Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Big Gumbo - a short story

Bertram Picou kept his secrets well. He had not returned home in three years. Despite my prodding, he refused to tell me why. Because of his love of secrecy, his Friday morning announcement caught me by surprise.

“Sandi's getting married Sunday. Lady and me are running over to Tee Noir for the wedding and Big Gumbo. Want to come with us?”

Bertram had dark Cajun eyes and a receding head of black hair usually covered with a rumpled trapper's cap. His pigtail braid wiggled when he removed the cap to rake a big hand through his hair. Lady was his gorgeous collie. The marriage of his favorite niece had prompted him to break his self-imposed exile. I decided to go along for the ride. Maybe discover the reason for his three-year absence. We left the Big Easy, heading west toward Terrebonne Parish, later that day.

I caught a short nap, awakening to Lady's tongue licking a wet swath across my face. We were in a different world—bayou country. Many shades of rural green and a glorious sky of azure blue surrounded two snowy egrets flying overhead. The marsh crawled with wildlife, but we were the only humans in sight. It remained that way for many miles until we finally crossed paths with a black and white police cruiser sporting a red gum-ball on top. The driver slammed on his brakes when he saw us coming. He did a tire screeching U turn in the middle of the road and began chasing after us in a convulsion of sirens and flashing lights. When Bertram pulled off the road, the officer yanked in behind us and slid to halt. He jumped out of the squad car, shouting orders in a thick Cajun drawl.

“Get out of that truck! Get your hands in the air!”

“We ain't done nothing,” Bertram protested.

“Shut up, boy. I'm doing the talking here. Move it, now!”

“You wait just a minute,” Bertram said. “I got family in this parish. You got no call treating us like this.”

Ignoring Bertram's protests, the officer began patting him down.

“Gained a little weight, ain't you fat boy?” he said.

“Hey! Watch those hands, man. Who the hell you think you are?” Bertram said, smelling a rat.

“Somebody that remembers what you did graduation night, and still ain't told nobody.”

Something in the officer's voice rang a bell with Bertram. Wheeling around, he grabbed the man's neck and wrestled him to the ground. They were soon rolling in the grass beside the road, trying to control their laughter as I remained against the truck. Lady knew something I didn't because she waited with me beside the truck, wagging her tail.

“Payton LeBlanc, you ol’ river dog,” Bertram finally said. “I should have known it was you. I heard folks around here screwed up and elected you sheriff.”

“Screwed up, hell! They finally got the best man for the job.”

“Best man my big Cajun butt! You should be behind bars, not in front of them. Come to think of it, maybe that's why you ran for office in the first place.”

Sheriff Payton locked Bertram's head in a neck-cracking embrace and began yanking on his left ear.

“You think I ain't gonna throw you in jail just because we're cousins? Hell, I'm cousins with most everyone in south Terrebonne Parish.”

Bertram's grin was almost as wide as Sheriff Payton's, and soon they were both out of breath. Sticking out his hands for cuffing, he said, “You got whiskey and gumbo in that jail of yours, sounds like a vacation to me. Besides, I’m your first cousin.”

“Gumbo, hell, you'll get coffee and grits like any other scum-dog prisoner, first cousin or not.”

I patted Lady's head as the two old friends engaged in light-hearted if somewhat rude banter. Finally, they got off the ground and dusted themselves off.

“Payton, this is Wyatt Thomas, a friend of mine.”

Payton LeBlanc clamped my hand in a bone-shattering grip. “Well I feel sorry for you, boy,” he said.

Sheriff Payton had a dark Cajun complexion, complete with black hair dusted with grit from the tussle in the dirt. He also had intimating eyes. After brushing the dust out of his hair, he plopped the white Stetson back on his big round head. The Sheriff had a grin on his round face when he spoke, and I could tell Bertram and he were two peas snapped from the same pod. When he locked Lady's head in a friendly bear hug, scratching behind her ears, I realized why she hadn't bitten him.

Well if it ain't Miss Lady,” he said. “Are you still hanging with this no good galoot?”

Lady's tail indicated she had not forgotten Bertram's first cousin, even after three years. Bertram left them little time to reacquaint.

“Got to run, Cuz. Coming to the Big Gumbo tonight and wedding on Sunday?”

“Wouldn't miss seeing your ugly pug again, would I?”

“Oh yeah, Cuz,” Bertram said, snapping his finger as if just arriving at a particular revelation. “You kinda got a Michelin around your own belly, don't you?”

After hopping into the truck before Payton could respond, he revved the engine, waiting for me to join him. Sheriff Payton didn't seem to mind, ignoring Bertram's comment. Wheeling around in the road, he disappeared around a cypress-lined bend in a screech of burning rubber.

I interrupted Bertram's smile before we drove a mile down the road.

“I can't believe this is your first visit in three years. Avoiding an old girlfriend, or something?”

Personal,” he said, his grin disappearing.

“Then at least tell me what you did on graduation night.”

Bertram always kept both hands close to the steering wheel. Now, letting loose with one of them, he pointed his big index at me and shook it.

“You keep your big mouth shut about that. They’s people around here that ain't forgot that night. We'll both get our butts in a sling if you bring it up.”

I shut my big mouth, knowing when to leave well enough alone.

Ten more minutes of winding blacktop brought us to Tee Noir, a sleepy fishing village deep in the Acadian Triangle. The village proved more than I expected. It abutted Bayou Noir, a meandering waterway winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Shrimp boats and oyster trawlers populated the bayou's coffee-colored surface. When Bertram stopped the truck, brine odor, along with smell of damp netting and old fish, rolled through the open window. I held my nose, making a face. Bertram smiled and drew a deep breath.

“Smells like home,” he said.

“Sure makes me want to slurp down a dozen, or so, oysters.”

Missing my sarcasm, Bertram said, “Sounds pretty good to me. We'll just stop by Rocky's Oyster Bed for a little CDDO before we hit my bro's house.”

“CDDO?”

“I’m talking about cold Dixie and a dozen oysters. Where you from, Cowboy? New York City?”

