Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cruel Woman Blues - a Wyatt Thomas short story

The greatest free ride in America sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, not far from the heart of the Big Easy. The Canal Street Ferry. Free for pedestrians, one dollar round trip in your car, is a fine example of Louisiana politics in action. Carla Manetti's old Plymouth Duster had finally died and gone to Car Heaven up in La Place. Now we were on an evening test drive to Algiers Point in her new Mustang convertible. It included a side trip to the Jazz Palace, a local hot spot.

Behind us the river was the New Orleans skyline alit with neon. Chilly late December and Carla's sweater felt soft and warm to the touch. With only flickering lights across the river illuminating the upper deck, it was hard to know where her sweater began and her dark hair ended. It didn't seem to matter as she stared at the top of the International Trade Mart.

"What a view," she said. "Lights and river sounds."

"No place like it in the world."

"Wyatt, you just like it cause it's free."

"It's not free. I paid a dollar, didn't I?"

"I paid the dollar," Carla said.

Despite her chiding, Carla had a grand smile. When I put my arms around her, she leaned against me, resting her shoulders on my chest. "You know what I really like about the ferry ride?"

"Being with me?"

"I like the river,” she said, ignoring me. “It's like a giant, powerful being. I feel more alive out here than any place in the City."

A passing tug's whistle signaled proximity to the docking point and we hurried downstairs to the lower deck. After rolling off the ramp, we parked the car, needing it only for the return trip to the City, at a dockside meter. The ferry had made its last run for the night. Everyone knows about Jackson Square and the Cabildo, but there are other places in and around the Big Easy that tourists rarely see. The Jazz Palace is one such place and Jazz isn't the only language spoken there. Musical tastes, ranging from hip-hop to zydeco, are eclectic in the City. Tonight it celebrated the blues and one of the premier blues men still alive and performing.

His name is Snakebite Thompson. Mama Tujugue, owner of the Jazz Palace, had scheduled him for a single performance—one I had waited twenty years to see. Anticipation shadowed our steps as we tread the waterfront boardwalk to the Palace where dozens of blues fans had already gathered.

They were crowding into the converted warehouse as we arrived, hoping to secure a table close to the stage. Mama Tujugue met us at the door and let us in without charging admission. Her fine features highlighted the best aspects of all the many races contributing to her origins. She topped six feet in her stocking feet. Her very existence was an anomaly of life in the old South, more specifically, New Orleans.

Old New Orleans hierarchy embraced gradations in race and people of mixed blood often occupied places of special prominence. They even had names for these gradations. A mulatto is the offspring of one black and one white parent, a quadroon one white and one mulatto. There are dozens of distinctions—sacatron, octoroon, griffe and marabon, to name just a few—all specifically describing mixtures of blood.

Now, Mama Tujugue was simply a beautiful New Orleans businessperson—show business. She did not mind accenting her heritage to play to the crowd. Tonight her bright yellow peasant dress ballooned from waist to ankles. In the matching turban that crowned her precisely coifed head, she could easily have passed for a famous New Orleans woman, circa 1750. She led us to a table near the stage where a local group was murdering their rendition of Basin Street Blues. Carla ordered an Abita, a local amber beer brewed across the lake in Abita Springs. I made do with water.

The Palace was a converted warehouse, cheaply renovated to highlight music and not architecture. Jazz posters and Mardi Gras banners draped from its exposed rafters and provided the only decoration. From the smiles I could see, no one seemed to mind the seediness. A half dozen harried waiters and servers hustled to serve those gathered for the occasion.

Shortly after midnight, Snakebite's band took the stage and the crowd tempo quickly turned from raucous too frenetic. The band launched into a finger and lip-limbering number that ended with a drum solo that brought down the house. As applause streamed from the audience, Mama Tujugue sent over more Abita for Carla and a pitcher of lemonade for me. When overhead lighting dimmed, the room became very silent.

Amid suspense-heightening darkness, the drummer rolled out an expectant beat, the bass man joining with a three-note riff. Then, from somewhere on stage, vibrato strains from a throaty guitar began to immerse the room in electric sound, causing a wave of applause to swell through the audience. The spotlight, beam narrowed to a circle of blue, slowly began to enlarge, focusing on a point near center stage.

