Read “Splashdown,” an Exclusive Excerpt from “If I Survive You,” by Jonathan Escoffery

·48 min read
Photo credit: Oprah Daily
Photo credit: Oprah Daily

Jonathan Escoffery’s radiant collection of linked stories, If I Survive You, may well be the buzziest debut of 2022, arriving with advance praise from literary luminaries such as Nicole Dennis-Benn, Marlon James, and Ann Patchett. Over these eight pieces, Escoffery, winner of the 2020 Plimpton Prize and a current Stegner Fellow at Stanford, narrates the larger tale of Topper, Sanya, and their two sons, Delano and Trelawney, a Jamaican family displaced to Miami in the late 1970s, fleeing political upheaval. As they gingerly carve out their slice of the American Dream, Hurricane Andrew unleashes catastrophe, pummeling South Florida in 1992. Nevertheless, they persist: through demolished houses, painful divorces, economic setbacks, and a chronic anomie. In crystalline prose, Escoffery evokes the fluorescent textures of Miami, tapping Caribbean traditions, immigrant aspirations, and familial and communal bonds.

Oprah Daily proudly publishes “Splashdown,” an exclusive excerpt from If I Survive You—here teenaged Cukie, Delano and Trelawney’s troubled cousin, connects with Ox, the father he’s never known, now fishing and tending bar in the Florida Keys. From a rebellious boyhood to his own stressful fatherhood, Cukie yearns to discover what it means to be a good man, and whether he can trust his parent to guide him. “As Cukie approached the dock, he didn’t spot much of himself in the man who was supposed to be his father,” Escoffery writes. “Ox looked more akin to his inanimate surroundings—every hair on his body having been sun-bleached and windblown—than to Cukie, except for that nose, pointed yet pressed close to his face like a stingray hovering above a patch of sand.”

Kick back with a piña colada and dive deep into the turquoise waters and disquieting mysteries of “Splashdown.” —Hamilton Cain, contributing editor

SPLASHDOWN

The summer he turned thirteen, Cukie Panton set out for the Florida Keys to meet his father for the first time. By then, Ox meant little more to Cukie than a syllable spat from his mother’s lips. What he knew of Ox was that he was American— the catalyst for Cukie having been born in Baptist Hospital, right on Kendall Drive—and that Ox had stuck out the first two months of fatherhood, then bounced, leaving to Cukie the dried ink on his birth record that spelled out Lennox Martin.

More than a dozen years after this abrupt departure, Cukie’s mom answered the phone to hear a remorseful Ox, saying he should know his boy. By this time Cukie felt ambivalent. It didn’t help that Daphne Panton figured that the drink or else some brush with death must have resuscitated Ox’s conscience to bring him calling. Perhaps Andrew had inspired Ox’s reemergence, the hurricane having wiped away so much that would have to be rebuilt, not even a year ago. Whatever the affliction, Cukie’s mother assumed it was ephemeral. The calls continued, though, and when plans grew specific, she told Cukie to pack his duffel and they departed Kendall for Smuggler’s Key.

In summers past, they’d have followed U.S. 1 thirty short minutes south to Cutler Ridge, where Cukie would spend weeks with his cousins Trelawny and Delano. But Aunty Sanya and Uncle Topper had separated in recent months, dividing their sons and Cukie’s nearest idea of a functioning family unit. His mother hadn’t offered the why behind their separation when she relayed the news, but when she mentioned Uncle Topper now, she dropped the Uncle.

That his father lived within a two-hour drive was not lost on Cukie. “Me can’t say he’s a good man.” His mother flexed her fingers over the steering wheel, eyes locked on the river of gravel rushing beneath them. “Every boy deserves to believe him father is good, but if each father were good, we’d be living in a different kind of world, you see me?”

Cukie nodded in response. Responding to adults and their questions sat atop the list of changes Cukie promised his mother he would make this summer, though these conversations felt like acid in his throat. His stomach tightened as he barreled toward an answer to the question that haunted his short life: What kind of man abandons his son?

Cukie preferred to focus on the water creeping up either side of the highway. Road and buildings fell away, replaced by an expanse of sea, prompting him to think of silver bodies gliding in the sun-speckled turquoise.

“Him says him changed,” his mother continued. “Me pray he’s changed. And since me can’t get you outside of your head, maybe he can.”

Cukie imagined his body slicing through the sun-soaked ocean toward the horizon, the lapping crest breaks tingling along his spine. If he could picture himself as a dolphin, he would become one. And he ’d had practice. He ’d spent whole years imagining. He’d newly flunked seventh grade, due to what his mother called his concentration problems. She and his teachers had it wrong, though. Cukie focused too intently, more often on vivid worlds he built to hide within. All those times in class he stared blankly at the chalkboard, his mind a thousand miles away, his body unresponsive, till a teacher tramped to his seat to slam a textbook on his desk and jolt him back into his body, gasping.

Cukie felt something similar when his mother stomped the brake inside Blue Harbor Marina. “You see him there?” She pointed through the windshield at a figure loading a cooler onto a boat and insisted Cukie make his own introduction.

As Cukie approached the dock, he didn’t spot much of himself in the man who was supposed to be his father. Standing bare-chested in sandals and board shorts, Ox looked more akin to his inanimate surroundings—every hair on his body having been sun-bleached and windblown—than to Cukie, except for that nose, pointed yet pressed close to his face like a stingray hovering above a patch of sand.

He’d never realized his nose, sharp and flat against his face as it was, had a lineage.

“Cukie?” Ox asked, and Cukie nodded, considering that Ox might have arranged to meet any number of his bastard children this afternoon. He had the impulse to turn back toward his mother’s car, but Ox said, “You’d better follow me, then.”

Cukie waved goodbye to his mother and trailed Ox to a tiki hut perched at the marina’s north end. The hut’s narrow bar faced the water; its back wall displayed an assortment of beer bottles standing proud like trophies. Dried-out palm fronds scarcely hid metal shingles reflecting the sun’s blaze. Laminated card stock taped to the counter listed rates on charters and rental equipment prices. Each menu heading read Slip 26 Charters. Through an open doorway, rectangular wire cages sat one atop another, lining the storeroom’s perimeter, surrounding stacks of beer cases. Cukie wondered why they hadn’t met at Ox’s home instead.

