Down in the Bottomlands, where the Pearl River splits into eastern and western veins that bleed into the Gulf, there exists a peculiar phenomenon. Time in the Bottomlands moves much more slowly than it does anywhere else. In the time it takes for an old, three-legged coonhound lying on the porch of a rotten-wood fishing camp to lick his paw while a nearby egret takes flight from one cypress stump to another, entire civilizations have risen and fallen.
I could easily imagine how a life was consumed down there: how one day you take a canoe ride along the river and you want to know what is around the next bend and where does that bayou lead and how exactly does this vast maze of black water sliding over an unseen land all come together. When you emerge a few days later, your friends have married, raised children, retired, and they have become strangers in your eyes. You cannot even talk to them anymore because you no longer speak the same language. They regard you as an unhinged eccentric who might as well have died years ago for all the good you have failed to do in the world, the very same world that no longer makes any sense to you.
And so you must return to the Bottomlands, to the floating duckweed, the egrets, and the ancient cypress stands. You must return to seek answers to the unanswerable questions and to work for knowledge you may never have. You will row until you discover that your body has grown old and brittle. So you will lie back in your canoe as it drifts within little black eddies and swirls, and you will look up at the slow passing of thick and indifferent clouds as you expel your last breath. It is a sigh of satisfaction that the brief canoe ride that was your life was somehow well spent.
That was how they found old Doc Wiggum, the proud founder of Dr. Wiggum's Swamp Safari and Eco-Tour, and Reggie was pretty sure that was how Doc would have wanted to go—forever adrift in the Bottomlands.
"I came here when I had nobody left to love and there was nothing left inside of me," Doc had told Reggie, the runaway teen from Dallas who had fled from the latest batch of foster-abusers and hitchhiked his way to a highway truck stop in Slidell, Louisiana.
"I'm not going to tell you that the river filled me back up or that I fell in love with her. No, I been here fifteen years, and I'm not sure I know the first thing about her. Just yesterday, I got lost again down in Gum Bayou. Anyhow, all I can tell you is that when you are next to something so mysterious and so vast, something so much bigger than anything you are or anything you ever had, it shrinks you. It makes you feel small. And all the pain you carried around inside of you from whatever rotten deal you got out there in whatever horrible place you came from, it shrinks that too, until one day it is gone. All you have now is the mystery, and you stand there looking at it, pondering it, studying it, and that is all that matters: you and the mystery."
Reggie thought of that day often, the day he had woken up under the interstate overpass and wandered for miles down side streets and wound up on some old man's dock in front of this black river, staring down into the water as he thought about jumping in and succumbing to the blackness forever. Then the old man with steel-rimmed glasses and a mile-long dirty gray beard gave him a po-boy sandwich and spoke those words. They sat together in silence for a long time after the words were spoken—the old man and the runaway—with their shoes off and their feet dangling down into the cool waters. The old man didn't ask any stupid questions about where Reggie was from or what had happened or why he had left. Those were questions people who pretend to care might have asked. No, old Doc Wiggum had none of those pretensions, and so he never asked any stupid questions. There was only Doc and the river. All other encumbrances had been removed.
Reggie had never met anyone like that in his then sixteen years of living. The old man was right; after a time, all the crap from the other world, the alien world outside of the Bottomlands, seemed to shrink into nothingness. Reggie was free of it.
I spoke with Reggie about the day he met Doc Wiggum right there on that very same dock, the dock that ties down the Blue Bonnet Queen and sits at the end of the mulched trail that winds around live oaks and magnolias from the small, wooden Swamp Safari and Eco-Tour Office. The same dock that sat at high water and low water beneath the same crooked cypress tree with the Spanish moss growing into long, wispy strands, just like old Doc Wiggum's beard. When Reggie spoke to me of that day, he was as calm and serene as the West Pearl River that flowed past us.
That all changed when Reggie spoke about the other day, the day in June a few years after Doc had passed on to the great mystery in the sky. Doc had left the tour business to Reggie. He trusted that Reggie would be prompt and courteous and pay attention to all of the little details. These were the qualities that had made Reggie such an outstanding assistant for all those many years. Reggie lived up to that expectation until that day in June, the day when the tour went horribly awry.
