The Last Train to Key West Page 2

“I know. It’s the babe. This close, I’m just nervous. I’m sorry—”

Words fail me as the pain crests, and I babble nonsensical things, anything to get him to let me—us—go, to stop this escalating into something more, something far worse than bruises on my wrist.

Tom releases me with a muttered, “Women,” under his breath.

My wrist throbs as he shifts his attention to the food I prepared for him.

He digs into the johnnycakes with vigor, his anger momentarily forgotten.

He eats quickly, and I go about my morning routine straightening the kitchen, sounds breaking into the daydream I slip into like a well-worn dress—his fork scrapping across the plate, the chair sliding across the floor, the heavy footfalls that follow him out the door, until I am alone once more in the cottage on stilts.


* * *


Walking from our house to the restaurant where I waitress, my feet treading the familiar sandy ground, I pass lines of men trying to pick up extra work for the day. I’m lucky to have my job at Ruby’s with the Depression going on, the opportunities few and far between, and even more so for women. But Ruby’s nothing if not loyal, and she’s kept me on in good times and bad.

As the “Southernmost City,” Key West is the end of the road, the farthest you can venture in the United States before your feet meet water. Such a distinction brings all manner of people: wanderers, criminals, people wanting to get lost, people wanting to get found, as though anything is possible down here at the edge of the world—for most of us anyway. It used to be, you had to have a boat to get here, but now there’s the railroad that runs over the ocean, connecting the little islands that make up the Keys to the mainland and Miami, the total journey spanning over one hundred and fifty miles and a few hours’ time, an ambition Mr. Henry Flagler—one of the richest men in the country when he was alive—was ridiculed for when he announced the project decades ago. But Mr. Flagler pressed on, and the railroad was built, bringing jobs to people like my father—native Conchs—and men who came down to the Keys searching for work who laid the tracks for the Key West Extension with their bare hands.

The railroad’s one of the greatest things man’s ever built, Daddy would say. Can you imagine? Flying over the ocean in one of those big machines?

I couldn’t.

What sort of men dreamed of building things like floating railroads? What sort of people rode in them?

Daddy told me there were two kinds of people in this world:

The people who built things with their own two hands, and the kind of people who enjoyed the things others built. But then the Depression came, proving to be the great equalizer.

A long time ago, before I was born, Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida. But even before the rest of the country felt the effects of the crash in ’29, Florida struggled. Money and credit ran out, and problems have plagued the citrus crop. Now, people are out of work, hungry, and desperate, the city bankrupt, our fortunes anything but certain, thousands moving north with the hope of a better life.

There’s some help from the government, which I suppose is better than no help, but it’s never quite enough. They’re trying to fix up the city, shipping veterans from the Great War down to the Keys to work on a new piece of highway linking Grassy Key and Lower Matecumbe.

At the corner of Trumbo Road and Caroline Street, I pass the railroad station as I have nearly every day for the past nine years. Beyond it lie the new docks. The Florida East Coast Car Ferry Company offers daily service to and from Havana, Cuba. They load dozens of freight cars onto the boats, taking them, cars, and passengers across the sea. Flagler’s vision of connecting New York City to Havana is made possible by a few days of travel on his railroad plus several hours’ ferry journey from Key West.

The familiar worn sign comes into view when I arrive in the parking lot of Ruby’s.

Our proximity to the railroad station and the ferry terminal inspires visitors, the locals attracted by the possibility to gawk at the newcomers and take advantage of Ruby’s low prices. Ruby doesn’t hold much with pretensions, and it shows, the decor simple, the food hearty. It’s the sort of place whose measure you take as soon as you walk through the doors, a restaurant that relies more on the food to recommend itself than the atmosphere.

We keep a steady pace of customers from the moment I arrive to midday, and I move from table to table, an ache settling in my back, the baby pressing down low. In the free moments when I’m able to sneak a break, I stand in the rear of the restaurant, leaning against the wall to relieve some of the pressure. The smells coming from the kitchen are nearly too much for my stomach, but at this point in the pregnancy, I’m so eager to take some weight off my feet it hardly matters.

The front door opens with a loud clang of the overhead bell, an awkward crash, the flimsy wooden structure no match for the large man whose hand rests on the handle. Heads turn, the noise rising above the sounds of the kitchen, the diners’ conversations. The newcomer’s cheeks redden slightly as he ambles through the door and gently guides it closed behind him.

I don’t have to look to know which table he’s taken. For the past several months, he’s become a regular fixture in the restaurant even as he keeps to himself and his corner. The only thing I know about him is his first name—John—and even that was offered reluctantly months ago.

“Your favorite customer is back,” Ruby says with a wink from her perch in the kitchen as she wipes her hands on the apron tied around her waist. As far as bosses go, Ruby and her husband are about as good as you can get. They pay a fair wage considering the times, and they have a tendency to keep an eye out for the staff from the kitchen they run. If a customer gets too friendly or too rowdy, Ruby and Max are always ready to swoop in. Ruby’s not exactly what you’d call sociable, and she’s content to keep to the cooking and leave the greeting and serving to me and the other waitress, Sandy, but over the years she’s become more than just my employer—a friend of sorts, I suppose.

“Must be payday judging by how many of them have trickled down here this weekend. He seems hungry today,” she adds.

“He always looks hungry,” I retort, ignoring the amusement in Ruby’s voice and the gleam in her eye.

“It’s funny how he always eats here, isn’t it?” Ruby drawls. “Real curious.”

“It must be for the key lime pie,” I reply, keeping my tone bland. “Everyone knows you make some of the best key lime pie in Key West.”

The key lime pie isn’t just a popular choice because Ruby’s is the best in town. People still have to eat as well as they can, and pie’s one of the cheapest things on the menu.

Ruby smiles. “I’m sure that’s what brings him here—the key lime pie.”

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