Lake Eola Park, in the center of Orlando – a world away from cartoon Disney – makes me wish that I could draw. Some places demand the bold strokes of acrylic, the definitives of ink, the texturized weight of Bristol paper. Nothing but a painter’s hand, a drafter’s arm will do. The precise skills I am lacking.
Walking the perimeter of Lake Eola is easy. Stay on the path and I can’t go wrong. It’s marked in asphalt, dotted with joggers and dogs, children and swans, the well-heeled and the homeless. Writing Lake Eola is something else, a skirting of the margins, a scribbled loss of clarity. Stick figures won’t cut it, and language falls short, scrambling the edges. I have too many words, all the wrong shape, of imperfect density, clumsy.
I need a canvas and brush to delineate the stark curves and swift angles of this skyline, the counterpoised insertion of light-slapped water at its heart. If colored pencils would follow my hand, I’d used them to trace the wide acreage of svelte greenery hunched in the midst of glass and chrome. I’d choose slim sticks of charcoal for the sleek musculature of swans, the curved beaks of ibis, the sun-spread snake birds, drying their wings from sudden, prolonged immersion.
Language is left to rummage scraps, like the weather, the skin-prickled heat of a summer city waiting for its proper storm, the relief of lashing rain that holds itself aloft. Words stumble, graceless, in this switchback of the everyday, this stitching up of here and now. It is what I love most, the impossibility of pinning down an ever-shifting meaning, a story out of bounds. There is too much here to capture. If I sat for a year, a novel might unwind, populated with strange adventures, convoluted tales. Here for three days only, I catch the gloss, the surface, the teasing pull of more. My words dive where they can, picking up driftwood conversations. Snatches of lives slip by, slim silver fish in Lake Eola’s currents. I am casting for stories, eavesdropping, sharpening my hook.
I snag up quickly on a mismatched pair of speed-walking women, as the voice of the shorter rises in derision: “You can’t just give a bitch a ring and then . . .” I’ve lost what happens next. They have wandered out of earshot. Whose ring was given, accepted, dressed down in conversation? I construct the possible future, the filmy edges of a slapstick wedding, the burrowing hiss of this women’s furor cutting through the toile.
A group of men shrugs by in the other direction. One stocky chest in a grimy muscle shirt mutters something about “a thousand dollars for a damn swan.” The park is filled with them – men and swans. Some sit peaceful, necks tucked in. Others strut, eyes sharp, broadcasting the need for caution. I scan the borders of Lake Eola for the offending bird with its exorbitant price. The indignant men pass by.
A younger group of swains, not yet jaded, chatters up an “after-party.” Though it’s hardly midmorning, they walk quickly, seeking entertainment, gilded. Their enthusiasm is coiled in naiveté, in its faith that the “after” always trumps the now, that excitement will burble through every edgy gap. They head toward party-goers, flocked and waiting, while the lake, resplendent, glitters at their feet.
There are weddings on the shores of Lake Eola. In the everyday after, marriages walk its winding seams. One elderly couple sits in light unbroken, a dog between them, posing for a photograph with smiles so genuine they could only belong in film. Ten paces on, a sleek, unsmiling mother snaps at the errant husband in her stroller’s wake. I wish that I were half as trim and twice as happy. I imagine her joy tucked away elsewhere, outside her delineated mission, her single-minded goal.
Fitness hugs the pavement, the park’s smooth curvature of paths. It’s partly why I’m there. Good health rustles through the foliage. There are joggers and walkers and ramblers. A Tai Chi class moves in unison beneath a shady tree. Parents wear out children with bags of bread for pampered birds along the water’s edge. Dogs are everywhere on leashes, circumscribed to neatly-bordered walkways, noses to the ground. One morning, the snack shack’s alarm rings for most of my circuit, a blaring cacophony ignored until it stops mid-blast. Ducks and squirrels pick up where they left off or where they had always been under the bedlam.
A small army of groundskeepers circles the park, wielding trash bags and leaf-blowers. They stop their jets of air whenever someone passes, a polite hesitation that must prolong their task by ages. In cordoned-off sections, long shocks of grass bear these signs: “Do Not Disturb. The Grass is Resting. Please keep on the walkways. Thank you.” There is a quiet hilarity in the shuddering snores of turf. I imagine grass awakened, complicit in my eavesdropping, my teeming mess of stories. I think I hear the long stems chuckle.
Snippets of the park wait like dominoes for a click of hand to set them falling into place. Too much else wavers in the silence, threaded through with shadows. Along the paths at Lake Eola, there are people who meet my gaze and those who don’t and there are the times I look away myself. There is what I see, and what I imagine, stories half unfolding. In the center of the lake, neon-shirted workers climb the dry, green-sloped sides of a mammoth fountain, tinkering. There have been no gleaming jets of water since a lightning strike in 2009. The on-going repairs are a promise of renewal, the disentanglement of jagged, heat-stoked loss. Perhaps sudden, harrowing damage can be repaired. Perhaps catastrophe will not strike twice. With a million-dollar price tag, this work begs the question of redemption, equations of give and take in an imbalanced world.
Along the perimeter of this fountain’s transformation, homeless men perch on rocks, elbows to knees, heads draped against the sun. Men and women lie sleeping in the grass. They stretch along a wooden boardwalk. They wait out time in a park flanked by chic restaurants, mirrored banks, and a dog spa. They accompany the day with books of puzzles, backs hunched over the simplicity of lockstep logic. They wear broken overalls and hold tai chi moves with the steadiness of faith. One man balances on a railing, shouting sex like a weapon or a life-line or the two intertwined. There are suitcases and shopping bags, wheeled backpacks and old Discmans, splinters held and holding, pieces that hint at an infinity of more.
Compassion hovers at the edges, entering the fray in swooping, wide-winged dives. Quiet, well-dressed pairs of Samaritans listen to hardships and offer solutions nested in empathy. Others are arrested for feeding the homeless in Lake Eola Park. Members of Food Not Bombs arrive with their moveable feasts and leave with their hands cuffed behind them. Orlando has an ordinance that limits the distribution of food to large groups in public parks. Food Not Bombs has a mission to highlight the national problem of homelessness. At Lake Eola, the two collide.
I drag stories from the wreckage, the intercession of collision points. After I leave Orlando, the fountain will be fixed. I imagine the white foam splashing, the curvature of jets, a light-sparked cascade at the center of Lake Eola. I imagine the rim of spectators, each with a hidden cache of stories, of small triumphs and large tragedies lived outside of anyone’s gaze.
I imagine a thin, middle-aged man standing on the shoreline, bare feet cooling in the grass, his shoes close by, one lace missing. Plastic bags spill out beside him. Worn denim bears wrinkled creases like a map that ends in shoulders stooped. He wonders at the luck of such a thing – the fountain, repaired, defiant, daring a forked-tongue fate. He watches the water tumble, regardless. Around him, the dialogues of the lake patter on – water and sky, chrome and grass, swan and human, lost and found. Miles away, too far to catch his imprecation or his blessing, I put my fingers to the keys.
We write each other into being, this place and I, neither one enough and both of us too much for saving. This lake is artist, flagrant full of wild technique. I’m the scrivener in the attic, hard-blown by memory, puffed imagination, scratching at its bone tattoo.