Private Beach was self-published, along with another short story, in a small pamphlet titled "Tall Boys Gentle Men" in the summer of 2017.



1.

On a recent Saturday, in the middle of a week-long heat wave, Charlie went down to the river. Before he left his house Charlie filled a backpack with a homemade sandwich, two bottles of beer, his phone, some sunscreen, and a book. He grabbed a fold-out camping chair, locked his front door, and set out for the river on foot. As he walked down the block Charlie turned to look briefly at his property. He had bought this dilapidated house with his wife right after the economy crashed and now, a year after their divorce, he had managed to hold on to it.

Walking to the river in the early heat of the day, the familiar smell of fried chicken permeated the air, riding the freeway breeze from a nearby fast food restaurant. Crows congregated in the gutters of quiet intersections, darkening the corners. At the end of a tree-shaded street, Charlie high-stepped down an overgrown path clogged with long grasses and tangled blackberry bushes, descending an embankment to a small beach alongside a mellow eddy of the river. It was pretty here, not spectacular, but usually deserted. Charlie had found the beach on one of the long walks he sometimes took after work, now that he lived alone. He did not know if the place had a name. He sometimes referred to it as his private beach, joking with friends that he must be successful in life if he could claim such a thing.

Alone and sweating, Charlie placed his camping chair in the cold water of the river. He removed his t-shirt, took a seat, and thought back to the previous night. He had gone out drinking with an old friend who he had not seen in months. Although it had been a while, Charlie knew that the trust and sense of comfort that he and his friend had established long ago would always be there. At the bar they drank multiple gin and tonics and talked about their memories. At some point after midnight they looked around and questioned whether they were getting too old for this shit. Later, when the DJ played a Joy Division song, Charlie jumped up and bounced around the dance floor for nearly five minutes. His friend stayed seated in a plump red booth, but Charlie glanced at him while the song played and saw that his friend’s eyes were closed and he was singing along. This made Charlie smile. He could remember similar moments from over the years.

After the bar Charlie went to his friend’s house where together they split a six pack of cheap beer. At one point the friend went to check on his young son who had woken up with a nightmare. Charlie walked out into the backyard and climbed an old sycamore tree. For a few minutes he sat up there and looked at the stars, before turning his attention to the illuminated window of the house next door. A huge flat-screen TV was on and a skinny man, topless and bald, his face turned away from Charlie, sat alone on a couch with his hand in an extra large bag of tortilla chips.


2.

Although the beach was empty of people, it was rarely quiet at this time of year. During the summer months a parade of humanity floated the river. Charlie didn’t mind too much; he liked to watch the various bodies appear. Everyone was usually in a festive and carefree mood, splashing and yelling in the water. Alcohol was plentiful, the smell of marijuana common. The crowds of people who appeared mostly reclined on inflatable tubes and giant rafts; some of them paddled canoes or kayaks, but nearly everyone let the current of the river do most of the work.

Charlie ate his sandwich and drank his first beer while the sun burned and bounced off the water. The majority of people that floated by did not acknowledge Charlie, but occasionally someone would wave or flick their head in his direction and he reciprocated the simple gesture. On this day, about an hour after Charlie arrived, a solitary woman appeared on the river. She was sitting on top of a inflatable banana. The banana was large, yellow, and unpeeled. The woman had long black hair, wet and sleek. With one hand she held a can of Coors Light, while her other hand paddled the water. She rode the banana as if it were a racehorse, leaning forward for speed, straddling the buoyant fruit with what appeared to be strong thighs. The expression on her face was determined, if not a little ridiculous. Charlie thought that everything about the appearance of this woman was beautiful and strange. He considered taking a photo of her with his phone but then admonished himself for the pervy impulse. Besides, she was turning to look at him, now calling out.

“Excuse me, did you see a group of four guys and three girls float by recently? One of the men is wearing a white, ten gallon cowboy hat.”

As she went past, Charlie thought and then replied, “I saw them about five minutes ago.”

An expression of concern, a slight worry visible in her features, now vanished from her face. “Thank you!” she cried. She seemed to relax and reclined onto the fruit, knowing that her friends were within reach. She took a long drink from her beer while Charlie eagerly waved goodbye.


3.

The river became quiet again. Charlie watched it move and when he got bored with that he read his book. He felt distracted and at one point he texted his younger brother and wrote, I get sunburned super quick these days.

