Angel’s head was bowed on his way to the gate, eyes to sandals which loosely strapped his burning feet. He got to the guardhouse, pitched them into his backpack and laced up a pair of black dress shoes. He rubbed his seared neck where the sun had fixed itself.
Alma had called him Angel since the first day they’d met. She loved his skin. It was darker than hers. She was raised southeast of the Gulf, southeast of In God We Trust, and the Seminole woman (who replaced the Western Plains woman) framed in the midst of the Great Red Saltire to eternally watch a distant boat, southeast of the Northern Mockingbird.
He stamped at the tiny geckos which flicked themselves through the fronds and hot shade. The new hire, just off his nightshift, passed Angel the radio, utility-belt, and keychain – security-guard accoutrements for the Buttercup Private Residences. Angel was surprised not to have been stuck on nights. Doug, the new guy, seemed more welcome at Buttercup, with his sandy hair, blue eyes, and good old boy drawl.
Angel was born in the U.K., and came to the U.S. as a small child. The birth certificate said, Anthony Kirkwood, birthplace: Alexandria, GBR. No clear memory of a childhood in that country.
He was orphaned young, and taken in by his ‘Aunt Jean’, a wealthy art dealer, a widow, an acquaintance of his late mother. She called him Anthony the Great and raised him with the rest of her children. He completely shed his accent by the age of thirteen in an attempt to blend in and disappear. He practiced the transition in numbers.
Therty, therty-woan, therty-too, became thirdy, thirdy-one, thirdy-two.
His hair was thick and black. The dark orange skin made him feel like year-round Halloween. They all assumed he was Mexican. When he was a teenager his upper lip developed a blemish that dried and cracked. He grew a moustache to cover the rash. It came in thick and black, like a cartoonish stereotype.
One night patrol-car headlights followed him home.
Where do you live?
Angel pointed down the street to the bungalow he shared with Alma.
What’s the house number?
There was no house number.
The cop got out of the car, slammed the door, ambled to Angel, clenching his belt. You getting wise with me? I asked you where you live Gonzales! You been drinking? The home was an older building, on an older street. A numberless row - the way the neighborhood was arranged back then. He was ordered to sit a spell in the back seat. After radioing, the officer let Angel out of the car and told him to get home. When you’re out this late stumbling down the street, folk get suspicious.
Aunt Jean settled the family near The Causeway on the mainland side across from Mirabel Island. The weather never agreed with her. Always too hot, with skin too fair, that burned so quickly. But it was a better alternative than the Scottish dampness and flailing economy that convinced her to leave the U.K. in the first place.
He had a vague memory of Fort Myers Airport in the early seventies, the dusky warm smell invading the climate-controlled terminal. Aunt Jean, struggling to keep her eyes on four kids, her youngest daughter, crawling on the arrivals floor behind them all – the frantic mother hauling large suitcases, screaming for a porter.
She died when he was fifteen. The small estate was granted to the boy and two girls she gave birth to. He never questioned the division of possessions and any hurt from the decision was long forgotten and buried. The small packet she saved for him seemed generous - enough to make ends meet for a time. He would quit school and spend months searching for work in the Sunshine State. He decided on Maribel.
The days in Buttercup’s shaded guardhouse were uneventful, aside from being asked gardening advice or called on to help someone move furniture. Management was strict. He was prohibited from leaving his seat, even when Miss Conway’s staircase-assist broke down and she needed to feed her parrot on the fourth floor. No matter how much he smiled or put effort into being pleasant, he sensed their resentment whenever he offered to dial maintenance. He was to monitor the gate - who came in, who left – and write down the plate numbers.
Alma was at the end of her ninth month. On her last work day, she prepared to leave Mirabel Chiro Clinic in the hands of a temp receptionist. There were two gift bags stuffed with baby clothes, cards, and infant toys. She was touched by the gesture but dreaded the thought of getting them home to their bungalow, where the air-conditioner was broken, where she would sit by the television, finally off her feet, sweat piercing her eyes. There were no buses on Mirabel, and taxis were mythical. She took the shaded paths, careful footed, carrying the extra living weight, bags swinging, banging about and chafing her thighs, berated every minute or so by tourist’s bicycle bells, or their shrill voices. This is a bike path! On your left!
