“Don’t shoot guns into the hurricane.”
Elsewhere this would go without saying, but Floridians need to be told.
This was an actual warning issued by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office just north of Tampa Bay as a major storm approached. After all, a local man had just been arrested for DUI when he tried to order a taco in a Bank of America drive-through.
The alert was a reaction to people posting plans on the Internet for a party to shoot at the hurricane and make it turn away. The sheriff’s notice even included a scientific diagram showing how the vortex of the core could curve bullet paths to come back and hit the shooter.
“Shooting at a hurricane!” said Serge. “That’s the most brainless thing I’ve ever heard!”
Coleman looked out the rear window of their muscle car racing over a bridge. “Why is everyone else driving the other way?”
“Because they’re evacuating. It’s the smart move.”
“Then shouldn’t we be evacuating?”
“Absolutely not,” said Serge, turning on tactical silicone windshield wipers. “They have to flee because they don’t know what they’re doing. We’re professionals.”
“Everyone else gets ready for storms according to the official instructions.” Serge reached under his seat. “Which is fine if you want to survive. But if you’re taking it to the next level, all that jazz will just slow you down. Hurricanes are the marrow of Florida history, and my history always goes bone-deep. That’s why I prepare for storms with an encyclopedic set of state guidebooks, every conceivable new gadget, and bags of provisions exclusively from the candy and snack aisles. Think about it: Little kids are programmed to thrive and that’s the first place they go. That’s how a pro has to think.”
“I’m still not sure.” Coleman flicked a Bic. “We’re like the only car heading this direction.”
“I’ve taken every conceivable precaution,” said Serge, absent-mindedly waving a pistol out the window as Coleman did a bong hit. “What can possibly go wrong?”
The bloated, decaying body rolled into the ditch.
It fell onto its back, cloudy eyes still wide open, creating a frozen expression that bookmarked the last thoughts from a long, brutal life of hardship, hunger, harrow and few complaints. The final thought in those eyes: What kind of shit now?
“It creeps me out the way he’s staring like that,” said a voice at the top of the ditch.
“He’s staring at God,” said someone else, grabbing a pair of lifeless ankles.
Another body tumbled down the dirt embankment, and another, and so forth. The dead were all African American, just like the dozens of perspiring, shirtless men laboring with shovels.
The shovel gang most likely would have pitched in anyway, out of a sense of community, but this time they didn’t have a choice. They occasionally glanced back at the white lawmen with shotguns propped against their shoulders and pools of tobacco spit at their feet.
“What are you looking at—!” The next word was impolite.
It actually should have been quite a nice day in late September. The sky was clear as a dream, and a cooling breeze swept over the fields covered with thousands of tulip-shaped orange wildflowers. The wind made the acres of bright petals sway as one, back and forth, like an immense school of tropical fish. Then the sun rose higher, and the breeze left. The air became stubbornly still, baking in that Central Florida humidity so thick it seemed to have weight. But worst of all:
It stank.Blame history. It doesn’t bother to knock. It doesn’t even come in the front door.
Blame history. It doesn’t bother to knock. It doesn’t even come in the front door. It’s like those newspaper articles about a car that crashes through the wall of a bedroom in the middle of the night. This was before storms had alphabetical names, and it was called the Great Hurricane of 1928. Later it would become the forgotten storm. The victims didn’t have money.
It began the afternoon of September 15. All the fancy weather instruments that now give residents a head start on hurricanes had yet to be invented. You’d be chopping carrots for a stew, and then a hurricane was just there. But if you were really paying attention over the years, there was one early-warning system. The Seminoles.
Something about pollen and a rapid blooming of the sawgrass. The Indians watched the plants down in the swamp, and when a low haze in front of the setting sun got that weird color, they seemed to know the exact moment to make for high ground. Many scientists have looked into the phenomenon and scoffed at the notion. But the Seminoles were always dependably on the move before each Big Wind, so they’d figured something out.