His brother replied within seconds. Fuck You. Smiley Face.

About an hour later Charlie saw the same woman on the same banana floating down the river, this time accompanied by a raucous group of travelers. Apparently, she had reunited with her friends. At some point they must have received a ride back upstream; many people would arrange car shuttles so that they could float the best parts of the river multiple times.

“You’re still here!” the woman said when she noticed Charlie on the beach. She sounded genuinely excited and also kind of drunk.

Charlie stood up from his chair and waded out into the water, up to his knees. He could feel the quick and cold current push against him, the snow melt of the distant mountains rushing past. His skin tingled and his breath went short. Charlie thought of the band Dire Straits and though he did not know exactly how to explain it, he felt Dire Straits. He decided, or perhaps understood, that he would now attempt to woo this woman. After all, she appeared to be around Charlie’s age, although the banana did make her seem a bit young. The truth was that Charlie had been dreading the drawn out search for another person to share his life with. He had recently begun to date again but after a few perfunctory hookups he was reminded of the challenge of making a genuine and sustained connection. A river could outperform an algorithm, he wanted to believe.

As the woman approached, Charlie yelled, “Nice to see you again!” He hoped it sounded slightly flirtatious, although the cold water made his voice tremble.

She giggled and nodded her head, while her friend in the ten gallon hat took notice of Charlie and inquired, “Beer?”

“Sure,” he replied.

The man took a can from a soggy 12 pack and chucked the silver bullet, keeping his free hand on his hat. The beer landed with a splash in the shallows of the river and Charlie quickly fished it from the water.

“Thanks,” Charlie called and then turned back to the woman. She had already floated by and was heading around the bend. “You should come hang out at my beach” he said, laughing but hoping the woman might agree.

She turned to acknowledge him, smiled, and reached out a hand as if she wished she could return to Charlie, before offering, “I’ll try to come back but if I don’t see you again I want you to know this isn’t my banana!”


4.

The shadows of some alder trees eventually overtook Charlie’s beach and the crowds on the river began to thin as the evening rose up from beyond the darkening water. Charlie’s feet were sunburned and even though he had not done much today, he was tired. He was getting ready to leave when he saw the woman and the banana appear once more; this time the effect of seeing her and the giant fruit was like a wonderful mirage, a half-drunk fantasy. The woman’s group of friends had diminished, although a few still floated with her. They were spaced out and the man in the cowboy hat was nowhere to be seen.

The woman seemed asleep, no longer held a drink, and her hair dipped into the water from the way she was stretched out on the banana. Charlie had been thinking about what he might make for dinner but now his mind mostly went blank, before slowly filling with a white humming noise, which was quickly overtaken by sharp desire.

He stood up and yelled, “I love you!”

God, it sounded strange. Charlie had not planned on saying it, was not even sure if the words were truthful, but in that moment it seemed to be an accurate description of what he felt.

“I love you too,” the woman replied, definitely looking at Charlie, although with bleary eyes. She began to paddle in his direction but the current of the river was too strong. The banana rotated in the swirling water. Charlie waded into the river and watched the woman as she slowly disappeared downstream.


5.

Later that night, after heating up and eating a frozen organic pizza, Charlie sat on the couch with a bottle of red wine. He considered going to the beach tomorrow. It seemed possible, or at least not totally impossible, that the woman might return to find him and together they would agree to go on a date, take it slow, and get to know each other. From there, who knows? They might fall in love and eventually build a life together, recalling often how they had seized a chance encounter which allowed their union to blossom. It would make for a great story to tell their kids.

Charlie smiled to himself, put down the bottle of wine, and composed a text. He sent it to his younger brother and his friend from the other night. In the future I will try to separate what is possible from what is fantastical in order to live a more calm life.

His friend quickly texted back. I love you dude but good luck with that.

Charlie eventually fell asleep on the couch, only to wake hours later in the darkness of his living room. A high-pitched bell from his phone signaled an incoming text from his brother. Lying on his side, Charlie reached for the phone and gazed at the illuminated message.

Easter Island statue. Question mark. Question mark. Heart. Heart. Heart.

Charlie smiled in the fading light of his phone. It was Sunday, but just barely. He knew that later this day he would return to the beach. Just in case. It couldn’t hurt. She might return. Charlie would put his faith in the river.