Desire Lines

Jack Gantos

Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR Paper

Desire Lines
In the Beginning
Florida, where I live, is mostly a soft limestone shelf attached, in the shape of a sock, to the lower end of Georgia. In the last few years it seems more and more sinkholes have suddenly opened up. One day your back yard is a solid plot of green grass, and the next day you have a bottomless pit filled with water. I expect, in the future, when people fly over the state they'll look down and find nothing but a rotting Swiss cheese slowly dissolving in the Gulf of Mexico. Just last week another hole opened up, this one under a Porsche dealership in OpaLocka, and about a dozen cars were sucked down into the pit as the ground gave out and the water slowly seeped in. Another opened under a house in Gainesville. Some people say Lake Okeechobee is nothing but an ancient sinkhole. You never know where they'll strike next.
Still, my sinkhole had to be the most beautiful. Mine had become a duck pond hidden in the middle of a golf course that was abandoned about twenty years ago. From what I could make out, the pond had been a tough water hazard worked into the joint of a dogleg on the eleventhhole. If I could ever have seen the bottom, if there was a bottom, I'd probably have found it covered with a heap of slimy old golf balls. It made me wonder what someone might find if they ever got to the bottom of what I was made of. Eventually, I found out for myself, but only after someone had died because of what I'd done. And then I wished a sinkhole would open up under me.
 
I used to spend a lot of time sitting around the mossy edge of the duck pond, reading and feeding stale bread to the ducks, thinking about nothing and everything and staring into the water, then lying back to feel the earth spin. The water was glassy and dark blue, not brackish like in the drainage canals, and so inky it was easy to imagine the nib of an enormous fountain pen dipping into the pond, refilling its barrel, and writing down this story.
Overhead was a canopy of oak branches, and when the wind blew, the shafts of light which sliced through the leaves shone deep into the water and crisscrossed like klieg lights searching for a criminal in the night. Every now and again a needle of light reflected off the scales of a shiner and it blinked like a big silver eye and darted off. In an odd way it made me think there was something festive going on under the surface, some exclusive club I couldn't join. Often I would lower the book I was reading onto my lap and just stare deep into thewater, searching for a clue about what was down there. But after so much staring I'd drift into a stupor and feel myself almost hypnotized, the back of my brain slowly stirred with those shafts of light, and the eyes of the fish blinking like foreboding thoughts I couldn't quite turn into words. I had to give my head a real hard shake to snap out of it. Real hard. When I got all tensed up like that, walking without a destination was the best thing for me. I'd pull myself away from the pond and with each step I felt like a giant ball of string unwinding until I was nothing but a quiet trail.
In ancient city planning there was something called a desire line. This was a footpath created by people who wanted to get from one place to the next in the quickest possible time. In the book I read, ancient planners were praised because they understood that people liked to walk in a straight line from place to place. To me, they were simply using common sense.
But modern city planners don't seem to use common sense. For example, in my neat-and-tidy neighborhood, sidewalks always turn left or right at ninety-degree angles. But when you look at the ground, at any street corner, you see where people have strayed from the sidewalk to cut the corner and have trod a path diagonally across the grass. As anyone knows, the quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line, not a right angle. A desire line. I used to love that term. To me itmeant you do just what you feel like doing in life, and it turns out to be a better way of doing things than what you have been conditioned to do. Living by desire, by your guts. Not living by the rules of some anti-desire city planner who designs gated communities and cul-de-sacs.
Personally, I had two as-the-crow-flies desire lines. The first one was from my bedroom, down the hall, halfway across the living room, onto and over the coffee table, out the front door, pivot a hard left across the front yard and down the street, cut through the Metrics' front yard, avoid their two-foot-high tempered-steel sprinkler heads, avoid the low-foreheaded Metrics altogether, then march a dotted line from yard to yard, block to block, across roads, over hedges, fences, and lawn furniture, paying no attention to the dirty looks I received for violating the sanctity of private property, until I arrived at Wilton Manors Boulevard. From there I tacked across the street, dipped through a hole in the chain-link fence which was directly beneath a NO TRESPASSING sign, and entered the southeast corner of the golf course. At that point I'd cut through the brush, penetrate the tree line, work my way to the pond and take a deep breath, and think, Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, free at last. I figured the Underground Railroad was the greatest American desire line ever built. The Trail ofTears was the most shameful. Then I'd put on my earphones and listen to some jazz.
Jazz was my music of choice. Jazz definitely had great desire lines. It was without boundaries. It was all passion. Freedom. Emotion. If you were to picture jazz it might look like the northern lights, or water swirling down a drain, or leaves blowing off a tree, or a glass exploding as it hits the floor, or steam escaping a whistle. That's how jazz is. No matter if it is hot and spontaneous, or cool and totally controlled, it is always real. And when you hear it you close your eyes and go with it, follow it directly to a place where it rules.
My second desire line was from the classroom door of Mrs. German's English literature seminar, my last class of the day. Usually we just sat in her class and read. But I couldn't read there. For instance, when we were reading Edgar Allan Poe I should have felt all the twisted romantic nature of his characters and stories. I should have had sensations that I couldn't even begin to put into words, like when the depraved guy in the poem "Annabel Lee" shacks up with his dead girlfriend at night "in her sepulchre there by the sea." I'd be right there with him until I lifted my eyes from the page and saw the dull yellow walls, low ceiling, broken Seth Thomas clock, and the half-asleep Mrs. German. Then the entire life of the poem got bleached out of me. It was impossible to identifywith a necrophiliac in that place, even though most of the students around me were about as alive as cadavers.
So I would sit in class and pretend to read. Every three minutes I'd stifle a yawn and turn a page. Then, as soon as the release bell sounded I'd bolt for the door. I'd cut right, not toward the buses, but down the outdoor passage and across the all-purpose gym field. I'd throw my backpack over the locked chain-link gate, then climb up and over. I'd chart a course directly between Big Daddy's Liquors and the U-Tote-Em, over the Broward railroad bridge and down the gravel bed, across the mall parking lot through the front door of Eckerd's Drugs, out the rear door, across the back parking lot, and over the crumbling stone wall that was the boundary for the northwest corner of the golf course.
 
