Updated: Jun 16, 2019
~ A Mystery Novel ~
This is a work of fiction inspired by real experiences of my life. It includes passages of real events, people, places etc. as commentary, but the story itself is fabricated from my imagination in which all events, places and people–living, dead, or anywhere in between–are entirely fictional. The real stuff is clearly indicated as such at the beginning of each chapter, followed by nothing but fiction until the beginning of the next chapter.
Why? I'm not sure. It just seemed the best way to get this story written.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ The second year we lived in Houston, desegregation laws kicked in and my sister and I were bussed from Bellaire across the west side of Houston to Sharpstown where we attended classes at Jane Long Junior High School. It was a bit scary at the beginning. My first day there, after homeroom class let out, I went to looking for a restroom to relieve a bladder at its absolute limit of capacity before I had to get to English class. Finding the restroom, I quickly stepped up to the closest urinal even as I unzipped and pulled out my spigot and let go mere microseconds before it was too late. Just as my bladder was about empty, a black kid stepped up to the adjacent urinal, pulled out a pocket knife and told me to give him my wristwatch–a cheap brand I can't remember the name of that my parents had given to me as my first watch that summer of 1966. It probably cost all of two dollars, if that much. I shook my spigot, stuffed it back into my pants, zipped up and looked the kid in the eye. I wasn't being brave. Possibly stupid. Houston was my first big city living experience and I had heard it could be a dangerous place. I probably should have been more frightened than I was, but my best friend in grade school, Chris, was black, so I wasn't particularly afraid of his skin color. The knife worried me, though. I decided I wouldn't show my fear and just told him "You don't want my watch," turned my back on him, went to a sink, washed my hands and exited the restroom without looking back. We would see each other a few more times in the hallways later during the school year but we never spoke to each other again and he left me alone. I never did turn him in for trying to mug me at knifepoint for my cheap wristwatch. I have no idea what he thought of me, but I decided that I had met my first nigger. That summer after finishing the seventh grade, we moved to Lafayette, Louisiana and I wondered if I would run into anymore knife wielding niggers there.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
I played hooky a lot in 1968 after moving to Sauderton, Louisiana. It was a small town situated on the western banks of the Vermillion river. We lived on the south end of town just a few blocks from the Vermillion at the edge of a subdivision bulldozers had just started ripping and scraping into, carving wide, curving dirt roadbeds right up to the edge of the river. That was where we preferred to play because we could disappear in there without any adults ever really wanting to come in to see what we were up to. The roadbeds cut through thorny thicket too dense to walk through and they easily became impassable by vehicles whenever it rained. And it rained a lot in southern Louisiana. This was always where I would go when playing hooky. Alone. Without telling anyone where I was going.
On my first day playing hooky, I made a beeline for the riverbank to an old cemetery which was both sunken and partially eroded away by flood stage waters over the decades. The graves were all above ground, tilted, very old and one of them had been cracked open at one corner, leaving a hole just large enough for a skinny teenager to crawl through. My brothers and I would dare each other to stick our head inside to have a look, but we never did. We had seen too many cottonmouths living along the river banks and swimming in the river to do something so stupid, and that hole looked as snaky as any we had come across.
As I approached the cemetery I heard voices. Men's voices. So I softened my step and crept up as quietly as I could. Two men sat on the riverbank with a beat up, rusty old garbage can between them. They were fishing and had not heard me yet. They were both black men. I wondered if they were just that or if they might be niggers. So I turned to go just in case they were and stepped right on a stick that cracked loud and clear enough for them to hear it. And they did. I debated dashing into the thicket but decided my mother would see all the scratches and would most certainly ask what had happened at school that I would get so scratched up. I had no qualms about playing hooky, but I didn't want to have to lie to my mother. She was a walking, talking lie detector and would see through any lie I told before it was even uttered.
Both men stood, turned and looked at me. I stood still and looked back at them.
"Why you not in school, son?" one of them asked. The other answered when I didn't. "He playin' hooky, fo sho" and laughed a loud, hearty laugh. I stayed silent and did not move. The first one to speak waved me over as he and his companion sat back down on the ground, picked up their poles and resumed fishing. I still did not move or speak. "Come on over here, sonny. We ain't gonna hurt you." Sensing no threat in his voice, I complied and sat beside him.
"I'm Charley and this is my friend Jase. His real name be Jason but he likes to be called Jase, unless its his momma talking to him." Charley held out his hand and I shook it. "I'm Billy. My mom calls me William, which I hate," I replied. Jase reached around behind Charley, offering his hand. We shook and he winked at me. "Billy, eh. Like the Kid? Cutting school make you feel like you living dangerous?". I grinned and nodded truthfully. It was the main reason I played hooky. I loved the thrill of it. They both laughed and Jase handed me a spare cane pole. "Crawfish in the can for bait. Bluecat are biting good," he said. I got up and looked into the garbage can. Several large catfish lay in it sucking air. They were surrounded by live crawfish brandishing big pincers and flipping their tails as they retreated from everything.
"Don't let one of them cats stab you. That hurts like hell," Charley warned. I understood, having fished for, caught, handled and cleaned a catfish before. "It's their only defense besides flopping around a lot."
Gingerly plucking a crawfish from the can, I settled down to get it on the hook and tossed it out into the river. It sank and started tail flipping backward underwater to escape. The cork followed until it settled down, resigned to its fate as live bait.
"You don't like going to school, Billy?" Jase asked. Speaking too quickly and loudly I said "I hate it. Always have and always will." This set them both to laughing again.
"Amen to that," Charley said, then added "Well, maybe the day won't be a total loss if you can catch a few fish. We won't be giving up until time for you to go pretend you just got off the school bus and walk home."
That made me giggle. My cork bobbed and I yanked but it was just the crawfish trying to escape again. "Keep it in the water, there Billy. You'll know when one gets on the hook. Cat likes to pick up the bait and carry it a bit before gulping it down. Then it'll hit the gas and try to yank your arm out of socket. So hang on tight to that pole."
I nodded and gripped the pole tightly as we talked and became acquainted. Charley and Jase told me about their simple lives as poor men trying to scrape a living any way they could and asked about mine without prying into details. I didn't have a lot to tell them in comparison to their colorful stories. And over the remaining years of my public school career, we became close friends and confidants in crime. Even the crime none of us committed that everyone else was so certain we had, because it was the three of us who found her, pulling her to the surface twelve years later in that very same spot at the cemetery. On my fishing pole. For which Jase took the heat and was convicted for electrocution to undeserved death.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ I imagine I'll catch some flak for using the N word here, but I have to if this story is going to suspend readers' disbelief. In the late 1960s it was a word still very much in use throughout the USA despite efforts of anti-racist activists spearheading movement against its usage. Not just in places I lived in southern Texas and Louisiana. One summer around 1967 or 1968 I was visiting relatives in a small town about a hundred miles east of the town Chris and I attended grade school together. We were outside playing in my great grandmother's back yard when lo and behold, here comes Chris riding bicycles with his sister. I almost fell over seeing him that far away from where we first met and became friends. He stopped and talked with me a few minutes about nothing special. Other kids from across the street I had been playing with stopped and watched us talk. When Chris and his sister rode away, one of those kids, a bratty little boy I never found much reason to like, asked "Who's the niggers?". I'm not going to try to candy coat the real parts I share here. That word was used in every single town and city I lived in from the southwestern corner of Oklahoma, up to northern Illinois, down south to Houston, Lafayette and even westward in Midland, Texas. I tried to never use it conversationally and am pretty sure I didn't do so with malice. My parents were careful about teaching us to be evenhanded and fair with people we met and interacted with. Until the half-hearted knifepoint mugging attempt in Houston, it never even occurred to me to use that word at all. Peer influences and ugly graffiti encountered in various places informed of such hateful usage and I inevitably included it in my silent vocabulary by the time I was twelve years old.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
As time dragged on and on in school over the years, it always seemed to fly whenever I was hanging out with Charley and Jase. We usually met up someplace along the Vermillion or on the banks of smaller bayous branching from it whenever I could manage to play hooky during school days without risking being caught. I had to space and time hooky days out carefully, and just as carefully forge the excuse letters in my mother's hand to give to teachers upon my return. I never got caught by them, or Mom or by truancy officers my friends kept warning would eventually nab me. The teachers were just too busy and overloaded trying to deal with too many restless, pubescent kids in their crowded classrooms to worry about my absences since I had no problem keeping my grades up. Mom seemed happy that I was happy living in Louisiana and relieved I was doing okay in school. I know my parents hoped I would someday become a straight-A student but they were realistic about chances for that ever happening. Truancy officers never ventured into thicket for fear of snakes.
I learned a lot from Charley and Jase over the years hanging out with them. Not just a bunch of meaningless stuff I couldn't leverage to any practical application, but useful stuff centered on survival in the deep thicket and along the most remote and secret bayous. They showed me so many ways to camp, cook and have fun in the wild that it became my main goal to become a biologist or botanist or any such thing that would allow me to work in the wild environments I had come to love so much.
Besides bayou fishing techniques, they showed me how to track, trap and capture wild creatures without harming them unless I intended to eat them. I became acquainted with and learned to catch and cook just about anything that flew, hopped, crawled, skittered or slithered through the thicket. They showed me how to find wild plants and fungi I could eat and use for medicine, my favorite being wild cherries, or merise, as Jase called them. They taught me to speak quite a lot of Creole–something I could never learn in public schools. And even though Charley and Jase were decades older than me, they weren't above enjoying a late evening game dashing about catching moiselle (fireflies) and putting them in old mason jars to set around camp for mood lighting as we prepared and ate a late supper together.
They were wise old men, but light hearted and childlike in most everything they did. We had a lot of fun together, trusting each other completely and growing as close as any family members do. As far as I know, they kept our friendship a secret, as always I did. A young white boy hanging out in the thickets of Louisiana with two old black men in the late 1960s just wasn't something that was acceptable in those days. We never talked about it openly, but I could tell they were cautious with me at first, worried I might blab about our relationship to other white people and cause them no end of racism-driven trouble. Crosses were still being burned in front yards of black people who were uppity enough to push or violate racial boundaries in those days. A black man had been castrated and lynched (in that order) for pushing those boundaries with a teenage white girl just one year before our family moved to Sauderton. It was three full years into our time spent together before Charley and Jase introduced me to their families living deep in bayou country almost as primitively as their creole ancestors had before them. And they accepted me into their tiny homes built on tall cypress piers as if I were a long lost relative finally found and rescued in the wild.
