Chapter One: 1956
Three days before the end of the school year, Bob Boudreaux, Sheriff of Richelieu Parish, Louisiana, walked down a short flight of steps at the rear of the courthouse where his gray unmarked Ford was parked, got in, turned on the ignition, and backed out onto St. Peter Street.
The cruiser was immaculate, kept that way by Herman "Thank You Please" Washington, the trustee who was by far the Sheriff's most dependable employee.
Bob Boudreaux was a neat compact man, not quite six feet tall, who by midsummer would look Spanish. He wore khaki shirt and trousers over polished brown boots. A simple star-shaped, gold badge that read sheriff was pinned to his shirt pocket. His black hair was neatly parted, and you could see his scalp; white was beginning to show above his small ears.
His gray eyes peered out from beneath narrow upper lids, shielding thoughts turned inward. His nose lay flat against his face, broken in a long ago fight and ill set by the late Dr. Prudhomme.
The mouth was a straight line, like something drawn on the ground with a stick. The lips were all but nonexistent.
He turned on the radio as he drove onto Main Street, where telephone poles were festooned with fading pink and gray circulars, old promises from the last campaign. Promises for rural people who wanted to believe. Promise: Drainage ditches are kept clean and open at all times. Promise: Grass is cut monthly in ditches and on roadsides. Promise: Garbage is collected weekly.
All these candidates had lost. People stayed with the tried and the true, Sheriff Bob Boudreaux thought, whatever tried and true meant.
He had been elected by trickery and reelected without opposition, and thought, I am tried but am I true? In some ways, he reasoned, in some ways.
Then he quickly put the thought behind him. What point would be served? What in hell was truth but a sore he kept picking at? He thought of BeBe and with guilt turned on the radio to make that thought go away as well.
He saw Na Na Duhon spinning records, standing in the plate glass window of his radio station, CAJN. Na Na's bow tie bobbed as he sent sweet nothings to his De De: "Daddy's gonna bring home some good ice cream for his De De." Play the music, Na Na, for God's sake play the music! Mean people said, Why didn't Na Na send sweet nothings over the air to his little papoon at Misty's Paradise Inn, huh?
Na Na saw the Sheriff, gave a big wave, then shot him the finger. Boudreaux stared back, face expressionless. Na Na threw back his head and laughed. No way to get a rise out of Bob Boudreaux!
For sure. Music at last. Thank you Jesus. Thought of BeBe now gone.
The only Roman numerals in Richelieu were on the face of the clock on the First National Bank, stuck at 4:00, like Main Street's single stoplight -- stuck on red. There was something comforting about it. Always 4:00, always red. Old-timers leaned against the bank, dressed in Tuf-Nut coveralls, brogans, white socks, cash from their Social Security checks in their pockets. Most were tenant farmers too old to work the land, thrown out of the shacks they had raised their children in, spent a productive lifetime in. That was the catch: you had to be productive.
Big Shot Fontenot exited the bank, high-stepping it to Savoy's Pool Room for one final bourrée game before the wake. Funny how men walked, Boudreaux thought. Big Shot walked like he owned the earth -- which he just about did. Along with the Senator. The Senator made him think of BeBe. Bad. He was saved again by Father Brother-in-law's soothing voice caressing God via the Rosary, which he recited every afternoon on CAJN.
"Hail Mary full of grace..."
Having the Rosary in the background seemed somehow appropriate while going past Hurphy Perrault's law offices, the best looking building on Main. All white brick and glass, like an alien spaceship amid the plain wooden fronts of almost everything else. Hurphy was attorney for the diocese, district attorney for the parish. Hurphy would be left the Bishop's ring upon his death and was the only Knight of St. Gregory in all of Richelieu. Hurphy had a clubfoot, but no one noticed it because Hurphy was also very rich. "He got it coming out the ass," was the way Bad Ass Thibodeaux, the town drunk, described him, and everyone nodded. Bad Ass certainly had a way of putting things. Drunk or sober, although his sobriety was really only a memory.
