(c) Joe Clark, 1992 


Beneath an overcast night sky the color of a redneck microwave, Bobby Porter's pickup truck chases the beams of its headlamps west on the two-lane blacktop of the coast road, past abandoned motels and dazzling convenience stores and long stretches of pitch- dark pine forest. The upglow from occasional stilt houses illuminates low clouds rolling inshore from the gulf. Below an embankment at the road's edge, languid wavelets suck indifferently at mudflats exposed by low tide.

Bobby's truck nibbles at the trailing edge of a pool of white light moving through a great, muggy darkness. Where Bobby has been, and where he is going, don't exist. There is only the fleeting present, brought to life by the headlamps of his truck and settling back into oblivion once he has passed.

"Damn," says Bobby, swerving to avoid a softshell turtle that skitters across the road like a greasy plate with claws. Empty beer bottles clink on the truck's floorboards in syncopation with tinny music from the dash radio.

Bobby flicks his cigarette coal out the window. The wind shatters it into a thousand orange sparks that twirl and disappear, and the pool of light with its pursuing truck vanishes around the next bend, trailed by the receding sound of Bobby harmonizing with the Who. When silence returns a lone deer bounds across the road like an antlered ghost. A silhouette from Morgan Le Fay's enchanted forest. A furry Baryshnikov with four legs and a funny hat.


In the offshore darkness a mullet leaps from the water and falls back with a hollow splash. The surface is otherwise flat and calm, smooth as spilled motor oil or drawn butter. A great liquid plain extends out across the grass flats, beyond the low finger of Alligator Point, into deeper water where shrimpboats spread their netted wings. Even the distant freighters leave no wake, as if the gulf's salt water has become something heavier and thicker.

A few hundred yards off the point—and due south of Bobby Porter's pickup truck—a trio of shark-fishermen in a Boston Whaler ladle chum and drain beers in the lazy swing of a Coleman lamp. Their low voices are audible for hundreds of yards.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, two flying fish sail like surrealistic owls. They cross the boat a yard above its deck and vanish. A second later the boat rises and falls as a swell passes beneath it.

The fishermen remain frozen in position for several minutes.

Already a quarter mile away, the flying fish continue leapfrogging west, parallel to the coast. Each time they emerge from the surface a faint phosphorescence trails from their silver sides, falls back in glowing droplets, and rides over the top of a solitary wave following them as a shark tails a pilot fish.

The swell and its hang-gliding heralds keep pace with Bobby Porter's light-chasing pickup truck on the coast highway. The truck churns along with the occasional rattlesnake sound of connecting rods at their wear limits. Bobby is bouncing in the cab, atonally singing along with the B-52s now, and wishing for the seventh time that night that the damned tape player wasn't broke, that he had either more beer or more money, and that he had some love in his life instead of sporadic, drunken sex as ultimately fulfilling as a televised church service. His pale blue eyes are deep-set beneath a broad forehead. His mouth is an errant pencil-mark.


Earlier tonight, as they lay sweating in the hammock behind her duplex in Crawfordville, Bobby told Rita Hanley that after three beers she looked a hell of a lot like Michelle Pfeiffer.

Rita had rolled her head back and forth slowly, cracking her neck with the sound of .22 long-rifles. In the distance a dog barked in reply.

Bobby's calves had still been in the process of un-knotting when he spoke. He felt like something had let the air out of his abdomen. Their exertions had produced in the bedroom an atmospheric low rivaling that of Hurricane Gilbert in 1989, but it was not enough for Bobby. Not this. Surely not this.

Rita's voice was bourbon and boiled peanuts. "Well, hell, Bobby darling," she said, then took a long pull on her beer, "you look just like Nick Nolte." She kissed him. "But it takes a whole six-pack."

On the coast road now, Bobby airplanes his left hand in the sticky air streaming past the open windows of the truck. "My life is a damn' porno flick!" he says. Insects splatter against the windshield in a steady, visceral rain.


Offshore the flying fish continue their leapfrog flight, leading, auguring—who knows? Dolphins follow but soon lose interest and depart. The swell lifts drowsy pelicans and sets them down like someone vacuuming under an occupied chair. It crests into a wide, whispering breaker as it crosses a sandbar. It is a solitary feature on a smooth sheet of water, one small arc of a ripple moving away from some distant event, never growing or diminishing, slowing or accelerating. It is twenty feet across and three feet high. You could surf it, dude.

And it is the answer to Bobby's prayer, although he doesn't know it yet.

A few miles west of St. Theresa, Bobby brakes the truck and swings off the road, plowing through the forked tongues of bahia grass in the front yard of his house on stilts. The grass abruptly gives way into oyster shells that clink and scrape as the truck squeaks to a halt. The engine diesels into silence. The driver's door groans open. Bobby steps out and with one unconscious movement reaches into the bed, grabs a fragment of cinderblock, and tosses it under the left front wheel just as the truck begins to sneak forward.

