Gene McFarlane was a Florida cracker, so called because of the place where he was born, the family he was born to, and the way he lived his life, especially in those days of the early 1980s.
His older brother had a lot to do with that life, given that he assumed responsibility for raising Gene after both their parents had been killed when their outboard slammed into a mangrove island one drunk and sunny day. Roger McFarlane ended up taking care of himself and little Gene, being both a mother and a father, trying his best to be something he wasn’t. Gene spent his time growing up trying his best to be like Roger, again, something he wasn’t.
Barely eighteen and taking care of his ten year old brother, Roger had to be creative in order to survive. There wasn’t a whole lot of industry coming out of the tiny man-made piece of ground known as Everglades City, but he worked at what there was, usually scraping up just enough work to get by.
He built docks and cleaned boats on the Barron River for the rich Northerners that snowbirded and lived in the quarter million dollar homes in the otherwise dirt poor city. Maybe six hundred people lived on this miserable shell pile year round and most now lived off what they made during the winter, in tourist season when the Yankees came down.
Other times of the year, when money was harder to come by, Roger would pack both supplies and his little brother into their small shallow water boat and head into the Ten Thousand Islands to do a little gator poaching. From his father, Roger had learned that country well, better than most of the rangers that worked the Everglades National Park. It was a fact that Roger had never been caught.
There was no way they could ever kill enough gators to really get ahead, not with them being “protected” now, as though the government had a right to come in and tell his people that these weren’t their animals. They just took what they needed to hold them over until the next construction or boat cleaning job came through. The odds of staying out of prison were better that way.
As the years went on and Gene grew bigger and more able to take care of himself, Roger began to disappear on overnight trips. He told Gene he had some special work that he and some of his buddies had to do, just them, and that the late hours meant it paid better.
Uh huh. Gene knew what was going on. He may not have been book smart like most of the tourists he met but he knew exactly what his big brother was doing. And life did get better over the next couple of years, especially when the two of them moved into a newer double-wide trailer closer to the water and burned the old one, the single that had belonged to their parents. Gene regretted it a little after it was done but he had been too smashed to really remember the circumstances. “The evils of the drink,” Roger told him as he drained the last of another six pack. “I don’t recall it much, neither.”
It was a little ironic when Gene got himself a job giving boat tours out of the Everglades Ranger Station into the park itself. He thought it was funny that he was making money off his knowledge of the area, same as his brother but in an entirely different kind of work. Not that he could have done what Roger was doing, anyway. He could make his way out and make his way back, but that was about it for Gene.
Roger began spending more and more time away from the trailer. Gene suspected that he was out of the country a lot, having graduated from the job of running shallow water boats through the maze of mangrove islands and sand flats between the mainland and the Gulf. There seemed to be a lot more money, too. Boxes of it, sometimes, so much that Roger couldn’t always hide the stuff.
“One day soon,” Roger would tell him. “Maybe next year, we’re gonna move ourselves outta here, get us a nice house like those Yankee tourists got. Some place away from here.”
Gene didn’t feel too comfortable with the idea of moving out of Everglades City, leaving behind the only place he had ever really known. Sure, he’d gone into Miami a few times, and even Naples, but he couldn’t imagine actually living in places like that. Too many people moving somewhere way too fast. “Why don’t we just buy us one of these houses here, on the river? We can stay home and have some Yankee build us a dock.”
“Can’t get us one of these big houses down here,” he said. “Wouldn’t look good.” That was as close to talking about where the money came from as they ever got.
Things changed for Gene when his brother failed to come home one day. It had happened before, Roger staying away later than he said he would, but he had never been gone longer than two days before. These stretched to weeks and Gene finally began to realize that after all these years of feeling lonely, ever since their parents had died, for the first time he would be facing life by himself. All alone.
The local men, all the swamp rats and smugglers that had known Roger, weren’t any help. None of them would admit to knowing anything about the affairs of the man, their one time confederate. “The trouble with this business,” one of them told Gene, “is that everybody you deal with is a criminal. You cain’t trust nobody.”
There was some money in a shoe box under Roger’s old bed but not enough to last more than a few months. Gene had no idea what Roger had done with all the rest of it. Gene tried the one bank in town but they wouldn’t talk to him any more than anyone else. For all Gene knew, the money could have been buried in the swamp somewhere, or stored in a locker on some boat. Wherever it was, Gene knew, it wouldn’t help him now. He’d have to figure out something himself.