As the music grew louder, along with growing applause, Snakebite Thompson's face appeared behind a gooseneck microphone. His closed eyes and pockmarked cheeks combined in a contorted grimace, exposing the depth and pain of some unknown despair. Original black enamel, chipped but untouched, coated the old Fender strapped across his shoulder.

We watched, trapped in a timeless hypnotic trance, as Snakebite launched into his signature song, Cruel Woman Blues, his scratchy voice dueling with a pulsating melody produced by his throaty electric guitar. More applause erupted from the audience.

What a stylist. He was more than I expected, far exceeding his recorded performances on cheap vinyl. Snakebite Thompson was real, his effect momentous, but what occurred next sent everyone in the house into communal shock. A gunshot, fired from somewhere in the darkness, resonated through the warehouse and Snakebite's resultant scowl went without notice. Until he dropped the guitar and clutched his chest, that is.

The single gunshot awoke the audience from its trance, and no one waited around for the inevitable second shot. Rising in unison, they piled through the door, along with every member of the band. Everyone except Carla and me. Thinking better of charging into the line of fire, I wrestled her to the floor and under our table.

Wyatt, was that gunfire?"

Not answering her question, I rushed instead to center stage where Snakebite lay writhing on the floor, clutching his chest, blood pluming from beneath his hand. Anticipating another gunshot, I dragged him behind an electric speaker. The second shot never came. Wailing sirens, echoing from across the river, moved toward us. When they arrived, the old warehouse was almost empty. It didn't stop a dozen cops from bursting through the doors, pistols drawn. Rushing to the stage, they grabbed my collar, threw me facedown against the floor and crammed a shoe into the small of my back. One big cop almost yanked my arms from their sockets as he cuffed me. Taking a deep breath, I tried to relax and ignore the cocked .38 pointed at my head.

"He didn't do it," Carla said, lunging out from under the table. "He only tried to help. The person who shot him is up there."

All eyes followed Carla's finger as she pointed toward the balcony. I even managed to wriggle around and look myself. That is when I saw the woman standing there, a smoking pistol grasped firmly in her hand. Jimmy Don O'Rear was the burly police detective investigating the shooting. He was young, a full thatch of red hair covering his big head. He was not smiling and he had the look of a man that rarely did. He ordered his men to un-cuff me, although I could tell they did not like his orders. Still, they did have a prime suspect holding a smoking pistol.

Although situated across the river, Algiers is a precinct of New Orleans. A sedate precinct compared with the others. Jimmy Don O'Rear seemed like a good cop with something to prove. I wasn't sure exactly what. Maybe that he was every bit as tough as his brothers from across the river. It gave me cause to wonder as Carla and I watched O'Rear's men cordon the crime scene with yellow tape.

Snakebite cursed a blue streak when paramedics loaded him on an ambulance bound for Charity Hospital, across the river. At least he was still alive. Now everyone's attention focused on the woman in the balcony. Jimmy Don's men quickly had her in cuffs. Carla and I followed him up the stairs, along with Mama Tujugue, upset and becoming increasingly unable to contain her growing frenzy.

"How long will this take?" she finally demanded.

"Till we're done," Jimmy Don said.

The detective's accent was a strange blend of north Louisiana redneck and Irish Channel patois. It did not matter because he was all business, and now the only business worrying Mama Tujugue was her own.

"Well you better get done mighty fast," she countered. "Tomorrow's Friday. My biggest day. I got a zydeco band coming in all the way from Breaux Bridge."

Mama Tujugue's announcement failed to impress Jimmy Don. "Save it for the Padre. We may finish up Monday."

"My banker will own the place by Monday."

Jimmy Don halted, returned Mama's harsh stare and held up his hand. "Get off my case, lady and let me question the suspect."

At the mention of the woman in cuffs, Mama Tujugue looked at her for the first time. Appearing to do a double take, her mouth gaped and hands dropped to her sides.

"Geneva!"

"You know this woman?" Jimmy Don asked.

"Geneva Thompson, I've known her all my life."

"Thompson? Is she any relation to the victim?"

"His wife," Mama Tujugue said.

