“Le Ballet des Chênes” (2015), by Melissa Bonin, www.melissabonin.com
The Beautiful Hunt
By Anne Gisleson
Unwalled at the end of the world
In the weeks following our nephew Geronimo’s death, my husband and I spent a lot of time on the front porch with glasses of rye. The porch was a buffer zone between our kids’ activity inside the house and the rest of the world, a semi-public space to talk through our private pain. One evening from my metal chair, I watched a man with a gray Afro, in gray sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt, lift a gray plastic bin from a woman’s car parked across the street. He carried the bin stoically, slowly, to the cottage on the corner while refusing the woman’s offers of help. The man, our new neighbor on this old downriver block in New Orleans, was Albert Woodfox, a Black Panther who’d spent forty-one years in solitary confinement, most of them upriver in Angola, for a crime he and many others claim he did not commit. He’d been released back into society on February 19, 2016, the same day Geronimo, whom we called G, was taken off life support and died. A heroin overdose at twenty-four.
We’d been reading about Woodfox, who’d been in solitary longer than any American on record, for years, and his release had made headlines. Though he did seem to have a fair number of visitors, a neighbor told us to keep Woodfox’s presence on the down-low, which is why I never approached him, but would keep my distance with a shy wave and smile. (Woodfox would later move to a relative’s house in Texas before returning to buy his own house in New Orleans.) The purple cottage with chartreuse trim soon developed a shrine-like aura that spread beyond its banana trees and dusty loropetalum shrubs to the edge of our porch. I’d pause in front of it on my walk to work, push aside my curtain of grief to bask in its mysteries: How was it possible for a man to survive decades in a six-by-nine cell, to maintain his humanity, his sense of self? What superhuman qualities did he possess?
There’s a pizza joint a couple of blocks down our street in the other direction from the cottage, where our family eats every Friday. One night during this same time, my husband leaned across the booth and said quietly, “When you get a chance, turn around. Look who’s sitting behind us. I swear it’s Galaxy Crocs.” I flushed with dread and pretended to look over at the bar. He was right: There she was, one of the ICU nurses who’d tended to G on the day he died. We’d never seen her before in the ICU during those excruciating twelve days. Wearing Crocs bursting with purplish-blue nebulae and scattered stars, she’d serenely navigated the agony of three generations packed into G’s room to say goodbye. My husband and I were in awe of her poise and graceful efficiency. We called her Galaxy Crocs. My younger sister, G’s long-suffering mom, called her the Angel of Death because of her beauty, which I won’t call ethereal (though I could), and because of the careful and tender way she adjusted G’s head or arm, her hands lingering on him as she looked into his intubated, handsome, unconscious face with an expression of sympathy and concern.
At the restaurant, as I overheard her joking with friends about how much she hates doing taxes, I dug my thumb into my palm to stave off the tears. She shouldn’t have to pay taxes—she owes society nothing. In fact, we owe her millions for the extraordinary comfort she gives. The boys didn’t seem to recognize her, though most likely they hadn’t noticed her on that long, disorienting afternoon in the ICU, amidst all the other nurses, technicians, and doctors passing through. A recurring porch-and-rye conversation was whether we’d done the right thing by allowing our younger son, nine at the time, the youngest of all the cousins, to witness the passing of G, the oldest of all the cousins.
Like Woodfox’s transference from the headlines to our block, the visitation of Galaxy Crocs to our family’s favorite restaurant felt portentous: extremes of humanity placed in our path, or something. In the weeks surrounding G’s death, the opioid epidemic was in the news nearly every day. It was only a couple of months into the year, and record overdoses were being reported; many were from lethal batches cut with fentanyl. Living in New Orleans after Katrina, we’d grown accustomed to the personal hurt of the headlines, but these delivered a more incisive blow. Well-meaning friends forwarded me links, but reading about this trend had the strange effect of both flattening and amplifying G’s death. Thousands of versions of the story G’s parents and younger brother had lived through constellated behind the statistics and statements from public health officials and the DEA. (G’s version: he was born into love and opportunity, was prescribed opioids for a broken collarbone during his freshman year of high school, saw his house flooded soon after by Katrina, then faced subsequent years of instability, years of hope and struggle.) G’s death had found its place in the larger, messy narrative of the city.
