Hammerhead Ranch Motel
Florida’s beautiful lifestyle creates the illusion of civilization.
It is a thin but functional veneer, like fake-wood contact paper stuck to flimsy particle board. Manicured tropical gardens, glistening condos, packed beaches, and waiting lines of retirees spilling onto restaurant sidewalks at 4 p.m., elbowing for a shot at an early-bird $3.95 Sterno tray of Swedish meatballs. Mermaids and water slides. Brave New Disney World, where corporate scientists try to isolate the DNA responsible for bad thoughts and free will. Orange juice with more pulp and space shots and roadside hot dog vendors in T-backs causing traffic mishaps at the latest apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who chose to appear this time in squeegee residue on the plate glass of a financial tower on US 19.
Late one Thursday toward the end of the twentieth century, a white Chrysler New Yorker drove up the Florida Keys on the way to Tampa. Behind a secret panel in the trunk was a spare tire, a jack and a metal briefcase containing five-million dollars. Under the bumper was a homing device. The Chrysler’s innocent occupants didn’t have a clue.
A small concrete booth painted a graffiti-resistant government-tan sat near the base of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Its green-tinted windows beveled outward like an air-traffic control tower. The Skyway spanned the mouth of Tampa Bay with a massive arch that climbed so steeply into the thin, clear air that motorists said it was like taking off in a DC-10. Pleasure boats made small white trails through the wave caps far below.
Inside the booth, state safety officer Chester "Porkchop" Dole stood at the stainless sink and rinsed his favorite coffee mug that remained in his right hand at all times. It read: "Ask someone who gives a shit!" The window AC unit began to clatter and Dole whapped it with precision.
On paper, Dole's job was to monitor the bridge for hazard. In reality, Dole's job was to preserve his job. A nineteen-year public servant, he was the equivalent of a fat, hundred-year-old alligator. No natural predators left. Just as long as the gator didn't change his proven routine in a spasm of senility and chase executives around the thirteenth green at Innisbrook. Not to worry with Dole. He was master of the unvaried, safe pattern that didn't deviate into unknown adventures of genuine work. His attitude toward his job station was that of a felon at the crime scene: Don't touch anything and don't stay a minute longer than absolutely necessary. Paperwork wasn't filled out, reports weren't read, ringing phones kept ringing. His bosses, a pyramid of progressively paranoid career preservationists, gave him high marks.
Dole stared out the windows, making sure the hand not holding the coffee mug stayed in his pocket. He became an expert on every detail of his solitary outpost that had nothing to do with his job. To the south, the Skyway bridge dominated everything. It was Tampa Bay’s defining landmark, like the St. Louis Arch or the Seattle/Dallas/Calgary Space Needle. Dole studied the Skyway’s twin triangles of yellow suspension cable all day long -- a big sundial, backlit in the morning, bleached bright with vertical shadows at high noon, a burnished orange in late afternoon and then a soft scarlet at sunset. Finally the bridge was the negative image against the indigo sky, and the headlights came on and trickled across the span like illuminated water droplets sliding down monofilament fishing line.
Dole sipped from the mug. Tanker ships sailed in from the Gulf of Mexico, fly fishermen cast on the flats, sailboats tacked around Pinellas Point, and dolphins splashed in the channels. There was a monument to the crew of the USCG Blackthorn, lost in a foul-weather collision in '80. And the stub of the old Skyway bridge, now a fishing pier. A sign: "Please do not clean fish in restroom."
Inside Dole's booth was a bank of nine-inch, black-and-white video screens feeding live from cameras at pressure points along the Skyway. They monitored for breakdowns, wrecks, fog conditions, suicide jumpers and terrorism. But Dole wasn't monitoring the surveillance screens because he was monitoring his portable color TV set, laughing at Toto the Weather Dog doing a funny dance on the anchor desk of a local newscast. Toto was an eight-year-old, half-blind Chihuahua who appeared in a variety of anthropomorphic costumes, and his antics putatively predicted the weather. Tonight Toto was shaking in a hula skirt in a manner consistent with a sixty-three percent chance of rain and a UV index of seven, according to weatherman Guy Rockney.