Bobby drove past Moe Weiss's Notions and Tobacco. Camel cigarettes, Gillette Blue Blades, Vitalis, Keep Moving Cigars.
Doc Alcide Mouton's redbrick clinic was next, the red light on outside the emergency entrance.
Coon's -- Since 1900. Already filled with bourrée players and Jax beer drinkers, slapping their cards down on the table like a fusillade of pistol shots! Catfish Francois stirring the courtbouillon or gumbo or sauce piquant of the day in his big black pot. Drink, play cards, shoot the shit. Coon Soileau should have been a wealthy man, but he was his own best customer and always lost.
The Sheriff rolled past Hot Dog Hebert's Bakery, scent of donuts and cream puffs and fresh French loaves filling the air like perfume. Hot Dog admitted, "It don' taste good as it smells," a puzzle he had never solved. "Like a virgin's pussy," Hot Dog liked to brag. No one argued.
Past Tooky "Best Rates in Town" Trahan's Insurance. Maryland Casualty, Travelers, and Aetna -- he had them all. Blessed Mother in the window, smiling like Tooky had got her a good policy, and a cross over the door. Tooky did a big church business and believed in advertising.
Past Possum Aucoin's Barbershop. Possum asleep in his own chair, the Gazette over his face to keep the sun out. Gossip slept in Richelieu. Rumor took a snooze.
"Blessed art thou amongst women..."
Watch Out Naquin's Funeral Parlor came into view, one of Watch Out's coloreds out front polishing the black hearse. The Sheriff smiled, though his lips barely moved. Watch Out swore to one and all at One Lung Savoy's poolroom (in defense of a direct accusation by Possum Aucoin) that he absolutely "my han' to Gawd!" made the colored boy get out of the room when he embalmed a white lady. Further, Watch Out declared, "I believe in states' rights firs', las', and always!" His mean-spirited listeners snickered. They weren't so sure. Possum had previously stated that the colored boy was Watch Out's son. He was known to prefer black women. Watch Out was forced to take another oath.
"Our Father, who art in Heaven..."
Slowly past Richelieu High School, where Cap'n Eddie, the crossing guard, waiting for the buses that would take the children home, offered a salute which the Sheriff did not return. One of these days real soon he was going to have to do something about Eddie Sonnier, Purple Heart or not. Enough is enough, he thought and tapped his steering wheel in frustration. He dreaded the inevitable.
"Blessed art thou among women..." Father Brother-in-law was reciting the Rosary at an accelerated pace. He too had to get to Ti Boy's wake.
Poor little Ti Boy, an image of him scooting by on his bicycle, the Gazette bag dancing side to side on his handlebars.
Bobby thought, The last time I attended a child's wake it was Hot Dog Hebert's son. The kid couldn't leave his daddy's donuts alone, ate thirty-six of them for breakfast, died of obesity. Took twelve pallbearers. Watch Out Naquin, who'd embalmed him, said the lad weighed in at three hundred pounds. Bobby was unable to eat donuts thereafter, though he still loved their smell.
Father Brother-in-law's final "amen" came as Bobby pulled into Prejean's Esso for a fill-up. President Prejean himself tanked him up. "It's a sad day," President said as he halfheartedly wiped at the window with a dirty cloth. "It looks worse," Bobby muttered, but President paid him no mind. Prejean's mama had named him President so that no matter what, people would have to address her pride and joy as President. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Prejean was in his fourth term as President of the Rotary, Richelieu's only civic club, though it boasted at least eleven Catholic organizations (Sodality of the Blessed Virgin, Catholic Daughters of America, Ladies Altar Guild, Society of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Knights of Columbus, et cetera, et cetera.) No one could say exactly why they voted for Prejean. It had to be the name, Bobby thought as he drove away. Rumor was that Prejean was thinking of running for public office, maybe Mayor, bad news for Big Head Arceneaux, who was both Mayor and Richelieu's only midget. Big Head told the boys at Possum Aucoin's barbershop, "He's gon' find out there's a hell of a difference in being Mayor and being President." Hurphy Perrault offered what he thought he'd heard President's campaign slogan would be: "It takes a big man for a big job." The Mayor, who stood just over four feet tall, said he didn't think that was a damn bit funny and stormed from the barbershop, laughter following him out the door. Hurphy innocently asked, "What the hell's he mad about?" And got some more laughter.
