Friday, November 17, 2017

Rose Marie Aucoin and the Oak--1971

This is a from my current work in progress. I would be grateful for any comments you might like to make.

Rose Marie Aucoin and the Oak—1971
Rose Marie Aucoin was seventy-two when Jean Batiste Aucoin, her husband of fifty-seven years, passed away at the age of seventy-six. He had been sick for several months with lung cancer. His death was neither sudden nor unexpected. In fact, Rose watched him slowly stop breathing and stare through lifeless eyes at the priest desperately trying to give him the last rites before his soul left his body. Rose didn't cry, but she died a little bit with him. All her life, Jean had been there to tell her what to do and how to do it. He had been her husband. He had been her friend. He had been her confidant. He had been her lover. Now, he was gone, and her life felt empty.
In the days that followed the funeral, Rose took to sitting on her front gallery in her favorite rocking chair made from oak years ago by Jean Batiste himself. The seat was a weave of white oak saplings. She liked the warm breeze across her face as she rocked back and forth. She liked the squeaky sound the rockers made against the tongue in groove planks of the gallery floor. She loved to hear the swish of the cars as they rushed by along the Ellisonville blacktop road. She liked to imagine their destinations.
"That one's going to Ellisonville," she would say to herself in her singsong Cajun. "And that one's going all the way to Alexandra and then off to Monroe."
She would imagine she rode with the occupants, a shriveled old woman spirit, ethereal and incorporeal, staring out of the car window at sights she could only imagine. Rose Marie had never traveled out of the parish. In fact, she had only been to Ellisonville, the parish seat, three times in her seventy-two years: a visit to the hospital when her sister took ill, and the funeral home when Loretta died. She had gone once before when she was a young girl to a fais do do just outside of the town. It was there she met Jean Batiste. He courted her after that and they married. Jean Batiste did not believe in travel. "What is out there that you can't get here," he was fond of saying, flinging his arms out in a big airy hug that included his land, his house, and his wife. Rose Marie would nod sadly and travel in mind and spirit instead.
An old moss-covered live oak with huge tired branches that swooped to the ground partially blocked her view of the road. It was Jean Batiste's tree. The tree was there when his father and grandfathers owned the land. It was there before whomever owned the land before them. It was there while the Indians and buffalos roamed the land and maybe even before that. She did not know how old it was. She didn't care. It was keeping her from her travels, so she sent for Rufus Vidrine to come cut it down. He stood under the thick canopy of moss and leaves, ran a calloused hand over the rough bark, and refused, but Rose was adamant.
"If you don't do it," she said, "I'll just find me someone else who will."
When he found out her plan, Nat Manuel, the mayor of Serpentville, called on her and begged her not to cut it down.
"The tree is mine, isn't it?"
"The tree belongs to all of us, madam. It is the symbol of our heritage. It is the symbol of the strength and perseverance of our people. Why, when the Cajuns first landed on the Bayou Serpent shores, the oaks were there to give them fire and shelter. The Cajuns made their tools and their tables and chairs from oak. When the Cajuns looked upon the live oak, with its majestic branches and noble coat of silver moss, they were awed by it."
"It is on my property, and it is blocking my view. I want it removed."
Father Bré, the priest who gave the last rites to her husband, called on her and pleaded with her not to cut it down.
"It would be a sin," he said.
"Why?" Rose asked.
"It is one of God's creations. To destroy it would be a sin, madam."
"Wasn't Jean one of God's creations, too? Isn't it a sin that he is gone?" The priest was speechless. "The tree is on my property, and it is blocking my view. I will have it removed,"
A member of the Preservation of Historical Landmarks out of the state capital visited her house.
"Do not cut it down," the fancy dressed woman said without the slightest Cajun accent. "It is older than you. It is older than your community. It holds the history of this land and its people. Every scar on that tree is a note in history."
Rose stared at the woman.
"Do you read all that in my tree?"
"I do, and more."
"Good," Rose shot back. "I will have it cut down, and you can take it home and read all you want."
The mayor petitioned the governor to intercede. The priest prayed to God to intercede. The woman from the Preservation of Historical Landmarks tried to have it considered a historical landmark and protected by law. They all failed.
Rufus came by one foggy morning, and felled the tree, its massive branches snapping loudly as it crashed to the ground. Rose Marie nodded her satisfaction, rocked in her oak chair, and watched as a car raced by.
"Arkansas. He's going to Arkansas," she said and fantasized that she went too.
Rose Marie did not have long to enjoy her view. Two weeks later, she passed away, seated on her front gallery. Wherever her travels took her now, they would not be with the living.
At her funeral, her granddaughter, Shirley Mae Aucoin, mourned her passing as she delivered the eulogy.
"Memere Rose was the living embodiment of the proud and tenacious Cajuns. She is gone now, as is the oak tree that she had removed, but the memories remains. More Rose Maries will be born, and we will plant more trees. We must remember that the very qualities the tree stood for were what brought it down. My grandmother is gone, and with her passing, goes our real heritage. We must remember that the tragedy is not the cutting down of a tree, but the death of an honorable and loving person."
Ironically, Shirley Mae Aucoin buried her grandmother next to her husband in the family plot shaded by an ancient moss-covered oak.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Crawfish Redux--1960

