The sounds of Key West.
What do writers want? (Forget whether they’re women or men, Uncle Sigmund. Forget money and fame.) They want quiet. Where do they go? They gather in Key West, Florida.
Sure, the subtlest sounds—the personally groaned sounds—begin with deep sighs, as other people discuss pools being dredged by the jackhammering of coral next door, leaf blowers switched on at eight a.m., drunks on the sidewalk talking to themselves even more animatedly as the police car pulls to the curb. Last night I hung over my balcony to hear a staggering gentleman informing the officer that he did have a destination. He was “gonna shuffle off to Buffalo.”
In the background, birds express opinions from people’s shoulders on late-night walks (“Pretty but what else?”—a bird clearly meant to call one’s life into question). All around the island cell phones go off, their ring tones arias from operas or a hip-hop version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Dogs bark, cats hiss, and the bird on the shoulder of the guy in the trilby continues to wonder aloud what to expect after “pretty.” Maybe the fire truck, or the ambulance that makes just a few high-pitched noises, as if the vehicle itself is dying. As it races away, it’s sure to set off a car alarm.
In front of our house, a man and a woman stop to discuss what he thought she was saying just a minute ago. He can hardly proceed because she erupts: that is not at all what she was saying. A guy goes by on a skateboard, aiming it toward irregularities in the street that might offer the opportunity of throwing him into some of the bicyclists. (Some of them pulling very young babies in see-through carts on the back, only inches off the ground. The babies wear helmets, as if babies only die if they sustain head injuries.) There’s the whistle from the cruise ship, about to leave port! A loud, angry argument between two guys who seem to have argued before, since each anticipates the other’s wild hand gestures. A Harley comes through, making a noise strong enough to kill bugs without spray. And overhead, flying low, United Airlines rumbles through the sky … but it makes it, unlike the sea plane a week or so ago that dropped stuff on the airport tarmac that turned out to be its landing gear. Then it angled crazily into the grass alongside the runway, as whistles went off and the airport was shut down. So much for making that flight.
Meanwhile, the kapok tree in our back yard, so huge and ancient that foreign visitors make special trips to see it, is in stage three of its molting: “the bombs,” green pellets that hit our tin roof all night long. All day, too. This goes on for over a month. Background music drifts through our open windows from the bars; drunken voices shriek on the balcony of a rental unit across the street, and into it comes the shrieking brakes of the trash truck, very early every Monday morning, lifting up trash cans, crushing the contents, preparing for its ride out to Mt. Trashmore to dump stuff and make the mountain higher. If it keeps going, there will be no space between mountain and sky for the buzzards to circle.
The bars close at four, after which there’s a final exodus of motorcycles loud enough to contact other planets. Soon it will be dawn and the skill saws will be out, the tree removal companies that grind up those gumbo limbos on the spot. Some wussy babies in their strollers can’t stop crying. Down the street rattles the Conch Train, filled with tourists, who receive dubious, though loudly announced information about what they’re seeing as they streak through neighborhoods on what looks like an enormous awninged caterpillar, whizzed past by kids on rollerblades and bicyclists who have the instincts of downhill racers in an avalanche, quickly jumping a curb to go the wrong way down sidewalks. A large van is loaded on a tow truck and dragged away (“Yeah, I’d say it’s been parked there since about Thanksgiving. There was a dog used to be tied to it.”) Here comes a bed race down Duval street! There goes a teenager with a woman’s purse; with those sounds she’s emitting as her arm dangles limply at her side, I thought the kid might have grabbed a pig. Which wouldn’t be impossible. People walk them on leashes here. Egrets walk around town like the many citizens who’ve had hip replacement surgery, narrower of leg and whiter than the humans, but equally exaggerated and tentative in the movement of their leg joints. When an egret was walking up the steps to a store, I heard an owner say, “Let it in. How do we know it doesn’t have AmEx?” Roosters scream, and though it’s illegal to kill them, there are many contracts out on their lives. The street musicians are playing, the guys and girls with their tattoos depicting other things that make noise—pirates; bucking broncos; wolves—are climbing on their Harleys, the cruise ships are getting desperate, bleating “When You Wish Upon a Star” (not kidding) much more loudly, the second time they blow. Electric hedge clippers come out most any time of day. You just can’t keep up with the fast growth of the ficus hedges all around town.
Did Papa Hemingway go to Cuba to get away from it? Did Elizabeth Bishop use earplugs? Might this be why Tennessee drank? Did Jimmy Merrill ask the Ouija board for advice?
Key West is advertised as Paradise, but it’s the paradise of the sqealing pig in the daily rodeo wrestle, the thundering, enormous van blasting heavy metal, the church choir in a residential neighborhood that gets together now almost every night and loudly sings, voices and musical instruments amplified. Bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer is driving nails into the boards of the house across the street; the big refrigeration trucks make mighty, house-shaking noise as they pass by, playing chicken with the more sedate UPS, FedEx, and other delivery trucks that must navigate the narrow streets.
Come one, come all! Certainly you’ve read the recent story in The New Yorker about the literary seminar and its strange goings-on? Bring your tired, your weary, your tubas, your most enormous vehicles, your apps that play opera, your dogs that bark, your babies who cry, your drunks who howl, and friends in flip-flops who’ll stub their toes on the irregular sidewalks and scream, “Ow!”
It’s warm, and the rest of the country, not so much. The celebration’s always going on, with drink mixers pulverizing ice and men slashing coconuts in half with swords. Who wouldn’t let out a happy cry of triumph? If you make it to Paradise, you can pick up the beat, dial it up, push it, get yourself a shrieking bird and a vehicle with a music system worthy of Jon Bon Jovi. Turn it up until that bass shakes free their heart stents, man! Then head off, honking with pleasure, screaming a few yee haaaaaaaws from the window, high-fiving the wind, en route to a night of heavily amped karaoke. Sing loudly your songs of heartbreak, let everybody know you’ve arrived. That baby’s gotta grow up someday! lol
Ann Beattie’s story “Janus” was included in John Updike’s The Best American Short Stories of the Century.