The pool at Grove Hill was our hangout. We lazed around it like jungle cats by a watering hole. I had awakened early, but some of my companions had not yet been to sleep. It was there, on a morning in late May, that I met Vinny Vigilante.
The pool was in an alcove of a coquina rock wall that ran across the property and separated the upper and lower apartment buildings. It was round and rather small, painted aquamarine and edged with blue tile. Ferns and air plants grew everywhere. There were sun lounges, and space to spread towels on the terrace. It was secluded and private, a good place to sun bathe nude.
I was dozing, eyes closed behind sunglasses, letting the sun sweat the previous night's excess from my body, when Vinny tapped the foot of my deck chair. His tall, skinny body was in silhouette with the sun at his back.
"Hiya. I just moved in. I'm Vinny from Brooklyn, Vinny Vigilante."
Brooklyn, yes. The accent was genuine. But Vinny Vigilante?
"That's my name. I got ID's to prove it," he announced as if I had insulted him.
"Sure,'' I said. "I'll bet the guy that thought up that name and forged those ID's charged you extra."
"What'd ya say?"
"Nothing. My name's Zeke." I gripped his outstretched hand. "So what brings you to Miami, Vinny Vigilante?"
"Sex, drugs, and rock an roll." Vinny laughed. "Just hanging out."
My friend Huckleberry rose up in her lounge chair. Her bikini top lost its grip and slipped on to her lap.
"Well, you found the right place." She said, ignoring our stares.
"Don't let Zeke bust your balls. Lots'a people here got unusual names. I'm Huckleberry Bush. Now be a sweetie and light this joint for me."
Huckleberry couldn't do it herself because her arms were encased in plaster casts that jutted from her body. With the bandage on her forehead, she resembled a mummy in a horror movie with beautiful tits. She had been making a drug run on her bicycle the night before when some jerk in a Porsche came roaring out of an underground parking garage, and knocked her into the gutter. She was scrambling around trying to recover the Quaaludes and speed that had rolled and scattered everywhere when the Porsche reversed, and backed over her forearms.
Huck had come to me for help. I gave her first aid and drove her to the hospital. I learned the medical skills in Vietnam, and my VW pop-top camper made a good ambulance.
We passed around Huck's joint. Vinny went to his apartment, and returned wearing a new bathing suit. It was black and contrasted with his pale white skin, which was already starting to turn pink. He carried a couple of bottles of champagne, and cartons of orange juice. A brown vial filled with cocaine was tucked in the elastic waist of his trunks.
By mid-afternoon, enough people had turned up at the pool to organize a volleyball game. The court had an asphalt surface that was cracked and split by the roots of a banyan tree that grew at one end. The combination was especially hazardous to people who played stoned, and most of us were. Sometimes, we forgot the tree was there. We kept a count of its victims carved on the trunk. It was blackened and charred where somebody had tried to set it on fire. People were always threatening to chop it down. The apartment manager said the tree was protected by the city tree ordinance.
Vinny was new to the game, but he was quick and had good reflexes. He caught on fast. We played until it was too dark to see the ball, and the mosquitoes were feasting on our sweating bodies.
That night, we gathered at my place for spaghetti. I was taking care of Huckleberry while her boyfriend lay low somewhere in the Caribbean, and I fixed enough for everybody. Indigo Blue baked marijuana brownies for dessert. The sink was full of ice and beer, the kitchen table stacked with wine, liquor and all sorts of mixers. The whine of my blender signaled another round of daiquiris. My friend Tui produced some quality blow. Someone was sharing his stash of really mellow Jamaican ganja. People drifted in and out of my apartment like the tide.
Sometime after midnight, I wandered down by the pool. Vinny and a stewardess named Barbra were swimming naked. The underwater light reflected off their bodies.
Such was paradise under the banyan and palm trees at the Grove Hill Apartments. All the planets were in harmony with the signs of the Zodiac. Life was good. Sex was an erotic adventure, and our favorite form of exercise. Drugs were plentiful, and most of us knew how to partake and survive.
