Second Place winner
I was back in the Unreal City. For the last time. To watch them tear down my father's house. I was cruising with the Rat King heading south down the A1A. The palm trees were all in order. They fell one by one by one as we jettisoned toward Ft. Lauderdale. To my right somewhere was Lake Okeechobee. To my left somewhere was the Atlantic Ocean. Underneath me was Florida, the flaccid penis of the continental United States. The Rat King smoked menthols and cranked his window down. I cranked my window down. It was 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It was about noon. The venereal sun hung high in the Icee blue sky. There were no clouds. A plane followed our path and then disappeared. I rubbed my palm across the rough leather armrest and thought about how nice it was to have a ride.
"I got a new scam, Sailor," the Rat King said.
Sailor is not my name. Sailor is what people have called me since I almost drowned when I was 12. Not a born sailor; that's what they said and it stuck.
"Scrap copper," he said. I could feel his eyes on my eyelids. "I go to foreclosed homes, and I scrap the copper. Brilliant, right? I'm my own boss, I make my own hours, and the pay is decent."
"You pull copper from my father's house?"
The Rat King laughed bullet breaths from his nostrils. "Of course not, Sailor. I'd never. I don't even remember where it is. No one does."
The Rat King had bushy black Brillo-pad hair with a pale spot of skin at the crown. Black eyes. He could have been Jewish or Greek or Italian or a mixed bag of Middle Eastern. On his gold chain hung a small dollar sign. A tasteful, single bar impaling the s. I'd known the Rat King for 12 years, but I didn't know his real name. I'd never met his parents. I didn't even know if he had parents. He said he was born from the streets. He drove a decent car. He always had money. He always had a scam. He was South Florida. His veins were patterned like 95, the A1A, the 812 after Palm Beach Gardens, 41 maybe but never 75. He had birthmarks on his back resembling Everglades National Park.
"So what do you want to do now that you're here?" the Rat King asked me.
"Watch them tear down my father's house."
He laughed. "No, but seriously," he said.
"You see my brother around much?"
"We always see your brother."
We turned onto Sistrunk and he opened the sunroof. The sun warmed my forehead. He gave me a cigarette. We stopped at a gas station, and bought two quarts of Old English. I was cruising with the Rat King. It was about noon. The sun was high in the Icee blue sky. There were no birds. The ocean sounded far away. Everything smelled like gasoline. It was 95 degrees Fahrenheit and rising.
The house where the Rat King lived was in such a state of disrepair, I didn't think anyone could live in it. I went from room to room looking for some evidence of a life, but there was none. There wasn't even a bed, just a nest on the floor in one of the back bedrooms. There was a leather couch and a video camera. Someone had spray-painted death's other Kingdom above the entry and I guess that's what they called the place.
The Rat King threw a party for me even though I didn't ask him to. Slowly, the people who I used to know when they needed things from me trickled into the house. They shook my hand with the distant respect of an infirm family member. I looked for folks from the old crew, but the old crew was gone. I took a silent stock of myself and wished I were gone, too.
In the kitchen, the Rat King introduced me to Coco Rico, a guy with a neck full of bathroom tattoos. I asked Coco Rico how many times he'd been to prison, and he looked at me like I'd asked him on a date to church. The Rat King laughed and said this was the rapper he'd told me about. I told him I liked the song, but I didn't get the message very clear. He opened his mouth, and I saw his teeth were all covered in glittering diamonds or wrapped tinfoil.
"Fucking and money," he said. Very seriously. I became aware I was dealing with a very serious person. I knew this guy like I knew every guy, like I know the name of all the raindrops before they hit me. I ran my fingers along the studs in his shining mouth. He shoved me away and promised to cut my throat.
When I was away from him, I put my finger to my nose, and I could not smell diamonds or foil. Only old food and decaying things. I was aware I had dealt with someone who was full of shit.
The people in the house erupted into a chorus of cheers and laughter and clapping. My brother had come to the party. Women kissed him. Men kissed his hand. Kissed his feet. He was wearing a suit. It looked expensive. The Rat King took his coat. My brother rolled up his sleeves. He revealed arms and arms and arms of tattoos. The names of women he'd loved; guns and bullets and spider webs; faces of the friends he had lost. This would be the way I remembered him all the times after.
My brother came over and embraced me. They had a new name for him now. They called him Jerusalem. They called him the Holy City. He kissed me on the cheek and told me how glad he was to finally meet me. I smiled. He smiled. It had been years since I had exiled myself. Since I had seen my brother.
We went to the beach. We walked along the rocky path lined with broken glass and napkins with the logos of fast food joints long closed and painted over. There was no one on the sand, just the lone footprints of some animal or man. Jerusalem introduced me to Vienna and London and Alexandria. Girls with pasts like shaded over orange groves. Orange groves in winter. Orange groves infested with thrip and mealybug. We walked the edge of the Atlantic, and the lights of Ft. Lauderdale polluted the sky in the distance. There were no stars. I never remembered any stars.
"I feel like I don't remember anything about where we came from. About our past," I said to Jerusalem. He had his loafers dangling in his fingers, his hands behind his back. The cuffs of his pants were rolled to the knees. The tide was going out.
"We remember what we choose to remember. I remember the first girl I ever laid next to and nothing else before that."
"I can't even remember that."
"I remember the last dollar I earned and nothing else after."
"What would you have remembered that came after?"
"Nothing comes after."
Vienna and London and Alexandria played in the oil black ocean. I watched the naked women come out of the water. The moon glowed like the face of a broken clock, its thin hands forever colliding into each other until the batteries run dry. I watched my brother's thin hands as he overtook me. I watched his soft footprints in the sand.