He pauses to tinkle in the grass and the noseeums press close, sensing victory, but Bobby waves them away and lunges for the stairs leading up to the yellow bug light at his front door. Reaching the top, he fumbles for the key. A mosquito whines in his ear and Bobby slaps himself. The ringing in his head dissolves into the sound of a telephone as he steps inside.

He stops in the entryway. That would be Rita.

She will be calling for the same reason he might, another time: because it is bad form not to after you have conducted an exhaustive investigation of someone's epidermis. Even if you don't really give a damn.

The phone rings again. "Hello, Bobby darling," she will say, all pralines and turnip greens. They have gotten beyond the need to mouth platitudinous erotic compliments. They both know it is only a buffalo-wings kind of sex: intense and simple, accomplished with a lot of gasping and licking of fingers, but lacking important food groups. She will be trying to line up another "date" before the fuzz wears off, saying something like, "Don't forget tomorrow's two-for-one night at Posey's, Bobby darling." Their foreplay comes in brown, long-necked bottles, and they have each developed a keen ability for detecting the first flat yellow-eyed glimmer of lust in the other, and have learned how to slam a few down quick to catch up.

In the dry darkness Bobby listens to the telephone ring and his house begins to spin like a ship in a whirlpool. She never comes to his place. She hates the water. "I seen Jaws, Bobby darling," she always says. She prefers camping. "Least out in the woods, nothing can eat you up in one gulp."

He has told her that over her lifetime the chiggers and deer flies will probably consume her three times over—in little, insignificant bites—but she doesn't listen. She won't even eat fish sticks.

He lets it ring. She'll just think he hasn't made it home yet, and will try again later. In a little while he'll take it off the hook and leave it there. Tomorrow. He'll call tomorrow. "I'm sorry, Rita baby. Momma called just when I got home and I guess I must've hung it up wrong. I was mighty trashed last night, as you well know."

And she'll hesitate before laughing—hesitate just long enough for him to know she's done the same thing to him a hundred times.

But that'll be tomorrow, and right now what Bobby needs is water. The house stops spinning and he stumbles into the kitchen to the bulbous GE fridge with the long chromium handle on the door. He pulls out a milk jug full of tap water and unscrews the top. Ripples dance across the water's surface as Bobby leans back and opens his mouth.


Just east of Dog Island the flying fish slow, signal, and make a left-hand turn toward the south. Ten minutes later they are inhaled by a door-sized manta ray. The swell, meanwhile, curves north.

Moving more slowly now, picking its way past the flocks of fiddler-crabs playing air- Beethoven on exposed sandbars, it heads across the shallow sound toward the light at the end of Bobby's weatherbeaten dock. Heat lightning flickers from off toward Carrabelle.


Bobby steps from the shower now. His head has begun to clear. He pulls shorts from an open drawer and yanks a tee shirt from the closet. Coat hangers jangle like miniature church-bells.

He goes into the kitchen and takes a can of Deep-Woods Off from under the sink. The dead-lemon spray gets in his mouth and Bobby spits, twice. His skin glistens under the harsh white light. He feels like an insecticide suppository.

Downstairs, in the stilt cathedral under the house, Bobby moves barefoot across the oyster shells like a man walking on razor blades. Yellow bulbs dangle between the exposed floor-joists overhead, illuminating a faded Thunderbird tri-hull perching on a rusty trailer with flat tires. The boat is filled with crab traps, trolling rods, splintered water skis, and mildewed life vests. An outboard motor's cowlless, naked head peers over the transom. Bobby believes it had a non-speaking role in Aliens. He thinks outboard motors might go through a larval stage.

Bobby looks at the motor. He takes long, silver wrenches from a tool box and holds them like drumsticks, thinking of things he should not think of. Not now. In his mind's eye he sees the boat skipping across the chop toward St. Vincent's Island on a warm summer day. He sees a shoreline covered with trees. His ex-wife smiles at him from the passenger seat, her eyes hidden by Jackie-Onassis sunglasses. Mary Alice, seven years old, bounces on the bow cushions, her little behind skinny as a frog's.

He doesn't know why this was not enough for him, either.

Bobby jumps when a part of the motor moves. A palmetto bug falls to the ground and scuttles away. Bobby imagines the whole engine falling apart piece by grimy piece, turning into palmetto bugs that drop off and head for the underbrush. He sees the faded boat dissolve into moths that flutter around the yellow bulbs and evaporate into chalky dust. He runs a hand across his face and returns the wrenches to the tool box.

A sound makes him whirl. A ghost crab is sidling across the oyster-shells, watching him with stalked eyes. Bobby has seen them two hundred yards inland, taking core samples and planting flags.

