As soon as they drove up to the house next door I knew they were poachers. When you’re staying in a beach house you almost always see someone pull their car into the driveway of another house but never go inside. They’re not renters—they’ve just opted not to pay the three dollars to use the public beach. They’re easy to spot because they have little or no luggage and are usually driving a small car. And I have no problem with it. There’s a lot of beach, and as long as they’re not damaging property or bothering me it’s not my concern. Maybe I’d feel differently if I owned the house, but it’s unlikely the owners will ever know. Thanks to the internet it’s easy for poachers to find out which houses are occupied and which aren’t, and they only stay a few hours.
In this case it was two girls, probably in their early twenties. Maybe they were even younger, skipping school for the day to go to the beach. As they were getting out of their car we left to get lunch on the other end of the island. When we came back they’d changed into bikinis, or maybe they’d been wearing them under their clothes, and were stretched out on towels on the sand like a couple of well-oiled slugs. One of them kept getting up to shake her hair back and take selfies.
“She looks pregnant,” said my wife.
Squinting I could see that she wasn’t exactly fat but seemed to have a slightly swollen belly. I decided it would be inappropriate to check with the binoculars and just took my wife’s word for it and turned my attention back to my book.
They’d taken a couple of chairs off the deck. When they left they left the chairs. This irked me because I’d gotten very used to a particular view down the beach, one that was unobstructed all the way to a large twisted piece of driftwood that looked, from my angle, like a bird about to take flight. I’d walked down to that driftwood several times and found it was sunk deeply in the sand, which was why it had been there last year too.
I can’t say I was entirely annoyed, though, because I decided to go over and put the chairs back. This would be my excuse to see the house next door up close and, more importantly, to check out its widow’s walk. These are exterior stairwells that lead to upper decks, sometimes on the roof of the house. Several houses that are far enough away from the beach that there are houses built between them and the ocean have roof decks. I guess this is so the owners can guarantee an unobstructed ocean view. The house next door, like ours, was close to the water so I’m not sure why it needed a roof deck, but I was curious about the view. It was slightly disappointing. It was the same view we had from our deck, only higher. Still the chance to get up close and have a slightly different perspective was enough to make me feel some sympathy for the girls. I even made up a short story about them.
It was April’s birthday. She knew Chelsea was upset about Kevin breaking up with her because of the baby. Chelsea thought Kevin would marry her. April knew better than to say anything. She used her birthday as an excuse to get Chelsea to skip school and drive down to the beach. They lay in the sand and browned. Chelsea said once they graduated they should get an apartment together and go to the beach every weekend. April knew it wouldn’t work out like that. Chelsea was content to keep working in the salon with her mother, but April wanted to get out of Mobile, maybe even out of Alabama. She wanted something else, but she wasn’t sure what.
It’s simple and borders on sentimental cliché, but it’s also sad because I wanted to imagine them with some depth. I wanted to keep it realistic, to give some thought to what they might be like as real people, to avoid dismissing them as just a couple of kids who were too cheap to pay for public beach access, or who wanted to stretch out and tan away from the hoi polloi. They’d given me an excuse to take a slightly different view, and I felt grateful for that. I felt grateful even after I found they’d left their beer cans and cigarettes in the sand. I picked those up and put them in the garbage can under the house. From there I looked out and had an unobstructed view. From this angle that driftwood was a little closer, but still looked like a bird about to take flight.