Tough Guys Drink Rum by John Corcoran by John Corcoran - Read Online

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Tough Guys Drink Rum - John Corcoran

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I’m gonna kill him.

Yeah. No choice. I’m gonna fucking kill him.

I step back, spit blood onto the white canvas floor, and come right back at him.

Him or me. Fucking Showtime, baby.

I take a hard right to the jaw, taste blood in my mouth, that sharp, coppery taste that I know so well. Doesn’t bother me. Fact, I kinda like it. Shit’s comforting in its familiarity.

A bell rings.

I fall onto a stool.

A hard smack, right across my face, and my shorts are pulled out from my body so I can breathe.

Breathe, right, that’s important. Some inner voice tells me this is so, and I suck in a lungful of rank, smoke-filled air.

And you know what?

I feel better.

I feel better till I get another smack in the face, my vision clears, and I see the guy bitch-slapping me is Sparky, my hard-as-nails cornerman. He’s screaming at me, screaming something in my face, something I’m guessing is pretty fucking important judging his tone.

But all I can do is watch the spit fly from his mouth and curse in frustration, unable to make out a single word, ‘cause man, I am so fucked up.

I suck in more air, hear a crack and smell the ammonia capsule that’s been shoved up under my nose. It ain’t legal, you know, using that shit. But it does the job and sweeps the cobwebs from my brain.

I can hear again.

Not that I want to.

Sparky’s in my face.

—What in fuck’s sake you doin’, you dumb fuckin’ Mick?

I’m a boxer, not a slugger, and I’m nine rounds into a ten-round fight with a fucking knockout artist. I’m ahead on points. And me, wise man that I am, I decide to stand and trade with the guy and he almost takes my head off.

Fucking brilliant, right?

I’m ahead on points and Sparky told me to stick and move and stay away from the guy, but I decided, fuck that, I’m a tough guy and I’m gonna take it to him. Sparky’s so angry his face is the same color as the blood that is splattered all over his nice white shirt.

I spit more blood in the bucket, look at Sparky.

—I can take him, man.

The slap again. Harder this time.

—You outta your fuckin’ mind, you Irish bum?

He raps his knuckles on my forehead.

—Hey, genius, you win this fight you got a shot at the title. You’re ahead on points. You got one round left.

He jabs my chest with a finger in rhythm with his words.

—Stay! The fuck! Away from him! I gotta draw you a fuckin’ diagram?

—He’s slowing down …

—No, lunkhead, your brain’s what’s slowin’ down. Stick and move, stick and move. Do not, for fuck’s sake, trade wit’ him.

He shoves a bottle in my face, floods my mouth with stagnant water.

—Don’t fuckin’ swallow it.

I swallow it. My mouth is a desert and water never tasted so good.

Sparky’s so mad he looks like he wants to fight me himself.

I look at my opponent across the ring. I can barely see him through the blue haze of acrid cigarette smoke that hangs in the fetid air. Man, this place, this fucking place. Kinda place you either love or hate. Me, I love it, warts an’ all.

I’m in the Blue Horizon in North Philly, the best place ever made to watch a boxing match.

The place reeks of stale booze, old sweat, beer-farts, blood. The joint’s fucking famous, man, although infamous may be a better description.

I’m fighting a local guy. Fucking stud. Media’s been building the guy up for weeks. Good-looking guy. Knockout artist. A real golden boy with movie-star looks and talent that could take him all the way to the top.

And me? I’m just an Irish pug. A beer can with a hard body and a battered face and a descent record who’s supposed to be a sacrificial lamb for Mister-Fucking-Wonderful. I’m supposed to be one of his stepping-stones on his way to the top. Only I’m ahead on points and I am seriously pissing on everyone’s parade.

Spectators scream for my head on a platter.

Most people, present company included, they lead lives that would never be described as heady, so they live vicariously through their local sports heroes. So basically I’m screwing up their lives, and they are letting me know that they are not happy. Plastic cups filled with beer and embossed with the logo City of Brotherly Love, bounce off my head and shower me with Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Fucking Pabst.

