We are about 3/4ths of the way there when we take a random turn off the highway into a town called Ormond Beach. The town doesn’t have much going for it judging by the road in, but just north of an institution entitled Hanky Panky’s Lounge there stands a strip mall of shoebox-like dimensions with a salon in it, a realtor who shares my last name and a hot dog joint with good reviews. We go in the hot dog joint and order a couple of Chicago dogs and a Coke to share. I am too cheap to buy my own Coke. I have a bottle of water in the car. We sit at a lacquered wooden table that’s shaped like a surfboard and notice how everything in the place seems to be from another decade. Something has failed to evolve. Where are the paper straws? Where are the cow-free items or vegan dogs in all their barf-colored varieties? A TV playing the local news manifests itself over the counter and we listen to their middle-Florida talk and eat our Chicago dogs and look out the window at the passing cars. The day is wash of fish-gluey gray. We finish eating and get back on the road, heading north on A1A through sea-cloud and low mists and blowing sands, the beach and dim ocean tides visible to our right, wild palms, shaggy shrubs, the scenery growing stranger and more barren the further we travel.
What is this place? What year is it? Are we on the wrong side of Mars during the Clinton Administration? Everything looks alien. The neglected country diners, the low-slung houses of worship, fruit stands withering in cruel consuming light, fleabag motels and biker bars, everything burning in soft melancholy and a feeling of having been abandoned long ago, left behind like shells on the beach with nothing in them but the echo.
One town disappears, another one takes its place. The ocean growing battleship-gray and wild. Dead grass-heads and roads leading nowhere, three-tiered houses with uneven sand dunes for backyards and the occasional chinch bug or Trump 2020 sign poking up in a front lawn. The fading echoes of gulls. Wasted beach shacks with salt-film on the windows and termites chewing the sills, doorways of limescale and painted salamander dreams, the crumbling stretch of sun-faded iguana blacktop and the village idiot perched on the outpost, lobster-red and humpbacked, his mind eaten by honeysuckle and gin-soaked mists. We pass him and headlights spill out of the gloom, a jacked-up pickup truck, diesel exhaust spewing from its big mindless tailpipes, the sad little rice burners and buckets of bolts, motorcycles, a nebulae of pinkish taillights, crusty old men with loose jowls and neat snow-white goatees stubborn against the face of time, their hearts hardened and longing for songs of some distant past, their bodies eroding like the sands. The crematorium hungering for them.
In Flagler Beach, we drive past a pier which seems to be the main attraction of the town and pull to the side of the road. We get out, walk in gray light along the dock, but then it starts to drizzle and there’s nothing to see anyway. We get back in the car and keep going north, looking at all the strange buildings and houses, how they look so pale and sick in the gray light of day.
Abandoned shells abandoned even by the echo.
This is a place that hasn’t been since the Indians were here. This is a nothing place. Locked in some spiritless limbo state, nothing here was meant to remain, yet everything seems to be hunkering in the wasted sand, holding on, waiting for a Second Coming.
I have a vision of a beautiful green parakeet woman banging repeatedly her tender head on the ceiling of some dark local room. She’s trying to escape and she could escape because the window is thrown open, but she would rather bang her head in self-pity and be afraid.
Something is north of here.
We part the gauze of mist and sea-clouds, the drizzle lets up, the sun becomes a white floating disk. It pales and wobbles in the sky. A sour beam pours down, alighting on the rooftops, setting fire to the trees, glimmering in a glaze of wet streets.
We follow it all the way to Saint Augustine.
(Part 1 of 3)