When Reggie spoke to me of the incident, his lip began to quiver, and he fidgeted nervously for a cigarette. His long, bony fingers squirreled around the breast pockets of his khaki swamp safari shirt, the one with the colorful "Dr. Wiggum's Eco-Tour" shoulder patch featuring an alligator underneath an egret and creased neatly along the ironed seam of the sleeve. When he finally managed to locate the pack, unbutton his shirt pocket, then shake the cigarette out, he required numerous attempts to light it with his shaking hands. Then, when finally lit, the cigarette's ashes were spewed wildly about from all of his trembling and his gesticulations followed by more trembling.
"Just one safety violation—in all these years—just one violation, just one violation," he kept stammering.
I could see him earlier that day ironing his shirt and then attending to all of the little details of Dr. Wiggum's Swamp Safari and Eco-Tour: raking the mulch back on the trail; flipping the sign in the office window from "closed" to "open" and making sure it hung straight; neatly writing in the time of the next tour on the placard and placing it upon the metal tripod next to the cash register; re-stocking the shelf of insect repellent and neatly arranging the bottles back into exactly two rows, each one three cans deep; oiling the hinges of the metal gangway that lead from the Blue Bonnet Queen to the dock and a thousand other little things. Reggie was then in his thirties, and he still outwardly resembled the tall and gangly teenager with tangled black hair and with the nose a little too big for the face. He had grown into his skin while attending to the tiny business by the side of the West Pearl River, such that its seamless functioning was integrated into his own. His reaction now, having to recount the disorder of that other day, was no different than if I had untucked his shirt, kicked the mulch off the trail, made the office sign crooked, and messed up the rows of insect repellent.
So despite Reggie's rambling account of the incident, and with some help from the facts and quotes printed in the newspaper about it, I had a pretty good idea of how it all unraveled for him.
"The three-thirty tour will soon be departing, and if you kind folks would like to head down to dat dere dock, we may begin boarding da Blue Bonnet Queen."
That would have been Reggie getting into his Cajun character on that fine June afternoon. The Bottomlands were never considered proper Cajun country as were the swamps of Acadiana farther west, but these sun-block and insect repellent besotted tourists would hardly care to know the specific and nuanced ethnogeographical differences. From the time they got off the plane at Louis Armstrong International Airport, the whole state of Louisiana was just one big crawfish festival put on by odd people who speak oddly.
Yet the Bottomlands had its own peculiar history, a dark and miasmic history that even Reggie found difficult to grasp, though he had been hearing stories from old-timers all up and down the banks of the West Pearl for years. One old-timer who lived in a fishing camp just south of the Devil's Elbow claimed that there were French settlers along the Pearl three hundred years ago, and they had established a liaison with the Acolapissas, an extinct tribe lost to disease and displacement. Others claimed to be the descendants of Choctaws and Creeks, who had hidden during the wars of Indian removal. Then there was the whole Cypress City story, but the locals on either side of the Swamp Safari and Eco-Tour Office never took kindly to any in-depth discussion of Cypress City, so in the interest of bayou diplomacy, it was dropped from the swamp tour script years ago.
Reggie could never confirm the existence of the early French settlers, but he did study up on his Cajun French vocabulary. The Cajuns were close enough since they were originally of French extraction but by way of Canada first. Besides, Reggie had found that acting as a good old swamp Cajun sure seemed to loosen people's wallets as he held out his straw hat for tips upon the Eco-Tour's conclusion. So he would spice up the tour with a few "Aiyee" yelps. Then maybe he would point to a turtle and say, "Now dat dere turtle, what he gunna do, is he gunna plunger (plun-zhay) into da water."
Reggie loved to hear the tourists murmur, "Oh, that must be how the Cajuns say plunge, isn't that cute? With a soft 'g' like a Faberge egg. What a hoot!"
