Fallen Out: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
When Jesse McDermitt leaves the Marine Corps, he has no idea what he will do for the rest of his life. He only knows he doesn't want to spend the coming winter anywhere cold. His greatest skill is killing people from up to a mile away and he knows there aren't many job opportunities in the civilian world for that.
Jesse also knows his way around boats and has an old friend living free and easy in the Florida Keys. Being an experienced diver and angler, he immediately heads south toward Key West and the end of the road. With a single comment, a waitress in a waterfront restaurant in north Key Largo shakes loose a long dormant dream and Jesse runs with it.
With the help of friends, new and old, he buys just the right boat to live on and soon starts a part time charter business. Everything is going smoothly, until a Carolina girl and a hurricane hit him at the same time. Danger lurks in the sleepy little town of Marathon, in the middle of the Florida Keys, as well as in the swamps of the Everglades.
But danger doesn't expect to run into a man like Jesse. A man who will not only respond swiftly in facing it, but with a vengeance unexpected.
Release date: February 7, 2019
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 262
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Fallen Out: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
Rising from my bed in the Bachelor enlisted quarters, I stood and stretched.
Today’s the day, I thought. My last day in the Marine Corps.
It had been twenty years ago when the door on a Greyhound bus opened and some guy with a Smokey the Bear hat stepped onboard and told a bunch of us that we had three heartbeats to get off his damned bus. I remembered that day as if it were yesterday. There were 26 of us on the bus and we all hustled to get off. The guy in the Smokey hat was joined by three others, all yelling orders at the same time; all with a common tone and theme.
“Stand on those yellow footprints!”
That day had been a jarring introduction to the Marine Machine. In a way, it was the day my life really started. I was barely seventeen, just a week out of high school, tall and kind of gangly.
I remember being as disoriented as the rest of the guys on the bus. The ride onto the island had been quiet, as we watched the salt marsh give way to the oaks and pines. Then a couple of turns brought us onto a road illuminated with orange street lights and we were thrust into noisy, confused chaos.
Whatever one of the drill instructors ordered me to do, I did. My dad had been a Marine, as had his dad before him. So, I guess I wasn’t quite as disoriented as some of the guys.
“Follow your last order first,” Pap had told me on the day I left for boot camp. “In everything you do, especially your marriage.”
It’d been a great ride, these last twenty years. But now I was ready to move on with my life. I’d given more than half of it to the Corps. I’d had the opportunity to lead and be led by some of the greatest people I’d ever known.
The years of service and the requisite deployments and transfers had taken their toll. My first marriage had lasted six-and-a-half years, and we’d had two beautiful daughters. I’d been present for only one of their births. Sandy left me when I was deployed to Panama. My second marriage had lasted only nine months but thankfully, there were no kids produced with that shrew. I’d been shot at and blown up, but I’d survived.
Showering quickly, I dressed in my clean and pressed utility uniform and was out of my room fifteen minutes after waking. Habits born of necessity are hard to break. I’d packed everything I owned the night before into a single seabag. I traveled light these last few years.
It was a short walk to the mess hall, where I joined fellow Marines from the other units clustered around the First Battalion, Eighth Marines headquarters, waiting in line for breakfast. Looking around, I saw one of my platoon sergeants and a few other single non-coms sitting at a table in the corner and walked toward them.
“Mind if I have my last Marine Corps breakfast with you guys?”
“Sure, Gunny,” Sergeant Manuel Ortiz said. He was platoon sergeant for the scout/sniper platoon. “We’d be proud to have you join us. Today’s the big day, huh?”
“Yeah,” I replied taking a seat. “Transferring to the First Civ Div in about an hour.”
I talked with the three of them while we ate and drank coffee. After breakfast I went to my office in the Force Recon headquarters building. It was still very early, not even 0600 yet. As usual, there were only three people there, the duty officer from the night before, his driver, and a young lance corporal who was the new S-4 clerk. S-4 was the logistical office of a Marine unit. I said good morning to the duty officer, a young second lieutenant by the name of Scott Briggs, nodded to the driver, a young PFC I’d never met, and then went into the S-4 office.
“Morning, Gunny,” said Lance Corporal Michael Jaworsky. “I figured you’d be stopping in this morning. Want me to make an airline reservation home for you?”
