Well, we finally got to see the spectacular sunset from Mallory Square in Key West. You might remember that last year we got rear-ended by a truck and were detained until dark. The year before that, some joker in a tugboat pulled a huge barge across the horizon just as the sun was bowing out.
If our quest to see the day die had been successful last year, my first stop this year would have been in Hemingway’s backyard to find the guy in the trench coat who had clandestinely sold me two chickens for $100. Another hundred would be paid upon delivery.
You might remember that the chickens had an extra toe that marked them as descendants of the great writer’s brood. I had plans to breed them and hang a sign at the bottom of our driveway touting HEMINGWAY CHICKENS FOR SALE!
But, the chickens were never delivered, as agreed, to my son’s apartment in Brooklyn by Trench’s cousin, Julio.
In spite of our dancing well into the night at Sloppy Joe’s, I rose early the next morning as Alice slept. I was eager to get over to the chicken man’s turf to find out why I never got my delivery.
Of course I had to pay another entry fee but it would be worth it if I could catch up with him and get my hundred dollars back.
After entering, I slowly made my way down the palm-shaded walk in the direction of Hemingway’s cat cemetery where I had first encountered the crook. I didn’t see him on my first pass but sure enough, when I retraced my steps, Trench Coat appeared out of nowhere.
He was standing on the stone marker of a cat that Papa had named Marlene Dietrich. Not recognizing me, he whispered, “Hey buddy, you want to buy a Hemingway chicken?”
“I already have,” I said. “And you never delivered!”
Trench Coat’s mouth dropped open.
“I told you I’d be back,” I said. “Where’s my money?”
“I don’t got no money.”
“What happened to Julio and the delivery?”
“I swear, he was headed for New York – but then he had a chance to go to Cuba by way of Canada and he couldn’t pass it up. He was detained in Cuba and . . . ”
“If you don’t have my money, I’ll take the chickens.”
Surprised, Trench thought for a minute and then said, “Okay, but we can’t do it here. You know these birds need papers. People are waiting to adopt them.”
“Do you have papers?” I asked.
“Of course not! That’s why we gotta deal outside.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go outside.”
“Separately. I don’t want to draw no attention.”
“How many people have you scammed like this?”
“Hey, normally I deliver.”
I left the grounds first, expecting Trench to bolt, but there was only one way out of the place which was surrounded by a high fence. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, he showed. We walked to his ’86 Volvo where, after looking in both directions, he opened the trunk and removed a burlap feedbag in which he was going to put my chickens.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let me check them out.”
Again, he looked around before opening his coat like a flasher. The two chickens were upside-down in the big, hand-sewn inside pockets with their feet sticking up. Sure enough, both had an extra toe.
Trench was now desperate. “Julio’s back and making a trip to New York next week. He can . . .”
“I’ll take my chickens right now,” I said.
Resigned, the smuggler groaned and drew each one out like a gunfighter and stuffed it into the bag. Then he passed it to me and without saying anything, he got into his car and drove off.
I stood there, stunned, wondering how I was going to get the birds back to our farm. Alice was sure to have a conniption when I returned to the motel with the poultry. But picturing the big sign at the bottom of our driveway, HEMINGWAY CHICKENS FOR SALE, gave me heart.
“Are you crazy?” Alice said when I returned to our room holding the bag.
I waited a while for her to cool off and then calmly said, “I have a plan. We can’t ship these chickens legally without papers because of the extra toe. But I think we can get them into our hold baggage.”
“I don’t want any part in this. And anyway, it’s impossible,” my wife said.
“No it’s not. I’m going to slip the chickens a mickey made of the nighttime cough medicine I brought along. It always makes me drowsy. Then we drop the birds into the sleeves of our jackets and carry the jackets over our arms.”
“It’ll never work,” Alice said, shaking her head.
“Sure it will. Metal detectors can’t spot chickens.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“If you help me, I’ll finish all the work you want me to do on the house,” I promised.
Alice’s eyes moved up towards her forehead. “What if we get caught?”
“We won’t get caught. Remember the time we crossed the boarder from Canada with paper license plates?”
“That was different,” Alice said.
At the airport, everything was going according to plan. I went first, lifting my small suitcase onto a conveyor. Then I took my chicken-stuffed jacket from my arm and put it into a plastic box with my shoes. The procedure worked like a charm.
Alice followed my example, but unfortunately, when she went to place her jacket into the plastic box, an egg rolled out of the sleeve and landed like a turd on her big toe.
Immediately, an inspector rushed over as though a bomb had dropped out of my wife’s jacket. “Don’t move,” he told her. Alice looked at me, standing on the other side of the arched metal detector. If looks could kill . . .
In seconds, several inspectors were on the scene. Alice was now holding her arms straight out and a man was going over her with a wand. The other inspectors were feverishly searching through her luggage. Of course, they found the chicken. Then, I thought I heard one of them say, “strip search.”
I stood there, hoping that somehow my wife would be allowed to pass through. “What’s with the chicken?” a senior inspector asked as he held the bird by the legs. He didn’t seem to notice the extra toe.
“It’s just a pet that I couldn’t leave behind,” Alice said. That was a good answer and I was proud of her.
“No chickens allowed on board, lady. We’re going to have to confiscate this bird. It looks half dead anyway.”
“No, it’s just sleepy.”
Eventually, they let my wife pass through but she didn’t talk to me or sit next to me on the plane. The ride home from Albany was also in silence – even when I tried to talk about the work I’d be doing on the house.
There was only one consolation. The chicken I had successfully smuggled had regained consciousness and was now perched and looking dopey on the back seat of the Jeep. If all went well and she laid eggs, by spring I’d have that sign hanging down by the road: HEMINGWAY CHICKENS FOR SALE!
Maybe by then Alice will be talking to me.
Terry Berkson is an author living in Richfield Springs.