The Last Dream of Plaquemines
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead,
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head)
The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
an arbitrary blackness gallops in;
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
and sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head)
God topples from the sky, Hell’s fires fade:
Exit Seraphim and Satans men;
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I fancied you’d return the way you said;
But I grow old and forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head)
I should have loved a Thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head)
In all of the world there is no more miserable person than the one who can be said to be a man without a country … and we cannot but sympathize with such a man and rejoice when we are not as he.
T. Thomas Fortune / 1926
I’d just as soon lie here permanently stained, between the stale wind and water, until I’ve figured it all out, than try and move on with only some parts of it made clear to me.
I’ll swim through my thoughts lifeless, with one arm over the top of the other — marine-like- serene— like an old sleeping magnolia tree flapping in a milky breeze. As I float here half man, watching her large waxed leaves tilting on their axis catching the sun rays like bicycle reflectors blinking out my memories. I’d look straight up through the canopy, sometimes making out little puzzle piece shapes of sky to focus on as I realize the nothingness in my view. And though I try to make those pieces fit to form some shape, or some abstract idea that could erase the deafening emptiness in my life, eventually they would silently crumble and fade to a dreamy Carolina blue. I was forced to confront the darkness that existed inside of me.
So any hope that I had of redemption or renewal became strange to my heart and left me with the truth that was my reality, and went down hard and painfully slow like a small lump in my throat.
I assumed the tranquility of the here and now. Here, between a state of consciousness and delirium, under the sway of her soft sweet smell, falling safely into Death’s arms, where it all becomes just a bit clearer.
Here in this spot, where I’ve grown restless and bored with the chilling fear that this was all that the living had to offer. The beginning all and the end all neatly buried in a hole filled with the copious tales of Plaquemines Parish. Stories told from the sacred rites that New Orleans had had to tell, then in the end, without a sound, vanished under the deluge of a perfect storm. Left to rot right here beside the rest of us in the parish. Where down here loss has become just another variable.
I remained ageless. Though my patience and intellectual depth have slowly grown old, I didn’t ask to be your son, Ole’ New Orleans, but I can with assurance, speak well of you and say that you have always been there for me. I never had to look out of the window. I knew you’d come for me anyway. Very determined. Dressed tempestuously. I learned about fear, enlightenment and death through you. I just don’ remember the order.
I did see the old magnolia tree though. Sleeping on its’ side. Taking all my stories. I wonder. Did she make it?
We lived in Plaguemines Parish, in a small wooden shack of a house, which stood blankly through the time and heat of Louisiana. We had a front porch that we used to spend our summers on. Laughing and waiting throughout the ‘calm’ years before our haunting. We wanted to be told that we made a difference down here. That we were part of the great mosaic.
We used to dress up the holiday seasons to let the travelers who drove by know that they were still in America. We were created from a side-show.
We had, in our backyard paths, which hid our sorrows and could lead us three different ways in darkness. We never held out our hands. There was not a lot of hope that came up between us in that house, but we did know what love was and we where made to respect its power. We had a room upstairs that faced Palmers’ Farm. There were stories of murders there that grandma had once told me about. All the children seemed so full of life and happy. In the room there was a window that looked out to the broken windmill that peeled and creaked in the wind. It had two holes in it that looked like eyes, and the smoke stains from it eerily resembled our sorrow. Those were the murderers!
Next to the room that never shed light, was another room that had a door that never opened. Grandma said that everyone down here had a door like that. Or a room. A place to hide the altered. Like the one America used to hide slavery.
We spent most of our days on that front porch, me and Grandma, just looking at the people who’d drive by looking at us. Studying the clothes and faces of the captured. We could tell that they saw us starkly, in hard black and white. Like a Ken Burns documentary. Sometimes we’d wave at them. Especially when there where little kids in the car. Most of the time the white people wouldn’t let their children look. Afraid. As if we where nightmares in the flesh. We where made of shame.
Afraid. Like we where going to snatch their young and breed with them. I saw the fear and contempt that they had for us even back then. I figured that they had kept it well placed and necessary. Though I never really believed them. I think.
As I got older I became very determined to suss it all out in perverse rhythms that I could move with, as they turned to those dark whispers in my head.
So I listened. Like the poet.
