Nathan Cameron Wheeler
Sandpipers scampered in the tide as seagulls sailed above. Ryan held the bottle to the sun; a blowfly drowned in the last emerald swig. The bottle clinked against their empty fellows in a plastic shopping bag, a soon-to-be sea turtle booby trap when mistaken for a jellyfish. Aside him Claudette, slick with oil in her two-piece, fanned herself with a John Grisham novel; reclining on a beach foldout, sunglasses slow-branded the evening’s raccoon eyes. That Friday morning, witness to wading in knee-high surf, their sandy beach towels, and Ryan’s breakfast of solar-warm beer, was drawing to a close. The sun reached its zenith. He motioned to Claudette. The couple collected their things and scaled the dunes to the hotel beyond.
After checking in at the lobby, they discovered the elevator was out of order, and so they climbed the stairs to the thirteenth floor where Claudette, who lived in sportswear, rested for a moment before racing inside, past the kitchenette and complimentary bar, toward the balcony, throwing open the sliding glass doors—in a cheap Julie Andrews—only to find the ocean view obstructed by a seagull assault along the railing, the floor, and the walls. She stood aghast momentarily and then her eyes followed a Wonderbread wrapper circling inside a tiny funnel cloud in the corner, torn through, every morsel pecked clean; lone evidence of the previous occupants thoughtlessness. However the stench didn’t take the wind out of her sails; she turned round smiling wildly as the odor drifted through the room, passing her husband—causing him to gag—and out the front door. A whiff of low tide would complete his memory of a life at sea. He placed their bags down and grimaced into the tile before shutting the front door. Then he phoned the front desk; a hotel cleaning crew would remove the mess shortly. Would Ryan and his lovely wife be heading out soon? For lunch—after freshening up a bit, he said. Wonderful.
Daytona Beach wasn’t his idea of a weekend getaway, but Claudette booked the three-day rendezvous a month prior to the retirement and, after the car ride from Mayport earlier that morning, there wasn’t going to be a change of plans. Although the military had made Ryan obsess over the smallest details, complaining wasn’t worth the argument, so he kept a tight lip.
The Makai Polynesian Resort passed for a hotel because it had a pool and a beach view. Truth be told, there wasn’t anything Polynesian about it—aside from the Tiki road sign bearing down on the passing motorists of A1A. And you really couldn’t beat the price.
Newly retired Chief Petty Officer Ryan Bowditch despised Daytona Beach the same way he despised romantic comedies: He didn’t like bad jokes. His disdain was founded upon NASCAR racing, Bike Week, and other weekend warrior ventures to which the local Chamber of Commerce enticed the shock-and-awe knuckle draggers. Ryan found the recent marketing toward this demographic nauseating. Although there were other metropolitan areas countrywide where trash wasn’t the common denominator, in the case of Daytona, road marks of such reality was ubiquitous. He was blunt under most circumstances. He blamed the Bush election for America’s cultural about face as he watched the country turn from an Athenian model to a slack-jawed collection of gaseous know-and-do-nothings, but even he admitted privately that the faux Texas yokel was more the symptom than the cause. When Claudette had asked where he wanted to go after the retirement ceremony, he’d recommended a trip to scenic Cape Ann, Mass where a chance conversation with the garbage man might turn cerebral; Claudette was forever a party girl who loved Harleys and simple solutions to problems no matter the complexity, and so his opinion was ignored as it would be anyway because although Ryan also despised Florida summers, Claudette loved them and she was going to do what she was going to do.
For Ryan, sharks were another source of anxiety, albeit unrelated. They haunted him in random nightmares. He hadn’t found release from this sometimes-overbearing fear brought on by a childhood trauma periodically waking him in cold sweats.
Claudette reasoned the hotel was in Ormond Beach, which for all intents and purposes was Daytona; but since she landed a deal on the price (and he had to admit it was quite economical), Ryan shouldn’t worry about sharks and mediocre lodging. This was his weekend, she said, to relax and enjoy the spoils of twenty years of service.
Ryan sat on the bed, removing his flip-flops, kneading the carpet with his bare feet. He surmised a steam cleaning was long overdue. He sat there, elbows on knees, feeling the grime with his toes, and concluded that removing the sand and dirt might deliver a final blow to the carpet’s sixty-year life. The grime necessitated flips-flops; shipboard life had made him accustomed to shower shoes and he put them back on. A velvet painting of a Mako shark hung above the bed. The wild, unnatural colors exaggerated the predator’s expression. Ryan winced. The crashing waves outside sounded like a song long forgotten, and then morphed into a mechanized hum. They both showered individually and then headed out. Ryan craved a pulled pork sandwich.

The restaurant was south from the Makai Hotel on A1A—the road runs along Florida’s east coast from its origin in Fernandina Beach, ends in Key West. The place was a tacky eyesore in the heart of Daytona’s tourist district. That is to say, it fit. In keeping with the area’s general aesthetic, the roof was affixed with the letters BAR B Q the color of nuclear ketchup. The building was formerly an International House of Pancakes, but due to renovation costs going over-budget, the concealment was a failure.
