Among the Gumbo Limbo Trees
by Eric D. Lehman
It is in Key West I first decide to become anonymous. In an age when everyone was constantly signaling their existences, I would turn out the lights, disappear into the background of the painting, unplug from the matrix of the modern world. I would unbecome. It would be the greatest accomplishment of the age.
The idea had been growing for some time, but on a bright January day as I drive the rental car across the first bridge onto the Keys, it begins to stick. I had dreamed of driving this road since I had stared at the map of the United States on my childhood bedroom wall, tracing the string of connected islands, imagining what a road over the ocean looked like, sounded like, felt like. And that magical highway is all I imagined. “These are my favorite kind of islands,” I tell my wife Amy. “The ones I can drive to.”
What I did not imagine were the islands themselves, flat as a desert and scattered with fossiled limestone boulders. The birds in particular – anhingas, egrets, ibises, herons, and fleets of yellow-headed pelicans, dinosaurical in their black-eyed patience, staring into the blue-green water of the lagoon. On a trail off Route 1 on the edge of a key we work up a thin sheen of sweat, brushing the red-bark gumbo limbos, limestone boulders thick with fossils, coconut palms and strangler figs hungry from the salt-air sun. In the brown-salt mangroves lurk gar and bluegills. An enormous splashing roll just off shore – alligator?
We bypass cheap, brightly-colored stores with desperate billboards, but also don’t pass judgment. These are our people – thrifty, clever New Englanders who colonized the old conch islands, bringing their bone-white houses and fishing boats. We stop for lunch at a café above a hurricane-washed dock, enjoying a hogfish sandwich and Connecticut lobster roll. “A la vie,” we clink glasses in the manner of the French Canadians, from the far north end of Route 1. It is January but feels like June, or some late summer in Long Island. A salt breeze keeps the mosquitoes off of men performing the simple tasks of tying up after a morning’s successful charter.
We are on a slower clock here, vacation clock. The day is already full of adventure and the evening awaits. Amy holds my hand in the car, wearing her sun-hat and washed-jeans, eyes reflecting the periwinkle sky of the Florida morning. Her hair is luminous chestnut, like a new dock on the blue bay. She is happy and I am happy. But fears and worries keep trying to push through my cell phone at me. The politics, the lies, the distortions, the pathetic scandals, out of which no good comes. I keep hearing the line from Dr. Zhivago: “The private life is dead in Russia.” It was dead everywhere now; it had willingly committed suicide. A person was either involved, engaged, opinionated…or worthless.
And in the opposite ear, I hear Thoreau. He had gone to the woods because he “did not wish to live what was not life.” Clearly all this cell-phone, social-media, email-emergency world is not life. It is the mere surface of things at best, anti-life at worst. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau asks in Walden. “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels…and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.” We do not surf on the internet, it surfs upon us.
I brush away news. This is the time for cleansing, for healing. From the motel bed I can look out the white slats of the windows at green palms, blue sky. Fresh mind. Go beyond the algorithmic opinion, beyond the parroting, beyond cruel wasters of time. Go into the victory of the moment, into the cool morning of generosity and love. Be real and actual. Precise and individual. Give up the ambitions of the crowd and be each second. Watch sunset at the southernmost point, stare at the sun too long, and drink a modest French wine with my crepes. Read Seneca’s letters before a restful sleep cooled by the air conditioner fan.
The next morning, we relax on the breezy beach and take a dip in the motel pool before walking along sunlit sidewalks to the Hemingway House. Typewriters, first editions, snapshots of Ernest Hemingway with marlins and kudu, posters of his book covers and movies. He did his most frequent and productive writing here, nine years full of novels, short stories, nonfiction. The tour guide, who looks a lot like Hemingway actually, does a good job of explaining how physically and mentally destroyed the author was when he killed himself. All the injuries, nine concussions, gunshot wounds, electro shock, manic depression, loss of homes, memory, ability to write – and they were going to lock him up in an institution. Who could blame him?
