The following is from the titular story in Michael Carroll's collection Stella Maris. Set on an abandoned lighthouse in Key West, the stories follow the lives of the gay men who flock there and the women who love them. Michael Carroll’s debut collection, Little Reef, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and the Publishing Triangle Award. His work has appeared in Ontario Review, Boulevard, The Yale Review, Southwest Review, Open City, and The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories.
Karen had died on the trip down from Ohio. The heart: something they had known about for a while. She’d even sing jokily about it during rare drunken moments: “Oh, I’ve got a hole in my heart, / and that’s a mighty bad place to start!”
They were over the Gulf. They’d connected in Charlotte from Cleveland—with two hours to go before the Florida leg—and they’d enjoyed barbecue and beer, and there was always great felicity between them, even after fifty years, especially after fifty years.
Dale had smoked until forty and drunk, on and off—and still he checked out in his annual physicals, was only on statins and popped a beta blocker for his blood pressure, but was otherwise hale at seventy-five. The dick still worked. That was one more pill. Only three pills a day and a baby aspirin, and he could do forty-five minutes of cardio three times a week and barely got winded. And all of that sweat and later the muscle-burn in his legs felt good. Satisfying. Rewarding.
Karen had not been so lucky. The atrial septal defect had been discovered late and so her cardiologist had warned her of the risks of surgery. Otherwise, she
’d always seemed healthy. They’d never had kids. A little partnership was what they’d had. Dale had been in sales for Graustark Systems and Karen had volunteered to teach reading. For five-plus decades the two had taken a snug, comfortable voyage together into the horizon, a cozy procession of trips and luxuries, high-quality durable possessions, and a fat, remunerative portfolio.
They were over the Gulf and, unusually, she didn’t have a book with her. Earlier, they’d looked up from their phones—Karen would tirelessly keep up with their nephews and nieces—then, seeing the boarding call for their flight on the overhead screen, they’d thrown down money (Dale preferred to use cash) and hurried out of the roped-in dining area, laughing at first as they sprinted through the terminal to the nearby gate. Then she laughed less, while still in the mode of giddiness she got into whenever they went down.
They hadn’t been too late to board but Dale noticed a hectic shift in her breathing. They were about to step into the jetway when a concerned, fretting gate agent invited her to sit in the lounge and collect herself.
Then, when Karen got up, there was a little glazy craziness in her eyes, a bit of confusion as Karen dug around in her pockets and purse for her boarding pass. An unsteadiness, a confusion, tore quickly at him, pity having always produced in Dale the deepest affection. And he’d watched with a perplexing sweetness.
It passed. The plane left on time. To avoid what the pilot called “some weather over the Atlantic,” they were rerouted over the Gulf. Karen was seated next to a window in business class, and it was her last glimpse of the famously intermingled emerald and azure: her words: “That’s what it is,” she’d said, and he took her hand, and he was almost crying even though she was better already and for all he knew, and trusted, it was just an episode caused by his not watching the time. What a jerk.
He’d nearly killed her; no, he was grateful for another chance to be with her on earth. And when he’d woken up from his nap, she was staring at the ceiling.
Karen‘s late-life revival (renaissance, as their friend Lyle had called it) came shortly after her first stroke—when they’d discovered the hole in her heart. Neither she nor Dale fished. Karen had hated West Palm Beach, Sanibel Island, Captiva. She had nearly liked St. Augustine except that they didn’t play golf or tennis. Recreationally, Karen only liked smart talk, about books and things. She had had worlds inside her, great silent continents.
He’d loved her, respected her, and no one was dearer to him, though secretly he’d wished for a young man to rival if not take the place of her. Instead of being able to give her the great passion of her lifetime, he’d given her everything else. While praying that they might find separate lovers, each knowing a passion that turned their bodies inside out and connected them to others an innocent, useless thought, he
’d thought, since the opportunity had never come up. So they’d traveled. Eaten well. Massaged each others’ feet. Talked together into the latest hours.
