Leaving Key West – Editor’s Pick

I was cutting through the park when I saw the heron. The first time I’d ever seen a heron up close, Key West was new and I’d stopped to watch the bird as it waded near Houseboat Row. I wanted it to catch a fish, display it in its snorkel-tube throat, and swallow. Instead, its head disappeared into the turtle grass and came back up, shaking the blue crab that was stuck on its beak through a jagged hole in the shell. But this heron, today’s heron, flew, wings slapping the air, pushing down towards the sky.

I looked up. The vultures were circling. Chris would’ve pointed to the mangroves and said, “There must be something dead in there.” The dead thing of the moment was lobster. Summers were dead here. Then, at the end of July, the place filled up with lobster divers. That’s what they called them, divers, but the water was so shallow it was less like diving and more like reaching your hand out of your boat and grabbing a lobster. Up north they trapped lobsters in boxes, but down here, lobsters didn’t have claws, so you could pick them up without getting pinched. Up north they ate the whole lobster, but the meat in Florida lobsters was all in the tail, so divers ripped off the heads and hucked them back in the water. That was one of the problems with this island: lobster heads in the water.

The water was another problem: no waves, too shallow and too clear. In California, the water was so deep and murky you could be surfing above Godzilla dressed up like the Statue of Liberty without knowing it. Here, you see every piece of trash, dead crab and jagged-toothed barracuda for miles. A few months ago, I went snorkeling before work and swam through a murky, white cloud. Later, one of my customers told me that it was mating season for the barnacle and that white cloud was “reproductive matter.”

“What is that? Like jizz? I swam in barnacle jizz?” He didn’t answer me. He just laughed and asked for another drink.

Jizz. That was another problem. The stuff was everywhere. In The Crime Report guys were always getting caught masturbating in public. Everyone read the crime report. They even read it on the radio (so even people who couldn’t read would know if you got caught jacking it in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot).

Chris loved the crime report. Especially the guy who got caught on surveillance cameras whacking off at Fast Buck Freddie’s. He had to pay for the twelve pairs of shorts he had ruined. I laughed my ass off, but Chris hit the floor, she was laughing so damn hard.

Finally, she said “How much jizz do you need to ruin twelve pairs of shorts? Like a quart? They should just fricken let that guy go. He had to do it. It was a medical emergency!” That’s when I hit the floor.

I guess that was a problem. People laughed at the news. Like when that guy walked into one of those twenty-five cent porn booths on White Street and beat a dude to death with a baseball bat. Some people giggled about that and made jokes. I guess it was kind of funny. But then there was the story about the guy who beat a rooster to death with a lid to a garbage can. The Cubans kept roosters as pets, like cats, but they didn’t use them for meat, so they didn’t bother to plump them up. The roosters got skinny and crowed all day, not just at dawn.

After the story came out, people made a few jokes about it. The poor thing just wanted some food and no one gave him any just because they didn’t want to eat him. If that were me, I’d scream like fucking crazy until someone either fed me or beat my head in with a trash can lid.

A few of the vultures veered from the mangroves and into the sky above the jogging track. One of them landed under the jungle gym and the others followed. They fought, pulling and stretching at something in the mud. I didn’t want to know what it was, but I just had to look. It was another vulture. Christ, I needed a beer buzz, and I needed to go home.

But I couldn’t go home, not to Cali. Not yet. I wanted to go back with something—a college degree or a wife or a bank account. I knew a dude at the shrimp docks who was planning a big fishing trip to Maine. I could tag along if I wanted. I’d probably get off in New Hampshire, so I could get a gig at one of the ski resorts working for someone cool or maybe another asshole like Bobby.

Bobby was the owner of Memory Lane. I didn’t mind that he was an asshole, though. I liked the job. I worked outside at the pool bar, and Chris cocktailed inside at the main bar. The pool bar was the tits. My shift ended at midnight, and I didn’t have to listen to any of that stupid oldies music they played inside.

Chris hated wearing a poodle skirt, hated Bobby, hated the way he told the waitresses to shake their asses and hated that he was in his fifties and insisted everyone call him Bobby. “Even when Bobby Brady grew up, people called him Robert…or at least Bob!” I think what she really hated about Memory Lane was that it was so far from Duval.

