Sunday, April 30, 2017

He Danced with Accordion Lungs

He Danced with Accordion Lungs
                                   for N’onc Moi upon his passing 9/1/00

He danced with accordion lungs--
pumped la musique cadienne through his body
until black notes oozed from the pores,
a capella,
and danced about like saucy cayenne.
The acrid aroma seared the nose hairs,
tasted like drunken Cajuns
waltzing to “Jolie Blonde.”
No, more like jitterbugging
to The Mamou Playboys.
When the hurricane came to Louisiana
the trees tico tico’d to and fro
in a wind that decimated the Gulf coast.
Mais, mon p’tit,” my uncle loved to say
in cases like these.  “If it wasn’t for
hurricanes the trees would never dance.”
When the aerophone gale of blackness
swept through Chataignier like a can can,
kicking up my uncle’s shiny black dancing shoes,
he flew through the air after them like Terpsichore.
Little June tried to catch his N’onc Moi,
but could not snatch the airy spirit
from the watery washboard sky.
Il voyage tout partout, mais il reste a sa maison en terre.
The accordion whispers, “Don’t drop the potato”
but only in Cajun. The music notes rise
up and up, abbandono, but my uncle’s
lungs sing no more.


  I have always felt that my  Uncle Moise Brasseaux was the quintessential Cajun. He loved good food, good times, good music, and the Cajun culture. This is for all the Brasseauxs who are now gone: Tante Not, N'onc Moi, Melissa, Darrell, Russell. May you all dance together with accordion lungs. A version of this poem first appeared in the Southern Indiana Review.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ȃmes en Peine

