Swan Dive! Ch. 6: Fight Like a Gull

To set the mood for the upcoming protest rally on the beach, RayRay pounded the drum skins and slammed a high-hat cymbal with the primitive power of a caveman banging brontosaurus bones on a boulder, belting out a tribal solo as the leader of the bar’s Saturday night house rock band.

Outside on the cracked cement sidewalk sprouting tufts of grass in front of the Elbow Room, Sam Bennett strolled up and down past overweight patio diners dripping butter from shoveling stone crab claw meat into their mouths, calling attention to the informal organizational meeting with a sandwich board he made from cardboard box panels front and back with packing twine shoulder straps.

Both sides displayed the same message in black marker: PROTEST MEETING TONIGHT!!! SAY NO TO DEVELOPERS!!! SAVE THE GULLS!!!

Durkin arrived at seven looking for a double margarita with extra salt, taking a seat in the middle of the bar, not planning to protest anything. He wore clean black jeans, a short-sleeved shirt decorated with an alligator print and lime after shave to match the tropical moment in his mind. Durkin had never before visited Florida and saw the palm trees as exotic, making him feel like he made the right decision to move to Clearwater Beach. White sand did, however, make him think of his past life in Stone Harbor.

The woman on the stool next to him nodded, offering a weak smile. Once a cop always a cop, Durkin could see business cards spread in front of her imprinted with the name Kim Phillips in raised gold letters, a glitter mermaid corporate logo and the words Paradise Coast Real Estate. Sliding a card his way with the ease of a professional blackjack dealer the woman’s husky voice spoke of menthol cigarettes and clear alcohol, reminding him of his dead mother.

Extending a thin veiny hand she said, “Nice shirt. I’m Kim. In case you’re ever in the market.”

“Marty,” he said.

“Vacation, Marty?”

“I just relocated down here.”

“From where?”

Unlike RayRay playing Rolling Stones songs, Marty Durkin missed a beat. Kim quickly picked up on her bold mistake and blushed through her tan.

“I ask too many questions,” she said.

“No, that’s OK,” Durkin said. “I’m from New Jersey. Maybe you can help. I’m looking to rent an apartment.”

Pointing at Sam Bennett marching outside, Durkin sounded like a cop.

“What’s with him? What are you protesting?”

“What do you got?”

Durkin’s mind shot back to the loud demonstrations against him in New Jersey.

“That’s a famous movie quote, you know,” Kim said.

Durkin had no idea what she was talking about, never having seen the legendary Marlon Brando motorcycle flick from which Kim drew the line. Durkin didn’t watch movies, pursued no hobbies and never went on vacation. Living in Stone Harbor all his life was supposed to be one big vacation.

Then he killed the kid.

Tyrone Lark.

Of course the district attorney called 15-year-old Lark’s death a good shooting, an accident that could have happened to anybody sworn to protect and serve. Black activists from Philadelphia and Camden filled buses to come to the DA’s press conference. The dead boy’s parents gave a tearful statement to the press. Several television stations broadcast live from outside the courthouse.

Durkin’s lawyer told him to keep his mouth shut. But just one day after the DA’s decision he stood in the municipal building parking lot talking to reporters when he got off the night shift, crying, apologizing and offering whatever help he could provide for the family.

The boy’s mother responded by calling him a white devil. The boy’s father called him a honkey-assed fascist pig. By the end of the week dozens of Stone Harbor neighbors posted on Facebook that his presence anywhere in town would reduce their property values. Durkin sold the house that week and moved, choosing Clearwater Beach because he read a story in the travel section of the Atlantic City paper that the town was clean, safe and family-friendly even though he lacked a family.

Kim waved her hand in front of Durkin’s face.

“Kim to Marty, Kim to Marty, come in please.”

Snapping out of it, Durkin said, “Sorry.”

Kim explained how she and about a dozen regulars were protesting Boris Popov, a Russian billionaire developer who planned to build a jumbo hotel/condominium tower on the beach. Popov greased every outstretched palm he could find to get all the necessary permits, variances and easements he needed to proceed. Longtime residents, mostly senior citizens who lived modestly near the property, also wanted to fight him, his money and his power.

“He’s buying up the beach,” Kim said. “He’ll push old people out of their homes. Ruby who works here says he’ll destroy the ecosystem. Sam says he’ll hurt the gulls. But look at us. We’re no match for the Russian mob.”

“You have evidence he’s a real Russkie mobster?”

“No, but we just found out he let his maniac brother Ivan manage the monstrosity they detonated this morning and move into the Spyglass Apartments he owns where Sam lives. The former owners loved Sam and put in writing that he can live on the property and pay the same low rent as long as he lives no matter who builds there. Boris Popov agreed to the deal thinking Sam would pass any minute. That was five years ago. Sam’s still going strong.”

“Gull power,” Durkin said.

“Fight like a gull,” Kim said.

They laughed like old friends.

Outside Sam Bennett was wearing his gull mask and flapping his arms as people laughed. When a kid as round as a $2 plastic beach ball in a snot-green polo shirt threw a french fry at Sam, his mother slapped the boy in the back of the head with an open palm and hissed that he should behave or she’d kill him.

“I met Sam on the beach the other day,” Durkin said. “He’s a real character.”

“A genius, too. RayRay says Sam memorized the whole U.S. Constitution,” Kim said.

“I can’t even remember my cell phone number,” Durkin said.

Raising his finger to get RayRay’s attention to order a drink, Durkin leaned in to Kim with a showstopper of a question. Durkin always had a million questions.

“Sam can live at the Spyglass as long as he lives?”

Kim stopped drinking her Mai Tai in mid-sip, looking up over the little umbrella stuck between the ice cubes, catching the serious tone in Durkin’s voice and the insinuation in his question.

“I didn’t think of it like that,” she said.

“I’m an ex-cop,” Durkin said.

“You think Sam’s in danger?”

“Instinct says I know Sam’s in danger.”

Intuition failed him on the beach that awful night, but this time Durkin’s gut told him he was right.

From a tight corner table for two at the back of the dining room a very Black man sat alone and watched Durkin’s every move. Muscled, lean and handsome as Shaft, the observer wore a full black Afro with wide sideburns cut straight razor even at the bottoms of his ears, a purple and red dashiki, maroon slacks and spotless white leather designer espadrilles.

On his left pinkie finger he wore a thick gold signet ring as big as a sweet Bing cherry imprinted with a black onyx clenched fist. Sipping ice water, he smiled an actor’s smile when a masked Ruby brought his Cajun grouper burger with extra hot sauce.

“Thank you, sister,” he said.