TRUNK NOVEL

Bill Burkett
15 min readMar 24, 2024
Amazon books

My oldest friend and I broke into journalism together in the early sixties in Jacksonville, Florida.I already had published a science-fiction novel. Our editor, a Hemingway fan, lobbied for me to quit such childishness and write “real” fiction. This was my first such effort, begun in Nassau and finished in Pennsylvania. My famous literary agency refused to show it; they wanted more SF or nothing.

That was the real beginning of a 30-year writer’s block. This book went into my father’s old metal trunk, an actual “trunk novel,” a term used by my former editor for stillborn books including one of his. Then my old pal from Jacksonville and Nassau days retired from a successful publishing career, opened an e-book company, and invited me to “play.” He’d always liked this book and said it was time to come out of the trunk. The only modification was the 1993 prequel to explain the sixties narrative:

October 14, 1993 Dear daughter,

It’s another hot muggy day at the Beaches as I finally take pen in hand. If you ever read this I will be dead and probably buried.

That Jacksonville lawyer who was a public defender when he was a kid just out of law school has promised to take care of all the arrangements. He’s a bigshot private attorney now, with his own firm, but he’s all right in my book. He didn’t let them convict me of first-degree murder in the end, though I didn’t give him much help.

This was way back when, as we always used to say way back when, and Florida was not squeamish about the death penalty. The Jacksonville State’s Attorney acted like he personally wanted me dead when I wouldn’t tell him anything he wanted to know. Still thirty years in Raiford is a long time out of a life for what I did.

They paroled me back to the Beaches finally a couple years ago, but everything is so changed here. The whole world is changed I guess. The hardest thing to get used to after I got out was what had happened to the value of money. Before I went away, the minimum wage was supposed to be a dollar an hour. You couldn’t even get paid that a lot of places. No waitress at a restaurant I cooked at ever made a dollar an hour, that’s for sure, let alone busboys.

Gasoline was twenty-one cents for premium leaded. The only unleaded gas back then was Amoco; people with motor scooters and outboard motors went to the Amoco station to fill up. You probably don’t remember any of this.

There was nobody left on the Beaches who remembered me or had even heard of me. Dawson’s Famous Seafood Restaurant had been turned into a Mexican place, phony stucco and all. The big screen dining porches that used to catch the ocean breeze were bricked in and plastered over, for God’s sake. Dawson had been dead over ten years when they let me out, bust a blood vessel arguing with a fish seller in Mayport over price.

What had been the best seafood restaurant on the north coast of Florida from Prohibition to the Reagan Administration, a destination stop for rich people riding the Silver Meteor between New York City and Miami, was just gone. I didn’t find a single person who remembered the legends of Arab princes hiring taxis at the train station in Jacksonville to come to Dawson’s, handing out ruby baubles to waitresses they liked.

It was actually a Lebanese prizefight promoter, and an emerald pinky ring. She found it on the bedside table at Bennett’s Motel after he left early to catch that morning’s Meteor to Miami. Whether it was a tip or forgetfulness, she sold that ring for enough to make a down payment on a chicken farm back home in North Carolina and we never saw her again. Maybe her family still runs it.

There used to be a pedestrian walkway on an arch over Beach Boulevard where it dead-ends at the beach. Teenage boys used to stand up there and look down into cars driving out onto the beach to check out the girls’ legs through the windshield, or the entire girl if she was in a convertible. They don’t even let cars drive on the World’s Finest Beach anymore. I never drove my Chev on the beach anyway because I didn’t want to rust out the underside.

More than half of the old one-story tourist traps that used to make up downtown Jacksonville Beach were boarded up or gone, and so was the Bandshell. The boardwalk joints were pretty well all boarded-up. There was just an empty lot where the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round and Mighty Mouse roller coaster used to be. Mac’s Pool Hall was just another empty building with faded hurricane tape on the windows.

The lifeguard station was still on oceanfront, but the seawall it used sit on was gone, replaced by riprap and trucked-in sand. There was a hellacious hurricane named Dora that knocked it down not long after I went away. There were miniature sand dunes running along most of the oceanfront property now. Beach sand had started building dunes over the riprap and sand that the Corps of Engineers trucked in to stabilize the beachfront.

A couple of those modern name-brand motel chains had built a handful of five- and six-story motels on the beach-front until somebody passed an ordnance to make them stop, so that people who lived back off the beach could still see the ocean and get the breeze. The ones they built looked big and out of place in a one-story town.

