IT WAS THE FIRST TIME Ben Golden had seen his mother’s home in over thirty years. Key West and Duval Street hadn’t changed one iota, and neither had his childhood neighborhood.
Everywhere Ben looked he saw the shard of a memory—the swing hanging from the bough of the old maple tree, the hummingbirds that used to come by the side yard where mother once kept her feeders, and the grainy tonalities of his father, his tortured eyes staring out at the street from his second-story bedroom window. Ben’s tender gray eyes stared up at that house now. He knew it right then. The old ship-wrecker’s mansion on Duval Street, the one that took two years to build right before the scandalous suicide of his father, was almost as colossal as he had become.
He stood there along the sidewalk battling the Key West heat. Earlier Ben had scarfed down an order of maple walnut French toast, rhubarb pie, spaghetti squash fritters, and two whole bowls of mac and cheese. Now after a short walk down from the Marquesa Hotel he was completely out of breath. His mother, Betsy Golden, had died only the week before; diabetes finally doing to her what the whiskey, cigarettes, and men could never do. In those tertiary moments of the morning he found himself staring up at that newly minted ghost of his families’ old place. What he witnessed was a testament to the enormous proportions of the loveless marriage that had existed for years between his two parents, Terrance B. and Betsy Golden.
Ben stared at the black shutters falling off the old house. The ocean air over the years had oxidized all the front windows. Off to the left was this gaping hole by the kitchen door where a cell of terrorist raccoons kept coming in every night.
Staring at this one upstairs window, Ben remembered watching My Favorite Martian as a kid. But one day as Uncle Martin was telepathically talking to a dog, Ben heard this immense blast go off upstairs. Immediately, he ran, half-excited, because he thought his father had brought back a cache of Roman Candles from South of the Border. But as he hit the top of the stairs he knew something was terribly wrong. In a penetrating silence, he strolled over to his parent’s bedroom, where he found his father, Terrence, shot once in the head, his naked clad body just lying there, bleeding out atop these elegantly platinum sheets his mother had once bought for him at Bergdorf Goodmanback in 1962.
Ben felt this salient moisture lapping up across the small of his back. His voluminous body shifted along the sidewalk as he tried to get out of the way of this blue-haired old coot and her yappy dog. “Good morning,” he tried to say to her. But she immediately turned the other way like somehow he had contracted the plague.
Once upon a time the Golden’s had been Key West royalty. Tennessee Williams had been a frequent visitor to their home—he used their living room in his play Suddenly Last Summer. Veronica Lake used to stay there for weeks at a time. But two days after Terrance Golden shot himself in the head, Betsy drove young Ben up to Key Largo, where she bought this old Oriental rug from a Vietnamese shaman, and she brought it home and hung it up on the bedroom wall to cover over the bullet hole and blood spatter that had been left there after the suicide. After that no one of any caliper ever visited them again.
Gobsmacked red hair. Hesitant walk of a bride. Immaculate black blouse in a rousing Key West heat.
… All the components that made up Vera Zaharoff came perfectly together as she walked with a purpose right over to Ben. He had seen her face plastered on these tabloid-like real estate ads everywhere. For a split second he regretted ever having left Key West. He had gone to Columbia University only to flunk out after his first three semesters. Luckily, a friend’s father owned a Wall Street firm. And it was on Wall Street where Ben earned all his money; doing it all without even a degree.
Tall and straight, Vera stood there on the sidewalk right in front of him like a brand new shoot of bamboo. “I take it you’re Ben Golden?”
“I take it you’re not?” he half joked.
Vera’s demeanor stayed cool. “So what do you want to do?”
“What do I want to do?”
“Yes. With the house?” She turned and looked over at his mother’s old ship wrecker’s mansion.
Ben couldn’t help but stare as this elegant strand of beautiful red hair fell across her face.
“You can stare if you want,” she said to him with a great, big smile. “You seem like a nice guy.”
Her hand politely rubbed his forearm like she felt she had to console him.
Ben didn’t know what do to. His hands nervously shrunk down into his enormous pants pockets.
“No, wait. Please,” he said. He shook her hand now. “My friends call me, Ben. I won’t tell you what my enemies call me.”