Bertram tooled down the street to a dockside bar, the sign on the roof proclaiming it as Rocky's Oyster Bed. After wheeling through the alleyway in back, he parked in a lot blanketed with bleached oyster shells. The lot fronted Bayou Noir, and the skipper of a passing skiff blew its whistle, waving as he passed. Bertram saluted. An old black man sat on a rusty bucket by the back door, shucking oysters with a butcher knife. When he spotted Bertram, he grinned like a toothless iguana and stood up in a crouching stance. Bertram jumped out of the truck, rushed forward and embraced him before the old man managed to move a step.

“James, my man. How the hell you are?” Bertram said, crunching the old man almost hard enough to break a few bones.

“Where you been, Bertram? Ain't seen you around in two, maybe three years.”

Bidness. James, this here's Wyatt Thomas. We came for Sandi's wedding.”

I noticed the old man's deformities when I extended my hand. Polished scar tissue encased his neck and half his face, his right arm bent in a permanent crook. He also had three missing fingers. What remained of his hand resembled a gnarled lobster claw.

“Tell him how you got all scarred up,” Bertram said.

Before I could protest Bertram's insensitivity, James poured forth with the story.

“Happened fifty years ago next month,” he said. “Chemical train, coming from Baton Rouge, derailed down on the tracks. I stopped to look and next thing I know the damn thing exploded. When I got out of the hospital six months later, I looked like this. Chemical company paid for everything.”

I refrained from commenting on the chemical company's benevolence. “Pleased to meet you, James. Glad you survived the blast. Bertram says you shuck some mean oysters here.”

“He'd sure know about that,” James said with a wink. “Seeing he's ate more than a few of them.”

Bertram said, “I kept this place in bidness for about ten years.”

Without missing a beat, James said, “Don't believe a word he say, Mr. Wyatt. Bertram scarfed up so many free oysters out back with me, Rocky couldn't keep enough in stock for his paying customers.”

Bertram pushed me toward the back door. “Let's get out of here before James tells all my secrets.”

The old man's voice was faint, but I heard him say as we passed through the door, “He's right, Mr. Wyatt. Old James knows more about Tee Noir than just about anyone around here.”

I stored away that tidbit of information for future retrieval.

Refrigerated air, saturated with smoke, spilled beer and day-old gumbo, swept over us when we entered the dark bar. Someone was playing a pinball machine in back, and its persistent bell almost drowned out the clack of crashing pool balls. Bertram grabbed a stool at the bar.

“Let's have some service in this place,” he said, slapping the counter top with the flat of his hand.

A man that could have passed for Bertram's big brother stood up from behind the bar. He reached two meaty arms across the counter top, grappling Bertram's neck and giving him a backslapping hug.

Well look what the cat drug in. Where the hell you been, Bertram?”

Bidness,” Bertram said, still noncommittal.

Rocky's hat seemed permanently affixed to his head. The giant red crawfish on his soiled apron appeared his closest companion. With a Gallic shrug, he dismissed Bertram's curt reply. He disappeared through a door in back, returning shortly with two dozen oysters and two cold Dixies.

After introductions, Bertram and I began working on the oysters. Bertram chugged his Dixie, and then confiscated my untouched can. He finished his tray of oysters without as much as a thank you monsieur.

Rocky finally said, “How the hell you went so long without a single one of my famous oysters?”

“They got oysters in Nawlins,” Bertram said. Suddenly realizing his own insensitivity, he added, “Course they ain't half as good as yours, Rocky boy.”

Ain't no oysters good as Terrebonne oysters,” Rocky said.

Bertram showed him an upturned thumb. “Sure glad to see you, Rocky boy. I can't wait to see my little niece, Sandi. She's an actress in New York City now and got a running part in one of them soap operas. Why hell, she's just one step short of being a movie star.”

“You think I never watch daytime TV?” Rocky said. “Hell, Sandi ain't so little any more. That gal always was pretty as a picture.”

“Still is,” Bertram said, reaching for his wallet to pay for the oysters and beer.

“Put it back in your pants,” Rocky said. “The Padre would have his congregation praying for me if he found out I was trying to charge lost souls for oysters and Dixie.”

“And I'd be just the one to tell him, too,” Bertram said as he returned his wallet to his pocket, grabbing my elbow and pulling me off the stool. “Coming to the Big Gumbo tonight?”

“Who else would Junior trust to do the cooking, besides Patsy?”

“Then we'll see you there,” Bertram said.

***

As we negotiated main street, I noticed that everyone was shopping, mending nets or strolling. Most of them recognized Bertram. Three blocks from downtown, we reached a sprawling ranch-style house that fronted the bayou. It was the home of Bertram’s brother Alphonse and sister-in-law Patsy. Junior and Patsy must have heard us drive up because they met us at the front door.

“How you are, little brother?” Junior said.

Bertram wrapped his arms around both Junior and Patsy and squeezed. “Glad to be home,” he said. “Where's Maman?”

“In the kitchen, waiting to see your homely chops.”

Bertram rushed into the house, leaving me on the porch with Junior and Patsy. It didn't matter. I'd known them almost as long as Bertram, seeing them during their perennial trips to the City. Junior was a few years older than Bertram, he and Patsy parents of Sandi, their only child. But this was my first visit to Tee Noir. Lady wagged her big tail as Junior and Patsy administered hugs, pets and full body strokes. She barked once and took off around the house.

“Lady grew up on our place,” Junior explained. “Her brother Bart's in the back yard.”

“Sure glad you came down, Wyatt,” Patsy said. “What do you think of our little part of the world?”

“Feels good here. Sandi home yet?”

Junior glanced at his watch. “Not yet but she’ll be here any minute.”

“I haven't seen her since she made her senior trip to the City. Who's the lucky groom, someone local?”

Junior and Patsy exchanged knowing looks, and Patsy said, “A fancy lawyer from New York City. We ain't met him yet, either.”

“Got that right,” Junior said. “Joshua Brewster, the most eligible bachelor in the whole United States.”

“You mean the real Joshua Brewster?”

