CHAPTER 1

Vox

     “What the fuck are you doing down there?” The sentence was spoken twice, each word assaulting my skull like a demented woodpecker.
     “Vox… hey, shithead. Why are you spooning naked with the toilet?”
     peck, peck, peck.
     “It’s almost noon, and you’re gonna miss your appointment.”
     peck, peck, peck.
     With great effort, I opened my eyes a sliver to identify the annoyance so I could rise up and kill it. In hellish happenstance, my head lay positioned precisely where the tiny bathroom window intercepted the Tampa Bay sun, amplifying it into a death star. I bellowed like a crocodile-ambushed wildebeest as twin photon torpedoes incinerated my eyes.
     There would be no rising up to kill anything. At least not anytime soon. My mind meekly flitted to a memory from long ago, to when as a teenager I had gotten shitfaced on tequila for the first time, resulting in an earnest and ludicrous declaration that I would never get drunk again. A vow I promptly violated the next day… and uncountable times since.
     And what was this babbling about an appoint-… Dammit to hell! My frayed mind vaguely recalled a noon meeting with Lester.
     The intruding voice rang familiar now, and I fully opened my eyes to confirm its identity. Yep, sure enough, it wasn’t a woodpecker at all. The Goat was peering down at me, shaking his head in pity. The Goat is the answer to the riddle of what abomination would be spawned if Tom Petty knocked up an actual goat.
     At least, that’s exactly what he looks like. His real name is Robbie, but I can’t remember ever calling him that.
     “You look like holy hell, Vox. Did you get into the red wine last night?”
     “Three bottles got into me.”
     “Well, unless you’re gonna have wake-up sex with that toilet, I’d suggest you call Lester and reschedule. You mentioned yesterday you were going over to his house today.”
     I pressed my aching forehead against the cool surface of the bowl. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures that get us through the day. “No can do, Goat,” I groggily mumbled.
“This appointment is no doubt the highlight of Lester’s week. The joy of yelling at me is the only thing keeping the fossil alive.”
     “Any idea why you don’t have any clothes on?”
     “No clue. Maybe I didn’t quite make it to the shower, or I looked at this naked toilet and got horny. Either scenario is a possibility.”
     “That toilet obviously ain’t Valentina, but, hey, if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with. I ain’t judging, Vox. There ain’t no shame. But you two please finish up fast ’cause I got to take a shit.”
     “Go over to your own damn house, then. If you’ll recall, I installed a brand-new toilet for you last week.”
     “This is my house, Vox, and that cuddle buddy of yours is my toilet.”
     What the hell? I probed back into the dense fog of last night’s memories, trying to remember how I had ended up at the Goat’s. Nothing came. “Then why am I on the floor in your bathroom with no clothes?”
     “The reason for this horrifying sight is exactly what I’m trying to figure out.”
     Christ Almighty. This was beyond pathetic, even for me. A new low had been reached. I tilted my ass up in the Goat’s direction and jettisoned a volcanic fart, redolent of garlic & cumin, causing him to shout in disgust and jump back into the hallway. “Give us five more minutes, bro,” I said, closing my eyes and flirting with the temptation of falling back asleep. Standing up wouldn’t be pleasant, and I needed every spare second of delay. “Call Lester, and tell him I’ll be there in an hour,” I muttered. “Van broke down. Phone was eaten by a possum. Pink pterodactyl crash-landed and backed up traffic for miles. Whatever sounds best.”
     “Let’s start by getting a gallon or two of coffee in you,” his voice drifted back as he presumably walked toward the kitchen. “And don’t throw up on my bathroom rug and make me beat your ass.”

 

CHAPTER 2

     The grizzled, old bastard stood before me, quivering with rage. Everything was clenched tight— jaw, fists, brow, butt cheeks— every sinew and muscle taut and ready to snap. The former Marine was locked and loaded, ready for combat.
     “You dirty, sumbitchin’ Hurricane! They shoulda shut down your corrupt program when they had the chance. Bunch of convicts, clowns, and closet-shitters.”
