written by William Bertolo
Mark and Paula left Alys Beach behind in that late summer afternoon, driving west towards Watercolor Beach under an unforgiving Florida sun, which would be the last stop of their visit to the 30A wealthy communities on that day. They had been vacationing in Panama City for a week and had heard really nice things about the several small towns that lay side by side in this unreachable-for-mere-mortals part of northwest Florida. Visiting the area would be a nice break from the restaurant-beach-restaurant loop they had been sucked into in the last seven days (not that they were complaining). But, in any case, a little walk would help them burn away the fat provided by the seemingly neverending amount of bacon and general grease they had been consuming recently.
After two minutes of unprepossessing native vegetation to the right and gorgeous emerald-coloured sea at their left, they saw the sign: Spiaggia San Vincenzo. The logo, predominantly olive green in colour, was composed of the name of the place, written in a handwritten-like font, and a drawing of an olive tree. A road curve ahead, they spotted the first impressive buildings. In accordance with the name of the community, the houses, although different among themselves, were built in Tuscan style, consisting of crafted natural stone, mostly limestone and travertine. The flooring around the houses consisted uniformly of terra cotta tiles. Wooden beams here and there completed the rustic feel of the community.
“I love it,” Paula. “Can we stop here? Maybe they have real estate listings.”
“Sure,” replied Mark. “On our way back, let’s make sure we play the lottery or rob a bank because we will never afford to buy something here with these honest lives of ours. Unless you joined the drug dealing business and didn’t tell me. But, in any case, a walk will do us good. In the end, that was the purpose of this jaunt. Let’s burn some calories so tonight we can once again start eating like there’s no tomorrow.”
They stopped the car in a roadside parking area that had spots for many cars but none parked. Mark and Paula seemed to be the sole visitors in the place at that time. Then they took one of the pedestrian-only streets between two strips of houses and started walking away, distancing themselves from the beach and the road.
“Rustic or not, these houses must be worth millions,” said Mark.
“Agreed. I will check the drug trafficking job postings to see if there’s something I can start immediately. But note that even in a profitable business like that it’s gonna take us a while.”
The houses looked, indeed, very expensive, and open curtains offered some glimpses of their interiors, filled with luxurious furniture and finishes. They had to fight the urge to come closer and fog the windows with their breath, but they witnessed enough luxury, nonetheless, even from a distant standpoint. Mark started fancying the lives of the owners of those houses. His mind was suddenly filled with different possibilities and lifestyles, potential mornings, afternoons and nights that could be lived in those ample living rooms. A myriad of imaginary but likely parties, events, dinners, breakfasts, game nights, conversations, feelings, books, rug naps and celebrations. He kept a slow pace, lost in thought for a few seconds.
Not too far from where they started, the small street came to an end. The last house to their right was being built, and they could spot a few construction workers laying the foundation of what would become a new oversized property. They waved to the men working under the scorching sun, who repaid the gesture back with smiles and hand waves.
“I love Florida,” said Mark. “Everyone is so nice!”
They turned left, in order to advance to the next row of houses and move in the opposite direction, back to the place they came from.
IIn front of the first house of the next row, they saw a huge vase, as tall as Paula’s shoulders, and, planted in it, a young, beautiful and healthy lime tree, bearing yellow fruits that, to Mark, were imploring to be picked. He resisted the temptation, though, and continued walking. Differently from the previous path, this one widened a little about the middle of its length, making space for a small square area where they saw six squat trees, no taller than ten feet. They came closer and, upon examining the fruits on it, came to the conclusion they were olive trees, something they only saw in person while visiting Montepulciano.
“O.K., they’re really honouring the logo now,” said Mark.
Both of them knew better than to eat the fruits straight from the tree. They tried a few years before when they first saw the real trees, and the results were disappointing. Very bitter, olives become much more palatable through curing and fermentation.
“I would never imagine to find it here,” said Paula. “Oranges, maybe, as we’re in the Orange State, but never olives.”
“It makes sense with the theme of the community,” replied Mark. “It’s a nice touch.”
“A nice touch indeed. And it saves the trouble of having to fly to Tuscany.”
“As if that was trouble. And as if these people could not afford it.”
“You’re right. And the food here sucks anyway. They would only benefit from going to Italy,” Paula replied.
“Don’t be mean. We went to good restaurants in the last few days.”
“Do you still remember eating in Tuscany?”
“Point taken,” conceded Mark.
Continuing their way back towards the sea, they saw a maid leaving one of the houses, holding empty grocery bags. She smiled and spoke to them, with a thick southern accent.
“Hey y’all. Good afternoon, ma’am, sir.”
“Hello,” replied Paula. “It’s a nice community you guys have here.”
“It is beautiful, yes. Where are you visiting from?”
“Toronto. It’s not our first time in the region, but it is the first time exploring the 30A,” replied Mark.
“Toronto… I have never been to the north before. Never been past Atlanta. Is it cold over there?”
