I still remember,
as if it were yesterday, how intimidated I felt when Jake pushed me through the sagging wooden gate to meet his Aunt Lela
for the first time. A weathered picket fence with flecks of white peeling paint litters the sidewalk surrounding Lela’s
rundown two-story cottage. I look up at the second floor windows, almost expecting to see some apparition, a half of a face
with a suspicious eye peeking from the curtains staring down at me. My imagination is going helter-skelter as I go through
the gate. Then I see Lela sitting in the shade on the front porch. She looks as ancient and terrifying as the old home she
Lela is resting in
a rocking chair, facing the narrow street with both hands hidden in a large bowl on her lap. The polished curved armrests
of her rocking chair are so smooth from her elbows resting on it over the years the wooden grain is blurred enamel. Lela doesn’t
smile, get up or even change the rhythm of her senile rocking. She just stares watching us approach. As I reach the first
bowed porch step, Lela’s hand falls down into a paper sack beside her on the porch floor. When she slowly brings her
hand back up, as if it is all she can do, she has a fistful of green pole beans hanging out of it.
The way Lela looks at us or looks right
through us, I think Jake is mistaken and maybe we are at the wrong house. That would not have surprised me at all. The last
time I was at Lela’s house was ten years ago in 1967 before Jake went to Vietnam. I was six years old then.
Even after watching on the
television all of the unrest at the college universities and draft card burning protests going on in the bigger cities around
the country over our involvement in Vietnam, Jake still signed up to go overseas and fight. I’m not sure if he felt
it was his patriotic duty to enlist or he just felt like it was an opportunity for him. A chance he might not ever see again.
Jake’s ticket to get away from the Keys and the daily pressures of life, marriage and family that was suffocating him.
Jake was twenty-five years old when he joined the Marines with three boys and a wife to support.
After finishing boot camp at Paris Island,
two weeks before he shipped out to Vietnam, Jake and I drove ninety miles from Matecumbe down to Key West to see a friend
of his named Bull Brothers. While we were in Key West, Jake decided to stop by his Aunt Lela’s house to tell her goodbye,
as well. However, I think Jake’s real purpose for visiting Lela was to show her he had become something bigger than
the generations of Conch men before him. Jake was a Marine in the United States Marine Corps. He relished his new role. I
think he felt like some kind of hero.
I did not go inside Lela’s house back then during Jake’s visit. He told me to wait in the car parked out
by the sidewalk saying he would only be a second. That was fine with me. I didn’t particularly want to meet his Aunt
Lela anyway. Jake had bought me two comic books earlier from Jew Lillie’s, a Cuban grocery store on Duval Street. I
was content sitting in the car looking at my comics, Captain America, fighting for freedom and justice against his archenemy
Red Skull and the omnipresent Nazi’s villains.
What I did not know, heading back home to Matecumbe was that Jake had two kilos of marijuana he had bought earlier
off Bull Brothers stashed in the trunk of the car. I found out when I overheard him and mom arguing about the grass in their
bedroom later that night. Jake told mom he was going to sell the dope so he could leave her some money to take care of my
two brothers and me until he could send more money later after he situated himself overseas.
I don’t know how much money Jake
ever sent or if he sent any money at all while he was fighting over in Vietnam. I do know that one-day we were a family, the
next day Jake left, and something died in our family while he was gone. We had a difficult three years between Jake’s
four tours overseas and the handful of weeks when he came home on leave but somehow we made it. What bothers me the most is
that nothing was ever the same after Jake enlisted in the Marines and life only seemed to get worse when Jake finally did
come back home for good, missing his left leg below the knee.
In the month before
school got out for the summer of 1977, I heard Aunt Lela’s name mentioned more times than I had heard in my life. For
week’s Jake and his new girlfriend, Rena, argued over him wanting to work on the new shrimp boat that Bull Brothers
had recently bought. Nevertheless, Rena didn’t want to be responsible for me all summer while Jake was shrimping and
fishing in Key West. I couldn’t really blame Rena. She wasn’t much older than I was.
I didn’t want to stay with my
mom because she was leaving for the summer to go up north and she didn’t know when or if she was ever coming back to
the Keys. She was moving near the State mental hospital where she was having Randy, my sixteen-year-old brother, committed.
Randy was hearing voices. Voices that were telling him he was crazy and the only way to kill the voices was to kill himself.
Before mom and Randy
left for the trip to the nut house, mom made me promise not to tell Jake how bad Randy’s condition really was. That’s
what mom called it, his condition. Randy wasn’t crazy or going crazy in mom’s eyes, he just had a condition that
mom hoped the doctors could somehow treat with drugs and therapy. I was fifteen going on thirty and I decided I would rather
stay with Jake and Rena. In a way, I was hearing voices too, my own convoluted voice asking me should I go or should I stay.
Maybe I should have
gone with mom but I did not want to leave Matecumbe and the Keys. It was all I knew. Everything was settled when Jake concocted
the idea that I could stay with Aunt Lela for the summer in Key West while he was there shrimping and fishing.
Jake claimed he could make
a lot of money under the table, fishing on Bull’s boat while still collecting the monthly disability checks that he
received for his war injury in Vietnam. Rena was doubtful, warning him, “Yeah, you can make a lot of money if you can
stay sober and don’t blow it on your good times when you get back on the docks. Which you can’t.”
They made a deal. If Jake
could go sober for a week, Rena would support his decision to work the summer on Bull’s boat in Key West. Jake never
quit drinking. However, the week passed without Rena suspecting anything. Jake ate a lot of onions and garlic that week.
Lela stares at me from her porch with
dark beady pupils in a cloudy sea, empty of any emotion. Her leathery worn face houses deep wrinkles blemished by dark splotchy
sunspots hanging on her loose skin like leprosy. A pink rubber band holds her dull gray hair, streaked with white strands,
back in a short ponytail. Lela’s sleeveless dress, threadbare from years of washing has faded yellow flowers on it and
clings to her thighs draping heavy, varicose legs. The bulging veins running down Lela’s shins and calves remind me
of meandering blue rivers trailing down to her knee-high hose, bunched around her swollen ankles above some old cotton slippers
on her feet.
At first, the dark
sunspots masking Lela’s face and flabby arms shock me until it dawns on me what a very big woman she is. Lela swallows
her rocking chair. Her girth spills out of the sides of the chair so much I question whether she can even get up to go inside
the house. Maybe she lives in her chair every minute of the day, I am thinking.
I try to peer through the dusty screen door to keep from
looking at Lela but the door is like looking in a black shadow. Everything I can smell smells old. Lela smells like the old
house she lives in and the old house smells like her. After a week, I think I smelled old, too.
Hooked on the armrest of
Lela’s rocking chair is a rosewood cane. Wrapped around the curved handle of the cane is soiled medical tape and the
rubber skid stopper is worn down completely to the wood on the bottom. I guess that Lela must be able to get up if she has
a cane to walk with.
stop at the porch steps not wanting to be the first on the porch. A gecko lizard freezes, studying me to see if I am a concern
to it. Its skin is the same mottled color as Lela’s sunspots. I hear Jake cough behind me clearing his voice.
“Aunt Lela, it’s
Jacob. Your nephew. Remember me? This is my boy, Henry. I wrote that letter to you last week,” Jake mumbles, nervously
wiping hot perspiration out of his eyes.
Lela does not say anything. The silence is frightening. Her eyes are curtain-less vacant windows with an abandoned
interior. I hear pole beans’ snapping between her fingers as Jake clears his throat again. I wonder if Lela is deaf.
“Aunt Lela, did you
get my letter?” Jake asks again, louder this time.
Lela slowly turns her head to the screen door, shouting in Cuban. In a few seconds, a dark-skinned boy materializes
behind the screen door. When he sees me, he smiles. I smile back. Lela fires off another rapid stream of Cuban to the boy.
He comes out of the house, hurries down the porch steps motioning for me to follow him around the back of the house. About
an hour later when we go back to the front of the house, Jake is gone and Lela’s rocking chair is empty.
Dead Quivers. I first heard that nefarious coupling of words
during the summer of 1977 in Key West. Two words that at the time was as foreign to me as the cryptic characters in the Japanese
language. Dead Quivers. Two words that gripped my very being, separating the moral from the immoral in the same way the Dead
Sea parted for Moses and his followers drowning the Egyptian army that was pursuing them.
The image of death was immediately conjured.
Spasms on a hospital bed. A battlefield. Dying in a piss reeking alley. Dead Quivers. Jaws locked in the final throes and
quakes of the dead and the dying. Dead Quivers. The final rasp of breath with fists clenched in defiance until rapture. The
moment life decides to abandon the physical body for the spiritual realm of eternity. Death. At least that is what I imagined
in my young, candidly naive imagination. Dead Quivers meant death. I was close in my assumption.
How ingenuous my thinking was because
when I finally experienced the real blasphemous meaning of Dead Quivers, nothing in my life prepared me for the truth, at
all. The stark sadistic reality of those two words awoke something painful in me and strangled a part of me with its perverted
truth, leaving my very faith in humanity forever tainted and the innocence of my youth altered and skewered by knowledge.
Summer of 1977. The
same sweltering summer a delusional, psychotic serial killer dubiously calling himself, Son of Sam, went on a crazy killing
spree terrorizing New York City by randomly stalking Big Apple residents with a .44 magnum handgun.
Son of Sam grabbed all the headlines
that summer, nightly stealing the lead story from every six o’ clock news anchor around the nation. However, as I discovered,
in Key West, a quaint little stop at the end of U.S.1, it does not take a metropolis of eight million crammed packed people
like New York City to breed aberrant behavior. Just take a look in any big city or small town, the same human behavior is
Imagine a voyeuristic
snoop behind any bedroom door in any neighborhood in utopia America. What you might find will shock you. I warn you. Do not
walk into your parent’s bedroom unannounced when the door is closed. There is a reason the door is shut. Doors are not
just for stopping strangers from coming into your home. Doors are also for keeping secrets from getting out. What lurks in
the confines of intimacy and privacy behind closed doors should remain unseen. Unheard.
The summer of 1977, I was staying in Key West
at my great Aunt Lela’s house with her grandson, Roberto, for eight long, hot weeks. During the entire summer, each
and every day, the Blue Oyster Cult song, Don’t Fear the Reaper, played over and over in my ears and mind haunting me.
I could not escape the music no matter where I was in Lela’s house or what I was doing. Morning, noon and night, I heard
the repetitive calling of the song’s guitar chords and the pleading urgency of the chorus. The lyrics spoke to me clearly,
sometimes whispering but always with the same message, forever imploring me, not to be afraid.
Lela was a tall, obese woman with layers
upon layers of fat, creases and crevices of skin the hot tropical sun never warmed or touched. Because of her elephantine
size and senile years, Lela labored to perform even the simplest, mundane domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning either
her house or herself. Lela’s age was centuries away from a guess, her face was tired with sagging wrinkles blemished
by dark sunspots much like the weathered, peeling walls of her erstwhile cottage.
I never felt welcomed at Lela’s home. Lela was a
suspicious, stern woman with the irascible disposition of a hooked bull shark and simply put, I was a burden she could have
readily lived without having. Nevertheless, it is not as if I had any choice to stay there for the summer. Jake sprung me
on her one hot day in June, on a blistering Sunday afternoon and left me there to fend for myself.
With the heat rising off U.S. 1 in a
rainbow mirage of hydrocarbon fumes, Jake and I took a Greyhound, heading south from Matecumbe where I was born and raised,
and traveled ninety miles to Key West in two hours. It was a little before noon when we arrived. Seems like after we got off
the bus and walked to Lela’s house, when I turned around, Jake was gone. Off to go fishing and shrimping while embracing
every roguish element of the occupation with a selfish ardor that comes from a nomadic existence making a living on the water.