This is a piece of a work in progress that appeared in The Pittsburg Quarterly Online in 1998. It is a work of fiction based on a Native American creation story that maintains a crawfish created man. I took some liberties with it, but it stays fairly true to the myth. The main character of the work is nicknamed Crawfish because he came out of his mother's womb backwards, as crawfish tend to do when threatened. I hope you enjoy it.

Crawfish Redux—1960
He appeared one day; an ancient American Indian dressed in tattered khakis, no shoes, and long dark hair, liberally sprinkled with grey, tied loosely behind his head with a leather thong. No one knew where he came from, or where he headed. He walked through Serpentville, his walking stick beating time on the hot, soggy blacktop road. No one would have noticed him if he hadn’t looked so much like an Indian. The children ran after him shooting questions at his back: “Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going? Are you really an Indian? Are you a chief?” He didn’t answer. Grownups stepped out of houses, stores, saloons. They asked him questions, the same ones the kids asked. He ignored them too.
He walked down Main Street, turned right on the Ellisonville blacktop and did not stop until he reached the Bayou Serpent bridge about a quarter mile out of town. He crossed the barbed wire fence that separated the road from the bayou and hiked along the waterway until he reached a mound about a mile or two from the road. He used his walking stick to clear away a path for himself through the briar bushes and sat cross-legged on the center of the mound. There he hummed softly to himself and ignored the questions as the kids ran, danced, and hopped around him. “What are you doing? Is that an Indian song you humming? Are you a real Indian? What are you doing?” they chirruped.
Jonel Pipe, the sheriff’s deputy, showed up around sunset and told the old man to move on. The Indian hummed softly, didn’t even look up. Jonel grabbed his left arm and tugged on it. He groaned, and the deputy backed off. After all, he did not want to hurt him. Jonel crossed his arms and stared hard at the Indian. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” When the man didn’t answer, the deputy shook his head and left. It was a free country, and he wasn’t hurting anything. Still there was something disconcerting about the scene.
The sun rose and set three times, and still, the old Indian didn’t move. A hawk circled overhead. Far off, a crop duster flew over a cotton field. He stood, wobbled a bit, and regained his balance. He lifted his arms up to the sky and faced the kids playing nearby—they had grown tired of waiting for him to do something, but they were afraid not to be there in case he did, so they showed up each day. They stopped what they were doing when he stood, scurried up the mound and gathered at his feet.
“The Great Spirit,” the old Indian said in a raspy voice that sounded like the wind through the briar bushes, “had no eyes or ears, but she heard and saw all that went on around her. Water covered Mother Earth. The Great Spirit made fish and shellfish to fill her waters. Then she told Crawfish to go to the bottom and mate with Mother Earth. Crawfish did and pulled up some of Mother Earth to make a home for their offspring. Crawfish named their progeny Chitimacha, and he lived on the home created by Mother Earth and Crawfish. The Great Spirit gave Chitimacha laws to live by, and all was well on the new earth for a while, but Chitimacha has a short memory, and soon, he forgot all the laws, and the new earth fell into chaos. The Great Spirit thought and thought and gave Chitimacha women and tobacco, and these made Chitimacha very happy, but Chitimacha made slaves of his women and became slave to his tobacco and demanded the Great Spirit give him more. The Great Spirit gave him animals and arrows to slay the animals, and these made Chitimacha very happy, but it wasn’t very long before Chitimacha grew tired of those and demanded the Great Spirit give him more. The Great Spirit gave Chitimacha knowledge of Mother Earth and taught him how to grow crops upon her. This made Chitimacha very happy, and he feasted on the fruits of Mother Earth, but soon, Chitimacha wanted more and once again, called on the Great Spirit to give him more. The Great Spirit gave Chitimacha the four directions. To the north, she gave Chitimacha the cold. To the south, she gave Chitimacha warmth and moisture. To the west, she gave Chitimacha great beasts to hunt and eat. To the east, she gave Chitimacha the white man. Chitimacha was very happy. When the cold of the north came down, it cooled and refreshed him. The warmth of the south nurtured his crops. The great beasts of the west fed and clothed his families. The white man from the east introduced him to a new Great Spirit who promised an even better world for Chitimacha. The white man taught Chitimacha to forsake Mother Earth and embrace their Great White Spirit. Chitimacha was very happy. He took from the Mother Earth and gave nothing back. This is not the true world, the white man told him. It is only a stopping place. Chitimacha drank in the white man’s words as eagerly as he drank the white man’s alcohol, but one day, Chitimacha saw that not all was well. Mother Earth was slowly dying. The rivers and bayous were barren. Farms and cities were replacing the woods and forests. Smoke from the white man’s automobiles and factories poisoned the air. Chitimacha demanded the Great Spirit make it right again. The Great Spirit had no ears or eyes, but she saw and heard all that went on, and she wept for Chitimacha.”
The old Indian stared up into the sky at a crop duster circling overhead. Then he watched as a green tractor inched its way across a cotton field. He finally let his gaze rest on the curious children around him.
“Please,” he said and fell back. He died, his wise and aged eyes staring lifelessly at the sky.
In life, the old Indian was a curiosity for the children. In death, he was frightening, and they ran away from his lifeless body. None of them understood the old Indian’s request at the end, except one.
He shook a tiny fist at the sky as he ran with the others to tell the grownups what he had learned.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The 2-Headed Calf

As a young boy, fourteen or fifteen, I had the opportunity to watch a veterinarian deliver a calf. The delivery went along the same line as my story except the calf was normal and alive. It was an extraordinary experience eclipsed only by my daughter's home birth. I took the memory and created this scene from a work in progress that probably will never see the light of day.

