Friday, May 26, 2017

Sonic Boom

I lie on my back in Monsieur Alcide’s pasture. A wispy breeze rustles the grass around me. Butch, my Catahoula dog, sleeps next to me, his legs twitching in sleep. A group of dragonflies swarm about six feet above me, the sun glistening through their diaphanous wings. In the distance, I watch my daddy sitting ramrod-straight on his International Harvester chugging their way up a row of young cotton plants, a thick cloud of dust trailing behind them like smoke. When he gets to the far end of the field, he and the tractor become one, a red slash against the horizon. In the house, my mother stands before the stove and cooks lunch. When she is done, she will hang a white rag on the back door, and my father will come in, the tractor in high gear, bouncing him up and down in the seat.
The sky is clear, a brittle azure blue that seems eternal. I feel that if I gaze at it long and hard enough, I will see heaven. I stare so hard that my eyes ache. I think that heaven might just be blue and God might be the white of the clouds. However, there are no clouds in the sky, and I think that God is taking the day off, reclining in his heaven and gazing down at the greenness of earth. I remove the blade of grass I had been chewing from my mouth and smile up at him just in case. I do not want to offend God. My mother told me once that God knew all and saw all. “Notre Dieu,” she said in that solemn voice she adopted whenever she talked about God or Jesus. “Il sais tout et voit tout.” My father, who is part Native American, part Irish and all Cajun told me that God’s spirit was in everything.
A passenger plane inches its way across the sky, smoke trailing behind it in a thin stream that expands and disappears the further it travels. I imagine what it might be like to be in that plane sitting in a comfortable seat, drinking a Coca Cola, and eating ice cream. I wonder if God is on the plane.
A mosquito hawk glides on the updrafts, his sharp eyes focused on the green world below him. Like God, I think. Suddenly, he folds his wings, and dives downward, the wind shrieking around his aerodynamic body. When he opens them again, he shoots back up to continue scrutinizing the world below for insects. I try to imagine what it would feel like to have wings—to feel the rush of air as I dive downward and shoot back up at the last moment before striking the earth. I try to imagine, but I cannot. The nearest I can come to it is running down the dirt lane that leads to our house, the wind blowing my hair back, my legs pumping, my heart racing, my chest heaving, my mind whirling with the strength I feel in me. It is close, but I am still earthbound—always one foot on the ground.
My mother hangs out the white rag calling my father in for lunch. His back is to the house, and he will not see it until he comes up another row.
I hear the plane before I see it. It is coming from the direction of the field my father works, and is flying much lower than the passenger plane. It emits a low growl that grows louder as it nears me. When it is directly over me, the air explodes, so loud that I can feel it, as thunder will sometimes rumble inside of me during storms. A white halo encircles the plane just behind the wings, and I think that’s God’s plane. I place my hands over my ears and watch it disappear just as quickly as it appeared leaving behind the roar of the engine and the booming echoes of the explosion. Butch jumps up and runs home. The dragonflies disappear, as does the mosquito hawk. My father stops the tractor, stands up, and surveys the sky. My mother sticks her head out of the back door and does likewise. God is angry, I think, and look up, expecting the azure sky to break apart sending down blue shards like rain from the heavens, leaving behind it a sky so black that it is impossible to pierce, and I wonder what we have done to anger God.

_____

As a young boy, I heard my first sonic boom while sitting in my father's cotton field, much like this character, and it frightened me to death. I remember thinking that it sounded like thunder in a cloudless sky and being confused at the unnaturalness of the experience. The thought occurred to me then, that it might be an act of God. Several years went by before I learned about the science behind it, and I was both awed by the information and disappointed.  

