Her leisurely sightseeing, window-shopping stroll down Duval Street in the direction of City Beach was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a shrill whistle. She spun around to see a tanned, shirtless man about her age, with short hair and a close-cropped beard, bring his bicycle to a halt in front of a fat policeman, who stood in the street with his arm raised.
“You got a shirt with you, podnah?” the policeman asked sternly.
The cyclist reached behind him without answering and took a sport shirt from a blue plastic milk crate labeled “Property of MacArthur Dairy” tied with twine to the carrier. He put it on without buttoning it.
“All right,” the policeman said grudgingly. “But next time I catch you …”
The man on the bicycle noticed Cynthia staring and gave her a twisted grin before he continued on his way. The policeman followed the man’s glance and scowled at Cynthia. She put the harmless smile on her face that made her look ten years younger and disarmed her courtroom opposition, at least the first time she used it on them.
“Excuse me,” she said politely. She walked toward the policeman. He hitched his belt up to flatten his paunch, and his scowl softened to a puppy-like grin. Cynthia’s smile broadened. “I couldn’t help noticing. I’m new here. Is there some kind of dress code in this town?”
What seemed like the beginning of a polite bow became an unhurried and intrusive inspection of herself from head to toe and back again. She stared at the bald spot on the top of his crew-cut head longer than she would have liked and drew her beach jacket closed protectively. She had devastated policemen in court, intimidated them in their own interrogation rooms, but now she clamped her lips against a sarcastic rebuke of his insolence.
“Don’t do anything legal,” Mr. Heffernan [her boss] had advised, as he handed her the firm’s credit card. “Stay an arm’s length away from the law for the next month.”
“Got nothin’ to do wit you, little lady,” the policeman drawled when he lifted his eyes at last. The grin was now predatory, the eyes hot and watery. “Way you’re dressed don’t bother me at all. No, ma’am, no problem at all. What you are lookin’ for, the beach?”
She nodded, not trusting her voice to repeat the question about a dress code.
He took her by the arm and turned her so she faced south, the way the cyclist had gone. She could see his flapping shirt a block away. The policeman rested his left elbow on her left shoulder with his left hand pointing, laid his right hand proprietorially on her right shoulder, and stationed his mouth close behind her right ear.
“You see that blue water at the end of the street where my finger’s pointing? That’s the ocean, and that’s where the beach is at. Don’t you stay out in the sun too long, now, heah? That purdy white skin of yours.” He squeezed her shoulder and let his hand slide caressingly down her arm.
Cynthia took one step away from him and whirled, hitting the side of his face with a resounding slap that stung her hand. The policeman stepped back wide-eyed, hand on the butt of his revolver. As she spoke, she heard, as though eavesdropping, the soft, breathy courtroom snarl in her voice, as caressing and threatening as the policeman’s hand.
“Before you maul another woman, officer, I suggest you look up the legal definition of battery. Or ask the city attorney to explain it to you, if you can’t read.”
She turned her back on him and stalked away with regal disdain, noticing that all motion around them had ceased and they were the center of attention. There was a smattering of applause behind her that stopped abruptly. Someone played a fair imitation of a clucking chicken on a car horn.
Mr. Heffernan didn’t say within an arm’s length of the law, the worried voice complained.
Cynthia swam until her muscles were rubbery and she could no longer feel the insinuating hand trying to possess her shoulder and arm. But the echo of “that purdy white skin of yours” would not shake out of her ears with the water, and she sat defiantly on her beach jacket to let the sun dry her. The palm of her hand ached with a satisfying tingle.
He was right, though, she had to admit, looking around at the various shades of tan, red, and pink – the sun was hot. After a few minutes, she put on her jacket, shorts, and sandals and started toward the refreshment stand. The bicycle with the MacArthur’s milk crate caught her eye first, then she noticed the bicycle-and-shirt man, now shirtless again, lying on the blanket next to it. Her question about the dress code had never been answered. She bought a coke and walked to the edge of the blanket.
“Excuse me,” she said to the tan back.
The man looked around and sat up quickly when he saw her.
“You’re better looking than Faye Dunaway,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“But don’t forget what happened to Bonnie and Clyde in the end.”
“What’s that got to do with the First Amendment?”
It was his turn to look puzzled.
“Why don’t you step into my office and sit down while we figure out what we’re talking about?”
He swept a hand graciously toward the blanket. Cynthia knelt on a corner of the blanket and sat back on her heels, which she left in the sand. He laughed at her cautious compromise.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t lock the door on you. I have respect for a strong right cross. Besides …” He looked up and smiled at a man who was approaching with two cokes.