     Each word was shouted with venom. Drool soaked his beard. When Lester worked himself into a frenzy, the saliva and mucus flowed freely.
     I wagged my finger at him while literally digging my boot heels into the ground. “Listen, you Gator fuck. That closet-shitting was alleged. And stop living in the Dark Ages. Nobody can compete with the University of Florida when it comes to arrests. They had to expand the jail in that shithole called Gainesville just to accommodate the football team.”
     A PVC fitting whistled toward me. I ducked just in time.
     “The only pitiful fools livin’ in the Dark Ages are U.M. fans. Y’all love to bring up those 5 national championships you won when Abraham Lincoln was in office. Welcome to modern football, yearling. You know you can’t spell scum without ‘UM’.”
     “You would remember the Civil War years, you petrified log of mule shit,” I countered. “I guess you’re too stupid to remember our championship years since there are so many of them.” I counted them off slowly, enunciating each number clearly. “1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001. Plus 2002, which we obviously won but were ripped off by the refs. It’s all about the U!”
     I ‘threw up the U’, the signature Hurricane gesture formed by vertical outward-facing palms enjoined by horizontal thumbs.
     “Aww, shut your dicksucker. You pussies are still whining about that Fiesta Bowl. The only U that U have to be worried about is that U can suck my hairy balls if U think I’m gonna pay $3,025. Plus, last week your imbecile helper rat-fucked my plumbing, tracked mud on my carpet, and raided my fridge. Vox, what kind of monster steals another man’s milk?!”
     “Damn, Lester, I thought the two of you would get along. He’s a lizard, too.”
     He shook his head violently. “You think you’re smart, don’t ya? Oh, I saw the italic F on his hat and started quizzin’ him. The hillbilly had never even heard of Two Bits. I suspect he’s a Florida State fan if the crossed eyes and rotten teeth are any indication. You gave him that hat to wear, Vox. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
     “Clearly. Judging by all the wrinkles, you were probably crib-mates with Jesus.” I steepled my hands in supplication. “So, how can I make your world right? Ernie no-called, no-showed yesterday, so he’s fired. Granted, he wasn’t much to look at and had that blinking issue, but I’d been getting good reports from his customers.”
     Lester let fly a river of tobacco juice off to the side and slid a gnarled, cupped hand down his mustache and scraggly, gray beard, wringing out the accumulated gobs of snot and spit before wiping it across the front of his royal blue overalls. The triangle of a pristine, unblemished orange hankie, purely for show, peeked out of his chest pocket, its little emblazoned Gator logo staring at me malevolently.
     Since the spit wasn’t aimed at my face, I counted this as a sign he’d vented enough anger and insolence to get down to the price negotiation stage.
     “I’m aware of the fact I need a repipe. However, this price is insane. I don’t mind helpin’ to send any orphaned runts you may have to college. I just don’t want to be the sole, poor motherfucker footin’ the bill.
     “I already charge you rock-bottom rates since you’re a longtime customer. How low can I possibly go before it doesn’t make sense to do the job? Plus, these vans aren’t pulled by horses like in your day. They require gas, and gas ain’t cheap. How much did he quote you again?”
     A withered claw reached in his back pocket, producing a furled-up copy of the quote. He thrust it forward for me to take.
     I hesitated… with good reason. The relic had taken swings at me in the past. Though Lester owned the hand speed of a sloth, one jab somehow snuck through the year before, catching me on the chin when we were battling over the price to pump his septic tank. It took every ounce of my willpower to keep from pushing him into the open tank, replacing the concrete lid, and driving off to Harpo’s Bar to properly commemorate the day with a frosty mug of Cigar City Lager. Sadly, killing surly customers is still frowned upon by the state plumbing licensing board.
     I guardedly reached for the paper, aware that Lester sported other weapons in his arsenal. He was gifted with deadlier aim than a spitting cobra. I grabbed it, retreating immediately. Thankfully, it was relatively free of slime.
