The following material is the first three chapters of my completed novel, FLOATING TWIGS. These chapters basically serve as a "Download a free preview" link you will find at Amazon, etc., when looking for a good book for your Kindle.
The book will be released on September 15, 2018. There will be a book release party that is open to the public at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Ashland, Virginia, from 2 - 5 PM. The public is invited. I will provide personalized autographs to anyone who purchases a hard copy of the book from me while there.
FLOATING TWIGS--Sometimes a small moment can change a life forever.
I had known the day would come when circumstances forced my return to Denton, Florida, where I grew up. My parents had died before I finished high school, but another funeral brought me here now.
The Denton of my childhood reminded me of an old man, settled and unchanging. However, on that sunny day back in 1990 as I drove across the bridge that spanned the inlet between Denton Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, I looked over the expanse of emerald-green water to the harbor that lay protected by Sugar Isle, a long barrier island of sugar-white sand. Instead of a harbor filled with fishing boats lazily dotting the landscape, a waterfront teeming with jet-skis and noise greeted me. New boat docks grew and twisted out of the adjoining land like cancerous growths. Beside the more expensive boats that had invaded the harbor, the older fishing boats looked like impoverished cousins. Seventeen years had scarred the town.
Beyond the bridge I turned onto the road that led away from the harbor toward the house where I'd grown up. The small, rundown place still sagged among the pines and scrub oaks. As I approached it, grief and loss struck me, and I sat alone in my car and cried for the first time since leaving Denton. The memories flooded back along with the tears, but this time I welcomed them instead of pushing them back into their dark corner.
Memory has a way of playing tricks on us. Sad memories fade into a haze that we never can be sure is honest, since we often embellish them with colorful hues to make them bearable, while good memories take on a luster they don’t deserve. But my memory of the events surrounding my thirteenth birthday is good. At least I think it is.
It all began with finding Bones back in 1968 the day Roger, Lee and I swiped Dan Russell’s rowboat for a quick trip out to a barge that had become stuck in the sand a few days before. Roger and Lee were my best friends. We were always finding something to do, sometimes dangerous and often slightly illegal, and on that sunny June day we were on the verge of another adventure. Lee and Roger would be in trouble if we were caught with a stolen rowboat. I wouldn’t be because, well, my parents wouldn’t care.
The barge sat mired on Sugar Isle’s north shore, which faced the harbor about three-hundred yards across the inlet. We figured fish would be swarming all around the accidental reef, and we wanted to catch some before someone hauled the barge away.
We knew that Dan Russell, the rowboat’s owner, was in jail for at least the next few days after he vandalized his ex-girlfriend’s car and broke into her apartment, so he would never know we had “borrowed” his boat unless someone saw us and told, and that wasn’t very likely, but we still argued the point.
“Man, what if your sister finds out and tells someone?” Roger said to Lee. “We’ll get it for sure then. Not only will Dan find out we took his boat, but our parents will kill us, too.”
“Maybe we could bribe her,” I said.
“Naw, Jack,” Lee said, his blue eyes twinkling at me from beneath his shaggy, sun-bleached bangs. “Sandra won’t tell. I got something on her if she does and she knows it.”
“What?” I asked.
“Caught her smoking with Greg.”
Greg was Sandra’s boyfriend. I knew she wouldn’t tell with that hanging over her head. Her parents despised Greg. Adding smoking to being with him would only make the offense worse.
“What if they come for the barge and we’re fishing from it?” asked Roger. His freckles would grow as red as his curly hair when he became agitated, and they shone brightly now.
Lee looked at Roger as if he had sprouted another nose. “So? We just leave. All they can do is yell at us.”
“So, what are we waiting for?” I asked with a grin.
Lee and I clambered into the small rowboat and Roger followed, still complaining under his breath. We stored our fishing gear in the shallow hull while making bets about who would catch the most fish. Untying the rope that secured the boat to the dock, we took turns rowing across the waters of the natural harbor. Once we were on our way, Roger's apprehension faded, as we knew it would. He would always complain, but he never backed out of a plan.
Soon we were approaching the trapped barge. After we found a place to tie the boat to the abandoned craft, I climbed onto the flat, metal deck and instantly regretted it.
