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NEW-CUE, Inc. is a non-profit, environmental education organization founded primarily to assist writers and educators who are dedicated to enhancing the public's awareness of environmental issues.
Louis E. Bourgeois
Louis E. Bourgeois lives and writes in Oxford, Mississippi. His latest book, OLGA, was published by WordTech. Currently, he is completing a Rimbaud translation project entitled The Created Body. Bourgeois is also editor of VOX.
My stepfather was a carpenter and worked for the Canadian’s construction company. I ended up with my stepfather one evening at the Canadian’s house—the two of them drank bottled beer and talked business together. I was just old enough to read and was quite fascinated by books. The Canadian had hundreds of books in his thick carpeted and deep floored den. I’d never been in a house that had any books at all, save recipe and school books, or the overly pervasive Holy Bible.
The Canadian’s house was quite different from our house. Our house was newly built and wide with emptiness. The Canadian’s house was neatly cluttered with picture frames, game mounts, and, of course, books. His house was flush with soft and comftable looking medium brown carpet. Our floors were bare with new wood. The Canadian’s ceiling was high and wide with thick pine knotted beams, which gave it that Great White North hunting lodge cozy look. Our ceiling was low with exposed 2x4 rafters where we weren’t quite finished hanging the sheet rock. A huge Elk’s head hung with austerity over the mantle of The Canadian’s granite fire place. We had no mantle, only a single cheap gold metal mirror hanging at the center of the living room wall. The Canadian’s house was a place you wanted to be; it made you feel like you were suppose to feel in a house, Our house gave no sense of coziness, although it wasn’t a bad house, it just didn’t make you feel one way or another. The Canadian’s house made you long for The Great White North, even though you’d never been further north than Baton Rouge, which is the “high North” if you were raised on the outskirts of New Orleans like I was.
It pleased The Canadian that I had taken such an interest in his books. He and his wife’s memory seem distant to me now after all these years, but I remember asking him something, something obscure perhaps, but I remember him saying to me, As long as they’re people in the world, there will be books. I’d never heard anyone except maybe a school teacher talk about books and somehow what he said was comforting to me, as if someone had finally told me something that I wanted to hear. Perhaps it was the way he said what he said; clearly and with a tone of pretension in his words which was quite different from the almost garbled and uncertain speech I was accustomed to having grown up among the working class around New Orleans. It was apparently a major revelation to me that there were people in the world beside school teachers who read books.
The Canadian gave me a glossy covered paperback on North American birds. I was instantly drawn to the sparkling cover and bright colored print with a collage of various birds, like The Great Horned Owl, the Rosette Spoonbill, a Canvasback drake, herons and other water birds of different species, and so forth. Although I was a feisty and moody six year old from the New Orleans working class, I remember clearly feeling a deep appreciation of the gift, whereas most of the kids I grew up with would have cared less about receiving a gift from some old Yankee. Then, as if out of nowhere it seemed, the Canadian’s wife came through the sliding glass door from the back yard holding in one hand a rectangular terracotta plant pot. She was as old as the Canadian with long thin silver hair and she knelt down next to me and said, This is a shamrock plant; you can watch them close up in the evening and open up in the morning; sometimes, if the moon is bright enough, you can take them out into the yard and they’ll open up under the stars. It’s quite a sight! I had never heard anyone say “it’s quite a sight!” before. The Canadian and his wife’s cheerful aspect confused me and made me feel a kind of joy I was not use to.
On the dark ride home, with my stepfather driving his beat up and rough riding Ford Ranger, I thought of nothing but the bird book and the shamrock. For some reason, I didn’t quite believe what the Canadian’s wife said about the shamrock clover opening and closing as she described it, but on the morning while I was waiting for the school bus to arrive, I carried the shamrock out into the yard and sure enough almost at the same time every clover opened under the morning sun before I even had a chance to put the pot down onto the ground. When I got home from school, I couldn’t wait to see the clover close as the sun went down, and, sure enough, late in the evening the clover closed as quickly as it had open earlier that morning. For weeks, I would repeat the routine with the same enthusiasm as on the first day. At some point in the ensuing months, I must have lost interest in the shamrock and all the clover died and turned from their luscious green color to brittle brown clumps.
