Key West, Florida
In the evenings, she and Tenn took the trolley to Mallory Square. He carried the lounge chairs and a thermos of gin martinis, shaken by the rutted road. Carson carried, as ever, her desire to see the world, to be seen. By the world. Tenn joked with fellow passengers and waved to those on the sidewalk, as if he were in a mayoral parade. They were three drinks in. Why wait? On this skiff of earth, connected to the mainland by railroad piers and concrete—by prayer, really—you pour any hour of the day.
They arrived early—sunset wasn’t until 8:15—but already the square was filling up. Tenn gripped her elbow, steered her to their place, and arranged the chairs. She slid her cane underneath the seat and sat, spine compressing tailbone. It was more difficult these days to fold and unfold, her body warped by back-to-back strokes. Skin sagged in places, loose and droopy, and was taut in others. So taut it felt stretched to snapping. Those places itched, the top of her hands, her calves and shins. Shin skin: there’s a phrase.
In an instant, he was assailed by well-wishers. A week had passed since he won the Pulitzer and still everyone wanted to shake the hand of the great playwright. His response teetered the extremes. Either he was humble, blushing around the ears, or he threw back his head and barked, I know, I know, revealing the vulnerable shank of Adam’s apple. Sometimes, at his most self-effacing, he even remembered to introduce her.
Meet Carson. Carson McCullers, authoress. You’ve probably heard of her. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She’s really the one who deserves this.
Of course, she didn’t rise. That would take too long. She smiled and said, Lovely to meet you. The way her mother insisted. If Tenn had let her introduce herself, she might have used her first name, Lula, the one she shared with her grandmother, and her family name, Smith, the one she gave up when she married Reeves. But here, next to Tennessee Williams, comparison and competition was the name of the game.
He shooed away the fans, settled in.
“Enough of that,” he said and unscrewed the thermos.
He filled the plastic cup, drank half, and passed it to her. She sipped, licked her lips. Salt air mixed with vermouth. Like that, they shared their fourth and fifth martinis. Like that, they waited, along with everyone, for the sun to set in the Gulf. A nightly ritual. To witness, to applaud.
“Tell me,” she said, “do you think there’s an original way to describe the sun? It’s all cliché. Blazing orb? Golden sphere?”
“Ball of fire?” He adjusted his ascot.
“Arrow of light?”
“Blistering spotlight. How about that?”
“You get my point,” she said.
“Why even try?” he said.
Spotlight—she liked that but felt it best for the moon. The moon—subtle, refined, a glow to bask in not burn.
The crowd was festive, the regulars—panhandlers, jugglers, card sharks, musicians—vying for coins. Bird-lady stood statue-like on a plot of grass, pigeons bracelet-ing her arms. Stilt-walker ambled by with coffee cans taped to each wooden leg. Guitar-strummer tuned up on a bench. Key West was holy with freaks and tourists. She was one of them. Both, really. Tenn, too, was a freak. An artist sold postcard-sized pastels of the sunset. Why a simulacrum, the real thing right in front of you? Carson had never been one for souvenirs.
There was a new fellow on the square. An interloper, he wore jeans and sandals. His hair was shaggy. He lifted a plastic sheet and flapped it open like a blanket. The sound reached her on delay, an echo, her hearing not so much lost as stalled. Another corporeal failing.
From a bucket, he poured a mound of glass shards into the center of the sheet, glittering whites and browns and greens. This time she was stunned instantly, intensely, by the sound—each piece crushing the next. He took off a sandal and used it to level the remnants. What was his trick?
“Ladies and gentlemen, behold the lane of pain,” he said, standing, pacing. “In a moment, you will witness a feat so simple it’s nothing short of a miracle.”
Lane of pain. Clever. Feat, feet. Double clever. He was a jokester. Had an ear for language.
He removed the other sandal and held out his foot, objet d’art, displaying vein-like cuts, some healed, some inflamed and red with infection. The arch, she saw, was macerated tissue.
