Monday, December 26, 2016

Ponce Bourré

Recently, I came across George Graham's Acadiana Table blog "Ponce Upon a Time" where he wrote about Ponce Bourré. It took me all the way back to my childhood.

When I was just a young boy, six or seven, my father would have a boucherie. He would choose one of his pigs and butcher it. The event usually took place in February or sometimes in March depending on the weather. Since we had no refrigeration, it had to be cold outside. He would invite one of the neighbors, and they would usually bring a pig to butcher too. There were two ways to kill the animal with which I was familiar. One was to hit the pig in the forehead using a heavy object like a hammer or post. The other was to shoot the pig. My father preferred shooting it because it insured that the animal would not suffer from a misplaced blow. After the pig was downed, my father quickly gathered as much of the blood that he could to be used to create blood boudin, which is another story I will share sometime in the future. The pig carcass was then immersed in boiling water and the skin shaved carefully. The skin would be used to make cracklings and to render lard for cooking. Everything on that pig was used. The tail and the ears, considered delicacies, were roasted over an open fire by the kids and eaten on the spot. The intestines, heart, liver, hooves, everything, was cleaned, used in a dish, or saved for future use. Absolutely nothing was wasted.

One of my favorites was the pig stomach. Daddy would clean it carefully, rinsing it several times in clean cold water. Then he would cook up some onions, peppers (at least one Jalapeno to spice it up a bit), celery, garlic, whatever we had available, and add that to a mixture of cooked ground pork, and rice. To that he would add fresh parsley and green onion tops. Then he would stuff the stomach and sew it shut with butcher's twine. He had a small building outside that he used to smoke sausages, hams and other meats. He would place the stuffed stomach in there for most of the day.

After the boucherie was complete, and everything was either being smoked, wrapped up in freezer paper, or placed in some sort of brine for later use, it was time to celebrate. Daddy would grab the Ponce Bourré from the smoke house, and Momma would place it in our old blackened pot along with some vegetables (carrots, potatoes, celery, onions—again whatever was available) and about a couple of cups of some kind of broth—usually something that came from the pig. She would cover the pot, place it in the oven, and cook it for at least a couple of hours. To this day, if I close my eyes and think about it, I can remember the succulent smoky aroma that filled the house as it cooked. When it was done, my mother, sister, neighbors, and I would wait patiently, mouths watering, while my father sliced the ponce into quarter-inch slices.

Since those days, I've eaten my share of Ponce Bourré, but something was always missing, and I've finally figured it out. It's the ritualistic experience of raising, killing, cleaning, and cooking the pig. The ponce was reward for a job well done.

---

If you're interested in the recipe for Ponce Bourré, visit Acadiana Table. Graham has a good recipe in his blog for Sweet Potato Ponce. There are also other recipes on the internet if you google it. Alternately, if you find yourself in Louisiana around Lafayette, Scott, Sunset, Eunice, Ville Platte, or Church Point, Graham also has a list of places that offer it. You don't even have to kill the pig.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fixing Fences

Every board tells a story if you know how to read it: when it was harvested; where it was harvested; from what part of the tree it was harvested; how it was harvested and prepared; who likely harvested it. The story starts with the tree.
David Alpha
Carpenter & Artist

The first day:

I walk by this neighborhood every day on my way to work, but I have never traveled down this particular street. I don't know how I could have missed it. It's a wonderful street; the houses are mostly old, made of brick or stone, and many of them have wooden shingles on the roofs.
Most of the lawns are green, mowed and devoid of weeds and the shrubbery is trimmed. Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Mercedes fill most of the garages and driveways.

One house in particular catches my eye. It is a white, two story, wooden structure and doesn't quite seem to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. The house could use a new coat of paint, but it isn't to the point of being disgraceful. The trim is forest green and looks fresh. The roof is covered with some sort of dark, asphalt shingles that are beginning to reflect the wear and tear of age and will need replacement in the next year or so. A faded red chimney pokes out of the roof. I circle the house and take the back street—a graveled lane really with no name. The back of the house looks a little shabbier than the front. Leaves from the neighbor's oak and the gumball on the side of the house fill the gutters. The neighboring yard, like most of the back yards along the lane, is enclosed in a cedar fence about six feet tall.

But not this house. The fence is different here.

It is a funny sort of fence—two horizontal, two-by-six boards face down, running parallel, about four feet apart. The bottom one is about a foot off the rocky ground. Anchored into the two boards and standing vertical between them are one-by-six boards, about two inches apart, placed slightly askew to allow for wind flow but to block the small back yard from the direct view of the casual passer-by. However, a careful observer, if he stops and takes the time to look, can see into the yard through the two-inch gaps.

An old man stands next to the fence.

A huge hole, about thirteen feet long, exists where the vertical boards are torn out. A stack of forty or fifty newly cut boards lay neatly stacked at the old man's feet; the old slats are piled haphazardly along the outside of the fence and on the graveled driveway, which dead ends at the gumball tree. The old man measures one of the cut boards between the two horizontal runners. It is at least two inches too short. It occurs to me, as it must occur to the old man that the stack at his feet must all be two inches too short.

I can see the back yard plainly through the hole in the fence. The old man is a gardener of sorts; I see tomato plants, and collard greens, and what looks like onions or garlic. The vegetable garden sits in the middle of the yard, probably to take advantage of whatever sun might get past his neighbor's oak tree and cedar fence. Tucked away in the corner of the yard is a flowerbed; I recognize a few sun-starved zinnias and marigolds. A small concrete patio fronts a sliding glass door. Two white, plastic chairs sit side by side and face the hole in the fence.

The old man looks to be in his seventies—baseball cap slightly askew, silky white hair shoots out from under it, furrowed face, frail body leans slightly forward. He scratches his head with thin, age-splotched hands; the cap teeters precariously on his slightly pointy head. There is a look of uncomprehending incredulity on his face, as if suddenly the laws of physics do not work anymore.

I want to stop and tell the old man that only a fool makes all his cuts without first making a workable model. Instead, I say, "Looks like you missed your mark" in my most neighborly tone.

The old man starts visibly. He gives me a wild, trapped look and then lowers his eyes.

"Yup," he says and shuffles away, still scratching his head.

The second day:

I walk by the old man's fence again. A rusted old Chevrolet is parked in the driveway. An extension cord runs from the pickup to the house. An old Black and Decker circular saw, plugged and ready to go, lies on its side upon the tailgate. The pickup bed is littered with carpentry tools: yardsticks, handsaws, hammers, a toolbox opened and filled with assorted nails and screws. A man, only slightly younger than the old man and wearing a leather tool belt, stands next to the hole in the fence. He holds one of the miss-measured slats and scratches his head, knocking his soiled baseball cap askew, revealing a shock of white hair against a dark skull. I can almost see his mind work.

The old man appears from inside the house. He nods to me as I go by and joins the carpenter. They stand together and stare at the board.

I imagine the conversation they must have as I continue on my way.

"The way I see it," the carpenter might say, "you have three choices."

"What are they?" the old man might ask.

"Number one: you could buy some more one by sixes and start all over again and use these boards for something else." He indicates the stack of miss-measured boards with his head.

"Number two?"

"Number two: you could tear down the fence and move those two by sixes closer together by two inches or so. You save your boards that way but it would involve a lot of work and you would end up paying me more, of course."

"And my last choice?"

"Your last choice: you could use the good parts of the boards you ripped out as extension pieces."

"Wouldn't that look like shit?"

"Yup, but it's the cheapest way out."

"How long would it take you?"

"The rest of the day."

