Callie wrote the check to pay for four rooms and tore it out of her checkbook before handing it to the woman behind the check-in counter. The woman looked at the check for a moment, but didn't say any words of thank you. She just pulled her receipt book forward and wrote the receipt, which she handed over without comment. Callie remembered the sour-faced woman from more than forty years of visits, particularly when Callie and the woman had been much younger. The woman had been a sour-faced teenager, too.
"Thank you Hilda," Callie told the woman as she and both of her daughters each picked up their own room keys, a stack of linens, and collected those for the girls' brother, too. Drew, his wife, and their children, would arrive later, after Becky got off work and they made the six-hour drive. Donna and Trina's husbands would be along about that same time, bringing their children.
Callie, Donna, and Trina had taken a "girl's day" off to spend it together, something they didn't get to do often enough, now that the two younger women had families of their own. They had spent the day shopping at a nearby outlet mall and Callie's big SUV was loaded with shopping bags to prove it. They had also stopped for a few groceries before checking in to their rooms.
It was a year that ended in a five or a zero, which meant Callie and some of her relatives had reservations for all ten rooms of the tourist court for the reunion. It was sort of a first-come first-served situation, although there never was an argument. Some of the other families preferred one of the more modern courts or motels along the ocean front street for their two or three nights, although a few families stayed as long as two weeks.
Someone in the family had decided, many years ago, that the small seaside town offered just the right combination of amenities and relaxed atmosphere for a few days of family fun. Older tourist courts, a few small motels and one hotel, which was a little more modern, lined the main street. Less than a block from the street was the gulf side beach. A few of the men might spend part of an early morning fishing and some might find their way to the small marina and take advantage of a chartered fishing trip. Almost everyone would take at least one walk along the water's edge to wade in the salt water. Very early morning walks were popular for the shell collectors.
Part of their room rent also paid for the family's use of the big pavilion, where five or six generations would gather the day after tomorrow for visiting, for food and fun, plus family photo sharing and picture taking. In between the reunions, she might see some of these relatives for a wedding or a funeral, but these few days gave everyone an opportunity for longer visits and to learn what was new with each growing family. Just as Callie and her cousins had done, Callie's grandchildren would make good use of the swings and the slide in the small city park adjacent to the pavilion. If the next couple of days were clear and sunny, some relatives might enjoy part of a day on the beach, some even playing in the surf, although it was before Memorial Day and a little early in the season. The water wasn't quite warm enough for the less adventurous swimmers.
As Callie followed her daughters down the sidewalk to their rooms, she passed the open area, which had previously been one of the combination bedroom and kitchen units but was now just the foundation and a roof. Rather than repair the room, which burnt in a small fire, the owner had gutted it, leaving an open area with a good roof, rather like a large breezeway. It now held a few lawn chairs and a couple of picnic tables. It was a cool place where you could escape the mid-day sun. The constant onshore breeze kept the room pretty cool in the summer. It was particularly useful for brushing off the sand after spending some time on the beach.
A man in his early fifties was sitting at one of the picnic tables, watching a small six-year-old girl. She was collecting her toys, filling the bed of an old red wagon. Callie knew the age of the little girl. She had been almost a year old at the time of the last family reunion.
Callie stopped in the wide opening for a moment to speak to the man. "Hello, Duane. That sure is a pretty little girl."
The man looked up, his smile slow in coming. "Why, hello there, Callie. Long time, no see. It must be time for another family reunion."
"Yes, the rest of the family will start trickling in during the next few hours. She really is a beautiful girl.
"She's my niece, but I take care of her like she's mine. Did you bring another man with you this time?"
"Ah ... no, not this time." Callie didn't really mind answering the question — it just sounded like she always had a different man in tow.
"Can I take you to supper? There's a band at The Wharf tonight."
"Oh, I don't know." She looked at her daughters each unlocking her own room halfway down the sidewalk. She wondered what they would think, and then she really didn't care. "Okay, yeah, sure. I'd like that. I need to make my bed and unpack first."
"Okay, I'll come by about dark." Duane turned to the little girl, pointing to a small pile of stuffed animals. "Sally, go get your toys over there, too."
She need not have asked the question, but Callie was curious, too, particularly about how he would answer. "If you go out to supper, what do you do about Sally?"
"Oh, Hilda puts her to bed at night." Duane watched the little girl scamper around the area, collecting the remainder of her toys. "She goes to school all day. The only time we get to spend time together is the few days I can take off between the time she gets out of school and supper."
"Alright, I'll see you about dark." Callie waved and walked to the end of the sidewalk, past the double car parking space between her room and the one before it, and opened the last room, nearest the street. She left the door open to air out the room and dumped her pile of linens on the only bed in the room. Then she went outside to unlock the room where her son and his family would stay, leaving the key inside their room.