Loy saw her in the cemetery just outside of Serpentville, and the sight of her stirred his soul.
Dressed in his clean khakis, his brogues, polished to a mirror shine, and his fedora, which he wore, turned down and cocked at an angle, he was on his way to town for a few of Joe's cold beers. When he saw the girl, he stopped and stared. He had not planned on cutting through the cemetery, but now it seemed like a good idea.
The girl helped an age-splotched old man whitewash a tomb. Loy weaved around the graves until he could read the tombstone they worked on: ETHEL ROZAS, nee juin 13, 1892, morte novembre 13, 1950: femme, mere, grandmere, personne. The girl kneeled in the grass next to the tombstone and scrubbed out the letters with a small brush. Her light brown hair, pulled back into a bun at the base of her neck, gleamed in the sunlight. The lime mixture she used streaked her face and arms white. The old man busied himself pulling weeds from around the slab.
Loy inched closer and stood off to the side a bit, about three graves removed and watched. She blew at a loose lock of hair that had fallen across her eyes and looked up, right at Loy. Startled, she blinked and then stared right back into his eyes, a question in the look. She nodded and returned to her job. The old man, who caught the direction of her gaze, looked up at Loy. He stood, using the tombstone for support, and brushed dirt from his knees.
"Puis-je vous aider?" he questioned, using the formal Cajun.
Loy took his eyes off the girl and met the old man's gaze. It was an honest gaze, no fear, or distrust.
"Non, merci vous,” Loy answered using formal Cajun in return. "I was just amazed at how devoted you are toward your jobs. Most people see cleaning graves as a chore." Loy had no one, dead or alive, that he cared for enough to work so diligently. He did not understand why people cleaned the graves. The dead would never appreciate it. Unless, of course, people cleaned the graves for the living—a status symbol of sorts. I am better than you are because my dead rest in cleaner, whiter graves than yours.
The girl looked up then as if she could read his mind. She frowned. He noticed that she had the strangest colored eyes, grayish-green.
"That's where my wife lies, bless her soul," the old man said, laying an age-splotched hand tenderly on the tomb's face. "She was a good woman—a good wife and mother."
"And a good person." Loy added, unable to control himself. The old man frowned and looked at the girl as if he needed a translation, but she was staring at Loy.
"You forgot, grandmother," she said in American. Her voice was musical, her tone mocking. The old man frowned.
"What did you say?"
"I said he forgot to say Memere was a good grandmother." She talked to the old man, but she looked at Loy, before nodding at the tombstone.
"Yes, she was," the old man said softly.
An awkward silence followed. Loy glanced up at the sky, so clear and blue that it seemed to go on forever—straight into the heavens—a beautiful day, perfect for being outdoors. The cemetery backed up to a cotton field. In the distance, he could see a group of pickers slowly bend and straighten over the mature plants as if they were performing some sort of ritualistic dance. A blue jay chattered loudly in one of the cottonwoods that lined either side of the cemetery. Then he was silent. A small breeze rustled the dry cotton plants, and he heard the clatter of the empty bolls sounding like the rattle of bones. He looked down at the girl; she was staring at him.
"Une âme en peine," she said. "A lost soul wandering around the cemetery."
"They say that these sudden breezes are troubled souls looking for a place to settle. They say if you breathe in during one of those breezes that the soul enters your body and settles there. They take over your soul." She paused. "Did you breathe in?"
"Who are they?"
"They are the old and the wise, like Granpere, here." She nodded at the old man, and a wisp of her brown hair fell across her forehead. She swept it away with the back of her lime-coated hand that left another white streak across her cheek. She had delicate hands with long tapered fingers that looked ghostly covered in white as they were.
The old man grinned at his granddaughter.
"Ah," he said. "You're making fun of me, are you Enna?" He grinned wider, exposing a set of stained false teeth. Enna shook her head.
"Don't you deny it," the old man joked. "I can tell." He reached down, placed a hand on her head, and gently shoved. She ducked and laughed.
"I would never make fun of you, Granpere. You are too special." Her eyes sparkled.
The old man turned to Loy.
"She's just like her grandmother, her—gives with one hand and takes with the other—the only two people who could ever do that to me." The old man bent slowly and sat down on the slab next to his granddaughter. An old pickup truck entered the cemetery and a group of people poured out next to a dirty gray tomb. The clang of tools and buckets sounded loud as they began their work.
"I remember once," the old man continued. "When I'd just met Ethel—I was working in the sweet potato fields then, crating them. She was doing the same about three rows away from me. Her and this colored girl were singing." The old man paused and stared up into the blue sky. "I still remember the song: an old spiritual called 'Dry Bones.'"
"I remember that song," Enna broke in. She used to sing it with me all the time:
'The toe bone's connected to the foot bone,
the foot bone's connected to the anklebone,
the ankle bone's connected to the leg bone,
the leg bone's connected to the knee bone,
the knee bone's connected to the thighbone.
Rise up and hear the word of the Lord.'"
"That's it," the old man said. "That's what her and that colored girl were doing, singing and being playful, making up words like lip bones and ear bones and heart bones to make up this story about a guy who placed his lip bones to this woman's lip bones, and they kept connecting bones until they connect the hip bones. This old colored man suddenly jumps up in the middle of the field and starts yelling and screaming. I still remember his words: 'Lord, bring down your wrath on these two sinful women. They've taken a song of the Lord and sullied it. May the holy wrath of God strike them where they stand.' The old preacher—that's what he was, a preacher—raised his two arms up to the heavens, and damn if we didn't get a couple of dust tornadoes go off at that very moment all around us. Scared the hell out of everybody in that field, especially Ethel and that colored girl. They fell to their knees, clasped their hands together, and started praying for all they were worth." The old man gently placed his age-splotched hand on the tombstone.
