The Fine Art of Professional Suicide
by Hal Howland
The toothless, trembling old man approached the circulation desk and struggled to speak. Normally he would have been dismissed as one of a hundred lazy vagrants who spent their days in the public library to soak up air-conditioning, surf the Web, harass patrons and employees, or catch a few winks before the county cop on duty ran them off or hauled them to jail. But the staff respected Albert “Papa” Feldstein and held him up as a reminder that one should never judge a book by its cover. Feldstein’s nickname recalled his days as one of America’s foremost Hemingway scholars at Columbia University. He had fled New York in the 1970s and come to Key West to write what promised to be his hero’s definitive biography. As a new Key Wester he had rubbed shoulders with Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Robert Stone, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tennessee Williams. But associating also with notorious local drunks and drug smugglers, who served ostensibly as source material, exposed Feldstein’s personal weaknesses and caused his eventual dissolution. He was a sad example of Key West’s large and largely misunderstood homeless population. Still, reeking though he was of alcohol, sweat, and urine, Feldstein commanded the librarian’s attention.
Zelda Prentice happened to be standing behind the circulation desk to hand an envelope to the county courier; her regular post was the small office from which she administered the Monroe County Public Library system’s computer network. The shapely, fortyish blonde happened also to be the only attractive woman on the staff—most of her colleagues, male and female, displayed the obesity that had become an American epidemic—and she was not surprised that the one intelligible word in Feldstein’s gummy, slurred message was body. Prepared to feign appreciation for the old man’s remark, Prentice made a move toward her office when Feldstein’s trembling became so severe that she feared he might collapse. He raised his emaciated right arm and pointed toward the fiction section. Prentice had no desire to follow Feldstein into a confined space and hoped to release him into the care of the regular circulation staff, but the pathetic creature’s urgency compelled her.
When the two entered the narrow aisle between the last stack of bookshelves and the windows facing Fleming Street, Prentice jumped back and screamed. A fit man about her age with light-brown hair lay supine on the floor, bleeding from a small but well-placed chest wound. After a moment Prentice recognized the man as Henry Rivers, who three years before had traded a career as the most popular English teacher at Key West High School for the relative peace and quiet of the library’s cataloging department. The high school’s academic mediocrity, student and parent misbehavior, bureaucratic nonsense, the opportunity to concentrate on his own writing, and the naive expectation that at the library he would be working with qualified personnel had precipitated Rivers’s unexpected move. Rivers had learned immediately thereafter that in exchange for the security of government employment he was surrounded by the same inbred Conchs and rednecks who ran practically every other institution in the Florida Keys. He later joked to a friend that the county’s employment application for any position from the top down should consist of a business card on which is printed the question, Do you have a pulse? After two decades of introducing teenagers to the greatest writers in history, Rivers found himself taking direction from peasants who did not know Ernest Hemingway from James Joyce.
Zelda Prentice ran back to the circulation desk and dialed 911. Detective Lieutenant Rich Castillo and his partner, Sergeant Alvin Varela, arrived in a few minutes, followed immediately by an ambulance crew. They loaded Rivers’s body in the vehicle and wound their way out of town to the morgue at Lower Keys Medical Center on adjacent Stock Island.
The forensics team reported that Henry Rivers had died of a stab wound, but the murder weapon did not appear to be a metal blade. Within Rivers’s heart the technicians found tiny splinters of lignum vitae, a hard and increasingly rare wood once used for ship’s bearings and tools; now the small, slow-growing trees were found mostly in the Middle and Upper Keys.
Rich Castillo and Alvin Varela had interviewed Henry Rivers several years before in connection with