One morning, my husband and I found a syringe while clearing the crepe myrtle leaves from the gutter not eight feet from our front porch. Another afternoon, I was picking up my fourth-grader from his school in a “transitioning” neighborhood in which no one—not the understaffed NOPD nor the Feds nor the speculators renovating Creole cottages—could make a significant dent in the drug trade. Dodging feral chickens and a couple of Airbnb-ers checking their phones with an alarming lack of situational awareness, I retrieved my son and began the usual interrogation about his day. Meanwhile, catty-corner from the school, in front of a house with spackled-over bullet holes, a skinny white guy, tattooed and blond like G, threw down his bike on the scruffy yard and exchanged a few bills for a tiny packet. The transaction was accompanied by the hollow rattle of a toddler’s Big Wheel on the pavement.
My son asked if it was a drug deal. Probably, I said. The same drug that killed G? Probably. We turned the corner and he strained to keep sight of the kid on the Big Wheel. I searched around in my head for a way to take this conversation forward but gave up by the time we got a few blocks down to Elysian Fields Avenue, where I paid my daily dollar tariff to the homeless vet on the corner.
Could not be avoided.
Everything around G’s death felt claustrophobic: the machinery and crew in the ICU, the funeral so crowded that dozens of people were sent away from the small chapel. A couple days before G died, my mom had been given a fentanyl patch to manage her intense pain from cancer lesions. She floated through G’s funeral, high on opioids like the ones that had stopped his heart, at one point with eyes closed, nodding and humming along with the cellist playing a French song that her mother sang to her when she was a child. Even generationally, it felt as though our own blood was stifling. My younger twin sisters had died by their own hands at ages twenty-three and twenty-five; G’s age at death was wedged between. The crushing, impossible grief of another younger sister, G’s mom, was mirrored in my mother as she comforted her. Even though I was used to New Orleans sinking all its thick tentacles in deep—the weight of family, politics, social dynamics, sins, joys—I felt an urgent, impulsive need to get the hell out, even for a day. And though I had no clear objective, I needed to get the boys out, too.
A few months before, a colleague teaching a Southern fiction class had left a copy of Eudora Welty’s “No Place for You, My Love” near my desk. Though I was supposed to be prepping for my own class, I couldn’t help but pick it up. It’s one of my all-time favorite stories, about a couple, strangers to each other and to the city, who meet at a luncheon in the French Quarter and then inexplicably drive for hours in a rented car in fierce heat down to Venice, where the highway from town stops at the Gulf of Mexico. Hardly speaking, just feeling and observing, they dance at a rustic seafood restaurant, kiss on the side of the road, and then drive back to town through a landscape transformed by night and the strangeness of their casual escape. It’s an enigmatic encounter between individual desires, and neither really learns anything about the other person.
Feet on my desk, I indulged in a few passages, feeling Welty’s love for the people and mystery and beauty of this world unfurl throughout her exquisite sentences. On the couple’s brief detour through a country cemetery: “Names took their places on the walls slowly at a level with the eye, names as near as the eyes of a person stopping in conversation, and as far away in origin, and in all their music and dead longing, as Spain.” Farther down the road: “On a clothesline in the yard, a priest’s black gown on a hanger hung airing, swaying at a man’s height, in a vague, trainlike, ladylike sweep along an evening breath that might otherwise have seemed imaginary from the unseen, felt river.”
As I read, I realized I was sitting just a few blocks away from the road the couple takes from the Quarter to the Gulf; I can almost see it from my office window. It was the same road where the pizza place is—where we’d see Galaxy Crocs months later. In those sad weeks following the funeral, when I felt that soul-constricting desire to flee, I remembered Welty’s story. It was mid-March, and the boys were on spring break. I woke up on a restless Tuesday and texted my boss that I needed a personal day.
As I cobbled together snacks from the pantry, I tried to sell my two puzzled sons on a spontaneous road trip to Venice, the Southernmost Point in Louisiana, a.k.a. the End of the World. After they reluctantly turned off every last screen in the house, we got in the Honda Element and drove over the Mississippi River, exiting from the elevated West Bank Expressway down to Highway 23, which starts at a suburban strip mall and dead-ends about seventy miles later by the Gulf of Mexico. Highway 23 is also known as Belle Chasse Highway and runs through the fishing and industrial town of Belle Chasse, christened “the beautiful hunt” by the French in the early eighteenth century out of awe for the land’s wild bounty. I’ve always loved the name and the possibility of a “beautiful hunt,” an ardent search that excites and nourishes, regardless of the catch.
