‘I don’t mind helping nobody…’ They’re his words when I pull in at the garage and ask for a pump. I’m tired, resignation all over my face as I start replacing spokes. He walks towards me and out of the corner of one eye I see boots in gravel… ‘You want a place to stay? I don’t mind giving nobody a shower and a meal and a bed for the night.’ But I haven’t ridden enough. Brain says I haven’t ridden enough, got to keep going. Such a kind offer but I must keep going. Soul calls veto, leaves Brain as furious as he is impotent. Body follows the order… moves lips… ‘Thank you, that would be really kind.’
I reach crossroads, cross train tracks, follow directions… I can see it now, down the trail, 15 minutes down the trail, no obvious house. Eventually it comes. A pickup truck pulled in… one caravan, two caravans, three caravans and a dried-up bayou. The leaves are falling all about, fluttering downwards as I look in at the clearing and there, beneath the small lean-to, sit a gathering of men in picnic chairs, on benches, on paint cans and water butts, each with a beer. Ryan Lemoine Junior walks up to me, his vest and his open shirt, jeans and boots, his right eye that constantly squints and twitches, tongue that clicks in the corner of his mouth as he looks there for a word stuck between his teeth, squinting with his eyes and his stretched face, the cigarette always smoking. He shakes my hand with one hand and passes a beer with the other… they give me a stool and down I sit. There, right there in Louisiana, in the clearing with the trailers.
They’re all looking at me, three generations of Lemoine men. Ryan squints and clicks as he introduces Grandpa, an elderly thing by the name of Arnouville. Paul Arnouville, he sits in a rocking chair from which he seldom lifts, a face like a crocodile. Heavy-lidded eyes that blink slow, rise and fall and do not once move from their gaze at me and me alone. Two legs planted fast, one hand planted on the arm of the rocking chair, the other on the head of a walking stick standing straight in the dirt. He’s got a collar, wide open, you can hear his chest as it struggles to breathe, lungs clogged with age, his white hair all about the place and a set expression in his eyes… eyes that set right upon me, that look into only me. I see it… those eyes they have suspicion in them. I must look strange, all right, with my shorts and knee-warmers and bicycle, carbon fibre soles of my cycling shoes that make me walk so rigid and mechanically.
We sit together… five of us, all gathered before the house, beneath the oak and beyond the bayou. Paul Arnouville still suspicious as Ryan introduces me.
‘This is Julian’
‘Where’s he from?’
‘He’s from London.
‘London? What state’s that?’
Paul Arnouville raises his head. Slowly up, slowly down… that was all.
That was what they called me thereafter… Julian London… in that clearing where the place from which you come is half of that which defines you.
A pickup pulls into the driveway, out steps still more white hair, a cigarette, a moustache covering the top lip and then at each side of his mouth sticking straight down like a pitchfork towards the Louisiana earth. He coughs with all his might, coughs out a globule of cancer, hocks it into his mouth and spits it to the ground. White hair swept back on his crown, hairline receding… a yellow shirt, open collar, white hair from his chest, drainpipe jeans and huge, lolloping boots of brown leather. Ryan Lemoine Senior slopes towards us. We shake hands and he meets Julian London, takes a beer, all of us sitting together in the gathering evening. The first woman comes home… fat falling off her, a round face, black spectacles and two eyes peering from behind, like lumps of coal inside a snowman. She’s huge, real huge… wears a summer dress big enough to block out the sun, it’s like the mainsail of a boat and covered in gerberas. Ankles squeeze from a pair of tiny shoes. Marjory Lemoine comes over all delighted… ‘From London?... Our Miss Irene, she went to London… did you ever meet a Miss Irene when you was in London?’
We walk through fields, Ryan showing me to the bayou, dry and full of leaves, waiting for the river to rise. ‘Real peaceful out here,’ he murmurs, squints and clicks through speech, his crew-cut hair, the vein in his temple and tendons in the side of his long neck. He tells me about alligators in the summertime… calls them just ‘gators’… coming right up to the house to be beaten back with a broom head. He explains how you hear them from afar, how your hear them hiss at you… and as he tells me, Ryan Lemoine makes the hiss-hiss of a gator… just as he’ll go on to make the waa-waa sound of a police siren when he tells his stories from the city of New Orleans. Ryan talks of hunting, of squirrel and boar, squirrel with not so much meat, but good sport… ‘You come back sometime and we’ll hunt some squirrel for ya…’ The door to a small hut stands open, the smell of hessian sacks. A single bulb hangs from a flax in the ceiling, one intrepid moth determined to get at the incandescent filament.