One of the last shops on Main Street was Maybelle's Beauty Parlor. Slogan: "A little corner of Paris in Richelieu." Maybelle actually went to Paris every other year to keep up with the latest in styles. The Gazette followed up on these exotic visits every time with a front-page interview in which Maybelle gave very little away about those new styles. "They're both fascinating and unique" was the most she'd say. But it stimulated her business so much that men even sneaked into the shop at night (by appointment) so that they could be up to date on hairstyles. The radio station owner, Na Na Duhon, was one of her customers for sure. "That and a twenty-dollar bill is how he keeps his little papoon," Possum Aucoin said, not liking the competition one darn bit. Possum also suggested that Maybelle didn't go to Paris at all but slipped away to her sister's in neighboring Port Arthur, Texas. "That's her Paris," he said, giving the whole world the finger. Bobby Boudreaux's BeBe went to Maybelle's religiously every week, and honestly he couldn't tell much difference, even with a Paris style. BeBe loved her bangs.
The Sheriff was now out into the country.
The sun was a big neon peach. The heavens were pink and blue like a rainbow had tipped over, spilling color everyplace. He slowed to let an armadillo cross the blacktopped road. All the roads leading to the Senator's land were blacktopped. Thank you, Governor. Thank you, Baton Rouge.
To his left was a coulee where colored kids played. He turned on his siren and they laughed, and he waved at them and they waved back. To his right were the endless rows of cotton -- it looked good, green, healthy. He shook his head. That very field would look like snow-laden earth when the cotton bloomed.
BeBe saying, in his head, One day that'll all be ours, like she was compensating him for what was missing in their life, though neither could say exactly what that was. But something was. Like an empty room in a house. Mysterious and sad. He shook these thoughts away as he realized he'd left the siren on and self-consciously turned it off.
A white egret fed at the coulee's side, balanced perfectly on reedlike legs. Overhead a crow. So much life. So damn much life!
Accordion and fiddle music was playing on the radio, the singer saying that the trouble was his girlfriend didn't understand him. He mournfully asked, Why? Singer and song offered no answers. The question became monotonous and somehow burdensome, and Bobby turned off the radio. Now there was the silence, another kind of burden. He felt alone and could not have said why.
Aristede and Marie Brouliette farmed twenty acres of the Senator's good cotton land, something they had done with the help of their late son, Ti Boy. From this, they picked two or three bales of cotton a year. They stayed in debt, and though the Senator never pressed them, was in fact generous about advancing them money on which to subsist, they were as trapped as a nutria in one of those traps in the swamp. They knew this and accepted it. They were the third generation to farm someone else's land.
Their house rested on cinder blocks and was covered in fake brick material, and it tilted ever so slightly to the right like it was trying to catch a breeze. There was, of course, no wind, just heat and afternoon rains, and the cottonwoods that flanked the screen door were still.
Beulah the milk cow munched grass nearby.
On the tiny front porch was a swing. On the side of the house toward the rear was a privy, a much used path leading to it.
Leaning against the side of the house was Ti Boy's bike. A J. C. Higgins. It had once been red. The seat was beginning to rot. On the handlebars was slung the Gazette bag. That very year Ti Boy had been named Carrier of the Year. His photo had been on the front page of the newspaper, receiving from Zeke Daigle a certificate for a suit from Harmon's Department Store in Lafayette, which advertised in the Gazette. Ti Boy had a big grin, and Zeke had a hand on his shoulder. Zeke was quoted as saying, "That Ti Boy is definitely going places."
Well he sure was. Into six feet of rich soil.
The yard was filled with cars that Chief Deputy Slo' Down Angelle helped park. He had saved two spots nearest the house for the Senator and the Sheriff. Bad Ass Thibodeaux, plastered as usual, argued that he had as much right to a good parking spot as "those big shots." That he had no car was not mentioned.
