Thomas Skelton thought that Key West was a town he could only take so much of. Without the ocean, he knew he couldn't take it at all. It was one thing to be blanking out on a 40-hour week; and another to be unemployed and in Duval Street at a wrong hour, or in front of the Red Doors on Caroline Street when they came out with the stretcher and the shrimpers wandered into the night to smoke under the stars and look through the ambulance windows. The character with the knife was never cut off at the bar. He just strolled to the Wurlitzer and tried to remember exactly who he was. He played Orange Blossom Special to someone down there looking at herself in the Formica who sat and never looked up. In the dreamboat evening of half-time wages the song was finished. The ambulance attendant held a hand mirror to the victim's mouth and tried to remember if he mailed in the guarantee on his air conditioner. The shrimper's eyes filled to Orange Blossom Special, which was his anthem. He recalled a childhood in Pascagoula when he'd never stabbed a soul or put the boot to a man who was down.
Then, too, Thomas Skelton could remember when he had been below Key West to the Marquesas on a cool winter day when the horsetails were on a rising barometer sky and the radiant drop curtain of fuchsia light stood on edge from the Gulf Stream. And when he ran back across the Boca Grande channel into the lakes and then toward Cottrell to miss the finger banks, he knew how he would raise Key West on the soft-pencil edge of sea and sky. The city then would seem like a white folding ruler, in sections; and the frame houses always lifted slowly, painted and wooden, from the sullen contours of the submarine base.
On the days when he was roughed up running against the wind in the channel crossings and stopped for a drink to dry off, the up-country girl in a wash dress would offer him Seven Crown and Seven-Up, so that the two of them could soar down Duval in a flood of artificial light, stars and bugs.
Key West was a town where you had to pick and choose. It was always a favorite of pirates.
The weather broke, streamed away in mackerel clouds, cleared and got hot. He would guide in the morning. He was on Duval Street now. The Conch Train drifted past Sloppy Joe's and a thousand screaming ninnies cheered the clanging bell the barmaid rang at them as they passed. In the window of Gomez Plumbing the Christmas display rested on a field of palm leaves: Mary, Joseph and Christ in His manger, entirely fabricated from plumbing parts; the head of Holy Mary Mother of God was a squat chromium faucet; the Christ Child was a lovingly assembled congestion of pipe fittings in a cardboard manger. A simple faith, thought Skelton unkindly, but it is mine.
He had a bowl of fabada asturiana at the Cacique and then a double Jim Beam across the street at the Anchor. There were foreign sailors leapfrogging down Duval Street, squealing and blocking traffic until a huge black police lieutenant scattered them among the side streets. The sun went down and the light came up on the side of the La Concha Hotel.
Skelton wandered over to Eaton Street and sat on one of the benches donated by Mayor Papy, smoked a Canary Island cigar, waved to people he knew, and worried about guiding. His first clients would be Mr. and Mrs. Robert Rudleigh, Rumson, Conn. Well.
Skelton tried quite earnestly to think about Mr. and Mrs. Robert Rudleigh of Rumson, Conn. He imagined a brick house where Revolutionary War soldiers had fired at the British, a house with grapeshot in the lintels, covered with vines, and into whose front door Mr. Robert Rudleigh went each winter's dusk, carrying an enormous newspaper and wearing a gray coat. "Darling," he would have said to Mrs. Rudleigh, "it is time we had sport." Then the Rudleighs go to the city of New York. They go to a great brown store where pictures of Theodore Roosevelt and stuffed heads of tigers adorn the walls. A well-mannered lesbian shows them "tropical outfits," which include mosquito netting, a bonefish rod, a pith helmet, all stapled to a large piece of cardboard upon which has been printed a "tropical scene," the entire outfit protected by cellophane and displayed under a disinfecting ultraviolet light. Rudleigh's motto is, "I pay, I take." The city of New York and the town of Rumson know him for what he is: a marvel in a gray coat who sometimes walks chest deep through snowdrifts to get that enormous newspaper, and who only occasionally breaks a savage work pattern for sport in the tropics.
"Ma'am, you want to hand me that lunch so I can stow it?" Skelton took the wicker basket from Mrs. Rudleigh and then the thermos she handed him.
"I've got plenty of water," he said.