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 3.
The family reunion went downhill from there, but it didn’t last long. It’s amazing how quickly some people can pick a fight. It was obvious Bengy didn’t want them there. Polly had been hoping that her brother would lend them some money to help get them set up somewhere in the Keys. The family story she had heard was that Benjamin had gotten into the real estate business and was doing quite well in Florida. The trailer smelled like the den of a yeti or some other undiscovered beast. Bengy insisted that they all have a drink to celebrate this auspicious moment. Norman, who never drank alcohol, declined. That was all it took. Bengy went off, sort of forcing himself into a tirade. It started with him mocking and insulting Norman. Then Polly defended him, giving Bengy his opening to turn on her. A lot of old family bile was spewed. Polly knocked something over—there was little spare room in the place with the two of them in it. Bengy smashed a bottle and waved its jagged edges at Polly’s face. Norman instinctively stepped forward to grab his arm, and Bengy turned on him, slamming him against the door. Bengy was holding the broken bottle against Norman’s ribs and screaming at him when Polly smashed her brother over the head from behind with a big bronze Buddha, and it was over.
Polly was so pissed she insisted on tearing the place up, looking for money. “That asshole owes me,” she said. Bengy was still on the floor where he’d landed. He hadn’t moved, but he seemed to still be breathing. All Polly could find was a couple of hundred bucks. When they left there were still no neighbors around. They headed south, for Key West. About ten mile markers down the road, when Polly began to breath more evenly and the almost perfect circles of red on her cheeks had faded, Norman dared to speak. “When he comes to he’ll report us, won’t he?”
“Of course he will, the prick.” Polly was looking out her side window.
“I don’t need any more jail time.”
“He never saw the car. He doesn’t know what we’re driving. I’ll think of something.”
Norman had never seen more cop cars per ten mile stretch than he saw along that stretch of US 1—local cops, sheriffs, state troopers. Everyone was doing the speed limit. So he did too. In Key West they checked into the cheapest motel they could find, near the navy base, as Mr. and Mrs. Leonard, a name they’d never used before. Two days later Polly had changed her hair color to blonde, sold the car, and told Norman to grow a beard. Norman didn’t like any of this, especially selling the car, there at the end of the last highway. “We need the cash,” was all Polly said. She was concerned about running out of money to eat. “There’s a ferry back to Miami. Don’t worry.” She went out that night to see if she could turn some tricks in the nearby bars. “I might have to come back here,” she said as she left.
“Just call first. I’ll be gone.” Norman was watching TV, channel surfing, looking for something totally distracting, but he noticed that he kept coming back to the local news station, just checking in as if waiting for a message. Around one a.m. the message arrived: Murder at Tavernier Key. Responding to an anonymous phone call, police had found the body of retired Catholic priest Benjamin Churchward in his burglarized residence. “You call that place a residence just because he was a white priest?” Norman said back to the woman news reader on Channel 9. “If he was just some black dude in that funky trailer park, it wouldn’t even be news.”
The news did not please Polly when she returned an hour later. She started to cry and couldn’t stop. It got so that all Norman could do was leave. He walked down to the big painted marker where US 1 ended, declaring this the southern most spot of the continental U.S.A. At three a.m. there was no one there. Norman picked his way in the dark down to the edge of the water. Back up on the street a cop car cruised by. Norman had never learned to swim. That had always embarrassed him, just another hidden hint of his helplessness.
The next afternoon they were on the ferry north to Key Biscayne and Miami. Polly looked terrible. She never looked her best as a blonde, and her big face was all puffy from a night of weeping. The sunglasses didn’t hide much. Norman could tell she didn’t want to talk, and she thought they shouldn’t be seen together. So he spent most of the ferry ride—except for a squall that they passed through—by himself up on the prow of the boat. Back in the motel room Polly had split the cash they had left—$1375 each. It was after dark when the ferry’s engines slowed as they approached the dock in Key Biscayne and Polly was standing beside him.
“I’ve decided,” she said. “I’m going back for the funeral. You gotta head in some other direction.”
“He’s family. I killed him. I gotta go back. I killed a priest, Norman. It doesn’t get much worse that that.”
“My brothers and sister will be there. Now wouldn’t it look suspicious if I didn’t show up? You know, before, when he was alive, I was free of him. But now that he’s dead and I killed him, I’m like his slave forever.”
There was no goodbye hug or kiss. Norman was one of the last passengers off the boat. He stood on the dock for a while, clueless as to which way to go. This was the sort of freedom he hated, the freedom of outer space—his future as empty as his past was full and forgettable.