Contemporary Fiction

Captain Mullet and the Compass Rose

By

This book will launch on Jul 1, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒
Synopsis

Captain Henry was quite content in his bridgehouse, listening to old standards on his Zenith, pecking out his great American novel at a broken typewriter, and desperate to ignore the world around him. But along comes Eddie Eye as his new apprentice and Henry’s world is capsized. In spite of their mutual disdain, the Captain and Eddie have a number of misadventures with some well-seasoned diner waitresses, an obese lighthouse wickie, a homeless basket weaver, a pair of drunken bricklayers, a gaggle of leathernecked fishermen, a near-naked Buddhist monk, and some jackasses in an egg-yellow Camaro. Curse the pirates!! It’s a Florida vacation without the TSA pat-down, and a novel Ernest Hemingway would have hated.



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Chapter 1: the apprentice


“Silly bitch almost ran me over,” Henry shouted to the leathernecks as he pedaled his vintage Huffy ten-speed up the drawbridge. The men along the rail turned and nodded, then went back to fishing - winding their spinning reels, baiting their hooks, working the late morning nibbles. It was too hot for conversation, and Henry expected no reply – just another opportunity to vent his endless agitations and to openly hold the world in contempt, “as is everyone’s God-given right.”

He ducked under a fishing rod cocked over a shoulder for a fresh cast - bait dangling - a drop of water hit the pavement. Henry thought he could hear it sizzle as he pedaled along, reeling over the bloated redhead who’d been yakking on her cell phone in the Jaguar convertible that had almost hit him as he crossed Federal Highway. She’d tried to beat the cross-traffic by ripping a right-on-red until Henry’s sudden appearance in the crosswalk forced the lumbering cat to a full and proper stop. She slammed on the brakes, dropped her cell phone, and then had the nerve to honk.

Henry laughed at the Jag’s feeble British horn, and as she drove by him up the bridge, he saluted her appropriately, flinging the gesture skyward with such intensity that his bike swerved and hit a plastic bait bucket, which ricocheted off the curb, bounced between passing car fenders like a pinball, then exploded.

Water cascaded down the bridge. Shrimp floundered, horns blew, cars skidded, and the leathernecks scurried about, tripping over their rods to rescue as many of the twitching crustaceans as possible, herding slippery handfuls to the safety of their buckets before the hot asphalt cooked them.

Traffic came to a stand-still. Henry smiled and crossed effortlessly over the draw-span to the bridge-house. He parked his bike, looked back at the chaos and denied culpability. “See what happens when they close the fishing pier? Idiots end up crowding the right-of-way,” he said aloud, to no one, before noticing his favorite Topsiders were splattered with blood from a gaffed barracuda tail-slapping the pavement by the bridge-house door.

“Morons,” he mumbled, looking up at the sign that he, himself, had put up - NO FISHING WITHIN 30 FEET OF BRIDGE-HOUSE, widely disregarded.

He shoved the ‘cuda off into the water with the side of his foot, yelled something unintelligible to the leathernecks, hosed his deck shoes and grumbled, knowing his sockless feet would squeak against the leather insoles for the rest of the day.

“Damn.”

He rinsed the fish blood from the sidewalk, slung the hose over the faucet, fished-out the bridge-house key from his pocket, and opened the big metal door. He walked in and slipped the key over a nail on the inside wall. His scowl tightened at the smell of burnt coffee as he squeaked up the stairs, shaking his head, knowing old Frank had left the pot on all night…again.

The snarled traffic, the fat redhead, the wet shoes, and the burnt coffee – the usual, Henry thought. The stifling heat drained his spirit, drew away his tolerance, and attenuated the misery his life had become. He anticipated the usual venting of his torment on poor Frank, who thankfully, was senile enough that he had no memory of Henry’s prior tirades. Frank would respond the same way he always responded: “Well, don’t that just figure,” which only fanned Henry’s fire. 

