Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
. . . Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down
—Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos, LXXXI
Here is how I described myself to someone who asked last week: I am forty-three, a good Catholic (I try to be anyway, certain times in my life I have been more successful at this than others), a hunter, an ex-pitcher, a divorced husband, a drinker, a father of a son. And I sell things to people. Dictionaries, magazines, encyclopedias, from the Anders-Risette book publishing company out of Kansas City, Missouri. Which most people haven't heard of. Which makes the selling harder. Which is a challenge, and meeting it one of the satisfactions I have learned to content myself with. Not happiness but the balance of a small clean square of it. Not happiness which we were never promised but certain treaties, concessions, compromises which make this life bearable, make the cross each of us must carry a little lighter, easier on the shoulders and back.
So I am not complaining. This life of mine is not without its moments of fulfillment, of hope even. I drive up and down the coast, up and down the southern third of the state and I am out of myself then, out of the tightness that is myself and into the rest of us, the mass of us. Which convinces me that I was right not to shoot myself in a motel room along Interstate 10 on a night six years ago when things were not well for me. Which is a comfort.
Look here, I said. For Celeste. She can read about what the kids dress up like in Argentina and Honduras and Portugal. She can see what Eskimos eat that live at the North Pole. Celeste is the youngest member of the Singing Boudreaux, a family of tongue-speaking Cajuns that live east of Saucier, and she has the dark creole eyes they all have. They didn't take anything, though, not even a magazine subscription, which means I failed. But here's where I turned it around, bought back the piece of redemption that would carry me through the rest of the day, through the driving back down 49 to the coast: Celeste has a sister named Marie who is two years older and I talked Celeste and Marie into coming out front of the trailer with me for a while, and I got them to sing with me, J'ai marie un ouvrier, a fine old Louisiana song my grandmother used to sing in the evenings when dusk would hit, the air still and heavy and I would taste loneliness sharp behind my tongue. It gave me comfort to sing with them not only because I love the old ways but because I secretly loathe their tongue-speaking, their forsaking of the Church for the quick cheap thrill of Pentecostalism.
A pathetic compromise? I don't deny it. But I have learned among other things in my seventeen years of selling things to people that pride is not only a sin of the spirit but the most impractical and luxurious thing that a person can cling to.
Hattiesburg is not good book-selling territory because it's a college town and the people in that town know about things like book publishing companies and want to buy their books from a firm they have heard of. Neither is Ocean Springs because they are all retired military from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi where I live. But if you follow 90 east around thirty miles you will come to Pascagoula, which can be good if you time it right. Which I do.
Everybody in the town of Pascagoula, actually it's the city of Pascagoula, is employed by Ingalls Shipbuilding which is the biggest builder of Navy ships in the world. So by that you get it, they are all welders and painters and shipfitters. There are a few engineers, but they are not the kind to read much. In Pascagoula they are all the kind to get married young and get on as apprentices if they can to a welder or a painter or a drafter, and they are the kind that will be laid off just when they have got into debt for a car or a house or a baby, just when the Navy has decided it doesn't need as many Aegis cruisers coming out of Ingalls and Goula as it used to.
But I time it right, going down there when I hear there has been a new contract signed between the high-ups at Ingalls and in the Navy, and they are (all the welders and painters and shipfitters) feeling nice about themselves and getting drunk in the evenings not because they have to but because they want to, and I hit a couple of trailer parks and dingy little subdivisions, and hitting Pascagoula at this time some of them actually seem glad to see me. Which you don't get much of if you sell. Which can get you down, even if you have been doing it for as long as I have been doing it. Which is hard. But timing it the way I do there is a moment of uncareful joy, of generosity and they will buy a set of encyclopedias for the kids. And even though I know they will make three or four payments and then try to send them back and I will by then have my 6.5 and let the company take it from there, I can block it out sometimes, get caught up in it with them, believing that contract will be good, they'll pay the mortgage down, start that retirement plan, come out on top. And if they offer me a beer or two or three which they sometimes will I sit with them at the kitchen table or out on the front steps watching the sun drop, bleeding down the pines. Feeling out of me and back in it, humanity, all of us. Which is a reward, it is. The Nguyens and the Trans live and work in Little Saigon, which is downtown Biloxi, where I live. And where I'm a traitor, it's true.
