‘War has to be declared by an Act of Congress,’ Wag the Dog

The trick to deceiving politicians and government officials is to tell them the truth. Bumper sticker

Poetry, art, beauty, these are the things we stay alive for.” John Keating, Dead Poets Society

Pavase diary entry: “Maybe it’s better like this—that everything should incinerate as a blaze of dry grass—those left should begin again….. Avenging a wrong robs you of the comfort of crying against injustice.”

Chaz diary entry: Like Parliament, those with power to grant your every desire can also take snatch it away, leave you bereft.

From Nora McGreer’s Baffling Bulb: The zeitgeist of a decade is hard to define when you’re in the thick of it. Do only major events define it, does culture? As an instructor, I’m supposed to know the gist of history. I’m supposed to be able to succinctly say the 60s was a time of experimentation, counterculture, and the re-articulation of America’s founding father’s greatest aspirations. The 70s was when what percolated in the 60s erupted—women’s lib and civil rights, Stonewall riots, and widespread use of dangerous drugs. I’m also supposed to be able to support my assertions.

As Dmetri and I soon discovered, perspectives vary widely, depending on where you were/are and whether you were looking up, down, around, or over the fence of a decade. We both agreed about the vast changes brought by personal computers, mobile phones, 24 hour news and cable TV, crack cocaine, and AIDS. What wasn’t clear was whether, for example, the release of toxic gas from a pesticide plant in India, which killed nearly 3000 people, had a trickle down effect. Ditto for Chernobyl and Gorbachev’s reforms. What effect would the formation of the European Union Act have in general on the world? Would there be a similar Eur-Asian Union? What about books published and movies watched during this decade? Could it be just one thing that changes everything or is it a many sided cumulative effect?

Murder was similar—hard to see close up and behind its many masks. Horror writer Steven King thought murder was like potato chips—killers can’t stop with just one. Our murderer had proven King to be right. Who would be next? King would also be disappointed in me—he also said a true writer had to spend at least four hours daily writing. Creating lesson plans didn’t count, nor did diary quips and complaints. I’d written perhaps 200 words for the story I’d pitched to Gregori. I wasn’t pleased with myself.

I was also fed up with American law and politics, and wasn’t a fan of our current President. Bad government results from too much governing; there was an excess of it these days. Dmetri was surprised I actually knew a bit about UK politics, about Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979. “She’s still PM of a conservative government, but I question some of her decisions and maneuvers,” I stated.

His eyes grew wide when I opinioned that under guise of reversing economic decline, she signed an Anglo-Irish Agreement, which didn’t go over well in N. Ireland. After Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, she sent naval ships to take it back. Her popularity picked up. She negotiated the future peaceful transfer of Hong Kong—time would tell if it would be peaceful, honorable. She opposed trade unions. Overall, I opinioned, she’s taken many small steps, rather than making sweeping reforms. She privatized nationalized companies and seems to be using poll tax to fund local government. Dmetri didn’t disagree and shared that though he’d lived in London for years, he was still Italian, and a bit cosmopolitan.

I confessed I didn’t know much about Italy’s post war parliamentary system. Their 70’s were like our 60s here—lots of worker strikes and protests. Culturally, divorce and abortion were still hot topics. Factories kept multiplying, communists were being outed and ousted, and land set aside for agriculture was being sold off to make room for commerce and ugly apartment complexes. Tourism was on the rise. I’d taken a week long jaunt through Northern and Central Italy—lots of poverty and damage from the war still visible, too much corruption and bureaucracy. Italy was competing with France for world fashion renown; they seemed to be gaining. And of course, I added, Italian art is grand. As for their cars, no thanks.

Dmetri said my assessment was not bad for a foreigner, though I left out important milestones. He wouldn’t want to raise a family in the present climate in Italy and was disappointed in its primary schools and uni’s. Organized crime, aka the Mafia, was no joke and commodity prices remained unstable throughout the country shaped like a boot. UK’s Parliament was another matter. Reforms were badly needed to benefit the common folk; not unlike the situation here. He watched a political satire called Spitting Image, and likened it to a grown up Punch n Judy show. It lampooned Thatcher, Welsh windbags, and others. Though he and I didn’t see eye to eye, our views were compatible. We both agreed the socio-political, economic, and cultural context of a nation was best expressed via its art and artists.

After another frustrating visit to Sheriff Hayes office, Dmetri asked why Rod called me mergirl and for that matter, why had York called me sperm-maid? We didn’t actually get to talk to the sheriff, who was ‘participating in a fishing tournament for a children’s charity somewhere off the lower keys. Rod assured me there was no new evidence in the file; no one else had come forward to offer information.

