Some Came After
A Road to Travel
- Corky bit
off the tip of a habanero pepper, mindful not to ingest the flat, white seeds wrapped inside the golden orange flesh.
He wanted to taste the flavor of the pepper first. Corky knew the real fire was hiding inside the seeds where its fiery
potency was stored for generations. When he felt he was ready, he bit into the seedpod of the habanero. Ripe, wet and
chewable, the tiny seeds became instant napalm explosions burning Corky’s tongue, turning the inside of his
mouth into a scalding cauldron.
Instinctively, Corky’s eyes welled with tears
from the second bite of the pepper and his breath blew scorching hot and short like a flat trade wind in his throat. He reached
for the cold bottle of Corona standing on the wooden table, carved with names and initials of past patrons who had sat at
the table previously, raised the bottle to his lips and slowly rinsed his suffering.
Corky’s mother had
always chastised him for his self-indulging habit of eating raw hot peppers, onions, radishes, any food, condiment or seasoning
that was hot and spicy. If it had a kick and a bite to it, Corky would try it.
He especially liked hot and spicy chicken wings that
he had discovered three years ago in 1992 when he was fifteen years old, the same year that a devastating hurricane named
Andrew handed South Florida their ass.
When all his friends started raving about Buffalo wings, named after
the city in New York where they were first concocted in a bar, that were so hot the wings would take their breath away, Corky
knew he had to try them.
They went to a small pool hall in a strip mall called Guy’s Sports Bar where minors were allowed in to shoot pool until
nine p.m. and ordered wings that were served with three degrees of heat. Mild, hot or nuclear. Corky ordered his wings as
hot as they could make them. With his first bite, when he opened his mouth and just the aroma made him cough, he knew he had
found the perfect food. A meal that not only had heat but he could eat it with his hands like hamburgers or pizza with the
hot sauce dripping down his mouth and his fingers. The experience was just not primal, but an addictive pleasure to his palette.
Some Yankee had come up with the ideal blend of meat and heat for Corky’s tastes. He was in cuisine heaven.
After his mother found four pound bags of pre-seasoned hot Buffalo wings at the local Winn Dixie grocery store, an easy meal
she could prepare for him, they became his dinner, a staple for his diet, which he obsessively demanded three or four nights
a week. Mac and cheese cooked on the oven and ten seasoned chicken wings drenched in hot sauce and nuked in the microwave.
His mother told him numerous times that he was sadomasochistic because of the hot and spicy foods he religiously craved. She
claimed she did not know where his eating habits came from and could not understand why he enjoyed bringing such painful discomfort
to himself by eating food that made his eyes water, his face flush blood red before setting fire to his mouth and his guts.
Corky’s mother became especially irritated when he would use Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce to drown all the meals like
lasagna, meatloaf, chicken and rice that she had painstakingly prepared and brought to the dinner table for him. If
hot sauce were not available, then Corky would dust his meal with black or cayenne pepper to the point his mother was violently
sneezing from across the table. Reaching for a napkin, a sense of ineptness would always envelope Corky’s mother because
she felt that he was intentionally trying to mask the blandness of her cooking by purposely setting it on fire.
“Why in the hell do you torture yourself like that?” Corky’s mother had asked on more than one occasion
as they sat at the dinner table sharing a meal together. The last time was just two nights before. Corky had to admit to himself
that when his mother did ask why he purposely enjoyed torturing himself with food that set his mouth and throat on fire; it
was always in a caring, self-effacing context even if the tone of her voice was not.
He also knew that what his
mother was really doing was hiding behind her own subtle jealousy because he possessed a trait he obviously, and dishearteningly
to her, had not inherited from her genes.
“Doesn’t that burn your asshole the next day?” Corky’s
mother demanded to know, without mincing words as she stood over him at the kitchen table watching him eat the take-out dinner
she had brought home.
“Yeah,” Corky acknowledged with a smile. He was eating a Subway tuna sandwich doused with datil sauce made from
hot datil peppers that were grown exclusively in his hometown, St. Augustine. “It makes me feel alive,” he mumbled
with his mouth full.
“It makes you feel alive? You want to shit blood and ruin your insides?” His mother wanted to know. Corky held
up a finger as he finished chewing then he swallowed and told her, “Yeah, it makes me want to get up off of my ass and
run away,” he told her half-jokingly.
Corky’s remark hit a tender spot in his mother’s heart.
She turned away from the table to go back to the sink and the dishes from the night before so Corky would not see her trying
to keep her composure. With her back to Corky, she silently fought back the tears falling in the tepid dishwater.
Corky’s craving for hot, endorphin-blazing food was as close to an addiction to him as it could be and even if there
were, at times, a painful side-affect afterwards, associated with eating such food, Corky did not care because he knew, from
listening to his mother’s preaching in the past, some pains were worth enduring.
Like when his mother
gave birth to him prematurely in the front seat of an Oldsmobile Cutlass at a rundown drive-in movie theater in a podunk town
called East Palatka, Florida, all alone and feeling completely alienated from the rest of the world outside of her car. Feeling
like there were two things happening, life and death all at once, when her water suddenly broke and the first contractions
came immediately afterwards.
Corky’s mother slumped to the side leaning against the car door with her legs splayed open across the seat, digging
the back of her head into the armrest biting her lower lip until it bled. Feeling the warm birthing water puddle under her
and tasting blood in her mouth, she silently screamed, pulling at her hair. Trying to time her breathing to accept her contractions
until they subsided a bit turned out to be a lie. The contractions never went away once they started. They were just there.
A pain, a terrible agonizing pain that was worse than any pain she had ever felt in her life. Pain that was much worse than
her three previous childbirth deliveries. Dear god, she prayed, just let me die, tonight, alone, in this car.
The pain in her abdomen spread through her entire body and was as visceral and real as the flickering light in the interior
of the car darkening and brightening from the movie playing on the drive-in screen. At some point in time, Corky’s mother
was vaguely aware that she might be dying because she was unsure how long she had been drifting in and out of consciousness
from the pain. Then later, came another moment, when she did not care anymore that she might be dying from the agony of her
contractions because she realized she was also dying from silently hemorrhaging to death.
She was not cognizant
that a car horn incessantly blaring somewhere outside was coming from her car then someone was tapping at the window and a
voice was asking her if she was all right. She was not even aware if she was grateful or not, when she realized or was she
dreaming that some strangers were lifting her out of the car and carrying her to an ambulance, to blue lights and red lights
and then, darkness. Later, not even caring or knowing, some faceless doctors were cutting her stomach open at the hospital.
Numerous nights after Corky’s mother had been drinking heavily, she showed him the caesarean scar to remind him that
some pains in life were worth enduring. She would almost fall to the floor, drunkenly trying to pull her jeans down past her
hips to do it. At the time, Corky’s mother thought it was important for him to see her scar. A thin, pink lateral line
that was barely visible above her pubic hair that she called her badge of love. Telling Corky, she would happily go through
it again, for him. There was good pain and then there was bad pain she told him pulling her jeans back up. However, paying
for pain twice as Corky did from the hot, spicy foods he ate did not make sense to her at all. Which Corky thought was as
contradictory as hell freezing over because there were times in the past when his mother admitted, she wished she could eat
hot, spicy food like Corky enjoyed.
From the front pocket of his Levis jeans, Corky pulled out a folding Buck knife that was fairly new with a three and a half
inch blade, sharp as a razor. He slit the rest of the habanero down its length then with the point of the knife blade, probed
and scooped the remaining capsule of seeds out into an ashtray on the table, thinking to himself, see mom, I am not a sadomasochist,
at all. He picked up a saltshaker with a flip up lid, salted the moist inside of the pepper and took another bite. The first
bite that Corky had taken of the pepper seeds had primed his taste buds or dulled them just enough that he managed to finish
the habanero in three quick bites without going back to the bottle of Corona on the table.
Corky looked around
the small restaurant he was sitting in while chewing the habanero pepper. The walls were greasy paneled planks of gray, pecky
cypress giving the interior of the restaurant a nautical feel that reminded him of a cabin in an old ship. Crammed in a far
corner of the restaurant, a young couple sat opposite of each other talking in low whispers with their faces pressed close
together and their toes almost touching under the table. Corky’s first impression of them was of a couple in love and
his instincts had told him not to look their way. Leave them alone to their own self-absorbed world. However, the girl had
stared at him oddly and for too long, when he had first walked in, as if she had seen him before, which he knew, she had not
and that made Corky curious to look at her again when she was not looking at him.
The girl had watched
Corky put down his backpack, leaning it against the leg of the table when he first walked in the restaurant, then she continued
staring at him even after he sat down. Corky had ignored her curious gaze but he still wondered what she saw, looking at him
and wondered what she was thinking. When he reached for the index card-sized menu stuck between two squeeze bottles of ketchup
and mustard for a distraction, the girl turned her head back to her male companion who was talking to her the entire time,
completely oblivious to Corky’s arrival.
A perspiring waitress with black roots below her peroxide blonde hair
returned to Corky’s table to check on him. He ordered another bottle of Corona. She nodded as she wiped a trickle of
sweat from her upper lip then turned and scowled at the air conditioner humming in the wall, struggling to keep the place
even mildly cool.
