Andrew Furman is a professor at Florida Atlantic University and teaches in its MFA program in Creative Writing. He writes fiction and creative nonfiction on a variety of topics, which typically include Florida and its singular environment, race matters, basketball, swimming, lighthouses, and cast iron cookware, not necessarily in that order. He is the author, most recently, of an environmental memoir, Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair with Florida (University Press of Florida, 2014). The book was named a finalist for the 2015 ASLE Book Prize. His essays and stories have appeared in such publications as Ecotone, The Southern Review, Oxford American, The Chronicle of Higher Education, AGNI Online, Poets & Writers, Terrain.org, andThe Florida Review. One recent piece was named a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen, and the editors of Terrain.org just nominated a separate essay for a Pushcart Prize.
Lovely and Long and Difficult
It was over by the Key Lime coconut patties that Joy noticed Chuck Sergeant. When she wasn’t reading, she tended to train her attention from behind the register toward the Key Lime confections aisle as a matter of course. Shoplifters (vacationing preteens, mostly) homed in on the sugary items, leaving alone the Key Lime shampoo and candles (encrusted with shells from the south Pacific), the moisturizers and salt scrub (manufactured up in Margate), the Key Lime marinades, sauces, teas and such.
Chuck couldn’t look more out of place, fumbling about the narrow aisle, peering over the frames of his glasses to read the ingredients on a box of Key Lime shortbread cookies. A young tourist couple in matching day-glo T-shirts, their necks scarletted by the alien sun—Germans, likely—excused themselves to negotiate past Chuck’s girth, forced him to look up from the cookie box as he pressed his belly against the shelf, his face painted with an expression of annoyed forbearance that Conchs (not excluding Joy) reserved for tourists. Now what was Chuck doing way up here at mile marker 75? Joy set the splayed pages of her library book down on the counter so she wouldn’t lose her place, stepped from behind the register to greet her neighbor.
“To what do we owe this pleasure, Chuck?” She would affect a breezy tone. There was some history between them, nothing scandalous by the standards of their day, the standards of this place. But history all the same.
“Heard you were working here now for Candy.”
“Just a few days a week. Otherwise she’d have to pay benefits.” Joy issued a reflexive exhale through her nostrils, something like a chuckle, which made Chuck sort of roll his shoulders and laugh, and which made Joy regret having affected such a breezy tone. She lowered her eyes, noticed Chuck’s hands dwarfing the box of cookies, the nails trimmed, the skin leathered and lined from years on the water, but well cared for in his retirement. She wondered whether he used some sort of emollient. She redirected her gaze two aisles over at the sunburnt tourists. They murmured words Joy couldn’t make out as they worried half a dozen bottles of Key Lime marmalade and Key Lime ginger-wasabi dressing that Joy had wiped clean and arranged on the shelf not fifteen minutes ago.
“These shortbread cookies any good?” Chuck asked.
The Key Lime shortbread cookies were one of the few items Joy appreciated, the confectioners’ sugar dusted with tartness somehow that approximated Key Lime even if it wasn’t actual Key Lime. It was all Joy could do to resist snacking on the samples she set out in the scallop shells beside the register. She told Chuck that the cookies were pretty good, if overpriced for the tourists, lowered her voice at this last part, glancing over toward the Germans. And then Chuck went ahead and asked what he must have come into the Key Lime Emporium to ask—not even taking the time to absorb Joy’s appraisal of the shortbread cookies—his broad forehead pin-pricked with perspiration beneath the unforgiving fluorescents.
“Wonder, Joy, how about I take you to dinner sometime at the Turtle?”
Candy had practically begged Joy to help out at the Key Lime Emporium this summer. That’s the only reason she took the job. To help out Candy, she reminded herself after the tourists (Dutch, it turned out) finally decided upon the particular type of Key Lime pie they desired (meringue encrusted), after Chuck bought two boxes of the specialty cookies he likely wouldn’t eat. The last place in the world the local teenagers wanted to work summers was the Key Lime Emporium, Candy had lamented to Joy at the Big Pine flea few Saturdays ago. Soon as she hired and trained one of them, they bolted on her for a better job on a dive boat, restaurant, or bar. Else they stole. “Entitled, kids these days,” Candy said. “Hardly have our work ethic.” Joy nodded over the bric-a-brac rather than remind Candy that neither one of them worked a day in their lives until they were well into their thirties.
Only longstanding employee was Luke, a pallid high school kid with a buzz-cut, unfortunate piercings, and fingernails chewed down to angry red crescents. Manifold allegiances the young broadcasted these days through their inscrutable visual markers. Joy was still trying to figure Luke out the few hours their schedules overlapped. He didn’t eat anything with a face, he said last week after Joy couldn’t help commenting upon his persistent peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Nothing with a face. An abstemious and odd dietary guideline, seemed to Joy.
Anyway, she didn’t really mind working behind the register few days a week. Pay wasn’t much, but the added perk was that she could turn down her air conditioning in the bungalow working hours, her nephew Shawn living now with his husband above their gallery in Key West. So when you factored that in. Plus, the work wasn’t difficult. Hardly work at all compared to her years as secretary and then business manager of the community college extension campus. What Joy hadn’t bargained on was Chuck, or any locals she knew, stopping in on her at the Key Lime Emporium while she was wearing the silly apron Candy insisted they wear. She’d have to share an entire meal with Chuck now. Because she had said yes, of course, to his proposal. How could she say no, poor Helen (who Joy never much liked) keeling over from a heart attack a year ago? Straightening up now the Key Lime marmalades, sauces, and dressings that the Dutch tourists had upset, Joy performed a silent calculation in her head. Must have been closer to a year and a half Helen died as the weather was cooler at Helen’s funeral and the big lignum vitae tree at Memorial Gardens near her Horace’s gravestone had just started to throw on its violet blossom clothes.
The morning took its time. Joy savored the quiet, listened to the air-conditioner kick in now and again, lifted her eyes from her book to study the offshore breeze out the window licking the ferny leaves of the big tamarinds. The tamarinds shaded the tropical-painted Adirondack chairs for sale on the pea rock, the chintzy Polynesian and Haitian and Mexican metal art and ceramics and such, some of which Candy picked up at the flea for a song, marked up for the customers. Candy was out there now in the trailer setting up the fryer for the conch fritters and deep fried pie and chicken wings they served, mostly to gin up sales of the costlier Key Lime sauces and condiments and Key Lime dusted seasonings they encouraged customers to sample on their fritters and whatnot.
