It was an uncomfortable transition for a while, for Jake and the market regulars. He kept everything the same hosting the local gossip always with the television game shows as background noise. But his status as Carl’s replacement was probed and challenged by those who had designs on new directions they believed the area should take.
One of the most aggressive and successful of those scrambling to acquire and develop land was Walter White. Although he started late in life as a man living with his wife in his mother’s home, he recognized his own talent for intimidating others. Over the past few years he had turned his mother’s modest inheritance from his late father’s fishing charter service into considerable wealth. Walter soon became “Mr. White” through a series of low rise beachfront condo buildings and strip malls he developed in Panama City. His first visit to the market under Jake’s ownership managed to silence the conversations inside. Jake greeted him as cordially as he could.
“Morning Mr. White, what can I do for you?”
“Yes, could you show me where you keep the light bulbs in here?” White responded.
“Sure,” Jake said leading him back. “What wattage do you need?”
White picked up the first package he saw, a single twenty five watt bulb, and peered back to the hall.
“I wonder if we could speak in private,” he said eyeing the narrow hallway that led back to the stockroom and small office.
“Ok,” Jake said, then to the people in the front he called out, “I’ll be right back.”
White turned to check their response and they jumpstarted their conversation back again.
“So, the old man left it all to you huh?” White said when they reached the small office.
“Mr. White, if you’d like, I could continue to come by and take care of things like that for you.”
“What?” he asked, then remembering the bulb in his hand dismissed it, “Oh no, I’ve hired someone to take care of mother and us. Things have been going fine and Delores just has her hands so full with little Barbara that we decided to get some help full time.”
Over the months after Jake first landed there, the Whites had been a steady source of side jobs for him. Sometimes they were as good as painting a couple of rooms or repairing damage to their windows or driveway, but many times they were as trivial as replacing light bulbs.
“No, I was thinking about what your intentions might be for this old place.”
“Well, I intend to run it as best I can.”
“Are you sure that’s wise? I imagine it won’t be too long before a supermarket is opened up around here and that would be pretty tough to compete with.”
“You think it’s wise to build a bunch of condos on a beach that could be blown away by a hurricane? To me, that seems like a really bad deal to be in on.”
“There’s nothing I build that could be threatened by wind or rain,” White smugly replied.
“Well I don’t believe some supermarket is a threat to this market. What’s this all about?” Jake asked tiring of the conversation and unaffected by White’s dim predictions.
“I’d like to help you.”
“You don’t seem like the type that would be interested in owning a little place like this.”
“I believe this property could be put to better use. The corner of 30-A and Seagrove Road is well traveled now and it’s only going to get busier.”
“So you don’t care about the market.”
“Jake, there’s no reason to let youthful arrogance get the best of you. I am prepared to offer you one hundred thousand dollars for this place. That’s something you should think about. You could do whatever you wanted with that sum of money.”
“Well, what I want to do is get back to my customers if you don’t mind.”
“They’re not your customers, son. They come here because of the old man. But they themselves are old and one day, maybe sooner than you think, they will be gone like him.”
“One day we’ll all be gone.”
“Alright, you’re not interested now, so be it. But keep it in mind. My offer is open. What do I owe you for this?” he asked holding up the bulb.
“C’mon up front, I’ll ring it up.”
“Well I’m in a hurry. I’ve a meeting down the road that I must get to. Here,” he said putting a twenty down on the desk. “Keep the change.”
He turned and left. Jake, leaving the money where White dropped it, went back to his customers.
“What’s the matter with you boy?” asked Fred Squire as Jake rejoined their conversation. “Little Whitey trying to mess with you?”
“Nah, it’s nothing. He just wanted to help out.”
“The only helping Walter White does is helping himself,” Mr. Squire replied which elicited nods of assentation from the other two present.
Fred Squire had once owned several acres down in Grayton Beach that he used to raise goats. Back in the seventies some people had pooled together and offered him a thousand acres on the north side of Chocktawhatchee Bay in Freeport to get his goats off the beach. He had taken their offer but still spent most of his time around the county road. The land ended up in Walter White’s hands who made a small fortune turning it over.
