Let Me Show You Something by Cameron Spencer

Jim - fastidious, kind, reserved – gets to know his boss at the Red and White supermarket, and wonders if he is ready to be vulnerable again.

Jim looked at the last row of cans to be shelved in the way that he had come to look at women: items to be approached, categorized, and then forgotten about. It had been a long night at the Red and White supermarket on Wilmington Island, Georgia. Five trucks had delivered last night, two full of frozen food. Jim had been stocking shelves and freezer cases since before midnight, and now it was nearly seven: time to clock out and go home.

“Getting ready for the pool, Jim?” Patty, the night manager, called to him from the front of the store. She smiled and winked. She was always friendly, positive, not like so many others who had held her position in the past. Jim would know; he’d been a steady employee of the Red and White night staff for more than thirteen years.

“Oh, yeah, it’s going to be a hot one.” Jim shelved the last can of Green Giant peas and completed his paperwork. “I’m taking my beer now,” he called back to Patty as he punched out. He made a daily habit of purchasing his case of beer when he arrived at work in the evening, then taking it with him when he left in the morning; Georgia law prohibited his buying alcohol before 9:00am.

“Have a good one! See you tomorrow.” She waved again, pushing her dark hair back from her face, and then she returned to her work at the manager’s desk.

Of all the managers he’d worked for at the Red and White, Patty was the only one who demonstrated the qualities of good leadership. She appeared to have the innate ability to get a person to do something, by getting him to want to do it.

Jim had only to cross the causeway to be at his apartment complex. In less than ten minutes, he had taken his accustomed position in a lounge chair at the deep end of the pool, known by his neighbors as “Poolman Jim’s Spot.”

Some days, the rich kids from the local art college who lived in the apartment complex - how else could they afford to live in an upscale island residence without working? - would take bets on whether Poolman Jim was really alive out there at the pool. Mornings he lay on the lounge chair a few feet from the seldom used diving board, a bronzed forty-something man in an Atlanta Braves baseball cap and dark aviator shades. He never removed his tee shirt, even when he swam briefly every hour and a half. He was inscrutable, and his regimental pattern of behavior prompted a few of the boys to conjecture on the possibility that Jim had been in Special Ops. His thick brown mustache was carefully brushed; Jim was always careful about his person. Sloppy men - particularly sloppy drunks - irritated him. He believed that it was important for a man to remain in control of himself and self-disciplined, at least as far as possible. So he kept his work shirts well ironed and his pants clean and pressed, if only to stock shelves while others were sleeping. A man must have his pride.

Next to him sat his red-and-white cooler filled with ice and a case of tall-boys. Around 11:00 the boys who had finished classes early would arrive, tiptoeing close to Jim’s chair, intent on testing his consciousness as they gently lifted the lid of the cooler to snatch a cold brew.

“Morning, Todd.” He knew they wondered how he could tell which one of them was there when he never seemed to open his eyes. What they didn’t know was that Jim was a student of human beings and their habits: the cadence of their footsteps, the fragrance of the sunscreen they preferred, the rhythm of their breathing, the smell of their breath, and the shadow they cast as they bent over his cooler.

“How’s it going, Poolman?” Todd popped the top of the can of brew and gulped deeply. “I followed your suggestion, Jim, about revealing to my parents that I want to change my major from painting to theater. I was surprised - they didn’t give me a hard time at all.” He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

“Good,” Jim replied without moving. “I told you the best way is to be upfront and honest. You whizkids crack me up - asking me, of all people, for advice.”

“But you’re a student of life, Poolman!” Todd lightly punched the older man’s shoulder.

“A student of life? Yeah, well, I flunked a few courses and left others incomplete.” Jim motioned toward the cooler as he adjusted the lounger to a sitting position. “Grab me one, will you, Todd?”

“Sure.” Todd handed a can to Jim. “Been out in your boat lately?”

“Been thinking about it. Maybe this weekend.”

He’d been thinking about Patty, actually. She mentioned a few weeks ago how she liked the water, boats, and fishing. He was considering asking her to go out with him one afternoon. It would be his first foray into the dating scene in a long time. His first, failed, marriage had left a scar that was slow to heal. Before embarking on another serious relationship, he needed to feel a strong indication of trustworthiness with the other person. He envisioned himself extending a chalice filled with his soul to someone who would drink deeply and then fill it with her own and return it to him.



Three days later, Jim told Patty, “If you don’t mind, I have to stop at my apartment to pick up a few things before we go down to the boat. I put her in this morning, but some of the food I packed has to be kept cold. Won’t take but a minute.”

“Sure, fine!” Patty was easygoing. It was a Friday, and neither of them worked that night, so there would be no hurry nor a time limit to their excursion.

His apartment faced the southwest, and the blond hardwood floor of the living area shone in the sunlight. Only a cream-color sofa, a matching oversize armchair, and a large low oak table occupied the room, with the exception of a 35-gallon saltwater aquarium housing a huge gray fish. A tabby cat looked up and blinked from her position on the armchair.

“Oh, what a pretty kitty! I didn’t know you liked cats, Jim.”

“I like that cat. That’s Grimalkin.”

“Grimalkin? What a funny name!”