And Hilton Head had been doubly cold—socially and climate-wise—in January, and goodbye Cracker South. He wasn’t a raving liberal, but really, these Trumpy-Heads.
Something about the Trumpers you saw getting off the cruise ships here and doing the Duval Street crawl reminded him, this year, of their deceased friend Lyle, folksy B.S.
“When did I last dare to visit Sugartop Ridge?” a typical Lyle Pickett Roche novel began.
Dale could hear Lyle’s genteel, gasped drawl whenever he’d share new work, a precise verbal prance that kept Karen enraptured, urging her to the edge of her chair as he read from his manually typed pages. Myopically, he held up a starchy 100% linen sheet at a time and you saw the pinholes of light where he’d hammered the punctuation keys.
They’d met Lyle at a cocktail party given by the first literary seminar Karen had attended in the middle of a very late-midlife crisis. She’d get up early in the condo share and leave Dale in bed, bike downtown, and attend dozens of speeches and panels. In the evening, there were parties and buffets (the registration fees were steep), and they’d dress in country club casual and Dale would hang back and watch Karen approach the featured authors, and soon he’d see her from across a brick patio laughing, holding a wine glass up to her shoulder and turning it. She loved books and she loved the attention of men, yet an intelligent woman who wrote and cared about literature easily animated her, too.
And yes, Karen had blossomed a little. Dale was full of admiration as he looked around the venue, the Eastern European cater waiters so hot. He would not phrase this as Lyle might, even though they were both gay. Lyle would have called them delicious and delectable, scrumptious, and Lyle indeed had done so later when they were all sitting together in his pretty wood-frame house and it was just the three of them and Karen had come suddenly, nuttily alive, completely snockered as Lyle camped. That was the exact conversational style Karen had responded so happily to. (Dale wondered if Karen would almost have preferred Dale vamp it up every once in a while.) But during the days while Karen was out, Dale would jack off thinking of the Eastern Europeans and some of the out men he saw holding hands or mincing on Duval Street.
And some of the younger, sissier ones were suddenly gorgeous, and this was Dale’s own renaissance.
He had thought of men and boys his whole life, but down here was suddenly able to imagine using the word beauty for a male, not just for a little boy wheeling about in the living room for his mother and her guests. He liked the ones just leaving their boyhoods. He liked looking at their mouths, the curved-up corners where the upper lip overlapped in delicate flap-like fashion, just so, just slightly protuberant, the lower lip. He liked a little femininity but not always. He liked all of this with broad shoulders, raw flared hips and a big prominent ass. And he was afraid of these boys and shy around them as young Karen had been around boys when he’d first met her, even though she was four years older than Dale.
Dale liked the wide chest he would’ve had to lift weights to get. And yet now the timid narrow chests were cute. He thought he didn’t like the ethnics so much, the darker ones, although in his mind Jewish and Eastern European were suitably exotic. He knew he was still and always would be from the fifties. Once, his most taboo imaginable had happened. That time, a slight, pretty blond had taken a hundred dollars for drink money and let him watch the black boyfriend undress, fellate, lick the ass of, and fuck him, while Dale watched, and was mesmerized, and knew secrets about himself. Seven years ago.
Once Karen had told Lyle that in West Virginia her great-aunt had self-published several poetry books eons ago—and had had something of a following in that neck of the Appalachians: “My Aunt Poppy?” Karen would remind him. “From Wheeler?”
Aunt Poppy was single all her life. All Dale had thought was: lesbian.
It otherwise had seemed unimportant, late Aunt Poppy’s local-poet identity.
But once with Dale, Lyle had treated this revelation as though it were the most astonishing fact of both their existences, precious cargo for Dale to freight carefully in his mind—foretelling great potential in Karen’s personal life trajectory. And yet Karen had never mentioned to Dale any literary ambitions of her own, only her love of reading.
