We should be buying a beach house, and picking out the chairs.
We should be attending soccer games, and our daughter’s growing up affairs.

We should be holding hands, and pecking each other’s cheeks.
We should be making love all night, and dreaming of it until the next time we meet.

You should have been my wife, and once, indeed, you were.
I should have been the man in your life, when your hair turns to pearl.

We should be loving each other; not regarding each other with hate.
But we each bid on another;
such is Love, such is grief, such is hate.

And yet, there’s still this love. I suppose will never abate.
For it’s you I’ll always dream of;
such is Love, such is life; such is Fate.

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sleepover

18/11/2014

full moon blue, shoulder

to shoulder, sleeping bag

breeze, gentle glow

your smile, here below

we talk, listen, make plans

for next day and then

we laugh, kissing we’re

carried away

you’re all mine tonight

and i’m yours true

spliced hands, blue light

cozy closeness with you

Immune

18/11/2014

She left me.

She’s gone.

I thought of this

as I drank a cold lager

and realized

that after 12, I wasn’t drunk.

I wasn’t sad, or old.

My dreams with her,

ingested with indifference

in golden bubbles.

And when the suds

began leaking from my eyes

I remembered

I am immune to pain.

Like Mr. Simon said:

“An island never cries.”

all the pics 224

You ask if you’re still my dream girl.

You ponder if there’s another in this whole world.

But the first time that I saw you, blurry blond in a dream,

Even then, my love was true, and embarked toward you.

 

I have ached over you in life on the outside my heart.

I’ve never second-guessed, in life even if we may part.

And the second time I saw you, California curtains framing smile

Butterflies bounded from your fingers, and my love more than lingered.

 

When our arms ache for holding,

When our ears tire of scolding,

We can let go and embrace for hours.

We can kiss like we used to,

With new understanding of me and you

and somethings will always be ours.

 

We stare at one another and wonder if our love is enough

We fold our hands; sprinkle our eyes, because the truth is tough

But when we get inside, we realize our lover is the very best

And I pray you know what I know: that we are the luckiest.

 

When our arms ache for holding,

When our ears tire of scolding,

We can let go and embrace for hours.

We can kiss like we used to,

With new understanding me and you

and

somethings will always be ours.

–for Darreth Alise Wheeler

Bowline

20/06/2013

The sea’s hand rolled us over

Like palm-held marbles

The engine thumped along

Coughing exhaust into the sun.

 

The fishing rods swayed in the spray

Like a couple of stood-up prom queens.

Grandpa rose, steadied himself

On the deck.

 

His hands, unclipped sailor claws,

Right bejeweled with Scottish Rite skull,

The left bound in wedding band,

Worked over small stuff like a fid.

 

“Look here,” he drew in a bight of line.

The bitter end, acting as the rabbit, poked

Through the hole, around the tree

And back through the hole.

 

He handed me the line, untied.

“You try,” he said.

Teeth ground in overbite, but three times a charm.

“There,” he said. “Never forget it.”

 

Back away from the cerulean, the

Pitching and rolling sea.

Haul on the bowline

Our bully boat’s a’ rollin’. 

 

 

 

The Venetians capture the dying sun with those blinds

That swill this empty house, frozen chaos like a rattle.

The phone rests in the cradle, a stung gaze

Can’t cause a ringing. Still, you try.

 

The air-conditioning protests icy the May clouds, a

Heat-storm lightshow; rich purple cumulous risers in

The back yard: pool deck, inert and wide chlorine looking glass.

Distant rumbling of a storm forever in the distance.

 

Behind the house, echoes of children laughing.

Behind a collapsing wooden fence, vine-weighted.

Beyond and above the green suburbs, lightning.

Distant rumbling of a storm forever in the distance. 