“That AC is a total piece of shit,” the waitress complained to Corky.
“It feels good to me,”
he answered back.
“Well, you’re not working in it,” she said, rolling her eyes before turning away.
The waitress had on
a neon green, sleeveless tank top, tucked into a pair of skimpy pink shorts that rode up the crack of her shapely ass when
she walked. Her breasts were small and pointed, poking through her tank top with an Asian slope that Corky associated with
Oriental women he had seen in porn magazines. When she turned to go get him his second beer, he noticed a tattoo on her left
shoulder before his eyes dropped to follow her swinging hips as she sashayed away disappearing through a doorway into the
kitchen. As the kitchen door swung shut, Corky heard a stack of plates striking something loudly.
Besides Corky and
the young couple sitting in the corner, the restaurant was empty. Through an open doorway that opened up to another section,
Corky could see several pool tables and a bar where several men sat quietly hunched over, sipping beers and watching the television
mounted in a corner behind the bar.
All around the restaurant there were fish mounted on the walls collecting dust. The fish all seemed frozen in time, from eons
ago, staring at Corky with empty marble eyes that had lost their luster long ago. He wondered who had caught the fish. Did
catching the fish affect the angler’s life in any significant way that day? Obviously, that day had an impact on the
lives of the fish. They became eternal decorations on the walls of some tiny, mom and pop restaurant in Key Largo, Florida.
Three in the Afternoon
I wasn’t really sleeping very well, anyway. I was having recurring nightmares. The can’t
cross the fucking bridge dream. I am driving down to Key West on U.S. 1. The road is a narrow mangrove tunneled highway. Up
ahead, looms a long curved arching expanse. It is the Channel Five Bridge rising up to the brilliant sky with no discernible
horizon spilling up over a phantom void.
In the dream, I never make it up the span to the
middle of the bridge. A godless panic grips me in my dream, fearing what is past the crest of the bridge. Nothing. Nothing
but pure panic. Bright light death. Up. Up. Up. I can’t stop on the bridge. I can’t pull over on the bridge. I
can’t slow down on the bridge. I can’t turn around on the bridge. I can’t close my eyes. I cannot close
my fucking eyes on the bridge.
I try to breathe. Slowly. Controlled measured breaths from down
deep in the diaphragm. Gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckle strength. My foot is starting to shake on the accelerator.
My heart is palpitating. Hot tropical sweat is raining down my forehead making my eyes sting. The summit of the bridge gets
steeper. It seems, as if, I am driving in slow motion, wishing, I could go faster. Maybe I will make it up the bridge, this
time, but then there is downhill to go on the other side. A sigh whistles through my teeth. I do not want to go downhill.
I do not want to know. I do not want to know. I want to wake up. Wake up.
I bolt upright in bed. Someone is unmercifully pounding on my front door with heavy, obnoxious
fisting thuds assaulting my already frayed mind. Instinctively, I pat the bed next to me. Empty. Finee is gone. Her scent
lingers on her pillow and the sheets like the comfort of a good warm oven. A sly smile floats across my face. A hazy memory
of a lovely plump ass bowed submissively in front of me last night. Finally, Finee trusted me.
is amazing what trust, a couple of rum and cokes and a bottle of wine can instill in a woman. Amazing. Women. We had
tried everything else, so last night was inevitable. However, Finee asked first. She said she wanted to give me something
special for my thirty-fourth birthday that we were celebrating. Special indeed. I remember the first time I slept with her
three years ago. Finee whispered to me, “You have to be gentle with me when you first enter me, Henry. Then you can
fuck my brains out.”
Who in the FUCK is pounding at my door?
jump out of bed, naked, slip on a pair of khaki fishing shorts and storm to the door ready to kill. I fling the door open
violently, catching a split second glance of a vaguely familiar face with a dark beard before a fist slams into the left side
of my jaw.
I feel myself flailing backwards unable to stop the sickening momentum,
knowing where I am blindly headed. The arm behind the face at my door rocked my clock good with a solid punch straight from
the shoulder. My back slams into a salt-water aquarium knocking it to the floor. Glass shatters in a nauseating crunch as
twenty-five gallons of seawater rush across the living room floor along with a half dozen pieces of fragile finger coral,
three sergeant majors, a baby octopus and two adult stone crabs riding the wave of water.
manage to twist slightly in my fall, barely missing the wreck of the aquarium and land on my side on the tiled floor knocking
over a small end table in the process. Three months of work, about a hundred and twenty-five typed pages of a manuscript I
have been working on slides to the floor into the aquarium water, soaked and ruined. I roll over on my back in the puddle
of water rubbing my jaw looking up to see who hit me.
“Nice to fucking see you, Corky,” I spit
“Yeah, same here, big brother,” Corky angrily answers back, taking
a step inside. Behind him is a waif looking girl around Corky’s age. She has her hands clasped to her mouth with her
eyes wide, staring in disbelief at the carnage around me on the floor. Her pallid skin is the gothic hue of a corpse. Whoever
she is, I am not worried about her joining the fracas. She does not seem capable of anything but screaming through her fingers.
She could be a groupie for the Grateful Dead, waiting outside the door, in the harsh afternoon light.
didn’t you fucking tell me, Jake is my real father, Henry?” Corky demands loudly. His voice is full of anger.
Hurt. A hint of tears wells in his eyes.
I do not say anything. I am slapping water with my
palms trying to get up. The tropical fish are flapping on the floor in equal protest next to my ear.
didn’t you fucking tell me, Jake is my real father, too?” Corky demands again.
That is news to me. Jake is Corky’s father, too? I honestly did not know. A scattering of thoughts seep through my brain.
I try to pick a singular, coherent thought amongst the confusion but I am only grabbing water with my fingers. Nothing sticks
“Mom, fucking told me, Henry,” Corky barks standing
over me. He has both of his fists balled up but I can tell the fight has left him. All he can do now is yell out his accusations.
Something he has to get off his back.
“Calm fucking down, Corky. Mom told you exactly
what?” I ask sitting up.
“That Jake is my real father,” Corky shouts.
“Mom told you that?”
“Yeah, she fucking
did, Henry. Two weeks ago.”
I shake my head in exasperation, annoyed at Corky’s
accusations that I am privy to some family secret that I am not.
news to me, Corky. I never heard that. The only thing mom ever told me was that your father was some man she used to know
or some shit like that. Some man she met in a bar or something, I don’t know. That was almost twenty years ago. She
said when she found out she was pregnant with you, that relationship was long over and she never seen or heard from him again.
That’s all I know. What can I say?” I tell Corky then I stand up.
My ass is dripping
wet. It dawns on me that while I was flapping around on the floor, Corky and the waif with him probably got a good look at
my balls because I do not have any underwear on under my baggy shorts. Which makes me even more pissed off.
“Well, it’s a fucking lie. It’s all a fucking lie,” Corky enlightens me.
“And when did you find this out?”
“I told you,
two weeks ago, when mom and me came down to the Keys. We left you a note on your door because you weren’t here,”
“Yeah, I got the note when I got back. I was down in Bimini fishing
for tuna two weeks ago. Sorry, I missed mom and you.”
tried to call but you don’t have a phone,” Corky says contemptuously, making my absence of not having a phone
sound shameful to him. I am trying to be reticent to the whole matter. Maybe, Corky thinks I was trying to maintain a certain
measured distance from mom and him by not having a phone. I do not know what he is thinking. The truth is I detest telephones.
They are more of a distraction to me when I am trying to write than a communication necessity. Besides, I can walk to a pay
phone not more than two minutes away, if I need to make a call.
So, according to mom, Corky
is my real brother. Well, is not life just full of surprises? Some good and some bad. I do not know what to feel about this
one. Corky does have similar features as mine. Same nose. Same blue colored eyes. Same strong jaw. However, Corky’s
hair is darker than mine is. A brownish color. The fact that mom kept Jake’s last name after they were finally divorced
and gave the same last name to Corky when he was born should have been a clue, I guess.
looks down at the wet floor nervously. One of the jettisoned stone crabs is inching its way towards his left foot with its
claws testing the air menacingly. Corky looks over at me to see if I am concerned about the crab advancing towards him, which
I am not, then back to the crab. The stone crab could snip Corky’s pecker off with one of its claws and it would not
have bothered me right now. I look over at the three sergeant majors on the floor. They are lying on their sides with glossy
eyes bulging out of their sockets, struggling with their last dying gasps.
“I guess we
are really brothers, then. Blood, huh?” Corky says in a softer tone but still with some spite in his voice.
“If you say so, Corky. Come on in if you want. But I have to get this mess taken care of
first,” I tell him looking at the shattered aquarium, the glass, water and the soaked pages of my manuscript on the
Corky gladly steps aside, away from the stone crab. Behind him, the Goth girl stands
helplessly staring at the tropical battlefield in front of her. Whoever she is, Corky’s girlfriend, I assume, she is
way too thin and anemic looking. Not my type at all. There is not much woman in her. She is all legs, wrists and elbows. If
she wasn’t so short, she could be a runway model for ads in Esquire magazine. She even has the straight, clingy hair
parted in the middle. I step past Corky towards the front door.
“Hi, I’m Cat,”
the Goth girl says, offering her hand when I am abreast of her.
