November 1, 2002
Wrong time, right place
by O'Neil De Noux
ouis heard the plane before he saw it. Shielding his eyes with his left hand, he looked out over Vermilion Bay and spotted a silver plane taking a slow turn over the bay and heading directly toward him. Leaning against a cypress tree, a cane pole in his right hand, Louis lost the plane in the afternoon sun but picked it up a second later, the sunlight glittering off its wings. It was an old fashioned plane, the kind with two wings, one atop the other. It looked like a fat mosquito hawk.
The plane's engine sputtered. It dipped momentarily before rising to clear the cypress trees easily. Louis turned and watched the plane dip again and then land in the pasture on the other side of Calixte Road behind him. The plane bounced twice, slowed and made a long u-turn in the pasture.
Sticking his cane pole in the mud, Louis figured the catfish could wait. He turned and jogged across the dirt road and jumped the unpainted wooden fence. He stopped and watched the plane approach. The plane's propeller stirred the still air, causing Louis's tee shirt to stick to his sweaty skin. He smelled its engine now. The strong odor of exhaust mixed with the musty scent of humid south Louisiana.
The plane turned to the right and stopped, its engine dying immediately. The pilot waved at Louis, stood up and pulled off a leather cap and shook out her long, reddish brown hair. She climbed out onto the lower wing and jumped to the ground. Wearing a khaki jumpsuit and a sky blue scarf around her neck, the pilot dusted herself off as she walked straight for Louis.
'Hi,' she said, flashing a wide smile. Her lips were deep red and her face fair and pale, unlike Louis's dark Cajun complexion. She was very pretty. He figured her to be in her twenties.
Louis nodded, suddenly aware of his soiled tee shirt and worn jeans. The pilot wore high-laced brown boots. Louis was barefoot.
Extending her hand to shake, the pilot said, 'That wasn't the prettiest landing.'
Louis lifted his hand. She grabbed it and gave it a good squeeze and a strong shake. She was about Louis's size, about five-six, although he was just sixteen and would grow more, hopefully.
The woman looked over his shoulder and said, 'What's the name of that bay, good lookin'?'
Louis felt himself blush as he pulled his hand away. 'That's Vermilion Bay.' His voice sounded scratchy.
'Louisiana? Vermilion Bay, Louisiana?' She looked around excitedly. 'How did I end up in Louisiana?'
Louis shrugged and wondered if he was supposed to answer.
The woman ran her hands through her hair and looked back at him. 'Is there a town near here called Burnt Cane?'
It took Louis a second. 'Cannes Brulée? You talkin' about Cannes Brulée? It means 'burnt cane' in French. It's right down the road.' He pointed back to Calixte Road.
The woman's face flushed as she looked over his shoulder again. He heard her gulp before she said, 'Do you know a man named Earl Clouatre?'
'Who?' Louis sank his hands in his back pockets.
'Earl Clouatre.' The woman began to spell the last name, 'C . . . L . . .O . . .'
'I know the Clouatres,' Louis said. Conscious of his heavy Cajun accent, he did his best to even it out, to make it sound more American, like hers. 'They stay right outside Cannes Brulée. You askin' about Mister Earl, the old man?'
He could see gold specks in the irises of the woman's green eyes as she blinked at him. 'Yes. Earl Clouatre. Wait. What do you mean 'old man'?'
'I can take you to his house, if you want.'
'Oh, please!' The woman shaded her eyes from the sun with both of her hands and looked past him again, at the bay. Her chest rose and fell in short, deliberate breaths. The air was so still now, Louis felt he was breathing his own breath back in again as they stood there, the strong sun beating down on their heads.
'I'm Margie Legendre,' she said. 'What's your name?'
He looked away quickly, back at the plane. 'Louis Bourget.' His voice was nervous. He sucked in a deep breath. She began to fan herself with her left hand. He smelled her perfume now, faint and sweet.
'Whew,' she said in a shaky voice, 'it sure is stuffy.'
'It's the humidity.'
