The first two chapters of my novel Brackish, book one of the Living to Die in Paradise series.
“Cody! Put out that cigarette and get the hell back in here! A family is waiting on you, ya shaggy-headed moron. Let’s go,” Chef yells before waddling back into the kitchen. The screen door to Dolphin Cove Grille slams behind him. I refocus my gaze on an inverted lizard that’s inflating his red dewlap in an attempt to attract the female at the base of a palm tree. I press my lips for one last drag of my cigarette and flick the filter into the five-gallon bucket of brown water and plastic wrappers.
I push my sunglasses up over my forehead and swish the dry nicotine taste from my mouth with a rum soda I’ve concealed in a styrofoam cup. I rush through the kitchen striding behind the cooks while dodging food runners on my way back to the tiki bar. I pause and scan my table section on the patio deck checking if any tables need refills on ice waters or beer.
Since April, the daily lows in south Florida haven’t dipped below 90-degrees and this past week with spring break in full blaze, I’ve sweat for every dollar and spent it just as fast as I earned it. Between late nights wandering the beach strip and serving impatient tourists in the afternoons, the end of senior year is around the corner and I avoid every thought of restaurant life becoming my only future.
I kill another quick minute acting busy behind the bar, discretely mixing another styrofoam cocktail for myself. I fill a hoard plastic water cups for a new table, then balance the drink tray in a speed walk to take a new order.
The shaded tiki bar overlooks two lanes of traffic and between running food and drinks, I recognize some of the cars from school zipping by. Expensive lifted trucks and luxury sedans wait at the red light that hangs perpendicular to the patio deck where I wait tables across the sidewalk. When I first started working here, I feared people from school would see me in my goofy, flowery uniform, but once the cash started rolling into my pockets the anxiety kind of just faded.
The red light burns for an eternity as radio-rock commercials, pop songs blare through car speakers over hyena-like laughter from pre-gamers in backseats on their way to the beach. Most cars race each other cutting across the two lanes as teenager yelp and yell to each other out of sunroofs. Spring break becomes rowdier every year and the older I get, I find myself stuck waiting tables than standing in the sand. Lunch shifts are a living hell, especially if you are hungover. After last night’s sleep over in the Fort Myers Beach drunk tank I just want a few hours of peace and quiet to myself.
I introduce myself to the table of four. A middle-age couple and two pudgy children in sandals that are too small for their feet. They sit between their parents studying the kid’s menu and none of them reach for the water cups or acknowledge a thank-you when I set them onto the table. The red-headed trophy wife looks up for a second while examining the menu list. She looks confused by the seafood entrees and I wait for her question about the calamari and fried oyster medley appetizer.
Her lips are disproportionally large and smooth, and her transparent beach cover-up outlines her toned body. Not ashamed to show off what she earned from the gym or her plastic surgeon. Her husband’s smug face reads, Worth it. He looks up at me after I drop the drinks and introduce myself.
“Does any have any questions about the menu or our cocktail list?” I can tell the little girl is trying to get a better look at my black eye behind my sunglasses. Her parents notice the large bruise too and for a moment they appear confused. They look past it and don’t mention it.
The middle-aged mom flops the menu on the table and peers over her horn-rimmed sunglasses.
“So tell me, Cody,” her mouth is open, revealing a piece of gum stuck to her bottom molar.
“How large is the Grouper sandwich? Like, what’s the calorie count? It’s not printed on the menu for some reason.” Her family stares, also anticipating an answer.
“It’s a good portion— About the size of my palm,” I say, holding out my swollen hand and cut knuckles. I pull it away quickly hoping they didn’t notice the remnants last night’s fight.
“As far as calories— I’d say three hundred, maybe less?”
“Okay. Well, I’ll have the shrimp scampi. It isn’t farm-raised shrimp, is it?”
I adjust my sunglasses sitting slightly crooked on my swollen cheek.
“Nope. Everything we serve here ma’am is straight out of the Gulf of Mexico.”
