WEKIWA SPRINGS, Florida
28.70° N, 81.41° W
With its lush flora and fauna, Wekiwa Springs State Park is a mimicry of Eden. It has all of the prerequisites for paradise: crystal-clear spring water, a snack-bar and tame woodland creatures. Twitchy-tailed squirrels bark for your sandwich as sneaky raccoons swipe the potato salad off the picnic table. Shy otters spy from the shadows, plotting to snatch the loose chihuahua to drown it in the creek; not to eat, just for the otter giggles. Majestic bald eagles soar overhead, swooping-in on a party of gathered vultures to schoolyard-bully them out of their lunch of whitetail roadkill numbles. Horses-for-rent, stoned from chewing jimson weed, shit where they stand. Feral hogs rut in the scrub. Rattlers wait under heel of foot. Gators wait under keel of boat. Obese picnickers expose their oiled girth to fry in the sun. This is paradise.
A leisurely float downstream, across the park boundaries, beyond the jurisdiction of park rangers, is Wekiva Island. If the state park is Eden, Wekiva Island is man’s fall from grace. It’s a riverside dive with all the features of the park plus the devil’s favorite temptations: blistered-hotdogs and iced-cold beer, pork-rinds and moonshine, horseshoes and g-strings, pit-bulls and Redbull, popsicle carts and volleyball courts, sandlot parking for pickups & dirt-bikes, and every color & creed of steroidal gimp and rednecked asshole and honkey-tonk woman Noah could gather before the flood. This is Florida.
As close to heaven as we are, it is as hot as hell. There are crispy mosquito corpses on my arm who boiled to death on the blood they sucked. I saw a dragonfly take pause on a blade of grass before bursting into flames. A frog strangled itself trying to lick moisture from its back. Fortunately, for us sapiens, there is salvation available in frosty pint-glasses of draft beer.
Jeanie is a bird of paradise. She is from Indiana, but spent most of her sunburnt youth here in Central Florida, other than a brief detour for higher learning in Tallahassee. Today, Jeanie is serving bar and she will stab with a corkscrew the next motherfucker who asks her for three wishes. This Jeanie grants no wishes unless you’d like a new breathe-hole. She is wearing a sky-blue tank-top with the Wekiva Island logo, the straps of the shirt not matching with the bikini drawstring tan-lines running up & around her neck. Despite the fans and misting-machines, her sky-blue tank is stained navy under her arms and beneath her breasts from accumulation of sweat. The heat coming off her body doesn’t go unnoticed: a pair of shirtless, leathery, hurricane-chasing roofers from the Flori-Bama panhandles are paying unwanted attention Jeanie’s way. John D Hogtye says to her, hunny you so hot, you’d scramble an egg if I cracked it into your sports-bra. His cousin D Jerrel Hogtye, not to be outdone, says, make mine a Denver omelette. Unamused, Jeanie grabs a can-opener and says she will peel the cauliflowered-ears off their heads if they don’t leave the bar immediately. The Hogtye cousins skedaddle and I take their place after shaking-off the swamp-ass microcosm of moisture from John D’s barstool.
Jeannie’s anger hasn’t simmered when she makes eye-contact with me, saying, any egg jokes you want to crack? Uh, well, um, I mumble in search of wit, asking, eventually, what does the impatient unborn chicken ask his mother? Jeannie tilts her head and shakes it; she doesn’t know. What’s a guy got to do around here to get laid? Jeannie laughs. What are you drinking, she asks. First one is on me, she says.
This wilderness is on the edges of Orlando suburban sprawl. There is no scrap of earth I know better than the local pineland and scrub-brush. There is no predator I fear more around here than land-developers and opportunistic legislators, not that there aren’t creepy non-bipedal critters worth fearing. A few years back, a woman swimming off the seawall here at Wekiva Island had her arm removed at the shoulder by an alligator. This is why I prefer to stay on the dry side of my paddle-board. More recently, a nearby exotic animal collector lost his king cobra. Local and national news terrified viewers with the story. I didn’t let the cobra-on-the-loose keep me from my hikes, however. Until the cobra was found (hiding behind a neighbor’s washing machine), I hiked with my trusty tennis racket in hand. No cobra is as mean as my backhand.