The ceiling beams inside were a log cabin concave. A bucolic theme tinseled everything: The flatware, the picnic tables draped in red gingham. Smoked pork and homemade sauce filled the air. Through overhead speakers, abrasive teen starlets punctured the calm with Autotuned Top 40 standards, or mass-produced country music. Although Ryan had grown up on Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, he didn’t like the new breed. The way he saw things, Nashville had traded steel guitars and poetry for hairband power ballads, lyrics written on dinner napkins; the only distinction between pop music and country nowadays being that country singers sounded inebriated. Ryan recalled that barbecue spots of yesterday generally played classic rock or honky-tonk; the first decade of the new millennium saw those songs replaced by these plastic odes to an ambiguous downhome feeling expressed in bad poetry and sexualized children grown in some reclusive garden on Disney property. The soundtrack evoked an atmosphere of perpetual apathy and postmodern malaise. Ryan had given up drinking years ago. Considering the exponential growth in collective bad faith, he figured sobriety was worthy of jettison.
Camouflaged patrons dead-eyed their respective thoughts, slouching over tables, elbows balancing impatiently, arms at the ready for a bite off their Big Pig platter, filling the dining room like beached whales dressed in hunting gear. Ryan and Claudette waited in the lobby, the lone couple within a healthy bodyweight. Ryan maintained his physique by way of military training; Claudette juggled crash diets and smoked cigarettes the way other wives practiced yoga.
A contemporary ditty saturated the air, “My Daddy served in the army.” Ryan folded his arms. “Where he lost his right eye.” Ryan sighed, rolled his eyes. “But he flew a flag out in our yard, until the day that he died.”
“Jesus H. Christ,” he thought.
If Lee Greenwood started playing, Ryan may have broken the no smoking law right there in the lobby. Ryan eyed his wristwatch, pocketed his right hand. Claudette swayed back and forth swooning in her own denial that she was the same girl with the velvet ponytail and tear drop-ass twenty years past tense. Her eyes wandered marinating in a cocaine bump sneaked in the car. It helped her ignore the varicose veins on her legs and the crow’s feet that formerly appeared only when she laughed, but were now permanent.
Ryan didn’t approve of her little habit, though; considering his counter drug operations in the eastern Pacific. But she did one here and she did one there because she knew he wouldn’t say anything. He was past giving a damn. She knew the one thing they both could agree on was they were just about done trying to make it work. They had no children. Ryan had proposed the idea years ago; Claudette said a baby would ruin her figure and that was the end of it.
They were selective in their battles now. After the credit card charges to the Panamanian brothel appeared on the monthly statement, and Claudette’s Polaroids of compromising positions were found in the panty drawer, they felt mutually vindicated. They discarded expectations of picket fences, and God and country, and surrendered to the reality of gray hair, sore knees, and thrown out backs at the moment of orgasm.
Ryan was a pragmatist. As other men enjoyed nighttime visions of movie star blowjobs, Ryan curled into a deep slumber next to a woman who had become more of a roommate than a wife, and imagined reality extinguished in a righteous climax on the high seas. Since his retirement, departing the military physically able, the notion seemed resigned to fantasy, a source of regret.
The hostess, a lone mermaid in that gingham sea of whales, appeared finally and seated the couple at their table, handed them menus, and left without a word. Ryan appreciated the efficiency. Through the window overlooking A1A the sun was setting over Daytona Beach. He squinted, annoyed. An air conditioning vent poured out chilled air above. From the street outside, the warmth of the sun merged with the cool, creating a comfortable atmosphere. Nevertheless, Ryan grumbled on the unsteady bench.
Claudette sat opposite him smiling nervously. Their eyes met, and refocused on their surroundings. She fiddled with her gaudy bracelets, filed her fingers over her ears and repositioned the spaghetti straps of her dress.
“This is nice,” she said.
Ryan grumbled under his breath looking out the window. Between the traffic and the hotels, sea oats bended themselves like drunken sailors on the dunes. He squinted. The sun made the Atlantic a plain of fire and gold kindling his memory. He recalled his brother laughing on his surfboard and how, within a moment his expression shifted to horror as a shark descended on his thigh. He recalled his brother’s weight on his back, returning him to the sand, the body, quaking from shock, the bloody stump turning the beige sand into a maroon horror.
His vision refocused from the mess of sunspots. He blinked. The waitress, a big girl wearing an artificial smile, presented herself at the table with hands folded over a round apron gripping a pad and pen. Ryan paid her no mind and then, withholding disgust, she turned toward Claudette who again began readjusting her plastic bracelets embarrassed at her husband.
“Good evening. My name is Tammy Lynn and I will be your server tonight. Can I start you off with something to drink?”
Her pitch was like a third rate actress.
Claudette started in with a rush. “Jack and Coke, please. Honey?”
She looked at Ryan. Claudette and the waitress exchanged an uncomfortable pause while Ryan ran over the menu with his eyes.
“Iced tea,” he said.
“Ok, I’ll be right back with a Jack and Coke and an iced tea,“ she said.
Ryan snorted and cleared his throat. The waitress paused while he reconsidered his order. Ryan lowered the menu and glimpsed a family of five seated across from them. He recognized them from outside where they had parked their truck while Claudette was powdering her nose. How the tailgate of their jalopy was secured with a piece of worn rope, and the bumper, swinging loose, seeming to flaunt its illegal status, was decorated with a values checklist: Yellow ribbon magnet, POW/MIA sticker, a novelty Terrorist Hunting permit, and America Bless God. Ryan had always hated a suck ass, but spiritual sycophantic pandering was beyond the pale.
