Most people never understood why Arla went and married a Bravo. The world genuflected before her. She was beautiful, then: skin like white linen, blue-blooded and hot tempered, stood a full six feet tall in her pink Capezio flats. She could have had so much more. Leon Fontaine, that sweet young man, perfectly lovesick over her and set up so nice like he was in his father’s law practice. He bought her a diamond ring; she thanked him and had it made into a pendant. Donny Pellicier, who took her to the senior prom, got to second base, and then went off to seminary at Our Lady of Perpetual Help up in Savannah. He wasn’t there even a week when he nearly went crazy with longing for her. He embarked on an aggressive and frantic spiritual reckoning, reevaluated the munificent bodily benefits of lay service, then hitchhiked back home to be with Arla, who wouldn’t have him.
When she told her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Bolton of St. Augustine’s Davis Shores, that she intended to marry Dean Bravo, her mother put her hands to her face, and her father went for the Scotch. This was 1964, the day before Arla’s eighteenth birthday. Just off the lanai, the azaleas were in full bloom, a wash of magenta against the somber green weave of the lawn.
“Oh, Arla,” Vera said. “Don’t do this to us.”
“Are you knocked up?” James said. Vera began to cry.
“I am not knocked up,” Arla said. “My Lord, you people.” She stood before them, all lightness and promise and sass, with that soft red hair that made you forget what you were going to say.
“But, Arla,” Vera said. “He’s a Bravo. He will ruin you.”
“Mon dieu. You’re so dramatic.” Arla had lately adopted an affectation of using French colloquialisms, enjoying the way they slid off her tongue, the way they suggested some vague seduction, some abstract sensuality that she’d learned was a powerful currency. “Men don’t ruin women. Daddy didn’t ruin you, did he?” She opened her eyes wide, stared at her mother, tilted her head a bit.
“He wants your money,” James said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Arla said. “He wants me.” Her eyes narrowed when she said this. James ran a hand across his eyes, and Vera hunched over on the chaise, clutching her shoulders.
“You might could congratulate me,” Arla said. “Here I’m going to be a married woman and all.” She sat down and picked at a scab on her knee. James stared at her and jumped when an ice cube in his glass shifted position. Vera wept.
“I love him, Mother,” Arla said.
“Oh, Arla,” Vera said. She reached for a tissue and blew her nose. “Dean Bravo? Love won’t be enough.
* * *
Vera had a point. The Boltons were St. Augustine’s finest, pillars of the community, champions of industry, transplanted from Connecticut during Arla’s infancy, when James Bolton inherited an insurance franchise and decided there could be no better setting for natural disaster, property loss, and financial gain than the sparkling shores of the Sunshine State. He was right. Business had boomed, and the Boltons had prospered accordingly. James pursued his ambition relentlessly, with the focus of a man for whom success was all and sentiment was a nuisance for which he had no patience. He was a cold man, stoic and aloof even from his wife and daughter. Arla had watched over the years as her mother’s desperation grew, as Vera became ebullient and cloying when James was in the house, despondent and weepy when he was not. But the money kept coming in. James bought a house on the Matanzas Bay, drank whiskey sours with the city council, and slept with his secretary. Vera joined the Garden Club and played bridge on Thursdays. They had a cleaning lady. Arla had grown up knowing she was special, she was different, she was better. A Steinway piano in a formal living room. Pointe class every Wednesday, private French lessons every Friday. Chenille bedding. Sleepover parties. Waterskiing at Salt Run.
The Bravo family, on the other hand, lived twenty-five miles north of St. Augustine, in the tiny town of Utina on the east bank of the Florida Intracoastal Waterway. They were Menorcans, settled in Florida not direct from Menorca like most sensible people, but by way of Tennessee, which might have explained a few things. They were descended on their maternal side from the famous Admiral Farragut, whose father Jorge Farragut came to Tennessee from Menorca in 1783, and who is best known for his pithy, if boneheaded, battle cry: “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” It might as well have been the family slogan. The Bravos bullied and bollixed their way from Tennessee to St. Augustine around the turn of the twentieth century. They probably would have stayed there, but as luck would have it, Alger Bravo, grandfather of Arla’s betrothed Dean, had been chased out of St. Augustine by a collective of rumrunners he’d double-crossed. Alger had cut his losses and retreated north into the thick piney woods of Utina, where the Bravos had lived ever since, dispersing like shadows into the scrub.