I explored every square foot of the golf course as if I owned it. I had read in National Geographic that in northern Brazil there was a tribe of Indians who worked out the ownership of things according to who loved what the most. If those beliefs were applied to the golf course I would have owned the whole thing and I would have kept it just as it was: wild and undeveloped, a place where nature was set free.
It must have been a beautifully groomed club in its prime in the 1930s. It was planted with southern oaks,drippy with long silver beards of Spanish moss. The yellow pines, positioned to mark the tees, were almost as tall as any building in town. They were wrapped in kudzu and swayed back and forth like giant feather dusters filled with birds. There was a spiral garden of tree ferns leading to a wooden gazebo which had rotted and tilted to one side as though kneeling before the onslaught of unrelenting vegetation. Round beds of white azaleas still bloomed as if they were enormous, puckered golf balls. The sand traps were overgrown with weeds, but the footprint-shaped depressions remained, spread out over the acreage like a dance chart for giants. There were small Spanish-style storage sheds and rain shelters scattered on the grounds. Most had been overrun with bushes and creepers and spiders and everything else that crawled, scratched, twittered, and crunched through the night. The clubhouse was in the most incredible state of decay. It was a two-story stucco building, almost pulpy with a dark green mold. The orange tiled roof had caved in where the joists had been hollowed by termites. The windows were shattered from kids chucking rocks, and the bougainvillea had climbed through the empty frames and scaled the inside walls. The entire structure looked like a past civilization gone belly up. Just the way I liked it.
I felt comfortable there, surrounded by what had been manmade, then abandoned and left to rot. I loved seeingwhat nature had won back from man. That clash between civilization and vegetation really turned me on. Ruins of ancient cities I had seen in National Geographic, such as Machu Picchu, Palenque, and Angkor Wat, which were once great but had fallen and decayed, fascinated me. I stared at those pictures for hours, examining every detail of how the buildings were made, and how they were falling apart. It wasn't only that I was taken with the utterly mysterious way they looked, all crumbling and mossy, but the thrill also came from knowing that a monumental civilization had started, grown, plateaued, peaked, and then crashed and burned. That, at one time, they had had it all and then lost it. The wheels came off and the whole thing just fell apart. And they were finally defeated by something more powerful than all their rules and regulations, elaborate religious beliefs, and best intentions. They were defeated by nature. Not just plants either, but by the inner nature of the people who lived there. The dark side of the soul. The animal instinct. The beast within. Call it what you want, but you just know some bloody, inhuman stuff had to take place for those great cities to collapse. Nature doesn't play favorites. It doesn't know the difference between good and evil. It doesn't negotiate. It just presses forward, always creeping, expanding, unrelenting, always in motion. The vines grow longer, the roots dig deeper, the seeds are cast forward, new vegetation finds nourishment, and soonenough the plants are larger and the cracks lengthen into fissures and the expanding roots divide each stone into fragments as they scale walls and consume entire structures until vast cities disappear beneath a camouflage of leaves.
As far as I'm concerned, vegetation waiting to creep over neglected cities is the same as the wild animal pacing back and forth on the outer edge of the brain. As soon as you stop trying to do your best to do the right thing, or let your guard down for one minute, it comes surging out of the shadows. And just when you think you are better than everyone else, you do something so sinister, so wicked you can't believe you did it. But you did. The moment you think you have it all, when you think you are on top, invincible, is probably the last carefree moment you have before you completely screw up and take a fall. And when you reach rock bottom it's every man for himself, and like the people in Machu Picchu, Palenque, and Angkor Wat you'll do anything to survive.
Copyright © 1997 by Jack Gantos