“I think we’re safe, Paul. She looks like the type who’s only dangerous when her instinct for self-preservation is aroused. Paul witnessed your one-sided duel with Officer Krupke. I’m sorry I missed it. I hope I wasn’t the cause. I’m David.”
“Cynthia Hennessy.” She paused to assimilate the messages under the words. “Yes, you’re safe. No, you weren’t the cause, but it started when I asked him if there was a dress code, after I saw him stop you and make you put a shirt on.”
Paul raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t think anyone could make you do something you didn’t want to do, David.”
“He didn’t. I simply weighed the options and decided of my own free will that I’d rather wear a shirt than pay a $25 fine or spend a month in jail.”
“Then there really is a dress code?”
“The shirt law says persons,” Paul said, “but in effect it’s illegal for men to be without a shirt anywhere except at the beach. Of course, women have to wear tops everywhere or it’s indecent exposure.”
“But what’s wrong with men going topless?”
“Nothing,” said David, “except in the tiny minds of the city commission.”
“So,” she said, “women are guilty of indecent exposure if they go topless anywhere. Men are guilty of indecent exposure if they go topless anywhere but the beach.”
“Not indecent exposure,” Paul said. “The shirt law.”
“It makes perfect sense unless you think about it,” David said.
“Which obviously the city attorney hasn’t done,” Cynthia said more to herself than to the men. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it work. It’s wide open to challenge on constitutional grounds.”
“Are you a lawyer or something?” Paul asked.
“I’m on vacation,” Cynthia said curtly.
“But are you a lawyer when you’re not on vacation?” he persisted.
“That’s a moot point at the moment. I don’t want to talk about it, if you don’t mind.”
In the strained silence that followed her short answer, Cynthia’s mind automatically probed what she now knew about the shirt law for the constitutional weakness her instinct had sniffed out. Where could she find a copy of the Key West city code? Don’t do anything legal, the worried voice reminded her in a perfect imitation of Mr. Heffernan’s tone. You need a change. But not a big one, it added.
“I’m sorry I was short with you,” she said. “I’ll leave the big city behind me. I just arrived today, and you’re the first people I’ve met besides … is Krupke his real name?”
“We call him … what do we call him when he’s being good, Paul? I forget. It’s been so long.”
“‘Stanley.’ We think that’s his first name and ‘372’ is his last name – Double-oh Point Five for short – but it could be the other way around.”
Cynthia, Paul, and David go to the Sunset ritual at Mallory Dock. Mallory Sunset features prominently in the lives of Key Westers, but in those days it was not nearly as commercialized as it is now.
The Democratic Republic of Cayo Ladrón
Leave Your Complaints Behind Just Bring Money
(only the people are free)
One Way $10 Round Trip $5 (with visa)
Two Sailings a Day Morning and Evening
Cynthia stared at the words for a moment until they penetrated deeply enough to confuse her. She looked around for an explanation. The sign was painted on the side of a corrugated metal shed, next to which were stacked ten bales of sweet-smelling hay. Under a canvas awning attached to the front of the shed stood two deck chairs facing the open water. One of the chairs bulged with life topped with a straw hat. She walked to the side of the vacant chair and waited for the man under the hat to acknowledge her presence.
Tom Grace O’Malley was comfortably bulky without being fat. Sun-faded reddish highlights tinged his short brown beard. He was wearing cutoff jeans and a white short-sleeved shirt – not only unbuttoned, in local male fashion, but also without buttons – and no shoes.
Cynthia was sure he was aware of her, but he made no sign. She had learned to accept similar non-greetings from some of the older Ojibwes she had met, and she gave this man the benefit of the doubt. She could see his green eyes sparkle with amusement as they followed the progress of the sailboat. The boat spun around smartly at the end of a reach, and a passenger wearing a life jacket leaned over the side in obvious distress. Tom grunted approval, then glanced up at Cynthia sideways. He leaned forward slightly to represent rising to his feet, and touched his hat in an abbreviated salute.
His boyish eyes made her wonder if time would have had a similar effect on Peter Pan. She could not decide which of several questions to ask first. She waved a hand toward the sign.
“I’ve never heard of Kay-oh Laid-ron.”
Tom nodded. “That’s as it should be.” He tipped his head backwards to indicate the island behind him. “This place’s gone all to hell with tourists and development. We aim to keep Cayo Ladrón natural.”
“Where is Cayo Ladrón?” She copied his pronunciation of “Kye-oh Lah-dthrone.”
He tilted his head to the left and back.
“Just over the horizon.”
“Second star to the right and straight on till morning?”
He gave her a sharp look, saw her smile, and grinned.
“About twelve miles south and west of here.”
“And it costs only five dollars to go?”
