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The Approach to Pilottown
Robert Klein Engler

Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.
--Paul Valéry

In days past, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to North America took months. After that, it was a difficult sail up the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Mississippi River. That long trip from France was never easy. The food on board was old and salty by the time they reached the gulf. Fresh water was almost gone, and everything; -- sails, lines, clothes and men -- was worn out from the long Atlantic journey. If you were heading to New Orleans, you might have to spend a week waiting for the wind to change direction just to make a bend in the river. For some men the stretch of sea from one shore to another was like a disturbed sleep into which spirits agitated the soul. Who knows what happens to the body or the mind in such a sleep? One day there is the crystal and perfume of France, then a long, rolling dream over slate-gray waves to awake in the heat and damp of the wilderness.

Some believe that in such sea dreams a man's destiny is woven. Because Isaac Jean Lemoyen's ancestors made the journey generations ago, Isaac happened to be born in Pilottown, Louisiana. A history of salt and suffering is summed up in his flesh. The moment Isaac was taken, watery and red from his mother's womb, the doctor saw that his crippled legs would hardly keep him up. Isaac was not to be like other men. Lamps of fire from far away would catch his eye, the music of moss and cypress would turn his ear, and to get to where the scent of rose and jasmine resides he would have to limp.

There are no roads to the deep delta country and Pilottown. To get there you must travel on the river. Unless he had business to attend to, it is a wonder why a man would travel so far to this amphibious settlement just to see the flat horizon spit up or swallow the sun. The town itself is unremarkable to those used to the boulevards of Paris or the carnival of Bourbon Street. Nevertheless, Le Bon Dieu wills that some men be born by glaciers where the sun brights the ice with blinding splendor, or among the sand dunes of the withering desert. So, some are born by the humid lap of a long river. Each makes a life from what is given and what is chosen. It was that way when cotton was king more than a century ago and it will be this way until the river goes dry. His withered legs aside, Isaac Lemoyen is not that different from other men who live in Pilottown or the few who go there to question the mystery in their heart.

Paul Girault watches from the safety of the lee side rail as the barge approaches the rotted wharf. He looks into the muddy river and sees it churned up by the powerful engines of the towboat that propelled the barge here from New Orleans. The water takes on the color of coffee mixed with cream. Slowly, the barge inches its way up to the pylons. A few deckhands jump off and tie up the barge and the towboat with stout lines, faded gray like the moss on cypress trees. The tow's propellers accelerate with a last roar of power and then settle back to a gradual purr. A stench of diesel fumes taints the air and a breeze carries the smoke from the engines across the pier. Paul looks up at an overcast sky and then at a long row of gray, wooden sheds. Longshoremen are already on the aft end of the barge, shouting instructions and carrying off boxes and bales. Paul lifts his backpack to his shoulder and walks towards the gangplank. Ahead of him he sees the windows and the white clapboard sides of the Shore House Cafe. Some tall palmetto trees give the place a West Indies atmosphere. By the wharf, a worn sign painted white with red letters and a blue border proclaims: "Welcome to Pilottown -- 4 Feet Above Sea Level."

If you ask Paul why he visits Pilottown, this station where water, land and air mix, he will tersely tell you, "To take pictures." Later, if you know him well enough, he will proffer another explanation, but for now he looks the part of a photographer with a black camera bag slung by a webbed strap over his shoulder, a backpack on his other shoulder, and a collapsible tripod under his arm. Paul has been taking pictures for a number of years now. He was attracted to photography as he grew older because it did not require the disciplined hand of drawing. As one of Paul's friends remarked sarcastically, "Photography, like insight, is all about light." Paul needs light now, and on this trip he wants to find whatever residue of light that remains for him in Pilottown.

Paul's last project was to take a photo series of his own body. As he printed the images, he could see himself as others saw him. He realized he was middle-aged and no longer handsome. From one perspective it looks like he has the body of a woman. Paul's behind is fat and he has a round belly, as if he were pregnant with something that would never be born. The only thing masculine and strong about him is his legs. He swam a lot as a boy, and his legs still retain the muscular shape they had from many years ago. Regardless of this, Paul concludes he is now part of that mass of men who look better clothed than naked. Paul realizes that bodily love may soon be out of the question, yet if he cannot offer beauty in exchange for beauty, then at least he hopes to capture it on film and develop it on paper. This is the weight he bears now as he makes his way from the pier to the streets of Pilottown.