Margie pulled the blue scarf off and dropped it in the grass. She took a hold of the front of her jumpsuit and unzipped it quickly, all the way down to her waist. Louis looked at the damp yellow tee shirt she wore beneath. He could see the outline of her brassiere under, the round cups. They had a lacy design on them.
She sat and pulled off the jumpsuit. Sitting cross-legged, she leaned back on her hands. Louis wondered what she would look like without clothes, sitting cross-legged under the bright sun, her skin soaking in the strong rays. He looked away quickly.
'Where you from?' Louis asked before he realized he'd asked.
Margie craned her neck to face the sun.
'Your name, Legendre, is French.'
'Why are you surprised?' Margie smiled at him. 'There are French people up north, too. Ever hear of Quebec?'
'What kind of plane is that?' He bit his lower lip. What he meant to ask was what was anyone from New Jersey doing around Vermilion Bay, for God's sake.
'It's a Curtis J. N. Jenny.' Her eyes closed now, she shook her hair again. There were streaks of blonde on the sides of her long hair.
Louis ran his right hand over his chin. He figured he was missing something, but that wasn't a new feeling for him. He often felt as if he was missing something when talking to a lady, especially a pretty one.
'What is the name of that town again?'
'Cannes Brulée. We're about thirty-five miles from Abbeville.'
'Cannes Brulée,' she repeated and then said it again. 'I like the way it rolls off the tongue. I come from a small town too,' she said. 'Grover's Mill.'
She reached a hand up for him to grab. Louis stepped forward and pulled her up. She was so light she almost bounced into him, which caused Louis to step back.
She brushed off the rear of her brown pants that looked like army pants. Her perfume smelled stronger now. 'Are you sure you can take me to Earl Clouatre?'
Louis led the way to Calixte Road. He jumped the fence and asked her to wait while he went and picked up his pole and the three catfish he'd caught.
'Nice fish,' she said when he joined her on the road. 'What kind are they?'
'Come on, you teasing me now. Everybody knows what a catfish looks like.'
Margie smiled again and looked out at the bay. Louis moved to her other side, to keep downwind of her so she wouldn't smell his perspiration.
'How old are you?' she asked with another smile.
Louis wasn't about to ask. It wasn't polite to ask a lady her age.
Margie let out a sigh. 'What did you mean when you called Earl an old man?'
'Mister Earl's the oldest man living around here. He fought in the First World War.'
Margie slowed for a second. 'First World War?' She looked at him as if he was speaking a foreign language. She shook her head. 'Earl isn't an old man. He's twenty-eight.'
Louis shrugged. 'I don't think Mister Earl has any kids.' In a lower voice he said, 'That I know of.' Then he blushed again.
Thankfully she didn't seem to hear that last remark and didn't speak again until they reached Earl Clouatre's cabin at the edge of the swamp, just south of Cannes Brulée. The sun was lower now, casting long shadows across Earl's front porch as Louis climbed up on it and called out to the old man.
Louis slapped a mosquito on his neck and called out again. A figure appeared behind the screen door and Louis said, 'Hey, Mister Earl. I got a visitor for you.'
Turning, Louis motioned for Margie to step around to the porch. As she did, the screen door opened and the bent figure of Earl Clouatre stepped out on the porch. Supported by a bent cane, Mister Earl plodded to a dark wood rocker and took a second to sit. The old man's face was unshaven and looked more hollow than Louis had ever seen before. His hair, as white as an egret's plume, stood out in uneven tufts on his head. He seemed to sink into the rocker.
Margie climbed the three steps up to the porch and stood in front of Mister Earl. Slowly, ever so slowly, the old man narrowed his eyes and looked at her.
Margie smiled. 'I'm looking for Earl Clouatre.'
The old man nodded and said he was Earl Clouatre.
'Um,' Margie ran her hand through her hair. 'Earl is twenty-eight. I met him last year, after he was wounded at Château-Thierry. He came home this spring.' Margie glanced back at Louis and smiled.
'Château-Thierry?' The old man's voice cracked. 'Château-Thierry?' He leaned forward and squinted at Margie. She looked back at him and the sun bathed her face now, all golden.
