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The New Iberia Blues
DESMOND CORMIER’S SUCCESS story was an improbable one, even among the many self-congratulatory rags-to-riches tales we tell ourselves in the ongoing saga of our green republic, one that is forever changing yet forever the same, a saga that also includes the graves of Shiloh and cinders from aboriginal villages. That is not meant to be a cynical statement. Desmond’s story was a piece of Americana, assuring us that wealth and a magical kingdom are available to the least of us, provided we do not awaken our own penchant for breaking our heroes on a medieval wheel and revising them later, safely downwind from history.
Desmond was not only born to privation, in the sleeper of a semi in which his mother tied off the umbilical cord and said goodbye forever; he was nurtured by his impoverished grandparents on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation in the back room of a general store that was hardly more than an airless shack. It stood on a dirt road amid treeless farmland where shade and a cold soda pop on the store gallery were considered luxuries, before the casino operators from Jersey arrived and, with the help of the state of Louisiana, convinced large numbers of people that a vice is a virtue.
Like his grandparents, he belonged to that group of mixed-blood Indians unkindly called redbones. His hair was cinnamon-colored, more a characteristic of Cajun women than of men. His skin was as smooth as clay, almost hairless, his eyes a washed-out blue and set too wide, like those of someone with fetal alcohol syndrome. He was self-conscious about his racial background, as most of his people were, and smiled rarely, but when he did, he could light a room. I always had the sense that Desmond was trying to shrink inside his clothes, as though both fear and a great sadness lived inside him. Like Proteus blowing his wreathed horn, Desmond constantly created and re-created himself, perhaps never knowing who he was.
No matter. Even as a little boy, he was not one to accept the world as it was, no more than he would accept the hand he’d been dealt. By the time he was twelve, he seemed destined to remain skinny and frail and a carrier of intestinal worms and head lice. One morning, behind his grandparents’ general store, bare-chested under a white sun, his little body running with sweat, he roped a cinder block to each end of a broom handle and lifted. And kept lifting. And squeezing a rubber ball silently on the school bus while the bigger boys laughed at him and often pushed him down on the gravel. By the time he was fourteen, he had the body and the latent animus of a man, and the boys who had bullied him now tried to ingratiate themselves with a weak, self-deprecating smile. He responded with the benign attention of someone watching a stranger blow soap bubbles, until they bowed their heads and went silent, lest they provoke him.
After high school, he waited tables in the French Quarter and became an apprentice to a sidewalk artist in Jackson Square, and discovered that he was better than his teacher. Sometimes I would see him in the early a.m., disheveled, paint on his shirt and in his hair, eating beignets out of a paper bag and drinking café au lait from a Styrofoam cup. On a particularly cold and gray January morning, I saw him hunched on an iron bench inside the fog by St. Louis Cathedral, like an unevolved creature from an earlier time. He was not wearing a coat and his sleeves were rolled high up on his arms, as though in defiance of the weather. He seemed melancholy, his insouciance a pretense for his loneliness, and I sat down beside him without being invited. The air smelled of the river, dead beetles in a storm sewer, the wine and beer cups in the gutters, damp soil and night-blooming flowers and lichen on stone. It was a smell like a Caribbean city rather than America. He told me he was going to Hollywood so he could become a film director.
“Don’t you have to study to do that?” I said.
“I already have,” he replied.
He pointed a finger to his head. “In here.”
I grinned good-naturedly but didn’t speak.
“Don’t believe me, huh?” he said.
“What do I know?”
“You still go to Mass?” he said.
“That means you believe in the things that are on the other side of the physical world. That’s what painting is. That’s what making movies is. You enter a magical world others have no knowledge of.”
I got up from the bench. I felt old. My war wounds ached. The hardness of the bench was printed on my buttocks. I heard the Angelus ringing in the cathedral’s tower, perhaps as a reminder of our mutability and ultimate fate.
“Good luck,” I said. “Kick some butt in California.”
