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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>The Meglodon Curse by Tom Sanders (Summer 2000)

 


The Meglodon Curse 


By


Tom Sanders



     The Indians buried their leader at sunset as the last rays of the day lit the burial site with a diffused golden glow. Out over the gulf, the sun dipped below the horizon painting the clouds with brilliant shades of red and pink against a sky turning inky nighttime blue. The chief was a Potano Indian, one of the many tribes of the Timucuans. It was 1514, and the chief had been killed leading a war party against Ponce De Leon.
     His body was heavily tattooed. His fingernails grown long for fighting were no match for the muskets of the invading Spanish forces. His body had been prepared for burial in full ceremonial dress, his spear by his side. He wore a chief’s headdress, bone earrings, and an alligator claw necklace. A breastplate of polished conch rested on his chest. Mounted on the breastplate was the tooth of a Meglodon; a massive extinct shark that swam these waters millions of years before. The tooth was very special. The tribe believed it possessed spiritual power.
     The burial was atop a tall mound of dirt on an island near the mouth of a river. The Indians stood in somber silhouette against the fading western sky. They chanted prayers as they lowered the Chief’s body into his tomb. The shaman placed cowrie shells on the grave as a warning to anyone foolish enough to disturb the sacred burial place.




     Two boats raced toward each other at full throttle, their pilots seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were on a converging course. The big Evinrude and Johnson outboards pushed the skiffs along through the tea brown waters at full speed, the propellers throwing up rooster tails of water. The high-pitched whine of the engines assaulted the silence of the Gulf of Mexico.
     Buddy Palmer stood in a slight crouch amidships, his knees bent just enough so that he could maintain balance as the boat planed along the waters, the hull bouncing and slapping down the waves passing underneath the bow. In his right hand was a piece of plastic PVC pipe attached as an extension to the engine throttle arm with a clamp, in his left hand, a fifth of Jack Daniels.
     Buddy was shirtless and barefooted. At 42, he was all muscle and sinew, a few impressive scars, no fat. He wore army fatigue pants cinched around his waist with a wide leather belt. The buckle was a rebel flag he had bought at a truck stop in Tennessee. His tan Vietnam bush hat, held on by the chin strap, billowed behind like a drogue shoot. He had worn bush hats since he was issued the first one as a sailor in the brown water navy, Mekong Delta 1969-70. Buddy eyes were hidden by the best wrap-around fishing sunglasses money could buy, Costa Del Mar multi-sports. He had stolen them from a tourist.
     His two teenage sons, Roy and Cecil, sat forward on a board seat, using their weight as ballast to keep the bow low in the water. The stoic expression on Buddy’s weathered face was almost identical to that of the other boatman as the boats closed rapidly on each other. Neither betrayed any fear that they were about to collide.
     Both men suddenly cut their throttles and turned abruptly in wide graceful curves that brought them alongside, bow to stern. The backwash rocked the occupants as the sides of the boats kissed gently.
     "Damn Bobby," Buddy barked in exaggerated anger. "Watch you don’t scratch my paint job."
     "What paint job? You haven’t painted that piece of shit since you built it." Bobby Palmer reached across the gunnels, took the whiskey bottle from Buddy’s outstretched hand, and took a long swig. 
     Though their last names were the same, neither knew for sure if they were related. They were both fifth generation crackers, and there had been a lot of inbreeding among long time families of Bay Key. Family trees were more like family weeds. Cousins married cousins. And uncles sometimes slept with nieces. Theirs was a closed society. They were tough, hard headed, simple, and, at times, cruel people, set in their ways. They lived an isolated existence on a remote Florida Island, and scraped out a meager living fishing the Gulf of Mexico.