Strange how two hours can mean so little at the time but have such an everlasting impact on you afterwards.
Jake had a bug up his ass all spring
before summer. First, he had forsaken his given first name, Jacob, and insisted everybody, including me, call him Jake. It
felt strange calling him Jake, breaking the old habit of “Dad”. Mostly I think I did not call him anything.
Jake was restless. You could
sense it in his mood. Hear it in his voice. See it in his eyes. Jake wanted to get away from Matecumbe. Especially after mom
finally had enough of Jake’s drinking and his string of girlfriends and she decided, their marriage was over and had
been for the last five months. Mom made the decision that she was leaving with my older brother for the mainland up in North
Florida as soon as school got out for the summer. She was having Randy committed to a mental hospital because he was hearing
voices inside his head. I did not want to go with her and Randy. I wanted to stay where I was raised and
with what I knew. But Jake wanted to run to Key West. What I did not know at the time was that Jake wanted to get out of Matecumbe
to lay low after a botched up dope smuggling deal went sour and some people Jake was associated with lost a lot of money in
the aftermath. So, my mom and my brother went to Saint Augustine and Jake and I went to Key West. Jake was going to live on
a shrimp boat and I was going to stay at his Aunt Lela’s house.
The cottage that Lela lived in was a Victorian New England
style that was popular in Key West during the turn of the century. Over the years, many Yankee ship captains had decided to
call Key West their home after visiting the island during their seafaring voyages and over time, they brought their northern
architecture and ideas with them.
Lela’s three bedroom, two story, cottage was a typical cookie cutter design common around the island with ten-foot
high ceilings to help contend with the heat, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a outdoor porch cornered in fancy gingerbread
trim that ran the length of the front of the house facing the street.
When the original owners built Lela’s house in the
beginning of the century, it was a grand home for raising a family. Nevertheless, Lela’s husband died early in their
marriage and except for raising her only daughter, then later her daughter’s illegitimate son, Roberto, Lela’s
cottage missed the grooming of a family structure. The passage of time, sun and salt had not been particularly kind to Lela’s
old home and years of neglect had left it badly in need of aesthetic repairs.
Fundamentally, the structure of the house seemed sound,
yet the blood and sweat of a man maintaining it over the years and the elegant touch of caring woman could have made all the
pleasing difference. A coat of paint inside and out would have been a decent start.
When Jake and I arrived, I could see from the
street that several front windows were cracked and X’d with masking tape to hold the glass together. Stepping on the
front porch steps that had supported Lela’s weight over the years, the steps did not feel or look as if they had much
life left in them. I noticed the tin roof leaked in the corner of the porch causing ugly green algae stains on the walls of
the porch that was spreading with a life of its own. The gutters running around the eaves of the roof that once funneled rainwater
for drinking into a concrete cistern under the house had long ago rusted through. There were so many holes in the gutter that
when it rained immense sheets of water cascaded down the outside walls in a waterfall causing the tongue and groove siding
to rot and mildew. The once pristine white picket fence, bordering the property and paralleling a cracked, buckling sidewalk,
was indiscriminately missing a dozen or more slats and had aged to a faded gray hue.
And cats. Christ, there were feral cats everywhere
around Lela’s cottage. On the porch. In the backyard. Lounging under the over-grown shrubbery like they were senior
citizens basking in the glory of retirement. Wounded Confederate soldiers convalescing at an infirmary was more like it. Black
and white piebald cats. Blue-gray cats. Striped tigers. Orange tabbies. Manx’s. Fat cats and skinny cats. Sickly, dying
cats. Beat up, one-eyed, ragged-ear cats. And the six-toed polydactyl’s with their huge mutated paws that were left
over descendants from Ernest Hemingway’s cats when he lived in Key West in a beautiful Spanish villa a few blocks away.
Cats and more cats and every muggy variety bred in between.
Lela could not afford to feed the stray cats. She just allowed them the sanctuary to pursue a life of feline leisure
as they wished. Where all the cats stalked off for food when they were hungry, I had no idea nor did it concern me very much.
Cats can fend for themselves for the most part. I used to like cats until I stayed most of the summer at Lela’s house
observing their lazy habits and creeping ways watching you with their inverted eyes like reptiles.
Over time, their me, me, me, selfish
demeanor irritated the shit out of me. What can I say? Cats have a self-serving attitude I do not have any patience for. They
will generally ignore you with a blissful, what-do-I-care countenance unless they want something, from you, like food. Then,
a cat will look at you as if you are the slave put on the planet to serve them and only them.
I cannot stand it when you do a cat
a favor such as opening a door to let one out or let one in and then it sits there biding its own time, deciding when they
will come and go. I have a mutual understanding with cats. They do not need me and I do not need them. However, what did strike
me as odd was that with all the stray cats hanging out around Lela’s house, there did not seem to be any kittens or
nursing cats around.
Lorelei. Lorelei was the only cat Lela allowed in her house. She was Lela’s favorite. Lorelei was an orange female tabby.
By the end of the summer, she was bursting with pregnancy. Her belly was huge. Swollen as if she had swallowed a crab trap
buoy. Generally, Lorelei liked to lie around the house content in the domain of feline laziness, ignoring the world or hiding.
DON'T ASK THE MOCKINGBIRD, WHAT HE CAN'T TELL
I am standing alone on the side
of U. S. 1 in Matecumbe about 8:30 at night waiting for a car to go by. It is heading south, probably going to Key West. A
high-pitched female voice suddenly pierces the night screaming out, “Fag-got!”
A beer bottle shatters in an angry splash
of glass on the limestone shoulder of the road not ten feet from where I am standing. The sudden hot draft from the passing
car blows my hair in my eyes. I am left standing there thinking, fuck you, staring at the shrinking taillights, giving whoever
the hell they are, the middle finger.
“Fucking assholes,” I mutter under my breath. I look both ways again to see if any other
threats are approaching before I run across the two-lane highway and stand in a knee high, grassy median for a few seconds
before I walk across the older, original U.S.1.
The lights are out as I go by old man Sanders house. They
usually are at this time of the night. He always goes to bed early because he washes the breakfast dishes in the morning at
Dolphin Harbor Restaurant. It is sad to watch old man Sanders going to work in a taxi cab every day when I am standing at
the Hurricane Monument waiting for the school bus to pick me up in the morning. It is sad that a seventy-year-old native Conch
who has lived his entire life on this island has to wash dishes to make ends meet.
In old man Sanders front yard is a beautiful
Royal Poinciana tree. It is a striking tree when it first blooms in July with the entire canopy covered with an umbrella of
scarlet, orange flowers. There is still some blooms left on the tree and I peer in the darkness to see if I can make out the
black, foot long seedpods that hang down its limbs. The long, flat pods always remind me of that big mouth toucan on a box
of Fruit Loops cereal.
am on the ocean side of the island and I turn down Old Ocean Road heading towards my house. There are not any street lamps
along Old Ocean Road, leaving the road swallowed in darkness with a few random porch lights on attracting moths. At night,
Old Ocean Road seems like a long shadowed alley, abruptly ending at the Atlantic, where the blacktop gives way to fine white
beach sand, Coconut palms and the comforting warm salt air of the ocean.
I stroll by the two-story barber shop on the corner where
Sal, the bald headed barber, cuts hair on the bottom floor and lives upstairs with Gloria, his new wife who is much younger
than Sal. Out of habit, I look up to the windows to the second story. Sprawling purple flower bracts of ancient bougainvillea
vines that looks planted a century ago completely inundate the south wall of Sal’s house. The thorny tentacles of the
vines are reaching and strangling up the wall like an octopus silently creeping up to the flat pea rocked roof. Ever since
I can remember, Sal has hired various handymen to trim and train the rampant bougainvillea away from the two upper windows
facing the street, leaving a pair of four by four, oval carved out eyes.
The purple and green, vine-shrouded wall of Sal’s
house reminds me of some lost, overgrown temple in a Mayan jungle that is dark and secretive. There is almost a holy permanence
embodied in Sal’s place similar to the sanctity of a church that I feel when I walk by. There is also something primal
about Sal’s house as well, with the bougainvillea vines always growing and reaching out to reclaim Sal’s civilized
intrusion. Some nights from the second story windows, I can see Gloria doing her bedtime calisthenics in her bra and panties.
Unfortunately, Gloria is not putting on her show tonight or she already has and I have missed it.
Sal has cut my hair since I was a toddler.
He is in his sixties now and he has been the only barber on the island since I can remember. Now that I am making most of
my own decisions in life, I have decided to grow my hair out as long as I damn well please. The last time I sat in Sal’s
chair for a haircut was over a year ago.
Anymore, I only occasionally see Sal when I walk by the barbershop to cross U.S. 1 or to go to The Brown Skillet, a
Cuban restaurant down the road where I try to buy cigarettes out of a vending machine in the lobby without anyone noticing
me. Passing by the barbershop, I might see Sal through the plate-glass window standing behind some local, giving him a haircut.
Sal looks like the actor, Red Buttons but Sal is fat with a rotund reddish face and he is always wearing his ever-present
white guayabera shirt.
do not miss the days when I was younger and Jake would give me five dollars and order me to go to Sal’s to get a haircut
where after Sal was finished he would give me a cheap black comb that he kept in jars of blue disinfectant. Nor do I miss
the perpetual smell of hair tonic on Sal’s soft, pudgy hands and his unctuous small talk always sifting for island gossip.
Sal and Gloria’s
property is beautiful. Landscaped immaculately with huge coral boulders, dime-sized brown river rock pebbles and white beach
sand carpeting the grounds. Planted throughout the property are different types of exotic specimen trees along with meticulously
positioned clay pots and urns with flowering shrubbery in them, similar to a Japanese garden. Outside in her garden, her Eden,
is where I often see Gloria when I walk by their house in the daytime. She would either be tending to her flowers, watering
her orchids and ferns and refilling her bird feeders hanging from the limbs of several Gumbo-limbo trees on the side of the
house or just lying in a chaise lounge in the front of the garden reading. Gloria likes to read scandalous detective magazines
with wild-eyed, buxom women tied up in bondage on the glossy front covers that I can see from the road when I pass by.
Gloria is an insatiable
flirt with peroxide dyed blonde hair and a singsong Midwestern accent she inherited from whatever state she lived in before
she moved to the Keys and married Sal about five years ago. Whenever Gloria is outside she is usually wearing a hair band
to keep her long hair out of her face and she always seems to have on a two-piece bikini riding high on her thick hips. All
of Gloria’s skin has the brown hue of belt leather from the sun but for some reason, Gloria’s hips tan several
shades darker than the rest of her body. Her hips are the color of Santa Dominican mahogany with lighter colored stretch marks
resembling pale stipples. Some of Gloria’s womanly softness has been aged by the long hours she spends toiling in the
tropical sun but she is still an attractive and shapely woman for her age and Gloria knows it.
Gloria enjoys flaunting her curves at
me whenever she sees me walking by. Some days she will intentionally bend over in her bikini with her ass to me pretending
she is doing something in her garden. Other times when she is lying in her lounge chair and she sees me walking by she will
assume some other sexually charged pose by repositioning her legs so her thighs are thrust up at an angle or she will untie
her bikini top and roll over onto her back spreading her legs open.
