HOLMES BEACH, Florida
27.49° N, 82.71° W
The beach after dusk is dark. Dark or else, per county ordinance, which was put into place to protect the sea turtles, who, heliotropic lunatics they are alleged to be, navigate by light of the moon and are easily confused with conflicting beach lights. I mean, so they say, but I’ven’t seen a damn turtle all night. One might wonder if the entire rule is a ruse, a conspiracy of county ordinance writers who are on the take with the drug cartels. Captain Dick often talked of the dim light of a smuggler’s moon; a full moon is too bright and risks illuminating the goings-on; no moon is too fucking dark; a smuggler’s moon, however, also known as a wrangler’s moon with cattle-thieving cowboys, is the goldilocks zone of just enough light to getaway with it. Call me paranoid, just don’t call me too late for happy hour, but I have to wonder if the enforced darkness is a means for local smugglers to bring ashore their contraband of narcotics, cheap foreign cigarettes, mail-order brides and Miley Cyrus bootlegs. Nevertheless, these shores tonight are as dark as the sinful heart of a black velvet Elvis. Turtles are not the only creatures crawling out of self-inflicted depths and for those of us bipedal-enough to climb out of the sands and cross the asphalt of Gulf Drive, State Road 789, there is a beacon of civilized hospitality & refreshment calling us home in the soft neon lights of the Anchor Inn.
After entering through the front door, three out of four marine biologists at the bar look past my disheveled appearance, the white sand in my beard, the seaweed toupee atop my head, the liter of seawater swishing through my labyrinthine ear canals and rightfully claim I am no creature of the deep. You cannot fault the fourth of those marine biologists for his mistake. My dishevelment is the natural byproduct of swimming the pre-twilight hours and spending much of the long sundown drinking boulevardier cocktails while lounging in the windswept sands. The boulevardier was a necessary elixir. The bourbon portion of the cocktail helped with the cough I developed after a day of breathing-in the dead-fish bacterial funk of the red tide. The bitter apéritif portion of the cocktail helped with the nausea of drinking too many boulevardiers the night prior.
There is a fifth marine biologist to be found at the Anchor Inn billiards tables. She finds me charming, though she is reluctant to admit it. She mentions, with a flutter of her sunburnt eyelashes, she thinks I have the musk of an otter. Well, I’ve been swimming in the chum-soup of the red tide, I mention, without admitting to devouring 3/4ths of the shrimp cocktail my mother put out at an earlier tea party. This fifth marine biologist ignores me, feigning disinterest, but constantly fidgets with the seat of her pants, maneuvering whichever underwear lies under there, which we can only imagine is a sign of her sexual arousal, or a yeast infection. I remain optimistic as to my chances of discovering true love tonight.
As far as Gulf of Mexican dive bars go, the Anchor Inn is fairly benign. Where are the salty dogs and the cocaine speed-boaters and the fishwives looking for company while the fleet’s out to sea? Where are the corner-stool merchant mariners with a blurred blue tattoo of a topless mermaid? Where is the palm-frond-hat-wearing beach bum who panhandled enough coin to purchase a shot of cheap hootch? Now, I haven’t been to every beach grovel between Key West and Corpus Christi, but I have been to a lot of dives between Key West and Corpus Christi and this Anchor Inn crowd is the least Gulf of Mexican crowd I’ve come across. This may be a sign of the times; I might be an old barnacle from a saltier generation, the most buoyant sea scum in these post-anthropocene days of warmer climes and rising seas. Or, maybe Holmes Beach is a just chill stretch of Gulf Coast. Too chill for the old Florida flotsam culture.
What we’re seeing is the gentrification of the barrier islands, says Percy Rosewater, who claims to be the mayor of Cortez Village, a patchwork of docks and piers somewhere between here and mainland Bradenton County. He’s drinking a double rye whiskey on ice. I’ve opted for a pint of Guinness. These islands used to be where blue-collar fishing families lived, Percy says. The moneyed-classes of a hundred years ago, or fifty years ago, even, they lived further inland, closer to the trains and farther from the storm surges. It wasn’t until the insurance companies came along before the moneyed-classes began building their mansions on the edges of oblivion, hardly even daring the fates because worst case scenario, their bet is hedged and whatever disaster a storm brings comes along with a cash payout. The uninsured fisherman, however, loses everything in a great storm.