“Is Rod a how you say ‘a friend with benefits?’ ” Dmetri asked.

It took a minute for my mouth to close. A sound, half giggle, half snort issued forth. “My stars, no. Rod’s married with two tiny rugrats—kids. We knew each other since grade school, when my parents lived here. That’s a curious question to ask. Do you have friends with benefits in London?”

“It might take an Act of Parliament for me to reveal intimate details of my personal life,” he replied enigmatically.

“Challenge accepted. It took an Act of Parliament, and quite a bit of government muscle to make January the first month of the year in 1752. The rest of Europe had already converted. Those Brits did protest, insisting they’d been robbed of precious time. Would you consider it stealing if I somehow pried intimate details from your head? Don’t answer.”

We walked towards Pier House at the end of Duval, headed for dinner at Turtle Kralls on Margaret Street. I continued to fill Dmetri in on what I’d pieced together so far, explained why Rod called me mergirl, and why I was feeding our helpful deputy mermaid lore. I told Dmetri I was surprised he didn’t notice my deformity.

Turtle Kralls

“Che vuoi dire—what,” his voice faltered.

“I have webbed feet and to some extent webbed fingers. That’s why they call me mergirl. I was also born breech birth and with a caul. Folk lore says people born with a caul can’t be drowned. I’ve often wondered if that’s where the legend of Silkies came from—creatures that shed their skin so they can live on land?  You should see me swim.”

“Affascinante, mia sirena.”

“English, por favor; mia sirena—I like that name, although sirens are supposed to have melodious voices and perfect pitch, in order to lure unsuspecting men. Perhaps I can’t sing because I’m part aquatic. You know what they say—can’t tuna fish.” Dmetri grinned and examined and kissed my hand, while I gave him the short version of Melusine and her progeny. He added his own commentary.

“It turns out there are many, many wealthy collectors of mermaid art and artifacts—beyond your P. T. Barnum Fiji mermaid, invented monsters, antiquarian books about mermaid anatomy, and speculative maps,” he related. He shared a few years earlier he’d brokered a multi-million dollar deal in which a certain nameless German industrialist bought some old seafaring relics and an 8 foot intact relief of a two tailed mermaid—not unlike the Starbuck’s Coffee symbol.

“Verifying the provenance of the artwork had been tricky and inconclusive,” he added. “We discovered the relief had at one time resided in a palace in N Syria or Greece. The German bought it anyway.”

“Make’s sense, that’s where some historians say merfolk originated—in ancient Assyria. From there, the mer cult spread—and merfolk, in theory, swam to Greece, Rome, and through the Pillars of Hercules all the way to the UK, Isle of Man, and the Orkneys. Melusine, however, was thought to be a fresh water creature, though she’s also been traced back to Cyprus, which was once part of Assyria, and definitely surrounded by salty water.”

“I hate to mention it, but we really should visit your dad’s houseboat and get it out of the way. There’s stuff you need to sort through and decisions to make.”

Dmetri didn’t exactly ignore me; he just changed the subject. “Tell me more about what you know of Delacroix’s history.”

“Which Delacroix, our charred Chaz?”

“Both; were they related?”

“Doubtful, there are some similarities beyond a general facial resemblance—neither ever married, both were exceptional artists. Eugene’s medium was paint; Chaz used words and music. Both men kept diaries. Chaz may have felt there was a connection beyond just sharing the same surname. In several of his earlier pics, he’s wearing a scarf. That wouldn’t be unusual, except it was red, and Eugene was said to have worn a red scarf. Reasons given ranged from it was because he was a dandy—to his having frequent throat infections. Chaz also quotes Delacroix in his journals.”

“Then there’s the rumor Talleyrand was Eugene’s dad because his mother’s husband had a testicular cancer removed and one might presume this left him impotent. Both Tallyrand and Eugene’s alleged father held the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs. After Delacroix’s parents died, he was looked after by Talleyrand, who served as Napoleon’s advisor and was quite the diplomat. It would require a genealogist to trace Chaz’ lineage. I haven’t found anything in his papers or journals to indicate he’s a descendent. There were no Delacroix paintings or prints in his cottage, however, I did see a print of Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, which was inspired by Delacroix’s Women of Algiers.”

Dmetri asked if there were other famous or notorious people with the last name Delacroix. He recalled a Belgium PM with that name. I had done a bit of research and found a diplomat and a former French General with that surname. Eugene Delacroix was the most well known.

