The ceiling and the floor are made of the same 2-inch thick planks. After a drink or two has replaced the sweat lost from three-stepping, it is easy to see how the joint could look just fine upside down. Two or three more drinks and it becomes perfectly reasonable that a guy known as Caveman can end up in the middle of the dance floor with the whole bar serenading him with the hope that he ‘gets some action tonight’ to the tune of happy birthday.
In is own honor the Caveman passes around a cigar as big as a carrot. A male friend grabs his arm and they dance down the line. The women folk, de facto Bayou paparazzi and official gossip hounds, snap pictures. The Caveman’s belly bounces underneath his tucked in purple t-shirt. His eyes seem permanently bloated and closed to slits, giving him the visage of a Louisiana Buddha.
Welcome to Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing.
I ended up here sort of the way a stick on a river ends up anywhere. Since my dad died it’s been hard for me to make choices. This has left me somewhat defenseless to suggestion. So when JoJo mentioned going to a music festival in Austin, I said okay, and when she suggested we see Caroline in Lafayette on the way back to New Orleans, well, that was fine too. I was, and am, desperate for motion. New places and all the stimuli virgin to my senses have a way of putting the brain on tumble dry, a welcome state in these days when I’m afraid of accepting many of my life’s truths.
The problem with saying okay to everything is you can end up in uncomfortable situations. You can end agreeing to dance with Caroline.
To postpone the inevitable I take a walk around. I read the graffiti on the wall and learn that JEB had been here. I smile gamely at the bartender. An elk with a silky blond wig hangs over one of her shoulders. There’s a hog with Oakley’s riding low on the snout above her other shoulder. I wonder what conflicting advice the animals give her as I naively ask her for ‘something different.’ She slides me a bottle made by Budweiser. I tip her a dollar. She rings a fishing bell in appreciation.
To steady myself I run my hand along the coarse knots of wood on the wall until my fingers are stopped by the daggers of alligator teeth. The rest of the skeleton is glued to polished oak, but the teeth, they laugh out loud.
Caroline smiles. That’s a nice thing to happen to me, because Caroline has a beautiful smile. She also has wary and alert Mary Louise Parker eyes and a big old bouffant of silver and black hair. My cousin JoJo says that it’s great how Caroline, 32, ‘owns’ her grey hair. Caroline is a social worker, plays the stand-up bass in a band, and she recently realized that, despite her wandering heart, what she wants more than anything is to have a husband and a baby.
‘I’ve been coming here since I was little,’ she told me as she was driving over the soft, grassy slope of the levee. Caroline’s dad had taught her to dance at a bar like this one. I feel an instant kinship to Caroline when JoJo pulls me aside to tell me that Caroline’s dad passed away a year ago.
The townies circle the room like a school of bluegill in one of those great tanks at the aquarium. Cowboy hats. Tight jeans. Done-up make-up. Men made of coarse leather and nail heads dance and dance and wipe their sweat with handkerchiefs. Sweat stains rise on the back of shirts like Rorschach splotches. It’s amazing the way the partners on the dance floor move in unison. How do they know what each other’s feet are doing as they make love with their eyes, right in front of everyone? It is a sense not embedded in the genes of boys from Connecticut.
All of a sudden Caroline pulls me off my stool. ‘You promised me’ she lies in her sweet Cajun accent. She pulls me close. I don’t know how. I can’t. I won’t. I stagger back to the wall. The old man with the blue eyes and turkey neck takes my wrist. ‘You ain’t gonna learn nothing over here. You’ve got to be out there.’
Caroline follows me. ‘You can’t quit. And I like it when you hold me close.’
The tendons in the singer’s forearm flex as he massages his diatonic accordion. There’s a guitarist, a drummer, a bassist (one of the best in the area, Caroline tells me), and a man whose job is to constantly strum the washboard fixed to his chest. Half of the room is dancing. The other is laughing. There’s a break in the music.
‘We got people from all over here tonight,’ the bass player announces proudly. ‘That one guy, he’s all the way from Texas. And he’s feeling good too, I can tell. What you drinking, buddy?’
Backwoods Louisiana, it seems, suffers fools just fine. It’s a person acting like they’re above other people she can’t stand.
I sneak off to the bathroom. The urinal is a stainless steel cattle feed. PVC piping with jagged knife holes keeps the water flowing constantly. Along the bayou are shacks where some people still live to the rhythm of the water. A flag on the wall celebrating Vietnam vets says ‘Our Cause Was Just.’ Next to it are the three Bud Lite frogs.
Growing up in stuffy Connecticut left me uncomfortable just about everywhere as a child. But I feel good, right, here among these people. It’s funny. It took me nearly 30 years to get comfortable in a room like this. My dad, who spent much of his youth in places just like this in Virginia, it took him 30 years to get to the place where he had me raised.
On the levee I told Caroline that I was tired in my soul. I told her that at least I still had hope. She talked about her problem with living in the present. Seems like she’s always pining for the past or inventing the future.
‘I’ve never had that problem,’ I said.
She laughed. ‘Hope ain’t nothing more than living in the future,’ she said.
I watch Caroline dance with an old man. The beat is fast and his dancing looks like a series of tiny seizures. His cowboy hat seems to be growing from his skin like a fleshy tortoise shell. It is perfectly conceivable to me that this wooden box hidden in the curve of the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp has spawned a new species of man that carries their bodily organs in the well of their Stetsons.
Caroline takes my hand and I don’t have the will to resist. ‘It’s just like walking’ she promises. I watch her feet as she counts. 1-2-3. 1-2-3. I see the 1 and the 2, but not the 3, and the dance doesn’t work without the 3. ‘Don’t watch our feet. Look at me,’ Caroline says.
I think she’s going to explain the mystery of the third step, but we just watch each other. It comes so natural for her, this dance her daddy taught her. I wonder if she’s thinking of him. She’s holding my shoulder. She’s leading me in the circle. How, I wonder, has she found a way to re-own this dance her father gave her? Me, I’m every bit my father’s son, his boy. I know that it’s time for me to be a man, to own myself, but I don’t want to. Not at all, at least not now.
My feet land on hers as much as they hit the dirty ground. I hope I’m getting better, though I know I’ve got a long way to go. Caroline is gentle. Patient. The bayou moves slowly at the whim of the wind as Caroline smiles in the past.