Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Half-Acre


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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Over the Gymnasium Floor


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


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

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Junior Detectives


I met Calvin behind Joe's Saloon next to his trailer of empty beer cans and bottles. Calvin sat on the trailer tongue and absently shooed the flies away from his head. The sun burned hot and heightened the smell of stale alcohol.
"Did you get it?"
"It came in this morning's mail." He fished out a crumpled white paper from his jean pocket and dangled it in front of my face.
"Mine came in, too. What does yours say?"
Calvin smoothed out the letter across his thigh.
"'Dear Junior Detective, by accepting this badge, you swear to uphold the laws of the great country of the United States of America, the great state of Louisiana, and the great parish of Ellison. You have volunteered and been accepted to act as the eyes and ears of the sheriff of Ellison Parish. Your duties are to report to me, or any of my representatives, anyone found to be breaking those laws. Thank you and congratulations.' It's signed by Sheriff Franklin."
"Mine says the same thing. What'd you do with your badge?"
"In my back pocket," Calvin said slapping his back pocket. "I don't have a wallet to put it in yet like they do on TV." Calvin pulled out his badge and held it in the palm of his hand. "I'm going to get me a wallet, though. First chance I get."
"Me, too." I pulled the thin chrome badge from the red bandanna I fished from my jean pocket and showed it to Calvin.
The badge was a five-point star. Across each point, printed in Latin were the words veritas, honestas, legis, fortes, and equitas. The Louisiana state seal, a mother pelican with wings outstretched feeding her brood, sat in the middle. Over the seal were the words "Ellison Parish." Beneath it were the words "Junior Detective."
* * *
The cotton gin was a huge wood and tin building housing great big gears, cogs, blades, teeth, fans, belts, and motors that separated the seeds, cleaned, and bailed the cotton using burlap and steel coils. It was noisy and dusty, and the men constantly shouted instructions to each other. Pete LaSache, the man Calvin and I had come to visit, worked on the loading platform where it wasn't as noisy. He carted and stacked the baled cotton onto the platform ready to load on the big trucks that hauled them off to bigger cities. Pete was a thin man dressed in saggy khaki pants, khaki shirt, and worn work boots. A John Deere cap, slightly askew, covered his balding head. He motioned us to sit on an overturned bale and sat across from us in an old slat-bottomed chair that he propped against another bale.
"Ya'll going to the Fourth of July Barbeque and Jambalaya Cook-off at the school?" he asked, as soon as he settled himself.
Yessir," I said. "We're going to help Deputy Pipe park cars."
"He's going to pay us," Calvin added.
Pete nodded, pulled out a sack of Bull Durham from the pocket of his khaki shirt, and shook a few grains of tobacco on a small rectangle of white paper.
"I hear the Knights of Columbus are going to donate all the profits they make to buy Christmas presents for all the children in Ellison Parish whose momma and daddies are on welfare. Kind of strange to be thinking about Christmas in July, but it's a real good idea." He paused to light his cigarette. "Reminds me of a story I heard once about Christmas in July."
Pete always had a story to tell, and usually, I loved to listen to him talk, but I was afraid he'd break into a story before we could show him our badges, so I interrupted him.
"We're sheriff's deputies," I said and unwrapped my badge. Calvin flashed his badge as they did on television. He had bought a wallet for it, and he snapped it shut with a satisfying slap.
"Well, look at that. You boys are sheriff deputies, huh? I got something you boys might be able to solve."
Both Calvin and I leaned forward. This could be out first case.
"Someone stole Hank's bull," he said, once he lit his cigarette. He worked for Hank Fontenot at the cotton gin. "Happened yesterday. Found out this morning."
"Big deal," Calvin said. "Who cares about a bull?" He patted his back pocket. "We're looking for a real case, like a murder or something. You know about any murders?"
"Non, don't recollect any murders happening recently, but Clarence is a prize bull and worth a whole lot of money." Blue smoke escaped from his nose and mouth. "Hank used him for breeding purposes. Brought in a whole lot of money for him."
"How much is he worth?"
"Hate to be pinned down like that, but I'd say that bull must be worth at least a couple of thousand dollars."
"Wow," Calvin and I said together.
"What did Monsieur Hank do?" I asked.
"What he could do. He called Jonel."
"Deputy Pipe?"
