Life in the Shade of Modern Babel, by Jan Becker

I have a clear memory of a road trip my family took across the country when I was eleven. The idea behind the trip was to traverse the wide waistline of America in imitation of the perfect families we saw loading up their station wagons on television.  My mother was at the wheel, speeding through the desert in California. The landscape was flashing by the windows, grey, brown and barren. A few dry tumbling weeds rolled alongside the road. My younger brother Danny was poking me in the backseat, and my younger sister, Kim, who was still wearing diapers, was sitting up front on my stepfather’s lap, fussing. It was hot and there was no air conditioning in the car, so the windows were all rolled down. When Kim began to scream, my stepfather grabbed her by the back of her dress and hung her out the window like a rag doll. That moment is frozen in my mind, the way the sunlight caught in her red hair as the ground streaked beneath her at over eighty miles an hour. The fabric of her dress was so thin, if it had torn, if the seams had unraveled, she would have fallen to her death.

What is perhaps the strongest about that memory is the silence, how the air rushing at her face stole my sister’s voice away, how my brother stopped poking me in the backseat, and I stopped protesting, shocked that my stepfather had breached the line into savagery. Even my mother was silent in that moment, though every impulse must have been pushing her to panic. Slowly, she pulled over to the side of the road. Only when my sister was back in the car, safely seated between my brother and me, did Mom let loose a belly roar and cold cock my stepfather with a right hook to the jaw. That snap of fist against jaw broke the silence we were all trapped in, that moment when the fabric keeping my sister alive seemed impossibly thin.

***

My boyfriend’s former roommate, Joe DiFulvio, told me that he saw the devil staring at him one night in a live oak on the shores of Crystal Lake in Pompano Beach, Florida. “Pure evil staring at me from the top of the tree,” he said. When I asked him what kind of impact that had on his life, he shrugged, “I was smoking some really high test weed and was a little drunk on good beer, so it didn’t stick with me.” Joe hasn’t seen the devil since he moved North a few years ago. As skeptical as I am about such things, as much as I want to say that it must have just been some killer pot, that Joe is an unreliable witness, I believe that he felt something outside by the lake. I have seen that sort of evil at Crystal Lake.

Evil is not a supernatural force.  It is not a horned devil with a pitchfork. It is more familiar than a goat-footed monster with a Van Dyke. Evil is the blunt end of a cudgel, a knife’s edge, a set of fingers wrapped around a throat. It is making the decision to traipse across the dividing line between benevolence and savagery, and to embrace violence.  In that instant, sanity falls away like a discarded token that has lost its value.

I moved to Pompano Beach from Upstate New York in 2009 to attend a graduate program in Creative Writing, and to be closer to my long-term but-far-away boyfriend. I met Matt in Binghamton, New York, his hometown. He left Binghamton for Florida a long time ago. Matt works as a chef in one of the many country clubs in Boca Raton. He has been living here, in the same apartment, for the past twenty-three years. He has never considered moving to an updated place with modern countertops and newer floors, one with a kitchen that doesn’t make him curse in frustration when he tries to cook at home. We could afford a mortgage, and a small house with a yard, but Matt is comfortable here. This is his home.

“Home”, is a foreign notion to me, something I never really thought I could have for myself. I grew up in the Marine Corps, in a series of houses on military bases, none of them home, none of them unique. Each bore the same white walls and boxlike shape. Every time we left these houses, the unit was inspected to make sure that we left nothing of ourselves behind. I moved to Florida to build something better; I also moved here to get away from something I am learning is impossible to escape.  I grew up with violence all around me.  It was common to see women shopping in the commissary in big, dark sunglasses to hide their blackened eyes. I can remember the bruises and broken bones of beaten women and children on every base I lived. As an adult in the civilian world—one who moved around a lot—I have never lived in a town without a murder statistic.

At first, this apartment on Crystal Lake was just another temporary shelter, a characterless building to house me, but three years after moving here, the place is beginning to become comfortable, and I find myself calling it home.

