Florida is a weird place because it’s always hot. In the summer it’s hot, in the winter it’s hot. You never witness any discernible changes in the weather, so it’s as if time has stopped and you’re just there, forever, in Florida. Maybe that’s why so many old people move there — to try to stop time. They’re not waiting to die; they’re hoping death never comes. Or maybe it’s because you can plant a grapefruit tree right in your front yard.
It’s best to go out only once night time has solidly settled. Dusk is pretty with the waning sun reflecting over the swampy lake, turning the sky all combinations of orange and magenta, but the concrete sidewalk is still too hot to walk on barefoot. By the time the concrete has cooled, the sky is dark and the air full of the sounds of bullfrogs and crickets, and in the cacophony of nature’s night life, a calmness descends.
The sporadic street lights cast small circles of light. Walking down the sidewalk, shoes in hand, I pass from pool to pool, taking care not to step on any stray toads or snakes in the intermittent darkness.
The swampy lake is full of strange animals. I guess a chance encounter with an alligator should be terrifying but for some reason I always wish to run into one. Do you wonder what their skin looks like up close? Do you think if you came too close to one, it would snap its jaws at you? Would it charge at you or slink away?
Alligators aren’t even the most dangerous animal around here. Really it’s the cranes you have to watch out for. They look demure, even majestic, in Audubon bird-watching guides. But the truth is they’re bold and aggressive — one killed our neighbor’s bijon. It was a yappy little shit, though.
Stepping in to the next pool of light, I pause. The corner of my eye caught a glimpse of a nutria rat making a dash for the sewer grate. I shuddered at the thought that it had probably just crossed the sidewalk on which I currently stood, barefoot. Nutria rats carry a parasite that will give you a stubborn rash to last you weeks. I wonder if I can catch nutria itch from walking on ground it’s just walked on, and leap into the next pool of streetlamp light.
I scan for any more nutria rats lurking in the shadows before gazing up into the bulb above me. Behind me, ahead of me, streetlights stretch at equal intervals, on and on out to the highway beyond, each one the same as the next.
Like a chorus rising to the emotional heights of a final verse, the nocturne surrounding me grew even thicker with the sounds of night time life. With a quick glance for nutria rats waiting along either side of the concrete sidewalk, I take off, sprinting from spotlight to spotlight all the way back to the driveway.
Before I open the door I’m greeted by the blare of sitcom laugh tracks. In the Lazyboy, Grandma snoozes while the soft, pink belly of her dog Rocky moves up and down where he sleeps at her feet. I flip off the television.
Grandma sits forward with a jerk. “What time is it?”
“Time for bed!” I say, opening the screen door to let Rocky out into the backyard one last time for the night.
“Those boys crack me up,” Grandma says, nodding her head at the screen where moments ago she had half-watched an episode of The Big Bang. She pushed down with her arms, propelling herself up and out of the chair. As she shuffles towards her bedroom, I hesitate. Should I help her? Should I have lifted her out of the chair? She’s 86 years old. But how many times did she wipe my butt and slap on a new diaper? How many times did she carry me from my car seat to my bedroom and tuck me in? She even carried me from the sofa to my bed the first time I ever got drunk. How could she need my help more than I need hers?
I hear the swish and hum of her electric toothbrush, the flush of the toilet. I let Rocky back in and he runs into Grandma’s still open bedroom door. Turning off the hallway light, I linger in the doorway of my bedroom, wondering if I should wash my feet before I go to bed. If Grandma knew I had run barefoot down the concrete, she would make me. But I’m an adult now.
All I manage is to take off my denim shorts before I fall on top of the bedspread. I reach over to crack the window and hope for a breeze. It’s winter, so if only in tribute to the idea of the season, Grandma doesn’t turn on the air conditioning, despite the unwavering heat.
It’s okay, sleeping on top of the covers. Less laundry to do. Less of a mess to clean up later. Less disturbance to indicate I was ever there at all.
The steady whirring of the dishwasher from the kitchen feels like a lullaby singing me to sleep. The persistent rhythm of water turning over suds again and again helps keep my mind clean of the kind of thoughts that like to creep in this time of night. Why am I unemployed once again? Why can’t I tolerate the same things that seem to make other people so content? Why am I sleeping in a single bed in Tampa, Florida in a retirement community at the age of 32? Can I just call what I’m doing retirement and see if anyone tries to stop me?
If I were less tired, I’d laugh at my own joke. But instead I let the dishwasher’s swooshing carry me to sleep.
Grandma drives because it’s her car. Her minivan is low enough to the ground that she has no problem climbing up into the driver’s seat, pulling the seat as close to the wheel as it will possibly go. Grandma hasn’t shrunk with age; she was always tiny. In the midst of my awkward preteens I had once found a box of her old gowns from the 50’s. Even then my eleven year old hips couldn’t fit into dresses she had worn in her 20’s.