The old man might hesitate a moment and then give the carpenter the go-ahead.

"Yup," the old man might say. "Might as well get started. Time is money."

The third day:

The old man stands in the lane and admires his rebuilt fence. A paintbrush drips green paint onto the gravel. The hole in the fence has been repaired. Each miss-measured board sports an extension riding piggyback on it. The effect is like the beginning of a domino tumble.

"I see you got it fixed," I say and stand next to the old man.

He looks at me a moment, perhaps wondering who I am and debating whether to strike up a conversation.

"Yup," he says finally.

"Looks like dominoes falling."

"Yup." The old man scratches his head. "It'll do," he adds after a while.

"Yup," I say and continue on my way.

The fourth day:

I pass by the fence again. The old man is not out, or perhaps the fence hides him; I can only catch brief glimpses into the yard between the slats as I walk by. I am in too much of a hurry to stop and look carefully.

Three months later:

The green fence is gone. It was there this morning, but it is no longer standing this afternoon. The house looks naked without it. The compost pile next to the garden is suddenly exposed. A cat scratches in the flowerbed. A pickup truck is parked on the lane near the scar where the fence used to be and a young man tosses slats into the truck. A flatbed truck with the name of a local lumber company is parked in the middle of the lane behind the pickup. Fresh new cedar boards are stacked on it. Two men carefully unload the boards onto the driveway. I look around for the old man, but he is nowhere in sight.

The next morning:

A small tractor with an auger hooked onto the rear end of it drills into the earth. A middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap and coveralls guides it carefully over brightly painted green X's on the grass. Fluorescent yellow and red arrows point out where telephone, gas, and water lines are placed. A young man, also wearing a baseball cap and coveralls, carefully places the four by four posts into the holes.

That afternoon:

The new fence is partially up already. The posts are in the ground and the two by four top and bottom runners are up and part of the inside slats are lined up and attached. The tractor is loaded on a trailer hooked behind a new model pickup truck: the auger is raised threateningly into the air. The young man holds a board up while the middle-aged man nails it up using an air gun. The boards have been carefully trimmed to accommodate the uneven ground. There are no spaces between the boards.

The next morning:

The interior slats are all up and part of the exterior is up. The backyard is no longer visible from the road. Only the worn roof is visible. The middle-aged man is busy hanging a gate which opens up onto the driveway, now an alleyway between fences. The young man steadies the gate for him.

That afternoon:

The fence is all done. It is a work of art, rising and falling beautifully with the lay of the yard. It runs from the back of the old man's house parallel with his neighbor's fence for about fifty feet. Then it right angles and follows the graveled lane for another sixty feet or so, parallel with the cedar fence across the lane before right angling again to about mid-house. Then it right angles again and runs about ten feet to come to rest against the house. The top of the fence is capped off with two by fours. There are two gates in the fence; one, which opens onto the driveway where a group of men is busily constructing a carport, and the other gate, opens up onto the front yard on the other side of the house. The gates are held up and closed with beautiful, antiquated, black hinges and locking hardware.

The next morning:

The plain white van with Southwest Windows and Siding stenciled across both sides is parked in the back lane. A small army of men is busy installing siding to the house. The carport is nearly finished.

That afternoon:

The siding people are still at work. A tree removal service has joined them. A large truck with a cherry picker bucket behind it is backed up against the gumball tree. A man wielding a chainsaw is cutting away at it. Painters and carpet cleaners are parked along the curb in front of the house. A van advertising hardwood floors is leaving.

Two weeks later:

I don't remember what the old man's house used to look like anymore. It has suddenly been transformed from an 'old house" to a sophisticated and modern "home."

The old man stands next to his fence, scratching his head. I have not seen him for a long time.

"Nice new fence," I say, crossing the street toward him. He starts and acknowledges me.

"Yup," he says. "House doesn't seem the same either."

I nod and walk on.

Three days later:

There's a real estate sign in the old man's front yard. I am almost tempted to ask to see the house. A red sports car is parked in the front driveway and a young businessperson talks earnestly with the old man. He notices me in the street and nods.

I nod back.

That afternoon:

I see the old man working in his front yard—pulling weeds out of a flowerbed. I tell him hello, and he stops what he is doing and looks up at me.

"Having any luck selling your house?" I say, trying to start a conversation.

The old man stands and dusts off his hands.

"Yup," he says. "Got this hot shot lawyer boy coming this afternoon to sign the papers."

I nod my head up and down for a moment and try to find something to say, but nothing comes to mind.

A week later:

The old man is gone. The real estate sign is gone. Someone sprayed the front yard and completely killed all the grass. I assume they are going to plant a new yard and in a few weeks, I will see a fresh new cover of perennial rye and Kentucky Blue grass. And once every two weeks or so, the lawn care truck will park on the curbside and spray fertilizer and poison to help the new grass along. I wonder how the back yard has changed behind the new fence, but I will never know. I see the lawyer's Mercedes parked in the driveway. He keeps it waxed and cleaned.

The house does not feel the same anymore, so I take to walking along another street.

The next day:

I imagine a conversation I might have had with the old man.

"I didn't want to sell," the old man says breaking the silence between us. "But after I put that new fence up, the old house didn't feel the same."

I nod to show him that I agree.

"Why did you put in the new fence?" I ask.

"My son and daughter-in-law suggested I do that. They said it would add value to my place. But once I started that, then it seemed logical to add the carport, and that led to the siding, which led to the new roof, which in turn led to cutting down the gumball and getting all that work done inside. Before I knew it, I didn't like my place anymore. That's when I decided to sell."

"I'm going to miss seeing your house on my way to work every day."

"Yup," the old man says.

I know that the conversation is faulty; the old man would never say so much.

I am startled from my reverie when a dog runs up to me and sniffs my legs. He is an Irish setter with long reddish brown fur, dark liquid eyes, and floppy ears. He acts somewhat stupid, as if he wants to please but doesn't quite know how. He looks up at me and wags his tail and his whole body wags with it. I drop to one knee and he nudges me with a wet nose. I grab his collar and take him to the old woman with thin silky white hair waiting on the curb.

"Thanks," she says. "He usually comes right back to me. I don't know why he's so excited this morning."

I admire the woman’s house. It is a dark red brick home with green wood trim. The house looks old, like it has been in this neighborhood for a long time. However, it does not look like the rest of the houses in the neighborhood; it is smaller and less modern. I ask the woman about it and indeed the house is old, over fifty years. It was one of the first houses on the street.

I tell her I like it and she thanks me.

There are no fences around her house—only a freshly painted white gate at the end of the front sidewalk. I like that too, and I imagine who could have come up with that concept.

The next day:

The dog comes out to meet me again. I scratch him behind the ear a moment or two and study the house. I try to imagine who first lived in it and what the neighborhood must have looked like. Then I start to build a story around the house, and I know that the story will grow each time I pass by it.

I look forward to the trip.

