Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)
When my bar’s invaded by snowbird oldsters and the local diet-soda-and-whiskey sets the atmosphere cloys. No matter how peppy the music on the juke or how festive the décor and lighting, these crowds alone are enough to make anyone swear there are no companionable evenings to be had in a bar. Mix them together and no one emerges at the end of the evening without feeling tainted by the experience.
The problem lies in the contrast. Snowbirds far from home on a warm beach in a cozy bar can feel they are momentarily outside of time, outside of the cares of the world. The essence of vacation, right? Throw in the girls in too-tight dresses with bikini strings showing around their necks and leg muscles taut from balancing on their spiky heels or tanned to their flip-flop-gripping toes and a bit of the past intrudes. The visitors from colder places sip at their diet soda and liquor of choice through little red straws with glossy wet lips and the gin-and-tonic with a lime wedge doesn’t taste so much of vacation anymore.
Confronted with these young things and the suitors that inevitably trail in their wake, the snowbirds get a bit less fun loving and little more judgmentally bitchy.
I’d refused yet again one woman’s request for “something fruity with an umbrella in it, like a Mai Tai” when I’d had enough and handed it all over to my bartender. He’s a smartass, but he keeps himself around by putting up with the shit I won’t.
“Hey,” he said to the woman, “this ain’t Hawaii. It’s Florida. Closest you’re gonna get to fruity from me is a lime in your tonic or a token strawberry in the daiquiri premix.”
Sometimes he does it better than me.
I strolled out of the bar happy to be leaving. Got in my little old brown Datsun truck and enjoyed a warm mid-June breeze blowing through the windows. It’s a good truck. Late 1960s model just a couple of years older than me. It’s been reliable since my uncle passed it on to me in the eighties. It survived the big island-wiping hurricane a few years ago because it was off-island with me.
Now it faithfully rolled me down Pickens Road to the main beach parking lot. My feet took me the rest of the way. Past the new lifeguard building and the large lights keeping the cement strip between tarmac lot and sandy white beach bright for the nighttime crowd at the restaurants and bars. On down to the spot on the beach just next to the fishing pier where the guys and I always meet.
Only one of them was there. Nick. Young one with an old demeanor. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the surf build.
“You all alone out here tonight?”
Yeah,” he said. “I think Lyle might be out in a little while. I called him. Think it should get interesting out here soon.”
A storm front coming in from the west had the Gulf roiling. The breakers were getting large, rough, and sloppy.
Nick pointed down the beach just outside the pool of light cast by the large chain restaurant trying to look quaintly seaside. Three young guys had stripped off their shoes and shirts and were tempting each other into the surf. Guys like these get drawn in by whatever magnetic force attracts fools with no adventure in their lives to dropping barometric pressure.
“They’ll go in you think?” Nick said.
“Oh sure, hope they’re sober,” I said.
“Doubt it,” he said. “Hope Lyle gets here first. He swims better than me.”
That’s Nick, thinking ahead.
“Man,” I said, “Let’s just stop them.”
“Good luck with that, D.”
“You’re not going to help me?”
“I’ll follow you down there, but I’m not getting involved.”
“Sure, let the woman do the work.”
What a puss. At least he followed me. It’s always easier to be a hardass with a friendly body standing behind you.
We moved slowly, taking our time since it looked like these three fellas were having a hard time convincing each other to go on in. I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t have to get loud with them when the first one went for it.
He was the shortest of the bunch, curly blond hair, bright red board shorts. Maybe he’s a surfer, I thought. He’d know how to handle the waves then. It was a brief thought, one of those that forms without your bidding. Just pops up in your mind even though you’ll dismiss it immediately as foolish wishful thinking. If he’d been a surfer there wouldn’t have been enough novelty in the roughening waves to entice him. It was all messy chop.
I said, “Morons.”
The two friends moved closer to the water’s edge, cheering their buddy on. The guy managed to stay on his feet, splash around a bit and run back out to his friends before Nick and I made it to them.
