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"Candi's Night Shift"
by Daniel Friedman

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Andrew Beierle
Catamaran Literary Reader Editorial Assistant

Adventures in Paradise

The would-be rescuers were asleep in the bushes when the death plane hit the water belly up. Out of the midnight sky it came, lights ablaze, engines silent, gliding over the city in a two-mile arc that carried it from Herndon Airport to Eola Park.
            It was the hand of God, some said, that kept it aloft over the most populous section of downtown Orlando. No, said others, it was the hand of God that swatted the plane down, sending it upside down into Lake Eola, for there were reported to be drug smugglers on board. But more than likely it was the hand of Juan Vincent Dickinson, the pilot, that guided the suddenly powerless craft toward its final destination, hoping all the while that the impact on water would be less severe than on land and more survivable. In that bright, crowded cabin it must have made sense to all of them. And at the last minute, Dickinson tried to pull up the nose to cushion the impact, but succeeded only in flipping the plane over.
            One eyewitness said the impact sounded like a “thunk,” like someone hitting his hand against a wall. Another described it as “more like a puff than a bang—just a puff.” But puff or bang or thunk, it was loud enough to rouse the park’s derelicts from their stupors or their sleep and send them splashing to the rescue. But when they arrived at the slowly sinking fuselage, there was nothing they could do. Everyone on board was dead. Juan Vincent Dickinson, Isaac Padron, Charles Henry Barandiaran, Hugo José Ortero Romero. All dead.
            “I found a man in his seat. He was still strapped in,” the first eyewitness to reach the plane told a newspaper reporter. “He was gone, he was really gone. There was nothing I could do for him.”
            All of this occurred in December of 1979, four days before Christmas and less than thirty-six hours after a Northwest Orient Airlines jet from Boston had safely deposited me on Florida soil for the first time in two years. It is not my intent here to discuss the business of drug dealing in Florida or to argue for the closing of Herndon Airport, as many were prompted to do after the accident. I mention this disturbing twist of fate because that small plane slicing through the night sky was like a knife in my heart. It did not bode well. Here I was, home for the holidays, and planes were falling out of the sky at my doorstep. I had left the inhospitable environs of New England expecting ten days of nothing but sunshine and screwdrivers, but instead I was gripped by a feeling of loss, a sense of doom that remained with me for the duration of my visit and eventually triggered a reevaluation of the years I spent there. That plane crash changed forever the way I thought about Orlando.

In her novel Orlando, Virginia Woolf sets forth the tale of an Elizabethan nobleman mysteriously transformed into a woman who, it appears, may live forever. The name Orlando is entirely coincidental, but for me the themes of duality of nature and the appearance of immortality are entirely—and perhaps eerily—pertinent to my feelings about the city of Orlando: I have a strong sense of Orlando as a sort of timeless place wherein exist two worlds, one so alluring it becomes painful to even think about leaving, one dank and fetid and, perhaps, malevolent. Orlando is the beautiful but carnivorous flower whose fragrance traps the unsuspecting insect; it is the cup of cocoa laced with arsenic.
            Eola Park is as central to Orlando as it is to this story. Surrounded on three sides by homes and abutted on the fourth by the cluster of buildings generally regarded as “downtown” Orlando, it is, in the words I once used to describe it in a news story, “the picture postcard heart of The City Beautiful.”
            Eola Park is nothing short of an oasis. Its thirty acres are beautifully landscaped, as is much of the rest of the city. Flowers are planted and weeded and watered and seasonally changed in the humblest of the median strips. Eola Park is the site of the annual Sentinel Star “Hush Puppies Easter Parade” and of the annual Fiesta in the Park, an arts and crafts fair that draws to the lake’s edge the makers of such things as plaques consisting of inspirational poems, Rod McKuen-like, decoupaged onto slices of redwood. It is not a lake where one swims or fishes, but a concessionaire rents pontoon boats you can paddle across the lake, and on Sunday afternoons a group gathers in the southeast corner of the park and launches a flotilla of miniature radio-controlled boats. It is a setting Norman Rockwell might have chosen to paint.
            But Eola is an urban lake, and at the time of this story it had become a haven for winos and hustlers and drifters, wild-eyed refugees from a Federico Fellini casting call. People who were not having an easy time of life. I recall seeing a hard-faced teenager with stringy blonde hair rummaging through her suitcase in the middle of the park, no place to go. And I remember eyeing cautiously an intense but in his own coarse way handsome young man with a black crew cut as he propositioned a teenaged mother out for a stroll with her kids.
            “Well, how about later?” was all I needed to hear to make sense of the situation. “Look out,” I wanted to shout. “He looks like an ax-murderer to me.”
            And I still remember the derelict who waded out into Lake Eola in broad daylight, fell face down, and drowned in two feet of water without anyone noticing him until it was too late.
            It was these people who were asleep in the bushes when the death plane yet.

