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There are no whales in Whale Harbor, Florida. Never have been. The town was named during the Civil War as a way to lure Union soldiers looking for food and oil. It worked. So the name stuck.
But there are no whales.
Still, for many years, people came to whale watch. Some even thought they saw them. Blue whales, southern rights, humpback, killer, beaked, and beluga-as the subtropical temperatures rose, all manners of sightings, aided by tour guides offering free beer, were imagined in great detail. Written about in travel magazines.
But there are no whales.
Never have been.
This is why historians identify Whale Harbor as America's first tourist trap.
So those who come to this particular thicket of Florida's coast usually fall into two categories-the bushwhacked and the dreamers. Those who stay are both.
It's Christmas Eve and most of the town is at The Pink drinking eggnog schnapps. It's two for the price of one, in honor of the holiday. The jukebox is cranked, full volume. Jimmy Buffet asks, "How'd you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?" Nobody answers. Shot glasses surround hunched shoulders like picket fences.
The Pink's an all-purpose place. Up front, you can still buy bread and milk. Moon Pies, two for a buck. In the back, at the bar, you can still get your heart broken. Leadbelly whistles and jingles the blues. Christmas lights blink all year long across the tarpaper walls.
Right now, Leon should be there buying a round for Carlotta. She's been waiting for him for an hour, or more. Her tongue is white from the schnapps, and fuzzy. But he's not there. She looks at her watch again, the fourth time in ten minutes. Orders another round.
Bender pours the drinks in two deft streams. Schnapps arches like a waterfall. An impressive sight. Bender owns the place. He's also mayor. Hawkeyed and thin, in his early fifties, his spiky gray hair is dyed red and green for the holiday. It's a seasonal habit of his. At Easter, he'll go purple. He slides the two shot glasses in front of Carlotta. Tops them off with whipped cream and sprinkles that match his hair.
Carlotta looks up. "Thanks-"
And then he barks a noble clear bark. "Scottish terrier," he explains. Turns away before Carlotta has a chance to ask why he's impersonating a small hunting dog.
Most know not to ask.
Carlotta is new in town. She doesn't know anyone, but they all know her. At least, they know who she is: she's Leon's girl. That's the reason Sheriff Trot Jeeter is sitting three stools away and trying hard not to stare. But it is difficult. She's single. He's single. And, in the dim light of The Pink, Carlotta has a 1940s Veronica Lake kind of glamour. Boozy. Sultry. Bored. Her thick hair is carefully parted to one side, covers half her face. Trot can't take his eyes off her.
Of course, that's not surprising. He's forty-one years old. If he doesn't get married soon he'll have to get a dog-one that barks a lot. Scottish terrier sounds pretty good right about now.
The problem with Sheriff Trot Jeeter is not that he's unattractive. He's just unremarkable. Average height, average weight, average build-you couldn't pick him out of a lineup if you had to. Through the years he's grown comfortable in his absolute lack of distinction, the unnerving way he sometimes fades from memory while he's still in the room. And so, out of habit, his eyes never make contact, always seem to be searching for something just beyond his reach.
But tonight. Carlotta. The red dress. The dim light. The schnapps. He suddenly feels reckless.
"Excuse me," he says, more or less in her direction. The eggnog schnapps makes his stomach tilt and whirl.
Carlotta slowly turns toward him. Her lips are slightly wet, pouty. This frightens Trot. He's promised himself he wasn't going to say anything, but "excuse me" just seems to fall out of his mouth. And now, Carlotta's right eyebrow is raised slightly, expectant. She's waiting for him to say something more, but he seems to have lost the power of speech.
He would like to ask her if she'd like to go fishing sometime, not to catch anything, just to sit in the boat where it's quiet and watch the sunset. He wants to tell her that the sight of the sun setting is beautiful in this part of the world, really something. The sky turns so pink it's pinker than shrimp, or flamingos, or hibiscus, or Pepto-Bismol, or anything else that's so pink it says, "Welcome to Florida" in that two-for-a-buck-postcard sort of way.
It's just pinker than pink ever had a mind to be.
He would like to say all these things, but "Peanuts" is what he says and then points at a bowl in front of her. She's Leon's girl, after all. Everybody knows that.
"Go ahead. They're yours," she says and gently pushes the bowl toward Trot. Her voice reminds him of crushed velvet, of prom night. Makes him sweat.