Whenever it got this hot, Captain Henry would remember his years in the Navy - the South Pacific, the heat waves rising off the deck of his ship, the humidity, the sweat. He‘d helmed ships large and small; commanded crews young and old; stood his vigil in wartimes and peacetime. From the vantage of his ship’s bridge, he had navigated through calm waters and through rough seas. He had seen the world, fought for freedom, and retired with medals and memories, and a dim view of his fellow countrymen and their chosen blissful ignorance of the foes that had been conquered and the sacrifices that had been made on their behalf. For somewhere along the way, society had turned its back on history, and men like Henry had somehow become irrelevant. The glory days were gone.

Half-a-lifetime later, Henry was still captain of the bridge – the Rock Key Road drawbridge anyway - and there were days when he stood alone on the watch, looking down on the Intracoastal Waterway, that he dreamed of the familiar times, and imagined himself standing on a ship’s bridge again.

It was Henry’s day off, but because of Frank’s narcolepsy, he made a habit of stopping in on his way to breakfast to ensure the charter boats heading for the ocean didn’t collide with a bridge unopened by a slumbering tender.

Sweat collected on Henry’s brow, and he ran a hand over the bristle of his grayed flattop as he reached the top of the stairs expecting to find Frank, his bald spot, his suspendered hunch-back, and gaping jaw rasping in apnea as he slumped in the wooden swivel chair, dead asleep. But to his surprise, Henry stood staring at the slackened posture of a wiry, younger man, sitting at the desk, sifting through the neatly stacked typewritten papers beside Henry’s antique Underwood typewriter.

“Who the hell are you?” Henry barked.

 The kid snapped his head around, spun the chair, and propped his feet up on the windowsill. “Eddie Eye,” he replied with great exuberance.

Henry frowned. ‘What’s the I stand for?”

Eddie pointed to his eye. “Eye. As in Eye for great literature,” he said glancing back at the manuscript on the desk, “…or Eye’s your guy,” with outstretched arms. Henry expressed no apparent appreciation for his wit, so Eddie leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. “Eye get the impression you’re an inherently unhappy person.”

Henry tucked his chin down and peered over his glasses. Eddie’s ponytail, nose ring and ripped jeans brought instant disdain, and Henry shook his head in a universal gesture of contempt.

“I’m taking over for Frank. Guess he's retiring,” Eddie said. “He went over to Publix for doughnuts. That was about an hour ago…but he’s pretty old…so I was gonna give him another fifteen minutes before I called the cops to report him missing.”

Henry blinked.

Eddie’s face widened and he offered a courteous smile. “So, who the hell are you?”

Henry stared for a moment. “Henry Morgan Selmer,” he said, taking the crusted coffee pot into the head. “Captain Selmer to most.”

Eddie smiled. “Henry Morgan Selmer…H.M.S…Her Majesty’s Ship,” he laughed. “You British?”

Silence from the bathroom…then the sound of the toilet flushing. Henry looked at the mirror and curled his lips in, willing-away the invader, as he ran water into the coffee pot.

A yacht appeared downstream on the Intracoastal Waterway, from around the bend to the south of the bridge. It blew its horn – one long note followed by a staccato. Eddie looked out the window, then at the bathroom. The yacht sounded its horn again. Eddie frowned, scanning the bridge controls. A moment later, the radio broke squelch: “Break VHF sixteen. Rock Key Bridge, this is Mamosa Skies - request opening.”

Again, Eddie looked in the direction of the bathroom. And again, the radio repeated: “Rock Key, come in.” Eddie stood.

Henry stepped out of the bathroom, polishing his glasses on his shirt. “Well?”

Eddie hesitated then took a deep breath through his teeth.

“Aw, Jesus, are you telling me you’ve never opened a drawbridge?”

Eddie raised his eyebrows.

“First day as a bridge-tender?”

Eddie nodded apologetically.

Henry stepped to the radio, grabbed the mic and blurted “Rock Key to Mamosa Skies, clear to proceed upstream.” He elbowed his way between Eddie and the control console. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.” Eddie stepped aside. “…and you?”

Henry squinted. “No one’s trained you?”

