His parents named him David, but his friends on the streets of Key West called him Dougie.
He was fifty-five years old but if you didn’t know that you might guess his age at seventy. He was a familiar sight around the Southernmost City, a quiet little man with thinning hair and a full white beard, a shy smile, and an ever-present Santa Claus hat.
You might see him sitting on the concrete seawall along North Roosevelt Boulevard, watching the smooth-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico while he sipped from a smooth, green paper-swaddled bottle. Or weaving through the folks who gather thick along Duval Street on a Saturday, trying to catch the eye of a passing tourist for a handout.
Or you might spot him asleep under a sugar-scented Sweet Acacia bush at the bus stop in front of Winn Dixie, the chain supermarket where all the locals shop. That’s where I found him one hot Friday afternoon in August. Sprawled upon his back among the chickens. Oblivious.
Near one out-stretched hand, the threaded snout of a bottle peeked out of a rumpled paper bag. Dougie’s head and shoulders rested beneath the acacia, where there was shade. His feet, one of them shoeless, were off the curb in the path of on-coming traffic.
I was off-duty, but I knew him from Monroe County Detention Center, where I work as a corrections officer. Dougie was a frequent flyer at the jail, a regular who’d been at it for more than a decade and had a survival system figured out.
Every sixty days or so, when he felt the need to dry out, he’d walk into a carry-out or another and walk out with a bottle of his favorite wine. He would sit outside the store while the clerk called nine-one-one to report the theft, and would finish off the wine while he waited for a squad car to arrive.
Once inside the confines, after a week of no alcohol, regular meals, medical care, and daily showers, Dougie looked respectable. You might mistake him for the retired bachelor teacher everyone liked in high school. That’s what he claimed to be. A teacher. High school history, he said. He was vague about where he’d taught, “Up north,” was all he ever said.
He was always certain, though, how long he’d been a teacher. “Seventeen years. I taught history for seventeen years before the booze got the best of me.”
One visit to the jail, he told me he’d been in Florida for twelve years; in Key West for nine of that. Like other homeless men and women, he found the place locals jokingly called Paradise very nearly that.
He discovered that living without a roof over your head isn’t difficult where the thermometer rarely drops below room temperature. All you had to do was watch out for mosquitoes, head lice, and an occasional hurricane. And when it rained you could crawl beneath a bridge, like the short span over the channel known as Cow Creek, and share the bottle being passed around.
For Dougie, the bottle was the best part.
He was a man who’d given his heart, his mind and soul to a demon, knew it and just wanted to be left alone to worship.
That day in August, when I tried to coax him back up onto the curb, he refused, became surly, something I’d never seen from him before.
“Don’t want to,” he mumbled. “Leave me be. I can take care of me.”
I moved him, of course, but I had to agree. He could take care of himself, he’d proven that, at least in the fashion he’d chosen. He had been a lucky man, had played the game of survival successfully for well over a decade.
But on one of those rare cool and rainy days in Key West, Dougie’s good luck ran out. As he crossed Highway One, not far from Cow Key Bridge, a delivery truck struck and killed him.
“We were crossing the road, right there at the three-way intersection,” Dougie’s friend, Terrence, told me later at the jail.
“Me and Heather and Dougie were headed for the bridge, just looking for a place to get dry. He was behind us, when me and Heather got over to the bike path.
We turned just in time to see the truck clip him. Jeez, he went flying, but I swear he was still alive when the cops got there.”
Dougie was taken by ambulance to Lower Keys Medical Center; the emergency room doctor pronounced him dead on arrival. The body went unclaimed for a month, so the county cremated the remains.
There were no services, no ceremony for the ashes.
So, here’s to a mostly gentle little man who lived the way he wanted. His parents might have named him David, but his friends remember Dougie, as they gather wet afternoons to pass around a bottle beneath the Cow Key Bridge.
K.C. Ball lives in Seattle, Washington. Her short stories have appeared here at Every Day Fiction, as well as various online and print publications, including Analog, Lightspeed, Flash Fiction Online and Murky Depths, the award-winning British fantasy magazine. K.C. won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award in 2009. She is a 2010 graduate of Clarion West writers’ workshop and an active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Her novel, Lifting Up Veronica, is currently being serialized by Every Day Novels, after which it will be released as an ebook and print book. Snapshots from a Black Hole & Other Oddities, a collection of her short stories, was released in January 2012 by Hydra House Books.