Gotta Travel On
So, a week after graduation, my father and I left for south Florida. It felt good to be on the road, even if it was with my father. Theres a sense of freedom and joy when you know that all you have to do that day is drive until youre tired, eat a big meal, stay in a strange bed, and then get up the next morning and do it all again.
The only time I felt anything close to homesickness was when we would drive by the softly lit farmhouses after dark, and I would feel a strange longing to drive up and look in their windows. Were they eating dinner? Watching TV? Or reading the newspaper? Whatever it was, I wanted to be there where it was warm, and safe, and still. And they probably saw us drive by and wished they were traveling somewhere into the night.
Do we spend our whole lives chasing illusions in the dark?
Two and a half days later we were in Florida. Palm trees, white sand and orange groves. This sure beat the hell out of what wed just left behindbarren trees, white snow and cold, cold air.
Did I mention how much I hated winters in Wisconsin? Walking back and forth from school and home, I developed a hunch from arching my shoulders and turning my collar to the sub-zero wind. In the months leading up to my graduation, I vowed I would never spend another winter north of the Mason-Dixon Line. And I never did.
Uncle Sal met us at a predetermined exit on the turnpike and led us into Ft. Lauderdale and his house.
I had only met my Uncle Sal once before, and he had always seemed to be, in my mind, a mysterious character. Tall, thin, with jet-black hair combed straight back on his head, I always imagined he was somehow connected to the mob. His fast- talking Chicago accent, and the fact that he always drove a brand-new Cadillac didnt hurt the image, either.
Truth is, he was a welder, but it was far more interesting for me to think of him torching a rival Mafioso than a slab of iron.
Five minutes after our second meeting he told me to drop the Uncle and to just call him Sal.
Were all adults here, he said. You just call me Sal, and well get along fine.
Okay, I said, and from that moment on we always did.
Now, Sal was a master organizer of the highest order. He had everything mapped out for us. I guess today he would be called a control freak, but in a good way. He always meant well.
We had the weekend to rest from our trip, but Monday morning we would be on the job site and ready to work. Sal had talked to the contractors and the unions and arranged everything. All we had to do was show up and sweat.
He played the role of big brother to my fathers kid brother, and enjoyed every minute of it.
I could tell it irritated my dad sometimes, and I found it all too amusing.
Now, Cal, he would say. Have all you need laid out Sunday night. Your work clothes, union card, social security card, tools, lunch bucket....
For Christs sake, Sal, Im fifty years old! my dad pleaded. Ive been on a job before.
Im just sayin, Sal said, slightly backing off. I want to leave here at 6:00 a.m. I like to get to the job early so I can get a good parking space.
My dad rolled his eyes. Fine, well be ready.
Good, said Sal, always one to get in the last word. He stood up, threw his shoulders back slightly and walked to the kitchen. You want some ice cream?
It was now nine oclock, our first night in Florida, and we had yet to meet Sals wife, Faye. She worked as a waitress at an exclusive country club, and would be home soon.
Shes a hard worker, and a good moneymaker, Sal would say often. You wouldnt believe the tips she makes. She makes almost as much as me.
Hard work and money were important to Sal. Its what he believed in. He preached it, and he lived it. And in Faye, his third wife, he found his most faithful disciple.
At ten oclock Fayes Cadillac pulled into the drivew
ay. When she walked in the door, Sal got up, walked over to her and kissed her quickly on the lips. There she is, my little moneymaker. How much did you make tonight?
SAL! she almost screamed. You havent even introduced me!
Oh, thats right, he said. Im sorry. Faye, this is my brother, Cal, and his son, Danny.
Either my dad didnt catch it, or he didnt want to correct his older brother.
I guess it was understandable; my name is Dennis. My parents called me Bud.
My sisters called me Denny. Danny sounds like Denny. Maybe it was his accent.
Maybe he was calling me Denny, but it came out sounding like Danny to everyone else.
Nevertheless, I became Danny from that moment on whenever I was around Sal and Faye.
As the pleasantries were being exchanged, I studied Faye. She was a small woman; very thin, with black hair sprinkled with gray. Mid-fifties, I thought. She was probably quite attractive as a young woman. What struck me most, though, was her skin. It was very tan and lined. Reminded me of leather. I guess all those years in the Florida sun before the days of sunscreen had taken their toll.
As she walked to the kitchen to get a Coke, Sal called out: So, how much did you make tonight?
Two-fifty, she answered.
Did you hear that, Cal? Two-fifty! I told you she was a good moneymaker.
Pretty good, my dad said weakly. Years later he would admit that it really irritated him how Sal would flaunt his money.
Hey, baby, do you want me to put the two-fifty in the bank Monday?
Well, not all of it! she called back. I need to keep some out to buy some shoes. Ill give you two hundred to deposit.
Okay. He looked at me, smiled, and winked. Im going to show Cal and Danny their bachelor pad, so we can all get some sleep.
All right! she called back. Im going to jump in the shower.
The bachelor pad was the other half of the duplex Sal and
Faye owned and lived in. It had been vacant for two months. Sal could have rented it many times in the last two months, but kept it open when he found out we might be coming down. It was very nicetwo bedrooms, living room, bath and kitchen. And just like Sals place, immaculate. We had furniture, too. Just enough for the two of us. Two beds, two dressers, a sofa, loveseat, and a small dinette.
Sal gave us the grand tour, told us we would go shopping tomorrow, and said good-night.
I felt relieved when he left. At eighteen I had yet to develop my basic social skills, and still felt awkward around others I did not know very well. I dont know that Ive gotten any better over the years, but I think I can fake it better now. Ive built up a repertoire of sure-fire subjects like the weather, and how was your weekend to bluff my way through most conversations and initial meetings. And I learned to smile and nod. Yes, always smile and nod!
Im going to hit the hay, I said.
Me too, my dad replied. See you in the morning.
I took my clothes off and laid down on the bed. The moonlight was shining through the window, leaving the room only half-dark. I laid there with my eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
Oh my God! Something just flew from one corner of the ceiling to the other!
In a split-second my mind tried to process what my eyes had just seen. Flying squirrel? Vampire bat? Tarantula? Small dog? Nothing seemed to register.
I heard myself say: What the fuck! Very loud.
The next thing I knew, my father was standing in the doorway. Whats going on?
I was now sitting upright in the bed. Besides the embarrassment of practically yelling the F-word, I now had to explain what I thought I saw parachuting across my room. I...ah, I saw something swoop across the room, I stammered. I think it landed behind the dresser.
He adjusted his boxers and walked over to the alleged landing strip.
As he pulled the dresser away from the wall he asked, What did it look like? How big was it?
I dont know, kind of big. It could have been a bird or something.
Hand me one of your shoes.
I slowly slipped out of bed, grabbed one of my shoes and tiptoed over to the dresser. He took the shoe, bent over and....WHACK!
He turned around, smiling. Welcome to Florida, and meet your first palmetto bug.
I hesitantly leaned over to see the dragon my father had just slain. Palmetto bug? Looks like a giant cockroach. Any bigger, and wed have to put a saddle on it. And it flies!
He laughed. It doesnt really fly. It crawls up the wall and then sort of glides to the ground. Theyre harmless. Youd better get used to them; theyre all over this area.
I dont think I want to get used to them, I said. You know, you told me about the alligators and...