The Bliss of Solitude
(In Memory of Mike Roberts)
"In solitude, when we are least alone"--Byron
"My daddy," Joe Lawson says, "was the best pistol shot I ever saw, but bad to drink. He'd wedge bottle caps between my fingers, make me hold up my hands and he'd shoot them out with his .44. Those caps buzzed like whoopie cushions. I can hear them now."
Joe became my first friend at St. Marks, the panhandle fishing village I chose to hideout and write the great American novel Away from home and the distraction of friends. My Leesburg neighbor Don Boyd pulled my Airstream to Shell Island Fish Camp with his monster truck. Solitude, I tell my wife, titillates the muse.
Joe crabs and fishes the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers, leaving the dock each morning before sunrise, waking me up as he loads his baskets into the skiff. He has a ready smile, orange hair and prickly white beard. We sit at a picnic table at Shell Island Fish Camp swatting no-see-ums while Joe shows me artifacts he's found in the two-river area. He tells me where to scuba for points, cast for weakfish, snorkel for scallops. He brings his kids to see me and I cook venison. His wife Sherry leaves fried grouper and peach cobbler on my aluminum doorstep. My writing sessions shorten. Even writers have to eat. Poet Dylan Thomas said: "Poets write love poetry while lovers love."
I make friends with Alan, Ruthie, Flop, Liz, Blake, Ross, Alice and Grady, the ex-cop, at the fish camp; with Jeff, the sweet natured fishing guide who takes drunk once a year and makes everybody have a drink in the middle of the day; with Miss Joy at the general store; with Miss Pat the postmistress; with Tal and Becky, who've been married since high school; with Vic Davis who shoots sharks until midnight with a bow; with Sherry's divorced sister Kim, who spends the night with the Lawson's couch because she can't stand being alone; with the Lawson kids Robert, Junior, Rose and Lisa; with Ashley and Wynona, little sisters who sit on the seawall watching porpoises.
Frank Wetherbee brings down his skiff and we follow Bruce Jones and Poodle Prince out from Shell Point to fish the flats. Poodle says he'll goldplate anything Frank catches on that flyrod Frank lashes tirelessly, time after time against the wind. Resolute and empty handed. All summer without a fish.
Chip Hall comes downs and spends two nights. I bump into Frank Thurmon, Don Strickland and Steve Kaplin playing stud poker in the Shell Island Motel. It looks like everybody in Albany is in St. Marks getting away from it all. I cultivate local friends quickly, Claire says, because they don't know much about me yet. Well, all work and no play...
"That bullshit they tell you in the Army," Joe continues, "about taking a revolver away from a man by laying your thumb between the hammer and the firing pin is just that."
"It ought to work."
"It will for a click or two, but you can't keep your thumb up under there with that hammer hitting the bone. You got to pull it out and get shot," he says, showing me round puckered scar through the web of his thumb where he took a bullet from a friend who was trying to shoot another friend. If there's a lesson in all this, it has something to do with the down side of having too many friends.
Joe got shot several times in civilian life before he even went to Viet Nam. He caught his first bullet when he beat up his little brother and took his bicycle. His brother shot him off his bicycle with a .22. Another time he walked in a dark bar and before his eyes could adjust, somebody shot him in the forearm with a .25 automatic who thought he was somebody else. Joe fell to the floor hearing more gunshots and feeling splinters hitting him in the face until he heard a louder explosion and his assailant joined him on the floor shivering in a death rattle, shot with a .357 mag. through the head. "Any shooting in this bar," the bartender said, "I'll be the one to do it." It seems to me that there's a mighty lot of shooting in the peaceful little fishing village of St. Marks, where I'm making all these friends and finding solitude.
June Bailey White, one of my favorite writers, drives down from Thomasville, bringing Ball jars of wonderful vegetables from her garden. She wants to see a manatee, tells me in her dear and scratchy voice that she'll buy supper at Posey's Oyster Bar if I can show her one.
We step in my jonboat and run up the Wakulla. According to Joe, there's a pod of sea cows near the bridge. We find a half dozen adults with a partially weaned calf. I order June into the water and she looks at me like I'm nuts. The diminutive writer weighs less than the calf, but she's mighty game. I avert my eyes as she changes into gym shorts that serve as swimming attire. She fixes her face mask and slips over the side for a close encounter.
A manatee the size of mini-bus blimps over, smearing its hair-lip mug against her mask while a calf confuses June with mom mother and nudges up to nurse. Surrounded by the gentle giants, she backpeddles into a whiskered bull who nuzzles her from behind. June honks through her snorkel but hangs in there until her lips are purple and her teeth rattle. Protected from the cold by thick layers of fat, I can float among the manatees in the spring-fed river all day, but June, all sinew and brain cells, has less body tallow than a coathanger. Her eyes brightened by the encounter with the huge mammals, but she's shivering too much to speak. And I think what a wonderful lady she is, how lucky I am to be her friend. I wrap her in my poncho just as the thunderstorm hits and we rush to tie up under the bridge.
