Last Car to Elysian Fields
The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl. In the evenings I sat on the back steps of a rented shotgun house on Bayou Teche and watched the boats passing in the twilight and listened to the Sunset Limited blowing down the line. Just as the light went out of the sky the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table.
But in my heart the autumnal odor of gas on the wind, the gold and dark green of the trees, and the flame-lit edges of the leaves were less a sign of Indian summer than a prelude to winter rains and the short, gray days of December and January, when smoke would plume from stubble fires in the cane fields and the sun would be only a yellow vapor in the west.
Years ago, in both New Orleans and New Iberia, the tannic hint of winter and the amber cast of the shrinking days gave me the raison d’etre I needed to drink in any saloon that would allow me inside its doors. I was not one of those valiant, alcoholic souls who tries to drink with a self-imposed discipline and a modicum of dignity, either. I went at it full-bore, knocking back Beam or Black Jack straight-up in sawdust bars where I didn’t have to make comparisons, with a long-necked Jax or Regal on the side that would take away the aftertaste and fill my mouth with golden needles. Each time I tilted the shotglass to my lips I saw in my mind’s eye a simian figure feeding a fire inside a primeval cave and I felt no regret that I shared his enterprise.
Now I went to meetings and didn’t drink anymore, but I had a way of putting myself inside bars, usually ones that took me back to the Louisiana in which I had grown up. One of my favorites of years past was Goldie Bierbaum’s place on Magazine in New Orleans. A green colonnade extended over the sidewalk, and the rusted screen doors still had painted on them the vague images and lettering of Depression-era coffee and bread advertisements. The lighting was bad, the wood floor scrubbed colorless with bleach, the railed bar interspersed with jars of pickles and hard-boiled eggs above and cuspidors down below. And Goldie himself was a jewel out of the past, a seventy-year-old flat-chested ex-prizefighter who had fought Cleveland Williams and Eddie Machen.
It was night and raining hard on the colonnade and tin roof of the building. I sat at the far end of the bar, away from the door, with a demitasse of coffee and a saucer and tiny spoon in front of me. Through the front window I could see Clete Purcel parked in his lavender Cadillac convertible, a fedora shadowing his face in the glow of the streetlight. A man came in and removed his raincoat and sat down on the other end of the bar. He was young, built like a weight-lifter whose physique was earned rather than created with steroids. He wore his brown hair shaved on the sides, with curls hanging down the back of his neck. His eyebrows were half-moons, his face impish, cartoonlike, as though it were drawn with a charcoal pencil.
Goldie poured him a shot and a draft chaser, then set the whiskey bottle back on the counter against the wall and pretended to read the newspaper. The man finished his drink and walked the length of the bar to the men’s room in back. His eyes looked straight ahead and showed no interest in me as he passed.
“That’s the guy,” Goldie said, leaning close to me.
“You’re sure? No mistake?” I said.
“He comes in three nights a week for a shot and a beer, sometimes a catfish po’boy. I heard him talking about it on the payphone back there. Maybe he’s not the guy who hurt your friend, but how many guys in New Orleans are gonna be talking about breaking the spokes on a Catholic priest?”
I heard the men’s room door open again and footsteps walk past me to the opposite end of the bar. Goldie’s eyes became veiled, impossible to read. The top of his head looked like an alabaster bowling ball with blue lines in it.
“I’m sorry about your wife. It was last year?” he said.
“It was lupus?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I replied.
“You doin’ all right?”
“Sure,” I said, avoiding his eyes.
“Don’t get in no trouble, like we used to do in the old days.”
“Not a chance,” I said.
“Hey, my po’boy ready?” the man at the end of the bar asked.
The man made a call on the payphone, then ate his sandwich and bounced pool balls off the rails on the pool table. The mirror behind the bar was oxidized an oily green and yellow, like the color of lubricant floating in water, and between the liquor bottles lined along the mirror I could see the man looking at the back of my head.
I turned on the bar stool and grinned at him. He waited for me to speak. But I didn’t.
