KEY WEST, Florida
24.55° N, 81.78° W
Twilight in the southernmost. The laughing gulls circling above trade pink hues with dark shadow. Steam rising from the street is all that is left from the malevolent thunderhead which passed moments ago, loosening a monsoon from its canons before retreating like a malevolent ghost ship for the darkness of the eastern horizon. Through the steam, we ride as avenging angels along the streets. Before us, a pair of Hemingway’s polydactyl’d cats scatter as the four wheels of our two bikes slice through the orphaned puddles, sending up grimy sprays of runoff in our wake.
Fucking smells like weed, Sam Gutter says, suddenly interested in our surroundings. I do not disagree, yet my nostrils detect grease and rum. Of course, this is largely due to a mustache saturated with booze and conch fritter sweat.
Our beach-cruisers pass Mallory Square amidst applause and chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as the sun dips into the Gulf of Mexico with the slightest green flash. Sam Gutter, resembling a circus bear atop an undersized bicycle, stops to admire the crowded square with a cigarette in one hand and his plastic cup of rum-drink in the other. He smiles like an eel. Victor, he says to me, you may want to get your tonsils checked… something’s going down tonight!
We pedal onward, leaving the square for Duval Street as Gutter’s auspicious words play havoc on my balance. Or that might be the rum.
Michelle comes crashing into our lives like a freight elevator unhinged by cheap chardonnay and an itchy case of envy. She dangerously steps into the street and grabs Sam Gutter’s bicycle handles with both her hands. The circus bear brakes just in time. He’s built like a refrigerator with dimples and a shock of sandy hair ebbing with the tide of his scalp; Michelle would have been a moth on the windshield of his cheap sunglasses had he been at full speed. Braking as he did, the contents of his rum-drink spill forth over his massive knuckles. Son of a bitch!, Gutter says, before remembering her name, Michelle! What the fuck, Sam Gutter asks with little flair for civility. She’s in tears, but both Gutter and I know better. Those blue-eyes of hers can microwave a cold burrito into a mouth-singeing hellfire faster than you can say buen provecho. I thought you were in Cleveland, Sam Gutter says to her with a face aflame with loosened temper. I thought you were dead, she says back.
Michelle has the long-skirted swagger of a spinster schoolmarm, the kind of woman whose corset you could really sink your teeth into. She appeals to Gutter’s sense of chivalry with her distressed damsel antics, but Gutter admits he shat out his manners long-ago, about the same time he stopped giving a damn about Cleveland dames. Michelle pleads for Gutter’s help. Her sister is missing. Which one, Gutter asks, the two-bit floozy or the three-bit? Michelle’s schoolmarm lips tighten before she says, you loved me once! Gutter belches a little. He says, look, Michelle, that was a long time ago and a different place. She disagrees. First of all, Michelle holds up a finger, it was eighteen hours ago. Second, she says pointing the raised finger across the street, it wasn’t far away, it was at Irish Kevin’s. And third, my name isn’t Michelle, she says, pointing the finger at herself. My name is Stacy.
I ain’t got time for all this math, lady!, Gutter says. He turns towards me while sitting atop his bike seat and, without asking, grabs the rum-drink out of my hand to pour half of its contents into his empty cup. Sam, please!, Michelle urges, you must help me. Gutter raises his sunglasses to perch on his forehead as he lets out a sigh. Y’know, Vic, Gutter says to me, Mom always said I was a hack. Well, I guess I am a goddamn lousy sap for broads, too. Alright, Michelle, he says, Vic and me, we’re going to find those sister-tramps of yours.
It will not be easy. Key West may be a small island, but this whale has enough Old Testament hunger to swallow a trio of sisters whole. And tonight, Duval Street is elevated far above its norm of Tom, Dick & Harry mediocre-hooligan pageantry. Any common Thursday night in Key West would be populated with sun-stroked tourists and methed-out street performers, but this is Sportsman’s Weekend, the annual mini-season for lobster hunting which brings every jean-shorted Florida Man out of the mangrove woodwork to invade the southernmost reaches of the state. The entire length of the archipelago is swarmed with lobster divers by day, from mile marker 120 all the way down the Overseas Highway to the end of the road, where we are, at mile 0. By night, however, every sportsman invader with an indecent appetite migrates to the end of the line: Key West. If gratuitous debauchery had any weight, Key West, on this weekend, would flip the state of Florida into Cuba.