"I had been on my knees sorting potatoes, so I stood up, taller than that old preacher and went stand next to Ethel and that other girl. 'Ladies,' I said in a loud voice, trying to sound like that preacher fellow. 'The Lord is not a weak man. The Lord is not an insensitive man. The Lord is not a dumb man. The Lord,' I said, looking straight into Ethel's gray-green eyes, 'has got a sense of humor, ladies. The Lord knows how to laugh.' Then Ethel did something that touched my heart. Even today, when I think about it, it touches my heart. She gave me her hand—a small hand, kind of dirty, stained black with potato milk. She put it in mine, and I helped her stand. She glanced at the preacher fellow, and then looked up into that blue sky. 'Thank you, Lord,' she said just loud enough for the group of workers gathered around us to hear. 'Thank you, Lord, for sending me this handsome savior.' She squeezed my hand and fell on her knees—right back to sorting potatoes. The rest of the workers in the field did the same, even the old preacher." The old man looked over at his granddaughter. "That's how she was, though. Always handing out and taking away. I knew that day that I was going to marry her. I knew it for sure because she had taken away my heart and, in return, she gave me the most fantastic feeling I had ever experienced. And years later, after we had been married for some time, she told me that she knew it that day, too. She knew that she was going to marry me, and she knew that I knew it, too."
The girl placed her white hand in her grandfather's and smiled at him.
Loy felt awkward. He took a couple of steps back. He felt as if he were not part of the scene anymore—as if he were outside somewhere peeping into someone's window. He heard a far-off shout and was surprised to see the cotton pickers already on the cemetery side of the field. He took another step back.
"Where are you going?" Enna asked.
Loy thought she was still talking to the old man, so he didn't answer her, and she repeated the question, her grayish-green eyes staring straight into his.
"I…I don't know," he stuttered. He had cut through the cemetery because he had seen this beautiful girl, and now, he could not even remember where he had been headed.
"Well, if you're not headed anywhere, and you're not afraid to get a little whitewash on your clothes and hands, you can help us out here. We still have two more to do after we finish Granmere's grave."
"Enna," the old man reproached. "Maybe the man has some place he needs to be."
"Then let him be someplace, Granpere. I'm only asking for his help if he is free to give it."
"Still and all, Enna."
"It's okay," Loy said, and they both looked up at him. "I would be happy to help you."
"Excuse me, sir,” the old man said. "We don't know your name even."
"Loy. Loy Lafleur," he said, taking off his Fedora and bowing in their direction. A wisp of his heavily oiled hair broke free and fell across his forehead, and he quickly tucked it back up and replaced his hat. The girl smiled at him.
The old man extended his dirt-stained hand.
"How do you do, Monsieur Lafleur? My name is Estus Rozas, and this is my granddaughter, Enna Bontemps." Enna extended a small white hand; Loy shook it. Her hand was warm and soft to the touch, but her handshake was firm and authoritative. After she released his hand, Loy looked down at his own, stained white where hers had been. Enna grinned, pulled a clean brush from a brown grocery sack, and handed it to him.
"Here you go," she said, her grayish-green eyes sparkling. She nodded at a tin bucket sitting next to the grave filled with a thick broth of lime and water. "And there's the bucket. I'm almost done with the front of the tombstone. You can start whitewashing the back while I finish up."
Loy took the brush and the bucket and kneeled behind the tombstone. As he worked, he occasionally glanced at the girl. He estimated her age at 19 or 20, maybe less; he wasn't sure. She worked easily, carefully as if what she was doing was of the utmost importance. He studied her. He was reminded of something from his past, but he couldn't quite place it. He searched his mind as he worked.
Loy was an orphan, born and abandoned as an infant in New York City. Then the orphanage sent him and a trainload of other orphans to Louisiana for placement in good Catholic homes. The man, Pierre Lafleur, who adopted Loy, treated him like a work animal. Pierre fed, clothed, and gave him medicine when he was sick, but he would have done the same for any of the animals that contributed to the farm. Pierre believed that everything on the farm had a purpose, and what didn't was disposed of. One foggy morning he systematically killed a brood of puppies with a ballpeen hammer. When Loy asked why, Pierre said that one dog on the farm was all that he needed. Anymore would take away from the farm rather than add to it. Loy had been six years old then.
Three years later, Loy was a contributor to the farm--he plowed, planted, and harvested the cotton. He did the same work as Pierre and the other boys in the family. For his efforts, he received food, clothing, and shelter—no love, no respect, no comfort.
One morning, about two months after his ninth birthday, Loy escaped. He ran until, exhausted, he fell asleep in an empty drainage ditch next to a cotton field. The next morning, he kept walking, following the dusty graveled and dirt roads that crisscrossed the South Louisiana countryside. That evening, he stopped outside a large whitewashed farmhouse. The sun had just disappeared behind a pecan grove near the house, and a single lighted window faced the road on which he stood. A woman sat in a straight-backed chair before a mirror and slowly, lovingly, ran a brush through her long black hair. Loy had never seen hair that long in his entire nine years of living. He stood, rooted to the spot, and could not have moved even if he had too. He never heard the man who grabbed him.
"Ah, hah," the man said holding on tight as Loy kicked and squirmed. "Damn if I didn't catch me a peeping tom."
"I'm not peeping. I'm just walking on the road. That's all,"
"I'm going to let you go in a second or two if you stop squirming. Now, I got a shotgun about two steps away, leaning on that fence post right there." He turned Loy's body a little, so he could see the shotgun right where he said it was. "If you run, I'll shoot you. I won't try to kill you, but who knows what'll happen. The choice is yours." He slowly released his grip on Loy. "Now tell me, what are you doing out here staring at my wife?"