“Yes, my feet are scarred, but these wounds are only concerns of the flesh. Through years of practice, I’ve elevated my thoughts to a higher plane. Nothing can hurt me.”
Years of practice? He was a boy, no more than twenty.
He set out a Mason jar for tips, a jar that might one day become a part of his act.
“I implore you, be generous.”
“Have you ever seen him?” she asked Tenn.
“Never,” he said. “Hard way to make a living.” Hard way to get noticed, thought Carson.
She downed a final gulp of martini. Alcohol, that charmer, uncoiled from belly to brain. Even the air, with a touch of humidity and glowy yellow light, felt inebriated. It was her last night. She had been in town for three weeks. Tomorrow morning, Tenn would drive her to the bus station.
The house on Duncan Street was barely large enough to hold all three egos: hers, Tenn’s, and Mr. Magoo’s. That wasn’t the dog’s real name, but it made Frank laugh and, as an added bonus, made Tenn mad. Ah, yes, Frank. He was here, too. That made four, but he had no ego. He fit right in.
Frank, Tenn’s lover—what in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, would be called his companion—cooked, cleaned, rubbed sore feet, hugged freely, lit her cigarettes, helped her dress, walked the dog. He knew, like an all-purpose valet, when to step back into a shadow of his own making. He reminded her of Bebe, her mother. Always there, but on the periphery.
From the beginning, they settled into a routine. Sunrise kicked them out of bed. Frank served breakfast, and after, she and Tenn stayed at the table, writing. Half-way through the morning, usually around the time Frank brought more coffee, they looked at each other and cackled. This profession—the scratching of words on paper, the sweet-talking and wheedling, the shaping and reshaping of meaning, showing off, fabricating, constructing (wood, hammer, nails) scenery—all without leaving the table. It was the most ridiculous activity in the world. It was insanity—joyous, radiant.
They knew it was lunchtime when Mr. Magoo waffled in, squished nose and beady eyes, and, with a grunt, demanded his bowl be refilled.
In the hottest part of the day, they fled to the beach. She and Frank lazed on the sand; Tenn swam. The waves at first buzzed, an irritant. But when she closed her eyes, a melody of clashes emerged: gather and release; suck and exhale; crescendo and trough. An inner resonance that reminded her of playing Bach in her living room while the family swirled around, slamming doors, rattling silverware, flushing the toilet.
She opened her eyes, half expecting to find herself nine again and in her home on Stark Avenue. Instead, she saw the snarl of surf and emerging from it, Tennessee. His swim trunks struggled to stay on his hips, his chest glistened—a spangle of diamond-sparked droplets. A grand exit—or entrance—that only he could make. He waved, pleased with himself. Neptune and Narcissus both. The God of Broadway. She laughed at him and with him.
Cocktails on the porch followed the beach. Refreshing tonic with a pimento olive and a grain of stray sand on her tongue. Frank prepared dinner. Salmon or shrimp or pasta or a salad with fresh artichokes. She was gaining weight. Sated, sauced, they caught the trolly to the dock.
Later, after the sun had set and the stars had guided them back up the street to number 46, her gut roiling, her bones jangly—she was spent—Frank carried her to bed.
“Nighty night, Peach,” he said, and kissed her forehead.
The next morning, they met again at the table. Sunlight slanted through the dusty curtains, steamed the alcohol from their pores, heated their brains. Washed clean, they wrote.
Ritual was balm.
Tonight, Frank stayed behind. Had he seen enough sunsets? Had he seen enough of her? Maybe the dramatics of the square exhausted him. It must get tiresome, catering to the needy.
In the distance, the Dry Tortugas, islands inhabited only by flora and fauna, shone ruby and gold. The sun was still high enough to give off heat. It reminded her of the buttons on the jumper her mother made her wear on the first day of fourth grade. She hated that outfit, it tugged at her armpits and strangled her—the neckline too snug. All wrong, too bright among boys in beige slacks and girls in demure blue dresses. At her desk, the bottom button, the size of a half-dollar, stared up at her. She squirmed with embarrassment. For herself. For her mother—so proud she wanted her daughter to stand out. Carson never wore it again. In fact, she moved it to the back of her closet. When her mother asked about it, she said she had outgrown it.