Image

I was a new airman turned seaman, booted out of the aviation side of the house, when I was reassigned from the helo squadron to the destroyer SPRUANCE. The fiasco at the aviation side of the house opened my eyes to the complicated nature of the military, of life in general, and I mostly stayed on the ship just trying to keep my nose clean. When other sailors were quick to hop in their civies and head to the beach, I volunteered to work late off duty; understandably, this endeared me to my first class. Added to the fact that the ship no longer needed a rescue swimmer (after the senior swimmer was discharged for alcohol rehabilitation failure), and I filled the billet as a former aviation swimmer, the skipper also figured I was all right.
When SPRUANCE pulled into New York harbor for fleet week, I resigned to stay onboard. If I left on liberty I was sure to get in trouble, I figured. But BM1 Curtis had taken a liking to me—had other plans—and told me we were going out on the town. “Don’t get too excited, though,” he said. “I ain’t Sinatra and you damn sure ain’t Gene Kelly. There ain’t gonna be no singing or dancing, shipwreck. Don’t get depressed, kid. In these dress whites, we’ll get our dicks sucked. At minimum we’ll drink for free. Hell, it’s fleet week. These monkey suits are our meal tickets.”
Curtis, on his nineteenth year, was a bona fide lifer with spinach in his teeth. He’d been everywhere, done everything, and had the tattoos to prove it: anchors on left and right forearms, a compass rose on each shoulder, a pig on his left foot, a rooster on the right, and a chest etching of a fully rigged ship that said “I’m Home” underneath, as opposed to the standard, “Homeward Bound,” in commemoration of rounding the horn of Africa. His calloused hands, the knuckles scarred in blown-out ink (the left said PORT, the right, STBD) preceded his unkempt fingernails like massive merman claws.
True to boatswain’s mate tradition, whereby crossed anchors are tattooed between the thumb and index finger (whether it’s left or right hand is negligible), Curtis had gone one over and—to avoid confusion—the old tar had had his hands tattooed equally in said location with the specialty marks.
When he wasn’t on watch, or in the deck office reading tech manuals, he was in the gym powering the bench press, stacked with two hundred and fifty pounds, snarling at God and country. Hash marks (diagonal stripes that designate time in service: one hash mark for every four years) rode his sleeves like high tide. On the dress blues, if twelve years are achieved without going to see the Old Man for non-judicial punishment, they’re golden. If you’ve paid the skipper a visit, they remain red. Curtis’ hash marks were red as the port navigation light at midnight.
I’d heard Curtis was a bit of a liberty risk, so I was reticent to accept his offer. But then I saw him in the lounge all dressed up with nowhere to go, I decided to take him up on a night in the Big Apple. After we left the ship, Curtis popped his Dixie cup aft and rolled his sleeves up to the elbows exposing the tattooed forearms.
“This is how you wear your uniform, shipwreck!”
We were somewhere in the subway, just exiting a car, when an old man passerby took note of Curtis’ uniform.
“Is that how we wear our uniform, sailor?”
Curtis smiled and nodded, “It’s how I wear it. I don’t know you, brother. Looks like you’re out of uniform.”
The passerby, who looked like a spider monkey in a windbreaker, became incensed. He rummaged through a large wallet pulled from his back pocket. Large enough to be a Bible, or one of those pocket versions of the New Testament, from the inside of the billfold he produced an ID card that I didn’t recognize and panned it in front of Curtis’ face which had quickly turned from a waving smile to a startled gaze.
“This is my VA card. It shows my rank. Do you see that?! Thirty-four years of service—Master Chief Petty Officer. I’ve earned the respect. Now fix your cover and roll down them sleeves, boatswain’s mate. You aught to be ashamed of yourself out with a junior sailor looking like that!”
Curtis studied the ID, picked it from the man’s hand, and studied it some more. In the distance, a subway train rumbled louder and louder, its forward light began to illuminate the tracks. Onlookers gawked at the scene: two sailors being hassled by a stranger in the subway during fleet week.
Suddenly, Curtis flung the ID into the train tracks as the train mowed over it. The train’s whistle muffled the man’s protests.
“Nah, this is a fake! Fuck you, old man! Come on, shipmate! We got beers to drink and whores to sink!”
I followed Curtis leaving the old man cursing, shaking his fists in the air, and scrambling back and forth on the subway platform in a futile attempt at recovering his jettisoned ID. The onlookers clapped and laughed. Not a few of them patted Curtis on the back. Walking up the stairway, the light of New York City in his eyes, Curtis looked at me through his periphery, “When I retire, I ain’t gonna act like that. Fuck that old man.”
Like a lot of sailors, boatswain’s mates in particular, Curtis struggled with alcoholism. He’d been thrice divorced and was working on his fourth. Back at homeport, when Curtis wound up on liberty, he’d end up at Capt. Odie’s looking for infidel wives, or at Cast-A-Ways, the enlistedmen’s club, slurring his words to the barmaids. Wherever he’d end up, he’d drink till he’d get flagged. Many nights the Master-At-Arms’d bring him back to the ship. He should have been sent to rehab—and he had gone, so the story goes, back in the ‘80s—but the ship always had something on the horizon requiring the old sailor’s attention. From the time I was assigned there the ship didn’t have an acting boatswain, so Curtis filled the billet. That’s how the military works. If it’s broke, put a band-aid on it. You can get your kitty fixed up at the VA hospital after your hitch is up. In the meantime, grab a swab and quit crying. Curtis’ name more than adequately filled the billet. In fact, if it weren’t for those blood red hash marks, he would have been a Master Chief twice over.
At the end of any major evolution, Curtis would go on and on about the Big Bosun In the Sky. He’d offer praise. He referenced this deity when delivering bad news, too.
“We’re not pulling in this weekend, mates. So says the Big Bosun in The Sky.”
At his retirement ceremony a year later, Curtis wept. I didn’t know he had it in him. The ceremonial boatswain’s mate piped him ashore and I never saw him again. Six months later, after a bottle of Old Grand Dad and a Creedence Clearwater Revival marathon on his hi-fi, Curtis tied a twenty-five pound dumbbell to each ankle and walked off the pier in St. Augustine. Nowadays, when I look skyward, or into the depths of Davy Jones’ locker, I can see that Big Bosun clearly as Caribbean blue: old Curtis smiling back at me, his Dixie cup cocked aft, arms folded over, a tattooed triumphant tragedy.