“This is just the side hustle,” Ox explained. He swung a section of counter up on its hinge and stepped behind the bar. Cukie felt Ox’s gaze follow his as he surveyed the tight space. His focus landed on the wall where Ox had tacked a now-faded poster. The woman staring out from it appeared to have just emerged from water, a red T-shirt soaked to translucence dripping against her frame, the word JAMAICA stretching across the curvature of her bust.

Cukie had studied this poster while waiting for his mother to purchase ackee and jackfruit at Jamaican groceries, and at restaurants, where it graced interior windows and walls, as commonplace as the black, green, and gold flag. The image had become one of the island’s top signifiers, more iconic even than images of Jamaica’s national heroes, Paul Bogle and Marcus Garvey. Its presence here comforted Cukie.

“This could’ve easily been your mother,” Ox said, steadying himself against the bar, and Cukie said, “Huh?”

Ox flicked a finger at the poster’s top left corner, where a heart had been drawn in black marker and, under it, an autograph.

“Me and Sintra have history.” A grin spread above Ox’s stubbly cleft chin.

Cukie dropped his eyes to the bar and thought, Liar. He picked at the sun-dried edge of the beer menu’s tape with his pinky, letting his eyes lose focus over the dollar signs and numbers.

“It’s a little-known fact,” Ox said, and Cukie thought, Please shut up. “Sintra isn’t even Jamaican. She’s Trini.” Ox laughed. “Picture that. The tourists flying down, not realizing they’re on the wrong damn island.”

Cukie ripped a strip of tape off Ox’s bar top and began tearing it to pieces. He wondered what someone like Sintra could see in the redneck behind the counter. Toward the start of their drive, his mother had let on that she and Ox met on a flight out of Kingston, when she worked as a flight attendant for Air Jamaica. She didn’t go so far as to reveal what he’d said to make her join him for dinner that evening.

Cukie returned his gaze to Sintra, hanging in Ox’s tiki bar. Liar or not, Ox had now ruined her for him. Ox turned from the poster and examined him, jaw twisted, as though he’d found a baby in a basket on his doorstep.

“I got something special for you,” he said, and he knelt to reach behind an icebox. Cukie thought he’d reemerge with two bottles of Budweiser, but he rose holding a square, netted hoop in one hand and a thin, wand-like stick in the other. “This here’s your tickle stick and this here’s your net.”

Cukie waited for him to say more.

“It’s mini season on lobster,” Ox said, and Cukie nodded, silent. “It’s time you learned to catch.”

At Ox’s urging, they went out on the Belly Bloat and anchored near a sandbar a mile offshore. They started with snorkeling; Cukie had never done it. Handing him his mask, Ox said, “Spit in it,” and he spat in his own, then poked the saliva, smearing it on the lens to an even coat. Cukie did the same, eyebrows arched, forehead creased. “It’s so your mask don’t fog,” Ox explained. “Amazing what bodily fluids are good for.”

They swam until Cukie found his rhythm, breathing into his snorkel’s mouthpiece. “Good,” Ox said, climbing back aboard. “Now try it with these.” He tossed Cukie the net and the tickle stick, and Cukie nearly sank himself trying to hold on to both.

“Float,” Ox shouted. “Float, dammit.”

Cukie didn’t know how to respond to a stranger who was supposed to be his father yelling float while he sank. Several feet from his thrashing, the sea was calm as bottled water, and when he finally let go of the net, it bobbed on the surface.

Cukie relaxed his limbs and leaned into the water, imagining that beneath him a pair of cupped hands supported his body. He tilted his head back, sucking in slow breaths, making the water do the work of holding him up.

“Only a fool would drown himself,” Ox yelled down from the Belly Bloat. “There’s so much salt in these waters, a boy skinny as you should be walking on it.” Cukie watched Ox glide about the deck. The ocean water matted his amber-tipped hair, turning it dark and heavy against his broad, tan chest, but he moved with a litheness he hadn’t possessed on land.

The question loomed as Cukie watched his father—the one that always came when he thought of Ox: What kind of man is he?

Cukie fought the urge to sink to the ocean floor, to see if his father would rescue him.

Ox carried a mesh bag and a plastic gauge to the boat’s edge, stepped up onto the gunwale, and dived in. He took the net, and the pair swam to the sandbar, where they could stand with the water’s surface cutting below their thighs. Cukie ladled puddles of water in his palms and spilled it over his shoulders and neck to quell the sting of the beating sunrays.

“It’s all about balance,” Ox said, facing Cukie, squaring his hips. “It’s a dance. Only there are more partners involved. There’s the lobster, but she’s not your main dance partner. Your stick and net, those are extensions of yourself. It’s the ocean, the waves, which way the current’s pulling. You learn to move with her, she’ll never do you wrong.”

Cukie nodded.

“You see a sea bug, what are you going to do?” Ox handed Cukie the net. “Show me. I’m the lobster.” He patted his chest.

Cukie brought the net down on top of Ox, but Ox ducked and scurried to the side. Cukie tried again with increased intensity, but Ox fled in the opposite direction. Cukie swiped at him, trying to scoop him from the left, and Ox jumped backward. Cukie slapped the net against the face of the water, saying, “This is stupid.”

“It won’t work like that,” Ox said, and he snatched the net from Cukie’s hand. “You see a big ol’ net coming down on top of you, what are you going to do?” He brought the net down over Cukie’s head.

Cukie said, “Run away,” and Ox pulled the net off him.

Ox snatched the tickle stick, saying, “You see a stick coming at your face.” He poked the mask dangling from Cukie’s neck. “What are you going to do?”

Cukie said, “I’m still running.”

Ox poked him in the chest and Cukie stepped back, and Ox said, “Yeah, you are, but this time I know in which direction.”