Following a recent spate of fatal tornadoes and windstorms on Florida's west coast, both the U.S. Weather Service and local television stations faced pressure to upgrade their Doppler radar and other early-warning technology. Four of the region's major stations spent heavily on new equipment. The fifth, Florida Cable News, picked up Toto at the pound for the cost of the shots.
Florida Cable News saw its audience share increase sixteen percent on segments with Toto. The loss was spread evenly among stations with the expensive new equipment. Those stations saturated the air with ads desperately trying to explain the importance of adequate wind-shear detection.
Toto kept dancing them right over to Florida Cable News.
Early one October evening, the technology investment paid off. The Weather Service and four stations picked up a quick-forming front moving east of Tampa with funnel-conducive clouds. The warnings went out. Hundreds took cover and were saved. Florida Cable News, instrumentally blind to the twisters bearing down on its viewers, sent the audience to bed with a happy little jig from Toto in a spandex aerobic outfit and a promise of a pleasant evening and a sunny tomorrow.
Florida Cable News wasn't responsible for the entire death toll, just part. Just enough to spell Toto’s demise. The end was hastened when weatherman Guy Rockney joked on the air that some of his viewers had gone on a "Florida Double-Wide Sleigh Ride."
That did it. Toto and Rockney were history before Rockney could remove his clip-on microphone. It lasted a week. Until the specific gravity of letters and phone calls and, most importantly, the ratings plunge was too much to withstand. Both were reinstated and the ratings at Florida Cable News rebounded stoutly. The other stations responded by hiring a cast of precocious cats, ferrets, chimpanzees and marmosets.
Chester "Porkchop" Dole was a loyal television viewer. He couldn't be lured away by cheap imitations; he was sticking with Toto, the cheap original. On this December evening, Dole was working the short-straw second shift. But he made the best of it, howling with laughter and pointing at Toto on the little TV. He slapped his knee with the hand that wasn't holding the coffee mug. He wheezed and coughed and laughed some more as Toto pirouetted in a tutu atop the News-Flash Anchor Desk, and the entire News-Flash Anchor Team chuckled with manufactured sincerity.
As the anchor team waved goodnight and the camera pulled back, weatherman Guy Rockney secretly jabbed Toto with his weather pointer, and Toto resumed dancing for the fade-out. Dole broke up laughing again and waved back at the anchor team. He never once thought of glancing over at the bank of surveillance monitors, especially not monitor number five, trained on the peak of the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
Johnny Vegas was chasing a blue moon across Tampa Bay.
The Porsche's top was down, it was almost midnight and he was doing ninety on the Gandy Bridge, but it was still too hot. It was another typical heat wave that sweeps Florida every December, baffling the tourists and mocking the natives. What's wrong with this state, Johnny wondered, wiping beads of sweat from a line under his pompadour.
Johnny passed a bait shop on the west side of the Gandy. The stuffed snook on the sign wore a Santa hat; in the parking lot were eight plastic flamingos with reindeer antlers pulling a bass boat. Johnny adjusted the bow tie on his tux. He passed a billboard urging him to have eye surgery in a strip mall. More decorations. Inflatable snowmen in bikinis and wise men with sunglasses and elves on water skis. Johnny turned down Fourth Street toward the St. Petersburg bayfront, hoping she would be there.
They had met three hours earlier, on the other side of the bay in Tampa's Channel District. It was an after-hours, black-tie fundraiser at the new Florida Aquarium. The lights were low, the stars flickered through the aquarium's landmark glass dome, and the free liquor flowed as only free liquor can. A promenade of snob cars pulled up for valets at the aquarium entrance. Saabs.
The facility herniated debt, and the fundraising party was another backhand effort to get in the black. The aquarium was conceived by politicians and backed with tax revenue, which meant the operation was dumber than dirt when it came to surviving in the real economic world. A marketing corporation hired by the City of Tampa – the same one that advised the city to tear down a perfectly good football stadium and build a new one right next door with tax dollars -- concluded that the same strategy was the only way to rescue the aquarium.
