The dim morning light crept over the horizon to the accompaniment of gulls calling out across the waves. There was the rush and slither of the tide rolling ashore and retreating hastily to join the sea. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily across the sky, meandering contentedly from one end of existence to the other.
“Good morning!” I heard an unfamiliar voice call. There was a bit of gravel in it that hinted at bravado even where none was intended.
Sitting in my low beach chair, my feet consumed by the drifting sands carried by the high tides in the night, I doffed my bucket hat, removed the sunglasses from my face, and rubbed the sleep from my eyes with the back of my wrist. I stretched. I felt it down to my very toes. When I let that tension melt from my muscles it escaped with a giddy laugh that apparently was contagious, for the other voice joined in.
“Good morning to you!” I placed my sunglasses back on my face and surveyed the beach from left to right for as far as my sight would allow.
“May I?” The voice asked.
“Of course!” I looked up and around with a wave of my hand, implying that here we were free to do as we please as long as what we please does not impede the freedom of others.
I took the measure of him. He was older than me by a sight. His bony legs were shot through with purple veins lingering just beneath his tanned waxpaper skin. His faded swimming trunks were tied loosely at the waist and the unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt hung loosely from his shoulders, flapping in the ocean breeze with his wispy white hair. He sat with neither muss nor fuss and I gave him credit, for I could not do the same without at least a few grunts or groans.
“Spent the night?” He asked, pulling a silver flask from the pocket of the shirt. He unscrewed the top, took a swig, and offered it to me.
“I sure did!” I replied, partaking and nodding thanks as I handed it back.
“It’s a little ritual of mine,” I explained. “Today is my last day of vacation. When I was a boy, my brothers and I would sleep out here on the last night of our vacations, trying to stay up as long as possible to make it last.”
“How many brothers you got?” He asked, content simply to sit and have a conversation.
“I had two,” I replied. “They’re gone now. Which is strange, me being the oldest of us all. Buried them both.”
“That must have been hard.” He commiserated after another long pull from the flask, handing it back to me in recognition of the loss.
“They had good lives.” I shrugged, took another long drink, and eyed the flask suspiciously. “Is that rum?”
“Something like,” He giggled with delight. “I make it myself in old barrels that have been in my family for a very long time. I tried using new barrels when I was young, but I could never get the same taste from them. My father taught me how to make it when I was young.”
“Well, that is a marvelous story! Care to share it?” I asked, not really having anything to do on this final day except wait for the redeye back north.
The story began with the exploration of the Americas and the colonization of Florida by Spain. There were men and ships and gold and treasure enough to pen a dozen pirate movies. But, his story was something much simpler. A sailor past his prime. Know how learned from his travels. Purchasing empty rum barrels from his former captain, and putting that know-how to use.
“You should sell this!” I said with a smile. “It’s beautiful!”
“Oh, I have done and still do!” He replied, slapping me on the shoulder fondly and laughing with delight. “Half the drinks you’ve had on this island probably had a splash. It keeps me liquid. And, what was your profession, friend?”
“I’m a Dad,” I said. “For all my years people would ask and say, “I’m a this… or I’m a that… but, the only thing I’ve always been is a Dad.”
“‘Tis a noble profession, my friend.” He said, considering my answer. “I’ve met a lot of folks on this island, people from all over the world. I’ve had many conversations that had begun just like this one. I’ve never gotten that answer before.”
I shrugged and motioned for him to pass the flask back my way. I took a sip and held the warm spirits in my mouth, letting the flavor of it soak into my tongue. I thought back over all the amazing memories, all the times my daughter brought light into my life. Most often, I remembered the things I’d regretted or wished I’d done better. But here, on this beach, talking to this stranger, it was every amazing moment and none of the bad.
I ran through a few of my favorites. First times and holidays. Quiet moments and grand events. The little ways we showed each other how much we cared, even when time and distance had come between us. He smiled through each, asking questions and enjoying the answers.
“So, you see,” I continued. “I’m a Dad. That’s what I am. But, I’d be lying if I didn't think learning to craft spirits like these wasn’t intriguing.”
“Well,” He arched an eyebrow and looked over at me. “I’ve been looking for an apprentice, young sir. If you think you’d be willing to join us here permanently, I’d be happy to bring you on board. Those new barrels may not make spirits this potent, but they do make a mighty fine rum if I do say so myself.”
I started, for the first time easing up in my chair. I looked at him over the rims of my sunglasses with a level gaze, searching for some hint of playful banter, but he was dead serious. He pointed out over the waves where the bright sky began its descent into afternoon dusk. We had spent the whole day reminiscing on that beach.
“I think I missed my flight,” I said regretfully.
“I think you might be right,” He lamented.
“And I never left.”
Those assembled laughed. Some with a tear. Others with a smile. All remembering that sense of who Jimmy was and what it meant to be loved by him.
“Last night I had a dream,” I said in closing. “He and I were back on that beach and he had just offered me a summer vacation that would never end. As the sun dipped down below the horizon we shook hands and we were partners thereafter. When that shake was released, the sun popped back up and traveled backward across the sky, and he and I lived that day over again. Because, isn’t that heaven? Creating moments that change lives for the better?”
“Jimmy did that every day. Every day I thank god for Jimmy.”
I pulled the old flask from my pocket, undid the cap, and raised it in the air.
“Goodbye, Jimmy. Thank you.”