They were slapping him on the back, he was pointing out at the gulf, urging his friends to go back in with him.
It looked like they were going to follow until they saw us. The short one waved, said something about needing to cool off, and then they were moving back up to the restaurant. Maybe Nick’s park ranger button up looked official enough to be trouble for them. It certainly wasn’t my five feet and three inches or Nick’s skinny physique that worried them.
“Well, that was too easy,” I said.
“You wanted it to be difficult?”
“Just wanted to have a little fun with them.”
“You always been such a mean little bitch?”
“Nah,” I said. “I was very nice before my house got wiped off the beach and my best friend was eaten by crabs.”
Nick sighed. He has no compassion for people who hold grudges against intangible forces of nature. “You’ll let it go one day and be much more content.”
He followed me back to the pier and we waited for Lyle. Who showed up with hoagies and Corona. We had a good night.
You can’t sleep on the beaches anymore. Back in the early eighties we did it all the time. Perfectly natural thing to do. Nowadays it’s loitering, I guess. No way for us to have slept down by the pier anyway with all those damned lights.
Couldn’t sleep in the truck either. Cops roust the parking lot looking for drunks sleeping it off in their cars. Everyone should be in their own homes, tucked up nice in their beds. That’s the responsible citizen thing to do.
Instead I stretched out behind my house. Not much beach, just scrubby beach grass on the small strip between my back porch and the bay. I used to sleep on a hammock out on the dock Mr. Scott and I shared. That’s gone now. So’s he. I don’t eat blue crab anymore.
Since I woke up feeling mellow the next morning, I decided to cruise across the bay and on through the intracoastal waterway to Perdido Key. The bay was rough with the storm still edging ever closer, but the sky stayed sunny and the wind kept me from sweating too much.
A nice day until I spotted Gary banging on his outboard on the Perdido side of Pensacola Pass. It looked like he needed help, so being the kind (to friends) woman I am I idled my small Bayliner up next to him and got out to help.
His wife’s another sort.
Two steps off the beach, ankle deep in Pensacola Pass, Gary’s wife was screaming “Shark! Shark! Getoutofthewatershark!
There were only two other people on the beach. They were laid out on their blankets unmoving, either uninterested because they weren’t in the water or unconcerned because no one else was really in the water.
Gary looked back over his shoulder, away from the sputtering motor.
“There. There,” his wife yelled again. “Get out of the waterwheresthedog! Joe! Joe!”
Joe lounged on the front of the boat, unconcerned about the shark menace, since he’d already enjoyed his obligatory Labrador water romp. After which he required uninterrupted relaxation in the sun. Sharks be damned. He didn’t even bark.
“Where’s Joe?” Gary’s wife yelled once again. “Get out of the water!”
A fin arched out of the water barely 50 feet off the stern of the boat.
Dolphin. One, two, three.
Gary turned back to his motor.
“They’re dolphins,” Gary said.
“How do you know? There it is again.”
“Dolphin, smaller dorsal, arcing, more than one. Sharks don’t swim in pods, Cheryl.”
His wife, still frantic, but daring to step into the water, said, “I’m not getting in this boat if the motor isn’t working right. Call the tow.”
Gary waved me over. Wanted to know if I had any idea why his motor wasn’t getting any gas.
We puttered over it a while longer. Cheryl kept her eye on the dolphins, still convinced they could be sharks. Joe kept sleeping.
“Gary.” I wanted to know. “Why don’t you have any tools in this boat?”
He gave me a sideways look. “You don’t either.”
“I have a rope. Give you a tow?”
He hated the idea, but didn’t turn it down.
We got to maneuvering the boats into position, not noticing the other two beach-goers had wandered over to Cheryl until they all three started hollering at me.
I’m waist deep in the water, trying to keep the small chop in the pass from shoving my stern too close to Gary’s bow.
They were pointing at me, waving, the old fellow jumping up and down. His companion, a young blonde woman in a red striped bikini charged into the water. She headed towards me, determinedly.