This time, the tribe had come up out of the Everglades on trails leading to the ramshackle towns of South Bay and Belle Glade, then made a right turn toward West Palm Beach. There was no panic in their march. Simply a parade of native families out for a very long stroll. Some of the townsfolk remembered a similar migration two years earlier, before a lesser hurricane, and decided to follow the Indians out. But most stayed put.
On the morning of September 17, the storm that had peaked at category five made landfall at the Jupiter Inlet lighthouse in northern Palm Beach County. More than a thousand homes were destroyed along the coast before it continued churning inland, unimpressed . . .
Now, a few days later, the digging of massive, macabre pits continued with a sense of urgency. Fear of disease swept the survivors, and in the immediate aftermath the locals were on their own. Many of them were about halfway up the east side of the big lake, which would be Okeechobee, in an empty place that would soon become known for its mass grave, which would be Port Mayaca.
The same frantic scene was replaying itself miles away, in opposite directions, at two other South Florida locations. Even as mass graves go, there wasn’t remotely enough room. At least two and a half thousand dead by most accounts. Some said more than three. The nation’s worst toll ever, save for the Galveston storm in 1900.
Here was the problem with the hurricane of ’28: the storm surge. That’s often the case, and almost without exception, the deadly waves come from the ocean. But this time around, death didn’t come from the sea; one of the strongest hurricanes in recorded history made a direct hit on the nation’s largest freshwater lake sitting within a state. Who saw that coming? There was no dike, and the storm’s rotation easily shoved much of the lake’s contents south, in an inescapable ten-to-twenty-foot wall of water that blanketed hundreds of square miles.
In the following hours and days, the water began to recede, and then came the snakes, but that’s another story.
As the overwhelming scale of death became clear, they started digging a second grave pit on the other side of the lake in some unknown place called Ortona, and then a third in West Palm Beach, just off Tamarind Avenue. It was back-numbing work for all those residents pressed into service. But here’s what really pissed them off: The bodies of black victims filled the pits as fast as they could be thrown in on top of one another. Each white person got their own private pine box.
Then those boxes were loaded onto wagons and taken to the nearby Woodlawn Cemetery for proper burial.
A shotgun man stuck two fingers in his mouth for a shrill whistle that got everyone’s attention. Shovels stopped.
“You three! Over there!” The shotgun waved east. “They need more help!”
A trio of drained men trudged toward a separate pile of work, and stared down at a pale corpse.
“Great. The pine boxes,” said one of the larger men, named Goat. “I don’t mind burying our own, but this is bullshit.”
“Just grab him,” said a stubby but deceptively strong neighbor.
He went by “Stub.”
The first worker began lifting the body by the armpits, then suddenly dropped him and jumped back.
“What the hell’s gotten into you?” said Stub.
Goat just pointed with a quivering arm. “He’s got a bullet hole!”
“In the forehead.”
“Jesus, you’re right!”
They composed themselves and lifted him into a box, providing a better view. “Wait a minute, I know this guy. It’s Mr. Fakakta.”
“Sugar man,” said Goat. “Lived in that big colonial house out past the bend by the ice plant.”
“That big place in Pahokee was his?”
“Ain’t doing him no good now.”
They grabbed the next body, a woman, and just as promptly dropped it.
“She’s got a bullet hole, too,” said Stub.
“That’s his wife,” said Goat.
“What on earth is going on?”
The pair quickly scanned nearby bodies. “There’s his son. Head almost blown off . . .”
Stub was Catholic, made the sign of the cross. “Ave Maria.”
Goat glanced back twenty yards and watched a stream of brown juice shoot from between gapped teeth. “Think we should tell the deputy?”
“Definitely,” said Goat. “Some monster murdered this whole poor family—”
A shotgun blast went skyward. Everyone froze.
“Shut up over there and get back to work!” barked the lawman.
The pair nodded respectfully, then began hammering penny nails into the lid of a pine box. “Screw ’em.”
Help me!” yelled Coleman. “I’m trapped again!”
