Authors: T'Gracie Reese,Joe Reese
“All right, then! Nature is speaking to you! Come up and be my guest! We’ll have our own little Woodstock!”
“You envision Woodstock; I envision Girl Scout Camp. And by the way, the two had more in common than you might guess. Especially sixth grade.”
“Okay, then, if that’s what it will take, we’ll make s’mores on a campfire out by the river.”
“You’re talking me into it.”
“Oh goodie! We’ll leave for Abbeyport tomorrow afternoon. It’s a three hour drive, we’ll be there by nightfall.”
“Now you do have to promise me I won’t meet Sarah Morgan.”
“No such promises. I do promise you though, that if you do meet her, you’ll have a lot in common.”
“All she did was take on the Union Army. Compared to the battles you’ve fought in the last year or so, that’s small potatoes.”
And so Nina was decided.
She always enjoyed Margot’s company.
And she was sure to enjoy the quietness and serenity of The Candles.
And she would not see any bizarre and supernatural creatures.
And she found herself in these thoughts for the rest of the evening.
Not knowing that she was completely wrong about every one of them.
Margot had made the drive from Bay St. Lucy north to Abbeyport—the nearest village to The Candles—so often that the nearest and most straightforward route up through Mississippi had become somewhat boring to her.
This time, purely for variety, she drove directly west into Louisiana, crossed the Mississippi at St. Francisville, and meandered north through Louisiana, glimpsing the great river as often as possible, and passing through towns such a Vidalia, St. Joseph, Talulah, and Lake Providence.
The small local road she chose was two-lane and blacktop, bordered on each side by impenetrable walls of yellow pine, and punctuated at five- to ten-mile intervals by smaller villages and communities, each of which consisted of house trailers, small houses, larger houses, the village mansion, the downtown, the village mansion on the north side, large houses, the McDonalds, the Wal-Mart, small houses, house trailers, and once again the forest.
Margot’s driving proved to be the only safe and reasonable part of her personality, and so Nina was able to unclench her fists after only thirty or so miles, and concentrate on finding something to listen to on the radio.
There were political talk shows railing against the government; there were sermons and wild-voiced ministers warning about the upcoming end of the world; there were sports babble shows describing the wonders of high school running backs who, though only sophomores at present, were still being wooed openly by not only LSU, where loyalty dictated that they should go, but also, terrifyingly, Ole Miss.
There was a show advising people what to do with their 401K’s.
There was a National Public Radio show that dealt with the ancient art of quilt making in Southern Croatia.
Scan, scan, scan––
Finally there was a channel from which emanated a strange sort of static with which Nina was not familiar. It frightened her, and she wondered if something had gone suddenly wrong with the electrical system of the Volkswagen.
“What is that?” she asked Margot.
“What is what?”
“It isn’t static; it’s Led Zeppelin.”
“Is that a kind of electrical malfunction?”
“No, it’s a rock band.”
“Have you ever heard an acid rock band?”
“Margot, I’ve lived in Bay St. Lucy all my life. When and where would I have heard an acid rock band?”
“I don’t even want to go into that. Keep scanning, though.”
“You don’t like Led Zeppelin?”
“I don’t like their lead guitarist.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I went to bed with him. The first thing he did was––”
“Okay, but I still remember his––”
And Nina continued to scan stations as one community melted into another and the main square court houses began to run together in her mind, all of them guarded by a granite confederate soldier with wide-brim hat, a rifle, and an angry glare.
“There. Listen. Is that another rock band?”
“No. That’s actual static.”
“It’s so amazing to me. How you can tell the difference?”
“Well, drugs help.”
They were entering another town, the name of which Nina had not noticed. Margot slowed the car, then braked for the first signal light in a series of Wendy’s, Taco Bells, Arby’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Shell Gasoline, Whattaburger, and a building that said State Farm Insurance.
Almost as a matter of reflex Nina, child of the Gulf Coast, let her eyes scan the skies. Still crisp blue but different. The wisps of clouds a bit higher, farther apart, lacier and almost diaphanous, as though she were imagining rather than seeing them; and the blue, the deep eternal and frightening blue, now tinged with something else, some other non-color, as though God had injected into it a drop of flavoring.
At precisely 4:15 p.m.––Nina noted the time on the dashboard clock, because something momentous seemed about to happen, and she wanted to know when—they topped a small rise and noted by the roadside a sign that said:
ABBEYPORT FERRY, ONE MILE
Then Margot turned slightly to the right, wove her way through a grove of pines, made a harder turn left, and there before them lay the Mississippi River.
The sight of it created in Nina the same feeling that always overwhelmed her when, after an absence of some days, she returned to and glimpsed again the ocean.
“Wow,” she found herself whispering.
A child-like thing to say.
But then, elemental things always drew her back into childhood.
She might not appreciate Led Zeppelin but she wasn’t dead, either.
There it was, almost as wide as the sea itself, placid and winding, a barge floating far to the north, another one disappearing around a bend to the south, the sun’s rays glittering on water that seemed, from this distance, absolutely motionless.
The narrow road descended, a little steeper now, a turn here and there—down to a pier, toward which could be seen chugging a ferry boat with no cars on it.
