by Jeff Burt
Palmetto bugs, cockroaches. I knew the difference between. Palmetto bugs were the ones coming out of the wallboards behind the cockroaches when I switched the light off, and the first to scurry back into the wallboards. Cockroaches gleamed of gold and bronze and came in almost military shapes: the fully armored with barely any part of a leg exposed, the half-armored with the blunt face, the hordes with slightly elongated faces, and the thin diaphanous shells—tank, armored personnel carrier, soldier, and medic. Sitting legs up on the bed in Panama City, Florida, at the Surf Inn Motel, I no longer wondered about the cheap room, nor the odd pairing of Inn and Motel in the same name, nor why the beds had metal legs and the floor was all tile, so the palmettos and cockroaches could not climb into bed. I had a maniacal glee in flicking the light switch on and off, and in the dark listening to the furious clicking of calcified legs on the tile. We kept the light on all night.
My twenty-four year old son Nick and I had arrived at sunset. To the west was a typically beautiful red-and-orange streaked sunset, the beach was emptying, and we were tired. The 73’ Monte Carlo looked beautiful in the evening light, a bright green made for the Gulf colors. I bathed her down. Nick checked the mileage and estimated the Monte Carlo had achieved 12 miles per gallon. But the ride had been sweet, cruising at nearly 80 miles per hour the entire way from Alabama, the Carlo’s suspension making the road glide beneath our feet. Nick swiveled the seats out and swept, delivering a little bit of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama soil to the state of Florida.
The Carlo was an original purchase in 1973 in Omaha, Nebraska. With a big engine, the two-tone green body with the white top, swivel seats in the front, a glide suspension, it was made for touring. My service buddies and I used it on road trips. Resonating in the floorboards and sidewalls were stories of stupid sports plays, drinking, failed womanizing, conservative parents, trips to Pike’s Peak, the Black Hills, Ozarks, Cleveland, and Manhattan, and deep longings to avoid Viet Nam.
I was out of work in the new economy, when suddenly age, experience and mastery did not account for anything, certification and a second language accounted for everything. We had already sold our house, moved into an apartment, and the Carlo was the last asset we had to cover our bills. With cars going hybrid, before I would sell the Carlo, I wanted one last road trip, the last grand tour of the internal combustion engine. Nick, was recovering from a bilateral carpal tunnel, on short-term disability, and had never been west of Nevada and Arizona, so we got a burr under our saddles one night and hit the road.
Before we left, we tuned the carburetor, checked the plugs and changed the oil. Nick took pleasure in being able to sit on the fender and have a place for his feet in the engine well, adjusting the carburetor and despite a broken shoulder, changing the plugs. His job with the state was all computer and I-phone, but he enjoyed this labor. Modern cars run better and more efficiently and safer with the new technology, but a man takes joy in being the master mechanic of his car, even if nothing more than tuning a carburetor with a screwdriver to make it roar and backing it off so that the engine purrs so softly the metal no longer vibrates. This was man and machine, not man over machine, so perhaps the last grand tour of the internal combustion engine was the last tour of man and machine as well.
We purchased two paper bowls full of shrimp jambalaya and a couple of Pepsis and sat on the beach watching for it to grow as dark as a tourist spot becomes at night, which isn’t very dark. We saw a space between upside down rowboats behind a palm tree, and retrieved our sleeping bags and spread them under the palm between the boats. We went for a swim after the jambalaya and fell asleep while talking, our conversations more monologues passing each other on the way to ears that had already gone numb.
It wasn’t long before Nick awoke with a quivering plea—“I’ve got a snake in my bag.”
“Keep as still as possible,” I told him, and rose and pulled a piece of wood ready to bash the snake. “Zip down the bag down just passed your hips if you can.”
I could see Nick’s heart pumping in his throat and his eyes looking somewhere into heaven or hell, as it may have been. He slowly unzipped the bag as far as he could reach without moving his legs.
“Now you’ve got to slowly crawl out of the bag, both legs at the same time.”
Nick sat up, his hands beside him in the sand. He slowly inched his way back, moving his hands every three or four inches, until finally he had freed himself. I quickly snatched up the bag and with the wriggling snake inside and hit it repeatedly against one of the rowboats. Nick took the wood and beat the bag about fifteen times, probably two or three times out of necessity, and the rest for revenge or catharsis. When the wriggling had stopped, he took the bag and snake to a dumpster.
The snake is why we ended up at the Surf Inn Motel in Panama City, Florida.
