Even from that distance, something in the tenseness of their stance, as if they radiated a smoldering violence, made me look at them again.
The larger man, the one with his back toward me, jabbed the smaller man in the chest with his finger. I couldn’t possibly hear what he said from forty yards away and with the rumbling power of the ocean’s surf.
Carrying my surfcasting rod and gear, I stopped and pretended to survey where I would settle to fish. I wanted to watch what was going on with the two men. We were alone on this stretch of beach south of Oregon Inlet on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Then I saw the sudden swift movement of the big man’s right hand. He sawed a quick, solid blow to the smaller man’s stomach. His shoulder and twist of his body powered the blow.
The smaller man went up on his toes and then crumbled down on his knees, head in the sand at the feet of the other man, as if bowing in abject supplication.
I dropped my fishing gear and started to run toward the two men. I’m no hero type. I don’t go seeking trouble. But I have a temper that’s gotten me into messes in the past. I wasn’t going to just stand there while this big guy beat the living daylights out of the other guy.
Before I’d taken half a dozen strides, I stopped because I thought the bigger man was helping the other one up. But what he did was grab the smaller man’s ear and twist it so he writhed in pain. Above the dull, steady churn of the ocean, I heard the smaller man scream. His scream sounded like a sea gull.
He held his hands up as if begging the bigger man. The bigger man bent over slightly at the waist and said something, and all the while twisting his ear.
I started to run toward them again.
The bigger one let go of the man’s ear, but he remained kneeling on the beach at the edge of the ocean, holding the side of his head in his hands. He rocked back and forth like he might be crying.
The bigger man shrugged his shoulders, gave a casual salute with one hand, and turned to saunter toward the cut-through in the dunes—and me. When we were only about ten yards apart, I stopped, my body tensed because I didn’t know what I might have to do.
He strolled across the beach. It was like he was taking a nice little Sunday walk. He knew I was watching him but he didn’t seem to care. He was dressed more nattily than most people you see on the beach. He wore slacks and a golf shirt, unbuttoned at the throat, with a nice collar he had flipped up in the back.
He appeared to be in his late thirties or maybe forty and slightly over six feet tall. He moved with a smooth, loose, relaxed walk, like an athlete. He was solid, too. Probably two hundred pounds.
I stood watching him, holding my ground.
He smiled broadly. A very friendly smile, except maybe for the eyes that were partially hidden behind small, gold-frame sunglasses. A good-looking fellow with sandy hair, only slightly disturbed by the breeze there at the ocean.
“Nice day,” he said.
His face was smooth and not lined with any concern or care. He had a small cleft in his chin. A square chin. Sign of strength and character. Still smiling at me, he said, “Don’t know whether you’ll have much luck fishing today, though. Wind out of the southeast. You know what the old folks say.” His smile got even wider. “Wind out of the southeast not fit for fishing.”
“Your buddy down there,” I said, pointing. “He all right?” A really brilliant question on my part.
Mr. Charmer lifted his shoulders slightly and turned down the corners of his wide mouth, a gesture designed to minimize any concern anyone could possibly have. “Oh, sure.” He took a couple of steps closer to me. “Gets a little emotional from time to time, that’s all. Overly dramatic, I guess you’d say.”
The man’s accent was Southern but it wasn’t North Carolina. Georgia, Mississippi maybe. It was what I call the cultured accent of old school Southern Fraternity Boy accent. Only this guy was no longer some fraternity boy. He was so casual and self-assured that he reeked of danger.
He studied my face as if he had genuine concern. “Going be hot out here. You better get some good sunscreen. Especially for your nose. Person’s nose sticks out so much it gets burned quicker’n just about any other part of his body.”
Slowly, and so deliberately it became a challenge, he brought his index finger up and touched the tip of my nose.
Anger flashed in my gut like blue-hot Sterno. In a movement as quick and instinctive as batting an eye, my right came up and smacked his hand away, hard.
Instantly, as if altered by an electrical current, his face changed for the briefest flicker. But it was long enough for me to see the change that came over him. It was as though I was not even looking at the same person. He was someone else, changed by a force just under the skin that turned his face from the smiling good-ol’-boy Southerner to something so evil and filled with rage that it was if the bone structure in his face and the flesh that covered it suddenly shifted and remolded itself. Then his face changed back, just as quickly. He smiled, except for his eyes.
Then he said, “Remember, the sun’s wicked today.” The smile was now almost a smirk. “It can be murder,” he said. Then he turned and sauntered away toward the cut-through in the dunes.
I watched him go several yards, then turned quickly and stared at the man near the ocean’s edge. He was still on his knees but upright with one hand cradling his left ear. I hurried to him. Waves inched up toward him and his blue slacks were wet at the knees and half way up his thighs. Where the slacks were wet they turned purple.
I stood over the man as he knelt in the sand. Something familiar about him. I’ve lived at the Outer Banks since last year, but I’ve visited for years and worked here on a couple of crime magazine stories in the past, so I knew a lot of the year-round county residents. I knew I’d seen this man somewhere downtown in Manteo, the county seat.
I put my hand out to touch his shoulder, as if I would try to lift him up.
“Get away! Get the hell away!” His voice was pitched high with fury, frantic. His shoulders shook.
“Look, pal, I’m just offering . . .”
Blood came through the fingers and oozed down his neck. Blood dripped onto his cotton shirt. The shirt was light blue, Carolina blue, with gold call letters of a local radio station on the left breast pocket. In that instance I recognized him: owner and general manager of a Dare County radio station. But I couldn’t remember his name. He was also on the air with a special classical music program on Sundays, a total departure from the soft rock and beach music played during the week.
He struggled to his feet. I started to help him, but he made a motion with his right hand and I gave him room. I could tell his stomach hurt from the first blow. I see movies of guys getting belted all over the place and how they get back up and keep on fighting. It’s not that way in real life. A couple of smacks and you’re usually done in. Those smacks hurt, too, and this guy was hurting.
I began to fume. After all, I didn’t ask to get involved with this guy, or either one of them. I said, “I can give you a hand if you want it but don’t go mouthing off at me. I’m not the one hit you.”
For the first time he really looked up at my face. “Sorry . . . I’m sorry,” he mumbled. Holding his ear, he appeared sad and terrified and almost comical, all at the same time. “I’m okay.”
“You better get a doctor to tend to that ear.”
He nodded, glanced around as if to see if he left anything, maybe just from force of habit because he sure didn’t leave anything there on the beach except his pride and a whole lot of hurt. He nodded again, and I probably nodded, too. We must have looked like a couple of penguins standing there bobbing our heads at each other, not saying anything further.
He headed up toward the cut-through, a shuffling kind of walk there in the sand, like he didn’t have much energy left. I think he said, “Thank you.” But he was a few feet away, his back was to me and there was always the deep sighing sound of the surf.
Slowly, almost absently, I went to my fishing bucket and rod. He had just about reached the cut-through when I glanced back at him and noticed a woman and a little girl standing there watching the two of us. The woman wore jeans rolled at her ankles and a baggy short-sleeve sweat shirt. The little girl carried a yellow pail with a small shovel sticking out of it.
I don’t know how long they had been standing there, but I know they were not there when Mr. Charmer strolled up that way. She kept her eyes on the man from the radio station as he passed her. She and the little girl stepped aside to let him go by but I saw her stare at the side of his head and draw back. Then she glared at me.
I picked up my bucket and took the rod and sand spike in one hand and walked toward the edge of the ocean, north of where the two guys had been. I looked back over my shoulder. The woman and the little girl were gone.
copyright©2011 Joseph L.S. Terrell