Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The King of Sauce Piquante

This is the very first John LeGrand, Cajun PI, story, and if you don't know what Sauce Piquante is, check out the previous blog. A word of warning: some of the language in here might offend some people. It's not graphic by any means, but…

I woke up, clutching the telephone against my chest like a teddy bear.
"Hello? Mr. LeGrand? Hello?"
I gaped at it. I didn't remember picking it up, and I was surprised to find it in my hand. I placed it against my ear.
"Hello? Mr. LeGrand?"
I mumbled something. My head was still in the dream of my ex-wife—a nightmare really.
"Are you Mr. LeGrand, the detective?"
I'm a small town detective. Mostly, I track down animals for local farmers, or I'll do stints in department stores with shoplifting problems. Occasionally, I will spy on a wife or a husband for divorce reasons. I also teach a law enforcement class part time at Ellisonville Junior College, the local college. I was broke. I hadn't had a case in weeks, and part time teaching salary barely paid the groceries.
I glanced at the digital clock on my nightstand: 6:15. I thought, six fifteen in the morning?
"Uh, yes ma'am, I am." I paused. I wanted to tell her that calling someone at six fifteen in the morning was outrageous, as well as discourteous and just wrong, but I didn't want to lose a potential money-making case.
"My name is Aline Fontenot. Would it be possible to have a word with you?"
"Right now? It is a bit early, Ms. Fontenot."
"I have plans for the rest of the day, Mr. LeGrand. I have about an hour to spare."
I cursed my luck.
"Can you give me at least fifteen minutes to dress and brush my teeth?"
"Yes, but I must warn you, I will have only forty-five minutes to spare."
Who is this woman?
"I'll make it fast."
I hung up, slipped out of bed, and took care of my morning routine: I urinated, brushed my teeth, showered, and dressed. Then I padded to the kitchen and started the coffee pot.
***
I operated out of my house on Chinaberry Street, which was on the wrong side of the tracks in Ellisonville, but close enough to make it semi-respectable. In fact, it was so close to the tracks that everything shook whenever a train passed through at 6:00 a.m., 11:47 a.m., 2:32 p.m., 7:11 p.m. and 12:01 a.m. My house is a small white clapboard with a good size front porch. I moved in it ten years before with my new bride. Five years later, my new bride moved out. She did leave a note listing all the problems she had living with me. The trains were number one on the list. I had been working for Sheriff Pat Broussard as a deputy for about three years at that point, but I gave that career up for a bottle and some self-pity time. When I had fallen far enough into the pit of despair, I still had my house and enough common sense to know that I would die if I didn't climb my way out. Pat, who had become a good friend, helped pull me out.
At exactly six thirty, Aline Fontenot rang my doorbell. I slipped on some slippers and answered it. She wasn't what I would call a beautiful woman. She had, what my mother would call, a good childbearing frame—not fat, but wide and strong looking. She was dressed in black slacks, a white blouse with a thin tie, and a black jacket. She wore no make-up, but her face was pleasant enough that she didn't need it. She had rich eyes, deep green with specks of gold in them. Sometimes I can read a customer through her eyes—nervousness, guilt, cowardice, modesty, all sorts of revelations. I searched her green eyes, but she held my gaze and let nothing through.
"What can I do for you?" I asked after I had seated her in the rickety wooden chair across from my desk. I had found the chair and the desk at a yard sale.
She didn't waste time getting to the point.
"I think my husband is cheating on me. I want to know for sure."
"What makes you think he's cheating on you?"
She pulled out a pack of menthol cigarettes from a small leather pocketbook.
"Mind if I smoke?"
I minded, but I needed the business more. I found the old tuna fish can that I had cleaned out and used as an ashtray for the occasional celebratory cigar or the occasional smoker who visited. She shook out a cigarette and lit it with a small gold lighter she fished out of her pocketbook. She blew a cloud of smoke over my head.
"It's the little things he's doing. He's coming in late at night."
"Could he be working late? What does he do for a living?"
She looked at me as if I were crazy.
"Oh, come on. Everybody knows Emory Fontenot."
Up to that point, she had not mentioned her husband's name, so I had to assume she meant that her name was equally recognizable. I knew Emory Fontenot, the Sauce Piquante King, from his commercials on local television and radio stations—an overweight Cajun with a crown on his head advertising the "good Cajun food" at Ellisonville Courthouse Café. Emory was a cook there, and then Sam Martin, the owner, discovered Emory's talent for acting. After that, Emory's popularity shot up. He was now a local celebrity, well known in Ellison Parish and the television coverage area.
"Maybe he's preoccupied with making more commercials," I suggested.
If that's the case," she said through cigarette smoke, "then you tell me, collect your money, and everybody is happy." She tapped her cigarette into the tuna fish can and held my gaze.
"It'll take me at least a couple of days to verify his movements." She nodded. "I charge two hundred dollars a day."
She reached into the pocket book and pulled out two bills.
"Here's two hundred dollars," she said, sliding the bills across the desk. I'll give you the other two, once you're done.
"Plus fifty dollars up front for expenses, Mrs. Fontenot."
She pulled out another bill.
"Two hundred and fifty dollars," she said. "That should buy you at least five sauce piquante meals at the Courthouse Café." She smiled at her own sarcasm.
I took the money and slipped it in the cigar box I kept on the desk for such occasions. It was never a good idea to leave the money in front of the customers tempting them to change their minds. I pulled out a standard contract that I kept in my desk drawer and had her sign it. It said that she agreed to pay me two hundred a day and at least fifty dollars for expenses—more if I had to go out of town. Any expense over fifty dollars, I would run by her. She glanced at it, signed it, and slid it back to me.
"Okay," I said. "I'll take the job. What can you tell me about him? His habits?"
She studied me for a moment, leaned forward, and snuffed out her cigarette.
"Emory goes to work at nine every morning. He comes home at six, or he used to. Now, he comes home at eleven, twelve, sometimes later smelling of whiskey and cigarette smoke."
"What are his excuses?"
She shrugged.
"The usual. Had to work late. He went to dinner with the boss or some television employer that will land him a statewide or national TV job. At first, I believed him. Emory is a very convincing man, Mr. LeGrand. I have occasionally caught him in outright lies, and he somehow convinced me of the truth of his words. Well, this time I noticed little things that made me suspicious, and rather than allow him to work his magic on me, I came to you."
"Little things? Like what?"
"I don't know. The sound of his voice. The way he refuses to look me in the eyes at certain times. This kind of nervousness is not like him, and I suspect his discretions are serious enough to unnerve even the Sauce Piquante King. "
I nodded and looked down at the pad on which I'd been taking notes.
"Have you ever had problems like this with your husband before, Mrs. Fontenot?"
"No, Mr. LeGrand. I met Emory shortly after high school. He had been two classes ahead of me. I was taking a course or two at EJC then and working part time as a clerk for Cajun Quick Construction when he came in looking for a job. I knew immediately that I was going to marry him." She paused and smiled at something she remembered. "He didn't get the job, but he got me. I married him two years later. I had gotten my degree from EJC and was working as a receptionist for the college. Emory was still unemployed despite a few starts at jobs here and there, mostly menial."
"When did he get the job as The Sauce Piquante King?"
