An exclusive excerpt from Louisiana in Words
Last year, New Orleans' Pelican Publishing Co. put out an entry call for a unique writing project about Louisiana. Pelican asked writers to chronicle one minute in a Louisiana day. Within that framework, there were no other restrictions.
The result is the new book Louisiana in Words, which contains more than 100 entries selected by editor Joshua Clark that stretch from Dubach to Dulac and Paradise to Venice. It's a heartfelt tapestry of Louisiana's people, places, traditions and obsessions, and the following entries appear courtesy of an exclusive excerpt from Pelican Publishing.
**5:00 a.m.**You want to catch fish, you have to be there when they're hungry. You fish the marshes for catfish, speckled trout, and redfish as soon as it's daylight. This Saturday that means having your boat ready to be slung into the bayou by an old crane (one dollar per foot of boat length) at Hopedale down in St. Bernard Parish by 5:00 a.m.
There's a line of vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, with trailered boats behind, waiting their turn at the launch. The darkness somehow makes the humidity worse, and the mosquitoes swarm out of the tall reeds, biting and zinging. Your turn comes, you tie your boat to the dock out of the way of the next boat to be launched, and hurry back to park your truck and empty trailer in the weeds by the road.
Careful to make only a small wake, you idle quietly down Bayou La Loutre past the sleeping houses on the east bank, make the final left turn, and pour on the coal until you intersect the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. They call it "MR. GO." You make a sweeping left turn around the green, triangular channel marker. A half-mile or so and you turn right into an oil company canal heading into the marsh. Straight as a die, the canal spawns a hundred bayous on either side. Your only guide to fishing success is your instinct.
So you anchor a hundred yards down a side bayou, the marsh grass and little trees all around you, butterflies waving madly and white egrets working the mud banks. Then, all of a sudden, a really strange thing happens. Your boat drops like an elevator and lands on the bottom. Unheard and unseen, a gigantic freighter has slid down MR. GO behind you. Its passing displaces so much water in the confined channels that all the water in your bayou is momentarily sucked out. You're looking at the mud bottom, the crab traps, plastic bags, beer cans, and other trash lying there. You spin around in time to see the huge brown hull disappearing toward the Gulf. As quickly as it drained, the water rises again and you bob to the surface. It's as though it never happened. ' Graham Clarke
**7:30 a.m.**The back roads between Crowley and Lafayette run through farm country. People use these roads to avoid the heavy traffic on Interstate 10 or U.S. Highway 90. This morning, a car traveling toward Lafayette on one of these roads makes a right turn and . . . stops. The driver, a middle-aged man, opens the door, gets out, and leans on the front fender, mesmerized by the scene that has caught his eye.
On the right side of the road, the sun is just high enough to highlight a large saucer of water wrapped around by a levee and, beyond that, another levee-wrapped saucer of water. The scene is repeated'water, levee, water, levee'all the way to a horizon defined by small scrub trees, shrubs, and weeds, their soft grays and greens and tans melding and blending into the not-yet-bright-blue of the sky.
The man's eyes search the scene.
He moves closer.
He smells the air, catching the odors of dust, mud, water, and decaying vegetation.
He feels the heat, the humidity making the air heavy and sticky.
For the length of several heartbeats, Time seems to warp and displace the Now, the Present, in his mind. For just a moment, he wonders: Is this a South Vietnamese rice paddy . . . or a South Louisiana crawfish pond? ' Erlene Stewart
**10:10 a.m.**October mornings are the best time of the day of the best month in South Louisiana. The day's heat hasn't set in yet, the sky is blue, and breeze sweeps the air. All Saints' Day is coming up next weekend. Families have come to the cemetery to take care of the graves of their dead.
An old lady moves with a walker through the middle of the cemetery. She is with her granddaughter and her granddaughter's husband, and they are looking for the graves of her mother and father. She used to know exactly where they are. . . .
They had come down this morning from Baton Rouge on La. 1. They passed sugarcane fields and chemical plants. Many of the houses they passed had blue Virgins in the yard. And they had come through the place of her birth. Although the house no longer stands there at Grand Bayou, she recognized the place by the old mossy oak tree, which remains as a grave marker of sorts. The marker had directed them to the Paincourtville cemetery, and now she had to find . . . aaah, here they are . . . the graves of Adia Landry and Joseph Albarado.
Her granddaughter opens the lawn chair for her, and she sits in the shade and watches as the younger woman and her husband begin scrubbing the elevated graves in preparation for whitewashing.