On the days, when Gloria beckons me to come over to talk
to her when she is out in her garden in her bikini, she laces the conversation with sexual innuendo that only girls at school
who are my age might say when they are trying to be flirtatious. Talking with Gloria, I find myself, more often than not,
tongue-tied and wrestling to stop staring at the lines of sweat disappearing in a trickle between her bronze cleavage, cleavage
that dips endlessly. Nevertheless, even with my own teenage hormones always raging, I think Gloria is a little too old, in
her mid-thirties, around my mom’s age, I would guess, to be stuffing all that jiggling warm flesh into such a small
amount of fabric that is her bikini.
Adjacent to the side of Sal and Gloria’s house not thirty feet from the road is an outdoor shower. Sal hired
some Negro workers to build it out of flat lengths of washed up driftwood Gloria collected off the beach. Besides being an
insatiable flirt, Gloria has a risqué exhibitionist side to her that I and other people on the island, as well, find
scandalously provocative. Gloria likes to shower outside, rinsing the salt, sand and sweat off her body after an afternoon
of swimming down at the beach or working or lounging in her garden while reading. I think Gloria gets her kicks standing naked
next to the road where anybody can see her when they pass by with only her mid torso concealed from view behind her outdoor
Two weeks ago, after
I had just gotten back from staying at my great Aunt Lela’s house in Key West for the summer, I was walking by Sal and
Gloria’s house after getting dropped off by a Greyhound bus. I stepped off the bus with my clothes in a paper grocery
sack, thinking, I was sure glad to be back in Matecumbe. I had had enough of Key West and Lela’s house of horrors to
last a lifetime.
BIG TEA TABLE BRIDGE
Big Tea Table
Bridge is a straight and narrow bridge. It does not have an arch or a drawbridge to allow passage of boats with any substantial
height such as sailboats. There are only two lanes for vehicle traffic on Big Tea Table Bridge, one lane heading north eighty
miles to Miami and the other lane going south, eighty miles to Key West.
Hurricane winds in excess of two hundred miles an hour
from the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane destroyed the original railroad bridge where Big Tea Table Bridge is located now. The hurricane
also destroyed miles of railroad track as well as many other railroad bridges that millionaire Henry Flagler had spent over
seven years and a millions of dollars from his vast personal fortune to build.
Only a single generation of passengers would
get to ride Flagler’s trains connecting the mainland of Florida to Key West by railroad before the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane,
in a matter of hours, wiped out Flagler’s dream and vision. To reconnect the mainland of Florida once again, across
the chain of islands forming the Florida Keys, the federal government constructed Highway U.S. 1 on top of the old railroad
bed for automobile traffic. The destroyed bridges where either rebuilt for cars where the original railroad bridges once stood
or they were moved east or west and a new approach constructed.
Henry Flagler was the oil tycoon, who was partners with John D. Rockefeller and founded The Standard Oil Company in
1870. They both became millionaires a hundred times over. Flagler would later go on and make a second fortune in the railroad
industry after Flagler realized a product is only profitable and valuable if he could successfully bring that product to the
market for the masses. The product Flagler decided to exploit for profit in Florida was tourism and he brought that recreational
concept to the masses by building his railroad line along the entire eastern seaboard coast of Florida.
Henry Flagler is probably single handedly
responsible for creating Florida’s billion dollars plus tourism industry that thrives today. The railroads that Flagler
either bought or built along Florida’s coastline subsequently allowed him to become a ruthless hotel mogul as well.
As Flagler’s railroad line pushed further south searching for milder winter weather, he built opulent hotels in the
late 1800’s up and down the eastern seaboard of Florida. Magnificent hotels that catered to the privileged wealthy northern
families who could afford to vacation in Florida’s year round sunshine.
Some came to Florida to
escape the harsh winters of the north for health reasons. Some came to relax filling their idle time with tennis, golf and
fishing. Others came to invest in the cheap property that was abundant in Florida at the time. From St. Augustine to Ormond
Beach to Palm Beach to Miami, the grand ritzy hotels popped up as Flagler’s railroad progressed south.
After building The Royal
Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach in 1894, which was the biggest wooden hotel in the world at the time, Flagler’s railroad
line then moved on further south to an unincorporated settlement where he built the Royal Palms Hotel that opened in 1897.
That town would become Miami after Henry Flagler declined naming the new town after him. Nevertheless, after spending millions
of dollars developing Miami to suit his business needs, the citizens of Miami gratefully referred to Flagler as, “The
Father of Miami.”
Henry Flagler was not finished in Miami. He set his eyes on building another grand hotel in an even warmer climate and taking
his railroad line as far south as he could go in Florida, to Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States.
At the time, Key
West was the most populated city in Florida with about twenty thousand people living there even though the island was one
hundred and twenty miles from the mainland and accessible only by ferry and boat. Additionally, Key West was only ninety miles
away from Cuba, which at the time, was in a fierce fight for their independence from Spain with much speculation in the newspapers
that America soon would be drawn into that war to help liberate Cuba. Flagler knew Cuba’s independence would open another
door of profitability for his railroad so he started acquiring land in South Florida and hired some engineers to begin a lengthy
study to determine the route and feasibility of building a railroad line all the way to Key West.
In 1904, the United States government
announced they were resuming building the Panama Canal that the French had abandoned creating a shortcut between the Pacific
Ocean and the Atlantic. Key West was the closest deep-water port to the Panama Canal in South America and Flagler made up
his mind. He would extend his railroad line all the way to Key West no matter what it would cost. Being the savvy businessman
that Flagler was he knew he stood to make a substantial profit on his railroad line after the canal was finished by shipping
goods up north from around the world.
In order to build his railroad line
and get his haughty clientele from the north to Key West in the comfortable fashion they were accustomed to travelling, Flagler
needed to build an infrastructure that only a man of his means and money could conceive much less attempt. A hundred and twenty
mile long railroad line that would run through the Keys and require building some forty different bridges joining the necklace
of islands in the Keys and bridging the many open spaces of water.
Flagler started building the railroad through
the Keys to Key West in 1905. Many engineers scoffed at Flagler’s project claiming it would be impossible to accomplish.
The local Conchs in the Keys who worked on building the railroad line and the many bridges called the endeavor “Flagler’s
Folly” and had their doubts as well. Nevertheless, there was never any shortage of workers, Conchs or other men who
came down from the north that were willing to work for Flagler building his railroad line. They all wanted a paycheck.
One of the longest and most
difficult bridges to build proved to be between Knight’s Key and Missouri Key at the end of a large island that become
known as the town of Marathon. The name given to the new town as testimony to what lay ahead; building a bridge in the middle
of the ocean between two islands that was seven miles apart.
Henry Flagler saved that bridge for last. He knew that building a bridge seven miles long in the middle of the ocean
was a monumental task but when that link was finally finished, it would complete Flagler’s dream and silence the many
skeptics who thought building a railroad line to Key West would be impossible to accomplish. Seven years later, at an estimated
cost of fifty million dollars, over ten times that amount in today’s dollars, as well as the lives of a thousand workers,
Flagler rode into Key West in 1912 on his railroad starting from New York City. He announced to Key West, and the world, that
against all odds, he had fulfilled his dream and vision and he could now die a happy man, proving all the naysayers and his
many critics wrong. A year later, Henry Flagler would be dead at the age of eighty-three years old.
But twenty-three years later, all the
back breaking work of the men toiling in the tropical sun, through all the storms and hurricanes, hoards of mosquitoes, all
the lost lives, all the money spent and all the years of suffering building Flagler’s railroad were erased on Labor
Day, September 2, 1935. One of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in North America hit the Keys. The storm killed over
four hundred people, many of them World War 1 veterans working in the Upper Keys where they took a direct hit from the hurricane,
literally washing away every standing structure including much of Flagler’s railroad line and bridges. The local Conchs
in the Keys quickly dubbed Flagler’s dream, “The Railroad that went to Sea.”
To me, Big Tea Table Bridge has always
been the demarcation line that separates Matecumbe Key from Lower Matecumbe Key although there are actually two other small
bridges between the two islands. Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe Key are rival islands in a sense. Each island has always had
their own agendas and opinions on arresting or allowing the growth and development that has been exploding throughout the
Keys since the late sixties. Matecumbe has the nice four-star hotels and celebrity restaurants. We have the hippest, loudest
bars and the biggest marinas with charter boats and party boats to go out fishing on. We have all the tourist traps, the historical
sights and the State parks. We are happening and cool and the tourists are vacationing in Matecumbe in droves.
Lower Matecumbe never wanted
to be like us. They wanted quiet family neighborhoods and senior citizens basking in their retirement houses. Now, watching
the commercialism and development changing the landscape of Matecumbe, I am realizing Lower Matecumbe might have had the better
plan. Keep commercialism out of the Keys at all costs. However, it is too late, for that now. Commercialism and development
is running rampant over the entire chain of islands and each island has come to depend on it, like a drunk needing a drink.
Walking across Big
Tea Table Bridge has always been dangerous to do. Built strictly for cars and trucks to pass over there is not any space or
a lane for pedestrians or bicycles on the bridge. To walk across the bridge I carefully have to watch each step as I traverse
across a twelve-inch wide concrete base that supports the metal guardrail running the length of the bridge. One foot is all
that separates me from the yellow shoulder line and vehicle traffic driving across the bridge. One careless step or slip to
the side would perilously place me in the direct path of any oncoming vehicle splattering my ass like a summer bug across
Every time I cross
Big Tea Table Bridge, whether walking or driving across with someone in their car, the panoramic view on both sides of the
bridge always mesmerizes me. From the aqua, turquoise color of the shallow water, morphing to dark blue, where the water is
deeper, to the channels that serpentine and weave from the Bay to the Atlantic, cutting tricky passages through the prop scared
turtle grass flats, to the escapist, marooned feelings I always get looking at the small, uninhabited islands dotting the
horizon on either side, the view always leaves me in awe.
ANY GIVEN MORNING, WE CRY IN THE MIRROR
I was dreaming. Dreaming I am waking
up to a red bird chirping outside my window. Except, the chirping really is a bird. A cardinal is furiously attacking the
bottom glass panes of my bedroom window. I have the venetian blinds drawn down but laying in my bed and looking up, I can
see the red bird through the latitudinal slices slanted up to the sky. The bird is a beautiful brilliant deep red male cardinal
that looks angry. Actually, it looks insane with small, black determined eyes as he hacks at his own image that it apparently
sees reflecting back at him in the glass. I reach backwards through the blinds and thump the window to scare him away. My
finger striking the glass only makes the cardinal more aggressive. He attacks the window with even more ferocious absurdity
making an irritating rat-a-tat-tat like a snare drum at a military funeral.
Then I really wake up. I am jolted from going back to
sleep, hearing Connie Krautkowski next door unmercifully beating the hell out of her son Tommy again. I turn up out of bed,
twist the blinds all the way open and look out the window. Connie is brandishing eight feet of garden hose like a bullwhip
whipping the shit out of Tommy. I had seen such abuse before next door.
“I’m sorry, mom!” Tommy is screaming
bloody murder. It sounds like his mother is killing him. He is screeching, hollering and crying. Maybe Tommy’s mother
is killing him. It feels like she is killing him to me.
“I’m sorry, mom! I’m sorry! Please! I’ll clean the fish tank out. Don’t
hit me anymore, mom! Please!” Tommy begs.
“Why didn’t you clean the tank out when I told you?” Connie shouts drawing the hose back to whip
I forgot! I’m sorry! It won’t happen again! I promise! Please, mom!” Tommy pleads.
I keep staring out the venetian blinds.