The father, around mid-thirties, brandished Scots-Irish heritage by way of a sun burnt neck curtained by ringlets of sweat-greased mullet: An all American blow hard patriot in a sleeveless, second-rate USMC t-shirt barely hidden underneath a barbecue-stained Dickie’s buttondown. Ryan traced the man with his eyes and recalled his own father (who masked a draft dodge to Vietnam behind an enrollment in college) who, years later, after a History Channel marathon documentary of the Tet Offensive suddenly spoke with authority on matters of the field (the reality of his life consisting of credit card debt, an aboveground swimming pool and type II Diabetes). Ryan, a mere child during the Sixties, remembers the day he asked his father about his military service and learned the bad news: His father never served. Ryan felt obligated to enlist on his eighteenth birthday, his resentment at what he saw as an inequity of the system bolstered his sense of duty for its own sake. The scorn toward those who didn’t serve—yet would lead you to believe they did by way of superficial support of our troops—was founded on this societal free pass: That while other men were dragged into the blood-soaked swamps of southeast Asia—some never to return—a man like his father could brag for the rest of his life that, even though he hadn’t gone to Vietnam, he had contributed to the cause of freedom because he was born with the financial means to do so in his own way and now had the luxury of reviewing what he had missed in the comfort of his living room by way of summer blockbusters and war porn accompanying the standard cable package. This was only the half of it; nothing contorted Ryan’s face like his father’s third person narratives of life in the military. But society enabled this pathetic excuse because—generally, as Ryan saw it—the people who told the story had learned how to tell it by way of the same cowardly dodge.
Ryan’s inspection continued: The man was unshaven as was his wife. Little Billy, the youngest and most unkempt of the brood, sat next to his gargantuan wolfmother and rearranged the salt and peppershakers, then grabbed at whatever hadn’t yet been taken away. Noah, the middle boy, sat in between his sister Jasmine, fifteen and with all the acne and crooked teeth commonplace with the age. The man retrieved an enormous wad of greenbacks from his breast pocket and placed them on the table. He counted: twenty, forty, sixty. He became quiet after sixty, his eyes betraying his embarrassment. Ryan smiled imagining the man hadn’t counted by twos in a while, perhaps ever. Their eyes connected and Ryan smiled and let the man look away after him. Ryan hadn’t fought a man in over a decade; his eyes were an adequate substitute where fists might stand in for other men. He scowled into his menu and then smiled returning to the waitress.
“No,” he said.
“Excuse me?”
“A beer.”
The waitress struggled to maintain her patient demeanor.
“We have a wide variety of both import and domestics right here,” she pointed to the beverage column on the menu. Ryan raised his eyes at her ample bosom, the skin nearly transparent. She wasn’t a sunbather. Her complexion resonated a commonality between them: He, too, felt like the living dead.
“Just a beer, thanks. You choose the flavor,” Ryan said.
“I’ll have that right out for you,” she said and left.
Claudette glanced behind her at the family.
“Why are you such an asshole, Ryan?”
His mouth quartered a grin, his eyes darting beyond.
“Excuse me, brother,” he said.
The man pointed to himself. Ryan’s grin broke into a full display of teeth.
“Yes, you, sir. I couldn’t help but notice your patriotism displayed on your Chevy parked outside. I recently retired myself. In what branch did you serve?”
The man fumbled about with his child who was busy opening all the Sweet ‘N Lows into a mountain on the table.
“Oh, well I,” caught off guard he continued. “My brother-in-law’s cousin is in the Iraq right now and—“
“Afghanistan,” the wolfmother corrected him.
“Yea, the Afghanistan and I-“
“It’s Afghanistan, not the Afghanistan,” she corrected him again.
“Yes, that’s right, honey,“ he seemed mortified to continue.
“You make it sound like it’s some kinda field. It’s a whole country,” she said.
“So,” Ryan said. “You’ve never served, then? Worn a uniform?”
“No, sir, but I support the troops,” the man said revealing his t-shirt first, then brandishing a shiny belt buckle with a brass rendering of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. He paused either relieved as if he’d won a prize, or awaiting validation.
“And we appreciate your support.”
The man’s face reddened like a tomato just before gravity pulls it to earth. His children stared at him. Little Billy began to cry. The couple began squabbling over random grievances. Ryan refocused on Claudette who rummaged through her purse. Staring down at the contents inside, she shook her head.
“Was that really necessary?”
“Absolutely,” Ryan said. “It was a fair question.”
Claudette reflected back on the family, turned to Ryan and frowned. Ryan unraveled the fork, knife, and spoon from his napkin and began laying them out on the table. He picked up the knife and lazily pointed it toward the family.
“The way I see it,” he paused as the waitress returned and placed a beer and a small glass of cola with a red stirring straw on the table. Ryan nodded to the waitress as she retrieved a notepad and pen from her apron.
“Pulled pork sandwich,” he said throwing the menu closed like a good book.
“I’ll have a salad. Thank you,” Claudette said. She gathered the menus, smiled, and handed them off to the waitress.
“Did you want regular or curly fries, sir?”
Ryan was deep in thought.
“Regular,” he said.
“You want slaw or baked beans?”
Ryan paused.
Claudette frowned.
“No—damnit—slaw, slaw!”
The waitress nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.