He knew of secrets no one else did, not even Lyle. Her dread of doctors, her fear that having kids would destroy/kill her. (She’d maintained a slender, boyish figure, never adding more than a pound or two to it). When they’d met she was a part-time student taking night classes at a girls’ college, working as a secretary in the daytime. She was four years older than Dale. It had taken her a year into their dating to tell him she’d lied about her age originally. Dale was an OSU junior dating a shy twenty-five-year-old. To save money while still working, she
’d brushed her teeth with baking soda. There was no reason to be delicate or sentimental about Karen—only adoring, singing chesty praise.
“We must be cautious, proceeding with all manner of wisdom, keen, gravely argus-eyed! We must not treat Karen as some ling patient, and yet we must be wise!”
As far as Dale could tell, Lyle no longer got laid.
A very long time ago, Lyle’s tendency toward hyperventilative melodrama had made him famous. He was that thing that could give you notoriety, “a Sawth’n author.”
For a few years Karen and Dale exchanged birthday and holiday cards with Lyle.
“He’ll outlive us both,” Karen would say over and over.
Dale had hoped that he would die first, leaving Karen to enjoy Lyle’s attentions.
It was a beautiful town, Key West, the last bastion, the place of the just-misfits.
He would have pushed on, but Karen would never had heard of it. Her love of the place had been passionate enough for them both, until he’d himself been infected.
That was it, wasn’t it? Karen all along, seducing Dale, in her way?
For the last several years he’d gotten them into a sweet dilly of a house on Amelia, three quiet, safe blocks off the main drag of Duval, gingerbread trim, tight coat of bright white paint, bougainvillea of magenta and violet and snow climbing over the picket; palms and a massive, shady gumbo-limbo to guard their room from its southern exposure; eyebrow windows, wraparound porch, a nickle-dull tin roof, a fully modern kitchen so they could have breakfast quietly, and where they could make a simple fish dinner or else pour their drinks and take them to the veranda. Karen loved the word veranda, saying, “Veranda, a Portuguese word coming only into usage during colonialism.”
One year the literary seminar had done colonial literature—and she’d followed that word veranda from the East Indies to the Caribbean, from every satisfyingly crumbly, lusty port to the next in literature, stopping deliciously, and unguiltily, in some part of Asia Dale knew absolutely nothing about in order to inhale, for example, all of Somerset Maugham:
“A poofter, you know.”
She’d pronounced poofter as they’d first heard it together in Edinburgh, a weird word. A cute one, suitably prissy. A word they’d end up sharing. And then she’d laughed, high on books. High on fantasy. High on possibilities. A sensation rejecting quotidian disappointments. She’d spread them out across the veranda floor boards.
It was their second life, but it was Dale’s new life, and he was grateful for himself, and he was grateful to her for taking them there and for having seen it and for projecting ahead for them.
Not a dumb partner but his greater self, the definition, practically, of better half.
He was alone in the house now. He wandered its rooms. He brought home a few bottles of wine and a fifth of rum and a quart of vodka. Dale did a lot of musing, but only when he drank. He wandered the town but avoided their old lunch spots. Dale didn’t want pity. Dale didn’t think he could bear it, he was in that curious stage of grief where he wanted to believe Karen might come back from Duval Street or any of the shops where she bought fish or flowers, whatever place she had relied on to create their long final act together: a last staging he
’d imagined himself exiting before Karen. Dale talked to Karen, getting intoxicated. He sat on the back veranda with a glass and his bottle where no one could stop and pity him, or ask about Karen, or ask him questions or just be friendly—kindness being the most intolerable emotional reaction, coming from the locals or anybody else.
. . .
He made the mistake of not eating and, knowing all along where he’d go, set out at nine or ten in the evening, although it may have been earlier since he’d begun drinking hours ago. The sun was down. He’d set out down Simonton past the guesthouses, and avoided Duval. Turned right on Fleming. Dale had read about Fantasy House. He’d passed it on his bike several times wondering if it wouldn’t swallow him whole in one long episode of pleasure and debauchery should he enter the first time. Of course, Dale didn’t believe in souls or God, since almost no one did anymore—although curiously Lyle had believed in the hoo-ha.
