Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Deceptions (3)

The continuing story of Junior Fontenot and his misadventures.



          I still had a few dollars from my last Coco paycheck, so I decided to drown my sorrows. I found an IGA store and bought a six-pack of PBR, sat on a city bus bench, and popped a top. At first, I feared a policeman would come by and arrest me for vagrancy or something, but at least I would have someplace to sleep if that happened. I was on my second beer when Sally Mae happened by.
          "Junior?" she said, walking in my direction. She looked even better than in high school. She wore sneakers, jeans, a dark tee shirt, untucked, and had her red hair tied back in a ponytail. She still had a sprinkle of freckles over the bridge of her nose, but she looked more mature, more like a woman. I laid my beer down and stood.
          "Sally Mae? What are you doing in Ellisonville? I figured you'd be in college somewhere."
          "I am. I'm taking classes here at the junior college. It's cheaper than the universities and my credits will transfer."
          "That's great."
          She eyed my suitcase.
         "Are you going somewhere?"
         "I just joined the navy." I contemplated telling her my sad story, but decided against it.
         "Oh." She seemed disappointed. "When are you leaving?"
         "Not for a while, a hundred and twenty days, in fact." I grinned.
         "Are you staying in Serpentville?"
         It didn't look like I was going to escape telling her the whole sordid story, so I offered her a seat. She sat next to me and I caught a whiff of coconut and honeysuckle.
         "I had a little accident while working for Coco Construction."
         "Was that you? I saw it on the news."
         "Yeah, it was me. Anyway, I lost my job. Then Uncle Sam told me that he was ready to draft me. My mother kicked me out. Well, to make a pitiful story short, I'm jobless, moneyless, and homeless. I couldn't get any more less."
         I guess I looked pitiful because she grinned.
         "I'm sorry. I don't mean to laugh at you. I know you must be depressed, but you sound so…well, so pitiful." She was silent for a moment. "You never did answer me back at graduation. Why didn't you like me?"
         "You want the truth?" I figured I might as well unburden myself. I couldn't get any lower than I was. She nodded. "It wasn't that I didn't like you. It was just the opposite."
         "So, why didn't you talk to me or show an interest?"
         "Because you were so popular, and I was…well, not. I didn't think you would have any interest in me."
          She smiled.
          "Remember that time in Junior High when I sat next to you in the cafeteria?" I nodded. "Why do you think I did that?"
          "There were no other seats?"
          "There were plenty seats, Junior. I wanted you to talk to me, but all you did was stuff your face with that awful stew, and never said a word. I thought for sure you hated me. I finally got you to talk to me at graduation, and then that idiot, Gary Courville, came over and interrupted us."
           Okay, here she was telling me that I had been a fool in high school, something else for me to kick myself about.
           "So, what are you going to do, Junior?"
           "Right now, I have no idea. That's why I was sitting here—trying to figure out what to do."
           "My uncle manages the IGA here. I'm sure he can give you a part time job for a few months. It probably wouldn't be much, stocking shelves maybe, or sweeping. I've got an apartment not far from here. You're welcomed to stay with me. I have a roommate, but she won't be back for a few weeks. I can't let you stay in her room, but you can have the couch."
           "I couldn't impose on you like that, Sally Mae."
           She smiled, her green eyes lighting up.
           "What choice do you have?"
           "Come on, then. Let's go talk to my uncle."

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Deception (2)

I was depressed, no doubt about it. I lost my job. There was a real possibility that I might go to Vietnam. My mother considered me a dead beat and wanted me out. I had to tell her, of course. I waited for the right moment, just after supper. She hadn't started drinking, yet. I think she anticipated the news, though.
"Why didn't you stay at work, today?" she asked, before I could say anything. She pulled a beer out of the refrigerator and opened it. She threw the opener on the table. "Get you one," she said and sat across from me. Surprised, I accepted her offer, opened a beer, and took a long drink.
"How did you know I didn't spend all day at work?" 
"Rowena saw you go into Joe's, and she told Lois. Lois told me when she came by to drop off some wild ducks for me to pluck. She was supposed to clean them for Franklin Hebert, but her arthritis was acting up, and she let me do them. Franklin paid me seventy-five cents a duck. He had over ten of them."
I knew she would go on forever if I didn't stop her.
"I lost my job, Mom."
She took a long drink from her beer.
"What are you going to do?"
"I guess I'll move out, but I don't have anywhere to go right now. Could I stay just a few days longer?"
She considered it, but after a few moments of silence, she shook her head.
"No, I don't think so."
"But I've got nowhere to go."
She didn't even blink an eye.
"You should have thought of that before you lost your job."
"It was an accident, Mom."
"Son, I love you," she said, and grabbed another beer out of the refrigerator. She motioned me to get another if I wanted. "But you're a lot like your daddy. If I don't force you to do something, you'll stay, and live off me forever." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She was throwing me out on the street. "I can't support the both of us. You can spend the night, but tomorrow I want you to find someplace else to stay."
"I haven't got any place to go."
"I'm sorry, son. But that's the way it is." She stood up and walked out on the front porch. The slap of the screen door seemed final. "I'm going over to Rowena," she said through the screen. "Help yourself to the beer in the ice box." She left.
The free beer was poor consolation, but it would do, so I grabbed another from the refrigerator and plopped down on my bed. I felt like a lost puppy, friendless and unloved. I felt the hot tears come to my eyes. I considered suicide, but I was afraid that it would help everybody but me, and to be honest, I was not a great fan of pain, so I got up off my bed and packed my suitcase. Once I stuffed it as full as I could, I sat down in the only chair in my room, a rough wooden one that my father had made from two by fours, and watched the daylight slowly fade through my windows. Sometime after dark, I heard my mother come in. She was drunk. I could tell by how she walked, slow and hesitant. She opened the refrigerator, and I heard her open a can of beer.
I sat in my dark room, stared at the outline of my packed suitcase, and watched the occasional headlights from the traffic on the road outside bounce across my bedroom wall. I could hear the cars well before I saw their headlights—big trucks whined, pick-ups hummed, and cars whistled. Their headlights made eerie patterns on my room's bare wall, bounced to the ceiling, and disappeared across the room. I loved to pretend that each vehicle was an adventure. This one or that one would slow, turn into my driveway, its headlights would illuminate my room, someone would jump out, and invite me to go with him on some wild new adventure, fishing off the coast of Maine, surfing the beaches of California, or just cruising the highways of America. Of course, it never happened, no matter how much I wished it.
I knew that there was only one choice left opened to me. I had to get away from Serpentville. I had to move, and since I was broke, unemployed, and untrained, my only choice was to join the service. Uncle Ham's size twelve shoes were hard to fill, but I didn't seem to have much of a choice. I couldn't join the army, or the marines—these people were going to Vietnam. I didn't know much about the coast guard. That left the navy and the air force, and I was not a great fan of flying.
The next morning, I stood on the Ellisonville black top with my thumb in the air. Franklin Hebert stopped and dropped me in front of the Ellisonville courthouse steps, suitcase in hand, ready to talk to the navy recruiter. His office sat on the first floor behind a glass door with United States Navy Recruiter stenciled in bold black letters over the navy seal, an anchor wrapped in rope. I walked into a cool, air-conditioned office with three uncomfortable-looking plastic and chrome chairs sitting before a laminated oak coffee table covered with magazines and pamphlets. A man dressed in a khaki uniform covered with stripes, stars, medals, and colorful bars sat behind a desk across the room. I was sure he must have served in both World Wars, Korea, and was straight out of Vietnam. Only, he was too young-looking for any of those, except Vietnam. He had short dark hair, thick bushy brows, thin lips, and a friendly smile.
"Hello," he said in a surprisingly sweet voice. "My name is Chief Davis. Can I help you?" He stood and walked around the desk and gave me a powerful handshake.
"I'd like to enlist, sir." I threw the sir in there for good measure.
"Are you certain?"
"Yes, I am."
"Good. Let's see," he said and walked around the desk again. He pulled out a handful of papers. "I just need you to fill these forms for me. And after you've done that, perhaps you wouldn't mind taking a small test."
I took the paper stack from him and sat down at the small table.
The thoroughness and personal nature of the questions surprised me. I understood that the navy needed certain information from me, but they wanted to know everything: Did I have hemorrhoids? No. Did I ever have an encounter with someone of my own sex? No. Did I belong to any communist organization? No. Was I a criminal? No. Did I have ingrown toenails? No. Did my mother, father, uncle, aunt, or any relatives of mine ever belong to a communist organization or have an encounter with a member of their own sex? No. No. Not that I knew of, anyway. Was I, or any member of my immediate family, ever committed to a mental institution? No. We probably needed to be. Did anybody ever answer yes to any of these questions? They had to be a trick. Anybody who answered yes to any of them would be too stupid for the United States Navy.
I handed the recruiter the completed forms, and he, in turn, handed me the examination. He looked at his watch and told me to begin. It was by far the easiest test I'd ever taken. My mother could have passed it, and she never went past the sixth grade in school.
"Finished," I said, standing. He looked at me as if nobody in his right mind could finish it that quickly.
"Let me grade it, and if your score is high enough, we'll talk. Please sit here for a minute." He pointed to one of the plastic chairs. I watched him while I pretended to read a current copy of Stars and Stripes. He placed the answer sheet over the examination. As I watched, I began to doubt myself. That examination could not have been that easy. It was another trick. They wanted me to think it was easy, and just as I was berating myself for playing the part of a fool, the recruiter flung his glasses on the desk top, cleared his voice, and boomed a clear, resonant, "Good. Very good."
"Yes sir?"
"Very good, Mr. Fontenot. One hundred per cent correct. We don't get too many of those in here."
"You don't?"
"No, we don't. You've done very well indeed." He plucked an imaginary hair from his sleeve. Now what you need is a physical."
"I've already had a physical by the draft board, sir."
"Good. What are you classified?"
"Good. We can get a copy of the physical from your draft board." He wrote something down on one of the forms. "Well, you're old enough, so you don't need consent. If you sign this form, we'll make a sailor out of you."
I surveyed the paper he handed me. It had me down for a four-year enlistment.
"Sir, I'd like to join for two years if it's possible?"
"Your only choice is four, Fontenot."
I considered it for a minute, but I knew I would sign up. Four years in the navy had to be better than two years in Vietnam.
"Good. Four years it is, and I'll guarantee you one of your top three choices for school. Sign the form."
I did. 
"Good. There'll be a three-month wait, and then you'll go New Orleans for a mini-physical and then on to boot camp for your initial training."
"A three-month wait? I'm kind of ready to go now."
"I'm afraid that isn't possible. If for some reason an opening appears before your 120-day waiting period, I'll contact you. Good day."
"Somewhere between the "Sign here" and "Good day" the recruiter had lost his friendly easy-going attitude. Now, he was the voice of authority. He was superior to me. I stood on the top step outside the courthouse and reflected on what I had done. I had joined the navy. That was bad enough, but now, I had 120 days with no place to stay, unless I went crawling back to my mother, and I was not ready to do that—not yet, anyway.