Cukie still wasn’t convinced of Ox’s method when they came upon a sea bug clinging to a hulking cut of limestone a hundred feet or so from where they’d been practicing. Cukie ducked under to watch, while Ox took the stick and net and went to work. He approached from the front, extending his net-holding arm, positioning the hoop behind the bug, partially against the stone ’s surface. He pointed the tickle stick at the bug’s head, letting the current pull him slowly toward it till the stick’s tip touched antennae and the bug shot backward into the net. Ox flipped the net, open end up, and brought it out of the water.

Cukie viewed the net with no small level of repulsion.

Ox extracted the lobster, allowing it to kick air. “Don’t that look tasty?” he asked, and Cukie scrunched his face, saying, “What kind of lobster is that?” Its outer core held hints of yellow and tan but was otherwise cockroach-colored. Its feelers shifted away, then back toward each other, as though searching out a signal. Like a bug. Like a prehistoric palmetto with a fantail and extra legs.

Ox explained it was a spiny lobster, the kind native to Florida’s coast. Like crabs and shrimp, lobsters were rarely red before you cooked them. And warm-water lobsters didn’t have pincers like the ones up north. He showed Cukie how to measure the carapace with the gauge to make sure it was within regulation. “Three inches or longer,” Ox said. “The body, never the tail.”

During this conversation, Cukie learned about Ox’s job as a trap fisherman during season. “There are eight days until Splashdown. That’s when we drop our cages. You’re going to learn to trap,” Ox said. “We ’ll start you building and baiting. Before long, you’ll be pulling in hauls yourself.”

Cukie let his fingertips twirl along the water’s surface. His eyes followed the ripples his fingers created. “I have to work?”

“Your mother told me about your skylarking. You’re old enough to learn a trade.”

Cukie drew a circle in the water, digging deeper till his finger formed a miniature whirlpool.

“It’s something you’ll be able to fall back on when you’re older.”

Cukie raised his finger from the swirling water and watched how long the ripple lasted.

That night, father and son returned to the tiki bar, the back end of which Ox had converted into an apartment with a shower stall, a toilet, and a kitchenette. Over a supper of broiled lobster tails, Ox explained the next morning’s agenda: trap construction. “Make certain you sleep,” he warned. “We start early.”

While Cukie brushed his teeth, Ox set out a second cot between the kitchenette and a maze of stacked beer crates and broken lobster traps. It’s like camping, Cukie reasoned, laying his head on his cot that night. Except he couldn’t see the stars, only the thick skin of night trapped within the tiki hut, only the pitched ceiling beyond.

And in the predawn, as Ox ripped him from his dreams to start the day, Cukie thought, It’s like the military. It’s like torture.

Cukie expected he’d hate trap building, but the work lubricated his interactions with Ox that first week. If, hunched over a corroded cage, pliers in his grip, Ox said, “I reckon your mama’s still mad about…everything,” Cukie could respond, “We need more wire. I’ll run to the supply shop.” If, bent shoulder-deep in a trap’s throat, Ox asked, “What exactly is it you keep fantasizing about?” Cukie might shake himself present enough to lie: “What it’d be like? Getting caught up in a trap?”

It wasn’t a week, though, before the ache in his arms made Cukie feel Ox owed him something, made him brave enough to collect. He wrapped himself in his bedsheet after dinner and revealed what he’d spent so many days wondering. “Where’ve you been all these years?”

Ox lowered himself to his cot and kept quiet a full minute. “Been here awhile. Before that, all over.”

Cukie nodded, then recognized that he hadn’t come away with any kind of answer. “All over where, though?”

“Spent about a decade steering yachts up the coast of South America. Throughout the West Indies. Anywhere anyone paid me to take them.”

“Fun,” Cukie said, barely audible, and Ox moved his head in denial.

“It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds,” he wanted Cukie to know. The sea was unpredictable, as were the men who’d employed him as their captain. He’d worked for unscrupulous men, men he hoped never to set eyes on in this lifetime. “They’d direct me to some pier, and I never knew what they would ask me to pilot. Nor what they had me transporting.”

As Cukie listened, Ox slipped into strange accents that wrapped around the names of ports he’d swiftly exited from. His recollections presented uncontextualized brutality. “Seen a man brighten from brown to beige, punctured and drained over a beach in Bimini. One woman, she simply vanished a day out to sea from Mobay.” That night, Ox spoke the language of dreams, of the impossibly venturesome, and of implausible, inevitable violence.

The pair awoke early the morning of Splashdown, dropping the first of their traps when the sun’s apex broke the horizon as a fiery pinpoint. The cages would soak and attract lobsters for a week before season opened and they returned to harvest them.

In the days between Splashdown and season, Ox resumed escorting tourists on diving excursions while Cukie manned the tiki bar.

His first morning alone in Smuggler’s Key, Cukie felt an undeniable urge he hadn’t felt since he was seven years old, searching through his mother’s drawers for signs of a father long gone. Now his father had reappeared in the flesh, and Cukie couldn’t yet tell what kind of man he was.

In the lull of the marina’s foot traffic, Cukie found himself in the storeroom, staring down at the closed lid of the plastic bin that served as Ox’s dresser. He lowered himself to his knees and peeled the bin’s lid off tenderly, as though expecting to locate the tattered map to his father’s soul. At the bottom of his mother’s bedside table, he’d once found a picture of her lying in her hospital bed, cradling him on what appeared to be the day he was born. A man Cukie guessed was Ox leaned over them, hands placed gently on his mother’s shoulders, only his face had been cut out of the photograph.

Cukie swept his hand across the bottom of the bin but found no corresponding photos or remnants of the past. He lifted one of Ox’s folded shirts to his nose, inhaling. If he could detect goodness, or remorsefulness, or deceit, what would they smell like? In the shirt’s cotton fibers, Cukie smelled only what the surrounding air carried: the pungency of the sea.