Ryan Senior is there with a beer and a litter of pups yapping at his feet, biting at the tails of the white moustache that slips over each end of his mouth. He leans into them, picks them up and pats them, one at a time, a dozen of them but he knows each by name. Making sentimental faces, he leans down close to kiss the things.
‘Some folk drown ’em but I could never do that to any animal… oh no!’ Ryan Senior tells me, his blue eyes looking straight at me, distracted from his dogs a moment. He gathers magnitude. ‘This here, it’s ma home… and I ain’t got much but what I got you can call ya own. You can make yaself at home here. I won’t take nothin’ from ya and, if ya want medicine, I can give it ya… ’k?’
I didn’t know what medicine I might have needed, nor what he meant in saying he’d take nothing from me, but the gist was that Ryan Lemoine Senior was one more man with almost nothing in the world but happy to share it. I put my hand on my chest, thanked him, thanked him again before a silence settled, only the sound of the cicadas coming from outside. I was sitting atop some sack, some old sack with faded words printed on the side. Slapping it, I asked what’s inside.
‘Pecans,’ he said, though in a way I could never really write. ‘P’kans’ was more like it, and I can still hear that sound.
‘They buy ’em,’ he added, ‘they buy p’kans… three-and-half dollars a pound.’
‘How much is that?’ I asked, pointing to my seat.
‘’bout 40 pounds. I go out and pick ’em after work,’ Ryan Senior smiles, ‘the money comes useful… that bag’s worth about a hundred bucks.’
That was a sizable sack on which I sat. I should say it again… that was a big sack, a lot of p’kans inside… not budging, stuck there fast like the politics of the United States of America, the world’s richest nation, land of opportunity. Capitol Hill, Martha’s Vineyard and down in Louisiana, a man will pick half his wiry bodyweight in pecans for just a hundred bucks, winds up pretty pleased with the trade too. Don’t mistake me, the Lemoines are no worse off for this life of theirs… but whether that makes it anything like fair is a different question.
Marjory Lemoine, with a spoon that could paddle a canoe, piled up the plates to different heights of liver, bacon, rice and lettuce dressed with cream. We sit down at the table together, a tray of hot fat spitting to a standstill. Ryan Junior and Senior scarcely eat, wolf it down and are smoking cigarettes on the terrace the moment the plate is clean.
One other man has been kicking around since I first arrived, yet to say a word but always leaning with a laid-back authority on every doorway. Marjory introduces Martin. He is wearing a baseball cap with the peak pointing upwards, an ageing face with quietus to it, simple eyes, really simple eyes, the kind that don’t conceal much of what goes on in the head, a head with not much going on. Martin eats slowly, always looking around, grunting, pointing to somebody, something, grunting. He tries to get my attention, a pointed finger on the tabletop, points to something I can’t guess at in the corner of the room, grunts again, harder.
Marjory Lemoine instructs him leave off, apologises and explains he is deaf and dumb, shunted between foster families all his life… ‘When his last family cleared off three years back, I said he ought come live with us.’ Marjory just reports it, tells me what happened. That’s it, that’s all… there’s no fishing, no sentiment laid on, no self-congratulation. Marjory Lemoine is not looking for medals, honours or remuneration as a careworker, she just says how they took in deaf, dumb Martin as matter-of-fact as if she’d taken in washing when the raincloud broke. That’s The South, and you come to understand the signs outside trailer park villages… big letters, beneath the name of the park… ‘Just ordinary folk looking out for one another’.
‘Trailer Trash’, that’s them… trailer trash, fit only to belittle, demean and take cheap shots at. The media, the liberals, the righteous of the West who talk so much about morality we think ourselves moral, while hicks and trailer trash take in the deaf, mute and soft-headed Martin when his foster family clear off.
After dinner, I follow the family to the terrace, matches sparking as each of them lights up a cigarette. Ryan talks about his divorce from a woman in New Orleans, of his gambling addiction and how this six months is his longest abstinence in four years. He tells me how casinos never have clocks or windows, to ensure their punters lose track of time. ‘That doesn’t seem fair,’ I say sadly, before listening to Ryan’s response… ‘I don’t know, guess everybody’s got to make a profit somehow.’
An old lady, the wife of Paul Arnouville, points up above us… ‘nice to have this back.’ I follow her arm up to the roof, ask what she means. Ryan tells me of a hurricane, called Katrina, which blew the roof off a year ago… the family only just finding money enough to repair it. I give a noise of recognition, tell them I’d heard about Katrina. Ryan Senior speaks, surprised through his cigarette, a man in a Louisiana trailer who doesn’t understand that his roof blowing off was a detail in an international media commodity…‘they was talking about Katrina… in London?’
