Euphoria and the promise of advance in the wrong direction propelled Kak along the seawall like no force had moved her before. The boat slips in Key West Bight just to the right were aptly named. With every step she took they slipped by as fluidly as the water they organized. The world had changed. She had changed. She moved a little quicker. Thought a little clearer. And with the change, every perception of the world around her sharpened to a fine edge.
She’d reached bargaining. After eleven months the cloud of depression finally yielded to the September sun. Until now she hadn’t known how cold and damaging that time had been. In its shadow she’d forgotten how it felt to be filled with optimism.
Now, with the breakthrough, she wanted to accelerate the pace. In this reverse world she’d embraced, bargaining led to anger. She had no game plan to get there, but when she’d gotten up this morning she hadn’t known how bargaining would happen. When she woke she’d planned to be dead by now. Yet here she was.
Rudy the Escape Artist walked a few steps ahead, leading the way to the hotel.
“Can we go faster?” she asked.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Would you like to lead the way?”
“I don’t know the way.”
“There’s your answer.”
Was kissing him unwise? What would he expect? Using this guy to move backward through grief produced a twinge of guilt she hadn’t felt before. Was it the bargaining that allowed her to feel that? She didn’t know. Regardless, there was no other way. Assuming he was in bargaining, too, she had to keep him both interested in her and moving toward depression. This would draw her into anger. Theoretically.
Ahead, on the walkway in front of the Schooner Wharf Bar, a short plump man stood beside an old Schwinn bike that must have been gold colored before rust took over. His thinning blonde hair wafted in the light breeze that also passed through at least a dozen holes in his faded red Izod polo shirt. His khaki shorts weren’t in much better shape. As they approached he casually lined up an imaginary golf club to address a non-existent ball. He gave the invisible club head a quick waggle and drew it into a smooth backswing, pausing at the top, then let it fall through in a fluid motion until his clasped hands rested over his left shoulder. He watched the phantom ball rise high over the bight. Kak caught herself following his line of sight, as if she might witness the plunk it made when it hit the water. Who was to say what was real and not real?
“Pure,” the man said, still admiring the shot. “Pure.” He had an accent. European? She couldn’t tell from the single word.
Noticing their approach, he dropped the imaginary club to call out to them. “Hello, hello. Some bananas for the lovely couple?” German. She could tell from the way his ‘the’ came out as ‘zuh’.
The basket mounted on his bicycle handlebar was piled high with the fruit. Except these particular bananas were odd. Like the man, they were shorter and plumper than usual for their species.
Rudy slipped past on the walkway. Kak stopped to admire them.
“Exotic,” she said.
Her opening delighted the man. “These are Blue Java bananas. Before they ripen they have the most beautiful lavender coloring. When they become ripe, like now, they taste like ice cream.”
Rudy walked ahead, speaking over his shoulder. “Maybe later.”
“I’m afraid they’re only good today,” the man said. “Tomorrow? No.”
“How much?” Kak asked.
“For the lady? One dollar a piece.” He extended an immaculate hand. “Hermann. At your service.”
“A dollar?” Rudy said, getting farther ahead. “For a banana? That’s robbery.”
“For a common cavendish variety, perhaps,” Hermann countered. “Not for these.”
Kak took the banana man’s hand. “Hermann,” she said. “The German.”
Hermann crinkled up in approval. She dug in her backpack and handed him a dollar before selecting a perfect specimen from the basket.
“If you buy two,” Hermann said, “I’ll have a beer. If you buy ten, I’ll eat lunch. Buy the whole basket and I’m on the first tee at the club.”
“Rudy,” Kak called out. “You need a banana.”
“Why?” he asked, still walking.
“It’s part of bargaining. We made a deal, remember?”
Rudy stopped, sighed, made his way back, his hand in his pocket. He handed Hermann another dollar.
“You can have mine,” he told Kak.
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
By the time Kak had selected a second piece of fruit Rudy was on his way again. She broke the skin of the first banana as she quickened her pace to catch up with him. The flesh was whiter and creamier than expected. She took a bite. Nothing. Just mush in her mouth. No flavor at all. It wasn’t the banana. It had been like this since Langone. She just thought that maybe since she’d gotten to bargaining she’d give it a shot to see if the ability to taste had returned.
“That was rude,” she said. “Not even stopping.”
“Can’t stop for every street hawk that flags you down.”
“Did you hear? Hermann the German.”
“I’m sure there are lots of Germans named that.”
“It was still fun,” she said, holding up the second banana. Second banana, she’d have to remember that. “Do you want yours?”
