THE SUN FADES EVERYTHING – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
THE SUN FADES EVERYTHING – DAPHNE BELLFLOWER
Seth stared at the television, trying to ignore how hot and sticky it was in the front room. He shifted back and forth on the old sofa, trying to get in a position to catch an errant breeze through the screen door. The air conditioner shorted out yesterday; it needed to be fixed. Actually it needed to be replaced, but Seth’s didn’t trust his pickup to make it to the Walmart on Highway 41.
He shifted his attention back to the television, listening to Neil Cavuto frantically explain how Obama’s socialist healthcare law was slowly bankrupting America. Seth didn’t much care for the idea of a black president, especially a socialist one. And if the economy in Everglades City was any indicator, Americans would be speaking Chinese within five years, just like Fox News predicted.
“Seth,it’s time for you to go to work” his mom yelled from her bedroom. “You’re going to be late.”
“It’s a two minute walk, Ma,” Seth replied impatiently. “I’m leaving now.”
Seth turned off the television, pulled on the faded Hawaiian shirt next to him on the sofa, and put on his belt. He glanced in the mirror, and raked his fingers through his dark blonde hair. He found his flip flops, slid them on, and walked to his mom’s bedroom. He noticed that it was hotter here than in the rest of the house.
“Hey Ma, I’m leaving now,” he said. “Are you feeling OK?” He looked at her thin face, red and shiny from the heat and humidity, and adjusted the fan toward her bed. “I’ll fix the air conditioner tomorrow. I promise”
“I’m doing all right Seth,” she said. “I’m just so tired. Dr. Hanley said to rest when I need to. That’s why I’m still in bed.”
“Ma, you haven’t been out of the house in two weeks,” Seth said. “It isn’t right. You have to get up and get out every once in a while.” He thought a minute. “Why don’t you sleep a bit, then get dressed and come to the bar tonight when it cools down a bit. You can sit out on the screened porch. It’ll be nice.”
“Maybe,” she said. “If I feel better when I wake up, I just might. I haven’t been there more then two or three times since your dad died.” She looked at Seth and smiled. “Your as good looking as your Dad,” she said. “You’re a heartbreaker.”
He smiled, bent down and kissed the top of her head. “Relax Ma,” he said. “Read your book. I’ll bring you something home from the bar after my shift.”
Seth stepped out of the house into the glaring sunlight, and headed down Hibiscus Street to the marina. Sweat trickled down the small of his back. It was five o’clock and the streets were empty. It was the hottest time of the day and nobody in town in their right mind would go outside until the sun went down. But then the swarms of mosquitos came out. Southern Florida was beautiful for the tourists from November through January; the rest of the year was a test of endurance for the residents.
He walked past the small, low-slung building where he earned his high school diploma. As a young man, Seth never would have imagined that he would find himself at 30 still living in Everglades City. He had always wanted something different, something this little town couldn’t give him.
From the time he was ten years old, Seth had vague ideas about what it was that he wanted. Maybe going to college in Jacksonville, maybe learning how to fix cars and moving to Daytona Beach, or maybe even moving away from Florida altogether. What he didn’t want was to stay in Everglades City. But after high school, as time got away from him, Seth found it was far easier dislike his current situation than it was to figure out exactly what he wanted and how to get it.
So he did what most of the young men in town did, doing what their father’s did before them. Seth picked up work here and there; taking tourists on airboat rides through the Everglades swamplands, crewing sport fishing charters, and working as a bartender in one of the town’s several bars. It wasn’t a lot, but was enough to get by and take care of his mom.
There were other ways to make money in Everglades City, but Seth never wanted to get involved in that kind of business. Everglades City was the only town near 10,000 Islands National Park, a series of waterways through lush mangrove forests and grasslands, where orchids and tropical ferns sprouted from every tree. The channels were mostly deserted, except for white tailed deer, alligators, and loggerhead turtles that were so unused to human contact that they showed only mild curiosity instead of fear when boats and kayaks cruised through their habitat.
Since the 1990s, the drug trade flourished in Everglades City. Shipments of cocaine and marijuana were easily moved from the Gulf through the 10,000 Islands waterways. Seth knew of a couple of boat captains who started smuggling drugs when the recession cut into the fishing charter business. Seth understood that people had to make money, but he had no desire to do business with a bunch of Cuban drug dealers from Miami. So he kept doing a little of this and a little of that to make ends meet. But there was always that nagging feeling that his dream life was slowly slipping away.
