I don’t think anyone sleeps in the Key West Cemetery anymore. Key West cops are much more like cops anywhere else, now that Duval Street is no longer mostly abandoned storefronts from the Wreckers Museum to the Southernmost Point, and $500K won’t buy you a modest conch house.
But this was 1992 and I was six days into a five-day trip to Key West that was already four days too long and getting longer.
I was sitting at the downstairs bar of the Bull and Whistle, perched on a stool behind a Rolling Rock and three Bayer aspirin set out on a cocktail napkin by the bartender, who kept a jug of them beside the cash register. It was a little before 11am.
I’d just checked out of my hotel, left my bags at the front desk, and handed the rental car key to the guy I’d driven down to Key West with five days before. I told him I’d see him in Miami, walked out into the morning sunshine on Duval Street, and down to the Bull.
The Bull is the lower bar, billed as the last of the old-style open air bars on Duval, and the Whistle is the upper bar, with a balcony well-suited for watching the street parade below during tourist season. This was early October, though, and I had the bar—and the town—mostly to myself. The Bull offers two experiences to its patrons. It can be a lazy, dim, quiet, breezy place to sip a beer in the company of one or two old guys reading newspapers. Or it can be packed right out to the street with cruise-ship day trippers in crisp new Conch Republic T-shirts, holding 2-for-1 margaritas in both hands and calling out Jimmy Buffett requests to the house musician. This, happily, was one of those former times.
I was in Florida with an old friend from college and two girls we knew. One of the girls was an old girlfriend of mine; the other girl had some kind of unresolved issue with my friend. It was a bad situation made worse by some poor decision-making on the part of me and my ex. We’d hooked up within an hour or so of arriving in Key West and had been carefully avoiding each other ever since. Thus, we’d added one more psychological subtext to a vacation that didn’t need anymore psychological subtexts. For five days, the air had been thick with subtexts.
The other girl had responded to this awkward situation by being plucky and upbeat and generally cheerful. My friend, who had his own issues, as I’ve said, responded by saying nothing to no one for five days. I hadn’t said goodbye to the girls. If this was Friday, I hadn’t seen either of them since some time on Wednesday.
But the bar was quiet, a light breeze was up, and all three of them were some miles east of me by now, my college friend on Route 1 through the Keys, the girls in the puddlejumper to Miami airport. My headache wasn’t any worse than any of the others I’d had in recent days, and I had seven hours to myself until the girl I’d met the previous night would be off her day shift at a restaurant on Stock Island.
She was short, with dark hair, and a wide, solemn face, and I think her name might have been Sara or Susan. We’d met at the bar in the Green Parrot in the way writers always meet. By telling each other stories. I told her some preposterous and long-winded story about a far-future miner for artifacts trapped in a rejuvenation machine, a story I later had the good sense never to write, and she read me some poems written on the backs of blank guest checks.
We watched the band until the band packed up and left, and then drank at the bar until the bar drew closed its shutters at 4am and threw us out into the pre-dawn darkness of Whitehead Street. By the time the bright pink Key West cab dropped us off in front of her place on Truman Street, above a used bookstore and directly across from a go-go bar called Lookers, the morning’s first roosters were already crowing at us and pecking at the curbside trash.
She didn’t have her own room, just a mattress on the floor behind a folding divider printed with Oriental symbols. Don’t worry about noise, she said, her roommates kept her up half the week. For the next few hours, I could hear them, pointedly not listening to us. At 10am, she wrapped the sheet from the bed around herself and led me by the hand to the wooden steps at the side of the building, down the steps, and then pushed me out into the street. “Come back at six,” she said, “I’ll be off work by then.”
In the Bull, I finished my beer just as the first group of giggling old ladies in funny hats walked in off the street, ribbing each other about being “hardcore morning drinkers.” Soon they were followed by their husbands and plenty more boisterous middle-aged day trippers. The musician that day, a guitar player named Michael McCloud whom I’ve since seen many times at the Schooner Wharf Bar, folded his newspaper, filled a big plastic cup with water and ice, and climbed up onto the stage. I left the Bull at noon, drunk again, and lightheaded with sheer weariness.
I crossed Duval, went over to Simonton, and south to the Atlantic side of the island. I had a general notion of getting something to eat down toward Truman Street, but I cut over onto Angela Street and only got as far as the cemetery. Back then, the Key West Cemetery was already a fairly popular tourist destination, and it’s much more so now. But it was the very beginning of October, and the cemetery was deserted under somnolent midday heat, silent but for the cackling of roosters and the buzz of cicadas. I entered at Passover Lane and walked up one of the wide lanes through the grounds.
