The Redneck Riviera

          Ari and I were eating taco salad with our fingers when he told me what happened.
          “Marcy died. Three weeks ago.”
          “What?” I said and started crying.
          Why wasn’t he crying after saying something like that? His eyes were big, like wet holes, but he looked more scared or lost than anything else. We were eating with our fingers because the Taco Bell forgot to give us forks. We were sitting on top of a picnic table, and the boys were horsing around near the trailhead. I looked at Ari’s son Noah, who was about to jump off a big rock. How could he not be crying?
          "I didn’t know what to do. The sea creature got her.”
          Ari was referring to something we’d seen when we ran into each other on the Florida Panhandle a month before. Marcy was Ari’s wife. Even though our families had known each other for years, I’d only seen her a handful of times, and she never said anything. She was really shy, with pale soft skin and a roundness to every part of her that grew with the years and which she seemed to retreat into, an easy place to hide, one’s own flesh and skin. In fact, the day we encountered the sea creature was the first time I felt like I’d gotten to know her a bit. 
          It was Spring Break, and I’d rented a beach house for my family in Grayton Beach, which, it turned out, was the same place where Ari’s brother had a beach house. Fifteen hundred miles away from Chicago in the middle of March, and we meet Ari and Noah and Marcy walking along the same beach where we’ve been set up all morning, digging. We say our hellos and exclaim at the coincidence and, before my boys can invite Noah to join them in digging the deepest hole they can, Noah informs us that there’s a sea creature living in the little inlet down the beach. The inlet is the boundary of the state park adjacent to the town. Noah’s cousins told him about it the last time he was here, he says, and he even saw its tail once as it swam away.
          “She’s really sweet and kind of shy,” he says.
          He’s a good storyteller, that kid, and so earnest. He always has been.
          “You sure it’s not an alligator?” I say, though I know there aren’t alligators in this part of Florida—or at least I’m pretty sure there aren’t.
          He gives me a classic Noah look that says you’re kind of an idiot but not to take it personally because he still genuinely likes you.
          “No! I know what an alligator is, and she’s not an alligator. I think she’s a distant relative of the Loch Ness Monster.”
          “Yeah, right,” Mitchell says. He’s my nine-year-old son, and Noah is his oldest friend.
          “I’m serious! I’ll show you!”
          “Let’s go!” says Parker. He’s my middle boy.
          Ari is looking at his son with a bemused look. He’s a former stay-at-home dad of a single child, which means he’s always game for playing, even if he doesn’t want to because he never had a second child to teach him how to really say no, and probably that’s a good thing because the guy ends up playing a lot and all the kids love him and he seems happier for it.
          “Lead us, Noah-bug,” he says.
          So we all walk down the beach, the children trotting in and out of the surf, my littlest one shrieking and laughing. Where the inlet meets the Gulf a patch of cold green water blooms outward. It’s the kind of thing most adults stay away from because it reminds them of urine or a chemical spill but kids love. We step into the water, which turns brownish-yellowish as it heads inland. Marcy too. The water is ankle-deep and is so cold it’s exciting. We’re all shivering. Gradually it reaches our knees and then we’re up to our waists, following the inlet as it weaves among the sea oats. Maybe it’s because Marcy is there that we keep going, because under no other circumstances would I ever wade that deep in water of which I can’t see the bottom of. Pretty soon we’re chest-deep and the boys are doggy paddling, and it’s actually really pretty in there. There’s a steady breeze that rattles the sea oats, and there are birds calling overhead.
          My sense is that most Northerners don’t know this part of Florida, with its sugar-white sand beaches and emerald and turquoise water. It’s called the "Redneck Riviera," and it really is paradise. I’ve come here off and on for twenty years, and these days the rednecks are sunburnt Alabama insurance salesmen with big bellies, white Polo shirts, and slim wives who have the look of former flight attendants turned pharmaceutical saleswomen. The daughters are gawky and the sons are chubby. At least that’s what Seaside and Destin are like. Grayton Beach isn’t so bad. It’s the good kind of redneck: spunky second- or third-generation Southerners who like to fish and drink beer and eat oysters. They’re a little bit New Orleans or even Texas—more that than, Birmingham or Tallahassee. In recent years a Southern Jewish contingent has established itself among the homeowners, which is how Ari’s brother ended up with a house here. The state park has rolling dunes with scrub oak, fading into sea oat marshes, giving way to towering cypress swamps. Viewed from the road heading away from the beach, the trees seem thick, and the whole place feels too close for someone not from these parts, so we’ve never bothered to go deeper into the park than the beach. But from the inlet the place is beautiful. The sun filters through the trees and the white sand beneath the foliage glitters. Some kind of rather large wetland bird flits around, white stripes on gray wings flashing as the birds lift off. The water at the banks of the inlet glints amber.