The Vietnam nightmare was coming to an end, and Watergate was playing out like a Shakespearean drama on the nightly news. We were counting the days until that son-of-a-bitch, Nixon, got a stake through his heart.
I worked at a pita sandwich and smoothie stand. It suited me just fine. I considered myself lucky to have survived Vietnam. My only ambition was to enjoy myself as much as possible. Musicians, roadies, artists, stand-up comedians, and drug dealers were my friends and neighbors. Straights, gays, and bisexuals, we lived together in communal sexual bliss.
Tui, Indigo, Huck and me had become close friends. We had keys to each other's apartments. We shared booze and drugs, food, and sometimes sex. We passed judgment on girlfriends and boyfriends. We partied together, and came to the rescue when one of us was sick, depressed, drunk or overdosed. We knew each other's secrets and lies, and gave each other advice about everything.
Vinny fit right in. He was a gregarious guy, full of nervous energy, hyperactive, like a puppy. The Brooklyn accent and the readiness to laugh attracted women. He could charm the ladies even though they knew he was talking bullshit. They said he was cute.
A hunk was how they described Tui. He was a strikingly handsome, blond haired, blue eyed surfer from California, deeply tanned, with a muscular body kept lean by karate and yoga. The disciplines had taught him patience and calm, traits that were of considerable value in his profession. Tui was a drug dealer, a very successful and a very wary drug dealer. He kept a low profile, and didn't talk much. When he did, he chose his words carefully.
Vinny seemed to never stop talking. He was a small time crook trying to become a big time crook. Vinny ran a chop shop in Brooklyn where stolen cars were stripped for parts. He sometimes did the stealing, and he was good at it. He was also skilled with a blowtorch.
It was hard work. The garage was freezing in the winter, and hot as hell in the summer. No matter how much he scrubbed when he went home at night, he could never get all the dirt and grease from underneath his fingernails. He hated it, but he worked hard and didn't complain. The shop turned a nice profit, and Vinny's boss was impressed. When Vinny pitched the Miami deal, the gang agreed to stake him to the tune of seventy-five thousand dollars. He left his kid brother in charge of the chop shop.
Miami was a test of sorts. Vinny saw it as his shot at the big time. It was simple, at least to his way of thinking. Marijuana, cocaine and other drugs were pouring into South Florida from Central and South America, and the distribution network couldn't get the stuff to New York fast enough. Vinny figured to get in on the action, and make a lot of money. If he was going to be a successful drug dealer he ought to live the lifestyle, to dress for the part, to walk the walk.
He began with the apartment, and hired an interior decorator that mounted smoked mirrors all over the walls and ceilings. A couple of thousand went for a king size waterbed with sex-a-tron wave action, a black leather couch and chairs, and a Kenwood stereo with the biggest speakers you could buy.
Indigo Blue volunteered to supervise Vinny's personal makeover.
Indigo was a tall, pencil thin brunette with straight hair that hung to her waist, sharp aquiline features, and a sexy bourbon and cigarettes voice. She wanted to be the leader of a rock and roll band, but settled for work at a new recording studio in North Miami. She did a little of everything, booking, promotion, publicity, but her real talent was taking care of the musicians and rock stars that cut their albums there. She found them places to live, stocked their bars and refrigerators, helped them make drug connections, got them limos on short notice, and sometimes bailed them out of jail. She also helped them shop. That put her on a first name basis with every hip boutique owner in Miami.
Vinny was hesitant! Indigo's taste in clothes verged on the flamboyant. Vinny's wardrobe was basic black: jeans, T-shirt, boots, socks, even black jockey shorts. Black did not show dirt easily, and it was good camouflage when he was stealing cars.
"For fuck sake, Vinny. You're supposed to look like a successful drug dealer, not a car thief.'' Indigo howled. "Dress for success baby! This ain't Flatbush Avenue. It's Bayshore Drive, Coconut Grove!"