I found one other curious, potential link. French art critic Charles Blanc wrote an article, and later a book, in the mid 1800s if memory serves, about Delacroix’s radical application of color in his paintings. Blanc described how violet, a seldom seen color, was intensified when put next to Delacroix’s strong yellow hues. It became part of a chapter in Blanc’s book The Grammar of Painting and Engraving, and inspired Van Gogh, Seurat, Pissarro, and others. Chaz wrote music and lyrics for a sad ballad I’m sure you’ve heard before, made famous by a Canadian folk rocker trio, and copied by other groups. I wondered if Chaz may have been referencing Blanc’s book and Eugene’s advanced color techniques in his song.

I warned you I’m not much on harmony and melody, but here goes: ‘return to me my purple heart; take the indigo eyes I adored you with. You’ve long possessed my melancholy mind. Take my coral arms, yellowed skin, useless now…tear out my tongue. No more will I explore those claret lips, your kiss. How could I love someone so cruel?’ Here comes the refrain. ‘You wave to me, toss your hair, whisper to him… Return to me my battered purple heart…” You recognize it, don’t you?” 

“Si, though the book, the song, that’s, how you say, a stretch; but I’ll keep an open mind. These men were both artists, observers of the human condition in its most vulnerable forms. You are correct in another respect—you can’t carry a tune.”

“Oh really, fair warning—just because I can’t doesn’t mean I won’t sing again.” That made Dmetri grin.

Over our long dinner at Turtle Kralls, we discussed the short list of suspects:  Chaz’ manager/producer Hugo Vitas; the missing in action Lydia; Dolores Roland, his landlady; and a couple of redneck locals that had words with both Dorian and Chaz on multiple occasions. They’d mocked their accents, their reverting to Italian and French. One of them called Chaz a queer because of the cologne he wore, the dark glasses, and red scarf. “They even told your dad only sissy men wore earrings. I know who they are. I intend to question them.”

It hurt to see Dmetri wince. I loathed reminding him again that first thing tomorrow, we needed to visit Dorian’s houseboat. He lost his appetite and declined my offer to share a large slice of homemade Key Lime Pie. Nor could I convince him to join me in another round of beers, despite mentioning that if you sampled just one each from their 50+ collection of international beers, they’d give you a free T-shirt. It announced you’d drank your way round the world. I owned two Turtle Krall T-shirts.

I suggested a quick twilight dip in Key West’s balmy waters. That always made me feel better. I swam rings around Dmetri, literally. He floated on his back while I yammered on about adventures Dorian and I had as guests on the boats of various friends. I even nudged a smile or two from him. Dorian and I had explored the Tortuga’s and snorkeled and poked around all sorts of wrecks. When I told him we were once chased by a school of curious Barracuda’s, he stopped floating and looked around. I added it was likely because I was wearing sparkly gold jewelry, which attracted the fish. As the sun began to dip into the ocean, Dmetri thought he spotted fins in the distant waters. He yelled he was done, and started swimming towards shore. He beat me to shallow water.

We swung by Alma’s parents grocery store and I introduced them to Dorian’s son. They insisted on giving Dmetri a bottle of Chianti. We also went to a strip mall where he picked up a few items he’d forgotten to pack, and on impulse, he bought a silky Hawaiian shirt featuring mermaids. I could tell jet lag had caught up with him. I wanted him to enjoy his first Key West evening, alive with sounds of chirping insects, swaying palms, drums issuing from the Voodoo Palace, and waves slapping against breakers. It could wait until tomorrow.

Back at the bungalow, he refused my offer to make him another expresso. We’d both forgotten to cover up or wear sunscreen. I was sunburned; Dmetri had bronzed. I retrieved the bottle of Chaz’ brandy from its hiding place and attempted to cajole him into taking just two fingers worth—to promote sound sleep.

He replied sleep would be no problem, and invited me to share the bed, promising he’d be on his best behavior. I pretended to be disappointed about the best behavior part, and wished him sweet dreams.

It felt oddly comforting to have a man nearby. I should have taken a quick shower and washed the salt water out of my hair. We’d both rinsed off at the public douche after our swim and drip dried. It could also wait. I wiped crumbs off the counter and returned the brandy snifter to a shelf. I put the bottle on the counter directly below it, turned off the lights, and in short measure was soundly asleep on my slightly lumpy sofa.

### *** ### *** ###

Typical of many Europeans, Dmeti was not big on breakfasts intended for lumberjacks. The only thing I could entice him with was coffee with steamed milk and thick slices of Cuban bread, which he drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of herbs. He’d been reading more of Chaz’ journals while I’d showered and dressed.