Matt is the first man I have been able to tolerate for any length of time. He has a gentle disposition, but is also quietly strong. He laughs out loud when he sees a baby in a restaurant.  He checks my tire pressure weekly and waxes my car. He supports my decision to be a student at an age when most people are trying to build a retirement fund. He also works very long hours. This gives me a lot of time to accomplish my own goals. In the back of our apartment, set aside just for me, I have what Virginia Woolf said every woman needs, a room of my own to write in, with a beautiful view of the lake, and a door that locks tightly if I need to be alone.

It was Matt who urged me to look into the history of Crystal Lake. “Some crazy things have happened out there,” he told me, “people have died.”  I began to look at the history, and at the lake itself, so I could understand this place I call home now.

Crystal Lake was created when, during the housing boom in South Florida in the 1950s, the land had to be dug away and used as filler for construction sites. Advertisements in Life magazine lured Northern retirees to the area with the promise of sunshine and key-lime pie colored homes. The advertisements were so seductive, the promise of good life so tempting, that many of the first homeowners in Pompano Beach bought their homes based on pretty pictures.

One cannot dig too deeply in Florida without hitting water.  In place of a flat patch of land, a lake emerged. Because big machines dug out the lake, it is shaped strangely. In satellite images, it looks like an arm stretched upward gripping a square meat cleaver, ready to swing. The length of the arm, from the tip of the cleaver to shoulder is about two and a half miles long. At ground level, one can see both shores across the width of the lake, but not end to end.  There are no clear walking paths; it’s not an easy place to explore, except by boat. In the summer months, there is a frenzy of activity on the lake; jet-skis compete with fisherman angling for peacock bass. A water-ski academy holds lessons on the lake. Families strap their screaming children to inflatable rafts and drag them across the water with speedboats. On Sunday mornings, a dog trainer takes his retrievers out for lessons in fetch, and his shouts of “good boy” resound over the din of traffic making its way towards the turnpike.

Sixty years after the construction of homes began, most of the original retirees have died or packed up and moved to nursing homes. Around the time the retirees began to leave, Brazil was on the verge of an economic collapse, and many people fled to find work in South Florida. Crystal Lake is far enough away from the big cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale that the rent is affordable. So the Brazilians moved here. There are little ethnic pockets all over the area. In mine, the language is Portuguese. During World Cup games, the four-story building I live in shakes with cheers every time team Brazil scores. On Sundays, the air is filled the sounds of reggae-samba, and the smells of barbecued picanha.

The name “Crystal Lake” conjures a series of movies from my teenage years. When I first heard about this place, I thought of Jason Voorhees in a hockey mask at a campground on a dark Friday the 13th. There is no Camp Crystal Lake in Pompano Beach, though. Instead, we have Crystal Lake Golf Club. The golf course is established and landscaped with mature pines, but the old country club is beginning to decay. Construction crews are preparing the clubhouse for demolition at the same time they build a new one back from the road.  Vandals have punctuated the walls of a former outdoor reception area in fluorescent orange paint with an advertisement for “Ass Rides”.  The maintenance crews have tried repeatedly to cover the graffiti with white paint, but it eventually bleeds through the whitewash.

The first time I visited Matt in Florida, he took me to the outdoor reception area he called ‘Club Caligula’ for a late night tango in a tropical canopy of palm leaves and white twinkling lights. We danced there, under an archway decorated with white ribbons where couples said their wedding vows. Now, we have to find other places to tango. Club Caligula has become a tangled jungle of tropical plants, a perfect litter box for a colony of feral cats. Where the floor was once brick, it is now broken turf, littered with hypodermic needles and the makeshift beds of homeless people, uprooted from their tent cities in the mangroves along the highway exit.

Across Crystal Lake from us is a series of commercial complexes and RV storage parks. Above the industrial buildings, the Central County Landfill (we call it Mount Trashmore) rises 225 feet above the lake, billowing clouds of smoke from the incinerator. On calm days, the cloud of smoke hangs rotten with the tinge of methane or, if the DEA is incinerating seized cargo, a hint of marijuana and cocaine. A steady stream of loaded trucks travels the road up the side of the landfill day and night, building a modern Babel.