Tourists milled in and out, purchased a few sundries and such, interrupted Joy’s reading. Most customers seemed to stop in at the tail-end of their vacations on their way back up the highway to the Miami airport. The Key Lime Emporium, and Joy, was their last opportunity to partake of the local color. They plied her with a few harmless questions as she rang up their items. Is it always this hot? Do they catch that dolphinfish year-round? What are all those wooden traps for stacked up side of the highway? Which was okay.
Like nothing in this world, Joy told the people who asked her what it was like to live here. Because people heard in the response what they wanted to hear, and it usually hushed them right up, and it wasn’t untrue.
The story Joy was reading seemed to be about a philandering husband taking up with a younger woman, also married, who owned a yippy dog. She tried to pick up where she left off before a family from Michigan assailed her with too many questions, but found herself flipping back to make sure she didn’t miss something. Had the pair already made love? Before she could figure it out, the bells clanged against the door and captured her attention. Luke. Joy tried not to notice that it was ten minutes past one. Maybe Candy was right about the kids these days. What was the word she used? Entitled.
“Afternoon,” he replied, reaching down toward the ledge behind the counter for his Key Lime Emporium apron, trading it for his insulated lunch bag. “Been busy?” he asked, which was practically gregarious coming from Luke’s quarter.
“Not really. Steady trickle.” He accepted Joy’s gaze, briefly, then looked down toward his smartphone on the counter, as if one of those text messages had flashed across the screen. She could smell his musky adolescent odors riding the climate control currents between them, mingling with the organic Key Lime air-freshener she’d misted about, earlier. “Pies and marinades moving pretty well, like usual.” Luke nodded over his screen as he fumbled behind his back with the strings of his apron. She considered asking Luke if he needed help tying the apron, reconsidered as he seemed to be making progress. He rarely looked anyone straight in the eye, which Joy attributed to his generation and their electronic devices. In any case, it allowed more opportunity for Joy to study Luke as he finished with the apron, finally, sat down on his stool. He was a handsome young man, in truth, even if he could use some more Vitamin D from the sun. Crystal blue eyes and fine cheekbones surprised you below the black bristles of his buzz cut and his generous eyebrows that nearly converged in the middle. She couldn’t understand why he tried so hard to sabotage his attractive features by calling attention to other places. A pug nose, pierced in the middle with a silver job that recalled oxen; a weak, acne-prone chin advertising twin studs that seemed pasted on, but must have been pierced from the inside of his lip, somehow; and those ears, pierced (if pierced was the proper word) with what looked like plastic hoops inside the stretched lobes. They smacked of something primitive she might have seen in an issue of National Geographic. Vaguely African, or was it from some tribe in the Amazon? Did the girls Luke’s age find this sort of thing attractive? Or was Luke gay? He didn’t seem gay. If Luke was gay, he wouldn’t broadcast his musky odors. Joy’s gay nephew, Shawn, lived in her Big Pine home for thirteen years and showered so frequently his hair ever seemed to transition between various stages of damp. Shawn kept his bathroom and bedroom (formerly, and currently, Joy’s sewing room) neat as a pin, wiped down their tile counters in the kitchen with Clorox spray every night to keep from attracting the palmetto bugs, which lashed their insect wings against the kitchen bay window wet-season nights. Joy knows that this is a stereotype, gay men and their tidiness. Even so.
“So beef and pork are out of the question for you, I suppose. But what about chicken?”
Spying Luke’s insulated lunch bag inspired Joy’s question, which she didn’t think was so daft. Not so daft as to inspire Luke’s bemused stare, cracking into a smug smile, his response of stingy monosyllables.
“Eyes. Beak. Mouth. Face.”
Joy nodded, returned to her book. The acids in her stomach roiled. She ought to have eaten more than a slice of wheat toast this morning. The darn heat, though. She cleared her throat to keep Luke from hearing the digestive goings on. The bells mercifully clanged from the front door, announced the arrival of a trim fifty-something couple. They exuded vague athleticism, standing there in their gleaming white sneakers and breathable fabrics, advertising bronze skin just starting to sag over toned thighs and biceps. Tennis players, Joy would guess. Floridians, likely. From Orlando. Or Sarasota, maybe.
“See if they need help, Luke. You know more about the products than I do.”
“Sure.” He clicked a button on the side of his smartphone with his angry red thumb as he rose, dropped the device into one of his apron pockets and made his way toward the couple. Joy had no business handing down marching orders, which didn’t seem lost upon Luke. He usually deferred to his elder’s wishes, but without any great enthusiasm. Which pretty much summed up his attitude, generally, and which fairly approximated Joy’s own attitude at the shop. Yet Joy was in her seventies while Luke must have been seventeen or so. Keys crustiness, it seemed to her, was something that ought to bake in after a reasonable number of years scraping along in Monroe County. A greater measure of congeniality ought to attend the young.
She watched after Luke as he approached the couple, as he uttered soft words she couldn’t hear—Something I could help you with? she imagined—watched as he shifted his gaze toward the nets of fresh Key Limes (imported from Mexico; cheaper at the Publix up in Largo) so he wouldn’t have to look the woman straight in the eye, watched as the woman uttered fewer words in reply, something crisp and curt, judging by her severe brow all of a sudden—We’re just looking, Joy imagined—watched the husband’s folded arms above his flat stomach, watched as Luke nodded, withdrew toward the tea pyramids to save face, realigned their edges to shore up their structural integrity. Joy’s blood rose. She lifted a liver-spotted hand to her cheek to feel the heat. Who did that tourist lady think she was, the Queen of Sheba? Piercings aside, Luke was only a child. Was it too much to ask, a measure of civility? It was a strange feeling to feel, this feeling Joy associated with motherliness. Joy had never been a mother.
The couple, presently, approached the counter with their few goods. Joy noticed that she’d picked clean the scallop shells holding the shortbread cookie samples, but she’d wait until the snooty tourists were gone before refilling them.