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Ten-Dollar Shoeshine

      When I first arrived in Rota, Spain in the early seventies, I had never been out of the United States. In fact, I had never been out of the Southern United States. Although the base in Rota was Americanized, it was still significantly different from the base in Pensacola I had just left. For one, all the workers spoke Spanish, and the few television sets around the air terminal played Spanish programs. That evening, several newbies and I decided to go off base and hit a few of the bars. What follows is a scene from a work in progress that probably will never see the light of day and accurately captures some of the pitfalls and excitement of our first night in a foreign navy town. The characters have just left Perry's Madrid Bar, after being proposition by some rather grimy prostitutes. By the way, although an incident like this did happen my first night out in Rota, the characters, as well as the incident, are fictional.
***
      I followed J.C. and Ernesto outside. It had started raining again, a cold misty drizzle. Randy stood on the sidewalk shaking his head. The taxi driver sped off, his tires squishing loudly on the wet cobblestone street.
      "How much did you end up paying him, Randy?" J. C. asked.
      "Well, I gave him a ten-dollar bill, and he was supposed to give me change, but he didn't. He drove away with my money."
       We laughed at him until he reminded us about our promise to share the cost of the taxi.
       "How much do we owe you?" I asked.
       "Two dollars and fifty cents apiece." We gave him our share and walked through the drizzle to the Red Door Bar, whose door was painted black.
      The place was lively, and the music American. Van Morrison's "Brown-eyed Girl" played on the jukebox when we walked in. Unlike Perry's Madrid Bar, the girls, three of them, stood behind the bar instead of in front of it. They served drinks and talked to the customers seated on the stools across from them. The place held six billiard tables placed in a neat row from the front of the building to the back. All six were taken. Small, fragile-looking tables surrounded by two or three chairs dotted the room. Most of them were covered with beer bottles, but no one sat at them, except for one at the rear left corner of the room, where a dark-haired girl and a sailor occupied it. They held hands over the tabletop and seemed to be having an earnest and serious conversation.
      I strode over to the bar and a blond girl with dark blue eye makeup and red lipstick waited on me.
      "What'll be?" she asked in a strong British accent.
      "You're not Spanish," I said, a little surprised.
      "I should bloody hope not," she said smiling, revealing slightly stained teeth. "I'll sit and tell you my life story some other night, when I'm not so busy. What'll you have?"
     "Four beers," I said holding up four fingers.
     "Spanish, American, German, or Danish/"
     "Which one's better?"
     "Neither, in my opinion. I don't drink the stuff."
     "What do you drink?"
     "Rum and Kas."
     "What's that?"
     "A rum and lemon drink."
     "I'll have three American beers and a rum and Kas."
     "Good choice, Yank."
     She walked off to get the drinks. Just then, two kids, who couldn't have been more than nine or ten, walked in, carrying shoeshine boxes over their shoulders. They looked around the room a bit and zeroed right in on Randy. One kid kneeled and placed one of Randy's feet on the box. Randy pulled his foot down, and the kid grabbed the other foot and placed it on the box. While this was going on, another kid was pulling on Randy's sleeve and yelling up at him.
     "Shoe shine, GI? Good shoeshine. See face. Like mirror." Randy tried to tell the one kid no, while keeping the other one from his shoe, but already his shoes had shoe black on them and the kid was buffing.
     "Here are your drinks," the barmaid told me. "If you don't shoo them away, they'll pester you all evening."
     "Thanks," I said and turned to Randy. "You want a shoeshine or not?"
     "Obviously not, but how do I get rid of these mad urchins?"
     I leaned over and tapped the kid at Randy's feet on the shoulder. He turned to me, his rag ready to buff. I pointed to my shoe.
     "I'm going shove this thing right up your rear end if you don't get the hell out of here." I pointed to the door. "Go, now."
     "Okay, pal," the kid said.  "No rough stuff.  First, he pay me for shoeshine." He held an opened hand out to Randy.
     "How much?" Randy asked reaching into his pocket for money.
     "You're crazy?" J.C. said. "You're going to pay this guy for a shoeshine you didn't want in the first place?"
     "Well, he did shine my shoes."
     "Mil Pesetas," the kid said.
     "A thousand pesetas? That's more than ten dollars."
     "Mil Pesetas, firm."
     "That's robbery. I'm not about to pay that much for a shoeshine."
     "I call shore patrol. I send my pal to get him." He said something in Spanish to his friend. I looked at Ernesto, but he shrugged his shoulders indicating he didn't understand.
      "You just do that," Randy told the kid. "I'd like to see you explain a ten-dollar shoeshine to shore patrol." Randy crossed his arms. He was standing tough.
      The kid said something else to his friend. This time we caught the words Gaurdia Civil.
Randy uncrossed his arms and shuffled his freshly shined shoes.
     "We see," the kid said. "My pal gone get Gaurdia Civil. We see."
     We had been warned about Gaurdia Civil, Franco's personal police force. American or not, if you were on Spanish soil, you were subject to Spanish law, and the Civil Guards were vigilante in their enforcement.
      Randy surrendered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. He held it out to the kid.
      "Gracias,' the kid said and snatched the bill from Randy's hand. He and his friend walked around the building once and left. Nobody else wanted a shoeshine.
     Randy didn't even finish his beer. He told us all goodbye and walked out after the kids. Apparently, he did not stop walking until he reached Barracks 39.
     I stayed in the Red Door until it closed, around one in the morning. I played a few games of pool with J.C. and Ernesto, but mostly, I tried to sell the blond barmaid a ten-dollar shoeshine.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Accordion Heaven

