I was sitting on the front porch enjoying the breeze off Redfi sh Lagoon when I heard the crunch of tires on our shell driveway. Oyster shells mostly. Early-warning devices. Not as annoying as barking dogs. Cheaper than closed-circuit cameras.
Small craters and washouts riddled the driveway. Dodging the holes demanded considerable zigzagging. A poor man’s security system. One does not approach Chasteen’s Palm Tree Nursery unannounced or at a high rate of speed.
It was too early in the afternoon for Barbara and Shula to be returning home.
I wasn’t expecting any deliveries.
And the nice people from Jehovah’s Witnesses had long since stopped dropping by to chat. Had something to do with the time I opened the door wearing nothing but my Zackness. An innocent lapse on my part after a long night involving Guayanese rum.
No telling who might be heading down the driveway.
An actual paying customer would be nice. They’d been scarce lately. But customers, at least the regular ones, usually got in touch fi rst to make sure I had what they were looking for and to check on prices.
So who could it be?
Tourists sometimes pulled in thinking this was part of Coronado National Seashore. A forgivable mistake seeing as how fi fty-seven thousand acres of park surrounded us on three sides, running all the way east to the Atlantic Ocean and along sixteen miles of undeveloped coastline, an oxymoron anymore in Florida.
The federal government would love nothing more than to gobble up our measly thirty acres and add it to their holdings. To his last dying day my grandfather succeeded in fighting them off. The courts ruled that as long as Chasteen’s Palm Nursery remains a viable business then Chasteens can continue to live here.
I make some money selling palm trees. Make some money doing other things, too. Just call me Mr. Viable.
The crunching got closer.
And the breeze blew a little harder.
It was coming out of the northwest, carrying with it the lagoon’s rich estuarial aroma. Lots of folks, they take a whiff and say it stinks. But it stinks good. The primal stink of Florida—muck and mangrove and all manner of briny things.
A black limo rolled to a stop at the end of the driveway.
We don’t get many limos, black or otherwise, in LaDonna, Florida, population four human beings, twenty thousand palm trees, and fi fty gazillion mosquitoes, more during the rainy season.
Down by the lagoon, a contingent of carpenters, dry-wall guys, electricians, and what-all was adding a second and third story to the boathouse. Barbara’s new office, the galactic headquarters of Orb Communications.
When it was done she could finally stop commuting to Winter Park and back, two hours round-trip, which meant taking Shula with her because the whole breast- feeding thing was still going on.
Barbara had tried the alternative—breast pump and bottles and leaving Shula at home with me.
“It’s just not working, Zack,” she said after a week of trying it.
“Am I doing something wrong?”
“No, not at all. It’s not you. It’s me. The pump, the bottles—it’s all just such an aggravation. Plus . . .”
“Plus, I just can’t bear being away from her.”
I couldn’t bear being away from either one of them, but since Barbara couldn’t just close up shop, and since I was the dispensable part of the feeding equation . . .
The addition to the boathouse couldn’t get finished fast enough. The two women in my life, I was ready to have them here with me all the time.
The hammering and sawing and what-all stopped. Eyes turned to the limo.
No one got out.
I could see the driver behind the windshield. Big guy in a chauffeur’s hat. The other windows were tinted and I couldn’t see anything behind them.
I took my feet off the porch rail but I didn’t get up from the chair. A plantation chair with long arms and a rattan back and a plump, soft cushion to sit on. Not the kind of chair one abandons without considerable regret.
It was April and a waxing crescent moon. Shrimp had been running in the lagoon— browns and whites. We don’t get the pinks up here. You find them more offshore and down in the Keys.
The prime falling tide was still hours away, but already several small boats had claimed their positions along the channel as it funneled around the puzzlement of islands behind our house. Last run of the season, probably. The shrimp were smaller now, but still plenty sweet.
Maybe, come dark, I’d go out on the end of the dock and try to net a few. Shrimp and grits for breakfast the next morning. Yeah, that would be just fine. Toss in some chunks of Spanish ham first and sauté the shrimp with that. Even fi ner.
The driver’s door opened on the limo. The driver got out.
White guy. Black suit, black shirt, black shoes. Not quite as big as he looked through the windshield but big enough.
He eyed me on the porch, straightened his hat, started walking my way.
I put my feet back on the porch rail.
The driver stopped by the steps.
“You’re looking at me.”
“Mr. Ryser is waiting in the car.”
The driver read the look on my face.
He said, “You weren’t expecting us?”
I shook my head.
He said, “Mr. Ryser called twice earlier today. Left a message both times to let you know he’d be dropping by.”
“Didn’t hear the phone and I’m bad about checking messages,” I said. “You’re telling me Mickey Ryser is in that car?”
The driver nodded.
“He’d like to see you.”
I had to laugh.
Mickey Ryser. In a limo.
Not that he couldn’t afford it. He could buy a fleet of them if he wanted. But it wasn’t his style.
Mickey’s last visit, he’d been on a Harley Fat Boy with a fl ames- of-hell paint job. Time before that, behind the wheel of a vintage Porsche 356 D Roadster, silver as I remember.
Mickey Ryser. It had been a while.
“How about you tell Mr. Mickey Ryser he can drag himself out of that fancy car and join me on the porch,” I said. “Meanwhile, I’ll grab us a coupla beers.”
I got up from the chair.
The driver hadn’t moved.
“Please, Mr. Chasteen. If you’ll come with me.”
Something about the way he said it . . .
As if on cue, the breeze laid. Everything got still.
I stepped off the porch and followed him to the limo.
Excerpted from Baja Florida by Bob Morris.
Copyright © 2010 by Bob Morris.
Published in January 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
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