When he was younger, Alan would not only pack too much for a trip like this, but also have the burden of his personality to carry around. He wasted a lot of time feeling sorry for himself then. These days, he knows just what to pack and his personality is not so heavy with worry and self-reproach.
In the Gentlemen’s Card Room aboard the steamboat Bayou Queen there is an old stereopticon. It is a primitive device for viewing images in three dimensions. Cards printed with double images are inserted into a slot in front of binoculars and when viewed, the stereopticon gives the illusion of seeing a place or object in depth. The Victorians loved these views. A two-dimensional image is turned by a trick of the eye into one having three dimensions. Usually, the cards hold images of what was popular but often unattainable for many: exotic places like the Amazon River, crystal rooms in European castles, or scenic wonders like the geyser Old Faithful. Often, the cards were sold to tourists the way postcards are sold today. People would collect them as mementos of their travels abroad. Other cards tell a story. Sometimes the story is for children, but other stories are for adults, and titillate the way only the Victorians could, about grave matters like seduction, betrayal and furtive romances. Such are the series of stereopticon cards left in part on a table in the Gentlemen’s Card Room. Were they left there to discourage or encourage shipboard romances? Or are they an unintended cruelty, a way of forcing retired couples who vacation on this steamboat to wonder about their youth, their dried up passion, their past opportunities for happiness missed and squandered? Or are they here to encourage dreams?
For many nights on this cruise, Alan will have the same dream. He is always in a situation where he must save two children. The children are dressed in Victorian finery with bonnets and buckle shoes. The situation varies, a car drives off without them, a train departs and leaves them behind, but Alan always admits to wanting both, and rescues them. He then holds them in his arms, close to his heart. Two views; his past and future; two loves, God and the world; two illusions, or two desires weld into one by a trick of the heart.
It is to their credit, that when the Victorians decorated a room they left no surface untouched. The Women’s Tea Room on the steamboat Bayou Queen is a good example of their use of organic forms to do just that. Sunlight filters through lace curtains and painted shades are decorated with floral motifs. The pillows on the couch are embroidered and the wallpaper is patterned with golden, flowing flowers. Every piece of wood, the arms and legs of tables and chairs, are all carved with angels, leaves and claws. There are doilies and fringed shawls, gilded cups and hammered silver teapots. The cold meat forks, soup ladles and cake knives are covered with silver ivy and polished to a shine. A swirl of pink and white roses against a blue background completes the carpet on the floor. Such is it that some men like Alan come to desire the things of women, but not the women themselves.
Even the atmosphere can be decorated with incense and perfume. Since ancient times the scent of vanilla was used in love potions because of its power to “compel.” This morning Alan goes to the steamboat’s gift shop and uses the tester to spray a sample of “Evangeline” on the back of his neck. He reads that this perfume has a vanilla base, with other notes of violet and freesia. There is no one on this cruise Alan would want to attract except Roger, the young man who buses his table and supposedly has a girlfriend in Utah. But still, Alan can pretend, and what he will pretend is that he meets Chris turning the corner of a deck and Chris is compelled to follow.
Alan met Chris only a few days before he boarded the Bayou Queen and after his rendezvous with Ryan. Chris works at a coffeehouse in the Quarter and is a writer. He seems to be just the opposite of Ryan. Alan even thinks Chris is straight, but when did that ever stop Alan? What strikes Alan when he first sees Chris is how much they look alike. Well, more exactly how much Chris looks the way Alan looked twenty years ago. The baseball cap, the wire rim glasses, the shape of Chris’s jaw and the color of his eyes startled Alan into thinking he was looking into a mirror to the past. Chris also has one of those drawn out southern accents which Alan can only affect, and Alan realizes, too, that Chris is thinner and more ‘masculine’ than Alan will ever be. Nevertheless, Alan can’t stop thinking about Chris. Alan finds all of this hauntingly disturbing, so very much in the ghostly tradition of New Orleans. Chris just seems so right, so responsible and serious. Alan thinks, too, that Chris even might be married because one night coming back to his apartment, Alan walked past the coffeehouse and he saw a man who looked like Chris carrying a child and walking with a woman, but it was too dark to make anything out for sure. The next day, when Alan ordered tea at the coffeehouse, he checked both Chris’s hands for rings of any kind and saw none. “Well, I will find out for sure when I get back to New Orleans,” Alan says to himself. Besides, Chris just said he was a writer when Alan asked him what more he does besides brewing coffee. However, Chris didn’t say what kind of writer, a prose writer or a poet. Alan admitted right away he was a poet because Alan thinks all really good poets are gay, and most prose writers are straight. Alan passes the first afternoon of his cruise walking the promenade deck mulling over these memories. On either side of the Bayou Queen, the Mississippi River twists and turns through the lowlands of Louisiana like the meandering of Alan’s thoughts. In the low light of shadows, the river water could be the color of muddy vanilla. Alan is compelled to follow.