Some Came After
“My stepfather’s a fucking Presbyterian minister. And he’s a fucking hypocrite, a sexist,
prejudiced pervert and I wish he was dead,” Cat says. She starts giggling over the sudden telling revelation. We are
smoking some grass in the crib. Not commercial grade Mexican shit but potent sinsemilla fresh off the docks. Dope is easier
to get in the Keys than a copy of this week’s T.V. Guide.
Cat is sitting on my couch that I covered with a white bed sheet spread over it. She draws her knees up to her chest wrapping
herself in a reserved ball. The weed has given her eyes a distant veiled shine to them. I try to pass the roach to Corky.
He waves it off, saying he has had enough.
“I don’t want anymore,
either,” Cat adds. “But I would like another beer if that’s alright.”
I stub the roach out in an ashtray, stand up from the kitchen table, and get a beer for Cat and another one for me. Corky
is still nursing his last beer. It has to be piss warm by now. He is pondering things on his mind. He had asked too many questions
earlier tonight. I do not know if I gave him all the right answers. Nevertheless, I do know the only questions truly worth
asking are those without easy answers. Hard choices.
door is open to allow some fresh air in to circulate. The screen door closed to keep the mosquitoes out. Outside, cicadas
chirp in the fetid night. I hand Cat her beer and sit back down at the table, pop open my beer and take several long swigs.
Several minutes of silence goes by lost in the sacred world of stoned complacency. The three of us study the pot smoke billowing
out the screen door floating briskly away in a dense sweeping fog highlighted by the yellow glare of the porch light.
“It’s crazy how moths are drawn to porch lights. It seems to me it only kills them,” Cat says sadly. “When
I lived in Long Island, I would turn the porch light off after my mother and stepfather went to bed so the poor moths wouldn’t
come around and die so needlessly. I hated that house. I could hear them having sex through the walls. Did I tell you I hate
my stepfather?” She asks us.
“Yes. You mentioned you wished
he was dead,” I offer.
“One day I’m going to
kill him,” she says assertively with a certain grave conviction in her tone. Maybe it is the grass and the beer talking.
It is hard to imagine Cat killing anything bigger than an insect. She is such a frail, thin looking young woman. Nevertheless,
determination is a powerful weapon and revenge is even stronger. I wonder which one motivates her. The seven sins of life
tempt all of us at some point in our lives. Take your pick. We all have a secret poison. Some find temptation easy to deny.
Others grovel at its mercy.
It is getting late. Almost two in
the morning. Tomorrow, I am going to drive Corky and Cat to Key West. Cat gets to sleep on the couch. Corky has to settle
for his sleeping bag on the floor. My apartment is extremely small. Not counting the closet sized bathroom, there are only
two rooms. The living room and kitchen combined and a bedroom separated only by a curtain.
Earlier, when the two of them unexpectedly first came by, I assumed Cat was Corky’s girlfriend; they are close to the
same age. However, Cat informed me rather directly on her part that she had just met Corky by chance at a restaurant in Key
Largo two hours before they stopped at my place. She went on to emphasize she was merely a companion, hitchhiking to Key West
with Corky. I know what Corky wants with Key West. He wants to meet our father, Jake. Try to fulfill some sense of loss. Claim
a sense of belonging from a man he never knew. To Corky, the trip to Key West is a self-administered pilgrimage to find his
heritage. He is searching for a lineage to his genes. A piece of Corky is missing. His words not mine. He told me that. I
guess he feels knowing his real father will somehow make him whole. I do not know if it will. Corky wants family roots. I
would prefer a shovel to bury mine. We are a strange paradox of brothers. There were too many questions without answers earlier
tonight. I wanted to go to sleep an hour ago. I was up all night, the night before celebrating my thirty-fourth birthday with
my girlfriend, Finee. Nevertheless, when Corky finally stopped asking questions and grew quiet to try to sort out his own
confusion, Cat started talking.
What Cat wants in Key West I can only
feign a guess. I have a suspicion she is searching for something as well. Especially from the way, she bombarded me with questions
about Key West’s benign tolerance of its gay population. It sounded to me like she was questioning the blooming state
of her own sexuality. At some point, Cat became adamant that there were too many prejudices and moral incivilities in the
world already, without the additional burden of stereotyping someone because of their individual choices, they had made, accepting
their sexuality. Cat held the opinion that there are certain freedoms and liberties born to all individuals, regardless of
the pain it might burden on a family. I was not so sure.
to Cat’s precocious rhetoric keeping my opinion to myself. That is just what Key West needs, I thought. Another bleeding
heart feminist and an ex-bastard child petitioning mislaid love, heading her way. Two more lost and wandering soul searchers
with a new lifetime on their hands. Wandering detritus.
I have seen
too much lost innocence wandering circles around Key West until their eyes are as disparaging as the feral cats you see roaming
around the docks looking for a handout or foraging through over-flowing trashcans stashed in the alleys off Duval Street.
Female innocence that ends up dancing nude for tips and drinks and the intoxicated promise from a patron of paying their rent
for a month or taking them on a Caribbean cruise on a sailboat. Working at the Scrub Club and the escort services, giving
massages, performing favors to the rich, fat European men on vacation down in Key West or living there, three or four months
out of the year during the winter months. And I have seen innocence sink to their knees or fall on their backs as fast as
the sunset goes down on Mallory Square.
I have also seen young male innocence
leaving Diva’s and the other gay nightclubs light in their shoes being escorted by aging flamers, giddy with the prospect
of firm young flesh. I have seen even younger innocence weaving roses on the sidewalks out of palm fronds for penitence to
pass the credence of the day into the jubilance of night. Key West has enough misfits of every walk of life and age, already.
She does not need two more. I know, Jake lives there.
When I wake up, the first thing I feel is some tightness in my jaw
and on the left side of my face. I bring my fingers up to touch the soreness then I remember Corky and Cat showing up yesterday
and Corky sucker punching me after I opened the door because he felt betrayed when he thought I knew Jake was his father,
which I did not.
I listen to see if I can hear them in the living room but it is all quiet out there. They must be still asleep or maybe they
struck out to Key West on their own. No, I could not be that lucky, not as desperate as Corky was yesterday for me to take
him to Key West to find Jake and introduce him to the father he never knew he had until two weeks ago when mom finally told
him the truth. All I know is the trip today to Key West is going to be interesting. I can only imagine the look on Jake’s
face when I tell him about the bastard son, mom never told him or me about, for the last eighteen years.
get out of bed, throw the curtain back that serves as my bedroom door and walk out to the living room. Cat is still asleep
on the couch curled in a tight fetal position. Corky has stripped off his Levis and shirt and is on top of his sleeping bag
on the floor in his boxers with his mouth open, lightly snoring.
I go into the bathroom and looking
at my face in the mirror as I take a piss, there is still a red mark were Corky blindsided me. I promise myself that I will
never let that happen again. If he ever lays a hand on me in the future, he will wish he never did. Brother or no, brother.
Out in the kitchen, I pour myself a glass of tea then quietly pad back to the bedroom, sit on the side of the bed and light
a cigarette trying to clear the cobwebs in my head from last night. Damn, I mumble, because I realize I only have three cigarettes
left and, pulling my rolling tray from under the bed, enough pot to roll two joints to take with us to Key West. I guess the
first order of the day is to ride to The Outpost, the local grocery store on the island that is open twenty-four hours a day
and buy some smokes.
When I finish smoking my cigarette and drinking my tea, thinking about various things Corky and Cat told me last night, I
roll two pin joints and stick them in my cigarette pack. Back in the living room, I pour another glass of tea and step outside.
It is a few minutes past eight and the sun is coming up over the Gumbo Limbo trees in front of the crib bathing the leaves
a pinkish glow. A pleasant breeze is blowing from the Atlantic, though I know, it will die down in a few hours and then it
will get stifling hot around midday until the sea breeze returns in the afternoon. By then the three of us will be in Key
West looking for Jake.
I do not expect the weather will be much different in Key West than in Matecumbe but you never know. It is an eighty mile
drive. They could be having thunderstorms down there while the sky is clear and blue here.
walk over to my truck, take my last two cigarettes out of the pack, light one up, stick the other in my shirt pocket and hide
the pack with the two joints in it, in the glove box and turn on my marine radio to hear the latest tropical updates from
NOAA while finishing my tea. With my weather radio in my truck wired to the twelve-volt battery, I always have access to the
latest coordinates and information on any developing or approaching storms even if the electricity goes out. I learned that
three years ago, after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. When you need the latest news about a storm and the electricity goes
out on the island you are fucked. Batteries that you have had since last year tend to have half their charge and even if they
are new, they will not last long before they die, leaving you in the dark, so to speak. As long as I have gas in my truck,
I can crank the truck up and charge the truck battery for my weather radio and the latest news.
new tropical waves are coming off Africa that might be worth watching next week. Just last week, Hurricane Felix rapidly strengthened
into the first Category 4 storm since Andrew and fortunately, for Bermuda, it missed the island by seventy-five miles.
When I hear all I want from NOAA, I walk down to the dock to check on my boat. After making sure it is secure, I water some
of my girlfriend’s plants that Finee is growing in buckets next to the house, finish my tea, unlock my bike and start
pedaling my old rusted Conch cruiser to The Outpost for some cigarettes.