Indigo chopped a few lines of coke on a mirror, rolled a hundred dollar bill, did a line up each nostril, and handed it to Vinny.
"You're gonna luvvvve the new Vinny!" Indigo giggled when they stumbled past the pool on their way shopping.
Several hours later, they were back, arms full of packages. Somebody put the Bee Gees on the stereo, and Vinny did a striptease. Indigo made a show of tossing his discarded Brooklyn clothes in the dumpster. We sat around drinking, laughing and applauding as Vinny modeled his new wardrobe.
The next morning he was after me to go along while he bought himself a car.
"Gotta get some wheels." Vinny announced as he let himself into my apartment waking me, the lady who was sharing my bed, and Huckleberry who had the living room couch. Huck was staying at my place until the casts came off.
"Let's go, Zeke."
"Can't do it, Vinny. They need me at the pita shop."
"But I need your help, I need your advice!" Vinny pleaded.
"My advice is get something unobtrusive."
"Unobtrusive, Vinny. You gonna be running drugs in that car?"
"What da you think?"
"Well, buy something unobtrusive."
When I returned that evening, a Pontiac GTO with a turbo-charger hood scoop and a temporary tag was in the parking lot. It was a custom job with shaded windows, painted jet black with all the chrome stripped off.
Vinny was leaning on the fender, chatting up a lady named Kim, another recruit for his growing harem.
Well, what'da you think?" Vinny said as I walked up. He was beaming. " I told them something unobtrusive like you said, and the salesman turned me on to this baby!"
"What do I think? Vinny, I think it's great! That's one hot, unobtrusive car." I exclaimed. All it needs, I thought to myself, is a personalized nameplate on the front bumper, black on white, in big letters, 'DRUG DEALER'.
Once he had acquired what he considered to be the minimum trappings for an up and coming drug dealer, Vinny embarked on a month-long binge of product sampling, 'market research' he called it. He swallowed, inhaled, snorted, and otherwise ingested a little bit of everything that was passing through south Florida. He was spending a lot of money, and that attracted an entourage. The cocaine piled up in the shape of a little volcano on his coffee table was like honey to bees. His harem now included two Barbras without the a, and one with. We nicknamed them 'Bee-1, Bee-2, and Bee-3'.
We went everywhere together, Vinny, Tui, Indigo, Huckleberry and me, accompanied by an ever-changing cadre of lovers, and friends. One of our favorite clubs was a place out on Airline Highway where a musician named Joe Sabatini played hot jazz with a Latin influence, heavy on percussion. Sometimes, Joe would hand us a tambourine, a cowbell, or bongo drums, and let us up on stage to play along with the band. We would drink and dance until we were soaked with sweat and exhausted, go to the bathrooms or a dark corner to do some more coke, and then start all over again.
Vinny was hyperactive by nature. On cocaine, it was like he was charged with electricity. He talked too much. He babbled. He talked about drugs in front of people we didn't know. Tui and I would take him aside, and calm him down. We got irritated at times, but not angry. Vinny was just too damn likable a soul for that. We worried that he was going to get his butt in a jam, and we tried to keep an eye on him without crowding his space.
Toward the end of June, I got the impression from what Vinny said and how he acted that New York was getting impatient with his failure to produce. He had, in fact, attempted a marijuana run. I knew because he had packed some of it in my American Tourister luggage, put it in the trunk of a car he stole, and hired a guy to drive it to New York. It never made it, and I was damn glad I had remembered to remove my luggage tags. Vinny didn't know what happened to the shipment. All he knew was that he was out ten grand and the folks in New York wanted an explanation.
To make things worse, he was snorting three, sometimes 4 grams of coke a day, a violation of a basic rule that 'a coke head does not a good drug dealer make'. Tui and I tried to tell him, but he wouldn't listen. He was stoned all the time, and had a different woman in his bed most every night. People were beginning to hang out at his apartment that Tui and I didn't trust.
