by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012
Because he was convinced the stone and the riprap and the moldy concrete was not 60 or 70 years old. Not that it wasn’t. But that it predated itself. Always, it had always been.
And the waterway was 10,000 years old.
By contrast, the streets around it—the houses and their patios and their jalousied sunrooms were always sinking. Ground sunk. Built-upon ground sunk faster. At least Jacksonville sunk slower than London.
The outline of bricks jutted here and there in these low walls. Green grew across the protuberances and the hollows. Beneath the neighborhood footbridge, the square tunnel waited obliviously.
All this concrete could not care. Nothing could care less. And that was what convinced him. The dark and the damp were involved in their own enterprise. Because it so excluded him, he wanted to know what it was.
Something greenish skirted across the muck and the rock. It wasn’t a snake. It was a legless lizard, an Eastern glass lizard.
He had heard the stories about abandoned subway tunnels in New York and Paris and London, forgotten tunnels in which underground societies lived.
Though he waded the polluted waters of culverts and sewage tunnels, he didn’t find and hadn’t expected to find subterranean secret societies.
He wandered beneath the roads in neighborhoods of which nobody in Jacksonville had ever heard. The mayor had never heard of them. The people who lived in them had never heard of them. He walked beneath the roads in Allendale and Robinson’s Addition and Carver Manor and Biltmore and Grand Park. He didn’t catch the irony of neighborhoods with grandiose names that failed to defy the fatalism of their poverty, because he had never heard of them either.
The city was so vast and shapeless and slack and diffuse that it had no idea what lay within it. A road caved in beside Woodstock Park or Terrace Park, an adjacent decades-abandoned brick warehouse with a wall collapsing inward, and he jumped down into the rubble. He bent down and stumbled forward beneath tractor trailers barreling across Beaver Street.
He encountered nests of rats and he found strange eyeless snakes and once he disturbed a nest of bats hanging upside down beneath the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. He forgot where he was once for two days and nights in a culvert somewhere beneath Old Plank Road.
In such a place, it wasn’t secret societies he thought he might find underground. He always thought he might find a colony of tweakers, of meth addicts, some writhing reptilian orgy of meth-mouths with their crumpling teeth and oozing sores on their cheekbones and their foreheads.
Or he might find the kinds of horrors H.P. Lovecraft wrote about 85 years before:
“talk of witch-blood, Satan-worship, and strange forest presences”
“it was the custom to give reasons for avoiding the locality”
“the Dunwich horror of 1928”
“They have come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding.”
“‘It was a octopus, centipede, spider kind o’thing, but they was a haff-shaped man’s face on top of it.’”
Whom he expected to find he did not. When he passed some stranger in Lackawanna in the tunnel beneath Interstate-10, he could not meet the man’s eyes. What business, he wondered then, had anyone else to be walking in such a place on such a night?
The city was so vast that most of it was not the city, and so it could not find itself within it.
Like when the suburbs had spread outside of town without regulation in the 1950s and 60s, and just over 100,000 people were using 30,000 septic tanks. No regular city services. Unincorporated areas of which the city police and fire departments and utilities authorities took no account. No one had ever heard of these places. Jacksonville residents had never heard of them. The people who lived in them had never heard of them. In the city proper, sewage treatment failures. Most of the city’s sewage was dumped raw into the St. Johns River. Red worms came from the faucets in kitchen sinks and bathtubs. Boil your water.
And in 1968 when Jacksonville became nearly all of Duval County, 874.3 square miles, absorbing the unincorporated areas, it had not charted its own territories. It still doesn’t know who it is, but it paved over streams thousands of years old. It did not know their names, but it had already converted them to sewers.
Now here he is. The road’s been blockaded by iron and a stop sign for more decades than anyone knows. He scurries beneath the closed road like an amphibian. We can’t relate to him now. Well, he used to be very religious. He was married. He had a son he loved very much. He liked baseball and superhero movies. He loved America and pledged allegiance to the flag. He gave small amounts to various charities.
When his son started to disappear for a day and then days at a time in his later adolescence, he felt a brick grow and wrap itself in a knot in his gut. Not his son. He had loved his son too much for anything to go so very wrong. Love, love and structure and guidance, was what kids needed most.
He led the boys’ chorus at his church. He wanted the best for everybody on the planet. He was good. He worked hard. Countless times more than he loved himself, he loved his wife Cynthia and he loved his son Jacob.
Green grew across the walls beneath the road. The snake was not a snake, but a lizard without legs. The causes of “Meth Mouth” are not completely understood, but normally, saliva neutralizes the acids in the mouth, and without it, the acids rot the teeth and gums at a remarkably rapid pace.
Cynthia had these sharp cheekbones and a rocky brow. She should have been too jagged, too pointed, to be pretty, but something softened her. He could see that right away. She had these deep, romantically almost spooky violet eyes. There was something so good about her, something so good that he saw in her eyes. That first time even. Psychological magic. She was the perfect woman. He could not help but fall in love with her, and then things fell into place. God, she was so lovely, so good, so sweet, so gracious. She was simply, he thought many a late night early on, every single thing that was beautiful. Everything after would be perfect forever.
Now he finds himself a little place. He’s been following McCoy’s Creek. When you follow a creek as it weaves through different neighborhoods, you get to know a city in a different way. You get to know time in a different way. Creek time is much different from street time. Creek time is much different from any of the various times experienced in the different parts of the city. He’s been moving in a different kind of time following the creek, and now he finds himself a little place.
Where the creek goes underground, you can follow it by the names of the streets that course with it. From McCoy’s Creek Boulevard, you can branch down Westbrook and Hollybrook. In Seaboard Heights, he’s found himself a little place where the earth opens up and concrete gapes open like a dead mouth. An earthen fistula. It’s a cavern a storm long ago made from some neglected corner human beings made, and someone else, sometime, somehow, has made it into a place of healing.
Enclosed by concrete and by camphor trees and a redbud tree, a little plane of concrete broken at all angles surrounds the cavern. In the sandy soil in the fissures, somebody sometime ago planted creeping thyme and rosemary and Spanish lavender and soft fragrant Roman artemisias and silvery santolina.
He sleeps underground and he comes up into the fragrant cleanliness of these softly wooded and feathered herbs. He came to the end of the world and he found a medicine garden there. And there’s a pomegranate tree, covered in round red blooms closing themselves up into honeycombed fruit, lush in the rubble like an ancient Persian poem growing at the mouth of the underworld.
A green glass lizard hovers legless across the wreckage. The place looks like someone grew an herb garden in a meth mouth, and so it reminds him of his wife and his son. He doesn’t miss them here—he finds them here. Things are falling into place, as he climbs up into place. Into this place. Cynthia was so beautiful and so good. Just a short while longer. Just a little more preparation. Now it’s almost time.