We moved to North Florida the summer after the hotel in Saint Petersburg found out about Christine’s TB and let me go. I had my state health card and there was nothing wrong with me and they knew it, and Chris had been in the Lake City sanatorium for most of two years, but they let me go anyway.
They said they didn’t want their winter guests, rich retirees from the North, finding out the head cook had a wife with TB. The hotel manager was mad as hell that he found out about Chris from a Pinellas County health inspector instead of from me.
I knew that the health inspector had been tipped off by the Tampa cops out of meanness. I had cooked at a particular Italian restaurant in Tampa before I got the hotel job, and the cops figured I was still connected to the crowd that ran bolita. It didn’t really matter how they found out though, once the hotel management knew Chris had TB.
You almost had to live in those times to realize how scared people were of catching TB. Scientists had started coming up with new drugs every time I looked, but people still were scared of it.
I moved north, and clear across Florida, to a job at an all-night truck stop with a good recommendation from that same Tampa restaurant. Florida is a lot bigger state than some people seem to realize. Before all these expressways and computers, you could drive eight hours on those old two lane truck routes and still be in Florida, but leave trouble behind you.
We took a place on the Beaches to live, and wound up closer to the TB sanatorium in Lake City where Christine spent most of her time anyway, not too far from where her folks lived in central Florida. The Beaches are on the Atlantic Ocean side, up near the Georgia border, far enough north that their tourist season was the summertime.
After we moved to North Florida, I saw the road crews build a lot of Interstate 10 between Jacksonville and Lake City, driving over to visit Chris at the sanatorium. It was an easier drive than that long run up through Orlando from Saint Pete. That was back when Orlando was nothing but a small pretty town in orange grove country with a big fountain in the middle of the downtown lake. I used to stop to eat at a diner where I could watch the fountain on trips to the sanatorium.
I started leaving Sally with Christine’s folks the summer I got fired in St. Pete. She missed her mom and she could go see Christine whenever Christine’s parents went. We agreed for her to start school over there. After that I was by myself most of the time. I made it through the first slow winter season at the truck stop only because the owner had some odd jobs outside the kitchen he let me do. Their kitchen wages weren’t anything like the hotel’s had been, and the sanatorium and those new antibiotics for Chris weren’t free.
Dawson called me up out of the blue that next spring and invited me in to talk to him. I was amazed he even knew who I was but he told me he kept his eye on all the bush-league joints six counties around, and people had been talking about my food since I started at the truck stop. It was like being called up to the Cincinnati Reds from the farm system. Most people would say the Yankees but I’m Ohio born and bred.
The Beaches were a summer tourist spot for working people from all over the South, who had to take their vacation when their kids were out of school. After August the official summer tourist season ended and Dawson’s cut back on hours and then closed at the end of September, only opening for Thanksgiving Day and maybe some holiday parties. When Dawson’s closed after my first summer I did a few more errands for the truck stop owner, nothing to tell IRS about. I had plenty of time to go over and see Christine and Sally then. The unemployment money covered my gas since I had no declared income, and Christine’s folks fed me and gave me a place to sleep. When Dawson’s reopened the next spring it was almost like I’d been there all my life.
Every Friday night some of the locals who hung around the Beaches bars summer or winter would chip in together on a room at Bennett’s Waterfront Motel and play poker all night. Summers I would go over after we closed the restaurant and play. Since I got there late, I usually played until dawn and then walked down the boardwalk and cut over to the Steak Shack for coffee before going home. It got to be my weekend habit pattern.
I liked that first part of the morning with everything fresh. Even flotsam washed up by the night tide had a clean salt smell. The drunks sleeping it off on the boardwalk benches looked comfortable. The little town would be still and empty in the first bright rays of the sun, coming flat-out across the ocean. There would be nothing moving but the big green street sweeper, and the swamper at the Mermaid Bar. The smell of the swamped- out bar when I walked past was weak Lysol and whiskey and stale air- conditioned air. Somehow it was a happy smell to me and I always walked that way to get a whiff of it. After I had my coffee and read the morning Times-Union I would walk back to the motel for the Chev and go home and fry some eggs for breakfast.
I had a cypress-shingle garage apartment that year about six blocks back from the ocean that was pretty reasonable at yearly rates. There was a couple of old automobiles rusting out in each of the garage bays. One had its engine out on a table and the other one’s was scattered all over the greasy concrete. The owner didn’t want to pay to move them, so she just knocked a few dollars off her original price if you were willing to park under the sun porch overhang. Christine would have hollered about living over a junkyard, but I didn’t care.
The Chev was the first new car I ever had, and I always parked it up under the porch to keep the salt air off as much as possible. I parked it so long in the same spot there got to be grooves where the water stood in wet weather.
The place was always sort of eerie-quiet without Chris or Sally there. The first sun hit right through the rusty porch screens and filled all the rooms with brightness. I would go straight to bed after I ate because it was no use trying to sit up and think about what might have been when the apartment was strange like that. I never had trouble sleeping. I slept like a dead man. I would sleep until Mabel, the cashier at Dawson’s, would give me a ring. She just let the phone ring until I would roll over and pick it up and say “Okay, Mabel.” I never said anything else to Mabel on the phone; it seemed kind of silly when I would see her in an hour. Mabel understood about me not saying anything, or else just didn’t give a damn. If she ever forgot to call, Dawson would always remind her.
Dawson was a hard man to figure out. I gave up trying. He gave me the job even though I told him straight out about Christine. He didn’t give a damn what was wrong with my family as long as the state health people had issued me a card. He didn’t worry about what made other people tick either. He just wanted his restaurant to open on time, and his customers to be kept happy. If Mabel calling got me to work, and if I was a good enough cook to keep the customers happy, then she could keep on calling me every day until she retired or I died, for all he cared. Then he would have to get another cashier, or another head cook, and then he would. He had a very simple kind of logic. It was a Florida kind of logic that fitted the Beaches very well. What was good for his restaurant was fine, and what wasn’t, wasn’t even worth thinking about.
The second summer I was there, Dawson started talking about staying open with regular hours all the way until Christmas, because the Blue Dolphin and the Jade said they might. Before now, Labor Day weekend had always been the last big weekend of the season for all three, and they would start laying off waitresses. By October, Dawson’s usually was closed until the big Thanksgiving Day football game in the Gator Bowl, when he hoped the Beaches would be one big football party. But this year he was talking about staying open. If he did I would have less time than I had thought this winter to go over and see Christine and Sally.
Corinne was a waitress, one of the new ones who turned up every season all over Florida looking for the big tips. She always had to walk a long mile home from work, or take a taxi if she was too tired, because the bus service was lousy.
I gave her lift home a couple of times the first month she worked there. I liked to hear her talk. She was fresh from deepest Georgia and had a language all her own. I figured she was good for one season before she drifted somewhere else, and that would be the last I ever saw of her. Now, with Dawson talking about trying to stretch out the season, it looked like she might be around the restaurant a while longer. It surprised me how glad I was about that.
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