Conversation changes direction, the mood lightens and Arnouville’s wife cries out, ‘Tell a joke!’ The words shriek from her sharp, yellow face, her shoulders covered in a matching cardigan. Ryan begins with playful reluctance. Happy to be persuaded, he tells a joke about dumb Southerners like them, jokes they’ve all heard before but are happy hearing again. With the punch line, laughter flies and the whole terrace rocks. Old Mrs Arnouville has her face contract tight with joy, eyes puckering as she starts hissing and holding her sides. Laughter subsides, crackles, then bursts to a coughing fit, the terrace itself starts coughing on its rafters, lungs bellowing up in revenge, Lemoines and Arnouvilles taking long heaves on cigarettes to settle down the bronchi. The terrace rocks, laughs and wheezes, Ryan smiling gently to himself as there comes a shout… Arnouville again, her sharp face and yellow cardigan, crying from the corner… ‘Tell one about the niggers!’
Ryan’s tone cools, ‘We don’t call ’em “niggers” no more, Grandma, we call ’em black people.’ He looks at me. ‘But there are lots of jokes ’bout black people round these parts. Some people say they’re just lazy and only want handouts from government…’
‘It ain’t no lie!’ pipes up Arnouville in her cardigan and her wrinkled face. ‘Back when I was young, there was this thing called segregation, you see… and all of it was separate… separate buses, separate schools, you name it… and it all worked a damn sight better too, I’ll tell you that much! And now, now these blacks they think they own the place, they walk around, livin’ the easy life.’
‘Aw now… Grandma, I’m sure some black folk are out to earn an honest living.’ Ryan tries to soothe the old cardigan with its sharp face. Unconvinced, she stifles a sarcastic laugh, demands her joke.
Ryan sighs, begins… ‘Well, down here in the South we have three different types of nigger… you got the Randabak, the Motesa and the Wemachek. Randabak, he’s a real hard-working nigger… he follows behind the garbage truck, slapping the truck, throwing in the trashcans and all the while shouting, “Round the back, round the back!” Then you got the Motesa, now he’s a real polite nigger, always working for white people, and he’s always saying nothing but “More tea, sir? More tea, sir?”’ The terrace beams more and more as Ryan reels them out. ‘Then you got the Wemachek… see… he a real lazy nigger, never worked a day, and he’s always there, first thing at the social security office, and he just says, “Where’s ma cheque? Where’s ma cheque?”’
And the whole terrace splits with laughter… Whoosh, brilliant!... Fat arms fly up in the air and moustaches stand to attention, cardigans gripped tight about waists so sides don’t peel to burst with glee. Even deaf, dumb Martin with faulty ears that didn’t hear a word, even Martin’s struck, starts bobbing up and down and holding his mouth as they all laugh harder until finally one person hits the wall and has to cough… and then another, and then everybody is coughing and laughing and then just coughing. Stone-faced, I sit on the terrace as the Lemoines and the Arnouvilles cough, splutter and then soothe it all with a cigarette.
‘You get it?’ Ryan notices I didn’t laugh. ‘You see, he’s saying, “Where-is-ma-cheque?” and he’s asking, “Would you like more-tea-sir?”’
But it’s no good… I just can’t laugh at a racist joke. Try as I might, I just wind up in a grimace. With all that said though, there’s a final word here… about the Lemoines and the Arnouvilles, living in deepest Louisiana, where Ryan Lemoine Senior has picked twenty kilos of pecans that autumn… twenty damn kilos, half his scrawny bodyweight, bending down to each nut in order to make a hundred bucks and go on living in a trailer with the rest of his family, a generation in each direction, and a dozen yapping dogs with squashed faces and respiratory problems. Twenty kilos of pecans to go on living on the breadline in the richest country on earth, where all you have to do is turn on a television set to see everything you haven’t got and just how easy some other bastard has it. The Lemoines, the Arnouvilles… even that old dragon in the yellow cardigan, you don’t meet better people than that. Only pawns in their game… racist as sin, but when you’re a signed-up, bought-and-paid-for member of Underclass, where you’ve no ambition in life beyond continuing to be poor, and where your sense of entitlement runs no further than the right to be hoodwinked and bent over double for somebody else’s gain… When you’re destined to live a life so primitive… well, it’s not hard to imagine seeing a tribe with more pigment, different lineage, thick voices, lips and broad noses as a people different, especially when that separate tribe is thrown into the same crummy strata of society you’d been told half a century earlier you could call you own. Go to Washington, go to New York and to London… that’s where you’ll find the ones who are responsible.
Before evening was out, Marjory Lemoine handed me pen and paper, had me write my address in London. When I returned home, 7 December… sure enough, waiting for me was a card from Louisiana, a picture of a globe with dolls linking arms all around it. Marjory Lemoine, there in blue biro… ‘Write to us some time, let us know you got home safe.’