by Tim Gilmore, 10/8/2019
1. In Love, or: How Space Becomes Place
One window on the second floor remains, or has become, unboarded. Down over the eaves, the roof rusts red. A tortoiseshell housecat squeezes out from beneath a back corner of the house. Space is place according to how an individual experiences it. Perhaps the whole house is hers, and perhaps all its history.
When I was a teenager, there were times, disconnected moments in lonely hours, that I coveted the house. Sometime around 1990, a florist operated here. I came by a few times to see inside, but the shop was always closed, red roses dark in opaque windows.
The fact that the old house looked out on a busy intersection made me covet her more, not less. If the old house were mine, I could write from an upstairs window on Timuquana Road to an upstairs window on Wesconnett. I’d have manual typewriters set up at all the windows, and I’d move about the house, monitoring the goings-on of this random corner of the city. The stories of the city would be mine, but I wouldn’t hoard them. I’d write them down to give them back.
Clearly the house had come from another time and I’d begun to understand other times as other worlds. Other times were other worlds within this one. If you learned how to look, you could read the layers through the layers. That’s what writing should be anyway—immortality. Art is the persistence of experience recorded for present and future worlds.
I had no names to attach to the house back then. I had not met the Parnells who’d lived here, nor the Turknetts before them. I didn’t know Wesconnett, this latticing of Florida cracker with suburb laid atop it, had been its own town. I didn’t know cities reached out and swallowed towns like empires did indigenous peoples. I didn’t know the farmers who’d called these roads, then shell and dirt and clay, and these fields and these tin-roofed woodframe houses, home. I didn’t know the Wests, the Turknetts and the Silcoxes, nor their dairy farms, their mills, their truck farms, nor how their names had merged to form the name Wesconnett. (Nor that some argued the Cone family gave the “con” to “Wesconnett,” whereas Silcox had no more to offer than “co,” nor that “Turknett” supposedly derived from “turkey net.”)
Used to imagine, when I was young, some lovely girl who’d feel the wonder I felt for the house and want to inhabit its wonder with me. I still like to come see her. The house, I mean. I think the old house was the lovely girl.
No beauty obtains in the absence of wonder, and the old and ghosted had always filled me with reverence. No lithe sprites from John William Waterhouse paintings for me, I wanted to live mysterious with beautiful ruins.
Sometimes, October Sunday mornings, when the sunlight’s waned autumnal, I can almost imagine this Florida air might cool. And then thin fingers pull back the blinds. And in that one unboarded window, a face looks down from the shadows on this random corner of the maze. I know now that once this house was the center of its community. It’s a dream face but all too waking, bloodless and sexless, eyes hidden in the grays of the shades as though it needs no color of an iris to see me. So I like to imagine.
2. Giant Hogweed Honey at Fishing Pen Creek
We commented on it. Sitting behind the circulation desk at the Webb-Wesconnett Library on 103rd Street, we noted the frequent wailing of sirens as the soundtrack of the neighborhood. It was 1991. I did not then know John William Waterhouse had painted sirens, water nymphs who called men to their demise with the irresistible temptation of their singing.
The main librarian, Jerry G. Dukes, had not yet been murdered by his stepson. I had not yet begun to buy books on mythology from Chamblin Bookmine—books like Radu Florescu’s and Raymond McNally’s In Search of Dracula and Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur—and find, only afterward, his name stamped inside. Who sold Jerry’s personal library to Chamblin’s after his murder? What line connects my personal library, all these years later, to his across Wesconnett?
The sounds of Wesconnett a century earlier were the distant lowing of cattle, the constant clucking of chickens, the rooster’s chthonic alarm clock clarion.
Farmers and sawyers called the settlement that centered on the Turknett place Fishing Pen Creek, after the creek that stepped and trailed down from the Ortega River that branched off the St. Johns and the fishing weirs set in its tidal marshes and tributaries. Weirs and pens channeled trout and shad and trapped them heading back to main currents.