From his counter stool, Isaac sees out the greasy windows of the Shore House Cafe to the river. Here he may sit all afternoon and watch the barges load and unload, or simply follow the boats as they disappear beyond the warehouses and sheds. Old Jake, who owns the cafe, does not mind Isaac being here. Hardly anyone comes into the cafe for lunch now since the oil refinery business went under a few years ago. So, Isaac, pouting or not, is welcome to pass the day. Sometimes Isaac even helps out with the cooking. He knows a lot about the workings of the cafe because he has spent so much time here. Isaac can listen to the radio, too, or talk to Jake about the history of Pilottown when there's nothing to be done. Jake tells him of the men and women who came in with the barges or ships and stayed to make a living as best they could. This place was the last stop for many on a river journey that carried all the silt and mud from the north down to the delta. After Pilottown there is Head of Passes and then the deep ocean and forgetfulness.

Isaac knows right away that the man who gets off the barge carrying a black camera case has strong legs. He watches as the man shifts the weight of his backpack and looks up at a few gulls that circle the river hoping a morsel of garbage left on the barge will be tossed into the water. Isaac sees that this man is middle-aged but also stands tall, even under the weight of his burden. You need strong legs to do that, Isaac reasons. He watches as the man walks with determined steps from the pier onto the boardwalk that leads up to the cafe. As the man walks closer, Isaac recognizes something familiar in the outline of his face. An unsettled feeling comes over Isaac. Few men like this photographer ever come to Pilottown. When the man nears the window of the cafe, Isaac lowers his head to study the coffee remaining in his cup. Isaac keeps his head down as the cafe door opens and then he hears the solid steps of a man walking across the floor to the other side of the counter. There is a soft thud as the man's backpack settles on the floor. Isaac looks up. The man with the camera case is sitting across the counter from him. Their eyes meet and a current flows between them. Isaac looks away. Then Isaac looks down into his cup again. The muddy coffee is all but gone. He will have to ask for more, but not right away.

"Afternoon," Jake says, in a voice that acknowledges the stranger's presence.

"Good afternoon," Paul replies.

"You hungry or just wanna beer?" Jake asks.


"Whada ya like?"

"Eggs, scrambled, please, with toast and grits. And I'll have a Dixmore," Paul says. Seeing the neon sign advertising the beer in the window, Paul thinks this recognition of the local will endear him to the cook.

"Comin' right up."

Jake brings Paul his beer, and a few moments later a plate of eggs and grits. Then he sets a bottle of catsup beside the plate. Paul eats heartily. He is hungrier than he thought. Traveling on the water does that to a man, Paul concludes. As he eats he hears an old radio playing in the corner.

From time to time Paul looks across the counter to Isaac. Isaac pretends to study the floor or look out the window, but eventually their eyes meet again. Then they lock onto each other. What started as speculation now ends as recognition. Before the two can speak, Jake interrupts by asking Paul, "Watcha doin' in these parts? Not many folks like you show up in Pilottown."

"I am working on an assignment," Paul says, inflating his importance.

"An assignment, then," echoes Jake.

"Yes, I want to document some of the old houses here before they are washed away."

"You oughta talk to Isaac over dare," Jake says, pointing to Isaac with his spatula. "He know' a lot about dis place, ‘cuz, I damn near taught him everythin'."

Paul nods, and sees a smile come across Isaac's face. He notices now that Isaac is one of the most beautiful young men he has ever seen. The bud that is Isaac's body is now in perfect bloom. Immediately, Paul feels the scar of an old injury open. Is there a wound in the world more difficult to heal than the one beauty makes upon the desiring soul? Isaac's black hair and classical profile reminds Paul of men in paintings of French royalty and of the one he loved foolishly long ago. Isaac has preserved in his flesh, as if it were a flower in amber, the well-bred beauty of another time. Perhaps he will let me take his picture, Paul wonders. Even among the ordinary sheds and stores of a forgotten port, something of the infinite breaks through.

"You know anything about the old Girault place?" Paul asks.