Reggie's tour on that June day proceeded as usual: a quick detour up into the still, green waters of Gum Bayou, then a high speed run down to Indian Village, and then a long pass up into the White Kitchen Wetlands Preserve. It was the return leg of the journey that offered the perfect opportunity for Reggie to trot out his plunger line. Reggie eased back the Blue Bonnet Queen's throttle to idle position as she set back awash in her own wake. Reggie then pointed to a fat red-eared slider on a cypress log. He was just about to open his mouth when Mabelle Grinder, a 28-year-old paralegal from Atlanta, pointed off into the tangled vegetation upon the riverbank, a little up and to the right of the turtle, and said, "Hey, do ya'll have gorillas down here?"
Reggie stared open-mouthed and aghast right along with his passengers for a few seconds, which in the Bottomlands might have been an hour. They just stood and stared. It might be said that their brains could not accurately process and identify whatever images their eyes had captured.
"It wasn't no bear," Reginald would later tell the Picayune Press, a quote eventually picked up by wire services and repeated all over the country. "No sir, not a bear at all."
He gave me the same line when I talked to him. He was stuck on it as if it were some kind of mental nervous tick, "No bear, no sir. Not a bear at all. No kind of bear."
"Well, Reggie, if you had to tell me what it was, instead of what it wasn't, what would you say?" I asked him.
When he paused to ponder that one, he stopped moving his hands so much, and he seemed to calm himself for a spell. After what must have been a few days, he responded, "It was like a gorilla, but not quite. If I had to say it was anything, then I would say it was less like a gorilla and more like a large orangutan, but with a bigger head and legs like cypress tree trunks. I guess you might call it a cypress swamp orangutan. I guess."
The sighting of a non-bear but potentially orangutan-like beast by the side of the river, up and to the right of the turtle, was not exactly why the Eco-Tour had gone awry, nor was that the main reason why Reggie didn't care much to discuss the events of that day. It was what happened next that, I suppose, gave Reggie the nagging mental angst that he had somehow disappointed old Doc Wiggum.
That day on the river, they all stood upon the deck of the Blue Bonnet Queen and stared at whatever it was for some indeterminate amount of time until Mabelle finally regained the presence of mind to retrieve the Fujimatic Digital Camera from her purse and zoom in for what would surely be the greatest travel photograph ever taken by a traveling Atlantian, at least up until the summer of 1997. Unfortunately, the electric buzzing sound of the Fujimatic's automated zoom mechanism seemed to snap everyone else out of their incredulous trance and give them the likewise notion that perhaps, in this case, a photograph might be worth more than a thousand words. Mabelle had unwittingly precipitated a mad rush amongst the passengers for the optimum photo space along the side rail. The Blue Bonnet Queen, an aging pontoon barge that had been retro-fitted with bench seats, responded to the uneven distribution of passenger weight by listing severely to the starboard side.
The Queen was now in danger of capsizing, prompting Reginald Roundtree to resume his duties as the Captain and restore order.
"Passengers, return to your seats immediately!" commanded Captain Roundtree, his voice now absent of any cute French Cajunisms. "We need to remain calm."
Sometimes telling people they need to remain calm only reminds them that remaining calm in their particular case would require substantial effort, and that is always discouraging. It didn't help any that just after Captain Reginald spoke, the non-bear but potentially orangutan-like beast made a rough and guttural barking sound as it began to thrash its long arms about in the underbrush. A young girl screamed, and the crowd recoiled in fear. One of the panicked tourists recoiled right into the helm and then leaned upon the throttle aside the pilot stand. The Blue Bonnet Queen took a violent, full-speed turn to port, and this sent many personal articles, as well as a few tourists, flying into the West Pearl River. In fact, Mabelle's Fujimatic camera sank in the very spot where John Laffitte, the early 19th Century gentleman pirate, was long rumored to have sunken Spanish gold bullion.
I suppose that in some ways, the Bottomlands kept her secrets that day, just as she always had.
