by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
They looked under the bed she shared with her older sister. Looked in all the closets. They looked in the pantry. They looked in the single bathroom, in the tub, under the sink. They looked in the most implausible places—under the kitchen sink, in the kitchen trash, in the kitchen cabinets; they looked in the oven. They looked in the office, under her daddy’s desk. They looked in the dirty clothes hamper. They looked under their own bed. They looked behind the water heater.
It was while crawling about beneath the house that the panic set in. They had looked in and behind the azalea hedges. They had looked all around the brick stoop of the front porch. They had searched the honeysuckle vines in the back yard.
All the time, calling her name: Joan, Joan, Joan? Come on, Joan. Joan, come out now, Joan. Joan, Mommy and Daddy are serious now. Joan? Please, Joan, come to us now, honey. Joan.
(that beautiful, beautiful little girl)
It was while crawling about beneath the house that the panic set in. Somehow, up until that moment, the panic had been deferred. Looking in the trees up and down the dead-end block—“She’s too little to climb trees!” “I don’t care, look in all the damn trees!” Wandering through the neighbor’s yards. Searching the, please God, the railroad tracks one house away, the tracks on which trains made the little house tremble in the depths of the night. Searching the blackberry thickets around the tracks. Looking up into the trees by the railroad tracks.
The only way was by scraping himself across the dirt on his belly. He kept hitting his head on the bottom of the house. Though absurdly he feared the house would fall flat on top of him, that fear was so secondary that he couldn’t quite realize it. It did, nevertheless, infuse the primary terror, that his daughter was missing, with its own claustrophobia, its own physical squeeze. He pulled himself past pipes, past the desiccated remains of a rat, beside old construction debris, yellowed newspaper. It was while crawling about beneath the house that the panic set in.
Joan looked and a diamonded corner of a pane of a window caught a glint of the sunlight strangely, seemed to magnify it and diffuse it all at once, made it bearable, but also made it irresistible. Could not but walk toward it. Walking toward it made it flash once and disappear, made the pane of glass change shape. Made it forgotten. But every leaf in every tree on the whole side of the street trembled in unison. Reminiscent of something a long, long time ago, though there was no long time ago. The trembling of all the leaves of all the trees reminded her of something before her, though there had been nothing before her, not for her there hadn’t. Who was she before she was? A sense, not understood, of things being completely full, of things having been long in waiting, of things and their preparation of themselves being very, very old. Things must be very old in order to seem so fully and completely brand new to a new person. A sense, not understood. A sense of having newly come into the fullness of things.
She found beauty to see. She found it to look at, to watch. She had newly come into the fullness of the pregnant long preparation of things, and she had an appointment with it. These things were to be discovered. These things were to be found out and found out about.
Five hours. For five unimaginably long hours, they looked and looked and did not blink, and just kept following things.
And then there was Joan, looking through the window over the top of the back door panel of the police car. And then there was the officer who opened that door and picked her up beneath her armpits. Her parents collapsing on top of her in kisses and embraces, her own face was perfectly placid. Her white lace dress was unsullied. Her curls were unmussed. Her eyes still were the eyes of someone calmly seeing what was happening. She didn’t seem to understand there was trouble, nor discord, fear, sorrow. A neighbor said something about running away, but she was only five years old and didn’t understand that term. She had only gone out to see what there was to see. The policeman said they found her walking across the slope of fallen leaves beneath the trees in Willow Branch Park, a mile away. She said she had only gone for a walk.
The view down the block. House. House. House. Tree. Tree. Tree. Cars. Birds. The sunlight. The view is freshly, openly, newly there, new with the total immersion into seeing that is being five years old, and yet the view is gone. The moment of seeing, so wholly present, was so long ago. The view down the street is so openly and fully real, and that small person so immersed into the seeing of it is herself no more. Here’s a paradox—the way that-which-does-not-exist, is, and the way that which so livingly and self-evidently is, simply is no more.