But as the end of my days in school drew near during the fourth year of our friendship, I began worrying a lot about what would happen to it as I moved on to go to college. By then I knew exactly what I wanted to become, professionally speaking, and that I would finally have to buckle down and hit the books hard if I was going to earn a degree to become a Coastal Environmental Scientist and successfully work in that field. Even with LSU just a few miles up river, that distance was great enough that Charley, Jase and their families and I would not likely cross paths for a long time after I started college.
We all finally talked about it one evening over a meal of boudin rouge and fried catfish at Jase's home during Christmas holiday break of my senior year. They could tell it was bothering me a lot and assured me I would always be welcomed by them when I had time to escape the city to visit. "Besides, Billy Boy," (Jase had taken to calling me that and boisterously singing the song by the same name to embarrass me), "you gonna learn to be a scientist that studies plants and bugs and varmints out here in the bayous. We'll run into each other some fair amount when you come back to start doing that kind of work, I expect."
I smiled at the deep sentiment conveyed but shook my head in disgust. "I wish we could be friends out in the open," I said. "This crummy world...". Charley cut me off at that talk, putting his wide, gnarly hand on my forearm and shaking it a bit to drive home his point.
"Billy, we don't have to conform to diddly squat in this world the way we are with each other out here where no one can see and judge. So don't concern yourself over it. It just isn't worth it to try to change people and their ways that are bent on never changing for any reason, good or bad."
And he was right. So damned right it makes me want to scream and curse at the entire, backward, fearful, hateful world now.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ After settling into our lives in Lafayette, we discovered the joys of eating local cuisine. More specifically, Cajun food, and we all especially enjoyed raw oysters on the half shell. A favorite place to go for such meals was Dupuy's a few miles south of Lafayette in Abbeville. In 1968, Dupuy's was located in a cozy little whitewashed, wood frame building with wooden floors and ceiling. Its walls were lined with comfortable booths and an array of dining tables were arranged in the middle part of the building. On one Saturday evening there, a waitress brought out a small jelly jar full of pearls collected from oysters they had shucked over the decades to show customers. The waitress would go around the room showing the pearls to customers at each booth and table when there were lulls in her service duties. The jar was accidentally knocked over by a customer's young child one evening and several customers around that booth immediately stopped eating and got down on the floor, on hands and knees, to help her retrieve the ones that had rolled off of the table top. Being a teenager well into throes of puberty, I developed a strong crush on the pretty waitress with the jar of pearls, hoping she would have time to come to our table someday to show them to us. She never did, but I still loved her.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
I caught only one fish that first day playing hooky and fishing with Charley and Jase. A nice three pound bluecat. They seemed happy to have it, telling me they sell the ones they don't eat. Asking where they sell them, they would only say that a small, very old restaurant a few miles down river bought them to cook up and serve to customers but not to tell anyone because it was illegal for them to buy from private fishermen.
I later found out which restaurant they were talking about when our family started going there a lot to enjoy cajun cuisine in an old whitewashed wood frame building on the town's main street. A plaque on the building stated it had been in business since 1869. It was called Leroux's Oyster House, and boy did they shuck and sell a lot of oysters. Fine fare for a strong, strapping–very horny–teenage boy. The food there was always fantastic, and so was the service. I was just thirteen years old when we first started dining there on Saturday evenings, and we kept going there to eat through to the day I finally graduated from high school at seventeen. Upon graduating from the horrid public school system (which everyone knew I hated with a passion) my parents asked me where I wanted to go to celebrate my release and Leroux's was the only place I wanted to go.
They called ahead and made reservations for our family, a married couple who were longtime friends of my parents, several of my neighborhood friends and a couple of younger kids I became friends with in school. Mom mentioned the reason for the large party to the person who took the call and when we arrived, we were told the entire back porch had been reserved for our party of nineteen diners. A team of three waitresses dressed in sparkling white, almost-miniskirt uniforms–one of them a stunningly gorgeous young girl who had just graduated from high school herself–escorted us all out to the porch and began taking orders. I couldn't take my eyes off of the young waitress and she could tell I was smitten. Sensing an opportunity to heighten my graduation celebration experience significantly that fine Saturday evening, she made a point of taking my order, flirting with me and staying focused on serving me the entire time we were there. I ordered two dozen on the half shell along with a seafood platter of boiled shrimp, crab and crawfish.
"My, my," she said in a delightful sing-song voice. "You are a hungry, growing boy, aren't you?"
I smiled as warmly as I could without coming across as desperate as I was to win her heart. "I don't eat like this, normally." I answered, lamely. She chuckled softly and nodded that she understood. Wanting to be more grownup than I was, I tried to order a beer with my meal but with a glance at my parents, she giggled and shook her head. "Uh uh, tiger. We may both be out of high school now, but if the owner–or the sheriff–caught wind of me serving beer to a minor, I would lose my job."
That was okay by me. I hated the taste of beer anyway and I certainly did not want her to lose her job and disappear from my life. So I just smiled some more at her in reply until she moved on to take the next order.
The porch was completely screened in to keep houseflies, horseflies, mosquitoes and the occasional seagull cruising along the shores of the Vermillion just a few yards south away from us and our food. It was a cool evening, about as perfect as anyone could wish for on any occasion. Ceiling fans turned lazily overhead. Zydeco floated from an old jukebox glowing yellow, red, green and orange in the corner. Everyone complimented our choice of venue for the party. As we talked about this and that–like how funny it was to watch episodes of Gunsmoke dubbed in French on local TV–a beautiful, golden full moon slowly rose above the cypress forest standing along the far shore of the Vermillion, bathing the river and wide back yard of the restaurant in cool shades of gray. Bullfrogs croaked love songs and a small rookery of white egret had settled in tree tops just across the river to roost for the night.
I became bold when the young waitress brought my food to the table and asked her what her name was. She replied without hesitation.
"Adelaide. Addy for short. Yours is Billy?" I guess she heard someone call me that. I nodded, hoping she wouldn't decide to call me William.
"Well, William," she said, with an ample glint of mischief in her eye, "congratulations on your graduation." Then she leaned down so close I could feel her warm breath as she whispered in my ear. "Chef is making a special treat for your desert." She straightened, smiling so sweetly at me I practically melted in my seat, turned on her heel and headed toward the kitchen. Mom had been watching this bit of boy-girl interaction and was scowling at me, clearly with no small amount of disapproval. I knew exactly why but wasn't going to let her have any satisfaction in my knowing I had sensed what she was thinking. It disgusted me that my own mother was such a pathetic racist. Instead I repeated the name Addy silently to myself. It soothed and shut out the cacophony of the rest of the world as effectively as if I had gone totally deaf. My new mantra.
After everyone had been served and tall fruit jar glasses refilled with tea and water and soft drinks, Addy came back out to the porch carrying a small jar–a Flinstones fruit jelly jar full of pearls and came straight to me with it. I could see that the cartoon pictures of the Flinstone family painted on the outside of the jar were well worn in spots.
"Want to see some of the pearls our shuckers have found in the oysters?"
I nodded but she did not wait for me to do so, or to answer affirmatively, setting the little jar down beside my plate and reaching in to select the largest one sitting right on top. A beautiful black, lustrous pearl the size of a garbanzo bean. She knelt beside my chair in her almost-miniskirt uniform and held it up for me to see. I gazed at the pearl delicately clamped between her thumb and forefinger, enjoying the sensation of her so close more than the sight of the pearl. It was a beautiful pearl, as beautiful as she was, and I decided right then and there I would someday give her a gift of a black pearl necklace to celebrate this occasion of our first meeting.
She offered to let me hold it so I took it, almost swooning from the touch of her free hand as she lifted my hand and held it steady while I took hold of the pearl. I turned and looked at her, falling into her dark eyes and whispered "You're...I mean...it's a beautiful pearl. I mean, so are you...beautiful, that is." And I'm sure I blushed deeply upon uttering those words, but they were words I knew without a doubt in my mind I wanted to speak. Sooner than later.
She let go of my hand after a long moment, and I moved it to put the pearl back into the jelly jar, still looking at her and not so much at the jar. I knocked it right over, its contents rolling out in a wide fan across the table. I quickly laid my arms on the table around the jar and pearls that hadn't already rolled off to corral them and began putting them back into the jar. Everyone else in our party (I had actually forgotten all about them all being there too) immediately got up from their chairs, then down on their hands and knees on the floor to retrieve the ones that had rolled off the table and bounced away in every possible direction across the worn, wooden floor. Muttering a lame apology, I joined my family and friends on the floor in search of lost pearls, staying close to Addy as much as I could while she too crawled around picking up the strays.
I could smell her now. Not some cloying manmade perfume scent. Just her natural scent. Intoxicating. I was well under her spell. She nimbly darted off, still on hands and knees, toward the jukebox to gather up a few pearls that had rolled that way and I followed, watching her fine fanny and long legs flexing at the effort. Somewhere in the background of the hubbub, I heard my mother saying my name over and over in an irritating, beckoning manner she always used when she was upset with me.
I ignored her, sticking with Addy and disregarding everything else going on around me. Finding and plucking the black pearl up from a spot near her ankle, I risked brushing the little finger of my right hand ever-so-lightly against the fine curve of her instep as I did so. She turned, a bit startled by that, then smiled when she saw the hopeless look of love in my eyes.
She returned that look in kind as the first few lines of Jase's favorite song used to embarrass me played in my mind.
Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy? I have been to seek a wife, she's the joy of my life...
Chef Beauchamp stepped out onto the porch carrying a large tray loaded with desert dishes and announced, "Creme Brulee for everyone..." saw everyone still down on the floor, crawling around trying to find the last of the pearls and added, hesitantly:"...on the house."
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ When I was still in grade school, our music teacher had us singing Billy Boy during every class until one day she announced we would be going over to the local TV station in a town a few miles east to perform it on the air. That was exciting, but I recall feeling a little odd singing that song. The fourth line–a refrain repeated two more times in the song–was what bothered me about it most: "She's a young thing and cannot leave her mother." I remember thinking "If she's so young, what the hell is Billy Boy doing trying to marry her?". But I dutifully sang along with the rest of my classmates without bringing that point up to our music teacher, having learned years before that adults were not fond of children too smart for their britches. The song also had a side effect I had not expected on the night we sang it at the TV station. Our music teacher lined us up, boy-girl-boy-girl, very close together so the television camera could get us all in frame, and she put a pretty red-haired girl named Dora next to me. Part of our performance required locking arms with the person next to us and doing a little dosey doe dance move. I hated that move, until Dora was there to do it with me. And when the time came to do it, she smiled and winked at me, making me trip up a bit on camera, which made her giggle and hold onto my arm even tighter, filling me with a new kind of thrill I had never felt before. That was the first time girls took on a fresh, exciting meaning in my life.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
Jase listened to me talk on and on about Addy for a long while before he said anything. When he did, I was a little ashamed of myself for babbling on, and shocked at how small a world we lived in.
