We stood together in a church emptied of its fellowship. I was eight and practicing a hymn for that night’s Wednesday prayer meeting. My father had quit attending church altogether but allowed me to participate in the choir practices because it was so close to home and cheaper than daycare. As I finished the song the minister approached the pulpit and leaned over me. He was obese and his breath came heavy as he made two fists and held them up. ‘I broke each of these knuckles on a different face,’ he told me, clenching them for my admiration. His sermons often included lessons gleaned from the sinful glory days of his youth spent in Chicago, where he reportedly led a street gang working jobs for the mob. His knuckles were meaty and crowned with the colors of a bruise. ‘And now the Lord uses me to crack though the skulls of those who’ve strayed from the Path.’ When I smiled, he asked me if I wanted to touch them. They were huge and magnificent. I imagined the sound of them breaking.
He’d brought along two deacons when he arrived at our church that January, just three weeks after our regular preacher failed to show up for a service, disappearing along with the church secretary and several hundred dollars in tithing. Of the deacons, one was tall and hulking, the other was squat and hairy, with some kind of brain problem. During the sermons they stood behind the rear pews, blocking the exits, a gesture some of the elderly women found uncomfortable. They summoned the new minister to a meeting the following day at the church’s undersized dining hall. I offered to help make the desserts, which allowed me to eavesdrop from the kitchen. When the minister arrived he refused to sit, saying he could only stay a minute. It became clear that he wasn’t there to apologize. ‘The difference between a minister and a preacher,’ he began, buttoning his jacket, ‘is that a preacher is beholden to his congregation. I am beholden only to our savior Jesus Christ. He shared with me His Word, and if you attend my services, I expect you not only to listen, but to pay attention, and to arm yourself with the Spirit. Because every single member of this church, under God’s Law and my tutelage, will be expected to travel these country woods and do some ministering themselves. There are no term limits to being evangelical, ladies. There is only one retirement age in the eyes of Christ. If this does not coincide with your Faith, I hear Sunset Baptist has a wonderful Bingo facility.’
After he left, our organist and choir leader, Ms. Hendrickson, donning her usual blue cape, was the first to arrive back in the kitchen. She picked up the carrot cake I’d finished icing earlier and dumped it face down in the sink. Then, passing without a word, she closed the doors of the walk-in pantry behind her. That was the last I ever saw of her.
The henchman resumed their posts the following Sunday. The minister was late to arrive, and people half-expected he might not show up, given how sourly things had gone the previous Monday. But he did arrive, carrying several brown paper bags up to the pulpit from the door near the baptismal pool leading to his chambers. He did not address the controversial affair, nor the noticeable absence of several prominent members, but instead leaned into the microphone to ask that everyone stand up, that very second, and walk with him a mile down the road to the corner of New Haven Avenue. His plan, or God’s, was to shoot bottle rockets through the front doors of the local gay bar.
First off, let me say that our church rested in the middle of some pinewoods bordering the estuarial marshlands of the St Johns River. All of us were poor—most living out of trailers and single-bedroom houses. A high school diploma was, to many, as culturally and financially divisive as a PhD. Suffice to say, our prejudice against people we viewed as outsiders, homosexuals included, ran deep. Still, the idea of launching fireworks—which were illegal except when used to scare away crows (in all my years in Florida, I’d never seen a single crow)—into a legal establishment not blocks from the fire station stretched far beyond the pale. When his plan was met only with a few claps and even fewer amens, the minister accused us all of lacking the courage of our faith, and led us into the longest prayer I’ve ever heard, before dismissing us.
The next week people arrived to find we’d lost half the congregation. Our new minister seemed to take pride in the disparity, likening it to boiling down water for the salt. His sermons grew increasingly demanding of our participation. Each Sunday and Wednesday evening he’d thunder down charges against us as listless co-conspirators in the savaging of God’s Great Plan (‘Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth, the scripture reads.’) He never shied from instructing us on what methods, however radical, could be employed to disrupt the evildoings of the Beast. One week he brought in a turntable, playing vinyl records backwards to reveal the recording artists’ true intentions, devised in a way to penetrate our subconscious. We squinted to hear Robert Plant cry out, “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan!” And it took a few tries, but I finally caught Freddy Mercury squealing, “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” The Beatles apparently enjoyed referencing sexual acts, which I gave up trying to parse out—the words were mangled, the music convoluted and scratchy. But the minister played each record incessantly, until he had most of the adults nodding in agreement. He also taught us how KISS was an acronym for Knights in Satan’s Service, and showed us an album gatefold where members of the Eagles stood outside a house supposedly owned by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. If you looked closely, you could spot LaVey on the balcony, arms spread wide, welcoming home his flock.
