SUNK BY MINES
Driving to Cascades Park, I pass The Florida Bar and the Smokey Hollow Commemoration and Community Garden where, on a bench facing Franklin Boulevard, Lonely Man, with a knapsack beside him, is always grinding rotten kumquats under his sneakers. Today, Lonely Man is squishing a fat one. He’s always looking like the loneliest man in the world. I barely compete. Especially since I have a date.
Lonely Man becomes tiny in my rearview. I hit the light at Lafayette, loop around to Suwanee, and street park in front of The Edison—a square brick building with big arched windows overlooking the Cascades open-air amphitheater. The building turned coal to gas for Tallahassee in nineteen-whatever and looks like a train station, especially with the tracks running a hundred feet behind. Now it’s a restaurant, the type with napkins peaked on tables. And there’s happy hour—four-dollar draughts, five-dollar mojitos. They squeeze fresh limes.
Elise is outside the restaurant in a yellow short-sleeved sundress with white polka dots and these thick-heeled wedge sandals with woven fabric exposing too much foot. Her eyeliner spans into wings. Elise’s weight surprised me last week, when I met her, though I didn’t expect a twig—all her profile pictures are from cleavage up. She’s four years older than me and teaches middle school science, or maybe math. Her voice is nice. Society obsesses over what people look like but never about how they sound. And too-pretty women can be mean. One on Tinder said I look like a Goomba from the Mario movie with John Leguizamo. I’m just thankful to talk to someone. I can get so empty I want to be dead.
Startling park joggers bounce by. My polo clings to my back. I side-hug Elise and hold the door, and (after inquiring) the host warns me they’ve recently adjusted the schedule and happy hour won’t start for an hour.
So, Elise and I walk through the park, past a playground full of yapping children, past ducks floating in a pond at the bottom of a depression fed by an artificial waterfall (city development extinguished the original a hundred years ago) that’s not running and is just, really, a concrete wall with hard-water stains. But Elise steps like her feet hurt. Really hurt. And more joggers traffic the sidewalks. It’s like everyone in the world is running, spinning the world with their heels. Everyone but Elise, that is.
In an offshoot surrounded by sycamores sits a Korean War memorial. We wander in. On a circle of pavement detailed with a ten-foot map of Korea rises a giant horseshoe-shaped monument enclosing a statue of the Battlefield Cross. DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY etches across the horseshoe face. The monument is meant to be a ring with part of the top snapped off. In front of the horseshoe lays the broken piece inscribed with LIFE and a list of names on the concavity. All around are sporadically placed boulders named after battles.
“My grandfather was in the Korean War,” I say. “The Navy. His ship got hit by artillery during the invasion at Inchon.”
“Did he die?” Elise asks.
“Nope.” I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand. “Only a handful did, maybe. His ship didn’t sink. Just damaged. You know about Inchon?”
“Uh-uh.” She shakes her head and runs a finger along the monument. That seems disrespectful, but I’m not overly reverential to such things. I feel bad for everyone involved, but war comes with too many implications.
I read the list of dead from the broken piece. Abercrombie Wherry L, Adams Melville Eugene, Adams Richard L, Adams William Hill… “The only ships sunk in the Korean War were minesweepers,” I say, sufficiently overwhelmed by the names. “American ships that is. They were all sunk by mines.”
“Seems unlucky to have been on one of those. And a bit obvious,” Elise says, smiling. “I wonder if anyone chose to go on a minesweeper or if they were always assigned?” Her teeth are perfect except for a bottom incisor and canine leaning together like a couple of cuddling penguins. “Maybe it would’ve been the most exciting. Maybe that’s the type of ship I’d want to be on.”
“I wish I could ask my grandfather how assignments worked. He’s been dead seven years.” I count my fingers. “Eight.”
“You never know what’s lost when people go.” Elise presses her heel into one of the boulders. Whether she’s checking the durability of the monument or her sandal, I’m unsure. “At least he didn’t die in the invasion,” she says. Then, “Inchon, you said?”
I tell Elise about the community garden and we continue north, cross Meridian to a sidewalk along Lafayette with a concrete retaining wall cutting through earth like a pie knife in cake. I take Elise’s hand. She curls her fingers around my palm, and we walk holding hands, me swinging my arms carefully, gripping firm but gentle, my pace slowed so Elise doesn’t have to walk so wobbly in those sandals. The highway overpass, which nearly ceilings the garden, is in sight. At a traffic light, cars gust Elise’s hair. She secures mutinous strands behind her ear.
“The garden is more about history than produce,” I say to fill silence. “It’s a memorial to the Black neighborhood the state erased when it claimed eminent domain. All throughout the park, there used to be hundreds of shotgun houses and businesses and churches, everything. Hundreds of families lived here, in the park. The whites thought the properties were slums and too close to the capitol building.”