Oh, Orlando! The City Beautiful. The Action Center of Florida. The Heart of Darkness. What’s become of us? Of you? What makes me feel the way I do?
            I lived in Orlando for four and a half years, from April 1973 to September 1977, when I moved to Providence, Rhode Island. I think I left just in time. For, in many ways, Orlando is a Shangri-La, and we all know what happens to those who attempt to flee Shangri-La after tarrying too long. They don’t make it. Likewise there comes a point in each Orlandoan’s life when he chooses to leave or to stay there for good. Most of those I left behind were too comfortable to even think of leaving. As Neil Diamond says (but of LA), “palm trees grow and rents are low.” They are living in a style to which they have become accustomed and which, knowing they could not possibly duplicate elsewhere at the same cost, they are unwilling to give up.
            It is easy to succumb, for life takes on a fairy-tale quality in Orlando. The temperature varies little, the scenery even less. Living there, it becomes impossible to place an event in your memory by the climatic conditions that accompany it; on any given day it could be January or June, Christmas or the Fourth of July. Demarcations between months fade, years blur. Orlando is Shangri-La, the eternal city.
            Add to this the air of the fantastic lent by the presence of Walt Disney World and you have a truly bizarre place:

Easter Sunday, 1975: The phone rings. It’s the White Rabbit. He tells me and my roommate to meet him behind Cinderella’s Castle after the Easter parade, using the free passes he has given us. This is not unusual. We often have the White Rabbit, Goofy, and Peter Pan over for dinner and drinks. At the time, I am dating Tweedledum. My roommate is fucking Goofy. We rendezvous with the White Rabbit two and a half hours later, and my roommate has dinner with him in King Stephen’s Dining Room in the castle. Like Alice, I take a pill and meet Tweedledum at the Adventureland Veranda, where they serve the best sweet and sour ribs. I remember looking up from my meal and seeing Cinderella’s Castle quavering in the distance, the night liquid with flowers and fireflies. It is the last thing that I remember of that evening.

            There is a perverse twist to these tropical illusions of fantasy and eternity, however. For amidst the lushness, the ever-greenery, there is a sense—less apparent to natives or long-term residents than to observant visitors—of moist decay pervading the entire city. Sidewalks buckle in the humid heat; concrete crumbles. Everything is covered with a fine green moss that discolors paints and dims the luminescence of street signs.
            At the time there seemed to me a kind of parallel decay at work in Orlando, a moral mildew, a decomposition of the order of the universe, that has resulted in an excess of brutal crimes and bizarre deaths:
            • A service station owner and his son, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, are gunned down after refusing to wash the windshield of a customer who bought a dollar’s worth of gas at the height of the gasoline shortage of 1974.
            • A first grader dies instantly after being punched in the stomach by a classmate who steals thirty-five cents from him.
            • A nineteen-year-old woman is last seen going to pick up her new car; her badly decomposed body is found next to another unidentifiable corpse several weeks later in a garbage dump.
            • A seven-year-old boy, whose family was named the best-dressed in the Sentinel Star Easter Parade the year before, falls off the back of his father’s pickup truck, is covered by the palm fronds they had been cutting, and is repeatedly run over.
            • Four Winter Park high school students drown while fishing at night in Mosquito Lagoon in Cape Canaveral—it takes a NASA heat-sensing spy plane to locate their decomposing bodies a week later.
            • An avid sportswoman and water skier is thrown from her car beneath the wheels of a passing freight train and both arms are cut off at the elbow. A year later she is featured in the Sentinel Star waterskiing with her artificial limbs.
            • A furniture store owner murders his wife, her mother and father, and a customer, on Christmas Eve, apparently to collect life insurance to aid his ailing business.
            These are the images that sprang into my mind in the weeks following my Christmas visit to Orlando. These are the things I now remember.

There are those who will say that my impressions of Orlando are exaggerated, that Orlando is no more a place of death and decay then any other, and perhaps they are right. I was just twenty-one when I arrived in Orlando, fleeing an unsuccessful love affair, and I had no real sense of my self, as I now understand it. Perhaps that is why a sense of place became so important. Or perhaps during four and a half years of working for a daily newspaper I was too intimately exposed to the details of death and the small horrors of life to escape unscathed. Or maybe I am bitter because when my visit ended and I left Florida on New Year’s Eve of 1979, I said goodbye for the last time to a dear friend who deserted me. Perhaps all of these things are true. And I may have painted this picture with too broad a stroke, obscuring the good while attempting to represent the bad.
            I write of Orlando with mixed emotions, as I might write of my first important lover. It is only now, after having been away for so long and not wanting to return, that I can write about it: I do not miss Orlando so much that it would be painful to write about, nor am I any longer blind to its deceits.

Andrew W. M. Beierle is a graduate of the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Napa Valley, Kenyon Review, and Tinker Mountain writing programs. His début novel, The Winter of Our Discothéque, received a 2002 Lambda Literary Award. His second novel, First Person Plural, a finalist for the 2007 men’s fiction Lammy, was named one of the top ten LGBT novels of 2007 by the online review site Books To Watch Out For and was co-winner of the title of best men’s fiction of 2007 by the web site AfterElton.com. For twenty-six years he was the editor of Emory Magazine at Emory University in Atlanta. He began his career as a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel.

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