Joy insisted upon driving herself Sunday night up the narrow Overseas Highway to the Turtle for dinner with Chuck, insisted upon an early seating and arrived even earlier, anticipating evening gridlock from departing vacationers that never materialized. She parked her Prius far side of the loose oyster shell lot under the shade of the big mahoganies, their scythe-shaped leaves nervous from the west breeze. The still hot sun pasted her face with its scalding brush as she stood on the landing waiting for Chuck. She closed her eyes against the heat, which felt good against her lids. She opened her eyes and gazed across the road at the giant banyan that somehow survived all the hurricanes since Joy’s time, spackled white now with an ibis flock settled in for the night. The brine of the bay and the fecund odors of trees and shrubs going about their reproductive business punched through the cooking smells and exhaust from the highway. Joy had visited a few other fishing towns up the coast with Horace years ago before his accident. Stuart. Cocoa Beach. St. Augustine. This southernmost stretch of limestone and marl and bay and sea still smelled like no other place in the world.
“Hope I’m not interrupting something,” Chuck interrupted her. She told him no, that of course he didn’t interrupt anything, that she hadn’t noticed him pull up is all. He wore a button-down short-sleeve shirt advertising broad hibiscus blooms in (thankfully) earth-tone hues. His sparse hair was still wet from the shower, seemed, the few tendrils gathered toward shared purpose into a visible part, the comb-tracks visible against sunburnt scalp. He was thinner than Joy had realized at the Key Lime Emporium.
“You look nice,” he said, pulling open the oversize front door, shellacked with fresh paint against the salt air. Joy thanked Chuck for the compliment, even if she might have looked nicer. She didn’t want to give Chuck the wrong impression so splashed on some Jean Naté after her shower but not her White Shoulders perfume. She left her hair down rather than gather it up and expose her neck, still lovely, source of some silly pride. She wore one of her modest A-line home-sewn dresses and just a touch of dark lipstick.
“You sure we ought to contribute to Skip’s retirement fund?” Joy asked as the pretty hostess seated them in the booth, as Joy scanned the vintage black-and-white photographs of fishermen and their trophy catches festooned across the inside wall. Her eyes were drawn to the sea turtles in a few photos, propped upright between barely clad hunters as if they were posing, too, and not dead. The Turtle Restaurant and Inn had been in the Smathers family longer than her forty-odd years in Monroe County. Only turtles Skip could legally serve now were farm-raised freshwater creatures from the Lake Okeechobee area, which he chunked up for soup. He had been County Commissioner on and off as long as Joy’s known him and fancied himself a big muckety-muck. She hoped Skip wasn’t here tonight to notice them and make hay over their dinner together.
“Oh, Skip’s not so bad. Food’s still best we got going outside Key West.”
Joy nodded into her menu. Even though it was early, the tables were almost half occupied by tourists and a few locals Joy recognized (even if she didn’t know their names) hoping to avoid the dinner rush. Three children under ten at the closest round-top had scooted their wreckage of half-consumed bivalve and arthropod shells toward the center of the table and gazed down at their electronic devices while their young parents conversed, seeming happy enough with each other. An impossibly dark worker set down their waters and silently departed before Joy could properly thank him.
“How about we share the scallop appetizer?” Chuck suggested.
“Scallops!” she cried, thoughts of Luke blooming. “No face.”
“Skip still gets them from Homosassa. Fixes them up real nice with sherry and breadcrumbs.”
Something about the way Chuck boasted over the scallops made her wonder how many other women he had brought to The Turtle since Helen’s passing. Candy hadn’t mentioned anything about Chuck dating women, and Candy would know, because her husband, Bill, would sure know. Was it Chuck’s habit to ply dates with the scallop appetizer, she wondered? Then she wondered why she wondered.
“The scallops sound nice,” she replied.
Their waitress arrived to greet them, pretending to ignore the upraised palm of the tourist husband at the nearby round-top. She was even prettier than the pretty hostess, coltish with a high blond pony-tail tamed with several elastic bands, discernible muscles riding beneath the tanned skin of her arms. She ran through the specials (Joy would consider the tripletail almondine), raised an index finger toward the tourist husband she could no longer ignore, asked Joy and Chuck whether she could get them something to drink from the bar, which made Joy glance over toward the female bartender, pretty as the waitress, but with curly raven hair. Skip always had an eye for the girls, which might be why his wife decamped to Key West years ago. She’d say something to Chuck about Skip’s pretty employees if Chuck didn’t have the same roving eye, if Chuck hadn’t looked at Joy the way he had looked at her for those first several years she lived with Horace down on Big Pine, if Chuck hadn’t placed his palm against the curve of Joy’s bottom through the cocoa wrap-dress she’d sewn after a Diane von Furstenberg design while she rinsed dishes at one of the dinner parties she and Horace used to host back in the day, if his other hand hadn’t reached for her modest breast. The history between them, such as it was.
“Joy?” Chuck deferred to her.
“I’ll just have a glass of white wine with my meal, anything you have back there as long as it’s not Chardonnay, and if you could add a couple cubes of ice that would be nice.” The waitress nodded as she absorbed the salient details of Joy’s order.
“Dewar’s, please. Neat.”
The girl pivoted on her heels to put their drink orders in and see to the tourists, waved over to the black bus-boy, who hadn’t been a boy in years.
“Let’s not go too crazy with the hard liquor, Joy,” Chuck teased above the clatter of the fellow clearing the brimming bowls of bivalve and arthropod shell from the round-top.
“Well dinner’s one thing, Chuck, but I’m just not interested in any funny business you should know.” She fiddled with the overlong knife on the tablecloth as she spoke, had already set down her menu. The tripletail would be fine.
“Always a no-nonsense woman, Joy. That’s what I always liked about you.”
“I just wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression.”
Here Chuck set down his own menu, having decided upon his entrée, perhaps, his neutral expression giving way to a rising smile as he scanned Joy’s barely painted mouth, her brow furrowed with vigilance, the high neckline of her home-sewn A-line dress, caught a whiff, maybe, of the deodorizing splash of Jean Naté, which wasn’t quite perfume. “Oh I don’t think you have to worry about that, Joy.” And then he laughed, a big belly laugh that attracted the attention of the youngest child beside them, who said something to her brother, and whose mother admonished them both to mind their own business. Joy ought to have taken offense at Chuck’s comment, and at the big belly laugh—he was wiping his eyes now with his cloth napkin—but it set her to laughing, too. She couldn’t help herself.
