GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA — I came to sunny Florida for the cure, but a dreary wet cold snapped and doused Spring Break, sending students skulking around Gainesville like shellshocked sand crabs. Tugging at suddenly pointless tube tops, chewing their puka — the UF students’ bummer gloom hung like a wet bathing suit over the entire town.
It was an inflamed red boredom, that void that sunburn and herpes did not fill. Around then I saw three cretins go for the throat of the local homeless diabetic amputee. He had been begging quarters near their campus. He had made the mistake of being wheelchair bound while wearing a Georgia Bulldogs cap.
“Spare some change?” he said.
“Not in that hat,” the puffed guys warned.
They high-fived profusely before piling into their own shining wheels and roaring off. No time to tell them of their own bubbling sugar and brewers yeast levels. Gathering gangrene.
Near Gainesville parched alligator babies swelter on the edge of the highway in Paine’s dried-up Prairie. Someone drove me in a minivan to the outskirts of town to see the baby alligators’ dessication and called it fun. Whole Florida families brought kiddies to watch the alligators huffing the dust of their parched swamp.
What I didn’t say everyone must have already known deep in their own reptile hearts. That’s why they’d brought coolers and grandma and Coleman fold-out chairs: Soon the alligators would commence the long tough chew. Head to tail, doing each other the favor of a moist, salivous death. It was the last tailgater of the season.
What’s healing about Florida? I have a month to wonder. It’s such a predator-friendly put-up-or-shut-up place. Where I am in Gainesville, 1960s settlers tried to make the south safe for hippies and gay folks, and failed. Yet Ted Bundy and magnet healers, Gray Panthers and Jeb Bushes still arrive hopeful every day. Convenience counters stock breathalyzer strips next to Goodie’s Headache Powder, and the local hospital gets emergency blue girls all the time. I’m taking the cure in the land of Rohypnol and tanning beds, the city of shave your eyebrows off and then crayon them back on. Full body waxing.
Danny Rollins has his own commemorative hacked sorority sister wall here. For thirty-two days, I drive by the wall on the way to my cure sessions. One way people here know I’m sick is that I think things are not nice. I don’t like this cement wall of a tribute painted black with WE’LL ALWAYS [heart] YA in blood red bubble letters.
“That sucks and freaks me out,” I mention to someone’s mother.
“Really?” she said diplomatically. “I guess you had to be there. I think it’s sweet.”
On the first day of the cure I try to visit Sunland. No Mapquest or MRI or Cat Scan or Lonely Planet guide can assess my chances. How to see where a town’s healing heart lies: visit their institution for the mentally retarded close-up.
Asking directions, I found out that the improvement people had gotten there first. That my Sunland 5-K Run T-shirt had turned into one of those air-brushed Lil’ Boo tribute T’s you get made in New Orleans East after your cousin gets shot — a dead man’s shirt.
“You mean Taco Charlie’s?” a woman behind a cash register said. “Where you been? They done been changed that name. Sunland hasn’t been Sunland for years.”
When I arrived at the razor-wired compound, Taco Charlie was spelled Tachachalee, in honor of Gainesville’s first genocided tribe. All of a sudden Sunland must have sounded too Wikki Wakki to someone administrating from Tallahassee. Sunland is where you go for water skiing and cotton candy and synchronized swimming. Sunland is Cypress Gardens: you bring a cooler and a ratty old Garfield beach towel and you keep your kids. Sunland is not a one-way destination. Maybe all the way to the state capitol they felt the heatwaves coming off the sweltering lie. Or didn’t want tourists stopping on their way to Disney by mistake.
Driving up to Tachachalee I was surprised with chain link fences nearly as high as those at Angola and a guardhouse complete with a guard with a gun who was actually guarding. Even at the largest institutions near my home in Louisiana, the wooden guardhouses by the road stand traditionally and pointedly empty — a ghosted ramshackle joke. This is where we house broken people. Who wants in?
But the Taco Charlie guard was young and proud of himself. A blond stubbled boy scout. He leaned out his police shack to peer in my car.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see my cousin,” I came up with. “I forget what cottage he’s in.”
Usually that would suffice to get me the wave-through, have a good one. But no go.
“Oh I can look him up for you. No problem. They don’t like you to just drive around,” he said, stepping back into his guardhouse to grab his clipboard. “What’d you say his name was?”
“Davey Smith,” I decided, hoping some Davey Smith might be pleasantly surprised to see me.
“You said Davey Smith?” The guard said, flipping a few pages and shaking his head.
“He’s been here like forever,” I lie. “They probably have him under another Smith. Like David or Michael or Bruce.”
He looked up David or Michael or Bruce and then dialed the operator to check. His lip beaded salt water as he stepped in and out of the midday-used-to-be-Sunland sun. Looked like he wanted to pull the door to his guardshack and flip the air on high.
Finally, I allowed that Davey might be in a group home outside of Sunland by now.
“Maybe he used to live here. Maybe he got better,” I said. “It’s been years since I’ve seen him. He’s probably all grown now.”
“Well we got plenty of grown ones,” the guard said slowly, narrowing his eyes to see if it ran in the family, taking plenty of pity on any cousin who believed Davey Smith would rise and walk, stone rolled from the tomb. “You might try the St. Vincent DePaul homes across town.”
When I drove off to look for Davey, a flat image settled in the front of my mind. A gold Tachachalee toy police badge pinned to a big gray cloud on a guard’s chest. Right where aortas should be.