Slo' Down paid him no mind. He arrested Bad Ass once a week, and they were good friends. "Why you so bad?" Slo' Down asked, and Bad Ass answered, "Thass jist my ways." Slo' Down nodded. That made good sense.
Bobby stepped from his car. He walked almost stiffly, as though in lockstep with invisible troops. He did not greet Slo' Down, who didn't expect it anyway but who considered Bobby to be one strange man, a man who had gotten his job by a trick, without which he would be as common as the rest of them.
Inside the house, the room was filled with whispers shattered by a booming baritone voice. Mayor Big Head Arceneaux was holding court, compensating for his lack of stature with a voice that seemed to come from a megaphone. He was talking about World War II, primarily errors made by Ike. He said the name like they'd gone to West Point together.
Strangers to Richelieu wondered how Big Head had ever gotten elected Mayor. Attorney Hurphy Perrault offered, "What the hell you want us to do with him? Would you hire him?"
Tooky Trahan once said while getting a shave at Possum's barbershop that he wished someone would get Big Head on an elevator and fart on him. That broke the boys up. There were several volunteers but limited elevators in Richelieu.
Chicken and sausage gumbo, made by Catfish Francois himself, was bubbling in the kitchen, and everybody would have a bowl or two with some of Hot Dog Hebert's French bread. BeBe had sent over a big earthenware bowl of potato salad, which everybody acknowledged she made better than anyone else in the parish. A lot of celery.
The Sheriff approached Marie and Aristede, who huddled together in silence. She wore black and would wear only that color for a year. Bobby shook hands with Aristede and slipped him a folded hundred-dollar bill to help pay for the funeral. He kissed Marie on the cheek. Their hands were callused from all the cotton picking. Bobby thought, Where they really need calluses is around their hearts. He said, "I'm sorry." There wasn't anything else to say. Aristede nodded. Marie eyed the Sheriff steadily. "We don' understand..."
"No," he said. Who would? Understand what?
Suddenly the whispering stopped, even Big Head grew silent. Father Justin Gaspard, Father Brother-in-law, entered the room and made his way to the Brouliettes.
He was a beautiful man, there was no other way to describe him. He was like one of those gold-haired angels in paintings -- grown-up but losing none of the spiritual glory. Perhaps it was the hair, gold ringlets over his eyes and about his neck. His eyes were clear blue, like the most perfect sky, and his lips sensuous and somehow sad. He was a big man, perfectly proportioned, with huge shoulders coming down to a slender, almost female waist. Everyone in Richelieu knew for sure he could have been a movie star. But no, for as long as they could remember, the Senator's son had wanted to be a priest. Which was a kind of miracle in itself, him being the son of Papoot.
He opened his arms, and the bereaved couple entered his embrace, people finding shelter in a storm.
In a soft, musical voice filled with passion, he said, "Ti Boy is here with us now."
Everyone in the room leaned forward to see for themselves. Looking down at the parents whom he encircled, Father Justin Gaspard said, "Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has him by the hand and both are smiling. He's come home to his Father."
Now those assembled made the sign of the cross. Bobby did this self-consciously, a voice inside telling him, You're doing it because everybody's doing it. It was true. A man who loses God somehow loses himself. Didn't want to even think about it. What's going on in me? he wondered.
The group followed Father Gaspard and the Brouliettes into the other room, where a small coffin nestled on sawhorses. Another child stood there, Attorney Hurphy Perrault's son Li'l Hurphy, who along with Ti Boy served as altar boy. The child seemed stunned; he bit down on his lip. His mother, Anita, dressed in a smart black cocktail dress and with her hair just done at Maybelle's -- maybe a Paris fashion -- patted his shoulder. Hurphy, dressed in a tux and wearing a plumed hat, which was his Knights of St. Gregory uniform, couldn't help but think that his family resembled the Holy Family.
