By KERRI DIEFFENWIERTH
It’s a date, or rather, three’s a crowd. My sister’s boyfriend, Cary Boy, will swing by our place Saturday morning at seven for a cruise on his airboat. It’s my job to make ham sandwiches and “stay the hell out of the way,” my sister Katy’s mantra ladled with the rich venom only homecoming queens can dish.
Although my sister acts like she doesn’t want me along, I know that for this particular outing, she’s relieved to have my company. Even at 17, I’m still tomboy enough to dig an airboat ride. We’ve both grown up on five acres in Delray Beach, at the edge of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, but I’m the only one who’s really embraced the place.
Before I got my first period, I could master a stick shift, tractor, dirt bike and any kind of horse, plain or fancy. Usually, I’m by myself. Mother started me on the two mile journey to Nelson’s Country Store to buy cigarettes and wine at 12. “Just tell them it’s for me. They’ll know.”
We live an hour from our high school. Katy wishes we were a stucco subdivision family so she could be near the beach, friends and malls. Me: Nature. Her: Shiny.
Maybe the land wrapped extra around my heart because I know I might stay a while. College isn’t such a sure thing out here as it is for kids in town. It’s a crap shoot, even if you’re smart, even if you want to go. Maybe it’s all the chores that clog up studying and registering and paying for college entrance exams. Fact is you end up where you end up, simple as that. Maybe you’ll get lucky and maybe you’ll end up doing manual labor at minimum wage so you better like your hobbies. And don’t hope too hard for anything grand either. Pretty helps, but it’s not a free pass.
Neither of us has been on an airboat. There’s a difference out here between living in the country and being country. You’re only country if your daddy and granddaddy are country. I guess we’re faux country, or “posers”—like the kids at school who wear surf clothes but don’t surf. I know all the words to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but it’s a wash because I don’t know any Waylon Jennings. I’ve eaten gator tail, but only because I was at a potluck barbeque and thought it was chicken. No, it doesn’t taste like chicken. Unless that chicken just ate fish.
Cary Boy arrives on time, stands straight with one skinny leg propped on a stool at our kitchen counter. He’ll say “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am,” no matter what. Just listen.
“Cary Boy, are you enjoying your senior year?”
“Yes, ma’am, my senior year’s going just fine, and thanks for asking.”
“Are you looking forward to the homecoming dance? You like to dance, Cary Boy?”
“Oh no, ma’am, dancing ain’t my thing. My body just don’t know what to do with that crazy rock music. But if Katy wants to dance, ma’am, I’ll do my best to keep up with her. She moves real good no matter what they play. I’m planning on showing Katy a real good time. We’re going on up to that Worth Avenue in Palm Beach for dinner first, with candles and lobster and a flaming dessert.”
As I watch Cary Boy lean back and cross his arms, so relaxed in our house, I realize I want him to marry my sister, to become permanent family, to ease holidays and lift babies with kindness and never lose that smile, but I know Katy will probably mess it up and another girl will get his goodness.
So I savor his ways. We all seem to. We love to love Cary Boy.
A dark green contraption rests on a rusted out trailer behind his truck. It looks like a john boat with a giant caged fan attached to its backside and a few fake leather bench seats bolted to the aluminum floor. No seatbelts. No safety features of any kind, really. Country doesn’t much care for safety.
The bow of the boat is low and rounded, like the tips of cheap tennis shoes we call catheads. The vessel’s bottom is stained dark red in some places and smeared with patches of green algae everyplace else. But Country doesn’t much care about equipment maintenance. Dirty means you use it.
So we drive south what seems like 10 or 12 miles until we leave the hot asphalt and turn right onto an unmarked shell rock road. Cary Boy doesn’t bother to dodge the potholes filled with milky white rainwater.
“Why are you going through the potholes, Cary Boy—don’t you worry one of them will be super deep and mess up your truck?” I worry about things big and little.
“Mess up my truck?! Darlin’, that’s the best thing I’ve heard today! Honey, don’t you know? Trucks are built for mess! I like to drive mine around town on Mondays all covered in mud and stuff from my weekend—makes people turn their heads and wonder what I been up to.”