Image
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.
“Dale.”
“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.

Summerland

19/03/2013

Summerland
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.
“Slaw?”
“What?”
“You want slaw or baked beans?”
Ryan paused.
“Beans—“
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.
“Feel?”
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.

Falling Oranges

15/03/2013

Image

“Daniel. Edward. Fanoe.”

When dad entered my bedroom, his voice cadenced between each name like the MC at high school graduation. The ceremony was two weeks before, held under the harsh lights of the Orlando Arena. I graduated, just barely.  Dad wore his cowboy shirt with horses on it, the first three buttons undone, a cross swaying among the chest hair. It was a gift from Aunt Jolene. She’d made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem years ago. One of those all-inclusive deals, church sponsored, featuring all the important spots. Dad wasn’t religious. He didn’t wear it to show appreciation for Aunt Jolene’s thoughtfulness while wailing down the Via de Rosa; the old man just wore it to give the impression that he was world traveled. The Jerusalem cross was quarter-size with four smaller crosses in each corner. “A Jerusalem cross,” he’d explain to anyone who’d listen, careful to mention that it was bought in Israel, withholding that he wasn’t the one who bought it, of course. Most of the time no one pressed further. Most people didn’t give a shit. Every now and then dad over played his hand, usually to some soccer Mom wearing Spandex. She’d ask when he visited the Holy Land. He’d pause; search the sky for something with which to stall her. Then he’d remark on the weather or compliment her figure. This usually ended the conversation.  That day he stood there in the doorway holding a bottle of Coke, I knew something wasn’t right.  He took a swig, covered a belch with his hand.

“It’s time you moved out,” he began. “Darla and Daphne are getting older, and well, they could use the space.”

Darla and Daphne were my two half-sisters. Darla was twelve, Daphne, ten. They’d shared a room since they were toddlers. Darla, approaching puberty like a runaway train, was already whining about space. Dad rarely visited my bedroom. And he only used my full name when there was bad news. No, I thought, this wasn’t good at all. My mother, crippled in a car accident years before, spent her days drinking beer from a keg Dad bought her as a birthday present. She said it was the best birthday gift anyone ever gave her. That day forward she rarely left the kitchen table. She sat there day after day, chain-smoking Camel menthols, maudlin dreaming of teenaged memories. Mom liked jazz music. Her favorite album was Anne Phillips’s “Born To Be Blue.” She’d sing sometimes. When she’d had too much her voice would crescendo with every successive drink. No one said anything. How could you scold a woman who lost so much? You can’t, just can’t.

“Easy Street. I’d love to live on Easy Street,” she’d sing, gargling through the night until the end and there wasn’t anyone left awake to flip the record on the hi-fi.

Days before Darla and Daphne’s summer break, we were alone in the house, Mom and I. She asked me to join her for a beer at the table, the blinds drawn over the windows filtered small sunbeams into the otherwise dark kitchen. Mom was sensitive to light; it hurt her eyes, she said. Mom’s accident happened when I was four. Afterward she was a different person—a sad person. I don’t remember her before the accident, just shades of warmth. I remember when it was replaced by a cool bitterness; I didn’t blame her. The accident destroyed her vision as well making her stumble, bump into things when she tried to walk. It also caused partial brain damage, too. I sat down next to her, her hands felt their way around the table, finally resting on her favorite mug painted with butterflies and hearts and #1 MOM in bubble letters. I took it in my hands and poured beer into it. I handed it to her and her hands touched mine. Her eyes normally rolled about like pinballs, but just then, they stopped and looked me square in the face.

“You a good boy, Danny. You a good boy, son,” she smiled, releasing my hands with a tap-tap, and placed the mug to her lips. I filled my glass with beer, which tasted awful, and downed it in one gulp. I drank it because I didn’t want to lie to her, say I had drank the beer when I hadn’t; mostly I drank it because dad didn’t drink and I wished he did. It would explain his shitty personality. Unfortunately, he was just mediocre Joe, the loser. Mom and I sat there in silence. It was the best conversation we’d had in years.

Meanwhile, dad stood in the doorway like a low-budget Superman; hands on hips, bird-chest out. He liked to think he could bench-press three hundred pounds, but his muscle mass betrayed his imagination. His face was scruffy. I guessed the job search wasn’t going well. He stared at the opposite wall, his belly protruding through his shirt like a pregnant lizard.

“You need to get yourself a job, son. Maybe learn some responsibility. By summer’s end, we’re gonna need this room,” he patted the threshold, looking it up and down like he was considering a renovation. I couldn’t believe it. My dad, in the midst of his own job hunt, was telling me this. He stood there a moment longer, surveying the room’s four corners. Then sighed and, turning down the hallway, farted. He paused for a moment, mumbling an apology as his hand swatted at his backside, and continued out of my view. I sat there for a moment, speechless. Collecting myself, I headed across the street to Tommy’s house.