I lie. Our restaurant serves Gulf shrimp, but we ran out two days ago. Our reserve shrimp is from the frozen food aisle at the supermarket. The restaurant still sells it for the same price as our Gulf-caught shrimp but the head chef warns us not to say it’s from the convenience store around the corner. The heavyset husband smirks with an awkward twitch of his goatee.
“See guys? This is why we vacation down here. You just don’t get this quality of seafood back home.”
“We do carry a reputation for our fresh market, sir.” I grin clicking my pen.
I’m the used car salesman of selling mediocre seafood during peak tourist season. After a few years of waiting tables, I’ve learned to read people. Their body language and eye movements. The way they share information with each other, hold back or fumble a question. It’s easy to stay one step ahead when you see similar patterns of a hungry group and I’ve come to realize if I have to lie or fake a smile for an extra buck, so be it.
I grew up in a town of fibbers and liars. I’ve listened to the same overly exaggerated sea stories and one-night stand tales from tourist and bar regulars on a weekly basis. I’ve learned more about life working at the Dolphin Cove Grille than I have inside a classroom and I wouldn’t change who I am or where I’m from for the world.
Like Bob Dylan said one time, The times, they are a-changin. The misfortune of living in a flood zone deemed uninhabitable has cut my time short along the Florida Gulf Coast and with rising rent and home prices, the once seafaring Garcia legacy will survive elsewhere from here on out. Once they tear down the ole’ neighborhood, that’s a wrap for the few of us still living there.
I scribble down the last food order for a fish sandwich and seasoned fries. An obnoxious caravan of muscle cars and pickup trucks pull up to the red light across the sidewalk from me. I recognize the vehicles from my school’s parking lot. Some behemoths from the football team hang out of sunroofs and doorless Jeep Wranglers as they fling ice at each other. The light turns green and two freakishly large defensive linemen drive off hollering to a country song.
A yellow truck picks up in speed and rolls onto the sidewalk chirping its tires. The horn blares as the hood swerves before hitting the light pole. The gasp from the eating families and day drinkers startles me more than the horn and as the truck peels away, a voice yells out of the truck. I watch the road with my pen and order booklet in hand as the scene unfolds right before my table section.
“Hey, Fish Shit! Shuck us some oysters, you bitch!” The intrusive scream followed by the obnoxious music volume and truck’s Flowmaster exhaust pipes speeds by in a yellow blur. Everyone stares at one another in utter confusion. As if looking for a manager to tell them that everything is going to be okay. Luckily the name tag on my shirt only reads my first name.
A few regulars at the bar cackle and point as blood floods into my cheeks. I pretend the verbal assault wasn’t directed at me and take down the rest of the order. I head back to the kitchen and take a quick sip of my rum and Coke. I readjust my hat and start hanging up order tickets for the cooks, wondering if the truck of idiots would be back later to try and fight me in retaliation from the scrap we had last night.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve eaten a much of the catch my friends and I would pull in off the beach or from the backwaters. People who have never gutted and filleted their own fish aren’t aware it’s nearly impossible to completely rid of the fishy gut smell that sticks on your hands and being the serious angler that I am, I’ve been called every name in the book. Shrimp Shit, Bait Bucket, Cody-Crab-Crap, Fish Fingers— you name it.
The lame insults from the collar-shirt-kids could never penetrate my world. The realm of school, sports, or whatever the newest T.V show people were raving about never interested me either. I never fit in much at school and I never really cared to. My mind is always on the ocean. Inside a space of physical and mental freedom. Catching fish is the only thing I’ve actually been great at and poling through wide open mangrove bays in search of rolling tarpon made school feel like a prison cell. A waste of my time. An air-conditioned control and oppression that demanded obedience and attendance.
Everything I ever really wanted was right in my home backwaters that lead out to the gulf. A full tank of gas, fresh tackle, and some cold beers in the boat is the pursuit of happiness where I’m from. The idea of making a living as a charter guide was a dream growing up and in my neighborhood, generations of fishermen made a living on the water. Even my old man revived a dwindling mullet-fishing business and had a decent run until a few ugly red tides decimated the fish population below the Caloosahatchee.
