Saturday, March 13, 2010

Elayne Clift: Shadows and Stars

It seems to me that the shadows are of supreme importance in perspective.     
-- Leonardo da Vinci

Key Largo is in a word, retro – a throwback to the 1950s. You might not realize it on a drive-through to Key West, but you get it if you stop overnight. You feel it staring at the African Queen, the actual boat in which Bogie and Hepburn made cinematic history. (The boat is unmistakable with its canopy and the boiler Bogey kept banging to keep her moving.) You sense it stopping in the late afternoon at the Caribbean Club where bearded guys with tattoos play pool and drink Coors surrounded by Bogie and Bacall pictures from the movie Key Largo. If this doesn't do it, try sun-downers at the Sheraton, a flamingo-pink pseudo-tropical getaway that shouts for pedal pushers and ruffled off-the-shoulder halter tops. Key Largo is definitely a 1950s kind of place.

We were in the mood for it when we pulled in for the night at The Blue Lagoon, post-war cottages nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Route 1. The guidebook billed it as a resort run by caring hosts who make mom-and-pop lodges worthy of your patronage. It was no resort, but it was pleasantly tropical. Driving into lush, overgrown gardens randomly surrounding the grounds with colorful bougainvillea and assorted orchid-like flowers was promising.

The woman on duty, Mary Beth, was friendly. But Lazlo, the proprietor, was hardly my idea of “Pop.” Deeply tanned, his Hawaiian shirt seductively open half-way down his chest, his square face chiseled as romance novels boast, he was remarkably handsome. His blue-gray eyes and equine nose were offset by a perfectly shaped mouth and straight, square teeth. Salt-and-pepper hair added to his good looks.

“Is this your daughter?” he asked my husband, as I approached Lazlo's pick up truck after we'd registered.

For a nanosecond I thought he was serious. Then I got angry: Lazlo had played with my ego and made me feel stupid. People named Lazlo, guys who had escaped Hungary in 1956, were supposed to be like Victor Lazlo in Casablanca, suave and chivalrous, not ridiculous or insulting.

Suddenly Mary Beth appeared. “I'm wearing your shirt, she said, taunting Lazlo, cigarette in hand. You put it in the give-away bag, but I got it out.Then she said, He was going to toss it and it's a perfectly good shirt.”

She drew on her cigarette, fingering Lazlo's blue denim shirt. You wouldn't think he's my boss, the way I talk to him.”

Lazlo was telling my husband about his German neighbors. I don't know what triggered the conversation. Then, looking at me, he said, You're Jewish, aren't you? You know what they did last April? They celebrated Hitler's birthday! Can you imagine! He smiled conspiratorially. Remarkable, I said.

Mary Beth smiled at Lazlo as she drifted toward the office. She was clearly in love with him; her compulsions were such that she was incapable of hiding it.

The sun cast long shadows across the gardens. A chill permeated the air. I entered the cottage we had rented for the night. It was reminiscent of places my parents had rented on vacations before there were Holiday Inns. The kitchen had a porcelain table and two chairs in front of a window with Venetian blinds. Plastic flowers adorned the table. A tea towel hung from the refrigerator door. A coffeemaker and toaster sat on the Formica counter. In the bathroom, a paper mat with a map of Florida lay in front of a shower covered by a mildewing plastic curtain. Two skimpy towels hung from a towel bar above the toilet. Miniature Ponds soaps lay next to plastic cups covered in Saran Wrap. Yellowing wallpaper peeled away from the sink. In the main room, a television mounted on a shelf presided over a double bed made with overly laundered sheets. An open closet hosted naked wire hangers above a luggage rack. Two rattan chairs stared vacantly at each other across the room. Through screened jalousie windows, a breeze moved faded print curtains. I wondered if Bogie and Bacall had digs like this when they were filming.

I went to the office. Mary Beth was eating spaghetti from a Styrofoam container, watching TV. I fingered the brochures in a rack looking for a seafood restaurant.

“What can I do for ya? she asked. She recommended Alabama Jack's, a vintage barge restaurant specializing in crab cakes, country-western music and clog dancing.

“Can you imagine Lazlo wanting to throw this shirt out? she asked, smoothing it down over her breasts. I thought she must have been pretty once, even though her teeth were crowded and her face was sun-lined now.

“Don't forget about the comet!Mary Beth said, jumping up. Should be real clear soon. A friend of mine is comin' over with a telescope.”

The Hale-Bopp Comet had been making nightly appearances and was spectacular, even to the naked eye. So we fixed gin-and-tonics, grabbed sweaters and binoculars, and headed for the waterfront with other guests who were drifting toward the boat dock. Two French guys and a couple from South Africa had staked out the deck chairs. An elderly man and woman sat on a swing hanging precariously from beneath a thatch-roofed sunshade. We stood on the concrete jetty huddling against the chill. Waves rippled into the jetty and seagulls swooped into them like kamikazes. The sky turned pink, then purple. Mary Beth's friend arrived with his telescope. Mary Beth wandered onto the scene. Lazlo had disappeared.

Just before pastel hues faded into darkness, Hale-Bopp appeared. Its hazy glow looked like a star covered by thin cotton, a tail trailing at the end. It was amazing through binoculars, which we shared because Mary Beth's friend never invited anyone to look through his telescope. Then everyone talked about where they were from and what they had seen in Florida. Afterwards we dispersed into the night.

After dinner, when we lay in the too-soft bed with the faded sheets, my husband whispered, This place gives me the creeps.

The next morning when we drove out Lazlo was talking to some people. He waved. We didn't see Mary Beth.

Driving north, we passed the Caribbean Club. It looked like any other shack by the road. I hardly noticed the sign for the African Queen. The Sheraton stood, imperious, like any other over-priced hotel. The malls along U.S. 1 could have been on any strip in America. There was nothing distinctive about Key Largo.

Except maybe Bogie and Bacall, or Lazlo and Mary Beth.

Elayne Clift, a Vermont Humanities Scholar, is a writer, journalist, and adjunct professor. Her latest book is Achan: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Bangkok Books, 2007). She is currently at work on her first novel, "Hester’s Daughters," a contemporary, feminist retelling of The Scarlet Letter. She lives in Saxtons River, Vermont.