She uses her handicap parking tag to park us as close to the entrance to the manatee preserve as possible. Grandma is not handicapped, but last year she had open-heart surgery. Doctors replaced her aorta with an aorta from a pig. She was disappointed because she had been told she would receive a cow’s aorta. She’s as good as new, but she won’t be giving up her parking privileges any sooner than her pig aorta.
We wander up to the top of the boardwalk and look down into the shallow warm waters below, teeming with manatees. Cows and their calves float along the surface, enjoying the bubbles created by the factory run-off alongside the preserve. The only reason this preserve exists is because this factory was built here. When the factory was yet only threatening to open, protestors stood here, waving signs and chaining themselves to trees, concerned about the impact the manufacturing plant would have on local wildlife. Nobody listened to them, of course, and in one of those strange twists of fate that life throws your way every now and then, the factory actually created a new habitat for Florida’s dwindling manatee population. Warm, unpolluted water flows from the sewers of the factory into a cove surrounded by thick mangroves. Now, manatees from all over the bay gather here in safety. Local marine conservation groups built a small center alongside to study the manatee and make a few dollars off of tourists who bring their kids and buy them cheap stuffed manatee dolls and manatee stickers and manatee storybooks.
We stare down at the manatees, who are about as exciting as their dry land bovine equivalents, so we walk down the boardwalk along the mangroves towards the sea. Grandma is pointing out the various birds, cormorants and pintails. I don’t listen closely. Instead I stare down into the mangroves and have a brief vision of myself falling in, getting stuck in tangles and the more I struggle to free myself, the closer I get to drowning.
“Lois!” another manatee visitor calls me from my reverie. Technically, she calls my Grandma, but I snap gratefully back to attention.
“Esther!” Grandma replies, “How are you?”
They chat about church and birds, about the unseasonably warm weather (it is always this warm). Esther tells Grandma about the outing she made yesterday with the Audubon Society bird-watching group.
“You’d love it!” she urges. But Grandma shakes her head. “Choir practice is every Saturday at 10 am,” she explains. “I’ve made a commitment.”
“Oh, of course! We’ll you’ll have to join if you ever have a free Saturday.” Esther smiles and continues on, back towards the cove. I continue a few steps down the boardwalk, but Grandma stays where she is, staring down at her feet.
“Do you want to keep walking out into the mangroves?” I ask her.
She looks up and contorts her face into a smile. “Actually I’m beginning to feel hungry. Should we get lunch?”
It’s 10:30 am, but in Florida, time doesn’t matter.
At Fred’s Seafood, Grandma offers to buy me lunch. She has a near endless stream of coupons and seniors get a 20% discount before 5 pm. If there’s one thing I can’t say no to, it’s heavily discounted shellfish before noon.
Over every booth hangs a full paper towel roll. Grandma pulls one, then another off, tucking her’s into her collar and watching expectantly for me to do the same, so I follow suit.
We share a pound of steamed clams. We eat in a rush, racing each other to de-shell more clams than the other. Grandma has tiny hands to match her tiny frame. You’d think at 86 she’d have lost some nimbleness but she still beats me. Smiling down in victory at her mug now piled high with the salty, buttery clams, she takes her first forkful.
While we wait for our next course we stare out the window into the swampy subtropical undergrowth out the back windows of Fred’s Seafood. What is it about the lush greenness of warm weather flora and fauna that makes it seem more alive than the scrubby brush and dry pine you find up North? I see the sweat on the leaves and the vines curling up and around, always moving. The Florida forest creeps up on the parking lot, threatening to overwhelm, replace, retake what is its own. The thicket breathes — in and out, in and out — the heaving of some monster hiding within. But there is no monster. Only nutria rat and the alligators that eat them.
Later we stop at one of the many flea markets lining the highway, interrupted by the occasional gas station or topless bar. We sip lemonades while we wander the rows of stalls, half-looking at old VHS tapes, ponchos and Confederate flags. Grandma pauses at a table full of jewelry.
“Pick something,” she says. “I’ll buy it for you.”
I pick up a solitaire cubic zirconia and slide it on my ring finger. “I like this one.”
“You can’t buy an engagement ring for yourself,” Grandma raises an eyebrow.
“It’s not an engagement ring,” I say. “It’s just the prettiest ring here.”
“Well, if it’s really the one you want.” Grandma hands the woman on the other side of the table 12 dollars and we keep walking and sipping our lemonades.
Outside, a heron has landed on the roof of Grandma’s minivan. She laughs. “You don’t see that every day.”
“It’s a heron, right?” I edge closer warily. “Not a crane?”
“It’s a heron, alright,” says Grandma. “A confused heron.”
“Water’s that way!” she shouts and waves her arms, frightening the bird into flight. It’s long, blue body flaps away in a hurry, startled and scared.
Grandma continues to chuckle. “It must be a good omen,” she says while she climbs into the driver’s seat.
Back at Grandma’s house, Rocky is happy to see us. In the glow of the late afternoon sun we put on his leash and walk him to the dog park where everyone sits in fraying lawn chairs, their dogs galloping around them, overjoyed to be off their leash and running through the grass.
