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Excerpt

The Kingdom of Sand

Andrew Holleran

June 7, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Andrew Holleran's new novel, The Kingdom of Sand. Holleran's first novel, Dancer from the Dance, was published in 1978. He is also the author of the novels Nights in Aruba and The Beauty of Men; a book of essays, Ground Zero (reissued as Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited); a collection of short stories, In September, the Light Changes; and a novella, Grief.

The first touch of winter in North Florida, especially when the cold front triggers a long day of rain, always makes you feel that life is turning inward, that when you get home, there will be someone there. But in my case there wasn’t, which was why in December of last year I went back to the video store on Highway 301.

It was the second week of the month, the middle of a cold, gray Thursday afternoon, when I stopped by after not having gone there for a long time. I’d been driving through the sort of fine mist that had me turning the windshield wipers on and off, on and off, since what was on the windshield didn’t seem like enough moisture to qualify as rain and yet after a few minutes without the wipers I couldn’t see. It was as if I were driving through a cloud. In Florida rain is almost always accompanied by lightning and thunder, but that day the whole world was wet, gray, soft, and gentle, so soft and gentle that it seemed to require some sort of touch, if not tenderness, which was why I decided on my way home from Gainesville to stop at Orange Heights—a place without a single citrus tree, or any elevation whatsoever; an example, I suppose, of what Henry James meant when he called Florida “a fearful fraud” in a letter to a friend.

I was sure no one would be there on such a cold, wet day, though even that, I told myself, would be just fine. Sometimes you go to these places to be alone. But to my surprise, as I put on my turn signal, the white truck I’d been followinging since Gainesville did the same, and when we came to the video store, it turned into the parking lot. Even more surprising, after we turned off our engines, out of the white truck that had preceded me emerged a tall man whose silver hair, glasses, and neatly pressed blue denim shirt made him look like a prosperous farmer who belonged to the Baptist church we had just passed on our way here, the most conventional paterfamilias one could imagine. Watching him walk by, in fact, made me think of that story by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which Young Goodman Brown goes into the forest at night and finds the leading figures of his community at a bonfire worshipping Satan.

The video store had not been opened for satanic rites— though the people who went to the Baptist church down the road probably thought so; it had been opened for truck drivers on their long haul down to South Florida. That was why it sat on the southwest corner of the intersection of 301 and Highway 26, the east–west state road that connects Gainesville and Putnam Hall.

Roads are to Florida what syringes are to veins—the swiftest means to introduce a foreign element into the body; in this case, humanoids. Build a road, and there goes the forest. Highway 301 was built as a sort of conveyor belt to move visitors to Central and South Florida as fast as possible, one of the first four-lane expressways to do this. That’s why for many years whenever I drove to Gainesville on 26 I had to come to a stop at 301 and wait for the light to change. This eventually made the intersection a magnet for businesses: two gas stations, the video arcade, and a fish and tackle store. Yet no intersection could have been less bustling. Even after the video store opened, the crossroads retained its somnolent air, because by that time 301 had been superseded as a major north–south route by two newer highways to the west—441 and I-75. And it was only because those new highways had reduced the traffic on 301 that truck drivers still used the latter, though they never stopped at the video store. What the customers in the video store got instead was the sound of their rigs whooshing by outside the blacked-out window behind which people stood, wondering why truckers didn’t stop there anymore.

It wasn’t just the lure of I-75 and 441 that made the video store a rather sleepy place, however. Two years after the fish and tackle store closed, the state built an overpass so that people going to and from Gainesville on 26 wouldn’t have to stop at 301 at all. Before the overpass one had no choice, which meant that, during the interval created by the red light, one would inevitably count the cars in the parking lot across the highway and, depending on their number, have to consider dropping in—one more choice in a consumer society. But once the overpass was built there was no need to make a decision—instead of stopping at 301 to wait for the light you could drive right over it on the bridge and keep going.

As I glanced down from the overpass, in a state where you rarely see anything from a height, two things never failed to impress me: one, how flat Florida is, and two, how quiet 301 is now. Florida is not an exciting state to drive; there are no mountains, nothing spectacular on the horizon. Years ago a friend from New York who’d decided to drive to Key West with his mother turned back north of Orlando because, he said when he called from a rest stop, “It’s just so boring!”

Another friend got no farther than Kissimmee, where he called from the restaurant in which he was having lunch to say it held only two kinds of people: old men in neck braces and teenage girls dressed like prostitutes. Maybe that’s just Central Florida. But I understand how the flatness of the state, the absence of any interesting features, does make a drive down to Miami pretty monotonous; the last time I did it I needed an audiobook of Barbara Bush reading her memoir—descriptions of trips abroad after her husband had left the presidency that not only surprised her with their pomp and circumstance but also got me to Fort Lauderdale.

Florida comes to you only when you stop somewhere and get out, preferably near or on a body of water; and then you see its esoteric beauty. Seen from the window of a speeding car it’s mostly drab. Looking down from the overpass across 301, however, it wasn’t only the flatness that struck me. There is something about an overpass that momentarily detaches you from your life. It’s like looking out the window of a Boeing 737 as you’re flying somewhere and seeing a private jet streak by below you in the opposite direction.