The outboard palmetto bug bumbles across the shells, then stops short, sensing the crab. The crab freezes. Bobby smiles, wondering if they will doff hats in recognition, one scavenger to another. Or do they stand horrorstruck, each contemplating the conditions that have made the other possible? Bobby's smile breaks into a grin. He has been the ghost crab or the palmetto bug more times in the past five years than a Whataburger changes managers. "OK," he whispers, "what's your next move? A comment on the weather? A half-hearted come-on?"

Bobby's voice breaks the spell and in a single lightning movement the crab snatches up the palmetto bug and begins to eat it. Noisily. The dry sound is clearly audible from where Bobby stands. He looks for something to throw at the retreating, finger-licking crab, then hesitates, not certain which of the two is himself. Bobby knows ascribing significance to the behavior of animals is the fast track to a nuclear migraine. He heads toward the dock.


Offshore the swell slows to a sine-wave crawl as it approaches the shallows. Its passage rolls sand from the bottom, disturbing scallops that flick away like possessed castanets. On a moonlit night it would now be visible from where Bobby is weaving past the loose planks and protruding nail heads of his dock. Reaching the end, he sits on the rough boards and gazes down at the sea life gathered in the shallow water below the dock-light.

Foot-long squid drift in the clear shallows, drumming their tentacles in boredom, above hermit crabs that wander like hooded pilgrims across a submerged desert. A stingray ripples by. Sea robins finger-walk across the sandy bottom. All of this brings about a profound calm in Bobby, as the sea always does for him—except when its inhabitants are stinging him or trying to eat all or part of him. Maybe Rita is right, he thinks. Mommy Ocean has a definite Joan Crawford streak.

A few yards away in the darkness the swell of water comes to an abrupt halt and subsides as a school of baitfish bursts from the surface with the sound of shuffled playing cards. Bobby hears the sound. He has heard limpkins wail from the cypress swamp across the road under a full moon. He has heard pistol shrimp crackle in their unseen thousands with the roar of an aggravated sinus infection. He has heard the human gasp of dolphins inhaling in the night.

His attention remains on the drifting squid.

Out beyond the circle of light, where the lone swell of water has settled into flatness, the surface bulges upward, as if it were a solid skin and someone was trying to poke his or her head up from beneath.


Bobby climbs to his feet and heads back to the house. The bulge moves closer but stays outside the light. Not yet. Not yet.


Later Bobby sighs as he pulls the bedsheet up to his chin. He kicks his legs out from under the covering, the better to feel the wash of air from the ceiling fan. The air conditioner rattles and hums in the window. Outside, under the mercury-vapor streetlamp at the edge of Bobby's lot, moths slam-dance to the call and response of a katydid tent revival under the pines.

The gulf's thin edge respires through the spartina grass at the shoreline like hair through a comb. In and out, back and forth, brushing past the stems a thousand thousand times a day, feeding the infant barnacles and the multilegged isopods and the tiny, big-eyed larvae that will become great pelagic tuna one day.

In and out, up and back the water moves. In and out, up and back and up, and then it doesn't move back. It brims onto a low spot on the lawn and puddles there. Its surface shimmers in the glow of the streetlight as it bulges upward and thickens, like a film of a melting candle played backward. Arms separate themselves from its sides and their tips branch into fingers. The upper end resolves itself into a neck that swivels and a head that peers about. The last drops of water flow up into a pair of now-distinct legs that begin walking toward the house, saluted as they pass by a ghost crab with palmetto-bug stains on its lips.


Bobby snores loudly in the bedroom. He dreams he is in an R-rated version of The Little Mermaid, and that King Triton is after his heinie for stealing Ariel's scallops. Then, suddenly, he is Ariel's long-lost mother, who is really Ursula, the Sea Witch, and. . . .

He awakens with a start. The air conditioner is off. Something is in the room with him.

"Sorry," says a voice from the darkness. An odd voice. He sees an arm gesture toward the AC unit. "It—it dries my skin."

Bobby is now fully awake.

The quality of the voice is vaguely familiar. It is a woman's voice, but sibilant, gurgly—almost emphysemic. It seems to come from every direction at once.

Bobby wonders where he has put his gun. "Who the hell are you?" he says.

The shadow—she—it (Bobby realizes he is going to have to decide on a pronoun, and soon) the shadow stirs. "Don't you know? You called, didn't you?" The voice sounds almost impatient. "Don't I have the right address?"

Bobby squints into the darkness. She, he decides. If the ocean could speak, it would have that voice. "The right address?" he asks. The right address? The right address? Perhaps his gun is in the dishwasher. It may have been there last week.

