It’s peak season and all the snowbirds are here, trying to escape the horror of the outside, for the last few weeks the smell of decayed ocean life has fallen like a curtain of death. No one goes to the beach anymore.
I am supposed to meet Danny at Long Season promptly at 7 but it is dragging on. I check my phone:
I expect nothing from u.
Sylvie, my daughter, is in the midst of a text rant. I thumb off the iPhone, I’m not engaging. Long Season is full, and smells like salt water, and the hostess looks at me cockeyed for a bit before informing me that I can’t be seated until 8:30.
“Well, what’s the res good for?” I snipe at her. She is young, thin, long dark hair pulled back. Decent figure, if she wasn’t visibly exhausted, she’d be pretty. To be young, busy, and oblivious to the tick-tock of life. She takes my cell and says she’ll call when my table is available and points me to the bar – which is full.
Danny is behind me.
“Let’s just walk next door to 31, I’m sure they can get us in.” Danny says while ironing out the egg cream white Tommy Bahama shirt, and rolling his eyes in their wrinkled sockets.
It’s a desperate scene over the grey hairs and saggy Nautica polo shirts. I follow him outside into the warm Florida winter night where the air is choked with the pungent reek of dead fish out in the ocean. Red tide. Algae blooms. Fish kills. We hold our breath but cut across a manicured lawn of sawgrass and dormant sprinkler heads. I smack a mosquito off my neck.
“I know the hostess, she serves me all the time.” Danny says as I kick some mulch from beneath my loafers. Hugo Boss. No socks. I moved to Florida so I wouldn’t have to wear socks.
At 31 a crowd is already outside, sipping drinks from the bar in long stem glasses, avoiding the smell somehow.
“Doesn’t look good.” I say, Danny grunts grabbing the burnished aluminum handle and holding the door open for me.
“Ladies first.” He says mockingly.
“Fuck you, kind sir.” I say entering the crowded vestibule, everyone heard me, they look and judge. A large fire burns from the center of broken glass in a pit inside and it smells like delicious charred meat.
“Go grab us two Tito’s and wait at the bar. I’ll work my magic.” He says to me. I shoulder my way between the recently divorced moving toward the oak and metal bar. The bartender is right there scraping the head off a pint.
“Two Tito’s.” I shout to him holding up a peace sign. He nods his gelled head, all slicked back like an apex predator.
“Over ice or up?”
“Over ice, I guess.” He turns and grabs the clear bottle from a mirrored shelf that catches the entire bar in its jumbled reflection. I turn and face the full room, with shit jazz barely audible over conversation. The phone vibrates and I check it again:
I am always disappointed.
I thumb it off and toss it back in my pocket. Sensing the bartender’s eyes on my back I turn to face him. He says something and I slide him my card. He slides the two perfect squat cylinders of clear vodka to me.
“She can’t do anything tonight.” Danny says to me swiping a glass and downing half of it.
“What good is she?” I ask and Danny smirks, eyes the room.
“Let’s go. This sucks, everyone here is talking about alimony.” He says, I grab the card from the bar and scribble a skull on the paper receipt, then follow Danny’s palm tree shirt back outside into a gust of sea breeze full of rot. The glass is cold in my hand and I take a swig, when I suck the vodka down it tastes like icy nothing burning my sinuses. I forget the smell of decay. Delicious nothing.
“I should hit up Karen at La Casa.” Danny says flipping through his phone as we cross through some high hedges, over another berm and into the wide parking lot of another restaurant. Couples pass us covering their faces.
“Good idea. Isn’t La Casa a chain?” I ask and take another swig letting it burn slightly down my throat as we pass between two identical black Land Rovers. My phone vibrates again in my pocket and I fish it out.
“Does it matter at this point?” Danny says disappointed walking beneath the tall palms swaying in the cool night breeze.
Is this what it is to be happy?
My daughter’s text inquires. I thumb it off and slide it back into my pocket.
“What’s that?” Danny asks.
“Just my daughter.” He grunts at this, he could care less, and looks around as conversations swarm around us from the patios and outdoor seating areas where people smell their wrists and impatiently wait for tables. Danny swats away a bug. “What about this place?” I ask.
Danny tosses the squat tumbler of ice behind him into the trees, it vanishes without a sound as if sucked into space. “Go for it.”
La Trattoria is lost in time, inside fake mandolin muzak blasts too loud and it smells like aged cheese. The hostess is punching an iPad with three servers around her. I down the Tito’s and set the glass on the red and white checked server stand.
“How long is the wait for two?” I inquire, she stares at me a second. Her wide doughy face sizes me up, her make-up makes her look older.