It is pathetic to watch. Tommy Krautkowski is my age, sixteen years old but he looks like a helpless child writhing on the
ground, half-ass trying to defend himself thwarting off Connie’s blows by covering his head and face with both of his
hands. Connie keeps viciously whipping Tommy on the legs and the shoulders then attacking his forearms that are trying to
protect his face. Connie’s face is an angry mask with a Viceroy 100 cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth. It is
an ugly sight to see first thing in the morning.
“You’re fucking sorry, huh? I’ll fucking show you sorry. Wait till your dad gets fucking home and
he beats your fat ass, too,” Connie promises Tommy.
Tommy is twice the size of his mother. I want him to get up off the ground, snatch the hose from his mother and dish
out some of her own abuse back to Connie’s ass. But I know Tommy would not dare. He knows if he did, his dad would probably
kill him when he gets home from work. Tommy’s dad is a bigger, meaner bastard than his mom could ever be. I shut the
blinds to soften the drama of it all and lay back down in my bed. I do not need to see any more of that shit.
moved next door during a weekend while Jake was over in Vietnam fighting. I was just starting the second grade getting used
to having to get up early to go to school on the weekdays then not having to get up so early on the weekends. Seems like after
the Krautkowski’s moved in from up north a floodgate opened and other Yankees started flocking down with regularity
to live in Matecumbe and the Keys. No longer was it just the snowbirds that came down to the Keys in the winter and left in
the spring, these people were coming down in orange and white u-hauls and never leaving. They came down to stake their claim
in the warm tropical splendor of the Florida Keys from New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and practically every state in the United
States except Hawaii.
was after the Krautkowski’s moved in that I realized a little later they were the first harbinger of change that I noticed
coming to Matecumbe. There was an inevitable chrysalis blowing down to the Keys from up north bringing a plague of Yankee
locusts littering the landscape with their self-serving, arrogant attitude that they can do whatever we could do but they
could do it a whole hell of a lot better. With the Krautkowski’s arrival next door, I started recognizing the haughty
mindset all the northern transplants coming to the Keys seemed to share. They all carried a holier than thou attitude that
they all wore like a crown of Royal jewels. It was an attitude I had never consciously noticed before in the local Conchs
living on the island.
each week passed at school, it seemed like there was another new kid in class dragged down from the north by their parents
staking claim in something that to me, was not theirs and did not rightfully belong to them. Still, they were determined to
get their piece of paradise anyway they could get it, as if it was their god given inherent right. In addition, what I was
noticing for the first time and what particularly bothered me was the degrading way a lot of the parents and their kids looked
at us, my family and at some of the other Conch families after they were down here. We simply were not as good as they were.
A narrow shaded eight-foot
slice of ground separates the wall of our house from the Krautkowski’s property line. It has always been an alley to
me. An eight-foot strip of white pea rock covering the ground from the wind blowing the rock off the roof over the years and
a few blades of grass growing here and there. When I was younger I used to run down the strip pretending it was a concrete
alley in some big city, full of muggers, blacks, rats, whores, dope addicts and yesterday’s newspapers blowing around.
One day, while running
down the alley I tripped over a phone line and fell. I split my lip wide open leaving a scar that I still have. The gash did
not hurt much, but my mom was horrified when she saw me trailing dark red blood running from my face to my chest to my knees
down to the tiled living room floor. Mom was hysterical and my dad, Jake was not anywhere around to comfort her or me. He
was spilling his own blood, fighting overseas in Vietnam.
Only about fifteen feet separates my bedroom window from the Krautkowski’s dining room window so the first thing
the Krautkowski’s did after moving in was to plant a thick row of Aralia bushes. Aralia plants grow fast and straight
up with suckers sprouting up from the roots and before you know it; the shrubbery forms a quick growing fence that is ideal
for blocking out any unwanted vistas, such as my bedroom window and our house. I don’t think the Krautkowski’s
knew how fast Aralia grows when they first planted it because they moved down from Detroit and Aralia cannot grow up there
because it will freeze. My guess is that after they moved in and realized how close our house was to their house they immediately
visited one of the local plant nurseries who suggested planting Aralia as a border to mark their territory and a barrier for
privacy. The only plants most Northerners know to plant down here are palm trees, hibiscus and coconuts.
A few days after the Krautkowski’s
planted their Aralia hedge, two workers showed up with shovels and posthole diggers. I watched them working from my bedroom
window. The men were so close I could see the tobacco stains on their teeth and the sweat stains on their crotches. They started
spacing out holes down the length of our property and the Krautkowski’s property. When the men finished digging their
holes, they left and came back an hour later and with-in hours I watched as a chain link fence was erected sealing off the
openness of our small property from the Krautkowski’s. Suddenly my world outside seemed much smaller. No longer could
we take a shortcut through the Krautkowski’s property as we used to do whenever we walked to The Outpost store, Bathtub
Beach or the public library. Nor could we ever again pick tangerines from a tree that we had always picked fruit from that
grew several feet on the Krautkowski’s side of their fence.
When Jake came home on leave after his first tour in Vietnam
and saw the fence and shrubbery the Krautkowski’s had put in, he took to calling the Krautkowski’s the asshole
pinko Yankees next door. I knew from listening to Jake that a pinko usually meant a commie or a communist such as Fidel Castro
and his communist regime shoving his revolution down the throats of the Cuban people ninety miles away. However, I was not
sure if Jake was alluding to the communist angle by calling the Krautkowski’s pinkos or because of the fact that all
of the Krautkowski’s had skin with the perpetual pink tone of an infant’s ass.
Even though Mr. Krautkowski had served
in the Air Force in the early years of Vietnam, Jake could not stand him because Mr. Krautkowski had an air of superiority
and looked down on grunt infantry soldiers as Jake had been in the war even though Jake came back a decorated veteran with
four tours overseas and missing his left leg. Mr. Krautkowski never once left the States during his enlistment. He was a pilot
who flew the top brass around in a helicopter to various posts where he waited at the officer’s quarters playing pinball,
ping-pong and drinking good liquor. Mr. Krautkowski never set one foot in Vietnam much less saw any action, which is why Jake
did not consider him a war veteran. In Jake’s eyes, Mr. Krautkowski was just a flying chauffeur.
Before the Krautkowski’s moved
in next door, the Sweetwater’s used to live there. They were not Yankees or Conchs. They were fourth generation Floridians
who had moved down from the Okeechobee area in the middle of Florida. The Sweetwater’s had two young daughters who I
used to play with named Melody and Tiffany. Tiffany was my age and Melody was a year older than I was. I remember getting
up one morning and finding my mom crying. She told me Melody and Tiffany’s mother had accidentally driven their car
off the road and crashed into a tree the night before while driving around pissed off with Melody and Tiffany in the car checking
the local bars for her husband who had not come home that night. The youngest daughter, Tiffany, went through the front window
of the car when they hit the tree killing her instantly. Tiffany’s death brought me my first brush with mortality. I
had never heard of someone young dying before. Mom told me god had come and taken Tiffany home and she was in heaven. She
was in a better place. Mom said she wanted to go down to where the accident happened so she could see it for herself. She
had to see it for herself because she could not stop thinking about it.
The smell of two-stroke outboard engine oil mixed with gasoline, hangs heavy in
the early morning air from all the fishing guides leaving Sax’s Marina for the backcountry to take their charters out
fishing for tarpon, bone fish, permit, snook, and red bass. Fish that are fought and caught with the guide working the channels
stalking the fish by push poling the boat across the flats as the angler stands crouched in the bow waiting patiently to accurately
cast a line to a prowling trophy.
We are the only boat still left tethered to the dock. It does not look like we are going out today. It is Friday, Labor
Day weekend, the tropics are heating up, September storms are lining up way out in the Atlantic near the Cape Verde Islands
and Jake has not taken the boat out fishing since he bought it last week. Mainly because Jake was on one of his drinking binges
again. It has been two and a half weeks since he returned with a pocket full of money from fishing and shrimping in Key West
all summer and he has been soused ever since.
Finding mom in Matecumbe packing her things that she mailed to St. Augustine before she took a Greyhound bus back there
to be near the mental hospital where my brother, Randy, is a patient has only escalated Jake’s drinking. I knew last
week that Jake would probably not go back out on the water until his money ran out. Which must have been Thursday, because
Jake went fishing yesterday without me, while I was in school.
All last night it rained when a storm stalled over the island pouring for ten hours straight. The storm must have dumped
ten inches of rain. By the time we got to Sax’s Marina at daybreak, Jake’s boat had filled up with rainwater partially
submerging the engine in the salt water. Jake had forgotten to hook the battery back up after working on the engine the day
before so the automatic bilge pump didn’t come on to pump out the deluge of rain that had fallen through the night.
The charter Jake took out fishing the day before gave him a fifty-dollar tip when they came back that afternoon (good luck)
and in his haste to hit the bar, he forgot to hook the battery terminals back up (bad luck.) Now it looks like that fifty-dollar
bill is going to cost Jake at least six hundred dollars in missed charters this weekend.
After we bail out the boat and attach the battery
terminals back to the battery, Jake tries to fire the engine up. The ninety horsepower Johnson kicks and rattles dozens of
times until I am afraid the battery is going to run down before the engine actually has a chance to stay running, if the engine
is going to start at all, which it does not. For the next hour, Jake cleans the plugs, fuel line and air filter then tries
starting the engine again. Finally, after a several dozen sputtering coughs the engine roars to a throbbing life belching
gray smoke for nearly a minute. Jake lets out a yell, puts out his palm to me and I slap it just as the engine dies again.
mutters. He picks up a screwdriver and starts adjusting the carburetor when a man and a woman walk up. They stop to look down
at us from the top of the bulkhead about five feet above us.
I can tell that all the clothes they are wearing are brand-new. They probably purchased them right off the shelf yesterday
when they first arrived and stopped at one of the expensive apparel boutiques popping up in Matecumbe that cater exclusively
to tourists who are down here on vacation. I do not have to guess that both of them are tourists and are probably looking
to hire a fishing guide to take them fishing. Down here in the Keys that is all that there is. Them and us. Tourists and locals.
The difference is as obvious as the sunrise and sunset.
The woman holding on to the man’s right arm is a beautiful blonde in a short white tennis skirt with a matching
sleeveless white blouse. The yellow two-piece bikini she is wearing under her clothes shows through the thin fabric of her
skirt and blouse. She is much younger than the man she has her arm locked onto. I peg her for the trophy girlfriend he whisked
down for the weekend. Come Monday morning he will be back at home kissing his wife as he heads for his office and the corporate
world of Miami business. He probably told his wife he was down in the Keys fishing with his buddies. What he did not tell
his wife is that his buddy could be a Playboy centerfold pinup. I see it all the time down here.
Jake ignores the man and his eye candy
and tells me to fire up the engine. He bends down with an ear next to the engine listening for any unusual knocks and pings
while his hand tests the stream of water coming out of the piss hole in the back to judge the temperature by feeling how warm
the water is. After a minute of listening and feeling the water piss out the back, he shakes his head in disgust and disconnects
the gas line. After another minute goes by the engine conks out when the carburetor bowls runs dry.
“The owner of the marina said
you were the only guide who might be available,” the man speaks out to Jake.
Jake looks up towards the bulkhead
for the first time staring at the man and woman for what seems a long minute before saying anything. I cannot tell if he is
looking at the man or the woman but I know what I am looking at. I am looking at the yellow bikini crotch shot I can see up
under the short skirt of the woman standing above us hiding behind white oval sunglasses.
“What kind of guide are you looking for?”
Jake asks wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
The man looks at the woman for an answer. She whispers
The man answers.
a little hot for tarpon but if you get out early enough you never know. Just the two of you?” Jake asks.