“Hot feet! Hot feet!” I squealed as I danced around the surface of the barge, lifting my bare feet as soon as they landed on the sun-heated metal. Laughing, Lee and Roger grabbed two of the buckets we had brought to hold the fish, filled them with water, and emptied them onto the hot surface. I immediately hopped onto the wet area.
“More. It’s better but still too hot,” I said, still doing a jig.
They doused the deck a few more times before I was able to walk on it. “Man, you looked like your feet were on fire,” Lee said, laughing.
“They were,” I said, joining their laughter.
I was enjoying our simple camaraderie despite my home life, or maybe because of it. Although Lee and Roger knew my situation at home, we never discussed it. Everyone in town knew my parents were drunks. I had watched lots of Andy Griffith on TV and thought every town had its own drunk, and that it was my bad luck to have been born to Denton’s resident “Otis” and his equally intoxicated wife. However, I never laughed at the comic character on the TV show. For me it felt too real to be funny.
We prepared to drop our lines into the water, baiting our hooks with bits of the raw bacon Lee had taken from his family’s refrigerator. The emptiness of Sugar Isle stretched out behind us, with only sand dunes to witness our day. The sun hung overhead and cooked our backs, already browned to a deep, golden tan from a lifetime of exposure.
Lee’s line hit the water first, and a swarm of silver trout rushed to the greasy bait. “Whoa!” Lee said as he pulled his line up as fast as it had gone into the water. A small silver trout dangled and flipped on the hook.
“Wow! They must be starving or something,” said Roger, dropping his line into the water. Immediately, a fish struck the bait. “Man, I ain’t never seen anything like this!” he said as he lifted the squirming fish from the water.
“You ain’t never been to school either, huh?” I said and laughed.
Roger looked at me. “Yeah, well you better get your line in the water if you expect to catch more than I do, Poindexter.”
I dropped my line into the salt water with the same result. “Cooler than grits,” I said, holding up the wriggling fish.
Within fifteen minutes, each of us had crept past any reasonable limit, but we continued to fish, undaunted. Finally, Roger noticed the abundance of fish and spoke up.
“Hey, guys. I think we’re past our limit.”
Lee and I looked at the three buckets, which were nearly overflowing.
“Aw, man, look at that!” said Lee, amazed at how many we could catch so quickly. “We must have at least fifteen apiece!”
“If someone sees that, we’re sunk. We’re gonna have to put some back,” said Roger. His tone hinted he expected disagreement.
“Are you crazy? I worked hard for those fish,” said Lee.
“Worked hard? It’s only been ten minutes!” said Roger.
“More like fifteen,” I said.
“Gee, five more minutes. I’m sure the Marine Patrol will overlook the fact we’ve doubled what we could legally catch and keep because it took us a whole fifteen minutes to catch this many,” Roger said.
Of course, it was Lee who made the pronouncement. “We’ll keep the thirty biggest ones. That’s ten apiece.”
“But the limit is eight,” reminded Roger.
Lee looked him in the eye and shrugged. “I’m keeping ten. You can throw all yours back if you want. No skin off my nose.”
As we began choosing our fish, I heard a sound behind Lee. I looked toward the soft noise and my eyes bulged. “Oh, my God,” I whispered.
“Look,” I said, but they had seen my frightened gaze and had already turned in its direction.
“Sweet Jesus in a chariot race,” said Roger.
Hobbling toward us was a large, mixed-breed male dog, at least that was what it seemed to be. It looked more like a dog’s skeleton with skin thrown over it like some threadbare rug tossed over a bush. The dog was starving. It was easy for us to see every bone beneath his hide. His fur was pale yellow with some white areas mixed in, but his most noticeable feature, other than the fact he was starving, was he was missing his right foreleg. It appeared to have been amputated at some point, and he had adjusted to getting around on his remaining legs.
“What do we do?” asked Roger, the fear straining his voice to a squeal.
At the sound of Roger’s voice, the dog’s tail began to wag sluggishly as his head drooped in submission. I exhaled, unaware I had been holding my breath. We didn’t know where the dog came from, or how he got to Sugar Isle, but he appeared to be friendly at least.