He chose places like Key West to be away from the unwholesome babble of politics and fame. But also, to be close to the essentials of life – friends, family, nature. The house is licensed as a zoo to protect the many polydactyl cats, some of which we pet in the garden shade. I think of my own cats, Maple and Django, and how they are my children, and how Hemingway felt about his, and know that whatever his faults, in this he was a good man, a true man, an admirable human being. All the Nobel Prizes in the world couldn’t give him the pleasure, and the sorrow, of his cat Boise and a good day’s work.
Across from a huge Banyan tree, we peek into author Judy Blume’s store Books and Books, and the author herself is there, signing a large stack of Freckle Juice. We don’t bother her – you never know if an author wants your approbation or would prefer her privacy. I myself waver when someone I don’t know tells me “I have your books” and then proceeds to ask for something. Would it matter to her if I told her that Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing changed my life? Would she prefer to be anonymous, as well?
Maybe I was just projecting. I had a few friends and a few haters, but I was hardly famous enough to want to escape either. What then? What am I running from? The public life of an author? The duties of a professor? I worry about being attacked by someone in the media, about my cats, about Amy’s multiple sclerosis. But I am trying to acknowledge my thoughts and move on. Trying to live in the moment. Stop thinking about possible futures and just live now. Now is good. We sip Cuban rum drinks at Sloppy Joe’s before walking back the width of the island on a quiet, dusky street with fantastic, wind-shaped trees.
The next day we cycle past the spot where Hemingway knocked down Wallace Stevens and then around the entire island, past coconut palms and big hotels, past puttering charter boats and kayaks moored in the mangrove margins. The botanical gardens open just as we get there, and we wander through poisonwood and gumbo limbo, finding a secret trail, kissing in the shady forest, listening to birds twitter in the coffee bushes. Near the entrance, a collection of Cuban palm trees and Cuban “chugs” are situated together. The chugs are the makeshift boats that refugees escaped from Cuba on: Nissan motors, plastic gas cans, and fan blades, jerry rigged to put-put across the midnight Gulf Stream. The old “wet-dry” rule is explained – if the Coast Guard caught them at sea they had to go back, but if they made it to land they could stay.
After the botanical garden we eat conch ceviche and gator bits at a nearby marina while pelicans and egrets watched us for weakness. We nap and hydrate at a smoothie bar before walking the town again. We talk philosophy at dinner – deciding on a mix of epicureanism for daily living, stoicism for public life and traumatic events, Thoreauvian curiosity and Nietzschean eudemonia to live toward a greater happiness. A reasonable plan, but putting it into practice is quite another thing.
Beach morning – we’re out at nine a.m. after breakfast. The sun is hot but retreats behind clouds often enough. Immature pelicans dive for fish in the shallows, people take selfies on the concrete pier, and a small black butterfly flutters above us. A tiny sandpiper hunts the tide pools, smaller than the height of the small waves living in an enviable miniature world. At the beach bar sits a gray bearded man with hair that hasn’t been cut in years, wearing a brown serape every day. That seems like a good life.
After shrimp roll lunch we visit Harry Truman’s Little White House, his rest from a much more stressful and important kind of job. “The President’s spirits were raised by the Key West lifestyle,” the tour guide says. He speaks with realistic but hopeful rhetoric about the mistakes and successes of the man. I admire Truman’s “buck stops here” attitude – not making excuses, but making decisions. “We will let history decide,” he said.
Over the years, I had often thought about history, and the small part I wished to play in it as a writer. I had tried to achieve something for myself and my community. But as we hop from bar to bar, slowly sipping cocktails and munching appetizers under the cool fans of open rooms, I know that my happiest moments are not in front of an audience listening to me talk about my books, not appearing on television, not even seeing my work in print. They are all memories of travel, in real or imaginary worlds, anonymous and free.
