Achilles Last Stand Tavern
28.6° N, 80.8° W
“NASA just went into HURCON-III.” Rolf Underhill speaks to no one in particular as he puts his flip-phone back into the pocket of his jean overalls. “Not long now…”
Rolf may speak to no one in particular, but everyone – all 4 of us, give or take a couple semi-conscious souls, in this driftwood dive – is paying attention. This is Titusville, Rocket City; Achilles Last Stand Tavern is near enough to see Kennedy Space Station looming in the east if you parked in the side lot, stand on the hood of your car and lean south far enough to see around the sable palm. It’s a bar supplied with large ice-chests of sub-domestic beers and a wall of bottom-shelf shine. There’s a confederate flag on the ceiling in the back, nude centerfolds in the men’s room and Christian scripture in the ladies’. If this were a normal Saturday – tourist season or not – Achilles Last Stand Tavern would be packed; but this is Labor Day Weekend, 2019, and the tide is slack because this is the calm before the apocalypse.
Hurricane Dorian is on the approach; everyone within the bar is nervy with fatalistic anxiety. The old Florida crackers had a way of knowing, Rolf Underhill says as he clutches his Bud Light, miss-sipped dollops of beer absorbed by his scrub-brush beard. Rolf explains, but everyone listens: the old Florida crackers had a way of knowing when a storm was brewing before they even seen it, could feel it in their bones, feel it in their bowels, these crackers, and you feel it too, Rolf says, you just don’t know it, think you got the squirts, but the old Florida crackers could feel the barometric pressure going bananas and they would know hurricane is coming. Reckonin’ is coming, Rolf says, them crackers knew they’s coming to Jesus.
Titusville is an odd stretch of sunburnt concrete betwixt waters. Within close range of Cape Canaveral’s NASA and Space X launch pads, Titusville is a forgotten beach town framed within a futuristic landscape. To the east, past the Indian River, is the space center on the Atlantic coast. To the west are the Florida Backwaters, the tangled marshlands of the St John’s River, a wild frontier where roughnecks hunt wild pig atop airboats. Titusville is a crossroads for wayward bikers and journeyman truckers and on any given night you could find either belly-up at the bar aside 5th generation fishermen & hog-men and 3rd generation surfers & rocket scientists.
“No stores have bottled water. All the non-natives have gone nutso; think it’s the ‘End Times’.” Ruth McAllen shakes her head, waiting for her candied whiskey to be poured. “Gas stations have run out of gas. Yesterday, I seen a man filling up buckets of fuel. Buckets! Storm-fever makes fools of men.” Ruth grabs her whiskey glass and toasts those at the bar, “Whiskies up, gentlemen, and hunker down.” She finishes her shot and breathes fire into her fist. “Alright, y’all keep slidin’.”
“Keep slidin’.” Rolf bids the woman farewell. It is slough-skimmer talk; airboat lingo. On the drive east to Titusville through the Backwaters, the Central Florida motorist needs to keep an eye out for airboats sliding across the road as if living through a Burt Reynolds epic car chase. “Keep sliding” is the simple encouragement between Backwater folk to keep doing whatever the fuck they want to keep doing. Every time I hear it, Paul Simon starts singing in my head, slip-sliding away… slip-sliding away…
But there is no Paul Simon on the juke. No Led Zeppelin either, despite the bar’s name. The etymology of the tavern is from the legend of an old hog-dog, perished in 1975, an honorable death Rolf explains, Achilles deceased in battle against a 426-lb boar with 5 inch tusks. “Keep slidin’, Achilles” Rolf raises his Bud Light in another toast. After a sorrowful sigh, his yellowed-eyebrows perch on another idea. Rolf begins describing how the Chinese are to blame for this looming apocalypse. You see, says Rolf, after the 2004 hurricane blitz on Florida and 2005’s Katrina, G.W. Bush signed a secret peace accord with the Chinese to get them to quit using their weather manipulation satellites. President Trump, though, is a bull in a literal China shop, you see, says Rolf, and the Chinese are pissed-off which is why this Hurricane Dorian has circled around Puerto Rico – one of Trump’s arch-nemeses – and set its sights on Palm Beach – Trump’s holy land at Mar-a-Lago. Rolf sees my reaction and is pleased with himself. I ask the bar to put his next BL on my tab.
We’re close enough to the ocean to smell salt. The Atlantic’s proximity combined with the weather report illustrating the leviathan which has been awakened has given me the itch to head west, past the Backwaters, to higher ground. Days ago, this storm was thought nothing more than Labor Day rainfall, expected to break apart against the mountains of Santo Domingo, but Hurricane Dorian had more chutzpa than that, slip-sliding out of the way of the Caribbean islands into open ocean, leaning into the Bermuda High, finding a path towards Florida. Weatherman says it is going to hit hard and it’s going to keep hitting through Labor Day, dragging as much Florida with it on its path north. People are already evacuating Titusville and, as Rolf said, NASA has announced HURCON-III. We are within 48 hours of a possible direct hit. It is time to get the fuck away from the beach, but not everyone is leaving.
When there ain’t no other way out, you just got to go further in.Backwater Creed
Rolf Underhill will be here at the Achilles Last Stand until they stop serving and then it’s to his apartment on US-1 where he’ll play solitaire by candlelight (once the electrical grid goes down) with a bottle of Jack Daniels until Hurricane Dorian passes. And then? He’s on cleanup crew. He’s a part of NASA’s “Damage Assessment & Recovery Team” and will be combing the beach and Indian River for storm flotsam and jetsam. It is a very sensitive work, he says with a wink, collecting space junk.
I ask the man behind bar what he will be doing. “Riding it out…” Dillinger says cavalierly. He’s barely thirty years old, if that, and has only a few years in Florida, but he’s already seen his share of hurricanes and the novelty has worn off, leaving only disdain, annoyance and stubbornness in the face of a storm surge which could carry Achilles Last Stand into the St John’s River. “Achilles is the safest place for me, so I will be setting up my sleeping bag and riding it out.”
“He’ll be riding out the storm with his girlfriend, Trixi.” Rolf adds, pointing to a young woman setting sandbags outside the front door. “And his sexy, little, cousin Ginny Mae…” Rolf looks around, but cannot find Dillinger’s kinfolk. Rolf leans towards me and begins whispering as if we were two longtime conspirators. His whispers are indecipherable through his beard, but they sound scandalously delightful and I nod my appreciative non-understanding. Rolf looks towards Dillinger, whose back is turned towards us as he cashes me out, and Rolf speaks loud enough to get the barman’s attention, “You watch yourself, Dill! Watch yourself after the hurricane knocks out the power. When there’s no light, you need remember if it’s Trixi laying on your left or on your right. Or is it Ginny Mae? You be real careful where your hands get crab-grabby in the dark.”
Dillinger is smirking as he returns to the bar with my credit card receipt. He jokes with Rolf, “‘Sponsibility ain’t on me, man. In the dark, Ginny Mae is the only one who’d know something wrong. It’s on her to up and tell me if I grab the wrong tit.”
Rolf laughs so uproariously he chokes on his beard when requiring more air. Once he catches his breath, Rolf Underhill denied Dillinger, “Christ, Dill, you know she ain’t gonna.”
Dillinger shrugs at the implication with the cavalier indifference of a doomed man. Storm-fever makes fools of men, Ruth McAllen always says. It’s going to be a hell of a Labor Day.
Outside, the clouds seem heavy, burdened with an ominous secret only the old crackers could interpret, but the sky appears to the uninitiated as any late August day in Florida. This certainly doesn’t feel like HURCON-III.
You know the nearer your destinationPaul Simon
The more you’re slip slidin’ away…