Narrative Magazine: Ann Beattie, whose novella "Walks with Men" has just been released, is a master writer who, along with Raymond Carver, inspired a contemporary renaissance for the short story in particular and for fiction in general. Her story "The Rock," about two young women adrift in the decadence of Key West and Miami, is a fine example of Beattie's intimate explorations of the cruelties and desires of the heart.
by Ann Beattie
When Jenla said she needed a ride to Miami, I told her to talk to The Boyfriends. Almost every night you could find them clustered in various kitchens while the party was going on around the pool or on the terrace, trading gossip about why so-and-so was really there without her husband; gathering information about the cutest doctors to see for allergies and Botox; rolling their eyes about their older companion's eccentricities.
From time to time they'd stroll through the party and stand politely at their mate's side for a while--or wander away, if that seemed better--and every so often one would dive into the pool to be a little provocative and get some fun going, though more often they stayed out of things. They were there to listen to the caterer's instructions when food was dropped off ("This with this. Okay.") and to transfer any food on a plastic platter to one that was silver, or perhaps Italian pottery. Though other people usually cleaned up afterward, they'd still hang around because there would be much more to discuss, and--occasionally Vogueingw, or a bit numb-tongued from drink--the names and ideas thrown out for discussion earlier would settle into that night's mosaic of how the world was. There was some intrigue, but for the most part they were about the same age, almost equally attractive (though differing in type), and they ranged from good to excellent in terms of how to keep a low profile and still make a party work. If someone was needed for valet parking, one of them would get right on it. If people came dressed more informally than expected, they'd immediately dress down, themselves, jokingly tucking their ties in their pockets like tropical handkerchiefs.
They knew they were The Boyfriends. There was nothing to be embarrassed about: Clark was finishing his last year of nursing school; Harris had become the most in-demand accountant in the Keys; Dick was a model; and everyone took his or her pet to Dr. Jason Kinderaki. Others, like Blake, who'd had a drinking problem but been sober for almost three years, were equally well liked, even when jobless. Sam K. was something of a wild card, but even he was doing volunteer work up the Keys. Years before, there had been a Sam A. (run together as "Sama"), so Sam K. had included his own middle initial to distinguish between them.
My family was invited to every party at the holidays, and to holiday events. We got preview tickets to the annual orchid show. There was a lighted boat parade (one of The Boyfriends inevitably served on the judging panel). Every June, the Brits--another informal group, who bicycled together and hung around the same bars--would appear at the library and take turns reading Ulysses. Someone taught the few youngsters in our crowd coconut painting, and a long-time Cuban refugee lepidopterist taught a minicourse for ages eight to twelve at the community college. Everywhere around town there were butterflies mounted and framed in Plexiglas.
Jenla had a situation where she'd lost her driver's license for speeding, so she'd been complaining about having to take the van to Miami Airport, which was basically a four-hour ride before things even got underway for her flight to Richmond, by way of Atlanta. She'd had two very frightening experiences taking off in Key West, and she'd become phobic about the local airport. That was why I'd advised her to go with me to the party at Mixie Hunt's and to hint around to see whether somebody might be going that way who could drive her; failing that, maybe one of The Boyfriends could use the money.
I would have driven her, myself, but I had a therapist who told me I needed to be clear about my own needs and desires, and I hated driving to Miami, completely hated the endless, two-lane divided highway, and also, Miami was a trap: I'd intend to turn right around, but end up at Toi Today in South Beach, and lose track of time until I'd had way too much to drink, and Cesar was closing the bar.
We lived in a duplex with an apartment over the garage in Old Town. "We" being my older sister, Pam, who'd helped raise me after our mother died suddenly, way too young, of pancreatic cancer. Jenla's mother, Ronni, had been our mother's best friend back in Illinois. She came to Key West to aid her dying friend the year I turned ten and stayed when my father, for all intents and purposes, deserted us. Ronni was a single mother. Jenla was six when she came to our house, and still sucked her thumb and slept with her blanket. She'd never known her father, but from the moment she met me, she'd stuck to my side as if I were both parents and her best friend. It was a lot of responsibility, which I didn't understand at the time. It was one of the reasons why my therapist thought I had trouble keeping a boyfriend now. The therapist didn't buy it that guys in Key West were either insensitive alcoholics or gay.
There was, uncharacteristically, a fight at the party Jenla strung along to, hoping to get a ride. Earlier in the day, Mixie had fired his cleaning lady, who was alleged to have stolen a silver lighter and a five-dollar bill, though the five dollars was later found by the pool cleaner, stuck in the filter. The silver lighter had been a wedding present, circa 1960, for Mixie's first marriage. It was all that survived both the breakup of the marriage, and the fire. The thing always sat, big as a samovar, in the middle of Mixie's enormous coffee table, which displayed magazines published anywhere but the U.S. and one or two dormant orchids. Mixie had gotten rich as a Dean Witter broker in New York in the '80s. He had been kind enough to bankroll one of The Boyfriends' storefront offices (Harris, the accountant), the year he started out in business. Mixie contributed lavishly to the local Democratic Party. I mention this because I think some idea is needed of the nice aspects of life in Key West--including the small social world in which Jenla and I moved, which was quite different from the world of the tourists, many of whom came looking for a good time at other people's expense, or the world in which Jenla's mother moved. The other occupant of our house, my sister Pam, was going through a period of practicing yoga and reading about Buddhism. Every time a relationship went belly-up, she reinvented herself. We'd all barely endured the daze she wandered around in for a year while she was getting craniosacral work done and contributing nothing to the cooking, because she'd turned to some bizarre raw vegetable cleansing diet. Whatever Pam did required a retreat, of sorts. For years she hadn't wanted much to do with me, or with Jenla, or Ronni. We were not open-minded or even slightly mystical, stuck in our ideas. She let it be known she shared space with us because of the real estate prices in Key West, where the majority of buyers purchased places based on virtual tours on the Internet--investment property they never even meant to occupy.
