"Kids in Key West" by Colleen Braun

| writing |

Our next submission comes from Colleen Braun who is writing in from Florida. Her blog can be located at catcherinthewhy.blogspot.com

Kids in Key West

It’s morning and the night still shadows the island. The heavy dew drenches every object. With my hand I wipe off the bicycle seat leaving small droplets still clinging to the black leather seat. I swing my leg over the bar and begin to pedal. The cotton shorts absorb the remaining droplets as I race against the wind. The dusky shade of night fades into the sea replaced by shimmering colors of daybreak. Stillness abounds. The enormous floating hotels break over the horizon one at a time, lighted up like the Christmas tree at Times Square. I pedal fast and hard across the sand parallel to the ocean and the slow moving ships. The massive hulking ships glide effortlessly and quietly toward the channel. The sun breaks through the haze and a forest fire explodes in the sky. The silent ships vanish around the bend where the Atlantic melds into the Gulf of Mexico.

I ride unrestrained. I inhale the salty air. The wind propels me like a dust bunny gone mad. Gravity pulls at my torso. My passionate thoughts wander with the landscape, gliding in the flats and rising at the crest of the hill. Every tree, every flower, every building inspire my imagination. I could ride indefinitely. I am infatuated with the breeze from the ocean, the warmth of the sun and the simplicity of life.

My pedal power slows as the bike chugs up the steep incline. The asphalt turns to gel as the intense heat increases. With the sun behind me burning up the remaining dew I pedal faster. The rooster greeting shatters the early morning innocence.

A group of young rebels lean precariously against the stone façade of the museum. Robert the doll is inside staring into space with his dark beady eyes. “No Vacancy”, blinks in the eyes of the weary vagrants. Like Robert the doll they stare through walls and people without making contact. The look of defeat has sunken deep within their orbs casting doubts, questions and suspicions onto the few that look their way. I turn my head and look toward the sea. I wish for anti-freeze in my veins to ward off the coldness. I pedal faster.

I see a forest of tightly knitted tress obscuring the water. I stop and try to peer inside but nature’s fence will not allow it. I chain my bike against the lamppost and wander through the tangled maze of mango trees guarding the shore. I pass rusty beach chairs soggy sleeping bags and cardboard boxes fashioned into temporary shelters. The path is rutted with enormous roots ready to attack trespassers. The dense canopy has blocked out the sun and sky and total darkness takes hold. Evidence surrounds me that this is someone’s home. An uncomfortable feeling washes over me as I exit the tree house on the ground. I emerge from the cavernous labyrinth of bush, roots and limbs.

I watch a young couple loaded down with backpacks and bedding slip silently down the walkway heading for the forest by the sea. They walk slowly without passion without recognition to the rest of the world. I unlock my bike and ride like the wind.

I stop by the houseboats moored along the seawall. Numerous floating villas are parked haphazardly in the bay; many different styles, shapes and sizes dot the green water. A transient community right smack in the middle of paradise. I drift away into a dream of living on a home that floats. The water is calm the wind blows slightly and the roar of helicopter whistles across the bay. A dog barks as the chopper passes overhead. Several houseboats rock gently against the docks with gangplanks rolling slightly against the blue waters. I continue my tour de island.

I cruise past Victorian houses painted pastel shades and sporting delicate white gingerbread trim. Property lines are distinguished by white picket fences, lush tropical foliage and stately old trees. The sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians while the narrow streets are overflowing with bicyclist and mopeds. The trolley stops in front of a grand old house to let some passengers exit. Several kids are parked on the curb holding out their hands pleading for change. I watch the trolley pull away from the curb and I cross the street without looking back.

Today’s mission is breakfast at The Blue Heaven. I will not let sadness enter my life. The soft breeze, the salt air and the rooster babble guide me down the narrow bumpy street. One of the guidebooks lists The Blue Heaven as unique, reasonable and a must try experience. Restaurant hopping is an integral part of the holiday with local delicacies, ethnic foods and exotic drinks being on the top of the list. A young girl strolls down the sidewalk tugging at a little puppy tethered to a string. She moves precisely between chickens, pedestrians, broken chairs and a few sleeping dogs. Her eyes seem fixated on the uneven sidewalk while the puppy wags his tail and pants in anticipation. She is centered on herself and her small charge oblivious to the outside world. Her heavy black boots hit the cracked cement with force as her fine silky skirt swishes softly against her legs. Layers of shirts and sweaters distort her female shape. The heaviness of her backpack tugs at her shoulders. She strides as if on a mission, a mission to nowhere.

The morning dew has changed to steamy mist smelling of salt, fish and Cuban bread. A bright December sun has warmed the island to a stifling 85 degrees while a gentle ocean breeze blows softly against my face. And here I am in paradise. ‘Blue Heaven’, is painted across the front of an old house.

“Good Morning”, the hostess smiles, “Welcome to The Blue Heaven.” She meanders effortlessly through closely parked tables. Her feet clad in Birkenstock sandals with heavy wool socks peek out beneath her long flowered granny gown. Her Janis Joplin hair is pulled back away from her face. Like an usher in a dark theatre she leads me through the flock of chickens to a table near the fence.