The only places besides a couple of motels that were still around and had the same name were the Christian Science reading room across from where the band shell used to be and the first pizza joint that ever opened up on the beaches, way out by the Intracoastal Waterway bridge.

Jacksonville Beach blocked traffic off a lot of First Street, so you can’t follow the coast straight north from Beach Boulevard to Atlantic Boulevard anymore. Third Street’s the main thoroughfare now. People ride bicycles on First Street, or jog, or skate on those funny Outer Space roller skates they have now.

This is grown people doing all this now, not kids. I can’t get over dozens of men and women out running or riding their bikes or skating in the dusk. Not to get away from anything, or go toward anything. Just to keep moving, because they think it’ll make them live forever. They reminded me exactly of all those cons who pump iron down at the penitentiary for the same reason.

I felt like The Invisible Man in broad daylight. The ocean was the only thing that was exactly like it always had been, and those big pelicans that patrol the surf line like Second World War dive-bombers. Not that anybody I mentioned this to had any idea what a dive-bomber looked like.

Most of the traffic now is those funny little Japanese cars shaped like half-melted bars of soap. Before I went away we hadn’t heard about Honda motorbikes, let alone Honda automobiles. About the only cars that I could identify were old and rusted out unless it was somebody’s special baby, all waxed and polished and rolled out only on weekends. I did still see Volkswagen bugs, and they still seemed to start every time, like that Woody Allen movie. If I still owned my 1955 V-8 Chev, it would be a collector’s item (!)

A lot of people who live at the Beaches work in Jacksonville now. The city has sprawled out almost to the Waterway. Somebody started up some kind of petition to secede the Beaches from Duval County and call them Ocean County. I’m over seventy years old as I write this. I don’t know if I still have the right to vote or not, but I signed the petition anyway. Beaches people always were different.

The only useful thing I know how to do is cook. The minimum wage now is more than I used to make working for Dawson as head cook, when I was paid about as good as anybody in the food business. They pay me this new minimum wage for graveyard-shift short-order work at a 24-hour joint out on Atlantic Boulevard where there was nothing but palmetto scrub and cabbage palms when I went away. They were glad to have me, and don’t bother me in the kitchen, but I have not been able to put any money by for you. I can just barely rent a room and pay the electric bill for an air conditioner. I need that air conditioner at my age after all those years at Raiford. The bus service has improved on the Beaches, so I don’t need to worry about a car anymore, and somebody always needs a cook, even in this world.

All I have to leave you is that one old paid-up life insurance policy from the 1950s, when ten thousand dollars seemed like all the money in the world. My lawyer says there should be some of that left for you after disposing of my remains. That, and a cardboard box that typewriter paper came in, full of these pages that I wrote while I was in prison.

Your mother would have said I should not ask my own daughter to read such a thing. My trial was in all the newspapers and the true crime magazines, and I know she was humiliated about that. I wouldn’t ever want her to read about what really happened, but she’s where nothing can hurt her now. You’re my only living blood kin. It’s entirely up to you whether to read what I wrote or get rid of it. Writing it all down was all that kept me going for a long time as the years rolled by.

I started to write this for that lady teacher they brought into the prison back in the 1960s, supposedly to prepare some of us to be better citizens if we ever got out. I had a long time to go, but the warden got me in the class because he liked the seafood meals I prepared with the special supplies he brought in when he hosted bigshots from Tallahassee, so he could brag about having the head cook from Dawson’s Famous Seafood Restaurant in his kitchen.

The teacher lady said us cons, especially the ones in for violent crimes, were “conflicted” (I wrote it down) and unable to express our true feelings. The exercise she made us do was to write about things we couldn’t talk about.

It reminded me of your schools, when you had to write, “what I did on my vacation,” remember? Remember that St. Petersburg teacher in the third grade who said you shouldn’t scare the other children by writing about visiting your mother in the TB sanatorium? People these days don’t remember how terrifying tuberculosis was back then. As bad as polio was, almost. Hell these days they don’t even remember the polio panics.

So anyway, I started to try to write about what happened to me on the Beaches the way the teacher lady told us to. I got to trying to remember everything exactly right, and I just kept on writing it and changing it and writing it and changing it for a long time. I bet the teacher lady never expected anything like what I finished up with, but I’ll never know.

She didn’t get to see any of it, because in a year or so the Department of Corrections got over worrying whether we were conflicted, or could express our true feelings, and cut the program. I never did know what happened to her. So I just kept writing. I learned how to use the little portable typewriter in the chaplain’s office and finally typed the whole thing up, mistakes and all. I never could type very fast, but I had plenty of time…

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.

--

--

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.