“Oh stop it, Chuck. You’re making a spectacle of us.” She gazed across the dining room at the other couples and families enjoying early dinners, dressed sparsely in loafers and linens, showing their teeth. The room buzzed with their bright chatter. It was one of the nice things about living here. The tourists who didn’t annoy her with their grasping ways sometimes cheered her with their clasped hands and misty eyes and new tans, their chipper spirits. There was something about the way Skip’s fancy silverware sparkled against the plates as diners set to their grouper and T-bones and tripletail and dolphinfish. Like hope, it sounded.
The pretty waitress returned with Chuck’s drink and took their orders without writing anything down.
“Amazing how they can remember everything like that,” Chuck said after the girl departed. Joy nodded rather than tell Chuck what she really thought, that half the time these show-offy waiters and waitresses got her order wrong.
“You been holding up okay, Chuck?”
“Oh sure. It’s been a while now.” He looked down at his cutlery.
Everyone was surprised when Helen passed away before Chuck. She had always been in pretty good health, while Chuck’s weight had been a problem. High blood pressure too. He’d suffered a heart attack. So who would have guessed that it would have been Helen, and not Chuck, keeled over at the Wooden Spoon in Marathon over her biscuits and gravy?
“Must be a comfort having the boys around to keep up the charter business. The grandkids, too.”
“That’s the truth. How’s Shawn? And his, um, partner?”
Joy liked that Chuck said Shawn’s name rather than “your nephew,” granting Shawn a greater share of personhood, seemed. While a live and let live dispensation held sway here, and while gay folk more and more seemed to run things on Key West, proper, Joy’s older crowd on Big Pine were of a more conservative bent, at least by the current standard. Her friends, including Chuck, had mostly cat-footed their way around the subject of her nephew all the years Shawn lived with Joy.
She told Chuck that Shawn and Alan were doing fine and that their studio was doing better than ever. Shawn had developed a new technique for evoking water and sky using oils and a particular brush that didn’t look like a proper paintbrush. Collectors recognized his talent and paid handsomely for his work. Not a trace of kitsch in his paintings, she insisted somewhat too stridently as Chuck made listening noises, tasted the scotch inside his cheeks, arranged his facial muscles to convey agreement.
Before long, their waitress returned with Joy’s wine and their scallops, which weren’t particularly special, and then their entrees, which were. Joy relented under Chuck’s insistence that she try a bite of his filet mignon au poivre. (He found it difficult to pay for local fish, having caught and cooked them all his natural-born life.) He asked after her tripletail so Joy scooted a piece to the fancy rim of her plate for Chuck to spear with his own fork. The girl had naturally forgotten to add the ice to her wine, but that was okay. Between bites, she and Chuck conversed easily across a number of topics as if they were old friends, which Joy supposed that they were. The undiluted wine might have helped. Skip materialized out of nowhere and greeted them with subdued conviviality, kept his natural garrulousness in check. He seemed to have gained most of the weight that Chuck had lost. A finger bloomed above and below a gold and onyx ring. Skip had the pretty waitress bring over another Dewar’s for Chuck on the house and refilled Joy’s wine glass himself, despite her mild protest. He knocked the tablecloth with his beefy knuckles twice as he said goodbye, the ring sounding against the wood. There was a lot inside the simple gesture, seemed to Joy. It made the water rise to her eyes. But that, too, might have been the wine.
While the waitress cleared their plates, Chuck asked Joy if she wouldn’t mind splitting one of the desserts. Joy agreed, because it wouldn’t be very smart to drive home across the few islands necklaced together by the narrow bridges just after drinking two glasses of wine without any ice. And because she was enjoying herself and would walk off the calories tomorrow morning in the scrub.
“Anything without Key Lime in it’s fine by me,” is what she said, which must have made Chuck think about the Key Lime Emporium.
“So how’s it like working for Candy, anyway?”
“Oh it’s fine. Hardly call it work.”
Retirement hadn’t agreed with Joy, in truth, so it was a good thing Candy asked her about helping out at the shop. A certain unhealthful fuzziness had set in to her waking hours. She had gained eight pounds, which wasn’t like Joy at all, and made her think twice, anyway, over the tiramisu Chuck suggested over the berries.
“The boy they have working there sure is interesting,” she continued. It was something to say. “Seems like a nice enough young man. But real quiet. Doesn’t eat anything with a face, says. Ever heard of such a thing? Luke, his name is.”
Chuck’s eyes flashed something that looked like surprise at the mention of Luke’s name, the whites redded with webs. The scotch, maybe. He lifted his meaty fist to his mouth and cleared his throat, taking his time about it, as if he were choosing his next words with care. A baby’s cry rose above the dining room banter, the complaint of chair legs against the Dade pine floor, the silverware sparkling against the plates.
“You know his real name ain’t Luke, right? You know he’s not really a he.”
In bed that night, Joy finished reading the story out of the library book she had set aside the last few days, flipped to the front to study the author’s name. Chekhov. Through the thin window she could hear the crickets sawing away, the long slash pine needles gossiping against the salt breeze, the exoskeletons of nocturnal creatures time to time testing the glass. She didn’t quite know what to think about the story. She decided she’d have to read it again in one sitting, certain that she missed something, tired from the wine and the drive, distracted as she was too over what Chuck had said about Luke.
She woke later than usual in the morning, the bully sun crowding the room and rousing her, finally. That wine. The late start complicated her constitutional through the scrub. By the time she strapped on her binoculars and set to it, the cardinals and towhees already seemed to have hunkered down inside the thatches of palmetto to escape the heat, their bright chatter silenced by the angry sizzle of the cicadas, the clicks and growls of other bugs Joy couldn’t name. Worse, clouds of gnats flew whirligig across the currents and pasted themselves against her wet forehead. She returned to the bungalow early, showered and headed up the highway to the Key Lime Emporium.
Candy was setting out the chintzy Polynesian and Haitian and Mexican metal art on the pea rock when Joy crunched to a stop in the Prius. She supposed Luke was inside. She had parked beside his dilapidated Kia.
“Morning. Why didn’t you tell me Luke’s real name was Larissa?”
Candy rose from the small flock of bronze sandpipers she’d been posing across the pea rock, set her hands on her hips. She was wearing sunglasses so Joy couldn’t quite read her expression.
