You Just Gotta Know What to Do

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You’re an artist?  I saw you painting there and I just had to stop and say “hi”.  I love art.  My name is Kara and I live just up the street with my husband Terry.  I’ve been here for twenty-five years, and way back when this neighborhood used to be nice.  Folks moved here ‘cause it’s so close to the highways, so if they worked at the Cape or at Martin Marietta they could drive a few blocks and hop onto an entrance ramp.

Do you have any family?  Two kids, that’s nice.  Two little baby children.  Enjoy them while they’re young.  My boy’s all grown up now.  He went to Colonial High School.  He’s a good boy, and he had to be.  That school was rough.  He could’ve got into all kinds of trouble if he’d had a mind to.  He did anyway without trying.  Someone slipped a tab of LSD into his cola when he was at this party, and he comes home and tells me all this crazy stuff and I realized right away what was wrong with him, so I sat him down on the sofa and made him drink ice water and held him tight until he calmed down and fell asleep.  He was right as rain by the next morning…Everything turns out all right if you know what to do.

What do I do?  I’m a housewife right now.  I used to work, but I hurt my joints at this package delivery company.  I packed boxes and got them ready for shipping, and I liked the job and my boss, but the doctor put me on this new steroid for my arthritis and it did the devil’s work on my shoulders and I had to quit.  I tried to file a lawsuit against the company.  I know that lifting all those boxes did me damage even if they can claim that I was sick before I started working there.  But my lawyer keeps dragging his feet while he takes my money, and meanwhile my disability claim is all up in the air.  But I know that lawyer is going to work things out.  I’ve put a little spell on him, a little white magic.  What you do is mix some herbs and put them into a cheesecloth sachet, and you say a few words right before you toss the sachet into a fire, and the smoke carries the spell away and puts it into the universe.  It’ll work (and if it doesn’t it makes me feel better).  That lawyer’s gonna earn his money, one way or another, and I’m gonna get my due.

Sometimes I think that I got sick because of my husband, Terry.  He’s a good man, a good man.  But his first wife is a sneaky bitch and kept nosing around playing up to him, and he was dumb enough to fall for her act.  I could tell he was thinking about leaving me, the dumb ass, but my arthritis flared up so bad I was nearly crippled and he had to wait on me hand and foot and felt so sorry for me that he forgot all about that whore.  But I have to remind him from time to time whenever he gets that look in his eye and I can tell that he’s thinking about her again that I need him so much .  He loves me.  I know he does.  I tell him that we were meant to be together, and there’s no escaping what nature and the universe has decreed.  And every morning I get up and make him breakfast even when my hands feel like claws and my knees freeze up, ‘cause it’s a wife’s duty.  You never know if your husband’s gonna get hurt or killed on the job, so you gotta get up and make him his breakfast and kiss him goodbye like it might be the last time.  That’s a secret to a happy marriage.  It’s what you gotta do.

Do you follow politics?  I don’t know about this Clinton, how he’ll work out.  But one president I sure did like was Richard Milhous Nixon.  He knew how to run a country, and when he said jump, everyone jumped.  Now I know they said all kinds of things about him, all kinds of bad stuff about Watergate and how he was a crook and all that.  But you gotta look past that.  He was a good man and he didn’t deserve all the grief they threw at him.  He threw some back, but he just didn’t know how to duck.

You might think that I’m some kinda witch from what I said before, but my spells are all for the good.  But being a spiritual person can get you into trouble.  The devil doesn’t want you to stay on the good side of things, and you have to be careful if he comes knockin’ at your door.  But everything turns out okay if you know what to do.  Like one day I was looking out my back window out toward the drainage field beyond my back fence.  You know, where the high-tension lines run through?  And I saw the devil rise up out of the swamp, and he was big and ugly and glowed dark like a charcoal briquette, and he called my name and I knew that he wanted me for his own.  But I just closed my blinds and sat on a chair and thought all about the good things I had all around me.  I knew that the devil wanted me to lift the blinds and take a good look at him and open my soul up to his poison, but I wasn’t that dumb.  I just sat there and waited, and pretty soon I felt him going away, the evil draining out of the day.  And when I opened my blinds again he was gone.  For good I hope.  But if he ever comes back I know just what to do, and everything will be fine.

You come down and visit some time.  We like to build a bonfire out back and shoot the breeze.  There’s nothing better than a cool night, a bonfire and some beer.  And visits from neighbors and small talk and listening to the frogs croak out on the drainage field.  Some nights I can’t hear myself think they get so loud and the noise fills up the inside of my head until I just want to scream.  But then I sit by Terry and hold his hand while he smokes his cigarettes and sips a Bud Lite, and I think that I’m a lucky girl to be living here with him on a sweet night with stars in the sky and embers glowing on the fire.  The frogs stop bothering me and I’m glad I left Ohio and came down here to Orlando way back in 1962, that I followed my heart and knew just what to do.

