Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Orleans short story interlude

“Pa, we ain’t got nothin to do” was just about the worst thing that I could have said that morning. It allowed me and my brother the unique growth experience of having our ears assaulted by an unanticipated and unusually loud parental barrage of profanities:
“Godammit!!!!!, you spoiled rotten stinkin’ sonofabitch lazyass bastard ingrates… then… do something to earn your goddamn keep! Yer Ma’s outside with the laundry an I been workin’ my ass off all week! The day’s clear as a friggin’ bell, and we ain’t raisin’ no southern god-damned piss-ant aristocrats on this here worthless piece of shit property! This ain’t no sissy dude ranch and it ain’t no time in your pipsqueak, waste of breath lives to go mopin’ round here bein’ ‘bored’; If you ain’t got nothin’ better to do with your sorry assed selves, git them poles and go catch us somethin’ for supper! When I was your age…….”
Well, I was twelve years old, goin’ on thirteen and my kid brother had just turned ten and we doubted if our Pa had ever been our age. However, acting on instinct born of experience, we grabbed our poles and got goin’ quick; little did we know that we were about to have a day of life changing occurrences that was to be a slap dash, set yer hair on fire doozy. One that has stuck with us to this day and if I’d a known then, I would have just ducked under the covers and kept my big mouth shut.
It wasn’t too late a morning on a warm spring day in our home town of Gretna, Louisiana in 1962 when my brother, Nuthin, and I set out on our way to Nunez’s Grocery for a couple of bottles of Regal Beer and some ‘twofers’ to take with us fishing just to help pass the time; we had a silver half a dollar that we’d snitched from our Pa and an extra quarter from our mama for a loaf of French bread and a dime’s worth of baloney for lunch. Now, don’t get taken aback or uppity about children and alcohol and nicotine and playing fast and loose. It was something that kids did in those days; you know, get some supplies, pack up some lunch and go fishing on a Saturday afternoon, smoke a couple of cancer sticks and drink warm beer like the big boys. Curse and scratch and spit and talk about girls. Weather permitting.
Grandma Nunez, at the store, knew us and our family and knew that when a couple of boys went off to fish for their folks dinner, instead of wasting time like little slugs, that they could be treated like the responsible young men that they were, or so she thought, and that was good enough for us. She took one look at us shoeless and already hot and dusty and gave us her biggest Grandma smile. Even with most of her teeth gone she could sure lay on a grandma smile second to none; that smile never did nothing but make us feel real good, and these days I can’t help but miss it. That smile.
“Awwww, ain’t you sunshine sweet boys good little angels to be goin’ out fishin’ when you coulda been watchin’ those communist homosexual cartoons on that mind rotting teevee set, like them other pinko piccaninnies that’s bein’ raised around here. Are y’all sure you wouldn’t rather have red drinks? I guess its okay, y’all will be on the water in case y’all gets a case of the dehydrates. Now go on with y’all, the sun’s startin’ to git high and mighty an it looks like it it’s gonna turn out to be a real scorcher”.
She was a pretty big woman for her size, with her finger on the pulse of the neighborhood, and we knew that if a whiff of any stupid behavior or mischief on our part were to get back to her that, well… we be cut off from any future grown up privileges without so much as a ‘fare thee well’. Period. Until then, with a wink and a nod, our vittles could, would and did get packed in a sack and we could, would and did go on our merry way unimpeded by anything as inconvenient as ‘adult or parental concern’; you see, in the old days, in southern Louisiana, kids had always been more mature than other youngsters in practically every way and we were treated as such. At least until we screwed up.
The day was as picture perfect as a peach pie, although getting a mite on the warm side, with a slight breeze comin’ in off the river. We had an old half sunk pirogue tied up at the batture that would drift us just far enough out to be in uncurrented water shaded by some old willows where the croakers and gaspergous liked to hang around.
My brother’s real name is Nunzio but everybody calls him Nuthin since the days when we was little and the older kids (especially the girls) used to taunt us, calling: “Nunzio, Nunzio Nuthin; you know somethin’? Somethin’ somethin’ somethin’; you know nothin’?” My folks had named me Sumpter, after the neighbor man who drove my mother to Charity Hospital when she was birthin’ me and having a hard time of it. Most folks call me Sump but the mean kids call me Sumthin’ and my brother Nuthin and we don’t get along much with the ones that they call ‘normal kids”. We don’t care much about that, we get along fine with each other; we’re Italian, and that’s why.
