Highway 23 South

I crossed the Mississippi via the Huey P. Long Bridge.  The two lanes were narrow and hemmed in by steel girders that threatened to pinch the lanes together.  The sun set as the river heaved below me.  Upriver I saw barges loaded with shipping containers, monstrous vessels preparing to lumber downstream.

I hit the southern shore and passed onto a congested four-lane road slicing through strip malls as I entered Gretna, a tumor of a town fixed to New Awlins’ southern boundary.  A Piggly Wiggly became a Popeye’s Chicken became a Bingo parlor as I bore south on Highway 23.  I reached Southern Gretna and the strip malls sank back from the road.  Now oil hammers dotted the roadside and behind the squat, square buildings I could see smokestacks.  A blocky oil refinery rose out of Gretna’s doldrums, followed by an asphalt factory with its black sediment hills and ridges that ran on for a mile like a lunar landscape.  The belching monstrosities pushed away the ramshackle neighborhoods as the country began to open up to my right.  In the spaces between factories there were fields—flat and green and saturated.  Scattered cattle grazed.

To my left the levy held back the river.   In the lee of the levy—between me and the green mount—sparse patches of orange trees grew.  Every bough and leaf seemed heavy and wet.  I could feel the gulf rising up through the soil and the river creeping through the levy.  They were ready to unite and take control of the land.

This road went nowhere.   Follow it long enough and you’d run out of land.  Even the towns it passed through were impermanent—they looked as if they might yield to the soggy bottoms of the delta within the week.  The world would pass into the gulf and the road would continue.

I thought of my father and Peter Bingham descending into the delta as youngsters.  The notion of Peter and my father carousing in these sinking towns seemed apt.

The green had taken over and was interrupted by small handfuls of homes and churches.  Signs bearing nothing more than the word Jesus began to appear as I eased into Port Sulfur.  Most of the homes were trailers, and all the houses were up on blocks.  Nothing in town seemed permanent except for the military museum and the brick façade of the Plaquemines Parish Government Building.  I chose one of the temporary spots—a Po Boy stand out of a trailer—as a dinner stop.

Even with dusk coming it was plenty warm outside.  I walked through the high grass toward the trailer and I felt the water seeping into my tennis shoes.  The sign hanging from the trailer read ‘Po Boys’.  Beside the trailer sat a red-painted picnic table where a blond fellow ate his dinner.  The trailer was green with chipping paint.  I looked in what had once been the bedroom window at a wide-faced woman.

‘I’ll have a po boy,’ I said.

‘What kind?’ she growled.

‘What are my options?’

‘Fried oyster is the best.’

‘Then that’s what I’ll have.’

‘One fried oyster po boy coming up,’ she barked, ducking inside.

I noticed the blond at the picnic table.

‘Mind if I join you?’  I walked toward him.

‘Be my guest.’  He was a bit older than me, clean shaven, a lot more respectable looking than me.  ‘Where you from?’ he said.

‘San Francisco.  I’m here visiting family.  Where are you from?’

‘Burras.  Down the road a ways.’  He pointed his thumb over his shoulder.

‘You lived there long?’

‘Most of my life.  Except a few years I lived in Mobile.’

‘What’s it like growing up in Burras?’ I wondered how anyone could spend so long in this sinking country.

‘In Burras?’  He set down his po boy.  ‘I don’t regret any of it.  Good being on the water.  Definitely stay active with trolling and hunting.  You go huntin’ doves, ducks—that’s all my dad took us huntin’ for.’

‘How long have people lived down here?  Buras and all?’  He frowned.

‘Oh, it’s history’s goes along with New Awlins’ history.  Mostly populated by, well, now it’s all oil industry.  Shell, Mobile, commercial fishing.  The demographics of it is changing a lot—a lot of Vietnamese, Southeast Asians moving here.  Came because of fishing, the seafood thing.  Because they’re very devoted to it and they’re very gung ho—hop in their boats and they’re gone for days.  You don’t go fishing for any one type.  I mean we always went fishing for redfish but the professionals, they fish for all types.’

‘Huh.  Well for someone just here for a day you have any suggestions for anything I ought to see?’