“Just us, yeah. If
that’s all right with you,” the man says, looking to his left at his girlfriend then back at Jake.
“Makes no difference
to me,” Jake says wiping grease from his hands onto a rag that I recognize as an old t-shirt of mine.
“But there’s one problem.
Doesn’t look like I have a boat today. I have some more work I need to do on this boat before I trust it enough to take
it out,” Jake tells them.
“Oh, well, I have a boat. We can take mine. What we need is a Captain,” the man explains turning to the
woman while nodding his head at her. His girlfriend whispers something to him again.
“I mean a guide,” the man adds.
The woman nods, agreeing
and smiling. Her face is all white teeth and pouty lips.
“What kind of boat do you have?” Jake asks.
“A twenty-two foot Boston Whaler with a center console and a one hundred and fifty horse power Mercury,”
the man says.
ten inches,” the woman speaks up. She looks down at us over her sunglasses. Her eyes are a striking aqua green color.
A mermaid could not have had prettier eyes.
“Gather up all the tools, Henry. I gotta talk business,” Jake tells me standing up. He throws the rag in
his hands behind the engine, steps off the boat onto the dock and climbs up the steps of the bulkhead. Jake and the man walk
a few feet away to stand in the shade under some Coconut palms. The woman stays where she is at and arches her face to the
sky as if she has never seen the sun before except her face as well as her arms and legs have a deep tan as if she spends
a lot of time out on the water or lounging poolside.
I gather up all the tools, put them away in a waterproof tool chest, store the tool chest under a seat, look around
to see if anything else needs securing then I check the dock lines to make sure they are tight. When I am finished, I stand
up and strip my shirt off to dive in the channel so I can retrieve the pliers Jake had accidentally dropped in the water from
having the shakes real bad first thing this morning. He had the shakes so bad he could barely drink his coffee much less manipulate
a pair of pliers while hanging over the stern of the boat while he was working on the engine.
From where I am standing in the boat,
I can see the pliers lying clearly on the bottom. They are open and peaceful looking lying next to a barrel sponge. The centerfold
on the bulkhead is watching me but I act as if she is not there and dive head first in the water. I make a big deal of searching
for the pliers in the water, coming up several times for air then diving back down to make it obvious that I am looking for
something even though the pliers are only about eight feet down and I can see them as clear as my hand.
In my mind, I’m thinking the blonde
babe is probably intrigued about what I am diving for, impressed by my diving and underwater skills and how long I stay down
and then I tell myself maybe she isn’t even thinking about what I am doing at all. Maybe she is not even looking at
me anymore and she could care less what I am doing whether it is retrieving the pliers, catching lobster or searching for
gold coins. Whatever it is I am looking for. Nevertheless, I want to believe the gorgeous blonde woman is interested.
I grab the pliers in my hand but I don’t
come right back up. I stay down as long as I can trying to make what I’m doing appear much more difficult than it actually
is until my lungs start to burn and I finally kick to the surface, grab the side of the boat, shake the water from my hair
and toss the pliers on the seat. I pull myself up and over into the boat in one fluid motion then turn around casually to
look to see if my actions are still holding the blonde woman’s curiosity and attention. My aqua eyed Venus is gone.
So are Jake and the man who wants to hire him.
SOME KIND OF HEROES
On one of the postage stamp size islands forming a hundred and
twenty-mile crescent chain, separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Florida Bay, is a small tropical island about four miles
long and barely a half of a mile wide. The actual dimensions and population of the island does not matter. It was a tiny island
to the local native Conchs who had lived there for all of their lives and worked there as adults. However, to the children
growing up on Matecumbe, the island was a very big, adventurous, unexplored continent. The year was 1969. The second summer
of love. The country was at war. So were the children of Matecumbe.
“Okay,” the tallest and oldest boy with bright
red hair informs the other six boys.
“I’m playing John F. Kennedy and he’s playing Robert Kennedy,” Randy says pointing at our younger
brother, Anthony. Randy’s face has more freckles than the sky has stars. I am a little disappointed because I usually
play Robert Kennedy but I do not say anything. I know it would not change Randy’s decision if I do say something.
“Why can’t I
be Robert Kennedy?” Another boy begs. His eyes are wide and worked up to the point he is almost crying but he always
looks that way.
my brother,” Randy tells the boy, pointing again to our pudgy, younger brother. Anthony is standing next to me in all
of his angelic innocence with such pure pleasure on his face it could not possibly have been refined as he watches how the
game of war that we are playing starts out. Anthony is not quite six years old, the youngest of the seven boys playing war.
He does not say anything because he knows his comments do not really matter to any of us. Anthony feels lucky just to be here
with Randy, me, and the other boys. He is content that we are finally allowing him the privilege to play with us. Actually,
Randy had decided, Anthony could play war with us.
I know, Anthony will have a lot more fun playing war than playing alone at home pushing sand into hills with the yellow
Tonka dump truck he had gotten for Christmas last year. Lately, Anthony has started crying every time Randy, me and the other
boys left to play war on the beach where we would hide and roam in the wooded hammock across the street from our house that
stretched to the beach and the ocean less than a quarter of a mile away.
To be truthful, our mother demanded that we let Anthony
play with us. She said she had to go to The Boca Chica Lodge where she worked as a maid, to return some hotel keys she had
accidentally taken home the day before and she would be right back. Still, even though mom had insisted Anthony come with
us, it was Randy, who reluctantly allowed him to tag along.
Randy feels that he is the man of the house because dad had told him so, before dad left six months ago, to start his
second tour in Vietnam with the Marines. Now Anthony is going to play Robert Kennedy and I have never seen a little boy any
happier. Not even at Christmas. Anthony’s face is one eternal grin that I can still see today.
According to dad, John and Robert Kennedy
were, “Some kind of Heroes.” It seems like dad had told us that every night before he went off to fight again
as he sat at the kitchen table for hours and hours, drinking beer and listening to Country Western songs on a reel-to-reel
tape player that he had brought back home with him from overseas.
“John and Robert Kennedy were brothers, stupid. You’re not my brother. How could you play Robert Kennedy?”
John Kennedy asks. Randy can be explicit and to the point at times. Sometimes, it seems Randy just does not care if he hurts
someone’s feelings or not.
“We should take turns. That’s the fair way,” the boy who wants to play Robert Kennedy points out.
I’m the leader around here and if you don’t want to play my way, then fine. Go home and cry,” John Kennedy
is right on target as usual. The boy is about to cry. His eyes are misting and his face is flushing. I can see the air seeping
out of him. I know he is thinking about running home to tell his mother, as he has done before, but if he does take off and
go home, he knows none of us will speak to him for days. And, if that is not bad enough, when we do finally talk to him again,
he knows we will tease him unmercifully for running home to his mother. We are his only friends and he glumly fights back
his tears and the impulse to flee home.
“Well, who can I be, then?” He asks John Kennedy timidly.
“You can be James Bond,” Randy tells him.
Immediately, James Bond
grins ear to ear with his two front teeth comically absent. Everybody likes to play James Bond. James Bond is cool and gets
all the girls. Even though at our age we all despise girls. Especially James Bond’s older sister, Melissa. I am jealous.
Not of James Bond’s older sister because I do not like her, either. Melissa likes to strut around as if she is a movie
star, thinking she is hot shit just because she is starting to grow boobs and becoming a young woman. To me or to any of us
for that matter, growing boobs is not a big deal at all. A big deal is playing James Bond.
“Yeah, James Bond. 007,”
James Bond beams proudly.
stupid, you don’t say it like that. You say, I’m Bond, James Bond,” John Kennedy tells him in a crude British
accent. Robert Kennedy giggles at John Kennedy’s impersonation.
A fourth boy with a dark complexion and coal black, curly
hair speaks up. His mother is a Cuban woman. Like the rest of us, he is barefooted.
“Can I be Flint?” He asks John
Kennedy. He has played the game before and knows Flint is cool, too, like James Bond.
“Yeah, you play Flint,” John Kennedy
agrees. “And you play Dean Martin,” he tells a fifth boy. Both boys nod, accepting their roles. I wince. Flint
and Dean Martin are cool. If I cannot play Robert Kennedy or James Bond, I wanted to play Flint or Dean Martin. Now the only
name left is Frank Sinatra. I do not care for old Blue Eyes as dad calls him. Blue Eyes always sounds to me like he is talking
when he was supposed to be singing or crooning as dad calls it.
“What about me?” The last boy asks. I had forgotten about him. He had just moved down this summer from
up north and he has never played war with us before. If Randy makes him Frank Sinatra that is fine with me, though I do not
have a clue who I will get to play.
“You can be Frank Sinatra,” John Kennedy tells him.
“What about me?” I ask.
Randy thinks about it for a minute.
His eyes light up with an answer.
“You can be The Professor, Henry,” Randy tells me. I frown at him.
“The Professor? You mean, The Professor,
on Gilligan’s Island?” I ask dumbfounded.
do not like Randy’s choice one bit so I try to think of someone else who is cool that I can play.
“How about Wild Bill Hickok or
Davy Crocket?” I suggest. I can see Randy’s wheels turning in his head. He is going to come up with some excuse
for me not to play either one of them, I know.
“No, that won’t work, Henry,” Randy says shaking his head.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Well, because, for
one, we’re not playing cowboys and Indians. And the second reason is because The Professor lived on an island and this
is an island,” Randy reminds me.
Somehow, Randy always finds the right words to articulate. It makes sense to play The Professor because we are on an
island but still, Randy knows I am not happy by the look on my face.
“Look, what’s wrong with The Professor? He’s
the smartest one out of everybody. He knows everything,” Randy says trying to make me feel better.
Randy’s encouragement does not
make me feel any better. I am stuck playing The Professor and I know there is not anything I can say or do to change Randy’s
decision. I guess playing The Professor is better than playing Gilligan or Mr. Howell.
“Now that we all have names what do we
do now?” Frank Sinatra asks.
“First, we need to stash the bikes and camouflage them so nobody will see them. Who brought their knives?”
John Kennedy asks.
Randy pulls out a
folding pocketknife dad brought from overseas after he came back from his first tour in Vietnam. Randy’s knife has a
red dragon inlaid on the handle. It is a beautiful knife. All of us are jealous, especially me because dad did not bring me
a knife when he came home. I got some ivory chopsticks that I never could learn how to eat with them. Anthony got a Chinese
junk he plays with in the bathtub when he takes a bath.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
“A Cuban sandwich, a large ice tea, a Snickers candy bar and a deck of playing cards,” I tell a pear shaped
mannish woman sitting safely behind the bulletproof Plexiglas. The woman looks at me curiously from the locked confines of
her cubicle for a couple of seconds, sniffing for any signs of insanity before she turns back to her paperwork. She flips
to a second page of forms marking X’s in the appropriate rowed boxes with quick flicks of her pen. The receptionist
seems either agitated or bored by the ordered trivialness of her duties.
While she is checking me in, I look her over. She has
her hair trimmed short and parted on the side like a man’s and I am guessing she is a lesbian. At least she looks like
one to me. I watch her viciously molesting a wad of gum in her mouth with snarling ferocity making me think that she either
badly needs a cigarette or she’s terribly hungry. It is lunchtime. I wonder if she has eaten yet. By her size, it does
not look like she misses many meals.
“This is your first time visiting Macclenny Mental Institute and Randall is your brother, correct?” The
hisses harshly through her teeth.
“Excuse me?” I ask leaning closer, my voice raising a pitch. My breath mushrooms in a perfect circle of
moist vapor against the Plexiglas.
