Confessions at the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea are encouraged on Saturday’s from 4:30 to 5:30. Right in the middle of Happy Hour. What are they thinking?
Or could it be that St. Mary is not targeting Key West’s notorious drinkers, as I self-righteously assumed? Maybe absolution is instead being offered to us guilt-ridden snowbirds, sitting on our hibiscus-shaded front porches in Old Town, bougainvillea flowers spilling over our fences, the aroma of roasting lechon wafting down from El Siboney, our local Cuban restaurant.
For seven years now, my wife and I have been wintering here in America’s southernmost city; we still feel guilty when another nor’easter hits Massachusetts.
Keeping in mind confession hours, we schedule the photoshoot for 2pm on Friday. The weekend remains inviolate.
Frank, an Irishman from ‘Dooblin’, and owner of Old Town Fitness, is excited. For a couple of days now I have seen him wiping imaginary smudges off his Harley’s chrome-work. What we are talking about here is a 1996 Heritage Softail Nostalgia. She is tan, beige … and one of only 170 ever made in that color.
She, and there is no doubt in Frank’s mind that she is a she, is the pièce de résistance of the shoot.
Nicola, the woman on the bike, offered no resistance whatsoever when asked if she would pose.
“Nikki,” Frank had shouted right as she was getting into her truck the other day, “bring your bikini!”
That’s when we were setting the whole thing up.
All this commotion is my fault because I had paused to admire the Harley one morning as Frank ever so gently peeled her ungainly black tarp.
“D’you like herr?” He caught my eye. “Oi firrst saw herr in Escobar’s living room.”
I must have looked puzzled because Frank gave me a moment to catch up. “You know Pablo Escobar? Roight? One of the worrld’s most dangerous men?” I definitely have heard that name. “Colombia …Medellin?”
Frank nods. “At the time I was friends with his brother, Roberto.”
I shake my head. Roberto I’ve never heard of. Since the head shake also might imply doubt as to the wisdom of being a drug lord’s brother’s friend, I move right along: “This very bike?”
“One just loike it. Just loike it. Her sister-bike.”
Frank looks me in the eye, and I get the impression that this story does not cover altogether happy territory. It just might be another tale of sin and redemption. One of the handful of happy-ending Key West stories. Lives settling out at the continent’s southernmost last stop. Amazing Grace country.
I have taken to Frank’s slightly grungy, iron-clanging echo-chamber of tattooed bodies and hard rock that comprise Frank’s gym.
Fortunately for me, Key West has a time-honored blind-spot as far as odd-balls are concerned. So I – a somewhat reedy academic type by cop, Navy Seal, or bodybuilder standards – feel included and accepted.
“I loike the energy in here.” Pushing his famed shades higher onto a perpetual forehead, he lays a gentle hand on the bike. “Here,” he says, ” wherever I am in the world – on New Year’s Eve – here is where I return to. Here is where you’ll find me.”
“To get grounded-like. And be thankful.”
In due time I ask: “Would you mind if I took some pictures of her?”
“You go right ahead,” he says. “You go right ahead. Take all the pictures you want.”
“Come to think of it,” I muse, “I’d like to ask my wife to come over and really take some pictures.”
Frank knows Janie from a time we had dinner at Jose’s across the street. She’d stopped at his table and asked how he liked his Nicaraguan oxtail stew. And Frank, in brogue I could hardly understand, had said something about sending his granny to weeping. I didn’t quite get it but Jane, who once dated a Liverpudlian, told me later his compliments had actually been considerably more earthy than that.
So that’s how the photoshoot came about. But the story does not end there.
Early the next day, I mosey cross-town to the Bobby Shop to have my hair cut. Bobby is fellow yankee and his plein-air office is situated within shouting distance of the Green Parrot where – among other places – Hemingway got drunk and punched the daylights out of some know-it-all whippersnapper from up north. Sources vary.
It’s the same Papa Hemingway, in any case, who is grainily featured, gloved and in black-and-white, on the wall of Frank’s gym.
I tell Robert the Harley story. Robert is the guy who cuts my hair. He rents a chair from Bobby. The only reason I am making conversation is so I can keep an eye on him in the mirror, and maybe catch him before he scalps me. Robert measures his professional success by how much floor space he can cover. With my hair. He and I have been through this before.
“You know my buddy Dave,” Bobby, the owner, joins in, “the one who is now a cop up in Providence?”
I barely dare to nod.
“He raided Pablo Escobar’s bunker. Rappelled down from a helicopter.”
I am confused. “In Columbia?”
“Yep, it’s a long story … but anyway, he raided it, and afterwards he stole all of Escobar’s Cuban cigars.”
We all think on that. Cigars are part of Key West’s cultural heritage. On the plywood cabinet beneath the mirror, a skewed sticker languishes: “THE HIGHER THE HAIR, THE CLOSER TO JESUS.”
I don’t have the courage to confront my image in the mirror. But I do think of Pablo, bad guy that he was – on that day when Dave scaled down his Heavy Duty Tactical Rappelling Rope – and I hope that Pablo at least might have been left with some reasonably high hair.
“Were there a lot of cigars?” I inquire lamely. It’s going to take weeks before I’ll recognize myself again.
Bobby leans back and stretches his legs.
“Plenty”, he says, “plenty – and we smoked’ em all. …Right here.”