Essays


 

Into the Glimpse (of Summer)


 

Things have destinies, of course,

On-lines and downloads mysterious as the language of clouds

My life has become like that,

 

Half uninterpretable, half new geography,

Landscapes stilled and adumbrated, memory unratcheting,

Its voice-over not my own.

 

From “Envoi”

            Charles Wright

 

 

Recently, I drove into the dawn down an Arkansas highway whose signpost bore two numbers and a shield. It was a blue highway in the William Least Heat Moon sense with a shrouding fog and a near perfect circle of floating orange sun flawed only by two large sunspots at one and five o’clock. The sun filled the center of my windshield like a target. A good thing that one can safely stare right at the sun through miles of fog—sort of the sky as my welder’s lens. The black irregularities looked more like faults on my own eye, but they were real freckles on our local starface, sidereal moles that could swallow up the earth itself—history, chaos, meadowlarks and all.

 

I was alone in my orb of limited visibility, gliding along in radio murmur and road hum until ahead a dark motion interrupted, the sun and its blemishes were suddenly gone—a trailer pulled onto the road. I braked, reflexively. No choice, really, this was no mean vehicle. Two flashing trucks pulled out behind it to follow along like the children of an angular God. The rotating yellow lights made weak slashes in the mist. I could see this was no simple double-wide journey, no oversized load in the normal sense. This was a full-sized home on a rickety platform heading out for new ground. It filled all the lanes and most of both shoulders of the way east. Silhouetted by the filtered foglight, we all caravanned behind it towards the new day.

 

This week my daughter and I are cheating. Impatient for deeper spring, for insects and birds, we are doing our part for the suffering airline industry and rushing over the southeastern states into Florida’s skies. We are going for an injection of paradise. (I think we are all clear on the use of that word.) We meet Eric, our guide who now lives right down there in paradise with his two cats. We sleep off the travel day of airports and security precautions, of shoes and conveyor belts—all the things we do for brighter skies. Smoot, the cat, comes in that night to speak in my ear. It is a dialect I do not know, but he seems bent on telling me something from the mythology of cats. I had not puzzled out the complex grammar of felines but Smoot is patient, he will not give up on me. It is urgent news and it is not. In the half light, I see his conspirator Mo raking my luggage with his orange feet. It makes a sound like water streaming. I don’t know quite how. But cats and luggage—it is a bond we cannot understand. And one we will never break. I shoo them both off.

 

At dawn the world is all distant Boat-tailed Grackles check-check-checking in the palm-and-pinescape. The screen is open to the air. A White-winged Dove spoons for us all. On the wall outside the apartment are Eric’s local Barking Treefrogs. They cling in lidded sleep to the wall around the lights, fattened by the moths that are lured to the bulbglow night after night. Their colors are blended into the very paint tones—a creamy, tan and neutral shade. One wonders what other colors they could manage with their skin. One wants to take them through the Sears paint sample catalog to find out. They look contented. But surely soon they will have to give up their spot, make some froggy trek out at least into the trees or to some wet depression on the watered lawns. Somewhere they will have to bark for their seasonal lovers. Have they no spring urges beyond the belly and the tongue?

 

Open fields and palmetto thicket, farm roads and fences—it is Florida and it is not. In the land of Ponce, the Feast of Flowers, we look for signs of the alien world and find them first in the cranes. These are Sandhill Cranes, the smaller more tolerant member of the crane family here in the United States. They have taken Florida to their hearts. The birds here have stopped migrating altogether. (Why go?) They’ve nested and egged and hatched already before our own Ozark home has had a chance to thoroughly thaw. And now here they walk—mothers, fathers and stilted chicks. We go off the roadside for the first family group we see. The adults give us a knowing glance but then keep feeding. The chick, which looks like some sort of biology trick involving a downy yellow duck and sticks, stays close to the parents. My daughter desperately wants to hold the hatchling. But this, I believe, could result in multiple stab wounds or possibly death. The parents are on vigil despite their easy proximity, despite their apparent nonchalance. My daughter gives them the gasp she reserves for the cutest puppies and for baby birds. They all ignore her. In the ditch nearby, I see dragonflies flitting. They are baskettails in a low swarm. They bounce and turn and vanish into the grasses like small miracles. We capture one and hold it close to our eye while more cranes cry in the distance. Baskettails have golden squares along the sides of their spine. If you do not hold them, you can not know this.