The following morning, we drive out to Big Pine Key for coffee and a trio of short hikes in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, though the visitor center is closed due to a government shutdown. We do not find deer, but we see turtles and tarpons, and an iguana lounging in a tree. After grouper and fried conch for lunch, we head back for a dip in the pool and a game of Rivals for Catan, while chickens peck at our ankles. In the motel room we make love, shower, and then walk to enjoy a pizza dinner at a delightful alleyway place.
Every evening we read, fall asleep immediately, and wake up refreshed at six or seven a.m. The regularity of the sun, exercise, and booze – along with no cats to wake us with their hungry mewings. We laugh about this, though, as a pleasure of parenthood, and I look forward to furry pettings soon. For the moment, the palm trees sway and rustle. Blue and brown roosters with red combs crow on the morning streets. Brown pelicans dive for minnows in the sparkling shallows near the southernmost beach. The world of committees and bureaucratic forms intrudes on our paradise here and there. I try not to spiral. But a seagull with a broken wing stands nearby and I must either ignore him or try to save him.
A nice old lady with a scar on her leg does it for me, calling someone on her cell phone about the gull. I don’t know what anyone can do, though. He sits there, not complaining, stronger than I am. Perhaps he will be okay here by friendly beachgoers. Perhaps he will die tonight. It is difficult not to be morbid when confronted with the harsh realm of nature. We are all dying, slowly or quickly, and the reminder chills me even in this hot sun. Rather than mar my last day, I will try to vow to live, for the broken-winged seagull’s sake. For Amy’s. For my own.
A wildlife control officer shows up with a net and catches the gull. Either healing or euthanasia will follow. He is luckier than most. “They’re going to take care of him,” says Amy. Gods, I hope so. We walk out into the water beyond the pier and kiss and dunk ourselves in the surprisingly chilly water. Back on the chairs the sun is warm. But we are hungry, and soon we will head back for showers and lobster rolls, and the rest of our last full day here in the Keys.
The Key West Butterfly Conservatory provides a relaxing and beautiful interlude before walking down Duval Street and drinking from a coconut. We stop and buy a rooster mug in honor of the native chickens, before a long walk to the cemetery – broken concrete slabs, chairs for the living and the dead, a giant shell-shaped grave for the secretary of the 1982 Conch Republic. In the neighborhood we accidentally come upon the small compound of rental cottages that Ralph Ellison, John Hersey, and other authors lived in while here. Nearby is poet James Merrill’s house. At a clothing store I buy Amy a dress for her birthday; she looks like a summer princess, blue and white and fresh as love itself.
Seeing her drinking a mojito and eating tapas in a pleasant café, I recognize how happy, so happy, these simple pleasures make me. I had found a sort of happiness in achievement and success, in what might generously be called creative work. But now that seems a demon I am fighting. I don’t mind the work itself, I don’t mind caring for my wife and cats, and I don’t mind doing right by friends and family. It is the rest of it that no longer brings happiness. Is it possible to get rid of all that? Move forward into something new? Perhaps I could become invisible by choice, and give up the broken American Dream for an alternative.
We drive over the miraculous overseas highways toward Miami Airport. Back to below-freezing temperatures, to babble, to stress. But I vow take the strengths I found in the Keys back with me. I will process them in letters to friends. I will keep loving Amy as well as I can, every day in new ways. I will hear the wind in the palms and feel the sun on my face. Even in Connecticut, I could take my fly rod and fish the local water alone in the mornings, work all day as a ghost writer or warehouse drone, read other authors’ books at night, and be happy beyond the wheel of achievement and success.
A week after we return our power blinks out and a pipe freezes. In the spring another book contract is offered, and I sign it. The local river remains closed off, ruined in the recent tornado, and my fly rod stays propped in the corner of the dark cellar. I complete a grant application, write articles, and engage in the mundane ambitions of the future. I take on new responsibilities and new sorrows.
There is always next year.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing at the University of Bridgeport and his work have been published in dozens of journals and magazines, from Berfrois to Entelechy. He is also the award-winning author of fifteen books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.
Image via Wikimedia Commons (cc).