“Ok.” She hands me the square restaurant buzzer and takes my name. I find Danny in the bar, he has a large glass of wine and is flirting with some women. “Hey, says it’ll be an hour.” I tell him. He hands me a glass.
“Fuck that.” He snags some calamari out of a wire metal basket and tosses it into his throat. I nod at the two women; one a tan brunette in a basic sweater, cropped jeans that look expensive and average heels, the other a golden skinned blond in a silver Guess dress with a zipper down the middle, black heels, nice legs. Mismatched friends.
“Hi—” I say to them and they nod at me.
“This is Frank.”
“Hi.” I say.
“April.” The brunette says.
“Hey have you guys been to Woodburn?” April asks excitedly in a clear voice. Midwestern maybe. I take a sip of the wine, a decent Cabernet, and take a look at Danny.
“No way with Woodburn.” He says shaking his head, shooting down her idea.
“Let’s try it.” I say and swish a sip of the Cab, breathe over the tongue where I taste the black earth, raspberries, currants, and nutmeg.
“Fuck it. It’s next door. Why not.” Danny grabs the wire basket of calamari and his glass and charges out. The two women follow him. I follow them, the breeze makes my eyes burn.
“It reeks.” I say to no one.
Under the trees in the white over-bright street lamps the blonde turns to me.
“I’m Sophia.” She says, her mouth unreal in the night lights. I tilt the wine glass back emptying its complex beauty down my throat before I answer,
“How do you know Danny?” She asks letting her Martini slosh out of the precarious rim of the glass as her heel catches something in the yard.
“Old friend. Business.” I say because it’s what you say here. She nods and loses her balance in her heels on the sloping grass down to Woodburn. I catch her as she is going down and settle her balance. Her skin is soft, younger than I know she is. She thanks me in the moonlight and golden glow of the restaurant’s retro Edison lamps where the gray moths collect.
“Eat it,” Danny stuffs calamari in my open mouth. Then he leaves the basket and our glasses on the trunk of a silver Bentley in the parking lot like a table setting.
Woodburn is for another generation and from another place, imported from Brooklyn or Chicago, everything is done by hand. The host is in a button-down gingham shirt and has the phone pressed to his asymmetrically shaved head. He holds up a finger to April. Sophia waits with her while I follow Danny to the bar. I rest on the oversized oak in the dim light. The bar is full, you can’t even see the restaurant. He hands me a scotch.
“Macallan.” Danny says to me, widening his eyes in excitement, then taps the rim of my glass with his.
“What are we doing man?”
“Aged 21 years. We’re never sitting down. I ordered a charcuterie plate.” He says and tosses his glass back.
“Already?” I quaff the amber spirit and inhale the aromas of vanilla. The host stand is still visible from the bar, carved from a recycled cypress, it cuts a sharp form at the entry. Sophia stands in the half light of the entryway waiting. She looks patient, while her friend waves and tries to get the host’s attention. Sophia slowly lets a strap down, looking off to the side away from us, and exposes her bare breast to the room. The host doesn’t move. No one sees its round perfection, no doubt enhanced by way of surgery with its dark round nipple perfectly centered, defying her age. No one sees. Not the group of guys scraping bone marrow onto petite toasts, nor the couple with the four-top sharing their duck confit, or the double date over pan seared scallops and house made pickles. Not even Danny.
“Danny?—” I say, he is arguing with an overweight man next to us. No one sees the perfect breast. Just me. Mine. I sip the Macallan slowly letting its soft blush awaken my sinuses. Then Sophia refastens the strap.
Rejected we each hold a tumbler of Macallan outside, holding our noses, while Danny dangles thinly sliced felino salami over our mouths from the gray slate of the liberated charcuterie plate. The waft of death blooms, suffocating the life, it permeates everything. You need the alcohol to push it all away.
“Want some lardo?” Danny asks polishing off the scotch and flinging the glass into the road, it disappears into the palms and shatters in the void.
“Gross.” April says and downs her drink staggering through the landscape of emaciated birds of paradise. Danny forks the pale salumi into his face with his fingers.
“Uh, I wanted some of that.” Sophia says slapping away the bright panicles of the flowers.
“Here, have some bresaola.” Danny says handing her the limp pink meat like a business card between his two fingers.
“Thanks.” Sophia tosses her head back towards the clear moon lowering the cured beef into her mouth.
“Next!” I shout. I feel my pocket vibrate and take out the restaurant buzzer, which has suddenly come to life.
“Trattoria? Ok.” Danny says in frustration. I hold it up like a trophy. Danny lifts the tumbler of scotch from April’s hand and polishes off her drink.