Damn Philly fans.

Guy tosses a lit cigarette, bulleyes my face, and Sparky grabs a Vaseline jar and throws it at the guy.

Philly, baby. Gotta love it.

The balconies in the Blue Horizon stretch out so far they actually hang over the ring. The raucous crowd is so close they could actually spit on me if they wanted to.

Some do.

I’m the bad guy, remember?

Sparky shoves the water bottle in my mouth again.

—Don’t fucking swallow it, Einstein.

This time I listen to him.

The Vaseline jar’s gone, but Sparky still has a gob of the shit on his left hand. He smears the Vaseline across my face, jams in my mouthpiece and puts his face in mine.

—Listen, you dumb fuckin’ mug.

You can tell the guy loves me.

—You win this one, we got a shot at the title. Ya hear me? The world is fuckin’ ours. Money, broads, Vegas, the big time, baby. Just don’t fuck up and trade wit’ dis guy. Stick and move, dance wit’ him, do whatever the fuck. But do not, do not, mix it up wit’ him. He’ll take your fuckin’ head off.

He smacks me on the head again to emphasis this.

I imagine the big time. I imagine myself on the cover of Ring magazine, two buxom ring-girls with glued-on smiles holding on to my tattooed arms like I mean something to them. Across the bottom of the magazine is my name in big block letters.


Hey, it could happen. Only I’m fighting a local hero and I know I gotta kill this guy. Gotta knock his fucking ass out. Can’t go for a decision. Can’t chance it that the judges aren’t on the up and up. Not that there’s any corruption in boxing. But the kid I’m fighting grew up in Philly. I’m just a transplant. To Philly fans, that makes a difference.

Gotta make it definite.

The prettyboy sprawled on his back, drooling blood and pissing himself, is definite. I hear what Sparky’s saying, but I’m the guy in the ring and I gotta go with my instincts.

Win or go out on my shield.

The ref tells the Seconds to clear the ring, and I snort down a couple more lungfuls of air. Sparky digs his meaty paws into my shoulders, massages them, leans over and whispers in my ear.

—OK, champ, let’s finish dis. Don’t be no Irish hard-on and go sluggin’ wit’ him. Ya got three minutes left, OK? So don’t fuck up.

Spark climbs out of the ring.

I look over at prettyboy, watch him spring easily to his feet.

Maybe a little too easily.

I stand and shuffle in my corner, bang my gloves against my face to psyche myself up. The bell rings and I move forward, chin buried in my gloves, and I say to myself over and over, Don’t fuck up, Don’t fuck up.

It becomes my mantra.

Don’t fuck up. Don’t fuck up. Don’t fuck up.


I fuck up.

I trade with the guy and he puts me on Queer Street. Luckily, I can’t remember the wild finish, a vicious left hook that drops me like a two hundred and twenty-pound sack of shit. Which is what I am now. ‘Cause my manager drops me, I can’t get another fight for over a year, and when I do get another fight I lose that one, too.

Then I lose a couple more.

The phone stops ringing.

I discover I have a lot of free time on my hands. I also develop a fondness for rum, and for women who like rum, and I dream of a place that has plenty of both.

Which is how I ended up cooling my heels here, in Key West, a pirate town.

My kind of town.

Frankie had New York. I got Key West.

Actually, I live on Stock Island, right across the bridge from Key West.

Ever hear of Stock Island?

I didn’t think so.

There’re certain places in this crazy world of ours that are lovingly referred to as The Asshole of the World.

Stock Island is on that list. And I’m pretty sure it’s near the top.

Stock Island is the next island up the Keys from Key West, and it’s where back-in-the-day the good folks of Key West kept all their livestock. Hence the name, livestock—Stock Island. You can tell a lot of thought went in to that name.

Stock Island is the other Florida Keys’ ugly stepsister. It’s the island the other islands keep locked in the basement. Key West gets the artists, the writers—think Hemingway, the rich tourists, the beautiful people. Stock Island, like some giant, magnetic loadstone, seems to attract every fucked-up, drug-addled, alcoholic, marginally insane, ethics-challenged drifter in the world.

