Driving south on US-1 out of Homestead, I turned left onto Card Sound Road. I’d been driving since early morning, having spent the night in a cheap motel south of Jacksonville. Fighting my way through Miami traffic during an afternoon rainstorm had sapped what little patience I had left. Now that I was clear of that hell-hole and about to enter the only tropical destination in the United States, I felt like celebrating. A blackened grouper sandwich at Alabama Jack’s was in order. It had been far too long since I last enjoyed fresh seafood.
I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy transition. Yesterday morning, I was a Marine Gunnery Sergeant, a sniper instructor in charge of over fifty warriors. Today I’m more or less an unemployed drifter, with no real job skills. Unless you count shooting bad people from half a mile away a job skill. Regardless, I was excitedly looking forward to my new life as a civilian. I hadn’t even bothered to shave this morning.
I’d called an old friend, James “Rusty” Thurman, several weeks ago, told him of my pending retirement and asked what the job market was like in the Florida Keys. Rusty and I had served together early in my career, but he’d left the Corps after four years, when his wife died in childbirth. One of the few real Conchs left in the Keys, he’d taken over his dad’s bar, enlarged it and was planning to offer food in addition to cold beer and liquor. I’d been down there quite a few times over the ensuing years and loved the laid back lifestyle of the islanders.
“Job market?” he’d asked. “Nobody in the Keys has a job, bro. We hustle. Just get your ass down here and we’ll figure out what kind of hustle best suits you.”
Approaching the toll bridge, I pulled off the two lane road into the parking lot of Alabama Jack’s, killed the engine on the rental car and headed inside. The place was nearly empty, it being a Wednesday that was to be expected. What few people there were, were either bikers or fishermen. I sat down at a table overlooking the canal where several pelicans looked up expectantly.
“Cold beer, Captain?” a waitress asked, jarring me from my thoughts, while looking out over the canal to the marsh beyond.
I looked up at a pretty brunette in her mid-twenties, with dark brown eyes and a ready smile. “Yeah,” I said. “Red Stripe and a blackened grouper sandwich.”
As she turned to put my order in, I wondered to myself why she’d called me Captain. A moment later she brought my beer, condensation dripping down the sides of the bottle, and placed it on two napkins.
“Fishing or diving?” she asked.
“You’re a charter Captain, right? The other waitress and I have a bet, whether you’re a fishing or dive boat Captain.”
“How much is the bet?” I asked, thinking she might just have given me an idea.
“Ten bucks,” she said. “And on a slow day like this, it’ll probably be more than both our tips.”
I laughed and said, “Well, you both lose.”
“You’re not a charter Captain? We were both sure.”
“Fishing and diving,” I lied. Maybe one day, though.
I ate my lunch with enthusiasm. Growing up in Fort Myers, we always had fresh fish. My grandparents had raised me since I was eight years old and Pap was a first rate fisherman.
I’d forgotten how good fresh seafood could be, knowing that just a few hours earlier the fish was swimming around, without a care in the world.
I finished eating, paid my tab, including a generous tip, and got back in the rental car. I now had only three days to return it. That’s how long I had to find something to drive. Back on the road, I paid the toll for the bridge and came to a complete stop at the top of the high arch. There wasn’t any traffic either way, so I put the top down on the Mustang and stood up. Card Sound Bridge is very high and from the top you can see for miles. On a clear day, you can actually see all the way across northern Key Largo to the ocean. Not today, though. It was overcast to the south, but to the northeast, I could see Biscayne Bay. I took a long, deep breath of sea air before continuing.
For the next hour and a half I drove through the upper and middle Keys, the familiar islands and bridges rolling by as I chased the sun west. Pap brought me down here many times as a kid and the drive was always something we both looked forward to. He and Mam passed away just a couple of years ago, within months of each other. I was overseas when she passed. Pap waited until I got home so we could spread her ashes on the upper Peace River, another favorite place.
I finally arrived in Marathon. It had changed a little since I was last here, but not a lot. I slowed as I passed the airport, not exactly sure where the driveway to Rusty’s house was. As I was looking for it on the left, an old tank of a car parked at the Wooden Spoon Restaurant caught my eye. It had a “For Sale” sign taped inside the windshield. I braked hard, turned in, and parked next to it. It was an old International Travelall that looked like it’d seen a lot. I walked inside and asked who owned it. The waitress said it was the cook’s and went to get him.