“Heyyyyyyy—” She says as he Softball pitches the heavy glass through the bushes. It breaks somewhere on the road and he turns to me and slides the buzzer from my hand.
“Let’s go.” He says holding it out in front of him like a guiding light with its buzzing red LEDs inside. Sophia stands legs spread bracing herself as she sucks down the scotch.
“Frank?” She encourages me as I hold the glass, the neat iceless Macallan. I dive my nose into the glass and breathe in and for a moment the red tide is gone. Danny holds the vibrating restaurant buzzer in his hand and rubs it on his face.
“Feels good.” Danny says as I down the scotch. Danny presses the restaurant buzzer to Sophia’s ass.
“Stop it.” She says unamused and walks away.
“Come on Danny.” I say as Danny laughs, walks to April where he touches its surging pulse to her crotch.
“Cut it out.” She says, he pushes it harder against her.
“Come on girls.” He says and licks his lips. She slaps him away playfully and Sophia grabs it from his hand then jogs through the flowers into the parking lot.
“Hey—!” Danny calls. In the parking lot we push through the landscaping and find Sophia on the edge of the lot, sitting on the trunk of a gray Maserati gleaming clean in the night lights. Sophia says nothing but mounts the vibrating restaurant buzzer between her legs and thrusts her hips at us. Her face is contorted.
“Sophia!” April yells at her, ashamed. Excited.
“Fuck yeah.” Danny whispers drunkenly placing his hand on April’s shoulder. At first, I think it is to claim April for himself for later, but also so she won’t stop the show as Sophia finishes with the buzzer.
“How was that Frank?” Sophia asks, daring me as she dismounts the Maserati, tosses me the buzzer, which I catch still vibrating and blinking red lights.
“Great. Danny?” I say and turn to Danny seeking his approval. Danny’s face has changed, a flatness has befallen it and his dead eyes turn to look at April who for a moment stares in anonymous fear.
The restaurant buzzer vibrates in my hand.
“We should go.” I say and push through some overhanging fronds to stop short on the edge of a small manmade pond, its banks are silvered with floating dead fish glinting in their grave. It smells like death.
“Wrong way.” Sophia says behind me. At the edge of the water a server in a white shirt and black pants sucks on a cigarette and eyes us.
I feel my pocket vibrate but when I hold up the restaurant buzzer it has stopped.
I take out my phone and read the screen;
When I shut my eyes everything is gone.
I shake my head.
“Going to take a picture?” Sophia asks guiding me back to the parking lot where Danny and April argue in the yellow lights.
“It’s my daughter. She’s having some kind of breakdown at college.” I thumb it off and toss it back in my pocket.
“Come on guys. It stinks out here.” I say to them and cut between two restaurants.
It feels like déjà vu to walk in to La Trattoria, the music, the same three servers behind the host. I walk up to the stand and hand them the buzzer.
“We called you an hour ago.” The server says to me.
“Yeah, we got lost.” I say. The server rolls her eyes.
“We had to give your table to someone, have a seat at the bar. I can probably get you in, in maybe twenty. I don’t know. Thirty.” When she says this her breath sounds clipped and short.
“Ok.” I say sheepishly and when I turn around my friends are gone. Instead I am greeted by a couple, they look over a century old. They look like death. Like two married skeletons waiting for a 9PM dinner reservation.
“Sorry.” I say and cut past them to the bar where Danny has poured Sophia and April ample glasses of red wine and hovers over the Chianti bottle by the packed space. Everyone around them looks like corpses.
“Twenty minutes?” I ask them, half accepting the inevitability of waiting. Sophia shrugs her bare shoulders. Danny hands me the squat, round bottle wrapped in the straw basket of the fiasco. I search for a glass but there isn’t one on the bar.
“I just want to eat.” April says quietly.
“Drink it.” Danny says to me, or maybe to April, and waves his drunken hand like a wounded bird. I take a swig, it’s thin, no development. Generic.
“Cheers.” Danny says and turns to the exit. “Fuck it man, let’s go.”
I turn and both women are behind us with their glasses in hand pushing through the skeletons. Danny kicks open a fire exit door and the alarm shrieks into the contaminated night air.
“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Danny says snagging the bottle from me. I relinquish it to him. The alarm is loud, a strobe is pulsing through the unlit side of the restaurant. My eyes start burning again.
“You have a daughter?” Sophia asks me as we stumble through a broad median.
“I do. She’s in college.” Danny stops and rests his hand on a tree, scattering some large palmetto bugs, he stabilizes himself. April lingers behind us sipping the wine.