Women Jumping Out of Cars

Last week I waited to make a left turn into my neighborhood and saw a woman jump out of the shot gun seat of a car idling at a red light.  She looked as if someone had goosed her.  The driver made no effort to call her back though she stood on a nearby curb and stared intently at him.  She bounced on her toes as if waiting for him to make a move.  She began to walk away after a minute passed, and then he finally turned the car in her direction.  Negotiations had begun.

I saw a more vivid version of this story a few years earlier.  I heard yelling inside a car beside me on Semoran Boulevard.  We were stopped at a red light.  The front passenger door flew open.  A twenty year old woman slammed it shut and stomped away.  She veered behind the car, stepped onto the median and quickly put distance between her and the car’s driver.  He leaned out the window and called, “Hey, baby!  Come back!”  She ignored him and kept going.  Then he began to cuss her out in Spanish, shook his fist at her, and hit the horn once.  She kept going.  When the light turned green he made a u-turn and slowly headed in her direction.  He looked grim as if he expected no success in retrieving her.

Twenty years ago I heard yelling up the street from my house.  It was 1 a.m., so I peeked out my front door and saw a woman staggering across a lawn at the neighbor’s across the street.  Two or three men were inside a car idling at the curb, and one ordered the woman to get back in the car.  She screamed at him.  Her speech slurred, but I believe she told him to go to hell.  She knocked on my neighbor’s door–no one answered.  The man in the car yelled again, this time with greater violence.  I stepped outside and headed toward the woman.  When the men saw me they realized that a witness had arrived, and they sped away.

The woman spotted me and staggered to where I stood at the bottom of my driveway.  She asked if she could use my phone.  I let her inside and pointed to our land line.  I asked her if she wanted some coffee to help her sober up.  She glared and said, “I’m not drunk!  My boyfriend hit me!”

I retreated to the kitchen to get her some ice, and while I was gone my wife woke up.  Judy came out to the living room half awake.  She found a strange woman with crazy hair talking on our phone.  The lady’s outfit, cut offs and a sweaty tube top, gave her a street look.  I took Judy aside before she could make unfortunate assumptions and explained the situation.  The woman put a hand over the mouth piece and asked, “Where am I?”  I told her, and then she gave instructions to the person on the line:  “Pick me up at the 7/11 at Forsyth and Aloma.”

She hung up, and I offered her a ride to the convenience store.  She refused and headed out the door.  I followed after her and watched her walk up Bougainvillea Dr.  I worried that her tormentors might return.  A police car turned the corner and stopped next to her.  She waved her arms, shook her head and refused to get in the cruiser.  They let her go shortly after, and she strode away with firm, determined steps.  She turned the corner and disappeared, and the cops drove on.

Fifty years ago my mother stepped out of a car after an argument with my father.  We were stopped at a light about three miles from home.  We three kids huddled together in the back seat and wished that the nightmare would end soon.  My father drove off, and Mom’s figure grew smaller and smaller in the rear window.  I felt an odd sensation that I was the one left behind.  Two hours later Mom opened the front door to our house, came inside, and hung up her coat in the hall closet.  We all pretended that nothing had happened.

Rough Sketch: An Interview with Aimee Mamelon

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Here are some sections of an interview with Aimee Mamelon, the author of a new adult novel set in the Central Florida art world.  The book is called,  Rough Sketch.

JR:  I understand that Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Why adopt a false identity?  Aren’t you proud of this book?

AM:  Nice opener.  Let’s get to the hostility right away.

JR:  I’ll rephrase my question.  Aimee Mamelon is a pen name.  Interesting…

AM:  I’ve worked as a model, artist and art instructor in the Orlando area.  Some of the characters are composites based on people I’ve met, and the plot contains elements of stories I’ve been told and my own experiences. I didn’t want colleagues and  acquaintances and friends leaping to conclusions.

JR:  You didn’t want them to find out that you were writing about them?  Won’t they figure out your identity once they read a few passages that are about things that only you and they went through together?

AM:  Please listen carefully.  This is a novel, not a memoir.  None of the things that happened in this book are a blow by blow account.  The characters in the book are representative of certain types of people I’ve met in the art world, but none of them are direct portraits of actual people.  Got it?

JR:  So you’re not a sex addict?

AM:  No.

JR:  But your main character, Lizzy, is.

AM:  Maybe at the beginning.  I think of her more as a female Don Juan, as someone who’s desperately trying to find fulfillment, to patch a few gaping holes in her life.  She uses sex to take the cutting edge off of her loneliness.

JR:  Why did you open the book with a graphic sex scene?

AM:  Well, obviously, I wanted to get my readers’ attention.  And I wanted to introduce the main character’s core problem right at the outset.  The first chapter is really about playing out her frustrations more than reveling in her satisfactions.

