Skip to content

PO Box 609, Stn P
Toronto, ON M5S 2Y4

[email protected]

  • Ontario Creates
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts

Key Largo

From Brick 94

Brick 94

My friend Tom and I are biking the Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West and back—two and a half days, 220 miles of pedalling from island to island. The Seven Mile Bridge between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key is the worst of the ride, our bikes squeezed on the right by a low guardrail, while eighteen inches off to our left semis, RVs, and tourist-laden cars blow by. Fifty feet beneath the bridge, the ultramarine waters of Florida Bay merge with the turquoise blue of the Gulf of Mexico. It is very humid, in the mid-eighties, a fifteen-mile-an-hour headwind, and only occasional cloud cover. Leg cramps complicate the end of the first day.

Over the years, I’ve driven down the Overseas Highway many times, but now on a bike, at ground level, I’m surprised to find myself deeply stirred. It’s been fifty-three years since I first made this trip, when a wheezing, round-shouldered, 1950s Greyhound bus from Miami dropped me off at a single-pump gas station in the fishing village of Islamorada on Key Largo. I remember lugging all my worldly possessions in an olive green army surplus duffle. The bus lumbers back onto the Overseas Highway, old Route 1, and heads for Key West eighty miles beyond. I heft my duffle to my shoulder and cross the now empty road to a low Bahamas-style rooming house with a wide porch that faces the highway.

I’m certain of that much; those images are clear. But the rest of my memories of those early months in Islamorada and then later in Key West are vague, even as to the year I was there exactly and for how long. I was young, in my early twenties. I must not have been paying attention. Or else paying attention to everything that isn’t worth remembering.

I used to tell people that it happened in 1962 or ’63, when I was twenty-two or twenty-three. But then a few years ago I gave a reading at The Booksmith, in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, where in the early 1960s I had worked as a part-time clerk. It was a nostalgic event for me and a kind of triumphant homecoming, and I told the audience that many years ago I had quit my job at the bookstore and hitchhiked alone down to Miami and rode a bus to the Florida Keys, where I rented a tiny Airstream trailer in Islamorada on Key Largo, pumped gas part-time to pay the rent, and began to write my first short stories in the cool shadow of Ernest Hemingway, whom I associated with the Keys, although he had long since moved on to Cuba. It was a story I had told many times, whenever asked how I began my life as a writer. Although unsure of the exact date, I usually added that later that year Hemingway shot himself—as if to imply a slightly melodramatic connection between me, the apprentice writer, and Ernest Hemingway, the doomed master.

Later, while I was signing copies of my book, a boney guy in his late seventies appeared at my table—slouch cap, thick moustache, Irish face. He leaned in and whispered, “That ain’t how it happened, Russ. That bit about you and the Keys.” I recognized him at once, Joe Kerr, a.k.a. Joker, who in the early 1960s used to round up young Boston artists and beatniks like me and my friends to work as carpenters and stagehands in amphetamine-fuelled bursts for the Opera Company of Boston. Joker was a likeable guy who we all knew was a small-time but well-connected mobster. We were his non-union scabs. “I’ll be across the street at The Tam,” he said. “C’mon over when you’re done signing. I’ll tell you what really happened.”

Over drinks, Joker told me that back then I was having a nervous breakdown, as he called it, over a dame named Mary, who’d left me for another guy. I couldn’t get out of bed and come in to work, he said, so the bookstore manager fired me. “You was crying like a fucking baby, man.” It was the winter of 1961, Joker said. Not 1962 or ’63. He took pity on me and sent me down to the Florida Keys to work with some pals of his who were helping train Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. He said he had helped get Rose La Rose, the famous stripper, out of Havana when Castro closed down the nightclubs in ’59, and he was still tight with the Miami mob. “You were a smart kid, you would have made a pretty good gangster,” he laughed. “I made some calls and set you up at that rooming house in Islamorada where the Miami and CIA guys were staying. But I guess you got scared or something and moved out. Disappeared. That’s probably when you started being a writer,” he said. “It didn’t have nothin’ to do with Hemingway.”

