Krebs sat nursing a beer in the clapboard bar adjacent to the Coconut Mallory while Cassie, far too young to be a grandmother at forty something asked him about life in Los Angeles and what the west coast was like. So do you see stars sometimes? She asked. Sometimes yeah, Krebs replied stifling a burp. He hadn’t been this was in a long while. What’d you do last night, Cassie asked. Oh, went down to Duval and drank at Captain Tony’s and then ended up at the Garden of Eden. The thought of last night or more the fragments of it – made him nauseous.
Cassie smiled, and said the Garden of Eden was strange but worth checking out at least once if for nothing else but to say you did it. He smiled feebly at her breasts and nodded agreement. Yeah, it was okay and then I ended up back here and there was that other bartender and then I don’t remember much. Cassie had seen this plenty and took it neutrally and then asked if he had gotten a chance to see an iguana.
This trip to Key West was the first Krebs had taken since he’d gotten out of the hospital and the idea of flying across country had him in nerves for the weeks leading up to it. His pal Smitty, who still lived up in Sac had come along and that seemed to help things some. They’d been friends for a long time and there was an ease about him that settled Krebs’ mind. The fact of the matter was that the flight had been fine as had the drive down from Miami. What he’d worried about, which was having another attack, hadn’t even remotely presented itself. Unfortunately, the smart idea to drink up the town now had him feeling awful.
Ostensibly the idea had been to make use of the timeshare and to visit the Hemingway house and maybe get some snorkeling in. Smitty had ear problems so going scuba diving was out of the question. They’d gotten in late the first night and the office had been closed and by the time they settled in to the apartment (which faced the air conditioning unit) they were tired and just drank a few beers and did a little bullshitting and then went to bed. After Smitty had closed his door Krebs sat up in his room and stared at the set with the anticipation that something had to go wrong, and eventually he drifted off.
That day they’d dug the scene at the clapboard bar and that’s where they met Cassie. She didn’t seem to take as much to Smitty, but Krebs kept up with her and flirted innocently and tried to learn as much as he could about the place. It was odd to him to be a stranger in a new place and the tense waves he normally felt were gone; here he was anyone he wanted to be. He was a big shot from the big city on the west coast, not some slob realtor with a few hundred in the bank and a beat up ten year old Nissan.
After a beer they went to the pool where they met Mike, a loud middle aged dago bachelor who was travelling with his pal John, a married guy who lived in northern California. The four of them shot the shit and Mike bellowed about the girls he’d gotten and the food he cooked and how no one would ever keep him down, especially no woman. John nodded solemnly and Smitty swam around keeping his distance from the obese women on the far end and Krebs just chuckled and agreed before calling out to Smitty, hey let’s head down to Duval Street and see what’s going on. They left the other two men on amicable terms and cleaned up and hailed a cab.
Krebs had been here before a number of years ago and had tied one on and ended up crawling like an animal back to the tiny apartment close to downtown and had then driven back the whole way to Miami while his friend had slept. It had been fun but it had been too much even for his twenty six year old self. Now at thirty two the idea of going around and actually soaking up the town had more appeal. He was still riding the high of this budding newfound persona as he yakked with the cabbie about Robert the Doll and tourist girls and ghosts and how the marlin fishing was this time of year.
One they got downtown it was a matter of what to see first. I want to try a mojito, Smitty said. It only seems right since we’re here. Finding a rum bar they sat and drank. Tastes kinda the same as every other one I’ve had, Smitty noted. Yeah, I don’t think there’s much to it, Krebs said. From there they went to the Boar’s Head and to some other Hemingway bar and finally settled on Tony’s, where they would spend most of their time when they were downtown over the next few days.
You wouldn’t believe the kinda pussy you get coming through here over spring break, the bartender said in his thick New York accent. Sometimes I pick me up two or three and we go party and it’s unbelievable, unbelievable what these girls’ bodies look like nowadays at twenty, twenty one. I remember them always looking pretty good, Smitty said. Yeah, maybe, but these college girls… whew. Almost make you blow your load before anything even comes off! And with that he laughed and moved down the bar. Too bad you’re off the market, Smitty said to Krebs. It’s not so bad. Fact is I was never any good with girls anyhow, Krebs said. Besides, it’s not even spring break now.
That was pretty much how the next two days went. Kayak or swim by the Mallory and then head into town and walk around and drink. It felt like a real vacation and there was something to be said for that. It had been ages since Krebs had flown somewhere with a friend and he was enjoying it. The anxiety was gone and all he had to bother him where the blisters on his feet.
