Mrs. Eugenie Nestor and her husband, Old Nestor, live next door to us in Key West, behind a tall bamboo fence with several shoebox-size rectangles cut in it so their cats can prowl in our yard. Key West has changed a lot during the twenty years my husband and I have been renting a winter house here. For one thing, these days you can throw away your alarm: if it’s not the crashing clatter of the recycling truck twice a week—this beast can come at three in the morning, by the way—it’s the daily whine of buzzsaws. No one needs an alarm anymore. The renovation has drowned out the roosters, machines screech more piercingly than any of the birds, and motorcycles let you know how frustrated the riders feel, having to zig and zag through so much traffic. The main street, Duval, is, during the height of the tourist season, entirely blocked off, being bulldozed and jackhammered. Everyone takes the next street over, Simonton, which means traffic pours by day and night. My husband refuses to drive the car and has even abandoned his bicycle because of the many ruts in the road, and because tourists have recently been reaching out their windows to try to topple the cyclists. It’s a new sport, malevolent, but a direct response, people think, to the number of cyclists who frighten them by riding at high speeds on the right and sideswiping them or cutting them off. Yesterday I saw a woman in a convertible using a shopping bag like a big flyswatter. You used to see amusing, interesting things in Key West: men riding along in bikini trunks with their dogs in baskets on the front of their bikes, or adults pulling other adults in wagons on the sidewalk. And the gay people were quite flamboyant; leftover masks from Fantasy Fest might appear pushed to the top of their heads like one of those old lady pancake hats, or they’d wear masks on the street, nothing particular going on except that they were escorting some friend in chains down Duval, and the one who wasn’t bound in chains would have on a mini-skirt with a tee-shirt with something outrageous written on it, and over his eyes, a mask made of peacock feathers. AIDS took its toll in the 80s, though, and now most of the birds are in the trees, or snatching expensive goldfish out of people’s little garden pools. Yesterday my husband saw a crane walking up the steps of a recently opened gift shop. Amazed tourists were giggling and gawking and photographing it. The storekeeper said, “Let it come in. Maybe it has a credit card.”
Inevitably, the Conch Republic has changed. Even the conch is now imported. The tourists still come in droves and hurtle around the island on a big caterpillar with an awning called the Conch Train. My husband and I hear the punchline of the recorded jokes as it passes, about every half hour. One of the drivers moonlights for my husband, coming on Monday and Wednesday nights to stand in our pool with some other models, clothed and unclothed. He recites the canned jokes to make them groan, and they roll their eyes or splash water on him. My husband understands that modelling can be very boring, and he expects to be talked to, but pretty quickly the models understand they won’t be getting much feedback except for an occasional “pardon me?” or “you think so?” Inevitably, the models who have been in analysis come to love my husband. If he could remember ten percent of what they tell him, I could spend my whole life amazed by people’s bizarre lives and problems. One of the drivers, Lem Rupert, is not only a Conch Train driver, but also a weekend waitperson, as well as a part-time model. Lem grew up in Wales, in a little place called Hay-on-Wye, which he calls Ham-on-Rye. Apparently the place is famous for its bookstores; some shops are so large they spill out onto the street and only awnings keep the books from getting rained on. Lem’s mother was a maid in one of the inns and his father was away at sea for most of the years Lem was growing up. Lem has a sister, Daphne, who also models for my husband when she needs extra money. Like her mother, she works in a hotel, but it’s the Hyatt in Key West: quite large and new and grand. Daphne has auburn hair and a ruddy complexion that my husband has speculated may be protective coloration, a way of disappearing while working in a big hotel that is primarily pink.