She smiled. “So,” she said. “You’re in luck. The real estate market is really heating up.”
He nodded his head like she got it all wrong. “I don’t want to sell my mother’s house.”
“You don’t? Then why am I here?”
Ben recalled seeing this entire city block get torn down back in Harlem. He stared over at the house. “I want to tear this old place down.”
Vera reached her hand up to her forehead like she was completely flummoxed. “Ben. You can’t tear a house like this down.”
“Why not? Don’t I own it?”
“Yes. But this is a historical house.”
“Maybe I don’t like its history.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter.”
“Maybe. But in Old Town things stay old.”
“Well my plans don’t include building another house.”
Vera looked even more confused. “So why in the world did you call me? I’m a real estate agent.”
Ben looked over at that faded front red door that he used to go in and out as a child. “Because I want to build something beautiful. Something tranquil, serene. A proper garden, perhaps.”
“Isn’t that a little bit old fashioned?”
“Vera. Listen. I don’t hire people to agree with me. But I do need you to get this done for me.”
A surprised look came to her face.
She took a step forward, tugged at Ben’s oversized pants, and pulled them up so that the blue-striped band of his Fruit of the Loom underwear wasn’t showing anymore. “Sorry. You’re pants were falling down.”
She said this very tender and with great respect. “I think you need a belt, silly.”
His face turned beet red. “I have to have them especially made for me.”
They both looked at each other like neither of them knew what to do next.
“Can I ask you something?”
He nodded his head yes.
“Have you always been this big?
Ben turned and looked up at his mother’s old house again. “For as long as I can remember.” He turned and looked back at Vera. “I actually grew up in Connecticut you know. We moved down here when I was eight. After dad passed they started calling me Big Ben.”
“Hence the nickname?”
“Hence the nickname.”
He watched Vera pinch her blouse away from her stomach.
“So will you do it?” he asked. “I’ll need a lot of paperwork drawn up. And you’ll need to work closely with the city council. All that fuddy-duddy stuff.”
She nodded her head like she wasn’t too sure. “You’ll never get it past Hal Barron.”
“Hal Barron? Who the heck is that?”
“He’s the head of Key West’s preservation society. He used to box with Hemingway?”
“Hemingway? Well I was in a spaghetti eating contest with an ostrich once. Although, the ostrich did win.”
A delightful smile rose up to Vera’s face now.
Right at that moment Ben’s attention got called away by the wanderlust traipsing up and down Duval Street. He turned and looked at Vera. “You know it’s not about a garden,” he said.
She took a breath and exhaled. “Then what’s it all about?”
His eyes got all glassy as this sepia colored film seemed to be playing over and over in his head. Ben turned and looked Vera right in those green eyes of hers.
“I don’t know where to find cocaine,” he told her, “but I know where to find cheeseburgers.”
When he turned and looked back up at that house again, for a split second he thought he saw the ghost of his father standing up there in this one gray, misty window. It was almost as though he were waiting for his son, waiting for him to finally do something he should have done a long time ago. “This place has to come down,” Ben whispered.
Like the flippant pages of fine antique books, all these gold waves kept rolling into the beach from offshore. The Gulf of Mexico looked agitated that next morning. All these angry clouds sat off on the horizon, where several white yachts were parked about five miles out from Higgs Beach.
Ben struggled like a stricken elephant as he walked along the sandy beach. He started to sink just trying to keep pace with the much older Hal Barron.
The patron saint of Key West walked on the sand like he was some sort of copycat Jesus strolling along atop the Sea of Galilee. “Run this by me again?” he demanded from Ben.
Hal Barron waved his portable phone back and forth in his hand. He had a silver crop of hair and this meticulously brown suntan. For some reason he reminded Ben of Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Listen, Eleanor!” Ben said completely frustrated. “I just want to build a garden on my own property. Is that asking too much?”
Out of breath, Ben had to lean forward with his hands on his knees like an offensive linemen.
“Yes, that is definitely asking too much. I’ve had to answer to a lot of dumb requests before. A strip club for midgets? A naked human petting zoo? But yours takes the cake. Let’s knock all the historical houses down!”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
“The house stays!”
“Eleanor?” Ben said. “There will be a garden on my property if it’s the last thing I do.”