Lightning licks and rain sizzles. Joe has provided stone crab claws, which I crack against the gunnels and hand to June. She pecks the white meat with quick nervous fingers, averting her eyes to ominous heavens as Eve herself must have cringed as she nibbled forbidden fruit. "Never in the history of man," I lie as webs of silver electricity flicker and crash around us, "has lightning struck a metal bridge over a moving river." I don't tell her that Joe finds crabs fried in his pots after electrical storms.
When the squall blows by, we idle back down the river, past slate gray gators returning to bask on sun-splotched banks. June points out wild rice, pitcher plants, and flowering pickerel weed. The eel grass sways beneath us in the current and mullet scatter from the jonboat's shadow. They leap high into the air, stalling out and belly-flopping back into sparkling water, jumping because they can, we decide, jumping because they can't fly, but have seen snakebirds and ducks crash upward through the chrome surface and disappear.
We flush coots, whose splashing feet boost their speed to lift them airborne. We see dunlins and plovers, dowitchers, whimbrels and willets. Wooducks squall by, and long V's of ibis fly upstream to roost at the Wakulla headwaters. A cruciform anhinga stands on a stump drying her wings. Maybe I'll put this river in a novel sometime. Maybe I'm working after all.
On the way to Posey's dock, we pass the Fort San Marco at the mouth of the St. Marks River, where there were shootouts between British, Spanish, French, Rebels and Feds. The limestone walls are pocked by grapeshot and minnie balls. We enter the river and dock at Posey's just as the sun sets over the spartina grass. It's rumored there was a shooting in the parking lot last month, another over at Crawfordville.
At Posey's dollar bills with patrons' names and messages scribbled in Magic Marker are glued to walls and ceilings. Pretty waitresses with tasteful tattoos bring you smoked mullet and sweating pitchers of beer, calling you baby although they're younger than your daughters. I realize I've taken a couple days off from the great American novel, but to be a writer, you have to network with best-selling authors like Bailey White, don't you?
Stink Hole, a sulphur springs that flows into the St. Marks River, has healing properties, I'm told, that will cure oyster shells cuts and hemorrhoids. I drive down the dirt road until I come to 4X4 trucks and rusted out station wagons backed into a haphazard star with a clot of Cracker musicians sitting on tailgates. They pluck stringed instruments in private cacophony, each to his own tune. Music, the sister art of literature, insinuates the summer twilight.
Kids line up, pinching their noses to jump off a stone wall into sulphur scented water bearded with bright algae. I notice that even kids at the tail end of the line hold their noses. The ones waiting to swing on the rope from a giant live oak are holding their noses too. Then I get a whiff. Stink hole smells like a swamp of egg salad gone bad.
A tattooed beauty in a two-piece is drunk to the point of brain death. She has a puckered navel and a plough-share pelvis. "Hit's cold enough to freeze your tits off," she slurs. Her stretch marks identify her as one of the mothers. "I wouldn't ease in I was you."
"What? Just jump off the wall?"
"Or out that tree."
"It deep enough?"
"You cain't touch if you try."
"It doesn't look deep," I observe.
"Go ahead, jump out the tree. If you ain't chickenshit," she challanges, looking through me with unfocused goat eyes.
Another girl, a rough beauty I'm attracted to without knowing why, leans against a dumpster. She's freckled and pug nosed with puffy sun-clenched eyes, whop-sided grin seems chopped into her pretty cheek with a hatchet. Her teenage kid is splashing with some younger kids. He's effeminate and nerdy, indicating a single mom trying to do it all. I know how to come on to her. You break the ice by paying attention to the nerd, her creation.
Frank Wetherbee has chatted with her before, offered her a Heniekens. He told me she works at a body shop in Woodville. I picture her banging out fenders with a sledge hammer. Welding, hanging on one hip with a wand spewing acetylene flame. Goggles on her forehead, that ironic grin and good strong teeth that could open a clam. Or maybe arc welding a galaxy of sparks, cocking her face shield like Joan of Ark. Hot Damn, I want to be touched by those rough hands, the kind of woman who'd clean fish and shuck oysters, settle domestic strife with a ballpeen hammer. I imagine her in white batiste nightie instead of cut-offs. I'm not sure what I want from this girl, but it's not a one night stand. Maybe it's just her approval, respect in her world, a different venue. Get my creative juices sloshing.
I swing from the rope, splashing into water hardly over my head, pile-driving my legs into custard mud and decomposed leaves. I thrash to the surface in a foul and sulphurous flatulence as from the bowels of Hell. Breathing through my mouth, I taste rotten eggs.
The boy's wet hair is slicked back. Somebody told him Stink Hole will clear up zits.