In the daytime when the Brazilians are off at work and I am home, the residential area of the lake hosts a bucolic scene that often distracts me from writing. Iguanas sun themselves on the shores. Moorhens swim about the water, making squeaky dog toy noises. Anhinga spear fish in the lake and then, full-bellied, stretch their wings out to dry. In the sky, osprey and turkey vultures circle. Occasionally a brown pelican or a great blue heron flies overhead. Diving ducks bob below the water in search of some protein. In the trees along the lake, squirrels clamber about, upsetting the roosting doves who ‘coo-coo’ in disgust.  Seagulls congregate in the water and along the docks by the water, splashing any solid surface with splats of white graffiti.

I spend my evenings spying on courting couples on the wooden bench on the dock, holding hands, moving closer to one another each day as the romances progress, until they are lumped together in a single inseparable unit.

In the spring, the Muscovy ducks began their mating rituals. First, there is a series of duels, where the male ducks engage in combat, trying to break their opponents’ wings. The loud chuffing and shuffling sounds of feather on feather, wing beating against wing, signal that the romances have begun. These are big wrestling birds, some more than twenty pounds, pumped up on discarded pasteles and lasagna. Their fights are so violent that a pair of dueling drakes will often roll into the water and continue their combat there without pausing to orient themselves to the new terrain. Once they have secured dominance, the mating dance ensues and when a hen is lured, the drake pins her to the ground, stomps on her wings and back and finishes the whole deed in about 35 seconds. The only evidence of this brutal conception by rape is the emergence of fluffy ducklings waddling near the water several weeks later. Except for the ducks—and the humans–it is a peaceful place.

My search through the news archives from The Sun Sentinel for deaths on Crystal Lake reveals that Matt is correct; people have died on the lake. I count sixteen people, starting in 1967, when a 17-year-old student athlete drowned trying to swim across the lake. Most of the deaths have been from drowning, but a few have been unusual.

In 1984, Anna McGary and her niece took a scuba class on the lake. Anna became entangled in the hydrilla weeds along the shore and lost her mouthpiece. After two days of searching the lake, divers found her body. Her tank still had oxygen in it. Her mouthpiece was dangling by her side. She was one month pregnant with her first child.

In May of 1992, an angler on the lake reeled in what he thought was an extraordinarily large fish. When he pulled his line in, he discovered he had hooked the decomposing body of Michele Bulla, an unemployed Texan who moved to Broward County six months earlier. The Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office listed the cause of death as drowning.

In 2001, Leon Resnick was testing a custom Yamaha water craft at speeds of up to 55 mph. His coworker from Riva Yamaha turned to get a radar gun to clock the speed. When he turned back, Resnick was gone. He had been struck in the face by a fifteen pound flying Muscovy duck, and died instantly from his injuries.

People also die right here, in the building I live in.  In 1999, the apartment next door caught on fire. Before Joe DiFulvio saw the devil, he saw flames from next door, curling through the windows of his bedroom.  Matt sounded the fire alarm, then broke the neighbor’s kitchen window. He tried to open the kitchen door, but the smoke was too intense for him to gain entry. That night, two other large fires were burning in Pompano Beach and it took the fire truck close to a half hour to respond. While they were waiting for the firemen, Matt tried to break in and save the people he knew were asleep inside. When the firefighters finally got here and climbed the three flights of stairs to our floor, Matt was certain no one had survived.

Miraculously, the woman who lived there did survive the fire, but her husband perished.  I have seen an old VHS recording of the news report that night. In it, Matt is red-faced and anxious, frantic that his home has been threatened, that someone he waved to everyday could leave his wife alone with nothing but wreckage.

Once, in the common area behind our apartment building, I watched a group of teenage girls attending a funeral reception for one of the girls’ mothers. At the time, I thought it was a family reunion. The parking lot was filled with out-of-state cars and everyone was wearing their Sunday best.  After most of the visitors went home that day, the girls all jumped into Crystal Lake, holding hands, fully clothed. One shouted out, “Do it for your Mom,” as they ran into the space between sky and water. When they were finished swimming, they all pulled down their pants and pissed on the dock in the rain.  The girl’s mother was 42 years old. She had a sudden catastrophic stroke. Her husband told me this as I checked my mail one afternoon shortly after the rainy funeral reception. A few days later, I saw the widower and his daughter loading a U-haul with their possessions in an effort to move to a new home, one less filled with memories of a dead woman. These deaths in our building and those out on the lake are a reminder that no matter how careful we are, Matt and I could lose each other in an instant.

