THE NUT KING
By Necee Regis
Standing on the balcony on the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise on Collins Avenue, the Nut King surveys his domain. The creamy-green Atlantic stretches flat to the horizon where it’s wedged against the cerulean sky so bright and hard—like the taffy you have to slap on the table to break—that the Nut King turns away, slides open the tall glass doors, and steps into the artificial air-conditioned coolness.
“Seen my sunglasses?”
Tracy shrugs. She’s applying the last coat of tangerine polish to her toenails, and if she glances at him or gets up to walk around to look for them she’s certain to smear the third coat over the second to create a mottled mess more volcanic than smooth.
The Nut King shuffles over in his white bathrobe and slippers and plants a distracted kiss on the top of her head. His head sports a fuzzy ring of grey-turning-to-white hair around his balding pate, and his wire-rimmed reading glasses are pushed up on his forehead like an extra set of eyes. Otherwise he’s in decent shape for a man his age. At least he can get it up.
“Coming on the boat today?”
Tracy’s mouth contorts sideways, a cross between a pucker and a frown.
“I should go to the studio.”
“It’s Sunday! You can paint tomorrow. C’mon, I’m making Bloodys,” he says, padding into the kitchen. She hears the crunch-crunch of the ice machine, the musical plink-plink as the cubes drop into a glass.
Truth be told, Tracy hates the ocean. Or, actually, she loves the ocean when she’s next to it, lounging on a towel, or in it, swimming with long crisp strokes, but she doesn’t enjoy being on it—in a boat of any size—and certainly not with the Nut King on his small fishing craft as he revs the engine and hurtles full throttle over the wakes of larger vessels, whooping like a six year old. Which is pretty much what he is, a boy trapped in the body of a man.
Still, the thought of not going to the studio has a certain appeal. She’s at a dead end with painting these days. Inspiration has gone out with the tide, leaving her grouchy, staring at blank canvases as she dodges her gallery dealer’s calls. She twists the top back on the polish and admires her toes, ten perfect surfaces as smooth as tumbled garnets.
The Nut King hands her a cocktail in a tall jelly jar glass, a stalk of celery sprouting above the rim.
“Don’t spill that shit, sweetheart.”
Is he talking about the nail polish or the drink? Maybe both. He’s the only straight man Tracy knows who keeps a spotless house, the only person at all she knows who keeps Windex and a cloth on hand for impromptu scrubbing. Maybe his neatness fixation comes from a yearlong stint at a small nut company in Somerville, Massachusetts, where, just out of college and eager to avoid the family business—health insurance providers based in seven major American cities—he took over an aging nut roasting company and polished it back to viability. “Who doesn’t love nuts,” he likes to say. Bulging bags of pistachios, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, and sugary-salty peanuts—accompanied by a bottle of Dom Perignon—are his gifts of choice to everyone from his brother to Miguel the doorman. Tracy finds his quirky gift-giving habits amusing and endearing.
“Cheers.” Tracy lifts her glass, careful not to drip on the cool marble floor where she sits. The walls and furniture around her are white, and tables and doors are glass and steel. The only color in the apartment, other than her gleaming toes and a lapis table, are the paintings that cover the walls and stack in corners, including her own large canvas, “Saint Jose tames the Wild Cats of Wynwood,” hung in a place of honor above the faux fireplace. He bought the painting at her last one-woman show, three months ago, shortly before asking her for a date. She eyes the other paintings and wonders how many involved sexual conquest.
Tracy rises and waddles, toes splayed, to the balcony. She slides the door open without spilling her cocktail, and steps out into the blast of humidity and heat that is June in Miami. A handful of ant-sized people lay scattered across the beach, lolling before the day gets too hot. She swigs the cool liquid, flushing as the zing of horseradish and the heavy-handed vodka invade her circulatory system. Squinting at the expanse of faded brown sand where no one is moving, she thinks of Ak-Mak crackers dotted with sesame seeds and toasted poppy bagels. She could paint this scene. Mix some Prussian blue with phthalo turquoise and add a smidge of titanium white. But, shit, she’s out of turquoise now, isn’t she? Used the last squeeze for the dress of the matron in her “Museum Series” painting, a series she now hates. She steps back inside.