 

We roll to a stop for every crane after this—looking for more chicks. We are cruising for chicks in the new National Geographic sense of the phrase. Some of the adult birds walk alone. Some are so close to the roadside they seem to stand over the car. I roll down the window for one of these fearless birds and he, a loner or bachelor of some variety, promptly moves even closer to me and the car. I have my window down and this bird stares and looms and then lays back its head and rattles a scream that is truly dinosaurian. The bird’s neck blows up like a trickster’s balloon. My eyes go wide. “Jurassic Park,” we whisper as the bird turns to look dead at me. Red-eyed, when facing you, they look slightly cross-eyed but are very focused and almost prim with that straight mouth line. It is a Jurassic schoolmaster’s look. He steps and rattles again. He is either speaking directly to me or he is asking the Camry to mate and dance. But with that red skullcap, that ancient stare, he looks into the back of my eyes—I get the same sudden message that Rilke’s poetic spectator got staring down at the broken torso of Apollo: “You must change your life,” the eyes say. A dangerous thing to hear in your head from a bird.

 

At the lakeside we watch the kites search far and near for apple snails. These great mollusk’s eggs are on the reeds that poke up in front of us like patches of moist pearls—white snail caviar. A newly hatched Hyacinth Glider crashes in the grass next to my shoe. I lift him up. He is the first of his kind in my experience. Poor guy’s compass isn’t quite dry. It is a dizzy world where dragons bang their noses in their hurry to go go go.

 

On the Arkansas highway behind the roving house, I wonder if the driver is smoking, if he has had enough coffee. He may be a hired hand. Though surely there are no experts at this mad kind of going. I need him to be highly alert either way. A collapse, a collision could tangle us all up in disaster and splintered wood. The house is so wide that he must zig and zag monstrously to miss the mailboxes on either side of the road. And, at every intersection in the sleepy town we are soon ghosting through, he must lurch at just the right moment to dodge the top of his structure between the hanging traffic lights. The power lines overhead vibrate at each thrumming of the rooftop. I am amazed the lines don’t drag the house off into my crashing path. Only in cartoons, I suppose.

 

Our convoy sometimes reaches thirty five miles an hour. The oncoming traffic, also limited in the fog, rumbles and brakes right and left to form new obstacles on the shoulder for the driver to wobble suddenly around. I am glad to be on this side of the going. I would not want the view from the other side of the fog at twice the closing distance. One well-dressed man in front of a bank gapes at us like we are not to be believed. I think he rubbed his eyes and, just as he may have wished, we were gone. In the orange vagaries of foglight I appear to be following an angular, prehistoric tortoise designed by Euclid and Ringling. It is a self-destructive tortoise with either a mission or a deathwish. Possibly both. It is a creature that is, well, not homeless but rootless, at least dangerously migratory. Guiding me temporarily, I know not where we are bound.

 

Like junkies for the thermostat my daughter and Eric and I keep plowing south toward the thumbnail of Florida into cloud, into sawgrass and cattle. A world without altitude whips by. Caracaras appear on the fenceposts—in places, the tallest manmade structures for miles. These are the tropical scavenger birds that look like crows just back from the prom. Like hawks with good breeding and expensive tailors. It is a bird to never tire of. In places we see four together. They seem to thrive in fog and cow pasture. They are the finest attendees at roadkill I’ve ever seen.

 

At the prairie it is raining. And we try to sleep it off in the car under strange dripping trees. Turkeys step out in the rain and feed. Gators float in the roadside waters. The roads appear to be paved with coral or shell. They are white. Apparently Florida does not have mud. Inside the port-a-potty which sits comically out in nowhere, treefrogs cling to the walls. They are dark-eyed things. All the treefrog species in Florida seem happy to coexist with man. Our lights and our odors draw good things to eat right up to their frogging tongues.