“Oh nothing,” the receptionist mumbles over her shoulder while deleting a mistake with a brush stroke of
your name and date at the bottom,” she orders, finishing the paperwork and sliding the stapled forms under the glass
through a narrow slot. I sign my name and slide the paperwork back.
“Randall has been moved to a different wing,”
the receptionist announces scornfully.
“Why is that?” I ask.
“For disciplinary reasons.”
“What do you mean by disciplinary reasons?” I ask concerned.
The receptionist’s sudden, cold disclosure throws
me off balance. I am imagining all kinds of inhuman punishment. Solitary confinement. Shock treatments. Tranquilizers. Sedatives.
measures are taken when a patient breaks the rules,” the receptionist informs me in an indifferent redundant tone.
“What did Randy do?”
She glances down
at Randy’s chart but does not open it.
“Randall has been constantly leaving his room, without permission, during the night and going to the water fountain
down the hall,” she says tapping Randy’s folder with her pen.
“Well, lock him up in his room at night,”
I tell her.
looks at me and repositions her ass in her chair with minor discomfort on her face.
“That’s precisely why we moved
him to another wing. If a patient cannot demonstrate a reasonable amount of self-discipline...,” she lets the sentence
falter and shrugs her shoulders.
“I know my mom has informed the doctors about Randy’s obsession for drinking fluids. That’s part
of his problem,” I plead with her.
“And I’m sure the doctors are aware of that. That’s why his bathroom visits
are monitored. However, three days ago Randall disrobed and walked na-ked down the hall to the water fountain. We cannot allow
behavior such as that. There are women living in that wing,” the receptionist tells me distastefully.
“I’m sorry about that, lady,
but Randy does have some problems, you know. We were hoping this place could help him. That’s why we had him committed
and sent here in the first damn place,” I say sarcastically.
“Randall will have to help himself first,”
she answers back, coldly.
not responsible for his behavior. That’s why my mom brought him here in the first place. He needs help,” I plead
again. “I know he should be disciplined for breaking the rules but you can’t treat him like he’s sane and
he’s breaking the rules on purpose,” I tell her angrily.
“Believe me, Mr. Roberts, your brother, Randall,
is not treated as if he was sane. If he was sane, he wouldn’t be here in the first place, now would he?” The receptionist
says giving me her version of a frozen smile.
I glare at her pugnacious face. The woman clearly lacks any human emotion. I wish she was a man instead of trying to
look like one and a sheet of Plexiglas did not separate us. A patch on her sleeve credits her with fifteen years’ experience.
I want to tell the dyke, she is an over-weight, over-paid, unsympathetic bitch, obviously burned out with her job and someone
should replace her immediately. Preferably one of the patients in the hospital. Furthermore, I want to tell her, she has the
compassion and personality of a frozen fucking fish. However, I do not say another word to her. I bite my lip and stand silent.
Anything derogatory I might say could come back on my brother in some way or another. That is the last thing I want. The last
thing Randy needs.
“Walk to the
metal door and I’ll buzz it open. You can wait in the visiting room. An attendant will bring Randall down from his room
shortly,” the receptionist drones in a nasal robotic tone.
I stalk to the door. It buzzes and I go into the next room.
The visiting room is spacious with white walls but without
any windows, making it impossible not to feel the immediate suffocating presence of confinement. I stare at the large, plastic
framed photographs of serene and inviting landscapes adorning the walls that are hanging higher than a man’s hands can
reach. Colorful flowering meadows. Peaceful, winding rivers with trees shading the banks. The photographs are an obvious Freudian
attempt to liberate a visitor’s subconscious mind that already feels subdued.
Opposite of each of the walls are two long,
black vinyl couches that are both glistening with a fresh coat of disinfectant. The smell instantly over powers my nasal passages,
completely dulling the olfactory ability so that any other lingering odors are masked.
In the middle of the room, strewn on a large
table is a pile of thumbed through, old magazines. Surrounding the table are hardback chairs securely bolted to the floor.
A black cleaning lady glances up at me for a second time since I walked in then turns back to her work, wiping slow circles
with a damp sponge cleaning the seats on the chairs. Everything appears wet so I remain standing.
A man and a woman in their forties sit
on the edge of one of the sofa’s speaking intently to a teenage girl sitting between them. I assume she is their daughter.
The girl is holding one of her mother’s hands passively in her lap. She has a cute face with European cheekbones and
a pixie haircut but her eyes are vacant and faraway watching the cleaning lady.
Her parents look rich. At least they are dressed rich.
The father is wearing a gold watch and Italian loafers. The mother has a Gucci purse and too much jewelry on. The way they
are dressed makes me think maybe they are trying to reinforce to their daughter where she came from before her home became
a mental institution. Nevertheless, if I know anything, I know insanity does not care about your money or where your money,
I wonder what is
wrong with the girl. I know some patients who are committed to this hospital are here for severe drug addictions and are not,
clinically insane, at least, not yet. Their drug addictions might make them appear to be insane when they first arrive but
after they detox and dry out some normalcy usually returns. However, this young girl could be insane and have a problem with
drugs as well. Who knows? I do know that insanity does not care one bit if you abuse drugs nor does insanity care what your
age is, either.
lethargically shuffles into the visiting room escorted by a male attendant. He has that slow, prison walk from constant supervision
and orders leading him through a daily ritual of going from one ordeal, to the other without a choice, similar to cattle herded
and prodded along into a pen.
Randy’s eyes are wide with suspicion. I am guessing he is wondering who his visitor is on a Friday. If Randy
even knows, it is Friday. Either way, I can sense that Randy knows something is out of the ordinary in his daily schedule
and routine. When I spoke to mom on the phone, she told me she always visits Randy on Saturdays. Mom wanted me to wait and
visit Randy at the hospital with her when she went but for some reason I wanted to see Randy by myself, without mom’s
I have not seen Randy
in two years. It has been four and half years since mom, and Randy moved to St. Augustine from Matecumbe in the Keys so she
could be closer to the hospital in Macclenny. In those four and a half years, Randy has been in and out of the State hospital
a half a dozen times.
Randy sees me, he recognizes me instantly. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if he would recognize me at all. With insanity,
you never know. Randy grins comically at me, flashing rotted black candy corn teeth. I chuckle to myself shaking my head.
Randy is wearing are several sizes too big. He has the legs of his pants rolled up several times at the ankles and he has
to hold them up at the waist with one hand. Conversely, the white t-shirt he has on is much too small barely covering his
thin waist and stretched tight across a protruding potbelly stomach. At least he has his hair combed neatly to the side.
“Randall ate an hour
ago,” the attendant says noticing the bag and Styrofoam cup of tea I am holding. I ignore the attendant and he walks
away without another word.
are you doing?” I ask Randy, looking him over carefully, for what I am not sure.
“Where’s my mom?” Is
the first thing out of Randy’s mouth. He hugs himself across his chest with both arms as if he is trying to keep something
inside. Not something. He is trying to keep his demons inside. Trying to keep from letting the bats out, as he taps one foot
nervously on top of the other while averting my gaze by staring down at the floor. Randy’s baggy Levi’s slip past
his waist to his pubic line causing him to drop his hands from his chest to hike his pants back up.
A POUND OF BACON AND A FIFTH OF BOURBON
“Aunt Lela died last night,”
Jake solemnly announces in his slow, charming southern accent that deliberately emphasizes and highlights the first syllable
or letter of each word. Lela becomes Lee-la and died is pronounced in two distinct syllables. Die-ied.
Jake speaks in a molasses mixture of
southern aristocracy. His accent is fractured Bohemian Key West cadences sprinkled with a New Orleans drawl. Jake’s
punctuation of words makes his speech sound sophisticated, cultured and cultivated in a gentlemanly way. I think he invented
his accented delivery after years of arduous practice on the deck of a shrimp trawler.
I am visiting Jake at the Key West V. A. hospital
where he is drying out from years of alcohol abuse. I can smell the booze seeping from his pores, evaporating into the naked
walls of his seedy room. His trembling hands are clutching a cup of strong, steaming Cuban coffee trying to bring it to his
I stare discerningly
at Jake’s bronzed face when the scalding coffee finds the back of his throat and he closes his blood-bleary eyes to
swallow, extinguishing the searing heat. It is obvious life has ravished Jake. The islands have ravished Jake. Life is hard
on those hapless souls that always need a little extra to feel functional. To feel sane. Something more to dull the edge.
A little extra to ease the limbo. Jake is one of those souls. One more drink, then we will go. The last one. Another cigarette.
Then we will leave. Another game. Then we will eat. Another joint. Another cast. Another hour. Just one more. Then we will
sleep. I promise. Another job. Another excuse. Then we will see. I promise. Trust me.
“I am just a poor goddamn Conch. A fucking
Hemingway have-not. I just play the cards that I was dealt with in this life. That is all I can do. But I will tell you this,
nobody, nobody can call me, a could not, would not or should not.”
That is my father Jake talking. I have heard it my entire
in her sleep. That is the best way to go when you meet your maker. That way no one knows what you were thinking when god almighty
calls on you. Were you dreaming peacefully, or tossing in your sleep from a horrible nightmare?” Jake asks in his eloquent
slow motion dialect.
he asking the wall, Lela or me? I do not know.
With a determined, conscientious effort, Jake’s unsettled hands manages to slowly land the coffee cup squarely
in the middle of a pine board forming a rudimentary desk across two upright concrete blocks. A mountain of dead cigarette
butts overflows an ashtray next to a stack of books. William Faulkner’s novel, Sanctuary, is splayed open in front of
him. I am intrigued to see Jake reading again. That is good. Healthy. It means he is attempting to engage his mind with another
pursuit besides booze, women and weed.
Jake reaches down to pick up a can of Prince Albert tobacco from the floor. I watch in silence as he awkwardly plucks
a pinch of the tobacco from the can with his forefinger and thumb, spreading the golden chopped leaf across the folds of a
cigarette paper. After several agitated attempts to roll the cigarette in the air, he resorts to rolling it across the board
he is using as a table. He licks the thin strip of glue with his tongue then strikes a wooden match from a box of Diamonds.
The acrid sulfur stench of the match instantly violates my nostrils.
“Ole Bull Brothers called. Bout an hour ago,”
Jake says, pulling the cigarette away from his lips in slow recollection, eyeing the gray smoke drifting up to the rafters
across the ceiling as if the call came decades ago instead of an hour ago.
One hour ago, I was driving the eighty miles over each
island that forms the crescent chain of islands from Matecumbe to Key West. Bull Brothers is an old friend of Jake’s.
They go way back together. Bull owns a shrimp boat he keeps docked at Stock Island. Jake works on Bull’s boat on and
off whenever he wants to. Bull is always glad to have Jake on board as a mate. They are a good team. Even if it is just for
six months out of the year.
In the late fifties, some fishermen discovered that dragging their nets at night in the waters off Key West yielded
a bounty catch of shrimp. Huge shrimp. Twelve count to the pound that someone aptly named Key West Pinks. For over a decade,
Key West enjoyed an abundant and bustling shrimp market that was envious to all the shrimping port cities on the Atlantic
and the Gulf.
Jake started shrimping
in Key West with Bull Brothers in the mid-sixties before he went to Vietnam. By the early seventies when he came back, the
bottom was starting to fall out of the shrimp industry in Key West from over fishing the delectable crustaceans. During Jake’s
Vietnam absence, Key West was starting to become besieged by Georgia, Texan and Carolina shrimpers coming down to net their
share of the crawling gold. Eventually, more and more shrimpers sailed into Key West, muscling their way onto the harvest
grounds and the shrimp catches started declining.