Duval was The Street. It was where all the tourists got drunk. Memory Lane just had local drunks—like Chuck. Chuck was alright. During the slow times it was just me and Chuck out there, watching the ball game or talking shit about the girls who worked inside. Chuck was always saying that he was banging one of them, but I knew that was bullshit. He was old, skinny and whenever he got drunk, he started yelling about what a fucking cunt his ex wife was. No quality girl was going to get near a guy who said “cunt.”

Once, when he was so piss-ass drunk that he was talking about going over to his ex-wife’s house, I cut him off. I felt bad for the guy. I’m sure there were more than a few bartenders who’d cut me off before I got going-to-her-house drunk. Chuck punched me in the chest. I punched him back, not hard, just hard enough to let him know he can’t do that, but Bobby still fired me.

That night, I got drunk and told Chris that I wanted to go back there. Punch Bobby. Show him what it was like. Chris reminded me that I’d already gotten my revenge by robbing the guy’s bar blind for the past six months. I didn’t rob the place, but I never paid for my booze, and I always put my tips in the cash register. I took whatever was left at the end of the night, so my drawer was always balanced, but just to make sure I didn’t get short changed, I would forget (forget) to ring in a few drink orders throughout the day.

That’s why I got fired from the Banyan. A scam. The Banyan gave out coupons for a free side of conch fritters. The fritters were cheap: less than three bucks, but tourists loved conch even though the meat was as tough as the shell. When they paid with a credit card, I offered them a coupon, but when they paid cash, I pocketed it and turned in one of my coupons when I turned in my end-of-shift receipts. It didn’t even seem like stealing. Those damn coupons were everywhere—the break room, the wait stations, I’d even found a stack of them in the walk-in. It was less like stealing them and more like cleaning up.

The last weekly meeting, Eric the GM said, “Hey guys, make sure you’re not charging people for the conch fritters if they have a coupon.” All the other waiters took this to mean “Hey, we’re on to you, so knock it off.” Not me, though.

Eric called me into his office before my shift this morning and asked to see my order book. What could I do? “Sorry, man.” I smiled and handed it over. There must have been seventy-five coupons in there.

“Aw, man. Now I have to fire you. This sucks.” Eric was cool.

My best scam was the one I had going when I was a flight attendant. At first, I was too scared to scam. During training, they made it seem like airplanes fell out of the sky like confetti. After a few flights, I forgot about being afraid, got bored and came up with a scam.

All the flight attendants brought those black rolling suitcases as carry-ons, but how much crap do you need? I got one and used maybe one fifth of it for my clothes, toothbrush, deodorant, crap like that and then filled the rest with beers and the little bottles of booze that we sold for four bucks. No one ever asked me about my low cocktail sales because no one really cared about that stuff when they were worried about falling out of the sky.

Thirty minutes into a flight from MIA to Key West, we hit turbulence. The seatbelt signs dinged. People turned on the air and puked into bags. I started counting how many pukers were in my section of the plane (not nice considering the only other flight attendant was Chris). We were getting knocked around, but we still felt like we were flying on something—not a road, or solid ground or anything, but it felt like…something. Ten seconds after the captain ordered the flight attendants to strap in, that something completely disappeared. The puking stopped. No one screamed. There was no soothing message from the captain. The whole plane was silent except for the air.

I saw my mom sitting in her tiny living room, taking a smoke break from her housework, watching one of Maury’s “You are the Father!” shows. I heard the knock at the door and watched as she waved the smoke out of the air because she didn’t like people to think she smoked in the house. She opened the door to find a sad-faced cop standing on her welcome mat. I couldn’t imagine her anymore. I could only picture her months later, when she still couldn’t watch Maury because it reminded her of the day they told her that her son was dead.

I looked across the aisle at Chris. We weren’t serious, yet. I’d usually been attracted to my exact opposite: smart looking girls with a little junk in the trunk, but Chris was blonde and hot like me. Clutching her armrest like that, tears streaming down her face. I unhooked my belt and stumbled across the aisle. A barf bag flew past my head—some of the puke got on my shirt (served me right for doing that counting thing). I banged my freaking knee on the arm rest, nearly fell on top of her, but managed to get my arms around her. I hugged her and promised her that I was never going to leave her.

