For years, my family has vacationed in the same Florida town. In fact, we just returned home after spending a week of spring break there with our three sons.
Many nights, we take the same scenic drive to dinner at a favorite restaurant. As we travel along Gulf Shore Boulevard, we admire a combination of small beach apartments, swanky high-rises and spectacular homes.
A few years ago, we noticed that whenever we drive this particular route, there are always two men sitting in front of the same third-floor window of a low-rise apartment building that overlooks the road. All that is visible from the road are their two silhouettes. Even during off-peak months, they've always been there.
Over the years, we've had great fun speculating about who they are, whether they're having a drink, and if so, what they fancy, where they're from, and what they might be discussing. Our guesses have become a modern form of car bingo. Widowers? Retirees? Partners? We've run through the gamut of possibilities.
Eventually, I started beeping the horn as we passed. We'd wave. Our new friends would do likewise. There was something comforting in seeing them. In a world of constant change, it's been nice to look up and see that they are there, same as we remembered from our last visit.
And then last spring, we drove by and they were missing. The apartment was dark. No one was visible in the window. Funny thing, we grew worried about two people we'd never met. Where did they go? Was everything all right? A new round of the guessing game. Too bad, because we had started to joke about dropping in on them to fill in the missing pieces.
On our last trip at Christmastime, we were relieved to see them once again. We were driving past about 6 p.m., and there they were at cocktail hour. I told my wife that I suspected they were gin drinkers and said we should buy them a bottle. She said that if I bought it, she'd deliver it. I said, "Tomorrow."
So I bought a bottle of Bombay, and en route to dinner at dusk the next night, we speculated with our three boys as to their names and why they had disappeared during our last visit.
Approaching the usual stretch, we were pleased to see the light was on. This time, there were three images in the window, not two. Our friends were entertaining. I pulled over.
My wife, accompanied by our 10-year-old, boldly got out, clutching the gin, and headed toward the stairs to their door. I remained behind with the other two boys, and parked across the street. Then she disappeared from our line of sight.
In a scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, we watched as one of the men rose to answer the door. Then he, too, was out of the camera frame. After a few minutes, he returned to show his two friends the bottle that had just been delivered. Soon, another of the men went toward the door, presumably to meet whoever had paid them a visit. Then we saw both men return and show the bottle to their guest.
A few moments later, my wife and son returned to the car.
She said Phil and Helmut (one of the boys had guessed "Phil" correctly) were appreciative of the gift (and I was correct about their fondness for gin!). They couldn't have been nicer and encouraged us to stop next time for a drink. Yes, they'd seen our car and had heard the greeting of the horn. And while they appreciated our concern over their absence in the spring, they had just been away on vacation.
As we started the car and continued along the beach to dinner, my wife and I were happy that a throwaway line about delivering a bottle of gin to our Florida friends had yielded a lesson to show a little gumption and take some initiative. After all, you never know when you could become a comforting constant for somebody else.
Last week in Florida the apartment was dark. But we're not worried. I beeped anyway.
© 2011 Philadelphia Inquirer