After taking the needle from the last record, the minister grew gravely quiet, bouncing his fingers in the air to silence our muttering. I remember watching our newly appointed choir director, Ms. Holly, rub away her goose bumps. I felt the same strange tension settle upon the room, and pulled my arms into my sleeves.
The minister raised his head and said that before arriving at our church, he’d been in Alabama, and that while there, he had exorcised a demon of Rock n’ Roll from a teenager in the storage room of a convention center. The experience had been traumatic, and left him fearing for his soul; but it was his duty, his calling, so he pushed on. ‘At first I wasn’t sure why God called me here to June Park,’ he said. But now, looking out over us, he understood why: he saw that very same eye-seed of corruption in several of the children in this very room. ‘It’s not too late, though,’ he promised us. ‘There’s just an inkling. The Devil hasn’t taken a hold of them completely.’
I was surprised to find his gaze settling on me as he finished this sentence, partly because the only music I ever listed to was the Amy Grant CD my mother sang to while washing the dishes. But I somehow believed it, and searched my child’s body for signs—a tingling sensation, or a small voice in my head—to prove that whatever was inside me understood it had been recognized, and recoiled.
The next night the remnants of our once robust congregation—thirty or so true believers—returned to the church bearing CDs, records, tapes, posters, and other satanic paraphernalia (‘Whatever is not of God,’ our minister proclaimed, ‘is of the Devil’—which seemed to me almost everything). From rock to rap, jazz to reggae, we piled into the church lugging our blasphemic artifacts. I carried up the aisle the only thing I could risk sneaking from my father’s collection, a spare copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. I wanted it out of my hands, so I slipped it into some boxes marked Metal/Thrash. Other members brought along items that had nothing to do with music: books with overtly sexual passages, videotapes they were convinced contained hidden messages. Anything with a whiff of magic or strangeness, too: fluffy Teletubbies dolls, Charmed and Buffy DVDs, Smurf coloring books. We assembled in front to pray before filing outdoors. The church stood on an acre of land, its backyard hidden from the outlying community by a copse of pines boxing each side. We gathered around a black oil drum at the center of the lot, tossing in our things until it overflowed. We prayed deeply and moved about the drum as the minister and his two deacons sprayed fuel onto the heap.
I didn’t refuse when the minister handed me the box of matches. I didn’t even consider running home to my parents or calling the cops. It was up until that moment the most special privilege afforded to me by any adult. The other members, people I’d known my whole life, watched me with a reverence I’d never inspired with any of my songs. The minister dropped down beside me. I was the keeper of the keys, he whispered to me. Did I have the faith necessary to unlock my own glory? Was I the child to lead them?
This was before the minister took vengeance on his wife for her betrayals out in back of the Home Depot nursery department up on Palm Bay Road; before the tall deacon ran off with Mr. Perry’s seventeen-year-old daughter to Fort Christmas, and before Mr. Perry went to go get her back; and before the deacon with the brain situation messed with a boy privately, reaching up into his ripped jeans while he was sipping from the water fountain, then disappearing hours before the cops were ever notified. I’m not going to tell you which boy. But what I can tell you is that on this night, the flames of the bonfire seemed to rise higher the more deeply and loudly we prayed. Young and middle-aged and ninety-four years young—we circled the drum in the wafting heat and spoke in tongues and cried rejoicing and prayed to our god from our bowels, deeply, because we all finally knew who we were and what we stood for, and because we all knew where we were going.
We divided up the acid.