Several others at the same task stop by during the morning. A few recognize the old lady; others introduce themselves and ask whom she is related to and how. Her granddaughter listens to all the stories about the families and about the old days ' about the men tracking and killing the alligator that had bitten Parrain Petit's leg in 1935 until he gouged out the alligator's eye with the spur on his boots used to climb trees to collect moss for mattresses; of the time every spring when the waters came and the families would put their furniture as high as they could and leave in a flatboat to "where the water ended"; about how as a girl Nolda and her girlfriend Icy would fix a big bowl of sweet potatoes, raw with salt, pepper, and vinegar, and climb up to the roof to eat them. Laughs and memories connect the pieces, and there is a connected peace.
The sun rises higher, the graves are painted, and they decide that the job is good enough for another year. They return to the car, and the lady directs them to a service station/restaurant where she insists on buying fried shrimp po' boys. She puts her hand on top of her granddaughter's. She is not sure that she will be here next year, but her anxiety is gone: she knows in her bones that the graves will be tended. ' Mike and Stacy O'Rourke
**1:45 p.m.**The boy is sitting in the terrace of the Superdome, thirty-five rows up. The Saints are winning this Sunday, and this is quickly becoming the norm. His long, floppy blond hair brushes over the shoulder of his Dalton Hilliard jersey as he leans forward in anticipation of the next play.
A man emerges from the tunnel at the bottom of the section. He is of average height and medium build and has light brown hair. He is wearing a suit and smiling at the entire section above him, waving to everyone slowly, back and forth.
The boy realizes that this man is David Duke. What the boy knows about Duke is that he used to be in the KKK and is running for office. Duke is on the news often in the boy's home and is generally not approved of by anyone he knows.
An idea suddenly switches on in the boy's mind. As he silently commits to it, he begins to get nervous. He tells his uncle seated next to him that he'll be back in a minute as he gets up and moves past into the aisle.
The boy begins the long, 35-row descent toward the average-sized man, still happily shaking hands and waving below. His heart begins to beat heavily. He quickly considers giving it up and returning to his seat.
The boy keeps going.
As he nears the bottom of the stairs, he considers walking past the average-looking man and on to the bathroom. He thinks to himself that it isn't too late to abort.
The boy steps down the last stair and onto the landing with the average man. His heart pounding inside of his sternum, the boy looks up at the man to catch his eye.
The average man sees the boy, smiles down at him, and says, "Hello." The man offers his hand.
The boy hesitates for a moment. His hands are quivering. He looks up into the man's eyes and says, "You suck."
The man's face twists up. The corners of his mouth turn down rigidly as his eyes narrow in anger. For a moment, the boy is afraid of the man's private display of naked rage.
The man withdraws his hand. The boy sees the corners of his mouth move higher as the man turns back toward the crowd. The average man begins to wave up at the section, offering a hollow, plastic smile. ' James L. Jones III
**2:00 p.m.**It's two o'clock on Friday and Scott Kupper is leaning on his truck parked on the corner of Railroad and Pine. It's a good location. From here he can watch for potential customers coming out of Paul's Café and tourists visiting Ole Hardhide's wire cage. Friday is alligator feeding day and Dave Opdenhoff has just served Ole Hardhide's dinner of raw chickens and driven off in the city water truck. Now Scott watches as a tall brunette in a denim skirt dashes across the railroad tracks toward him. "They're beautiful," she says, pointing to the white cardboard boxes arranged on the tailgate of his 1990 Chevy truck. Ten years ago Scott and his daddy built the metal and plywood frame that arches over this pale blue truck and Scott stenciled the red and green "Kupper Farm Strawberries" himself. The boxes are filled with strawberries . . . succulent, perfect berries every one . . . emitting a fragrance like no other in the world. "How much for a half-flat?" the woman asks. When he tells her eight dollars, she says it's a good price for mid-March. Scott smiles. It's not about the money. He's only a hobby farmer with two acres of plants behind his yellow house. He works for the Department of Agriculture, but that's not all about money either.
He's 37, quite handsome, with hair the color of rich dirt, a mustache and neatly trimmed beard to match. Straight white teeth and a ready smile. A sturdy frame; legs like fence posts. He wipes his hand on his T-shirt advertising Woody's Ukulele Shop. "Come play with us," the shirt invites passersby. Scott knows strawberry farming isn't playing. It's hard work, planting, picking, cutting, cleaning. There are the years of fighting insects, years Mother Nature sends late frosts or too much rain, the years of prices going down so low he can barely afford the plastic mulch he spreads on the field.