Doing what, he had no idea. The boat tours were seasonal and even then he barely cleared minimum wage.
It occurred to Gene that all his life he had been taken care of. The money in his pocket came from the tips and wages he made giving the tours but it had been Roger who had bought the trailer and paid the bills each month. It had been Roger who put the food on the table and the beer in the fridge. Now there was no more Roger and Gene had to decide what to do.
He didn’t think he had much of a choice. He could move to Miami, compete with all the Cubans and Haitians for some low paying unskilled laborer’s job, but being a cracker he knew he couldn’t exist in that city for longer than half a day at most. Wouldn’t matter if he could get a job. He knew the pressure of the city would get him, the traffic, the noise. It would suck away his mind, take away who he was.
He didn’t have the carpentry skills of his brother, and he didn’t really care for the idea of scraping barnacles from the hulls of rich men’s boats. Poaching might be something if it paid more but there were too many gator farms out there now, raising the animals in concrete block houses and butchering them when they got to be eighteen inches across the belly.
Gene came to the conclusion that if he was going to have to provide for himself he was going to have to try to do it like his brother. Who knows, he thought, maybe a knack or a talent for it ran in the family.
Gene had no connections himself and no real idea of how to come up with any. He didn’t even have a boat big enough to haul anything worthwhile. It wasn’t as though business was likely to find him. He decided to have another talk with his brother’s friends.
The first time he tried, he got lucky. There was a man they called Midge, Gene never knew why, that used to go off with Roger on some of his earlier overnight trips. Midge clapped Gene on the back and clamped a powerful hand onto his shoulder. He said he could probably help the poor kid out.
Midge was an enormous bearded man who wore a string around his neck with dozens of shark, bear, and alligator teeth hanging down, making clattering noises in his long, tangled chest hair as he walked. His “Glade pearls,” he liked to call them. He led Gene out to the back of the bar and asked him if he knew what a mule was. Gene shook his head, thinking of course he did. Some kind of donkey, wasn’t it?
When Midge told him what it really was, Gene smiled. He’d heard of people doing that sort of thing, he just hadn’t known it by that name. He said he thought he could do it. Why not? Swallow and shit. He’d been doing that all his life. Shouldn’t be a problem.
Midge took the string from around his neck and held it draped over a massive palm. With his other hand he unsheathed a highly polished Bowie knife and used it to separate some of his bony charms. After a few seconds of work, four small yellowish objects were centered in his hand. Midge pointed at them with the tip of the knife and said, “Don’t fail on me, boy. I won’t be happy.”
Gene promised him he wouldn’t and Midge closed his fingers over the human canines then put his knife away. The next night he handed Gene a plane ticket and a list of instructions as he again advised Gene against the circumstances of failure. Gene told him he’d handle it fine and took the ticket.
A week later, after obtaining a passport over in Naples, he left for Colombia. It was the first time Gene had been on an airplane and the first time he had been to another country. Both these things were unsettling to him.
He began to think more seriously about what it was he was planning on doing. The plan was to meet a man in a hotel room who would hand him eight sealed condoms filled with uncut cocaine. He would take them back to his own room, roll them in some cooking oil, and swallow them whole, one at a time. After that, it would be off to the airport to board the plane for home, then induce vomiting or diarrhea, whatever it took, and get the damned things out of his system. Once he delivered them to Midge, he would collect his money and appreciate the retention of his dental work.
But what if the condoms broke? He couldn’t stop worrying about it. All it would take was one, the latex condom rupturing in his stomach or his intestine, releasing who knew how many ounces or grams of that snow white shit directly into his body. He’d die, he knew. He’d never taken drugs before in his life, but he knew he’d burn up fast, overdosing in the heat as his body temperature approached 110 degrees. He’d heard all about it and he didn’t want to end up like that. When the man in the hotel had given him the condoms, he had slapped Gene on the shoulder and said in heavily accented English, “Get home queek.” Gene could still hear his wicked little chuckle, smell the spicy food on his breath.
