Dressed in a red and gold paisley dress, sandals, and a floppy sun hat, I made my way to the beach. Seated on a bench with the ocean waves breaking against the shore, my thoughts of a new life escaped me to be replaced with thoughts of nothing. It hadn’t been meditation, but merely sitting quietly and doing nothing.
My suspended state had been broken by the sound of a siren. Not having realized how long I’d sat on the bench, it had grown dark. My body felt refreshed and my mind felt relaxed.
I walked back to the room and called it a day.
My first priority the next morning would be to grocery shop and then look for mindless employment — perhaps as a grocery clerk, a deck hand on a fishing boat, or cleaning fish in a restaurant. I needed something where management wouldn’t care what I wore on any given day.
With groceries in hand, I headed toward the room. My path took me past one of the marinas. A “help wanted” sign had been nailed to one of the posts. I noticed a man working on one of the boats and headed toward him.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Is the position still available?”
He looked toward me. “It’s not a job for a wo…. What do you know about boat engines?”
The floral print halter dress, sandals and floppy sun hat startled him momentarily “I can spin a wrench, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Can you repair antique boat engines? he asked. “I’ve got to get that old wooden boat docked over there running by tomorrow.” Gesturing toward the boat that appeared to date back to the late 1920’s or early 30’s.
“Tell you what. If I get it going, is the job mine?”
“You’ll work for nothing?” he asked. “What if you get it running, and I don’t hire you?”
“I’ll take a chance, if you’ll take a chance,” I said, believing that my actions had been honorable and natural.
“Go ahead. The tools are in the shed. You going to work in that outfit?”
“Clothes are clothes.”
“Do you have a cooler or something that I can put this in?” I waved my groceries in his direction.
“In the shed.”
“I’m Steve, by the way.
“Walter,” he said. I put down my bags and we shook hands.
With tools in hand I boarded the boat. The cover had been lifted off the engine and it’d been partly disassembled. I noticed boxes of parts scattered about the deck. The gauntlet had been dropped and picked up.
Work at first progressed slowly, as I hadn’t worked on four-cylinder side valve engine since my teen years. Without the benefit of a shop manual or the source of the engine, I relied on generic knowledge, which hopefully hadn’t left me. The person that had worked on the engine before me had removed the cylinder head and most of the intake and exhaust valves. Someone had begun what in the old days would be referred to as “a carbon and valve job.” A cursory look through the pile of parts revealed a head gasket and eight new valves. Further investigation revealed a hand held valve lapping tool.
I removed the remaining valves and then began the task of hand lapping each valve. Clean each new valve, apply the grinding salve, stick the suction cup end of the tool on the valve, stick the valve into the valve pocket in the engine block and then spin the tool with the palms of both hands until the valve surface and the block surface matched and sealed. Once matched, each valve would be cleaned and then installed. Thankfully, the pile of parts contained a valve spring compression tool. The process would be completed eight times.
With the valves installed and adjusted to the measurement taken before removing the remaining valves, I placed the head gasket on the engine block and then placed the previously cleaned cylinder head on it. When all of the head bolts had been set in place, I began the tightening sequence from the center of the motor to the outer edges. Each bolt tightened in twenty-pound intervals to eighty-pounds.
While toiling away, I attempted to duplicate the thoughts of the engine designer. What guided his hand and mind? Had he been in a bad mood after arguing with a spouse or a supervisor? Had he been rushed by a superior or by the time constraints of the work day? Had his hand been forced by budgetary constraints? Regardless of his mindset the design proved functional.
The magic of my memory guided my hands across the engines various surfaces. At times I felt that I’d responded to what the engine had asked. Had I become one with the engine or had the engine adopted me as its own? Or, had we worked together?
After installing a new carburetor and starter and in the glare of a florescent droplight, I attempted to start the engine. It spun over and then backfired through the flame arrestor. An advance of the ignition timing and another attempt resulted in a running engine. Slight adjustments to the timing and the fuel mixture done by “ear and feel” smoothed it out. I leaned back against the side of the boat and listened to the engine’s rhythmic language. Suck, squish, bang, and blow. Together we had been renewed.
Walter ran down the dock shouting, “You got it running, you got it running.”
“Yes, it’s running,” I said, with tones made weary by over twelve hours of work without a break. “Pumping water as well.”
“We’ll take it out tomorrow to see how it runs while under way.”
“I guess that that means I got the job?” I asked.
“Yes, you do. Twenty dollars an hour, make your own hours. You’ve made a mess of that dress, can I pay for the cost of a new one?”
“No,” I said. “It’s not all that important.”