JR:  She keeps trying to find some sort of escape from reality?

AM:  Yes.  Exactly.  She drinks and goes out clubbing and has one night stands to forget that she’s just scraping by, her family drives her nuts, and that she feels unloved and unlovable.  When she takes someone home she can believe for a moment or two that she’s taking control of her life and her needs.

JR:  But of course she just makes things worse.

AM:  Yeah, it takes her a long time to figure out what she really needs and how to get it.

JR:  Have you ever modeled in the nude?

AM:  Yes.  I’ve modeled for art classes, and I posed for a boyfriend who is a figure painter.

JR:  So the scenes where Lizzy models are fairly accurate?

AM:  Oh, yes.  The first time I modeled in a class I thought that I was going to throw up or faint.  It feels pretty strange to be the only naked person in a room of 25.

JR:  Does that get easier the more you do it?

AM:  I was a little nervous every time I modeled, but not nearly as bad as the first time.  It depended a lot on the instructors and the students.  Some teachers were very demanding and didn’t care if my leg went into a spasm during a pose.  They just expected me to keep holding it.  They acted like I was an object.  Some were a lot more kind and took my needs into account…One creepy guy wanted to date me and called me up at home at all hours and asked me what I was wearing.

JR:  That had to be awkward.  What were some of the stranger moments you faced in class?

AM:  I was modeling at a little, nonprofit art school, and all the students were in their thirties or forties.  I relaxed.  Usually it’s younger college kids who show no respect.  Well, anyway, I’m standing on the modelling stage wearing a bathrobe, waiting for the male instructor to stop talking to one of the female students.  He finally says a few words, I drop my robe and hit a pose, and this old bat in the corner looks me straight in the eye.  Her face is red and she’s glaring at me.  She throws down her charcoal, points a finger at me and yells, “Jezebel!  You brazen Jezebel!”

JR:  Really?  What was the class?  Watercolor still life? 

AM:  Figure drawing.  I guess that lady had no idea that artists draw nudes in a figure drawing class.  Go figure.

JR:  What did the instructor do?

AM:  He was pretty cool.  He asked me to put the robe back on, and then he told the lady to pack up and leave.  She demanded her money back, and he opened up his wallet and peeled off a few bills.  He apologized to me after class and said that the school gets some odd balls from time to time.

JR:  Is the art world as tough as you’ve portrayed it in the book?  Is it all about finding out a way to sell out in order to make some cash?

AM:  I’ve understated some things.  It’s intensely difficult to make a living doing anything creative.  Some artists try to tailor their work to a market.  In Central Florida there are a lot of artists doing old fashioned still lives and landscapes.  I see lots of flower paintings and landscapes with a palm tree stuck dead center.  Sky, water, palm tree.  This kind of work usually sells a lot better than scratchy, dark abstractions. 

JR:  Do you look down on the sell-outs?  You went to art school.  Didn’t they teach you to look down your nose at realism?

AM:  I don’t blame them at all.  If they figure out how to turn a buck selling art I’m ready to applaud.  One thing you learn in the art world is that it’s not a meritocracy.  Some of the best artists I’ve known have a huge collection of their own work.  They can’t give it away, and the only ones who really like their work are fellow artists who can’t afford to buy.  Sometimes the least talented artists get to the top of the heap by relentless self-promotion.  But there are times when crap art gets exposed and the good artists get shows and sell.  It’s all random…If someone can figure out how to make the money flow in their direction, even for a short while, then I say, “Go for it chickee!”

JR:  That sounds a little bitter.

AM:  Just trying to be realistic.

JR:  Are you still working as an artist, or are you devoting all of your efforts to perfecting your craft as a writer?

AM:  It’s about even.  Sometimes I feel less inspired to go into my studio and work on a painting.  The computer looks more inviting then.  And sometimes I get tired of digging around for the right word, the right turn of a phrase, and it’s nice to pick up a brush and turn off the words in my head.

JR:  Are you modeling anymore?

AM:  I trade off with friends from time to time.  They pose and I paint, and vice versa.  Mostly it’s just for portraits.  I can’t remember the last time I posed in the nude.

JR:  But not for college classes?

AM:  No.  I gave that up when I put on a few pounds after I had my first baby.  A lot of models quit when they no longer feel confident in their body image anymore.  It takes guts to get up on stage and have twenty pairs of eyes poring over every square inch of your body…And the joints get achy.  I did yoga to stay loose and limber, but after a while I started visiting my chiropractor more often than I wanted to, and modeling seemed like a less attractive way to pick up a few extra bucks.

JR:  At the end of the book Lizzy gives up a lot of her independence to take care of her lover.  Do you think that she made a good choice?