A1A was suddenly a strip of jackpot lights and then it wasn’t. We parked the minivan on the sandy shoulder and lay head-to-toe along the highway’s broken yellow lines rehearsing our deaths until our giggling fell off to the martian sound of the ocean operating just beyond a dark cluster of palmettos. It was like anything could be stolen from us at any moment and now this beautiful gift. We had been told our lives were as useless as chewing gum wrappers and believed it, but now it seemed we were being called to something greater. Across the highway a wire fence bowed with the heads of inquisitive cattle. I didn’t think the salty air was good for them and found myself crying. Their big dumb heads went up and down like meaty gavels. I waited by the roadside as the others piled back inside and jacked the music. When the next pair of yellow lights rounded the bend, I stumbled forward and thrust my suede jacket into the car’s path, catching its mirror as I yelled “Toro!” The little car swerved but caught itself and suddenly the night sky above erupted with the sound of a thousand tiny white trumpets. I ran across the road but the cows scrambled. I tied my jacket to a wood post and tried whistling them back from the darkness. There was something I needed to explain to them about loss and renewal. About forgiveness, and how in other countries they could be worshiped as gods, but that they needed to make the best of their lives here, because the other cows relied on them, as did their owners. At the time my intentions were clear, but all I’m sure of now is that I lost my phone.
A short time later I was walking on water, a quarter moon opening a path to the waves.
The thing about true joy is that it retreats abruptly as a continental shelf, except along New Smyrna Beach, where in the shifting tides you can walk out a hundred feet and still have the ocean lap against your ankles. Back in the van they slapped my hands from their foreheads. They’d filmed me earlier on the beach and now huddled around the camera to watch. I’d taken on the role of a television evangelist, walking down the line and holding each of their heads in my hands. Following a short prayer, I called out and released whatever ailment was plaguing them. One by one they shrieked and collapsed to the sand. As a kid in Vacation Bible School, this had been my dream, and I relished going through the motions. Once my job was finished, I turned and walked into the ocean. They let me go for a little while, then stripped down and went in after me. My jeans were wet to the waist.
When Hollywood left rehab, broke and forgotten, and the only job it could get was shipping crystal meth up and down the east coast, it bailed on California, got that tattoo it always wanted, bought a brand new Harley Sportster and changed its name to Daytona Beach.
People from nightclubs and bars overflowed the sidewalks, smoking and chattering, sword fighting with long plastic tubes once filled with fruity alcoholic drinks. It seemed the partyers didn’t find us all that strange, and if we were dangerous, probably not much more so than themselves. At the beach I drifted from the group to find myself alone before a great open-aired amphitheater set before two rows of concrete benches. The sand floor glittered like tiny hummingbirds caught in glass webs. Approaching the dark stage, I watched a figure rise within. He’d been lying down and had stripped a blanket off and now stood at the edge of the proscenium. I pulled the pocketknife from my back pocket and waited. For a moment we watched each other. When I realized who it was, I dropped to my knees. I shook in that spot until His sandals appeared before me.
‘Verily, verily, I say unto you: Son, thou shalt not. Thou shall. Thou shalt not. Thou shall and thou shalt not.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I replied through clogged sinuses.
‘The Kingdom of Heaven is in you.’
With those words, he strapped a jet pack to my back, and I ascended straight up through the stratosphere.
The next day, watching the digital footage, a certain number of things became clear to me. For starters, in the ring of drug abuse I was a welterweight, at best. Second, in a world of human misery and savagery, the mis-fits somehow find each other. I’m not saying that we’re more capable of empathy; I’m just reminded that when a person finds himself in the company of a stranger in despair, eye-to-eye, being to being, we often show an amazing affinity for tenderness.
I imagined the homeless man (if he was in fact homeless) sleeping off an honest drunk when he was first awoken by the sounds of laughter, a group of young men trying to get a fire going nearby. He thinks perhaps they will share their food, if they have any, and maybe even their alcohol. After throwing off his blanket and performing a few stretches, he’s startled to find one of them approaching the stage, swerving between benches. A second individual with a camera follows him, a small light trained on his back. The first young man appears to be, I can assure you, absolutely bonkers. As their eyes meet, he watches the intruder’s hand slip back to retrieve a knife. This isn’t an altogether unexpected development. But then the boy collapses to the ground, weeping. For two or so minutes the homeless man doesn’t move, convinced, I’m sure, that this is some kind of trick. But after a while he walks to the amphitheater’s edge and takes the stairs down to the beach. In his hand he’s carrying something, a bottle perhaps. Although it might as easily have been a gun.
The camera following me mostly captured darkness but also managed to record a little of our exchange.
The homeless man approaches but stops a few yards short, yelling, ‘I’m telling you, boy, don’t do it. Do it and….Don’t even try it. You do and you’ll never do nothing again.’
