is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.
days past, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to North America took months. After that,
it was a difficult sail up the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Mississippi
River. That long trip from France was never easy. The food on board was old and
salty by the time they reached the gulf. Fresh water was almost gone, and everything;
-- sails, lines, clothes and men -- was worn out from the long Atlantic journey.
If you were heading to New Orleans, you might have to spend a week waiting for
the wind to change direction just to make a bend in the river. For some men the
stretch of sea from one shore to another was like a disturbed sleep into which
spirits agitated the soul. Who knows what happens to the body or the mind in such
a sleep? One day there is the crystal and perfume of France, then a long, rolling
dream over slate-gray waves to awake in the heat and damp of the wilderness.
believe that in such sea dreams a man's destiny is woven. Because Isaac Jean Lemoyen's
ancestors made the journey generations ago, Isaac happened to be born in Pilottown,
Louisiana. A history of salt and suffering is summed up in his flesh. The moment
Isaac was taken, watery and red from his mother's womb, the doctor saw that his
crippled legs would hardly keep him up. Isaac was not to be like other men. Lamps
of fire from far away would catch his eye, the music of moss and cypress would
turn his ear, and to get to where the scent of rose and jasmine resides he would
have to limp.
no roads to the deep delta country and Pilottown. To get there you must travel
on the river. Unless he had business to attend to, it is a wonder why a man would
travel so far to this amphibious settlement just to see the flat horizon spit
up or swallow the sun. The town itself is unremarkable to those used to the boulevards
of Paris or the carnival of Bourbon Street. Nevertheless, Le Bon Dieu wills
that some men be born by glaciers where the sun brights the ice with blinding
splendor, or among the sand dunes of the withering desert. So, some are born by
the humid lap of a long river. Each makes a life from what is given and what is
chosen. It was that way when cotton was king more than a century ago and it will
be this way until the river goes dry. His withered legs aside, Isaac Lemoyen is
not that different from other men who live in Pilottown or the few who go there
to question the mystery in their heart.
Girault watches from the safety of the lee side rail as the barge approaches the
rotted wharf. He looks into the muddy river and sees it churned up by the powerful
engines of the towboat that propelled the barge here from New Orleans. The water
takes on the color of coffee mixed with cream. Slowly, the barge inches its way
up to the pylons. A few deckhands jump off and tie up the barge and the towboat
with stout lines, faded gray like the moss on cypress trees. The tow's propellers
accelerate with a last roar of power and then settle back to a gradual purr. A
stench of diesel fumes taints the air and a breeze carries the smoke from the
engines across the pier. Paul looks up at an overcast sky and then at a long row
of gray, wooden sheds. Longshoremen are already on the aft end of the barge, shouting
instructions and carrying off boxes and bales. Paul lifts his backpack to his
shoulder and walks towards the gangplank. Ahead of him he sees the windows and
the white clapboard sides of the Shore House Cafe. Some tall palmetto trees give
the place a West Indies atmosphere. By the wharf, a worn sign painted white with
red letters and a blue border proclaims: "Welcome to Pilottown -- 4 Feet
Above Sea Level."
you ask Paul why he visits Pilottown, this station where water, land and air mix,
he will tersely tell you, "To take pictures." Later, if you know him
well enough, he will proffer another explanation, but for now he looks the part
of a photographer with a black camera bag slung by a webbed strap over his shoulder,
a backpack on his other shoulder, and a collapsible tripod under his arm. Paul
has been taking pictures for a number of years now. He was attracted to photography
as he grew older because it did not require the disciplined hand of drawing. As
one of Paul's friends remarked sarcastically, "Photography, like insight,
is all about light." Paul needs light now, and on this trip he wants to find
whatever residue of light that remains for him in Pilottown.
last project was to take a photo series of his own body. As he printed the images,
he could see himself as others saw him. He realized he was middle-aged and no
longer handsome. From one perspective it looks like he has the body of a woman.