“The way I see it, we have the freedom to say what we want in this country for better or worse. This also gives us the freedom to hear what other people think about what we have to say, and sometimes we won’t like it. I know a guy like that probably makes elusions all day that he served in the military somewhere. I mean, look at that stupid terrorist-hunting sticker. What a badass.”
“It’s just a joke,” Claudette said.
“I thought jokes were supposed to be funny,” he placed the napkin in his lap and took a sip of beer. “No. I know what that candyass shit means. He probably cries all day at work about how we should be at war and he’d go too if he weren’t such a fat ass, or had bad knees, or whatever. I’ve heard all the excuses. This is while he’s eating a McDonald’s number three combo with a Diet Coke. No, no. He’s a chicken-hawk, the worst kind of American.” Pausing briefly he added, “Assuming he has a job, of course.”
Claudette removed a compact from her purse and stood up from the table.
“I am glad you can amuse yourself, baby. You didn’t have to say that in front of his kids. Whatever. I am going to the ladies’ room.”
Ryan folded his hands as if to pray, leaned back and admired the beach scene outside.
“Better they learn now. Showboating chickenhawk,” he mumbled.
The waitress busied herself about the restaurant. Ryan surveyed her skill. She was a real Southern girl with ham hock thighs matching a dumpster truck ass, undoubtedly attributed to a childhood raised on Drape soda, pork rinds, and all the bottom shelf Froot Hoops a girl could eat. He admired the honesty of the obesity. Nothing could annoy him more than a waitress hired for her Playboy body, yet who was inept in her charge. He had seen enough hot ass during his twenty years in the Navy to last a lifetime. He was older now. If he wanted to invest in the spank bank he would have just b-lined it to a titty bar. The town practically shook from all the high heels grinding on so many tables.
He was here for a pulled pork sandwich. He hated the trend in BBQ joints applying such gimmicks, hiring girls on their looks alone. Illusions were transparent. These establishments requested perspective waitresses with the girl next-door look yet lacking in service industry experience. This term implied fantasy; the reality too often being a flirtatious and fun, albeit nail-biting, neurotic: all American, beautiful, but an on-all-fours-slut behind closed doors; the lucky guy might be you if she’s tipped well.
Claudette returned to the table with a renewed enthusiasm for the evening. She inhaled through her nose, violently.
“Shit. I thought the big girl would have our food out by now,” she said.
She placed her pocketbook on the floor and folded her arms, resting them on the table, and smiled.
“So, Ryan. How does it feel to be a free man?”
He stared back at her.
Outside the A1A palm trees swayed in the late July evening.
* * *
“Does this dress make me look fat?” Claudette asked.
The glow of the television danced off the sequins like a party light. It didn’t compliment when it was put together, circa 1994, but especially didn’t flatter now, covering a matronly figure and skimming the floor in an abrasive fire engine red.
“Your ass makes you look fat.”
“Asshole,” she stepped back into the bathroom.
Ryan channel surfed on the bed, opened a beer and took a long draft. Channel two was the local news. Channel four was local access, an entire hour purchased by an area cult, piquing Ryan’s interest. Synthesized trumpets played over low budget graphics of a dread-locked, muscular Jesus, as if on a steroid cycle, triumphantly raising an enormous pyramid over his head. Ryan tilted his head, rapt with interest. It was hard to discern the cult’s angle: Blending the confidence of the Nation of Islam with Messianic fervor, a shake of Pentecostal spice and membership at the local library. Soon the buffed Christ-figure faded. A woman wearing a towel on her head appeared and instructed him to get out his Bible along with two pencils, a thesaurus and a Webster’s dictionary; he ignored the order, took another sip of beer. She began a diatribe about prophets, slavery, and the coming of the Lord. She made blanket statements concerning heretics, offering assurances that she was, in fact, not one herself.
“What is this?” he said. Claudette was in the bathroom teasing her hair and stepped into the room.
“Did you say something?”
No answer.
She began pacing about with a brush in her hair oblivious to the television. Next to the woman more graphics appeared as if suspended in a computer generated spaceland. An animated dictionary and thesaurus appeared beside two pencils. The program began to take the shape of a Saturday morning special.
“Why don’t we stop at one of those surf shops and rent a board for tomorrow?” Claudette said.
The framed Mako seemed to snarl at him from above the headboard.
“Where are we going tonight again?”
“It’s a little cigar bar over the intercostal. It’s the jazz one. You’ll love it.”
This meant that she would love it. Ryan rolled his eyes and looked back at the screen. The woman continued.
“We are the chosen people. Praise the Lord.”
She smiled back at Ryan on the edge of the bed, gazing into his eyes.

Across the Broadway Bridge was Katty’s Place, a shoeboxed sized shithole with a jazz trio playing pop songs. Katty’s Crew, the name written in black electric tape on a lonely bass drum—which sat idle like a piece of furniture behind the three odd members spilling out music with all the enthusiasm of a doped up junky—didn’t seem to notice anyone in the bar as they played. The Crew’s only member who seemed alive at all was the keyboardist, an old black man, and even he seemed to agonize over the notes as he pressed them into the Casio. The word jazz was used loosely.
