Lee scans the waterline for money, chains, or earrings. A child’s foot pokes out of a crashing wave. The wave pounds the beach, leaving nothing but violent spray, green water and sky.
Something flashes at his feet. He reaches down and pulls a quarter from the sand. When he stands up, a little boy is sitting in front of him. Seawater flushes from his nostrils. Red swim trunks cling to his ankles.
“Hey man,” Lee says.
“Dad?” the boy asks.
“I’m not your dad.”
It’s late afternoon. The beach is almost empty. A mother sits calmly under an umbrella with two small children. Another family, further inland, packs up blankets. People drop things, Lee thinks, wallets and watches and things.
His thirst is unbearable. He’s been walking up and down the beach for hours. He needs to drink something.
Lee turns back to watch the boy pull his shorts up. His skin is pink and white and streaked with abrasions. He’s about the same age as Lee’s little brother Rickey.
“Hey man. Let me help you,” Lee says, walking back to him. “Let me help you find your dad.”
The boy follows him along the edge of the surf. Seagulls descend in lazy circles. Lee turns toward the concrete boardwalk, and the boy follows.
“So what does he look like?”
“Look like?” the boy says.
“Yeah, your dad. What is he wearing?” Lee pictures his own father, younger, tan and in swim trunks, frantically searching the surf.
The boy says nothing. They step onto the hot cement surface of the boardwalk. Lee’s blue car sits alone at the far end, on the edge of the pavement. The front wheels are buried in sand. A police car sits nearby. A beefy arm grips a coke bottle.
“Hello,” Lee says when he reaches the police car. The cop squints at him, takes a long drink of coke, then nods toward the blue car.
“That your car?” the cop asks.
“I found this guy on the beach,” Lee says. “I think he got lost or something.”
“Is that right?” The cop looks at the boy. “Hey little guy. What’s your name?”
The boy opens his mouth, then closes it.
“We got no reports of nobody missing no kid,” the cop says.
Lee shrugs. “He just popped right out of the water in front of me. Maybe he fell from a boat.”
“Well, I’ll take him to the ranger station,” the cop says. “Climb in.”
“I’ll come along with you.”
They climb into the back seat of the car. The two-way radio asks for an update. “Nothing,” the cop says.
Lee pictures his father arriving at the ranger station. Wild-eyed, he runs and embraces Rickey, squeezing him until he chokes for air. Rickey points to Lee. It’s Lee, Dad, he says. Lee came back. He pulled me from the sea. Dad puts a firm hand on Lee’s shoulder. Son, Dad says, I sure am glad to see you.
The officer walks the boy into the ranger station office. Lee stops at the door. The building reeks of urine. A thin man in a stiff park ranger suit looks up. In the center of his desk is another bottle of coke, coated with sweat.
“Found a live one,” the cop says.
“Hey there, buddy!” the park ranger says to the boy. “Are you lost? Are you looking for your mommy?”
“His daddy,” Lee says.
“Who are you?”
“Says he found him,” the cop says. “Well, gotta get back to my perch.” He pats the boy on the head.
“How long you going to wait?” the park ranger asks the cop.
“As long as it takes,” the cop says, looking at Lee. “They got to come back sometime.”
“What kind of ice cream you like,” the park ranger asks the boy. “Chocolate? Strawberry? Vanilla?” The boy nods no. “Tell you, what, I’m going to get you a chocolate cone until your father comes.”
“What if he doesn’t come?” Lee asks.
“They always come,” he says. He looks at the boy. “You come along with me and we’ll get an ice cream and you can wait here with me.”
“I’d like to wait too,” Lee says.
“You can wait outside.”
Lee sits down on the boardwalk, digging holes in the sand with his feet. He flips the quarter into the air.
Lee pictures his own Dad again, with Rickey, in the back yard of the beach house. There are bottles of coke in a barrel of ice, and long strips of sirloin on a barbecue. Lee chugs down a long draft of coke. It burns his throat. Dad grins and asks if he wants to take a dip before dinner. They run down and splash into the surf. They look back and Rickey stands on the bluff, jumping up and down. Dad floats on his back, kicks a plume of water into the air, and falls silent. My boy, Dad chokes. Thank you, Lee. Thank you for saving my boy.
A paneled wagon full of children pulls up in front of the Ranger station. A sour-faced man, short and fat, struggles to get out. He walks past Lee, jingling keys in the palm of his hand. Lee hears muted voices inside: “the cop said…yep, he’s mine… I’ll be sure to.”
A second later the man walks out. The boy follows, a melting chocolate ice cream cone in his hand. Lee stands up and smiles. They walk past him, climb into the car, and drive away.
Lee stands for a moment, smiling at the trail of brown ice cream glistening on the concrete. Then he turns back toward the sea. He traces his steps back to where the families sat. He finds nothing but their imprints in the white sand.