"The same one." Pete grinned, exposing a few rotten and smoke-stained teeth. "Jonel nosed around all morning, but didn't come up with anything. Hank said that he'd have to call in the state police if the sheriff's people didn't find anything."
"We're sheriff's people."
He nodded.
"Seems I recall you boys telling me that. Real nice badges." He ground his half-smoked cigarette under his boot heel and pulled out his Bull Durham sack again. "Course a badge doesn't necessarily make a lawman."
"Why not?" Calvin asked.
"What does?" I asked.
"This up here does." He tapped his head. "And here." He tapped his chest.
"Then how come Jonel Pipe is a deputy?" Calvin asked.
Pete grinned.
"That's a good question, Calvin. Jonel might not be the smartest deputy around, but he's fair. Sometimes that's more important than just brains. But I don't think people give Jonel all the credit he deserves."
"I think somebody kidnapped Clarence," Calvin blurted out.
Pete licked his cigarette, popped it into his mouth, and smiled around it.
I jumped up from my bale.
"Why don't we solve it, Calvin? We could go talk to Monsieur Hank."
"Okay."
"Don't you boys tell anybody where you got your information." Pete lit his cigarette. "I don't want Hank thinking I sent you boys over there."
"No, sir," I said, over my shoulder. "You're going to be our secret informer."
Calvin was already on the blacktop road. I ran and caught up with him.
***
Hank Fontenot lived in a large white house on the Serpentville blacktop, just outside the town. My mother called his house "the Serpentville Plantation" because it resembled some pictures she had once seen of antebellum homes with their columned porches. Calvin and I walked up the pine tree-lined driveway and climbed up the gallery steps.
I knocked.
Madame Fontenot came to the door. She wore a loose-fitting cotton dress with an apron draped over it. She was around forty and usually looked much younger than that, but she seemed older, as if she hadn't been getting enough sleep.
"Yes?" she asked, a frown creasing her forehead. Calvin poked me with his elbow.
"Yes, ma'am, we're junior detectives working for Sheriff Franklin." I pulled out my badge, took it out of the bandanna, and showed it to her. Calvin flashed his at her. "We heard that somebody stole Clarence."
"How did you get your information, boys? We only found out yesterday." Calvin tried to answer, but I interrupted him.
"We can't tell you that, ma'am. Junior detectives shouldn't reveal their sources."
"Oh, I understand." She hesitated a while before opening the screen door and leading us through a cool hall into her slightly warmer kitchen. She sat us at a rough wooden table. The table and the cowhide chairs looked much like the table and chairs at my house, but somehow, they seemed more elegant in her kitchen.
"Since you boys already know about it, I guess I can tell you what I know. It won't be much." I pulled out the pencil nub I kept in my front pocket and the tattered notebook I kept in my back pocket.
"I don't know much. Around five thirty yesterday morning, Hank came running in here yelling something about Clarence missing." She stopped. "Am I going too fast for you?"
"No, ma'am," I said. "Were there any clues?"
"No. Hank didn't say anything about clues." She walked to a window facing the rear of the house. "Why don't you go talk to him? He's out back, next to the barn. I'm sure he wouldn't mind at all."
"If you don't think he'll mind, we will."
"No. of course not, boys. Here." She walked to a pantry and opened a small door. She moved a small pair of rubber boots aside and walked in. "I have some cookies in here somewhere. You can take some of them with you." She reached into a jar and came out with a handful of oatmeal cookies.
She gave us each a few cookies and let us out through the back door.
Hank leaned against a wooden pen connected to his barn, a shiny new tin roof over rough cypress boards that weather had not aged, yet. Several cows, all Black Anguses, stood in the shade of an oak tree just beyond the barn.
"We're junior detectives, Monsieur Hank," I said, once we were near him. "Can we talk to you about Clarence?"
"What?"
"Madame Fontenot said you wouldn't mind if we talked to you about Clarence."
"I don't feel like talking, boys." He turned his back to us and looked off into the distance. I noticed several sets of tracks, human and animal, in the dust leading off in the same direction. They disappeared just beyond the pasture gate.
"We're junior detectives working for Sheriff Franklin," I said. "Maybe we can help you find out who took Clarence." He turned, faced me, and smiled briefly. He had even white teeth, and he wore his white cowboy hat at an angle.
"I have a school board meeting in an hour or so." He adjusted his tie under his blue coveralls.
"Monsieur Hank, I really think we could help you get Clarence back." I looked at Calvin, but he was chewing on a cookie and staring in the direction of town.
