Chapter 1-Pretty Well Matched
It’s really just a little road. Just one lane eastbound and one lane westbound, it’s a scenic eighteen mile spur that loses Highway 98 just east of Destin and finds it again a few miles west of Panama City Beach. If Florida roads were family, it would be that odd nephew that stayed in his room playing alone while all the others grew up big and important. But just like that nephew, its uniqueness made it special. After all those other roads were discovered, built out and sucked dry, that one little county road was among the last to be discovered for what it had to offer. Now there’s a few billion dollars of real estate on it. The people that live on and off that road knew all along. That’s why they only let one high rise be built on it. It’ll be a miracle of the highest sort if they never allow another.
Twenty years ago, a young wanderer named Jake Burns ended up on that road. Back then the area was known as the “Redneck Riviera” and was a magnet for his type. The residents were mostly retired military out of the many bases along the gulf coast. They lived in mile after mile of small cinderblock ranch houses that resembled the old crumbled walls of antebellum forts camouflaged by short, stubby trees and sea oats. Wandering up and down those white sand beaches Jake soon became the one the women wanted to spoil and the men wanted to whip into shape.
That day he found his place by running out of gas. It was a small local market owned by a retired World War Two flyer named Carl Green. Jake coasted up to the pump and then went in to pay. He put a dollar on the counter.
“How far you looking to go on a dollar’s worth of gas?” Carl asked him.
“Don’t know, where am I right now?” Jake asked.
“You’re in Seagrove Beach.”
“Are there any jobs in Seagrove Beach?”
“What’s your name, son?”
“What can you do?” the old man asked skeptically.
“Well, I’ve done some bartending.”
“Haven’t got a bar.”
“I was a deck hand on a fishing charter in Destin for a while.”
“Just lake fishing around here, flounder and such.”
“I did some house painting last summer in Birmingham.”
“You an Alabama boy?” Carl asked
“Who do you go for, Auburn or Alabama?”
“You a cow college boy?”
“I am now. Alabama didn’t care for me, they kicked me out after a semester.”
“Uh, huh, too much howling at the moon,” the old man said frowning at him.
“Too many roadtrips down to the beach,” Jake replied which brought a smile to Carl’s face.
“I sympathize with your situation son. I got sucked into this place years ago haven’t been able to leave. Tell you what, I got a storeroom in the back that needs painting. I bought everything to do it myself a couple of weeks ago but haven’t gotten around to it. Why don’t you go give it a shot and we’ll go from there.”
“What does it pay?” Jake asked.
“I’ll give you twenty bucks.”
“Fair enough,” Jake said with a shrug and followed Carl’s pointed finger back the hall to a dimly light storeroom. It was crammed with cans and boxes, some on shelves and some just stacked floor to ceiling.
“Hey mister, where’s the paint?” he called as he looked around at the mess.
“It’s in that box,” Carl yelled back.
Jake rummaged around until he found a box with two cans of paint and a roller brush inside. He went to work smiling as he listened to the old man shouting out to game show contestants on the television. The TV went quiet and he found Carl standing in the doorway checking his progress.
“I’m glad you stopped by. You’re better at this then I am,” he said eating a sandwich. “So, what’s your plan?“
“Well, I think two coats should do fine. I cleaned it all down before I started so it should come out good.”
“I’m not talking about the paint.”
“Oh, I don’t know yet,” Jake replied rolling fresh paint over the faded ceiling. “My folks were kind of disappointed with me back home so I’m just looking around.”
“What do your folks think of you moving down?”
“Well, they’re not real happy. They’re pressuring me to join the army like my brother.”
“The service ain’t for everybody like most things in this life. When you do find what suits you, you’ll know.”
From the front of the store a lady’s voice called out “Carl, you asleep back there?”
“Yeah, go away”, he shot back smiling to Jake. He finished his sandwich and then left Jake to his work. While he painted he could hear a bell jingle regularly and voices carrying on with Carl about the topics that are most likely to get a good bull shooting session going. There was a discussion about the upcoming county elections and talk about some kids that were driving pickups through the sandy brush in the wide area between Thirty-A and Highway 98. Some lady kept speculating that they were growing drugs out there. Carl was telling her that nothing was going to grow in that area but scrub oaks and pines but she wouldn’t believe him. It was just then that Jake walked out past them to get some fresh air. As he walked by the lady, a widow named Helen Roberts, said “Carl, who was that young man?”
“That’s Jake. He’s helping me do some painting around here,” he said.
“When did you hire him?” she asked
“This is his first day, he just came in outta nowhere looking for a job.”
“You just hired him off the street? You can’t just hire someone off the street, he could be a gypsy for all you know,” she said darting her eyes nervously out to where Jake was standing.
“Calm down, Helen. I got him on a probationary period right now, if he’s any good I might keep him and if he’s not, he’ll be on his way.”
“Well, if he is any good, let me know. I need some work done around my place, and I know Doris and Linda do too.”