I’m on my second draft beer by the time Reggie Rabbit-Hole arrives. Reggie’s a good guy: he pays his taxes, flosses most days and recycles, but he’s as mad as a loon. When the census people came around, they noted his demographic as lunatic fringe. His theories on the faked moon landing are interesting, but if he begins going down his rabbit holes about fantasy football or the earth being flat, you know it is time to ask for the check. So soon? Sorry dude, my jock-itch is flaring up… and I am due in court.
Today, Reggie’s brought his girlfriend, Anonymous-Bex. Reggie Rabbit-Hole met her online and only knows her as “Becca”. Judging by the blue veins in her arms and the bulge of her eyes, Becca is wound tight. She’s thin and seems fancy with her complicated earrings begging to be snagged by the reach of the inquisitive jungle liana around us. Becca has an awkward gracefulness in her gait, like a great egret, I almost expect her knees to bend backward. She has a 1950’s silver-screen glamorous confidence about her, and Becca is worldly, having circumnavigated the earth a dozen times aboard cruise ships selling reverse-mortgages to the elderly. She talks down to Reggie, often referencing his inferior intellect, and calls him “Wedgie”. I’m not sure if she’s a good person, but I kind of dig her.
Vic, Becca says in her deep-nasally voice, I sense a grisly wisdom in your facial hair. Perhaps you can settle an argument for us. Reggie is shaking his head, saying, it isn’t an argument. It is a difference of opinion. Yes, Becca agrees, and I am arguing your opinion is asinine. Reggie groans and asks Jeanie for a couple ginger-ales. Becca doesn’t drink; as a result, Reggie has kept his BLs on the DL, drinking his daily ration of BudLites in secrecy. Go on, I nod to Becca. We were hiking just now, Becca says, when we crossed paths with a pygmy rattler. It’s as venomous as a normal rattlesnake, but it is ittier-bittier and quieter too. Wedgie asks if I will pick it up and dance with it, because he’s a psychopath. Reggie sighs at this before explaining, it was a joke! A joke, Becca says, which prompted the question: why do men like it when strippers dance with snakes?
Hmm. What does Jung say about serpent fantasies, I ask aloud as I think about the recent king cobra hysteria. It’s obvious, Becca says, snakes are a phallic muscle representative of man’s flaccid penis finding muscular power. I wince, admitting, well, that is what Freud would say.
Reggie disagrees. No penis slithers like a snake, he says. Oh, Becca interrupts to ask, and you know this generally, how? From your locker room studies at the YMCA? Reggie is displeased and clams-up with a big, pouty, fat bottom lip. Oh go on, Wedgie, Becca urges him, tell Vic your big theory.
Disgruntled, nostrils flaring, Reggie leans closer to me, as if speaking in confidence. The seductive allure of snakes is engrained in men’s minds as a part of an inherited memory of Eden. Come again, I ask. Adam was tempted, Reggie says, by Eve to feed from the tree of knowledge, which God forbade. Adam’s crime against God was the result of the union between Eve and the serpent. We are each born with the original sin of desire and over time, strippers have learned, through the influence of Satan, dancing with a snake ignites in men fantasies of Eden, fantasies embedded in the souls of men over the six thousand years since our Fall from Grace. It’s the allure of the forbidden…
What do you think of that, Vic?, Anonymous-Bex asks me, her chin propped-up by the palm of her hand as her elbow rests on the bar. I think it’s bullshit, I say. Sorry, dude. We have a primal instinct to fear snakes because snakes bite and they bite hard, not because they tempt us to eat fruit. That instinctual fear adds to the excitement of seeing a naked lady when she handles a dangerous creature. I once had a brief moment with a lady who was a damn-sexy tiger-tamer; I don’t recall any evil cats in the Genesis garden.