“Horse tastes great, by the way. I’m so hungry I could eat your face.” Danny laughs at this and pushes off the tree across the grass toward the back of another restaurant. He kicks a fire ant hill.
“My son just graduated.” Sophia tells me. Danny foists the wine bottle into my hands and slaps at his ankles.
“Take of my blood. I’m so hungry I could cook your spleen. Spleen.” Danny slurs barreling around the yard removing the ants. I hold the bottle, trying not to drink it, trying to drift my drunkenness back towards tipsy. To right the ship. Danny stumbles to the white light of a kitchen through an open door where a cloud of insects with invisible wings circle. A portal to the wrong side of another restaurant. Sophia downs her glass, winces and holds it, hesitates, gives me a final look and then tosses it up over her head, high into the dark sky. I can’t see it.
“Run.” She says and taps her heels towards Danny. The sound of the glass descending interrupts the insects. It shatters on the drive and I feel shards grace my leg. Danny has stopped for us.
“Ever had spleen?” Danny asks.
“No, Danny.” I say.
“Well, after I got divorced I went to Africa on a big game hunt. Ate bush meat. Said it was spleen. Delicious.” He laughs at this and pushes his head into the light of the kitchen. We follow him through this forbidden room of the restaurant, a swirl of heat and fire.
“Is it cannibalism if you eat a gorilla?” Danny asks, dead serious, sober even. Scratching the fire ant welts. I watch a chef scoop some perfectly diced sea bass perching it into a martini glass for ceviche.
“Maybe.” I say.
“You’re nuts.” April says as we watch the kitchen staff breakdown meat, slice through bone and prepare dishes to go out.
“I’m not nuts.”
“When I got divorced I went on a cruise. You ate an endangered species.” April says, Danny snags the bottle out of my hands, “That’s nuts.”
“Everything’s endangered, eventually.” He says and takes a long pull from the bottle. The kitchen staff all stare at us.
“We should go.” I say. We slink outside, stumbling in our drunkenness below the void of the acrid sky, across grass, manicured shrubs, between palms, down lit paths and unlit walkways choked with bugs.
Outside a restaurant we watch two old men pummel each other with ancient fists, clinging to their shirts in an angry embrace, unable to let go. They scratch their faces with manicured nails, loafers holding no traction, and then one takes the other down, sparring like two bucks with no kingdom to lose.
We cross a wide black paved expanse, silent.
“Should we go back to Trattoria?” Sophia asks, now barefoot.
“No. Out of principal, no.” Danny says pushing through the lot towards the back of a restaurant. Metal on metal rips through the caustic night as a midnight blue Tesla sedan swerves around us and collides with a black Audi that is reversing out of a spot. The force pushes them into a dumpster.
“Holy shit,” April says over the still revving Tesla, it’s engine stuck. The owner of the Audi gets out, cigarette still in her pink wide mouth. She stares in awe at the ominous green dumpster, curious where it came from and how her car came to wrap itself around it. Danny laughs and then unleashes a torrent of predigested food and alcohol, wrinkles of calamari and shriveled salumi, from his mouth onto the crumpled hood of the Tesla, then he loses his balance in the automobile’s fluids.
“Oh shit.” I try and help Danny up but he is laughing. Snot-vomit leaks from his nose. Engine smoke fills the lot covering the dead stench of the red tide. A man in black sockless loafers, linen Boss pants, and a chemise V-neck and a woman in a nice silk blouse – maybe Rag and Bone – I don’t know, stop to watch.
“Get outta’ here!” Danny spits at the onlookers, who run off and get in a Porsche Cayenne the color of a dead sea turtle egg. Danny laughs again.
“Turn off your engine you fucking idiot!” Danny shouts at the Tesla. Spits. More people stop to watch, drinking, covering their noses, holding drinks.
“Come on guys.” Danny says motioning to the opening in the side of the dumpster, his face posed like the avatar of a gatekeeper, mythological in the fetid oil fog and official lights. April follows into the dumpster, the engines of the crashed cars rev and the Tesla owner exits her buckled husk, ready to fight. Sophia glances at me and gives her hand to Danny as she hoists her dress to enter the dark vestibule of the dumpster. My pocket vibrates.
“Come on Frank.” Danny says reaching out to me.
“Hold on.” I say and reach for my phone.
My daughter again. I go to text back.
“Come on man.” Danny says again, turning away from me, behind him the backlit silhouettes of April and Sophia stomp through the dumpster to the other side. My phone rings.
“Hello.” I answer it.
“Your table is ready.” She says and I hold my hand over the mouthpiece but Danny is inside the dumpster already.