“Gentlemen!” the report’s author addressed the City Council, “We must destroy the aquarium in order to save the aquarium!”
The proposal was tabled on a close vote.
On this sticky December evening, casino tables crowded the horseshoe crab tank, and a makeshift dance floor squeezed through the mangroves next to the otter pool. The turtle ponds began to fill with crumpled napkins and cigarette butts. The in-house joke: We draw the line at having sex with our animals. Except during bonus pledge hour!
Johnny Vegas's Porsche screeched up in front of the aquarium. Ahead of him in the valet line was a mega-stretch limousine; on its doors were five multicolored, interlocking rings. A dozen members of the International Olympic Committee – scouting Tampa Bay for the 2012 games – got out of the back seat. A smiling reception team of exotic dancers immediately stuffed unidentified brown envelopes in the suit pockets of the Olympic Committee and led them off to special guarded VIP rooms.
A valet jumped in the limo and sped off. It was Johnny’s turn. He pulled the Porsche up to the curb, jumped out and flung the keys hard, sidearm like Phil Rizzuto turning the double play. The keys deflected off the fingertips of the celebrity volunteer valet and hit him in the teeth.
"And don't fuck with the stereo! It's set how I like it!" Johnny barked as the mayor of Tampa dabbed blood off his gums with a handkerchief.
Johnny adjusted his tux, stretched his neck side to side, and strode into the aquarium with the air of a horny adolescent.
Johnny was the man other men hate. A young, bon vivant party hound, impeccably dressed and visibly rich with no visible means of support. His tan was a little too good, and his haircut a little too long and sexy to get respect in any business setting. It drove chicks wild. Not with those who mattered, of course. None of the educated, accomplished women would take such a man seriously. They would see through the surface flash to an interior that held nothing of value for them. These were the real prize ladies - mature, focused, substantial in conversation and content. In short, the prizes the other men already had - their wives. Johnny only held attraction for the others, the giddy young bubble-heads with the short skirts and boob jobs who drooled over him. The married men thought: Damn him all to hell!
But Johnny had a dark secret. Even in the realm of gigolos and trust-fund playboys, where everyone scored so frequently it blew the bell curve, someone had to bring up the rear. It was Johnny. He had no problem getting runners on base; he just couldn't bring 'em home. Nothing, nada, zip, doughnuts, goose eggs. It was part Johnny's immaturity, but it was more. Events seemed to naturally conspire against him. Whenever he was close, had a willing babe in his cross hairs, there was always a massive disruption. It was uncanny. Johnny was charting new horizons, entire lost continents in involuntary coitus interruptus. Forest fires near Daytona, prison escape manhunt in Orlando, circus elephant rampage in Clearwater, and the red-tide marine kill off Sarasota: "Hey, where are you going? It just smells a little fishy!"
Playboy Johnny Vegas, The Accidental Virgin, currently was trying to woo women with his Porsche. Until recently, he tracked his quarry with an orange-and-aqua cigarette boat customized with Miami Dolphins insignia. Then he had to get it floated off a shoal in the Marquesas and later crashed it into a floating reggae bar near Dinner Key. The Dolphins sued him when women complained he was impersonating the quarterback. There were insurance problems and storage fees and barnacles, and the reggae bar filed a lien, and it went on and on until Johnny finally threw up his hands and thought, I'd almost rather not get laid.
But tonight at the aquarium everything was clicking with an unblemished ingenue in a strapless evening dress who had the super-model prerequisites of being tall and stick-like. She said her name was "If."
They flirted on the edge of the dance floor, near the marsh. A disco ball and revolving colored footlights disoriented the egrets, who flew out of their ponds and into the bar and restrooms. At the front of the dance floor was a mobile broadcast booth of local radio station Blitz-99, which was DJ'ing the fundraiser in a publicity swap. Blitz-99 had the hottest disc jockey in Tampa Bay, Boris The Hateful Piece of Shit.
That really was his name, at least according to files in Hillsborough Circuit Court, where Boris legally changed it in a ploy to get around persistent fines from the Federal Communications Commission. When regulators brushed aside the legal maneuver, the radio station compromised, and each time Boris said his name on the air, the last part of the work "shit" was bleeped out by a horn from a Model-T automobile.
