It was January and hot. I was walking toward St. Genevieve Cathedral on Bayou Liberty like I did every Sunday morning to attend Mass, alone. I was dressed in my Catechism clothes, a blue plaid short sleeved shirt and khaki pants with Buster Brown shoes. The sky was overcast but it was a light gray, a high wind blew above the tall pines, the highway I walked on toward the Cathedral had wide and deep ditches on either side, and I was always worried I might fall into one of them as I walked the mile from the large wooden house where I lived with my mother and her boyfriend. The highway was notoriously dangerous; it was said to be one of the most dangerous highways in America to drive on. A few months earlier my favorite Irish Setter (I had three at one time) was hit by a truck and I found the dog myself trembling in agony with its back broken. It had just returned home after a six month absence. That summer it became rabid and I remember the day it ran away; it was foaming out of both sides of its mouth but it didn’t appear hostile at all, on the contrary, the dog seemed euphoric and it jumped up and down like it was celebrating its newly acquired disease. Before it disappeared, it ran in circles for the whole of the evening and no one dared to stop it as it jumped over the chain link fence and raced off to no telling what kind of adventures.
There were enormous pine trees that lined the highway where I walked to Mass. The trees were covered with arm thick Passion Vines that grew at the top of the trees, and all but blocked out the sun along the highway. The high wind had a strange effect on me, no wind has ever felt quite so good to me, perhaps it was the first strong wind I remember. It felt truly wonderful just to be alive.
I’d just lost my first front tooth a couple of nights earlier and the Tooth Fairy, whom I didn’t know at the time was really my mother, left a dollar under my pillow and now I had a dollar bill stuffed deep in my pants pocket. The wind, the blowing vines at the top of the trees, the thought that I would soon dip my child fingers into the Holy Water and hear spoken Latin phrases by a virgin man, Father Lombard, who would call upon me at some point during the Mass, all of it made me want to collapse before the dead, bronzed Christ that was splayed large on the wall behind the altar of the Cathedral. As I walked, I looked down into the fetid ditch and was pleased to see real glass bottles of Barq’s root beer, an empty box of Lucky Strikes, a tarnished gold doubloon, and a knot of faded tangled Mardi Gras beads; I was sweating a bit from the thick humidity of that January morning, then, I took notice of something I’d never seen before, a snakefish looking thing that moved very slowly in the oily ditch water. It looked like an earthworm to me except it was a couple of feet long and as thick around as a child’s arm and it was gray like an eel.
For years, I didn’t know what I’d seen. I secretly thought I’d discovered some kind of lost species that no one knew about, but years later when I was failing out of high school biology, I saw a picture of the creature in the depressing biology book I was forced to study from; it was a salamander type animal called a amphiuma. They’re common enough in the Deep South but they’re largely nocturnal and rarely seen, sort like a bobcat or a coyote is rarely seen. The amphiuma is the only amphibian that possesses actual teeth, a full set of them, mind you, a bite from one of them can take off fingers! Imagine some other amphibian, like a frog, with razor like teeth and before it attacks you it whistles a sweet song with its wide and complex mouth; a song, like the Sirens of Greek Mythology, the music is quite pleasing to the ear, but dangerous to the listener who lacks awareness; you are drawn to the amphiuma and then he lurches at you to perhaps rip a chunk out of your wonderful face—that would be the hallmark of anyone’s life, if it didn’t drive you mad or cause you to go mute forever.
I walked sideways down the ditch to get a better view of this amazing worm. The amphiuma moved surprisingly quickly away from me with every step I took toward the bottom of the ditch. I did not hear it whistle as the Cathedral bells rang profoundly through out the fishing village. The closer I got to the amphiuma, the more I thought of the Virgin Mary. High above on the road a carload of juvenile rednecks rained insults down at me, calling me fag and whatnot and one of them threw a piece of 2×4 and hit me on the back. I tripped the rest of the way down the ditch toward the stagnant water and caught myself before I fell all the way in. The crawl back up to the highway was difficult; the upper half of me was bone dry but I was soaked from the waist down with ditch water.
I decided to go to Mass anyway instead of walking all the way back home to change. On the way, I stopped at Pynchon’s Grocery to buy fifty cents worth of Now-Or-Laters with the dollar I got for losing my front tooth. Now-Or-Laters were an absolute obsession with me when I was a child and sometimes I would eat them deep into the night while sitting up in bed in quiet darkness. It’s safe to say that I was as obsessed with Now-or-Laters as I was with the Virgin Mary who I often confused with my own mother, a virgin of a different sort, and with whom I competed for the attention of two males, my real father and my impending stepfather. I handed the fat man who ran the cash register the dollar for the Now-or-Laters; the dollar was dripping wet and covered in a brown scum from falling into the ditch. The old fat man behind the cash register found this to be particularly amusing and he busted out laughing as he held the dollar. His hands were ugly with large brown warts at the tips of his fingers. He kept laughing as he handed the dollar back to me and said to keep the dollar and to pay him when I had some dry cash.
I left the store humiliated but now more determined than ever to make it to Mass. High winds blew even harder through the Passion Vines. On the way to St. Genevieve, all I could think about was the amphiuma and the Virgin Mary who, despite all evidence to the contrary, was in truth my own mother.