Crusty’s Bar Sand Dollar Grille ~ Ocean Side, Islamorada
If you love someone, wait your turn.
I know the current “care bear” version goes something like this.
“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it does not come back, it was never meant to be.”
No one knows who said that originally and like all sayings that no one will claim as theirs, it’s designed to make a person feel ok with something that is definitely not ok. In the Florida Keys, where women are scarce and the divorce rate is the highest in the nation, we just keep it simple. You’ve got a shot eventually, as long as they still have a pulse, and sometimes even if they don’t.
Case in point, Terrises.
I’m not judging or anything, but if one more of her ex’s sits at my bar tonight acting like he needs to be spend a night in jail I am definitely firing her ass … from both of her jobs.
She has worked as a waitress here for about three years and six months ago I hired her to work for Revenge-Gifts.com. She’s a pretty good web designer, which is not the same thing as a programmer. She lives in a beat-to-shit trailer a few blocks north of the bar, twenty-eight, beautiful in that beachy, Keys-ey kind of way most women here are after a decade of drugs, booze and wet, salty sunshine. And like everyone else here, born and raised, she has no filter and a too many former flames to keep straight
The dead ones I can get rid of easily. The live ones are not so simple to dispatch.
“I am so so sorry about Paul, Tara. I ended it with him months ago and he just will not move on.”
I feel my cell phone vibrating in my apron and take a second to check it; Howard Payne. I hit ignore.
“It happens,” I said, setting the last of her drink order up on the bar. She can tell I’m pissed. Nothing I can do about that, because I am pissed. Sheriff Jim has been here twice tonight on calls related to her battling ex-boyfriends. He looked me up and down on his second visit like it is my fault.
It’s not that her personal issues have escalated all that much, really. Terrises has been through at least a third of the local guys and with that impressive volume, drama is inevitable. When this was Crusty’s and a proper dock-dive bar, no one really cared if some fisherman parked himself on a stool and drank himself insensible as he bitched about faithless women unwilling to wait for their return from a month at sea. To her credit Terrises did try to time them so one would be gone while the other was in port; but the weather and broken boat engines conspired against her system and every now and then her juggling act would come crashing down on full display here at the bar formerly named Crusty’s.
Terrises hasn’t changed. Crusty’s changed.
In partnership with Howard Payne, Sherry gutted the place, added outdoor seating and an outdoor bar on newly lain pavers, artfully stenciled with fish outlines to look old and washed out, but elegant. The inside looks like an upscale men’s haberdashery with dark wood floors, mahogany tables, teak chairs and a newly raised ceiling. Gone are the fishing nets strung across the room with anchors, boat oars and buoys. The sickly gray, teak wood bar, chewed to hell by Sunshine the Malaccan cockatoo, is now an artificial reef somewhere out off of Hens-and-Chicks and in its place is a dark speckled granite slab nightmare that breaks glassware and never looks clean to me. The wait staff uniform changed from tight T’s and shorts to a more family friendly style with long waist-aprons over dark slacks and white oxford shirts, neatly ironed.
I wear a black lace bra and leave the shirt half unbuttoned in protest.
Sherry says Howard approached her after we got engaged and said he would pay for the entire renovation in exchange for a piece of the business. He told her he wanted to have our wedding on the dock and the reception in the bar and outside and then take it to sea on one of his fleet of yachts that are chartered for funerals at sea, and now for weddings and other parties.
She didn’t think I’d mind.
Ever since her ex-husband Dennis died her heart hasn’t been in the restaurant business anyway. She doesn’t have to work for a living. Crusty’s was a business she bought for Dennis to keep him busy and out of her hair. She took it from him in the divorce for spite and kept it running to annoy him. I kept it running to annoy him. Sherry traveled.
When Dennis was managing, he wasn’t running Crusty’s either, it turned out. Dennis was using it to store drug shipments belonging to the current love of my life, Darius. Pudd’n, an enormous ginger cat who lives here and keeps the rat population under control, revealed Dennis’ last drug shipment stash resulting in his death. Dennis can currently be found haunting the hell out Sherry at her house.
She deserves to be haunted for what she’s done to this bar.