Both parents nodded as one, and I could see the pride reflected in their faces. Patsy was a compact woman, the top of her head barely reaching the shoulder of Junior's red flannel shirt. They both had graying hair, but movements and expressions of teenagers still locked in a puppy-love crush. I followed them into the house.

Patsy's kitchen was the hub of her large home, a pot of strong Cajun coffee always brewing on the stove. It felt warm and cozy, a picture window overlooking Bayou Noir. Outside, a stork stood one-legged in shallow water. We found Bertram and his mother sitting at the kitchen table.

Maman, you remember meeting Wyatt in Nawlins?”

Even though we had met only once, Maman Picou opened her arms to receive a hug, as if I were family.

“How are you, Mrs. Picou?” I asked.

“In the pink, for all my boy cares.”

“Now don't start in on me, Maman,” Bertram said, raising his palms and looking toward Junior for help.

“Let's don't start no fight,” Junior said. “Maman, show Bert and Wyatt what you and Patsy made for Sandi.”

The old woman's frown faded, replaced by a smile as she rose up from the kitchen table and led us down the hall to her sewing room. A large chest occupied a prominent spot in the room. Maman opened it, smiling as we looked.

“L'amour de Maman. Mother's love,” she said.

“Sandi's trousseau,” Patsy said. “Twelve blankets, twelve towels, six sheets, two pillows, one mattress cover, and more.”

Maman's loom's about to catch fire, she and Patsy's been weaving so fast,” Junior allowed.

“Show them the dress,” Patsy said.

Maman returned with a beautiful wedding dress embroidered with intricate patterns of Cajun lace. The old woman held it for our inspection.

“Patsy and me started it when Sandi was born.”

“It's beautiful, a real work of art,” I said.

Bertram hugged his mother, kissing her forehead. “Maman, you a genius.”

“Acadian tradition,” Maman said, wagging her finger. Sandi is my only granddaughter. Thanks to Byron and Bertram, this old woman's not likely to see another.”

“Who's Byron?” I asked.

“My little baby,” Maman said.

Before I could quiz her further about Byron, a car pulled up in the driveway. The Picou contingent rushed outside, sure it was Sandi arriving from New York. It was. The day had grown no warmer, air crisper now than when we arrived. In the driveway sat a candy-apple red BMW, brand new and decked out with New York license plates. Its two occupants uncurled from the car as we approached. Patsy and Junior reached the passenger door before Sandi's foot touched pea gravel and broken shell.

“Baby, how you been?” Junior asked.

“You've lost so much weight,” Patsy said. “You feeling all right?”

“I'm fine,” Sandi said, bussing her parent's cheeks.

Sandi Picou looked nothing like the awkward teenager I remembered. Gone were her long dark tresses, replaced now by honey-streaked blond. Also gone were her braces and gawkiness, and any other perceived fault she may once have had. Sandi Picou had grown into a beautiful woman—a world-class, beautiful woman. A fact, implied by her bearing and demeanor, she well knew.

Maman Picou interrupted my musings.

Dropping her cane, she hobbled across the driveway to greet her granddaughter.

Maman,” Sandi said, engulfing the frail little woman in her arms.

“My little baby,” Maman said. “I've missed you so.”

Joshua Brewster, arms crossed, leaned against the BMW, watching the happy reunion. I had seen his picture many times in the tabloids. Joshua, the only male heir to the Brewster financial and political legacy, had brooding, movie star looks. I wondered if Maman realized his prominent national status.

When Josh stepped forward for introductions, his reaction surprised me. Despite the celebrity baggage he carried, he smiled and hugged Maman when she extended her arms, as if he'd known her all his life. Junior and Patsy seemed awed as Maman led Brewster into the house. Sandi followed close behind, smiling and holding hands with her rogue Uncle Bertram. As the old woman pulled out an embroidered bedspread to show the young lawyer, Sandi released her grip on Bertram.

“Maman,” she said, tugging on Brewster's arm. “The trip tired Josh. Can't we do this later?”

Patsy stepped forward to diffuse what appeared to be an impending disagreement.

“Where's our manners, Junior? Help the young man with his bags and show him to his room.”

“I'm fine,” Josh said. “Your grandmother's embroidery fascinates me.”

Maman seemed unperturbed by Sandi's restlessness, and charmed by Josh's admiration. “Then let me show you Sandi's wedding dress,” she said. “Patsy and me been putting the finishing touches on it for more than a year now.”

Before Sandi could protest, Maman brought out her hand-made wedding dress.

“It's wonderful, and so graceful and intricate,” Josh said.

Sandi didn't appreciate her fiancée’s admiration. A less than subtle glance exchanged by the two young lovers caused him to forget the Cajun handiwork. With bags in hand, he made his exit, following Junior to a vacant bedroom down the long hallway.

“You better get some rest too, baby,” Patsy said. “Maman can finish showing you your things later. Then you can try on your wedding dress so we can start on the alterations.”

“I already have a wedding dress and it fits just fine,” Sandi said, her arms folded across her chest. “I think we need to have a talk.”

Sandi's tone left little doubt of her darkening mood. I had already backed out the door, into the hall, Bertram right behind me. We listened to the conversation through the open portal.

“What's the matter, baby?” asked Maman.

“It's just that Josh comes from a wealthy and prominent New York family. They attend the theater, shop at Tiffany's, and even dress for dinner at home. Their house is bigger than anything in Tee Noir. And they have servants.”

“But your wedding dress. . .”

Sandi cut her grandmother short. “That's what I'm getting at. I have a wedding dress, an original creation that cost ten thousand dollars. I can't disappoint the paparazzi and Josh's family by showing up in a homemade dress.”

Junior walked into the room at the tail end of Sandi's speech. “Is something the matter here?”

“Yes,” Sandi said. “I've waited all my life to meet and marry someone like Josh. Please don't ruin it for me now.”

“But baby . . .”

“I'm not your baby any more. I don't live on the edge of a bayou, in a tiny town that doesn't even have a movie theater. I am a New Yorker now, not a south Louisiana oyster shucker.