"How?" He pushed himself away from the fence.
"Suppose it was a kid that stole your bull? Don't you think we would have an easier time finding out who did it?"
"You know, maybe you have something there. What do you want to know?"
"Are those the tracks?" I pointed out the set of small footprints I had seen earlier.
"Sure are. Looks like small feet, and they lead off into the west there, into my pasture." He leaned against the fence. I pulled out my notebook and pencil. "I had my man check out the fence, but he didn't find any holes or anything."
"Maybe he jumped the fence," Calvin said.
"No way. That bull couldn't jump over an ant hill, he was so big."
"Did you check the pasture, Monsieur Hank?"
"Sure did. Every inch, but there's no place where he could hide. It's like he disappeared into thin air." He turned and stared off into the distance again.
"Do you mind if we look around, sir?"
"No. Go ahead. Look all you want."
I walked around the outside of the pen. I didn't notice anything out of place until I reached the gate leading into one of the barn stalls. In the soft manure was a footprint identical to the ones in the pen. I turned to Mr. Hank and pointed it out.
"Did anybody go inside the pen this morning?"
"No. Jonel didn't want anybody to mess up the footprints. He said he might want to take a plaster cast of them."
"Did anybody notice the one in the manure?"
"That one by the gate? Yeah, Jonel saw it. Said it was the way the thief got in. Figures he left with Clarence through that gate over there where the other footprints lead."
I motioned Calvin that I was ready to leave and walked over to Mr. Hank.
"I guess we're going to go now. We'll let you know if we find out anything."
'Okay, boys," he said with his back to us.
I caught up with Calvin and stopped him.
"I think I know who did it, Calvin."
"Who?"
"I want some more cookies before I tell you."
"But you didn't eat yours."
"It doesn't matter. I want some more cookies. Get me some, and I'll tell you who did it."
Calvin thought it over a moment.
"Okay. But how?"
"Why don't you just ask Madame Fontenot for some?"
"Oh, okay."
Calvin knocked on the backdoor.
Madame Fontenot appeared.
"Did Hank help you boys?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
"Well that's good. What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to know if you'd let me have a few more of those cookies," Calvin spoke up. "They were so good, I ate all of mine."
"I guess I can scrape up a few more." She disappeared behind the screen door. I shoved Calvin.
"Go in," I whispered. "Go in."
He walked in, and I slid in behind him. Madame Fontenot stood before the opened pantry. I stood behind her and peered inside. In the corner, where she had moved them earlier, stood a pair of small rubber boots. One of them had manure stuck to the soles. She bumped into me when she turned.
"Excuse me, ma'am."
"That's all right. I didn't know you had walked in. You're very quiet."
She gave Calvin a few cookies, and he stuffed them into his pants pocket.
"There you go," she said and offered me a handful.
"Who fed Clarence, ma'am?"
"Why Hank always did."
"Didn't you?"
"No. Why?"
"No reason. Did you like Clarence?"
She gazed at me for a moment. She seemed startled by the question.
"I really never thought about it. Hank treated him as if he was a human being. I suppose I always thought of him as an animal like all the other ones out there." She nodded toward the barn with her head. "I'm sorry Hank feels so bad about that animal's disappearance." She shut the pantry and let us out through the front door.
"Thank you for your help, Madame Fontenot," I said, once we were on the gallery. She stood behind the screen door and nodded.
"No problem."
"Who did it?" Calvin asked, as soon as we were out of earshot.
"She did."
"Why would she steal her own bull?"
"It isn't hers, though. It's Monsieur Hank's."
"How do you know it's her?"
"The boots in her pantry. Small rubber boots with manure stuck to one of them."
"Why would she steal her own bull?"
"I don't know why."
"How do we find out for sure?"
"I don't know." We turned onto the blacktop toward Serpentville. "Maybe we should talk to Pete again."
"Why him? He's just going to tell us a story."
"Yeah, I know, but sometimes his stories tell us things."
"If you want to waste your time listening to Pete, go ahead. I'm going home. This isn't fun anymore."
We walked together in silence until we reached the cotton gin.
***
Pete was carting a bale next to a stack on the far end of the platform when I walked up. When he saw me, he lowered the bale and started rolling a cigarette. He motioned me over.
"Did you get to talk to Hank?"
"Yessir, we did, and I think I know who stole Clarence, too."