Tommy Flanagan and I had been friends since fourth grade when my family moved down from Idaho. Florida was young then, fresh and green. Daydreamers flocked to the sunshine in the later part of the twentieth century the way prospectors did during the gold rush and with similar results: a lot of broken dreams. The Flanagan’s was a far cry from our house, though. Tommy’s parents were successful suburbanites. His dad was a partner at an accounting firm downtown; Tommy’s mother worked in interior design. Some of her decorating ideas were absurd like five stock art paintings of the same stupid French cat hung in the living room, but there were plenty of women in our neighbor just like her and they kept her small business thriving. They bought gold frames, marble columns for mosaic vases. It wasn’t gaudy if it was expensive seemed to be the rule of thumb. Mrs. Flanagan was kind hearted, though, and what I found really appealing about her was her knack for keeping the place clean, which was more than could be said for our house. The Flanagan’s could have hosted a barbecue at any moment. It might have been a hotel as far as I was concerned. The place was decorated in country-kitchen motif; everything soft pastel and wicker painted white. On the porch, a couple of ceramic bunny rabbits sat around a terracotta pot exploding with lantana while butterflies pillaged the blooms. It was like a never-ending Easter egg hunt. When I rang the doorbell, synthesizer music bellowed out, complimenting the wind chime like a New Age bookstore.  Mrs. Flanagan greeted me, smiled, and led me to Tommy’s room. She had big hair and shoulder pads, the gal who has it all-look.

Mrs. Flanagan designed each room with precise ambience. Southern expressions of magnolia filtered throughout the common areas, but each room held a unique scent. The bathrooms smelled of after-shave and Seabreeze face-wash; the living room smelled of popcorn and leather; the kitchen, bacon and freshly brewed coffee. In Tommy’s bedroom, surfboard wax coconut and aloe hung heavy. In contrast, our house smelled like old garbage and stale beer. If our house had a motif, to use one of Mrs. Flanagan’s words, it would have been called ABC Lounge. She lead me to Tommy’s room and gave a couple soft knocks to the half-opened door and left with a final smile. Tommy was sitting on the bed strumming a guitar. I re-played my father’s words in my head and then repeated them to Tommy. Where was I supposed to go? I thought.

“What?” Tommy asked, “Where are you supposed to go?”

“Beats me,” I said.

Tommy hadn’t mastered the guitar and his sour notes fit my feeling of despair.

“This is kind of sudden,” he said.

“Guess I’ll get a job,” I said. “I’ve got till the end of summer.”

Mr. Flanagan appeared at the door wearing an Izod shirt and staunch khakis.

“Hey, Danny! How’s life after high school?”

Mr. Flanagan smiled, rubbing Tommy’s head after entering the room and it made me feel sick. When he asked me about ‘life after high school’ I just wanted to die. He didn’t mean to make me feel bad. He was a great father; it’s just that him being a great father made my dad look even worse. Sometimes I secretly hoped he’d get caught on Orange Blossom Trail in one of those John-prostitution-stings—face forlorn, hands cuffed at the wrists, huddled into a police cruiser—only because then I’d know he was at least a little fucked up to balance-off my dad. Not really. Those fantasies never lasted more than a moment and then I’d be right back where I was: grateful to have Tommy and his family in my life. Tommy told his dad about my plight. Mr. Flanagan was diplomatic, never offering his own opinion of my dad, my home life and all, although he was too smart not to know my mom was disabled, my dad a ne’er-do-well.  He kept stressing that this was an opportunity and that if I would get a job, any job, later a better one, but to leave on good terms, not burn any bridges, that I’d never know when a connection might later help me get somewhere else. He said this was called networking and it was never too early to start. I have to admit the man was a great motivational speaker. He could have sold CDs on the TV at midnight, honestly. I went home and started looking through the classifieds in the paper.

Dad could never hold a job himself. After completing a course in real estate, he held employment for a time, but for reasons too varied to name, he was laid off or fired, and it was never his fault. He kept some scheme in his back pocket at all times along with the business cards of attorneys who advertised on TV—ambulance chasers. His face would light up when one of their commercials would barge into our living room.

“Have you been in an accident?” the commercials would start with immediacy like the accident just happened, the car on fire in the driveway, right at that very moment. 

 Dad always had a backdoor, a short cut, as opposed to a steady plan. This was my paternal example. I would find a different road, I told myself. Living dad’s way wasn’t practical, let alone sustainable. Our family was always short on cash. When Beta max went south we were the first family on the block to own a VHS, but that was the problem. There was always something else to buy.  Soon Sony released compact disc players and other devices we didn’t need and dad bought them up like he owned stock in several electronics companies. He seemed more delighted when he boasted of his latest purchase to Tommy’s dad—or anyone else that happened by our yard when we got back from Circuit City. The memory of the laser disc, its expensive price, and subsequent rapid downturn in popularity, is one I long to erase permanently.  Keeping up with the Jones’s was the unspoken rule. And when the money was gone, it was gone until dad devised another scheme. Dad’s desire for the next big thing was like heroin. I used to wonder when Panasonic was going to come out with groceries.

