Dinner After a Day at the Beach

“Oh my, look at you, all nice and clean!”

The boy’s mother called him and his father from a booth with streaks on the table which made it look as though it had just been wiped down. They slipped in and regaled her with tales of frothy waves and rough castles so big in the sand that they would surely still be there tomorrow.

In a Florida town hugging the east coast, the beach was the town secret, protected from the rough Atlantic surf by a stretch of land jutting out into the water about twenty miles to the north. On summer nights the horizon glowed from the east, because its inhabitants were lighting fires there.

In mornings after, local children searched the sand in groups for treasure, only to find and fight over the fires’ graves, which consisted of mostly charcoal and a few empty bottles. But the boy of this story went with his father. They arrived at noon and left when the sun did, bringing with them a tear-shaped piece of wood the boy found among the ashes and broken glass.

He held it in his hands as they drove home. It looked like a fist, with a flame-licked tail, shot from some sculpted arm. His father told him they rarely had tails that long and called them lumpy, heat-scrubbed beach potatoes.

“Heat-scrubbed?” the boy didn’t understand.

“Yeah, do you feel how smooth that unburned end is?” His father pointed to the white wood of the fist, shining even in the dark car, and sighed, “the heat cooked it but it didn’t burn.”

The boy traced the treated wood respectfully with his fingertips and his father sang for the cars started moving again. It was a strange pity, the boy thought, to be tricked for beauty.

“The tail’s burnt.”

“Well it was in a fire, Achilles.”

“Yes but it’s not all burnt,” he said quietly to himself. His father was irritable when he drove, and Achilles decided any further prodding would ruin what was shaping up to be a very nice day. He slouched in the passenger seat, carrying the half-burned thing under the strap of his seatbelt and thinking, as he drifted asleep, that it must be valuable and vulnerable for all it had gone through.

He woke to the sound of tires smacking gravel in their driveway and unbuckled his seatbelt. When the car stopped, he brought the beach potato to his room, where he placed it under his bed. Then, he hopped in the shower while his father stowed the beach gear underneath the house, wooden stilts lifting it nervously from the dirty ground.

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Achilles’ mother smiled at them as they arrived at the restaurant, though she eventually had to put on her mask. Not again, the boy thought as the waiter approached, I never see her, and when I do she hides from me.

“Wow, someone’s a thirsty one, ey boyo?” the waiter asked Achilles, handing him a plastic cup of water, “Did you have a big day, young man?”

“Yup, me and my dad went to the beach,” the boy said, and took a gulp.

The waiter then filled two more glasses with water from a crystal jug for the parents, lifting each away from the table to pour before placing them gently back. “Oh, I love the beach, what did you do there?”

“Do you know what a beach potato is?”

The mother reached over and snatched the father’s glass, inches from his lips, as the boy spoke. The waiter hesitated but he was a waiter and had been for a long time and had answered many questions he didn’t know the answer to. He held the water jug which was sweating and heavy in his hand but he kept his mouth smiling and his eyes on the patrons in front of him. The woman wiped the glass with another purse-Kleenex.

“Maybe. I’ve lived here my whole life, and been to the beach more times than I can count. What do they look like?”

“You’d know one if you saw it.”

The waiter quieted his voice and leaned down, ear-level with the child. Achilles thought he smelled like gas. He was a thin man with leather skin and wiry white hair, complete with a matching handlebar mustache.

“The beach is very mysterious,” he said seriously. The water line in the jug approached the lip, almost spilling, “strange things have been happening there for thirty years.”

Achilles was wide eyed. He had been to the beach so many times, ever since he was a baby. But this was his first experience with a beach potato and the first time he wanted to hear a waiter speak other than for the specials.

“Why?”

“The soap factory shut down.”

The boy knew the building, but he didn’t understand. It was the biggest and oldest building in the town, with broken windows and a massive smoke stack right in the center.

“So?”

“My grandfather built it in the early 30’s, with a little help from the gov’ment. Some early version of the EPA, I think. See, this tree got brought over from Cuba which grew quicker than half the plants in Flor’da. People were setting forest fires just to contain the spread, but the trees wouldn’t burn. They stored a sap in bulbs everywhere their trunks forked which could put a fire out, like that!” he snapped his fingers.

“They smelled bitter and sweet, like pine, and a couple Flor’dians up north came up with a way to turn the sap into soap. Welp, my grandfather got his hands on that recipe and a patent so he could sell it without competition. Only problem was it wouldn’t sell at all. It could remove the toughest stain, but too slowly, so he started adding beach sand. That way, there was friction when you scrubbed something. Suddenly, people couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and it started that whole trend of soap companies putting tiny pieces of garbage in their soaps and calling them micro-scrubbers or something ridiculous like that. The young-EPA noticed that my grandfather was containing the spread of the trees and offered to sponsor his factory. He already had a mill to grind up the cut trees and three huge cauldrons to mix the wood pulp and sand under the smokestack. There was a loading dock attached to a roofed parking lot that the young-EPA filled with a fleet of high-capacity diesel trucks that brought all the raw materials there without ever leaving the state. And the factory’s workers built the town as the money came in.”

“Why did it shut down?” the boy asked. He thought about the beach potato, unburned, under his bed in his empty home.

“That’s the way things go, I’m afraid,” the waiter straightened his stance and the jug of water in his hands, “but that factory was this town!”

With this and some promises to see what was taking the kitchen so long, he left.

Achilles was impressed but also wondered about his mother, “What do you think, Mom? Is the old soap factory haunted?”

She lived in the town her whole life, born before the factory closed and raised while smoke still came out of the tower. She remembered the day her father and the rest of the town was laid-off, and a couple other days she only thought about when she was cleaning.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Achilles.”

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