The something was back. Just like that. I jumped up, unzipped my suitcase and pulled out a few little bottles of Stoli in one hand and a Heineken. “Next round is on me.”

That was my last flight. They didn’t fire me for taking off the seatbelt or the booze. I just left. I walked out of the airport, straight to the nearest bar, got a drink and asked if they were hiring. They were, for the pool bar.

I still needed that buzz. I turned towards Conch Spirits. A homeless dude walked out carrying a paper bag that only partially hid a bright blue bottle of Sysco. He disappeared into the mangroves.

Someone called my name. It was my landlord, Bob, an old-school-sailor type. He looked the part. He was even missing an eye. (I didn’t even notice at first, but Chris did. Right after we moved in, she asked me if I thought he’d lost it in a shark attack. I just thought he was squinting.)

“Hey oh, Todd, did you hear about those cats?”

“What cats?” It wasn’t a strange thing on this island for two straight dudes to be standing in front of a liquor store, talking about cats. This was Cat Island. Hemmingway brought them here, and they just went wild. Everyone had at least one cat. Some people claimed to have ten, twenty, or even hundreds of cats because they counted all the stray ones that they fed outside as well as the ones sleeping in the house. Chris had a cat named Chester, but he ran away or someone took him because they thought he was a stray. She cried for days.
Bob squinted at me. “Some crazy fuck has been taking stray cats and nailing their paws to the dock.”

“Our dock?”

“Yeah. When I catch the fucker, I’m going to nail something of his to the dock. And it sure as shit won’t be his fucking paw, I’ll tell you that!”

I thought about the way Chester used to curl around my feet whenever I was trying to do something in the kitchen. “Yeah dude. I’ll help you out with that.”

I went halves with Bob on a bottle of vodka and we went back to his office for drink. I was starting on my second one when I remembered my plan. “Hey Bob, have you seen Tony?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s on his boat.” Bob looked out the window and then spun his head around. He winced. “Ah shit! He’s taking one of them frigging naked showers on the dock. His dick is hanging out and everything!”

I laughed. “You should take away his water.”

“Should!? I’m gonna! I’ll tell him it’s because I don’t like looking at dick! What do you want him for anyways?” Bob winked with his one eye. “You want a shower buddy?”

“No. I was going to tell him that you’re in love with him, but I’ll wait until he gets dressed.”

“For fuck’s sakes! Don’t tell him that. He’ll be doing a hula dance out there for me every time I come in.” Bob did a little hula dance, humming a tune.

Once, I’d caught Chris and her gay best friend, Esteban, staring out the window, giggling like kids. “Do you think he knows we’re watching?” Esteban had asked her.

“Of course he knows,” she’d said. “He’s been washing his ass for like twenty minutes. And not the inside. The cheeks. What? You think his cheeks were just real dirty? That’s not normally the part of the ass that gets dirty.”

When I walked out of Bob’s place, I stumbled up to the upper deck. I’d achieved a buzz. I looked out at the water. The shrimp boats were pulling their nets out of the water with those crazy, bent hooks that looked like insect legs. I watched them for awhile, listened to the shrimpers call out to each other and wondered if one of them was the asshole cat-paw nailer.

Something hissed so loud, I could feel it in my feet. I looked down. What the fuck? I didn’t know what I was looking at. A cat face glared up at me from under the boards. I stared at it for a long time and still didn’t know what I was looking at. It hissed again. I knelt down and peered between the slats. That’s when I saw the kittens. I couldn’t tell how many there were. They were all curled up together in the five-inch space between the boards.

“Don’t mind me, cat. I’m not going to nail your paws. I’m just a random drunk guy.”

The door was stuck, swollen with the humidity. I pulled until it nearly pulled my arm off. I kicked it, then pulled again. No good. Sometimes the frigging thing just wouldn’t open. One time, I’d had to shake one of the stoner band guys from across the dock to help me. That sucked because I hated admitting to another guy that I couldn’t open my own apartment door, but he couldn’t do it either. We’d had to get Tony to pry it open with a crowbar.