Friday, December 15, 2017


          This is part of a longer work, tentatively titled Deceptions, about a young man who can't seem to do anything right. He finally ends up in the service, and his life takes on a new direction; however, he can't seem to escape the troubles he left behind. Hope you enjoy it.

Sally Mae captured the attention of Serpentville High School like no other girl had ever done before and since. At thirteen, she walked into Mr. Jogneaux's ninth grade homeroom with the confidence and assurance her beauty afforded her. At fifteen, she had already developed beyond her years. Her breasts strained against the white, ruffled blouses she loved to wear tucked into her skirts. Her small waist gracefully gave way to her rounded, full hips. She had long slender legs, still a little bony where they showed but not bad looking. If not for her face, which glowed a healthy pink under her freckles, her clear, green eyes, which turned almost yellow when she was angry, and her thick orange-red hair, which hung partway down her back, she might have passed for four or five years older. There was no denying she had a fifteen-year-old face and an eighteen-year-old body.

Sally Mae always held herself erect when she walked or sat, and she spoke softly, correctly, with a honeysuckle-sweet southern accent. I wanted to know her better, but I was too proud to stand at the end of the lengthy line of admirers trying to get her attention—she had offers for dates from most of the seniors, members of the track team, the baseball team, and the basketball team, except for Grant Guillory who was practically married to Lois Smith. She dated selectively, always careful of her reputation. She avoided places that served alcohol or boys who had wild or shady reputations; She was a member of the Christian Students for Decency in School club. There were other good-looking girls at Serpentville High School, but none of them could compare with Sally Mae. She was easily the most beautiful, the most desirable.

I hated her.

I hated her because I was not in her league and never would be. I was not an athlete. I was not particularly handsome, big ears, shaggy black hair, a stick-skinny frame, and I was a bookworm. I was boring, with a capital B. Sally Mae liked parties, horse riding, and excitement, and although I liked parties, I sucked at socializing, and horses scared me. I also liked the wrong music. While the other students listened to the Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Stones, or The Strawberry Alarm Clock, I preferred Percy Sledge, Joe Tex, Otis Redding, and the more bluesy tunes of B.B. King, Taj Mahal, and John Lee Hooker. I didn't fit in Sally Mae's circle of friends.

During our senior year, while we waited to graduate high school, Sally Mae stood off to the side of the crowd of students, alone and apparently absorbed in contemplation. I screwed up my courage and decided to talk to her.

"Thinking about what you're going to do after graduation?"

She looked up at me, her green eyes questioning.

"Oh, hi Junior. I was thinking about maybe going to college, but I don't know which one. What are you going to do after school?"

"I'll probably join the service." I didn't mention that college was not an option for me. Although I had the grades, I did not have the money. My mother was on welfare, and she could not afford to help me. I figured I'd devote a couple of years to Uncle Sam and come out with the GI Bill, which would pay my college.


"No, I don't want to go there. I'll probably join the Air Force or the Navy."

"That's smart. What about after the service? What are you going to do then?"

"I'll probably go to college."

"That's good." She paused and searched my face with her green eyes. "Why don't you like me, Junior?"

The question caught me off guard.

"I…I like you all right. It's just…"

Just then Gary Courville, the school's track star grabbed her hand and led her away.


I didn't join up after graduation like I told Sally Mae. Instead, I sat around the house, read books, and occasionally visited Joe's Saloon to play a little pool. After about a week of that, my mother grabbed the book I read, placed it on the table, and sat across from me.

"If you expect to stay in this house," she said, "you'll have to pay your way. I expect you to get a job and help me with the rent and groceries." My father died when I was seven, and my mother turned to alcohol to relieve the misery of poverty and welfare to sustain her drinking. Since I was no longer in school, the welfare checks were going to shrink.

"Your Uncle Ham would have offered to help me with the rent and groceries," she continued.

I groaned. Uncle Ham was my mother's brother, champion of the navy, veteran of World War II, wearer of size twelve shoes. Whenever my mother was angry with me, she used Uncle Ham as a measuring stick. "You ought to be more like your Uncle Ham, Junior. He was a good boy. He never left his bed unmade. He knew how to make a bed." If she was especially drunk or vindictive, she resorted to comparing me to my father. "You're just like your daddy, Junior, lazy and no good. He stayed home and share-cropped that two-bit farm of his, while brave young men like your Uncle Ham went off to fight the Japs."

Uncle Ham's shoes were difficult to fill. Sometimes I wished he hadn't died off the coast of Okinawa like he did. I really would like to have had a talk with him.

"Okay, Momma," I said. "I'll find a job."


I met Philip Brashear in a bar in Ellisonville, one rainy afternoon. He said he needed a boy to work with him at Coco Construction, and since I had no money, and my mother was about to kick me out of her house, I agreed to meet him at the head office at four the next morning.

