Candy On The Pier (excerpt from Shellback, A Novel)


My first deployment was a Mediterranean—a Med we call it—which is short for a Persian Gulf deployment because that’s where you’re headed. I was nineteen years old; turned twenty somewhere in the Atlantic. Those chum friends I mentioned showed up on the day of departure to see me off. I’d asked them to come; didn’t think they’d actually show. In those days, you just sent a list of people to the front of the base and security’d match names to IDs and let them through. This was the ‘90s. With such lax security buffers, in hindsight it amazes me that terrorism waited until the 21st century to earn its own war.
The shortlist is as follows:
Budd and Chris McConnell, bickering brothers who disputed surf wax and surfing spots, and holidays, who Mom loved more, and who settled their arguments with bruised shoulders, lived in their affluent parents’ beach house on A1A. The parents owned a pizzeria.
Steve “Fry-Guy” Howell was the McConnell’s slovenly neighbor—or, least I think he was their neighbor (I was never entirely clear how they knew each other). I also wasn’t clear how Fry-Guy, who earned the nickname by way of a sloppy buzz-cut (self-shaved in autumn, not touched until Spring Break) that forced his head into a tennis ball shape, fit in with the group. He didn’t surf, was unemployed—a personality that was unemployable in most settings, and he was, therefore predictably and eternally broke. In hindsight, he stood as a sort of embodiment of failure. Perhaps he was the Lord’s road sign reminding all of us to be grateful for what he had and who we weren’t; and who we were being Fry-Guy. He resembled a sweaty toad wearing discounted Billabong sweats and concert t-shirts from knock. Years later, he ended his life with a bottle of vodka and roughly sixty Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules under the pier in Cocoa Beach. This was right after being fired at Ron Jon Surfshop; rumor has it he was caught masturbating in the women’s dressing room. That’s life.
Then the lovely Candy Shegda, the toe-headed surf chick with the sun kissed mocha skin; always stoned and beautiful, always smelling of cocoanut and aloe, exciting and gorgeous in her sandy locks, her brown skin, ever piercing eyes, shoal blue and feline, ever staring at the thirsty sun. In her ultra-short denim—sad camouflage for a sandy and perfect roundness that wouldn’t sit still—her bronzed arms and legs, shaped by the intimate hand of God Almighty, adorned a shapely violin that sang siren songs when plucked. When she’d address me, I felt like the last man standing at the end of the world; I’m pretty sure she had the same affect on most men.
I bumped into her at a convenience store a week or so after we met. I waited in line with a six-pack of beer. She sauntered in wearing pink short-shorts, a spaghetti strapped bikini top, flip-flops exposed shiny, pastel toenails. Oblivious to the busy surrounding of the store, she approached the Good Humor cooler, pulled her golden locks behind her ears. She folded her bottom lip, biting down with her teeth and perching her index finger on the side of her mouth as she studied the frosted glass for a Push-up and a Fudgecicle. Her posture was intentionally suggestive with her finger cleft to the corner of her mouth, her other hand on her hip, with her left leg buckled, right leg at the bend, forcing her rump to push-out as if to scream her glorious rear endowment. There were two landscapers waiting in front of me with bags of pork rinds and some Natural Light, a blond and a brunette. The blond was busy yelling at his three year old in the candy aisle; the brunette shamelessly examined Candy’s shape up and down, back to front like a car he might buy.
“God damn, girl,” he licked his lips.
Candy turned round, as if to rebuff the offense, saw me, and wrote it off.
“Hey, you! Staunch, right?” she said.
“That’s right, Staunch,” she said grabbing the frozen novelties carelessly and joining me in the queue.
The blond self-styled renegade, rendered impotent by Candy’s indifference, paid for his wears and left shaking his head in failure. Funny how that kind of angle never works.
Standing behind me, we talked about this and that: Ponce Inlet, Sebastian; she scribbled her number on a book of matches, and just when I believed romance was in bloom, she told me that I knew Ricky and we should all hang out sometime. I drank the six-pack in the parking lot, went back in the store and bought another six and that’s all I remember about that night.