“I think not!”
“Look. Key West is nothing more than a bunch of knick-knack shops, bars, and popcorn stands.”
“And? Isn’t it time for Key West to look like Key West again?”
“Not on your mother’s property.”
“My mother’s dead.”
“Oh, I know big fella. I was at her wake. I didn’t happen to see you there though.”
His words cut right through Ben.
“Let’s get one thing straight, Mister Golden. I’m king here!”
The tanned President of Key West’s Historic Preservation Commission took an unconscious step toward Ben like he was about to hit him. Of course, Ben remembered growing up fat, and not going to prom, and having all the kids, even some of the adults, calling him Sigmund-the-Sea-Monster when he went to this very same beach as a child.
“I’m not going up to my room to hide anymore,” Ben said now.
Hal Barron shook his head. “Neither will I,” he said.
Hal Barron tugged at his white jacket and zippered it up and then began to walk away.
After he looked down at himself he had to close his eyes. He was lost in his own conscience for a moment.
When he looked back up he noticed this old Conch who was walking along the shore with an old metal detector. It was half pieced back together with this ratty looking duck tape.
Ben recognized the man from when he was a kid. He remembered the old Conch looking for whatever one finds with a metal detector even back then.
Ben went walking down the slope of the beach over toward the guy.
He smiled when he saw the old Conch recognize him.
“Hey, I remember you!” the old Conch said.
Ben nodded his head. He noticed the old man had some missing teeth that had been there before, and the sun had darkened his skin with sunspots everywhere. But somehow he looked happy.
“Hey? You ever find anything with that contraption?” Ben asked.
The old Conch smiled a toothless smile. He tilted his head to one side and his puffy silver eyebrows went up vulnerable a little. He suddenly looked down at his old, pieced together metal detector.
“Nope,” the old Conch blurted out, “not really, but I keep on looking.”
Ben sat anxious in a large velvet chair in Vera Zaharoff real estate office. It was an addition to the back of her bedroom right behind her house on Whitehead Street. Up on the wall sat a black and white photograph of Vera’s father who stood there on a dock right next to Ernest Hemingway. There were several novels on a bookcase—John Dos Passos, John Fante, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller. There was also a framed letter written by Veronica Lake up on the wall right behind where was sitting.
“Constance Frances Marie Ockelman.”
“Who’s that?” Vera asked as she looked up from all those papers that were down in front of her.
“Veronica Lake. That’s her real name. My mother used to know her. She was a little, tiny thing. A pip really. But she drank too much.”
He watched as a big smile came to Vera’s face. She immediately looked at the framed letter up on the wall.
“Fred Astaire,” she said.
Ben’s face went blank.
“Fred Astaire,” Vera said again. “He was really Frederick Austerlitz. Lauren Bacall was Betty Joan Perske. Yul Brynner was Taidje Kahn. Rita Hayworth was Margarita Cansino. Wolfman Jack was Robert Smith. Nobody is who they really say they are.”
“Thanks,” Ben said. “I’m depressed now.” His hands went out so that his palms went facing her like he was about to play Pat-a-cake. “So, how about some good news?”
Vera slid forward on the wheels of her chair until her stomach was tight right up against her desk.
“Well let me see,” she said. “It’s taken an entire month, and I had to grease every palm and old fart on the island, but we have the good ahead to do almost everything that you asked to do.”
“We can replace the windows on the house?”
“And the doors and roof and all the interior changes?”
“You got it.”
“Replace the walls? The porch?”
“Everything. I still don’t get it, but you can do it.”
“Good. That’s perfect. That’s just wonderful.”
Ben sat there with a huge smile on his face.
“You never got married?” he suddenly asked Vera.
“Nope. Neither did you?”
“No.” Ben looked around her office at all the novels up in the bookcase.
“Did I ever tell you my mother used to have all the writers who lived in Key West come over our house? Even when it was still under construction?”
“No. You never said anything about that.”
Ben sat up on the edge of his seat.
“She had a masquerade ball every 4th of July. At least that’s what she called it. Some of the playwrights knew her from her Off-Broadway days. Some of the novelists just knew her. I know she carried on with a few of them—all the big-time writers who used to winter in the Keys. My dad caught on after a while. He had a problem. You know. Performing. It killed him.”
