Sunday, December 25, 2005

Small Town Boys - Chapter 24

Key West – 1992

It was dark and the air was heavy with tropical humidity and the scent of flowers when the cab pulled up in front of the Coral Reef men-only guest house on Fleming Street. It was a rambling three-story clapboard Victorian in the Key West style with porches and galleries surrounding each level and topped with a steep roof. The large windows let out a soft light through sheer curtains and outlined the gingerbread trim of the wide front porch. They were greeted at the gate by an attractive young man named Luis in a white shirt and tennis shorts who led them through the wide front door to the registration desk and then to their room on the second floor.

Luis turned on the light, illuminating the high ceilings; twelve feet, Donny guessed. The walls were whitewashed tongue-and-groove, and the furniture was white wicker with cushions covered in colorful print patterns. The bed was a large four-poster covered in sheer linen with mounds of pillows piled against the headboard. Luis turned on the ceiling fan and opened the French doors that led out to the gallery that overlooked the pool and the surrounding jungle of palms and lush plants. A high whitewashed stockade fence was barely visible beyond the trees.

“Breakfast is from seven to nine on the patio, cocktails are from four to six in the sunroom, and if you need anything at all, just ask,” Luis said.

“I need to make a couple of phone calls,” said Donny, noticing that there wasn’t a phone in the room. First Eric, then Danny.

“There’s a payphone next to the cabana on the patio,” replied Luis, handing Mike the key. Mike pulled a ten from his pocket. Luis nodded, murmured his thanks, and wished them a pleasant stay. He closed the door softly.

“Wow,” said Donny, poking the mattress with his finger. “Nice place.” Mike smiled, took Donny in his arms and gave him a strong hug and a deep kiss, which was returned with equal passion. Somewhere off in the distance steel band music was playing.

After dinner they strolled downtown for a drink at one of the many noisy bars filled mostly with college kids and live bands, then came back to the room and sat on the gallery listening to the din of tree frogs. They made love in the dark on the large bed with the French doors open, the ceiling fan stirring the air and the cigarette smoke.

They spent the first few days playing tourist. They strolled down Duval Street, poking into the little shops full of souvenirs and t-shirts, stopping at the Southernmost Point to have their picture taken next to the big red buoy, looking at the historical sights like the Hemingway home, the Little White House, and even taking one of the tour trains along with a raft of tourists from places like Appleton, Wisconsin and Franklin, Tennessee. Mike wore a baseball cap and Ray-Bans for the first two days even indoors, hoping to avoid being recognized as a celebrity, and he was careful not to show any overt signs of affection to Donny in public. But no one seemed to recognize him, and when he introduced himself it was always as “Mike.” After the third day he shrugged off the disguise and as they gathered with the crowd to celebrate sunset at Mallory Square, he held Donny’s hand and kissed him when the sun went below the horizon as the crowd cheered and drank.

They lost track of the days. To Donny it was more than the weekend in Idyllwild or at the Villa or sitting on Mike’s patio doing the crossword puzzle. For the first time he felt like they were a couple. They found restaurants that weren’t in the guidebook. They went to the beach and got pink from the sun. At the guest house during cocktails they sat by the pool and chatted with the other guests. Most of them were in their thirties or forties, and most of them were couples. Geoff and Brian were from Traverse City, Michigan, so Mike spent time talking about familiar places back home. Geoff was a realtor and Brian taught high school physics. Alex and Grady were annual visitors from New York City; Alex was a commercial photographer and was the first to put together “Lance Michaels” and Mike. They were sitting by the pool one afternoon when Alex said, “Have I seen you somewhere before?”

Mike nodded. “Yeah. I do some acting.”

“Right. You’re on that new series, and you did some commercials for that fast-food chain...”

“’Hurry on down to Hardee’s’...” Mike smirked a little. “God, that was years ago.”

“I thought you looked familiar,” Alex said, “and I always suspected...”

“Yeah?” said Mike a little cautiously. “How come?”

“Oh, wishful thinking more than anything else.” He sighed wistfully. “I see I’m too late.” He looked over at Donny, who was on a chaise doing the crossword puzzle in the Miami Herald. “How long have you two been together?”

“We met last March,” replied Mike.

“He’s a great guy,” said Alex, “not to mention gorgeous. Is he in the business?”

“No, thank God,” said Mike. “Computers.”

“Live together?”

Mike shook his head. “We were going to, but... with the show and everything...”

“Say no more.”

That night on the gallery Mike slipped his hand into Donny’s and squeezed it. “I could get very used to this,” he said quietly.

“Me too,” replied Donny.

“Even more than Idyllwild?”

“Well, that’s a little closer to home.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t snow here.”

“It’s snowing in Ohio, I’ll bet.”

“And Maple City, too,” said Mike, taking a sip from his drink. “Man, no wonder all the people up there come down here in the winter. This is my first time in Florida.”

“You’re kidding.”

Mike shook his head. “Dad couldn’t close the practice for two weeks.” Aside from farming cherries, his father was a veterinarian. “What about you?”

“No,” Donny said, thinking back, “I’ve been to Florida before.”