“I know you?” he said.
“Maybe. I used to live in New Orleans. I don’t anymore,” I said.
He spun the cue ball down the rail into the pocket, his eyes lowered. “So you want to shoot some nine ball?” he said.
“I’d be poor competition.”
He didn’t raise his eyes or look at me again. He finished his beer and sandwich at the bar, then put on his coat and stood at the screen door, looking at the mist blowing under the colonnade and at the cars passing in the neon-streaked wetness in front of Goldie’s bar. Clete Purcel fired up his Cadillac and rattled down the street, turning at the end of the block.
The man with the impish face and curls that hung on the back of his neck stepped outside and breathed the air like a man out for a walk, then got into a Honda and drove up Magazine toward the Garden District. A moment later Clete Purcel pulled around the block and picked me up.
“Can you catch him?” I asked.
“I don’t have to. That’s Gunner Ardoin. He lives in a dump off Tchoupitoulas,” he said.
“Gunner? He’s a button man?”
“No, he’s been in two or three of Fat Sammy Figorelli’s porn films. He mules crystal in the projects, too.”
“Would he bust up a priest?” I asked.
Clete looked massive behind the steering wheel, his upper arms like big, cured hams inside his tropical shirt. His hair was sandy, cut short like a little boy’s. A diagonal scar ran through his left eyebrow.
“Gunner?” he said. “It doesn’t sound like him. But a guy who performs oral sex for a hometown audience? Who knows?”
We caught up with the Honda at Napoleon Avenue, then followed it through a dilapidated neighborhood of narrow streets and shotgun houses to Tchoupitoulas. The driver turned on a side street and parked under a live oak in front of a darkened cottage. He walked up a shell driveway and entered the back door with a key and turned on a light inside.
Clete circled the block, then parked four houses up the street from Gunner Ardoin’s place and cut the engine. He studied my face.
“You look a little wired,” he said.
“Not me,” I said.
The rain on the windshield made rippling shadows on his face and arms. “I made my peace with N.O.P.D.,” he said.
“Most of the guys who did us dirt are gone. I let it be known I’m not in the O.K. Corral business anymore. It makes life a lot easier,” he said.
Through the overhang of the trees I could see the Mississippi levee at the foot of the street and fog billowing up from the other side. Boat lights were shining inside the fog so that the fog looked like electrified steam rising off the water.
“Are you coming?” I asked.
He pulled an unlit cigarette from his mouth and threw it out the window. “Why not?” he said.
We walked up Gunner Ardoin’s driveway, past a garbage can overflowing with shrimp husks. Banana trees grew against the side of the house and the leaves were slick and green and denting in the rainwater that slid off the roof. I jerked the back screen off the latch and went into Gunner Ardoin’s kitchen.
“You beat up Catholic priests, do you?” I said.
“What?” he said, turning from the sink with a metal coffeepot in his hand. He wore draw-string, tin-colored workout pants and a ribbed undershirt. His skin was white, clean of jailhouse art, his underarms shaved. A weight set rested on the floor behind him.
“Lose the innocent monkey face, Gunner. You used a steel pipe on a priest name of Jimmie Dolan,” Clete said.
Gunner set the coffeepot down on the counter. He studied both of us briefly, then lowered his eyes and folded his arms on his chest, his back resting against the sink. His nipples looked like small brown dimes through the fabric of his undershirt. “Do what you have to do,” he said.
“Better rethink that statement,” Clete said.
But Gunner only stared at the floor, his elbows cupped in his palms. Clete looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
“My name’s Dave Robicheaux. I’m a homicide detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department,” I said, opening my badge holder. “But my visit here is personal.”
“I didn’t beat up a priest. You think I did, then I’m probably in the shitter. I can’t change that.” He began picking at the calluses on his palm.
“You get that at a twelve-step session up at Angola?” Clete said.
Gunner Ardoin looked at nothing and suppressed a yawn.
“You raised Catholic?” I said.
He nodded, without lifting his eyes.