She fished out another cigarette and lit it. She exhaled a steady stream of smoke in my direction. I coughed a small protest.
"That didn't come until we'd been married quite some time. After about a year and a half of my support, he found a job as an assistant cook at the Courthouse Café. Emory was a good cook, Mr. LeGrand. Still is. One day, Sam asked Emory if he would do a commercial, and the rest is history. Emory is making a good deal of money now, but that is of little consequence to me. I'm an independent woman. I have a good paying job at EJC. I don't need his money. I devoted ten years of my life to this man and despite the fact that I would rather not see all those years wasted, I will not play a secondary role to anyone. Do you understand that, Mr. LeGrand?" She stared me right in the eyes. Her cigarette smoke danced bluely between us.
I met her stare and nodded.
"Okay," I said. "I'll get to work on this today, and I'll give you a report as soon as I have something concrete.
She stood before I did, snuffed out her cigarette, and found her way to the door. I followed her. She stopped with the screen door open.
"Let me make it very clear to you, Mr. LeGrand," she said. "If Emory is really working, or if he's just going through some faze, I'll be very happy, but if he is cheating on me, I'll destroy him. I won't play second fiddle to anyone." Her mouth twisted hard for a second, and I thought I saw hurt and pain in her eyes. Then she smiled, revealing smoke-stained teeth. "I just wanted you to know."
"Thanks," I said, but it was lost in the slam of the screen door.
***
Pat was really the one who convinced me to give up the booze. He came into my house one day, found me passed out on my bed in the middle of the day and forced about a gallon of black coffee into my gut. After I retched most of my insides out, he sat me down in a chair and told me that if I didn't stop drinking, he was going to expedite my demise—he can be overbearing sometimes. I would never admit this to Pat, but having somebody care whether I lived or died made all the difference. Vera had abandoned me. In a way, Pat took her place. As I said, I would never reveal that to him. I gave up drinking heavily, cleaned myself up, and with his help, obtained a PI license. At first, I spent most of my time outfitting part of my living room into an office. Then a farmer came by, asking me to find out who was stealing his cattle. I spent three weeks living in a mosquito-infested pasture babysitting a herd of beef cows until one moonlit night, I caught a teenage boy leading one of the cows out through a hole in the fence. He had been slaughtering them and selling the meat in Baton Rouge. The farmer was very pleased with my work and spread the word about me.
I didn't suddenly receive an influx of customers, but now and then someone would wander in and after a few moments of "I heard from my sister's husband's father's best friend that you do detective work," we would settle down to establishing a case and a price. A teacher at EJC contacted Pat Broussard asking for someone to teach an Introduction to Criminal Justice class, and he gave him my name. In that way, I slowly built up a reputation and earned enough to survive. I had been in business for four years when Aline Fontenot woke me up out of a dream at six fifteen in the morning.
***
The Courthouse Café was nothing but a hole in the wall squeezed between the Ellisonville Feed & Seed Store and the Main Street Drug Store. Up until Sam Martin saw the potential in advertising, it had been the hangout for a few regulars, sheriff deputies and office workers from the courthouse across the street, mostly. Now, the Courthouse Café stayed packed with customers, and it was difficult to find a free table or space at the counter during mealtimes, especially during lunch and supper. Nothing had changed in the interior. It still contained the same tacky diner décor, the same greasy food. The only difference was that Sam was making money now. I had heard that he had just bought a new house on Chêne Avenue where the wealthy lived—a good distance on the other side of the tracks from mine.
I parked my "87 Dodge Ram Van—payment for finding a lost pit bull—in the thirty-minute free parking zone across the street. Although it was a good three hours to supper, a few people lined the counter, drinking coffee, and several others occupied the tables scattered around the dining area, as well. I asked the blond woman behind the counter where Sam was. She looked at me as if I was crazy or stupid, or both maybe.
"How the hell would I know? He doesn't tell me anything." She paused a second, and when I didn't react, she added, "Do you want something or you gonna just ask questions?" It didn't look like the service had changed either.
"Uh, a cup of coffee will do," I said vowing to leave her a big tip when I left. She had to be overworked. When she returned, I asked her another stupid question, judging from her expression.
"Any idea where Emory Fontenot is?"
She glared at me.
"Man, do I look like his keeper? I got no idea where the King is. He came by this morning, made his fifteen or so gallons of sauce, and left just like he does every day of the week."
"Where does he go?"
"How would I know?"
I pulled out my wallet and opened it. I slipped a twenty out—a huge chunk out of my expense account—and placed it on the counter. Her eyes widened when she saw the bill. She reached over and pulled it to her.
"Try the Stagger Inn Bar," she said. "He likes to go there in the afternoons. I hear tell he has a honey there."
"Thanks," I said. "Keep the change." But she had already gone to the cash register to pocket the nineteen dollars left over from my dollar coffee.
***
The Stagger Inn Motel was across town next to the Greyhound Bus station. The Stagger Inn Bar was located in between the two. Actually, the bar had been a seldom-used storage shed for the bus station, but when Sissy Ching bought the Stagger Inn Motel, she convinced the depot to sell her the shed and the piece of property it stood on. She stuck a jukebox, a bar, what passed for food service, and a few tables in it and created an instant hit. Travelers liked to visit the Stagger Inn Bar while waiting for buses. Sissy was smart enough to keep an updated bus schedule hanging in plain view. Motel customers visited the establishment for nightcaps before tackling the cheap motel beds for the evening. There was usually a steady stream of customers in the place.
I walked into the dark building and stood by the door for a moment while my eyes adjusted to the lack of light. The jukebox cranked out an old Hank Williams tune, "I'm so Lonesome I could Cry." Two men in suits sat at the bar and hunched over their beers, crying for all I knew. A barmaid made as if she were listening to them. She glanced in my direction, didn't like what she saw, apparently, and returned to her crybabies. A red head and a man were having a tête à tête over a couple of drinks, but the man was not the Sauce Piquante King. I scanned the rest of the place, but there was no one else there. I walked up to the bar.
"What'll you have," the barmaid asked in a bored voice.
"A Dixie."
She leaned into the cooler in front of her and pulled out a bottle. She popped off the top off and placed it in front of me.
"How much?"
"One fifty."
I gave her a five, and held it a second too long before releasing it, a signal that I wanted information. I learned that from reading hard-boiled detective novels. It always worked.
"Seen Emory Fontenot today?"
"Yeah," she said, still bored. "Came in around noon. Had his usual two bourbons and left."
"Know where he went?"
"To the motel, I suppose. It's what he does most every day, lately."
"He goes to the motel every day?"
"Uh, huh. And if you got more questions, you'll have to break out a few more bills."
I couldn't do that. My expense account was disappearing fast, and it was nearly impossible to justify a beer as an expense.
"One more," I said. "What does he do there?"
She laughed exposing stained and partially rotten teeth.
"How the hell do I know? Takes a nap, maybe? Or catches a nooner with that whore of his?"
"Are you serious?"
"You said one more." She took the five and rang up the beer on the ancient cash register sitting opposite the bar. She dropped the change in a Mason jar in front of the two men, glanced at me, and smiled an "I bested you smile." I finished my beer and slipped out into the bright sunlight.