It took years for the large schools of fish to return to normal and even today some of the fishery feels like it hasn’t fully recovered. Since our family boat is out of commission and our neighborhood basically went to shit after the last storm surge, my dad started working construction and has poured concrete ever since.
Every year our neighborhood erodes a little bit more after a brush with tropical storms and hurricanes that trail up the Gulf coast. The older homes sank into the canals or were damaged and many of the old salts abandoned the area after gathering what money they could from their insurance company.
Aside from our disappearing neighborhood, larger commercial fishing companies soon plundered Southwest Florida’s charter scene and the laid-back private fishing charter I envisioned was sucked out of existence like the outgoing tide. Like many of the remaining coastal locals balancing a steady paying job and a life indulging in the pleasures of paradise, I play harder than I work. I’ve come to realize that the consistent partying and avoidance of reality doesn’t end well for most.
I survive alright for a second-time senior waiting tables and pulling party favors for tourists and restaurant staff. Last year, school was a place to nap on the days I showed up. I was held back from walking with the class of 02’ but because I wasn’t legally an adult the guidance counselor felt I was neglected. She gave me a second chance at graduation and I took it.
I didn’t mind getting held back on my last year. Not only did I get another year of free school lunches, but it was the first time I had any classes with my two best friends, Jay and Chaser. This year, I haven’t missed a day of school and have actually passed every test I’ve taken so far this year. In two months, I’ll walk across the school’s auditorium stage where our principal will hand me a piece of paper stamped with a tiny overly-aggressive buccaneer mascot above my name.
Knowing that waiting tables leads to a financial cycle of dead ends, I’m ready to leave the restaurant scene behind and do what I’m destined for. Even if the week-by-week pay keeps me going and the opportunity to manage is a possibility, there’s no way in hell I’m sticking around town to serve people food.
A high school diploma is all I need to get my captain’s license and if I can’t make money in the fishing industry, It’d be dumb of me to deny any chance of becoming a boat captain.
Before the 4 O’clock shift change, I grab the check off my last table before filling up a styrofoam cup with Dr.Pepper. I clock-out and move briskly through the oncoming happy hour crowd pouring through the restaurant’s front entrance. I flip open my cell phone and read the single text. It’s my best friend, Chaser.
Yo. Jay is acting strange.
Another text message chimes.
Talking about suicide again
I flip my phone closed. Then quickly re-open it.
Talking? Or crying this time? I thumb in and press send. I toss my phone onto the passenger seat and pull shut the creaky door of my truck before driving home. Relieved to get off my feet and away from the crowded restaurant, I want nothing more than to lay still and close my eyes for a few hours.
My mind is fried from a full week of final tests and last night’s drunk tank stay on Fort Myers Beach wasn’t the sleep I had in mind before a hectic Saturday lunch shift. Between staring at some druggie lick his elbow scab on the floor and listening to drunk idiots trying to freestyle rap, I was over the whole Friday night beach scene. I hated Jay for getting us all arrested, but I would have fought for him again. Even if it meant spending a week in jail.
It’s no secret that Jay’s whole life has been consistent chaos and since we were younger, we’ve always had each other’s backs. The last few weeks it he’s slightly gone off the deep end while missing classes and disappearing after school. His girlfriend recently dumped him before she flew off to Colorado on a group ski retreat, and he’s been so whacked out on medication lately that he told me he purposely flunked a final or two, just for the hell of it. I had a feeling that he would be an emotional wreck after last night but the thought that Jay would kill himself on the first Saturday of Senior year spring break is hard to believe.
It’s wasn’t our first fight on a Friday night at the beach. The pier parking lot at sunset is a meet up of muscle cars, foreign imports, and lifted trucks and has grown to be the pre-game head quarters for locals and visiting spring breakers. We’ve jumped in on random brawls and have even defended ourselves from drunk tourists looking to prove how tough they are. Last night though was different. It was an all-out battle between us and some preppy jock kids from another high school.