"I know Addy," he told me. "She's my niece." Then he leveled a hard, long look at me that made me feel like a spring frog sitting stock still on a rock while being checked out by one dark eye and then the other of a big blue heron about to strike. "What are your intentions, Billy Boy?".
I blinked once and then answered in a firm voice reinforced with unquestionable conviction. "I'm going to marry her."
Jase stayed quiet for a long while, rubbing the gray-white stubble sprouting on his chin and cheeks without taking his eyes off of me before speaking again. I could hear his fingers rubbing, like the sound of sandpaper on wood. "You know that's going to be trouble, right?". Thinking first of my racist mother and then pretty much everyone else in my life of similar narrow minded attitude, I nodded gravely and said, "I can't help that, Jase. But I can't stop myself. I can't help loving Addy."
"You not helpin' her by loving her, whiteboy!" Jase yelled at me hard and stood so abruptly I thought his next move would be to backhand me across the room and out of his house. Tears welled up in my eyes I struggled to contain, but one broke free and slid down my cheek as I got up and stalked outside, disappointed that racism pervaded every aspect of my life, even in the most unexpected places like this. I ran into the thicket, not caring that thorns ripped at my arms and face and neck and chest as I lunged and lurched through impassable bramble trying to put distance between me and Jase.
He clomped loudly out onto the porch of his house and shouted at me. "So you just gonna run away from shit like that, Billy Boy? You can't take the heat, how you gonna keep it off of Addy?"
That stopped me in my tracks, realizing Jase wasn't expressing his own racism. He was testing my resolve to stand up to racism after Addy and I married in a land where blacks and whites absolutely did not marry each other. I turned and stalked back to Jase and glared at him. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
He nodded, visibly softening when he saw how deeply his words had cut. I was ashamed of myself for presuming so much on so little information. "Yes I did," he said, "and I'm sorry I had to be the one to do it, but goddammit Billy, you know good goddamn well the world is going to do it to you and to Addy from the moment you join together as husband and wife. The entire goddamned world!"
"We'll go someplace where people don't judge like that!" I shouted.
"Oh yeah? And where in this world is that place?" he asked, knowing I had no answer. I just stood, dejected in the itchy weeds and burning thorn vines, wondering at how the bliss I had moments before been so filled with had so instantly drained away. Jase came down, slowly, from the porch and led me back inside his house, poured two cups of coffee from the pot on the little wood stove that had no heat left in it, and motioned for me to sit down at the only table in the house.
"Okay. I understand, Billy. Better than you may ever know."
He sat down, took a sip of cold coffee and grimaced at the cup. "How do you think Addy feels about you?"
"I'm pretty sure she feels the same way," I replied. "We connected like you wouldn't believe, Jase. It was almost something out of a dream. I could see it in her eyes!"
Nodding some more, Jase set his cup down with resolve. "Oh, I believe it. I believe it. Someday, Billy, I'll tell you a story about...well...someday, I'll tell you. So now what we gotta do is figure out a way for you and Addy to get together without anyone knowing about it so you two can figure out if you both really love each other so much. Just like the three of us have been getting together out here without raising alarms in white–and black–folks who can never understand. Problem is, Addy don't like comin' way out here. Makes her nervous. But we'll find a way to help you get to know each other better. Safely. Undisturbed, except by me," he added and grinned at me.
"You trust me still, even after what I just did?" I asked, amazed at his turn of attitude.
"Yeah, Billy Boy. I trust you. We been friends too many years to think what you just did by running away like that is what you're really all about. I know you have courage and will do what's right. You're just young and don't know yet how to keep yourself in control. Charley and me can help you learn that. But it's up to you and Addy to work out the rest, and that, Billy Boy, ain't gonna be easy. Not easy at all."
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ After about a year living in Lafayette, we moved to west Texas where the tap water tasted horrible and it rarely rained. As I recall, it rained only a couple of times the year we lived there. West Texas, home of cowboys and roughnecks. All of them died-in-the-wool rednecks. I expected to run into lots of racism there, and I did, but at an oddly angled vector kind of way. I decided to choose Wood Shop as my elective in ninth grade. I would have preferred Orchestra II, but that wasn't offered at Edison, and I wasn't too hot about playing in a brass and wind band. That narrow-minded attitude would change about nine years later when a college girlfriend, also taking courses in music, talked me into going to an all-flugelhorn concert at the university we were both attending at the time. An incredible performance, and another story. Anyway, I managed to convince my wood shop teacher to let me build an electric guitar as my main project. He agreed. He was a redneck to the nth degree, but still a cool guy in some ways. So we began preparing to work on our project by learning mechanical drawing. I had already learned a good deal about it in Lafayette under the tutelage of a great teacher I'll talk more about later. While learning more of the ins and outs of mechanical drawing, my teacher and classmates saw that I was advancing more rapidly than the rest of the class (I never told them I had already picked up skills in eight grade) and classmates began coming to me for tips and tricks. One of my favorite tips was "Wash your hands before working on a drawing," which made my teacher laugh but significantly increased finished drawing quality for most of my classmates. That tip also made a big, burly football player laugh and we became fast friends as I showed him how to use the drawing table and tools in more subtle ways to get a drawing right, especially when using a French Curve, which was key to getting my electric guitar design drawing just right. His name was Clarke and I usually tried to avoid football players, having had several over the years try to bully me when I arrived at a new school, of which I attended several. Clarke was nice and patient with my half-assed teaching method. He always smelled of sweat and cigarette smoke, though. A pretty disgusting combination. I'm pretty sure he knew nothing about deodorants, but I had little problem pushing the odors out of mind when helping him with some detail of mechanical drawing. And he was more grateful than I realized until he came to my rescue one day when a pack of cowboys at school decided it was a good day to kick my ass. Clarke had been watching their bullying attempts mounting and had even asked a couple of his football teammates to stay on alert if I needed help defending myself. That day finally came near the end of the school year when three of the cowboys attacked me for hanging out with a bunch of hippie kids called the Pickwick Players (a children's theater group). I only took a couple of glancing blows to chest and back from the pack of dumb shits, flailing wildly back at them using my chaotic fighting technique, when Clarke and two of his teammates were suddenly on the scene shoving the cowboys away from me and threatening to kill them all. Goes without saying, the cowardly gang of cowboys retreated quickly, yelling racist insults at Clarke and his teammates and calling me nigger lover, while the four of us stood together laughing at them. I feared for all of us after that. Racism was running rampant in that school. I was afraid of what the cowboys might pull next to try hurting us all bad. But nothing else ever happened and at the end of the school year, our family packed up and moved to live on a pig farm near the southern tip of Lake Michigan in Illinois.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
Jase talked with his sister and brother-in-law about what I had told him. Then the three of them talked with Addy about it. From what Jase told me later about that meeting, it confirmed her attraction to me was as strong as mine to her and soon a play day had been arranged for us deep in the thicket far down one of the more secret bayous Charley and Jase fished and trapped along.
We arrived there in separate pirogues, one with me and Charley poling our way down the bayou and Jase and Addy doing the same in another. The flat-bottomed aluminum boats glided quietly over the still waters still covered with millions of tiny green leaves of some kind speckled with tiny yellow flowers. A green and yellow patterned water carpet. We spooked a couple of alligators along the way, which in turn frightened Addy, making her utter a startled chirp when they crashed from shore into the bayou. Made me jump too. Aside from that, it was pretty romantic, almost like floating through the canals of Venice poled along by a singing Gondolier. Thankfully, Charley and Jase did not sing, although I'm sure Jase would have gladly launched into a verse or two of Billy Boy if it had occurred to him at the time. But he was all business. Serious business, while Addy and I exchanged looks of adoration for each other and for our boatmen.
"You two behave yourselves. We'll be watching," Jase warned us as we pulled the pirogues ashore. "You can kiss, even on the lips, but don't go to making out or doing any heavy petting. It's too damned early for any of that."
Addy giggled and I did my best to look solemn through the raging fire of desire burning inside every cell of my body. Then we began setting up a picnic blanket and lunch while our escorts got poles baited and in the water, seeing no reason not to maximize every benefit of the outing. At first, Addy and I spoke very little to each other. As we relaxed a bit through the morning and more after lunch–all of which Addy had prepared, including fried chicken and potato salad and a banana cream pie–we engaged in meaningful conversation. We talked about how good it was to be out of high school at last and what our plans for the future were. I told her I had just been accepted into the Environmental Sciences program at the LSU College of Coast and Environment to learn all I could to help protect and preserve the Louisiana costal region as much as I could. She asked what inspired me to follow that course of study. I pointed at her uncle and his best friend in reply. She smiled warmly and moved closer to me on the picnic blanket, offering me a blackberry cupcake from the basket, then taking one herself. We ate them, tasting nothing except love.
"I guess Jase has talked with you about the dangers this budding relationship will bring down on us," I said. Addy nodded, looking down at the cupcake she was nibbling on for a moment before saying anything.
"Why would a rich white boy like you want to date me?" she asked. "I'm poor. Real poor. All of my family is poor. I like working at Leroux's but I don't make much. If it weren't for them feeding me free leftovers from the kitchen, I wouldn't eat much either."
"I'm not rich, Addy. Not even close. Do they let you eat a lot of oysters there," I asked.
She smiled broadly, "Lots. I love them. The oysters and the Leroux's. What would you say if I told you I never wanted to do anything but work at Leroux's?"
"I'd say you need to do exactly what you want to do. What makes you happiest."
She moved even closer and leaned her shoulder against mine. "Chef Beauchamp has been teaching me to cook a few dishes. He thinks I could become a good chef someday."
I half pretended to swoon. "Addy, if you learn too cook those cajun dishes even a fraction as well as Chef Beauchamp can, and you and I make a real go of it, you'll never be able to shake me off."
After lunch, Jase told us to go explore the thicket a little together while he and Charley tried to catch a few more fish before time to leave, asking us to both be alert for snakes and alligators. We promised we would and eagerly set off down a faint game trail, hand in hand. Addy laced her fingers between mine and gripped them tightly, sending an electric thrill up my spine. I had to restrain my grip, not wanting to crush a single bone in her precious hand. As we walked and talked, Addy told me that Jase had advised her to discuss the implications of our budding courtship at length with me.
