Red Lobsters by Michael Maiello
As the guests arrive, we marinate their insides with alcohol and sodium and then encourage them to baste their exteriors in salt water. We apply deceptively low heat for long periods, waiting a few days for the skin to redden and crack as their bodies bloat. This is the recipe for our all-inclusive resort. The guests tumble out of vans pale skinned and parched from their airline journey. Then they cook like shellfish, barely noticing the change.
My nametag says “Jermaine.” These tags get traded around. Repeat guests remember the names (all are vaguely foreign to both Europeans and Americans: Olean, Gregdon, Alara) but not our faces. Sometimes a new employee with an old nametag has to politely pretend to remember the guest from last year. This is part of the Beachwood Resort Experience.
I have worked here for years and have been Jermaine the whole time. I remember some guests but not others, as you might expect. “I am your concierge for all your needs,” is how I greet them. I make extra money buying pot and cocaine for the cool parents.
The children run and splash, burning off soft serve ice cream and chicken nuggets calories. The teenage boys overeat and overheat. The teenage girls will not eat any crap because they will not let the teenage boys see them gnawing on chicken wings or pizza. The girls starve on yogurt and iceberg lettuce. They buy bracelets and have their hair braided on the beach. They do not know that the teenage boys associate a willingness to be seen eating pizza with a willingness to take their tops off. Or, maybe they do. Some of the girls are wiser than they want to be.
As they age, the kids want to get drunk and get high. In Jamaica, the age is 18 to get drunk and it’s illegal to get high, though it’s safe enough on the resort grounds. But our promise to the parents is that if you bring the kids you get them back in a state that will pass your school’s random drug test, cheerleader virginity intact, hair unstained by alcoholic vomit. The poor kids must play with themselves a lot, locked up in this prison where the uniforms are bikinis and board shorts. A concierge cannot be everywhere.
You have to like the guests to be good at the job. “Ya mon,” has to roll off the tongue. “Any time, little boss man.” You have to take care of “Boss Lady,” and you never say “Happy wife, happy life,” if she can hear because it gets “Boss Man” in trouble.
Kids are kids, you have to remember. A teenage boy, with reflective white skin from a north Texas winter, asks you for a coconut. We don’t have them. Smile and say you’re out. “Can’t you climb up the tree and get me one?” he asks, smiling. He has no idea what he’s saying. You really, really have to like and forgive people to like the job.
I liked the job. I like people. I forgive. But I lost it all.
One Tuesday, a family comes in. They have taken the 90-minute drive from the airport in Montego Bay except that it took them two-and-half hours with the traffic. It has been bumpy, windy and hot. I know the driver. He won’t turn on the air conditioner because he says it taxes the engine. He suffers and the customers suffer but he asks for a tip and that makes the passengers angry.
The little one is a mess of tangled, curly brown hair and energy. He runs off right away. Mother growls “get back here,” but I assure her that he is safe. Let the child run. Mother’s face is flush. You can tell that she can be pretty with her high cheekbones, but not after two hours in the sauna van. Dad is skinny-fat and his clothes hang like garbage bags. I bring them rum punches. I start to season my lobsters right away. They relax.
Dad’s name is Gerald Briskin. The kid is Little Jerry. Mom is Susan. She is a singer, but not for money. That’s how she says it. “I sing, but not for money.” A perfect Midwestern response. Europeans never say that. When they sing, they sing. It’s still a song even if you pay them for it. Gerald writes children’s books. “Young Adult Fiction,” he says. The books are like Harry Potter but not. They are about a boy from outer space who doesn’t know his parents were aliens. I have seen the books. Boys read them.
“Like Harry Potter,” I say.
“No, no,” he insists. “The boy is from space.”
It seems a good idea to ask if he wants me to buy him some marijuana. He does. I help them to their room, a luxury suite overlooking the beach and then set out to fetch his drugs.
“I’ll get you the finest,” I say. “Turn that space boy into Harry Potter.”
At Beachwood we take no tips. This is a great equalizer. To come here is expensive but once here, all guests are equal. If you’re friendly you get more but you can’t buy it. This is a relief to the people like Gerald. The really rich ones get bored and leave. They go to Ricky’s bar where they can spend money and buy attention.
The lobsters come in schools, arriving towards the beginning of the week and starting to depart after the Saturday. You get to know faces. You don’t meet them all, but we make up their stories. If the world had as many vacationing Russian mafia hit men with large families and Greek shipping magnates who have rescued heroin-addicted strippers from dirty clubs in Venezuela as we imagine, it would be a more dangerous and interesting place. Mostly these people just work at banks.