But, it's not all about work. There's euphoria, too, he thinks, as he offers the lady a berry to taste. Juice trickles down her chin and they both laugh. "Sweet," she says. He tells her that strawberries are the aphrodisiac he learned to love in his infancy. To Scott, strawberry farming is all about the wonder of watching something so tiny grow into a 12-inch-high bush. A rosebush actually. Strawberries are really swollen pistils of seeds in the rose family, he tells the lady, but he knows that nobody cares about that except people like him. And his daddy, who was a bona fide strawberry farmer with 25 acres of straight rows you could run a plumb line down. In the 1990s his daddy set up shop on this very spot beside the railroad tracks in Ponchatoula and taught Scott that the really interesting thing about selling isn't the product, it's the people. You have to like people to sell, Scott tells his own son. You can't learn to appreciate life watching television and playing video games. You've got to get out in the fields where Mother Nature will cure your blues, he says. But Scott knows those mournful blues aren't cured so easily.
As the woman walks away carrying her box of berries like an offering, Scott looks down the tracks and swallows twice. He's standing where just last year Mama sat in a lawn chair selling her berries. She wasn't feeling so good that day, and she closed up shop and walked away. Diabetic coma, they said. Never felt a thing when she fell on the tracks just as the train came through. He pockets the five and three ones the brunette paid him and whispers, "No, it's not about the money." ' Bev Marshall
**3:12 p.m.**The old man sits on the porch of his country home in Paulina, with his hound dog, Perique, by his side. It is the sugarcane harvest, a very busy time of the year. They have burned the fields, once brilliant green as far as the eye can see. The wagons are lined up along the road waiting to haul the cane to the refinery down in Gramercy. He looks forward to the harvest. With all the activity, the days are not so long.
The old man crosses the dusty road to the fields to cut a few stalks. He brings them home and stands them on the porch. Later, when his company comes, he will pull out his favorite knife and peel back the outer layer of the cane, slicing the sweet sugar chew to share. A custom passed on through the generations, the chew and the memories it brings are still sweet.
His granddaughter attends LSU, where her parents met as students. They've come down for the big game and to visit with him. Since Mama passed, they have begged Papa to come live with them. But he can't leave his home. He was born here. Besides, he is content with his constant companion, Perique.
So, he sits and waits for the visit, looking out across the sugarcane fields to blue skies and white billowing clouds. Season to season, he watches the sugarcane grow, and he awaits the harvest. ' Lina Hutches Beavers
**4:45 p.m.**Past the cow pastures and the soybean crops and the bridge where Bayou Teche and Bayou Fusilier meet, around the corner from Arnaudville's single grocery store, in back of the warehouse that was once a gym, you spend a minute checking for snakes. Then you strip.
You are careful to angle the scrap of curtain around the makeshift shower so you are concealed from anyone to your right. That is where the do-it-yourself carwash is, and beyond the carwash, a ways down Highway 31, is the crackhouse. The crackheads are always walking the highway to buy crack from the men who wash their cars for hours all day and night. They have worn their own path into the gravel that is your front yard. You live in an abandoned store with a microwave and mattress but no shower. Sometimes the crackheads stop and ask you for beer until you lie and say it's all gone away. You have seen it in their eyes, this unrestrained hunger; you are just another thing they would consume if they could.
Today the water smells a bit like rotten eggs with a chemical edge to it, kind of like Nair, you think, and wonder if the soapy carwash water has mixed in with your water supply. The cement is slippery beneath your feet from bars of soap left to dissolve next to empty shampoo bottles. These Cajuns you've met, they are kind enough to let you use their shower. They were kind enough to smile when you confronted them about what they did to the shower curtain, how they lowered it so that if you stand up straight, the bayou has a clear view of your breasts. You are not worried about the Cajuns today; they've gone offshore. They'll return in two weeks to spin their tires out on the highway and drink Coors Light while talking about what work can do, their eyes the only things left on them unweathered by ocean, sun, and deck. Sometimes there are boys in boats who have heard the legend of you'a naked woman who lives in an abandoned daiquiri shop and showers outside'and you listen for the sound of their boat.
You are careful to clean the wound from when a dime seared itself to your knee as you rooted around in your car. The blister pops and clear liquid runs out. You had expected pus, something dirty as the bayou that reeks of dead fish. As you shave your legs a breeze whips the curtain around you and you miss a few places. You are always missing things and trying to ignore it. Your new fleur-de-lis tattoo puckers with mosquito bites and you smack at them, thinking only that to scratch would be divine until you think you will lose your mind. You realize you know how the crackheads feel.
