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New Orleanians gather near a tree along the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Monday, May 4, 2020. 

Though mindful of the pandemic, our family went to the beach this month, loading the car with food before we left, stopping only for gas, and holing up in a rented condo most of the time.

We planned to avoid the beach if it was too crowded to allow safe distance from everyone else. My wife said it would be enough to sit upstairs and listen to the tide.

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A few minutes after arriving, we heard from the balcony the familiar lap of waves against the shore. In a broken time for the world, the murmur of the ocean, a soundtrack of summers we’ve shared for years, reminded us of what endures.

The beach was empty enough to welcome us in. Other guests traveled the boardwalk, rolling ice chests out to the sand. They spaced themselves from other families, the old sociability of summer giving way to the realities of contagion. There was quiet among the tourists, who often seemed as silent as pilgrims headed to prayer.

We rented lounge chairs and a couple of umbrellas, our little circle of shade an island on which we alone had become stranded. A sand crab sometimes poked out his head and, like a groundhog scared by his shadow, retreated beneath a dune. I wondered if this foretold six more weeks of summer.

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It didn’t matter, since the calendar and the clock meant little to me at the beach. I had left my watch behind, not wanting to lose it in the sand. The watch wasn’t missed. My rumbling stomach told me the dinner hour. The slow march of heat across the morning let me know when to go inside. We set no alarms to nudge us from bed. Strong sun pierced the curtains each day, shaking us awake. There was no risk of napping too long at the water’s edge. The circling gulls and their hysterical cries kept us from falling hard into the deep well of sleep.

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Sometimes, to cool myself, I stood for long stretches in the surf. One afternoon, when the sea was as calm and flat as a mirror, I felt tiny tugs at my calves. In the clear water below, I spotted a school of small fish, their silver scales shimmering like coins in a fountain. Maybe mistaking my hairy old legs for a bit of seaweed, they worked their cold little lips across my skin. The odd moment reminded me what I’ve been learning in months marked by homebound confinement — namely, that life can still be interesting when you stand still.

On our final night at the beach, the electricity went off for an hour. The grounds outside were black, except for pinpricks of light from beachgoers working their way inside. Their flashlights, winking like fireflies, brought home to me the strange year we’ve had — a legion threading through the darkness, not quite sure of its path, but moving nonetheless.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.