James House (Buddy and Joan), Old Middleburg Road at 103rd Street

by Tim Gilmore, 6/10/2023

What could be more crass, more obscene, I wonder, though I step too among these vultures. I tell myself I’m less a buzzard than a crow, a magpie, but I don’t believe it. What if we all had to pass through our own estate sales on the way to whatever afterlife we’d believed in?

Walking through this odd house out on Old Middleburg Road, poring over the remains of this elderly couple, I eavesdrop like I can’t help but do. “Are the people who live here,” one large-eyed woman asks, “still alive?” A man in denim shorts and a football jersey says he’s 76 years old and remembers when this place was a cow pasture. An older couple cranes their necks together over a waffle iron.

The bed in the master bedroom piles high with folded patchwork quilts. A bright red bathtub reclines beneath a faux stained glass window. A neon Old Milwaukee beer sign readies itself at the pianola, a box of hymns on piano rolls to the side. Dozens of Pyrex bowls and milk glass vases and Hummel and Goebel figurines and flower frogs and alabaster eggs and floral glass paperweights and old glass refillable Coca-Cola bottles position themselves for their next move.

Upstairs, a woman folding shirts behind a wardrobe tells a younger woman the man who just died built this house for his wife, though when she died, he remarried and his next wife moved in. In fact, Buddy died January before last and Joan followed him in August. Early years, he and his brother framed houses. Later Buddy became a developer with Florida Title Group. He proposed to Joan three weeks after he met her in the summer of 1995. They bought antiques and Chow Chows and Joan’s obituary said they “shared an infinite love for feeding cows and donkeys.”

We shed our entire outer layer of skin every couple of weeks. It collects in the dust that accrues in our hallways. The minerals leech out of our bones. We breathe out the fat we burn. We are fluid. Yet we identify, for ourselves, a self. What does a life leave behind?

Horace Richard “Buddy” James built this house in 1987. It’s a long low rectangle of offset light-red bricks fronted with a two-story veranda topped with three dormers. The entire interior is walled with panelboard, the ceiling corrugated vinyl, the wide kitchen floored with brick veneer that leads to an infamous 1980s “fastfood sunroom,” with plush mauve carpeting and solarium windows that curl up the walls to the ceiling, like a shipwrecked 1987 Wendy’s or Dairy Queen.

Buddy could build a solid house. Even when he built this house 36 years ago, it seemed like an old man’s house. He was 90 when he died a year and a half ago. Regina, who went by Joan, and left being a nurse in Columbus, Ohio to be a bank branch manager at Mayport Naval Air Station, was 78 when she died last August.

Almost nothing remains of most people who’ve ever lived. Writers trade their bodies for bodies of work. Gilgamesh was a myth, but first he was a man, if not countless men over centuries. Joan and Buddy both left children from their first marriages. Buddy and Florida Title Group built a gated Arnold Palmer golf course and housing development called The Plantation at Ponte Vedra Beach. Now I stand with his rusted rocking horse and golliwog blackface dolls.

I spy musical instruments settled at distances throughout the house. I’m ready for someone to draw the zodiacal shape that unites them or bring them together and strike up the band. There’s an organ, and the player piano, and a zither, and a xylophone, and a banjo, and a typewriter.

I step into the velvet painting of a dark bouquet faded gray – there are no black orchids except in Brenda Starr, Reporter and I’m pretty sure I met her here somewhere – and play my typewriter like John Coltrane kicking his junk habit or Samuel Taylor Coleridge waking from an opium dream. Then I spot the dozens of political campaign buttons coalesced upon the vest hanging in the sunlight of a sad window.

Vote Humphrey / I Like Ike / We Want Willkie / Our President, Franklin D. Roosevelt / Nixon’s the One / Choice for a Change: Goldwater, Miller / Carter, Mondale / Wallace for President, Stand Up for America / McGovern, Shriver / I Want Roosevelt Again / Dewey, Warren / I’m for Nixon and Lodge / For President, Thomas E. Dewey / Clinton and Gore, for New Leadership / Vote Straight Republican, November 2, 1937 / Mondale, Ferraro / Geraldine Ferraro, America’s First Woman Vice Pres. / Build with Haydon Burns / Truman Was Screwy to Build a Porch for Dewey / I’m a Bunny for Carter / Reelect Kennedy President

Why do people say the person they’re mourning has “left this world” or “left the earth”? Assuming the earth contains all worlds lived upon it, the first statement could be true, but nobody leaves the earth. The billionaires who’d like to colonize Mars are no less earthling and earth dust than you and I and Prince Hamlet and the worm.

For Hamlet says, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” for obviously, “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”

Buddy loved God and Elvis Presley and Billy Joel and tennis and raising donkeys and building barns. No family member ever told Joan, “I love you” without her responding, “I love you more.”

So let it be written. So let it be done. The writing commits the action. Life decrees itself through living. Ipse dixit.