Free Fiction: The Forgotten Coast

This was originally a writing exercise for my Foundations of Creative Writing class. I revised it a few times for that class, and I’ve toyed around with posting it here. Now, with the publication of “Calamcity,” I can leverage it into a promotional tool for that novelette, so it’s like I’ve got to publish it now, right? So, here it is:

The Forgotten Coast

I finally went on one of those kitschy submarine tours around the sunken wreckage of Pensacola and PCB and the Forgotten Coast. Hurricane Erica wrecked the shop, so I’d been sitting around waiting for the insurance company to get back to me, to see whether I was finally down the drain after circling it so long—and I saw an an ad with a coupon code for the Forgotten Coast tour. A few years ago, Jesse had really wanted to go on it, just before her, Ed, and their kids moved inland, but I’d been sick. Not sick enough to not go, but I’d played it up like I was. I always knew that I could go to the coast whenever I wanted, so I never felt any urgent pressure to do so. It was all flooded already, a few years’ more sea-level rise wouldn’t change that. And the ruin-porn aspect of it chafed at me. I didn’t want to sit in a sub with a bunch of inlanders gazing in awe at my ravaged childhood like it was a disaster movie.

But I saw this ad with a coupon code, and I was doing nothing, and I had this strange feeling like maybe, with the shop in shambles, I would finally be moving inland like my family and friends had done years and years ago, and maybe this one stupid coupon was meant to be my last chance to see the coast—so I bought the discounted ticket. I took a bus down from Tallahassee to Milton, now a coastal town. It was mostly tourists getting onto the sub (I could tell by their clean, uncorrupted northern English and pale skin) and a handful of local kids with red-brown tans. At least, they looked like kids to me. Teens, early twenties, late twenties—kids.

The sub was cheaply constructed, with rows of uncomfortable benches lining its main echoey chamber. Large windows stretched the length of the vessel, so at least there’d be a good view. I sat in the back on a bench by myself and leaned against the wall. The tour guide marched up the aisle to grab a microphone at the head of the rows of seating. “Hola, todos!” she said, voice bursting from the speakers throughout the sub in a bright mexi-floridian accent. “Welcome to the Forgotten Coast! Of course, the Forgotten Coast is actually just the area around Port St. Joe and Alligator Point …” As she spoke, the sub descended, and soon we were puttering through the flooded buildings of Pensacola.

Everyone’s seen these images, but it was strange to physically exist in that world, floating down a street as if we were just driving through (which I had actually done, before ’35, when Jesse lived there.) The landscape had the eerie flatness of Florida, with the only interruptions being hills of crumbled down buildings. The city looked even more desolate because all the trees—the palms and pines and live oaks which had formed the meat of any gulf coast city—were utterly gone. Rotted, uprooted, eroded, decimated. Sand had caught in and around everything, had scored squat plaster-and-cinderblock strip malls into porous reefs of urban coral. Even with just twenty feet of ocean above us, it was murky at ground level, with dead matter swirling around in the green-brown-blue water.

The tour didn’t spend long in Pensacola, and quickly headed to the next stop, Panama City Beach, where all the tourists really got their jollies and pressed up against the glass to point at the fallen resort town. Of course, we didn’t approach the few towering hotels that still loomed above the water, big repetitive beige stacks stacked on top of stacked stacks, which threatened to collapse at any time, but we did surface to view them from afar. I’d only ever been to PCB once in my life. I was still not impressed.

The tour wound down with the actual Forgotten Coast. Although some people think the whole of the Florida coastline is the Forgotten Coast, they’re wrong. The Forgotten Coast, before ’35, just referred to several beaches and towns around Wakulla and Gulf county, usually passed over by tourists in favor of more popular, populous areas like PCB, Tampa, Daytona, or Miami. This was the area that I remembered most clearly from family vacations, start-of-summer beach trips with high school friends, promotion celebrations, birthday parties. I especially remembered the coastal villages, the white dusty roads of Apalachicola lined with oyster shells, the rough short grass in the lawns, the old cemetery filled with unmarked graves and small cacti. I remembered the peeling paint of salt-blasted sun-bleached buildings, the colonial townhouses, the little phone booth which claimed to be the World’s Smallest Police Station. I remembered the thin, whipping sea oats on the dunes, the fences of metal wire and wooden slats that were meant to prevent erosion—useless in the end. I remembered the sand as white as salt that squeaked and burned your feet.

When the submarine reached it, I saw that there was nothing left of the Forgotten Coast except the twisted collapse of the San Blas light house, and a few worn-down teeth of the foundations of buildings. It wasn’t like PCB or Pensacola, and it certainly wasn’t like Tampa or Miami, the Disneyland of ruin tourism. It was a wasteland of sand, which gave the tour guide a chance to talk about the way local wildlife has adapted to its expanded habitat, and gave the tourists a chance to feign interest, even as they checked the time.

But it had always been an untamed, shoddily settled area. The most jolting difference for me wasn’t the flattened blocks of buildings reminiscent of fire-bombed cities in World War II. It was the murk. Like everywhere, the flooding had turned the area dim and muddy. The bright, unrestrained Florida-beach sunlight that explodes through all my memories had been doused with a hundred thousand gallons of dirty salt water. Over and over again I’d think I’d caught some familiar sight, some set of remnants, visual touchstones that I could connect to the places I once knew—the ruins of the warehouse by the bridge, the semi-circular outline of the docks of the marina, the stilts of the big dome-shaped beach house—only to watch the thing shift before my eyes into just a pile of sand, just a peculiar formation of mud and abandoned cars, just the tumbled rocks of old revetments. St. George, Cape San Blas, Apalachicola, Dog Island, Carrabelle, Alligator Point, Port St. Joe, were all lost and irretrievable.

The submarine ended its tour by surfacing at Crawfordville, where I and the local kids and a couple tourists waited for a bus to come by. I stared at the tourist sitting across from me in the waiting room. Her name was Megan, and she was from Denver. She’d lived in the mountains all her life, and when she went to college she missed the beautiful natural landscape she’d grown up in, even though she could go back and see it ever summer and winter break. Her wedding cost fifty thousand dollars, and she was married at a resort in the Rockies, in her beloved mountains. She now lived in Boulder and was raising two girls, and sharing with them her love of the mountains, and taking them to all the lookout points and quaint little gift shops she’d loved when she was a kid.

My bitter, resentful, imagined life of this woman was shattered when she got a call and answered in a British accent. I reminded myself that these types of tourists and their money were the only reason Florida wasn’t bankrupt, and I looked away from the woman. My eye caught on the local kids—teenagers of indiscriminate gender, speaking in rapid Spanglish that I couldn’t keep up with. There names were Nat, Jesse, and Ed. They’d lived in a drowned state all their lives, and they would go off to college soon, and talk wistfully about collecting debris and washed up home appliances on muddy shores. Jesse and Ed’d get married (or not, it’s not the fashion with their generation) for nothing on a shattered bridge turned pier, and raise their kids in their beloved water-logged world. And Nat … I didn’t know what Nat would do. No kids to share his memories with, memories that could never be revisited quite the same. Maybe he’d try to make some new memories.

Copyright © Francis Bass 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Minolta DSCIf you want to read more of my writing about climate change and beaches, you’re in luck! I just published “Calamcity,” a novelette set in the near future, when beach erosion has accelerated dramatically due to rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity. In the story, Joseph Lopez wants to bring back the large, stable, sunny beaches of his youth, and provide a nice vacation house for his aging parents, by preserving Cape Dodd. But as he and his brother find, Cape Dodd is in for a rough summer of constant hurricanes and mysterious plant life die-offs. Available on Smashwords and Amazon.

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