by Tim Gilmore, 10/14/2019
“Mama didn’t let me go in there,” Rodney says, “into the doghouse out back. It had about 10 cages. ’Cause if I went in there, fleas would jump all over me. Somehow or another, there wasn’t no dogs in there, but I remember that alligator comin’ up out of Fishin’ Creek and gittin’ in our gazebo.”
Kindly, Rodney Puckett provides the missing link. I’d tracked the Turknett / Parnell House through the first half of the 20th century, but crossed no bridge from the fall of the farming village called Wesconnett to my memories of Wesconnett Florist inhabiting the house I first fell in love with in the early 1990s.
Rodney spent 1959 one street over, when Transylvania was a dirt road, and when he was a year or two old, his family moved to “the Big House.”
The Gunnings lived where Transylvania dead-ended at Fishing Pen Creek. Today the pavement ends at the Gunnings’ old property. The line of 900 square foot woodframe houses runs out where the Gunnings’ several acres begins.
Gunning Hardware was just the other side of Wesconnett Boulevard from the Gunnings’ side of Transylvania. It stood next to a furniture store at Wesconnett, where Timuquana Road becomes 103rd Street, and Simmons’ Meat Market, where Rodney’s youngest sister once worked.
He says, “The Gunnings lived in a great big house. They was real kinda rich people. Now the Gunnings was old when I was young, but I knew their kids, I knew Karen Gunning and Jerry Gunning and Gary Gunning.”
These days Transylvania narrows toward a copse of camphors and pecan trees, house trailers and woodframes on either side, then opens bright through the tunnel of trees to the light of an open field. The Gunning House is gone. So are the two “big red bulldogs” Rodney remembers accompanied Mr. Gunning to the hardware store. When I last walked Transylvania to Fishing Pen Creek almost five years ago, the house stood abandoned and desecrated.
Basil Gunning died in 2009, 86 years old. He came to Florida two years before Rodney was born and shortly thereafter opened his store. There he sold tillers and post hole diggers and shotguns and shovels for 34 years. Out on these acres, he gardened and built small airplanes. Now all that’s left is every moment, 1963, 1971, 1985, seeped inaccessibly into the earth and a dozen pecan trees.
Rodney’s memories of “the Big House” tendril inextricably through his feelings about his mother. “She worked all her life,” he says, chief PBX (Private Branch Exchange) telephone operator for University Hospital. She threw him a birthday party on the front porch, he’s not sure how old he was, and invited so many kids from surrounding houses she lost count and lost track of time and forgot to put the icing on the cake she’d baked and dumped icing willy-nilly atop the cake to Rodney’s delight and that of every kid in Wesconnett.
He remembers his father, Kenneth Leroy Puckett, catching him when he fell down the stairs. He remembers his mother, Anne Barry Puckett, made her bedroom underneath the stairs.
“She’d run a’ air conditioner in there, and in summertime it would be so cold in that room. Then in wintertime, Daddy would turn the air conditioner around in the window.”
Rodney has few memories of his father, a Green Beret and bitter-end alcoholic. Years after his father left, Rodney’s half-brother Paul tracked him down in Baltimore where he died: “There was a trail of liquor bottles between the bedroom and the bathroom.”
Rodney’s most vivid memory of his father is of seeing him chase his mother through that old Wesconnett farmhouse with a machete. His brother Kenny Jr. stepped in between them. After Kenneth Sr. moved out, Kenny, a librarian at Florida Junior College, moved back in “to help Mama with the kids and to help cook and clean.”
Once when Rodney was four or five years old, he crawled beneath the house, exploring, plunging fully into the black, shimmying over the packed dirt on pointed knees and elbows, and found a strange treasure hidden in the dark. Proud of his trophy, he scrambled out from under the house to show his mother. She called the police, but apparently the old gun, still strapped into its holster, had been discarded beneath the house years and years before.
Kenny helped his little brother build his first model airplane on a long table on the upstairs landing. “We spent all that time buildin’ it and then we took it out in the field beside the house and I flew it one time and crashed it,” Rodney says.
Whatever hard times hit the Pucketts in the “Big House” at Wesconnett, Rodney says, “God has blessed me all my life and I’m almost 60 years old.”
He was a star baseball player on the Wesconnett ballfield, but says some people didn’t like how much he liked winning. “I’m a winner. I like to win!” He hit high school, handsome and athletic, 1974, had “long blond hair and lots of girlfriends.” He laughs and sighs and says, “Now I’m old and bald and ain’t got no teeth.”
Then came Amy. “My mama told me to stay away from this girl, but I’m 15, and I slipped over to her house one night and she got pregnant. Later she says, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you, I stopped takin’ the pill.’ The girlfriend I got now tells me I’m to blame too, should’a kept it in my pants. I know she’s right.”
Rodney lived in the Turknett / Parnell House until his mother bought him his first truck. Not long after Amy, he moved with his sister to Palmer Avenue behind The Still, one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s main bars. His truck was his independence, but Amy had their child on her own. “I got into some things with my truck, but I ain’t gonna get into that.” He got a job painting Fords at Duval Motors on Cassatt Avenue, later BMWs and Peugeots at World Cars on Talleyrand, and he and his mother moved into a duplex beside the Rollerdrome Skating Rink.
When Wesconnett Florist moved into the house he’d called home across the 1960s and early ’70s, he helped the owners demo the porches. “We took down walls inside. We went into Mama’s kitchen, her kitchen where she got up every morning and had her coffee and looked out at the new light and the trees, and we tore everything out. Replaced it with one of those big walk-in freezers for plants.” They tore down the back porches and walkways to back buildings his father had used as his “auto shops.”
It’s been years since he’s seen the house, the intersection. The stores across the street are gone, as is the Gunning House. The alligator in the gazebo wasn’t full-grown, probably only about four feet long. And though the fleas in the empty doghouse jumped all over each other, swarming ground pepper, there was once Maxina.
His mother Anne named her. When Maxina had puppies, she found for them the perfect place. In the august centurial oak behind the house, the oak that stood four or five feet wide, the oak that was wider than Rodney when he lay down before it in the grass, a great hole gaped in the bole. The tree was old enough. Its strength could afford it.
So Maxina scouted the hole in that great Wesconnett oak and inside it she found safety and bore her babies. The Pucketts had Maxina and Maxina had her puppies, and the Pucketts had a duck, or the duck adopted the Pucketts, and the family named the duck Dinky. And Maxina and Dinky took care of the pups in the hollow of the tree.
For those readers preferring fairy tale endings, I’m sorry I never find them. This one’s more Little Golden Book, flipped inside out, than Cinderella, but please accept it in lieu of that everybody-dies-and-nothing-changes Shakespearean tragic swan-song.
As the puppies grew, when Maxina left the hollow, Dinky, no swan, took her place. Down in the oak, Maxina nursed her pups and Dinky settled into the bole when Maxina needed time. As necessity designated, for these characters, their parts in the story, so did love design its families.