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Requiem For A Pasha

The year is 1990. I'm standing on the Amtrak station platform in Lafayette, Louisiana. We'll be here for ten minutes and then roll on to New Orleans. I sniff the air and wonder which direction the cemetery is in. How far is it from the station?

I was in Lafayette once before, around 1980. That time, I was on my way out of New Orleans with my queer (he insisted on that word) friend Michael. He and I had driven to Lafayette from the city in his mama's white Cadillac convertible to pay a visit to his great-great Aunt Gertrude, who was then 93. After the visit, I'd catch the train back to California and he'd drive back to New Orleans and then back on up to Jackson, Mississippi, where his parents lived. They didn't know we'd driven the car to New Orleans from Jackson. They thought we were going to Baton Rouge. They would never have let us take the car if they knew where we were really going, because they believed that to go to "N'Awlins" was to be instantly mugged, raped and killed by a "nigra" (their word, NOT mine).

Off we went, down Highway 55. That road is so straight and flat that we could switch drivers without stopping or even slowing. The top was down, so I climbed up on the back of the seat behind Michael, reached over and took the Cadillac's steering wheel. He kept a foot on the accelerator, doing about 70, and slid over to the passenger side while I lowered myself into the driver's seat. We got so good at it that we did it a couple of times.

When we got to Aunt Gertrude's little house, she was standing in the living room in her slip while one of her female cousins took measurements for a dress they were making. The amber shades were lowered against the fierce Louisiana heat. The room was cool, sepia-toned. Aunt Gertrude (tiny with thick glasses) looked at us—young, sunburned from recent adventures in swamps, a little dissolute from being up most of the night before in the French Quarter—and said: "When I was a girl I couldn't stand old people. Now look at me."

We went out for Cajun crawdads. They were served in the traditional way, on a big sheet of newspaper, sawdust on the floor. Michael and I, underslept and hung over, ate like starving hyenas. Aunt Gertrude had a few bites. Mainly she watched us eat. Young and dumb though I was, I knew that very old people don't sleep or eat much, and I could see that she was getting a fond vicarious kick out of our youth and appetites. It's true what they say about spicy food and a hangover—it's just the ticket. Burns the poison clean out of you, and if it's something like crawdads, the protein goes right in and starts repairing the damage. Aunt Gertrude had the money all ready in her purse, counted it out with care. It made her happy to pay for the meal and have the leftovers doggy-bagged for me to take along on the train.

There were guys at the station, workers wheeling flatbed luggage carts and such, speaking Cajun French to each other. I gave Aunt Gertrude's hand a thank-you squeeze and felt her fragile little bones. I waved good-bye through the train window to Michael and Aunt Gertrude, quite a Mutt and Jeff pair standing there on the platform. I went to my teensy little compartment, fell asleep, and didn't wake up until deep in the heart of Texas. The best sleep in the world is the sleep you get in one of those little compartments, and the best dreams. The day replays, spins itself with the moving pictures unreeled by the subterranean machinery of the mind as steel rumbles on steel. You give yourself up to the train, the mighty train that never sleeps, that labors with its huge strength through the night and the vast distance with you curled up inside it.

Now, ten years later, standing on that same platform in Lafayette before the train goes on to New Orleans, I breathe the heavy moist almost-tropical air. The sky is white. Michael has been buried for about a year in the cemetery I'm wondering about. What I don't know, but which I'll eventually find out, is that on that day I'm there in the station in 1990, a decade after she bought crawdads for Michael and me and I waved good-bye to her, Aunt Gertrude is still alive.

Six more years later, I'm on the train again, heading toward New Orleans. When we get to Lafayette, they make a surprise announcement: we're going to be here for a couple of hours. Time to locate the cemetery, get a cab, go out there, find the grave, and get back to the train? It would be close, but it was exactly the kind of thing Michael would have done, so I decide to go for it. A phone call to the chamber of commerce got me the address of the cemetery. Another call got me a cab. It was a hot, slow ride, with streets torn up because of construction and a lot of detours. We crawled in honking traffic as if we were on 6th Avenue.

This wasn't at all what I was expecting in sleepy little old Lafayette. I felt vaguely panicky. This was a futile, stupid thing to do. The train would leave without me. There was something infinitely desolate about the prospect of being left behind by the train, something I couldn't quite identify but went way beyond mere inconvenience. It was all those damned train songs I'd heard all my life, infecting my brain with their damned poetic melancholy. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, the wheels are singin' to the railroad track, if you go you can't come back, if you go you can't come back, if you go-o-o-o-o…

The driver and I found the cemetery on a quiet side street. It, too, wasn't at all what I was expecting. I'd pictured New Orleans-style above-ground mausoleums, some crumbling grandeur. But this was a regular little cemetery of tombstones and graves, immaculately maintained, with sprinklers, willow trees, lush green grass and a black wrought iron fence. The front gate was locked, so I circled around, climbed over the low back fence, and found Michael's grave almost immediately. The tombstone was shiny granite, a modest, horizontal rectangle, flush with the clipped grass. A boring, bourgeois, middle-class, unexciting tombstone. As completely un-Michael as plaid pants, a Dodge Dart or a button-down shirt.