Many of the local shrimp boat Captains in Key West, found themselves caught in the throes of meeting their monthly
bank payments and running expenses while searching for the elusive Key West pinks that was taking them further and further
away from port and driving up their operating costs. A desperate Captain and his crew would not think twice about slipping
illegally into Cuban or Mexican waters at night and take the chance of getting caught if the shrimp were there and what they
could drag in the cover of darkness would easily pay for their two-week sojourn.
During those same years, there was also another lucrative
but very risky product the shrimpers were beginning to deliver to a new but growing market in the Keys. Colombian Gold marijuana.
Fresh and potent that was going for two and three hundred dollars a pound. A hundred times more profitable than netting shrimp.
it seemed like everybody in the Keys wanted a piece of the action. It was not unheard of in the mid-seventies to see a shrimp
boat brazenly unloading their illegal cargo of pot on the docks in broad daylight in Key West and no one in Key West, certainly
not the native Conchs, saw it as a problem for a decade. Until the Feds and the State decided to make it a problem.
Since becoming a town in 1828, Key West
has managed to survive hurricanes and pirates. The demise of the wrecking industry after the installation of lighthouses out
on the reefs. The blight that wiped out the sponge harvests. The cigar trade moving to Tampa and more recently the naval military
The local Conchs
in Key West had weathered all the ups and downs that one time or another, in one fashion or the other had spurred the small
economy along for years, they knew they could survive the collapse of the shrimp industry as well. The growing tourism industry
and running dope would easily see to that.
“Bull’s Aunt is in the same damn nursing home as Lela. I mean Lela’s still there physically but she
is not there in any other sense of the word. If you know what I mean?” Jake asks sophomorically.
I nod. I did not ask Jake how Lela died.
I knew. Lela gave up. She gave up years ago.
“I reckon, Henry, you will inform your grandmutha that her sista has died. I know she will want to make the proper
arrangements to put Lela in the cemetery down here in Key West. Catholics are like that, indeed. Stack her on top of somebody
in the family who has died before them,” Jake sings in a sacrilegious, lyrical drawl while he massages what is left
of his leg.
tell Nana as soon as I get back to Matecumbe,” I promise Jake.
Jake has the left leg of his khakis rolled up just below
his knee. His nicotine-stained fingers scratches and probes the callused pink stump just below the knee, trying in vain to
relieve a ghost itch from the limb he lost during his fourth tour in Vietnam eleven years ago. For years after Jake came home
from the war he never spoke of the tragedy he suffered or any of his experiences overseas except to claim that some goddamn
gook in a hut was probably using his leg bone for a candleholder.
“Have you seen or heard from your mutha and your brutha, Cuda, lately? I have been wandering
how they are doing?” Jake asks drawing on his cigarette. Cuda is the pet name Jake has always called my older brother,
“I drove up
there and saw mom and Randy just before Christmas time, four or five months ago. They’re doing as well as they can,
I guess. Randy is still in the hospital at Macclenny,” I tell Jake.
Jake nods his head up and down, reflectively.
“I see. Well, I sent
your mutha some money and cartons of cigarettes for Cuda for Christmas but I never heard anything back from her, which does
not surprise me. How is your mutha’s other son, doing? He must be four or five by now, I would reckon,” Jake asks,
looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
“Yeah, well, actually Corky just turned four years old when I was up there. He begged me to take the training
wheels off his bike because mom wouldn’t do it, so I did. And the first thing Corky did was drive his bike straight
into their mail box out by the road but Corky got right back up on the bike and took off down the street,” I tell Jake
chuckling at the memory of Corky’s first reckless ride without training wheels.
“Now, there is the damn spirit. Perseverance
pays off in life. Life is full of ass on the ground; pick yourself up moments, is it not? God, how the time flies,”
Jake declares lifting his cigarette to his lips with one hand while still scratching his stump with the other.
“When are you getting
out of here?” I ask, scanning the cadaverous walls of Jake’s room. Obscene graffiti is hauntingly scrawled everywhere
on the walls including the floor. Dozens of names and ditties carved into the lifeless wood by former tortured souls who were
seeking redemption and salvation during their own past confinement, making me wonder why any previous resident would want
to leave their name in such a dump like this in the first place.
The only furnishings I see in the room are a thin fetid mattress on a metal frame and the makeshift table Jake is sitting
at. I peered in the bathroom when I first walked in and it is nothing more than a disgusting stainless steel closet.
Above our head, a single
naked light bulb hangs from the ceiling on a frayed cotton cord, casting a parched circular film of jaundiced light downward.
The poor radiance of the bulb leaves the corners of Jake’s room in obscure shadows. Brushing against the single window
in the room, which is much too small for a man’s shoulders to squeeze through, are the glossy leaves of a French Almond
tree blotting out any stars in the night sky.
“It better be goddamn tomorrow,” Jake demands vociferously.
“Or else I assure you, I will hop out of here with
or without my leg. The V. A. hospital in Miami is supposed to be providing me with a new prosthesis but the bastards here
will not provide me with any crutches because they know I will relinquish my stay in this shit hole if they do. I will carve
a peg out of a mahogany limb like Blackbeard the pirate, if I must, to get out of this wretched place,” he warns loquaciously
in his fascinating, accented delivery then winks an eye at me. And Jake will, I know. Fait accompli.
A BETTER TIME, A BETTER PLACE
It is strange how a particular smell, even one of an unknown origin that you cannot
pinpoint, can release an avalanche of old memories and feelings from a certain period in your past. A scent that smolders
into your consciousness, bringing on a déjà vu trance. A remembrance of a childhood. Of a day. Of some buried
moment in time that inexplicably rises from the depths of your memory in a sensory swell of indulgence, flooding over your
reality and beaming you transfixed back in time to when the event first took place. And if your memory of the past, serves
you correctly, it very well might have been, a better time, a better place.
The pungent aroma of over ripened guava lying in squalid
ferment in the sand being crawled over by troops of ants and pecked at by small birds always sends me back to that sweltering
summer when my father passed away from a massive heart attack protecting the land he so much loved on Pigeon Plum Key.
I was sixteen that summer
and my father, who I always called Papa, was a sixty-year-old stubborn, cantankerous man, but still gentle in his own grizzled
way. To me, Papa was ancient compared to the parents of other kids my age. Whenever my friends first saw or met Papa, they
would all confess to me later, “Damn, Jacob, I thought he was your grandfather,” which always embarrassed the
hell out of me.
Nevertheless, when I think back to it in retrospect, I realize now, Papa was the best father a boy could have. I only
wished I had realized that back then. I was still growing up with time on my side and being Papa’s only son, I was pretty
selfish with my thoughts and actions. Like most adolescents my age, we know everything about nothing.
Papa taught me how to fish and how to
swim. He taught me how to navigate a boat in the tricky channels around Pigeon Plum Key and Matecumbe, day or night. He taught
me to work hard for a living, be a man and deal with the hand life has dealt you while at the same time cherishing the bounties
and beauty that nature gives you and respect it enough to leave it as untouched as possible so future generations might enjoy
it one day.
Papa first brought
my mother down to Matecumbe from Key West in 1938. Three years after the Labor Day Hurricane had completely destroyed every
standing structure on Matecumbe. Matecumbe is about eighty miles from Key West and eighty miles from Miami in the other direction
and at the time, my mother had never even heard of the place.
For ten dollars cash and other services considered, which was Papa’s fishing and carpenter skills, he purchased
three lots in Matecumbe that were already leveled of trees from the hurricane where he first built a wooden house then two
years later he built a concrete house in front of the wooden house.
In 1941, Papa decided to rent those two houses out and
buy his property on Pigeon Plum Key where he would have more privacy, land to grow bananas, oranges, avocados, guavas, mango
and pineapples, a dock in front of his home with immediate access to the Bay and plenty of room for his crawfish traps. A
year later, I was born.
a self-sustaining life on a small ten-acre island, a tenth of a mile out in the Bay from Matecumbe Key, the larger more developed
island, shaped Papa’s appreciation and understanding of the beauty and delicateness of nature that he later bestowed
existence depended on the tropical water that surrounded us. We fished, caught turtles and trapped for crawfish and stone
crabs selling our catch to some of the restaurants on Matecumbe and to the general public at a fish house Papa and another
man started in the early fifties.
During my adolescent years, I remember always thinking how distasteful Papa’s daily attire was because he wore
the same clothes practically every day. A thin, white cotton shirt with breast pockets tucked into a pair of stained khaki
trousers, deck shoes without laces that were splattered with paint and grease and fish guts with worn out holes where his
toes were and a wrinkled ball cap creased down the bill smelling of sweat and ringed from salt perspiration.
I always considered Papa
and my mother’s life meager and mundane at best. Thinking how completely absurd it was to watch the two of them late
every afternoon marvel at the sun setting in the west that was a nightly ritual to them when they had seen it every day of
their lives, and it bored me as much as holding hands and saying grace every night before dinner did.
I compared our life and my family to
the newer families who were flocking down to the Keys from the north, building new homes and establishing new businesses in
Matecumbe that made real money. Some of the boys who I went to school with and who lived on Matecumbe that were my age were
working after school and making their own money instead of doing redundant chores as I had to do every day. Money that allowed
them to buy new speedboats that they drove in circles around Papa’s fishing boat humiliating me before tearing off laughing
and leaving us rocking in their wake.
The money they made allowed them to drive their own cars to school. When I was the one born a native Conch on Matecumbe
Key in a Red Cross house by a mid-wife with Papa standing next to mother holding her hand, yet, I was the one, still riding
to school on the school bus. It seemed so unfair to me.
One morning, Papa stormed from the storage shed spewing a long string of profanities punctuating the early morning
air that was already hot and humid without his steaming voice. I stood up from the kitchen table with a mouth full of avocado
to look out the open window at Papa turning furiously in half circles with a baseball bat sized piece of Lignum Vitae tree
limb in his hands. I knew then that the rats had once again gotten into our supply of staples and bulk food that we bought
by the month.
Not the common field
rats that were brown and grayish, the color of marsh rabbits. They were stupid rats and easy to trap. The rats that infuriated
Papa were lighter colored rats, almost silver and striped. I called them Tiger rats. Papa called them other things that were
not fit to repeat because it made my mother’s ears turn red and she would cluck her tongue at me if I did repeat Papa’s
words. I knew that only the Tiger rats could make Papa as angry as he was.
The Tiger rats were much smarter than the common field
rats on the island. They usually avoided getting their heads or tails caught in the traps Papa painstakingly put out yet they
still managed to steal the bait anyway. They seemed to have an appetite for almost anything, including slabs of smoked amberjack
and mullet that we hung with rope from the rafters of the shed to cure and dry out after smoking the fish for hours.
The Tiger rats would crawl
up the beams of the shed then across the rafters of the roof and gnaw through the rope until the fish fell to the floor. Then
they would drag the fish off to their dens. Which was god knows where on the island and feast on the fish like the nocturnal
thieves that they were.
had only managed to kill two of the Tiger rats over the years as far as I knew. One of the Tiger rats Papa shot. The other
Tiger rat drank poison that Papa had set out. They seemed to learn from the other rats’ mistakes, Papa claimed, so he
took the poisoned Tiger rat and hung it outside on a buoy line between two Sapodilla trees as a warning to the rest of the
Tiger rats on the island.
the Tiger rats came around taking what they wanted in the middle of the night while skillfully avoiding the spring-loaded
traps that the field rats would carelessly step into where we would find them dead the next morning with their heads crushed.
If there were evidence of our supplies chewed and tampered with and the bait stolen from the wooden traps then Papa would
go into a tirade cursing the elusive Tiger rat.