The next afternoon, the marina’s manager, Happy, saddled up to the tiki bar. The sun had lightened his yacht club blazer by several shades. Sweat congealed in his neck beard, and Cukie thought he resembled a shipwrecked captain.

“You must be Ox’s calf,” Happy said, resting a Styrofoam coffee cup on the bar top before extending his sweaty hand. “A certain semblance gives you away.”

“Cukie,” he said, returning the handshake.

“You’re a little young to be tending bar, no?” Happy placed a clipboard on the counter and uncapped his pen, as though to be- gin recording their exchange. “Your dad ever hear of child labor laws?”

“I haven’t served you anything,” Cukie said.

“No need to get defensive.” Happy performed a chuckle—one meant to deflate tension, or contribute more, Cukie could not tell. “Learn to take a joke.”

Behind Happy, boats swayed in their slips, and Cukie wondered how long before his father would return.

“They pay me to be a bit of a prick,” Happy said, raising the clipboard and placing it down again. “But not to worry. I’m told I do a piss-poor job.”

“I wouldn’t sell yourself short,” Cukie said.

Happy paused a beat, then allowed himself a genuine laugh. “Your father’s son all right.” He lifted the cup and the clipboard, making to move on, but stopped to say, “I’ve known your father a long while. Before his trapping racket, even.” Happy watched Cukie expectantly, as though waiting for this information to alter Cukie’s estimation of him. “Known him for ages.”

“That makes one of us,” Cukie said.

Happy frowned and raised the cup to his lips.

“What is it you know about him?” Cukie asked. “My father?” “That’s a question.” Happy paused to choose his words carefully. “Here’s a thing. You might find it useful. Long as I’ve known him, Ox never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

When season opened, Ox and Cukie searched out their pots using GPS, spotting the cages by the bright buoys they’d tethered to them. As they bagged their catch and reset the traps, Ox told Cukie, “A wise man keeps his overhead low and reinvests his profits.” And “A man doesn’t follow trapping laws because he’s afraid he’ll get caught. It’s about integrity. It’s about doing right by your neighbors and respecting the sea that ensures your livelihood.”

Trapping, Cukie came to understand, had centered Ox. It was his faith. All that was necessary for Ox to be good, then, Cukie considered, was for Ox to be a good fisherman. It was a thought that eased his mind when anger surfaced over his abandonment.

At the end of each day’s harvest, they sold the lobsters to a market not far from Blue Harbor.

At the close of summer, before Cukie reunited with his mother in the marina’s parking lot, Ox handed him a cash-filled envelope. As Ox paid him what amounted to a small fortune in the hands of a teenager, he looked Cukie in the eyes and said, “Good work, son.”

Cukie brought his summer work ethic home, no longer tethered to the question of where in the world he might locate his father. He possessed the answer: Two hours south. Smuggler’s Key.

On visits to Aunty Sanya’s, Cukie set the table for dinner and started on the dishes afterward without having been asked. His aunt usually shooed him away from the sink, then yelled for Trelawny to come out from his room and take over. Trelawny did so begrudgingly, muttering, “Thanks, suck-up,” as he passed Cukie in the kitchen.

Growing up, Cukie had envied Trelawny’s access to his father. Now he wondered what Uncle Topper had taught Trelawny that left him content to lock himself in his room, wasting hour after hour playing video games.

Cukie committed to the idea that he’d make his hours count, focusing them on his schoolwork and helping his mother around the house.

Toward the end of the school year, Cukie’s academic counselor summoned him to her office to inform him that, provided he did well on his final exams, he’d proved ready to join his original class and enter high school in the fall. Before school let out, his father phoned. “I expect you’ll be coming down again?” he said, and Cukie said, “I expect I will.”

The summer Cukie turned fourteen, he and Ox fell into a rhythm, as though their months apart had been mere hours. As they worked, they spoke little of the past and much about whether Cukie might like to work with Ox full-time, once he finished high school. “I think I might,” Cukie said with measured enthusiasm. Together they imagined ways in which they could expand, and Cukie began to see himself as Ox’s partner and, maybe, the heir to his trapping business.

Come Splashdown, Cukie took the Belly Bloat’s steering wheel as Ox directed him out of Blue Harbor Marina to where they’d drop their cages. By sundown, their traps were at sea, and the next morning Ox again left Cukie in charge of Slip 26.

One afternoon, while Cukie sat repairing a trap in the storeroom, he heard Happy’s voice out front, followed by his father’s.

“It’s perfect,” Happy was saying. “Near genius.”

“Then do it yourself,” Ox broke in. “Leave me out of it.”

“You’re already in it. Why do you think we let you set up shop here in the first place?”

“Can’t you let me live?”

“I’d like to, friend, I would,” Happy insisted. “But middle management doesn’t get a say in these things. The decision’s already been made.”

Cukie heard the sound of flesh beating wood and he crept out to see. Happy was already hustling away. Ox stood behind the bar, rubbing his palm.

“What was that all about?”

Ox shook his head. “You heard the saying about arguing with fools?”

Cukie wanted to ask what sort of trouble Ox was in, but said, “True as ever,” and Ox grinned.

“When did you get such a smart mouth?” From his expression, Ox genuinely wanted to know.

At the start of the ninth grade, Cukie noticed how his classmates and teachers appeared newly attentive when he spoke, though he noticed, too, how their eyes fell and lingered on his chest, and how frequently their hands, as of their own will, reached for his triceps and biceps. He hadn’t fully perceived how hoisting cages had transformed his body till he saw himself through the gaze of others; until Lianne, his middle school crush, asked him to homecoming; until his PE teacher invited him to try out for the football team; until one night, as she passed him in the hall, his mother grasped his wrist and said, “But my god. You’ve become a man.”

Through his father’s instruction, Cukie had raised himself out of his daydreams and into the world.

The summer Cukie turned fifteen, after long days out on the water, he ’d follow Ox to the marina’s south end, where Happy and other fishermen gathered to decompress over beers. Cukie would sit at the water’s edge, leaning back against a pillar, silently listening to the men’s stories. On one such night a fisherman named Roy asked no one in particular, “You think Smuggler’s named itself that to attract tourists? You know what Miami was built on, right?”