I’d been thinking this over for weeks already. I was leaving home, not going home. The Corps had been my home and my family for a long time now. The house I grew up in as a kid had been owned by my grandparents and I’d sold it last year, after Mam and Pap passed away. Outside of my room at the BEQ, I didn’t really have a home.
“No,” I said. “No airline. Can you rent me a car? One way to south Florida?”
He opened a folder on his desk, looked at it and asked, “One-way rental to Fort Myers?”
“Souther than that,” I said with a grin and a bumpkin accent. “See if you can find one that I can turn in somewhere in the Middle Florida Keys. I know there’s an airport in Marathon and another in Key West.”
“The Keys? Wow, now that’s what I call retiring. I’ll see what I can do. Any preference in what kind of car? Need a lot of luggage space? An SUV maybe?”
I laughed and said, “That’d be overkill for my seabag and uniform bag. How about something sporty? Maybe a convertible?”
“I’ll let you know in an hour,” Jaworsky replied.
There wasn’t much work for me to do. I’d already checked out at the Battalion Adjutants office in S-1, the medical and dental offices, checked in my weapons at the armory, and received my new ID card from the S-2 clerk.
There were only a few things in my office that I wanted to keep—pictures and awards hanging on the walls and a few items in my desk drawers.
As if he’d read my mind, Jaworsky knocked on the door frame and came in with a small cardboard box. “Thought you might need this, Gunny.”
“Thanks, Mike,” I said, as I placed the box on my empty desk. He stood in front of it, with his hands clasped behind his back. “Is there something else? No way you got me a car that fast.”
“Working on it, Gunny. I just wanted to say it’s been an honor to be able to work with you.”
I stepped out from behind the desk and extended my hand. “It’s been a pleasure, Mike.”
He shook my hand, then turned and left the office. As I started collecting my belongings and boxing them up, several other men dropped in to say goodbye. In fact, nearly all the non-coms in Recon, from the platoon sergeants and squad leaders to the battalion sergeant major and commanding officer dropped by over the next hour.
The company CO came by, just as the battalion CO was leaving. Captain Tom Broderick and I’d known each other for ten years, since he was a wet-behind-the-ears second lieutenant, fresh out of officer candidate school.
He was due to be promoted to major the next week and would be transferring out after that. At just 32, he was on the fast track to getting a star on his collar. He was six feet tall, a muscular 200 pounds, with a shaved head and skin as dark as ebony.
“Really hate to see you go, Jesse.”
“I’m having a hard time believing it’s been twenty years already, Tom.” In front of other officers and the troops, I’d call him by his rank. But we’d become close friends over the years and I’d had dinner with him and his wife many times. They’d invited me for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I’d declined the latter. So, when it was just the two of us, we used first names.
“Been a lot of water under the keel, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, I suppose it has.’ I replied. “Have a seat.”
We sat down and with a half grin, he said, “I can’t stay long. I have a few last-minute details to iron out on some douchebag’s retirement ceremony.”
We talked for a few minutes over coffee, and then he had to leave. I was just putting the last few things into the box when Jaworsky knocked on the doorframe again and stepped inside.
“How’s a red Mustang convertible sound, Gunny?”
I grinned. “Sounds a whole lot better than a silver bird. Where do I pick it up?”
“It’ll be delivered in an hour,” he replied, puffing his chest out just a little. “One way to Marathon, with a turn-in date four days from today.”
“Delivered? Now that’s service. Thanks a lot, Mike.”
After he left, I glanced at my watch. It’d been a Christmas gift from my wife and oldest daughter many years ago. That brought on a flood of regret.
Usually, at a retirement ceremony, the Corps had a junior NCO escort the wife to stand alongside her husband, where she’d be given an award for putting up with his, and the Corps’, shit for twenty years. If the retiring Marine had daughters, they were given bouquets of flowers. I wouldn’t have any of that.
The Corps was my only family now. I’d spoken with Tom several weeks earlier and asked for a simple ceremony at morning formation. Just to say goodbye.
The white industrial clock on the wall read 0700; time to fall in. I picked up my little box of mementos and stood for a moment looking around the office, poured one last cup of joe into my heavy Force Recon mug, turned off the pot, and headed out the door. While downing my last cup of Marine Corps coffee, I talked to a couple of the office people. Then, leaving the box and mug at the clerk’s desk in front, I walked outside.