     Sure, Lester’s bodily fluids were nauseating, but Lord knows I’ve dealt with a lot worse in my years of plumbing. Raw sewage is a way of life. Plumbers are constantly elbows and assholes deep in the vilest substances the human body excretes. Pus, ooze, snot, vomit, blood, bile, sweat, piss— and, of course, the emperor who reigns supreme on his vitreous china throne— Almighty Shit in all his wondrous manifestations.
     The list doesn’t end there. Welcome to the world of the restaurant grease trap, the reek of which has no competition. Coagulated animal blood, fish guts, grease, sludge, and the stray decomposed rodent. When that toxic stew permeates your skin, infusing and marinating you with its wretched stench, a single shower, no matter how hot and soapy, is nowhere near enough. You’d be better off getting gassed by a skunk.
     And people have the audacity to bitch that plumbing prices are too high. Let ’em do it themselves, then. Hot on the left, cold on the right, shit runs downhill. Easy enough, right? One customer even commented that we charge more than some doctors. “We should,” I countered. “We still make house calls.”
     The invoice showed Ernie had quoted him $3,025, a very reasonable price for a three-bed, two-bath repipe with block exterior walls and tight attic space. If anything, it was slightly underbid.
     Where Ernie foolishly went wrong, and what I would have ripped him for if he wasn’t already fired, was breaking the price point in the wrong direction. $2,975 sounds much better to the buyer and is more likely to sell the job. Psychological claptrap, to be sure— but nonetheless a fundamental principle of closing the sale.
     However, in this case, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because Lester was too crafty to succumb to pricing gamesmanship. He just wanted to hear himself bitch and moan. He simply wanted to feel alive, to prove he was still in the Game of Life, to convince himself a reason existed to wake up yet another day.
     His wife had kicked the bucket long ago, and his children and grandchildren sent their love via random Christmas cards. His only real pleasure came from watching the Gators. Hundreds of Gator figurines, statues, banners, pillows, posters, pictures, and other paraphernalia infested the place. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he owned a Gator butt plug autographed by Tim Tebow. I gagged every time I was forced to go inside, which was a few times each month.
     Nobody knows loneliness like the man who breaks his plumbing on purpose, then calls in for service. We both knew his dirty little secret: that statistically there was no chance in hell all of his plumbing problems were purely bad luck. It was a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ policy neither of us dared violate.
     Along with a few fellow, cantankerous geezers he played shuffleboard with on Thursday mornings, I’m sure Lester counted me as sort of a friend. Truth be told, I felt the same way. I had even once choked down two quarts of Mickey’s Malt Liquor, his preferred swill of choice, while we shot the shit on his back porch one day after I fixed a hose bibb that had mysteriously broken.
     “Lester, this bid is not too high. I maybe could wiggle around $50 or so, but it isn’t a crazy price. You could always call around for other quotes if you don’t think this is fair.”
     Pouring a bucket of diarrhea over his head would not have elicited a more shocked reaction. I’ve never seen anybody more aghast. Trying to form a sentence, his mouth instead gasped for air like a suffocating salmon.
     “You f-f-f-filthy c-c-cocksucker,” he finally stammered. “You’ve sunk to new l-lows, even for a Cane. I’ve been loyal to your sorry ass for years now, even followed you when you started your own company. This… THIS is how you repay my loyalty, by tellin’ me to take my business elsewhere?” Rather than livid with rage like earlier, he looked hurt and betrayed, stabbed deep in his core. He reached down as if to pick up a stone and sling it at me, but instead sunk to his knees and bowed his head, thoroughly defeated.
     Hell, I felt like a dickhead now, but how could I have predicted these ridiculous theatrics? We had exchanged the most insulting barbs imaginable for years, hurled lightning bolts of cruel sarcasm and heinous vitriol, told the other to fuck off innumerable times in brilliantly innovative ways. In this case, all I did was innocently mention he could compare quotes if he wasn’t satisfied with the price. And he crumples like a wide receiver who comes over the middle and gets flattened by Sean Taylor.