Alongside the unbridled bliss of the dogs, the neighborhood retirees speak in somber, hushed tones.
“Did you hear what happened to Esther’s husband?” we’re asked with wide eyes as we take our seats and Rocky runs off to join the others.
Esther husband has died. Just a few hours ago, hit by a car driving too fast and too recklessly in the Walgreen’s parking lot. No major health issues — he made it to 89 years old only to meet his end at the grille of a Ford F150. No cancer, no heart failure, just an old fashioned accident.
Sentiments around the circle of dog-owners vary. Should we be grateful for his long and happy life? Should we be shocked by the suddenness? Who will bring Esther lasagna every night for the rest of the week? We have plans on Wednesday but we’re available every other night to drop by. Our confusion baffles the dogs, unsure why no one is throwing them tennis balls and babbling to them in baby voices.
“Oh! Do you have news for us?” A neighbor suddenly gasps at the sight of my ring and others turn to look. Grandma frowns.
“No, no,” I am flustered. “I just like the ring.”
Blank stares search for logic in my clearly unhinged decision to wear what looks like an engagement ring. A few awkward seconds pass before they return to the topic at hand.
I whistle for Rocky to return and leash him. “Let’s go,” I direct him and Grandma.
“Poor Esther,” the rest whisper as we walk away.
Back at home my phone lights up with new messages. I don’t take it out with me because I long ago stopped paying for a mobile plan. That was among the first expenses cut, before I ran out of rent money. At Grandma’s I use her WiFi to check my email every time I feel my apathy subside momentarily.
“You’ve got the job!” a text from my friend back North reads. “Check your email.”
Inside my inbox a company offers me a comfortable middle class salary plus health insurance and moving expenses. Senior Account Executive. A company condo across from the office park can serve as temporary housing while I find my own place. A company car when I pass my probation in six months and a year-end bonus if I meet my sales targets.
I set down my phone and cross my arms, staring out the window at the grapefruit trees growing in Grandma’s front yard. She hasn’t been picking them in time, and several have fallen to the lawn and started to rot where they lay.
Outside I pick the ripe fruit off the branches and stoop down to save a freshly fallen one, still perfectly good for eating. Inside I slice the fallen one open and grab a spoon to scoop out the juicy meat of the grapefruit. Grandma watches me where I sit at the kitchen table, eating spoonful after spoonful.
“You’re going to ruin your appetite,” she says while she measures out potato flakes for dinner. I can smell the Chicken Tonight baking in the oven.
“I’ll be fine.”
The job up North will not make me happy. But then, I think as I twirl my new ring around my finger, there are no jobs that will make me happy.
Up North, it’s still cold even though it’s well past Easter time. I have to wear my winter coat every time I go outside. The remains of winter’s snow sits piled up in remote corners of parking lots. Overeager teenagers wear shorts to school, their legs covered in goosebumps.
Inside a Starbucks in a strip mall along the main highway, I use my phone to scroll through Craigslist looking for studio apartments within my budget, data service now restored with the stipend I got for moving back North. Should I spend more to live downtown, or settle for a suburban apartment complex closer to the office park? Where does an adult go to meet other adults who want to be their friend?
A young woman bursts through the door of the Starbucks, one child on her hip and two others squeezing through at knee height. They shriek and run for the couches behind me, jumping up and throwing off their coats and mittens while their mom takes a spot in line. I notice her ring catch the light of the late sun pouring through the front doors. It’s brilliance casts a spectrum of light across the tile floor. It looks like the ring Grandma brought me. Except I’m sure she didn’t buy it for 12 dollars at a flea market next to a topless bar.
Back in the company condo, I take a beer and a grapefruit from the fridge. I smuggled a load of grapefruit from Florida, enough to put my suitcase overweight. Unwilling to part with even one, I put the excess weight of the fruit in a bag and brought it on the plane with me. I boarded the plane with a paperback and a 7 pound bag of grapefruit.
I flipped on the television to find a rerun of The Big Bang Theory. I glanced at the clock — 8 pm. Grandma is probably falling asleep to this very episode, I think, imagining Rocky flopped over at her feet.
Finishing my sparse excuse for a dinner, I turn on the heat before climbing into bed. Tomorrow, my new job starts, so I set the alarm on my phone for 7 am. Beginning tomorrow, I’m back to black and white, to questions and answers, problems and solutions.
“The structure of day-to-day office life will be good for you,” Grandma had said to me at the airport while I waited to check my bag. “It feels good to be committed to something.”
I had nodded, not in agreement, but out of politeness. And after I had dropped my bag — and transferred 7 pounds of grapefruit to my carry-on — I had kissed and hugged her goodbye.
“You know, Grandma,” I said before walking away. “Maybe you should try that Audubon bird-watching club some Saturday.”
“No,” Grandma refused. “When you’ve made a commitment, you stick to it. Your generation doesn’t understand.”
“No, I guess we don’t,” I smirked, happy to be chided one more time before walking away. As the hallway curved, I turned around to wave. Grandma stood waving back, waiting for me to walk out of sight.