The Nature Of Dissonance Dissolved

I started this blog to record this trip. My friend Ken Shane suggested it. He would set it up and manage it for me. A new medium, on a slightly different wave length. I had never read a blog (still haven’t), so I have probably done it badly. I took it as a sort of challenge—to take the day-to-day and make it entertaining. All us writers are only entertainers after all, sideshow hawkers peddling distraction.

An obvious point of this journey was to escape the miseries of New England winter. In this it was eminently successful. It was snowing the day we left Rhode Island, but we had no idea how record-breaking miserable the weather would become in the ensuing weeks. I have avoided drawing attention to the contrast. Schadenfreude is not among my guilty pleasures. And it was chilly in Key West. I had to wear long pants.

In Linda's Jacuzzi

In Linda’s Jacuzzi. (Photo: C. Payne)

This blogging is sufficiently self-aggrandizing without rubbing it in. What else is this exercise but the blogger’s self-assertion of his personal significance? I am important. My opinions and observations are worthy of someone else’s attention. But then, isn’t that the message of all this new “social media”? The hubris wave lengths have become hugely profitable for their purveyors. No need to create a market for ego, just pander to it. Every child who ever pled look at me is a potential addict in this lottery for acknowledgement. The result? A universe of mundane revelations seen through a thicket of selfie-sticks.

At the outset I promised to be honest. It has been great living in gym shorts, T-shirts, and flip flops. Some days the sun has been too hot to absorb for long. The food has been great, and the constantly changing company of tropical birds a pleasure. Back home our empty house is snowed- and frozen-in, my pickup truck buried until spring. I’ve been glad we haven’t been there.

Tomorrow we head back north in gradual increments, retracing traversed country, back to the past where the future lurks. Who knows if we will return this way again?

Key West

Key West Balcony

On the veranda of the old hospital, Key West. (Photo: C. Payne)

It is the contemporary curse of small-island resorts everywhere—incoming visitors. Here in Key West the frequency of plane arrivals picks up in the afternoon and builds through sunset and twilight. The final approach to the airport is right over Old Town. The bigger the plane, the louder the noise, the longer speech is pointless.

Connie and I are staying in Old Town, with our friends Bud Navero and Cindy Allison, just a block off essential Duval Street. The humble building where they live is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Louise Maloney Hospital, built in 1876, the first private hospital in Key West. On the second floor there is the original operating room, with lots of tall windows and a cement floor with a central drain. Sitting on the upstairs front veranda, we wave to the tourists going by on their cute little tour trains, and they wave back. Just a half dozen blocks away the cruise ships off-load their crowds of day-visitors.

The first Europeans here, Spaniards, called the island Cayo Hueso, “bone cay,” because they found so many human bones strewn around, an indigenes’ burial ground. Earlier dead tourists. Cayo Hueso easily became Key West when English speakers took over. Also it was the farthest west inhabitable cay. Yellow fever extended the funereal tradition among the white adventurers who replaced the original inhabitants.

From Some People Talk with God (Dominick Chronicles #2):

Dominick never got to go sailing, but after the first few weeks he did wander a bit, down to Key West to visit Fort Zachary Taylor right at the southern tip of the town and of the continental U.S. The South doesn’t get any deeper than this, Dominick thought, but Fort Taylor—and Key West—had remained in Union hands throughout the war. The fort had once been out in the ocean, surrounded by water, but now was surrounded by land and a partial moat. Its guns would now fire out over a state park and crowded beach, their only possible targets passing cruise ships. This fort, like Fort Ward, had never seen any hostile action. Its ten-inch guns had never been fired in anger. The deaths here had all been from yellow fever.

Fort Zachary Taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor

Like its sister site of Floridian history, St. Augustine, 500 miles to the north, Key West is an intimate place, inauspicious in modern demographics, with fewer than twenty-five thousand souls—not counting those just passing through. As an aesthetic city of refuge it has been home to many artists and musicians and such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Dewey, Shel Silverstein, Stuart Woods, and our host Bud Navero, author of the unfailingly entertaining Key West Confidential.

Thanks to Bud and Cindy, we have had an insider’s tour of Old Town, a highlight of which was singing along with Barry Cuda and Chief Billy of Bong Hits for Geezers at B.O.’s Fish Wagon on Caroline Street. It was a chilly Saturday night, down in the 40s, and there are no walls at B.O.’s Fish Wagon. It was a rare night for the locals to sport the layered look. How many T-shirts can you wear at one time?

As gentrification and the commerce of transients metastasize, Old Town Key West, as land of the free and home of Bong Hits for Geezers, will slowly slip into history. Charm mutates, and the past glows sunset golden for us geezers. But the place still jumps with energy. The streets are alive with people happy to be here. And the young are as beautiful as we ever were, nostalgia be damned.

At B.O.’s Fish Wagon (Photo: C. Payne)

At B.O.’s Fish Wagon (Photo: C. Payne)

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 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.”

Broward County, Avg. Elv. 6 Ft.

EvergladesI have never liked South Florida. There is a sameness I find maddening, an Elmore Leonard crime scene encased in traffic, too bright by half. But I did not come here to complain or to draw comparisons. I came here to sit in the sun by my sister-in-law’s pool. The traffic is hard to ignore, though. I doubt there is a place on earth—not even So Cal—where the ubiquity and centrality of the automobile is more pronounced. Nothing is done without the car. People are the creatures that cars contain. Pedestrians are an endangered species. It’s getting on two million people here, but there are many more vehicles. The sound of traffic never subsides. Sirens seem to travel in packs. And there is a franticness about it all, as if everyone is on an essential mission or terminal errand.

More than half of Broward County is part of an uninhabited swamp called the Everglades. Clever name that for a vast wetlands, better than Neverdry. In fact, the county was supposed to be called Everglades County, but a last-minute political switch named it instead after a former governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward.

Everglades

This municipality, Pembroke Pines, ends at the edge of the Everglades. It was carved out of the Everglades. First came canals to drain the swamp. Then large ponds—called lakes—were scooped out of the mud and limestone, their excreta used to mold high ground for streets and houses and strip malls. Gators and panthers and pythons were told to stay west of US 27. This is people country now. Well, car and people country.

Most houses here have one of these unnamed “lakes” beyond their backyards. With the waterways come waterfowl—herons, egrets, ducks, coots, kingfishers—and the waterways become flyways. It’s hard to set up borders against birds. These placid channels are their meandering boulevards to and from the open ‘Glades. I watch twin white egrets flash by just above the water, to the sound of a Kawasaki screaming through its gears over on the avenue.

It snowed softly all day today back home. The woods would have been especially hushed, only crows about.