So, me and Nuthin were on our way after getting us some beer and butts. Incidentally, Twofers were what they called cigarettes that are sold separately, two at a time for a nickel. They’re also called ‘loosies’ and ‘stoops’. We’re workin’ our way through the old neighborhood heading towards the river when we passed by Pearl Prentiss’ house where she’s sitting in her dirt yard trying to teach her talking cat to play jacks because since her cat’s brother ran off the cat is depressed and needs some distraction. Pearl’s folks plant dirt in their yard the way some people plant okra; they wants their dirt. Rumor has it that dirt reminds them of the ‘old country’ or something.
Anyway, Pearl looks up at us and puts her finger to her lips like she wants us to hush, naturally this get our attention (as boys, we’re naturally inquisitive) and she points to a length of string sitting in the road like a long skinny snake. She calls us over and whispers: “Old Man Fennish just passed with Mrs. Fennish’s Lazy Boy chair on a four wheeled dollie heading up the street and dealing out a line of string behind him like he’s Hansel or Gretel or somebody”. Sure enough, that’s exactly what it is, a damn string in the damn road; and it sure sets us all to pondering, cat included.
Old man Fennish has been working a maintenance job at Antoine’s Restaurant in the French Quarter since before mayonnaise and everybody knows that he has been collecting the string that their laundry delivery company ties the clean towels with… at least for that long. In fact, everybody knows this because the Fennish’s two foster kids has told us AND showed us these behemoth balls of string; but, be that as it may, it still got us to wondering why he would perform so oddly on a warm Saturday in the middle of May, especially considering that if we acted that way we would catch heck and no doubt about it. Our consensus was put to voice by Nuthin when he remarked: “he finally gone off ‘round the bend, idn’t he?”. Sanity wise, I couldn’t have said it any better.
Then we hear a terrific rattling coming down the street like someone throwing ash cans full of old silverware down the steps of the courthouse and we look up to see the Fennish kids pushin’ a shopping cart down the road with Mrs. Fennish sitting inside of it. Yep, here come Immaculata and Timpani Fennish rollin’ their Mama down the road and trying to follow that there string, and the three of them sweatin’ like hogs and all out of breath, each for their own reason; Timpani because he has the asthma, Immaculata because she’s doin’ most of the pushin’ and their mama ‘cause she just can’t breathe too good to begin with. Mrs. Fennish is perched up on some pillows puffing away on one of those Chesterfields that she’s partial to and the kids stop to take a break from their exertion long enough for us to query them; Mrs. Fennish goes into another of her coughing fits. Ever since that cold snap last winter Mrs. Fennish can’t hardly take a clean breath-- without hacking her lungs out-- between her smoking them non-filtered cigarettes and her terminally clogged sinuses.
Immaculata, who is nine and is called that because she never seems to get dirt upon her, tells us in a low voice “none other than Conway Twitty is coming down to a revival at the skating rink and my papa has gone ahead with the Lazy Boy to get a good spot for mama, he’s trailing the string behind him so’s us kids can follow in his footsteps, so to speak”. Obviously Mr. Fennish perceives his kids to be as dumb as a box of rocks; of course, he knows them better than we do, so it is possible.
We had all seen the posters hung about town with a large image of the star, Conway Twitty, posed Elvis like, in a sky blue leisure suit heralding the big to do with a large white banner acrossed his chest announcing in no uncertain terms that the event was to take place for ‘ONE NIGHT ONLY!!”. Mr. Twitty was ditching his singing career for one in the preacher business, having been called by the lord to go forth and heal the sick and such and we all vowed to sneak out after nightfall and be witness to this auspicious nonsense. Especially since none of us believed that anything could cure Mrs. Fennish of her emphysema and constricted air passages.
Of course, we have to explain this all again and again to Timpani who is kind of slow in the head and too busy trying to peer through those coke bottle thick eyeglasses of his. He’s eight years old and is called Timpani because, in his old home, his Pa who plays bass drum in a brass band, used to whup up on him with his drumstick, which led to Timpani’s inability to concentrate, or so word has it. Old Timpani has got his attention glued to that line of twine and hardly hears us with our plans for the evening. We made plans nevertheless, including him and the cat, for seven thirty that night.
The sun had barely set and the moon was on the wane when we gathered behind the Livaudius Middle School. We had agreed, or so I thought, that we would all wear dark clothing to aid our inconspicuousness. Immaculata obviously didn’t understand because there she was in one of her white dresses, shining in the moon like an apparition. Timpani were still in his dirty coveralls and barefoot just like we had last seen him that afternoon, the only difference was that he seemed to have spilled his whole supper down the front of his clothes.