When she opened the back door of her vehicle to get her suitcase and groceries, Callie smiled to herself. It hadn't even occurred to her to park anywhere else. This was the room she always had, at least for the last few visits. After putting her bag inside the room, she went back to open the rear of her car to look through the bags for the new mattress pad she had purchased that day. She would rather sleep with something between the sheets and the tourist court's mattress, even if she hadn't had a chance to wash the newness out of the bed covering. It didn't take much imagination to know how the beds were used when the beach was filled with teenagers on spring break or when it wasn't tourist season.
She lowered the door, but didn't latch it. The girls would be looking for their own luggage, groceries — and new mattress pads, too. That was probably why some of the families preferred the newer accommodations.
After putting away her food and making the bed, she unpacked her suitcase. Callie thought about the years she had been coming to this particular town, and the same tourist court. She had a few memories of her second time here and being shy around so many relatives she didn't know very well. Her first reunion would have been when she was just barely a year old with parents, a brother, and two sisters. At eleven, she enjoyed getting to play with some of her cousins. That was her first memory of the woman who gave her the room key.
The third reunion brought her best memories of Duane. At sixteen, she fell in love with Duane, barely a year older than she was. He was also the son of the man who owned the tourist courts. For almost a week, they were almost inseparable, although they were rarely able to escape Duane's younger sister, Hilda. However, at the end of that vacation, they said good-bye to each other. To escape his little sister, they had to sneak behind one of the buildings for a quick kiss.
At twenty-one she brought her new husband to his first reunion, but they were newly separated for what would have been his second reunion. Her second husband and his three children came with her the next time. However, she was a new widow with three step-children the time after that. She was barely ten years older than her eldest step-daughter. Then, the time after that when she brought her third husband, no one understood how she could marry a man so much older than she was. Being a widow for the second time for the following reunion didn't bother her, but a few cousins seemed pretty nosey when asking their questions.
Now, here she was for the first time, attending the second reunion in a row as a single woman. It just seemed strange. For a few moments she wondered how many of her older aunts, uncles, and cousins would have discussed the possibility that she would have a fourth man with her this time. She only gave a moment to the thoughts. At least she married the men she lived with, a claim some of her cousins and one niece could not make. Besides, she was finally old enough that things like that no longer bothered her.
After setting her room to rights, Callie walked down the sidewalk to tell the girls they were on their own for supper. Their families would be arriving soon anyway. She listened to their teasing about going on a date, something she rarely did, and left them to one of their infrequent chances to talk to each other without husbands interrupting and children running around needing attention.
A hot shower felt good after so many hours of following the girls around from one store to another, along with the multiple trips to her car to leave the bags of things they purchased. She almost wished she had brought in the new yellow silk blouse to wear with her blue jean skirt and then decided she really did want to save it for the day of the reunion. Instead, she put on the embroidered peasant blouse with the elastic around the top. It had long sleeves she could push up if she got too warm on the dance floor below the restaurant, and a neckline she could pull across her shoulders if she could finally convince herself to flirt with Duane.
The Wharf was a wide wooden pier that extended out over the water. The actual elevated restaurant was on land with a large area under it where people drank beer and ate boiled shrimp, and then danced to a loud jukebox or even a band on the nights when there was live music. The pier had lights strung along it where people frequently fished from the sides. Occasionally a couple held hands as they walked to the end of the pier, the strong breeze whipping their hair and her skirt. The end of the pier didn't have much lighting, which made the lights along the pier better for night fishing and left the end for lovers, intent on finding a romantic spot for kissing.
When Duane knocked on her door, Callie was glad she had gone to the extra effort to wear a little make-up. His hair was still wet from his shower and she knew he had shaved. He had a dark beard and developed a fairly heavy five o'clock shadow. For the first time, Callie noticed he was getting some gray hair. She had been coloring her own gray hair for a number of years.
As she put her key into her pocket and closed her door, Callie looked up at him, and without thinking about how intimate her touch was, she ran her fingers through the hair at his temple. "My goodness, Duane, I didn't think you'd ever get gray hair. We're finally getting old, aren't we?"
"You unlock that damn door and I'll show you how old I am," he said as he put his arms around her and kissed her.
Callie kissed him back, and then pushed against his chest to step away from him. She shook her head, not really comfortable with his quick possessiveness. He didn't let go easily, he leaned over and kissed her under her ear and chuckled when she lifted her shoulder at the tingle his kiss caused.
Instead of trying to force her to let him kiss her again, Duane took her hand to walk to the end of the sidewalk and the steps down to the street. The Wharf was a few blocks away, an easy walk, which meant they could both have a couple of beers there and not need to worry about driving after drinking.
Across the street, sand dunes hid the surf, crashing about a hundred yards away. The nearer they got to The Warf, the closer the street approached the water and the louder the breaking waves sounded. Along the way to the restaurant, they talked easily, despite the five years that had passed since they had last seen each other. They may have known each other for more than forty years, but they weren't really close. They would have two or three conversations every five years, but their feelings for each other were something each kept on a very tight rein.
Duane said his bait and fishing gear business was doing well, as was the small, attached souvenir shop. The tourist court he co-owned with his sister was never going to do much more than provide Hilda with a simple living. Their father had purchased and refurnished the place as a supplement to his retirement income and for something to keep himself busy. It was all his two children had inherited.