“Never one to mince words were you, Joy Holtkamp?”
“I suppose not.” A woodpecker drummed from somewhere up inside the scaffolding of the tamarind branches. “Well?”
“It just didn’t seem like something needed sharing. What’s it any of our business?”
This would make good sense coming from anyone other than Candy, who assaulted Joy’s ears with all manner of gossip as long as they’d known each other.
“Plus,” Candy continued, “I guess I was worried you wouldn’t take the job if you knew right off about Luke, that he was transgender.”
Now this flat-out peeved Joy. She had shared her bungalow with her gay nephew all those years, offered him succor from the priggish sensibilities of her sister, Catherine, up in Deland. Who was Candy to act all holier-than-thou tolerant, enunciating that new word, transgender, as if it were just another if, and, or the? A semi sped by too fast, buffeted the two of them with its hot wake. Candy, studying Joy’s silence, must have read Joy’s thoughts. “I know how good you were with Shawn and all. I know that, Joy. Still.”
Joy would make a point of it to chat Luke up today, learn something more about him. She would continue to think of Luke as Luke, think of him as him, she decided even before swinging open the front door, the bells jangling, feeling somewhat smug about her with-it-ness. A few patrons milled through the aisles. Joy headed behind the counter and tied her apron. Luke was taking inventory of the Key Lime marinades and sauces on the clipboard.
“Morning,” he called back from the aisle, glanced up from his clipboard just long enough to flash a befuddled expression. She had greeted her coworker somewhat too sunnily, given the ordinary tenor of their communications.
Joy wouldn’t just blurt out a series of questions. She’d measure them out by the teaspoon, lest she spook him, wait till they rang up a few purchases, let the day take its time. Foot traffic picked up and they exchanged some harmless banter about the silly tourists, their peccadilloes. They groused, especially, over the endless questions with which a botoxed woman from Coral Gables assailed them, worried over the possible allergens on the ingredient list of their Key Lime salsa and Key Lime pepper chow.
Joy chastised herself for not picking up on Luke’s high voice, earlier.
“How about shrimp, Luke?” she asked after the Coral Gables woman left. “Can you eat shrimp?”
“Shrimp have eyes,” he answered, retying his apron. “Mouth and stuff.”
“No pinks for you, then. Quite a shame.”
“Well, at least you can eat clams and scallops and whatnot. That’s something.”
Luke once again flashed that befuddled expression. “You seem happy today,” he said.
“Really? I do?” It hadn’t occurred to Joy that she was happy. Nor did it occur to her that Luke had taken her temperature these past several days they had been in each other’s company at The Key Lime Emporium, as he must have done to know what seeming happy looked like on Joy.
“Hot date or something?” he asked, a rare smile dawning, which made the ox-like piercing in his nose wiggle some.
Joy denied the charge. It unnerved her that Luke had intuited the possible source of her buoyancy.
She asked about Luke’s parents to change the topic, a question she knew the answer to already. Luke’s father was Ray Stuart, a charter fisherman out of Bud N’ Mary’s specializing in the daytime swordfish bite, a contemporary of Chuck’s boys, which was how Chuck knew that Luke had been named Larissa by the Stuarts, that Luke carped over his clothes and hair since he was young, downright refused to wear girls’ swimsuits for sandbar Sundays and pretty much retreated to his bedroom by middle school, which sort of explained his pallid complexion. Luke’s mother, who worked for the county in some capacity, was supportive of her child, accepted his Luke-ness, but it was still difficult for Ray to truck, which Joy supposed she could understand.
Joy wanted to ask a second question, but Luke went ahead and asked her if she’d ever been married. So Joy told him about Horace, that he’d been a charter captain down in Key West, that they’d been happy enough but that he drank too much and drove his truck straight off the old Seven-Mile Bridge a long time ago, the fool, surprising herself by the extent of her disclosures, the sharp bite of her recollections. It seemed to surprise Luke too, who nodded all the while, said “That sucks,” then hushed right up. The store seemed real quiet, partly because the last customer had departed without purchasing anything. Joy heard the air-conditioner kick in, the sad words of the Jimmy Buffet song riding the air, which Joy’s brain usually filtered out, somehow.
Come Monday, it’ll be alright, come Monday I’ll be holding you tight . . .
She asked Luke which school he went to, the one up in Tavernier or the one in Marathon, and Luke surprised her by saying neither, that he took all his classes through something called the Florida Virtual School. The name seemed like a joke to Joy. Luke described the online curriculum, the advantages of the delivery-system over boring, brick-and-mortar classes (where did he pick up these terms?), all that wasted time.
“But isn’t it lonely?” Joy asked. “What about friends?”
I have friends,” he said. “I do Snapchat.”
“Oh, I see.” She decided to believe Luke about his friends, decided not to ask what it meant to do Snapchat.
“I have a girlfriend,” he said.
. . . I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A. haze, and I just want you back by my side.
Sunday evening, Joy accompanied Chuck to Founder’s Park for the free concert. He had suggested the outing, which impressed Joy, that he had suggested doing this thing that she imagined he didn’t much care for, knowing that Joy liked the concerts.
“You don’t care for classical music, Chuck,” she had offered her mild protest over the telephone.
“Maybe not. But I like free.”
She let Chuck drive. He raised a dusty plume as he pulled up to her bungalow in Helen’s Corolla (which he decided to keep, apparently). It amused Joy, waiting on the rattan chair under the shade of her gumbo limbo, seeing Chuck behind the wheel of the shrunken car, which was easier for her to step inside than his truck would have been. Chuck asked straight away if he was late on account of her waiting outside (she assured him that he wasn’t), asked if she wanted him to put on the air once he turned off her street and headed up the Overseas Highway. She declined, mostly because she thought it unwise to get used to climate control when they were about to sit outside for the concert, and partly because the breeze buffeting the car’s interior sounded nice in her ears. She leaned back into the warm fabric seat and gazed out the window to see what there was to see. Not much. Scruffy islands of gray palmettos, the tattered russet bark of slash pines sprouting from the fans here and there. Otherwise it was gas stations and frowzy storefronts. And the sun, of course, stingy with its shadows. Still, it was nice. Someone driving her somewhere. She liked that Chuck didn’t feel the need to fill up the near-silence with words.