It's sort of a luxury to complain about the place you live going down the tubes, with corruption and out-of-control development and trailer camps cropping up to house the Czech kids who work at the hotels and restaurants. Key West is also pretty lovely, with the palm trees blowing in the breeze, and the beautiful boats in the harbor, and its hidden paths and happy snowbirds. It isn't all, as Pam insists, about money. It's also about friendship and open-mindedness and accepting that people have a right to do their own thing. Jenla still has a present I got her when she first came to live with us: a Key West coloring book, showing performers holding burning hoops for cats to jump through at the nightly sunset celebration, and policemen draped with colored beads at the annual Fantasy Fest parade. "People are free to be the people they want to be," reads one caption that shows a man dressed as Santa. He's on a bicycle, wearing swimming trunks, and his cat wears small antlers and a red ribbon as it sits in the front basket. That one's still tacked to Jenla's bedroom wall.
Sweet Jenla . . . then suddenly, there's this awful thing. I don't understand it completely, in spite of everything she's told me, but I guess it's obvious that I feel guilty about not driving her to Miami. My therapist points out that not only do I have the right and--as she always stresses--the obligation, to think of myself as well as others, but I also have a job. True, but working at the library while Jenla was going through such a terrible time doesn't exactly make me feel vindicated.
The story is pretty much this: Dick, one of The Boyfriends, volunteered to drive Jenla up to Marathon, because a diving buddy would be leaving there for Miami early the morning of December 10--exactly the day she needed to catch her plane. Right at Mixie's party, he got on his cell phone and checked with the guy, who said no problem. Then someone who had come to the party with Jason Kinderaki (the vet) said that he'd be aboard a private plane that was flying to D.C. that day, and she should join him and ride free, and in comfort. She could easily get a ticket from Washington to Richmond. Apparently Kinderaki, himself, told Jenla to pay no attention to the offer: his friend was a liar, and had delusions of grandeur. He didn't say this right in front of the guy, who was blond and big-nosed, in that attractive cheekbones-as-wings European way: the horizontal glasses with the geek frames atop the great bones . . . anyway, my information comes from one of The Boyfriends, whom Jenla turned to, when she thought the moment had passed, to ask if Jason Kinderaki had been serious. The blond boyfriend came up behind them and answered the question himself, saying that he most certainly had not been lying. "Maybe we should change the subject," The Boyfriend said, and the blond replied: "Maybe you should keep out of what's not your business," whereupon Sam K. walked up and said, "Let's not be disagreeable. Let's put on some music, shall we?" and the blond said, "Listen, Jason, I don't need some bottom trying to undercut me. I happen to have a few more resources than you have, and you seem to have a problem with that." Then he disappeared down the hallway just as I was coming in from a swim in the pool. Sam K. quickly filled me in.
It was always a problem when The Boyfriends got boyfriends. The core group was fine--genuinely friendly, they respected each other, no one tried to steal scenes, but the minute someone new was introduced, they became competitive, even if they didn't truly want the prize.
"Well, that was cute, wasn't it?" Jason Kinderaki said sarcastically. We knew better than to answer. I'd been on my way to get a Diet Coke, so I walked to the refrigerator and pulled open the door and took one out. I'd gotten bad vibes from the guy the minute he'd been introduced.
The unpleasantness did not end when the blond returned and walked up to Jason Kinderaki, who was looking at CDs with Sam K.
"I don't think you got any confirmation, did you?" the blond said. "Maybe people don't want to get involved with you. Maybe you should save yourself for the dogs." He continued: "Cats and dogs and parrots that are people's beloved Life Companions."
"Our friend Dr. Kinderaki's friendship is secure both in the human and animal kingdom," Clark said.
Clark tried, but Kinderaki was angry. "These are my friends," Kinderaki said. "This is inappropriate behavior."
At that exact moment, the front door was thrown open by the cleaning woman who held the big lighter in her hands. We didn't know she'd been fired, at that point. I had never even been formally introduced to her. "You shit," she said, looking directly at the blond. "You shit, you tell me why this was in the backseat of my car. You tell me! And you tell me, too, why there is a telephone book, huh? And an ashtray to go with your important lighter. Where is he?" she said, sensing for the first time, as if she'd just regained her sight, that she was talking to someone she'd never met.