“You can have it.”
Kak dumped them in the nearest trash can, making sure Rudy didn’t see. Ten minutes later she watched him run the e-key over the lock of an oceanfront suite at the Ocean Key Resort and Spa. He led the way into the suite, past the teal walls of the breakfast nook and into the South Beach style living area that extended to a private balcony overlooking the ocean.
She rested her backpack on the balcony’s teakwood table, considering the view. It was nothing like Sanibel. And it wasn’t the islands. Not really. It was as if Florida and the Caribbean engaged in a drunken night of debauchery and nine months later Key West arrived.
He picked up her backpack, carrying it through the French doors into the bedroom and across the Dorado tile floor to the four poster king bed. The suite had to be more than a thousand square feet.
“All yours,” he said, dropping her backpack on the bed. “The sofa folds out to a sleeper. That’s me.”
A gentleman. For now, anyway. He seemed like a good enough guy but you never really knew.
“You always vacation alone?” she asked.
“I’m meeting an old buddy,” he said, from the other room. “The birthday boy.”
“You said you were going to Atlanta.”
“Except something happened.”
There was a pause and she didn’t think he was going to answer. Then he did.
“Besides you father’s ashes.”
She gave him an opening to expand on this. He didn’t. So he had a secret, too.
“I see,” she said. “Just two guys roaming Key West, drinking and chasing women.”
“Carter has a girlfriend here. He gets down every few months to see her.”
“And you’re the third wheel. Is that why I’m here?”
“You seem to know why you’re here. I’m the one in the dark.”
She ignored this. “So they have a long distance thing going. Have they been dating awhile?”
“Since his party last year. I guess you could say this is their one-year anniversary.”
“Will I like him?”
“Is he anything like you?”
She came over to the French doors and watched him unpacking his bag. “Maybe that’s why everyone likes him,” she said, playfully. Nothing. He continued laying out the contents in scrupulous order.
She was eager to advance her plan. “So what time does the birthday party start?” she asked.
“I’m sure it’s in full swing already.”
They found Carter behind the bar at the Hog’s Breath Saloon, stirring a martini and, from all appearances, the feelings in the young female bartender.
“Here’s a puzzle,” Carter was saying. “A gentlemen’s club in a nudist colony. How would that even work? Would the dancers slowly put their clothes on?”
From the way she hung on his words, tittered when he delivered a line, she’d already fallen. Kak knew the look.
“He dates the bartender,” she said. “Smart move.”
“That’s not his girlfriend.”
Carter wielded the long bar spoon like an orchestra conductor brandishing a baton. His hand became as fluid as the gin. His ring finger and little finger pushed the spoon to the far side of the mixing pitcher in an alternating cadence with his fore finger and middle finger, which pulled it back. All the while his wrist rolled the spoon in a circular motion that kept soundless contact with the inside surface of the pitcher at all times. The spoon escorted the ice politely past the gin until it was perfectly chilled.
“I’m surprised he’s allowed behind the bar,” Kak said.
“I’ve never seen a place he couldn’t talk himself into. That’s why I never travel with him. I’m afraid he’ll end up flying the plane.”
“Never shake gin,” Carter was saying. “You just fuck it up.” He ran his fingers down the side of the mixing pitcher. “There. A perfect negative three Celsius.”
“I call bullshit,” the young tender said.
She produced a slim thermometer, dropped it in the pitcher and settled in to watch. This occupied her while Carter unscrewed the cap from a bottle of sweet vermouth and dumped half a jigger into a chilled martini glass. He swirled the aromatic liquid in the glass, expertly coating every bit of the inner surface with it, then dumped the excess. He placed the prepared martini glass beside the mixing pitcher and leaned over the tender’s shoulder until his lips brushed her ear.
“What’s the verdict?” he asked.
“Twenty-seven and a half,” she said. “Twenty-seven. Twenty-six and a half. Fahrenheit. That’s it. I’ll convert it to Celsius on my phone.” She fished in her pocket.
“Negative three point zero five five,” Rudy said. “Celsius.”
Carter and the tender looked up at the same time. She paused only a second before punching the numbers into Google. A broadening grin spread over Carter’s face.
“That’s right,” the tender said, holding up her phone. “It’s minus three point zero five five Celsius. Exactly. How did you do that?”
Kak wondered the same thing.
“The Great Rudini knows all,” Carter said. He placed a strainer over the mixing pitcher and poured the chilled gin into the cold, vermouth-rinsed martini glass. It shone like a gem.
Carter slid it over to the tender. “The only test that really counts,” he said.