Riding north on the sidewalk that
runs along, U.S. 1 also known as the Overseas Highway, I decide to first stop at the post office to see if my quarterly royalty
check is there for sales of my first novel. It is about time for the publisher to send another check out to me. That would
be a nice surprise to start the day.
I am by no means getting rich from the sales of my book but
it has allowed me to take a year off, fish in the day or spend time with Finee then work on my second novel at night while
Finee works at a restaurant called The Brown Skillet. She works four nights then a morning shift on Friday, her last day of
the week. So at night while she works, I write and then Friday morning, I work on revisions in the day during her morning
shift until she gets off and we spend the weekend together. Boating and fishing during the day, grilling out, dining out,
drinking and fucking in the evenings.
Across the street, a tour bus has pulled into the parking
lot at the Burger King. Even though they are only selling breakfast at this time of the morning, the place always smells like
French fries and flame broiled Whoppers to me. Some of the locals on the island had a fit and voiced their vehement opposition
against the fast food joint coming to Matecumbe when they first heard Burger King was going to build a restaurant here. They
were concerned about everything from increased traffic on U.S. 1, to opening the door to more commercialism coming to Matecumbe,
but it did not do them any good. Monroe County issued building permits and the joint got built as quickly as a sandcastle
on a beach. Locals had good reason to worry about allowing the commercialism because after Burger King went in, an Outback
Steakhouse popped up on the south end of the island. However, I do not think Matecumbe is going to allow a fast food seafood
restaurant like Red Lobster or a Long John Silver’s here, anytime soon. That would really burn a lot of people’s
assholes. Matecumbe is famous for its fishing and fresh caught fish, lobster and stone crabs served at the locally owned restaurants
on the island. I do not think the County commissioners want to bite the hands that feed them, keeping them in office.
Now, that Burger King has been here for a while, and probably played a hand, either
directly or indirectly, in Mr. Mac’s going out of business, the mom and pop hamburger joint that the locals revered
and patronized on the island for many, many years, I see quite a few familiar cars and faces over at Burger King buying fast
food takeout. Burger King’s Whoppers might not taste as good but they are damn sure much cheaper than any homemade cheeseburgers
in paradise served at all the locally, owned and operated restaurants in Matecumbe.
Corrida Faux Pas
"Goddamn, that was fucking awesome,"
Corky, suddenly says, pounding the dashboard once with his fist. Cat is sitting between us. She flinches as if a snafu of
electricity just shocked her. I just turned right off of Truman Avenue onto Duval Street. Years ago, the locals dubbed Duval
Street the longest street in the world because it runs from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. From one side of Key
West to the other. A staggering, two whole miles. Nevertheless, at times, a two-mile carnival of tropical decadence stirred
in a stew of carnal sights, foreign sounds and a potpourri of tantalizing smells. Sometimes the Duval crawl slows down to
a sensory overload. Then it becomes a banquet of de rigueur promiscuity.
I thought that maybe Corky had seen another hip shaking, ass-swinging,
beautiful woman lighting up the sidewalk. One that I missed. Punching the dash as he did. Human cheesecake inundates Key West
some days. Bodies walking, screaming for attention. Begging anyone and everyone, to notice them, whistle and wolf at
them. I glance quickly out of the corner of my eye looking to see if Corky is going to explain himself any further and catch
myself looking down at Cat's knees pinched together beside me. Her kneecaps are so thin and pale they resemble light bulbs.
"What?" Cat blurts out. She turns her head left and right wondering what she is missing.
Cat is intrigued with Key West like most novice visitors. She had been to Key West once before and the enchantment of the
island has stayed with her since her first visit. Something about the quaint town stuck to her like washed up tar on the beach.
I can feel her melting a little more, softening and succumbing to Key West's alluring charms.
"I was thinking about that octopus in the five-gallon bucket back at your place, Henry. I still can't believe it,"
Corky shouts over Jimmy Buffett's latest bankroll playing on the radio. A cover version of James Taylor's song, Mexico, from
Buffett's recently released, twentieth studio album, Barometer Soup that he returned to Key West to record over the winter.
I turn it down.
"I got up before either one of you this morning to take
a piss and it was still kind of dark and I went over and looked down in that bucket to see if those fish and that octopus
was still alive in there. The octopus was all balled up like he was sleeping and those three tropical fish were swimming around
him as if they didn't have a thing to worry about. Then the next thing I know, while I'm standing there watching, the octopus
flings himself at one of the fish and wraps his tentacles around that little fucker and smothers him like stink on shit!"
Corky says excitedly.
"That fucking little fish didn't have a chance!
It was all over in a second. What did you say those fish were called?" Corky asks.
"They're Sergeant Majors," I tell him. "Or were," I add. Corky is not exaggerating. I know exactly what
he means. Like stink on shit. That fish did not have a chance with the octopus.
"Yeah, well, he got his ass ate. Majorly, by that octopus. You should've seen it, Cat. Turn the radio back up,"
Corky says reaching for the dial.
"No, leave it down. I gotta look
for a place to park," I tell him.
"I'm glad I didn't see it,"
Cat states dryly. She wrinkles her nose with an unpleasant look on her face as she re-crosses her light bulbs again.
I fish a cigarette out of a pack from the front pocket of my shirt. Feel for my lighter in my pants pocket.
"Remember, I wanted to let those fish go. Down at the dock behind Henry's house," Cat reminds us.
"The two other fish, the two Sergeant Majors that was left, started going absolutely nuts in the bucket. Darting around
in circles. I think they knew their ass was next," Corky says assertively.
"They're next, but not today," I tell him.
"What do you mean?"
Cat asks turning to me with her eyes open wide, full of concern.
"The octopus will get
them, but not today. He'll wait for tomorrow night until he gets the second one then he'll probably get the third one the
next night if it's hungry that night. That's how octopuses are. When they get hungry, they're aggressive and kill for a meal
but they're not greedy. The two Sergeant Majors that's left will be on the menu tomorrow night and the next night," I
predict to Cat.
She elbows me in the ribs causing me to jerk the wheel, almost
making me sideswipe a parked car.
"Jesus Christ! What was that
for?" I ask rubbing my side.
"Henry! You jerk! You knew that
octopus was going to stalk those poor reef fish and eat them and you just left them in that bucket for that hideous, looking,
looking...that hideous thing to get them!" Cat scolds me. Her eyebrows pencil upwards.
"What else could I do?" I ask facetiously.
"Let the damn poor things
go. Like I wanted to do. Let them go in the water behind your house. At least they would have had a chance," Cat whines.
Find my lighter. Light my cigarette, thinking what Cat said. A chance. That is all we really have in life is a chance, isn't
it? Like the chance, Corky is taking to meet Jake for the first time. A father that he never knew. Wondering where that is
heading. I take a right on Southard Street and luck out finding a place to park that still has forty-five minutes on the meter.
A Link in the Chain
"Well, who in hell are these people?" Corky asks looking
at a dozen or so white washed concrete tombs blemished with spotty black mildew.
He crosses his arms across his chest and waits for an answer
giving me the impression that he wants my introduction of his dead relatives to be over as painlessly as possible. Cat is
standing next to him. She leans forward to read the name on a small child's tomb.
Corky seems impatient after seeing, just minutes ago, the beautiful sun goddess arrested for sunbathing nude on top of her
dead husband's grave a few rows over from where we are standing. I cannot blame him. Corky might not be old enough to legally
buy a beer in a bar, yet, but he is old enough to lust after a naked woman, even if she was naked in a cemetery. I am still
thinking about the woman and the two deputies escorting her out of the Key West Cemetery, myself. A naked woman will grab
your attention a lot easier and hold it longer than staring at old graves any day.
We are standing in the desultory Catholic section of the Key West Cemetery looking at a fenced in, twenty by twenty foot family
burial plot. There is not a cloud in the sky. I can feel the sun baking both my shoulders and the sacred ground I am standing
on. Most of the concrete tombs are stacked three high above the ground with a couple that are double stacked. Three tombs
rest above the ground by themselves. A waist high, rusted wrought iron fence with a spiked gate encloses the plot. I never
liked going inside the fence and I do not intend to do so today. Stepping inside the family burial plot feels like I am walking
on bones. Feels like I am entering the ornate gates of hell.
"Those two tombs on
the far right are your grandfather and grandmother. Papa and Nana Roberts," I say pointing at two tombs double-stacked
on our right. Lying on its side in front of their tombs is a blue flower vase faded from the sun. It looks like it has been
lying there for quite some time. The lip of the vase is broken and scattered around it are small ceramic chips. What is left
of the dried up flower arrangement, shriveled Easter lilies and burnt orange fern, is fanned across the concrete ground. I
wonder if Jake left the flowers. If he did not leave the flowers then I do not know who else would have left them.
If you think about it, cemeteries are places we go to find strength. Strength from the dead. We go to a cemetery not just
to pay our respects to the departed but also to confront our own mortal weaknesses. Accepting that we are still here and the
ones buried at our feet have passed through this earth. What we have left, is just what we walk away with. Not so much as
what death and mortality leaves us, but realizing there is still life in front of us. I told myself years ago that it is all
right to cherish the memory of a loved one, as their time on this earth indirectly resulted in me. However, all the dead really
are is just links in a chain. And when one of those links should break, as they surely will one day, what remains, is the
living, dragging the rest of the chain behind them. It is a burden we all carry. At least that is the way I see it.
