I GET OFF THE BUS IN PLANKTON KEY, FLORIDA AND IT’S LIKE STEPPING IN FRONT OF A GLASSBLOWER’S FURNACE. The dank tropical heat hits me in the face like a blow from a wet army blanket. It’s as easy to breathe as a blanket, too, each mouthful like a bite of dry wool. The air tastes like dust and my eyes water from a glare that seems to penetrate even the shadows. My body is instantly wet with perspiration, which the over-saturated air refuses to accept, so instead of cooling me like nature intended, it just covers me with a salty, sticky coating. Droplets of sweat trickle from under my armpits, tickling like little insects, and I can feel a salty delta forming as sweat funnels between my breasts. Welcome to the Florida Keys, I tell myself, and a new record for instant misery. My twenty-dollar white silk blouse clings to me like wet tissue. I could have saved my money, I figure, and used a fifty-cent box of damp Kleenex to the same effect.
There’s a punk-looking guy sitting on a bench just outside the door to the station. He must be waiting for God Himself to get off the bus since I can see no other reason to sit outside in this heat. He doesn’t strike me as the religious type, though. He’s trying to look cool in his cheap seersucker suit, but he’s no better an actor than he is a dresser, which isn’t much. He’s sweating like a cheap hot dog, which he more than a little resembles. He’s peering over the top of a limp racing sheet, scanning the platform like a weasel looking for a baby bird to drop out of its nest. He spots me and does a perfect Jimmy Finlayson double take. I do tend to stand out in a crowd.
I’d laugh if I could breathe, but I’m making a beeline for the station door, which bears a sign reading AIR CONDITIONED INSIDE in blue letters with little icicles hanging from them. It draws me like the North Pole attracted Peary. Weasel, though, unfolds himself from the bench like five feet of carpenter’s rule and intercepts me four paces from the door. He’s a skinny little runt who barely reaches my collar bone. His limp straw hat has a wide brown stain around the band and his suit looks damp enough to wring like a sponge, which is as dreadful a thought as I’ve ever had. He has a voice like someone with a really bad sinus infection. “Hey! New in town, huh? How ‘bout I show ya ’round?”
I look at him with exactly the same fascination with which Rockefeller would regard a wooden nickel.
“I’ve been around,” I tell him as I push by—he squelches a little like a wet dishcloth— and finally get into the refrigerated station. The air inside is so frosty I think for a moment that my more fragile bits may snap off with the sudden change in temperature and my coating of itchy sweat suddenly congeals into a clammy slime. There’s not much inside other than a couple of old benches with limp, bored people draped on them and a ticket counter. I go up to the old man behind the cage and ask, “Any place to get a cold drink around here?”
This doesn’t seem to me to require a whole lot of thought, but obviously it’s been a long time since anyone’s asked him for more information than the time of the next bus and the old man is a little taken aback by the unexpected call on his wisdom. He mulls the question for a while, savoring the moment, as he massages his gums with his tongue. I glance over my shoulder and there’s Weasel, looking through the window at me. He turns away so quickly he bumps into a fat woman carrying a kid and she lays into him like he’d just tried to mug her or something. Meanwhile, the old man’s telling me there’s a fine bar just across the highway, which I wouldn’t have thought to have been such a hard thing to have remembered but then I’m not an old man stuck behind a ticket counter in a podunk bus station.
I can see the bar on the other side of about forty feet of nearly liquid asphalt shimmering in the heat like a mirage. It looks as far away as Timbuktu, if Timbuktu is where I think it is. I can just imagine someone someday finding my bleached bones scattered across the median line. I take a deep breath before leaving the station. It’s like swimming through molten glass, but I make it. The tavern isn’t air conditioned, but the inside is as dark and cool and dank as a cave, even if it does smell like stale beer and cigarettes. The place is practically empty which is okay by me. I swing myself onto a stool at the bar and toss my suitcase and jacket over the seat next to mine. I set my purse on the bar in front of me a little more carefully because I don’t want the automatic to make too loud a bump, pull a handkerchief from it and mop my face. The bartender has been eyeballing ever since I came through the door. I don’t suppose I look very much like a local.