Boris objected that the compromise was a sell-out of values.
Market research, however, showed the distinct Model-T sound increased his name recognition, and the horn became the logo for a line of freebee T-shirts, bumper stickers and beer-can insulators.
In the late 1990s, the biggest things going in radio were shows that featured either mean-spirited, intolerant rants or sophomoric sexual innuendo. In a revolutionary breakthrough, Boris combined the two. He became all things to all sexually frustrated malcontents.
Half of Boris' audience was easily titillated teenagers. His trademark was the call-in confession in which kids graphically described sexual experiences that Boris would grade for arousal and imagination; then he would send them on their way with a plug for God-fearing Americans of European stock. The other half of Boris's audience was voyeuristic fifty-year-old bigots.
Church groups were enraged, editorial writers had infarctions, city councilmen passed resolutions and then smiled for photographs.
Boris responded with a packed press conference on the steps of City Hall. "It's First Amendment, baby! I'm an artist!" he yelled, gripping the rubber-ball end of a large brass horn. Dozens of middle school and junior high fans cheered from the sidewalk. Plainsclothes klansmen set up an interactive booth.
Boris pointed at the kids and looked into the TV cameras. "The youth of America will not have their rights trampled - Don't mess with Boris The Hateful Piece of Sh ... (AHH-OOOOOO-GAH)!"
Boris’s notoriety exploded, and his appeal began overlapping all demographic lines. If you wanted to draw a crowd to your event, you hired Boris for a guest appearance. And you got your money's worth because, although Boris was just under five-and-a-half-feet tall, he was just over four hundred pounds, most of which was not adequately bathed. Standing still in air conditioning, Boris perspired like a yak. While songs played, Boris sat like a statue in his DJ chair with arms crossed, wearing dark sunglasses, a beatnik Jabba the Hut.
In the mutual-approval symbiosis of celebrity and fan, people constantly approached Boris as he sat motionless: "You're the greatest, man!" "You're a genius!" and "You tell it like it is!"
Boris never acknowledged them - just continued sitting rigid, arms crossed, staring straight ahead in his sunglasses.
"Man, that is so cool!" said his fans.
It was a different story if it was a young girl. Then Boris broke his pose and whispered in her ear. The girl would yell over to her friends something like: "Hey, guess what Boris just asked me! He's a riot!"
They didn't get it. They thought it was part of the act. No, Boris would say, I'm serious. I really want you to do that to me.
"You can't be serious," replied the last girl. "But you smell."
"Of course I smell. I'm a piece of shit!"
"Get away from me, you fat freak!"
Boris shrugged and leaned back and crossed his arms.
Johnny Vegas stood next to the wetlands exhibit and said to no one in particular, "Isn't that Boris, The Hateful Piece of Shit?"
"Yes it is," came a reply. "And you wouldn't believe what he just asked me to do."
Johnny turned and gazed into the emerald green eyes of If, who tossed an empty plastic champagne flute into the otter tank. Responding to ancient genetic memory, Johnny sheep-dogged her over to the bar. The TV was tuned to Florida Cable News.
FCN was in Daytona Beach reporting the phenomenon of college student balcony falls. And it wasn't just hotels anymore - anything of altitude would do: overpasses, parking decks, scoreboards at sporting arenas. While the FCN reporter spoke, a computer-illustration showed the side of a beachfront hotel and a dotted line arcing from the top floor down to a large "X" on the pavement painfully shy of the swimming pool.
Johnny turned to If. "Did you know that because of Florida, architects have had to recalculate the set-back distance of swimming pools from hotels?"
She shook her head no.
"It's true," he said. "They used to go by standard Mexican cliff-diving clearances and then add a percentage as a deterrent. But spring break queered the whole equation. All the drinking. Everyone's depth perception is fucked."
"What kind of yutz would dive from the fourteenth floor?" asked If.
"I'd rather hit something with my speedboat," said Johnny.
"You have a speedboat?" If asked, her face lighting up.