"I wasn't staring," Loy said, facing his abductor for the first time. He was a small wiry man, about forty or fifty years old; it was impossible to tell just looking at him. The man had a face the color of leather and probably just as tough, as far as Loy could tell. The face was wrinkled and bewhiskered. It seemed like an honest face. "Okay, I was staring, but only because I've never seen hair that long before."
The man gazed at the window. His face softened.
"She does have long hair at that." He turned and faced Loy. "What you doing for supper? Got any plans?"
"No, sir."
"Then why don't you join us?"
Loy ate supper with them, and before the evening was done, he had told them all about his adopted father and the abuse he received from him. The man, Hinclay Hebert and his wife, Francis Marie, opened up their home to him, and they became more family to him than his adopted family—more family to him than his real family, which had abandoned him nine years before. Although Hinclay was very careful to treat him as a farmhand, Loy understood that underneath it all there was tenderness, maybe even love. At night, after working all day in Hinclay's cotton fields, Loy would bath in the washtub and sit down to Francis Marie's dinner. After dinner, he and Hinclay would watch her comb her hair. It was a performance. First, she would slowly uncoil it from the top of her head and let it fall back behind her, draping the back of the chair. Then she would take both hands and slowly, lovingly, run her fingers through every inch of hair; she did this fifteen times, every time. Then she would pick up the soft-bristled brush Hinclay had given her for their third anniversary, and she would brush until the hair shone raven black and rippled against the brush like water against a shore. She worked as if what she was doing was of the utmost importance. At bedtime, she coiled the hair atop her head again.
Francis Marie died when Loy was 20; her dark hair had turned shiny silver almost overnight, it seemed. One evening, she sat before the mirror brushing her hair, and she fell face forward. The doctor said she had a stroke. Three weeks later, Hinclay took his own life; he hung himself from a rafter in the barn. A son showed up from somewhere up north, sold the farm, and disappeared. 
Loy felt betrayed.
"A penny for your thoughts," Enna said, stirring him out of his revelry.
"I was just remembering a woman I knew a long time ago. You remind me of her a little, the way you clean the letters on the tombstone."
"Is she special to you?"
Loy thought a few moments before answering.
"She died fourteen years ago. She was a good person."
A breeze rustled the cottonwoods.
"Don't breathe," Enna said.
"You said there were two more graves to do?"
'What's the matter? Are you tired already? You haven't even begun."
Loy smiled.
"Which two?"
"Those two just behind Granpere. My mother and my father."
"I'm sorry."
"They died when I was just two."
"Why? How?"
Loy noticed that the old man had stopped what he was doing and was staring at his granddaughter.
"Granpere and Granmere told me that they died in a horrible accident. But that was only to spare me. As soon as I could read, I found an old copy of the Ellisonville Gazette that dated back to the day my parents died. The article said that the deaths were murder/suicide. My mother shot my father and then killed herself."
 "Mon Cher," the old man said, his voice soft and concerned. "It was so long ago."
"Yes, Granpere. It was so long ago."
Loy told her about being abandoned; about being adopted and abused; about the disappointment he felt when he realized that he didn't mean enough to Hinclay to prevent his death. He didn't understand why he told her all this, but she listened intently, frozen with her hand on the tombstone.
In the alley between the cotton field and the cemetery, a woman dragged her heavy cotton sack and broke into song:
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child 
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Far, far away from home."
All three of them stared at the woman as she alternately sang a line and hauled on her heavy burlap sack. When she situated herself in her row, she stopped singing. Everything turned quiet again.
"After I found out the truth about what happened to my parents," Enna said breaking the silence. "I was depressed for days. One day, Granmere called me into the sitting room. 'What she did,' she said speaking of my mother, 'hadn't a thing to do with you. She was sick, honey. She saw a problem, and this was her solution. We look back on it and say, how can it be? Why did it have to be that way? But we're asking those questions with our hearts—not with our minds. She wasn't asking questions, Enna. She was saying this is the only way it can be.' I asked Granmere why Momma didn't kill me, too. 'Because you were with me,' she answered. 'Only because you were with me, honey.'" Enna stood and dropped the little brush she'd been working with in the grocery bag. The group who had been working on the grave on the other side of the cemetery threw their tools into the back of the pickup and piled in afterward. They circled the cemetery leaving a trail of white dust in their wake.
"Look at us," Enna said. "We sound like we're at a funeral wake for heavens sake."
"We are with the dead, so we remember," the old man said. "There is nothing wrong with that."
"Why don't we remember the nice times, Granpere? Like the time you and Granmere took me to the fair in Ellisonville."
The old man grinned as he recalled.
"The band played…it was the Ellisonville Playboys. They played 'Jolie Blonde' and you danced round and round and round tracing little circles in the dust with your bare feet."
"And then Granmere joined me and took my hand, and we spun round and round and round until we couldn't stand up anymore, we were so dizzy, and we both fell sitting down in the dust. Remember that, Granpere? You thought we were crazy."
"Yes, I remember. Your granmere put out her hand, I took it, and she pulled me down between you two. I was so mad, for a second, until I looked into her eyes, and I saw the playfulness there. And we all laughed for a long time while the people danced around us kicking up dust in our faces. How old were you?"
"I was ten, Granpere. When we left the fair, we were white as ghosts from being covered with dust." The old man and the girl grinned knowingly at each other. Again, Loy felt as if he were on the outside watching a slice of life through a lighted window. As if reading his mind, Enna turned to him. "Do you have a moment like that?"