Last Wednesday night my husband had the two of them posing in the pool, Daphne on a raft, Lem holding a palm frond and pretending to be fishing out leaves, when Old Nestor had what my husband calls “an episode” with one of the cats. The cats seem to disappoint him in many ways. They do something that makes him bang a spoon on a pan—that is the very worst cat punishment for all of us—though other times the Nestors throw fruit or simply clap their hands and curse. But this night the orange cat did something that really set Old Nestor off. Even from inside the house, I could hear distinctly the metallic beat of the tom-tom, with Old Nestor’s wife shrieking in falsetto. A banana was the first thing to end up in our pool, followed by the orange cat’s darting through one of the shoebox holes in a state of wild agitation and making a mad dash so intense that it overshot the yard entirely and ended up in the water. An apple and several starfruit flew after it, and the apple smacked Daphne on the head, causing her to scream as she toppled off the raft into the pool. To make matters worse, the orange cat was terrified and attempted to scramble up Daphne, which was the first time anyone realized quite how afraid of cats Daphne was, though anyone might have been afraid of some wildly circling animal in fear for its life, with its eyes bugging and its claws extended. As I understand it, Lem was immediately possessed of enormous strength—such a surge of power that he dismantled part of the fence with his bare hands, and clomped into the Nestor’s yard cursing every bit as obscenely as Eugenie and Old Nestor. Meanwhile, Daphne was shrieking in the pool, and the cat was swimming in circles around her like a shark, so my husband peeled off his shirt, stepped out of his sandals, and rushed into the water, swatting the cat toward the shallow end with the palm frond, where it quickly found the steps and clambered out. Daphne was in tears, really going crazy. She started whacking at Andy, accusing him quite irrationally of “offering no protection” or something like that, her hand on top of her head where the apple had hit it, the string on her bikini top having broken, so that she clutched one little triangle of fabric over one breast, while trying to elbow the other triangle over the other breast . . . well: it was pandemonium, and furthermore, the orange cat had run right through Andy’s pallet, and there were blue pawprints everywhere. The cat’s mad dash had triggered the other neighbor’s new security system, so suddenly, amid the three-way cursing at the Nestors’, a voice you knew did not originate from a human being announced: “You have entered a secured area. You have five seconds to leave the premises.” If the neighbors had been home, they could have come out to investigate, but they weren’t home, so the alarm system went off, resulting in earsplitting noise which only ended when the police arrived. They obviously knew the code and had little trouble deactivating the alarm, but in their haste, in the dark, they knocked over the birdcage, and the door opened and the Minichiellos’ parrot flew off into the night, which made one of the cops completely exasperated and furious, as his partner laughed and laughed, grabbing hold of our back gate to keep himself upright. Then his eyes drifted to Daphne, with the string and triangles dangling around her neck, standing and screaming after Andy, because by then he, too, had disappeared into the Nestors’ backyard. Though none of us knew it that moment, he had embarked on a plan to uproot every bush and tree he could find there that was without thorns.
“Fucking idle rich!” Daphne screamed, climbing out of the pool. “It’s exploitation! Seven dollars an hour doesn’t entitle you to slam-dunk me. I want that monster arrested. I want to press charges because he could have bloody well killed me, him with his rabid cat and his stinking bloody violence, I want whoever threw that rock arrested!”
“You miserable low-life,” Eugenie Nestor screamed. Which one of them she meant, I had no idea, but when an enormous bird of paradise plant was heaved over the fence into our yard, Old Nestor followed after it, through the newly broken fence, and as he attempted to scoop it up, Lem kicked him from behind and he went sprawling, and that was when the police finally did intervene—with the parrot staring down from high up in the palm tree, calling out: “Margaritaville! Margaritaville!” Like the bird, the laughing cop only got out individual words, but the address did get through, and within a matter of seconds there were sirens in the distance, and two police cars converged in front of our house, where Daphne now stood, topless, screaming that someone had tried to murder her. The upshot of it was that Old Nestor and Lem had to be restrained, and it took Andy quite a long time to disabuse the cops of the notion that a porn movie was being shot in the back yard. “Why do you keep asking, when you don’t see any camera?” Andy said repeatedly to the cop. “Look at this. Look here. This is what was happening, when our neighbors began throwing things after their cat. I was painting a painting. That’s what I do for a living. I’ve been coming to Key West for twenty years. I’m a painter. I’m a painter.” If he weren’t so tall, he could have been mistaken for Rumpelstiltskin, jumping up and down. I was a great help in giving a balanced view of the whole situation. By ten p.m. they were gone—with Lem in custody, and Daphne weeping in a butterfly chair on our front porch, dabbing her eyes with a tee-shirt, saying that it was their father Lem had gotten his ungovernable temper from, and hadn’t he been wonderful, going after the people who had tried to kill her? The Minichiellos’ parrot had flown away. When Daphne stopped sniffling and put on her in-line skates to follow after Lem to the police station, we put on the evening news and took comfort in hearing how cold it was elsewhere.