A year or so later, I remember my stepfather talking with my mother in our still unfinished kitchen; we had just installed the sink, no cupboards or counters. The Canadian had a half-size mobile home trailer that was his office wherever his construction might be. He was in the trailer late the night before, working on blueprints of the construction site, when three huge white guys from his own crew stabbed him over and over to get at a safe he kept behind the desk, where he didn’t keep money as the murderers thought, but rather the irreplaceable blue prints of the job he was working on in case his office should go up in flames.
About two months later, my mother and stepfather were having yet another conversation during which my stepfather explained that the Canadian’s wife was found dead in the den of her house from an overdose of sleeping pills and muscle relaxers. She died with a picture of the Canadian in her hand; the picture was of him posing in front of the very elk she was found dead under that he had shot so far away and so many years ago.
I often think of the Canadian and wonder if cultures should cross; if someone so mild should travel and live in a place so hostile. The very bird book he gave me so many years ago lies on my desk stacked on top of an anthology of French poetry, a copy of Andrew Breton’s Nadja and a book on the Cambodian slaughters of the 1970s. I myself have gone on to publish books. If there’s a point to this story, perhaps it’s simply to show how an essentially normal child can be born in an extreme part of the country near the bottom of the socio-economic level and go on to have a rather simple experience that alters his life forever, and perhaps even the world.
Saturday Evening Walk
Several weeks after Hurricane Katrina wiped out my hometown of Slidell, Louisiana; I took a long walk with my father through the downtown district, or, as it’s known by the locals, Ole Town Slidell. I was raised on these streets and over the past thirty years Ole Town hadn’t changed all that much. I can still see myself skipping along the sidewalk and chasing pigeons until they all flew back onto the telephone lines on Erlanger Street, the oldest street in Slidell. I can still see myself walking into Jackson’s Grocery and buying Pepsi Cola and chewing gum from the mean old black lady who ran the cash register. Often times, an old man sat in the corner of the store in an old wooden chair with a shotgun saddled across his lap. I remember walking along the fetid ditches and canals at the edge of Ole Town where I would catch striker head turtles with my bare hands and stuff them into my pockets until I got home and put them in an ancient thirty gallon aquarium where I kept them until I could catch a ride across town to sell them for fifty cents a piece to Sam’s Pet Store on Gause Boulevard.
Ole Town was still in ruins when I first visited it after Katrina. Century old offices and pharmacies were still boarded up and there were still power lines scattered throughout the streets. There were small piles of bricks spilling out onto the sidewalks from the hurricane wind and water. Haunting. Incredible that Ole Town Slidell could ever look this way, as if it had been bombed to pieces like some war fatigued town in Czechoslovakia. Jackson Grocery was no more, completely swept out with the tide, so to speak. What sticks out in my mind the most on that walk was that right in the middle of Cousin Street, the main street that runs through Ole Town, four old men were sitting around a fire of vines, branches, pine cones, and other debris. They were camped out right in the middle of the street, boiling mullet heads in a rusty looking paint can. I was horrified! No one in Slidell would ever eat mullets at all unless they were in the worst situation imaginable. Mullets are considered trash fish in the Slidell area, in the same class of trash fish as eels and saltwater catfish.
This was where I was raised, and now everything was destroyed or gone. It was hard to accept this, even though I hadn’t actually lived in Slidell for years. My father and I kept walking. My father was in his mid-fifties and had never lived anywhere else but Slidell in his life. I followed him through the Slidell Cemetery where I hadn’t been since I last lived in Slidell in my late teens. He’d tell me different stories about this name or that one, about how this boy drowned in a five foot swimming pool, or how this young man killed himself right after returning from Vietnam in 1970, the year I was born, or how this woman found her husband dead in his mechanic shop where he’d asphyxiated himself and his black lover in an idling Oldsmobile on a cold day in January. It was too cold to keep the garage door open; they died a scandalous death.
He’d go on and on about the various graves as we passed by each one. Most of the dead in the cemetery he knew at one time or another; Slidell being a fairly small town when he was growing up. He told about a Father Tim who had enormous hands and how he smoked one Pall Mall after another until the day of his death in the early 70’s; he smoked like a fish and cursed like a sailor. This Father Tim married my mother and father in 1969, exactly seven years to the day before their divorce in 1976. The Slidell Cemetery is dark under black colored live oaks with limbs as big around as ditch culverts. Even Katrina couldn’t knock them down. The city’s canal runs through the cemetery and the sound of the rushing water always makes me fall into a trance until finally my father has to shake me on the shoulder to get me to go.
