The day before Robert Pellicer was found floating with a machete and other debris in the marshes surrounding Deadman’s Bay, he and Camilla Whitley had sat together in Jacksonville’s Memorial Park. They sat under the leaves of a large live oak, behind a bench which faced the circular path around the park. From there they could see the statue, the park department’s shed and the choppy waters of the Saint John’s River behaving like a misplaced portion of dark ocean. Familiar surroundings were unfamiliar. The sky seemed to be a little darker, a little more like a daguerreotype. They sat together somewhat disinterested in each other, though more for reasons of the pain that crept into each of them whenever they attempted to describe the scenery.
Both had thought about mentioning childhood memories of the park, ones which they had both half forgotten, both recovered in outline, and both polished into something all too suitable for such a moment. “You know what the problem is here?” Robert began, looking towards the cars parked on Margaret Street on the other side of the fence, “You know what the problem is here, and what it has always been? Density. Riverside is pretty, but particularly when you look at the Five Points area it looks like everybody should be crawling really low at a rapid pace in order to keep up with the heights and distances.”
“I don’t think I know what you’re talking about,” Camilla replied.
“It’s that damned history again. I don’t even want to go into it, we know the history and if I even mentioned it you would know what I’m talking about and it would be horrible. All because that damned history would just surround us. Or we would be realizing its presence, and realizing it all over again.” He looked up at the balconies of the Park Lane condominiums. “I know what you mean by that,” said Camilla, “but I don’t think it’s that history that’s bothering us. I mean, honestly, it probably is. But it’s really just our being here, spuriously, ripped out of our own accumulating histories.”
“Fine, sure, but here we are again, and here everyone accumulates the same history.” A few trees over he sat after having quit a job years ago. Thinking of it, he began, “That was the life. Your ceiling hangs inches from your head, you sleep on a futon which deteriorates along with your hopes, you work all night and sleep all day along the same stretch of an unpaved alley filled with the same bums, and you walk a few blocks to school or Publix sometimes. Then there were events: The clubs empty out and the kids from the suburbs or the country degrade you. Then a visit from a friend, or to a friend’s. A barefoot sharecropper on these plantation lands. A bus that won’t come for hours and a car that won’t stop for anything. And then, always the trains… The trains passing over by Roosevelt. Do you know how many times I wanted to jump on that train, going any direction? Any direction but across, I guess”.
“So why don’t you go? Anywhere?”
The road was wet but it was no longer raining. A few dirt roads reached out off the main thoroughfare. There was a thrift store with a rack of clothes and a stack of nightstands sitting in front. Its structure was of unapologetic cinder block, inching up to a sidewalk which was barely there and ready to snuggly receive neighboring buildings which would now never come to fill the empty lots on either side. A similar brick building selling fresh crabs across the road sat snuggly with a building that looked like a two-story barn with a rusted tin roof. A church which looked like a motel, a large oak cutting a piece of blackness out of the dense light, still obtuse through the clouds on such a submissive landscape. Automotive Repair, Chicken, McDonald’s, Barbeque.
Robert took the keys out of the ignition and stepped out. The moist dirt smell was not that of winter, not that of wetlands, but that of fear, natural and no less terrible. He walked across the dirt lot and entered the restaurant. “Yessir, that’s Machete Man, over there! He sleeps out there in the van, boy,” said the tall leather-faced man with the long stringy hair and large overbite. “Woo boy, he says that’s Machete Man! Wooey,” cried one of his companions. “What can I getchya?” asked the waitress as Robert sat at the counter. “Coffee, please,” he replied. The tall leather-faced man leaned over the counter and looked down it towards Robert, scrutinizing him. “Where you from, son?” he asked. “Jacksonville,” Robert replied. “Jacksonville?” the man asked, enunciating separately the Jackson and ville even less than Robert would, imperceptibly, as though the name were inherited from some dead language.
“There’s a storm comin in over there just now, you might oughta be out there boardin up!” he said. He extended his leathery hand, “My name’s Billy, and if you’re from Jacksonville you’re fine in my book.” They shook hands. “Lookit Billy, talkin like he owns the place again,” said the petite, blond waitress, her large eyes glowing out of her pale white face. Her voice was light and soft, high in pitch. “I just sayin, you go down to Ocala like me and Wesley just did and you come back singin a different tune. We was down there last and they’re all like they’s from Illi-noise, buncha queer folks and liberals. I told Johnny down at the mulch plant I wasn’t bout to move down there, no matter what type of school he says he got his daughter in,” said Billy. “Yeh, that’s right, Billy!” said his laughing companion, eager to keep him rambling to see what else he could come up with, “You tell em, Billy! Speak the truth, brother!”
Billy smirked at the waitress with his loose dentures as he took a swig of coffee. “That’s what they’ll do, and then we gonna have us another kind a Gulf War right here!” The laughing companion let out a loud guffaw and slapped Billy’s shoulder. “Here’s your coffee,” the waitress said to Robert, “so what brings you over here, then? You passed Lake City, you know.” Robert looked at her for a moment, finding his words. She was beautiful, innocent, her kindness and pure intentions radiated out of her large green eyes. “Yeah, I know. I, uh… I just drove on,” Robert said. The waitress lowered her head and smiled, blinking her eyes at him below her blond bangs as she casually wiped the counter with a rag. “Well, if you’re visiting us, you ought to talk to Old Bull over there.” She glanced down to the end of the counter, on the other side of Billy and his companions. “Old Bull can tell you all about Dixie here, ‘specially ‘cause he really do live in Dixie, in his head.”
