He slips down Highway 98, a licorice strip of concrete hugging the coast along the Gulf of Mexico, before finally allowing his surroundings to seep in and relax him. This is, after all, where people come to decompress. You can't drive through this part of the country, with its soggy Southern charms and sand dollar currency, without your childhood rushing in to greet you. This is where families vacation — one weeklong landscape of pine and scrub, of blue skies and souvenir huts — and why parents work the other fifty-one of the year. It's what makes school and routine and the waiting bearable.
This is what Seth thinks of now as he drives, jittery with a day's worth of coffee and sugary snacks in his body. He recalls this route as an eight-year-old from the back seat of a Buick LeSabre, where he sat in the center and surveyed the land for 360 degrees. A wall of pine on both sides, that's what he remembers, punctuated by stand-alone gas stations, boiled peanut stands, and markets selling fresh seafood.
Seth likes driving at night when it's him alone for miles at a time. He enjoys the solitary feeling whether sitting behind the wheel of a car or in front of a television, a peculiarity of the only child. The sky is so black that it makes him feel almost completely alienated, as if the gas stations and roadside markets aren't there. I'm off the grid, he thinks. Even if it's only for the next ten miles, no one knows where he is. I am lost at sea. This is what Seth feels as he leans forward with his chest on the steering wheel to peer up through the windshield at the blackness and stars above him. " I'm dissolving, " he says out loud to no one.
All around him, off the road and past the pine and the darkness, is water. He can't see it, yet he knows it's there and it adds to the inkiness of night, to that sense of desolation. He stood on the beaches here as a child. It was the first time he'd ever seen so much water. All he could do was stare. Joe, his mother's friend, had pulled over at the first glimpse of emerald green so they could look. Even as Joe took his mother by the hand and the two ran through the bristly dunes to the water's receding edge, Seth could only stare.
Now he sits on the edge of the bed, a phone book open on his knees, and dials Joe's number as he watches a man chase his son in and out of the surf through the open sliding-glass door. The room is a cheap one in a motel right on the beach, a two-story drive-up with a pool and small tiki bar that he has to look past to see the water.
The phone rings until the receiver clicks in his ear and a man's automated voice, gravelly and barely on this side of sleep, comes through to tell the caller that if there is no answer then he "is probably over to Sloop's." There is no beep to signal leaving a message. Seth has never heard of such a thing.
Even with the door open wide, the room smells stale and musty like decades of cigarette smoke and low tide. Seth looks around at the cheap furnishings, the TV bolted down to a rectangle of drawers, drapes that look and feel like a shower curtain with a tropical theme. He feels the bedspread crinkle under his butt and wonders if he could live here. Wonders at what kind of person would be at a bar — the name of the place sure sounded like one — at 10 in the morning.
Two weeks before, Seth's girlfriend, Allison, had sat him down in the living room of the apartment they shared over by the university and told him she was late. Explained as though he were mentally challenged that she'd done a pee test and then she'd done another, and then another, and they all told her the same thing.
"Have you been to a doctor?" he asked.
She patted his hand as though it was childish to think that any doctor would know her body better than she. "Not yet."
Allison assured him that she was going to finish college, and suggested he might want to find another job that paid a little better than warehouse work. She looked around their apartment and, without saying a word, seemed to push the walls out, will another room to appear and replace the second-hand sofa, Seth's one contribution to their household. She never once mentioned marriage, and neither had he.
He'd spent the next week in a haze of the now while trying to predict the future based on nothing but the way the wind was blowing that morning and what song was playing on the radio when he first turned the car over each day. He fought off the urge to run for days, to where he couldn't even imagine, yet here he was, having driven through the night with scenarios, numbers, and names rushing through his mind. Scared, unsure, immature, he hadn't known where to turn until he'd passed the low sign surrounded by palmetto trees for Panama City Beach.
Through the sliding door in the motel room, he watches the father smear suntan oil into his own chest hair while the little boy shovels sand onto his feet. The phone picks up on first ring. "Sloop's!" a throaty-voiced woman says.
"Oh. Yeah, uh . . . is Joe there?"
Seth hangs up.
The Florida sun moves quickly and by mid-morning it's blazing heat and brimstone in the gravel and sand parking lot of Sloop's. Seth's eyes adjust to the light as he steps into the restaurant and he sees Joe at the far end of a U-shaped bar. Half of the bar is inside, half out in the elements where Joe sits with a slant of sunlight on his face. He's older, of course, it's been more than a dozen years since Seth has seen him, and looks weathered with peppery hair pushed away from his forehead and sunken cheeks, the meat of them beginning to slide downward. He wears tan cargo shorts and a short-sleeved madras shirt open to the waist and revealing a mat of gray chest hair. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses dangle from a cord around his neck.