There are two things I know about Percy Rosewater: he’s better at shooting pool than I am and he ain’t from around here. I, myself, don’t particularly know Holmes Beach, but I smell its salt and I recognize its mangroves and the riptide. This guy, while knowledgeable of local demographics and such, also sports a replica of Joe Namath’s championship ring on his finger. Percy Rosewater is too young to have been alive in 1969, but I doubt he learned to be a fan of New York sports while gutting fish or spatchcocking swamp chicken as a kid in Cortez Village.
The mayor’s wife, Mrs. Rosewater, goes by “Junior” and she’s spirited. She doesn’t have the nor-easter intensity of Mr. Rosewater and might even have a little of the damn-the-high-tide, fatalistically-resigned bliss common in us native Gulf Coasters. Junior dances as if no one is watching and sings as if everyone is tone-deaf. She jests with the bartender; after he asks to see her ID to gauge her age, she asks if she could have a straw with her beer and a booster-seat. When Junior refers to the children she bore as her “precious sandbags”, it is unclear if she is using the metaphor to refer to them as weighing her down or if they are the safety which keeps turmoil and turbulence at bay. Regardless, Percy Rosewater, father of those sandbags, cackles with his big-city laugh, though he’d never – ever – refer to his girls in such terms.
As Mayor Rosewater and I shoot pool, Junior alternates between private phone conversations and the jukebox. She returns to the pool tables in time for the jukebox to play the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s Islands in the Stream. It is clear Mr. and Mrs. Rosewater are not your standard Country Western fanatics as they butcher the song verse, each of them taking turns guessing the next lyric.
Islands in the stream, which is what we are, sail away from me, to another bar…
They’ve the attention of most of Anchor Inn. Fortunately, it is nothing but kindhearted souls here and they are delighted with this romantic singing between spouses, even if their interpretation could be considered blasphemy.
And we laugh with each-other, un-hunh,
Turn tricks for a dollar, un-hunh,
Dentists in a Dream, that is what we are, sell away our children, for a candy bar
And we’ll lie to each other, un-hunh
Serve poisoned grits to your mother, un-hunh.
It’s nice. I am amused. If this were one of the Gulf Coastal dives of latter days, some jet-ski cowboy would’ve shot Mr. Rosewater through the heart or a shrimp-wife would’ve smashed a bottle to take a slash at Mrs. Rosewater. Instead, the bastardization of an old country song goes unpunished. What’s more, a clinger-on unclung from the bar to drift to the pool tables where the Rosewaters dance. We will come to know this young fellow as Tommy Knocker. Tommy looks like something the cat dragged in. He’s wide-eyed alert and excited, as if experiencing his first roller coaster and loving it, but his face shows signs of waking-up in ditches. Maybe he’s had a tumble on his skateboard or maybe he’s suffering syphilis, but Tommy’s youthfulness has a touch of meth-headiness to it. Finally! I am pleased: a real, old-school, Gulf-dive barnacle I recognize – the young meth-head barfly. Except, Tommy is quite lucent. He may not be sharp, this Tommy, but he’s no dullard. He wants Junior’s attention, but it is Percy Rosewater who becomes enthralled with him.
Junior has left to the parking lot to have a phone conversation while her husband is regaled by Tommy Knocker. I’m barely paying attention as I have been trying to connect a cue ball with any other half dozen balls on this billiards table and failing, for hours, it seems. I look up to find Tommy taking a journal out from where he tucked it in at the waistline in the small of his back. The journal is shriveled, warped, bloated and blurred with spilt-drink or rained-water, smelling of old cheese and miscellaneous man-funk. Nevertheless, Percy Rosewater, as a part-time anthropologist, is beside himself with glee. He begs to know more about this Tommy Knocker. I approach out of curiosity to hear Tommy explain his travels. He’s been around the country in his truck, seeking food and love while writing poetry and making friends who fill his journal with inspirational messages… mostly doodles of boobs and sex-ed sketches of female anatomy, but inspirational still.