Bobby's eyes caught those of Moe Weiss, who wore a little black skullcap. His pants were baggy, and there were shoes that could be slippers on his feet. A none-too-clean white dress shirt with an old necktie and a blue sweater, in that heat! He held his hands down in front of him, locked together. He was about seventy years of age but looked eighty. The bags under his eyes seemed carved into his sallow face. His features appeared to be losing their padding, and his nose was increasingly hooked.
One Lung Savoy coughed, as he always did. He claimed to have lost a lung in the war, but Barber Possum Aucoin said to anyone who'd listen, and everyone would listen -- his bullshit was so much better than his haircuts -- "How could he lose it in Fort Benning, Georgia? Now, Cap'n Eddie Sonnier, that was a real hero!" And they laughed. The hero was known to give little boys a quarter to look at their weenies, though he never asked to touch.
The screen door opened, and Senator Glenn "Papoot" Gaspard with his daughter, Clara, the Sheriff's BeBe, entered. There was something electric about his entrance, like a storm had moved in without warning. Bobby often wondered how his father-in-law did it. Dominate. Everything. Everybody. And not obnoxiously. He just did.
"Sorry we late, sorry we late," he said, moving through the crowd, BeBe bringing up the rear with another bowl of potato salad in her fat hands. Papoot looked like some kind of unbelievably newfangled train, one that could travel a thousand miles an hour. Sweet BeBe looked like his caboose.
Papoot managed to shake every hand as he moved among and through people, stopping to kiss the ladies on the cheek. He watched as BeBe held her face up for a kiss from her husband, which he dutifully gave. Something's up, and it's not good, he thought. It didn't shock him. He'd suspected it for a long time and knew that one day soon he'd have to do something about it. It had to be okay. He adored his daughter and had some affection for Bobby Boudreaux. It was gon' to take some mending for sure. How, he had no idea. But he'd do it. That he knew for sure.
Papoot reached into his coat pocket, took out an envelope, and presented it to the Brouliettes.
Mayor Big Head Arceneaux, who tried unsuccessfully to whisper, but whose voice carried for a quarter of a mile, said, "I bet it's a hundred bucks." Big Shot Fontenot, who'd already given the couple a hundred, said, "More than that." Big Head whistled like he was calling hunting dogs, but he was only expressing wonder at such generosity. It was known that the Senator had paid for the funeral because Undertaker Watch Out Naquin asked him, "Was everything satisfactory?" The Senator, who gave compliments like other men breathed, replied, "Wonderful like everything you do, Watch Out."
Watch Out was pleased, even though the Senator had demanded and gotten a 40 percent discount. "The Brouliettes ain't got nothin'," the Senator had said, and Watch Out had thought, But you do. The Senator knew what he was thinking and gave his famous laugh. "Hee, hee!"
Father Gaspard said, "Let us pray," and everybody but Moe Weiss got down on his and her knees. Tooky Trahan was first to hit the floor. He felt that he sold insurance by leading, plus help from his little "close the deal" emblem in his wallet: a tiny speck of St. Theresa's pelvic bone, given to him by some unnamed Cardinal in charge of the Vatican's endless supply of relics. No one knew if this was actually true, but to have Tooky hold the relic over the signed insurance policy was a hell of an inducement. At least three people claimed the relic and its accompanying policy had cured them of hemorrhoids, TB, and a recurring rash in the groin area.
During the prayer Tooky shut his eyes only partially, being ever on the lookout for customers. He spotted Sport Baudoin, who'd had an unsuccessful tryout with the New Orleans Pelicans baseball team. Reportedly the Pelicans coach had told him, "Give it up. You can't catch, throw, or hit," which was astonishing because Sport had been the best athlete, majoring in four sports, ever to graduate from Richelieu High. So far as Tooky knew, Sport had no insurance.
Catfish Francois was on his knees in the kitchen, not getting too far from his gumbo. He didn't want anybody messing with it, and every one of these bastards thought himself or herself a cook. As far as he was concerned, they couldn't cook shit! He closed his eyes tightly, pleased that he could smell the wonderful aroma of the gumbo in the big black pot. Near him was Richelieu High's principal, and Ti Boy's teacher, Mr. Suire. Half starved on what the parish paid its teachers, Mr. Suire never ventured far from where there was food.