Whatever, Reggie says, I need to use the little boy’s room.
Becca watches him leave the bar and cross the volleyball courts to the public restrooms. I hate it when he says “little boy’s room”, Becca says. It’s creepy. Wedgie’s a sick-puppy, isn’t he, Vic? Meh, I shrug. We all have our kinks. What’s yours, she asks, a little too curious. Heh, uh… I stall, resisting the urge to ask Becca if she’d like to go someplace else, get out of here before Rabbit-Hole returns.
Reggie isn’t as much a sick-puppy as he is fanatical, I tell her, trying to keep the conversation on the rails. It doesn’t matter what the end goal is, to Reg, he gets off on the fanaticism. The juice is the obsession, not necessarily the subject matter. For example, his flat-earth bullshit. If we all believed the earth was flat, he’d be arguing it is round. It’s not what he believes, the appeal for him is being a zealot, being a pariah swimming up-stream, Reggie versus the world. That’s what makes Reggie “Reggie Rabbit-Hole”. And he was dropped on his head as a baby, from a great height, which explains his odd-shaped melon and his busted-cantelope worldview.
You know who else likes a rabbit hole, Becca asks. A snake.
Reggie Rabbit-Hole returns from the bathroom dragging a bloodied foot. On crossing the volleyball court, he stepped on a gnarly torn aluminum can of Pabst. Do you have any duct-tape, he asks Jeanie behind the bar. You caught up on your tetanus, I ask him. Reggie winces as he pours ginger-ale over his wound to clean it of sand. Don’t worry, Becca tells him, you can only get AIDs once. I laugh out of shock as much as anything. An AIDs joke? Really?
My turn, she says, excusing herself to the restroom. Don’t go barefoot, Reggie advises her before turning back to me. Did she just make an AIDs joke? I nod. What did she say while I was gone, Reggie wants to know. She thinks you’re a sweet little cupcake, I say. Reggie nods as if this information is assumed. Vic, he says, I need your help. Oh? Reggie lets out a long sigh as he duct-tapes his foot. I think Becca has a secret life she’s hiding from me. Oh? Do tell. I met her online, he says, and I do not know her last name. She has an apartment near downtown Orlando, off Magnolia, but she is only there part of the time. I’ve never been invited upstairs. She also has a house in Daytona. When I ask if I can visit her in Daytona, she changes the subject. I’m afraid she has a secret family. Maybe she is married with a husband, Reggie says. Or a lesbian wife. With kids, maybe. Or maybe she’s in a celestial marriage with sister-wives. And she’s just using me for a free lunch and intelligent conversation.
I snort. It’s an immediate reaction to his mentioning of intelligence. I excuse myself, sorry, go on.
Can you follow her to Daytona and find out her story, Reggie asks me. You’ve people there, he says. Maybe ask around to see if anyone knows her. I can give you pictures from her dating profile, Reggie says. Vic, he tells me, I love her.
The man is mad, clearly. But within his romantic suspicion and/or jealousy, I see the same fanaticism of any zealot. Sure, he’s in love. But his love for her or is he in love with being obsessed with her? Is the car-chasing dog not more content with the chase than with the taste of chrome? Reggie doesn’t love Becca. He doesn’t even know her. He only loves how the idea of her makes him feel. What is Original Sin, but desire? The sin isn’t the object of the desire, but desire itself.
Vic? Vic! You still with me?, Reggie asks, snapping his fingers.
It’ll be hard to tail Becca around Daytona now she knows what I look like. I will need a disguise: a fake mustache to put over my mustache, a pizza box and the bow-legged walk of a constipated cowboy. She’d never recognize me. Yes!, Reggie Rabbit-Hole agrees.
Becca appears from the bathroom and crosses the volleyball courts towards us. There is a wavy vapor from the heat rising up from the sand which misguides the eye into thinking Anonymous-Bex is something of a serpent temptress herself.
Yeah, maybe I follow her around Daytona. Or maybe I just ask her out for tacos.