by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012
Streets named for trees, Mimosa Drive, Cottonwood Lane, Cedar Drive, 1950s single-story concrete-block houses, this one tan with brown roof, opaque double-pane windows with brown plastic shutters, a car port turned into a kind of porch, screened-in, swinging screen door, a weight bench inside, various weights lying about on the concrete floor.
Inside, Missoulah Maclay washes dishes. Today is Thursday. If she makes it to Monday, she will be 97 years old. She has lucid hours, wherein she remembers celebrities advertising war bonds in 1941, “the agitation of the Negroes,” and her absolute shock when it was apparent that Liberace was not only dying of AIDS, but was a homosexual. Such memories are interwoven with things she hasn’t thought of in 70 years—playing in Hogan’s Creek where she caught tadpoles and tiny crabs. She made the crabs pinch her earlobes, becoming the earth’s own earrings, which horrified her mother and delighted her father. The streetcar elegantly zipped through her childhood neighborhood of Springfield until her early adulthood. When she was 23, those lovely streetcars ceased movement through downtown and Riverside and Springfield. Buses replaced the streetcars in the name of progress, and the city became less and less sophisticated. But what’s the worth of all that? she asks in reminiscent moments. After all, she says, God didn’t love the Negroes in those days, much less the fags, she says. Now, she says, things are much better, but it’s too bad Jacksonville can’t have streetcars and homosexuals both.
Streets named for trees. Rosetree Drive and Formosa Drive. Then there are also Cork Street and Bark Street. Technically, the area is Englewood, perhaps a corruption of wood as “ingle,” a fire burning in a hearth. More specifically, Missoulah looks over the kitchen sink out the window to blue jays in pine trees in Spring Park Manor, Unit Nine.
She washes the dishes. If anything, the task is less than ordinary in a house less than ordinary, but in the water slowly swirling in the kitchen sink, Missoulah Maclay sees the extraordinary. New thought. In stainless steel sink, water swirls turbid with floating globules of olive oil and canola oil (which, to the amusement of her grandchildren, she still calls rapeseed oil) and margarine and remnants of field peas and instant pasta, and she looks over it and into it and lets a long line of saliva drip from her bottom lip into the alloy. A light comes into her eyes. She thinks that things mix, thinks that things exchange pieces of themselves, and she sees her life as just such an exchange and the whole greenblue earth as such an exchange. She looks up from the sink into the bluegreen cedar tree outside the opaque window and she sees the tree differently. The tree becomes beautiful for the first time.
From the cedar tree that night, the cry of the tall bird that feeds on nearby frogs and rodents and smaller birds. All her life she has heard the call of the barred owl described as saying, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for all.” It’s been 37 years since she’s heard it.
She has never told her grandson that the chain-link fence that surrounds the house is ugly. She has never told him the carport converted into the front porch still looks like a car port. She has never told him she thought his weight bench was an ugly, ugly thing. Doesn’t matter. The cedar tree has become beautiful in these last two weeks of her life, a barred owl has alighted in the tree, allowing her to hear its call distinctively.
Great-grandson stays up all night in the grey concrete house, playing early Nintendo games. Great-grandson stays up all night with his friend in the full-size van in the driveway. They talk on Missoulah’s grandson’s c.b. radio, faking code names and messages, broadcasting gibberish, “This is Big Penguin down on 212, over, do you read me, Big Bertha, there’s a sumbitch coming on down the line like Scooby Doo facing the Red Army, do you read me, your mother said she likes Big Penguin knockin’ on the back door, back door man, back door penguin, do you read me, watch out, truckers, the overpass of Interstate 295 at the Buckman Bridge swarming with sexy penguins lookin’ for your mother for a good time!” Nothing could be funnier that how angry those truckers on c.b. radio become when hearing such nonsense invade their citizens’ band channels. They demand to know who’s speaking and where the speaker can be found. The speakers never say they’re sitting in a full-size van in a driveway on Mimosa Drive, one block away from Interstate-95, a half dozen blocks from Philips Highway.
Missoulah hears the familiar “who cooks for you, who cooks for all,” and she thinks she has cooked for everyone all her life, almost a century. Then it becomes a question. “Who cooks for you?” She doesn’t know. “Who cooks for all?” She thinks the birds must know, that it must have something to do with the birds in the cedar tree and the midnight blue sky and the glowing moon waxing gibbous through the branches. She thinks she would like to find out who cooks for all. She thinks it’s God the Father, but she thinks it might also be the Earth itself. (Or, herself?)