I wasn’t angry after my dad gave me the news, perhaps a little sad and maybe a little resentful, too. I wasn’t there for my dad’s childhood, of course, but his photo albums, these massive, leather-bound volumes covered in imitation gold lettering, painted quite the different picture of childhood compared to mine. There were magical Christmases like Rockwell paintings and birthday parties with multi-colored balloons and pointy hats, and family vacations to the Grand Canyon. I could see my grandpa’s love through the great-big honest smile on the old man’s face in those old Matt photos. Grandpa survived the Battle of the Bulge. I guess war helps put things into perspective. Dad on the other hand, never served, dodging a tour in Vietnam with a college deferment. He was kicked out of Northwestern, finally, after US forces pulled out of Saigon. Some kind of military service might have helped give him a better perspective on life. Pictures of me after age five—when I’d gone from cute baby boy to snot nosed nuisance—were absent in our house.  It seemed like he’d counted down the days till I was an adult and legally eligible to vacant the premises, so to speak.

But I was optimistic overall. I honed optimism like a butcher hones his clever. Living under dad’s roof made it necessary to sustain some kind of sanity. This eviction was merely an opportunity to branch out and see the world on my own terms, I heard Tommy’s dad say in my head. Up to this time in my life dad forbid employment so I could focus on school. This was his attempt at parental guidance. I was a below average student. I had sworn off children early, convinced parenting was genetic—or worse, shitty dispositions skipped generations. I might spawn another one of my dad, I figured.

And so, I was determined to find a job. I canvassed the mall, applying at a surf shop, a yogurt joint, even Hooter’s as a waiter. I was denied the position at Hooter’s outright. Initially, I thought the rejection was because of my inexperience, but the interviewer, a sleazy fellow named Nick Tomeo, who could have passed for Uncle Edwin—dad’s brother—assured me this wasn’t the case. No one came to Hooters for the food, he said. We sat at a lonely two-seater by the window. A waitress brought me a glass of water, smiling as her tits almost fell out of her shirt. Suddenly, Hooter’s business model became clear. I finished the water and hit up a 7-11.

Dad checked on my job hunt periodically. Standing at my bedroom doorway with that stupid grin. I told him about Hooter’s. I was the victim of discrimination and it was time to cash in, he said. I should be on the phone with a lawyer, he said, might be looking at a nice settlement, maybe even some TV time, he said. He was obsessed with celebrity, as if being on the television was the great life-qualifier. Years later some guy did sue Hooter’s under the same precedent. I don’t know if justice was served, but I don’t regret my decision not to seek legal retribution for my rejection. I am confident I saved myself from years of tedious explanation. My search continued. 

Tommy came to my door a couple days later and said he was working at this place called Elite Telemarketing. I’d never heard of telemarketing, but Tommy said all I had to do was come down, fill out an application, and I would figure it out. This was on a Friday; by Monday I stood before the Maitland Exchange, where Elite was headquartered, two stories of unremarkable office space with an open-air walkway on the second floor. Subtropical landscaping captured the hyper-bland style of the 1980’s exceptionally well. The Elite offices were located in the back of the Exchange. Floor to ceiling windows overlooked a parking lot, just beyond an underdeveloped wetland. In the evening, toads cried over the parking lot defiantly.

I entered through the glass double doors. The office was clean—disinfected—save the cigarette smoke billowing plumes above the operators; three rows of pew-shaped desks, each with a different operator, each with similar defeated expressions, made-up the main floor.  There were ten computers to a row and the operator’s voices and the soft pressing of fingers to keyboards fused themselves into a clerical white noise. It was like a factory, a replacement for old mills, a new factory for the fourth quarter of the last century. Low wages, scant dignity, sunshine slavery. The dress code was a shirt and tie, although the employees wore whatever fit their budgets, so everyone ended up looking like carnival workers dressed for church. Imitation plants guarded the corners while florescent bulbs exposed every embarrassing blemish, buzzing this gentle drudgery soundtrack aloft the mundane scene. Tommy stood at the back of the room pacing to and fro tethered by the cord of his headset. His lit cigarette became a monologue prop, continuously walking back and forth the ash flicked onto the floor deliberately. Tommy spoke with authority—more like a street brawler than some punk begging for a donation.

