South Louisiana Charm

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In her excitement Claire St. James checked her list one more time. This was her first commissioned assignment for a major travel magazine, and she wanted to be sure she had packed everything she would possibly need. She had submitted hundreds of local travel pieces and stories to magazines and websites around the country, and now it was paying off, hopefully in a big way.

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She added one more camera to the stash she had already packed away in her new 2018 Escape and climbed into the driver’s seat. She set the destination into the map app, selected her playlist of traveling music, and smiled in anticipation of her first long road trip.

Claire had always lived in the suburbs of metropolitan cities, all west of the Mississippi. She wasn’t sure what to expect from this small, Louisiana community. The editor’s assignment sheet said it was an island, surrounded by rivers and bayous, decades behind modern times. She counted on her research to provide the basics of the article but experiencing the local color and people would write the real story.

As the miles ticked off behind her, her thoughts wandered to the place she would eventually call home for a couple weeks. Her agent suggested she make arrangements in a town east of the community and drive in each day to do her information gathering. But she had always felt it best to stay among the locals to get the feel and mood of the place she was writing about. She hoped she had made the right choice this time. She hadn’t found many hotel choices in this tiny town in the heart of fishing and farming country.

As she sped almost 1,500 miles, passing cities and small towns along the interstate, crossing mountains, deserts, heading east and then, ultimately, south, she enjoyed this journey. She enjoyed the road, spending nights in hotels, and eating local cuisine rather than the hotel or chain food. It added depth and character to her writing and she often drew on those experiences in her pieces.

The drive took longer than Claire anticipated, even with the GPS. She only had herself to blame. When she crossed the Mississippi River in Memphis, she was so captivated by the sights and sounds, that she took a couple extra days to explore the charm of its Southern culture. She noticed the dialects had changed from the more brisk, Midwest tones to a softer, slower drawl, mimicking a more relaxed, genteel way of life. The Mississippi River, as it meandered toward the Gulf of Mexico would loosely lead her to her assignment. She toured Graceland, a mansion and shrine to a country boy who had made it big, and the sidewalks bordered with flowered sitting areas called to her. She stayed in a hotel not far from the mansion. She found a restaurant that served local barbecue and settled down to people watch.

As she checked out early the next morning, she studied the GPS. She should be able to make the rest of her trip without another night on the road. It turned out to be a long, tiring drive and was almost dark when the GPS indicated she had arrived at her destination. She had begun to doubt her insistence on staying in the little community as she drove the small back roads, hugging curves and crossing one lane bridges. But she made it. The tiny building that read Post Office was, of course, closed, as were all the stores in the small town. There were no hotels coming up on the map, and panic began to descend on her. She drove a little farther down a winding road, then spotted a sign that read Island Bed and Breakfast. With a sigh of relief, she parked in a small shell parking area and approached the low, white picket fence, pushing open the gate. She walked up the ten steps, counting them as she went up. No other cars were in the lot, but the lights were on. She rang the bell, feeling at a disadvantage. Even with the sign, it felt like ringing the bell of a private residence. She waited for what seemed a long time for the door to open. When it did, she was surprised to see a tall, lean man about her own age, she guessed, standing there looking down at her.

“Good evening,” Claire stammered, feeling self-conscious under his gaze.

“Good evening to you, how may I help you?” The look in his eyes teetered between admiration and disapproval. “What’s a young woman like you doing so far from the city this time of the evening?”

Claire bristled at the condescending tone of his voice. She held out her hand to shake his. “My name is Claire St. James. I’m here to write a story for a travel magazine. And I’m hoping that sign means what it says, Bed and Breakfast?”

He smiled, shook her hand, and stood back to let her in. “I’m Gavin, pleased to meet you.” He ushered her into the main sitting room. “We actually have two rooms available. I’ll let you choose the one you want. Both rooms are $125 per night plus tax. If you’re satisfied, we can do the paperwork later.” He handed her both keys. “Would you like help with your luggage?” Claire looked at him, clicked the remote, then turned to wander around the house. She glanced around downstairs, peeking into the dining room, kitchen and library. It had a warm, friendly feel, bringing a sense of peace to her ragged nerves. The room she chose was the first one at the top of the stairs. She let herself in, immediately falling in love with the charming ambiance. It was her first real taste of the island’s history. There were tall, narrow windows reaching from the porch below. They stood open, allowing a light, cool breeze to billow the white cotton curtains. The white chenille spread on the queen bed invited her to curl up with her laptop and start her story. A tall armoire stood in the corner of the room, one mirrored door slightly ajar, waiting for her to put her things safely to rest inside. A quilt rack stood at the end of the bed, holding a quilt possibly made by the hands of a former resident.