You’re a fucking minstrel, Percy says. Tommy looks wounded in his confusion and says, what, isn’t that what teenage girls get. The mayor of Cortez Village cackles with laughter. No, Percy Rosewater explains, a minstrel, like a traveling musician. You are a poet and a wanderer. This journal is amazing, Percy Rosewater says as he thumbs through pages of notes left by other travelers. Tommy Knocker’s smile has returned. He isn’t sure what menstruation has to do with being a poet, but he’s often thought other people talk in riddles and get themselves tied up in knots, like his shoelaces, when he had shoelaces, before he used duct-tape to keep the shoe tight to his foot, and people often-times have to twirl themselves out of the knot before they ever make sense, if ever. If that isn’t poetry, what is?
Is he touched, Junior asks me while looking at Tommy. She turns to clock my contemplation. I’m sorry, she says, are we not allowed to say someone is touched in the head anymore. No, I say, it is verboten, culturally taboo. You can say he is a couple sandwiches shy of a picnic, I tell her. Or you can say his elevator doesn’t reach the top-floor, I tell her. Okay, Junior says, nodding her head with intense consideration. I mean, this kid is not dumb, she says. He seems intelligent in the way an orphaned alien might grow-up to misunderstand how humans do human, she says, like Elon Musk. Or maybe he was dropped on his head when he was a baby. From a great height, she adds. I am sipping Guinness and pondering her position when one of the marine biologists who is shooting darts within earshot leans over towards us, saying, in my line of business, we’d say this is what happens to porpoises when they’ve gotten fucked in the blowhole too much. Their brains turn to mud. Ugh, Junior says, gagging, is getting fucked in the blowhole a thing, she asks. Yep, says the marine biologist, the blowhole is the equivalent of the butthole for people, if you can imagine. Some male dolphins like getting it, others like giving it, most like both. Junior gags again.
Percy Rosewater waves us over, pointing at Tommy Knocker, screaming, this guy is a fucking artist! Listen, listen, listen, Percy Rosewater says to us as the magistrate cues his dancing mooncalf. Tommy is swaying his shoulders back and forth in tune to his own drum beat. He begins signing about his travels…
I left Abilene so fresh and so clean, clean,
But in Birmingham, I ate bad ham, man,
In Charleston, I had some quarrels, son,
Dunedin, I took a beatin’ and won,
New phone, who dis, I drove to Eustis,
Ft Lauderdale had a lot of gals,
Nothing like all the ladies up in the G-Hole, Gainesville,
Got so shitty I had to buy new underwear in Haines City,
Bro, I went for broke in Innisbrook until
I jacked-off to Jacksonville,
You know what I saw after Kennesaw, so strange, strange?
A strange, mangy, girl, gyrating in LaGrange,
Who ate my asshole all the way to Mobile.
Tommy Knocker could be the poet laureate for Uncharted Dives. And to think, until he began his verse, I thought him a hobo at best, a psycho-killing cannibalistic nuisance at worst. How could he memorize such a godawful poem, I would later ask. The trick, he told me, was keeping everything alphabetical.
Nachos in Natchez with my dirty cuz,
Who paid for four whores in Oxford,
Before his penis cooled-off in Pensacooooola.
Tommy Knocker, as he moves and dances, looks like a fawn trying to pelvic-thrust at air-bubbles while in quick-sand. His legs are akimbo, his excitement is juvenile, his humor is sophomoric, yet you have to admire the kid. It’s art of a sort.
Whose Mercedes Benz – he, gave to a hooker in Quinc – cy,
And boy, she’d fuck a fella to Umatilla,
Tommy is dancing and having a time of it when the front door to Anchor Inn opens and in walks a cheetah-spotted-blouse-wearing cougar known as Barbara. She is from Chattanooga. She’s very made-up, too much so for the casual beach vibe of the bar. Her heels are hit or miss given the variety of flooring. Her breasts are pronounced, as if propped in a corset, introducing themselves to the crowd before Barbara’s even crossed the threshold. Tommy’s performance glitches as his eyes bulge at the arrival of the faux-cheetah.