There was a smear of powdered sugar on his cheek. For just a moment I thought of a pauper child who might have ferreted his way into a bakery. He was smiling when he looked up at me.
“What’s the joke?” I asked.
“Anything you get with luck isn’t worth owning, Dave. I thought you knew that.”
• • •
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, Desmond came home a director, with a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination. He took up part-time residence in a house on stilts down at Cypremort Point, with oaks and palm trees in the yard and a magnificent view of the bay, where each evening he claimed to see sharks gliding out of the sunset, dipping in the swells, their dorsal fins as etched as broken razor blades. The problem was, nobody else saw them. A long time ago everyone had decided Desmond was not quite of this earth and lived on the edge of a dream from which he derived both his art and his apparent contempt for success and money.
He didn’t fit into a categorical shoe box and, consequently, got into trouble with everyone—producers, the politically correct and the non–politically correct, an actor he tossed into a swimming pool, an Arab sheik who kept a dozen automobiles idling twenty-four hours a day in the garage of the Beverly Hills Hotel and to whose cottage Desmond delivered a truckload of goats.
On the burnt-out end of an August afternoon, following a summer of drought and fish kills and dried-out marshland that was turning to ceramic, I drove down to the tip of Cypremort Point with a young uniformed deputy named Sean McClain, who had seven months’ experience in law enforcement and still believed in the human race and woke up each day with birdsong in his head. He had been raised in a small town on the Louisiana–Arkansas line and had an accent like someone twanging a bobby pin.
At five a.m. the same day, we had received three 911 calls about a woman screaming from somewhere at the southern end of the Point. One caller said the scream came from a lighted cabin cruiser. The other callers were unsure. The sun was up when the responding deputy arrived. Nobody at the docks or boathouses had heard or seen anything unusual. I could have written the entire incident off, but any time three people report a scream, they’re calling not about a sound but about a memory that lives in the collective unconscious, one that goes back to the cave. When we are alarmed to the degree that we have to tell others about it, we’re dipping into a primal knowledge about the darker potential of the gene pool. Or at least this has always been my belief.
I pointed out Desmond’s house to Sean.
“That’s where that famous movie guy lives at?” he said. “That’s something else, isn’t it?” I’m sure what he said contained a message, but I had no idea what it was.
“Yep, that’s where he lives part of the year,” I said.
“Is he one of them Hollywood liberals?”
“Ask him. If he’s home, I’ll introduce you.”
“But let’s do some work first.”
“You bet,” he said. He looked earnestly out the side window at the camps and the palm trees and the oaks hung with Spanish moss. “What are we looking for, anyway?”
“If you see a dead person facedown on the beach, that’ll be a clue.”
I parked the cruiser on the roadside, and we walked down to the water’s edge. The tide was on its way out, the strip of sandy beach slick and rilling with water and tiny crustaceans in the sunrise, the bay glittering like a bronze shield. We walked to the end of the Point, then five hundred yards back north. I saw a tennis shoe floating upside down in the froth. I picked it up and shook out the sand and water. It was lime green, with blue stripes on it, size seven.
“Bag it?” Sean asked. He was slender, over six feet, his shoulders as rectangular as coat-hanger wire inside his shirt, his stomach as flat as a plank. There was an innocence in his face I hoped he would never lose.
“Why not?” I said.
We walked into Desmond’s yard and mounted the double flight of wood steps to his front door. I had not seen Desmond in years and wondered if it was wise to invite the past back into my life or into his. I rang the chimes. In retrospect, I wish I had not.
• • •
THE HOUSE WAS L-shaped and built of teak and oak, with spacious rooms and sliding glass doors and a widow’s peak and a railed deck like the fantail on a ship. The sun was a red ember in the west, the clouds orange and purple, a water spout twisting as brightly as spun glass on the horizon. Desmond shook my hand, his grip relaxed and cool, with no sign of the power it actually contained. “You look good, Dave. I have a roast on the rotisserie. You and your young friend, please join me.”
“I’m a big admirer of your films, Mr. Cormier,” Sean said.
