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JaneThe Magic Kingdom

By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Jane told an old friend that Mick had AIDS. "You've got to divorce him," the friend said.

Jane had thought about divorce. But the point was almost moot. Her husband was going to die, probably within a year. Why go through the motions of a divorce when, in her mind, they were no longer husband and wife anyway? She had lost her engagement ring, she could not even remember when. And now her wedding ring was safely stowed with other family relics.

Jane was determined to leave Spain to go back home to the United States. She wanted Mick to go with her. She even had a plan. Mick had an excellent doctor, Alfonso Alvarez, whose daughter attended the American School where Mick was headmaster. If Dr. Alvarez produced a medical report saying Mick had AIDS, Mick would be able to leave his job and still draw his salary for the duration of his contract.

Mick staunchly refused. The plan would require the wide disclosure of his secret. He had told his children, yes, but he would never tell anyone else. Let people think what they wanted about why he looked so emaciated and haggard. He would take the secret of his illness, along with the secret of who he was, to the grave.

Knowing Mick, there probably was another reason for his stubborn refusal. He inherited a furious work ethic. His pride must have told him that the one good thing he could do for his family was work until he dropped, and leave them whatever money he could.

So Jane would go to America without him. They developed a cover story, of course, to explain the departure of Jane and the children. You see, Meghan needed to go into the 11th grade, and the school in Spain only went to the 10th grade. So it was time for a move. Mick would work out his contract and be reunited with the family.

Jane even had a place picked out. St. Petersburg, Florida.

It seemed like the best choice. Her son, David, was a student and soccer player at Eckerd College, a small school on the southern tip of St. Petersburg, near the Sunshine Skyway bridge, where the Gulf of Mexico flows into Tampa Bay. Jane had gotten to know St. Pete when she brought David to college. More important, her favorite aunt and uncle, Joan and Ralph, wintered in St. Pete and had a cute little house in a neighborhood near the college.

For Jane, the move to St. Pete was a kind of compromise, a middle way, a golden mean. She longed for the support of family and friends but could not imagine returning to life in small-town Michigan. Despite their happy times in Brazil, there was nothing left for her there. People in Rio knew Mick and would be full of questions.

In an odd way, St. Pete was halfway between Union City, Mich., and Rio de Janeiro, not in miles, but in the geography of Jane's imagination. Florida was a southern state, of course, but St. Pete was thoroughly midwestern in culture, filled with frugal and frosty Hoosiers and Michiganders, who journeyed south from the heartland down the umbilical cord of Interstate 75, in search of a good thaw.

Jane knew the stereotypes of St. Pete, that it was a city of blue-haired ladies and green benches, heaven's waiting room, the world's largest open-air mausoleum, where the most common items shipped from the airport were tropical fish and human remains.

None of that bothered Jane. She was attracted to the water. They had lived near the sea in Brazil and Spain. She felt comfortable by the sea, out here on St. Pete Beach, where brown pelicans flew in squadrons, the hotels were pink and the shrimp tasted spicy, the margaritas salty.

The Morses moved to St. Pete on July 9, 1992. David would continue his studies at Eckerd College. Meghan would enroll as a junior at Lakewood High School. Erin would be an eighth- grader and join the Southside Soccer Club. They rented a comfortable two-bedroom apartment overlooking an artificial lake. Jane would buy a car and look for a job.

Mick flew with the family from Spain. He was exhausted. But he needed to know that they would be living in a good place, that they would be all right.

Meghan and Erin wanted to go with their dad to Disney World in Orlando. Despite his ill health, Mick agreed to take his daughters on the obligatory American pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom. After all, back in high school, some friends called him Mickey. It was a good day for them - the heat and humidity be damned.

The girls wanted to ride on Space Mountain, the breathtaking indoor roller coaster ride in the dark. They wanted their dad to go with them. He was always a good sport. Meghan and Erin sat in front, and their dad strapped himself in the seat behind them. Up, up, up, they climbed, the tension mounting in the half-darkness, and then the plunge to the bottom.

"I remember him screaming his head off," says Meghan. "Laughing, but screaming. He had enough energy to do that."

As they came off the ride and back into the sunlight, Meghan joked to Erin, "Maybe he's already passed away."

The girls looked back and saw their father, shaky but smiling. "I'm never doing that again," he said.

THE SERIES: This is the 18th installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 19, Signs of Life


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