By the 19-teens, the sense of community had congealed. The houses scattered themselves across the woods and fields. Villagers grew corn up which grew velvet beans, cheap fodder for mules, the prickling hairs of these beans flying off and attacking farmers like swarms of bees. String beans and peas broke up through and incorporated earth. Fields sewn with cotton burst white from bolls. Perhaps it was peanuts best integrated soil and rain and all the old earth had long contained to compost into protein farmers sold to Parnell’s Grocery, then up in Riverside and down to distributors along Beaver Street. The milk of Wesconnett cows shipped to North Riverside, carcasses having since the Civil War traveled to Butcher Creek and up to the slaughterhouses on McCoys Creek and the four-story Farris and Company abattoir on West Beaver.
Old Orange Park Road, sometimes just called the Clay Road to Orange Park, became Wesconnett Boulevard. As late as the 1950s, Parnell’s Grocery still operated in Wesconnett, but the arrival of Naval Air Station Jacksonville at the start of World War II changed everything. Until the start of the war, the Parnells ran the community post office in their store. Then the sudden massive military presence overran the farming community.
Officers in armed convoys en route to the newly opened Camp Blanding in Southwest Clay County grew angry and annoyed by the interference of schoolchildren outside Wesconnett Elementary. The result was Blanding Boulevard, just to the west of the school, following most of the old route but connecting to the base more directly.
It was long before then, turn of the century, when Samuel Allen Turknett married Laura Silcox, merging two families of the portmanteau Wesconnett and building the big house in which they’d raise Roy, Cyrus and Norris. Just up north, Jacksonville had burnt to the ground. They’d listened to the winds churning ash. They’d never imagined Jacksonville would consume their dairies and mills in its expansion, its suburban metastasis.
In the 19-teens, a one-room schoolhouse served 20 students in eight grades. Commerce mushroomed between and around farm ventures. Besides Parnell’s, farmer’s wives and kids frequented Hill’s Wesconnett Drug Store and Coffin’s Barber Shop, while off-map and sans records, they bartered cheapmeats for catfish and compared the tastes of honey harvested in citrus groves, obviously tupelo from Apalachicola, but also wild rose and even giant hogweed honey.
And just like different honeys orbited the particular flowers that gave them their distinctive tastes, two centuries after a Spanish land grant reappropriated ancient Timucuan shellfish harvests, 50 years after the Civil War, the natural orbit of the village called Fishing Pen Creek, renamed Wesconnett, centered on the Turknett House.
3. House, the Hub
Nobody’s sure which came first, the house at the center of Wesconnett or the cemetery on the periphery, life and death as chicken and egg.
Nobody had electric lights, nor radio, Buck Rogers broadcasts came first, 1932, obscure Country & Western songs, Jacksonville the only big city, as near and as far as outer space, no one had water that moved through the house, cleansed you and took away waste, magical, and telephone communication might be the same thing as spirits speaking past death and time.
The house was the hub. Throughout the Great Depression. Most of the Wesconnett farming families noticed little difference from the bumper-crop Florida-real-estate-bubble 1920s to the national economic decline that sunk Northeast Florida into the depression South and Central Georgia had come to define as their own.
The house was the place you came to get news. The house was the place you’d come to get mail. After the Parnells ran the post office in their store, they moved into the old Turknett place. They continued the tradition of hosting weekend musicians, fiddling and banjoing on the porches embracing the house. The house became the village square, its porches the central crossroads.
Word traveled a dirt road, said you might’ve received word, and so you set your harrowing aside, traveled up to the one telephone whose specific existence—you’d heard other mysterious spirit machines were beginning to connect the thousands of criss-crossed American nightmares and miles—you knew, pounded a receiver, verified yourself as best you knew you, hoped you weren’t wrong and said hello.
Who tore off the porches? Who broke down and broke away the verandas, the town square that hugged this house?
Call me back from the corn maze, call me up from the rows of beans, summon me from citrus glow and tang grown on strong old roots self-fossilized into pure poetic strength, and I’ll come. The dream face in the old house, red roses in opaque windows. The shop was always closed.
Please hold while I connect your call.