Vera nodded her head as she listened. “You never talk about him.”
Ben could feel his mouth slowly going dry. He looked up admiringly at the photograph of Vera’s dad standing there with Ernest Hemingway.
“He shot himself. Just like Hemingway.”
There was silence for a moment.
“In the house?” Vera asked.
Ben’s head sunk down.
“Right in the bed where my mother used to carrying on with all her male friends. I guess he showed her, huh?”
When he looked back up at Vera he had this childish look on his face; one of pain and anguish.
“After he died my mother took over my room. She made me sleep in their old bed—right where he shot himself.”
“No. Don’t be. My dad always hated that house. He never truly got over leaving Connecticut. He used to love the beaches over in Rhode Island. East Beach. Blue Shutters. And God he used to love the snow. He used to love to go for a walk in the woods right after a big snowstorm. There’s complete silence after a snowstorm. You can think in your own head. Nowadays you can’t think in your head anywhere.”
He slowly nodded his head back and forth. “I don’t think he ever learned to live with himself down here in Florida. Sort of like me with this.”
Ben reached down to his stomach and grabbed a few inches of fat.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Vera said.
Ben laughed. “Of course, there is. Don’t be ridiculous.”
He saw her eyes start to fill with tears. It moved him. “Why are you crying?”
“I’m not,” she said. She tried to quickly wipe the tears from her eyes. “Of course, I’m not.”
“Okay. Because there will be none of that. Come on. We have to go out and build a garden.”
“We can’t build a garden.” She suddenly laughed. “We only have permits to make renovations.”
Ben stood up. “Boy do you people down here have a lot to learn.” He nodded his head as there was a great, big smile on his face. “Just because I’m fat doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”
He watched in silence as Vera stood up, walked over, and caressed his face with her hand.
Her green eyes gazed at him with this look of admiration.
“No, Ben,” she said. “I don’t think anyone thinks you’re stupid. I don’t think anyone will ever think that about you. Never, ever.”
All the writers and resident authors of Key West stood there on the sidewalk directly behind Ben, some of them laughing, some of them scribbling antidotes in their miniature blue notepads. They all looked on at the spectacle that was taking place right in front of them—John Hersey, Tom McGuane, Jane O’Reilly, Richard Wilbur, and Alison Lurie. They watched in amazement as the fat kid from Duval Street had his mother’s mansion taken apart piece by piece from the inside out.
Ben directed the work like he an orchestra conductor.
Workers shuttled in and out of the gutted house, pushing wheel-barrels full of loom and exotic southern flowers, frangipani and hibiscus and festuca grass, carrying poincianas and cypress and cactus and sod all into the outline of his mother’s old ship wrecker’s mansion.
As the workers removed the walls of the bedroom up on the second floor, where his father had committed suicide, Ben began to feel this weight being lifted, like he was finally free, born again, as though he were actually shedding the weight off of himself: the slow suicide of every piece of food he had ever put in his mouth, the pain of a fat adolescent, letting ghosts fly out of the quiet invisible, out of those immense walls of that house that had made him sick for so long.
“God dammit!” Hal Barron came screaming down from the sidewalk. “Where are the windows? Where are the doors? Where’s the stinkin’ roof? You have to put this all back!”
Ben looked over at Hal Barron. He still looks like Eleanor Roosevelt, he thought to himself.
“You fat, disgusting swine!” Hal Barron shouted. He lunged at Ben; and both men fell flat to the ground. Hal Barron’s fist struck Ben—once in the face, and then another time, and then repeatedly.
“Stop it!” Vera shouted right behind them.
“You’re gutless!” Ben yelled. “Get off! Get off me!”
Hal Barron punched Ben in the face yet again.
Two puffball gardeners came running down from the house.
They quickly subdued Hal Barron, picking him up off of Ben and holding his arms behind his back.
Ben felt a gush of blood come out of his mouth. He looked up at Vera who knelt down beside him on the sidewalk.
A horde of tourists came rushing over to see what all the commotion was about.
Ben tried to stop his body from shaking as he sat there. Blood began to trickle out of his nose and he couldn’t make it stop.
