The following short story, “The Keys” © John Enright, is from “The Disease of His Need for Women & other stories.” It has been serialized into three parts. This is part 1.
It was as good a night as any to be made memorable. The high yellow street lights along the boulevard a few blocks away had become just backlight to the sudden fog silhouetting rooflines and palm trees. If you look this way it’s Africa, she said. If you look that way it’s Mexico. She had never been to Africa or Mexico. Neither had he, but she was right. A mist rose from the pool as well, where the water from the hot tub spilled into it. Everyone else at the party had gone home or to bed. They had no place to go. An opossum slunk its way along the pole top of the chain link fence between the lawn and the man-made waterway, ignoring them. They watched it, uncertain at first in that pointillist light what it was, then they saw its tail and agreed. They were through with arguing for the night. They had made it through that stage.
Norman walked to the edge of the swimming pool. The underwater lights were still on so that it glowed like a big blue jellyfish. “So we do this, then what?” Making decisions was not one of Norman’s strong points. He used the excuse that when he was born the sun, the moon, and four planets had all been in Libra. Polly was used to it. “Then we see what happens next,” she said. Polly shifted her weight onto one large haunch and tucked the other leg up under her on the padded patio chair, “as always.”
“I dunno,” Norman said. He was still standing at the edge of the pool, staring into its chemical blue murkiness. Several empty beer bottles had rolled to its deepest point. He unzipped his fly and pissed into the pool. “There’s like too many suppositionals in the proposition.” But ten minutes later he was finding his way out of that pretence of a community, looking for signs to the turnpike south. Polly was in the back seat, under a blanket. “Wake me when we get close,” she said.
Polly filled the whole back seat. She was a big woman, always had been. Polly had never been anything like petite. She came from big people, “big boned” as they said these days. As long as anyone remembered, Polly had dressed in muumuus and mother hubbards. She’d never owned a pair of trousers or shorts. A funny thing about that—since she had never been “normal” size, she had no issues about her size. She was just an XXLady, as sexy as the best. In addition to pants, she never wore underwear. She liked to think that she was always ready, and her body really was quite beautiful once you got used to the scale of it.
As her default man Norman knew that body fairly well. It had been some years now. It was one of his few remaining comfort zones, as one by one the rest were taken away from him. Polly was a constant, like gravity or waking up in the morning. Norman knew that other people thought they made an odd couple. He was Abe Lincoln long and thin—though clean shaven—and as reserved as Polly was out there. She had once asked him if he would mind not looking like some Southern sheriff making a bust when they were out together. He had all the features to be a handsome man, but he wasn’t one, and he knew it. He liked to drive, though, and within half an hour he’d found the Florida Turnpike south. Polly slept on as he searched for something different on the radio. He remembered again Hemingway’s line about beautiful women needing lots of sleep. At three a.m. there was nothing worth listening to besides Polly’s soft snoring behind him. He drove, his transcendental state interrupted only by toll booths, then quickly restored by a return to the passing lane. At dawn he was crossing the first bridge to Key Largo, and Polly woke up on her own. “Piss stop,” she said.
Norman had never been this far south before, but it wasn’t like Alabama or Mississippi, because it was touristy. Money and non-Southerners moved down this road. You didn’t see this many t-shirt and bikini shops in Opelika. They had breakfast and a piss stop at a Taco Bell. Polly had coffee and two burrito supremes. She looked fresh and ready. Norman swallowed two more speed-em-up pills with his taco and Diet Sprite. “So, you know where we’re going?” he asked her.
“I got an address,” she said. “He gave me directions once when he was drunk and being sloppy over the phone.”
“When was the last time….” Norman had a habit of not finishing sentences because Polly usually finished them for him.
“I haven’t seen him in eight, nine years. Whenever mother died. At the funeral.”
“Oh-six,” Norman said.
“Whatever. Before he retired and moved down here.” Polly’s hair was red this season, something between cherry and blood, and she had it cut short. This morning she looked like a butch pixie. “What are you looking at?” she asked.
“I was just thinking that you need some sun, that’s all. You’re getting sort of pale.”
“You think they got nude beaches down here? I don’t want no tan lines.”
“I don’t think we could afford them.”
“Tan lines don’t cost anything.”
“I meant the nude beaches.”
“Now, isn’t that funny? Tan lines are free, but no tan lines can cost you something.”
“I guess. You done?” Norman started picking up the surprising amount of trash they had created just eating breakfast.
“Leave it,” Polly said, getting up. “They got nothing else to do.” And it was true. There were no other customers at that hour, and the behind-the-counter staff were all just standing there, watching them. Polly gave them a big smile and a wave and an operatic ‘thank you’ on the way out. “Those kids get no tips,” she said. “It’s a shame.”