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IT INVARIABLY HAPPENS RIGHT UP THE STREET | Brian Lott
Leaning against the canyon wall of fresh red brick, he checks his watch again in a slouch that feels clumsy. He’s conspicuously nondescript amid the nighttime hum of the city, the distant heartbeat of the clubs, the roar of I-4 behind him and overhead. He wonders if he’s allowed to stand here — probably not long before he hears move on, head inside or find somewhere else to go — but see, he’s waiting for his nephew. Even if yeah, okay, someone else is inside the Jai-Alaife Palace too.
He’s thin, pale, wispy reddish hair and glasses, unfashionably dressed, stuck here like a statue, a lesser version of Vicente himself with his newspaper in Centro Ybor. He glances 50 feet down 18th Street at the steady flow of luxury sedans, sports cars, cabs pulling into the roundabout around the corner, where vehicles and walkup foot traffic jumble around this massive-columned temple of entertainment wedged against the interstate, dangling its great neon sign over the roadway like bright flickering fruit, the pulsing pelota flying in and out of its xistera.
Where’s Todd’s xistera, his curved metaphorical jai-alai sleeve, to catch fate’s happy toss-offs? So he didn’t have to scramble like dumbass, stumbling and barehanded, for possibility that might fall from the sky? Does chance bestow anything good anymore?
He’s been in Ybor since ’98, 25 years ago—those hopeful, hectic days at the Columbia, jostling down the street with the gang after hours in his undone tuxedo, the laughing chaos, hospitality discounts, drunkenness and fuck-ups and hook-ups and it’s back to work, bleary-eyed, to ready your station the next day.
You stick around long enough and you stop caring as much. Or you just let it all go because it’s futile anyway. You watch Friday night unfold as an observer instead of a participant, and that’s okay. Todd Wigler tells himself these things.
He wanders north up the new cement sidewalk toward the palace’s service bay. It’s a spacious inlet with a ramp for deliveries, a clean dumpster and a wide rollup door. Around the dumpster he spots a pair of guys in suits with nametags, smoking, shooting the shit, and he steps out of view because he doesn’t want to seem like he’s loitering. Up the segmented face of interstate wall a truck with a bad muffler snorts past. He checks his watch again—10:27. Todd reminds himself Duane’s new, he’s a kid, maybe even genuinely excited about the action inside, the jai-alai, gambling, concerts from pop upstarts and ’90s bands on their cash-grab reunion tours.
He can almost feel the walls trembling at the slamming shock of the pelotas, the players with their leap-step up walls, the bleat and blare of the DJ and the PA and the half-distracted crowd. He imagines Allison Voss somewhere in there, doing the administrative things she did, flustered at her desk, ready to tell people go to hell (or goodnight), log off her computer, carry her laptop and shoes tiredly to her car — whatever car she’s driving now — somewhere inside that six-story parking garage where the Our Lady of Perpetual Help dirt lot used to be.
“Wigler!” a voice booms and Todd turns to see Duane walking up in his gray suit, the kid’s lanky strut and sloppy grin, hand outstretched with his Class of ’22 ring.
Todd clenches his nephew’s tight grip with a smirk. “Habout Todd? Or Mister Wigler, habout.”
“Mister Wigler?” The kid’s face could’ve been a model for Easter Island monoliths with a stocky body to match, wide-shouldered gait of someone who four short years ago was stalking other teenagers to tackle on a floodlit Orlando high school football field as cheers surged from the bleachers. “That come with batteries for her pleasure?”
“Ha-ha,” Todd deadpans. “So you’re off, you’re done.”
Duane shrugs gamely. “All done, man.”
“You wanna go down the street?”
“Shit yeah, I wanna go down the street,” Duane points toward Seventh Avenue. “Thisaway, right?”
Todd leads the way down the building, moving through the people crossing 12th Avenue, a chattering bachelorette party, a young Latino guy in sunglasses and a black suit with a bolo tie and a spectacular blonde on his arm leaning in with some ecstatic revelation. Duane taps Todd on the shoulder and wanders over to a hulking fellow in a Jai-Alaife suit on the sidewalk; they share words and the bouncer nods. Duane does a lazy jog over his uncle as they keep going down the sidewalk that hugs the parking garage.