Thus the Bravos were cut from a different cloth than the Boltons. The Bravos had never seen the inside of a country club, frequenting, instead, such establishments as Utina’s Cue & Brew, the cold case at Soto’s Discount Beverage and the county drunk tank. They weren’t poor, not by the broadest standards; the Bravos made money when they needed to and quit when they didn’t, but they found themselves, to a one, unfettered by the distractions of ambition that seemed to plague other families.
And then there was Dean—third son of Tucker and Margie Bravo—best of the lot, give Arla that. Dean had the Spaniard’s dark charm, a brooding chill in his blue eyes and sinews in his forearms that made Arla think impure thoughts. He was cocky and mouthy and comfortable in his own shortcomings in a way Arla found astounding, arousing.
He’d been raised, along with his brothers Huff and Charlie, in a culture of recklessness, neglect, and some mild thuggery. The Bravo brothers had run wild through Utina since they were old enough to walk. As a teenager, Huff went downhill pretty quickly, following his parents’ twin examples of alcoholism and lawlessness; he was twenty-four when he earned his first sentence for theft, forgery, and capital battery. Dean and Charlie got wise. They stayed, for the most part, just this side of the law, steering clear of actual felonies—at least the ones that were prone to get them caught. At twenty-two, Charlie got a sixteen-year-old girl pregnant and settled down to family life. At twenty, Dean met Arla.
He’d been driving to St. Augustine and had seen her from a distance late one afternoon in ’63, a tall, pale figure walking on a deserted stretch of A1A in the scalding rays of Florida’s September sun. The road ran parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. A few houses dotted the shoreline, but mostly it was a lonesome road, the main thoroughfare, if you could call it that, between St. Augustine and Utina. The scrub extended hot and barren for miles north and south; the ocean over the dunes pushed a searing wind across the road. She’d been wearing nearly nothing: a sky blue bikini, a pair of thin sandals, a silver locket, a canvas tote over her shoulder. He pulled over.
“You look like you need a ride, darlin’,” he said. She shielded her eyes and peered into the cab of his truck. Her red hair was woven into a thick braid, and delicate beads of sweat shone on her brow. Her eyes were rimmed by pale gold lashes; her white shoulders were tinged with pink.
She blinked, regarded him, and he watched the flutter behind the eyes, the moment’s hesitation, the assessment, the decision. Something jumped in his stomach, and he had—he remembered this later, very clearly—the feeling that for the first time he was seeing a being of complete perfection, of flawless beauty. In a moment most uncharacteristic for him, Dean could think of nothing else to say. But then she blinked again, opened the door, and climbed in.
“You’re Dean Bravo,” she said simply.
“I am,” he said, surprised. “How do you know?”
“We all know the Bravos.”
“Me and my friends,” she said, watching him. He pulled back onto the road, headed south.
“What are you doing out here all by yourself ?” he said.
She sighed, rolled her eyes.
“My boyfriend,” she said. “We had a disagreement.”
“He put you out on the road?”
“I got out.”
“Some boyfriend,” he said.
“Well,” she said. “He’s really my ex-boyfriend.” She leaned forward and picked a sandspur off her ankle, and he watched as the bikini top gapped and the tiniest edge of pink areola was exposed. He tightened his grip on the wheel.
“You need to get to St. Augustine?” he said.
“Sure,” she said. “That will do,” though she sounded as though it didn’t matter much one way or another.
“What’s your name?” he said. She turned to face him, and he felt the strange jumping in his stomach again.
“Well,” she said. “I’m Arla.” And she smiled a funny, guarded smile, haunting, really, as though she knew something all along that he’d only just now begun to understand.