"You from around here?" I ask, my eyes watering, my nostrils blocked by my upper lip.
"Not me," says the smart-ass, "Mom told me to choose between the Stink Hole and the French Riviera for summer holiday. So here we are."
"That your mom?" I smile up at the fender bender.
"None other." The kid dives, kicking smelly water in my face, his wide ass bobbing like a tick. Mom waves and joins the jammers on tailgates. She knows exactly what I'm up to.
I call Claire from the pay phone back at the fish camp, dancing in place and fanning the no-see-ums that swarm my dripping trunks.
"It's him," says stepdaughter Mary Catherine. I picture her handing the receiver to her mother with two fingers.
"I sure do miss you," Claire giggles. "It's terrible how much."
"You could visit," I suggest.
"Well, you know how it is, but I do miss you. Really."
"Hell, I'll get in the truck and come on home."
"Oh, don't do that," she says quickly.
"I used to be married to a full blooded Seminole," Joe says turning a 10,000-year-old Clovis spearpoint in his blunt fingers. "She just slept with her friends. Didn't have no enemies."
"That's a shame," I say examining a flaw in the Clovis.
"I come home one night, found my best friend's truck in the yard and caught them in bed naked as chickens."
He passes me a framed velvet plaque of Confederate buttons. "I picked these up rooting around near Fort San Marco."
"What'd you do?"
"Your best friend and the Indian."
"I shot him and she run naked down the hardtop. I missed her cause the tears blurred my sights."
I found that Clovis in the river. I'd be priceless it wasn't chipped."
"You do any time? Go to prison?"
"For killing your best friend?"
"Naw, he didn't die." Joe raises his shirt and points to an unblemished area four inches from a round waxy scar near his own navel. "The bullet gone through him right here and come out his back without hitting rib or bone."
I don't ask about the scar in his own belly."He was lucky," I say.
"Both of us. The judge said if I'd deed her the doublewide and get gone for a while, they'd drop the charges."
"You ever see your friend?."
"Sure, we get along. He knows how it is. Me too. I couldn't keep off her no better than he could."
"Where's she now?"
"The Glades last I heard. She sent a crowd of Seminoles up for the doublewide, which I was glad to get out from under. I owed more on it than it was worth." Joe picks up a Bolin bevel and hands it over. "I don't know where she is," he grins, "but I can tell you what she's up to."
Bill and Jim Pace drive down to be with Daddy Oscar, who flys into Tallahassee from St. Pete. I knock off for a couple of days to listen to old Albany tales that span most of the 20th century. These are the men who taught me to hunt, fish, and laugh. It's my duty to listen, to absorb the stories, pass them on. We sit around the kitchen table drinking wine and swapping lies. The next day, the old man and I make a run up the St. Marks in Frank's skiff, this trip enriched by the hundreds of rivers we've shared over the past fifty years. The old man's looking good for 83, smiling in the bow of the skiff.
We drive to Alligator Point to watch the sun set over Dog Island, another sight we've shared hundreds of times. Gulls dive into a silver shower of baitfish and feeding mackerel, just beyond the wet, pink rime of sand.
In early September, when I finally get back to my word processor, I discover the keys welded together with dirt dauber tubes. A cotton mouse lies electrocuted, having gnawed through the cord. I may as well catch a redfish in the ebbing tide. Maybe run out to the lighthouse and fish the flats for speckled trout.
At my slip Ashley and Wynona, children from the trailer park, sit on the seawall with feet dangling over the space between the barnacled wall and the floating dock. Ashley, the oldest, is seven or eight, her serious face fixed in deep thought. "A porpoise came up right there," she says said pointing just beyond the floating dock.
"I saw him yesterday," I tell them. "It came up by the Airstream, lifted its tail high, and spanked the water, just waving hello I reckon."
"That's the one," says Ashley.
"Hello," says Wynona bright eyed.
"How old are you, Wynona?"
She holds up five fingers.
Ashley leans over and whispers to her sister, who's still smiling. She's two," Ashley says. "and the truth ain't in her."
"Aren't you worried Wynona will fall in the crack between the two docks?"
"No, says Ashley, I've got her on a leash." She lifts her shirt. The two children are tied together on a green dog tether. "I've got another sister younger than Wynona I take care of."
I go to the Airstream for my camera, but when I return they have gone down the dirt road, double on Ashley's bike.
When I get back to Leesburg, it looks like no man ever set foot in my little house, I say mine because I've invested a couple hundred thousand dollars buying out the equity of ex-wives. Claire and Mary Catherine have totally feminized the place. The air is scented with perfume and potpourri. The only food on the premises is pasta and mineral water. Conditioner and body gels line the bathtubs. Dried roses and grapevine wreaths hang from the shower heads.
"Did you finish the great American novel?" Claire wants to know.
"I'm very close," I say, cutting my eyes. "One more summer of solitude at St. Marks ought to get it done."