AM:  She learns to give more of herself, to expect less from others.  But I’m not sure if Peter is a good bet in the long run.  He’s an alcoholic with personal issues of his own.  But I think that their relationship gives Lizzy a chance to figure out a different route for her life.  When she’s with him he presents enough of a challenge to force her to make different choices.

 

Road Rage Follies: Driving in Orlando

I drove my wife home from an appointment the other day and we pulled into the left hand turn lane leading from Aloma onto Eastbrook. My wife suffers from vertigo, and sudden turns and accelerations aggravate her condition. There were spaces between the cars coming from the opposite direction, but they were all roaring along at high speed. Any attempt at making the turn would require me to floor the accelerator. I was willing to patiently wait, but the guy behind me was not. Every time a car passed and there was a brief opening in the traffic he tooted his horn at me. After the fourth toot the light turned yellow. I edged into the middle of the intersection and ever so slowly crept to the left as several cars ran the light. When the light turned red I made the turn like a doddery old man in an attempt to strand the horn happy driver in the turn lane. I succeeded.

I usually feel anxious when another driver decides to give me the finger, cut me off, lean on his horn, or swear at me, but this time I felt strangely elated. Screwing that guy felt right. And his behavior seemed more childish than threatening. If he wanted to raise his blood pressure by getting angry then that was his choice.

That evening I went to a Publix in Casselberry to pick up some things for the weekend. The exit lane had a traffic light, and there were five cars stacked up ahead of me. The driver in front of my car had pulled over to the far right and had her right hand turn signal on. There was room enough for me to slide ahead of her and get into the left hand turn lane. However when I passed her she looked up from her cell phone and shouted, “Hey!” She sounded offended as if I had jumped her place in line. I wondered if she had flipped the wrong turn signal and wanted to make a left hand turn. When the light turned green I waited to let her pass ahead of me in case she wanted to go left. She didn’t. When she reached the light she turned right.  I hadn’t impeded her progress in any fashion.  But before she exited the lot and as she passed by me she leaned out the window and cursed. “You fucker!” she screamed at me.

I felt a little quiver of excitement as her verbal assault fully registered, and on the way home I got that strange feeling of elation again. I felt both amused and full of energy as if the woman’s curse had somehow worked in reverse and had become a blessing.

I’ve been driving in Orlando for 24 years. Prolonged exposure to congested roads, tourists wandering lost from lane to lane, and impatient creeps who truly don’t care how recklessly they drive, may have inured me to normal feelings of outrage. Or perhaps I’ve developed a sense of detachment that borders on a state of Zen awareness…or maybe I’ve become a sadistic creep who enjoys the self-inflicted misery of my fellow drivers.

I think that the last one sounds about right.

Predatory People

On Monday I got a robo-call from a 360 number.  The halting, slightly metallic voice of the artificial woman sounded hostile as she informed me that “We have been looking for you.  The IRS plans to sue you.  You must call the following number to find out more about your financial situation.”  The call cut off before the information number was given.  I felt a rush of anxiety and redialed the last incoming number listed on my phone.  The line was busy.

I said to my wife, “I just got a call telling me that we’re getting sued by the IRS.”  She didn’t get upset.  Judy said, “That’s got to be a scam.  The IRS would send us a notice first.”  She went on line and found out that this is a widespread hoax, and that the goal of the pranksters is to get social security numbers and personal information from their victims.

On Friday we got a letter in the mail from a person we’ve never met who wants to buy our house for cash.  This is the second time that she’s contacted us, and both times has addressed my wife and I by name.  The first note was scribbled on notebook paper and ended with a religious sentiment that told Judy and me about how much the sender cared for us.  The latest letter was more professional in appearance and more insistent.  She warned us that things can change rapidly in life.  We may not need her services at the moment, but who knows when we might suddenly be forced to sell our house quickly?  She wanted to meet us and get our house appraised in the event that misfortune occurs unexpectedly.  We haven’t contacted her as we suspect that she’s the misfortune about which she is warning.

This reminds me of other times when we were approached by predatory people.  When our first child was born we were beset by insurance agents who wanted to sell us life insurance.  When we bought our house we began to get calls and flyers from home service companies, most of whom were fly by night outfits who provided token service and did damage to our property.  A carpet cleaning outfit soaked the rug in our kitchen and refused to pay a refund when told that it had been ruined.  An air conditioning repairman told us that we needed new lines installed in our house after letting us know that our unit was leaking Freon.  We didn’t trust him and called in another company.  The second repairman brought us outside and showed us where his predecessor had partially unscrewed a hose to release the refrigerant.

Our neighbor Joey is a retired parole officer who served at the Florida state prison in Stark.  He told me that he had hesitated to move to the Orlando area because a majority of the most unredeemable human scum with whom he had dealt had come from central Florida.  He told me this while he helped me bundle up branches left by the tree service company that cut down an oak and a pine but refused to come back and remove the heavy sections of trunk, the limbs, wood chips and branches that they had left in piles and jumbled thickets all over my yard.