I think Reggie was able to compartmentalize the incident and move past it. He'd talk about that day, off the record. Otherwise, he was narrowly focused on keeping the tour business going the way Doc would have wanted. And he would say if pressed, that Doc wouldn't want the Eco-Tour associated with any kind of hokey monster stories. So one bad day when the safety of the Eco-Tour passengers was briefly jeopardized and many personal effects—purses, traveler's checks, passports, digital cameras, dry clothes—were sacrificed to muddy river gods was enough. It was to be forgiven by the spirit of the drifting canoe.
Maurice was another matter entirely. He was not able to move past it. I met him in a dive off of Decatur in the Quarter. It was the kind of place that is always dark, and the smell of industrial-strength soap—the one splashed once daily upon the single stall-unisex water closet with the creaky wooden door that can't quite close all the way—pervades the entire establishment. He kept babbling about its arm, the fading hair on its arm.
"Man, that thing was hairy," he explained between belts of bourbon, "but patches were kind of coming off it. It was like a dog that had some kind of mange, you get me? And I could see the skin on its arm, that ugly, nasty skin with veins and sweat."
Then Maurice went on about the rhythmic heaving of its chest, up and down, and how he could see its massive rib cage expanding then contracting with each breath. He continued for quite some excruciating time on this topic until one of the other bar regulars blurted out, "Shut up!" This outburst led to one of those confrontations between two drunken bar regulars that continues at various intervals but never really ends in any kind of resolution—violent, amicable, or otherwise.
I suppose Maurice was haunted by all the little details that made any number of socially acceptable explanations—hallucinations, hoaxes, daydreams—permanently beyond his reach. He was stuck with a reality nobody else would allow. All of this torment arose because a bad day in June for Reginald Roundtree was followed by an even worse day in July for Maurice Brasseux. The way I was able to put it all together, maybe filling in a few blanks here and there, it probably unraveled for Maurice kind of the same way it had for Reggie.
Back in that summer of a few years past, June had melted into July, and the heat only grew thicker. Thick heat might be yet another peculiarity of the Bottomlands. It is the kind of moist heat that settles into your lungs and slows your heart down; then it weighs down so heavily on your chest, your arms, and your legs that you are compelled to sit down and take a long, deep nap right next to the three-legged coonhound lying on the porch of a rotten-wood fishing camp.
I've no doubt that on that particular dog day of late July, Maurice Brasseux, the Cajun from Terrebonne Parish, was desperately wishing he could snuggle up somewhere with a bottle of bourbon and sleep until summer was over. If he heard one more corrupted utterance of laissez les bons temps rouler, then he might drive the True Cajun Adventures tour van straight into Lake Pontchartrain. Of course, with the way his luck had been running, he would hit a sand bar and have to sit there awaiting rescue with some tourist screaming hysterically in his ear while he basked in the humiliation of his failed act of self-destruction.
Maurice probably also thought it might be a ripe idea if maybe, just maybe, the True Cajun Adventures ticket office, the one right off of Jackson Square in the Quarter, advised the patrons not to imbibe three or four hurricane cocktails before the swamp safari excursion began. Then maybe there would be no need to clean and shampoo the van's upholstery and carpets every couple of days.
But this was New Orleans, and if the tourists were not allowed to laissez les bon temps rouler, then the whole place might shut down and sink into the Gulf of Mexico and take all of that golden tourist revenue with it.
Lord God forbid there might exist a single soul who might want to soberly enjoy the culture and food of South Louisiana, thought Maurice. Was that even possible?
Maurice had grown bitter. This tourism business was easier work than shrimping, but after a time, it became abjectly humiliating. If the Brasseux family had not invested so much in the business, Maurice would surely be back out on the Gulf for those long shrimping days and smiling for every God blessed and God awful second of it. It was that clown from Baton Rouge who married his sister, and all of his big talk of tourism entrepreneurship, who had precipitated all of this obsequious tour guide nonsense. He had the whole Brasseux family wrapped around his fat finger as if some book learning in business school had transformed the portly little snot into the great savior who would lift the Brasseux family out of the shrimping, crabbing, hand-to-mouth, and wood-shack foulness they had been too ignorant even to notice. And now, it seemed to Maurice, that they were all too naïve also to notice the theft of the family's pride.