I chunked virgin chi chi’s out of the two industrial blenders and delivered them to an adorable family of four sitting at the other end of the bar, waiting for a table. Such is the world we now inhabit that people are willing to spend twelve dollars each on frozen pineapple juice and cream of coconut with no vodka. They could have opted for the seven dollar version in a normal bar glass, but the kids wanted the beach cups for a souvenir. I garnished them with pineapple slices, cherries and bendy straws, silently cursing Sherry and Howard with every bad word presently accessible in my brain.
I don’t want to be chasing Terrises’ ex-boyfriends out of the bar. I want to watch the meltdown and move the breakables for safety and a better view. I don’t want to provide Ken, Barbie and their adorable offspring with a happy Florida Keys experience. Crusty’s soul has been gutted. Ironically, now that the nightly drama plays have been banned, Howard’s newly installed security camera system has nothing interesting to watch. We could have set up a pay-per-view with these cameras in the old place.
I turned to look at the two cameras monitoring the bar and cash register.
“They have sound, you know.” Terrises said as she passed by to pick up food from the main wait.
Sound. So whoever is watching can hear everything we say.
“The system is wired into the web so you can watch from your cell phone if you want,” she said, passing back through with a tray loaded down with dinners. She went to deliver the food and came back with another drink order.
“How do you know all that?” I asked.
“Because I watch it on my cell phone sometimes,” she said.
“It’s not a protected site?”
“Of course it is.” She said. “The company that installed it is one of the top names in security.”
“Then how are you able to watch the monitors?”
“My ex? The one who was here tonight? He installed it. I have the back door. Want it?”
“Tempting.” Do I want it? What kind of sick sad individual sits and watches something like that?
“Mr. Payne watches a lot.”
“How would you know that?”
Social engineering is a beautiful thing in the world of online security.
“He watches that camera for hours.” She pointed to the one over my shoulder.
“Then he can hear you talking about him now, right?”
“Nope.” She said with confidence. “He’s not logged in right now.”
“But it’s recording.” I said.
“Nope.” She said.
She shook her head and smiled. “I had to erase the earlier incident and I decided to leave the record option off until I leave.”
“No fear he’ll notice?”
“I don’t think it’s strictly legal without posted notice or signed consent. Hard to bring a case based on something your shouldn’t be doing in the first place.”
“But your boyfriend set it up.”
“He just installs it. It’s on the owner of the establishment to keep up with the local laws.”
She walked off to seat another family.
Did I say I wanted to fire her? I must have been high.
Riqué put an order up on the pass through muttering in Creole that he’s working on a new zombie powder desert special and to go fuck ourselves. I looked at the plates. Salt roasted whole red snapper. No wonder he’s pissed.
Terrises came back, finished garnishing the plates and took it to a table, giving a level of service no waitress at Crusty’s has ever risen to pre-renovation. Check totals are double what they used to be and tips are also double what they used to be. Most of the wait staff were happy to be retrained and to update the required uniform. Howard brought in a career mixologist to revamp the bar menu and add a handful of signature drinks with touristy touches.
“People on vacation want to waste money on souvenirs that will get relegated to a closet when they get home, never to be seen or used again. If you put a drink in it, your brand travels with them to the pool side at their hotel and out on the charter boat when they go diving or fishing and that brings us more customers.”
The Crusty’s clientele that used to frequent this place have moved on to cheaper pastures, except for Terrises’ exes.
I went through the training like everyone else, mostly because there was a part of me that wanted to see where all of this would lead. The Howard I thought I had fallen in love with, transformed into a different man right before my eyes. When I met him he had been broken by grief for his dead wife and child and looking to escape to the Keys and start over. Little by little, over time, the real Howard returned and I watched the train wreck in action as he restored himself and made Crusty’s and the surrounding property over into his corporate image. Next Saturday would have been our wedding day had he not broken up with me. Plans set in motion are still grinding down to the day, relatives coming in for a long vacation, unwilling to cancel a paid week in Paradise since it was non-refundable. Howard and I reserved and paid for the other nine bungalows on Sherry’s property for friends and relatives for the entire month of October. Her property is not zoned for tourists so rentals are monthly. It cost us a fortune.
My mother and sister are in the bungalow next to my haunted bungalow number three and in the other bungalows are an assortment of my relatives, Howard’s and his friends.
The party is still on, even though Howard and I are not getting married. Of that? I am certain. Howard has doubts. Even though Howard dumped me, he asks me every week to leave Darius and take him back. He has said he was wrong and that he is sorry. He says he is doing all of these things for me and only for me. He says he doesn’t know what came over him in Haiti and how he could say and do the things he did.
