The Keys by Dorene O’Brien

The Keys

Dorene O'Brien

When I was a younger and more impulsive person, I heeded the call of a close friend who requested my emotional support after her short-term boyfriend had lured her from Michigan to Florida and then dumped her. I had never been to Florida, but as a Michigan-based scuba diver, I’d heard that ocean diving is unparalleled, so I thought I might kill two birds with one stone.

When I arrived in Miami, my friend greeted me at the airport looking a little too happy for someone whose heart was broken. Apparently, she and her boyfriend reconciled the night before; she may have been ready to forgive him, but I wasn’t. I decided to turn my mission of compassion into one of adventure, which would include scuba diving in the Florida Keys.

I waved goodbye to her and a man who does not deserve to be named and pointed my rental car southward. The Overseas Highway is a spectacle: compelling and intimidating, a narrow pearl necklace sprinkled with various sized land masses, or “keys,” that span 113 miles of reef and shipwreck-clotted ocean.

After a heady, white-knuckle drive, I checked into the Coral Reef Motel on South Beach in Key West, unloaded my suitcase, and inspected the dive gear I both hoped and worried would soon be coated with corrosive ocean salt. I felt apologetic as I tucked my nail into the small grooves of my compass, my depth gauge, my serrated knife or, as I was taught in scuba class to call it, my “dive tool.” This nomenclature was alleged to have a pacifying effect on border and customs officials.

I perused the brochure I’d picked up from the Chamber of Commerce that listed what I’ll call Captain Nemo’s Dive as the closest scuba shop, but was told when I called that all dives for the day had been cancelled. I sat on the concrete balcony of my stuffy room and studied my book on marine life, learned the names and habits of plants and creatures I hoped to encounter, immersed myself in a glossy, two-dimensional ocean. Fascinated as I was by brain coral, manta rays, and giant squid, what I most wanted to see, had to see, was a shark, the underwater denizen I most admired and respected for its perfection of form, its confident grace. I was on a quest.

“High winds make for high seas,” said Captain Nemo when I visited him following day, sailing with great hope through the giant porthole that was his dive shop’s entrance.

“Think you’ll go out tomorrow?” I asked.

“Nope.” He turned back to the television mounted on the wall behind the counter as I rubbed the pearly inside of a souvenir seashell, waiting futilely for his weather prediction.

Captain Nemo was a huge man with white hair jutting from under a Navy cap, a red face, and far-set eyes, one of which was in a permanent wink. I couldn’t tell if the eye was damaged or, like its owner, just refused to open up. I stared at his profile, the white bristles, the large belly, and realized he was trying to look like Ernest Hemingway. I moped around the shop, looked over a few dive helmet key chains before giving up.

“Bye, Ernest,” I said.

The nautical Cyclops turned from the TV and said, “Name’s Nemo.”

The next three days he simply said “Nope” when he saw me approaching the porthole. I hung around the third day, perused some dive magazines, admired the reef gloves displayed on the arms of a plastic octopus, grappled with a mannequin whose snorkel hooked onto my sweatshirt when I passed. It must have become clear to him that I was not a Florida native, that I did not know that the average Key West storm holds on longer than an overprotective mama.

“Look,” he finally said, “do you see anyone else in the shop?”

I breezed through the porthole the following morning and said, “I’m going home in three days and I just gotta dive in the ocean before I do.” He tried to speak, but I held my hand in the STOP position and continued. “I’m from Michigan,” I said. “You know, the Great Lakes—”

“Wow,” he said sarcastically, “so that’s where them sonsabitches are.” He slid a coffee-stained sheet of paper across the counter. “See this? It’s a disclaimer says it ain’t my fault if you get bitten by eels or chopped up in her propeller.” He pointed through the window toward the dock at a red and white charter boat named Water Spyder, a Chinese junk-rigged trimaran. He looked for a moment as though he were deeply in love or had just eaten a bad taco. I had checked out the boat the day before, after being turned away once again by Captain Nemo. It was small, but outfitted with radio, sonar, scuba tanks, and an air compressor.

“We might be divin’ in the mornin’. Read this waiver and come back tomorrow at nine.”

I returned to the motel and sat on the bed, conjuring graphic scenes of ocean diving. I then considered Great Lakes diving, the frigid water in which even the most vibrant dive suit looks gray, envisioned crayfish, our most exciting marine creature. I decided that being rebuked by Captain Nemo was a small price for the chance to dive in color.

I’m not religious, but I said something akin to a prayer before settling into my bed with a bag of pretzels and my Statistics notes. I’d be returning to a college exam I had not begun to study for, opting instead to make a nuisance of myself at the dive shop, and figured the trip would not be a total blowout if I returned with a minimal understanding of probability. I gathered data on Key West storm history, but got a headache trying to determine the chances of the weather clearing up by the next morning. My notes, which seldom made sense in retrospect, didn’t help. I blamed myself for not paying attention in class, for remembering nothing more than the teacher’s mantra: There is no such thing as coincidence. I fell asleep with the notebook balanced on my chest, having read somewhere that an Indian child with dyslexia had miraculously aced all of his classes this way.

