Florida Joe jerked awake. His Army field jacket slid from covering him to the ground. He’d nodded off in the rusted beach chair again, by the swampy irrigation ditch that formed his property line. Ringlets in the water fanned out and disappeared from something submerging itself. The sun had not yet pierced the horizon, but the orange hue of dawn rose slowly into the black.
Most nights, Joe sat for hours, drinking steady, and witnessed nothing. But on the nights Joe lived for, the gators appeared, clawing up the bank, creeping ink blotches in the darkness. When they got close enough to lash out, Joe calmly clicked the hammer on the .44 and switched on his night-vision goggles.
The gator’s lifeless eyes stared back.
Joe thought they carried silly looks. Dumb grins. The eerie way the moon caught their scales in the night vision revealed glowing monsters in a fuzzy haze.
No gator had ever tried Joe. He wondered when one might attack.
Would he be dragged in, firing wildly at the gator’s head? Yanked below when he ran out of bullets and rolled until his fight stopped? Left underneath for his breath to give out, eyes open, lungs filling with swamp water?
Joe cruised the main drag in Nokomis on his way to breakfast at Dean’s grill, his thoughts on bacon, eggs and grits. Coffee as black as jungle night. Hangover rolling fierce. Brow sweat. Stomach pain. An uneasy desire for a drink.
Joe’s Lebaron convertible slowed for a red light. He pulled the bill of his black Army veteran hat down over his aviators, trying to ignore a military helicopter buzzing in the sky above him. He glanced at his flip-phone resting on the passenger seat.
Joe hit the gas when the light turned green. Cocaine dusted palm trees slid across the rear view. Through the passenger-side window Joe watched a Vietnamese soldier execute a POW. The sun popping up over the gulf behind them like toast. Just a little toasted. Marmalade dab spread out. Ice water.
Joe waited to make a left across traffic. Spring had arrived, and Dean’s would be packed with the snowbird regulars he’d seen for years, but never bothered to meet. They flocked down to puncture the serenity when it got too cold in whatever hell they called home. Joe had lived in Nokomis all his life.
Three lanes of unbreakable traffic moved in Joe’s direction. Always this way in Nokomis now. Crossing lanes on a left could be maddening.
Joe thought most old folks in Florida had nearly come full circle back to infancy, confused, helpless and terrified.
A break in traffic came. Joe whipped into the parking lot. He hurried up the wheelchair ramp and went inside. A middle-aged waitress named Angela stood behind the register fanning herself with a menu.
“Howdy, Joe,” Angela said. “Just one?”
“Sandy’s coming,” Joe said, sliding off his Aviators and surveying the room.
Joe spotted a hefty woman, near eighty, with a white bouffant hairdo wearing a floral mumu. She stopped buttering a biscuit and gawked at Joe as he crossed the room—her mouth agape like a fat, tropical bird waiting to be tossed a bait fish.
Angela led Joe to a two-top in the corner with a view of the road. Joe retreated into the seat closest to the wall, covered his face with the menu, and peeked around every now and then to see if anyone was watching him.
“What are ya havin’, Joe?” Angela asked, already scribbling his order.
Joe placed his aviators on the table, angling the lenses toward the door. He set his phone by the glasses.
“Usual,” Joe said.
Joe fiddled with the jelly packets in a tray. He picked up a strawberry and saw a grape underneath. He moved the grape on top of another grape and put the strawberry on top of another strawberry.
“Don’t forget the ice water,” Joe said to Angela as she walked away.
Joe lifted up the two strawberries and saw another grape underneath. He pushed the tray away. Angela was staring at him funny.
Joe’s eyes darted to the water already on the table. The red plastic water cup was sweating. Joe watched a bead of water trickle down the side and curl into a tiny puddle. He wiped his brow with a napkin then wiped off the table and the glass. His heart beat dull. He looked back at the glass and the god damn thing was sweating worse than before. He stared at the beads of water until a shadow growing on his aviators consumed the lens.
Sandy loomed over him, strung out.
Sandy was going on sixty-five. Cut-off jeans and a Harley shirt. Big black sunglasses. A leather jacket draped over her arm. God damn woman must have been mad to wear that thing in the Florida climate, but Joe knew even the murderous heat wasn’t enough to warm withdrawal chills.
“Don’t know if I wanna stay, Joe,” Sandy said, glancing uneasily around the restaurant.
As Sandy sat, Joe watched her hand tremor until she hid it under the table.
“Take off your glasses,” Joe said. “Let me see your eyes.”
“It’s bright through the window,” Sandy said.
Angela returned with two coffees and a cup of creamer. Sandy splashed a dollop in hers. Joe watched the cream spread out before being overtaken by the black again. A few grinds rose to the top like swamp muck.
Sandy slowly removed her glasses and kept her eyes trained out the window.
“I’d like you to order some food,” Joe said, waving at Angela to get her attention. “Daisy is coming in town today.”
Sandy caught Joe’s eye and they stared at each other until Joe looked away, distracted by the ding of the door opening.