Gary’s yelling at Cheryl.
Cheryl’s waving back.
Joe’s paddling towards the young bikini woman, barking. He was ready to protect me, I suppose.
It all distracted me so much I didn’t feel the rope wrap around the foot of my motor, so when the chop nudged the boat away from me, I naturally tugged the rope to keep it close and, not having as much slack as I expected, I pulled the boat right into myself. I went down. Under the boat.
The sandy bottom was all stirred up from the activity, so I couldn’t see a thing. I stayed calm, pulled myself along the rope, untangled it from the motor, and swam clear of the boats.
I’m ready to yell at someone, give them full on scathing fury. I couldn’t.
The scene already too ridiculous.
Gary dove into the water to find me. Joe swam splashy circles around the bikini woman, not letting her retreat to the beach or dive into the waist deep water to help Gary search. Cheryl was still yelling incoherently from the beach and the old guy moved slowly towards his companion and Joe.
I’m fully on the beach, squeezing the salt water from my shirt when they finally notice me. I don’t know who saw me first, but it was Cheryl that came running my way.
I held my hand up in a halt gesture, stopping her before she cleared Gary’s boat.
“You just stay over there, Cheryl,” I said. “You and those damned dolphins caused all this. Dolphins, woman.”
“I can’t help it. I can’t see they are—“
“Dolphins!” I yelled.
Gary started some yelling of his own. The boats had drifted too close.
The husband-being-crushed threat trumped the husband-being-attacked-by-dolphin-possibly-shark threat. She charged into the water. “Help! Help!” Yelling yet again. “He’s going to be crushed!”
Joe continued circling the bikini woman. Her companion tried to coax Joe away when I waded past them to my boat. I could have called Joe off, but he looked happy.
Once Gary and I had the boats safely hooked up and I’d fired up my motor and pulled the line between us taut, Gary hauled Joe into the boat.
Cheryl sat in her seat, not looking at anyone, lips pressed firmly together, arms across her chest. She wouldn’t even pet poor innocent Joe when he nudged her with his nose.
The old guy and his companion moved back onto the beach without a word.
We made it back to Little Sabine before the sun set and without any more terrifying dolphin encounters. Gary pressed some bills into my hand for the extra gas I used towing him, and I told him to come by my bar for a few free ones later. Once he got his wife calmed down.
“Bring the dog along,” I said.
“Sure thing.” He snapped his fingers, the universal gesture for having a surprising thought. “Hey, dolphins heading into the Gulf means the storm’s not coming in here.”
“They were headed the other way, Gary.”
The bar opened slowly for a Saturday night and it stayed that way. A few snowbirds in and out, but none stayed for long. They were, no doubt, back in their comfy condo rooms watching the Weather Channel closely.
The televisions in the bar weren’t on. Gary came in with faithful old Joe around seven o’clock and sat at the end of the bar with me.
“Storm weakened. Coming this way. Just gonna be a tropical though. No big deal.”
My bartender gave him a Jack and Coke and a small bowl of water for Joe.
“Lyle’s bringing some oysters over from Peg Leg’s,” Gary said. “Fried for you.”
The raw oyster is a disgusting thing. I’ve tried it at different points in my life. No one has ever found a way to persuade me that there is any pleasurable value in slimy, salty, goo sliding across my tongue and down my throat. No intensity of hot sauce makes the oyster go down any easier. My gag reflex cannot be so easily fooled.
We hang out, talking of this and that. Nick shows up. Then Lyle comes with the food. Things stay quiet like I said until right before closing.
Lyle wanted to mine us for our opinions, once again, on the new condo towers going up on the edge of the National Seashore.
“Bumped as close as they can get it to the protected part of the island,” Gary shook his head. His most extreme bodily reflection of disgust. “Let ‘em that close they’ll find a way to push in more.”
“That’s what I said,” Lyle added.
Nick, the young one, didn’t agree. “The condos are an economic thing as much as the protected beaches. Without something protected and left undeveloped no one’s going to want to live here or visit. They’d kill the economy.”