Myself, I had only seen about a half-dozen Tiger rats in all the years of growing up on Pigeon Plum Key and two of
them were dead from Papa’s hands, so to me, the Tiger rats did not seem like the nocturnal culprits Papa had made them
out to be.
morning, two men in armpit-stained business suits, sweating profusely and looking as out of place as fish on land, came to
our house. The two men said they were attorneys representing the man who had bought the Johnson’s place on the west
side of the island. They had a proposition to offer Papa. Papa and my mother had no idea the Johnson’s had sold their
property but they did know that Mr. and Mrs. Johnson had been ill for a while and were staying with family in Matecumbe.
The two attorneys stated
that their client had instructed them to offer certain cash amounts to Papa and the five other families on the island for
their property. When the attorney’s intentions became clear, that their client was going to build a private marina and
fishing resort on Pigeon Plum Key, Papa exploded in anger. He immediately went inside, came back out with his rifle and ordered
them off his land, threatening to shoot them where they stood and feed them to the nurse sharks out in the Bay. This was before
they even told Papa how much money they were offering him for his property.
The two attorneys stuffed their papers and folders back
in their briefcases before fleeing down the porch steps and out the yard like chickens scattering. Before the two of them
took to the worn trail that ran through a hardwood hammock down the middle of the island to the other side, one of the men
turned and shouted what they would pay for Papa’s land. A hundred thousand dollars cash. Which was a lot of money for
two acres of property in the Keys. A hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money for land anywhere back then.
Papa answered their offer
by raising his old carbine towards them until their footsteps and voices faded into the trees. To me, a hundred thousand dollars
was an incredible sum of money for Papa’s land and I thought he was a fool not to take it.
All day Papa kept his rifle close by
as he repaired broken crawfish traps, nailing new 1x2 fur strips in place and replacing trap lines and buoys, the whole time
cursing the attorneys, the Johnson’s, tourists, developers, money and Tiger rats.
Later that afternoon, I asked my mother about
the incredible sum of money the men had offered Papa for their property. Mother looked at me dumbfounded.
“Jacob, what would we do with
all that money?” She asked.
A DAY IN A LIFE
After my great Aunt Lela’s funeral, my grandmother, Nana,
wanted to see her sister, May, on Stock Island. Stock Island is just outside of Key West. May lived under the solitary shade
of a towering Banyan tree in a paint peeled one-bedroom Airstream travel trailer that had dry rotted tires sinking in the
ground. Green algae slime coated the outside walls of May’s home from years of neglect. May was dying. A rare blood
disease that baffled all the doctors caring for her was breaking down her immune system leaving May to struggle with constant
bouts of pneumonia.
never tried to venture outside her home anymore. Confined to hide with her weakness behind the bug-shrouded screen door of
her Airstream trailer, May stared vaguely at the plant life laboring to exist without her care. May gave up hoping years ago
the ungodly amount of drugs she religiously swallowed every day that the doctors prescribed and hospice brought over would
ever help change her condition.
Standing at the door of her trailer, May spied a single mango growing on an aphid-infested tree a dozen feet from her
trailer. The thought occurred to May that she might have planted the Mango tree years ago, when she was younger and healthier.
However, the various combinations of drugs May took played terrible tricks on her memory. She really was not sure if she had
planted the Mango tree or if it was already there when she moved in the trailer park two decades before, in 1962.
It did not really matter
now. The simple fact the tree held a single mango, fat and green, with the sweet promise of its juicy fruit when it ripened,
gave May a pleasant surprise. The mango also gave May a brief burst of strength to try to go outside and claim the mango for
In the past, May
never could stop the black kids living down the street next to the boatyard from thieving the mangos on her tree. Most of
the time May never even saw the kids or heard them stripping the fruit from her Mango tree. She once had immense pride in
the abundant tropical foliage shrouding the small plot of land her trailer sat on. Once it was a lush outdoor arboretum. Not
anymore. That was then. And now was just a day or two or a dozen more, and nobody, certainly not May, were counting the days.
May struggled around and
latched on to one of the several bamboo canes she kept by the door. She recalled the last time she charged outside, (was it
two years ago or five?) waving the cane menacingly at one of the laughing black kids skipping away carefree with one of her
prized mangos. Damn youth today, they have no respect for the elderly anymore, May spat, before she went back inside. Back
to a world that was all within arm’s reach.
May remembered with a vindictive smile, the time one of the unsuspecting thieves was in such a hurry to pillage her
fruit he snagged one of the treble hooks that she had dangled from the tree in the ivory palm of his hand. The dark blood
trailing across the grass in her small yard was sweet vengeance to May. A small victory she would take to her grave. Not even
all the years of suffering that her disease had inflicted on her mind and body could take that victorious moment away from
May gathered her
strength in deficient gasping breaths, coughing incessantly. Her already aching shoulders were shaking violently as she struggled
down the two rusted metal steps of her motor home. The light outside was so unfamiliar and so bright she had to squint her
eyes to focus. An eternity of painful determined shuffles finally brought May to her goal, leaving her weak and disoriented.
She managed to pluck the mango from the tree while clutching a branch for support, thinking she will never make it back to
the steps. Never make it up the steps. May tried desperately to get oxygen into her parched lungs. Her head started swimming
in different directions and the ground spinning at her feet. Darkness claimed her fading eyesight and May dropped to the ground
in a dead heap.
That is how Nana
and I find May. Sprawled out on the ground in her front yard under the Mango tree, her cotton bathrobe hiked over her sagging
buttocks and hips, exposing tired gelatinous flesh to the neighborhood. There was no telling how long May had been lying sprawled
out on the ground or who might have seen her.
Nana is completely beside herself with a deep concern and a respectful measure of embarrassment as well for her sister
when she sees May lying in a heap in the grass. Nana quickly gets out of my truck, hurries over to May and discreetly pulls
May’s robe back down in place over her soiled underwear. I get a hand under May’s hip and shoulder and roll her
over, thinking she is dead but a raspy exhale gurgles from her chest after she is lying flat on her back. Leaves and grass
cling to her pasty face. May opens her eyes and looks at us.
“Hello, Dot, bet you thought you lost two sisters in the same week, didn’t you?” May mumbles then
grins at Nana.
With some difficulty,
we manage to get May off the ground, into her trailer and on the couch with her tenaciously clutching the mango in both of
“Damn colored kids didn’t
get this one,” May says showing us the mango after she finally catches her breath and some color returns to her face.
I am not sure what May is talking about and I am thinking that maybe May is delirious. May reek’s of old age. Sickness.
Neglect. To be brutally honest, May reeks of death.
While Nana gets a cold washcloth for May’s forehead, I look around her motor home. The place is literally a cramped
garbage can cluttered with old newspapers, stacks of yellowing paperbacks, dirty clothes, unwashed dishes and other rubbish.
Strewn everywhere are hundreds of empty pill bottles.
After Nana drapes the washcloth over May’s forehead she holds May’s hand while sitting down in a blue upholstered
chair that is soiled brown in spots from years of sweat, body oil and god knows what else. Behind me in the kitchen area is
a small air conditioner humming erratically above a moldy sink making the trailer extremely frigid. My god I think, this place
is as cold as a morgue. If May was to die in here and no one was to come by to check on her she would keep for weeks. May,
would be a frozen pork chop in a freezer until someone finds her.
I elect to stand by the door, aghast that any human could
live in such squalid filth. I am thinking life has spiraled to nothing here. Time has ceased to exist for May and the party
that was her life, that is coming to an end, any day, now. I feel like I am standing in the past of a life that I really do
not know and I do not care to know, either. I tell myself, do not touch anything; whatever death or sickness is in this trailer
somehow might rub off on me.
The first time I saw May was fifteen years ago in 1967. I was six years old then. I was down in Key West with my dad,
Jake. We were buying turtle steaks from a friend of his, Bull Brothers, who had just returned from a fishing trip in the Dry
Tortugas. We were standing on the docks and Bull was lightheartedly making fun of Jake’s new haircut. His shaved head
resembled a cue ball. Jake had signed up with the Marines during the summer and had just come back from boot camp in Paris
Island, South Carolina. In two weeks, he was shipping off to Vietnam. Jake called Bull a pussy and told him to kiss his red,
white and blue ass. He told Bull that he was just jealous because the military would not take his sorry ass. Bull said, the
truth was, he could not take their sorry ass excuse for a war. Jake and Bull both laughed and then they ended up hugging and
slapping each other’s backs.
Bull told us to come on aboard his trawler and we climbed on the deck. It was the first time I had ever stepped foot
on a shrimp boat. I was fascinated that men actually worked and lived weeks at a time on the water, through storms and bad
weather and anything else nature could throw their way while trying to make a living. These were real men. Modern day pirates.
Tough men chasing after elusive dreams in a way. I say chasing dreams because very few men can work on a boat all their life.
I have seen many men try it down here in the Keys. Sooner or later, the hard work and the ocean will beat them down. The ocean
does not forgive and the work does not get any easier the older you get. Most men who try to make a living on the water, invariably
in time, have to find some other way to make an easier living. A living that does not kill them every day.
Bull and Jake left me alone on the deck
and descended into the bowels of the ship. I wandered around the deck from the stern to the bow marveling at the giant nets
and rigging wrapped high overhead, inhaling the briny smell of salt, shrimp, fish blood and guts that coated the wood planking
like old paint. I could just imagine the stories and adventures this old ship would tell if it could.
After twenty or thirty minutes, Jake
came back on deck with a package wrapped in burlap and twenty pounds of turtle meat iced down in a waxed cardboard box. We
climbed back down on the dock, Jake, Bull shook hands, and Bull told Jake to be careful and to give the commies hell but bring
his ass back in one piece. Jake came back from the war for good three and a half years later. Except his ass was not exactly
whole. Part of Jake stayed in Vietnam.
Later that night, after Jake and I drove back home to Matecumbe, Jake marinated some of the turtle meat in lime and
orange juice, battered it and fried it up. It was delicious. We gorged ourselves on fried turtle steaks until we could not
eat another piece.
also smuggled back with us two kilos of grass. I know because mom and Jake fought fiercely about it for two straight days.
Until Jake sold the weed. He gave mom a thousand dollars telling her it was money to take care of my two brothers and me,
until he could send her more money after he shipped out with the Marines and he knew where they were stationing him at overseas.
Mom finally shut
up but she still thought what Jake had done was the most careless, thoughtless deed a father could do. Bringing his son along
on a dope run. Myself, I thought the whole thing was a great adventure. Mom was making a big deal out of nothing. Jake warned
me before he left to go overseas women were like that. He said you generally ignore them. Let a woman have her say but generally
ignore them. Jake was convinced it was just a woman’s way of bitching because they were not men in the first place.
Aunt May, the dyke lesbian,” Jake said pointing out May loitering on a corner as we were leaving Key West. May was standing
in front of a Cuban grocery deli, named Jew Lilly’s on Duval Street. She was selling Bolita. A Cuban numbers game the
Cubans liked to gamble on. Jake honked the horn. May looked up at us with an empty face that was a complete blank stare. Either
May did not recognize Jake or she did not care to know him. To me, May looked like a man with her hair cropped close to her
head like Jake’s hair. She was dressed in a button down shirt shoved carelessly into dark work pants with the sleeves
of her shirt rolled up over her biceps and the square shape of a pack of cigarettes bulging underneath the shirt.
On the way home, I asked
Jake what a lesbian was. Jake told me a lesbian was a woman that did not like men. He flicked his cigarette out the window
and left it at that. That explanation confused the hell out of me for years because if May did not like men she sure as hell
was trying to look like one.