“What happened to the people?”
“Their homes were dismantled. They were sent packing without an ounce of federal or local help.”
“Jesus,” she nearly whispers.
“History is shameful,” I say. “It can really make you mad.”
Quietly (because what else is there to say?) we cross the street, walk below the Apalachee Parkway overpass (traffic thunders), over a dead lawn scaled with leaves toward a brick path networking the garden boxes and three of these symbolic skeletal houses—metal frames sprouting from concrete foundations anchored around brick fireplaces and chimneys. The metal slats framing the roofs have quotes from people who once lived in the Smokey Hollow neighborhood. There’s not much in the garden, not enough to make a meal. The basil is thin and black at the base and spider mites seed the leaves. I found that out when I gathered some for pasta. There’s cilantro that’s too little to take and unripe oranges that I first mistook for limes. But mint weeds all throughout, and there’s a rosemary bush and a tree with kumquats that are a bit too yellow but good enough.
If this is all there is to make amends, it’s a tragedy, truly.
But it’s important to think about the good things in life. And this date is going well enough that I’m more nervous than ever. A catch-22.
Oh. Of course, Lonely Man is still on a bench before the kumquats. His knapsack hugs his hip. He has a gray ponytail that doesn’t match his shaved face. Somehow, we’ve never spoken. I’d feel horrible if bringing Elise here meant making him feel lonelier.
I step onto the brick path first. On Elise’s way up, her sandal catches the curb and she lurches forward. I get startled like a cat and clamp her hand. My arm goes rigid as if I can keep her upright by pinning her knuckles to some point in space just above the ground.
I don’t catch her. Not even close. Elise bellies the sidewalk. Her face thuds. I finally let go of her hand after she starts this warbling bird noise. It scares me more than all her blood leaking over the sidewalk. I hinge at the waist to eye her. Oh god. Oh god. What the hell am I to do? I’ve always hated how timid I can be. When fire alarms go off, I get dizzy and it’s hard to stand. I always freeze up. I don’t know why.
“Why’d you hold her like that?” Lonely Man asks.
When did he come over?
“Sure goofed that one,” he says, rolling Elise over. Her front teeth are shards. She looks like she’s jumped off a surgeon’s table and escaped the hospital. He waves a few inches from her face. “Call an ambulance.”
I find my phone (my first time dialing 9-1-1).
“She your girlfriend?” he asks after I hang up.
“It’s a second date.”
“Don’t think there’ll be a third.” He puts on his knapsack and sits on the curb near one of Elise’s sandals.
Elise finally comes to. She doesn’t have any questions or say anything. She just makes a sound like a sip through a punctured straw. Then the ambulance is lighting the garden.
“She tripped,” I tell the paramedics.
“Just couldn’t make it onto the sidewalk,” Lonely Man says.
Elise gets collared and stretchered then rolled into the ambulance. A tall mustached paramedic asks if I want to ride with. I tell him my car isn’t far.
“She’s not going to want anything to do with you.” Lonely Man says after the ambulance turns out of sight.
We face for a too-long moment. The wind rustles the leaves of the kumquat tree. I curse under my breath. Poor beautiful Elise. It’s hard enough to get a first date, let alone a second. Could she have been the one? I’ve fucked it all up.
“Want to get something to eat?” I ask. “It’s happy hour at The Edison. I was supposed to go with her.” I gesture in the direction of the ambulance.
Lonely Man tells me his name is Marcelis, and we walk back the way from which I came, under the overpass and through the park around the waterfall pond. We walk silently until Marcelis tells me one of the sycamores in the park orbited the moon as a seed. He doesn’t know which.
“Great fact,” I say and ask if he’s seen the Korean War memorial.
When we’re side by side staring at the horseshoe monument, clawing for conversation, I ask, “You know anything about naval war?”
“I’ve seen a trireme replica. It was displayed in Athens,” Marcelis says. “I didn’t get to see it float.”
“What about modern combat,” I ask, “have you ever seen a real warship?”
“No,” he says. “But the triremes were used for war. They had bronze rams that looked like bird beaks. The Greeks painted eyes on the ships too. They were works of art.” He leans to get a close look at the boots of the Battlefield Cross statue. “It’s strange to think of a weapon as art, huh?”
We move on.
Past the Edison’s double doors, a kid wails on the waiting area bench. The mist of citrus oil perfumes the room. The host asks how many. Marcelis answers with a peace sign.
“Kids,” I say to Marcelis as the host navigates us through the tables.
“One day,” I say. “I like to think.”