The shadow among shadows moves closer to the window, where the freon is hissing to sleep inside the AC unit. "How can you stand this?" A hand reaches out to touch the woodgrained plastic. The damned thing cost me five hundred bucks, that's how, Bobby is about to say, but the words die in his throat.

At first Bobby thinks she is wearing a tackily inordinate amount of jewelry—rings, bracelets, the like. It is the only way he can explain the flashes of reflected light that come from everywhere along her forearm and hand, twinkling in the pale white glow from the streetlamp.

Bobby leaps out of the bed and heads for the door, hoping that his keys are still on the kitchen table, abandoning all confidence in gunplay. He looks back—and stops, his mouth falling open like a grouper's, as the shadowy figure steps full into the pool of light and the room explodes with winking, prismatic bands of color, as if an enormous crystal has suddenly and soundlessly shattered.

In an instant of perfect lucidity, Bobby Porter realizes that he is standing in his bedroom with an aspect of that which calls ships onto rocks and spawns hurricanes. He knows what every sea-lover since Jonah has known, and we're not talking about why mullet won't take bait. He knows what really led the Atocha treasure fleet astray. What sank a U-boat with all hands off Fort Myers in April, 1943. What put six of Jacques Cousteau's best divers into long-term Jungian therapy after a location shot near Palm Beach Inlet. 

And it is in his house with him. The mother of undertow. Breaker of rudders. Nor any drop to drink.

Bobby reflects on this at some length. He takes his hand from the doorknob and uses it to smooth back his hair. He steps further into the room, smiles, tucks the hem of his t-shirt into his underpants, and clears his throat.


A little while later it is raining, and Bobby dashes downstairs to roll up the windows in his truck. Back inside he sees a trail of wet footprints leading from his bedroom to the kitchen, from which shattered rainbows emerge. He begins to wonder how much those clear plastic furniture slipcovers cost. And what will this do to his hardwood floor? Already his eyes sting from trying not to watch the jeweled damselfish moving back and forth behind what may or may not be a belly-button. Will she need aeration? A power-filter? Should he keep her away from icemakers and sink drains?

And will this, finally, be enough?


Literati, Lyrics, and Langostinos at the Grand Finale

This was a favorite hangout of mine in Tallahassee in the early 1990s, when I had delusions/pretensions of being a short-story writer and was penning a column for the local paper. I spent many an evening downstairs in the restaurant eating and drinking with friends from the English Department and upstairs listening to fiction and poetry readings in the bar.

Joe Clark
Community Column #7
to run 5/26/92

Literati, Lyrics, and Langostinos at the Grand Finale

I have to admit it. Occasionally, something good can be found in the city. It ain't all out there in the sinkholes, or up in trees. Sometimes real things come to life amidst the asphalt and cinderblocks.
I'm talking about right down on the Tennessee Street Strip, that bar-bedecked place where in the evenings tipsy revelers stroll from juke to juke within inches of the humming traffic. Specifically, smack dab in the middle of a decaying block of buildings between Raven and Dewey. Halfway between the downstairs glitter-thump of Kahuna's and the espresso library of Yianni's.
I'm talking The Grand Finale.
'Cept nobody I know calls it that. It's just Finale's--two floors of bar and restaurant that offers great food for the belly, ears, heart, and head. And no, I'm not related to the owner.
Best way to approach Finale's (and a lot of other things, too, for that matter) is from the rear. Park and lock it in the lot out back. Look for heavy wooden doors surrounded by tropical fish, like guards outside Neptune's favorite honky-tonk. On your way in you can dodge or give audience to a panhandler or two, depending on your wont (I'm an inveterate sucker for a lively tale of woe), and maybe hear the strains of a street saxophonist echoing from the parking garage under McDonald's. Think of these as appetizers.
The ground-floor restaurant is a dim, cool place, low-ceilinged and heavy-beamed. A tavern. A converted gold-mine. Slip into a casual booth and in no time at all a relaxed but quite efficient wait-person will arrive with menus. Maybe it'll be Susan, raiser of squirrels--or possibly Mike, who has been known to cram nine people into his Toyota van and head for the sinkholes at two a.m. on a moonlit January night.
The staff at Finale's make every effort to avoid conventional dress. No barber-striped franchise fernbar aprons or hokey bow ties here. Shorts and T-shirts seem to be the rule for men, while the women's attire makes Stevie Nicks look positively prosaic.
And the food. Ashby Stiff I ain't, but this is definitely five-burp fare, especially if you're a lover of things that swim, crawl, or slither under da sea. Seafood gumbo so spicy you'll cry for joy. Crayfish, oysters, shrimp--fresh off the boat and still kicking, for the most part. Ah, new potatoes with etoufee. . . well, enough of that. Be sure to thank Joey and Jim and the other guys back in the kitchen on your way out.
But don't leave yet! After a dessert of Haagen-Dazs or cheesecake, waddle past the TV set and head upstairs to Tennessee-Street level, where the music plays and ice-cold longnecks are dispensed with alacrity by LeeAnn, known to sport a low-brimmed hat and steal surreptitious glances at Final Jeopardy on the set behind the bar--or perhaps Mindy, who will flatter you by asking for an ID.
And then? It all depends on the night of the week. Maybe it'll be a crash-and-clang band with a name apparently bestowed by an aphasic magus. Or perchance you'll have arrived in the midst of wailing guitars and crying harmonicas, played by lean men who smoke cigarettes between chords: the Blue Monday Jam. It's different every night, and you can usually get a preview by cocking an ear towards the ceiling while feasting on sea-critters downstairs.
My favorite night--especially since I've become something of a half-baked hanger-on of the creative-writing crowd at FSU's English Department--is Tuesday. They call it Poetry Night, but you're just as likely to hear a selection from someone's novel-in-progress, or a wickedly witty short story. Both local and imported writers brave the lurid red stage-lights and occasional mike failures to strew their words across a lively and receptive audience that grows church-quiet during the readings. You may hear mildly erotic poetry. Tales of the absurd. Ripping yarns and thought-provoking meditations--and hardly a black beret in the place. Some writers read quietly, plainly, almost shyly--as if any taint of "performance" would profane the pure force of their eloquence. Others fairly bristle with anger, love, and/or humor. And never--well, almost never--a dull moment, though there are plenty of strange ones.
Beats network TV, though, don't it?
Tallahassee could use a dang sight more of this kind of thing. Any place could.
Go on. Give it a try. You never knew Tallahassee was so literate. Tonight, fiction writers Rob McGrogan and Paul Laffan belly up to the mike at 8 pm. Better get there early. And next Tuesday, poet Karen Janowsky rides the muse, along with a certain community columnist who shall remain, as always,

