LIVING TO DIE IN PARADISE
Preview the first chapters to my novel Brackish, book one of the Living to Die in Paradise series. I love all criticism and feedback so feel free to spill your guts.
Do you ever wonder what happened to that friend from high school? The one kid you barely remember? Their name rings a bell, and you visualize their goofy smile in their yearbook photo but haven’t seen or heard of them since graduation. You look up their name out of curiosity and notice the person you now remember has absolutely no online presence or activity on social media. No arrest records of any kind, work history, or political affiliations displayed anywhere on the interwebs. A total absence from modern day social life with zero information on their success or whereabouts.
That one borderline forgotten high school friend. The ghost who didn’t buy a year book. The one who left the building when everyone else stuck around on the last day of school to laugh, cry and sign yearbook pages with Sharpies. That high school friend would have been me, if I wasn’t sitting in jail during graduation. I’ve avoided taking pictures with anyone over the years and stay off line to avoid being tracked or investigated. Protecting your identity working for the business I’m in is a matter of life or death, and I’m way too young to die.
There’s a small sliver of Florida’s Gulf Coast where locals in one particular zip code make a living serving food, bartending, fishing, and or selling drugs. Some people own businesses, and some even end up inheriting a chunk of money which allows them more time in the sand than in shoes. I kept a cashflow while hustling night and weekend jobs between Mullet fishing, offshore commercial shrimping, and waiting tables. I was low-key selling some plant and powder as well.
I was self made and had everything I needed. Leaving the coastline for anything different was unrealistic to me. I never really considered traveling either. Paradise was all around me. The backwaters where my family fished in solitude for decades and lived off the sea is all I knew. Like the typical American, I didn’t care too much about what happened elsewhere in the world. Everyone was coming to Florida.
Since birth, the landscape of my quiet fishing town continued to transform with the invasion of newcomers. I didn’t even recognize some parts of town with the rapid growth of businesses and condos piling on top each other. Our side of town was next in line to get gobbled up by the unstoppable gentrification machine, and there was no use in trying to save it.
There weren’t any graduation presents waiting in driveways or college acceptance cocktail parties in my neighborhood. My friends and I fought through our growing pains and phases, and by our senior year everything had spun out of control. We fell trap to the chaos we created, and life took an unexpected, sideways turn down an unspeakable path of events.
It was spring break, 2003. The southwest corner of Florida was buzzing with hordes of wandering tourists, local hustlers, and raging drunks. My friends and I were unsupervised and wild. Acted like we were bulletproof, and for whatever reason, we didn’t give two damns or even really consider suffering any consequences.
“Cody, put out that cigarette and get the hell back in here. You have a family waiting on you, moron. Let’s go!” Chef yelled before waddling back into the kitchen. The back screen door to Dolphin Cove Grille slams behind him. I refocus my gaze on an inverted lizard inflating his reddish dewlap in attempt to attract the smaller female at the base of a palm tree. I press my lips for one last drag and flick half a cigarette into the five-gallon bucket filled to the brim with brown water and twirling plastic wrappers.
I push my sunglasses over my forehead and swish the dry taste of nicotine from my mouth with a rum soda I’ve concealed in a styrofoam cup. I rush into the kitchen striding past cooks, dodging food runners, and bussers and step back outside into the tiki bar. I pause scanning the table section on the patio deck while refilling my styrofoam cup with Dr. Pepper to see if any tables need a refill on ice water.
Since April, the daily low in south Florida hasn’t dipped below 90 and this past week with spring break in full blaze, cash is packing pockets and I’m spending it just as fast as I’m making it. Between late nights out, serving impatient, sweaty tourist, and a second attempt at graduating high school, I try to avoid the thought of server life becoming my only life. I kill off another minute acting busy behind the bar while discretely mixing another rum and soda. I finish filling up some water cups for a family of four and get back to work.
The shaded tiki bar overlooks two lanes of traffic and between running food and drinks between tables, cars I recognize from school zip by on the way up to the Pier. The stoplight perpendicular to my table section lines up every few minutes with expensive convertibles and SUVs. Ford trucks, luxury SUVS, and Volvo sedans line up blaring radio commercials and pop songs. Hyena-like laughter bursts out of backseats of every car or so.
I stack a tray with waters and walk through the fan misters back out the patio to a newly sat table of four. Two pudgy kids with their parents study their menus. Still in beach attire. None of them reach for the water cups or acknowledge any kind of thank you. It’s clear the children received most of the family genes from their heavy-set father. The red-head trophy wife studies the menu, appearing confused by the list of seafood choices.