Houses talk to you. You can easily read the stories in the wallpaper you peel back, or the wood floors you sand, or the walls you tear down and rebuild. Give me an old house any day before a shiny new one. An old house has character; a new house has to live a while before it develops character.
David Alpha

Carpenter & Artist


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Tim L. Williams' Skull Fragments

If you are a fan of noir fiction, I can't think of a better book that you should read than Tim L. Williams' Skull Fragments. Tim has won awards for his stories, been included in the Best American Mystery Stories in 2004 and 2012, and has been published in such notable magazines as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Plots with Guns. A resident of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, he knows his setting and characters. What I found most exciting about Tim's stories was his attention to detail and his treatment of character. His plots were no powder puffs either.
Product Details
Skull Fragments
In the first story of the collection, "Where That Morning Sun Goes Down," two down-and-out, dope heads visit a Huddle House just off the Western Kentucky Parkway four days after they murdered a drug dealer and made off with his merchandise. Listen to how the narrator describes himself and Donny Ray, the other character: "There's dirt on my face and my clothes reek of body odor and beer sweat and the gasoline that we've been syphoning from cars all over the county. Donny Ray is just as bad, with his eyes bulging and his flannel shirt caked with mud and dead leaves. We look to be the kind that make decent people vote for law and order and consider buying a gun." Later, when the two characters receive their meals, the narrator describes them like this: "The food smells good, but the sight of those cataracted eggs and the smears of blood from the steak and the sheen of chili grease on the hash browns brings sour vomit to my throat." If you don't get the sense of the dark tone of this piece, then you haven't been reading. This is no Cinderella story.
These stories are harsh. You see the underbelly of a culture seldom available to outsiders. The characters live under the radar. They are the poor, the downtrodden, the murderers, the thieves, the physically and mentally broken, like the old man in "Promissory Notes" whose "skin is the color of a nicotine stain, his face bloated and twitching, his breath heavy with rot." You cringe at the evil they inflict on each other, and yet, you are fascinated by them, like the crash on the highway that you know you don't want to see, but can't help looking anyway.
For all the evil, grotesqueness, and horror in this collection, there is also love. Over and over, you see these fractured characters reach out to each other for support and love. In "The Last Wrestling Bear in West Kentucky," the narrator who abandoned his five-year-old son spends the evening with him as an adult son and thinks, "This is my son: a murderer, a knight errant to lost girls, a rescuer of maltreated bears, a grown man who has almost forgiven his wayward father." You can hear the admiration and pride in the words. In "Something about Teddy," Lennox, who is a traveling salesman and killer, can't stop thinking about his wife dying of cancer, even as he is in the middle of a murder. In all these stories, under the darkness and evil, there are connections between the characters that humanizes them. Yes, they do things that normal people wouldn't do, but this is not a "normal" world they live in.
In the end, this is a must-read collection of noir stories. For all their problems and foibles, these characters' determination and grit in the face of poverty and hopelessness is nothing short of heroic. Take Lennox, the traveling salesman, for example. He is a murderer and kills without conscience. Yet, in the story, he comes off almost as a hero. Killing for him is neat and tidy—no suffering. I am reminded of a hunter who looks for the kill shot to make sure the animal does not suffer. Don't let the shock and horror of these stories stop you. These characters are trying to survive in a world that does not want or understand them. You might even admire them for that.

___

Today, I am reviewing Tim L. Williams' Skull Fragments, a collection of short stories that I thoroughly enjoyed for the author's writing skills. He had me hooked from the first story, which sets the tone of very other stories that follows. I am eagerly anticipating seeing more of Tim's work. 


Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Owl or Why I Don't Hunt Anymore

My friend's six-year-old child asked me why I don't hunt.
I know her daddy does.  He owns a high-powered Russian designed, Chinese made, assault rifle that can drop a deer from a hundred yards away.  Of course, I've never really seen him kill an animal, but he is deadly with aluminum cans, plastic milk jugs, cardboard boxes, and paper targets.  I went with him recently to set the scope on his assault rifle. 
I asked him why he hunts.
"I like the taste of wild meat," he replied while trying to figure out whether to turn the horizontal screw on his scope up or down—the instructions were Russian, translated into Chinese, translated into English. "It goes deeper than that, though. I have this masculine urge to provide for my family. When I kill an animal and place it on the table, I get this incredible sense of accomplishment." He turned the screw up one full turn, sighted through the scope at a beer can about twenty-five yards away and slowly squeezed the trigger the way I have seen professionals do it on television. The bullet smashed into the dust about ten feet to the left of the beer can. The loud report startled me, and I pulled the earplugs from my jacket pocket and placed them in my ears—too late. My eardrums went numb and started buzzing. The strong gunpowder smell stirred something in me—I was reminded of Christmas and Fourth of July.
My friend cursed and took up the screwdriver again. I unplugged my ears to hear him better. This time he turned the screw two full turns down.
"At least when I kill something," my friend said. "I know where it came from and how it was prepared." He shot again before I had a chance to plug my ears. The bullet hit about ten feet to the right of the beer can.
***
I used to feel like my friend.
I was the friend of hunters, the cousin of hunters, the nephew of hunters, and the son of a hunter. I was the terror of Chataignier, where I grew up. No wild bird was safe from my BB gun. Cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, sparrows, and blue jays all fell before my BB barrage. Then one day, Momma saw me kill a cardinal and made me eat it. Cardinals are tough and rather tasteless, so I stopped killing them. When she made me eat whatever I killed, I became more selective. Mockingbirds tasted a lot like cardinals, so I stopped killing them, too. Blue jays were tough, unpalatable, and loud and spiteful, and although I felt that removing one from the earth was a good thing, I knew that if Momma found me with one, she would force me to eat it, so I stopped killing them, too. Robins were very tasty, but it was illegal to hunt them, and I couldn't chance the stiff fines they carried, so I tended to leave them alone unless the opportunity was one I could not pass up. That left sparrows, which were small but tasty, especially when cooked in a jambalaya with plenty of onion,garlic, and a generous helping of cayenne pepper. There was a certain satisfaction in knowing that what I was eating and enjoying was stalked, killed, and prepared by me.
***
My friend turned the horizontal screw back to where he had found it and turned the vertical screw a half turn to the right. He sighted through the scope and fired. The bullet ricocheted off the ground about ten feet beyond the target. He turned the screw a full turn to the left. The bullet slammed into the ground about ten feet before the target.
"These rifles are not very well made,” my friend said. “This is actually a Chinese copy of an excellently designed Russian assault rifle. It probably is not accurate at less than seventy-five yards." He popped out the clip and cleared the chamber. He placed the rifle on its side on the little table that acted as a shooting stand.
"Let's go set up some targets out at the hundred-yard mark."
"Where is that?" I asked. My ears had stopped buzzing, but they rang loudly now, over a distant rumbling.
"Out by the hill." He nodded with his head toward a large mound, the only protection the park goers had against assault rifles and pistols. I followed him through the smoky autumn mist. I could just hear the cars whizzing by on highway 65 about two hundred yards behind us. A lone Mocking bird bravely perched on a branch above the hill and whistled a tune, which played well with the ringing and rumbling in my ears.
*** 
When I turned too old for the BB gun, I moved up to a .22 caliber rifle.
The sparrows breathed a collective sigh of relief because now I was after bigger game, squirrels. I must have killed, skinned, and eaten hundreds of squirrels in those two years I owned that rifle. My favorite ways to fix squirrel was stewed and jambalaya. I was proud to be providing meat for my family. My mother loved squirrel meat and often called me the little provider.
***
My friend set up two plastic milk jugs, a plastic bleach bottle, and a life size cardboard target in the shape of a man riddled with bullet holes against the hill. Then we marched back to the stand and the waiting rifle.
"The reason I like this little gun is because the barrel and the stock are short. It's not as accurate as the original Russian design, but it allows me to move around freely in the underbrush and that's important when you're out there in the thick of it, hunting deer. The difference between a freezer filled with venison and an empty one is often that split second between sight and shot."
He picked up his rifle and pushed in the clip. I plugged up my ears. He fired five times, carefully squeezing the trigger. After he was done, he pulled out a pair of binoculars and sighted toward the targets.
"Nothing. Not even a nick." He paused and stared off at the hill with his naked eyes. "Maybe if I think like a Chinese," he mused. "After all, they read and write differently than Westerners."
***
What finally changed my mind about hunting was the owl.
Charles shot it when it surprised us as we crossed through the old cemetery between a rice field and a soybean field. We were already nervous enough about being in the old cemetery, and when it suddenly materialized among the gnarly moss-covered oaks with ghostly silence, we thought for sure the spirits had come to haunt us. Charles reacted first. He shot from the hip; his twelve-gauge shotgun reverberated loudly through the trees. He winged the owl, and it dropped to the ground a few feet beyond us. The bird gathered itself and stood up. It stared at us and hissed loudly. The broken wing hung useless at its side. I tried to help it, but it wouldn't let me past its sharp beak and claws.
"Let it be," Charles said throwing a small stick at the wounded bird. "It's just a stupid owl." He turned and stomped away.
I stayed behind. I knew the owl would not survive the day and would suffer miserably if I didn't do something. I stared into its dark eyes set deep in its heart-shaped face and tried to decide.
The owl did a strange thing. It moved its head back and forth several times and gave a long wheezy cry. I raised my shotgun up to my shoulder and sighted at the owl's lightly spotted chest. I squeezed the trigger slowly like I had seen the professionals do on television. The owl stood still and waited. It blinked once. When the shotgun went off, the recoil and the report nearly caused me to drop the gun. I took the owl's limp body and gently lowered it in one of the caved-in graves. I stood over the broken tomb and mused at what I had done.
For the first time in my hunting history, I had allowed an animal to communicate something to me, and sadness and regret washed over me like water.
***
My friend finally figured out the scope on his assault rifle. The vertical screw controlled the horizontal sighting. The horizontal screw controlled the vertical sighting.
"Backwards."
My friend shot twenty more rounds, and toward the end, he was hitting the targets regularly. He offered the rifle to me, and I fired off five rounds. I felt a thrill in the smell of gunpowder, in the recoil of the assault rifle, in the ear-shattering report of the explosion, at the sight of the round tearing through the shoulder of a man-size target. I handed my friend his assault rifle back—the adrenalin forcing my hands to shake—and thanked him.
***
I hunted a few times after I killed the owl.
But each time I killed, it took me longer and longer to pull the trigger, until one cold winter morning I came face to face with a magnificent buck with shrewd old eyes that seemed to pierce my soul. I raised the brand new assault rifle I had just purchased to my shoulder and slowly squeezed the trigger. I imagined the bullet ripping into his chest until it tore through his still beating heart, and I could not squeeze anymore.
I returned the rifle the next day. I had not fired a round from it.
***
"Why don't you hunt?" my friend's child asked me once we returned.
I don't know. I like the smell of gunpowder. I like the thrill of the hunt. I like the taste of wild meat, especially in jambalaya.
Why don't I hunt? Because to do it right, one has to slowly squeeze the trigger and that gives me too much time to think about what I'm doing. But I didn't tell her that. I don't think she would have understood. I know her father wouldn't have.
"I don't hunt because I don't own a gun."