‘Y’all should go by Fort Jackson and see the spot where De La Salle placed the cross, where he claimed Louisiana Territory for France.  Then there’s Fort St. Philip across the way from Fort Jackson.  There was a Civil War battle there.  It was protecting the mouth of the Mississippi, protecting New Awlins.  You had Fort Jackson on the west side and Fort St. Phillip on the east.’

‘Doesn’t seem like there’s enough land for fighting.’

‘Naw, mostly maritime.’  Now he leaned toward me.  I could smell the fried onions on his breath.  ‘My family, it’s been engrained in me, heavy dislike of the north because the same guy captured the two cities that meant the most to me.  Farragut took out New Orleans and he took out Mobile.  And then Benjamin Butler made his proclamation to the ladies of New Orleans—women are still sore down these parts about that.  Not that I hold it against you.  You being a Yankee.’

‘PO BOY-A,’ the wide-faced woman said.

I looked over my shoulder at her.  ‘Time for me to go.’  With the conversation veering in a political direction I took the opportunity to escape.  ‘Good to meet you.’

‘And you,’ he said.  ‘I’d shake your hand but I got po boy all over.’

I discovered it was impossible to eat po boy and drive at the same time.  I had to pull over to eat the thing and when I was done I wished I had a roll of paper towels.  I resorted to wiping my hands on my dirty jeans.  With  twilight encroaching I pushed south.  The houses here stood on stilts.  A flat green expanse opened to my right, battling the water for a thick hundred yards before yielding to the gulf.  The levy pressed closer to my left.  Everywhere I looked I saw signs of the water rising: the trees were stunted—unable to establish firm grip—and I began to see many birds: wetland herrings and ducks.

The next cluster of houses was Port Jackson.  The houses needed stilts more than ever, and in the front yard you were as apt to see a boat as a Cadillac.  I saw a sign indicating that the fort was to my left, toward the river.  Then Port Jackson ended and the wetland once again engulfed the road and the last wisps of dusk gave way to dark.

I saw a faint light on the horizon and soon I had reached Venice.  Porch lights revealed trucks loaded with propane tanks.  My headlights fell on a sign: ‘Flood Plain Area: Watch for Water on Road.’  I caught sight of the Royal Flush Tavern: a neon beacon humming in the night.  As I drew closer I made out an uninhabited porch, although I couldn’t see any windows so it was hard to say if anyone was inside.   I found a spot on the strip outside the bar and put the LeBaron in park and quit the engine.  I prepared myself for the loss of air conditioning but when I stepped from the car I found the climate tolerable.  I was practically in the gulf so this shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I climbed the porch and treaded through the insects that swarmed the neon sign and pushed open the screen door.  Inside, candles flickered on tabletops and cast dim light and many shadows.  Two standing lamps of simple design lit the bar.  Two men sat at opposite ends of the bar like goalposts and a grizzled bartender patrolled the dark gully behind the bar.  The men didn’t acknowledge me; the bartender gave a slight nod but spoke no words.  The air inside was thick like something had died under the floorboards several days before.  Outside the night purred with its own cunning, conspiring with the gulf to sink this town.  The river continued for thirty miles downstream from Venice but the road ended here.

I sat down halfway between the two men, with spare bar stools separating us.  The men were not recently shaven and both wore jean jackets, although one was white, sandy-haired, and pot-bellied; while the other was black and chiseled from stone.

The bartender tossed a coaster down in front of me.  He nodded at me a second time and I knew I had better order.

‘Abita, if you have it.’  The bartender turned back toward the taps on the wall and took hold of a wooden tap that was worn like an old broomstick and stood for a time drawing my beer.

‘Abita’s the only thing we have.’  He returned with a heavy-head on a schooner.  His face remained stoic, capable of expressions ranging from a slight frown to a slight, toothless smile, his gray hair thinning on top.  I figured he’d been filling schooners off that tap for longer than I’d been alive.

The bartender melted into the shadows behind the bar.   I looked left down the bar.  The potbellied white man stared ahead, like his head couldn’t pivot.  To my right the chiseled man kept to himself, although I caught him once glaring.  I avoided eye contact but could feel his infuriated eyes moving over me.  I hailed the bartender and he stepped from the shadow.

‘A round on me.’  I gestured to the men on either side of me.

‘Abita?’ The bartender’s voice came from under the water table.