I could not tell when dawn came–we had left the room light on all night, but I could tell that everything was silent except for the hum of air conditioners and an occasional truck passing by. What was noticeable by its absence was the click of bugs. Nick wanted to sleep and hid his head underneath a pillow. I dressed and headed out. The beach was empty except for a couple of old women ambling on the white sand. I struggled over to the trash can where we had dumped the snake-in-the-bag, but the sleeping bag was gone.
About a block away Johnny’s Swell Ribs was open for breakfast. It was half-cinder block and half-brick, the brick the original, the cinder block the extension. Out back were rows of barbeques and a couple of brisket barrels. The sweet smell of sauce lingered in the air. The restaurant was vaguely lit, and the five customers all sat at the bar. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of bacon and ham. I looked at the plates of the men at the bar and the mountain of eggs and ham, complete with maple syrup, brought thoughts of a typical Iowan Saturday morning farm feed.
“Mister, what can I do you for?” the black cook asked. He was probably sixty and had a shiny gray beard and a bald head. His apron was full of fingerprints and smeared with sauce and who knows what else.
“I’ll take an order of the ham and eggs and sweet potatoes for now, and one to go when I’m done. And a cup of coffee for now and an orange juice to go.”
He laughed, rubbing his stomach in a circular motion. “Feeding the little one later?”
“No, no. I’ve got a little one about two inches taller who needs to sleep a little more. And when he wakes up he likes to eat right away.”
He laughed again, and as the others kept talking I noticed he laughed at just about every comment and always before he spoke. As tics went, it was the most pleasant tic I had ever seen or heard.
I took a trip down a dark hallway to the john, but just before the john was a well-lit ell, and signatures in black pen were all over the three walls. Most prominently was a signature by Mickey Mantle, and another by Whitey Ford. I saw Ted Williams and Minnie Minoso and Rocky Colavito and Roger Maris, all 60s baseball legends. So Johnny’s Swell Ribs was famous. An old dive, a great cook.
The bathroom mirrors reeked of a rag with last night’s stale beer. The floor had a stench of urine that greeted you like a wall of howling ghouls trying to escape.
“You from around here,” a short white man asked, spinning around on his stool when I returned.
“No, just spending the night. We tried to sleep on the beach but a snake got into my son’s sleeping bag down at his feet. Not exactly that warm Panama City welcome, you know.”
The cook grunted, and spun one complete cycle around. “That’s a harmless snake. The bad ones are all freshwater snakes. He was just looking for a warm place to spend the night.”
“Well, he ended up dead. We smashed him against one of the rowboats on the beach over by the Surf Inn Motel. Left him in the bag and dumped the bag in a trash can. This morning I noticed the bag was gone.”
“That would be Sal. He picks up the beach and anything that’s usable from every trash can and dumpster between here and Route 98.”
“Might have been a little surprised to find a snake.”
“Wouldn’t have been his first one,” the cook said, “I’ll guarantee that. He’s seen cats, dogs, parts of cows, a whole barbequed pig, and a few human body parts. Nothing disturbs Sal. He just keeps singing All You Need is Love over and over again and picks his way through.”
He set a plate before me. “You spent the night at the Surf Inn, then. Quite a place. Last one of its kind on the beach, the cheap motel. Did you get any rest?”
“Had to sleep with the light on because of the cockroaches, but eventually I fell asleep.”
“Well, Mondays are the best days there. They clean it on Sunday afternoons and the Colombians don’t come until Wednesday or Thursday.”
“The Colombians? You mean like drug Colombians?”
“Oh no, they aren’t druggies. They just run the stuff. They drink. They drink a lot. They party and party and have women washing all over them. Two or three nights a week. And bring in the drugs and sell the drugs and leave. Why they stay in that dive I’ll never know, because they got nice boats and nice cars and a lot of money to splash around.”
“What do the cops do?”
“Cops? They catch speeders, and ticket guys from out of town, like you, and bust a few black kids now and then. They’re too scared of the Colombians. God almighty might be scared of them. Not one guy sitting on a stool beside you would mess with them.”
“I mess with anyone I want. They don’t come here because they know they’ve got to pay. Got to pay. Speaking of which, mister, you’ve got to pay.”
I finished my ham and paid up. He gave me another coffee for the go. “It’s hard to believe there are so many bugs here and still be a tourist destination.”
“Oh, God only knows what those snowbirds are thinking when they come here. Mostly they come because it’s cheap. It used to be before they started killing the dog flies that only locals and a few hicks from Alabama and Georgia ever came to Panama. But cockroaches survive everything, and palmetto bugs, too. Frankly, after they spray the swamps and the beaches, I don’t know how we survive. That putrid chemical smell lingers a long time, and when the dew comes up in the morning it kind of intensifies. That’s why I keep my kitchen open. The smell of bacon and barbeque drives out the poison for a couple of blocks.”