That made sense to her.
___

I wrote this many years ago, and although I have not hunted in all that time, I have nothing against someone killing an animal for food. However, I do not condone trophy killing. Not hunting is a personal preference, and I have never regretted my decision. I love fishing, though--the quiet, solitary, patient process of it—and I do so whenever I have the chance.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Chicken Stew (Cajun Style)

Sunday at my house was chicken day.  As long as I can remember, Momma would cook chicken on Sunday.  She would stew the chicken more often than not.  We always ate it over rice.  Momma would serve a simple coleslaw made with a little vinegar, salt and black pepper.  She also usually cooked up a green bean dish to go along with the stew.

1 stewing chicken cut up
½ cup oil (Canola is good but I usually use olive oil.  I’ve tried using a little less oil, but you’ll
            need every drop of it for the roux.
3 tbs flour
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 small bell pepper chopped
2 fresh cayenne peppers (You can use any kind of pepper with heat here.  Just remember that           different peppers taste different and pack different amounts of heat.)
4-6 mushrooms, chopped
2 cups chicken broth or stock
2 or 3 medium potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
¼ cup onion tops or shallots, chopped
2 tbs parsley or cilantro, chopped (I use cilantro, but it is an acquired taste and not a part of the
Cajun diet.)


Heat the oil.  While it is heating, season the chicken.  (I use a little salt, black pepper and ground cayenne pepper.  Add the chicken to the hot oil and brown.  Remove the chicken and set aside.  (I usually let is drain on a paper towel or two.)  Add the flour to the oil/drippings and stir constantly until browned.  (That’s your roux and I like it about a tan color for chicken stew.)  Lower the heat and add the onion, celery, bell pepper, and cayenne peppers to the roux.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the onion is translucent.  Add the chopped mushrooms and cook about one or two minutes more, until mushrooms look cooked.  Add the broth, potatoes, and return the chicken.  Cover and simmer for two or three hours.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.  Add parsley and onion tops about five minutes before serving.  Serve over hot rice with coleslaw and green beans on the side.  A beer or glass of white wine goes good with this.  C’est bon.

Leave a comment if you've got a different version or you do something different. You can bet I'll try it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Searching for Lilith


Searching for Lilith: A Cajun PI Series by [Roy, Jude]

When part time Criminal Justice teacher and detective, John Legrand, answers chemistry teacher, Zack Miller's phone call wanting him to find his daughter Lilith, missing for over twenty years, he figures it will be a simple missing person case. However, it is anything but simple. John traces Sandy Miller, Zack's wife, to post-Katrina New Orleans and learns that Sandy is in Houston. The only problem is that she recently died in a house fire. Sandy's daughter has disappeared, but is she really Zack's daughter, or is she the offspring of Sandy and Anthony Wates, an attorney working for drug kingpin, Carlos Garza? John finds out that Annie Wates, Sandy's daughter is in Springfield, Missouri. He arrives just as Garza's sniper tries to kill her and her new friend, Tyler Royston. Unbeknownst to Annie she possesses information that could destroy Anthony and possibly Carlos too.
LeGrand has only one choice. He has to save the two kids, and the only way to do that is to lure the killers to his turf, where he plans to set a trap. But will it work?
Searching for Lilith takes you on a rollercoaster ride from Ellisonville, Louisiana to New Orleans, Houston, Springfield, Missouri, and back to Ellisonville. It is filled with mystery, suspense, and budding love affairs.