The sun beat down on him relentlessly as he walked to work. Seth squinted into the white light. He wiped the sweat off his face with the back of his hand and stared at the marina, full of airboats and fishing charters. He watched the turtles circle lazily in the murky green water for a couple of minutes, then ran up the wide stairs into the Rod & Gun Club.
It was cooler inside the lodge. The wood ceiling fans hummed softly as they languidly moved air through the paneled lobby. Stuffed tarpon and alligators, long dead, stared vacantly over the once elegant space. The Rod & Gun Club was built in 1864 in classic old Florida style, white, sturdy and square, with jalousie shades and a large screened veranda that wrapped around the building.
For years, it was the prime destination for the moneyed hunting and fishing crowd. But like most of the remaining classic southern Florida icons, the Rod & Gun Club had taken a back seat to the chain hotels and B&B’s with air conditioned rooms with new furniture and reliable plumbing. The lobby furniture hadn’t changed since Seth was kid. The once bright fabric was worn even then; years of neglect and relentless heat had rendered the upholstery faded and threadbare.
Seth leaned over the front desk and looked into the back office. “Hey there Mrs. Bowen,” he called. “I’m here.”
“Well hello Seth,” she said, pushing her lank grey hair back from her forehead. “How’s your Ma doing?”
“She’s alright I guess,” Seth said. “Still doesn’t want to do much. The doc can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. He said something about constant fatigue or chronic fatigue, something like that, but he doesn’t know for sure. She’s supposed to rest until she feels better.”
“That’s a shame,” Mrs. Bowen said. “She never got over your daddy and your brother Zach. A car crash is no way to go.”
Seth nodded. He didn’t feel like talking about it any more. The accident was six years ago and nothing would change what happened. “So what’s going on in here?” he asked, nodding toward the bar.
“It’s been pretty busy today,” she said with a grin. “Bunch of fat cats from Naples are here. They fished all day, and want to drink all night.” She smiled. “They got a lotta money. They want to get drunk and they want girls. Jordy’s been making calls. Girls are on the way from Miami.”
Seth glanced around the corner into the bar. There were about fifteen men in there, of various ages and stages of drunkenness. He smiled. “Big night for us,” he said. “I need the tip money. Our air conditioner is on the fritz.”
“We need the business,” she said. “It’s gotta turn around or we’re gonna have to close. Obamacare is ruining everything. This town has to get back on it’s feet.” She looked at Seth. “Turn on the charm, boy,” she said. “It’s gonna be a great night.”
Seth strolled into the bar. The men, red faced from sunburn and drink, were laughing and congratulating each other on the day’s quota. The day waitress Jan sighed in relief when she saw Seth.
“Thank God you’re here,” she whispered. “I don’t think I can take it much longer. These assholes have been drinking all day. If I have one more fat guy grab my ass I’m going punch someone in the face. At least they keep tipping big.” She rolled her eyes and jerked off her apron. “I’m out of here,” she said. “Good luck.”
“Bartender,” yelled a stout man in a pink polo shirt. “Get us another round. Maker’s Mark. I’d ask for ice, but I doubt this place has any.” His friends laughed approvingly. “I just hope you have clean glasses this time.”
Seth grinned at the men and laughed. “Now hang on. You might be in Everglades City, but we got ice and clean glasses. Do you think Burt Reynolds would come here if we didn’t?” He jerked his head at the signed photo of Burt Reynolds, smirking in full “Gator” regalia, that hung over the bar.
The men roared. “If it’s good enough for Burt, it’s goddamn sure good enough for us,” the man replied. “How about those drinks. And where the hell are the girls? We talked to a couple of the locals, and they told us to talk to the cook here. He made a couple of calls and told us some girls were on the way.”
“Well, they’re coming then,” Seth said. He stepped into the kitchen to talk to Jordy, the combination cook and dishwasher. Jordy, ignoring the stack of dirty bar glasses, was playing Candy Crush on his cell phone. Seth had known Jordy since they were both six years old. He liked him well enough, but Jordy was perfectly content staying here in Everglades City, cooking for the lodge’s guests and washing the dishes.
Danny, Jordy’s brother was another story. He went to Miami the day he got his driver’s license. Folks in town talked a lot about what kind of business Danny had going in Miami, and the frequent trips he made back to Everglades City. His family didn’t care how Danny made his money. They were just happy that Danny was doing well for himself, and drove a great big SUV.