‘I don’t understand,’ says the boy.
“You fucking dumb? Maybe even retarded, aren’t you.’
‘Father,’ the boy says.
The homeless man doesn’t seem to know how to respond. This isn’t something he’s perhaps ever heard before. He spits and looks at the camera. ‘This your fucking friend? You think this shit’s funny?’
He could have done any number of things. He might have tried coaxing money out of me. He could have kicked me to the sand and gone after the idiot camera man, but these were actions with defined consequences, and if anything he feels vaguely undefined and mysterious, holy even as the waves echoed through the concrete rafters behind. Or at least that’s how my own thoughts unfolded as I watched him standing over me, looking around as if for guidance from a nonexistent audience.
Instead he steps forward, one hand kept behind his back as his other reaches nervously for my shoulder.
‘Hey, are you okay?’ he asks. He looks over at the camera. ‘Is he okay?’
I suffer his gaze as he lifts me from the sand. When he’s convinced I can stand on my own, he turns me around and pats my back, guiding me toward the firelight the others have successfully started down the beach.
Watching the movie, I searched for his eyes, cast in darkness by a thick brow and the moonlit sliver of nose, but all I could distinguish was the intensity with which he watched me go. It’s like he could hardly believe it himself. He’d almost called me son.
Big Jim brought over a special batch of his aunt’s corn whiskey he kept bottled in a mason jar. The party was going strong, but I sat folded on a couch by myself, sick with the thought of my father lusting after my girlfriend. The previous night he’d woken me up again, the low timber of his voice a surprise in the dark. He sat on the edge of my bed, and by the end of his confession he was bawling in my pillow. I imagined clubbing him to death with the lamp. He repeated what he’d said over the last few nights, that he didn’t know who she was when he found her on the computer we shared, that he thought it was just nude shots of some random girl I had downloaded. He apologized again for not hearing me open and close the front door, which was not his fault, I’ll admit. Then he pulled me off the bed and made me kneel beside him. As he led us into prayer, I felt the blood leave my hands, he was squeezing so hard.
Big Jim poured an ounce of the alcohol into a plastic cold-syrup top he carried. ‘One shot’s all you need,’ he said, so I took three. When I tried to stand later the world shimmied out from under me. Nobody offered to pick me off the floor. They laughed so I laughed too. I lay there until Burgen squatted down and asked me if I wanted to go to Snake Lake and blast off a few rounds.
The ride out to the lake sucked serious ass. The trail was made for dirt bikes, and with each breath I took over the humps, I tasted vomit.
Burgen passed the shotgun back. It was about a foot long and gleamed like green silicone in the radio light. Someone had taken an arc welding tool to the barrels and filed down the edges. I stuck my fingers down the holes like Bugs Bunny. Big Jim snatched the gun away and gave me this look like I was the crazy one.
We parked and stepped out into a clearing populated by all manner of insect. Cameron, who had been driving, walked us out to the silted edge of the lake. Ever since I’d drowned as a kid I’d been afraid of water, so I held back, propping myself on the hood of the car and smoking.
The drowning took place during a daycare outage at Roach Park, which was named for the jazz drummer, not the insect, though it might as well have been. I hand-paddled my black inner tube past the floatation devices attached to a rope that bisected the pond, separating the shallow end from deep. The act felt manly and dangerous, something my dad might have done at my age. Somehow in the excitement of doing wrong I managed to flip myself over with the inner tube still grasping my waist. I remember the struggling and flailing, and I remember giving in. It’s true about the peacefulness you experience—I watched the greeny underwater plants sway in slow motion as the water settled into my lungs. I experienced a goopy sort of quiet. I remember very clearly the thoughts of my child-self dying, and they were much more beautiful than the thoughts I think I’d have dying now. I was young, but I prayed for a second chance. As my vision grew purple and then black, my body suddenly convulsed so violently that the movement flipped me back over. Patches of vomit drifted about me like wild sargassum. I was so tired I just sank into the tube and drifted. As the tube made its slow rotation and the shore became visible again, it became apparent that no one else had witnessed the event. Children patted down mud castles; adults dove for the volleyball. It was like that picture where the boy with wax wings fell from the sky and no one noticed, not the ship sailing into the sunset, not the horse plowing some field. Just a splash in the corner. It was like some test I had failed but my failure was living.