On that vibrant spring morning, we passed the fast-food chains and nail salons and dollar stores and mom-and-pop seafood restaurants that connect New Orleans to Belle Chasse. Finally, we cleared the gravitational pull of the city, finding ourselves among the citrus groves of Plaquemines Parish, trailer parks, spreading and dipping oak trees, somnolent cow pastures, isolated subdivisions of McMansions. The boys were quiet as usual—but they were screenless, gazing outward, taking in the fresh view of a part of the state they rarely see.
I was feeling alright. The highway was working its gritty, illusory magic. This is all yours, I thought: freedom, control, motion. I was also feeling the salve of a change of scenery: broken-up sidewalks for marsh grass, cramped narrow shotguns for fishing camps. Tangles of electrical and phone wires for the wide-open Gulf-reaching sky. But it didn’t take long, maybe a half hour in, before I was again ambushed by G’s death.
The problem was the Cloud. I couldn’t manage the Cloud. I didn’t even understand the Cloud—its decision-making, why it had arbitrarily sucked up most songs from the hundreds on my iPhone and left a couple dozen others. Because I’d been depressed and distracted for weeks, I just listened to the same songs over and over and didn’t bother to try and figure it out. Of course, the ones that the Cloud let me access on our drive to the End of the World were the same ones it allowed me to listen to on the drive back and forth to the hospital on the edge of Jefferson Parish those twelve days G was in the ICU. The song that brought on a stinging pressure of tears every time it emerged from the shuffle, as it did that morning on the highway in Plaquemines Parish, was Rita Coolidge’s 1973 recording of “Bird on the Wire.”
The problem was me. I always felt powerless to thumb past that song, arranged as a slow country dirge. I always needed to hear it through, needed to feel the pain that kept me closer to when G was alive. Not only was it in heavy rotation on those drives to the ICU—not only did Rita Coolidge’s voice, smooth as her black, center-parted Cherokee hair, evoke our seventies FM childhood—but the song, for me, has been reframed to speak to the acute, helpless self-awareness that afflicts many addicts. The sad solemnity with which she sings I have tried in my own way to be free was now about G and his years-long struggle. Right before his final relapse, he’d been making plans, composing lists of jobs he wanted, writing encouraging letters to friends back in rehab. He was several weeks from getting off probation, which had kept him tethered to Louisiana his entire adult life. He was repairing a motorcycle, planning a trip to see his grandmother in northern California. He was preparing for freedom. Maybe he thought, one last time. Maybe he thought he was smarter than the drug. Maybe he was scared by his impending freedom, its responsibilities.
Like a baby stillborn, like a beast with his horns, I’ve torn everyone who’s reached out to me. Coolidge, after singing these lines, seems to step away from the mic, say faintly as if to herself, “Yes I have.” This barely audible acknowledgement of the damage caused by one’s plea for freedom, Coolidge’s break in the song to address herself in plain speech, hits me every time. I can now only hear those lines as an addict’s lament. I think of all the reaching out G’s family did, the years of counseling and rehab and diversion programs and tough love and opulent love. All the trying, failing, and tearing G did in response.
Yep, I thought, barreling down Highway 23 on a Tuesday lark with the kids, trying to reclaim the song (for us, for the morning, for the road): We still have to try in our own way to be free.
We passed more and more marinas, nearly everyone on the road with some kind of boat hitched to their truck. The Mississippi was on our left and the Gulf to our right. Levees squeezed the highway on both sides and then gave way to bright marshes, legions of skeleton trees rising out of them, ashen cypresses killed by saltwater intrusion from the Gulf as the land melted away. And, of course, we joked, no beautiful South Louisiana landscape would be complete without a massive refinery and its infernal flare stacks. Ms. Welty’s quaint drive through Plaquemines Parish had been steadily developed over the years, but it still existed for long, quiet stretches: “Clearing alternated with jungle and canebrake like something tried, tried again.”
In the backseat, the boys debated why Venice is called the End of the World. The younger advocated for the possibility that it resembled some apocalyptic aftermath. The older, seventeen, suggested it was merely a place where the road and civilization stop and nature takes over.