Gerald is blind without contact lenses. That becomes important later on. At first, I thought it was Susan the unpaid singer who was blind because she seems not to notice her husband’s fascination with young flesh. I know he can describe every pattern of bikini creeping up a teen girl’s bottom. He is mesmerized when the girls climb out of the pool and stop to adjust their swimsuits in the bright sun, pulling wet nylon from their skin. Susan sips her daiquiri and ignores it all.
They keep Little Jerry in the Kid’s Camp. They barely saw the little one. Two days in they are high and drunk by midmorning. The day starts with breakfast with the little one then off to kids camp for him, and the adults are off to smoke and drink rum. Gerald watches the girls while he and Boss Lady broil by the pool.
On day three, Gerald gives out his books to the younger boys. He talks to them, connects with his audience. I imagine he believes he is back in school but it’s all going right for him this time. This time, with his stories about the boy from the stars, Gerald is cool. His audience is 12 and he is not but it’s no matter because Gerald is high.
But Gerald makes a mistake with Susan. Gerald talks to a woman at the bar, a well-built blonde mother from Manhattan and he tries to convince her to go to Ricky’s with him so that they can leap from the rocks into the deep blue eddy thirty feet below. Susan joins the conversation to pointedly say that the woman does not want to leave the resort with “some strange little man.” The woman from New York laughs, “Why leave here. The drinks are free. I mean, paid for.” Very friendly.
A few hours later Susan and Gerald argue in the shaded area behind the big pool, near a wall by the raised platform with the big hot tub.
“You are a complete Hisaster,” she says. “You can’t see anything. I can’t believe you didn’t bring your glasses.”
“I packed them,” he insists.
“You are such a child,” says Susan.
“A child could not afford to bring his family to a place like this.”
“He can if he writes children’s books.”
“They’re for young adults.”
“Young adults are children!”
Later I see him with the young boys, including a boy named Brad from Iowa, about 12 years old. Gerald gives Brad a signed book. Brad’s sister Sasha comes to get him to join the family for lunch. She daintily shakes hands with Gerald. Sasha could be a model, I think, but what do I know? She has the perfect American features. Her hair is long and blonde, her breasts are tightly rounded, she has swimmer’s shoulders and a parabolic ass barely covered by her Jamaican flag bikini. She does not burn like the lobsters. She browns and glistens. Gerald holds onto her hand for awhile.
All the bartenders know about Sasha. They all know she is not 18. She tries to flirt herself up some alcohol but they say “no.” She has a routine. She orders a margarita and when the barman shakes his head and smiles she smiles back and says, “Virgin, of course.”
Of course, a virgin.
The whole place is on high alert for Sasha. She is a sweet girl, I think, and she draws a lot of looks from the men and I am glad this is a family place where the men are with their wives. Wives are a modulating presence. Otherwise, men can imagine a lot so far from home.
That afternoon, I see Susan and Gerald in the gift shop. “Everything good?” I ask.
Gerald bumps fists with me. But Susan tells me the shop doesn’t have the saline solution her husband needs for his contact lenses.
“I can see fine,” he protests.
“He’s blind,” she says.
“I get it for you in town, Boss Lady,” I say.
“I can’t believe you didn’t pack your glasses,” she says.
“I did,” he whines.
“I have to get our child,” Susan announces, stressing the “I” and the “our,” as if her husband’s blurry vision should at least heighten his other senses so that he could pick up on what she is really saying without so much difficulty.
“I will get him,” Gerald announces.
“You’ll probably bring home the wrong kid,” she says. She leaves, the door chime clanging on her way out. Gerald shrugs in my direction.
“Yeah, mon,” I say. “I’ll get you the solution, no problem.”
As he tries to leave the gift shop, Gerald knocks over a small bucket of decorated seashells. I believe this has more to do with his eyes than his liver. I tell him, “not to worry, mon” and I pick up the shells.
I know that they will fight until the issue is resolved. I leave work at six. I go to the pharmacy in Negril. It is closed when I get there but the owner knows me and opens the door. I buy the saline. As I leave I run into an old friend from wilder times. We go to his apartment to smoke, drink Red Stripe and listen to music. Time moves more slowly for us. I leave when my friend falls asleep on his couch, but not before I finish the joint he leaves smoldering in the ash tray.
I walk back to the resort, enjoying the cool air after so many hours in the hot apartment. I feel my sweat drying away. It is not a cloudy night so I stop to look at the big moon and to notice all the parts of it that I do not remember having seen before. The marijuana is reminding me that the moon is there. Have you ever been so caught up in work that you forget the moon is there? You need to talk to the marijuana, then. The marijuana knows. Good night, moon. I walk on.
On the third floor of the west wing of suites I find the door is closed and the lights off. The rum and sun knock them out early. I go to put the saline solution by the door and realize I have left it at my friend’s apartment. I will have to go back there tomorrow and then come back here on my day off.