“Then you came to the right place,” Desmond replied.
Sean could not have looked happier. Desmond closed the door behind us. There were potted plants all over the house. The rug was two inches thick, the furniture made from blond driftwood, the chairs and couches fitted with big leather cushions, an onyx-black piano by the sliding glass doors, a Martin guitar and a golden tenor sax propped on stands. But the most striking aspect of the decor were the steel-framed photos extracted from the films of John Ford. They ran the length of the corridor and one wall of the living room.
“We got some 911 calls about a woman screaming early this morning,” I said.
“Some kind of domestic trouble?” Desmond said.
“Could be. Maybe the scream came from a cabin cruiser,” I said. “Know anybody with a cabin cruiser who likes to knock women around?”
“At Catalina Island I do. Come out on the deck. I want to show you something.”
I started to follow him. Sean was staring at a black-and-white still shot from the last scene in My Darling Clementine. “That makes me dizzy.”
The still shot showed Henry Fonda in the role of Wyatt Earp, speaking to Cathy Downs, who played Clementine Carter, on the side of a dirt trail that led into the wastelands. In the distance was a bare mountain shaped like a monument or perhaps a rotted tooth, its surface eroded with perpendicular crevices. The antediluvian dryness and immensity of the environment were head-reeling.
“The woman is so pretty and sweet-looking,” Sean said. “Is he saying goodbye to her?”
“Yes, he is,” Desmond answered.
“I don’t get it. Why don’t he take her with him?”
“No one knows,” Desmond said.
“It makes me feel sad,” Sean said.
“That’s because you’re a sensitive man,” Desmond said. “Come outside. I have some soft drinks in the cooler. I’d offer you more, but I guess y’all don’t drink alcohol on the job.”
“That’s us,” Sean said. “Damn shooting, it is.”
Desmond smiled with his eyes and slid open the glass door and stepped out onto the deck, into the wind and the warmth of the evening. A telescope was mounted on the deck rail. But that was not what caught my attention. A barefoot and virtually naked man, his genitals and buttocks roped with a knotted white towel, was performing a slow-motion martial arts exercise, silhouetted against the sunset, his slender physique sunbrowned and shiny with baby oil, his iron-gray hair combed back in a sweaty tangle.
“This is my good friend Antoine Butterworth,” Desmond said.
“Ciao,” Butterworth said. His eyes lingered on Sean.
“We can’t stay,” I said to Desmond. “We found a lime-green tennis shoe with blue stripes up the beach. Does that bring anyone to mind?”
“Afraid not,” Desmond said.
“Are we looking for a body, something of that sort?” Butterworth asked. The accent was faintly British, smelling of pretense and self-satisfaction.
“We’re not sure,” I said. “You know a woman who wears green tennis shoes?”
“Can’t say as I do.”
“Hear a woman scream early this morning?” I said.
“I wasn’t here early this morning, so I’m afraid I’m of no help,” Butterworth said.
“From the UK, are you?” I said.
“No,” he replied cutely, his mouth screwed into a button.
I waited. He didn’t continue, as though I had violated his privacy.
“You do mixed martial arts?” Sean asked.
“Oh, I do everything,” Butterworth replied.
“You an actor?” Sean said, not catching the coarse overtone.
“Nothing so grand,” Butterworth said.
Sean nodded in his innocent way.
I heard Desmond pop two soda cans. “Take a look through my telescope,” he said.
I leaned down and gazed through the eyepiece. The magnification was extraordinary. I could see Marsh Island in detail and the opening into Southwest Pass, which fed into the Gulf of Mexico. In the fall of 1942, from almost this same spot, I saw the red glow on the horizon of the oil tankers that had been torpedoed by German submarines. I also saw the bodies of the burned and drowned American seamen who had been dredged up in shrimp nets and dumped on the sand like giant carp.
“The sharks will be coming soon,” Desmond said.
“Sure about that?” I said.
“Big fellows. Hammerheads, maybe.”
I straightened up from the telescope. “They usually don’t come into the bay. It’s too shallow, and there’s not enough food.”
“You’re probably right,” he said.
That was Desmond, always the gentleman, never one to argue.
I bent down to the eyepiece again. This time I saw a fin slicing through a wave. Then it disappeared. I rose up from the telescope.
“I take it back.”
“Told you,” he said, smiling. “Mind if I look?”
He bent down to the eyepiece, his denim shirt ballooning with wind, his wispy hair blowing. “He’s gone now. He’ll be back, though. They always come back. Predators, I mean.”
“Actually, they’re not predators, at least no more than any other form of fish life,” I said.
“You could fool me,” he said. “Let me fix you and your friend a plate.”
I started to refuse.
“I could go for that,” Sean said.
Desmond slid the roast off the rotisserie and began slicing it on a platter with a fork and a butcher knife. Butterworth pulled the towel off his loins and began wiping down his skin, indifferent to the sensibilities of others, his face pointed into the breeze, his eyes closed.
I leaned down to the telescope again. The bay and the current through Southwest Pass were glazed with the last rays of the sun. I moved the telescope on the swivel and scanned Weeks Bay. Then I saw an image that seemed hallucinatory, dredged out of the unconscious, a superimposition on the natural world of humanity’s penchant for cruelty.
I rubbed the humidity out of my eyes and looked again. The tide had reversed itself and was coming toward the shore. I was sure I saw a huge wooden cross bobbing in the chop. Someone was fastened to it, the arms extended on the horizontal beam, the knees and ankles twisted sideways on the base. The cross lifted on the swell, the headpiece rising clear of a wave. The air went out of my lungs. I saw the person on the cross. She was black and wearing a purple dress. It was wrapped as tightly as wet Kleenex on her body. Her face was wizened, from either the sun or the water or her ordeal. Her head lolled on her shoulder; her hair hung on her cheeks and curled in tendrils around her throat. She seemed to look directly at me.
“What’s wrong, Dave?” Desmond said.
“There’s a woman out there. On a cross.”
“What?” he said.
“You heard me.”
He bent to the telescope, then moved it back and forth. “Where?”
“At three o’clock.”
“I don’t see anything. Wait a minute, I see a shark fin. No, three of them.”
I pushed him aside and looked again. A long wave was sliding toward the shore, loaded with sand and organic trash from a storm, its crest breaking, gulls dipping into it.
“You probably saw a reflection and some uprooted trees inside it,” Desmond said. “Light and shadow can play tricks on you.”
“She was looking right at me,” I said. “She had thick black hair. It was curled around her neck.”
I felt Antoine Butterworth breathing on me. I turned, trying to hide my revulsion.
“Let me see,” he said.
I stepped aside. He bent to the telescope, holding his wadded towel to his genitals. “Looks like she floated away.”
I looked once more. The sun was as bright as brass on the water. I could feel Butterworth breathing on me again. “Would you step back, please?” I said.
“I’m claustrophobic,” I said. “Been that way since I was a child.”
“Perfectly understandable,” he said. He put on a blue silk robe and tied it with a sash. “Better now?”
“We’ll be running along,” I said to Desmond. “We’ll call the Coast Guard.”
Sean looked through the telescope, then stood.
“Let’s go, Deputy,” I said.
“Hold on,” he said. He wiped the eyepiece with a handkerchief and looked again. Then he turned and fixed his eyes on mine.
“What?” I said.
“Son of a bitch is hung on a snag,” he said. “Those aren’t sharks out there, either. They’re dolphins.”
I stared at Desmond and Butterworth. Desmond’s face blanched. Butterworth was grinning, above the fray, enjoying the moment.
“I’ve got a boat,” Desmond said, collecting himself. “There’s really a body there? I didn’t see it, Dave.”
“My, my, isn’t this turning into a lovefest?” Butterworth said.
I punched in Helen Soileau’s number on my cell. “Y’all stick around. My boss lady might have a question or two for you.”