Every summer, we spent a week at Indian Rocks Beach, about forty-five minutes from where we lived. Same motel. Same room. It had a beach and a pool, shuffleboard and a ping pong table. What more did we need?
The year I turned ten, there were signs warning of riptide. The wind was calm, the sky blue and the water placid as glass. It was early in the day and there were a few people wading in the water and farther down the beach, kids splashing around in a shallow area. Locals with shoe-leather skin walked up and down the beach, and tourists did the seaside stoop hunting shells. Gulls soared effortlessly against the warm gulf breeze and the buzzing of jet skis through the gulf added a grating tension. At the shore’s edge, I watched fish darting in unison below the surface. My parents said not to go in beyond my waist. They watched me from shore while sneaking sips of Birra Moretti and rubbing lotion on their skin while my older brother followed bikinis up and down the beach. I stood in the cool water waving at my parents while the undertow tugged at my ankles, pulling me deeper into the Gulf. When the surface reached my neck, I stepped forward realizing I was in a fight. My father stood abruptly before I lost sight of him, my feet swept away, my body tumbling on the bottom, flailing, broken shells tearing my skin. My lungs burning. A wash of foggy green before my eyes. I was spun around, confused on which way to go. I swallowed salt water and breathed it into my lungs and thrashed beneath the surface. A leathery vice gripped my forearm and jerked me upward. The sun blinded me and cool air hit my skin. I wheezed and choked for air and spit up seawater on the bumpy ride to shore in my father’s arms, while anxious onlookers gathered ankle deep in the water to gawk.
Later, I asked my father how he knew where to find me. He said he didn’t.
The fight started right after lunch, at a time when the shop was usually quiet, with the guys sitting on our low work tables that were covered in dried glue and paint, eating Cuban sandwiches that my old man brought in, with the hum of the big fans carrying warm air through the shop stirring up sawdust into a wood scented cloud that sparkled in shafts of yellow sunlight and mingling in the air with our voices and laughter.
The boys were bullshitting about women while I walked around the shop with a clipboard and a calculator taking an inventory of materials and supplies. I’d finally graduated with a business degree eight months before, and thought I’d take a shot at running the place. Thought I could change things, but my old man was a rock, and rocks change very slowly, if at all. I stopped for a moment to listen to Del’s story. Crazy shit always happened to Del and whether he was embellishing or not didn’t matter. The stories were still funny.
Del said that before he’d met Eula, he’d picked up a waitress at the place where Eula danced and took her home. While he was working his way around in the dark, he ended up with a metal bar in his mouth. “It was attached to the end of her nipple,” he said, “and I’s like, what the hell?”
The guys laughed. Del was a lean dude, with curly blonde hair that was starting to gray, and he always wore safety glasses because he only had one good eye. The other he’d lost in a fight about five years back.
“I mean the last thing you’d expect is a piece of metal clanking on your fillings,” Del said. “It was one of them metal bars, you know, with the round balls on the ends. Well one of them balls unscrewed and I swallowed it. I shit you not.”
“What did you do?” Crazy Jimmy said. He’d stood there the whole time with his open mouth. He’d been married to Margie since he was eighteen. He talked to himself a lot and kept to himself, mostly.
“What’d I do?” Del smiled and paused for effect. “Hell, I rolled her over.”
Even Fausto, one of our marielitos, laughed, and he barely understood English. Fausto stood behind the table saw mesmerized, waiting for the story to end so he could start cutting. Hard to know exactly how much of it he got. He always looked to be smiling because of ill-fitting dentures.
The guys stood and tossed their trash, and started back to work, when Donnie said, “So I was with two girls last weekend. Heh.” This got our attention. Donnie had been at the shop about a week and was trying to fit in. Donnie. My cousin. My dad hired him, and I didn’t have a say in the matter.
“Two,” Del said, with a look of doubt.
“Heh, yeah,” Donnie said. Donnie began and ended many of his sentences with, heh.
The guys turned with partial interest at what Donnie had to say and his face flushed. “Yeah. I was at this girl’s apartment. And huh, she’s on the bed with big, gazongas in my face. I like big girls. Heh.”
“They make the rockin’ world go ‘round,” Del said, laying out drawer faces on the work table so he could glue laminate on them.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Donnie said.
“Nothing,” Del said, and shot me a look. I knew Del and if you didn’t know Queen you didn’t know shit.
Crazy Jimmya ppeared uncomfortable with the story but couldn’t turn away. He was filing the edges of the counter top that he’d routed before lunch. Fausto, stood at the table saw with his finger on the switch, pausing out of machismo courtesy perhaps.
“So, I’m doing it and she’s loving it, saying stuff like, ‘thank you, Donnie, thank you, Donnie,’ when the bedroom door opens and her friend, just like, walks in the room and says, ‘I’ll get in on some of that.’ Heh. Know what she said? She said she wanted it from behind.”
Donnie looked at Fausto, inserted his index finger into his closed fist and said, “hasta el culo,” in a cracker accent.