“Developers don’t give a shit,” I said. “They get their money and run.”
“You know that’s not true,” Gary said.
I did, but I wasn’t going to admit it. The vitriol had been my solace for too long to give it up now.
“All these tourists and beach residents keep you in business,” my bartender said.
“That’s right!” Nick raised his glass and bonked it against the bartender’s raised fist.
“I get the tourist hate, D. Know where that comes from,” Gary said, “but what’s your problem with the locals?”
“Half of them aren’t locals,” I said. More forcefully than I intended, sure. “They moved out here just to say they live on the beach.”
“Oversimplification and generalization,” Nick countered, feeling smart.
“I know that.” Forceful on purpose now. “Who’s the former professor here?” I pointed at myself. “So here’s my analysis. They like the beach, have the money to live out here, so they do. It’s a status thing now. You can’t live out here now on a middle class salary anymore, can’t even rent that way. Used to before Ivan came through, but that was a stellar opportunity for certain factions to wipe out the old bungalows and build fancy, expensive. Upscale.” I hoped the ooze I saw dripping off that last word could be heard.
“It’s just the money thing you hate?” Nick said.
“No. It’s part of it. They move out here, like I said, because they like the beach, want to say they live here because that reflects their status. They like the view, but they aren’t beach people. They are neighborhood people.”
“Now what the hell does that mean?” This from my bartender who must have decided he doesn’t need a job anymore.
“They aren’t sleeping on the beach, so no one else can. They don’t want loiterers, but what the hell else are you supposed to do on a beach? They want it generic. The only changeable, unpredictable thing they want out here is the environment.”
“And you like that, right? The unpredictability? The adventure?”
“Sure.” I said it too tentatively. I knew it wasn’t true.
“Hurricanes washing everything out. People sucked out and brought back to feed the sea life?”
Smartassery is one thing, cruelty is too far. Gary said something that sounded vaguely mediative, trying to defuse. It must have gotten through because I didn’t fire the bartender.
“Shouldn’t you working. Wiping something down. Closing the place up?”
I always shut the place down at midnight. No later. I have no interest in serving that later night crowd. They’re up to no good or headed that way, no need for me to contribute.
The guys retreated to the pool tables to give me some space. The final rituals of the night were performed in silence and I used it to calm down, think about why I have to be so angry. The guys clacking pool balls around in an attempt to get one in a pocket over Joe’s head so he’d bark was the only sound, so the noise of a couple loud vehicles sliding into the small lot out front carried right on into the bar.
“Hey,” I said to my bartender. Quiet. “Go lock that door before any stragglers get in here.”
“Sure thing. We wouldn’t want stragglers,” he had to keep up the sarcasm. I held my tongue somehow. He vaulted over the bar. He knows I hate this.
His sprint the few feet from bar to door woke up Joe, who jumped up and started barking.
The guys let out a cheer.
My bartender put a hand on the door and reached out for the lock. Not soon enough.
The door hit him in the face. He hit the floor. Three young guys came in ahead of their fourth, the troublemaker king, Nevin.
“No, no,” I yelled at him. “You get the hell out of here. I’m not serving you one single drink.”
“Shit.” My bartender pulled himself from the floor with help from Lyle, his nose bleeding.
“You broke his nose, man,” one of Nevin’s companions said. He’s new. Looks much younger than Nevin’s usual crew.
Nevin came my way, looking determined. That look he always gets when he’s working himself up to some ridiculous new frenzied act of vandalism. Nevin considered himself an eco-terrorist. Most of his victims and the police considered him a nuisance.
“This is gonna be the big one,” he said to me. Leaning on my bar. Like I’m a confidante.
“I don’t care,” I said. “Get the hell out and get on with it.”
“You got a room in the back. Let us use it tonight. No one will look for me here. Everybody knows you can’t stand me.”
“Hate wouldn’t be too strong.”
His new young friend was holding my bartender in a chair so Nick could pop his nose back into place. I recognized him. He was still wearing the bright red board shorts.