“Don’t you feel intimidated by that man,” said Helen Roberts. “He’s just like those dirty japs were, sneak attacks and land grabs.”
“I’ll be fine Mrs. Roberts. Say, do ya’ll mind if I close up for a little while? I’d like to walk over to the beach.”
“That’s a fine idea. We can run the place if you’d like, used to do it for Carl all the time when he wanted to go catch a nap,” Mr. Squire said.
“No, but thanks. I’d like to clear my head and that’s tough to do if I’m worring about what’s going on around here. It will only be for a couple of hours, ya’ll can come back by after lunch.”
“Well, I guess I’ll run up the road, go check on my goats,” Mr. Squire replied.
“I suppose I could go work in my garden before it gets too hot,” said Mrs. Roberts. “You want to come over, Doris?”
“Mmhmm” Dorris replied and the three walked out leaving Jake alone.
He went back to the office, picked up his backpack and headed out the door.
It was a fine morning on the gulf coast. The sand had not yet gotten hot enough to be uncomfortable. The water was a translucent green out to the sandbar that nearly poked up above the rolling surf two hundred yards offshore. From there its hue shortly descended to a dark blue signifying the start of deep water. Jake dropped his backpack just above the lapping waves and crashed down beside it. Staring out at a boat crawling along the Gulf he reached into the backpack and pulled out an envelope. He held it in both hands, gazing at it like some mystic’s crystal ball and removed the two handwritten pages inside.
I’m writing this letter for you to read after I’m gone, so if you’re reading it then I must be dead. I hope everyone enjoyed the funeral. I left instructions for Reverend Houseman to keep it short. If he decided to ignore my wishes I want you to go to his service the next Sunday and snore during his whole sermon. It might be wrong of me to get you to do that, but I figure by the time you read this I’m already where I’m going to end up so no harm can come to me. But you will not be so lucky. Because you once saved my life, I’m going to make you an offer. When I was your age I volunteered for duty in World War Two. They made me a pilot and it was an experience. I won’t go into boring you with any more war stories but I do want to say that I saved the lives of my buddies a few times and had mine saved by them too. We did it for a reason, a great reason, so it was tough to think anybody owed anyone over it. I’d never felt indebted to another man until what happened in the market that day. So here’s the payback. The man that handed you this letter also has in his possession the deed to my market and house. If you tell him so, with a simple yes, he will sign over all that I have to you free and clear with only one hitch. Don’t worry about taking it away from anyone. The only family I have left is a couple of nieces in Missouri who have lives of their own and no interest in a little country store on a mosquito infested sandbar. Anyway, the catch is this. The market will be yours, and you will treat it as such. I know you’re young but I believe you understand what that means. This place is special. Sooner or later someone will want it to be another Miami or Cape Cod and that’s all fine. But it must not happen on my land. You will find you can make a decent living here. So there’s my offer, you can keep spinning your wheels to get nowhere or you can make roots here. Just look up and tell the man what you want.
“Just keep your eyes on the horizon,” Jake said out loud when he finished reading. He returned the letter to its envelope and the envelope to the bag. He then leaned back on the beach and meditated on the small boat moving parallel to the shore, rising and falling on the waves underneath.
Noises of construction machinery from the new development down the beach brought him back and he rose to return to the market. Walking back to the dunes he caught sight of a young woman laid out alone on a floral print towel.
As he passed her, she said to him, “careful what you wish for, slick.”
“What?” he asked stopping beside her.
“I said careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”
At a loss for a reply he continued back towards the store. He climbed up the beach cliff and crossed the road to the market parking lot. Noticing Linda Lewis standing at the market door he jogged up to her.
“Sorry Mrs. Lewis, I just went over to the beach for a little bit.”
“Oh, don’t apologize, I talked with Helen on the phone. She said you were a bit down so I brought you a pie,” Mrs. Lewis held it up for him as she said it.
“I’m not down, you didn’t have to do it.”
“Well, it was just one of those things. I thought about making a pie this morning so I did. Then Helen called and said you cleared everyone out a little while ago so I knew you would enjoy it,” she said smiling.
“Thanks,” he said taking it from her hands. He opened the market door and held it for her as she walked in.