They reached Bahia Honda Key and the Seven-Mile Bridge before too long and the horizon opened up before them, boasting sea and sky. The offshore breeze stirred up cotton foam on the water, blued over in various hues on account of the shifting depths. A frigatebird rode the sky, barely flapped its black wings. Horace used to watch out for those frigatebirds when charters had their heart set on dolphinfish or blackfin. For lunch out on the water, Horace used to like that Jewish salami that Joy sliced thick for him and stacked on rye bread without the seeds. Horace used to shower in the evenings just after fishing, then rinsed his hands with lemon juice and vanilla. He used to make love to Joy just after rinsing his hands, while whatever she was cooking for dinner cooled on the stove, while the day’s last molten light oozed in through the blinds.
“New bridge sure is nice,” Chuck said.
“Yes. It is.” The bridge had been rebuilt about fifteen years ago now and it was nice, partly because it reminded her less of Horace’s accident. She wondered whether Chuck was thinking about Horace too when he said what he said about the bridge.
“So how was the rest of the week with Candy? With . . . uh . . . Luke?”
“Oh fine.” She decided already she wouldn’t tell Chuck about Luke’s girlfriend, that her name was Erin, that she was a year older than Luke and a student at one of the art schools up in Miami. She wouldn’t tell Chuck about Luke’s girlfriend, because it perplexed her. How did something like that work? The parts. And how did Luke hide his breasts so well, anyway? It was all too much to think about. She sure didn’t want to hear what Chuck’s notions might be. “He attends that Florida Virtual School,” Joy said. “Ever hear of that, Chuck, the virtual school?”
“Hold on. Can’t hear you.” Joy watched the automatic windows rise to their gaskets, sealing them inside, felt the cooler climate control against her face as Chuck fiddled with the dials. She reached toward the vent to redirect the currents toward her blouse.
“Virtual school you were saying?”
“Seen ads for it on the TV. Good thing she, I mean he, goes there. Otherwise poor kid’d get her butt kicked seven ways to Sunday. His butt kicked, I mean.”
“You think so, Chuck? Even now? The young are more tolerant about that sort of thing these days, seems.”
“Might be right. Wouldn’t be easy for the kid, anyways, I imagine. School.
Gym class and all.”
The driver in front of them had slowed to a near crawl, which wasn’t so uncommon across the long bridge, tourists savoring the vista, or nervous over its height, the sudden precariousness of their personhood slicing between bay and Atlantic atop this narrow band of concrete. Chuck tapped the brakes to hang back a safe distance, sort of huffed out his nostrils. She wondered what he’d do if she wasn’t sitting in the passenger seat. Curse, likely.
“That Luke who used to be Larissa,” Chuck continued, shifting about in his seat, fidgety from the holdup. “Each his own, but something about it . . .”
“What?” She looked away from the cotton chop toward Chuck, noticed a pin-prick of dark blood on his cheek where he must have cut himself shaving.
“Thing I can’t quite understand is where it came from all of a sudden. That name. Transgender. Is there any real difference between what we called transvestites and what they’re calling transgender now? I’m just asking?” Chuck lifted his palms from the steering wheel for a moment to mime surrender, glanced toward her and flashed his fillings.
“Oh stop.” Joy shook her head to convey mild disapprobation. Because Chuck didn’t mean harm, truly. And because she didn’t know what the difference was, either.
They parked at Founder’s in plenty of time for the concert. A prized parcel of solid earth. Henry Flagler’s railway workers, she’d heard, broadened the shoulders here between bay and sea by dumping their fill from nearby bridge-work. The land had long been a private yacht club before Skip and the other county commissioners wrested it away for the municipal park, built the athletic fields, the tennis courts, the boat ramps and amphitheater, trucked in sand for the beach and laid some sort of skateboard course beside that fancy new swimming pool. The thrashing of arms in the pool sounded above the musicians testing their instruments as they made their way past it to the amphitheater on the Great Lawn closer to the bay. The pool had only been dug out of the marl around eight years ago upon the lobbying of a former Olympic hero (the name didn’t ring a bell with Joy), who coached the competitive team and taught physical education at one of the high schools.
She waited on the stiff grass for Chuck to set up the aluminum chairs, both of which he insisted upon carrying from the car. The bay beyond the amphitheater shimmered more green than blue in the flat evening light, she noticed upon taking her seat, wasn’t all chopped up as the ocean had been. The air was spiced from clusters of wax myrtle shrubs here and there.
“Sound like they know what they’re doing,” Chuck said. The low brass was having a go at it, shaking off the rust.
“Mm-hm.” Truth was, the county recruited a rag-tag collection of musicians for these summertime concerts, graduate students from the U of M, locals filling in the blanks. The performers, clad in vaguely matching cruise wear, only subjected their shabbiest instruments to the humidity and salt air. Yet they always sounded professional enough to Joy. Only a few other residents, and fewer tourists, peppered the lawn on their folding chairs and blankets to listen to the classical concert this summertime evening. The sparse crowd was one of the reasons she enjoyed the classical concerts, one of the reasons she enjoyed summertime.
An Asiatic conductor walked across the amphitheater toward his perch, which sort of hushed up the chatter for a moment before he started testing separate sections of the smallish orchestra, whose instruments rose and fell under his command. C’mon already, Joy heard someone complain. Before long, he offered a short nod to the audience, turned toward his musicians, his arms frozen before him for just a moment. Then strings filled the air with their plaintive notes.
“No, definitely not.” Joy knew just enough about classical music to know that this wasn’t Beethoven. She didn’t care much for Beethoven. Found his music jarring. Not nearly as melodic as the violins, cellos, and wind instruments now rising in shared purpose. They seemed to be circling around a collective note toward which they were striving.