Some days I get the feeling that the vultures are circling.  I want to tell these nasty birds that I’m not dead yet, and that they should at least have the decency to wait until I’ve weakened a good deal more before they start to swoop down on me.  But I also recall those moments when I’ve sensed weakness in others and have felt the temptation to exploit the opportunity.  It’s a common failing to see the people around us not as fellow sufferers but as targets, and I know that I am not exempt from this fault.

I try to remember when I start to doubt everyone around me that I’ve got friends, family and colleagues who care about my welfare, and that the world isn’t completely full of people who want to steal from me and make me into their chump.  I try to recall the good moments when a child has given me a hug in a sudden welling up of affection, and when my wife has cried with happiness when I’ve brought home an unexpected gift for her.  These moments of connection are real too.

And I wonder if the predatory people, the vultures, have people that they love.  Maybe the fellow who sends me messages falsely claiming that I have to update my credit card information with my e-mail server is a nice guy who’s just trying to earn money to support his ailing grandmother.  Maybe the individual who somehow got my credit card number and bought a boat load of stationary supplies from an Office Depot in Michigan just wants to start a business where he plans to employ disabled war veterans.

And maybe the lady who wants to buy my house for cash would give me a fair market value for my property.  She might be a good Christian lady who is genuinely concerned for my financial welfare.  She’s probably fond of puppies and kittens and spreads joy and cheer to all those around her like a latter day Mary Poppins…

And maybe I’d be an idiot if I ever let her set foot on my property.  And maybe it’s time to get a guard dog.

Welcome to Florida (Initial Impressions of the Sunshine State)

1. A Slice of Heaven

Christmas on Park AvenueJudy got a job interview at Rollins College in 1991for an assistant professorship. I flew down with her to help take care of Alan. He was five months old, hadn’t been weaned yet and stubbornly refused to take bottles from me or anyone else. When we landed in Orlando Judy took Alan to the ladies’ restroom to change him while I guarded our bags. I looked around idly and saw a portly, middle aged man with a thick head of graying hair talking on a pay phone. He had a rich, rolling tone that sounded like Foghorn Leghorn without all the hesitations, and I realized that I was staring at Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority televangelist. When he glanced in my direction and noticed the stunned look on my face he swelled with pride and boomed a little more loudly into the phone. Our ride, a professor from Rollins, pulled up to the curb after Judy and Alan returned, and I said when we got into the car, “You’ll never believe who I just saw.” When I told the professor about encountering Falwell her face pinched tight in disapproval and she said, “Was that a good thing or a bad thing?” I responded, “It was like seeing the devil,” and Dr. Coleman relaxed. I lived in fear of saying something that would mess up Judy’s chances, and I knew that I had passed my first test. I resolved to keep my mouth shut after that.

We drove through the south end of town and I noticed that the sun baked ranch houses were mostly made of cinder block. Some of them needed paint jobs, and there were occasional trash strewn yards with high grass and weeds. Cluttered strip malls crowded against both sides of Semoran Blvd. with gaudy signs for nail boutiques and pawn shops clamoring for attention. We drove further north into Winter Park and the houses became larger with better groomed lots. Large oak trees shaded the road, and the yards of the two story mini-mansions near the college sloped gently down to Lake Virginia. Some homes had boat docks at water’s edge.

They put us up at the Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast, and as I hauled our bags into the lobby several professors arrived and greeted Judy. They planned to take her out for supper, but seemed confused by the presence of Alan and me even though Judy had forewarned them that we would be coming along. A professor in her thirties who spoke rapidly and non stop made it clear that Alan and I were not invited to come along. When I asked where I could find a restaurant nearby Professor Kleeman volunteered to take me to a place he recommended on Park Ave.

I pushed Alan in a stroller after stripping him down to a thin t-shirt and shorts. The temperature in Pennsylvania that morning had been in the thirties, and the cold rain kept flirting with the possibility of becoming snow and sleet. It was March, but central Florida was sunny and warm with temperatures in the mid eighties. Alan slept on my shoulder at first when we walked into the restaurant and sat down. The tables were crowded tightly together, and I had trouble handling the folded up stroller and diaper bag I hauled along with one arm.  But I managed to avoid whacking diners on the head as I struggled to a booth. Dr. Kleeman and I ordered, and when our food arrived Alan woke up. He blearily turned around and faced Kleeman across the table from us, and he began to cry. The professor had long hair in a pony tail and a beard trimmed into a Van Dyke point, and he terrified my baby. I got up and walked Alan up and down the aisle until he calmed down. I hoped that he would get accustomed to the foreign surroundings and be fine when we sat down again, but when he turned off my shoulder and gazed upon Kleeman his face squinched into a tight bunch of distressed muscles and he wailed. I didn’t know what to do, and I was worried about the professor’s reaction. But Kleeman was quietly amused by Alan and suggested that I take my meal back to the Fortnightly and eat it there.