     With Vietnam, Buddy had seen all he wanted to of the rest of the world. He would die here. And, unless he was lost at sea, his body would be buried beneath a pile of clamshells in the Bay Key Cemetery. That suited Buddy just fine.
     Daryl, Bobby’s fishing partner, pulled a freezer bag filled with marijuana from the pocket of his army camouflage pants and started to roll a joint.
     "Daryl, let me do that. You take forever." Bobby took the bag and a packet of rolling papers from Daryl. Daryl didn’t complain. He wasn’t very well coordinated. He had recently lost the tip of his thumb to a chain saw.
     "Put that stuff up. I got my boys on the boat, " Buddy said through clenched jaws. His anger was real this time.
     "Oh come on Buddy. Your boys can get it at high school. Hell, I bet they’ve smoked plenty. Why Cecil even…" Bobby saw the warning flash in Buddy’s eyes. He shut up and tossed the bag back to Daryl who quickly stuffed it back in his pants. 
     Cecil looked down, avoiding eye contact with his father. He was relieved that Bobby had stopped before he said too much.
     "I catch my boys smoking that shit, I’ll whup their asses!" Buddy snorted. The tension went out of his body. ‘‘But I got a case of beer iced down at the lodge. They’re old enough for Budweiser.’’
     Buddy hit the starter switch, twisted the throttle, and roared off, his wake almost swamping Bobby and Daryl. They were soon in hot pursuit. The two boats cut through the sun sparkles reflecting off the water, aiming for the islets at the mouth of the Suwanee River. 
     Along the way, they buzzed a boat filled with sport fishermen, running side by side directly for the anchored Chris Craft, then splitting at the last second. They doused the boaters with spray from their rooster tails. Their propellers cut fishing lines. As they sped past a second time shouting obscenities, everyone except Roy stood and gave the stunned fishermen the finger. Buddy frowned. He intended to confront Roy about it later.
     The old abandoned fishing lodge was a hangout for commercial fishermen. Others were not welcome. Buddy had found it, and he decided who was allowed and who wasn’t. Few challenged him, even Bobby who had a reputation as a mean son of a bitch himself. Anyone who had seen Buddy in a fight knew better.
     The lodge had been built in the 1930’s. Hurricanes, floods, and time had taken their toll. The floor was rotted through in places. Daylight poked through gaps in the roof. An ancient stuffed tarpon still hung on the wall in the main room. Someone had taken a Barlow knife and sliced it open. Sawdust leaked from the slash to a pile on the floor. A side room was littered with whiskey bottles and beer cans. 
     Daryl and the boys were sprawled on the floor. Buddy and Bobby sat at opposite ends of a rickety old couch. Every few minutes someone would toss an empty beer can through the doorway onto the pile, the clink of aluminum quickly followed by the hiss of another pop-top being pulled.
     The talk was angry and punctuated with curses. Voices got louder the more they drank. The net ban had them riled. Florida voters had just approved a referendum outlawing commercial net fishing. In three months, when the new law was to take effect, the commercial fisherman of Bay Key would lose livelihoods that had sustained their families for generations. State marine biologists said coastal waters were over-fished and the ban was necessary so that stocks could be replenished. The commercial fisherman said the state was full of shit. They blamed the vote on a slick and expensive lobbying campaign financed by the sport fishing industry. 
     The commercial fishermen were proud and desperate. Fishing and crabbing was all they knew. State officials had called a meeting to hear their complaints. When one bureaucrat suggested re-training them as prison guards, they walked out in disgust.
     The situation had turned ugly. The marine patrol had stepped up surveillance, but incidents of vandalism and violence, mostly instigated by the commercial fishermen, were increasing.
     Buddy stood and stretched. "All this talk pisses me off.’’ He slammed his fist into the wall in anger. "Let’s go dig up an Indian mound. There’s one right on this here island. I spotted it last week when I was runnin' the back channel." 