"Da house dat used to be at da end of da channel?" Isaac replies.

"I think that's the place," Paul says, pretending to know very little.

"Let me find out and let you know."

"I'd like that," Paul says. Then, the way a good cook adds just the right amount of spice, he continues, "I thought it was all but forgotten."

"Could be," Isaac replies. "If New Orleans is da city dat care forgot, den Pilottown is da city dat everyone forgot."

"I hope not," Paul adds.

"We'll see. Where will you be stayin'?"

"I'm not sure," Paul says, hoping to keep his coming and going a mystery.

"Try Monroe's bordin' house a little furdur down the bayou. Can't miss it. Just look for da big old palmetto," Jake suggests.

"Ain't much else here," Isaac adds.

"I'll do that," Paul says, concluding this may be the best advice he could get.

"She' old. Go' to bed early and get' up late. You do pretty much what you want dare. Ain't dat right, Jake?" Isaac adds, looking over to the grill.

"Listen to da boy," Jake says.

"Why don't we meet here tomorrow afternoon at one and you can tell me what you found out about the Girault place?" Paul suggests.

"OK. Tomorrow," Isaac answers in agreement.

There is an uncomfortable pause of silence. Then Isaac abruptly gets off his stool and tells his shaky legs to take him stuttering across the room. Isaac needs to get outside. He feels too close to a fire now, and if he comes any closer he will get burnt.

You know how it is when a man sees from afar a coin in the street. Excitement fills his eyes. For a moment he thinks of riches, but when he bends to pick it up, he sees with disappointment it is only a button. So, it is with disappointment that Paul watches Isaac limp away. Paul expected beauty to be whole. Instead, Isaac is only half of what was hoped. The door of the cafe jerks open and then closes on Isaac's shadow. Paul turns to look at the wall and then at old Jake scraping grease from the grill.

"He sure done left in a hurry," Jake comments without looking up from his work.

Paul takes another sip of beer. The antique radio in the corner plays, breaking the human silence that settles over the cafe. A Hank Williams song from the 50's fills the air. "Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie, and a-file gumbo... we'll have big fun on da bayou."

One afternoon, a few months ago, after Paul retired and was living in his San Francisco apartment, it dawned on him that he was weary of downloading images of young men from the Internet. He realized he must return to the human world. He must go back to the mouth of the river, go back to where his journey began. Paul is at that age now where arguments about God and the fine points of theology no longer interest him. He has concluded that what we call the world is but the accumulated consequence of many small wills. Taken together, we may never know all of what we do. So, grand schemes no longer attract Paul. He prefers simple acts of kindness and insight into how the broken manage. Let saints strive in the desert for perfection. From Paul's point of view, there is a tide in our affairs that joins us to others no matter what. Together, we are all gathered into that plea from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

A gay man like Paul doesn't have much of a family. His life is all but void of what advertisers call "a family atmosphere." If he lived in ancient Sparta without sons, then no one would stand to offer him a seat at the community table. By failing his biology he also fails the state. Now, in late middle age, he is sustained by friendships and a memory of love that came once as a gift and ended as a struggle. Before that, he was angry a long time with his parents. Like so much of the deep delta, he could not decide if he was water or land and so remained neither. Then, after many years of arguing with himself, he realized his life was no one's "fault." It was just a simple fact. Some men are gay, and that's the way he is. Being gay is given as a gift. Paul realized then that it was a strange gift, too, for even though it cut him off from the life of marriage and children, it did open his curiosity and intellect. If it were not for being gay he probably would not have known beauty or the depths of the human heart.

Forty years ago, Paul was forced to leave Pilottown. He had to make another life for himself away from the damp and closed minds of his mother and her neighbors. First, he spent a few years working in Chicago. Later, he managed to graduate from college, then worked as a high school English teacher and finally retired to San Francisco. Until yesterday, he never came back to Pilottown, not even when word of his mother's death reached him as an undergraduate on the campus of the University of Illinois. She was the one who gave him fifty dollars and a bus ticket to leave home, all the while cursing Paul's father for abandoning them. "You gotta leave. I can do no more with ya," she lamented.