“He must have smelled the fish,” said Lee.
“Or the bacon,” I said. With that, I reached down and picked up the remaining bacon and tossed a few small pieces of it to the dog, who caught every piece before it hit the ground and swallowed it before he knew it was in his mouth. Fascinated, we stared at the result of extreme neglect.
“What do we do?” asked Roger again, this time with pity.
“He looks like he’d be a fine-looking dog if he wasn’t starving,” I said.
“Yeah, and had four legs,” Lee added.
“So what do we do?” asked Roger a third time.
“I’m taking him home. I’m adopting him,” I said. I was as surprised at my decision as my friends were.
“Are you crazy? Your dad won’t let you keep a dog!” said Lee.
I looked at him. He looked exasperated, as if I’d suggested we bring the barge home and store it in my back yard. I could tell what Lee was thinking; it was in his eyes. Your dad and mom are drunks. They’ll never go for this! Dogs cost money. You’re poor, the look said. But I had made up my mind.
“Are you gonna take him home?” I asked Lee, challenging him.
“I can’t. My mom’s scared of big dogs, especially ones that look hungry enough to eat you.”
I looked at Roger.
“No way!” said Roger without being asked. “We already have a dog. My dad would just put him down anyway, which may not be such a bad idea. He’s suffering.”
“Not if he gets fed,” I said and began to approach the dog warily.
“Ja-a-ack,” said Roger.
“It’s okay. I’m the one with the food,” I said, holding up the remaining bacon. When I got close, the dog went to its back and bared its belly. I knelt to pet him, and he wagged his tail some more and licked my face. I could smell the raw bacon on his breath. I fed him the rest of it a piece at a time and smiled down at what I was already viewing as my new dog.
“See? He’s my dog.” I looked at him as if he had suddenly been transformed into an award-winning show dog. “Come home with me, boy. I’ll figure out a way to fatten you up.”
I stood and made a kissing sound, patting my thigh as I walked to the rowboat, the fish all but forgotten. The dog struggled to his feet and followed.
I saw Lee and Roger exchange bewildered looks. “What are we gonna do?” Roger asked Lee, this time referring to me.
Lee shrugged his shoulders and continued sorting the smallest fish from his catch and throwing them back. “Help him bury the dog when his dad shoots it, I guess,” Lee said, not caring if I heard. They lacked my faith, which in reality I had no right to have.
They looked at me again. I must have looked as though I had just found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And in a way, I guess I had.
We climbed into the rowboat, making room for the dog, and paddled back to shore. We cleaned our catch, tossing the fish guts to the dog, who continued to swallow the offered food too fast to taste it while I wondered how I would convince my parents, especially my dad, to let me have the dog. Keeping a dog costs money. He obviously needed some veterinary care and lots of food. As we took turns rowing, we discussed how the dog ended up on the island in the first place. It was apparent from his condition he’d been abandoned for some time, probably roaming the beach and looking for food until we showed up.
“You wanna come with me?” I asked Lee and Roger.
“Where?” Lee asked.
“To talk to my dad about the dog.”
For the second time that day, Lee looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “No way.” I didn’t even need to get an answer from Roger. His look said it all.
“How you think I should do it? I mean, you could at least try to give me some advice or something.”
“You already ignored my advice,” Lee said.
“Come on, Lee,” I said.
He looked at me, accepting my decision with a shake of his head. “Well, I’d make sure he was in a good mood first. Other than that, I don’t know.”
Roger spoke up. “How will you get the money to feed him? Your dad’s sure not to like that.”
"I guess I could clean fish,” I said.
In Denton many of the older kids would go down to the docks where the larger party boats brought the tourists in from a day of deep-sea fishing. They would stand along the edges of the dock, asking those getting off the boat if they needed their fish cleaned. The going rate was ten cents per pound of fish. A few red snapper and a couple of large grouper could net as much as three dollars. If the fishing was good and the tourists drunk enough, they might even add a tip on top of that. That was a lot of money in 1968, especially for a twelve-year-old. It would also pay for enough dog food for a week at least. One good week could pay for a veterinarian to look at the dog and take care of any minor problems. Three good weeks, and a kid my age felt like a Rockefeller.