Paul's behind is fat and he has a round belly, as if he were pregnant with something
that would never be born. The only thing masculine and strong about him is his
legs. He swam a lot as a boy, and his legs still retain the muscular shape they
had from many years ago. Regardless of this, Paul concludes he is now part of
that mass of men who look better clothed than naked. Paul realizes that bodily
love may soon be out of the question, yet if he cannot offer beauty in exchange
for beauty, then at least he hopes to capture it on film and develop it on paper.
This is the weight he bears now as he makes his way from the pier to the streets
counter stool, Isaac sees out the greasy windows of the Shore House Cafe to the
river. Here he may sit all afternoon and watch the barges load and unload, or
simply follow the boats as they disappear beyond the warehouses and sheds. Old
Jake, who owns the cafe, does not mind Isaac being here. Hardly anyone comes into
the cafe for lunch now since the oil refinery business went under a few years
ago. So, Isaac, pouting or not, is welcome to pass the day. Sometimes Isaac even
helps out with the cooking. He knows a lot about the workings of the cafe because
he has spent so much time here. Isaac can listen to the radio, too, or talk to
Jake about the history of Pilottown when there's nothing to be done. Jake tells
him of the men and women who came in with the barges or ships and stayed to make
a living as best they could. This place was the last stop for many on a river
journey that carried all the silt and mud from the north down to the delta. After
Pilottown there is Head of Passes and then the deep ocean and forgetfulness.
knows right away that the man who gets off the barge carrying a black camera case
has strong legs. He watches as the man shifts the weight of his backpack and looks
up at a few gulls that circle the river hoping a morsel of garbage left on the
barge will be tossed into the water. Isaac sees that this man is middle-aged but
also stands tall, even under the weight of his burden. You need strong legs to
do that, Isaac reasons. He watches as the man walks with determined steps from
the pier onto the boardwalk that leads up to the cafe. As the man walks closer,
Isaac recognizes something familiar in the outline of his face. An unsettled feeling
comes over Isaac. Few men like this photographer ever come to Pilottown. When
the man nears the window of the cafe, Isaac lowers his head to study the coffee
remaining in his cup. Isaac keeps his head down as the cafe door opens and then
he hears the solid steps of a man walking across the floor to the other side of
the counter. There is a soft thud as the man's backpack settles on the floor.
Isaac looks up. The man with the camera case is sitting across the counter from
him. Their eyes meet and a current flows between them. Isaac looks away. Then
Isaac looks down into his cup again. The muddy coffee is all but gone. He will
have to ask for more, but not right away.
Jake says, in a voice that acknowledges the stranger's presence.
afternoon," Paul replies.
"You hungry or just wanna beer?"
scrambled, please, with toast and grits. And I'll have a Dixmore," Paul says.
Seeing the neon sign advertising the beer in the window, Paul thinks this recognition
of the local will endear him to the cook.
Paul his beer, and a few moments later a plate of eggs and grits. Then he sets
a bottle of catsup beside the plate. Paul eats heartily. He is hungrier than he
thought. Traveling on the water does that to a man, Paul concludes. As he eats
he hears an old radio playing in the corner.
time to time Paul looks across the counter to Isaac. Isaac pretends to study the
floor or look out the window, but eventually their eyes meet again. Then they
lock onto each other. What started as speculation now ends as recognition. Before
the two can speak, Jake interrupts by asking Paul, "Watcha doin' in these
parts? Not many folks like you show up in Pilottown."
am working on an assignment," Paul says, inflating his importance.
assignment, then," echoes Jake.
I want to document some of the old houses here before they are washed away."
oughta talk to Isaac over dare," Jake says, pointing to Isaac with his spatula.
"He know' a lot about dis place, cuz, I damn near taught him everythin'."
nods, and sees a smile come across Isaac's face. He notices now that Isaac is
one of the most beautiful young men he has ever seen. The bud that is Isaac's
body is now in perfect bloom. Immediately, Paul feels the scar of an old injury
open. Is there a wound in the world more difficult to heal than the one beauty
makes upon the desiring soul? Isaac's black hair and classical profile reminds
Paul of men in paintings of French royalty and of the one he loved foolishly long
ago. Isaac has preserved in his flesh, as if it were a flower in amber, the well-bred
beauty of another time. Perhaps he will let me take his picture, Paul wonders.