Fausto looked at me and I shook my head. I’d known Donnie my whole life and there was more to this story than the surface revealed, but I let it play out. Everyone has to find their niche. Del’s bullshit meter didn’t have the same tolerance as mine.
“So,” Del said, squinting his working eye, “is that when you closed your eyes and switched hands.” Del made an obscene hand gesture that had us all laughing.
“You think I’m lying?” Donnie took a step toward Del and shoved him. “Nobody calls me a liar. You think I wasn’t with a girl? Is that what you think?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Del placed an opened hand on Donnie’s chest, holding him away and looking over at me. Del was about five inches taller than Donnie, who was pudgy and soft with an unpleasant paunch to his posture. He was pasty white and acted like a little old man even though he was seventeen. His hair was bristly and lopsided and I had trouble looking at his face because he always had milky stuff caked in the corners of his lips. His father was a pudgy cracker who married my aunt and Donnie took after that side of the family. I knew he was medicated for some mental instability and an elongated acronym of some sort.
“Hey,” I said and moved between them. I had Donnie by a few inches and he felt fleshy and soft as I pushed him away. “Keep your fucking hands to yourself. This is a place of business. That happens again I’ll toss you out of here.”
“Uncle Johnny hired me, not you,” Donnie shouted, his face crimson.
“Then be appreciative of that,” I said, trying to channel the old man. I handed Donnie a rag and a bottle of mineral spirits and told him to clean the cabinets in the back of the shop, far away from Del.
“Robert, I don’t give a shit if he’s your cousin,” Del said to me as we watched Donnie walk toward the back of the shop. “Just keep him away from me.”
I said that Donnie was probably off his meds and Del chuckled at that, but I was serious. We watched Donnie drop the rag and bottle on a work table, walk out of the shop and put a finger to each of his nostrils to blow snot. Then he turned toward us, shouted, “Fuck you,” and kicked one of the chickens that congregated behind the shop. There were feral chickens all over Ybor City. The bird squawked and hit the wooden fence with a thud.
Del tried to hold me back when he saw my intentions, but didn’t try very hard, and gave up the effort. I walked out of the garage door toward Donnie, who stood over the chicken watching it quiver. I pushed him aside and he took a wild swing at me. His fist glanced my jaw. I shoved him toward the fence with more force than necessary and he hit the back of his head on a four by four. He slid to the ground holding his head, screaming. His hands damp with blood. My stomach turned. Not because of the blood, but because I thought I’d really hurt him.
“Del, get me some ice and a clean rag,” I shouted into the shop. Crazy Jimmy and Fausto were frozen, watching the spectacle. They weren’t about to step in the middle of this shit. Del moved to the fridge with a chisel and a hammer. The squat little Westinghouse was frozen solid from a slow leak.
I tried to help Donnie up. He cursed, shoved me away, and tried to kick me. I dropped to one knee, said we were getting ice and to let me take a look. There was commotion in the shop and the boys were talking. Fausto, rattling off his staccato Spanish with his dentures clicking. I looked over to see a raging bull charging me. My old man. A thick Sicilian, in his white T-shirt and Dickies. My greatest fear was that he was biting his tongue. He was. The result of a too short frenulum. If he drew blood I was fucked, and I could see red in the corners of his mouth. He cursed in Italian and shoved me away, and I tumbled to the ground. He lifted Donnie up like the boy was made of paper. Del showed with a chunk of ice, wrapped in clean white cloth, and Dad held it to the back of Donnie’s head and helped him into the shop with Donnie saying, “He doesn’t like me. Why doesn’t he like me?”
Blood spread into the rag and I knew there was no explaining this shit to the old man.
“Sorry, Robert,” Del said, extending a hand to help me up. “I shoulda let it slide. I know that kid ain’t right.”
I looked over at the chicken, jerking intermittently, and grabbed a shovel to sever the bird’s head. I buried it behind the shop, just below the surface.
Beyond having small talk about sports or the weather while paying for a six pack or a bottle of Chianti, I’d never had much conversation with the guy at the liquor store. But I found myself at the counter getting tutored on the puzzling story of Angostura bitters.
I’d been interviewing for jobs behind the old man’s back, months before he hired Donnie. A software company had me in three times, and there was an offer on the table. It was a life changer. One afternoon, while secretly getting my interview haircut, I read in one of those men’s magazines that the old-fashioned was the classic American cocktail for white collar professionals. So instead buying wine or beer, I bought bourbon and a bottle of Angostura bitters, two of the ingredients. The other two ingredients were sugar and a slice of orange.
“What’s in it?” I said to the guy behind the counter, handing him the little white bottle. Except for the two of us, the store was empty. The sun had set and I was still in my glue-stained blue jeans and work boots. I was covered in sawdust.
“It’s a mystery,” he said, scanning the bar code. He then went into a dissertation of sorts, on how the exact combination of herbs and spices was shrouded in secrecy by the family who created it. “Only five people in the world actually know the ingredients and they have vowed never to be in the same room or on the same airplane together.”
I didn’t give the story much credence, but it reminded me that people were mysteries. Everybody was hiding something.