Paul's mother Marie walked in one afternoon on him and a new river pilot having sex on her couch. She had just bought that couch from New Orleans. She saved a long time for it, taking in laundry and cleaning rooms. To her this was an insult cursed with the unnatural. Not only will Paul destroy his life but hers as well, she reasoned. What if the neighbors were to hear of this? How could she keep her job as a waitress at the Shore House? If the men who ate there were ever to know what her son had done, she could never face the judgment of their eyes. It was too much to ask of a woman of her limited means and abilities to accept this affront. True, Marie always knew Paul was different from other boys, but this was a disappointment that equaled the loss of her husband. Late at night when moonlight painted the bayou with a ghostly white gauze of mist, she would wonder what she did so wrong that Le Bon Dieu would punish her with these trials. Then she would weep into her pillow and dream of lights like eyes searching the cypress swamps. Her husband left, she sent her son away -- how many more storms will batter the low lands of her life? Someday a fierce rattle of rain will come and the roof will not hold. Then a crevasse will open in the levee and drown everything away the way it did in Acadiana during the great flood of 1927. After Marie died, folks said, "she jus' wore herself apart."

The first night Paul spends at Monroe's boarding house in Pilottown, he dreams of his mother. She limps towards him, dead but alive. Why are her legs crippled, Paul wonders in his dream? She was never that way in life. Then she gives him a handful of moss rolled to a ball and glowing like the light of fireflies among the monkey grass. Paul wakes up early after the dream. It is still dark. He listens and hears the moan of horns from ships on the river. The day is opening its secrets like the doors to a hidden patio. Paul remembers he has to meet Isaac at one this afternoon. Again a horn sounds from the river. Perhaps the angels prepare a bed of moss. Perhaps they warn of what is yet to come.

"If you die in Pilottown, where do they bury you?" Paul asks Isaac as they sit on the pier overlooking a stretch of the river. After they met at the cafe, Paul suggested they walk along the river. Old Jake working in the background but listening to every word like an owl annoyed Paul.

"Why you wanna know? You fixin' on dyin' here?"

"No. I want to visit my mother's grave."

"Your mama died here?"

"Thirty-five years ago. She used to rent that house at the end of channel."

"I figured as much," Isaac says, letting on that he may have discerned other secrets as well.

"She used to work at the Shore House, too," Paul adds.

"Den Jake done know her," Isaac says surprised.

"I imagine so."

"Maybe she da woman in dat pichur Jake got in the kitchen. She was purdy, dat woman

"It's hard to remember," Paul says with a tone of melancholy in his voice. "It was a long time ago."

"Wonder why Jake never talk 'bout her."

"There's a lot they don't talk about here," Paul say as if the challenge Isaac.

"I bet Jake done know you, too?" Isaac wonders aloud.

"I left here thirty-five years ago. I doubt if he even remembers me."

"He remember' everything dat happen' here."

"Then he knows why I left."

There is a forced pause in their conversation as a towboat passes. The grind of its powerful engines drowns out all the natural sounds of the river.

"There ain't no graves in Pilottown. The land's too low. You gotta go up river somewhere else in Plaquemines Parish to find where she lies," Isaac speculates.

"Will you help me do that?"

"If I don't have to walk all da damn way," Isaac says looking at his legs and throwing his head back to laugh sarcastically.

"Is there a priest who might know?"

"I don't take to no priests," Isaac says.

"Why not?" Paul asks, fearing his question may be too paternalistic.

Isaac stands up. He shakes for a moment like a tree about to fall and then reaches into the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet. "Look at dis dollar bill," Isaac demands. "Jake gave it to me. I've been savin' dis since someone used it to pay for a beer at da cafe."

Paul takes the dollar from Isaac's hand and sees that a letter was inked out from a word on the back. Now, the phrase above the "ONE" reads, "In God We Rust."

"Dat's what happen' to those who get sucked into religion," Isaac says angrily. "Dey rust away."

"You're just mad because of your legs, that's all," Paul says.

"I'm mad 'cuz of everything," Isaac asserts.

"What happened?" Paul asks sympathetically.

"Done born dis way."

"And I was born the way I am, too," Paul adds.

"How dat?"