Even among the ordinary sheds and stores of a forgotten port, something of the
infinite breaks through.
know anything about the old Girault place?" Paul asks.
house dat used to be at da end of da channel?" Isaac replies.
think that's the place," Paul says, pretending to know very little.
me find out and let you know."
like that," Paul says. Then, the way a good cook adds just the right amount
of spice, he continues, "I thought it was all but forgotten."
be," Isaac replies. "If New Orleans is da city dat care forgot, den
Pilottown is da city dat everyone forgot."
hope not," Paul adds.
see. Where will you be stayin'?"
not sure," Paul says, hoping to keep his coming and going a mystery.
Monroe's bordin' house a little furdur down the bayou. Can't miss it. Just look
for da big old palmetto," Jake suggests.
much else here," Isaac adds.
do that," Paul says, concluding this may be the best advice he could get.
old. Go' to bed early and get' up late. You do pretty much what you want dare.
Ain't dat right, Jake?" Isaac adds, looking over to the grill.
to da boy," Jake says.
don't we meet here tomorrow afternoon at one and you can tell me what you found
out about the Girault place?" Paul suggests.
Tomorrow," Isaac answers in agreement.
is an uncomfortable pause of silence. Then Isaac abruptly gets off his stool and
tells his shaky legs to take him stuttering across the room. Isaac needs to get
outside. He feels too close to a fire now, and if he comes any closer he will
You know how
it is when a man sees from afar a coin in the street. Excitement fills his eyes.
For a moment he thinks of riches, but when he bends to pick it up, he sees with
disappointment it is only a button. So, it is with disappointment that Paul watches
Isaac limp away. Paul expected beauty to be whole. Instead, Isaac is only half
of what was hoped. The door of the cafe jerks open and then closes on Isaac's
shadow. Paul turns to look at the wall and then at old Jake scraping grease from
done left in a hurry," Jake comments without looking up from his work.
takes another sip of beer. The antique radio in the corner plays, breaking the
human silence that settles over the cafe. A Hank Williams song from the 50's fills
the air. "Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie, and a-file gumbo... we'll have big fun
on da bayou."
afternoon, a few months ago, after Paul retired and was living in his San Francisco
apartment, it dawned on him that he was weary of downloading images of young men
from the Internet. He realized he must return to the human world. He must go back
to the mouth of the river, go back to where his journey began. Paul is at that
age now where arguments about God and the fine points of theology no longer interest
him. He has concluded that what we call the world is but the accumulated consequence
of many small wills. Taken together, we may never know all of what we do. So,
grand schemes no longer attract Paul. He prefers simple acts of kindness and insight
into how the broken manage. Let saints strive in the desert for perfection. From
Paul's point of view, there is a tide in our affairs that joins us to others no
matter what. Together, we are all gathered into that plea from the cross, "Father,
forgive them for they know not what they do."
gay man like Paul doesn't have much of a family. His life is all but void of what
advertisers call "a family atmosphere." If he lived in ancient Sparta
without sons, then no one would stand to offer him a seat at the community table.
By failing his biology he also fails the state. Now, in late middle age, he is
sustained by friendships and a memory of love that came once as a gift and ended
as a struggle. Before that, he was angry a long time with his parents. Like so
much of the deep delta, he could not decide if he was water or land and so remained
neither. Then, after many years of arguing with himself, he realized his life
was no one's "fault." It was just a simple fact. Some men are gay, and
that's the way he is. Being gay is given as a gift. Paul realized then that it
was a strange gift, too, for even though it cut him off from the life of marriage
and children, it did open his curiosity and intellect. If it were not for being
gay he probably would not have known beauty or the depths of the human heart.
years ago, Paul was forced to leave Pilottown. He had to make another life for
himself away from the damp and closed minds of his mother and her neighbors. First,
he spent a few years working in Chicago. Later, he managed to graduate from college,
then worked as a high school English teacher and finally retired to San Francisco.
Until yesterday, he never came back to Pilottown, not even when word of his mother's
death reached him as an undergraduate on the campus of the University of Illinois.