We leave the cemetery and my father says there’s one more thing he wants me to see before we go home. It is an old Methodist church that primarily serves the black community. My father tells how back in the 60’s the church was across town and was a catholic church, Our Lady of Lords, where he had his first communion. The Methodists bought it and actually had it moved across town, in those days a distance of only a few miles, to where it sits now near the Slidell Cemetery on the periphery of Ole Town. My father tells me how the church cracked in two during the move and it took months to repair the tongue and groove, arched, wooden roof. We walk toward the church and a cop and an ambulance driver are sitting on the concrete steps smoking cigarettes. I want you to see the tongue and groove ceiling, my father says, as we walk toward the church door. I had no idea what “tongue and groove” was. I was thirty-five years old and had no idea what that meant. We walk in, and I immediately see what tongue and groove is. The ceiling is made up of narrow wooden strips laid side by side and forms a high arch. I turn to my father and say, Yes, it’s quite beautiful. He says, Yes it is, that’s why I wanted you to see it. Perhaps you can write about it one day, write about it for me. Straight ahead, the altar is black slate and beneath lays a white coffin. My father and I apparently walked right into a wake, but no one was there but us.
We walk up to the coffin and I’m slightly afraid of how I’ll react to seeing a dead person. I haven’t seen a corpse since I was seventeen, when my great grandfather died at the age of ninety-three. But his death was no tragedy as he died at a ripe old age in his own house with his mind fully intact. He smoked two packs of Pall Malls a day from the age of six. He looked handsome in his coffin, my great-grandfather, and there really wasn’t anything to be sad about, but as we approach the white coffin of this stranger, who’s death party we are crashing, I find myself trembling slightly the closer we get to the body. I’d certainly written enough poems about death over the years, so you’d think I wouldn’t feel such anxiety as I approach a coffin; I want to turn the other way and go, but my father is adamant about seeing the corpse. We walk up to the coffin and look down. I am still hung over from the night before when I spent the whole night drinking whisky shots and cheap beer with my father. My stomach knots up inside me as I look down on the dead person. He is a small built black man in a gray suit and blue tie. He doesn’t look all that old, in his mid fifties or so, about the age of my father. He has a grey well- trimmed beard and a bald pate. Wonder what got him, my father says. I didn’t say anything. The man’s name was taped onto the side of the coffin: William Crawford. That’s a good name, my father pipes up again. Let’s go, I said, and we turned from the casket and as we walked out of the church my father made the sign of the cross. Some remaining vestiges of childhood Catholicism made me want to make the sign of the cross as well, but twenty years or so of extreme conscious atheism allowed me to suppress this impulse. The cop and ambulance driver were now joined by the Hearst chauffeur, the three of them chain smoking cigarettes as if their lives depended on it. I remember being surprised by not feeling much of anything at all about seeing the dead black man. What did I expect to feel exactly? I don’t know, that’s the question, how did I expect to feel? When viewing a corpse at the beginning of the 21 st century? This century, in which death is everywhere, yet carefully concealed. Why should death be concealed? When more people are dying now more than ever? What are we ashamed of? Dead bodies can do no harm, right?
We walked back through the ruins of our childhoods, my father’s childhood of the 1950’s and 60’s, mine of the 1970’s and 80’s. Quite different generations, yet eerily the same. We’d walked for hours on this day but didn’t realize it. We found ourselves walking along Cousin Street again. The old men were about gathering more debris for their evening fire. The sky had turned purple and ochre, as if it had been perfectly sketched by some master artist; the sun was dying slowly on the horizon. We were walking by a group of willow trees that somehow had survived Hurricane Katrina, when suddenly a rooster crowed from the top of one of the willows, then another crowed; it was the wild chickens of Ole Town. I hadn’t thought about them in twenty years and instantly I was plunged back in time. These wild bantams had lived in Ole Town for generations, ever since Slidell was first founded over a century ago. They would migrate from street to street in the downtown district and live in one backyard for awhile then move to another every few months. How on earth did they survive the greatest hurricane to have ever hit Slidell, Louisiana? Yet they did. The Wild chickens of Cousin Street, it makes my heart go pale.