It's happening again, he thinks, because it is. Ever since high school, ever since Trot and Leon were thin and wiry and Pop-Tart tan and Slam-Book reckless, Leon always gets the girl, even the ones he doesn't want all that much. Trot gets peanuts.
He pops one into his mouth, and Carlotta picks up her cell phone. Punches the keys with her perfect cherry pie nails.
She's probably trying to call Leon, Trot thinks. Leon's probably trying to avoid the call.
"On Christmas Island," Jimmy Buffet sings. "Your dreams come true."
The words make Trot's face go hot.
The phone rings unanswered. Carlotta gets up and wobbles across the room, slaps the jukebox with the flat of her hand. "Don't you have any real music?" she asks no one in particular. "Something with a little kick?" She shakes the sequins of her short red dress like a dog after rain.
Scottish terrier, Trot thinks. Feels an urge to bark.
"I want to dance," Carlotta says and runs a hand through her hair. It pulls it away from her face just for a moment. In the twinkling of red and green Christmas lights, Trot sees she has a scar that stretches down along her hairline. It's thick as lace. He remembers seeing a scar like this once, a long time ago, the aftermath of an explosion at the gas station.
Battery acid, he thinks, and his heart breaks just a little.
"Nobody wants to dance with me?"
Carlotta's voice cracks. People look away. Trot's heart breaks a little more.
Bender leans across the bar, tosses him two quarters for the jukebox. "Go on," he says. "Nice girl like that shouldn't be alone on Christmas Eve."
Trot looks at the quarters, and then at Carlotta. Suddenly, fueled by the type of courage that only eggnog schnapps can provide, he moves across the room. Takes her hand in his. Holds it as if it's made of spun sugar.
"I'm not much of a dancer," he says quietly.
She smiles, lopsided. "Neither am I."
Trot puts the quarters in the jukebox. Presses D12 without looking. When Trot was in high school, D12 was "Black Magic Woman." It's been a long time since high school. "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" falls onto the platter. The needle catches the grooves.
Two blocks away, Leon thinks of Carlotta waiting for him and feels a pang of remorse. Then deals from the bottom of the deck. Two aces.
Come on, he thinks, two more aces.
But the cards feel stiff in his hands. Unwilling. Unlucky. Hinky. That's not good.
Leon knows he really should be at The Pink. Knows he shouldn't be playing poker, especially on Christmas Eve. And he knows this, not just because he's lost nearly everything he owns. It's more than that. It's about her. Carlotta. The tunnel of love hips. The way they bump up against you in the dark.
Of course, that's what he says about most women.
Still. He knows he should be at The Pink, but he's not. He's at Lucky's RV Round-Up. It's his place. He owns it. Won it from Lucky more than ten years ago. There's not much to round up, though. Just a couple used Winnebagos and a transmission from a 1971 Gremlin.
But Lucky's is his. And he's nearly proud of it.
Across Leon's desk, the stranger lays out five diamonds. Ten. Jack. Queen. King. Ace. Leon looks away. He wants to curse, but can't. It's Christmas Eve and he's playing five-card stud with Jesus, or at least some version of him-long brown hair, scraggly beard, sandals, and a white bed sheet wrapped around his bony little waist.
Man, Leon thinks. What kind of a world you got going on inside your head?
The man's skin is so dark he could be Cuban, or Mexican, or just too tan from standing on the side of the road preaching redemption, or whatever crazy Jesus guys do when they're being crazy. Leon can see the man's hands have scars on the tops of them, deep and jagged, like nail wounds. Probably on his feet, too. He wants to ask him how long he's been Jesus. Wants to know if he gets a 10 percent senior discount at the movies because technically, as Jesus, he's older than dirt. But Leon doesn't say a thing. There's something about the man that stops him. He has these odd eyes. It is like this Jesus has some sort of cosmic X-ray vision, like the kind you can buy in the back of X-Man comic books, like the kind you can use to look at girls' underwear.
Like that, but spooky.
Jesus takes the deck and shuffles. The cards fan with peacock precision.
"For a messiah, you sure shuffle like a shark," Leon says and runs a hand though his sandpaper hair. Jesus says nothing. Blows on the top of the deck and taps it twice. A habit he apparently picked up somewhere, Leon thinks, probably not in heaven.
"How about kings are wild?" Jesus asks. "That's been my experience."