She was the one who gave him fifty dollars and a bus ticket to leave home, all
the while cursing Paul's father for abandoning them. "You gotta leave. I
can do no more with ya," she lamented.
mother Marie walked in one afternoon on him and a new river pilot having sex on
her couch. She had just bought that couch from New Orleans. She saved a long time
for it, taking in laundry and cleaning rooms. To her this was an insult cursed
with the unnatural. Not only will Paul destroy his life but hers as well, she
reasoned. What if the neighbors were to hear of this? How could she keep her job
as a waitress at the Shore House? If the men who ate there were ever to know what
her son had done, she could never face the judgment of their eyes. It was too
much to ask of a woman of her limited means and abilities to accept this affront.
True, Marie always knew Paul was different from other boys, but this was a disappointment
that equaled the loss of her husband. Late at night when moonlight painted the
bayou with a ghostly white gauze of mist, she would wonder what she did so wrong
that Le Bon Dieu would punish her with these trials. Then she would weep
into her pillow and dream of lights like eyes searching the cypress swamps. Her
husband left, she sent her son away -- how many more storms will batter the low
lands of her life? Someday a fierce rattle of rain will come and the roof will
not hold. Then a crevasse will open in the levee and drown everything away the
way it did in Acadiana during the great flood of 1927. After Marie died, folks
said, "she jus' wore herself apart."
first night Paul spends at Monroe's boarding house in Pilottown, he dreams of
his mother. She limps towards him, dead but alive. Why are her legs crippled,
Paul wonders in his dream? She was never that way in life. Then she gives him
a handful of moss rolled to a ball and glowing like the light of fireflies among
the monkey grass. Paul wakes up early after the dream. It is still dark. He listens
and hears the moan of horns from ships on the river. The day is opening its secrets
like the doors to a hidden patio. Paul remembers he has to meet Isaac at one this
afternoon. Again a horn sounds from the river. Perhaps the angels prepare a bed
of moss. Perhaps they warn of what is yet to come.
you die in Pilottown, where do they bury you?" Paul asks Isaac as they sit
on the pier overlooking a stretch of the river. After they met at the cafe, Paul
suggested they walk along the river. Old Jake working in the background but listening
to every word like an owl annoyed Paul.
you wanna know? You fixin' on dyin' here?"
I want to visit my mother's grave."
"Your mama died here?"
years ago. She used to rent that house at the end of channel."
figured as much," Isaac says, letting on that he may have discerned other
secrets as well.
used to work at the Shore House, too," Paul adds.
Jake done know her," Isaac says surprised.
she da woman in dat pichur Jake got in the kitchen. She was purdy, dat woman
hard to remember," Paul says with a tone of melancholy in his voice. "It
was a long time ago."
why Jake never talk 'bout her."
a lot they don't talk about here," Paul say as if the challenge Isaac.
bet Jake done know you, too?" Isaac wonders aloud.
left here thirty-five years ago. I doubt if he even remembers me."
remember' everything dat happen' here."
he knows why I left."
is a forced pause in their conversation as a towboat passes. The grind of its
powerful engines drowns out all the natural sounds of the river.
ain't no graves in Pilottown. The land's too low. You gotta go up river somewhere
else in Plaquemines Parish to find where she lies," Isaac speculates.
you help me do that?"
I don't have to walk all da damn way," Isaac says looking at his legs and
throwing his head back to laugh sarcastically.
there a priest who might know?"
don't take to no priests," Isaac says.
not?" Paul asks, fearing his question may be too paternalistic.
stands up. He shakes for a moment like a tree about to fall and then reaches into
the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet. "Look at dis dollar bill,"
Isaac demands. "Jake gave it to me. I've been savin' dis since someone used
it to pay for a beer at da cafe."
takes the dollar from Isaac's hand and sees that a letter was inked out from a
word on the back. Now, the phrase above the "ONE" reads, "In God
what happen' to those who get sucked into religion," Isaac says angrily.
"Dey rust away."
just mad because of your legs, that's all," Paul says.
mad 'cuz of everything," Isaac asserts.
happened?" Paul asks sympathetically.
born dis way."