"Is the moon in Jupiter or something?" Jason Kinderaki said nervously, looking at all of us as if it was a real question.
But the blond walked up to her. He said: "I can give you a very clear explanation of everything, madam. These people are bad lovers and bad friends, and you can expect from them nothing but the worst."
She brought the lighter down on his shoulder, swiftly and very hard, and he crumpled.
Mixie came into the house, quickly followed by his houseguest. "What in hell!" Mixie said. He was wearing a guayabera shirt trimmed with silver and gold and white pants. I was standing there, gaping, the can of Coke frozen to my palm.
"It's a lawsuit," the blond said coldly. Then, moaning: "My shoulder, my shoulder."
Mixie rushed to where The Boyfriends had gathered around the blond man. "What's happened? Estrella, what are you doing here? Where did my lighter come from?"
She dropped it, and a tile shattered. She turned and ran. One of The Boyfriends shouted everything someone who was homophobic would think gay men thought about women. The blond finally accepted Kinderaki's hand to rise. His nose was running. His cell phone had fallen out of his pocket. Mixie and Kinderaki were helping the man up. His shirt was stained with blood. "Call an ambulance! Can't anyone tell me what happened?" Mixie said.
"She just burst in," I said.
"She's on drugs, then. Or she's drunk. I knew it," Mixie said. He looked confused, though, as if his words did not explain anything.
"I'm taking you to the hospital. We're leaving now. Try not to move your arm," Kinderaki said, a little softer, to the blond. "Charlotte, Mixie, Clark," he said, but he had nothing to say; he was just reciting the name that went with whatever face he saw.
Outside, the blond man could be heard crying. Mixie said, with frustration: "I do not understand, and I would like to know what happened."
Behind him, a waterfall of bougainvillea lit by a spotlight cascaded in the opening between French doors. The soundtrack from Sleepless in Seattle still played. The man who had been in the swimming pool with me climbed out when he saw that everyone had gone into the kitchen. Standing there with a turquoise towel around him, he explained to our stunned, silent group that he had been swimming with earplugs.
The blond man, Rick King, was from Ft. Lauderdale. Nothing was broken, though eight stitches were required to close the cut. I have no idea what passed between him and Jason Kinderaki on the way to the ER. All during the chaos, Jenla had stood at my side as if we were welded. I was used to her grabbing my hand. She'd always done it. I didn't take her seriously when she finally whispered, "What happened, Charlotte?"
By then, it was clear that there had been some trouble between Mixie and his cleaning lady, so I told her that. It seemed the most obvious thing to say.
"Was that man angry at me for some reason?" she said.
"No, he was angry at Jason. At his lover."
"A lot angrier at the cleaning lady," Clark said wryly.
"I think I had something to do with it," Jenla said.
No one was eager to wipe up the blood. Finally Clark swabbed it up with a kitchen towel and threw the towel in the trash. Everyone milled about, sweeping or gathering glasses, going to the sofa to retrieve jackets--all the things that signal the end of the party. Water from the swimmer's bathing trunks pooled on the broken tile. Someone had put the man's cell phone on the serving counter. People began to reform into couples and say hurried good-byes. "Hey, Dick, if you could let your friend know about that ride to Miami," Jenla said.
"What? Oh, sure. What day was that again?"
"December tenth," she said.
"I am so awfully sorry," one of the guests said to Mixie. "Crazy people . . ." But Mixie was deep in conversation with his lady friend, who was saying that she was the one who had put the lighter in the car earlier--the lighter, along with the other things he said were to be donated to the rummage sale. "No, darling, no," Mixie said, opening the louvered door of a hall closet. "Here, this is the box for the sale. What did you think?"
"Well, I thought--" She was blushing. "I thought you said the box, didn't you? The box of things there." She gestured toward the coffee table, where a chopstick braced a twist-tied orchid stem.
"Oh, but darling, no," Mixie said. "The person from the sale is coming tomorrow. Did you think Estrella was--?"
It seemed Estrella had put the lighter, which she always polished, near a box of things in the hallway that was to be thrown out: the old telephone book, and other things not good enough for the sale . . . the houseguest had, for some reason, assumed a lot of things and combined the lighter with the trash, which she'd placed in the backseat of Estrella's station wagon. Together, she and Mixie began to piece together the misunderstanding.
"This hardly condones her breaking in and attacking someone," I said.
"Yes, but why did she? Why did she, do you think?" Harris said.
"I've really made a horrible, horrible mistake, haven't I?" Mixie's lady friend said. Her eyes were brimming with tears. Years before, she had been a cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
"No, no, only--"
"Oh, dear, well is there any way I can apologize to her? Any way she wouldn't murder me, I mean?"
"No, you just--you're here for a vacation! What a perfectly ridiculous misunderstanding," Mixie said.
I yearned to be gone, but I stood there, considering wiping up the last smear of blood, but doing nothing. Jenla had disattached herself and gone down the hallway, where she leaned against the wall, waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom.
A new couple in town I hadn't met said goodnight. The woman waved something small in the air, which I assumed to be her business card. She left it on top of the framed circle of monarch butterflies hanging near the door.
