One

 

In the white heat of the day, the lane is noisy with the popping of pods from the lanky tangled bushes at its edges. The air lilts with a smell like baking frankincense, and sulphurous rotting sea grass, and a briny something that could be hot ocean-water.

       This island is a couple of mile-long streak of limestone. You reach it by driving down a long arrow of highway – the US One, as it shoots out through the ever-dwindling mass of Florida – on to one of the nubs of land that form the Keys. You turn left at a Cuban-run Chevron filling station, and down a quiet, uneven road. On foot, you notice hard leaves which excrete beads of salt, and the indigo claws of the blue land crabs clack and clattering on to the tarmac. Down tracks and behind fences there are boatyards, lobsterpot-makers, small fish-and ice-related businesses; and set back from the road but without fence or gates, a square, pink building: the Heron House.

Arthur stands in front of me again, in the Assisted Living Facility where he lives and I work. His hands are splayed out in front of him, palms to the ceiling. His voice quavers, as always. He asks me, again, if he is to blame for going to Vietnam.

“But we were helping out the Vietnamese,” he murmurs, answering himself. I reassure him again and remind him it’s time for him to take his false teeth out for the night.

“Oh, okay,” he says obediently, just as he does when I tell him he’s not a war criminal. I find their triangular pink plastic case; we lock them in the office overnight, as he tends to lose them, or forgets to remove them before falling asleep.

This is also where Olliebelle and Billy-Ray live; where Marysue, and Barb, and their ten housemates live. As the heat slows and thickens into the early evenings, they gather on the first-floor veranda which runs along the back of the house and faces the opaque lagoon at the edge of the garden. They sit in plastic pockmarked easy-chairs, and drink ice-crammed soda from tall plastic beakers, and smoke all the cigarettes they can, and, at this hour, are mostly silent. They have the inertia a tropical climate can bring, and something else besides. The sun sets: a moody, dirty purple-yellow affair, or a smooth, pink-on-blue, pearly number. They take it in, and critique it amongst themselves.

Eventually the air cools a little. Through the evening they’ll come and go, but usually a few will keep vigil here, behind the torn mosquito mesh. Someone might smuggle in caffeine: sweet iced tea, or Coke. Caffeine can interfere with anti-psychotic medications, as well as exacerbating anxiety, mania or panic. Their voices will float out across the stuffy darkness, with occasional distinctive laughs, a burst of song. Once, at two in the morning, Freddy-Fred broke the curfew and cycled three miles to the Circle K to bring everyone fried chicken. House rules dictate that all residents have to be up by eight thirty in the morning, but for many of them it is easier to be awake at night: in the hooded dark time, when the temperature drops; when the world beyond is sleeping as they look out over it. Down here, the world beyond is mostly water.