Get out of here, Michelle, Sam Gutter tells her. Go back to your cruise ship. Go back to your mini-bar and your Xanax and your hot-fudge sundae buffet. Where we are going tonight will not be safe for you.
Michelle calls to Gutter, bring them home to me, Sam. You owe me that much! Her words are drowned-out by the riffraff of nearby club music and street-drummers as Gutter and I tie-up our bikes in an alley. I grab a hushpuppy out of my pocket and toss it at a tom-cat, asking him to look after our cruisers. There’s more where that came from, I tell the six-toed feline as he munches.
Irish Kevin’s is a seedy den of anti-imperialist rebels from bandit country, anti-depressant cruise-shippers from flyover country, antebellum hillbillies from red-state country and a shirtless DJ pelvic-thrusting as he plays the catchiest jingles from the last years of the last century. This is where Sam Gutter and I, on a prior night, met Michelle and her wildcat sisters and it is therefore where we begin our search. The crowd is thick, like a bucket of congealed concrete made by stirring together Tennessee whiskey with Florida dirtbag. Every face is the familiar drunk tourist: jet-ski fuckboi, siren-gazed trollop, resident ratfucker, overconfident rube, gold-dug trophy wife, Cuban cabana-boy, cougar step-MILF, jackass from Ft Myers and then the real pervs; few resemble the Cleveland girls. Gutter sniffs out Salvatore’s aftershave and follows the scent to the bar where we find Sal spinning sketchy calculus with an earthy-chick wearing eagle-feather earrings and a tan suggesting she’s familiar to these climes. Her glossy-lips smile as Sal says, I am but an insignificant blip in the cosmos. We all are, he continues. And the universe is expanding, so we become even more insignificant with each passing moment, so there will never again be a moment as significant as this one. Mm-hmm, Eagle-Feathers hums to Sal, so what’s the catch, big-guy? Simple, Salvatore grins his disarmingly charming Irish-Italian smile, nothing matters more than you & me right here, right now. Sal tells her, don’t worry about your fiancé, he’s just some schlub from your past and the past is a vacuum of meaningless. Mm-hmm, Eagle-Feathers hums again, sure. Behind Salvatore, Sam Gutter creeps close enough to reach around and grab Sal’s nipple to twist as if turning a key in a car ignition. His breast suddenly mutilated, Sal curses as he wrestles the crab-claw from his chest. Fuck!, Sal says.
The barmaid with eagle-feather earrings turns away from the violence and asks what I am drinking. I order three Guinnesses and as many shots of Jameson. It’s going to be a night; time to fortify.
Jesus Christ, Sal says, gripping his mutilated nipple. Gutter says, I’ve been called worse. What the living fuck, man, Sal says, I’m in the middle of something here. Nah, Sam Gutter shakes his head, you’re a truffle pig with your snout between the wrong legs. We need you, Sal, for a greater purpose. We’re on a mission from God, me and Vic. We’re on a rabbit chase up some wild goose hole, looking for lost broads. What say you join our ranks and stop being a fucking pussy? Sal asks, yeah?, what’s in it for me? Gutter offers, fortune & glory, bruh. And redemption, Gutters says, for having too many nipples.
The drinks arrive.
First one today, Gutter lifts his shot of whiskey as a toast. First one today, Sal and I agree before downing the whiskey. The pints are similarly dispatched and the three of us search the crowd of the Irish pub for the Cleveland sisters. After a thorough casing of the joint, we three reunite to plot further exploits over further pints. First one today…
Fuck this, fuck you and fuck you, Salvatore says after a sip of his next first pint today. I engaged three dozen women of varying midwestern dispositions, Sal says, and while many leaned Catholic and few were even from Ohio, none of them were nuns.
Sam Gutter blinks hard and turns towards me. I shrug. Gutter then slaps Sal hard across the face. Salvatore, a pretty large dude himself, takes the brunt of the attack with barely a flinch and spits out a wad of bloody sputum. He asks, the fuck? They ain’t nuns, Dipshit McDingleberry, Gutter says. They’re sisters, like, biblically, as in: mom’s getting that unwrapped dick more than once. I didn’t say shit about nuns. Vic, you say shit about nuns? Vic didn’t say shit about nuns. No one said shit about nuns.
