A Key West Diamond
by Ron Van Sweringen
“It’s gotta cost more than a million, probably a million and a half,” eighteen-year old Red Phillips said to himself standing in front of the picket fence separating a huge white Victorian from the rest of the world. Looks a little like a wedding cake, he thought. Its two stories of gingerbread porches glistened in the burning Key West sun.
Lush, green palms, white orchids and lofty banana plants sent cooling blue shadows over the sun-dappled garden surrounding it. “If that’s not paradise,” Red whispered, “I sure don’t know what is.”
“What in blazes took you so long?” the voice brought him back to reality with a thud. It came from under a straw hat with a brim so large no face was visible. But the voice kept on, ”I called over an hour ago, get on in here, she’s giving me a fit.”
Red started to open his mouth, but he never got the chance to say anything. A very small, sun-tanned hand shot out, pulling him forward by his shirtsleeve with an amazing amount of strength. “And don’t step in my flower beds with those big feet either,” she said, “Your father musta been something.”
Red wanted to laugh, the whole thing was surreal, reminding him of an Andy Warhol party he crashed with a friend one night.
“OK, there it is, find it!” she said. Red was staring into a magnificent free-form swimming pool of crystal turquoise water. A fountain in the center sprayed out what looked like diamond drops in the sunlight.
“Ma’am” — Red finally got something out — “I don’t think I can help you.”
“Of course you can, just get on in there and look for it. It’s a ten-carat diamond ring in a white gold set. It came off while she was swimming naked this morning, naked as a jaybird. They might pay her a lot of money for that in the movies, but I don’t think much of it in my swimming pool, private parts and all.”
This time Red couldn’t hold the laughter in. When she heard it, she threw her head back and the brim of the straw hat flew up. He saw her face for the first time. She was anything but young, her skin had creases in it like a well oiled saddlebag. There was too much rouge on her cheeks, but her blue eyes twinkled under wisps of hair the color of a strawberry Popsicle.
“I’m going to call that pool company and tell them they sent me an idiot!” she cursed.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m not from the pool company. I’m here on vacation and I was just admiring your house.”
She squinted her eyes at him and stuck her neck out like a turkey, “I got a good mind to push you in anyway.” Then she shook her head and squished up her lips, “I didn’t mean that, but I have to find that damn thing before long, she wants to wear it to dinner tonight. Tell ya what, I’ll give ya fifty dollars when you find it.”
“Fifty dollars!?” Red shouted. “That’s a lot of money, but I don’t have a bathing suit.”
“Go naked,” she quipped. “I can’t see that it makes much difference now.” Then she added, “Don’t worry about me, I’m nearsighted as a bat and I got a whiskey sour calling me in the kitchen anyway.”
When she disappeared, Red pulled off his t shirt, shorts and sandals. The water was cold and invigorating. He dove down at the deep end of the pool first, using broad breaststrokes to skim the bottom. After four dives he came up, floating on his back to rest for a while. He folded his arms under his head like a pillow and looked up at the blue sky.
“I’d join you, but if I get sunburned,” a soft voice above him giggled, “the studio will fine me twenty thousand dollars, for new makeup.” She was incredibly beautiful, leaning over the railing on the second-story balcony above him.
He choked on a mouthful of water, “Oh Lord,” he blubbered, “it’s her!”
Red came up for air hanging on to the side of the pool, trying to cover his nakedness. When he looked up she was gone. A sudden pang of disappointment hit him. He could still see her smiling face and hear her bubbling laughter. Somehow, he felt robbed.
Twenty minutes later he was about to give up the search for her diamond ring. He had been back and forth on the bottom of the pool until he thought his lungs would burst. No luck, nothing at all except an Indian Head penny.
Red was about to exit the pool when his foot came down on something. He maneuvered the object until he could grasp it with his toes. When he brought it to the surface, the most beautiful diamond he had ever seen glowed in the sunlight. Of course, he thought, look who it belongs to.
Although the door was open, Red knocked on the door sill. When there was no answer, he peeked into the large room. A figure was sleeping at the kitchen table, face resting on out stretched arms. He didn’t know her name, but it was her; the strawberry hair confirmed it.
“Ma’am,” he said softly, causing her head to fly up so quickly it startled him. “Sorry, ma’am,” he blundered, “but I found it.”
The fog in the old woman’s eyes gradually cleared and a wide smile took its place, so wide that Red noticed the wiggle of her dentures when she started to talk.
“Good boy!” she shouted, seeing the diamond ring in Red’s open hand. ”Sit down while I get you some money.”
There was a rack of shiny copper pots and pans hanging from the ceiling and paintings of horses and dogs on some of the walls. All in all, Red decided, the kitchen looked warm and inviting and expensive. He also noticed the almost empty whiskey sour glass on the table in front of him.
Red was struck by how small she was when she returned a few minutes later, the floppy straw hat back on her head. “I’m Jessica Perry,” she said, handing him a fistful of bills. He took the money and handed her the ring.
She examined it for a moment, then closed her fist around it. “You’re an honest young man,” she said, “What’s your name?”
“Red Phillips,” he replied.
“Well, Red Phillips,” she smiled, finishing the last of the whiskey sour, “I guess they named you that because you’re a carrot-top like me.” Red blushed at her sudden interest. “Where are you staying?” she said.