I swept through the porthole sharply at nine the next morning to see Captain Nemo standing behind the counter with his back to three people who were signing forms. As I approached, an Asian man who looked about my age asked me if I was there to dive. When I responded in the affirmative, he pumped my hand and introduced himself as Woo.

“This is Bric and Brac,” he added, pushing up his black horn-rimmed glasses. Beside him stood two darkly tanned men who were identical but for their hair.

“My name’s Britt,” said Twin #1, “and that’s Brad. Looks like the four of us are doing some diving today.”

“Do you know each other?” I asked, suddenly worried that I was the outsider.

The twins exchanged looks as Woo slowly wandered down one of the aisles. “Of course we do,” said Brad.

“But—” I bounced my head toward the dark-haired man who stood agape before the gloved octopus.

“Oh, we just met Woo,” said Britt.

Woo turned when he heard his name. “How can the Japanese eat that?” he asked, pointing to the eight-armed replica.

“Everyone eats it,” said Brad.

“Not me,” said Woo.

“What about lobster? You eat that?” asked Britt. “Today we’re divin’ for lobster.”

Woo smiled and pushed up his glasses. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Woo eats lobster.”

The twins said that the ocean is filled with the sweet crustaceans, but you had to be quick to catch them. “Never grab them by the claws, though,” said Britt. “They’ll crack right off.”

I knew that my quarter-inch foam neoprene cold-water diving gloves would be overkill in the warm ocean water, but I couldn’t imagine catching lobsters barehanded. So I perused the octopaws for some thin reef gloves, settling on a white pair with spangles, imagining my fingers as ten tiny glow sticks.

My dive partners and I loaded our gear onto the boat, after which Woo and the twins donned full black wetsuits with hoods while I slipped on a blue, green, and white “shorty,” which is basically a long-sleeved neoprene bathing suit.

“Where’s the rest of your suit?” asked Woo.

“This is it,” I said. “The water is 80 degrees. Aren’t you guys worried about overheating?”

Woo just shook his head. It was obvious that they were exclusively warm water divers with blood thinner than turpentine. When I removed the knife from my gear bag and strapped it to my leg, they stared at one another.

“What?” I said.

“Nothing,” said Britt as the three contemplated my weapon-clad calf.

I wasn’t comfortable with these guys, didn’t trust them to share air should the O-ring on my tank pop, or to unknot the arms of an octopus captor, or pry open the mouth of a giant clam fixed on my arm, and I thought I could change all that with small talk. I asked about their jobs, homes, lives, and feigned great interest when they answered. But before long, I found myself rambling about my friend’s love life, the multicolored marine life I hoped to see, my distraction in Statistics class.

“Are you nervous?” asked Brad.

“Maybe a little.”

He stared at me for a moment before saying, “Be calm and tranquil in your pursuit of the finest things.”

“You are a child of the universe,” said Britt. “Your life is unfolding as it should.”

When Woo, who had picked up on the twins’ ritual with great dexterity, added, “Honor the mystery of your desire,” I pondered the chain of events that led me to be nestled among this boatful of Buddhas.

“Now you.” Woo pointed at me.

“Well,” I said, tipping my face skyward for effect, “there is no such thing as coincidence.”

The boat angled downward when Captain Nemo boarded. “Okay,” he said, “reefs or wrecks? Lobsters hang around both.”

He ended the shrug-fest by turning to me. “What’ll it be?” he demanded.

“Reefs,” I said, staring at my shimmering gloves.

“All right,” he said. “It’s thirty minutes to South Beach Patch and it’s a bumpy ride. No pukin’ on the boat.”

A nod was extracted from each of us before he started the engine and sped from the harbor, raced toward the open water. After what felt like a day and night of rough seas and salty ocean spray in my face, we pulled alongside a buoy and tied on, as it is illegal to drop anchor on the fragile reef.

We donned our tanks and buoyancy compensators, slipped on our fins, and checked our air and depth gauges. Woo and the twins then pulled mesh sacks from their equipment bags.

“Hey, Michael Jackson,” said Woo as he stared at my gleaming gloves. “Want a treasure bag?”

“No thanks,” I said, worried I’d end up shredding it with my dive tool after entangling myself in it.

Unlike the Great Lakes, the salt water was viscous, rolling like syrup in thick waves, and I suddenly realized that I could not see the shore. I took a deep breath before strapping on my mask.

“You gonna make it?” asked Brad.

“Hey,” I tried to sound relaxed, “what are the chances of something happening?”

“If you’d paid attention in class, you’d know.” He winked before falling backward into the roiling water.

His brother followed, and then Woo, one hand on his mask and the other holding his regulator firmly in his mouth, his fins flapping in the air, tipped back. As I steadied myself on the boat’s edge, I noticed Captain Nemo staring at my leg. The last thing I heard before my head hit the water was, “Expecting trouble?”