She sipped it, swallowed, pausing over the clear cold mixture for a two count.
“That’s the best gin martini I ever had,” she admitted.
“And still champion,” Carter said, raising his hands and simultaneously shifting his attention to Rudy. “I knew you’d be here, amigo.”
“You see Lili yet?” Rudy asked.
“That’s your first question? Don’t worry, she’ll be around.”
The tightness of the brief exchange over this woman interested Kak. But it was gone as quickly as it surfaced. Carter made his way around the bar to them.
“What are you drinking?” Rudy asked.
“For starters, the best gin martini she ever had.” Carter tossed his head in the young bartender’s direction. “What do you think?”
“I think you have scotch older than her.”
“Yeah, but it’s really good scotch.” Carter caught Rudy in a bear hug, lifting him off his feet. Kak estimated Carter at a full inch taller and twenty pounds of muscle heavier.
“Say it,” Carter said.
“You’re a dick,” Rudy answered.
“Say it. I can carry you around all day.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Carter dropped him and frowned at her. “Don’t tell me you brought a date,” he said.
“Kak,” Rudy said. “This is Carter. One of my oldest and most inappropriate friends. Carter this is Kak.”
Carter slung a heavy arm over her shoulders. First of all, he smelled great. What was it? Saddle leather in a field of lavender?
“Kak,” he said. “Beautiful name. Turkish Angora?” He feigned at dry heaving, as if gagging up a hairball.
“How did you know,” Kak said.
“Here’s the thing,” Carter said. “Rudy doesn’t bring dates. He brings laptops, spreadsheets, profit and loss statements. In March he does our taxes for us.”
“Would I make up something that sad?”
“I guess that makes this a special occasion.”
“My parents think so.”
“That’s right. Happy birthday.”
“So what are you really? A cost accountant?”
“We met on the beach,” she said, sneaking out from under his arm.
“The beach,” Carter repeated with obvious skepticism.
“I swept him right off his feet.”
“I was bowled over from the start,” Rudy said.
“That should have been mine,” Kak said, admiring it.
Carter shifted from Rudy to Kak and back again. “Something’s going on here,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. And I don’t care.” He held up three fingers, making contact with the young bartender. She’d never lost track of him and beamed to the point of blushing.
“A few more just like that,” Carter said.
“None for me,” Kak said. “I’m going to let you playboys catch up.”
“You just got here,” Carter said, reaching out to take her hand. “One drink.”
“I’ll be back in an hour.”
“Promise?” Carter asked. He held on just long enough to send a message. I’d stir you without shaking. She could see the appeal. Tall, handsome and clever. Natural charm, a gift for gab and a line of shit that went to the horizon and back. Add a Key West tan, you had a dangerous man. Except in this case the picture was too perfect. A little too smooth. Trouble just under the surface.
“Kak,” Carter said. “May I call you Kak?”
She disregarded the throw-away question.
“Before you go,” he said. “What are you passionate about? I mean really.”
He was good. She watched him soften his eyes at will, making it seem as if she was about to say the most important thing in the world, that he would understand her as no man ever had or would again. Women loved this kind of guy. Right before they hated him. It could be useful. Play along.
“I write,” she said. “Or I used to anyway.”
“Anything I might have read?”
She wanted to say that in her last year in the Tisch School she’d been a finalist for the King Award for Screenwriting. What she said was, “I haven’t done anything since school.”
“You know what they say,” Carter mused. “A painter doesn’t have to be hung to paint. And a traitor doesn’t have to be hanged to, um, trait. So you can be a writer without being published.”
“You’re almost paraphrasing Lawrence Block. Do you do any writing, Carter?”
“No. But I’m hung without being a painter, so.”
“Carter’s a lawyer,” Rudy said.
His jumping in pleased Kak. When a man inserted himself into a conversation between a woman and another man it nearly always signaled jealousy.
“Law,” Kak said. “That is not surprising. What kind?”
“Energy,” Carter said.
“Mineral rights and leases. Mostly coal.”
“Please don’t say you represent companies that strip mine. It’s devastating to the environment.”
“Strip mining prevents forest fires.”
“And with that, I leave you.”
“Suit yourself. I’ll be a lot funnier by the time you get back.”
“I hope so. You weren’t that funny to begin with.”
“Do you know where you’re going?” Rudy asked.
“I’ll figure it out,” Kak said.
She walked out of the Hog’s Breath, followed Fitzpatrick down to Greene Street and hung a left there. This took her back to Duval. It ran south and told her to follow it.
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