We show our love by slurping oysters, three dozen to be exact—two dozen raw and unadorned, a dozen served “dirty,” splattered with sour cream, red onion and red lump caviar. All doused with lemon and Tabasco. Dad and I are in downtown Fort Pierce, Florida, close to where I grew up and where he still lives. It’s Memorial Day weekend. It’s been a year since we’ve seen each other. It’s been a year.
But today promises sunshine, a balmy lagoon breeze, extra spicy Bloody Marys. Today promises multiple opportunities for gluttony, for communion. No matter the awkward distances and bitter resentments, Dad and I find our way back to each other over a sticky table piled high with the greasy and piquant. Each bite, a cherished morsel of intimacy. Each burp, a misplaced kiss.
Dad insists we obey our appetites no matter what mercy our bowels may seek later. We pore over the menu searching for maximum gratification. Fried calamari, fried alligator with spicy ranch. Today’s goal is to fill our bellies to the brim so all the alcohol has a soft and safe place to land.
“Pierced Ciderworks,” reads the sign outside. A banana-yellow wood-frame home recently converted into a brewery. The bar’s logo: an apple-shaped skull impaled with a ring gauge. This place knows how to appeal to its clientele, convince them to trade their cheap draft beer for something exotic and fruity. Old childhood friends have tagged this location on social media, friends with baby bangs, decent tattoos and checkered pasts. Friends I thought would abandon this town long ago but never did.
A wizened dirtbag lolls on a bench just outside the bar. He’s 80% beard, 100% pickled by booze and unkind, yet memorable, years. A framed photo of him hangs inside. The caption underneath winks: Billy, Employee of the Month. Billy is this establishment’s resident Florida Man. My dad slaps my sunkissed shoulder and chuckles, “This is your kind of place, Jill.” I take no offense. In fact, I’m flattered. Dad knows I prefer the local dive over the oceanfront tourist trap. Dad knows I’m a friend of the well-meaning fuck-up. After all, he was one.
We order a flight of ciders, stoner-friendly flavors bordering on the obscene: Coco Loco, Habanero Peach, Orange Blossom Vanilla, something called “Summer Sipper,” a hard lemonade with 10% ABV. Everything tastes as advertised. In the industrial-style bar, all copper and exposed pipes, we discuss which is the cleanest, the driest, the most refreshing. We don’t shift our conversation to greater depths. We have all day to get there.
Tottering out into the golden afternoon, pints in hand (Coco Loco for me, Summer Sipper for him), we head toward the bar’s sprawling expanse of picnic benches. In the center, a rustic stage curtained by the branches of a majestic Eucalyptus tree. Dad complains that the folk duo performing sounds like Deliverance, sounds like the score for that one movie where Nic Cage drives real fast. Dad always makes me laugh.
We stand against the outdoor restrooms’ mural: sunset clouds painted like fire hovering over the tumult of the ocean. The crowd swells around us and Dad remarks he loves to people-watch, that we’re the same in this way. He says we like to watch the weirdness happen, but only from afar. Dad’s notoriously sociable, so I don’t want to call him a liar, but I’m damn certain he’s just humoring me. Yet, we stand in silence for a good half hour, sipping our ciders, observing the Florida color from beneath our dark sunglasses. There is no interaction between us and them. Until we stumble upon Skip.
Skip, with his snow-white beard and sunburnt skin, tinkers away on a 10-speed. Dad’s on his second pint of cider, so he accosts him without apology. Tomorrow Skip’s headed out west to Texas for work. He’s traveling by cargo ship. His last good deed is fixing this bike and gifting it to the bartender working inside. She walks to work each day and could do so with some wheels, with a cool breeze now and then. When Skip surprises her with the bike, I snap a photo of this oddly romantic gesture. I text it to my husband, to my best friend. To people like Dad and me who stick around a place in the hopes the strangely beautiful will eventually reveal itself.
Before we head out, Dad buys Billy and Skip a round. This is something he’s done for decades: put the pleasure of others on his tab even when he’s a few drinks away from overdrafting. When I was in high school, his place was the local draft house. “Ever had a Dead Nazi?” he’d ask strangers with a nutty grin while I rolled my eyes, overcome with cringe and concern, praying our Buffalo wings would arrive soon and restore balance. Restore my faith in him.
Billy and Skip chill on the bench. Dad approaches them, a fresh cider in each fist. Billy guffaws, says he has the best seat in the house. Dad laughs too. Fits right in. I watch three men who live for a good time illuminated by the day’s final rays of light. There is sloshing and toasting and gratitude. Dad returns to where I stand a bit unsteady. I savor my last sip and ask how long until dinner.
Jillian Luft is a Florida native currently residing in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Hobart, Booth, X-R-A-Y, The Forge Literary Magazine, and other publications. You can find her on Twitter @JillianLuft or read more of her writing at jillianluft.com.