The 2-headed Calf—1969
The pregnant Guernsey milk cow belonging to JJ's father was overdue to drop her calf, and he sent for Dr. Veillion, the old veterinarian from Ellisonville. JJ called me to see if I wanted to see the cow deliver her calf. Although I lived in a farm community, I had never seen anything like that before. I was curious, so I jumped on my old Schwinn and peddled over to his father's farm about three miles down the Isaacton graveled road. I found them in Mr. Labbé's enormous and old cypress barn. I left my bike at the fence, climbed over the metal gate, and joined them. The barn was dark and smelled strongly of manure and hay. I stood next to JJ and watched as his father and Dr. Veillion examined the cow. In the next stall, a chicken perched on top of a poison drum and watched us, cocking her head sideways occasionally. The cow lay on her right side and seemed to be struggling to give birth. A yellowish sac hung from her back end. She lifted her head, eyed us with her dark eyes, and cried out.
"What's the matter with her?" I asked Dr. Veillion.
"That's her water sac hanging from her vulva," he answered. "She's having trouble pushing the calf out." He reached into his black medical bag. "Looks like I'll have to give Mother Nature a hand." He slid on a pair of enormous black rubber gloves that covered his hands and arms almost to his shoulders. Then he rubbed a lubricant over both gloves and entered the stall with the cow. She turned her head toward him, and he slowly made his way around until he stood behind her. "That's all right, baby," he soothed. "I'm just going to give you a little helping hand getting that baby out of there." The cow shook her enormous head and shifted a little. Dr. Veillion lifted her tail and slowly slid his right hand inside her vulva up past his elbow.
I glanced at JJ, and he grinned at me.
"You said you wanted to see," he whispered.
"The calf is coming out backwards," Dr. Veillion called out. "That's usually not a problem. I'm just going to reposition it a little until I can get his legs out. Jeb. There's no movement in there, so I suspect the calf might be dead." He glanced at Mr. Labbé. "I'm going to need some help pulling, so come in here and join me." After some tugging, a pair of small hooves and fetlocks appeared. Dr. Veillion grunted and pulled harder using both hands. JJ's father grabbed a hoof and helped."
"It's too slippery," Dr. Veillion said. "Get me a sturdy rope, and we'll pull it out that way."
Mr. Labbé nodded at JJ, who grabbed a rope and handed it to the old veterinarian. He secured it over the calf's fetlocks and again, just above the hooves. The two men pulled. The cow's stomach contracted as she pushed. After a few minutes, the calf's body appeared. The two pulled harder, and the rest of the calf dropped out in a spurt of blood, water, and mucous.
We stared in bewilderment at the little animal lying in the fresh hay.
It had two heads.
"Don't that beat all," Dr. Veillion said. "I've heard about this happening, but I've never seen it before."
"What the hell is it?" JJ's father asked.
"A calf," Dr. Veillion said. "The strangest damn calf I've ever seen."
"Is it alive?" I asked.
"Nope. It never had a chance."
The cow slowly licked her dead calf clean.
"Will my Guernsey be all right?" Mr. Labbé asked.
"She should be fine, Jeb. I'll stick around a bit until she delivers the placenta. It shouldn't take long."
"What am I going to do with a dead two-headed calf?"
The old veterinarian shrugged.
"Well, you could bury it, or you can have it stuffed. Some museum, or something like that, might want it."
Once the cow stood and delivered her placenta, Dr. Veillion left.
JJ's father placed the calf in a freezer and called Sonny Landrieu, a taxidermist he knew in Ellisonville. Three weeks later, he picked up the mount, and JJ called me over to see it. His father had set it into a scene that he created in the corner of his living room, a manger where the two-headed calf stood next to a bale of hay, an empty bucket, and a feed trough with grain in it. One head faced the viewer, it's dark glass eyes blank. The other head leaned over the trough.
"What do you think, boy?" Mr. Labbé asked.
I didn't know how to answer.
"Strange," I said, finally.
"Would you pay to see something like that?"
"I don't know," Mr. Labbé.
"Well, I got me a two-headed calf. Ain't no sense letting it rot in the ground when I can make money off him."
Later, he called the Ellisonville Gazette, and they sent a photographer over. The headline read, "Serpentville Farmer Preserves 2-Headed Calf." He placed a sign on the roadside next to his driveway. "SEE A TWO-HEADED CALF. $1.00 PER PERSON," it read.
He had visitors from as far off as Arkansas and Mississippi.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Colder than Normal Winter

I never know what will spark my imagination. Many years ago, while driving through Arkansas on a cold icy day, I saw a young boy trudge over a fallow field, heading toward a shack with a single, lighted window cutting through the approaching dusk. He carried a small paper sack in his right hand. The scene reminded me of an Emil Nolde landscape, intense and emotional, or the feeling I experienced when I first saw Andrew Wyath's Christina's World. This is what came out of what I witnessed that day. I tried to capture the fear and guilt I felt when my father died of cancer. I was about that boy's age.

