But by the end of 1987, I'd met Fru in Illionis, she and Margaret had come to visit me (we went to New Orleans and Pensacola as well as Grayton), I'd published my first story, was painting homes with Mike (make that five Mikes I know), and Jimmy worked with us as a carpenter. I had a new cast of friends and lived off Highway 30-A in a little house hidden behind a swath of oak trees and vines. This was after Seattle and winter came in cold and wet and I was still down from dropping out of the Iowa Writers Workshop and from my leaving Tee. My roommate, who ended up buying the house, was Dave, who was co-owner of Bud and Alley's in Seaside. But, I'd met Fru and I liked her a lot. At Xmas, I'd made the long winter drive to Champaign to see her, spent time with her, essentially fell in love with her. I'd driven up part way with Jimmy--who was from Florence, Alabama--and we'd stopped in his parents' home and he took me around the area: north Alabama and into Tennessee, the big dams along the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals and Florence, the small university there (North Alabama?) where they had a lion, an actual live lion, the school's mascot, stuck in a little cage out in the open on campus (man, that was sad), and it was all cast in the bleak grey snowless cold, leafless tree world of a mid-south winter. (We had stayed up all night on Xmas Eve in Florence--just wandering--and the paper boy came riding by, threw a newspaper at us, said Merry Christmas, and that was my Xmas gift and I got but a bit of sleep before driving up to Champaign Xmas day.) But, when I was in Champaign, Fru invited me to come back (or, I brought it up) and that ended up being an invitation to stay. That is, I could come up and move in with her if I'd like to.
And I did like to.
(Though I only stayed a month or so before rambling to NYC. But also came back a month or so after that--back to Fru in Illinois.)
So, I returned to Seagrove/Seaside/Grayton knowing that it was temporary. I had some work to finish with Mike (Mike was from St. Louis--actually, Belleville, IL--as was his wife, Denise; he was a great guy and had hired me to work with him), really for Mr. Hubert who had contracted the job (who sent me a Xmas bonus of $50, which surprised me, that reached me when I was about dead broke in New York). So, I returned to the beach, informed Mike of my plan to leave in two weeks. He wished me well. I don't think we completed our main job, painting this one big house (Mr. Hiatt's?) in Seaside. But I did my two weeks, then made the plans to get out.
I was a regular at Bud and Alley's. It wasn't quite the tourist spot it is now--nor was Seaside--and I was, after all, roommates with the co-owner. I had also told Dave I was out of there, and he was okay with it, but went scrambling for a new roommate. So, I said my good byes. Jimmy, Mike and I had some fun at Jimmy's place--informally called the Jimmy Wizz Club because we hung there and Jimmy--a musician--would record stuff there. I liked all these people a lot (it was with Jimmy I went to NYC not but a month or so later), but it was time to go. It was time to see what life with Fru would bring.
I do recall, distinctly, packing my car the day I was to leave. Dave was at work and I was alone at the house. Yes, I was sentimental to some degree, but though I still loved the area, I'd been there enough to have some of the magic fray and erode, so there was bad and good about leaving. Anyway, everything I owned could be fit into the trunk of my powder blue Ford Maverick. So, I brought out the last load, shut the trunk lid, and took one last long look at the tree-shrouded house. And I said to myself, do you know what you're doing?
And I did. I understood what I was doing.
I knew that this move was not just some lark. I'd met someone special in Fru. Places were important to me, and I wouldn't move to a place like Champaign, Illinois just for some fun. (Champaign is a nice town, but, it's still Champaign.) I understood that this move was about Fru, about potential, about committing myself to someone besides myself. I realized all of this as I looked back, understood the depth of my actions. I was saying goodbye to one part of my life--in my mind at least--and opening up a different, more mature chapter.
I didn't hesitate for long. I was ready. Ready to leave "Grayton Beach" and move on to a world of larger consequences. So, I got in the car and drove away. The last time I ever lived there.
I hit a blizzard on the way up, in Alabama. Alabama had no plows and no understanding of how to drive in the snow. It was a freak storm. So, it was slow slow going, crawling up the unplowed Interstate, southern drivers going off into the ditch left and right, it took me many hours. When I hit Tennessee, the roads were scraped clean and salted, roads empty and quick to drive through.
Alabama, symbolically, did its best to try and keep me there in the South. And I love the South--not the beach bunny, palm treed South--the South of the oaks and lawns and deep accents. The "Are you hungry?", chatty, gossipy, good times. The drinking drunk gun-shooting. The South of the Civil War and carpetbaggers and rebel yells and intolerance and Jesus and the Klan. And that Interstate in Alabama, not much north of Montgomery (if I recall correctly) was so chock full of snow and bad winter weather. Cars crawled along, their Alabama operators so surprised and elated and stupendously stuptified and dumbfounded by that freak snowstorm, that I recall seeing people abandon their cars, walking out and down through the snow to the trees and fences. They had to take a piss. I ended up doing that myself (and to this day, I keep a roll of toilet paper in my trunk, because I've had times, while on the road, when I just had to take a dump) and I sat and sat and drove fast enough to see all the cars in the ditch, and go into the ditch, because they had no idea what snow really was. But I was leaving more than Grayton Beach, more then Walton County and the panhandle and Florida itself. I was leaving the South--the fried hearts and grits and head cheese and eggs and red eye gravy South--despite such a simple thing as snow trying to keep me there. And, I made it . . . Life back in the midwest, a life with Fru, won out.