“You’re not bothered by somebody hospitalizing a priest, breaking his bones, a decent man who never harmed anyone?” I said.
“I don’t know him. You say he’s a good guy, maybe he is. There’s a lot of priests out there are good guys, right?” he said.
Then, like all career recidivists and fulltime smart-asses, he couldn’t resist the temptation to show his contempt for the world of normal people. He turned his face away from me, but I saw one eye glimmer with mirth, a grin tug slightly at the corner of his mouth. “Maybe they kept the altar boys away from him,” he said.
I stepped closer to him, my right hand balling. But Clete pushed me aside. He picked up the metal coffeepot from the counter and smashed it almost flat against the side of Gunner Ardoin’s head, then threw him in a chair. Gunner folded his arms across his chest, a torn grin on his mouth, blood trickling from his scalp.
“Have at it, fellows. I made both y’all back on Napoleon. I dialed 911 soon as I came in. My lawyer loves guys like you,” he said.
Through the front window I saw the emergency flasher on an N.O.P.D. cruiser pull to the curb under the live oak tree that grew in Gunner Ardoin’s front yard. A lone black female officer slipped her baton into the ring on her belt and walked uncertainly toward the gallery, her radio squawking incoherently in the rain.
I slept that night on Clete’s couch in his small apartment above his P.I. office on St. Ann. The sky was clear and pink at sunrise, the streets in the Quarter puddled with water, the bougainvillea on Clete’s balcony as bright as drops of blood. I shaved and dressed while Clete was still asleep and walked past St. Louis Cathedral and through Jackson Square to the Cafe du Monde, where I met Father Jimmie Dolan at a table under the pavilion.
Although we had been friends and had bass fished together for two decades, he remained in many ways a mysterious man, at least to me. Some said he was a closet drunk who had done time in a juvenile reformatory; others said he was gay and well known among the homosexual community in New Orleans, although women were obviously drawn to him. He had crewcut, blond good looks and the wide shoulders and tall, trim physique of the wide-end receiver he had been at a Winchester, Kentucky, high school. He didn’t talk politics but he got into trouble regularly with authority on almost all levels, including six months in a federal prison for trespassing on the School of the Americas property at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
It had been three months since he had been waylaid in an alley behind his church rectory and methodically beaten from his neck to the soles of his feet by someone wielding a pipe with an iron bonnet screwed down on the business end.
“Clete Purcel and I rousted a guy named Gunner Ardoin last night. I think maybe he’s the guy who attacked you,” I said.
Father Jimmie had just bitten into a beignet and his mouth was smeared with powdered sugar. He wore a tiny sapphire in his left earlobe. His eyes were a deep green, thoughtful, his skin tan. He shook his head.
“That’s Phil Ardoin. Wrong guy,” he said.
“He said he didn’t know you.”
“I coached his high school basketball team.”
“Why would he lie?”
“With Phil it’s a way of life.”
An N.O.P.D. cruiser pulled to the curb out on Decatur and a black female officer got out and fixed her cap on her head. She looked like she was constructed of twigs, her sky blue shirt too large on her frame, her pursed lips layered with red lipstick. Last night Clete had said she reminded him of a black swizzle stick with a cherry stuck on the end.
She threaded her way through the tables until she was abreast of ours. The brass name tag on her shirt said C. ARCENEAUX.
“I thought I should give you a heads-up,” she said.
“How’s that?” I asked.
She looked off abstractly at the traffic on the street and at the artists setting up their easels under the trees in Jackson Square. “Take a walk with me,” she said.
I followed her down to a shady spot at the foot of the Mississippi levee. “I tried to talk to the other man, what’s his name, Purcel, but he seemed more interested in riding his exercise bike,” she said.
“He has blood pressure problems,” I said.
“Maybe more like a thinking problem,” she replied, looking idly down the street.
“Can I help you with something?” I asked.
“Gunner Ardoin is filing an assault charge against you and your friend. I think maybe he’s got a civil suit in mind. If I was you, I’d take care of it.”
“Take care of it?” I said.