We talked about a memorial and spreading Dorian’s ashes around the coral reefs nearest the Dry Tortuga’s hexagonal fort, about an hour west of Kayo Hueso. I showed him a copy of the flimsy report Rob had given me when he and the sheriff stopped by to tell me Dorian was dead. Because his body was found in the water, and was exposed to salty water and sunlight, they weren’t able to check for foreign DNA. No samples were retrieved from his fingernails, hair, or clothes. A faint red-purple stain was noted on the shoulder of his polo shirt. It was determined it was not blood. Our best chance for finding evidence was by performing a careful search of the boat.

I didn’t have any classes scheduled, and turned down requests to bartend. Today would be full of painful tasks. I eyed the bottle of brandy, opting instead for a glass or OJ and a refill of coffee. I also settled on just bread for breakfast, though I added butter, avocado slices, and a squeeze of lime to mine.

Dmetri was excited. “The song you killed yesterday, I found it. Look.”

“You mean butchered. Wow, you don’t sugarcoat words.” I glanced at the page. The lyrics were written mostly in French and in a different order. There were lots of scratched out lines and a bit of musical notation. Dmetri read aloud what appeared at the top of Chaz’ journal page ‘you wave to me, toss your hair, whisper to him when I’m near…’ I commented that this song was a hit 3 or 4 years ago.

“Chaz’ only lived in Key West for about 1 ½ years according to Alma and Mrs. Roland. How strange. Is he referring to the enigmatic Lydia, or someone else perhaps? Does he mention where he’s living?” Rifling through papers, I told him I’d started a timeline, though it had a bunch of missing blocks of time.

Dmetri flipped through pages of the journal. “Bohhh; maybe he mentions where he was staying when he wrote this somewhere else.”

I recited from memory. “Chaz was born Eze sur Mer, a village above Nice, in 1947.  His dad died when Chaz was seven; his mother, it would appear, became a prostitute in order to keep them both fed and clothed. Dorian said Chaz and he shared a few memories of growing up in post war years.”

“Ah, a sgualdrina, continue.”

“I know that word. Dorian called Lydia a sgualdrina. Eventually, Chaz’ mom put aside enough money to own or manage a bar/hotel. She died when he was in his early 20s. Chaz was something of a prodigy and got a scholarship to attend a musical conservatory in Paris when he was just 14. For unknown reasons, he left before he graduated and wandered around Europe. He also found his way to Morocco, Jamaica, and the Greek isles.

After writing three hit songs for a Euro rock band, he caught the attention of legendary producer Hugo Vitas. By the way, I’m waiting to hear back from Hugo. I sent him a letter and a few of Chaz’ uncashed checks. Hugo signed Chaz to a contract and sent him out on grueling tours, in Europe and America. He did okay. A few of the Who’s Who in Rock anthologies provide clues about where he performed: Coconut Grove, the Pied Pony, Whisky A Go Go, Blues Alley, The Roxy…

His star ascended after he wrote two songs for academy award winning movies. What he did in the later part of the 70s, and early part of the 80s is mostly a mystery. Of course, he could have taken an early retirement and lived quietly somewhere in France or America. Then again, he might have spent time in a rehab facility or worse. His journals stop abruptly around 1978 and resume in 1985. If he kept journals during the years between 78 and 85, someone else has them—or he burned or lost them. His book of poetry was published in 1982. He may have gone on a few publicity tours, though that’s doubtful.

From the reports Rob copied for me, I know the tox panel revealed alcohol and barbiturates were in his system at time of death. He frequented about 5-6 Key West bars, but was never sloppy drunk. Chaz was also an admirer of Pavese and at one point he visited Paveses’ birth place Santa Stefano Belbo, Italy. He received a lipstick smeared postcard while he was staying there. Dorian read many of Chaz earlier journals and papers but didn’t find any link between Chaz and Pavese, other than the possible commonality of them both writing about suicide and futility, and of course Pavese actually carried it out.”

Dmetri washed his plate and mine, and our coffee cups. He asked if I used the coffee grounds in the garden. He’d also made the bed. Was it for show or had I finally discovered a thoughtful man, besides his dad?

As we headed out the door, I got a call from Alma. One of the two locals who’d aggravated Chaz and teased Dmetri’s macho dad because he had a small over the shoulder leather bag and wore an earring was in the store buying groceries. It seemed his wife had just had a baby, their third child. He was struggling to find items on a list his wife had given him.

I told her we’d be right over. I explained more about the run ins and gave Dmetri a mini lesson in Key West’s rainbow colorful history, mentioning fresh water conchs Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, our first gay mayor, and other notables on the ride over. While it was one of the many reasons my bigoted parents left the Keys, I was sure the gay community had saved Key West.

