Two tourists—a man from Syracuse and a woman from Toledo—dine on opposite sides of a French Quarter restaurant.
“The time was a Sunday in summer—those hours of afternoon that seem Time Out in New Orleans,” Eudora Welty writes in her short story “No Place for You, My Love,” originally published in The New Yorker on September 20, 1952. The story breathes such an air of immediacy that it unfolds as though Welty is writing it as you read.
While Welty may be best known as a chronicler of the South, particularly the Mississippi Delta, this short story documents New Orleans and its lesser known, often-neglected cousin to the south, Plaquemines Parish, a narrow peninsula in the toe of Louisiana, much of it below sea level. She conveys the region that Glen Jeansonne describes in Leander Perez as “nature’s compromise: half land, half water” with such ease and casual mastery that the reader can only assume she’s a native.
Here, she honors the exotic without marveling, painting this “strange land, amphibious” with strokes that force the reader to lean in and observe closely or else miss the eerie beauty entirely.
The two strangers in “No Place for You, My Love” make eye contact from across the restaurant—Galatoire’s. The woman smiles.
“He didn’t smile back,” writes Welty.
She had that naïve face that he associated, for no good reason, with the Middle West—because it said ‘Show me,’ perhaps. It was a serious, now-watch-out-everybody face, which orphaned her entirely in the company of these Southerners.
Their friends realize they know each other—a common occurrence in New Orleans, a small town that sometimes dresses up as a big city—and draw the two groups together.
“‘I find the heat down here depressing,’ she said, with the heart of Ohio in her voice,” one of the many elegant details that Welty offers in this story that would, with the alteration of a few details, appear contemporary if it appeared in next week’s edition of The New Yorker.
The party breaks up, but the man doesn’t leave until the following day. He wants to take his rented convertible south—“south of South, below it.” She’s dubious: “South of New Orleans? I didn’t know there was any south to here.”
They drive out of the city, clinging to the east bank of the Mississippi River, which they eventually cross by ferry. There, on a narrow road bordered on either side by levees—one holding back the Mississippi, the other the marshes that lead to Barataria Bay—they head toward the Gulf of Mexico.
“They met fishermen and other men bent on some local pursuits,” writes Welty of their adventure along the palmetto-lined road.
There were thousands, millions of mosquitos and gnats—a universe of them, and on the increase. …
More and more crayfish and other shell creatures littered their path, scuttling or dragging. These little samples, little jokes of creation, persisted and sometimes perished, the more of them the deeper down the road went.
On the other side of the levee, the sun generates light upon the river “[l]ike a misplaced sunrise.”
Deeper south, they drive on along the road that passes through swamp. “The end of the road—she could not remember ever seeing a road simply end—was a spoon shape, with a tree stump in the bowl to turn around by.”
When the two reach Venice, final outpost in Plaquemines Parish, they find a “beer shack” and step inside. Welty populates Baba’s Place with a chaotic mix of local denizens. Men round a card table while boys play pinball in the corner. She writes of the dog that “lay sleeping on in front of the raging juke box, his ribs working fast as a concertina’s” and, as the night comes on, young women “coming up the steps under the porch light—all flowered fronts, their black pompadours giving out breathlike feelers from sheer abundance.”
In this setting, the man and woman—misplaced, confused souls—begin to dance, and Welty provides another of the piercing observations that she litters throughout the pages of this small masterpiece:
Surely even those immune to the world, for the time being, need the touch of one another, or all is lost. Their arms encircling each other, their bodies circling the odorous, just-nailed-down floor, they were, at last, imperviousness in motion. They had found it, and had almost missed it: they had had to dance. They were what their separate hearts desired that day, for themselves and each other.
Afterwards, they drive back in silence through the “hot, licking night wind that their speed was making.”
Nothing happens. Everything happens. After their journey “south of South—below it,” these characters find themselves altered yet outwardly unchanged. The entire story unfolds like a dream, one with details we find ourselves still clinging to long after we surface out of this surreal landscape.
Welty achieves a melancholy, humorous, staggering glimpse into the lives of two lonely souls adrift in “a strange land, amphibious—and whether water-covered or grown with jungle or robbed entirely of water and trees, as now, it had the same loneliness.” This unnamed man and woman have nothing (and everything) to hide from one another. They will never see each other again, but they each also—lazily or desperately—need to escape their own realities, ones the reader can imagine only from Welty’s delicately placed details.
Like their names, these characters’ real identities remain tucked inside, but we leave “No Place for You, My Love” feeling like we know everything we need to know about this man and woman in order to live alongside them. Or to inhabit their desperation, resignation tinged with faint (fleeting) hope.
KR & JL
Photographs by Kevin Rabalais