The Mountains of Key West
by Sandra McDonald
Julie Morgan decided to stop arguing with her husband and
instead went for a nice long run. Key West was hot and quiet
this early in the morning, with the marshlands fetid and the sun
not yet above the fronds of palm trees. She crossed South
Roosevelt Boulevard to Houseboat Row, where colorful shacks
clung to flats and floats, and then quickened her pace. She
passed the houseboats and was heading towards the beach when
great gray-blue mountains unfolded on the horizon in front of
At first glance she took them
for clouds. But as the slap of her sneakers on concrete brought
her closer she saw they were lush and green, covered with larch
and spruce and pine. Mist hung in the lower valleys, and rivers
streamed out toward the sea. Just like back home. Of course
there were no mountains in the Florida Keys. The coral reefs
that comprised the islands were as flat as Kansas, though
sharper on the knees. Yet there the mountains stood, a mile or
so offshore, and Julie could smell pine on the breeze, and hear
the distant cries of eagles.
She slowed her pace and finally
stopped, sweat pooling between her shoulder blades. The ocean
beyond the seawall was flat and aqua blue, as pretty as all the
military brochures promised. A yellow rowboat floated between
shore and mountains. Inside the boat sat a handsome man with
jet-black hair and emerald eyes. His skin was darkly tanned
beneath a white T-shirt and cut-off shorts.
"Come on!" he called to Julie.
His smile dazzled her. "I'll take you where you want to go."
She was twenty-two years old and
blonde and pretty. This wasn't the first time men had offered
her casual invitations.
"No thanks," she said.
His smile didn't diminish. "This
isn't the place for you. You need views and valleys, forests
Julie held up her hand to show
off her diamond wedding ring. Jim might make her mad enough to
want to fling it off sometimes, but she hadn't yet. "I'm not
He gave a little shrug and began
rowing backwards. "You say that now. Call me when you're
The mountains rolled into clouds
once again, distant and unreachable. Julie squeezed her eyes
shut, opened them again, tried peering through her fingers. The
boat was nothing more than a yellow blob on the flat water.
Obviously humidity was playing tricks with her vision. No
mountains, she told herself. Don't be silly.
But the memory of the man's
smile stayed with her, as did the sparkle of his eyes.
She started jogging again. The
sidewalk took her past the airport and a row of pink motels
before she reached Smathers Beach and turned home again. When
she let herself into their apartment, Jim was just emerging from
"Good run?" he asked.
"It was fine," she said.
through the boxes in the closet. "Though we know it's not your
responsibility, do you think you could help me find my new
She pulled the package from the
closet and handed it to him. He finished dressing in his bright
white uniform, the one reserved for special military occasions.
ceremony," she said. "Why can't I come?"
"I told you why. We haven't
even gotten your dependent i.d. card yet."
Julie didn't like that word,
dependent. It made her sound helpless, like a child. They'd
been in Key West for two weeks. Two weeks in which he'd gone
off to work every day and she'd unpacked all their moving boxes
in this tiny apartment that was supposed to be temporary, though
no one could say for sure. Jim drove their only car and left
her stranded all day long. In the evenings he had a beer or two
at the officer's club or on Duval Street with his new flying
buddies. Before they'd arrived in Key West, Julie and Jim had
spent a week-long honeymoon in the Poconos. It seemed very long
Julie asked, "When are we going
to get it? My card."
"On Monday." He examined
himself in the mirror. His crew cut and freshly shaven cheeks
made him look like a teenager. "Good enough, don't you think?"
"Your shoe has a smudge." Julie
retreated to the kitchen to pour herself some orange juice.
A moment later his arms slid
around her sweaty waist. Jim kissed the back of her neck.
"Marry me, marry the Navy. President Reagan thanks you. I
promise, it'll all be better when we're settled in. We'll get
your card, we'll get our permanent housing, you'll meet my CO
and all the other wives."
She knew that CO stood for
Commanding Officer, just as "NAS" stood for Naval Air Station
and "VF," for some inexplicable reason, meant "fighter
squadron." When she had met Jim three years ago, he was
attending the military college in Northfield and she was
studying history at Bennington. Even then he'd had his heart
set on the sky. Acronyms rolled off his lips like water,
whereas she made crib notes and kept them in her purse for quick
"We're okay?" Jim asked, his
"We're fine," she said.
He dashed off in the service of
his country. Julie watched from the balcony until their Ford
pulled out of sight. Key West was a thriving military outpost,
full of boat squadrons and SEALs and bomb disposal units. Radar
dishes kept close watch on Cuba, just ninety miles to the
south. This island, two miles wide by four miles long, would be
their home sweet home for the next three years.