Camilla went into a restroom stall and took out the postcard, writing on it: “At the hospital again. This is a good place to go in order to see the world without yourself in it. Faces of anxiety hope despair resignation. A place outside time, save for the time until life begins or ends or continues again. Human time. Hope all is well.” That was the message she intended, not for herself nor to be taken by him, but the message she intended to be breathing through the vacuum in a non-causal chain of autonomous action, of which she now was only a later vessel. No more despair, and no longer to worry, yet certainly not to resign. Hope. “Hope all is well. Continue as you must, end if you do, but my face is one of hope towards you. My face is one of hope towards you.”
These nuisances, these theories of value! We could take these lessons from someone more informed. From someone with more conceptual imagination, enough to envisage the possibilities which we’ve just found as inescapable circumstances. So far no such teacher has come, not to us anyhow. We take our stolid lessons as interested parties, we take our lessons below a dome teeming with lived circumstance. “If value is co-substantive, and my value of you is not valued, and my value of you is thrown down the valueless pit of your deflection, and my value of you offers redemption of self-worth, and my value of you crashes at the bottom with the detritus of worthy efforts before. How is it that a valuer finds value to give again, always, co-substantiated, in what form of recognition and in what self-form of alterity? ‘He was made man’, or shoeless child refugee negative microcosm of an inadequate human whole? Or Faustian betrayal of progress, or betrayal of hermeneutic mysticism by the inevitable reforming of hermeneutic battle lines? I hope I do not find my reason in the pit with the remains of failures. The sword or the book, either way we are pulled apart, valuers and voids. I see your void, and I step back. Value is not lost. Value is not weak. Value was made human. So how is value co-substantive?”
Camilla closed her diary, marking the page with a plane ticket.
In Turnbull’s absence there had not been enough food gathered nor housing constructed, and an expected delivery of Africans had shipwrecked, leaving much of the land uncleared and undrained. In the absence of slaves and in the presence of non-British indentured servants, it was not long before the colonist’s indenturedness would begin to wear off under the auspices of the under-worked British slave-drivers. With little more than the clothes falling apart on his back, Francisco Pellicer proved his worth as a carpenter, if only by his craft with the sharp, green fans of the palmetto bush from which the colony’s neighborhood of huts was to be built.
From the scenic slopes of the rocky Mediterranean coasts, with its stacks of stone edifices and politely subdued environs, the altogether differently scenic flat-to-sunken land and illusory sloping scrub was too ridiculous to be Paradise and too absurd to be Hell. Whatever the manipulations the Scotsman may have utilized to compensate for his project’s misfortunes, or whatever may have been the barrier of power or intelligibility between Francisco and his contractual superiors, he could not stop repeating to himself, “It’s too late to turn back now.” Telling himself that made it feel as though it was his own conclusion.
Camilla’s parents had first lived in St. Augustine South, down US1 (or the Dixie Highway) from the old Spanish and Gilded Age grandeur of St. Augustine itself. These roads on which she learned to ride a bike stretched from the highway in the west, to the part of the Intercoastal Waterway known as the Matanzas River in the east and south, and then to Flagler Hospital where she was born in the north. The street names there alternated between Floridian flora and fauna, planets, Indian tribes, and the occasional name from the area’s diverse histories: Spanish saints, British explorers, New England aristocrats, American generals. The Whitley house was at the tip of a peninsula which jutted out into the Matanzas and faced Anastasia Island on the other side. The young child’s strongest memories of the place were those of the patch of live oak across the street which led to the river, and the sight of egrets and sailboats out across the marshy coast of Anastasia, teeming and stolid.
It wasn’t long in Camilla’s career of cognizance before the family moved. Richard Whitley had finally reached a point in his career to buy a home even closer to his Florida cracker fantasies, this namely because it was waterfront rather than water-facing. This allowed him to revive those memories he had of his childhood in Duval County to the north, between fishing in Trout Creek and spending summers in family land on Amelia Island. They weren’t properly Florida cracker fantasies. They weren’t even memories of his childhood in actuality, as those were more fraught with unobtainable doctors’ daughters, Methodist sermons and race riots. They were memories and fantasies of what one is to remember and fantasize, as he saw it. So the Whitleys packed up and moved to a new house in town.
After her family moved Camilla started sixth grade at a new school on the other side of the Matanzas in Davis Shores. The sixth graders at this new school were each assigned a homeroom and circulated as a group through their different classes during the day. Camilla was excited to find out that she had a music class after recess and was anxious all day waiting for it. The kids at this new school were like the ones at her old school. Camilla had been sad to leave some of her friends behind when she moved, but she never played with them outside of school anyways. She didn’t know why, as she had begun to notice that playing outside of school was what a lot of the kids did. Camilla never did bother to ask whether she could meet her friends sometimes, and none of them lived close enough to the house on Shore Drive to play with her around the oaks on the other side of the street. Then besides this, Camilla had remembered an incident that occurred when she brought her friend Tina a Little Mermaid record which she had two copies of, the product of her grandparents continued gifting of what they found in thrift stores and fleamarkets.
Tina’s mother found Mrs. Whitley’s phone number and called the house to make sure she knew Camilla had given Tina the record. Camilla listened to her mother on the phone, for the first time aware that she was the specific reason for a phone call. Tina’s mother and Mrs. Whitley spoke for about ten minutes, and Camilla couldn’t tell if she was in trouble or not. After waiting for the conversation to end, Camilla heard her mother laughing and then offer her the phone to speak to Tina. The two girls exchanged very few words, both obviously uncomfortable with the foreign medium of the telephone. “Just make sure you ask me first next time,” said Mrs. Whitley, but after that strange situation Camilla felt reluctant to ever do anything that might cause someone a phone call about her again, as strange an incident as it was.