Sandi's face had reddened and she didn't wait for a reply before stomping out of the room. When her door slammed, Bertram pulled me back inside where Patsy, Junior and Maman stood in cataleptic silence. I glanced down the hallway, catching a glimpse of Josh as he peeked out of his room. He looked embarrassed. Patsy had her own constipated look as Junior commenced a nervous shuffle by the door. Bertram broke the trance, clearing his throat as he led Maman from the room.

“You got some coffee in that kitchen of yours?” he said. “I could sure use a cup right about now.”

Maman didn't answer. The frail old woman was in tears, trying to hide her red face with the lace shawl around her shoulders. Pulling away from Bertram's grasp, she hurried down the hall. Bertram followed us into the kitchen, rushing over to his big brother and standing in his face in a Gallic manner.

“Somebody's got to tell that daughter of yours how the cow eats the cabbage. She acted like a snapping turtle in there.”

“Must get it from her uncle,” Junior said.

Bertram poured coffee from the pot on the stove, ignoring his big brother's remark. I glanced out the window as a crow pecked the eyes from a dead fish washed up on the bayou's bank. Patsy sat at the kitchen table, knitting so fast her hands were a blur.

“She'll come around,” Junior said. “Sandi ain't no dummy.”

“It's all right,” Patsy said. “Maman knows Sandi has a life of her own now. We shouldn't press the girl.”

“Press her, hell!” Bertram said. “You two should have done that ten years ago.”

Junior clenched his fists as he stared at his younger, albeit bigger brother. “You saying we didn't do right by our little baby girl?”

“Stop it,” I said, stepping between them. “I didn't come to Tee Noir for a batch of headaches.”

Both Bertram and Junior shook their fists, posturing a bit before complying with my demand. It made their performance seem like an act they had practiced many times before. Patsy didn't even glance up from her knitting, confirming my suspicion.

“I'm going to take a nap,” Bertram said. “Come on, Wyatt. I'll show you where you're staying.”

Bertram led me down the long hallway to a huge bedroom with a window overlooking the bayou. Slamming the door behind him, he left me alone to wonder what Junior did in Tee Noir that allowed him to afford such a large house. The sun had just begun sinking below the horizon as I finished my shower, Bertram knocking on my door.

“You awake in there?”

He didn't bother waiting for an answer. He plopped his bulky frame into an afghan-draped rocker while I combed my hair. As I buttoned my shirt, he nursed a sweating glass of Jack Daniels. His Cajun accent had thickened since we arrived.

“What do you tink about my little family?”

“Sandi seems changed,” I said.

Bertram puckered his lips, massaging the protrusion between his fingers. “She about a hard-headed one, all right. Won't listen to a word I got to say, that's for sure. Maman sure got her feelings hurt.”

“Hey, Bertram,” I said, changing the subject. “This house is huge. Is real estate that cheap around here?”

“Why hell no. Junior's got more money than Ben Gump.”

“Doing what?”

Bertram chuckled. “You thought he was just another ol' country boy, didn't you?” When I nodded, he said, “Junior leases about a thousand acres of public lake bottom. He and five men go out just about every day, dredging for oysters.”

“So?”

“So he dredges up five hundred sacks a day. Costs him two dollars a sack and he sells them for twelve to the trucks lined up on the roads. He only works about eight months out of the year. You can figure, can't you?”

I whistled through my teeth. “Damn! You mean Junior and Patsy are millionaires?”
“A time or two over but except for this house and Junior's fancy new pickup you wouldn't know it by looking at them.”

Bertram's smile faded and he jumped up from the rocker when I asked, “Who’s Byron?”

“Patsy said to tell you dinner's ready,” was his only answer as he exited the room, slamming the door behind him.

***

Maman's eyes were still red while we waited for Sandi to join us, Patsy frowning as Junior and Bertram sneaked bites of gumbo. I didn't blame them. My own mouth was watering. I lost my appetite when Sandi came down the hall in tears, Bertram, Junior and Josh jumping up to console her.

“Someone stole my wedding dress!”

“What you talking about? Ain't nobody took nothing, baby,” Junior said, massaging the palm of her left hand as Bertram did the same with the right.

“It's gone. Someone took it.”

Patsy headed down the hall toward Sandi's room, Bertram, Maman and I right behind her. Junior and Josh stayed to comfort Sandi. We spent the next half-hour exploring the house. Our search proved futile. Sandi was right. Her expensive wedding dress was missing. We returned to the dinner table to discuss the situation.

“There's no time to get another dress from New York,” Sandi said, near tears. “My wedding is ruined!”

When a deep voice in the kitchen doorway interrupted her complaints, we all turned to see who it was. Everyone already seemed to know, except me, that is.

“Wear Maman's dress,” the man said. “It's a priceless original creation and you're crazy to consider wearing anything else.”

The stranger's facial resemblance placed him as Bertram's younger brother. That is where the similarity ended. Instead of the extra weight Bertram carried, this person seemed trim and fit. He was bedecked in an expensive monogrammed pullover shirt and green woven shorts. Unlike Bertram and Junior, he sported no mustache, or facial hair of any kind. His bottle-lightened hair was short and styled in a brush cut.

“I can't get married in a homemade dress,” Sandi said. “I'd be the laughing stock of the world.”

The suave stranger put his arms around Sandi's neck and stroked her hair. To my surprise, she didn't jerk away, letting him cradle her head against his chest instead.

“Ain't another wedding dress in the world like the one Maman has made. You think I'm lying, Baby?”

Sandi's blond tresses bounced as she shook her head, and more tears streaked her reddened face. “Someone's playing a cruel joke on me and I want you all to know I don't appreciate it.”

In a huff, she turned on her heels, covered her face and raced away to her room, Josh, Junior and Patsy rushing after her. Bertram had excused himself shortly after the stranger's appearance. When I returned to the table alone, sampling some of Patsy's neglected gumbo, the man introduced himself.

“I'm Byron, Junior and Bertram's brother. You must be Wyatt?”

“Pleased to meet you, Byron,” I said, noting his strong grip when we shook hands.

“Call me Beaux. You seen Maman?”

“Sandi upset her a bit. She must have gone to her room during the confusion.”

“I better go see how she is,” he said.

