“Conch Shell Conversation, Revisited”
Note to Readers: What follows here is a story that could well be true but is not, in the literal sense. Yet in the use of fabrication, it is more genuine than false. Real in fantasy instead of hollow with authenticity. Do not be alarmed. Read and be happy.
My friend Ezekiel Byler-Gregg is editor of the Burton Daily Bugle. Lately, his absence from meetings of the Geauga group of newspaper writers has produced some speculation and worry. Rumors have persisted about what happened to this local iconoclast of Mennonite and Yankee heritage.
Yet with sub-freezing temperatures descending over Geauga County, I did not think only about Ezekiel. Instead, I pondered the happier life of his brother Lemuel, who long ago moved to the Virgin Islands.
While looking out my window, over the snow drifts, I searched again for his number. It had been hastily written on a business card made of brown, shopping-bag material.
The line crackled as I punched in his number. Then, a series of distant tones echoed in my ear, with static for good measure.
Finally, he answered. “Byler-Gregg here!”
“Lemuel!” I cheered. “How are you, friend?”
He paused for a long moment. “Rod? From Geauga County?”
“That is correct,” I said. “How have you been?”
My erstwhile cohort had to compose himself. “I was just drinking a coconut sprtizer. What possessed you to call St. Croix?”
“It is eleven below zero right now,” I observed. “Ohio is locked in a deep freeze. The ‘Polar Vortex’ as they call it here.”
Lemuel sighed loudly. “I don’t miss that kind of weather.”
“But what about the thrill of Cleveland-area journalism?” I wondered aloud. “Doesn’t that make you long to be back on the Northcoast?”
“We have plenty of excitement here,” he guffawed. “Last week, Mayor Nobota got caught in a compromising situation with his secretary. She had left a conch shell on her desk. The mayor’s wife remembered giving it to him on their anniversary. That started quite a scandal…”
I bowed my head. “Okay, Lem, I actually called to ask about your brother. He has disappeared in recent weeks. We have become concerned.”
Laughter sounded in my ear.
“Rod, you are a worrier,” my friend laughed. “Zeke is on vacation with me. I have been showing him around the island.”
“Really?” I coughed.
“Yes,” he replied. “I have been trying to convince him that Burton is no place to retire.”
“Retire?” I shouted.
“Zeke is in his 60’s,” my friend explained. “So am I, after all. When you reach this age, there ain’t much gas left in the tank. Winter don’t look so pretty. I’d rather lay on the beach. You know? There are plenty of stories to write on the island.”
“But what about your activism?” I asked.
“I have to admit that things seem dubious back on the continent,” he reflected. “In 2008 I was excited about having a new president. But now, he seems a lot like everyone else.”
My eyes went wide open. “Is that a hint of apathy I hear? Becoming jaded?”
Lemuel groaned, audibly. “Not at all! I was just reading this – ‘Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor.’ That was from John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. I want to put it on my blog. Did you know that I get over a thousand clicks per day?”
“Will have to look that up,” I cheered.
“So,” he said quizzically. “What about you? Still writing for the Maple Leaf?”
“Sixteen years,” I answered with satisfaction.
“Not feeling jaded about that?” he chortled.
“It is a journey in print,” I declared. “A long, strange trip to quote the Grateful Dead. Two marriages, six jobs and a period living out of my pickup truck.”
Lemuel snorted. “Now that sounds like a novel!”
“But nothing so interesting as moving to the Virgin Islands,” I confessed.
My friend finished his coconut spritzer. “I think Elvis Costello put it succinctly. ‘Everything means less than zero.’ That is literally true of business conquest and political gain. Other things mean more… family and fun. A warm wind in the afternoon. The smile of a growing child. A beautiful sunset. That is real living.”
“Indeed,” I said.
Lemuel cleared his throat. “Okay, I have to get another spritzer. And a plate of steamed fish with rice, from the island buffet. Be good, Rod. Call me again sometime!”
I had more questions for my vagabond pal, but the phone line went silent before a suitable protest could be lodged. An irritating buzz filled the earpiece.
Our ‘conch shell’ conversation was over.
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