"Those aren't their real names," he said looking at the girls looking away.
"Nobody uses their real names here. Nobody ever has."
"Nothing is real here."
"Nothing real is here," I said. "What's my name? I haven't heard it in the humid wind or the crashing of the ocean in so long. Maybe never."
"You're kidding me." He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The girls looked at him and waved. "You should see what they do on camera." He wiped his forehead with the palm of his hand and flicked some sweat into the sand.
"Are you coming with me tomorrow?" I said.
"To watch the house go down? No, you're on your own. I've got too many irons in the fire."
"It's the last thing," I said but I don't think he heard me. He just kept looking at the ocean and the girls in the ocean.
"I've got this new scam," he said but I don't think he was talking to me.
I turned away. I didn't want to hear it. It was everything I left when I moved to Alaska. I got as far away as I could. Everything was good in Alaska. Nothing was good in Florida. Sand is dirty. Snow is clean. The ocean is dirty. The mountains are clean. I was walking along the beach with my brother. I was trying to keep my toes away from the water. It was about midnight. The moon was high and like the face of a clock. It was 100 degrees and rising.
When you're drowning, or you think you're drowning, they tell you to keep calm, don't panic. Take a mental stock of where you are, where the surface of the water is, the direction of the bubbles from your throat, where the sun is if you can find the sun. I am in the water. The bubbles should go up and the sun is in the sky. I need to go up. I have jumped from a very high branch. I kept my hands crossed over my chest and I have gone down very far. My head is ringing with a high and unknown sound. I cannot see the sun. Everything is green and brown. I am panicking. I know I am panicking, but I do nothing but vibrate my body down. I try to scream but take in lungful after lungful of water.
I awake in a clearing, two strong hands on my chest, and two soft lips on my lips. My brother's lips. A small and broken branch digging into the skin of my lower back. My heart thumps wildly in my chest. I spit up coppery bog water. I take in lungful after lungful of heavy, humid air. I put both arms around my brother and cry.
I woke up in the nest of the Rat King. My legs and arms helplessly wrapped around the back of an upturned chair, my neck nestled into its wicker back. A dull pain lingered in the soft of my throat and the skin of my neck was red. I went outside into the coming day.
Jerusalem had gone with Alexandria and Vienna and London. Back to the nest he lived in. Somewhere further down the coast. He'd claimed a loft in Miami Beach but probably lived in Hialeah, or Coral Gables or the Hell that was Miami Gardens. Who was I kidding? It was all hell and hot water down here. I longed for Alaska. I longed for the cold that works its fist into your bones and gnaws at your face. I shook all down my spine and rubbed at my arms.
The Rat King came bleary-eyed from the house. His hair was stuck at all odd angles from his head. We watched the cars come down Sistrunk. Music and laughter came dancing on the daylight from Lincoln Park, children screamed somewhere in delight. A balloon popped. Dogs barked. He lit a cigarette and handed it to me.
"What do you do?" I said. "What does my brother do?" I said.
"I scrap copper from abandoned houses."
"You scrap the veins from the dying."
"Jesus, Sailor," the Rat King said. "When did you get so goddamn serious?"
"And my brother?"
"He does what everyone does when they're not wrapped up in rap or drugs." The Rat King took a long drag off his cigarette. "He makes movies. He's a filmmaker."
We took the Rickenbacker down to Key Biscayne. I gave the Rat King a handful of quarters to pay the toll, but he waved me away and rolled right through. A white cross sat on the side of the cement, a bouquet of fading roses around it. Gulls flew in a wide, circular pattern over the ocean, and I told the Rat King I'd never seen gulls fly like that.
When you cross the Key, Sistrunk's flat rattraps roll back and feel light years gone. Massive mansions surrounded by saltwater moats or wrought-iron fences sprout. Women and their kids with their hair blown back sit and sweat in the leather seats of expensive convertibles. The sun shined brighter. The wind blew cooler. The Rickenbacker and the Bering Strait. Roads to nowhere.
We sat at a green light for a while. I asked the Rat King what the problem was. He said he didn't know which way to go. For a moment, I thought I'd forgotten, too. I couldn't remember which way the house was exactly. Shops and gas stops I'd used as road markers as a kid were long gone, replaced by other stores and other shops.
We eventually found it after a lean stretch of oak-lined concrete turned to sand and tufts of gama grass reached their childlike arms toward the sky filled with the circling gulls, and I started to think they weren't gulls at all.
They'd stripped it down to slats and drywall. A few windows remained but they'd been busted out. They sat in their Grecian frames like broken teeth in a made-up mouth. Someone had spraypainted in red The Fisher's don't live Here anymore where the front door would have been, on the porch where I spent Saturdays alone. Where a quartet of rocking chairs creaked like old bones so many years ago. Three of the four columns that once lined the porch had fallen over dead and broken. Who would sing the song of this house once it was gone?
The backhoe shuddered, and the construction crew made hand signals in the sky. I wrapped my fingers around the chain-link fence and squeezed. Soon, the iron claw of the machine had taken a chunk out of the third story. Soon the second story collapsed into the first. Soon it was all rubble and dust. Sand and gama grass.
The Rat King muttered to himself and occupied his hands by digging through a pile of strong pine slats on our side of the fence. He wrenched nails from the boards and lined his pockets until they were swollen and jingled with iron and rust. Beyond the house, I watched the damp miasma rise and wrap around the palmetto fronds like a spectral spider's web. In the fog's sticky, spindly fingers I thought I saw something glint and fade and if I could just reach out my hand, I could almost touch it.