“Frank said something about you showing me the ropes,” Eddie said, watching Henry scurry about.

“Bastards hired another mullet,” Henry mumbled.

“Mullet?” Eddie laughed.

“Mullet. Mullet! Don’t you know what a mullet is?” Henry steamed as he started the traffic signal sequence. Bells rang outside. Gates dropped across Rock Key Road.

Eddie frowned. “Baitfish, right?”

“Mullet is the dumbest fish on the planet. They’re so stupid, they school at the surface and swim around in circles bumping into each other, waiting for some cast-net to drop over them and end their miserable existence,” Henry said through clenched teeth.

“You’re calling me a mullet.”

“Mullet. Dumbass mullet don’t know his job, gettin’ paid to sit and nose through someone else’s things.”

“Nice to meet you too.”

“Outta the way, Mullet!”

Henry lunged toward the roadside window to check that the traffic had stopped in both directions, and that there were no pedestrians or fishermen standing on the span. He brushed by Eddie and switched the draw motors on. Green lights turned red across the control panel and an orange light flashed to the right of a meter indicating the bridge’s draw angle. The floor rumbled as the span opened. When the inclinometer read sixty degrees, Henry checked upstream that no other boats were approaching. He took the radio mic and spoke into it with great authority: “Mamosa Skies, Rock Key. Preferred clearance – no traffic.”

Eddie watched, greatly amused that this old guy made such an operation of what appeared to be so simple.

Henry turned to the window to watch the yacht approach, crunching the wet leather of his shoes – a muted flatulence. Eddie looked at him. Henry was old, and old men had uncontrollable gas, Eddie assumed, and cleared his throat in an obvious way, waiting for the old man to excuse himself.

Henry ignored Eddie, inhaled deeply, exhaling through his nose, straining to force the air out slowly. He watched the huge yacht pass under the open span and looked down as its rails cleared the bridge fenders, then up as the yacht’s antennas and outriggers passed between the open road grating. He returned the mariner’s wave.

When Mamosa Skies cleared the span, Henry waited for exactly ten seconds, tapping his finger on the control console, marking time, and then switched the controls to lower the bridge. Eddie smiled at Henry’s precision. With the bridge locked down and the traffic gates raised, Henry turned around.

Eddie smiled. “You’ve been doing this a while, huh?”

“Almost ten years,” Henry squinted.

“Well, you got it down to a science,” Eddie said.

“Nothin’ scientific about it. It’s regulations.” Henry made an entry in the bridge log – glancing at the overhead clock twice. He looked over his shoulder at Eddie – his new protégé - and took a deep breath. “Ship signals its intention with two blasts of its horn or by radio – channel sixteen – always channel sixteen. Got that so far?”

“Channel sixteen,” Eddie nodded.

Henry sighed. “Mean high water mark’s down on the piling. See it?” He leaned over the angled window and looked down.

Eddie nodded.

“Look over here. You can’t see it from there!”

Eddie leaned against the desk and looked down. “Yeah, alright.”

“Now listen, some of the boat captains will request a bridge opening when they don’t really need one. Showin’ off for their girlfriends, what not. You look at the water level and use these binoculars here to size up the yachts as they pass that buoy out there. The white can with no wake stenciled on it.”

Eddie took the binoculars and looked up the Intracoastal, focusing on some women sunbathing at the country club pool.

“No, dumbass, the buoy’s right there,” Henry grabbed Eddie’s shoulders and adjusted his azimuth.

“Alright...”

“The boats pass that buoy and you use the foot scale etched onto the lens of the binoculars. You see?”

“Cool.”

“You can measure how many feet above the waterline the yacht is, then check the bridge clearance by the water marks down below. If the boat clears with more than six feet to spare, you flash the navigational lights once, signal them with a blast of your horn, and let ‘em pass under,” Henry said, pointing to the light switches. “If they need more clearance, flash the lights twice, and start the raising sequence. Don’t count their outriggers or antennas. Make the jackasses haul ‘em down. No reason to hold up road traffic for lazy sailors.”