Callie said she was thinking about retirement, although the bank had offered her a promotion as an incentive to stay on the job for another five years.
"That means I could retire at fifty-six. That's a pretty good deal."
Duane laughed a little, "You're never going to retire, Callie. You like working too much."
"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have a job. I'm a lousy grandmother."
"Why didn't you have children of your own?"
"I don't know. It just never happened. Then I was glad I didn't have to be a single mother with small children."
"But you did that anyway."
"Sort of, yeah, but the kids were older. By the time they were really orphans two had already graduated high school and the other was a senior. That's not like having little ones like Sally." Still holding his hand, Callie squeezed and asked, "I met Patty once, why didn't you ever marry her?"
"Whew," Duane exclaimed and then shook his head, "Patty was a piece of work. She was the nearest thing to an addiction I ever had. You know, little rich girl, daddy owned three deep water shrimp boats, and Patty thought she was captain of everything onshore."
Duane didn't go into great detail, but they figured out that the year Callie brought her first husband to the reunion Duane hadn't met Patty yet. By the next reunion, when Callie and Terrance were separated with their divorce pending, Duane was almost a year into his troublesome relationship with Patty.
Patty owned a large house on the wealthy side of town, where people built summer homes and wore expensive designer clothes. Duane lived with her, off and on for a few months at a time. Then his sister would call, needing him to come home to fix something. Hilda would keep him around as much as she could for a couple of days, and then he would leave her to her grumbling and go back to Patty. Patty would get in a wild mood and Duane would walk out. He didn't need her kind of trouble. A few months later, she would show up at the tourist court, apologize, and convince him that he was the only stable thing in her life and he would go back to her, or at least go back to sleeping with her, which seemed to be the most important part of their relationship.
One of their separations lasted almost a year, which was the same year Callie showed up with her second husband, Dan. Patty and Duane were even talking about marriage the year after Dan rolled his truck over a few times, driving much too fast on a wet road. That was the year Callie came to the reunion as a widow of just a few months, with three teenage step-children who had no other parent.
During the next few years, tourism in the area changed from men serious about fishing, to families coming for a few days, or a week, in the sun. His bait stand and fishing tackle sales dwindled down to almost nothing and he worked the bait shop alone, which was why he added on to the building so he could open The Shell Shop to sell souvenirs to tourists. Business was just getting good when Callie came to the reunion with her third husband.
After Duane and Callie were seated in the restaurant and had placed their order, Duane asked, "Why did you marry Henry?"
"Truthfully?" Callie looked up from smoothing a small tear in the label around her beer bottle. When Duane nodded, Callie explained, "I'm not sure. I was alone, he was alone, and he needed someone to take care of him. We'd been friends for almost twenty years. When his wife died about two years after Dan's car wreck, we just got in the habit of helping each other. Henry would come by the house to do odd jobs for me. I'd go with him when he went shopping for clothes or I'd cook a meal for him. The kids were all gone, the house was empty, and we started going to dinner or a movie, it just sort of seemed like the thing to do."
Duane lowered his voice, "Callie, did you love him?"
Callie thought for a moment, and then spoke quietly, "If anyone else had ever asked me that question, I think I'd have been insulted." She smiled softly to lessen the insult and then continued. "I loved Henry, but I don't think I was in love with him, if you can understand the difference. He was a lot older than me, and was a difficult man to be around, particularly as his illness progressed. He didn't like it that he needed help, and I was too stubborn to let him just suffer when there were things I could do for him. During the last couple of years he was alive, I turned down a promotion at the bank because it meant I would have to do some traveling."
Callie looked up from putting butter on her baked potato to ask, "Why didn't you marry Rebecca?"
"Humph," Duane gave his usual answer to a question many people had asked over the last few years. "Touché, I guess, huh?" He smiled at Callie, much as she had done when he asked her why she had married her third husband. However, as she had been truthful, he would be, too. "She already had a husband."
The look on Callie's face was so shocked all three of her step-children would have recognized that it was an answer she had never expected.
Duane shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't know it at the time. She came to town, looking for a job, and I hired her for The Shell Shop. She was there when Patty swallowed a whole bottle of tranquilizers and went to sleep forever. I guess Rebecca sort of kept me sane and sort of like you and Henry, one thing led to another."
Finally able to find her voice Callie asked, "But she already had a husband?"
"Yeah, and she had two sons. I knew about them, but I guess I just assumed she was divorced. She gave me some excuses about not really wanting to get married again, didn't even want to live with anyone, although she wanted me to stay with her any night I would agree to it. She came into the bait stand one morning and said she was going back to her family. Rather than losing someone I thought I loved, I think it was more about being angry I let a woman make a fool of me. I started drinking before noon. I got drunker that night than I have ever been in my life. I probably passed out on the beach because that's where I woke up the next morning."
"You've never heard from her again?"
"Nope and I'm not interested in hearing from her. If she could hide from them, I'll let her hide from me too. My sister tells me she always knew Rebecca was hiding something, but Hilda never liked her anyway."