I took the job and told them I had to give two weeks. Ten days had passed and I hadn’t told the old man, nor had I opened the bottle of bourbon. It never seemed to be the right time.
So, my cousin Donnie took a swing at me, I shoved him out of frustration and now I sat in the chair next to my old man’s desk, picking at the spongy yellow cushion that burst through the cracks in the red vinyl. My dad’s white handkerchief was crumpled on the desk. It was spotted with blood from where he’d bitten his tongue. He was pounding on the calculator with his thick fingers like he was trying to hurt it.
“The boy’s got problems,” he said, not looking at me. “They were afraid to admit that something was wrong. But you,” he stopped to point at me, “teste di cucuzza, you should know better. The boy needed stitches and it’s coming out of your pay.”
I stared at the rug on the office floor with no desire to make eye contact. The rug was speckled with bits and pieces of wood and mica from every job we’d ever done. Counting them all would be a life sentence.
“What do I tell my sister?” he said.
“He shouldn’t be here,” I said. “He hasn’t got the temperament or the aptitude for the work.”
“When you have a shop, you run it the way you want,” he said. “That’s it. No more. He’s your cousin. He works here.”
I felt pressure building inside me and it had nothing to do with Donnie, and everything to do with things like Donnie. I looked across the desk, and stared at two empty cigar boxes and I knew at that moment that a confrontation was unavoidable and long overdue. The old man paid everybody under the table, never saved receipts or wrote off any expenses. All I asked him to do was to put receipts in one box and expenses in the other and I’d figure out the rest, but the only thing in those boxes was dust. I was up to my neck with the current pulling at my ankles, and it seemed easier to pick a fight than to tell the truth. The truth was premeditated, a slap in the old man’s face. It would do more damage than a punch in the gut. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t the best thing to do.
“You’re throwing money away and I can’t fucking stand it anymore,” I said, and stood over him. This got his attention. I’d never cursed directly at the old man, not like that. “I can’t even get you to save receipts and invoices and you wonder why this shop is always struggling.”
“We’ll start next year,” he said.
“You want me to run this shop, change starts now. And Donnie goes or I go.”
He bit his tongue and slapped his hand on the desk. He said, “You’ve looked out that door like a mammoni for fifteen years. You want to go? Go.”
Mammoni means momma’s boy and he knew that would cut deep, because it wasn’t true. He was right about one thing. I’d thought about this day from the time I was in my teens, buoyed and imprisoned by familial obligations. “I quit then,” I said. “Run the business the way you want. I can’t do it anymore.”
I took a step toward the door and he grabbed my forearm. “Roberto,” he said, and pulled me back. His eyes were ancient and held the expression of a punch-drunk fighter who didn’t know when to quit. I shook my head, pulled my arm away and said I had to do something different.
Fresh air hit my face when I walked out of the garage door, and I became dizzy with freedom, walking from the shop fearful and hopeful. At my car, I looked back at the shop and watched the evening guys working under the bright fluorescent lights. My internal compass was off kilter. I didn’t know what I wanted in this world.
That evening, in my Seminole Heights apartment, surrounded by tongue-and-groove cedar walls that smelled of yesterday, I opened that bottle of bourbon and drank it on ice. It burned all the way down.
The weekend before I started my new job, I went to Ybor City with a couple of buddies. It was the place my family had settled when they came from Sicily at the turn of the century. Now it was a bar district lined with century old red brick buildings. We stopped at a corner next to a gay bar waiting for the light to turn so we could cross over Seventh Avenue to the Irish Pub. While waiting for a break in the traffic, I glanced back at the crowd lined up in front of the bar. People were laughing loudly and talking over the music. Some of the guys were dressed in drag, they were dancing on the sidewalk, the house music vibrated in my chest and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Some of the men had breasts or implants and wore revealing outfits and that wasn’t something you see every day. They wore low cut dresses to reveal their cleavage and had big bouffant hair-dos with knee high boots like that singer from B-52’s. I tried not to look, but couldn’t help myself. Something caught my eye and my buddies caught me staring.
“Aye Rob, you biting the fucking pillow now?” one of them said, and they both laughed and started across the street, but I didn’t move. Fuck them. They were idiots.
I stood there and watched a guy tonguing what looked to be a portly woman with big tits. What caught my eye was that the woman wasn’t a woman and the other guy was my cousin, Donnie. He was wearing a coat and a bowtie. His hair was slicked back and he looked like a character out of the movie Casablanca. He didn’t see me at first, and I guess I never really saw him.
Then Donnie looked my direction and caught me staring, so I walked over, and he stepped away from the dude in the dress.
“How’s the back of your head?” I said, and I shook his hand.
“Fine. I got four stitches,” he said. “I didn’t know you cared so much about those chickens.” He chuckled.
“Yea,” I said, “neither did I.”
Joseph Allen Costa is a graduate of the University of Tampa MFA creative writing program. “Undercurrent” is part of a linked collection inspired by the cabinet shop he worked in for many years. Follow him on Twitter @JosephCosta1.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.