"Nana died about eight years ago in 1987 when I was twenty-six. I could not have asked for a better grandmother. She
is in the tomb resting on top of Papa, our grandfather. I never knew my grandfather, Jake's father. He died before I was born
when Jake was just a teenager. Papa was a carpenter and a fisherman his whole life. He and Nana both grew up in Key West but
they left in the late thirties after the Labor Day Hurricane hit Matecumbe in 1935 and almost wiped it off the map. After
the hurricane, Papa and Nana moved to Matecumbe, because as I told you when we were driving down here, property was dirt cheap
in Matecumbe after the hurricane. They were just married and the thirties were a hard time in Key West. Everyone was piss
poor so Papa decided to move to Matecumbe to find work building new homes after the hurricane had destroyed most of the houses
there. For a few years, he helped rebuild Matecumbe. Building homes and some business's but then he went back to what he loved.
Fishing and trapping crawfish and stone crabs. Eventually, he and another fisherman opened a fish house they called The Matecumbe
Fish Market. It's still around but now it's more a restaurant than a fish house and the place is worth a fortune. After a
few years of living on Matecumbe, Papa decided to move to a little island called Pigeon Plum Key that's offshore of Matecumbe
out in the Bay where they had more property and better water access to fish and trap crawfish. Papa had a heart attack and
died there when he was in his sixties and Nana passed away in her sleep there in 1987," I narrate.
Corky stands next to me listening, quietly taking in the graves. I cannot tell if what I am telling him about his dead ancestors
moves him or not, until he turns to me and speaks up, angrily.
"You know what? Nana
was my fucking grandmother, too, and she died in 1987 when I was ten years old. And I remember you coming up from the Keys
to visit and telling mom about her dying. And you know what? That fucking bitch knew she was my grandmother but she didn't
say a fucking thing to me about Nana being my grandmother. Mom's a coldhearted bitch, Henry, for not telling me. I'm going
to cuss that bitch out the next time I talk to her," Corky swears, shaking his head in disgust and disbelief.
"I don't know why mom didn't tell you about Jake and about Nana. I really don't, Corky. I don't know what to tell you.
What did mom tell you?"
When Old is Never New
Josey Roberts limped curiously through the parking lot that ran between Garrison Bight docks
and Palm Avenue Causeway. From behind, looking over Josey's deformed shoulders; the sun was setting fast for the night in
Key West in a striking red glow, bathing the Gulf water in a warm blood color. Josey walked pigeon toed swinging his legs
out wildly because his back and upper torso was horribly twisted and misaligned to the left causing his rib cage to protrude
at such an awkward right angle, it appeared, when he was walking or trying to walk, that he was moving in opposite directions
at the same time. Josey was a weaving, walking disease to watch when he passed by.
Josey also walked perpetually bent forward because
of his back, doubling his upper body over causing the bone of his left shoulder blade to rise up in the air as if a huge tumorous
growth had sprouted there. Anybody who saw Josey knew exactly what he or she was seeing without a second glance. A tragic,
distorted body so badly disfigured they would never forget the horrific aberration for the rest of their lives.
Josey's physical disfigurement went beyond what any man should endure in a lifetime. Because of the uniqueness of his injury,
people quickly noticed him, causing them to shy away from him, which made Josey feel silently ridiculed. He did not have a
debilitating handicap such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy that might elicit sympathy from some onlookers. What they
saw was a bizarre oddity that few had ever imagined much less seen before with their own eyes. Josey was a living, breathing
nightmare that barely resembled a human being. Bluntly put, Josey Roberts looked like a monster.
Josey's deformities were not just physical. He suffered mentally, as well. Not from a mental disease that plagued insane people
and could be diagnosed by doctors and treated with medication. Josey's mental suffering came from a mind scarred from a lifetime
of avoiding humankind. A lifetime of enduring every predictable, horrified stare cast his way due to his shocking disfigurement.
A lifetime of trying to avoid the cruelties bestowed on the monstrosity that was Josey.
Josey hobbled by the concrete docks of Charter Boat Row, ignoring the red-faced tourists and anglers stepping off a party
boat after a half-day afternoon fishing charter out in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the anglers were not leaving the docks
immediately. They stood around patiently with tired smiles waiting to get their fish that they had caught, cleaned by the
two mates who worked on the boat. Josey could hear the mates identifying and calling out each fish. Matching the fish to the
angler who had caught them by the unique knife slits the mates had slashed on each fish after an angler brought the catch
into the boat. Two on the throat. Three on the tail. Cross between the eyes.
Some of the anglers supported themselves against the pilings trying to find their land legs again and get back the equilibrium
they had lost while out on the water. A few were obviously drunk and in festive spirits talking loudly, slapping backs and
giving high fives. Some of the tourists who were not really anglers and went out on the party boats just to be on the water
while they were vacationing in Key West, were clearly seasick as they were helped away to their cars, where they would head
back to their air-conditioners, showers and clean sheets in their motel rooms. Regardless of each individual's personal preoccupations
after returning to the dock, they all seemed to see Josey coming. They all saw the monster creeping by.
Josey heard the fractured silences. The quick inhales. The jerking turns of the heads. He knew everyone on the dock was looking
at him with horror on their faces. Some of them looked on with sadness and some with pity but all stared shamelessly. Each
one of them, wondering, what possible earthy wickedness could have molded this man into such a terrible, inhuman beast? If
there were a god, what god would allow such a hideous creation to roam the docks at night like a tortured fleshed out ghost.
Josey was that appalling to look at.
Some of the tourists who were parents
with children turned their heads away pretending not to notice hoping their children would do so, as well. However, the tired,
wide-eyed children stared anyway, clutching their parent's hands and thighs tighter as Josey passed by with his head hanging
The children could not help but whisper amongst themselves, pointing
at Josey, upsetting their weary mothers, who hushed their children and turned their faces away from staring at the sight of
him. All the mothers of the children really wanted to do after an afternoon out on the water was to go back to the sanctuary
of their cool motel rooms to comfort themselves with a shower, dinner and watch television before going to bed.
The men who worked each day at the Bight making their living on the fishing and diving boats that tied up at the docks were
used to seeing Josey shuffle by. They knew his late afternoon routine and his grotesque presence at the end of each long day
no longer shocked them. Over the years, the men had grown accustomed to Josey passing painfully by, they ignored him, anticipating
his bizarre shape limping along the docks in the late afternoon always silent and brooding, never saying a word. Josey was
both familiar and strange at the same time, to them, offering them a morbid fascination as he passed by looking like a wounded
animal dragging itself off to die alone somewhere.
To the Captains, mates, fishermen and divers working on the docks, Josey was as
well known to them as any quirky Key West landmarks around town that the tourists flocked to see. He was as commonplace to
them as the wooden shotgun shacks in Bahama Village and the ubiquitous retail shops on Duval Street. As equally alluring to
ogle as the women dancing in the neon striptease joints downtown and as strange as anything they had seen in the bars that
they frequented at night when their day was finished, the sun set at Mallory Square and Key West's nightlife comes alive.
Key West is a walking, biking town. I have always enjoyed walking anywhere in
down town Key West. Walking the streets and sidewalks with no particular destination in mind makes me feel at home. Even though
I bitch about the changes that have come to the island in the last quarter century, I know I am walking where my ancestors
once walked. They could have lived in the house that I am passing by right now with the front porch almost hidden by overgrown
tropical growth. Died in the tiny front lawn of the little cottage across the street. Made love in the upstairs bedroom looking
out the same window I am looking up at on the second story of a hundred year old Victorian house on the corner with its towering
Silver Palms guarding the front door like sentinels.
If you want to see old Key
West, what it was like before commercialism and the almighty dollar found her, turn your back on the tacky, neon glitter of
Duval Street. Ignore Roosevelt Boulevard. Leave the strip malls in Sears's town alone. Take the time to stroll down some of
the quiet narrow side streets in Key West. Let the quaint ambience of the houses and neighborhoods embrace you. There are
many streets to discover in Key West. Choose any one of them. Each one comes with its own flavor and distinct personality.
Look at the small, cherubic cottages behind distinctive picket fences next to the opulent two story mansions built with yesterday's
architecture. Take a walk in Bahama Village. It is time standing still. Look at the tiny, old shotgun shacks shared by two
generations of black folks living there together. The ramshackle porches that have shaded blood, birth, sweat, and work, for
a century and more.