From the time he was five until his senior year in high school they would pile into the car each spring break and drive to a small hotel near Boynton Beach for ten days. The drive down took two days through the grey skies and hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, finally seeing signs of spring when they got south of Atlanta. They stayed at the Sea Breeze and the décor never changed, nor did the faint smell of mold and Lysol. The owners, Ed and Sylvia Lieberman, always made sure they had the same rooms overlooking the wide expanse of beach, and for several years they met the same families who had the same snowbird routine; the McMillans from St. Louis with their daughter Lucy, the Andersons from St. Paul, and the Rubensteins from Great Neck. Benji Rubenstein was two years older than the twins and Donny remembered that at age twelve he became aware of Benji’s muscular build and tight swimsuit. Mrs. Lieberman could never tell Donny and Danny apart even when they were in their teens and the difference between the two was apparent; she called them her “boychiks” and said either one of them would be a perfect match for her granddaughter, a dark-haired girl seen in many pictures in the small living room off the lobby of the hotel. From Monday to Friday they ate seafood at the little restaurants along A1A, swam in the ocean, got sunburned, and collected souvenirs like painted shells and funny t-shirts. Their mother sat on a beach chair under an umbrella and read mystery novels while their father played beach volleyball or touch football with them, or took them with him as he played golf. After dinner they would sit on the hotel patio and play board games like Monopoly or Sorry! with Lucy and Benji or take a walk down to the beach and look at the little flecks of phosphorus seaweed that would wash ashore like little specks of green starlight, then go to sleep with the windows open, listening to the waves. Saturday morning they got back in the car for the long drive home. The beach sand would stick to the carpet of the back of the car for weeks, a faint reminder of the trip. Donny kept a snapshot of him, Danny, Lucy and Benji sitting in their swimsuits on the edge of the pool on his bulletin board over his desk. In the dark winter nights, hunched over his algebra homework, he’d occasionally glance up and remember the warm sun, the smell of the coconut oil suntan lotion, and Benji, never wearing more than a tight tank-top and swimsuit.

The staff of the guest house put together a Thanksgiving dinner served on the pool patio buffet style. The next day they joined a sailing charter with Geoff and Brian and came back after dark. Luis greeted them at the desk as they picked up their room keys.

“You have messages,” he said to Donny and Mike, handing them each pink slips.

Mike read his and said to Luis, “You got a phone where I can make a long distance call on a credit card in private?”

Luis showed him the phone in the inner office. Mike went in and closed the door without a look back. Geoff and Brian didn’t notice. They told Donny that they were going to clean up and go get something to eat at a nearby Italian place and if they wanted to go along to just let them know. “Sure,” Donny replied, nodding politely but not really paying attention. He could hear Mike’s voice through the door. He wasn’t shouting, but he was talking firmly, and one phrase he caught was “So now what?”

Geoff and Brian went upstairs. Donny sat on the little couch in the foyer wondering what the message was that Mike got, then remembered his own. It was from Eric. It was very short. Donny read it twice before the meaning sunk in. He was about to get up from the couch when the door to the office opened and Mike came out. His face was flushed on top of his sunburn. He nodded a curt thanks to Luis and looked at Donny. His expression was unreadable as he went up the stairs. It wasn’t until the door was closed to the room that Mike said anything.



“The show’s on hiatus. That was Marty. It’s a polite way of saying we’re cancelled. We’ve shot thirteen episodes, they’ve shown seven, they all suck the life out of the ratings, the network’s replacing us with movies and holiday specials until January when they can get a mid-season replacement and they’ll burn off the last six in the spring or next summer when nobody’s watching; the show’s cancelled.” Mike paced back and forth next to the bed, then went out onto the gallery. Donny followed him, not knowing what to say, so he said nothing. Mike thumped his hand against the column. “God damn it, I knew it. As soon as I start feeling like things are gonna go my way, this shit happens.” He shook the last cigarette out of his pack, lit it, crumpled the empty pack into a wad and flung it across the yard. It bounced off a palm frond and landed in the pool with a tiny splash. “Fuck.” He blew the smoke out in a thin stream. “On the up side,” he said with a hollow laugh, “There’s no big rush for me to go to work on Monday.”

“What about the western?” Donny asked.

Mike shrugged. “Well, Stuart is officially directing Silver Star and now I’m free to do that, assuming they want a co-star from the season’s most expensive flop in it. Marty says it looks good. He’s been sayin’ that since last fucking May.” He smoked the rest of the cigarette in silence.

Donny made an attempt to change the subject. “Hey, you hungry? Geoff and Brian want to know if we want to go with them to some Italian place nearby.”

Mike shook his head and chuckled wryly. “Nah, you go ahead and extend my apologies. It’s still early out on the coast. I’m gonna make some calls. If I get hungry I’ll grab something from the shop next door. Need to stop and get some more cigarettes, too.” Mike went into the bathroom to take a shower. “So,” he said as he pulled off his shirt, “what was your message?”

Donny pulled out the slip, glanced at it again, and said, “Oh, no big deal. Just Eric. Something about work.”

“Hope you’re still employed.”

“Oh yeah.”

The water in the shower made a metallic drumming on the stall. Donny changed clothes and slipped the message into his wallet so he wouldn’t forget it or let Mike see it. It would have been meaningless to him, but better safe than sorry.

All it said was 500K.

Chapter Guide



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