Waiting for the Thunder

I fall from the sky with the lightning into New Orleans, two hours from the funeral.  A bad flight, a flight that causes sudden infatuation with trains. I consider the idea that tragedy vibrations can linger, echoing like shock-waves, creating random unsafe zones in all directions for hundreds of miles, even up in the air, but the thought is cured, forgotten with the feel of solid ground.

No one meets me because no one knows I have come. Of course, my grandma knows, because she is dead and the dead know. This I was told, perhaps by my grandma Dette herself, when I was young. Beliefs like these, beliefs gathered in childhood, have left imprints my adulthood cannot completely erase: God knows, the dead know and Santa Claus knows. No one else knows I have come. I remain unexpected, and so not missed.

The Louisiana summer air. I feel the weight of humidity before I feel the rain. It is claustrophobic like fevered dreams, like waking from nightmares to blankets and sweat. Now, I am sweating in the rain.

Outside the airport, everyone is moving slow. Careless and slow. One year after the hurricane they try to ignore the rain as being anything other than simple rain. It takes five minutes for the rented air conditioner in my rented car to kill the heat and begin chilling the damp patches around the knees of my suit pants. My trousers, she would say. Normally, I’d wear tan cap-toed shoes against a charcoal suit. But not today. Black wing tips.

On the highway I lose the city, its wounds lingering on my peripheral as I watch only the road at first, heading inland. I savor this distance from suffering, give safe harbor to my practiced indifference. I’m not really here. This thought has been negotiated.

Eventually I will look through the trees as I drive for the brown bayou water and wonder about alligators. This thought, this thought about alligators, embarrasses me. I think about this and don’t think about the funeral, beyond wondering if that is where I am going.

          Candy Corn filled the crystal dish on the coffee table in the den where Dette took TV and medication, maintaining a constant high with coffee, cigarettes, sugar, and quack-prescriptions.

          “Take one,” she always always said. “Hell, Peetie, take two, they’re cheap.”

          The old kitchen chair at the end of her couch, a chair we would now call “vintage,” was mine and I sat there waiting for stories.

          “Grandma, tell me about Grandpa and Pearl Harbor. Tell me about the first time you drove a car, driving your mother the Indian witch into a barnyard. Show me a picture of you when you were twenty-three, looking exactly almost like Lucille Ball. Can we listen to that record you made, swearing and drunk? Let me make cinnamon toast.”

          “Wash those hands, kiddo. I don’t know where they’ve been.”

 

The land is ever-wet and green in Louisiana. The trees droop from memory even when it doesn’t rain. Pockets of water are everywhere. It seems as if the land is sinking. It seemed like this, even before. Dette once told me south Louisiana was so haunted because the bodies had to be buried above ground. How haunted now?

The rain stops at Baton Rouge and the window comes down. The funeral approaches. There are places to see here, history lurking, the house that Huey built, distractions enough to wait out a funeral, and none of the hurricane scars to temp my lost self and the anger. The gift shop attached to the gas station is full of alligator souvenirs and Cajun cookbooks. After buying two dollars in candy corn I am back on the highway with the trucks.

          “Grandma,” I’d say, “watch your cigarette.” The ash would grow long. I once counted and found she averaged only three drags per cigarette. I always thought her favorite part of smoking was putting them out. She ended the life of each Chesterfield with a flourish, a fancy twist of the wrist.

          She used a large, green, pipe-smoker’s ashtray that had a crumbling cork knob in the middle.

          “Shit, kiddo. What do I do when you’re not around? If I put on my glasses, I find ashes all over the house, days little Pete wasn’t here to watch his grandma. Little Pete, named after a moonshiner. Hell.”

          “Best in St. Landry’s Parish, right?”

          “That’s what they said Peetie. Goddamn if I know.”

 

I don’t speak French, but let the radio rest on a French station because the voice is a laughing voice. The funeral begins in an hour and I’m half that time away so I stop for a sign reading, LIVE BAIT. COLD SODA. I grab a Pepsi from the cooler, from the ice box, she would say, and drink while sitting on a rock, watching a crop duster bomb and save the corn and the beans. The pilot is risking his life.