“Hold on. I’ve got my own problems.” Serge pushed away a piece of plywood and crawled out from under a debris pile of dresser drawers, chunks of ceiling and a toilet lid. He stood to examine all his scratches and bruises, but saw nothing major. He looked around. “Okay, Coleman, where are you?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
“No, I mean just keep talking and I’ll follow your voice.” “Okay,” said Coleman. “Hey, Serge, I just realized that ‘slow up’ and ‘slow down’ mean the same thing. That’s fucked. I’m still stoned.”
Serge cleared a path, pushing aside fractured furniture. “Keep talking.”
“Have you seen my weed anywhere out there?”
Serge cast aside a torn-down kitchen cabinet and lifted a soaked mattress. “There you are.”
Coleman sat up, and his face suddenly reddened as a cord from mangled window blinds tightened around his neck.
Serge flicked open a pocketknife and sliced the thin rope. “Don’t you know that’s a choking hazard?”
“I didn’t have a choice.” Coleman rubbed his neck. “It just got me.”
Serge stood again and stared thoughtfully at the bright, panoramic view out the front of the building where the wall used to be. “It got everyone.”
Coleman checked his own bruises. “Is it over?”
“All over but the shouting,” said Serge.
Coleman joined him, looking out across the calm waters of Bogie Channel. “So that was the big Hurricane Irma everyone was talking about?”
Serge would have opened the door, but there wasn’t one. He hopped down from the building and walked toward the street. The only sound was the crunch of gravel and broken glass under his sneakers. The air had turned mild and comfortable, nothing to betray what had come before.
Serge placed hands on his hips as he surveyed what had recently been a historic row of quaint old fishing cottages in the backcountry of the Florida Keys. All had been knocked off their foundations, lying helter-skelter practically on top of each other.
Unless you’ve seen the aftermath of a major hurricane, you wouldn’t realize how much of the damage appears to be the result of high explosives. Little pieces of shrapnel everywhere. Slivers and confetti. Most of the other cottages were missing their front walls as well, allowing the wind to go to work inside like sticks of dynamite. Cabin number 7 had no walls at all, just a roof lying on the ground, which had been pushed against the base of a palm tree that neatly cut it open like a jigsaw. The cabin with the least damage, still barely clinging together and listing like a floundering ship off the edge of its concrete slab, was number 5.
Serge looked the other way, toward the landmark two-story clapboard office and bait store at the Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp. It had stood apart from the cabins, alone, unprotected, with no trees to shield it on the edge of the channel. Now there was little evidence there had ever been an office, except for the matchbook-size pieces that littered the ground and floated in the water like another bomb had gone off.
Serge wiped his eyes.
“Are you starting to cry?” asked Coleman.
“Why couldn’t it have taken out a Starbucks or some shit? We keep losing all our best places.” He blew his nose. “I’d bet the bat tower on Sugarloaf is gone, too.”
One of the island’s endangered miniature Key deer sprang from the brush and bounded through the debris like an antelope.
“I’ve never seen one run that fast,” said Coleman. “I’m sure it has a lot on its mind.”
Coleman turned back around toward their cottage. “Jesus, we could have been killed! Why did you want to stay here and ride out that hurricane? Didn’t you realize it would be this hairy?”
Another doe darted by.
“I knew it would be strong,” said Serge. “But these little deer always figure out how to make it through storms, so I figured how hard can it be? Second, I love cabin number five.”
“It’s your favorite,” said Coleman. “You always kiss the number by the door when you first arrive.”
“I knew that if God would allow just a single cottage to survive relatively intact, it would be Five. I figured this island would get pretty much torn up, so I wanted to spend a final night in that special place. And last but not least, I seriously miscalculated.”
“Wait. Stop,” said Coleman. “You mean we really could have been killed? But you promised me I’d be safe.”
Serge pulled car keys from his pocket. “What was I thinking?”
“Hey, where are you going?”
They don’t call it Big Pine Key for nothing. The day before, Serge had found a spot where he was able to back his car about twenty yards into the woods, surrounded by thick pine trees. The kind of place where the little deer hide.