A strange interpretation of “Moon River” drew to a close as Ryan and Claudette arrived. The keyboardist wore a cowboy hat. A saxophone player wearing a turtleneck sweater and coke bottle glasses grinded a dentist’s nightmare in between notes. Rounding out the Crew was a fellow who tickled a vibraphone with felt-tipped mallets. His ancient disposition suggested he might die within the hour. The Crew’s covers were third rate, but they had first rate passion, in that they moved so everyone knew they were still breathing. Claudette was ecstatic; her smiled untamed.
Above the bar were neon lights in blue, red, and green, intended to give the place a seedy, speakeasy feel; when presented together with the session band, bathed the place in a cheap beer sadness. Ryan and Claudette found two open seats at the bar and ordered drinks.
“So, what do you think, babe?” Claudette had snorted coke in the car; for a piece of low hanging fruit, this was a cultural experience and she swung to and fro, and the Crew began playing “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Ryan hummed the lyrics, the words a personal hymnal for those years at sea, and retirement daydreams of life on easy street, and visions shuttered like mood lighting in his head. Always light, always color; the two defined a fantasy of terminal leave. Then everything would settle into carefree existence, backyard barbeques and slip-on shoes.
Look over yonder. What do you see? The sun is arising. Most definitely…Ain’t it beautiful? Crystal Blue Persuasion.
With Claudette in is his periphery, lipstick on her teeth, she leaned over and planted a kiss. Ryan felt a fleeting affection, but opened his eyes at the frilly hairdo, the dated eveningwear; the song ended and he felt the usual revulsion.
“Wasting away again in Margarittaville,” the man sang, his hands outstretched, Christ-like, as if he were to embrace the whole bar. “Bartender,” he hollered. “Fire me up a tequila smoothie!”
The older man wore an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans. The young woman wore a white sundress with a matching carnation in her hair. By all outward appearances she might have been his daughter, following behind him more an accessory than companion, but as she smiled in tote like a one-woman fan club, it became obvious that she was the one remarkable piece to his whole ensemble: noble trophy wife. They sat down next to Claudette and Ryan and struck up conversation. May and Michael Shanahan were from Albany, New York. Ryan soon concluded Michael’s character left as much to be desired as his wardrobe.
“I’m twenty-four today,” May said.
Michael’s eyes were glassy. This wasn’t the first bar of the evening.
“Twenty-four is definitely an age worth bragging about,” Ryan said.
As far as Ryan was concerned, May was the best thing to happen to the evening. He had no expectations except the far-flung hope that she would get drunk enough to take off her sundress and dance on the bar in her underwear before her husband threw her over his shoulder and back to whatever hotel they were staying. It was an arranged marriage. Michael owned a family bar in New York.
Michael suggested the billiard room for a game of pool and his shameless glaring at Claudette made for an awkward confederacy between May and Ryan. Claudette was game. She was a walking celebration (incidentally her problem throughout life). Ryan declined the offer as his shoulders embraced the possibility of an alcoholic diversion. Michael and Claudette sauntered off arm in arm. Ryan shrugged.
“I don’t like pool either,” May said.
She leaned back against the bar. The neon painted her eyes in feline; her eyelashes moved like butterflies. Her face was Gaelic porcelain and held a beachday afterglow in a sharp pink and, to Ryan, was a roadside marquee previewing her sex-toy body on display seated at the barstool through the thin sundress. She smelled of Hawaiian Tropic under a blanket of aloe vera.
“It’s not pool,” he said.
He could see Claudette bent over racking the balls slowly, her cleavage in full view while Michael nodded in approval. They looked like a magazine advertisement for a liquor company that went over budget and couldn’t hire age-appropriate models for the shoot. Ryan shrugged back into the bar and signaled another drink. May searched for a new topic.
“Great band,” she said and folded her arms.
“Reminds me of a Filipino cover band I heard once in Jebel Ali. Had a female singer who was mentally retarded. The Filipinos were better,” Ryan said.
“Well, I don’t mean to say I like them,” she said.
She punched his shoulder. His eyes lifted enough to view the smiling butterflies and then resumed their previous posture. She crooked her mouth, rolling her eyes.
“This place is better than my husband’s bar.”
Ryan’s face brightened a bit.
“Oh yea?”
“Yea. I like the name.”
Ryan spun around on the stool.
“What? Katty’s? Who the hell is Katty?”
Ryan searched the bar for Katty. May chuckled into her palm and pointed to a framed black and white of a somber and fat woman over the bar. Underneath the portrait, written in three-strand manila was the single word: KATTY.
“No. I like the name of my husband’s bar,” May said.
Her husband, he thought. Ryan leaned back into the poolroom. Claudette and Michael were engaged in an improvised lesson, the two alternating roles as teacher-student. He leaned back. May watched the scene presently as well. She seemed transfixed by the two. The band began to play “Lonesome Town.”
“So, what’s the name?” Ryan said.
“Tir na nog,” she said. Her eyes remained fixated on the poolroom. Pausing, she smiled anew and flagged down the bartender.
“Sounds like egg nog. I like it.” Ryan said.
“It’s the Irish afterlife or something. Michael’s father opened it back in the forties. The English translation is Summerland.”
“Summerland?” he asked.
“It’s like the Irish heaven. Where people go when they die. A land of eternal youth and happiness,” she said. “Funny thing is the customers are far from young and they’re definitely not happy. We have a happy hour, two for one. Can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone there who was happy. Most of the happy hours end in the parking lot.”
Ryan chuckled.