"Used to," Johnny said with dejection. "It's now being raced around Biscayne Bay by Rastafarians smoking marijuana cigars."
"Oh," she said, and her smile dropped along with her eyes.
Johnny stared at the floor, too, and idly scraped at a piece of gum with the point of his Italian shoe. Then a thought. He looked back at her and offered tentatively, "I have a Porsche."
"Not a nine-twenty-four, I hope," she said with reserve.
"No way! Nine-eleven. Convertible."
"Air foil on the trunk?"
"And Luther Vandross on the CD."
If began to purr, and Johnny tried to picture her in the cheerleading outfit he had in the back of his closet. If said she had to hit a party across the bay -- meet a few guys from her office and string them along, purely as an investment in her career. But she'd love to meet him, say, in two hours? She gave him directions, a late-night piano bar in St. Pete, a little walk-down joint below street level on the bayfront.
Johnny glanced back at the TV. The newscast had moved into the weather segment, and he laughed and pointed at the screen. "I love that dog. He cracks me up."
If looked up and saw Toto the Weather Dog spinning in a ballerina outfit and began laughing too. "That's too much! Where do they think of this stuff?!"
Johnny smiled and bid If farewell, but in his heart he knew she wouldn't be at the piano bar. It was the classic brush-off.
He’d forgotten about her as he trolled the party without result. Two hours later, with no further success in hand, Johnny hopped in his Porsche and drove for the piano bar, a slave of groundless hope, calling on God in the night air: "Please, please, please, please, please ..."
Seconds after Johnny left, Boris cued up Train by Quad City DJs. Patrons filled the dance floor, which pulsated with the non-dance-like, orthopaedically inadvisable twitching and stomping of rich white people. The aquarium staff lined the sides of the crowd, clapping in rhythm and blowing traffic-cop whistles.
Amid the swirling lights and dry-ice fog, there was a tremendous crash -- then a huge, cannonball splash in one of the tanks. People looked around, but the loud music and light show aggravated the confusion. Someone glanced up and saw a jagged opening in the middle of the aquarium's glass dome. It was simple deduction from there. The imaginary path of gravity led down from the dome to the alligator tank, where a large object floated. The staff turned up the house lights, and the crowd pressed against the glass walls of the tank for an underwater view. What was it? Where did it come from? - There were no tall buildings nearby and no air traffic patterns overhead.
The waves from the splash lapped against the tempered glass and churned up bottom gunk, hazing the view. Two docents climbed down to the tank from a maintenance ladder. Guests began to make out bits of brightly colored cloth with a floral pattern, a tan Birkenstock, purple fanny back and Roger McGuinn/Byrds sunglasses.
"It's ... " someone said, then filled with dread, " ... a college student!"
Johnny drove slowly through the empty downtown streets of St. Petersburg, the Porsche jostling on the brick road as he scanned boarded-up buildings for a street address. Johnny wondered how he had been reduced to this: junior nooky cadet, sniffing around a ghost town on poontang patrol. I deserve better, he told himself. I have a trust fund! And he thought about the family business of scamming the elderly into life insurance for which "you can't be turned down! Your rates will never go up! And there's no physical! Don't make the mistake of waiting until it's too late!" -- and then an old woman in the TV ad cries over a checkbook and a photo of her dead husband. Johnny swelled with pride.
As the numbers on the abandoned buildings approached the appointed street address, Johnny heard piano tinklings and eggnog laughter echoing from around the corner. He turned right at the light and pulled to the curb beside an iron staircase railing leading below the street. Standing at the top of the stairs, next to a small red "Piano Bar" sign, was If. She leaned against the wall quite sultry, sipping a jumbo martini. Her eyelids were at half-mast. She slugged back the last of the martini with a whipping action of her neck, took two steps toward the Porsche and threw the martini glass back over her shoulder. It was supposed to smash against the brick wall, but it missed and broke a window too. Things happened simultaneously. If stumbled toward the car. People came running up the stairs. Johnny tried to start the already running Porsche, and it made an expensively bad sound.
Johnny was at his indecisive, fumbling best as If climbed in. "Let's get out of here," she told Johnny. "I need to be fucked hard."