Eddie blinked.

“Maybe you want to write this down, ay?”

“Nah, I got it.”

“Good thing it’s not a Sunday, with all the millionaires showboating, jet skiers crisscrossing the right-of-way, and drunkards fishing in the channel. You’d have a log-jam and the Coast Guard up your ass…”

“Well, then, let’s be glad it’s not Sunday,” Eddie said.

Henry took another deep breath. “First rule: No overhead lights. I prefer the desk lamp.”

Eddie looked at the ceiling. “For privacy?”

Henry bristled, unused to his orders being questioned. “I-prefer-the-desk-lamp,” he said slowly to ensure there would be no misunderstanding.

Eddie offered only a blank stare, forcing Henry to assume he understood.

“Look here. This button begins the traffic signal change to stop the cars. This light shows the status – it’s green now, but when the light turns red out there, it turns red in here. Push it, then walk over there, look down to make sure all the traffic has actually stopped. Jackasses sometimes run the light. You gotta watch out for that. Then you come back over to the controls, hit this button and the gates come down. Now you walk back over there again to make sure the gates come all the way down. Sometimes they get stuck. And sometimes the jackasses drive around before the span opens.”

“A lot of jackasses around here,” Eddie said.

Henry took a deep breath and held it.

Eddie watched the cars zoom by. “What happens if they don’t make it?”

“If who don’t make it?”

“The jackasses, when they drive over the bridge while it’s opening. What happens?”

“It's bad.”

Eddie nodded. “Bad.”

“That’s why you check – to make sure nobody gets hurt.”

“So, like, when a car drives across the bridge while it’s opening, hypothetically speaking – can they, you know, jump it? Like in the movies?” Eddie smiled.

“What? No! That doesn’t happen. When it's being raised, the bridge can’t support the weight of a car. It’s counter-weighted – in perfect balance. The draw motors only put out 150-foot-pounds of torque to raise about twelve-hundred tons – to just set it off-balance so it tilts the counter-weights, changing its static equilibrium around a pivot point. If a car drives over it while it’s raising, the damn thing will just come crashing down, jamming the gears, burning-up the drive motor, bending the span joists, and giving the jackass in the car plenty of reasons to see a chiropractor. But we’ll never find out, because why?”

Eddie stared.

“Because we always check to make sure traffic has stopped before unlocking the bridge and raising it. You got that, Mullet?”

“Yeah.”

“Now, the boat captains know that upstream traffic has the right of way. So, if they’re waiting south of here to pass, and another boat is waiting north, the captain upstream - to the north - gets to pass first, after you’ve raised the span.”

“Uh huh.”

“And you must log every boat that passes when the bridge is opened. If any of the boat captains try to pull one over on you, make a note of it in the log. Coast Guard comes in every week and collects the logs, so make sure you log all passages – the way I did this one – Mamosa Skies.”

Eddie examined Henry’s log, as Henry re-stacked the pages of his novel-in-progress, checking to ensure the order had not been disturbed by Eddie’s perusing.

“Sailboats – they motor through like anyone else. Against regulations to let ‘em pass with their sails up. Few years back, we caught a sail on the span. A rich newbie slipped through while the bridge was up, trying to pass a yacht going upstream. Idiot broke his mast, swamped himself and his cables jammed the gears in the motor pit. Took all day to fix it. Cars were backed-up to the turnpike. And to top it off, the jackass tried to sue the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard for the cost of fixing his boat,” Henry chuckled. “But all that aside, make 'em strike their sails. If they slip by, report ‘em to the Coast Guard on the VHF – channel seven – that’s the Coast Guard channel.”

Eddie nodded, trying to commit everything to memory. “So, these millionaires with their yachts – they get preference over people in cars trying to get to work and stuff?”

“Of course,” Henry smirked. “Maritime traffic has always had the right-of-way, for as long as we’ve been building bridges across their channels. Mariners were here long before cars were even invented.”

“So, the majority has to wait for one guy on a yacht. Doesn’t seem very democratic,” Eddie said. “That because yacht owners are all Republicans?”