“As long as I’m here I might as well get a few things.”
“Take your time.”
He placed the pie on the counter behind the register, turned the TV back on and found a fork.
“Don’t tell me you wished for pie,” a voice said behind him.
He looked around to find the girl that had called him “slick” on the beach a short time ago. She was scanning the assortment of chewing gum under the counter.
“And I thought you were just skipping work and daydreaming on the beach.”
“It was more like a break,” said Jake.
“Ahh, a break. I see,” she said sarcastically.
“Some people would say only a hypocrite would accuse a person of skipping work when they also were skipping work.”
“What makes you think I’m supposed to be at work right now?” she asked.
“It’s eleven thirty on Monday.”
“I could be taking an early lunch break.”
“In a bikini?”
“Maybe I sell bathing suits”
“Ok, so what happens if I want to buy that one?” he asked pointing to the one she was wearing.
“Boys”, she replied shaking her head.
Jake grinned until he noticed Mrs. Lewis trying to discretely leave the store.
“Mrs. Lewis, did you find what you were looking for?”
“Oh, hee hee, its ok Jake. I forgot my wallet, I mean my shopping list. You just go right on with your little customer there and I’ll be back in a while”, she said as she nervously dashed out of the store.
“See, now the naughty boy has scared away the customers,” the young woman said to Jake.
“Are you new around here?” Jake asked.
“No I’ve been here before, but I must say you look better than the last guy that waited on me,” she replied.
“You must mean Carl. He passed away a few months ago. I’m Jake, the new owner,” he said trying to sound important. “You planning on going back down to the shore? Cause you’re welcome to leave your car in the parking lot. It’s a lot safer then parking on the side of the road.”
“Um, I already did,” she finally said turning to push open the door.
Jake stammered, “You know if you like I could bring you a Coke in a little while. They taste better cold on the beach, you know?”
“Thanks but I don’t think I’ll be out there that long, gotta get to work in a little while,” she said as she walked out.
As the door closed he walked back to the cooler to stock it with beers. He was rushing to get finished when he really had nothing to do afterwards. Getting fidgety, he started organizing cans of soup on one of the aisles. “Ah to hell with you,” he muttered to the cream of mushroom, grabbed two coke cans out of the cooler and hung the “Back in 15” sign on the door as he walked out. He headed toward the beach noticing only his faded blue jeep and a mustang convertible with Iowa plates parked on the crushed oyster shell parking lot. As he came to Thirty-A a green Chevrolet station wagon pulled up in front of him blocking his path.
“Going for a swim Jake?” asked the driver, Mrs. Jones.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied trying to keep it as brief as possible. “It’s been a slow morning and I thought I could get out in the sun for a little while.”
“You must be planning to be gone longer than a little while if you need two Cokes,” she observed as was the fashion with retired women mining for gossip to share with the others. Jake could see her eyes already zeroing in on the mustang.
“Um, no ma’am, one’s for someone already down there.”
“Someone from Iowa?” she asked, “friend of yours from school?”
It was at this point that he realized the phone tree must have already been set in motion. The Thirty-A phone tree was a most effective and seemingly speed-of-light- fast form of communication around there, more informative than the Panama City News Herald but never as accurate. Mrs. Jones was the hub for that wheel of gossip. It was generally assumed among the men of the area that the local papers depended heavily on the Thirty-A phone tree for content in the local section. Problem was that more than once the paper had to retract stories that had developed from interesting fact to outlandish fiction while traveling the phone tree. In fact, Mrs. Jones herself had experienced a mild heart attack a couple of years ago when she read that she herself was on a hospital bed near death. No one would admit to starting that one, just the same as all the other stories that floated around. But Jake couldn’t really get put out by this line of interrogation. The ladies down here had been trying for a while to set him up with a steady stream of daughters, nieces, daughters of friends, and even some friends of the divorcee and widow variety. For him it would be better to negotiate than hear tomorrow that he had eloped with some yankee girl. He bent over and rested his forearms on the open window of Mrs. Jones’s wagon.