Beaux left me alone with the antique tureen of Maman’s gumbo and I helped myself. Bertram soon joined me at the dinner table.

“Cowboy, you got to find that dress,” he said between sips from a fresh glass of bourbon. “Sandi thinks Maman took it.”

“Why would she do that?”

“Because then Sandi would have to wear her dress.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Maman got her feelings hurt, but she'd never do anything to mess up Sandi's wedding day.”

“You have vandals around here, someone that might have stolen Sandi's dress? Think about it.”

“Why hell no! Most people around here don't even lock their doors at night.”

“Not when you lived here. Maybe things have changed. You haven't even visited in three years.”

“You got a point there, Cowboy. I better call Sheriff Payton.”

As he picked up the hall phone, I asked, “How come you never told me about Beaux?”
Bertram ignored my question.

***

Payton LeBlanc arrived at the house five minutes later, the red light flashing on top of his police cruiser. He didn't look like a police officer when he climbed out of the car. Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirt and combed hair replaced his uniform and smoky hat. He gathered everyone into the kitchen.

“Now exactly what happened here?” he demanded.

When Patsy started to explain, Junior interrupted her, nudging her out of the way with his elbow. “We sat down for an early supper, about four-thirty. That's when Sandi realized her wedding dress was missing from her room.”

“You searched the house?” Payton asked.

When Junior, Beaux, Patsy and Sandi all began talking at once, Payton raised his hairy arms, signaling everyone to shut up. Bertram had returned to his room to freshen his drink, his absence notable.

“One person at a time,” Payton said.

Junior cleared his throat, prompting everyone to let him do the talking. When he finished, the group grew silent, waiting for Payton's pronouncement.

“When did Sandi and Josh get here?”

“Just a little after twelve,” Patsy said.

Payton glanced at the old Bulova watch on his wrist. “Then Sandi's dress disappeared sometime between noon and five.”

“You think someone broke in the house?” Patsy asked.

“Why hell no,” Payton said. “You know there ain't no thieves in Tee Noir.”

“Then where is Sandi's dress?” Junior asked.

Stares from Josh, Sandi and the rest of the Picou family seemed to make Sheriff Payton nervous. Having no obvious answer to Junior's question, he glanced again at his watch.

“I'll look into it,” he said. “Right now, I better run on over to the park. We don't want no traffic jam at the Big Gumbo.”

“I'm not getting married without my dress,” Sandi said.

Beaux pushed on her shoulders, helping Patsy direct her down the hall. “Sheriff Payton will find your dress, Baby. Meantime, your mama and I are going to dress you up like a story-book princess for the Big Gumbo tonight.”

A flat-bottomed skiff passed on the bayou, its high-revving engine shattering the silence. Excusing myself from Junior and Josh, I walked down the hall to check on Bertram.

***

The Big Gumbo at Tee Noir's little park on the bayou started at seven. Time didn’t seem to matter because the guests, and that meant everyone in the parish, began arriving by six. Junior had hired two zydeco bands, the first one already warming up on the raised pavilion. Japanese lanterns flickered in a breeze blowing up from the Gulf. Light from the lanterns dueled with fireflies and running lights from shrimp boats working far out at sea. Crawfish, crab and shrimp boiled, along with corn and new potatoes. Aroma of seafood and spicy Zatarain perfumed the air. Several big iron pots filled with simmering gumbo and catfish filets cooked on the grill. For a moment, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Bertram wasn't so elated.

“Better watch the hooch,” I said. “Passing out in a canebrake won't help anything.”

Bertram ignored my warning and kept drinking. It didn't matter much. All the guests had smiles on their faces along with mixed drinks or cold beers in their hands. The early throng at the party had become a crowd. Bertram was in his element. When he spotted Rocky and James, working by the banks of pots and cookers, he saluted me and strolled over to join them.

“See you later, Cowboy. Better help Rocky and James fry up them catfish.”

I wasn't alone for long. Beaux Picou appeared through the crowd, along with another man. His friend stood six inches taller, but like Beaux he also had close-cropped hair. Unlike Beaux's bottle-induced blond hair, his was black, the same color as his eyes. Both wore stylish shorts, un-tucked shirts and broad smiles.

“How you are, Wyatt?” Beaux said, shaking my hand and drawling Cajun style. “This is Bobby Boudreaux.”

When Bobby clasped my hand in a masculine, over-handed grip, I realized his muscles were as strong as they looked.

“This is wonderful,” I said. “I didn't know so many people lived in Tee Noir.”

Beaux chuckled. “They are coming from all over, just to get a glimpse of Sandi and Josh.”

A convoy of cars and limos interrupted our banter. Sheriff Payton's cruiser led the parade that included a stretch limo, Josh's BMW and Junior's red pickup.

“I better go help Maman,” Beaux said. “Can Bobby hang out with you a while, Wyatt?”

“You bet,” I said as Beaux started away through the crowd without waiting for an answer. A few minutes later, Bertram joined us.

“Man, you about a big one,” he said when I introduced Bobby Boudreaux. “Ever play football?”

“Linebacker,” Bobby said. “Four years at LSU and one with the Saints before I tore up my shoulder.”

“Sure,” Bertram said, slapping him on the shoulder. “I remember you now.”

Our attention turned from Bobby as Picou family members began unloading from the limousine. Josh's parents looked almost regal, his mother dressed in pink, his father dark blue. Sandi outdid them both in her low-cut peach party dress. Josh's faded jeans and denim shirt was more in line with everyone else at the Big Gumbo. Junior smiled his approval. Maman and Patsy stole the show. Both were dressed in Cajun lace masterpieces that started the paparazzi's cameras working overtime. Sandi noticed the attention paid them by the press.

“Cowboy,” Bertram said. “You just got to find Sandi's dress or she's going to blow this whole wedding apart.”

“I think I know where it is,” I said.

Bertram gave me an assessing look. “You lying to me? Who told you?”

“Nobody told me. I figured it out.”

“Then who did it?”

I waited for Bertram's glare of escalating ire at my obstinacy before beginning my explanation. I didn't have long to wait. Before he punched me, I started talking.

