Midnight Beachcombers

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Far in the distance, through a thin veil of fog, Steven can see a figure, a person, a someone approaching- headed right for him.

Is that a man or woman?  Steven wonders as the figure continues in his direction.  Definitely a man, Steven concludesThe way he walks gives it away.  Women don’t walk like that.  He must enjoy a moon lit stroll on the beach in the middle of the night too, Steven thinks to himself.  I wonder how far away he is.  A half mile?  Quarter mile?  Closer than that?  I wonder what he’s wearing.  Is he drunk?  Did he have a fight with his wife or something?  What in the world is he doing at the beach at this hour?

The figure, the man, still far, is getting closer.

Steven starts to panic.  Paranoid thoughts flood his mind.

The only types of people who walk on the beach in the middle of the night are hobos, derelicts, and drunken assholes looking for trouble.  Steven’s mind races as the man gets closer, and closer. Nice, normal people don’t take strolls on the beach at this hour.  Only murderous thugs and wanton criminals walk the beach at this hour, Steven reminds himselfConvinces himself.

The figure, the man, is ever closer.  Steven’s mind races faster and faster.

 How big is he?  Bigger than me? Could I take him if he attacked me?  God, I wish I wasn’t such a pussy.  I wish I could throw a punch like a man.  Why did I quit karate when I was in the fourth grade?  I would be a black belt, karate expert if I stayed with it.  Hell I’d probably be a champion cage fighter by now, not scared of anybody if I stayed with it. 

The closer he gets, the more Steven panics.

Okay, so if he attacks, go for his groin, Steven thinks to himself.  Kick him hard right in the groin and don’t stop kicking.  Then punch him and punch him and punch him again.  Don’t stop punching.  Never stop punching.  Steven’s breathing is fast and hard.  He can feel sweat beading on his brow.  His forever worried brow.

The thin veil of fog is now a thick curtain of cloudy haze.  Steven’s vision is obscured.  The man in the distance is gone- consumed by the fog.  Steven’s eyes dart all around looking for the man, the figure.  Steven squints his eyes in an effort to see through the think wall of fog.  He can’t see anything.  The fog is too damn thick.  All he can see is the thick cloudy haze.  He’s scared and he knows it.  I wish I could see him, Steven thinks to himself.  I just want to see him in case he attacks me.  In case he dares attack me.

Steven’s breathing is hard and labored.  He tries the Lamaze technique to control his panicked breath.  A technique he learned while watching grainy birthing videos as a pubescent teen.  Videos he would seek out at libraries and watch in an effort to get a glimpse of a woman’s vagina.  A technique he’s been using ever since to calm his nerves and settle his pulse in stressful situations.  A technique he uses often; more than ever as of recent.  Two small inhales followed by one exhale.  Repeat, over and over.  He then takes a single deep breath but chokes on the thickness of the fog.  He coughs violently.   Oh shit, he must have heard me, Steven thinks to himself.  His breathing is exasperated.  Fear has consumed him.

“Who are you!?”  Steven screams at the top of his lungs.  “Show yourself you son of a bitch!”  Steven freezes as he awaits the man’s response.  All he can hear is the subtle sounds of the ocean.  Gentle waves crashing on the beach.  Then a fog horn from a freighter passing the harbor.  He waits a moment longer.  No response.

Steven sighs in relief.  His breathing returns to normal and his fear subsides.  His calm is restored.  Steven grins and shakes his head.  You’re an idiot, he thinks to himself.  Scared of a shadow?  What a pussy.  He chuckles aloud, relieved to be alone again.  Another sigh of relief.  He continues his stroll down the beach.

The fog thins out.  Steven can see again.  He can see the man approaching again.  He’s close.  Hundred yards away or so.  Don’t be so damn paranoid you idiot.  I’m sure he doesn’t want any trouble, he tries to assure himself.  And if he does you’ll kick him square in the groin.  The thought makes him chuckle.  The thought of kicking the approaching man in the groin and watching him drop to the ground, curled up in a fetal position, writhing around in pain makes him chuckle.

“Hello!”  The approaching man calls out.  His voice echoes.  Steven sighs aloud.  He groans and shakes his head in frustration.  He doesn’t want to chitchat with some stranger on the beach.  Not at this hour.  Not at the hour when only hobos, derelicts, and drunken assholes roam the shoreline looking for trouble.  Not at the time of day when murderous thugs and wanton criminals wander the oceanfront looking for their next victim.  Don’t be so damn paranoid you little bitch, Steven scolds himself.  Just say hi and be done with all your fear and anxiety and panic.  Just say hi, and then go the fuck to bed already.  What are you doing up so damn late anyways?  Just chill the fuck out and say hi.  Steven sighs and then returns the man’s call.