My Pledge of Allegiance had never been ratified. School only made me hungry and bitter at the rest of America. Truth and justice never made its’ way down to Plaquemines. So I was left to the vices of the werewolf. Growing. Lost in forests full of prey. My dreams came to me all at once. I saw no other recourse than to accept.
“Pass me dat shit! Turn here. Turn here Bitch!” “Yo Stokey-man, this shit ain’t goin’ down like that ya’ heard? You can’t pull up on ‘em like dat ya-heard!”
“Damn OE, don’t start dat sucka’ shit ya-heard! Dis here is my Bitch! Shut-da-fuck-up and keep ya’ head down!”
“I see ‘em! I see ‘em! Try and make da back of his head come off, ya heard!”
Sirens and blood color my life scarlet. Dizzying kaleidoscope images in my head, paint tales from the grave. I’ve become the purpose itself, waiting for computerized codes from NASA to program this final solution.
Yes Houston, we have a problem. It’s in Dallas too. Detroit, LA, Miami, NY and DC. The strain is unfortunately airborne in our cities, but now has found its way into the blood supply. All over America. And it spawns in the N.O … The Ninth Ward . . . Third and Galvez . . . Callieo Projects . . . The Magnolia . . .
Hell-fire on the Bayou.
If all of New Orleans collectively imagined the ideals of a purist; an honest, God-fearing man, whose action and speech stood on righteousness, and this man was said to have been the prototype to be followed, he would still benefit most from the lusts of the corrupt. He would still have an eye for the absurd. He would not have made a more redeeming New Orleans, to suit his style and ways. Though he may have allowed for Courts and Lanes with flower lined walk-ways of lilac and rose to blame his enchantment on, in the dark recess of his soul, alleys with beaten men and whisky bottles would saturate his breathing and make his heart at ease with bewilderment. Making all of his choices by candlelight and chance.
He’d learn to realize the liability of an untouchable city that yearned to be touched, or just to be given the hand of reassurance making its way to his conscious. With his quilt reassembled—molded into weathered stone—he would find no small area to even consider. Though there could have been made allowances, possibly, where smiles and frolic would have made our days useful instead of keeping us suspended at twelve methodical paces.
I could have been a person with means and lived with dignity and talked, written and spelled, like the rest of America, highly approved of, and won the hearts of the heartless.
I could have been able to convince.
But knowing what I know, blamed from my birth, I chose fields that were empty and query less. Framing the scenes of my life, ubiquitously over the innocence that traveled through the night. I learned to respond with briskness. Quietly manning the corners of the parish as a self-made legend. I became exhausted with the morbid. So much so, that all of the qualities that come with plain goodness in a person, the ones that show caring and sensitivity, were repressed at a place below the level of my heart, and subsequently never reached full maturity. And I raged. With nothing to stand on, I ravaged, as New Orleans gently opened her arms.
Everything already seemed so old when I was coming up. Our house and truck felt as if they belonged in another era. Uncle Simon said they did. My movements resembled a way-too-wise man that made me feel that I needed to be outspoken. I was not. And even all the stories that helped shape Plaquemines, felt old and somehow outdated. Like they had just been told one too many times. Every twist and turn that Grandma would put on them to make them sound different, they could always be said to have come from an earlier race of people not even related to us. This is where things just never seemed to fit for me. Grandma was at fault for my oldness and attachment to the stars. I was raised by her and that’s why it was said that I would come to ‘already know’. There where a lot of other kids around the parish that where being raised by old folks and grand-people. I wondered did they feel any particular kind of shame as I did. Shame that you didn’t have a mama or daddy to speak of that would take you for walks and talks after school, or sodas. Or to watch you play basketball games in the summer-league, and sit in the lawn chairs that were put out for the ‘Parents’, and stayed empty. It was a shame, that I know now, what had been planned for this place before I was ever given a chance. So I was alone for a lot of those years, and I thought about the rest of the kids sitting smileless on their front porches, fetching water and listening to old stories. Grandma had made me old. Old clothes. Old food. And stories that where from ‘tha old’. That’s how Grandma would speak about the past. Even if it was just a few hours ago, it was still ‘in tha old’.
“In tha old, when we’uz chill’en, N’orlens aint u-sta keep’em dows lock’un’, an’naw deesz dem b’wois rob ‘dem up! Umph! Umph! Umph! Alls gon crazi nah’ aint like it’twas back in da old”.
Grandma was saturated with New Orleans. That’s all that she ever knew. It was sad really. Knowing the people of the requiem. Waiters. Her life had become a predictable regiment of pill bottles and spells. More precise than the folding of the American flag. I knew where every crease would touch. Her sound came from a distance like the pounding Zydeco—determined—every single year. She had begun to walk me into a kind of embarrassing sort of sadness. I could neither laugh nor help her.
In just this past summer I think I finished all of Grandma’s sentences. She’d gotten even worse since Sheila had died.
I was becoming so old that I wanted her to die.
Don’t wake up today Grandma, cause I love you and you’re stuck in tha’ old,
You’re no longer in the realm of this world.
You’ve passed us all by. I can’t even place your smell. It’s something between fresh bread and the basement.
I see where all the scars have been left. You have covered them up so well. Tell me about Grandpa Lou Lou again, cause you’re making me old Grandma, and there may be nothing left for me to do ‘cept lay down here and die right beside you.
I just don’t know who I am.
Ms. Shelia LeCroix was Grandma’s best friend in the world. I never knew where Ms. Sheila was from or how she had ever gotten to Plaquemines, but I do know that she was always—Immaculately — there for us. Like my real other Grandma. She used to tell me how much she loved me and that I was to be her finest little soldier to walk in the parish. She called me nicknames that made me smile and feel magical.
I remember being very emotional. Sometimes catching bouts of wild hysteria if I became too hot. Mr. Lincoln saw it one day, and they said he never recovered.
It must have come from diluted blood.
They called him the butcher and you could tell that he thought it was an honor. The way he kept his axe so sharp and well mannered, until the leaves would get in his way. That’s when he changed and the noises would become unbearable. Out back, in our yard, making my way through the path, the sounds would half-break me. I’d hear all the grunts and cries, and I’d just want it to stop. The pumpkins and squirrels running for their lives, with nuts and seedlings in complete disarray. This day it would cease. The butcher would meet his match and the woods could be returned to their calm.
I woke up to the breath of rain, with mud-soaked blood in my face and mouth. Shelia was there. I watched her kneeling by the creek. She moved up to me without saying a word picked me up and held me hard. She felt like Mama. Or my lover. She did love me. She was crying, softly though, with a warm humming sound playing in my ear, like Pan’s flute calling me to the woodland gods. She calmly lowered herself to her knees and went, single-handedly, through the large deep pockets of the headless corpse of the butcher.
She took the white years, while I was sick, and carefully bagged up the secrets. Reading to me books of poetry while I was fed oven-baked artillery.
Grandma moved a chair in the hallway and gave Ms. Shelia all the instructions that she needed. I saw the Zulu dancers out back one night and dreamed the rest of the year.
Shelia stayed in a room over on top of the antique shop owned by Mr. Durant. Mr. Durant owned a lot of little stores and buildings in Plaquemines, and kept his name on every one of them. Grandma said that he had gained certain rights over the parish and that we were to just respect them. He seemed to be a nice enough man, who would always give you a break if you came up just a little short. Once in a while. Anyhow, Ms. Shelia stayed in that little room upstairs, alone, and would never let anyone come in there. I remember walking her hallway, after I’d gotten well, to take her a gift that Grandma and me had gotten for her birthday. I had gone up through the antique shop, after speaking to Mr. Durant, and made my way up the back stairs. I remember thinking how the end of the shop and hallway gave me a real uneasy feeling when I’d go back there, and how it so sharply contrasted from the almost carnival feel of the rest of the shop. Mr. Durant had pieces of everything in his shop. From old scary-looking lamps, which had to be lifted and lit, to elaborately made hats worn by the rich and famous. He had, modeled by mannequins with flaking skin, ‘famous Indian head gear’ worn by the warriors he said that he’d had to fight off to save Plaquemines. They stood symbolically, next to twisted piles of oiled chains and shackles that smelled so much like home. These artifacts were not for sale.
It seemed that every time you’d walk into Durants’ Antique’s there would feel a different atmosphere. Like the county fair that comes to town every year, with one more traveling act and sadness. But it never seemed to fail, that I soon as I turned past the naked mannequins, huddled in the back, and looked up to the dark entrance to the stairway, and saw the cold cracked window that stayed unrepaired at the top and drew the silhouette of the hooded Druid that paced by, closer, the air would suddenly change and old New Orleans would turn her thousand year head menacingly towards me again. Like I owed her—
The stairs were as old as time. Straining from my weight with light moans and creaks. I finally got to the top and stared down the deep hallway. I saw the number six on Shelia’s door. There was a bathroom sitting in a slow orange light off to the right. The water was running. Hot. I saw a head peek out around the door and then it slammed shut. The whole hallway leaned to the left. It was like that in a lot of the houses down here. Embarking on their inevitable descent. I kept one hand on the wall to stay walking upright. I was entering the house of horrors, head first onto that fateful wrong turn. It was so dark up there. I wondered how Ms. Shelia could come up here every night alone. As I tipped closer to the door I heard a radio playing Jazz music and soft voices in the background. A bit of laughter. Stuttered breath. I heard small whimpers and then the soft cries of a lady. Why was Shelia crying? It was her birthday. When I knocked on the door I heard something fall down and roll across the wooden floor. Then I heard two quick steps and the door opened. Shelia looked very different from how I had ever seen her before. She looked sad. Sad and beautiful. She didn’t look like she looked when she was with Grandma and me, she looked regal. Like someone important. Or a least important to someone. Her hair was straight down over shoulders and she had soft diamond earrings on. Her dress was long and dark, like her shoes, and she looked elegant and simple. She jumped when she first saw me and tightened the door and slid her slimness through the doorway behind her. Her voice was nervous like she had been crying but was embarrassed to let it be known to anyone so she tried to smile through it. I tried to help her by smiling and pushing the gift I had bought to her up to her face and saying in my boyish voice, Happy Birthday Shelia! hoping that she would take the box and immediately upon opening it realize that I did not want to be pulled into her cradle. She looked the look of surprise but I could tell her mind was doing a million other things. I could also tell that she didn’t want me to leave. Not at all the companion type. Hanzel and Gretel flashed powerfully in my head. Her smile came from uncharted times. She looked at me. She bent over to thank me and I saw her thinness and age for the first time. Her hands were cold and her breath was heavy and moist in my ear. I turned my eye just slightly to see how close she was getting to my neck. I’ve kept an inner fear of vampires that mock me when I wake up at night to go to the bathroom. Her lips were extremely red and parted with words that she whispered to me. They settled in my soul and raised the hairs on the back of my neck. She started to speak frighteningly fast and I heard her tongue trying to explain things to me that I just wasn’t ready for. Her teeth were showing and she didn’t look like Shelia any more. I started to get hot again. I heard a noise thudding against the door. Back and forth. I looked down and saw a snake-like tail coming from under Shelia’s dress squirming on the floor purposely. I started to scream but decided to run and heard the clicking of Shelia’s heels behind me. I didn’t believe it. I made it to the stairs. I reached up and felt a cool stream of sweat roll from my underarm and trickle down my side. I saw the Druid raise his hooded arms, summoning the Celtic winds. I stumbled down the first flight and caught the menacing stare of the forest owl perched on the hat stand, his eyes glowing spheres. I turned at the bottom frantically into the cave of mummified mannequins; hands outstretched like the walking dead. And racing down the aisle of hallowed reflections of Indian warriors chained and shackled to the past, through the back door as the humid Louisiana air smothered me in her arms. Without reluctance.
I heard a voice coming out of the window above the antique shop and turned around to catch it, “Thank ya’ Stokey baby, an tell ya Grandma that I’ll see her in the morning”.
I waved and saw that Shelia had her hair back in that familiar bun, her glasses dangling around her neck over the top of the tattered sweater that she seemed to wear every morning that she came strolling around the pike. She’d come with her basket of dried fruits and insects and that reassuring softness in her voice.
I never quite understood that night before at Shelia’s. The chambers were too deep and complicated. So I left it to the people of kinetics and confusing worlds of laughter.
Some people, I heard, had said that Shelia kept a Prophet with her that told of all the things to come so she became tormented with knowledge. So maybe she did have some old boyfriend up there that would sing to her the fables. Shelia was as pretty as a pearl in her day and she still carried some air of entitlement about her, She didn’t talk like Grandma talked either; like a shrimp boat hand. She spoke slow and measured with a southern drawl and she sung her words. So maybe she’d had a man up there all along that made her feel like a bell, and she just couldn’t bear the thought of having to share that secret with anyone especially Grandma. She probably felt that Grandma would just tell her how foolish she was, at her age, thinking that she still possessed girlish charms. Or that she still had wants and needs, and how she just couldn’t possibly need a man. The truth was that it would just about kill Grandma to not have her around anymore to boss around and spin her stories to about ‘tha old’. And how if she were to just decide to marry this Mr. and leave the parish for good then exactly what was she supposed to do on Fridays. and Saturday evenings, when the slow methodical trail of old folks filled with the history of New Orleans, clad in their frilled dresses, top hats and flowered umbrellas, made their way through the honey-suckled paths and wooden bridges of the parish, up through the mangled weave in our back yard, for bones, tales and tea, if Ms. Shelia LeCroix wasn’t there to meet and greet them, while Grandma prepared herself like the matador for tonight’s show.
So no. I figured Shelia could not have kept a man away from Grandma at all. Not the way they were. Joined at the hip, so to speak. And when Shelia got real sick and the cancer took her voice away, Grandma stopped visiting the hospital because she said that that wasn’t Shelia no more. There wasn’t that girlish stuttery laugh coming up at you any more. Her bashful way of looking down when you thanked her or gave her a compliment had vanished. So finally, after she’d turned to stone, her eyes started to tell Grandma more things than she could bear. They were asking about sadness and relief. Grandma didn’t have any answers. When they got tired of following people around the room, Shelia just picked a spot on her left, facing the window and never moved again. And if someone asked her what she was looking at or what she found so interesting out there, knowing that her mind had left her and her face and hair turned bird-like, you’d just always pretend that she was answering. Or you’d lean down and put your head on the pillow next to hers and stare out the window with her, and see the prettiest magnolia tree you’d ever seen, just waving and laughing right at you. Then you would know that Shelia had left a long time ago and found a better place to be until the cancer had finished eating away at her cervix.
Grandma hated Shelia for dying.
And for leaving her all alone, with no one to talk to. But especially for leaving all those stories packed into her little room above Mr. Durant’s Antique shop.
I had been bred on Grandmas’ ‘Fables of the Fearless Frenchmen!’ She salted my summer afternoons, as I sat at the bottom of the creek listening to her “Aaahh yes-ses”, and “Sho’wus dat”, until I’d fall asleep dreaming of our colonization. Down here. In the smell, heat and mud, laying in the vertigo of summer. Watching the praying mantis and earthworm contribute there all to nature. Scratching through the air, crackling from the pounding heat of the sun, while my thoughts crept— prehistorically—through the stories of ‘La Louisianne knights and sepulchers of gold’.
Grandma would have Ms. Shelia and the ‘Chairs’ fully rapt’ and hands held together, as she pieced together the fact from the fiction of the little men “from the cold waters of March”, who left their great conflict only to come to America and help contribute to ours. And as her audience ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ in a humming soliloquy, Grandma carefully stroked her canvas with a masterful swoosh and a delicate slash, dramatically painting old scenes from the sweltering south that became old New Orleans.
When all of the characters that Grandma placed before us became clothed in their own personalities, I’d always feel a little bit of me coming plainly into view. So as to resemble the layers that I was to become. Shed always frame him or her with compound sentences and reason. She made everyone matter and contribute.
But the times that I remembered most were when Grandma would accidentally confuse the reality within herself. Her story would take flight from the uneven angles of her past, and land in disjointed silence. As she walked through all the trauma in her head. Then shed smile. Or lie. Or go lightly to her room and fight some shattered tears that shed never been able to shake. Because the past lives stalk you like a disowned drunken uncle there to embarrass you at every family gathering or whenever something spectacular may have been planned to fall your way. The past has the kind of ties that are only broken or healed by funerals. And even then, they’ve been known to spread a lasting affect. They stay a part of you. Right behind you. A reminder to the soul. Grandma never found her way through those shadows. That’s why I think she told stories so much. Hoping one day to find the true end to her own.
She became The Ringmaster.
She spoke of Prince Valiant and the strange little men from France. She told us how they raided their way through colonial America, and the complexities of the tribe. How they were able to scavenge they’re way inland and then meet at the mouth of the great Mississippi River. They took their time to learn the land and formed alliances with the Chinook and Chickasaw and made for themselves a way. Grandma said that they became a lot like us, that is, able to keep their pots full and their children laugh, without much help from outsiders. She said that they had just been more favored by God, because their past had had a lot more sunny days than ours had. They had forsaken their homeland, beheaded their queen and taken their oaths with the devil. Having centuries earlier, been force-fed the madness of Joan of Arc, only to have it returned to them in blood.
They started infesting the lakes around the Illinois valley, and pitched tents all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Grandma would begin her encore with the tale of the infamous Jaquez Bonaparte. ‘Jaquez was just the bravest little fella”. Or “Jaquez saved Louis life’. He became the hero of our history, as I lived amongst the irony of the white man.
She told us how Jaquez had found Grandpa laying in a field crawling with snakes, on his back exhausted, singing tearfully as the death rattle made its way near. He had made his way from a place called Lynchburg.
We never believed that they could have been that bold.
He didn’t have any clothes on when Jaquez found him. He thought he was a fallen angel. Wingless. Thrown out for one of the many reasons that man chooses his expulsion. Grandpa Lou Lou’s was freedom. He still had a long way to go. He crept up softly where Grandpa Lou Lou lay, by the banks of Lake Pontchartrain and heard the sounds of ‘sweet caramel’ pouring from the wheat colored grass. Jaquez just sat down in the tall grass while the sun went slowly down his back, softly moaning, as ‘sweet caramel’ dripped out of his ears. Right then at that spot, Mr. Louis Toussaint and Monsignor Jaquez Boneparte became blood. Like a thousand years had passed between them, they talked to each other through bourbon and songs. Jaquez would teach Grandpa Lou Lou the ways of the ‘woodsrunner’. The life of the hunter. Poaching and trapping. Furs and pelts. How to lure. How to talk. And sometimes if they encountered whites what to say. The quiet traps, and the loud ones, that if you aren’t careful will allow the animal to take with it the piece of your heart that holds on to sentiment, and destroy it. And that lost edge may be the difference between a full dinner or an empty stomach. So that’s where the trade off was made. Where those hurtful things that we may seem to do to ourselves, have already — heretically — become painless.
Jaquez and Grandpa Lou Lou had established themselves as hard working and honest trappers. Skilled at catching beaver as well as fox and raccoon. They both became well known as dealers and traders. Grandma said that Grandpa Lou Lou knew how to speak to every Indian tribe in the south. Shed say, “he sho could talk dat Injun talk”. The ‘Chairs’ were never ashamed of her adolescence. I pitied her. To death. The Indians had already stopped trusting the white man by the time they made it to Louisiana, and getting them to deal with Jaquez was not easy. That was until they recognized the love and trust that Grandpa and Jaquez had for one another. It also never hurt that Jaquez always came prepared. He knew that a bottle of whiskey could help pry any door open. Even if it was for just enough time to make a man look at another man in the eye and face the shame that he had within his own self. Jaquez, for his part had to do the same thing for Grandpa Lou Lou with the few whites that would even deal with them, once they found out about Jaquez sharing his bottle with a black man. He used to tell them of the unbelievable skills of his Negro bloodhound. Grandma had always said that that was a hard pill for Grandpa Lou Lou to swallow. And she didn’t know if he ever really did. She said that Grandpa Lou Lou had told her that Jaquez would change right before her eyes. And at those times he looked like any other white man who hated just for sport. That it would take all of his honor for him to keep from whacking Jaquez in the mouth, because the way he said ‘Ne- gro’ sounded way too comfortable coming off his tongue, that maybe Jaquez had kept it buried with some feelings along with it. Opening and closing like a flower in the morning.
In the end though, Grandpa knew that Jaquez wasn’t really like that because he did most of the dirty work anyway. So they shared their take along with their food and women. Always making sure that the Indians were fairly taken car of, which towards the end of their courtship required a bit more than a drink here and a puff there, as the Indians became subjected to their own whims and love for the bottle.
But all in all life had been good for Grandpa Lou Lou and Jaquez. Until one night, between. the dancing and the drinking, a little Indian girl came up missing. She’d last been seen by Grandpa Lou Lou’s fire. Standing by some rocks just before the sun had shot its last rays through the patch of willow that Grandpa Lou Lou and Jaquez used to fall asleep in.
They named her after a wild horse, Shoofly I think Grandma had said. Something about her being fast.
Everyone watched her though.
Tall and demanding for her age. She wasn’t one to call out for help they’d said.
But they knew she’d never get away.
They had told her story to the spirits of the dance, while all the young Indian girls were left whispering.
So she walked hand in hand with fate, as the screams of the Chickasaw rode out on the nights wind.
It was that same fall by the Gulf, where seasons are all the same except for the colors, that Jaquez became stricken with the yellow fever. Grandpa Lou Lou and Jaquezs’ wife were looking down on him, trying to find a singing Frenchman. His eyes were shuddering with the secrets that were stolen from the land. And as his hair turned to a soft yellow like the goose feather, he died with his mouth wide open. Still unable to speak the unspeakable. And when the shaman came and pointed to the east and watched over his grave with the new moon given by the solstice, Grandpa knew that the fires of purgatory were smiling up at him, and that New Orleans would be as good as any place to burn.
The tractor has left rows in the grass, somewhat like rows of cut cane.
Louisiana, I take you everwhere…
Life for me reached one hundred miles per hour on all cylinders. I grew into a six-foot fire-breathing
storm of discontent.
Protective steel door with re-enforced lead around my heart.
Drugs and diesel fuel pumping through my veins.
I have been raped.
All in inverse order.
My birth had been broadcast all over the news, so everyone already knew I was coming.
War had been declared in New Orleans, and the streets spilled over with the enemy.
“I” was the madness in the middle of Mardi Gras.
Madness amongst madness.
I was on every corner. In every alleyway. At every wrong turn.
I led your sons and daughters with the sweets that they coveted. Straight into my den.
I was envy and loudness and disorientation. Over and over and over and over. I haunted the drunken crowd of zombies that traversed the sacred route through Bourbon Street, all in hypnotic unison
I screamed for the attention that you all got on the news and on the video channels. I found it so hard to breathe through the nights constriction.
I was informed that I no longer mattered.
I watched, eyes wide apart and emotionless, as Shondra smothered her own child. I saw, with rabid affection, Mr. Earl T. Wilson butcher all of his family and sit on the curb and talk passionately to the bottle. I would sleepwalk through the battlegrounds of my parish, only to awaken and find all the sheriffs of New Orleans dancing with the dead of the French Quarter.
So we were given the privilege of being judge, jury and executioner over our own people. Irreverence became my badge.
I enjoyed power so much that I could no longer feel the calm hand of mercy.
I’d left it there.
In a small wooden house. That could no longer stand my rule.
She came from the vineyards of “ Orleans France. A backdraft of lust, built over the centuries of posh dress and the etiquette of the Jacobeans.
Grandma talked in riddles of the folk tongue, with words and names that only mattered to the old. Like it was a time and place that only being kids as them, black, poor or castaway, that any of this could all be sorted out. And all the while ‘The Chairs’ smiled approvingly. Like a scene from a Berdan’ collage, confusing, colorful and happy. She spread revolt like an uncontrollable blaze, scorching the history of Europe, that grandma had said was only about love. Passionate love. Undone by the greediness of a country disoriented by wealth and it’s own best laid plans. While it’s people worked the sprawling wine country that was ‘ Orleans, and walked the thousand mile walk. And their love was taken away so they raged precise, like the symphony.
To quote from the history of the uprising would be my greatest contribution to man. And though I was never to become this man I held that as the only reason I had to feel a part of America. Yet even then I was thoroughly rejected. My Che’ Guevera poster, my George Jackson philosophy and my Malcolm X persona didn’t matter to no one down here in Plaquemines.
So I lived in the swampland along with the gator, and practiced all my meanness.
I witnessed the history of my hero’s. I menace. I administer. Their story moved rapidly forward with force and conviction.
I thought of Nat Turner. They squirmed in their sheets.
Revolution at its most complete form.
They were able to capsulate cause and effort and observe it play itself out in time.
History by revolution is real history; real change. Not something undone gradually by people with their politics, but quickly severed with the sword in purposeful and determined blows. It unleashes change in its rawest form. Change from the heart of the oppressed. From a heart that no longer pumps blood for sustenance, but delivers through the veins expectations and blind faith. This combustible solvent that flows through the arteries of every inner city, ghetto and shantytown in the world. Yet its known that the danger does not lie in the actions, because they can be calculated, precipitated and eventually arrested. The danger lies in the thought. Which if left unattended, could never be harnessed. And if allowed to break free, would cause the inevitable annihilation and leave it – with hands over mouth—agape—questioning each soul. Easily placing together the pieces of history, which at one point was right in front of them, clearly present, every day of their lives.