Joy wondered whether Chuck had simply named the only two classical composers he knew. More than some could say around here, whose musical shores stretched only as far as Ben Harrison, Jimmy Buffet, and that horridly named band, Big Dick and the Extenders. If she had to guess, anyway, she’d say this was Bach, so that’s what she said to Chuck, who nodded, leaned back against the rickety support of his lawn chair. The sun had ducked for the evening below a low screen of gray clouds on the horizon. It was usually a few degrees cooler here than up in Miami and Joy sure appreciated those few degrees now. The offshore breeze swept across the clearing now and again just as it started to feel close, spraying spice about from the wax myrtles. Something about the music made her sit especially still. She felt her heart beating inside her chest. Other outdoor chords mingled with the instruments between the notes—the wheeze of a gnatcatcher dancing about the shrubs, the growl of a boat engine Dopplering across the bay, the strident bleats of two killdeers skittering across the open grass. The way the musicians kept circling around that elusive note stirred up something inside Joy, something like longing. Maybe because she’d been thinking about Horace, earlier. Or maybe it was Chuck flashing his palms in the car, trying his best to extend his sympathies toward Luke. Or maybe the music itself was enough to put her in this place. Her insides felt scooped clean. She reached toward her eyes to stanch careless tears.
“Allergies,” she said.
The musicians paused before ever finding that note. A youngish couple on a nearby blanket started clapping then had the sense to stop when the band forged ahead onto the second movement, which had more spry to it. Joy issued a cleansing exhale, hadn’t realized she’d been near holding her breath. She wondered what Chuck thought of the first movement, but just as she glanced his way to ask he excused himself, then rose and walked a wide arc around the amphitheater toward the marina, toward the few boats bobbing in their slips, a cluster of black boys fishing between. It was pretty far away to tell, but the boys seemed too close to one another to be fishing separate lines. She could only make out one rod that the tallest one seemed to struggle against, bent like a bow above his head. She’d say he got the hook stuck on a rock, pulled under maybe by a nurse shark. Prime piece of Florida real estate, what Horace would say whenever a big grouper or mutton snapper or shark pulled him down into the reef.
Chuck entered her frame of view of the boys, seemed to be talking to the big one. She continued to watch as the boy handed over his rod, as Chuck threw out line from the reel with his left hand (he must have opened the bail) flicked the rod with his right, performing his own sort of symphony with the rod. He started reeling in the slack, fast by the look of it, then stopped when the rod bowed up again. Then he started doing something else, plucked at the taut line with his thumb, seemed, as if he was playing a chord, did this for a while before opening the bail again, throwing out more line and conducting his symphony. When he reeled in this time, it must have worked because the rod didn’t bow and the black boys leaned over the concrete ledge and then Joy saw the fish. She heard the spry violins and horns she hadn’t realized she’d stopped hearing while she’d been watching Chuck.
“That was a nice thing you did back there,” Joy said on their way back down the highway.
“Oh, that was nothing.”
It seemed especially quiet in the car, maybe because the outdoors had been so loud. Dark too inside the car. The orange dusk had given way to purple twilight. Headlights from oncoming traffic flashed across Chuck’s face every so often, as if they were taking his photograph. He drove slowly, seemed to study the road with special care, which was a good thing, his eyes likely not being what they once were. It might have been the near dark, the near silence, maybe the earlier music that pierced Joy, prompted true words.
“So this is all right with you, Chuck, just passing time with me this way? You wouldn’t prefer to be with Bill and the other Lodge men?” Chuck was a longtime member of the Masonic Lodge in Sugarloaf. Horace had been a member too, headed up the charity spaghetti dinner event for several years.
“Why’re you so suspicious, Joy Holtkamp? You think I’m on that Viagra or something?” Here he turned toward her for just an instant to gauge her expression. “Ever occur to you that I’m not after anything else, that this is exactly what I want, a little female companionship? You’re good company, Joy.”
“Not sure Horace thought so.”
Joy told him what she imagined Chuck already knew, that things toward the end weren’t so good between them, that it wounded him more than it might have that they couldn’t conceive a child together, that he never fully accepted Joy’s full-bore commitment to her job at the college (though he couldn’t rightly protest), that his drinking got worse, that a better wife might have kept Horace on the straight and narrow. Like his Helen, say, who installed a lock on the kitchen slider after Chuck’s heart attack so he wouldn’t snack in the middle of the night.
An even quieter quiet filled up the space between them once she stopped speaking. She could hear the climate control whirring from inside the engine, the tires humming against the freshly laid asphalt. Then she heard Chuck’s tongue sort of smack against his palate, as if he were tasting his next words inside his mouth.
“Might be some truth in there, Joy,” he finally said, “but Horace sure knew how lucky he was to have you. Should have heard how he bragged after you to all us Lodge boys. At the dock too. And something else . . .” He let his words trail off.
“What?” Joy watched the headlights flash against Chuck’s face.
“That time way back I got fresh with you in your kitchen. You were cleaning the fondue pots. Shucks, you might not even remember.”
“Well what I bet Horace never said to you if I know Horace was that I told him about it year or so after. You been a mite more game that night, things work out different between you and me back when I was full of piss and vinegar, who knows if I would have had the guts to say anything up at our Lodge retreat in Ocala. But since it never amounted to much I admitted to getting fresh with you, and you know what he said?” Joy told him no. “‘I landed the best darn one of them, didn’t I Chuck? The best darn one.’”
It wasn’t a surprise that Horace had said this about her way back when. Things were sweet between them during those early years. All the same, it was nice of Chuck to tell her the story.
“That’s what he said?” Joy asked.
“Yup. And hell if he wasn’t right about that, Joy. Forget how pretty you always were. How true you were to Horace back when every Dick and Jane around here was getting it on. Moxie alone you showed taking on that job at the college after things didn’t work out between you two, family-wise. Moxie alone. Hell if Horace wasn’t right.”
Joy wondered if she ought to tell Chuck something he didn’t know. That when she felt the warm curve of his palm shape her bottom against her sheer cocoa wrap dress, then felt the gust of air on her goose-pimpled neck as his other hand rose for her breast, that it hadn’t horrified her at all, as he must have thought, the way she instinctively batted away his paws. That it thrilled her. Yet what good would it do Chuck to tell him this now?
“Well now you’ve gone ahead and done two nice things tonight,” she told him, instead.
As June gave way to July, she learned some more things about Luke at the Key Lime Emporium. He hoped to graduate from the virtual school in the Spring with enough credits that he could earn his college degree in only two years at one of the state schools. FIU, maybe, so he could be with his girlfriend up in Miami. Luke and Joy were wiping the dust off the glass jars of marmalade, which didn’t move so well. Erin was particularly interested in a Japanese style of animation. She was working on a series of graphic novels, which involved world-building. Then Luke explained to Joy what a graphic novel, and world-building, was. Erin was “really talented,” he said, wiping his marmalade jar clean with increased vigor. He was earnest and unjaded about Erin, which Joy found endearing. She tried hard not to wonder what the two did, physical-wise, what sort of intimacies they groped for and (hopefully) achieved. A minefield for everyone, the sex business, Joy believed. All told, Horace and she managed to figure things out together pretty well.