“Well,” I said, “they’re kind of similar. With both you have the possibility of oblivion and of building anew . . . the disappearance of culture, a return to the animal.”
The boys did not take the existential bait. Instead, after some silence, the younger said, “There’s another sign for Fort Jackson; can we go?”
A few minutes later, we turned in at the newish Museum and Welcome Center for Fort Jackson, a little ways up the road from the actual fort, which was completed in 1832 to defend New Orleans against the British. The fort has been closed since Hurricane Katrina, but the museum was densely packed with exhibits and blown-up sepia photos—too much to take in, especially for two kids who’d been car-bound for the last couple hours. The woman behind the counter, in her late fifties or so with a proprietary air, handed me a series of brochures and a self-guided walking map, still agitated because of a recent memo from the government about removing Confederate flags from the building, which was built with federal FEMA money. It did seem an odd call since the fort is most famous for being seized by the Confederate Army and holding off the Union naval forces of General Farragut for ten days until a mutiny at the fort caused them to surrender. When Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, right across the river, fell, the Union Army strolled into a panicked, defenseless New Orleans and switched out the Confederate flags for the Stars and Stripes atop the Customs House on Canal Street. The Confederacy never recovered. In the display cases there were two species of CSA items: the ones excavated from the site that had belonged to actual Confederate soldiers and the ones recovered from the fort’s gift shop after Hurricane Katrina. Both sets of artifacts were equally distressed, but the kids found the Katrina-damaged souvenirs somehow cooler than the originals.
We got back in the car. About twenty miles before the Gulf, we saw the sign for the actual Fort Jackson, hidden from the highway by a ring levee. As soon as we got up and over the embankment, we let out a collective whoa! at the appearance of the star-shaped brick fortifications and surrounding duckweed-coated moat, mature oaks improbably crowning the ramparts. Since the fort had been hit hard by Katrina, it was officially closed and deserted, its arched entrance at the moat’s bridge barred. No one else was there.
As I stretched my legs next to the car and watched the boys run down the bridge to glimpse the interior of the fort through the bars, the place refocused around me like a few clicks of a camera’s aperture. I’d been here before. Picnicked here as a kid with my seven brothers and sisters and some cousins. A boyish dark-haired aunt in short-shorts. A plaid blanket on the gentle grassy rise from the moat. A dark gash in the duckweed, a soaked kid being lifted out of the water by adult arms. Joining the boys, I told them that I’d actually come here as a child and that I thought I recalled one of us kids falling into the moat, not realizing there was water beneath the floating layer of duckweed that seemed to merge with the edge of the grass. Unimpressed, the younger responded that with eight kids, the chances were probably pretty high that one of them would fall into the moat.
Later, when I asked my mom about the incident, she said no, she would’ve remembered one of us falling in, and thinking further, I understood that at the time I had just been really afraid of one of us falling in, so much so that I’d transformed the fear into an actual memory, given it form, which I then passed on to my kids, which disturbed me somewhat. After talking with my mom I clarified with the boys that none of us had actually fallen in, not wanting to needlessly add any fear to their memories, but they didn’t seem concerned either way. Memory was not yet a specter to them, something to grapple with or question or suppress. But my false memory made me self-conscious about their memories of the trip to Fort Jackson and how the lens of their future lived lives would undoubtedly distort something about it. Would it be connected to G’s death? Their mom’s sudden intensity and erratic behavior? Would they falsely remember one of us slipping into the moat?
Distorted memory is one thing. Distorted history is something else. The brochure we’d grabbed at the interpretive center claimed that the Confederate soldiers at Fort Jackson fought the Federal forces “valiantly until a mutiny broke out,” causing them to surrender. Huh—more questions than answers there. (It must’ve been a stressful ten days under fire for the “valiant” defenders of genocide.) Even the ruins, the physical history of the place, seemed muddled. The fort itself, with its twenty-foot-thick brick walls and gun ports and batteries, seemed remarkably intact. The fort was restored as a public park in the 1960s and the newer ancillary structures from that era were the most Katrina-damaged; the low walls around picnic areas had collapsed, trees sunken and canted at odd angles. The World War II–era, bunker-esque Mississippi River overlook built into the levee was especially hard hit, with bare concrete chambers below that looked like they might have once housed exhibits of some kind. Now the only artifacts were the yellow-brown Katrina waterlines on the interior walls and a rank, muted animal smell that reminded me of those spare holding areas behind elaborate zoo habitat enclosures.