"No, I'm not much of a dancer."
"It doesn't have to be dancing—a moment of pure abandonment—of pure happiness."
Loy thought for a moment. He looked up into the sky. Far off, over the cotton field he watched as a huge white cloud slowly transformed itself. It looked a lot like a man, but the arms were slowly disappearing into what could have been a body. He wasn't sure what it would turn out to be, but he knew it was changing. It had no choice; it was subject to the wind. A long black car whipped into the cemetery and pulled up about ten graves away. The dust rose behind the car, clouded up, and slowly drifted down, covering car and graves. Loy smelled the dust in the air. A man in a business suit climbed out, stumped cowboy boots on the ground, and strode over to a large marble grave. A small woman dressed in a short blue skirt and blouse, climbed out of the passenger side carrying a vase filled with flowers. She placed the flowers at the head of the grave next to the tall marble tombstone. The man stood at the foot of the grave and watched solemnly.
"Once," Loy said, "Frances Marie, my boss's wife, asked me if I would like to feel her hair—she had the longest hair I've ever seen. I ran my fingers through it." Loy closed his eyes as he remembered. "It felt like corn silk, but alive. It smelled like flowers, perfume, and bedrooms. I wanted to throw it up in the air and crawl under it and let it cover me, so I would be lost in its softness and its smell." Loy opened his eyes and blushed through his suntan when he saw the girl and her grandfather staring at him intently.
"How old were you?" Enna asked.
Two more cars pulled into the cemetery. Loy recognized one of the occupants as Mrs. Drucilla Broussard, who lived about two miles from his shack. Mrs. Drucilla loved to bake bread, and it was a rare moment when Loy walked past her house without smelling fresh baked bread. Both cars stayed at the far end of the cemetery near the blacktop road.
"We're never going to finish these if we don't stop talking and start working," the old man said. He stood, pulled a hoe from the back of the old pickup truck parked on the edge of the dirt road, and began edging the two graves next to his dead wife's. Loy gave the front of the tombstone a coat of lime and started on the slab.
"Have you ever been very scared, Monsieur Lafleur?" Enna asked.
"Loy. Yes. Once, when I was walking through Johnson's Cemetery at night."
"The abandoned one."
"Uh-huh. I was walking through it, and I'm afraid I had been drinking a little, and I saw something white moving through the trees."
"Yes. So I ducked behind a grave, watched, and listened carefully. There was a whole line of them weaving in and out of the trees. I thought I had stumbled on some kind of ghost celebration. I knew I was in for it."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do? I stayed right where I was. I could hear them crashing through the trees, and it occurred to me that ghosts wouldn't be so noisy. So I crept forward until I could see fairly clearly through the little moonlight that filtered into the woods. My ghosts were of the four-footed variety. They were cows—Hank Miller's Holstein herd."
"I bet you were happy."
"Happy? Yeah, I was. In fact, I was so happy to be alive that I never heard the barn owl until it swooped down just above my head—probably after some mouse or something the cows had scared up. I fell to the ground and curled up in the fetal position and asked God to make it quick whatever it was he was going to do."
Enna laughed—a small musical explosion of joy.
"Did he?"
"You mean God? Yeah, he pounded some sense into my head and made me aware of how foolish I was. I stood up and ran out of that cemetery as fast as I could. I didn't stop until I reached home, breathing so fast and furious that I probably inhaled a truckload of your lost souls."
Several cars and trucks pulled into the cemetery, and Loy could see little groups of people busily cleaning and painting graves throughout the graveyard. He, the old man, and the girl intensified their efforts and fifteen minutes later, were putting up the tools.
The old man shook Loy's hand.
"Thank you, Monsieur Lafleur. Your help was really appreciated."
"I enjoyed the company, sir." Loy glanced at Enna. She blushed and turned away.
"Perhaps," the old man began, looking directly at his granddaughter. "Perhaps we could offer Monsieur Lafleur a meal for his efforts, Enna."
"Yes, of course. What a wonderful idea, Granpere." She turned to Loy. "How about it, Monsieur Lafleur? Would you be free for supper on Sunday?"
"Loy, and I would never pass up a free home cooked meal."
"Why don't you come early—sometime after mass? That way you can visit before we eat."
"I would love to."
They shook hands all around. Enna and her grandfather climbed into the pickup and left in a cloud of dust. Loy watched the pickup until it disappeared around a curve on the blacktop. Then he slowly made his way through the cemetery until he reached the edge, under the shade of the cottonwoods. He sat on a slab and stared out over the cotton field. The wind had broken the cloud up, and now it looked like one long string of small clouds.
"Sort of reminds me of your hair, Madame Francis." Loy gently patted the gray slab he sat on. The tombstone read, Francis Marie Hebert: nee 1897 morte 1955: La lumière qui allume la nuit. What do you think of Enna?" Loy watched the workers in the field empty their cotton sacks into a trailer. A man wearing a straw hat and overalls, weighed, and emptied the fat sacks and gave them back to the owners to start all over again.
"She's a good person Madame Francis. I feel it. I'm probably going to marry her." A breeze stirred the cottonwoods and Loy inhaled deeply.
"Sometimes, I feel just like those cotton pickers, Madame Francis, first up one row and down another until the load gets too heavy to carry. Then I got to empty it or get someone to help me carry the load. I think she and I can help each other. I think she and I were made to help each other." Loy stood and gazed at the tombstone a moment.
"That day I felt your hair, Madame Francis, was the closest I've been to anyone except maybe today. Remember afterwards, you took my hand in yours and squeezed it. You thanked me. It made my legs weak to think you got pleasure from the touch of my hand." Loy looked up into the sky again. The clouds had all but disappeared leaving behind it a clear blue that seemed to burn the eyes with its clarity.

