29.64° N, 81.63° W
“Palatka is the Cincinnati of Florida”Mark Twain, according to a woman not named Stacy
I feel face-slapped by a steaming mullet. The starboard side of my body is sunburnt after morning motor-boating between Silver Glen and the Seven Sisters. On our return trip, moody cloud meddled with the sun’s reach, leaving me asymmetrically splotched, an unflipped bratwurst with arms and a net worth of however many beers are left in the cooler. Yep, you’re mullet-walloped, Jimmie Beakers diagnosed my condition as we pulled into dock. Well, dude, Jimmie Beakers said, his bald head sporting its own pink sheen, there are two kinds of surrender. The first kind of surrender is hide under mama’s skirts, live-to-see-another-day, kind of surrender. The alternative, Jimmie Beakers said, pausing for dramatic effect, squinting his beady-eyes until they became beadier, the other type of surrender is no surrender. Jimmie received the nickname of “beakers” from the local river-folk who appreciated his aptitude for “science-stuff”. My advice, Jimmie said as his brother Buster John turned off the motor and cracked open a BudLite, my advice is to drink another beer before the devil knows you’re dehydrated. Onward, we agreed. It is Memorial Day Weekend; there is no surrender. On a weekend like this, along this particular stretch of St John’s River, “onward” inevitably means an eventual bellying-up to the bar at Steamboat Willies.
The century-old red-brick confines of Palatka’s landmark dive, Steamboat Willies, is where I find myself somewhere around midnight. The blown-out speakers are blasting some Appalachian mountain-boy’s hardship, though it might as well be a whiskey-drunk Gregorian chant for all you can hear over the din of redneck rabble. The bar is well beyond capacity, dense with sweaty, camouflaged, sunburnt bodies. It is shoulder-to-shoulder and gut-to-butt, Buster John’s wife Rolf said on our arrival. Yeah, Buster John agreed with her, anyone left standing at this hour must be here, as well as a few on their knees. Those who aren’t wearing boots are in flip-flops, a dance misstep disaster-in-waiting if only there were room for dancing. Some women are in summer dresses, others are in bikini tops and jean skirts. Menswear spans a similar spectrum: everything from tank tops to polo shirts. It’s a young, binge-drinking crowd, community college students mixed with paper-mill grunts waiting for their shift to start, long-haulers looking to wind down and resident barflies, all hoping to get lucky with a debutant too many cups in. And there is us, the weekend warriors, semi-domesticated mongrels chasing the ghosts of Memorial Days past. Speak for yourself, Rolf says. I’m no washed-up, lawn-mower cowboy, like y’all, no offense, darling. None took, Buster John waves at the thought. Right, I say, course correcting. So then there is us, the washed-up, lawn-mower cowboys along with Rolf.
In search of a few plastic cups of draft beer, I approach the raucous bar and find myself behind a girl in a halter-top with the crabs of Cancer tattooed on one bare shoulder-blade and the epitaph of her dead boyfriend on the other, “Sweetest Cletus: 1996-2017”. Jimmie Beakers has taken notice, hissing at me “hey, she appears single” before wandering off to the bathroom. The girl-in-mourning wears no black veil. Her cheeks are sun-kissed (either set), her ears are adorned with fishing tackle and as short as her jean-skirt may be, her knee-high socks are long. After clearing my throat, I say, I miss Cletus every day, drawing a bewildered look over her shoulder. She turns away, ignoring me, focused on her inoperable electronic cigarette. I take out a Zippo and offer to light her plastic vape-pen. She turns 180 degrees to confront me with a look of incredulity on her face, the fuck’s your deal, she asks. I am wondering what the fuck my deal is when Buster John interrupts to tell her, this is Vic, he has a boat. She re-ponders me for a moment, her mouth is slack-jaw, as if she is echolocating by bouncing vanilla vape-breath off my beard. Her scowl has faded. What kind of boat? I choose carefully, telling her I have a pontoon boat. She scoffs and turns away. Buster John cackles; it’s the only laugh in his repertoire. You could have chosen any boat in the world and you choose a pontoon boat? It is the least sexy boat in the history of flotation, he says. I don’t have a boat, I explain, but can rent a pontoon in a hurry if need-be, y’see. Pontoon boats are available to rent, Buster John says over the noise, because no one wants to fucking buy them.