And it comes like the hurricane.
With plenty of warning.
One Saturday afternoon I sat on the back porch watching the clouds melt the heat into rain. I dozed in and out of sleep listening to one of Grandma’s stories about some well dressed dude by the name of Alan St. Claire, who I could tell by the way all of the ‘The Chairs’ were perked up at attention, that he had been someone well known about the parish. She’d said that he had been the talk of Bourbon Street when jazz was making it’s way ‘out da gumbo pot’. This Alan St. Claire had begun to make some name for himself on the nightclub scenes in the ‘Quarter’ and all along the Bayou. He was called a virtuoso. And the tenor sax was his tool of the trade. He had even been asked to open for several popular bands. Even Sidney Bechet. Where the sound from New Orleans spread like molasses. Thick and stained. Mr. Alan St. Claire gained a sort of legendary status as a free-wheeler and a notorious womanizer. Well liked and to some extent needed.
Hidden from the maddening crowds, they wandered the late night strips in search of that last fix. That hip new neo-sound that would just blast them over to some euphoric hide-a-away that they could at least say that they were there to see him ‘do it’.
Hidden from the women he’d coo at every night from on top of the stage like some leering coyote calling on the moon’s spell.
And hidden from his own reality of himself, that New Orleans had been so proud of, was a man lost in his craft. Jewelry. Watches. Rings. Diamonds. Gold.
Mr. Alan St. Claire was a top rate con man, whose expertise had carried him all over the world — for the right job. New York, Kansas City, Washington, D.C. or wherever his next gig was gonna take him. Grandma said that he would step into town dressed like a shark. Sleek, steely-eyed and smiling. He studied his trade like he studied the brass pedals of his sax. He knew cuts and karats. Makes and sizes. He’d go into stores looking to buy the biggest, brightest rock for his lady. Pulling cash out of each pocket to keep the storeowner aware. By the time the switch was made the owner wouldn’t know what piece was what. What exactly he had sold and what he hadn’t. Mr. Alan St. Claire was as smooth in the store as he was on any given Friday night on stage. Getting off with thousands of dollars each ‘gig’.
Grandma had said she had known him from the Fitting Room. A boutique where he would buy his suits, and where she would be helping out Mr. Durants’ daughter, Lisa, during the busy carnival months when she had finished school. When he’d come in and get fitted he’d always have some trinket or bracelet or something to give her, telling her it was something that he had picked up for her after his last show. Grandma had said that she had like that and that it made her feel like someone special. Like a teenage celebrity or something. Mr. Alan St. Claire was one of the most popular people in New Orleans at the time, and the only real star that she’d ever come close to being in the same room with.
It never really took much to make Grandma happy. She’d be just sitting alone sometimes on the front porch waiting for someone, anyone, to smile or wave at. Or to see who would smile or wave at her. Just to make her matter.
It would sometimes seem to me that she was just afraid that no one would really notice her. But of course they all did.
With stares of trust and condemnation.
So whenever she spoke of the favors of Mr. Alan St. Claire, you could almost hear the starlight in her voice. And if you listened closely, I would swear those words of longing and desire would be making their way through her sentences and paragraph. Yet on the surface he would just be spoken of as a gentleman. And someone that made her long summer days at the Fifing Room worth the hours. But I could tell. It was different. It’s like something she had said to me once. That she carried around and held firm in her tuition. That being from New Orleans, you weren’t ever supposed to close your eyes too tightly down here. She said that this place was meant to keep you on your toes. Alerted by what was behind you. And she said whether people were family or not, they carried their own personal history books with them.
And that you’d just have to be real careful when you started giving out little pieces of trust, cause when people take it without giving none in return, then you’re left with less and less to give to people that have really earned it. Till you find yourself one day handing out large bowls of bitterness.
So she would just keep her history book as neat and as emotionless as possible. Even when Mr. Alan St. Claire was gunned down. It happened on Ash Wednesday.
In Mark’s Jewelers in St. Louis. It was real bad, she’d said, for a black man who was just trying to purchase a nice mother of Pearl piece for a sick friend, to get shot down like that. Like a common dog.