by Tim Gilmore, 10/2/2016
In 1941, the house stood square, wooden, and “in true,” as its carpenters proclaimed their work. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, 1100 square feet, and the reticulated longleaf pines stood temple columns strong from the pine needles that matted this slightest ridge.
Frank Heath lived in the house but a year. He saw the trees run strange. A naked beast jumped through the tops of the trees and ate of its heart and its brain.
Here lived Albert W. Poe in 1944. He likened Albert to Allan and Poe to Poe. The wind bent the dusking trees with murders of crows.
Dalton Blackburn bought this little house in 1945 or ’46. He and Georgia liked the intricate ways the house inside unfolded.
In turn, Dalton and Georgia folded up safely within and upon themselves and their lives in this little house built of wood hard as stone.
The house does not announce itself. It’s not even Craftsman bungalow. It tucks its slender body unobtrusively back of a screened-in porch behind dark-leaved citrus, a monkey puzzle tree, a Turk’s cap mallow or “sleeping hibiscus,” dwarf everbearing mulberries, and soft walls of rosemary and Southern artemisias and orange flower-spiked wild daggas, also known as lion’s tails, Leonotis leonurus.
This little wooden house was Georgia Blackburn’s home for 36 years, from 1945 to 1981. Dalton died in 1965. The Blackburns’ phone number in 1960 was Evergreen Nine-3568. She taught English at Robert E. Lee High School for decades and retired shortly after her husband’s death.
She did not know that from within her own home, this ghost from her future would write this sentence, that he’d believe a house should be associated by name with a high school teacher as much as if she were mayor. Surely, the Blackburn House is at least as important as the Edward Lane House, that pseudo-Tudor style manse built in the ’20s by one of the city’s most prominent bankers.
When I call her at one in the morning—
33 years after her death, seven years after I moved with my wife and children into her house, 64 years after my mother graduated from Robert E. Lee High School, where Georgia Blackburn taught her English in the early 1950s, Lee High built in 1926 and ’27 on Sarah and John McKinlay’s former dairy farm, Sarah the daughter of Elias Jaudon who worked his slaves here, on what’s now Riverside, on Magnolia Plantation in the 1850s—
a robotic female voice tells me, in slow enunciation, “The number you have dialed, three eight nine three five six eight has been disconnected.”
Georgia Blackburn never knew that I’d write, right now, my border collie Oliver asleep at my feet beneath my desk, about her house from within her house. Nor how I’d rocked in this childhood chair. I name it for her.
Nor that here, amidst these book-lined walls, I’d write books about Jacksonville’s pseudo-serial killer Ottis Toole, humanitarian leader Eartha White, outsider historian Virginia King, magnate bookseller Ron Chamblin, pedophile Baptist preacher Bob Gray, or that I’d do my damnedest to keep organizing a local literary arts festival called JaxbyJax.
Like the Blackburns, I love how the house whorls into itself and its most central moments and corners. I write in the centermost room, the room with most doors, the smallest room. I write from a room of seven doors.
Outside, the house is a plain white rectangle, but within it’s a golden nautilus. It winds like a spiral staircase out from its heart. Golden Rectangle, Golden Spiral, Golden Ratio.
Each revolution from the central room’s a progressively curved inward distance.
It’s a house much bigger inside than out.
The Blackburn House is built like a human brain. It’s small enough to fit inside your head, but it folds and furls and curls and entails everything we can know.
Floors slope. The walls breathe with the weather. The whole house shakes imperceptibly with every car that rides the many roads around it. Strong houses are meant to dance.
My younger daughter told me the house was haunted. My older daughter told me she was tired of the madwoman next door, who’s just sold her house, shouting at her boarders in the middle of the night.
Once again, I pick up my phone and my thumb hits Evergreen Nine-3568.
This time there’s an answer. It’s an essay my mother wrote for Georgia Blackburn’s English class in 1951. Tomorrow, 65 years later, I’ll grade essays from the College Writing classes I teach at Florida State College of Jacksonville.
Holding my obsolete and not-so-smart phone to my head, I barely hear the voice or make out the words. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood. Who’s reading my mother’s essay to me? And is she my mother 19 years before I’m born? And does my writing in Georgia Blackburn’s house 35 years after her death constitute a haunting back in the years when she was alive? And is her house not now accidentally mine? Or am I by happenstance hers?
I’m 42 years old. My mother died 30 years ago this month. How do I live here in my mother’s English teacher’s house? How do I write this question? How have I always written? When will I ever finish writing about my mother?