A bouncer ran up and grabbed If's door handle. Johnny pressed the gas pedal, and the bouncer was left spinning on his back in the street like a break dancer.
If peeled her dress over her head as they cleared the southbound toll booth for the Sunshine Skyway. The bridge began to ascend, and If unzipped Johnny's pants with her teeth. He knew he had to hurry. He reached over the top of her head and pressed buttons to call up the exact song he wanted on the stereo. It had to happen perfectly, the right spot of the ideal tune playing at the precise moment they crested the bridge for the maximum view. He punched the controls quickly for Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." But the part of the song he wanted was the fantastic guitar solos toward the end, and they were almost to the bridge's apex. Shoot, he thought, it's all happening out of synch! It's falling apart! Maybe if I slow below a hundred. He digitally fast-forwarding through the song until finally, almost at the last second, everything was aligned. He wanted to tweak the volume up a little, but If's increasingly bobbing head made it hard to reach. To make it louder, Johnny would have to mash her face down really hard leaning over her. Screw it, he thought, I'll live. The song's guitar triplets screamed from the Alpine speakers, and Johnny scanned the panorama of distant lights from ships and beach towns, and his pre-orgasmic ego said, "my sphere of influence." Then it was back to shaking and moaning and trying to keep track of the steering wheel.
Johnny didn't see the parked car until it was almost too late. A white Chrysler New Yorker without emergency flashers sat half in the breakdown lane, half in Johnny's lane. Johnny screamed and swerved left into the retaining wall. The Porsche scraped the cement barrier for three hundred yards, spraying a dramatic shower of sparks, but it helped slow the car without wrecking. There was no harm except extensive body damage and a socially awkward moment after they stopped when Johnny found If's head turned a little too far in an undesigned direction and inextricably wedged between the seat and the bottom of the steering wheel.
"Hold on, let me get some tools from the trunk," Johnny said and hopped from the car.
If tried to wiggle loose. "Hurry! It hurts!"
Johnny lathering the sides of her head with grease used to pack bearings, and her head snapped free with the sound of a finger popping a cheek. They stood for a silent moment of relief, catching their breaths, when they realized they had forgotten about the parked Chrysler that had started it all. They turned and looked back up the bridge.
Chester "Porkchop" Dole flipped channels on his TV and complained about the lack of quality programming when he accidentally glanced up at the safety monitors.
Chester dove for the radio and knocked over the microphone. He'd never used the radio in six years at the bridge. He pressed buttons and switches until he got deafening feedback, and pressed more until it stopped. He keyed the mike and begged for help without protocol. He forgot to release the microphone button to hear a reply. When he heard no reply, he panicked and gripped the button harder. Everyone in the greater Tampa Bay area who owned an emergency scanner turned up the volume.
"Help! Help! I'm at the bridge! Oh, please! Why won't anyone answer me! Why are all of you doing this! For the love of Jesus! Fuck me!" Follow by long, loud crying.
On the wall was monitor number five, and on the screen a man in a tux and a young woman in a strapless evening dress with a large, dark stain on the side of her head walked apprehensively up the bridge. Ahead was a white Chrysler New Yorker with scorch marks down the sides, parked southbound. The Chrysler’s passenger stood between the vehicle and the bridge railing. He flicked a Bic lighter and held it to a strip of rag hanging out a wine bottle and tossed it in the open passenger window.
A fireball. The car crackled and was engulfed, sending swirls of sparks up into the bridge's suspension.
As Johnny Vegas watched a lunatic Molitov his own car, he thought the man might as well take a flamethrower to Johnny’s romantic life. He hadn't lost his virginity yet. Some decent oral foreplay, but that wasn't official under Queensberry rules. When the Chrysler’s driver climbed onto the bridge railing, Johnny’s heart skipped. Pleeeeeeeease don't jump. It's almost impossible to get a woman amorous after something like that. Men, sure. They’re in the mood after mass executions. Literally, there is no wrong time. But Johnny knew women were different. He had been on the business end of enough aborted trysts to know that far less than this can throw a woman's emotions tottering out of that carefully nurtured trajectory needed to get her through the window of opportunity and into the sack.
