Prompt: A tour guide in Key West. Words: Revolver, headphones, doughnut, leopard, spaghetti, tiki hut, magma, magnetize, swampy, recital.
Oscar arrived at the tiki hut that served as his office around six every morning. It was a good two hours before the guests would show up for check-in, and it gave him time to have his coffee and breakfast (this morning, it happened to be a doughnut). Eric, the snorkeling instructor, and Dave, the ferry captain, tended to show up closer to check-in time. Oscar pored over the newspaper for the first hour, most of which was scathing politics. Tiring of that quickly, he flipped the page and frowned at an article about an eleven-year-old boy who had fallen into a volcanic crater in Italy and died. His parents had died trying to recover him.
Evidently, the boy had wandered into a restricted area during a tour, as children tend to do. Oscar hesitated to attribute fault to the parents (especially considering that they had lost their own lives), but he was glad he did not have a great number of children on his own tours – parents in vacation mode tended not to watch them closely enough, especially if alcohol was available. Oscar had always worried about someone falling overboard and drowning during the ferry ride portions of the tour. Luckily, nothing eventful had happened, aside from a few people who had experienced a panic attack while snorkeling. Even so, Oscar felt much more in his element around water than he did volcanoes, boiling mud, and magma.
He folded the paper, shaking off the gruesome images, and plugged his headphones into his iPhone, listening to The Beatles’ Revolver while he organized the forms to go over with each of the guests before the ferry ride commenced. There was the release form about the company not being responsible for any injury, death, damage, loss, delay, or inconvenience that arose from travel misfortunes beyond their control. Then there was the itinerary that showed approximate timing of the ferry’s arrival and departure from Fort Jefferson, meals, tours, and leisure time on the beach surrounding the fort. Last, there was a brochure with history of the fort and instructions for a self-guided tour. There were other forms about snorkeling that Eric was responsible for distributing and going over with the tourists.
It was more red tape than Oscar liked, but it was a job, and he was able to do what he wanted to do for the most part. He had been an adventurer for many years before settling in Key West, because he needed to settle somewhat if he was ever to have the time and energy to write his books. Inspired by the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire, he was working on his own fantasy series.
The heat from the early morning sun was already working on Oscar, and he peeled his light blue, collared shirt away from his chest and armpits. He looked up just as Dave was arriving, dressed similarly but wearing his captain’s hat and sunglasses. He flashed his easygoing smile at Oscar and said, “Another day in paradise.”
When uttered in corporate environments, it was a bitter-sounding joke, but here, it was the truth. But in Oscar’s experience, it seemed that every job, no matter how free or restricting, left room for complacency. He removed his headphones and turned his music off to greet Dave properly and wait for Eric and the guests to arrive.
An attractive young woman in a spaghetti strap, leopard print top and jean shorts was the first to arrive. She carried a black tote on her right arm that read, “If you think reading is boring, you’re doing it wrong.”
“How many?” Oscar asked, assuming her family would trail behind her soon. He picked up a clipboard with the list of guests expected on the day’s tour.
“Just me.” She smiled, her green eyes meeting his.
Another adventurer, and she likes to read, he thought, checking off her name on the list when she gave it to him. Daniella Fullbeck. He didn’t often see people come unaccompanied on these tours. “Welcome, Daniella,” he said. “Here are all the forms that we will go over before heading to Fort Jefferson.” He placed them in a bright blue folder and handed them to her. As she wandered off, chewing absently on her thumbnail, he couldn’t help but watch her. Something about her energy magnetized him.
Eric and the other guests trickled in over the next half hour. Oscar took care of checking off all the names on the list and handing out forms. In between taking care of them, he glanced at the leopard print lady. She was looking at something in her tote bag, but he couldn’t tell what it was. Her tight jean shorts hugged her curves perfectly, and she had thick thighs, the sort he liked. He blinked and forced himself to look away, unsure of what had come over him. He didn’t have a wife and did not entertain thoughts of having a significant other. It would distract him too much – he tended to lose himself in relationships. Something about her energy was walled off. It was difficult to explain, but she put out a vibe that said to Oscar, “Approach at your own risk.”