Mister Earl made a noise and pushed himself up on shaking arms. The rocker quivered. 'You say Château-Thierry?'
The old man let go of the rocker and wavered as he stood. Margie reached out and grabbed a frail elbow. Mister Earl's chin moved forward as if he needed a closer look at her face. He blinked and then recoiled, as if she slapped him. Margie let go of his arm.
Mister Earl's weathered face was lined in pain as he pulled away from Margie and stumbled back toward his screen door. Margie's chest rose and fell. The air was so thick Louis could not catch his breath for a moment. The porch was burnt orange from the red sun sinking into Vermilion Bay.
He turned and looked back at the orb as it sank into the water. The horizon seemed to sizzle. Margie's footsteps turned him back around. She ran off the porch and back down Calixte Road.
Mister Earl fell against his screen door. Louis looked at each, back and forth for a moment, before starting after Margie. When he caught up to her, she slowed to a walk and gave him a glassy-eyed look.
The sun was nearly gone by the time they reached the plane, an eerie orange-gray light streaking the pasture. Margie climbed into her jumpsuit, her hands shaking now. She hurried.
Turning to look at Louis, she wiped tears from her face and said, 'I have to get back.' She looked over his shoulder at the dying sun, as if to get her bearings.
Louis felt his heart thumping. Perspiration worked its way down the small of his back. He felt dampness around his temples.
Margie moved closer. Louis leaned back on his heels but continued looking into her eyes. And Margie inched her face closer to his. Her head tilted. Her lips parted. She closed her eyes and kissed his lips. Softly. Louis felt the weight of her breasts against his chest.
She pulled away and pressed her right index finger against his lips. He could see her eyes were wet. Backing away from him, she pulled her leather cap back on and said, 'Thank you.'
He took a hesitant step to follow her but stopped and watched her climb into the plane. The engine sputtered before the propeller caught. The rush of warm wind washed against his face as the plane turned and rolled down the pasture.
Louis watched it lift off, cross over the fence and climb out over the bay. Rising higher, it banked to the left and he soon lost sight of it in the twilight over Vermilion Bay.
Louis waited until he couldn't hear it anymore and waited longer, until the moon rose bright and yellow over the bay. Looking around at the tire marks in the pasture, he spotted the blue scarf and picked it up. Draping it over his shoulders, he walked back to Mister Earl's in the moonlight. He searched the night sky as he walked, but saw nothing but stars. The evening breeze rustled the trees and far away he heard the lonely cry of a bobcat.
Mister Earl was sitting in the rocker when Louis arrived to pick up his pole and catfish. In the moonlight, the old man looked dead, except for the fact he was rocking back and forth.
Without looking at Louis, Earl said, 'She gone?'
The old man stopped rocking.
'She looked like someone.'
Louis put his pole down and sat on the steps.
'She said her name was Margie Legendre.'
The old man turned his head the way a dog does when it hears a strange sound. His chest heaved and Louis thought he was having a heart attack.
'You all right?'
The old man closed his eyes and pressed his head back against the top of the chair and started rocking again. He began humming a tune, something old-fashioned that seemed faintly familiar to Louis.
Louis turned and stared up at the dark sky. He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them and watched the sky. The old man's humming faded. Louis heard the creak of the chair and the scrape of the cane on the porch.
Mister Earl moved to the front of the porch and looked up at the sky. His eyes glistened in the moonlight. He cleared his throat and said, 'I don't believe it.' And he went back into his cabin, the screen door slamming behind him.
Arriving at home, Louis sat on his own front porch steps for a while, looking up at the sky. He knew something had happened that evening, something important. He just wasn't sure what it was. Then again, he was used to being confused when around a lady, especially a pretty one.
He closed his eyes and remembered her face, remembered the taste of her lips. His heart rushing, he knew one thing. Tomorrow he would finally call on Emily Capdeville and ask her to the Fais Do Do next Saturday, take her to the Cajun dancehall. So what if he was poor? He wanted to dance with her. He wanted to kiss her the way Margie had kissed him.
Closing his eyes, he wondered what it would be like, holding Emily in his arms.
This story is for my Uncle Earl.
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