Jimmy Don exchanged a knowing glance with his second-in-command, a blue coat sergeant with snowy white hair beneath his police cap.

"Sarge, it looks like we have a motive," he said.

"Geneva wouldn't hurt a fly," Mama Tujugue said.

"Well apparently she did."

O'Rear broke away from Mama Tujugue's stare, turning his attention to Geneva Thompson. "Anything you want to tell us?"

Geneva Thompson was an attractive middle-aged woman, shorter and darker than Mama Tujugue, although about the same age. Mama put her arms around her and they both dissolved into tears. Jimmy Don waited until they regained their composure, and then cleared his throat to remind Geneva of his question.


"I did it. I shot my husband," she said.


"Now wait just a minute," Mama Tujugue said. "I didn't hear anyone advise Geneva of her rights."


"You a lawyer, ma'am?"


Mama cast Jimmy Don and the old sergeant a look that could kill before continuing her angry tirade. "No, but I suggest you do it right now and forget what Geneva just said." Then, with a harsh glare at Geneva, she added, "Now lady, you keep your mouth shut. Not another word, you hear?"

Through her tears, Geneva whispered, "I did it. I did it."

That's all Jimmy Don and the sergeant needed to hear. Nudging her toward the stairs, they prepared to haul her away in the patrol car.

"Wait a minute, Detective," I said. "This woman didn't shoot Snakebite."

All eyes were suddenly on me.

"Who are you?" Jimmy Don said, squaring his hips and staring down his Irish Channel nose at me.

"Wyatt Thomas. This woman is innocent. If you had eyes, you'd see it yourself."

"Look here, wise guy. I got a suspect with a motive and a smoking gun. What do you know about anything?"

"He's a former trial attorney and investigator and from across the river," Carla said, elbowing her way into the fray. "He's forgotten more about crime than you'll ever know."

Jimmy Don eyeballed Carla, then looked at me and sneered. "Lawyers, especially ex-lawyers, turn my stomach. If you don't have something concrete to add to this investigation, then get out of my way."

"This lady didn't do the shooting," I said. "A government sharp-shooter couldn't have made that shot from here. It came from the right side of the stage."

Jimmy Don glanced down at the fallen microphone, a good hundred feet away, and considered my remark. "How the hell would you know where it came from?"

Carla did not give me a chance to answer. Reaching beneath my jacket, she yanked the shirt loose from my belt, exposing the ropy layer of scar tissue on my stomach.

"Cause he knows what it's like in a fire fight. Can you say the same, Detective?"

Jimmy Don studied the scar a moment and said, "Gunshot?"

"You can see it is," Carla said. "Now do you believe him?"

I didn't let him answer. "The bullet caught Snakebite just below the heart, in his left side. Someone standing off-stage shot him, but it was not this woman. At least she didn’t shoot him from here."

"Then what's she doing with the pistol?"

"You might find out by having your men take a look down there."

"Who has access to that part of the building?" Jimmy Don asked, looking at Mama Tujugue.

"Band members and their families," she said. "A corridor leads to the stage from the dressing rooms. There are several tables at stage side for family members to watch the performances without dealing with the crowd."

Jimmy Don tapped the sergeant's shoulder and nodded toward the exit near the right of stage. "Tony, take some men and check those dressing rooms."

Sergeant Tony bounded down the stairs and disappeared with a group of police officers along the darkened corridor leading to the dressing rooms. They soon returned with a woman, a much younger version of Geneva Thompson. Streaked mascara and a puffy face revealed her present emotional state. Before she could speak, Geneva Thompson blurted another confession.

"Baby," she said. "I'm sorry I shot your daddy."

"You know each other?" Jimmy Don asked, directing his question to Geneva.

"Enid’s my daughter, and Snakebite's."

I didn't miss the knowing glance exchanged between Geneva and her daughter, nor the implied instructions of silence it carried with it.

"We found her hiding in the closet in one of the dressing rooms," Sergeant Tony said.

"What were you doing in the closet?" Jimmy Don said.

"My name's not Thompson, its Barnett," she said, earning another admonishing glare from her mother.


No one, including Jimmy Don O'Rear, missed the glance this time. "Is this your mother?" he said. Chastised into silence, Enid Barnett only nodded. "Then Mr. Thompson is your stepfather?"