It’s a freakshow, man.

Don’t even think about wandering the back streets of Stock Island after midnight. Ever see that movie Night of the Living Dead, with all the undead zombies staggering down the street with that I want to kill something look in their eyes?

Same thing.

Some free travel advise? Stay the fuck out.


I’m not a fighter anymore. Those days are long gone. These days I got my own gig. Salvage-diving business. I salvage sunken ships, re-float boats, shit like that. I work harder than I ever did boxing, and I make less money.

Go figure.

Sometimes I do subcontract salvage diving for a local treasure-hunting company: Mel Fisher’s Treasures. The Florida Keys are littered with literally thousands of shipwreck, and there are still lost Spanish galleons filled with treasure worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Mel Fisher’s Treasures lets me subcontract on some of their wrecks. I pay for all my expenses: fuel, boat maintenance, all that crap. But I get to keep a percent of whatever I recover. The rest goes to Mel Fisher’s to be divided among its investors. I’m a good diver and I always find something. And man, those wrecks just keep on producing.

In my free time, when I’m not busy drinking, I write novels. I’ve written two so far. Both shit. Which, I suppose, explains why I’m not published. Still, like Sisyphus, I keep at it.

Funny, all the twists and turns I’ve taken in my life to somehow end up in this remote place, living a most-unusual life. Have trouble even remembering all the switchbacks, dead-ends, and detours on the path I’ve taken to get here.

Salvage diver in the Florida Keys.

Treasure hunter.

Starving writer.

The road less traveled.


Here’s how I end up on this road.

Long story short.

I’m sixteen. I’m a punk. I’m a surf bum with long hair, a drug problem, and a real bad attitude. My father’s an ex-Marine drill instructor, and he raises me and my three brothers like we’re in boot camp. He beats us if we even look at him the wrong way. Sometimes he beats us so bad he makes us stay home from school so the teachers won’t see the results of his handiwork.

His favorite way of waking us in the morning is to grab us by the hair, drag us from the top bunks of our bunk beds, and let us drop to the floor. Then, for good measure, kick us across the room while screaming at us and, when feeling really energetic, throw us down a flight of steps.

Great guy.

My brother and I always try to hide the results of his beatings from the other kids, but one time my brother is getting undressed in the JV football locker room and another kid sees the bloody lash-marks that cover most of my brother’s body. Fucking kid starts crying. My brother’s twelve years old. The school nurse had to calm the kid down, but no one ever said a word to my parents. Back in those days no one ever said a word about shit like that. Fucking Dark Ages. Now days my father would be arrested.

Anyhow, I pretty much get the shit beat outta me every day of my childhood till I finally run away from home at sixteen.

Boo hoo, right?

Fuck that. Nietzsche got it right: That which does not kill you makes you stronger.

I run away from home and move to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Who the fuck runs away from home and moves to New Jersey?

Fucking genius.

So I crash in a local shooting gallery with all the junkies and the freaks and all the fringe-element types, and I make my money dealing.

I surf, and I deal.

That’s my life.

I buy dope, cut it with anything I can think of, and sell it to the knuckleheads who don’t know any better. I’m a regular fucking entrepreneur.

I’m also good with my fists, and I get in fights. A lot. I develop a bad reputation, and the local police take a serious interest in me. I go to Juvie twice. Doesn’t do a thing to me, and I’m right back at it. I like living the life. It’s exciting living on the edge, and because of my rep I get my pick of any surf bunnies I want. Sometimes two or three a night depending on how wild the party is.

Life is good.

The years fly by.

Then I get busted for dealing a third time, only I just turned eighteen.

Fuck me.

The cop busts me says to me, Son, you gotta choice. Either join the Marines, or go buy a dress, ‘cause you’re going to the big house. I’m eighteen years old, weigh a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet, and I have sun-bleached hair down to my shoulders. In the joint, some swinging dick would’ve made me his bitch in about five minutes.

I join the Marines. The cop saves my life. The very next day I’m at the recruiting station, taking it up the ass from some slick-talking recruiter who promises me the world if I just sign on the dotted line. Tells me that after I finish boot camp I just ask for whatever training I want, and they just give it to me.