Venture down any of the side streets into the old
neighborhoods of Key West. Let the native tropical trees whisper their stories to you. Let the small overgrown yards with
their exotic splendor and the front porches cornered in gingerbread trim take you back to the days of the past. When men had
to be men and women had to give as much as the men to make ends meet. It is the same town now, in many ways, that it was in
the past but there is also a difference in Key West, which you can feel. It is a softer and richer Key West. Not so, rustic
around the edges like it used to be. This is the present Key West. Not the Key West of the past. A town that has reinvented
itself many times over but still remains a bastion of self-expression making me wonder what is in the future for the southernmost
island. I have always thought, when I am walking around Key West, if I did not get a sense of longing to hold on to the past
and what once was, then I am just walking with my eyes closed. I cannot drive with my eyes closed and I cannot walk that way,
As Corky, Cat and I left the cemetery to walk up Windsor Lane, I
had to make myself look over at a wall outside of the cemetery gates to feel the same sense of loss I get every time I visit
the graveyard. There used to be a wall outside of the cemetery that someone, long ago, had built entirely out of old glass
bottles heated and melted together. When I was younger, I was always intrigued and excited to see the bottle wall when I visited
the cemetery. I thought, like the tombstones inside the cemetery, the wall of bottles outside the cemetery would stand forever.
I was sadly mistaken. Some delinquents with malice in their hearts and no sense of sanctity destroyed the glass bottle wall
one night by throwing rocks at it. The bottle wall did not mean anything to them. A wall of bottles that has stood for years,
shattered with rocks within minutes without a care or thought, what the wall might mean to somebody else.
The three of us take a right on William Street and head up Southard. Even though it is hot as hell, we manage to stay out
of the sun by switching which side of the street we are walking on staying under the canopy of trees that shades the sidewalk
for most of the way back to Duval Street. Every other house has a Royal Poinciana tree that is blooming growing in their yard
overhanging the sidewalk. They are always magic to my eyes when they bloom in the summer. In some places, flower petals litter
the sidewalk with their spent orange blooms carpeting the concrete. Cat kicks through the flowers like a little girl sending
the blossoms flying off the sidewalk showering the street.
I name some of the other
exotic trees growing in the small yards of the houses as we pass by. Their rarity and beauty is completely lost on Corky and
Cat. They are just trees to them. Corky and Cat are too young and naïve to appreciate the unique indigenous plant life
that Key West is home to.
Several stately two story homes have large construction dumpsters parked haphazardly
in the front yards filled with boards, pipe and other debris from the interiors of the houses. Caution tape is strung next
to the sidewalk across the front of the properties. The buzz of electric saws and pounding of hammers fills the air. Another
family Conch house getting its guts ripped out that will be turned into a bed and breakfast inn. When the renovations are
complete, they'll have tiled and bricked most of the yard, put in a pool the size of a mud puddle and charge a hundred and
fifty dollars a night to stay in a room not much bigger than two double beds pushed together.
Dreams in the Lost and Found
I have heard
dreams are lost and found simultaneously in Key West all in the same day. Dreams found when you wake up to the palm fronds
fluttering outside of your window and begin another day in a steamy paradise of quiet gingerbread cottages lining the narrow
streets just a block from the come-hither finger of Duval Street.
Dreams lost between a bed
and breakfast inn and the pulse of million dollar Victorian mansions built beside tired shotgun shacks. Ears listening for
the dance of sweet footsteps on the stairs that may or may not come with open blessings, leaving your lips trembling from
Dreams found when you find yourself in the hungry
blanket of evening and exhausted eyes closes on a pillow of soft feathers with a warm body next to you that you can hold for
In Key West, there is nothing so far removed from the truth
that it cannot be discussed over beer or cocktails, cocaine, condoms, coffee and cigarettes at a bar. Where the waitress,
waiter or bartender could look like the most coveted sex in the world at midnight and the man sitting next to you wearing
an Armani suit peering at his Rolex watch, flashing gold treasure buried in his chest hair could be a pathetic scale with
a criminal record and the instinct of a lost cat on the lam.
So far, the unknown possibilities
in Key West seem to be emotionally affecting Cat more than Corky but then he has his own basket of thoughts occupying his
mind. Both of them are on the cusp of discovering something that is new to them. An emerging dalliance with life at the end
of U.S. 1 that is exciting, risqué and adventurous with neither one of them sure where their life is taking them. It
is interesting to watch the dissolvent in each of them as they straddle their own fence so to speak and it is clear to me
that they are both bound to fall and land on their asses sooner or later on one side of the fence because eventually their
crotches are going to get sore. It happens when you are young and exploring a provocative adult side of life causing raging
hormones to collide like splitting atoms.
It does not bother me the least to
be standing to the side, behind them, watching, from the outside looking in at them, as I let them take me where they want
to go. Let the fresh blood have their chance to tempt fate is how I look at it. I have seen it before down here in the Keys.
People come to Key West and find themselves at the end of the road and it is easy to shed their old selves and be a chameleon
taking the color of his or her surroundings when the day starts or ends and the night's revelry begins.
There is something seductive about a place where most everybody you see seems to be on some kind of vacation. Some permanently.
Some for a season. Some for a week. Others only for a few days or even just a night, until their passion overruns them and
then if they are lucky, their senses kick in and their conscience calls them home. I think we all know what we want before
we taste it, but keeping it, is another story all together. A story that countless visitors to the Keys have learned through
Key West can be an unadulterated dopamine rush for adolescents
visiting for the first time. A young body can never get enough of real raw sexuality thrown their way every day and every
night. Especially when you are Corky and Cat's age. MTV videos be damned. Here in Key West it is in the real flesh. An adult
playground to drool over and savor while getting to experience it and know it. You do not switch channels when you have had
enough in Key West. You switch rooms. You switch partners, addresses, identities and lives. You put a new coat of paint on
your face. You buy new underwear. You grow a beard. You get waxed, drunk, tattooed and wasted.
Most of all, in Key West, you just learn to accept the open invitation to live and let live and party while embracing your
passion and your sexuality. It comes to you in a myriad of ways. Handed to you on a postcard. In the backseat of a taxicab.
In a fortune cookie. On a cocktail napkin. Out on the water or sitting on a barstool. Take it. It is yours to hold, fondle,
caress. It is yours to fake and yours to break. Your sexuality is yours to trash. Yours to delete with a stroke of whiteout
or a keystroke on a keyboard. In Key West, you can reinvent yourself with smoke and mirrors over dinner and cocktails. Sex
Twenty minutes ago, Corky, Cat and I were down at Higgs Beach
with Jake, Bull and Jake's latest squeeze, Alana, talking and bullshitting. I had just about had the balls to tell Jake that
he is Corky's father when Jake and Bull suddenly tell us they have to leave because they have business to take care of and
Jake informs Alana they are going to drop her off at her house. She turns her head towards Jake with a surprised look on her
face as if he had promised the day to her and now he has changed his mind but she does not say anything. I have the feeling
Jake has had his fun with her and he is done with her for the day and maybe forever. I've seen it before.
We agree to meet them later this evening at Turtle Kraals Restaurant after they offer to buy Corky, Cat and I dinner and we
leave with Corky obviously disappointed because I did not properly introduce him to Jake as his biological son.
Strange Days have Found Us
old man named Christopher was sitting at the Schooner Wharf Bar by himself looking down and out when a younger friend walked
in. He sees old man Christopher sitting there and goes and sits next to him at the bar and orders a beer."
"How's it going, Christopher? Why do you look so gloomy, tonight?" The young friend asked.
"Howdy, mate. Just reflecting on my life. It's just not fair. Life is just not fair," old man Christopher, says.
"How so, Christopher?"
"Well, mate, see that sailboat out there
with the fine forty foot mast? Well, I carved that mast myself. Out of the finest oak, one could find. I spent five years
carving masts. But do you think I am known as Christopher, the wood carver? Hell, no."
"Well, that's too bad, Christopher. But you've did other things in your life, as well," the young friend says.
"That's right, I have. That's my point. See that roof over there? With all the different peaks? See how every shingle
is laid in perfect symmetry? It's the best looking roof in Key West. I put every shingle down myself. I spent ten years building
roofs. But do you think I am known as Christopher, the roof builder? Hell, no."
Christopher shakes his head sadly and takes a sip of his ale then raises a finger up in the air and laments.
"But... if you suck one dick in this town...," Bull smiles as he finishes telling his joke.
Johnny Brothers. Bull Brothers as everybody calls him is a fearless, determined, sometimes, cruel fisherman and Captain of
his own shrimp trawler. His personality has always been like that. Even when he was a child, it was evident that a mean streak
could dominate Bull's disposition in the blink of an eye.
The men who have mated for
Bull on his shrimp boats over the years has learned to ignore or pretend to ignore the damnation Bull sometimes threw on everything
and anybody that was around him. Bull is often irritated when life is not going as he likes or as he had planned. He is the
kind of man that does not expect praise from others around him and he damn sure is not about to hand any praise out, either.
You have to earn Bull's respect and even then, it comes slow and grudgingly.
Being the Captain and owner of his own shrimp trawler, Bull can make enemies quickly and easily. Sometimes it is the nature
of the business and sometimes it is a direct reflection of Bull's ruthlessness. He has an infamous reputation of firing a
man working on his shrimp boat in a heartbeat because he cannot tolerate incompetence, in any form, especially on the water.
Survival of the fittest is Bull's law and many men in Key West have hated and cursed Bull because of his dour temperament
but seldom personally to his face. The few that have, he nearly killed, sending them to a lengthy stay in a hospital bed.
Bull's size and strength, especially when he was younger was staggering. He is a hulk of a man. A brute with roaming cold
eyes like a wolf that are steel blue or gray depending on his mood and anyone who looks into his eyes can always tell he means
business. To get in Bull's way or contest a decision he has made concerning his boat and his lively-hood is absolute suicide.