“Mrs. Jones, I’ll make you a deal,” he spoke in his best attempt at a confiding voice. “You head along to your bridge game or garden party or wherever it was that you were headed when you happened to be passing by and I’ll give you an exclusive as the story develops,” giving her just the slightest wink for emphasis.
“Jake, dear, you know I wasn’t prying,” she said from behind the most innocent visage you could imagine on a woman as worldly as she was.
“No ma’am, I didn’t think that at all,” he said going along.
“I just saw you out here and thought I would stop and see if you’d gotten those divine peaches you get every spring in yet.”
“No ma’am, not yet, the man said he’d be delivering some first of next week.”
“OK then go on and enjoy this pretty day,” she said almost glowing with the prospect of getting the full scoop on Monday when she came in for some fruit.
Jake raised himself back up and froze as he saw the girl standing on the passenger side of Mrs. Jones wagon. Mrs. Jones, seeing her standing there quickly hit the accelerator and left in a cloud of dust. Jake could hear her faint, “Bye Jake” as he stood there like an awkward suitor on prom night.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” the girl said, “a cold coke would be just great.”
“Uh yeah, I was just on my way to bring you one.” But as he lifted it to her he could tell the Florida sun had already brought it up beyond anything resembling cold. She grabbed it and noticed. “Well maybe you have a really cool one inside?” As she spoke Jake untensed recognizing her flirtatious tone. And like that the ice was broken.
They spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in the sun and talking. Her name was Shelia Judson and she had moved down to escape the boredom and snow of the Midwestern plains. She found a job in a beachfront shop, a “crap shack” as she called it, in Panama City selling T-shirts and souvenirs. She was brash and beautiful and looking for a life of travel and adventure, he was a college drop out with ideas but no plans. They had fun together anyway. In just a few days they decided to move in together, she gave up her job in Panama City and spent most of her time hanging around with him in Seagrove. She began painting to give herself something to do while he was working in the market. For a while she seemed content in translating the unspoiled beauty of the area and her painting captured her awakening. Soon the small house that Jake inherited along with the market next door was covered in the firey reds and glowing oranges of paintings capturing the sunsets that seemed to hypnotize even the seagulls during their late afternoon feeding frenzies.
“You’re getting pretty good at this,” he said watching her work from over her shoulder one afternoon. “I bet you could make some money doing it.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather keep them here.”
“Why? You’ve gotten so good, so quickly I bet you could be a real artist.”
“That’s sweet but I don’t think so.”
“C’mon, at least you could try, you know, make it available!”
“Make it available? Do you mean set up a card table on the side of the road. Paint a little sign that says original beach art twenty five dollars each or three for fifty. I could become the Georgia O’Keefe of the Florida panhandle,” she said as she flipped her head back and smiled sarcastically at the ceiling.
“Not really your style huh?” Jake asked agreeing. “You could put a few in the market.”
“No thank you.”
“Shelia, you said it was dingy in there. These would really liven the place up.”
“The price tags would ruin the effect.”
“Then let me buy one.”
“What are you offering?”
“Um, hold on.”
He grabbed the keys to the market and ran out the door. Shelia continued painting.
He returned shortly and said, “Here” offering her a ring.
“Jewelry, now you’re getting somewhere. Let me see that.”
He handed the ring to her. It was a silver band with a rectangular crown design.
“Oh, you are a bad boy trying to buy art with stolen jewelry.”
“It’s not stolen, it’s on consignment and I’ll pay for it when that woman comes back around.”
She scowled at him for a moment then slid the ring on her middle finger.
“O.K., deal. But you can’t resell it,” she said.
“It’ll be tough. Someone’s gonna come in and offer me five hundred for this painting.”
“Would you take it?”
“Yes. But I’d use the money to buy you a real ring, with diamonds and stuff on it,” he said as he sat down on the couch.
“Por moi?” she asked jumping on top of him.
“For little ole me?”
“Oh yeah,” he said smiling.
She stretched out and landed with her head in his lap looking up at the ring on her outstretched hand.
“Jake,” she began, half purring.
“Did Walter White really offer to buy the market?”
“Mrs. Jones told me the other day that he offered you a hundred thousand dollars for it.”
“Yeah, I guess he did.”