Enid nodded again. Telltale tears began streaming from her eyes. Outside on the river, a passing tugboat blew its mournful whistle.


"Leave her alone," Geneva Thompson said. "She's grieving because I shot her father. I've confessed to the shooting and now I insist you take me downtown, or whatever you do with criminals."

Jimmy Don shrugged, glanced at Sergeant Tony and pointed toward the stairs. "You got a point, lady. Who am I to argue?"

Sergeant Tony nudged Geneva Thompson toward the stairway and Jimmy Don started after them, but stopped abruptly when I said, "Wait a minute."

"I don't have time for this, lawyer-man. We've had four hundred murders since New Years and I've worked my share of them."

"Then you know as well as I do that she couldn't have made the shot from here."

"Maybe she shot him from over there and ran up here to get away. Maybe her daughter saw her do it and hid so she wouldn't have to finger her mother. Whatever, I have a confession and a smoking gun. Unless you can convince me in thirty seconds or less I got the wrong shooter, then stand back and let me do my job."

Jimmy Don's soliloquy started six feet away from where I stood and ended with the hulking detective standing six inches from my face, his own red from anger. When he finished, I waited until he took a deep breath and stepped back a pace.

"I'm savvy. I know you are doing everything in your power. No one is blaming you or the Department for the murder rate. I just see no sense in you booking an innocent woman."

"I didn't twist her arm for no confession."

"Maybe she's pulling the old wounded bird trick on you."

Jimmy Don gave me a crooked look, but said, "What the hell are you jabbering about?"

"I’m talking about the way a mother bird feigns a broken wing to draw a predator away from the nest."

Jimmy Don's eyes closed. He took another deep breath and I held up a finger to prevent him from cutting me off.

"What if Enid shot her stepfather? Geneva saw her do it, followed her to the dressing room, took the pistol and had her hide in the closet. Then she went as far away as she could get. Right here on the balcony. She held up the pistol so everyone would think she did it."

Jimmy Don's big arms folded tightly against his chest, but he was obviously considering my story.
"What's the motive?"

"I’d say either anger or jealousy. Help us, Mama T. You know Snakebite. Why would his stepdaughter want to shoot him?"

"Snakebite's the kindest gentleman I ever met. Wouldn't hurt a fly, but . . ."

"But what?"

Mama Tujugue looked first at Geneva and then down at the hardwood floor. Another tugboat whistle pealed across the river before she finally spoke.

"Snakebite's a womanizer. He chases anything in skirts. Always has. It's a game with him."

"Even his stepdaughter?" I asked.

By now, both Enid and her mother were crying. "I'm sorry," Enid said, clutching the older woman's neck. "You always forgave his running around. I couldn't let him do it to both of us."

Sergeant Tony released the cuffs from Geneva Thompson, quickly transferring them to Enid's wrists.
"Mama," I said. "Call your lawyer and go down to the station with Enid. Carla and I will give Mrs. Thompson a ride to Charity."

***

Later that night we drove across the Greater New Orleans Bridge to Charity Hospital, Geneva Thompson huddled alone on the backbench of Carla's Mustang. Carla's attempt at small talk sounded more like exhausted babble. It didn't matter because Geneva had too much on her mind to respond. My own brain had also numbed to near total shutdown.

Even at this hour, barges and steamers plied the busy river and jazz and neon beckoned tourists on Bourbon Street. The crime we had witnessed was of no great consequence—no more than a family squabble compared with the rapid spread of violence and burgeoning murder rate in the City.

Great Babylon, President Andy Jackson's wife had called the Big Easy. Maybe so, but there’s no place like it on earth, and it's still home to the greatest free ride in America.

####

Born a mile or so from Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma with wife Marilyn, and continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. Wyatt and Carla are recurring characters in Wilder's French Quarter Mystery Series. Please check it out on his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Conjure Man - a New Orleans short story

Mama Mulate’s temples throbbed from a bad migraine. She’d thought about going straight home, but it was Monday, and she always went to Pascale’s for oysters and beer. Despite her headache and drumming of rain on her windshield, she felt ready for a break. One of her favorite ex-students shucked oysters in the bar, and that helped seal her decision.


