I wrote this story one morning in February 2015, expecting little more than to relieve myself of the frustrating itch of long-held thoughts. The story, which is only loosely autobiographical, won me some acclaim, some money and some memories. Also, I got published.
For years, I had resisted being published. I don’t know why, really. My short stories, which had placed among the top-three, at my alma mater’s annual contest were always earmarked for publication. There was only one caveat: I actually had to do something other than lay the words on the page. In those case, that thing was pretty simple. Just send an email, they said, effectively okaying Florida A&M’s literary journal, “Cake,” to publish the work. I never sent that email — not with four winning stories and one winning essay.
The story of this publication credit, my first for fiction writing, isn’t long or particularly captivating. I had written this story as I had written more than 20 others that winter in this lingering romance I had with the idea of putting down 1,700 words each day. NO MATTER WHAT. I had quit a second-straight NaNoWriMo that November, and decided I just wanted to have a few words. So, I committed to writing a novel that I had been scripting for years. So, yes, surprise, I’ve written a novel. No, I’m not sharing. It’s pretty terrible. But I managed “The Boy and His Beach,” a whimsical and revealing tale about the death of innocence at the hands of the endless march of progress. That’s what was on my mind. I thought about my childhood on this tiny tourism-driven island St. Maarten, and among the few freedoms afforded me growing up was the ability to frolic along the beach. So, that beach I described is real. The incessant hum of the nearby power plant that spewed steaming water into the ocean was a real thing.
I had expected to do exactly nothing with the story but submit it to the annual FAMU contest as I had skipped entering the year before for no reason worth mentioning. And then in writers’ group, some weeks later, we discussed this art gallery in Panama City and its inventive story contest: the winning story would be tattooed, word by word, onto willing people. It was part fundraiser and part art project. I loved the idea.
But as it happened, I didn’t have the $10 entry fee, and the deadline was two nights away. Amy Topol, who is also published in the anthology, volunteered to be my benefactor. She offered to pay the entry fee and submit the story. All I had to do was send her an email. This time, I did actually send the email.
I tried, and hopefully succeeded, in channeling my youthful anxiety over life. I had wanted, and still do, to leave a lasting impression — somewhere. I believe all children do. All people do. They carve their initials into tree trunks, or at home, painted them with White-Out. They etch mementos into wet cement and hope no one sees and removes them before the cement dries. We, as humans, crave permanence. Immortality is the subject of classic literature and of horror and sci-fi and fantasy. But despite our best efforts, the lives of men are short and filled less with raucous adventure than with silent suffering. Thoreau called it “quiet desperation.”
I wanted to pit my character — the nameless boy — against the unrelenting and cruel force of progress. I already knew who would win and how he would react — as we all do as we lose our innocence. I won’t tell you how it happened. You’ll have to start reading below to find out.
Here is an excerpt of my story “The Boy and His Beach.” I hope you enjoy it.
On summer days, the beach belonged only to him. He wasn’t competing for shrinking patches of sand. He wasn’t straining to hear the waves over the roar of ugly alien accents. On these peculiar, quiet days in June, he forgot all about the tourists.
He would be free until the first days of August when the children would be forced into uniforms and made to sit indoors. If adults were guilty of any singular grievance against the young, it was this: confining them to tiny desks and behind high walls while, outside, the sky was blue and the ocean was ripe with adventure.
The sand stretched in front of him like a long yellow road, and at its end was possibility. The air was heavy with salt, and clouds drifted overhead. The soft hum of the ocean rang at the edges of his hearing, and he smiled at the shadowy hillside far away. The boy shed his oversized, hand-me-down T-shirt and basketball shorts and bundled them in a heap and left them atop a row of massive ebony boulders that glistened in the midday sun. Then he removed his slippers and placed them onto the stack of clothes and stared at the sea.
There was something impossibly fulfilling for an island boy with the time to explore his own beach. To understand having a beach, one must understand having a backyard and a home. The glossing waves were cool and comforting like a neverending bedsheet.
At nearly the edge of his vision, he saw a sort of pier on which small boats would dock. It rose about a dozen feet above the water’s shallow compromise with the land. A more daring boy would dive at the first sign of resistance and vanish beneath the glistening torquoise veil. But then again a more daring boy might not have carried with him the ghosts of being trapped, breathless, beneath the veil, desperately clawing for precious breath. This boy knew he wouldn’t be going any farther than waist deep.
He left profound footprints in the sand until a winding trail followed him like a dotted shadow. He felt compelled in his boyhood eagerness to leave a path, something that would remember him—and outlast him.
Alone on a beach on a June afternoon, free of obligation, lost in the sounds and smells of blessed overwhelming enormity, a brown-skinned boy could forget his own youthful insignificance as long as he believed himself master of the beach, ruler of the tides.
The boy stopped and turned on occasion to look at his progress and kept walking. His feet hurt, but he never cried out. He would stop for a moment, wave his hands as though to beckon the tide, and then, when the natural rhythms of the Earth finally aligned with his wanting, the water would climb the tiny incline of sand; Just then, he would run splashing into it, feeling its cooling caress and laughing.
Curious about what happens next?
I would be, too. You’re welcome to buy the anthology here to ready my story and 15 other tales submitted to Floriopolis’ contest. All proceeds go to their art-awareness efforts. (Note: Kindle Unlimited members read for free. And, no, I’m not collecting a dime for these plugs. Should I?)