     He started out the door. Bobby and Daryl followed after him. Cecil was already outside where he had gone to throw-up. Roy hung back.
     Buddy slapped Cecil on the back. "Can’t hold your liquor huh boy! Come on." 
     He turned to Roy. "Come on, Roy Boy."
     "I’m in swimmin' trunks Dad," Roy pleaded. "I’ll get cut up in the scrub."
     "Tough. You shoulda thought a that." Buddy cuffed Roy on the head, slapped a small shovel in his hands, and gave him a hard shove. "Now git!"
     Roy’s reluctance really had to do with what his history teacher had said. The class had been talking about hunting for Indian artifacts. Mr. Anderson had criticized those who extended the hobby to include robbing burial mounds.
     When Roy mentioned it to his father he quoted the teacher. "He said it was immoral and a shameless violation of an extinct culture."
     "Lot a fancy words." Buddy had laughed derisively when Roy told him. "It’s those pointy-headed perfessors, want to put it all in museums where nobody kin see it," 
     Cecil had sided with his dad. He always did. "Mr. Anderson’s a fat faggot. What does he know? He’s not even from around here."
     Swatting at mosquitoes and deer flies, the five picked their way through the Florida scrub, trying to avoid the briars and sawgrass sharp as a sword blade. They tossed empty beer cans aside, leaving a trail of litter.
     The burial site was hard to find. Time and weather had eroded the distinctive shape of the mound. It blended with the natural topography. But Buddy had been careful to observe landmarks when he had seen it from the water. They climbed to the crest, drank the last of the beer, and started digging.
     Daryl leaned on his shovel and glanced down the mound where it sloped into the water of the back channel. An enormous alligator had just emerged from the water. With quick and powerful movements, it rose up on its legs and scuttled onto shore; its body quickly disappearing into the grass.
     "Did you guys see that?" Daryl stammered pointing down the hill.
     "What Daryl, see what?" Cecil looked up from his shovel.
     "A big damn alligator, mor’n twelve, fourteen, fifteen feet long. I mean BIG GATOR!"
     "Sure Daryl. We’ll go gator hunting later," Bobby chided. " Right now we got a hole to dig."
     Nobody paid much attention. Daryl was prone to exaggeration, and alligators, even big ones, were very common here at the mouth of the Suwanee River.
     The gator had recently laid eggs. It hovered over its nest in the mud and grass near the base of the Indian mound. It was alert and agitated. The humans had invaded the alligator’s territory. They were a threat to her brood.
     Cecil was first to uncover something, cowrie shells placed in a pattern. He kicked them free of the dirt with the toe of his boot, reached down and tossed them into a canvas bag.
     It was Buddy who came upon the bones of the Indian chief. Everyone stopped digging while He kneeled down in the depression and began scraping with his hands. 
     "Pay dirt. We’ve hit pay dirt." Buddy stood up. He held a human skull over his head like a trophy. He propped it on the root of a mangrove tree.
     Bobby and Cecil were soon on hands and knees enthusiastically digging beside Buddy. Roy and Daryl stepped back from the grave. The skull scared Daryl. Roy felt a foreboding that they had done something terribly wrong, something evil. 
     Buddy looked up. "You two sissies git back too work. Hand me that bag, boy."
     Roy knew it was pointless to say anything. Any dissent would trigger a beating from his daddy.
     They raped the grave, picked it clean.
     Bobby claimed a large spearhead. Buddy took the bone ear ornaments.
     "Tammie says I don’t never give her nothing. Well, she’s gonna have a hell of a pair of earrings."
     Cecil found the alligator claw necklace. The leather thong disintegrated when he picked it up. Buddy said they would re-string it and make two necklaces, one for Roy. When Cecil started to complain, Buddy slapped him.
     "He’s your brother Cecil. Dammit son. Don’t piss me off."
     Buddy went back to digging. He leaned down and blew dirt from where he had been scraping.
     He whistled and turned around slowly to the others. Buddy was holding the Meglodon tooth against his chest.

