Monday, January 17, 2011


We were third-graders then, and learning the Florida State Song – "We are the children of Florida, F-L-O-R-I-D-A…" – and drawing, from memory, the state flag, the official seal at its center. Mrs. Danforth has been telling us the "first stories of our fair state:" the Spanish galleons arriving; Ponce de Leon, his long hair flowing, wearing a leather breastplate and balloon-legged pants and tights, stepping out to plant the flag of Spain on the white dunes; the search for the Fountain of Youth; the Seminoles and their chief, Osceola; the deep Everglades the Seminoles vanished into rather than sign the treaties and live on the reservations they were offered.

She moves us forward, through time and space, to the city in which we live. Jacksonville. Then she tells us that its first name was Cow Ford, named this because this is the very place where the herders brought their cattle in order to drive them across the river to the other side.

What, she asks us sweetly, twirling the chalk in her long fingers, is the name of that river?

Bobby Thompson shouts, without even raising his hand, The River Jordan!

But no; this is wrong. Mrs. Danforth tells us so and we believe her, though we are surprised a little by the news because we have all heard in church that the River Jordan is where one crosses over to the other side. We take things literally and this is no fault of our own. Castro's bombs are real to us as they are to our parents. And Mrs. Danforth has told us the world is now "teetering on the brink of annihilation."

Annihiliation. She says the word twice. And we all know that to say a word twice – a word with five syllables, a word that sounds like all the breath in your body is escaping when you say it – is to make it true. And so each time the sirens go off, we line up and follow her out the schoolroom door, across the playground, beyond the chain link fence, across the gooey midday asphalt of the road, into the drainage ditches. We will crouch there, next to her, through the sirens' long wail. Even when the ditches are half-filled with rainwater, we will follow her in our one pair of good shoes, in our picture-day, Sunday-best skirts, with our fear of the water snakes we have seen swimming in them. Whatever evil a snake might do to us, fangs and venom, is small next to something like annihilation. In the seconds between the end of the sirens and the one long blast of the all clear, we think we might understand what it is to teeter on the brink of something terrible; we feel the edge of it around us there, though we do not know, exactly, what that something is.

But this morning there are no sirens, no mucky ditches to crawl in and out of, and we are content to sit here in our sunny classroom and be astonished that the "other side" is just across the St. John's River from us. We go on drawing the flag while she tells us the story of our town, Jacksonville, renamed for Andrew Jackson: "Jackson's Village." We listen to her while we draw, rapt and almost-interested, but later – at recess under the tall pines – we will make of that name a little joke among ourselves: Jack-SIN-ville. We say the word under our breath – like a nasty word we say only when adults are not present to punish us for it – and we snicker because that is sometimes what Preacher calls it from the pulpit on Sundays.

But now, I am trying, for this test, to remember the insignia, that blue and gold place at the heart of the white flag. I know there is a sun, a ship, a Seminole woman. . .but I cannot remember what else is there. An alligator? Some flowers? Some trees? I think, for a moment, that I would be able to remember it, exactly, if I could just let my eyes drift – for just a second – over Delia Becker's drawing. She is sitting at the desk directly across from mine. It would be so easy.

This will become the story of my life, though I don't yet know it – this wrestling with the Angel of Small Deceits. This time, however, I win out: I keep my eyes on my own flag. The blue crayon, clenched in my right fist, is poised an inch, maybe two, above the white square of the flag. I am still sitting like this ten minutes later when time runs down and the history lesson is over and the papers must be passed forward. I beat the Devil. . .and am defeated again: defeated by the desire to please God and to keep Jesus – that One-Who-Watches, that Peeping-Tom-Who-Has-His-Father's-Ear, from having to put one more black mark beside my name. How many marks does it take before God's eraser smudges someone's name from the Book of Life? And how many Xs are there, already, next to my own name?

I surrender the blue crayon again to the darkness of the cigar box which still smalls faintly of cigars, the smell I believe is the smell of Cuba and Castro. And now it is time for maps and the color for maps is black: X marks Jacksonville, the city of our childhoods; O marks the capital, Tallahassee; E is the mark where the Everglades and the swamps sprawl; P for the Pacific Ocean; G for the Gulf of Mexico, and GA for Georgia, which stretches beyond the dashed boundary lines just north of our city, the live oaks there heavy with Spanish moss. Because this is only a practice for the real test, which will be tomorrow, we don't have to turn in our maps.

On my left is John Galway, a mean Irish boy. His map turns ugly right away. He is drawing brown stick figures hanging from the trees. He's lynching colored people, the way we've heard his daddy really does some nights. To my right, Delia, in her blonde braids and blue satin ribbons, has got the Pacific Ocean where the Gulf of Mexico should be. She figures this out though and she changes the compass points on her map. East goes West, and North goes South, and Florida dangles there still at the bottom of the page, a large tonsil of land – a peninsula – just under Georgia. When I see her do this – when I see Delia change the directions - I notice at last the small compass at the upper right-hand corner of our maps: a star-pronged thing like the star of Bethlehem with a corona at its heart, all the spokes of it pointing away from its center to something important, something maybe only the Wise Men, the Three Kings, would know about. But I am in third grade and I am not kingly nor wise, nor ever likely to be. Wisdom is not my gift; my gift is sin. I have a penchant for it. A predisposition. So says my Sunday School teacher who would know.

So I draw a likeness of this compass, a second compass, over this city, my city, the city in which I live. I am here, dead-center of JackSINville, at its dark coronaed heart. All the compass spokes point away from here: East is on my right: the Pacific, water, ocean. West is the Gulf of Mexico, more water. I am afraid of water, afraid of drowning though I do not know, exactly, what drowning is. My grandmother has warned me about it, mostly so I won't wander off too near the pond in the woods near our house. She has told me it is possible for a grown man to drown in a teacup of water: it gets into his lungs and that's it for him. Drowned.

Too much water, East and West. And South is just more Florida, the endless search for the Fountain of Everlasting, for Youth. And at the end of Florida is more water. Beyond that water, somewhere off the end of our maps, is Cuba and Castro, the bearded dictator who puts his poets in prison, and the Bay of Pigs. Between us and those waiting bombs, the Everglades rises, thick as Eden with snakes, with cypress and palmetto, wild boars and Florida panthers, and deep in its watery mucky heart, the toothy croc circles – the old Leviathan of the Swamp – with his five sets of teeth and his great hunger.

I feel him there this morning, just below the bright noontime sun of Jacksonville and the ringing of heat in my ears. I can almost feel the wide yawn of his jaws, that great jaw hooked by God who, Preacher says, has "created the Destroyer to destroy." He is waiting out there, Leviathan, with his teeth and his open maw and his great empty belly-of-the-beast hunger. For me. I am making my map of escape already – me and my little Jonah heart – crossing over to the other side: North – away from the terrible hungers of beasts, beyond the lit streets and the neat green lawns, past the live oaks of Georgia and the old ghosts of hatred that still haunt them, past all the sharp compass points of this Nothingness to the Something that I will one day travel to, inhabit, and make my own. . . .