Judy came back around 10 and Alan was already asleep. Our room was actually two rooms, a bedroom and a sitting room with a sofa and a decanter of brandy on a small, round, antique table covered with a lace doily. The staff had put a play pen in the sitting room, and when I sneaked in for a night cap I tip toed around Alan as he snoozed peacefully. Judy was exhausted but managed to relax a bit before we went to bed.

We met a business man on holiday and a woman in town for a conference at breakfast. She was especially helpful when Alan lunged forward and upset a glass of orange juice onto his mother’s lap. Judy was gone the rest of the day except for short breaks around lunch time and mid afternoon. She had to nurse Alan at regular intervals, and she used her breaks to center her thoughts and let go some of her tension. That day she was interviewed by more faculty members and gave a lecture to a class. I took Alan on walks in the surrounding blocks and was impressed by the manicured shops and homes around Park Ave. Men and women wearing business suits, and small groups of ladies at their leisure strolled up and down and sat at tables outside of restaurants and bistros. Flowers hung from baskets from the sides of the buildings, and the exterior of every establishment looked shiny clean and freshly painted. I naively assumed that all of Winter Park was wealthy. I pushed Alan past Central Park and crossed railroad tracks into West Winter Park. The houses became simple wooden cottages on small lots marked off by chain link fences, and I realized that I had wandered into a very poor neighborhood just two blocks away from stores selling expensive jewelry, French wines and fancy chocolates. The disparity seemed odd.

Judy and I had a few moments together in the late afternoon before she was whisked away again. While she was gone that evening I read the Orlando Sentinel while Alan napped, and late that night I opened the window of our room and watched the traffic flow by on Fairbanks. I could smell jasmine on the balmy air, and I thought that Winter Park was a slice of heaven.

Professor Small drove us to the airport the next day, and he was cautiously encouraging about Judy’s chances. Her lecture had gone over well and the faculty she met had felt comfortable with her. Our hopes ran high.

We boarded a plane at Orlando International Airport and waited for take off. The pilot mumbled something unintelligible over the intercom, and the air flow was shut off in the cabin. We continued to wait at on the baking tarmac and the interior began to get hot. Alan gradually got cranky. He twisted and leaned in Judy’s arms, and decided to cry. Two stewardesses descended on us, and one of them picked up Alan and began to walk him around the cabin. He was surprised by being held by an unfamiliar woman and quieted down. When he started to crank up again she scurried up the aisle and took him into the pilots’ cabin. We could hear her cooing to him, “Look at all the pretty lights!” as she showed him a control panel with dials, buttons and glowing lights.

The pressurized air system was repaired after we sat for twenty minutes, and the stewardess handed Alan back to Judy before we took off. Judy nursed him and he fell asleep for the two hour flight to Pittsburgh. We had to catch a connecting flight for Allentown, and discovered that the Pittsburgh airport was something of a maze. It was apparent as we dashed from building to building taking multiple turns off of branching corridors that the airport had been built piece by piece with no architect in charge of making the over all plan coherent and navigable. We reached the gate just before the end of the boarding call. Judy had carried Alan, and I had hauled the stroller, diaper bag and a carry on bag, and we were both out of breath as we trotted up the jet way and boarded the plane.

Judy’s parents picked us up in Allentown and drove us back to their home outside of Kutztown. The temperature was in the low thirties and there were traces of dirty snow in the yards of houses along the way. The subtropical flora and midsummer heat of Central Florida felt like a dream, a mirage that we had been allowed to have a glimpse of for a short while. And while we wanted to go back there and start a life with all sorts of new possibilities, we had no idea if that was going to happen. We retreated to State College the next day and waited for the phone to ring.

2.  Lowered Expectations

Judy got the job, but the dean of faculty low balled the salary offer. We had been living on soft grant money for the last five years at Penn State, and Judy and I decided that we had to take the opportunity. We assumed that the money would get better once she had been there for a while and had earned tenure.

We were set to move in mid August, but Judy got anxious for arrangements to be made and sent me down to Orlando in July to find a rental house. My car started to break down on the outskirts of Sanford, a mid sized town twenty miles north of Orlando. The car limped into the parking lot of a 7/11, and I went inside. I got permission to leave my car there over night until a service station across the intersection opened the next morning. A cop at the counter warned me to take my valuables out of the car. Sanford looked sleepy, run down and rural like farm towns in Ohio, but displayed a more sinister character after dark.

I had seen hotels along Lake Monroe three blocks away, and I huffed and puffed with two heavy suitcases in ninety degree heat to the nearest one. That night I studied the Orlando Sentinel for houses to rent, and tried to call a woman on staff at Rollins whose number I had been given in case of an emergency. I got her mother instead. She was babysitting at her daughter’s house, was very suspicious when I explained my situation, and offered hostility instead of help. She thought that I was trying to scam her. I slept fitfully that night not knowing how bad the car was and whether or not I would be stranded without transportation in an unfriendly town 1,200 miles from home.

