Pensacola, at the very tip of Florida’s long finger pointing west toward Alabama, is not necessarily a place I choose to visit, but have to, for family reasons. My parents moved here years ago, from cold and snowy Connecticut, and so at least once a year I, along with my brothers and sisters, find myself making the inevitable pilgrimage south. I think my initial antipathy to this place was based on the fact that it was SO different from anything up north, it felt almost foreign. But I find now it’s growing on me. The city certainly has a unique and authentic charm that Miami or some other cities in Florida lack, with live oaks and canopy walks and armadillos darting about the way ground hogs do up north. And though it’s in the northern part of the state, it is the most “southern” city in it, I think—you see it in the architecture, the horticulture, the cuisine and the way people talk. It is truly the Deep South, as deep as you can get before falling into the Gulf of Mexico.
I decided I would use this week helping out my parents, and also as a needed break from my writing. I just need to be a daughter this week, especially since at my advanced age, I’m indeed fortunate to still be playing this role actively. Trying not to think about anything writerly. Yet yesterday I wrote a scene for the next book in mid-air, when the plane was midway between Chicago and the Gulf. And there seems a slight hint of Appalachia about here, too, that keeps reminding me of the setting of my next novel. So inevitably some writing will get done here; I always seem to do some of my best writing on the road.
I borrowed my father’s car this morning (last time I did that, I was eighteen) and took a ride down to the beach. My parents live in the urban center of Pensacola, and the beach is out on a barrier island. This involves a short trip across two very long bridges over the big blue bay, one of the bridges rising high like a small mountain into the sky, then down again, not unlike a roller coaster, as pelicans fly by and swoop into the water for fish. The city’s traffic has been very snarly, due to the gradual erection of a new bridge alongside the old one, which has been judged—according to this morning’s Pensacola News-Journal—structurally compromised. Yet I made it to the island and back unscathed. I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the steamy, pre-storm heat of tropical Florida, onto PB’s fabled white sand (crafted by ground-down Appalachian quartz, carried by the rivers down to the Gulf), and emerald, balmy water. What really caught my eye was the sky: Deeply blue with complex clouds, hinting of coming storms and thunder. I had just been discussing with my cover artist Will Harmuth how different the sky seems down South—it just seems bigger, and wider and even richer, somehow. There’s too much stuff up north cluttering it up. Today’s sky was worthy of a landscape painter, great white soft puffs rising and dissolving into uncertain shades of lavender-gray, and it seemed to me that there should be some huge old clipper ship sailing beneath it, its sails fully unfurled to catch the sea-wind. I stood there and reflected on today’s NY Times obituary of Philip Roth, which I read last night, when I awoke, sleepless, at 2:30 am; and thinking, too, of the Mary Lee Settle novel I tried to read on the plane, until I got too bogged down in her overly rich description and writing. The old guard is going, I thought, and even though I’ve never been part of the new guard, I figure I have to keep writing, because, well, someone has to.
It didn’t take long for the heat to drive me back to the car, and I headed back across the bridge and through the city that has existed for at least three centuries on this hurricane-prone spot on the Gulf, and will probably continue on indefinitely into the future. P.S. There is a big blow expected for this weekend, but not a full-fledged hurricane, as I understand it. We may lose power, but I’m ready for it, with my old fashioned notebook and pens.