“What the fuck do you want!?”  Instantly Steven regrets his reply.  A wee bit too hostile.  You-are-an-idiot, he thinks to himself.  Another sigh followed by another shake of his head.

“What’d you say!?”  The man calls back.

This is your chance, Steven.  Your chance to make peace.  A chance for a normal conversation with a fellow midnight beachcomber.   Don’t blow it.  Don’t be an idiot. 

“I said, what the fuck do you want!?”  Again Steven instantly regrets his choice of words.  Now, he’s definitely going to murder you, you idiot, Steven thinks to himself.  Now you deserve it.

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.  I’ll come to you,” the approaching man calls out.  Steven groans.  I don’t want to talk to you, Steven thinks to himself.  Certainly not at this hour.  Probably not ever.  I mean who strikes up a conversation on the beach with a perfect stranger?  And why isn’t he afraid that I am a crazy deranged hobo derelict?  What kind of psychopath are you anyways?  I swear to God I’ll kick you right in the groin if you attack me.  I’ll do it.  I swear I’ll do it. 

Steven feels the paranoia coming back as the man draws near.  His breathing quickens.  He clinches his fist as tight as he can, ready to fight the approaching man.

Through the fog, lit solely by the moon, the figure, the man becomes increasingly clear.  The man is about Steven’s height.  The man is about Steven’s build.  Good, he’s my size, Steven thinks to himself.  Steven squints to make out the man’s face.  He recognizes him but he can’t remember where from.  Even his clothes look familiar.  Steven, leans in, squints and thinks.  He tries to recall where he knows him from but the memory is faded.  He can’t remember his name or where or when they met.  The approaching man struggles through the soft beach sand which gives Steven a few extra moments to try to put together the memory.  Who the hell are you?  Steven wonders.

The figure arrives.  It’s a face he knows, but not from where.  Steven’s panic turns to confusion.  He knows the man is not a stranger, but he doesn’t know who the hell he is either.

“Sup?”  The man greets Steven with a casual ease of two friends who have met a thousand times before.  Steven even recognizes the man’s voice but still he can’t place him.

“Hey, man.  You look so familiar.  Where do I know you from?”  Steven asks.

“Dude, c’mon.  We’ve known each other forever.”  The man replies matter-of-factly.  Steven takes a step back and looks the man over from head to toe.  Steven grins and shrugs at the man.  He’s stumped.  The man grins back and shakes his head at Steven.  Then, with a nod, and furrow of the brow Steven has seen countless times before, the man asks, “Hey, how come you don’t wear your retainer anymore?”

“What?”  Steven is struck by the absurdity of man’s question.  “What do you mean- my retainer?  You mean for my teeth?”

“Yeah.  For your teeth.  How come you don’t wear ‘em?”

Steve looks at the man as if he’s crazy. What is this stranger, albeit a familiar stranger, doing asking me about my retainer?  Steven’s confusion stresses him and his anxiety returns.   He tries not to show his nerves.

“I lost ‘em years ago,” Stevens confesses to the man.  What business is it of your anyways? Steven thinks to himself.  Steven doesn’t have it in him to confront the man aloud.  His breathing becomes labored, again.

“What are you talking about?” The man says quickly.  “They’re right over there.”  He points to the sand, just steps from where Steven is standing.   Steven follows the man’s pointed finger.  It takes Steven just a moment to see the shine of the metallic object in the sand.  Confused, Steven reaches for the object and picks it up.  Holy, shit, Steven thinks to himself as he inspects the sand covered metal and plastic bits in his hand.  It’s my retainers- top and bottom.  He recognizes the retainers as his instantly.  Dodger blue with sparkles, just as Steven requested when they were fitted to his teeth twenty-some-odd years earlier.

In an instant, Steven’s mind jumps back to his childhood.  To the time somewhere between fourth and seventh grade when he thought retainers were a status symbol of the cool.  He recalls a short period of his life, way back when, when he would put contorted, bent, mangled paper clips in his mouth just to simulate the look of wearing retainers.  It was a keeping up with the Joneses thing and all the Joneses (at least the cool Joneses) wore retainers.  He remembers his mother screaming at him when she caught him with the paper clip in his mouth.  A paper clip that Steven thought made him look cool.  A paper clip that made his mother question his sanity and mental acuity.  A few days after Steven’s mother found him with a paper clip in his mouth fashioned to look like a retainer, he was sitting in an orthodontist’s office getting fitted for real braces.  His mother was not about to have her child walk around with a dirty, filthy paper clip in his mouth and she knew the quickest way to get him to stop was to get him real braces and ultimately, real retainers.  Real retainers that Steven finally got after three arduous years of wearing real braces.  And, after all that time wearing braces, retainers were no longer in fashion.  No longer a status symbol of the cool.  Now, Steven was in high school, where retainers were a status symbol for the anti-cool.  A symbol of the dork.