While the boys explored the perimeter, I sat on the bunker steps in the sun and read more of the brochure. After the battle with Farragut and years of disrepair under the ownership of the state, in 1927 Fort Jackson was sold to Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Harvey of New Orleans, remaining their private property for thirty-three years until it was donated back to Plaquemines Parish in 1960.
Wow, I thought, there was a time when private citizens could buy their own pre–Civil War fort right on the Mississippi. What did they do with it? Let their kids or grandkids have the run of it? Have epic crawfish boils on the ramparts overlooking the river? I felt an intense longing edging on jealousy. I craved a family fortress, a place of retreat and safety from the world. Though I also knew those twenty-foot-thick walls were fortified with memories of sieges, disease, and mutiny. They amplified fear in a way only walls can, bringing more anxiety than comfort, their thickness a persistent reminder of threats beyond and our own vulnerability.
“Against most things you can obtain security, but when it comes to death, we all live in an unwalled city.” For a long time, the working title of my book, a memoir, was “The Unwalled City,” inspired by that Epicurus quote. On the day she learned about G’s overdose, my sister, G’s mom, was reading the manuscript. (Later the title would become The Futilitarians—lighter, less constricting.) That same week, my mom had asked that the manuscript be brought to her at the hospital where she was undergoing cancer treatment, the same hospital I describe in chapter ten. In the scene, my dad dies in his own family-crowded room. The book is about our Existential Crisis Reading Group, of which my sister is also a member—about the year we started it and lost our dad almost simultaneously. It’s also about living with the suicides of our two sisters years before, all investigated through readings and discussions. My sister told me of how she sat on Mom’s porch overlooking the levee, reading about herself, her own trauma, and felt a strange outsized emotional reaction to it all. Soon, she would get the call about G.
My creative life had contributed to the claustrophobia I felt surrounding G’s death. I was supposed to be working on a book about mortality, reading, and family tragedy. Instead, the only thing I’d managed to write that month was a meager crystallized version of it: G’s obituary, another obituary of one of our own, the unsatisfying distillation of a short life. By that point, I’d been camped out in the unwalled city for a long while, constructing illustrative tableaus about coping with our mortal vulnerability, typing pages about how the absurdity of our condition makes us free to create ourselves however we want. But with a disease like addiction, how free can you ever be?
And then there was Albert Woodfox across the street, still wearing his prison-issued sweats. He’d become a concentrated symbol of vindictiveness and corruption in our justice system, of the racism cemented into our structures that destroys lives and communities, of the ability of the human spirit to endure and survive in extreme privation. As an eighteen-year-old in New Orleans, he’d escaped from sheriff deputies in the basement of a courthouse after being sentenced to fifty years for armed robbery. He fled to New York and joined the Black Panthers, inspired by how liberated from fear they were. He was caught and extradited back to Louisiana, where he ended up in Angola. Along with two other Black Panthers, he’d been convicted in the death of a prison guard there, with no physical evidence. Investigators had found a bloody fingerprint at the scene, but nobody ever tested it. Even the murdered guard’s wife doubted that the “Angola Three” had been involved in the murder. After years of appeals, overturned verdicts, and reindictments, Woodfox was finally released on a plea of no contest. I read interviews he gave shortly after his release and learned that the same Black Panther ideas and values of self-determination that kept him sane, kept his mind free, were the ones that kept him confined in solitary for decades. The wardens were fearful of him spreading “Black Pantherism” to other prisoners.
Woodfox’s story is part of an unbroken continuum that runs from before the Civil War skirmishes at Fort Jackson to the present-day Angola Prison, a former slave plantation. A reminder of how fearful those in power can be in the face of personal freedom. In the 1960s, Plaquemines Parish’s segregationist political boss Leander Perez threatened to imprison civil rights marchers over at Fort St. Philip. Fort Jackson was also used as a prison after the war. Predictably, strolling the grounds there agitated my always conflicted feelings about the state.
