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.