"I don't have a car," I told him, hoping that it wasn't a deal breaker.

"Where do you live?"

I explained, and he said that since it was on his way, he'd pick me up at 3:30 a.m. I groaned my agreement.

"What should I wear?"

"Wear something you're not too attached too. Wear something cool, but make sure it has long sleeves. Bring gloves and a good wide straw hat."

"What exactly does Coco construct, Philip?"

He grinned, revealing a row of tobacco-stained teeth.

"We construct board roads."

"What is that?"

"You'll see," he said and bought me a beer.


Coco Construction serviced the oilfields, building, servicing, and tearing up board roads that led to oilrigs and wellheads situated in pastures, swamps, and marshes. The roads were constructed of two-inch by six-inch by ten-foot boards laid across each other and held in place with sixteen-penny nails. Sometimes, the roads were single layered, if the ground under them was high and dry. Sometimes, they could have as many as five or six layers if the ground was especially soft and wet. Laying a board road was back breaking work—driving sixteen-penny nails with a special sledgehammer all day, hauling and stacking mud-encrusted boards through several inches of mud, prying up boards held together with rusty nails, mud, and months of heavy traffic. In the summer, it was hot, mosquito-slapping work. A boardroader always had to be on the lookout for snakes, scorpions, spiders, or thousands of other bugs and critters that lived under the boards. In the winter, it was cold, teeth-chattering work. Too much clothes and a worker couldn't move comfortably. Too little clothes and he froze. I soon learned that laying the road was not for me. I had been there less than a month before I started looking for an easier job to do.

There were five duties when laying a board road. Two of them I did not qualify for—supervisor and truck driver for the eighteen-wheelers that hauled off the bundles. The rest of the jobs, I felt I could handle—boardroading, which involved laying, servicing, or tearing up the roads, swampy, which involved slinging a wire cable around the bundles and securing it, and winch truck operator, which involved positioning the truck, and working the winch. I started helping the swampy, a short little guy who smoked roll-your-owns, every chance I could. At first, Shorty was a little suspicious of my attentions, but he was slow and lazy and soon started relying on me for help. When he fell sick, I was the natural replacement. By the time he returned, I was firmly entrenched at swampy. I was faster and smarter than Shorty. Philip had no choice. He told him that he needed to return to boardroading or quit.

He quit.

Swampy was much easier, but I still got my feet muddy, so I started hanging around the winch truck driver as much as possible. Soon, he was letting me position the truck and work the winch—I could do both and still do my job as swampy. After a while, he allowed me to load the eighteen-wheelers. I learned everything he did, and when he took sick, I moved into his job, but Jeff was not Shorty. He had been with the company for years, and he knew people in the front office, so when he returned, I went back to my duties as swampy. During my third month with Coco Construction, Jeff developed cancer and never returned, and Phillip made me winch truck operator.

I didn't get my feet muddy anymore, but I lost my job with Coco Construction.

We were pulling up a road near a wellhead, a set of pipes, valves, and gauges sticking out of the ground and under a tremendous amount of pressure. Another team worked on laying a road about two or three football fields away. I was busy hauling bundles and stacking them up on an eighteen-wheeler. Philip called me over and told me to pick up a bundle and take it to the other team. The bundle was heavy, the boards covered with a sticky, clay mud. As I winched it up, the front wheels of the truck lifted slightly off the ground, about two or three inches. I looked over at Phil, but he said nothing. I put the truck in gear, and again, the wheels left the ground. Phil waved me forward, so I didn't worry about it. I drove slowly and carefully, but the front kept bouncing up and leaving the ground a few inches. My route took me about twenty-five feet from the wellhead. When I hit a slight incline, the front end of the truck lifted straight up into the air. I was sure the truck would flip over, so I opened the door and jumped out.

Only, the truck did not flip over.

When the bundle touched the ground, the front of the truck came back down, and since it was still in gear, kept on going toward the wellhead. I could hear Phil yelling at me, but my head was still spinning, and I couldn't make out what he was saying. I turned around, noticed him running toward me, waving his arms and yelling.

"I'm okay," I said, when he was close enough to hear.

"You stupid shit," he yelled at me and knocked me on the back of the head. "It's moving toward a wellhead."

Sometimes, it takes a knock on the head to make a person see clearly. When Phil hit me, I realized at once what I had to do. I ran as fast as I could, away from that truck. I hadn't gone very far when I heard grinding and then an explosion, which knocked Phil on his face and me on top of him. He threw me off and hit me four times on the head before finally standing and dragging me away from the fire. When I could see again, the winch truck lay on its back, all four tires spinning and burning. Flames shot out of the ground a hundred feet in the air where the wellhead used to be. The heat was almost unbearable.

Phil grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me.

"Damn it. Didn't you know that these trucks never flip? Didn't you know that?" I wanted to answer him, point out that the truck was lying on the ground with four wheels up in the air, but something in his eyes stopped me. "Go on. Get out of here."

I started walking. I was fifty miles from home, but there was no way I was going to ask Phil for a ride back, so I thumbed my way home.


When I finally arrived home from my work disaster, my mother handed me a letter from Uncle Sam informing me that I had passed my physical and I was classified 1A.

Sometime during the first few weeks with Coco, I received a letter from Uncle Sam, demanding that I go to New Orleans for a physical. I spent a night roaming around Bourbon Street, spending my meager Coco Construction pay on beer and women. The next day, I stood in lines as doctors probed and poked me. Then the government placed me on a bus and sent me home

"They going to draft you?" my mother asked.

"Yes." I threw the letter in the trash. She pulled it out.

"They put you in jail for doing things like that."

"Isn't jail a damn sight better than dying in Vietnam somewhere like Jimmy Durio?" Jimmy was the only person from Serpentville to die in Vietnam. Young people used his name to point out what could happen. The older people used him as an example of the ultimate sacrifice. My opinion was that Jimmy would prefer being alive than an example of anything.

"He died for his country like your Uncle Ham. You could learn something from them." She placed the letter on the table in front of me and walked off.

"What? I could learn how to die?" However, she wasn't listening.

The next morning, I heard knocking on the front door at three thirty. It was Phil, and he wanted me to go with him. I didn't want to, but I was afraid that he would cause a raucous, and I didn't want my mother to know, just yet, what had happened, so I told him to give me a couple of minutes to get my clothes on, and we drove to the central office. He did not say a word to me all the way. When we arrived, he told me to go see the big boss and headed toward the workshop. I knew I was in trouble because Sonny Whitmore never fooled around with the likes of me, unless it was very serious. I knocked on the door.

"Come in."

Whitmore sat at his big ebony desk and glared at me from behind a huge cigar. He took it out and waved it at me.

"You sure fucked things up royally, Fontenot."

"Yes sir," I looked around the office for some place to sit, but there was none. "I thought I was going to flip over."

"What I should do is stick your butt in jail," he threatened, but I knew he couldn't do anything to me like that. I had been working for him, and it was an accident. "But I'm not going to. I'm going to make you work for every penny you cost this company." I wasn't too sure about that. Maybe he could.

"Do you know how much you cost this company?" I shook my head. "Over two hundred thousand dollars so far." My knees buckled.

"Don't you have insurance?"

"You insolent little bastard. Of course, we have insurance, but how long do you think they will stay with us if we present them with accidents like this? Christ almighty, boy. We had to call a special team in from Texas to cap the damn thing. They worked all night and just finished this morning." Whitmore leaned back in his chair. It groaned its discontent. He was a huge man, tall, and fat. "Well, answer me boy. How long do you think it's going to be before that insurance company raises my rates?"

"Not long, I guess." I was trying not to say too much. I didn't see any sense in making him angrier than he was.