“Think so?” Jim glanced at her over his shoulder from the pantry where he stood adding a bag of tortilla chips and salsa to the cooler. Grouped in alphabetical order, the can labels were aligned and faced front. The other items in his pantry were stacked neatly in wire bins and organized according to frequency of use.

“Oh, and you have a fish, too.” Patty smiled and laughed. “He’s huge! What’s his name?”

“Fish.”

She laughed again.

“Well, that’s it. Let’s go.”

Under the bimini on the boat, they ate shrimp salad sandwiches and shared a bag of plums while the Carolina Skiff quietly bobbed at anchor in the river. Patty reached into the cooler to grab another can of beer. She tore the plastic ring from around the rest of the six pack and tossed it over the side.

“Hey! Don’t do that!” Jim said, and bent over to retrieve the plastic.

“What’s the matter? They’re biodegradable now,” Patty said, patting Jim’s shoulder in a soothing gesture.

“No, they’re not.” Jim struggled to restrain his anger. “And, biodegradable or not, they still endanger the sea life.” He turned and faced her, softening his tone. “Have you never seen photos of turtles or fish with these damned rings around them? It’s terrible.”

“Oh, I know, but the Clean Coast club takes care of that. They go out to a different island once a month to pick up the flotsam and jetsam.” Jim continued to stare at her. He had been a Clean Coast member since its inception. “But you’re right, Jim, maybe there’s damage caused by what doesn’t get picked up.” She paused and studied her toes in her purple flip-flops. “That was really stupid of me, Jim - I don’t know what I was thinking - or what you must think of me.” She peered up at him, shamefaced. “And I’m a recycler, too.” She shrugged and shook her head.

“Hey, I’m not judging you. We all make mistakes - people don’t always think of the results of their actions. I’m just glad I could reach it before it sank.” He reached for her beer to pop the top for her. “Have a cold one and forget about it. No big deal.” He grinned. He had a white-toothed, engaging smile, and the corners of his eyes crinkled in good humor.

Afterward, Patty shed her white cotton coverup and sunned comfortably on the bow in a skimpy pink bikini. She began to smear sunscreen on her limbs. “Want some?” she asked.

“Yeah, thanks.” Jim took the bottle from her hand and began smearing the lotion on his forearms and face.

“What about the rest of you? I mean, you won’t get a tan with your shirt on.” She smiled and added, “I’ll put it on your back, if you’d like.” She stretched her arm out to him for the bottle of lotion.

Without reply, Jim pulled off his t-shirt and exposed his back to her and waited.

“Oh.” Patty paused, but only briefly. “Shrapnel?”

“Yeah. IED.”

She applied a generous gob to the middle of his ravaged back, peppered with patches of pink and purple where tiny splinters of metal still worked their way to the surface, irritating him in spots he found hard to reach. Too many mornings he awoke to find his sheets bloodied from nights of savagely scratching in his sleep.

Patty rubbed the lotion gently in increasing circles till the sunscreen was absorbed. “Do they hurt?” she asked, eying portions of his back that were torn and scabbed.

“Itch, really. I scratch in my sleep.”

“My brother was in Iraq; he has shrapnel in his legs. I didn’t know you were wounded. Or even that you had been in Iraq, for that matter.”

“Well, I don’t introduce myself by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Jim. I was wounded in Iraq.’” He turned and presented his torso to her. Two deep dimples, one on his left side and another on his abdomen - bullet wounds.

Patty paused. “Oh. More wounds.” She glanced up at him. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“That’s okay,” he returned. “The deepest wounds are invisible.”

Patty applied the sunscreen, then stored the lotion in her tote bag and resumed her position on the bow.

Jim gazed across the river and mused on the strangeness of having a companion out here on the water. For years he had come out on the river by himself, content with the company of pelicans and porpoises, gulls and the occasional sea otter. These times had been private times, too special to be shared.

While others - especially, he thought, vets - relied on Prozac, Welbutrin, Xanax, or what-have-you to get through the day, Jim relied on a few cold brews and the smell of saltmarsh. Winter and summer, the lapping of water against the side of his boat and the laughter of gulls hovering above for some handouts were soothing enough. He had discovered a kinship with the waterfowl and the dolphins slipping briefly above the surface or playing in the wake of his motor. They were all the company he needed.

Summers, when vacationing boaters brought blaring radios to disturb his serenity, he retreated to the solace of secret - somewhat sacred - spots few knew about. He treasured the times he could sit in the late afternoon, rocking gently with the change of the tide, and wait for the sun to slip below the horizon, leaving the sky purple and orange.

He opened another beer and settled himself on the little seat in front of the console. The afternoon sun sent slivers of silver across the ripples on the surface of the river. Slowly he felt a release of tension spreading across his chest and traveling down his legs. A sense of freedom and a strange notion of well-being embraced him. The possibility of sunset cruises with Patty swam into his consciousness, and he discovered himself confiding to her things he had not spoken of in years, though he thought about them more often than he’d liked.