“How is this?” she whispers.

The structure that serves as a fence is constructed of old doors, fence slats, chicken wire and weathered hand painted signs. Roosters with an attitude strut by my table waiting for morsels of food. Peering through the top of the Plexiglas table I watch as the chicks peck furiously near my feet. My red painted toenails are like a flashing neon sign for the hungry birds. A waiter with a long green braid partially hidden beneath a soft black beret and a little black shoulder bag appears from nowhere at my table. His hands are large, hairless and tanned like toasted muffins adorned with numerous dimestore rings. His slender fingers grasp a weathered notepad. A circle of perspiration bleeds through his tie-dye T-shirt. A peace sign pendent clings to his chest. He moves in a cloud-like manner. “Today’s special are on the chalkboard.” He fills the water glass, drops the hand written menu on the Plexiglas table and disappears into the grove of trees.

A tall thin girl wrapped in sadness leans against the lamppost. Her hair the color and consistency of slightly used chewing tobacco hangs lifelessly against her faded flannel shirt. An overstuffed backpack sits obediently by her bare feet. Her blank gaze is toward the bright orange globe that illuminates the morning sky. The emptiness that flourishes around her washes across the passerby’s causing them to hurry and look the other way. I hold the menu close to my face. The history hand printed on the back of the menu engrosses me. I order the special from the waiter and watch the chickens peck at the earth. I listen to couples laughing and serious conversations of the energetic crowd. A foghorn bellows in the distance. The smell of fresh squeezed orange juice assaults my senses. I drift away with my happy thoughts and enjoy the moment. I look toward the lamppost and it stands alone. My eyes water.

A middle-aged woman wearing cut-off jeans and a fluorescent pink T-shirt smiles and places a chipped platter before me and fills my coffee cup. Her paint spattered work boots crunch silently over the cedar mulch. “Enjoy your breakfast and the rest of this fantastic day,” she sings. She floats to the next table and pours hot coffee. Her long blonde hair is intertwined with colorful beads.

The omelet stuffed with ham, cheese and onions fills the entire plate. It smells spicy and sweet. My teeth mash into the soft egg mixture and the chicken over by the fence blinks her eyes at me. Have I just devoured her offspring? Guilt forms red blotches across my face. I remember they have pancakes on the menu. A rooster snatches a crust of toast from a baby chick and flies across the yard. Then, I remember that chickens will eat their eggs and each other. The last bit is washed down by strong black coffee. The guidebook did not tell all about The Blue Heaven.

On a full stomach I pedal the bike painfully slow down the narrow side street. It must be garbage day or perhaps a way of life. I pass by old vans, rusted cars and motorhomes parked haphazardly next to the curb. Some of the vehicles have curtains, some have busted windows and many appear to be homes. Dogs run around overturned trashcans while chicken’s peck at the spills. A baby cries between agitated loud voices almost covered by the sound of a television and barking dogs. Cats dart across the street and vanish down an alley. I pedal a little faster.

My morning ride takes me by small unpainted cottages, condos, two story Southern mansions, duplexes, houses with Gothic looking fences, double balconies and lush tropical gardens hugging stone walls and iron fences. Porch ceilings are painted blue with ceiling fans spinning on slow. Most porches have rocking chairs or porch swings. Cement benches line the brick walkways. Bikes are parked in the front yard along with roller blades and fancy colored scooters. Tall swaying palm trees line the cobbled streets. Spindly Bird of Paradise, fan palms and canna lilies waver in the balmy breeze. Water bubbles behind a screen of wild ferns. The heat sizzles across my skin as the sweat drips down the back of my neck.

I lock the bike in the designated bike rack and walk by the street vendors to Mallory Square. A teen-age couple slump against a fountain resting their bare feet on bulging backpacks. The cruise ships are releasing the cruisers for a day on the town. They cackle like the roosters and meander like the wind, dressed in Polo shirts, tan walking shorts, silk jogging suits, gold sandals with matching gold bags and yellow oval stickers attached to their shirts as if they were still in kindergarten. They debark mostly in pairs and fan out into the maze of crowded streets winding around small shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and docks.

The harbor is pulsating with people, boats, bikes, dogs and vendors. The cruise ships loom above the docks resembling Mt. Rushmore. A roar of a diesel engine cuts through the square as the Rocket heads out to sea on a sightseeing tour. Several catamarans break away from the docks. The diving boats, shrimp boats, schooners, fishing boats, and the elegant glass bottom boat head out to sea. Following silently behind the parade are slow moving sailboats. Sails are up and engines are off.

The sun burns gray into the turquoise water casting colorful shadows against the ships and sails. At many places the water is crystal clear at other places it’s a faded shade of purple. Farther out into the ocean the water changes like a chameleon as the sun glints across the great expanse. For all the people and all the noises the docks are quiet. The acoustics of the Keys brings peace and harmony to Mallory Square. Bakery aromas mixed with freshly brewed coffee drift through the streets. In the middle of the noise, activity and masses of people there is peace and solitude. The two teenagers have moved from fountain to park bench. Backpacks are now pillows instead of hassocks. I stare at the water.