By Halloween he’d slept with her. By Thanksgiving he’d told her he loved her. By Christmas he’d started to panic, so consumed was he by desire, so obsessed with wooing her, winning her, keeping her forever. They made love in the woods, in the truck, in a cheap motel off US1, once in her own pink bedroom while her parents sailed the Matanzas with the mayor. Her pillows smelled like talc and made him crazy with passion. He marveled at her height, the way she could look him straight in the eyes, the way her white legs stretched the length of the pink sheets, her perfect toes hanging off the end of the bed. He wanted her all the time, every day, every minute. He drank like a fiend. He brawled at the Cue & Brew. He crashed his truck into the wall at the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine when he’d seen a college boy making eyes at her at a party. Then he spent a night in the drunk tank, hammered out the dents in the truck, and drove back to wait outside her bedroom window at dawn on New Year’s Day.
“Marry me,” he said, when she came out to the lawn in a white robe.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’m seventeen. I’m in high school.”
“Marry me,” he said on Valentine’s Day, and she rolled her eyes.
“Marry me,” he said on St. Pat’s. “Marry me. Marry me. Marry me.” They were sitting on the seawall, overlooking the Matanzas. He was nearly weeping. He slid his hand between her thighs, pressed his face against her chest.
She pulled away and looked at him.
“Okay,” she said, finally. “But get a steady job.”
And he did, too, signing on full-time at the Rayonier paper mill up in Fernandina, where he’d worked intermittently before but now had a reason to show up regular. He quit drinking by midnight every night, set an alarm clock, and got up early. He drove fifty miles north every day, wore steel-toed boots and a hard hat. He clocked in and clocked out and ate bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread. Inside the plant, he lowered himself into the belly of the boilers to spray them with sealant, descended eight hours a day into a hot, hellish dark chasm swirling with dispersants and adherents and God knows what else, but it was worth it, holy Jesus it was worth it, to have Arla.
* * *
Arla knew how people felt about the Bravos. She wasn’t stupid. She knew she was disappointing her mother and embarrassing her father. She knew her girlfriends were planning college, shopping for pencil skirts and sleeping with athletes. But there were other things she knew, too. She’d grown up an only child in an elegant home on the water, but her parents had long ago closed their hearts to anything other than their own cherished pain, and Arla knew this. Arla’s house was cold, always, despite the elevated temperatures outside. Inside lived three people who were nothing, nothing at all, like a family.
Arla knew about loneliness. She knew about resignation. She knew about despair, and about the way her mother stared at her hands when her father was speaking. And Arla knew how she felt when Dean ran his hands down her body and breathed into her hair. He was terrifying and dangerous and wild. He was everything James was not. One night in the woods of Utina, as they lay naked on a worn burlap sack spread under a sweet gum tree, Dean told Arla he would die without her. “I will kill myself, Arla, I swear I will,” he said, and she was moved by the power she held and frightened by the audacity of his devotion. She’d been wanted, desired, pursued all her life, but nobody had ever needed her like this. Nobody.
“You’re giving up everything,” Vera told her, the day Arla announced her engagement.
“I don’t need everything,” Arla said. “I know what I need.”
That night, Dean drove her south to Crescent Beach. They parked at the end of a dirt road and spread a blanket in the bed of his truck, where they clung to each other and gasped until the gnats and no-see-ums drove them up into the cab. There, she sat close to him in the darkness, listening. He promised a little house to tend, food in the pantry, babies in the bathtub, and love in every room. He promised.
The wedding was in September, with a full Mass at high noon in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. The bride wore an ivory silk A-line gown with a ruched bodice, an empire waist, and a chapel-length train. The groom wore a borrowed suit and a splash of Old Spice. The bride’s mother wore a black veil of Italian lace.
James paid for all of it, but he had stopped looking his daughter in the eye. He walked her down the aisle and Arla took his arm awkwardly. She could not remember the last time she’d touched her father. She was embarrassed by the contact, the intimacy, the way he stiffened when her fingers closed around his elbow. It was a relief when they reached the chancel, and she could let him go.
At the altar, Dean was calm, his dark hair slicked smooth, his jaw clean-shaven and set. He was flanked by his brother Charlie on one side, best man by default given Huff ’s extended sentence in the Florida State Penitentiary, and his cousin Ronald on the other. Three Bravo men, the most the cathedral had ever seen.