There are three interwoven, underlying contexts to the story: the personal, the social, and the historical, as there are to all stories, true or not. The personal context—that weepy, disabling end of a love affair with a girl named Mary—was deeply embarrassing to me, somehow weirdly shameful. I had forgotten it so that later I could develop and elaborate the social context and make it into myth—the old story of a young artist’s solitary, dedicated apprenticeship in the shadow of a living master. The historical context, Miami mobsters working with the CIA to arm and train Cuban exiles for the infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion—surely the most interesting part of the story—I left out altogether. It would have diminished the romantic, self-embellishing myth of how, in following Hemingway’s suicidal footsteps in the sands of the Florida Keys, I became a writer. I was mainly interested in shaping how I was perceived by others—by that audience at the Booksmith, for instance— so I literally forgot what really happened. Personalized myth displaced personalized historical reality. Until the night in the bookshop and at The Tam, when Joker made me want to get my story straight.

Were Joker’s mob guys really rooming at the four-square, two-storey, wooden building with the long porch while they and a CIA cohort trained the Cuban exiles? Or was Joker, a storyteller himself, making it all up? I have no memory of the men individually, but I do have a clear visual memory of the building and of some Americans living there. The images, however, seem to have been drawn not from lived experience but from my memories of a movie or a play in which a group of people, mostly men, are trapped in a hotel bar by a hurricane. At first I think the imagery might have come from To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the film version of the 1937 Hemingway novel set in Havana and Key West. Then, as Tom and I ride our bikes past the old rooming house in Islamorada, I realize that I’m remembering images from a different movie, Key Largo. Did it happen to me—the hurricane, being trapped in the hotel with a bunch of gangsters—or did I merely see it in the movie? Or did I imagine it? Or dream it? And why after a month or so did I leave the hotel and rent a little trailer across the road?

Tom is gay and is convinced that Joker was a gay gangster with a crush. No house, no wife, in Boston in the late ’50s, early sixties, providing non-union workers for the Opera Company of Boston by hiring handsome young artists and writers to make sets and be stagehands. “It was an opera company,” Tom points out. “Not a trucking company. Give me a break, Russell.”

A gay Irish mobster. Well, it’s possible, I suppose. And if so, I was oblivious. But why else would Joker want to help a broken-hearted kid having a nervous breakdown over a busted romance by sending him off to train Cuban exiles in the Keys with his mobster friends so the kid could maybe become a mobster himself? Joker’s little mobster.

And could it really have been that early, the winter of 1961, in time for the Bay of Pigs, an event that seems to have escaped my notice? Or that I have no memory of, anyhow. As Tom and I pedal on, I do the numbers. I need to establish when, exactly, this happened. I fell in love with Mary when she was a student at Emerson College and I was living on Symphony Road in Boston, working part-time at the bookstore and in binges at the Opera Company of Boston. She left me for another boy, ran off with him to finish college in Richmond, Virginia. I remember pumping gas at the filling station next to my Airstream on old Route 1. Then at some point I left Islamorada and rented a room at a whorehouse in Key West that took me two weeks or more to figure out actually was a whorehouse. Key West was a navy town then, and I was very naive and, as I said, oblivious. I was writing my neo-Hemingway short stories and paying more attention to my sentences than to my surroundings. I remember that a few months later I delivered a drive-away Opel to its owner in San Diego by way of northern Mexico, with an extended stopover in New Orleans, accompanied by two guys who ran a card game at the Key West whorehouse: Frank, a strip show barker recently released from jail in New Jersey, and an AWOL sailor from Oklahoma whose name I can’t remember. I stayed in San Diego with Mom for a few weeks, then hitched back to New Hampshire and began working as a plumber, living with Dad and his new wife in Barnstead. Returning to Boston the following summer, I renewed my relationship with Mary and on October 29, 1962, married her. The marriage did not last as long as we hoped, but the date is indelible, part of the record.

The numbers confirm it: yes, I was in Islamorada on Key Largo in April 1961 when the Bay of Pigs invasion occurred, and I must have been frightened by whatever was happening before my eyes, which I could not have understood, so I fled the rooming house and the men living there, abandoning the life of a gangster for the life of a writer in an Airstream trailer across the road. The rest has become my more sharply remembered life: Key West, New Orleans, Mexico, San Diego, New Hampshire, early marriage, and on.