"Finally, you're talking some sense. I have a letter in front of me that specifically says that my insurance rates are about to double. They couldn't even wait for the regular mail—a messenger dropped it off this morning before I even got here. That's how anxious they are." Whitmore leaned forward, and the chair groaned. He glared at me, his bushy gray eyebrows arched over two fiery bloodshot eyes. "You are the cause of that increase, boy. You are going to pay dearly. You are going to work your butt off from morning to night. You are mine." He pushed his cigar in my face, so close, I gagged on the smoke and the stench.

My head reeled. I did not want to go back to boardroading—dusk to dawn in the stifling heat or freezing cold, up to my ankles in mud, snakes and all sorts of bugs, sore muscles in the evening, sore muscles in the morning, and in my case, my already tiny paycheck was going to get tinier. I couldn't let that happen, but I didn't want to go to jail either. Then I had an idea. Whitmore couldn't touch me if I was in the service.

"Mr. Whitmore," I said, trying to sound as sincere as I could. "I"m real sorry about that accident, but it was an accident, sir. I did not intentionally set out to blow up the well. I would really like to help you pay your insurance increase, but I'm afraid I won't be able to, sir." Whitmore jumped up from his chair, as if blown out of it. I didn't give him a chance to take his cigar out of his mouth. "I've been drafted, Mr. Whitmore," I said, backing away from his desk. "Uncle Sam wants me."

"What?" he bellowed, but he did not advance.

"I've been drafted, Mr. Whitmore. They want me to go to the army."

Whitmore surprised me. He started laughing, a deep, jolly, enjoyable laugh. I grinned.

"Well, I'll be damned," he said, once he caught his breath. "I was going to make your life pure hell, boy, but the army can do that good enough for me. Get your little butt out of my office and off my property." I turned around and started for the door. "And boy." I stopped with my hand on the knob.

"Yes sir?"

"Next time I see you, if I ever see you, you damn well better salute me."

"Yes, sir." I almost ran out of his office building, and since no one offered me a ride home, I thumbed again.

I was beginning to hate my life.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Adoption (A John LeGrand Story)