A Jamaican man came out of the kitchen and said they were slow just now and took me outside to look closer. We haggled over the price and finally agreed on eight hundred dollars.
“Do you know where the Rusty Anchor is?” I asked him.
“Sure, mon. Just a quarter mile down Useless One.”
I pulled out a roll of bills and handed him a hundred. “I’m staying with Rusty for a day or two. When you finish your shift, stop by and I’ll give you the rest and a lift home. Bring the title.”
We shook hands and I went on to Rusty’s house. As I pulled into the crushed shell driveway and slowly drove under the canopy of overhanging oak, gumbo limbo, and casuarinas, I felt like I’d finally come home.
I parked the car, put up the top and the windows, and grabbed my seabag out of the trunk. After twenty years in the Corps, everything I owned still fit in a single seabag. Well, except for two cleaned and pressed uniforms in a carrier. I’d had a lot more things a couple of times, but two divorces took care of those material possessions.
I slung my seabag over my left shoulder and walked toward the bar. It was mid-afternoon, but there were already a handful of pickups in the parking lot. I pulled open the door and stepped inside, waiting a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darker interior before walking over to the bar. There were five men sitting at the bar and a couple of the tables and all of them turned to look at me, appraising the new stranger. I’d walked into many bars like this, all over the world. Places where working men gather after a hard day. Places where men sized one another up purely on physical characteristics. One by one, they all turned their eyes back to whatever they were looking at before I walked in.
I walked over to the bar, dropped my seabag at the end and took the last stool. The bartender had her back to me polishing the heavy mahogany top.
When she turned around I realized it was Rusty’s daughter, Julie. I hadn’t seen the girl in over three years. She was just an awkward thirteen year old then, all knobby knees and way too tall for her age.
She looked at me questioningly. “Can I get you something?”
I grinned. “Yeah, Jules. You can tell that old Jarhead in the back he’s about to get his ass kicked.”
That put ten eyes back on me in an instant and more than one chair leg scraped the floor. Islanders are tight and Rusty was one of them. I was an outsider, a mainlander. Suddenly, a glimmer of recognition lit her eyes.
“Uncle Jesse!” She flew around the end of the bar and leaped into my arms. “Dad said you’d be coming, but he didn’t know when.”
I set her back on her feet, pushed her back and looked at her. She wasn’t an awkward thirteen year old anymore. She was nearly a full grown woman, though she’d just turned seventeen.
“If it weren’t for you having your momma’s hair, I never would have recognized you, Jules.” I stepped back. “Look at you. You’re all grown up now. Can we lose the ‘uncle’ thing, though? A beautiful young woman calling me that makes me feel like I should be playing shuffleboard in Miami, wearing condo commando garb.”
She blushed as the men in the bar went back to their conversations. “It’s really good to see you again,” she said as she went behind the bar. “Dad’s out back, fixing up that old shack for our new cook. Want a beer before you go back there?”
“Nice to see you again, too. Make it four Red Stripes. A new cook you say?”
“Yeah, an old Jamaican man who just came to town. Dad’s going to let him live in the shack as part of his pay.” She took a small cooler from under the bar, filled it with ice, added six bottles from the cooler and handed it to me. “That storm will be on us in a few minutes, y’all might want a couple of extras to ride it out.”
As I bent down to pick up my seabag, she stopped me. “Just leave it there, Unc… I mean, Jesse. I’ll take it to the house for you.” Then she turned to a young man sitting at the bar with two other men. He had long hair and a barely visible mustache. “Watch the bar for me, Jimmy?”
“Sure thing, Julie,” he replied with a smile.
I walked through the bar and out the back door with the cooler. The storm front to the south was getting closer as I walked across the sloped backyard toward an old shack. Rusty’s grandfather had once used it to make illegal rum during Prohibition. I could hear Rusty swearing at someone or more likely something. As I stepped onto the small porch of the shack, the first fat drops of rain started hitting the ground around me and pinging on the tin roof.