Hot Dog Hebert helped Nonc Doucet down to the floor. He was 101 and the parish's oldest citizen. Father Justin had told him it wasn't necessary for him to kneel anymore. It took at least two men, with Nonc groaning the entire time to get him up, but Nonc had said, "No, ah'm gonna pray the right way until I die."
"Then you'll pray forever," Father Justin had kindly said, always encouraging. Now he prayed in that wondrous voice that God had given him.
He led them in four Hail Marys and five Our Fathers, then motioned everyone to stand.
Hot Dog and Coon Soileau helped Nonc up. This time he not only groaned but yelped. Most people there secretly wished the old man would die, especially Big Shot Fontenot's ninety-five-year-old father, Li'l Shot, who would then be the parish's oldest citizen. As automobile dealer and bank president, Big Shot knew that patience was maybe the greatest virtue, although secretly he wished both men would die. Guiltily, he kissed the old man's bald head, which elicited the response "Ah wish you'd kiss my ass."
Father Justin was speaking melodiously but quietly. "Ti Boy wasn't your ordinary child. He loved his mother and his father, and he loved the holy Church. I know all of you are wondering why this little boy accidentally killed himself. Well it wasn't an accident. You see, Jesus and Mary, his divine mother, couldn't wait another moment to have this angel by their side, so they called him home. Come home, Ti Boy, they said, and ten thousand angels lifted their voices in song at this act of love. And Ti Boy went home. It is to a home that we'd all like to go. Some of us will make it. Ti Boy will be waiting there with a child's sweetness. Some of us won't make it. You know who you are. You know exactly who you are. Sinners. And now comes a joke. You believe yourselves to be secret sinners. Do you really believe that you could play your foolish games with God? Well? Whoever put the Octagon coupon in the collection plate Sunday, was that some kind of sick joke? God doesn't need to wash His hands! You need to wash your souls. And whoever lights a candle religiously without putting so much as a penny in the box, aren't you the wise one? When you stand there before our Lord, don't you know the first thing He'll ask you? Why? Why honor Me by lighting a candle even as you dishonor my Church by giving nothing? Oh, you'll reach into your pocket, into your shroud, and pull out some dirty greenbacks, but guess what? Sorry. Our Lord won't want it then. Too late! Take those greenbacks with you into the flames. Burn with them throughout eternity."
Gradually his volume had risen, and now his voice wasn't sweet but instead had become a roaring, avenging angel. "There are no secret sinners! Amen!" he screamed.
Everybody sighed "Amen," and many an eye was cast about -- who were those sinners? Each had his or her own suspicion. The guilty were frightened, and some made a promise to God to straighten up. You couldn't be too careful. They had simply no idea that anyone, not even God, knew.
The mood lifted. It was time for some of Catfish Francois's gumbo, and as they drank it out of the spoon or bit into a tender morsel of chicken meat or sausage, they wondered, Could the food in Heaven be better than this? They knew God must have some wonderful cooks, but better than Catfish? It was almost impossible to imagine.
They complimented Catfish profusely. "Woowee! Can you cook for sure!" Or "If you had a pussy I'd marry you tonight, Catfish." Senator Papoot Gaspard said it best: "Catfish, you're a national treasure, for sure, better than how you call it, Statue of Liberty. Hee, hee!"
Even as he laughed with Papoot, Catfish wondered if he ought to tell him that he wasn't nearly as popular as he thought. Everyone in Richelieu eventually ended up in Coon's place having a beer, playing bourrée, or eating some of Catfish's gumbo, and from what Catfish could tell, a hell of a lot of people felt that the Senator had been in there long enough, and that it was time for somebody else. He started to say something, but Papoot had moved on to someone else who was complimenting. And besides, Catfish reminded himself, it wasn't any of his business. Maybe he'd tell the Sheriff, although Catfish wasn't any too sure the Sheriff would give a shit.
Sheriff Boudreaux brought up the end of the gumbo line. He always stood in line and always at the back. You couldn't say he had the bighead for sure. Just like he passed the collection plate at Mass every Sunday, in his own quiet way, the man was a politician, a good one. He'd die in office.