I went down to the 7/11 early the next morning and managed to drive the car a few hundred feet to the garage. When I walked back to the hotel I saw a man standing on a dock in a marina off of Lake Monroe. He was looking down and talking to something in the water. There was a strange note of affection in his voice, one that might be used when talking to a persistent but familiar enemy who had become something of a friend. When I drew along side him I saw that he was speaking to a twelve foot alligator cruising semi-submerged between the small pleasure craft and fishing boats. The reptile stared at the man with shrewd eyes as if summing up the pros and cons of coming closer to shore for a quick lunge.

I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat in my room and smoked. I didn’t usually indulge, but the strangeness of my situation made me feel justified in doing a little damage to my lungs. I pored over a map of Orlando and the newspaper until the garage called and told me that a blocked fuel filter had been the problem. They replaced it and my car was fixed.

I drove from Sanford down through Longwood and Casselberry and was struck by the hodgepodge zoning plans of the cities along State Route 17/92. I passed car lots sitting next to residential neighborhoods next to decrepit motels next to a church next to a day care center next to a strip joint. I arrived at Rollins, dropped off a few things in Judy’s new office and asked for advice about Orlando neighborhoods from the lab technician in the biology department. Winter Park was too expensive for us when I factored in our monthly pay from Rollins. The rock bottom salary the college had offered would push us further south. She hinted that parts of Orange Blossom Trail could be a very scary, and seemed reluctant to comment when I mentioned that I had seen ads for very cheap houses in Pine Hills.

I began to drive around Orlando and noticed that the traffic was very busy and intense. Drivers were aggressive and took a lot of risks by changing lanes without signaling, running red lights, tailgating, cutting off other drivers and switching lanes in intersections. I felt like I was driving inside a hyperactive video game.

I decided to check out Pine Hills for myself. It didn’t look too bad until I saw a one legged man wearing nothing but torn, cut off shorts hopping in his front yard on his remaining leg while brandishing a crutch at someone who had apparently fled before I passed by. A car was up on blocks in the man’s driveway, and newspaper bundles were stacked in his carport. I saw similar yards with rundown houses in the adjacent blocks, and I understood why the rental prices were so low. I eventually came upon a fairly suitable house in Azalea Park on the east side of town. Some of the houses in the area looked poorly kept, but the streets around that location looked decent enough. The price was right, the ride to campus could be driven in twenty minutes, and there was a large park about ten minutes from the house. It met all the criteria that Judy had set for me.

That night I stayed in Professor Kleeman’s house. He and his family were out of town for the summer and they offered its use to me. Although the kitchen was clean I saw ants and cockroaches as long as my thumb cavorting around the sink and counters when I went to get a glass of water late at night.

I started out late the next day for Pennsylvania and had to stop in South Carolina for the night. When I walked into the motel office a woman was having a rant with the night clerk. She wasn’t mad at him, however. She told him a story about an evil woman in her church who had done her wrong. The clerk nodded along and offered comforting words whenever she paused for breath. The woman concluded by saying, “I’m a Christian woman and I know that I’m supposed to forgive and forget and that our Lord says that ‘vengeance is mine’ but I do hope that I live to see the day when Doris gets her righteous punishment for her sins against me.” The clerk said, “I’m sure you will. The Lord takes care of His little lambs.” The woman smiled at him and left. I escaped as quickly as I could from the office with a key to a ratty motel room featuring worn carpets, chipped furniture and a wall unit air conditioner that rumbled and complained as it struggled to remain in operation. The booming sound of the clerk’s voice echoed in my ears for several minutes after I closed the door and lay down on my bed.

I got back home to State College late the next day and collapsed. I waited until the next morning to tell Judy that Orlando was a big, noisy, difficult place, and that the idyllic conditions at the comfortable and genteel Fortnightly Bed and Breakfast were the exception to the rule. The City Beautiful, home to Disney, palm trees, orchids and gators, was going to be a challenging place to live.

3. A Hostile Landscape

Judy and I took the kids out to a buffet restaurant a month after we moved into our rental house on Sage Drive in Azalea Park. Alan had enjoyed putting his chocolate pudding in his mouth, hair and nose. By the time we had wiped him, the high chair and the table down it was a bit later than we expected. When we walked out of the restaurant the sky had turned an ominous, bluish black, and a violent bolt of lightning streaked down to earth in a pink, crooked flash accompanied almost simultaneously by an alarming BOOM. We piled the kids into the car, strapped them into their car seats and sped home. The sky opened up just before we got the kids inside, and we were all soaked. After we toweled them off and they settled down, I sneaked away and sat on the steps of our Florida porch and watched the dark clouds roll by. A cool wind blew through the viburnum hedge along the driveway and the crape myrtles in the yard.