“Sounds like it is full of potential Florida transplants.”
“I thought everyone in this state was a transplant.”
“Most are. Some aren’t.”
“Like you, I’m guessing.”
“Born and raised.”
“Well, doesn’t every one deserve to live the easy life?”
Ryan looked out over the bar: a sun-dried creature sipping a bamboo beverage crowed on and on about welfare lines and undeserving Puerto Rican immigrants. Ryan grimaced and threw back a shot of whiskey.
“No. These people haven’t earned it. They think because they watch reality make over shows or catch glimpses of the fighting overseas while they sit in their Rooms-to-go living room set, their moral support somehow suffices—like they actually sacrificed anything beyond a trip to the toilet. Rarely have they done anything that warrants moving down here to my state and living like a goddamn slob.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you really think?”
Ryan clipped the end off a cigar and lighted it with a match.
“So, I assume Summerland isn’t your cup of tea?” she asked.
“Honey, there is no Summerland. Not now, not in the afterlife. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can enjoy life.”
He grasped his beer and took a drink.
“And I don’t drink tea.”
May followed his hands as they folded into his arms. She smiled.
“Well, you seem to be enjoying life to the fullest,” she said sipping her drink. “Can’t you just imagine what a beautiful place it would be? The ancients used to say it could be reached by water. I guess this gave them comfort when a child would drown in a lake or river,” she said.
“After two decades in the canoe club, I’m not much for water.”
The large mirror along the bar reflected Ryan back to him: he was old, May, beautiful. Ryan seemed to engage in the game men sometimes play with each other. May’s hand rested on his knee relieving his brief trance. The bartender paused and held his nose up like a dog catching a scent and followed it to Ryan’s cigar.
“Sir,” he said. “We have a no smoking policy.”
Ryan looked at May as if for moral support.
“I thought this was a cigar bar.”
“It used to be. We call ourselves a jazz bar now. It’s against the law to smoke in a Florida restaurant.”
“Don’t you have to sell food?” he asked.
“We serve bar food,” the bartender said.
He handed May a flimsy menu of fried side dishes. Ryan peaked over her shoulder into the menu.
“Bar food? Jesus Christ, pal. This is a twelve-dollar cigar. What do you expect me to do with it?”
The bartender rested his hands on the mahogany, his face forlorn.
“You can put it out or smoke it on our back patio, but not here,” he said.
“It’s a nice night,” May said, again resting her hand on Ryan’s. “Let’s go outside. I’ll keep you company.”
The bartender balanced a smile awaiting Ryan’s decision.
“All right, fine. I just hope I can hear the Crew outside,” Ryan said.
The bartender, relieved, began drying a glass with a rag
“They are good, aren’t they?” he said
“If by good you mean awful, yes, yes they are.”
The bartender’s smile folded. Ryan and May passed through the poolroom toward the patio. Claudette and Michael were beyond what one would call high spirits. Their noses shared evidence of at least one bathroom break. Michael wasn’t shy about leering at Claudette while adjusting his crotch, seeming to make him grin uncontrollably. He leaned over to Ryan.
“ A hell of a shark you got here, Chief!”
Michael tapped his shoulder in ‘at-ah-boy-style. A decade earlier Ryan may have defended Claudette’s honor by opening a beer bottle over Michael’s head; tonight he was merely befuddled by the crass free spirit possessing the two. Besides, Ryan figured Claudette didn’t have much honor left to defend. May passed by with a schoolgirl wink.
Crickets hummed along the shoreline. They found a table on the boardwalk overlooking a skyline still blanketed in twilight’s pink fluff. Pulling the wooden bench out, they seated themselves, backs toward the table. A flock of egrets bounded over them. They watched for a moment then looked at each other after the last bird had vanished.
“Sorry about my wife,” Ryan said.
“She’s ok. She’s just having a good time.”
“You don’t think she’s being inappropriate?”
Ryan holstered his cigar in his mouth and folded his arms.
May mimicked him and leaned back on the table. She smiled and brushed his arm with her own: “No. I don’t care. My Michael is just as bad.”
Ryan took a drag off the cigar; the smoke plumed in the air. May coughed and banished the smoke with a slight of hand.
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“No,” she said.
“I’ve never loved him and he’s never loved me. He’s more of an Uncle than anything. I mean, look at him. What an ass.”
Through the window Ryan spied Michael doing the chicken dance to the delight of an hysterical Claudette.
“The marriage was a kind of feudal arrangement,” May said.
“That’s an interesting way to put it.”
“Isn’t it? I like it. Sounds much more romantic than the reality.”
Ryan rested the cigar between his fingers. May’s eyes bore an intuitive commonality as she gazed into his deeply.
“Plus,” she said. “I know something he doesn’t know.”
Ryan’s face grazed her cheek, her breath tickling his ear.
“What’s that,” Ryan asked. His gut pounded with anticipation. He imagined the weekend culminating in rampant sex with a woman half his age, a woman still filled with the wonder of life who could excite the dormant passion welded up within him by years on earth, years of life trapped in a human body. They would live together. They would be happy. They would have children. One of the children would look just like her and Ryan would proudly watch her march across a graduation stage all pomp and circumstance. He would usher her down the center of a church and offer her to a gentleman who would give her the world. He had found heaven on earth. He listened. He waited to hear the first beautiful sentence in a long, wonderful road toward happiness.