Big Jim startled me back by discharging the shotgun overhead. Until-then invisible birds took to the moon. The shot echoed over the lake and returned with a warning.
Burgen set up the milk jugs in a snatch of palmettos and we took turns demolishing them. It’s easy to imagine what it could do to another human being. Bits of plastic clung to the fronds like broken teeth.
That was when Cameron, in a hurry to shoot next, accidentally elbowed the mason jar full of alcohol from the car hood. By this time we were all wasted. Burgen just laughed. Big Jim didn’t think it was so funny. He said it would cost him another week of snorkeling golf balls from the water hazards at the country club to pay for another, even though we all knew he scored the liquor from his aunt for free. The argument hit a wall when Cameron said the facts in Big Jim’s case were incongruous. Since Cameron had taken some courses at BCC—and dropped out—he knew what that word meant. Big Jim did not, and stood there staring madly across the lake. ‘What the hell does that mean?’ he finally asked, looking to me. I said I didn’t know, but that I thought it meant asymmetrical, a word I’d picked up from a trigonometry class I once took. Big Jim understood what that meant and pointed the gun at Cameron’s car. The side window exploded with a shout.
‘What the fuck you crazy!’ Cameron yelled, hopping from beside the car.
‘Asymmetrical,’ said Big Jim, and blew on the barrels like in a Western. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
They fought at length before Big Jim handed over the gun, unloaded, and agreed halfheartedly to pay for Cameron’s window. On the way home, all anyone could talk about was how we felt when the window exploded. We were joyous. Big Jim kept his hand on Cameron’s shoulder. This would give them a story together.
When we hit Eldron Road, Cameron asked me where I wanted to go and I said Laura’s. It was the middle of the night, but I was sure I could knock on her window and convince her to let me in to sleep off my drunk. The last thing I wanted to do was go home and find my father at the kitchen table, smoking cigarettes with the lights off and my mother’s picture in his hands.
A few blocks from Laura’s, I got this weird sensation in my stomach. The houses in the neighborhood were all out but I sensed people watching. As we headed alongside the high picket fence of Laura’s yard, another car turned the corner ahead of us, its low beams crystallizing our windshield. Cameron killed the headlights too late and the vehicle stopped approaching. We waited together. Then it sped up and flew by us. I looked for his face but the driver was turned away. It didn’t matter; I had recognized the car when it first rounded the corner.
Burgen sighed loudly and pulled the bag of weed from his underwear. Then he turned around and asked me why I wasn’t getting out.
I turned to Big Jim. He had a finger over his lip and a thumb on his chin, watching me. It was like we were on opposite sides of some huge gulf.
‘We’re better than any of this shit, man,’ he spoke through his fingers.
‘What the hell does that even mean?’ I said, and spun out the door.
After they took off I waited a half hour for my dad’s car to return, even though I knew it wouldn’t. Using a green energy box to stand on, I hopped the wood-spiked fence, and after a few knocks, Laura opened the curtains and hiked up the storm window. She had been asleep and talked softly, pulling the hair from her eyes. I could see right down the front of her nightgown but it didn’t do anything. I used my stomach to slide through the window and onto her floor.
In bed I wouldn’t talk. I didn’t even take off my shoes. She kept asking me what was wrong but I couldn’t answer. Finally she got the hint and pulled the covers up over us. She drew me onto her chest and wrapped her legs around mine. I could tell she had closed her eyes. Then she brought her index finger up and smoothed out my eyebrows, delicately, then my ears, taking her time, and then my forehead, relaxing each furrow. She touched my chest over my heart, my clavicle, the tips of her fingers sliding slowly over the length of my palm and up my forearm. The whole of me began deepening into a reservoir of inner quiet. She touched my lips and my chest and my head. And with each blessing, speaking so softly that I might have been imagining her voice, she said, ‘And this part is getting sleepy, and this part is getting sleepy, and this part is getting sleepy.’