The formation was already mustering. As the company gunnery sergeant, all three platoons fell under me, but my job had me working very closely with the scout/sniper platoon, being the senior range coach. Scout/snipers usually formed up off to the side of weapons and headquarters platoons. It was half the size of the other two platoons. Today, they were formed up in the center, Sergeant Ortiz standing at the front of the loose formation.
As I approached, Sergeant Ortiz snapped to attention and turned his head, shouting over his shoulder. “Scout Sniper Platoon! Ah-ten-huh!”
The other two platoon sergeants echoed Ortiz by a fraction of a second.
As I stopped just behind him, Ortiz executed an about-face and said, “Scout Sniper Platoon present or accounted for, Gunny.”
I stood in front of Ortiz and looked over the group of men with mixed emotions, making eye contact with every one of them, even though they were supposed to be looking straight ahead. I nodded to them, then looked at my sergeant.
“Sergeant Ortiz! For the last time! Post!” He did a smart right-face and marched to his position at the head of the first squad.
Looking over my troops once more, I gave the command, “At ease!”
With my hands clasped behind my back, I began. “Men, it’s been an honor and a privilege to be your leader. I only hope that some of what I tried to teach you shit-birds stuck.”
A chorus of grunts and “Oorah!” went up from the platoon and many laughed. I’d served with some of these guys in other units and many had been here for as long as I had. There were a few new guys, who laughed nervously.
“Seriously,” I said. “These last few years have probably been the best. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you guys and seeing you grow, evolve, and move up in rank.”
A booming voice from behind me cut me off, a voice that was both strange and familiar. “Company!”
I snapped to attention as a few whispers came from my platoon. I did an about-face and shouted over my shoulder, “Platoon!” The other two platoon sergeants echoed my preparatory command, and all three platoons immediately assumed the parade rest position.
Ten paces in front of me stood an old and very close friend—a legend in the Marine Corps, Master Gunnery Sergeant Owen “Tank” Tankersley, dressed as usual in the Charlie uniform, green trousers, and khaki blouse. Tank had been my platoon sergeant when I first arrived in the fleet and was later my company gunny. He rarely wore utilities, because he didn’t really have a job anymore. A figurehead, maybe. Or just someone for the troops to admire and try to emulate. On the top of his ribbon rack sat a pale blue ribbon with five white stars, the Medal of Honor.
“A-ten-SHUN!” boomed Tank. About a hundred pairs of heels came together in unison as the whole company snapped into position.
“You didn’t think I’d miss this, did you, Jesse?” Tank asked quietly.
“It’s an honor to have you here, Master Guns.”
Tank nodded, then performed an about-face and waited as Battalion Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Brooks strode toward him. The CO stopped two paces in front of Tank as everyone waited. As was customary, the CO saluted Tank first, in deference to that little blue ribbon.
Tank returned the salute sharply and shouted, “Alpha Company is formed, sir!”
“Post!” barked Brooks.
Tank did a left-face and marched around the CO to take his position behind and to his left.
The battalion CO looked over the three platoons, comprising just one of the companies under his command, until his gaze finally came to rest on me.
“Good morning, Gunnery Sergeant McDermitt.”
“And a fine Marine Corps morning to you, sir,” I replied.
Brooks and I also went back a few years. I’d invited him to retire me, personally. Normally, Tom would be commanding the formation as the company CO.
“Gunnery Sergeant Jesiah Smedley McDermitt,” he shouted. “Front and center!”
I winced at the use of my full given name. My Mom’s parents were Jewish, though they didn’t really practice the religion or go to the synagogue. But they did insist on a Hebrew name. I could thank my grandfather, Pap, for my middle name. As a marine who’d served before and during World War Two, he had once been under the command of one of the Corps’ greatest heroes, Smedley Butler, just before the general retired.
I marched forward and came to attention two paces in front of the battalion CO, saluted, and said, “Gunnery Sergeant McDermitt, reporting as ordered, sir.”
He returned my salute, then looked over his left shoulder and barked, “Adjutant! Report!”
A young captain who had just transferred in from 4th Marines out on the West Coast, stepped forward with several thin, red binders. He opened the first one and began reading. It was a citation from the President of the United States, awarding me the Meritorious Service Medal. When he’d finished reading it, he stepped forward and handed the red binder and a small case to Tank, who opened the case and presented it to the CO.
Brooks took the medal from the case and pinned it onto the pocket flap of my camouflage blouse. Then Tank handed him the red binder and the CO handed it to me. Shaking my right hand as he did so, he said, “Congratulations, Gunny.”