Paul reaches out to Isaac. He places Isaac's hand on his thigh. He feels Isaac grip the cloth of his kakis into a fist, then relax to rub his hand slowly back and forth. Isaac stops to let his hand rest on Paul's zipper. Paul likes the warmth of Isaac's smooth hand pressing him. He hopes no one can see them, even as he swells with a desire he thought long ago extinguished.

"I love your legs," Isaac pleads. "I think I love you, too."

Back at the boarding house, Isaac and Paul undress and slip between a sheet and a light blanket. The half-light of an overcast afternoon in March barely illuminates the room. Shadow and substance are no longer separated by a clear line.

"I never been with a man before," Isaac admits shyly.

"I am an old man," Paul whispers, as if giving a final warning.

"Don't matter. Your legs are beautiful. I dreamed of you. No one at Pilottown let' me do dis."

Isaac's hands embrace Paul's thighs. They massage them up and down. He polishes Paul's flesh they way an artisan would polish the marble or bronze of a statue. If only Isaac had the oil of eternity on his hands, how smooth these legs would be forever. Indeed, these are legs for skirting among the reeds like sparks Isaac thinks.

Sometimes the same word means different things. So it is that Paul hears the word "love" when he presses close to Isaac. The word "beggar" certainly has a different meaning to Buddhist monks than it does to the homeless men Paul has seen idling in front of the mission on San Francisco's Castro Street. The story of a word is like the story of a life -- a mix of history and circumstance. Some names like "Evangeline" carry their own destiny. Can anyone who spends time looking at the bend of the world from the roof of a high building think otherwise? Slowly, Paul runs his fingers through Isaac's black hair the way a mandarin would dally silk ribbons on his fingers. The word "love" echoes in his mind. He feels Isaac's warmth over him and blesses it. For too long Paul has only been held by his own hands. Isaac also feels for the first time in his life the shape of flesh he lacks. Does ice mind when it relaxes back to water? Does the spring of time regret when the watch unwinds? It is not a perfect love, their marriage of legs and hair and hands, but it is what this low place of moss and damp walls allows. By that measure, it is comfort from the ignorant world. If a kiss could change the course of a river, then all lovers would let it happen.

The next day, a March morning of birdsong muffled by fog surrounds Monroe's boarding house. Into this damp spring the hopes that Mrs. Monroe planted last year are beginning to decorate the garden. The camellias and lilies bloom. Paul and Isaac sleep in a bedroom over which the leaves of a great palmetto spread an arch. Isaac ought to be up and gone by now if he wants to protect his family's reputation. Not that he and his mother worry about it. She long ago abandoned him to his strange ways after she came down to Pilottown from Bayou Teche. The government check she get for his disability keeps them going from one day to the next. Her new boyfriend supplies the rest from his job on a shrimp boat. Everyone in Pilottown supposes that a crippled boy like Isaac can't get into that much trouble.

When we are young our neighborhood seems small and our hope large. As we age, our neighborhood grows larger and our hope smaller. Paul believes this, but also wakes up surprised at what happened last night. Isaac is asleep at his side. The boy's beautiful black hair is a stark contrast against the white pillowslip. What comes next, Paul asks himself? He is afraid this wound will be healed by another scar. Do I want the weight of such a love at this point in my life, he wonders? He reaches over and touches Isaac's hair as the boy stirs in his sleep. "He dreams of running," Paul, says softly, as if only the angels could hear.

Later, after an early afternoon rain, Isaac comes alone to the cafe and resumes his regular station at the counter. Having given up plans to visit his mother's grave, Paul is taking pictures of some abandoned homes at the end of the boardwalk. In the cafe, Jake is busy chopping okra for a pot of gumbo. He knows when Isaac enters, but does not look up from his chopping board to acknowledge him. Isaac sits silently for a while before he decides to order a cup of coffee. Things are different in the cafe this afternoon. Isaac watches the world pass as if he were on a train traveling through a ruined city where people mill about aimlessly and horde their hopelessness. It was the same world yesterday, but now Isaac looks at it from another side. Even Jake seems distant and strange. Then he thinks of Paul walking alone among the wharfs and sheds. A sudden desire to be with him draws Isaac's heart the way the roots of an oak draw up the rain. Is it a quality of light, he asks himself? Has a transparent wall gone up since he was here last? Isaac looks up at Jake. "The usual, please," he asks.