The Adoption
Van Morrison wails in the background. I am dancing with a beautiful woman. Her dark curly hair tickles my nose and smells like a summer beach day. Her body feels good against mine—soft, curvy, warm. My right arm encircles her, and my hand rests in the small of her back. I can feel the rise of her buttocks, and this excites me. I pull her to me a little more, and I feel her breasts push into my chest. My left hand holds her right hand, and I rest them against my left shoulder. I pull back and gaze into her face. Her dark eyes stare into mine, inviting me. Her breath smells like spearmint. I catch a faint smell of honeysuckle. I lean forward for a kiss. I am no longer in control.
"Stop," she says.
"Why?" I long for that kiss that I know will send me into nirvana, but she pushes me back.
"I said stop."
"Don't put on the brakes now. We're in high gear."
"What is that nun doing in your dream?"
"It's a blessed miracle. That's why," I say and pull her to me, but the song changes, and the dream dissipates.
Reluctantly, I opened my eyes and glanced at my bedside clock—9:32 A.M. I picked up my cell phone playing its "Brown-eyed Girl," ringtone and answered it.
"Hello," I said.
"Mr. LeGrand?"
"Yeah, that's me." The voice was feminine and slightly familiar. "What can I do for you?"
"You're John LeGrand, the detective?"
"Yeah, that's me."
"I need you to find something out for me."
"Who am I talking to?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. LeGrand. I've never talked to a detective before. I'm a little nervous. My name is Linda Ledoux."
"Like Superman's women?"
"You know, initials L.L.—Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris.  Sorry, just woke up." My sense of humor seldom works with strangers. What can I do for you, Ms. Ledoux?"
"Linda. Maybe I could meet with you. Would noon be all right?"
"Noon would be perfect, Linda. Do you have my office address?"
"Yes, I do. I'll be there at noon."
I went back to bed and tried to recapture my dream, but it was not to be. The voice of Linda Ledoux kept creeping back into my consciousness. It was so familiar, and yet, I could not conjure up a face for the voice or the name.
The doorbell rang promptly at noon. I opened the door, and my knees buckled. I had to hold on to the door to keep myself up.
"Are you all right, Mr. LeGrand?"
She was the girl of my dream—dark eyes, curly hair, and I caught a whiff of a summer beach day.
"Uh, yeah, I'm okay. It's just you look exactly like somebody I know."
She smiled revealing even white teeth. Obviously, she didn't smoke or drink coffee or tea. I led her to my office connected to the foyer. The area that included my office wasn't particularly large, but I kept it uncluttered. A floor to ceiling bookshelf stood next to the foyer doorway. Most of the books were on crime and old pulp books I picked up at garage sales. A file cabinet sat against the wall behind me within easy reach of my desk chair. A rickety chair sat across from my beat up cherry desk—I found both at the Salvation Army Store—and provided a sitting space for my clients. The poster hanging next to the bookshelf was a George Rodrique of Ernest Gaines, a writer I heard read once, in Lafayette. Both Rodriquez' and Gaines' signatures adorn it. The work hanging on the right of the window overlooking the street and my neighbor's live oak tree was a framed woodcut on rice paper by David Alpha, a Lafayette artist. The woodcut portrayed a red snake biting his tail. In the background is a red palmetto leaf. The rest of the room, about twenty feet, served as my living room. It contained a couch, a television, an overstuffed chair, and several photographs: one of a cat, Puddy; another of a horse, DiableNoir; and one of a black lab, Chien. All of them, pets of mine when I was a young boy. The living room area ended at the arch leading to my kitchen and the bedroom hallway.
Linda Ledoux took the chair I offered her and sat. She wore jeans, and when she crossed her legs, I got a view of a nice ankle. I shook my head a little and tried to focus on her story.
"What can I do for you, Ms. Ledoux?"
"Linda. I'll have to tell a little about myself first.'
"Please do."
"I'm from Ellisonville. Ten years ago, I had just turned sixteen, I found out I was pregnant. The father, a seventeen year old farm boy, decided he was not the fathering kind and refused to own up to the pregnancy." She frowned, and I had the feeling that this was not an easy task for her. "Sorry," she said. "I'm not very good at revealing myself like this."
"Take your time."
"Thank you. You see, I had a reputation. I was a little wild. I smoked some pot, drank some, and I partied hard. I was a teenager, and I did have the reputation of being loose. I have to tell you, though, that farm boy was the only one with whom I ever let my guard down. Of course, he turned out to be a bastard." Again, she paused and frowned.
"Can I get you something to drink? I have bottled water and a couple of sodas in the refrigerator."
"Water would be nice."
I left her with her thoughts for a few minutes and grabbed a couple of water bottles out of the refrigerator. When I returned, she seemed composed again and ready to continue her story.
"When the stomach started to show, I left school. My parents were disgusted with me, but I had an aunt, who sympathized and took me in. I had the baby in Ellison General and gave him up for adoption. Right away."
"You had a boy?"
"Yes. I didn't even look at him." She unscrewed the cap off the bottle and took a long swig. "I'm sorry," she said. "I thought I would be able to handle this better."
"Take your time. There's no reason to rush any of this." I was wondering where this was leading, however.
"A nurse took him away immediately after I birthed him. After I left the hospital, I didn't go back to school. I jumped on a bus, made my way to New Orleans, and got a job in a nightclub. I'm not bad looking." If only she knew. "I made good money there, but I got tired of fighting off the men who only wanted to get in my pants. After about a year, I quit, took the money I'd saved, and went to school. I got my GED and attended a beauty school. After a few months, I got my certification and moved back to Ellisonville." She paused. "I know you don't need to know all this, but it makes it easier for me to tell it."
"Go ahead," I said. "You've got my complete attention."
"Remember that beauty shop they had on the Southside? It was called, Curlin' Iron." I nodded although I had no clue. "It had been closed down for a good while, close to a year, so I got it for a pretty good deal. I found two or three other beauticians in the area who were dissatisfied with where they were working, and I invited them to join me. Before long, I had a thriving business. I'm doing real well for myself now, which brings me to why I'm here." She took another swig from the water bottle. "My life has been a mess. Yes, I have a successful business. I can afford just about anything I want, but there's something missing from my life—like a piece of me is missing. I read somewhere that some amputees can't cope with the fact that their legs are gone. They can get around fine, but they wonder where the legs are." She looked me straight in the eyes. "Is it rotten yet? Did they freeze it, and is it still alive somewhere? Questions like that. That's how I feel about my son. I function all right during the day, but at night, when the lights go off, and I have to be alone with my mind, I wonder." I saw the tears well up in her eyes and slide down her cheeks. "He is ten years old, would have been ten years old, two days ago. He's my missing body part. Do you understand that?"
"You want me to find your son."
"Yes, I want you to find my son. I have to know that if I'm going to live any kind of decent life. I just have to know."
I pushed a box of tissues in her direction.
"You understand there are reasons why adoption agencies don't want parents who gave their kids up for adoption to find them?"
"Yes, I understand, and it makes all kinds of sense to me, but I have to know."
"It wouldn't be easy, and I'm not even sure, it's possible. Your son could be in Alaska right now or a foreign country somewhere."
"I understand that you might not succeed, Mr. LeGrand. Would you be willing to try, though?"
"Call me John. Mr. LeGrand doesn't sound right." Reason told me to drop the case. Tell her that it was impossible and go on with my life, but something else waylaid reason and told me that if I didn't try, I would never see her again. She would stand, walk out that door, and disappear. I didn't want that. I wanted to finish my dream.
"I'll give it a try," I said, and her face lit up in a wide smile. "There are no guarantees. You understand that?"
"I understand, Mr. LeGrand, I mean John."
"I charge two hundred dollars a day plus expenses. If expenses go over fifty dollars, I call and clear it with you, if I can. Circumstances sometimes preclude that."
"That's great with me."
"I require two hundred and fifty dollars in advance. That's for one day's work and fifty dollars expenses."
She reached into her purse and pulled two one hundred dollar bills and a fifty. She handed them to me.
"One more thing, Linda. When and if I find your son, you have to promise me, you will not approach him. Without that promise, I will not even try. The boy might be in a great situation, and your intervention might destroy a wonderful life he might have."
"I have thought about all that, John, and I promise you that I will not approach him."
I nodded.
"Now, let me get some specifics from you."
She didn't have too many details. She had the baby at Ellisonville General and allowed a nurse to give him away to a representative of the adoptive agency, but she didn't know who that was. No one talked to her about the child after she had it.
After she left, I booted up my computer and did a little research on adoption. I went to the Louisiana Department of Social Services Web page and found out that there was an Adoption Registry for contact between voluntary adoptees. I wondered if she placed her name on the list. I would have to ask her about it. My research told me that there were two possibilities for adoption in Ellisonville—Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Adoption Services and The Office of Community Services with the nearest regional office in Lafayette. A sixteen year old probably would have gone with the church. Of course, there might have been other possibilities such as arrangements ahead of time, adoption agencies outside of the parish. The Internet offered a young girl many options.
My first stop would have to be the hospital.
Ellison Parish Regional Hospital—The General to the layman—was the only hospital in the parish. If someone became sick or was pregnant, this is where they came. Ellisonville Junior College had one of the largest nursing programs in the area and trained most of the nurses working at the hospital. I knew several of them from teaching at the college because of my job as a part time instructor there. Often, some of the students who went into nursing took one of my criminal investigation classes as an elective. The hospital kept all its records in a computer now. If a doctor or an investigator needed information about a patient, he went to the computer. Doctors usually kept the medical information that they scribbled on the chart in a folder, but transcriptionists transferred all of that to a computer. Luckily, for me, I knew a medical transcriptionist. Eileen Morrison was an old girlfriend of mine. She was a little weird, but she was good and important to me right now. She had access to the medical records at Ellisonville General.