The adjutant then read aloud my certificate of retirement and transfer to the Marine Corps Reserve. Again, Tank handed this binder to the CO and he handed it to me, shaking hands once more.
Letters of congratulations from the Commandant and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps came next. After they had been read, I received them with yet another handshake.
It was at this point in the ceremony that the wife and family were usually recognized. Tank fixed me with a sad smile as the CO said quietly, “It’s been an honor serving with you, Gunny. I know your service has come at great cost. Your nation thanks you.”
I saluted and offered my thanks.
He returned my salute, then nodded to the adjutant before he and Tank did a right-face and marched off to the side of the formation.
Stepping forward, the adjutant announced, “The formation will now be turned over to Gunnery Sergeant McDermitt, so that he may give his final Marine Corps order.”
I took two paces forward, stopped, executed an about-face, and looked once more at my platoon. Then I looked left and right, to the men in the other two platoons, many of whom I’d worked closely with over the years. My gaze fell back to the warriors in front of me.
“Company!” I shouted.
Sergeant Ortiz and the other two platoon sergeants shouted, “Platoon!”
“Fall Out!” I ordered. Then I turned and walked away from my post, toward a large pine tree. There I stopped and was soon joined by Tank, Ortiz, Tom and all the men from my platoon.
Slaps on the back, handshakes, and congratulations were offered, along with thanks from many young men for leading and teaching them. One by one, the troops drifted away until it was just me, Tank, and Tom standing in the early morning shade.
“You did good, Jesse,” Tank offered. “One day, God forbid, some of these men will owe their lives to you.”
“Just doing the job, the way you taught me, Tank.” I shook his hand and turned to Tom.
“Thanks, Jesse,” Tom said shaking my hand. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be half the officer I am today. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, let me know.”
Just then a red Mustang convertible rounded the corner and parked at the curb in front of the building. A young man got out and started toward the main entrance. When he saw us, he stopped and asked, “You guys know where I can find a Jesse McDermitt?”
Driving south on US-1 out of Homestead, I turned left onto Card Sound Road. I’d been on the road since early morning, having spent the night in a cheap motel south of Jacksonville. Fighting my way through Miami traffic during an afternoon rainstorm had sapped what little patience I had left. Now that I was clear of that hell-hole and about to enter the only tropical destination in the United States you could drive to, I felt like a mini-celebration was in order. A blackened grouper sandwich at Alabama Jack’s would do the trick. It had been far too long since I’d last enjoyed fresh seafood.
I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy transition. The previous morning, I was a Marine gunnery sergeant, a sniper instructor in charge of a group of hard-core warriors; the pointy tip of the sharp spear that is America’s military. Now I was more or less an unemployed drifter, with a one-line resume and no real job skills. Unless you counted shooting bad people from half a mile away a job skill. Regardless, I was excitedly looking forward to my new life as a civilian. I hadn’t even bothered to shave that morning.
I’d called an old friend, James “Rusty” Thurman, several weeks ago, told him of my pending retirement and asked what the job market was like in the Florida Keys. Rusty and I had served together early in my career, but he’d left the Corps after four years, when his wife died in childbirth. One of the few real Conchs left in the Keys, he’d taken over his dad’s bar and bait store, enlarged it, and was planned to offer food in addition to cold beer and liquor. I’d been down there quite a few times over the ensuing years and loved the laid-back lifestyle of the islanders. But my last time down had been over a year ago, and fresh grouper was hard to find in North Carolina.
“Job market?” Rusty’d asked two weeks ago. “Nobody in the Keys has a job, bro. We hustle. Just get your ass down here and we’ll figure out what kind of hustle best suits you.”
Approaching the toll bridge, I pulled off the two-lane road into the parking lot of Alabama Jack’s, killed the engine on the rental car and headed inside. The place was nearly empty. Being a Wednesday afternoon, that was to be expected. What few people there were seemed a mixture of tourists, bikers, and fishermen. As I sat down at a table overlooking the canal, several pelicans looked up at me expectantly. Beyond the canal, a mangrove marsh extended toward the west, white ibis and cranes resting in the trees.
“Cold beer, captain?” a waitress asked, jarring me from my thoughts.
I looked up at a pretty brunette in her mid-twenties, with dark brown eyes and a ready smile. Her name tag read Heather.
