On 11/11 I got up at 7 a.m., roused by Henry whose new favorite way to wake me up is to throw the sheets off my body and tug at my legs until I fall out of bed.
“Breakfast Mama. Cook eggs Mama. Get up Mama.”
I was in the middle of a reoccurring dream about Ben Affleck and wife Jennifer Garner, which recently replaced my a reoccurring dream about Brad Pitt and former wife Jennifer Aniston.
I pleaded with Henry for another 10 minutes. He granted me 30 seconds before yanking me to my feet.
I sluggishly made my way to the stove. Cooked pancakes, topped them with syrup. Sliced an apple, topped it with peanut butter. I opened the window by my kitchen table to survey the never-changing weather. It was as it always is this time of year: sunny, warm and perfect; a ripe morning for a paddle on the bay.
I slid a plate of pancakes in front of Henry and asked him if he wanted to go kayaking. I might as well have asked him if he wanted to eat birthday cake while flying a rocket ship with a robot as his copilot. YES OF COURSE HE WANTED TO GO KAYAKING.
His eyes bugged out of his head and his mouth gave way to a toothy grin. Bits of pancake fell from his lips. Kayaking, he said, was the perfect mix of outdoor exploration, physical exertion and meditation. And by that I mean his response was, “Mama take Henry kayak-yak-king. Go in water. Wear life vest. See birds. Go woosh woosh,” accompanied by a paddling motion. He was clearly keen on kayaking.
Some adults might get hung up on the execution of such a plan. Kayaking by yourself is one thing. Kayaking in the company of a two-year-old is quite another. There are technicalities to consider. We don’t live directly on the water, so there’s the issue of physically lugging the kayak from the house to the launch, for which I own a kayak dolly.
(Note to outdoor enthusiasts with small children: The best way to pull a 14-foot kayak AND keep tabs on a two-year-old is to plop the two-year-old IN the kayak and pull it on a dolly.)
When we arrived at the bay, I spotted my favorite drifter standing on the dock, watching mullet flop in and out of the water.
His name is Charlie. He’s got a belly like a timpani drum and a voice like a tuba. He spends most of his days shirtless, sunburned and pedaling a bicycle. Because he’s weather-beaten it’s hard to determine his age. I’d put him at about 60 … or 70 in homeless years.
He grew up on a farm in Ohio and he says his friends back home would fall over backwards if they saw him now, not because he’s a homeless man, but because he’s a city boy.
“No way is Charlie a city boy,” they’d say, according to Charlie.
As far as city boys go Charlie is the nicest. (And by city boys I mean homeless men.) The first time we met I was at the park where Henry celebrated his first birthday and Charlie made a comment under his breath about Henry’s John Deere tractor shirt.
“What’s a kid in St. Pete know about John Deere?” He asked.
“He knows that his grandfather has one,” I replied.
“Here? In St. Pete?” He asked.
“No,” I said. “In Western New York.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
From there on I became the country girl with the farm tractor kid and Charlie became the city boy with the farm tractor past; two people in the same neighborhood, breathing the same hot air, living in two different worlds.
Whenever our paths would cross we’d share stories about the benefits of growing up in the middle of nowhere and how despite our nostalgia neither one of us was in any hurry to move back. We both live in St. Pete for the same reasons: great weather, great people, great parks and great water. You can own NOTHING and still have access to these riches.
“If it were just weather no one would be here,” Charlie said one day. “If there was no water, if this were a desert, if there were no birds, who would want to be here? The water seals the deal.”
Raising his beer in the air, he added, “and the birds.”
Charlie loves his beer. I’ve seen him sober and I’ve seen him wasted. When he’s not drinking he’s usually sitting somewhere near the water, philosophizing with a fisherman, smoking a cigarette and staring out at the bay. Some days he’s too drunk to carry on a sensible conversation. On these days I simply say hello and continue on my way.
“Say hi to Charlie,” I tell Henry.
“Hi Charlie,” Henry says.
No one else says hello. No one else knows his name. No one else knows he grew up on a farm in Ohio. No one else cares. This doesn’t make me a hero. It just makes me nice, which is really all Charlie wants. In the two years we’ve been crossing paths he’s not once asked me for anything. We talk for 15 minutes. He takes a swig of beer. We say goodbye.
On 11/11, I found Charlie standing by the boat launch by my house. He was sober.
“You’re one tough cookie pulling that thing down here all by yourself with a little kid,” he said.
“It’s no biggie with a dolly,” I said.
“I’m glad to see he’s got a life vest on,” he said.
“Of course,” I said.
“Where’s your vest?”
“It’s in the kayak,” I said.
“I bet you’re as strong a swimmer as you are a runner,” he said.
“I’m not bad.”
“You grew up on a farm, didn’t you?”
“No,” I said. “I grew up around farms. There’s a difference.”
“Not really,” Charlie said. “Farm or no farm. You’re no wuss.”
“Thanks,” I said, flattered.
“You remind me of a girl I went to high school with,” Charlie said. “Geraldine Flynn. She could run faster than anyone I knew.”
Charlie always tells me about Geraldine Flynn.
“I know,” I said. “She ran track.”
“Oh you know this one already,” he laughed. “Hell, she’s probably old enough to be your mother.”
I often wonder if Charlie dated Geraldine Flynn.
“When’s the last time you saw her?” I ask.
“Ha! It’s been 30 years. For all I know she’s dead.”
“Nah,” I said. “I bet she’s still around.”
“She’s probably got a slew of grandbabies,” he said. “Geraldine Flynn. Boy, I wonder what she’s up to.”
I thought it, but I didn’t say it: I bet she’s wondering what you’re up to.
Our conversation ended there. I pushed the kayak off the launch and paddled an exuberant Henry in the direction of Snell Isle Bridge.
“Be safe out there,” Charlie said, throwing up a little salute as the kayak got further away.
From the dock I heard a fisherman tell Charlie he was heading out to get a sandwich for lunch.
“Would you like one?” He asked.
“Nah,” Charlie said. “Just bring me a beer.”