“Since Tee Noir has no thieves that leaves only those of us in the house with the opportunity to take the dress. I didn't do it, and I'm certain you didn't either. Patsy and Junior were together the entire time and I don't sense a conspiracy. That leaves Josh and Maman. We searched the house without finding the dress and Maman's too frail to go far without help. That makes Josh the likely suspect.”

Bertram looked surprised, scratching his chin as he assessed my conclusion. “What reason did he have?”

“Maybe embarrassment at the way Sandi treated your mother?”

“I was a little embarrassed myself. What did he do with it?”

“I'd bet money it's in the trunk of his BMW.”

Bertram glanced at Josh's car. “Maybe I'll just find Mr. Josh and ask to borrow his key.”

“I'll go with you,” Bobby Boudreaux said.

I followed them. “No bruises,” I said, only half in jest. “There will be too many cameras tomorrow.”

I was not sure Bertram and Bobby realized I was joking.

We found Josh and managed to cull him from the crowd without causing a scene. Bobby and Bertram each grabbed an arm, lifting him off his feet. They deposited the protesting young man behind his BMW.

“What's going on?” Josh demanded.

“Bobby wants to see inside your trunk,” Bertram said.

“Why?”

Both Bertram and Bobby had their stares locked on Josh. Neither was smiling. “I was telling him just how dressed out the trunks of these foreign sports babies are.”

Josh blinked when he realized the cryptic message behind Bertram's statement. After glancing at me for support and finding none, he reached for his keys, popping the trunk lid. That's when we all got a surprise. Except for the spare tire, the trunk was empty. It took Bertram a moment to react. When he did, it was to glare at me.

“It ain't in there,” he said. “What kind of detective you are, anyway?”

“I didn't give you a written guarantee, did I?”

“Sorry, Josh,” Bertram said, slapping the young man's shoulder. Super-sleuth was sure you took Sandi's dress. I didn't believe it, but we had to check it out.”

“I didn't take Sandi's dress, but maybe someone here did,” Josh said, casting a suspicious glance in my direction.

“Hey, now,” Bertram said. “Why would Wyatt take Sandi's dress?”

“Tabloids pay big money for celebrity stories. Believe me, I know. Sandi said Mr. Thomas's profession is fixing things for people. I don't have the impression she meant furniture.”

I waited for Bertram to defend my honor. Instead, he remained silent, perhaps wondering if I had taken the dress for monetary gain. I needed the money and Bertram knew it. Maybe he knew me too well.

“I didn't know about the wedding until an hour or so before we loaded the truck. Even if I had wanted to make some extra money at Sandi's expense, I never had the opportunity.”

“He's right about that,” Bertram said to Josh. “That don't leave many suspects.”

Josh flinched when I said, “Just Maman.”

“That's what Sandi thinks,” he said. “She's going to confront her with her suspicions.”

“How do you know?” Bertram quizzed.

“She told me. She's upset and angry. I tried to talk her out of it, with no luck, of course.”

Bertram had an answer to most questions, a solution for every problem confronting him. Unfortunately, it involved something that comes from a bottle.

“I need a drink,” he said. “You coming, Bobby?”

Heat lightning flashed over the Gulf as Bertram and Bobby melded into the party. We watched them walk away, the aroma of gumbo and fried catfish floating through the parking lot on a damp breeze.

“I'm going to find Sandi,” Josh said.

I hurried to keep up with his long strides. By now, the first zydeco band was on break, the second band just raising the party's decibel level. Happy revelers, satiated with good food and strong drink, were two stepping on the makeshift dance floor in front of the stage. Out toward the Gulf, electricity and dancing stars laced the sky.

We found Sandi down by the boat dock, along with Patsy and Junior, Joshua and Sheila Brewster. After introductions, the senior Joshua and Junior wandered away alone to the bayou's edge. Sandi leaned against the railing, nursing scotch and water, her speech already slurred.

Josh touched her shoulder. “You okay?”

“She's had a long day,” Sheila said.

“We all have,” Patsy said. “Let's go home. The real occasion is tomorrow, anyway.”

Sheila nodded her agreement. “I'm exhausted after the plane trip and long car ride from Baton Rouge.”

“Then I'll get Junior and Joshua,” Patsy said. “You don't mind, do you Josh?”

Sandi hiccupped, grinned and covered her mouth. “I'm not going anywhere. The party's just beginning.”

When Patsy tugged on her arm, Sandi pulled away, losing her balance and almost toppling backwards into the bayou. Josh grabbed her, preventing the mishap. The incident sent Sandi into a giggling fit, causing Patsy and Sheila to exchange worried glances.

“Go ahead,” Josh said. “I'll stay with Sandi.”

Patsy wasn't happy, yet didn't argue. “Junior,” she called. “We're going home now.”

Junior stepped from the shadows, shouting back to her. “Too early, Love. Joshua and me will be along later.”

“You better call Joshua,” Patsy said to Sheila. “Maybe he'll listen to you and bring Junior with him.”

Sheila cupped her hands and called. “Joshua, we're leaving now.”

“Junior's showing me how to bait a trotline,” Joshua shouted.

The elder Joshua's voice echoed across the bayou, and then died away in darkness. Music from the band had reached new levels, along with crowd noise from the ever-expanding party. Sandi wasn't the only one tipping the bottle, and I wondered if Bertram was asleep in a canebrake yet. Too early, I decided.

“Come on, Sheila,” Patsy said. “At least we'll be ready for the wedding tomorrow.”

“Let's go with them, San,” Josh goaded.

“Not until I talk with Maman.”

Sandi stumbled away toward the party, Josh looking bewildered. Junior and Joshua's laughter pealed from somewhere in the distance. Josh glanced once in their direction before starting after his fiancée. I went with him. We found Sandi surrounded by star-struck fans. She was signing flurries of autographs with one hand while holding a half-empty champagne glass with the other. Ignoring Josh's angry look, she tossed the empty glass toward the bayou, listening until she heard the splash. She was calling for a fresh drink when Bertram and Bobby pushed through the throng.