On Thursday, quite unexpectedly, Eugenie Nestor appeared at the door, carrying a paper plate covered with Saran Wrap. “Father Donegan said you would let me in,” she said. It took a moment to register. First of all, though I’d heard her screaming and beating pans for years, I’d rarely seen Eugenie Nestor, and when I had, she hadn’t been wearing black wrap-around glasses and a big sunhat with a calico bow. “Father said not to drown the kittens. To ask if you would take one. To ask all my neighbors,” she said.
It registered. She had been to see the priest. He had told her—
“Bless you for enduring our struggles with the cats,” she said. “I would like us to be friends. People should be friends with their neighbors, as Father says. He says there’s a chance you might want one of the kittens. The key lime cookies are a present, whether or not you care to take a kitten.”
“You know, this is very nice of you, Mrs. Nestor,” I said. “Please come in. Would you like an iced tea?”
“Do you have Coca-Cola?” she said, handing me the cookies. They slid around on the paper plate. There seemed to be only a few of them.
“Yes, I think we do. Come into the kitchen.”
“This is a rental house, isn’t it?” she said. “Very nice. I’ve looked through the fence. Of course, today that wouldn’t be any problem, would it? My husband says the hole reminds him of ‘Ghostbusters’.”
“We rent from a couple in Vero Beach.”
“How would you feel about a cute kitten?” she asked, changing the subject.
“We don’t have any pets. It would make it too difficult to travel,” I said.
“Without ice, please,” she said.
I poured the Coke into a glass. I poured some Perrier into a glass for myself.
“Father has taken one of the kittens,” she said. “My husband’s dentist might take one for his daughter. One way or another, I have to find people.”
“An ad in the paper?” I suggested.
“He already drowned four. My husband, I mean. He said that regardless of what Father said, the cat was as much his as mine, and what he wanted to do with his four kittens was drown them.” She cleared her throat. I moved toward the front porch. She followed. “Of my four, one has been spoken for, and there’s a chance the dentist might take another.”
“You wouldn’t take one?” she said.
“I really can’t, Mrs. Nestor. My husband and I travel a lot. It’s very difficult to find places that will—.”
“You can sneak them in,” she said.
“Mrs. Nestor, I’m really not going to take one of the kittens. I realize you would like me to do that. But I’m not going to be able to.”
“The Minichiellos’ are heartbroken about the parrot,” she said. “They haven’t heard about any sightings of it. They had that bird for years. They think it will die.”
“That would be a shame,” I said.
“I asked them to take a kitten, but she doesn’t feel a kitten is a good replacement for a parrot that could count to fifteen. It always said good morning to her. She’s heartbroken.”
“I can understand that,” I said.
“Father put up a note on the church bulletin board. It’s been up for a week,” she said. She had never taken off her black sunglasses. She had pushed the hat back on her head. She had drained her glass. She said: “The mother cat was upset he’d drowned the kittens. She knew it was him. She peed in his hammock.”
“Perhaps we can talk another time,” I said. “I have some things I need to do before it gets any later.”
“Housework,” she said.
“Errands,” I said.
“If on your errands you think someone might be interested in a kitten, could I give you our phone number?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“We’re in the book, but people are too lazy to look. You’d have to give the number to them,” she said.
“Let me get a piece of paper,” I said.
“And a pen,” she said.
I went into the kitchen, forcing myself to be patient. Soon she would be gone.
“I was a lapsed Catholic,” she said. “I regret those years away from the church.”
“Just jot down your phone number,” I said. “And thank you for the cookies.”
“Do you think there’s any chance you’ll change your mind?” she said.
“No,” I said.
“Because if you do, you could call over the fence. Or just walk through the broken part and let me know.”
“I won’t change my mind,” I said.
She put her face in her hands and began to cry, using the piece of paper she’d written her number on as a tissue. “Nobody ever changes their mind,” she said. “My husband hasn’t changed his mind once in forty years. He said he hated cats when we got married. I gave away my cat. Then when we moved to Florida a cat followed me home one day and I thought he’d change his mind, because it was such a pretty cat. But he didn’t change his mind about that cat or about any of the others. For forty years, he’s drowned kittens. What do they say? ‘Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.’ With me, it’s always a cat, never any kittens.” She wiped tears from her eyes. She said: “I agreed with that woman who was screaming the other night. She came here to give us a message, do you realize that? She was sent from on high with a message. It’s true: no one protecting anyone else. It’s my right to have kittens if I want them, but would anyone protect my rights? Nobody would. Father says give away the kittens because my husband will drown them. I don’t even know if they’re alive now. I could go home and find them all in a bucket.”