***
The Stagger Inn Motel office was a ten-foot wide by fourteen-foot long room with a black and white television sitting on a counter, a fish tank filled with three overweight gold fish near the entrance, and a Naugahyde chair next to the fish tank. Sissy Ching sat on a stool behind the counter. She reached over and turned down the sound on the television when she saw me. Sissy was a good-looking oriental woman with a nice smile and white teeth.
"Hello," she said, flashing her white teeth at me. She looked about mid-forties, but I was sure she was older. "You looking for room?"
"No," I said. "I just wondered if Emory Fontenot was here. I need to talk to him."
"He left about twenty minutes ago."
"Any idea where he went?"
She shrugged and turned up the volume on the television. A soap opera came on.
"Thank you," I said and thought of a question. "What kind of car does he drive?"
"Big black Cadillac," she said, not looking at me.
***
When I returned to the Courthouse Café, it was significantly more crowded. I muscled myself a spot at the counter and asked the new blonde woman, if she knew where Sam Martin was. She nodded her head toward an office door at the end of the counter. I walked to it and knocked.
"Come in," a voice said through the door. I opened it and walked in. Sam Martin was a short, pudgy Cajun with dark curly hair, balding on top. He looked up from the papers he worked on and fixed two dark eyes on me.
"What can I do for you?"
"I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about Emory Fontenot."
"You a cop or something?"
"No."
"A newspaper man?"
I shrugged, and he must have thought it was a nod.
"What do you want to know?"
"Well," I said. "Does he still work as a cook now that he does commercials for you?"
"Yeah, sure. He comes in every day and makes his famous sauce piquante."
"What does he do with the rest of his time?"
"I don't know. We shoot commercials occasionally. I got no idea what he does with the rest of his time."
"Does he get paid extra for the commercials?"
Sam looked at me suspiciously.
"Listen, I paid him good money before he became the Sauce Piquante King. He still gets that, and he gets major bonuses every time he does one of those commercials. Not only that, he gets another bonus every time the damn things air. That guy can talk blood out of a turnip if you ask me. I'll have to raise my prices just to keep him from draining me."
"Looks like you're doing alright to me."
"What'd you say your name was?"
"I didn't. It's John LeGrand."
"What newspaper did you say you work for? The Gazette?"
"Nope. I'm not a reporter, Sam. Let's just say I'm a fan of the Sauce Piquante King."
Sam shook his head from side to side.
"You're probably from Lafayette or Baton Rouge, I bet. You're going to steal him away from me, aren't you? I'll never find another guy like him with such a smooth tongue."
"Any idea where he is?"
"Who knows?  Probably getting drunk somewhere. The SOB drinks like a sponge. You might consider that if you're planning to hire him."
"Thanks," I said. "You've been real helpful."
"Yeah, right," he said and returned to his paper work.
***
I found Emory at the Four Corners. Someone I had talked to mentioned whores or a whore, so on the off chance I might find Emory there, I checked the Four Corners parking lot. His was the only Cadillac in the lot. If he was cheating on his wife, he wasn't working too hard at hiding it. The Four Corners was what passed for a whorehouse complex a few years before. Now, it was nothing more than a collection of broken down clapboard buildings. Three of them were boarded up. The opened one contained aging, unattractive women in pants suits passing as prostitutes. The AIDS epidemic and fear of STDs had put a real crimp in the Four Corners. A few losers still visited, judging from the smattering of cars and pickups in the parking lot.
I parked next to Emory's Cadillac and entered the building. The beer I bought off the gorilla behind the bar cost me three dollars; the information I wanted cost me the change from my ten-dollar bill. Emory was out back with a prostitute. He would be back in fifteen minutes. I nursed my beer and waited. One overweight woman with scummy teeth and wearing a polyester pants suit hit on me, but I told her to get lost. She must have been used to such treatment because she left without a word. A lone man sat at the end of the bar nursing a drink. I figured he was probably waiting for someone, a particular prostitute maybe, or a friend that he came in with who couldn't pass up the selection. Three prostitutes sat smoking and chatting at a table in a dark corner of the room. From my vantage point, the selection looked unappetizing.
Emory Fontenot looked exactly like he did on television except without the crown. He wore dark slacks, a light blue button down shirt and a dark jacket. His stomach was huge, probably from eating too much of his own cooking. It spilled over his belt. He waddled to the bar and ordered bourbon on the rocks. I grabbed my beer and sidled up to him.
"Emory?"
He looked at me, a bit startled. He had small brown eyes sunk deep into his pudgy face.
"Yeah. Who are you?"
"John LeGrand."
"What do you want?" He said this gruffly, as if he didn't want to be bothered.
"I'm a fan, Emory."
He smiled, revealing white teeth—they gleamed too white to be natural. The Sauce Piquante King enjoyed admiration, it seemed.
"Yeah? You seen me on TV?"
"Uh, huh. I love the one where you sit at the table with that crown on your head that accordion music in the background, and you just dig into the sauce piquante with that oversized fork."
He cocked his head to the side, smiled, and pretended he held a fork to his mouth.
"Then I say, 'This sauce is soooo good, it's fit for a king.'"
"Yeah. That's it. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it."
"It's my favorite too. Did you notice that bottle of Dixie next to the plate?"
"Uh, huh," I said. "Nice touch."
"That was my idea. Sam didn't want me to put it there, but I told him it was either the beer bottle or me, and he let it be." He held my gaze. His eyes hardened for a second—dared me to disagree. "I told him that it was artistic integrity. The guy who directs those things thought it was a brilliant idea. That's what he called it, brilliant."
"Well, anyone can see that it makes the commercial special. It adds the Cajun element to it. It really was brilliant." Emory grinned at me, and I let a few moments of silence pass. Someone stood, one of the prostitutes, and dropped a coin in the jukebox. Soon we were listening to Tammy Wynette's, "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Even the songs in this place were old.
"Let me buy you a drink, Emory," I said, noticing that his glass was almost empty.
"Sure."
He held his drink out to the huge, dumb-looking bartender with eyes the color of moss. I pulled out a ten and gave it to him when he returned with the drink and a bottle of beer for me. He waited a moment or two, for a tip perhaps, but I had already spent my expenses for the day. He wasn't going to get any extra from me.
Emory raised his glass and clinked it against my bottle.
"To success," he said.
"Amen," I championed and drank from my beer.
He had unbuttoned his jacket, and I could see he carried a piece. He saw me looking at it, and he looked down at the holstered pistol.
"I got a license for it," he said. "I told Sheriff Broussard that I needed a concealed weapon because I was a celebrity and all. You never know when some crazy is going to jump in front of you and blow your brains out. It happened to Huey Long, you know."
I made a few sympathetic sounds deep in my throat and let a few moments of silence pass as I pretended to enjoy the taste of my beer. Actually, this was my third, and I was already starting to feel the effects. I was not a big drinker anymore.
"I saw you come from the stalls," I said, breaking the silence with an observation most men would not make in an establishment like this. The way things worked in this place was the customers would make a deal with the prostitutes, disappear into the men's room, go through a door mark JANITOR, and meet the prostitutes in a hallway on the other side. "Which one did you go with?"