One such character was a cracker redneck prison parolee named Leander, a scruffy, rawboned, jug-eared fellow with a goatee, bad teeth, bad breath, and a bad attitude. When I met Leander, he was sprawled on Vinny's couch trying to assemble a crossbow. Vinny was about to attempt a coke buy, and Leander had convinced him he needed a partner to cover his ass in case the seller tried a rip off.
The deal was to go down that night in a boat warehouse at the Bayshore Marina. Leander would be hiding in a boat high up in the storage racks. If anything went wrong, Vinny was to take off his baseball cap, a signal for Leander to shoot the guy with the crossbow. It was a stupid idea for a lot of reasons, a fuck-up destined to fuck up. Leander had never used a crossbow. He and Vinny, in their coked-out mental state, just thought it would be cool.
"Cool? COOL?" Tui was struggling to contain his temper. We had been trying to talk sense to Vinny while Leander snorted long lines of coke, Vinny's coke, on the coffee table.
"Vinny, you guys are way too stoned man. If you're gonna be packing, carry real weapons, and don't pull them unless you're gonna use 'em."
Leander paused with the line he was snorting and looked up at Tui.
"Who the fuck asked you? This is our fucking d ." He never finished the sentence.
Tui lifted Leander off the floor, and slammed him against the wall. He pinned him by the neck with one hand, and drew back to strike with the other.
"Tui. Don't man." I said. I had never seen anybody move that fast in my life. "Let's get outa here."
"Yeahhhhhhh," Tui exhaled. He released his grip. Leander slid to the floor gasping for breath, and rubbing his neck.
"See ya round the pool, Vinny." I said as Tui and I started out the door. Vinny nodded, and leaned over the table to snort another line.
Vinny had a fool's good luck. He missed the drug rendezvous because he had to rush Leander to the hospital. Leander shot himself in the leg with the crossbow as he was climbing to his hiding place.
A few days later, Vinny turned up at the pool laughing and kidding around, and eager to show off his new girlfriend.
The female who sat down on a lounge chair beside him was stunning, the kind of beauty that interrupts conversation, and turns heads. She was wearing an oversize designer T-shirt and a bikini bottom over a supple, beautifully tanned body complemented by a mane of silky auburn hair. She spoke with the hint of a foreign accent, maybe French. I couldn't tell if it was real or contrived. She stretched, and pulled the T-shirt over her head revealing firm upturned breasts, and confirming her tan was au naturale. You could bottle this woman's sweat and sell it as perfume.
Vinny was smitten and seduced. He looked like an exhausted tarpon with a hook in its mouth about to be gaffed and hauled into the boat.
Her name was Helene, 'not Helen', as she kept correcting Huckleberry who was swallowing Quaaludes and washing them down with vodka. Huckleberry couldn't remember her own name that day. Her doctor had removed her casts that morning. Then her boyfriend phoned to say his lawyer had warned him not to come back to the USA for at least another month. Huck had taken a pair of clothing shears and cut his wardrobe into tiny pieces.
What caught my attention was the irritation, and condescension I detected in Helene's tone of voice. She read my look, and tried to recover.
"That's all right. Huckleberry, call me anything you want. I'm so glad to meet Vinny's friends. You're all so interesting." She smiled as if she was bestowing her seal of approval.
I returned her smile, but she had tripped my alarm bell. She just wasn't the type to be enamored with the likes of Vinny. This woman was a predator, and she was up to something.
Helene moved in, and Vinny's harem was vanquished. He kept her in style. They existed on a steady diet of champagne, and the best quality cocaine Vinny could score. When they went out, it was to the most expensive restaurants and clubs in the Grove.
Vinny kept inviting us to come by the apartment. Huck and Indigo thought of excuses to decline. They also had bad vibes about Helene. Huck called her a scorpion, and wondered when she was going to quit fucking Vinny and sting him to death.
I made a habit of calling to make sure Vinny was there before I went to his apartment, after I had stopped by one morning unannounced. Vinny was out trying to score some coke, and Helene opened the door wearing a man's shirt and nothing else. She made no effort to cover up, and invited me in. She was clearly enjoying teasing and tantalizing me. My cock and my conscience were having a serious argument about the appropriate reaction when the phone rang. It was Indigo calling for me.
