Patsy Milstrap sat on the passenger’s side of the jet-black ’63 Ford Falcon Futura. Her husband, Gilbert --- whose face seemed transfixed on the road before them --- rested an arm over the steering wheel as though they’d not a care in the world. Earlier in the drive from their South Carolina home to Cedar Key, Florida, and as the sun grew warmer, Gilbert had lowered the convertible top. It was now midafternoon. In spite of the scarf tied around her head and secured under her chin, Patsy’s long hair had been whipped to a frenzy. Her face felt sunburned. She would ask Gilbert to raise the roof, but she couldn’t find the energy to do so.
Besides, she liked knowing her body could still feel . . .something. Lately, she’d only wanted to slip between the sheet and the coverlet of their bed --- the one she’d shared with Gilbert for nearly fourteen years now --- cover her head, and sleep. Not her devotion to her husband nor her love for their children --- five, ranging from four years of age to thirteen --- could penetrate the pain she’d been living with since the first had been born.
Or had it been forever?
Clearly she was dying, she thought. Clearly no one could hurt this much and survive.
And the pain . . . so deep . . . maybe even Jesus couldn’t reach it.
So deep . . . like the blue-green water on both sides of the road leading into Cedar Key, where Gilbert had rented a cottage for them. They would stay a week, he’d said. Just the two of them. The children could stay with his sister Janice and her husband. And their children. It would be like going off to church camp, he’d said, while Patsy and he would come for the arts festival he had heard about.
She liked art, didn’t she? he’d asked.
And they would go boating. Take bike rides. Relax in the sunshine. It had rained so much in Trinity lately. It would do them both good.
Okay, she’d said. Okay.
“And maybe,” he’d hinted with a wink, “we can snuggle like we used to.”
Patsy closed her eyes at the thought. If she came up pregnant again . . . it would be worse than the other times. Every time, a little worse. Every time . . .
“We’re nearly there,” Gilbert chimed from beside her.
She opened her eyes, turned her head slowly toward him, and forced her lips to curl upward into a smile. She could do that much, right?
“Was that a smile I just saw?” he said. The deep dimple of his cheek came into view. “See there? One minute in Cedar Key and you’re getting better.” He squared his shoulders. “I knew this was a good idea.”
Patsy looked back to the front of the car. A town --- a little harbor town --- was coming into view. Fishermen on a dock. Weathered hands pulling crab baskets from the water and into a boat. The scent of the marsh washed over her.
In spite of its pungency, she liked it.
“Are you hungry, Patsy? I’m ravenous.”
She looked at him again, nodded. “Yes. A little.”
The dimple returned. “See there?” he repeated. “Another good sign.” The car slowed as they entered the city limits.
“Let’s get to the cottage, settle in, clean up, and find this place Walter told me about.”
“Sikes’s Seafood. I’ll bet the food is about as fresh as anything you can get on the coastline.”
Patsy inhaled deeply. She liked a good fried shrimp. And deviled crab. She hadn’t had that in ages. That with a baked potato . . .
The cottage was everything it had been touted to be. The cottony-white walls, the dark, rich furniture, the white eyelet curtains and bed linens, and the polished hardwood floors helped Patsy begin to relax. To feel that maybe her life was going to be okay. Even if only for a week.
A week in Cedar Key.
Patsy unpacked their luggage while Gilbert showered.
When he was done, she took a quick bath, worked the tangles out of her hair, then brushed it until it shone. She worked it into a long braid that snaked over her shoulder before dressing in a knee-length mint-green A-line skirt with matching sleeveless blouse. She wore no jewelry, no makeup. Only coral-colored lipstick.
The way Gilbert liked it.
“Will you put the top up on the car?” she asked as they stepped from the front porch of the cottage. “It took forever to get the rats out of my hair.”
Her husband slipped an arm around her waist. “Anything for my lady.”
She sighed as he opened the car door for her. Allowed her to get in gracefully. Closed it. She watched him sprint around the front to his side.
He is trying so hard.
A few minutes later they arrived at the seafood restaurant near the harbor they’d heard about from Walter, one of Gilbert’s business associates. Walter had also told them about the tropical healing balm of the island.
Already a line was forming at the front door of the establishment. Patsy glanced at her watch. It was only five o’clock.
She thought they would have been early enough. Maybe the food really was that good.
She waited at the end of the line while Gilbert gave the restaurant’s hostess their name. He returned a minute later.
“Fifteen minutes. That’s not bad.”
Over the fifteen minutes, she found herself drinking in the sights and sounds of Cedar Key. Already she liked it here. It called to her, like an old friend, and made her feel as though she’d been here before.
Seagulls soared overhead. Patsy craned her neck to watch them, then lowered her chin to view them through the glass walls of the restaurant as they dove into the rhythmic waves below. They inched closer to the inside of the restaurant. Gilbert slapped his flat stomach, drawing Patsy’s attention from the white birds to the pressed white of his button-down shirt. “I smell good ole fried seafood. I think I’ll have shrimp. What about you?”
She strained to make the decision. “Deviled crab.”
He wrapped his arm around her waist again and squeezed.
“Somehow I knew you’d say that.”
“You know me well.”
“Since you were no more than a pup.”
“Milstrap, party of two?” the hostess called over the heads of the few hopeful patrons left standing in front of them.
Gilbert raised his hand. “That’s us.”
They entered the restaurant, Patsy behind the hostess, Gilbert behind her. Sikes’s Seafood was all wood and glass. The walls sported lifesavers and nets with shells caught between the yarn. Large mounted fish. Stuffed replicas of tropical birds perched on beachwood. It was typical tropical, and to add to the setting, the Beach Boys sang “Surfin’ USA” from a jukebox.
The hostess stopped short before turning toward a man in dress casual attire. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said to Patsy and Gilbert. “Just a minute, please, while I ask my boss a question.”
She returned her attention to the man. “Mr. Liddle?”
At the sound of the name, Patsy felt the air suck into her lungs before she heard the intake of breath. Gilbert’s hands gripped her forearms.
The man stopped. Turned toward them. Smiled briefly at them. “Yes, Brenda . . .”
How could it be, Patsy wondered. How was it that here, in Cedar Key, she stared into a face she hardly recognized.
And into eyes she would never forget.