writer, listener

Life Tips from a failed poet

The piece below started out as a short poem I intended to submit to WLRN for this: http://wlrn.org/topic/wlrn-o-miami-poetry-contest.

Turns out I’m still not a poet, though. Not even during National Poetry Month. But you should submit one if it’s your thing and if you genuinely love something about Somewhere, Sometime, South Florida.

Read the link for all the details, but the basic deal is that you’re supposed to think of a place in South Florida that means something to you for whatever reason, then write a short poem about it that’s somehow served by the phrase, “This is where.”

My not-poem is set in 1980s Key West (a time and place I love). When a Vietnam vet runs away to find a safe place to finish dying, this is where he goes. And some summers, his kid visits.


Life Tips

“Meet me at the boat. Full day charter, so 4:30,” he says. “I’ll give you some money for tomorrow. Gobs. Unless the motherfuckers don’t tip.”

“Cool,” I say, because he’s the coolest person I know. Whichever guys aren’t dead from Lynyrd Skynyrd come to Key West a lot and my dad told me they’ll only fish with him. That’s how cool he is. I bet the living Lynyrd Skynyrds are good tippers.

He lets me do whatever I want, practically no questions asked, because I’m twelve this summer. I have the run of the island all day until the boat backs into the slip. Today I’m taking yesterday’s money and riding his bike to the Kino factory to get a new pair of sandals. Navy blue. I already have black and two different kinds of brown.

I go to Fausto’s to get some lunch–a bag of Munchos, three Hershey bars (just regular, not king size), and a Mountain Dew. Then I ride to the Yellow Strawberry for a spiral perm. I tip five dollars. I hope that’s good.

I’m right on time. At 4:30 he’s slamming fish–all kinds and all sizes–onto a row of spikes. That way tourists can see they’ll get their money’s worth by booking this boat. Let me tell you, my dad and the captain have killer skills. Last year they caught a sailfish on a flip-flop.

Dad’s slamming fish extra hard today. The Motherfuckers didn’t tip and he couldn’t sell them a mount, either. But he notices my spiral perm and tells me he’s grateful I’m pretty like my mother instead of ugly like him. He says that all the time. He reminds me again that my mom was the most beautiful woman in our home town and that’s why he had to marry her even though she already had four boys. Lucky. Being pretty is important. Essential, maybe. I need to start trying harder.

Just because I was coming down–just for me–my dad got a car. A conch cruiser, he’s calling it. It smells like Kool Filter Kings, fish rot, and old beer that’s pooled in almost-empties all over the floor.

How don’t cans fall through that rusted out hole? How don’t we die from the fumes? There was a similar hole in my mom’s old brown Pinto. But then she married my stepdad and he bought her a barely-used Mercury Monarch. Baby blue. So pretty. My stepdad is an average tipper. He’s the kind of guy who believes in saving money for the future. But that’s easier to do when you’re a well-to-do high school teacher.

There’s no fishing trip booked tomorrow. It’s not Season so that happens. And we’re broke, just temporarily, so we hang out with Dad’s cats and he microwaves me some dolphin that The Motherfuckers didn’t take with them. It’s perfect.

I’m glad the conch cruiser’s out of gas because later we walk together to the docks so he can shout “Let’s go fishing tomorrow!” at tourists who pass by. Other mates and captains are doing the same thing. Eventually they stop yelling and just drink beer and whiskey. It’s fun because they tell jokes and swear a lot. Fucking everything. My mom’s head would explode into pieces and then the exploded pieces would explode. That’s how much they swear.

It’s dark. We walk to Burger King on the boulevard to use the pay phone. I’m wearing my new Kinos and I can’t stop looking at them while we walk. Nobody else in my class back home has them because they’re exotic island sandals you can only get on this exotic island. Nobody else’s dad lives here. Only mine.

I promise my mom that I’m safe and happy, because I am, then I hand my dad the Burger King payphone receiver. “She wants to talk to you.”

“Yeah I take her to church. St. Che Che’s!” he slurs to my mom. “Uh-huh, yeah, it’s a Spanish saint. Heh!” He’s cracks himself up because he thinks my mom can’t figure out that Che Che’s is his favorite creepy-old-man bar.

They love him at Che Che’s because he’s not one of the creepy old men and because he’s hilarious and because he’s a good tipper. It’s important.

I’m thinking about moving here except my dad says I’m not allowed to for a lot of reasons–mostly because he’s no good. He said I can ask my mom all about that. But I don’t think my mom knows he’s no good, because she’s never said a bad word about him in my whole life.


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