“Okay. I’ll go boating.”
“Yay! Yay!” says the Nut King, turning from his desk where spreadsheets and numbers fill the wide computer screen as stock prices scroll in an endless ribbon below.
“But no speeding. And no smoking pot.”
“I mean it. Promise me.”
“I promise,” he says, his blue eyes sparkling like the water she loves so much.
Flap-flap. Flap-flap. Tracy’s flip-flops slap the dock as she walks to where the Nut-King is hosing down the Miss Pecan Sandy, christened for his toxic ex-wife, a name, he explains, he’s too lazy to change. She’s wearing her one-piece Speedo under denim cutoffs. He’s sporting checkered shorts, a pink Izod shirt, Sperry top-siders—no socks—and a Tag Heuer watch the size of a lime. Everything about him is slightly tattered and askew, a look the uber-rich acquire that says they couldn’t care less about wealth and status. They are that fucking rich. Tracy’s income last year, from adjunct teaching and painting sales, is most likely less than what the Nut King spent on the ruby earrings he bought for his daughter last week. She realizes she’s dancing on the edge of this privileged world, allowed access as a bohemian curiosity perhaps, a performing monkey in the one-percent’s zoo. She doesn’t really care. She’s not here for the money. She simply likes this guy, at least so far. And after Baby-Carrot Man, the Poet, the Long-Limbed Mandolin Player, and Asshat Bill, anyone is an improvement.
“Hand me that,” says the Nut King. He takes her mesh bag, bulging with sunscreen, a towel, a sketchbook, pens, a swim cap and goggles, and stashes it near his cooler filled with who-knows-what beverages, ice, and snacks.
“Ahoy! Captain Sparky!”
Tracy turns and sees a couple she doesn’t recognize: a man, late-forties, wearing swim trunks and a tee, and a tall, stunning woman in a flowery sundress who could be a body double for Penelope Cruz. They carry plastic supermarket bags bulging with chips and beer, and Tracy realizes they aren’t heading to board their own vessel; they are arriving to hop on the Mz. P.S., as she calls the dinghy. She shoots the Nut-King a seething look that says, “Who-what-the-fuck?” but he only offers a sheepish grin, and steps around her.
“Liam! What’s the stoooory?”
The Nut King thumps Liam’s back, and wraps his arm about his neck in a chokehold. The men tussle and shout, breaking apart with curses of testosterone-fueled endearment. Asshat! Dipshit! Double-dipshit!
“Liam’s my old roommate from New York, the TV producer I told you about,” says the Nut King.
Tracy’s never heard him mention this guy, but she smiles.
“And who’s this beauty? Liam, you dog, you’ve been holding out on me.”
“This is Claudia,” says Liam. He pronounces it the Latin way, Cloud-ee-ah.
Claudia-Penelope removes her sunglasses, revealing large burnt sienna colored eyes with mascara-manicured lashes.
“Thanks for the invite! I’ve been waiting all week.”
“All week?” says Tracy, raising her eyebrows and glancing sideways at the Nut King.
“The weather’s been miserable in New York. It won’t stop raining.” Claudia-Penelope says this in a way that makes the weather sound almost sexy—meeezerable—slightly rolling her r’s while slipping her sunglasses back on. Tracy notices she’s holding a large striped sunhat, one that will blow off the minute they careen across the bay. She hopes the Nut King will behave himself on this excursion, if only for the sake of this well-manicured woman. And herself, of course.
“And you must be Tracy,” says Liam. “I’ve heard so much about you. Can’t wait to see your paintings.”
Tracy extends her hand for Liam to shake but he snags her in a quick bear hug.
“Let’s get going,” says the Nut King, hopping on and holding out his arm to help them board.
There’s not much room on the tiny vessel. The Nut King stands behind the wheel. Liam and Claudia-Penelope perch on a bench in front.
“You might want to sit here,” Tracy offers the woman a seat in the back, where the wind and spray are less severe.