Buster John is something of a local Lothario, or at least he was back in his “Don John” days, before he got married. Don’t be confused with his maniacal grin or boxer’s reflex, Buster John is a poet. And should he cajole a lady into his jacuzzi, he’s been known to then seal the deal by handing her a puppy. When it comes to the Palatka dating scene, there is not much room for error. Halfway through high school, Jimmie Beakers and Buster John ran out of females to date they were not related to. And most of their cousins wouldn’t let them past first base. The brothers headed south for college, but soon learned you cannot bring just any girl back to Palatka and expect assimilation. You’re not just looking for a cute smile and good birthing hips, Jimmie Beakers once explained the Palatkan mating dance, you need a girl with enough rawhide to endure the ride. For example, Palatka Joe, formerly known as “Deep Joe” during his Florida State philosophy days, and as “Balls-Deep Joe” during his University of Miami MBA days, married a girl from Western Texas. Jimmie had to go to the hill-country of Lake County to find him a wife who could handle Palatka. And Buster John married an Oklahoma girl named Rolf (the family is really into The Sound of Music and had run out of other character names by the time she was born, leaving her with the villain as her namesake). Mail-ordering any ordinary blushing Prussian bride is not an option.
The problem with thongs, Rolf told us on the walk from the last bar, is no matter how large the ass, a thong will still fit. There is no prohibitive entry, Rolf continued, the thong, by definition, fits into the absence of space, which makes it accessible to literally, or even figuratively, everyone. I mean… she sighed, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? I shouldn’t rush to judge, Rolf said. But today I saw a butterfly tattooed on a woman’s bare ass as if her digestive tract were a cocoon. Every time she farts the butterfly flaps its wings. But is this really art? Or is it an act of terrorism?
Entrenched at the bar of Steamboat Willies, I only require three plastic cups of swill. Rolf has assumed designated driver duties in spite of her husband Buster’s plan to sober-up by walking between bars. They’re waiting in the outback beer garden as I seek BudLite for Buster, Guinness for me and any throwaway beer for Jimmie to pose with as his midnight drinking days have long past. Make it four beers after Roadhouse Ritchie accepts my offer to buy him a drink. He’s a preacher during the week, but on the weekends, he is the sort of dude you’d like on your side in a sketchy joint like this.
One thing I do not miss about the Blue Crab Festival, Roadhouse Ritchie says to me, are those soft-shell crab sandwiches. They literally take the crab out of the water, deep-fry it and put it on bread. Depending on when that crab last moved its bowels, you might be literally eating a salty shit sandwich.
Memorial Day Weekend, since the days of the Spanish occupation of Florida, up until recent, had been when Palatka held the Blue Crab Festival. I attended my first such fest in college when introduced to Palatka by Jimmie Beakers. In the last few years, the festival has been cancelled, because, as Buster John explained, Covid-19 killed so many chain-smoking carnies, there isn’t enough labor to build the necessary shit-houses. The last time there was a shit-house shortage, his brother Jimmie added, the St John’s River changed direction.
On my most recent visit to the Blue Crab Festival, I spent the night on a front porch swing with a girl who called herself Stacy until she didn’t. She told me Mark Twain once called Palatka the Cincinnati of Florida. Is that true, I asked. I dunno, she said, I’ve never been to Cincinnati.
I’m looking for a girl I used to know, I told Rolf earlier in the night, her name isn’t Stacy. You’ve come to the right place, Rolf assured me. Girls like that are a dime a dozen in Palatka. Or thirty for a quarter, she said, trying to upsell me.
Palatka’s greatest achievement is the wideness of the St John’s River, creating shallow enough waters to allow early settlers to cross their cattle. Historically, Palatka was known during the Civil War as a nest of rebel scum, including Lola Sanchez, the sexy-Cuban Paul Revere of confederate spies. Contemporary Palatka is known for its Azalea Festival and for having crabs. The Blue Crab Festival was a riverbilly bacchanalia with jet-ski rodeos, beer tents, street vendors deep-frying everything from clam strips to funnel cakes, Confederate Rock bands with some obscure Van Zant cousin on lead vocals, a beauty pageant to crown the crab queen and constant spontaneous fights, many of which went extra rounds later in the night at Steamboat Willies.