There were many couples, only two of which came with very energetic children. Oscar made a mental note to keep a particular eye on them, still haunted by the newspaper.
A man who looked to be in his late fifties wearing a white polo shirt and blue swimming trunks was the know-it-all of the tour. Every group had one. As the ferry, which was named Wanderlust, left the quay and Oscar began his narration of the history of Key West and its surroundings, the man said, “So, when are you going to tell us about the time Ernest Hemingway was marooned at Fort Jefferson for seventeen days?”
When I bloody well get to it, Oscar thought, but instead, he smiled and gave an obliging nod. He turned to the rest of the crowd. “How many here are familiar with Hemingway?” Nearly every hand went up. “Many of you are probably already familiar, then, with the Hemingway Home on Whitehead Street. Yes, Hemingway lived in Key West for a time and enjoyed sport fishing. He went on trips to The Dry Tortugas with a group he called his ‘Mob’ for exactly that purpose – but on one such trip, a tropical storm made conditions too dangerous for them to return to Key West for a couple of weeks.”
The know-it-all sank into a seemingly contented silence as Oscar regaled them with the story, but it wasn’t long before he was quizzing Oscar on Hemingway’s works and political affiliations. As Oscar was diverting him with humor to get more on topic with the tour narration, he noticed the leopard print lady giving him what seemed to be a sympathetic smile – or did he imagine it? She quickly looked away, staring at the water. Her olive-colored skin was without blemish and shimmered in the sunlight. Oscar could envision her as a mermaid in one of his stories. He cleared his throat and realized that Dave had stepped in to add a few anecdotes about Hemingway during Oscar’s brief moment of distraction.
The rest of the ferry ride was business-as-usual, with Dave stepping in via his microphone a few times to help Oscar contend with the know-it-all. After this happened several times, the leopard print lady slipped away to the cocktail bar. Drink one for me, too, Oscar thought as he watched her.
“The captain informs me that we are only about ten minutes away from Dry Tortugas National Park,” Oscar told the group. “While we are on the subject, does anyone know the meaning of the word Tortuga?”
“Sea turtles, mate,” the know-it-all shouted, the men around him giving a hearty laugh.
“I see we have a Pirates fan on board. Yes, Tortuga is the Spanish word for turtle. The Dry part of the name is because the land mass does not have much in the way of fresh water, an important detail to know for seafarers back in Ponce de Leon’s day,” Oscar informed them. “But not so important for us, since we have plenty of beverages available for purchase right here onboard the Wanderlust.”
Once they reached the dock, which was next to the snorkeling area, there was a break for lunch. Oscar didn’t feel hungry, so he made his way to the beach.
He would never get tired of the white sand that was blinding in full sunlight and the vibrant blues and greens of the surrounding water. But he was always plagued by all the different lives he could live, the winding and split paths that had led him here. He loved the history of the fort and had drawn many ideas for his stories from it. He saw different people from all sorts of lives every day and forgot many of them as soon as the tour was over, but the essences of the memorable ones ended up in his characters. He felt certain that the leopard print lady would end up in his pages somehow. They’d barely interacted, but something about her was infectious. Pervasive.
He wasn’t sure where she was now. More than likely at the picnic tables, perhaps isolating herself from the others in the group, reading a book that she pulled out of her black tote bag. Oscar liked a confident woman, and the way with which she carried herself communicated confidence and even bravery. Yes, he imagined, it must have taken some measure of bravery to be a woman alone on a ferry full of couples and families.
Coming out of his thoughts, he checked his watch. It was almost time for his guided tour of Fort Jefferson. He made his way back to the lunch and snorkeling areas, announcing that his tour would start soon and instructing where to line up for it.
He saw leopard print lady – it was difficult for him to think of her as Daniella, since that seemed more personal – tuck something delicately into her tote bag and go to line up.
To be continued…
If you enjoy listening to audiobooks (especially ones read in a calming voice), audio versions of these stories are available on my YouTube channel.