A highway patrol car skidded to a stop behind the Chrysler and the trooper jumped out. "Why don't we talk about this?" he said calmly. Back on the patrol car's radio, Johnny heard a frantic, sobbing voice: "Oh sweet God in heaven! Please, somebody answer me! Mother! Mother, where are you! Why did you leave me, mother!"
Back in the safety booth, horror swept up the spine of Chester "Porkchop" Dole, and a cold, sallow flush hit his face. Dole could handle the drama on the bridge. What unraveled him was the knowledge that the smooth boulder of fate was about to roll over his nineteen years of public service. The safe routine of his job had been varied, the universe altered.
A journeyman state employee, Dole had the bureaucratic survival instincts that told him how to lateral most responsibility, dodge most blame, cover most ass. But there was one error so costly it was to be avoided above all else. It was known as Death-By-Headline. No matter what you do in public life, no matter how gravely you blow it, make sure it's in a nebulous way that takes a lot of obscure argot to explain. Even if you get a bunch of people killed, as long as they die in eight-syllable words with no convenient puns, alliterations, rhymes or homonyms. There's nothing worse than screwing up in a way that makes a snappy, pants-around-the-ankles newspaper headline that wins some poor copy editor the hundred-dollar prize for the month.
Dole saw just such a headline coming together on the screen. The Chrysler’s driver, dressed in a complete Santa Claus outfit, leaned forward, spread his arms wide and dove off the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
"Shit!" Johnny Vegas said under his breath as Santa disappeared over the side. Then a light went on in his head. He would turn this to his advantage. Yes, he thought, I'll console her. I still have a chance to hump her 'til she craps the bed by being incredibly sensitive and caring.
Johnny took off his coat and draped it around If's shoulders. He patted her head and leaned it against his chest. "Now, now," he said, "everything will be all right."
They turned around and started walking back to the Porsche. They heard a deep air-horn from behind. A semi tractor-trailer had come upon the scene too fast and couldn't stop. Johnny and If pressed themselves against the guardrail as the truck blew by. The truck ran over the Porsche, flattening it out like a beer can, and dragged it a quarter mile.
First there was silence, then the sniffling started, and Johnny closed his eyes for what he knew was coming. If's crying erupted, building in hysteria until she emitted a shrill, warbling sound previously only heard in rutting minks.
The ends of Little Mermaid slippers poked across the front door threshold and into the unseasonable eighty-two-degree December morning. Mrs. Edna Ploomfield, a little older than the temperature, bent down on the step of her Beverly Shores condominium to get the paper. She read the top headline, "Sad-Sack Santa Swan-dives in Seasonal Sunshine Skyway Suicide." She turned back into the house, closed the door and shuffled across the living room to the kitchen. The television set was on the local morning show, Get the Hell Out of Bed, Tampa Bay! As she passed the set, state safety officer Chester "Porkchop" Dole was on the screen, interviewed live about his vain but heroic efforts radioing for help after keenly observing the Skyway jumper. It was such an impressive TV performance that Dole probably would have salvaged his career. Except he was absent-mindedly holding his "Ask someone who gives a shit" coffee mug prominently for the cameras.
Mrs. Ploomfield's condo sat on a thin ribbon of barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico. It towered thirty stories and, with the other condos, formed a wall along the shore. The only road running up the island was Gulf Boulevard, and across the street was an old Florida neighborhood of single-story concrete houses with white tile roofs from the early sixties. The landcape was flat, bright and hot. The yards were mostly white stones, with palm, hibiscus, bougainvillea, croton and schefflera. Some homes had sets of windows wrapped deco-style around the corners. Front doors were jalousie, and everything was white-washed. Address numbers over the doors were flanked by pink sea horses or blue sailfish or yellow scallops. Herons wandered though yards, pecking on windows for handouts.
The condominium residents thought they lived in paradise. The only problem was everyone else. All those cheesy houses across the street and that awful Hammerhead Ranch motel next door that they couldn't manage to close down.