Some twenty minutes after the boys left me to explore, silence surrounded me. Where were they? All I could see were high, angled brick walls, with the deceptive moat and crazy craggy oaks bent over ruined picnic areas. I ran up the ring levee and checked the bank but saw only the dirt-brown Mississippi with its sluggish whorls. I shouted a few times in the direction of the fort and then felt the panic that some city dwellers get when faced with eerie country peace. Used to mapping out the menace in our own environment, confronted with a dearth of civilization and insufficient noise, our imaginations assume mysterious, unknowable rural danger. I checked the poorly photocopied self-guided walking tour brochure obtained from the interpretive center and saw a “recreational playground” next to the graveyard containing “new graves dug in 1862.”
To hasten the search, I drove the car around the crushed-shell access road lined with rusted barbecue grills. They faced the perimeter of the weedy parking lot like lonesome sentinels. And then the thin outline of my older son appeared standing guard on a retaining wall. The younger leaned into the dripping mouth of a huge drainage tunnel, apparently trying to find a way into the locked-up fort. They groaned as they marched toward me through the tall grass, reluctantly heeding my call that it was time to go. As I recaptured them with the open car doors, they said they were having a blast. They wanted to stay there forever. Or at least come back with Dad.
That Gulf Feeling soon overtook us—salt air, open sky, the expansive promise of water just out of sight. After we left the fort and traveled closer to the End of the World, we saw more and more skeleton trees; oil and gas industry infrastructure; our state bird, the brown pelican, coasting low over the marsh and commercial fishing marinas; our other state bird, the helicopter, running supplies to the oil rigs out in the Gulf. Roseate spoonbills, a.k.a. Cajun flamingos, inspecting a drainage ditch fringed with needle rush. The visual cacophony of a working coast.
The End of the World was anticlimactic. We couldn’t even really see the water as the road dead-ended on private property where the river splits into its bird-foot formation. I took a picture of the boys next to a sign welcoming us to the Southernmost Point in Louisiana, Gateway to the Gulf. Noting the rusted-out machinery and a wrecked, beached workboat, both boys claimed they were right about their predictions for Venice. Welty’s “end of the road” was similarly undramatic, though unsullied by industrial detritus and signage:
The end of the road—she could not remember ever seeing a road simply end—was a spoon shape, with a tree stump in the bowl to turn around by. Around it, he stopped the car, and they stepped out, feeling put down in the midst of a sudden vast pause or subduement that was like a yawn.
After a round of shrugs, peering through pampas grass, and more pictures, I turned the car around and the boys watched a lowering helicopter grind up the air, insect gear gingerly returning it to land.
We stopped at the first restaurant we saw, starving for shrimp sandwiches. As we waited, we admired the wetlands mural painted across the cinderblock wall next to our picnic table. Over my lifetime I’ve seen hundreds of them of varying quality: tapering cypresses dripping moss, soaring egrets and herons, a gator or two menacing the murky water. This one was different, mostly open water spreading impressionistically to join a sky of expert clouds against diffuse but intense light at the horizon. Pelicans flew toward us from a dark tangle of mangrove over our condiment rack, an uneven golden patina unifying it all.
As I was taking a picture of the boys in front of the mural to send to their dad, the Vietnamese owner of the restaurant offered to take one of all three of us. I told him how much we liked the painting. With fresh pride, he told us how after Katrina flooded the restaurant he’d carefully hand-cleaned the wall, anxious to save the mural. When I asked how many feet of water they’d taken, he just looked at me quizzically. Unlike in New Orleans, where people compared their homes’ waterlines in terms of feet and inches, in Venice there were no “feet,” just the immeasurable Gulf of Mexico passing over every structure, Atlantis-like. I realized the mural depicted the view I’d been hoping to see when the road ended. But even there, in places, the paint was wearing away from the mortar between the cinder blocks, and the enduring building blocks of prisons and schools asserted themselves across the dreamy landscape.
It was late afternoon. As we buckled up in the parking lot, I surrendered to the long ride back, to running the tape of the highway in high-speed reverse. After passing a few familiar landmarks, I finally felt it: the loosening relief in my limbs, that taste of breaking free I’d been looking for. No soaring revelations, no weepy catharsis—just a gentle fulfillment. We’d driven the highway, seen the fort, made it to the end, turned around, eaten the shrimp sandwiches, and were headed back. I could now enjoy a leisurely roll home free of anticipation and expectation, free from my vague plans.
