by Tim Gilmore, 12/6/2018
Her brain tics like Tourette’s. Something electric forks and re-routes its current; a lightning storm branches her synapses. The moment repeats. And re-routes. Forks and tics.
She remembers the Fourth of July, when the lights across the front of the building lit up like a giant American flag upon the face of the waters. But a new millennium’s coming. One strike from the sky touches 200 trains across the Southeast and Midwest.
Callie wakes sweating in the sheets, her mind not right. Electrified. Her thoughts go round and collect items randomly from across her memory of landscape. Crawling traffic down in the depths of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, burrowing through the hardened old guts of the earth. That feeling when dropping back I-95 through South Georgia marshes, crossing the state line 29 miles from downtown Jax, that realization that life in this strange place is tall and dark green, an old pine, standing axis between equal expanses above and below: glorious cobalt stormcloud sky and its mirror of river / marsh / lake / swamp / ocean. Life in Northeast Florida is water infused with air infused with water all pinned by a bolt of lightning.
The bolt that hammers sky to Jacksonville ground zips through the signal circuits and halts trains on rails between Chicago and Philadelphia, in the dark hills of coal mining West Virginia and Kentucky and up into Michigan summer.
Callie lies in bed and lightnings. Her days are night; she works night shift. She’s time yet to sleep, but wakes up knowing, not knowing what. It’s only 5:30 in the afternoon. She’s time yet to sleep. Her skull buzzes, the lovely sculpture of her zygomatic arch. Something’s happened.
It’s the summer of 1999. The world’s supposed to end when the clock ticks to the next millennium, never mind that one calendar’s first thousand years is another’s fifth. Late-night A.M. radio hosts offer self-indulgent guesses at interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar’s end-times juxtaposed with smatterings of the Book of Revelation and Nostradamus.
She knows. She lets their voices rage quietly in the background high in the CSX Transportation Building at two in the morning. There’s some computer glitch, supposed to shut down the workings of the world, the Y2K Bug. And there’s Prince, who was always gonna party like it’s 1999.
CSX operates, on this millennial eve, more than 22,000 miles of railroad, almost enough line to wrap the equator, through half the continental U.S. and over Quebec and Ontario. The Jacksonville lightning strike breaks signal with passenger trains operated by Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express and MARC (Maryland Area Rail Commuter).
Each night, Callie drives Riverside Avenue toward the slightly open hinge of steel-framed windows, 15 stories tall. KBJ Architects designed the Atlantic Coast Line Building in 1960, built 1962 and -3. The windows shine a particular turquoise indigenous to the middle of the 20th century on the St. Johns River, while 277 foot tall concrete sides hulk over Water Street east and west. Kemp Bunch Jackson had riffed the building off Brutalist architect Gordon Bunshaft’s 1956 Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, importing Ford’s suburban campus to Jacksonville’s riverfront urban core.
These facts tic through the lightning storm that’s the energy circuit that’s a human brain, that is, specifically, Callie’s, that’s aware, night after night, high above the tracks, that though Florida calls itself the Sunshine State, it’s the fifth rainiest state—most recently behind only Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Everybody talks about the rain in Seattle, but Washington’s ranked but 29th most rainy. Southeastern rainfall’s a different beast. Perpetual and violent. Nitrogenized by lightning. Lightning strikes land, in Florida, on average, 3500 times a day. This land, with which she identifies, this land as much water and electrical charge as the Florida stormcloud sky, this Florida landscape sustains 1.3 million lightning strikes a year. Callie can identify.
It’s ironic her parents named her Callie. She’s heard two different stories. Her mother says she’s named for someone far back in the family, who-knows-whom, but her grandmother tells her she was conceived on the way from Florida to California where her parents sought to put down roots. She should. Perhaps. Have been instead named Flora.
Jacksonville ranks ninth among American cities for number of lightning strikes. Seventeen of Florida’s cities rank the top 30. Tampa’s first, Miami’s 18th.
So. No. No wonder. But the wonder! No wonder she knows. No wonder she feels such wonder.
She lies awake. In the intricate architectonics of her slender sculpted skull, her brain—behind bulletproof glass and highest-tech lightning detection—her brain—according to James Dewey Watson, one of the four scientists credited with discovering DNA, “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe”—her brain: shudders and shimmers an instant labyrinth of infinitely forking paths of power.
She knows. One strike, Northeast Florida. Shuts down half the power structure. All her life she’s lived, wholly, tall, dark green, a tree of life charged with holding up the stormcloud glory of the glowing cobalt sky that mirrors the landscape expanses of marsh and river and lake and swamp and ocean.
All those nights, Callie stared out from the tall building, 500 Water Street, wider than it was tall, turquoise-windowed, and watched light fork and dance and branch and fracture, sky to river, blinding electric and bright and white, the night-behind-the-lightning purple and dark and deep, sometimes three strikes lined up in perfect bzzz’ng syzygy. How many nights has lightning struck her building, her home tower in the city center, her sky-womb-over-water? A hundred times a year? She’s often wondered. Within that honeycomb she always felt home, especially late-night / early-morning, especially deep silent, especially alone.
Her personal space up here, turquoise and tall, in the womblike heights in steel and glass, in the womblike depths of two a.m. and four, burrows her home into lightning on the river sky deep in the dark. She knows she holds a privileged position. No royalty in all the world’s history has held more comfortable and lovely and intimate headquarters in the majesty of earth and sky.
She—never—could love a man so much, nor God, so might as well soar, her verb become infinitive, never—(ontology embedded in verb tense)—never—wings spread to encompass all our history and future—never—with everything “never” leaves behind—to die, and so, and so, and so—to live thus in this sentence and promise forever.