"How are we going to do this, William?"
I flinched at that, then apologized for my reaction because she had felt it through our clasped hands and had stopped to look at me inquiringly.
Trying to explain, I said "Addy, I love your short name as much as I love your long name. But, to be perfectly frank, my racist mother calls me William when she's angry at me. It's the only time anyone calls me that. And until now, I've never liked it. But you saying it, is wonderful. I'll never flinch at it again. And when you said it at the restaurant was so funny. How did you know it was a sore point for me?"
"Just a guess. No one I ever met named Billy liked being called William," she replied. "You learn things like that waiting tables in a busy restaurant, especially around here."
"How did you get your job there?"
"Jase and Charley took me there selling fish to Chef Beauchamp. A secret mission, so don't tell anyone else."
I nodded, "Yeah, they told me all about that. Chef is a pretty cool old cajun?"
"Uh huh. So nice and caring. Everyone is that way at Leroux's. It's one reason they've been there for a hundred years running."
I stopped walking under a huge cypress with dozens of its pointy knees poking up around us and took both of Addy's hands in mine, trying to think of some way to tell her how hopelessly I had fallen for her. She silenced me by leaning in and kissing me, long and lingering. I damn near fainted on the spot. She stopped breathing, as I did. Then we parted and panted like two hound dogs after a long run through the thicket. And we knew, both of us, that world be damned, nothing would keep us apart.
The second kiss would not have passed approval by Jase, but we didn't do anything stupid. Just extremely delightful and intense.
Along the way, we encountered no dangerous animals. I pointed out details of the flora and fauna we did see to help her grow more accustomed to the wilds of the thicket. She responded positively to most everything until we came upon a possum rooting around for something in the undergrowth. It was a female carrying several babies clinging to the fur on her back. She wanted to get away from them at first then relaxed and knelt close beside me when I did as I told her what I knew about them and their natural behavior. She shivered anyway and said it reminded her of something she had seen in a horror movie.
"Well, that's Hollywood for you." I said. "Taking something beautiful and turning it into a horror flick for a few bucks at the ticket window," which made her laugh and relax a little more.
On the walk back, we came upon quadruplet armadillos rooting around, completely oblivious to our approach. So I nimbly grabbed one by the tail and lifted it from the ground at arms length before it could gain any purchase with the soil, careful not to let its powerful digging claws connect with my body as it tried in vain to make a vertical dash back to the ground. Addy jumped up and down in place and clapped with delight at that, then asked if it could be butchered and cooked. Surprised by her question, I recalled reading about people eating roasted armadillo in Texas hill country and said yes, that I had heard it was pretty tasty. She clapped even more and suggested we take it back to Chef Beauchamp.
"He can cook anything. He'll be so surprised!" she added with a gleeful giggle.
Arriving back at the picnic site about an hour later, Jase gave us a hard look and a tense smile, pointedly ignoring the armadillo I was carrying.
"You two still think you're so much in love?" he asked, point blank.
I nodded, still holding the wiggling armadillo by the tail in one hand and Addy's hand in the other. Addy not only nodded but told them both all about our walk and talk, every detail including the big kisses. Jase smiled broadly and gave us both a big, fishy-mitted hug.
"Okay, then. You know Charley and me are here to help you. To protect you all we can, as well as the rest of our family is. How about your family, Billy Boy?"
I ducked my head in shame and admitted no help from my family was likely at all, telling them all that both of my parents were hopeless racists. Jase listened without interrupting as I explained a little more about how I knew this was so. Then he simply stepped between us and laid one arm over my shoulders, the other over Addy's and walked us toward the pirogues which he and Charley had already packed for the trip back.
"Let's get on with this little adventure, then. It's gonna be a doozy, I can tell you that right now. Billy, if you are going to keep that pet armadillo, you'll have to carry it by the tail all the way back cause we don't have a box strong enough to hold it. If it gets to be too much, just toss it in the bayou. They're good swimmers."
Addy giggled and told her uncle it wasn't going to be a pet. Just a meal.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ While living on the pig farm in Illinois, my father occasionally took all of his children into Chicago where he worked in a high-rise corner office in a skyscraper made of steel, concrete and glass to experience its many wonders. One of these was the Billy Goat Tavern beneath Michigan Avenue. "Cheese burger? Chips? Cheese burger! Chips!" It was a trip being there, watching the hustle and bustle of the place, and I can remember being temporarily enthralled with the whole experience of that city of three million and its seemingly boundless promise of opportunity. Houston was the largest city I had lived in prior to seeing Chicago, but it hadn't even topped one million people when I was living there. So I began striving to be more citified in my thinking and actions to try to find my future, but it never stuck. I was always drawn back to favorite places located far out into to the countryside, exploring forests and long, winding creeks teaming with life more interesting for me than any city population ever had been. Then on one trip to Chicago, a pimp attempted to recruit my seventeen year old sister into the oldest profession and it became very clear to me that citification wasn't a desirable goal to set in life. Besides, my future prospects seemed very clear at that time, as did prospects of most healthy young men not graced by protections enjoyed only by draft-age young men from families having the richest and most affluent parents: forcibly drafted into military service, placed into a battle platoon and sent off to die a horrible death on patrol in some jungle in Vietnam. A year later I was wandering the streets, alleys and edges of Tehran, watching and learning all I could about that strange city of four million people living lives so different and so intriguing. But it soon became apparent most of the people living there did so in hopeless desperation under rule of Shah Pahlavi; a pompous, peacock of a US-backed dictator living in an opulent palace surrounded by millions subsisting in squalor. Six months later, Tehran held no charm for me either and I asked my parents if I could return to the USA to finish up my final year in high school, in a small town of less than 5,000 people where a few childhood friends still lived. By then, Richard Nixon's withdrawal of troops from Vietnam had progressed to the point it was unlikely I would be drafted into that insane military action after all, and suddenly sensed prospects for a long, happy future opening up before me. I didn't want to waste any more of my time living in some metropolis trying to become citified.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
With Jase and Charley helping us do so deep in their secret places along infrequently traveled bayous, Addy and I enjoyed every free moment we could together throughout the long, hot, sticky summer following our high school graduation in 1974. Addy kept on waiting tables at Leroux's while I worked on a drilling rig that summer after my father summarily hauled my lazy butt out to one just south and east of town, and left me in the hands of the toolpusher to learn the ways of the roughneck.
I hated it. And as much as I hated to, per letter of the law, I registered for the draft, against Addy's almost frantic protests. She was certain I would be killed if I was drafted and sent to Vietnam, but Nixon's withdrawal of troops was well underway by then and Saigon would fall less than a year later. Having already been accepted into LSU, it was just a matter of months before I began attending classes full time, much to Addy's relief.
We didn't see each other very much after the fall semester began, only occasionally when I was caught up enough in my studies to have time to hitchhike back to Sauderton and our family would go together to dine at Leroux's. Even then, Addy and I had to be extremely careful. My mother could tell I was still in love with "that nigger waitress" as she so frequently referred to her, and we could expose no hint of our love or long-term plan to marry. She was amusingly cool with me if she waited our table, almost making me laugh out loud at her Oscar-worthy acting. I did my best to match her performance in kind, which she admitted to almost giggling aloud over as well.
Addy wasn't concerned about the long stretches we spent apart. Staying busy in her job–working extra days for the overtime pay she socked away–literally in a sock she called her hidee hole–in the bottom back corner of an old, handmade cedar chest she and her mother, Sophie, called her "hope chest". The few times Jase and Charley helped us get together away from prying eyes and noses, we spent the short hours talking and planning for the future between not-so-easily restrained make out sessions Jase worked hard to curtail.
One evening during dinner at Charley's house, before we had to head back to our other, separate lives, Jase suddenly asked Addy if she was going to be a good mother to our little mulatto children. Addy and I looked at each other, then back at Jase, blinking rapidly in unison as our only response to that question, knowing full well what he was really driving at: that we weren't even close to being ready to start a family in such a way that we would all be as safe and secure as necessary so that we might also–hopefully–be happy. And that's all he ever said, but his words echoed in our minds every time we made out, keeping us from ruining everything we were working so hard toward by going too far with our passion for each other. It was driving us crazy.
By the end of my second year in college, Addy was working full time in the kitchen as Chef's assistant and I was beginning to participate in field work as part of my environmental science studies. My grades were nothing stellar but the dean of the department saw promise in my research and analysis abilities, and worked with me directly to help forge a future path in the coastal environmental sciences, at every opportunity; stressing the need for more protection of gulf coast ecology as big oil companies literally raped and ravaged it with impunity. By my senior year, I was in the thicket and bayous almost constantly, writing a thesis on the effects of petroleum exploration and production chemical waste spills on local food chains.
The field samples we gathered and analyzed were telling a shocking tale, and having come to know and love people living their subsistence existences there, I was glad I chose the degree plan I had. They needed help halting the poisoning and getting the mess cleaned up as much as possible. After that, it was up to nature to recover further from the damage. The dean of the department, Dr. Caselmon, called me to his office a few months before my graduation date and presented me with a gift.
"Billy, this is for you," he said, handing me a box wrapped in brown paper and postmarked from Palo Alto, California. I proceeded to unwrap it as he continued talking about it. "I just received it from a couple of smart young fellows who showed their first model to me and a few other folks at the Palo Alto Homebrew Computer Club."
He rose and walked to the window, gently placing his hand on my shoulder after I had opened the box as he passed with a glance at what I was looking at. Quiet for a moment as I grasped what I was seeing, he stood watching the sun set on a vermillion slash of horizon topped by startling blue above. "I've been going over the data analysis work you've performed this year so far using the mainframe computer available to the department, and frankly I'm amazed you've been able to do as much as you have punching cards to enter all of the data then writing and debugging the Fortran code to collate and analyze it all so accurately. When did you find time to learn to write code? Who helped you with the analysis algorithms you used?"
"No one," I replied. "I bought a beat up textbook on Fortran programming, then bugged the sysadmins in the computer lab to let me work late at night when no one else was there. The algorithms are my own design."
He slowly turned from the window with a smile and nod. I alternately stared at him and at the incredible gift he had just given me. An Apple II Plus computer. "The lab admins told me about your request when you first made it, concerned about letting a non-compsci major use it so much. They didn't know how they were going to budget the computing cycles. I funneled some of the department budget their way and urged them to allow you unlimited access. After going over your first program results and the data set processed to get them, they agreed without conditions. They're as astounded at what you've accomplished on the mainframe as I am. But now, I urge you to stop spending time punching and arranging cards to run through the reader until you're ready to vomit in disgust with that antiquated process and learn to use this computer instead.