Marcelis sets his knapsack on the cushion of an empty chair, and we sit by a window framing the park’s dead waterfall. In the distance are freshly built luxury student apartments, certainly for Florida State. I lap my napkin and grip my menu, a social buoy. I look up wanting to say something, but my mind blanks. I use the window. College-aged kids picnic cross-legged on an oval of lawn. Books scatter around their feet. It almost looks as if they could conjure something—if they had candles and patterns drawn in salt. Could an old wooden house have sat in that spot? Just years before the land was annexed, the community expelled, had some woman my mother’s age once played as a child in the hollow between the picnickers? And now I’m here, about to enjoy a nice meal despite history, despite Elise. What type of person am I?
The waiter introduces himself. Marcelis orders the spiked rosewater pink lemonade. I order a tall Jai Alai and a fancy nacho appetizer to give us time to decide the entrées. When the drinks come, I gulp half my beer with the first sip.
“I’m not afraid of a girly drink. My wife would drink the manly ones. Scotch,” Marcelis says, pinching his straw. “I always had the umbrellas and big chunks of pineapple. We balanced each other.”
“The universe could use more balance,” I say and stare at the menu. “The whole universe operates on balance.”
The waiter delivers the nachos—freshly fried potato chips with goat cheese crumbles and pickled jalapenos all drizzled in a honey sauce. I extract a chip.
“The important thing is that that girl didn’t die. At least I don’t think she could’ve died from that.” Marcelis unrolls his silverware. “But maybe she will. Maybe she’s got the tiniest brain hemorrhage.” He taps his fork to his forehead just above his right eye. “From my experience, people can survive things that look certain to kill them—car wrecks, explosions, plane crashes, that sort of thing. It’s simple things that get us. Heart attacks while playing basketball, an ugly mole, short falls. You see?” he says. “A little piece of plaque could shoot to my brain and kill me here, or I could get hit by a bus walking home and just bounce off with a dislocated arm.”
My head is mixed up like an angry cloud of bees. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
The waiter surprises us, and we shut up. We order another round and entrées. I get lemon butter chicken with an extra side of mashed potatoes. Marcelis gets a steak medium with French fries. Outside the window, a cardinal flutters to a branch above the college kids.
“I bet most married couples,” Marcelis says, “at least once, wish their spouse would die. Not me though.”
“What do you know about marriage?”
“I had a wife.” He tosses a piece of goat cheese in his mouth. “I told you this, man.”
My second beer comes. The waiter tells us the entrées will be out soon.
“She died two years ago,” Marcelis says. “My wife. Never once did I want her dead.” He reaches into his knapsack and retrieves a little plate with a tiny sperm whale etched in the middle. The edge is ringed in blue. “I always bring this to the park. Don’t know why.”
“Greece was our last trip. My wife and I,” he says. “We bought this plate early in the trip, so it went with us everywhere over there. Then it came home with us and she had it for another two months.”
I look out the window. The cardinal is gone. I can’t grasp the significance a little plate could have to a man. He’s lonelier than I imagined.
“We went to the Acropolis,” he says. “I never wanted to go to Greece, but it was a bucket list thing for my wife. I ended up loving the country.” He rubs the plate with his thumbs like he’s making a wish. “At the museum were these statues of women that served as pillars. Caryatids. The statues have these entablatures on their heads—flat parts to lay bricks and such on.” He frames the top of his head with his palms. “They reminded me of Green Bay cheesehead hats.”
The food comes. The waiter tells me my plate is hot. Marcelis slips his whale plate back into his knapsack, checks his steak, and says it’s cooked perfectly.
“Maybe I should see her at the hospital.” I say, putting down my fork.
Marcelis looks lost in thought. Finally he says, “I don’t think she’ll want anything to do with you.”
I push my food toward the center of the table. “What do you know? You carry around a plate.”
Marcelis grins, takes out the whale plate again, and drags his finger across the center like a blind man reading braille. “She joked that she needed a big entablature to cover up her shiny bald head. She had such a good spirit,” he says. “She had cancer, my wife. Lost all her hair.” He pats his head as if I don’t know what hair is.
Neither one of us is eating. We are two men without love. Love can end countless ways—war, being ripped from your soon-to-be bulldozed home, cancer, a damn trip to the pavement. But Marcelis had loved. I’ve never felt it. I want to tell him this, but I don’t know how. His eyes are like ice that could crack from the slightest pressure.
Marcelis sacks his whale plate. “In Greece, we took a boat tour, my wife and I. She wore a hat to cover up. She was bald.” Squinting, he pauses. “I said that. The hat blew into the sea. She was upset, not so much about the lost hat or her bald head, but about being powerless in such things. That’s how I saw it. She was very strong, and she hated being powerless. After that hat sank in the Mediterranean, this Canadian started talking to us. He was a little younger than middle-aged, maybe late thirties with a Kennedy head of hair. He was very charismatic. He didn’t say anything cliché. Nothing about hope or things happening for a reason or things turning out okay and such. He just said it was a shame to lose such a nice hat, but that maybe the fish will like it, or, better yet, maybe it will float down and top some lost statue.”