Most of the graves in Key West Cemetery are aboveground vaults of marble and stone. It’s too difficult and expensive to dig very far down into the coral that lies beneath the island turf. Standing in the middle of the cemetery, it’s like you’re standing in the midst of a city of the dead, with its vaults piled on top of vaults, and the elaborate statuary—angels and cherubs and obelisks—reaching up to the sky.
When you read about Key West Cemetery or go on one of the tours, much is made of the offbeat epitaphs and decorations (“I Told You I Was Sick,” “I’m Just Resting My Eyes”), as if the cemetery were another manifestation of the island’s much-advertised quirkiness. But that non-conformist ethos doesn’t appear in Key West until the ’70s, when the gay and lesbian crowd embraced Key West and lifted it from its post-Navy-base doldrums. The vast majority of the graves in the Key West Cemetery date back to much earlier times, from the 1880s to the Great Depression. Key Westers in those years didn’t have time for quirkiness. They lived hardscrabble lives on a very isolated island. During the Depression especially, virtually everyone on the island received some form of government assistance and the island was so poor it was scarcely illuminated at night.
So what you see as you walk among the vaults are gravesites that have been customized over time by descendents who visited often. Many of the vaults have stone benches, built to afford visitors rest and reflection. A significant number of stones and vaults bear artists’ renderings of the deceased. And then there are the epitaphs. Not just names and dates, but short life stories carved into the stone.
Why? Because on an inaccessible island like Key West, where there was nothing much to do but fish the sea, fight the mosquitoes, and fend off the storms, you visited the dead. And you visited them often. Spanish sailors named the island Cayo Hueso, Bone Key, when they found it, because it was littered with the bones of a vanished Indian tribe.
I walked through the rows for a while, reading the inscriptions, until I found a wide, comfortable-looking vault. Entombed inside were the remains of a Hispanic man and wife, probably Cuban. There are many, many Cubans buried in Key West Cemetery, and the grounds include a separate area set aside for Cuban Freedom Fighters. The husband died in his forties, just after the Second World War. His wife died forty years later, in 1987.
The little representations of them, painted on small ceramic ovals embedded in the stone at the head of the vault, showed them at the same age, both in their forties. How many times over the years, I wondered, did that woman come to sit here at her husband’s side? What were those last years like, that she commissioned this small image of herself, forty years younger, as her last word to the world? Atop the monument, a beautifully rendered stone cherub cavorted.
I plucked a wreath from an adjacent stone and set it at the head of the vault. Then I stretched out, my head propped by the wreath, the cherub standing sentry above me, and I fell instantly asleep. I had the most vivid dreams. They’re all nonsense now, not worth describing, though I still remember them distinctly today. Suffice to say, I slept with the angels.
I slept for six hours straight without stirring and woke at dusk, feeling like I was sitting up in the midst of an ongoing dream. The breeze was gone; the roosters and cicadas were silent. The light seemed wrong, like it was leaking up out of the ground, instead of radiating down out of the sky. And though the sun had already set and the light was fading, the edges of every tomb, every stone, every leaf, were very clear and precise. The air possessed a mute, dumbstruck quality, like in the aftermath of a photographic flash. My ears, I realized, were hurting me, and I swallowed to release the pressure that had built up inside them.
I looked up at the sky and in that very second it started to rain. It rained like someone was pouring a bucket over my head. I was soaked to the skin in an instant.
I ran down through the cemetery and hopped the fence at Grinnell Street, running full tilt to Truman Street. I ran to the apartment above the used book store, pounded up the wooden stairs, and rang the bell. The girl opened the door and looked out at me.
“You’re still wearing the same clothes,” she said.
“I know, I’ve been wearing them since Wednesday. Think of this,” I stretched my arms wide in the downpour, “as the rinse cycle.”
And then we went out into the storm—which, I found out later, had a name, Tropical Storm Earl—and did it all again. The next morning, I pulled on my still-soaking-wet shorts and she gave me one of her shirts, a black tank top printed with the logo of a long-defunct 80s-era Key West gay bar.
“Come back at six,” she said, though she surely knew I wouldn’t be back, and I agreed. “Six o’clock,” I said.
Outside, the storm was just letting up and I walked east two miles out onto North Roosevelt Boulevard, stopping at the first rental car storefront I encountered. They had no cars and I had to wait awhile for one to be returned. I drove east and caught up to the storm again at Marathon Key, an unrelenting, pounding deluge that obscured everything further than a few feet from my front bumper, all the way to Miami.