“Good to have an old corpsman in your crew, huh?” Nevin was trying to be chummy.
“Get the hell out of my bar,” I said to him, knowing with the intuition briefly granted to us all when a bad situation happens that my bold words weren’t going to have any effect.
Nevin’s other two buddies, the ones I knew, flanked my friends. Arms crossed in stereotypical bad guy posture.
Red Boardshorts let go of my bartender. “Let’s just go,” he said to Nevin. “We can hole up in my hotel room over in Navarre. No one’s gonna come that far to find you.”
“No,” Nevin said, “I want to stay close, so I can hear it go off. Feel the island shake.”
Explosives now? No more petty vandalism for him.
“What are you blowing up?” I asked.
“Those ugly towers going up near the National Seashore,” one of Nevin’s buddies said.
Red Boardshorts chimed in all peppy proud, “A blight on the beach!”
Nevin’s always been a charmer, and he has a good eye for the naïve. Red Boardshorts, whose name was Peter, had obviously showed some sort of minor concern for the environment or made some comment about how beautiful the beaches are here, and Nevin had jumped on the opportunity to fire up the poor fellow to a frenzy of environmental righteousness. He’d tried that with me the first time he came dragging in here.
A phone rang. Gary pulled it out of his pocket and told his wife he’d call her back. “Got a situation here,” he said. Then he shoved the phone back into his pocket.
“There’s no situation,” I said, rounding the bar and striding right up to Nevin. Too short to get in his face, tall bastard, but my palms made firm enough contact with his chest to knock him into a table. “Get out now, Nevin. Take your idiot crew with you.”
“We are staying here for the boom,” he said, shoving me hard enough to topple me into a bar stool. I sprawled on the floor, so my view of the gun as he pulled it from his waistband was much more dramatic than anyone else’s. I had that perspective you always get in the movies, slow motion from the gun wielder’s hip. Close up shot of the slow reveal, grip to sight.
He saw me see it, so didn’t take time to address its presence with me. Instead he tried the common ground approach. “I know you don’t want them going up either, so just do your part to save the beach.” He turned so my buddies and bartender could see it. “Put your phones on the pool table and sit on the floor.”
No one else protested. We did what he said.
Nevin’s buddies got worried after an hour passed with no explosion. They had a quiet conference in a booth on the other side of the bar. I sat against the front of the pool table with my bartender. He had a few suggestions about how to take them out. Like he was in some damned action movie. Big dumb hero. I’m sure he had planned some sort of catchy one-liner to deliver as well.
I twice talked him out of tripping one of Nevin’s buddies, and laughed when he attempted to talk Peter of the Red Boardshorts down. Maybe I should have been more helpful since the guy had a gun. Hindsight often makes me feel like a blind asshole.
This bartender of mine always did a good job behind the bar. He kept the place clean, made decent drinks, and held me in check when I wanted to berate a tourist or a dumb chick too drunk to make good decisions. I’d never been quite nice to him. Always gave him the impression that I tolerated him. I think he knew I respected him because I didn’t fire him when he pushed me too far.
He pushed Peter too far, and the dumb kid started yelling at him. Kicking at his legs. We all laughed at his tantrum.
He shot my bartender.
He may have said something like, “Now who’s laughing.” Or one of Nevin’s other stooges said this and Peter was the one who said, “No. No. Oh, no.”
The voices were vague. I knelt over my bartender. Gary scooted up to his other side.
Peter reached for Gary.
Joe jumped over Gary’s head in full growl. He clamped his jaws onto Peter’s gun arm and shook. Peter’s hand reflexed open and the gun fell into my bartender’s lap.
I grabbed and sighted on Peter. I could pull the trigger and maybe get lucky like Peter had and hit a vital organ, deflating it like he deflated my bartender’s heart. Nick said something to me though, and I did not squeeze the trigger.
Peter went down, Joe holding on now, no longer shaking, but silently maintaining enough pressure to keep Peter crying out in pain.
