About 1200 words
Heaven's in Reach on St. Pete Beach
by James Foley
They lowered Bobby Bishop into St. Petersburg soil on a perfect December afternoon. For Jonathan Wilton, who'd flown from New York for the burial, this was Florida's old winter miracle.
But no Florida sunshine cheered Bobby now: lost in Iraq (K.I.A.), aged twenty-eight. No longer in the breeze, steering a sailboat down Pass-a-Grille Channel, or skiing the Vermont hills. No more sunlight or moonlight for Bobby. Christmas would come again with snow-light bright on the hills at midnight but not for this slain soldier.
Evelyn Shepard, living in Oregon now, had come to say her Last Goodbye. Approaching Jonathan, she said, “Isn't that Bobby, smiling by his grave? No, sorry: just my memory of Bobby.”
And their eyes locked, bringing back old pain. A few months ago, they and Bobby were inseparable. Two of them were about to get married. The only question was: which two?
Now Evelyn said, “I know his death's killing you, Jonathan. In high school, you played football together. You climbed mountains together. You dove for treasure together.”
As she spoke, Jonathan noted again her rich copper hair and the bronze specks in her green eyes. She'd always dressed well—in a black dress now that looked wonderful in the right places. And there weren't any wrong ones.
Now the mourners were gathering closer as a military chaplain proclaimed:
"In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men,
Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake.
Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up:
It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice, saying,
Shall a man be more pure than his Maker?
“Am I imagining,” the chaplain continued, “that I see the spirit of Bobby Bishop passing before my face—the spirit of that young war hero? And dare we ask why Eternal Justice let Bobby sacrifice his life for our country? Why did Bobby's Maker take Bobby back in his twenties? But such questions are answered by the human heart: He that believeth, even though he be dead, yet shall he live.”
“Bobby Bishop lived on St. Pete Beach,” the chaplain whispered. “And Bobby reached for Heaven. So Heaven's in reach on St. Pete Beach. And we console ourselves today knowing that Bobby, our warrior prince, lives on. He's with us forever.”
When the ceremony ended and the mourners were dispersing, Evelyn wiped her eyes and said, “Are you flying back East now, Jonathan?”
“No. I'm staying over.”
“At the house?
“I'm staying in town too. There are friends I need to see. I've got to get a hotel room.”
Jonathan hadn't expected this. But he said, “Skip the hotel. Stay at the house—as long as you want.”
“Thank you, Jonathan—so much.”
So they drove to St. Pete Beach from the mainland—from St. Petersburg itself. They took the Pinellas Bayway causeway across the Intracoastal Waterway, aiming straight at the huge and famous Don Cesar Hotel. Then, on the beach-front, they turned right to Gulf Boulevard, then right again at the first traffic light. Then the next right onto Bella Vista Drive, driving south in view of the Don Cesar again, that pink palace shining across the water. Here they parked at Jonathan's place, a large Spanish-style home.
Leaving the car, they walked the old grounds, noticing the palms and flower gardens. The sprinkler system was working. On a telephone wire there were birds that looked South American. The tennis court and the two large docks looked fine.
They stood for a moment, staring down into the swimming pool, empty and dry now, but filling blue from memory. And in that memory, they were pulling themselves up onto this poolside, wet and together—back then when they were always together and always in love.
Hard to believe there could have been that other time—those other winters, those other afternoons. The house now was an empty tomb. Ghosts from the past drifted by smiling.
“Jonathan,” Evelyn asked, “Do you ever come back and stay here?”
“So why keep it? Why haven't you sold it?”
“Well, it's appreciating—gaining value.”
“The annual tax bite on this home sweet home must be brutal.”
“That's factored in too.”
“I think there's more to it than that, Jonathan. You won't sell it because Bobby loved to stay here. But you won't stay here any more because now Bobby can't.
“But I'd like to think too that you're keeping it because it's full of me. To sell it must seem like throwing away that chance we once had for heaven. Yet at the same time you can't live here anymore because its full of me. Tell me, could you stay here without me? I couldn't live here without you.”
And Jonathan had to admit it. “You're right, Evelyn, absolutely right. I can't live here now alone.”
In those earlier days Evelyn and Jonathan had disguised their love as friendship. They both knew that Bobby desired Evelyn desperately. And the three of them were always together. They went everywhere together, drove everywhere, sailed everywhere, had fun everywhere, dined on anything, laughed at everything, and loved everything.
“Do you remember that foggy afternoon,” Evelyn said now, “when Bobby wasn't with us, and we were swimming on the beach? Then in exhaustion, I thought I could see some kind of celebration taking place faraway down the shore.”
Jonathan nodded “I said it was the fog playing tricks on you. But you wanted to join what you thought was a beach party. And you started running that way. When I caught up and touched you, we somehow spun together and fell into the surf. Rolling back to dry sand and lying face down, we both started laughing.
“Then,” Evelyn said, “we started talking about our coming marriage. And how we were both terrified by the effect on Bobby. 'How can we live without him?' I said. 'How can he live without us?'”
Now Evelyn's voice became serious: “Then we heard Bobby say, 'Don't worry about me.' He'd returned to the house and joined us on the beach, where we were lying in the fog without seeing him.
“Jonathan, he'd just learned that I was in love with you. So he left us: went back on active duty so he wouldn't be in our way. He'd already been wounded once. He was recklessly brave.”
Jonathan nodded. “We were scared of what our love would do to him. We were afraid to break his heart by actually marrying. So we postponed our marriage.”
Now Evelyn and Jonathan were standing, and suddenly embracing. “Jonathan,” Evelyn said, “we can't hurt Bobby anymore by being together.”
Now Jonathan said simply, “Let's marry soon, Evelyn. I've always been in love with you. And Bobby loved us. He wanted the best for us.”
Evelyn nodded. “All we know is, if Bobby were alive, he 'd be doing something good for someone.”
“That's what I need,” Jonathan said. “Help me to do good, Evelyn. Let's do good things together.”
Copyright 2018 by James Foley
Jan. 9, 2019, 7:16 p.m.
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