by Tim Gilmore, 4/23/2016
Ben left a strange voice mail on my office phone a little over a week ago. He told me to meet him at a place called the Beer Hole, but asked me not to reveal its location. He said he held a “secret perspective” and had “seen the monster in the river.”
How could I say no?
In his younger days, down at the water, Ben and his friends watched the whole city lay itself out before them. The bridges lit blue at night, the scattered tall buildings white, but best were the lights from the boats spread over the river.
“We had next to nothing,” he says, “but the world made itself available.”
I follow him through a low sandy copse of ragged lantana and marsh grass. We walk on rusted wire fencing laid flat across riprap. Small mulberry bushes finger awkwardly out of the bluff. I ask him how much I can say about where we are.
“I can say we’d rest our feet on a long concrete block, sometimes barely above water, sometimes just beneath.”
He points up to a camphor tree, he loves to pinch its leaves, rub them between his index finger and thumb, then hold the fragrance to his nose.
The Hart Bridge dominates the sky. Spinning red, white, and blue police and emergency vehicle lights strobe over the water and distant housetops.
“Here’s where I’ll locate us,” he says. “It’s a concrete block, about six feet square, a circle sunk in the center, leaning at an angle that shapes it like a La-Z-Boy recliner toward downtown across the river. My friends and I were 15, 16 years old, wandering the muddy riverbanks in the dark. When we found this concrete platform, the circle was filled with empty beer cans, some of them rusted and faded. We could think of no other name to match the majesty, quiet elegance, and feeling of utter peace. We called it the Beer Hole.”
Ben speaks of this place like it’s sacred, so I ask if its name is ironic.
He smiles, but doesn’t answer. He leads me over large slabs of concrete that berm the land against the tide.
He and his friends came here for years. In the summer, they’d spend all day with their feet in the water, cigarettes in hand. They watched the red cargo ships pass by “like lost gods of the sea.”
“And it’s important that it’s not easy to get here.” Ben and his friends usually rode their skateboards as far as they could, then carried them through the trees and grasses and down to the riprap. “You have to be quick and smart and quiet to get here,” he says. “Lesser minds would call it trespassing.”
Ben knows precisely what the city and the river smell like at different times of year. The right breeze from the right direction at the right time brings the smell of the distant ocean through miles and miles of pines.
Summer fragrances are heavy, water suspended in woolen humidity, persistence of water as air like a gambler’s sunk-cost-fallacy, throwing good money after bad so as never to admit defeat. Then the whole ship starts to sink.
On June nights, the kids smelled the charcoal from nearby cookouts, salt air from the brackish St. Johns, and the fishy smell that rides the river in summer smog.
Ben brought the first girl he ever dated down here. He told her this place and this perspective weren’t half as pretty as she was.
Another time, he smashed his cell phone on the crooked concrete along the waters. Still could he hear his father’s voice ranting out of the phone, cursing his name, asking him why he wasn’t home. So he stomped the phone with one black combat boot and kicked it into the river.
Then he comes to what he really wants to tell me. He calls it “the most important time,” says, “Nick was the first one to describe the sound accurately.”
“What sound?” I ask.
“We heard it at night,” he says. “Nick thought it sounded like…well, it’s what he called it. We thought it was accurate.”
“Thought what was accurate?” I ask.
“The violent kicking of a horse-legged fish.”
Ben ignores my puzzled incredulity and continues.
“Joey climbed the tallest pine and straddled the branches so high, dropping sticks and pine needles onto our heads until one needle shot perfectly into the slim neck of Robert’s Coors bottle. Robert chased Joey up the tree, but Joey, never mind his head start, he was the superior climber.
“We had each claimed our personal space on the concrete. Coley sat high and the rest of us perched on the rocks and in the water. My own seat, perfectly anchored, allowed me at all times to dip my feet in the water and watch the city lights.”
I wonder if I’ve misheard. Warily, I dare to ask, “You said something about a fish with horse legs?”
I’m not sure he’s heard me. “You get to know what fish dive up in arcs from the surface of the river and what fish lurk along the bottoms,” he says. “I guess people are the same way.”
Me: Right, okay, but a fish monster?
Me: So what is it?
Ben: What is it?
Me: Of course.
Ben: Well, what-it-is is, we don’t know what it is.
Becoming frustrated, I ask Ben what he’s talking about. Some Loch Ness Monster, some Creature from the Black Lagoon? Some Polluted Jax River Mutant?
His answer frustrates me more. Has he conned me from the beginning? I wouldn’t have minded exploring his teenage hideout and hearing his memories. He didn’t need to hook me with an X-Files story.
“Very few people have visited our sacred place on the water. You’re one of a select number. I’m sorry you didn’t see what we saw. We were admitted at the right time at the correct angle of these rocks on the river. The moment was right and we were the right people. The right time at the right place happens once, okay?”
He’d hoped I’d understand. I tell him I’m trying.
He says something offhand about his medication. I don’t fully catch it. I’ve been recording our conversation with my phone and now the battery’s died.
In the moment of his greatest terror, he thought it would last forever, with every second nonetheless consuming him eternally. It was torture. The time, however, was short, and the medication’s better than how the media usually portray it.
“I’m schizophrenic,” he says. He nods earnestly, his head at a slight angle. He thought he’d mentioned it in one of the early papers he wrote in my class.
The news doesn’t set me back. I had an uncle and a cousin who suffered from schizophrenia. My uncle, whom I never knew, received shock treatments repeatedly for years.
I notice the most gorgeous bromeliad in full bloom, behind Ben and below him.
When I approach it, Ben says, “See? How can you doubt our horse-legged fish?”
Maybe he’s right. There’s that Mary Oliver poem in which she buries a stillborn one-eyed kitten, “saying, it was real, / saying, life is infinitely inventive, / saying, what other amazements / lie in the dark seed of the earth.”
I know this strange waxen plant’s a bromeliad, but not what kind. Pineapples are bromeliads, but so is Spanish Moss.
Once there were dinosaurs, dodo birds, skies full of passenger pigeons. Every year, thousands of species disappear. Every few years, a filming or capture of the rare deep-sea “living fossil” frilled shark makes the news. The Sixth Extinction is the mass die-off of species since human beings overran the planet.
More ghosts inhabit the earth than living things.
“You know what my legs remember every summer day?” Ben asks me.
“My legs remember, it’s body memory, a fear of stings, when I walked barefoot and in shorts through patches of clover.”
I know exactly where he’s going.
“I have the very same experience. My legs, my bare feet remember, but my head registers this eerie absence of honeybees.”
“Colony Collapse Disorder, or whatever it is, honeybees used to be everywhere. Walking in the clover and not being stung is like hearing no birds singing in the trees. Something’s wrong.”
“Something’s wrong,” I repeat.
“So don’t tell me what we did or did not see. It’s far less likely this horse-legged fish did not exist than that it did. Besides, I remember it. I remember it. You can’t take that away from me.”