Images of his ex-wife had always trotted through his consciousness at odd times of the day. The girl whom he’d trusted to turn his life around after his return from Iraq had succeeded only in turning it upside down. After only a few years, his soulmate had found another, one who promised financial security, who wasn’t haunted by family horrors - the slow agonizing death of his mother at the age of 41, his father’s consequential depression and death two years later. Now Jim found himself divulging his string of puzzling failures in the corporate world after leaving the military. Patty sat, listening as Jim revealed the pain he had privately nursed at the end of his five-year marriage more than six years before.

Slowly Patty leaned over to him from the bow of the little boat and touched his knee. Then he discovered that he was bending toward her, and in an effort that was more natural than he ever could have imagined, he was kissing her tenderly. Her hair smelled like jasmine, and her lips felt soft and eager. But he drew back from her, and he poured his beer over the side of the gunwale. He didn’t want the memory of this day to get fuzzed up like an early morning windshield in winter; he wanted to see it with razor-cut edges when he looked back on it.

He returned to the pilot’s seat and patted the spot beside him. “Come sit back here; you’re less likely to get splashed.”

Smiling, she moved to sit beside him.

“Let me show you something,” he said. “Something special that I think nobody else knows about.”

He gunned the motor and they sped across the river till they were within thirty yards of what appeared to be an abandoned dock jutting out into the water. Its sides were splintering and leaning into the marsh water. The deserted ramshackle river house that belonged to it sat deep back behind a row of scrubby palms and pine. Jim cut the motor and, putting a finger to his lips to signal quiet, picked up the paddle that lay along the gunwale. Almost silently, he dipped it into the water and brought them sliding closer to the crumbling pier.

“Look.” He gestured toward the dark water between the pilings.

Patty looked at him. “What?” she whispered.

“Manatees.”

The two of them sat peering into the green water under the dock. There was a brief, soft splash, and then a huge gray head with a broad short snout poked through the surface. It was quickly joined by a much smaller replica. Four dark eyes regarded them for almost a full minute, then mother and calf sank out of sight.

“Ewww!” Patty began. “I’ve seen pictures - drawings, I mean - in no-wake zones, but I’ve never actually seen one.” She snorted back a laugh. “They’re a little like elephants, aren’t they? I mean, water elephants. Or mutant seals. And the baby is just as ugly as its mother, only smaller.” She shuddered and crept back to the bow. “Sort of creepy, don’t you think?”

Although they had just eaten lunch, Jim discovered a peculiar hollowness in his stomach. He looked at his watch. He calculated that by the time he’d return to his apartment, the late afternoon collection of college boys would be gathering at the pool. There’d be time for him to watch the sun set over the marsh that bordered his apartment and catch a nap before grabbing a sandwich at the Oyster Bar in the strip mall around the corner. He paddled a few yards back out into the river, then started the motor.

“Better get back,” he told her. He reached into the little cooler and drew out a beer. “Want one?” He handed her a can and popped open his own.

Forty minutes later he was in his accustomed position on the lounger.

“Hey, Poolman! How’s it going? Been out on your boat? We missed you earlier,” called one of the regulars.

“Yeah, Jim,” one of the boys teased, “Todd said he saw you with a female. Hot date?”

Jim’s face remained inscrutable beneath his aviator shades and cap. “Oh, just a little ride with a coworker,” he said, reaching down to pull out an ice-cold tallboy. “Nothing special.”

13 comments:

  1. Really compelling and subtle. You manage a complex character study and provide the protagonist with a lot of dignity. Really super how this ended up, as the masters say,"unexpected but inevitable conclusion." Really super work.

    thanks,


    David

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    1. Thank you, David. I appreciate that you point out that Jim is complex, and that the ending really is inevitable. Thank you for giving my story your time.

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  2. Excellent story. Jim seems to be recovering from his war experience though he has a ways to go. Clearly, Patty’s not the one for him.

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    1. Thank you for your response - and I am glad you agree that though Jim is still struggling, Patty is not the one to accompany him to recovery.

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  3. Replies
    1. I am grateful that you like Jim’s comment at the end. And thanks! I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

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  4. We’ll done. I would have been disappointed if Jim had overlooked Patty’s remark about the manatees. Nice to see someone who had endured so much horror to be so sensitive.

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    1. Yes, I think that Jim is through with overlooking others' insensitivities; he doesn’t need them. Thank you for your comment - I gain from others' opinions.

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  5. Bittersweet story. I hope Jim isn't too bruised to try again sometime. Or maybe his quiet life by the pool is as good as it gets when he's been so wounded.
    PS. I don't think I've read a story about manatees before.

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    1. Yes! I don’t believe I have read anything about manatees either - but they are fascinating to come across! I am glad you liked my story!

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  6. I was gripped from the beginning, and love the way Jim is portrayed. Like Mark said, it's powerful that someone who has experienced so much horror and pain can be so sensitive and intuitive. He doesn't obsess about Patty, but simply realises that she is not the one for him and moves on. Life is too precious to waste any of it. Thanks Cameron.

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    1. Thank you--I am glad that you enjoyed my drawing of the characters. Does my heart good!

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  7. Interesting story about the poolman. Maybe he could find a like minded lady in the Clean Coast club. He is wise to be choosy. I like the idea that the college boys instinctively see him as a good advice giver.

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