Roger, of course, was quick to point out the problem with my plan. “They don’t let kids our age clean fish. Nobody under thirteen is allowed.”
“That isn’t a law or anything. It’s not even a rule of the party boats,” I said.
“No. But it’s Tommy’s rule.”
Roger said this as if it were worse than any law the police might enforce. Tommy Gordon was the biggest kid at the docks. He was sixteen and had quit school the day after he’d reached that milestone when the state believed a person was old enough to decide whether or not to attend. Tommy was known for being a bully, especially to the younger kids like me. He more or less ruled the docks as far as Denton’s youth were concerned. Nobody my age argued with Tommy unless he wanted a severe beating. The word was his parents hadn’t even argued with him when he quit school. I figured that was probably more because he was destined to work on the fishing boats instead of going to college, and they recognized his mental shortcomings in the areas of reading, science, and math, but it wasn’t hard to imagine they were afraid of him. We were, so it was easy to think everyone was.
One thing Tommy was good at, though, was controlling his turf. The docks were his turf, and he always made sure the competition for work cleaning fish was kept at a minimum. I guess he decided denying anyone under thirteen the right to work the docks was his way of making sure he had enough fish to clean, not to mention it gave him a chance to bully the younger kids.
I wondered how I would get around that when an idea struck me with such clarity I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it before. “I’ll just tell Tommy I turned thirteen. He doesn’t know my birthday.”
I could see they were surprised they hadn’t thought of this simple solution themselves. Tommy wasn’t the smartest kid around by any means. I was nearly thirteen anyway and a bit tall for my age, so he might believe me. Probably would, in fact.
“You still have to convince your dad to let you have a starving dog,” said Roger.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Maybe if I hang out in town ‘til he heads home from work, he might be in a better mood.”
I wasn’t saying it, but Lee and Roger knew what I meant. My dad worked at a local bar. He shucked oysters and served beer until around eight most evenings before he stopped by the liquor store on his way home and spent his tips on a bottle of cheap whiskey. He would drink most of it on the walk home, so he was drunk, or close to it, by the time he arrived.
Fortunately, my dad wasn’t a mean drunk. He was only mean when he was sober and needed a drink. I knew if I caught him about half way home from the liquor store, he would be in a fairly good mood. I would promise him almost anything if he would let me keep the dog.
“What’ll you name him if your dad lets you keep him?” Lee asked.
I looked at the dog and said the first word that came to my mind.
This cracked Lee and Roger up. “It fits, at least,” said Lee, packing his cleaned fish into his bucket and setting off toward his house. I could hear him chuckling to himself, repeating my dog’s name as he walked away. “Bones—sheesh.” He stopped after taking a few steps and said, “Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”
Roger picked up his bucket, which held only eight fish, the legal limit. “Good luck with your dad,” he said and strode off.
I stood there with my bucket of cleaned fish. I started for home to put them in the refrigerator before meeting my dad on his way home. He would be happy I’d caught some trout for dinner, and I hoped that and the whiskey would put him in a good enough mood to let me keep Bones.
When I arrived home, my mom was asleep on the couch, the TV blaring. A half-finished can of beer sat on the scarred and ring-marked table beside her. I didn’t care for beer, but I took a swallow before putting the fish in the refrigerator. I took Bones to a place in the woods about a hundred feet behind our house and tied him to a tree so if he barked he wouldn’t wake my mom. After that, I walked back toward town, but not before telling Bones good-bye and I would be back for him. He was starting to even act like my dog. We seemed to have some sort of communication, and he lay down in the sandy dirt as if to wait for me.
It was almost eight o’clock, and my dad would be getting off work soon. I would wait for him on the corner a few blocks up the street from our house. Over a half-hour later, I saw him strolling up the street. It was getting dark, but I could tell by his gait that he was already drunk. He held a paper sack in his right hand. In it, hidden below the lip of the bag, was the neck of the bottle. He would shuffle a couple of steps, take a swallow, and stumble along until the need for another swig hit him. As he weaved slowly up the street, I rehearsed for the thousandth time what I would say while still making small changes to my argument as I thought of his possible objections.
He stopped in front of me, a happy smile forming on his face.