Henry took off his glasses, squeezed his eyes with one hand, and continued his bridge-raising crash course. “At sunset, turn on the navigational lights. Then take a look and make sure they come on. Sometimes a fuse blows – salt-spray in the wires, what not. Fuse box is on the wall there next to that chart of regulations – which I personally find easier to read with the magnifying glass that you’ll find in the middle desk drawer. Rules are pretty simple: No guests. Be careful you don’t lock yourself out – the door downstairs is self-locking, so don’t go leavin’ your key up here if you walk out for inspection – which you are required to do twice a week. We’ll go over that tomorrow. I hang my key on the nail by the door – old sailor’s trick.”

“Is that because sailors are always getting drunk and losing their keys?”

Henry squinted. Eddie was looking for a laugh, but didn’t get one.

“No drinking on the job, obviously. Don’t come to work drunk or stoned, or I’ll throw you over the rail myself. Don’t play on the radio, don’t tie-up the phone line, and most importantly, leave my things alone. You get the bottom drawer of the desk. I’ll respect your privacy. Keep your mitts outta my drawers.”

“Dude, there’s no chance of findin’ my mitts in your drawers.” Eddie chuckled. “I know what they say about sailors…”

“Enough outta you, Mullet.”

“You better stop calling me Mullet.”

Henry's forehead wrinkled, and he stared without blinking. Eddie matched his stare, raising one eyebrow to up the stakes. Henry curled his lips under. He’d like nothing better than to punch the punk kid’s lights out. Eddie nodded – as though he could read Henry’s thoughts, almost daring him to do it. As the stand-off reached its zenith, Eddie cracked a knowing smile and shifted his eyes toward the typewriter. “So, what are you writing?”

Henry eased the tension in his jaw and waited a moment before taking his next breath, trying to figure out who had won the confrontation. He examined Eddie's face, sizing the kid up, then relaxed his shoulders, realizing that he and Eddie were going to be spending a lot of time together - and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

Eddie looked at the manuscript's cover page:


The Adventures of Brock Havasample

By Henry M. Selmer

 

Eddie smiled. “Great American novel, huh? I don't read books much, and really wouldn't know the great American novel if it fell off the high shelf at the library - you know, where you gotta use that stupid rolling stool to reach it. Not that I hang out in the library, even though that's where the smart ‘chicas’ are. Takes too long to read a book. I mean, you can ask me about movies or TV, no problem…”

Henry winced - an instant headache. He sat down at the desk.

“So, is writing a hobby?” Eddie asked. “Or you lookin' to get published?”

Henry stared at the typewriter the way one looks at a sleeping dog. “Just killing the boredom and keeping the old gray matter working so it won’t freeze up,” Henry said, tapping his longest finger against his temple. “Suppose it's for fun. Sure as hell, not writing one of those haughty, adjective-laden literary novels. I got a rule, that if I don't use a word in my every day speaking voice, I don't use it in my writing. No reason to make people consult a dictionary to decipher the meaning behind the words. Better to just tell the story, rather than tell the world you're a pompous ass.”

“Who's Brock Havasample? Is he the main character?” Eddie reached for the manuscript.

Henry slammed his hand down over it. “He's a bible salesman. But it's certainly not finished and it’s a private enterprise of sorts,” Henry said while loading a new page into the Underwood.

“So, you’re like Hemingway…”

 “Hardly,” Henry chuckled. “Hemingway had perspective.”

“He also had thirty cats and a drinking problem,” Eddie laughed.

Henry frowned. “You’ve probably never read a word of Hemingway.”

Old Man and the Sea. Yeah, sure, in school. What’s the big deal with that? Guy goes fishing…”

“Guy goes fishing? Jesus. It’s not about fishing, you idiot. It’s about perspective.”

“Perspective?” Eddie laughed. “Isn't that like pink-eye? I mean nobody can really tell you what it is, and if you have it, no one will look you in the eye ‘til it’s gone.”

