by Sylvia Maultash Warsh
The Sun Sets in Key West, originally published in Blood on the Holly (2007).
Anita loved the two expanses of blue water, the Atlantic on her left, the Gulf of Mexico on her right, as the car headed south down U.S. Route 1 along the archipelago of the Florida Keys. Carol, who was driving, chattered about all the muscle-bound tattooed bikers they’d seen riding their motorcycles along the road.
“It’s a holiday,” Anita said. “Even bikers take holidays.”
“From what?” said Carol. “Crime?”
Anita remembered unfolding the map on her dining table, the Florida peninsula narrowing at the southern tip into a spiny finger of islands pointing away from her life. She needed a holiday, too, from the weather, from the real estate business in Toronto, from herself. Nothing moved in December anyway. She was the boss; she could give herself and Carol, her best agent, a break over Christmas. They’d been run off their feet through the fall and needed a breather before the spring crazies when everyone with a few thousand dollars in the bank wanted to make a down payment on a condo.
Her stepdaughter, Pam, didn’t want her there for Christmas, now that Phil was dead. Anita had married him when she was forty-three and Phil fifty-eight. Not a marriage made in heaven, but he’d eased her loneliness for five years. Then the heart attack. She had no luck with men.
Carol, divorced and not quite forty, had jumped at the chance for an all-expenses paid getaway. Anita was deducting it. She had a client who wanted a condo in Key West, and she would find him one if it killed her. They had flown to Miami, stayed a few days in an art deco hotel, then rented the Chrysler for the drive to the Keys.
Anita had confessed one night over dinner that she’d spent her honeymoon in the same hotel over two decades ago.
“Your first husband?” Carol asked tentatively.
Anita had clammed up, surprised at herself for venturing into the mine field. It was painful even after all these years.
They passed through Key Largo, its streets decorated with Christmas wreaths and people milling around the shops. Stores became more sporadic, palms and bougainvillea more abundant, as they drove through the smaller keys, some of which were uninhabited except for pelicans and herons. The names made her smile: Conch Key, Duck Key, Crawl Key, Fat Deer Key.
“I can’t believe how beautiful it is here,” Carol said. “No slushy, dirty snow. No icy roads. Why don’t we live here?”
Anita smiled. “We have great summers in Canada.”
“Yeah. Three months of the year. Don’t you have a place up north?”
“I don’t go there anymore. I rent it out.”
“So much for our great summers. Why don’t you go?”
Anita pictured the screened porch of the cottage in northern Ontario, the severe rocks on the shore framing the grey expanse of water, vast and deep. The nightmares had stopped long ago; she never thought of it anymore.
In the intimacy of the car, the air bright with Florida sun, she said, “I have bad memories. There was an accident.”
“Oh?” Carol was diplomatic, asked no questions. Maybe why Anita went on.
“We’d been married for four years. Stan liked to go fishing. I didn’t. I couldn’t swim and it made me nervous being on the water. So he ended up sitting on the lake by himself for hours listening to his tape player. He was a musician—good guitar player, so-so voice, kind of like Bob Dylan. But you can’t make a living at music, so he went to work for my dad at the company. I didn’t force him. He just wasn’t making any money with his music.”
Carol was quiet, taking it in.
At Key Vaca, they crossed onto the Seven Mile Bridge, a stretch of concrete Anita couldn’t see the end of. The car glided along, water on both sides. She was mesmerized by the imminent ribbon of bridge before them like a promise. Better times ahead. What spoiled it was the rusty old railway bridge running parallel to it, negating all promises. A reminder that everything outlived its usefulness.
“So one Sunday in August he goes out fishing,” Anita continued. “Late in the afternoon a neighbor comes running to the cottage, yelling there’d been accident. He found Stan’s boat in the water, but Stan wasn’t in it. The police looked for him for weeks. Never found the body.”
She had gone through a bad patch at the time, a very bad patch, blaming herself for everything. Stan wasn’t a natural-born salesman—was that her fault? She knew he was unhappy. Depressed, really. Maybe he’d looked at the water around him and saw an easy way out. It still pained her, that the love of her life had been willing to leave her behind. She pictured him peering over the edge of the boat, catching his image in the calm water. What did he see? Probably not the confident university grad she’d met at a party. She’d been charmed by the dark curly hair and blue eyes, the slight gap between his front teeth. He had her when he hoisted the guitar from the corner and began to pick out a tune.
She, a community college business grad, was impressed that he composed his own songs that espoused social ideals. When he looked in the water that day on the boat, had he recognized himself?
After the accident, she’d taken some real estate courses, then went to work for her dad selling houses. People trusted her. She didn’t care if they bought the house; she wasn’t hungry like the men agents who were supporting families. Her dispassion made her more credible.
Her career blossomed, the business expanded. Her father retired, which made her boss. Both parents were gone now. Her brother lived in San Francisco with his third wife. Anita was on her own, and heading toward fifty. Still attractive, but wondering what it was all about.