There were few places in the US gays could congregate without being harrassed. They’d been vacationing and living here since the 50s, and started repairing old houses and buying small businesses. This attracted tourists and snow birds. They started an annual Halloween Fantasy Festival and wealthy gays organized and contributed money to beautification and preservation initiatives.  Many local conchs agreed their pink money was as good as any—but not everyone.

Unfortunately, I had to circle the block twice before finding a parking space. By the time I caught up with Alma, who was restocking can goods towards the back of the store, Calvin Gully had left. He’d cajoled Alma’s mother into doing his shopping and told her he’d be back in an hour to pay for and pick up the groceries. Alma and I suspected he went to The Bottlecap or CheChes to throw back a few, and wouldn’t return for hours. Dmetri and I decided to visit both bars but didn’t find our guy. When Dmetri suggested we check out a few more bars, I reminded him that on this 2 ½ mile island there were well over 200 bars.

 “Let’s get it over with,” I blurted out. He nodded in agreement. The small marina lot was full. I parked the car on a side street a block away. As we approached, I saw a kid sitting on a guard rail that served as a place to temporarily tie up boats that didn’t have a berth. It was Kirky, Dolores son, sucking on an orange Popsicle, dripping the melting concoction down his chin and t-shirt.

I asked him what he was doing here, while fumbling in my bag for a Kleenex. He replied he was there because ‘we were interested in seeing where that old man croaked.’

“Who’s we?” I asked.

“Who’s he?” Kirky replied, though he didn’t wait for an answer or give one. He wiggled off the railing and high tailed it across the wooden bridge that connected to a different part of the marina.

“Strano bambino.”

“Indeed.” We spent over an hour on the boat, sorting, talking, scrubbing, sniffling. I took pictures before we began cleaning, and showed him what I’d found that had been rifled through and broken. He drew pictures and jotted down notes. We would have to return, and Dmetri was okay with that. We each carried a box off the boat. Dmetri double checked to make sure the boat was securely locked and tied up.

We were both hungry and sweaty and decided to grab a quick shower, change clothes, and grab a bite before returning to the grocery store and picking up Dorian’s ashes at the funeral home. I suggested we visit my favorite watering hole for an early, long Key West happy hour with free appetizers, followed by dinner al fresco at a restaurant Jimmy Buffet often frequented when in town.

Our first surprise was waiting for us when we got to my car. A window had been smashed and the passenger side door was ajar. The glove box had been broken into but nothing seemed to be missing. Anything of value was in the trunk and it required a key or a crow bar and brute force to open. Nothing was missing from the trunk. I sighed. It might take a week to have a new window ordered and installed if they didn’t have one in stock.

Dmetri wanted to know what someone might be looking for; was there a serious crime problem in the Keys. I had no satisfactory answer. I should have reported the break in, but didn’t want to deal with the sheriff’s office regarding a petty crime. “I’m beginning to think I’m cursed,” I said aloud, then started to laugh.

Dmetri shook his head. “We must find a corno, a malacchio, and an iron horseshoe for you presto.”

“You sound just like your…wait, you’re teasing me. You know your dad was superstitious. Once, during a dinner on the boat, I spilled a salt shaker and knocked over a bottle of olive oil. After he cleaned up my mess, he made this funny sign using his index and little finger, placed an ugly old iron bell on the table. Then he wrapped red thread round my wrist.” Dmetri’s response was a drawn out ‘si.’

The second surprise was far worse. At the bungalow I struggled to get the kitchen door open while juggling the box and my oversized bag. Dmetri was examining the car and shouted to me, asking if I had some heavy duty tape and a piece of plastic so he could temporarily fix the window, in case of rain.

I was about to yell back that he’d have to accept a raincheck on rain, but decided to first take the box to the bedroom, then grab tape and scissors and bring it to him. My foot, however, stepped on something in the middle of the floor, causing me to trip. Five feet from the kitchen doorway, York was spread eagle on the floor, passed out or unconscious. The bottle of brandy had tipped over and was slowing dripping from the counter, down the side of my cupboard and onto the floor. One of my favorite brandy snifters was in pieces besides York’s inert body.

Was he drunk? I’d never seen him passed out drunk before. A bump on his head was oozing blood. How had he gotten in? I checked his pulse, which barely registered, and dialed 911. I set the bottle upright. It was nearly ¾ full. He couldn’t have drunk enough to knock himself out.

Straightening up, I dashed towards the door, colliding with Dmetri, and sending the contents of his box in five different directions. “He’s barely breathing. This is bad.”

Next: Act 8: Acts of Charity