Henry stared in utter disbelief. “Didn’t expect you’d understand,” he said, turning toward the typewriter, clearly sending the message that he considered their conversation over.

Eddie watched intently. Henry’s fingers jabbed at the old keys, pounding out the tale of his one-time bible-salesman, Brock Havasample - “…a future bestseller,” Henry would often say with a wink. The wooden swivel chair creaked as he leaned back to stretch out his lumbar.

A pelican landed on the rail outside, watching the fishermen intently, waiting for discarded bait to hit the water - much as the fishermen watched the pelican intently, knowing the birds were too stupid to tell between bait-discarded and bait in-play. And catching a pelican, while potentially a good fight, meant tangled lines, flying feathers, snarled traffic and a call to the wildlife ranger to take the bird to rehab.

 Eddie sat on the cabinet beside the desk, browsed through the music in his iPod, shelled some peanuts, while inspecting the figurines of lighthouses and sea captains lining the windowsill - more than a few lighthouses. Eddie raised an eyebrow. “Big lighthouse collector, huh?” he said, chewing.

Henry said nothing. The bridge-house soon smelled of peanuts. It reminded Henry of the circus and he wondered how long he would have this monkey on his back.

Vintage photos hung on the wall, including a larger duotone of a younger Captain Henry in summer whites on the bridge of a Navy ship with his hand resting assuredly on the ship's compass. “So, Hemingway, no pics of you after what? The fifties? Living in the past a little, don't you think?” Eddie said loudly over the thumping music in his headphones.

Henry shook his head at the idiocy of Eddie’s rambling and turned up the volume of his old Zenith Royal on the desk. Glenn Miller reprises crackled over the speaker as lightning from distant thunderclouds broke the ether.

Eddie pulled off his headphones. “What is that? A.M. radio? Sounds like shit.”

Henry ignored him.

“Hey. This you? The guy in the middle?” Eddie leaned over the desk to get a closer look at the yellowed picture in a dime-store frame. Henry looked up over his glasses, squinted at the photo and nodded.

“So, you're some kinda war hero.”

“Anyone who's gone to war is a hero,” Henry said, turning his attentions back to the typewriter. Eddie watched him peck out Brock’s story.

“So, you don’t use a computer – is that all part of this thing you got for livin’ in the past?”

“No,” Henry said, still typing.

“Because it’s too expensive?”

Henry shook his head.

“Maybe it’s a little over your head technically?”

Henry stopped writing and turned his chair around to face Eddie. “Because it sucks your brains out. You spend so much time trying to figure out the damned machine, you forget why you needed it in the first place. A typewriter, you see, can be used during a blackout. The only software it needs is a good vellum. It never requires upgrading, beyond an occasional change of ribbon. Never freezes up. Never needs to be backed-up or re-booted. And it doesn’t take up a lot of space on the desk. It may be a little old and cranky, but it works…aside from the F key.”

Eddie laughed. “One of the keys doesn’t work? What a piece-a-shit. Why don’t you buy a new one?”

“This one will do.”

“Without an F key? Not like it’s the Q or the X. It’s the F key.”

“A great writer can work around that,” Henry said proudly.

“Oh, really. What about of?”

“What?”

“The word of - how do you write the word of without an F?”

“A great writer never uses that word.”

“Really.”

“Yes. In fact, I never have to use the F key.”

Eddie laughed, thinking that this old guy might be fucking with him. But without an F key, that didn’t seem likely.

“So, your main character, the bible salesman. You're saying that like Brock Havasample carried a bag full of bibles never appears in your book.”

Henry grit his teeth at the thought that Eddie had been reading his work, but played along to meet the challenge and put the kid in his place. “Brock carries bibles in a satchel works equally well.”

“Okay, what about: He was famished and foraged through the store for food.'“

Henry looked up, eyebrows scrunched. “With a hunger building, Brock walked around the store seeking provisions,” Henry said.

“What about like, fed?” Eddie asked.

“I’d write, nourished.”

“Felt.”

“Sensed.”

“Forgot.”

“Overlooked.”

