A great benefit to having your hometown invaded by people trying to have a good time is that there are always excellent options for eating out. Although thankfully spared the spread of fast food franchises, the county road was once limited to a collection of all you can eat fried seafood buffets. For some reason retirees seem to be more concerned with quantity rather than quality of food. But having managed to survive what any working man or woman would agree is the only proof of purgatory, that thing that society calls a career, they couldn’t be blamed. By any right, being able to muddle through decades of meager promotions in a maze of mundane tasks deserves the reward of a couple of decades of decadence.
However things had changed with the influx of a younger set of escapees: they wanted, if only for a few days, to eat like the rich and famous on plates of exotic seafood presented as in the pages of gourmet magazines and the beach restaurants were happy to oblige. One of the first to set up and catch this crowd was a middle age divorcee from Chattanooga named Clair Askew. She had been married to a plastic surgeon and had learned the art of hosting fine dinners for her husband’s colleagues. She left him, taking an enormous settlement with her and immediately sank it all into a grand restaurant she named The Dinner Table. Although most thought at the time it was a total waste of money, none would argue that it was fine. The beachfront dining room was designed on the scale of a banquet hall and was walled with windows, giving a beautiful view that thoroughly complimented the fantastic meals served there. For the less formal, the upper floor was laid out as a circular bar with small tables all around. Jake called it the crow’s nest and always treated himself to a meal there when his erratic bank account allowed. He went in that night, not because he could afford it, but because he knew he deserved it and he hoped the bartender, Mick, would make up for the alcohol that had disappeared while Hoss was fixing Jake’s home.
“How about a drink Jake?” Mick said sliding a drink coaster in front of Jake’s stool.
“Please and thank you,” Jake replied.
He practically inhaled the tumbler of bourbon and water straight out of Mick’s hand and put back down the empty glass.
“You eating tonight?” Mick asked.
“And drinking,” Jake said pushing the empty glass toward the bartender.
“Here’s a menu,” Mick said trading it for the glass.
Mick, an Australian who had tended bar from Brisbane to Boston, was a solid sort, always putting the patron’s well-being first. For the tourists it was a good thing, for the locals it was not.
“So you want to know the specials?”
“No, I think I’ll just look at the menu for a minute.”
“O.K. Jake, just let me know when you’re ready to order.”
Mick picked up the empty glass, refilled it at the liquor station but walked over to wait on a couple at the other side of the circular bar.
Jake scowled slightly and looked down at the menu.
“Ma’am, that’s for the wait staff only,” Mick said in a loud howl and looking up Jake saw a lady pick up his drink and bring it to him.
“You seemed to be pining for this, I thought I might help you out,” she said offering his fresh drink to him.
“Please and thank you,” Jake replied taking it and tipping it slightly at her.
Mick came back to where the two of them sat.
“Hi Mick, can I have a glass of chardonnay?” she said in a voice so sweet Mick had to let her trespassing slide.
Mick sounded off a feeble, “Right,” and walked off.
“Why is it that even when you boys down here are being sarcastic, please and thank you sound so nice?” she asked Jake.
“Politeness is a habit. The context just makes it sound like sarcasm.”
“It seems to be one of the better habits around here,” she said as he worked briskly on his drink.
“Oh, I don’t, uhh, this isn’t my usual…” he trailed off unable to properly explain himself.
“OK, don’t get too flustered, this isn’t the type of place I would expect a boozer in.”
“A boozer?” Jake asked
“Yeah, you know, someone who makes a habit of having too much to drink,” said Mick as he placed a glass of wine in front of her.
“Sorry, it’s probably not a very common term, round these parts” she said adding a pretty fair southern twang to the last phrase. She started to get up but then he stopped her.
“Hey thanks for rescuing my drink for me. Listen, Mick’s probably not going to keep serving me if I don’t order some food, so can I buy you dinner?”
“This will be a first, a pickup masquerading as a date,” she said.
“Mick,” Jake called out, “can you bring us another menu?”
“No, not at the bar. If you want to buy me dinner, you have to at least get me a table,” she said firmly.
“Of course, but can we eat up here?”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I’ve never enjoyed eating dinner with a couple hundred random strangers.”
“Oh, you mean you don’t want everyone around here to know why you charge so much for suntan oil and milk?”
“You’ve been to the market.”
“Yes, but don’t feel bad, your prices aren’t the highest down here,” she said with a smile.
“I’m Jake Burns,” he said holding out his hand.
“Debbie Baylor, nice to meet you Jake Burns,” she said
“So Debbie, are you recently retired down here?”
“Do I look that old?” she asked suddenly frowning.