“Hey Jordy,” Seth said. “When are the girls getting here? The guys are getting drunker by the minute.”
“I called my brother a couple of hours ago,” Jordy said. “They should be here in a few minutes.”
“Can you put down your phone for a few minutes and make them some food,” Seth asked. “They’re gonna fight or pass out soon if they don’t eat. I hope Danny has a handful of Viagra too. Call him, and find out where the hell he is.”
Seth stepped back behind the bar, listening to crowd drunkenly yell about their stocks, fancy cars, and the black socialist president. He idly wondered if being rich automatically turned you into a loudmouth or if it just happened gradually over time. He found them repulsive, even though he hated the president too. Seth guessed that if one of their moms got sick, they could just take them to a good hospital instead of the tiny old clinic where his mom had to go because it accepted Medicaid.
He wondered how they all got to be so rich. He figured they went to some fancy college or maybe their dads had a lot of money. Except for all the money talk, their drunk conversation wasn’t too different from the kind of stuff the guys from Everglades City talked about in the bars. Football, guns, and pussy were apparently the favored conversation topics, rich or poor.
Jordy came out of the kitchen with french fries, fried gator, and hot sauce, the specialty of the house. He set the plates on the bar in front of the drunken men. “They’re here, Seth,” he whispered. “My brother Danny found four girls that were willing to make the drive. They’re outside now.”
“Bring them in,” Seth said. “Does Mrs. Bowen know?”
“Yeah, Mrs. Bowen knows. I have to give her $50 bucks a girl,” Jordy complained. “She’s getting greedy. I hope business around here picks up.”
Four women walked into the bar, all legs and clattering high heels, chattering amongst themselves in Spanish. Seth thought none of the women looked over 20. He smiled at them, and pointed to the group of drunk men. One of the women looked at Seth and rolled her eyes.
“Cubans?,” pink shirt said in disbelief, “and a black girl? What the redneck hell is this?” He yelled in disgust at his companions. “We asked for blonde girls, not a bunch of immigrants. Can’t you backass swamp idiots get anything right?”
Seth looked at the girls. “Jordy,” he yelled. “Get out here. We have a problem. Call your brother, the guys are pissed off.”
Jordy strolled out of the kitchen and looked at the women. “So what’s the problem?” he asked Seth. “They wanted girls. Here are some girls. Do you think my brother can get quality ass out here to swamp country at the drop of a hat. Nope, he can’t.” Jordy shook his head. “This was the best Danny can do. And no matter what, they have to be paid $300 bucks each for the drive. That’s the deal.”
Seth walked over the men. “Hey,” he said. “Listen up. You ordered the girls and you have to pay them. Whether you like them or not, they need $300 apiece. So get $1200 bucks together and you can send them back to Miami.”
“Fuck no,” said a skinny man with a rat’s narrow face. “This isn’t what we wanted. We wanted blondes. We told your dishwasher that we wanted blondes. So no deal. Send them back. We aren’t paying them a dime.” He looked at his friends and back at Seth. “Did you hear us? Fuck off. Get them out of here.”
“Well that isn’t the deal,” Seth said. “They have to be paid. So pay up.” He jerked his head toward Jordy. “His brother’s outside waiting for his money. You don’t have to screw them, but you’re gonna have to pay for them.”
“Hell no, we aren’t paying anyone jack shit,” said the rat faced man. “I don’t care who’s waiting out in the car. In fact, I don’t want to pay for a damn thing in this filthy place. We can just walk out now. What could you do about it? Want and try to stop us?”
Seth crossed his arms and stared at the angry group. The women, sensing something was wrong, had stopped chattering and looked at Seth. He was silent, thinking about what to do next. He turned around, went through the lobby to the Escalade waiting outside. Through the tinted glass, he could see Danny sitting in the car. Seth knocked on the driver’s side window. It slowly slid down.
“Hey Danny, how are you?” Seth said.
“Doing well, Seth, can’t complain,” Danny responded. “So what’s going on in there? Have they gotten started yet? I want to get out of here before midnight.”
“So here’s the thing,” Seth said. “We got a problem. The guys in the bar who wanted the girls, well see I guess they wanted blondes. They don’t want the girls you brought. They aren’t going to pay them.”
“Blondes?” Danny laughed. “I thought Jordy was kidding me. If you want blondes, call the Russians. Who do these guys think they are? They get what I can get in a couple of hours. This is a long goddamn ride out here. I will guarantee you we aren’t leaving without our money.”