"She's intent on renting Mixie's place in March for her son and his wife, and Mixie's told her a thousand times he never, ever rents," one of The Boyfriends said to another.
"I hope the police don't get involved," Mixie said, and several people immediately said they were sure they would not. "I saw every second of what happened," Clark said, a bit self-importantly, "and if a witness is needed, you just put them in touch with me, Mixie."
"Estrella used to work for us when we lived in Truman Annex, and I never thought she was stable, but my wife loved her because she sewed buttons and ironed," an older gentleman I hadn't realized had been at the party said. "You take your chances, don't you." It was not a question. He clapped Mixie on the back. His wife was glowering at him. "Goodnight, poor Mixie," she said. "We'll have other wonderful parties."
"And everybody stuck to it so well," Sam K. said. "No dreary discussions about politics. So look how it turns out! Well, maybe it's a lesson. God, Mixie. Not your fault in any way. If there's anything I can do, just call."
"I really am sorry," the houseguest said. "I should have stayed in Cambridge and had myself tested for Alzheimer's, I get so confused about--"
The music had ended. The bougainvillea looked alarmingly bright. In the corner of my eye, I saw Jenla coming out of the bathroom. Her new beige dress with the dropped waist looked great on her. Her famous blond hair, that she'd recently taken to highlighting just the tiniest bit in the front looked newly brushed. "I can't wait to get off the rock and get to Richmond," she sighed, when she came to my side. I had gotten her white sweater, which she tied around her waist, and my pink shawl. I very much wished I could think of something to say to Mixie that would matter.
"We love you, Mixie," I said, slightly embarrassed that Jenla was holding my hand.
"My girls Charlotte and Jenla," Mixie said, clasping both our hands. "You'll be all right?"
We nodded in unison, but one of us would not.
I can't account for her meeting up again with Rick King, though I'd long thought that she didn't understand men. She missed warning signs; she had no radar for whether they were good or bad. Or it might have been that she knew perfectly well when they were the wrong sort, but since that was what she'd always thought about her father, at least it was familiar. My best guess, though, is that it was just one of those things. She ran into him a couple of days later when she was coming out of a sandwich shop and he was exiting the pawnshop next door. It was embarrassing to see someone exiting a pawnshop, for obvious reasons, but she said she assumed he was down on his luck. In fact, he was buying a gun, illegally. I imagine she expressed sympathy about his shoulder. And that, his having been discredited by his boyfriend, physically wounded, and seen exiting the pawnshop, she felt sorry for him and perhaps even shared her sandwich with him.
Somehow, he convinced her to go out to the airport right that minute and meet his friend the pilot. I never used the car we shared during the week when I worked at the library, so she had it, and drove because of his shoulder. On the way there, she explained as best she could the story of Mixie, Estrella, and the houseguest. He told her that Jason Kinderaki had been flipped out earlier, and very sarcastic to him because he'd learned he was bi. He had a lot of complaints about Kinderaki, including the information--not clear to Jenla, but she knew she was hearing something--that he and Kinderaki had been involved in some scheme involving federally protected birds. Birds, and other things. She wasn't stupid, and figured that he was talking about drugs, though the Jason Kinderaki she knew had always been a very conservative person.
I didn't know that before the argument started that night at Mixie's, she'd talked a bit to Rick King while I was swimming, and that he'd given her a little vial of coke. "Just for a little jolt," she said to me. "I don't want to be too much of a purist." I kept away from drugs, and I tried to keep them away from me, too: none of that open-minded stuff where you're in AA, but it's perfectly fine for everybody else to drink. Anyway: at the end of the evening at Mixie's, she went into the bathroom and snorted the coke. I'd wondered why she'd no longer seemed upset on the way home, but I hadn't guessed the reason; it had just seemed, to both of us, the most beautiful, tropical night, with the moon over the water and the smell of jasmine in the air.
In any case, the pilot had flown for American Airlines ("when the going was good") for twenty years before he retired, then gotten just as bored as his wife predicted he would. He began to work privately for a businessman who commuted between Key West and Santa Fe. The three of them went up for a joyride--phobic Jenla, doing that!--delighted that they'd gotten almost immediate clearance to get off the rock. With flying so arduous after 9/11, it had seemed quite miraculous. Key West was an international airport, but that was a technicality. The runway was short, the terminal an inconspicuous little rectangle local artists had decorated with murals.
The next night, he called her. I picked up the telephone and asked afterwards who'd called, and she'd told me, though at first his name didn't register. Then she'd told me about running into him, going up in the plane. "I didn't like him," I said. "I'd be careful."
"I didn't like him, either," she said, "but he seemed like a different person when I ran into him. There were really bad vibes at that party right away, weren't there? I mean, even before what happened happened."
"I didn't notice that."
"Well, I mean, there was this funny sort of vibe, like straight vibe--like some pretending was going on for that older couple, the one that wants to rent Mixie's house, and when those vibes get going, it can be like--"
"You're making me feel stupid," I said. I added quickly, so she didn't feel bad for speaking: "I went swimming almost right away, I guess."
"It wasn't his fault that that woman burst in and hit him," she continued. "It could have been you or me, you know." I nodded, but I didn't really think so.
