Until South Padre Island Drive ends. That’s how long you drive to get to Big Shell. You drive the island expressway across the bridge, pass Snoopy’s on the right, pass through Flour Bluff, watch it turn to a two-lane road, and then there are sand dunes and a sign that says, “Four-wheel drive vehicles only past this point.”
The man and his brother are in his brother’s GMC Jimmy, 4WD. They have not been to Big Shell together since they were teenagers. On that trip, they were with Kyle and Ted in Kyle’s Jeep. Halfway into their fishing time, the heavens had opened and dumped buckets of rain. They had raced back to the Jeep and started the long drive back. The convertible top was ripped, and Ted had gotten soaked and chilled to the bone from the cold front that had rolled in.
“How far you wanna go?” Stephen says.
“I don’t know. Till there aren’t any people?”
“Ok. But we gotta take it easy. Don’t wanna get stuck.”
“You got four wheel drive, though.”
“Yeah, well, Kyle had it too, and he still plowed us into a sandpit once that Dad had to help get us out of. That was a great night.”
“Oh, right. I forgot about that.”
“You were on your mission. He got us stuck. I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have a cellphone. And then Dad just drove up. Said we were out late, he got worried, knew we had come to the island to go fishing, and he just followed the Spirit to us. Called us a tow.”
They ease onto the sand, and Stephen moves to the wet sand just out of reach of the surf.
For at least ten minutes, they drive. The man flips through his brother’s music collection. “Nice. Johnny Cash.”
“Here, let’s pop that in.”
Stephen slides the disk in with his right while steering with his left.
“Was Dad a Johnny Cash guy?” he asks.
The man continues flipping through the music as “Ring of Fire” hums on the speakers. “He loved all those old guys. Hank Williams, Cash, Willie Nelson.”
“Whatcha looking for still?” Stephen says.
“Rap or hip hop. But it’s all country.”
“Serious? I hate rap. What do you like?”
“I like it when I’m sad. Which fits tonight. Old school stuff. Dre, Snoop, Wu Tang.”
“Oh well that’s different. I got The Chronic in there. Hand me that.”
The man hands him the case, Stephen flips to the back, and pulls out The Chronic. They finish Ring of Fire, and then Stephen pops in The Chronic. The thrumming bass of Nuthin but a G Thang reverbs through the speakers, and the man eases back into his seat and stares at the dunes rising and falling to his right.
“It just sucks,” says Stephen. “My kids aren’t even gonna remember their grandfather.”
“Yeah,” says the man. “thought we married young enough that our kids would know their grandparents way more than we knew ours. And they won’t know him at all.”
“It sucks,” says Stephen.
They are quiet again, and when the song ends, the man says, “Wanna stop and get out?”
“Sure,” says Stephen. He slows to a stop, shuts off the Jimmy, and they climb out.
The wind is brisk and humid, and the moon is hazy behind thin clouds. It had been lightly misting at 6:30 in the evening as the man’s father took his last breath. He slips off his shoes and socks and moves to the wet sand where the waves die out. The water is warm, but when the water pulls away, the wind cools his ankles and feet quickly.
“Shoulda brought some poles,” says Stephen. “Wade out to the second sand bar and fish into the deep.”
“Woulda been perfect.”
“But not something he would have done. He sucked at fishing.”
The man laughs. “Yeah, he did.” He shifts and watches his footprints disappear under a swirl of water. “You know, I took him once when he came to Massachusetts. Grant, him, and me. Got bite after bite at the Mud Pond. Didn’t land a thing. He was cussing the fish.”
Stephen laughs. “Like that time at Bob Hall Pier. And when we went fishing at Lake Mathis and you and I caught dinner for all of us and he got skunked.”
“Like pretty much every fishing trip we ever took with him.”
They fall quiet again. A ribbon of moonlight shone on ocean out beyond the breakers. Stars peek out from behind the wispy, hazy clouds. There is no other or person in any direction. It feels like the end of the earth—get yourself out to the horizon, and you might fall off, might disappear. The waves roar continuously, and the wind whips above them. The noise is the only thing filling the giant emptiness in every direction.
The man holds his feet in place, feels a wave roll in around his ankles, then yank out the sand under his feet as it withdraws. He watches feet sink, then wet sand and water rush in around them.
“Wanna head back?” Stephen says after fifteen or twenty minutes. Or maybe it was an hour. Or maybe it was no time at all.
“Sure,” says the man.
Stephen starts for the Jimmy. The man pulls his feet from the liquid sand. He lets the water wash the sand off the tops, then watches as the water and sand fill in the holes and erase the last evidence of his presence.