Shit. I forgot to talk to Tony. I turned and ran back down to the lower deck. When I got to his boat, he was just pulling on his shorts, so I guess it was a good thing I’d wasted a little time.

“Hey Tony.” I put one hand on the railing, but I didn’t make a move to climb on board, so he wouldn’t think I wanted to hang out

“Oh hey, man. What’s up?”

“Not much. Hey, that Maine gig still up for grabs?”

“You in?” Tony ran his hand through his hair. He kept it long—longer than Chris’s. “Cool. But, just so you know, it’s tough work. Tough as fuck. Gross as shit, too.”

“Oh man….”

“But that’s just for like eight hours. After that, all you do is drink.”

“I can do that.”

“Hey yeah. Me too. Okay, so I’ll see you bright and early? Bright and early. I’m talking six am.”

I gave Tony a little bow of gratitude. “No problem, man. I’m just stoked to get the fuck off this rock.”

I shook his hand and started to walk away but then stopped. “Oh yeah, Cap’n Bob says he’s tired of seeing your dick.”

Tony laughed at that. “He’s just jealous.”

“That’s what I told him.” I jogged down the dock towards the stairs. I was feeling that good buzz again.

I stopped to check on the cats before I wrestled with the door again. They were sleeping in one big bunch. I liked the way they breathed, fast and hard, in and out, almost angry, as if they were saying, “Fuck you all! Fuck all you paw-nailing, cat-stealing sons of bitches.”

The door was still stuck. “Stupid fuckin’ door.” I whispered, glancing at the stoner dudes’ apartment and pulled again. The door opened, banging me in the head. “Shit.”

I said it again when I got in the apartment and saw Chris sitting at the kitchen table, snorting coke and painting her toenails. “Shit.”

“What the fuck is your problem?” Her hand was shaking. She’d gotten polish all over her toes.

“You do it too.”

“You do it too much, sweetheart.”

“The fuck I do.” She started crying.

I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t want to feel her bones jabbing at me. She barely had tits anymore. She’d been like this ever since she started working at The Time, a three-level dance club on Duval. She wasn’t the only one. The whole staff did coke. It was Busy Bar Syndrome. They were so busy, no one bitched if they drank on the job, but the job was too busy to handle drunk. The coke kept them standing until last call.

The first time she did it, though, was my fault. We were working at Memory Lane, and I’d met a bunch of tourists from New York. They invited me to party at their hotel room after my shift was over. I took Chris with me because some of the New York chicks were hot, and I didn’t want her to get jealous.

When one of the New York dudes offered Chris a line, I kissed her neck as she bent down to take it. She was nervous. I kept telling her how sexy she was. She kept snorting. Then, when we were good and high, we left our bikes and walked home, talking the way you talk to a new friend. She told me she loved me. I pulled her into my arms and said, “I love you like fucking crazy.” We were high as shit, but it was a great memory. Even now.

I opened up the cabinet. Our kitchen only had one cabinet, and we crammed it full of shit. I reached in. It was way in the back.

“What are you looking for?” Chris’s mouth worked and clicked as she talked.

I held up a box of Meow Mix and ran outside, making sure to leave the door open. I poured some of the food for the cats. The mother cat hissed at first but then started eating. I was impressed at how well she moved her head around in such a small space. I poured the whole freaking box down there. I figured the kittens would eat it too, but then I remembered that kittens just drank milk. I felt bad. I had crowded up her small little space with all that food. Fuck it. What else was I supposed to do? I walked away and closed the door.

I didn’t slam it, but Chris looked up, startled, as if I had. “What’s happening?”

“Feeding a stray. Did hear about that guy nailing the cat’s paws to the dock?”

“Yeah. It was in The Crime Report. I’m scared.”

“Christ! I am so over this place. Quit your job. Let’s get the fuck out. We can hitch a ride with Tony and go to New Hampshire. We can work in a ski resort this winter…and then… I don’t know. Maybe Cape Cod for the summer. Work some scams.”

“I can’t quit my job. It took me forever to get in there.”

I knew she was going to say that. She was working at The Bar on Duval. Duval Street was split right down the middle—gay on one side and straight on the other. The only bar that straddled the line was The Time. It attracted gays and straights equally.