The plane ride back to Miami had been sheer hell. Before they had even taken off from the airport in Bogota they had been delayed on the tarmac for almost three and a half hours. Mechanical failure, they said. Gene thought it felt more like the drum roll before an execution. Before they even left the ground, Gene’s shirt was soaked through with perspiration. He could almost feel the acids in his stomach dissolving the thin latex tubes in his belly.
Once in the air, he wondered if the change in air pressure at altitude would make his digestive system work harder, faster. More acid-ier.
This had been a mistake, he thought, mopping his forehead repeatedly, trying consciously to slow his breathing. Ferrying drugs aboard a boat, dodging the police and the Coast Guard in the islands where he had grown up, that was something he could do. Maybe. But this, this was something else entirely. He was smuggling the drugs inside his own body, for Christ’s sake. This was so far from normal he couldn’t believe he’d even made it this far.
Aside from the vision of his veins and arteries choking themselves on the sudden influx of narcotic powder, his heart bursting and exploding inside his chest, Gene vividly recalled the polished knife lovingly caressing the human teeth on Midge’s pearl necklace. He had no doubt that Midge had shown him that knife for a reason, and the absolute least Gene had to fear was the loss of his teeth. In a constant state of near panic, Gene kept himself rooted to his seat for the entire length of the three hour flight. He was afraid to move, afraid to add any ingredient to the possible disaster he carried inside himself.
When they touched down in Miami, Gene could have passed out in relief. In a superhuman test of will, he forced himself through the cattle call of customs without drawing attention to himself. He was covered with sweat but this was south Florida, after all, and he mentioned he was just getting over some sort of flu he’d picked up in Central America. From there he almost ran to the nearest rest room and claimed the first open toilet as his own. He had pains in his gut now, his lower abdomen, and he swallowed six Ex-Lax tablets as he lowered himself onto the toilet.
It was a very unpleasant feeling when the first one came out, goose bumps breaking out across his thighs and arms, but Gene almost cried out loud he was so thankful. He counted carefully, not wanting to get up until every last one of those damned things had pushed through his body, never relaxing, always afraid that any one of them might rupture, get caught on something on the way out, just before it cleared his asshole. Never again, he thought. His days as a mule were over.
Finally, the last condom exited his spent body and Gene slumped forward, exhausted. He had to spend some more time waiting for the cramps from the laxatives to subside, but he didn’t mind. It was over and he had made it. He was tired and stinking of dried sweat and public bathroom, but he had brought the drugs in. All he had to do now was pick those little white torpedoes out of the toilet and boogie on back to Everglades City. Home to Midge and his knife and that damned spooky necklace.
Gene finally stood up and looked over his shoulder. It was hard to imagine how much money that ugly mess was worth. He took a half step forward and bent over to pull up his pants then stumbled and fell into the door of the tiny cubicle. The whoosh of water from the flushing toilet sent a bolt of electrified panic down his spine.
On his knees he turned and dove towards the toilet bowl in time to see the last wad of crumpled tissue get sucked into the hole at the bottom. In a futile gesture he grabbed for it, grabbed for anything, jamming his hand up to the wrist into the small opening.
Oh my fucking lord, Gene thought as he looked up at the piping coming out of the wall. What the fuck happened? What the fuck happened? There was no way to flush the damned thing, no goddamned lever to pull. This wasn’t possible! Christ! he swore again. He hadn’t done anything!
He pulled his hand out of the toilet and wiped it in his shirt as he got back to his feet. Staring in disbelief, he finished fastening his pants as he took a step back toward the door. Again the toilet flushed itself.
That’s it! The damned thing was like the automatic doors to the terminal! It flushed itself when he moved away from the bowl! How the hell was he supposed to know, God damn it? Nobody ever told him anything about fucking automatic toilets. Half the trailers in Everglades City just emptied into a lime pit.
Now the coke was gone because Gene didn’t know how to take a shit in the city. What the fuck was he supposed to do?
He stood in the stall for another half hour, trying to comprehend what had just happened to his life. Things had looked so good such a short time ago, and now ….
Rick Ollerman is the author of Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals: Essays on Crime Fiction Writers from the 50s through the 90s, and four novels: Turnabout, Shallow Secrets, Truth Always Kills, and Mad Dog Barked. “Easy Go” originally appeared in the NoirCon 2016 catalog.
Image from Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.net.