Sunday, June 28, 2009

House On A Beach: Grayton Beach 1986

Really, this wasn't in Grayton Beach but in Gulf Trace, a development just west of Grayton, with a swath of open dunes and scrub separating them. It was when I'd dropped out of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and headed back down to the panhandle to live with Tee. At first we lived in the place she'd been renting along a red-dirt road back in the woods below the bay, but then we found an unfinished house to rent that was Right ON The Beach.
This house was owned by some guy who said he was allergic to wood--nice guy--and he couldn't live in it (or so he said, said even paper affected him, that he lived in a Gulfstream trailer, and he was working on inventing some gadget to develop a person's golf swing; but one day an old pal of his came along and when I told him this, the guy said, no, that he was just an old alcoholic), so it didn't have it's insulation or heat and was not painted, but other than that it was livable. The only heat was a fireplace (and if you think it doesn't get cold in north Florida, then come visit--it's a wet heavy cold). The house was barn-like, with two stories and a porch that opened out to the Gulf of Mexico. It was up on the dunes--white dunes with flowing sea oats, the sand soft as powder and the color of pure spun sugar or snow--and down below was the floury beach and the bluegreen waters. Man, that was nice--you get quite used to the sound of the waves lapping or smushing or crashing. And usually the little development (it wasn't even a town) was empty--they were mostly summer homes for wealthy Birmingham Republicans, maybe a few Atlanta people as well. So, Tee and I lived quietly. I got a job painting houses in Seaside. We got two cats--Lucy and Velcro--and things looked pretty good.
But they weren't pretty good.
Sure, who doesn't dream of living right on the ocean, especially a place as beautiful as the panhandle? And this was before that area of Florida was well known (now it's year-round tourism, crowded, built up--that beach house would be worth millions, back then we paid maybe $350 a month, maybe less). But I felt bad because I'd dropped out of the Iowa writing program, and Tee--though I cared for her very much--was not the easiest person to live with. She had a bit of a habit, I think. We had some good times, but also some bad . . . I recall she called me cheap once, so I went out and bought a whole slew of groceries to make a Thanksgiving dinner: good wine, duck, mashed spuds, nuts and berries, cheeses, bread, pecan pie for desert and more. She knew of this, but was not there. I cooked it all up, she came home, but could not eat--had been out drinking margaritas and eating junk food. Hmmm--I didn't ask with who. Anyway, I could go on and on (I spent Christmas night all alone--drinking cheap beer and feeling sorry for myself--while Tee went to visit her family--her father had been a fighter pilot and lived in the little town of Baker, where they had some land (nice folks) and farm animals--but Tee and I had argued, so I declined to go) but I also was not always the best person, either.
It was also lonely out there in Gulf Trace. Like I said, few people were there in the winter. It got cold and damp--the ocean air heavy and sticky, the air salting the windows so they were always filmy--and the single fireplace couldn't keep up. Winter's the rainy season and the little place was often empty and gloomy. We had a party once, and some younger fellows knocked over the neighbor's mailbox. I put the box back up and--to my surprise--someone was actually living there in this big old house. I went and apologized to him. He was a little older than me, and he invited me inside and we went upstairs (this was a big house) and he offered me a beer--a Bud--so, I drank a cold one with him. He was cool about the mailbox, but there was just this air, this aura, about him: sad, lonely, the smell of personal disaster. And as we chatted, it came out that he was getting divorced, his wife had their house in Alabama, and he was exiled--for now--to the empty beach house in winter. He was a lonely guy, unhappy--he just oozed this pathetic unhappiness. He was an okay guy, personally. Not the kind of person I'd normally hang around with, but polite, nice, humbled. He asked if I wanted another beer, but, I couldn't bring myself to stay with him. All he wanted, I think, was some company, someone to talk to, and I could see myself doing it (I was a bit lonely for company myself) and I could see he'd be the kind of guy to always buy the beer, to provide food and have access to things I didn't have. Yet, just the same, I didn't want to. I felt bad--and maybe I saw too much of myself in his predicament--but I rejected his offer and avoided him in the future. It was too dreary and sad and, anyway, I was already thinking about my own escape.
Yes, life was a beach. A downhill one. Tee and I hung on past the time we should have. It wasn't horrible, but it was not pleasant, either. We ended up like a married couple who didn't really like each other but still cared for each other, or rather, were too afraid to make the jump--one who should have divorced and moved on.
So, by February of '87, I moved on. Enough was enough. I packed my car, drove away from the beach house. Spent a few days in Pensacola with friends, then hit the road for that long lonely drive--alone in my powder blue Ford Maverick--across the south, across Texas, to L.A. and then up, eventually in Seattle, where Matt and Brock were.
I had lived right on the beach, and it was good, but I didn't want to end up like that guy next door. 

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