She told me later that she had seen Vinny leave. "Women's intuition, Zeke. I thought you might need rescuing."
The day Vinny's career as a drug dealer ended, I was catching the morning sun by the pool when he walked up.
"You seen Helene, Zeke? I thought maybe she might be down here."
"Nope. Haven't seen her."
"She wasn't around when I woke up." He said it like a question.
He went back to his apartment and a few minutes later, stepped out on the walkway shouting for me.
Vinny leaned against the railing, a crumpled note in his hand. He looked like he'd been whacked across the forehead with a nightstick.
He handed me the note. It was attached to a piece of duct tape.
"Where'd you find it?"
"Underneath the sink." Vinny sighed.
"I don't understand Vinny."
"She left the note when she took the money."
"Under the sink?"
"Oh boy. How much Vinny?"
"Twenty five big ones."
"Thousand, Vinny, twenty five thousand taped underneath the sink?"
"Shit man. She clean you out?"
"Yeah, even took my stash. You got a joint?"
I read the note.
Thanks for a great few weeks.
Sorry to do this, but hey time to move on.
Don't bother looking. You won't find me.
"I gotta call New York, Zeke. Ya better go." Vinny was resigned to his fate.
"Can we help?''
"Naa Zeke. Thanks. Better tell everybody to stay clear for a while. The gang in Brooklyn's gonna be unhappy, very unhappy.'' Vinny draped his arm over my shoulder and walked me to the door.
"I fucked up, really fucked up. But we sure had a lot of fun." Vinny smiled.
"We sure did Vinny. We sure did." There was an awkward silence. I turned abruptly and started down the stairs.
Tui and I spent a frustrating afternoon trying to track down Helene. No traces. She was a pro. Tui even offered to loan Vinny the twenty-five thousand. Vinny said no. Tui was too good a friend. He wouldn't risk the friendship. It was better he owed the mob, and, after all, he was in debt for another fifty as well.
That night I fixed spaghetti. Indigo insisted that Vinny join us. It was just the five of us. We tried to keep it light. Vinny joked that, unlike Helene, at least Judas had turned up at the Last Supper. After dinner, Indigo produced a gift-wrapped box. It was Vinny's Brooklyn clothes. She had rescued them from the dumpster that afternoon months earlier, just in case Vinny ever needed them again. Huck opened a magnum of Moet Chandon, and Tui lit an enormous spliff. It was not a night for cocaine.
They arrived the next morning in a rental car, two burly guys with close-cropped hair, biceps bulging from identical yellow polyester polo shirts they had bought at the airport. Vinny let them in, and a few minutes later we heard muffled sounds. We didn't intend to open the morning paper and read about his body getting fished out of an Everglades canal.
"You ready, Zeke?" Tui asked. We were standing outside Vinny's apartment. "This may get ugly."
"It's already ugly." I banged hard on Vinny's door.
The noise stopped. There was a pause. Then Vinny opened the door part way. He had a split lip. The side of his face was swelling and turning rainbow colors, and blood was pouring from his nose.
"Vinny, you don't look so hot." I pushed the door open, and we stepped inside.
"We thought we'd stop by and meet your friends from Brooklyn."
"Name's Zeke. This is Tui. We're Vinny's friends." I stuck my hand out, expecting to duck a blow.
"I'm Louie." The bigger of the two gripped my hand as if he was anticipating the same thing from me, prolonging the handshake, reluctant to let go.
"This is Ernie." He gestured toward his partner who was watching Tui carefully. "We're his friends too."
That set me back a notch.
"Friends? Brooklyn friends sure got painful ways a greeting each other."
Vinny started laughing, a considerable achievement considering his split lip.
"You find this funny?" I said. I'm thinking we're about to take on two gorillas, and Vinny's laughing. "Vinny, your head looks like an eggplant!"