Rusty and I went through boot camp together at Parris Island in the spring of seventy-nine, riding the same bus together from Jacksonville. We were the only two in our platoon from Florida, so we became fast friends. Later, we served in the same units a couple of times, once at Camp Lejeune, and again on Okinawa. We kept in touch by mail when we weren’t stationed together. We were both two months from either going home or shipping over when his wife went into early labor and tragically died giving birth to Julie. Rusty had almost two months of saved leave and used it to get out early. I shipped over. Julie stayed with his parents until he got home three days later and it’s been just the two of them ever since. It was a struggle to say the least, a man raising a little girl alone.
Letting the screen door slam, I said, “Sounds like you could use a cold beer there, Devil Dog.” He turned around quickly, belying his stature. At just under five-seven, he tipped the scales at more than three-hundred pounds.
“Jesse, you old wharf rat!” He crossed the room quickly and threw his arms around me, nearly lifting me off the floor. Rusty was always a hugger. “You shoulda called. I’d have picked you up at the airport.”
“I rented a car and drove down from North Carolina. Damn good to see you again, old friend.”
“It’s been way too long. I bet Julie barely recognized you.”
“How’ve you guys been?” I asked opening the cooler.
He pulled two beers from the cooler with his big left hand, reached into his back pocket and quickly popped the caps off with an opener he always carried.
“We’re doin’ good. Trying to fix this place up some. I hired me a genuine Jamaican chef. How about you? Got a third ex-wife yet?”
I laughed and took a long pull on the cold Jamaican beer. “No way, brother. I’m a confirmed bachelor these days.”
He grinned through his thick red beard and arched his eyebrows, forming three lines across the breadth of his forehead, below his bald head. “Well, you came to the right place then. Only women around here are married or fed up with men. But, there’s hot and cold running tourist women every weekend that you can play with.”
I looked around the old rum making shack. He’d completely gutted the place, moving seventy-five years of clutter out, and slightly used furniture in. Originally, it had been a single room, about eight feet by sixteen feet. He’d added a wall, creating a small living space and a bedroom in back. Where the old still had been, a potbellied stove now sat.
The living area had a window that looked out over the Atlantic Ocean, which now had wind-whipped waves and white caps as far as I could see. The only furnishings were two heavy, leather recliners, a tiered table between them with a reading lamp. On either side of the window were two bookcases, already filled with hardback and paperback books.
I glanced through the doorway to see a single bed against the wall and an identical table and lamp next to it. “Pretty sparse living conditions,” I noted.
“Rufus, he’s my new chef, he said that this was all he wanted. He’s an old guy, not sure how old, but he still gets around like a teenager. Used to be head chef at a fancy place down on Jamaica. His wife died a year ago and this is how he wanted to retire. Sit and read by the sea.”
Rusty plopped his considerable girth into one of the recliners. “Take a load off, brother.”
Sitting back in the recliner, looking out the window at the gray menacing sea, I reached over with my beer bottle and Rusty extended his, clinking the necks together. The storm built in intensity, the heavy rain pinging on the tin roof sounding like a fusillade of automatic weapons fire.
“Got any plans?” Rusty asked.
“Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. Would you think I was totally nuts if I said I wanted to buy a charter boat?”
He nearly choked on his beer and used the bottle to point out the window. “You want to go out on that? Hauling some dumbass Yankee bubbas out there to catch fish? That your idea of a hustle?”
I followed his gaze out the window. “Not so much the bubba part, but it’d solve a couple problems. One, I’d have my own place to live and two, if I don’t like my neighbor, I can just start the engine and move. What’s it take to get a charter license?”
“Yeah, I think so. My pension from Uncle Sam is more than enough to cover living expenses and I have quite a bit saved up, plus what Pap and Mam left me. I could buy a really decent boat with that and still have plenty left over.”
Rusty took a long pull on his beer. “I was real sorry to hear about their passing. Pap was a smart man and sure could find the fish. And man, could Mam ever cook.”
Several times Rusty and I would take leave, or extended weekends together and he’d drop me off in Fort Myers, on his way down here. Most times, Mam would insist on his staying over so he wouldn’t have to drive Alligator Alley at night. They treated him like another grandson and it was only natural for him to call them Mam and Pap.
We drank beer, caught up on recent things, reminisced about old times and then he went on to explain the different kinds of licenses and what it’d take to get each, while the storm continued to rage outside. I had to admit, the little cabin certainly had its appeal.
Suddenly, the rain stopped and within seconds the sun was shining, causing steam to rise up from everywhere. “Welcome to Florida, bro. If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour. Let’s go up to the bar.”
