What’s my line? I’m happy cleaning windows,
Take my time, I’ll see you when my love grows,
Baby don’t let it slide, I’m a working man in my prime,
When we are all young, we are asked at some point who we look up to. Some people say Martin Luther King, Jr. Some people say their parents. When Zac was younger, he once wrote that I was his hero. I never really knew what to do with that.
Something changed in the way I thought about these things by the time that summer drew to a close. I believed in my time in those dusty backyard cookouts, in the slow but sure return of real Biloxi, of the conversations in my backyard, of the drives in the trucks. I believed suddenly that having people around you, people you can relate to that embody those things that you seek to realize in yourself one day… what luxury, true luxury in a metaphysical sense, to know those people. To be able to say, my God. I worked alongside those people, these people that are my heroes, my age. These people are my friends. My best friends. Fuck, Guillermo, maybe the weight of this purity is something that you won’t lose.
The summer into the fall was about reflection. I often spoke with Eddie separately from the rest of our friends. He’d tell me stories of growing up in New Jersey, about building the courthouse in Fairfax County, how different things were. About how much energy he had here. He’d get this look in his eyes when it came to talking building, about his empire, about giving everyone in that entire town a good home to live in. And then in moments returning to his own reflection, about how life used to be before Mississippi versus how it was today.
I can’t think of a way to describe it besides magic. The way my days blended together in conversations and discussions with my friends; the best people I’d ever known. To be inspired by those closest to you, people you can see and people that you know. For so long I felt as though I’d spent life seeking out the inspirational in abstract figureheads and things far from me, far in distance, far in rank, books, ideas, or if I needed to do so, far in the way I made myself inaccessible to them. I objectified from a distance, circumventing closeness in lieu of the convenience of idea formation from a distance. But to meet those you respect, to have them as a part of your life…well, shit.
Part of me sometimes wished I had figured it out sooner, but I guess that’s what the desert was for. You have to push through sometimes to truly get to those moments of peeling back another layer of yourself, who you are, what you deserve, and where the horizon of goodness lies. To be a vagabond. To hit the end of the justification spiral. To then know that you deserve it. That maybe the reason I was blessed to be surrounded by the best people I could ever know is because I was a decent guy, and it was ok to accept that. I was learning that, and in that confidence, continuing to plot an exit one day.
I woke up at 5 AM one morning, showered, and set off toward Metaire. I had worried beforehand about this drive, about whether or not to get a hotel room in Louisiana. But it was fine. I listened to Motown, Ani DiFranco, the classic and ne’er-failing Boston’s Greatest Hits, and as I swung down onto the I-10 turnaround outside Slidell, I spotted the red egg of the sun, crimson spot in the purple sky in my rearview mirror. It was absurdly beautiful. I drove on, and arrived an hour early at my site at 7 A.M. I thought briefly of my Teach for America interview I’d ditched the year before and chuckled as I strode across the parking lot.
The proctor let me start my test early. I had never done a complete computer practice test; that weighed on me as I went through all the introductory screens. I’d timed myself on paper, I’d played around on the computer with a few sections, but had never done a dry run. But there and then, watching the countdown to the start of my first essay section, none of that mattered. Best foot forward.
I took every break available (all two of them) to get nicotine fixes outside the building. Four hours later, I stared at the “Cancel Scores” screen. Yes or no. I felt like I was deciding to hit the Execute button in Lost. Had I fucked up math? Did I feel good about this? I thought I did, but with these tests who knows. Had this worked out? I prepped myself. I sought the tutelage of no program but my own study regiment and my practice questions and the study books I’d bought at Barnes & Noble in Gulfport. This was the sober studying, the culmination of a decision about my future, the last checkmark before going for it. The score to determine my future as a humanitarian-minded businessman, someone who would lead global efforts in equality and ultimately help raise the aggregate standard of world standards and management for those that needed it the most. Did I screw it up? Did I feel good about it?
And yet it was just a stupid test. And yet, it was just a number between 200 and 800. I breathed, whispered “Fuck it,” and submitted my scores.
I waited for two minutes while the computer generated my unofficial score report. Then it showed me my percentiles for math and verbal, and my score.