Chasing down the imagery, I watched the movie Key Largo the other night at home in Miami. The film is adapted from the play by Maxwell Anderson. Richard Brooks and John Huston wrote the screenplay, Huston directed. Released in 1948, Bogart, Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor starred. I forgot the Seminole Indian aspect—the movie opens with a local sheriff looking for “two young bucks” who busted out of jail. The real action begins when Major McCloud (Bogart) arrives by bus at the Hotel Largo, a Bahamas-style wood-frame rooming house and bar. He’s come to keep a vow made to a guy in his outfit who was killed in Italy in the war. He promised to visit the guy’s wheelchair-bound dad (Barrymore) and gorgeous sister (Bacall) and report that their beloved son and brother died heroically in battle. Bogart finds the hotel taken over by a posse of American gangsters up from Cuba led by Johnny Rocco (Robinson), a cigar-chomping Capone type, there to meet some Miami mobsters and exchange a suitcase of phony money for a bag of real cash—when the hurricane hits. The wind rises to a roar. And then comes a strangely ominous scene in the hotel bar where Robinson leans in to Bacall and whispers something in her ear that we can’t hear, something that frightens and repels her. She recoils, and he does it again, and this time she spits at him and claws his face with her nails. Bleeding, he backs off. Throughout the scene Bogart watches from the bar but does nothing.

The scene is ugly and realistic in a way that the rest of the movie is not; the rest is operatic and stagey. That exchange between Robinson and Bacall provides the emotional and moral meaning of the film. Everything seems to hinge on whispered words that we never hear. We’re invited to imagine the filthiest, most degrading words possible. It’s shocking and frightening and deeply felt in a way that nothing else in the film is.

When did I first see Key Largo? Not when it was released in 1948—I was only eight years old. It is possible, of course, that I saw it a year later at the Star Theater in Concord, New Hampshire; I went to the movies at least once a week starting when I was nine, regardless of what was showing. But at that age, what, if anything, would I have made of Robinson’s whispering into Bacall’s lovely ear? The scene might have frightened me, but only a little. Bacall’s response would have frightened me more—a beautiful young woman reacts to an ugly man’s unheard words by spitting at him and scratching his face with her nails. The sexual element would not have occurred to me. Not consciously.

It’s more likely that I first saw the film in the 1980s on late-night TV. And now, prompted by my bike ride down the Keys, I watch it again, this time via Netflix, and it becomes clear that the scene with Robinson and Bacall is the emotional and moral centre not just of the movie but of my all-but-forgotten months in Key Largo too. But I can’t be sure of the differences between what I remember having experienced in 1961 and what I saw decades later in the movie. They flow together like Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico under the Seven Mile Bridge and elaborate and extend each other. This time, the movie stirs up a wave of impacted, disturbing, mysteriously mingled memories, all brought on by Joker’s revelations at The Tam and the bike trip with Tom: lived experience first, then a long half-century of forgetting, then a willed return to the location and to the film—followed, as I write, by these overflowing memories, making it possible for my early lived experience to be relived now, in my mid-seventies.

Almost relived. For at that very centre there floats a small, opaque, grey circle, an absence, behind which something shameful lies hidden. It’s what no one hears Robinson say to Bacall. It’s what I imagine he says to her, something I myself must have said to a beautiful young woman. To Mary, driving her into the arms of another, a man standing at the bar, watching, like Bogart. She evidently forgave me, or she would not have married me. But what I said to her is something I cannot remember and can neither imagine nor acknowledge, and thus cannot forgive. All I can call up is the emotional residue, which is shame. Guilt dissipates over time; shame, like a man’s character, stays.

On our ride back from Key West to where we left the car in Key Largo, Tom and I stop at the old place in Islamorada. Freshly painted, it looks the same outside today as it did fifty-three years ago, except for a resort-wear boutique and a real estate office on the first floor and what appears to be a rack of studio apartments upstairs. I step into the office and speak to the realtor, a pretty, very pregnant, young Hispanic woman with frizzy dark hair seated in front of an electric fan. I ask her if the building used to be a bar and rooming house. She says that was before her time. But yes, she heard it was once a roadhouse. Where a lot of bad things happened, she adds, smiling. Now, except for her office and the boutique next door, it’s condos. There’s one available, she tells me. An end unit. Just came on the market. A view of the Gulf on one side and Florida Bay on the other. Would I be interested in seeing it?

I hesitate a few seconds, then say no, and Tom and I mount our bikes and ride on.

Russell Banks is the author of eighteen works of fiction, including the novels Continental DriftRule of the Bone, and Lost Memory of Skin, as well as six short story collections, most recently A Permanent Member of the Family. He lives in Miami, Florida, and in upstate New York with his wife, the poet Chase Twichell.

More Articles

Read from Brick 94