"Take it home. It's yours. My graduation gift to you. No strings attached."
I struggled to contain both excitement and tears threatening to squirt straight out of my eyes. The computer was a sleek, futuristic looking thing. I lifted it out of the box and examined it. "It's a pre-release model," he continued, looking out the window again. In the box, underneath the computer was a Fortran language reference manual. I picked up the manual and leafed through it. "But this thing is expensive," I said. "The Apple II cost more than a thousand dollars. I can't accept this!" It even had a mouse.
Pointing to a pair of boxes stacked beside his desk, he added "That's the display unit for it, a color monitor and two disk drives with a supply of floppy disks. The machine is set up with their top-of-the-line configuration, including the maximum sixty four thousand bytes of memory. The Fortran compiler is still under development, but I asked Mr. Jobs to include a copy as it's ready for first-stage testing, telling them I had a graduate student who could put it through its paces on real-world environmental science applications. They loved the idea and gave us the computer for free when they heard my proposal. They are eager for their newest product to be proven making a difference improving the world through science. They're even sending a Silentype printer in a few more days, with extra supplies for it too, at no charge."
I blinked and said "Graduate student?"
Sitting at his desk again, Dr. Caselmon opened a drawer and pulled a sealed envelope from it. Handing it to me, he smiled and congratulated me "We want you to stay on here and continue your work. It's my understanding you hope to go into pure research someday?"
I nodded, opening the envelope. A fellowship grant. A big, fat one. "But I don't deserve this," I protested. "I'm barely a B student. There are a lot of straight-A undergrads with..." Dr. Caselmon stopped me with a dismissive wave of a hand.
"Billy, there's no doubt you are terrible at taking tests, but you are by far the brightest analytical thinker of this bunch about to graduate. Just because you seize up during tests doesn't mean you don't know your stuff better than most. We've watched you do your field work and all of this computer analysis work, independently, making thoughtful connections after following information leads which have occurred to no one else in your class–or among your professors and their aids–entirely undirected. We all know you are going to utilize the grant, the computer and your time to maximum effect making a difference in this world. A significant, positive difference."
Flabbergasted beyond words, a few tears escaped and I wiped them away before they could fall on the computer in my lap. My future prospects had not only shifted away from probable death by VC bullet, mine or boobytrap in some godforsaken jungle to a chance to earn an advanced degree while pursuing costal field studies I desperately wanted to continue.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ My graduation from college was a bit of a surprise to me when I received a call from the university administration office one morning telling me my diploma was ready for me to pick up. I had convinced myself I needed to take one more advanced mathematics course to satisfy all requirements for a mathematics minor before I could graduate. I'm still not sure what happened, but I think the dean of the department reviewed my academic history, saw that I had completed prior engineering coursework at another university which provided enough equivalent advanced math credits to qualify for the remaining three credits due on my degree plan, and had signed off for my diploma to be issued. Upon receiving that call, I ran all the way to the administration building, dashed up to the desk still panting, grabbed the diploma, dashed all the way back out to my truck and drove away feeling happier than I ever had in my entire life. Now I could go out and work my ass off making money instead of working my ass off spending so much on tuition, fees and textbooks costing their weight in gold. Then I made a huge mistake. I began sending out letters of interest, my updated résumé and college transcripts in search of gainful employment when I should have followed my heart and taken the self-employment route right then and there instead. I never really enjoyed being under the thumb of managers as an employee in any job I landed. In fact, I hated it. Hurrying home that day to share the good news with my parents, I reflected on my long academic journey. It spanned a full decade attending classes at four different universities located in as many cities. I had devoted long, brain-busting hours studying coursework in sciences, technologies, engineering, arts, and mathematics–long before STEAM became an education industry buzzword–between stints working as an employee in multiple full-time jobs to finally earn my degree. Mixing jaunts of education between jobs had not caused much, if any, harm. In fact, I was able to apply lessons learned in college to every job I worked at in some useful manner or another along the way. A difficult, but rewarding journey of exploration and discovery I have never regretted taking in the extended manner I did. Thoroughly pumped by the momentous event, I decided to celebrate with a stop at a favorite hole-in-the-wall bar-b-que joint for lunch (and to calm down a bit, if I could) before going on to my parent's house just a few miles further down the road to tell them. Shamelessly pigging out on a large, sliced beef brisket sandwich and fries while staring at the diploma propped up in front of me against a bottle of ketchup, I savored the smokey flavor of the sandwich, tasting it with deep delight and quietly giggling to myself throughout the meal at a swelling sense of freedom growing within. When a waitress came to refill my water glass, aroma of smoking meat followed her out of the kitchen, wafting across my nostrils and I suddenly had a flashback from a childhood experience in the early 1960s when my mother would load us all into the car, drive down red-brick-paved East Broadway Avenue out of Seminole about twelve miles to Wewoka (just east of Bowlegs) to buy a bag full of bar-b-que at Johnny Mae's, where all the white customers had to go to the back door to place and pick up their orders. The food at Johnny Mae's was fantastic and white customers always seemed to have a good time waiting at the back door for their food while mouth watering aromas of smoking meats drifted out over us all. With my mind finally freed of double duty thinking complex academic thoughts to pass difficult exams accumulating grade points and class credits, I let the memory of going to Johnny Mae's linger in the forefront of my mind and wondered if Johnny's place was still open and operating that day. I remembered it as a bustling little place, always busy at both front and back doors, people smiling and laughing, and Johnny always seemed to enjoy running the bar-b-que joint a great deal. After telling my parents I had just graduated from college, my mother suggested we all go to the city to have dinner and see a recently released movie (Robocop) in celebration. On a lark, I copied a piece of software I had recently written to diskette and took it with me. Before we went to the restaurant, I asked if anyone objected to stopping by one of my favorite computer and software stores for a few minutes. No one objected, so we went inside, I demoed the software app (a program written in C that randomly generated Hénon Maps) for the store manager and offered to sell him a copy for $20. He was impressed, happily paid for it and set it to running on a computer sporting his finest new graphics display monitor to entice customers. My first sweet taste of self-employment which I completely ignored every key implication of. I just sold a product I had created using skills developed and honed in my new profession, but all I cared about at the time was having $20 to throw in on the dinner and movie tickets fund for the evening. Johnny Mae had wisely taken the self-employment path to achieve great success. In retrospect, I should have taken a similar approach, right out of the gate, instead of wasting so many years from that happy graduation day working as an employee for various companies large and small, startup or generations old. But about a month after receiving my diploma, I was gainfully employed full time for the first time as a professional, making more money than I ever had before, thinking I was on the right track in life at last. Being self-employed would not become a serious goal for almost two decades. Two decades of wasted time and effort for so little–if any–lasting, meaningful value in return.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
Five years after meeting Addy, she and her parents, two brothers, sister, her uncle Jase and his entire family of five as well as Charley's family of seven took me deep into the coastal prairies region of the lower Vermillion River to meet her great grandmother, Edmée, for her one hundredth birthday celebration. She had lived her entire life at the end of a little bayou branching off of the Vermillion River which wrapped around the south side and abutted about thirteen hundred acres of land the state was finalizing purchase of to someday become a state park. A place where no one else ever went, Addy told me she actually owned the entire length of the bayou and twelve hundred some-odd acres along both banks of it, deeded to her by her father when he died.
Her parents–both slaves freed in 1864–had farmed on the land after scrimping and saving to purchase it for one half-dollar per acre, keeping it free of invasive development through the decades, giving birth to their only child there in 1878 in their home at the end of the bayou–the very same house we were all about to meet her at for the centennial celebration.
"Edmée is eager to meet you, Billy, before she dies," Addy told me as our pirogue approached the old homestead. "She already knows we're getting married next spring and I've told her all about your work to try to save coastal ecology."
"Is she ill?" I asked, thinking the part of Addy's statement "before she dies" sounded a bit ominous.
Addy shook her head with a smile. "She' probably healthier than the two of us put together. You'll see."
It was pretty windy the first few hundred yards of the bayou, then the air calmed and our flotilla of pirogues moved quietly on glassy-smooth waters the rest of the way along the twisting, narrow waterway. Still undisturbed by industry or housing developments, it was as pristine a place as I had ever seen. I counted fourteen bends in the bayou from its mouth at the Vermillion to the homestead which turned out to be a classic creole style wooden plank house with wide wraparound porch sporting delicately hand-turned balusters all around. "Look at that porch!" I exclaimed as the house came into view. Addy nodded appreciatively.
"My great grandfather, Benoît, made all of the balusters from local cypress stock he harvested himself, turning them on a steam-powered lathe he salvaged from an old wood shop being auctioned off in New Iberia after he returned from fighting in World War One."
We pulled the pirogues ashore and trooped toward the house. It was very quiet as we approached the front steps. No one said a word. Then a very tall, slender old woman appeared before us as we all clomped up onto the porch. She raised her arms high and wide in greeting.
"Bonjou, pitit mwen yo!" she said in a strong clear voice, clapped her hands together with a broad smile then began hugging each of us in turn, saving me until last where I stood beside Addy at the rear of the crowd. Wrapping her thin, surprisingly strong arms around me, she kissed each cheek with a loud smack.
"Vou dwe Billy Boy?" she ask, holding me at arms length to get a good look, up and down.
I nodded, and answered with one of the few Louisiana Creole words I could speak–as I had learned in fourth grade French class.
"We," I replied, to boisterous cheers from everyone else on the porch watching us meet. Edmée slipped her arm through the crook of mine and declared something to the crowd I didn't understand, winking slyly at Addy as she led me into the house. Addy grinned and winked back at her great grandmother, translating for me.
"She has declared you her official birthday party escort," she said, then added "She says it has been too many decades since she has been so close to such a handsome young man."
Then with a giggle, Addy said "You will be at her side now as long as the party lasts, or until she or you passes out." and she wasn't kidding. Edmée kept me within reach throughout the party, speaking to me in English, fortunately, as she told me story after story of her life living, working and playing at the end of her little bayou. She introduced me to each of her still-living children, telling me how three had died shortly after they were born there in her house.
"All of my children were born here, Billy. I've never been to a doctor's or to a hospital in my whole life," she said with pride. "If I ever get very sick, this is where I will die, happily."