“How is it that the three of you always do everything in a pack?”
“We’ve always been friends, we grew up in the same town, our husbands flew together and we all became widows within a year. You know it’s not the same for men. You all like your independence, we need support.”
“OK, I’ll check him out.”
Jake completed painting the room right before sundown. As he was finishing up, He called Carl in to OK it.
“Looks pretty good,” Carl said rubbing his hand along a wall and pulling back clumsily when he realized it was still wet. “So you think you might be interested in working down here a little?”
“Yes, sure. As long as it’s steady work.”
“Well, I don’t think you have to worry about that. There’s plenty of people around here who could use a good hand. There’s also talk about a new subdivision going in right down the road between here and Grayton Beach, they’re gonna call it Broadwalk, whatever that means,” Carl said shrugging his shoulders.
“I’m not looking to get into construction full time; I’ve done it enough to know that.”
“Well, there might be some better opportunities for you around here, we’ll see.”
“Can’t we just skip a couple of steps? How bout if I just get my folks to write you a letter, let you know I’m not a, what’d that lady call me earlier, gypsy?”
Carl laughed and shook an old finger at him. “I gotta remember you have a sharp pair of ears.”
The truth was they really weren’t that different. There was an odd similarity between the one man that had passed the greatest time in his life and the other that had not yet reached his.
The old man did help Jake find work, and Jake spent most of his free time and money at the market out of appreciation. It wasn’t long before their casual bond was cemented by something more substantial then gossip and paint. One day Jake had been cleaning out a garage for a young couple who had recently inherited one of the homes down there. He was hot and sweaty and covered with dirt. Walking into the market from the summer sun Jake’s eyes came to focus on a gun. Behind it stood a filthy wild eyed boy. Carl’s face, only a foot from the business end of the barrel, did not appear cooperative to the situation.
Jake’s features remained impassive as he said to the thief, “Have you seen my sister?”
The kid shot a glance towards him without answering then turned his head back towards Carl. He rocked back and forth on his feet and shouted, “Old man, you better empty that register now or I will make you dead!”
“Please”, Jake reiterated calmly, “have you seen my sister?”
“Buddy, I don’t know you and I sure don’t know your sister. Now you better step away from that door and let me finish my business.”
“You got no business here”, Carl growled.
The thief replied, “That’s it, I’ll get it myself.”
His thumb pulled back the hammer of the revolver and he squinted his eyes ready to speed up his transaction.
“Don’t worry about the register,” Jake shot out. “The old fool doesn’t keep more than fifty in it anyway. I’ll show you where he keeps the real money, if you’ll just let me know if you see my sister.”
All was quiet as the thief processed the offer. He finally said, ”Okay, I’ll help you if you help me.”
“Back there, that’s where he cashes checks,” Jake said pointing to the small office in the back of the store. His eyes shot to Carl and then rolled out the front door as he led the kid back.
Carl took his cue and slowly walked out as they continued on. Once in the office Jake opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small metal box. He put it on top of the desk and backed away. The thief kept his pistol pointed at Jake as he opened the box and dumped its contents onto the desk. There was a fat stack of twenties in there, enough to satisfy him.
“Woo Hoo!” he yelled and started stuffing his pockets with the bills. When it was all gone he said to Jake, “Buddy, I’m sorry I ain’t seen your sister. But if I do, I’ll be sure to buy her a drink.”
He turned and ran out leaving Jake. A couple of minutes later Carl found him still standing there.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Carl said.
“What’d you want him to shoot you?” Jake replied.
Carl called the sheriff and they were making statements within twenty minutes.
“You two know how lucky you are?” the Sheriff asked. “They’re looking for that boy over in Panama City. They say he killed a clerk at a liquor store down there earlier today.”
Carl looked at Jake and said “I apologize, young Jake. If you hadn’t come on in with that crazy story about your sister being missing Sheriff Wilson might be drawing a chalk line around my body right now. Outta curiosity, how’d you come up with that hogwash so quick?”
“I don’t know, when I saw the situation the first thing I thought of was my sister.”
“You didn’t tell me you had a sister.”
“Haven’t seen her since she ran away three years ago.”
“No kidding, you know where she went?”
“I have no idea. She ran off with this guy she was seeing. I knew they were involved and my parents sort of thought it was my fault that she got away from them. I guess that’s part of the reason they told me I was on my own and most of the reason I left.”
“Son, don’t you try to take responsibility for someone else’s actions,” Carl said seriously. “Free will is a fact of life. If it were any different, everyone on The Price is Right would walk away a winner.”
Jake had managed to save Carl’s life, but it was only a short reprieve. Carl’s health was worse than people knew and in a few months he had passed away. After his funeral, a lawyer from Panama City found Jake, and handed him an envelope. Jake opened it and pulled out a two page letter in Carl’s handwriting. After reading through it, Jake nodded to the lawyer who produced a stack of papers for Jake to sign. With that, the market became his.
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