What am I looking for then, Sal asks, if not habitual habit-wearing women? Sam Gutter ponders the question. He says, one of the sisters wears skirts shorter than her belt while the other dances like she’s trying to avoid a pap smear. Oh, Sal says, maybe I did see them.
We head to Hog’s Breath Saloon to seek out the counsel of Salvatore’s brother, the Commodore. It isn’t my idea. The Commodore is a mad tyrant, let alone a lawyer from Miami. Earlier in the day, 12 miles west of the Marquesas, piloting the rented boat, Albatross, the Commodore dropped Cuda and me into a frothy soup of cross-currents within the skeletal frame of a wrecked ship considered to be the mythical lobster El Dorado, “El Lobsterado”. I about swallowed my snorkel trying to keep from being impaled by rusty beams as black-tip sharks danced around me, waiting for the right opportunity to snack. I eventually pulled myself into Albatross with nothing to show but quaking muscles and pissed-in shorts. Get a grip, Vic, the Commodore said to me, tossing a cool can of cheap swill, you’re tremoring like the San Andreas with Parkinson’s. First one t-t-today, I stuttered, cracking open the beer. Suck it up, Vic, the Commodore said, then get back in the wet. Fortunately, Cuda managed to bag our permitted limit of bugs, hauling enough lobster aboard to make the entire trip worthwhile.
I am not eager to see the Commodore again, but there he is, holding court within Hog’s Breath, as a Guinness drinking contest is about to begin. The Commodore is in mid-story, saying, that’s when I told Colin, I don’t care how big your dick is or how you banged Angelina, Alexander is a shit flick and Miami will never buy you as “Sonny”. The Commodore pauses his anecdote as he notices our advance. Christ on a vespa, the Commodore says, you three look like you got gang-banged in the stingray tank. What squeezed all the ink out of your squid dicks? We’re looking for the sisters, Sam Gutter says. The Commodore shrugs, saying, get thee to a nunnery. Not those kind of sisters, Salvatore tells his brother, but it is too late. The contest has begun.
First one today, I say on stage at Hog’s Breath, drinking my pint of stout in seven seconds, defeating my opponent, making it into the next round. What do these sisters look like, the Commodore asks Sam Gutter. Cleveland dames, to be exact, Gutters says. These broads have sunburnt cheeks, bloodshot eyes, frizzy hair from the humidity, TJMaxx dresses, are diarrhetic due to cruise-ship norovirus, slightly bulimic, stressed-out about student debt and the fertility of their aging ovaries, bad at meditation, can’t parallel park and listen to a lot of Bon Iver. One’s got the dopey grin of the Moaning Lisa, Gutter says, while the other sister is all knees & elbows. The Commodore admits he might have seen these ladies; he’s then called on-stage for the second round of the competition. His challenger is me. First one today, Vic, the Commodore says before downing his pint in five seconds, three seconds ahead of my consumption. In the next round, Gutter and the Commodore face-off. Gutter, stoned and drunk, tells his rival, I will eat you alive as soon as I find some croutons. The Commodore’s patient with his retort, waiting for the contest to begin before telling Gutter, that doesn’t explain why your dick tastes like my brother’s ass. Gutter chokes on his pint and is disqualified. Guinness is pouring out his nostrils as he curses the Commodore, damn you and damn the jet-ski you rode in on. The Commodore leisurely finishes his pint for the win.
If you want to find your nuns, the Commodore says to me offstage, go find Wags at Durty Harry’s. No one’s got a nose for nuns like Wags the Dog.
