~This piece previously appeared in North American Review (2003)
From the bouncy spring rocket ship ride on the playground where he sits, Sean watches the orange-suited convicts rake litter and brush from the shoulders of the asphalt that wraps around the crescent-shaped beach. He remembers that Key West’s motto is “One Human Family.” Sean doesn’t know why he remembers this but it comes to him seated here now, watching his children run loudly from the swings to the colorful slides, which despite being made from some sort of space-age polymer designed to remain cool to the touch in direct sunlight are, he knows, already too hot for their tiny hands. Too hot before noon even this time of year on a disastrous Christmas vacation. Disastrous because Sean is hung over, because he feels so genuinely guilty about drinking again last night after two years on the wagon that he’s caved to his wife Carmen’s demands, and taken the kids to Astro City Park, the only playground they could find, and guilty because he knows that the convicts aren’t included in Key West’s tourist brochures, though he is just now beginning to believe that the convicts in their orange suits have more freedom than he does.
Sean tries to resist this train wreck of thought, when it is flicked from his consciousness like an errant mosquito as Chai, the younger of the children, trips, falling head first into the steps of the playground slides. With a quickness that amazes him, Sean has moved across the hot sand and is scooping up his toddler before she realizes she’s hurt, actually bleeding. She’s got a bloody nose and Sean knows it’s got to be painful as he brushes sand away, and rocks her gently in his arms. Bobby, the oldest, appears simultaneously in the opening of the tunnel slide at Sean’s feet. His son’s glee quickly turning to concern, fear. Sean can see his boy pointing. He looks down. Chai has bled all over Sean’s brand new Hawaiian shirt.
As Chai’s two-year-old wails increase in volume, Sean thinks he’ll go completely deaf only to be somewhat saved by the even louder zooming engines just overhead—another in an endless procession of prop planes shuttling tourists back and forth from the southernmost tip of the USA. The airplane momentarily distracts Chai. Sean knows there’s a box of Kleenex somewhere in the rental van and begins power walking toward the playground gate and the parking lot.
“Bobby, here’s the key, open the door. Hurry now.”
His son catches the key ring, scrambles ahead, and is now painstakingly depressing the latch to pull the door open. The inside of the dark blue van is already set on broil, too hot to put the kids into, but Sean has no choice. He sets Chai down on the driver’s seat and he can see that the hot vinyl is making things worse, the singed air almost impossible to breathe.
“Find the Kleenex, son. There’s a box in here someplace.” Sean puts the key in the ignition, opens the windows, and cranks the A/C all the way.
Miraculously Bobby finds the Kleenex and hands the box over. Sean pulls out a wad, wets them with the now-warm water from the water bottle in the diaper bag. He cleans Chai’s face and is astonished that the damage isn’t more severe. No need for the emergency room after all. A lot of blood still the damage is relatively minor. She’s bitten through her bottom gum a little. He holds the wet wad to her mouth, her scraped-up nose. Leans her head back to help things clot. The cool air blowing on her calming her down.
“You want some ice cream? Would that help honey?” Chai’s still crying and burbling. Sean finds the bottle of Infant Tylenol in the diaper bag and gives her a dose. Then he lifts her tiny crumpled bird’s body and straps her into the car seat. Straps Bobby in the other car seat. And off they go to Sean’s friend Leo’s house where they’re camped out for the week. There’s a small market on the corner, so Sean leaves the van in park, idling, something he’d never do back home in Chicago, and gets a box of ice-cream sandwiches from the punky young Indian behind the counter. The place reeks of chicken curry, today’s carryout special.
Back in the van, Sean pulls an illegal U-turn, drives one way the wrong way up the driveway and back into the compound parking lot. He’s supposed to park in the space labeled Bednarek, though the sign is missing or conveniently deep-sixed, and there are cars parked all over the place that don’t seem to belong to any of the people who actually live in the small houses that years ago housed cigar-factory workers. Sean lucks out and finds another sign-less spot.
Bobby, released from his car seat, races through the brush, scaring a multitude of cats, over the paving stones, up the wooden back steps, across the concrete deck which is covered with yesterday’s chalk scribbles, and into the screen porch. “Mama mama,” he yells. The techno-dance crap the gay couple next door plays incessantly is already omnipresent above the cries of the roosters and chickens, the cats, and the rustling of the coconut trees in what passes for a breeze. Old Man Rayburn, who owns the cabana-sized blue house beside the abandoned unfenced concrete pool, watches with red-rimmed eyes as Sean carries Chai up the steps. And just as Sean slips inside the porch door, he notices a motion to his left. A woman standing on her stoop wearing only a bra and panties smoking a cigarette. She waves the smoke in a circle. At him? His buddy Leo had told him the place was a rental, that he had no idea who was living there from month to month--it turned over all the time he’d said.