Bobby was back of a woman, a stranger, with jet-black hair tied back in a red bow. A lot of men were looking at her. She had a body that they wouldn't mind tasting along with the gumbo.
Bobby said, "Excuse me, aren't you..."
She turned to him, eyes big like marbles, and blue with a little fringe of gray about them. "Yes, Ruth Ann, Zeke's daughter." She extended a hand, which he took.
"I'm sorry I didn't recognize Zeke's little girl grown up," he said, smiling. She stood self-consciously until he realized he was still holding her hand. He let it go and stepped back. "I'm sorry about your daddy. I know he's sick."
She nodded. "I guess you could call it that. Doc Mouton can't even give it a name. He can't remember anything. Not even me."
They took their gumbo and some hot French bread and stood together.
From across the room BeBe saw them but thought nothing of it. As her daddy had told her, Bobby's a politician, and he's got to be nice to everybody. Still she carried them plates of her potato salad, and Bobby introduced her to Ruth Ann. BeBe got to the point: "What brings you back to Richelieu? Weren't you in New Orleans?"
"Yes. I was a reporter for the The Times-Picayune."
"What a strange job for a lady," BeBe said. (BeBe wasn't a politician.)
"You don't know the half of it. I was the police reporter covering the jails, the courts."
"Aw go on," Bobby said.
ar"It mus' have been horrible," BeBe added.
"No, it was wonderful!" Ruth Ann's pouty lips were painted fire engine red, like her nails. "Coming home, that's horrible." She read the shock on their faces and quickly added, "I mean I never thought I'd end up back home in Richelieu. Not part of my plans. But somebody's got to put the Gazette out. Zeke gave his life to it."
"He's not dead," BeBe corrected her.
"Except that he is. I dress him every day and he sits in a chair. Just sits there. Either I or the colored girl has to feed him. Somebody's got to be with him all the time."
"I'm sorry," Bobby said, and BeBe said she'd bring some potato salad over one day real soon. Then she moved off to make sure that everybody had some.
"You have to forgive BeBe," Bobby said. "Sometimes she talks without thinking," he said and felt ashamed that he'd spoken to a stranger about her.
"I like it," Ruth Ann said. "People here just don't do it that much. In Richelieu everybody protects everybody about everything. It takes a dentist's pliers to get the truth sometimes, even about the simplest thing."
Her remark offended Bobby. He thought she was demeaning one of Richelieu's best qualities. "Anything wrong with kindness?"
"Oh no," she said. "But sometimes, once in a while, you need to hear things the way they really are. I mean all those kindnesses, well they're not really life." Then she looked at him. "Are they?"
"I don't know," he said honestly, not holding her gaze. "I guess I've never thought about it. Been here too long."
"Maybe that's what's the matter with me. I've been someplace else too long."
"Can we start over?" he asked. He didn't want her to go.
"You're right! May I ask you a question?" Now she didn't sound like Zeke's daughter. She sounded like one of those damn New Orleans reporters that from time to time plagued him about Misty's Paradise Inn.
"Go ahead," he said, but his voice was cold.
"What do you think about Ti Boy's death?"
"About what?" He didn't understand her, thought he'd misheard her. Yet he felt threatened, though he couldn't have said why.
"Ti Boy's death. You know," she said and she extended a blood-red-tipped finger in his direction. "Bang!"
"It's so sad."
"Yes, of course, that too. But what else?"
He smiled. "You looking for a mystery?"
"Maybe." Her gorgeous face was a mask. He didn't like it that way.
"You know Richelieu isn't New Orleans."
She persisted. "But people are people."
Fuck her! "No, they really aren't. People here are" -- he paused for a moment, searching for the right word -- "decent," he finally said. He felt foolish using the word, which he never used. But she'd forced him. Looks or no looks -- and she had them -- he didn't like her.
"There's some decent people in New Orleans," she said. "And there are some bad people. Maybe here too. I'm not sure the locale has anything to do with it."