Joe Clark, an admitted crustaceophile and shameless self-promoter, who is a writer/editor and instructional project manager at FSU.


Lifestyles of the Rank and Feral

Another "community column" from 1992; the title of this blog post comes from a comic that was taped to my fridge at the time. Those summers with my girls are some of the best memories of my life, though I was often running ragged and almost constantly out of money. It was a bit like this:

Joe Clark
Community Column #10
to run 7/28/92

Part-time Dads strip away civilization's veneer

I'm not sure how Dan Quayle feels about me.
That is, I'm a single parent this summer. Actually, I'm a single parent all year 'round, but I don't have the evidence with me unless school's out.
My daughters, ages 5 and 9, live with their mom in Pennsylvania nine months out of the year. They stay with me during the summer. It's a different twist on the usual alternate-weekends shared-parenting arrangement many people use, and it has both advantages and drawbacks. The latter is a doozy: I may not see my girls for months at a time. But on the plus side, I get an uninterrupted, industrial-strength dose of young'un just in time for beach season. And a chance to grow with my children through the day-to-day routine: drowsy cereal mornings, the angst of day-care and the frantic search for a supper we can all agree on, and chronically missed bedtimes at night.
I can't speak for the full-time single dads out there, but I know us part-timers have one driving goal for the custody period, whether it be weekend or quarter: DESTROY ALL VESTIGES OF SOCIALLY-ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR. It's true. Consider the following list of rules for the part-time single dad:
1. BREAK DOWN STIFLING AESTHETIC PREJUDICES. Always dress the children in mismatched clothes. (It's not that we do it on purpose. I swear red and purple look OK to me. With green socks.)
2. DEFY ARBITRARY DICTATES ON FREQUENCY OF HAIR-BRUSHING. You remember how much it hurts, and how it lasts longer than third period. My youngest daughter, Laura--who opted for a pixie-cut just before summer started--has inexplicably acquired the nickname "Spike" at the day-care center.

3. REMAIN AMUSEDLY TOLERANT OF PUBLIC ACROBATICS. They look so cute swinging on the rails between the checkout counters at the grocery store. Let the carts stack up in the next lane. Those people obviously have no sense of humor.

4. EXPOSE THEM TO NON-TRADITIONAL LITERATURE. At last, someone who shares your love of coprophiliac limericks and flatulence jokes. And they retain things so well! There's no telling when they might decide to recite--perfectly--the one about the monkey and the corncob. Usually, in front of guests. And in a related gutter,

5. EXPAND THEIR SOUND-PRODUCTION REPERTOIRE. The bronx cheer is for sissies. They must learn to mimic the sound of escaping gas through at least two of the following methods: a) Palm-Under-the-Armpit, b) Lips Pressed Against the Forearm, and c) Air-Bubble in the Cheek. I'm proud to report that my girls have mastered all three, and have also learned to make disturbing noises with balloons.