“Yeah, Heather,” I said. “Red Stripe and a blackened grouper sandwich.”
As she turned to put my order in, I wondered why she’d called me captain. A moment later she brought my beer, condensation dripping down the sides of the bottle, and placed it on two napkins.
“Fishing or diving?” she asked.
“You’re a charter boat captain, right? The other waitress and I have a bet, whether you’re a fishing or dive boat captain.”
I remembered as a kid admiring the captains of the charter boats, who took tourist fishermen out day after day, always coming back with big fish to hang on the boat’s Today’s Catch board. My dad had known a few, guys he went to school with. But Pap seemed to know every boat captain on the water for miles around Fort Myers.
“How much is the bet for?” I asked.
“Ten bucks,” she said. “And on a slow day like this, it’ll probably be more than both our tips.”
I laughed and said, “Well, you both lose.”
“You’re not a charter captain? We were both so sure. It’s a game we play when it’s slow; trying to guess peoples’ occupations.”
“Fishing and diving,” I lied. Maybe one day, though.
I ate my lunch with enthusiasm. Growing up in Fort Myers, we always had fresh seafood; grouper, snapper, hogfish, shrimp, crab, and lobster. My grandparents had raised me from the time I was eight years old and Pap was a first-rate fisherman.
Just a few hours earlier, the contents of my sandwich had been swimming around, without a care in the world. I’d almost forgotten how good fresh seafood could be.
I finished eating, paid my tab, including a generous tip, and got back into the rental car. I now had only three days to return it. Three days to find something to drive. And not just any car would do. Cars rusted out fast in the Keys, so it had to be cheap, but reliable. And tough enough to haul stuff around. I had no idea what I’d be hauling around, but I knew it wouldn’t be in a Mustang convertible.
Back on the road, I paid the toll for the bridge and came to a complete stop at the top of the high arch. There wasn’t any traffic in either direction, so I put the top down on the Mustang and stood up. Card Sound Bridge is very high, and from the top you can see for miles. On a clear day, you can see all the way across northern Key Largo to the ocean. Not today, though. It was overcast to the south, but to the northeast, I could see Biscayne Bay. I took a long, deep breath of fresh sea air before continuing.
For the next hour-and-a-half I drove through the Upper and Middle Keys, the familiar islands and bridges rolling by as I chased the sun west. Pap had brought me down here many times when I was a kid and the drive had always been something we’d both looked forward to. Since I was overseas a few years ago when Mam passed away--just a few months before him--he waited until I got home so we could spread her ashes on the upper reaches of Peace River, another of our favorite places.
I finally arrived in Marathon. It had changed a little since I was last there, but not a lot. I slowed as I passed the airport, not exactly sure where the driveway to Rusty’s house was. He didn’t advertise the bar, which was on the same property as his house, and I’d passed it more than once. As I was looking for the shell driveway on the left, an old tank of a car parked at the Wooden Spoon Restaurant caught my eye. It had a “For Sale” sign taped inside the windshield. I braked hard, turned in, and parked next to it. It was an old International Travelall that looked as if it had seen a lot. I walked inside and asked who owned it. The waitress said it was the cook’s and went to get him.
A black man came out of the kitchen and announced with a decidedly Jamaican accent that they were slow just now, so he took me outside for a closer look. He started it up without any trouble. We haggled over the price and finally agreed on $800.
“Do you know where the Rusty Anchor is?” I asked him.
“Sure, mon. Just a quarter mile down Useless One, dere.”
I pulled out a roll and handed him $100. “I’m staying with Rusty for a day or two. When you finish your shift, stop by and I’ll give you the rest and a lift home. Bring the title.”
He smiled broadly. “I got it in di dash box.”
We shook hands and I went on to Rusty’s house. As I pulled off the highway onto the crushed shell driveway, and slowly drove under the canopy of overhanging oak, gumbo limbo, and casuarina trees, I felt as if I’d finally come home. The sounds and scents were like the southwest coast, but a little sultrier, and somehow more ancient-feeling. The damp air, heavy with moisture and the scent of frangipani gave me a sense of satisfaction deep in my core.
I parked the car, put up the top and the windows, and grabbed my seabag out of the trunk. After twenty years in the Corps, everything I owned fit into a single seabag. Well, except for two cleaned and pressed uniforms in a carrier. I’d had a lot more things a couple of times, but two divorces and nearly a dozen deployments took care of those material possessions. Why I was hanging onto the uniforms, I really didn’t know.
