I met Stevie on a Sunday summer afternoon outside the T at Kendall Square. She asked me for directions to the movie theater. Sure, I’m headed that way. We walk, we chat. Mind if I join you? We watch the movie, make a date, then another, then more. It was a hot summer, and my place had an air conditioner.
Stevie was ten years younger and out of my league according to the bouncer who looked at our IDs and then at her with an appraising eye and then at me with a quizzical eyebrow and a nod of grudging respect.
Her parents visited around Thanksgiving. We went on a luxury dinner cruise in the harbor. We were all on our best behavior. I was invited to Christmas with Stevie’s family in southern Louisiana.
We arrive to a house on stilts.
South of Route 10 you call your girlfriend’s parents by Mr. or Ms. and their first name, so it’s Mr. Roger and Ms. Ava.
Mr. Roger is a taxidermist. His work covers every wall in every room. European mounts with just the antler and skull. Shoulder mounts. Half-body mounts, with the hooves. Full-body mounts in the workshop: bear, deer, mountain lion, longhorn sheep, plenty of birds. I want to take pictures of everything. I don’t take pictures of anything. It didn’t feel right. Taking pictures would be admitting to myself the truth that I would never return.
A bucket of oysters is being fried up in the kitchen. College basketball game on television. Mr. Roger’s running color commentary: “Look at that N— go!” “Give the ball to that N—!” Hard R. I’m a long way from home. I keep my mouth shut.
Mr. Roger wonders about the ancestral provenance of my curly hair.
“Where’d you get that hair like a N—“
“Oh, she didn’t tell you?”
It’s starting to get uncomfortable.
That night, I ask Stevie to intercede on my behalf. It’s your house, but maybe dial it down while I’m here? It dials down.
Ms. Ava lays it out straight for me. I’m not who they had in mind for their daughter, but Stevie loves me, so that’s that. Ms. Ava is a believer, she’s seen signs.
Early in the morning, Mr. Roger takes me alone on his motorboat into the swamp. It’s another world out there. Swampworld. He’s a skilled guide and pilot. No incidents, no accidents. I return, skin, bones, and all.
I learn all about the business of taxidermy. Hunting on a private game preserve is expensive, and you need to pay up again for every animal you kill. If you bag one on the first day, chances are you’ll be out there the next day looking for something bigger. And after all that money changes hands, who’s got anything left for an expensive mount job? To make a sale you need to be there at just the right time, with just the right words, giving just the right feelings.
We tour the local plantation home. On the second floor, there’s a mid-19th-century map showing which families owned which lands. Mr. Roger’s family owned a plot. Guess who did all the work. The family sold the plot in the 1920s. A few years later, the new owners struck oil.
Christmas Eve dinner with the extended family. Grandma offers a prayer for the destruction of the sinners in New Orleans. We go to Midnight Mass. I’m introduced to the priest and a few other people, and I get the feeling that it’s a small town, no introductions necessary.
Back to church for the Sunday Mass. The priest delivers a sermon on how the Lord changed King David’s heart. I can’t help but ponder how the story relates to my presence in their midst as a member of a stubborn, stiff-necked people whose heart they would see changed.
We go for a Sunday drive. There’s a CD in the player, it’s “Amazing Grace.” Sure, I’ve heard this song before.
“Play it again, Daddy.”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, the sound, the sound.
Sound Sound Sound.
Daddy played it seven times.
Seven times around Jericho, Jericho falls.
Seven times around Ivan, Ivan is Ivan.
For the second week of the trip, we get out of the swamp. We drive up to see Stevie’s friends in ArkLaTex. I learn how to say Natchitoches and Nacogdoches.
Back in Boston, she gets into tango. I’m not very good at it, a feeling I don’t like. It would take regular practice for me to get anywhere, and I don’t have the time for that. I had just started taking a class at Harvard Extension taught by the preeminent historian of the Qing dynasty, and I had papers to write.
I got an “A.”
She moved back to the swamp.
I saw her once more, in New Orleans the year before Katrina. It had been a lonely year. I would have gotten back together, but she knew better than my tears. It was never going to work with us.