Traffic got heavier as they crossed the bridge into Key West, the end of the line, the end of the continent. The Gulf of Mexico peeked out beyond the exclusive, richly landscaped resorts built on the water. Anita had splurged on a suite for the two of them.
A young valet jumped out to park their car. They admired the pink azaleas and bougainvillea, then stepped into the lobby where a giant white Christmas tree stood strung with red ornaments and lights that winked on and off. Their rooms, airy with translucent sheers and puffy white duvets, overlooked the water. There was marble in the bathroom, champagne in the bar fridge, and a fruit basket on the table.
Anita stood watching the waves sparkle in the sun.
“They have a shuttle that’ll take us places,” said Carol reading the hotel brochure. “There’s Ernest Hemingway House and Audubon House and the Little White House. And at sunset we can walk to Mallory Square. It’s a big thing here.”
“Watching the sunset. They call it a celebration.”
“It’s the furthest point west on the most southern tip of land. Oh come on, it’ll be fun.”
Late in the afternoon the shuttle took them south through streets of charming white-painted wooden houses, circa 1930. The Hemingway House, larger than its neighbors, was made of stone and surrounded by privacy hedges, presumably to keep out the riff-raff.
The tour guide, a young man with a pony tail, pointed out the wall of photos of Hemingway’s four wives. The writer had had a lifelong habit of falling in love. Also, a problem with depression. He drank hard and loved hard. In the end, his health had deteriorated and, despondent, he shot himself with a rifle. Anita imagined it would make a bloody mess. Maybe she had been lucky. Stan hadn’t left anything to clean up.
They got back to the resort in time for the short walk to Mallory Square, a puzzle of shops and museums well back from the large concrete dock. A crowd had begun congregating an hour before sunset. People had already found seats on the edge of the pier facing west. Bikers with tattooed arms stood around in black T-shirts, waiting for the sunset like everyone else. They were surprisingly well-groomed and unthreatening. Obviously not Hell’s Angels. Buskers were setting up their acts to compete for tourist dollars, while aging hippies unraveled black display cloths flecked with silver jewelry.
A grey-haired couple were practicing an act with their dog, an overweight Basset Hound wearing a red bandana. The woman held a hoop for the dog to jump through. She had to keep lowering the hoop, but finally the dog cleared it, triggering applause from the crowd.
Carol had taken herself to a nearby stand to buy two rum and cokes. A deeply tanned wiry man in shorts bicycled past Anita and stopped twenty feet from the dog act, near the end of the pier. His battery-assisted bike pulled a small dolly behind, loaded with a beat-up black box, a drum, and a worn guitar case. Anita couldn’t see his face beneath the shadow of the wide-brimmed straw hat as he unloaded his equipment. The skin of his arms and legs was leathery brown from exposure. She imagined him cycling his way through Florida to busk on all the other piers in the state. He wasn’t young. What a way to make a living.
Anita was distracted by Carol handing her the drink. When she turned to look back at the man, his guitar case was open on the pier, ready for handouts, and he was setting up what looked like a one-man-band. His guitar was ordinary enough, but he’d placed the drum onto his back with sinister little stuffed trolls perched on top, rattling out a beat like automated drumsticks. How did he do that? A cable connected the trolls to his elbow which made them pitch down and strike the drum. The other elbow controlled a cymbal. A contraption around his neck held a pan flute in front of his face on one side and a horn on the other so that he could blow into them with no hands. The cables he’d connected to the heels of his shoes regulated the drum on his back, as well as a washboard behind his head, and some castanets. When he stooped over, the cables stretched tight and the instruments played. Ingenious in a bizarre way. He moved in a slow circle, stepping wearily round and round while strumming the guitar, warming up.
People passed by holding drinks, glancing at this curiosity. Some took pictures. One or two stepped forward to throw a few dollars into the guitar case. Pity money. One pretty middle-aged woman caught sight of him and grimaced, turning away with a sneer. The man saw her and without missing a beat, stuck out his tongue at her, murmuring some unintelligible obscenity. Despite his appearance, he played a competent guitar. The music would’ve been fine, Anita thought, if she didn’t have to look at him. Since this was the end of the pier, most people strolled to the black grill fence, stared at the musician for a moment, then turned their backs to him to face the water, the real show: the sun slowly setting into the purple horizon.
When he began to sing, Anita was stunned. The world turned upside down as she blinked. She could see most of his face now beneath the hat: blue eyes, determined and hard, and when he opened his mouth, a gap between his front teeth. His voice a bad imitation of Bob Dylan. She was rooted to the pier, watching him, bile rising into her esophagus. Was she in some parallel universe? She blinked again, remembering how empty her heart had felt when they held the memorial service after Stan was finally declared dead some twenty years ago. The guilt of his suicide, the sudden moments of self-loathing when she caught herself in the mirror, had plagued all the years since, defeating any potential relations she might have had with other men. He had deformed her life, just as surely as if he’d cut off an arm or a leg from her body. He had made her an emotional freak. But it had cost him: he’d become a physical freak. All these years she had blamed herself…all these years, when he’d been alive, getting up each morning and playing his guitar and singing his songs…She was so angry her vision blurred.