I consider broken down truck vs. Florida. As far as I can see, my state’s scattered with deadly things crawling and cawing and cackling.
“Well, what if you break down miles from anything? What do you do then?”
Cary Boy smiles straight teeth and light brown eyes. He’s got the kind of hands that like to tussle with big-eared dogs.
“You ever hear the song, ‘A Country Boy Can Survive?’ By Bocephus? You know … Hank Jr.? That’s sure the truth, ’cause that’s what we do. We get by, darlin’, through watching for each other, out here and in town. And now I’m looking out for you and your beautiful sister.”
I look over at my supposedly beautiful sister and she makes a very unbeautiful face at me. So I grab a gray vinyl strap dangling near the truck’s door and hang on.
I don’t see any signs to the boat ramp. Not one. Country doesn’t much care for outsiders—if your people didn’t teach you the way, you don’t belong out here.
A wide clearing reveals a couple trucks with dried mud on their bellies and empty trailers waiting for their men to return. Cary Boy backs his rig down and hands me a rope for when it slides off.
“That’s it, darlin’. You be careful now, you hear? I don’t want nothing happening to you or Katy on my watch. I promised your mama I’d keep you girls safe.”
He folds a stick of Big Red gum into his mouth and then ties the rope I give him to a wooden post on the dock. Country likes chew, but if it wants to kiss girls, sometimes it uses gum. I stand back and wait for a job to do. Hanging out with my sister isn’t an option, like at home. She’s just too mean.
Katy’s still in the truck, legs up, hot pink toenails touching the windshield. She’s got her pout face on. She also has on running shorts (never ran a mile in her life) and a yellow tank top with skinny straps. And the gold necklace Cary Boy bought her. He buys her anything she wants probably because she does anything he wants in her bedroom when our parents act like they don’t care (only they probably aren’t acting). I don’t think her thighs look good enough for running shorts but I would never tell her that since she can beat the crap out of me.
Now that the airboat’s in the water, Katy finally makes her dock entrance. She likes to swing flip her hair. It just takes a moment, but she needs to know you’ve absorbed her. We sit on the worn planks, wiggle our rears to the edge and swing our legs into the boat while Cary Boy revs up the enormous propellers. The blades are covered by a metal grid, which is a good thing because I’m sure a lot of Country would have been decapitated or lost limbs if the blades were left open. Or maybe that’s how airboats started out and then they learned a lesson.
Anyway, the noise is unbelievably loud. Whop! Whop! Whop! Whop!
“It’s SO loud!” I yell to Cary Boy.
“I said, it’s loud!!”
“Yes, darlin’, it’s loud!!”
Katy turns around and shoots me a shut up look so I shut up. I cover my ears with my hands and swear not to speak again until we stop. The noise pierces my skull and my skin both.
Cary Boy pulls a long black lever next to his side, and we glide away and pick up speed, and soon we’re roaring over tall reeds of saw grass and bushes. So smooth. I wonder what would happen if one of the thick bushes we’re bending at 30 or 40 miles an hour turns out to be a small cypress tree. We’ll crash for sure. I picture us flying off our barstools and skipping across the marsh like human stones with our arms and legs in the shape of a big X.
After 20 more minutes of deafening noise and human silence, Cary Boy powers down the motor then turns it off completely. The ringing in my ears is so shrill I wonder if my hearing is damaged. Country doesn’t believe in ear protection. If my ears are damaged, I’d rather it happen from a rock concert (which I’ve never been to) rather than an airboat—you know, if I had a choice.
Climbing down from his mildewed upholstered perch, Cary Boy reaches into the Coleman cooler that he’s secured with a bungee cord to the base of the stool.
Katy speaks. It speaks!
“Thank God that’s over with. Let’s have our lunch and go back. I don’t like this at all. My teeth are vibrating. Is that normal? Can we go back now, baby, please?”
“We’re stopping for lunch, but not our lunch, honey. We’re right next to Kermit’s hole.” Cary Boy rips open the top of a large bag of Doritos.