          Ari is up ahead playing sea monster with the big boys, like he always does at the pool in Chicago. Marcy is not far behind them. I can see her silhouette as the inlet turns, and she’s blushing the whole time, but she seems okay with the whole thing, maybe because she’s pretty much invisible from the neck down and buoyant in the yellow-brown brackish water. A blue heron picks its way along a bend far up ahead. I’m carrying my youngest who, miraculously, isn’t scared. He seems spellbound. But of course he’s the one who breaks the spell.
          “Mommy, I have to go potty,” he says. “Poopie, mommy. I have to go poopie right now.”
          “Crud,” I say, and I am genuinely disappointed.
          I call out to Ari and my older boys that I have to go back. They wave at me to go and keep on with their game. Marcy casts her eyes downward and blushes goodbye. She’s really pretty, I can see. She has curly brown hair and smooth white skin. She tends to wear black at home, which isn’t very flattering on her but today she’s wearing a lavender t-shirt over her black swimsuit, and the color brings out the rose in her cheeks and the walnut of her hair. She comes from hill country—Appalachia—and I think I’m not making it up when I say she grew up in a trailer in a holler. I linger, not wanting to leave this. As I turn back, I think to myself, “Maybe I should try to get to know her better.”
          Then I hear a little shriek, and I stop. It’s Marcy. I can’t see her face, but I see her. The sea creature.
          I mean I see her spiny tail, red as a boiled crawdad and as long as my three-year-old, as it arcs back down into the water. She leaves a wake behind her as she disappears about a foot and a half away from Marcy.
          I get the willies then, and all I want to do is get out of that water.
          Luckily Robbie says right then, “Mommy! I need to go poopie!”
          And I’m high-knee sprinting it through the last stretch of amber water, back out to the blue-green swells, springing across the sand and up the trail through the dunes to the house.
          We make it to the potty fine. I wipe a butt and make burritos for lunch. My boys come home. I ask if Noah’s mom’s okay, and my eldest says, “Yeah. I don’t exactly know what happened to her.”
          “Well, is she okay?” I ask.
          “Yeah, I think so.”
          The boys talk about the sea creature, how they don’t believe Noah that it really exists.
          “It’s just a fairy tale,” says Parker. He is seven.
          “I saw her,” I tell them. “She’s red.”
          Parker’s eyes light up, but I can tell Mitchell doesn’t believe me. He’s a Waldorf kid and even though he is holding tight to Santa and the Easter Bunny, he’s on the far side of the nine-year change and has outgrown fairies and goblins, and apparently sea creatures, too.
          The rest of that week I fantasize about becoming friends with Marcy, but we only see Ari and Noah once, from far away in the Publix parking lot. I figure Marcy’s reclusiveness has enveloped all of them, and why not? It’s Spring Break and it’s not like we meant to vacation together. In the Publix lot Ari waves his long arm in a sort of sorrowful salute. He's always had, despite his playfulness, something of a marshwiggle about him. He is very tall, with long arms and legs and fingers and tends to wear army green. When Noah and Mitchell were in preschool, he pushed Noah’s stroller there and back, there and back, day in day out, whatever the weather, with his long slow loping stride, always early, never hurrying. He is prone to hay fever and gets eczema on his fingers and is allergic to eggs and dairy and any number of other things, the way so many kids are these days but rarely adults.