Happy interrupted, “You’re confusing your centuries. It got its name in pirate days. Blackbeard’s time.”

“It’s not drug runners you should be worried about,” Ox said. “It’s trap thieves. I once caught a guy emptying my pots the day before season opened. Tell you what: I put sixteen shots in that motherfucker’s hull. Had a young couple with me I’d taken diving, otherwise I’d have spared his boat and shot him instead. Coast Guard had the nerve to confiscate my rifle.”

Cukie hadn’t heard this story before and wanted to ask his father to elaborate, but another fisherman took the conversation in a different direction.

On some of these summer nights, Happy’s daughter would ride her bike to the marina and join them. Her dad called her Genie, though she told people to call her Genevieve, and Cukie assumed she hung around because she lacked age-appropriate companionship. Adolescence clung about her in her baggy, grass-stained jeans and unkempt hair, though she was a year older than Cukie. Cukie knew he liked her when, one night, while Ox and Happy and several other fishermen circled the base of the dock telling jokes, she bravely stepped in and said:

“A sailor and a marine are pissing in side-by-side urinals.” Genevieve stood with her legs wide and held her soda bottle out from her crotch, making wsshhhing sounds. “The marine washes his hands after, but the sailor doesn’t. The marine says to the sailor, ‘In the marines, they teach us to wash our hands after a piss.’ The sailor says, ‘Yeah? Well, in the navy they teach us not to piss on our hands.’”

The fishermen erupted in laughter, from the display of foolery more than the joke. Cukie had never been brave enough to speak up in these gatherings, not unless he was invited to answer a question, but Genevieve took the spotlight with a confidence that stunned him.

On another such night, during Cukie’s fourth summer at the marina, while Happy was in a particularly drunken uproar, Genevieve turned her attention to Cukie, lazily circling him on her bicycle as the pair drifted back toward the tiki hut.

“What kind of name is Cukie?” she asked, one foot on the pedal, one leg extended to the ground like a kickstand.

“Same kind as Genie,” he said.

“Do you have soft filling inside? You’re kind of an Oreo, aren’t you?”

Cukie found his admiration for her declining. “How’s this genie thing work? Do I have to rub you to wish you’d shut up?”

“Depends. Where would you rub me?” Cukie’s heartbeat quickened. “Your mouth.”

Genevieve lowered the bike to the gravel and stepped close. She took his hand and brought her mouth down over his thumb. It was just his thumb, he’d remind himself in the hours to follow. But the sensation felt like his entire body rubbed against her lips and tongue, and he tingled in such a way that he hardly realized when she removed his finger from her mouth. She stooped to lift her bicycle and asked, “You ever get breaks, Cukie?” Her hypnotic circling continued. “You ever get over to Smuggler’s beach?”

“I could if I wanted.”

“Saturday? At six? Want to?”

Cukie nodded, and Genie said, “Bye, Cukie,” before pedaling into the dusk.

That Saturday, Cukie sat waiting for Genie, watching the tangerine sun dripping down the sky. He was supposed to be watching the tiki bar while Ox was out fishing with a group of tourists. If he left now, he might beat Ox home and he’d never be the wiser. Cukie sifted his fingers through the sand, wondering whether she had stood him up intentionally. The public beach was a thin strip, truncated so that either end was visible no matter one’s position. They couldn’t have missed each other.

What’s bad about getting stood up, Cukie considered, is knowing how little you are worth in the eyes of the person who left you waiting. Worse, though, is understanding that in your own estimation, you must not be worth all that much, either, because while they thought so little about you, you continued to wait.

Cukie couldn’t imagine confronting Genie about it. The only reasonable thing to do was to pretend it had never happened. If she came by the tiki bar again, he would force a smile, as though he, too, had forgotten they had planned to meet. Because the only way getting stood up can get worse is if you admit that it hurt you.

Cukie raised himself to leave and saw Genie approaching, holding herself at the elbows, chin tucked, as though traveling against a gale. As she neared, Cukie saw her tear-spattered cheeks. “What’s going on?” He lifted his hands to take her in his arms, but dug them into his pockets instead.

“Dad didn’t come home last night. The police won’t even look for him until another day passes. Something’s wrong. Have you seen him?”

“No,” Cukie said, glancing down at the sand. He hadn’t seen him today, but he didn’t offer up that he had seen him the day before, headed out on the Belly Bloat with Ox. Instinctively, he knew to cast his father, and by extension himself, as far as possible from whatever trouble loomed. “I bet he’s somewhere sleeping off a hangover.”

Genie stared back coldly. “He wouldn’t just not come home. My father wouldn’t do that to me.”

Right then Cukie understood the difference between them.

Cukie forced his mind blank on the walk home. Not until he spotted the Belly Bloat parked in her slip did he consider whether Happy or Ox had looked worried or angry or afraid the day before. He entered the storeroom and found Ox hunched over, inspecting an assortment of fishing rods. Ox said, “Where’ve you been? It’s not like you to abandon your responsibilities like this.” Cukie crossed the room and lowered himself onto his cot. He didn’t speak until Ox stopped fussing with the rods and neared. “Do you know what happened to Happy?” Cukie said in a half whisper.

“What are you asking me?” Ox said.

“Happy. He’s missing.”

“What’s that have to do with me?”

“You two went out on the water yesterday. No one’s seen him since.”

“You’re mistaken,” Ox said, adding, “I haven’t heard from Happy in days,” and Cukie said, “I saw you.”

Ox leaned over and snatched Cukie’s shoulder. Cukie winced and grabbed his father’s hand, and Ox squeezed harder, dropping his face close to Cukie ’s. “Listen here. I won’t have some bastard child accusing me.” Ox released Cukie and returned to the fishing rods.

No words passed between father and son for the remainder of the night. And in the morning, as Ox pulled the Belly Bloat out of slip 26, Cukie tore through his clothes bin, stripping it bare, stomping the container to sharp plastic shards, before hitching a ride back to Miami.