“I will be dead within a year,” she said.
“That’s all the time I need,” he said.
He grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her.
* * *

The new sun over the Atlantic shot through the curtains like a cosmic flashlight. Ryan balanced on his elbows and cleared his sinuses into the bed linen. Grabbing the cigarette pack off the nightstand, he shook out a filter onto his lips and surveyed the expendable hotel room. Where the hell did all the confetti come from? he wondered. The confetti covered everything: Each level surface in between beer bottles and condom wrappers. His wife lay next to him, her face turned away. The waves outside hushed through the balcony door creating a morning reveille to leave housewives smitten. He leaned over and touched her shoulder and felt a cold, leather-texture. The skin relayed lifelessness in its quiet declaration. He squeezed the flesh; then again, and finally pulled Claudette on her back revealing a brain hemorrhage smeared on the pillow and face like a soused circus clown.
At first startled and shivering, he sat up in the bed and looked at the popcorn ceiling. A deep drag off his cigarette righted his nerves. Anticipating a day like no other, he rose and covered himself with a pair of Miller High Life board shorts. Claudette’s face reflected back from the mirror above the television set, unsurprisingly still very dead. Ryan returned to his reflection and removed a piece of pork wedged in between his canine and premolar with a strand of floss. He sneezed, sending an army of dark yellow soldiers towards the mirror devastating the clear shine. Regarding himself stoically, he stepped back and grabbed Claudette’s towel off the chair and threw it over his shoulders. He was now caped in a large Confederate flag. He winced, grabbed his cigarettes, and headed out the door.
He found a quiet spot on an incline of dunes. His wife, dead in the hotel room, faded away over the waves perpetual soothing. Such a perfect day, he thought. The tranquility was fleeting as a man and a woman closed his location and the man drove a large umbrella into the sand with a mallet ten feet away. The woman found shade under the umbrella in a beach chair colored in a florescent pink as bright as the sun. They made their nest like a pair of hideous reptiles.
Once situated, the woman held her left arm in a ninety-degree angle to steady her bottle of Michelob Ultra with her pinky extended like a teacup, a classy touch to her otherwise rustic mess of feathered and frosted highlights. Ryan recalled with a grin how many ages had passed when a haircut like that was fashionable. She wore a pair of Oakley wrap-around shades, the lenses tinted opal, like a landscaper. She wore a romper outfit that seemed to come with a complementary kangaroo pouch and the two huddled around a cooler wrapped in NASCAR bumper stickers like a sick Christmas joke. All it needed was a bow.
The one-standout to their whole encampment was the brand new surfboard the man had plugged into the sands behind them. The woman began speaking to her husband with such a harsh volume Ryan thought for a moment she was speaking to him.
“You gonna try that thing out?” she said.
The man began waxing the surfboard.
“I’m gonna read my book,” she continued.
Ignoring her, he walked toward the water and paddled out. He looked like a three-legged dog on the waves. Ryan witnessed the man’s lack of prowess on the stick with schadenfreude. He was tossed about and thrown up by King Neptune again and again. This happened about eight times, perhaps more. Ryan liked to think it wasn’t more than eight. He couldn’t take much more of it. The man would fall off, becoming submerged in the breaks. His wife, sipping her beer in between a copy of The Fountainhead and a Virginia Slim, raised her eyes and contorted her face into a kind of Halloween mask façade, her mouth hanging open just long enough to allow a string of saliva to drip down below her chin. Ryan was going to laugh, but he was tired of laughing.
The man returned to the encampment just as Ryan was enjoying the silence, and the two of them started at each other: He asked if she’d paid the cable bill and turned off the coffee maker before they left for the airport; she snarled back that she couldn’t remember everything and how the previous evening’s drinking had ruined her vacation. Just as suddenly, the argument ceased and they shot dinner ideas back and forth.
I hope they are both killed tonight, Ryan thought and pulled out his pack of cigarettes, lighting one. The smoke and burn felt good. He thought that if he hadn’t lit one up right then and there they would both have to die.
“I’m getting a sandwich,” the man said. He left the woman alone on her beach chair. She scanned the horizon. Ayn Rand had lost her attention as her eyes fell on Ryan. He stared at her, expressionless.
“Why don’t you take a picture?” she said.
Ignoring the rhetorical question, Ryan spied the horizon. There was a sailboat in the distance and two brothers were seated on surfboards, their silhouettes awaiting the next set of waves. He heard the sound of children splashing in the water, but they were obscured behind the pounding sunlight. A teenage couple walked by holding hands. In the distance he saw a sandbar and beyond it the slow, rolling surge of a spectacular set. He at once stood up and walked over to the surfboard while his eyes remained locked on the horizon.
“Can I help you?” the woman said.
Ryan studied the board up and down, grazed his hands upon its slick sides and noted the ineffective wax job.
“This needs more wax,” he said.
“I don’t care. My husband will be back soon. He’s getting a sandwich.”
“I heard.”
Ryan knelt down and grasped a bar of surf wax half-buried in the sand and placing it under his nose, inhaled the false coconut. He raised his eyes into the sun. The white heat blanketed the sky and burned away all but one cloud shaped like a lion. Then a gust of sea breeze erased it into a shapeless mess.
“Look, Mister: I don’t know what you’re on, but my husband’s gonna be back here soon and he doesn’t like weirdoes.”