There was something about it that was so inconceivable to me, that I had in fact, through all of it, the thick and thin of life in Biloxi, life on the road, the abyss, the edge, still managed to maintain an ability to submit to something that gave me a standard output. I knocked on the window and was escorted out of the testing room. The receptionist at the computer took my report out of the printer tray, opened her eyes a bit and whistled “Wow,” then handed it to me with my congratulations. I opened my locker, re-accessorized, straightened out my white Jazzfest bandana on my head, exited the building, sat on the curb, and cried, report in my hands. I don’t know why I cried— I guess maybe for my future and that it could be so, for those I’d lost that would not be a part of it, for those I’d meet yet. Probably most of all for myself because I needed a good cry. Then I walked into the parking garage.
* * *
In unincorporated northern Harrison County, just south of extinct townships with familiar Mississippi names like Dedeaux and Necaise, the Wolf River begins flowing deep enough to allow for minimal boat traffic. I spent the next weekend on that river with a small crowd of friends. Eddie, John, Jenny the Architect. Sheli. Conor. Donnie. Deubs. And myself. Eight is much less for an outing than the 28 we had on the last trip, but this was a calm second effort to celebrate Eddie’s 28th, and more in the key of getting out in the wilderness with an intimate, small group. Dan was in Houston with the Boys and Girls Club at a leadership conference, but called his older brother earlier to wish him the best.
In our last stretch on Sunday morning, Deubs and I dragged farther behind the rest of the pack. The water in this particular Gulf tributary gets deeper and wider as it approaches the open water. Those insects drawn to stagnant, low-flowing water volume become more commonplace beneath the shades of the natural wreckage, while elevated homes populate the riverside treeline.
“Look at the bracing on those,” Deubs muttered behind me in the canoe. “No knee bracing. Minimal elbow bracing.” I had no idea what that meant but nodded as we floated along- my gumshoe assessment was that the piers didn’t look very reinforced. And my more expert assessment was that he was still pissed at his ex-girlfriend as he’d described to me the night before over a campfire on the shore.
To our right, Helicopter pulled along with her paws underneath the water’s surface. She’d refused the canoes through the whole trip, electing instead to swim with the front canoe, yelping softly to herself when she couldn’t catch up.
We paused for a moment at one docking eddy when we lost Heli to the lure of the brush and the clearer woods. You can’t really lean back and relax in a canoe without some preparation, and the trash bags and coolers in this particular canoe were not conducive to mobilization. So I sat, arms on my knees, relaxed in the summer shade.
“You know what kills me, Deubert?”
” I think the problem with hearsay is that the further away from somebody you are, the easier it is to pidgeonhole them. The less you know somebody, through distance or otherwise, the easier it is to draw a black or white, label somebody as the “good” and another as the “bad.” People do it everyday.”
“So I suppose that in our time, living our lives, the best you can hope for is that the people who have grown important to you but are distant, the best you can hope for is that they are better than that. That they will find out the truth themselves rather than make emotional decisions based on hearsay. Decide they feel one way or another.”
Again, Deubs agreed. He relayed a story of an encounter between a woman he cares about deeply, and the little brother of one of our old friends. He said he’d kill the friend if he ever saw him.
For encouraging it, Deubs replied. For talking shit about me.
“Who cares? You can’t stop the shit talkers, they are everywhere, from Los Angeles to islands off the coast of Maine, and everywhere else too. The only thing you can control is who is close to you. It is of utmost importance, so fucking important, to make sure that the people you care about, that you invest your heart in, are worth it. And worth is ambiguous for sure, but I say one part of that is trusting that they have that intrinsic ability to weed through the motivations and decisions of varied people. The value of information, the discerning of how that information comes to you, why that conduit chose to relay that. That is key.
And beneath the semantics of all that, what I’m talking about is trust. You trust her?”
Yeah, of course. She just called me immediately and told me what happened.
“So then what else matters? Someone you don’t even know acted in a way that you hate only because it is disrespectful to you. But she respected you, and does. So what does it even matter?”
Yeah, I guess. Fuck though, man. It still pisses me off.
“I know. I’m just saying though. Look, there she is.”