His baby boy had emerged slippery and screaming into the world when the panic began blooming inside Cukie. They’d agreed on Julius, after Lianne’s grandfather, and once Julius had been wiped clean, swaddled in a hospital blanket, handed to Lianne— exhausted, red-faced in spite of her brown skin—she’d had the wherewithal, after minutes of staring, of breathing him in, to spin Julius toward Cukie, saying, “Look. Your nose.” But Cukie had already recognized it, like an arrowhead glued to a sapling.

Of the anxieties Cukie had brought into the delivery room, passing down his least cherished feature had not been one. He had, of course, considered whose face he’d eventually come to see in his son’s, his or Lianne’s, or some near-even split, or else neither, though Cukie figured that would reveal itself over years, months at the earliest. Among his anxieties: he had recently dreamed that Baptist’s staff had misplaced Julius in a ward of indistinguishable newborns—as all newborns, to him, had been indistinguishable up till this point—and that Julius would never be recovered with any certainty. Chief among his anxieties had been the money, that there wasn’t any.

Now, though, his boy appeared fated, as he himself had been fated, to see his father everywhere he saw himself.

Lianne lifted Julius for Cukie to take, and Cukie edged toward the door, saying, “I’ll be back.”

“You’ll be back?” Cukie heard Lianne ask, though he was already making his way down the hall, dropping his scrubs on the hospital floor.

It wasn’t until Cukie saw his boy’s face that he knew he would have to do something drastic to save his family from destitution. He’s just turned off U.S. 1 onto the bridge that will lift him over the hem of the Atlantic, and after a mile or so, land him in the midst of Smuggler’s Key for the first time in four years. Every once in a while he takes his sight off the asphalt in front of him and pushes it over the aluminum rail to search out fishing vessels down in the water. Not seeing many, he thinks there’s still time.

His headlights are becoming unnecessary as night recedes, his truck’s nose already dipping toward Smuggler’s. He’s rehearsing greetings for when he pulls up to his father’s tiki bar. Hey, Pop, or Remember me, deadbeat? He’s got to play it cool, though. To humble himself. He practices the words: Do you have work for me? Work I can fall back on?

Smuggler’s has changed very little since Cukie’s last visit, and this comforts him as he pulls the truck along the narrow highway toward the marina. In the residential area, enough of the yards are still more sand than grass, more shipyard than driveway; rowboats and kayaks lean against manatee-shaped mailboxes and over porch railings. The ocean glows aqua behind the houses on either side of the road, creating dual panoramas.

When Cukie reaches Blue Harbor he jams the brake, halting the truck just inside the marina’s entryway. He recognizes the shipyard over on the south end and the docks straight ahead of him. But over to the right, the north end has been transformed.

Along the waterfront a restaurant occupies the majority of the space. There’s no sign of Slip 26 Charters.

Cukie removes his foot from the brake and lets the automatic transmission pull him toward the docks. Fishing crews are loading boats up ahead. Stacks of cages sit beside bait drums, and men rush to get their vessels stocked for the day’s voyage. Cukie guides the truck parallel to the water’s edge, kills the engine, and jumps out, peering down the coastline in either direction. No tiki bar in sight.

He paces the docks, seeing his father everywhere and nowhere at once. Ox, with grayed hair, baits cages. Ox, plus forty pounds, inspects buoys. Ox, withered by the sun’s oppression, yells down at a teenage version of Ox.

The morning sun is already melting everything to a chowder of dead fish and salt water. The heat mats Cukie ’s hair to his scalp. If he inhales hard he can taste his sour flesh in the soup, and the more he does this the more he realizes he is not cooking but rotting.

Cukie stops inspecting the men. None of them is Ox, nor are any of their vessels the Belly Bloat.

He trudges in the direction of the restaurant, but he does not look at it. It is an eyesore, an affront to his past, however unfavorably he looks upon that past. Instead, he surveys the docks. Many of the slips are empty. But as he draws closer to where the tiki bar should be, he sees that his father’s slip, slip 26, is occupied not by the Belly Bloat but by a sleek blue cigarette boat.

This absence nearly topples Cukie. He is convinced that his father has met utter ruin, and he is surprised by how the thought sickens him. Slip 26’s business line might still be worth trying, but Cukie lost track of that years ago. It was likely written in one of his mother’s address books, boxed up with her belongings, but Cukie stopped paying the storage fees on her unit six months after she passed.

Before she was even gone, Cukie had begun cultivating the idea that he had not done enough to save his mother. After the surgery and the radiation and the chemo failed, he sat quietly at his mother’s side in the too-small office at the Miami Cancer Institute as her oncologist explained, yet again, how her cancer had progressed. Cukie said nothing and did nothing because this man in a white coat said there was nothing more to do.

After her funeral, what astounded Cukie was not his guilt or his sense of innate weakness; what astounded him was the feeling that he had been abandoned for the final time.

Soon thereafter life degraded into a struggle to keep the house his mother left him from going into foreclosure.

Lianne had kept Cukie afloat with the word we—we’ve got this, Cukie, and we’ll figure this out, and we’ll make it through—even when he knew he alone was drowning. She’d moved in, halving the mortgage, but you can’t bartend on South Beach with a volleyball under your shirt—that’s how her manager had put it to her. And deliverymen can’t use company vehicles to run errands for their pregnant girlfriends—that’s how his supervisor put it to him. So they’ve both been out of work for weeks now.

What strikes Cukie as most pressing is that you can’t raise a baby in a home that’s been repossessed by the bank. And if he can’t fall back on his fishing experience, if he can’t depend on his father for this final safety net, he’s not sure what he’s going to do. Cukie ascends the ramp to the restaurant’s covered deck, where wooden booths surround a varnished bar. At the top of the ramp, a chalkboard announces Splashdown Specials.