“Ten dollars. You get five dollars back on your return to Key West. With visa.”
“You pay people to leave?”
“We like the Island the way it is.”
“Maybe I’ll try it. Do you take Mastercharge?”
“We don’t do credit cards.”
“But the sign says …” She stepped back to look at the sign and noticed that the letters in “visa” are all lower case. “You don’t mean a real visa, like going to a foreign … you call it a democratic republic.”
“We like to think of it that way. Save your feet.” His head inclined toward the vacant chair. She sat down, intrigued.
“Where does one get a visa?”
“At the embassy.” His head moved backward, toward the shed.
She worded her next question carefully, assuming she knew what the answer would be and wondering which way it would cause the head to move.
“And where does one find the ambassador?”
“One waits.” The head remained centered, eyes fixed on the sailboat.
“Oh. I assumed you were the ambassador.”
“Me? I’m just the Wednesday Consul. The ambassador’s got more important things to do than sit around answering people’s questions all day.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose so.”
The sailboat whipped around at the end of a reach shortened by the sides of the harbor. The passenger in the life jacket – a bulky man with a red, bald scalp – shifted quickly from one side to the other, shouting, “Jesus Christ, kid.”
Tom chuckled. “Sounds like Jamie’s made a Christian out of another unbeliever.”
Cynthia chuckled nervously, not sure if she should ask another question.
“What’s Cayo Ladrón like?”
“A bit like Key West before it went all to hell.”
“Did they ever massacre any Indians there?”
“Massacre? You mean like that Island of Bones story the tour guides give out here? No. Never heard of anyone fighting on the Island, let alone getting killed, since, let’s see, a hundred and fifty-sixty years ago. We don’t allow weapons on the Island.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Why do you ask about Indians?”
She couldn’t explain why she hadn’t told Paul and David. They would have been interested and sympathetic. Nor could she say why it felt right and natural to confide in this prickly stranger – whose name she didn’t even know – the extent of her inner devastation at the loss of the Lewis case. When she finished, she blew her nose and wiped her eyes.
“The natural people’s way of life is going all to hell everywhere,” Tom said. “Ferry’s in. There’ll be an unscheduled midday crossing.”
She looked up to see the sailboat bearing down swiftly on the dock. A collision seemed inevitable. The seasick man, soft, prosperous, and panic-stricken, wailed, “Oh, my God.”
Cynthia stood up in alarm.
“They’re going to crash!”
Tom didn’t move.
About fifteen feet short of the dock, the slim figure in the stern swung the rudder hard left. The stern and the prow pivoted slowly on the keel, and the sail collapsed with a soft whoosh, revealing a third occupant in the cockpit, a thin woman with a worry-wrinkled face. The boat drifted gracefully backwards to bump gently against a tire at the foot of a ladder.
“You been holding prayer meetings out there again, Jamie?” Tom called down, throwing a mooring line. “Nothing like being in a small boat six miles from the nearest land to encourage a man to take stock.”
The skipper grinned broadly at Tom, and Cynthia compared Tom’s face with the far-seeing green eyes beneath the captain’s cap, the red hair, and the defiant set of the square jaw. Peter Pan Senior and Junior, she thought.
“It’s not funny,” the fat man said, tossing the life jacket into the cockpit. “I’ve got half a mind to …”
“I’ll take your bags, sir,” Tom said calmingly.
The man stepped back into the cabin and handed out two heavy suitcases.
“Rough crossing, Jamie?” Tom asked innocently.
“I had to tack all the way because of the wind,” Jamie said, looking away quickly. At the sound of the voice, Cynthia amended: not Junior.
“Well, I don’t know anything about tacks or winds,” the fat man said. “I’ve never been in a sailboat before, but I know reckless driving when I see it. I would have lost my breakfast, if I had any, the way that hot rodder was driving.” His eyes followed his accusing finger and caught Jamie’s grin. “And now that boy’s laughing at me.”
Jamie’s grin turned into a scowl. Small breasts, lost in the folds of the baggy T-shirt while she was bent over the tiller, pointed back aggressively when she stood up.
“Never mind, Jamie,” Tom soothed. “He ignored the rules of the Island. It’s not surprising he didn’t notice.”
“What rules? All I did was …”
“Complain,” Tom interrupted. “I heard you in the hotel last night, complaining about the food, the drinks, the bed, the bath, even the air.” He pointed to the sign. “That’s our first rule for tourists: ‘Leave your complaints behind.’”
“And your second rule is ‘Just bring money.’”
“You got it.”
“Well, I certainly did that. That dummy who was here yesterday charged me twenty-five dollars of my hard-earned cash to get to that horseshit island of yours. Your sign says five dollars.”