A Colder than Normal Winter
The dying sun dangles like an orange sore, scabrous and purulent. Dark clouds, pregnant with the threat of a winter storm, roil over the northern horizon like a disease, slowly devouring the sun’s feeble light and the icy blue sky.
The dark shadow of a boy, carrying a small sack filled with medicine for his father, crosses a fallow field. His breath pulses from him in small white storm clouds. The cold stabs through him, and his legs, like bellows, stoke the fires in his chest, but he feels none of that. The fear in his mind numbs him, binds him to the shack across the field where he knows his father, the certainty of death slowly working its way through his emaciated body, stares through a frosted window and waits for him.
The boy throws himself upon the barren ground—tries to erase the image of the cancer eating his father’s insides like white-hot flames devouring paper. He knows that death is an awful process that does not discriminate between good and evil, but he cannot imagine life without his father. Even the thought of his expiration creates a chasm of loss and yearning in his chest.
He has seen him cough, bring up blood, red and hot enough to melt ice. He rises and trudges home toward the lighted window that holds his father’s wasted shadow and new responsibilities, the fear of failing him during his last few days, heavy on his shoulders.
How does one change the weather, disperse the clouds building behind him that promise more icy winds and a colder than normal winter?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

My First Paid Publication

The letter arrived in the mail just as I was going to take a shower. The mail carrier dropped the mail in the mailbox. I opened the front door a crack, stuck my arm out, and picked up the mixture of junk mail and bills. The business-size envelope stood out. The address was the same one I typed on my old Royal manual. Stamped in black on the upper left-hand corner was The Southern Review return address. The fifteen-cent "Star Spangled Banner" stamp I had licked and placed on the envelope sat proudly on the upper right corner. I threw the junk mail in the trash and sat at my kitchen table, placing the envelope face up. I examined the postmark. I could only make out three digits of the zip code, a huge PM in the center of the postmark, and nothing of the date was legible. I stood, walked to the refrigerator, grabbed a beer, a sharp knife, and returned to the envelope. I placed the knife blade under the flap and slit it opened, but I didn't pull out the single sheet inside. Instead, I took a long pull from the beer and prayed.
"Please, God, let this be an acceptance."
I was a graduate student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL), now known as the University Louisiana, Lafayette (ULL). I had written a collection of short stories set in a small Cajun community to use as my creative thesis, and was trying to get a few stories published to give my work some credibility. Ernest Gaines, my writing teacher, had introduced me to his agent a few months earlier, and she had asked me to send her some of my work, so I sent her six stories and a stamped, self-addressed, envelope in case she needed to send them, or some suggestions, back to me. To my surprise, she sent me a brief note saying that she had submitted three of the stories to The Southern Review.
This letter was the magazine's response.
I finished my beer and opened another. All my dreams, my hopes, lay in that nine and a half by four-inch envelope, and never in my life had I been so afraid to open a letter. I lit up a cigarette, took a few puffs, drank some more beer, and picked up the envelope. I smelled it. I turned it over—turned it over again and pulled out the neatly folded paper.
At the age of fifteen, I sent a story to a pulp magazine—I don't even remember the name. When the reply came, I could barely contain my excitement. I ripped open the envelope, pulled out a slip of paper, and read the mimeographed response: "Thank you for your submission. We're sorry, but your story does not meet our needs at this time." I was heartbroken, angry, and resolved never to send out my work again until I had learned to be a "real" writer. So, here I was, fifteen years older, and steeling myself for the same disappointment I'd felt as a young boy.
I finished my cigarette, crushed it out in the ashtray, and picked up the folded letter. I lifted a corner and a slip of paper fell out. It was a check made out to me for one hundred dollars. I stared at it for a full minute before I realized that The Southern Review had accepted one of my stories and were paying me.
I unfolded the letter and read it. The magazine had accepted three of my works, and they were scheduled to appear in the winter 1984 edition. Editor Lewis P. Simpson's signature appeared at the bottom. I grabbed the letter and the check, ran out to the backyard of my duplex, and yelled as loudly as I could, "I'm a writer. I'm a paid writer." My neighbors must have thought I was drunk or mad, but I didn't care. I was a real writer, a paid writer.
That was many years ago, and I've had many stories published since then, some paid, some not, but none of them came close to the exhilaration I felt that day. The money has long been spent and the letter lost in the passage of time, but the memory is etched in my mind.
You can read the three stories in my collection, Lighted Windows.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Half-Acre