“Mrs. Nestor,” I said, “this is not anything I can help you with. Do you understand?”
“You’re a monster,” she said. “Some people aren’t cat people, they’re dog people. I can understand that. But you—you’re just selfish. You just want to travel. It’s what that woman said. That woman was an angel, who’d come to speak to you. Did you hear her say that you were the idle rich? You are. You and your husband are monsters. You have friends who go on rampages, and you turn them loose like wild beasts, like other people’s yards were the jungle. My plants were all pulled up. The same day he drowned the kittens, my whole yard was destroyed. You are horrible, violent, selfish people. I never want to see you again.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “All you’ll have to do is leave, then.”
“Where can I find that angel?” Mrs. Nestor said.
“Cleaning rooms at the Hyatt, as a matter of fact. Go home and call the Hyatt and ask to speak to the angel Daphne Rupert. She works the afternoon shift. You can reach her.”
Which she did, and here is what followed: Daphne exited a recently cleaned room, having no idea Eugenie Nestor was the one who had left three kittens in an Easter basket with a towel draped over the handle. It was there, wedged between the miniature shampoos and the rolls of toilet paper: a purple and pink wicker basket with three kittens curled inside. She took it to the manager’s office, and the manager of course couldn’t understand it, except that she knew a dirty trick had been played on the hotel. Daphne felt there was some suspicion that she knew more than she did—that perhaps they were even her kittens, which she was trying to foist off on the Hyatt. Well: thank god it was not a baby; they had all agreed on that. Really, it could have been much worse if a baby had been abandoned on the cleaning cart. The whole episode upset Daphne so much she blurted out the whole story to Andy, who had given her an extra two hours pay for the trauma she had undergone and who was therefore now back in her good graces, painting her floating in the pool in a new bikini he had reimbursed her for—a rather nice little blue and white checked cotton suit. He was able to be amazed, and to listen sympathetically, because I had told him nothing about Eugenie Nestor’s visit. He’d been teaching at the community college, and when he came home I was on the phone, and by the time I was off, Daphne was in place in the pool, and I could hear, through the open window, that she was telling him a story that wasn’t all that surprising to me. She thought something had been fated, thought she barely understood what. Just a sense she had, she told Andy: first the cat jumping in the pool and circling, circling. Then, coming out of a room and seeing something on top of her cart that turned out to be kittens. She was no kitten lover, but one of the cooks at the hotel had taken a fancy to one of them, and the manager had taken the other two to her vet, who had agreed to try for a week to place them, before turning them over to the animal shelter. On and on Daphne went, about how peculiar she found life in Key West. “I want to go to Tortola next year instead of coming here,” I heard Andy say wearily. The fence had been repaired by the gardener, who was very handy. Things were again calm at the home of Eugenie and Old Nestor. He was probably in his hammock, the orange cat having forgiven him—where else was she going to live?—curled in his lap. Eugenie was probably in the kitchen, baking another three (if it turned out to be only three) cookies. I thought about the many places Andy and I had travelled during our marriage, and how many of those places had seemed magical, for a while. Key West lasted longer than most: the Atlantic breezes, the lush foliage, the amazing light that Andy captured so well, painting paintings that sold at the New York gallery that represented him for enough money that by ordinary standards, we really had become the idle rich.
As I mulled over our good fortune, Lem passed by, driving the Conch Train. Once again, as he sped by, I caught the tail end of a joke dissipating in the breeze, like the string of a kite blowing quickly out of reach. I opened the front door and stood on the porch, looking at the bougainvillea spilling off a balcony across the way. Then I looked at the two young men skating in sync, with their arms around each other, their bodies toned and tanned. Key West was a place that encouraged people to be childish, and I found that atypical, and delightful.
I was startled from my reverie when the Minichiellos’ parrot began its count-down from the royal palm in the front yard. It was there! It had returned—or at least it taunted with the possibility of its return. It looked well, and seemed to be enjoying its freedom. Counting “one, two, three,” it spoke looking directly at me, and then—though I may have seen too many Walt Disney movies—I would swear that it winked. The moment it said, “fifteen” it flew away, having a more distinct idea than most of us when it should leave and perhaps even where it should fly.