Stranger from the Natchez Trace

Stranger from the Natchez Trace

St. Louis is categorized as an urban, damp, subtropical climate. My family moved there in the mid-fifties for about a year. Air conditioning, a novelty in mid-century America was treated like a passing fad in St. Louis. It’s the hottest place I’ve ever lived.

Summers for a nine-year old came with mixed blessings. During the day, people opened their windows, turned the fans on or sat outside in the shade. On the plus side, I liked being able to see my mother through an open window, to call to her, hoping she’d express kindness and pride in whatever I did to try to impress her. On the minus side, I didn’t like that she could overhear my outside conversations and arguments with friends or sisters.

My parents never made friends with neighbors or with our friends’ parents, like others did, but for some reason they introduced a stranger into our family the summer we lived in St. Louis. Lucien Gaudet appeared without notice or explanation. My father worked in an office everyday or traveled but Lucien Gaudet didn’t work with him or have a job. The few friends my parents did have were old Georgetown University classmates. An Ole Miss alum, Lucien Gaudet, with his dark curly hair and slim athletic build cured his voice on Mississippi’s Natchez Trace, far from any experience of my parents. To them, Lucien Gaudet represented a charmed South that exuded a Gatsby-like idyll of white-suited straw-hatted men and linen-and-lace women who lazed under wisteria vines drinking Gin Rickeys all day. 

He taught me how to read notes and find them on the piano. I imagine my sisters received special attention from him as well because all three of us liked him. He brought us a Dalmatian puppy from the Budweiser farm. We wanted to name the dog after him but he suggested we name her after his mother, Antoinette. Tony for short.

Lucien Gaudet and my mother drank together. Drinking buddies, they were. My older sister thinks she saw them in bed together. To escape the heat they sat on the back steps drinking cold beer. She made him laugh and he made her happy.

One day I could no longer stand swatting Mississippi River mosquitos away from my perspiring skin. I took my bike out to get relief. After a spin around the neighborhood, I rode into the driveway toward the back of the house to show off my skills in front of my mother and Lucien Gaudet, hoping for a compliment. I rode on the outside edge of the pavement to give myself a wide berth. As I turned my wheel to circle around, I felt the tires slip on the sandy grit splayed around the shoulder of the asphalt. My front wheel slid fast and hard like a dislocated knee and I went down. I skidded along the pavement with my bike and scraped the side of my thigh and calf.

“Don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you,” my mother shouted, “Get up!”

Lucien Gaudet didn’t say a word. They blinked and turned back into themselves to a place I didn’t belong. 

And I, I felt sorry for myself.