Lyle, who’d never told him about Fantasy House. Lyle, who had pretended to find promiscuity perplexing. A southern queen would. Drama, drama. Lyle had lived for love and attention and had given a lot of both, loved lovingly, and taken Karen to his heart and made her feel good about herself. Too, Lyle was pure decorum, breeding, from early on proud of his Huguenot background in Savannah, in the magical and mythical, the famous southern United States.
“Home” of Storytelling, Love of the Art of the Tale, blah-blah-blah. Dale loved Karen, who’d loved Lyle, who’d once goosed Dale—cornering him in his pantry, all inexplicably seething queen, Lyle with his eyes narrowed, up-close ugly.
“What do you have planned behind that fine and dear and elegant woman’s back?”
“Karen’s back? What do you mean, planned?”
“I know about your marriage. Karen and I have spoken at some length about it. Karen’s confided quite extensively and yet utterly discreetly, I assure you, to a degree—”
“You’re not making any—okay, and Lyle? That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me.”
Soon Dale would realize how often, all throughout his life, he would question the meaning or motives of the person talking to him: what was that? People baffled him, as though they were trying to, as though they were being thick on purpose, just for giggles.
“So it’s no secret. Big deal, you. Do you think I’m a chump? Do you think the world is full of chumps? Well it is, but I’m not one of them, I’m not one of those chumps. Do you get me, fella? Or maybe I am, but I’m one of the smarter chumps, if anything.”
Dale had wished Lyle would stop saying chump—too goofy a word for an author.
Plus, he’d twisted it, the way he’d twisted his scenes and dramatic situations just to suit the melodrama of all that southern language. Lyle had tried to set the world on fire with his language, but the problem with language was how it got away from meaning and flew into space and destroyed itself. In thrusting, it burned too hard and incinerated.
“I need you to hear me,” Lyle simmered.
“Alrighty, Lyle. I’m all ears.”
“That woman out there, sitting with those nice, decent folks? She is by far the finer and more valuable integer in this equation you have the tenacity and I’d say even temerity to call a marriage, that sacrosanct, most venerable and holiest of institutions!”
“Oh you agree now, do you?”
“I just said that I do.”
“I’m so sure. Oh, the mendacity. The arrogance,” said Lyle, who stood almost three feet apart from Dale, and released humid gusts of repugnant sourmash breath.
Dale waited, his nostrils pulsating. Then he said calmly: “I’ve always been grateful for what Karen and I have enjoyed together.”
“Enjoyed. Enjoyed. And do you suppose that in her position, as integer in this equation of absurdest calculation—which you have the arrogance to call a marriage—”
“Stop it, Lyle. Stop it now. You’re starting to make zero sense.”
He hadn’t shouted. Neither of them was shouting.
“I’ll stop it. I’ll stop it—”
Lyle was half a foot shorter than Dale but in his intoxicated state was bolder than Dale might have expected, quicker, launching himself on tiptoes and kissing Dale’s lips.
“Would you still prefer that I stop it?”
“I would, actually, prefer that you stop.”
Dale wasn’t mad. Now as he chugged down the sidewalk along Fleming he even recalled he’d been quite the gentleman with Lyle, but still forceful, peeling Lyle off him, Dale’s hands pressed on Lyle’s toneless shoulders: “Listen to me, sweetheart.”
“Yeah?” said Lyle, wheezing, simpering a little. “Say it!”
“I’m not going to tell her this happened. But if it happens again, Lyle, I will.”
“You’re not going to tell her what happened?”
“Do it again, Lyle, and you’re finished for us. Do you have that?”
And Lyle kept his distance from there on out. At first Dale had worried that Lyle would take the scene perversely as a sign of encouragement to keep going. The problem with prigs and prudes, they never took no for an answer. They lived without the freedom that said they could move on. Puritanism drove them ever back into the closet, looking to snatch that one conspirator in with them. They didn’t understand, they were so desperate. There would be another lover, a fresh opportunity. Inside they were perpetual teenagers.