To make a stupid story short, Jay got rattled after a crew of idiots left a bag of empty beer cans on the hedge next to his truck. Jay flung a half can of beer at the pale group and they turned around immediately ready to fight. Six or so of them circled Jay’s truck tailgate. He stood up and spiked another full beer at the group, until one pulled him off the tailgate by his feet. Jay fell to the ground with his lawn chair as the preppy frats began kicking him. Chaser and I sprinted across the parking lot to help him and in seconds we were all brawling.
We broke through the huddled fight with balled fists. We shoved and swung at the pastel blur of collared shirts while taking on the barrage of slaps and kicks in attempt to help Jay off the ground. Someone got me in a headlock for a moment, but I dropped my body weight and stomped on the ankle connected to a Sperry shoe that stood behind me. I managed to get free and helped Jay to his feet. Chaser crossed in front of one of guy who was ready to tackle Jay as we stumbled off. Chaser dipped low and with a brick-fist swung up and KO’d the tall boy. As his legs gave, his body collapsed like a falling building and I leaped over him as the three of us took off running for the dark side of the beach. But we didn’t make it.
A handful of tourists pointed us out to the bike police who pedaled up to the scene and before we knew it, they were pedaling after us and grabbed us before we ran across the sand. They pushed are faces into the sand and sunk their knees into our back. Then they took us away in handcuffs.
Fights on the strip happen almost hourly during spring break and we’ve had our scuffles and tossed out every hand-written citation or ticket we’d receive over the years. Some of the cops from last night we’ve had run-ins with before and though they banished us from returning to Fort Myers Beach Pier until the fall, we could go back tonight and do it all over again if we really wanted to. The bodily pain from the fight still hurts today, but the thought Jay killing himself kills every part of me.
I twist my house key into the front door scattered with orange and red county eviction notices. The papers catch wind when I push the door in. My Dad and I were ordered by the county to leave a month ago, but we’re waiting it out to the very end. We plan to start fresh and leave all the furniture behind to get demolished with the house. I’ll have my fishing gear, tools, some clothes, and my truck when its all said and done. Part of me wants to leave it all and travel. Find somewhere else to live and never return.
The busted deadbolt to my front door rattles when I shut it, and the familiar emptiness of home is still and quiet. The small mid-century, two-bedroom cottage where I live was built by my grandpa and a few of his friends. My Grandpa Garcia, planted roots on this part of the Gulf Coast in the sixties. After he died, he left my dad the old beach-style cottage and we’ve lived here ever since.
I was six years old when my mom passed away after she disappeared to Orlando. I was told she became sick after a contaminated mosquito had bit her. She died from the illness but I later learned the mosquito was a tainted syringe needle and she left because my dad stopped using when he started his own mullet business.
The only mother figure I had was Chaser’s mom. She kind of raised us both and we’ve been like brothers ever since my mom left. At one point, our backwater streets were a hidden gem. Once a tightly nit fishing village of cottages and stilt homes crowding a few murky canals. A sliver of paradise carved out of the mangroves and secluded from south Florida suburbia. People eventually moved and the area gained a bad rap. Now it’s a few abandoned acres waiting for dirt-fill and concrete that will be the foundation of new condos, tennis courts, and a yacht club.
Chaser lives with his mother and grandfather in their home that’s survived the coastal elements and stands today after going through numerous hurricanes. They too were compensated for their house and were forced to relocate. Chaser’s house and my dad’s cottage were the last ones left on our block. It didn’t feel right that this neighborhood was on its way to become luxury condos for the next arrival of success stories.
The payout for our house was hardly enough for a down-payment on a condo near the coast and real estate around here isn’t going down anytime soon. The more people that staycation and become residents, the more home prices rocket.
I drop my keys on the coffee table and see Chaser on the other side of my crooked sliding glass door. He puffs a cigarette in a plastic patio chair with his blue polarized shades resting over his forehead. He stare blankly over my broken and submerged dock and the thick mangroves across the canal.
Chaser hangs out on my patio even when nobody is home. It’s his hideaway for smoking cigarettes and sometimes he uses our tools to fix broken boat motors or whatever he’s tinkering with. Plus, if anyone comes by our place looking to loot or steal, they’ll see Chase on the porch and probably drive away if they know what’s best for them.
