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Florida Weddings

By Lynn A. Coleman, Kristy Dykes, Kathleen E. Kovach

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MERELY PLAYERS
“Whoo-oo! We did it, Bethy!”

It hadn’t sunk in yet with Bethany that they had actually graduated, and soon Hollywood High would be a distant memory. Yet, there was her Ricky, loping across the stadium, his crimson robe flapping about his body like a victory flag.

Ricky picked her up and swung her around. “We did it. We graduated!”

When he’d set her down, Bethany looked past the thick lenses of his glasses and into the forest green eyes she had come to love. The excitement she saw there went beyond the celebration of their special day.

Ricky kissed her with a solid smack. “I was going to tell you my news at your party tonight, but I can’t wait.”

She wished his news had been about making his peace with God, but she knew better.

“I heard from them, Bethy!”

“The agency?” She tried to match his excitement. “You’ve got an agent?” He nodded and she hugged him. “That’s wonderful, Ricky. Before long you’ll be a famous Hollywood actor.”

He removed her cap and kissed the top of her head. “Naw, not without my leading lady.”

She smiled. The latest school paper’s headline sprang to memory. Bethany and Ricky, Together Again. The article reviewed their final play together, The Music Man.

In between congratulations from family and friends, Ricky continued to share his news. “They want me to change my image, though. How do you think I’d look with dark hair?”

She wanted to answer with a vehement No. Instead she scrutinized him, tousling the hair that he hated because of its non-descriptive hue. Was it dark blond or light brown? “I don’t know; I’ll have to get back with you on that one.”

“Oh Bethy,” he said as he swung her around again. “Our future is set.”

Bethany swallowed hard. How would she tell him they may not have a future? How would she ever say goodbye?

Ten Years Later

Bethany drove the scenic stretch of highway along the Gulf of Mexico on her way to work, while light jazz music rippled from the car radio. The sights from Highway 98 between her home in Seaside, Florida and her work place on Santa Rosa Island in Fort Walton Beach almost always took her breath away. Emerald tinted crystalline water kissed the sugar sand beach with balmy waves. Feathery sea oats swayed like kites in the slight breeze while white dunes hugged their roots in an attempt to keep them grounded.

As she began her ascent over the bridge that connected the resort town of Destin to the island, a brief weather report interrupted music rippling from her radio station. “Enjoy the morning and early afternoon, folks. A winter rain storm is headed our way with temperatures dropping rapidly right around rush hour.”

Bethany frowned at the intrusive voice. On this warm February day, a man jogged inches from the waves and a sailboat bobbed in languid disinterest only yards from the shore. She shrugged. Nothing was going to spoil this lovely day.

When Bethany arrived at work, Ophelia barked at her for no apparent reason, probably just to hear the sound of her own voice.

“Hungry girl?” Bethany threw the seal a fish treat and waved to the trainer who was cleaning the area.

She entered the fish house where she began every day at the Gulfarium. “An assistant dolphin trainer’s work is never done!” she said to herself, as she chose the fish—mostly herring and squid—used to feed her dolphins for the morning. The food had already been thawed slowly in the refrigerator the night before and she placed it into cool water to clean. Afterwards, she iced it down to keep it from decomposing too quickly.

She carried her buckets of cleaned fish out to her counterparts. Four noses, all bottle shaped, poked from the surface of the water. They followed her around to the lower platform where she threw the food into their wide open mouths. Kahlua, the young male, chattered, whistled and clicked to encourage her to throw faster. During this ritual, she gave each a rubdown, something they loved almost as much as the treats. The strength under their rubbery smooth skin reminded her of her human frailty.

As Bethany threw the last fish, she heard a human voice from the other side of the tank call to her in a gentle Barbados accent. “Good morning.”

“Definitely a good morning, Sheila,” she returned. She never grew tired of hearing the therapist’s voice, with her queen meets the islands lilt. How she wanted to work with Sheila full time! Bethany had been involved with the training aspect nearly all her life, following her father around when he worked at Marineland in California and then later when it closed to Sea World on both coasts. But it gave her a warm feeling to be able to help special needs kids with the Dolphin Therapy Project

“You sound chipper,” Sheila said as Bethany skirted the pool to catch up to her.

Bethany spread her arms. “The sun is shining, the sky is clear, and all is right with the world.”

“What an optimist! There’s a storm on the horizon, you know.” Sheila waved her clipboard to signal her readiness to organize the day.

“Nah, just a little rain. What’s Florida without rain?”

“Are you joining us today?” the therapist asked as they entered her office. She walked over to a file cabinet and pulled out several folders labeled with children’s names.

“For a couple of sessions.”

“Have you talked to Simon?”

Bethany picked her thumbnail. “I’ve asked him about a promotion so I can work with you as a full trainer, but he’s still not too keen on the idea.”

“Why ever not?” The therapist raised her dark eyebrows.