“Yes, it’s in Canada. And yes, it can be really cold,” replied Paula. “In the winter, I mean. Good thing you guys do not have that kind of cold here.”
“Oh, it can be cold here too, ma’am. Last winter we got forty-four.”
Paula smiled, thought for a bit, and replied “I was talking more about minus four”, replied Paula, making a considerable effort to remember the formula to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius.
Mark inquired, “We didn’t see many people around, aside from the construction workers. Where’s everybody?”
“You’re barking up the wrong tree, sir,” the maid replied. “I’ve been working here for two weeks, the whole day every day, and haven’t seen any of the owners yet. Not the owners of the house I work at, not the owners of any other house.”
“So I guess this makes your day easier,” replied Mark.
“Sir, I don’t see people, but I see a lot of work. Every morning I come to the house and I don’t see anyone, but there’s a lot of work to do. Dishes all over the sink and the counter, the clothes piled up on the laundry. The bedclothes all messed up. But no one around. Every single day.”
“That’s crazy,” replied Paula.
“I reckon these people have to leave to work very early to earn all the money to pay the mortgage.”
“That’s probably true,” replied Mark. “And they probably have to stay late too. So they can never enjoy it. I guess the three of us are richer than they are, at some level.”
“Me? Oh, no. Good Lord, sir. I’m so broke I cannot afford to pay attention,” said the maid, to which Mark and Paula couldn’t stand unaffected. Both laughed and the maid joined them.
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” said Paula. “We need to go, we want to continue our visit.”
“Have a great day, y’all,” the maid replied. “I have to go too. I am fixin’ to get some limes from the neighbor’s tree.”
“So it’s fine when they do it,” thought Mark.
Paula and Mark waved goodbye and continued walking towards the sea. Reaching the road, they could see their parked car on their left and what seemed to be a small store facing the street, to their right.
“I wonder if that guy is making any money with no one around,” said Mark.
“I need to buy some water,” replied Paula. “Maybe you can ask him, and even offer your services,” she said, referring to the fact that Mark worked as an accountant.
“Hmm, not a bad idea. We could come and live here.”
“Oh yeah. Come on, Mark, we can’t even afford to pay attention,” she said, paraphrasing the maid, with a fake southern accent, and they laughed together.
“That’s epic. I’ll have to use that one back in Toronto.”
A few seconds later, they entered the small store and thanked Willis Carrier for the invention of air conditioning. Beyond the counter, a bald middle-aged man saluted them.
“Howdy,” said the man.
“Hello,” replied Mark. He looked around at the mid-sized space and recognized the typical Florida beach convenience store: bottled drinks, including beer, sunscreen, styrofoam body boards, cheap sunglasses, cereal bars and t-shirts with the “I’m in a 30A state of mind” print.
“Do you have water?” asked Paula.
“Yeah, the second fridge to your right,” the man replied.
“Not many people around this time of year, eh?” asked Mark.
“You’re the first this month.”
“Wow. Are you the owner here?”
“No, the man has a few of these shops around the area.”
“I can imagine how hard it is to keep a shop like this open when you don’t have customers,” said Paula.
“Oh, no, we sell a lot,” the man replied, widening his eyes to emphasize his words.
“I don’t get it,” Mark replied.
“We get all our orders by phone, email or simply notes left under the door overnight. This is Mr. Freeman’s most profitable shop by far. Our mornings are all dedicated to delivery. I have a young lad just for that,” he said, even more emphatically, a sense of pride in his voice, his eyes glistening.
“Interesting,” said Paula.
“So nobody ever comes to the shop?” Mark asked.
“Nope. The only faces I see here are Tommy’s, the boy that makes the deliveries, and those of visitors like you, which are pretty rare. It’s a strange place, I have to say. But how could I complain? We make good money and do not have many problems.”
“Nice. Given where you are, it’s a dream job,” said Mark.
“It sure is, sir.”
Paula brought the water bottle to the counter.
“It’s two dollars, ma’am.”
Paula produced two wrinkled dollar bills from her front pocket, they exchanged goodbyes and good luck wishes, then the couple left the place.
“Weird, eh?” said Mark, once they were out.
“Yeah. It is a very, very strange place they have here. It seems they don’t like to mingle with the working class very much.”
“It feels like a ghost town though. Do you think we should camp on the beach to spy on them? We could stay until late night and surprise them,” Mark proposed, in a clear joke tone.
“Sure. Let’s get the binoculars and the tent in the car,” Paula replied.
They walked back to the car, made a U-turn in that empty portion of the 30A, and left Piaggia San Vincenzo behind, each of them creating their own conjectures about the lives of the people who lived in the town.
William Bertolo is a technology geek who spends his work hours building internet websites and applications. He decided to write his first English short story (WhiteNoise) in 2014, and others quickly followed. He also dedicates part of his spare time composing and recording tracks of several genres at his home recording studio. Prior to start producing English language literature, he wrote a few pieces in Portuguese, including an unpublished fantasy book.