keywest

Mirage

I navigated for Key West.

Arriving in sight of Mallory Square, I saw several thousand people lining the bulkhead where the cruise ships normally docked. There was some kind of festival event going on. In the channel off Mallory Square, the ocean-going speedboats were running upwards of a hundred miles an hour, their drive gear throwing white-water-rooster-tails.

I radioed the Coast Guard and was told the harbor was closed to incoming traffic. I could not anchor in sheltered water until the first of the week. The closest place to tie up would be Stock Island.

My thoughts came as backpackers emerging from a fog. Each one was looking for level ground to set up camp.

I had no wish to be in the crowd onshore. Seeing other people, I felt an aversion, like an anchorite who had lived in a cave: inside, I was close to the power I prayed to; looking outward, I perceived separation.

Smelling the vague stink of dry land, I missed the open ocean. The intensity of deepwater had a romantic allure that kicked soon as you reached the shallows. I thought of sailing on. Turning north, up the Atlantic, I would be in the Gulf Stream, sailing parallel to the coast. I would have big ships passing me day and night. It would be like riding a bicycle down the dotted line between whizzing diesel transfer trucks.

I hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours. Every decision had to be carefully made; all the faces of my mechanism consulted and debated. Each move seemed crucial to the future.

I headed to Stock Island. Black vultures and turkey buzzards swirled above the nautical junkyard of the lower Keys: the rusted out engine blocks, wrecked cars, and the house trailers of retirees. I had difficulty speaking to other people. My voice seemed to come from a body I was no longer attached to. The person I had been in Mobile and in Texas felt no obligation to telephone a pregnant wife. Whoever I was now, the self I was becoming, wondered if I still belonged as a husband and a father?

My ability to picture myself other than where and how and who I then was, had temporarily departed. I could not think past the wall of my physical exhaustion, and yet I vibrated energy. The thought of rest, the possibility of sleep did not exist.

I rented a car and went looking around Key West. The island I had known in the early ’70’s had lost its frontier atmosphere. The streets were still shady with trees that hadn’t changed. Their roots still undermined the asphalt and kept the thoroughfares obstructed with natural speed bumps. The orchids were in bloom. The speedboat festival had the town crowded. Key West was always a tight fit, not much land, or air space. The old ornate conch houses, once dilapidated and scaling, had had the dry rot amputated, the termites gassed to extinction. The whole island looked freshly painted.

On Duval Street, the pedestrian traffic was an animated catalog for Barney’s of New York and Ralph Lauren. You could smell money burning holes in tropical blend linen. Pretty boys held hands with each other. Rich girls trolled for adventure. Menu prices posted in the cafe windows echoed South Hampton. Key West had gone way upscale.

I parked and walked in the sidewalk traffic. The midwinter weather was intoxicating as ever, the first drink of the day, no matter what time you opened your eyes, even in the rain, rare as bad weather was. The keys in the winter made you want to get stoned, and coast, like an abandoned vehicle rolling downhill.

I was hungry but didn’t feel like paying New York prices. Sleep deprivation had me so drunk I was a fool to have driven from Stock Island. I walked up to the front door at Sloppy Joe’s. A buddy of mine from the ’70’s, who had come to Key West and worked on shrimp boats, Sidney Snellgrove, now owned Sloppy Joe’s. Snellgrove had hit the number, and had a knack for holding on to what fell out of the sky.

Guarding the front door was a bouncer half-a-head taller than me. The girl collecting cover charges called him, when I asked her if Snellgrove were in the joint. She wouldn’t give me an answer. Neither did the smart-ass bouncer. He kept asking me to repeat Snellgrove’s name, and to spell it. Sidney had this gorilla well trained. I don’t remember what the cover charge was, but I disdained to pay it. Inside were several hundred refugees from subzero temperatures, getting drunk in the company of antique fishing rods, stuffed blue marlin, and iconic photographs of a suicidal novelist I once considered godlike.

I walked around the side of the building and saw, framed in a big open window, Snellgrove sitting at the bar. He had gained around 80 pounds. He had shoulder-length pale blonde hair, verging on white. His skin never took the sun well. I could see the back of his neck, and his hand, when he lifted a glass to drink, he was very pale. He could afford to keep out of the sun nowadays. Beside him sat an equally overweight, equally pale drinking buddy, both wearing long sleeve flannel shirts. Their pallor and long sleeve flannels somehow marked them as elites. Objectively, they looked like a middle-aged, bearded, long-haired, fat guys dressed for homelessness, and yet, around Snellgrove, the halo of plentiful cash glowed visibly.

We had been good friends. I wondered how it would go if I yelled in and got his attention. Of the crowd from the ’70’s, who had been in Key West, Snellgrove was the only one left. The others had gone farther south, out west, or inside to sit, if you know what I mean.

I couldn’t imagine how to tell Sidney what I was doing in Key West.

I tried explaining it to myself, as though speaking to him, and stopped when I got to the Bible. From his point of view, it would seem as if I had showed up with my hand out looking for a free drink, or something along that line. I tried to imagine other words, other avenues of declaring a new definition of myself. I was larger than I used to be, unable to say why, without crossing over into the comprehensive cliche of being born again. The experience was too large for words. Imagination failed, I could not describe the moment of truth in which I stood. The past was a gone life. The future had disappeared.