women.
That lasted for just so long. Long enough for him to figure that it wasn’t 1935 anymore and that he didn’t like mojitos, or fishing, and he wasn’t a Hemingway and never would be one.
When he gets back to his spot by the lifeguard shack, the sun is low and the red-gold color that makes the greens look greener and his face look younger.
The flags are down.
The lifeguards have left.
The shadows of the sea grape are long across the beach, and Rita has gone.
One thought on “Looking for Katharine the Great”
Joe, you are really good at making us care about and despise your characters at the same time — see also Polacek. Will see you in a couple of weeks!