Ryan closed his eyes and smiled, his face burning in the Florida sun. The woman fell back into her book between sips of her beer and glances at Ryan. Her feet flirted with the sand. Ryan held the board steady at the nose with his left hand and began rubbing the wax on the platform. The woman stared up at Ryan again.
“My husband—”
“Your husband,” Ryan said. “Isn’t going to be back in time.” He tucked the board under his arm and gazed across the ocean. Then he noticed an open beer on the cooler sweating in the umbrella’s shade. Smiling, he shook his head and snatching it up, downed its contents in one gulp.
“That’s my husband’s, you son of a bitch!” she said.
Ryan finished the bottle and gasped.
“Not anymore.”
He volleyed the bottle onto the sand and again knelt down, fixing the leash to his ankle and rising slowly, started towards the water.
“You son of a bitch! Bring that back!” she said.
Ryan double-timed it. He dove through oncoming troughs and caught air over the crests. He buried his fists into the ocean turning his fingers into webs as he returned them to the surface only to bury them again in a frenzy of self-propulsion. With each submerging into the oncoming sea, the woman’s howls became more faint and soon he reached the silent sandbar. He propped himself upright on the board and looked out over a vast beachfront panoramic. The woman was now nothing more than one of many details on a pointillism canvas. He breathed in the salty air and positioned the board shoreward as the first wave rolled toward him.
At eight feet with a steep crest, Ryan began to think this was the precursor to an underwater earthquake sure to throw a tidal wave over all of the east coast of Florida, drowning everyone. Paddling with the oncoming liquid fury he popped tall and tore through the lip then laid into the barrel and felt the freedom he had forgotten for so many years. He rode it out; rested back on the board and began a slow return to the sandbar. Upon arrival, the sea rested itself anticipating her next belch. Ryan smiled and threw salt water over his hair. A teenage boy rested on a Quiet Flight.
“Nice ride, Dad,” said the boy.
“Yes it was, shipmate,” Ryan said.
An unsaid fraternity was established. The next torrent approached the two and they positioned themselves.
“Watch this shit, homey,” said the boy and he began a gallop with his hands, his body lay prone against the board.
“My wave,” Ryan said.
The two rode in tandem. A flock of seagulls flew overhead like the fighter jets in Ryan’s former navy life and he and the boy high-fived each other just before the boy ditched. Ryan rode the crest a few more feet then dove headfirst into the seawater. Submerged Ryan felt the riptide tug at his foot and he scoffed at its meager bid for his life and scissored his legs away. Under the surface, momentarily his world was a precise wonder. In the deep green he was a perfect man devoid of transgression, forgiven. He held this ideal as long as his breath could stand it and then returned to the world above. The boy was paddling anew toward the sandbar.
“C’mon, Dad,” he said.
Ryan proned himself out on the board and followed. Again the silence of the sandbar was broken only by passing birds and the hushing exhaust of the waves on the beach.
“Dude, that was totally my wave,” said the boy.
Ryan smiled.
“Whatever, little doggie. Look lively! She’s bringing more,” Ryan said.
The ocean brought forth another swell.
“It’s all you, Pedro,” Ryan hollered.
The boy paddled over the swell and took off like a surface torpedo. His voice mingled with the ocean sound until it left Ryan quiet and alone. Seawater beaded his chest and back like small ice cubes melting in the sun and a calming peace settled over him. Here, over the edge of so many years, was the fulfillment of his life’s work. He would never leave this sandbar. He would live here with the sea. Over the waves toward the shore, he lost sight of his little companion, but he was finally content within himself. A pressure crushed upon his left hip like a jagged vice grip. He looked down and saw a shark creating a rough circumference over his hipbone and lower buttocks. The pain choked him out of paradise and seated him firmly on a stolen surfboard in the water of a Volusia County beach. He was alone, his wife lay dead in a shitty hotel room among the seedy grime of dick wrappers and body fluids. The rotting smell and flies would soon follow. He found himself embodying an old man beyond his years who was comforted in the arms of a beautiful young woman who provided him with fast food romance in a perfect world without judgment or predetermined lifestyle or the religion of restaurants marketed solely on the male erection. He found himself back in the ugliness of a world he had served in ways most can’t fathom. He had given up his youth so he could intern become subservient to men not half his worth. He became disembodied and saw a broken man married to a selfish drug addict and he could embrace this world with two fingers gauging at the eyes of the shark presently tearing at his flesh like a pair of rusty scissors. He placed his hands on the shark’s muzzle and stared at the creature’s dark unemotional eyes. The creature’s course skin suggested beauty and resolution and he let his hands away. The shark released him and disappeared below. Ryan was alone again, the gash draining his lifeforce like an oil slick. He sat motionless. He panned the area for other sharks and he spotted the final swell in the set, a graceful giant plowing headlong toward him. The pain bit hard at Ryan’s side, but he gnashed his teeth together and positioned the surfboard for flight. The swell charged under him. As he paddled, his skin grew cold as his blood exited with ever more swift escape. He popped his feet onto the board and crouched into a squat as his back dusted the barrel. The sun bore brighter with each moment; its warmth finding no residence in his body as the ride ended and Ryan, swallowed into the sea, was underneath, victorious. Through the dark green Jacob’s ladders bounced off the slick, gray bodies fast approaching. Summerland was near.


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