Gavin tapped on the door and set her things inside the room. “Are you hungry?” He asked. “We usually serve a hot breakfast every morning, but considering your late arrival, I’m sure Mom can fix a light supper for you.”

She gladly accepted. It had been hours since the drive-thru burger and coke. “If you’re sure she doesn’t mind. I think I have some travel snacks left from the trip.”

“Not a chance. No travel snacks, not here at the Island Bed and Breakfast! We strive to make this your home.” He held the door and they went in search of food.

Half an hour later, Claire pushed back from the table. “Wow! Gavin promised a light supper, but this is a gourmet meal. You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble, but I sure appreciate it.”

Mrs. Duplessis smiled, “It was no trouble. Just a simple omelet made from fresh eggs and locally cured ham. I put up the jam fresh when the fruit trees are ripe.”

She looked from Mrs. Duplessis to Gavin, who seemed to be studying her. He pushed his chair back and said, “Let’s have dessert and coffee in the sitting room.”

Mrs. Duplessis and Gavin told her a lot about the area’s history as they nibbled on pastries and sipped coffee in the comfortable parlor before turning in for the night. She learned the rivers and it’s many tributaries, lakes and swamps had provided a substantial livelihood for their family through the years. Gavin’s great-grandfather had spent winter’s as a trapper, selling the pelts for fur coats and rich stoles. During the summers he farmed the fertile soil of the basin, and cut lumber from the lush forest, taking advantage of opportunities the more inland towns and cities lacked.

Gavin became her guide and historian during her days on the island. He helped her gather information from the locals when she might never have been able to get them to open up and share their lives. They visited working farms, local markets, and took long walks around the island’s river landings, talking to commercial fishermen, and quite a few sportsmen. With each passing day, she was more intrigued by this quaint island, the depth of their culture, the richness of their conversations, and the pure delight listening to their local colloquialisms. She wrote about it through the eyes of the very young as they played with carefree abandon. She wrote down the conversations of the older people as they sat around the general store talking about old times, about how ‘progress’ was ruining the flavor of their way of life. She snapped pictures of people and multi-dimensional landscapes. During conversations with locals her own age, she noticed many of them lived on the island but commuted to the larger cities to work, returning each evening to enjoy a few lazy hours in what had become a bedroom community.

Each evening, after a light supper with the Duplessis family, she sat in the small sitting room and worked on the article. The words seemed to flow effortlessly from her fingertips, only her assigned word count giving her trouble. She added pictures for the editors to consider, providing a graphic account of life on the small coastal island. Gavin always sat in the room with her, reading a book or working on his own laptop. She stopped writing and watched him from across the room. He was apparently caught up in a book about spiritual disciplines and didn’t notice her watching. She smiled, realizing the people and their spirit were working their way into her heart. Or was it just Gavin?

Without her realizing it, Gavin began to draw her out about her own life. One day as they sat in the shade of a pine tree, on one of the many landings, he said, “Tell me a little bit about yourself. Are you married? In a relationship?” She looked over at him, his dark brown eyes deep and intense. It was impossible to read his thoughts. He chuckled, “Just by the nature of what you do, you know all there is to know about me.”

She looked back to watch the river as it gently flowed past them. Did she really want to get into this with a man she had only known a few weeks? Her most recent entanglement had been complicated, to say the least, and answering questions about herself was outside her comfort zone. She shrugged. She supposed turnabout was fair play. “Well, no, I’m not married or even in a relationship.” She glanced at him, but he was quiet. She looked away. “It just seems easier to maintain my own identity that way.” That was an easier explanation than the truth that she had allowed herself to trust someone who had betrayed her. It was a long time ago, but it left a deep wound in her heart. She turned, quickly wiping a tear from her eye. She looked back at Gavin and felt his hand cover hers. She hadn’t allowed herself to get this close to a man since that time. It suddenly dawned on her that she had let her guard down with him and her heart skipped a beat as she felt the warmth of his hand on her’s. Could she let this happen again?

“Gavin,” she said, pulling her hand away from his. “My life is far away from your beautiful island. I don’t handle lighthearted, short-lived romances very well.”

He looked away and sighed. “Claire, I’m single because there’s never been a woman I felt was truly genuine, someone I could trust to hold my heart and dreams. Then I looked down on a feisty redhead knocking on my door… and she’s captured my heart.” He looked at her.