The Turtle Spit was not The Bar. It was a tree-house bar on Truman that played hippie music for the hippie tourists. The owner, Bob (not Bobby), poured me free well drinks, made me Grateful Dead mix tapes (that I never listened to but it was a nice gesture), and didn’t make me feel like I was pussy-whipped idiot for doing Chris’s side-work like Julio did.

Julio (pronounced Joo-lio not Hoo-lio because he was Portuguese, not Spanish) was a gel-haired Miami-type. He poached Chris from the Turtle. He warned her that she would have to pay her dues at The Time. She worked coat check for less than a week before she got bumped up to cocktail waitress and a few days later had two bartending shifts a week. Her idea of forever.

“Just please. Quit your stupid job and come with me.”

“Stupid? Did you know that Julio gave me two more bar shifts? I don’t have to cocktail anymore.”

“Well, you’ve made it, haven’t you? You work at The Shit bar! You are The Shit! The shit stupid junky bartender.” Something whizzed past my head. I looked down. My shirt had a blue splotch on it. Nail polish.

“Fuck you, you fucking bitch!” She glared at me, crying.

I knew she was fucking (or about to fuck) Julio, but she didn’t want it to end with us yet because that’s how it was with Donnelly. I knew that she’d had a boyfriend when I asked her to go to Jamaica. I had planned on going with Jake, a buddy of mine who’d just been dumped. We planned to smoke weed, get drunk and fuck chicks until he got over her. The day before we were set to go, she took him back.

Chris was the stewardess on my flight. I told her that I needed someone to hit Jamaica with me. She turned me down. She had a boyfriend. As I was leaving, she was standing at the front of the plane, saying good-bye to the passengers, but to me she said, “Okay.”

The first day in Jamaica, we drank on the beach all day. She never said a word about her boyfriend, so I figured that maybe she made him up. That night, I lit a couple candles and busted out a bag of shrooms. The problem with shrooms is that while most drugs make you dumb, shrooms make you smart. All you do on shrooms is think. Chris started to cry.

She needed to stop thinking, so I kissed her and made a move for her boobs. A lot of girls will go down on you the first time, suck your dick and tickle your balls just to show you they know how. Chris was what I call a round-the-bases fuck—first base, second base, third base, home. I think that’s why I fell for her. She made me work for it.

We were fucking when the fire started. The candles had burnt down to the plastic coffee lids I’d stupidly put them on and set the table on fire. I grabbed the ice bucket. Empty. I ran into the bathroom and dunked it into the toilet. I threw two buckets on the fire. The flames turned to smoke and then wet ash.

The carpet, curtains and part of the bed was burned up. Chris was scared we were going to get in trouble. I held her face. “Don’t worry. Everything is still in Jake’s name. If anything comes down, it’ll come down on him. And screw him.” I laughed. She laughed. I was joking, but I never told Jake about the fire. I never asked if his credit card had been charged for the damage.

Now, with nail polish on my shirt and a crying girlfriend, I realized for the first time that I never really talked to that dude again.

“I’m sorry I called you a stupid junky, babe. You’re so fucking smart. Sometimes you say stuff, and I think you should be on TV. I’m an idiot. All I’ve got going for me is this pretty face.”

She grabbed a pack of cigarettes off the table and shook it—still a few butts left. She lit one. “I have to go to work tonight.”

“Do you want me to do your hair?” Julio would call me pussy whipped, but fuck him. She can’t get the braids straight when she does them herself. I sat on the arm of the couch and pulled her hair into two neat Dutch braids. We didn’t talk…just sat on the couch and looked out the window and watched the sky turn from fluffy pink to purple until the lights on the shrimp boats blinked on.

She went in the bedroom and put on her uniform. It was too big, but they didn’t make one small enough for her. “Don’t go, okay?” She opened the door (it always opened easily from the inside).

“Okay.” I looked out the window. I was going to miss the sunsets, but I knew what morning would look like. The smell of chum would start the stray cats howling. The vultures would circle, and the shrimp boats would turn out their lights and pull up their nets so that they looked like huge headless lobsters lying on their backs.

Photography CreditJason Rice