She swallowed three aspirins and found a spot for her fully restored 1960 Bugeye Sprite in an empty parking lot. Cray Toussaint greeted her when she entered the restaurant.


“Professor Mulate, I didn’t think you’d make it tonight. The place is almost vacant because of the hurricane heading our way.”


“You think I’d let a little rainstorm cause me to miss hearing some of the best new poetry in New Orleans? Not on your life!”Mama took a stool at the oyster bar and gazed around the largely room.”You’re right. I don’t recall seeing the place this dead.”


“All the tourists have left town and gone to Memphis or someplace safe. There’s just a skeleton crew here to take care of the regulars.”


“Does that make me the only regular?”


Cray Toussaint grinned as he polished a beer mug. “There are a couple of diners in the main part of the restaurant. Sarah’s working the tables and Frenchy cooking. Maybe we’ll get busier as the night draws on. What can I get for you?”


“Two dozen freshly shucked oysters and a cold Dixie.”


Cray poured the local brew from the tap behind the bar. Before he handed the chilled mug to Mama Mulate, he shucked a single oyster and dropped the tasty mollusk into a vodka filled shot glass.


“Oyster shooter’s on me. You look like you need it. Hard day?”


“Not if you like grading essays from eighteen freshmen nincompoops.”


“Haven’t heard that word in a while,” Cray said as he began shucking Mama’s oysters.


Realizing she’d probably just dated herself, Mama killed the oyster shooter.”Better have another. And one for you. My tab this time.”


“Why not?” Cray said. “Guess I can make my rules tonight.”


“You bet,” Mama said. “The shooter was what I needed. My head’s feeling better already.”


“I’d have thought an authentic voodoo mambo would have a powerful potion to handle a little headache. Or maybe a strong gris gris.”


Mama grinned.” Vodka and aspirin are hard to beat.”


By ten, Mama and Cray had polished off three dozen oysters, half a dozen oyster shooters and a gallon or so of Dixie Beer. A window was half-cracked and curtains flapped in the breeze as they held hands and stared into each other’s eyes.


“Your last poem was superb,” Mama said.


“Then will you take me home with you?”


Mama was almost taken aback by Cray’s boldness. “I don’t date my students.”


“I dropped out two semesters ago.”


“Maybe so, but you’re not much older than my daughter.”


“I didn’t know you have a daughter. Is she here in New Orleans?”


Mama sipped her beer before answering. “I confess I don’t know where she is. We had a falling out and haven’t spoken in six months.”


Talk of Mama’s errant daughter brought a chill to the conversation, accompanied by a clap of thunder, along with wind and rain pounding windows and front door. Feeling the chill, Cray changed the subject.


“Nasty weather out there. Maybe I should take you home to make sure you make it okay.”


“And then what?”


“A nightcap or two while we wait for the storm to pass?”


“And if it doesn’t?”


“I’ll hold you in my arms and keep you safe.”


“You’re cute, but we need to get to know each other better.”


“I’ve known you three years and we were holding hands just a minute ago. Do you always hold hands with people you don’t like?”


“I like you a lot. I just need to think about this awhile. And no buts, understand?”


Despite Cray’s continued protests, Mama finished her beer and left the restaurant, driving alone to her old two-story house. She found a late model Land Rover parked in the driveway, a somber couple waiting in the front seat. As a voodoo mambo, Mama administered to the needy masses at almost any hour. This couple was white. They followed Mama through the rain to the screened front porch.


“I’m John McGinty and this is my wife, Susan. I know it’s late, but we need your help,” the man said as Mama pushed the creaky screen door shut with her shoulder.


John and Susan were an attractive, middle-aged couple—a financially successful couple from the looks of their expensive Land Rover parked in the driveway.


Despite the beer and oyster shooters, Mama Mulate was largely sober.


”It’s late and the weather’s getting worse by the minute,” she said.”Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”


Mama’s words caused Susan McGinty to start crying, and she hugged her husband.”It’s our son. We don’t know where he is.”


“Have you called the police?”


“Not that simple,” McGinty said.” What we need is information. We heard you could help.”


“I’m a practitioner of the Vodoun religion. What you probably call voodoo. I’m a mambo or priestess, but I’m not psychic. What you need is a seer.”