In her calendar she noted,
"Mountains across the water." Green Mountains. Home to
Vermont's first militia, she remembered. Free-thinkers and
independents willing to take things into their own hands. Then
she showered, and under the lukewarm spray tried to will away
the memory of the stranger and his little yellow boat.
* * *
The first time Jim took her to
see the sunset at Mallory Pier, Julie enjoyed the crowds and
artists and fortune-tellers, the carnival-like atmosphere. When
the sun dipped below the ocean, everyone clapped and cheered.
Afterward, the admirers floated from one open-air bar to the
next, like fish following a deep sea current. The second time
she saw the sunset, Julie took pictures and had them framed to
hang on their concrete walls. The third time she saw the
sunset, she stopped clapping. The fourth time, she sat on the
seawall with her arms clasped around her knees and watched a
clown pull a rainbow handkerchief out of his nose.
"Try to enjoy it more," Jim
said, looming over her.
"It's the sun," she replied.
"It goes down every night."
Jim told her about the Hash
House Harriers, a group that combined running with bar
crawling. Julie demurred. He invited her to bar crawls
organized by the Blackbirds, but she declined those as well.
Everybody on base drank, to one degree or another. The
husbands because their tight-fisted, fast-flying, macho culture
demanded it, and the wives because most of them were so
"It's not like there are any
jobs," said Lily Boxer, whose husband Jake was also a Blackbird
in VF-45. Lily gazed past Julie's shoulder to the flat ocean
outside the window. "What are you going to do? Clean motel
rooms? Waitress? If you're lucky, maybe work as a cashier at
Julie thought Lily was
exaggerating, but educated women had few employment
opportunities on an island filled with restaurants and bars and
motels. The younger, childless wives took ceramic or painting
classes in the base rec center, or visited the private Navy
beach, or learned to sail the small catamarans available for
rent from the Morale Department. The older ones went to book
club meetings or lunches at small restaurants, biding time until
their husbands' next duty assignments got handed down by
bureaucrats in Washington.
After two months in their
off-base apartment, Jim and Julie were assigned a two-bedroom
unit on Sigsbee Annex. It was a bland, concrete ranch house
with worn walls and old appliances, but the air conditioning
worked just fine. The backyard dropped off right into the Gulf
of Mexico. Their closest neighbors to the left were a warrant
officer, his wife and their four loud children. To the right
lived Captain Bill Hutchinson and his wife. Hutch was the
commanding officer of an intelligence squadron based a few miles
up the overseas highway. His wife Margie dressed flamboyantly
in yellow and purples and was fully gray at the age of
thirty-eight. She told Julie that everyone called her "Minute."
"As in 'Wait a minute,' which I
never do, or 'That girl does a million things per minute,' which
is probably true, or as in 'She talks a million miles per minute
and never lets us get a word in edgewise,' which is something
people just have to get used to," Minute said, with a bright
smile and Southern accent. She held out a plate of homemade
brownies. "Now what's a smart girl like you going to do to keep
your brain from going soft in the sun, hmmm? Work or babies?"
Julie took Minute's brownies
with deep appreciation. "I'm not ready for maternity clothes.
But everyone says there aren't any jobs."
"None that pay well, that's for
sure." Minute was on the committees of a half-dozen events per
year, ranging from fundraisers to literary weekends and charity
bike runs. She hooked Julie up with the Historical Society, and
soon Julie was soon giving walking tours of Old Town and the Key
West cemetery, with its quirky headstones and ornate,
Jim came home from flying every
day and said, "I'm glad you're keeping busy," but sometimes
Julie thought it would be nice to live in a place with more than
two supermarkets, and where the humidity didn't make you feel
coated with sweat all the time, and where the nearest mall
wasn't forty-two bridges up the highway.
"Maybe you could teach at the
community college," he said one night at dinner.
"I called. They're not hiring
"Take some classes yourself?"
Julie scraped at her plate of
tuna casserole. "There's nothing I could use there to get a
Because of its prime waterfront
location their house became the focal point for many Blackbird
get-togethers. Julie would sit in the screened-in lanai,
listening to the other wives gossip while the men drank beer and
hit golf balls into the ocean.
"Did you hear about Admiral
so-and-so?" the wives would say, and there would be
commiseration over the poor man's drinking problem. Or maybe
they'd say, "What about that chief who got arrested?" or "They
caught that seaman right there, in the man's apartment, his
pants around his ankles." No rumor went unreported and no
secret stayed private.