A few nights later I stole my father’s car and drove out to Indialantic Beach. Cop cars traveled in pairs up over the causeway, but at I couldn’t give a damn. I had my license back and there were no warrants out for my arrest that I knew about. The air was clouded with a fine mist I let collect on the windshield. There was a private beach entrance in a rich neighborhood you could go to if you kept your headlights off and I parked across the street and took off my shoes and hiked a path through the sand dunes. The ocean unraveled in the darkness before me. The tide was coming in and washing up shells and crabs and plastic. Nothing can cling to the ocean; it just throws up everything it can’t stomach back onto the beach, which was something I always admired. Tonight it moved with an underlying urgency, it seemed, the waves stuttering forward like someone at a party who kept getting interrupted mid-sentence. I figured this would be the last time I would ever come out here, and concentrated on the features of the beach to form some lasting memory, but it was not any part of the beach I really cared about. I looked south towards the Tracking Station and remembered the time I’d unwittingly stumbled upon a party of cuban kids that scared the shit out of me by forming a large circle around my car, only to offer me a beer and ask that I crank up the music. North was Patrick Air Force Base and the Cape, where both sets of my grandparents worked into retirement sending people into orbit and, occasionally, to the moon. I wanted the whole history of the place to gel around me in some comforting way, but that’s not how history was operating this night. This night all it wanted to do was pulse in and out of consciousness like the hotel tower lights bending along the shore’s curvature, coming and going, leaving me lonely and anxious of the future.
An hour later I showed up to Lucien’s pad. He’d recently returned from South Carolina where he’d done construction for a month before getting fed up and heading back home. He’d traveled farther than any of us and now he was back living in his old first floor apartment near the riverfront. His neighborhood was like a drug amusement park that never closed, staffed by lazy hookers and popular drunks.
I opened the outer screen door and entered the shared hallway. I knocked twice and tried the knob and found the door open. A mute television stared into an empty living room, broadcasting fuzz. I walked through the kitchen and toward the light in the bedroom.
There I found a woman naked from the waist down straddling the corner of Lucien’s bed. She wore a shirt that read (Double) (Trouble) and smoked from a small glass pipe colored in fiery auras. Seeing me, she smiled, then fluffed her pink wig, which I recognized as belonging to Lucien’s ex. Clothes and porno mags littered the floor. Lucien himself sat bare-chested against the wall, the covers pulled up over his legs, his orange workboots peeking out. He was a handsome kid, black sunglasses propped on his blonde head, staring out with a child’s wonder. The prostitute tapped the pipe with the lighter, scooted forward and switched one leg over the other. She looked amused. I’d heard rumors that Lucien was on rock and had asked him about it before and he’d lied to me, saying he had tried it once, as everyone should try everything once. That was before he gave up his surfing sponsorship and dropped out of school. All he had left over from that life was my friendship and this crummy old apartment he refused to sell. Not that he could have.
It took Lucien a moment to notice me in the doorway, but when he did he chuckled. I stood there saying what I came to say, that I was leaving Florida for good. To parts unknown. I’d come to say goodbye. He’d been my best friend once and I wanted him to be the last person I spoke to before I left.
Truthfully, on my way back over the bridge, I’d fantasized about Lucien offering to join me in my escape. We would throw together a pillowcase full of his stuff, taking nothing but the essentials. I’d ditch my dad’s car and we’d take his VW Bug instead. ‘We can make it to Kentucky by dawn,’ I imagined him saying. ‘We can stay at my mother’s place until we get jobs.’ But the cartoon smirk he wore now meant only one of two things—either he’d just recently checked out, or he was only now returning leisurely from the void. The prostitute tilted her head and smiled wide, as if I were an old friend whose name she couldn’t quite place. She looked so comfortable sitting there that I half expected her to offer me something to drink. She shook her head no, but I hadn’t asked anything.
Lucien sprung forward, full of adrenaline, his eyes gone silly. “You used to sing!” he exclaimed with a voice both shrill and discordant, a small vibration dragged to the end of a soup can. A tumbler of brown liquid I hadn’t seen emptied into the covers at his crotch, but Lucien didn’t seem to care. “That was a long time ago,” I replied.
“Sing something for us!” he pleaded. “Sing us a going away song!”
The prostitute, overjoyed, began clapping. She was in the ballpark of legal, but if she was eighteen, I was an axe murderer. My secret reason for visiting the apartment crept back into my conscience—I’d come hoping to witness a situation that would sum up any future I might have if I stayed. And now that I had that, I could leave.
“Hey bro, wait up,” Lucien called as I turned to head out. He looked paralyzed from the waist down—an invalid and his squalid caretaker cracking jokes among the ruins. “Do you ever still go to church?”