Tourism on Mirabel was rampant all months now, not just winters, when travellers arrived from the north. With the spike in vacationers came the hike in traffic.
A few hours after the Buttercup shift finished, Angel would walk the twenty minutes to his next job - traffic conducting in front of Billy’s Shopping Pavilion. It was the most congested intersection on the island. Everyone flocked to Billy’s - small restaurants, souvenir shops, and an overpriced grocery store. Out front in massive black iron cages were ten tropical birds with names like Mr. Handsome, and Wild-Rose.
He’d hit the Spoonbill in the evening if Alma didn’t mind. A few beers and a small meal. He never chatted with the bar staff. But they always had a joke for the regulars. The later it was, the dirtier, and not very funny. You heard about the guy who couldn’t find his moral compass? He got lost following his dick around the world.
At least once a week, some tourist at the bar would ask about his ‘Mexican heritage’. Angel would smile politely, shake his head, then avert his gaze to end the discussion. Always a disappointment in their eyes, a tight smile to hide their embarrassment. Angel knew tourists, disoriented and out of their element. The last thing they wanted was to be corrected, especially if they were wrong, and drunk.
Friday evening, two men from Atlanta came in, sunburned voices drawled out from drinking in the heat, the bodies of lapsed athletes.
Hey buddy. You like Corona, right? I heard it’s recycled toilet water, an’ the limes ain’t for flavour, they’re like the disinfectant, right?
Angel’s eyes were heavy from the fourth beer and late hour. But he couldn’t avoid it.
Something split inside him. Eyes wide, he leaned forward and smoothed over his moustache.
“Don’ know, senior. I theenk you meebee right about tha’ Corona, senior.”
“What the hell you doin’ in Florida, Pedro?” asked the other.
“Landscaping senior, gardening. Paying for my Madre. She ees seeck.”
“Shoot. Sorry to hear it pal.”
“Say, you like the tequila, Pedro? What’s the best kind, in Florida?”
Angel stared at them for a time, searching his memory. A few Spanish words he’d learned from Alma. He clenched his teeth.
“Mierda-Orina ees baist of all.”
“Is that there the one with the worm?”
Angel downed his beer and started for the door, “I don’t fucking know, okay guys, I’m not Mexican. Fuck off.” He headed into the night beneath the palms, shaded from the streetlamps, down the steps to the sidewalk, but not before they pounded his face in.
Alma pressed the frozen packet of corn onto his face. His left cheek black-purple, his right eye bloodshot, puffed up. What kind of a father gets into a fight – is this what the baby has to look forward to?
Monday afternoon Angel limped home from the Buttercup shift, his body still sore from the beating.
His cell vibrated.
It was Management.
Tony, I’m sorry to tell you this. But your services will no longer be required. Severance will be in the mail. Look, Buttercup has a standard. When security staff arrive with their face beaten to a pulp, the residents become uncomfortable. Can’t really blame them. Buttercup’s private for a reason and those folks have the right to feel safe and comfortable. Again, sorry Tony.
It was two hours before his traffic shift in front of Billy’s. The sun blazed in the cloudless sky. His hat was lost in the scrap with those white-trash bastards. He wouldn’t last the shift without it. Conductors could barely manage wearing the hot gloves, coarse vest, and standard issue vinyl Tilly hat. Why did it have to be black? Most suffered heat stroke in their first week.
Alma was close. She reminded him again and again. The third reminder that day sounded like radio, or a train in the night. When was the last time he ever heard a train? Maybe it was best not to mention the Buttercup thing until after his traffic shift. He asked if there was a hat around.
All he could find was the oversized carnival straw thing that decorated the living room wall. Hanging beside it were a bunch of tchotchkes. Castoffs from the siblings - Aunt Jean’s faux antiques; an ibis relief, a painting of a Coptic saint, a crook - like a question mark – and flail, brass or gold-plated with embedded bands of imitation lapis-lazuli – at least he thought it was imitation. He wasn’t sure of their worth except that Alma loved them.
They had a small dinner. He watched her, how pretty she looked, and so tiny despite it all. She bobbed along the kitchen, like a child about to drop a big fishbowl. There was a little fish in there too, swimming about, maybe not so little. He wondered if it would have dark orange skin, or the caramel softness of Alma. The baby would only know one set of grandparents, if they had the means to visit. But this child would have an identity, and a heritage, of palms and sunshine, heat, and the comfort of so many blue skies.