Jake puts down his knife, and turns in place. "Where was you?" Jake asks angrily.

"Doin' stuff."

"I hear you spendin' time at da Monroe's bordin' house," Jake says bluntly.


"She tell' me you was up in his room all night."

"We was talkin'."

"Les buissons ont des oreilles. Da bushes have ears."

"What's dat spoze to mean?"

"Mean' you don't be comin' round here anymore. Dat's what spoze to mean."

"I ain't done nothin' wrong. Why you sayin' dat?"

"I got costumers to think 'bout. Dey see you here all day, dey won't be comin' in."

"What's da matter with you, Jake? Where I spoze to go, den?"

"Done be none of my business, boy."

"Oh, but it be your business what me and dat photographer doin'."

"A man like dat have no place here in Pilottown."

"Den I don't neither," Isaac says emphatically.

"Dat boat with da photographer be leavin' for Chalmette later dis evenin'," Jake says, turning away from Isaac.

Isaac stares at Jake. Isaac's eyes glare with an anger that is as old as the day he was born. Jake seems wrinkled and bitter to him now. Surprisingly, Isaac also sees the truth that Jake has been concealing all these years. Jake is just as weak as Isaac and has the same desire. How he wishes he could jump across the counter now and grab the old man by the throat. Instead, he muffles a laugh, stands up and limps to the door. Outside, in the damp air of afternoon, Isaac remembers that the Lord set an angel with a flaming sword before the gates of paradise so that none should enter yet again.

"So, where I spoze to go?" Isaac asks Paul. "I just can't walk away from what happened."

Paul sits on the edge of the bed in his room at Monroe's boarding house with his head cupped in his hands. Isaac sits patiently in a chair across from him, waiting for an answer. Then Paul straightens up and looking Isaac straight in the eyes, he asks, "What do you really want?"

For a moment all that can be heard in the room is the sound of two men breathing and the rustle of palms from outside the window. Then the great palmetto makes a bowl of complete silence over the room. Even the wind stills its rustle.

"I want to go with you," Isaac says, with the certainty of making an oath.

"San Francisco is no place for a cripple," Paul says bluntly, hoping to hurt Isaac enough so he may turn away. "There are too many hills," he adds, as if to take back what he just said.

"I take care of myself."

"What will you do?" Paul asks, desperately.

"I know how to cook," Isaac says with expectation in his voice.

There is another span of humid silence. Isaac sees Paul is thinking deeply about what to say. "What you gonna do, spend the rest of your life livin' "Bayou Self?" Isaac asks, trying to make a joke.

Paul looks at Isaac. His eyes are wide with hope. Paul remembers their night in bed together and the warmth of Isaac's hands. He remembers, too, that the mission on Castro Street is always looking for help. Paul has come back to the mouth of the river looking for one way, but he has found another. Where his mother's house once stood, there are only bulrushes and a few stilts jutting up from the water. Where his heart of stone once beat, there beats a heart of flesh. The world and the self are suffering into a metaphor he has so often tried to flee. What else can I spend my pension check on, Paul asks himself. At Head of Passes you see there is more than one way up river.

"OK," Paul says to Isaac. "Pack your things. You can call your mother when we get up to New Orleans."

Some truths are proven by virtue, others are proven by vice. Do not be misled by those who claim the soul is nothing more than vibrations in a void or a collection of energies that pass from one form to another. Love disproves the sermons of fire or water. The type of sin a man commits often proves he believes the opposite. Buildings go up, buildings fall down. The great sweep of the world seems incomprehensible. In a remote place, where water laps the bank of a great river, in a place where the hammer and grind of machines are few, a man hears better how the earth surrenders up the moans of the living and dead. Paul and Isaac are not alone in their wound or in their song of desire. There are so many more living, dead, and waiting to be born, and so many who hide from their weeping by hate or money or selfishness. Listen, the horns of great ships moving on the river search through the mist. They have sailed a long way and are looking to give up their cargo. Their bows part the water the way the horns of angels will someday part the sky. Give credit to those who fail at love. At least they are pointed in the right direction. This is why they make the world good, and the best is yet to come.

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