The rear half of the wraparound porch was screened in and had pewter kerosene lanterns hanging from cast iron hangers with pewter heat shields spaced evenly around its perimeter, already lit as evening gloom pressed in around the house. Beyond the warm light of the lanterns, fireflies began twinkling at the forest verge in the back yard. If the space had been illuminated by electric lights, we would never have noticed the fireflies at all.
A pair of pelicans perched on a pair of clothesline posts waggled their wattles as they watched the party unfold before them. Tables had been set and food was making its way to them even as Edmée urged everyone to settle in for dinner, guiding me and Addy to seats on either side at one end of an oblong table where she chose to sit, allowing me to help her into her chair. As I sat down, she asked Addy, "Is he always this polite or is it an act?" Addy shrugged, claiming "He's never helped me into my chair before," which set Edmée to laughing so loud everyone turned to look at what was so funny.
While we feasted on some of the finest creole fare I've ever had in my life, a fellow named Honoré stood at one corner of the porch gently playing a beautiful red pine accordion. Edmée leaned close and told me a fellow named Savoy made the accordion from red pine taken from her own forest. "It's hand made, none of those crappy Sears & Roebuck accordions have ever been played here." I nodded, enchanted as much by the music as the backstories she told me about the accordion and so much more as the party progressed. And as she had demanded, I stayed by her side the whole time.
After the meal and a bit of dancing to Honoré's delightful music, Edmée nodded some secret signal to Addy and she motioned for me to help her great grandmother up from the table. Without a word of explanation to to me or Addy or to the rest of the guests, she guided us into a living room and closed the door behind us, turning its antique lock shut with a soft click. The room was lit by the same kind of pewter lanterns I had seen on the back porch. The scent of kerosene was mild. She motioned for us to join her on a finely crafted old settee and reached to a handmade table of traditional creole design and poured brandy into three old, hand-blown ruby-glass snifters. "You're both old enough for a stiff snort, now," she said, handing a snifter to each of us, "and you're going to need it when I tell you what I have to say."
She sipped a bit of her brandy and settled back to relax. We followed suit.
She turned to me and asked "Has Addy told you her plans to open her own restaurant?"
It was news to me, so I shook my head and looked at Addy with deepening admiration.
"Tell him about it now," she instructed, sipping her brandy appreciatively while Addy laid out her plan to become a restaurateur, explaining right away that it would be a place where black people would enter to dine through the front door in the main dining area while white people would enter through the back door leading to a separate, lesser dining room, and then added that between those two dining areas there would be another room where clients of both colors could mingle if they wished to.
"Service will be the same in all three rooms, but ambiance of the middle room will be the finest of the three," she explained. And as she went on to tell me how she was going to be able to pull this off, that Edmée had cosigned the loan application which had already been approved at the bank, she reached into her purse and pulled out several Polaroid photos of the building she had just purchased to turn into her optionally segregated dining destination. "It doesn't need a lot of work, none of it structural. Just fitting it for use as a restaurant. The loan covers all of that and purchase of used kitchen equipment and dining room furniture. "Chef Beauchamp says I am as ready, skills wise, as I'll ever be to do it, and that there's no reason to not try to make it happen."
I listened and watched Addy explain it all in detail as she loved to do when explaining just about anything, glancing now and again at Edmée who sat stone-faced the entire time, serenely sipping at her brandy, before Addy finished. Then she took a long sip of brandy and trained her gaze on me in a way that made me want to squirm deeper into my seat beside her. "So, Billy. Mr. Ecology Science Man. What do you think of her grand plan?"
I took a long sip of my own brandy, allowing it to slide slowly to the back of my mouth and down. It was delicious, and potent, warming me from gullet to gut. Leaning back into the soft cushion of the settee, I then I took a long, deep breath, looking into Addy's glinting eyes as I answered.
"I think it's brilliant," I told them both, and I meant it. "It's 1978. Race relations have improved a lot around here since the late 60s when we first met each other," I said, nodding fondly at Addy. "I've heard about a bar-b-que place in a tiny oil patch town in Oklahoma called Bowlegs where whites have to go to the back door to order and pick up their food. It's been operating like that since the nineteen fifties with great success. This takes that concept a bold step further. I especially like the middle mingling room idea. I think it will be a hit with most locals and especially with travelers passing through, and tourists lingering for a while. With Addy's cooking and the right kind of advertising, it could even give Leroux's a stiff run for the money."
Edmée listened without interrupting. When I had said all I had to say about it, her voice took on a deep, ominous tone as she took our hands in hers and held them tight asking, "And what will you do when the racist ones come to burn it down, hopefully without killing either of you or anyone else when they do?"
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ In the early to mid 1980s, my father asked if I wanted to help him with some computer work he needed done for a reservoir construction project underway near Corsicana, Texas. Just beginning my junior year attending classes in the College of Engineering at the University of Texas in Arlington, I had been learning all I could about software programming on both an HP-41cv handheld calculator and an IBM PC by writing code to help in math and engineering studies. Dad needed someone to digitize Navarro and Freestone county property boundary maps and add point and description field data about oil and gas well locations for every borehole to be inundated by reservoir waters and then reconcile that digitized data with Texas Railroad Commission filings for each well. That digitized data would then be used to make sure every well in the area was properly reworked or capped to prevent leakage after the dam was completed and the reservoir filled with water flowing in from Richland and Chambers Creeks and their tributaries. It was interesting work which helped me decide to switch majors and eventually earn a degree in computer science and mathematics. I was learning a lot in engineering school but wasn't enjoying it much. What I loved doing most was designing and writing software–especially for graphical applications. So very soon after completing the Richland Chambers Reservoir project with my father, I changed my major for the fourth time in my college career after starting in Chemistry then studying Music & Performance Classical Guitar before switching to Civil Engineering to finally wind up earning a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Mathematics. And while I was working on the project with my father, I also took up flat-water canoeing, buying a Sawyer DY Special fiberglass and kevlar canoe that was almost seventeen feet long and shaped very much like the handmade pirogues of old crafted from giant cypress trees in southern bayous of Louisiana. Its low profile, broad beam and flat bottom was perfect for floating shallow creeks, rivers and swamplands, and every free minute I could get away from work and studies I was out alone–day or night–on some lake or waterway exploring, camping and fishing. Solo paddling affords opportunities to see and experience things impossible to witness from any sort of noisy motorboat. Paddling along slow and close to waters and shores reveals so much detail it can sometimes overwhelm the senses. From floating through long summer nights across alligator infested swamps to wading amongst schools of spawning alligator gar struggling against mounting currents while pulling my canoe along behind far upstream into headwaters of a remote, prairie-land creek in springtime–experiencing freedom, flora and fauna navigating riparian environments from a silently gliding canoe–were inspiring recreational release from stress induced while meticulously studying use of bits, bytes, algorithms, mathematical equations and theorems all navigated at a desk. Both were carried on in relative solitude–another joy of this life's fine journey.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
Edmée insisted Addy and I stay the night so she could show us something important the following Sunday morning. She didn't say what she wanted to show us or what was so important about it and we didn't press for more information, graciously accepting her invitation without argument. We were both pretty tipsy from the brandy.
"Everyone else is leaving tonight," she informed us. "So it will be just the three of us here tomorrow. Until then, let's go back out on the porch as this old woman's birthday party wraps up. They'll all want to hear me talk a bit more and say goodnight. I hate making speeches, so it will be short." And it was, much to the liking of all. It was almost midnight by the time she showed us to our separate bedrooms where I slept like a log.
The next morning after coffee with a cinnamon and orange tang, Edmée showed us a sleeping log brought into practical service that might have been two centuries old. It was bright and cool outside, and without taking breakfast, the three of us stepped out into sunshine and long cypress tree shadows via the back porch screen door. Edmée handed a heavy canvas bag to me as she led us to a twenty foot pirogue hand-carved from an ancient cypress tree her father had pulled from the bottom of the bayou not far from the house sometime in the late 1870s.
"That log was sixty feet long and took a team of four big mules to pull it out of the bayou," she told us. "Twelve foot in diameter where he used iron wedges he forged himself to cut away the block to make it. It might have been a hundred years old by then, maybe more. Took two years to dry out before he started carving."
The grain of the single-piece of cypress wood was exquisite and finely finished with an oil based varnish of who knows what antique concoction. It had wrought-iron oarlocks standing about a foot above the gunwales on thick triangular blocks wrapped in wrought-iron bands connected to each other by a heavy cypress thwart–all incredibly carved as one piece along with the shell of the pirogue–so the boatman could remain standing while paddling the watercraft and a pair of bow seats each wide enough to accommodate three passengers.
"He built if for exactly seven people including the pilot. We used to go out together in it as a family, all seven of us and the dogs, to hunt, fish, work our traps or just take a ride." She ran her hand along its smooth oiled hull, motioning for us to get it into the water. "We're going a good way up the bayou to the west boundary where we'll have some breakfast and rest. Then we'll go all the way down to the Vermilion where Jase and Charley are going to meet us this afternoon. Charley will get you back to town before dark. Jase will get me back to the house." We nodded that we understood. I poled the pirogue out to the middle of the bayou and we got underway.
"You drive first, Billy. I like to paddle but I want to sit and talk a bit with Addy on the way up first."
And talk they did, about their large family and the ups and downs of married life, of things to do to get Addy's restaurant ready for its grand opening, of what a catch she had in me–making me blush even though they were both facing forward, watching the scenery go by as they talked. I dutifully paddled us along at an easy pace without splashing the paddles in the water much, the pirogue gliding easily on the water, slicing a perfect V through the surface. Mosquitoes began attacking. Edmée pulled a spritzer bottle from her bag and handed it to us after thoroughly spraying herself with it. The aroma of vanilla filled the air and the mosquitoes left us alone.
"Vanilla extract?" I asked. Edmée nodded. "Ten parts water, one part real vanilla extract. Works every time."
When we reached the western boundary of Edmée's property where it intersected with Little Bayou, we went ashore and she tied the bowline to a large cypress knee poking up at just the right spot. She pulled breakfast foods of various kinds–beignets, tangerines and more cinnamon/orange coffee from a large thermos–and we ate while the morning grew warm.
"Have you two decided on a date for your wedding?" Edmée asked.
"Not yet," Addy answered. "We think sometime early next spring after Billy graduates while it's still cool."
"Would you consider having it at my house where prying racist noses and eyes dare not trespass?"
With barely a glance and a nod at each other, Addy and I nodded vigorously in reply.
"Good, then that's settled. Just let me know when so I can do some cleaning and preparations. Nothing big or fancy, Addy. Keep it simple and sincere." She pointed at the pirogue. "I want you two to have that as a wedding gift. You can keep it here as long as you want to while you get your own home. Have you any idea where you want to live?"