“Hadta make sure the boss’s gone,” Duane apologizes.
“It’s good when the boss is gone,” Todd steers right as a couple holding hands slips past them on the sidewalk. The techno thump of a party on the third-floor balcony of the condos across the street snags his attention.
“Seriously,” Duane scoffs with borderline amusement. “Real bitch, man.”
They stroll past the church as Todd asks Duane about his job, thinking of Allison instead, wondering if he should’ve sent her something for her birthday, September 3, two weeks ago. She’s what — 47? Of course; Todd’s 48. Even something anonymous? No, no, too weird, discoverable, unnecessary. Duane’s talking about joking with customers, showing people to their seats, and Todd remembers to be attentive. At Palm Avenue they pause as cars swish past and it’s onward toward the noise of the clubs and crowds.
“So y’live close by?” Duane asks.
“Up 15th,” Todd says. “Other side of I-4.” He’s relieved Duane has his own place, for some reason up by USF. Duane’s dad wants him to go back to school—that’s why.
The night shimmers with far-off music and traffic, spotlights fanning the low mauve sky as if beckoning aliens on their approach. A helicopter sears past and Todd sees a curving wing against the clouds, turning toward the Crosstown Connector.
“Think that one’s ours,” Todd points, as much to fill space with talk lest it go too long untended. “I useta do the adopt-a-drone.”
“Not’nymore?” Duane says with vague interest.
“Just got busy.” This is a lie, of course, one Todd reasons he can get away with. How can you tell someone — a 22-year-old — that you don’t go out, don’t have friends, barely have a lousy job? “Still think I know the guy if you’re interested.”
They turn right on Ninth, stepping out of the way as a gaggle of kids giggles past and a low-riding BMW growls over the bricks with its seismic stereo. The back of Centro Ybor rises to their left and Todd points out the Castle, kids in black waiting to get in, sitting on the curb with tangles of friends beneath the windows’ glower, the rhythm and clang. Todd tells Duane about the place over the years, the Senator and his protégé, the Commissioner, who danced every weekend, and the celebration people wanted to throw in 1937—back when the Castle was a labor temple—to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The government shut the party down.
“Industrial goth lives on, though,” Todd clarifies.
“Cool,” Duane says.
After a moment, Todd suddenly blurts, “So y’work with an Allison Voss?” Almost wishing he hadn’t.
Duane, half a step behind, leans forward. “Allison who?”
“Voss.” There. Now it’s out there.
“I dunno, maybe. I can ask around.”
“Nah, don’t do that.”
“Why not, bro?”
“Just don’t. No need to.”
“Should be easy enough to figure out. Probably in administration.”
“Oh,” Duane laughs. “Okay, that’s cool. Lotta people there I don’t know yet.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Todd says, the back of his neck filmy with a sudden hint of sweat. “No biggie.”
“I don’t know.”
Duane laughs. “Okay then.”
As they approach 15th Street a scene draws near, the flicker of a police cruiser’s lights as a shaved-head cop waves a slow train of cars along. Todd leads Duane through the crawling traffic to the flat lot, where they meander diagonally around the parked cars. Todd remembers how he dislikes being out at night. As they come to Eighth, he gestures west, mentioning the GaYbor clubs down Seventh and the wedding kiosks and Taco Bus. As the trolley clambers past they head down Eighth, cutting across the street to the New World Brewery. In the buzz of the night’s soft twinkle a guttural stream of sexual innuendo blares somewhere from a car.
“Oh, ’fore I forget,” Duane says, Todd pausing for the kid to fish something from his jacket. He pulls out a sleeve of small filament sheets, sorting them quickly and handing one to Todd. “’Sposedta give these out,” he goes on as Todd studies the translucent slip with the Jai-Alaife logo, scan code, Duane’s name and “1” at the top. Duane explains, as they’re walking again, how employees get the cards to hand out to people they meet. Numbers 1 and 100 are the big ones—drink deals, tour, VIP admittance. “You’re number one, buddy!” Duane gives Todd a sidelong grin. “Management loves number ones. See, man, it means something.”