“Do you?” the priest said to Arla.
“Do you?” the priest said to Dean.
“Damn straight,” Dean said, winking at Arla. Her breath caught at the sight of him, the way he looked right at her, that clear and perfect desire in his eyes, as if nobody else was there in the church watching. She thought briefly about disappointment and ruination and all the rest, but it was no matter. With Dean here before her, the world was a fine place, and life the prettiest adventure indeed.
* * *
The newlyweds booked a week’s honeymoon on Lake June in Winter Haven, at a chalet perched on the south shore, just a short walk from a pizzeria and an outfit that rented water skis.
They stayed indoors for two days. On the second afternoon Dean left Arla napping and emerged onto the chalet’s porch with a six-pack of beer and a slight limp. He worked his way through the beer, watching the boats and water-skiers, then stretched, squinted into the sun, and called back into the chalet to Arla.
“Let’s do it,” he said. He walked along the beach to the ski rental stand, where a pair of rumpled Cubans stood in the dappled shade of a Sabal palm, a rack of water skis parked behind them on a rusted trailer. Thirty feet away, a pair of motorboats bobbed in the lake.
“Morning,” Dean said.
“Afternoon,” one of the men replied. He was stocky and thick and looked at Dean with dislike.
“Is it now?” Dean said.
The Cubans looked at each other.
“You’ll rent me a boat?” Dean said. “And some skis?”
They nodded. Dean paid them and walked over to one of the boats, a sixteen-foot Chris Craft with an oversize outboard. The stocky Cuban followed him. Dean looked up in time to see Arla picking her way up the beach. One hand held down an enormous straw hat. The other hand clutched a woven sarong at her hip. She was aware that Dean was watching, he could tell, and she moved in that sultry, theatrical way she had, slowing her pace just a bit, pausing, looking back over her shoulder and then advancing again, her chin held high. He wanted to eat her for lunch.
Instead, he helped her into the boat, watched her kick off her sandals, and handed her a pair of water skis. He climbed in behind the wheel.
“You got three?” the stocky Cuban said.
“What?” Dean said.
“You need three. One to drive, one to ski, one to spot.” The man articulated carefully, counting off on his fingers.
“We got two,” Dean said. “We’ll be fine.”
“You need one to spot,” the Cuban said, looking at Arla. His eyes traveled over her bathing suit, across her breasts, down the one long leg emerging from the sarong. Her feet were perfect—angular and freckled, a dusting of fine sand coating her heels. Her toenails were painted a bright coral. “Somebody gotta watch her,” the man said. The other Cuban snickered. “You wan’ me come watch her?” he said. Dean fought the desire to climb back out of the boat and pummel the man. Instead, he started the engine.
“We’re fine,” Dean repeated, though he noted that Arla did not move her leg out of view. She gazed across the water, making no attempt to reposition her sarong. Dean grasped the wheel. His head buzzed. He waved off the Cubans. He pointed the bow northward and sliced out across the water.
“Oh, man,” the stocky Cuban called out from the shore. “You need three, man.”
The sun was hot on Dean’s shoulders as he cut the engine and as the boat, now in the center of the lake, slowed to an idle. A dragonfly landed on Arla’s knee, then flitted away again. Dean untangled the tow rope.
“This is pretty,” she said mildly, looking across the lake.
“You ready?” he said, and he felt a twitch of adrenaline in his veins. Dean had never driven a boat with an outboard this size. He and Charlie had once liberated a dinghy from a yachtsman who’d had the misfortune to drop anchor in the Intracoastal just off Utina rather than pushing southward toward the more civilized waters of St. Augustine. They’d outfitted the dinghy with a pitiably small motor that they’d similarly liberated, but the dinghy could never do more than putter lamely along the water’s edge. Dean had never water-skied. In Davis Shores, Arla’s parents had belonged to the ski club. She’d grown up in a damp bathing suit amid the blended smells of cigarettes and martinis, salt water and coconut oil. She’d won a couple trophies in the local ski leagues.