“A little while after I got it. I told him it wasn’t for sale.”
“It’s crazy what real estate is going for around here,” she remarked.
“It’ll probably get crazier.”
“Well, why don’t you get into it?”
“It?” he asked.
“Real estate. I mean with that amount of money, you could buy one of those old places on the beach and fix it up. You know everyone around here and all about working on houses.”
He lifted her head off of his lap and slid out from under it. Standing up, he folded his arms.
“What are you talking about?” he asked almost stunned.
She stared up at him.
“Jake, you know who I am and what I want. I’m not saying I don’t like this place, but to stay here, even with all it is, is no different from being stranded on the little ship in a bottle gathering dust on some crap shack shelf. There’s so much more we can do down here than just run a little country store.”
“Shelia, I know Carl wanted this place to stay open for the people who live here. I mean, that’s why he left it to me. Because he thought I would be the best one to carry it on as a tradition,” he said.
“Do you know that?” she asked getting perturbed “or do you just want to make sure that your little old adopted mothers don’t have to drive 20 miles to get a loaf of bread or a roll of toilet paper. They are not your problem. You are responsible for your own fulfillment, not theirs.”
“How do you know what gives me fulfillment?” he asked his tone turning from irritated to offended.
The conversation ended abruptly and with that the means that fed their relationship slowly starved. It was only six months ago that they met and their differences began to untie the attractions that had originally drawn them together. It finally broke one afternoon while they were driving back from DeFuniak Springs. As they turned onto Highway 98, he noticed vapor whisping up from the hood on his Jeep. Jake eased up off the gas and began to coast onto the sandy shoulder. As he was nearing a full stop black smoke began pouring out of the vents and through the dashboard. Instinctively his foot slammed down hard on the brake sending Shelia’s forehead up against the weathered and cracked dashboard.
She let out a loud “UNGH!” As he turned to help get her out and found himself confronted by two very upset eyes highlighted by a long horizontal red lump on her forehead that seemed to turn black and blue almost instantaneously. Before he could reach over to where she sat she had already jumped clear of the door and made a barrel roll out onto the sandy shoulder. He jumped out of the driver’s side and forgetting to look was just missed by an eighteen wheeler barreling down the narrow highway. He came around to Shelia finding her prone with her knees pointing skyward and her back on the ground. He reached out for her hand and instead got her foot, a little too eagerly, in his stomach. He fell and she jumped up cursing as the texture framing the jeep behind them went from a black smoke to a growing orange and red flame. He lay huffing, stunned and afraid as the fire silhouetted and complimented her boiling rage.
“This is it, isn’t it! This is what you want; contentment for you is to have the life knocked out by old junk cars and run down stores! To hell with this, Jake, and to hell with you.” She began kicking him, probably more than he deserved, but less than she wanted to. A man who, seeing their car on fire had stopped to help, held onto her arms and pulled her out of range of Jake’s ribs. Jake scrambled away sideways on all fours kind of the way a crab runs from danger and got to his feet a safe distance away.
”Nice one Shelia, the crazy woman routine, that’s one I haven’t seen yet from you”, he said his arms over his stomach.
“How about this one, asshole, the magic disappearing woman routine!”
She marched to the man’s station wagon got in the passenger side and slammed the door closed behind her. The man, deciding he better get her away from there before she got behind his steering wheel and tried to run Jake over ran to the driver’s side door and got in.
“No, I’ve seen that one lots of times before,” Jake said to himself as the station wagon pulled back on 98 heading west.She left him, but not the beach, moving fifteen miles down to Destin, which was already on the
way from being the self titled “luckiest little fishing village in the world” to becoming a
vacation destination of highrises and golfing resorts spread out between the Gulf of Mexico and
Chocktawhatchee Bay. Jake carried on with his market in Seagrove and was updated on a painfully
regular basis by the Thirty-A phone tree of Shelia’s life. In less than a year she had married a
guy named David Brockwell, the son of a Texas doctor. He too moved down after an unfinished
college experience but had gone to work for a real estate company in Destin and went out on his
own as soon as he had learned the business. They had a child, a daughter they named Eden, and
were for a time a whole family as David built a successful beach development company.
RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 3