Ha,ha,ha, yeah boy, I bet that asshole had quite a laugh after I signed up and left his office.

I get sent to the fucking grunts.

It’s about as exciting as dirt.

Dig a foxhole. Sit in it. Etcetera, etcetera.

I decide I might want to transfer to a different outfit. Something a little more exciting.

When I tell my Platoon Sergeant about what my recruiter told me, how you just ask for certain training and they just give it to you, he has a pretty good laugh himself. In fact, I think he may have actually had an aneurism he was laughing so hard.

Funny how things work out, though, because I end up loving the Marines.

You know that shit about once a Marine, always a Marine? Well it’s absolutely fucking true. The Marine Corps changes me. It turns me from a smart-mouth punk into a man. Only I still have the smart mouth.

Years later when I’m home on leave I see that cop that gave me a break, and I thank him for saving my life. He says to me, Don’t thank me. Just any time you get a chance to save a kid’s life, you do the same. I tell him I will. And I mean it. Not all cops are assholes.

I thrive in the Marines. After life with my father, Marine life is like Club Med. All my promotions are meritorious, and I fly up the ranks in a grunt outfit. And then one day I see this strange sight. Coming down the street is a group of guys running in formation, and they’re wearing U.D.T. trunks and t-shirts with skulls on the front and the words SWIFT, SILENT, DEADLY, printed in bold lettering. They sport high’n’tight haircuts, their heads shaved on the sides. They’re all built like brick shit-houses, and they are the baddest-looking guys I have ever seen.

I ask another Marine near me who the fuck these guys are, and he tell me Recon. Special Forces. The snake eaters. Tells me they live and train like the Spartans, and you don’t ever want to fuck with them. And I instantly have a new mission I life.

I gotta get into Recon.

I train like a maniac: pushups, chin-ups, sit-ups, weight lifting, ten-mile runs in deep sand, and hundreds of runs through the obstacle course. I volunteer and I go through the selection course and it kicks my ass. But I make it. I’m a Recon Marine. I go to jump school at Benning, and then scuba school. On my first dive I fall in love with the sea, and it’s a love I never lose. I dive every chance I get.

In Recon, we do the military operations no one ever knows about. We go on covert missions in Central America and in other places most people couldn’t find on a map. We do Black Op work for the C.I.A.

And we do assassinations.

We kill people.

Not like in the fog-of-war killing. Not in the heat of battle. More like sneaking into a guy’s bedroom and parking a couple of nines in his brain pan with a silenced automatic.

Not proud of saying that, but there you have it.

The killing: I discover I’m good at it. Very good. Like a fucking natural. Not proud of that, either.

Does it bother me? Yeah. Fuck yeah. Killing people doesn’t bother you, there’s something wrong with you. Like Charles Manson wrong. Like maybe you’re the last person on the planet should be carrying a gun.

But I feel that I’m doing what’s best for my country. Communist aggression and all that shit. What they tell you anyway. Why they like guys young and unable to think for themselves.

But as time goes by, the assassinations, they seem to be more about politics than anything else. No. That’s wrong. They seem to be more about money.

The number of assassinations escalates, but my team never questions it. We’re good Marines and we do what we’re told. Only there’s a price to be paid for the taking of lives, and soon the nightmares begin. They’re always the same. I’m being pursued, by something, through a tropical rainforest. It’s one of those thick, triple-canopy rainforests with the air so thick with moisture that everything is dripping wet. I can hear what’s pursuing me. It’s right behind me. But every time I stop and turn, I see nothing. Night after night I lay on my sweat-drenched cot in my shitty tent, and I toss and turn for hours as I’m stalked by whatever the fuck it is. And sometimes, sometimes if I turn quickly enough I catch a glimpse of it. Sometimes a bony, reptilian hand pulls away a clump of dripping vines, and I see the scorched, demonic face.

It is Satan. And he is smiling at me.

Not good.