You’re going to be late, Angel!
His eyes shot to the clock. He’d have to run. He’d planned to pick up a hat at Billy’s but now there was no time. He threw on the vest, snatched the gloves, and grabbed the carnival hat. You’re really going to wear that?
He scrambled out the door and ran the whole way. Twice he stopped to pick up the flopping hat from the sidewalk and sucked the searing air into his lungs.
The conductor rolled his eyes when Angel approached.
Traffic. Jammed in four directions.
You’re ten minutes late! If it happens again I’m going to report this, Tony. Nice hat.
Angel was handed the burning hot radio and hooked it to his vest. He found his position and instantly choreographed the automobiles, blinding orange gloves in front of his face. Stop. Alright come, keep coming. You there, hold up. Okay on you go. The words muttered under his breath as though his hand signals were inadequate. Sweat stung as it trickled into his bruised eye.
Never seen the like, Tony. No idea what’s up. Have a good shift. Nice shiner. Nice hat.
The conductor disappeared.
A few minutes later the radio squawked. We got a 10-25 on The Mirabel Causeway. Someone’s RV up in flames…..10-25! 10-25! Keep East-West running, North-South can hold up for a spell! Keep East-West flowing as priority. We’ll update as it goes.
Then a different tone.
He always knew without looking. No one else called him. Why did she have to program the personal ringtone into his cell? He could hear it now, vibrating music in his pocket. She knew better when he was conducting! What the hell? He could see the traffic handbook in his mind. Under no circumstance should an employee accept a personal call while on duty. All work-based communication must be done through radio. Channels should be kept as clear as possible.
A horn interrupted Angel’s thoughts. His left gloved hand thrust flat in front of the honking car.
Of course, you idiot. He pulled off a glove, dropped it to the pavement and grabbed the cell. Alma, I’m calling an ambulance, I’m going to radio it in.
The road by the small medical station was bottlenecked. Nothing was going to get through from the mainland either. The RV fire stopped all automotive life. Angel shut down. He breathed in. Out. Held his finger up in the air. WAIT! North, South, East, West. WAIT! Drivers fired back with expletives and misdirected slurs. But none of it phased him.
The horns and shouts had become warm, musical, dream-like. Something was about to happen, some sensation moved him to lose all concentration. Maybe it was the massive front of smoke in the air, moving towards him. Then the dime-sized droplet hit his glove. A wind nudged at the wide brim of his hat.
They were storm clouds. He hadn’t seen them in months. The wetness fell to the burning asphalt and the scent filled his nostrils. He was pulled far back. A downpour while he shopped with Aunt Jean, under a train bridge, in the dark grey city. He was getting soaked but they were laughing. She hailed a black car, a taxi, with backseats facing one another. An adventure. She had a brown bag of sweets. They each had a handful and smiled, as though someone would disapprove once they were found out, it was their secret. Cool, constant damp. Rain. Gentle and predictable, like the days of the week, but welcome. She hugged him, kissed his cheek, tears in her eyes, you’re from a lineage of kings, Anthony, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Then home to his brother and sisters in the garden as the rain let up. A cup of tea to warm him, a towel for his wet hair, under a grey sky that he could watch without sun, where blue just peaked through, to leave him wanting, and waiting for the next break in the clouds.
He couldn’t remember the house, only the children in the backyard. They said they saw the gypsy caravans go by earlier. Sometimes they came looking for old cutlery, rags, clothes. Aunt Jean would tell stories of them travelling in their wagons. Good people. I always dreamt of running away with them, Anthony! He turned to watch his siblings, playing some feet away, their smiling teeth laughing.
And he thought of the numberless row, the neighbours, from a different time than the rest of the island, and disappearing with age. They would bring a basin of water. Blankets, hand-towels, face-towels. You’ll be fine, dear. Dampening the caramel softness of her brow. Ushering away the men and their incompetence. Then ritual, a small congregation of care. Wildness under palms, the miracle happens, and then everything moves again.
He resides in Toronto with his wife and two children.
(photo credit: Chris McNally)