The half-acre belonged to my father. He had to share the rest of the crops with Monsieur Bijeaux, but whatever came out of the half-acre was his to keep. Always, it seemed the patch produced the prettiest, the greenest plants.
"Because it's more mine than the rest of the field," my father explained when I asked him about it.
"You take care of it more?"
"Non, mon fils. I'm a fair man. All my crops get the same attention. It wouldn't be fair to Clifton if I ignored his crops for mine. It's just I take care of the half-acre a little different, I guess, and the plants know it."
"How?" My father peered into my eyes. I studied his pale blue eyes set deep in his sun-toughened face in return and sat up straighter, trying to look older.
"I never wanted to answer to any man. This half-acre is probably the closest I'll ever get to owning my own land. When something belongs to you, you treat it different."
"How?" My father frowned and his eyes traveled over me to the field beyond.
"I don't know if you're old enough to understand. It's like wishes and dreams. You treat them different."
"Yessir," I said, and he seemed relieved.
He pulled weeds in the half-acre when I brought him the note from Madame Garré, my first-grade teacher. He straightened and leaned against his hoe when he saw me coming. He looked like part of the field in his sun-bleached khakis and brown skin.
"I got a note from Madame Garré," I yelled, skipping from row to row, careful not damage the young sweet potato plants.
"What's that you said?" he asked once we were within talking distance of each other.
"I got a note from Madame Garré. Momma said I had to show it to you." I held the piece of paper before him.
"What does it say?" I unfolded the paper and pretended to read it.
"Momma says, it says that you're supposed to go meet with Madame Garré tomorrow afternoon, after school."
"Does the note say why?"
"Do you know why?"
"Nosir. Unless it's because I don't talk américain." My father registered surprise.
"You talk américain. Me and your momma, we showed you how."
"Madame Garré says not good enough, and she says I don't understand good enough, neither."
"What don't you understand?"
"Not much. She talks too fast."
"Well, we'll see tomorrow, I guess." He wiped his forehead with his bandanna and started hoeing again. I ran ahead of him pulling out the bigger weeds.
I met him in front of the school the next afternoon. He looked exhausted in his sweat-stained khaki shirt and straw hat. He had walked from our farm, over seven miles away.
"Where's this teacher of yours?"
"In room twelve."
"Take me there."
"Yessir." I led him through the hallway past rows of doors with bold numbers painted on them to a room at the end. Now and again, I would look back at my father. He looked out of place in my school, as a weed does in a recently hoed field. When we arrived at the room, he stopped, took a deep breath, pulled off his old straw hat, and held it before his chest. Madame Garré sat at her desk grading papers. She looked up when she heard us enter. My father walked up the middle aisle between the rows of desks and stood directly in front of her.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Leclerc. I'd asked you to sit, but I'm afraid the only extra chairs are desks, and as you can see, they're too small for you."
Madame Garré had a clear strong voice, and although I did not always understand what she said, her voice did demand respect and attention. She spoke American, and my father leaned forward a little to understand her better. He looked around nervously.
"Merci mais…"
Madame Garré interrupted him with a wave of her hand.
"Mr. Leclerc, I'm going to come right to the point," she said slowly. "Your son does not have a chance of passing the first grade. Do you understand, Mr. Leclerc? Do you speak English?"
"Some. I can't read or write, though."
"Do you understand me?"