Bertram had long since graduated from beer to hard liquor, his own grin lopsided and gait as wobbly as Sandi's was. He looked better than Bobby Boudreaux. The ex-linebacker's arm draped Bertram's neck, the full brunt of his weight bearing on his shoulder. Bertram didn't seem to notice.

“Sandi, Baby, there you are.”

By now, Sandi's news anchor vernacular had waned, along with her sobriety. Leaning on Bertram's other shoulder, she said, “You seen Maman, Uncle Bert?”

“I think she went on home,” he said.

Bobby Boudreaux became alert, spoiling Bertram's lie. “No she didn't. I saw her helping Rocky, over by the gumbo pots.”

“Dumb jock,” Bertram said. After detaching Bobby from his shoulder her pursued Sandi through the throng of drunken revelers. “Wait a minute, Baby. I got to talk with you.”

Sandi didn't stop until she ran headlong into her other uncle, Byron “Beaux” Picou. Following close behind, Bertram slammed into them, coming face to face with his brother. Neither spoke or moved until Sandi began squirming between them.

“What's this, an uncle sandwich?” she said, giggling.

Sandi thwarted Bertram's attempted retreat by wrapping her willowy arms around his waist. She also had brother Beaux's, locking them in place. Bobby Boudreaux plowed into the three of them and managing to trip in the process. The collision sent Sandi into another convulsion of drunken laughter as Josh and I helped Bobby to his feet.

When Sandi's laughter ceased, she said, “I finally managed to bring my two favorite uncles together.”

Bertram tried to free himself from his niece's grasp. “Not for long.”

Beaux reached around Sandi, grabbing Bertram's forearm. “What's the matter with you, Bro? Why you acting like this?”

“You know why,” Bertram shot back.

“Maybe you should tell me.”

“May-be I don't like having no gay bob for a brother.”

Beaux must have expected Bertram's retort, though he had no immediate reply to it. He remained silent instead, only a hurtful look exposing his true feelings. Bobby Boudreaux responded for him.

“You think he should be more of a man, like you and me, maybe?”

“Hell!” Bertram said, as the first realization of Bobby and Beaux's relationship finally sank in.

“Stop this,” Sandi said. “You can discuss your personal problems later. Right now, I want you both with me when I tell Maman what I have to say.”

“You tell her tomorrow,” Beaux snapped, forgetting Bertram for the moment. “Let me take you to the house.”

“He may be pretty, but he's got a point,” Bertram said, his voice laced with all the cruel sarcasm he could muster. “Let's all go to the house.”

Sandi stared at Bertram until she started laughing again. “What's this I'm hearing about my Uncle Bertram wanting to leave a party early? I don't believe it.”

Bobby was out of it, slumped against Beaux's shoulder. Josh and I kept our distance, but Sandi, Bertram and Beaux didn't notice. They were all alone, oblivious to everyone else, including the raucous partygoers surrounding them.

Beaux glowered at Bertram. “Bro's getting old and needs his beauty rest. So do you, Baby. Tomorrow is your big day. Let's go back to the house.”

Sandi attempted to pull away. “No way, this party's just beginning.”

Beaux held on to her elbow. “Now you just stop and listen to me a minute. Has your uncle Beaux ever told you a lie? When you couldn't get a job in Hollywood, who give you the name of that New York agent?”

“You did, Uncle Beaux.”

“And who styled and colored your hair. Made sure you got yourself on the cover of People Magazine?”

“You, Uncle Beaux,” she said.

“Then trust me on this. You can talk to Maman tomorrow. Right now, we need to go to the house.”

Sandi ignored his argument, unfolding his fingers from her arm and heading toward the gumbo pot.

“Grab her, Bro,” Beaux shouted.

Bertram did just that, latching on to her arm as she traversed a narrow path through the crowd. Beaux caught up with them, grabbing her other arm.

“Girl,” he said. “You about a stubborn one.”

Sandi leaned over and gave them quick kisses on their cheeks. “I come by it honestly.” They continued supporting her weight as she dissolved into yet another fit of laughter. Between hiccupping laughs, she said, “Someone just pinched my tush.” Her laughter turned to tears.

Beaux wheeled around, looking for the culprit. “I'll bust his chops.”

“I'll help,” Bertram said.

“That's not why I'm crying,” Sandi said, pulling away and plunging through the melee toward the gumbo pots.

Sandi found Maman with Rocky and James. The old woman was oblivious to her fine Cajun lace dress as she stirred one of the big iron gumbo pots with a boat paddle. Rocky was smoking a Picayune, James sitting beside him, looking much like a little deformed doll. He was the first to notice Sandi standing on the other side of the pot, staring at Maman.

“Well, if it ain't little Miss Pris, my favorite actress on my favorite show,” James said.”

Sandi's demeanor lightened at the old man's voice. Forgetting Maman, she hurried around the pot, and kissed his forehead.

“Why James, I didn't know you like A Taste of Tomorrow.”

“Never miss an episode.”

Sandi kissed him again. “You're a darling. I wish all my fans were as loyal as you.”

“Rocky watches too,” James said.

Sandi smiled at the big man who had turned away at James's words, staring at his scuffed work shoes.

“That's sweet, Rocky. I didn't realize I had so many fans in Tee Noir.”

“Ask her, Rocky,” James said, elbowing his large boss.

Rocky shook his head, continuing to stare at his brogans. Sandi crouched beside him, resting her elbow on his shoulder.

“Ask me what, Rocky?”

Rocky fidgeted, but said, “Who is the daddy of the baby you aborted last week?”

Sandi grinned. “Now Rocky, you know I can't reveal that story-line yet. It's a cliff-hanger for next month.”

“I won't tell nobody.”

“Me neither,” James piped in.

With a conspiratorial wink, Sandi wrapped her long arms around the two men's shoulders. Drawing them toward her, she whispered the answer to Rocky's question in each of their ears.”

“You got to be pulling my leg,” Rocky said.