“No, no it’s just that most people down here are too busy enjoying themselves or trying to make a buck to notice what things cost.”
“Sounds like a good place to open up a business.”
“Yeah, right,” Jake said stirring his cocktail.
“So, what can you recommend?” she asked him staring down at her menu. As she did, Jake took the opportunity to serendipitously study her. It’s true she wasn’t old in appearance or dress, but she kept her lips pursed in a world weary way while her eyes scanned the entrees. Unfortunately for him, he got lost for a moment too long.
“I guess it should be seafood,” she said looking up and catching him staring. His ears went red as his eyes shot down to his menu.
“Uh, yeah, unless you like game. So are you vacationing down here?”
“Sort of an extended vacation. Would you excuse me?” she said as she got up from her chair.
“Well, only for a minute.”
“Well, I’m going to the ladies room and in the meantime you can order the salmon for me and work on a demeanor that doesn’t scream out creepy stalker, Ok?”
She watched his ears turn red again and then left the table. Walking away she took a breath and tossed her head quickly. Most of the locals that she had made friends with in the last couple of weeks had referred to Jake as one of the good ones and that was why she had been willing to try a blind dinner with him. But staring at herself in the lady’s lounge mirror she began to wonder about their recommendation. As she returned to the table their menus were gone and Jake had had his drink refilled.
“Your salmon is on the way,” he said with a smile, “and I apologize for my creepy stalker behavior. The last couple of weeks have been tough.”
“I heard about the accident, a car ran into your house?”
“Yes, it was a pretty bad scene.”
“Were you there when it happened?”
“No, I was headed out on a boat about to go out fishing for a few days.”
“They told me someone died.”
“A local girl, she was quite special to the folks down here. Her name was Eden, Eden Brockwell.”
Debbie could tell Jake was having a hard time with this, and she had been told just about the whole story from several people after asking about the yellow ribbons she had seen out in front of many homes and businesses.
“That’s terrible, but such a pretty name,” she said.
“Her parents got it from a state park on the north side of highway 98, an old plantation that’s used for weddings and such now,” he replied.
“Were her parents married there?”
“More or less,” he replied without much enthusiasm. “Do you mind if we talk about something else. Alcohol being a depressant and all, I don’t think it will be good for our dinner.”
“Oh, yes of course,” she said brightening up, “anything you’d like to talk about.”
“What about me?”
“Well, you said you’re on an extended vacation, what does that mean?”
“Oh, you know that feeling you get when your job starts to burn you out, and everyday life gets to the point that you’ve got to get away.”
“So everybody on the planet has had that feeling before, but not you?” she asked in disbelief.
“I live at the beach, my job is really only work during tourist season, the rest of the year I loaf. What exactly am I gonna vacate to?”
“Good point. I guess it’s just a numbness from an ordinary life.”
“Life is not ordinary, it makes everyone special.”
“Everyone is special.”
“I’m not special.”
“But everyone is special,” he stated in an emphatically defiant tone.
“Ok, I am special, but it’s my job that makes me special.”
“What is your job?”
“Nothing special,” she said dully as she spun her glass by its stem.
As he was leaning towards her on the verge of erupting Mick stepped in: “Salmon and leeks for the lady and venison tenderloin with garlic mashed potatoes for the boozer,” he said dryly.
As most good food will, the dinner managed to bring them back to a casual level. They made polite and benign conversation, Debbie about her travels across Europe as a backpacking college student and more recently in connection with a series of consultant jobs for various companies. Her detailed explanation of what she did only made more murky Jake’s understanding of it. As a small businessman with no experience in the corporate world he didn’t press for a deeper understanding, as he found before it only made him look like some kind of dunce. She was mostly interested in the recent history of the area and he obliged her with several anecdotes of fortunes made and lost and hearts filled and broken.
“Here comes an interesting story now,” Jake said nodding towards a tall tanned man walking around and talking table to table. He was dressed in a sky blue knit shirt with what appeared to be pink trousers, perfectly creased down to the loafers.
“Hi, Jake,” said the man with remarkably little warmth, but when he noticed Debbie he became as gracious as an aspiring politician.
“Hello, my name is Andrew Troy.”
“Hello Andrew, Debbie Baylor, nice to meet you,” she said holding out her hand.
He took it in a gentlemanly style that made Jake roll his eyes up till his eyelids started to twitch. “Very nice to meet you Debbie. I hope I didn’t interrupt anything. Are you two talking business?”
“C’mon Andy, you know I don’t mess with business,” Jake replied dryly to which Andrew laughed.
“No, Jake was just giving me a short history of the area,” Debbie chimed in trying to keep a clear tension from escalating.
