I remember myself at that time as gangly and dim. I was 18, just removed from my first year of college, during which time I played baseball, ate Buffalo wings, drank beer, whispered lies to young women and slept. School? Let me put it this way -- I got a "U" (as in "unsatisfactory") in Typing 101 and the rest of my grades added up to "academic probation," which is the university's way of saying, "Yep, this guy's dim."
So, on the flight to Monroe, La., where I would visit my dad for three weeks, I was filled with a sense of freedom. It was the chance to escape my life for a spell. What I had -- a retreat from school, a comfortable suburban life and a girlfriend I didn't like anymore -- was creative-enough punishment. But Dad saw to it that I'd spend my time steam-cleaning Case machines at his tractor company for eight hours a day at minimum wage, a not-so-subtle hint that if I kept up my study practices, minimum wage is exactly what I'd be earning for the rest of my life.
In other words, the visit was a way to purge myself of my failures and realize my potential. Of course, being dim, I had only a vague understanding of all this.
Monroe (pop. 56,000) and its smaller "twin city," West Monroe (pop. 14,000), are split by the Ouachita River, lying a couple of hundred miles northwest of New Orleans in a flatbed portion of the state. In design, Monroe is the prototypic small Southern town -- a centralized downtown with a few "skyscrapers" hovering over early 20th century homes. Delta Airlines was founded there, agriculture is a big industry and the University of Louisiana at Monroe adds academic appeal.
There's a paper mill a few miles outside town that in spring competes with the scent of magnolias. It was hot that May, and the fawning oaks and crawfish clay absorbed the sun and held it in like a brick oven. My first day of work, Dad woke me at 6 a.m. by pulling open my left eyelid and shining a flashlight into my brain. Clearly, I wasn't in college anymore. I dressed in the official company attire, a green jumpsuit with my name stitched on it. I grabbed a quick breakfast, hopped in my temporary transportation -- a red CJ5 Jeep modified with a Ford V-8 engine and fat tires, which made it much like the early rockets that blew up on NASA launchpads -- and drove to work. Dad's tractor company was located on an industrial road on the outskirts of town.
Before I knew it, I was standing on a cement platform in the tractor yard out back, the early-morning sun already stinging the back of my neck. Before me, stretching out like the skeleton of a stegosaurus, was a muddy backhoe. J.T., one of my dad's workers, was standing next to me. He had a thick brown beard and no teeth, giving his mouth the appearance of, among other things, a pink cave surrounded by fire-blackened scrub brush. His dentally challenged state, coupled with a thick-as-molasses Southern accent, made him impossible to understand as he explained to me how to steam-clean a tractor. He walked off.
I stood there for a moment, holding the steam gun in my hand, eyeing the caked backhoe. Then I blasted the tractor for a good 10 seconds. A trickle of mud ran to a nearby drain. The tractor was still covered, and the mud -- crawfish mud, which smells like rotten eggs when it gets wet -- was like cement. I blasted again and felt the rifle start to heat in my hands; I was realizing why, in fact, it was called "steam" cleaning. Mud began to splatter in chunks and brown spray. It got hotter. Every once in a while, I stuck my head under a nearby water spigot to cool off.
At lunchtime, Dad came out to check on me.
"Jesus," he said at the sight of me. "You're covered in mud."
I looked at myself. He was right.
"You know, you don't have to stand so close when you're cleaning them," he said.
"Oh yeah?" I said.
"Wanna eat lunch?"
"Can I?" I felt like I was in prison.
"Yeah, we'll let ya."
Southern folks have a way of recognizing the potential for a good story while it's still happening. I discovered this when I walked into the tractor company lunchroom. My name was Mud and you could hear the whoops and hollers all the way to downtown Monroe.
My dad, to his credit, took pity on me. After work and a cool shower, I came out to the kitchen of his old Southern cottage. His house always smelled like someone was roasting garlic somewhere, and the double-hung windows were open to let in the dusky air, tinged with Confederate jasmine. He sat me down at the dinner table; he had something he wanted me try. He always had food he wanted me to try -- baba ghanouj or crawfish itouffie or chicken sauce picante, just the type of fare that fans of Buffalo wings tend to avoid.
This time it looked like a miniature half-football, steaming on a small plate. A bottle of Tabasco sat next to it.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Try it," he said, handing me a freshly poured, icy beer.
I did. It was some kind of crescent-shaped pastry filled with a spicy meat concoction and deep-fried. It tasted of green onions and garlic and seasoning that mingled like friends at a spring picnic. "It's called a Natchitoches meat pie," Dad said, pronouncing it NACK-a-tish. "They're made in this small town a few hours from here." I didn't really care. It could have been filled with rat livers and I wouldn't have cared. It tasted good, and I was hungry after working all day in the sun. I added Tabasco, scarfed it down, drank my beer, asked for more. That night, before bed, I had another pie. The next morning, after Dad woke me with a squirt gun, I had one for breakfast and packed two for lunch, along with a Coke. It seems Dad had a never-ending supply of the meat pies in his freezer.
