Near Cedar Key, FL – February 4, 2013
Breakfast with Leroy. Bacon and eggs and a biscuit grilled with butter. A story about an old battery-powered radio and hearing that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Leroy was in Cuba too. He was there the day Batista left and rebels flooded the streets. He said the city celebrated arm-in-arm.
Most people in Suwannee have a golf cart. Leroy has a three-wheeled Harley. I heard it rumble down the streets as I navigated the maze of canals toward the river. He’d pop up on top of a bridge or on a sea wall to wave and make sure I turned where I needed to. The last I saw of him was at the end of the farthest road. I found him sitting on an old wooden dock and waiting to point me around a big cypress island in the Suwannee River.
“East Pass is just beyond that,” he said. “It’s the first channel on the right.”
Then he waved goodbye.
Out in the gulf the miles came easy and Cedar Key rose in the distance. The water turned as still as a pond and looked like it filled the horizon, leaving only tufts of islands hanging above glass.
I reached Cedar Key late. Someone told me to go to city hall and tell Janice that Janie sent me and she should buy me a cup of clam chowder at Tony’s. Or maybe it was Janie that Janice sent me. Either way Janet and Janice were both gone, but the sweetest woman pointed me toward Tony’s, even walked with me outside so she could show me right where it was. I went in and ordered the biggest bowl of clam chowder they had. It came in a saucer a foot wide and tasted like melted heaven.
Tony’s went up to the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport Rhode Island and won so many times that the Cook-off banned them. They can’t enter again. It’s not fair and it looks bad when a little old Florida place beats all those New Englanders at their own game.
You can buy cans of the chowder to ship home, just add a few cups of cream and a bit of heat, but you should probably just get in a car and drive down for the real thing sometime. It is worth it and that saucer plate disappeared quick.
I talked to a man from Jersey back at the beach. He unloaded a canoe as I loaded the Looksha. I asked if he needed help getting the boat back on top of his van. He picked it up and put it on his shoulders like he’d done it a thousand times and grinned at me from underneath the hull.
“It’s lighter than it looks,” he said, kinda whispering. “I like to pull up on beaches with pretty women on them and carry it around so they think I’m strong.”
I didn’t lift the Looksha anywhere, I just laughed and slid her back in the water. She’s heavier than she looks and we only had seagulls for company.
The water felt creamy and thick, flat as a mirror, rich against the thin clouds overhead. Florida throws a hell of sunset, the kind that looks painted on, the kind that forces you to stop and stare even though you know you’ll end up paddling in the dark.
Forget the dark, it says. You watch this.
I ended up on a small island of oyster shells a foot above high tide. Jellyfish along the shore glowed when a wave hit them, popping like balloons of neon-blue paint in the darkness. The stars came out and burned the black sky. The Milky Way looked like a cloud from one end of the horizon to the other. Orion lost his belt in the madness.
I asked Leroy about love yesterday because you shouldn’t pass up a chance to get at eighty years of wisdom. He said something at the time, but he really answered me today at the boat ramp right before I left when out-of-nowhere he looked at me, stopped me with his clear blue eyes, and told me it was all worth it. I could tell he’d gone home and thought about it last night. There is a lot of pain sometimes, but love is a beautiful part of life and you shouldn’t miss it.
I love this trip.