“Calamari,” Joy declared, apropos of nothing, spraying more Windex on her paper towel. “Can you eat squid, Luke?”
“Sure,” Luke replied. “But it’s nasty.”
Knit Wits ran a clearance sale on some fine fabric so Joy found herself spending much of her spare time sewing dresses for the Children’s House in Miami, as she liked to do for the orphans. Chuck had the good sense not to press her for too many dates. They took in a movie at the theater in Marathon, one of Meryl Streep’s lesser efforts, a pleasant dinner at the Quay on a separate night overlooking the tannic waterway lined with mangroves. It was calming to sip her iced wine and watch the boats idle across the no-wake, listen to the herons bleat from the mangroves, and hear about the goings on with Chuck’s boys and his grandkids. The youngest, Austin, might need his adenoids removed, ear-tubes implanted.
She forgot all about that Chekhov story until Evangeline from the library called her special to tell her the book was overdue. She told Evangeline she’d return it tomorrow and then had to fish around for it in her nightstand drawer. She read the whole story again in the bright light of her sewing room and it turned out that she hadn’t missed anything. Hearts yearned. Sometimes toward what might be realized. Sometimes not. And so life could be lovely and long and difficult. It was enough for a story to be about, she supposed.
The following week, Joy and Chuck took in an experimental play on Key West, which neither of them quite understood. They walked the cobblestone streets for some exercise, afterward, puzzled over the plot, which was particularly confusing as the few actors played multiple roles without significant alterations to their costumes or affect. Fetid odors Joy associated with sewage and urine punched through the more pleasant brine now and again. Chuck took her hand as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Come August, it occurred to Joy that she and Luke had become friends. Because she had told him about that silly experimental play she saw with Chuck and about Austin’s persistent ear-infections. Because Luke told her about his fine score on the ACT just after he found out about it on his smartphone. Because it cheered Joy to glimpse Luke in the doorframe of the Key Lime Emporium the few days and hours their schedules overlapped. Because she hoped things would work out for Luke the way he wanted things to work out. And because she noticed right off when Luke’s ordinary teenage quiet turned into something different and disconcerting.
First thing she noticed was that Luke hardly groused with her at all one day about the grasping tourists. She let that pass. Instead of heading straight home after work that evening, she took a long walk in the hammock, glimpsed a woodrat skittering across the leaf litter, a white-eyed vireo speaking its clipped sentences from the canopy. Few days later, when their schedules overlapped again, she noticed an intensification of the musky odors Luke advertised over the Key Lime air freshener. She noticed the archipelago of whiteheads on his chin aside his piercings that he hadn’t bothered to lance.
“You okay?” she asked between the waves of tourists. Luke had just plopped down on the stool beside her, gazed down at his smartphone screen, which he’d done with increased frequency, lately, if that were possible, then threw it in his apron pocket, huffing out his pug nose.
Joy tried to start a new book that night, one of the new releases from the library that Evangeline saved special for her. She folded the book shut after only a few minutes, couldn’t concentrate on the words.
The following week, Candy asked Joy and Luke to work the outside food trailer together. A charter bus from an assisted living facility in Weston had unloaded its passengers on the pea rock. It would take the two of them to keep up with the orders of conch fritters and wings and smoothies and deep fried Key Lime pie. Candy would mind the store. Joy had her hands full accommodating the seniors, who hadn’t weathered the years quite so well as Joy. They issued discombobulated queries and counted their change against their palm with quavering fingertips. She counted one man’s change wrong, apologized profusely, distracted as she was over Luke’s transactions. Though Luke had never been solicitous with the customers, he was downright gruff today, grunts and nods standing in for verbal intercourse, deflecting rather than answering the occasional inquiry not directly related to the food order, refusing outright requests for samples.
Hear how rude he was to me? Joy heard one woman complain as she retreated toward the tamarind shade. He couldn’t let me taste one to be sure? Just to be sure?
That’s the way they all are down here I’ve been telling you.
And did you see those horrible hoops in his ears?
The rush subsided before too long and Joy and Luke, without words, set to cleaning up the stations. The seniors were climbing back into their bus. Joy heard their distant chatter, the hydraulics as the driver released the brake, heard the shoes of a few other customers crunch along the pea rock as they inspected the metal art and such, heard the traffic humming across the baked asphalt highway.
“What’s bothering you, Luke?” she asked as she rinsed clean the blender, as Luke, between tasks, stared blankly into the fry oil. It was simply too close quarters in the trailer to let Luke’s sullenness pass without comment. “You’re not yourself, dear. Everything okay at home?”
“Erin broke up with me.”
“Oh. I see.”
It hadn’t occurred to Joy that it might be so ordinary and upsetting a problem as girlfriend trouble. It hadn’t occurred to her, she realized, because she’d never fully taken the romantic relationship seriously, Luke and Erin. That she hadn’t taken it seriously, she realized next, was the same thing as not taking Luke seriously.
“I’m so sorry,” Joy said.
“It really fucking sucks.”
Joy folded Luke into an embrace so he wouldn’t have to cry there all on his lonesome. They were roughly the same height, which hadn’t occurred to Joy until now. Luke wasn’t used to being hugged, she could tell by the awkward way he arranged his body, his arms, his blemished chin against her shoulder. Well, that made two of them. Luke’s bird-light shoulder blades astonished her, floating beneath his T-shirt. Had he lost weight? She felt the heat from Luke’s wet breath against her neck, smelled his ripe Luke smell. Joy thought about what she might say to make her friend feel better, but couldn’t. She wanted to say something hopeful, yet true, this instant before he pulled away. He was already preparing, she could tell, sniffing up his tears, clearing his throat. She held him close to thwart his retreat. Luke’s life, with any hope, would be lovely and long and difficult. As most lives were. Joy herself wasn’t quite through yet, it seemed. Poor Luke was only just getting started. He’d already been brave, braver than Joy had ever had to be. He would have to continue to be brave, Joy knew, for a very long time.