Elite provided telephone solicitation for The Florida Association of State Troopers and the Police Athletic League. For five dollars, the minimum pledge, a customer bought a bumper sticker in what cost Elite one dollar and fifty cents to print and ship. If donors offered more, a limited edition license plate frame was thrown in. Ninety percent of net profit went to Elite; ten percent went to the organizations. Of course, no one ever revealed this voluntarily (the law forced honesty, but only if you were caught); the truth was obscured for as long as possible. We used our real names, under federal law we had to admit we weren’t police officers—but only if we were asked. The trick was, I learned, to play like you’re a cop for as long as possible. There were several tips for doing this: use a Southern accent, a demanding tone was recommended, and specifically, I wasn’t to use the name Danny, but Dan. Tommy said to say it forcefully, “Dan Fanoe!” he said. If inquiries were made about funding, the operators had a standard jury-rigged reply. The numbers were flipped. Ten percent went to Elite for administrative fees. The rest went to the cops. No one had illusions about the operation. “We sell stickers over the phone,” was a common joke among the operators. I waited there for a moment.

“You Tommy’s guy?” Buck Tanner sat back in his chair lackadaisically gouging his gums with a toothpick. Buck was in his early thirties, Elite’s floor manager. His hair bowl-cut, jagged ends made it obvious he’d cut it at home alone without a mirror. I thought his faded Hawaiian shirt with neon palm trees looked silly with the clip-on tie. Buck was dating Amy, the fat girl who worked in the backroom enveloping stickers for shipping. Amy could have passed for a fat drag queen if she were more feminine. She was the first female I ever met who would spit and fart in general public like it was nothing—like she was in a locker room or something. She was the only female working at Elite. She wore a leather jacket, smiling only after breaking wind. She made me ill.

“Danny Fanoe,” I raised my right hand, half-waving, and then forced it into a handshake. Buck sized me up, contemptuously. Last time some one sized me up like Buck did I got my ass kicked. Reluctantly, he returned the handshake.

“Fill that out and we’ll try you out. You can have a seat right there between Big Joe and Sven,” he tossed me a clipboard, returning his feet to the desk and continued excavating his teeth with the toothpick, spitting his finds on the desk and floor, randomly.

I sat between two men who had both seen better days. To my right sat a large Scandinavian named Sven. At six foot six he was a tall glass of water; I soon discovered he had a knack for crushing the stereotype of the Scandinavian intellectual. Sven was a loser. He smoked D grade menthol cigarettes. He owned three polo shirts which he wore one per week. Each of the shirts bore sweat stains on the under arms. This lack of hygiene matched his body odor, feebly disguised behind Brut cologne liberally applied. I had heard of a dirty blond; never had I come across a greasy blond until Sven.

Sven’s mother would retire at eight in the evening and Elite shut down at ten. This meant Sven had a ride to work, but was on his own for the trip home. Every Friday Sven asked me for a ride to Cricket’s, a single’s lounge up the road with thrice divorced barflies and an obnoxious disc jockey. The highlight of a Friday at Cricket’s was a wheel of fortune broke out around eleven-thirty. Patrons matched their raffle tickets after a spin. Prizes included either a Singapore Sling or a hotdog. Grand prize was a five-dollar bill. Sven offered me a six-pack of beer for the ride. Before we left he went into the restroom, performed a birdbath shower, and slipped into these wicker loafers. He called them his party shoes. Sven lived for two things: playing Lotto and going to Cricket’s on Friday night. I obliged him the lift. I didn’t want to come between a man and his dreams.

On the other side, at the end of the row, sat Big Joe Turino, from New York, New York, a former an insurance broker, laid off after a corporate reconfiguration. Afterward, his wife and thirteen year old daughter moved out. Joe did landscaping on the weekend with the help of a tiny Mexican kid named Puppet. Joe spoke fondly of Puppet when he wasn’t complaining about his marijuana use. When Joe closed a sale, no matter the amount, he’d slap his gorilla mitt on the desktop and shout:

“Another one for Big Joe! Rack it, Buck!”

Management kept a sales tally on a digital marquee in the front of the office. When Joe lost one he’d curse all of Florida as a simple grandma-infested backwater. Big Joe’d recently quit smoking. Although this was a source of pride, it was apparent he had second thoughts. He’d comment on how he missed the release he’d get, and then pausing in contemplation, he’d erupt boisterously on his personal triumph over nicotine, saying his next move was to curtail his diet. Cholesterol, fiber, and high blood pressure: these were merely obstacles to be overcome and he repeated them like a mantra, all the while eating fried potato balls doused in Heinz ketchup. It’d smear on his face like a child. He was rebuilding himself, he said. Soon his body would return to its original prowess, as it was when he played high school football. Big Joe never realized his dreams of playing for the New York Giants. He could have authored a book on NFL statistics, though. Big Joe was a hundred and fifty pounds over weight.

