A postcard was all it took.
A postcard and a thirty-five cent stamp.
And an apology.
Written in any type of script of her choosing. In blue ink, in black ink, or even in red ink. All she had to do was say “I’m sorry for what I said.”
It had helped so many other people.
So what was the reservation in hopes of reprieve?
Her co-workers egged her on. Partially out of the comedy of the situation, but with an inkling of seriousness. What could it hurt?
This fetish, conjured from island lore dating back to the mid 19th-century. In paranormal situations like this, there always seems to be a child involved, as if between their naivety and innocence, some synapse conjures devlish trickery.
You, however, did look at it. But just once. Out of the right side of your periphery. This made you complicit.
Behind it’s glass display case, you could see her through it. Your wife. Picking up a piece of chalk, and scrawling something on the blackboard towards the bottom left corner.
A greeting you supposed. Some child-speak. Some empty, superficial pleasantry. A way to get us off it’s hook.
She wrote six words. Each was an unreadable blob interpreted through the glass.
And as she finished, you walked back out of the museum’s brick encapsulated turret and into the Island’s sunlight.
This was your happy place.
December 23rd, 2017.
Traveling across the state, cutting at a ninety degree angle through The Everglades, there is next to nothing of human origin.
In this sea of grass, passing Seminole and Miccosukee reservations cordoned off from tourists, you two have found a selection of rest stops and a couple vending machines offering an assortment of corn chips and soft drinks.
For a travel weary vegan, you suffer a food desert. Unless you give into that salted and tangy junk food…or cheat and indulge in some gator nuggets.
Two hours into bisecting Florida’s southeastern coast–its geographic gun handle–you intersect Highway 997, and head due south. After an hour of cane fields, sub-tropical fruit stands, and roadside food trucks offering Pescado, Nopales, and Lengua, you run into South Florida’s final stop on the inland highway.
Known for two things: The Homestead-Miami Speedway, and it being the paved gateway to the Florida Keys.
It is a flyspeck on a map, a transition from here to there. And within that melting pot of South Florida, a congealing of Central and South America with accents from the myriad of Islanders, it somehow cradles a Haitian restaurant with a full vegan menu.
By happenstance, you two discovered it on this trip. A treat to start your vacation, but more importantly, a treat to end it once you leave your beloved island-scape.
You stop in, island spices mute the rot wafting from adjacent dumpsters. In a low-lit shell of a mid 20th-century strip mall, you order from the colorful menu and eat within the greyness, a perpetual vision state between light and darkness.
Rotti and curry. Savory callaloo. And festivals–those little semi-sweet Island dumplings that fit somewhere between a side and a desert. You eat one each, in celebration of the beginning of each course.
By 9pm, you’re cutting into the upper keys as Highway 997 merges into US-1. Pitch darkness in the distance, whereas moonlit mangroves shadow like a windowsill, the thousands of miles of sea reaching out onto each side.
You will return to that restaurant.
And that makes the thought of saying goodbye so much easier.
June in Florida is miserable. Though, the temperature to humidity ratio in September is much more terrible. So, the unpleasant fact that you have to wade through three summer months to get to that final point in summer makes June the absolute worst.
It could be argued that the state of Florida became truly livable in the early 1950’s. The Second World War’s economic boom made an archaic form of the home air conditioning unit affordable. And that cool, indoor living brought droves of folks into Florida’s coastal outlands, and the once uninhabitable, swampy inlands. Air conditioning allowed for the classic, 50’s style ranch home to become the new moniker for the suburb, where as the turn of the century cracker house was retrofitted with shoddy wall units, in an arcane fashion, to combat the balmy Florida summer.
The classic cracker is narrow. Each room sits almost in a sequence from front to back. A door at each end, that, when opened, allow what little conjured breeze to flow slowly through the house, offering some sort of reprieve from the unbearable elements.
Although you are a Florida native, you should have some innate sense of resilience.
But in truth, you can’t hang with that sentiment.
It is June. The beginning of the most terrible season and you’re currently sitting here in your bedroom with no air conditioning.
Outside, two HVAC workers have piled 500 square feet of ductwork in the front yard. Laid upon the ornamental coquina shells that serve as ground cover, the duct looks like a pile of retired yellow and brown sargassum yanked from the ocean by high tide. And like beached weed, purple shit flies swarm it. For a second it feels like you’re actually on the beach. But there is no water near, only these trucked in shells hiding cat shit your feral colony has learned to dig, and bury into.
Life can be worse.
But the rage one feels from being overheated is a hard ailment to overcome.
You lay down on the cheap, laminate flooring. Shirtless. Your pasty skin sticks to its dull sheen, and your pores open to absorb any sort of coolness it can from the floor.
Is it the heat?
Is it the inconvenience?