6. INSTILL IN THEM A HEALTHY SENSE OF THE SUPERNATURAL. This comes down to me from my grandfather, who used to tell us that "Raw Head and Bloody Bones" lived in his kitchen cabinets--and would we fetch him a glass of water, please? Now my kids twitch and shudder whenever they pass the warm-air return in the hallway. Simply because they've heard "Herman" lives there. Yesterday Lindsay, my oldest, spent hours on her latest arts-and-crafts project: garlic necklaces for each of us.

7. INSPIRE CREATIVE PLAY. Look at all the wonderful things we can sculpt with Play-Dough! Did you ever suspect there were so many fire ants in such a small mound? And who says Barbie can't be a Terminator? "Ell be beck, Ken."

8. DEVELOP A CLOSE UNDERSTANDING OF NATURE. "What are those two dogs (cats/toads/birds/lovebugs) doing, Dad?" "Was that poison ivy, Dad?" "What do you mean, 'spider-bite', Dad?" "AAAAAAGH! A BEE!! KILL IT, DAD!!!"

9. EXPERIMENT WITH NUTRITION. Why dirty up forks when you can use your hands? Nobody's looking. Laura doesn't even need a spoon to eat applesauce. Best conditions for brainstorming: seven-o'clock at night, with empty stomachs, in the chips aisle.

10. DEVELOP MOTOR SKILLS. Jumping on the bed is good exercise. "Horsie" is a great opportunity for free chiropractic treatment, and certain to be demanded of everyone who stops by--if the kids are conditioned properly.
Our path toward these lofty goals is not an easy one. Our opportunities are limited by lengthy periods of apoplectic tickling, mesmerized movie-watching, and soft-voiced bedtime story reading. Our minds are distracted by the helpless trust of small arms surrounding our necks, the joyous shrieks and giggles emanating from a pillow-fight, and the curious way a small child gains twenty pounds and fifty degrees when she falls asleep on one's shoulder. We become lost in wonder at the flowering of personality, the amazingly accurate observations, the piercing questions--and for long moments at a time we contemplate the thought that if children such as these are to inherit the world, then perhaps there is hope after all.
And we are dumbfounded at our role in all this.
Yet we part-time single dads must not lose sight of our ultimate purpose. We must keep to the narrow path. Must not yield to distraction, for in a very short time--as it is for all parents--our influence will wane. The next time we meet they will have undergone months of civilizing influences, and many of our efforts will have been undone. They may not even remember half the lyrics to "Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts."
I'll have to get busy. I think tonight's lesson will be a tactical overview of dirt-clods, rubber bands, squirt guns, and water balloons.

Joe Clark's name will probably show up on a computer list soon. Meanwhile, he is a project manager with FSU's new Educational Services Program.


Toujours le Plongeur, Previsited

I've blogged about diving before, and even wrote a poem about it, but had almost forgotten about this first essay of mine on the subject, written when I was a Tallahassee Democrat "community columnist" in 1992. My mind's eye was mostly recalling a spookily grand dive in Emerald Sink, south of town. I don't think I could do a better job of evoking the experience today. The photos are from freshwater dives since 2012 or so, featuring my brother Paul and his son Liam.