The rest of the crew consisted of the residents of El Rancho, an old motel within walking distance. Previously, when state road 17-92 was the primary trucking route through central Florida, it served truckers alone. Since the fifties, when interstate four was built, motels such as El Rancho quickly became obsolete for the described purposes and the owners looked for another source of revenue. El Rancho accomplished this with a deal with the Florida Department of Corrections; overnight it became a halfway house for newly paroled ex-cons. Telemarketing was easy money for guys with nothing but the shirts on their backs.  A new operator was either an effective huckster or they were out, gone, unemployed. El Rancho’s tenants were naturally so inclined. They had names like Dennis “Dragonfly” Williams and Little Fritto and tattoos of snakes and pot leaves and sayings like “Only God Can Judge Me” and “Shaquanna, my heart”. They were good guys. Most had been locked up for selling marijuana in Volusia County. I used to imagine dad living at El Rancho one day or perhaps rooming with Big Joe after the money ran out. I figured out the system quickly with the help of Big Joe. Soon I was slapping the desktop myself.

 A month passed and Elite went from a smoking room to non-smoking. After implementing the new policy some guys sneaked cigarettes in the restroom. Sneaked isn’t the right word. There was no sneaking, per se. The smoke followed them out of the bathroom like jet stream off the space shuttle. The most notable offender was Sven. Management turned a blind-eye. One night Sven busied himself during calls by flicking a Zippo at his station. Before this, Sven used a cheap Bic lighter with a naked lady cartoon to light up his menthols. This new lighter was fancy, albeit odd with the heart-shaped pink rhinestones. I was just happy he splurged on something besides the usual Lotto ticket and the two for ones at Cricket’s. As he opened and closed it, the sliding metal and the constant flick-flick furrowed Big Joe’s brow. He was too kind hearted to tell him just to knock it off, “What are you doing with a pink lighter, Sven?”

Sven held it up to the light like a fine diamond.

“I got it off a girl at Cricket’s last Friday,” he continued flicking and flipping. Big Joe began somewhat labored breathing.

“Was she wearing a turtle neck?” Big Joe asked.

“Yeah. You know Danielle too?” Sven said.

“More like Daniel. You need to get checked out, Sven. Does that thing even work?”

“Yeah. I need to put some of this in it,” Sven held a can of lighter fluid and began filling the Zippo. He smiled at Big Joe as the fluid began spilling over the side.

“Watch it, Sven!” Big Joe hollered.

Sven tipped up the fluid and capped the Zippo. Still smiling, he flicked the lighter. With the excess fluid painted over Sven’s hand and the lighter’s exterior it suddenly burst into a tiny fireball. Sven dropped it on the desk, shaking his fingers in pain. Big Joe was in the middle of a call with a Mrs. June Horney when he noticed Sven’s flambé.

“Well, Mrs. Horney, I can assure you this is a tax deductible-HOLY SHIT, MAN!“

The lighter landed on the desk, snapping shut just as the excess fluid burned off. Big Joe pressed F1 on the keyboard, disengaging the call, and looked at Sven grievously. Sven picked up the lighter fluid and placed it in his back pocket. He smiled at the two of us; his eyes skyward like a big dope.

“Damnit, Sven,” Big Joe popped open a bag of potato chips. “That old hag was about to hand over her husband’s entire pension! You’re never gonna win that lotto of yours if you’re all burned up.”

Sven put his headset back on and pressed F2, engaging a call. He glanced at the computer screen. “Hello. Is Mr. Richard Head there, please?”

Big Joe crunched down on a potato chip, his face brighten at the sound of Sven’s voice as he recited the name off the green screen main frame. Joe’s face reminded me of one of those flowers you see in science class movies filmed blooming in fast-forward.

Jesus,” Big Joe said, bits of potato chip flying onto his screen. “I get Horney and now the Viking is talking to the original Dick Head,” he chuckled, artificially.

Mr. Head abruptly hung up. Sven stood up.

“Looks like I gotta make another deposit, guys,” he sighed.

Everyone rolled their eyes. Ten minutes passed. Sven returned and began flicking the lighter again, much to Big Joe’s irritation. It hadn’t made a flame around flick twenty-four.

“You probably shouldn’t use all the fluid just flickering it, Sven,” I said.

“You think I need more?” he asked.

Big Joe almost fell out of his chair.

“What happened to that Molotov cocktail you made earlier?” Big Joe asked.

“It fell out of my pocket in the bathroom and spilled on the floor. Don’t worry, Joe. I cleaned it up.”

“Sure you did, Sven,” Big Joe threw his hands in the air.

The smell of lighter fluid radiated off Sven. We continued making calls into the evening.

At shift’s end, it was my turn to collect the trash bags and throw them in the dumpster. It was Little Fritto’s night to do it. Amy was hosting a birthday party for Buck and Little Fritto made him this sad birthday card with pages from a notepad, glitter, and glue. I’m not sure why I didn’t quit out of spite, but I heard Tommy’s dad telling me in my head not to burn bridges and something about cutting off your nose to spite your face, which I didn’t understand, but sounded painful. I began gathering the small bags first.

Sven decided to give me a hand. At first I was appreciative, but then Sven asked me for the usual favor and I remembered the ride.

“You got me for a ride back to Fern Park, Danny?”

“Sure, Sven,” I said, begrudgingly.