That night I took the garbage out to the curb after dark. When I reached the bottom of the driveway my face ran into something sticky and elastic, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something the size of the palm of my hand suspended in mid air. I yelped and hopped backward, and then stepped forward for a closer look. The suspended object was a banana spider, and it was sitting in a web that it had strung from foliage on either side of my driveway, a span of at least fifteen feet. That was a bit terrifying to contemplate, but the thing that bothered me more was trying to imagine what a spider that big in a web that huge hoped to catch and eat.

A few days later I bought a kit and assembled a small lawn mower. Our yard was a half acre of muddy looking sand and struggling patches of St. Augustine grass. Sand spurs grew in great abundance, however, and I discovered their presence when I tried to walk barefoot across the lawn to reach a hose. The round stickers lodged into the soles of my feet and sent me hopping back to the carport. My toes felt like they were on fire.

I got the mower started and began to cut grass and throw up spurts of black sand into the air. I soon was choking and wheezing and decided to take a break. I happened to look down at a ragged tuft of grass and saw something odd poking out of the ground. I bent down. A dull gray creature the size of an overgrown grasshopper stared back at me. Its head looked like the monster’s head in the movie, “Alien”. I took a step toward it and it reluctantly retreated into the hole it had dug into the ground. I later found out that the insect was a mole cricket and that he and all his friends and acquaintances were eating the grass in the lawn from the roots up.

An older couple next to us and a widower across the street were friendly. They gave us advice about gardening in Florida and shopping and navigating in Orlando. But the rest of our neighbors seemed suspicious of strangers and reluctant to show any interest in newcomers. When we took the kids to the park several blocks away we encountered a little boy. He came up to Annie and Alan with a smile on his face and began to play nicely with them. An old woman with a lined and tanned face wearing a shawl sprang up out of nowhere. I gave her a friendly look, but she scowled at me as she snatched the boy by the arm and dragged him away from us. Her eyes were hostile when they met mine, and I could see that she thought that I had evil intentions concerning her grandson. We were used to meeting young parents with children in parks in State College, and Judy and I were surprised that we were considered a threat for being friendly to a child.

Daily encounters with workmen and service people could become unexpectedly hostile. One postman said rude things to me if he saw me working on a landscape painting in the front yard. Another seemed affronted when he saw me playing with my kids in the carport. He questioned my intelligence when he found out that I stayed home with the kids while Judy went to work. He thought that I was foolish for having stuck around for the hard work of raising children when any man with half a brain knew that women were just for pleasure. The garbage men hated their work, and one took intense pleasure in ramming our can against the edge of the truck until he broke off the handles. The bags had stuck inside, and I guess he felt justified in doing some damage to get them out. The customers and store keepers in the strip mall nearest to our house spoke to me first in Spanish, and when I didn’t answer in kind they looked at me with guarded expressions. My tanned skin had fooled them at first, but they had figured out my ‘deception’.

We saved and borrowed money and moved out of Azalea Park at the end of one year. We bought a house in a working class neighborhood in Seminole County on the outskirts of Winter Park. The neighbors on either side of us were a lot friendlier, and we soon made friends with a family down the block who had kids about the same age as ours. We felt a lot more relaxed, and the postman wasn’t interested in making rude and personal comments. He just delivered the mail. Our garbage cans were not further molested.

A heroin epidemic swept through our old neighborhood a year after we left, and the park where we met the little boy and his grandmother was no longer safe for children. Used needles littered the ground around the swings and the picnic shelters. Judy and I felt that we had escaped just in time.

Palm at Chilean Dr

Published: The Call of the Qu’Chihua Qu’hua

I published a short, satirical book on Amazon as a Kindle e-book.  The Call of the Qu’chihua Qu’ hua is a spoof of the Lovecraft Cthulu stories. Daniel J. is an archaeologist who steals a folder from his Uncle Bob’s files, and uses the information to discover an ancient tomb in South America. The graven image of an evil beast, one that looks like the combined  features of a dog and a bat, is carved into the doorway of the tomb’s entrance. Next to it is a hieroglyph that stands for an unknown word of power. He is called back home to his uncle’s deathbed before he can fully investigate his find, and is bequeathed a sketchbook and two houses in Central Florida. When he arrives in Orlando to claim his inheritance he finds further clues about the mysterious tomb and the word of power, and begins to suspect that there is a modern day cult dedicated to the worship of the Bat Dog god. He races to complete his researches but is harassed by a real estate agent, prostitutes and an owner of an illegal dog breeding operation. Even as he begins to piece together the full significance of his discoveries he fears that he will go mad–or worse: that he will become one of Them.

The link is below:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00T6QL4T0