“I don’t know. Something about not being totally dedicated to this as a career. He’s fine with me shadowing Dad, but he doesn’t think I can hack it full time.” Bethany picked up a pencil from the desk and maneuvered it through her knuckles as if it were a baton. “Sure, I ask for time off for church stuff. Also there’s the acting thing. He hates it when I need large blocks of time for rehearsals and then performances. But he can’t expect me to live, breathe, and drink salt water twenty-four seven.”

“Why not? He expects it from all of us.” Sheila flipped through a folder containing information on the first child to arrive for therapy. “Tell you what, I’ll tell the trainer assigned today to let you give the commands, kind of back off and let you run the show. Simon usually pokes his head in during the first session, so if he sees how well you do, maybe he’ll reconsider.”

The butterflies in Bethany’s stomach banged against her abdomen. A chance to prove herself. Please God, don’t let me blow it.

Later, in the Dolphin Encounter Building while waiting for the Spencer family to arrive, Sheila updated both Bethany and the other trainer, Lauren. From the child’s folder she read, “Let’s see...Kevin Spencer...age ten.” She perused the page. “Autistic...has never spoken...therapy program in place, but not seeing much improvement.” She smiled at Bethany. “Hopefully Cocoa can encourage him. You’ve seen the routine. I use positive reinforcement along with the therapy techniques he’s already been using. For instance, if I can get him to look me in the eye, Cocoa will do a behavior for him.”

“Got it,” Bethany said as she picked at a nail.

“You’ll be fine.” The therapist placed her hand over Bethany’s fingers and squeezed.

Soon, Kevin arrived with his family. Sheila introduced herself, Lauren, and Bethany, then knelt until she was face to face with the boy. “Hello, Kevin. We’re going to swim today. Would you like that?”

Kevin’s father, a nervous man, jingled the coins in his right pocket. “Are you sure it’s safe? Those fish are pretty big.”

Mammals. Bethany’s pet peeve. Why must people refer to dolphins as fish when surely they must know better? She began the speech she’d heard Lauren say to new families. “The dolphin that Kevin will be seeing today is a Pantropical Spotted Dolphin. She’s a smaller species of mammal than her bottle nose cousins in the performance arena. Also Kevin won’t really be swimming with them. He will sit on a ledge and the dolphin will come to him.”

At the pool, Sheila positioned Kevin along the side. His parents took seats in the bleachers while Bethany and Lauren slipped into the pool with Cocoa. Sheila briefly explained the reinforcement system, then asked Bethany to introduce Cocoa. Bethany waved her hand, as she had seen the other trainer do, and the small dolphin circled the pool. Kevin locked his gaze on the sleek animal. When she came back around to smile sweetly at him, he cracked a small one-sided grin.

His mother cried. His father whispered, “Praise God.” Apparently any reaction from the boy was cause to celebrate.

They spent some time with plastic colored rings before they entered the water. Sheila offered him a choice of two colors and asked him to point to the blue one. When he wouldn’t respond she asked him, “Would you like to throw a ring out to Cocoa?” When his eyes swiveled toward the pool she asked again for him to point to the blue ring. “I know his at-home therapy uses this technique,” she told his parents, “but now he has a motive.” Finally, after several minutes of gentle coaxing, he lightly tapped the blue ring.

“Good job! Now would you like to throw it to Cocoa, or do you want me to? If you want me to, you’ll have to look at me so that I know.” Almost imperceptibly, his eyes darted to meet her gaze. “Okay. I’ll do it this time, but I’d like you to try it next. Okay?”

She threw the ring to the waiting Cocoa, and Bethany instructed the dolphin to retrieve it and take it back to Sheila. “Look, Kevin,” the therapist said as she removed it from the dolphin’s nose. “Cocoa loves jewelry. She has a nose ring.”

Bethany had to swallow the lump squeezing her throat when she saw Kevin’s small smile. When he finally allowed himself to throw the ring to Cocoa, in a somewhat unconventional manner—underhanded across his body—he and Sheila joined the two trainers in the pool.

“You’re doing great,” Lauren whispered to Bethany.

When they were done, Mrs. Spencer dried Kevin off with a towel while his father praised his efforts. Bethany thought Kevin to be a lucky boy to have such a supportive family, they seemed to want to try anything that would help their son.

“We will hope to see a marked improvement in Kevin with each session,” Sheila said to Kevin’s parents. “We’ll book ten sessions. After that time, I’ll re-evaluate and see if more would benefit him. Continue his therapy at home. What we do here should make your time with him more productive.”

The seeming weight that had dragged in with the Spencers now vanished and they walked out with a slight spring in their steps.

Bethany pulled herself out of the pool and caught a glimpse of Simon leaving. Her mind flipped through the last hour. Had she done everything correctly? Yes, she decided. He should have no complaint.

“Bethany,” Sheila said as she threw her a towel. “You did very well. I think you’re a natural. Have you ever thought of becoming a therapist?”