“What’s going on? What’s happened?” Carmen bursts out of the house oozing efficiency. She strokes Chai’s black curls and doesn’t really take her from Sean as much as she vacuums her daughter into her own maternal orbit. Carmen and Chai are one. Sean is never aware of letting go. One second Chai is cradled on his chest and the next she’s wafting across the room in his wife’s arms.
Bobby is standing underfoot, so much so that Sean almost trips over him, and then he remembers the ice-cream sandwiches and he opens the box, pulls one out, hands it to the boy and roughs his hair. When he looks back at the stoop, bra-and-panties woman is gone. Sean follows his family into the bedroom where Carmen is nursing Chai on one of the twin beds they’ve pushed together to create enough space for parental sleeping. Their daughter is almost weaned so this is a surprise—Sean waves an ice-cream sandwich and breaks her concentration. Chai wants the ice cream and snatches out for it, her mouth still tugging on the nipple, eyes and hands focused elsewhere. The ice cream wins and Chai lets go of Mama to reach it but not before stretching the nipple like a piece of elastic. Sean waves another.
“I don’t want one,” Carmen says, adjusting her bra, her tangerine-colored blouse. “It’s almost lunchtime, honey.”
“Think of it as medication.”
Bobby has joined them and all four climb on to the beds.
“She fell. Right into the steps,” Sean says, unwrapping a sandwich for himself.
“She’s been falling down a lot lately. Maybe her shoes are too small?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Just a thought.”
Chai points at her lacerated nose and says, “Boo-boo nose.”
“You got a boo-boo honey, a big boo-boo,” Carmen says and kisses her daughter’s hair. “Do you think she needs stitches?”
“Nah—she’s not really hurt that bad. The blood made it look a lot worse than it is. There are tons of veins just under the skin on the face.”
Now Chai has ice cream mashed all over her lips, mouth, and cheeks. She’s smiling and happy again.
Carmen wraps her fingers around Sean’s ice cream and he allows her to pull it from his mouth. She licks all the way down one long edge coating her tongue with vanilla. This is typical. She hands it back. Wipes her fingers on his shirt. Laughs.
“Take your shirt off and let me soak it. Maybe we can get the blood out.” Then his wife moves out of the bed, turns the window unit up to high, takes the box with the remaining semi-melted ice-cream sandwiches with her, and disappears into the kitchen. “I’m making tuna-fish sandwiches for lunch,” her voice trails back.
“With pickles? With pickles Mama?” Bobby shouts and is out of the bed and in pursuit.
Sean finishes his ice cream, unbuttons his shirt, and wads it up to clean Chai’s messy face. She protests a little, but he knows she’s okay now, because as soon as he’s done she bounces out of bed and races after her mother and brother. Sean feels almost competent. Relishing his role as a father for a change. A role that is increasingly hard to define. At lunch though he will take pleasure in watching a rejuvenated Chai eat her way through an entire tray of frozen French fries.
When the rest of the family crashes for naptime immediately after eating, Sean moves onto the screen porch. He’s got an ice tea. He’s relaxing. Knows he’s got two hours before his brood is up and energized. Time to ponder what he’s gotten himself into. Old Man Rayburn is sitting in a lawn chair playing with a big orange cat. He has a catnip mouse on a piece of nylon test and he’s flipping it just out of reach. Bra-and-panties woman is nowhere to be seen. The techno softer now. The gay couple don’t seem to leave for work until around 2pm. Sean reaches into his glass and pulls out a piece of ice to plop into his mouth and suck on. His head is still throbbing. He’s trying to figure out if he should keep an appointment. He’d met Irina last night on his solo reconnoiter. Last night in the doldrums he’d wandered the streets in search of something to do, something to distract him from Carmen’s big news.
Sean couldn’t explain what had happened. He couldn’t tell you what he was doing in Key West, either. Carmen had wanted to go somewhere warm. She was sick of the Chicago winters. So was he. A stiff breeze coming off Lake Michigan could turn your blood to ice on a summer day. In the height of winter it acted more like a chilly reciprocating saw. Carmen had tossed some names about and he found himself infatuated with just one—Key West. And so here they were only to discover that it wasn’t a place to bring preschoolers. Carmen was furious enough about that. Sean had been kind of dimly aware that something was up, though what he couldn’t guess. So after pizza last night he’d been putting puzzles together on the floor with the kids when Carmen disappeared. He’d given both children a bath. Not a job he relished though he could manage in a pinch. Carmen must have gone for another walk. She’d been leaving him with the kids more and more lately. The White Rabbit, the children’s bookshop she owned, wasn’t sunk yet but it had begun listing seriously to one side and it was only a matter of time. One of the chains had opened a new location two blocks away and the competition was killing her. In one of the more bonehead moves of their early courtship Sean had taken her to see Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. He hadn’t read any plot summaries, he’d just figured it was a chick flick and she’d forgive him for that particular week’s transgressions, yet as the plot relentlessly drove the two stars together she got angrier and angrier. “That would never happen in real life!” Carmen had shouted in the lobby. “She would have killed him before she’d have slept with him.” Even the sentimental part of him had to admit that romance seemed impossible given the situation--Hanks being the owner of a chain superstore while Ryan was a small bookshop owner. Carmen wouldn’t let it go--her ranting lasted for hours. Sean had apologized, and they’d married, and Bobby was en route almost immediately after their Irish honeymoon. A short honeymoon. Because Carmen never left her shop in the hands of her assistants for very long. A bookstore is a 24/7 proposition and Carmen was almost always working.