I gave her a call.
"John LeGrand. I haven't heard from you in at least three months. Where've you been?"
"Busy, Eileen."
"Bullshit. A detective in Ellisonville is not busy—ever."
"Touché. Now that we got that all cleared up, can we talk?"
"I figured you needed something from me. What is it? Need a date to the detective ball?"
"No, I don't need a date, but you would be the first one I'd ask if I did."
"Flattery will get you all the way, Mr. LeGrand."
I smiled. Eileen had a way with words all right.
"I need some information on a former patient of EG."
"You know I can't give out that information, John. Shame on you for even asking."
"Ten years ago, she gave up her kid for adoption. All I want to know is who the adoption agency was.
"I'm sorry, John, but I could lose my job if I gave out that kind of information."
"The hospital would never fire you, Eileen. You're much too valuable. Do me a favor. Look up the patient and read her file. I'll ask you a question. You don't have to answer. I'll figure it out on my own. That way, you won't have given me an answer."
"Come on, John. The very fact that I looked up the patient's file will point straight to me. You know that. You can't access these things without leaving some sort of trail."
"All right, Eileen. I don't want to get you in trouble. Forget I asked."
She went silent. I waited her out. I heard a Chihuahua bark in the background. Where was she? Surely, the hospital didn't allow dogs. I decided not to ask.
"I'm sorry, John. I just can't afford that kind of trouble."
"No problem. I'll call you soon, and this time I won't be asking for anything except some of your excellent company."
"Sure you will, John."
She hung up, and I searched my mind for another way to get the information I needed. Then it occurred to me that I simply did not ask Eileen the right question. I dialed her number again.
"So soon, John. I'm impressed and slightly overwhelmed."
"Ha, ha. I realized after I hung up that I asked you the wrong question. The right question is, 'What adoption agency does the hospital use most when dealing with adoption cases?'"
"That question I can answer safely: Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Adoption Services."
"Thanks, Eileen."
"What, you got a hot case? Let me guess. Some woman gave up her child and now, I suppose she wants to find the kid. She feels as if she's missing something. A body part, maybe?"
"That's right, Eileen except she was a sixteen year old girl. How did you know that?"
"I'm a woman too, in case you haven't noticed."
"Oh, I've noticed. Plenty of times."
"I've seen lots of stuff like that. Girl gets pregnant. Girl gives birth. Girl too young to be tied down, so she gives the baby up. Years later, the woman wonders what it could have been like. She wonders what the baby turned out to be. It's all too damn familiar—too damn predictable, John. Sad too."
"One more thing, Eileen."
"What now?"
"Why am I hearing a dog?"
She laughed.
"That was my cell phone ring tone. Isn't it cute?"
"Yeah," I said. "Real cute."
Our Lady of Mercy was the largest church in the parish. They ran the Our Lady of Mercy School, which consistently won first place in sports and academics in their division. It was very popular, and parents from three or four parishes over, sent their kids to be educated or to play sports there. The slogan was, "Our lady gives no mercy," and that was certainly true when it came not only to sports and academics, but to the pocket book, too. Our Lady of Mercy was a very expensive school.
The church was also involved with adoption. They took children of adoption age, usually infants, and placed them in good Christian homes. Of course, they tried to find Catholic homes, but any Christian home would do. They screened prospective parents very carefully. They could not drink or smoke. They had to have at least a high school education, and they had to be church going Christians.
The church was involved with other social projects in the community. For example, they worked with the department of social services to find low cost housing for needy Catholics in the parish. Our Lady had also become involved in the politics of the parish, politicking for what they considered worthy Catholic candidates.
The church was located near the school on the northern outskirts of the town. It was a huge brick building modeled after the Basilica di San Pietro in Vatican City, according to the brass sign located near the front door. Of course, it was not nearly as big as the basilica, but it was impressive enough. I followed the sidewalk circling the structure and walked to an office building behind it. I strode into an air-conditioned waiting room and spoke to a nun sitting behind a counter. She was polite—asked me my name, the nature of my business, and told me to wait for Sister Mary Elizabeth. Musak, mostly liturgical, played from hidden speakers in the ceiling. After a few minutes, a tall, severe-looking nun walked up to me.
"Mr. LeGrand?"
I stood.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. She was almost as tall as I was.
"Would you follow me, please?" I did as she told me. She led me down a hallway to a small office located at the back of the building. She indicated a chair, and I sat. She sat across a desk from me.
"What can I do for you, Mr. LeGrand?"
"Ten years ago a young girl gave birth to a boy and gave him up for adoption. The sister at Our Lady of Mercy handled the adoption." Okay, I lied to a nun, but only a small lie. I was reasonably sure that they handled the case. Surely, I would not go to hell for that.
"Let me finish your story for you, Mr. LeGrand. She is ten years older now, and she is wondering about what she gave up."
"Yes, ma'am. That's basically it. I'm wondering if there is some way, voluntarily on everybody's part, of course, that we could find out where the boy is, so she can see how he turned out."
She shook her head before I even finished my statement.
"There is no way, Mr. LeGrand. We placed the boy in a good home to Christian parents. He may or may not know that he was adopted, but in any case, meeting his birth mother could be very traumatic. Remember, she abandoned him. It would be very difficult if not impossible for a ten-year-old boy to understand all the complex reasons behind her decision ten years ago."
I nodded.
"Perhaps we would not have to make the boy aware of his birth mother. Just let her see how well the situation turned out. It surely would ease the apprehensions the mother feels."
"We cannot take the chance, Mr. LeGrand. Suppose the mother decides that she has to let the boy know who she is. We would not be able to prevent her."
"So the answer is absolutely not?"
"The answer is absolutely not, Mr. LeGrand. We have never made an exception before, and we will not in this instance either. I sympathize with the birth mother. It must be very disturbing knowing that someone, who was once part of you, is alive out there. Of course, she wants to know that her decision ten years ago was the right one. Believe me, it was. We do everything in our power to provide a secure home for our adoptees."
I stood up, and she stood with me.
"When this woman made a decision to put up her child for adoption, she was a child herself. Can children make these decisions and be held accountable? I understand that you want to protect the child, but who protected the mother when she made that decision? Did you or someone from your church counsel her—helped her make the decision?"
"We do everything in our power, Mr. LeGrand, to make sure that the child is taken care of. I sympathize with the mother, but two mistakes has never made things right. She made a mistake, and the result was impregnation. She brought an unwanted child into this world. It would be a mistake to expose him to a mother he has never known."
I shook her hand.
"Thank you," I said and left.
I called Linda and asked her if she would have dinner with me. I used the old pretext of having to update her. She agreed and asked me to pick her up at the beauty salon.
Linda was gorgeous. She had tied her hair back a little exposing more of her neck. She wore a simple string of pearls and a simple black tee shirt tucked into faded jeans. I jumped out of my old van and opened the passenger door for her.
"As a chariot, it leaves a lot to be desired, but I've been having this Dodge Ram van for fifteen years now, and we're enjoying growing old together."
She climbed up into the passenger seat.
"Oh," she said, surprised. "It's like sitting on top of the world."
"Amen, sister. And that's why this vehicle and I get along so well together. It's like sitting on top of the world." She laughed, and I shut the door and made my way around to the driver's side. "Have you ever been to Ally's before?" I asked once I slid into the driver's seat.
"Uh, huh. Ally's Restaurant. She is African American, and she can cook like nobody's business. A few years ago, she was in an accident. Some bad guys tried to kill her boyfriend, a deputy with the Sheriff's Department, but they got her instead. She lost the use of her legs."
"What a sad story."
"You would think so, but you don't know her. She never skipped a beat. She got out of the hospital and immediately set to work realizing her dream of owning a restaurant. She opened up Ally's and it's been a success ever since. It is known statewide. I'm surprised you never heard of it. 'Sixty Minutes' did a story on it about a year ago."
She shook her head.
"I don't eat out much. I'm afraid I'm a pretty boring person. I work, go home, and go to work again. I'm trying to realize a dream myself."
"You look pretty successful to me."
She smiled.
I pulled into Ally's parking lot and escorted her to the front door. A young woman dressed in black and white asked me if I had made an appointment. I hadn't, and she ushered us to a table near the back of the restaurant.
"No, no, no, Elspeth. That's John LeGrand. We do not give him a table near the bathroom." It was Ally, rolling her wheel chair toward us.
"Ally," I said and gave her a peck on the cheek.
"John. I haven't seen you in at least two weeks. Have you learned to cook or something? Maybe you found someone who can cook for you?" She looked up at Linda.
"Don't look at me," Linda complained. "I have trouble cooking toast."
"Ally" I said. "This is Linda Ledoux."
"Hi, honey. I've been trying to get this man married off for ages. He's so picky, I don't know if he'll ever find someone."
We both laughed nervously over that one. I ordered a bottle of wine, and we sipped wine and talked before dinner arrived.
"You said you had a report to give me, Mr. LeGrand."
"It's not much of one, but I did check you out at the hospital. Yes, you had a baby boy and yes, he was given up for adoption."
"You do good work, Mr. LeGrand—oh, wait, didn't I tell you all that?"
She was not only good-looking. She was sharp too.