"You know what," Loy said. "I think I'll go to town and pick up a little lime and a bucket. I bet you'd appreciate it if I cleaned up your grave a bit—spend some time on it, so I can remember."


My parents met in a cemetery while cleaning graves for All Souls Day. They loved telling the story to whomever would listen. I don't remember when I got the idea to write the story down. This is a fiction based on a true story. I hope you enjoy it. A version of this story appeared in The Journal of Kentucky Studies.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Un Petite Rien Tout Neuf (A Little Nothing Brand New)

We lived in a run-down shack, iron gray weatherworn boards, rusted tin roof, and sagging front porch, about two or three miles from Chataignier, a small community with about two hundred and fifty inhabitants. Every week, my father would make the trek to town to buy the necessities we needed to live on. Sometimes, he would walk. Other times, he would take the school bus to town. When he returned, he would always have a small treat for my sister and me. We would run behind him and in excited voices ask, "Qu'avez-vous acheté pour nous? (What have you bought for us?)" Always, he gave the same answer, "Un petite rien tout neuf (A little nothing brand new)." No matter how many times we heard him say it, we still laughed. Then he would stick his hands in his shirt pocket and pull out a couple of bonbons for us. It is one of the most pleasant memories I have of my father.

One day, however, my father varied the routine. When we asked him what he had bought for us, he answered, "Un serpent dans la poche (A snake in the pocket)." Of course, we didn't believe him, so, being quicker than my sister, I stuck my hand in his khaki shirt pocket and instead of a delicious bonbon, I grabbed a cold scaly snake. It coiled around my fingers, and I yelled in fright. On his way home, he had come upon a small Speckled King Snake, and decided that would be a good trick to play on my sister and me. Although my father was a notorious trickster, he often used his tricks to teach. After he had a good laugh, he pulled out the snake, and while it coiled around his arm and wrist, he told us all about it, how it was non-poisonous and ate poisonous snakes and mice. "Il est un ami de l'homme, ce serpent. (He is a friend of man, this snake)." After his lesson, he pulled out two bonbons from his other pocket.

Bayou Marron ran behind our house, about a half-mile away. Whenever the bayou was low enough, my father and I along with Mr. Aucoin and his son would seine sections of it. They would wade through muddy water, dragging the seine behind them across the bayou. Of course, the net would ensnare all sorts of bayou creatures, including the ones we would eat, catfish, gar, choupique, sac-a-lait, crappie, crawfish, turtles, frogs, and others. It would also snare those we would not eat, mostly snakes. The deadly moccasin was the one we feared the most because it was so poisonous. My father had a unique and dangerous method of killing them. He would grab them by the tail, spin them around over his head, and crack them as you would a whip. I was always amazed when he did this and enjoyed it almost as much as the bonbons he brought us.

When I asked him how he did it, he replied, “C’est facile (It’s easy).” He explained that the snake was at its most vulnerable when swimming. Grabbing it by the tail and swinging him around prevented it from sinking its fangs in him. Cracking it like a whip destroyed the intricate system of bones it had and rendered it useless.

Another method of catching food out of the bayou my father used was noodling, which was dangerous because he never knew if there might be a Moccasin waiting to strike. He was a master at this. He would wade in the bayou, the muddy water staining his khaki trousers a dark brown, and look for catfish holes or nests. When he found one, he would slowly stick his hand in the cave and feel around. If he felt a catfish, he would gently run two fingers over its bony head, and curve them behind the twin barbels located just behind its mouth. Then he would pull it out and dump it on the bank, where I would pick it up, using the same method he did, and place it in the large burlap sack I carried.

My father's proudest moment was when he noodled a nine-pound yellow cat. He had to use two hands to pull it out. He held it high above his head and gave out a shout of delight. Later, after he safely placed it in the burlap sack, he told me that as soon as he felt the catfish's head, he knew it was going to be the biggest he had ever caught by hand. "J'étais nerveux. J'avais peur de le perdre. (I was nervous. I was afraid to lose him.)." It became a story that he related to anyone who would listen.

A little nothing brand new was never "nothing" with my father, but it was always brand new whether it was a sweet bonbon, an experience, a trick, a lesson, or a story. The expression is one I have used often with my own children.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Thompson and Thompson