She stared at the river, afraid to look up at him. She could handle her own feelings for the short time that she would still be here. She would be leaving soon, and it could all just be a romantic memory. But now that he had bared his own heart, declaring his feelings for her, she realized her own heart was just as deeply affected. Her resolve began to fade. She stood, thinking it would give her space and break his thoughts of romance in the early evening shadows. Instead, he rose with her, putting his hands on her waist, turning her to face him, pulling her closer to him. It was obvious he intended to kiss her. She wouldn’t be able to defend her own heart if she let this happen, but she didn’t want to stop what she knew was coming. As Gavin leaned his face toward hers, her eyes betrayed her and closed, her lips parting slightly. As their lips met, Claire St. James realized she had never really kissed a man before, never really been in love before. When their lips parted, the sun was setting behind the trees, the last rays of light shining through the branches, as if from heaven. She gasped for air and turned away from him. Hoarsely, she said, “Gavin, please take me home…um, back to the bed and breakfast.” She struggled to clear her head.

He dropped his head and quietly said, “Sure. Watch your step in the dark. It’s not very far.” She could hear the disappointment — the hurt — in his voice.

The next morning after breakfast, Claire packed her things and loaded the car herself. She couldn’t help but snap several shots of her room and a few out the window before going down and paying Mrs. Duplessis for her stay. Gavin had not been at breakfast. It was just as well.

Claire retraced her journey, but her thoughts — and her heart — stayed on the small island, the easy pace and generous nature of those who lived there lingering with her. She couldn’t let her mind go to Gavin, it hurt too much. She had hated leaving without saying goodbye, but she knew she had to. Evidently, Gavin had known it, too.

When she drove into her driveway and parked the car in the garage of her condo, she was mentally and physically exhausted. She hadn’t stopped to sightsee or experience the towns she passed through, as she normally would have. She slept as little as possible and drove as if possessed. She pushed through the final work, completing the story and submitting it to the editor. Afterward, she seemed to sleep for days, waking only when hunger forced her from her bed. Several days later, she finally broke through the fog, the fatigue, the heartbreak. It had controlled her existence since leaving the bed and breakfast, leaving behind her heart, and the joy the island had brought her.

She went to the kitchen and opened the fridge, knowing there was nothing edible there. She picked up her house key and walked out, crossing the four-lane and going to the coffee shop on the corner. She needed food and craved her normal latte, so different from the plain coffee and simple meals that had become a part of her days and nights there. She ate her breakfast sandwich and sipped the latte, wondering what Gavin was doing right now. She feared she might have added the burden of mistrust to his hopes for the perfect woman. A tear slid down her cheek and landed on her hand. The hand he had held on the landing that evening.

She left the coffee shop and walked home the long way. A hot breeze was blowing, and she could feel the heat rising up from the pavement. She couldn’t help but compare it to the breeze that always blew softly on the island, cooler and less draining than the city. As she reached her condo, she checked her mail. Mostly junk, which she dumped in the trash, but two envelopes quickened her heartbeat. One from the publisher at the magazine, and one from…Gavin. She tore open the one from the publisher first. To her delight, it was an acceptance letter and a handsome check, along with an offer to accept more of her work. Claire sat there and stared at both the letter and the check. It would see her through for some time to come.

She held the envelope from Gavin, unsure she wanted to open it. If she didn’t, she could always remember their time, their kiss, with fondness and joy. If she opened it, it might tear her apart, ruin the fond memories and leave her empty and broken-hearted. Hesitantly, she slipped her finger under the flap and drew out the two pages inside. Holding them close to her, she savored the fragrance that was Gavin, clean and fresh. The smell of the island seemed to rise from the pages, too. Slowly she started to read. Her heart beat faster as she realized he was asking her to come back, or if she couldn’t bear to live on the island, he would come to her. Tears flowed as he wrote that he would adapt to her life as a city dweller and traveling writer. “Claire,” he closed the letter, “I’ve found it impossible to get you and our one kiss out of my mind. I’ve fallen in love with a feisty redhead who knocked on my door asking for a place to stay.” He signed it, “Yours forever, Gavin.”

She reached for her cell phone and pushed the button, waiting for him to answer. Just as he said, “This is Gavin,” the doorbell rang. Claire breathlessly answered and asked him to hold on while she got the door. When she opened it, there he was, standing in front of her, putting his phone in his pocket.

Claire looked up, a smile covering her face, spreading to her eyes. She dropped her phone, reaching up to receive his embrace, his kiss. They could work out the details later, it was enough to have him with her again. What had started that night in the cool of a porch of an island Bed and Breakfast was ending in the heat of a porch of a desert condo.

But so what…

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Claire’s impressions of people on the island changed greatly during her time there. Have you ever spent time with people different than you, and learned to appreciate the differences? Write about your experience in the comments below.

As always, if you enjoy my story, please share!

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