She knew then her body—and maybe even her mind—was permeable, distressed by what for others was inconsequential: color, texture, weight. After that, Carson selected her own clothes. They were loose, baggy even. No more constriction or tight material. And no yellow.
What made her think of that now? Frank’s absence? The boy and the glass?
He was limbering up, rotating his ankles, touching his toes. He hopped up and down, up, down, skilled at playing the crowd. A few coins were already in his jar and he had yet to perform.
“A miracle like this, gents and lasses,” he said, “is not for the weak or faint of heart.”
He suspended a foot over the glass.
“The sting of this earthly world does not touch me.”
Suspended, hoovering, inching lower—he stoked impatience.
“Like the mystics of ancient times, I channel a greater spirit.”
Inching his foot lower, lower.
“I am one with the universe.”
She held her breath. The faces of those around her—wide-eyed, lips curled and sheened with spit—mirrored, she was sure, her own. Anticipation. The threat and thrill of pain—the pain of others.
Carson traced the buckle of flesh at his heel as it landed. Beside her, Tenn groaned. She freed her breath and turned away. Coward.
Like the boy, like the sun, she was too much. Excess her only mode. She over-drank, over-ate, over-loved, over-wrote. She talked too fast. She threw herself at others as if throwing stones, wanting to knock them out with her brilliance. Everyone she met, the famous—Katherine Anne Porter, Ethel Waters, Gypsy Rose Lee, Auden—and the intimate—Reeves, cousin Jordan, Annemarie, especially Annemarie, unrequited lover—they had all experienced it. Both parties came away bruised. She never expected less. To be unscathed was to have not lived.
A deep wail rippled the crowed. Carson dug her fingernails into Tenn’s forearm and turned back in time to see the boy’s final slow and steady steps. His face impassive, all concentration and calm. Was he communing with God? Could he be mystic, artist, and busker? At the end, he fell to his knees. Blood oozed, leaving the glass sullied. A woman stepped forward and put her hand on his head, a benediction. Many reached for a billfold. Others shuffled away, shaking their heads.
Why do we harm ourselves to be noticed? To be loved? She did it with every book. Tenn with every play. Her heart—not faint at all, but a tough muscle—never stopped longing, and this boy—he knew that ache.
He rose to his feet, still expressionless. Of course, she could be wrong. Maybe he was a person who felt no pain. She had heard of such a medical condition. He slipped on his sandals and hobbled over to retrieve his jar. It was stuffed full.
“He’s a hack,” Tenn said.
“No,” she said. “He’s one of us.”
The day Tennessee received the Pulitzer call, the sky was pewter. It fouled the mood in the house. Frank plunked down plates of eggs and walked out of the kitchen. They had had a fight, but Tenn wouldn’t say why. The writing plodded along.
An hour in, he said, “I love you, darling, but you have to stop.”
“What?” Carson asked.
“The incessant drumming.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your fingers. Drumming the table.”
He put his hand over hers. She hadn’t been aware.
“I’m not drumming, you coot. I’m playing the piano.”
He chuckled. “Well, stop. It’s annoying.”
They both laughed. She was annoying. She knew it. Reeves used to say the same thing, but he called it thrumming. Reeves, dear, Reeves. The husband who was and then wasn’t and then was again. They couldn’t quit. Until they did. Until he did—all those pills in a Paris hotel room.
“My habits are my habits,” she said, running an A major scale up his arm. “Take me or leave me.” She used to say this to Reeves.
Tenn got more coffee.
“I’ll miss it,” he said. “I will. You know I will. Once you’re gone, I’ll sit here and I’ll think, It’s too quiet, I can’t work. I’ll think, I know what I need. Carson drumming. I need Carson here to play the piano.”
