When you go back to Florida for a week in late October, there’s no weather. Room temperature in an old lady’s house is what it feels like. A sick old lady, in this case. So nothing to remind you of the stifling childhood summers—staggering dizzy behind the push mower with bits of weed plastering your shins and sandspurs clumping your shoelaces; the long-day-at-the-beach sunburns treated with damp cloths and freshly snapped wands of aloe; the intoxicating, acrid scent when you creaked open the door of an old sun-wizened toolshed; the clockwork afternoon showers of June; the spiderwebs that took all day to peel out of your hair and ears; the spiny red ants swarming a dropped popsicle. Everyone knows all this stuff. Or most everyone knows most of it. The orange trees groaning under their product, perfect rows planted in sand loose as rice. But now that’s not summer, is it? How about the familiar ticking tin roofs? Mostly shingle and tile now. Mostly shopping centers where the groves were. And so on.
Perhaps if your family still lived in New Port Richey, you wouldn’t feel like this—New Port Richey, with its straggly quasi-homeless flip-flopping along the edges of Route 19, the hopeless stucco ranch houses going weedy around their battered garage doors, unwatched televisions flickering manically in the crank windows, petty drug deals on screened porches, the shirtless, slit-eyed white kids who rove past these houses all hours, down streets and streets and streets of almost-squalor, standing up on their bike pedals in outsize, untied high-tops. Strip mall after strip mall after strip mall after strip mall after strip mall that a person like you or me could go several adult lifetimes without pulling into. But we used to pull into them. Video stores. Pet stores. Baseball card stores. Bible stores. A bait shop with live shrimp in a tank and beer in a regular white kitchen refrigerator that you were too young to drink. They weren’t new, the strip malls, even then. The orange Datsun hatchback your mother drove, handed down from your grandmother. Going with her to the bank, “Karma Chameleon” or “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” on all the radio stations.
You and your brother acted hard white when hard white were around. And they were always around—allies and enemies, and you knew which were which back then. Standoffs in parking lots. Police chases even. Truthfully. Running reds and jumping curbs. Drifting into friendships—friendships, sure, what else to call them, because back then you could learn a person as well in a day as you can now in a year—friendships with kids who committed acts you never would, but you thought about doing them, didn’t you? You almost did them. You roved too, all night, not looking for trouble but looking for something, sometimes alone, working your fear and boredom like a potter—the cemetery, the black swimming holes, the loose planks of the condemned pier. Uncertainty was the thing; you can see that now. Close calls. Yes, all those close calls! But now your family lives in an area called Trinity that was built right next to New Port Richey so that people who deserve it can get out of New Port Richey. Everyone knows how to make fun of this sort of place. We could do it together. Call it an annex of Disney World, a movie set. Say they issue citations for having last year’s patio furniture, or for not smiling. That sort of thing. You kind of like it there, to be honest—the quiet, the meticulous landscaping, the full cease-and-desist on any aspiration to hipness or forward thinking, the little Cuban restaurant in the stiff neighborhood square—but the problem persists, doesn’t it, that the place doesn’t belong to anyone. Not like the orange Datsun that belonged to your grandmother and then your mother and then was sold to the old man on the corner for a hundred bucks so he could park it in his backyard with a bunch of other broken-down machinery. Even after the car didn’t belong to you officially, when title was surrendered, the old man and his auto-hoarding ways did. He and his ways belonged to the street you lived on. Then some years after the Datsun, your father bought your mother a stately, ridiculous, wonderful old Mercedes. Gold, literally. Painted that color. A status symbol, to be sure, so everyone can say what they want, but that car had import, tenor, something for your memory to work with. There was no Trinity yet. People had to do something to not be New-Port-Richey-hard-white, even if it was buying a thirty-foot-long German almost-limousine with 150,000 miles on it, like a third-rate drug dealer might. The Datsun had a soul. The Mercedes, yes, had a soul, even more so after the hood ornament was stolen. Now your mother drives a bought-new Nissan that fires up at the push of a button. Well, it doesn’t fire up. It sheepishly reports for duty, is what it does, as if ashamed to have an engine at all. Its color is inaccessible, a dull, liquidy grey-blue, like it doesn’t want to draw attention. You carry the keychain around only so you can lock the doors. This is the car you drive for that week, visiting your grandmother in Bradenton who’s sicker than ever and also spending time with the rest of the family up in Pasco County. In that car, you run the errands—Publix mostly, the drug store. In that car you cross the Bay on the Skyway Bridge, back and forth—this “new Skyway,” suspended by companies of huge yellow cables that are made of smaller cables that are probably made of smaller cables, but it’s not new. It’s the only Skyway you’ve ever known. That section of the old one collapsed when you were four, so those thirty-five spectacular deaths, those people plunging through open air—in their seat belts, some of them—for what must have seemed a full minute, the broken spines and patient descents to the grave of the seafloor, those aren’t your history. Not really. You pondered those deaths much later. Ponder them seriously only now, perhaps.
And in smaller measure, you do it to yourself, this feeling. You sit down to work in a Starbucks one evening—it’s there, it’s open—sit in there for hours and hours. In the Nissan, you listen to Terry Gross chuckling wisely with Edward Norton. Headlines from The Onion. All the worn paths. But okay, so there’s this: you’re standing outside your car (your mother’s car) in the middle of an almost empty parking lot, not near any trees or power lines or anything, no planes overhead, and a crow falls dead from the sky and shflats right down on the asphalt five feet from you, flat on its back, wings folded neatly at its sides just as they should be, no apparent wounds, like it died a peaceful death and somebody arranged it black-suited for a coffin. Its feet move ever so slightly—just barely, slowly, a broken toy that hasn’t quite unwound. You look upward, around, up again. Just sky. Those disinterested here-and-there clouds. You’re still on your phone call, not listening now. This seems an absurd thing to report to the person on the other end, plus it’s still your secret, plus the curled little feet are still moving just the tiniest bit. You can’t look at the thing’s eyes. In two minutes it’ll be dead, just like any other dead thing. You don’t want anyone else to see it, not just yet and maybe ever, but someone will, because you’re not going to touch it. The person you are now won’t touch that bird, won’t put it out of its misery right this instant or even, later, transport it somewhere better than a parking lot. You’ll say whatever you say at the end of your phone call and feel relief that the creature’s feet have gone still finally and you’ll drive away and leave it there like a misthrown newspaper and tomorrow you’ll go to a different Publix, the one on Manatee instead of the one on Cortez, and the day after that you’ll go to the airport and ride the little shuttle through the rows of breeze-tickled palms.