The raspy sound of bagpipes flows freely through the square. Dressed in traditional Scottish garb a lone soldier marches along the docks. He stops and turns sharp never missing a beat. He repeats his pattern back and forth while a large crowd gathers. The sounds follow my footsteps as I slowly walk away. Two streets away and the notes have disappeared. Replacement is in the form of softer chords from a French horn.

Another lone soldier stands on the corner changing the atmosphere. She resembles a French lassie with golden hair and ruffled dress. Her case is open and filled with green bills. She plays with determination and gathers a small crowd. The notes are soft and soothing.

I buy trinkets, tacky souvenirs and expensive bottled water. Lunch special signs have hit the sidewalk and beckon patrons in to sample the goodies. I try Papa John’s and get a front row sidewalk table. The umbrella shades the intense noonday sun. The crowd ambles by chatting incessantly. A teenage boy with greasy black hair runs between cars, bikes and mopeds. He waves to a group of his own lingering on the corner. His bare feet hit the hot pavement with a slap. He wears a pair of worn farmer-jeans nothing else. His skin is exposed to the middle of his hips. He is backpack-free. His friends carry their packs like the plague. The girl with the puppy puffs on a cigarette. Her charge sits contented by her side. I count the tiles on the floor.

My lunch arrives and it is enormous. I know this is too much to eat at one sitting and I wonder if they are hungry. I keep my eyes focused on the plate and the overstuffed sandwich. The cruisers walk by with shopping bags and ice cream cones talking, laughing having a good time. Families stop and try to read the map, confusion etched on their sunburned cheeks. They ask strangers for directions and hurry away. Loud music from the numerous bars turns the afternoon into party time. I ask for a doggy bag, pay the check, leave a tip and walk outside into the maze. They have gone, disappeared into the masses of travelers.

I squeeze my way through the mob at Margaritaville for an afternoon drink and head for the gift shop. Wandering through the back streets I finally find the sandal factory. Because they are so unique and the price is right I buy two pairs. I stop at the flag shop, the cigar factory, the toy store and end up at the Cat House. Saddled with packages and blisters on my feet I scan the street for a bench. There are none.

I find a patch of grass and flop my weary body down for a respite. A tired exhilaration overcomes my being. I watch the many boats cruising slowly through the harbor. Seagulls shriek at the wind, Pelicans dive bomb into the rolling wake as the burning sun slips from the sky. There is a profusion of orange, red, and yellow streaks painted haphazardly against the pastel blue canvas. I become absorbed in the unique artistry of nature. The wind acting like a giant incense burner blows a mixture of salt, nectar and aquatic aroma across the island. I breathe in the tonic that surrounds me.

I see the kids marching through the throngs of tourists who have come to watch the sun splash into the sea spilling forth fireworks in the sky. The sails of the schooner silhouette against the impressionist painting suspended in mid-air. Total amazement pulsates through the eyes of the beholders. The alien orphans drop their meager belongings next to the seawall and settle in for the shows to begin.

The girl with the puppy now minus his leash opens an empty cigar box and pleads for money. She puffs on the cigarette and stares transparently into the crowd. Her eyes advertise the sorrow her heart feels. I look at the cloudless sky.

I blink and the blazing orb has disappeared. Shadows crisscross the calm water and stars begin to sprinkle the sky. A sense of pleasure drifts through the robust crowd. The noise and laughter intensify as the darkness descends upon vibrant Mallory Square. I look for the kids but they have left. I hop on my bike and pedal slowly through the downtown streets. I dodge the pedestrians, the mopeds and the trams. The humid night breeze has replaced the stifling heat of the day. My heart feels heavy.

I take the scenic route down an alleyway littered with debris. Shotgun houses line the back streets with doors wide open. Folk art hangs on the fences. The peacefulness of the night washes over me like the waves smashing against the breaker walls. I see the stone and marble caskets rising from the earth resembling modern day townhouses. There are a few trusty souls touring the town of the dead. A full China moon sprays buttery shadows across the homes of the departed. I lean my bike against the wrought iron fence and walk into the unknown. In the distance I hear a dog howling, a motorboat engine humming and the final crackling of fireworks. The wind whispers through the trees and past the stacked dwellings almost concealing the childlike laughter.

I see them huddled together wrapped in jackets and shawls. A few have fallen asleep on flattened cardboard boxes, dreamless, carefree and alone. I see the girl slumped against an enormous tombstone with the puppy asleep at her feet. Her eyes pierce through the darkness and stab harshly at my soul. I turn and run.

Once again, thank you Colleen for submitting this short story. If you like this story, don’t forget to come back through the whole month of November to vote for Colleen’s story. Whoever gets the most votes by Dec 1, 2010 will be the lucky winner of a Kindle Wifi.

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