Just then, Mr. Magoo peed on a potted fern. Tenn raged, picking up the dog and holding him close to his face.
“You little shit,” he said. “If you do that again, I’ll kick you into the Atlantic.” His tone, though, was sweet. Sappy even. It was baby talk. The dog had no idea he was in trouble. He licked Tenn right on the mouth.
Frank came in and Tenn turned on him, belittling him for not watching the dog, for not doing enough. How could everything not be enough? But the trash was full and the mail was unanswered and now dog piss had to be mopped up.
Frank stomped out the door, this time with Mr. Magoo on a leash.
Tenn sulked. He hadn’t shaved that day. Maybe the day before as well. Days merged, one long blur of words, gin, beach, sun, gin, words, sunset, gin. His eyelids drooped. Sad donkey, she thought.
“You are a cruel man, Tom Williams.”
“Don’t call me that,” he said.
“I’ll call you anything I like,” she said, deepening her Southern drawl, a forced gentility, something Tenn, a son of Mississippi, understood.
His grizzled cheeks puffed. Really, all this fuss was about words—they were capricious. You couldn’t summon them like a butler or force them like a shim. You couldn’t plant them like a row of peonies and expect fat, flawless pompoms. She and Tenn had come to believe their time at this table was a bulwark. In reality, companionship was not enchantment.
Capricious—a smart word. And still, it failed to live up.
The sun returned after lunch—leftover chicken salad, which she fixed—and in an attempt to salvage the day, they went to the beach. Tenn and Frank frolicked in the surf. All was forgotten or, more likely, swept under the rug, which was where, hugging the tongue-and-groove, resentment typically settled.
Their bodies—splashing, lunging, diving—were strong, agile. She wished she could join them, surrender, weightless, to the current, a salve for her atrophied limbs. But the sea was too rough. She jabbed her cane into sand.
So early her body turned on her, struck at fifteen by a fever so intense she lay immobilized for days. The first stroke, only a few years later, brought her down quickly, quietly. The last two rendered the left side of her body useless. She rarely remembered the actual event, but the warning signs—tightening at the nape of her neck, singe at the back of her throat—alerted her. Gravity is about to floor you. She stirred from these episodes as if hungover—logy, cotton-mouthed, stiff. Humility became familiar. If I could, she thought, I’d get down on my knees. I’d supplicate.
They left the beach at four and the telephone was ringing when they entered the house. Tenn raced to catch it. From the threshold, she saw him bend back and let out howl. A beast unfettered on a full-moon night.
From donkey to wolf, that was her Tennessee.
It was the call.
“Sweet Jesus Mary Mother,” he said. “I won.”
He lifted her, twirled her. Frank joined them. Mr. Magoo yipped at their ankles. When Tenn let her down, she tipped, off-balance, and bounced against the rattan sofa, landing on her hip. She yowled, but he took it as her own cry of elation. Frank noticed her pain. He sat and cradled her head.
“Champagne for dinner,” Tenn hooted and opened a bottle.
They raised their flutes and Frank offered a toast. His beloved, his victor. The liquid warmed her toes, which for some reason, even in the tropics, chilled easily.
Tenn refused to leave for the sunset. He had to stay near the phone. All of New York was calling. Frank pan-seared trout. She curled deeper into the sofa, smoked and stewed, their routine disrupted. She listened to rounds of Thank you. Thank you. Isn’t it wonderful? She listened to him say, “You’ll never guess who’s here. Carson. I can’t think of a better person to celebrate with.”
She lit one cigarette off the other, ground the butts as if on Tenn’s face. Yes, she was envious. She tried not to sulk, or she tried not to appear to sulk. But why sulk? Tenn supported her success. He had urged her to turn The Member of the Wedding into a play. He was the reason it spent more than a year on Broadway. Arch-rival, arch-friend. Maybe, in all the hoopla, he failed notice she had yet to congratulate him. Maybe not.
She tilted precipitously, unable to right herself. A lone bowling pin, wavering, wobbly, until she ended the night there, horizontal on the cushions.