“They won’t pay,” Seth said flatly. “They’re really drunk now, and they’ve been assholes all afternoon. I’m not sure they even plan on paying their bar tab.”
Danny studied Seth’s face. “So what you’re saying is we’re gonna need to shake down a bunch of rich assholes. You got a gun with you?”
“No,” said Seth. “I don’t carry one when I’m working, Mrs. Bowen doesn’t want…”
“Come on, let’s get this over with,” Danny said impatiently. “I want to get out of here. It’s hot as hell in this car. Christ, my brother’s a little fuck-up. That’s the last time I do a favor for Jordy.”
He got out of the Escalade, and tucked his handgun into the back of his pants. Seth was alarmed by both the firearm and the determined look on Danny’s face.
“Hang on, Danny. Just a second,” Seth said. “You probably don’t need the gun. There just a bunch of rich pussies from Naples. I bet they just give you the money when you tell them they owe it.”
“Good one, Seth,” Danny said, walking swiftly up the stairs. “Oh yeah, that’s just what rich guys want to do. Give you money when you ask for it.” He laughed. “I’m just gonna get the cash and the girls and get out of here.”
Danny strode through the lobby and into the bar. The women, still gathered in a little circle next to the kitchen, looked alarmed. Mrs. Bowen stuck her head out of the office, saw Danny, and slammed the door shut. Seth heard the bolt latch click, and figured he wouldn’t see Mrs. Bowen for the rest of the night.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Danny said, addressing the crowd. “I hear you don’t like the ladies I brought to you tonight. And I’m here to tell you that I don’t give a shit. So just give me my $1200, and we’re out of here.”
“Go to hell, swamp trash,” yelled a bald man with a grievously sunburned forehead. “No blondes, no money.” He looked at his friends for approval, drunkenly laughing. “You tell him Ralph,” yelled the guy in pink.
Danny walked over to the bald man and slapped his face. The group of men surged toward Danny and slammed him against the bar. Danny raised his gun, but it was knocked out of his hand and slid across the floor. One guy held Danny while the others punched repeatedly in the stomach. The four woman ran screaming from the bar.
Seth leaned over, and grabbed the gun, and held it to the bald guy’s temple. “You better shut your mouth and hold still,” Seth said. “Because I’d be happy to shoot you.” He looked around and saw Jordy staring at him from the kitchen.
“Jordy, help me,” called Seth. “Grab his wallet.”
Jordy crept over to the bald man, fished his wallet out of his Dockers, and pulled out a wad of cash. “He’s got at least a couple of grand here,” he said.
“Give it all to your brother,” Seth said. Jordy silently handed the bills to Danny, who stuffed them in his pocket.
Seth turned around and looked at the now quiet group of men. “How about you pack it up boys, and get the hell out of here while you still can. Get in your fancy cars and go back to where you came from.”
Seth didn’t have to ask twice; the bar was empty in a matter of minutes. Danny poured himself a drink and looked at Jordy.
“Hey dummy, round up the girls and get them into the car,” Danny said. “We have to get back.” Jordy took off through the lobby into the humid night air.
“So Seth, what are you still doing in Everglades City,” Danny asked. “Ever think of coming to Miami? I may have some work for you. It will get you out of the swamp, at least for a little while.”
Seth looked hard at Danny, studying his gold necklace, diamond earring, and elaborate tattoos. He suddenly thought about his creaky air conditioner, and how Danny probably never thought about air conditioning at all. He thought about his mom at home in bed, waiting for him to come home from work.
The last time Seth went to Miami, the one-way streets confused him and the traffic made him anxious. The girls in Miami would come up to him and want to talk, but they left Seth shy and tongue-tied. Everything was expensive and a lot of people spoke Spanish. He looked at Danny.
“I’ve thought about it some,” said Seth. “You know, leaving Everglades City. I’ve actually thought about it a lot. But I have my mom and my job here and I have to get my truck fixed, so I don’t know. It just never seems to be the right time to leave.”
Danny laughed. “Well, tell Jordy if you want to leave the swamp,” he said laughing. “He knows how to get ahold of me. I’ll see you around. And remember, my girls aren’t blonde.” He jumped in the Escalade. One of the girls rolled down the window and waved at him. Seth turned around and headed back inside the old lodge.
“Hey Jordy,” he said. “Can you fix my mom something to eat? I told her I’d bring something home.” Seth checked Danny’s gun, still in his pocket. It was effective tonight. Maybe he’d need it again sometime.
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