Sven collected the trash at a snail’s pace. Then he snuck off to the bathroom, menthol cigarette swinging from his lips, shamelessly. There were twenty small garbage bags in the room and two larger ones in the adjacent office. A quick job undoubtedly; with Sven as my accomplice, there might as well have been twenty hundred. The operators collected their personals and turned off the computers. Tommy headed outside with Big Joe. I entered the backroom where Amy worked; she was just leaving. She bumped into me on her way out, giving me enough of her personal scent to convince me that she was really a man. Nauseated, I collected the trash bag. Suddenly, I heard the screaming.

It sounded like an elephant being slaughtered. Muffled at first, coming from behind the dry wall, like an approaching locomotive it grew louder and more defined, reaching into the main office. I stepped out and saw Sven running, hair ablaze. Motivated by this flaming coif, Sven became a yet unnamed superhero—perhaps the Scandinavian Torch or the Diabolical Norseman—he looked glorious! The flames flickered like a sainted halo at the ecstatic moment of divine revelation, his blue polyester pants, torn at the crotch, made the vision almost translucent as he sprinted across the carpet, crashing through the glass double doors with the force of a battering ram. Outside, into the parking lot, Sven ran like a lunatic escaped from the asylum, screaming into the swampland beyond. He found a puddle quickly; the steam released off his head like a smoke signal. He exhaled, then began coughing—hacking, really—like he might die right there on the asphalt. Amy, who stopped just short of the main entrance, began screaming herself. She sounded like a biker I once heard at Daytona after some mall fashion dickwad knocked over his bike while drinking a Zima. It was not exactly the voice I expected, but once I remembered the farting, and spitting, the smell, and it made sense. She pointed at the bathroom, flames shot out like a caged dragon. Everyone jumped over one another following Sven’s lead, minus the flaming coif as the flames licked the hideous wallpaper. In the parking lot, Little Fritto consoled Sven. Although muddied and burned, Sven had a peculiar ease about him. Little Fritto delivered backpats as well as an impromptu motivational sermon saying Jesus Christ and God Almighty and Fucking Jesus Christ a lot, but I couldn’t make out exactly what the message was. Sven seemed to take it well, nodding like he understood, his brow folded, thoughtfully. The whole office crew made it to safety. We regarded the flames for a moment, then the Maitland Fire Department, engines alight, pulled up, extinguishing the fire almost as soon as they arrived.

We had to use the bathroom in the adjoining office for the next two weeks while a remodeling crew worked off the smell of burned wallpaper and hair. It took four days for the office to stop smelling like an old lady salon. This did nothing to help Big Joe’s high blood pressure. Sven was asked to leave Elite after the fire.

A couple weeks later Tommy and I were walking down Park Avenue in downtown Winter Park, when we saw Sven, arms overflowing with shopping bags, covered in a fedora atop a bandaged head. His polos were gone, replaced by a cotton shirt beneath an Irish linen suit. He seemed to have moved up in the world. He waved to us and closed in on our location. We stood there in wonder.

“Hi, Sven,” Tommy said looking him over suspiciously.

“Hi, guys! How are you?” he said.

“Sorry how you were let go,” I said. I studied his feet, noticing a pair of brand new party shoes.

“You have definitely moved up in the world,” I said.

“Ain’t it the truth? Turns out all that garbage Big Joe used to say about the lottery being a tax on people who ain’t good at math was just garbage—all of it.”

“How much did you win?” Tommy asked.

“The jackpot! Twenty-six million!”

“Looks like getting the can at Elite wasn’t such a bad thing, eh?” I said.

“Hell no! I’m a free man now.”

“Not working anymore?” asked Tommy.

“Oh, I’m still working. I started my own business. I just meant to say I moved out of Mom’s place,” he looked at his wristwatch, a shiny, impressive thing.

“Great seeing you guys, but I’ve gotta run. Still got the hemorrhoids.”

A blonde woman, dressed to kill with breast implants and big hair, stepped outside and hung off Sven like a Christmas tree ornament. We looked at each other stupefied. Sven turned, began walking away.

“I’m on easy street now, boys,” he rounded the corner and was gone.

  Tommy and I worked at Elite from midsummer and into the fall. I made enough money to move out. When I told Mom I was leaving she was drunk as usual. I tried to catch her sober, but that only happened on Friday nights after a couple slices of pizza. Her eyes became glassy, her hands shook more than usual as they searched the tabletop for mine. Resting her hands on my own, she sighed.

“I didn’t know you was leaving, Danny.”

Dad never told her anything. Tightly, she squeezed my hand.

“You a good boy, Danny. You a good boy.”

The lights of a passing car made lines on her face through the blinds. She sniffled; I leaned over and kissed her head. Dad was in the garage stacking some boxes full of plastic dinnerware. He was trying his luck at honest employment, working for both AmWay and Tupperware. I described to him the operation at Elite; the ex-cons, bullying old people for a five-dollar donation, the money I was pulling in. He smiled like an asshole.

“Sounds like I taught you well,” he said.

I disregarded this as much as I could, but I knew exactly what he meant.

* * *