Death and Life
Gainesville is a small town with an oversized university, filled with a heat that feeds the surrounding poverty like a polluted fog; you are either there for the University or to do your time in scrapping out subsistence that at the end may wrap around your soul like the rapidly mushrooming fauna that covers the earth. The wildness of Central Florida moves quickly yet because the heat is so oppressive it is stealth-like, not only with nature but in the characters that inhabit the swampland. Everything stays green and as spring arrives in late February, the season eventually hinders everything just a bit greener and incurs a desperation among the locals that requires many to set a great deal of their belongings in their yards every morning in the hopes that a passing excursionist may stop and pick up a souvenir on their way to Orlando or Sarasota. Florida is filled with fugitives and vagrants, folks who try in vain to settle in an unsettlable and unstable land, hoping to carve out an existence that was impossible in their hometowns. These hometown being mostly from the Midwest and New York, snowbirds is what the locals refer to those who make a yearly sojourn in the winter months but a great deal of Floridians once resided in places such as Columbus, Albany and Dayton. There is a myth in America about the idea that people move west to pursue their identity, in fact when you live in the Midwest you head to Florida to discover the eccentric self. There was a reason the Jim Shepard once called Florida home.
The house was small, almost exhibiting two double-wide trailers, the only difference was that it was a real house and it sat on a small hill and had a basement constructed of dirt and mold. Across the street in direct antithesis of the emotional upheaval going inside of the house sat a plush green golf course, complete with ponds filled with deadly alligators and rolling soft hills. As a perfect symbol of the authentic in-authenticity of Florida, the white wooden fence that bordered the entire course was upon closer inspection made of plastic. I knew nobody in Gainesville, save two displaced scensters who knew of me through my days as a minor player in the American independent rock and roll scene. I didn’t even know my roommate in Florida when I moved there, this roommate was in fact my wife and we had managed to grow so far apart while we lived separate lives both physically and emotionally the prior six months. It could be said that for the both of us, we were strangers not only to each other but to ourselves.
Cracked, and broken, life had felt as if it were truly melting in the smoldering heat of Gainesville. We chose the house across for the serene golf course for a number of reasons, first it was only a ten minute walk from the University, quite literally it lie just beyond the shadow of the Florida University football stadium, know to the locals as the Swamp. Secondly, it was an easy walk from the two campus dive bars that I knew I would inhabit. I did not trust myself to be able to navigate my way through the crisscrossing streets of Gainesville, whose layout was most likely designed by a drunken fisherman. Nor, was I going to chance drinking in any of the outlying redneck bars scattered throughout the town, I could handle myself in the hillbilly dive bars of Ohio but woe to the straggler who ends up on the wrong barstool in central Florida. Arriving defeated, mustering up the energy to decide that life did not have to play out in the manner of all of my dear dead and insane friends, I threw my lot in with the vines, swelter and oddities of Gainesville.
I had come to some realization that I could not quit drinking by my own volition, no matter how hard I tried, once the drink was in my hand, my head would not rest until I had drank my fill. A drunkard’s fill is as bottomless as his loneliness, when it is assuaged another thought may come and pop the balloon of satisfaction that booze provides. It had turned into a terrible discomforting existence. The fact of the matter was I hid it well, especially in the cozy confines of my neighborhood bars back in Columbus. A drinker knows his fault lines and will plan his life accordingly, avoiding the missteps of bravery like a child skirting away from every crack to avoid breaking her mother’s back. The last chance to be vulnerable was one to be avoided, so the drinks piled on top of the drinks and the desperation of nightfall wrecked havoc on my mind. Upon my arrival, stripped to the nakedness of the reality of my own madness, I suffered through the days. Trying to mend wounds to my wife, whom I adored and had an unstoppable faith in me, I wandered. Clueless. I was a weeble-wobble that kept trying to fall down.
My best friend had died that year, my other best friend lived down the highway, cawing with the seagulls in Miami, she was more lost than I could have ever imagined. I started seeing a therapist who after about a month, thought there must be a mental illness that directed my odd thought patterns. I was referred to a psychiatrist who interviewed me for an hour and bluntly stated, “Well, I absolutely believe you are an alcoholic and you might also be bi-polar.” I left his office, excitedly telling my wife, “He thinks I’m bi-polar and I might be an alcoholic.” I couldn’t fathom not taking a drink. The next day, after drinking half a Natural Light with dinner I found myself entering a treatment center. Needless to say, I am not bi-polar, I just act that way when I drink for seventeen years straight.
Sobriety was difficult, throughout the first several years, I thought of my friend Jerry, whose own battles with the bottle were scorched into my mind like the veins in my forearms and of Jenny whose own battles took her on journeys that no-one should have to experience. There was never a day that I didn’t think of Jerry, and a great deal of my sobriety was dedicated to his memory for I felt I could taste the trueness of reality for both of us, no matter how frightening, fragile and delicate it appeared. I could envision Jerry, who at times was the gentlest soul I ever knew, poking holes in my soberness with his toothy cackle. A part of me thought he would never approve, but then I would think about the time when he confessed on the barstool of Larry’s that he was scared as hell to drink and I stared dumbly back at him. I had no answer. I still don’t. Although, I use our life together as a fuel to relish the mundaneness of a life that I strived to avoid.
When my daughter was born, I wanted to show Jerry this fine frail creature that was at once a part but also completely separate from my being that I helped make. He would have cooed at her, as his own vulnerability touched her own and she would smile back and his adult goofiness. He loved Tom T. Hall, as I do, and we would both sing “Sneaky Snake” together, Jerry would sing it with a lisp making the ridiculous song even more ridiculous. Today, it is permanently on my MP3 player, painful as it is upon the four hundredth listen but I smile at Jerry bobbing his head to it, envisioning him singing it to my children. My son turns two this month, a gorgeous blond boy with curly hair that captures light and absorbs the sun into his being. He is a testament to all that I couldn’t do but was willing to risk; the children an honor to two friends who stepped over the line and never quite came back.