That’s how I felt glancing down at 301 from the overpass. For some reason the trucks looked motionless, like objects in a diorama, a diorama of my life before the overpass was built, when my younger self had to wrestle with stopping at the video store—though I rarely did, even in my thirties. I preferred the boat ramp six miles to the east, where I could meet people in more pleasant surroundings. Video stores like the one on 301, its plate-glass windows painted black as if to blot out not just the sunlight but also the judgment of other people, always seemed designed to make you feel that what you were doing there was “dirty.” Not the boat ramp.

At the boat ramp you could sit in your car under the live oaks on autumn afternoons watching the squirrels run up and down the tree trunks. You could admire the egrets and blue herons standing along the canal while you waited for the man from Florida Pest Control to drive in—until the police clamped down, that is, and drove away everyone who was not there to fish, which left us with the video store.

The video store was so depressing compared to the boat ramp that even after the latter was off-limits I seldom felt an inclination to stop at Orange Heights, and when I did, whatever pornographic fantasies I walked in with always disintegrated in the sight of the glum and silent men walking up and down the hallways, men so nondescript you would never have suspected them of being homosexual. If aesthetic standards are the foundation of your sexual requirements, I learned, you have restricted yourself to a very small portion of the human race. That was why I was grateful for the overpass—it meant there was no need to debate whether or not to visit a place that I was certain would be a waste of time.

After the overpass was built you had to want to visit the video store, because to get there you now had to take a detour. Driving to Gainesville you had to get off just east of 301 at a vegetable farm where people could pick their own strawberries, proceed to the intersection, and wait for the light to cross. Coming from Gainesville you had to turn off a quarter-mile west of 301 onto a two-lane road that went by a big white Baptist church that over the years had been adding more and more ancillary buildings as the congregation prospered. In both directions one had to go out of one’s way, which made visiting the video store a commitment—not something one did on the spur of the moment.

There was, however, one reason I’d stop at Orange Heights on my way home from Gainesville that had nothing to do with sex or loneliness, and that was to listen to the music on the public radio station broadcast from the university, because its signal extended only as far as 301. WUFT-FM, like many public radio stations, had played classical music until the mid-1980s, when it switched to all-talk, which upset so many listeners that the station created a separate frequency, a spin-off for people who could not bear the loss of Beethoven and Brahms. But the signal of this subsidiary station did not go nearly as far as the main frequency; in fact it stopped, more or less, at Orange Heights.

There had always been something frustrating about WUFT-FM when the station played classical music—as if the selections were being chosen by music majors who refused to play masterpieces because they were too popular. When it became all-talk the station was tedious for other reasons. Its few local shows were dumped for syndicated programs that continued even after their moderators were no longer with us. Even after one of the hosts of Car Talk died, for example, they kept broadcasting reruns on weekends.

The spin-off station created for classical music presented another problem. If, say, they did select a Brahms symphony while you were still in Gainesville, the minute you crossed 301 it disintegrated in a burst of static. So when some masterpiece of nineteenth-century German music, the only balm, I often think, for being alive, was played, I’d have to make the detour to Orange Heights and listen to the rest of the piece in the parking lot of the video store; and then, when the Brahms or Beethoven or Mozart was over, I’d start the car and drive home, because there was no point in juxtaposing the emotions created by their music with the feelings that greeted me the minute I entered the video arcade.

But one day when Mozart’s last piano concerto was on the radio I stopped in the parking lot to listen to the final note and decided to go in. What a mistake! Once inside I stood in my usual corner just inside the entrance and watched the expected assortment of nondescript men walk around until they all gave up and left, at which point a very young man in khaki shorts and a baseball cap came in and they all returned, like buzzards on roadkill. It was the old story: the power of youth and beauty, in this case a student who, when he left, took all the hope and energy with him. There was nothing to do but get in the car, drive across 301, buy pecans for my sister at a roadside stand, and go home. And that was the last time I visited the video store until that cold, wet December day I am speaking of, when I was in such a mood driving back from Gainesville in the mist that even though there was nothing on the radio but some Renaissance dance music involving hautboys and drums that I would have been perfectly happy to have disintegrate into static, I decided to stop at Orange Heights.

The minute I parked and turned off the engine, what struck me was the silence—not just the silence of the intersection, but the deeper stillness animals must feel when they are stalking their prey. There is something primal about cruising. In fact, I was so nervous about going inside that wet day that I remained in my car leafing through a book I’d just taken out of the library in Gainesville even when the man from the white truck passed my windshield.

I did not have to rush; I knew what was waiting for me. The video store consists of a big room lined with racks of pornography and sex toys, a theater in the back where heterosexual porn films are shown, and a small annex for homosexuals off the entrance foyer you can reach without even going into the main room, where the cashier sits on a raised dais supervising his or her domain. That day the cashier was a woman who happened to be standing outside the door smoking a cigarette on her break, smiling graciously at the men going past her like the hostess in a restaurant—a sight so unnerving that I waited till she had finished smoking and gone back inside before I got out of my car. Then, once inside, I walked quickly past the doorway to the big room, entered the gay annex, and paused just inside the doorway to adjust my eyes to the darkness before walking down the narrow corridor lined with video booths to see who if anyone was inside.

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Excerpted from The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran. Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Katie Gutierrez. All rights reserved.




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