He licked his cigarette and stuck it in his mouth.
"And who's that?"
"Madame Fontenot."
He seemed surprised. He struck a match, put the flame to his cigarette, took a pull from it, and inhaled deeply before replying.
"And what makes you think that?"
"The footprints in the pen and the boots in her pantry with manure on one of them are the same size."
"Maybe she had to feed Clarence and got some of it on her boots that way."
"No, sir, I asked her, and she said she never fed Clarence."
He seemed to consider what I told him.
"That's fine junior detective work. Maybe I should tell you the story about Alphonse Thibodeaux. He stole, too."
I sat on a bale and looked up at him.
"This happened when Serpentville was still on the banks of Bayou Serpent and was still called O'Reilly after the guy who let the Cajuns into Louisiana, so you know it was a long time ago." He ground his cigarette and reached for his Bull Durham sack.
"Nobody had much in those days, and those who did were expected to share with those who didn't." He lit his cigarette and allowed the smoke to trickle out of his nostrils. "Pierre Thibodeaux had and didn't share. Alphonse got to thinking that it wasn't fair that his brother should have so much and not want to share with his neighbors, so he stole a pig from him, butchered it, and invited the whole town to a boucherie."
"Didn't Pierre notice that he had a pig missing?"
"You darn right he did, and he was madder than a hornet, too. There was nothing he could do, though."
"Did he suspect his brother?"
"Sure did. but like I said, there was nothing he could do."
"Why not?"
"Because he ate up all the evidence along with the rest of the town." He laughed. "That's why. Pierre suspected Alphonse, but what could he do? There weren't any witnesses, and if there were, they wouldn't have said a word. They were hungry."
"But didn't Alphonse break the law, Monsieur Pete?"
"That he did, boy. That he did. It isn't right to break the law by stealing, but is it anymore right to hold on to what you have, while those around you are going hungry?"
"What happened to Pierre and Alphonse?"
"This one has a happy ending. After a while, Pierre came to see the error of his ways and him and his brother got along together after that." He looked at me and smiled.
"I gotta go, Monsieur Pete.
He stood.
"Okay, then. Ya'll have a good time at the barbecue."
I stood and left the cotton gin. On the way home, I pulled out my badge and looked at it. Being a Junior Detective was proving a little more difficult than I first thought.
***
The next morning, I walked to Calvin's house, and together, we marched the half-mile to the school grounds. He and I parked the cars in the two open play areas in front of the school. Around mid-morning, Jonel walked over and told us we could stop. He told us to come back around three or four to help him steer the drunks out of the parking lot. We agreed and left.
***
The Fourth of July Barbeque took place behind the school. The Knights of Columbus had set up booths, inside the track, and people milled about going from one booth to another. Calvin headed straight for the food booth. I joined the crowd over by the pole vault pit, which gathered around a platform where Sheriff Franklin gave a speech about law and order. I made my way to the edge where Hank stood.
"Hello, Monsieur Hank," I said loud enough for him to hear me. He adjusted his tie and faced me.
"Oh," he said, as if he were trying to place me. "You're the Leclerc boy, the Junior Detective?"
"Yessir."
"How's the case going?"
"All right, sir. Are you going to call the state police if we don't solve it?"
He studied me closely.
"Well, I did a lot of thinking standing out by that empty pen. Clarence was an expensive bull, and it cost me a lot of money when I lost him. Still and all, he was only an animal. Maybe it's better this way."
He stared past me toward the line in front of the food booth. I followed his gaze. Madame Fontenot was serving rice dressing to the people in line. I told him goodbye and walked in her direction.
"Can I talk to you, Madame Fontenot?"
She turned to me.
"Oh, it's you," she said, a little surprised. "I'm busy right now. Could we talk later?"
"This is important, Madame Fontenot—Junior Detective stuff."
"Well if it's important, I suppose I can get somebody to replace me for a minute or two." She called to Madame Lebleau and asked her to take over.
"What's so important?" she asked, once we were away from the crowd.
"You stole Clarence, Madame Fontenot, and everybody here is eating him."
She seemed shocked at first; her eyes widened, and then she broke out in a huge grin.
"My, but you are a good detective. What gave me away?"
"Your boots were the same size as the tracks, and one of them had manure on it. You said you never fed Clarence."
She shook her head in awe.
"Amazing. What are you going to do with your information?"