Maurice thought about that as he drove the True Cajun Adventures tour van past the fishing camps along the south side of Lake Pontchartrain. He looked out the window and saw the occasional shrimping boat and probably wished he were hauling in a net south of Atchafalaya Bay with an aching back, sore feet, swollen and cut up hands, and the taste of sweat in his mouth. That was the taste of pride, precious and priceless. Maurice found it hard to imagine how anyone could live without it, how he himself could continue to live without it. Bourbon was a poor substitute, but it would have to do.
"We will be soon arriving in the mysterious swamps of the Bottomlands," Maurice spoke into the van's onboard public address system, turned to the full volume just for spite. "But until then, enjoy the rustic sights of fishing camps along historic Route 90, also known as the Chef Menteur Highway."
Maurice looked up into the rearview mirror to observe his passengers as they snored right through his announcement. All four of them were laid across the back seats and recovering from the rolling of good times.
Roxanne DiTulio of Asbury Park, New Jersey, was not really sleeping, though she was too tired to feign interest in this asinine van ride her sister, Maria, had signed them up for. Ordinarily, she would have refused to let her little sister sign her up for anything, but this was little Maria's twenty-first birthday bash in New Orleans, so Roxanne felt obliged to go along with it.
Roxanne tried desperately hard to fall asleep, and she hoped that when she awoke they would all be back at their hotel on Royal Street. She only managed a light resting of the eyes before the van's speakers blared in her ears once more, "We have now arrived at Pearl River Road, you can still see the old railroad tracks they used back in the cypress logging times, some fifty years ago, before the land became a wildlife management area."
Even if Roxanne could have somehow managed to ignore the shrill loudness of the speakers, the van was now bouncing so hard down the unpaved road that sleep was impossible. Everyone was now awake: Roxanne's sister Maria, Maria's boyfriend Michael, and Michael's obnoxious friend Russell. Roxanne thought she might ask the weird Cajun guy if Russell could be left out here permanently, thus avoiding any more awkward romantic advances.
"We will soon arrive at the remains of the old logging bridge across the East Pearl River, where we will leave the True Cajun Adventures tour van to view some authentic Louisiana alligators."
"Ooooh," remarked Russell in his high-pitched and irritating voice, "maybe we will see an authentic Louisiana port-o-potty stocked with authentic Louisiana toilet paper. I bet it smells better than this bucket of bolts. You Cajun shrimp herders ever heard of a car wash?"
"You are disgusting and rude," observed Roxanne. She missed no opportunity to inform Russell of her observations, unaware that her attention only encouraged him. "The only reason you are on this trip is because Michael insisted, and my dimwit sister can't bear the thought of disappointing her precious Michael."
Great, thought Maurice, they are so busy fighting I can skip half the script and light one up and take a swig, I've been dying for a smoke and a taste for an hour already.
He reached down to push in the van's cigarette lighter when he thought he saw something walk across the road up ahead.
He looked up and strained his eyes down the dusty white road and through the encroaching cypress trees and dense undergrowth. He saw nothing but a narrow tunnel of white receding into a great sea of green.
Maurice crept the van forward once more as he fumbled to find his cigarettes. The vehicle's tires ground over the loose rocks and then made a quiet little wake through a pothole filled with rainwater. Again, he thought he saw movement in the periphery of his vision. This time Roxanne confirmed his suspicion. She leaned forward and asked, "What the heck is that hairy thing up there walking by the road?"
Maurice stopped the van, retrieved his binoculars from the vacant front passenger seat, and focused them forward down the dirt road. Shades of brown and swaths of green, all mixed together in the shadows of the afternoon, made focusing on any particular thing a challenge. Nonetheless, he thought he saw something moving on the left side of the road, a couple of hundred feet ahead.
A bit frightened, a bit curious, and heart beating fast, Maurice pressed his foot slowly down on the van's accelerator, so as not to spook this unidentified ambassador of the cypress trees. All passengers of the True Cajun Adventures tour van were silently leaning forward with their eyes fixed on the road ahead.
