The first chapter of my novel Brackish, book one of the Living to Die in Paradise series. I love all criticism and feedback so spill your guts.
“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 back 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 that I’ve concealed in a styrofoam cup. I rush through the kitchen striding past cooks and dodging food runners on my way back to the tiki bar. I pause, scanning 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 spend it just as fast as earn it. Between late nights wandering the beach strip and serving impatient tourists, the end of senior year is near and I avoid any thought of restaurant life becoming my only future.
I kill another minute and act busy behind the bar while discretely mixing another rum and Coke. I fill four plastic water cups for a new table arrival then balance the drink tray in a speed walk to take the next order.
The shaded tiki bar overlooks two lanes of traffic, and between running food and drinks, I recognize some of the cars zipping by from my school. Expensive trucks on lift-kits and big tires and luxury sedans wait for the light to turn green perpendicular to my table section on the deck patio. When I first started working here I had a fear that people from school would see me waiting tables, but I got over it.
Every few minutes when the light turns red, radio commercials, pop songs, and hyena-like laughter bursts out of backseats of cars as friends yell out to each other across the three lanes. The typical weekend commotion as beachgoers race each other through traffic. Usually I’d rather be in the sand than serving tables, but with this heat, after full night stay inside the Fort Myers Beach drunk tank last night, I just want a few hours of complete peace and quiet.
The two pudgy children wearing sandals and their parents all in beach attire study their menus. None of the four reach for the water cups or acknowledge a thank you. The red-headed trophy wife examines her menu carefully, apparently confused by the list of seafood entrees.
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’s the first to look up after introducing myself.
“So, does anybody 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 ma’am— is straight from 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 we don’t say it’s bought from the store by our head chef. The heavyset husband smirks with an awkward twitch of his goatee.
“See guys? This is why we vacation down here. You 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 or hold back a question. It’s easy to stay one step ahead when you see similar patterns of a hungry group and if you have to lie or fake a smile for an extra buck, so be it.
I grew up in a town of liars and fibbers. I’ve listened to the same 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 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 just as a caravan of muscle cars and pickup trucks pull up to the red light. I recognize the vehicles from my school’s parking lot. The behemoths from the football team hang out of sunroofs and doorless Jeep Wranglers. The light turns green and two freakishly large defensive linemen drive off hollering to a country song.
A yellow pickup truck rolls onto the sidewalk chirping its tires, its horn blaring. The large truck heads right for the deck patio as families and day drinkers gasp and duck low at the loud horn blast. The rowdy idiots from school swerve jumping the curb onto the sidewalk.
“Garcia!” a voice yells out from the truck. I watch the road with my pen and order booklet in hand as the scene unfolds right before my table section and me.
“Hey, Fish Shit! Shuck us some oysters, 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 scramble we had last night.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve eaten most of the fish my friends and I catch off the beach or in the backwaters. If you have ever gutted and filleted your own fish, you know it’s near impossible to completely rid of the fishy gut smell that sticks on your hands. Those who don’t catch and clean their own fish are ignorant to the fact, and being the serious angler that I’ve been my whole life, 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 have and will 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 or even cared to. My mind is always on the ocean, inside the space of physical and mental freedom. Catching fish is the only thing I’m actually great at and poling through wide open mangrove bays in search of rolling tarpon made school feel like a prison cell. An air-conditioned oppression that demands obedience and attendance.
Everything I needed or ever really wanted is 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. It used to be a dream of mine to make a living as a charter guide. In my neighborhood, generations of fishing families made a living on the water and 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 size and even today some of the fishery feels like it hasn’t fully recovered. Since our family boat is out of commision and our neighborhood went to shit after the last flood, my dad started working construction and has poured concrete ever since.
Little by little our neighborhood was destroyed after every major tropical storm or hurricane that trailed up the west coast of Florida. Old homes would sink or get so damaged during the storms and many were left abandoned after most salts gathered what money they could from insurance and left.
Larger companies and commercial fishing competition soon plundered Southwest Florida’s charter scene and the vision for a laid-back career on the water I envisioned was sucked out of existence like an outgoing tide. Like many of the remaining coastal locals balancing a steady paying job and a life in paradise, I play harder than I work and I’m beginning to realize constant pleasure doesn’t end well for most.
For a second-time high school senior, I survive just fine between waiting tables and pulling party favors for tourist and restaurant staff. Last year I used school as a place to nap on the days I showed up. I was held back from walking with the Senior class of 02’. But because I wasn’t legally an adult and the guidance counselor felt that I was neglected, I was given a second chance to graduate.
I didn’t mind getting held back because it was the first time I shared any classes with my two best friends Chaser and Jay. I actually passed every test I took this year, and in a few months, the school principal will hand me a piece of construction paper stamped diploma, with a tiny overly-aggressive buccaneer mascot above my name. Then it’s off, to work, in the real world.
A high school diploma is all I need to get my captain’s license. Knowing that waiting tables will likely lead to financial cycle of dead ends, I’m ready to leave it all behind. Even if the weekly pay keeps me fed, there’s no-way-in-hell I-am sticking around town to serve food. I belong on the water. And if I can’t make money fishing, it would be dumb to deny any chance of becoming a captain.