The Panhandler… A Short Story

30A South Walton beach walk 252x252 The Panhandler... A Short Story

Photo: Jacqueline Ward Images

Burt sat on the pollen-laden hood of an otherwise maroon Honda Accord. It wasn’t his car, of course, but that didn’t matter. “This is a public beach,” he thought. “I can sit wherever I damn well want.”

He shifted his dark eyes up and down the bike path, scouring for a potential victim.

“Slim pickins today,” he thought.

Burt was a diehard local, having grown up along the Emerald Coast. In all his days, he had never strayed far from the water. He couldn’t explain why. Something primitive anchored him here; something ancient. Perhaps it was the soothing ebb and flow of the Gulf. Perhaps it was just the fresh seafood.

Still, Burt was a shiftless drifter; routinely meandering from Ft. Walton to Destin to Panama City, and back again. But this 20-mile stretch of sugary beaches along 30A was his favorite.

For most of the winter, he’d gone down to Seaside every morning and mooched off this little old lady from Michigan. She didn’t seem to mind that he was a complete freeloader.  She liked the company.

But now, warmer weather was here and the snowbirds had flocked back to their Northern nests. The Spring Breakers had limped home too, tending to aching heads, overexposed shoulders and depleted ATM accounts. Intoxicated and free-spirited, students made easy prey but they could also be a rowdy lot. While the young girls tended to humor Burt’s persistent charms, those testosteroney guys were just too unpredictable.

Now though, there was a pleasant month-long lull; just enough time to catch one’s breath before the onslaught of summer vacationers. The calm before the profitable storm.

“Plus, the fish are back,” smiled Burt.

As bait fish and minnows wiggled their way through his one-track mind, a white SUV with Alabama tags rolled into the lot.

“A family of four,” noted Burt. “This looks promising.”

Dad hopped out and began unloading beach gear with the swift precision of an airport baggage handler. He had the square-jawed good looks of a Caesar or a star ship captain, and wore a tacky Tommy Bahamas print that screamed, “I’m a cubicle farm slave.”

Dad probably got ten vacation days a year; fifteen if he was lucky. Most of those were squandered on family reunions, weddings, and obligatory things. But these precious few days at the beach were what dad toiled for all year long. The pathetic thought almost conjured up enough pity to convince Burt to leave this poor guy and his family alone.

Almost.

The pasty troop barged their way toward the beach, dragging floats, lawn chairs, towels, umbrellas, and beach bags. Burt trailed them discreetly down the boardwalk. He perched on the rail, and tried to appear as nonchalant and inconspicuous as possible.

Mom and dad staked-out a family outpost in the sand, as teen and tween played tag with the lapping turquoise waves. After a while though Mom unpacked lunch and lured the kids back to their blanketed base camp.  Sandwiches, chips, snacks, and drinks were passed around liberally.

“This is it,” Burt thought. “No time like the present.”

In one fluid flapping frenzy, he sailed down from the boardwalk and swooped low across the warm sand. With lightning-speed precision, he seized a Dorito from the boy’s unsuspecting hands and then quickly ascended into a high spiral over the crime scene—careful not to drop his salty prize.

The boy squealed with delight. “Mom! Dad! Did you see that? That Burt just flew down and took my chip!”

Burt smiled. Once again, his reputation had preceded him.

“Like taking candy from a baby.” he thought. “Like taking candy from a baby.”

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