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.


"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.

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