"I don't know, ma'am. Monsieur Pete says that sometimes it's all right to break the law if the law gets in the way of something good."
"Pete makes a lot of sense, doesn't he?"
"Yes, ma'am."
She took my hand in hers. She smelled like a mixture of wood smoke and perfume.
"But you're still not convinced that keeping quiet is the right thing, are you?"
"No, ma'am. You broke the law."
"Let me tell you the whole story and then you can make up your mind." She let go of my hand and looked off in the direction of the platform. Sheriff Franklin still talked. Madame Fontenot turned back to me. "Hank is a good man, but money comes so easy to him that he sometimes forgets what it's like to do without. When the Knights of Columbus asked him to donate an animal for this barbecue, he refused. I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't listen, so I gave them Clarence."
"But Clarence wasn't yours to give. He was Monsieur Hank's."
"Clarence belonged to me. It had something to do with taxes."
"Does he know that you gave Clarence away?"
"I told him last night. He was angry, but he'll get over it." She glanced toward the platform again. "I didn't want to hurt him. I just wanted to do something good for those less fortunate than us. Hank and I can afford to do that."
"Just one more question, ma'am."
"Yes?"
"How did you get Clarence out without Monsieur Hank knowing?"
"I waited until he had a school board meeting and led Clarence out. One of the Knights of Columbus men came by, loaded him, took him to the Ellisonville Slaughter House, and butchered him. Hank didn't notice until the next morning. I was going to tell him then, but he was so upset, I lost my nerve."
I frowned.
"But the tracks led out to the pasture."
Madame Fontenot blushed.
"I'm not much of a criminal, am I? I was afraid Hank would come home early from his meeting and find out Clarence was gone and somehow get him back before the deed was done, so I practiced a little deception. I noticed that it was dusty in the pen, so I led Clarence out to the pasture and then back again. Then I erased the set of tracks where we returned and the tire tracks from the trailer. Of course, I had no idea that I had stepped in that manure. That was very perceptive of you to notice that."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"No, thank you for not saying anything until you were certain. That's a sign of maturity." She caught my hand in hers again, squeezed it gently and smiled at me. "Now I must go back and do my job."
"Yes, ma'am. Madame Fontenot?"
She turned to me.
"Yes?"
"I think he understands now."
"I'm sure you're right."
***
Calvin sat at one of the picnic tables, and chewed on a small steak pressed between two slices of bread.
"Aren't you going to eat anything?"
"No, I'm not hungry." I looked in the direction of the platform. Sheriff Franklin had finished his speech, and Hank was getting ready to make his. Madame Fontenot had walked over and stood at his side.
"I don't think I want to be a Junior Detective," Calvin said through a mouthful of steak. "It isn't fun anymore."
"I think I'll stick it out a little longer."
***
That afternoon I helped Deputy Pipe guide the cars out of the parking lot. When the last car left, I walked up to him and shook his hand.
"What's that for?" he asked, looking puzzled.
"Because you're a good deputy."
He squared his shoulders and nodded at me.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Swamp Queen

            My new book, The Swamp Queen is ready for download from Amazon.com.
          My wife and I spent over a year living on the Atchafalaya Basin. The camp belonged to a friend of ours, David LaBreche, who was working in France. It was an exciting adventure for us. I spent most of my days fishing and exploring this wonderfully exotic and mysterious place. We cooked our food outdoors whenever possible, and spent our weekends eating doughnuts and freshly cooked bread from T-Sue's Bakery about a mile or two away in Henderson. We moved out when the Army Corps of Engineers decided that it would not allow camps inside the levee anymore. It was a sad day, but the memories we created living on the swamp are still with us, and we remember our short time there fondly.
           When I decided to write this book, my focus was on the relationship between LeGrand and Woody Bergeron, his old college roommate. As the book progressed, I decided that I needed to take LeGrand out of his usual setting. I immediately thought of Lafayette and the Atchafalaya Basin. I spent several years living in the Lafayette/New Iberia area, so I'm familiar with my setting. The book was originally titled What You Gonna Do? from a statement made by Woody Bergeron to John LeGrand, but once I decided on my setting, I changed it to The Swamp Queen for obvious reasons.
          For those of you who decide to read my book, I thank you, and hope you enjoy it. It was a blast writing it.

