Castaway by David Norwood

For the past twenty years, Jim has called a short run of highway through the Florida Keys home. A five-mile stretch where palm trees anchor into white sand beaches, seafood joints claim fresh daily catches, a skanky bar serves travelers cheap drinks and easy opportunities to find a date for the night, and Jim’s trailer—a faded turquoise aluminum shell wedged between a storm-weathered gas station and a recently defunct dive shop.  

The diver-down flag still hangs high above the rooftop, popping against the morning breeze while idle exhaust rattles Jim’s trailer and unburies him from sleep. The vibration is a common wake-up call, and this one is accompanied by loud music blaring from what’s typically either a muscle car, an oversized Jeep, or a large, knobby-tired truck filling with gas. Jim slowly sits up in bed and lights a cigarette, wipes the crust from his eyes, and reaches for his white linen shirt in a wad on the floor and then slides it back on with the sleeves still rolled up and the front unbuttoned. The vehicle slowly rumbles away, dragging the low hum of vibrations with it until only the distant pops of the dive shop’s flag can be heard echoing throughout the hull of the trailer, each one kick-starting Jim’s memory of the previous night. Arriving at the bar already plastered. Intentionally stirring trouble with the more affluent-looking vacationers. His misbehavior forcing others in the bar to call the police. Sneaking out the back through the kitchen before the police arrived. The pop of the dive shop’s flag chasing after his scuffled footfalls home down the moonlit highway, shadow in tow.

Jim stays seated on the end of his sheetless mattress, shoulders hunched, taking long, pensive drags off his cigarette as the sting of his father’s obituary and its unwritten stories still linger in his mind from last week: Prominent businessman, James Norman, 72, of Hartford, Connecticut, passed away of a sudden heart attack. Survived by his wife, Margie, of forty-four years; one child, James (Jim) Norman, Jr., 38, estranged (Florida Keys); and one grandchild, James Norman III, 20, of Hartford, Connecticut. 

The cigarette smoke grows hot in Jim’s lungs and breaks his trance. He stands and shuffles his way into the kitchen, leans down into the fridge for a beer, and slams it open against the counter’s edge while a peeling corner of linoleum tile stares up at the tie-dyed frog tattooed on Jim’s ankle, as if seductively curling a finger at the frog to hop free. Once noisy exhaust begins shaking the trailer walls again, Jim pounds the empty bottle on the counter, grabs his metal detector angled by the front door, and quickly storms out of his trailer to wander the shoreline.

The morning air, spongy and hot, wafts an aroma of ocean water, dead fish, and unemptied trash bins as seagulls call out in the distance and boats—coolers packed with fresh ice, bodies ready for tanning, and fishing rods stretched high—ease down slipways and then race toward the horizon. Jim stiffly ambles along the shoulder of the highway as a topless Jeep speeds past him, the young lives inside exuding with laughter as the Jeep playfully swerves back and forth in its lane. Other motorists rubberneck at Jim—leathery skin and frizzy hair, metal detector in one hand and cigarette in the other—peering over sand dunes mottled in tall beachgrass before cutting over one that leads to the shoreline. The sun’s heat radiates like a hot iron skillet, scorching the back of his neck along the way. He reaches the shoreline and slides his feet into the cool wet sand, allowing the ocean to hug his ankles while he lights a cigarette.

Jim scans the beach all day, fiercely digging whenever the detector’s quiet chirps turn into loud squawks. Upon sifting, he uncovers lost possessions that are hard to explain, ones whose journey should have ended differently. A small eagle clasped to a rope-like necklace twisted into a knot. An expensive golf club bent in half. An 8×10 wooden picture frame empty of glass and photo. And as the last strokes of color drain out of the westward sky, he comes across a pair of binoculars. 

He blows the loose sand away, kisses his eyes to the lens, and begins twisting for a clearer view. The binocular’s gears chew on the gritty sand as he faces the seam where the ocean meets the sky, where earlier his naked eyes tried to make out what appeared to be a large sailboat chasing after the setting sun. As he cranks and squints, wanting to capture a sail pocketing the wind and ocean mist spraying over the bow, endless water and an open sky fill his view instead.

A breeze slaps against the dive shop’s flag and licks the sweat off Jim’s arms. He lifts the binoculars and scans the horizon again, hoping to see billowy sails pierce the hot smudge of air and come into clear focus. If not a boat, the shell of a turtle or the eye of a whale, dolphins torpedoing after the triangular fin of a great white, or the pristine untouched shoreline of a deserted island. An island he could call his own, and leave everything behind in the sand.

David Norwood has stories both online and in print journals. You can find him staring at the trees in his backyard while tinkering with ideas for stories and on Twitter: @norwoodpages