Like many writers, I sometimes evaluate life events in terms of how they might play out in five thousand words. As Welty wrote near the end of her Venice story, “A thing is incredible, if ever, only after it is told—returned to the world it came out of.” I thought maybe our trip to the End of the World, that moment in my life, might qualify, but I wasn’t sure. All the pieces seemed to be there—freedom, escape, family—but I didn’t know how they connected, didn’t know what I wanted to say. Also, I seemed to be coming back to the same things I’d been writing about for years: South Louisiana, family tragedy, existential parenting, social justice, how music and literature deepen our engagement with life. Working on this essay, I was getting that same claustrophobic feeling of the world—my mind, my writing, closing in on me.
Frustrated, I returned to “No Place for You, My Love.” A paragraph near the end of the story, when the couple is driving back from Venice, always stunned and stymied me:
Later, crossing a large open distance, he saw at the same time two fires. He had the feeling that they had been riding for a long time across a face—great, wide, and upturned. In its eyes and open mouth were those fires they had had glimpses of, where the cattle had drawn together: a face, a head. Far down here in the South—south of South, below it. A whole giant body sprawled downward then, on and on, always, constant as a constellation or an angel. Flaming and perhaps falling, he thought.
There, on Welty’s highway, a sort of dissolution had occurred—between people and landscape, earth and sky, motion and direction, physical and metaphysical. I didn’t need to figure out connections, I realized, but find acceptance and transcendence. I had been trying so strenuously to connect the elements in my life at that time—I thought G’s death and Albert Woodfox and Galaxy Crocs were part of a revelatory pattern of hope and meaning and solace that I needed to knit tidily together. But Welty, through her own craft, showed me the obvious: Even the most disparate things are connected already by our consciousness, by existing. Words are just spiny little sutures on the flesh of the world, trying to hold it all together, give it shape.
Here’s what I’d wanted to say: that a wall had been breached when the boys and their cousins watched G die; that their time in the garden was over; that the re-traumatization of my brothers and sisters was compounded by fears for our own children and their children; that we were desperate to find some way to make this cycle stop; that after my younger sisters took their own lives I felt a sort of freedom because, seeing what it did to my parents, suicide had been taken off the table as an option for me (one fewer option that gave me a million more) and I hoped a similar thought would land in our sons’ minds after kissing their cousin goodbye, the option of staying away from the hard stuff, even if something in your blood pulls you toward it; that during those twelve days of being kept healthy looking and handsome by medical science, it was G’s face and tattooed body that became the landscape our grief traveled over, lingering often on that one tattoo on his calf, of my sister’s face, momma tried in bold italics below it; that when my sons described G as “turning golden” after the breathing tube was removed, it was with awe and curiosity; that one tenet of existential parenting is demonstrating it’s possible to break out of life patterns when necessary (take the day off, go for a drive, fight the fight, don’t self-destruct); that along with freedom to create ourselves comes contingency; that our decisions affect others, sometimes greatly; that in the end, our kids being in the ICU was better than them fidgeting outside in the anodyne waiting room on terrible couches, wondering; that being near their beloved and at times mystifying oldest cousin as he left us—the more than two dozen bereft family members—was necessary to process this worst moment; that our children proved to be remarkably stronger and instinctively deeper people than I’d realized, and I hoped they understood that even if all the love in your family can’t save you, if you fall, no matter how greatly, no matter how far, your family will be there; that I’d always try to do for my own sons what G’s mother and father and brother did for him, not knowing what would become of him: love him the best they could.
So now the drive can finish, this essay can finish. We can all go home. We can take the creaky old ferry at Belle Chasse instead of the bridge in the city. We can stop for a bathroom break at a gas station in Violet and buy cracklins for Dad, who must be home from work by now, waiting for the day’s report with a glass of rye at the kitchen table. We can ride through the shadowy tunnel of grand oaks on St. Bernard Highway, even more dramatic in the dark, pass through Arabi where Welty’s couple briefly gets lost before returning to their separate French Quarter hotels, point out the windows of my darkened writing studio over the discount liquor store, feel relief at crossing the Orleans Parish line and the medieval drawbridge over the Industrial Canal. Turn left at the insistent neon sign of the restaurant where Galaxy Crocs had appeared to us, and park across the street from the purple cottage where all the lights are on, Albert Woodfox inside, passing this temperate evening in one of those small rooms.
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