‘Abita,’ I said.  The bartender looked to either side at the two men, gauging if they wanted it.  He turned to the tap.  The two men closed on me from either side.

‘Thanks,’ said the potbellied man, and I saw his eyes for the first time.  They were deep-set and dark.

‘Yeah, thanks,’ said the chiseled man.  He looked no less imposing from up close, although I had to admit the all-blue-denim attire was a little silly.

‘No problem,’ I said.  ‘The name’s Jackson Calvert.’

‘Wilson,’ said the potbellied man.  ‘Paul Wilson.  That’s my half-brother Craig.’

‘Please to make your acquaintance,’ Craig said with a firm handshake.

The bartender set down a coaster and an Abita for each of us.  Now I was part of the gang.

‘What brings you to Venice?’ Paul said.

‘Recreation,’ I said.

‘No recreate-in’ down here,’ said Craig.  ‘Nothing but mud.’

‘Sounds like my perfect vacation.’

‘We on vacation too,’ said Craig.  He smiled with big white teeth.  ‘We far away from home.’

‘Where’s home?’ I said.

‘Tuscaloosa.’

‘That’s not too far.’

‘Far enough.’  He lifted the Abita for a long draught.  ‘That’s good beer.  My favorite.  Thanks man!’  He patted me on the back.

‘No problem.’

Paul Wilson interjected. ‘Where you from?’

‘San Francisco.’

‘Damn!’ Craig said.  ‘You must be in more trouble than us!’

‘You could say that.’ I smiled, although it felt forced.

‘So don’t take any offense but you don’t look much like brothers,’ I said to the Wilsons in tandem.  Paul Wilson began to laugh and Craig joined in.

‘We don’t,’ Paul said.  ‘Aint that the truth.’

‘We didn’t have the same mama, if that’s what you’re thinking,’ Craig said.

‘So I guess your father was…’

‘Our father was a dawg,’ said Craig.  ‘Hound dawg.  Our mamas didn’t have a chance.’

Paul Wilson found this amusing, blowing beer out his nose.

‘Our father,’ Craig said.  ‘He was half-Cajun, half Choctaw, half slave, half gator.  He lived down here but not in no town.  He had a boat all his own and he lived on the river and crossed over it and back and forth when he pleased, and he floated up and down to his liking and sometimes even got as far up north as to be outside New Awlins, and sometimes came out of the delta into the gulf for a swim and to fish for some of the big fish out in the gulf.  He’d go away for months, sometimes years at a time and nobody ever see him but then he’d come stalkin’ back into town, Venice or Port Sulfur or wherever he please, after everybody pegged him for dead.  When he came back, they always knew why he was coming back, and the ladies—those that bother with the likes of Venice, and there aren’t too many—the ladies would run and go hide cause they all knew if Paco Wilson came to town he only came for one reason.’  I had finished my Abita and ordered another round.  The Cannabis Trust could cover the expense and the Wilsons seemed to have a story to tell.

‘My mama didn’t come from round here,’ Craig said.  ‘She came from up Alabama a ways, not as far as Tuscaloosa but far enough so down here was one hell of a place to get knocked up.  She was just down in New Awlins visitin’ some folk, a ways south of town.  How was she to know Paco Wilson was on the loose and roamin’ the north lands looking for some?  They met passing each other on a sidewalk and far as I can tell our papa pretty much took her then and there.  No one saw her not once for five whole months and then she shows up back home knocked up.  Wouldn’t say nothing ‘bout what happened either, not to nobody, but people in the know knew she’d been had by Paco Wilson.  That’s my mama.  But Paul’s mama, though—she another story.’

I turned to Paul Wilson, who was warming up to a telling.  He moistened his lips and twice opened his mouth before beginning.  ‘My mama came from a good family with a good upbringing.  She was raised right and proper near Meridian.  When she turned nineteen she got engaged to be married.  Her fiancé decided to celebrate their engagement they should go on a bayou cruise.  They were floatin’ downriver when old Paco he came up out of the river and took my mama and dragged her down to the bottom of the river, like the alligators do, and had his way.   Well my mama’s fiancé, he worried and worried and waited and waited for days, till two weeks had gone by.  He was about to give up when my mama crawled out of the river gasping for air.  He brought her north and they were married like they should have been, although my mama never said nothing about what happened in that river even though she was showing by the time the wedding rolled by.  Nine months after she came out of the river came me into the world.  I grew up and far as I knew my mama and papa were just the Ternbergs from Meridian, till one day my mama took me aside and told me about her roll in the mud with Paco Wilson.  Wouldn’t give any details but she did blush some when I asked what happened under the water.’