Her eyes squinted into the distance, as though the subject at hand had already slipped out of her frame of reference. Her hair was black and thick and cut short on her neck, her eyes a liquid brown.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“Don’t like people who mule crystal into the projects.”
“You work both the night and the morning watch?”
“I’m just up from meter maid. Low in standing, know what I mean, but somebody got to do it. Tell the priest to spend more time with his prayers,” she said, and started to walk back to her cruiser.
“What’s your first name?” I asked.
“Clotile,” she said.
Back at the table I watched her drive away into the traffic, the lacquered brim of her cap low on her forehead. Meter maid, my ass, I thought.
“Ever hear of Junior Crudup?” Father Jimmie asked.
“The blues man? Sure,” I said.
“What do you know about him?”
“He died in Angola,” I said.
“No, he disappeared in Angola. Went in and never came out. No record at all of what happened to him,” Father Jimmie said. “I’d like for you to meet his family.”
“Got to get back to New Iberia.”
“It’s Saturday,” he said.
“Nope,” I said.
“Junior’s granddaughter owns a twelve-string guitar she thinks might have belonged to Leadbelly. Maybe you could take a look at it. Unless you just really don’t have the time?” he said.
I followed Father Jimmie in my pickup truck into St. James Parish, which lies on a ninety-mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that environmentalists have named Toxic Alley. We drove down a state road south of the Mississippi levee through miles of sugarcane and on through a community of narrow, elongated shacks that had been built in the late nineteenth century. At the crossroads, or what in south Louisiana is called a four-corners, was a ramshackle nightclub, an abandoned company store with a high, tin-roofed gallery, a drive-by daiquiri stand, and a solitary oil storage tank that was streaked with corrosion at the seams, next to which someone had planted a tomato garden.
Most of the people who lived at the four-corners were black. The rain ditches and the weeds along the roadside were layered with bottles of beer and pop cans and trash from fast-food restaurants. The people who sat on the galleries of the shacks were either old or infirm or children. I watched a car filled with teenagers run a stop sign and fling a quart beer bottle on the side of the road, ten feet from where an elderly woman was picking up litter from her lawn and placing it in a vinyl bag.
Then we were out in the countryside again and the sky was as blue as a robin’s egg, the sugarcane bending in the wind as far as the eye could see, egrets perched like white sculptures on the backs of cattle in a roadside pasture. But inside the loveliness of the day was another element, discordant and invasive, the metallic reek of natural gas, perhaps from a wellhead or a leaking connection at a pump station. Then the wind shifted and it was gone and the sky was speckled with birds rising from a pecan orchard and from the south I could smell the brassy odor of a storm that was building over the Gulf.
I looked at my watch. No more than one hour with Father Jimmie’s friends, I told myself. I wanted to get back to New Iberia and forget about the previous night and the trouble with Gunner Ardoin. Maybe it was time to let Father Jimmie take care of his own problems, I thought. Some people loved adversity, got high on it daily, and secretly despised those who would take it from them. That trait didn’t necessarily go away because of a Roman collar.
The state road made a bend and suddenly the endless rows of sugarcane ended. The fields were uncultivated now, empty of livestock, dotted with what looked like settling ponds. The Crudup family lived down a dirt lane in a white frame house with a wraparound veranda hung with baskets of flowers. Three hundred yards behind the house was a woods bordered with trees that were gray with dead leaves and the scales of air vines, as though the treeline had been matted with premature winterkill.
Father Jimmie had set the hook when he had mentioned Leadbelly’s name, but I knew as we drove down the road toward the neat white house backdropped by a poisoned woods that this trip was not about the recidivist convict who wrote “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special” and who today is almost forgotten.
In fact, I wondered if I, like Father Jimmie, could not wait to fill my day with adversity in the way I had once filled it with Jim Beam and a glass of Jax with strings of foam running down the sides.
When I cut my engine in front of the house, I took a Dr Pepper from the cooler on the seat and raked the ice off the can and drank it empty before stepping out onto the yard.