“I’m fine. Thanks,” she says, waving Tracy off with a flick of her wrist.
The Nut King eases the boat from its berth and putt-putts along the canal, the glass towers of Collins Avenue on one side, stucco McMansions on the other, heading at a steady but manageable speed into the wide Intracoastal Waterway that separates the island and the mainland—as locals refer to Miami Beach and Miami—before turning south, navigating toward the calm, glistening waters of Biscayne Bay. The air feels cooler out here, the bright sky is clear, the oppressive humidity of the day tempered by a steady breeze. A perfect day for a cruise. Tracy relaxes, happy she turned down a day in her cramped, stuffy studio for some time in the great outdoors. Why live in South Florida if you can’t enjoy its beauty? She brushes her hand along the Nut King’s thigh.
“Ready for a smoke?” Liam extracts a long, fat cylinder from a pack of Marlboros, a hand-rolled, filterless stick Tracy guesses doesn’t hold tobacco.
“A-riiight,” says the Nut King. He slows the boat to a rocking stop, reaching into the cooler to pop open and distribute cans of Pilsner Urqell. Tracy waves him off, grabbing a bottle of water.
Liam lights up, and the pungent, skunky smell of Cannabis Sativa drifts through the salty air. Claudia-Penelope takes the joint, inhales, and passes it to Tracy.
“Tracy doesn’t do pot,” says the Nut King. Intercepting the stoogie, he sucks the end, holding the smoke in his lungs until he can hold no longer.
“Hang on!” shouts the Nut King, passing the joint back to Liam. He pushes the throttle up and they accelerate at a rate that tips their faces toward the sky. Tracy grips the side of her seat as they careen across the wake of a larger boat, slamming down so hard between each swell it’s like someone’s slapping her head from above. She swivels to glare at the Nut King, shouting—“you promised!”—but her words are swallowed by the motor and the wind. Claudia-Penelope’s hat flies off, spinning like a Frisbee to the distant shore, though she doesn’t seem to notice or care.
“Ey-yiiii! Faster! Faster!” shouts Claudia-Penelope. Her plump red-lipsticked lips open wide as she laughs. She’s clutching Liam around the waist, though he still manages to toke between the battering thumps and salt water-soaking spray.
“Faster! Go, go, go!”
Tracy closes her eyes, wondering why these people are having so much fun in a situation she likens to a circle of hell. She’d like to shoot them all and then swim to shore. She’s glad she doesn’t own a gun.
Ahead, lights blink along the side of the Venetian Causeway drawbridge at Rivo Alto Island in syncopation with mechanical warning bells—clank, clank, clank—indicating the steel span is closing. The Mz. P.S. is a tiny vessel, an insect on the sea, and can zip unimpeded beneath the structure, open or closed, though Tracy always ducks her head reflexively, just as she does in most low-ceiling parking garages.
Hurtling forward at ever-faster speed, Tracy wishes she were somewhere else, anywhere else, perhaps painting in the quiet of her studio, when a horn assaults her ears, one large blast from a larger ship, some kind of streamlined yacht with mean black windows and a fuck you attitude that is racing straight at them, gambling to beat the closing bridge.
“Watch out!” Tracy shouts, tugging the Nut King’s shirt and pointing.
The Nut-King swigs his beer, throwing the empty can overboard like a gauntlet into the sea. His cheeks are flushed with wind and booze and machismo, and Tracy can see him calculating how to thread the needle between the approaching ship and the concrete pilings. The horn sounds again, louder, more insistent, the match accepted, the fight on. The bridge continues its downward path, dropping inches every second, threatening to crush the yacht’s radar system, a shiny dome sitting like a pompous crown on a multi-tiered slice of cake.
Tracy punches the Nut King’s shoulder, an action he mistakes as encouragement as he glances at her for the briefest moment, eyes ablaze like some evangelical preacher on a Jesus high, before pressing the throttle up to its limit. Claudia-Penelope shrieks in ecstasy—Saint Theresa on Biscayne Bay—hurtling taunts in Spanish at the larger ship while offering her outstretched middle finger with its polished nail in greeting. Liam takes one last drag on the dwindling joint, holding it elegantly between thumb and middle finger before flicking it into the wind. Clearly, Tracy thinks, I’m the only sane person on this boat. She lunges to control the throttle but is blocked by the Nut King’s steely grip.
