We’re driving down backroads when my son says, “I don’t like Breaux Bridge. Nothing good ever seems to happen there.”
I say that sometimes as I drive through these small towns, I romanticize about how nice it must be to live there, to walk to and from your grocery store, your church, your school. To stop into your local hardware store to find a missing screw, to have a cup of coffee and to chew the fat with the store owner. Never have to drive anywhere. Need a haircut? Walk down to the corner. Need to mail a letter? Take another walk. Always strolling and visiting. But then I remember growing up outside of a small town, and it was nothing like that. You were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing and nobody. All you wanted was to do something. Anything. As long as it wasn’t nothing in nowhere. Maybe I just want to live in Mayberry, but I can’t locate it on the map or find the people to populate it.
We pass McMansions built in rice fields, remnants of barns and rusted tractors hanging on to a fading time. I keep an eye out for a house two buddies of mine once rented. It was a dump, right up on the bayou, at the end of the road to Lake Martin, but I can’t seem to locate it. The rats kept them up at night with their racket. My friends slept in shifts. One slept while the other sat up with a shoe cocked and ready to fire.
We drive through St. Martinville, and I point out an old movie theater another friend of mine once bought with dreams of turning it into a recording studio. He renovated the entire dilapidated theater, modified the stage for recording, and renovated the projection room looking down on the room as the engineer’s sound booth. He hoped people would come from far and wide to nowhere to record their music. He built it, but they never came. He lost every dime he sunk into that place. I don’t tell my son the part about how my friend nearly drank himself to death or how what ultimately took his life wasn’t the booze but his own son who shot him with one of the family’s assault rifles before turning the gun on himself. The sorrow for the ill-fated theater suffices for today.
In the Office of Motor Vehicles, the young black woman with long fake hair, long fake eyelashes, and long fake nails mumbles behind the plexiglass even though her mask is pulled down below her chin.
In the donut shop across the street, the old gray-headed white woman with glasses behind the counter doesn’t wear a mask. When a masked customer points out that it’s hard to hear each other with masks on, she points out the obvious, that she’s not wearing one. “It may be wrong,” she says, “but, oh well.”
On the way back out of town, I think I recognize the piece of ground where my friends’ rented house was. The house is gone, but a tree still sits along the bayou. I bet the rats are still there too.
My son asks if I saw that little house when we first got on the road, the one with all the little chicken coops.
“I bet you that’s for cockfighting,” he says. “That’s illegal, isn’t it?”
I tell him it is. We were the last state in the union to outlaw it. He thinks it’s strange that it’s illegal because roosters fight anyway, don’t they? Yes, they do, I say, but they don’t usually fight to the death. It’s how they establish pecking order. Humans outfitted them with tiny metal knives and gaffs on their spurs for entertainment, so they can bet on their lives.
We pass a park where I once saw a cockfight, a sideshow to a hog butchering, the main community event that afternoon. I point out the park to my son. The two fighting roosters were outfitted with tiny gloves over their spurs, like tiny feathered armless boxers. Kids were watching. The mystique of the tradition was on stage, but not its reality. Chickens flapped their wings and pecked at one another. The truth in those gleaming metal knives and bloodied cocks weren’t on public display that afternoon in the sunshine of the park.
My son says he wasn’t aware of all of this, and I’m sad to have brought it all up.
We drive back the way we came, and our conversation dwindles. It occurs to me — feeling it in my gut more than thinking it, the thought not fully forming in my head — that this is all drawing to an end, that with his driver license soon in hand, I won’t be driving my son everywhere. I won’t be at the wheel much longer. He will be. On his own. I’m not ready to hand the wheel over, and I don’t want this conversation to end. I’m not ready for the growing silence between us. I want to pull over into some tiny town where we can slow time down, maybe buy a house, and walk everywhere. But there aren’t any road signs ahead directing me that way, and I don’t have a map. All I can do is keep on driving as far as the road will take us and as long as my son is willing to ride shotgun.