Joy and sadness come by turns, I know now. Beauty and bravery make you sad, Sharon’s beauty and my aunt’s bravery, and victory breaks your heart. But life goes on and on we go, spinning along the coast in a violet light, past Howard Johnson’s and the motels and the children’s carnival. We pull into a bay and have a drink under the stars. It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh. — Binx Bolling, in Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer”
I was reading The Moviegoer out by the pool today at place on the Alabama Gulf Coast where we rented a condo this week. I was nearly to the end of my frosty rum drink, and looked up when I saw a broad-shouldered man with a gut in the water beside me, looking up above my head.
“I’m tryna see if dat fellow gonna jump, or what,” he said, smiling. He had a buzzcut and a working-class New Orleans accent as thick as his midsection. He also had an LSU sun visor shading his eyes.
“This place is like a Louisiana colony,” I said. “Everybody’s got LSU something on.”
“Yeah you right,” he said, emphasis on the first word. We had a pleasant exchange about how much we liked it here in Orange Beach.
“It’s real important to go on vacation wit’ ya kids,” he said. “I ‘memba all the trips we made when I was a kid.”
“We didn’t go on a lot of vacations,” I said. “When we did, it was usually to Grand Isle” — a hardscrabble island on the Louisiana coast — “and I thought that was paradise. I didn’t know that beaches were supposed to have white sand until my senior trip to Destin.”
We laughed together. “Yeah you right,” he said. “It was the same way with us. Grand Isle, all the time. We thought that was livin’. Now, you and me, we bring our kids to a place like this, wit’ th’ high-rise, and the swimming pools. They don’t know how good they got it.”
I started to say yeah, you right, but most people from my part of Louisiana don’t use that phrase, at least not in the same way Yats like my pool friend do.
My Yat friend raised his coozied can of Michelob Ultra in salute, smiled and me, and made his way to the other end of the pool, where his kids and his nieces and nephews were playing. A fine guy, I thought. Earlier, I’d listened to people from Lafayette talking, and others from Thibodaux. The tribe was all here. It felt … right. I mean, it felt like I was among my people, and this was the way it was supposed to be. I’ve been to The Hamptons, which is very nice indeed, but I didn’t fit there like I fit here, among all these Louisiana people, swimming with their kids on the Redneck Riviera. There was my Lucas, flopping around about 10 yards away, in his goggles.
I put the novel down and stood up. Time was I would have been intensely self-conscious about having a beer belly poolside, if there were pretty women nearby. There were in fact a few very attractive young ladies lolling about, but I didn’t care. There is a certain freedom in getting to middle age and just not giving a rat’s ass about that kind of thing. I’m a 46-year-old happily married father of three kids; my beard is graying, my hair is thinning, and I’m a tub of grease. It really doesn’t matter what those gorgeous 17 year olds think of me. Off goes the guayabera, and into the pool I plunged.
Lucas and I played together in the water, and talked about things for a while, then I got out, dried off, and picked up the book. Before I returned to reading, I thought about how pleasant this all was, and so minor. It made me happy.
And then I thought of my friend who was just put into hospice care. She loved the beach, loved bringing her kids to the beach. She will never see the beach again. She will never even see her Louisiana home again, because she’s in hospice at M.D. Anderson in Houston. How she would love to be here on the chaise by poolside, feeling the sun on her face and arms just one more time.
Mine was a sad little happiness, but I was grateful for it, grateful to have found a place, and grateful to be grateful for small things and little ways. I don’t think I “settled” for the Little Way, as Binx did, but rather accepted it as a surprise gift. Besides, I think Binx’s idea of the Little Way and my idea of the Little Way differ somewhat. Still, it was a fine thing to be sitting poolside in Alabama with a cold rum drink in my hand and my people all around.