He eyed me for a while, his cold brown eyes sweeping over me, stopping and holding my gaze. Maybe it was the beers making me paranoid, but I felt as if he was reaching into my head, reading my thoughts. His eyes were intelligent, not those of the big galoot who peddled sauce piquante on the television. I had hoped that the alcohol would loosen him up a bit.
"Oh, that"s Clarisse," he said, leaning closer to me. "I didn't do anything with her, 'cept talk. I knew her in high school." He paused, seeming to consider whether to say something else. He didn't.
"A regular high school reunion, huh?" He didn't like that. I could tell that by the way he frowned into his drink. "Was she a particular good friend of yours, Emory?"
He glanced at me, but he didn't say anything. I had hurt his feelings, or maybe he had figured out my ulterior motives. Funny, but I felt as if I was playing a poker hand with him, and I had to figure out whether he was holding that flush or not.
"One of my high school sweethearts became a prostitute," I said trying to get back in his good graces. "Called herself Misty, blonde, blue eyes, and freckles all over her body."
That got him. He smiled.
"Yeah? She work here? I could go for blonde and freckles."
"Naw, Misty was high class. She went to work in New Orleans. Dances on bars." I tried to bring the topic back to Clarisse. "Were you and your friend tight?"
"Clarisse? Naw. We knew each other a little, you know. After high school, she just disappears from Ellisonville. Two weeks ago, she shows up at the Courthouse Café and says hello. I'm really happy to see her, but I'm busy, you know. I have to make my sauce before the lunch crowd shows up. So I tell her to go to the Stagger Inn Bar and wait for me there. When I show up, she tells me that she had just accepted a job here." Emory drained his drink and ordered us each another. At least, it wasn't coming out of my empty expense account.
"You mean here, at the Four Corners?"
"Uh, huh. I was a little surprised, but, hey, she had been kinda wild in high school. Anyway, I met her here today. She said the only way we could talk is if I take her out back, so I did. You know, catching up with an old friend kinda thing." I followed his gaze and even across the dark room, I could see that Clarisse was a thin woman to the point of sickness; she looked anorexic.
"Does your wife know about her?" I nodded toward the woman.
"Oh, no. I could never tell Aline about her. She would never put up with it. I hate going behind her back, but…," he said, finishing the sentence with a shrug.
"What they don't know, huh?"
He shrugged again; I knew that was about as much as I could get out of him on that subject.
I spent over an hour with the King of Sauce Piquante, and I had no idea whether he was cheating on his wife or not. I knew one thing for sure; he was definitely capable of it.
He and I had another round of drinks before he left. I had to break one of the hundred dollar bills to pay for it. After he walked out, I took my beer and walked over to where Clarisse sat nursing what looked like a whiskey sour.
"Hi," I said, feeling a little light-headed from the short trek. I pulled a chair and sat across from her.
She looked up and licked her teeth: worried, I supposed, that some of the red lipstick she wore had stained them. She needn't have worried. Her teeth were an ugly brown, the color of weak tea.
"Hi," she said. "Looking for a little action?"
"Maybe. I was just talking to Emory, and he said you were the best this place had to offer."
She nodded as if that was a given.
"You smoke?" I shook my head. "How about buying me a drink then?"
I signaled the bartender, and he sent a tired-looking server over. I ordered a whiskey sour, gave her a twenty, and watched another significant portion of my fee disappear.
"Emory told me that you two knew each other. Have you known him for long?"
"Since high school. The SOB knocked me up and then refused to take credit for the dirty deed." She laughed as if she'd said something funny. I could see her gums. They were red and sick looking.
"He got you pregnant and left you holding the baby? Is that why you left Ellisonville?"
"I wasn"t good enough for him. He wanted a woman who could give him more than good sex and loud, smelly kids." The drink came, and she downed half of it before letting it touch the table. "Hey, do you want some action or not?"
I shook my head. I'd had all the action I could handle for one afternoon.
I shouldn"t have been driving, but I was afraid that if I stayed there any longer, I would drink more and end up with one of those prostitutes, maybe even Clarisse. That scared me sober enough to attempt the drive home. I was surprised that the sun was down, and it was already dark when I exited the whorehouse. The mosquitoes were in full force, and I swatted them away from my face. It would have to be one brave mosquito that sucked my blood.
***
I made the drive home without as much as a fender bender. I tried to make sense of what I'd learned, but my alcohol-soaked brain wasn't working well. I should have gone straight to bed, but instead, I called Aline Fontenot. She answered on the third ring.
"Yes?"
"Mrs. Fontenot, this is John LeGrand. I think I need to talk to you."
"So talk, Mr. LeGrand."
"It's a standing policy of mine not to give reports over the phone. Could you come here?" My stomach turned over and reminded me that I was hungry. "Or maybe we could meet at a restaurant?"
"I haven't eaten, yet. Why don't we meet at Ally's? Do you know where it is?"
"Uh, huh," I said. "How about thirty minutes?"
"That will be fine," she said and hung up.
I showered, shaved, and sobered up somewhat, before I set out for Ally's. A crippled Black woman, who made some of the best traditional Cajun and Creole dishes in the state, owned the restaurant. Her blackened catfish was well known statewide. Word was that the governor occasionally sent a helicopter out here to grab a carry out of blackened catfish when he had special visitors. I called to make sure there would be a table available. Fortunately, there was.
***
I pulled into the lot and walked to the entrance of the old barn converted into a restaurant. Aline waited for me at the bar. I joined her, and together, we allowed the waiter to escort us to our table. She ordered a glass of white wine, and I had an iced tea. We both ordered the blackened catfish. We made small talk until the waiter took our dishes and brought us coffee.
"You have a report for me, Mr. LeGrand."
"I don"t think your husband is cheating on you."
"Good. Now convince me."
I had wrestled with whether I should tell her about Clarisse or not, but I didn't see any way around it. After all, Aline Fontenot was my client, and my allegiance was to her.
"Do you remember him telling you about a woman named Clarisse?"
"Clarisse Lafleur, that little whore? Is she back in Ellisonville?"
"You know her?"
"I know her, Mr. LeGrand. I attended high school with Clarisse Lafleur. She was nothing but a tramp. Slept with all the boys at Ellisonville High and most of the ones at EJC, too. Emory had a little fling with her before he met me. I believe she disappeared shortly afterward. Everybody figured she'd probably run off with some married man or something. What does she have to do with all this?"
"That's who your husband has been spending time with. She works at the whorehouse."
"At the Four Corners?"
I nodded.
"It figures. She was never good for anything else. What I don't understand is why Emory would jeopardize his home life and career for some sleazy prostitute like her."
"If it's any consolation, I don't think he's having sex with her. Or that's what he's saying, anyway."
"Let me see if I have this straight. My husband is spending time with a woman who happens to work in a whorehouse, but you don't think he's having sex with her. Do all men stick together that way, Mr. LeGrand?"
"Now, wait a minute. You're twisting my words here. You haven't heard the full report."
She stood and threw her napkin over her plate.
"Write it all down, Mr. LeGrand and mail it to me. I am well aware of what's going on between Clarisse and Emory, and I will handle it."
"Wait, Mrs. Fontenot. There"s something you need to know."
"Write it down, Mr. LeGrand. Our association is over."
