The Inside Story – Steve Carr

The first question that almost everyone asked me was, “Why are you doing this story?”

Henley Spit suddenly appeared at the end of the coastal road as if it had been dropped there by accident. On the sign alongside the road, the population of Henley Spit was given as 1640, although the sign was rusted and riddled with bullet holes. White sandy beach lined the ocean side of the road. Dense scrub brush carpeted the land on the other side. The sky above the beach was crowded with seagulls that circled about as if caught in a storm, unable to find a safe place to land. The carcasses of dead armadillos flattened by tires littered the road. Balmy air, tinged with salt and the aroma of fish, flowed in through the car windows.

The first building on the right entering the town was the Henley Spit Grocers. Across the road from it was a stretch of beach and then the ocean. There wasn’t a parking lot in which to park, only a curb of broken cement that ran the length of the storefront. Small metal stand-alone signs advertising Coca Cola, different varieties of bread, and sun tan lotion stood in front of the plate glass windows that were lined on the inside with shelves filled with paper products and canned foods. A small post office sign hung in the window alongside a poster for the Army recruitment office in the nearest town, Hashberg Corners, fifty miles away. Even before getting out of the car I knew that I had to interview the man sitting in a lawn chair next to the Coke sign. The man looked as beaten up by time and decay as the Henley Spit sign. A large tabby cat sat in the man’s lap. Both watched me as I approached them, my notepad and sharpened pencil in hand. I introduced myself and why I had come to Henley Spit.

“You want to know about Craig Harmon? To do a story about him, what happened to him?” He stoked the cats thick fur. “I knew him from the time he was a small boy until it all happened. I was friends with his father, a strange man who told whoppers, lies about his upbringing, his entire life, with a totally straight face.” He stared out at the ocean as if seeing it for the first time. “I don’t think the boy and his father were ever very close. I knew them both, but seldom saw them together. It was his mother I saw him with a lot. They used to walk along the beach, holding hands, from the time he was a toddler. When he got older, became a teenager, they walked close together, whispering and giggling, like boyfriend and girlfriend. Looking back they were a strange pair, carrying on that way – mother and son – but I never gave it any thought. They seemed happy.”

He picked the cat up and nuzzled his nose in the cat’s fur. The cat hung limp like a sack of disjointed muscles and bones in the man’s arms. “Me? Around here they call me Ol’ Thirsty because I used to drink a lot, but that was right after the war, when I returned here to Henley Spit where I was born. I don’t drink any more.” He placed the cat on the ground at his feet. The cat lazily licked its paws. “It’s surprising, but there aren’t many of us who were born here and still live here. He waved his arm around in a half circle. “Look at this place. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?”

The white sails of a small boat shone brightly on the bright blue water not far from the beach.

“Craig’s family wasn’t originally from here. His father, Mark, showed up one day pulling a travel trailer with a run-down truck and parked it at the far end of the spit and never left. His pretty wife, Sarah was her name, and the boy, Craig, was with him. As soon as Mark got the permits he built a large house where he first parked that trailer. I was about twenty years older than Mark. I think from the first time he met he saw me as a kinda father figure. He came to my house quite a lot and we’d sit on my front porch and look out at the ocean and he’d talk non-stop, as if he was busting at the seams just to talk about himself. He once told me his father ran whore houses in Nevada. Another time he told me his father was a fisherman who had been lost at sea.” He drew a wad of phlegm into his mouth and then spat it out. “Whoppers! I don’t think anyone knows the real truth about Mark.” He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped away a layer of sweat that covered his forehead. “Did I mention that his wife, Sarah, was pretty? Really pretty.”

The cat began to wander off across the road. Ol’ Thirsty stood up. “Darned cat!” He limped off after the cat. “Come back here before you get your damned head run over.”

* * *

Inside the store the blades of a fan that hung from the ceiling circled about unevenly. The entire fan wobbled. Despite the fan, the store was hot and smelled of dust and stale sea air. The gurgling of a small fish aquarium that sat on the front counter would have been the only sound if not for the monotonous humming of the clerk who stood behind the counter, leaning her heavy frame against an old cash register. She wore a pale blue dress that resembled a uniform. I had two rows of aligned silver buttons and epaulets on the shoulders. Above her right breast was a name tag on which was printed in flowery cursive lettering, Jenny. She kept her eyes glued to my notebook, following every word I wrote down.