I slung my seabag over my left shoulder and walked toward the bar. It was mid-afternoon, but there were already a handful of pickups in the parking lot. I pulled open the door and stepped inside, waiting a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darker interior before walking over to the wooden bar.
There were three men sitting there, and a few more at a couple of the tables. All of them turned to look at me, appraising the new stranger. I’d walked into many bars like this, all over the world. Places where working men gathered after a hard day. Places where men sized one another up purely on physical characteristics. One by one, they all turned their eyes back to whatever they were doing before I came in.
I walked over to the bar, dropped my seabag at the end and took the last stool. The bartender had her back to me, polishing the heavy mahogany top.
When she turned around, I realized it was Rusty’s daughter, Julie. I hadn’t seen the girl in over three years. She was just an awkward fourteen-year-old then, all knobby knees and way too tall for her age.
She looked at me questioningly. “Can I get you something?”
I grinned. “Yeah, Jules. You can tell that old Jarhead in the back he’s about to get his ass kicked.”
That put ten eyes back on me in an instant and more than one chair leg scraped the floor. Islanders are tight and Rusty was one of them. I was an outsider, a mainlander. Suddenly, a glimmer of recognition lit her eyes.
“Uncle Jesse!” She flew around the end of the bar and leaped into my arms. “Dad said you’d be coming, but he didn’t know when.”
I set her back on her feet and held her at arms’ length to look at her. She wasn’t an awkward fourteen-year-old anymore. She was nearly a full-grown woman, though she’d just turned seventeen.
“If it weren’t for you having your momma’s hair, I never would have recognized you, Jules.” I stepped back. “Look at you. You’re all grown up now. Can we lose the uncle thing, though? A beautiful young woman calling me that makes me feel like I should be playing shuffleboard in Miami, wearing condo commando garb.”
She blushed as the men in the bar went back to their conversations. “It’s really good to see you again,” she said as she moved behind the bar. “Dad’s out back, fixing up that old shack for our new cook. Want a beer before you go back there?”
“Nice to see you again, too. Make it four Red Stripes. A new cook, you say?”
“Yeah, an old Jamaican man who just came to town. Dad’s going to let him live in the shack as part of his pay.” She took a small cooler from under the bar, filled it with ice, added six bottles from the cooler and handed it to me. “That storm will be on us in a few minutes. Y’all might want a couple of extras to ride it out.”
As I bent down to pick up my seabag, she stopped me. “Just leave it there, Uncle—I mean, Jesse. I’ll take it to the house for you.” Then she turned to a young man sitting at the bar with two other guys. He had long hair and a barely-visible mustache. “Watch the bar for me, Jimmy?”
“Sure thing, Julie,” he replied with a smile.
I made my way through the bar and out the back door with the cooler. The storm front to the south was getting closer as I headed across the sloped backyard toward an old shack. Rusty’s grandfather had once used it to make illegal rum during Prohibition. I could hear Rusty swearing at someone inside, or more likely something. As I stepped onto the small porch of the shack, the first fat drops of rain started hitting the ground around me, kicking up dust, and pinging on the shack’s tin roof.
Rusty and I had gone through boot camp together at Parris Island in the spring of ’79. We’d ridden the same bus together from Jacksonville. Since we were the only two in our platoon from Florida, we became fast friends. Later, we served in the same units a couple of times, once at Camp Lejeune, and again on Okinawa. We kept in touch by mail when we weren’t stationed together, and more than once, we took leave together.
We’d been about two months from either going home or shipping over for another four-year tour when Rusty’s wife went into early labor. Tragically, she died giving birth to Julie. Rusty had almost two months of saved leave time. He immediately applied for and received terminal leave to get out early.
I shipped over.
Julie stayed with his parents until he got home three days after his wife died, and it had been just him and Julie ever since. It was a struggle, to say the least, a man raising a little girl alone.
Letting the screen door slam, I said, “Sounds like you could use a cold beer there, Devil Dog.” He turned around quickly, belying his girth. At just under five-seven, he tipped the scales at more than three-hundred pounds.
“Jesse, you old wharf rat!” Rusty crossed the room quickly and threw his arms around me, nearly lifting me off the floor. Rusty was always a hugger. “You shoulda called. I’d have picked you up at the airport.”