The tourism billboard for New Orleans appeared, like a dark Mardi Gras jester, a block from my apartment in North Beach. It read, “Dry? We were never dry.”

I try to imagine being a movie star, rescuing people from the flood waters. I try to imagine floating in the middle of Pearl Harbor, watching the Japanese planes fly low overhead and drop torpedoes, like my grandpa did after his ship, the Oklahoma, sank. I try to imagine him standing at Dette’s graveside. Everything I know about his life I learned from other people.

There is accordion music coming from the radio in my car.

I remind myself it is not too late to return New Orleans, my college stomping grounds, to the French Quarter, an island untouched. A few evenings without funerals and people I don’t really know but must hug. In a few days I can return to California and the places I knew Dette before my grandpa and his early retirement carried her away to his boyhood hunting grounds. The Louisiana air.

The humidity is feeling heavy again and I’m beginning to take deeper breaths. For a moment I wonder if more people hyperventilate in the South than in other places, like California, where Dette drove the biggest red car I’ve ever seen.

Back on the road into Opelousas and the funeral, the voice on the radio has changed. It is now deep and graveled and speaking excited English. Then Cajun festival music begins.

“Whooboy!” I yell. “Whooboy!” until my throat hurts. I tap the steering wheel off rhythm and pretend to know the words. When cars pass, I don’t stop singing. I sing louder, open my mouth wide and tilt my head back.

I stop more than once to look at the map, wasting time.

          “Your grandpa hardly knew his papa,” Dette told me. “He died young when lightning struck a tree and it fell across the road. His truck was on the road, so the tree ended up in his lap.”

          After saying this she would close her eyes for one of her long shrugs. “They were all goddamn moonshiners.”

 

I circle the graveyard twice and watch them arrive. Their great great grandfathers were slave owners, land owners, and politicians. They are politicians and alcoholics.

After the funeral begins, I get out of my car. I’m thinking of watching from a distance like a killer or the disinherited. I find the above-ground tombs of my dead relatives, known to me only in stories, freshly scrubbed and flowered. Papa Josh. Little Pete. Ms. Bea. Old Taylor. That bastard Jordan Hayes. Pretty Ms. Jen.

I look around and imagine Dette here too, watching.

“What’s that bitch Alice crying about?” she says. “She hated my guts.”

“I always liked Aunt Alice,” I say.

“Shit, Peetie, you like everybody.” She raises a limp wrist to take a drag. Her other hand is on her hip and her shirt tails are out. It’s a classic Grandma Dette pose.”

I smile. “Did I ever tell you how much you look like Lucille Ball?”

She laughs. Actually, she cackles, but it is familiar and comforting. “You just feel guilty because your grief over goddamn Sodom and Gomorra is just as strong as your grief for memère…I know.”

I walk up quietly to take a folding chair behind cousin Bobby, a district attorney with an always-new Cadillac. I think about this rather than listen to the preacher tell lies about Dette and God. His suit is brown and bulky, stuffed with pamphlets, hankies and church keys. His shoes are the exact same color as his suit.

Finally, it is over, and a mingling begins. For a moment longer, no one knows I have come. Most of them haven’t seen me since I was tripping over fourteen on summer vacation, or hung over and bearded on a weekend visit from college. Aunt Alice spots me though, and I feel trapped between the humidity and expectations. I actually think of running.

“Eugene,” says Aunt Alice, “look who’s come.”

It’s been a long time since I remembered my grandpa’s name is Eugene. He turns to look at me. Only a slight lifting of his brow betrays surprise. My grandpa is the word gruff. He is navy. He is Hughes Aircraft Company. He is war movies, westerns, and professional wrestling. He is a killer of wild animals. Today, he looks small in his coat and tie.

He calls me “boy.” He’s always called me that. But today it sounds like a question. It comes out of his mouth as part of a sigh. Then he says something which causes me to look at my shoes. He says this while shaking my hand.

“This is going to make your grandma’s day.

Yes, I want to say, you are right.