“I don’t see much of a swamp around.”
“Well, this here was lumber country back about the turn of the century. Jackpines and yellow pines accommodate right well next to a swamp. They used to call part of this area the Watson Bayou. You know what a bayou’s like? Snakes and bugs and all kinds of green growth that God never intended mankind to be in the middle of. Watson Bayou. Of course, that was before they started naming things after presidents and canals and the like when the railroad first came to Panama. Who knows? Maybe to get more tourist traffic they will hatch another name, and get rid of Panama City altogether.
“Be a loss of identity for the locals.”
“We locals pretty much lost our identity anyway. The lumber ‘s harvested by machines and owned by international companies and the shrimp, well, the shrimp are there sometimes and not others, but it’s all big boat stuff now. Most of our women work for credit card companies. They don’t make a dime.”
He snorted. “Identity. Hell, the last ballplayer who came in here was a no-name leftfielder for the Tigers who never made it into the majors. That was 1985.” He laughed, turned back to the grill and then turned back again.
“You’ve lived in Panama a long time.”
“When I was a kid I lived out on the bayou with my brother and grandmother on a houseboat, a two-story shack. Unpainted. We’d been thrown out of our house in ’51 and wandered until we saw that shack on a raft drifting on the still water and stayed one night just for shelter. Then another night, and another. Pretty soon we were living there and hiding from anyone who came by. That winter, after almost six months, my brother found out that the old black man who had owned it had died, and the other people in the swale thought we was relatives and had inherited it. Heck, he was poor, we was poor, so we were relatives, you know? Brothers of Christ and condition, my grandmother said, Christ and condition.”
“Police never came around?”
“Police? Please. They were too scared to be back in the swales. The high grasses and dog flies and stench scared them whiter than white. They didn’t care for none of us. We were black and poor. Free. We were free because we didn’t own anything or owe anybody. Nobody had a hold on us. No government. No land. No value. You know what I mean?”
“You sound fond of it.”
“I was. The first day we got in the shack my brother Lee and I crawled to the loft and found a bunch of old clothes and lots of dirty magazines. We were too young to leer at the pictures but we hid a couple that grandma found later. We found a buried treasure right in the wall, a cigar box with four twenty dollar bills and three of those old metal little army men from World War I, a sniper, a machine gunner on his knees, and a foot soldier wearing a gas mask. And a folded, ragged world map. We made stories up about place on that map. Grandma helped some, but she had dropped out of school in the third grade. That map changed our lives. Cuz’ Lee found a map of Florida and wanted to see the whole state. Grandma said he should, too. She’d never been farther than twenty miles east or west, did that on a mule. She’d never been on a train or a plane or in a car. Just bus and mule. But Lee, he got the bug to go. Lee started getting himself to school and soon got me to go with him. We didn’t even have a last name, you know. Grandma said she dropped her slave name. We couldn’t use it, so we went by Swell, cuz’ that’s what we thought the grass was. Swale, swell, it didn’t matter. Lee Swell. Johnny Swell.”
“I’ll bet you got teased for that.”
“A little. But Washington, that was the teaser. About half the class was named Washington, so the joke even back then was who’s your daddy, you know.”
“So you ended up with a restaurant. And your brother?”
“Sir, it’s a rib joint. I worked here and saved my checks. Bought it about 30 years ago. My brother Lee had the wandering sickness. He graduated from high school and enlisted in the Navy. 22 years. Started out colored, became a Negro, then an Afro-American, and discharged as black. With a pension. Then he sat around. Didn’t know what to do. He got married when he was 42, but that didn’t do much for him. Never stepped foot on a boat until he was 45. Went fishing for tarpon one morning and had a heart attack and fell overboard and drowned actually. But he got to see the world. Italy. Algeria. Egypt. India. Philippines. Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco. He may not have been happy, but he was satisfied. Me, too. This is my world. I’m home here.”
He turned from me, and I left the bacon-seared darkness. When I opened the door the dew and the low angle of the sun made the plants glisten with that natural holy radiance.
Nick was up and hungry, and mapping out the day’s drive back through Alabama and Mississippi and then up to Tennessee. He had a bait shop he wanted to check out in a small town on the way to Mobile, because it sold more bait and beer than any place in southern Alabama. I kept hearing cockroaches and palmettos everywhere I turned, but it was only the sun heating every surface, each little ping and click of expansion from plastic tables, chairs, awnings and tethers making me cringe. The Carlo ran up to 80. We could no longer feel the asphalt. This was my world. I was home.