My time in Monroe quickly fell into a rhythm. I'd rise early to avoid Dad's practical jokes, pack my lunch, jump in the Rocket and head to work. I'd steam-clean until lunch, eat meat pies while struggling through a conversation with J.T., steam-clean until 5, rocket home, eat more pies, fall asleep early. I was getting better at the job, too, perfecting a way to spray the tractors without dirtying my entire person. (It's all in the angle of the steam gun.)
Manual labor isn't bad for the imaginative mind. There's something mesmerizing about standing in the same place for hours, sweating, watching hot water run off steel and earth. It's the fodder for daydreams, and -- contrary to my dad's efforts to persuade me to enjoy school -- I was cultivating a fantasy about me as Blue-Collar Guy. I was reinventing myself into a life away from classes that make you type to classical music. Forget professional baseball, or whatever else it was that I thought I might get out of college. To me, steam-cleaning wasn't a bad life. It was simple and relaxing.
Sometime near the end of that first week, Dad took me to his friends' house. As with new foods, he was always introducing me to people -- the Pilot, the Knife Guy, the Hunter. Now it was Neal and Doll's turn, a middle-aged couple pulled straight from a Southern play. As I remember, Neal resembled Robert Conrad in the face. He was a scratch golfer who often practiced his golf swing in the middle of a conversation. He had Popeye forearms and a torso not unlike an upside-down pyramid. Doll, meantime, looked her name -- porcelain skin, frumpy dress, sad eyes.
We said hello and made small talk as we all stood in the kitchen. Doll offered me sweet tea, and though she smiled, her eyes were still sad. As the conversation flowed, it occurred to me that I was being interviewed. They wanted to know what I was studying ("the usual"), what being a baseball player was like ("cool").
A young girl walked in. She was maybe 13, Neal and Doll's daughter. She smiled at me as if she knew a secret, then turned to her mom.
"When's Misty gittin' home?" she asked.
"She has class. She'll be home shortly." They were both smiling at me.
"Misty goes to the university," Dad said, and I couldn't help noticing the odd look on his face. Was this a setup of some kind?
"No kidding," I said. I once had a cat named Misty.
"She sings in the church choir, too," said Doll.
"Don't scare the boy off," said Neal.
"Mom, Dad, please," said Misty, who had overheard her parents as she entered the house, then the kitchen. She smiled at me. I felt like a dirty young man. She was 19, a wisp of a girl, 5 feet tall and 90 pounds, with straight brown hair, bangs. My virgin detector went on high alert.
Naturally, I picked her up the next night for our first date. While she finished getting ready, I waited in the kitchen with her dad. Neal was flexing his forearms.
"You know how I got these forearms, Jamie?" he asked.
"Scoopin' ice cream," he said. "I used to work at an ice-cream shop when I was in high school. That's where I met Doll. And I'd scoop ice cream all night long.
"Look at that," he said, flexing one arm.
"Wow," I said, impressed. I was immediately sure that Neal was making a veiled reference to throttling the air from my lungs with those forearms should anything happen to his Misty. I didn't want to disappoint him, at least not until I got Misty out of the house.
I don't remember where I took her that night -- dinner? ice cream? The important thing is that we ended up on my dad's couch, watching movies, eating Natchitoches meat pies. (I was hooked, I tell you.) She asked me about baseball, and I happily regaled her with heroic stories about how I was a red-shirt left-handed pitcher who couldn't find the plate. It got late. We traded soft kisses, and then traded bites of a pie.
Eventually, tired from the workday, I rested my head on her lap. While she brushed a hand through my hair the conversation entered that late-night zone where walls collapse and the truth slips out like details of a sleep talker's dreams. I told her about my grades and my girlfriend back home. She told me she was a virgin, and I secretly patted myself on the back.
We made a unique couple. She'd take me places in her Hyundai; she hated the Rocket. She did well at the university; I was dim. I liked listening to Tom Petty; she liked to blare Amy Grant -- when Amy Grant was pop-gospel -- at top volume in her car, windows rolled up, singing along as if she were in church. I liked daydreaming; she liked asking me what I wanted to do with my life.
Each night we would end up on my dad's couch, making out. I was hoping to teach the choirgirl to sing the praises of premarital sex. Things would get heated, skin rubbing and pushing, breath rising. I'd make a move to the promised land. She'd stop me in a voice as certain as a church hymn.
Rejected, I'd head to the freezer for a tasty meat pie. It was my first actualized experience of the connection between sex and food. I was merely heading to where the pie was plentiful. I was projecting my raging libido onto those pastries. I couldn't get enough of them. I dreamed about them, wished for them while steam-cleaning, while driving the Rocket.
One morning, Dad came into the kitchen and said, "We've run out of meat pies."
"That was my summer supply," he said, a bit confounded. It was late May.