***

I did not live on Crystal Lake very long before I began to believe Joe DiFulvio’s tale of the devil in the live oak. It wasn’t the fire, or the funeral reception or any of the strange accidents that convinced me Joe had seen something that filled him with terror. The night I turned forty, I saw something that, unlike Joe’s devil, I can’t shake loose from my memory. That night, at a Korean barbecue with friends, I consumed several carafes of sake and came home in a mood to relax. I went out on the balcony look at the water, and to ponder the meaning of entering my fourth decade.

 On the other side of the lake, I saw what I thought was a boat entering the water. This is not unusual; Crystal Lake is dotted with boat launches. Often, fishermen launch late at night and cast in the dark. Occasionally, a group of late night water-skiers run their boats around the lake, accompanied by loud disco music that blares across the water. This boat had headlights though, and did not appear to be taking a straight path across the water. It floated for a moment, sank, and drifted to the left. The lights from the submerged craft were eerie, almost faerie-like as they dimmed out and died. I didn’t think much of the strange boat I saw that night until almost two weeks later when I saw the police cars and tow trucks milling about the industrial park, pulling a car from the water.

Just the day before, on April 5, 2010, a local 63-year-old man named Munawar Toha held a press conference where he begged for help locating his missing wife, Surya. She had come from Jakarta, Indonesia to South Florida to build a home for her family. At the press conference, police became suspicious at Toha’s behavior; he was contrite, but also combative and cocky, first crying, and then angry. He claimed he had no idea where his wife was, even though no one had asked. He begged Surya to come home. She was a good mother. Their children needed her.

Toha reported his wife missing on March 24, 2010. He claimed they last spoke the morning of March 23rd, but cell phone records show they communicated throughout the day. Toha provided the Coral Springs Police a translated letter from Surya that claimed she was unable to live with herself after being raped by a co-worker of her husband’s at the Turnpike Authority. “This is a true letter,” it proclaimed.

Surya’s sister contacted the police from Jakarta and told them that Toha’s claims of a happy marriage were false. Her sister, she said, urged her not to come for a visit, because Toha was convinced his wife was having an affair and the situation was bad in their home.

Off duty police investigators scoured Crystal Lake in their personal boats the weekend after Surya was reported missing, but could not find anything. On a hunch, they looked in the industrial park, where Toha was working as a repair tech for the turnpike authority. There, they saw a video surveillance camera pointed at the lake and a hole in the fence surrounding the industrial park. The day of the press conference, police divers pulled Surya’s body from the lake. It had been placed in the passenger compartment of her 2001 Daewoo Nubira. Her head was covered with a plastic bag. She had been killed by blunt force trauma to the head and then suffocated as she was dying from her injuries.

Munawar was taken into custody the day after Surya’s remains were recovered. Three months after his arrest, he was arraigned on additional charges of trying to hire a hit man to kill four prosecution witnesses and dispose of their remains in the Everglades. The couple’s two boys, who were five and nine at the time of their mother’s murder, are now in the custody of a maternal aunt. Their father remains incarcerated in a Broward County jail, awaiting trial.

After he was arrested, the  Coral Springs Police released the surveillance footage from the night Surya was dumped in the lake. It shows a man who looks like Toha pulling up to the fence line with his wife’s car and removing his bicycle from the trunk. He fumbles in the trunk for several minutes, as though he is checking to make sure he has not forgotten anything. He climbs into the driver’s seat, and drives through the fence. Then he gets out of the car and tries to push it over an embankment into the lake. When he cannot, he climbs back into the car and drives it into the water. The car sinks into the lake and drifts. Moments later, the man runs back up the bank, shining a flashlight. He drives his bicycle away, never looking back. In all, it took only six minutes and forty eight seconds to dump her body and leave the scene. The lights from the car are still shining eerily as the man pedals away.