The next day I transcribed a short message from Dick for Jenla on the answering machine: his friend confirmed he would take her to Miami. Dick was always helpful--especially nice to Jenla, as most people were. She was a little tentative, and shy, and a little fragile, too. Her beauty sometimes complicated things, because you assumed she'd be more sophisticated than she was. Our newer friends who hadn't been in Key West for years, the way Mixie had, still knew the story of how young Pam and I had been when our mother died, and how Jenla had been displaced from her home to accompany her mother to Key West to look after us. Temporarily turned into forever. One week to the day Ronni and Jenla arrived, our father left a note for Pam, deputizing her (his word) to take care of the family (he drew a sheriff's badge on the sheet of paper, and printed PAM on it), and disappeared, leaving money in a bank account. He produced more, when Ronni got a lawyer involved. Unfortunately, it also turned out that our father had been involved in laundering drug money, which explains why--when they went after him--any further money dried up.
In the brief time that he knew her, Jenla had captured our father's attention in a way his daughters never had. He called Jennifer Jennifer la bella, which got shortened, somehow, to Jenla. It seemed such an exotic nickname, and Pam and I were both bereft that we never received one. I don't seem like a Lotty, I guess: I seem like a Charlotte. And Pam? That was her given name, but people probably assumed it had already been shortened. (The Boyfriends never had nicknames: they insisted upon the formality of their given names, in the same way they lit each other's cigarettes and never poured wine into a glass too quickly.)
The week of Mixie's party, Jenla had just turned nineteen, a high school dropout who had learned grammar because Pam--who had more of a soft spot for her than she admitted--had drilled it into her. From her mother, she'd gotten her love of Carl Hiaasen, but she came into the library sometimes and talked to the head librarian and got recommendations of novels, when she was waiting for me, and if she didn't understand something, she'd ask Pam, which sometimes required that Pam read the whole book up to that point. I could usually figure out how to interpret something after Jenla's description of what the plot was, and by reading whatever preceded the passage, but she tended to ask Pam about the novels and to ask me about things that weren't written down. She was bright, but she lacked self-confidence. She was already working her third job, at a fragrance boutique on Duval Street, where--it went without saying--all our friends would go at Christmas to buy gifts, so Jenla would get a bonus.
She sat behind in the plane, and Rick King flew in the passenger seat. She said they talked about travel--places the pilot had been, mostly. Once or twice, Rick King reached behind him and squeezed her knee. She was bare-legged, though it would be cold where she was going. Just as Rick King said, she'd gotten a cheap flight from Washington to Richmond. The ex-boyfriend, a football player from Key West High who had gotten her pregnant (she'd miscarried) when she was sixteen, had broken up with her, lived with a Czech housecleaner/ceramicist, then moved away and had been out of touch for quite a while before he reappeared, all smiles and apologies, presenting her with a lopsided heart on a silver chain that he said was from Tiffany's and begging her to move in with him in Richmond. She'd gone there for a brief visit, not liked it, realized she wasn't in love with him, returned, and changed jobs. But then the phone calls started, and the e-mails: Pam loved the Internet. She e-mailed a few friends, but mostly she took online courses in things like biology and botany. Pam worked at the aquarium, but she let it be known this was only temporary: every summer she took courses at the University of Miami in Marine Biology, and in another year, she'd have a degree. She told Jenla that she did not care to be Cyrano de Bergerac (then explained who he was), but relented when Jenla said she wanted her own pc and let Jenla receive messages on hers. They were marked for Jenla, but sent to Pam's address. True to her nature, Pam was exasperated by this, but she did not read mail that was not intended for her. I have a distinct memory of Jenla, one of her voluminous white cotton nightgowns tucked between her thin legs, leaning forward in Pam's darkened room, at the edge of Pam's leather chair, reading the nightly messages.
In the plane, she saw the blue sailcloth tacked down over something beside her, but didn't have much curiosity about it. She was hearing about Berlin. There was a lot of static in the air-to-land communication. Eventually Rick King broke out a half-pint of Jim Beam. She didn't like liquor that wasn't mixed with anything, but she tipped it to her lips so they would burn.
She did ask what was under the cloth. It was tacked down so tightly, she couldn't peek. The pilot was incommunicado, talking into his headset as they began the descent. Rick King asked why she would ask. She asked why he would ask why she asked. Everything was a kind of flirtation. The question didn't get answered right away.
It didn't get answered until they landed, and jeeps converged from everywhere to surround the plane. "Don't be an idiot!" the pilot screamed at Rick King, who suddenly had his pawnshop gun pointed in the air. It was difficult to see what was happening. She was scared that the gun would go off. Something that looked like a fire truck moved forward at high speed, and a huge hose was unrolled by two men swollen like sated ticks in their bulletproof jumpsuits, their little heads and hands and feet protruding. Foam, heavier than any snow she had seen when she was a little girl in Illinois, covered the plane's front window. The gun was tossed backwards. She was too frightened to turn to see where it had landed. Through the pilot's earphones, she could hear people ordering them to get out with their hands raised. Her hands were cupped over her eyes. There was no way to see out of the plane. By now, every window had been blasted with white foam. She tried to follow what Rick King was saying to the pilot, but the pilot listened to whatever screeched through his earphones and did not even look at Rick King, except to shove him aside. Neither of them paid any attention to her. The pilot remained impassive even when Rick King began to shake him, wincing in pain because of his own hurt shoulder.
Eventually there was a noise as if the plane was being broken apart. She had no idea what it was, but it resulted in the pilot opening his door, the white foam hanging without dripping, like pernicious anemic bougainvillea, and she saw his body straightening, and then he was out, throwing off Rick King's hand, stumbling because it was difficult to keep his balance and exit with his hands raised. She asked Rick King what was going on, to tell her what to do. He smashed his foot into the instrument control panel, kicking and kicking with his heel. With the pilot's flap thrown open, it was gray-bright inside, and in the tiniest crease in the foam where it was opalescent, she thought she saw a dark figure standing very close to the plane. Rick King never spoke to her, unless there was something in the stream of obscenities she didn't hear, and after kicking so hard that the whole plane jolted, his door flap, too, was slowly pushed up. A terrible brightness filled the plane that reminded Jenla of the glowing necklaces people wore to Fantasy Fest and on New Year's Eve, pushing one side into the other, completing the circle to activate them into mesmerizing blue and pink and yellow fluorescence, unlike any color seen in nature.
Rick King was on the ground, and more hands than she'd ever seen reached into the plane. She felt them all over her, like the spindly legs of enormous spiders, and then she found herself unclear about how she'd gotten out; she had no idea what had happened previously on the tarmac.
A man in Bermuda shorts and a white shirt had lifted from the plane the box draped with blue. Everyone was handcuffed--she was handcuffed--and in what seemed like slow motion, everyone hushed, as if this were the finale, the man in shorts slashed the cloth and pulled on the lid of the box and scooped out something speckled, fawn colored . . . it most certainly was: it was a limp Key deer, a little thing, almost extinct--the state created tunnels under the highway to protect their crossing, posted signs lowering the speed to a crawl so people could brake in time if they skittered onto the roadway. They were full-grown, but looked like babies. In the blinding Miami light, she had turned her head to the side to look at a dead Key deer.
Except that it was not dead. The shouting was to the effect that it was not. A jet zoomed off, casting them for a merciful minute in shadow. A female police officer handled her not very roughly, not very roughly, considering that her legs had no strength and she couldn't offer much help in the attempt to make her stand. The pilot staggered, he spit, and Rick King, contorted in pain from the shoulder that had been forced to the runway, let out a scream that the next plane obliterated. Or maybe it was the Bermuda shorts man, who was exhilarated--maybe she'd heard a happy exclamation, everyone so relieved that the Key deer was fine. She could see the little patch of white that must be its tail. He was holding it in his arms, pronouncing the thing draped there, immobile, "fine" and rushing to a jeep with it, his smile so sincere she understood that she had never truly been loved.
Rick King ran errands--or had, to this point--for Dr. Jason Kinderaki, who supplied unusual pets to a gentleman in Tokyo for his private zoo.
One of the boyfriends, a newcomer who'd come to try to figure out a glitch in Pam's computer program, snapped into action when the call came in and drove both Pam and me to Miami at a speed that would have killed not only Key deer, but tossed aside herds of elephants. Pam cried. She took too much on herself, as my therapist explained to me, and nothing was to be gained by emulating poor Pam. Pam even blamed herself for our parents' marriage because our mother got married when she was pregnant with her. She alternated between being grateful that Jenla hadn't been physically hurt (though she'd cut her chin badly. With the white bandage, and her eyes bugging out of her head, she looked like a frightened walrus when they brought her out to the bail bondsman) and fiercely angry at Rick King.
The Boyfriend who was driving us was a thin, handsome man named Patrice Lumond. He was a photographer whose day job was making frames at an art supply store on Stock Island, though he could easily have quit, as he was always being urged to do, and live off of his famous architect boyfriend. The architect was considered quite a catch among The Boyfriends because he was particularly handsome and rich, and only six years older than Patrice. To this point, all I knew about him was that he and the architect had met on a snorkeling trip to Virgin Gorda, and that he knew a lot about computers.
"It'll sort itself out," he said, trying to sound consoling. "It might be a good idea to have Jenla see someone. There might even be someone there, already. Don't they have people who intervene if it's obvious it's some traumatized kid, who . . . don't you see someone, Charlotte? I mean, how would any of us exist without having some meds figured out for us, you know?"
"It's my fault," Pam said. "I didn't argue long enough when she wanted to quit school. I kept quiet about her going to Richmond to see that football lunkhead. I never know who she's associating with. It's just convenient for me to assume she's off with a bunch of gay guys who don't matter."
"That didn't come out the way she meant," I said quickly.
"Oh, no, no, no, I understood what was meant," Patrice said.
"Don't tell people what I mean, Charlotte."
"Pam, that came out wrong, like you were saying gay people don't matter," I said gently.
"Well, aren't you sensitized to everything? You seem to characterize all gay men as the alternative to heterosexual men who--according to you--are inevitably drunks, isn't that your informed opinion, Miss Carrie Nation?"
"I wasn't offended," Patrice said. "Really, I wasn't." He spoke to me quietly over his shoulder, Pam shouting above him.
"And that goddamned Me First Republican excuse for a mother figure that I delegated responsibility to--"
"Leave Ronni out of it," I said.
"Why? She's untouchable, just because she was such a martyr and left a life she didn't like in the first place to move in with us? She voted for George Bush! She thinks selling used Toyotas is a radical act, because they used to be considered foreign cars, and she sends her money to--"
"When the money stopped coming, she worked two jobs. It wasn't really her problem, Pam. She could have turned around--"
"What, and let her poor little girl go back to her friends and her school? She liked the sun and the fun down here, Charlotte--I don't know what noble work ethic you're remembering, unless it was the one that kept her out half the night, coming home with whiskey and mints doing battle on her breath. I can't take any more of you tolerating everything, your hermetically sealed little world, your house of girls who'll all do fine for themselves. Oh, I'm sure we will, come the revolution. Or are we not having one? Are we bombing Iraq instead?"
"Please, goodness," Patrice said. His cell phone rang. "Hello?" he said. "We're making good time, we're already in Tavernier. Everybody's absolutely fine. Okay, would you mind calling back and leaving the attorney's name and that other information on my voice mail, so when I get there I can transcribe it? Thank you, Mixie," he said.
Tattoo parlors whizzed by, people on motorcycles fell back. Patrice ran a yellow light at the Dairy Queen. He was driving the architect's Lexus, which was quiet and smooth and seemed more like a hydrofoil than a car. I looked over my shoulder, but no cop cars were in sight. Patrice was going to have his head bitten off; he was trying to placate Pam, and when men did that--gay or straight--it made her furious, because she thought kindness from men was condescension. She didn't go to the parties because she thought including us--people who weren't rich, who weren't famous, who were in Key West just by chance--was condescension, too. You couldn't reason with her.
"What were they doing, smuggling an animal?" Pam said.
"Well, we don't know yet. We know it's impossible that Jenla would--"
"Impossible? What is impossible? What if this is what she's been doing?"
"I don't think so," I said.
Patrice said, "They hung up on you without answering your question about what kind of--"
"What does it matter? What does it matter if it's flamingos or bison? Please, just once, someone say something that's helpful," she said dramatically.
Patrice turned to her. "You don't have AIDS," he said.
Hocus-pocus, Jenla was back in Mixie's kitchen. Since that day, she'd been getting migraine headaches. She said they were accompanied by a sharp chemical smell, mixed with the smell of tarmac. She would suck in her breath and try not to melt when the quivering corona appeared that signaled the onset.
But this was a good night, a month after the mess in Miami. Rikki had won the Employee of the Year award at work. Rick King, who was wanted on charges of burglary and forgery, had been returned to Ohio. Charges against Jenla had been dropped.
I noticed that recently she'd begun to keep some distance between us, and that she'd broken her old habit of instinctively reaching for my hand when she was upset. To everyone's surprise, she insisted on continuing to Richmond that night, and what could we do? I envisioned her in the ex-boyfriend's welcoming arms, but as it turned out, she never told him about any of it. My therapist says she was in shock. They went to the movies and even made love once, she said, and he took her to a nice restaurant, but she couldn't eat food there or anywhere else, and threw up in the bathroom. When she came back to Key West, there were no more e-mail messages. Unfortunately, she also did not seem to be reading. Patrice came to take her to a community college production of a Tennessee Williams play he'd done the lighting for, and once she asked me to drive her out to the mall. She had less trouble being in an enclosed space if somebody else was driving. She rode Pam's old bike to work. She saw a doctor and got a prescription for medicine that allowed her to work through all but the worst migraines. After a while, she let me persuade her to go to a few parties but often left before I did.
The truth was, the parties had started to seem a little strange to me, too. I saw them from her perspective as almost absurdly safe and repetitive--the same caterers, the same talk about how the reef might be revived and how so many hurricane scares might drive real estate prices down. We were so close that I sensed her detachment, even if other people thought she was fine. I sensed it, and it was contagious: I started to imagine myself elsewhere, and was always wandering the periphery of the property to look at the stars or standing outside the gate, where someone would inevitably be smoking a cigarette. The last real relationship I'd had had been four years ago, my senior year at the University of Miami, when I'd lived my last year with an older man who ran a restaurant. He fell in love with one of the waitresses, and it didn't break my heart too much because I wasn't very interested in being a stepmother to his sons, and he didn't much like my family. He said that being the only man at Thanksgiving dinner (which he wasn't; Sam K. had been there) made him feel like an acorn on the ground with no tree nearby. Sure, I could have seen that as his problem, but it had bothered me that he hadn't found someone to like in our entire household. Or maybe he was right: they could be hardheaded and not excessively friendly to outsiders.