If Darius knew about the weekly calls and visits by Howard, he would kill him. Darius has been busy, but not for very much longer.
Chapter Two: (No chapter title yet)
“Your mom and sister are on their way,” Sam said, downing his Kir Royal in one long swig. “I offered to drive them but they said they want to drive themselves.”
I put another drink on the bar in front of him silently. His dark blond hair is a long hot mess, he needs a shave and his signature light linen and silk blend lawyer suit is wrinkled all to hell. He kicked his shoes off under the bar and his bare feet are tucked between foot rests on the barstool.
“Your sister is stunning, by the way. Why have you never talked about your family before?”
“My sister is married with kids,” I said.
Sam gave me a look that said I should know better. I hit him with the same look right the hell back. He rolled his eyes and then he seemed to mentally fall away. You know how you can tell when someone is paying attention and when, even if they are looking right at you, they aren’t? Sam’s brain went somewhere else, far from here for a minute. It’s hard to pin down what triggers these episodes, but I am beginning to notice them more and more lately. Sam’s mother can hear what you are thinking. Maybe Sam can, too; Handy gift for a lawyer if true. Really handy in bed I would imagine. I suddenly pictured Sam and my sister in wedded bliss with kids and cats and mentally shook my brain back to sanity.
“I didn’t say I wanted to keep her.” He said. “I just want to borrow her for a little while. She didn’t bring her husband or the kids. No one has to know.” He winked.
I can’t help the little twinge of jealousy that invades my heart anytime my sister is mentioned. She is the perfect daughter my mother always dreamed of. I? Am not. My hair is dirty dishwater blond and my eyes are hazel green. Her hair is a natural pale blond and her eyes are deep cerulean blue. Her facial features are perfect while mine are slightly flawed. She is married with children. Chances that I will ever get married and have kids are slim to none at this rate. It’s not her fault she’s perfect. She compensates for this perfection by also being incredibly kind and generous to a fault.
I left home for college and never looked back. She finished college, married and has stayed near our mom and taken care of her as she ages gracefully with her retired friends in Naples.
“She would never.” I said.
Sam smiled that smile he has when a challenge is thrown down and suddenly I pictured Madame de Tourvel of the Pierre Ambroise Laclos’ classic, “Dangerous Liasons”. The Vicomte de Valmont seduced her away from her virtuous life. A part of me considered unleashing the charming Sam on my perfect sister, briefly. Then I thought better of it. Some decent people need to remain in this world as the rest of us shred it into morally ambiguous strips. Someone has to be around to weave it all back into place when we are done.
“Don’t,” I said.
Sam looked puzzled for a moment and then he hit me with his most charming leer. “You want me.” He smiled again. “Someday you will admit you want me and get rid of these losers you keep hanging out with and make an honest man of me.”
Absurd, but I smiled anyway. Could anyone make an honest man of Sam? Futility. I shook my head and turned to deal with a drink ticket.
“I can wait.” He said and downed his second Kir Royal a little too fast. Something is off about Sam today. I can’t put my finger on it, but this is not his usual modus operandi.
“Not forever, though,” he said, his eyes piercing through me with a seriousness out of character for Sam. I raised an eyebrow. He looked away. “Sister is off limits; got it.”
My mother and sister walked in, smiled at me and were seated at a nearby table by the hostess. Neither would ever be seen sitting at a bar, not even to talk to me. I am going to have to go to them at some point during the meal. Mom understands I have to work so I have some time, but not much. Howard Payne followed them in, walked over to my bar and sat down.
And this is the problem with exes and why we should not have so many, they do not go quietly away; probably why most people in the Keys prefer long weekends and one night stands with tourists rather than locals, except the tourists come back and sometimes move here because they love it so much.
“I called to tell you I was bringing your mom and sister over for lunch. You didn’t answer.” He looked at something on his cell phone and frowned. He looked up at the camera behind me, eyes narrowed, and then put the phone away.
I didn’t say anything. I’m guessing he was about to turn off the record option on the camera and saw that it was already off. Terrises passed by with a knowing smile on her face. She pulled her own phone out in the main wait out of Howard’s line of site and clicked something, probably the record option. She’s probably going to watch this later. I reconsider firing her.