“They’re probably right,” she said. “We should have a spotter.”
“We’re fine,” he said, annoyed. “We don’t need anybody else.”
She looked at him for a moment. “All right,” she said.
Dean shifted his weight, then moved toward Arla’s feet and grasped them. He ran his hands up her calves. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Let’s see you.”
“Let me get in first,” Arla said. She pulled off the sarong in one quick movement and stood up to her full height, towering in the small boat before squatting again to stop it from pitching. She shimmied over the side into the water. “Oh!” she said, sounding childlike. “It’s cold!”
Dean handed her the skis, and she slipped her feet inside the boots.
“Now start slow,” she said. “Until I get up. Then you can go faster.”
“Hang on,” he said. He moved to the throttle and looked back.
Arla sat bobbing in the middle of Lake June, a ridiculous picture, the skis jutting out in front of her like cattails and her knees drawn up awkwardly. Her red hair flared against the water. Her breasts, straining against the bikini top, emerged, sank, reemerged, and she blew a thin spray of water out of her mouth and smiled.
“Okay!” she said.
Dean advanced the throttle. He moved slowly, watching the slack in the towline dwindle. “Get ready, Arla!” he shouted.
The line went taut, and she was up, moving, her full height traveling above the water, the look on her face triumphant and delighted. Dean shouted, waved to her. She nodded, clutched the rope, laughed.
He turned back to the throttle and gave it more power. The boat moved faster. Arla stayed up, her long white legs taut, shimmering, strong. She was gliding across the water like a bird now, her red hair extended behind her like plumage. Dean went faster. He was conscious of another boat on the lake, and he veered westward to give it a wide berth. He gunned the little boat’s engine, felt the spray on his face and the buzzing in his head and the beer in his belly and the ache in his groin, and he pictured Arla behind him, flying, holding the rope that bound her to him—forever, forever, forever, this wild tropical bird, this strange, colorful, perfect girl who had given up everything and everybody to be with him. To belong to him. Mine, he thought. Mine.
When he glanced over his shoulder again she was gone. He stared stupidly for a moment, watching the tow rope’s wooden handle dance like a water bug above the lake. He let off the throttle, spun the boat around. He could not see Arla. The lake was suddenly very quiet. The second boat, the one he’d been trying to avoid, bobbed in the distance, by now probably a half mile away.
“Arla!” he yelled. He puttered back in the direction he’d come.
After a moment, he saw her, a soft shape drifting like a sodden piece of fabric. Her hair fanned out into a crimson halo. She was waving at him.
Dean gunned the throttle again and raced toward her. She was bleeding from a gash above her eye, and her face was pale. The buzzing in his head intensified. One of Arla’s skis floated, untethered, thirty yards away.
“I think I hit a piece of wood,” she said. She was treading water with one bare foot, struggling to remove the other ski. “I can’t get this ski off.” Dean slowed his approach, but he overshot, moved past her, had to turn the boat around again to return to her. He finally pulled up alongside her and reached to pull her into the boat.
But he’d missed her again. His hands grasped air. She dipped under the water once and came up choking. Then she passed out, and her face slipped below the surface.
“Arla!” he screamed. “Arla!”
He spun the boat around a third time and tapped the throttle to move closer to Arla. He leaned out to reach for her again. The propeller was still spinning. His head was still buzzing. He thought he might throw up. He leaned farther out of the boat, reaching. With Dean’s shift in weight, the stern tipped toward Arla, and then the boat jumped slightly—a blunted, soft jolt, as if the prop had made contact with something malleable.
He cut the engine, jumped in, and swam to Arla. He pulled her to the boat and dragged her up behind him, aware that he was operating with the bizarre strength of some sort of colossus, and yet when he lowered her body into the boat and heard her begin to sputter and cough, and when his eyes drifted down the length of her legs, past her ankles, to the place where something was wrong, and where the blood was beginning to fill up the bottom of the boat like bilge, he felt like a very, very weak man.
Heart of Palm
- paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Grove Press
- ISBN-10: 0802121039
- ISBN-13: 9780802121035