Of the four roads leading out of this town only one looks the way it did forty years ago – and even that, the road to Florahome, is starting to show the small, unmistakable signs that it will end up the way the others have: the forest cut down to build a public storage facility, a Family Dollar, a gas station, a minimart, a housing development. Though the place my father retired to in 1961 is what the real estate agents like to call ‘centrally located’, that means you must drive about an hour to get anywhere. An hour to the north-east is Jacksonville; two hours to the south is Orlando; thirty minutes to the west is Gainesville; an hour to the east is St Augustine. What lies between these points is a web of small towns, located on average about seven miles from one another: Hawthorne, Lamont, Simmons, Interlachen, Florahome, Carrabelle, Madison, Lawtey, Macclenny, Grandin and Brooker.
‘Is it lazy – or does it just look lazy?’ a friend from Boston asked years ago when she stopped to have lunch on her drive south. ‘Both,’ I said. One of the great appeals of Florida has always been the sense that the minute you get here you have permission to collapse. When my sister came down to visit it was always fun to watch her hit the Wall. On the way in from the airport in Gainesville she’d be chattering with manic energy – insisting we stop at the farmer’s stand near the 301 to buy strawberries or collard greens, asking for news about the neighbors, observing changes in the scene going by the car window. Then, half an hour after arriving at the house, I’d look over and see her stretched out on the porch sofa, her lips parted, head back, as if chloroformed, wiped out by the sheer nothingness, the silence.
The sounds I associate with Florida used to be: the whistle of the train from Palatka that ran through town at night on its way to Atlanta; the squirrels and raccoons running across the roof as I lay in my bed waiting to fall asleep; my parents breathing in their beds across the hall; and – that most Florida of all sounds – the drone of a small plane crossing the sky in the middle of the afternoon. But only two of these were left after my parents died and the train tracks were torn up and converted to an asphalt trail on which people can now walk and bicycle all the way to Palatka – theoretically.
Palatka is forty minutes’ drive to the east; Gainesville, half an hour to the west. Palatka is an old town on the St Johns River that for some reason has remained pretty much the way it always was. Gainesville has not. Gainesville is the main thing, the Paris, the Athens, of North Central Florida. That’s because it’s the home of the University of Florida, and used to have a wonderful bookstore, and still has gyms and an excellent public library. That’s the reason one goes to Gainesville: to get a book you can’t find anywhere else. The other reason is to see a doctor: the dermatologists, dentists, ophthalmologists, orthopedists and audiologists who make Gainesville a boomtown in the American medical-industrial complex. Its hospitals are huge and state-of-the-art; Gainesville is where the astronauts are sent if anything goes wrong. Gainesville is the place you go to get your taxes done, eyes examined, teeth cleaned, skin checked. Gainesville is the planet to whose gravitational pull people in the small towns around it are all subject. It’s where we know we’ll probably be taken when we die – which is why having to put my mother in a nursing home there, and having to take my father into the hospital the day he had his stroke, seemed like such a defeat. There’s no way around it: Gainesville gets you in the end.
There is an adult assisted-living place in this town, but what exactly they offer has never been clear to me. For years I was under the impression that it was like Penney Farms, a retirement community half an hour to the east – where for many years the only people admitted were retired missionaries. But I think that rule has been relaxed, along with so much else about Christianity. A young woman I met at the gym who works there once told me, when I asked what the night shift at Lake of the Palms could possibly be like, that residents get out of bed in the middle of the night thinking they are in their own home and fall. Knowing that there is a night shift at Lake of the Palms makes me think I might go there instead of Gainesville when I need to, though I haven’t made the effort to tour the place or make inquiries. As Freud said, nobody believes in his own death. For some reason, one thinks one is going to live forever. In a small town, one thinks that Time is not even passing.
The mother of a friend who grew up in Gainesville used to write the date of purchase on the bottom of everything she bought, and whenever she picked up some object she said it was always a surprise to see how much time had gone by. That can happen anywhere, of course, but it seems to happen more easily in Florida – even though North Florida has four seasons and trees lose their leaves in both spring and fall. Much of this part of Florida, in fact, looks prehistoric. There’s a prairie south of Grandin that resembles the painted background the museum in Gainesville uses for its diorama of dinosaurs – a flat, golden plain with pine hammocks breaking up the sea of grass – and in the garden I still find shells that must date back to a time when the ocean covered the state, though we are sixty miles from the sea.
When my father settled here the town was just a faded summer resort for people in Jacksonville, fifty-three miles to the north-east, a place where families sent their children for summer camp so they could swim and waterski. Nobody waterskis anymore; the very idea summons up a vanished America, the one that made movies about mermaids played by Esther Williams, and built Cypress Gardens downstate so that tourists sitting on bleachers could watch human pyramids go by on waterskis holding the rope handle that connected them to the speedboat in one hand and a flag in the other. When my father retired, all the lakes in town were high. People skied at five o’clock, after the daily thunderstorm, when the lake was smooth as glass and every pine tree, including the cones, was reflected on the surface of the motionless dark water. We’d ski from the Big Lake down a chain of smaller lakes that were all connected by narrow channels lined with weeds in which we’d been warned not to fall because they were full of water moccasins. The lakes were so high there was water beneath the pilings of the pier at the public beach, and the pier still looked just like the photograph of it on a postcard in the five-and-dime store uptown.
The only other postcards they sold in 1961 showed a woman standing in a bikini beside an alligator with its jaws wide open, and a more generic card that was used for California as well as Florida that featured a little old lady in a lawn chair surrounded by strapping young men in red Speedos above the phrase ‘Having the time of my life!’
There was something forlorn and faded even then, however, about the pier at the public beach, the paint peeling off the walls, the concrete shuffleboard court half covered with sand, the moss hanging from the live oaks through which one glimpsed the lake. It looked like a set for the Moon Lake Casino – the one where Blanche’s husband shoots himself in A Streetcar Named Desire after she discovers his sexual secret.