Until The Rain Came
When all was boiled down in Cajun spice, I was walking away from New Orleans. A week later I am in an air-conditioned Lexus driving myself, and my new and dear friend Robin to The Big Easy. Fresh oysters and fat shrimp fill our mouths more than once, washed over with cold lemon water and local brew. Our feet take in miles of streets that swirl us back through the same smells, the same streets. Hot pepper rolled in spice, urine, old beer, perfume on a breeze, incense, old mold on wet wood, and horseshit left behind the thin wheels of tourists carriages. The men that attempt to seduce us into their taverns that overflow with loud live music are more reserved than is their nature or that of their profession--gentle even. We are visiting a distant relative after a terrible accident by the sea. New Orleans is healing slowly in an unmade bed. At times I feel like I should whisper as I talk to Robin two feet away.
We're in a tourist store to buy a off-beat postcard for my brother. A classic great comes over the store stero speakers that I can't recall the name to now. I embrace Robin by the arm as I start dancing without a care in the world about who may be watching. Robin smiles with her blue eyes holding more light than water, guickly moving into the moment with her feet in time with mine. I'm the crazy man that danced in the supermarket back home if I liked the tune, or the memory it raised up. Now I carry my home inside so I dance anywhere. Music is a part of life, the straw in the concrete. It was there in the begining as my mother lifted her breathtaking voice over my father's guitar while I went from crawling backwards to walking forward. When I was young I believed that singing was making love. My earliest fantasy was of singing in a home with a deliciously happy woman even though we may be rooms apart. That was home to me, that was love. I still have trouble believing that it is not. Between the emotional storms of my early youth there was always music. Music was the family member that was always wanting to hold me. When my mother sang I stopped playing or teasing the wings of a bug. My lungs ceased their breathing so not one note would be left to wander vagrant in a darkened room. Music is healing. One day, when everything was broken and angry, my brother Steve, myself and mother drove away from my father. It was 1967. I never heard my mother sing again. She left behind everything. My brother and I had nothing to leave except a father that would forever be a guitar, a pistol, and whiskey breath.
I miss music as much as I acke for good food on this walk. Often I wake myself up at night singing myself through a dream. I never feel more purposeful than at those few minutes before I forget the words I was singing, and the round house they built in me. The mind gets what it wants one way or the other. In the south music is still the pulse of life, never separate. Large men with brutally strong hands come into the Birdman and talk about a poem they are writing as if it is a large rifle fitted out to take lions in Africa. I'm amazed, and thrilled by their hunt. "Real men," I remember thinking. In every corner of every coffee shop in the south there are marks where guitars have leaned in wait. Music is a pearl earring beside a southern cheek. I am afraid that in the north where I lived a good bit of my life, music has become a spectator sport, produced by the few elite so the rest of us can sit on our blankets with glasses of melot. I never subscribed to that way of thinking. If you can talk you can sing in your original key of keys. If you can walk however strained, dance is a good current away the truely living can't deny.
After a few seconds, Robin Marshall sees that I'm not about to stop groving by the island of rubber alligators and Cajun salt shakers. Robin takes my shoulders and waist to cradle in time until the singer completes his hold on me. I am being silly really, at least I was when I began, then it became real and deep. Perfectly. "This is New Orleans," I think with peace on my mouth as my foot swings hip over knee. We will pass by miles of blue tarps before we are back in Saint Francisville. We will hear broken glass under our feet, and smell the gray wings of decay as soldiers from the national guard nod past, yet you have heard all those words before. Right now we are dancing on a jewelery-box as the postcard rack spins on it's own, and people with shopping bags heavy with Nawlins nicnacs gather near the t-shirt isle to stare.
What I hear the loudest when the locals speak is the gentle soft unspoken thank-you that is a hand under yours when you recieve your change. In so many voices, in so many eyes as transaction's are made I see a tender nod, however slight. Those with wisdom know that it is the return of tourists, fresh blood that will help New Orleans onto it feet, and out of bed. It will help. I always return their thank-you's implied with my sincere thankfulness for their letting me experience their lives in the rebuilding. It is an extension of my gratefulness to America for allowing me back stage. New Orlean's streets are quietier now in the evening. In the early morning at Cafe' Du Monde it does not take long for your morning delight to be delivered to your white table cloth by a woman that will smile as she takes your picture. "Get closer." Click.
A palettable hush still resides even in the loudest instrumental riff on evening air. One handsome black man sings from under a shop window on the sidewalk, his body molded over his guitar as if he is talking over a sleeping lover's hip, while his elderly blind partner hums along on his separate microphone, harmonica at the ready between pinky and ring finger. We talk between songs written before so much loss came, but his eyes are everywhere working the streets to put money in his box. "You can come closer", he calls to people that want to listen and still not be expected to make offering to the box. The dollar I put in his black garbage bag lined cardboard box allows me to take their picture between songs. Robin drops in another dollar, so I click the camera again. No complaints.
Robin and I wander on to see more of the streets littered with plastic beads, and the palette of pastel shotgun houses that wind off away from the center of town. Robin is my guide having been here many times before, but in the end the map guide female voice coming out of the Lexus's dash tells us how to turn our wheels. The voice is so real that I feel bad when she(the dashboard) tells me to turn and I ignore her to catch a sight. As we walk, and drink too much coffee, I keep hearing the soft sweet voice of the steet singer putting his Cajun beads tight around my heart and pulling hard.
"When the rains came I never told my woman I cared...I never told her I loved her, before the rains came. Before the rains came I never said those words I mumble now, until the rain took my baby away."
For hours into days, I talk with Robin as if I am trying to fill inner skin bottles with something that won't leak out. In the end we can only eat so much food. Ears tired, we can only take in so many words no matter how desperate the heart. As we drive the miles out of soiled city the smell of leaving those I love is on the roof of my mouth.
This has been the longest break of the walk. It will be a total of two weeks before I am walking again. My feet are eager fools. They have not been eager in a month. All of a sudden they are as brave again as they are hungry. I am back in Saint Francisville awaiting a pie eating contest I have been invited to on Saturday. Live music follows the mashing of faces into pie tins. This will be my Fourth of July. Come Tuesday I will think of my cousin Scott slapping at bites on his legs as he fills the sky with a small fortune of fireworks torn from red tissue paper. I will miss his yearly salute of corn on the cob, burgers, three generations of family salads, and a sence of home. Come Sunday I will watch my shirt gather road dust into sweat stains again. Come Monday I will question if any of this time in St. Francisville really happened, and acke to turn back my ship toward this shore. Good towns have a way of stalling the feet. Good people have a way of holding on without any hands.
I look at my heavily tanned legs and put worry out in a sigh.