 

After the rain slackens we scan a field where Burrowing Owls live. These are the lovely little owls that dig holes to dwell inside and shun the trees. Like avian Hobbits, they like this lumpy green pasture. But they are not on the ground in the post-storm darkness. We spot them flying over the next field. They are flitting in place like falcons and scanning the ground, feeding on the wing with their long legs trailing. We never would have guessed at this sort of behavior. It is as though we have found great moths that feed on mice.

 

At the campsite the trees make shadow caves. The world is still dripping. North of us silver light makes its way east. There are no campers in sight. I think of the house on the roadway back home. And certainly campers are another way to have a home that goes with you—if you can think of these smaller boxes as homes. (I’m not sure I can.) It makes me want for residences in seven latitudes. So I can sample the earth’s turnings more thoroughly, track the sunlight’s effects from more solid foundations.

 

Into Miami at dawn we are tearing through humans as quickly as we can. The clouds have stacked up off the ocean to our left. Miami and its environs seem to stretch down the entire stateside. We can see where the buildings stand up to gaze out over the same ocean. Among condos and stucco, the plantlife grows surreal. Parrots rack and craw, flying green-tailed overhead. They are nesting in the palm trees. We see one dragging a long trailer of Bougainvillea blooms into a palm top. It could be a mating gift—smart parrot. At the mangrove flats along Key Biscayne we are among seaside dragon swarms and Mangrove Skippers. Crabs scuttle across the white sand. Pelicans sail over in ranks and rows. An Everglades Racer tests our strange flavors with his tongue.

 

At the tropical gardens it is ninety degrees. We are sweltering but distracted. Maybe we have pushed too far. My daughter looks sweaty and flushed. The plants are from all regions of the earth. Tropics are tropics, I suppose, when you are a heat loving plant. Some of the trees make you stop and stagger back. I must go where the Rainbow Eucalyptus grows someday—it is like a sudden assignment. Many of the leaves around us are oversized. The floral smells are strange and hypnotic, the flowers unearthly in places, gaudy and overwrought. Hummingbirds hum and seem unimpressed. Some birdcalls ring through the treetops that make us pause and stare. We have no idea; it is jungle noise. And then a pair of Hill Mynas wing by—an escaped bird that has held its own here. Miami is the land of creatures gone feral and fertile when unleashed from their boxes and cages. Anywhere else they just die out. Here they take a look around and start new lives.

 

We are mindful of this fact when Eric looks over to a bank of grass and says “there’s a big ass lizard over there.” All our heads turn. And indeed it is an iguana basking on the grass. Not the very rare Big Ass Iguana—but still. We think he is just someone’s bad joke before we note herds of iguanids of various sizes posing in the brush and along the shorelines. My daughter rushes after them but apparently they do not like young girls. They run into darkness. They skitter with speed and hurl themselves into the water and vanish as if my daughter is the biologic police, the local border patrol and their lovely jig is up. When all she truly wanted was to scratch behind their saurian eyes, to run her hands over their long tail spines. She stands on the shore of the pond watching the ripples, perturbed by the fearfulness of Miami’s lizards. It is a scene from a movie. Florida cannot be real.

 

Back in Orlando we breakfast locally on the day of our departure. We sit in a diner amidst the locals. This is not a place designed for travelers. They are not catering to the Disney crowd. They are cooking for real people. And the breakfasts are monumental. The pancakes perch on the plates with no sign of the plates beneath. The French toast comes in ranks and files. The home fries are chopped out of several potatoes on each tray. People come in wearing what they have slept in. The drowse is heavy in their eyes and in their hair. The cook, through the kitchen window, is a heap of a man. And the pile of fries he works has an altitude, a frostline. I shake my head and mention that this place could be raided by Cardiologists at any moment. Eric, facing his own landslide of scrambled eggs, comments that he believes that the place is actually owned by a giant, rich Cardiology Cartel.

 

At an earlier breakfast at some small town diner Eric had asked for picante sauce with his eggs. The girl, who had suffered a significant sun exposure event, stared at Eric with the look of someone who had sparks firing desperately behind her eyes. Eric assisted with a quiet “salsa?” And relief crossed her brow. “Ah, yes,” she said, “it had been coming to me.” She brought a soup bowl of salsa. And it seemed to be fine. On the bill however, as we got up to pay, there was a small charge of fifty nine cents for what was called “monkey salsa.” We all looked at it to make sure I had read it right. Then my daughter and I looked at Eric to assess his well being. We shrugged it off. We didn’t even ask. Surely real monkey salsa would be about fourteen ninety-nine a bowl—even in Florida.

