Copyright is held by the author.
THE MORNING sun broke over the sands of Longboat Key, the longest island separating Sarasota Bay from the gulf. Ethel Edwards crossed the invisible county line barefoot, a line drawn in the sand at the behest of John Ringling in the ’20s in a ploy to avoid city taxes on his proposed development. The development fell apart in the depression but Arvida Corp, aka Arthur Vining Davis, revived the dream in the ’50s.
To the north, Ca d’Zan, home to the Ringling family sported a sunrise halo and to the south, jugglers, practicing on the beach, threw their pins toward the pink reflection. Ethel, sandals in hand, smiled into the mirages conjured up by the drugs. Ringling had moved its winter circus home from Sarasota to Venice years ago. Beachfront condos blocked the view to town.
The cancer drugs messed with her mind, but she still managed a morning walk, thankful for the delusions and the solitude. Bomber squadrons had used the range on the island to train. Jimmie, her dead husband, had discovered this place when his gunnery unit was stationed here. In a shift toward legitimacy during the post-War boom, the Chicago organization, at Jimmie’s suggestion, had developed the Longboat Key Towers in which Ethel now lived.
The tide washed over her feet. Her toes dug in. The last pin fell into the juggler’s clutches. He began again.
“Mrs. Edwards?” A strawberry-blonde stepped in front of the juggler. “It’s me, Frances Evans.”
Mirages didn’t usually talk. Ethel cupped her brow against the sun ball looming behind the figure attired in a smart Capri pant and cropped linen top. Frances had morphed into a young Rita Hayworth. Well, not so young. Ethel managed the calculation in her head. Frances was Bobby Evans’ oldest. She must be forty by now. Her childhood curls, tamed into sophisticated waves, framed her face.
“Frances? What are you doing here?”
The younger woman gazed downward and backed her bright red ballet flats away from the incoming tide. “I’m living here, temporarily. At First Step.”
Ethel backtracked to the girl’s side. She saw it then, the slight drag on Frances’ otherwise perfectly shaped face. Other telltale signs, most likely there in the beginning, were wiped clean now. A stay in rehab could heal the physical signs of abuse, but not erase the evidence of the original cause. A baby at age 15, as she recalled, given up. The choices we force on our children.
Ethel gazed back out to sea. “Cocaine?”
The caregiver Ethel had escaped this morning had a son struggling with the drug-du-jour, in and out of one facility or another, mere months between relapses. Like most crazes, Ethel suspected the new disco society that provided abundant opportunities to backslide would die soon. The pipeline would reroute. Some new, faster high would take cocaine’s place, each drug deadlier than the last. Stepping stones in a natural progression that created a discomforting comfort with past substances.
Frances nodded. “Mostly. Pills too.” She raised her head to the sky, her strawberry highlights turning gold against the blue. “But it was the powder I loved.”
The wistful statement signalled the love affair might not be over. Ethel remembered something about a design business. From the looks of the smart outfit, Frances had a marketable taste level. The other Evans children, all married now, worked in their father’s organization-backed casino, making Frances the only hold out. No surprise.
Ethel took her hand. “Well, you look wonderful. How’s your mother?” Ethel had missed her friendship with Bobby Evans’ wife when the family decamped from Dallas to Vegas.
Frances squeezed Ethel’s hand and dropped it. She put her hands on her waist, her eyes following the cascading waves. “Busy with her grandchildren I suspect.” She turned, her sadness surging with the tide, threatening tears.
Ethel wondered when the last time was that someone had held the girl while she cried.
Frances slid her hand into a back pocket and retrieved a slim gold cigarette case. “I’m not really in touch.” A sly smile replaced the grimace, the tears, unreleased, receded. “The only drug I’m allowed right now.”
She offered one to Ethel, the source of the lung cancer the older woman carried inside. Ethel eyed the case, a dance in her head as to how to hide the smell from her caregiver upon her return. Her eyes let loose a twinkle as she made her selection. The younger woman leaned toward her, shielding the flame from the coastal breeze and lit them up.
Ethel inhaled, savouring the smoke inside for a long while before exhaling into the marine air. Frances bent down and plucked a gutted clamshell off the sand. She ran her fingertip across its rim and blew her smoke out in rings. “I guess that’s why they call them razor clams.”
Ethel nodded. “Cut many a digger.” The sand sifted again.
In the distance, two small boys tugged on a kite string, their white-uniformed nanny laughing at their efforts to get it aloft. A sudden burst of wind whipped the triangle upward. It soared, triumphant against the crystal morning sky before crashing back into the sand. The cigarettes burned down. Both women pinched them out.
Frances retrieved the gold case again but Ethel shook her head. “I’d better get back.” She extended her hand, palm up, her stub between her fingers. “I’ll toss them. I can’t bear to see them in the sand.” Frances dropped her butt. Ethel’s palm closed around it. “Give your mother my regards.”
Frances flipped the lid to the lighter open with one hand, her other gripping the shell. “If I see her, I will.” The tide washed up and over her red shoes. Frances lit up, the saltwater swirling at her ankles.
Ethel trudged to the boardwalk and turned back. Frances stood thigh deep in the surf, something red trailing off her arm. Or was it?
The juggler beckoned. Ethel followed him home.
The juggler beckoned. Ethel followed him home.