Susan McGinty stopped crying. “You know such a person?”


“Yes,” Mama said.”A man as old as time. His name is Zekiel. Those that know him call him the Conjure Man. He can tell you where your son is.”


“How can we find him?”


“You can’t,” Mama said.


“We’ll pay whatever it takes,” John McGinty said.


In the tradition of Marie Laveau and other famous New Orleans’ voodoo practitioners, Mama subsidized her Tulane English professor salary by accepting money for her voodoo spells and potions. Knowing without looking the amount would be sufficient, she took McGinty’s check and stowed it in her kitchen teapot. She returned with a large bottle of rum as thunder rumbled the walls of the house.


“Zekiel doesn’t take money. He does enjoy his alcohol. Let’s go before the storm grows worse.”


New Orleans below sea level, the streets had begun to flood as Mama and the McGinty’s leave the house. The sky was black, strong wind blowing up from the Gulf. They headed out of town, toward Gonzales, accompanied by only a few large trucks on the highway. An hour had passed before Mama spoke.


“Slow down. The bridge over the canal is hard to see, even in broad daylight, much less when your wipers won’t clear the rain off your windshield.”


John McGinty steered the Land Rover onto a dirt road, barely visible from the highway and crossed the raging canal on a wooden bridge. The road led through a desolate swamp. It was the city’s storm overflow area that diverted water when flooding occurred. McGinty followed the dirt road for two miles.


“Turn. Zekiel has a shack on a little hill in the woods.”


They found the shack around an abrupt bend. An old black man sat in a rocking chair on its covered front porch. A lop-eared hound sat at his feet, and a black cat whose tail looped like a question mark over its back.


The old man pulled himself up from the rocker and crossed the porch with the help of a cane. Stooping with age, he seemed to have no meat on his little body, just sinew, and tendons and furrowed skin stretched tightly over his ancient bones.


“Didn’t know if you’d make it tonight with the weather and all.”


The McGinty’s exchanged dubious glances, apparently wondering if they’d wasted their time and money.


“You knew we were coming?” John McGinty asked.


The old man chuckled. “Old Zekiel knows just about everything. Come inside before we gets blown away.”


Zekiel's accent was straight from the bayous of south Louisiana but imprinted with a hillbilly twang. Despite his obvious age, his voice was deep and clear, as were his anomalous blue eyes. Mama and the McGinty’s followed him into the shack. Semis passing on the highway melded with the wind whistling through pine boughs. The black cat rushed between Mama’s feet, slipping through the screen door before it shut.


“Watch out for Pancho,” Zekiel said.”He’ll trip you if you aren’t careful. The hound is Baxter. He don’t say much ’cept when the moon is full.”


As if acknowledging their names, Baxter barked, and Pancho rubbed against the old man’s legs. The shack was small and dark; weathered cardboard papered its thin walls. A flowered curtain suspended from a wire quartered the single room. An old army green cot marked the spot where Zekiel slept. There was no indoor plumbing.


A table of stained oak occupied the center of the room. On the table, a coal oil lantern flickered in an updraft. Scattered papers, various gemstones and an old microscope lay strewn on the table. Boxes of old newspapers and magazines littered the floor, and various bottles containing who-knows-what lined the walls with homemade shelves.


Zekiel ambled over to a squatty icebox in a  corner—a white porcelain icebox, chipped and yellowed with time. He returned with cold drinks for the McGinty’s and a ceramic jug. Removing the cork from the jug, he tipped it over his shoulder until clear liquid dribbled down his face. He handed it to Mama.


“I need your help, and you'll need a dose of shine for what we're about to do.”


Mama tipped the jug, instantly tasting some unknown fiery liquor. Zekiel gripped it in his gnarled hand, holding it until a near-lethal amount passed her lips. Then he took two dark stones from a cigar box on the table.


“I know you got strong doubts,” he said, gazing at John McGinty. “You must believe in me before I can help you. Let me show you something.”


He cleared a spot with his forearm and held the two stones about six inches apart. They clashed together with a loud click when he released them.


“Lodestones,” John McGinty said.


Zekiel nodded.”Powerful attraction. Agree?”