Chaser is seventeen but could pass as a twenty-two-year-old man. Girls at school say he looks like Paul Walker from the Fast and the Furious but we call him man-child. He’s athletic with the build of a soldier. It’s almost as if he was designed to be a Navy Seal and because his grandfather who he lives with is a Navy vet, he is destined to join.
I scavenge the refrigerator for something to eat, hoping to find some food that’s quick and easy to cook. I didn’t grow up broke, but there was a time when my Dad and I ate the shrimp we were using as bait because we hadn’t caught any fish for dinner one night.
I find a frostbitten burrito stuck to the bottom of the freezer. I pop open the wrapper and nuke it in the microwave. I shove open the glass porch slider and turn the volume down on the outside radio.
“What’s up, Chase?” I pull out a cigarette and light it.
Chaser exhales a stream of smoke. The sunglass tan-line around his eye and cheek reveals a dark blue knot the size of a golf ball from last night’s fight. It’s the opposite side from the shiner on my face, and I think back wondering if one of the frat boys bouncing around the brawl was taking cheap shots at us using brass knuckles.
“Jay said he went up to the high rise. Sounded all messed up— crying and blabbering on. Said he wanted to climb the crane and watch the sunset go down one last time. He’s lost it, Cody. Like, I don’t even know who he is anymore.”
I puff my cigarette to life and grab for the bottle of rum in the center of the sun faded and moldy plastic porch table.
“You think this time he’s serious?” I splash rum into my Styrofoam soda cup. I lean back on the legs of my plastic patio chair.
“I don’t know?” he shrugs. “I don’t think he has the guts to jump. But could you live with it if he did?”
Jay joked about cutting his wrists a short time after his sister had died in a car accident. We were in fifth grade. He’s mentioned suicide only a few times since then but I wonder if it was more than just a cry for attention this time. The last thing I feel like doing is climbing a high-rise crane after a six-hour lunch shift on no sleep. Not only to mention its trespassing, and we’ve already been warned by the sheriff to stay away from the high rises under construction.
There was push back from the locals in the area who didn’t want the high rise buildings to be built where a Bald Eagle’s nest once stood at the top of a Pine tree. The county turned a blind eye to the environmental outcry and since the eagles were only around to lay eggs in the wintertime, the land was bulldozed one summer and it wasn’t long before the concrete made its way upward.
The tall condo walls stand a mile down the road from where our sinking neighborhood sits. High-rises are going up all along the coast and as fast as they go on the market and fill up with residents, we found the one-to-two month window during the construction timeline where we could explore the rooftops undetected. A concrete skeleton staring out over the empty void of the Gulf of Mexico. We risk jail time for trespassing every time we sneak in, but the view and feeling of a post-apocalyptic Florida is worth every second.
I dial Jay’s number, hoping he answers this time. I wish he would just come over and hang out. I sit waiting for an answer and remember back to a few weeks ago when Jay joked about jumping off the high-rise — provoking the idea when we were watching the sunset atop the high-rise. I remember what he said while dangling one of his flip-flops over the edge with the tip of his toes.
“What if I just jumped? You think tomorrow’s front page would read Boy Commits Suicide at Sunset” He asked before dipping his toes down, allowing a sandal to slip off. He kicked off the other sandal and remained barefoot for the walk back through the dusty construction site.
“I don’t think the daily news reports local suicides. Especially if it’s a minor— let alone romanticize a story out of it.”
“Yeah. Suicides damage tourism. Think people would buy a penthouse in this building if they knew a kid jumped off the balcony?” I said.
I feel like an idiot not taking Jay seriously back then. I feel like I know him better than anyone and he’s not as selfish as people think he is. But what if he is? And he ends it?
Jay’s voicemail greets me again. I leave a message.
“Jay. Call me back when you get this. I uh, just got off work and Chaser’s here at my place. Stop by. Let’s hang out.” I flip my phone closed and drop it onto the patio table. I take another drag from my cigarette.