“Fell.”

“Plummeted.”

“Flew.”

“Soared.” Henry smiled, folding his arms, encouraging Eddie to bring it on!

 Eddie conceded. “Well then. Guess you got it all figured out. But you know, without an F key, you can’t use the word fuck in your novel.”

Henry winced - a migraine - and wondered if the old Zenith was up to the task of drowning out his new deck hand. He reached for the volume knob.

“It’ll never sell,” Eddie continued. “Successful novels are judged by how many times you use fuck. And forget about it ever being made into a movie without at least a hundred fucks in there.”

Henry grumbled, “Mullet.”

A seagull flew completely around the bridge-house, soaring the lift of the southerly breeze as it rose against the bridge. A sport-yacht rumbled through below, its captain casually leaning to one side of the fly-bridge, empty martini glasses rattling on the bow deck, where golden women modeled bikinis. Eddie leaned toward the window for a look. Henry glanced over his glasses, scooting the swivel chair a bit. One of the golden women turned over, adjusted her towel, and undid the strap of her bikini top. Eddie nodded. “Job has its benefits.”

It occurred to Henry that looking down on the yachtsmen did bring a certain satisfaction. He looked at Eddie’s face, ignoring the piercings as best he could. “So, Mullet – you new in town?”

“Not really. I was born here. We lived over in Lake Park. Mom and Dad split when I was eleven and we moved to Boulder. She ran off to Barbados a year later with my best friend’s dad,” Eddie said, casually. “I moved to my aunt’s house and finished high school in Chicago. Worked the pier a couple of seasons. Then decided to move back here. Fucking cold in Chicago - worse than Boulder. Rented an apartment up in Hobe Sound. The rents are still pretty cheap there. Not like around here…”

Henry nodded. “Developers'll turn Rock Key into South Beach eventually. A lot has changed.”

“Surprising how much is the same,” Eddie said.

Henry looked out the window. “There’s a lot more traffic now.”

Eddie looked out at the Intracoastal, sparkling with the morning sun. A Boston Whaler skipped along beneath the draw span. The sound of its whining outboard echoed from the bridge pilings.

A horn sounded from behind them. Henry and Eddie looked upstream to see a beautiful motor yacht - deep blue hull with gold railing and signal flags along a line from its bow pulpit to the top of the flybridge canopy, spelling out her name: Golden Eagle.

The yacht cut through the water, carving a curl so high, and so smooth, any surfer would salivate at the sight. She showed no signs of slowing, and unless the bridge was raised immediately, her captain would no doubt have to reverse full engines to stop her.

“Look at this idiot,” Henry said. “Didn't even call in on the VHF. How rude.”

Eddie stood there.

“Well?” Henry said, clapping his hands together once to snap Eddie to attention. “What are you waiting for? Let's see if you were paying attention!”

Eddie was momentarily at a loss, but quickly regained focus. “Nav lights - two flashes, right?”

“No time for that,” Henry smiled.

Eddie hit the buttons for the traffic signal change, looked over his shoulder at Henry, who shifted his eyes to the window as a hint. Eddie took two steps, looked down, traffic stopped, two steps back, hit the button for the gates, two steps to the window, gates down, two steps back, span unlocked, and the bridge drew upwards with a low rumble. It wasn't even fully up before the Golden Eagle flew through. The wake rippled through the pilings as the yacht roared downstream. Eddie broke a sweat watching anxiously. Henry shook his head.

“What?” Eddie said, defensively.

“That skipper's an idiot,” Henry said. “Played it a little close.”

Eddie's shoulders relaxed.

“It happens.” Henry smiled. “Well, log it.”

Eddie closed the bridge, locked the span, raised the gates, and hovered over the log book. “Go ahead,” Henry said. “Log it.”

“Eddie wrote the name of the yacht, the time, then hovered over the space for tender's comments.

Eddie looked over his shoulder. “What do I write?”

Henry raised his eyebrows. “What do you think you should write?”

“I think I should write that the guy was an asshole.”

“Well then?”