Joe Clark
Community Column #6
to run 5/5/92

Sinkhole Diving's Not In Living Color

South of Tallahassee there are portholes into a universe of water that extends for horizontal miles under the piney woods, beneath A.M.E. churches and convenience stores, in some places swooping hundreds of feet underground and in others just under the sandy surface, below a thin ceiling of limestone. On summer nights when the crickets and cicadas pause to change sheet music it moves with an empty, gurgly sound that makes dogs whine and scratch at the floors of house-trailers.
I am not a daring man. I'm no athlete, no great outdoorsperson. I drive a very slow car. Heights frighten me. Darkness makes me whistle. And yet I am drawn here, to these sea-haunted mansions. . . .
On many an occasion I can be found in the company of like-minded individuals, staring into a sinkhole that rests like a blue-green gem among the live oaks. Our eyes follow the white limestone walls that curve outward underwater, a gigantic brandy snifter, into emerald depths. There are no shallows in most sinkholes. Two feet from shore the bottom may be a hundred feet down. Yet even then, it is sometimes visible from the surface.
I and my like-minded friends shrug ourselves into scuba backpacks, check straps, and open air valves. Black-clad, tentacled with hoses for pressure gauges and extra mouthpieces, hissing like bipedal locomotives stirring from some fantastic train-yard, we approach the water with the heavy creak of neoprene rubber and the dull clank of weight-belts against air tanks. One part Darth Vader, one part Alien, and three parts stuffed sausage. We move with care, for we are as unnaturally leaden and labored as beached whales.
But once in the water, all that changes. We bob at the surface for a few moments, pulling on fins and hawking into facemasks. Then, with an aggregate sigh from the exhaust valves of buoyancy-compensation vests, we leave the world of air behind.
As we descend, bottom features emerge from the bluish haze below like returning memories, and each time I drift downward I recall anew that dreams of flying are, in fact, dreams of swimming. Memories of swimming. Recollections of flotations past: a few months in the womb and then, further back, through countless eons of seaborne ancestry.
And so quickly it returns: in the element of water you can rise and sink merely through attentive breathing. You move about in the endless pause of a sinkhole's depths with leg-kicks as nebulous as those of sleeping dogs, turning and banking with the lightest of gestures. As though you might think yourself from place to place.
But you can't really go back to the ancestral home again. There is the constant need to monitor your depth and air supply. Speech is impossible; communication primitive. A careless flipper-stroke can stir up enough moondust silt to reduce visibility from hundreds of feet to mere inches. You are indeed an alien here, kept alive by wits and machinery. A tolerated tourist. A furtive worshipper.
The beam of your flashlight, swallowed by the airplane-hangar entrance to a side cavern, reveals nothing but a grainy darkness through which motes of debris move like dislodged stars. Thigh-sized catfish gape in perpetual surprise from rock ledges. Sound comes from everywhere at once: the regular hiss-and-bubble of your breathing; clouds of exhaled air rumbling toward the surface; moody, far-off hums and sighs and feathery whispers.
Your eyes take in riots of monochrome: white limestone dappled in welcome sunlight, black tree-trunks like the charred beams of a burned-out cathedral, and gray silt that blankets everything like entropy made tangible, like lurking death, above which your exhaust bubbles trail in plumes of metallic smoke toward a circle of leaves and sky overhead--a blue-green heaven above a charred world.
What business is this of yours? you must ask yourself. What miracle or madness has placed you here? Why doesn't your heart stop when you crouch sixty feet down in a rock-lined tube no bigger than the interior of a Toyota, watching your spent air bubbles cascade up the sloping roof like mercury? How will you bear to walk the land again, to feel gravity again, when you have flown, a mechanical manta, across a hall the size of a drowned sports arena?
Sometimes, at great depths, I remove the mouthpiece of my regulator and scream with terror and delight and superstitious awe, but there is only the sound of bubbles. Sometimes, back at the surface, I inflate my BC, lean back, and bob like a great, rubber otter, drinking in the sunshine and air as if for the first time, yet already planning my next return to the ashy depths. Sometimes I wonder if it is life or death that draws people into the drowned caverns.
Yet diving the haunted rooms of the aquifer's domain eases something within me. It generates relativity; reminds me of things I should remember. Gives me back my fins, if only for a half-hour or so at a time, and permits me to worship the One True, firsthand.

Joe Clark, who has begun to notice little gill-like structures forming on his neck, is a Writer/Editor for FSU.


Badass MF Still Alive

My sister Sarah recently posted this photo to Facebook and it reminded me of something I wrote for the Tallahassee Democrat when I was a "community columnist" during 1992. I dug up the original file and it's posted below. Seems to hold up well enough over 25 years later. ~JSC

Joe Clark
Community Column #16
to run 12/1/92

Zen and the Red-Clay Art of Tractor Maintenance

The dog had got hold of the tractor and the result was not pretty.
You'd think a chunky little mid-size Massey-Fergusen and a lean, mildly hyperactive retriever mix would be pretty evenly matched, but that tractor never had a chance.
Hinson (the dog) had gone directly for the jugular, ramming her muzzle up beneath the simple dashboard and dragging out the wiring harness to tug at it like a hyena worrying an antelope's tongue. Amazingly enough, the tractor kept running, but everything else -- lights, horn, gauges -- became tragically silent.
So there I was in a barn on an unseasonably muggy November afternoon in Recovery, Georgia, with the patient opened up and a tangle of dog-chewed wires in my hands, wondering what it is that persuades an animal to mix it up with machinery. And how those twelve volts must've tasted.
Fortunately, the wires were color-coded, so for the most part it was a matter of unwrapping the harness, taping over the bite-marks, and splicing things back together. But for a long time I just stared at the mass of disconnected, frayed ends, not knowing where to begin.
If Life's hyperactive dog has ever gotten its teeth into your wiring harness and gnawed at it some, you know just what I mean. You could just sit and stare for weeks. But after a while you start to see how some of the old connections were made, and maybe try to splice up a few. Over here, red/green goes to red/green, like so. And on this side, here's two more that go together. Clip, strip, crimp -- that easy.
Sort of like moving back to Tallahassee was for me a few years ago: at first just a tangled confusion that didn't much look like the place I'd left. Like something'd been chewing on it.
Then the connections started to appear. Family to family. Friend to friend. Like I was splicing up things that had been severed, or at least soundly gnawed, by time and distance. Clip, strip, crimp.
Within twenty minutes or so, I had nearly all the wires reconnected. Hinson watched from a safe distance, mouth open and smiling guilelessly.
Then I hit on a snag: four of the remaining wires were all the same color: red. I suddenly felt like James Bond at Fort Knox in Goldfinger. Which combination would work, and which would result in a cataclysmic tractor detonation? Here I consulted the wiring diagram, but it was no help. Only a schematic, it didn't show how the wires were actually routed. Just where they went.
What to do? You've made all the obvious connections, but you've still got loose ends -- all the lights ain't on yet. Neither your eyes nor the books tell you how to proceed. And you certainly can't put the thing back together this way.
I fell back on scientific method: eliminated the clearly wrong choices, then tried one combination. Eureka! The tail light glowed cherry red. No sparks flew. No whiffs of ozone or melting insulation. That was it -- educated guesswork and luck. Two crucial elements of tractor repair, and other things.
Only one unlinked pair remained. There was no way to test this one without reconnecting the battery and starting the engine. I pinched the ends together, reached for the ignition switch, and squeezed my eyes shut.
It was a leap of faith. In myself, in the universe, in something. Whatever. Faith, alright? Just try it, faith says, and it's OK if you need to shut your eyes while you do.

