Feet on my desk, I indulged in a few passages, feeling Welty’s love for the people and mystery and beauty of this world unfurl throughout her exquisite sentences. On the couple’s brief detour through a country cemetery: “Names took their places on the walls slowly at a level with the eye, names as near as the eyes of a person stopping in conversation, and as far away in origin, and in all their music and dead longing, as Spain.” Farther down the road: “On a clothesline in the yard, a priest’s black gown on a hanger hung airing, swaying at a man’s height, in a vague, trainlike, ladylike sweep along an evening breath that might otherwise have seemed imaginary from the unseen, felt river.”
As I read, I realized I was sitting just a few blocks away from the road the couple takes from the Quarter to the Gulf; I can almost see it from my office window. It was the same road where the pizza place is—where we’d see Galaxy Crocs months later. In those sad weeks following the funeral, when I felt that soul-constricting desire to flee, I remembered Welty’s story. It was mid-March, and the boys were on spring break. I woke up on a restless Tuesday and texted my boss that I needed a personal day.
As I cobbled together snacks from the pantry, I tried to sell my two puzzled sons on a spontaneous road trip to Venice, the Southernmost Point in Louisiana, a.k.a. the End of the World. After they reluctantly turned off every last screen in the house, we got in the Honda Element and drove over the Mississippi River, exiting from the elevated West Bank Expressway down to Highway 23, which starts at a suburban strip mall and dead-ends about seventy miles later by the Gulf of Mexico. Highway 23 is also known as Belle Chasse Highway and runs through the fishing and industrial town of Belle Chasse, christened “the beautiful hunt” by the French in the early eighteenth century out of awe for the land’s wild bounty. I’ve always loved the name and the possibility of a “beautiful hunt,” an ardent search that excites and nourishes, regardless of the catch.
On that vibrant spring morning, we passed the fast-food chains and nail salons and dollar stores and mom-and-pop seafood restaurants that connect New Orleans to Belle Chasse. Finally, we cleared the gravitational pull of the city, finding ourselves among the citrus groves of Plaquemines Parish, trailer parks, spreading and dipping oak trees, somnolent cow pastures, isolated subdivisions of McMansions. The boys were quiet as usual—but they were screenless, gazing outward, taking in the fresh view of a part of the state they rarely see.
I was feeling alright. The highway was working its gritty, illusory magic. This is all yours, I thought: freedom, control, motion. I was also feeling the salve of a change of scenery: broken-up sidewalks for marsh grass, cramped narrow shotguns for fishing camps. Tangles of electrical and phone wires for the wide-open Gulf-reaching sky.
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