“With visa,” Tom and Jamie chorused.
“I asked for a visa, and he wouldn’t give me one. Gave my wife one, but he said I didn’t qualify.”
“The Tuesday Consul and the Ambassador were within their rights, sir,” Tom said. “According to Island tradition …”
“To hell with your island tradition. It’s false advertising. Your sign plainly says …”
“‘Two Sailings a Day Morning and Evening.’ And the captain of the ferry is also within her rights to demand a fee equal to the original fee for an unscheduled crossing.”
“I won’t pay it, and you can’t make me. They threw my bags out of the hotel at nine o’clock this morning, and she was already gone. They refused to serve me breakfast.”
“I’m not surprised, the way you were going on about the dinner.”
“And that other place, that greasy spoon …”
“… Was closed. A man can’t go all day without food.”
Cynthia followed Tom’s and Jamie’s significant glance at the paunch that strained the lower buttons of the man’s shirt. He reminded her of those 99% of lawyers who give the rest a bad name.
“It was for your own good,” Tom said reasonably. “You wouldn’t have enjoyed the crossing nearly as much on a full stomach. Fifty dollars, sir. Please.”
The last word carried more firmness than menace, but it seemed to Cynthia that Tom had suddenly grown taller and wider. At the same time, it occurred to the fat man that Tom, Jamie, and Cynthia were blocking his escape to solid land. He looked at Cynthia for the first time.
“You’re all crazy,” he said, counting fifty dollars into Jamie’s hand. Cynthia was pleased to be included in the condemnation. They parted to let him pass, and he picked up one of the suitcases and stomped down the pier. The worried-looking woman emerged from the background and picked up the other suitcase with an effort and started to follow him. She stopped in front of Jamie and set the suitcase down.
“I enjoyed the trip anyway,” she said in a small voice. The worry lines in her face collapsed into a smile.
“I marked it, ma’am,” Jamie grinned.
“Tell me something, Jamie. I used to sail a bit when I was younger. How did you learn to tack downwind and come about in your own length?”
“Ferrying passengers without visas, ma’am.”
“I thought as much. You know, you remind me of myself when I was about your age. I mean that as a compliment, you understand.”
“I know. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Doris. You coming, or what?”
She jumped at her husband’s shout, and the worry lines returned to her face.
“You come back now, Doris, hear?” Tom said softly.
“If I had ten dollars of my own …”
“No charge,” said Jamie. “I’ll take you on as crew.”
The visible shudder that went through Doris reminded Cynthia of her own reaction when she stepped off the plane the day before and felt the hot breath of change on her face.
“Any time you’re ready,” Tom added.
With a barely audible “Thank you,” Doris bent down to pick up the suitcase. Tom brushed her hand away.
“Excuse me, sir,” he called. The fat man, who had continued down the pier, stopped and turned around. “You forgot your hunting rifle.” His raised voice drew the attention of strolling tourists and men working on boats. The man set his suitcase down and walked back toward Tom, who ducked into the shed and brought out a rifle. The man took it from him without a word.
“I’m afraid it fell into the water while I was unloading it. Probably needs a good cleaning to get that salt water out of it.”
The man glared at Tom and turned to walk away.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The man turned back.
Tom pointed to the suitcase at Doris’ feet. “You left your other suitcase here.”
The man picked it up and started back down the pier, scowling at the gawking boatmen and tourists.
“Thank you,” Doris said again, and she plodded down the pier to join her husband.
“Do you think she’ll come back?” Cynthia jerked her head in Doris’ direction in an unconscious imitation of Tom.
“Everything comes around in time,” he said. “Everything worth waiting for.”
“I’d like to take the sailing this evening, Jamie.” Cynthia tilted her chin in the general direction of Cayo Ladrón and found the simple movement unexpectedly awkward. “Unless I can go back with you now. Your father said there’d be an unscheduled midday crossing.”
Jamie’s boat, the Granuaile, is about the same size as these.
[A joint British and American expeditionary force left Cayo Ladrón in 1816] after summarily hanging Cormac O’Byrne on the spot now occupied by a green pillar-box (mailbox) resembling an elongated mushroom at the intersection of the Street and the Straight Road. The pillar bears the script letters VR for Victoria Regina.
Rebel blood summoned O’Byrne’s great-great-grandson – also named Cormac – to the land of his ancestors to participate in the Easter Rising of 1916. He liberated the pillar-box (then painted red) from Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, with the assumption that Queen Victoria’s son Edward VII’s Royal Mail would soon no longer have need of it. He wrongly supposed that the Irish republic-to-be would replace all the “VR,” “ERvii,” and “GRv” pillars. They are to be found in Dublin to this day – painted green.