I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

God is Cajun

When Jessie was three years old, she asked me if there was a god because Eddie, our neighbor's seven-year-old, had told her that God was everywhere, watching her, and would punish her if he saw her doing anything wrong. At three years old, Jessie was a precocious young girl, and I could see that this information troubled her. I would have to consider my answer carefully.
"Yes," I told her. "Eddie is right."
Her eyes widened, and she looked around nervously.
"Why can't I see him?" she asked in a tiny voice.
"But you can," I said. "Look around you. There are signs of God everywhere."
She looked around again, curious this time.
"I still don't see him," she said, disappointed.
"What are you looking for?"
"God, silly daddy." She placed her hands on her hips and thrust them forward, a mannerism she inherited from her great-grandfather on her mother's side.
"What does God look like?" I prodded, trying to remember she was only three years old.
"Eddie said he was a big man with long white hair, a long white beard, and eyes blue like the sky." She paused. "That's what he said."
"See anybody like that around here?"
"No, silly daddy."
"He would stand out, wouldn't he?"
"Stand out where?"
"Never mind," I said, regretting my small attempt at levity. This was a serious matter for her, and I needed to handle it with all the dignity and compassion I could muster.
"Honey, if Eddie believes that God is big, white-haired, and blue-eyed, that's his prerogative."
"His what?"
"His right. His choice. Eddie probably believes that because he is a boy with blond hair and blue eyes. People tend to picture God as someone who has the same features as them. Some people believe God is a woman."
Like Momma?"
"Uh, huh, and like you're going to be."
She was silent for a moment. Her face reflected the struggle her young mind was going through trying to deal with the information I had just given her—arched eyebrows; furrowed forehead.
"Daddy?"
"Yes?"
"How can God be both a woman and a man?"
"Some people believe God is nothing more than an idea."
"Huh?"
"That God is not man or woman or black or white or whatever—that God is all of these."
This was too much for her. She rolled her eyes heavenward and collapsed on the soft grass at our feet. I hunkered down next to her.
"I don't understand, Daddy."
"Put your hand on your chest. What do you feel?"
"Nothing," she said.
"Concentrate. What's going on inside your body?"
"I can feel my heart beating. Ka thump. Ka thump. Ka thump."
"Good. What else?"
"Nothing, Daddy."
"Concentrate. Look down at your hand. What's happening?"
She stared at her hand.
"It's moving up and down."
"Why?"
"Cause I'm breathing."
"Exactly. Your heart is beating and you are breathing. What does that mean?"
She thought for a while.
"I don't know, Daddy."
"Think hard."
I watched her struggle for a few moments.
"I really don't know, Daddy."
"That's all right. It means you are alive. Some people believe that God is the essence of life."
"Huh?"
"God is the beat of your heart; the rush of air in your lungs; the blood coursing through your veins. So when you look at yourself, or me, or Momma, or your baby brother, you are seeing signs of God."
She looked at me, her sky-blue eyes searching mine carefully.
"That's not all, though." She rolled her eyes again. I smiled. "You see signs of God everywhere you see life: in the air that moves that old oak tree by the barn there; in the oak tree itself; in my chickens, in Eddie's goat; in the very grass at your feet."
"In Eddie, too?"
"Now you're getting the idea. Yes, in Eddie's blue eyes and blond hair."
"So Eddie was right? God is everywhere?"
"Yes. God is everywhere."
She hesitated.
"Can God punish, too, like Eddie said?"
"Yes, God can punish, too." Her eyes widened. "If you don't take care of your body, it won't work right. That's punishment of sorts. If you do not take care of the trees, the animals, the air, the water, and the life that courses over and through the earth, you won't have those things, and that's the worst punishment of all. So Eddie was right, Honey. God can punish."
My daughter sat and thought for a long while after that. I imagined that she was assimilating the information I had given her and trying to make sense of it all. Some questions I hoped she would not ask because I don't think I could have answered them. She would have to grow up and find her own answers. All I could do at this stage was show her that any question about God elicited many more questions, and that like all questions and answers, everything depended on who was asking and who was answering.
After a while, she looked up at me, her blue eyes reflecting the life around us.
"Daddy, is God Cajun?"
"Certainment, ma petite," I said and hugged her tightly. "It could never be any other way."
She laughed and struggled playfully against my grasp.
The world was right again.


Today is Jessie's birthday, and I thought I would revisit an essay I wrote when she was three years old. She's a woman now, an intelligent and caring woman, and I'm sure that her god is as proud of her as I am. A version of this essay appeared in The Eclectic Journal, November 1997.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Herbie Hodge

Herbie Hodge

I watched one episode of the television show "Survivors because a colleague told me it was good. These people were not survivors. I knew a real survivor and believe me these television actors were not survivors. Herbie Hodge would have put them all to shame.
On May 13, 1945, just after noon on the island of Okinawa, Sergeant Herbert Hodge lay blind, almost dead, under the blistering Okinawa sun. Seven slugs from a Japanese .31 caliber machine gun pierced his mangled body. He listened to the prayers of the wounded and dying who lay shot next to him and heard their frantic cries for corpsmen. He ached to help them but he couldn't see or move; his left arm was shattered and he was bleeding from seven different holes in his upper torso.
The corpsmen finally reached him. Herbie was lifted onto a jeep and driven away. The strain and loss of blood caused him to go into a coma on the trip to the navy hospital. He remained in a coma for eight days
The navy doctor did a cursory visual examination of Herbie and shook his head. His recommendation: shoot Herbie full of morphine and let him die painlessly.
Fortunately for Herbie, a corpsman friend of his on the scene did not accept the doctor's diagnosis. He found a jeep and drove a few miles to a hospital further up the road where an army captain promised to try to save Herbie’s life, but he was doubtful.
Herbie lost his left arm that day in 1945, but he was alive.
The matronly nurse at the army hospital would not leave Herbie alone. She scolded him when he began to pity himself. She spoon-fed him. She changed his cloths and made his bed. There was no room for self-pity in her hospital. She literally forced him to start living again. She was as instrumental as the army captain and the corpsman were in saving Herbie's life.
When I knew Herbie, he worked as the supervisor of the Veteran Representatives on Campus for the Massachusetts area located on the fourth floor of Boston’s John F. Kennedy Building. He was a GS-11. After he left the marines in 1947, he started as a messenger for the VA Hospital at 17 Court Street, Boston. His main duty was carrying medical folders from floor to floor in the multi-storied building. He was a CPC-1, the lowest government designation. After a couple of years in that position, he became an information receptionist in the Contact Division, a GS-3 position. After that, it was all uphill.
Herbie had been close to death at least a half dozen times. He’d been through four beachheads. He earned three purple hearts, one Bronze Star, and one Silver Star. In 1963, Herbie was struck with a kidney malfunction, which hospitalized him. While in the hospital he also contracted staph pneumonia. His condition was so critical that the last rites were administered to him.
Herbie laughed and joked about his brushes with death. He accepted death for what it was: an unwelcomed guest, but a guest none-the-less. Herbie did not worry about dying. His philosophy was that life was predestined. Nothing you did would change what God had in store for you.
A standard joke of Herbie's was to pretend to small gullible minds that he lost his arm in a revolving door of a USO building while chasing a nurse. His humor and easy-going nature made him a favorite in the Veterans Services Office. People just naturally took to him.
Herbie was not petty, vindictive, or bitter. If you asked him if he was a survivor, he would answer in pure humility that there was a determined corpsman, a talented doctor, and a tough old nurse somewhere who deserved all the credit.
All he did was live.