The Boyfriends were an insular group, too, but at the first indication someone needed help, most would call and offer their services with everything from computer problems to catching chickens. They implicitly agreed that whatever caused a problem was a problem. As my boyfriend had said, quite nastily, "Rely on the Greek chorus, and you'll never have to grow up." I suspected that homophobia was my boyfriend's underlying problem--something he didn't admit and fooled himself about because he hired so many gays to work in the restaurant. You couldn't see the way they reacted after Jenla's trouble and not realize they all felt terrible about what had happened--especially because there had been an imposter in their midst, and they hadn't done anything. That awareness took its toll: they didn't kid around as much, or seem as interested in flirting with each other. They drifted off from the kitchen klatch; I'd see one of The Boyfriends looking at the night sky, also, or sitting away from the others, reading.
"Don't feel like hanging out tonight?" I'd asked Patrice, when I ran into him sitting in a gazebo behind Mixie's house with a neighborhood cat on his lap. I'd come to like him very much, so I was particularly surprised when he responded that the gazebo might as well have been a doghouse: the architect was still furious he'd taken the Lexus instead of his own battered Chevy to Miami ("as if I might have returned his precious car with dirt on it"). I joined him for a minute and learned that the architect's exact words had been: "Did you think you had to take the coach because you were fetching Cinderella?" I didn't know what to make of it, it was such a nasty question. I suppose it pointed out that I had idealized The Boyfriends and their lovers, but I thought that consciously or unconsciously people wanted to think that something, somewhere, was working. "Are things okay between you, in general?" I asked. "I certainly wouldn't think so, if he makes it clear he doesn't trust me with his toys," Patrice said. Even the cat jumped off his lap and sauntered away as if he'd never associated with him.
It was much later, after I'd given Patrice a kiss on the cheek and told him not to let it get him down, when the other part of the nasty remark registered, and I thought for a moment of beautiful young Jenla as Cinderella. Hadn't the architect been saying that she should have stayed in her place, and not run off in the first place looking for something better?
I went looking for him at the party to confront him, and it was true: I was much less comfortable moving among the older group. I saw Sam K. standing beside his lover, who ignored him as he laughed with a woman in a white caftan, who had been pointed out to me earlier as someone who'd danced with Peter Martins. Mixie patted my shoulder as he passed by, arm in arm with another houseguest, a man he'd worked with at the newspaper in Norfolk "in another lifetime." So many things had happened to Mixie "in another lifetime" that it was difficult to believe his current life wasn't something of a dream, too. I looked for the architect for a while, then realized it would be best if I didn't find him. I went into the house, where a few of The Boyfriends were clustered in the kitchen. Probably most of them sensed that if they stayed inside, they'd have been tempted to talk about Jenla and Dr. (as he was now sarcastically called) Kinderaki's boyfriend, and the fact that Kinderaki had been picking up street trash for quite a while, though they'd been adhering to the unspoken rule that nobody judge anyone else.
To my surprise, Estrella passed by and took from the refrigerator a platter of hors d'oeuvres. There were many of them, dark and unappetizing as pebbles, some crowned with capers. She admired them with satisfaction. She had on a white apron, and her hair was pinned back with a silver clip. She walked with a very straight spine and acted as if she'd always been present at parties. Harris whispered that Mixie had made up with her, apologizing and giving her a new station wagon, even persuading her to see his doctor, who thought she might do well with Valium.
I got a Coke from Mixie's refrigerator, then Harris beckoned me aside and showed me a newspaper clipping: a picture of a Key deer taken from behind, streaking through the dark into an oddly illuminated mangrove swamp, as if a nimbus accompanied it. As I studied it, I figured out I was probably seeing the illumination of the camera's strobe. The story beneath the photograph began as a news report, mentioned the owner of the pawnshop, who was in trouble for selling a weapon without a license. Jenla wandered into the kitchen as I was reading, which surprised me because I'd assumed that, as she'd been doing more and more often, she'd left. "What's that?" she said. I knew better than to hide it from her. Embarrassed, Harris rolled his eyes at his own mistake and walked away.
The story was about a man wanted in Ohio on felony charges, Rick King, and his accomplice, a former Green Beret (no mention of American Airlines) named Steven Grant Lee Hawley, who'd been arrested for smuggling animals. It was accurate, I suppose--their past histories; how the government became aware the animals were being taken. Nowhere in the story was Jenla mentioned; it was as if she'd never been there. A sidebar accompanied the story about Key deer and other endangered species in the Florida Keys. It must certainly have surprised her even more than it surprised me. Was she not mentioned because she was nineteen? How, exactly, would a person get erased?
She read it intently, filling in the rest of the story. She saw the same picture I saw: the tiny flash of white on the tail of the deer disappearing, having escaped a fate it knew nothing about as a pet intended for some odd zoo where it might have been loved, yet still trapped and made miserable, far away from the only world it knew.
Then I thought of our father the drug launderer, years before, looking down in the same way I studied Jenla's bent head, now--his pronouncing a special name not for his daughters, but for the child who captured his imagination: La Bella Jennifer, with her golden hair that glowed so intensely it seemed like the sun shining in his world alone, and not any other.
Where was Patrice? one of The Boyfriends asked suddenly.
Another replied that he hadn't seen him all evening; he wasn't doing very well.
To read more, visit NarrativeMagazine.com. Bringing great literature to the world. Online. Free.
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more