(Remember, I’m sharing the unedited first drafts – I thought it might be fun to follow me create another novel.)
It was the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, a transitional time when permanent Floridians take a deep breath to celebrate the end of hurricane season; and the real reason Florida lacks a state income tax, as the so called, snowbirds, had started to descend from the north for what the service-world had labeled, the season.
That night I had been aimlessly walking along Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. It was the weather, it felt good to walk, to have been on my feet as the moderate climate had returned. I hadn’t found any other bar, or restaurant that had enticed me inside. It’s not a wonderful dining experience at a table for one, and most of the bars were quite busy. So, I had strolled down to Beach Drive, and I had gone back to the Moon.
“We came early, it was an easy drive,” she said. She hugged her husky man with her left arm as she drank red wine grasping a glass with her right hand. He was heavily wrinkled, bald but for a few gray strands. “I can’t manage the cold anymore, we’re so lucky.”
“Where’s there?” I asked. I sipped the Guinness beer from a tulip shaped glass. I thought I had gotten an answer from him, the man with her had a shaggy mustache, and he had talked at me; really more of a grunting sound with a cadence. But I couldn’t understand him. He was friendly, he sort of smiled at me. His pale blue eyes were narrow, almost lizard like with the hint of a sparkle. For some strange reason, I knowingly nodded back at him after each mumbled statement. It was as if he were the unintelligible muppet character from my childhood, the Swedish Chef, I thought, but only Kermit the Frog could have interpreted the, Swedish Chef.
“Not sure I got that,” I said. I looked over at her.
“Oh,” she said. She was thin, with white hair. “The Fin talks, but English, its not his primary language, sometimes he gets, well, garbled, you know.”
“Got it,” I said. I nodded back over at The Fin.
For the next ten minutes, she told me they had met on a big cruise ship as it had navigated through Norwegian fjords. It sounded as though it had been a torrid hookup on a random love boat that had successfully maneuvered them through placid dark blue waters to emerge within marital bliss. I imagined The Fin must have been wearing a two-horned Viking helmet as he had stalked her from stem to stern.
“He speaks five languages,” she said. She lovingly glided her fingers over his smooth head. “But when he drinks, well, they all start to blend.”
“Sort of broken languages,” I said. I shrugged.
“Yeah,” she said. “In a matter of speaking.”
“But, I guess they were your, Romance languages,” I said. I smiled. “Right?”
“Oh,” she said. She waved at me. “You are a funny one.”
The Fin wiggled his thick eyebrows, and muttered something at us. She covered her mouth with her hand. As I tried to closely listen to his words, after every forth, or fifth word I heard, “Jackie”.
“Ah,” I said. “You’re names, Jackie?”
“Why yes,” Jackie said. She tapped her forehead with her left hand palm. “Cripes sake, yes, I’m Jackie, and this is The Fin, sorry, Sven. I call him The Fin, he’s my Finnish man.”
“Where’s where?” I asked. “I’m Rob, by the way.”
“Minneapolis, Rob, got it,” Jackie said. She then whispered her words. “The Fin was an architect, retired, sort of, now, he’s still creating, you should see his drawings.”
Sven chuckled, and rubbed his belly. He expressed some jolly thoughts, I thought, I wasn’t exactly sure, but then I heard, “Helsinki”.
“Helsinki?” I asked Jackie.
“Oh,” Jackie said. “Fin, sorry, Sven grew up there, studied art, before moving to the states.”
Sven leaned forward, he said something about St. Petersburg.
“He’s been to the original, by train,” Jackie said. “The St. Petersburg in Russia, it’s not far from Helsinki.”
“Cool,” I said. I leaned my left elbow on a wooden ledge. “The story is they named St. Petersburg from a coin flip.”
“Oh, how funny,” Jackie said. “We love it here, most people are nice, very welcoming, like you.”
“That’s cool, you all drove down,” I said. “I-75?”
Jackie looked back over at Sven. He nodded.
“Suppose we did,” Jackie said. “We stopped in Chicago, have a place there, and then on down. We’ll stay until the end of March, or when we think the weather has turned.”
It was apparent to me they had done well in life, but they lacked a common human element, a pushy ego. I thought it was always in someones posture, Jackie and Sven had had a comfortable shared posture. I guessed they had climbed to the top of Maslow’s peak and had decided to camp out there.
“Florida’s a jumble, I was curious how you got here,” I said. “I-75 brings in the Midwest, down to Naples, across Aligator Alley, over to I-95, New York, Jersey, the east coast, down to Ft. Lauderdale.”
Jackie nodded, and looked up at the wall covered with British West Indie themed photos and Rugby team flags.
“Miami? The Keys?” Jackie said. “You didn’t mention them.”
“As Jane, our bartender over there, might say,” I said. I tipped my Guinness glass over toward the bar. “They are their own spaceships, and don’t even get me started on LA.”
Sven leaned forward, he appeared confused by my comment. He muttered something that I suspected was a question about LA.
“Lower Alabama, LA, Panama City, Redneck Rivera,” I said. I leaned against the wall. With my right hand forefinger I had drawn an outline for the state of Florida. “Pensacola to Jacksonville and down to Ocala, you’re still in the south.”
Sven chuckled and nodded at me.
“How do you know this?” Jackie asked.
“Insurance,” I said. I sipped the beer. “Demographic studies, and the like, medical malpractice, I work with people, well, people who kill people, by accident, not on purpose.”
Sven grunted up at Jackie. They remained quiet for several minutes, and then Jackie looked over at me.
“Sven’s first wife,” Jackie said. “She died during an operation, they couldn’t save her.”
“Sorry,” I said. I stared down at the carpeted floor.
Over my career I had heard similar stories about human suffering, and the inevitable questions that always boiled down to one, why? As if the higher-power had pointed down from the heavens to pick on just them. I had come to the conclusion most of life was random. Eventually, the higher-power would notice me, and I would then have lived in the past tense. But I had made it past fifty years old with a full head of hair, Sven was in his seventies, but bald. He had found his true love, and I had learned to live alone.
“We met on that cruise I mentioned, it was after our spouses died,” Jackie said. She started to tear up, but then she clenched her jaw. “We were there both very alone, just trying to figure things out, you know, and God gave me The Fin.”
Sven smiled, he grunted, he sipped his brown colored drink.
“I’m happy for you,” I said. I lifted my glass. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” Sven said. He lifted his glass.
“For the most part we’re happy,” Jackie said. She softly kissed Sven on his forehead. Sven smiled up at Jackie. “I’m so lucky.”
“Luck counts,” I said. I glanced over at the active bar scene. “These days I just do my best.”
Sven grunted at me. He winked.
“As you get older, Rob,” Jackie said. “You realize your health, being loved, it’s everything.”