I shrug. “Maybe he already jumped?”
“Gee, that’s pretty cold for how sweaty and stupid you look right now,” Chaser says readjusting the plastic chair beneath him.
I wasn’t sure if he actually would do what every mother dreads. Maybe he would take his life to make everyone else live with it. Could be his way of rejecting the privileged life he was born into. Avoiding all opportunity and the convenience of luxury laid out before him. Maybe it was another drug-induced tantrum caused by years of family dysfunction, death, and divorce. A build-up of bad karma that evolved into an emotional monster that forced him to give up and give-in.
Jay grew up a human test subject for depression and ADD medications. He’s always taken meds no matter what his issue was. Jay hardly rests. He jumps from one extreme to the next with barely any downtime in between. He lives like there’s nothing left to live for. Raised inside a safe and secure environment, trapped inside a sheltered paradise that requires him to maintain an image that sought the approval of other upper-class families whom his mom is associated with.
Jay wants more of everything. More material things. More pleasure, notoriety — more happiness. All of it. All for nothing. Even if he gets it all, it’s nothing he feels. A high school senior who survives and functions on psychotropic drugs and pot. He frequently fishes with us and eats the fresh seafood we pull from the backwaters or off the coast. Jay is like a teenage savant who is talented in music and math and fishing is a challenge he can never really solve. He’s nihilistic and rebellious. He pushes the boundaries, pinching the nerves of authority for the attention that was never there.
I want to ignore Jay’s problems the way I ignore my own. There’s little time for relaxation in the sunshine state and if you’re treading water to keep from drowning in debt, you’re just another shark in the feeding frenzy. The distance growing between my friends and I over the last few weeks is more noticeable every day, but none of us want to confront it head on.
Jay denies the reality of us moving on after highschool and acts like everything will remain the same after our neighborhood is demolished. Who knows where we’ll all end up after graduation. It’s like Jay is onshore in some lounge chair while the rest of us are stuck offshore fighting the undertow. I wait another minute before calling again.
Chaser motions a finger at the bottle of rum on the porch table.
“Can I take a swig of that?” He asks, waving over his faded amber-colored Tervis cup that he carries everywhere.
“Yeah, but no more than a shot. If dad notices a half-empty bottle, he’ll make me pay for it.”
He reaches across the table and the dotted shark bite scar ,the circumference of a beer can on his forearm, reminds me of what solidified us as friends. We were in junior high, and our C scars came from a dare that ended up as some kind of brotherly bonding experience. It also sent Jay to the emergency room.
One night shore fishing for sharks, we didn’t pull in the big ones we were fishing for, but we caught a handful of baby spinner sharks and black tips. For whatever reason, we started to test each other to see who was tough enough to hold a shark bite on the arm the longest. Chaser initiated the idea, and said it was a native Calusa tradition to send your blood back into the sea inside a shark’s mouth.
“Of course it hurts, but it’s for good luck. Yo, and if the bigger sharks sense that the babies have blood in their mouth, more will come by looking to feed.” Chaser swore by this piece of wisdom and even though I didn’t believe his crock of a story, we did it anyways.
The dotted C-shaped shark bite scar are still on our forearms to this day. We walked off the beach bloodier than all hell that night and Jay ended up getting stitches because he never lost when it came to showing his strength. Our parents obviously freaked out, and ever since my Dad has made fun of Chaser by nick-naming him Cult-Leader-Chase. From the shark-bite moment forward, the three of us stuck together like brothers. And no matter how tired and fed up I am with the kid, I couldn’t and wouldn’t turn my back on him.
I tear the lukewarm burrito in half and split it with Chaser. I call Jay again but the line goes straight to his voicemail.
“Let’s go find him,” I say shoving in one last bite. We walk off my porch and head for my truck. The late afternoon is still hot and humid, but a fresh sea breeze is starting to kick up pushing grey clouds down the coast. Chaser lights two cigarettes at the same time and hands me one before we step into my single bed pickup truck. Shaky and still hungry I drive a little faster than usual, praying that Jay isn’t lying dead in the parking lot.