Cukie hasn’t eaten for hours, and when he takes a seat at the bar, he realizes he’s exhausted from being up all night at the hospital. He sees no servers, no other customers. To the right of the bar, the door to the kitchen is propped open, and he can hear faucets running and dishes moving around in a tub. Intermittent drafts of cool air exit the kitchen, sending shivers along the circumference of the sweat beads on his skin.

As he scans the bar area, looking for the yellow pages or white pages, a woman emerges from the kitchen. “What can I get you?” she asks.

Cukie doesn’t recognize her yet, as he’s scarcely glanced at her face. What he stares at as he says, “The tiki bar, Slip 26, the one that was here before this restaurant: Do you know what happened to the owner?” is her taut, round stomach, stretching her shirt to the brink. He catches her eyes in time to see her lids drop by several degrees.

“Genevieve?” Cukie says. He forces a smile and nods toward her center. “Had a little one today myself.”

Genie nods and says, “Hang on.”

She darts through the kitchen door, closing it behind her. Before long Cukie can hear her shouting with a man, but he can’t make out what is being said over the sound of spraying water.

His phone buzzes in his pocket as he awaits her return. Cukie does not want to speak to anyone. He wants to focus, which is growing increasingly difficult. A single buzz signals that a message has been left. It’s a text from Lianne: You couldn’t even sign it?

It occurs to Cukie, perhaps not for the first time, but for the first time that he’s willing to acknowledge, that it appears as though he has run out on Lianne and his son, that his prompt departure from the hospital was an act of cowardice.

Not cowardice, he assures himself. Panic. He starts to type a reply message: I’ll be back soon. But he’s interrupted when Genie returns.

“You were asking about your dad? I haven’t seen him,” she says. “Not for a while now.” She takes out a rag and begins wiping down the bar. “God, Cukie, how long’s it been?”

“When’d the tiki bar close?” he asks, feeling light-headed.

“Couple years back.” Genie studies her hand’s brusque, circular rotations.

“You still in Miami?” “Maybe Happy would know—”

“Daddy’s dead,” she says. She glances up, not quite meeting his eyes, but somewhere just below. “We never found him.”

Cukie stifles the urge to say, Oh, right, and says, “I’m sorry, Genie,” instead.

Genie purses her lips and runs her tongue over her teeth. “I can give you some water for the road, if you’re not staying to eat.”

Cukie nods, but Genie doesn’t move. Her jaw is tensed. Her hands cradle her belly. Behind her the back wall is a mirror. Bottles line the shelf in front of it. The mirror is angled so the top end juts forward slightly toward the counter, toward Cukie. In the reflection Cukie can see the stacked dish racks, and beside that, the sink filled with murky green liquid. To the left of the sink is the tap, and adjacent to the tap there’s a stainless steel freezer. Taped to the freezer is a faded poster. It’s a picture of a woman, dripping in a red T-shirt, the word JAMAICA flipped backward across her chest. And in the reflection, in the top right corner of the poster, above a scribbled signature, Cukie can just make out a heart.

When Cukie bursts into the restaurant’s back office, it isn’t quite surprise he reads on Ox’s face so much as regret.

Nearly an hour later Cukie is out on his father’s speedboat heading for open water. He still hasn’t eaten, but the ocean breeze and the sporadic splash of salt water on his face is waking him some. He wants to ask Ox everything: What happened to the Belly Bloat, the fishing? How’d he come by this apparent wealth? And why would Genie lie for him, and why lie at all? But Ox insisted they take a ride out on the boat, first thing. To have alone time, man to man. “Like the days of yore,” Ox said with the detached enthusiasm of a car salesman.

The wind is in Cukie’s ears now, and the motor is roaring besides, so his questions will have to wait. Plus, even though Cukie feels compelled to ask, he suspects he knows an answer or two.

Ox stops the boat about forty minutes off the coast. He pours cognac into two short glasses, handing one to Cukie.

“It’s a little early, no?”

Ox says, “Nonsense,” and tilts back a mouthful. “So what brings you down to paradise?”

Cukie sits in one of the camel leather seats and takes a sip. The cognac burns in his empty stomach. “I knocked my girl up,” he says.

Ox laughs. “You didn’t come all the way down to discuss the ins and outs of ins and outs, did you?” He straightens his face a bit. “I suppose it’s too late for that now. For either of us,” he adds.

“Whose baby is Genie having?” Cukie feels sick at his words, and sicker at the denial his father does not offer. “I guess I don’t have to tell you you’re old enough to be her father.”

“Genie’s an adult,” Ox says. “Same as you.” He shoots the remainder of his brandy. “And how about this girlfriend of yours? She far along?”

“She had it. Today. A boy.”

“And you’re here.” Ox removes a flat wooden box from the cubby and opens the lid, offering Cukie his choice of cigars. Cukie declines. Ox removes one, along with a silver cigar cutter. He snips the cap. “Well, congratulations. Born on Splashdown. That’s got to be some luck.” He removes a gold lighter from his pocket, flips it open, and waves the flame over the foot, taking short, sucking pulls off the head till it’s lit. “Is it fatherly advice you came for?”

Cukie considers this a moment, then asks, “How’d you do it?” In the silence that follows he grows fearful that Ox will misinterpret the question, and before he can lose his nerve he says, “I mean, how’d you live with yourself? How does a man abandon his child like that?”

Ox stares back, unfazed. “The past is the past,” he says.

“And now you’ve got another on the way,” Cukie says. “Not a boy, I hope.”

Ox says, “I’ll do better by him. That what you’re needing to hear?” He glances out over the water.

Cukie follows his gaze to the short, choppy waves surrounding them. He wants to steady his mind, temper his words, but Ox’s cool demeanor is kindling to a lifetime of pent-up resentment. “Looks like you’ve done better by yourself,” Cukie says, waving a hand around the deck. “You’ve never been particularly good with sons, though. Maybe if Genie births a sea bug, or a made-up bullshit story.” Cukie searches Ox’s face to see what he’s provoked in him, but there’s nothing there.

“What did you come here for?”

Cukie takes another sip. “You still have the Belly Bloat?”