“It barely has a mark on her,” said Coleman. “So we’re heading out of here now?”
Serge shook his head and opened the trunk. “It will take a few days for workers to clear the roads, so we’ll be camping until then. Help me with this gear.”
They pitched a tent with sleeping bags behind the row of battered cabins. A small campfire began to glow in a little pit surrounded by rocks. Bottled water and beer cans bobbed in the melted ice of a cooler. Serge returned to the car for a last item and brought it back to the fire.
“What’s that thing?” asked Coleman.
“The beginning of my latest science project.” Serge sat down with a clear plastic storage bin in his lap. He opened his pocketknife again and poked a six-inch grid of tiny holes on the end. Then he taped a small, battery-powered fan over it. Then another grid on the opposite end. “This project has an extremely long gestation, and I don’t know when it’ll come into play, so we might as well use this downtime to get a head start.”
Serge grabbed a soggy package from the cooler. He took the lid off the bin and began evenly arranging the bag’s contents across the bottom.
“Bacon?” asked Coleman. “Your universal food group.”
“It’s the only thing that goes great with everything,” said Coleman. “Eggs, pickles, ice cream, Twinkies, other bacon. It’s just impossible to go wrong.”
“You can with this pack. It seriously spoiled overnight.” Serge held out a slimy, uncooked strip. “Unless you dig trichinosis.”
“I’ll stick to beer,” said Coleman. “But why are you putting it in that bin?”
“Read it in a medical journal,” Serge said. “In our advanced world of modern medicine, sometimes the best treatment is still low-tech.”
“Treatment for what?”
“I’m not treating anything, just using the principle for my experiment,” said Serge. “All will be revealed in due time.”
Serge finished his task and picked up the bin. He walked over to the edge of the woods, setting it down behind his car . . .
Serge listened to the morning news on his emergency radio. He reached inside their small dome tent and began shaking Coleman to no avail. “Come on, wake up! The road’s clear. It’s time to go.” Serge shook harder and harder until he heard primitive groans.
Then Coleman woke up all at once. He had somehow managed to turn himself around in his sleeping bag during the night.
“Help! Help! Something’s got me again.” “It’s just your sleeping bag. Hold still.”
But Coleman had the reasoning ability of someone drowning. “Help! Help!” He thrashed around like a giant caterpillar trying to molt. Then he jumped up and dislodged the tent’s poles, and soon he was wrapped up in that, too, rolling left and right.
Serge watched without expression until his pal wore himself out. A piled entanglement of nylon heaved as he panted.
“You finished?” asked Serge. “Because the tent isn’t completely wrecked yet.”
“Just get me out of this.”
Serge extricated his friend and they began breaking camp.
When everything was stowed in the car, Serge walked over to his science project. “Well, I’ll be. It worked.” He sealed the lid on the storage bin, started the battery-powered fan and stuck the whole business in the back seat.
A gold 1969 Plymouth Satellite emerged from the trees and drove away from the Old Wooden Bridge Fishing Camp. Soon, they were almost out of the Lower Keys, approaching the bridge to Bahia Honda. The debris piles that had been pushed aside by heavy equipment appeared like small mountain ranges down each side of the highway.
“Discussion time. Where were we?”
“When?” asked Coleman.
“I don’t know. The hurricane destroyed our train of thought,” said Serge. “Which is a plus because a train of thought is just another one of society’s cages.”
“Why don’t we talk about society?” asked Coleman. “Your thoughts?”
“These are dark times.” Serge tapped fingers on the steering wheel. “The decline of society can be boiled down to the culture of airline flights.”
“I’ve seen the videos on the Internet.”
“You take a couple hundred people from our savagely polarized nation, cram them cheek by jowl in a metal tube and send them up to altitudes where there’s no oxygen. Then people read the headlines: ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming,’” said Serge. “Plane travel used to be glamorous, people getting dressed up, wearing hats. But now it’s devolved into a subway in the sky, cursing, shoving, public urination, removing socks from smelly feet.”
Coleman popped a can of Schlitz. “Preach.”
