I recently drove to the everglades from Charlotte, NC. It was an 11-hour drive, eight of which was just Florida.
As I neared the everglades with a final destination of Everglade City, I drove through the orange groves. They were in bloom. If the trip had nothing else but that experience, it would be enough. Musk and citrus drip into a floral undercurrent the way humidity holds time in summer. It is slow and seductive and slightly coy. Windows down, I took my foot off the gas and allowed the scent to carry me through.
Beyond the orchards was the panther reserve where, for miles, signs instructed drivers to look out for large cat crossings. I saw no panthers, only people fishing in the moats that separated each side of the road from the tall fence of the reserve. Alligators pepper those waters and though I didn’t see any, I kept the video recorder on my phone ready in the event that God decided to thin the gene pool.
I drove through alligator alley and, like the panther park, saw no wildlife to write about.
Everglade city was not what I expected. City is definitely the wrong descriptor word, although, given the environment, it is probably apropos. Pulling into town, there was a gas station that was also a restaurant and gift shop that sold bait & tackle, t-shirts, and ice cream. The draw to return to this place, decked to the nines with fish nets and foam floaters, was akin to the carnival freak show tents that tagged along with the travelling circus when I was young. All I needed was to be a certain number of inches tall and show my ticket. Little brings me greater joy than a well-placed contradiction like cotton-candy ice cream and buckets of worms sold behind the same counter.
A block beyond the gas station was the Southern version of the Bate’s Motel. Ravaged by a hurricane, it sat in a purgatory of disrepair, a fate to be determined between either tourists or the weather. Insurance money was most likely spent on a vacation elsewhere.
Each city block housed only one building as though each structure was preparing to expand. It was like Everglade City knew my mom. She always bought us shoes that were two sizes too big because we were intended grow into them. Her economy was our social nightmare. Resourcefully and as an effort to not become fashion fails, we dragged our feet, kicked dirt, and picked at the rubber of our shoes until they reflected a poverty that was unacceptable to my mom. She would buy us new ones. Everglade city was long overdue for a trip to the K-mart with my mom.
The motel was on a round-about. Directly across from it teetered a bank building from the 1880’s that withstood the onslaught of torrential winds and rains but died in any number of financial crises since it’s heyday. It was last known as a bed & breakfast but by the decay of the building, that seemed a polite way of saying crack-house.
The one building with a fresh coat of white paint had four tall columns reaching to the sky-high Greek inspired pediment and looked remarkably like a courthouse. It was and showed the four-hundred residents of the city that law and order was still intact.
Following the circle around, past the courthouse were the new tennis courts and beyond that, was the city’s museum, a Pepto-Bismol pink structure with impeccably painted dark pink trim. That’s where I turned left, down the quiet street to my friend’s new home.
The cottage itself was a former schoolhouse. The charm is as undeniable as the interior is quirky. Clearly there was some updating and remodeling that happened over the years that left the place a hodge-podge of aesthetically uncomfortable yet likeable spaces; easy to navigate but hard to understand. Cozy.
One more recent addition to the cottage was the lanai. It was one step lower than the rest of the house, screened in and brimming with furniture. There were two small glass and metal outdoor café tables, each with two armchairs made from PVC piping. There were two lounge chairs, made of the same, that were separated by a plastic Ficus tree. There was one random chair near the entry to the house. All flat surfaces held baskets of silk flowers and marine themed nick-nacks. The house was tidy and intentionally decorated.
My friends had closed on their snowbird’s dream just hours before my arrival and the previous owners left the home full of stuff; innumerable baskets of silk flower arrangements, entire white wicker bookshelves of grocery store romance novels, all of the furniture ranging from Floridian wicker to federation bureaus stuffed with linens and board games. They left soaps, towels, cleaners, and a kitchen full of food, some of which had expired in 2003, 2006 and 2014. They left closets full of clothes. My friends purchased more than they realized.
As we sat on the lanai discussing the evening plans, a golf cart puttered past with a large leg hanging over the side as though it was preparing to counterbalance the immediate and unpredicted turn into the drive. The owner of the cart and his little scrappy dog dismounted and walked to the patio.
Dave, a Michelin man of a figure at over six feet tall and almost equally wide, hobbled as a man of that weight would, and yelled out to the new homeowners a hardy, “hey friends!” as he yanked another can of beer from the plastic loops that he used as a carrier of the remaining two cans of the former six-pack of beer.
Our conversation stopped as Dave entered the porch. His voice matching his heft, the bulk of his personality squeezed into the quondam space of our bird-chirping friendship. We fell silent as he, uninvited and cumbersome, seated himself in the PVC chair as though he were a man a third of his size and an old, welcomed friend. The plastic tubes squeaked, crackled and bent against his gravitational pull as my friends and I got into alert positions, prepared to jump into action and aid the man from his inevitable fall. The chair held its own though no one but Dave relaxed into trusting this.
He filled the space with noise masked as conversation that ran on without contribution by anyone else. The consequent cans of beer brought more bite to his banter as we were informed of everyone’s income, marital status, affairs, and political affiliation. We were enlightened to Dave’s beliefs and habits which could be identified with a lot of ‘ist’s’ at the end. Eventually, his beer gone but his mouth still motoring, his filthy little dog peed on the rug.