Steven wore his real retainers every day, as instructed by the orthodontist for the first two weeks.  Then he wore them every other day.  Then, every few days.  Then, every once in a while.  Then, Steven skipped out on his appointment to have the retainers adjusted to fit his ever moving teeth.  He never returned to the orthodontist.  His folks were sick of driving him to his appointments and checkups, and he was sick of going.  Before too long Steven’s teeth had moved.  Not dramatic, noticeable movement but enough for his retainers to not fit properly.  They were tight on his teeth and getting tighter by the day.

After a month long hiatus from wearing his retainers, Steven popped them into his mouth.  He bit down on them to lock them into place which resulted in immediate, excruciating pain.  The retainers had gone from tight fitting, to not fitting at all.  Pain radiated from his mouth.  Clamping down on the ill-fitting molded bits of plastic and metal made Steven feel like he had just loosened his entire set of teeth.  All of them.  He quickly but carefully, removed the retainers from his mouth.  He then, thumb to index finger, inspected every tooth in his head for looseness.  Still, after a full examination of every tooth, Steven was unsure if his teeth really were loose or not.  He could not tell if he was imagining them being loose, or if they were really, actually loose.  It was then, Steven recalls using the Lamaze technique for the first time- for real.  Two small inhales followed by one exhale.  Repeat, over and over.  The breathing technique helped quiet his anxiety and fear that he had loosened all his teeth.    Once Steven’s calm was restored, he banished his retainers to the abyss of a large shoebox which doubled as both his personal junk drawer and memento container.  Years later, while taking a walk down memory lane, Steven rummaged through the old large shoebox, but inexplicably the retainers were gone.  Swallowed by the shoebox full of useless crap from years gone by.

Steven had not seen his retainers in years, until the man on the beach, pointed right at them.

“Well…” the man says to Steven.

“Well, what?”

“Aren’t you going to try them on?”

Steven looks at his retainers, then back at the man.  Both, the retainer and the man look so very familiar, but Steven doesn’t trust either of them.

The man, sensing Steven’s distrust, throws his arms up and rolls his eyes.  “Oh, c’mon,” he chides Steven.  “Have I ever steered you wrong?”   Steven stares at the man, shakes his head, and shrugs in an “I dunno,” kind of way.

Then, without thought, in a sort of trance like state, Steven pops the old retainers into his mouth- top and bottom.  Steven can feel the grit of the beach sand still on the retainers, now in his mouth.  He disregards the sand in his mouth and clinches his teeth together.  Instant pain shoots from his mouth as he feels his teeth crack and crumble from the old bits of plastic and metal which grip his teeth.  Twenty plus years of perpetual teeth movement have turned his once fitting retainers into a medieval torture devise with no other purpose than to crack and remove teeth.

Steven is paralyzed by fear and anxiety.

Steven puts his hand to his mouth expecting to find blood pouring out, but instead all he finds is his retainers, and his teeth.  All of them.  Thirty-two pieces of what looks like cracked Chiclets fall out of his mouth and into hand.  No blood.  Steven shakes consumed by confusion, and terror.  He looks up at the familiar man who doesn’t seem to be at all concerned by Steven’s trauma.  Steven tries to Lamaze his way back to calm but the shock of his predicament has left him unable to control his breathing.  Steven drops to his knees, then to his side before curling up in a fetal position awaiting his pending loss of consciousness.

I’m gonna die.  I’m gonna die, Steven thinks to himself as he lays on the beach, folded up like a newborn baby.

“You’re always so dramatic,” the man says with an eye roll, completely void of any sympathy for Steven.  “Hey, before you go,” the man continues.  “You need to call mom.  She misses you.  She misses both of us.”

(BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP…)

Startled by the irksome blare of his alarm clock, Steven springs awake.  Although he had been asleep for nearly twelve hours, he has the look of a man who has just run a marathon, complete with a fiercely perspiring forehead and exhausted breath.  Steven takes a few deep breaths and tries to compose himself.  He wipes the sweat from his face and then reaches for the journal and pen on the nightstand next to his bed.  He flips to the last passage of the journal which he reads to himself- “Met Madonna (the singer), and she asked me if I watched Columbo on television… and then I woke up.”  Reading the last passage puts a smirk on Steven’s face.  That one was a bit weird even for him.   Suddenly, the memory of last night’s dream begins to fade, fast.  Shit, Shit, Shit… What was it?  Steven thinks to himself.  Then he scribbles, “Met man on beach who gave me my old retainer I lost years ago.  Then my teeth fell out… and then I woke up.  It was kind of a nightmare.”

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