“It starts before you’re even off the ground,” said Serge. “Especially if you’re in one of those planes where the coach passengers have to walk through first class to get to their seats. It trends Darwin in a serious hurry. First-class passengers watch the coach people walking past them in the aisle and they’re like, ‘Yeah, you lazy losers, this is what you get for being assholes: inadequate legroom.’ . . . Simultaneously, all the coach passengers are checking out the elite in their giant, comfy seats: ‘That one clearly doesn’t deserve to be up here.’ ‘What has this guy ever brought to the table?’ ‘There’s another cosmic mistake of seating assignment.’ ‘Don’t even get me started on this prick.’ . . . Then on the next flight, for whatever reason, some of the first-class people have to fly coach and vice versa, and they all immediately switch teams: ‘God, I hate those fuckers.’”
“Then the plane takes off and the fun really begins,” said Coleman.
“Something about flying makes people lose their freaking minds,” said Serge. “And I’m not talking about getting grumpy over the food or a kid kicking the back of your seat. I recently spoke with some flight attendants, and the true stories of psychotic breaks at thirty thousand feet would send you screaming for Amtrak. They said the public would be amazed at the number of people who freak out and try to open the doors.”
“It’s a senseless crime,” said Coleman.
“That’s why flight crews have to carry so many handcuffs nowadays,” said Serge. “One woman was refused alcohol, so she drank liquid soap and bit a stewardess. Two groups of football fans had a brawl from rows seventeen to twenty-eight. During night flights, passengers ask for blankets and then leave spent condoms in seat pockets. Guys take off their shirts, try to light cigarettes, sleep on the floor.”
“Sounds like every traffic intersection in Florida.”
“And I swear this one’s true: Another dude jumped up on the serving cart, dropped his pants and took a dump in the peanut basket. I think you lose frequent flier points for that one.”
“It’s just not right,” said Coleman, pointing out the window at a jet overhead. “There’s one now.”
“Take a pass on the peanuts.”
They were four miles into the Seven Mile Bridge. “Oh man!” said Serge. “Irma whacked Pigeon Key!”
“Coleman, you’ve asked the same question the last fifty times we’ve driven over this bridge!”
“Was I here?”
“Under the old Seven Mile, it’s all deep water, except partway across there’s a single peculiar little island under the piers, with a steep ramp rolling down to it. Very popular with postcard photographers,” said Serge. “Tourists driving down to Key West on the new bridge can’t miss it. They all look over and go: ‘Aw, how cute.’”
“Like a puppy?”
“Roughly the same level of low-grade gratification. But then puzzlement sets in, especially when they see the ramp. ‘What the hell is its deal?’”
“Serge, please tell us.”
“I cannot deny the public!” He leaned toward the window for a closer look. “A bunch of Henry Flagler’s people lived there when they were working on the oil baron’s Overseas Railroad, which opened in 1912 and at one point had four thousand employees toiling under the sun to erect it.”
“You said ‘erect.’” Coleman giggled. “I see a bunch of wooden buildings that got clobbered.”
“Some of the most beautiful examples of old Keys wooden construction. You’ll find verandas and gables and tin roofs. Tin is key to my roofing pleasure . . . Damn, it even hit the Honeymoon Cottage.”
“They look kind of familiar.”
“That’s because back in Key West I’ve dragged you through every art gallery on Duval Street.”
“I hate that!”
“I’ve noticed,” said Serge. “Might have something to do with the galleries being sandwiched between the bars.”
“So close and yet so far,” said Coleman. “I also hate it because whenever we go in galleries it means you’re going to get me in a headlock.”
“You won’t look at the paintings otherwise. You just keep pointing out the door with a trembling arm: ‘Beer,’” said Serge. “Culturing you up requires wrestling moves.”
“But then they always throw us out.”
“It’s so unfair,” said Serge. “Doesn’t opening a gallery mean they want people to admire art? And that’s what we’re doing, minding our own business looking at paintings with you in a full nelson. But no, they want us to do it their way. I try to explain that the whole concept of art is about individual expression, and I haven’t seen any signs that say ‘No Wrestling.’ They just fixate and respond that all your thrashing to get free is driving away the others.”