The Swamp Queen: A Cajun PI Series by [Roy, Jude]


An old college buddy, a missing woman, a dead body, and all clues leading to the great Atchafalaya Swamp has John LeGrand scratching his head. Woody Bergeron, John's old college roommate, stole his girlfriend and married her. Now, she's missing, so he hired John to find her. The Swamp Queen is another Cajun PI caper and this one takes place in the Atchafalaya Basin, 800,000 acres of alligator-infested wetland. Who kidnapped Teresa Bergeron and why? John must find out although it brings back some painful memories.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Hunters

I jumped out of bed and threw my clothes on before my father had a chance to call my name a second time.
"Whoa, boy," he said from my bedroom doorway. "You better slow down, or you're going to end up hurting yourself before we get out the front door. The squirrels will wait for us. You might as well learn right now that there are only two ways to nab a squirrel; you either sneak up on him quiet-like or wait him out. Either way takes a lot of patience."
It was an effort for me to slow down. I slid my feet into my old sneakers.
"Not them things, boy. The dew will get them wet and give you blisters. Wear those boots I bought you."
"Yessir," I said and dug the work boots my father had given me for Christmas two years before out of the closet and laced them. They still smelled new.
My mother stood over the sink when I walked into the kitchen. The smell of coffee and fresh biscuits was strong. She poured me a glass of milk, added a little sugar and some of her strong coffee to it. Then she pulled a biscuit from the pan on the stove, dropped it onto a plate, and drizzled a little dark sugarcane syrup over it.
"Here," she said, as she slid the plate onto the table. "Sit down and eat some breakfast. No telling when you're going to eat again."
I grabbed the glass of coffee milk and sat. I started to wolf down the biscuit, but my mother waved a finger.
"You stop that right there and eat your food the proper way I taught you."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, and took a bite out of the biscuit.
My father appeared from the bedroom, walked to the stove, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"It's pretty damp out there with the fog and all. He's going to need a jacket."
"It's in the closet with the winter stuff. I'll get it." My mother disappeared into the bedroom. My father sat across from me at the table and silently sipped his coffee, his uncombed hair wild on his head, his skin dark and leathery from years of working in the sun. My mother draped my old jean jacket over the back of a chair and poured herself a cup of coffee. Then she pulled a chair and joined us at the table.
"How long ya'll gonna be?"
My father shrugged.
"Probably be back early afternoon—whenever we get tired, I guess."
"Be careful, yeah."
My father nodded, stood, and walked out the front door. After a while, I heard the door to the outside john slam shut.
"I want you to listen to your daddy. He has some very serious things to show you and tell you. This is a very important event for him."
"Yes, ma'am."
"Just you listen to him. Okay?" She stood and rushed out of the kitchen.
My father came back in and sat before his cup of coffee again.
"Where's your momma."
"She went to the bedroom." I paused a second. "Daddy, is everything all right?"
"Of course it is. Why you asking?"
"I think Momma was crying."
"She's just worried about you. That's all. Finish your breakfast. I'll be right back." He walked into the bedroom. A few minutes later, he returned.
"Go get the gun and the shells so we can go."
I dragged a chair to my father's bedroom doorway. The 16-gauge single-shot Remington shotgun sat in its gun rack over the doorway; the shells were in the closet. I broke the gun opened and sighted through the empty barrel toward the kitchen light before handing it to my father. Then I pulled the chair to the closet and pulled down the box of shells.
My mother, eyes red, appeared in the kitchen again. I gave her a peck on the cheek. She grabbed me and hugged me. I wormed my way out of her grasp and joined my father.
"Let's go fetch Brownie," he said.
We walked out into the early morning air, thick with fog. I could barely make out the Ellisonville blacktop just twenty feet away. My father whistled softly and Brownie, his squirrel dog, crawled out from under the front porch and shook herself awake. He rolled a cigarette, lit it, and we followed the dog.
Brownie scurried from one side of the blacktop to the other, disappearing in out of the fog like a ghost. Occasionally, she would stop and peer behind her to see if my father and I followed. Satisfied, she would return to her foraging. Brownie was a short hair mutt with floppy ears, a broad head like a golden retriever, and a short muscular body perfect for running through the briar bushes and shrubbery of the woods around Serpentville.
When we reached Monsieur Claney's fallow rice field, about two miles from my house, my father stopped and rolled a cigarette. He whistled, and Brownie appeared at his side. We crossed the ditch, and he held the barbed wire apart, so I could squeeze through. I did the same for him. The fog had receded somewhat, and the morning was now a dull gray. My father straightened and stretched.