Craig jumped in.  ‘We never knew we had brothers till one day three years ago we were in this bar right here.  I came here to find out more about my papa, same as Paul.  And we were sittin’ here much like the three of us now sitting here today, and with the same barkeep even.’  The barkeep nodded from the shadows. ‘We got to talking and hot damn if it didn’t turn out we were brothers.  So now we come down every year and go looking for Paco Wilson.   He out there somewhere—there still stories up and down this river about him.  When we find him it’s gonna be a party like none other.  He take us on down to his place downriver, where nobody knows, and we gonna drink moonshine until we can’t see no more, and then we gonna drink some more.’  Craig set down an empty schooner in punctuation.

‘That’s some story.’  I appreciated the local mythology.  I could feel the beer going to my head.  For a moment I forgot what I was doing down in that bar at the end of the Mississippi.

Craig launched into another story, this one about last year’s journey downriver in search of Paco.  Most of it was an unintelligible assortment of references to places and people I’d never heard of.  Paul quipped in with the occasional side comment but it was Craig’s story.

‘Spend enough time down here,’ Craig said.  ‘You don’t bother with social courtesies.  Man spend enough time down here he lose all restraint and find no patience for such things.’

‘So where can I crash around here?’ I said.  ‘Any hotels or anything?’

‘Campground,’ Paul said.  ‘That’s where we’re staying.  Let’s go.  ‘Bout that time.’  We all three drained our glasses.  Paul climbed off his stool like he was dismounting a horse and strutted out of the bar.  I followed, only slightly paranoid that Craig was going to jump me from behind.  Outside the night had volume; I wondered if I could make it across the road to my car before getting eaten by giant insects.

‘Where you parked,’ Craig said.  I pointed across the street to the red LeBaron.  ‘Damn you got a nice ride.  We over there.’  He waved up the street in the direction of a hulking late-model Detroit classic, a 70’s-vintage Mercury Cougar.  ‘Real piece of shit.’  Craig started across the street towards my LeBaron.  I followed.  I got in the driver side and Craig went round to shotgun.  Paul veered over to his own car.

‘Just over yonder, little campground.’  Craig pointed up the road.

The headlights on the Cougar came on, blinding me.  Paul Wilson put the car into gear and drove up alongside my window.  I rolled down my window.

‘Here you go,’ he said, handing me a bottle in a brown paper bag.  I figured it was for Craig and passed it to him.  Craig gave a triumphant laugh.

‘Just what I was lookin’ for.’  He slipped the bottle out of the bag and I saw it was Wild Turkey.   He broke the seal and we began to drink.

‘Should I go south?’ I said.

‘Can’t go south any further,’ Craig said.  ‘Just turn round and follow Paul.’

We drove north for five miles.  Craig and I passed the whiskey so that it never rested for long.  Pushing upriver I was driving on roads I’d descended only hours before, but in my present condition the road became less sure and my whole body now was on fire, stoked by the drink.  There were no cars on the road so I took up both lanes, following the Cougar’s rectangular taillights.  Around me the night began to move with subtle drunken fluctuations.

‘You hear that the governor’s mansion in Alabama burned down?’ Craig said.

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Yep.  Pretty near took out the whole trailer park.’  Craig Wilson roared with laugher.  I took another pull on the whiskey.

‘Where are we going anyway?’  We’d just entered Port Jackson—my second time there that night.

‘Not far from here,’ Craig said.  ‘You’ll pull off the main road here pretty soon.  That’s where we last saw our papa.  Plus it’s the entrance to the park.’

‘There’s a park down here?’

‘That’s where we’re staying.’

For a moment I was apprehensive, considering the risk of heading off into the wilderness with two strangers.  But I was sloppy drunk by then and my thoughts weren’t tracking long enough for me to consider consequences.