Old Ricky Travis, a redneck surfer with a chiseled torso and bleached hair, tied the group together in a ramshackle confederacy. Ricky’d start fights with anyone and had a pocketful of stories about UFOs and Satanic cults he’d willingly spin to a bendable ear. Ricky and I met on the beach when I was 16 and he was 19; he had this hot sister—who I got involved with briefly right before I met Roseanna (and right after Ricky punched me in the nose for the audacity). He had a collection of Doobie Brothers’ records that he’d play at full volume when he drank. And he drank a lot; Old Milwaukee, Stroh’s, he wasn’t a millionaire. He worked landscaping through high school and founded a company of his own later on, named it Chewy’s Landscaping. He drove an old Tropic Traveller van, and after he started Chewy’s he used it to advertise, a big car magnet on the side with the company logo atop a cartoon goat eating grass. When I spotted the van parking outside the pier gates, I was standing on the forecastle. I was excited to sail on my first deployment; even more so when I saw the old gang from Daytona there to see me off. Preperations were still being made to set the sea and anchor detail; in the middle of the frenzy to make ready the ship for departure, I snuck off the forecastle, down the gangway, to make sure they didn’t have any problems getting on the pier. BM1 Curtis, his Dixie cup dipped sideways in his dress whites, didn’t notice me as he barked orders. When I reached the guardshack, I found Candy and the rest of the crew surprisingly sober waiting patiently queued with the Navy wives with their stroller-bound babies in single file. A fence wrapped around Mayport’s horseshoe-shaped turning basin where the ships were moored; the guardshacks acted as funnels for pedestrian traffic. I sat down on a utilities riser and waited for them to breach the sentry. Ricky saw me there, smiled and waved, nudged Candy who did the same to Budd and so on and so forth. With their vacant collective grins, flip-flops and cut-off shorts, they looked like a band of pirates. The sentry sized them up, panning between their IDs and faces, and then the IDs were returned and each one of the merry band skipped on through the gate.
Ricky high-fived my hand.
“Holy shit, brah. That ship’s fucking huge,” he said staring up at the superstructure wide-eyed, arms akimbo like he’d just stepped into a vast amusement park.
Candy stepped to the side and sat down next to me on the riser. Over her shoulder slung a macramé purse; training her eyes on the ship, she took out a cigarette and lighted it. She took a drag, exhaled through her nostrils like a beautiful dragon.
“’Sup, Staunch. You goin’ drive that thing down south?” she said.
She spoke coarsely with a slightly masculine lilt, implying a reticence toward her own feminine sensuality and running with it, going against the grain of that which was innate. I chalked this up to the company she kept.
“If they let me.”
“Staunch!” BM1 Curtis spotted me on the pier, hollering from the forecastle. “Get up here before you miss movement!”
I said my goodbyes, thanked everyone for seeing me off, and returned to the forecastle.
Pier operations secured the gangway with four shackles, the rigger stepped onto the pier, and signaled to come-up on the controls, hoisting it high in the air and spinning the weighted brow around gently as if it were a feather resting it calmly on the pier. With the shore power cables removed, the brow secured, the order was given from the pilot house to single-up all lines, like clockwork the line detail moved forward and aft heaving on the nylon lines. The orders echoed over the weatherdeck from the line captains and followed by an order to take in all lines and the last line was removed from the aft bollard by a scruffy shit for brains navy cook and cast into the water and a loud whistle was blown throughout the 1MC followed by, “Underway! Shift colors!” and the ensign was raised on the center mast and the tugs, one forward, one aft, pulled the ship off the pier and inched her into the center of the basin.
The crowd began to disperse. The shortimers waved off the suckers who had to keep the watch, gloating as it were, the women and children moved like a torrent of sorrows through the gate to the parking lot.
The ship passed the mouth of the harbor. The order was given to stow all lines below decks. First division began the arduous task. For a moment, I was mesmerized by the sight of those old friends as they became smaller and smaller on the pier in the distance. The McConnell brothers pushed and shoved each other; Ricky smoked a cigarette and wandered around looking at the cruiser moored forward where our ship had been, oblivious that I was leaving. But old Candy, I could see her face clearly, smiling and waving her arm, her dirty golden locks blowing in the dust of the pier, her whole body radiating the sun as if it were shining on her alone. And then she became smaller and the sun flared my vision, and I got hollered at for not paying attention and began to stow the lines with my shipmates. Smaller and smaller, the people became ants.
Candy wrote me a few times after that, her letters far more explicit and sensual than she’d ever spoken to me in person. She said she loved me and that Ricky was a loser. Ricky’s business was failing, he’d turned to heroin to cope and this made everything worse. She respected me for getting out of Daytona and for all intents and purposes making something of myself while the rest of the gang continued their lives as surfers, a lifestyle that in Daytona Beach would ultimately lead them to addiction and behind the register somewhere, if they weren’t lucky enough to mow lawns or steal copper.
By the middle of the deployment the letters stopped and when the ship arrived for homecoming six months later, there wasn’t anyone there to greet me. I took the duty blues for some seaman who had the bad luck of pulling duty the day of arrival, which fell on a Friday. The next morning I turned over the duty section on the flight deck and headed to Hannah Park to catch some early morning swells. Later that night I drank too many at Capt. Odie’s and broke a Marine’s nose. I stumbled down Mayport Road and crashed on the rack in berthing. The pillow and mattress normally felt like rocks; that night my rack felt like a cloud.


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