I examined his face. It was the same dull gray of the morning light. His eyes were sunken with dark patches beneath them. He put a match to his cigarette and waved his arm signaling Brownie into the field. She broke into a run, scaring up a snipe, which let out a scaipe scaipe and zigzagged into the fog. My father picked a levee that snaked toward the woods across the field and we walked along it. A few lazy Black Angus eyed Brownie nervously.
My father handed me the shotgun and motioned me to follow him.
"Hunting is not a sport like your softball and such," he said after a while. It's serious business. You know why?"
"I think so," I answered, but I don't think he heard me. He kept talking.
"Because you'll be taking a life. Even the life of a squirrel is important, you know. He was put on this earth for a reason—maybe to feed us men, or maybe to feed the other animals or maybe to be a part of all this." He waved his arm in a huge sweep that took in our surroundings. Brownie stopped and eyed him carefully. When she realized that he didn't want her, she resumed her bird chasing. "But make no mistake about it; the squirrel is on this earth for a reason. To kill and waste is a sin. It took me most of my fifty-two years to find that out. I remember when your momma's daddy, your granddaddy, died." My father stopped and stared off into the distance the dark edge of Monsieur Claney's woods where we would hunt the squirrels. I waited for my father to start again. "He died well before you were born. It was the only time anybody ever saw him cry. The only time. Ever. I thought that it was weakness in him that made him cry, but it wasn't. He was scared to die. He was scared that his life was a waste, but it wasn't. Look at your momma. Look at you." My father started walking again. "Never waste a life, son. Whether it's your own or that of a squirrel, you should never waste a life."
"Nosir," I said. I wasn't sure what my father was trying to say, but I knew it must be important because of the way he talked to me, like I was a grown up.
"Come on then," he said. "Let's go."
We watched as Brownie scared up one snipe after another. She would chase it until it flew too far or too high for her to have any chance. Then she would run around in circles again until she scared up another. Once we neared the edge of the dark woods, my father whistled. Brownie stopped in mid stride and looked over her shoulder at us. My father waved, and she fell in behind us. When we were close enough to the big moss-covered oaks and other hard woods, my father stopped.
"I'm going to let Brownie go into the woods before us," he said. He waved his arm and Brownie moved forward slowly placing one paw in front the other. "When she spots one, she'll stiffen up and look up at the spot where she saw it. That's when you know she got one. She's just as important as your gun because she'll make that squirrel show himself to you. But you have to know how to make her move the right way."
Even as he talked, Brownie stiffened.
"There, she got herself one. Watch how she works."
Brownie stood frozen under a chestnut tree. She looked up at the tree. I followed her gaze but I saw nothing. My father motioned me to follow him and we walked forward until we were nearly under the tree and almost directly behind the dog.
"Load the gun," my father whispered to me.
I broke the barrel and slid in a shell.
"You see where she's staring at?"
"Yes sir," I said, but I still could not see the squirrel.
"Aim your gun at that spot, but watch what I do."
"I still can't see the squirrel," I whispered.
"Don't worry about that. You will. Just watch what I do."
My father waved his arm to the left and Brownie took a step in that direction, never taking her eyes off the tree. I looked up and a bushy, gray tail appeared from behind some hanging moss. I heard the squirrel bark wildly at the dog. I pulled back the hammer.
"Not yet," my father whispered. "Wait until you see all of him."
He waved his arm again, and Brownie took another step in that direction. I could see the squirrel now. It watched the dog intently and waved its tail up and down vigorously.
"Now?"
"Now."
I slowly squeezed the trigger. I staggered under the recoil. I didn't see the pellets hit the squirrel, but I heard it fall. Brownie ran up to it, gently fitted its lifeless body into her mouth, and carried it to my father, dropping it gently at his feet. He patted the dog and lifted the squirrel to me.
"That's a fine-looking little gray. That was some fine shooting, too." He placed his free hand on my shoulder.
I didn't feel well. The thrill I expected at shooting my first squirrel never came. Instead, I felt sorry for the limp little animal before me. My father placed the him in the cloth sack hooked onto his belt.
"Daddy," I said, once I found my voice. "Daddy, I don't feel so good."
A slight grin flitted across his lips.