“I rented a car and drove down from North Carolina. Damn good to see you again, old friend.”
“It’s been way too long. I bet Julie barely recognized you, with all that man-hair on your chin.”
“How’ve you guys been?” I asked, opening the cooler.
He pulled two beers from the cooler with his huge left hand, reached into his back pocket and quickly popped the caps off with an opener he always carried.
“We’re doin’ good. Trying to fix this place up some. I hired me a genuine Jamaican chef. How about you? Got a third ex-wife yet?”
I laughed and took a long pull on the cold Jamaican beer. “No way, brother. I’m a confirmed bachelor these days.”
He grinned through his thick red beard and arched his eyebrows, the wrinkles in his forehead forming three deep lines below his bald scalp. “Well, you came to the right place then. Only women around here are married or fed up with men. But there’s hot and cold running tourist female tourists that you can play with every weekend.”
I looked around the old rum-making shack. He’d completely gutted the place, added new drywall and paint, even new windows. It’d been a catch-all storage shack for the last 75 years. Now, with slightly used furniture and fresh paint, it looked pretty cozy. But then, I could sleep in a muddy hole in the ground.
Originally, the shack had been a single room, about eight feet by sixteen feet. He’d added a wall, creating a small living space and a bedroom in back. Where the old rum still had been, a potbellied stove now stood.
The living area had a window that looked out over the Atlantic Ocean, which now had wind-whipped waves and white caps as far as I could see, as the angry rain lashed at its surface.
The only furnishings were two heavy, leather recliners and between them, a tiered table topped by a reading lamp. On either side of the window stood two bookcases, already filled with hardback and paperback books.
I glanced through the doorway to see a single bed against the wall and next to it, a table and lamp identical to those in the living area. “Pretty sparse living conditions,” I noted.
“Rufus—he’s my new chef—said that this was all he wanted. He’s an old guy, not sure how old, but he still gets around like a teenager. Used to be head chef at a fancy place down on Jamaica. His wife died a year ago and this is how he wanted to retire. Sit and read by the sea.”
Rusty plopped his considerable girth into one of the recliners. “Take a load off, brother.”
Sitting back in the recliner, looking out the window at the gray, menacing sea, I reached over with my beer bottle and Rusty extended his, clinking the necks together. The storm built in intensity, the heavy rain that pinged on the tin roof sounding like a fusillade of automatic weapons fire.
“Got any plans?” Rusty asked.
“So far, just getting down here. I have no idea what I want to do.”
“Yeah,” Rusty said. “Shootin’ at things half a mile away ain’t in high demand. SWAT team maybe?”
I leaned forward in my chair, elbows on my knees, and looked over at him. “Would you think I was totally whacked if I said I wanted to buy a charter boat?”
He nearly choked on his beer and then used the bottle to point out the window. “You want to go out on that? Hauling some dumbass Yankee bubbas out there to catch fish? That your idea of a hustle?”
I followed his gaze out the window. “Not so much the bubba part, but it’d solve a couple of my more immediate problems. One, I’d have my own place to live and two, if I don’t like my neighbor, I could just start the engine and move. What’s it take to get a charter license?”
“Yeah, I think so. My pension from Uncle Sam is more than enough to cover living expenses and I have quite a bit saved up, plus what Pap and Mam left me. I could buy a really decent boat with that and still have plenty left over.”
Rusty took a long pull on his beer. “I was real sorry to hear about their passing. Pap was a smart man and sure could find the fish. And man, could Mam ever cook.”
Several times, when Rusty and I would take leave, or extended weekends together, he’d drop me off in Fort Myers on his way down to the Keys. Most times, Mam would insist on his staying over, so he wouldn’t have to drive Alligator Alley at night. My grandparents treated him like another grandson, so it was only natural for Rusty to call them Mam and Pap.
We drank beer, caught up on recent doings, reminisced about old times, and then Rusty went on to explain the different kinds of licenses, and what it’d take to get each. The storm continued to rage outside. I had to admit, the little cabin certainly had its appeal.
Suddenly, the rain stopped and within seconds the sun was shining, causing steam to rise from everywhere.
Rusty gestured out the window. “Welcome to Florida, bro. If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour. Let’s go up to the bar.”
