By Sarah Brennan

“Child please, you made it safely!  Praise God.” 

My Aunt Ruthie’s exclamations of greeted me in the small arrivals’ terminal at the Key West Airport. After a day of travel from California I was relieved, and slightly energized, to have finally made it. 

The warm, humid, tropical air enveloped me as we exited the airport and walked to the car. I could smell salt in the air and the tang of rotting sargassum washing up on the shore as we began the drive home. I smiled in the dark car, relaxed into my seat and watched the blackness of the sea out my window. Ruthie’s excitement at my arrival continued unabated all the way home, up the stairs, and into the house.  

In a frenzy born of death, fifteen months in a pandemic, and relief for my safe arrival Aunt Ruthie pulled containers of food from the fridge, deviled eggs, dip, cheese, sour cream, and salsa. It was almost midnight. 

“I went to Murray’s and got anything that looked good. You know I don’t eat and never have food in the house, but I wanted you to tell your mother that I fed you. Here you go.”

Aunt Ruthie handed me a blue edged paper plate and yellow paper napkin. Resigned to eating something, I scooped out some cheddar bacon dip and opened the box of crackers she had purchased. 

I kept waiting to hear the shuffle of my uncle’s worn-down slippers on the tile floor, expecting to see his dark green and black plaid robe emerge from the bedroom. I kept waiting for him to say, “Ruthie, she’s fine.” Those words would never come again, and so I sat smiling and laughing, and eating. 

I kept the part that was hurt and overwhelmed to myself as Ruthie talked in rapid fire pace about anything that popped into her head: safe travels, things in the house she had rearranged after my uncle’s death, how excited she was I was here, how exciting it was to see people in the airport, and how she felt sorry for the poor sheriff having to tell people to put on masks while inside the airport. 

Ruthie’s stream of consciousness continued the next morning at breakfast. We sat at the small table with coffee and bananas trying to catch up for missed visits. The last time I had sat at this table was Thanksgiving week of 2019. It had been challenging and emotionally draining and began with a trip to get Uncle Eddie released from the hospital. It ended with us spending the night at the emergency room. It was the last time I would see him alive. 

“You’re sitting in his chair.” 

I looked down at the peeling leather on the chair arm and saw him sitting in it, as he did every day listening to audiobooks, checking the weather, reading the newspaper, or simply drowning out the sound of aunt Ruthie’s chatter with a movie.  

He would bring out books on the history of Florida Cracker architecture, the planning and implementation of the electrical grid of Coral Gables designed by our one-armed great uncle-a man who lost an arm to his trade-or explain in detail all the markings on the 16th century gold coin recovered from the treasure ship Atocha and given to him by the man who found the sunken treasure. 

“I still can’t believe the nerve of your uncle to die on me.  After thirty-four years of marriage.  How could he do it?” Aunt Ruthie said all this as she got up from her chair and headed to the bedroom, his bedroom. I heard the soft metallic click of the gun safe door close as she came back to the table. 

“This is what’s left, it seems like a lot. How much do you think there was after they burned his body? The rest of him is on top of Aunt Thelma in the crypt. This is what I will bring to your mother when I come in November.” She held a small white plastic box with a label identifying them as the human remains of Edward Walker Jr. and date of death, March 15, 2020, printed on one side. She popped the top off and unceremoniously pulled out a clear plastic bag filled with dull grey powder and set them on the table between us. 

I had no words. My stomach clenched and my toes curled as I slowly picked up my coffee and took another sip trying to find something to say. I needn’t have worried. Ruthie continued talking as if I wouldn’t be the least bit disturbed by seeing my uncles’ ashes, the actual ashes, next to my plate with a half-eaten banana on it. 

I knew my uncle was dead.  I had known it within hours of his passing with an early morning phone call, and again when I told my mother her brother’s suffering had ended. Looking at that bag, just sitting there, it felt like I had been sucker punched in the gut. Uncle Eddie really was dead. 