"Yeah, I know. Why don't we sit here for a spell and rest?" He pointed to a log a few steps away. We sat next to each other. "Being sick is nothing to be ashamed of. It'll always make you a little sick to kill something if your heart is in the right place. All I want you to know is that there is going to be some times when you have to kill. When you grow up and go to war, maybe you might have to kill another man, or you might have to kill another animal when you're hungry and need to eat. If you have a good reason to kill, the sickness goes away. If not, it stays with you for the rest of your life."
My father smoked silently for a while.
"God is a hunter, too. He has his reasons for taking a life, and I imagine he doesn't feel any better than you do about having to take one." My father's voice sounded strange. I examined his face carefully. He didn't look at me; he stared deep into the woods. After a while, he stood up, brushed his clothes, and motioned me to follow. We headed deeper into the woods. As we walked, the sun gradually diminished until it was only a patchwork quilt of light and dark on the decaying forest floor. After we had gone a good distance, he motioned me to sit on a log. Brownie stayed within sight of my father, quietly surveying her surroundings. We didn't see any squirrels although we had seen signs of them.
My father picked nervously at a thread on his shirtsleeve.
"I have to tell you something, and I'm not so sure how to go about it." He paused and rolled a cigarette. "Do you know what cancer is?"
"Yessir, a disease that eats at your insides, kinda like rust or rot. Madame Jogneaux was sick with it until she died last year."
"That's right. I don't know too much about it, but I think Emma had a skin cancer. It spread to the rest of her body, I guess." My father paused and put a match to his cigarette. His words tumbled out with the smoke.
"Remember last week me and your momma went to New Orleans?"
"Yessir, I do." He, Monsieur Theo, and my mother had driven all the way to New Orleans in Monsieur Theo's battered old Chevrolet. They stayed gone for two days and when they returned, their faces were ashen and gray. My mother's eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot. She had been crying, but she would not answer any of my questions. "Your father will explain it later," she told me and disappeared into her bedroom.
"It was Dr. Frugé who thought I should go to New Orleans for some tests. He thought I might be sick. I was having trouble breathing, and I passed out once at the cotton gin." My father paused and watched in silence as Brownie dug furiously under a dead oak tree. He turned to me. "Les docteurs from New Orleans made their tests, and they found out I had cancer, lung cancer."
His words shot through me and I recoiled with the impact of them.
"Daddy?" I whispered. I could think of nothing else to say. Tears of fear stung my eyes.
"I have to go to New Orleans again next week so the docteurs can operate on my lungs. Your momma and I thought we needed to explain things to you." He stared off into the distance, past Brownie, into the dark woods. "Je suis peur. I'm real scared. When they told me, it was like they put a shotgun to my head. I was mad, too, but I was mostly scared."
"The operation, Daddy. It's going to fix it, won't it? You're going to be okay?" I was afraid to look at him. I was afraid of what I would see in his face.
"That's what I want to tell you. I asked les docteurs the same thing, but they didn't seem to think too much about my chances." My father paused. When he resumed, there was a slight tremor in his voice. "My chances are not too good. Not too good at all."
I stared at the ground and tried to imagine a world without my father. I watched a lone ant try to move a dead beetle. The ant struggled, but the beetle would not budge. Finally, a few other ants arrived and together they pulled and tugged the dead beetle toward the log we sat on. I looked up at my father's face.
"Everything is going to be okay, Daddy." My voice sounded strange to me, almost like it was coming from somebody else. "I'll help you, Daddy."
My father turned watery eyes on me. He placed a thin, calloused hand on my shoulder.
"I know you will. I never doubted it one minute. I just wanted you to know how it is. That's all."
We sat in silence for a while. I didn't want to hunt anymore.
"I'm ready to go home, Daddy."
"Me too, son. All of a sudden, I'm real tired. Why don't you call the Brownie?"
I spotted Brownie about ten feet away standing stiffly staring up into a gnarled oak. I looked up to where she stared and spotted a gray tail waving vigorously just visible behind a clump of moss. I whistled softly like I'd seen my father do, and Brownie broke her stance and ran to me. She stood beside me and waited for my next command. I picked up the shotgun where it leaned against a tree next to my father and pulled out the shell before shouldering it. I offered my father a hand and he took it. I motioned Brownie to follow, and the three of us walked out of the dark woods into a blinding sunlight.

I published "The Hunters" in Papyrus, Fall 1998. 

The Half-Acre

The half-acre belonged to my father. He had to share the rest of the crops with Monsieur Bijeaux, but whatever came out of the half-acre ...