I stood, but she had already started to walk away. I sat back down and finished my coffee. The waiter brought the check--$39.49. By the time I left the tip, I had blown another fifty dollars. If I wasn"t careful, I would end up paying to take this case.
***
I'm standing buck naked in a doorway, my hands cuffed and tied over my head to the doorframe. Clarisse, dressed in garters and fishnet stockings, holds a whip in her hands. Her skin is stretched tight over her bones, which poke through obscenely. Emory stands next to her. He is dressed in boxer shorts with tiny little skulls and crossbones all over them. His stomach seems to pour over the underwear. The crown sits cockeyed on his head. Clarisse raises the whip high above her head and flings it at me. It wraps around my chest. The pain is so intense that I hear a ringing in my ears. She raises the whip and again I hear the ringing. The ringing gets louder and Clarisse and Emory slowly disappear.
***
It was the telephone. I ignored the piercing pain in my head and answered it.
"Yeah?"
"John?"
"Uh, huh. Don"t shout at me, Pat."
"You hitting the bottle again?"
"Just business, Pat. What the hell do you want at this hour?" It was eleven thirty at night. I sat up a little straighter and paid for it. "Do you know an Aline Fontenot? She had your card in her pocket book."
"Yeah, I know her."
"Well, she's dead, John."
"What?"
"Shot through the temple. The house was trashed. Looks like robbery at first glance."
"Where did you find her?"
"In her bedroom. Looks like she never heard whoever shot her—no scuffle, no mussed up bed sheets. What can you tell me about her?"
I told him what I knew—about Emory and Clarisse, but I didn't mention the Stagger Inn Motel. I don't know why. I owed Pat Broussard a lot, but Aline Fontenot had been my client, and because I didn't give her my full report, I made her dead. I had to find out on my own. I promised Pat that I would go over, make a statement in the morning, and hung up. Then I dug up my police piece, a .45 caliber that I kept when I left the force. I checked to make sure it was loaded and stuffed it in my waist.
The radio in my van was on, and after a sappy swamp pop tune by Clint West, a commercial came on. I listened to the smooth voice of Emory Fontenot. "Listen Folks," he said, "and I'll tell it to you straight. You can't get a better meal anywhere in the state of Louisiana. Come join me, the Sauce Piquante King, for a meal at the Courthouse Café. Right across from the courthouse in downtown Ellisonville. Tell Sam Martin that Emory Fontenot, the Sauce Piquante King, sent you. You'll get a good meal at a good deal. You have my word on it." I slammed my hands against the steering wheel before reaching over to shut off the radio. What a fool I was? I was no smarter than the thousands of people who listened to Emory Fontenot's smooth voice and took it at face value. He had told me what I wanted to hear, and I had swallowed the hook.
***
Sissy Ching sat behind the counter, although it was after midnight. She lowered the volume on the black and white television when she saw me.
"Where is Clarisse's room?" I asked.
"The whore?"
I nodded.
"Room 13. First floor."
Room 13 was located at about the middle of that wing. The door was in the shadows of the stairs leading to the top floor. I placed my ear against the door and listened to the movement inside. Someone spoke, a man's voice, but I could not make out what he said.
I knocked softly with my piece and someone cracked open the door. I slammed my shoulder against it and sent Clarisse flying across the room. I felt the bullet nick my scalp and slam into the doorframe before I heard the report. I fell to my knees and fired once. Emory took the bullet in the chest. His body folded in half and slammed into the wall. I watched him slump to the floor leaving a trail of blood on the motel wall. He remained sitting, his upper body propped up.
Clarisse screamed something and made as if to crawl toward him, but I was there before she could reach him. I picked her up and threw her on the bed, where she remained, and didn't move.
I searched through the partially packed suitcase looking for some kind of clue that would give me a reason for everything that had happened. I found it in Clarisse's purse—a marriage certificate between her and Emery Fontenot. The Sauce Piquante King was a bigamist, a career-ending situation to be sure.
I threw the purse next to Clarisse, who sobbed loudly on the bed, and I sat on the threshold, trying to swallow down the bile, like a bad meal, that kept rising up in my throat. I waited for the distant sirens to arrive.
***
The story made all the papers. Emory finally achieved his statewide reputation. The headlines read, "Love Triangle Takes Life of Sauce Piquante King and Wife." The article mentioned me but only briefly as the King's killer.
Two days later, jailers found Clarisse Lafleur dead in her cell at the courthouse. She was already dying. The coroner said that her body was riddled with cancer. Had Emory waited a few weeks, he would no longer have been a bigamist. The newspaper story that covered her death revealed that she had married Emory Fontenot a few months after graduating high school, and unhappy with the arrangement, she ran off to points unknown. It was widely speculated that she had been pregnant—probably why Emory had to marry her—although a child was never discovered.
Pat Broussard called me a couple of days later and filled in the rest of the blanks. She had been working as a barmaid in Nevada, but her heroin habit was so bad that she could no longer support it. I guess she heard about the King, and she returned to Ellisonville hoping to blackmail him.
"Emory starts acting strange, so his wife hires you to check him out."
"And when she hears Clarisse Lafleur's name, she remembers the high school story and suspects he's laying her again."
"Uh, huh. I doubt if she knew anything about the blackmail business, the marriage, or the pregnancy. She confronts him when he comes home and probably threatens divorce. He can't let her do that for two reasons: a divorce would reveal that he was already married, and he was being courted by a big TV guy from New Orleans. They wanted him to go national. People would not listen to a bigamist."
"I'd heard rumors that he might leave Sam Martin," I said. "So it was true, huh?"
"Yap. The publicity would have destroyed him, so he panicked and did the only thing he could think to do. He killed his wife, hoping to make it look like a robbery or something. He didn't account for you, but it wouldn't have mattered. The bullet matched the gun he carried."
"What were his plans about Clarisse then?"
"She told us that he was going to take her to New Orleans with him. I doubt it seriously that she would have lasted long. If he didn't kill her, the cancer would have. I don't understand why he didn't kill her instead of his wife. Nobody would be looking for her, a common whore."
"I'm pretty sure he had me figured out, Pat. He had to know I was going to tell his wife that he was seeing Clarisse."
"Maybe he figured out that if she thought that all he was doing was getting a little on the side, she'd be okay with that."
"Then he didn't know her."
"Or maybe, he figured you would tell her exactly what he told you, and she would accept that." Pat was silent a moment. I could hear muffled voices in the background, and I remembered that he liked to leave the radio in his office on low throughout the day. "Well, John, it's been a rough case, and you had to kill a man. Can't be your best moment. Can I do anything to help you?"
"Thanks for the offer, Pat, but I think I'll have to work this one out on my own."
I hung up and went for a long drive in my old van. A Courthouse Café commercial came on. Sam Martin had already replaced the Sauce Piquante King with another commercial, but this guy's voice was not nearly as smooth as Emory Fontenot's was. I suspected that Sam might have to give up his new fancy home and move back to my side of the tracks.
I turned off my radio, and watched the highway lines disappear under my van. When I took this case, I had no idea it could ever end up as it did. I had learned a valuable lesson: any time people interact, bad things can happen, even in a town like Ellisonville.