There lived a Cajun man
who couldn’t read or write,
but he could make an accordion sing.
He’d sit on his front gallery,
prop his chair back, and pump that squeezebox
until sun gave way to dusk, to moon.
He was not a lonely man;
although, he never met a woman who could sing
as beautiful as his old Monarch.
The sound left him as breathless
as airless bellows.

When he died, an old man asleep in his bed,
the accordion lay by his side.
The parish buried him in an unmarked grave
in a corner of the Catholic cemetery.
Someone placed the scratched and arthritic
instrument in the cheap pine coffin with him.
In the evening, when moon and sun
share the heavens, you can hear
his accordion melodies float over the conflux
of earthborn souls.

I heard the melody, one Moon-filled evening,
borne upon a warm summer breeze,
weaving among the freshly white-washed tombstones.
I felt its uplifting seduction, and I knew that not only did God exist, 
he was Cajun.

___

I wrote this several years ago after reading an article on Nathan Abshire, "Mr. Accordion." I had also watched "The Good Times are Killing Me," a documentary on Cajun culture in which Abshire is featured. I grew up listening to Mr. Abshire's music. He was well known in Evangeline Parish. A copy of the documentary is available here. It's slow to start, but it does after a few seconds. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sailing on the Chinaball Tree

In the spring, when the lilac-colored flowers covered the Chinaball tree like wispy purplish-blue hair, Daddy picked bouquets to perfume the house. In the summer, when the Louisiana heat was heavy and hot, Daddy sat under the tree's thick canopy and luxuriated in the coolness listening as I jumped from branch to branch among the green foliage pretending to sail the high seas. He always wore a thoughtful, faraway look on his face as if he sailed with me. In the autumn, when the leaves lost some of their luster, the green balls turned yellow and fell to the ground. Daddy and I sat on the front porch and laughed as the chickens and birds staggered from eating too many of the narcotic fruits. In the winter, when all around was either dormant or dead, the tree clung to life, defiantly resisting the evolutionary urge to change, until even it had to succumb to the icy northern winds.

One day, the Chinaball tree died. Suddenly, without warning, the leaves turned a brilliant yellow, then a brittle brown. Daddy got the passe partout, his two-man saw, from the shed out back, and together, we cut it down. He saved a part of the trunk and sat it on the front porch, its heartwood bleeding a deep reddish-brown. The rest he burned in the fireplace.

Not long after, Daddy developed cancer, and as the malignant cells ate away at his body, he sat on his Chinaball stump and stared at the horizon, a pensive, distant look on his face, and I knew he was sailing without me.

Daddy finally succumbed. Weak and emaciated, his skin turned the same shriveled yellow of the Chinaball fruit just before it falls. One day he closed his eyes, drunk on the promise of death, and died.

Years later, I have my own problems facing the responsibilities I have assigned myself. I am educated now–not a tenant farmer like my father was. I load Daddy's Chinaball stump, worn smooth by time and use, into my old pickup truck and drive to his gravesite. I sit and imagine that I am sailing high above the cemetery through an ocean of clouds. Daddy sails with me. I tell him about the book I read, which states that the Chinaball, Melia Azedarach—the "Pride of India"—belongs to the mahogany family. They are a one-of-a-kind tree that grow fast, but do not live long; it is in their nature.

“Like people,” I say, but the words sound brittle like brown leaves off a dead tree.

___

Growing up, we had a large Chinaball tree (also called Chinaberry tree) in the front yard, and like the above story states, I spent hours upon hours playing in its canopy. Momma used the dried berries to create Christmas decorations and play jewelry for my sister. I would use the green berries as ammunition for my rubber tire slingshot. When in bloom, the tree was spectacular and the heavenly scent of the flowers would fill the air. The slice of life above is a work of fiction. Yes, there was a Chinaball tree in the front yard of our farmhouse. Yes, my father died of cancer. However, he did not die in the house that featured the Chinaball tree. Hope you enjoy it.

An Interview with Modina Pipe

The inspiration for Modena Pipe (last name pronounced "Peep") is my mother, who had all her teeth pulled in her late thirties and...