“Joe, we talked about this,” Sandy said.
Joe watched an Asian man with a conical hat enter and walk directly towards him pulling a rifle off his back.
“I hate this place, Joe,” Sandy said. “Why do you make me come in here?”
Joe didn’t respond. He was in an awkward half-standing, half-sitting position. Pouring sweat.
“I like company when I eat breakfast,” Joe said, easing back into his seat.
Joe wiped off his water again then dabbed his forehead with the wet napkin.
The Asian man was gone.
Angela brought Joe’s breakfast. He stabbed bacon, egg and grits in the same bite.
Sandy picked up her menu, couldn’t seem to concentrate, and set it back down. Joe slathered butter on toast. The table shook from Sandy’s leg going haywire underneath. Joe’s coffee splashed over.
“Can I count on you to meet Daisy?” Joe asked. “She’s coming in at one. Maybe you come over at two. Or I’ll come get you. Or we can spend the morning together?”
Sandy took a deep breath. “I don’t know why you’d want anyone to meet me. Your daughter most of all.”
Sandy grabbed a strawberry and peeled back the wrapper. She scooped some with her finger and licked it off.
“We’re friends aren’t we?” Joe said. “I don’t know anybody else, no other ladies at least. I want her to think I’ve got somebody. I don’t want her to worry about me.”
Joe peered at his phone.
“I wonder if this damn thing is working,” Joe said, tapping the screen.
“Look, how about I come by around two like you said,” Sandy said.
She readied herself to get up but stayed put. Joe took a deliberate drink of coffee.
“How do you plan on getting to my house?”
“You want me to come or not?”
“Will you call me by twelve-thirty if you can’t get a ride.”
Sandy nodded, solemn, and reached out her hand. Joe pulled out his wallet, rifled through bills and placed forty dollars in her palm.
“Get yourself right, you hear,” Joe said. “But not too right. Just enough to come off normal. Happy like you get.”
Sandy smoothed the wrapper back onto the strawberry and returned it to the tray. She grabbed the money and stood.
“She ain’t comin’, Joe. You know that, don’t you?”
“She’s flying in at one.”
Joe watched through the window as Sandy reached the road. She walked in the opposite direction the cars were coming, taking long, purposeful strides. Once Sandy was out of sight, Joe’s gaze drifted to a grove of palm trees behind a gas station. The tops were on fire.
Joe sopped up the last of his egg yolk with toast and placed a twenty on the check. Angela was there to grab it.
“Angie, call the cell phone, would you?” Joe said. “I want to make sure it’s working.”
“Sure thing, Joe.”
“Keep the change,” Joe said, but Angela was gone, and he knew she would anyway.
Joe’s phone buzzed and rang. Angela waved from behind the register.
• • •
Joe slowed for a red light on the road that led under the drawbridge to where the One-Eyed Pelican Bar sat perched on the intracoastal. Joe watched the red light as it slowly filled with blood. The light turned green and Joe knifed the Lebaron into the shade underneath the bridge.
A swath of blinding sunlight sliced into the darkness. Four good old boys, who looked like they could have been Florida Joe, hunched over the bar. A huge biker bartender, Gray, stood behind it.
“Jesus, Joe,” Gray said. “Shut that sumbitch, we got hangovers in here.”
Joe watched dust fizzle in the sunlight and float to the ground like ash before shutting the door.
Joe took a stool and looked down the line at the others, who toasted back with shot glasses filled with liquors in various levels of finished. Joe nodded back and placed his phone on the bar.
Gray walked over and spun the phone to face him.
“The hell’d you get this thing?” Gray asked. “Damn museum?”
“Daisy’s coming today, have to make sure I’ve got the phone on me.”
Gray poured Joe a whiskey, shaking his head.
“Daisy’s coming, huh?”
“Better give me a beer, too,” Joe said.
Gray placed a beer in front of Joe. Joe took a nip of the whiskey, then half the bloody beer down the hatch.
“That’ll win the race,” Joe said, cringing.
Joe felt his hangover pains start to dissipate. The calm rush of the alcohol entering his blood stream. He slammed the rest of the whiskey and pushed it toward Gray.
• • •
After a couple more than a few, and a ride home he couldn’t remember, Joe fumbled with his keys trying to get into his house. The sun was straight up and cooking.
Joe staggered through the living room. He grabbed a beer from a cooler. He went to his Florida room. The yard was getting pounded by the sun, it was the yellow of Jaundice.
Joe sipped his beer, waiting for the grass to burst into flames.
He put the phone on the table beside him and flipped on the TV. A war movie played he hadn’t seen. Beyond the TV, the military helicopter slid across the cloudless sky.
Joe’s phone remained silent. Four beer cans joined it on the table.
• • •
The phone read 7:30 when Joe came to. No missed calls. The last blur of the waning twilight slipped behind the horizon, creating a crisp white line between light and dark.
Joe wandered toward the irrigation ditch dragging the rusted beach chair through the grass. He was becoming a silhouette. The .44 hung limp in his hand. The night-vision goggles dangled from his neck.