I pulled into the Stagger Inn Bar parking lot. It was going to be a long night. I didn't know if I could drink the taste of death out of my mouth, but I sure as hell was going to give it a try.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chicken Sauce Piquante

It was almost a tradition in my household. Every Sunday, my mother would cook chicken—stewed, fried, baked, broiled, fricasseed, in creole sauce, in gumbo, in jambalaya, with gravy. Who knew that chicken could be so versatile?

Sauce Piquante was my favorite. My mother would add a couple of chopped cayenne peppers if she had them, and if not, she would sprinkle a generous helping of ground cayenne. Every Cajun cook worth her salt had a Sauce Piquante recipe.  This recipe is as close as I can remember from watching my mother. We usually had field peas, black eye beans, or lima beans, sliced cucumber and sliced tomato with the meal. Served over hot rice, ça c'est bon.

1 chicken, cut up and seasoned with Cajun seasoning or your own concoction.
3 tbs oil
2 tbs flour
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
½ bell pepper, chopped
1-2 hot peppers, chopped (Fresh Cayenne, if you have it, but Serrano, habanera, or jalapeño work too)
Fresh mushrooms, chopped (about a cup or so—my mother never used mushrooms—that's my addition)
½ to ¾ can tomato paste (small can)
2 8-oz cans tomato sauce
½ - ¾ cup chicken broth (you can make your own with the neck, gizzard, liver, or any of the other parts of the chicken you don't like)