“Yeah, I saw you out there talking to Ol’ Thirsty. The drink didn’t do his mind any good. You can’t believe a word that he says. Not that he lies, but he accidentally twists the facts around like pretzels. None of us who live here pay any attention to him. He likes to sit out there and he doesn’t do any harm.”

She took a small tin can of fish food from a drawer under the counter and sprinkled it on the water in the aquarium. Only a few of the dozen or so fish swam up to gobble down the flakes.

“If it weren’t for this store, Henley Spit would blow away just like the sand the town is built on,” she said. “I’ve worked here ever since I got out of high school.” She snickered. “I won’t tell you how many years ago that was.” She propped one elbow up on the aquarium. “Craig Harmon? Every teenage girl and a few of the boys in Henley Spit had a crush on him. My daughter, Selma, went to school with him. There weren’t many students in their class, or at the school here in Henley Spit, back then. The town and the school have grown since then. Craig Harmon didn’t do well academically, at the bottom of his class grades-wise, but everyone loved him. That boy was as near to perfection when it comes to looks as a boy can be. I think he got his looks from his mother, but his dad wasn’t bad looking either.” She turned her hand over, curled her fingers, and gazed at her bright red nail polish. “I was said to be a looker too when I was Craig’s age.”

She rested her elbow on the aquarium again.

“I liked Mark Harmon. He was a hoot to talk to when he came into the store. He had a great sense of humor. Outside of here I never talked to him, though. Why would I? I’m a happily married woman. Always have been.”

I flipped the notebook back to what Ol’ Thirsty said about Mark.

She chuckled. “I wouldn’t know for certain, but of course Ol’ Thirsty would say Mark made stuff up. That old geezer had a thing for Sarah Harmon from the moment he set eyes on her. Mark and Ol’ Thirsty nearly came to blows about it so I think there was always an undercurrent of a grudge between them.”

She sprinkled more food into the aquarium.

“That entire Harmon clan was very easy on the eyes. She was a wild one, that Sarah. I kept my distance from her.” She flicked a polished nail at a fly that landed on her name tag. “My husband and I were in Hashberg Corners when it happened, but Selma told me all about it. Selma married an attorney and has a nice house in the suburbs of Atlanta, now. She married well. Putting her fling with Craig Harmon and Henley Spit behind her was the smartest thing she could do. I knew it was a mistake when Selma started seeing the boy on a regular basis – going steady and all that. I couldn’t let it continue, now could I? I’m a mother.”

The door to the store opened and two elderly women walked in, one with her arm hooked on to the other’s.

“Selma blamed what happened on the way Craig and his family were treated like interlopers by those of us who live here, but as I said, I kept my distance from Craig’s parents so I had nothing to do with it.” She tapped on the glass of the aquarium, eliciting no reaction from the fish. “Did I mention how good looking Craig Harmon was? If I had been twenty years younger I would have had a go at him myself.”

“Good afternoon, Jenny,” the two women said in unison as the picked up a plastic basket and headed down an aisle. The looked back at me as if I was an escaped rapist.

* * *

A short distance beyond the store a few tourist shops and beach bungalows cropped up along the beach side of the main road through the left side of Henley Spit, blocking the view of the ocean. On the right, streets between the shops and bungalows led to the residential area of the spit and to the beach on the other side. Still early in the season, there were few vehicles parked along the curbs and practically no one walking on the wooden walkways built up in front of the shops. Half way down this section of what could loosely be termed Henley Spit’s downtown, sandwiched between a barber shop and a beachwear shop on the right side of the street, was The Tasty Spit, a soda fountain fashioned after the ones popular in the 1950s. I parked the car at the curb, and went in. The interior was bright with lots of pastel pinks and blues. There were several booths, a few tables, and a long counter lined with padded stools. The shop was empty of customers. Behind the counter a teenage boy dressed in a red and white striped soda jerk uniform stared at a game device he held in one hand. It wasn’t until I sat down that he noticed me. I opened my note pad and took the pencil from my pocket.

He put his game device in his pocket. “Me? I’m Kevin Durant. I’m sixteen.”