I had little time to witness Sandi's reunion with Rocky and James. Bertram and Beaux had squared off, fists raised. Bobby Boudreaux stood between them, but so drunk he had trouble staying on his feet. Bertram connected with a sloppy left hook to Beaux's jaw. Then all hell broke loose. The glancing blow had no visible effect on the lighter and stronger Bea except to incite him to react. Anger flashed in his dark eyes as he lunged at Bertram's neck, wrestling him to the dirt and pummeling him with both fists. For a long moment, everyone watched, unable or unwilling to react. Then Sandi looked at Josh and screamed.

“Someone please stop them!”

Josh reacted immediately, diving on top of the two combatants, trying to separate them. Between anguished shouts, Maman lashed away with an elm switch at the group on the ground. Oblivious to the fight, Bobby Boudreaux wandered off behind a trashcan and passed out. Sandi joined the fray, ripping her peach dress to the waist and receiving a smack in the eye as she piled on. Rocky and I pulled Maman away from danger, convincing her she should do nothing but watch. It took Sheriff Payton LeBlanc to end the altercation.

An old red fire engine sat parked near the bank of fish grills and gumbo pots. Sheriff Payton unrolled the canvas hose, pointed the nozzle at the group flailing in the dirt and turned on the water. Scant seconds later, all five combatants looked like setters emerging from the bayou.

“Now, does somebody want to tell me what's going on here?” Sheriff Payton said in a Cajun-laced basso profundo.

Beaux pointed to Bertram, still beside him on the ground. “He hit me.”

Bertram had a lump over his eye and he was massaging his jaw. Sheriff Payton shook his head and began to chuckle. “Hell, Bertram, I remember now why we lost state finals our senior year, letting your little brother whip you like that.” Then, looking worried, he said, “You all right, boy?”

Beaux squirmed to free himself from the weight of his listless brother. “I hope I broke his damn neck. I'm through trying to be brothers with him. He can haul his ass back to New Orleans and never come back, for all I care.”

Josh and Sheriff Payton helped Bertram struggle to his feet. Payton said, “Now Beaux, you wait just a minute. Nobody ever said the big boy here was a perfect person. Don't matter none cause I remember him saving your butt more than once in high school when your mouth overloaded your pea brain. It also seems to me that Beaux here lent you the money to buy your place in New Orleans. For the life of me, I don't understand how anything could come between boys as close as you two were.”

Bertram rubbed his swollen eye. “Where'd you learn to throw punch like that?”

Know it by heart,” Beaux said. “You showed it to me plenty of times.”

“Well I'm glad you learned something from me.”

“Hey, I'm sorry about that eye,” Beaux said. “But yo pissed me off.”

Sheriff Payton squeezed Bertram's arm until he squirmed. “You had it coming, didn't you Bert?”

Bertram's swollen face contorted into a smile. “Yeah, maybe I did. It kind of took me by surprise when you. . .”

Beaux finished the sentence for him. “Came out of the closet?”

“Sorry, Beaux. I guess I just had my feelings hurt for some crazy reason. We still brothers?”

“You mean it?”

“Hell yes, I mean it,” Bertram said, grabbing Beaux and administering a hug.

Amid the fracas, everyone had forgotten Sandi and Maman. Now we saw them sitting by the gumbo pots, Maman holding a damp rag to Sandi's eye. Sandi was crying.

“Are you all right?” Josh asked, squatting beside her.

“I'm crying because I'm so happy. I've got the best family in the world and I'm marrying the handsomest man.”

Junior and Joshua had heard the commotion and had joined us. Sandi explained. “I wanted to find Maman tonight so I could apologize to her. For a while, I thought she had taken my wedding dress. Then I got a call from my friend that is feeding my dog. No one took my dress. I left it on the sofa in my apartment. And you know what?” she added. “I'm glad. There's not a dress in the world as beautiful as the one made with l'amour de Maman. Thanks, Uncle Beaux, for making me realize as much.”

The Cajun band had continued playing throughout the fight. Now that the scuffle had ended, the crowd returned to eating, dancing and drinking. I joined Rocky and James, and attacked a spicy heap of boiled shrimp, crabs and crawfish piled high on a paper plate.

***

After the madness of the Big Gumbo, the wedding came off without a hitch. Sandi managed to hide her black eye behind her veil and Uncle Beaux's perfect make-up. Soon after, Bertram and I said our good-byes, rounding up Lady and starting back to the city.

“I still can’t believe Bobby Boudreaux is gay,” Bertram said. “I can imagine what everyone around here thinks.”

He winced when I said, “Hell, Bertram, they probably think you and I are gay.”

I laughed when he said, “You, maybe. Me, I got a girlfriend.”

On the way out of town, we stopped at Rocky's Oyster Bed to say good-bye. Bertram plopped down on a stool at the bar while I went out back for a talk with James.

“You said you know all Tee Noir's secrets. Maybe I should have asked you why Bertram hadn't come around in three years.”

James nodded. “I knew Bertram couldn't stay mad forever. He and Beaux were too close growing up.”

After shaking the old man's hand, I said, “See you next time.” I stopped before reaching the door. “Say, James, do you know what Bertram and Sheriff Payton did the night after they graduated from high school?”

James chuckled. “Me and everyone else in town. Bertram and Payton got drunk on a bottle of his daddy's whiskey. They wandered up to the schoolyard to reminisce and finished the bottle in back of a school bus.”

“What happened?”

“The parking lot slopes toward the bayou. The principal's house is near the bottom of the hill. Bertram was clowning around with the emergency brake and started the bus rolling.” Remembering the event, James began to choke with laughter. He finally regained his composure. “It picked up speed, crashed through Principal Brown's fence and didn't stop till it hit the bayou and sank. Bertram and Payton jumped out of the bus and ran away, but everyone in town knew who did it.”

James stopped laughing as we felt the cold stare of someone standing behind us. It was Bertram, arms folded. Ignoring his glare, I waved to James and Rocky, and walked toward the truck, Bertram following. About a mile down the road, he finally spoke.

“You know, Cowboy, someday that curiosity of yours is going to get you in a whole lot of trouble.”

Before I could reply, Lady licked the frown off Bertram's face, and he replaced it with a big Cajun grin.

END



Wyatt Thomas and Bertram Picou are recurring characters in Eric Wilder's French Quarter Mystery Series. Check out all the colorful characters on Eric's Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

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