“Immaculata! We’s ‘spossed to be movin’ on the sly! What don’t you know about dressing darkly?” Hissed Pearl (dressed all in black, like a shadow)
“I ain’t got no dark clothes!” Immaculata hissed back.
Immaculata was found roaming on highway 90 late one night by Mr. Fennish one night on his way home from work, dressed in a white night shirt. She was dressed in the white night shirt, not Mr. Fennish.
“Like to scare me sober” Mr. Fennish would always recall.
He took her to the police station who told him to take her home and that they would see who was missing a girl in a clean white nightie. Well, nobody came to claim her and she just kinda stuck around. That was two or three years ago and at first it was like she couldn’t talk at all, but, she gradually came out of that and could talk, sing, yell and curse with the best of us. Except that at times she would get a faraway look in her eyes and we would wonder if she was in hypnosis or a trance or maybe even Egyptian or something.
We made it to the skating rink just about the time that things were heating up and sure as shootin’ there was Mrs. Fennish in the front row in her Lazy Boy with Mr. Fennish standing up at her side. There was a band playing in the background and a choir of women dressed up like angels and they was all hummin’ like angels would do, and all of a sudden a spotlight appears and here comes the now Reverend Mister Twitty in that self same sky blue leisure suit and he gets up to the podium and starts his salvation show.
“Brothers and Sisters!” he begins “I am not here to tell you that you are going to heaven, to get your halo, to sit with the heavenly host in glory and eat fried chicken and lemon meringue pie forever and forever after!” A great groan was heard from the congregation. “NO!” he continued “I am, here to tell you that you will all burn in hell with fire and brimstone and suffer eternal damnation and third degree burns! YES YOU WILL!!!” here he started raising his voice and pacing like a panther, “for you are unclean and unfit to sit with the angels on high basking in the glory of Jesus Christ and his father, the one god of us all. You all are sinners and you all will be damned to drink bitter water and eat hog slop on your knees in dirty clothes!”
His choir of angelic voices began singing a dirge and the band started in at a cacophony of angst and terror. The crowd was swaying and lowing like cattle, when of a sudden a high pitched keening sound started coming out of Mrs. Fennish which just about scared us to death.
‘eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” it was like nails on a chalkboard and the entire tent dropped to silence. “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee’ and here it come again “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” and Mrs. Fennish all glassy eyed starts up from the Lazy Boy. And Immaculata starts drifting dreamlike towards her, and the reverend, like he’s walking in his sleep, is also drawn to the same spot. The cat has jumped out of Pearl’s arm and, hissing like an air hose at the filling station and with all its fur stuck up like a porcupine, starts sidling up to the commotion and we can see that they all are going to collide like planets in a space movie. The choir starts a wailin’ and the band has put down their instruments and they’s all moaning and the congregation is gnashing their teeth and rending their clothing and falling down and crying and a screeching in tongues. We kids are struck as dumb as Lot’s wife and frozen in our places when the apparitions start in to materialize.
There are sounds coming from outside the rink of thunder rumbles and lightning crashes to beat the band and all of a sudden -- and this is just from what us kids can recall because nobody else that was there that night seems to be able to remember anything that happened—
A black cobra about sixteen feet in height raised itself up in back of Mrs. Fennish with eyes as red and luminous as a Highway Patrol car’s lights, forked tongue lashing and slithering like a gargantuan garden hose toward the preacher who had turned into a giant bald eagle with a gnashing beak and beating wings working up a wind and cawing like a freight train whistle. Pearl’s cat had turned the size if a tiger and was snarling like a hurricane wind advancing into a tornado and Immaculata had risen up twelve feet with the biggest damn archangel type sword that I could ever have imagined and Mr. Fennish appeared like a demon possessed with his eyes rolled to the back of his head and drooling enough to wet down the front of his shirt and I could have just puked on the spot yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s breakfast, lunch and supper. Had I not been so scared, frozen in my tracks and trying my best not to wet my pants or throw up; friends or no friends, brother or no brother, I swear I would have run off so fast it would have made all of their fool heads spin.
Just then a lightning bolt split through the roof of the building smack dab into the middle of the impending chaos and my kid brother stepped right into the light and commanded “STOP!” and everyone collapsed like a bunch of rag dolls. I looked at Pearl and Pearl looked at me and she said: “damn, that was something!”
And I said: “no that was Nuthin”.
Shaggy Dog.

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