He leaned over the counter and watched as I wrote down his name and age.

“I only started here a few weeks ago, training for the tourist season. I’ll be a senior next fall. Yeah, I heard about the Craig Harmon guy. Who in Henley Spit hasn’t heard of him and his family and what happened. He was said to be a good pitcher on the school team, but my family only moved here two years ago so I didn’t know him. What happened was some time ago, I think. But still, there’s not a lot to do in this town, so people like to talk, especially about stuff like that. That Craig Harmon worked here too, but I guess you knew that.”

He took my order and fixed me a root beer float. He placed it on the counter in front of me and then leaned back against another counter behind him on which sat the mixers and shelves lined with various sizes of glasses for floats, malts and shakes, and dishes for banana splits, and crossed his arms. “Did you know there’s an old lifeguard stand on the beach on the other side of the spit that has his initials carved in it inside a heart shape that no one ever bothered to paint over.” He chuckled. “His initials are paired with what lots of other initials. The rumors that he was really popular must be true.” He lowered his voice to a near-whisper. “I heard he swung both ways.”

He walked over to a jukebox, took a quarter from his pocket, and dropped it into the coin slot. The machine whirred to life and a moment later a Fats Domino song began to play. He returned to behind the counter and stood in the same place, in the same pose, he had stood in before. “If it was true that Craig Harmon’s dad was on the run from the mafia it might explain some of it.”

The resulting expression on his face to my next question was that of someone who had just met the dumbest person on the planet.

“Some of what? All the shit that happened, of course.” He slapped his hand across his mouth. “Oh, excuse me, mister, I’m not supposed to say that word in here.”

* * *

The land that jutted out beyond the downtown area was shaped like the tip of a finger that pointed out to sea. Bungalows and small cottages dotted the landscape, sitting among hillocks and dunes. The streets fanned out like a series of connected veins. At the very end an RV park had been recently built, funded by and managed by the town of Henley Spit as a way to put money in the town’s coffers. The mayor of Henley Spit, Thomas Gilchrist, his wife and one adult child lived in a bungalow near the RV park. Without a tree in sight, the area appeared naked, stripped of flora and fauna. The mayor was one of the few people who knew I was coming and about the story I was doing research on. He and his wife were on their porch steps when I pulled into their driveway.

The mayor shook my hand and maintained a grip on it preventing me from pulling out my note pad. “I knew Mark Harmon, but not well, not what you would call at a friendship level.” He released my hand. “We were cordial, but I never really liked him. In my opinion he was an arrogant ass.”

His wife showed me into their bungalow. The living room was crowded with antique furniture, resembling a disheveled furniture store showroom. The sofa and chairs were overstuffed and all the same teal color. She peered at me as if examining me through a microscope. “A reporter, what a fascinating occupation.” She abruptly whirled about as if something or someone had sneaked up behind her. “I’ve made a fresh pitcher of lemonade.” She left the room, leaving me alone with the mayor.

I took out my notepad and sat in a chair across from him as he sat on the sofa. A very tall and lean man, seemingly with little agility, his movements were like a daddy long legs spider, gangly and tentative. He was 64 years old.

He cleared his throat. “The kid, Craig, wasn’t the brightest bulb in the bunch. I was teaching math at the high school when he was a senior. He counted on his fingers and still got the wrong answers. I kid you not.” He shifted his legs, crossing one over the other. The one leg hung there limply, but his foot was in constant nervous movement. “I tried to talk to his parents about it, but they didn’t seem interested. Sarah doted on the boy, but in an unhealthy way. She pampered and spoiled him. The only thing Mark cared about was sitting around drinking with Ol’ Thirsty. Oh, so you’ve met the town drunk! Don’t believe a word Ol’ Thirsty told you about not drinking anymore. He never stopped from the day he returned to Henley Spit after the war. He and Mark were thick as thieves.”

Mrs. Gilchrist came back into the room carrying a tray with three large glasses of lemonade. She placed the tray on the coffee table and then handed me a glass. The root beer float in my stomach rumbled loudly.

She handed her husband a glass and then sat on the sofa next to me. She smelled of lilac powder.