Helicopter was standing innocently a few feet from us and we whistled her over. A moment later we were floating back down the river, long black river that it was as close to the Sound as we were, with the far-off echoes of I-10 betraying our semblance of natural isolation.
I paddled the canoe slowly and thought. Those conversations. Versions of them. We were a lot of things, crazy guys in a canoe, Yankees, veterans of the effort. But we were also dudes with crushes on girls that confided in each other. Deubs was always a lover at heart, and not just because we both had the reputation of making out with more AmeriCorps girls than we should have. I’d been seeing Dally and everyone knew it. And he started dating Katie Taibi soon after that canoe trip. They lived in the shed in the back of the Bilmarsan house and paid $100 rent a month to run an extension cord from the living room. Those were always good conversations, and they came often. All of us were just so damn honest about our hearts, and none of us looked the part. I never imagined us to, at least.
The second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina arrived. You might have thought we’d talk politics that day. About 70,000 homeowners in Mississippi alone who lost their domiciles to that incredible storm, the worst American hurricane in modern industrial history. About elected leaders, and how little or much they must be convincing themselves that they are doing the best they can, that recovery is going at a rate appropriate and acceptable as per the rights of these Gulf Coast Americans and as per the budget allocations of this U.S. Congress. Wrapping the red tape off the Christmas rolls like Dole paper rolls, the tape that stymies the pace of recovery from beginning to end, every day, the reasons why homeowners receiving relief checks didn’t know when they’d get ’em, anywhere from four weeks to 102 days and counting for one client, rhyme or reason aside, translucency of the program and a KHG hotline that leads to nowhere. About the casinos, revitalizing and sentencing the economy to a “no higher than” mark all at once. Casinos that have offered 15,000 new jobs on this Gulf Coast, jobs with no upward mobility, an entire economy built on the back of vice and addiction, institutions lauded for their quick recovery. About whether the quick fix was slowly becoming the staple for Biloxi-town, the way it was before the storm though.
I woke up at 6 a.m., late to the 6 a.m. sunrise memorial service in Waveland. I didn’t mind. I drove Rhona of John Elway Motors (Dally’s car) all the way along the water on 90, with the sun rising behind me while the full moon faded in the sky before me. It was a good drive, and I didn’t mind being so late at all. By the time I got there, the Steps event was ending, but the familiars were scattered about, Amy and Jamie of course, Caleb somewhere. Kendall and Doug flitting and helping where they could.
Dally and I went to the Mockingbird soon after and I had the best half-donut of my life over chai’s with Dally, Shannon, and Jesse. I talked marathon running over with Jesse— jury’s out, but I thought it’d be nice to start running and training all the same. They do a marathon in Waveland at the beginning of November. Good impetus to cut down on cigarette smoking. Maybe I’d start running from Hands On to my house every evening with Heli.
Dally and I drove home and finished the Elite 8 match-ups from our Best Of Us tourney. Our Final 4 songs were Cry To Me by Solomon Burke, That’s How Strong My Love Is by Otis Redding, I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner, and Night Moves by Bob Seger. We stopped at Wal-Mart to get new bedding. I gave away my old lavender comforter months ago, and had been sustaining myself with a sleeping bag and some sheets Karissa gave me that didn’t fit her bed.
We lounged. We watched Lost. And ate lunch at Le Bakery. I gave Dally a tarot reading— Becca had taught me some basics with the Rider-Waite. We napped. At about 6 we set off behind Karissa, JP, Erica, and Kristen Konan to head to the Biloxi Town Green for the sunset East Biloxi remembrance services. I talked with Miss Ethel’s great-nephews Brandon and Desmond for a bit. Caught up with Deubs and Eddie. Cloud watched with Dally. Headed to the Pub for night festivities for a bit, played pool, played darts versus Petz, ate some food. Left around 10 pm, and ended the night catching up Ryan on the phone. He’d fallen in love with a girl, left Denver, moved to Massachesetts, and was now a fisherman in Gloucester.
I’m sure people argued that day about recovery and all those aforementioned things. But us, the ones I knew—I think most of us just had a day like that. I hope so, at least.