I said goodnight, after we shook hands, and with groceries in hand, headed back to the room for a well-deserved shower and a night’s sleep. It had been a successful day — groceries, employment and further along the way.
My two wardrobes merged as days became weeks. The only real challenge had been to adopt the correct mindset for the task at hand. By placing myself in the task, I became the task and worked to renew myself. It became the perfect job and life. No supervision, no pressure, no performance appraisals — just peace, quiet, and seeking, feeling and believing the way.
One evening while walking back to the apartment, thoughts of Stacey came to mind. I’d forgotten about her as my quest for living in the natural flow grew.
Dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and sandals, I headed off to the nightlife of “Old Town” Key West and the “Green Parrot.” The slogan posted on the entrance made me chuckle. “First bar in the U.S.” on one side and “Last Bar in the U.S.” on the other. Dinner that night would be from their bar menu.
After “dinner,” I hung around a bit to sample the evening’s entertainment. I didn’t see a drum kit or mountains of amplifiers on the small stage, merely an electronic keyboard, the house sound board, and a solo microphone.
At about ten o’clock or so, the jukebox went dark and a spotlight lit the stage. I turned to face the stage and watched with mild surprise as Stacey, dressed in a 1940’s style yellow satin gown appeared. I’d have thought that she’d have gigs on the heavily traveled Duval Street instead of a local bar.
“Good evening,” she said in a very Eric Clapton like manner while taking a seat at the keyboard.
Her first set consisted of songs considered standards. Ones that had been recently covered by the likes of Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and Carly Simon. Although the material sounded familiar to me, the presentation had a uniqueness to it. She had an easy going style that she coupled with voice as smooth as the satin she wore.
She made little or no attempt to involve the patrons. Her presentation appeared to be for herself. As she sang her songs her eyes remained mostly closed. It didn’t seem to bother her audience, because they too seemed to be in a dreamlike trance. After her set, she rose from the keyboard, bowed to the moderate applause, and then left.
I decided to hang around for the second set, so another beer laced with a shot of Jack Daniels had been ordered.
With the jukebox once again turned off and the spotlight back on, she re-appeared. Dressed in a black leather jumpsuit, she took her seat and began a honky-tonk piano set. This set would be nothing like the first, as she worked the patrons with the skill of a veteran performer. She even opened the microphone to the patrons. Levels of inebriation made for interesting renditions of “Blueberry Hill,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Piano Man.” With each attempt, she offered encouragement and accompaniment and always led the audience in congratulation.
She closed her second set with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Hong-Kong Blues.” The patrons roared their approval as she took a bow or two and then invited everyone to stay for her last set. Despite the invitation many of them made their way to the exits.
I motioned the bartender to set up another round. I’d approach her for possible payment for the tire and one half the cost of the room after she completed her third set.
“Steve, Steve, over here,” her voice rang out. She apparently spotted me during the set. She greeted me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Where’ve you been? I thought that I’d see you sooner rather than later. I have your money. Let’s get together after my last set and get a bite to eat.”
“Wow, slow down. I’ve been working at one of the marinas. Seems that there is a need to repair antique boats down here.”
“Are you having fun?” she asked. This time giving me a peck on the lips.
“Yes, I am, but apparently not as much as you are.”
“News got around town that I start slow and demure and then let-r-rip. Most people come for the second set.”
“Do I dare ask what the third set is like?” I lit her cigarette.
“It’s a mix of the first two. I change the pacing a bit. It makes the people that stay settle down a bit. I try to send them home smiling and mellow. I’ll be back, it’s time for my set.”
She blew me a kiss as she headed toward the stage and her keyboard
Midway through her third set she started to play a riff.
“Folks, I’d like to tell you a story about a person that I met during my trip here from Minnesota. I had no money, no charge cards, and a flat tire. With no questions or demands, he fronted me cigarettes, dinner, a room for the night, and the cost of the tire. Plus he did most of the repair work himself. Tonight is the first time that I’ve seen him since my arrival and I’d like to publicly thank him. Steve, stand up and take a bow.” I reluctantly rose from my bar stool and waved to my fellow patrons as they applauded. She stopped playing, stood up, and applauded as well. “Thank you so very much,” reverberated through the sound system.
She took her seat and then began playing Carole King’s “(You’ve got a ) Friend.” Between the verses, she’d blow me a kiss to the delight of the patrons. Even in a moment of sincerity, she worked her audience.
After the song, the patrons turned to me and applauded.
“What would you like me to play, Steve?” she asked as the audience urged me on.
I wrote a note on a napkin with a pen supplied by the bartender who in turn gave it to one of the waitresses who delivered it. She looked at it and sighed.
“Are you sure, it’s kind of a sad song?”
