She is perhaps the skinniest, old lady I’ve ever seen, and her cat perhaps the skinniest cat I’ve ever seen. They live in the blazing-white cottage across the street from my rental. I imagine her to be a “conch,” a Key West native, Bahamian immigrants who embraced the nickname “conch” to distinguish themselves as Bahamians in Key West.* Her hair is copper colored as is her skin, weathered as some island women are, her body one that would benefit from the cottage-coat-of-fresh-paint to conceal the scars of sand and storms and time. Her face is permanently scrunched from decades of squinting. I suppose she wasn’t partial to hats as she doesn’t wear one now. I’ve seen her walk to the corner grocery with the aid of a 3-prong, rubber-tipped, metal cane, walking so slowly that were I walking with her, I would have to step and pause for about 4 seconds before moving again. I see her sitting on the porch a couple times a day, dwarfed in that huge Walmart, white plastic chair, her skinny cat’s tail trying unsuccessfully to fan them both. She has guests and people who check in on her, the mailman, the senior transport bus driver. Once I saw about 4 or 5 women with packages and loud chatter come to visit and it seemed as if the conch lady were reluctant to come out onto the porch to greet them—or perhaps it was just the very slow approach to what is left of her precious life.
Does she watch me? Does she make mental notes on the color of my skin, my hair? Does she wonder where I came from, why I smoke so many cigarettes, why I repeatedly walk in a circle in the parking lot with my phone attached to my ear? Does she care why I decisively put one foot in front of the other as I walk and talk, that I’m trying to place my toe at the herringbone point in the parking lot bricks? I doubt it. I doubt that this weathered woman might think I have something to share that she hasn’t seen or heard before, that I might be of any interest. Perhaps I’m more gentrification, perhaps more tourist dollars. If I see her walking to the grocery again, I’ll ask if I could go with her and help her. She’ll probably say no—and I would like that about her.
* According to Conch Tour Train, after the Revolutionary War, the British started taxing Bahamians on their food just like they taxed Bostonians on their tea. The Bahamians said they would rather eat conch then pay the taxes, and came up with twenty-seven different ways to eat the sea snail. I’ve heard that natives from islands other than Key West identify themselves, and are referred to, as “conchs.” I suspect that conch has become a generic term for the locals, and not just those that immigrated from Bahama.