Personally, I’ve never felt at ease at “the Boat”. There’s been more teeth swept off these floors than in the local dentist offices, but, I mean, it’s Palatka: more locals go to the bar than to the dentist office. There is an undeniable feistiness which grows more intense the closer to the bar you get. It’s not a question of will there be blood, Roadhouse Ritchie says to me, but how much will be shed. There’s a bloodletter beside me at the bar. I wish his name was something benign like Paul, but it is probably Boolit. Boolit has fishgut on his shirt and wears a trucker hat featuring the tire-flap silhouette woman. He’s giving out the vibe of someone who is going to finish the night attempting to to fornicate with a deer carcass, only to fail to climax before the dead deer turns into putty, leaving him drunkenly sobbing and as sexually frustrated as he was to begin the day. And if I know this, Boolit definitely knows this and he’s already angry about it and wants to take his anger out on my front teeth when the barmaid asks me what I am drinking even though he’s waited longer. I tell her she can take Boolit’s order first, but he’s having none of my charity and offers to fuck me with a barstool leg. This is when Roadhouse Ritchie steps in, can I help you with something, friend, Ritchie asks of Boolit. Boolit snarls, takes his can of black cherry hard-seltzer and moves away from us. Ritchie isn’t satisfied, but his restraint wins out. He says to me through clenched teeth, his southern accent crackling like pork rinds, I used to bleed pigs who were lesser fools. But I am a man of faith these days, Ritchie says, smiling from within his diabolical goatee, y’know, turning cheeks, sparing the rod and what.
Roadhouse Ritchie got his nickname in high school from the Patrick Swayze-esque three-fingered claw he would throw at the jugulars of fighting opponents. Look, Ritchie said to me very calmly on some prior Memorial Day, you can’t expect to rip everyone’s throat out. But if you strike just right, you could crush the windpipe or in the very least cause some choking. If you get a man short of breath, the prom-dress is off, buddy, he’s as good as fucked. And, God forbid, Ritchie hypothesized, should you actually succeed at ripping out a man’s throat, you might go to prison, but it would be so legendary, your great-grandchildren will be feared. Generational respect runs deep in Palatka.
Jimmie Beakers, the local boy-genius, had his own brawling techniques. The fight isn’t won in the initial stand-off, Jimmie told me. No one boxes above the belt in a street fight. There are no gentlemen rules of engagement around here. The fight is won in the dirt. Once you are scrapping on the ground, you can throw your opponent off-guard with a nibble at their neck or ear. Jesus, dude, I said. Don’t get me wrong, dude-bro, Jimmie said, I’m not going for the Holyfield or anything. I’m just saying a little nibble will discombobulate them long enough for Plan B. Plan B? Stick your thumb up their asshole. Actually, Jimmie shrugged, thumb up the asshole is always the preferred game-ending non-lethal strike you can make, but the asshole is not always immediately available. But, if the butt isn’t accessible, the mere presence of a thumb-knuckle against the perineum, y’know, the “taint” as in it ain’t the balls and it ain’t the asshole, but the chodal area in between, you get a knuckle right there and it could be enough startle to take the fight out of the dog. Just soap-up later, dude-bro.
I am a believer in Jimmie Beakers. In all of the bar fights I have been in or around, the only Palatkan to ever land a punch on my face is, in fact, Jimmie Beakers. It was a worthy punch for me to take as he wound-up marrying the Lake County girl we were squabbling over.
What’s your girl look like? Roadhouse Ritchie is beside me as we continue to wait for a barmaid to pour four plastic cups of beer. I tell him, she looks like an oasis in the Mexican desert, but she’s a thirst-trap, a mirage leading you to early demise. I say this to Ritchie assuming he is inquiring after the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Neverman. No, man, he says, the girl not named Stacy. What’s she look like? Oh, her! Yea tall, blonde, from somewhere north of Mason-Dixon, chewed fingernails, I think she’s a nurse… Our heads scan the crowd, she is not here.