“Get you something, lady?”
“Yeah. I need the coldest beer you’ve got and then some directions.”
“The first is easy,” he says, rustling a bottle out of a chest of ice. A Pabst Blue Ribbon, too. Oh boy! The sound alone sends a welcome chill down my spine. I savor it, vertebra by vertebra. “The second depends.”
He pops the cap off and sets the bottle in front of me along with a tall glass. I surprise the hell out of him and pick up the bottle. I guess I’ll never make a Southern lady...or maybe any other kind of lady, I suppose. The beer goes down like a skier on a slope of fresh powder. I set it down half-empty.
“Depends on where you want to go.”
“Yeah. Well, you know where the Paughner place is?”
“Paughner,” I repeated, “P-a-u-g-h...”
“Oh! The Paughner place!” He pronounced it “Poffner.” I’d been saying “Pockner,” like I’d been taught. But then, I’d been raised genteel.
“Yeah, that’s it. You know where it is?” He’s turned his back to me but I can see him staring at me in the mirror and I don’t much like the expression on his face. Maybe it’s just the dirty glass.
“Maybe. You got a minute, I’ll call a buddy and get directions for you.”
“Thanks. You got any place I can clean up a little? The heat out there’s really something. I must look a mess.”
“Sure, lady,” he replies with a gallantly skeptical smile. “Through there, in the back. Only one door. Can’t miss it.”
“Keep an eye on my bag for me?”
“Sure.” He tries to make it sound like he’d die to protect that bag, which would be just fine by me. I know what I got in the suitcase; him I don’t know from Adam.
The room in the back is a stuffy little restroom with no ventilation, no evidence of regular cleaning and, awful to see, no seat on the toilet. Fortunately, I’d taken care of that business on the bus, thank goodness. The only light comes from a single bare fly-specked 30-watt bulb dangling from a frayed cord and a cracked pane of frosted glass. I switch the light off and the room actually seems to get brighter. There’s a green-stained sink and a cracked mirror, though I have to stoop a little to use either. It’s nice being tall but sometimes it’s, well, a pain in the neck. I turn on the faucet and let the water run to get cold. While it’s trickling, I look in the glass. Yup, the bartender was being gallant, all right. I look god-awful. I look like I’d just spent a day and a half on a plane and a bus, can you believe it. My black hair is plastered to my head like wet licorice. Fortunately, it’s exactly for times like this that I keep it cut in a simple pageboy. It’s hopelessly out of style, but all I have to do is give it a shake and maybe a couple of brush strokes if I think of it and it’s as good as new.
I peel my blouse off, being careful to not let it touch anything in the room, and hang it from the hook on the back of the door. My shoulders are so naturally broad and level I have to cut the pads out of all my blouses and jackets, otherwise I’d look like a character from Things to Come. I unhook my brassiere and hang it from the doorknob. The sink’s full of cool water and I splash it on my face. I soak a paper towel and use it to swab out my armpits and the undersides of my breasts. Still damp, I lean on the sink and look closely into the mirror. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, huh? Well, I better not ask questions I might not want to hear the answers to. There’s only one man I’ve ever known who went goofy over my looks and, well, that’s a story I’d just as soon not get into right now. The pale, lean face looking back at me is a lot more like something out of Vogue than Rogue—not exactly man bait. Suzy Parker, maybe, instead of Jane Mansfield, if you get my drift. Okay, so it’s not the face of man bait—but is it the face of a man killer?
The hell with it.
I get back into my bra and blouse, both of which are now cold and clammy. I consider abandoning the former altogether, which feels like a big leech snuggled against my chest, but I don’t quite yet want to put too great a strain on Southern sensibilities.
When I get back to the bar, the bartender has another beer waiting for me along with a scrap of paper with some directions scrawled on it in thick pencil.
“It’s on the house, lady. Don’t get too many tourists in Plankton this early in the season, especially ones what look like you. Figure it as a thank you from me.”