A man might as well go stand on the tracks of an oncoming freight train.
Those who dare to try to argue with Bull are usually verbally assaulted, degraded and shamed. Bull's mouth is as much a deadly
weapon as his hands, his six foot six frame and his three hundred and forty pounds of worked flesh and muscle.
He is quick to dissect a man's weakness and even quicker to put the man in his place, verbally abusing him when he finds fault
in a man's work ethic. If one of the mate's on Bull's ship has the audacity to adhere to an opinion that Bull vehemently disagrees
with, Bull can have the conscience of a snake, the stubborn will of a prison wall and concrete convictions that cannot be
penetrated, gone over, under or around, unless Bull lets you. And then and only then, Bull Brothers usually has a reason to
succumb to a different opinion other than his own.
Many men and women wear masks
in Key West. Bull does not. Though Bull is generally easy to read anytime of the day or night by his friends, others find
him hard to understand because he can be gentle one day and a tyrant the next day not caring who is around him when he speaks.
Bull was born with a sailor's tongue and he does not spare anyone from his vulgar words, not man, woman nor child.
His voice is a thunderous, indiscriminate roar when it is awakened conveying a simple
understanding that is precise and to the point with simple conviction meant only to bring pain and suffering to anyone who
has aroused his wrath by annoying him. At times, it well might appear that Bull is consumed with hate and prejudice because
he does not take sides nor has he any sane reason to take sides, because Bull can be a beast from hell to everybody. Everybody
except Jake. Jake can handle Bull as easily as he handles a beer on a bar or a woman underneath him on a Saturday night.
Turtle Kraals Redux
Bull, Corky, Cat and I, get quiet and go about the business of eating the meals we ordered, I look around Turtle Kraals Restaurant.
The last time I ate dinner at Turtle Kraals was three years ago and I had blackened grouper that night, as well and it was
just as delicious then as it is tonight. I was with a woman that evening, who I thought I loved, the novel I was writing was
going well and I should have known one or the other would not last. The next morning she broke it off, telling me she could
not live with a writer because there was no promise there and she needed a future. I guess she did not see a future or a writer
in me. C'est la vie, we both went our separate ways and on with our individual lives and then a few months later, my girlfriend,
Finee, the true love of my life that I have coveted since grade school, walked back into my world and we have been together
A lot has changed at Turtle Kraals Restaurant and around
Land's End Marina since the last time I was here. Somebody has spent tons of money extensively renovating and remodeling the
entire marina and restaurant. The building has been painted inside and out, the hardwood floors stripped and polished and
new dining décor brought in. Outside, they have installed a new shiny tin roof making the old building now look drastically
commercialized like all of the rest of Key West's historic landmarks are becoming, leaving just enough taste of the past to
make me yearn for a little more of the past the way I remember it. Like it used to be.
The entire city of Key West is wrestling with dualities as it tries accenting their ties with the past. Sculpting Key West
to appear as aesthetically pleasing to the eyes of the new wave of tourists that drive and fly here and come off the cruise
ships with fat wallets and purses full of plastic credit cards and crisp cash.
From one end of the island to the other, there are new owners taking over older businesses and establishments with their new
money and their contemporary visions for Key West. Everywhere I look there is some developer with deep pockets ready to breathe
new life to a neighborhood or a particular city block on the island that they feel isn't earning its potential dollar per
square foot by taking over and transforming some time-honored establishment or home while still trying to preserve the old
nostalgia like the way it used to be. In my eyes, it is like putting up a new wall over an old wall but painting the new wall
to look old or dressing up an old woman in new fashions and telling her to keep her old age wisdom. Something does not quite
ring true with the makeover to me.
Looking around at the changes at Land's
End Marina and Turtle Kraals Restaurant, I feel the vision here is simply to turn the blight of age into a maritime tourist
attraction with profits ruling the reasoning. At the same time, they are also trying to fool the naive tourists, visiting
Key West for the first time that does not know any different and assumes that, this, is the way Key West has always looked.
It is a fallacious attempt to preserve a piece of Key West's historic nautical past in a sugar coated homogenized way, giving
Key West's past and its well-known picaroon reputation, a new face-lift, a new marquee so to speak. They are taking a legacy
and the past and unjustly rewriting it, I feel.
In the early thirties, Ernest
Hemingway called Key West the St. Tropez of the poor. He was right then and in some ways now, it remains true to the native
Conchs who still live in Key West struggling to make ends meet, paycheck to paycheck, finding ways to pay their skyrocketing
taxes, mortgages or rent. The tourists flocking to the island today do not realize how much guts, grunts and grits, blood
and sweat it took to live and make this town what it is. They only see what it is today. A tropical playground if you can
afford it that is bleeding its heritage right through the pockets of the locals.
Outside of the restaurant, part of the renovation of Turtle Kraals was adding two new dining sections to ease the rush hour
overflow at dinnertime. The new management or owners have created an open air dining section in the rear of the restaurant
where the old wrecking tower has stood for years some sixty or seventy feet tall offering a panoramic view of the harbor.
Another new dining area has been built right on the docks themselves giving patrons the pleasure while they dine of feeding
the mangrove snappers swimming in the murky oily water below while watching the high dollar fishing boats, sailboats and catamarans
tie up in their slips.
Years ago, Turtle Kraals was just another run
down local bar that happened to be down at the docks next to a rundown marina. It smelled of beer, fish, shrimp, old dock
wood, salt, wet rope and canvas sails. You could find the place from the smell of the day. A hundred years ago, it was the
carcasses of freshly butchered sea turtles and sponges picked off the ocean's floor with hooks on long poles that were left
drying in the hot sun that made Turtle Kraals smell.
A century later, a milder
bounty of ocean flavors still permeates the marina, infusing with smells of the many restaurants that line what they now call
Historic Seaport Boardwalk. What is left of the original bar in Turtle Kraals where a few suntanned, grizzled shrimpers and
fishermen still come in to get out of the sun after a day's work on the water is not much. Now the men who do come in only
linger for an hour or two over a few beers and eat a fish sandwich or a pound of boiled shrimp while watching television and
swap the latest gossip and fishing stories before the dinner crowd arrives and drives them away.
As I look around the restaurant tonight, at the dozens of tourists sitting at tables eating dinner, having cocktails wrapped
around what is left of the original bar, I cannot help but to think, how each one of them are oblivious to the fact that their
very presence, has erased the presence of so many fishermen who used to patronize the place before them.
Besides Jake, Bull and I, there are only a couple of locals sitting at the bar somberly watching television while nursing
their beers. Twenty years ago, a rowdy crowd of men drinking, talking and carousing with the women who would come in for a
night of drinking and celebration, as well, would have packed this place.
Just when I think, I have come to this sad, epiphany about the homogenizing of Key West and how it has cleansed the ranks
of local Conchs coming to Turtle Kraals to drink, it dawns on me, that Jake and Bull are still patronizing the place as an
eating establishment, even though it has stopped being one of their favorite watering holes long ago. The days and nights
of thirsty Conch men drinking at Turtle Kraals all night long have become as scarce and as much a piece of the past as the
days when the Conchs kept turtles under the docks that lined the harbor in pens that they called kraals.
The Doors are wide open at Sloppy
By summer's final pledge
I walked down
to the water's edge
a kingdom in a timber field unseen
I planted all my seed
in hopes up so
a vagrant breeze held stunning might
capturing sunset in a starling flight
waiting at nightfall
And the current ran
where a loggerhead swam
and a octopus hides
in a battle for life in an unforgiving sea
waiting at nightfall
in the come of the fall
By lonely lantern light
I heard a scream across the night
the shadows wings of dread
on horseback the land never seen
I was trampled down like a dying dream
thought I heard money rustle in the wind
I turned around and saw the trees
waiting at nightfall
waiting for nightfall
I heard them call
in the come of the
Sloppy Joe's is at its usual for the gloaming
of the evening after the sunset party wound down at Mallory Square. Hot, loud and busy with the regular matrimony of locals
hoping to score with a loaded tourist and tourists trying to blend in innocuously with the drunken locals. The concoction
of the two factions provides as much glossed over entertainment with their raucous drunken conversations and celebrations
as the single guitar player on stage.
His name is Mac Mcheart. Mac is a local musician legend in Key West. He has paid his dues playing in bars around Key West
for years. Jake claims that Mac was playing the bar scene around town before Jimmy Buffett arrived and dubbed Key West, Margaritaville
and found fortune and fame from his songs depicting the slow easy drinking life in the Keys. After Buffett's fans began flocking
down to the islands to taste what he was singing about, the crowds got too demanding and Buffett ended up leaving his adopted
home town of Key West for the greener commercialized pastures of Tennessee.
Mac Mcheart is still down here in Key West trying to make ends meet
while searching for some meaning in why he has stayed so long in the first damn place. Mac never found coast-to-coast fame.
Maybe he does not want it. I can tell you from listening to him play dozens of times; Mac is just as good a musician as Buffett
any day of the week. The stories Mac tells between songs have the same down home country island feel as Buffett's as well
and they are just as entertaining and maybe even better.