“Look at what you’ve done?” Vera screamed at Hal Barren. “He would never hurt anyone. For God’s Sake! This is his house!”
Ben shook his head and tried to sit up a little. A chorus of boos began to rain down from the crowd.
Ben put his hands up to cover his face, his head shaking from side to side, trying to hide from all the people who were now standing around him.
He could feel Vera trying to pull his hands away from his face. “It’s okay,” she kept saying. “It’s okay.”
He sat there seemingly crying his eyes out, but then he put his hands down away from his face.
He saw Vera step back away from him. Her green eyes grew wide.
Ben Golden sat there on the ground, laughing uncontrollably. There were bruises on his neck and face and he had a big black eye and one shirt pocket was hanging half off like a leaf. But Ben sat there laughing his head off.
“Christ, I know girls who punch harder than that!” Ben said. He looked up at Hal Barron. “Geez, Vera, coulda socked me harder than that.” He looked over at her. “No offense, Vera.”
Hal Barron went to lunge at him again, but the two puffball gardeners held him back.
“You think you can outsmart me? I’ll take you to court,” Hal Barron said. “I’ll stop all of this nonsense! I’m king here!”
“Oh, shut up,” Vera said.
Ben watched Vera walk over to Hal Barron and smack the permits and licenses for all the work being done right into his belly.
The two puffball gardeners let go of him.
Hal Barron took the papers and held them up as he tried to hurriedly look them over.
“No. I’ll have it outlawed. I don’t care what this says about renovations. I’ll have all gardens in Key West outlawed. I’ll get the Mayor. I’ll get Lawton Chiles down here himself. I’ll stop this. You’ll see. Oh, I remember your father. I remember him. What an excuse of a man he was!” Hal Barron waved the papers around in his hand. “He wasn’t a big, fat pig like you, but what an excuse of a man he was!”
Ben sat up and walked toward Hal Barron, but Vera came over and put her hand out to stop him.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she said.
Ben gritted his teeth, but he let Vera take him by the hand and pull him away from the house.
Soon they were walking together down Duval Street toward Mallory Square.
Ben reached up and touched his black eye.
“Geez. I’ve never had a black eye before. I’m probably a little old for a black eye, huh? Is it really dark?”
“It’s a real shiner. I bet it hurts like hell,” Vera said.
“Yeah, but it’s a good hurt.”
“He shouldn’t have hit you. It wasn’t right.”
“No. I supposed I deserved it. I tricked him. Nobody likes to be tricked. But when he sees all the people in that garden, and children playing in it, and how beautiful it is instead of that old, horrible house. I think he’ll admire it someday. I think maybe he’ll even let me take those walls down in time. Maybe Duval Street will start looking like Key West again. ”
He felt Vera squeeze his hand. When he turned to look at her he noticed how there was no dimple showing on her chin right then.
“Hey,” he said. “Can ask you something?”
He hesitated. He didn’t want it to end this way. He looked down at the sidewalk, and then quickly back over at Vera.
“Do you think you could ever— Could you ever be with someone who was— You know, over-weight? I mean really big?”
They suddenly stopped in the tracks right in front of the windows of the Great Southern Gallery.
Ben watched Vera turn and look at the paintings and watercolors hanging up on the walls inside. He could see the giant ghost of himself floating in the reflection of the glass right in front of him.
“You mean, you, don’t you?”
Ben looked around like he was joking again.
“Me? Yes, I guess I mean me.”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding her head. “I think I could.”
“I’m too big though?”
“You don’t have to be,” she said.
He felt her squeeze his hand again.
Ben turned and looked down the street at all the people who were gathered in front of his mother’s old ship wrecker’s mansion. There was still a lot of commotion going on around the grounds as men went in and out of the former house with plants and small trees and these colorful flowers and bright green shade trees. Suddenly the yard and the old house began to look a lot more like the woods of Connecticut than anything he had ever seen down in the Florida Keys.
“You’re father would have been proud,” Vera whispered.
Ben looked at his reflection in the glass of the front windows of the gallery. He nodded.
“I hope so,” he said. “But there were no gardens in Key West when he was alive.”
“None?” Vera asked.
“No,” Ben said. “I don’t remember even one.”