He'd had enough. "Got to go," he said.
"I'll need to talk to you."
"I keep regular office hours," he said, which was a damn lie. He went to his office when he absolutely had to. When somebody had to see him.
"I'll be calling," she said, but she had to speak to his back as he'd turned away and found BeBe. "What's the matter?" she asked. She could always tell when her husband was angry.
"She's a horse's ass."
BeBe was pleased. Once her husband formed an opinion of someone, that was it, he never changed. "How you mean?" she asked him.
"Asking about Ti Boy's death."
"She's a horse's ass for sure," BeBe agreed.
"And a troublemaker," he added.
She saw the stress on his face. How she adored that beautiful face, even the mashed nose, which she kissed every night. He never told her it hurt when she did.
Suddenly there was a loud scream. Bobby turned and rushed to find its source. Across the room, Marie Brouliette had broken away from Father Justin and Aristede and was clawing at Ti Boy's coffin.
"My baby, my little Ti Boy, just let me kiss him good-bye. He's my baby. For God's sake!" she moaned.
Undertaker Watch Out Naquin whispered to the Sheriff, "She don't want to see that. I done my best but..."
Bobby caught Doc Mouton's eyes. The physician nodded and opened his black bag, which went with him everyplace, took out a hypodermic needle, and with Father Justin rolling up Marie's black sleeve, quickly gave her a shot. Her eyes snapped shut so suddenly that the Sheriff hoped Doc hadn't killed her. Bad Ass Thibodeaux looked up from his gumbo and said, "He mussa' gave her a double for sure."
BeBe and some of the other women carried Marie into a bedroom. Her husband, who was looking as old as Nonc, stood helplessly by, his big cotton picker's hands clenching and unclenching.
Ruth Ann Daigle edged toward the bedroom. Bobby caught her by the arm. "This is no time for an interview."
"Bastard," she hissed. "I just wanted to see if I could help."
"You can help," Bobby whispered. "Leave people here alone."
She wrenched free from his grasp, her pointed breasts heaving with emotion. "Just what are you afraid of?" she asked him.
"I dunno," he answered honestly, and the fire went out of her. "Look. Let's start over. Please."
"Yeah. Sure. Let's do that. But I still need to talk to you," she said.
"Don't you ever give it up?" he asked.
He turned away, patted Aristede on the back, and left, closing the screen door quietly behind him.
He walked to his car on unsteady legs, his heart pounding. Chief Deputy Slo' Down Angelle held up a hand to stop nonexistent traffic as the Sheriff backed out of the driveway. Goddamn Slo' Down, such bullshit! Bobby thought. And then felt embarrassed that he was taking out his -- what was it: anger? frustration? -- on Slo' Down.
He slammed a hand on the dashboard. Get hold of yourself, Bobby, he said aloud. What in God's name was the matter with him? How'd he let some girl upset him so? Ti Boy had killed himself cleaning his .410 shotgun. An accident. Someone died that way almost every year, either cleaning a gun or in a duck blind where someone shot him by accident, or on a deer hunt. Ti Boy was a terrific little boy, helping on the farm, delivering the Gazette, and finding time to be an altar boy.
That damn girl bringing her New Orleans trash to Richelieu! She was nothing like her father. Zeke was a gentle, courtly man, one who espoused the philosophy of live and let live. Zeke didn't even like to print bad news -- but then Zeke hadn't been corrupted by the big city either.
Still...what could she possibly be talking about? Doc Mouton, not only the parish coroner but a top-notch physician, first in his class at the LSU Medical School in New Orleans (that town again!), said Ti Boy died by accidental shooting.
He was cleaning his .410, must have forgotten there was a single shell in the chamber, pulled the trigger and blew his head to pieces. The Sheriff knew he had taken the call. It was gruesome, blood and bone and gray pieces of brain all over his room, so much blood for such a little boy. The Sheriff made the sign of the cross. What could she be thinking?
Again he slammed his fist on the dashboard. Damn her! And why was it getting to him? He shook his head and drove still farther out into the country.
Copyright © 2004 by Gus Weill