"Can't we get some more?" I asked. I assumed we could pick some up at Publix or something.
He walked out. Apparently, there were ways to make the pies, but the best pies came from the place they were named after. Later, we formed a plan. I would take the next day off from steam-cleaning and drive to Natchitoches.
"Why don't you call Misty and ask her to go?" Dad suggested. I did. She had a class, but she said she'd skip it.
I should have known not to take the Rocket, but who thinks at 18? Besides, I saw the potential for My Life as a Jeep Commercial: the open road in front of me, the sun overhead and a girl at my side.
The journey took Misty and me southwest to Natchitoches, along Interstate 20 to U.S. highway routes populated by roadkill and semis. But the scenery mattered not to me. I was just happy to be away from work. Plus, there was the vague hope that Misty, away from her dad's gravitational pull, would lose touch with her virgin self and suggest a spontaneous rendezvous in the Rocket. And if that failed, there was the tangible idea that we'd soon be loaded down with delicious meat pies.
We listened to Amy Grant and Tom Petty. We talked. She got quiet. She had something she wanted to tell me, because she really liked me, she said.
"I had a brother," she said. She told me he was younger than she, older than her sister. He was killed in a boating accident. Neal's flexed forearms and Doll's sad eyes suddenly made sense. I got lost and didn't admit it for an hour. By the time we pulled into Natchitoches, we were sun- and wind-burned, thirsty, tired. We stopped at the 7-Eleven for drinks.
Natchitoches is home to Northwestern State University today, but it bills itself as the oldest permanent settlement in the land that made up the Louisiana Purchase. Located on the banks of Cane River Lake, it was founded as a trading post with the Spanish and Indians in 1714 by French Canadian Louis Juchereau de St. Denis.
Today, the town has a population of 17,000, with more than half taking classes at the university. I remember crooked streets through century-old neighborhoods and downtown.
We pulled up to Lasyone's Meat Pie Kitchen on Second Street, one of many Natchitoches shops that sell pies at $2 a pop.
"Where ya been?" the gray-haired black woman said as we walked in.
"Huh?" I said.
"You're pickin' up the meat pies, right?" she asked.
"We been waitin' for ya."
"Here we are," said Misty.
"We got turned around," I offered.
"Help me with this," the woman said to me. We picked up a large Styrofoam cooler stocked with pies and loaded it in the back of the Rocket. I tried to give her my dad's credit card. She waved it off.
"Your dad already paid," she said, walking back to the store.
If only the rest of the journey had gone so smoothly. We rolled east in the Rocket as thunderheads formed behind us, cruising on high winds to eventually cover us. I hadn't brought the Rocket's top. Who thinks at 18? The rain started falling somewhere in the middle of nowhere, when the open road offered no shelter. I handed Misty a dirty towel from the back seat.
The Rocket began to misbehave. Apparently the tires were not unlike the slicks found on dragsters, making the Rocket's light frame and powerful engine a model for hydroplaning. I ignored the first couple of slides to the side of the road, ignored the 10-foot drop to a water- and mud-filled gully. In fact, I gassed the Rocket's V-8, using the logic that speed was my only weapon for escaping the rain.
The Rocket started sliding again and didn't stop. We left the road, bouncing out of control toward the ditch. I still have a picture in my mind of that moment, like a Polaroid, smeared at the edges and far away: Neal's baby, her 90-pound frame in midair, hovering over the Rocket's passenger seat, over the gully, like a doll, held only by the loose seat belt strap reaching over her skinny, pink thighs. I reached for her, grabbed her in an awkward place, lost her, saw the gully move closer, prayed with Misty, bounced more, lurched to a stop.
A semi roared past. Misty was still with us. So were the pies. Cars sprayed us. I heard my heart and thought it was the engine; I tried to drive but went nowhere. So much for reinvention: I was still an idiot. I started the Rocket and slowly pulled out. We were soaked. We didn't say a word.
It was dark when we got back to Monroe. I pulled up to Misty's house and she gave me a peck and got out. We didn't talk for two days. When I called, she seemed distracted, and said I seemed distracted. Regardless, my time in Monroe was running out, so we made the effort to meet on the couch a few more times. But it never happened.
I have no doubt the relationship would have failed had I stuck around. But this was the first time I had left before getting through that initial phase of getting to know a person. The relationship was left in eternal limbo.
Before heading to the airport, Dad and I stopped by Neal and Doll's house. I have no recollection of the goodbye scene with Misty -- just the firm handshake from Neal and the awkward farewell with her mom as she surprised me with tears and a hug, then gave me an 8-by-10 high school photo of Misty that I had no idea what I was supposed to do with.
"Come back and see us soon," she said.
"I will," I said. "Definitely."
Of course, I didn't. Dad took me to my plane. My luggage included a small cooler of meat pies. I ate all of them within a week. Misty and I wrote to each other a couple of times. I went back to school. And I learned how to type.