The mayor took a large gulp of his lemonade. “I don’t think anyone really knew what went on inside the Harmon house, but the sheriff had to go there a few times over the span of a few years after the boy became a teenager to break up fist fights between Craig and his father.” He took an ice cube from the glass and put it in his mouth. “I don’t know where Mark got the money to buy the land when they first arrived here or build that house and keep adding to it. He didn’t work a day in his life, at least not after arriving here. The house was a monstrosity, an eyesore. Where it stood isn’t far from here, but we didn’t build this bungalow until after I retired early from teaching and went into politics a few years ago.” He guffawed in a self-deprecating way. “Being a politician in Henley Spit carries less weight than being a street sweeper.”

Mrs. Gilchrist poked at the slice of lemon that bobbed up and down in her drink. “I don’t know why Sarah ever put up with her husband’s drunken and philandering ways. Yes, he had affairs with many women in town. He tried to kiss me once and I slapped his face.” She licked her finger. “Yes, indeed, I slapped him hard.”

Carol Gilchrist, the mayor’s daughter came into the room from the kitchen where she must have been the entire time, listening in. She was 27 and like her father, thin, almost to the point of appearing emaciated. “I don’t know if anyone has told you, but I dated Craig when we were both seniors. He even carved our initials inside a heart in the leg of a lifeguard stand.”

I flipped my notepad to Jenny’s interview at the grocery store and read the part about Selma.

“What! Selma never went steady with Craig. She followed him around like a puppy but he had nothing to do with her. Every girl in town and some of the women wanted to be with Craig, including Selma’s mother. It was disgusting, but understandable. Craig was like a movie star in Henley Spit.”

The mayor and his wife groaned in unison.

* * *

The site where the Harmon house once stood wasn’t far from the mayor’s bungalow. Just before going there I stopped at the beach near the RV park. Picnic tables, chairs and stands for beach umbrellas lined the border between the dunes and the beach. A man walking his Irish Setter was the only person there. His name was Justin Amish. He was an architect.

I flipped open my note pad.

His dog sat at his feet, its tongue hanging. “Henley Spit is only a mile wide and eight miles in length, but anything that can be built on it takes up every inch of available land, but it still feels somehow desolate. It’s what makes Henley Spit both an attractive place to live and a nightmare.” He looked out at the green ocean waters. “I moved here six years ago. Sure I’ve heard about the Harmons. Who in Henley Spit hasn’t? But I’ve heard different versions of the same story. I guess it’s human nature to change the facts, if the real facts in this case were ever really known to begin with. I guess the biggest mystery is what ever happen to the boy. Now, that will be a story if you ever get to write it.”

* * *

The bungalow that sat where the Harmon house once stood was small and surrounded by dunes on three sides, like fortification. Jim Ryder, the owner of the bungalow and the land around it, was in his front yard casting a fishing line into the dunes when I drove up. He held tightly onto the fishing pole during the brief interview.

“It’s a new pole. I have a boat at the dock over on the beach on the right side of the spit. I fish for smaller sea fish, nothing as big as a marlin.”

He was one of the town’s residents that I had planned to interview even before coming to Henley Spit. Beside his name was a notation that he had bought the property not long after the Harmon house had burned down.

“Yeah, that’s right. I got the place for a steal. No one wanted to clear away the burnt remains and rubble of the Harmon house, especially since the burned remains of the husband and wife had been discovered in the ashes a few days after the fire. I jumped at the chance to own land in this part of the spit. The dead can’t harm us, can they?” He looked me squarely in the eyes. “I’ve never told anyone this and I ask that you use a little discretion since it might get me into trouble, but I found buried in the ground where the back yard of where the Harmon house stood a small tin box. Inside it was a love letter to the boy; Craig I think his name was. The letter wasn’t signed. I never handed the letter over to the authorities and eventually burned it. Maybe Craig finally found the love he needed and he’s now with the person who wrote the letter.”

* * *

On the way out of Henley Spit I slowed down to wave at Ol’ Thirsty who was sitting in front of the store with the cat in his lap. He looked up at me and gave a casual wave in return, but there was no sign in the blank expression on his face that he recalled who I was.

Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 460 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. He is the founder of Sweetycat Press. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website ishttps://www.stevecarr960.com / He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977

Image via Pixabay

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