          Spring Break runs its course, and we go back to Chicago, returning to our carpool, and I only see Ari in passing at the curb as I gun up, and Noah jumps in, and I gun off again. I am always late, which stresses me out and is the main reason I go to the beach for Spring Break . My husband travels a lot and doesn’t make the trip with us. I get pretty lonely. Back when Noah and Mitchell were preschoolers, they had lots of play dates so I saw a lot of Ari. He would stretch out on my couch, and we would talk about politics, which he knew a lot about and I had stopped following in those days. From where I sit, our friendship has always been just that and never had even a tinge of attraction, so it was perfect and a welcome change from the typical play date conversations about mothering and husbands. When the boys went to elementary school, play dates stopped involving parents and Ari went back to freelancing, which he still does. He just had a piece published in The Atlantic online.
          The time in Grayton Beach made me nostalgic for those days in my living room, which made me nostalgic for the days when I was the stay-at-home parent. Although I played a lot less than Ari did, I played. And even though I dreaded it, when I look back on it now I miss it. The way time slowed down if you could let the child direct the play. The meandering storyline the toys acted out, which I still remember, even after all these years: A teddy bear evolving from a doctor to an angel. A matchbox convertible serving as a judge over a bunch of bad-guy matchbox cars with skulls painted on their hoods. The birthday cake baking in the sandbox alongside some major road construction. As if all things in life are of the same scale. Which, when you think about it, they may be. It’s very meditative. By the time you have a second or third child, you have to work really hard to keep the wonder from slipping through your fingers, and even then it’s not the same because you’re always having to rush off and pick up your older child from school or violin.
          So when we had a teacher in-service day a month after Spring Break, Grayton Beach, I invited Ari and Noah to go to the forest preserve to hike around. That’s how we ended up with taco salad on our fingers and me sobbing into my tortilla bowl.
          “What are you talking about?”
          “It bit her, or I guess it stung her. I dove down and pulled her out of the water,” he said.
          “The sea creature?” I wailed.
          “Marcy. She was shivering, so I sent the boys back and sat with her. But the poison was too fast. It went straight to her heart. I got her back to my brother’s house, but her heart had already stopped before we were out of the inlet.”
          “Why didn’t I know this? Why do I only know about this now?” I said. I knew I was making it sound like it was all about me, but I didn’t care. It was craziness. “I’ve been driving your kid around for weeks. You’ve just been standing there on the curb like you always do.”
          “What else could I do?” Ari said in his nasally voice. “She wouldn’t’ve wanted a big deal made. She would’ve wanted us to live our lives.”
          I didn’t know what recluses would want in their deaths. The only other recluse I knew of was Greta Garbo, and I didn’t want to think about her, with her lips and her eyes. Ari looked scared shitless, and I realized I knew nothing about how they were together and therefore what it would be like—how it had been already—for him to live without her. When we had toddlers, he used to talk about her homebirth the way all the moms talked about their births back then, except that he was a dad and it was Marcy—Marcy!—who was the naked one in the big tub in their condo. He talked about her music collection, too. From the street you could see the CDs lining the walls in their sun porch. They had three cats. Hers were Siamese, the other was Ari’s.
          “How’s Noah?” I asked, trying to get myself under control. The boys were wrestling now, and Noah was in the middle of it.
          I wanted to call him Noah-bug. I wanted to run over and pull him close to me, tell him it’s okay to cry, Go ahead and cry, Noah-bug. Let it out. Put my fingers in his mop of curly hair, a mix between his father’s and mother’s. Jewish—Appalachian holler hair.
          “He’s Noah. He misses her. He still wants to play,” Ari said.
          We sat there for a while, watching Noah, while I cried as quietly as I could. I sucked the sour cream and taco meat grease off my fingers, wiped my hands, and blew my nose.
          “You know what was weird?” Ari asked.
          “What?” I said.
          “I saw her. Her, I mean. The sea creature. She looked like a big crayfish. When I dove under to get Marcy, my eyes were open and I must have developed super-underwater vision or something because it was really murky down there, but I could see her eyes. The sea creature’s. She was watching me. She looked scared. It’s like Noah said. I think she was shy, and we scared her and she didn’t know what else to do.”
          “God. That’s so sad,” I said and started crying again.
          “It is,” Ari said. “It really, really is.”

Sharla Stewart is a writer in Chicago, where she teaches yoga, keeps bees, and is a founder of Urban Prairie Waldorf School. She has lived in Omaha, Turkey, Iowa, and Atlanta.