                                                                                 ~~~


     Tammie, Buddy’s wife, had a tough childhood. She never knew her father, and grew up in a house full of half-brothers and sisters, cousins and babies. They survived on welfare and handouts. Her schooling had been limited. She often had to drop out to care for a younger sibling or another baby. Someone was always pregnant.
     Tammie met Buddy one Saturday night at the M&M bar, ‘mean and mangy’ it was called by locals. He had just come back from Vietnam. It was a whirlwind courtship. They were married two weeks later.
     Tammie was glad to leave the crowded and dysfunctional household of her childhood. She worked at being a good wife and raising her two sons. Buddy was a good husband. He tried hard to scrape out a living. The only time they ever fought was when Buddy was drinking. He was a mean drunk.
     When they argued, it was often about the boys, and what Buddy taught them. He once told them that it was okay to take advantage of people who befriended them. He said trust was a sign of weakness. This did not seem right to Tammie. She made the mistake of disagreeing with Buddy in front of the boys. He slapped her so hard her face was bruised for a week.
     Roy was less than a year older than Cecil, but the brothers were very different. Cecil was fullback on the high school football team. He had been voted ‘most popular’ in the yearbook by his classmates two years in a row. But Cecil’s behavior was changing. Tammie was worried. His grades had dropped dramatically, from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s, even an F on his last report card. When Tammie tried to discuss it, Cecil had parroted his father. Book learning was mostly a waste of time. Cecil planned to be a fisherman like Buddy. Cecil had become withdrawn. He kept to his room, the door shut and radio at full volume.
     Roy also kept to himself, about the only character trait he shared with Cecil. Not especially good at sports, he was an avid reader and excelled in his studies. Teachers said he ought to go to college, and that his good grades would earn him a scholarship. Buddy said college was a waste of time for somebody that was going to spend his life on the water. Tammie had helped Roy fill out the scholarship application forms anyway. They had not told his father. 


                                                                                  ~~~


     It was Saturday night and the whole family was getting ready to go into town. Tammie wore her best party dress. It was a distinctive brown and white pattern. Buddy kidded her that she looked like a deer. She put on the earrings. They were made of bone and so heavy they hurt her ears. Buddy had been excited when he presented them to her. It troubled her when he told her he had taken them from an Indian grave. But, Tammie shrugged, they were a gift. 
     The boys were wearing alligator claw necklaces. Roy wore his with reluctance, but he knew it would invite Buddy’s wrath to refuse. Cecil strutted about; his shirt unbuttoned to show off what he had taken from the grave. 
     Buddy pulled on his cowboy boots, and donned a black felt cowboy hat with an Indian pattern hatband. The belt with the rebel flag buckle held up his jeans. He had cut the arms off his black T-shirt, the one with an Indian chief printed on the front. Buddy had polished the Meglodon tooth to mirror brilliance. It hung from his neck by a leather thong outside the T-shirt. The tooth was so large, it obscured the Indian chief’s face. Roy noticed the irony. He was saddened, disgusted and ashamed, and struggling to mask his emotions. His family was going into town to show off artifacts stolen from a grave.
     As the others started out the door, Cecil removed a gym bag from the back of the closet in his room. It was stuffed with several vials of crack cocaine, amphetamine pills in individual envelopes, and two dozen plastic bags filled with marijuana. In each bag, he had placed a cowrie shell from the burial mound. Cecil thought it was an amusing touch, sort of like the prize in the Cracker Jack box. Cecil climbed into the truck, the bag tucked under his arm. Tammie asked what was in it.
     "It’s my sports stuff, Mom." Cecil responded gruffly as if the question was an invasion of his privacy. "I’m meeting friends at the high school. We’re gonna play basketball. Anything else you need to know?"
     Buddy stopped to let Cecil off near the school. Roy jumped from the truck with Cecil with the excuse that he was going to visit a friend. Both boys said they would walk home or catch a ride. As Buddy drove away, the brothers stood in the street. There was tension between them. Roy suspected what was in the bag. 
     He took the alligator claw necklace from around his neck and tossed it to Cecil.
     "It’s yours Cecil. I don’t want anything to do with it."
     "Have it your way you pussy. Daddy’s gonna be mad as hell." Cecil put the necklace on over the one he was already wearing. He turned and started up the hill toward a group of teenagers waiting for him in the shadows. "I got business to take care of." 
     Roy started walking home. A block away, he passed two men sitting in a car backed into a dirt side road. The lights were off, and the engine was running. Roy wondered what they were doing.