Mac sits perched on a wooden bar stool cradling his Martin acoustic guitar looking down from the stage at the audience in
Sloppy Joe's. A tattered straw hat for tips sits at his feet alongside four empty Heineken bottles lined up in a row next
to the hat. A testimony to the heat in Sloppy Joe's as much as Mac's thirst.
Mac's eyes are bleary and bloodshot. He always looks that way. Either
hung-over, drunk or damn near to it. Even the times when I have seen Mac playing in a bar in the late mornings he looks drunk
with half-closed slits for eyes. At the moment, Mac has his ever-present cigarette dangling from his cracked lips. When he
is singing he pins the filter on a guitar string at the neck of his guitar and while he is strumming chords the smoke curls
in the air like a miniature smoke stack.
Mac looks like he is wearing the same clothes as the last time I had seen him. A sun faded Muddy Water's T-shirt flowing outside
a pair of gray fishing shorts and hairy tanned legs strapped in leather Kino sandals. He seems to be telling more jokes than
singing songs as Bull, Jake, Corky, Cat and I walk up. From the outside of Sloppy Joe's, I cannot really hear the punch lines
to Mac's jokes but I assume they are funny because of the chorus of raucous laughter drifting out to the sidewalk.
Sloppy Joe's is on the corner
of Duval and Greene Street. I do not even have to open a door to judge the atmosphere inside because the doors are always
wide open at Sloppy Joe's. A quick peek from the sidewalk tells me all I want to know. It is loud and hot just as I knew Sloppy
Joe's would be on a Friday night.
In the front of the building, facing Duval, there are two sets of big double doors. Another set of doors faces Greene Street.
I can feel the body heat from inside the bar bathing my face with its warm oven air. It is stifling in there with dusty ceiling
fans turning sluggishly overhead, circulating the stale hot air inside as thick cigarette smoke rushes out the front doors
like angry storm clouds. I watch the smoke float away like grey ghosts sucked to the heavens for a couple of seconds then
The place is packed. We stand on the sidewalk scanning the filled up tables for any customers that are ready to leave after
having their fill of beer, the greasy food and the mood inside of Sloppy Joe's.
Outside of the bar, throngs of tourists are strolling around sightseeing
and shopping for souvenirs. Strolling wherever their passions pique their interests. It is bodies walking everywhere mobbing
the sidewalks on both sides of the street. There is almost a carnival atmosphere on Duval Street outside of Sloppy Joe's.
Always is once the sun goes down and the nighttime denizens come out to play.
Cat does not know which way to look. I watch her standing by Bull
with her head turning every which way trying to take in the random action of people and bodies, legs and arms in constant
motion. Bodies stopping, hands pointing, cameras flashing. Splashes of conversation drifting in and out of our ears. Neon
lights blinking and neon clothes clashing amidst a myriad assortment of food smells assaulting and intriguing my nose to the
point it makes me think of eating again even though the five of us just finished eating at Turtle Kraals Restaurant.
Some of the small shops along
Duval Street have put metal racks out on the sidewalk that are full of tropical shirts in splashy colors, khaki and white
shorts, airy cotton apparel and last year's skimpy bikinis with clearance tags dangling off them.
Entire families sporting red sunburned skin file in and out of the
shop doorways making me think of ants coming and going. Couples are leisurely strolling entwined in each other while mopeds
and bicycles zigzag through the traffic with zealous young riders honking their horns festively, gripping handlebars tightly
and dragging their feet through red lights.
"My god, you can just smell the money changing hands, can't you," Cat says looking around mesmerized by the crowds
of shoppers, tacky glitter, lights and sounds. People are moving in both directions on the sidewalk making walking chaotic.
Forcing couples to drop their lover's hand and separate from each other, shoulders colliding with strangers. Some people are
getting pushy and in a hurry to get out of the throes of the crowd while others just wait patiently for their turn to get
by squeezing themselves into doorways or flattening their backs up against a wall. More than a few take a chance and step
in the street, inches from the crawling traffic to bypass the crowd trying to navigate the sidewalk. Most of the tourists
walking by are clutching bags with some kind of purchase they have bought. Bull seems to read my mind. He bends down to Cat
so she can hear him better.
"Yeah, everybody who comes down here to Key West just has to buy some kind of trinket or souvenir to bring back home
to somebody. Like they're fucking obligated to do so," Bull tells her with irritation in his voice.
Chasing the Bull
seems like things start to get belligerent at Sloppy Joe's all at once after I come back from finally getting hold of and
talking to my girlfriend, Finee on the phone. Maybe it is me. I am getting drunker than I want to be and I know now that I
will not be able to drive back home to Matecumbe tonight.
Jake, Bull, Corky, Cat and I have been drinking at Sloppy Joe's for almost three hours now with Bull ordering round after
round. Maybe the break between Mac, the acoustic guitar player and the rock band setting up the stage to play next is taking
too long and the crowd is getting antsy, who knows but for the last twenty minutes, Sloppy Joe's has gotten excessively loud.
The place is a mindless pandemonium of indecipherable words flying through the smoky air.
The cacophony in the bar reminds me of when Finee and I visited the wild bird aviary one time in the Upper Keys where they
care for injured birds. We stopped by right before feeding time and it seemed all of the birds mouths cut loose all at once
when the handlers started feeding them. It was a sudden mindless starving panic in our ears a lot like Sloppy Joe's in the
last half-hour. Sounds like everybody in Sloppy Joe's is famished for something.
Just as I get back from calling Finee and sit down at the table, Jake's gets up and goes over to talk with some fishing buddies
he knows who run nighttime fishing charters out to the Dry Tortugas. Corky is still sitting at the table as he has been for
the last half hour with his hands wrapped tightly around his cocktail, glued to the glass, nodding in and out, toeing the
line of consciousness.
I need to get my ass back to Matecumbe first thing
tomorrow morning where I belong with Finee. When I talked to her on the phone, I explained to her, why I am in Key West with
Jake and Bull, who she does know, and Corky, who she has heard of but never met before and a woman about Corky's age named
Cat, who she has never heard of until tonight. When Finee asked me if Cat was Corky's girlfriend, I just told her that they
both hitchhiked to Matecumbe showing up at my door yesterday afternoon wanting me to drive them to Key West so Corky could
meet his father, Jake, for the first time and I left it at that.
My watch says it is quarter
till eleven. I am wondering when Bull, Jake, Corky and Cat are going to leave and head to the Garden of Eden Party Sheck Nukolopis
is throwing on the Pleasure Odyssey anchored out in Key West Bight. An annual, invitation only, orgy of bacchanalian revelry
that, from what I have heard, easily surpasses the hedonistic, bawdry behavior found during Key West's Fantasy Fest held every
year in October. Sheck's party starts at midnight. The witching hour. Even though I know I have to stay in a motel room in
Key West tonight because I am too drunk to drive home to Matecumbe, I have not decided if I am going with them to Sheck's
party or not. What I do know, is I have had enough of Sloppy Joe's for the night.
Even the liveliest bar can get old and stale after too many hours. I need a change of scenery from Sloppy Joe's but I also
know that at Sheck's party it will probably just be a crowd of new faces spouting the same old bullshit. Festive people getting
drunk and talking shit out of their asses except many of these people will be showing lots of skin and casting their inhibitions
aside as the party progresses into the night. Nevertheless, if I do not go somewhere else and get out of Sloppy Joe's soon,
I am going to be done for the night. I can feel myself slowly sinking into that blank void where at some point sleep will
be the only remedy for finding sobriety.
Norma Jean the waitress is still busting
her ass. She has been going non-stop all night long. She walks by our table with dozens of dollar bill tips sticking out of
the waistband of her tight shorts smiling at us as she passes by seeing we don't need another round at the moment.
Two local men in shorts and sandals sitting in the center of the bar suddenly climb off their stools. They get into each other's
faces with their fingers pointing angrily and their eyes livid. The bouncer standing at the main doors collecting a cover
charge for Brock Richardson and The Reptiles, the band that is going to play next, notices the two men immediately. He is
Hawaiian looking and big without a neck or a smile. He saunters over to the two men and speaks to them never once raising
an arm past his thick waist. While his back is turned, I watch several younger men hurry inside to avoid paying the cover
charge. They head for the back of Sloppy Joe's hoping to lose themselves amongst the blur of faces sitting around the bar.
The bouncer tells the two men who are arguing to take it outside. I cannot hear what he says but when he points his thumb
towards the street, I know the drill. Take it outside or I will take both of you outside. The argument between the two men
dissipates as quickly as it started. Instead of going out to the sidewalk to settle their differences they promptly forget
them, sit back down on their bar stools and go back to their drinks talking like old friends again.
Finally, the band starts playing and the lights go dim in Sloppy Joe's. As soon as they crank out the first few chords of
their first song, the drums and electric guitar suddenly stop and just the bass player goes on laying down a heavy hypnotic
Doot-da-doot-da-doot-da-doo-doot, doot-da-doot-da- doot-da-doo-doot.
The loud shouts in the bar fade and most of the voices in the bar quiet down. A moment of sanity returns to Sloppy Joe's.
It is a brief moment of reflection until everybody recognizes the song, Brock Richardson and The Reptiles are opening up with,
and then pandemonium breaks out again. A Doors song. Roadhouse Blues fills Sloppy Joe's.
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Some Came First