He sat at the bar, his back to the pool. He was going slow on his first tequila and soda, extra limes. This is what you did. Bought a day pass and they gave you a key to your locker. You got in there and took your clothes off, nice feeling. Hot shower. Stepped into the jacuzzi, all hot bubbles and jets rattling your nuts around and hammering at your back with ball-peen precision. He’d just learned the rote, anyway. This is what you did. This was the way you did it to make it all feel nice, to make it work, to set you up.
Another guy comes in and seethes down awkwardly and jimble-jointed next to you in the jacuzzi, your age or something. Nods. High school locker-room stuff.
“That sure feels good,” says guy.
A tad awkward, on purpose. A tad distrustful.
(Pressed to it, he’d end up saying, “Thanks, I’m into younger men.”)
Nothing personal. You don’t need to go all what-a-cliché and that’s-so-stereotypical and have-you-ever-tried-thinking-outside-the-box and do-you-have-any-idea-what-you’re-missing?
That might do it. He wasn’t Randolph Scott but he wasn’t a lizard with a goiter either. He considered his body, his looks. He’d lucked out, but also taken precautions.
Some. He’d always gotten his sleep. Watched his eating. Not drunk too much.
Then you got restless so you skipped the steam room and the sauna right there in the wet area and got the nerve up and stepped out of the hot farty bubbles. You wrapped the generous striped towel around your waist, and went out past the front desk into the tropical night. This place was a fucking motel from outer space, it was Nat King Cole meets James Dean. Shrimp cocktail and Manhattans on the side of Route 66. It was cocks and hard flat square tits, the chest having been the kicker from the start back in Marion, his place of origin. (Warren G. Harding, too. Maybe that town was a set-up.) Focused on the bartenders and fuck were they cute, but they weren’t for you because the guy your age came out and saw the moon in your eyes and said, “You know all the boys from Eastern Europe, they’re not gay, right? They’re eye candy but they are not to touch or suck or fuck or get fucked by. Not homos. That
’s how the owners like it. They don’t want their staff messing around with the guests, which is only practical. It just keeps the whole membrane solid . . .”
“Okay. How’s that work? And my name is Dale.”
“Hi, Dale. You ask me what’s the advantage of separating staff from patron? I’m an old-school marketer.”
“So am I.”
“Oh then, well. So you’re familiar with the phrase goodwill.”
“Nearly died on that sword,” Dale said, “but I’m interrupting.”
Jeez, that obscene hand! Was his own hand like that? Bones and jelly at room temperature.
“Any bad blood between staff and client, that’s bad for management.”
Dale nodded, heading into it with a cute grin: “But this ain’t your regular, orthodox-type business setup. I mean, Jesus. Guys swanking around in the nude . . .”
“Hell, beating off in the lounge chairs right next to the pool. Every other corner you turn, there’s an orgy in a guestroom with the curtains wide open. Hot guys, too, some of them. I hear the owners don’t care for the piss parties in the gang shower so much. Every once in a while you get a floater in the hot tub. How many times you gotta tell the guys to douche the hell out. Huh-huh, trust me. And I’m the top.”
“Okay, that’s about as graphic as I need it.”
Weird feature of gay life: never knowing if the other guy was disapproving.
“I get excited. I’m Ken Worth. Living in Mobile currently.”
“Thought I heard an accent.”
“If you did, it’s through osmosis. Only reason I may’ve picked up this one’s from selling chemicals.”
“You mean you’re not from Alabama originally.”
“Indiana. But I got out of there. Got my divorce, got my kids through school . . .”
“Alabama’s an improvement after Indiana? I’m from Ohio.”
“My wife was a goddamn alligator. And the weather sucked. I like cute southern boys, the ones that went to their moron dads’ frats. Tri Delts and ATO. Hot sexy dopes.”