I see the moon again. The marijuana tells me that the resort is like the moon and that I should also see what is new in it. I walk the grounds. It is after midnight and very quiet. I pass a few workers I know, people tending the laws and trees. Anyone up is at the only bar they keep open this late. Move the alcohol, move the people. They keep that bar away from the beach and pools. I follow some odd and isolated laughter to the big hot tub.
I see Gerald in the tub. There is an open bottle of aged rum, the brown stuff the club imports from Venezuela that the guests think is local. With Gerald in the tub is Sasha and two other girls. Both seem younger than her. Gerald picks up the bottle and points it at Sasha. She stands in the hot tub and then lifts her black bikini top up over her breasts and wiggles her rib cage for a few seconds before covering herself and dropping down below the water line, smiling bright. Her reward is the bottle. She sips from it, coughs, hands the bottle back to Gerald submerged her head in the frothy water.
There are prescribed actions for me to take. I could confiscate the rum, ask the gentleman to go to bed and report the incident to management in the morning. But, I am not working and should not be here. I am high and drunk. My manager would believe me, I think. But I am high and drunk and why am I even here? To bring him the saline that I do not even have is why. No good.
I can pretend I saw nothing. Maybe this is all in my mind like the moon. This would be convenient. This is also no good. Unhappy Gerald, who is laughing and splashing in the bubbling pool and trading shots of rum for blurry glances at young flesh is after solace that can only ruin him. I have made promises to life beyond those of a concierge and I must act for the good of everyone.
I wait for him to put the bottle down and I creep around the bushes that are underneath the hot tub, to the area behind the pool where Gerald first fought with Susan. I can, without them noticing, grab the bottle and then pull it through the wooden rails of the fence. Now I have the rum. I drink a shot and I wait. Before long he is splashing around for where he put the alcohol. The girls will not perform for him for free and he knows it. He has lost his currency.
“It must have tipped over and rolled down there,” he says and I hear him sloshing out of the hot tub. He clambers down the slippery tile stairs and somehow reaches the sandy ground where I wait.
“What are you doing, mon?”
“Jermaine,” he is surprised. “Just, uh, in the Jacuzzi.”
“No good for you, no good for the resort, no good for your family,” I say.
“If we could maybe keep this between us,” he says. “Look, I’m functionally blind, man. I didn’t see anything.”
“That’s what you say tomorrow when you tell your wife you tripped and fell,” I say. Then I punch him right on the cheekbone. A beautiful shot, like Tommy Hearns but without evil intent. I hit him just to give him a swelling. The marijuana makes me nice. I hit him to wake him up so that he can mend his ways and we can be friends.
He falls to his knees on impact, his hands at his face. He looks at me as if he has never been struck before, as if the unthinkable has happened. I wonder how this is possible, with all of the violence in his books.
“You hit me?”
“You tripped and hit your head,” I say. “Tomorrow I’ll bring the saline so you can see and nothing like this night will ever happens again. Then you thank me.”
No more conversation, I decide. I leave. The next day I return to fulfill my promise, with the saline solution, and my manager is waiting. He is a tiny man. He meets me right where the vans bring the lobsters, saying I am lucky I will not be arrested and that the guest does not want to call the police. As he is firing me a little girl who has escaped her drunken parents runs on crooked legs towards the street. I stop being fired to catch her, pick her up and put her back onto the sidewalk. The boss finishes firing me.
I never imagined that he would report me but the thing about the lobster is that they never understand what is happening to them. This one, it bit me for letting it out of the trap. I give the saline to my former boss.
“Maybe now he can see,” I say.
I leave and have never gone back there.
© Michael Maiello, 2014
Michael Maiello (also known as "Destor23") is a New York based columnist, performer, fiction author and playwright. He is the author of Shuts & Failures, Rejected New Yorker Pieces (Also Rejected by McSweeney's!). He worked for ten years at Forbes Media, writing and editing for both Forbes Magazine and Forbes.com and also appeared frequently on CNBC, Fox News, Fox Business News, CNN and MSNBC. He is also the author of the 2004 book Buy The Rumor, Sell The Fact: 85 Wall Street Maxims and What They Really Mean. He has performed stand up comedy at The Laugh Factory, The Comic Strip and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Mama D's Arts Bordello and The Lost and Found Show. He has had four plays published (Night of Faith and Waiting For Death by Playscripts.com; Principia and Troy! Troy! Troy! by the New York Theatre Experience. He has written for The Daily, Reuters, Esquire, McSweeney's the Liar's League NYC reading series and the NewerYork.
Red Lobsters was read by Basil Rodericks on 4th June 2014