“Shit, man,” one of Nevin’s other two stooges said. “We gotta go now. Just leave him here.”
Nevin nodded, his gun already put away. “Sorry, D. I didn’t mean for it to go down like this. Alec was a—”
“Shut the fuck up,” I yelled, sighting the gun on him now. My hands shook, and I knew I couldn’t have hit him if I worked up the guts to pull the trigger. All my bravado was trapped in my head. I couldn’t get it out through my fingers or through my mouth. All I could funnel from my brain were obscenities strung together in nonsensical patterns.
Lyle took the gun from my hand and laid it on the ground behind him. He pointed his finger at Nevin. “You gave him the gun and the ideas.”
“Come on man,” the second of the remaining stooges said. “Let’s go.”
Peter whimpered, quietly not to arouse Joe to greater bite force. “Don’t leave me.”
We all heard tires sliding into the parking lot. Sirens approaching. Pounding on the door and female voices demanding the doors open.
“It’s your wife, Gary,” I said. “You know she doesn’t like you out this late.”
While the medics packed my bartender into a body bag and treated Peter’s dog bites, I had the selfish thought that now I would have to deal with the snowbirds and drunk chicks all alone.
I sat on the floor against the bar, stroking brave Joe’s warm fur, thinking about Alec. Good bartender. Good guy who put up with me, made my life in here easy enough that I could just get up and leave whenever the crowd got on my nerves. I’d never thought about how much I trusted him. I relied on him, took advantage even. He laughed at me and I took it. Hell, we were friends; I’d never taken notice.
What a bitch.
No one had spoken to me. The cop knew me well enough to save me for last.
When he finally got to me, I told him what happened, every detail sharp.
“You think you guys have Nevin this time?”
“He didn’t pull the trigger, D.”
“No, he worked the guy up though. Brought them all here, held us at gunpoint. He’s got explosives rigged up on that new condo. What the hell else do you need to get rid of him!”
I’d let go. And he let me. I ranted. I jumped up off the floor and smacked my palms flat on the bar a few times. Kicked over a couple of bar stools. Pointed at the body bag. Pointed at Nevin and his buddies piled up against the far wall, cuffed and complacent.
But Nevin had the nerve to smile.
“Can’t you just find a reason to shoot him? Aren’t you cops good at that kind of thing?”
I went too far. He escorted me, not too gently, out of the bar, put me in my truck, took the bar keys, and sent me home. “Gary can lock it up for you.”
“Let Joe loose on him. He’s got the chops for it.”
“Go home, D.”
The guys took over the bar for a few days so I could wallow in the grassy shallows behind my house and grumble at the emptiness of the lot next door. Mr. Scott and I could have sat out at the end of the dock and talked this out without actually talking about it. I’d mourned his gruesome death, weathered it alone, but it’s easier to mourn someone you cared for, you don’t have to feel that you aren’t allowed, that your grief is melodramatic self-indulgence.
My bartender, Alec, and I never socialized outside of the bar, never really inside either. He was one of those people that are part of your life outside of established or courted friendship, who you don’t think too much about until they are gone. Not gone like moved away, but dead gone. Didn’t know shit about him.
Just took advantage. Like I do when someone amuses me. Or deals with the shit I won’t. Or takes responsibility when I can’t. Or is generally a better person than me.
I sat on the small strip of beach behind my house and thought about what I didn’t want to think about. Thought about myself. Shifted over to the broader stretch of beach on Mr. Scott’s abandoned property and tried to do some communing with him spiritually.
All of it.
So I picked myself up off the sand, out of the hollow I’d dug with my ass, took Mr. Scott’s bike out of my garage and rode it off island.
Gina Sakalarios-Rogers lives in Pensacola, Florida. She has published fiction in The Bare Root Review, Toasted Cheese, Flash Fiction Online and Foxing Quarterly. She was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and was voted a notable story of 2006 in StorySouth Million Writers Award. Email: ginaasr[at]gmail.com