We got up and went out into the sweltering humid air. It was early June, but in the Keys the passage of time is measured by the seasons. Hurricane season and tourist season. Though summer still brought quite a few tourists to the southernmost tip of Florida, winter was the big tourist season.
We walked into the bar, where several more people had taken refuge from the storm. Rusty went behind the bar and yanked the cord on an old brass ship’s bell mounted on the wall, getting everyone’s attention.
“Folks, this big landlubber is one of my best friends in the whole world, Jesse McDermitt. We served together in the Corps and he’s just retired. Says he wants to buy a charter boat.”
Rusty pointed people out and gave me all their names. The young man with the long hair was Jimmy Saunders. Seated next to him were two guys about my age, Al Fader, and Charlie Hofbauer and a tall black guy, Sherman Crawford. The four of them were shrimpers out of Key West, Rusty explained.
After the introductions were made, Sherman spoke up, surprising me with an Australian accent. “Fishing or diving charter, mate?”
“Maybe a little of both,” I replied. “Very little though. More than anything, I want a boat I can live on and big enough I can go exploring.”
Jimmy turned to Al and pointed to the end of the bar. “Hand me that paper you were just looking at, Skipper.”
Al shoved it down the bar and Jimmy spun it around, pointing to an ad for a Coast Guard auction in Miami scheduled for the following Saturday. Circled under the banner was a listing for a boat. Jimmy tapped the picture with his finger. “Dude, if you want to do a little of both and want a really cool place to live when you’re not doing either, right here’s the boat you want.” Then he grinned at Rusty and turned back to me. “Hope your credit’s good, man. That’s a lot of samolians.”
I looked down at the listing. It had a picture of a sleek looking offshore fishing boat, with wide Carolina bow flares and a long foredeck. The listing said it was a forty-five-foot Rampage convertible and had a reserve of three-hundred-thousand dollars. I spun the paper back to Jimmy. “I don’t know a lot about individual boat models, but I know Rampage is about top of the line. What can you tell me about this model?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Top of the line? Yeah, dude. And the forty-five is the company flagship, man. Has a really nice forward stateroom with its own private head. Aft of there is the guest cabin and head. A couple steps up from there to the galley and salon. Rampage goes all out here, man. Really nice woodwork and furniture, even a big screen TV. Step down aft the salon to the cockpit. All business there, dude. Plenty of deck space, storage and fish boxes, fighting chair, even a cleaning station and sink. A hatch amidships takes you down to the engine room, below the salon. The forty-five usually has a pair of C-15 Cats down there. That’s eight-hundred and fifty horses each. Plus a water maker, generator, and inverter. A ladder to port takes you up to the bridge, loaded with electronics. Radar, fish finders, sonar and VHF radios. But, it being a Coast Guard auction, this particular boat was probably seized from smug drugglers. Could be shot all to hell, man.” The kid seemed to be pretty knowledgeable. “You busy Saturday?”
“You think you can afford a boat like that, dude?”
“If it doesn’t go much over the reserve, yeah, I can afford it.” What I didn’t say and what was nobody’s business was that when Pap died, I was his only heir. He’d started an architecture firm after World War Two, was very successful, and sold it about five years ago for over two million dollars.
“Count me in,” Rusty said. “I’ll drive you up there and if you buy it, Jimmy here can help you pilot it back and get your sea legs wet. If not, we can always go to a nudie show on South Beach.”
Jimmy thought it over a minute. “Okay, you got yourself a first mate, bro.”
The front door of the bar opened then and the cook from the Wooden Spoon walked in. He looked around, his eyes adjusting to the darkness and spotted me and walked over. “Got your ride outside, mon.”
“You bought Joe’s piece-a-shit, man?” Jimmy asked.
“Not yet, he ain’t,” the cook said. “Still owes me seven hundred.”
I pulled a roll of bills from my pocket and peeled off seven one-hundred-dollar-bills and handed them to the man.
“Got the title, Joe?”
“Ya, mon.” He produced the document, signed the back and handed it to me. I stuffed the paper in my back pocket.
Jimmy pointed to the ad again and laughed. “You can afford that boat and bought a piece of crap for seven Benjamins to drive around in?”
“Wouldn’t make sense to haul bait and boat parts in a new pickup,” I said. “Besides, the car seemed to call my name.”