“At the Blue Marlin motel,” Red answered, “for a couple more days, now that I’m fifty dollars richer.”
“Scuttle that,” she replied. “Get your stuff and move into my guest house out back. It’s small, a bedroom and bathroom, but nice, Truman Capote stays there once in a while.”
Red was stunned. Not only by the offer, but by the woman herself. She was absolutely fascinating, What a life she must have lived to wind up here with the most famous movie star in the world as a house guest; and now he was being invited to join the excursion. But why?
The answer came quickly. “I’ve got some things around here that need tending to,” she continued. “My oysters keep falling off for one thing.”
The oyster remark completely baffled Red, but he understood her reasoning now. He would earn his keep at doing odd jobs and in return, reside in paradise for a while.
A commotion at the front door took their attention. “It’s those picture people again,” she said, rolling her eyes, “They’ve come to pick her up.”
Red leaned forward to look down the hall. A group of men stood knotted at the front door. Something white and glowing appeared among them for a second. Then she was gone and the hall seemed dark again.
Red turned to Jessica as if in shock, “How do you know her?” he asked.
“My son makes movies in Hollywood. Every now and then he sends someone out here for a rest. I think she’s getting divorced, or something. I’m off to bed now, the key is in the door of the guest house. Be ready at 9:30 sharp tomorrow morning, I’ll show you my oysters.”
The sound of laughter and splashing water woke Red the next morning. The first thing that met his view was a rather large green lizard resting comfortably on the window sill under a bower of miniature yellow orchids. The lizard turned his head occasionally, still managing to keep a weary eye on him.
“I know, if this was a million years ago,” Red yawned, “I’d be your breakfast right now.” He stretched his arms and the creature was gone in the blink of his eye; in its place was something hard to believe, the most beautiful body in Hollywood, swimming nude in the pool.
Red was afraid to move or make a sound, he wanted desperately to remain invisible and under no circumstances destroy the fantasy playing out before him. But fate had other ideas. Somewhere in the distance a phone rang and a moment later a woman appeared in the kitchen doorway, “It’s long distance for you, miss,” she called out. “He said to tell you it’s Frank.”
Then his brain exploded as the swimmer rose from the water and turned toward him in all of her golden glory. When she had slipped on a powder-blue bath robe the woman handed her the telephone. He watched her take a seat on one of the lounge chairs and begin her phone conversation. At first she laughed a bit, but then she stood up suddenly and her voice grew louder. Her hand shot out with the palm open as if exasperated. Then she threw the telephone onto the concrete walk and began crying.
Without thinking, Red pulled his shorts on and hurried out of the guest house. When she saw him, she tilted her head up and attempted a smile. “You’re the young man who found my ring,” she said softly, twisting the diamond ring on her finger.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied as if he was walking through a dream, “my name is Red Phillips.”
“Are you in school, Red Phillips?” she said, studying him.
“I’m starting college in the fall,” Red replied, “This is my last vacation for a while.”
She pulled her robe tight around her as if she felt a chill. “Study hard,” she said, “an education is one of the most important things in life.”
Red watched her up to the kitchen door, where she turned and waved at him, much the way a young girl might. It struck him then, that was part of her magic, at times she seemed ageless. Then the door frame was empty, and she was gone.
“See there, I told you my oysters were falling off,” Jessica said with disgust, pointing to several shells lying at her feet in the gravel.
They were standing in front of an outdoor sea shell grotto built into the garden wall. It was quite beautiful Red thought, even in its decrepit condition.
“I can fix it for you, ma’am.” He smiled at Jessica, “I’m good with my hands.”
“Then get to it,” she replied, “ I’m off to Key Largo today. There are boxes of extra shells in the garage.”
Red worked all day repairing the grotto. There was an amazing array of boxed shells in the garage. Large, pinkish starfish and iridescent muscle shells with a blue cast, among dozens of other varieties. He was soon lost in his work, spurred on by a warm exhilarated feeling the mornings events had created in him. Her famous face appeared to him often, each time eliciting a mixture of joy and sadness. By late afternoon he had finished his masterpiece and stood back to admire it.
“You’re a true artist,” he heard Jessica’s voice behind him. “I’m touched, it never looked like that before.”
For a moment Red thought she might cry, but instead she snapped her fingers at him. ”I almost forgot, Miss Movie Star left something for you.”
Red was stunned by her remark. “You mean she left something for me? Has she gone?”
“They picked her up in a black stretch-mobile and flew her back to Hollywood this afternoon,” Jessica answered with a sigh of relief. “There must have been fifty newspaper reporters at the airport, it was a mob scene. Can’t say I’m going to miss her; I like my peace and quiet.”
“What did she leave me?” Red asked trying not to sound excited, although he was sure she could hear his heart pounding.
“It’s on the kitchen table, an envelope addressed to you,” Jessica replied, busily continuing to inspect the grotto.
Red took the envelope into the guest house and sat on the edge of the bed. He ran his fingers over it, reading his name slowly. When opened, the envelope held one folded page of expensive note paper, neatly inscribed in red ink.
Dear Red Phillips, I have left you something at the bottom of the swimming pool. It was a gift to me and now I make it a gift to you. Get an education and have a happy life. M.
Copyright © 2013 by Ron Van Sweringen