The water was warm, heavy and thick with brightly painted walls of fish. We floated down in tandem, their mesh bags towering above them like hot air balloons, my iridescent gloves making arcs in the water as I waved my hands. Fish gathered around us, tapped our masks, nibbled at our tanks. Queen angels, sky blue with yellow tails and fins, snappers, grunts, brown and silver spadefish sailed among us, weaving intricate patterns before regrouping. A leatherback turtle drifted by quickly, deft for an animal the size of a small car. I was mesmerized.

Woo and the twins made a beeline for the reef, but I simply floated, watched rainbow fish pierce the transparent water in an explosion of color. Forty-foot visibility made it easy to check occasionally on my partners, who were seafood hunting, shining flashlights into crevices, reaching into basket sponges, peeking under coral heads.

I didn’t tell them when I saw lobsters behind sea fans, in mud ledges, between branches of Elkhorn coral. Even though I did want them, I had decided against hunting; I didn’t want to ruin my gloves. My partners worked their way up the reef and I stayed behind, watching a school of neon gobies suck the parasites from the skin of a large grouper.

I was inspecting some slender, porous coral fingers that rose like gothic spires when something hit me so hard my mask flew off. I groped for the mask, worried my contact lenses would wash from my eyes, and slammed it back onto my face while gulping air and searching for Woo and the twins.

My attacker, an apparition with a large black eye protruding from each end of a flattened head, circled, drawing closer with each pass. I’d read much on hammerhead sharks, and none of it was good. They taste test potential prey by brushing against them with small teeth imbedded in their skin, and this one had obviously concluded that neoprene wasn’t all bad.

When the shark circled again, I clumsily removed the dive tool from its sheath and slammed the blunt end into the animal’s side with such force that the knife sprung from my hand, my fingers slapping the fish just below its dorsal fin. The shark jerked sideways, yanking off my glove, which had hooked onto its jagged skin. It sped off with my glove attached, five neon fingers waving goodbye.

“Hey, Gonzo,” said Woo after we’d climbed back onto the boat, my legs shaking as I mounted the metal stairs. “Why you play around with that shark?”

I shook my head and concentrated on not hyperventilating.

My dive partners said they saw what happened, actually dropped their lobster bags to come to my rescue, but I noticed that all three still clutched clicking sacks filled with red shells.

When Woo said that the shark was at least seven feet, Captain Nemo said, “Aw, that’s just a baby.”

My hands, which only moments before had wielded a weapon to attack a shark, cradled my lone reef glove, trembled perceptibly. Woo put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Don’t feel bad. Michael Jackson had only one glove, too.”

Storm clouds threatened as I mourned the loss of my dive tool. I concluded that I was likely the newest member of the elite club of shark attack victims. The irony was not lost on me.

My partners unloaded my gear when we returned, carried it to my rental car, wished me well. Captain Nemo said he’d report the incident to the Coast Guard and the NOAA, said he’d give them my number in case they had questions. I drove back to the Coral Reef Motel laughing uncontrollably, a physical response to the adrenaline spike.

My Statistics notes, patient as an ugly lover, were waiting for me exactly where I’d left them. I stared at the phone, expecting to be grilled by a government official or a local marine biologist, but those calls never came.

I immersed myself in reality, decided to study all evening, get up early the next day, and drive straight to the airport to catch my afternoon flight. As I hunkered down with my illegible notes and a newfound lease on life and exploratory data analysis, there was a knock at the door. It was Woo, who stood there cleaning his glasses.

“You eat lobster?” he asked. He pointed down the beach where the twins were hunched over a hibachi.

“How’d you know where to find me?” I asked.

“Captain Nemo,” he said. “He’ll give information to anybody.”

I glanced at my notebook, decided I would drape it over my chest as I slept on the flight home, and grabbed the bag of pretzels. “Yes,” I said, “Dorene eats lobster.”

We approached the twins, who sat on opposite ends of a large cooler, staring at the small grill on which the succulent fish and ears of corn released their sweet bouquet.

“Here,” said Britt as he cracked a beer and handed it to me. “May you find the wisdom to learn from your encounters.”

“And the strength to move on,” added Brad.

Woo smiled. “May you live in interesting times,” he said.

I dug my toes into the sand and tried to calculate the odds of bumping into the undersea dweller I was most determined to see and the probability that, had it not jolted me out of my trance, I would have never noticed.


About the Author

Dorene O’Brien is a Detroit writer whose work has won Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Award, the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award and the international Bridport Prize. She was also awarded a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and her stories have been published in special Kindle editions. O’Brien’s fiction and poetry have appeared in the Connecticut Review, The Best of Carve Magazine, Short Story Review, Passages North, the Baltimore Review, The Republic of Letters, the Montreal Review, Detroit Noir, Lowestoft Chronicle, and others. Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, won the National Best Book Award in short fiction.