When Leah resigned from teaching public elementary school, she found herself with stacks of teaching materials and two male gerbils, Thompson and Thompson. She kept the teaching materials, but she did not want the gerbils. She offered them to PJ and me, along with a wire cage, a bag of gerbil food, and a two-story see-through plastic cage. We accepted the package and found ourselves the proud owners of two gerbils.
Thompson and Thompson were a set. They looked exactly alike except that one was slightly smaller than the other. My son pointed out the difference to us after he announced that he had chosen names for them, Rachel Thompson and Ari Thompson after Leah's children. At first, the gerbils were the center of attention. I found a way to connect the plastic cage with the wire cage, and I placed their new home in a prominent corner of the dining room. We stopped at the cage and chatted with them on our way out the back door. We used the huge cardboard box that our new mowing machine came in as a corral in which the children and the gerbils could play together. The family's relationship with Thompson and Thompson was quite an agreeable one. Unlike most dogs and cats, gerbils are quiet and make very few demands on their owners. As far as I could tell, they were happy with their living quarters, their food, the water tube, and the workout wheel. I'm not sure they particularly enjoyed the attention we gave them.
The children asked questions about gerbils that PJ and I could not answer; after all, who knows a whole heck of a lot about gerbils? We did what we always did in such situations; we checked some books out of the library. It seems gerbils are prolific breeders, which explained why Thompson and Thompson were both male. Gerbils are desert rodents and not natural to the United States. They subsist on seeds, greens, and fruits. They need little water. They like to gnaw on something, so if you don't want them to chew the cage to pieces, it is a good idea to throw in a stick or two with them.
Gerbils are interesting looking rodents. They come in different color schemes; ours were brown, the color of sand almost. They would stand on their long hind legs, like miniature kangaroos and sniff through the wire bars of their cage. They looked like mice or small rats, prominent incisors and a long tail.
Soon, however, our fascination with Thompson and Thompson waned. We moved their cages from its prominent spot near the back door to the rather dark and out of the way utility room. The children didn't play with them as much. They were left mostly to themselves.
Before Thompson and Thompson, before my wife and kids, I made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins, who found themselves alone too when their daughter married and left the country. When I met them, they were in their eighties and living alone in an enormous house in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts.
Mr. Wilkins had served in the First World War as a pilot. He distinguished himself and returned home with medals, a German Luger, and a piece of the airplane he flew. He also had a box filled with pictures, of the sights and horrors he had seen. His favorite was a black and white picture of himself waving from the open cockpit of his bi-plane. The sun is setting over his right shoulder; his face is in shadows; the flaps of his flight cap are blown up by the plane's propellers. He liked the mystery of it, the play of light and shadows, but he never did anything with the picture. It stayed in the box locked in the footlocker up in that little room at the top of the stairs. After the war, Mr. Wilkins returned to Boston, accepted a job with the FBI, and soon settled into a managerial position until he retired with a commemorative plague and a gold watch. He spent the rest of his life waiting on Mrs. Wilkins.
Mrs. Wilkins spent World War I without her husband. She and two other women formed a trio and toured the USO clubs around Boston. She took in a British soldier, training with the Yanks, into their home. She had a box of pictures in the little room too. Black and whites of a pretty young women with a slightly long face, a strong jaw, wavy hair in the twenties style, a short dress, and a neckerchief tied around her hair. Two other young women stand on either side of her. All three smile at the camera. Her favorite was a picture of a young British soldier whispering in her ear. She is leaning away from him, staring into the camera with an embarrassed smile. The solder is standing. His right hand rests on her shoulder for support. He seems oblivious to the camera. She is seated in the chair, padded and flowered, located by the front door. Her hands rest on the chair arms as if she were preparing to stand. I wonder what he says to her. Was it a flirt?
After Mr. Wilkins returned from the war, life returned to a certain kind of normalcy. She fell into the role of housewife and mother and raised a child who married a serviceman and left home. Then Mr. Wilkins retired, and they started another routine.
Thompson and Thompson fell into a routine too, once they were removed from the prominent location near the back door. They spent most of their days buried under cedar chips in the empty coffee cans I placed at the bottom of the two-story plastic cage. Occasionally one or both would venture out to nibble at the seeds we set out for them daily, sip from the water tube, or take a brief spin on the work out wheel. But mostly they slept. At night, while the rest of the family slept, Thompson and Thompson came out of hiding to throw a rodent party that included running on the rodent wheel, spreading the seeds and cedar and pine chips all over their cage and the utility room floor, or chewing on the cage or the twigs the books told me to place in there for them.
Occasionally, we broke their routine and pulled them out of their daytime hibernation and played with them. The gerbils appeared more irritated by the break in routine than pleased with the attention they received. They had become comfortable strangers to the family.
Then one day PJ noticed that one of the Thompsons, the one my son called Rachel, seemed to be unsteady on his feet and losing weight.
Mr. Wilkins first noticed he had a problem when he started losing weight. Already a thin man, he became alarmingly so. The bones in his face became prominent. His clothes hung on him. Finally, he saw a doctor, whose diagnosis was colon cancer. The news upset him and Mrs. Wilkins, but did little to disturb their well-ordered world.
Every morning, Mr. Wilkins still woke up first and brewed the coffee. Mrs. Wilkins followed him shortly and cooked breakfast, usually something light. Then they sat on the screened porch on the west side of the house, weather permitting, and read the Globe through and then turned to a book or magazine depending on their interest. Lunch was usually light; a bowl of Campbell's Mushroom Soup, a salad, or sandwich. After lunch, Mr. Wilkins fixed a couple of drinks, Scotch whiskey and water, and they talked and listened to classical music on the radio.  When the drinks ran out, they chatted or read until the evening meal, unless someone came by and upset the routine, which was seldom. The evening meal usually consisted of a meat entree, three vegetables (a green and two colored or two green and one colored), bread, a dessert, a glass of wine, and iced coffee with cream. After supper, Mr. Wilkins fixed two more drinks, and they settled down to watch television—the Boston Pops was their favorite program. After the late evening news, they trudged upstairs and went to sleep.
