Authors: Wayne Stinnett
Published by Stinnett Enterprises
Travelers Rest, SC
2013 by Wayne Stinnett
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Library of Congress cataloging-in-publication Data
Fallen Palm/Wayne Stinnett
p. cm. - (A
Jesse McDermitt novel)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Most of the locations herein are fictional. However, I took great pains to depict the general location of the many islands, channels, cuts, sand bars and reefs in the Keys, to the best of my memory and ability.
The Rusty Anchor is not a real place, but if I were to open a bar in the Florida Keys, it would probably be a lot like I depict here. Its location is actually vacant land on the south side of US-1 in Marathon.
Dockside Lounge is a real place, though. I spent a winter anchored in Boot Key Harbor and spent a lot of time just hanging out at Dockside, with the other liveaboards. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Keys, fishing, diving, sailing, boating and of course drinking.
I used “artistic license” to move the location of the wreck of the Confederate blockade-runner,
, from Wilmington, NC, to Fort Pierce, FL, another favorite dive spot.
Dedicated to Jordy.
Your vibrant enthusiasm and unabashed innocence
reminds me of a day and time, long since gone.
We should all stop sometime and look at
ourselves through the eyes of our children.
The Lower Florida Keys
"In the sense of movement a boat is a living thing.
It is a companion in the night. Each boat has its own manner and character.”
Travis McGee, 1985
Sunday Morning, 10/23/2005
The banging continued incessantly. At first, I thought I was just dreaming it. Hangover dreams are always strange. Gradually, as the fog in my brain started to lift, I realized I wasn’t dreaming. Was someone banging on the door?
“Go away,” I said, irritably. Opening one eye seemed to take a lot of effort, but little by little my right eye went from seeing total blackness to dark red, then to pink and finally it cracked open just enough that I could see the floor, slightly fuzzy, through my eyelashes. It sounded like the banging noise was coming from below the floor, which looked vaguely familiar. The lines in the wood were dark and burled. I thought to myself, I know that board, it’s my floor. Apparently, I was face down across my own bed, in my own house. Even through my alcohol-dazed haze, I realized that it’s called palo santo, or “holy wood” in South America. Here in the Florida Keys, we call it lignum vitae. The dark burled floor plank looked familiar because I’d cut it myself from a huge log a friend had brought out to me. I’d shaped it, sanded it and installed it in my house on stilts along with every other board. Well, I thought to myself again, if this is my house, that can’t be someone knocking on the door. I live alone on an otherwise uninhabited island, in an uninhabited group of islands.
Then a second pounding started and I knew exactly where this one was coming from. Inside my skull. It competed with the banging noise that came up through the floor, until I felt I was literally surrounded by a cacophony of noise.
“Yeah,” I moaned to myself, “You got one hell of a hangover, Jesse McDermitt. What the hell did you think you were doing, going toe to toe, or was it shot glass to shot glass, with a bunch of Sailors almost half your age?”
Slowly, the memory of the night before was taking shape. After a long day on the water putting up with four loud mouthed fat asses from Ohio who’d chartered my boat,
, for a day of dolphin fishing, I’d finally put them off at Dockside, in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, FL. After cleaning up the barf, beer cans and blood, I turned over the job of hosing down of the rest of the boat to my part time First Mate, Jimmy Saunders and told him to catch up with me at the Rusty Anchor to collect his pay when he’d finished cleaning the fish for the Ohioans. Jimmy’s a decent guy, though he tends to smoke too much pot on occasion. I hated that he’d had to put up with those guys. But, in his typical laid back Conch fashion, he not only took good care that they stayed baited, with a cold beer in the other hand, but kept them out of my hair. I don’t get along well with most people, and definitely not with fat ass, northern bubbas. They couldn’t fish for shit and had it not been for Jimmy’s help, they’d never have boated a single fish.
I then headed to my favorite little hole in the water bar, the Rusty Anchor Tavern, owned by my old friend James “Rusty” Thurman. The Anchor wasn’t a tourist place, in fact Rusty didn’t have a listing in the phone book and no hyped up billboards proclaiming paradise. Not even a listing with the Marathon Chamber of Commerce, for that matter. It was a “locals only” beer joint and restaurant and that’s just the way Rusty liked it. Unless you lived in the Middle Keys, you never heard of it.
I climbed in my rusted out hulk of a ‘73 International Travelall 4x4 and started the perilous one mile drive. An old girlfriend had christened my ride
a couple of years back and it was just that. A short one mile trip in
could easily turn into a harrowing adventure. A couple of minutes later, I pulled off A-1-A behind the Lower Keys bus, affectionately called the Magic Bus. A couple of local fishermen were about to board the bus and stopped me to invite me to go with them to Key West. Or more to the point, drive them there to save the $2 fare on the Magic Bus.