 

We walk the lake shore in Kissimmee in the funk of the northbound. Some sort of celebration is setting up in the streets. But rain is threatening again from the west. The awnings flap. Policemen gather listlessly. On the water there are only a few gulls. My daughter has bread to throw. It is still one of her favorite things—gathering gulls to food. Instead we find moorhens in the reeds and on the boatlandings. They are painted coots—and if there has ever been a question of whether moorhens will eat bread it has now been decided. They chase it down like it is their one and only staple.

 

Nearby fishermen fling their corks and do not look hopeful. A family in their Sunday clothes carries their own bread. A little girl in a gilded dress scans the water. Grackles eye my daughter and pace along with us. A Muscovy Duck and her raft of newborns comes by. My daughter flings a breadlump at them and it bounces off a baby duckhead. “Incoming,” I whisper. And the babies form up in a quick trick to fool the gators I guess. Threatened by a bread mortar, they form a single oval mass that makes them look unified on the water. This, I think, will not save them from gators nor from more bread mortars. But selection has chosen it for some reason. As with many things, it will remain a mystery. On the way to the airport, staring out the window, I remember the face of that singular crane.

 

The rolling house did take down one mailbox. It was one of those boxes shaped like a tail-happy dachshund. I noticed. It was slapped flat in a twitching fault of the nerves—I don’t know if the driver even noticed. Thankfully, it was too early for robed women to be bending to peer inside their mailboxes. The house also took out some barrels from the roadside construction crews. They bounced and tumbled off into the fog. The trailing vehicles and their flashing yellow lights peeled off to take care of these minor incidents, leaving me directly behind the hurrying beast. As though the next incident was mine to stop for, I tried to track the great curving path of the monster, weaving all over the highway with him. I mean, behind this guy, the whole road was mine anyway. There was a weird joy in this. I do know one thing: pulling your whole house around the globe would not lengthen a seasonal life. And Lord knows this man’s stress was not assuaged. I think I see the point though. For those of us without those houses in seven latitudes, those of us stuck in our schizophrenic permanences, the goings might be easier with all of our things in tow. When you have roots, it is human to deny them on occasion, to test them with wherever you can go.

 

Eventually we, the convoy, came to a large, paved pull-off and the rolling house slid over politely to let the stacked up traffic pass. I slowed, the number one car, wondering where the house really was bound and what all the complicated reasons were for the journey. But I could not know. I did lean far over to see if I could catch a glimpse of the driver as I passed. To see what his face was like—if he was just calmly smoking, staring ahead into the sunrise, or if he was gripping the wheel like a man near death from the hellish details of it all. But all I saw was a blur, a headshape behind glass, and then I was back in the dawn fog, trying to remember where I was going myself that morning.

 

So I didn’t see which face it was on this other odd traveler—a mask of boredom, of regret, of fear, of expectation or of immense satisfaction. And I don’t know now which face it was that I’d wanted to find.

 

But either way, I assume he has rolled to a stop somewhere out there by this time. He has unfastened the ropes and guide wires and let the house fall back onto the earth in some better place, some new field with a finer view, some green hilltop with a warmer wind and a shorter winter. And he’ll stay there, you know, almost peacefully I bet, until whatever it is that happens to us happens again.

 

And then he’ll stare out the window and down the road, he’ll pace awhile on his painted porch before he shakes his head and goes upstairs to rummage around for all those boxes and jacks and that neatly folded map of the world.

 

Back in my home county the first dragonflies fly in from the south. And I watch them like they are the best jewels in the box. A breeze rattles the new oak leaves. The trees await the glean and twitch of northbound warblers. Florida seems so far away already as to be Oriental or Australian. Though I occasionally get flashes of jungle vegetation and that crying crane is still there in my head—that crane that did not even look at my daughter with its knowing stare. It looked only at me; I see it again and again. And what I want to know is: what does one damn red-eyed crane standing on a roadside know about anything anyway?

 

What?

                      

        HR