“We could,” said Margot, sliding the car into the narrow land that said, ‘Autos board ferry here,’ “have come up the interstate and over. I thought it might be fun to go over with the ferry.”
The Volkswagen reached the river’s edge where the ferry’s mooring had been set up. It stopped, motor still running, while the ferry chugged toward it and cut its engines, drifting along toward the shore.
Nina could not stop looking first to the left, where one barge had finally disappeared, and now back northward. There, just coming into view, almost at the middle of the river, was a ghost ship.
There were ghosts on the plantation; all right, so there were ghosts on the river, too.
It seemed to be an old paddle wheeler, gaily painted in red white and blue, smokestacks puffing, a few passengers tiny in the distance, posed like miniature dolls along the rails of the quarter deck, and, every few seconds, its whistle tooting to the upcoming town—in
this case, Nina assumed, Abbeyport––that miraculous warning: STEAMBOAT’S COMING!
“Will you look at that, Margot?”
“Yes. It’s a pleasure line from St. Louis down to New Orleans. The ferry we’re about to take is one of the few still crossing the river. Mostly they’ve been replaced by bridges. But on the other side there’s a portage point where the steamboat stops. You can get on it and go all the way down to New Orleans, or you can just go a few miles, ten or thirty, I forget which, and then catch another boat back upriver. There’s a restaurant, of course. A band, shows—all that kind of thing.”
Nina watched the scene spread out before her, but, as the ferry neared, her mind distanced, and she found herself standing on the Texas Deck with Mark Twain. He was a young Mark Twain as he stood there by Nina, not the white-haired man in the white suit that had come to characterize him, but a resolute young cub pilot, determined to learn the ways of the river. They watched as wavelets scudded out across the stream, belying or indicating shoals, invisible currents, snags just beneath the surface; they checked the boilers, remembering that one had blown up just below Cairo only a day before, sinking the boat in mid-river and drowning all on board; and they squinted into the sun, just able to make out a small island not too far from shore, where a little boy and a big black man, a runaway slave, cooked their simple meal on a small fire and set about changing American literature forever.
“The sky looks ever so deep,” Nina found herself saying, softly, knowing that neither Sam Clements nor Huck nor Jim would hear her, but sensing that they, like her deceased husband Frank, existed as real and not imaginary ghosts, and would never leave her as long as she simply remained receptive to them—“ever so deep when you’re looking up into it, and you’re on a raft.”
“What did you say, Nina?”
“Nothing. Just muttering.”
“The ferry’s here. We’ll pull up now.”
A man who appeared to be the exact opposite of Mark Twain––who appeared more like a gasoline attendant except that there were no longer any gasoline attendants—jumped from the cabin of the ferry, walked briskly toward the bow of the boat, and loosened a chain, allowing Margot to drive forward. She continued to edge on, following the man’s hand waving instructions, as the car moved toward the bow and the boat began to pull away from the pier, creating a twin movement that had always delighted the ten-year-old Nina.
A few moments later they were standing on the ferry rail, leaning out slightly over the Mississippi. They could see the current moving beneath them now, forcing them south while the chugging engines of the ferry resisted, and the boat, headed north, wound up compromising with nature and drifting east toward Abbeyport. The steeple and roofs of the town gleamed white over the pilot house of the ferry.
The air, unusually fresh for August, had now subsumed into it all the aromas of the river, and felt delicious.
Nina was shaken from her reveries by the blaring of the ferry’s whistle, and a brisk command to start the Volkswagen’s engines, a command followed by Margot so that the little car was puttering away nicely as the ferry docked.
The chain fell in front of them, they edged forward, upshifted, gained speed, and, finally, found themselves driving along the main street of Abbeyport.
“My God,” said Margot, “will you look at this?”
“Yeah,” was all that Nina could say.
“One of the reasons I thought you might want to come with me, Nina, was to get away from Bay St. Lucy and let yourself be surrounded by something absolutely different.”
“This is new all right!”
And they did in fact feel as though they had entered a world completely different from little Bay St. Lucy, gulf-side artists’ and fishermen’s community. In the first place, the population of Bay St. Lucy was 2,367 people. Here the population was—or so announced a large green and gold city limit sign showing the ferry boat approaching and the town backed up against the river—2,581.
So that was different, right from the start.
But as the Volkswagen headed down the central street of town, the other differences continued to mount up.
Here, for example, just at the west end of the broad avenue—which, as was the case with Bay St. Lucy’s main thoroughfare, was called “Main Street”—was a shop called “Expressions by Claire.” In Bay St. Lucy that exact position was occupied by the shop called “Clay Creatures.”
But it continued.
Farther along, instead of Joyce’s Shells and Gifts, they saw Maggie May’s. The Social Chair had been replaced by Uptown Interiors. The Blue Crab Gifts Gallery had become River Breeze. Where Moor-Haus Antiques would have stood in Bay St. Lucy, they saw before them Art Alley in the Pass. Then came, instead of Aloha Gallery, a shop called Let’s Make Up Gifts.
One could actually list it.
Whereas in Bay St. Lucy there would have been:
M & L Gifts