“Thanks for the invite guys,” I said, “but Key Weird’s not for me. Too many tourists.” They waved as they boarded the Magic Bus and it coughed and chugged as it pulled back onto the highway, barely missing an RV with Indiana tags headed south. I drove on down the crushed shell driveway, through the arched tangle of gumbo limbo and mangrove trees, into what passed for a parking lot at the Anchor. Since the driveway was sandwiched between two residential roads, it looked pretty much like any other residential driveway in the Middle Keys. There were no signs saying otherwise, so it was very rare that anyone not known to me ever came in. I recognized all the pickups in the lot as belonging to local fishermen, but one grey Ford sedan looked out of place. Obviously it was a rental car. How they’d found this place was anybody’s guess. I figured I’d have a couple of beers at the bar and get caught up on the Coconut Telegraph with Julie, while I waited for Jimmy. She’s the bartender at the Anchor as well as the accountant, busser, chief bottle washer and Rusty’s one and only child. After that, I’d drive back to Dockside, jump in my flats skiff and head home.
“Well, look what washed up with the tide,” Julie said smiling, as I walked in and took a stool at the bar. “Thought you’d run off to Miami or somewhere else way up north, Jesse.” Julie, like her parents and their parents before them, going back at least a hundred years, was a true Conch. Born at Fisherman’s Hospital in Marathon, she’d only been north of Key Largo a few times in her twenty three years. She’s a pretty girl, with wavy auburn hair she usually kept tied in a loose pony tail and always a ready smile. She was all business with the locals, though. Her dad Rusty, on the other hand, was a man of the world. He and I had first met in 1979 on a little island on the coast of South Carolina, near Beaufort, called Parris Island. It’s a place where boys are first turned into men and then into Marines. Rusty and I were in the same platoon in Boot Camp and since we were the only two from Florida, we became quick friends. Later, we served together a couple of times in many far flung places all around the world. We stayed in touch by mail, when we weren’t actually in the same unit. Rusty left the Corps after doing his four years, but I shipped over and made a career of it, finally retiring in 1999 as a Gunnery Sergeant with two failed marriages. It was often joked that if the Corps wanted you to have a wife, you’d have been issued one. Rusty married his high school sweetheart when he went home on leave a year after Boot Camp. Just before his first tour ended, his wife died giving birth to Julie at home in Key West. Julie stayed with her paternal grandparents until Rusty left the Corps the following month and raised her the only way he knew how. She was tougher than the limestone rock that most of Florida was made of.
“Hiya Jules. You oughta know better than curse your elders like that. Miami? Hell, if I thought
could make it that far, I’d go ahead and pay the toll to take the Sawgrass around that hell hole and just keep on going.” I nodded at a couple of shrimpers I recognized sitting at the bar, who nodded back. Then I glanced back at a table where three very serious looking young guys with crew cuts sat huddled over their beers, talking animatedly. Julie put a dripping cold Red Stripe in front of me and I asked, “Where’d the sailors come from?”
On an island, even though you hadn’t seen someone in weeks or months, you could pick up a conversation like you’d last seen them at breakfast. No need for pleasantries or greetings. I guess it’s because even though you might not see someone, they know pretty much everything you’ve been doing since they last saw you. “Best guess?” she replied, “Key West NAS. They’ve been here a couple of hours. Said they were waiting for you. The big blonde dude says he knows you.”
I slowly turned on my stool and gave them a closer look as I swallowed half of my cold, Jamaican beer with one long pull. The big kid looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. So I walked over, spun the only empty chair at the table around backwards and straddled it. All the talking stopped and three sets of eyes bore into mine. I glanced at each of them and stopped on the bigger man, a blonde haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian looking guy. Even sitting, I could tell he was close to my own height of six feet, three inches, but probably a few pounds shy of my two hundred-thirty. “I hear you’re looking for me,” I said and took another long pull of my beer, then motioned Julie for a round.
“If your name is Jesse McDermitt, I am,” replied the big Swede. “My dad was Russell Livingston.”
Like a switch being turned on, the synapses in my brain made the connection. No wonder this kid looked so familiar. I’d served under Russ Livingston in Okinawa and Lebanon, some years ago. Even though he was my Platoon Sergeant, we’d become fast friends, mostly because of our love of the ocean. We’d taken leave together several times and came down here to scuba dive, fish and raise hell with Rusty. This kid looked just like Russ did, back in the day. A little taller maybe, but the eyes and chin came directly from his dad.
“Was?” I asked.