The routine did not vary, even after Mr. Wilkins found out he had cancer. When he became too ill to carry out his part of the routine, Mrs. Wilkins took over his chores. A week later, he died.
Rachel Thompson lost weight quickly, too. His fur lost its sheen. His bones showed through his skin. He held his head to the side, and he had trouble standing; a trip to the feeding bowl usually involved several tumbles until he made it. PJ and I knew he would die, so we prepared the children for his death. For a couple of days, they stared at Thompson and Thompson with curiosity. Finally, my son asked the question we were all wondering.
"When is Rachel going to die?"
We didn't know. We only knew that death was inevitable.
Rachel Thompson held on dearly to life for two more weeks until finally succumbing. I found his body early one school morning, placed it into one of the coffee cans, placed a lid on it, and buried the gerbil in the backyard. His passing barely caused a ripple in our family routine. We were sorry he was gone, of course, but he had never been a big part of the family.
Mrs. Wilkins seemed dazed by Mr. Wilkins' death. She stopped eating and started relying more on the drinks to sustain her. When she did talk to anyone, she talked about Mr. Wilkins and their life together. She no longer read the newspaper in the mornings. She no longer watched the Boston Pops on television in the evening. She left her bedroom only because her granddaughter forced her to. Then she sat in her chair opposite Mr. Wilkins' faded old green recliner. She drank and stared at the empty chair
Less than a month after Mr. Wilkins' death, Mrs. Wilkins was admitted to the hospital.
"She simply does not want to live," the doctor told the granddaughter. "There's absolutely nothing I can do for her."
Three days later, Mrs. Wilkins no longer recognized people, not even those close to her. She spent her time between sleep in long conversations with her deceased husband. A day later, she joined him. Cause of death: no will to live.
I expected the same sort of response toward Rachel Thompson's death from Ari Thompson. During the gerbil’s sickness leading to his death, the two rodents developed a wonderfully close relationship. Perhaps I imagined it, but there seemed to be a closeness between the rodents that wasn't there before. They slept together curled against each other so closely that it was impossible to tell one from the other. Ari Thompson seemed to encourage his companion: He led the way to the food and water; Rachel stumbled behind him. Toward the end, Rachel Thompson couldn't make it up the two-story plastic cage to the wire cage where the food and water was kept. At night, when I checked on them, Ari Thompson seldom ventured out of the bottom of the plastic cage.
I was surprised when I saw Ari Thompson running on the work out wheel the morning I buried Rachel Thompson. He had returned to the routine that he and Rachel Thompson had before the illness. He slept during the daylight hours, except to eat or drink, and he reserved most of his activities for the evening. If he was lonely, I couldn't detect it. We took him out, placed him in a huge plastic globe, and let him roll around the house. Sometimes I think it was more punishment for him than anything else, an unwanted break in his routine.
I met Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins before Mr. Wilkins found out about the cancer. They were not afraid to display their affection for each other in public. They touched. They kissed. They called each other by pet names. People were always amazed to see them together, as if old people could not be affectionate.
After the funeral, friends and family gathered in Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins' kitchen and drank Scotch and reminisced about the dearly departed.
"She loved granddaddy so much that she died from a broken heart," the granddaughter cried. The mourners all raised their glasses in agreement.
"Here. Here," a long-time friend said. "They were a set."
The mourners drank in unison.
"Ari doesn't seem to be too broken up about Rachel's death," PJ said to me after I came in from burying the dead gerbil. "You'd think he would be lonely or something."
We stood in front of the cage and watched as Ari cracked a sunflower seed and did a turn or two on the work out wheel.
"I don't know," I told her. "He doesn't seem as chipper as he used to be." PJ looked carefully at Ari examining us with his nose stuck through the wire cage.
"How can you tell?" she asked and we laughed. Ari climbed through the plastic tunnel leading to the two-story plastic cage and dropped down to the bottom level. He climbed into the remaining coffee can, spread the cedar chips around a little, and curled up and went to sleep.
"They were such a set," I mused. "It's kind of hard to think of them in the singular." But PJ was already in the kitchen, busy with something else. She didn't hear me.
I moved into Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins' house after the mourners left. Living in their house was a lonely event. I sat in Mr. Wilkins' recliner and read the newspaper while the classical music played in the background. At night, I climbed the stairs to sleep in the same bed they had slept in. I found a case of Campbell's Mushroom Soup in the pantry and had soup and sandwiches for my lunch. I searched for the Scotch in the liquor cabinet, but the mourners had emptied it. I found the little room at the head of the stairs three weeks after I'd been there. I spent two days going through all the memorabilia. I looked through boxes of pictures portraying people loving, living, and dying together. I listened to old seventy-eights that someone had boxed up and placed in a corner: Spike Jones, Bing Crosby, and The Andrews Sister. I found sheet music. I found personal letters, bills, and notes. I found ribbons, stickers, and badges. I found pieces of airplanes, pistols, and articles of clothing. I found their life together in a ten by ten room at the top of the stairs.
Gerbils, mercifully, do not collect pieces of their lives and box them up for others to stagger upon later. Gerbils live and they die—death is merely an interruption of the routine. They don't collect memories, and leave behind mementos of their lives together, except maybe a scent or a few chewed-up sticks. After death, the routine is resurrected and life marches on until the next interruption.

Ari Thompson died in his sleep several weeks after Rachel died. I found his lifeless body buried under cedar chips. There was no warning. I took his little body and placed it in a coffee can and buried him next to his brother gerbil. I placed two bricks side by side, like miniature tombstones. As soon as I ran over the bricks with my mower and nearly broke the blade, I moved them back to the stack near the back deck. It didn’t matter. Rachel and Ari Thompson were firmly implanted into my mind. There was something almost human in their relationship that simply fascinated me. It seemed like love to me, but without all that baggage we humans carry with us.

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