Both Krebs and Smitty were aspiring writers only Smitty worked and didn’t write and Krebs wrote and didn’t work. Smitty was a grocery clerk and had been since his twenties. He would go off on adventures now and then and this was it for the year. Krebs was jealous of him in a way, and suspected that the opposite might be true. Krebs hated his life and his writer’s block and that’s what had lead to the breakdown. Looking back on it now it was surreal to think he’s put himself in the loony bin for a couple of days, but goddamn did he need it. Now he was here drinking a sickeningly sweet Hemingway daiquiri which he new damn well nothing Papa would have drank.
Whaddaya think of these? He asked Smitty. Eh, they’re okay. A little much on the ice and sugar and not enough on the booze. That’s what Key West felt like overall. Perhaps once it had been the hideaway of pirates; the bastion of bastards and grafters and whores and rapists, but now it was something different. All the hard angles had been smoothed out and diluted. The place smacked of the shitty tourist drinks they were choking down.
Finally Smitty had had enough after the Garden of Eden yielded not sexy coeds, but a solitary nude geriatric with a backpack. This was the place bartender had suggested. Smitty finished his drink and went home. Krebs, holding on to some hope stayed behind. There was some blonde stupid looking guy sitting next to him with a large gold star of David hanging around his neck. You a Jew? Krebs asked. The guy stared back at him and answered that no, he was not, but the necklace reminded him of his stepfather. This seemed incredibly stupid to Krebs, but he said nothing and ordered a few more drinks and drank them by himself before stumbling down the three flights of stairs to the street.
He couldn’t clearly recall the cab ride back to the Coconut Mallory, but he made it and wandered down to the clapboard bar where Cassie wasn’t working but rather some washed out ex-trophy wife stood stupidly dispensing beer and tiny boxes of wine. This woman was an idiot compared to Cassie and Smitty was long asleep so Krebs just kept drinking beer and looking around and hoping the plump brunette might turn beautiful but she did not. After a while Mike and John showed up to play pool.
Hi uh, Bob? Mike said. Krebs didn’t bother to correct him and instead launched into some diatribe recounting his adventures on Duval street and how the bartender told him about all the pussy that could be had around town during spring break. Then he retold about the Swedish-looking Jew and the old man with the massive gut and the tiny penis. At no point did either Mike or John say anything, but looked back and forth to each other uneasily as Krebs continued to hover around them.
Look buddy, maybe you should take it easy, huh? Mike suggested, clearly irritated. John said nothing and his expression betrayed nothing. I’m okay, Krebs said. I thought we were pals. You said, you know about Northern California… Finally John chimed in: look, We’re not your friends. That was the squirrelly guy who probably also got sick of your rambling. Now buzz off.
The next day Krebs couldn’t really remember much other than a vague guilt and how even at the time he felt hurt and alone. Laying nauseous in bed he dreamed that he’d composed himself or perhaps even threatened the men and they had apologized for being rude, though he knew that didn’t happen. He’d made a fool of himself and no amount of anything was going to fill that blurred confusing hole with consolation.
Downstairs Smitty was watching television. Really tied one on, huh? I guess so, Krebs replied weakly. You tried to make a pizza but got frustrated or something and I found it defrosting in a cold oven, Smitty informed him. Shit, I don’t remember that… and sure enough there was some pizza – now cooked and half gone – sitting on the countertop. I’m not surprised, Smitty said and went back to watching his program. I’m going to go snorkeling if you’re interested. I don’t want to sit inside all day. Krebs nodded as he began chewing his half of the pizza.
After vomiting and taking a cocktail of pills and fluids in order to settle his stomach, Krebs and Smitty had found themselves on a chartered boat with a small group of guides and three homosexual scuba divers. The day on the water had gone well, the rolling waves soothing Krebs’ sickness. In fact, he hadn’t gotten sick at all, rather one of the scuba divers did after being tossed around by the current inside of a wreck they’d been exploring.
The ocean was a tonic. The steel gray sky and the warm drizzle and the chop of the waves made Krebs feel better. Why was it every time he wanted to have fun he ended up with regret instead? He was a grown man acting like a damn fool, but there on the boat all was well in the world. To cap the afternoon he and Smitty had come face to face with a large barracuda that vaguely followed them around in hopes of scavenging something. Even the stings of the jellyfish on the way back to the boat didn’t seem to bother him and once on deck he looked at his red-banded skin where the tendrils had gotten him.
All the way back to shore he slept and it wasn’t until they got back to the hotel did the sense of irresponsibility return. The adventure was still fresh, yet just like the lingering phantom of the hangover, his mind was conflicted. Finally deciding to face himself he went down to the bar and found only Cassie working and he sat down and ordered a beer as the rain began to fall. This was the night before Krebs was going back to California and as Cassie spoke he looked out at the gently rippling water and the silently bobbing boats and wondered if he would ever find himself here again.