Alan watches the pitman arms of the steam engine thrust back and forth like the force that makes the generations, back and forth, turning the steamboat’s red paddlewheel. Now the paddlewheel is churning the muddy water into a riot of coffee and cream-colored foam. Listening to the forlorn melody of the calliope, Alan thinks of all the grace that leaves the world through conflict and confusion, and all the lost causes that drift away with the current of time. Now the aging men sit in the grand salon next to their aging wives. The dull wheel of time keeps them in bed late and slows their bowels. Alan thinks about the long river of desire that follows these men from one generation to another, thrusting us into a life that remains forever open to the mystery of who we are. Is this river long enough to quench our thirst? How are he and Chris and Ryan any different from all the rest who travel here? Chris’s prose and Alan’s poetry all come from the same river of words, a river Ryan may yet learn to drink. Now the boat is in the middle of the river with the rest of the traffic: barges, ships, steamers, fishermen, and tugboats all making for a port, all churning up the muddy flow. “Live steam” is what they say powers this boat, what they warn against, marvel at, and what sends the melody through the pipes of the calliope. Back and forth go the pistons, bursting with power, back and forth, translating their oiled thrusts to roll the wheel round and round.
While on the river, Alan thinks of those men who pray to the Lord for rain, those farmers of the dust who think little about the pleasures of the flesh. He thinks, too, of those men who tramp the desert in search of water holes. What glory is a river for them and how they shun the city with all its diversion and depravity. Could Ryan ever survive such a life, and why should he? And Alan’s life, why has the flow of it come to this point, thinking his thirst can be satisfied with Ryan? On the river we learn to appreciate the…well, Alan doesn’t know what exactly now. On the river minds wander. All Alan knows now is that he is far from where he set out. Thoughts, like the river have a main channel, but there are weary places where the river bends and then gets cut off, just like an argument heading to a conclusion, but instead, meandering to an association. In those lost eddies of water and thought the streams dry up. Then the alligators leave because the fish are gone and they won’t be back until the flood comes and brings with it high water.
St. Francisville is the first stop on the trip up river. Like so many of those on this boat, St. Francisville is old, but well kept. Tours of antebellum homes are on the itinerary here. Mirrors and chandeliers were brought up river on steamboats from New Orleans, instead of overland on the backs of mules, and arrived in one piece to decorate the ceilings and walls of many homes in a grand manner. Architectural styles and fashions also came up from the Big Easy. It is hard for Alan to imagine that long ago even the Spanish were here trying to make a go of a colony. Certainly there are bends in the course of the river that look the same as they did three hundred years ago. Perhaps a man of Alan’s taste stood on a deck of a long boat then and saw the same vista Alan sees now. In the distance, a heron crane glides above the water. Legend has it that these birds are the ghosts of dead steamboat pilots come back to life. They help guide the boat today through the fog and around sandbars.
Dense fog on the river this afternoon delays the departure from town. Alan looks out his cabin window through lace curtains to a shoreline that is a miasma of white mist. A trip up river always takes longer. A trip up river is against the current. The calliope plays river tunes as they wait for the reassuring rush of steam that signals the big paddlewheel is turning again. Although their next stop is Natchez, with more antebellum homes and the only cathedral in Mississippi, it doesn’t seem to matter where they are going. Folks just want to move on now. St. Francisville is damp and foggy place, and the mud along the bank sticks to their shoes as they walk from the tour bus to the gangplank. Most of them just want to be back on the water, gliding along to another river town, another view of bluffs razor-backed with bare trees and brush. Once the boat is in mideam, Alan decides to leave his cabin for the ship’s library. There he settles into one of the overstuffed chairs and reads a copy of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Christo he finds left open on the lamp stand next to his chair. He reads until it is time for dinner. Later that evening, as they wait for salad to be served, a prim old lady bends close and asks Alan, “Are you traveling on this cruise all alone?”
[Poetic creation, what is this but seeing the thing sufficiently? The word that will describe the thing follows of itself from such clear intense sight of the thing.
Thomas Carlyle, The Hero as Poet (1840)—Eds.]
Robert Klein Engler lives in Chicago. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana and The University of Chicago Divinity School. He was a department chair for many years at the City Colleges of Chicago, but now teaches at Roosevelt University. His poems and stories have appeared in Borderlands, Hyphen, Christopher Street, The James White Review, American Letters and Commentary, Kansas Quarterly, and many other magazines and journals. He was the recipient of Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards for his poem “Flower Festival at Genzano,” which appeared in Whetstone and “Three Poems for Kabbalah,” which appeared in Fish Stories, II.