A lizard darts past you, shocking you into an upright position. The boy is there now, pretending to fish with a stick and some string. Your breasts glisten from the water. He smiles. And then you wave. ' Tara Jill Ciccarone
**6:03 p.m.**As the light fades, a freight locomotive passes on a nearby track and blows its horn, prompting a loud burst of chirping in the cemetery's trees. Warren Kelly's red Ford Ranger pickup is always parked here, on the unpaved road that curves through Holt Cemetery, in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. The graveyard opened in 1879 as a burial ground for the "indigent dead." Today its massive live oaks and zigzagged rows of mounded graves sit behind a busy college parking lot, barely noticed.
Mr. Warren is a self-described "hustle man," a grave-cleaning freelancer who earned his first money here half a century ago, as a teenager living in the Calliope housing project. Propped on his truck's open tailgate is a handmade sign: "Year round grave cleaning, painting & box building, headboards, adding of sand, upkeeping, etc. Call Warren beep 213-3123."
He wipes his forehead, cracks open a sixteen-ounce Natural Light, and looks in his rearview mirror, where two gravediggers in muddy boots dig a typical Holt grave: two and a half feet wide, six feet long, and about as deep as a gravedigger's waist is high. Sometimes their shovels pick up crawfish. At six feet down, they would hit water. Moisture heightens the graveyard soil's unique odor, the result of embalming fluid mixing with the dirt. Around new coffins the earth is often wet with beer or wine ' friends giving the deceased a last drink. In the old days, people tossed in brooches or medallions, but that's rarely done anymore.
A typical family plot here holds dozens of family members, all buried in the same standard-sized grave, separated only by years. Each plot contains bones, because bones never go away. Any remains are deposited in a shallow hole right below the new casket. In New Orleans' famous aboveground tombs, a human body will deteriorate within a year. Down here in the soil it takes about six years. Anything less than that calls for a long iron tool known as a stiff hook. "Freddy Krueger ain't got nothing on what we see," says one gravedigger with a grimace.
Earlier, acorns crunched underfoot as mourners in black emerged from cars and trailed pallbearers with white gloves carrying 28-year-old Latoya McGary's light-blue casket toward an empty grave. Mr. Warren read about it in the newspaper. Her life was cut short by a gunshot to the head, he says. About twenty years ago, McGary's mother was stabbed to death and buried here in the family gravesite, also the final resting place for both her grandparents and her great-grandparents.
"They call this the potter's field," says Mr. Warren, re-telling the biblical story in which Judas, after betraying Christ, threw thirty pieces of silver onto the temple floor. Priests used that silver to buy land from the potter to bury the poor.
A few rows down, Mr. Warren's shovel stands idle, propped against a wooden marker. Without his care, that marker would rot away and this family's plot would disappear into weeds. That's what happened to plot C-623 after cornet player Buddy Bolden was buried there in 1931. A few years ago, a big stone Bolden monument was plunked onto unclaimed ground, but no one knows where he was actually laid to rest.
The gravediggers depart with a wave to Mr. Warren. His beer break over, he begins hoeing around a fellow veteran's grave. He was drafted for Vietnam, he says, right out of high school. There, he learned that sleeping on top of the mounded graves would keep him dry, even if the water level rose during the night.
Soon night will fall and, as usual, he'll be alone in the graveyard. Mr. Warren doesn't mind. "Dead people can't do you no harm, baby," he says. "You got to watch the ones that's alive." ' Katy Reckdahl
**6:32 p.m.**Past the jetties the horizon becomes science fiction ' an unbroken line of offshore oil platforms as far as Casey can see in either direction. Their dark metal frames rise like fortresses or battleships, looming over the Gulf waters. Lights twinkle. Helicopters move back and forth between the structures. Casey's fiancé is out there somewhere. He's a welder's apprentice; he's been offshore for 43 days straight, working a double rotation.
Casey stands on the beach with her girlfriends, all of them perched against car doors, pulling from cigarettes, looking out at the waves. Silty brown water choked with pale clumps of seaweed. The boys sit just outside the breakers, bobbing on surfboards. They've been out all afternoon. Hurricane Emily is out there somewhere, heading for Mexico, pushing waves up onto the beach here at Port Fourchon. The boys like hurricanes. They sit on longboards between big jetties made from rock and broken concrete. That's where the sandbars push the waves into breakers. That's where they get good rides.