In the swirling darkness I had the feeling that the gulf had rushed in to flood the road.  Sometimes I’d round a corner and the headlights would sweep across large bogs and small lakes and I’d think the road had been defeated. My driving had gotten a little unsteady and I had visions of the LeBaron careening off the road into a pool.

Paul Wilson’s break lights came on and the hulking automobile swung left onto a dirt road.  This road was uneven and riddled with potholes and it wound through the wet before dead-ending in a bushel of stunted trees.  I saw the driver side window come down and a thick arm waved me past.  I thought nothing of it.

‘Here it is,’ Craig said, no more than fifty yards off the freeway.  ‘You can park here.’  I looked out to my left and saw a murky pool, forty feet across, home to a million mosquito larvae.  Craig and I climbed out into the whistling night as Paul parked the Cougar behind the convertible.  The pool was ringed with tall grass that sprouted from dense mud and ran up to the road.  I stepped off the road and sank in mud up to my ankles.  In a panic I wrenched my feet free and stepped back onto the safety of the road.

‘Watch out,’ Craig said, grinning.  ‘Stay on the road—that’s where we’ll camp.  It’s solid ground.’

‘Is it a problem we’re in the middle of the road?’  I looked back at the rugged winding track.

‘Nobody comes out here,’ Craig said.

I looked out at the serene pool.

‘What lives out there?’ I said.

‘Who knows,’ Craig said.  ‘Just keep to the camp spot if you don’t want your ass eaten.’  He tossed me the half-empty bottle of whiskey and I caught it with furtive hands.  Paul came down from the Cougar with a second bottle of Turkey.  The three of us sat in a circle on the road in front of the LeBaron.  I leaned back against the bumper while the Wilson’s chain-smoked, always passing the whiskey.  Before long I knew I was well beyond my limit.  I scampered to my feet.  The change in elevation sent my head spinning.  I began to shuffle towards the pool and as I went I gained momentum, so that when I reached the mud there was no stopping me.  I felt the mud slowing me down.  The tall grass rose above my knees.  I stumbled forward and heard unintelligible voices calling from behind before I fell headfirst into the pool.  The water was warm and viscous but it did the trick of shocking me alert.  I came up gasping for air and as my ears cleared the water I heard hysterical laughter from up on the road.

‘I hope you didn’t drop the Turkey!’ Paul Wilson said.  Remembering it for the first time I realized I still held the bottle in my left hand.  I raised it high over my head, eliciting much applause from the Wilsons.  Paul and Craig got up from the road, no more stable than me, and came down to the side of the pool where they stood knee-deep in mud and helped me back onto solid ground.

‘Much better,’ I said.  I took my old seat, with my ass firmly on the road.  I was soaked and covered in mud.  I looked down at my dirty t-shirt and the mud on my forearms and hands and began to laugh.  What a mess.  The Wilsons caught on and joined the laughing.

We turned our attention back to the bottle, and soon Craig and Paul were sloppy as me.  They began to recollect my trip into the bog with the fondness of a longtime memory.

‘And when he fell!’ joked Craig, ‘his arms out straight like he was a cross!’

‘He saved the Turkey!’ Paul saluted with the bottle in his hands.

I went light on the drink after my swim.  As Craig and Paul worked further into the night they began to tell drunken tales that seemed targeted more at the moon than at me.

‘This one job, we was sent to spook out this guy—our client, he was real specific, so we sat back in the trees outside this lil’ shack where the guy was meeting, and we beat the ground and howled and made all kinds of racket, just to spook him!’  Craig laughed with his whole body but Paul didn’t seem to find this funny.  He cracked his palm upon the back of Craig’s head, knocking his half-brother from laughter.  I expected Craig to lash out in response but he took the slap shamefully, slumping forward and hiding his head in the manner of a punished child.

Puzzling over the pair of brothers, I was struck with how familiar Craig’s story had been.  I remembered the night Gabe told me of his kinship to Peter Bingham, the night I heard god knows what crashing around back in the woods.  My suspicion mounted and I sank further into the night, watching Craig and Paul’s continued assault on the Wild Turkey.  Conversation lulled and I could feel morning creeping close.  Finally Craig passed out, and with only me to keep him company Paul soon followed.  I used some blankets to make a crude bed out of the strip of ground between the Cougar and the LeBaron.  Using my arm as a pillow, I fell into a restless drunken sleep.

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