I picture a sculpted Greek god turned turquoise from the sea and covered with barnacles wearing a wide-brimmed woven sun hat.
Marcelis continues. “The Canadian told us a joke. My wife liked it too much. So much so that I can’t get it out of my head.”
“Just tell me already.”
“Okay.” Then, holding up a finger, Marcelis adds, “I’ve added my own flavor.” He clears his throat. “A little rocky island country had a princess. A man who lived on the island wanted to impress the princess. He scoured the beach and made her a necklace of shells and brought it to the castle. After he gave her the necklace, she brushed him aside. He went home and scoured the coast again, diving until he found a perfect pearl. After he gave the princess a pearl necklace, she said to him, ‘Whale, whale, whale.’
“Now the man had at least learned what the princess wanted. But they only had rafts on his tiny island country. He needed a boat to catch a whale and would need to build one. But the olive trees on the dry island were sparse and small. At the docks, he asked a traveling merchant for a cedar sapling. The merchant brought the sapling on his next visit. The man grew the sapling into a tree, harvested its seeds, and planted them, but the island was dry and there was only enough well water to grow a single tree. So the man grew cedar trees one by one and split each into as many planks as possible. This took a long, long time, but finally, he had a boat big enough to whale hunt.”
“Then what happened?” I say, taking a bite of chicken.
Marcelis outstretches that shushing finger; he’s nearly pointing right at me. “He caught a beluga and made a necklace of its teeth and brought the necklace to the princess. ‘Whale, whale, whale,’ the princess said, rolling her eyes.
“The man knew he needed a bigger whale. He dry-docked his boat and kept growing trees, expanding his boat until he had a ship. This time he caught a killer whale. He brought the princess the killer whale tooth necklace, but again she said, ‘Whale, whale, whale!’”
I nod along.
“The man, undeterred, dry-docked his ship again and grew more trees until he had an impressive vessel. This time, he went all out and harpooned a blue whale. When he presented the princess with the gigantic necklace, she shouted, ‘Whale!’
“‘That’s what I’ve given you,’ the man said. ‘There’s no bigger whale.’
“‘I said, wow,’ the princess said. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
“‘Oh no,’ the man said.
“‘Well, well, well,’ the princess said.”
For a few moments, I don’t get the joke. I think it over while Marcelis chuckles. Then the similarity between whale and well hits me. A terrible joke, really. And blue whales don’t even have teeth.
“My wife loved that,” he says. “She really did. We bought the plate with the whale on it right after. It broke on the plane home, but she glued it together. She couldn’t hide the crack, but she said it was suiting, that the plate looked ancient, like Greece.”
I ask to see the plate. Marcelis hands it to me with hesitation. The crack shoots down the whale’s bulbous nose. I imagine fishermen dicing a whale, harvesting its fat. I imagine Elise and her broken teeth, a crack bolting down her head. I picture a row of shotgun houses bulldozed into ruble and dust.
“She honestly thought the crack made the plate better,” Marcelis says. “She had such a great spirit. My wife really did.”
“I know a joke about boats too,” I say. “Want to hear?”
He looks at me and makes his face small. “You’ve got a way. Sure. Have at it.”
I hand him his plate and begin, “A boat is sinking. On board are three people—an American, a Brit, and a Pole—but only two life jackets. The American says, I never learned to swim, so I need a jacket. He takes one and jumps into the water. Both the Brit and the Pole know how to swim, so the Brit, being polite, says, we can play rock, paper, scissors to decide who gets the jacket. They play, and the Pole wins with scissors, laughing about how it’s too wet for paper. The Brit says, ‘Fair is fair,’ and jumps off without a jacket. The Pole puts the remaining jacket on and goes into the boat’s cabin. The American and Brit, bobbing in the water, ask the Pole what he’s doing. He replies, ‘Whenever there’s a disaster, like a plane crash, or if you get lost, say while hiking, you’re supposed to stay in place so they can find you.’”
Marcelis stares with a tiny smirk. I look out at the park.
Placing my finger on my exact obligation to society is not easy. But I know I don’t want to be alone. And sometimes, it’s best for broken people to just recite jokes.
I stand, lay out a crisp hundred, and leave for the hospital.
Tom Sokolowski completed an MFA at the University of Central Florida where he was awarded a Provost’s Fellowship and is now a PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is married to the poet Olivia Murphy Sokolowski and lives in Tallahassee. Find him online at tomsokowriter.com.
Cover Design by Karen Rile