"Maybe I oughta explain." Vinny enunciated his words carefully through swollen lips. He limped over to the refrigerator.
"Anybody want a beer? Might as well drink all this up fore we go."
Vinny had in fact grown up with Louie and Ernie. They were friends, and fellow crooks. Louie and Ernie had been sent down to Miami to escort their old car-stealing buddy back to New York. He had flunked the drug dealer test, big time.
Vinny was gonna get beat up. That was for sure. They figured better to do it in Miami. The worse Vinny looked when he arrived in Brooklyn, the less likely he would have to undergo a second beating. It was just gang rules. You fuck up, you pay the price.
In Vinny's case, the price was seventy five thousand dollars.
"Naah, the gang wouldn't kill Vinny over 75K," Louie explained.
"If he's dead, how's he gonna pay back the loan?" He laughed and slapped Vinny on the back. "Vinny, you sure got lots a cars to steal."
Praying mantis and giant garden spiders competed for quarry in the bushes and palms planted along the coquina rock wall. A late afternoon in August, I sat by the pool and observed the struggle. I had a really good buzz on from a beautiful bud of Jamaican gold so fresh the resin stuck to my fingers when I rolled the joint.
Vinny's departure had been a catalyst. I don't know why. It just had. The Grove Hill gang was scattering. The city had cut down the banyan tree. They said it had some kind of disease. Volleyball was no fun anymore.
That morning I had driven my beloved VW pop-top camper with the leopard skin bunk down Red Road for the last time. I felt like a guy taking a load of kittens to the animal shelter. I parked the VW at a motorcycle shop, and handed over the keys to the new owner. I was divorcing my VW for a new lover. I had been seduced by a '69 Harley flat-head, chopped and customized, black lacquer paint and chrome sparkling in the Florida sun.
I believe that when you're making changes, it's better to make them all at once. My lease at Grove Hill was up in a few days, and I hadn't renewed it. I had given plenty of notice at the pita shop. The owner named a sandwich in my honor as a farewell gesture, 'Zekes Famous Tuna in Pita'. It was right there on the menu. I thought it a worthy accomplishment in life, having a sandwich named after me.
A buddy from Vietnam had written me from some little fishing village called Bay Key way north of Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico. He had acquired an old rust bucket of a fishing boat, and wanted to try his hand at sponging. He needed a partner, and I needed a change.
Tui's Cuban girlfriend had whispered in his ear that he was going to be a father. They were getting married and moving to Coral Gables. Tui bought a house with a two-car garage and an enormous pool. He also invested in a Porsche dealership, and a chain of karate centers. He was doing what a lot of people in the drug trade talked about but seldom accomplished, taking his profits and getting out clean.
Indigo got caught up in the wall of sound, and was moving to Manhattan.
And Huckleberry? Huck was coming with me to Bay Key, coming along for the ride. She realized that her boyfriend wasn't returning from the Caribbean anytime soon, and she didn't want to be the last one holding the fort at Grove Hill. I agreed, so long as she rode her own wheels. She had bought herself a motorcycle, quit taking heavy drugs, and was riding damn near good as me.
First of September, we woke and had a final swim in the pool in the predawn darkness. We didn't talk much. We lashed down our gear, donned our leathers, cranked up and pulled on to Bayshore Drive heading for the South Dixie highway. By the time we accelerated up the on ramp to Interstate-10 we were cruising, the Harleys rumbling in rhythm to the Joe Sabatini riff playing in my head. The sun was coming up over the ocean off to our right.
In New York, the morning sun reflected in sparkles off the East River. Vinny Vigilante was leaving Manhattan, crossing over the Brooklyn Bridge driving a Cadillac he had stolen from the parking garage at the Waldorf Astoria. It was a '71 Sedan de Ville worth a lot of money. It belonged to Elvis Presley.
Editor's Note: "Vinny's Seduction" is the first in a series of short stories about life in the remote and eccentric Florida fishing village of Bay Key, written with the objective of publishing as a book of short stories titled Southern Exposure.
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