Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>The
Meglodon Curse by Tom Sanders (Summer 2000)
The Meglodon Curse
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
Cecil looked down, avoiding eye contact with
his father. He was relieved that Bobby had stopped before he said too
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
2000, Tom Sanders