I nodded. She then began to play “What’s Become of the Broken Hearted.”
When the song ended, she addressed the patrons.
“Would you like me to try and cheer him up?”
Her question received applause.
She began playing “(Love is like a )Heat Wave.” The intensity in her playing and singing surpassed what had gone before and did not go unnoticed. Cheers and applause greeted the end of the song. Everyone knew that she had asked me to make love.
She ended the set with “Don’t Smoke in Bed.”
After the set, she approached me, put her arms around my neck, and kissed me with a passion that I’d not felt in a long time. I returned her passion with mine.
“Let’s get something to eat,” she said, after our kiss.
“I’d better not. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow. I’ve got to get a boat done. How about you coming over to the apartment tomorrow evening. I’ll fix dinner for us, and then you can come back here and do your gig.”
“I play at ‘Kelly’s Caribbean Bar and Grill’ tomorrow, but it doesn’t start until ten o’clock. After dinner, you can join me.
“Maybe. Let’s have dinner, and then see what happens.”
I handed her my address on a napkin, we kissed, and then went our separate ways.
After a day filled with rewiring running lights, I headed back to the apartment having purchased a fresh caught mahi-mahi and vegetables.
As I prepared dinner, I thought of the Tao and references to food and the pain that a plant had to endure while another species ate it. We, as an eating society, caused wars and other distortions to the nature of things. It saddened me momentarily, but there wouldn’t be much that I could do to try to change that order of things.
The fish would be broiled when Stacey arrived. While waiting, I showered, shaved, and then put on a royal blue cocktail dress that had been recently bought.
Before leaving the bath, I checked my appearance. It pleased me much more now than when my reflection wore men’s suits, Dockers, oxford shirts, and blazers.
Near six o’clock, Stacey arrived.
“Well,” she said in mild surprise. “I guess that it’s more than a nightgown thing.”
“It’s a lot more than a nightgown thing.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” she said while taking a seat at the table.
“Sure,” I said. “But the real question is, do you want to hear about it?”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want to.”
“I’ll give you the short version,” I said. “I simply got to the point where I couldn’t live my former life any longer. I hated what I’d become. On the surface I’d been successful, up until down sizing. Great job, administrative assistant, company car, country club membership, wife, big house, cars, motorcycles, and time shares. It all fell apart when the money stopped rolling in. The bickering between my wife and I became constant. Everything became my fault. Add to that, I couldn’t look myself in the eye when I looked in the mirror. I started to believe my wife when she started to call me a failure.”
“That doesn’t explain the cross-dressing.”
“I tried to become someone else. I tried the ponytail and the beard, but still saw the person that I grew to hate.” I spoke without making eye contact.
“So you decided to cross-dress, and now you like yourself?”
“I wish that it was as simple as that.”
“I’m still waiting,” she said with concern and encouragement.
“I started reading the works of Alan Watts. ‘The Way of Zen,’ ‘Tao, The Watercourse Way,’ and ‘Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking,’” I said, as I began broiling the fish.
“So Zen and Tao caused you to start cross-dressing?” she asked through laughter.
“No, not at all,” I said defensively. “Years ago, back in my college days, I dated a theatre major. We’d arranged to have dinner after a production. While I waited for the performance to end, I looked around the costume storage room. An ornate Elizabethan costume caught my eye. My girlfriend asked if I would like to try it on. Thinking nothing of it, I agreed. She helped me put it on, and said I looked good in it. After looking at myself in the mirror, I agreed.”
“You’re still not telling me how all of this fits together.”
“With the thought of that cross-dressing incident and memories of that pleasing image, I went out and bought a complete outfit. Skin out if you will.” While I spoke we took our seats at the table and began to eat our meal. “With practice, I achieved a level of skill and when I looked in the mirror, I liked what I saw.
“Over my life I continued to dress off and on with the need to dress growing after I lost my job. The failure that I felt and presumed everyone else saw had disappeared. The more guilt about failure that I felt, the more and more I cross-dressed. At the same time, the more of Zen and Tao that I read led me to the point that I had to connect the person that I hated and the person that I created. You met both people.”
“Well, I like them both,” she said with a warm, inviting smile.
“I don’t, so I’m working to be a whole person. Somewhere between what you see now and what you saw a couple of months ago will be the comfortable me. I try to emulate a stream, and not fight what I feel and believe.”
“I guess that this battle you fight explains the song that you requested last night,” she said expressing concern. “Thank you for sharing. One day I’ll share my story.”
“I’d like that,” I said returning her affectionate smile with mine.
We quietly dined on the simple meal of fish, vegetables, and bread sticks.
“Thank you for dinner, but I have to get going. I have to be at ‘Kelly’s’ by eight o’clock.