“I guess I kind of do, too. Boy-next-doors. Not all geniuses, but who am I?”
“They make ’em in the south more charming and hotter than anywhere else. Just pretties, just charmers, every goddamn one. And they know how to keep it pure. At heart good Christians and good clean peachy white boys. They got the best of everything, and they know it. Smilers. I don’t denigrate them or their faith, I just don’t share it. Though I have doubts sometimes. They’re so pretty and sweet and sexy, why wouldn’t I?”
“Really nice meeting you, Ken. I’m gonna head out of here.”
And he finished that drink and got up off the stool.
Racists. What the fuck had happened to the Midwest?
He wasn’t entirely innocent himself, grew up saying the N-word, too, but Jesus.
“You, too. You don’t want to go back to one of our rooms and catch a Netflix?”
“And chill, ha-ha. I really appreciate it. How long you staying, Ken?”
“Whole week. Just arrived today.”
Dale said, “Oh goody, nice little stay,” but he thought, Oh shit.
That’s what Karen had done, allowed him his feelings. Sometimes protected, sometimes encouraged him. He never knew what she’d say, but he always knew she’d have something to say, interesting, encouraging. He knew it just felt better to come home and tell her things, not every single goddamn thing, but it was fun to run things by her. And she knew it turned him on just being listened to. And he’d enjoyed getting her off, fingering her. It was the middle of the night, she scooted over, scooped herself into him. He reached around (they were both naked), and began to touch and tease her clitoris. He went in as she got wetter. He got her off, her pubic bone pressing the heel of his hand.
He was alone, without a partner to process this with, his buddy, co-conspirator. Was he just going to avoid this place for the next six days? Because he would. He’d even threaten it like that if Junior, what he called Karen in punk times, had been around to bounce things off. He never would have had his first intercourse with a boy, that is practically a boy, without Junior’s bucking him up: “You’re never going to know for sure if you don’t go for it. If you don’t try and see.”
He’d destroyed his mother’s arrogant image with Karen’s love. He’d done it on purpose. He’d fucked the guy, no Monty Cliff, trying to push the bitch out of his head.
On porpoise they used to say down here. Poor Junior.
Junior let him bleed. Just say a cross or hurt thing to his mother and he got an earful of Presbyterian sarcasm like steel wool on scouring powder on marble. Once he thought the witch was the reason he was queer. Junior got that sorted out. He thought he could hide behind it and shrink from his sexuality. Junior knew how to use the technical terms without sounding creepy.
“I think your mother,” she said, holding one of her two or three cigarettes a night, “made it worse, but God or whatever made you that way after the trip from your father’s body to your mother’s.”
He thought of himself as a fetus, slowly rotting while also gradually growing.
He only grew in her light, and when he looked away, was alone, deteriorated.
Karen’s “God” was clinical, harmless, at the mercy of logic and DNA.
She needed to tell herself these things, talk an admixture of psychology and sin or moral accountability at least. She wasn
’t purely a saint. Rehearsing realism, was Junior. And he hid. How many guys hid behind the nurturing blind of their wives’ skirts?
Women were especially good at making excuses for their men. But not his.
He never liked his own looks, and his mother had known it. She’d spotted it.
“Oh, you got all gussied up. Well, you’re clean, I’ll give you that. Now. Is the world supposed to throw you a ticker-tape now? Is the world about to—you missed a few spots on your teeth.”
Where was the kindness?
He’d been yanked from hell at Ohio State meeting Karen. Right away he’d gone crying into her arms, and had almost not respected her for letting him. Thank God he’d wised up. She got him wised up. He began to get defensive and said, “I can’t believe you’re letting me not be a man. What kind of girl looks at a wimp like me and has any respect for him, or self-respect.
“Where did you get your definition of a man?”
They were all just starting to talk like that in the sixties.
From Stella Maris: And Other Key West Stories. Used with permission of Turtle Point Press. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Carroll.