                                                                              ~~~


     Bobby pulled up beside Buddy and Tammie as they parked in front of the M&M. He pointed through his windshield. Bobby had wired the spearhead to the grill of his truck like a hood ornament.
     The two men were soon well on their way to getting seriously drunk, downing shots of tequila with beer chasers one after another. Tammie tried to get Buddy on to the dance floor hoping it would sober him up and get him away from Bobby. She regretted it when she finally succeeded. Buddy was clowning about and out of control. He kept bumping and shoving other dancers without apology. He danced with jerky, exaggerated movements. Tammie was embarrassed. Friends were watching. When Buddy began thrusting his groin against her, she fled the dance floor and sat down at a table with a girlfriend, Janine. Buddy laughed, duck walked off the dance floor, and rejoined Bobby for another tequila.
     Tammie had seen Buddy like this enough times to know her plans for a romantic evening with her husband were doomed. Janine felt sorry for Tammie and had tired of the noise at the M&M. She had just finished the night shift as chef at the Bay Hotel and was due back at 7 for the breakfast shift. When she invited Tammie over to her place for a chat and a nightcap, Tammie gladly accepted. Janine’s house was just on the island side of the Number 4 Bridge. The trailer where Tammie lived was across the bridge on the mainland, a short walk home, less than a half mile along the highway.
     Tammie stopped to tell Buddy she was leaving with Janine. She had to shout to be heard above the noise of the band. Buddy was bragging to someone about the big shark’s tooth. He seemed irritated that she had interrupted his story. Tammie wasn’t even sure Buddy had listened. She stood on her toes, kissed her husband on the cheek, and left the M&M.
     Buddy and Bobby continued drinking. Bobby was popping amphetamines into his mouth and swallowing the speed with his beer when Buddy wasn’t looking. He kept disappearing into the toilet where he would latch the door and snort cocaine. The alcohol and chemical mix in his bloodstream was nearing toxic levels. A little after midnight, Bobby stumbled out of the M&M, climbed into his truck, and blacked out.
     He missed the fight between Buddy and the Dixie County rednecks. The rednecks were farmers and cowboys, long time enemies of the commercial fishermen. The two groups drinking in the same bar almost always guaranteed a fight. When the rednecks stomped through the door of the M&M, Barry the bartender anticipated what was coming. He was dialing the county sheriff dispatcher when the big fellow in the white Stetson grabbed the Meglodon tooth hanging from Buddy’s neck.
     Drunk as he was, Buddy knocked his challenger out with a punch so hard he broke the guy’s jaw and his own knuckles. The second cowboy managed to land a few blows before Buddy slammed him head first into a support post. He was beating the third cowboy senseless with a pool cue when the police wrestled him to the floor and slapped on the handcuffs.
     It wasn’t the first time Buddy had been carted off to jail in the cage of a police car. Buddy knew the routine. He was drunk, sore from his injuries, and barely paying attention to the booking sergeant when he glanced up and saw his son.
     Two drug enforcement agents were marching Cecil down the hall and into an interrogation room.

                                                                               ~~~


     Tammie and Janine opened a bottle of wine and talked late into the night. Then they got interested in the horror movie on the TV. It was almost 2 am when Tammie started for home. Janine offered to drive her.
     "No Janine, it’s a nice night. I want to walk. I need to clear my head to put up with Buddy in case he beat me home. Sometimes he’s a real handful,’’ Tammie laughed ruefully.
     "I know baby, I know." Janine gave her friend a hug. "You sure I can’t run you home? Tammie smiled, shook her head, turned and stepped into the night.
     She made it across the bridge and was walking along the edge of the asphalt to avoid the damp grass on the shoulder when she saw the headlights. Someone was coming fast and weaving all over the road.

