CHEATER by Norris Eppes

I go there to ask why I go there. I go there to pick up trash from the sand. In the sand, I draw a heart with my toe. My initial. My wife’s initial. The initial of our shared last name. Then, I make two footprints beside it and let the incoming tide bury my feet. 

An elderly couple walks toward me along the hard sand. I do not want to talk. 

They stop and talk.  

“We are from near the Austrian border.” 

The man moves his cigar from right hand to left so we can shake. My hand is wet and sloppy from digging for sand fleas. 

I show them how I find the little things. When the wave draws back toward the ocean, the two antennae of the sand flea holds water and I dig my hand and scoop a cup of sand and feel the crustaceans tickle-critter into my palm. I pinch and fling away the sand like some god shrinking the world. 

I extend my palm for the German couple to examine. The sand flea is the size of a jelly-bean. It tucks into the nook between my ring finger and middle finger. 

“Sand fly?” the man questions my name for them. 

The woman speaks to him in German. 

“Sand flea.” 

“You are not American,” he says. 

“I live here,” I say. 

“No,” he says, “American,” then mimes that he’s casting the line from a fishing rod. 

“It is warm enough to swim here year round?” his wife asks. 

I respond in tour guide fashion—yes, I only wear a wetsuit three months out of the year and I wear shorts the other nine. 

The woman speaks to the man in German, and the English word “shorts” is in there—which I suddenly remember means underwear in Europe. 

They say “goodbye” very formally and walk north, back to the campground and their RV. 

I find, on the beach, an empty bag of bait-shrimp filled with shrimp juice. I find the grey plastic cone of some travel-sized deodorant. I find one black velcro flip-flop. I find thoughts of the beautiful Spanish woman, eight months pregnant, who played footsies with me under the conference room table today. I was scared when her toe touched my toe. How could fear and adrenaline possibly transmit such a jolt through the toe of a leather office shoe? 

I liked it. 

As I turn and slow-step up the beach toward the boardwalk, I find the silhouette of the condos, which I know precisely from hours in the water with their outline as my lineup. 

But the silhouette is wrong. An owl? 

No, an osprey. Or, a pelican. 

The bird’s tufted ears turn, head on a swivel. We observe one another. 

An owl. It hops forward, plummets, and spreads its wings — which are about the size of a pelican’s. It flaps silent to the south, silent because the ends of its primary and secondary feathers have comb-like structures on their ends, and the feathers spread apart in flight, allowing silence.

I trudge after it through the sand, which is silky, cool, slipping through my toes. But I abandon the effort. It’s too dark to see the owl again anyway, and I need to find a trash can for this stuff. 


Norris Eppes has published fiction, essays, and reporting in Hobart, The Surfer’s Journal, Newsweek, Bitter Southerner, Four Way Review, and elsewhere. He works on summer staff at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and received his MFA in fiction from the University of Tennessee. He’s on Twitter @norriseppes.
 

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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