Aging & Attitude
My head turns with the slam of the restaurant’s screen door and I watch a woman my age, seat herself at an empty table for eight. It feels odd and she is toting too many bags.
Uninterrupted, our waitress listens to our comments and says, “Um, one got me bad the other day. I’m still scratching,” and puts menus and glasses of water on a blue tablecloth, its wrinkles accented by a small vase of pink plastic flowers.
“I’m Rachael, and I’ll be your server.”
We are in Apalachicola, a small fishing town located in the Florida Panhandle, and were sitting outside to watch a river sunset when the no-see-ums attacked and forced us indoors.
Always intrigued by the name, Apalachicola, Mr. Wonderful has surprised me with a stay at The Coombs Inn, a Bed & Breakfast.
“Where are you all visiting from? Rachael inquires, a pencil and spiral assignment pad clutched in one hand. She is wearing an orange t-shirt with Caroline’s Restaurant in cursive letters angled across her chest, and looks as incongruent as the wrinkled tablecloth.
“Ormond Beach on the east coast. We’re retired.”
“Now that’s a long haul, first time in the Oyster Capital? I bet you want a dozen fresh oysters.” She says with the enthusiasm of one who had a good night’s sleep.
We agree and Rachael says, “I’ll get that started and be back for your order, take your time now, no hurry.”
Apalachicola is a curious mix of old and new. A throwback town that looks loved and lived in. The Victorian homes are restored; most with tin roofs. The retail signs are not deliberately retro, just never replaced. You can enjoy gelato made with Florida mango, at the Apalachicola Chocolate Company on Avenue E as long as you get there before 5PM, after that all shops close.
The only new construction is The Water Street Hotel and Marina tucked at the end of Water Street alongside the commercial oyster boats. The smell of gasoline is strong as weathered oystermen smoking cigarettes, and wearing yesterday’s clothes fuel up.
I watch the woman actively arrange her bulging shopping bags, as another waitress slips beside her. I hear no conversation, suspect it is hushed and my curiosity heightens.
The woman’s bags are not new. The retail logos on several are disappearing.
She is served a class of white wine, instead of being asked to leave or move to a smaller table, and stoops over a menu as though she needs glasses. All day travel or slept-in creases distinguish the back of her jacket.
Rachael brings the oysters, takes our order and hightails it back to the kitchen.
Mr. Wonderful continues talking, reviewing the day; a visit to St. George Island and the lighthouse. Our conversation with the museum volunteer who informed us there are eight hundred and some year round residents on the island now, and house prices have dropped five hundred thousand to one million dollars. Yes, dropped, she reaffirmed and suggested we visit the Nature Center, which is free and contains a beautiful mural of the Gulf area.
Rachael returns with house salads and casually asks, “Have you been to Panama City or Mexico Beach?”We have and recount their beauty. The blue-green gulf water rolls in to smooch the shore,its sand the texture and color of boxed table salt, unlike the ocean waves that slap the eastern coast to prove who is boss.
Realizing we have our salads but no silver, I look around to rob some from a nearby table. Surveying the area, I notice the woman stand abruptly and leave carrying her bags, the glass of wine untouched. I surmise she cannot pay and has come to her senses to explain the abrupt departure.
“Did you see that woman leave?” I ask Mr. Wonderful
“No. What woman?” He answers.
“The one sitting by herself with all the bags, looks homeless.”
Rachael’s arrival with the entries interrupts our conversation and we ooh and aah about the fancy plating.
My meal is broiled grouper, shrimp, and bay scallops in reduced teriyaki sauce topped with wasabi, and sides of mixed vegetables and garlic mashed potatoes. Mr. Wonderful’s dinner is broiled scallops and a crab cake in lemon butter sauce, asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes.
We are enjoying our meal when I notice she’s back, without any bags.
Keeping my head down to control my confusion I say, “Look, look in the corner, it’s her.”
“What are you talking about?” Mr. Wonderful says with food in his mouth.
“Maybe she’s staying at the motel next store and went to put her bags in the room. She’s probably mentally ill. Or even run away, had enough of everything, I start to speculate when I notice her perfectly manicured hands flip open an iPhone, and conclude . . . maybe newly homeless.
The dinner is memorable, and the day outstanding.
I could do homeless in Apalachicola. . . .just saying