She had, uh, had uh, had a baby, had his baby at Rosemary Beach,
And sunk it down the Suwannee River…
Chattanooga Barb is a college coed gal-pal of Junior Rosewater and will likely soon be a lyric in Tommy’s epic poem, Met her at John Holmes Beach, beach! Around my hips to my bone she reached, reach! Barbara, as the latest to arrive, is also the least intoxicated person in this joint. She is also the most vulnerable. She is, this Barbara of Chattanooga, a soon-to-be-divorcée. She’s filed papers and shoved herself to sea. And her sudden presence hamstrings our poet laureate, Tommy Knocker. He seems in pain, with a lip curling off his teeth like a dog mid-snarl. Uh hey, Tommy Knocker says to her. Hey yourself, Barbara from Chattanooga says back to Tommy. After minutes of intimate conversation, I overhear Tommy say to Barbara he would do anything to have her tonight. You’re a fucking child, Barbara scolds him, pushing him away after capturing his phone number. She turns towards her friend of twenty years, Junior, and says, dear lord, Janelle Rae, he ain’t the sense God gave a goose. Bless his heart. If I could put some salt on it, I’d eat it whole. Damn bitch, Junior says to her, I don’t know whether to be more worried for you or Tommy. Me, Barbara from Chattanooga insists, shaking Junior by her shoulders, as if there shouldn’t be any question in the matter. Me, Barb says, I didn’t get gussied-up for nothing.
Percy Rosewater is laughing at the hysterics. Babe, babe, babe, he says to Junior, who responds, what babe, what babe, what? Mayor Rosewater grins, you might as well say you don’t know whether to be more worried about Vic, he says pointing at me, or the pint of stout he’s sipping from. It’s all economics of consumption, Percy Rosewater says. Junior sighs, no babe, Vic sips beer out of thirst, not out of self-destruction.
Through this dialogue, Barbara of Chattanooga has spotted me on her radar. Well, boy howdy, she says to me in her country twang. You are a good hosing-down and a clean shave away from Sunday decency, honey. You don’t have lice, do you? Nah, I shrug, I’m deloused last I checked. I realize, of course, here is the time for action if action is what I am after. I could say something to the effect of, I’ll hose you down if you hose me. Or perhaps I should suggest a skinny-dip out in the Gulf where we look at stars and I show her the Little Dipper. Hey look, Ursa Minor. And yet, after much inner-contemplation, the moment has passed and Barbara of Chattanooga has refocused on chewing off Tommy Knocker’s earlobe.
Meanwhile, the Rosewaters, the magistrate and his melodist, are singing again, even without the jukebox accompaniment…
And we strangle each other, un-hunh,
Steal babies from their mother, un-hunh,
Islands in the Stream, is what we are, eat another cookie, from another jar.
As they sing, Chattanooga Barb has pushed Tommy against the pinball machine and it is there where they’ve discovered some profound truth, this magdalen and her mooncalf. If Tommy hasn’t found love, he’s found evisceration. It isn’t long before Barb’s guardian angel, Junior, shoos him away and Tommy leaves the bar in a pout. I turn to watch a televised hockey match from nearby Tampa, of all places, while Junior and her pal Barbara speak in loud hushed tones. Percy Rosewater finds Barbara nearby hotel accommodation. While using her phone to order an Uber, he notices a message from Tommy Knocker. Apparently, the mooncalf took his shirt off to pose for a selfie he sent back to Barbara. Percy blinks away the image and hands the phone to Barbara of Chattanooga. Your ride is coming, he says.
I walk back on the beach. Clouds cover the sky and it is dark. I don’t know where the fuck sea turtles are swimming in times like these. Where do any of us swim without guidance? Without a north star, without the moon, how are we supposed to navigate? It’d be easier unburdened of purpose, to float like Tommy Knocker, as a jellyfish, cruising wherever the tides take you. But I’ve been there. I’ve been there and I’ve washed ashore on beaches I did not want. The jellyfish life is not for me. Better to be the migratory sea turtle traveling the world in search of jellyfish to eat. But then, there is the question of once you wander so far, how do you find a home to wander back to? Or is there no going back? And perhaps this is our truth: home is where the moonlight shines.