Seth sits at the bottom of the U and listens to Joe finish his conversation with the bartender, a woman in her forties who, Seth would guess, has spent every minute of those years on the beach, possibly behind this bar. She wears a bikini top with frayed, cut-off blue-jean shorts, as do all the waitresses bustling around the restaurant who are at least twenty years her junior. A silver ring juts from the navel that juts over her waistband and her cleavage is deep and sweaty. Her attention now on Seth, she says in the same deep voice from the phone, "Can I get you, hon?"
Joe is drinking a tall Bloody Mary, a bushy stalk of celery blooming from the glass. Though sitting at a bar, Seth hadn't thought of drinking and is caught off guard by the question. He looks around the room and feels Joe's eyes on him for the first time.
"Uh . . . what time is it?"
"What time is it?" Joe howls from his station down the bar. "You British? Give him one a these, Angel."
"I'll have a Bloody Mary, too."
"Sure, hon. You got some ID?" She is already filling a glass with ice.
"ID?" Joe calls to her. "Hell, I can identify him. That is Seth Collins."
Seth moves around to Joe's end of the U and is met with a warm smile and a fresh drink. At this close range, Seth notices the freckles and age spots dotting Joe's forehead and the thinness in his face. He looks like a gaunt Harry Dean Stanton with flecks of white and red hair on his tanned jaw line.
"Seth. Goddammit, Seth." Joe laughs out loud with a cackle as leathery as the bartender's chest and slaps Seth on the back, squeezing the younger man's shoulder in a grip of true compassion. His grip has the strength of youth in it.
"How you been, son?"
"Can't complain. Sure was sorry to hear about your mama."
"What's it been now?"
"Almost two years."
"Damn. She was a beautiful woman."
The two men sit and reminisce their way through three more drinks. Joe had come into Seth's mother's life when Seth was eight years old and, though they were only together for a year, Joe had made an impression on the boy. So much so that when Seth thinks of "dad" — that abstract character from his friends' lives or in movies and books — it is Joe's face he imagines. He can recall with ease the time Joe taught him to swim, firmly yet gently, and the Sunday morning breakfasts of pancakes and sausage he would cook.
"What happened with you and my mom, Joe?"
Joe stares at his drink as though daring it to jump into his mouth, or willing it to split into two. "Nothing happened, really. Your mama realized before I did that I wasn't the man for her. Took me another year or so. I was good with you, and she appreciated that, but a mother is a woman, too, and she had greater needs, I guess. Different needs, anyway. Maybe I still don't get it. I don't know, but we both moved on. She married . . . what's his name? Roger?"
"Yeah. And he was good for her. I was happy for them." Joe seems lost, either in his drink or in the past, and Seth suddenly feels guilty for bringing memory along with him to this bar. "Hey, let's get some lunch," Joe snaps back. "You hungry?"
Seth reaches for a menu, but is stopped by Joe. "Not here. They got good groceries, but Tommy raises the prices too damn much for the tourists. Let's go to my place." He stands and stretches and Seth reaches for his wallet but is waved off by the bartender, who winks and shakes her head. After Hurricane Opal hit the beach like a hammer to anvil, Joe had spent whole weeks helping rebuild Sloop's. He'd refused all payment when Tommy had offered. He hadn't paid for a drink since, but still never liked to take food; that was too much like stealing from Tommy's family.
Seth follows Joe to the outside patio, past tables of families settling in for lunch now, down the steps to the sand and straight for the waves washing calmly on the beach. Joe slips off his rope-soled, canvas shoes and lets the water wash up to his ankles. "Man should put his feet in the sea at least once a day." Seth kicks his flip-flops off and does the same. They stand there together and look at the horizon for awhile.
He follows Joe to a house he hadn't noticed before, even though it sits right next door to Sloop's, about two feet below the asphalt road running in front of the bar, the sand washed away between house and blacktop. Music is coming from the bar now and raining down on the tourists, the happy voice of a cowboy turned sailor.
On the deck of the house, a young woman is lying on her stomach, her bikini top untied and two fleshy half-moons of white pushing from each armpit. "Seth, this is Mercy. Mercy, Seth."
