The Keys – Part 3

Underwater ChristThe 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.”

“Polly.”

“He’s family. I killed him. I gotta go back. I killed a priest, Norman. It doesn’t get much worse that that.”

“Polly.”

“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.”

Key West southern marker

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.

The Keys – Part 2

Overseas Highway 2 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 2.

Polly’s brother’s address was off mile marker 94 on the Keys highway, which Norman had figured out meant 94 more miles before the end of the road, US 1, at Key West. Mile marker 94 was on Tavernier Key. He followed Polly’s directions as she read them, down a few lazy sandy streets until they found themselves in a gated trailer park—one of those home trailer parks where none of the trailers have wheels any more and all of them are up on cinder blocks, forever in off the road, with creeper vines and bougainvillea overcoming them. “Have you ever noticed that nobody ever goes to the trouble of repainting a trailer?” Polly observed.

The place reminded Norman too much of a slew of things he was always trying to forget. That double-wide back there, for instance, was twin to the one where he had last seen his kids back in Kentucky. That Pontiac surrendered to the weeds across the road was the same vintage as one he’d left behind somewhere once. He expected to hear a baby crying, but it was all still. No one was up and about. “Let’s not do this,” Norman said. “This isn’t anything like what you said it was going to be.”

“Hell, we’re here. It can’t hurt to try. You stay here. I’ll do it.” But Polly didn’t get out of the car. “You said I looked pale. Should I put on some makeup?”

“Do you think he’d notice at this time of day? Do you think he’d care?”

“It is sort of early still, and I did think his place would be a bit more palatial than this,” Polly said, still sitting there.

“Well, let’s not do it then.” Norman started the car back up.

“No. Fuck. I’ll go. I just forgot how much I dislike the bastard, that’s all.”

After Polly got herself out of the car, Norman—on pure unthought instinct—backed up and turned around and got the car pointed out of the trailer park and parked on the shoulder beneath some low trees near the gate. He had never met Polly’s older brother Benjamin before and he had no intention of doing so now, unless he had to.

It was only a couple of minutes before Polly came back. “He’s in there, but he ain’t answering. I’m not doing this alone, you shit. Come on.” All Norman knew from Polly about brother Benjamin was that he had been momma’s boy by becoming a priest, thus giving momma the trump card in her small Catholic Pennsylvania town. Then he became an ex-priest or a retired priest or an exiled priest or something. Polly never talked about her family much. Neither did Norman. There was a lot of painful shit in their pasts they didn’t talk about much. What was the point? It wasn’t like there were any lessons to be learned from past fuck-ups. The next one was always different.

Polly’s earlier knocking must have woken Benjamin up, because at her first knock this time he opened the trailer door. He was a big man, bigger even than Polly but along the same lines. He was bald and clean shaven and round. He had a sheet wrapped around his rotundity like an amateur’s toga. He was holding a gun, a large hand gun, as suited his size. As he swung the door open he said, “Come and get it, you assholes.” He stopped when he saw Polly standing there on the cement block stoop.

“Yes, Bengy, it’s your little sister Polly come to pay a family visit,” she said, never taking her eyes off the gun.

Father Benjamin lowered the gun, and with it the sheet slipped down on his chest, revealing a rather unmasculine nipple. He stared at his sister for a full minute, never seeming to see Norman behind her, then said, “I thought it was someone else,” and turned and walked back into the dark interior of the trailer, leaving the door open behind him. Polly didn’t follow him in. Norman slipped to the side, further out of sight. Polly and he had pawned their last gun a week or so before. Family. See what I mean? Norman thought. Just leave them alone. It’s like an impersonal curse. He didn’t even have a knife on him.

“If this is a bad time, we can come back later,” Polly said into the darkness.

“Who’s we?”

“Just me and Norman,” she said.

“Who’s Norman?”

“Look, Bengy, forget it. We were in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d stop by to say hello, that’s all.”

“No, you’re here. Come on in. I’d like to meet this Norman. But give me a minute to get some clothes on.”

The Keys – Part 1

Overseas HighwayThe 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.”