It was one of the Blue Crab Festivals of yore when I met the girl not named Stacy. 38 Special was the featured performance. The crab harvest was promising. I was smoking Cuban cigars in a linen suit while riding the mechanical bull, El Toro Roboto, in the beer tent. After a fall into the limestone dirt, the voice of a spectator urged me to ride again. Now, I am not one easily swayed into acts of reckless wild abandon, but if it is going to happen, some strange dame is likely to blame. She called herself Stacy. And I called myself Bucky Swoon. I claimed to be a card-carrying member of the Tea Party who insisted on lifting the speed limit for jet-skis in manatee zones. God, Stacy said, you are fucking stupid. We spent the night on her front porch. At one point, she said, I know your name isn’t really Bucky. I know because my name isn’t really Stacy. There was a moment’s pause as we shared a smile, an acknowledgment between actors. We would never unmask, we wouldn’t allow ourselves the vulnerability, but she and I were in on the joke. All was carnival.
Dude-bro, Jimmie Beakers slaps a hand on my shoulder. We needs to roll. The plastic cups of beer had just been served and I am in the process of signing off my tab. We needs to roll now, I ask. Quickly man, Jimmie is in flight/fight mode, head on a swivel. I take a sip of my beer to lower the high-water mark and, abandoning everyone else’s beer, follow Jimmie out the back door, into the outback beer garden, over the fence into a lot and from there into an alley where Rolf, Ritchie and Buster John wait. Half my beer is on my forearm, but I am optimistically happy with the rest of the glass half-full.
The fuck, dude, I ask, looking back at Steamboat Willies.
Look, Jimmie says with hands held out as if carrying an imaginary box. Within the invisible box must have been his next words as he stared intently at the space between his hands. It’s like Neverman’s Principal of the Finite Pizza, right? There are only so many slices of pizza we are going to eat in our life and, at this point, most of them are behind us. We need to make every slice of pizza count, right? He looks at me for affirmation. It is my principal, after all. Yes, make every slice count, I say with a single raised brow of suspicion. Well, they don’t serve pizza at Steamboat Willies, do they? They serve warm beer and bare-knuckle brawls, Jimmie says, answering his own question. And, well, I only have so many Palatka fights in me. Now, I will always be dangerous, but I probably only have one more legendary knock-down, drag-out, brawl left while I am still in my prime fighting condition, Jimmie says. Who knows what kind of douchebag family my daughter will marry into forty years from now. I need to save these fists, Jimmie says, naming them individually, thunder and lightning. I can’t be throwing punches willy-nilly anymore.
What punches are going unthrown, I ask. What fight have we left behind?
Your friends Buster and Jimmie insulted the wrong woman, Rolf says. And now she’s gathering up her brothers to fight these brothers.
Was I wrong, Buster John says with a hand raised as he gives testament, in reminding her we’re still in a pandemic and need that sink for washing our hands! Besides, she wasn’t as pissed-off with me as she was with Jimmie. Wait…, I say, what happened? Rolf explains there was a grown-ass woman who wasn’t going to wait in line for the woman’s room and decided to urinate in the men’s room sink instead. And, Jimmie adds, how am I to know she’d take offense to Mark Twain. She didn’t want to fight you because of your Mark Twain comment, Rolf says to him. She wanted to fight you because you called her a man. I did not, Jimmie says, not really.
13 hours of beer drinking, most of which were in the sun, wears on me. A pissed-off woman pissing in a sink is angry at something Jimmie said. What? Jimmie Beakers snickers. While Buster John’s default is to cackle like a hyena, Jimmie Beakers has an entire arsenal of laughter. When he snickers, Jimmie is delighted with his own deviousness. What did you say to piss her off, Jim, I ask.
First, let me clarify, Jimmie clarifies, I am fine with women using the men’s room. And, I wasn’t calling her a man, I was just saying “look man”, like empty talk. But technically, Jimmie says, she was in the men’s room. What did you say, I ask again. Well, she’s got her butt in the sink and I say, “Look man, this is exactly what Mark Twain meant when he called Palatka the Cincinnati of Florida.”