     “Easy, Lester. C’mon, man. I just meant that if you questioned the fairness of the price, you could verify it through alternative channels.” I gingerly walked closer until I was only two feet away, aware I was risking life and limb. Who knew how he would react in this state of mind? “Don’t take it personally. It was just a misunderstanding. I’m sorry, dude. Listen, I’ll knock off another $100 to show good faith.”
     This close to him, the surrounding air was pregnant with the funk of those insidious overalls. I prayed I wouldn’t be forced to pat him on the shoulder or, God forbid, grasp him under his arms to help him stand. As much as I value a repeat customer, and as accustomed as I am to foul smells, physically touching Lester was probably beyond even what I could endure.
     He remained with his head bowed low, still as a rock, for another five full minutes as I tried to coax him back from the edge. After an eternity, he warily peered up, gauging the sincerity of my lengthy plea for forgiveness. “You sure you ain’t tryin’ to get rid of me, Vox?”
     “Only if you were a Semen-hole,” I casually offered. It was the perfect quip, exquisitely delivered. He chuckled at our pet term for an FSU Seminole fan. You see, that is the beauty and wonder of college football— I can despise your unholy fan allegiance to an evil rival with every fiber of my being, while at the same time respecting it. Yes, I want to bash your face in, yet I would be offended if you didn’t want to bash mine in, also.
     The best and most passionate fans demand hatred and respect and give it back in equal measure. Such a thin line, such a delicious paradox, such a tenuous balance— the tao of college football. The clashing yet soothing duality of yin and yang played out on crisp, autumn afternoons atop lush, grassy fields with scantily clad cheerleaders jumping up and down.
     When two combatants can form a temporary alliance, a tandem despising of their common enemy, a special brotherhood forms, no less genuine for its impermanence. At that moment, though you hate him and he hates you, you both hate the other guy, and the world makes sense for a time.
     Lester and I, for all our vast differences, both detested Florida State with extreme malice. The synergy and camaraderie of our shared hatred were much richer and more fulfilling than any individual hatred could ever be. Knowing our kinship wouldn’t last long didn’t matter in the least. With a nod of reverence to Lao Tzu, we lived squarely in the moment every time our mutual ire was directed at FSU, drinking lustily of the sublime, heady brew. Thoroughly enjoying every drop.
     “Thank the heavens for that,” Lester said with a serene grin, arthritic legs struggling to bring him upright. “I’d sooner eat a hyena’s asshole than cheer for those Trailer-hassee hoodlums.” That matter of factly, he was back from the abyss, acting as if his meltdown had never occurred. He was a resilient son-of-a-bitch, if nothing else.
     “Amen, brother. So, you okay with $2,925?”
     He pondered this for a short time, pursing his lips. “It’s still pricey.” Another long moment passed. Pride prevented him from giving in right away. “I guess I’ll go for it… on one condition: do the Gator Chomp out by the road where everybody can see you, and we’ll call it a deal.” He amused himself with this, punctuating the absurd demand with a loud cackle.
     The fucker could be funny on occasion, and I permitted a half-smile to escape. “Don’t push your luck, Mr. Watts,” I called over my shoulder as I walked back to my van. I have the combination to the lock on your septic tank lid, not to mention the fact that your house backs up to a swamp. I might dump you out there to crawl around with your own kind.”
     “We’ll see about that. You better bring your Hurricane Army with you. And don’t send any more of your worthless helpers around here unless you want ‘em back castrated. Fuck you, Miami scumbag!” he yelled, waving merrily goodbye. “Tell that pretty Puerto Rican of yours ol’ Lester sends his regards. Let her know I have a medicine cabinet full of Viagra when she decides to kick you to the curb.”
     “Fuck you, too, Florida Goiter!” I shouted out the window as I drove down his dirt driveway. “Take care of yourself!” Turning right, I eased into the afternoon traffic on Gunn Highway, heading to Lola’s Goodtime Emporium for some much-needed hair of the dog.

Written by : Brent A. Phillips