“What the fuck are you asking me?”
“No, I’m serious,” he said. “I’m being serious forever about this. Did you know this cat used to travel the whole state singing in Baptist churches? I’m not lying. Tell her!”
The girl’s eyes widened in staged anticipation as she lit another bowl. I raised my hand to leave.
“Yo, man, hold up,” Lucien said in a voice both deep and familiar, the same voice I’d once heard over the telephone asking me to help him choose between rehab facilities. “I have a serious question for you.”
I hugged the doorframe and waited.
“If you were God, would you have made someone like me?”
I thought about it. “Why would you ask me that?”
“Me neither,” Lucien said, lying his arms flat out before him. “But do me a favor, hoss. There’s a camera in the bathroom. I want you to get it and take a picture of me, right here, just like this. I want to remember myself this way when I’m famous.”
Then Lucien snorted out a laugh and twisted in the bed sheets. He came up pushing his fingers over his eyes and peeking through them.
I walked back along the wood-paneled hallway and out the front door. Back in my father’s car I sat in the darkness, smoking. Some part of me was trying to wrench itself free from another part, and I began doubting my convictions, if that’s what you would even call them. It wasn’t the first time. The effort to leave seemed more like a put-off chore lately than any real struggle. I had a good job as a line cook at Bennigan’s, and the week before Jesse had offered me his old motorcycle for three-fifty cash. He’d even help fix the engine. I could move out of my dad’s house. All these things were possibilities, and the devil I knew. Versus what? Laying block or busting my ass roofing in a town I had no real ties to? Eating alone in diners and scavenging love from the local waterholes, instead of the ones where I knew the bartenders? I’ve seen that kind of freedom played out before, but in the long run, it doesn’t end much differently. Even if I no longer believed in God, I still believed in fellowship, and it felt like I was drowning in the misery that comes with owning up to that responsibility. If Lucien wasn’t somehow worthy of my congregation then I had no congregation to hope for. If we couldn’t save each other then no one could be saved. It wasn’t about being worthy, it was about sharing the inner life we each kept within us. It was about keeping those you love afloat for as long as possible. And I refused to kid myself that anywhere else there were people who lived without sacrifice. There’s no movie in the world that could make me believe that.
But even then, I reconsidered my option to leave. Maybe that was the point of all this internalized fussing I’d been doing. Maybe I just needed to find a way to give myself more options. And I didn’t have to leave to do that. Down the street some poor bastard was howling and smashing glass with something heavy. In its own way it was beautiful, an individual sort of truth laid bare. I must have sat around for another fifteen minutes before finally turning the ignition key. I could probably even make it home before my dad ever noticed the car was gone.
The day was breezy and we had the windows rolled down at all corners. We drove past the strip malls and car dealerships of Minton Road and headed south on Babcock to where the overgrowth of woods drew up close to the shoulder. In each of our minds we held the wilderness growing at the edge of the dreams of men. The single-lane highway stretched before us in twisted procession. We drove past radio towers steepling skyward and thin pools patroned by goose-necked birds lapping water in the paling heat, and cut a right near Valkaria and into a region of the state that remained unexplored for us. We passed through backwater towns without names or listings, our arms cocked and hanging from the windows, hands surfing the wind. Past swamps populated by deer and wild boar and the panther, where folks poached alligator with unflinching voracity for the meat of the tail and the storefront celebrity of the skull, past wrecked farms infested with horseflies and no-see-ums and wild psychotropic mushrooms growing out of patches of cowdung, past forgotten estates and their short white road signs bearing street names stenciled in black, past parsed earth and cracked macadam, past land scorched and land drained of scumwater, past failing barbed wire fences, past groves and lazy canals and beyond the visible curve of the earth over sea and those places that knew us too well.
We sat close together, slumped in our seats, two in the front, three in the back. The wind seemed gratuitous, almost, shepherding itself into our clothes and our mouths with wild abandon, a free thing without reason or guilt or an understanding of its own necessity. Outside our windows the green world floated in a soft light specifically designed, it seemed, to keep us quietly guessing at how far we could go before it vanished behind that horizon. And nobody spoke. None of us needed to speak. It was all about the driving.
To the south lay Miami and the Everglades and Hemingway. The east held the Atlantic. The west, Disney and the Gulf. North was America. But none of us knew what lay at the center, and that’s where we were heading.