The sound of rocks rearranging themselves under the van's tires was now deafening, and all the more so because the passengers' hearing had been amplified by their heightened state of awareness, one notch below a panic. The brown shade by the side of the road became larger and larger until it took form as an enormous arm draped in thick brown hair and attached to an even bigger body. The van stopped some ten feet before it, as the hairy body stared back into the van.
There was stillness, timelessness. They stared at it. It studied them. A few seconds may have passed, or maybe a few hours, or a thousand years.
Then it moved its arm, just a slight movement, and in that fraction of a second the trance was broken. The occupants of the van gave a simultaneous shriek of fear. Maurice stomped on the gas pedal. Little white rocks flew out in all directions from underneath the spinning tires.
The van careened down the gravelly road. Several passengers were thrown to the van's freshly shampooed floor, where they noticed the faint smell of soap and vomit was still present. Maurice made a failing effort to keep control of the vehicle as it found rest in an adjacent ditch. A tire popped, and the shiny white hood and silvery front grill crumbled into a mammoth cypress stump. A radiator hose exploded and hissed steam into the murky air.
That's it, thought Maurice, I'm going back to shrimping.
He still had plans to do it when I caught up with him in the stench of the bar off Decatur Street. But he had found it tough to get on anybody else's boat and even tougher to raise up enough cash to buy back his own.
A Cajun without a boat is a pitiful thing, like an alligator with no teeth. Maurice had been tainted by some "bad mojo," as he put it. Maybe it was bad mojo, or maybe it was a great big black cloud of weirdness, some intangible effluvium of unreality that nobody could exactly put into words, but everyone knew exactly what it was, and so they ran away from it just as fast as their little feet could carry them. It was the same indescribable thing Reggie was so deathly afraid might somehow contaminate Doc Wiggum's Eco-Tour. It was as if that great mystery that is the Bottomlands, the one they had been staring at for years, suddenly took shape one day and stared right back at them.
I often wondered why there were three incidents that summer, and not two or four or half a dozen. It is a stupid thing to ponder for too long. Yet the number three always seems to be the number for significant events, whether they be ominous or fortuitous, or perhaps just things that emerge from the unseen, the great mystery that surrounds us.
That brings us to two weeks later in the Bottomlands, the third unusual incident. Two weeks after Maurice Brasseux wrecked the True Cajun Adventures tour van and tried to explain the entire episode to the incredulous insurance claims adjuster, Vance Jackson, volunteer Fire Chief of Pearlington, Mississippi, showed up promptly for his 0700 to 1400 shift on the Highway 90 bridge over the West Pearl River. He parked his truck, a 1965 Ford F100, over by Tee- Sharle's fishing camp and proceeded with his ritual pre-shift bridge inspection.
If highway infrastructure had the same appeal as knick-knacks or chandeliers, then the Highway 90 two-lane lift bridge over the West Pearl River, constructed in 1933, would surely be the finest antique in all of Louisiana. The aged central span was attached to two enormous concrete slab counterweights that dangled beneath the twin uprights like blades of a massive guillotine. When the slabs were lowered, the central span and the tiny shed above it were levitated straight into the air. Vance Jackson was the only person still alive within a one-hundred-mile radius who understood how the thing was supposed to work, and he made sure the youngsters down at the regional office of the Louisiana Department of Transportation were all well informed about his special knowledge.
Lift bridge operation was yet another topic that Vance Jackson would be glad to enlarge upon should you pay a visit to his workshop in Pearlington, Mississippi, over on the banks of the East Pearl River, where he maintains his radio tower and central emergency operations center for southwest Hancock County. And if you go there, as I did, and you want to ask pesky and irritating questions about what Vance saw on that particular August day, two weeks after Maurice crashed his van and a couple of months after a few tourists prematurely disembarked from the Blue Bonnet Queen, you must first sit down on the wooden bench next to the river and endure an extensive series of lectures on ham radio operations, tractor engines-carburetor-fuel mixture ratios-and the evolution of tractor design in the latter half of the twentieth century, followed by some introductory material on highway construction, grade elevation, fill material, and musings on the nature of various clay-dirt strata that lie beneath the southeastern United States.