There are no markers at the site where Surya entered the lake. There are no markers to show where any of the people have died here. The industrial park is lined with cold concrete and pink oleander bushes, the same color as the lipstick Surya wore in her passport photo. Their fragrant blossoms won’t tell you a woman was dumped here–unless you know how to listen to them.

My ears have always been keen to danger. One day, not long after Toha was arrested, when I was home alone, I heard a woman screaming for help. I grabbed my phone and ran for the front door. In the parking lot, I saw a man attacking a woman. I had seen him out there months before, in handcuffs. The arresting policemen had emptied his pockets and laid out a bag of crack and a pipe across the hood of their cruiser. Now, he had a woman by the throat and was slamming her head into the side of a black SUV.   He was bigger than the woman, and stronger, and I was three floors above them. The only thing I had was my voice. I began screaming as I dialed 911, screaming to the woman that it was going to be all right, that help was on the way. I continued to scream on the phone with the dispatcher, so the woman would hear me, so she would know that someone was watching, that someone had not lost sight of her. I screamed at the man as I gave the address to the dispatcher, I screamed out his description, and I told him to let her go, that the police were coming

“Could you please stop screaming?” asked the dispatcher calmly.

“No,” I screamed back at her, “I really can’t.” And I didn’t. I couldn’t. The voice didn’t feel like it was coming from me. I am not a screamer. My normal reaction would have been to call 911 from behind a locked door and hope for the best rather than announce my presence to a violent crackhead. That day was different. I continued to scream until the man let the woman go and another neighbor took her into his apartment to wait for the police.

***

The narrow strip of fabric holding us to life is always as thin as my sister’s dress the day my stepfather hung her out that car window.  In an instant, the seams unravel, the duck comes flying at your head, your heart stops beating, the apartment catches fire, your brain explodes an aneurysm. No matter how safe we fool ourselves into believing we are, we are all dangling over some highway, held by a hand whose grip is remarkably unreliable.

Crystal Lake is not an evil place. It is no different than any other neighborhood in America in its tendency to twist towards violence. If there is evil, then it is not isolated to the upper branches of an oak tree on Crystal Lake. If there is a devil, then he wears an ordinary face. He is the man in the parking lot, taking the chance that the woman he is beating has a skull strong enough not to shatter against the steel frame of an SUV.  He is the man begging for help to locate the wife whose body he has already hidden, crying for the children whose mother he has already murdered.

What is different for me now is that, in my own home, I can view the violence as separate from my daily routine. Inside these walls, I am building a safe place that is insulated from the madness. I am thankful that in three years, the only fight I have had with Matt has been over whether or not to purchase a washer and dryer for the apartment—and I know that eventually he will give in.   If I have gained anything by moving to Crystal Lake, it is a solid door that locks to a world I am finding increasingly difficult to observe in silence.

***

Jan Becker is working on her MFA at Florida International University, where she teaches composition and creative writing. She is the non-fiction editor for Gulf Stream Magazine. Jan received the Academy of American Poets College Prize, The Andrew Bergman Award for Creative Writing, The Alfred Bendixen Award, and was twice selected for the AWP Intro Journals contest at Binghamton University where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She is currently working on a memoir. This is her first non-fiction publication.

20130123_170748

Comments

  1. Jan, I have always known you had an amazing gift for words. This piece has just reinforced that belief and I have tears in my eyes as I write this. You are a beautiful woman and an inspiration to many. I am so proud to say “I knew here when….”.

  2. Jan Becker says:

    (Note from writer) I just found out that Munawar Toha’s trial on the four counts of trying to hire a hit man to kill prosecution witnesses in his wife’s murder began Wednesday 10/3/12. It has gone to the jury for deliberation. I’ll update as soon as a verdict comes in.

    Thanks, Michele, for your kind words. If you ever come down for a visit, I’ll take you out on the lake on a boat.

  3. Jan Becker says:

    The verdict came in this morning. Toha was found guilty of four counts of solicitation to commit first degree murder. He faces up to 120 years when sentenced.

  4. This piece kicked my *ss. What an important way to view the world. Thank you, Jan!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: