The worst thing that’s ever happened to me was losing my mother.
My father died when I was only seven. Coming home on LA 665, a drunken teenager swerved into his lane and ran him off the road. Dad’s old red pickup rolled several times, wrapped itself around a telephone pole, and exploded into a ball of flame. The driver of the other car skidded to a stop in the middle of the road and passed out at the wheel. She had no idea how many lives she’d ruined until the next day when she woke up in an Ellison Parish jail cell.
Mom mourned my father’s death for nearly a year before she started drinking. The first time she came home drunk, she cried and promised she would never do it again. The second time she cried but made no promises. After a while, she stopped crying, and I accepted the fact that she was going to drink herself to sleep every night.
Then she started seeing men. At first, it was only occasionally. A stranger would show up at the front door, and Momma would invite him in. They sat on the old green couch that Daddy used to fall asleep on. I watched television while they drank, and in the morning, I would wake up to the sound of my mother making coffee.
After a while, I guess she figured I was old enough to stay alone because she started going out with the men. A man would drive up, he and Momma would share a few beers, and then they’d drive off. I wouldn’t see her again until the next morning—she would be making coffee, eyes puffy, clothes disheveled.
She said very little about where she went or spent the night, and I did not ask. I suppose I didn’t want to know.
But of course, I would have to know sooner or later.
My Uncle Oramel enlightened me when I was fourteen. He pulled up in front of Nat Manuel’s store, where I stood around with my friends, and motioned me to his old Studebaker. I stuck my head through the opened passenger’s window and asked him what he wanted.
“Get in,” he said without looking at me. I shrugged and pulled open the car door. Uncle Oramel said nothing. He threw the car in gear and drove me just out of town to a dirt lane that connected the Ellisonville blacktop with the Issacton graveled road. He drove about fifty feet down the lane and parked the car on the shoulder. He turned slightly and faced me.
“I don’t like what I got to do,” he said. “But if I don’t do it, I don’t know who will.”
It wasn’t like Uncle Oramel to be so mysterious. He wasn’t a Baptist minister, but he lived his life in such a way that qualified him to be. He did not drink, smoke, or curse.
"Drink and Sex are the most serious problems corrupting the morals of the people of our country," he would tell anyone who would listen, and even those who didn't.
He reached over me, pulled on the door handle, and pushed my door open.
“I want you to look in that ditch there,” he said. “Tell me what you see."
I stepped out of the car and did as he told me. The lane was a favorite parking spot for high school kids. I knew that. They would park along the lane, drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and do all sorts of things of which I was sure Uncle Oramel didn’t approve. The ditch was dry; it hadn’t rained in weeks. I saw several beer cans, some candy wrappers and a few empty cigarette packs. I also saw something else that looked a little like clear deflated balloons. At fourteen, I had never seen a used prophylactic, but I guessed that's what they were. There were several of them scattered in among the other assorted trash. I turned back to ask my uncle what exactly he wanted me to see.
He stood by the front of the car and leaned on the hood. He didn’t look at me.
“Know what those are?”
Uncle Oramel almost smiled, caught himself, and then scowled.
“Okay, Uncle Oramel.”
“Men put those on their things before having sex.” He almost whispered the word. “Do you understand, now?”
“Yessir, I know what they are." A long silence passed between us as I waited for him to explain why he had brought me out here to show me used prophylactics.
“Sometimes,” he said finally. “I drive out here and scare a few of those kids. I shine a flashlight in their eyes and tell them that I’m going to tell their parents. I do it too, you know.” He paused and fingered a small pimple just below his left ear. “I came here last night.” Again, he paused.
I waited for a long while.
He turned, and leaned toward me. His eyes burned into mine. A small drop of spittle formed at the corner of his mouth. “Do you know where your momma was last night?”
“I don’t know, Uncle Oramel. She went out. Why?”
He straightened and fixed his gaze up the lane.
“Your momma is a whore,” he said softly.
“What, Uncle Oramel?” He had spoken so softly that I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly.
He whirled on me.
“A whore. Your momma is a no-good drunken whore.”
I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say to him and gaped at him open-mouthed.
“You heard me?” he asked in a more reasonable tone.
“Yessir,” I blurted out and tried to collect my thoughts.
“You know who your momma was with last night?”
“Yessir. His name is Sam, or that’s what she called him.”
“What kind of car does he drive?”
“A blue and white Chevrolet,” I said. “An old one.”
“The first car I come to last night, parked exactly where we are standing, was a 1952 blue and white Chevrolet. Your momma and that man you call Sam were in the back seat.” Uncle Oramel frowned as if what he was remembering hurt him too much to recall. “Your momma’s dress was pulled up over her head and that man was up on top of her.”
I didn’t want to hear any more. I couldn’t understand why my uncle was telling me all this. I wanted to defend my mother, but I didn’t know how, for deep down, I knew that every word of what he told me was true. I didn’t want the picture in my head; I had worked too hard to keep it out.
“Shut up,” I finally shouted, tears of anger burning my eyes. I swept a forearm over them. “Shut up, shut up, shut up. You don’t know a goddamn thing about it. What do you know about it?” I ran back toward town.
My uncle did not follow me.
My mother lay on the couch in a semi-sober state when I ran in. She looked at me, saw the condition I was in, and must have guessed what had happened. She hid her face in her hands and cried.
I left home as soon as I graduated from high school. I joined the navy, and they sent me overseas to Spain. I was so far away that I did not have to think about my mother; she did not exist anymore. The new mother I created for myself was sober and obsequious. After my first tour in Europe, I volunteered for another, and the navy sent me to a ship home-ported in Italy. They offered me Stateside leave, but I refused and took a train trip through France and caught my ship in Toulon. I enjoyed myself in Italy, sailing around the Mediterranean, hopping from port to port and coming to rest in my homeport until the next excursion. I rented an apartment, not far from the water. I bought a few pieces of furniture and a stereo system.
Life was going along smoothly for me, and then I received a message from the ship’s chaplain to visit him. Lieutenant Commander Barnes was a short little man with dark hair and dark, nervous eyes. He offered me a chair across from his desk.
“Sit down, Seaman,” he said waving at the chair. “Sit down.” I waited. I had never been to a chaplain before, even for Sunday services. LTCDR Barnes came right to the point.
“When is the last time you went home, Seaman—uh, back to the States?”
“Three years ago,” I said. “Four if you're asking about Serpentville, my home town.”
He nodded, thoughtfully. He picked up a sheet of paper from his desk. I saw an envelope stapled to it with an address scrawled across the front of it in pencil. I could not make out the handwriting.
“I have here a letter from your uncle.”
“Yes, Oramel Beauvais.” He stumbled over the pronunciation of the last name.
“What does he want?” I had not talked to my uncle since that day on the lane.
“Uh, he didn’t know how to get in touch with you. He finally went to the Red Cross, and they forwarded his letter to me.”
“Yessir?” I wanted him to get on with whatever it was he had to tell me.
“Uh, when is the last time you saw or heard from your mother?”
I thought about it.
“About four years ago, Mr. Barnes. The day I left for boot camp.”
“Did you and your mother have problems, son?”
“No, sir. We didn’t have any problems.”
“Then why didn’t you communicate with her?”
“No offense, Mr. Barnes, but my relationship with my mother is personal.”
“None taken, Seaman.” He paused and stared at the paper in his hand. “Uh, perhaps the best thing for me to do is give you this.” He slid the paper across his desk toward me. I leaned forward and took it from him. There were two sheets of paper. The first one was addressed to the Red Cross office in Ellisonville.
Dear Red Cross, it read in my uncle’s childish chicken scratch. My nephew Armand Beauvais Manuel is a navy sailor, but I don’t know where he is. I need to tell him that his momma is dead. Can you do that for me? He didn’t even bother to sign it.
I tried to stand, but my legs felt weak, as if I had been running for miles, and they couldn’t hold me up anymore. I sat back down again. Momma dead? How could that be?
“Can I help you, Seaman?” LTCDR Barnes asked nervously. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, sir,” I whispered. I flipped the letter I’d just read and turned to my uncle’s other letter written in the same chicken scratch, but addressed to me.
Armand, it read. Your momma finally drank herself to death. God bless her miserable soul. I have a couple of boxes of her things for you. He did not sign this one either.
I slid the letters across the desk to LTCDR Barnes.
“You can keep them,” he said. “They’re yours.” He slid them back toward me, but I shook my head.
“I don’t want them,” I said. “I know what they say.” I stood to leave.
“Uh, Seaman Manuel?”
“If you want to go home, I can arrange emergency leave for you.”
“Thank you, sir, but I don’t see the necessity for that. My mother is already dead and buried, for a while now, it seems.”
“Still, as the nearest living relative, isn’t there some business you need to take care of?”
“She has a brother who is capable of doing that, sir.”
I walked out and figured the incident was over, but I hadn’t anticipated the chaplain talking to my division commander, who insisted I go home to take care of business. I argued some, but the commander wanted none of it. I locked up my new apartment and boarded a plane stateside.
Serpentville had not changed perceptibly in the four years I had been away. It was the same little farm community: the same pickups parked in front of Joe’s Saloon; the same types of kids hung out in front of Nat’s store; the same tired houses lined the streets that defined the town. I drove my rental car to the last house Momma lived in, a “rent” house owned by Hank Fontenot. The place was no more than a shack really, rusted tin on the roof, tarpaper siding, a sagging front porch. The place was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It had running water but no indoor bathroom. The outhouse was in the back.
An old white-haired black woman came out on the porch and eyed me suspiciously, so I drove off.
My uncle lived in a new brick home on the outskirts of town along the Issacton gravel road. I parked in his driveway next to his Studebaker. I knocked on the storm door, and my Aunt Chee answered. She recovered quickly from the shock of seeing me and invited me in. She gave me a perfunctory hug and a kiss on the cheek. She didn’t have her teeth in her mouth, and her face looked caved in. She smelled liked bleach and washing powder.
“Praise the Lord. It sure is good to see you, Armand.” She wiped her hands on a dishtowel. Then she removed her apron and placed it and the towel on a small couch.
“Thank you, Aunt Chee.”
There was a moment of awkward silence. Aunt Chee picked up the towel again and twisted it in her hands. “I suppose you want to see your uncle. He’s in the study, reading from the bible, praise the Lord. Normally, he doesn’t like to be bothered, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind too much in this case.” She turned, took two steps, and then turned back to me. “I’m sorry about your momma, Armand.”
“Thank you, Aunt Chee.”
“The Lord’s ways are mysterious, and we must not question what He does. Surely she is a much happier woman now that she is in the presence of her master, praise the Lord.”
“She’s dead, Aunt Chee. The lord’s people didn’t much care for her when she was alive. I’m sure they’re not going to let her invade their little community up there.”
Aunt Chee frowned and disappeared through a door that led to the back of the house. A few minutes later, my uncle appeared. He looked older than I remembered him. He wasn’t wearing his familiar ball cap, and a wisp of fine white hairs danced on his nearly baldhead. His eyes were deep-set and dark. He spoke first.
“You came for your momma’s things?”
“There isn’t much. What’s left is in a couple of cardboard boxes in my garage.” He nodded toward a door to his left. “She had a couple of pieces of furniture: an armoire, a dresser, and that table of hers. I gave them to Hank Fontenot to pay her back rent. She hadn’t paid him in a while.”
I nodded again. Momma’s table had been a monstrous affair, made of red oak. It had belonged to my grandmother, my father’s mother. Hank Fontenot was getting a good deal.
“I suppose you want to see your momma’s things, then?”
I nodded, and he led me to the garage where he pointed out two cardboard boxes in a corner.
The first box I opened contained some of Momma’s clothes—a few faded and patched dresses, some bras, a few stained under things, and the dress she married my father in, musty and moth-eaten. I pushed that box to the side and opened the other. I found a few pieces of cheap jewelry in it, a notebook or two with some of her scribbling, a bible, the framed photograph of my father that she had placed on his coffin during his wake, a framed photograph of her and my father just after their wedding, a framed photograph of me at ten years old, several books that she must have read, and three envelopes tied together with a red ribbon. She had numbered the envelopes from one through three and addressed them to me. I opened envelope number one and pulled out a sheet of cheap stationery. It smelled slightly of stale beer and cigarette smoke.
Dear Son, the letter began in Momma’s careful print. I’m sorry. I stopped, refolded the letter, and placed it back in the envelope. I passed a forearm across my eyes.
“Everything okay?” my uncle asked. I had forgotten that he stood in the doorway watching me.
“Everything is perfect, Uncle Oramel. Just perfect.” I stood and faced him. I stuffed the envelopes in my back pocket. “Would you do me a favor and get rid of this stuff?”
“You don’t want none of it?”
“No, I don’t.” I walked through the garage and to my rental car.
My uncle followed me and leaned against the front fender of the Studebaker. I sat behind the steering wheel of the rental car and waited.
“She’s better off, Armand.”
“She’s dead, Uncle Oramel. She’s cold and buried under six feet of dirt. She is not better off. She’s dead.”
“She was miserable in this life.”
“Tell me, Uncle Oramel. In your opinion, is Momma going to heaven?”
He shook his head slowly.
“You sanctimonious son-of-a-bitch,” I spat and drove off.
I returned to my ship and life returned to normal for a while, but I knew I wasn’t going to make the navy a career. For reasons, I could not voice, I had to get back to Louisiana, so I left the navy at the end of my tour and enrolled in the university in Lafayette under the GI Bill.
I had been in Lafayette for about a year when Aunt Chee called.
“Hello,” I said into the phone.
“Yes?” She was the last person I expected to call me.
“This is your Aunt Chee. Your Uncle Oramel is dying. He’s got the cancer, and he wants to see you before he goes.”
I frowned at the phone.
“I don’t know, Aunt Chee. Last time we met, we didn’t exactly part on friendly terms.”
“He’s dying.” She softened the word. “He’s dying. You can’t refuse a dying man’s request.”
“What can he and I possibly have to talk about?”
“It doesn’t matter what he wants to talk about, Armand. He’s your uncle, and he’s dying, and you’re going to talk to him, or I’ll go out there to Lafayette and fetch you myself. Is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll drive over tomorrow.”
It took me about an hour to drive to Serpentville. Uncle Oramel’s old Studebaker still stood in his driveway; one of the back tires was flat. Aunt Chee answered my knock. She frowned at me and ushered me in. She was cooking lunch. I could smell sausage and onions.
“He’s in the back,” she said without preamble. “Through the kitchen.”
I followed her to a room just off the kitchen. The door stood opened. Aunt Chee leaned against the frame a moment.
“It’s Armand,” she said and returned to her cooking.
The room smelled like death. The smell of body odor, urine, and feces was strong, but I could smell something else, and I was sure it was the smell of rotting flesh. His hair was all gone, his face ashen, attenuated. His skin was stretched tight, and I could see the bones working whenever he moved. He pointed with a bony finger to a chair next to the bed.
“Sit down,” he said in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
I tried to hide the shock in my face.
He grinned, an unbelievably horrible grin.
“From the expression on your face, I don’t guess I look so good.”
I could only nod.
“When you left last time.” He stopped to cough softly. “When you left last time, it wasn’t exactly how I wanted us to separate. You know what I mean?”
I nodded again. Uncle Oramel’s sunken eyes searched mine.
“I was wrong about a lot of things before.” He reached out with a cadaverous arm and placed a gaunt hand on my knee.
I fought back my urge to recoil.
“I was wrong about your momma.”
He searched my face and pulled back his hand. He dropped it to his side and sighed with the effort.
“Her daddy, my daddy was a hard man. There was always a little wildness in your momma.” He smiled, perhaps remembering something in his past, and for a moment his face was transformed; he was the old Uncle Oramel again. Then the smile disappeared. “Daddy was bound and determined to stamp that wildness out of her. He only made it worse. When your momma met your daddy, she snatched him up so fast, it made our heads spin. She wasn’t going to stay under Daddy’s roof one minute longer than she had to.” Uncle Oramel coughed. “She made a good choice, or maybe she was lucky, because Alcee was a good man. He worked hard and took care of her and of you. When he died, your momma didn’t have no one to take care of her. You were too young and I...” He paused. He stared at the wall and then at a picture hanging at the foot of his bed. It was a picture of Christ, holding his heart in his hand and offering it to the viewer. The look on his face was one of profound sorrow, as if he already knew the offer was made in vain. “I guess I was too busy with my own life to help her out. My own sister.” His eyes watered and he wiped them with the edge of the sheet. “I had plenty time to think lying here on this bed and what I saw,” he turned to me, “what I saw in my head was that your moma was not a whore like I told you long ago. She was just a lonely person looking for someone to care for her. She needed me, Armand. Just like you needed me, and I let you both down.” His eyes watered again. He tried to lift his hand but after a moment let it drop. “Please forgive me,” he said through the tears. “I was so busy looking for sin that I forgot to see the good.”
It was too little, too late. My mother was dead. She would never hear his apology, nor mine. How could I forgive him? He forced me to see the ugly side of a woman whose only fault was that she could find no other way to deal with the circumstances she was forced into. Here he was, my uncle, judge, and accuser coming to the end of a life of regret. He wanted me to understand. I understood too well.
I didn’t reach out and take his emaciated hand.
I only nodded.
Uncle Oramel turned away from me and stared at the ceiling. He seemed to shrink into his bed. I knew that eventually he would disappear in there.
“I understand, Uncle Oramel,” I said and stood to leave.
He only nodded, his eyes dry.
Aunt Chee glanced in the room and followed me to the front door. “You could have told him what he wanted to hear,” she accused. “He’s dying, Armand.”
“Oh, Aunt Chee. We’re all dying, for Christ’s sake.”
Uncle Oramel lived for four more weeks before finally succumbing to his disease. Aunt Chee called me in the middle of the night.
“He’s dead,” she said without identifying herself. I knew who she was and whom she meant.
I drove to Serpentville for the funeral, but I didn’t cry. I couldn’t. After the pall bearers placed him in the ground, I drove back to Lafayette.
I had not thought about the letters from my mother for a long time. As I sunk into my couch with a bottle of beer, I stared at the envelope marked number one for a long time before I decided to open it. I pulled out the letter and carefully smoothed it out on the edge of the coffee table. Then I placed it down, face up, and took a long drink of my beer before I began reading it.
Dear Son, it read. I’m sorry. I was never the momma you wanted or needed, but after your daddy died, I didn’t know what to do anymore. You were just a young boy, and your daddy was a good man, but he wasn’t rich, and he didn’t leave me much money for you and me to live on. I tried to find some work around Serpentville, but this is a small town, and there just wasn’t much for me to do. Madam Fontenot let me clean her house every Wednesday, and I got to do some ironing for a few people, but you know all that. I asked your Uncle Oramel for help, but he and your Aunt Chee had their own problems with money. I started drinking because when I was drunk I didn’t think about all those things I couldn’t do for you. When I was drunk, I wasn’t a bad mother—I wasn’t a mother at all. I’m sorry, son.
She signed the letter and dated it a month before she died.
I finished my beer and opened another. Then I pulled out the second letter. It was dated a week after the first one.
Dear Son: There is just so much I have to tell you, and it all rushes to my poor head like a blush. At first, I was just looking for a man who would take care of me and you, but what man wants a drunk for a wife, so I tried the only weapon I had left; I tried to get pregnant. I figured that if I was pregnant, then the man would have to marry me, but of course, it didn’t work that way. It never does when you want something bad enough. I guess I was too old, or too drunk, or too something. Anyway, it didn’t work, and all I got for my efforts was to see your face when you found out I was a loose woman. I’m sorry, son. I’m really and truly sorry.
Again, she signed the letter and dated it.
The last letter was dated the night of her death.
Dear Son: Your Uncle Oramel visited yesterday. He said that he was tired of hearing stories about my loose ways everywhere he goes. He said that I was nothing but a drunken whore. That’s not true. I have not been with a man since that day you came home and looked at me with those accusing eyes. I drink because that is the only way I can sleep at night. I told Ora that he sounded just like our daddy used to sound and that I always hated my daddy, and now I was beginning to hate Ora. He told me that the only reason I wasn’t hearing from you was because I had hurt you—that you didn’t want to come back to be the son of a whore. That hurt me, son. That hurt me more so than the death of your daddy. I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry for what I have done to you and for what I am going to do. I’m sorry I can’t be what you and Ora want me to be. I can only offer you what is in my heart and hope that after I’m gone, you can forgive me.
I held the letter in my hand for a long time, until the weight of the words was too heavy to hold and the letter slowly fluttered to the floor.