The young woman raises up on her elbows, squints with one eye and says, "Hey."
Seth stares down into the shadowy tunnel made by her breasts when she elevates her shoulders. "Hey," he answers, then follows Joe into the house.
The living room is cluttered with nautical themed knick-knacks, backpacks, two acoustic guitars and one banjo, a motorcycle helmet, magazines, three-legged tables, and spiral notebooks of graph paper. Books are everywhere, mostly reference and technical, though some classics are thrown in the mix like spices. A dash of Melville here, a pinch of Dickens there. Joe is a mechanical engineer and had been a Seabee in Vietnam. On the wall behind a tattered sofa hangs a black MIA/POW flag.
"You knew my father, didn't you?"
Joe has eased into the tiny galley of a kitchen and begins pulling items from the fridge; half a ham, Tupperware containers, jars of peppers and pickles. He doesn't ask Seth what he wants, but begins making lunch for the two of them. "Sure did." He slathers pimiento cheese all over thick slabs of ham on white bread.
"Were you close?" Seth sits at one of two stools pulled up to a few feet of Formica bar top that separates the kitchen from the rest of the house.
"Everybody in the shit gets close, like brothers. Sometimes that carried over into civilian life, sometimes not."
"What happened to him?"
"He lit out. Your ma told you that, right?"
"She told me he was lost in Vietnam."
Joe looks up from his task now, looks over the glasses perched on the end of his nose and realizes he may have just divulged a family secret. "Ah, hell, Seth. Everybody in war is lost, but he did come back."
"And then he lit out."
"Yeah. Yeah, he did, son. He wasn't cut out for it, for office work or whatever the hell. Married life, a kid. He had the wanderlust bad."
"I always thought there was more to his absence than what mom let on to. Where'd he go?"
Joe slid a sandwich in front of Seth, placed a bowl of large, oily olives between the two of them. "Asia, I think, to start, anyway. I didn't keep track and your mother had lost track. I was a bit aimless myself when I came home in '74, went out west, then way down south. I wasn't in any hurry to leave this country again, though. I'd only left it once and people shot at me that time. I stopped to look in on your daddy and, of course, he wasn't there, but I met your mama. And you. Didn't leave for another year and came down here when I did to build this place. Just me and Sloop back then."
"Did you ever think of coming back?"
"To Memphis? Your mama made her point clear. I would've liked to have seen her again, seen you, but I had no custody towards you, though you were like a son to me even after such a short time. It meant something to me, especially since I wasn't able to have my own kids after the war."
"I didn't know you were wounded."
"I wasn't wounded. I had a doctor friend of mine at one of the MASH units give me a vasectomy. Right there in the medical tent, brother — snip, stitch, done. Hiked up my trousers and went on my way."
"Good God! Why would you do that?"
Joe had finished half his sandwich and lit a cigarette. "I'd glimpsed hell in the jungle over there, I wasn't going to be responsible for bringing any child into that."
"That's deep thinking for a nineteen-year-old."
"Death makes a man think. And I was drunk."
Seth looks out the door at Mercy, at the hollow of her spine right at her lower back, just before it curved up and into her bikini bottom. Her skin is darker there, like some valley of the ocean floor, the sun glistening on the fine blond hairs. "Looks like you're doing well. Who is she?"
Joe follows his line of vision. "My daughter."
Seth looks from Mercy's lower back to Joe, feels a brief wave of shame. "Daughter? But the vasectomy. How is she your daughter?"
"Her mama said she is."
"You didn't tell her that there's no way?"
"It didn't come up. Look, Seth, I was young and afraid when I made that decision in Nam . . . "
"Very drunk, so was the doc. Anyway, once I met you, I thought maybe I could handle a kid. Hell, thought maybe I'd even be good at it. But then your ma gave me my walking papers and you weren't exactly the consolation prize. So when Mercy's mama called and told me she was in a family way — she said that, too, 'In a family way' — I didn't deny her. Besides, I don't know who the runners-up might have been. I knew me, I knew what I was capable of, but the other guy might have been a clown. Or a Yankee." Joe shudders at the thought.
"So Mercy doesn't know she's not yours?"
Joe sits his can down, puts it on the counter with a little more authority than maybe he expected and sloshes beer onto his hand. Seth flinches.
"I love that little girl like she's my own blood. Because she is mine. Nobody, nothing can take that from me."
Seth looks back to Mercy, is ready to change the direction of the conversation. "Does she know about me?"
"Know about you? You a superhero of some kind? Win a Nobel lately?"