Or more so the savings you’ve been hemorrhaging since late December, to get your spoiled lives back to normal?
Your pocket buzzes. As you pull out your phone, it’s the time of day a barrage of non-profit cold-calls make the rounds.
You’ve been avoiding them. And in every avoidance, your guilt builds.
You finally put down your three dollar coffee, answering solely to punish yourself.
“I can’t believe this.”
Your wife’s voice is on the other end, from an unknown phone that doesn’t register a caller ID. “Are you OK?” you ask.
“Fine, fine, sorry…I just dropped my phone in the toilet.”
She never indulges. You’ve talked for weeks about upgrading her to a new phone. And in the end, the most modest version was purchased.
Here it was, now, she explained. She’d laid out a bamboo bowl of dried rice, the phone enshrouded into it like a corpse put to rest in a wooden, bare bones coffin.
There, she hoped that some techy, reverse voodoo magic might conjure even the slightest of a resurrection.
Just the basic return of the power light would void defeat.
You both agree to wait, to give it a couple days: this is your refusal to give in to the curse of The Doll.
You are in the heart of the swamp. Two hours north of your shared home. Your wife commutes here, 120 miles north of Tampa Bay. She goes from air conditioning in Tampa, to air conditioning in our car, to air conditioning in Gainesville.
The average lifespan of central heat and air averages 15 to 20 years. In Florida, due to it’s high output, 10 to 15 at most.
Servicing of the unit is just part and parcel. And, because she takes precautions, it was just done last year.
She always takes precautions.
For weeks, she and her roomate have been devoid of air conditioning. Her HVAC’s plumbing, the coolant piping laid within her home’s foundation had been compromised.
They’d been dealing with it the old fashioned way, using the mid-century method, with electric fans, several of them placed strategically throughout the house to create a cross breeze of circulation.
Because of the subtropical environ, where every household has an A/C, major servicing is weeks out.
And it’s no easy feat, and not light on your savings account.
She stays out as long as possible, coming home late just to sleep.
You wondered: What if this Doll had been stowed away, displayed in an oddities museum in New England?
For crossing it, you’d get snowed in and your heating system would fail.
Or your car wouldn’t start, you’d have to walk in the snow to work.
Or, to make the situation more convoluted, for talking heavier shit, your brakes would fail, having suffered an odd instance where a wild animal gnawed your brake lines.
Or maybe you live in San Francisco?
Your parking brake mysteriously gives out one of its near vertical hills, your house catches on fire, or a tiny earthquake rattles the land, severing off a piece of roadway into the sea that you so happen to be driving on.
But this is Florida
And The Doll’s hex is formulaic, catering to this much more uncompromising peninsula. Here, you pay physically, psychically and financially, where it pains most.
December 27th, 2017.
To leave the Keys behind each winter puts a lump in your stomach. The same feeling you got as a child, after summer break, knowing you had a full year of a new school term ahead of you. Not existential, just a sense of morose, a loss of the forward looking to experiences that makes your life much easier to navigate.
But this year, you have mid-points.
Last inhalations, to break up the abandoning calm and contentment.
At this road-side tourist trap, you dodge aggressive pelicans. Each, like a living buttress of Janus, the Greek God of beginnings, gates, transitions, and sadly, endings. Weaving through them, their heads’ cocked to strike the sardines out of your hands.
You sign a waiver to enter, in case nature allows for your digit (or two) to get removed in the feeding process.
Making it to the end of the dock, dozens of six foot tarpon wade in the artificial depths of this dredged canal. They wait, their silver dollar sized eyes peer up, motionless until your hand descends to the water’s surface. And as if there is an honor’s system in the waiting game, one single tarpon breaks away from the school and ascends slowly. Less than a foot beneath your hand, you can see its giant, chrome scales, the pure black of its eyeball, and the line along its lip that denotes the true, massive size of its mouth.
Without an indicator, the giant fish is airborne, its mouth agape, as it slides its lips around your fingers, your wrist.
Having done this hundreds, possibly thousands of times, the last bit of luck you’ll experience (for months) is bestowed upon you as it slides back into the depths, fish in gullet, your skin unscathed.
This is Florida: Its tourism revolving around the potentiality of mental and physical harm.
Of heat stroke, an alligator attack, maiming by a giant fish, of being drowned in the undertow.
The other guests to this specific tourist trap–snowbirds who have only experienced the Keys within its many antiseptic resorts.
To you, feeling a native haughtiness, this is an extension of your local ecosystem–brutal in essence, that you, sometimes pretentiously, defend as your home.
You drive another hour. Back north, through the last carpals of the Key’s island chain that connects to the mainland by one final bridge.
You cut through the mangrove forests, sandwiched between those two vast bodies of saltwater, and wind back up into Homestead.
The faded white facade of your recent find reveals itself again at the end of Highway 1.
