Let me tell you who I am: My name is Colby Mills, I’m twenty-five years old, and I’m sitting in a strappy foldout chair on St. Pete Beach, Florida, on a beautiful Saturday in mid-May. The cooler next to me is stocked with beer and water on ice, and the temperature is almost perfect, with a steady breeze strong enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Behind me is the Don CeSar Hotel, a stately accommodation that reminds me of a pink version of the Taj Mahal, and I can hear live music drifting from the pool area. The guy who’s performing is just okay; he strangles the chords every now and then, but I doubt that anyone really minds. I’ve peeked into the pool area a couple of times since I set up here and noticed that most of the guests have been working on cocktails throughout the afternoon, which means they would probably enjoy listening to just about anything.
I’m not from here, by the way. Before I arrived, I’d never even heard of this place. When people back home asked me where St. Pete Beach was located, I explained that it was a beach town across the causeway from Tampa, near St. Petersburg and Clearwater on the west coast of Florida, which didn’t help much. For most of them, Florida meant amusement parks in Orlando and bikini-clad women on beaches in Miami, along with a bunch of other places no one really cared about. To be fair, before I arrived, Florida to me was simply a weirdly shaped state hanging off the east coast of the United States.
As for St. Pete, its best feature is a gorgeous white-sand beach, the prettiest I’ve ever seen. The shore is fronted by a mixture of high-end hotels and low-end motels, but most of the neighborhoods seem typically middle-class, populated by retirees and blue-collar workers, along with families enjoying inexpensive vacations. There are the usual fast-food restaurants and strip malls and gyms and shops selling cheap beach items, but despite those obvious signs of modernity, there’s something about the town that feels a little bit forgotten.
Still, I have to admit that I like it here. Technically I’m here to work, but really it’s more vacation. I’m playing four gigs a week at Bobby T’s Beach Bar for three weeks, but my sessions only last a few hours, which means I have a lot of time to go for jogs and sit in the sun and otherwise do absolutely nothing at all. A guy could get used to a life like this. The crowds at Bobby T’s are friendly—and yes, boozy, just like at the Don CeSar—but there’s nothing better than performing for an appreciative audience. Especially given that I’m basically a nobody from out of state who’d pretty much stopped performing two months before I graduated from high school. Over the past seven years, I’ve played now and then for friends or an acquaintance who’s throwing a party, but that’s about it. These days I consider music a hobby, albeit one that I love. There’s nothing I enjoy more than spending a day playing or writing songs, even if my real life doesn’t leave me much time for it.
Funny thing happened, though, in my first ten days here. The first couple of shows went as expected, with a crowd that I assumed was typical for Bobby T’s. About half the seats were taken, most of the people there to enjoy the sunset, cocktails, and conversation while music played in the background. By my third show, however, every seat was filled, and I recognized faces from earlier shows. By the fourth time I stepped up, not only were all the seats filled but a handful of people were willing to stand in order to hear me play. Hardly anyone was watching the sunset at all, and I started to receive requests for some of my original songs. Requests for beach-bar classics like “Summer of ’69,” “American Pie,” and “Brown Eyed Girl” were common, but my music? Then, last night, the crowd spilled onto the beach, additional chairs were scrounged up, and they adjusted the speakers so everyone could hear me. As I began setting up, I assumed it was simply a Friday-night crowd, but the booker, Ray, assured me that what was happening wasn’t typical. In fact, he said, it was the largest crowd he’d ever seen at Bobby T’s.
I should have felt pretty good about that, and I guess I did, at least a little bit. Still, I didn’t read too much into it. After all, performing for tipsy vacationers at a beach bar with drink specials at sunset was a far cry from selling out stadiums around the country. Years ago, I’ll admit, getting “discovered” had been a dream—I think it’s a dream for everyone who loves performing—but those dreams gradually dissolved in the light of a newfound reality. I’m not bitter about it. The logical side of me knows that what we want and what we get are usually two entirely different things. Besides, in ten days, I’m going to have to head home to the same life I was leading before I came to Florida.
Don’t get me wrong. My real life isn’t bad. Actually, I’m pretty good at what I do, even if the long hours can be isolating. I’ve never been out of the country, I’ve never ridden on an airplane, and I’m only vaguely aware of recent news, mainly because talking heads bore the hell out of me. Tell me what’s going on in our country or around the world, talk about some issue of major political importance, and I promise to be surprised. Though it will likely offend some people, I don’t even vote, and the only reason I know the governor’s last name is because I once played in a bar called Cooper’s in Carteret County, near the North Carolina coast, about an hour from my home.
About that . . .
I live in Washington, a small town located on the banks of the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina, though many people refer to it as either Little Washington
or the Original Washington,
so as not to confuse my hometown with our nation’s capital, five hours to the north. As if anyone could possibly confuse them. Washington and Washington, D.C., are about as different as two places can possibly be, mainly because the capital is a city surrounded by suburbs and is a central hub of power, while my town is tiny and rural, with a supermarket named Piggly Wiggly. Fewer than ten thousand people reside there, and in my teen years I often found myself wondering why anyone would want to live there at all. For much of my life, I longed to escape as quickly as I could. Now, though, I’ve concluded that there are worse places for a guy to call home. Washington is peaceful and its people kind, the sort who wave to drivers from their porches. There’s a nice waterfront along the river with a couple of decent restaurants, and for those who like the arts, the town boasts the Turnage Theatre, where locals can watch plays performed by other locals. There are schools and a Walmart and fast-food restaurants, and weatherwise, it’s ideal. It snows maybe once or twice every second or third year, and the temperature in the summer is a lot more moderate than in places like South Carolina or Georgia. Sailing on the river is a popular pastime, and it’s possible for me to load the surfboard into the back of my truck on a whim and catch waves at the beach before I’ve even finished drinking my large to-go cup of coffee. Greenville—a smallish but actual city, with college sports teams and movie theaters and more-varied dining—is a quick jaunt up the highway, twenty-five minutes of easy driving.
In other words, I like it there. Usually, I don’t even think about whether I’m missing out on something bigger or better or whatever. As a rule I take things as they come and try not to expect or regret much. It might not sound all that special, but it works for me.
I suppose it might have something to do with my upbringing. When I was little, I lived with my mom and my sister in a small house not far from the waterfront. I never knew my father. My sister, Paige, is six years older than me, and the memories I have of my mom are hazy, blurred by the passage of time. I have a vague recollection of poking at a toad jumping through the grass and another of my mom singing in the kitchen, but that’s about it. She died when I was five, so my sister and I moved in with my aunt and uncle at their farm on the outskirts of town. My aunt was my mom’s much older sister, and though they’d never been all that close, she was our only living family. In their minds, they did what was necessary because it was also the right thing to do.
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