The following morning, Tenn was back at the table. Clean-shaven, bright-eyed. She joined him.
Another day. A day to write.
It was upon them, just like that. Just like every night. The eternal wait followed by this moment—the sneaky sun, lip now touching water. Everyone stopped and watched.
The sun edged lower. Lower.
Three-quarter, half-pie, just a slice. A lean slice. Don’t blink.
Applause erupted. The sky, a bank of clouds fringed in color—orangish-lemon, pinkish-lime, violent violet, was a Monet, almost too beautiful.
Show over, the crowd shuffled away. Hawkers packed up their juggling balls, decks of cards, and guitars, earnings tucked deep in pockets. As was their custom, she and Tenn stayed. Not ready to give up the day. Bird-lady scattered the last of her seeds. The boy scooped shards back into the bucket. Glass caught the streetlight and winked. Winked again.
The air tasted rusty, like the bottom of that boy’s feet.
“Darling?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Fine.”
She wasn’t fine. Her body hurt, comma-ed so long in this chair. Her brain leaked alcohol. Would she be able to stand?
The sun didn’t need applause. Why did she? The sun didn’t clamor, cry, crave, beg, cause a stir, indulge, or inflate. It didn’t shame or disappoint or degrade or embarrass or limp or cough too much or need to use a cane.
If her body were healthy, would it be enough to rise each morning and sit with a friend at a table on an island? If her body were reliable, would it be enough to place her head on the pillow each night knowing she had spent hours in search of the right phrase to end a chapter? If her body were strong enough to swim in the ocean, stable enough to walk unaided, robust enough to abide every lurch of the nightly trolley ride: would it be enough?
No, not for her. Not since the day she rose from her first sick bed, fever broken but churning in her marrow. She had to be seen, and not in the way of Bird-lady—covered in pigeon shit—or Stilt-walker, his legs too easily kicked out from him; not in the way of the boy, cut and bloody soles carrying him to the next pitiable street show. Nor could she live unseen, like Frank and Bebe. Like Reeves. Invisibility drove him to death.
This was the reason Carson was not Lula Smith. Why Tom was Tennessee. They knew no other way to be than too much. Words mattered—the correct word. Readers mattered, the audience. Recognition mattered. It mattered if you won, or didn’t win, the prize.
Tenn screwed the lid back on the thermos. His ascot was once again askew. She thought to lean over and straighten it, but the distance, her hand to his neck, was too far.
“If I didn’t say it earlier,” she said, “and I’m sure I didn’t. I’m just a mean—”
“Carson, please,” he said, bowing his head.
“Let an old gal finish,” she said. “I’m a mean cuss, but I say it now. A hearty congratulations to you. You deserve it. And so much more.”
“I don’t know if that’s true.” He chuckled. “But I thank you. It means the world to me.”
Her fingers twitched—the uncontrollable spasm in her right pinkie and ring man. It scared her. Sometimes it signaled an episode, the electrical jolt of what she had come to know as a mini-stroke. Sometimes it signaled a run of creativity. A time of deep work. Words came and nothing stopped them. She hoped that meant once she returned home, she would continue work on the novel she had just begun.
She rose, using his arm for balance. A ripple of pain puckered her hip. This time, Tenn noted the flinch.
“It’s too much,” she said.
“I agree, it is. But you’re strong.”
Steady now, she tugged down the back of her shirt, which had ridden up, sticking to the sweaty skin. Tenn handed over her cane. He closed the chairs and slipped the thermos into the creased webbing, a neat holding pouch.
They locked elbows as dusk closed any distinguishing line between ocean and sky. Gulls fought over debris left in trash cans. A breeze funneled up the dock. She looked up. There, the moon, near to full, making its way over the eastern horizon, soon to brighten and invite the stars. A spotlight to lead them home.
I was remembering my time in Key West before I realized I was back there, again. During my visit, it was a sword swallower on the boardwalk. I relived every detail—every scene—right down to my core. An absolutely brilliant piece of writing.