As the diesel churned to life the dog's eyes widened. I began to flip switches and scrutinize dials. Lights? OK. Gauges? Check. Horn? Beep! Hinson jumped up and bolted around the corner. Yes, dog, I smiled from the driver's seat. Your nemesis is alive and well.
Moral of story, children friends? Life's a tractor. Check the oil every now and then, keep your PTO clean, and for God's sake keep the dog out of the wiring harness.
But what gets us through isn't the happy sound of that horn or the swinging needles of any gauge.
No, not at all.
It's that moment just before you turn the key, that instant when you squeeze your eyes tight shut and your palms go a little wet. When you have absolutely no idea what will happen next.
And you reach out and turn the key anyway.

Joe Clark, whose nose was recently severed in a tragic wire-crimping mishap, apologizes profusely to Robert M. Pirsig.


With apologies/ to Aristophanes

I am a great fan of clouds,
especially the caulifloral cumulus of a Florida summer sky,
ranging like distant mountains.
Or trundling by overhead as we watch, openmouthed,
like merfolk gazing up at clipper ships plying the surface.

At times too painterly to be believed,
Stereotypical. Romanticized. Trite. Postcardish.
But it never gets old. How is that?

Now darker, shadowed by erupting anvil-topped monsters.
Now thinning and attenuating into stratus layers of melancholy.
Or just disappearing, 
like almost everything does, eventually.

I wonder: do dogs notice them? Birds? Snakes?

I watch the ever changing cave-paintings on the sky
as humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years, 
seeing analogies, lessons, similitudes, and

-- if I try hard enough --

just condensation.

Like myself.

[seymour clouds]


I used to write.

I used to write.
I used to write a lot. I took classes in it. I got published, man.
Some people say it was mainly to get chicks.
No, not mainly.
(Though as a means of impressing whatever sort of entity you’re interested in scoring with, there are worse paths, it’s true.)
But then I quit.

Oh, I put out several thousand words of academic writing circa 2010, freaky rhetorical theory stuff, critical theory and culture studies and ecofeminism with more performances and hegemonies than you can shake a stick at. I'll even argue in a separate forum that I advanced an esoteric peninsula of scholarly inquiry. And laid to bed a nagging bucket-list item from my twenties in the process.

But that’s not the kind of writing I mean.

The kind I mean is the kind that people have actually said they are sorry I don’t write any more.

The kind my aunt meant when she said, after I told her I don’t write these days, “Shame on you.” And not kidding.

The kind my daughter recently said she missed.

I mean that voice I stumbled into, laid back into, blasted myself loose into — my voice — when I was writing about wisteria and mermaids and The Freon Jones and palmetto bugs and Ecoman. The feary mysteria.

I tell myself that photography has become my medium, that I always was better at description than plot or characterization anyway, and the picture:words ratio remains what it has always been, so if nothing else it’s the lazy writer’s way of celebrating the odd and the breathtakingly gorgeous in this world.

But photographs can’t say what I’ve said so far. There is still so much they can't say.

I wonder if I have any more stories in me or verbal songs to invent. But of course I do. There is that whole story about offshore Pleistocene civilizations, for one thing. Gotta be told. Bluesy gothic Lovecraftian Faulknerian operas to be writ. There’s that psychedelic pop song, too, and the poetry of invertebrates below the 10 fathom line. The aliens and the pizza delivery guy with his antique Volkswagen. Lost tales of conquistadores and county sheriffs.

These things gotta come out somehow.

Stick with me, it might prove worth your time. That's really about all I can ask.