by Asha Dore
I was ten years old when my family traveled to Key West to visit the southernmost point in America, the point by which my father stood in a photograph with his brother in 1954, both of them children carrying wooden swords and frowning at the camera. They stood in front of the dock that is supposedly the southernmost point, but at that time, to those boys, that point anchored the whole world. Their father had just returned from WWII to live an easy life with his wife and sons, posing with their swords in front of a neon sunset that had gone grey through the lens of the camera.
I’m not even sure the photo is real. My family lost most of our pictures when Hurricane Ivan flooded our garage. Maybe that image of the boys and the dock comes from several old photographs collaged together in my mind. Maybe I made it up, a product of the stories Dad was always telling about what it meant to be a family living in a city where land launched out into open sea. Still, that photo, that moment, it was the Southernmost point. At the time it was just a dock. Now, there is a buoy there.
It’s not technically the southernmost point, but it’s the southernmost point accessible to tourists, so it suffices. And the buoy isn’t a buoy it is a concrete sewer junction painted in thick, horizontal stripes. Red, black, yellow. THE SOUTHERNMOST POINT in the Continental U.S.A. it says in thick, white letters. 90 MILES TO CUBA.
The famous buoy was installed in place of the original, smaller monument: a sign that was often stolen by tourists. Sometime after the concrete buoy was installed, another sign was constructed facing the buoy. Five feet tall and made of plywood, it’s one of those signs you can stand behind, put your head in a hole, and become another person.
Painted on this sign are two headless bodies on either side of a Southernmost Point buoy. The body on the left is a beer-bellied dad holding a huge fish. On the right of the buoy, a mermaid sits, topless. If you were tall enough, you could stand with your head on one of the necks.
I wasn’t tall enough, and my brother wasn’t tall enough, so when we visited the Southernmost point that summer, Dad got down on his hands and knees behind the sign, and my brother and I climbed up and wobbled on his back while Mom dropped her cigarette, put it out with the sole of her sandal, and took the picture. When Mom and Dad stood behind the sign, I took the picture. Afterward Mom thought her hair sucked, and we had run out of film. She wanted to come back the next day with a new roll and new hair, but when we came back, the sign was gone.
Where the fuck did the sign go? Dad asked all the tourists and the guy selling conch salad at the food truck and a lady playing the harmonica in front of a swimming suit store. Someone directed him to a pile of browned palm leaves in the alley between two buildings where the sign had been discarded. Mom and Dad carried the sign on their shoulders like pallbearers. While we walked, Dad told stories about living in Key West when he was a kid and visiting Key West when he was a hippie and how Key West would not be the same, less authentic, without the sign. Maybe we should go to Disney World for vacation next year, instead.
A couple days later, Dad brought the sign to the Miami airport, and we almost missed our flight. The sign, the airline attendants said, was even bigger than oversized. It would not fit in with the luggage, so it needed to stay in Miami.
Oh hell no! Dad said. He told them that the sign was an artifact of his childhood and the country and the South, even though the sign was installed decades after his family moved north from Key West to Pensacola, where they stayed.
Either convinced or annoyed, the airline attendants came up with a solution: they would mail the sign at no charge to us to our house in Pensacola. When it arrived, the first thing Mom did was lock herself in the bathroom to fix her hair. Dad carried the sign to the backyard, but because the back panel of the sign had been damaged during shipping, it didn’t stand up on it’s own. Dad and Mom had to hold it up while they posed.
In the picture, Mom is the face of the mermaid, and Dad is the face of the dad, their faces contoured above the flatness of the sign, their disembodied fingers wrapped around each side of the sign, holding it up. The concrete buoy, the southernmost point is painted between them. Behind the sign and their faces is our white, brick house and large, darkened window framed by the corner of our white brick ranch, and the side of my little brother’s face pressed up against the glass.
Asha Dore‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, The Rumpus, Lumina, Sweet, and other venues. Asha is pursuing a MFA in writing at Eastern Oregon University.