I took my entire money roll, and shoved it at the kid.
"Here. Get yourself a bed tonight. It'll do wonders for your perspective."
He took it, but he was still eyeing me, suspicious.
"Are you sure?"
"The Seaside Bar and Grill, on Pier Street, it has a shower out back. Ask for Kelsey, he'll let you clean up."
He was still waiting for the catch. He shivered. I pulled off my jacket and thrust that at him as well.
"You might as well be warm on your way there."
"Won't you be cold?"
It was then I realized I had made a decision. I laughed.
"Not where I'm going."
* * * * *
The music and voices from William's party drifted after me as I walked toward the water. I pulled off my tie, and tossed it over my shoulder, toward his little white lights. My decision had given my mood a lift, and on a sudden impulse I sat down in the sand and removed my shoes and socks before going any further.
I massaged my feet for a couple of minutes, and watched the sky. The cloud cover was low enough to reflect the lights from town. It was going to rain, all right. I could hear the breakers for real now.
I got up, and continued walking, feeling the sand, cold, between my toes. How long had it been since I'd felt that? Not since Charlie had…
Good old Charlie.
I was letting him down. I knew that. But I really needed this. I'd earned it—ten times over, or more. All those people, all needing so much help, and for all those years.
"I wasn't any good at it, Charlie, that's the point." I said it out loud, to the sky or the sea. "How many people do you think I actually, really helped? It would be different if I were any good."
I stopped and looked back at the party. I couldn't hear the music anymore, just the breakers, and the wind. I was halfway to the sea—the pounding, wine-dark sea. A drop of rain hit the lens of my fake glasses. I pulled them off and flung them out on the sand.
I began to trudge toward the water again, unbuttoning my shirt.
"You've got to understand, Charlie. I have to do this, before it's too late. Look what happened to you. I want to hear it again. I have to hear it again. Just one more time, that's all."
I was facing the waves. I tossed the shirt aside.
"I'll come back, Charlie. I promise."
I pulled off my pants.
"This doesn't have to be forever."
I stepped out of my shorts, naked, wrinkled and potbellied. The rain was steady now, and comforting on my old skin.
"I'll come back, Charlie, and I'll be better at it because I did this. You'll see."
And then, with an effort of will, I focused on the surf. To my surprise, the sea was still there. She'd never gone away. She'd just been waiting, patiently, for my return. I let the air out of my lungs, and smiled.
"Honey," I mumbled, "I'm home!"
And I strode into the waves.