Sean swayed slightly. His balance shaky after lifting the kids in and out of the tub and drying them off. They were calling to him now from the bedroom, asking him to read to them, to put them to bed.
“We’re pregnant,” Carmen announced as she stepped inside from the screen porch. Carmen was smiling. Her white teeth with the gap in the top middle. She was electric with excitement. Sean felt like he was watching a Hollywood version of what a happy woman was supposed to be.
“Did you hear me?”
That plea in her voice. Doubting him.
“I heard you,” Sean said. His words bitten off. Why? He was excited. Surprised. Why should his words have teeth? Rip into her?
Tears starting to form in her root-beer-colored eyes.
Sean’s arms automatically encircling his wife’s hips, hips that seemed to widen a little every time his arms went around them. But she wouldn’t stop crying. The kids were shouting from the bedroom and Sean couldn’t see a way out.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said. And he removed himself from her and the clamor of the children, vanishing out the back door, across the concrete porch, under the coconut trees, past the raggedy cats in the sand by Rayburn’s house, past the empty concrete pool with the cracks running across the bottom, down the driveway to the street, turning left at the graveyard, and from there toward the tourist congestion on Duval Street.
Sean had been watching the cruise ships, watching the tourists, pondering his life’s new complications, when he spotted a mime of sorts. While other people at Mallory Square were performing dazzling illusions or trying to separate tourists from their cash with some kind of music, jokes, or pet tricks, she was standing on a white pillar in white makeup, white robes, holding a white bell and clapper. She barely moved. She was minimal when everybody else was in a frenzy of motion. Calm in the midst of chaos. You had to slow down to really notice what she was doing. So Sean leaned on a bulkhead and watched.
The elongated woman in white was slim and trim and had the cat-like grace of a trained athlete. She was more tantalizing moving one foot from side to side than most women are naked. At times her act reminded him of ballet exercises. That unconsciously graceful, that routine. Even the prune-faced Key West natives seemed to drink up every sensual sway, bend, and flex. When tourists put money in the white bowl at her feet she struck the white bell with the clapper. The peal cut right through Sean’s bad ear. When tourists put a wad of money in the white bowl the woman in white clasped hands around the bell and clapper and made like she was praying. She was good. Very winning. Very subtle. Little kids were captivated. The woman in white caught them with double takes and after a kid jumped, she’d smile. They adored her.
Sean had been wearing his Blackhawks jersey, it was ludicrous for daytime, but the evening chill justified bringing it along. Sean couldn’t take his eyes off the woman in white. She was supposed to be an angel or goddess or something. How on earth did she haul that pillar with her every day? So he waited for her to step down off her pedestal. At sunset, when the tourists began to thin, return to their cruise ships and hotels, or head for dinner and drinks, the woman in white slid down onto the wharf. That’s when Sean walked up and put a ten in her white bowl.
“Great act,” he’d said. Would she continue playing the part or not?
“Thank you,” she’d said. She had an eastern European accent.
“How do you manage to schlep all of this stuff for your act?”
“The hotel. They let me store.”
“Can I give you a hand? Buy you a drink?” Sean was surprised that he was so excited. He wondered for a moment if she cleaned off the white makeup or did she go home just like that.
“Tomorrow. You choose place.”
“You live here.”
“Is good. Noon?”
Sean knew his kids almost always napped between 12 and 2pm. “No, make it 1pm.” He’d started to walk away and then realized he hadn’t asked her name. “I’m Sean.”
After that Sean had wandered around and found a used bookshop that was some sort of front for porno. Part of the store was legit but as you walked deeper inside, the building seemed to swallow you up, the shelving arrangements became more and more labyrinthine, while the shelves grew higher and higher eventually towering above even his basketball big-man physique, with titles he couldn’t hope to reach without a ladder. Miles of Books was the name of the place. It should have been Miles of Porn. Though Sean hadn’t had a drink in two years, not since he swore to Carmen that he would quit drinking and become more dependable before Chai was born, he was drawn like an iron filing across the street where people were gathered in a parking lot and wound up at a derelict bar with some of the lowest life forms he had ever seen. What do you call Trailer Trash that has inbred for a century? Whiteout?
And there Sean had sat knocking back a shot and a beer, and then another. He’d promised Carmen he’d never drink again. Something Leo and his other sports buddies thought was nuts. He had managed until now. How could she be pregnant? Sean didn’t think they’d had sex more than three times in the past six months. Chai was still nursing and pretty much glued to mama whenever Carmen was home. They had two bedrooms but the place was still pretty small so opportunities were limited. Hell, between their work schedules there weren’t any opportunities to speak of, were there? Mrs. Morales had babysat for them a couple of times so they could celebrate their anniversary, their birthdays. And here I am, Sean had thought, turning thirty-five and I need a date. What’s happening to me? Why aren’t things going my way?
Sean watches a lizard sun itself on the cinder-block wall of the porch, plops the empty ice-tea glass on the soggy napkin atop the wicker table, and then scribbles “Gone for a walk. Love you.” The Hemingway house is a fairly straight shot down Olivia St. from where they’re staying. Sean’s walked past it a few times and likes the walls and the giant trees. He’s acquainted with the basic outlines of the Hemingway legend without actually having read any of the books. He vaguely remembers a George C. Scott movie but that’s the sum total of it. And when it came to Key West and a place to meet Irina, this was the only landmark he could muster. Everybody knows the house. He mentally thanks Leo for lending them his dead mother’s old place. Maybe this vacation is what he really needed after all? He’s been so restless lately. Apartment- building supers never get away any more than bookstore owners but Carmen had pushed. He’d left Esteban in charge. The brownstone on North Lake Shore Drive faced Lake Michigan. Sean could walk the kids out the door to the lakefront beach. He liked their two-bedroom super’s apartment. In the winter he watched an endless white vista from his kitchen table. Carmen was content. Or had been. Where would a new baby sleep? They’d have to buy a van. Book Mrs. Morales for more daycare. His dream had been that the kids would go to nearby Northwestern. How on earth would they pay for everything now?
Hemingway house proves a major rip-off and disappointment. Sean is pretty depressed. He watches the tourists, watches Hemingway’s six-toed cats that have now mutated into seven-toed cats. And when a pasty-looking woman with bangs eventually finds him sitting on the steps to Hemingway’s office studying the pool she is unrecognizable as Irina. Where he’d imagined blonde she is brunette. Where he’d remembered curves there is muscle. Where he’d remembered soft eyes there are chiseled coal splinters. Her English is more fractured. Sean yearns for the white makeup, the wings, the pillar, the bell, and the clapper. What was he doing? he wonders. Irina doesn’t betray a hint of emotion as she guides him across the street to a coffee shop.
“What are you thinking?” she asks once they are situated.
The hip-hop on the radio is really loud. Sean’s left ear aches. He’d ruptured it when Bobby was two. His son had pushed the door open as Sean had been digging a Q-tip in his ear and he’d poked it straight through the eardrum. His hearing has never been the same. “My kids,” Sean says, surprising himself. Not like he’d hidden his wedding ring or anything.
“How many?” The barista brings them their espressos.
“Two. With one on the way.”
“You feel sorry?” She hitches one leg over the other and offers him a cigarette.
He shakes his head. “No. No. Not at all. They’re great kids. I guess I’m just not ready to give up my free time again so soon.”
She nods. “I have child.” And then raises her head toward the ceiling and exhales a great flurry of smoke straight up in the air.
“Alina. Two year old.”
“Was she born in Key West?”
“No. Only here one year.”
“What’s not to like?” she laughs, spreading her arms wide. “I come to America to get married. End up here. Is okay.”
“And your act pays enough to raise your daughter?”
“But you’re looking around.”
“You live where?”
“Tak, I think so.”
“Where is Alina? I mean it’s none of my business but who takes care of her?”
“Babysitter. Sleeping now.”
“Me, too. I mean mine, too.”
“Good, everybody sleeping.” Irina leans forward conspiratorially, puts a hand on his arm, and says, “Sean, you sleep with me?”
The music is really too loud now. Sean’s ears are quaking. He’s imagined this moment but realizes he has to leave. As much as he enjoyed the fantasy he’s not going to go through with this. He’s too scared. “Irina, you’re beautiful but no. I’m gonna go.”
Irina pulls her hand away as he stands up. Studies him for a second. “Okay, go,” she says and exhales some smoke, then stubs the cigarette out in her saucer.
Sean doesn’t know what to do. He realizes Irina isn’t beautiful; it’s all about her innate sensuality. It’s how she moves that’s so attractive. When was the last time Carmen moved with anything approaching that smoldering sensuality? What’s he doing? Falling for Irina’s act? Tempting fate? Sean hesitates but eye contact has ceased, and so he leaves.
An ambulance is nestled in the parking lot behind the house. Carmen and the kids are standing among a group of men, everybody concentrating. A pair of medics are on their knees around Old Man Rayburn.
“What happened?” Sean asks, one arm circling Carmen’s waist.
“He fainted and cracked his head on the concrete.”
“Daddy, daddy,” Chai says, pulling on his shirt, pointing. “Boo-boo.”
“Where were you?” Carmen asks.
“You don’t want to know,” Sean says, surprised when one of the gay men from next door lifts Chai up and holds her. Chai never lets anybody pick her up. Not even Carmen’s folks in San Antonio. Right this second though his daughter looks supremely confident and happy.
Carmen is pushing the double jogger they rented. Sean’s carrying the diaper bag and lagging far enough behind her that he can almost imagine he’s watching somebody else’s family.
Bobby is pretending to fly down the cemetery’s asphalt runways, while Chai herds chickens from one whitewashed section to another. The sky is a vivid blue, spotted with a few white clouds, like markings on a giant blue cow. And the air is filled with fragrance from exotic flowers. Sean knows nothing about flowers but Carmen has been pointing out hibiscus, oleander, bougainvillea, and frangipani blooms.
Chai is no worse for wear, though she looks like she’s been abused. Sean is afraid somebody will call child services and have them arrested, but most people just stare at her wounds and then give him the raised eyebrow.
Two gravediggers are plying their trade. They are bitching, moaning, and complaining. Help the same everywhere. Sean unable to really relax and vacation, he can’t forget that elderly Mrs. Mason needs a garbage disposal, that the Ingrahams need the A/C checked out. At least he doesn’t own the building. God that would really put the kibosh on things.
The cemetery is an endless chessboard of activity with joggers and women with strollers, dog walkers, and families replacing flowers on crypts or weeding around tombstones. There are service roads looping back and forth between the palm trees through sections that seem to be separately roped-off sub-divisions for families, or war memorials, or city districts. Though Sean at first believes it’s some kind of elaborate heavenly hierarchy or another--the people with fortress-like mausoleums obviously most favored and blessed. So much for “One Human Family.” The motto didn’t apply. Sean remembers that the Spanish called the place Cayo Hueso, or “island of bones.” “One Human Cemetery” suddenly seems much more fitting.
Key West Aquarium is their next stop. Bobby is rambunctious and Carmen takes him by the hand while Sean holds Chai up high so she can see all of the sharks and Manta Rays.
There are signs everywhere that warn against standing on the raised platform area near the tanks. Sean pays no attention and after the guide has led the rest of the tourists out the back to the outdoor enclosures where the swordfish and other cool exotics are, he steps up and dangles his daughter over the water. “Look at the big fish honey, look.” Chai’s eyes are focusing on the water until Sean steps back off the dais as a surge of water wets his feet and one of the sharks rises high in the tank. Close. Close call. Almost. Chai is giggling about the water on daddy’s shoes. Sean’s not laughing. That was too damn close. He’s been a fool. He’s stupid and he doesn’t deserve to live. Risking his daughter’s life that way.
Sean wants to watch the Bears game. They’re playing the Washington Redskins at 4:30 today. So he finds a Sports bar and sets Bobby up with a basket of shrimp while Carmen takes Chai out to buy new shoes. The game is close, closer than it should be until Brian Urlacher and the Bears defense wrests control. With one quarter to go Bobby’s head is resting on the table and Sean pays the bill and gathers his son up to carry him home. Sean loves this aspect of having a son. He can’t wait until Bobby’s a little older so that he can take him to see the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, and Cubbies. He would never admit it but one of his greatest fears in life is that Bobby’s adolescent rebellion will be to root for the White Sox. Sports Sundays will rule. Carmen pretty much dominates Sundays now because she sees so little of the children during the week. Once they’re a little older, Sean hopes he can amend things.
After the kids are down for the night, Carmen comes out on the screen porch where Sean’s reading the newspaper by the light of the Tiki torches, Cuban music turned low on the radio.
“Hold me,” she says, curling into his lap and looping her arms around his neck.
Sean embraces his wife.
“I’m so worried,” she says.
“I smelled the booze on you last night.”
“I’m not going to put up with it again, Sean. We had an agreement.”
“I know. I know.”
“What does that mean? That’s how you react to a new baby?”
Sean is silent. Mulling it all over.
“What are we doing here Sean? I mean you dragged me down here—“
“--to this place that isn’t child-proofed—“
“What? Key West was on your list.”
“--and there’s nothing we can do with little kids.”
“Yeah, Yeah, I know.”
“I should have flown to Texas, spent Christmas with my family.”
Sean’s family is dead. All Irish, all Catholic, all alcoholic, all gone. His wife’s family is prolific and save for Carmen hasn’t roamed far from home.
“It’s not right for the kids to miss Christmas.”
Leo was going to retire in Florida and had told him all about Key West. Moderate temps, great food, kayaking, sailboats, scuba, coral reefs, whale watching, fishing, all of which sounded great to Sean. Of course you can’t do most of these things with real small kids. Sean had thought he might get to do at least one of them alone. And then there was the very visible gay and lesbian community. Not easily explained to kids. Maybe they could come back again after Chai was at least ten?
“Don’t you want another child?”
“Yes. No. It’s a total surprise is all.”
“Come to bed,” she whispers in his ear.
“No, I’m going to find a meeting.”
“What?” Carmen pushes away from him. Locks her eyes on his. “Are you serious?”
Sean can’t believe he’s turned down sex with his wife to go to a meeting but he really doesn’t want to end up like the rest of his family. He knows this. He still can’t figure why last night got to him so much. Finding a meeting is not easy though even a party town like Key West has one or two and eventually Sean stumbles into the basement of a Presbyterian church where six desperate souls are sitting on metal folding chairs sipping really sludgy black coffee out of tiny vending machine cups. The Sunday-school Christmas tinsel and decorations add to Sean’s sense of grimness. He listens to their stories, the comfort of the familiar, and opens his story with a bang.
“I always drink Cutty Sark,” Sean says.
“Because the Kennedy family owned it.”
Sean is laughing at his own Irish joke when a young woman sweeps into the room and joins them. He knows her. It’s bra-and-panties woman, the renter next door. Clothed for once in a brown Turtle Kraals T-shirt. She’s probably a waitress at the restaurant.
“Oh, it’s you,” she says. “You parked in my space. I had your van towed.”
Christmas in Key West. Sean thinks of Venus’s-flytraps, that velvety sort of hellishness. Apart from the occasional manatee dressed like Santa, the ubiquitous strings of colored lights and tinsel, it’s hard to imagine the Christmas spirit anywhere in the entire state. Key West seems to be where people run to avoid the holidays. As though Key West is always on holiday. Unless you’re a local. Sean tries to imagine denizens of the Conch Republic flying to the UP, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for the holidays in a geographical reversal of desires. But that’s ridiculous. Do sun bunnies ever dream of being snow bunnies? Do Florida kids grow up dreaming about sleds and ice fishing?
So after the endless hassle of getting the rental van back, Sean takes the family to the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor in the morning on Christmas Eve. The beach really is beautiful. Sean watches as Chai collects tiny pieces of coral and shells. He’s not sure how he’s going to get them away from her. This is a National Park and you’re not really allowed to remove things. And Bobby is playing with a balsa-wood glider. Throwing it up in the breeze and trying to keep it out of the palm trees, off other people’s blankets. Carmen is reading Girl with a Pearl Earring. Sean wistfully watches the fishing boats make their way down the channel and out to sea. It’s mostly new mothers on the beach this early, though there are a couple of dynamite Cuban chicks on a blanket to his right. He glances from time to time, keeping tabs on them. They don’t look like the type who gets wet but they surprise him by running across the rocky beach into the surf. Their bikinis have that high cutaway style and they are both all leg. Sean watches for a while and when the kids return and nag Carmen for snacks, he lays back and shuts his eyes. And he dreams that the woman in white comes to him. Only something’s wrong. It’s not Irina but bra-and-panties woman in the white makeup, the white robes. And just when he’s all hot and bothered, she takes out the bell, raises the clapper and strikes.
“One of the guys next door told me that Mr. Rayburn is in critical condition.”
“Yeah. With what?”
“His heart. Shouldn’t you tell Leo?”
“I’m sure he’d like to know.”
“I’ve got something for you.”
Carmen puts something in his hand. What is it? He opens his eyes and looks. A pregnancy test strip.
“I thought I better make sure, so I did it again this morning.”
“It’s blue all right.”
Sean starts counting on his fingers.
“September.” Sean sighs--there goes next football season.
Eventually the sun goes in and it gets so overcast and cold that they can’t sun. This gives Carmen the opportunity she needs to go buy some gifts for the kids. Since bringing wrapped packages through airport security after 9/11 was going to be impossible, Carmen decided they’d do most of Christmas when they got back to Chicago. Still, they didn’t want the kids to go completely cold turkey with no tree and nothing to open, so they’d been caving to their whims all during the trip. There looked to be an entire new duffle bag full of beach gear and toys that was going to make the flight back north. Sean would handle lunch while Carmen ran out to buy a couple of larger items that could be wrapped and opened on Christmas Day.
Today’s lunch is your basic McDonald’s. Bobby wants a chicken-nugget Happy Meal, wants to play in the ball room. Chai is too little to get on the apparatus, never eats Happy Meals. French fries will keep her occupied, and some milk. Sean’s hungry so he orders a pair of Big Macs. He loads up the drinks, the straws, the napkins, the ketchup for Chai’s fries, and heads for the ball room. Bobby is right under his feet--he’s hungry and trying to snag some fries off the tray. Sean is carrying Chai in his left arm, balancing the large drinks and the tray with his right. When they get to the door he pushes it slowly with his right elbow and Bobby jumps up and bumps his arm from underneath. The drinks start to tip, and he overcompensates just enough to right them but the wrist movement sends them cascading over the other direction and the Sprite and the pink lemonade--their lids flying--land right on his son’s head, and everybody’s soaking wet. Sean manages to hold onto the tray, soda splashed all over the fries, the rest of the food on the ground in a wet pile. Sean’s jeans are wet all the way down his crotch.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he explodes at his son. He drops the tray on top of everything else and his right arm flies out and slaps his son into the glass door of the ball room, just as a mother comes rushing to help out and pulls the door inward, so that Bobby sprawls into a heap at her feet.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I just wondered if you needed any help—“ and then the woman stops as she registers what she’s just heard, witnessed. She studies Sean’s face and backs up a step.
Chai is crying and trying to get down out of Sean’s grip. A manager is running over. Sean realizes that every eye in the place is on him. Bobby is crying. The woman holding the door can’t let go. If she does the door will bang into his son. Her tiny twin daughters now hugging her legs. They look scared, too.
Sean’s right arm is shaking. He says, “Lady, I. . .” and then stops. Lunch is ruined. It’s not like lunches haven’t been ruined before. “I’m sorry. It’s just an accident. No big deal. “C’mon Bobby, get up.”
But the boy lies in a heap on the floor crying. Chai, sitting by Sean’s feet, crying as well. Sean realizes he’ll have to buy more food. He’ll have to start over. He reaches in his pocket. He’s only got $5. Damn. He can’t buy lunch for them all. He’ll have to find a bank machine. This is unbelievable.
The woman is still standing there. “Do you need--?” she stops.
“We’re okay. We’re okay.”
Now the manager is beside him. There’s a cleanup crew bustling to mop and a bucket is on the floor beside Chai. Sean reaches down and picks Bobby up, and the boy doesn’t resist. He’s holding his red swollen cheek. And Sean nestles him in his right arm and then he reaches down with his left and gets Chai around the waist. The manager opens the outer door, and Sean says, “I’m sorry, thank you,” and head down, embarrassed, carries his children out to the van.
Leo had told him there was a sign for the second parking place. While Carmen does damage control on the kids at the house, Sean explores the heaped-up shells and rubble that make up the barrier between the parking lot and Old Man Rayburn’s yard. He finds half a sign, which reads—Bedna. Well, that’s something at least. He puts the termite chewed wooden sign in front of the van at the second parking spot. A rooster crows. A couple of chickens have flown halfway up a tree. Sean didn’t know chickens could fly. Bra-and-panties woman is back on the stoop. He’s going to ream her out and starts walking toward the house as one of the gay men from next door pops out of the gate.
“I’m just back from the hospital.”
Sean stops. “Really? How’s Old Man Rayburn doing?”
“Time just caught up with Bayard. He was eighty-five you know.”
“I didn’t. And the cats?”
“Oh Ward and I, we’ll feed them. He loved his cats so.”
Sean watches as the man climbs on a bright yellow motor scooter, starts it up, and then with a wave speeds off down the driveway. When he looks back to the stoop, bra-and-panties woman is gone again.
Carmen is waiting for him on the porch.
“What the hell’s going on Sean?”
“I don’t need this right now.”
“Look, you haven’t lifted a finger to make a single meal on this so-called vacation. You didn’t help me child-proof. You haven’t helped in the kitchen. You haven’t called Leo to tell him about Mr. Rayburn.”
“What? How do you know?”
“One of the guys next door just told me.”
“There was the van fiasco.”
“Not my fault.”
“And now you abuse the children.”
“I’m stressed. You know I’m stressed out.”
“Then there’s the drinking.”
“I went to a meeting. It was only one night.”
“We had a bargain. You’d quit drinking and being such a bastard when your teams lost and I’d be the breadwinner and we’d have another kid.”
“Right, one more kid. Not two more.”
“I don’t have to tell you that the new baby was an accident. You know it is.”
“How do I? Huh? Tell me that. How?”
“And how do I know after the little stunt you just pulled that Chai fell down the steps at the playground? Why should I believe you?”
“Ask her. Ask Bobby.”
“Listen, I’m going to let the kids nap a little and then we’re going to the playground and try to tire them out, and then we’ll go out for dinner before coming back and putting out the presents. I’m not going to jeopardize their Christmas, what little holiday spirit there is left, by arguing with you.”
“Fine, suits me.”
So to make amends Sean drives his brood to the playground. He feels like shit. He loves his family, he really does. The fact that there are no shade trees shouldn’t matter now that things are so overcast, but of course by the time he pulls into the packed parking lot the sun is breaking out of the clouds and starting to heat everything up again. Well, at least the kids will tire themselves out before dinner. Maybe they’ll forget about McDonald’s?
Sean halfway expects to see the orange-suited convicts again and is almost disappointed when they’re not picking the area outside Astro City. As he watches, Carmen helps Chai swing from one bar to another on the parallel bars. She’s too tiny to reach them for another couple years at least so Carmen helps their little girl maintain a fantasy. And his daughter’s face is splitting, her grin is so huge. There’s a lot more children at the playground today. Somebody has organized a birthday party and a troop of vans has taken most of the parking spaces and deposited a group of moms who are busily setting up the typical “hot dogs, hamburgers and cake” party under the only shade trees at the rear of the fenced-in playground. When was the last time they’d thrown a big birthday bash for one of the kids?
“You know Sean, I’m wrong. I don’t think I can handle this right now. I need some time to think. I’m going to leave.”
Carmen is holding Chai who has both hands wrapped around a sippy cup, lips sucking furiously.
In his blurry uneven state Sean thinks Carmen means she’s leaving him at Astro City.
“You don’t care about the children.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Sean, if you really loved them you wouldn’t spend so much time trying to keep away from them. I love you, but I’m not going through the motions for this or any holiday.”
“Well, merry fucking Christmas,” Sean says. He doesn’t know why he says this. It just seems like the right thing. Seems somehow to sum up all of the fear, disappointment, and self-loathing he’s got locked inside him. And he prays for a miracle. Anything. And is startled when the noise from the party seems to audibly crank up a few notches. “So now what? What are you going to do?”
“Have the baby. Manage on my own. Maybe sell the shop and move to Texas with my folks.”
Sean’s eyes dart past Carmen to the laughing children, the moms playing chaperone, there’s singing and cake and in the middle of it all his eyes focus on a familiar face. And as Sean watches Irina walks toward him. What a sensual blur she is as she moves across the sand like a jeans commercial or a daydream. Carmen is still talking but Sean moves away now, toward Irina.
“Look, about yesterday. I’m sorry. I need to apologize. You see, I really just wanted to ask you what the deal was with all the white stuff. I wanted—” His head swivels as Irina walks past him. Whiplash. No hint of recognition. And as he turns Irina stops and bends down to heft a small child, a little girl with butterscotch-colored skin, not a day older than Chai. Irina turns, her shades a shiny white mirror, and walks back toward the party.
Carmen watches a moment and then hoists Chai a little higher in her arms, grasps Bobby’s hand, and begins walking toward the parking lot, to the rental van, as the Conch Tourist Train slithers past, while the Astro City Park plastic bakes in the relentless Florida sun.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This was my first story to land in a prestigious magazine as well as the first one to make me feel like I could really write. I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction writer first and foremost, while creating poetry was more of a lark. To my surprise the poetry joy ride has been more popular, more immediate in terms of accessibility, while by and large friends, lovers, students, and critics, have generally denigrated the fiction.
Ten years ago, my wife and I traveled to Key West with a newborn. Ergo, the stress and anxiety. Still, while the majority of the setting and local color is true to life, the action and dialogue is pure invention. I’d gone back to Richard Bausch’s stories and tried to get at just what it is he does. Surrounded by an entire town of party animals I began again to grapple with my own checkered past—teenage alcoholism and relationship disasters galore. I just stirred the pot of possibilities.
Why this story? Some compelling need to vent about my new domestic life? The overwrought father brought low by the joy of getting the family he’d always wanted? Why does anybody get married? Lots of questions. Questions I had fun playing with. Why do we do what we do? At that time I think every couple my wife and I had ever known was in trouble, separated, or divorced. Some of them had just had their first child, some their second, others were going through futile fertility interventions.
The ground was constantly shifting, changing. And I confess I’m not a fan of quick changes. I much prefer the lazy slow change of a creek or river.
Some readers felt too rushed by the ending, by the wife’s decision to bolt. I felt her shift was true to life. That people often make snap decisions regardless of the consequences. And I would argue that both the husband and wife in this story are guilty of same. I also wanted to capture a moment in time and I think I did to the best of my ability. I’m still proud of the story, my longest up to then, and pleased that it gets a second wind right here. --RP
ABOUT RICHARD PEABODY
Richard Peabody is a French Toast addict and Native Washingtonian who edits Gargoyle Magazine and has two new books coming this fall--Blue Suburban Skies (stories/Main Street Rag) and Speed Enforced by Aircraft (poems/Broadkill River Press). He's also edited (or co-edited) nineteen anthologies. He teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program. http://www.gargoylemagazine.com/.