I don't remember exactly when I wrote this, but it must have been when I was living and going to school in Boston, MA. Herbie Hodge worked in the VA office there and reveled me with his stories. I don't know if his unwelcomed guest visited him again or not, but I know that I am a better person for knowing him.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Lighted Windows

Lighted Windows
I wrote a collection of short stories, Lighted Windows, about a boy growing up in the fifties and sixties in a small community in south central Louisiana. The people who populate the area, mostly prairie Cajuns, are honest—for the most part—hardworking, and persevering. The boy narrator in the collection soaks up their stories like the rich prairie soil soaks up the rain.
I started the collection in the late seventies in a sophomore creative writing class at USL, now the University Louisiana Lafayette. My professor was John Sherrill Fontenot, a wonderful man, who saw some merit in my writing and introduced me to Herb Fackler, the director of the creative writing program at the time. In my senior year at USL, I believe it was, I had the great good fortune to take classes with Ernest Gaines and, with his encouragement and guidance, had several of my stories published in The Southern Review.
By this time, I had read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, a string of interconnected stories taking place in a single setting, and it blew me away. However, it was not until I read Faulkner's The Unvanquished that I realized what I wanted to do with my collection—write a series of interconnected stories told from the point of view of the boy, have it take place in a single setting, and make it read like a novel.
After I graduated from USL with an MA in English, I enrolled at George Mason University and studied writing under Richard Bausch and Alan Cheuse. I learned as much as I could from those two talented and respected writers and moved on.
Lighted Windows: A Collection of Short Stories by [Roy, Jude]The first story in the collection, which also acts as the prologue, is entitled "The Three Indians." A storyteller family friend answers a question posed by the boy's mother about the importance of storytelling by relating a story about three Native Americans. The tale sticks with the boy and as the collection progresses, he relates his struggles with language, religion, culture, death, segregation, and sex, among others. The collection ends with an epilogue where the same storyteller tells a tale about how he befriended his dog in "Clio's Story." The story serves as an end to the boy's journey and the beginning of a new one.
About half of the stories in the collection are set on the father's sharecropped farm, and then move to the small community of Serpentville (French pronunciation) named after the lazy bayou that snakes past the tiny village. The early stories are all about the boy gaining self-awareness. Once his family moves into the town, they deal with his awareness of those around him and their influences on him.
Each story is a step into the boy's maturity and development. Each story builds onto the next until they reach the inevitable end.
I worked long and hard on this collection, and my only motive was to share a piece of the unique culture in which I grew up. I hope you read it, and I hope it speaks to you in some way.

Thank you.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mrs. Soileau

Because of my Cajun background, I struggled through school. I would sit at the back of my classrooms and barely listen to the teachers. I believe that was the first time I tried to create a story. I do not remember the specifics of it, but I do remember being very proud of it. At recess, I tried to relate it to Lee Ray and Garrett, but it did not come out right—I had forgotten all the exciting details. If I could find a way to lock the words in my head as soon as they flashed by, I would be able to tell a great story. Of course, that was impossible for me.
All that changed in the fifth grade.
Mrs. Fruge, my fifth grade teacher, liked to take us to the library once a week.
Shelves divided our school library in half: juvenile books in front for elementary students; more mature-minded books in back guarded by the librarian’s desk. Mrs. Soileau was the librarian. She was a stout woman with salt and pepper hair and reading glasses on a bulldog face. I hated the library, the dusty, musty smell of it. I hated how inadequate I felt around all those books that I could not read very well.
I hated Mrs. Soileau, also. She was the keeper of the books and the knowledge that seemed to escape me.
The first time Mrs. Soileau ever talked to me, aside from shushing me, was my second library visit.
She saw me browsing through the easy to read section.
She asked in her soft librarian voice that disturbed nobody, what I was interested in.
I was irritated that she had picked me to talk to, but I told her that I was interested in cowboys, Indians, and soldiering.
She led me to a shelf in the junior reading section. I tried to explain to her that I could not read on a junior level, but she did not listen. She reached over and pulled down a blue book from the shelf, a biography of Davey Crockett, and handed it to me.
I took the book to a table and opened it. At first, I was apprehensive, but as I read, the book caught and held my interest. It contained everything I enjoyed: Indians, hunting, and fighting. Although I had some problems with the vocabulary, I understood nearly everything. At the end of the study period, I asked Mrs. Soileau if I could check it out. She lowered her reading glasses and smiled.
Halfway through the school year, Mrs. Soileau called me down. I had read every one of the blue biographies, so I had nothing to do. Lee Ray and I were teasing Garrett because he had spent a valuable first recess talking to Kay. I would poke Lee Ray in the ribs, and we would giggle.
Mrs. Soileau barked my name, and I shuffled over to her desk. She glared at me over her reading glasses.
After a brief lecture on the sanctity of the library, she stood up from the desk and led me to the shelves against the rear wall. She pulled down a book and handed it to me.
I read the title, Tom Sawyer.
I returned to a little table away from Garrett and Lee Ray and started reading the book. At first, I found it difficult, but as I ventured further into the novel, I found it easier to read.
Tom Sawyer was the secret I had been looking for—put the story in writing as it occurs to you, and it would always be there for you. That evening I rushed home from school with my prize, unlocked the door to Mark Twain's mind, and found a wonderful world there. When I finished the book, I rushed to my desk and started the first of many pages of writing.
I am eternally grateful to Mrs. Soileau. Without her, I may have found Mark Twain anyway, but who knows if I would have found the key. I became one of Mrs. Soileau's special library visitors after that. She introduced me to more of Mark Twain and other writers as well: Jack London, Edgar Allen Poe, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a host of others.
"I want to be a writer," I told her once when I was in the eight grade.
She lowered her reading glasses, and with misty bulldog eyes, she winked at me.


This essay first appeared, read by me, on WKMS, a National Public Radio affiliate.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Mighty Good Man

I have this recurring nightmare. I am riding on a train. The clack clack sounds of the wheels are loud. Now and again, I hear the mournful wail of the train whistle. I look through the window to see the scenery, but all I see is blackness. Out of the blackness, I see my reflection looking in at me. Then it changes and it becomes the face of my dead father. I always wake up then, surprised at how strong the ties are, even after all these years.
***
My memories of my father are almost all happy ones.

Daddy was a poor man, a sharecropper, who found moments in his miserable existence to create laughter and happiness for his children. He had no transportation except the mules and the wagon and Daddy never hooked them up to go to town—he felt it was a waste of mule power. Instead, he walked the three or four miles along the gravel road whenever he needed to buy groceries for the family. Then he would hitch a ride back on Monsieur Aguillard's school bus, his grocery bags stacked neatly on the front seat like obedient students. Daddy unloaded the groceries at the end of our lane, stacked them along the ditch and made as many trips as needed up and down the lane, about a half-mile each way, until all the bags were in the house and stored away.

Madeline and I always met him at the gate to our yard, tugging at his pants pockets, wanting to know what treat he had bought us, and his answer was always the same: "Un petit rien tout neuf (a little nothing brand new)."

"Aw, Daddy," we would say and reach inside the pockets of his khakis for that special little bonbon he always had for us.

However, Daddy was not beyond a practical joke. On one such occasion, he must have found a king snake along the gravel road and slipped it in his pocket. When my sister and I asked him what he had gotten us he said, "Un serpent."

"Aw, Daddy," we said and reached into his pants pocket. To our utter shock and surprise, our fingers did not close around the familiar foil-covered bonbons, but rather a cold, coiled, scaly snake. My father laughed long and hard at our reaction.

While we sucked on the bonbons he produced from his shirt pocket, he showed us how harmless the king snake was. He told us that some people were so afraid of snakes that they killed any snake they saw, even the harmless ones like the king snake and the garter snake. After that, my sister and I developed a healthy respect for snakes and Daddy's pockets.
***
Daddy was a sensitive man who listened to Madeline and me and treated us with compassion and respect. I told Daddy once that I was not sure I believed in God.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because he never gives me the things I ask him for," I whined. "Almost all the other kids in school have nice new things except me."

Daddy told me that my mistake was thinking of God as a wishing well. By wishing for the things I did not have, I was ignoring the things I did have.

"Enjoy and be thankful for what God has given you," he said. "And God will provide what you need." When he saw my skepticism, he used himself as an example. He told me that if he chose to focus on the things he did not have, his list would be a long one: money, security, property, education, fancy clothing. On the other hand, if he chose to focus on the things he did have, the list would be equally as long: family, love, respect of his friends and neighbors. He pointed out that while he did not have money, he had the bayous and woods and the soil to feed him. While he did not have property, he had the good fortune to have Monsieur Alcide Manuel for whom to farm. While he did not have education and could not read books, he knew how to read the weather, the soil, and his crops. While he did not have fancy clothing, he had functional clothing. If he spent all his time asking God to provide him with all the things he did not have, he would not have time to enjoy his family, and that, he said, was his main blessing.