Eddie waited to see if Henry was serious. He was. So in the comment part of the line, Eddie wrote a single word and set the pen down. Henry nodded. Eddie smiled. He did it.

“That'll do, Mullet.”

Eddie's smile turned to a frown. He folded his arms and leaned on the cabinet by the desk. Henry looked at him, remembered briefly how it felt to be in training, and offered a nod of confidence.

Eddie shrugged. “No big deal.”

“No big deal?” Henry snickered. “Wait until tomorrow.”

“What happens tomorrow?”

Henry raised one eyebrow as he peered over the top of his glasses.

“What?” Eddie laughed nervously.

Henry said nothing more. His hands fell back onto the typewriter keys, tapping in precise rhythm. The Underwood’s muffled bell punched the downbeat of each new line. And after some time, he paused, looked over his work, then with a steady, deliberate hand, he pulled the page from the Underwood with a snap and the pile of carefully stacked pages grew by one.

Henry saw Frank's car pull into the gravel lot at the bottom of the bridge. He stood up and walked down the stairs. “Frank's here to baby-sit you. You all clear on what to do, right?” he said, tapping the bridge-house key on the nail by the door, and looking back to assure himself that Eddie was watching.

Eddie waved – go on.

Henry stepped into the sun, took a look at the lighthouse in the distance and mounted his bicycle. A passing car honked and he turned to see the familiar faded maroon Chevy Caprice listing to one side. Henry’s friend Carmine pulled the cigar from his mouth and gave a good wave out the open driver’s side window. Henry waved back and coasted down the bridge behind him.

Frank thought Henry's wave was meant for him and returned the gesture, clutching his box of donuts, as he huffed his way up the bridge. Henry shook his head. “New kid's up there waitin’ for you…and by the way, thanks for the heads-up on that,” he said sarcastically as he rode by.

Frank cocked his head to the side with his better ear. “What?”

Henry just pedaled by, waving a dismissive backhand through the air like he was shooing mosquitos.

Eddie looked down at Henry from the bridge-house. He watched the old man pedal away, then took the novel page Henry had just finished outside onto the gallery deck, lit a cigarette and read it:

Brock Havasample stood with his partner, Vaughn, who cupped his hands around the cigarette he lit, even though there was no wind. It was a compulsive habit, like rambling on about the war days. The match light glowed in his eyes.

 Vaughn pinched the butt between bony knuckles, and ran his other hand through graying hair, clutching the matchbook between his thumb and index.

 “So, we’re taking Deland today, right?” Vaughn squinted as smoke surrounded his head.

 “Yes, with great disregard to this hellish heat wave,” said Brock, sweating. He was sure they would sell-out their wares to the good citizens in Deland – up near the prison. Vaughn was once a guest in that very same prison. Stealing. He had a knack. The only way he knew to survive. But now, the road beckoned, and the steady pace kept him at Brock’s side. Kept him clean.

 Incarceration had given Vaughn some clarity with regard to the value in liberty. It changed him, just as Brock’s days with the Jehovah’s Witnesses had branded an indelible moral imprint on his soul, making him a rarity: an honest salesman.

 The heat was unbearable, but the two drug along, house-to-house. Brock would rather have pursued sales along the beach - where the winds made the air cooler, more tolerable. But with rawhide gardening gloves in vast supply, he knew the inland ranch hands and horticulturists were where the demand would be.

 Brock wiped his brow with his arm. “An oven. That's what this is. I am simply not suited to this environment. I am much more productive in regions nearer the ocean.”

 “What’d you expect? It's Deland. It were by the beach they woulda called it De-water,” Vaughn said, laughing in short wheezes. Brock was entirely unamused.


Eddie laughed and shook his head. Not one F.

About the author

Former TV producer, Joel Ratner, grew up in South Florida. "With every tide, comes the flotsam and jetsam of society to stain humanity's beaches with their idiocy. As a writer, I feel it's my duty to bear witness to the absurd, and derive meaning from social catastrophe." view profile

Published on March 01, 2017

Published by

110000 words

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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