“What the fuck!”
He elbows her away and she slips, landing on the deck that is shuddering forward toward what can only be their imminent demise. In a panicked attempt to derail their momentum, Tracy opens her mouth—wide—and chomps on the Nut King’s sculpted calve. She hears his screams above the now-incessant bellowing horn as he attempts to shake her loose, kicking about wildly, but she doesn’t loose her grip, a pit bull warrior queen. The more he thrashes, the deeper her incisors and cuspids sink into his pampered flesh. How far before she reaches bone? Tracy doesn’t know and she doesn’t care. She is trying to save his skinny-assed life—all their lives—and so she holds tight, resisting the urge to gag, until she feels the boat slow, his hands now gripping her hair and pulling hard. She spots the looming hull of the yacht, its angry inhabitants spewing venom from the deck as they sweep past with seconds to spare before the bridge moans shut.
Tracy opens her mouth, falling sideways, and struggles to stand as their vessel rocks wildly in the larger boat’s wake. A second swell crests the dipping bow and tepid bay water sloshes over their feet, lifting the cooler for the briefest moment before depositing it three feet closer to the stern. The Nut King’s face is puffed and aflame, a range of changing hues from vermillion to violet to magenta.
“You’re welcome,” she says.
“What the fuck? You bit me!”
“I saved us!”
“Are you out of your mind?” The Nut King raises his hands and slaps them on his head, as if holding in his brains from exploding.
“We were gonna crash—”
“You flaming cunt! There was plenty of time—”
“What did you call me?” Tracy shouts though the Nut King is no longer listening, his eyes shifting from anger to alarm as the boat swivels in the fast moving current, drifting so close to the pilings she can see how they were cast, their barnacle-crusted surfaces pockmarked with rock and gravel, unyielding sentinels that will surely crack open the Mz. Pecan Sandy.
“Start the engine!” shouts Liam, but the Nut King is already trying, snapping the throttle into neutral and turning the key repeatedly to start the stalled motor—on and off and on—to a rising chorus of “Fucks!” The engine coughs and spurts but doesn’t catch. Claudia-Penelope is wailing, “You ee-diots! Malparidos, guevones!”
Tracy looks up at the azure sky where seagulls ride invisible currents in wide indifferent swoops and realizes she is done with this man, this boat, these ridiculous people—done, done, done—and she sighs, knowing it’s time to return to the constancy of her studio, the smell of linseed oil and paint, wood scraps and leftover Chinese takeout. She imagines the sky as a canvas, and conjures an image of a brand new painting, an ant’s eye view of a glorious blue dome interrupted by small winged creatures, specks of movement that could be atoms or stars, the random nature of the sublime that hovers eternally above manmade wreckage.
Stumbling across the deck, she untangles her mesh bag from the cooler’s handle and extracts her swim cap, stretching it over her hair and ears, diminishing the cacophony of curses. Shrugging off her shorts, she snaps the goggles over her cap, testing to make sure they’re tight, and steps on the bow. Watching, waiting for the swirling waters to spin them round again, away from the soon-to-be kiss of the rigid pilings toward the softness of the welcoming, glimmering bay. Tracy curves her arms above her head, bends her knees, inhales, and leaps.
Necee Regis is a frequent contributor to the travel, food, and magazine sections of The Boston Globe and has also been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, American Way Magazine, The Robb Report, Modern Farmer, The Globe and Mail, and the literary magazine, Tin House. In fiction, excerpts from her unpublished novel, Glitterbox, appeared in Gulf Stream: New Voices From Miami, and Hacks: 10 Years On Grub Street. When not traveling, she divides her time between Boston (summer) and Miami Beach (winter) where she is working on a final draft of yet another novel. For stories, photos, and her oyster blog, visit her website: www.necee.com