                                                                               ~~~

     Roy had fallen asleep on the living room couch. He was excited and had been trying to stay awake in hopes of talking to his mother. When he got home, there had been a letter for him in the mailbox. The state college had approved his scholarship application. Roy was determined to accept it.
     A county policeman banging on the door awakened him. The rotating red lights of the patrol car flashed across Roy’s frightened face as he opened the door. 

                                                                               ~~~

     Bobby woke with little recollection of how he had made it home. He vaguely remembered bumping something, maybe a small doe, after he crossed the Number 4 Bridge. He had not bothered to stop. Either the deer had been quick enough to get out of the way or it hadn’t. Bobby was driving to Bay Key later in the morning. If there was a carcass in the ditch, Bobby thought he might bring it home and butcher it. He liked venison.

                                                                               ~~~
 
Roy was in shock, but dry eyed, composed and calm as he parked in the jail parking lot. In the last three hours he had identified his mother’s body and retrieved his father’s truck from in front of the M&M. His uncle had loaned him bail money for Buddy, and helped him hire a lawyer for Cecil. The police had agreed to Roy’s request that he be the one to break the news to Buddy. 

     Buddy came out the jail entrance, walked across the parking lot, opened the passenger door and got in beside Roy.
     "Where’s your mother? Why didn’t Tammie come with you? Your brother’s ass is in big trouble."
     Roy drove toward the Number 4 Bridge. 
     "DAMMIT BOY, ANSWER ME!"
     Roy just drove on.
     Police cars were parked on both sides of the highway. It had taken several hours for traffic homicide and forensics to arrive from Gainesville. They had just finished photographing the crime scene. Tammie’s body was still in the ditch. Attendants were lifting a gurney from a hearse.
     Roy pulled to the side of the road, got out of the truck, and started walking away. He did not look back even when he heard Buddy’s screams of anguish as he held Tammie’s mangled body. 
     Bobby was driving toward town when he saw Roy. He slowed down, stopped and leaned across the seat.
     "What’s all them cop cars doing ahead? Hey boy, I’m talkin to you."’
     Roy never broke stride.
     Bobby made a point of parking his truck a good distance from the police. 
     He walked to the accident scene. Buddy was sobbing and shaking, leaning against the hearse for support as attendants slid the gurney carrying Tammie’s body inside. Buddy collapsed to the ground and curled into a fetal position.
     As the hearse pulled away, Bobby glanced down at the crushed grass where one of its rear tires had rested. He looked around to see if anybody was watching, squatted down and slipped something into his boot. Bobby was nervous and anxious to leave. Police wanted to talk further with Buddy. They said they would make sure he made it home.
     Bobby drove toward Bay Key. As he crossed the Number 4 Bridge, he pulled the spearhead from his boot, tossed it out the window, over the bridge railing and into the channel.

                                                                           ~~~

     Buddy walked into a silent house. Tammie was dead. Cecil was in jail. And from the open and empty drawers in Roy’s room, it was obvious that he had moved out.
     Buddy realized he was still wearing the Meglodon tooth. A thought stunned him like a revelation. He sat down heavily on a chair and was very still. He stared at a family photograph on top of the TV. Tammie had been very proud of it. She always showed it to visitors. 
     After a while, Buddy got up. He walked out the door, got in his truck, and drove to the dock where he kept his boat. He cranked the engine, cast off the bow and stern lines, and moved quickly out of the harbor. 
     Fishermen who saw Buddy heading up the back channel toward the Suwanee said he looked like a zombie. He didn’t return waves and ignored shouted greetings.
     Buddy ran his boat ashore on the little sand beach at the base of the Indian mound. As he scrambled through the scrub and started up the mound, He did not see the alligator nest. He stepped directly on it, crushing the eggs with his boot heel. 
     Buddy fell to his knees atop the mound and began digging with his hands. Tears ran down his cheeks and his chest heaved with sobs as he placed the Meglodon tooth back in the grave. Buddy looked up. The chief’s skull still rested on the tree root where he had propped it. He was staring into the vacant eye sockets when the alligator attacked.


The End


 © 2000, Tom Sanders

 

 

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