“Thanks, but I guess I’m not really a tourist. Got a little business to take care of.” I tap the note with a fingertip. “How far from here?”
“I dunno. Five-six miles maybe.”
“I don’t suppose there’re any cabs around?”
“Yeah, sure!” He thinks I’ve made a joke.
“Any chance I can get something to eat?”
“I got some ham and Swiss you want a sandwich. Wonder Bread. That’s about it.”
I tell him that’d be swell because Wonder Bread helps build my strong body eight ways and take my beer to a table where I can see the blazing street. All the while I’m thinking, my, my, I wonder why someone living in this two-bit town would need to call to find out where anyone lives? It’s an island, for God’s sake. No place on it could be more than spitting distance from any other place, which brought up a pretty nasty mental picture. While I’m wondering who the bartender had called, I see a familiar figure coming out of the station, and I bet my last dollar he’s going to come over here. I win the buck from myself, as I expected I would, as the weaselly little gink comes trotting across the half-molten pavement and sure enough comes straight to the door of the bar. He tries not to notice me as he comes in and the effort is so obvious he may as well be gawking right in my face. He gets a beer from the barkeep and, even though every other table in the place is empty, he looks around as though trying to decide where to sit. He finally comes over to where I’m sitting, big surprise. I figure chances are good he’s who the bartender called, God knows why.
“Anyone sitting here?”
“Yeah. My pal, the invisible man.”
Mistakenly taking this as an invitation, he plunks himself down with an audible squish. He sucks on his beer for a minute, his eyes self-consciously avoiding me. He’s so nervous, I begin to wonder if I’m going to see him actually dissolve right in front of me.
“Say, Miss, ah...”
I wonder if I ought to try to make things easier for him, but figure, what the hell. So I just stare back at him. His eyes skitter under my gaze like olives avoiding a dull fork. He mumbles some more then finally makes a brave try at getting to whatever his point is.
“Look, ah, Miss, ah...Hey! Sorry about, ah, back there...didn’t mean to sound fresh or nothin’. Just tryin’ to be friendly—helpful-like, you know? You bein’ new in town an’ all. You know?”
He looks up at me hopefully. I don’t give him anything back but more stare.
“Ah, uh...you gonna be in town for long?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Why do you ask?”
“Well, uh, you wouldn’t be plannin’ to go out—poke around town or anythin’ like that, would you? I mean, not that it’s any of my business or nothin’.”
“And if it were your business?”
“Nothin’! Nothin’, of course! It’s just, well, just that, you being a stranger ‘round here and all, you might not be...I mean, you might like some friendly advice.”
“I’m hanging on your every word.”
“Yeah. Well. What I mean is…if you got a return ticket, well, then, if I was you I’d just stay around here ’til the next bus outta town. It’s nice an’ cool in here. It’s a good place to wait.”
“Well, that is mighty interesting advice. You make Plankton sound kind of unhealthy for a poor little ol’ city girl like me.
“Well, yeah…I guess it could get kind of unhealthy.”
“You’re a healthy kind of guy, aren’t you?”
“How’re you feeling?”
“I…uh, okay, I guess.”
“That’s pretty tough, then,” I say, reaching across the table. I grab his tie and jerk it so hard his face bounces off the table like a tennis ball. He continues on backwards, toppling chair and all onto the floor. I glance up at the bartender, but he’s got his back turned, pointedly polishing a perfectly clean glass. I get up and toss a tip on the table. I notice that there is a single tooth embedded in the center of a wet red circle. It looks like a tiny tombstone. I go to the bar, retrieve my bag and the sandwich sitting next to it, thank the barkeep for his hospitality and insincerely apologize for leaving such a mess. I can’t tell if the sarcasm’s been lost on him since he still won’t look at me, the bastard. I have to step over Weasel’s face on my way to the door. He’s still out, blowing a big red bubble through a nose that looks like a squashed tomato. Because I get cranky when I’m hot, I kick the face and the bubble goes plip.
Thanks for the advice, friend.
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