I am one of the whites who has learned to pronounce their names because he has a reason to, and they know it. I am not naive enough to think they are fooled by it. But of course I am timing this right too. It's summer, mid-July, and the trawls are full, the jumbos are bringing ten dollars a pound off the pier, and I'm making jokes with the Nguyens and the Trans about all the cash the U.S. government is never going to see. And the kids I say could sure use a good dictionary I bet, a hardback one that will last. And here's the good thing: they have never heard of the Anders-Risette book publishing company out of Kansas City, Missouri, but they have never heard of any book publishing company. Which means I have made some money off the Nguyens and the Trans.
And here's where the traitor part comes in. I head west down Division, hit the beach, take Popps Ferry and I'm not in Little Saigon anymore. And I can talk about the lousy Nguyens and Trans bringing more of their lousy Nguyens and Trans over to rape the Sound, sweep the shrimp practically right out of the trawls of the Thibodeaux and the Dedeaux and the Malloys and the Sabatinis. They eat their fucking cats, Tony Sabatini said to me, an eighteen year-old kid. I wouldn't know, I said back to him (and felt bad about, and went to Confession about). I never had much for the greedy little bastards anyway. Feeling sick when I said it. Feeling the fried rice and snow peas with chicken and shrimp from the Luc Truong Cafe flop solid, a solid flop in my stomach. But the Thibodeaux and the Dedeaux and the Malloys and the Sabatinis fall for it sometimes. If I stay around long enough, if I have enough patience which is the main thing in my business.
At first after the divorce I didn't go, out of sympathy for my wife who is a good Christian without ever seeming to try, which often made me jealous when we were married. But I started missing St. Ignatius, and Our Lady of Sorrows is a half-hour drive and doesn't have Father Luke, who is the best priest I have ever known. So I came back to St. Ignatius and discovered, and this surprised me though it shouldn't have, she wasn't bothered at all by my being there. I looked over at her several times during sermon and she was looking up at Father with a look on her face I can only describe, and this doesn't describe it really, as full of peace. That's how she looked, and it made me jealous right there in the middle of Mass, of her faith, her unconscious, easy faith. She could lose herself in it, be swallowed up by God while I sat three pews over looking at her face every few minutes wondering how she could do it. That's the kind of person my wife is.
So that is one of my weaknesses. Jealousy. Of my wife, of several men I have known, most recently of my cousin Raymond Talbot, who worked for years on the line at Barq's Root Beer which is made and bottled here in Biloxi. Who was promoted to head of distribution for Harrison, Hancock, and Jackson counties when a new head man came in and in two years was promoted to head of distribution for Mississippi and Louisiana. Who got my son Terry his first job which is Raymond's old job that was left open when he was promoted the first time. Who is now looked up to by my son, Terry.
And I am a petty man. Irrational, angry, obsessed with things of no importance. I lost a sale three days ago because I was still upset with the clerk I had left at the Texaco station five miles back. So I pressured the couple, rushed the pitch, made the old guy angry, left angry myself.
I had to drive down to the seawall and let the wind blowing in off the Gulf cool me, watching the gulls chase the shrimpers sliding past in front of the horizon. Watching the water slip by, dipping and rising against the gray wall that I remember being knocked down along with everything else in this town by Camille in '69, when I had been married to my wife for two years. And it calmed me, eased my tightness, filled me with peace. I firmly believe that the priests are special men, that only they are privileged to commune with God, but the nearest I have felt to him I have felt there, surrounded by others. All of us looking out toward Horn Island where Walter Anderson painted in water colors brightly the crabs and fish and snakes and gators and out beyond Horn Island, to the hazy and blue horizon curving down to a place that is beyond my vision.
I have said that life is not happy. What I have not said is that happiness is a destructive lie, a destroyer. Which I'm saying now. Which convinces me again that I was right not to kill myself in a room at the Days Inn on the way to Damascus, Alabama, six years ago. When I had been divorced from my wife for a year, when the Boudreaux were not yet blessed with the gift of tongue-speaking, when the Nguyens and the Trans would not let me into their houses.
What happened, what convinced me not to pick it up, the long throat of it lying black against the pillow, shining up to me? It doesn't matter—a knock on the door, a wrong number, a woman sighing in the next room. I was staring through the window, out at the headlights streaking down 49 not merging but periodic, separated, and I knew. Without leaving the room and climbing the dark hill leading up to the exit ramp, that there it stood. Huge, dark, rough in its violent glory. All of us driving in its shadow.
Which persuaded me not to shoot myself, and was my salvation. And leads me up and down the southern third of the state and yields up parcels of grace which carry me through, even me, a not-very-good Catholic, a divorced husband, a sinner, unworthy, me.