“Last boat comes in about a quarter-to-six,” Mr. McCabe says, “so ain’t many tourists coming into the lodge between then and closing—except maybe to go to the restaurant. You can get on with your schoolwork right here at the counter, unless somebody comes up. You need something, my number’s right there. Housekeeping’s extension five. You got to push ‘zero,’ first. Got all that?”
“Yes, sir,” I reply.
“Good. See you lock the door behind you at ten, and don’t forget to put up the sign.” He points behind the desk to a piece of yellowed paper, framed in a black plastic frame, that lists his cell phone number beneath the words, ‘In case of emergency, please call Doug McCabe, Wakulla Springs Lodge Manager.
Mr. McCabe grabs the keys to his old pickup and heads for the door.
I hadn’t thought to bring my homework, and it feels wrong to play around on my phone on my first day of a new job, so I walk around the lodge’s reception area, checking things out.
I’ve come to the springs to swim since I was little, but I hadn’t been inside the lodge in years until my interview with Mr. McCabe two days ago. And I was too nervous to notice much, then. The reception area takes up about ten feet of the lodge’s foyer, which looks like a run-down version of some huge, fancy ballroom out of one of those BBC movies Mom likes. The only thing that doesn’t seem to have been worn out by the passage of time is the ceiling, which is formed by thick, dark beams covered in Italian-style paintings. The hardwood floor is scratched up, and the Oriental rug that covers only a small part of it is faded and dingy. There are a few chess tables that look like they might’ve been really nice, back in the 1930s, but now their marble tops are covered in nicks. To one side of the chess tables, right next to the TV, is Old Joe. He faces the screen, like he’s watching the game that’s playing on mute on ESPN.
“Hey, buddy,” I murmur, running my fingertips over his glass coffin. I remember seeing him, back when I was a kid. My mom took me into the lodge to buy me some chips from the vending machine, because I was feeling shaky. After I saw Old Joe, I had nightmares about giant alligators for weeks. I bend close to the plaque on the coffin. Eleven feet long, over six hundred pounds…maybe two hundred years old. Someone’s discarded leaflet, lying on top of the coffin, tells me Old Joe used to hang out by the pool and never showed any aggression to anyone. But then, back in 1966, a poacher snuck into the springs and shot him with a 22-caliber rifle. Edward Ball, the rich guy who bought the springs, offered a five-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the poacher’s arrest. The bullet that the scientists at FSU had dug out from the back of Old Joe’s head rests beside him, tiny to his bulk.
“Sad. Sorry, big guy.” I glance down the length of the coffin. It’s covered in greasy smears. Whoever’s in housekeeping hasn’t been doing their job.
I turn away from Old Joe and go back to wandering around the foyer. Really old photos and magazine prints featuring the springs line the walls. There are a few black-and-white movie posters, too—from back when “Tarzan” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed here. Some of the photos are in color and were taped onto light boxes…but the glow-effect is marred by the fact that the pictures are badly faded, maybe even by the very light that’s supposed to highlight them. I lean close to one of the photos. It’s from the 50s, probably, and a tourist—or maybe a bored employee—scratched the ink off of the upper half of the black bathing suit worn by the woman in the photo. The light shines like headlights through the two perfect circles where her breasts would have been.
“That’s Belinda Baby,” a voice says behind me. I whip around. A tall, dark-haired girl leans against the reception counter, her hands in her pockets.
“Uh…excuse me?” I ask.
She points to the picture I’d been staring at and walks toward me. “Belinda Baby. At least, that’s what Uncle Doug calls her.”
“Uncle Doug…you mean, Mr. McCabe? He’s your uncle?”
“Yep. I’m Maria. Housekeeping.”
“Neil,” I say, shaking her outstretched hand. “I’m…reception, I guess. Your uncle just hired me.”
She nods. “It’s going to get busy in a couple of minutes. The tourists like to come into the AC after the boat ride. I usually help out while it’s crazy.”
“Okay,” I say.
She grins, revealing straight, white teeth.
“So…you live in Crawfordville?” I ask.
Before she can answer, the glass doors facing the boat dock open, letting in a cloud of hot, sticky air and the scent of sunscreen and bug spray.