"Don't be so demanding," Daddy told me. "Give God a chance to enjoy himself. He needs a little time with his family, too."
***
Daddy was right, of course. He believed that the world worked along commonsense lines. If it rained, the crops grew. If it did not rain, the crops died. Everything followed a similar pattern in his view, and what did not was merely packaging or frills.

When I brought home a failing spelling-test paper from Mrs. Miller, my mother wanted to know why I failed the test.

"Because," I told her. "The spelling rules in the American language don't make sense." I used the word island as an example. When Mrs. Miller called out the word, she pronounced it "eye land" not "is land." So I spelled it "eyeland;" the way it sounded. Mrs. Miller marked it wrong.
 
Daddy said that although he did not read or write, what I was saying seemed to make sense to him. Momma, who had gone all the way to the seventh grade, told him that there were rules in English grammar that did not make sense, and the only thing to do was to memorize them.

"Then they ought to change the rules," my father grumbled, but not too loudly. When it came to matters of school, Daddy always yielded to Momma's experience. It just made sense.
***
Daddy believed that education, tempered with a little common sense, was the measure of a man. When I failed the first grade, Daddy was visibly shaken.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because I don't understand enough American."

"How can we fix that?" he asked.

"I don't know," I told him. "I don't want to learn American. I want to talk Cajun like you."

"Let me tell you what I learned about mules," he said. "Mules have to pull a plow. They have no choice in the matter. They know it and I know it. But if you get in front of a mule and try to lead her, she will make your life pure hell. If you get behind a mule and let her do the leading, she will pull your plow from now until kingdom come and ask very little in return. Now, it seems to me you're trying to lead that mule where she doesn’t want to go. It seems to me you would be better off behind the plow, letting that teacher of yours do all the work. Don't you think?"

"But I don't want to learn American," I repeated.

"Stubbornness is part of being mule, son. It doesn’t become you at all. If you're going to plow, and you got no choice in the matter, you might as well learn everything you can about the soil, the plow, and the mule pulling the plow." As if he were underscoring what he was saying, Daddy gave me the reins, and I stumbled along behind the plow up one row and down another until he took over from me, a smile playing on his lips.

The next year I passed the first grade. I still did not like to talk American, but I had learned to work with it.
***
Daddy believed that if a thing needed done, it should be done immediately, and you should persevere until it was done completely and properly. Since Daddy was a sharecropper, he could ill-afford to hire workers to pick his cotton. He depended on himself and his family to help harvest the crops. I think it was the year before Daddy stopped sharecropping when he woke up to a dreary overcast day. He was sick, barely able to walk. Even Daddy's strong black coffee did not seem able to get him going.

"You look sick," Momma told him. "Why don't you stay home?"

"It's going to rain," Daddy said matter-of-fact as if he were explaining something to a child. "If it rains, the cotton won't be worth a plug nickel. Sick or not, that cotton's got to come in. I'll save what I can."

"At least keep the boy from school." I already knew what Daddy would say.

"He needs his schooling. Let him go to school. He can help this afternoon if it doesn't rain." He gave a small wave of his hand. That meant he was through discussing the matter.

When I returned home that afternoon, I quickly peeled off my school clothes, put on my work clothes, and ran across the cotton rows to help Daddy. I found him in the middle of the field, burning with fever, muttering to himself. He told me that he sure wished it would rain, so he could stop. He didn't sound like himself, so I ran back and told Momma and, together, we helped him home. Momma told Madeline what to do for Daddy, and she and I took over where he left off.

That night it rained a terrible storm, and whatever cotton left unpicked in the field was soaked and knocked to the ground. Daddy never talked about it much, but I recognized the appreciation in his eyes when he thanked Momma and me for helping him. The next year, Daddy told Monsieur Alcide that he was done sharecropping, and he went to work for Monsieur Courville's lumberyard for $4.00 a day.

"It's not much money," I heard him tell Momma. "But at least I get paid come rain or shine."
***
Daddy did everything with such enthusiasm and application that people often overlooked the careful thought he put into the things he did. Even when he was at play, he used his commonsense. He played hard, and sometimes rough, but he was never afraid to accept the consequences of his actions. It was a characteristic others admired and respected in him.

It was one of the characteristics Monsieur Hampton Fontenot, Daddy's first employer and friend, admired most about him.

Long after Daddy died, I visited Chataignier and met Monsieur Hamp in Gaçon's Saloon. Monsieur Gaçon had cooked up a sauce piquant, and the small barroom was smoky and crowded with men, mostly farmers straight out of the field. A small crowd gathered around the poker table. When someone told Monsieur Hamp who I was, he placed an arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the bar. He ordered me a beer.

"Damn if you aren't the spitting image of your daddy," he said in Cajun. "You even walk like him." He slapped me on the back. "Have a beer. There's no way defunt Loy's boy is going to sit with me and not have a drink." He was silent a while—a moment of respect, I knew.

"Your daddy was a mighty good man," he said seriously. "He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. I seen people take advantage of him because of his goodness. But there was another side to him, too."

"There was?" I asked. I wanted him to keep talking about my daddy. Apparently, there was no danger of him stopping. He ordered two more beers. I had not taken more than two drinks out of the first one.

"You know, your daddy was sort of a rascal, too." Monsieur Hamp chuckled. "Oh yeah, he was. He ever tell you about his big night in Ville Platte?"

"No, sir."

Monsieur Hamp chuckled again.

"He went to Snook's, I believe it was. The music was loud—in those days, the music was live—not like those newfangled jukeboxes, they got now a days. When that accordion mixes with the alcohol in your blood, the world is a devil-may-care place, yeah. Your daddy got the hots for this little dark-haired woman swaying to the music in front of the band. He walked behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned around, he got a hold of her wrist and led her out on the dance floor."

Monsieur Hamp told me how Daddy danced with the woman three or four dances in a row before her husband or boyfriend showed up.

"That fellow pulled her out of your daddy's arms and flung her across the dance floor. She slid on her butt and slammed into the stage. Then he turned to your daddy and told him to meet him outside.

"Your daddy felt like he hadn't done anything wrong, so he walked out. That fellow was leaning against an old rusted-out Chevrolet pickup, twirling this nasty-looking pistol on his finger. Your daddy usually carried a little snubbed nose .38 in his waist, but when he reached for it, it slid down his pants leg and into his boots." Monsieur Hamp laughed.

"There was nothing he could do. He couldn't reach down to get it, or that fellow would've shot him dead for sure. So your daddy straightened himself up."

Daddy was not a tall man, five six or seven at the most, but when he squared his shoulders and pierced you with his blue eyes, he could be the tallest man in the world.

"He told that fellow that if he was going to use that pistol, he'd better do it quick, cause if he didn't, your daddy was going to take it away from him and pistol whip him to near death. Then your daddy started walking, slow, one step in front of the other, like he was measuring the distance between them. With every step your daddy took, that fellow's eyes got wider and wider. When your daddy was about five feet away from him, that fellow up and bolted like a frightened buck." Monsieur Hamp paused and stared into his beer. It was his story, and he was obviously enjoying telling it. After a long pause, he looked up with a huge grin on his face.