I start questioning the killing. I start questioning what the hell I’m doing fighting in other people’s countries. I become disgusted with myself and the man I’ve become. I’m not killing to save American lives. I’m killing to help politicians and the companies that get them elected. I’m helping the military-industrial complex make more money. I’m just another one of their tools.

I have thirty days leave on the books and I take it. I go to Panama, Colon, a real shit-hole but the whores are as cheap as the rooms. I stay at the El Caribe. It’s an old hotel turned whorehouse with its own bar and restaurant. Rooms are ten bucks a night. I have a room that looks out over the city of Colon, and I sit on the balcony and I drink.

I drink, and I fuck, and I drink.

Sometimes in the other order.

When I’m not doing that, I think.

I do this a lot.

I think about my life and the kind of man I’ve become.

One day I’m wandering through the timeworn whorehouse and I find an unused room with an ancient, weathered bookcase. The bookcase is filled with old books and it looks like they haven’t been touched in a long time.

Unused books in a whorehouse.


I run my fingers along the titles, see most are in Spanish, then stop at one that’s in English, only it’s too dusty to read clearly. It has a faded, battered-leather cover and I brush the decades of dust from it. It’s the Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham. I take it to my room, sit on my balcony and read it. I like it so much I read it again. It’s the story of one man’s search for the meaning of life, and it changes my life forever. Not overnight. It’s a long, slow journey. But it’s the catalyst that starts the journey.

I leave the military. I fill my battered rucksack with books on Eastern philosophy and I travel to India. I take the old trains all across India: Bombay, New Delhi, Calcutta. And I take the long, life-threatening bus ride into the Himalayan foothills that lead to Nepal. I stay in Kathmandu, hang out with the other expatriates in the ubiquitous tea shops, and I read. I read The Snow Leopard and Seven Years in Tibet, copies of which seem to be in every tea shop in the city. Is there anyone who’s ever been to Kathmandu who hasn’t read these incredible books? I also read every book on philosophy I can get my hands on.

One day I fill my rucksack with other books I haven’t read: The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the writings of different mystics like Meister Eckhart, Boehme, Blake and Merton. And I leave Kathmandu, climb higher into Himalayan Mountains. I find an ancient, long-forgotten monastery that will allow me to stay for a small stipend, and I’m given a small, cell-like room. But that’s fine with me. I don’t want anything else.

Every few months I travel to Kathmandu to get more books.

I do the whole Razor’s Edge thing and I search for the meaning of life. I shave my head, wear old, threadbare saffron robes, take long walks in the impossibly-beautiful Himalayan foothills, and I think, and I think, and I think. I stand on a mountaintop, and I hope for salvation. I ask God to forgive me for my sins, but I doubt that he ever will. Like Blanche DuBois said in A Streetcar Named Desire, Some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. Innocent people were killed in the dirty wars I fought in. The wars in the dark places of the world. And that is not forgivable.

I live this life for four years.

And then one day I decide it’s time for me to go home. Time to go back to the real world.

And did I find the meaning of life? Well, I did for me. But I can’t tell you because it’s different for every man. It’s a solitary journey and you’ll just have to find out for yourself.


I go home.

I’m twenty-seven years old.

I move to Philly and talk about cultural shock. It takes a while for me to readjust. I find I have nothing in common with other people my age, or, other people in general.

I move in with my brother, Paul. He’s a good guy, and unlike me he’s got his shit together. Got a house, trophy-wife, real job-type job, all that normal shit. Me? I got a rucksack full of moldy old books and a few bucks left from my time in the service.

I decide to join a local boxing gym. Just to stay in shape, I tell myself.

Yeah. Right.

So easy to lie to yourself, ain’t it? Pull the wool over your own eyes.

Deep down, I know the real reason. Violence. Still attracted to it.

Like to a fucking flame.

Hate myself for that. But I am what I am.

I join Joe Frazier’s gym, in North Philly. Wonderful neighborhood, if you like combat zones. I’m the only white guy in the joint, but I don’t have any trouble. Other guys train there respect the fact that I’m in there trading punches and pissing blood in the morning, just like the rest of them.