“Here we go,” Maria says, pulling me around the counter to face the onslaught of tourists. Most of them want to exchange dollar bills for quarters, since the vending machines are old-school and don’t take bills. Maria shows me where her uncle keeps the quarters, and for ten minutes or so, it’s as crazy as Maria said it would be. Some of the tourists want to know stuff about the lodge—they call it “quaint”—and Maria takes over.
During a brief lull in the action, she digs out a handful of the same pamphlet I had picked up off of Old Joe’s coffin and tells me to give them out to anyone who asks a question about the lodge or the springs that I can’t answer.
“Or tell them to go back to the ranger station on the boat dock,” she throws over her shoulder as she hurries off to find more pamphlets in her uncle’s office. “They know everything! But they won’t be there past six-thirty!”
By the time she returns, most of the tourists have left. A few push around some chess pieces, then head for the restaurant. Only one man remains.
I step out from behind the reception desk and begin to walk toward Old Joe’s coffin, where the man stands, but Maria catches my arm.
“That’s just Mister George,” she whispers.
I frown at her, confused, and she pulls me to the far end of the desk.
“He comes here almost every day. But he doesn’t really talk to anybody.”
“Uncle Doug says he comes because he likes it here. You know how old folks get: nostalgic and stuff. Uncle Doug thinks he was a kid back when this place had its hey-day and all sorts of people were making movies, here. Like that.” She points to the “Tarzan” poster. “Maybe he was even an extra. They hired people from Crawfordville, you know. But anyway, don’t bother talking to him. He’ll go, after a while.”
“Okay.” I glance at Mr. George, whose head is bowed and whose hand rests on the wooden platform beneath the glass coffin. “He looks sad.”
Maria shrugs. “He always does. It’s the nostalgia. So…it looks like the rush is over. Inez—the head housekeeper—she’ll come after me if I don’t get back to work. You got it from here?”
Maria gives me another smile and heads through an open door halfway down the foyer.
Mr. George stands by Old Joe for a while, then settles into one of the overstuffed chairs in front of the TV, his small frame sinking almost out of sight.
Night after night he does this, except for when it rains. Then he doesn’t sit. He just stands by Old Joe for a while, dripping rainwater, and then he leaves. Sometimes, when he’s in that chair, he sits so still that I’m sure he’s snuffed it. So I dig up some Windex and some paper towels out of the plastic crate under the desk and walk over to clean Old Joe’s coffin–and to check on Mr. George out of the corner of my eye to see if I’m outnumbered by corpses.
His eyes are always wide open, but I don’t think he sees me watching him.
One night, there’s a bad thunderstorm, and the rangers cancel the last boat ride. The dozen or so tourists who huddle in the ranger station leave, looking dejected. I settle in for a quiet night, but then the power goes out. There’s a flashlight in the desk drawer and a few battery-powered lanterns in Mr. McCabe’s office, and fortunately, the only guest is a travel writer who thinks the power outage lends atmosphere to his experience. I nod, keeping my opinion that he’s psycho to myself, and offer to let him take a lantern upstairs with him. He leaves, whistling and swinging his lantern so spooky shadows crawl up the walls and slip down again.
I’m just settling in to post something on my Facebook page that I hope Maria will think is witty, when Mr. George shows up, soaked to the bone. He stands by Old Joe, shivering.
The housekeeper’s linen closet is only a floor away, so Mr. George is still dripping when I return from it with a scratchy–but clean–towel. I hand it to him, and for a moment, it looks like he’s going to say something to me. But then he just grabs the towel, spreads it out on the same overstuffed chair he takes on the dry evenings, and sits down. There’s a coffee-and-tea stand by the stairs, so I make him a cup of tea. Old people like tea, I think. He takes it, without uttering a sound. His eyes are still on Old Joe.
“I think that glass could use some cleaning,” I say, hoping for some sort of reaction from this slightly creepy old guy. To my surprise, he nods.
I rummage in the plastic crate for the half-empty bottle of Windex and the paper towels. When I place the roll on the coffin, Mr. George, who had risen from his chair and staggered over to me and Old Joe, picks it up. With shaking hands, he tears off several of those dinky half-sheets, and then he places the rest of the roll on the ground, where it tips over. I watch it roll away until it hits the edge of the Oriental rug, afraid to meet Mr. George’s eye.