“Yes, and it comes with a scientific explanation.”


Ignoring McGinty’s skepticism, Zekiel said, “They have the same powerful attraction as between planets and stars.”


“Maybe . . .”


“Same powerful attraction the moon has on tides.”


“We’re here for answers, not a science lesson.”


Zekiel continued, ignoring McGinty’s skepticism. “You believe lodestones have power? You believe in the attraction of stars and planets and moon and tide? Why not believe in the power of all stones?”


“What power? Other stones have no such power, “John McGinty said.


“Yes, they do. So does every stone.”


Zekiel reached in his cigar box, this time producing a blood red gem. Next to the lamp sat a glass of water. Water in the glass plunked when he dropped the red stone into it.


“Bloodstone,” Zekiel said.”Gains power from water. Together they can suck a hurricane from a desert sky. “Distant thunder sounded outside the shack. “Storm's coming.”


Within seconds, heavy raindrops began pelting the shack's tin roof as lightning flashed across the dirty window pane. The fetid odor of damp soil and crackling ozone flushed like a wave through cracks in the wall.


“That doesn’t prove anything,” John McGinty said. “There’s a hurricane in the Gulf, not fifty miles from New Orleans.”


Zekiel reached across the table and clasped John McGinty’s fist in his gnarled old palm. “Son, you got lots of pain. It sticks out like a red flush on your face. Lose your doubt and help me find your son.”


Again, John McGinty glanced at his wife. This time her look was different. Zekiel drew a deep breath. Dark skin, visible through the vee in his shirt, stretched across his ribs as he removed a crystal ball from a wooden box. Metallic needles pierced the ball. Placing it on an ebony stand, he drank again from the moonshine.


“I needs your help,” he said.


“Tell us what to do,” Mama said, drawing closer to the table.


Zekiel cocked his head and stared at Susan McGinty as if waiting for an answer to an unspoken question. Throbs of glowing red danced on the shack's dark wall. Outside, rain pummeled the windows and drummed on the tin roof.


“Lock your gaze at the crystal. Won't nothing work till your eyes start to dim. Don't blink. Don't do nothing but gaze at the crystal ball.”


Zekiel kept up a low-voiced banter, imploring them to stare at the crystal ball. Soon, his words became a subliminal message. The crystal ball turned black. Clouds parted, and everyone’s gaze penetrated the sphere. In it they saw a vivid panorama into another place and time.


The image of a young man appeared. He was alone, draped in darkness and water up to his neck. As they watched, he closed his eyes and disappeared beneath the water’s choppy surface. An explosion of noise jolted them back to reality. Nearby lightning had struck a tall pine outside the window. As Mama watched, John and Susan held each other tightly, sobbing uncontrollably. Zekiel stood from the table and drew Mama aside.


“Their son drowned in an accident. Sometimes the only way to accept reality is to see it with your own eyes.”


***


The morning had dawned before the McGinty’s, and Mama arrived back at her house. The hurricane had moved west toward the Texas coast and had miraculously missed New Orleans. All that remained was a dark sky filled with darker clouds. Slow rain would continue throughout the day. Mama didn’t expect John and Susan McGinty’s reaction when.


“Thank you,” Susan McGinty said. “Now we know the reports of Robby’s death are true.”
“They never found his body. We thought he might somehow have survived,” John McGinty added.
“Now we can have a proper memorial service for him,” Susan McGinty said.


The McGinty’s had found their closure Mama thought as she watched them drive away. The experience forced her to consider her daughter. Later that day, she returned alone to Zekiel’s shack. This time she took two sacks of groceries, two bags of ice and a fifth of Jack Daniels. Zekiel, Pancho, and Baxter were waiting on the porch. The old man grinned when she stepped from her Sprite.


“Been waiting,” he said.”I already got the answer to the question you need to ask me.”


Mama followed Zekiel into the shack. After stowing the canned goods, she presented him with the bottle of Jack Daniels.


“Thanks, Mama,” he said.”My favorite.”


Mama held his shoulders as she stared into his deep blue eyes.”You know about my problem?”


“Your daughter. She’s waiting to hear from you.”


“How do you know?”


“I scryed it in the crystal ball.”


“Is she okay?”