“You can’t do that when you’re with Mom. That box cannot be opened. She can’t see this,” I said, raising my eyebrows and tilting my head toward the object sitting between us. 

“You’re right. I won’t. What was I thinking?”  Uncle Eddie’s remains made their way back into the gun safe where I hoped they would stay for the remainder of my visit. 

A few days later I headed into Key West proper to play tourist. I took myself to the Mel Fisher Museum. For years Uncle Eddie had regaled me with stories of the lost Spanish treasure ship.  He knew the story by heart, was a drinking buddy of Mel Fisher, and owned his own pieces of the treasure.

As I strolled past artifacts of daily life, war, and treasure, thoughts of artifacts from Key West’s not so distant past that my uncle had recovered from his own diving expeditions along the reefs kept coming to mind. Emeralds, gold, and silver fashioned into ornate pieces of jewelry brought to mind his appreciation for the same thing. I kept thinking of the stories that he could tell if only we had had more time. 

The afternoon sun bore down on my shoulders as sweat trickled down my neck, my back and pooled in the crease of my elbow as I made my way past Duval Street, the Wrecker’s Monument, and an empty Mallory Square. A revitalized walking path led me past souvenir shops, art galleries, restaurants with views, and rows of charter boats. A mix of a modern tourist hub and elements of Key West’s seedier past were still visible for those who choose to see. 

There in the plaza on Green Street I hit an invisible wall. Around me sunburned tourists snapped pictures and gawked at Kermit’s Key West Key Lime shop. The soft thud of boats moving in their slips drew my attention. 

It was here, in April of 2015 that Uncle Eddie, Aunt Ruthie, my mom and I had boarded a boat for a sunset cruise off the western tip of Key West. It would be the last visit where he was healthy, ambulatory, and fully cognitively present. Memories of that evening, the lovely time we spent, and the striking reality that he was dead overloaded my senses. 

I couldn’t move. I stood there, awash in memories as my tears mixed with the sweat pooling on the bottom edge of my sunglasses.

I let the feelings wash over me. After a time, I took a deep breath, wiped the sweaty tears from my face and decided that some food and a drink were in order. In my window seat I smiled indulgently as a crowd gathered to watch tarpon feeding on the scraps tossed into the water as freshly caught fish were deboned and sliced into fillets dockside. The local beer was cold and the snapper fresh, a meal to restore body and soul. 

There is a mango tree in the front yard. It was heavy with fruit and every morning I would go outside onto the deck and check for fallen fruit. The iguanas, woodpeckers, and local key deer feasted on any that were not collected in a timely manner. If we had a thunderstorm, I would check for fruit knocked down in the wind. If we went out to the grocery store or into town, I always peeked around the stairs to see if any fruit had fallen while we were gone. I even braved the wind and rain of tropical storm Elsa to rescue fallen fruit. It became a ritual, an act of self-soothing. 

That tree was my uncle’s baby. I remember standing with him drinking our morning coffee as he smoked a cigarette and told me about the fruit that would ripen come summer. My visits had all been in winter and spring and I had never once tasted the fruit he assured me would come. 

“That tree hasn’t produced fruit since Hurricane Irma. I’ve been ignoring it and tried to have it taken out. No one would let me. Apparently, it is doing well on benign neglect. Or maybe it is a sign from your uncle. Manna from heaven.” 

One morning while eating our freshly harvested mango, we contemplated a sojourn out of The Keys. Before my arrival Aunt Ruthie and I had discussed a small trip to the Bahamas, but the morning before my flight I discovered my passport had expired, an unexpected casualty of Covid. The Bahamas wasn’t an option, but we still had choices. Miami’s only a few hours up the road, and I had never been out of the airport. We decided right there to head to Coconut Grove. 

*****

“Child please!  I am so excited to be re-entering society. It was a brilliant idea to go to Miami. I have wanted to stay at the Mayfair in Coconut Grove for thirty years, but your uncle didn’t understand the concept of boutique hotels. I am so happy to be here!” 