"We're thinking of renting a house in Abbeville, where we met and close to Addy's restaurant," I said. "I'll be spending a lot of time in the disappearing coastal prairies working for the EPA doing pretty much what I'm doing now."
Edmée leaned toward me, interest shining in her eyes. "And what is it, exactly, that you do out there in the disappearing coastal prairies, Billy?"
So I explained how I gathered soil sample cores, water samples and living plants and counted and examined animals to detect and measure toxic agents in their populations; mapped wetlands and waterways, measured the current flow rates of those waters, then fed all of those measurements and data into a computer to run models on them. "We try to understand what kinds of toxins the land and plants and animals contain, how concentrated the toxins are, where and how they spread and possibly trace them back to their sources."
"And what have you discovered so far about these toxins, Billy? What do you do when you find the source of them?"
"That there are a lot of them of different kinds and origins. The most concentrated are from the old creosote factories, some long abandoned and some still in operation. That they never practiced any kind of pollution controls at all, severely poisoning the land and waters. And now the oil exploration and production companies are making a lot of the same mistakes the creosote companies have. It's pretty disturbing...the results so far are painting a catastrophic picture of the damage already done and more damage to come. With that information–with that empirical proof–the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, tries to clean up the messes and make companies still in operation stop polluting further. It isn't going to happen over night or even in tens of years. The poisons are pervasive and deadly. It will take centuries of concerted, coordinated effort by people."
Edmée nodded in understanding, "None of them ever cared about being stewards of the land they've ruined," she whispered and sighed deeply. Squinting up at the late-morning sun, she asked "Is this EPA any good, Billy?"
I shrugged and nodded at the same time. "It's better than anything else like it that this nation has ever had before–which is absolutely nothing."
Then she slowly stood, turned to look down the bayou we had just floated on and opened her arms wide, much as she had when greeting her guests to the birthday party the previous day.
"I have twelve hundred thirty five acres here, my young children." She turned her head and smiled at us both, then directly at me. "Yes, you are now my child too, Billy. And for me, you are a special child because your heart is deep in the land just as mine has always been deep in the land. Charley and Jase have told me about your growth and actions and intentions as a scientist. And you have helped Addy discover her heart is also in the land a little too by showing her its various beauties." Then she turned, with arms still spread wide. "None of my children want to be stewards of this land my parents bought with money they made selling goods they created with their own brains, hands and backs from this land's natural bounty. My children want to sell it all as quickly as possible and go live off of the proceeds in big expensive houses in big dirty cities where they are entertained by hustle, bustle and constant glitz and glitter of electric lights and shopping malls and cocktail lounges and such wasteful nonsense."
Dropping her hands to her sides, then reaching toward us with palms down, beckoning for us to take them in ours, we stood and did so, all turning to gaze back down the bayou as she revealed her plan. "I'm very old now and don't know how much longer I'll be alive. A year. Five. Maybe ten. But death draws near and I have to plan and prepare or this land will be lost forever for nothing but shortsighted greed. So I hired a lawyer last year. Not a city lawyer but a creole lawyer I've known since we were both children, born and raised in the bayou country just as I was, to set up a family trust so this land always stays in the family and is never sliced up and sold to buy big houses in big cities where no one is ever really as happy as they keep hoping they will be someday."
She turned and pulled us toward her, wrapping her arms around us and hugging hard. "He will set you two up as this generation's trustees after me. And if you can manage to have children, even just one child, who understands the land as you and I do, and plants their heart in it as I have and know you will too, then they can become the next generation to keep it intact, pure and unspoiled until the next generation after theirs yields more worthy trustees."
Addy and I looked at each other over the back of Edmée's shoulders, shocked. Tears were welling up in Addy's eyes, making mine mist up too. Then Edmée gave us a warning.
"This won't be easy for you if you accept the responsibility. Some of my children, grandchildren and maybe even the littlest great grandchildren will hate me for what I'm doing and will hate you for being trusted to care for this land, the house, and all of its meager contents. A few of them are mean as alligators and will try to eat you alive. Bélla will keep you safe from them legally speaking, but you'll have to stay on your guard physically speaking. You'll also be assailed by greedy outsiders wanting to come take it and ruin it just as the creosote and oil companies have and are still ruining so much of the land all around ours."
Placing a hand on the nape of each of our necks, she eased us away from her and her voice took on that deep ominous tone she used the previous night when discussing what bad things might happen after Addy opens her restaurant with front dining room for blacks, rear for whites and middle for both to mix it up. Gently, rhythmically squeezing and kneading our tense muscles as she spoke.
"Before you say yes or no, spend a week thinking about it. Serious thinking, not just childish pie-in-the-sky, "oh boy look at what we're going to inherit" thinking. Know that it will be hard and dangerous to accept this mantle. Come back next weekend and tell me to my face–both of you together–what you decide. I'll know if you're both being truthful and of common mind. And that's all I'm going to say about it for now."
She released us and I damn near collapsed to the ground, my knees were so weak and shaky. I stood still, shivering as if a chill had come roaring down from the north and it was about to start sleeting or snowing on us. Addy placed a hand on my shoulder to support herself, her other hand clasped over her mouth, eyes shedding quiet tears.
Edmée began loading stuff back into the pirogue and waved us over to get aboard. "Let's ease back down the bayou now so we don't leave Charley and Jase wondering if we've all become alligator snacks," she suggested, taking her place at the helm, pulling at the oars to turn the pirogue around to an easterly heading. "I'll drive downstream so you can both see everything I'll be describing along the way. There's a lot more here than meets the eye."
All I could do was marvel at this amazing centenarian, smoothly piloting a hand-crafted vessel older than she was with graceful, economic expertise as she revealed the many marvels of the land she loved.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ I wish I could say I was a finicky eater as a child but the truth is, I'm still a finicky eater. As I've aged and "matured" I have come to enjoy some foods which would set me to gagging and heaving–sometimes vomiting outright–in childhood. Throughout adolescence, I hated ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise on anything. I began enjoying ketchup and mustard in my late teens, but I still cannot stomach mayonnaise. Other foods I still refuse to eat include potato salad, coleslaw, cabbage, salad dressing, mac & cheese, to name a few. I've always loved spinach, broccoli is okay and I now enjoy fresh asparagus, but canned asparagus tastes horrible to me. These food aversions (none of them were ever true allergies, as far as I've ever been able to tell) were an aggravation to my parents and high entertainment for my siblings who would happily eat just about anything placed before them. A favorite family story told again and again over the decades with great delight (even to this very day) focuses on my aversion to hamburgers with everything on them. When I was ten years old, we were returning from a weekend camping trip in the mountains when my parents decided to make a rare stop for hamburgers at a drive thru restaurant along the way home. At first, I was happy about it because we hardly never did that sort of thing. Then my happiness turned to despair. Ordering fast food for a family of six was easier if everyone had the same thing. Not a problem for anyone in the family except me. I was okay with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese, but a burger with pickles, onions and ketchup, mayonnaise or mustard may as well have been a burger loaded up with cactus (still sporting thorns), nightshade, axle grease and motor oil as far as my picky palate was concerned. Fortunately, I was allowed to pick and scrape away as much of an everything burger as I wanted to before ingesting it, and as I did just that to my burger that night as Dad drove us home through heavy end-of-weekend traffic, the rest of the family munched away at theirs while making fun of me for taking so long to make mine more palatable. Not a big deal in the greater scheme of things, but at ten I sat there in the back seat of the car feeling dejected, angry and alone, removing offensive foodstuffs from the burger as best as I could in the dark, shamefully shrinking away from my family into the corner of seat and door as they went on about my finickiness, hating every comment, giggle and titter uttered–hating them–even thinking for a brief moment about opening the car door and falling out of it into traffic to be squashed to death under screaming wheels of a speeding semi passing in the left lane. I hated myself too for thinking that and being so finicky, wondering why I wasn't like the rest of my family, able to enjoy any food without issue as they all did. What was wrong with me? Was I adopted and never told about it or something? The thought of committing suicide passed quickly, though, as I finally had the hamburger cleaned enough and began eating it. I figured getting squashed on the highway by cars and trucks would most likely hurt a lot before it killed me, and I was famished from the busy weekend outing in the mountains, something I always loved to do with family. I took another bite and stared out into the night at passing lights and road signs, flinching a little at lingering flavors of mustard, onion and pickle still on my burger in trace amounts, and started looking forward to the next time we could all go back into the mountains together again.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF~
Addy, aghast, stared at members of her family all scowling at her as if she were a traitor, wishing she were dead. After she and Billy had accepted Edmée's generous offer to serve as trustees over her expansive homestead along the banks of Little Bayou and Edmée had subsequently announced it to the family via formal letters her lawyer had composed in appropriate legalese and mailed to her direct descendants, everyone had turned on her with vehemence she could never have predicted possible.
Her father had been expecting to inherit at least part of his grandmother's property, as had his mother and many other of Edmée's children and grandchildren. For her to place it under protection of a strict family trust and then make Addy and Billy its successor trustees–effective immediately–was insulting to them all. As Edmée had warned her and Billy, none of them cared about keeping the land in the family and protecting it from developers. They all felt cheated and were not accepting the reality of the legal letter they had all received from Bélla. The only relative not in on the attack was her uncle Jase, who sat quietly watching without comment as everyone else turned their ire upon Addy.
"This wasn't my idea," she told them. "Great Mémère came to us asking if we would do it, mainly because of Billy's advanced education in environmental science!" she added, honestly, but to no avail. They were all so angry they even attacked her for having Edmée cosign the business loan to start her restaurant and for wanting to marry Billy, "that honky, white cracker college boy" her grandfather was now calling him.
She held her tongue for a moment. Her grandfather Zach had grown cantankerous as he had aged into his eighties, but then someone else in the group confronting her echoed the hateful "honky white cracker" slur–a female voice, less loud but clear enough–and she had had enough, getting up and storming out of the house. Jase followed a few seconds later. No one else did.
Jase followed Addy over to her restaurant where a small carpentry crew was making finishing touches to the middle dining room and the sign painter was mounting her finished work beneath the front gable. Jase smiled at the sight of it and watched Addy looking at it as she walked at a brusque pace up to the building. He could tell by her gait and body language that she had already brushed off the dismaying incident she had just experienced. He strolled up beside her, scuffing his feet a bit to give her warning of his approach. She turned her attention from the sign and smiled at him, reading his body language as easily as he had read hers, then turned to look up at the sign again.