In a large Dutch oven brown the chicken in the oil—usually about 8 or 10 minutes. Remove the chicken and add the flour to the leavings and make a roux, stirring until the roux is a dark brown. (If you've never made roux, it's simple. Stir a lot.) Lower the heat a little and add the garlic, onion, celery, bell pepper, and hot pepper. Stir until onion is translucent. Add mushrooms. Cook for a while longer, until mushrooms start to cook. Add the tomato paste, the tomato sauce, and the broth to the roux. Add the chicken and simmer until tender. Add more broth, if needed, to give the sauce the right consistency, thick and creamy. If you're not a big fan of chicken, the recipe works well with shrimp, crawfish, and alligator too.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Scope of Fiction, a Frog, and a God


Many, many years ago, I picked up an old (even then) textbook at a garage sale: The Scope of Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. The book is tattered now, from use, and filled with my marks and notes. The spine is barely attached to the cover. It sits on my shelf in my office proudly displayed with the cover facing forward. I treasure this book and often revisit it. Why? Because every word strikes bone, makes sense, reveals, teaches.


No other book has shaped my idea of story writing, as has The Scope of Fiction. I'll tell you why, but to do so, I must give a brief background. In the seventies, when I found this bargain at twenty-five cents, I was a student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (University of Southwestern Louisiana then) taking sophomore classes. One of them was a short story writing class with John Sherrill Fontenot. I knew I wanted to learn to construct a story, and I knew I had a certain amount of talent, but it seemed that the creature was too big a mystery for me. How the hell does anyone handle all the elements of a short story? I asked myself repeatedly. I nearly gave up, save for John's encouragement. Then I found Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's book.

The authors wrote the book as a short story literature class aid for English teachers. In their 1943 "Letters to the Teacher" introduction, they write, "This book is based on the belief that the student can best be brought to an appreciation of the more broadly human values implicit in fiction by a course of study which aims at the close analytical and interpretative reading of concrete examples." And what wonderful concrete examples they provide: Kipling, Jackson, Bierce, Welty, Lardner, Babel, Joyce, Chekhov, McCullers, Porter, Anderson, Hemingway, and O'Connor to name just a few. I read them all, starting with Kipling and ending with O'Connor, with an eye toward the authors' assimilation of the elements of fiction Brooks & Warren mention in the book. To be honest, some of them were a struggle. Joyce's "Araby" gave me headaches for weeks, and I still don't quite grasp how he packed so much in such a small space. He had to be a magician.