"Enough, I guess. I understand you pretty much if you talk slow."
"How about Mrs. Leclerc? Does she speak English?"
"Yes, ma'am. She can read it and write it, too. She went all the way to the sixth grade."
My father said this with pride. He was proud of my mother's ability to read and write. He often asked her to read to him from the bible, and he would sit before her and marvel over how she translated words into a story. It always seemed to amaze him, and he always gave her a special look whenever she read.
"That's good. Maybe you can get her to help your son. He needs it."
My father placed a callused hand on my shoulder.
"My boy is not dumb."
"No, he isn't, Mr. Leclerc. He simply does not speak English very well and understands precious little of it. Do either you or your wife speak English with your son at home?"
My father straightened.
"Well no, not much leastways. We don't talk much américain, and we haven't got much use for it. We're Cajun and that's what we talk. It's easier."
"Mr. Leclerc, you're a farmer." My father nodded. "Just try to think of me as a farmer, too. My field is the classroom. My crops are all the young children who pass my class and go on to finish high school and beyond to live productive lives as educated Americans. I'm a good farmer, but even the best farmers need help."
My father nodded again.
"That's true," he said.
"I need you to speak English in front of the boy. He has to forget his French heritage, or he'll never succeed. He'll never become an assimilated American."
"Forget that he's a Cajun? Forget how to talk Cajun? But it belongs to him, that. It's a part of him. How else is he going to get along in the world?"
"What world, Mr. Leclerc? Yours?" Madame Garré shook her head sadly. "I don't mean to be impertinent, but your son will never make it in the real world unless he learns how to communicate in a civilized tongue." She looked straight at my father as if she were deciding what to say next. He met her gaze and nodded.
"Go on," he said. "I don't understand all these words, but I think I know what you getting at."
"Do you want your son to turn out like you, Mr. Leclerc, illiterate, unable to read or write?"
My father placed his old straw hat on his head.
"Thank you, Madame. I'll do what I got to do." He turned and motioned me to follow. When we were out of the school building, he turned and gently squeezed my shoulders. He spoke American, slow and hesitant, to make sure I understood.
"I don't expect you're going to pass this year, but I expect you will next year."
"Yessir," I said.
He and my mother stopped speaking to me in Cajun, but it was too late, and as he predicted, I failed the first grade. I took it over the next year, and it was easier.
I understood Madame Garré much better.
I skipped across the rows waving my report card, yelling, "I passed" over and over again. Twice, I dropped the Mason jar I carried, half filled with Momma's dark coffee. My father waited for me under the shade of the two magnolias at the far end of the half-acre. The two mules, Sarah and Susie, waited patiently before the plow, absently swatting at the flies with their tails. I gave my father his coffee, and he cleaned the dirt from the jar and opened it.
"What's got you all excited?" he asked before sipping the coffee. I showed him the report card with "Passed to the second grade" written in Madame Garré's hand across the bottom of it.
"What does it say?" he asked.
I read it to him.
"I passed," I said, pleased with the look he gave me—the same special look he gave my mother when she read to him. He wiped his mouth with his forearm.
"Mon fils, I'm real proud of you. You're doing real well in school, and you can talk américain as good as that teacher of yours."
"That's because you and Momma hardly talk Cajun to me anymore. I still know how."