“Ah, the old tales of pirates and Indians roaming the sandbar, huh, Jake? Did he tell you about Baltaca the ghost Indian?”
“No, we’re talking more about the modern day pirates, the ones trying to take the treasures away from here,” Jake stabbed back while trying to get Mick’s attention towards his empty glass.
“Baltaca, who’s that?” Debbie asked interestedly.
“May I?” Andrew asked them putting his hand on the back of an empty chair at their table.
“Of course,” she replied smiling.
As he sat down Jake excused himself and walked over to the bar in search of more whiskey and water.
“Baltaca was a chief during the days that Florida was a Spanish colony. The Spaniards were mostly settled in the port cities, from St. Augustine down to the Keys on the Atlantic coast, around Tampa on the gulf side of the peninsula and some smaller settlements around Pensacola and Apalachicola on the panhandle. They had discovered that the easiest way to get the vast treasures of gold they believed to be crowded throughout the new world was to identify the different tribes leaders, kidnap them in a midnight raid and hold them for ransom. For the most part they were successful, except for Baltaca.”
“His tribe had no treasure?”
“Maybe, no one knows, there’s no real record of any ransom being paid because they couldn’t hold on to old Baltie.”
“He escaped!” she said in what was clearly a cheer for the underdog.
“Multiple times, and each time the Spaniards would track him down with a larger raiding party and put more guards on him. But every time, after a day or two he would escape again.”
“Nobody really knows. The guards under whose watch he had escaped believed he would shape shift, some believed he became a hawk, some said a bobcat. Of course the Spanish commander was a very practical man, and needing a treasure to return to his king stubbornly continued to hunt him down. But the kidnapping raids killed so many Indians that eventually they were just too hard to track down. Baltie and the dozen or so of his followers left, just disappeared.”
“And the Spaniards?” she asked.
“Well, they say the commander was demoted and sent to work in Havana as a simple clerk of some sort. The only thing for sure was that no one ever found the gold.” Looking up he said, “Ah, cocktails!”
Jake had returned with his hands full and a developing stagger in his step.
“Wine for you Debbie, and Andy, Campari and soda.”
“A toast,” said Andrew holding up his glass.
“To Baltaca,” said Debbie.
“Yeah, screw the white man!” Jake shouted.
“Careful with the drink, Jake, you don’t want to loose yourself do you?” Andrew said in an almost parental tone.
“Don’t you worry about me, Andy. My designated driver tonight is Nike!” He replied with a slap on Andrew’s back that made his eyes widen somewhere between anger and pain.
“So, you all think there was some gold to be had?” Debbie asked, trying again to divert the tension.
“Oh, yes, the interesting thing about that was that around that time Spaniards stationed down in Pensacola overcame a pirate’s ship that was hiding in what is now Destin harbor. Of the five crew members that survived the battle, two came forward and said they would lead the Spaniards to a great Indian treasure if their lives were spared.”
“Did the Spaniards take the deal?” she asked.
“No, and for good reason. Pirates were not known as the most honest bunch and the opportunity for escape on a wild goose chase through dense coastal vegetation gave them better odds than on a short walk to the gallows. The Spaniards passed on the offer and the pirates were hung.”
“Andy, let me ask you something,” Jake said not quite so offensively but out of real curiosity.” Of all the stories that I told you about this place since you moved down here, why is it that that is the one you most like?”
“Two reasons. Number one is of course the treasure itself, coated in history and worth a fortune. Number two, Baltaca. Did he really possess such magic powers? If he did what is the secret to them?”
“I agree, it’s a great story,” Debbie said and the look on her face highlighted her enthusiasm. “So, what’s next gentlemen?”
“Well, it’s getting late, and with tomorrow being Friday I’ve got to be in work early so I should let you continue your debauchery alone,” said Andrew.
“C’mon Andy, a couple of drinks at the High Tide, BT’s playing up there tonight. You can probably get some free advice from him on that old Mercedes you’re trying to keep running,” Jake said with a smile.
“No way are you leaving me alone with Jake, Andrew. I’m not sure he’s gonna be that useful of an escort from here on with the amount of Jack Daniels floating around in his brain,” Debbie added.
“What? I’m fine!” Jake said.
“Ok, one drink, but I’m driving unless you are worried about leaving your car here,” he said to Debbie.
“Don’t have a car,” she replied shrugging her shoulders. “I came down here to get away from driving for awhile.”
“Well then, let’s just settle up with Mick and we’ll be off,” Andrew said as he got up and turned towards the bar.
“It’s already done. Vamanos!” said Jake heading toward the door.
RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 5