Michael had looked exactly like Krishna minus the blue skin. His gaze was a vortex, his eyes enormous, dark and heavy-lidded, and he used them, according to his mood and purpose, to beam terror into the hearts of his enemies or the promise of Persian-garden delights to quarry of both sexes. Being born in a democracy in the 20th century seriously cramped his style; but for the lack of an army, a thousand slaves and a hundred elephants, he might have achieved full self-expression.

A really proper tomb for Michael would have been along the lines of a pharaoh's pyramid or a Viking chieftain's grave, where they buried your ship along with you, something with plenty of room for horses, consorts, servants, gold, silver, and provisions for the afterlife. At the very least, something tall and rococo, perhaps a fifteen-foot-high statue of Shiva the Destroyer with eight arms, fangs, serpents and a necklace of skulls. Flowers, incense, graffiti, offerings—bottles of cognac, locks of hair, voodoo gris-gris bags. That sort of thing.

But this was what he got. His dates faced the sky: 1952-1989. I looked around. There were the graves of his Mama and Daddy, who, mercifully, had both died before he did. Then I saw Aunt Gertrude's stone: 1887-1995. No. Wait. That couldn't be right. I blinked and did the arithmetic again. But it was right. When we visited her that first time, when she was 93 and said she could never stand old people when she was young and now look at her, and took us out for crawdads, she still had fifteen years to go. Michael had nine.

Michael loved to fly, was scornful of my fear. But even airplanes weren't fast enough for him. He was the most impatient person who ever walked the earth. It maddened him that tomorrow, next week, next year were opaque and unknowable to him. He spent a fortune on psychics and tarot card readers and such, trying to storm the gates of the future. And he didn't ask vague, dreamy questions about love or personal fulfillment or similar rubbish—he paid good money to his soothsayers, and demanded hard facts: about currency exchange, his stock portfolio, the price of silk in the Korean market and whether he should do business with Mr. Kim or Mr. Sung.

Michael and the train were a bad combination. I once convinced him to take an overnight ride with me, to Colorado. He enjoyed it for the first hour or two, as we left Oakland and headed east into the Sierra. But when it sank in that we still had twenty-seven hours to go, his enthusiasm palled utterly. And the dining car was a disaster. A man at our table with us, a perfectly nice, earnest, friendly fellow who had no idea what sort of creature was before him, tried to engage Michael with sports talk. You do not talk to a pasha about football. I could sense Michael winding up, the way the mechanism in a clock gathers itself to strike, to destroy the man with a few lethal words. I intervened, improvising fast, drawing on my own very thin store of football knowledge, jabbering a little, but successfully diverting the flow and shielding the poor guy from a withering blast he wouldn't have understood and certainly didn't deserve.

That's pretty much how it was for the rest of the ride. We were stuck in the seats that night, unable to get sleeping accommodations. Around midnight, Michael announced, in his southern-royalty voice so that everyone could hear: Ah HATE the fuckin' train.

If the fortune tellers saw that he'd be dead and in his grave at 37, none of them mentioned it. Impatience set the pace of his life and every step he took, and lined him up with his fate, which was to catch the human immunodeficiency virus, a particularly virulent strain, probably in New Orleans, sell his house and set out on a desperate appointment-in-Samarra odyssey to Europe and Asia, trying to outrun the Reaper, his pockets stuffed with thousands and thousands of dollars in cash. The trip ended a few months later with him penniless, kicked out of Amsterdam (God knows what you have to do to get kicked out of Amsterdam) and flown to San Francisco in the custody of a couple of Dutch policemen, who left him in a wheelchair near the baggage claim carousel, then turned around and flew home. Airport personnel finally noticed him after he'd been slumped there in the chair for twelve hours or so, and he was collected by the psychiatric unit of a nearby hospital. He came out of his delirium just long enough to call friends and tell them where he was and a little bit about what had happened, and that was the last coherent thing he ever said or did. I guess Mama and Daddy were right about New Orleans.

The cemetery grass was busy with insect life. Tiny honey-colored ants were at work in the crevice where sod met tombstone, digging, marching in and out, building neat little mounds. The sun was hot on my back. I'd like to say I heard the train whistle blow. I didn't. But I certainly heard it figuratively. I had no bottle of cognac, but I pulled up a tuft of grass by the roots right near Michael's stone, yanked a hair from my head and bit off a piece of fingernail, put them in the hole and covered them with the grass. I climbed over the fence, ran for the taxi and made it back to the train with time to spare.

Michael McCowan
Michael McCowan

One Comment

  1. Alice Chouteau June 9, 2016

    Thanks, Ellie, for capturing the essence of a beautiful, terrifying personna. michael…unique forever. I loved him too.

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