We follow the trail back to Duval Street to Rick’s Bar. The place is an embarrassment of divey riches: eight bars in one building, there is the cocktail joint, the upstairs rave, the gentlemen’s club, Durty Harry’s Crow’s Nest for live music, the Mardi Gras daiquiri bar, the Loft, the Dungeon and the Tickle Room. We find Wags the Dog in Durty Harry’s, as the Commodore expected. Wags has the long, slender frame of a ski-ball Olympian, he is wearing sunglasses at midnight and he’d easily be mistaken as a corpse emitting occasional belches of gas. To be honest, I thought Richard Wagner dead. Yesterday, Cuda had decreed, by the Pirate Code, Wags had drank more than his fair share of our community rum and should thereby be marooned. Wags the Dog spent the next twenty-four hours in the jacuzzi of our rented bungalow. The last I had seen Wags was this morning, boiling in the hot-tub where he had spent the night. He seemed a corpse then, but we were in a rush to set sail for El Lobsterado and didn’t have time to check for a pulse.
The fuck, Wags the Dog asks after Gutter smacks him awake. Wags has been eating edibles like Skittles and couldn’t tell us which year it was, let alone where the Cleveland sisters were. Jesus, Salvatore says, who ordered the red herring tacos? This is a dead-end, man, he says. Give me a minute with him, Gutter says as he cracks his knuckles. Gutter presses his thumb against Wags’ left bicep. Yow!, Wags says, the fuck? Still sensitive, Gutter asks Wags. Sensitive?, Wags asks as he lifts his shirt to his collarbone to discover the bloody mess on his chest. The fuck, the surprised Wags asks as he gingerly wipes away at the wound. On his chest is the pre-existing tattoo of “Shirley”, the name of his current, though, perhaps not future wife. Underneath “Shirley” is the new bloody etchings of “sorry you’re a bitch” tattooed in Times New Roman font. The fuck, Wags asks again. How’d the fuck? Who the fuck tattooed me? Gutter is cackling with muted laughter and begins dry-heaving when he runs out of oxygen. When did I get tattooed, Wags the Dog slowly awakens from his cloud of intoxication. Who did this to me?
Sam Gutter attempts calm himself, yeah, dude, this is yesterday’s donuts. You thought it a good idea then, he says to Wags. Shirley will understand. The fuck she won’t, Wags disagrees. Who the fuck would understand a tattoo calling them a bitch? Never mind all that shit, bruh, Gutter tells Wags. We got a situation here. It’s a Cleveland Steamer meets a Gulf of Mexican Standoff. I’m not sure which way to turn, Gutter admits. The fuck, Gut, Wags the Dog says, pulling his shirt back down. Don’t Monday my Sunday, bro. I’m here trying to live my best life, Wags says, I just got a handjob by the daiquiri machine. Handjob by the daiquiri machine? Bullshit!, Gutter says, you’re telling me there are daiquiri machines which give out handjobs? What, Wags contemplates… Uh, no, dude, dude, no, dude, I got a hand-job by a stripper named Chandelier while we were next to the daiquiri machine.
Dude, I ask Wags, have you seen these sisters or not? Wags shakes his head, saying, you try a convent? Nah, bruh, Gutter says to Wags the Dog. They’re like siblings, Gutter says. Wags takes a look around the bar, what do they look like? Gutter tells him, one walks like she’s steering a car with her ass. And the other never turns-off the NO VACANCY sign; she collects jars of pickled dicks.
Oh, yeah, Wags the Dogs says, they went that way.
It is 2 am as Gutter and I leave Rick’s Bar for Duval Street. Salvatore left earlier on a tip from a cocktail-waitress in the Tickle Room, something about the community showers at the Garden of Eden bar. Wags the Dog fell asleep in the Dungeon. Or maybe he died of dehydration. Once again, no one bothered to check his pulse. If the ocean were gin, Gutter said minutes ago, while looking at Wags, this guy would have grown gils. Sam Gutter, though, has drank himself sober, as if his liver resets at midnight like Cinderella.
What next, Gut, I ask. Shit, Vic, Gutter says, desperate times call for desperate pleasures. I say we go find that daiquiri machine that gives out handjobs.
Through Duval Street’s humid haze – the fog of marijuana, cigars and food cart smoke – three figures emerge from the primordial ooze like the Birth of Venus. The saintly figure in the middle is Cuda, aka “the lobster whisperer”. On either side of him is a young woman, each walking at a wobble. The woman on his left is all knees & elbows. The woman on his right has a shrunken mini-skirt. Gentlemen, Cuda says with his big, mischievous grin, where’ve you been? I’m helping these ladies find their sister, Stacy.
Stacy? Gutter says, never heard of her.