"You know a lot of things. You can read from a book and write words down on a piece of paper. Someday you're going to be able to pass as a américain. Madame Garré was right. There isn't just one world." He sipped his coffee again and sat in his spot among the magnolia roots spreading across the ground. I sat in the dust in front of him.
"This is my world." He indicated the field with his arm.
"The half-acre?"
"Yes. In a way, but I meant more than this little patch of land. I meant everything."
"The house and everything?"
"Everything, mon fils. The house, the mules, the fields, and the half-acre, too. Everything you see and more." He picked up a stick and silently drew in the dust at our feet.
"Do you know how I plant this half acre?"
"Yessir. You plow up the land and then plant the seeds."
"That's right. This year I'm planting sweet potatoes. I find the best seedlings I can get a hold of and start me a nice seedbed. Then I prepare the soil real well. The more you work the soil, the better chance your crop'll have." As he talked, my father drew in the dust. He drew a small square for the seedbed and then a larger rectangle with lines running the length of it for the half-acre. "After a month or so, I'm ready to plant the seedlings into the field. I give them plenty water to start them and take care of them when they start to take. I do everything I can for them and if I'm lucky, I'll get me some good healthy plants when it's time for harvest."
"Yessir," I said, studying the drawings in the dust as carefully as I studied Madame Garré's blackboard.
"Sometimes I'll get almost perfect potatoes out of that dirt, and it's a pleasure to dig out one dark brown number one potato after another. Sometimes, I'm not so lucky." He removed his straw hat and wiped his forehead with the old bandanna he carried in his back pocket.
"This is my world. I plant things, they come up, and sometimes they don't. It's a hard world, but it's not a bad one." He replaced the bandanna and picked up the stick again. He drew a circle around the half acre.
"But I didn't choose it. It was all I could do. Someday, you’re going to get to choose."
"Choose what?"
He pointed to the drawing in the dust.
"You're going to choose what world to live in. This one." He poked the stick into the drawing. "Or the other one, the one your teacher talked about."
"Someday, when you know enough to choose. You're going to have the chance I never got. You're going to choose the world you want to live in." My father reached down and erased the drawings. Then he drew another half-acre and put an "x" in it. He looked at me.
"I'm giving you the half-acre. It's the only part of me that I don't have to share with another man. That and what I am. I hope you do it right." I did not know what to say, so I watched him carefully retrace his "x" in the dust. When he was done, he spoke again.
"I'll help you, but it's your half-acre."
It was not the money he received for the crops that he gave me. I understood that. It had something to do with dreams and wishes. I knew I would understand later, but first, I would have to decide what to plant in the half-acre. Then I would have to work the crops and harvest them, and one day, when I was ready, I would have to decide whether to plant the half-acre at all. I wanted him to know I understood what he was trying to teach me, but I could not find the words.
"Merci," I said finally, and he reached over and hugged me.
This story appeared in The Southern Review and is part of my Lighted Windows collection.It is fiction, of course, but I did fail the first grade because my parents never spoke English in the household. After that, they started speaking English to me. I struggled with school until high school, when I blossomed. (My grades did not reflect this blossoming, but my teachers recognized my abilities and worked with me.) Hope you enjoy the story.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Over the Gymnasium Floor