"All right, you can be sarcastic if you want. I'm reasonably sure the Our Lady of Mercy nuns handled the adoption. You probably signed a paper giving up custody of the child, or your parents might have signed such a document, I guess."
"I don't remember signing anything, but I vaguely remember there being a nun in the birthing room. I thought she was one of the nurses."
"Yeah, they're Johnny on the spot. Anyway, I talked to Sister Mary Elizabeth, and she said, 'absolutely not'—I could not have access to any information on your son. Apparently, it's company policy, but we pretty much knew that, didn't we?"
Linda nodded.
"Yes, I guess we did. That's not very encouraging news, John. Is there anything else you can do?"
"A cop, a detective with the Louisiana State Police, told me once that problems were like diamonds—every time you turn it a little, you get a different reflection. I've never forgotten that. If you're going to solve a problem, you have to look at it from every angle. I looked at your problem from the hospital angle and didn't see anything useful. I looked at it from the nun's point of view and didn't find anything useful, so now, I need to look at it from another point of view."
"What's left, John?"
"Lots. For example, I could examine it from your point of view, from the boy's point of view or from the adoptive parents' point of view. That's just for starters."
"So which one is it going to be?"
"I think I need to give the adoptive parents a chance to tell me something."
"But you don't know who they are."
"Well, you're right, but I know what they are. They're parents and parents have many things in common."
Linda shook her head.
"You're amazing." Then the food came, and we did very little talking. With Ally's food, you eat, and you savor the flavor. You don't waste time talking.
I dropped her off at the beauty salon, but before she slid into her car, I kissed her. It wasn't exactly the dream kiss I envisioned, but it would do for starters. She seemed a little surprised, but she didn't stop me.
"What was that for?" she asked.
"Something I've wanted to do since before I met you. Let's just say I'm finishing a dream."
"You baffle me, John LeGrand."
The main Ellisonville library was located on a side street in a Victorian house once owned by an obscenely rich old woman who donated it to the city designating it as a library in her will. Mrs. Miller, who many people believed was older than the building, sat behind the checkout counter and gave me a hard look over her reading glasses.
I hated to do it, but I needed her help, so I walked to the counter.
"Mr. LeGrand," she said in her raspy voice. "What can we do for you?"
"I need to scan some articles from the Ellisonville Gazette, Mrs. Miller, from about ten years ago."
"You have three options." She pulled off her reading glasses and looked me in the eyes. Her eyes were surprisingly clear and blue, for her age. "You might be able to find a paper copy at the newspaper office, but ten years is a long time, and paper tends not to hold up that long. Your second option is to use our microfiche." I wasn't familiar with microfiche, and she must have read my thoughts. "Microfiche is simply a picture of the newspaper on a grid system that you manipulate to the page and article you want." That sounded a bit time consuming.
 "What's my third option, Mrs. Miller?"
"Your third option is to utilize the newspaper's data base online. You type in a search word and a date, and it takes you to the all the articles with the search string in that date."
"That sounds like the one for me. How do I access this data base?"
She shuffled from behind the checkout counter and led me to a computer station. She actually pulled out a chair for me to sit in.
"You simply click on the Ellisonville Gazette icon, and it will take you to a search page. Then you type in your search string, and the computer screen will reveal a series of linked sites. They're arranged in descending order—the ones that are closest to your string will be on top."
"Thank you, Mrs. Miller. You've been very helpful."
"That's my job, Mr. LeGrand," she said and shuffled back.
I typed in "baby announcements" for ten years earlier on the day that Linda had her child. Then on second thought, I copied down the names of all the parents of children born in that week. I was counting on parents being parents whether they were adoptive parents or birth parents. There were no births listed on that day, so I sucked in my pride and trucked over to Mrs. Miller.
"What is it now, Mr. LeGrand?"
"I'm looking for a birth that occurred ten years ago on a specific day, but none are listed in the newspaper."
"Was it a Sunday?"
"No, ma'am. The day listed on the paper was a Tuesday."
"The Gazette only lists births and marriages on Sundays in their Family Section."
"Oh, I never read that section."
"Obviously not." She did not grin when she said this.
I trudged on back to the computer and looked up the Sunday paper for that week. There were five listings with pictures. Most of the mothers were in their early twenties, it seemed. Two of them looked slightly older. There were two other listings but without pictures. All of the entries were worded the same except for one. The common wording went along those lines: John and Jane Doucet of Ellisonville announce the birth of their daughter Beverly Ann Doucet on June 27, 1999 at 5 p.m. at Ellison Parish Regional Hospital. The one worded differently went like this: Robert and Judy Vidrine of Ellisonville announce the arrival of their son Allen Vidrine. The difference was minimal at most, but at least it was a clue.
The picture was a grainy black and white of a young couple in their thirties, I guessed, sitting shoulder to shoulder staring at an infant in the crook of the mother's arms. The age was right. The date was right. I decided to go with my gut instinct on this one.
I typed in Robert Vidrine's name in the database and got more hits than could fit on one page. Apparently, there were many Robert Vidrines in Ellison Parish. I went back to the birth announcement to see if I could find something that would cut down on the number of hits. There was nothing else, but I had a face and a name, so I started clicking on links one by one. On the fifteenth article I found, the new father's face stared back at me. It was a picture of a group of Lids & More workers at a company party. Robert stood third from the left. The article stated that the Lids & More factory had opened two years before the boy was born. The factory made lids for plastic containers. The article was dated April 21, 2001. I typed in Robert Vidrine's name this time with Lids & More and got five hits. The most interesting one was where he'd been promoted and transferred to their offices in Lafayette. Apparently, Robert had moved on up to management. Now, I needed to go to Lafayette. This was where I would start burning Linda's expense money. I hoped that my luck would hold, and I would find my man, if he was my man, quickly.
I didn't tell Linda where I was going. I left a message on her cell phone telling her that the search was taking me out of town, and I would be back as soon as possible.
The Lids & More office was down a little tree-lined street off Verot School Road. I parked in the parking lot and entered the front door. A secretary seated at a desk greeted me.
"Can I help you?" she asked, pleasantly.
"Yes, I'd like to speak with Mr. Robert Vidrine."
"Can I ask you what it's in reference to?"
I knew that companies liked to screen their visitors, but I had hoped a company as small as Lids & More might not. I was wrong.
"I believe I might have dinged his car out in the parking lot. Do you know if he owns a red Mercedes?"
"She smiled—almost laughed. Oh no, Mr. Vidrine drives a much more conservative car. He drives a dark colored Cadillac."
"Really? Is it one of those newer models with the taillights inside the taillights? I just don't like the looks of them."
This time she did laugh.
"Mr. Vidrine's car is a classic with the tail fins and everything. It's his baby."
"I'm sorry for having taken your time."
"Mr. Beaufort."
"Pardon me?"
"Mr. Beaufort drives the red Mercedes. He's busy right now with a customer. Maybe you'd like to leave your name and number?"
"Yeah, that's a good idea. My name is John Fontenot, and here's my phone number." I wrote the first numbers that came into my head on a notepad and handed it to her.
She smiled and thanked me.
It was no problem at all finding Robert Vidrine's Cad. There was nothing even close to it in the parking lot. I parked my '87 Dodge Ram Van on the far edge of the lot and waited. I didn't have to wait long. At twelve noon, Robert Vidrine, looking very professional in a dark suit, walked up to the car and unlocked it. Hello, Mr. Robert Vidrine. He backed out of the space and drove out. I followed him. He took Verot School Road to Pinhook, stopped at a fast food place, and drove to Broussard, just south of Lafayette. He pulled into a quiet neighborhood and parked at a two-story plantation style house. I was figuring by now that Lids & More paid their executives well. I slid my van in front of a house that looked empty. I wouldn't be able to stay inconspicuous for long. My van simply did not match the neighborhood. If I was going to do any surveillance, it would have to be in a rental car.
Robert Vidrine climbed out of his Cad carrying a bag of fast food with him and Judy Vidrine, a nice looking blonde-haired woman, met him at the front door. She looked to be about in her mid-forties. Robert looked to be in his mid to late forties. They pecked and entered the house together. The kid was probably at school. I needed a picture of him, but I couldn't just walk up to the front door and ask for a picture. I couldn't waylay the kid either and take a picture. The cops would probably throw me in jail as a degenerate. I left the Vidrine's neighborhood and drove to a car rental place I had seen on Pinhook. I picked out a nondescript Chevrolet and paid the man for a one-day rental. He gave me the keys and one of his business cards. I thanked him and drove to the first copy shop I could find. The rental car dealer had given me an idea.
The woman at Bud's Copy Palace could not understand why I only needed one sheet of business cards, but she helped me anyway.
"What do you want on it?" She asked, after I told her that I was in Lafayette for a job interview, and I had forgotten to bring my cards.
"I want my name on it," I said. "John LeGrand." Normally, I would have used an alias, but I was afraid Mrs. Vidrine might ask for identification. Parents were very touchy when it came to their kids, and I wanted to be prepared for anything she might throw at me. "Under that, place my title, Executive for Advertising. Then add the name of the company: World Marketing Systems Inc., 2425 S. Foible Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90071. Do you think you could find a clip art or something of a movie camera and place it on the right side of the card?"
"What color do you want the font, Mr. LeGrand?"
"Is silver possible?"
It was. She used silver for the font and a metallic blue color for the camera clip art. Overall, it looked very professional. I left there completely satisfied.