"It's like a soap opera," Julie
told Jim, but he said scuttlebutt was often the only way to find
out important things in the military.
"Like inbox diving," he said one
night, when it was just the two of them sitting out under the
stars. "If you're around the offices after everyone's gone
home, you rummage around in the yeoman's inboxes. See who's
been nominated for what awards, who's taking leave, things like
He lay back, his arms folded
behind his head.
She slapped at a mosquito trying
to feast on her arm. "Would they let you transfer, if you wanted
"Why would I want to?"
"Minute says there's a naval air
station in Washington, just outside of Seattle."
"They don't have F-16's. You
know that's what I fly."
So much for transferring. She
couldn't take flying away from him. Whenever he talked about it
his whole face lit up, and his hands waved in the air, and his
feet started to tap an offbeat rhythm. She tried to think of
something that made her feel as enthusiastic. The closest she
came to rapture was when they made love, but even that was a
"He's a bit fast," she told
Minute as they walked past old seaplane ramps to a stretch of
undeveloped peninsula. It was best to exercise early in the
day, before the asphalt heated up and stuck to the soles of your
"Did you two sleep together
before you got married?" Minute asked.
Julie shook her head.
"So you're still learning,"
Minute said. "That's a good thing. Day you stop, it all gets
kind of boring."
"He thinks he knows what he's
doing," Julie said, and then bit her lip. Maybe that wasn't the
kind of information you were supposed to share about your
husband. None of Julie's friends back home had married, and her
mother had merely said, "Sounds about right, from what I
Minute gulped from her water
bottle. "Flyboys. Always in such a damned hurry. "
Julie's gaze was drawn to a
patch of scruffy pine trees growing around an abandoned bunker.
Through the brown and green she could see a glimmering blue
lake, Lake Champlain, with the Adirondacks just beyond it. She
and her father had taken a long car ride up there once, just the
two of them, her puzzle books and Barbie dolls scattered across
the front seat of the rumbling old Buick, his empty beer cans
rattling on the floorboards in the back seat. He told her long,
rambling stories about Benedict Arnold and Fort Ticonderoga and
the treaty of Ghent. She couldn't remember how long they had
been away, but when they got home her mother had squeezed her so
hard Julie felt her ribs creak. Her father had moved out soon
"They say that doctors do it
with patience, professors do it by the book, football players
are measured by the yard and pilots keep it up longer," Minute
was saying. "You've got to teach him right or it'll never be
good for you, and that's a hell of a way to spend the rest of
A yellow rowboat was moving steadily across the lake, and in it was a man
with a bright smile. Julie turned away from the sight. "I
can't tell him how to do it. It just starts a fight."
"Well, he'll just have to
listen, if he wants you to be happy. How are things otherwise?
I don't think you like Key West much."
Julie shrugged. "It's not my
kind of town."
Minute patted her shoulder.
"That's the nice thing about the navy. Wait long enough, and
they'll send you somewhere else. I like it around here. But
that's me and my tropical bones. Other people . . . "
She trailed off for a
moment, her gaze on the sea.
"Thing is, Julie, you've got to
be careful around here. Unhappiness can lure you away to places
you don't want to go. Places you should steer clear of, you
Julie thought maybe Minute was
talking about extramarital affairs. "Don't worry," she said,
and forced a smile. "I'm not that far gone yet."
* * *
She tried ceramics, but kept
breaking the molds. She took sailing lessons, but repeatedly
capsized. She got a job managing a T-shirt and souvenir shop
near Key West Bight, but quit when the owners were arrested for
drug-dealing out of the back room. For awhile she tutored a
Polish immigrant family through a local literacy program. Both
parents worked multiple minimum-wage jobs and came home
exhausted every night. Julie also tried needlepoint, line
dancing, Asian cooking, a church choir, and writing little
history columns for the local newspaper. The editor always
mangled the paragraphs, sometimes printing them out of order or
with missing sentences. She quit when he started putting them
under his own byline.
"Ask me what I'm doing today,"
she said to Jim at breakfast one morning.
Warily he peeked over the edge
of the sports pages. "What are you doing today, honey?"
"Going to a Tupperware party.
Ask me what I'm doing tomorrow."
"I'm going to a basket party."
"Don't we have a closet full of
baskets you bought last month?"
Julie dropped another pancake
onto his plate. "You want me to say no to your CO's wife?"
after they first arrived, she discovered she was pregnant. She
stood in their little green bathroom with her hands folded
lightly over her womb. A lizard hung on the bathroom window
screen, watching her. Surely a child would change their lives
for the better. Lily Boxer and the other VF-45 wives would
throw her a baby shower. Jim would be thrilled with a little
boy he could hoist into the air and fly around the room. Julie
would fit right into the clique of young moms who all baby-sat
for one another and took their kids to the Naval Hospital and
enrolled them in playtime at the child center, which was painted
bright green and blue instead of Key West's ubiquitous pink.
Six weeks later, just as she was
ready to call her mom back in Vermont, the baby miscarried right
into the toilet bowl in a mess of pink and red tissue. The pain
was like bad menstrual cramps. For weeks afterward, Jim would
cuddle her with his arms and legs comfortably weighted over
hers. The doctor said, "You can try again," but she thought,
no, probably not.
Because, really, what was the
point of anything? Why should she paint their bedroom or try to
grow a garden or even have the lanai screens fixed up, when the
next tenants would move right in and change everything anyway?
Why bother making friends with another military couple when the
next thing you knew they were given magic tickets off the island
to other commands, other duty stations? Why even go outside
when all you did was sweat and break out in heat rashes and get
yeast infections and watch your hair frizz into an unmanageable,
Minute said, "You've got island
fever," and took her up to Miami for a girls' weekend. The
shopping was fun and the Museum of Contemporary Art an excellent
change of pace, but on both the trip up and down Julie saw key
deer lying dead on the side of the highway. Small deer,
fragile, killed by cars. People in Key West were dying, too, of
something called AIDS. Blackness had crept in under the
greenery, the endless relentless greenery, but Julie knew it had
always been there, always lurking. No jungle could exist
The volunteer coordinator from
the Historical Society left repeated messages on the answering
machine. Someone needed to show the houses of Ernest Hemingway
and Robert Frost to the endless tide of tourists. Julie
unplugged the machine and stayed inside her own concrete house,
watching Jim zealously mow the lawn while she drank glass after
glass of unsweetened ice tea.
His muscles were smooth and
long, his waist narrow, his chest hairless. She was looking
forward to the years when they could stop being thin and
tanned. She'd grow a little rounder in the hips, he'd get a
little beer gut under his khaki's. The hair on his head might
fall out, or hers sprout gray and wiry. They'd live in the
Rockies, where the weather brought real seasons. They'd wear
coats and gloves and long woolen scarves as they shoveled snow,
white cold snow, snow that made her nose ache, snow that muffled
the noise and din of the outside world.
"Fantasy Fest's coming up," Jim
said when he was done with the grass.
Julie drank more tea.
He pulled a beer from the
refrigerator. "You didn't go last year."
She hadn't gone because drunken
parades of transvestites and nudists wasn't anything that
sounded fun, even if Minute swore it was all good fun, and Lily
Boxer herself got fixed up as Marilyn Monroe. "Like Mardi
Gras," the other wives told her, as if that was supposed to
"Julie," Jim said, tugging her
close, his lips on her neck. "You don't jog anymore. You don't
go out with Lily Boxer. Minute says you won't go to lunch. All
these oil paints and canvasses you bought a few months ago?
They're just sitting in the corner."
"I'm learning to paint," Julie
said. Landscapes. Jagged, up thrusting, rugged. The volunteer
teacher at the recreation center had suggested she try colors
other than black and gray, and Julie hadn't gone back to class
Jim nuzzled her throat. "It'll
be something new. Something different."
She supposed anything new on Key
West was to be embraced, because there were only so many
sun-drenched days a woman could endure, so many piña coladas and
barbeques, so many tours of the gleaming aisles in the base
department store, so many sunsets and palm trees and sunburns.
On the day of the parade she and
Jim took a cab down to Duval Street, which was strung with beads
and lights and banners, people walking around bedecked with
orange feathers, beer pooling in the gutters, lipstick smeared
on men and women's faces both, tropical reggae and Jimmy Buffet
and Cajun music blasting from mounted speakers. They met other
Blackbird couples at a bar on the parade route. For the first
time since losing the baby, Julie bellied up to a wooden counter
and sucked down a strawberry daiquiri.
Lily Boxer said, "Didn't you
need that? Another drink for the girl!"
"Don't you get my wife drunk,"
Jim said, wrapping an arm around Lily's bare shoulder and
squeezing her tight.
She kissed his cheek. "Would I
Julie had another, and then
another, and soon everyone in the parade of half-nude or
ornately costumed strangers became her best friend.
Papier-mâché floats of dolphins and mermaids danced in the
overhead sky. Street vendors proffered jewels from the deep and
ambrosia of the sea king. Bearded men sashayed in diaphanous
blue costumes. The sun sank and the crowds danced and at some
point Julie realized she had lost track of Jim. Somehow she had
ended up on a stone bench in a charming little courtyard behind
a restaurant. The stranger sitting beside her had emerald green
". . . and he says maybe we'll
get posted to Norfolk next, but do you know where Norfolk is?"
Julie leaned closer to the man, enjoying the wooziness in her
head and tongue. "Virginia. Tidal flats. Strip malls. Who
wants to go to Virginia?"
"You can stay here in paradise,"
the man said.
Julie wagged her finger. "This
"No," he agreed. "But I can
show you where it is."
Which is how she found herself
following him down the alley, through someone's back yard and
along a white picket fence. A cool breeze ruffled her skirt.
She'd slipped off her sandals and was carrying them over her
shoulder with one finger. Golden beads clanked around her
neck. She could hear music and laughter swirling in streets
just out of sight. The sounds echoed strangely, as if captured
and relayed by the pearly insides of a conch shell.
The handsome man took her
through the narrow streets of Bahama Village, past houses that
looked like children's cottages, until they came to a low stone
wall. Beyond it was a patch of grainy sand. A yellow rowboat
was anchored in the shallow water. Moonlight glinted off its
"Your chariot," the stranger
said, with an elaborate bow. "If you dare."
Dizziness swept through her, a
not-unpleasant feeling. Julie sat on the sand, which was still
warm from the day's heat. She tossed her sandals aside and
threw her head back to the star-laced sky. Her neck felt bare
"I have a husband," she said.
"Marry me, instead," the
Her vision blurred slightly.
She wiped her eyes.
He sat beside her, his legs long
and lean in the moonlight. "Look there, to the west."
Julie fixed her gaze on the
faint delineation between nighttime sea and blue-black sky.
Silver-rimmed clouds rearranged themselves into a towering white
mountain, a sculpted chunk of snow and ice. The weight of it,
its vast enormous bulk, tilted the entire world.
"I don't know that one," she
"Denali," he whispered.
Denali. The word rolled off her
tongue. She imagined bears and wolves and moose, and a log
mansion with a hearty blaze in the great stone hearth.
"Who lives there?" she asked.
"No one," he replied. "Join me.
I promise you fidelity, devotion, sobriety. Long winter nights
with frost on the windows. A dog, if you'd like. Or maybe a
polar bear. Something with fur."
She stared at the mountain. It
remained hard and real, and ever so close. A land without
people in it. Without mistakes.
The man leaned closer. "The two
of us, at the edge of the world."
A branch cracked nearby. Maybe
Jim or Minute or even Lily Boxer had figured out she was
missing, and come to rescue her. But Julie saw only a black
dog, its tags jangling, sniffing at something in the sand.
"See?" The stranger sounded
triumphant. "A dog! We'll take him with us."
"Someone else's dog," Julie
She climbed unsteadily to her
feet, the alcohol sloshing around in her stomach. She was going
to have a hell of a hangover in the morning. Palm trees around
her stirred in the salty breeze, and her shoulders began to
tingle from the cold.
"I can't go with you," she told
him. "This is the world I married into."
"What about your own happiness?"
the stranger asked.
"It's not here." Julie offered
him a hand up. He took it, rising gracefully. So handsome. So
tempting. "It's probably not in Norfolk. But it's somewhere."
His lips grazed hers. They
tasted like wild apples and honey.
"I'll always be here, waiting,"
Julie never told Jim about the
mountains or the stranger. When they divorced seven years later
in the flatlands of Corpus Christi, she briefly considered a
trip back to Key West. Then Minute wrote to tell her that VF-45
had been decommissioned. The Blackbirds existed only in
memory. Several other units had moved away and entire
neighborhoods of housing had closed down. The island and the
Navy and every thing else was changing, always changing.
Julie followed her instincts
west, to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. She eventually found
happiness in the arms of a math professor. They married and had
a blue-eyed son.
"Mommy!" he would say, splashing
merrily in the bathtub. "I'm sailing the boat!"
Perched at the tub's edge, her
knees wet, Julie grasped the yellow toy and skimmed it over
sloshing mountains of soapy water. "Let's sail it together."
About the Author:
Sandra McDonald is a military
veteran and former Hollywood assistant. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and
her first novel, The Outback Stars, will be published by Tor in April,
2007. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange
Horizons, Talebones, Chizine, Say..., Lone Star
Stories and other publications. Visit her website at
Story © 2006 Sandra McDonald.