I’m opening for a touring band, so I have to go over my material with their manager. Will you be coming to the show? There’ll be a cover, so I’ll leave a pass at the door. Consider wearing something less formal though,” she said, as she walked through the apartment doorway.
“See you later,” I said, laughing.
At ten o’clock I appeared at the door of “Kelly’s.”
“You’re holding a pass for Steve Barnes?” I asked.
The bouncer/doorman looked in his book and then waved me past the line of patrons awaiting their turn at the door. He hadn’t batted an eye at my appearance. With the anything goes attitude of Key West, I’d been just another guy dressed in a skirt and blouse.
With no seats available, I found a place along the wall after ordering one of the house beers laced with Jack Daniels.
The master of ceremonies introduced Stacey to polite applause, she then began her forty-five minute set. It had been nothing like what I experienced at the “Green Parrot.” — no costume changes, no audience engagement. Workmanlike. Familiar tunes. Contemporary, pop, standards. She ended her set with the theme from “Hill Street Blues” and moderate applause.
Stacey found me and we gathered ourselves into a vacant corner. She kissed me. I returned it with a hug and a kiss.
“That’s different,” I said.
“I can’t do my act when I open for other bands, especially touring bands. When I play at the Howard Johnson’s you will see an entirely different act.”
“Really,” I said with surprise.
“Listen,” she said. “I’m done for the night. Let’s go to your place. We can take a pedal cab.”
“I have to get up early tomorrow. Walter and I have to deliver a boat to Marathon. We’ll be on the water most of the day.”
“You don’t mind if I spend the night, do you?”
“I only have the one bed.”
“I know,” she said through a wry smile.
When we arrived at the apartment, we took turns using the bath. I returned wearing my nightgown.
“You won’t be needing that,” she said as she swept back the bed sheet to reveal her magnificent inviting bronze body.
Our lovemaking, awkward at first, became filled with intense passion and it seemed that we couldn’t stop pleasuring each other. We pushed ourselves to complete exhaustion, yet neither one of us could stop holding one another. It had been as if we ever let go, one, or both of us, would vanish.
At first light, I awoke, showered, and then headed off to the marina to meet Walter. I would pilot the antique while Walter followed behind in another customer boat. We’d drive back in Walter’s truck.
After starting and un-tying the boat, I headed out while Walter pulled up to the gas dock. We’d meet up and he’d take the lead while under way. As I waited for Walter to catch up, thoughts of natural and man-made power came to mind. When boats had been powered by wind, sailors became one with it and had been subject to its fancy. So too with the tides. They sailed with them and not counter. The wheel of the power boat that received my hands could go counter to wind and tide; therefore, making it receptive to the adverse actions of wind and tide. I shut off the engine and allowed the boat to drift. Without the sound of the engine, I listened to the sound of the water against the sides of the boat. Gentle interference as the water surrounded the boat.
While I drifted along with the tide, I watched as the sea birds used the air currents to propel them to their next meal. The sound of their wings disturbed the silence as they occasionally flapped their wings to move to the next pocket of air.
Time and space ceased to exist while we drifted. My tranquil state became interrupted by the sound of Walter’s voice.
“Steve,” he shouted through the boat’s P.A. system. “Are you okay? Is there something wrong with the boat?”
“No,” I yelled while re-starting the boat. “What kept you?”
He motioned me to fall in behind him and travel along in his wake. While complying with his instructions, I realized that nature’s way would be broken.
Thoughts of limitations possessed me as we journeyed to Marathon. To name things would be to limit them. The more adjectives used the more things become limited. I looked at the sky and realized that thoughts of “blue,” “cloudy,” “overcast,” and “stormy” created bounds. If thoughts of Stacey included words like “talented,” “sexy,” “goddess,” “bronze,” or “beauty” then she too would be limited and caged. So too, “the overall clad me,” and “the evening gown clad me” had limits. Strip away every thing and there stood Steve. Even the name Steve or Stacey or Walter became limits and bounds. As I navigated the boat into the Marathon marina’s boat slip, the way became more apparent. My life going forward would be an attempt to free it from limits and bounds.
Our trip back from Marathon passed in silence.
Stacey’s knock at the door awakened me.
“Hey you, I’m off tonight, want to hang out?”
“I’m beat. After last night and being on the water all day the last thing on my mind is to go out partying.”
“We don’t have to party or go out. We could hang out here.”
“Let’s do that.”
We didn’t make love, but ended up holding each other as if we tried to become one. No food, no drink, no cigarettes. Sitting quietly, doing nothing. We awoke the next morning refreshed. I headed to the marina while she headed to her shared room to work on new material.