Her lips are disproportionally larger and smoother than her aging face and her transparent beach cover-up outlines her curved body. It’s obvious she’s showing off the hard work from long sessions with a personal trainer and a plastic surgeon. Her husband’s smug face reads “Worth it.” He’s the first to look up when I begin to speak.
“Does anyone have any questions about the menu or cocktail list?” I ask.
The middle-age mother lets the menu flop to the table and peers up at me with green eyes above oversized sunglasses.
“So, tell me.” She says. A piece of gum hangs to one of her bottom molars. “How large is the Grouper sandwich? Like how much does it weigh, and what is the calorie count? It’s not printed on the menu for some reason.” Her family stares with her anticipating an answer.
“It’s a good portion. About the size of my hand,” I say holding my swollen hand out in front of her. I flip it palm side up, hiding my scraped knuckles from the parking lot fight last night.
“As far as calories? I’d say three hundred, maybe less.”
“Okay, well I’ll have the shrimp scampi instead. It isn’t farm raised shrimp is it?”
I adjust my sunglasses that sit slightly crooked because my cheek is swollen.
“Nope. Everything we serve here ma’am, is straight out of the Gulf of Mexico.” I lied. Our restaurant serves Gulf shrimp, but we ran out two days ago. Our reserve shrimp is the frozen kind in the food isle at the supermarket The restaurant still sells it for the same price as our Gulf-caught shrimp. The heavyset husband with a bushy mustache smirks.
“See? This is what we vacation for. You don’t get this quality seafood back home.”
“We do have a reputation for our fresh-caught market, sir.”
Ever since I started waiting tables, I’ve opened up differently to others. Especially after listening to the same charter fishing tales or one-night stand stories naive tourist and bar regulars like to brag about. I started bussing tables my freshman year. Now a senior, I wait tables and bar-back two to four nights throughout the week. Hardly anything compares to the chaos of tourist season in my hometown, and I learned more about myself and people from working in the food industry than I ever had in the controlled environment of high school.
Like Bob Dylan once said, The times are a changin’. The simple misfortune of living in a flood zone deemed uninhabitable and barely earning above the poverty-line to live anywhere decent along the coast is what I’m faced with. My time left along the coastline is ticking down and the Garcia legacy will have to survive somewhere else in Florida.
I scribble down the last food order just as a caravan of muscle cars and expensive trucks pull up to the red light at the intersection. I recognize some of the football team hanging out of sunroofs and doorless Jeep Wranglers. The light turns green and as everyone starts driving away, a yellow pickup truck rolls up onto the sidewalk blaring its horn. The patio, packed with families and day drinkers flinch at the loud horn as it speeds by beneath the patio railing.
“Garcia!” The shouting voice from the yellow truck startles me, but I don’t react.
“Hey, Fish Shit! Shuck me some oysters, bitch!” The intrusive scream followed by rap music and laughter sped away like a yellow blur leaving the customers all looking at each other in confusion. Luckily the name tag on my shirt reads only says my first name. A few regulars at the bar cackle as blood rushes into my cheeks. I pretend the verbal assault wasn’t directed at me and head back into the kitchen.
Surprisingly, with my lack of class attendance, people from my high school actually know who I am. I had always been teased for having a fishy smell on my hands and clothes. I didn’t mind, and to tell you the truth, I only went to school once after an all-nighter fishing a full moon tide in sixth grade. During a time and space where life-long rumors and nicknames take ahold.
I’m actually fairly clean. It’s impossible to hide the lingering stench of filleting and gutting fish from people who don’t catch and clean it on their own. I’ve been called it all. Shrimp Shit, Bait Bucket, Crab Crap, slime fingers, you name it. But I never let it get to me. I was free from all the BS at school. I had the ocean and fishing and it’s all that ever mattered.
I could have dropped out of school last year, but didn’t. Between waiting tables, selling pre-rolled spliffs and dime bags to tourist, restaurant staff, and a few guys from school, I got by without a problem and still made it to school on time.
Last year I used school as an air conditioned place to nap on the days I actually showed up. I was held back. Short of graduating with two full semesters worth of credits. which kept me from walking with the class of 2002. I was given a second go around since the administration thought I was being neglected at home. With most of my credits taken care of, I only have a few more weeks until the principal hands me a piece of construction paper with a tiny, overly aggressive Buccaneer mascot stamped below my name.
I didn’t mind getting held back a grade. Both my best friends were a year below and instead of wasting all of my years of education without anything to show for it, I made it a priority to graduate this year. Plus, nobody is getting hired as a boat captain on today’s waters without a high school diploma and there’s no way in hell I’m working as a deckhand the rest of my life.