“Dad died last month,” he replied. “The Coroner said he drowned. I’m Russell Junior, but everyone just calls me Deuce. Dad’s last wish was to have his ashes scattered on some reef down here. In his will, he said you’d be the only one that knew where it was. Been here two days and asked around, but haven’t found anyone that knows anything at all about it. Ever hear of Conrad Reef?”
“Drowned, huh?” I asked, as I reached across the table to shake the mans hand. “Real sorry to hear that. Your dad and I were close back in the eighties. I always thought he was part fish. Yeah, I know Conrad. Russ and I called it that, back in ‘83, I think. We’d just come back from Lebanon, right before the bombing and came down here on a 96 hour pass. We were taking turns dragging one another behind my old skiff, looking for lobster and found it about three miles off shore. We anchored up and free dived on it the rest of the day and into the night. The batteries in his dive light finally gave out and he put one on his shoulder and dared me to knock it off. So, we called it Conrad Reef from then on.”
Deuce gave me a puzzled look and I said, “Never mind, way before your time. Sure, I’d be honored to take you and your dad’s ashes out there. He was a good man.” I looked at the other two and added, “But, nobody else.” I didn’t know these guys and a good lobster honey hole was something you kept secret.
The other two at the table started to protest, but one glance from Deuce shut them down. He introduced me to a wiry black guy named Tony Jacobs and a short, muscular, white guy named Art Newman, just as Julie arrived with a tray of beers. “Hey Jules, is your old man around?” I asked.
“He’s out back,” she replied, “Been tinkering all day with an old Evinrude he picked up at a yard sale. I’ll get him for you. Everything alright here?” Julie was like a den mother to all the regulars. Never mind that every shrimper, diver, fisherman and boat bum that came in the place were all a decade or more older than her. The younger guys, after striking out with her, kept to the more upbeat places like Dockside or the Hurricane. She was much older than her years and had grown up around boats, boaters, and boat bars and looked after her patrons and friends.
“Yeah, we’re fine. Yell at Rufus in the kitchen and if he has any fresh hogfish, I could use a sandwich.” Turning to Deuce, I asked, “You guys eat yet?”
The black guy, Tony asked, “What’s a hogfish?”
“Make it four plates, Jules,” I said with a grin. “It’s a local fish, Tony. Tastes just like bacon.” Julie rolled her dark brown eyes at the old joke and turned to go back to the kitchen. The kitchen wasn’t really a kitchen, because it only had one wall, which was the back wall of the bar. Actually, it was just a deck out the back door where Rufus, who was older than anyone on the island, performed magic with little more than a large deep fryer and a couple of gas grills under a canopy. Mostly though, he sat in the shade of an umbrella and read old paperbacks, as the Rusty Anchor was more beer joint than restaurant and few people ordered anything more than a fish sandwich. Rusty let him live in a little cabin on the back of the property in exchange for the occasional meal order.
A minute later, Rusty came through the side door and you’d think the whole place tilted just a little, as he carried his portly 300 pound frame across the bar room, stopping to grab a cold Bud longneck from the ice chest. Rusty was a short guy and the brunt of everyone’s jokes in the Corps. But, he was solidly built and more than one Marine underestimated both his strength and tenacity. With a head of bright red hair, he was christened “Rusty” and the name has stuck ever since. These days, he was nearly as big around the middle as he was tall, with a shiny head and a thick red beard, going gray.
“Jesse, you old barracuda! You need to get off that damned swamp you call an island a bit more than once a blue moon and drag your sorry ass down here. How the hell ya been?”
I stood up as he came to the table and said, “Don’t be cussing my little corner of paradise, now. I’m doing as well as can be expected, though. Tell me, does this guy look familiar to you?” Deuce stood up and they shook hands, while Rusty studied his face for a minute. If there was a hunk of charcoal between their palms, it was likely one of them would be holding a diamond, any minute. Rusty was twice the weight he was in the Corps, but was still stronger than a Missouri mule and three times as stubborn.
Rusty’s face suddenly lit up and he said, “Sumbitch, if he ain’t the image of old Russ. You remember him, Jess. He was our Platoon Sergeant over to Oki, back in the eighties.”
I introduced Deuce and the other two men and Rusty put him in a big bear hug, nearly lifting the taller man off the ground. “How’s your old man doing these days?” he asked, after releasing the surprised younger man.
Deuce went on to tell the story again of his dad’s passing and last wishes and Rusty said, “Real sorry to hear about that. Russ saved my ass quite a few times when I got falling down drunk at Whisper Alley, on Oki. Anything I can do for you, son, you just name it.” Then he looked around, studying all three men the way only someone who’d once been one of them could and said, “You boys got hair too short for civilians, but too long to be Marines. Stationed down at Key Weird?”