Whiff of cheddar.
“Kermit? Who’s Kermit. Cary Boy, who IS Kermit?” it whines. It starts to sweat.
I don’t need to ask because I already know what lives in holes in the northern most part of the Everglades and in the dark hollows of the canal behind our five acres, too. I watched our dog get pulled into the water in one mighty splash. Never saw another trace of him.
“Hmm. He’s not in his hole. Well, just look around ’cause he’ll be swimming over to us any minute now. He always comes when he hears an airboat engine. Biddy and Frankie feed him when they gig frogs out here in the middle of the night. They say Kermit’s eyes glow like lasers when they shine their flashlights on ’em.”
Gripping the sides of my bench seat, I lean over and look into the brackish. For the first time, I notice how low the boat sits in the water. There’s only about a foot of boat above the waterline.
I see him.
Like a locomotive log, he eases his way, straight and fast, through a giant patch of lily pads. His bulbous snout is aimed at us like a dark prehistoric arrow.
“Hey, old buddy, I haven’t seen ya for a while. How’s it going?”
The pointy toes of Cary Boy’s cowboy boots stick out over the side of the boat. I take a quick look at the black lever and the gearshift, trying to figure out the controls, how we’ll get out of here, which direction we came from, what might happen to us if Cary Boy in his new Wrangler jeans gets eaten in the next minute.
“Cary Boy! Oh my God! Get back!”
It might be right.
Kermit is absolutely enormous, at least nine feet long, which is most of the boat. He thrusts his long jaws on the deck then props them open and keeps them open like a good dental patient. His teeth stick out at all angles. Long. Short. Stained. The better to tear you with, once you get nice and soft and rotted stuck under a tree branch near its hole.
Cary Boy turns the bag on its side and sprinkles orange triangles onto green swamp. The gator slinks down and takes its time with gulps of chips and water, chips and water. Snap. Snap. Snap.
The chips are gone.
“Does he like ham sandwiches?” I’d be willing to give mine up, you know, to live.
“Sometimes if we catch some bass, we give ’em to Kermit. Bass are his favorite.”
“Wh-wh-what happens if it’s still hungry?” It’s worried. It wants to live to go to homecoming in a sexy white dress from J.C. Penney.
Cary Boy reaches into the cooler and pulls out a bag of Jet-Puffed marshmallows. The big ones, not the wimpy tooth-sized giblets, thank the good Lord.
The plastic is hard to rip, and Cary Boy unlatches a small leather sheath on his belt where he keeps his knife. Country likes weapons and knows how to use them.
The second the blade flips open is the second Kermit decides he’s tired of waiting. With a deep swoosh of his fat tail he propels his body into the boat. Short stubby muscle legs power witch-fingered talons in a terrible tap dance across the thin aluminum.
In an instant, Katy and I move our DNA in the same direction—to the back of the boat and then up. We try to scale the cage but the small metal squares don’t let our catheads get a good grip. Knees open and toes slipping, we pull and claw and girly scream our way up. We’re kin again.
When I look back over my shoulder, I see Cary Boy sitting nice and relaxed on his bench seat, skinny legs swinging, tossing white marshmallows into Kermit’s cotton candy pink mouth—like it’s his favorite hunting hound.
If it’s a dog, then I swear it’s a miniature demon dinosaur version. I can see rows of raised ridges in multiple lines down its back. I’m full of natural fear, maybe as much as my shiny sister, who I think has just soiled those nylon running shorts.
Then Cary Boy climbs down, reaches into the cooler again, pulls out a camera, places his SKOAL baseball cap on Kermit’s head and starts to take photos. I see him turn his boyishness toward me and Katy. We’re still plastered to the cage and we’re not coming down, either. We finally look alike. Cary Boy tosses his head back and starts to sing.
“I’ve got a shotgun, a rifle and a four-wheel drive! And a country boy can survive! Country folks can survive!”
Kerri Dieffenwierth is a native Floridian and a student in the Stonecoast MFA program. Her work has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Sandhill Review, Wanderlust & Lipstick and The Chicago Tribune.