Todd’s thoughts drift to Allison, about how it’s almost assured now that he’ll run into her again, and what the hell does he say? What does she say?
An old White Stripes song spills from the bar as they stroll inside past a handful of occupied patio tables in the tiki light. Inside it’s sparse, a couple clusters of people at tables, a few more at the bar. Todd admires his nephew’s confident saunter to a stool away from a solitary girl with long dark curls and a denim vest, his sturdy slouch against the bar as he orders a couple beers Todd’s never heard of, the look the kid slips the girl and her mildly startled smile in return.
“Havin’ a good night?” Duane asks the girl, whose thick brown eyelashes are beacons on her pretty, almost elfin face.
“Soon as my friends get here,” she says in a young voice, barely over the music, glancing at her phone aglow on the bar before her.
“They better get here,” Duane warns optimistically, grabbing the beers the bartender slips him, handing one to Todd.
“Damn right they better,” she rolls her eyes, appraising Todd with a curious look. “What’re y’all up to?”
Duane lays a large hand on Todd’s shoulder. “This’s my boy Wigler.”
“Todd,” Todd snaps sarcastically, hand out to shake hers. “I’m his uncle.”
“If you wanna be all technical’n shit,” Duane cracks. “When your friends show up, come on over,” he tells her. “And you are…?”
“Betsy,” the girl says, curling into a gentle smile. “When your friends show up, come on over!” Duane points toward the tables and nods Todd over with him. They settle into their chairs. Todd, who barely drinks anymore, takes a sip and compliments his nephew’s choice of beer.
“So,” Duane says. “Y’like it here?”
“Ybor. Even after all the shit?”
“We bounced back,” Todd shrugs. “Hey, we got the Palace.”
Duane wants to know what it was like when the port got hit in ’18 and Todd recounts the basics, evacuation under the roiling, feverish gray sky, the neighborhood safety teams. What Todd remembers most is the sweat, his hot seething lungs inside his crinkly hazard suit as he wandered empty streets with a loose collection of older guys and gung-ho loner types. The vague smell of whoever’s breath had filled Todd’s mask in the past was irritating but the urgency of the effort kept him focused, kept him moving — assume these handheld devices can really detect toxicity, stay out of the way of the soldiers with their bristly armored bulk, their weaponry and barked shorthand, the tanks and churning choppers and the bustling command center that overtook the Cuban Club.
Duane gets them more beers and listens intently as Todd goes on. He doesn’t mention how it took a crisis for him to feel human and meaningful. Doesn’t mention how they didn’t send him to the condo complex on Fourth Avenue where Allison lived at the time. How they denied him access to her interiority, to her personal space, the chance to see the comfortable indentation on her couch, the messy spread of intimate things after she’d packed in a panic. But what else would he find? There was no positive outcome.
“Damn,” Duane shakes his head, takes a gulp.
“World’s gone to shit,” Todd says when Duane sits back down with the next round of beers. He’s feeling buzzed, warm and vertiginous, and Betsy’s still alone at the bar. Hip-hop’s on the jukebox now, Outkast and DefPanel, and Todd’s never been a big fan of this music but it’s a good moment, good to be here with the kid.
“So my dad’s worried,” Duane says. “Never sees you, y’never call.”
“I’m fine,” Todd mutters. “Tell Mike. Said I’m busy.”
“Whatta y’do when you’re not at Home Depot?”
“I write, okay?” He doesn’t, maybe someday; it sounds good.
“Whatta you write?”
“I dunno, Duane. Speculative stuff.”
“Like what? Gimme an example. I gotta report something back.”
“You know, alternate history stuff. Like if Lincoln didn’t get shot. Like the Tunguska Event — 1908. If it hit St. Petersburg.”
“Gigantic meteor. Ever see The X-Files?”
“Where they interview porn-star politicians?”
“Hang on,” Duane says, getting up for another round as Todd’s gaze drifts over to Betsy, the quick grin she trades with Duane, who returns a moment later. “Sorry, Todd. Anyway — porn stars.”
“Right, right, sorry.”