“’Lo, Jack! You know? You look just like your brother when he was your age.”
I had a brother who had joined the marines. His name was Rick, and he was about to ship out to Vietnam.
“So, what gives?” he asked, obviously wondering why I was meeting him, which I did sometimes but not often.
“Not a lot,” I lied. I knew I would have to ease into my pitch. “I caught some trout for dinner. Eight of 'em.” He wouldn’t care if I went over the limit, but I didn’t want him to know I had filleted and given the other two to Bones.
“That’s great, boy. Where’d you catch ‘em?”
“Lee, Roger and I took Dan Russell’s rowboat and went across to Sugar Isle where that barge is stuck. We caught a whole bunch but threw the little ones back. The rest are in the fridge. I can cook ’em if you want.”
“Sounds good to me,” my dad said, taking a swig from his bottle and continuing his stroll home.
“Strangest thing happened when we were out there,” I began as my heart hammered against my ribs.
“Oh? What?” He was still concentrating on his bottle and wasn’t really listening.
“This dog came along on the shore.”
“Who you reckon it belonged to?”
“Don’t know,” I said, hoping this next part would go well.
“A stray," he said. "Gotta be careful o’ strays. They got diseases. Bite sometimes, too.”
“Not this one. He was gentle. He turned his belly up to me.”
He looked down at me, and his face told me he’d been listening better than I thought.
“Can’t keep a dog, Jack.”
“Why not? He’s starving, Dad. You can see all his bones under his skin. I mean all of them.”
“There you go. Dogs cost too much to keep. He’ll be needin’ a vet and a ton o’ food to get him healthy again.”
“But that’s the best part,” I said, launching into what I hoped was my big selling point. I had once heard that a good salesman turns objections into reasons to want the product. I was going to do the best job of that I could do.
My dad looked at me, his eyes swimming slightly in their sockets. If he hadn’t been drunk, the look would have been just like Lee’s earlier that day. “The best part is he costs too much?” he asked.
“Not really. The best part is I can earn the money to feed him and everything.”
I could see that struck a chord. “How you gonna do that?” At least he was still listening.
“Clean fish at the docks.”
He laughed. “You know Tommy Gordon won’t let a kid your age work at the docks. He’ll chew you up and spit you out.”
“I’ll be thirteen in October. He doesn’t know when my birthday is.”
“You planning to tell him you’re thirteen?”
“He’ll never know the difference.”
My dad considered that as he swayed like a boat in choppy seas and decided it was possible. “That takes care o’ the summer, but what about when the boats ain’t runnin’?”
“I figure I can make enough for the whole year.”
He made a noise that said he doubted it.
“If not, I could work during the winter washing people’s cars and running errands. Please, Dad. I’ll make enough. I promise you won’t have to pay a dime for the dog.”
“Promises are cheap. ’Specially from a boy who wants a dog.”
We had reached our house. I stopped and stood in the moonlight, facing him. I think he was surprised at my determination.
“This promise isn’t cheap. If I don’t make the money to keep him, I’ll put him down myself.”
He paused, nodding. “I don’t want to have to do nothin' for this dog, you hear me?”
“Yessir.” I was winning!
Then he dropped the bomb. “But a person who makes money pays rent. What doesn’t go for the dog goes to me and your mama for your room and board.”
This was completely unexpected. Pay rent? “Why do I have to do that?”
“Because. If you start gettin’ the idea all the money you make is yours, you get the wrong idea. All your money ain’t never yours, just as all mine ain’t never mine. Rent has to be paid; ’lectric bill has to be paid. Groceries ain’t cheap.”
Because I was trying to get his permission to keep Bones, I didn’t bother to point out that he spent more money on booze than he did for food. “But how can I save money to get me through the year? I was hoping to be able to save some this summer to help carry me through the off-season when the work might be slower.”
He seemed to laugh at me with his eyes. “That’s your problem, now ain’t it?”
I decided that it was as fair a deal as I was likely to get. I would pay rent, but I had my dog. And anyway, I could find ways around giving them all my leftover money.
After my dad went inside to finish what little was left of his whiskey, I walked out to where I had left Bones. He was still there, waiting for me.