We made our way out into the sweltering, humid air. It was early June, but in the Keys the passage of time is measured by the seasons. Hurricane season and tourist season. Though summer still brought quite a few tourists to the southernmost tip of Florida, winter was the big tourist season.
We went inside, where several more people had taken refuge from the storm. Rusty moved behind the bar and yanked the cord on an old brass ship’s bell mounted on the wall to get everyone’s attention.
“Folks, this big landlubber is one of my best friends in the whole world, Jesse McDermitt. We served together in the Corps and he’s just retired. Says he wants to buy a charter boat.”
Rusty pointed people out and gave me all their names. The young man with the long hair was Jimmy Saunders. Seated next to him were two guys about my age, Al Fader, and Charlie Hofbauer, as well as a tall black guy, Sherman Crawford. The four of them were shrimpers out of Key West, Rusty explained.
After the introductions were made, Sherman spoke up, surprising me with an Australian accent. “Fishing or diving charter, mate?”
“Maybe a little of both,” I replied. “Very little, though. More than anything, I want a boat that I can live on and that’s big enough to take exploring.”
Jimmy turned to Al and pointed to the end of the bar. “Hand me that paper you were just looking at, Skipper.”
Al shoved it down the bar and Jimmy spun it around, pointing to an ad for a Coast Guard auction in Miami scheduled for the following Saturday. Circled under the banner was a listing for a boat. Jimmy tapped the picture with his finger. “Dude, if you want to do a little of both and want a really cool place to live when you’re not doing either, right here’s the boat you want.” Then he grinned at Rusty before turning back to me. “Hope your credit’s good, man. That’s a lot of samolians.”
I looked down at the listing. It had a picture of a sleek-looking offshore fishing boat, with wide Carolina bow flares and a long foredeck. The listing said it was a 45-foot Rampage convertible and had a reserve of $300,000. I spun the paper back to Jimmy. “I don’t know a lot about individual boat models, but I know Rampage is about top of the line. What can you tell me about this model?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Top of the line? Yeah, dude. And the 45 is the company flagship, man.” He picked up and scanned the listing. “Has a really nice forward stateroom with its own private head. Aft of there is the guest cabin and day head. A couple steps up from there to the galley and salon.” He looked up from the paper a moment. “Rampage goes all out here, man. Really nice woodwork and furniture, even a big screen TV.” He resumed his description from what the listing showed. “Step down aft the salon to the cockpit. All business there, dude. Plenty of deck space, storage and fish boxes, fighting chair, even a cleaning station and sink. A hatch amidships takes you down to the engine room, below the salon. The 45 usually has a pair of C-15 Cats down there. That’s 850 horses each. Plus, a water maker, generator, and inverter. A ladder to port takes you up to the bridge, loaded with electronics. Radar, fish finders, sonar, VHF and short-wave radios, all kinds of cool stuff. I crewed on one a couple of years ago for a big tournament. But it being a Coast Guard auction, this boat was probably seized from smug drugglers. Could be shot all to hell, man.”
The kid seemed to be knowledgeable. “You busy Saturday?”
“You think you can afford payments on a boat like that, dude?”
“If it doesn’t go much over the reserve, yeah, I can afford it.” What I didn’t say and what was nobody’s business was that there weren’t going to be any payments. I was Pap’s only heir. He’d started an architecture firm after World War Two, was very successful, and had sold it about five years ago for over two million dollars.
“Count me in,” Rusty said. “I’ll drive you up there and if you buy it, Jimmy here can help you pilot it back and get your sea legs wet. If not, we can always go to a nudie show on South Beach.”
Jimmy thought it over a minute. “Okay, you got yourself a first mate, bro.”
The front door of the bar opened then and the cook from the Wooden Spoon walked in. He looked around, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, then spotted me and came over. “Got your ride outside, mon.”
“You bought Joe’s piece-a-shit, man?” Jimmy asked.
“Not yet, he ain’t,” the cook said. “Still owes me $700.”
I pulled a roll of bills from my pocket, peeled off seven one-hundred-dollar-bills and handed them to the man.
“Got the title, Joe?”
“Ya, mon.” He produced the document, signed the back, and handed it to me. I stuffed the paper in my back pocket.
Jimmy pointed to the ad again and laughed. “You can afford that boat and bought a piece of crap for seven Benjamins to drive around in?”
“Wouldn’t make sense to haul bait and boat parts in a new pickup,” I said. “Besides, the car seemed to call my name.”
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