Brooks and Warren write that "…the structure of a piece of fiction, in so far as that piece of fiction is successful, must involve a vital and functional relationship between the idea and the other elements in that structure—plot, style, character, and the like." This was my problem—to include all these elements in my writing, but not seeming to do so. Even today, after many years of honing my craft, I still have problems with that. However, Brooks and Warren helped me enough that my stories caught the eye of Ernest Gaines and Lewis P. Simpson, the former editor of The Southern Review. The review published five or six of my stories, which I have put together in Lighted Windows.

https://goo.gl/nrSVSoLet me make something clear before I go on. I have never been interested in literary criticism. It has always seemed to me that dismembering a story was similar to dissecting a frog as I did in my college biology lab class. Yes, it was interesting finding out what made it function (heart, muscle, nerves, etc.), but I had to kill the poor thing before I could find out. It seems to me that we're doing the same thing when we analyze a story. We cut it up into its basic elements (character, plot, theme, etc.), and in doing so, we destroy some of the mystery that made it live. John Fontenot, my sophomore creative writing teacher mentioned above, once told me that I should always read a story twice. First, I should read it for pure enjoyment, and second, for guidance. That eased my conscience some.

Here's what Brooks and Warren have to say about this: "… plot, character, and theme are abstracted from the organic unity which is the story, and when we discuss them we should always be aware that they are abstractions. And when we discuss them, we do so only to understand better the nature of that unity, the story, from which they are abstracted." Nice words, but the frog still dies, but what these two exceptional authors are telling me is; here is what you should be looking for. Now, read it and pay attention," basically what Ernest Gaines told me, "Read, read, read" and then go and "Write, write, write." I tell my writing students that learning to write can be compared to learning to shoot a free throw in basketball (Yeah, I know, a sports analogy). First, you study how a good shooter does it. Pay attention to how h/she stands, how h/she holds the ball, how the ball leaves the hand, and how the ball arcs in the air. Then you stand at the foul line and shoot some baskets. At first, imitate your shooter. Then find what works for you—your own style. The key, I tell my students, is doing it so often that you don't think about it anymore—something akin to what Ayn Rand wrote in The Art of Fiction; "Before you sit down to write, your language has to be so automatic that you are not conscious of groping for words or forming them into a sentence."
https://goo.gl/iJdrDv
For me, reading and writing are enjoyable because they allow me to live vicariously—to crawl into another person's skin and experience a different world than the one I live in. Alas, a writer must create that world and make it believable for it to work. That means that you have to make sure all the elements in fiction work in tandem, effortlessly and unnoticed. This is no easy achievement, but all the best stories have that in common. Go read "Haircut" by Ring Lardner, "The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant, "Araby" by James Joyce, "The Lament" by Anton Chekov, "A Good Man is hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, and "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner if you want to see for yourself how it is done. They are all included in The Scope of Fiction.

In their book, Brooks and Warren helped me learn what those elements were, see how other writers handled them, and then encouraged me to try it myself. I learned that the elements of fiction are completely interfused. Pull one out and you don't have a story. Isaac Singer once compared a writer to a god who creates life, and like life, a story is a mighty complex thing. Getting everything right is difficult but crucial. Going back to the frog, the heart is essential for life, but so are all the other major organs. They must all work together to make a living, functioning frog.

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Conversation with Monsieur Armand and Myself

             I graduated from high school, received a BA in English, an MA in English, and an MFA in Creative Writing. My father was illiterate, but he instilled in me an urge to better myself. My mother had a seventh grade education. She stressed the advantages of being educated. My sister did not finish high school, but she supported me both financially and spiritually when I needed her. I have uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends whose encouragement and support I have always counted on.
I come from an area of the country where family includes the community; where family and community share the influence they exercise over the children. When I visited Chataignier, my hometown, in 1975 after being gone for five years, Monsieur Armand, the mayor then, asked me if I planned to move back after I finished my stint in the navy.
"No, sir," I told him. I had already made plans to attend Suffolk University, a college in Boston, Massachusetts—a very long way from my hometown.
"Oh,” he said sadly. "You don't hate our little town, do you?"
"Oh, no sir," I said quickly.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be like hating my childhood. Like the child who leaves his family and sets out on his own to see the world, so it was with my hometown and me. Already I had seen too much of the world to be happy in my little hometown. I wanted to encounter new cultures and gain new experiences.
"Good," Monsieur Armand said. "If this town is ever going to amount to much, we're going to have to do a better job attracting the young people. We leave our marks on them; we try to mold them into Chataignier citizens, and the upshot of it all is, that is not their primary concern. We offer them family, tranquility, and homogeneity, but they want independence, stimulation, and diversity."
I nodded my agreement.
"What this town needs to give its youth is more opportunity," Monsieur Armand said, slamming a fist into his opened hand. 
"Yes sir," I said.
However, Chataignier had already given me many opportunities with her people, her stories, and her dreams. I owe what I have become, bad and good, to Chataignier and my family. Daddy, Momma, my sister, my aunts, uncles, my cousins, friends, and the good citizens of Chataignier live on in me and in my work. Sometimes, like a brilliant cut diamond sends different sparkles with every turn of the hand, I’ll look in the mirror and see flashes of someone I knew growing up.
"You remember us," Monsieur Armand told me as I left his store. "This is a good little town to settle in."
"Yes sir," I said.
I am not likely to forget Chataignier. It is where I go for inspiration for my writing—the well in which I dip my pen. My heroes and my villains live in Chataignier.
As I left Monsieur Armand's store, I thought about why I became a writer and a teacher of writing. My family and relatives helped with their stress on education. The Cajun propensity for storytelling helped; the jokes and tales that spilled out with the beer and whiskey at the local saloons helped. I heard the stories. I lived the stories. Hell, sometimes, I was the story.
I owe Chataignier a lot for creating the person I am today, but I did not imagine myself writing out the stories until I went to school. My heroes are the people who introduced me to reading and writing, allowing me to express who I am through stories and poetry. My heroes are my teachers. I thank you Mrs. Duplechien, Mrs. Soileau, Mr. Latour, and all those teachers who believed in me. I owe you my life.

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 li...