Leon wants to laugh, but sees that Jesus is not joking, so he just nods. Man, he thinks, he sure does look like Jesus.
Leon should know. In Florida, Jesus is everywhere. From the "Jesus Is Lord All You Can Eat Buffet" to "Truckin' for Jesus U-Haul." It's as if it's his winter headquarters. Short, tall, male, or female-it doesn't matter-when you least expect it Jesus will be walking barefoot down the center median of the highway, smiling a twisted toothy smile, and waving furiously. Sheet flapping in the wind.
Last year the Florida State Highway Patrol picked up approximately six thousand versions of Jesus. The entire state of Florida is 58,560 square miles, or 37,478,400 acres, including the Everglades, so that would average out to about one Jesus every ten square miles. Give or take a few yards.
That's a lot of Jesus. Leon thinks it has something to do with the heat.
At this moment, however, Leon wishes he'd never seen this one. He was minding his own business when it happened, that's what he plans to tell Carlotta. Just closing up at the Round-Up when Jesus pulls up in the biggest, most expensive recreational vehicle Leon had ever seen.
"We don't have sewer hookup," Leon said and ran a hand over the careful pinstripe of the driver's side. "Nice chrome though; makes you squint."
"I'm just looking for a friendly game of cards," Jesus said. His voice, a dark rumble.
Leon understood. Nodded. The only biblical verse he knows ran through his head-I saw a stranger and I took him in. "I can be mighty friendly," he said.
Jesus just smiled. Then he did something odd, something Leon didn't expect. He closed his eyes and leaned across the RV's window and touched Leon on his chest, near his heart. Leon could feel the heat of his hand, feel his own pulse quicken.
"She thinks of you often," Jesus said.
And for whatever reason, Leon knew he was talking about Dagmar, his ex-wife. He doesn't know how he knew, but he knew. And he could feel her cheek brush his lips. Could feel her skin, soft as magnolias. Made his eyes water.
Then he thought of Carlotta and his throat went tight.
About 2 a.m. the stakes turn high. Leon has just put his own motor home on the table and a new pair of eel-skin Acme boots.
Jesus is betting the American Dream.
The American Dream recreational vehicle is what is affectionately known as a "land yacht." It's forty feet long, has two satellite dishes, two air conditioners, a Zip-Dee awning, and real marble floors in the kitchen. How many miles it gets to the gallon is unimportant. Leon wants it. Needs it. Is determined to get it any way he can. It's his ticket out of Whale Harbor, and he knows it. He can see himself and Carlotta heading down to Miami to sell it and start all over again in a town that has more than one zip code. And no memory. And lots of rum.
But it's dealer's choice and Jesus is dealing. It is his birthday, after all.
"Five-card stud," he says. Places two cards down in front of Leon. "Two down. Two up. The final one down."
"Sure, sure," Leon says.
It's not the normal way to play five-card stud, but the guy thinks he's Jesus, so normal seems to be a relative term.
Outside, the wind presses against the tin walls of the dealership. The fluorescent light above their heads hums, makes Leon's palms sweat. "Sure, sure," he says again for no reason. He just likes the way the word shakes in his mouth. Like dice. Like seven, then eleven. Like snake eyes. The words feel lucky, and Leon knows he needs as much luck as he can get. Jesus is all business for a man wearing a bed sheet-and a shark. Leon knows that for sure. The man never gets excited or raises his voice. Never breaks eye contact. No small talk. He's obviously done this before; cards flow through his bony fingers like creek water, rapids.
Leon looks at his own cards-six of hearts, eight of hearts-he tries hard not to smile. Two hearts beating for Ole Daddy Leon, he thinks. Then Jesus deals him his third, the seven of hearts.
Leon nearly weeps. Three hearts. Three hearts beat as one. A three way. The Holy Trinity of Love.
Then Jesus deals himself the king of spades. Suddenly the room feels two sizes too small.
"Aren't you going to look at your other cards?" Leon asks, tries not to plead. "The ones on the bottom?"
Leon desperately needs him to pick up those cards. Behind Jesus' head there's a mirror. Dusty. Greasy. You can hardly see yourself in it. The word Airstream is embossed across it in large silver letters with a tiny toaster of a trailer behind them. But still, if the angle is right, Leon has a perfect view of his opponent's hand. That's why he always plays cards at the dealership. That's why it's still called "Lucky's."