“My party has changed.” I say to her, counting their shadows.
“Just one?” She asks as if she already knows. I look and someone has fallen in the dumpster; more people are around trying to stop the driver of the Tesla from pummeling the Audi driver, a woman vomits.
“That’s fine.” She says to me.
I turn around. I walk. My head feels separated from my body.
Inside Long Season it is clean, not crowded, and smells of salt water. The white light is pure, reflecting off of the white marble. The face of the hostess lights up when she sees me, she walks me to a table by the wide windows, her tight leather skirt moves like shark skin.
“Could I suggest the Marcassin, Chardonnay?” the hostess asks, I nod and spread the napkin on my lap. A server arrives with a clean wide plate containing delicate gray skins, decorated a with minimalist garnish of shredded white flower petals.
“Shark skin.” She says and turns and walks away. I place a crispy sliver in my mouth and chew the bits of flesh and skin. The window blinks red and blue from sirens gathering below.
A sommelier arrives with two servers who adjust all of the plates on the table. The sommelier has tattoos up and down her arms, is thin with a boyish haircut, but she is focused. Placing one glass before me, she uncorks the green bottle efficiently and pours a small sip.
“Marcassin, Sonoma Coast, Chardonnay, 2008. Ignore the cloudy appearance, it is typical for this varietal since there is, as you know, no filtering.” I slosh it around the glass and nod. I didn’t know. I look through its billowing cloudy urine color and quaff it from the thin rim and then suck it all down, breathe it over my tongue and there is the thick buttery flavor of something holy and sacred. I pause.
“Do you like it?” I nod, she seems afraid, the two servers stand beside her as she fills my glass a third of the way. They seem to approve.
“Thank you.” I say as deep blue and bold red lights mix purple across the empty restaurant. I turn my attention out the window and see the crowd outside has grown around the accident, they shove each other and seethe.
“Scallop carpaccio with a veal leg salad.” The server says and places the oval white porcelain plate in front of me. I nod at the piles of uncooked gelatinous scallop, a separate server hands me a gleaming fork, taking away the old silverware I didn’t use. I take a sip of the wine.
“We’ll have the third course out shortly.” She says sharply and turns away from me, the other servers follow her. I hold the chilled wine glass by its long stem and gaze outside, the crowd grows in the flash of sirens cut from the gloom of night, around the dumpster and the smoking accident, they push and fight.
I shovel the scallops into my mouth, they hit cold and sharp with notes of fennel.
“This is uni with lardo sustained in a cultured butter topped with rosemary salt. Enjoy.”
“I didn’t order this.” I say as two servers remove the unfinished scallops, and I dive in to the half cold and half warm uni and lardo, side by side in cubes of yellow eggs and folded pale cream flesh. I lift up my phone;
I feel very still and empty like the eye of a hurricane.
I place the phone on the table and take another bite of the uni, it dissolves in my mouth. Through the palm trees more cop cars arrive. Two men wrestle on the pavement, something is on fire in the middle of the throng.
“Shortspine thornyhead with oyster crema and sage.” The pink rectangles bisect the ovoid disc, splashed with a mist of foamy white. I poke it with my fork and take a bite. The ambient music on the house sound system cuts off.
“Thank you.” I say in the silence of the now vacant restaurant. Each table meticulously reconstructed.
Outside a gentle fog of tear gas obscures the crowd, who begin to disperse, Danny emerges from the dumpster with an orange cone on his head, his arms outstretched like a zombie, lit by fire in the tear gas mist.
The cops raise a taser to him.
“Mangrove crab cakes, chili oil, topped with beluga sturgeon caviar.” She says placing the small collection in front of me and filling the wine glass again. I take a drink and sit back, playing with the perfect cylinders of mangrove crab. The caviar explodes in my mouth.
I watch Danny in the light of sirens get shoved into a police car. Sophia, naked, stands on the hood of another police car, her blood-spattered face demonic in the blinking lights.
“Chateaubriand Manatee with unagi prepared in finger lime and pink salt. Rare.” I take a mouthful of the wine, feeling my head elevate. The buttery cut of the Chardonnay, the blood iron and vinegar of the food slices through. I push the red rare blood around the white plate with my empty fork.
I suck down more wine and watch the sirens dissipate, and the crowd gone into vapor, just the empty dumpster and a lone tow truck picking up the burnt Tesla, parts fall off and clank on the ground. I look at my phone.
I was supposed to be having the time of my life.
Sylvie texted me twenty minutes ago. I missed it, I know I won’t finish this delicacy. I hold up the phone as a row of lights are extinguished above me. I text back in the darkness,