Mrs. Ploomfield lived at 1193 Gulf Harbor Drive in a first-floor unit of Calusa Pointe Tower Arms. There was little traffic this morning, only a brown delivery truck at the curb. A man stood outside the passenger door and checked the address against his clipboard. He leaned in the van and grabbed a floral arrangement in a ceramic manatee and a two-foot-long box of chocolates, red and green, with thick gold ribbon. He headed for unit 1193; a second man stayed behind the wheel and idled the engine.
Mrs. Ploomfield had just gotten back to the kitchen table with the newspaper. She was scooping out canned niblets for an aged Chihuahua when the doorbell rang.
"Coming," said Mrs. Ploomfield, and she began cross-country skiing in her slippers across the terrazzo. A few minutes later, she arrived. She cranked the jalousie. "Who is it?"
"Florida Flowers 'n' Fudge." The man crouched down to see Ploomfield eye-to-eye through the slowly opening slats of translucent glass. “I have a delivery.”
"Who’s it from?"
"Is this 1193?"
There was a low growling.
The man bent down even lower to look through the jalousie, and he saw a small dog. "That looks exactly like Toto, the mutt on TV."
"It is Toto, and he's not a mutt. I take care of him for my friend, weatherman Guy Rockney. Now, I want my candy and flowers. And I don't like your attitude one bit."
"I hate that fucking dog."
Mrs. Ploomfield’s hemoglobin seized up like a piston, and it took several moments before she reconstituted. "What? What did you just say? I want your name right this second, young man. I'm going to ruin your life!"
"I go first," said the man. He ripped open the candy box and pulled out a sawed-off automatic Remington shotgun with a twelve-shell drum clip.
"Oh, my," said Mrs. Ploomfield. She slowly cranked on the jalousie window. It was a quarter closed when the man racked the shotgun and the clip fell out. Shells rolled across the concrete porch.
"He, he, he! You dropped your bullets," said Mrs. Ploomfield, still cranking arthriticly. Half closed. The man leaned down and began reloading, a little faster than Ploomfield had expected.
"My goodness," she said, cranking faster. Three-quarters closed.
The man racked the shotgun again, but in his hurry the top shell of the magazine was not aligned to the feed lever, and it jammed. Mrs. Ploomfield finished closing the window and began shuffling back across the room.
The man unjammed the gun and fired with beer-ad gusto. Splinters of glass sprayed the room.
"Oh my heavens," said Mrs. Ploomfield. He fired again and again. A large, swan-shaped vase exploded in front of Mrs. Ploomfield and a statue of a Persian cat behind here.
He kept firing and kept missing, all kinds of ugly ceramic shit blowing up. The smoke clouded his view, and the man used the barrel of his shotgun to knock out the triangles of broken glass around the inside edge of the jalousie door. He ducked his head and stepped through the opening. When he looked up, he saw Mrs. Ploomfield reaching into a bric-a-brac shadow box on the wall. Old-fart antique country junk, the man thought. He swept specks of glass off his shirt with the back of his hand and checked his magazine, making sure there would be no jam this time. When he looked up, he saw what Mrs. Ploomfield had been reaching for: in the largest compartment in the middle of the shadow box was her late husband's antique .45-caliber Peacemaker revolver. She wheeled and shot the man square in the chest and he fell back through the hole in the door.
The gunfire drew neighbors from the condo units and the houses across the street. When they saw the van's driver dragging his dead partner and shotgun back to the truck, they hit the ground and ducked behind square bushes.
The driver heaved the body through the passenger door and threw in the shotgun. He walked casually around the front of the van and climbed in the driver's seat. He leaned forward and turned up the radio. “New Sensation” by INXS pounded out of the truck and off the houses. The driver bobbed his head to the beat as he put the truck in gear and chugged down the street, running over a garbage can as he turned the corner. The neighbors watched the van until it disappeared, then slowly emerged and tiptoed toward unit 1193.
"I got one! I got one!" Mrs. Ploomfield shouted from her doorway. "I got one of the cocaine men!"
(Please purchase Hammerhead Ranch Motel to continue for another 270 pages)
Paperback Cover- later printings