Viola loved to play basketball, liked figuring angle and distance to the goal, liked floating through the air, liked feeling the ball perched on her outstretched hand, liked falling back down to the clean gymnasium floor.
Ricky the janitor liked opera, a sound bigger than gymnasium walls, liked to sing along with his jam box, as he muscled a dust mop from one goal to another over the unswept gymnasium floor.
Viola believed basketball grander, more graceful, than anything she could imagine until she heard Ricky belt out "Figaro," the notes rising higher than she had ever gone, floating gracefully to the clean gymnasium floor. She would anchor the basketball on her hip, listen to Ricky crescendo and diminuendo, lifting her past the rims, and gently bring her down when the last note bounced off the clean gymnasium floor.
Viola shot basketballs and Ricky pushed brooms to the sound of operas until one day, they marched to the strings of Mendelssohn and came together under the basketball goal, their feet barely touching the clean gymnasium floor.

This little ditty came to me when I was in college. I sat in the bleachers and watched as a janitor pushed a broom over the gymnasium floor, opera sounds shooting out from his boombox and echoing throughout the building. A young, high school girl practiced her shooting, stopping occasionally to watch the janitor. It was a bizarre scene that has stayed with me all these years. I thought I would share.

Rose Marie Aucoin and the Oak--1971

This is a from my current work in progress. I would be grateful for any comments you might like to make. ___ Rose Marie Aucoin and th...