“Um…okay,” I mumble. “I’ll spray.”
Between the two of us, it doesn’t take long to make Old Joe’s glass coffin sparkle. And the minor exercise seems to warm Mr. George, because it isn’t long before he’s not shaking anymore.
Spray, wipe, spray, wipe.
“Why are you here?” a wheezy voice asks. I jump. It’s Mr. George.
“Why are you here?” he repeats.
“I—I work here. I’ve been here a month, now,” I say, in case he has forgotten that he has seen me almost every night for the entire month of August. “My name’s Neil. Neil Spear.”
The old man stares at me.
“You know…spear…like for fishing? Or…like…for wild boars and stuff?”
Mr. George leans closer to me. His breath reeks. “You ever hunted a wild boar?”
I shake my head.
“You want a lot more than a spear, boy.”
Mr. George raises his eyebrows. “So why are you here, Neil Spear? Why are you working the desk? You want to earn some money? Buy yourself a car?”
The fact that Mr. George is talking to me at all is so surprising that I can hardly latch onto anything he’s saying. Something about a car.
“I’ve got a car,” I say.
“Folks bought it for you, did they?”
“I bought it myself,” I reply, maybe sounding a little annoyed.
“What was wrong with the job you had when you was earning up for your car?”
“I was shucking oysters and cut my hand.” I hold out my left hand, which is pretty useless except when I want to show off a wicked scar. “Cut right through the tendons.”
Mr. George sniffs. “Ain’t no money in oysters, no more.”
“Well…that’s why I’m here. That, and my hand.”
“Ain’t no money sitting at a desk in a washed-up old lodge, neither.” His tone surprises me. I had thought, from what Maria had said on my first evening here, that he loved this place, with its big, stuffed alligator and its weird Mediterranean architecture.
“I don’t need much,” I tell him. “I’m just trying to get some extra so I can trade in my car for a nicer one—an automatic. It’s tough steering with a bad hand while you shift gears with the other.”
“You’re telling me,” he says, holding up his gnarled left hand so I can see his swollen knuckles. “Arthritis. Ain’t no hands-free cars yet, though, not that I know of.”
“You going to college?”
“In a couple years.”
He nods. “Never went to college, myself. You going to get one of them scholarships?”
“Don’t know, sir.”
“Kid needs money, if he’s going to college.”
I open my mouth to reply, but he turns his back on me and leaves the lodge, slamming the glass doors behind him so they rattle.
I run to the reception counter to call Maria. Unfortunately, it’s the Miss Inez who answers the phone.
“Can I talk to her?” I ask.
“Why? You need towels at the front desk?”
“You need mini shampoos to wash your hair in the rain? Or maybe a blanket so you can curl up by the TV and watch a movie while the rest of us work?”
“No, ma’am. I just—“
“Then you don’t need Maria. She does towels, she does shampoos, she does extra blankets. She does not do chit-chat with boys.” She hangs up.
At nine-forty-five, Mister George returns, carrying a long bundle, wrapped in a scrap of frayed tarp.
I look up from the counter, which I’ve polished with Lemon Glow until it’s as shiny as the moon’s reflection off the springs.
“I got five thousand bucks for you, kid.” His hands are shaking again, and he’s wetter than ever, but he unwraps the bundle, revealing a 22-caliber rifle and a box of bullets that have to be seriously old. The cardboard is all faded, just like the pictures on the walls.
And that’s when everything clicks together.
Ignoring my muffled cry and the finger which I point at him, Mr. George digs into the box of bullets and pulls one out.
“Go on, look close, Neil Spear,” he says. “Serial number’s the same as the one in that case over there.”
My hand falls. “You killed Old Joe,” I whisper.
“I was a dumb kid,” Mr. George says. “Did it on a dare. Same fellow who dared me got shot in Vietnam the next year. Nineteen sixty-six.”
“Why are you telling me it was you? Why are you even talking to me? You never talk!” I say in a strangled voice.
“Because you clean Old Joe’s glass. And because I know it’s tough to drive with a bad hand. Think you can manage to drive me to the police station without killing us both?”
Much of this story is based on truth, but I’ve bent that truth quite a bit. You can learn more about Old Joe by reading this newspaper article from 1985.