Ox shakes his head. “I told you, I’m done trapping.”

The brown liquid swirls in Cukie’s glass. He thinks he feels his phone buzz. There’s no reception out here, but his cell displays a second text from Lianne, received over an hour ago: You didn’t even sign it.

The reply he’d drafted remains unsent.

“You came down to fish?” A plume of smoke veils Ox’s face. “If you need work, I can always use a busboy.”

Cukie laughs bitterly. “That’s what you offer me?”

“You above it?” Ox finally looks offended. “What is it you think I owe you?”

Cukie considers what he owes to Julius: more than passivity and inaction; more than minimum-wage provision. He owes him everything he can give, everything he can take.

“Happy never turned up, huh?” Cukie says. “I told Genie I never saw him the day he went missing. What’s that worth? Turning your son into the liar you are?”

“Careful, boy. Don’t let your anger make you say something you’ll regret.”

“I’m thinking ten,” Cukie says, and Ox grunts, “Hmm?” “You want to know what I came for? Ten grand. Call it back pay on the child support you skipped out on. Call it blackmail if that suits you better. Ten thousand. Today. Or I’ll tell everyone I saw you two headed out to sea that day. But I’ll start with Genie. Let’s see if the past is the past then.”

Ox takes a long drag off the cigar and lets it out slow. “Ten?” he says, and the word billows, expanding in the smoke cloud. “Is that all?”

Cukie’s head seems to nod of its own volition.

“You really are something stupid, you know that?” Ox throws the cigar overboard. “You think I killed Happy? My oldest friend?”

“If you didn’t, I think you know who did. I know you two had some shady business going. But at this point,” Cukie says, “I only care what Genie’s going to think. If you want to save your family, I’m going to need you to save mine.”

Ox doesn’t respond and instead begins pacing the deck. After a while, he says, in a softer voice than Cukie has ever heard Ox use, “You know I never knew my own daddy. He visited us at my grandma’s house once when I was nine or ten, but I can only ever remember the back of his head.” Ox stops pacing and looks at Cukie in a way Cukie thinks Ox never has before. “It never really bothered me. His not being there.”

Cukie says, “I didn’t come here for stories.”

Ox nods. “I’ll give you the money,” he says brusquely. “The minute you set foot on land. But I want you to do something for me. I want you to see why I came back that day and Happy didn’t. I want you to see the cost of saving your family.”

Ox starts the motor and drives the boat another twenty minutes out, glancing down at the screen, mapping their coordinates. He slows, and Cukie follows his pointing finger to an orange-and-black buoy bobbing on the water’s surface. Ox cuts the engine, steering the boat so it rides up close to the buoy. He takes a diving mask from the boat’s cubby and flings it at Cukie. “Here. I don’t have any diving flags, and it’s five years for molesting a trap now, so I suggest you hurry.” He produces a flashlight and holds it out to Cukie.

Cukie clasps the mask in both hands but refuses the flashlight. “What is it?”

“Your ten grand,” Ox says. “You want to know how I came up in the world? You want the truth about your old man? See for yourself.” He extends the flashlight. “You’re going to need this, son.”

Cukie looks out over the water, at the buoy, bright against the blue-green waves.

He strips to his boxers and puts the mask on, then takes Ox’s flashlight. The water sends a sobering shiver through Cukie’s body as he penetrates the surface. He holds his breath and dives, using the buoy line as his guide. It’s cold below, despite how hot it is up top. Cukie’s not used to the pressure that’s forcing itself against his ears, though he’s not far under. He turns the light on and aims it down the line. The traps sit atop the surface of a reef, close enough to reach, if he can hold his breath like he once could. He returns to the surface and swims so he’s right above the nearest cage. He steadies his breathing, preparing to take enough air in. The waves slam him, so he has to time it right. He inhales deeply and dives, kicking as he descends, shining the light against the trap directly below. The light’s beam bounces off the siding’s plastic links. As he nears, he sees the lobsters piled one on top of another. He shines the spotlight against the next pot down the line. Also full.

It’s the morning of Splashdown. The pots should be empty.

He reaches and tries to open the trap, but it has been sealed shut, so he slips his fingers through the mesh to pinch one of the lobsters by the tail, pulling it toward him. The lobster floats, stiff-legged. He braces his feet against the trap and latches on to the mesh with the hand holding the flashlight. With his free hand, he nabs the lobster’s tail, then jerks it as hard as he can. Its legs catch against the cage, then begin snapping off as Cukie pulls back. He loses hold of the flashlight; it somersaults toward the ocean floor. He wraps a second hand around the tail and yanks it through the link, out of the cage, then kicks furiously to return to the surface. The lobster’s shell is cold and hard, though cracked in several places. All but one of its legs have broken off and there is a nickel-sized gap in its underbelly, exposing a patch of white. Cukie pokes the white and feels a smooth plasticity over it. He presses both thumbs into the gap and rips the shell open, the shell slicing his hands as he does so. Inside, a clear plastic pouch contains white powder.

Cukie breaks the surface, dropping the lobster shell. The motor runs. The speedboat is farther from the buoy than when he went under.

“See anything?” Ox yells from the deck, and Cukie nods, panting. He holds up the plastic pouch.

“Happy’s idea. But our friends in charge didn’t think him up to the task. If I hadn’t convinced them I was, neither one of us would have come back that day.”

Cukie swims toward Ox. As he nears, Ox leans on the throttle so the boat pulls several yards away. He steps to the stern and looks down on Cukie. The motor idles. Cukie stares back, paddling in place. He hears Ox say, “I’m sorry, son,” but it might just be the confluence of the motor, the waves, and Cukie’s exhaustion.

In a moment, Ox will pull away, leaving a strip of wake as he disappears into the horizon, and Cukie, finally understanding the man his father is, will set his thoughts on Lianne’s texts and how he might survive in her and Julius’s imaginations. But right now, behind Ox, the sun is still making its ascent. If Cukie reaches out, he can almost touch his father’s shadow on the water.

You Might Also Like