You are not likely to sit on the wooden bench next to the East Pearl River and endure any of these talks as the electric fan blows the mosquitoes off of your face and redirects them to your ankles, but I insert this material only to remind you that the details of our third installment from the summer of the descending great big black cloud of high weirdness were obtained at considerable cost.
You might say that lift bridge operation was a duty Vance had assumed to fill his retirement, yet his retirement was then so full of various other obligations that they likely occupied more of his time than had his former employment. He was still the volunteer Fire Chief in the small town of Pearlington, where he had also assumed the duties of chief emergency response vehicle mechanic, city fire inspector, electrical engineer, tactical radio response coordinator, dock engineer, carpenter, official arborist, city council sergeant-at-arms, official town photographer, unofficial town historian, emergency obstetrician, volunteer personal accountant, tax advisor, and Santa Claus for all the kids who could not get to Gulfport to put in their annual requests.
Vance was a veteran of World War II. He had served as both a communications specialist and as a mechanic for the Marine Expeditionary Force.
"Fixing things and putting out fires has been my whole life," he told me on the day I sat on the wooden bench. "I probably could have been a musician or an artist if there weren't so much ham-fisted engineering and dysfunctional equipment in the world, not to mention dummies who smoke in bed."
Vance stood about five-feet and nine-inches, but he walked and talked with a chest-out, no-nonsense confidence of bearing that made him effectively seven feet tall. He was unusually ornery that morning when he showed up for bridge duty on the Louisiana side of the Pearl River. "Worst infrastructure engineering in the history of civilization," he grumbled to me while recalling his inspection of the gears and bolts of the bridge. "How Louisiana has survived even this long is only evidence that God is patient and merciful."
Vance spoke his mind, but he had a large heart, and people from up and down the Bottomlands loved him as they would their own father. He never refused to help anyone, which was really why he kept so busy. He had once found a car-struck otter that he nursed back to health over many months. This event had happened in 1967, but many of the older folks still called him otter, though usually not to his face.
I could imagine him in the misty early morning hours muttering to himself, "Damned bolts are working loose all up and down the central span," as he peered underneath the lift bridge.
Vance retrieved a camera from his truck, thinking it better to thoroughly document the problem in pictures before attempting to explain it with big words such as 'structural decay' and 'refurbish' to the knuckleheads at the regional office of the Louisiana Department of Transportation.
He was working his way back under the bridge when he heard some rustling in the brush behind him.
"Hey, Tee-Sharle, that you? Why don't you bring this old man some chicory coffee?"
No reply came forth. Vance worked his way back up to the road from underneath the bridge and saw someone in dark clothes emerging from the brush about thirty yards from where he stood.
"Hey podna, you want to trample around these woods, you ought to be wearing an orange vest unless you would like some extra holes in that shirt."
Still no response.
"Well, if this don't beat all."
After a pause of a few seconds that might have lasted ten minutes, something emerged from the brush, walked slowly across Highway 90, and into the trees on the north side. Vance ran up to where he saw it cross the road and stopped to take one picture of the backside of a large, brown, bipedal creature of unknown taxonomy. Then he stared at it for a few more seconds as it disappeared into the complex tangles of cypress trees and marsh grasses that comprise the Bottomlands.
He contemplated it for a moment; perhaps he was awed by what a large and serene creature it was. It never seemed alarmed or hurried. It simply walked across the street the same way a person would as if strolling around the neighborhood on a Sunday evening.
Fire Chief Vance Jackson did not immediately tell anyone about his encounter or his photograph. Things in Vance's world made sense, and there was a mechanical order to everything—bridges, tractors, generators, internal combustion engines, radio transmitters—and where did this thing fit into all of that? It didn't. So what in the world was its purpose? Why even discuss it?