I fall in love with boxing.

Legal violence.

Respectable mayhem.

Hell, people even clap, entertained by it.

I discover I’m good at it. I start entering amateur bouts, and I start winning. On a lark I decide to enter the Golden Gloves, and I win my division. A two hundred and twenty-pound white heavyweight with a good chin and fast hands who just won the Golden Gloves. The promoters come crawling out of the woodwork like cockroaches.

I make another brilliant decision and decide to embark on a career as a professional boxer.

I’m so smart it’s scary.

I sign with Sparky, and he’s my promoter, manager, and corner man. He’s using me, but who gives a fuck. They all do. It’s the nature of the business.

I start winning more fights. Make a name for myself. And Sparky and I take a wild ride all the way up to the top of the division, get a shot at a fucking title, and all I gotta do is beat this local prettyboy and, well, you know the rest.


So now I’m a boat-bum salvage diver.

Not putting myself down. Something to be proud of. This day and age, what with your yuppies and Gen-X and metrosexuals and whatever the fuck, man lives on the sea, old school, yeah, something to be proud of.

I live on an old, eighty-foot long, converted shrimp boat used to be used by a treasure-hunting company. When the company decided to upgrade to a newer boat, they sold her to me for fifty large. It’s called the Bastard.

I gutted the boat and started from scratch, turning it from a workboat in to a halfway-decent liveaboard. I ripped out the bunks in the crew’s quarters and turned it into a salon. I put in wood paneling, about a thousand coats of varnish, a whole bunch of nautical crap, and, well, I’m not some Martha-fucking Steward but it looks pretty damn good.

I’ve got two Detroit diesel 1271s and a Onan 20 kW generator, and my engine room is so fucking clean you could eat off the floor. Know this for a fact ‘cause one time I dropped a fish taco on the floor, picked it up and ate it, and I didn’t get the screaming shits. So there you go.

I turned the whole forward salon bulkhead into a library filled with nautical and diving manuals and some of my favorite books. The shower is on the aft deck and it’s got swinging doors like what you’d see at a Wild West saloon. They’re basically worthless. I know this because of all the whistles I get from women drinking at the local watering hole right across the channel from where I dock my boat. Every once in a while I’ll moon ‘em just for laughs. Mostly I just amuse myself.

The wheelhouse is one level up, and it’s where I’ve got my bunk. Room has a killer view of the whole marina and the ocean beyond it. Rich people in the Keys pay a fortune for a view like mine. On the top of my wheelhouse is a catwalk with a steel railing that sits a good twenty feet above the water. Sometimes at night I’ll lie up there on my back with a cold Corona and look at the millions of stars in the ink-black sky. I’ll listen to Bob Marley wailing from the juke of the local bar across the water, sip my beer, and think about life.

Sometimes I’ll lie there and think about all the millions of people spending their entire lives in little cubicles, staring at computer screen, and I’ll wonder, is that what they dreamed of doing when they were children thinking about their future. Or did they dream of becoming astronauts, or explorers, or writers, and then one day give up their dreams and settle for security. I’m guessing that’s what happened, ‘cause chasing dreams is hard, man. Sometimes there’s no security. Sometimes you have to work without a net. But you gotta chase your dreams, ‘cause this life we’re living, it’s not a dress rehearsal. There are no do-overs. This is it. And when it’s over, it’s over. You gotta chase your dreams, even if it means losing your security. Even if you lose everything. Even if you lose your life.

Hanging on my bulkhead wall, right over the ship’s wheel, is a plaque with a motto on it. I had it made up at a local sign shop, and I run my hand over it every time I head out to sea. It’s the motto Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dineson—Out of Africa—adopted for her life:

Navigare Necesse Est.

Vivere Non Est Necesse.

To set sail is necessary.

To live is not necessary.

I strongly believe this.


I live in this marina on Stock Island.

Pirate’s Cove Marina.

Great name. Great marina.

It’s one of those old-time Keys’ marinas, the kind used to be everywhere before they turned them all into mega-yacht clubs. It has that ancient, weathered, slightly-decaying