I was born the way I am, too," Paul adds.
reaches out to Isaac. He places Isaac's hand on his thigh. He feels Isaac grip
the cloth of his kakis into a fist, then relax to rub his hand slowly back and
forth. Isaac stops to let his hand rest on Paul's zipper. Paul likes the warmth
of Isaac's smooth hand pressing him. He hopes no one can see them, even as he
swells with a desire he thought long ago extinguished.
love your legs," Isaac pleads. "I think I love you, too."
at the boarding house, Isaac and Paul undress and slip between a sheet and a light
blanket. The half-light of an overcast afternoon in March barely illuminates the
room. Shadow and substance are no longer separated by a clear line.
never been with a man before," Isaac admits shyly.
am an old man," Paul whispers, as if giving a final warning.
matter. Your legs are beautiful. I dreamed of you. No one at Pilottown let' me
hands embrace Paul's thighs. They massage them up and down. He polishes Paul's
flesh they way an artisan would polish the marble or bronze of a statue. If only
Isaac had the oil of eternity on his hands, how smooth these legs would be forever.
Indeed, these are legs for skirting among the reeds like sparks Isaac thinks.
the same word means different things. So it is that Paul hears the word "love"
when he presses close to Isaac. The word "beggar" certainly has a different
meaning to Buddhist monks than it does to the homeless men Paul has seen idling
in front of the mission on San Francisco's Castro Street. The story of a word
is like the story of a life -- a mix of history and circumstance. Some names like
"Evangeline" carry their own destiny. Can anyone who spends time looking
at the bend of the world from the roof of a high building think otherwise? Slowly,
Paul runs his fingers through Isaac's black hair the way a mandarin would dally
silk ribbons on his fingers. The word "love" echoes in his mind. He
feels Isaac's warmth over him and blesses it. For too long Paul has only been
held by his own hands. Isaac also feels for the first time in his life the shape
of flesh he lacks. Does ice mind when it relaxes back to water? Does the spring
of time regret when the watch unwinds? It is not a perfect love, their marriage
of legs and hair and hands, but it is what this low place of moss and damp walls
allows. By that measure, it is comfort from the ignorant world. If a kiss could
change the course of a river, then all lovers would let it happen.
next day, a March morning of birdsong muffled by fog surrounds Monroe's boarding
house. Into this damp spring the hopes that Mrs. Monroe planted last year are
beginning to decorate the garden. The camellias and lilies bloom. Paul and Isaac
sleep in a bedroom over which the leaves of a great palmetto spread an arch. Isaac
ought to be up and gone by now if he wants to protect his family's reputation.
Not that he and his mother worry about it. She long ago abandoned him to his strange
ways after she came down to Pilottown from Bayou Teche. The government check she
get for his disability keeps them going from one day to the next. Her new boyfriend
supplies the rest from his job on a shrimp boat. Everyone in Pilottown supposes
that a crippled boy like Isaac can't get into that much trouble.
we are young our neighborhood seems small and our hope large. As we age, our neighborhood
grows larger and our hope smaller. Paul believes this, but also wakes up surprised
at what happened last night. Isaac is asleep at his side. The boy's beautiful
black hair is a stark contrast against the white pillowslip. What comes next,
Paul asks himself? He is afraid this wound will be healed by another scar. Do
I want the weight of such a love at this point in my life, he wonders? He reaches
over and touches Isaac's hair as the boy stirs in his sleep. "He dreams of
running," Paul, says softly, as if only the angels could hear.
after an early afternoon rain, Isaac comes alone to the cafe and resumes his regular
station at the counter. Having given up plans to visit his mother's grave, Paul
is taking pictures of some abandoned homes at the end of the boardwalk. In the
cafe, Jake is busy chopping okra for a pot of gumbo. He knows when Isaac enters,
but does not look up from his chopping board to acknowledge him. Isaac sits silently
for a while before he decides to order a cup of coffee. Things are different in
the cafe this afternoon. Isaac watches the world pass as if he were on a train
traveling through a ruined city where people mill about aimlessly and horde their
hopelessness. It was the same world yesterday, but now Isaac looks at it from
another side. Even Jake seems distant and strange. Then he thinks of Paul walking
alone among the wharfs and sheds. A sudden desire to be with him draws Isaac's
heart the way the roots of an oak draw up the rain. Is it a quality of light,
he asks himself? Has a transparent wall gone up since he was here last? Isaac
looks up at Jake. "The usual, please," he asks.