You park out front, parallel on the side of the highway, just two parking spaces from its large windows, overlooking the main thoroughfare.
On stepping inside, this is the beginning of the end of your trip. And once you step back out, it is over.
Placing your order, your wife forgets her cell phone charger in the car. She asks for you to wait for your food while she snags it.
“Be back in a second…”
Those reminiscent smells welcome you back; nutmeg, accents of ginger, allspice. You knew what you wanted, you had been planning it for hours.
After you eat, there will be another 3 hours on the road, through the flat and vast visual emptiness of The Everglades. Taking a right turn on the western edge of the state, you will head due north up the I-75 corridor. You’ll pass the almost depressing endless sprawl of northern migrants taking over the high priced real estate of the dozens upon dozens of coastal towns. Finally, you will land back in Tampa Bay. The sadness finally setting in, at the end of your one, annual, coveted vacation.
After answering your phone.
“Come outside, please…”
Your wife’s voice is collected. And in that affected control, you know from experience that there is something terribly wrong.
You walk past the six or so, tiny tables that take up the small dining room. You open the restaurant’s front door, a bell jingles, the low budget blinds shake loosely as they barely do their job muting the bright, 2pm sun.
You walk outside, into the uncompromising sunlight.
This was your happy place.
December 24th, 2017.
The old, Civil War fort is poorly lit. The coquina shells that line both the floor, the walls, and the ceiling ooze a compounded smell of mildew. A humid salt stench as if the porous building material had been dug from the bottom of what was once a shallow sea, submerged for eons. It in fact had been.
You walk from corridor to corridor. Each room, originally selected for different utilitarian functions; an officer’s quarter, a hospital, a munitions room.
Now, each has turned into a segment covering a piece of the island’s history; wrecking, slavery, the Spanish American War, the Cuban Revolution. These small spaces are jammed with historic paraphernalia. You do your best to not knock anything over as you meander slowly through each, absorbing as much as you can, though, like in every museum, overwhelmed and processing little.
Midway through the exhibits, you reach the creme-de-la creme. The main attraction of this house of relics. Its significance has no grand bearing on the centuries’ worth of relevant people, places or things. Or of any real history for that matter.
It’s like any inanimate object. Life breathed into vicariously through human contact.
The Doll: a fetish harboring its child owner’s claustrophobia, of being stuck on this island, four miles square, and not being able to escape the unnamed trauma suffered from it.
Its legs and arms are tan, the canvas like material serving as skin, stuffed with whatever could fill that anthropomorphic void.
The eyeballs are buttons sewn to the skull.
It wears a little outfit.
And unlike a normal doll, it is big, the size of a small human.
Grotesque, you think.
Grotesque always draws more attention. He is the reason this museum exists. And you are now infringing on his space.
Seeing him in his glass case. Seeing your wife through that glass on the other side.
You see the Chalkboard. The selection of colored chalk. The existing salutations written upon the board.
“Thanks for letting us visit you.”
“We’re so glad you’re doing good.”
“Please, please stay well.”
Those messages of thanks. Of appreciation.
But some, uncomfortably, beg forgiveness for past rebuff.
And all of this unfounded superstition, you fear, is what drives your wife mad.
You see her reach for the chalk, but that is all you bear to witness.
You take a left outside into the courtyard. The sun is on high, it dowses the foliage, the greens and purples and reds, overexposing all of it.
This is your island paradise.
You can only hope that nothing will ever ruin that.
It has been six months.
Six months since seeing The Doll.
Six months since you walked away from The Doll’s display, in fear of what your wife was about to do.
Over the Spring, your HVAC’s have gone out, and have been replaced.
It has been four months since your wife’s cell phone was submerged. It still goes haywire at random.
And, just now, you’ve finally recovered the loss of everything that was stolen out of your car in Homestead.
Back when, at 2PM in the afternoon, at your beloved restaurant, The Doll’s hex was triggered as someone shattered your car window with a spark plug and snatched your computers, tablets, toiletries, prescriptions, and a $250 dental mouthguard.
Over the past six months, your savings have been hemorrhaging just to get back to the stasis you built before leaving for the island.
All of this, because of a Doll.
Its curse somehow directed at expensive, practical objects that allow you to live in this state.
Yet, all of this could have been avoided.
You could have swayed your wife to join you in the courtyard that December day.
But instead, you walked out, in fear of bearing witness, into the sunlight, into your paradise, alone.
And when you walked back in, it was too late.
Through the glass display, past where The Doll somehow stood as if in judgement, you could see your wife’s arm scrawling something in pastel blue chalk.
And as you peered around the glass cylinder, The Doll’s beety, buttony eyes glaring into you, her fingers dotted a period after six malignant words that would initiate ill omen:
“Dear Doll, You can suck it.”