"No . . . I just wondered."
"I told her a woman I'd known had a son who I'd grown close to."
"I always thought of you as a father, you know. When you taught me to throw a football at that park down the street. Remember that? Or took me to the movies."
" Star Wars. You loved that shit, always walking around with a broomstick and calling it your 'lightsaver' in that deep, breathy villain voice you used. Goddamn, that was irritating." He takes another bite of sandwich, his cigarette burning down to the Formica. "Walking away from you, Seth, was almost as hard as walking away from your mama."
Seth just nods, having reached a point in the conversation that makes both men feel awkward, and drinks from his can. "Mercy lives with you?"
"Summers she does. In school up in Duluth, Minnesota, near her ma and her people the rest of the time." He makes a show of shivering. "Too damn cold for me."
They finish their lunch in silence, chewing and sipping beer while watching the tourist tableau unfold outside the kitchen window. Seth feels comfortable here, feels the same warmth he'd felt as a child and the same familiarity he'd clung to over the years. He wondered, during those years, whether those feelings were accurate or the stuff of imagination and need. He'd often wondered if Joe was just a myth, and yet here he is right in front of him after so many years, and real as ever.
"Do you think it's hereditary? Wanderlust?"
"I think it gets in a man's blood and infects him, makes him do things he might not ought to. But what do I know? I grew up in Alabama just up the road. Give me an hour, I could be pissin' in the same pot as when I was a kid."
Seth nods his head, bobs it up and down like one of those dashboard puppies. "My girlfriend is pregnant." He blurts it out as though confessing. He fears that he might possibly be in trouble, a kid all over again, but realizes almost as quickly that he's driven 500 miles to see a man he hasn't known since he was a child to get his advice. He's shown up uninvited at the beach for answers, he knows now, though he's not sure what the questions are; not sure if he remembered to pack them or left them back in Memphis, sitting on a nightstand next to the bed where Allison sleeps. He feels his face flush and his eyes well up and looks away, out the window where he can see inside Sloop's, sees the bartender serving two women large, red, frozen drinks.
"Ah, hell, Seth. What's the plan?"
"Got to have a plan, son. Is she keeping it?"
"Got to have a plan."
"A plan better than my own father's?"
Joe stops drinking mid-swallow and looks at Seth. He lights another cigarette and looks at him in a way that makes Seth think of the past and the future all at once. Stares at him until Seth aches for him to talk. "You're better than that."
And that's it, Joe has passed judgment on him and, in some way, Seth is grateful.
"How do you make it look so easy, Joe?"
"What? This?" He holds his arms out to take in his kitchen, such as it is, the rest of the cottage, Mercy, Sloop's and the whole gulf as far as Seth can tell. "It's easy, I stopped giving a shit."
"You found religion?"
"Nah, I just stopped giving a shit. Stopped giving a shit about what people think, about what's expected of me. I'd been in school or the military for so long that people telling me what to do and how to think just seemed normal. I started being true to myself, I guess."
"Sounds like religion to me."
"Ain't religion, just common sense." Joe pulls on his beer and stops. "Or maybe that is my religion. The religion of common sense. You want to make a donation, Seth?"
"I don't give a shit."
Seth spends the whole next day on the beach in front of the motel, trying to glimpse the future in the horizon. He thinks about what Joe said, but has never considered himself better than anyone before. Joe offered no other advice, leaving the decisions to be made, the hard work, the love and fear, up to Seth.
He looks for the little boy who was playing with his dad the day before but never does see him again.
On the way back to Memphis the following morning, Seth passes through Defuniak Springs just before crossing over the state line. He drives past white clapboard houses spaced farther and farther apart, barns rusted and falling in on themselves, and all manner of animals from goats and donkeys to signs for an Arabian horse farm. Baptist churches are pulled right up to the road for a closer look at passing sinners.
He pulls over at an outcropping of buildings and mobile homes; a rusted-out Ford truck sits out front of a convenience store like a concierge. The woman at the counter, her bleached-blond hair piled on her head and glasses as big as that Ford's windshield with teeth as sparse as its grill, asks Seth where he's heading. Everyone standing at her counter must be heading someplace else; this convenience store is Alabama's customs counter.
He pauses a moment at the question, holds a five dollar bill out as though he's thinking of having it levitate there, before answering, "Home."
She takes the bill and turns to make change for the cost of his Coke and bag of sunflower seeds. "Where's home?" she asks, but is answered only by the bell on the door.