Impossible to retrace the route. All the cars that passed her. If drivers had to stop to let her cross the street, she would owe the next 46 years to them. She had to walk to the end of the dead-end block of Ernest Street and turn right on King Street. After that, she could have taken any number of routes. She could have turned right onto Dellwood Avenue, Myra Street, or Green Street, and from any of these streets, taken a left onto James Street. She could have walked west on College Street, turned south on Cherry Street, and walked down Cherry for seven or eight blocks to Willow Branch Park. Or she could have turned from King Street onto Post Street, Forbes Street, or Lydia Street, or even gone further toward the river than Willow Branch Park and turned back any dozen streets toward it. She could have walked some zigzag route like King Street to Forbes Street to Downing Street to Frederica Place to Lydia Street to James Street to Laviere Street to Cherry Street and into the park. Chances are, whatever route she took wasn’t a direct one, because she was five years old. Perhaps she made the one-mile trip to Willow Branch Park a two-mile meander.
The way, once made, could never be replicated. It was hers. It was once. She would never be able to say what combination of streets brought her to Willow Branch. It was, therefore, sealed. It was an unknowable treasure. It was one-and-only, sui generis. It was irreplaceable and irreducible. She would never forget the bigness and realness of the walk. She would never forget how there was nothing to be afraid of and everything to find out.
Her son dreamt, 63 years after the initiatory walk his mother took at age five, that he was lost in a map of a city he did not know. He was asleep in the apartment he had rented since the divorce. His daughters, ages five and two, were asleep in another room. He dreamt that his five year-old daughter walked hand in hand with him, up and down streets, taking narrow shortcuts to nowhere, lost and not knowing what they were looking for. He dreamt that his five year-old daughter comforted him. She could walk for miles. She had grace.
He dreamt, 63 years after his mother’s walk at age five and 17 years after she died.
Seven years after this dream, he would finally hear for the first time about the walk his mother took when she was five years old.
In the weeks after his mother died, when he was 12 years old, 46 years after her Willow Branch walk, he dreamed there was a map of a forest, and he went down into the map and found himself lost down under the trees. He knew who he was looking for, but he couldn’t find her. She was here, but she was not anywhere. No one accompanied him and he was utterly alone. This aloneness might never again hurt this much, but it had permanently replaced his mother.
When his oldest daughter was 12 years old, the age he was when his mother died, he found out about the walk his mother took when she was five, which reminded him of the dream of the walk he had taken with his oldest daughter when she was five, which reminded him of being 12 years old and that dream in which he found the forest within the map of the forest completely and nihilistically empty.
But none of that mattered to 1940, and 1940 is the year of that first walk. The walk didn’t know it was 1940. The walk was only the moment that contained it and made it everything.
And when he met the love of his life, they went on trips to San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, New York, Asheville, St. Louis. Sometimes they flew, but they loved to drive the enormous continent. She drove the long stretches, but when they came into the city, they traded seats and he navigated the mazes of the city and its downtown core. Without GPS, a map would fall into place in his head and he moved the car in and out of streets like he had long known them. When he came to a city to which he had never been, he always felt that he was coming home. There, they found beauty to see. They found the world to look at, to watch. These circuits were to be discovered. They were to find things out together and to find out about them together.
His younger daughter was always the walker. She would walk with him to Chamblin’s Book Mine, to Park and King, along the creek in Boone Park, to Five Points. In their physical meanders, their conversation would pull them into its own wandering. Woolgathering. Stargazing. Daydreaming aloud. They would talk about anything. She, eight years old, telling him that the letters of the alphabet had colors and different degrees of coloration and that these corresponded to temperature, so that Q, a light blue, felt cool, while Z, a deep red, could burn you, and C, deep violet, was cold. She told him that people believed in ghosts because they wanted to, that people had deep senses of the past lingering and alive around them, that it was easier to believe those were individual ghosts. She, eight years old, told him that people haunted themselves and thought that they themselves were ghosts outside of them. Before they knew where they had walked, they’d walked from this city into their own city within it. They’d walked through a portal in the park. They’d wandered through a threshold in the trees.