“You’re a strong advocate for your profession, Sheila.” She shook her head at the absurd thought. How much more schooling would that require? She hoped her life had finally settled down. After the move to Orlando right after her high school graduation, she’d lived at home while attending college and gave stage acting a try. When her father was offered the job as Senior Trainer at the Gulfarium four hundred miles away, she shared an apartment with a friend and paid the rent by acting professionally. Her friend married, leaving her with a home she couldn’t afford, so she followed her father once again.

She walked out of the building that enclosed the encounter pool. The sun’s rays bathed her skin with warmth, but assaulted her eyes. Once she donned her sunglasses, she noticed a figure waving to her from across the performance tank. Her handsome father. She couldn’t leave him again to go to some university. They needed each other. She was his only child and Daddy was the only parent she had left.

Two more therapy sessions and several dolphin shows later, Bethany searched out her best friend who managed the gift shop.

“Are we into circus performing, now?” She laughed at Cleo’s strawberry curls, which hung sideways while she balanced on an upper rung of a ladder.

“Think they could use a new act out there? Cleo Delaney, Acrobat and Light Bulb Changer Extraordinaire.”

“Come down from there. You’re making me nervous.”

Cleo made her dismount, astounding the imaginary audience. “What’s up, kiddo?”

“Your husband’s been gone for a month...”

“Seven weeks and four days.”

“...And I thought maybe you’d like to come over for a girl night. We could do pizza and a movie.”

“Sounds great. I’ll bring the ice cream.” Cleo’s previous exertion caused her cheeks to flush, making the freckles on her face more endearing. She continued her closing chores, chattering even while counting change. Cleo could talk during any activity. Cleo talked all the time. “Ed called this morning. I gotta get used to this overseas stuff. He was just going to bed and I was just getting up. Isn’t that wild?” With a snort she said, “Air Force life!”

She placed the day’s profits into a canvas moneybag from the bank and asked, “How did your day go?”

Bethany leaned on the glass counter, but Cleo shooed her away as she reached for the window cleaner. “It went very well.” Bethany jumped back before the spray of blue liquid could fill her lungs. “I got to play full trainer during one of the therapy sessions. You know, when that little guy smiled at Cocoa, I knew I was in the right place. Simon was watching, so I hope he’s more open to promoting me now. ”

“Here, make yourself useful.” Cleo handed Bethany a feather duster and pointed to a shelf housing ceramic knickknacks. “It is so cool that you get to play with the dolphins and help children at the same time. I’m jealous.”

“Sheila asked me if I’d ever considered becoming a therapist.” She fingered the dusty wisps. “What do you think?”

Cleo’s mouth drew to the side as she narrowed her blue eyes. “So you plan on being an actress/dolphin trainer/therapist/whatever-strikes-your-fancy-next. Girl, you’re going to have to make up your mind.” She seized the duster and threw it under the counter. “You’re almost middle-aged.”

Reaching for a furry dolphin puppet on display, Bethany pouted. “I’m only twenty-eight. Some people haven’t even left home at that age.”

“Beth, you live with your father.”

Using the puppet’s mouth to counter the accusation, Bethany spoke slowly through closed ventriloquist lips, “It’s sintly a natter oth conthenience.”

Cleo dislodged the puppet from Bethany’s hand. “Don’t play with the merchandise. You’ll get it all fishy.” She put it back on its stand, making sure the head faced outward.

Sheila burst through the gift shop door. “Oh good, you’re still here. Have you heard?”

“Heard what?” Bethany said with a shrug.

“Come out to the snack area. Simon has an announcement.”

At the outdoor snack bar, their boss had assembled the rest of the employees.

Those buzzing with gossip seemed to think the announcement had to do with a call from a movie production company.

Cleo began waving her hands in excitement, as if drying her nails. To Bethany she said, “What if the call was about you?”

“Me? Why?”

“You’re the darling of the Community Theater here. Maybe he saw your last performance.”

“You’re delirious. They don’t work that way.”

Cleo made a square box with her fingers and looked at Bethany through an imaginary lens. “Love it! Love it! She swims like Esther Williams, sings like Judy Garland, and acts like Audrey Hepburn. But that hair!”

Bethany self-consciously glanced around at the gathering crowd. Embarrassed she covered her head with both hands. “What do you mean, ‘that hair’?”

“You look like a sun-bleached moppet.”

Bethany scrunched her short tresses, feeling it looked better messed up.

Simon had been talking quietly to those gathered around him. When he saw that everyone had assembled, he held up his hands to gain everyone’s attention. “I received a phone call from a man who works for Galaxy Productions. He’s a location scout interested in making a movie here.”

“Location scout?” Cleo’s disappointment showed in her translucent blue eyes.

“He’ll be visiting next week,” Simon continued, “and I want everything spotless. He asked if he could take pictures so the powers that be in Hollywood could make the final decision.”

“What movie is it?” Bethany heard from the middle of the crowd.

“Danger Down Under.”

“Who’s the star?”

“Brick Connor.”

Squeals from the women masked Bethany’s gasp. Ricky! She made a hasty retreat to her car, gulping air and muttering, “No-no-no...”

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