He said nothing as the dog looked to finish the job it had begun. Without apology and without taking his empty cans, he scooped up the little hydrant and left the premises.
We all sat there, jaws slacked open, as though we had just been slapped by a stranger. None of us seemed to know what just happened or who that guy was.
He fancied himself a realtor of sorts. He owned a couple of condominiums with his mom, and they were selling off an extra one, having given up on making it an addition to their conjoined condo. Prior to buying this cottage, my friends had taken a look at Dave’s condo as a listed property in town. In less than five minutes, they knew it wasn’t the place for them and in that same few minutes, Dave found himself a couple of kind-hearted Midwesterners who were too polite to sidestep the steamroller he mislabeled as friendship.
The second night, as we sat down to discuss dinner plans over booze and munchies, we heard the put-put of the golf cart. It was a repeat of the night prior: leg out, cart crawling past and taking an immediate right angle turn into the driveway. The grey, dreadlock, sticky white dog bounced into the lead as both made way to the lanai, Dave with three remaining beer cans dangling from the loops in his hand, yanking one down and popping it open with a hearty, “hey friends!”
In he came, same size, same noise level, same amount of beer, sitting in the same unprepared chair, and the three of us frozen like deer in the headlights of the oncoming mac truck. Dave picked up his conversation where he had left it, somewhere between his held conspiracy theories and his rancor for absolutely everyone but his mom, his dog, and the neighbor’s cute girlfriend. The squall of his bitterness even pummeled the makers of Joe’s beer that he polished off after slamming his own anyway and regardless.
Dave’s volume matched his density, and it became clear that the only things little about Dave were his mind, his thread bare shirt that exposed his girth as if the top was a punchline to parody on fashion faux pas, and his etiquette.
He made it known in several punctuated statements that it was mating season for him. He smelled my status like a bull in rut. I was cornered prey. The alcohol enhanced his fervor.
Had my foot been caught in a trap, I’d have gnawed it off.
He drank his beer. He drank our beer. He ate ALL of the snacks that my friend had placed on the table prior to his arrival. And then he went for the wine. My friend’s husband offered it to him under the great and immediate protest of we women. The wine was ours and we were not willing to share it. Not with Dave. It got shared anyway and Dave drank it down with the same wild abandon which he drank the beer and ate the food. He drank it down without regard. He chugged it like the sweet little lanai was Animal House and this was a kegger, all the while keeping his eyes on the prize growling in the corner. My tolerance for toxic testosterone is very low.
The shaggy mutt hopped up on the lounge chair of my friend. As she touched the dog, she whispered to me that we ought steal the dog and give her a bath and a shave. As sweet as this little creature was in demeanor, she was unpleasant to touch and had a stench of garbage.
Dave saw his dog on the lounge chair and boomed out, “That one’s taken! The pretty one belongs to Joe. You need to sit with the other one.” He referred to me as the other one. He hoisted himself up, wrapped his hands around the little critter and relocated the dog to my lounge chair. He then commanded that I pet it. Over and over again he made this demand, even as he re-assaulted the innocent chair that auditorily objected this man’s oncoming ass with the sound of stretched plastic and splintering.
My objections, like my newly reinstated chastity, were under lock and key. I was trying to not smell like bacon to a famished beast.
He called me the other one.
“Hey—Bunion…Bunion…yeah, you.” His focus on me, he said, “Why don’t you come back to my house so I can shave off that bunion for you?!?”
If there was a line that was crossed, it was long before this but certainly this reached a new low. Almost everything that he verbally vomited was offensive. This offense simply had direction and intent.
He referred to me as “bunion” for the remainder of the bottle of wine that he consumed without the benefit of a glass. With the bottle thrown back, tongue out, and him trying to catch every last drop, I put on my best Southern lesson to bless his heart, and politely offered that he go home to his mamma and have her make him a salad.
My friend’s husband knew that I didn’t just poke the bear, I whacked it on the head with a stick. He jumped to his feet with a “whoooooa now” as he dipped quickly into the house. I assumed he was going for his pistol because the tension was immediately palpable. I silently prayed for a tranquilizer gun. We would need Fentanyl, and lots of it, to take this mess down. My friend gathered up the empty cans and bottle and plates like she was running for shelter from the storm.
Dave heaved himself to a standing position and teetered like the bank building down the block. He thundered three steps across the room and hovered over the nylon and PVC chaise lounge in which I was seated. He extended a fist.
He wanted to fist bump. Of course, he did.
As Joe returned to distract the bull like a clown in a barrel, I slid out of the chair and scooted into the house without returning the fist-bump. Of course, I didn’t. I’m not a fifteen-year-old boy and nothing about this guy was okay enough to concede to his dismissal of his own behaviors. The other one doesn’t fist bump.
With Dave gone once again, we hopped on our bikes and peddled to the nearest bar for some ring-catching, cocktails, and to chide Joe about giving away the wine. Every last drop of it.
Dave didn’t come back for the remainder of my time in Everglade City, providing proof that vegetables really are good for you. We three friends watched the sunsets, kayaked the mangrove keys, and biked to the gas station that first caught my eye, before I headed back home, making the trip, once again, through the orange groves, taking my foot off the gas and allowing the scent to carry me forward.