A burp. “And breaking vases.”
“That’s on them. They distracted me and your arms got loose.” A fresh can of Schlitz popped. “What were we talking about?” “The buildings that look familiar to you on Pigeon Key,” said Serge. “Before we got eighty-sixed from those galleries of shame, you’d seen dozens of killer paintings depicting quaint pastel cottages with fiery azaleas under vibrant coconut palms. A disproportionate number are from that little island under the bridge, because artists are always setting up easels down there to feel the muse. My favorites are the watercolors. Nothing captures the palette of the Keys like that medium, and I always get pumped visiting Pigeon Key and watching them work. They seem so happy. So I point out that the best art is spawned from a tortured soul, and offer to help. But here’s the thing I’ve learned about these art types: They’re highly sensitive, and as a general rule they don’t like their easels knocked over when you wrestle.” The Plymouth came off the Seven Mile Bridge into Marathon.
Coleman hung out the window. “Man, there’s a whole lot less trash on the sides of the road.”
“It’s amazing what a difference twenty miles one way or the other makes when the eye comes ashore.”
Coleman pulled himself back inside the window and shotgunned the Schlitz. “Where to now?”
“Where we were going before the hurricane interrupted us,” said Serge. “Continuing our cemetery tour of Florida.”
“Is that what we were doing?”
“Cemeteries rock! They’re portals to our roots with all the obvious history, not to mention upbeat landscaping and bitchin’ statuary,” said Serge. “The perfect places for a picnic, except I always seem to be the only one with a basket and checkered blanket.”
“And playing a kazoo,” said Coleman. “Remember the one time they were lowering that guy into the ground?”
“I thought the music would cheer them up.”
“Instead they stomped your picnic basket.”
“That’s the downside of cemeteries,” said Serge. “The only occasions most people go is when there’s a lot of hysterical crying and they drag a dead body along. I don’t have room for that kind of negativity.”
The Plymouth crossed a couple of small bridges onto Grassy Key. Serge made a left turn near mile marker 58.
Coleman’s head was back out the window, staring at a round, blue-and-yellow sign.
Dolphin Research Center. “This doesn’t look like a cemetery.”
“It’s not technically one,” said Serge. “But I’m including famous individual grave sites. My tour, my rules.”
“So who’s buried here?”
Serge parked. “Follow and find out.”
Moments later, the pair stood solemnly in a secluded corner of the property near the water, crowded by mangroves and other lush vegetation. In the middle of the plants was a statue. There was a marker below it. Serge knelt with a large sheet of paper and a block of colored wax, making a grave rubbing.
Coleman scratched his head and squinted at the statue of a tail-walking dolphin. “I thought you were taking me to where some scientist or soldier was buried.”
Serge continued lightly rubbing. “Back in the day, this majestic creature was arguably the most famous Floridian in the whole country.”
Coleman read over Serge’s shoulder. “Flipper?”
“The iconic dolphin was introduced to the world in 1963, but few viewers realized the star was actually a female dolphin named Mitzi. And even fewer know that this is her final resting place.”
“But why here?”
“Before becoming the research center in 1984, this place opened in 1958 as a roadside attraction named Santini’s Porpoise School, and Hollywood came calling. Mitzi trained and resided here until passing away in 1972.” Serge stood with his wax rubbing in hand and sniffled.
Coleman put a hand on his shoulder. “You okay, buddy?” “We’re in the presence of gentle greatness,” said Serge. “Mitzi was a genius in the industry, able to pop out of the water and make clicking sounds that caused humans to respond: ‘What is it, Flipper? You say that an evil research scientist trying to poach rare tropical fish is trapped in his personal submarine near the coral reef surrounded by unexploded mines from World War Two training exercises?’”
“Wow,” said Coleman. “Next to that, ‘Timmy fell in the well’ makes Lassie look like an idiot.”
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