“Look, it happens a couple hours later and the meteor wipes out the whole city. Like a nuke. I say it changes history. The world sees devastation in a new way. There’s a new consciousness. There’s no World War I.”
“Great,” Duane smirks, taking a sip, balancing his chair on its back legs. “So World War I happens in 1960 or some shit and they use nukes then.”
“Look, it’s all debatable. This whole world, everything—you’re young, okay. It’s been unreal for decades. The point is, think about history. Ask what could be different.”
“Everybody?” Duane muses, “or you?”
Todd opens his mouth to reply but nothing comes out. Duane’s not paying attention anyway, pulling his keychain and the phone clipped to it from his pocket — “Hang on” — navigating the phone’s floating glow with his thumb.
Todd sits thinking for a minute and then wanders back to the bar for another beer he doesn’t need. He knows it’s mostly just to study Betsy, who doesn’t notice him. Does she look like Allison a little? She could be Allison’s daughter if she’d ever had kids. Could be Allison from almost ’07, when her little brother disintegrated on his motorcycle on I-275 at 3 a.m. When Todd went to the get-together at Sean Gold’s place, when Allison sank her drunken grief into Todd’s neck after people were asleep or gone. When they tumbled into each other for three lush, nearly wordless weeks until she had to leave it behind, the memory and misery and Todd was there fading guiltily in plain sight, left clutching the image of Danny Voss, astride his bike behind the restaurant, strapping on his helmet with his smile, stomping his motorcycle to sputtering, deafening life.
“Hey!” Duane’s voice shakes Todd out of his stare at the kaleidoscope of bottles behind the bar, kid already moving toward the door as Todd trails behind. They’re on their way to meet some guys Duane works with. “They’re sorta dicks, but whatever.”
“Betsy’s cute!” Todd offers as they round the noisy corner toward Seventh.
“Yeah, I mean, dime a dozen, bro.”
Todd slows. “What? No! No, Duane — no, they aren’t a dime a dozen! How can you say that? The right one’s priceless! I’m telling you it’s—”
“You’re drunk!” Duane guffaws.
Provoked, Todd barges around him, barreling into the parade of light and cacophony, the packed sidewalks and creeping cars.
“I’m showing you this place! This’s where you live now, where your history’s gonna happen! It happens right down the street!”
Here! Over there, there was Max Argintar, the rows of nice suits Todd ran his fingers over and slipped into for fun! And The Spitting Gargoyle — didn’t he wander among the statues and birdbaths with Allison? And wasn’t there a hologram store around here where the safety station is now? And the hat store, fedoras galore?
History’s just calling out!
“Big D!” someone bellows and Todd stops, turns after he realizes he’s left his nephew 20 feet back. Duane’s with a blurry trio of 20-ish guys in suits like him, and the kid’s laughing and gesturing toward Todd, who meanders over to the group. They’re amused to see him, Duane’s hand on his shoulder, inviting him with them.
No, Todd says no, thanks.
“’kay, well…” Duane shrugs uncertainly. “I’m workin’ Tuesday ’til 10. Stop in. Bring the card!”
Todd agrees, lurches back down Seventh, almost in escape, back the way they came. Back around the corner, past people in line, past the hurricane commotion spilling from The Ritz, past the tank squatting on the corner of Seventh and 15th with Mr. Tactical Friendly! scrawled on the side and a pair of bored soldiers in short sleeves. Past the homeless and a goateed Jamaican carrying a painting canvas, past people on the sidewalk eating their pizza. Past the night’s looming hope and towering heartbreak, past connections unfolding, past everything that never happened, past the past itself swimming through the jumble of Todd’s thoughts.
He wanders back inside New World Brewery, in nothing like the saunter he wants, but there she is — Betsy, at the bar, still alone.
She glances up, almost happily puzzled as Todd careens over while digging in his pocket.
“Promise you’ll go Tuesday,” he hands her his Jai-Alaife slip. “9 p.m.”
“Okay,” she half-laughs.
“I promise! I wanteda see the place.”
“See, it means something.” He attempts a wink and a smile he’d like to rescind, turning to retreat outside. Finding the door, wandering toward home.
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