I drove to the public library and used one of their computers to get online. I found a list of talent agents and printed it. I stopped at an office shop, picked up a fifty-cent folder, and placed the list in it.
I bought a fast food sandwich and drove to the Vidrine neighborhood. I parked about four or five houses down from the Vidrine's place and monitored the action there in my rearview mirror. The Cadillac was no longer in the driveway. At about two forty five P.M., Mrs. Vidrine backed a blue Mazda out of the garage and headed north on the street. I assumed she was going to get the kid, so I didn't follow her. Thirty minutes later, she pulled into the garage and closed it. I still didn't see the kid, so I had to assume she had him with her. I would give them about a half hour to settle down. Then I would swing into action.
At four o'clock, I drove around the block and parked in front of the Vidrine house. I grabbed my digital camera and walked up to their front door. The woman showed up a few seconds after I rang the doorbell. She eyed me suspiciously and checked out my car over my shoulder. The car seemed to satisfy her.
"Can I help you?" It was a nice voice. I could only just detect the slight nasal twang that I usually associate with the Cajun dialect.
"Yes, ma'am," I said trying very hard to get rid of my Cajun twang. "My name is John LeGrand with World Marketing Systems Inc."
"If you're trying to sell something," she said cutting me off. "I'm not interested in the least bit."
"No, ma'am," I said quickly. "I'm not selling anything. If you'd give me just one minute of your time, I'll explain why I'm here."
"Go ahead," she said and smiled. "You've got one minute." She glanced at her watch.
I offered her one of my cards, and she glanced at it while I tried to explain why I was standing on her front stoop.
"I'm with World Marketing Systems Inc., Mrs. Vidrine. I'm the executive in charge of advertising. What that means is I find people to appear in our commercials and ads that we place worldwide. We're based in California, but executives like me will often work certain areas of the United States, depending on our needs." I paused for a moment to see if she had any questions.
"Go on," she said. "You have fifteen seconds left."
"Your son's name was given to us as a possible fit for one of our commercials. All I need is to talk to the two of you for five minutes, and to take a picture of him if you are comfortable with that. If not, I can send a camera crew out here in a month or so to take a few shots of him. Of course, that would delay everything, but I am aware of how sensitive all of this is."
"Okay," she said. "Times up. What do you need to know from me?"
"Has your son done any acting in the past?"
"Oh, no. None at all."
"Then I take it he doesn't have an agent, yet?"
"No, we don't."
"Ma'am, this is a list of talent agents. You are quite welcomed to go online and check them out. We suggest that if we decide to use your child in our commercials, you seek the services of one of them."
"Thank you." She took the folder from me and opened it. I was certain I had her hooked. "There are quite a few of them in here."
"Yes, ma'am. We want you to be absolutely sure that World Marketing is above board."
"Come in," she said and held the door opened for me.
"Thank you," I said and entered.
She led me to a living room couch and indicated that I should sit. The boy was on the floor watching a cartoon. He glanced over his shoulder at me, but paid me no other attention.
"Who recommended our son to your organization, Mr. LeGrand?"
"I have no idea, ma'am. We will, that is, World Marketing will, send out a questionnaire, usually to public and private school teachers, art, drama, and literature teachers mostly, asking them to recommend one of their students as possible actors for our commercials and ads. When we get one, we try to follow up, which is what I'm doing." I smiled at her.
"Probably Mrs. Aucoin, his drama teacher." She nodded. "I'll bet it was her."
"I don't know ma'am. The company does not provide us with that information."
"You said you need a picture of my son?"
"Yes, ma'am. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can pose in the picture with him." I figured I could always edit her out of the shot later. "Some parents are reluctant to let their children pose alone for a stranger."
"Well, you certainly look legitimate enough." She paused. "I'm a little embarrassed to ask, but could you show me an id?"
"Why, of course, ma'am. Would my Louisiana driver's license suffice?"
"Yes, of course." I handed her the license, and she read it carefully. When I saw the little worry frown start to form on her brow, I decided I needed to explain why I had a Louisiana license. I reached for the card, and she handed it to me.
"I've been in Louisiana for close to a year now, ma'am. I procured a Louisiana driver's license because it makes things so much easier, especially when I use my credit cards. You'd be surprised how many of these Cajuns, will not accept my California license. I'll be in Louisiana at least another three of four months, so as you can see, it is worth the effort to pick up a license here."
"Yes, of course." She turned to the boy. "Billy," she said, and the boy looked over his shoulder at her. "This man would like to take a picture of you."
"Aw, Mom. What for?"
"It can wait for a commercial if that would make things easier."
"It just might," she said to me and then turned to the boy. "His company is thinking about putting you in one of their commercials."
He sat up.
"Uh, huh," I said. "It's not a guarantee, of course. We need a picture of you, and if the executives in California think you're a good match for our present batch of commercials, they'll call your mom."
"You gonna take a picture of me right here?"
"How about we place you against a blank wall. That way there'll be nothing to distract from the picture. I found an empty wall in their hallway and stood him against it. Then I took the picture. I tried to imagine this as Linda's child, but he looked nothing like her. His hair was straight and blond, his skin was ruddy, and he had blue eyes. After I was done with the picture, he returned to his cartoon, and Mrs. Vidrine led me to the front door.
"Thank you so much, Mrs. Vidrine, for letting me into your home. I will send this picture off to my company as soon as I get to my motel; however, I have to tell you, they are notoriously slow. It might be weeks before you hear anything from them, so you'll need to be patient."
"I will be, Mr. LeGrand, and thank you very much."
I was a little worried that if she didn't hear from the company, she might involve the police. Scams were common place, and this was definitely a scam, but all she had was a fake card with a fake address and telephone number. Of course, my name was on it, but I doubted that the Lafayette police would think to look in Ellisonville for a John LeGrand. If they did, I would just deny it, and they would figure it was just coincidence that the scammer chose my name to place on the card. After all, no self-respecting criminal would use his own name and give it to his victim.
I climbed into my rental car, picked up my van, and drove back to Ellisonville that evening. I knew that Linda would want me to call her right away, but I didn't. I had some very hard choices to make. First off, I wasn't positive that this was her kid. That worried me a little. However, assuming it was, I had to decide what to say if she wanted to see the boy in the flesh or even meet with him. After seeing the boy in his environment, I had come to see things much like Sister Mary Elizabeth saw them. The boy was happy, comfortable, and probably not aware of his birth mother. Introducing the two would only confuse him or maybe even worse. I was taking a chance just showing her the picture.
I called her the next morning at the beauty shop.
"Can you take a break? I have something to show you."
"I'll be right there."
Ten minutes later, she parked in my driveway and knocked on my door.
"Come into my office," I said and led her there. I sat down at my desk and slid the printed picture of her child across the desk. She picked up the picture and stared at it. The tears rolled down her cheeks.
"He looks just like his father," she said in a choked voice. "He was handsome, too."
She laid the picture in her lap and focused on me.
"I want to see him in the flesh, John?"
I knew this was coming, and I dreaded giving her my answer.
"I can't let you do that, Linda?"
"I hired you to find my child for me. Where is he?"
"I found him, Linda, but I can't let you know where he is."
"Damn it, John. You have too. I paid you."
"If you remember, you promised that you would not meet with the child or try to see him in person. I'll give you every penny back if you want, but I am not going to tell you where he is. He's happy. He has two loving parents who are taking excellent care of him."
"I won't talk to him, John. I just want to see him in the flesh."
"No, Linda. You wouldn't be able to stop yourself. Seeing you and finding out about you could completely upset his world. You wouldn't want to do that to him."
"Please, John. Please. This…" She nodded at the picture, "just makes the pain worse. Please tell me where he is."
"You don't know how sorry I am, Linda, but I can't. You'll just have to wait another ten years when he's an adult and maybe then, you two can get acquainted. You'll still be a young woman."
"Ten years is an eternity, and you know it. I can't wait another eternity to find my missing body part. Please John. I'm begging you."
I hung my head.
"I can't," I whispered.
"May you rot in hell," she spat and walked out.
I sat at my desk for a long time. I should never have taken the case. It was obvious from the very beginning that it was a lose/lose situation. If I refused to take the case, I would never have gotten to know my dream girl. If I took the case, I would never be able to kiss her again. I slammed my desk drawer shut and grabbed a beer from my refrigerator. It was going to be a long night.
She stands on the dance floor and moves seductively to the slow beat. Her lips move, but I can't hear what she is saying over the loud music. She holds her arms out to me, and I walk forward parting the sea of dancers before me, but I can't seem to reach her. Whenever I get close to her, she moves back, and I have to fight the dancers again. The music stops, and I can hear what she is saying. "Kiss me," she says repeatedly. "I can't," I complain. I reach for her, but she turns into the ten-year-old boy she gave up, and he's crying, the tears rolling down his cheeks. "I'll never know my momma," he cries. "I'm sorry," I cry also. "I'm so sorry." The music starts again, and the beat is frenzied and the dancers knock me back until I can no longer see the boy. Sister Mary Elizabeth appears before me and does the Boogaloo. She laughs at me and shouts over the music, "It's hell to do the right thing, isn't it?"
I woke up to wet sheets and my digital radio blaring Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood." I turned the alarm off and got up to face a gray, empty day. I suspected it would be a while before the sun shone again.

Prologue: The Three Indians

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