“She’s waitressing at a restaurant called the Brown Hen in Mobile. She’s saved a little money to go back to college.”


“But I was paying for her college tuition when she ran away.”


“She wasn’t running away from college. She was running away from you.”


“But why? What more could I have given her?”


“No more buts,” Zekiel said.”You gave too much. She needed to experience things on her own, without a mother looking over her shoulder.”


“But I . . .”


“I said no more buts. Mama, the only thing you did wrong is to hold on too tight. You’re strong and imposing, and that makes it tough on a daughter. Give her space she needs. She’ll surprise you with how much you are alike. You could call the Brown Hen, though, and tell her you’re thinking about her.”


***


Storm clouds had cleared when Mama Mulate returned to New Orleans. She had lowered the top of the Bugeye Sprite to let her long hair blow in the breeze beneath a cloudless blue sky. When she got home, she would call the Brown Hen Restaurant in Mobile and talk to her daughter. Tell her she loved her and that she supported any decision about her life she may have made.
After that, an out-of-character Tuesday visit to Pascale’s, a dozen oysters, and cold Dixie seemed inviting. Who knows, she thought—maybe she would even invite Trey back to her house to recite poetry.



####



Born a mile or so from Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma with wife Marilyn, and continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. Mama Mulate recurring characters in Wilder's French Quarter Mystery Series. Please check it out on his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Mama Mulate's Shrimp and Mirliton Casserole

Though mirlitons are originally from Mexico and Central America, they have found a home in Mama Mulate’s backyard. Mama teaches English literature at Tulane University in New Orleans. She’s also a practicing voodoo mambo, business partner and confidante to Wyatt Thomas, the French Quarter’s favorite private investigator. Mama and Wyatt come alive in Eric Wilder’s French Quarter Mystery series. Fictional maybe, but this is one of Mama’s favorite mirliton recipes.

Ingredients

• 4 medium mirlitons
• 4 tbsp. butter
• 1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
• 1 cup green onions, chopped
• 1 onion, large, finely chopped
• ¼ cup parsley, chopped
• ½ cup celery, chopped
• ½ bell pepper, medium, chopped
• Salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste
• ½ cup bread crumbs

Directions

Boil mirlitons in salty water until tender. Peel and cube the pulp. In a skillet, using butter, sauté green onions, onions, bell pepper, celery and parsley. Add shrimp and cook 10 minutes. Add mirliton, garlic powder, salt, and pepper to taste, and then mix well. Pour into large casserole dish, sprinkle with breadcrumbs. In an oven preheated to 350 degrees, bake the ingredients 30 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Enjoy!
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Born a mile or so from Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma with wife Marilyn, and continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. He is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series set in New Orleans. Please check it out on his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In Dreams

I had a dream the other night that, while not disturbing, was certainly thought provoking. I seldom remember dreams unless I'm awakened in the middle of one. This dream apparently startled me into awareness. Although I don’t recall the entire sequence, what I do remember went something like this:

I was at the sink in my kitchen. A woman with me. We were cleaning dishes and both of us were smiling. I had a comfortable feeling that she was someone that I had known for a long time. Our arms touched briefly as we worked at the sink, the sensation of warm skin against my own very pleasurable and somehow soothing. When she spoke, I turned and glanced at her.

"Eric, I’m going to help you clean up your life."

It wasn’t her words that woke me; it was the unexpected recognition when I stared into her eyes. I'll call her Cicely. I had known her since the first grade. We had graduated from high school together.

While I had long known Cicely, we had never been close friends and certainly not lovers. We had never, in fact, had any kind of personal relationship, at least in this lifetime. Still, in my dream she felt like a trusted confidante. Should I call her, tell her about my dream and express the way I felt about her? I can’t. Cicely died of cancer this past summer.

This brings me back to pondering the dream’s meaning. Maybe it has no meaning. Maybe we are all destined to live parallel lives with many lovers and confidantes as the wheels of a giant life machine spins one slow story after the next. Maybe Shakespeare had it right when he said, "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts."

My dream leaves me to wonder just how many parts I have played, and who were my fellow actors, and did all the stories end with song and dance on a festive summer night, or perhaps the sudden shock of unexpected pain?