puts down his knife, and turns in place. "Where was you?" Jake asks
hear you spendin' time at da Monroe's bordin' house," Jake says bluntly.
tell' me you was up in his room all night."
buissons ont des oreilles. Da bushes have ears."
dat spoze to mean?"
you don't be comin' round here anymore. Dat's what spoze to mean."
ain't done nothin' wrong. Why you sayin' dat?"
got costumers to think 'bout. Dey see you here all day, dey won't be comin' in."
da matter with you, Jake? Where I spoze to go, den?"
be none of my business, boy."
but it be your business what me and dat photographer doin'."
man like dat have no place here in Pilottown."
I don't neither," Isaac says emphatically.
boat with da photographer be leavin' for Chalmette later dis evenin'," Jake
says, turning away from Isaac.
stares at Jake. Isaac's eyes glare with an anger that is as old as the day he
was born. Jake seems wrinkled and bitter to him now. Surprisingly, Isaac also
sees the truth that Jake has been concealing all these years. Jake is just as
weak as Isaac and has the same desire. How he wishes he could jump across the
counter now and grab the old man by the throat. Instead, he muffles a laugh, stands
up and limps to the door. Outside, in the damp air of afternoon, Isaac remembers
that the Lord set an angel with a flaming sword before the gates of paradise so
that none should enter yet again.
where I spoze to go?" Isaac asks Paul. "I just can't walk away from
sits on the edge of the bed in his room at Monroe's boarding house with his head
cupped in his hands. Isaac sits patiently in a chair across from him, waiting
for an answer. Then Paul straightens up and looking Isaac straight in the eyes,
he asks, "What do you really want?"
a moment all that can be heard in the room is the sound of two men breathing and
the rustle of palms from outside the window. Then the great palmetto makes a bowl
of complete silence over the room. Even the wind stills its rustle.
want to go with you," Isaac says, with the certainty of making an oath.
Francisco is no place for a cripple," Paul says bluntly, hoping to hurt Isaac
enough so he may turn away. "There are too many hills," he adds, as
if to take back what he just said.
take care of myself."
will you do?" Paul asks, desperately.
know how to cook," Isaac says with expectation in his voice.
is another span of humid silence. Isaac sees Paul is thinking deeply about what
to say. "What you gonna do, spend the rest of your life livin' "Bayou
Self?" Isaac asks, trying to make a joke.
looks at Isaac. His eyes are wide with hope. Paul remembers their night in bed
together and the warmth of Isaac's hands. He remembers, too, that the mission
on Castro Street is always looking for help. Paul has come back to the mouth of
the river looking for one way, but he has found another. Where his mother's house
once stood, there are only bulrushes and a few stilts jutting up from the water.
Where his heart of stone once beat, there beats a heart of flesh. The world and
the self are suffering into a metaphor he has so often tried to flee. What else
can I spend my pension check on, Paul asks himself. At Head of Passes you see
there is more than one way up river.
Paul says to Isaac. "Pack your things. You can call your mother when we get
up to New Orleans."
truths are proven by virtue, others are proven by vice. Do not be misled by those
who claim the soul is nothing more than vibrations in a void or a collection of
energies that pass from one form to another. Love disproves the sermons of fire
or water. The type of sin a man commits often proves he believes the opposite.
Buildings go up, buildings fall down. The great sweep of the world seems incomprehensible.
In a remote place, where water laps the bank of a great river, in a place where
the hammer and grind of machines are few, a man hears better how the earth surrenders
up the moans of the living and dead. Paul and Isaac are not alone in their wound
or in their song of desire. There are so many more living, dead, and waiting to
be born, and so many who hide from their weeping by hate or money or selfishness.
Listen, the horns of great ships moving on the river search through the mist.
They have sailed a long way and are looking to give up their cargo. Their bows
part the water the way the horns of angels will someday part the sky. Give credit
to those who fail at love. At least they are pointed in the right direction. This
is why they make the world good, and the best is yet to come.