“Are you all right?” a voice asked beside her.
She had forgotten Carol. Anita tried to nod.
“Joe has invited us for drinks,” said Carol. “He has a friend he can call to join us. You want to come?”
Anita glanced at Joe, a muscular man in his forties, a tattoo of a seahorse on one arm. Tight jeans, white T-shirt. A clean-cut biker.
“You go ahead. I’m tired.”
Carol gave her the look that meant, I won’t go if you don’t want me to.
Anita nodded and with great effort, said, “Go. Really. I’m okay.”
Anita could do nothing but wait for the sunset. She finished her drink, the rum burning her stomach on its way down. And she waited, arms crossed against her chest, hands balled into fists. Boats sailed by, decorated with green and red lights in the shapes palm trees. The air darkened around the crowds swarming the edge of the pier. To Anita, numb with pain and knowledge, they were silhouettes against the orange and purple sky. Finally, the moment they’d been waiting for: voices shouted out the seconds as the fading ball slid beneath the horizon—six, five, four, three, two, one! Hooray!
She could hear him behind her, droning in his imitation Bob Dylan voice, “Hark! the herald angels sing.” She stood staring at the finally black sky and water as the throng dispersed. Her heart was racing. It was either the beginning or the end of her life. She was so enraged, she wasn’t sure she cared which.
He was still singing—did he think some straggler would toss him money if he continued? She positioned herself in front of him with her hands on her hips, as if they were both still twenty-five and she’d just found his underwear on the living room floor.
For the first time, he looked at her. He stopped singing. His eyes registered something. Perhaps he was unsure, with the meagre light from the distant shops.
“Why did you do it?” she asked.
“You talking to me?”
“Don’t play stupid. Do you have any idea what you did to me?”
“I don’t know you, lady. You got me confused with someone else. I gotta go.”
The same voice. He started to move toward the guitar case when she spat out, “Wait!”
Without warning, she stepped forward and pulled off his hat. No dark curly hair. Not much hair at all. But the head was the same, the brow.
“Christ, lady! Leave me alone!” He snatched back the hat.
“You bastard! You ruined my life. You don’t even have the guts to admit it!”
He stopped, all his equipment still on his back, like a turtle. Only he couldn’t disappear inside.
“Tell me your name isn’t ‘Stan’!” she cried.
He stared at her and something shifted, but his eyes stayed hard. “George. My name is George.”
“You have no idea, do you? You don’t know what I went through. I thought you were dead.”
He started moving away again. “Well, keep thinking that.”
“You can’t just walk away.”
“Hey, you’re not listening. I’m not who you think I am.”
“Stop lying! I’d recognize you anywhere. All these years…Why did you do it?”
“I loved you! I thought you loved me.”
His head tilted. “Look lady, let me be. All I want is to do my music and be left alone.”
“This is what you want?” She waved at his grotesque paraphernalia.
He stuck his chin out. His voice came out breathy with anger. “Something’s wrong with you. You got a hearing problem or something. Or you don’t want to hear. You know, I’m not surprised he left you. Ever stop to think why? You just don’t listen.”
Stan used to say that. You don’t listen.
That was it! She jumped at him and started beating her fists against his chest. The pan flute was in the way.
“Keep off me, you crazy bitch!” He was backing away, arms up, trying to protect himself.
“I’m going to tell the police!” she shouted. “What you did was against the law.”
“No cops!” he yelled back, his eyes flashing. “You have no call to…”
“Oh, you don’t like that! Cops give you a hard time?”
“You leave me the hell alone.”
“I’m calling the cops and they’ll lock you in jail and throw away the key. You’re going to rot there!”
Everything changed then. His eyes widened with purpose, and he reached out to grab her. He was awkward with the drum on his back, but the long lean muscles in his arms mobilized and his hands grasped her shoulders. He started to push her toward the edge of the pier.
She had a few pounds on him and fought back. “Let go of me!”
Did he think he could throw her over a public pier? Where was everybody?
She tried to pry his hands loose from her shoulders, but it was no use. He was hauling her backwards to the black water.
“Help!” she screamed, reaching up to scratch his face.
When she thought she was dead, instinct took over. She moved both her arms up inside his, and with all her energy smashed her forearms outwards, dislodging his hands. She was free! She jumped sideways from the edge of the pier, at the same time shoving him away.
With the momentum of the weight behind him, he lost his footing. He howled out once, then crashed into the water, his musical baggage on top of him. He splashed for a second, but the load pulled him down and he sank, an encumbered shadow falling deeper into the dark. A few bubbles broke on the surface of the water where the straw hat floated; that was all. It was surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Like Christmas should be.
At least this time she knew where the body was.
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