Casey can't get in the water because of her new tattoo. "It might get infected," she explains. The tattoo peeks out from behind her pink bikini top: a mermaid with a dagger.
"I wouldn't get in that water anyway," says one of her girlfriends, setting her beer down to adjust her ponytail. "That water's nasty. Whoa, look!"
Casey turns in time to see a bigger set of waves coming, marching toward the shore in long dark lines. The boys paddle hard, move themselves out into position. The first dark wall rises up, and the boy closest to the peak looks as though he's going to be swallowed up in the barreling water, but he pops to his feet, and the longboard glides down the slick brown surface of the water. He carves a turn at the bottom of the swell and rises again, flying along in the wave's curl. "Hiyaaaa!" he yells, wind carrying his voice.
The next wave is just the same. And the next. The boys balance on sleek fiberglass boards and angle toward the beach, laughing and calling, last ride of the day, until there is nothing left but white foam hissing toward the beach where it finally rolls up onto the sand. One by one, they step off in the shallows, lift their boards beneath their arms, climb out of the warm water. Casey watches their slick bodies as they laugh and run back to the cars, the girls, the music, the coolers full of beer and cold drinks. One looks over at her leaning against the hood of the car. "When are you going to let me see the rest of that tattoo, girl?" he says with a wink and a smile, saltwater dripping from his hair.
Casey hands him her beer, and looks out once more at the offshore platforms. Far away. Like clouds, sometimes they seem close enough to touch, and sometimes they seem so distant they might just cast off and disappear. She turns back to the cars, the drinks, the friends on the beach, all glowing in the long rays of afternoon sunshine. Things she can touch. ' David Parker, Jr.
**9:33 p.m.**In an airliner crossing the Atlantic in the middle of the night, a flight attendant walks into the cockpit and says, "Aren't one of you guys from New Orleans?"
The captain smiles and raises his hand. "Guilty."
"There is some famous New Orleans band in business class. Check it out." She hands him the passenger manifest.
He reads it and nods. "Not just a famous band; the leader is from one of the New Orleans first families of music."
The copilot, fresh from a nap, decides to become the grammar police and asks how can there be more than one first family of anything.
"I guess you'd have to be from New Orleans to understand," the captain replies. "I'm going to stretch my legs ' back in a few minutes."
He stops at the galley located just outside the cockpit door and pours a cup of Community Coffee. He brings his own supply on flights.
He walks up to the leader of the band and says, "Mister Marsalis, I thought you'd like to know there was a New Orleans boy flying you across the pond tonight."
A grin crosses Wynton's face. "Man, you didn't have to say that. 'New Orleans' came out as soon as you opened your mouth."
They start an animated discussion of items critical to New Orleans life. The Saints had won two pre-season games in a row. Would it be premature to make hotel reservations for the Super Bowl? Since high school rather than race or religion is the determining "root factor" in New Orleans, they debate the relative merits of high school football teams and marching bands. An agreement is reached that St. Aug's Purple Knights have the best marching band in the city for sure and perhaps the world.
The captain asks if they are playing a few gigs in Europe or going on a tour.
"Another tour," Wynton answers. "We have more musical talent in the city than the city can support; got to tour to make money."
The pilot nods. "Man, is that right! The other night my wife and I were having coffee and beignets at Café du Monde. There was this sound ' it was a sax, but a sax like no other I have ever heard. We followed the sound up the Moonwalk to the river. The fog on the river was so thick you could hear the ships passing but couldn't see them. This old man was sitting on a box with a sax. I can't say he was playing a sax ' it was way past that."
Wynton laughed. "That's Mister Tony. He lives down the street from me; can make a horn moan like a woman ' just never got a break."
One of the other musicians interrupts and says, "Dude, I'm getting tired of all this New Orleans bulls---."
Wynton playfully slaps the man with a magazine and says, "If you ain't from there, you can't understand." ' Jack Saux
From Louisiana in Words edited by Joshua Clark © 2007 by Joshua Clark used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Co., Inc.
Louisiana in Words reading and booksigning2-4 p.m. Saturday, April 21, Barnes & Noble, 5705 Johnston St., 989-2545
Featuring Leonard Earl Johnson, Richard Sealy, Mark David, Karen Yochim, Rebekah Markel, Edward Gauthier, Evelyn Smith, Erlene Stewart, Leslie Alexander