"You know what your daddy told me? You know what that SOB said to me?" I shook my head. "He said, 'Hamp there was exactly twenty-five and a half steps between me and that fellow.'" Mr. Hamp laughed hard then. "Twenty-five and a half steps. The son-of-a-bitch was measuring the distance between them. You get it?"

"Yes," I said. "If you're busy counting out distance, you won't have much time to think about the other guy's pistol."

"Damn if you aren't your daddy's boy all right," he said. "He wasn't no ordinary man, your daddy," he said with admiration. "The man counts his steps right into the barrel of a gun." He shook his head as if he still couldn't believe it, even after all those years.

Monsieur Hampton bought me many beers that evening, and he told me many stories about how brave and daring my father was, but I already knew about Daddy's bravery. I had seen it before.
***
When I was about ten years old, and we lived for Monsieur Courville behind Mr. Yo's Saloon, we were awakened by a commotion one night—several men shouted angrily and excitedly at each other. Daddy walked out on the porch, and I followed closely behind him. Two men surrounded by a small crowd faced each other over the barrel of a shotgun. The people in the circle were yelling at the man with the shotgun not to shoot.

"Don't kill him," they yelled. "He ain't worth it."

The man on the wrong end of the shotgun stood still as stone. I could see the sweat gleam on his face under the dusk to dawn light from where I was, at least fifty feet away.

Daddy shoved me back. 

"Go in the house," he said and jumped off the porch. Instead, I followed him and hid behind the short fence that separated us from the saloon.

Daddy did not hesitate. He walked right in front of the shotgun until the barrel nearly touched his forehead.

"You don't want to pull that trigger," Daddy said, his voice soft and heavy in the humid air. The man behind the gun blinked twice. Daddy took the gun from him and broke it open. He placed the shells in his pocket and returned the gun to the man.

"Damn," Daddy told the group afterwards over a pint of TNT Concord wine. "I was dead sure he didn't have any shells in that shotgun. I guess I was wrong." Everybody laughed nervously. I sneaked back into the house before Daddy noticed I had not obeyed him.
***
Daddy was not afraid to reveal his vulnerable side either. He was an orphan abandoned as an infant by his Irish immigrant parents in New York City and shipped to Opelousas, Louisiana along with a trainload of other boy infants to be adopted by Louisiana farmers—boys made good farm hands. Felix Roy from around Arnaudville adopted Daddy, but Daddy ran away at twelve and went to work in the fields. Every New Year's Eve, he would get crying drunk and pine for his real parents.

"I never knew my mother," he would cry as Momma tried to get him in bed. "Never felt her arms around me. I never knew my mother." He would say this over and over again while Momma sat quietly by his side gently patting him on the back like she did to me whenever I had a nightmare.
***
Usually, Daddy's drinking was a much more controlled ritual. Sometimes my parrain, my godfather, would come for a visit with my father. He always brought a fifth of bourbon, and Daddy would get three chairs, two glasses, a tray of ice, and a pitcher of water. They would sit opposite each other and place the set-up on the chair between them. They would start drinking straight shots with water chasers. Then at some point, they switched to drinks, bourbon and ice water. The conversation seemed as ritualistic as the bourbon drinking, stories about what had been happening to them and to others they both knew. Then the conversation would switch to politics and usually end with stories reliving old memories. I remember sitting in the shadows and listening to them tell stories and wanting so badly for there to be a fourth chair. I was too young. I knew that someday, with the passage of time, I would be a part of the ritual, but I would have to wait.
***
I never did get to "share the bottle" with Daddy—he died before I had the chance.

When he passed out at the cotton gin, and they took him to the charity hospital in Lafayette, we had no idea how sick he was. Lung cancer the doctors told him—he would have to go to the charity hospital in New Orleans for an operation. When he returned, Daddy looked like the pictures I had seen in my school history book of Jewish survivors at Auschwitz. Even then, we thought he would survive. No mere little disease could keep him down. He would deal with it the same way he dealt with anything else—sensibly and head on.
***
The day Daddy fell and hit his head against the television is the day he gave up. That night I heard him crying.

"I don't want to die," he said repeatedly. Momma sat on the bed beside him and gently patted him on the back.

"It's all right," she said over and over again, tears filling her eyes.

A few weeks later, I found him—blank eyes staring at the ceiling. After I got Monsieur Courville to call the priest, I hid in the outhouse and cried—it was the most private place I could find. After a while, I heard a soft knock on the door. I opened it. The same man who had been on the wrong end of the shotgun stood in front of me.

"Come out," he said in a mixture of Creole and Cajun. "Your papa wouldn't want you to be crying so much." I opened the outhouse door, and I noticed the front yard was filled with people, mostly black men who had known Daddy. "Your papa was a mighty good man. He treated folks with respect." The man slipped me a dollar bill. "Use that to make somebody happy. That's what your papa would of wanted."

I used the dollar bill to buy my little sister a fake plastic watch. On the way home from the burial in the back seat of my Uncle Alvin's car, I watched my sister play quietly and happily with the watch, and a feeling of accomplishment and peacefulness came over me.

"This is the happiest day of my life," I said without thinking.

"What are you talking about?" my uncle asked angrily from the front seat. I tried to explain, but the words tumbled out all wrong. I kept thinking that Daddy would understand.
***
Years later, after I had traveled overseas and started college in Lafayette, Louisiana, I visited Chataignier. On my way into Mr. Yo's Saloon, a voice from the shadows beside the saloon called out to me.

"You're defunt Loy's boy, ain't cha?"

"Yes, sir," I answered, my eyes searching the darkness for the owner of the voice. It was the man who had given me the dollar bill, many years before.

"If you're not in too much of a hurry, I'd like to share a drink with you." He spoke in broken English.

"I would like that," I answered in Cajun.

He smiled and disappeared. A few minutes later, he reappeared with a pint of TNT Concord Wine. He cracked the seal and offered me the first taste. I took a long haul and handed it back to him. He held up the bottle.

"To your papa," he said.

"To my daddy," I rejoined. After he finished his drink, he started to recap the bottle, but I took it from him and took another drink.

"You your papa's boy all right. Not too many white men in these parts would drink after a colored man."

We drank for a while, the pint sitting between us on the hood of an old pickup. He told me stories about my daddy. I told him a little about what I had done with my life up to that point. When I left him, we were both near tears.

"You know what I liked about your papa," he asked as I was leaving.

"What?"

"He was good to everybody. He was a mighty good man, and I don't say that about many people, black or white."

I smiled, shook hands with him, and staggered across the road. I remembered the dollar bill just as I got to my car. I hurried back to thank him, but all I saw were dim taillights disappearing behind a thin blanket of fog.
***
The night we buried Daddy I had a dream.

He and I are standing on a boarding platform. A train is huffing and puffing beside us. I am crying.

"Daddy, please take me with you," I plead.

"No son," he says softly. "You have your life to live."

"Please, Daddy," I plead, but it does no good. He pushes me away gently and steps on the train.

I stand on the platform for a long time, watching as the train slowly disappears into a tunnel of light.

I awoke to Momma gently patting me on the back.

"It's all right," she said softly, repeatedly until I fell asleep again.


A version of this essay appeared in The Dead Mule, years ago. Watching my father die of cancer was the most traumatic event in my life. I am now an old man—older than he was when he died—and no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember what he looked like. When I wrote this—in the 90s—I remember looking into the mirror and trying to see my father's reflection, but I could not. It was not until recently that I saw my reflection, and there he was, staring right back at me. I still miss him.

The Adoption (A John LeGrand Story)

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