"Well, Uncle Jase, Edmée warned us it was going to get nasty."
Jase nodded, happy that there was no need to console Addy. "Nice sign. I like the name," he said. It was a simple sign. Solid white background in a nicely finished cypress frame about four inches wide with the words "~ Addy's Dive ~" painted in large, green letters in the center of it. "Did you come up with it yourself?"
Addy nodded, putting her hands on her hips and cocking her head a little. "I asked Billy for ideas but he insisted I use my own. You don't think it's too cryptic?"
Jase thought about it for a moment before replying. "Nope. I can already hear people of all kinds from all over the country talking about it by that name. It's catchy."
The sign painter came down after firmly affixing her creation to the building and stood beside Addy and Jase. "Did I get it straight?"
They both nodded, still smiling at the sight of it. "I'm still working on the sign to go over the bar in the middle dining room," she said. "It should be ready the day before the grand opening. Here's a polaroid of what it looks like so far. Tell me straight up if you don't like anything about it so I can get it fixed in time."
Addy and Jase bent close to look at the color photo, then looked at each other with raised eyebrows before looking at Ida in awe of her talent.
"It's absolutely beautiful," Addy replied. "It's so richly detailed! I'm surprised you have so much of it done this quickly."
Jase reached for the photo so he could look at it more closely with his aging eyes. Ida handed it to him and watched him examine it, knowing he would not hold back on any constructive criticism. "How are you carving this, Ida? With dremel tools?"
Ida shook her head. "No, it's all hand carved the old fashioned way with a set of wood carving tools. It's really easy to carve on bald cypress with them."
Jase held the photo close, marveling at the fine detail Ida had incorporated into the basic design Addy had drawn up for her. Ida waited quietly as Jase looked it over, excited to hear what he had to say since he and Charley were the ones who found the densely packed cluster of cypress knees up Bayou Cheche about a mile from Edmée's house for her to use.
Jase couldn't stop looking at it. Ida had carved an oval shaped engraving into the face of the knee cluster of a scene with not just an alligator sunning itself, as Addy had requested, but an alligator resting its chin and neck on top of three red-eared sliders also sunning themselves–all four reptiles resting peacefully together in complete harmony. She had carved "ADDY'S DIVE" in an arc across the alligator's belly and had stained that text light brown to stand out against the darker brown of the engraved scene.
"Damn, Ida!" he exclaimed with delight. "You are a genius! I can't imagine a better way to convey the harmony Addy hopes to bring to the middle room." She had even carved a background of cattail reeds rising behind the alligator to drive home the effect of the scene.
Ida beamed. She was glad they were as happy with it as she was. They all kept looking at the photo together, then grinning at each other–Addy and Jase having completely forgotten about the ugly scene they had just witnessed from their relatives a few minutes ago.
~ THE TRUE STUFF ~ A couple of weeks before I was born, a baby named Nat Williams was born in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Nat grew up to serve in the 82nd Airborne Infantry Division/Military Police before attending law enforcement training at LSU and eventually becoming acting sheriff of St. Helena Parish after that sheriff's department had suffered more than a decade of corruption under several now convicted and jailed former sheriffs. While serving as acting sheriff, he was subsequently elected into office, for three terms now at the time of this writing, and has consistently served his community with distinction. I read about Nat's election win in 2008 as the first African-American sheriff of St. Helena Parish while surfing around for general information about Lafayette Parish where I had lived in 1969 and 1970, and about Vermilion Parish where the seed for this story (a jelly jar of spilled pearls) was planted in the deeper recesses of my brain. His election victory stuck in my mind primarily because he was taking command of an office historically mired in such a deep state of corruption I wondered at the time if he would be able to turn things around or if he would end up being chewed up and spit out by the community he was trying to serve. He's still in office today, and from everything I can find online about his twelve years in service of the community, he has indeed turned things around and brought honor, respect and stability to the St. Helena Parish Sheriff's Office. For Part Two of this story, I'm going to need advice from an expert law enforcement professional to help get the character and actions of the local sheriff investigating a viscous murder mired in mystery just right. I intend to ask Sheriff Nat Williams if he can help me with this. He seems to be the best person for the task, if he has any free time to do it.
~ THE MADE-UP STUFF ~
The grand opening of Addy's Dive was planned as a week-long event stretching through Mardi Gras weekend from February 15th through the 21st and it turned out to be a great success thanks to a lifestyle and culture news story about the upcoming event aired on state-wide television a couple of weeks earlier. Louisiana tourism was booming in 1980 when the story was beamed out, and several TV stations in adjacent states had picked it up for rebroadcast, focusing on its unusual three dining room layout and operation. Viewers had loved it, responding with hundreds of calls for reservations until no more could be accommodated. We heard the story had even been featured in newspaper articles as far north as Chicago and west in Seattle and San Francisco. With the regular surge of tourists coming for Mardi Gras on the 19th, Addy's choice to open around and through that weekend was a brilliant move that paid off big for her new business venture.
Addy and I had put off our marriage until May so she could focus on getting the restaurant up and running without having to deal with planning at the same time for our wedding at Edmée's home at the end of Little Bayou. It wasn't going to be a huge wedding since most of Addy's family was still furious with her for accepting Edmée's request for us to serve as successors of her trust, and my family had already flatly informed me they definitely were not going to attend. Charley and Jase would be there, as would Chef Beauchamp and the rest of Leroux's staff, and most of Addy's new staff would be catering it. Chef Beauchamp had offered to help with that but Addy had refused, urging him to come and relax instead of working. The majority of guests would be our steadfast friends from childhood, school and work, about thirty people in all, including Charley, Jase and their families.
We had discussed what we could do to make the wedding unique and memorable for all of them, especially for Edmée, without spending a lot of money we didn't have. Brainstorming over it a few nights before the grand opening of the restaurant, we finally decided to incorporate the hand-made pirogue Edmée had gifted to us into the ceremony by arriving on it, floating up Little Bayou from a staging area to her house and saying our vows from it with guests sitting beneath shade trees on the bank of the bayou in front of the house. After the ceremony, Charley and Jase had volunteered to take the youngsters attending the wedding out for rides in the pirogue up and down Bayou Cheche where the trees stretched over the water and Spanish moss hung long and low from their branches.
"The kids will love it," Charley had offered, "while the adults are all dancing around half drunk in the yard."
And so it had turned out. Edmée had been irritated at first that Addy was not anywhere in sight as time for the ceremony approached, knocking back several brandies while walking back and forth in agitation on the front porch, ranting and raving that the bride should be in the house getting ready.
"Dammit, Addy should have been sequestered to this house three days ago, by tradition!" she complained. "What has become of this world that the bride isn't here now?"
We had not shared our plan to arrive by pirogue with anyone except Charley and Jase, who had both dressed to the nines in rented, white tuxedos, replete in white spats and antique white, silk bowlers to serve as our boatmen while we stood together in our all-white garb at the bow of the pirogue. Addy wore the engagement ring of orange blossoms I had given her (per strict instructions from Edmée) and she carried a bouquet of them as well. A few guests grew concerned about Edmée's obvious irritation over the missing bride and groom, doing their best to reassure her that all would go well, urging her to take her seat at center in the front row of folding chairs arranged on the lawn. She had finally acquiesced with no small amount of grumbling and a fresh brandy in hand a few minutes before the ceremony was to begin, followed by the small throng of invited guests, who all took their seats trying hard not to roll their eyes in relief to have kept things on schedule.
Honoré struck up a soulful rendition of "At Last" by Etta James–in honor of our six-year courtship–on his accordion that drifted downstream to us as signal for Charley and Jase to begin poling the pirogue up the bayou from the mouth of Bayou Cheche a short distance downstream. And as we rounded the bend into view, he somehow managed to seamlessly shift into a mildly bluesy Wedding March while Charley and Jase did their best to pole along in time with the music.
Charley whispered to Jase "I wish he had stuck with "At Last". I hate that damn German wedding march crap. Jase shushed his friend along with a subtle nod of agreement as Edmée finally caught sight of the pirogue approaching and jumped up from her seat, along with everyone else, clapping, cheering and laughing gleefully.
The wedding went off without a hitch. I half expected to trip and fall into the bayou as I helped Addy onto the small cypress landing pier built for the occasion and followed smoothly with a show-offish, semi-athletic leap and a wave, at which the guests–especially Edmée and the small court of children surrounding her as they all rose and came forward to greet us–cheered and clapped enthusiastically. She winked at me as she hugged Addy then took my hands in hers and pulled me over for a big kiss on both cheeks.
"You rascals, I had no idea," she said, keeping hold of my right hand, taking Addy's free left hand and leading us toward the reception tables. "It was such a beautiful surprise seeing you two coming up the bayou like that. So romantic. Thank you."
After a rousing reception party of feasting, drinking and dancing to Honoré's apparently endless repertoire ranging from Bach and zydeco to Beatles and ZZ Top covers, Jase motored with a low, powerful rumble up to the pier in a classic nineteen fifty-something Chris Craft sedan launch, still in immaculate condition, and waved us aboard.
"We better get you two on the way to the airport for your honeymoon in The Big Easy," Jase announced, and helped us aboard. Addy jumped up and down in place a few times before dashing toward the pier, pulling me along in lurching, long steps behind.
We waved goodbye as Honoré stood at the end of the pier and launched into an even more sultry version of "At Last" as we motored away.
After returning from our week-long honeymoon in New Orleans, Addy got right back to work happily running her busy restaurant and I headed right back out into the field for a ten day herpetological expedition in search of Ophisaurus attenuatus attenuatuswestern–commonly known as the western slender glass lizard–after fishermen reported sighting one along the upper reaches of Parc Perdu Bayou just south of Sugar Ridge. It was unlikely they had seen one that far south and east, probably mistaking an eastern variety of the lizard for its western cousin, but we had to check it out with a thorough search anyway.
This was before cellphones and there was no way to contact our team while we were deep in bayou country there for days at a time. And on my third day away on that expedition, Addy disappeared after closing up and leaving her restaurant shortly after ten o'clock one stifling hot Friday night on July 12th. The last two people to see her were her head waitress, Carly, and the night shift dishwasher, Pete, who both said they saw her walking home alone after locking up.
I tried to call her at the restaurant from Sugar Ridge on the evening of July 16th, four days after her disappearance. Carly answered and told me what little she knew, that no one had seen Addy since the twelfth and that Sheriff Nolan really needed to talk with me as soon as possible. Feeling cold fear and dread rising from somewhere deep in my gut, I told Carly I was on my way.
More in Part Two...