Vance Jackson said nothing about it for two weeks, two interminable weeks with the vision of something that makes no sense and serves no purpose stuck in his head. He kept it bottled up until even he, the rock of Pearlington and all of Hancock County Mississippi, could not keep it contained. So he did the only thing there was to do, which also happened to be the worst thing he could have done, he told somebody.
Before too long, the Vance Jackson photograph was circulated over newspapers and all over this new-fangled computer thing, the Internet. It is impossible to say for sure if ever there was a more unwitting and reluctant witness in the annals of Bigfoot lore, but Vance is certainly the leading candidate. It was a high irony that the no-nonsense volunteer Fire Chief of Pearlington, Mississippi, the marine decorated for valor at the Battle of Okinawa, was now the feature story on every UFO and news-of-the-weird and cryptozoological website all across the world wide web, not to mention the Sunday edition newspapers from coast to coast.
Vance was at first puzzled by all of the attention, and that soon gave way to annoyance.
"If I thought the darned thing was a Bigfoot," he explained to yet another "dumb ass" reporter, "I would have run after it, beat it to death, and sold it for six-million dollars!"
That was how I had put it all together. That was how I had recreated all of the scenes in my mind after hours and hours reading the fading newspaper articles, reviewing my notes, interviewing the witnesses I could find, and studying my photographs of the encounter sites. I should have spent that time studying something constructive, like how to make money in stocks or real estate. But when something gets to you, when something eats at your brain day after day, the same nagging question—what did these people see?—then you are no longer in control. The question controls you.
Vance never really could come to grips with it; perhaps none of them did. They could tell the story, again and again. And after a time, the story about what they saw that day takes on a life of its own. The words are rehearsed into a rut of repetition as the reality of that day fades, and good riddance to that reality. I'll never forget the way Reggie started shaking when I spoke to him, the ashes from his cigarette flying in every direction and casting disorder into his otherwise perfect order of the Doc Wiggum Swamp Safari and Eco-Tour. His disturbance was unsettling to me and anyone else who bothered to ask him. It was like his encounter with the unknown was some sort of virulent and highly contagious infection.
I understood then why sometimes people saw the thing and never spoke to anyone about it. They just shut it out and moved past it. Once the sacred trust between perception and cognition is seriously violated, and when we cannot accept what our eyes are seeing, well, the world is no longer a familiar and comforting place.
The human in a monkey suit was a safety valve. I think Vance vacillated over that one for quite a while. He needed that comfort; he required it. That would have been orderly, explainable, a real practical problem solver of a refrain.
Yes, indeed, just some crank in a gorilla outfit. They got me, yes sir, belated April Fool's Day and all of that. Yet the dishonesty of that excuse ate at him too; he was not used to the taste of lies, much less a necessary lie, a lie he needed. That was just abhorrent. It made the orderly world he had come to expect for better than seventy years suddenly crooked, corrupt.
Maurice didn't even have the choice. When I met him in that nasty little bolthole on Decatur, he was retreating into the bottle; retreating from all of those details, the haunting, lingering reminders that the 'monkey suit' mental safety valve was permanently off his mental reservation. So he tried to drown that nagging question in a sea of bourbon. What did I see? What was it?
These were but a few of the repercussions stemming from three curious incidents of 1997, the summer when the great big black cloud of high weirdness descended on the Bottomlands. They were incidents that, under ordinary circumstances, might have remained safely within the confines of the Bottomlands for many countless years afterward. Yet the Bottomlands were not immune to the changes in the world, the shrinking of it. People in Germany, England, Brazil, and Bangalore, India, were all reading about Vance Jackson's mysterious monster photograph before the word had spread even 25 miles up the Pearl River Basin from Cypress City to Talisheek.
It took a while, but by the time people gathered together in late November of that year for crab boils and pulled pork barbeque as they watched Louisiana State take on Ole Miss, the word had traveled around the world and back again to reverberate all up and down the Bottomlands. From the 31st Parallel on down along the Mississippi and Louisiana border, from Bogalusa to Pearl River County, and west out across Lake Borgne and into deepest Acadiana, from Thibodaux to Lafayette, the same refrain could be heard: "My Gawd, the Swampwalker's back!"