When his mother had been sick for two years with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, her mind had seen her body shutting down—one toe, toes and fingers, extremities. She had watched her body from her head and seen it close up shop. She had watched from her head and seen her body become the absolute refusal of everything her mind could want from it. She hadn’t seen everything rightly. More than once she thought she’d seen a man she did not know standing by the door in her bedroom. She had come to believe the man was an angel.
One day about noon, when she was too weak to be awake, when her body was seeking to include her heart and her head in its own shutting down, she inhabited some plane where she could walk awake about the house outside her body and simultaneously dream. She could walk past the thousand Spanish and French and Japanese and South American dolls in the doll cases in her living room and make them raise their hands above their heads and light up with goodness like suns. She saw a map of a dense island city lying on the coffee table near the front door. She walked to the map and stood over it, looking into it. Then she took one step. She was inside. In this map was a forested city, maybe a city reclaimed by forest and its Edenites. She didn’t know the name of the city or the forest. She didn’t know her way around.
And all the time, calling her name: Joan, Joan, Joan. Come on, Joan. Joan, come out now, Joan. Joan, Mommy and Daddy are serious now. Joan? Please, Joan, come to us now, honey. Joan.
(that beautiful, beautiful little girl)
The astonishing thing is that she was never afraid. In all those hours walking, and hours are much longer to a five year-old than to an adult, the idea of being lost never crossed her mind. She was where she was. There was a tree. There was a cat crossing the road. There was a pretty yellow house with a big front porch. There were cars parked along the street in front of all these pretty houses. That’s where she was. She was doing what she was supposed to be doing. Each sight pulled her toward it, and in turn pulled her toward another sight that pulled her toward it.
What she was doing was being in the world.
What she was doing was being in the world, and she did a better job being in the world that day than she would most of the rest of her days.
She could have walked from Ernest Street to King Street to Dellwood Avenue to Acosta Street to Haldemar Terrace to Barrs Street to Forbes Street to Acosta Street to Gale Court, which dead-ends at apartment buildings and oak trees before it picks up at its other dead end that extends to King Street, King Street again!, down Lydia Street past the old plantation house, the oldest house in Riverside, and down toward Willow Branch Creek, which washes down into the St. Johns River, which runs across half the state.
When his mother was 12 and his mother’s father, whom he would never know, got a promotion at work, her family moved out of the Ernest Street house. At some point thereafter, the house burnt down.
How can an event have occurred in a landscape when that landscape itself defies its ever having been there? Oh, it was always there. It’s there now, but invisible. That’s the house her father crawled beneath, looking for her in panic, the day she took her walk to Willow Branch Park. That’s the house! That one, right there, the one that burnt down “at some point thereafter.”
Right before she died, after all the surreal suffering her head had believed she had seen her body experience, she remembered.
She told her sister, “I remember.” She didn’t know how she remembered, since she had been so young at that time, but just before she died, she remembered that one thing clearly. Just before she died, she understood. Just before she died, she remembered she had gone on a long, long walk. Just before she died, she said, “I wasn’t running away. I was just going on a walk.” All this time, all these years, all this life, she had not been running away. She had been going on a walk. She had gone out to see what there was to see. She had found herself alive and she had found herself in this world, and she had gone out to see what it was all about. That’s all. No need for panic. No need for the police. No need for anyone to be upset. One thing had caught her eye, that image had led to another, and before she knew it, she had wandered away from home. She could not even tell you what way she had gone, but she had seen such beautiful things.
And then there was Joan, here at home, not seeing a need for all the disturbance.
All the time, calling her name.
This morning, the door thrown open, there is nothing to be afraid of and everything to find out.