I watched as she unpacked all three pieces of luggage and filled the closets and drawers of our room. A rolling duffle sat by my bed, open, but still full. 

“Your uncle travelled with one bag, never bothered to hang anything up. I put everything away. I put your uncle’s things away one time in a hotel. We got three hours down the road before we realized his had been left behind. We had to go back. I was quiet for the rest of the day.  After that I never touched your uncle’s luggage. Are you sure you don’t mind me using the closet?”

“Go right ahead, I’m good.” I looked over at my bag and smiled to myself. Nothing in the bag needed to be hung up, and it had never bothered me to live out of my suitcase when travelling.

The afternoon showers had passed and there was a hint of breeze in the Miami night as we ventured out for an evening repast. We strolled along the Main Highway as Ruthie led me down memory lane. She told of her trips here in college as a young woman, and later with Uncle Eddie as she would shop for back-to-school clothes before starting another year of teaching. 

“Let’s go to the French place, maybe the seat in the window is still open. I am sure we can get an appetizer in lieu of a big dinner,” I said. We walked into the brightly lit restaurant with old movie posters, and signs in French covering all the walls. We got the window seat. 

“Complimentary champagne for the ladies.”

“Yes, thank you. And some sparkling water for my aunt please. I promise to drink both glasses of champagne.” Turning to Ruthie I said, “It was his favorite drink in the end after all.” 

“This is where your uncle would sit, in this window, smoking and reading while I shopped. He would order drinks and they left him alone. That’s why he liked it.”

Smiling, I raised my glass of champagne and we toasted Eddie for bringing us here. 

Our conversation meandered between past and present as we enjoyed our drinks and cheese platter. She began a story that I hadn’t heard before. On the final night of a family reunion that I missed; my cousin Kathleen read aloud Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”  Aunt Ruthie was horrified.  Back in their room Uncle Eddie cried. It was a favorite of his father, the deceased patriarch of the Walker clan. 

“What?  ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee.’  I love that poem. I recited it for a high school English class.” 

Aunt Ruthie stared at me with the same look of horror that I am sure she had that evening so many years ago. 

“Not long after we were married, your uncle read that poem to me while we were lying in bed.  He was so proud of himself. I am sure he had it memorized, reading aloud wasn’t a skill he possessed, but still. Who reads that to their bride?”

“Uncle Eddie,” I said with a smile. 

*****

Three weeks had passed, and my time in the keys was coming to a close. Aunt Ruthie and I had created new memories in the shadow of old ones, and it was time for one last trip into town. 

After our lunch of conch fritters and fresh grilled mahi mahi at BO’s Fish Wagon we took advantage of the unscheduled afternoon and walked the old docks and swapped stories old and new. 

We passed Schooner’s Wharf for the second time that afternoon. The first time, Ruthie paused and said, “I think that’s Michael McLeod playing.” 

“Would you like to stop in and say hello?”

“No.” 

This time she led the way and took us into the open-air bar. We found seats stage right, and ordered drinks; sparkling water for her, a local lager for me. Aunt Ruthie waved at Michael and he nodded in between chords. He paused between songs saying, “Let me know what you’d like to hear.  If you don’t, I’ll have to guess based on what you’re wearing and that never ends well.”  His voice was low and raspy.  Decades of singing, drinking, and smoking evident in every word.  A small white dog sat on a chilled blanket in front of a fan, and a cigarette stuck straight up between the strings at the nut of the guitar. 

Aunt Ruthie called out, “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and “If I Had a Boat.”

Michael began to sing, and the air around us changed. Ruthie’s head tilted off to the side and her face was wistful, transported to another time and place. I sang along silently to myself as tears welled up in my eyes. 

As the last notes faded, we turned to each other and smiled. We raised our glasses in a final toast, “To Uncle Eddie.” 

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