But he moves on, leaving me with the capable small talk of Uncle Jack and his smooth Cajun drawl. Uncle Jack keeps trained dogs. “We didn’t expect you, son. Now, you fly into New O’lens, that mess?”

“This morning,” I say.

Uncle Jack gives me directions to his house where there will be food and poodles that roll over. I try thinking of the crawdad and the catfish which I love and haven’t had, done right, in years. Instead, I think of the taste of candy corn as I drop it on Dette’s grave, as the people leave in their long shiny cars.

          “You know they got goddamned B.B. King playing guitar down there at the woopty doo World’s Fair in Sodom and Gomorra?” said Grandma. 

          “I know Grandma. I saw him play. I shook his hand. It was the only reason to go.”

          “Hell kiddo…Petie, B.B. King might even make me visit that shit hole. Might go to visit you though, when you graduate from that college of yours. Woopty doo.”

 

Uncle Jack used to operate drilling equipment. Oil. Now he’s the Mayor of Palmetto.

“All the way from California?” he asks, after I arrive at his home.

“Yeah, real bumpy over Texas. We hit some weather.”

He never lets his can of beer fall below chest level. “I used to get out to the West Coast time and again. Hell of a place. I was—”

“Jack,” Aunt Alice calls from across the room while carrying a platter full of folded meat slices and cubes of cheese, “get Peter a beer and don’t leave him standing in the doorway.”

I follow Uncle Jack to the ice chest. He hands me a beer and I almost start to look for a glass. Almost.

“I was in Long Beach, California, oh, year before I retired,” he says. “Manufacturer flew me out. Sittin’ in this park, or what, green belt, my my. I see this old gal walkin’ her poodle-dog. You know, Peetie, I like the poodle-dog. Well, this old gal gots my attention ‘coz she’s wearin’ pink sneakers. Oh, they were pink, good and pink. And the poodle-dog, he does his business there on the grass like a good pup. Then I see somethin’ I ain’t never seen. This old gal reaches into her pocket, pulls out some, oh, blue toilet tissue paper. Then what do you think? What do think this old gal does Peetie? She bends over the poodle-dog, pulls up its tail, and wipes its ass, God bless her. Now, I don’t know for sure, but maybe the pup had been leavin’ scoot marks on the white rug at home; but it was a sight, I tell you. God almighty, it was a sight.”

Uncle Jack chuckles. As he drinks from his beer, I know he will wipe his mouth on his sleeve. When he does, I remember that I love him.

“Got to be somthin’,” he says,  “about that little moment that just pisses God the hell off, you think? California, my my. Nobody’s wipin’ the dog’s ass in Louisiana, no sir.”

Aunt Alice interrupts one argument about hurricanes and the federal government after another, introducing me to people I haven’t seen in fifteen years, cousins mostly.  They are given all the necessary information: my mother’s name, the year of her divorce from my father, the year Aunt Alice and Uncle Jack visited us and Disneyland, my occupation and bachelor status. Since most of my cousins are distant, those who are also single women are given a special presentation: where I went to graduate school, my age, conjecture on how interesting my job must be, the distance from my apartment to the Bay.

I nod and smile, shake hands, take hugs, ask several people if they’ve heard Uncle Jack’s California poodle story.

Eventually, I escape out the back door and into the giant back yard, the air. On the patio there is a table piled high with corn on the cob and crawdad. The yard is full of children and dogs running in every direction. These are not poodles. These are the hunting dogs, beagles mostly, and they don’t roll over or beg for food.

It was in the forest not far from here that I first heard the sound a rabbit makes when shot. My face couldn’t keep secrets then, and the men all became quiet. My grandpa didn’t say anything. He carried my shotgun back to the truck.

“See that brown one over there?” My grandpa is behind me now in the middle of the yard. I look over toward the garage. A large brown dog is sitting down, watching the flurry of children. “That brown is a smart one. He checks the logs.”

I look back over my shoulder. His eyebrows are gray and bushy. It occurs to me for the first time that he is a good three inches shorter than me. He sees that I don’t know what he means when he says the brown dog checks logs.

“Some of those swamp rabbits get in the water,” he says, “and they hide behind a log with just their nose sticking out.” He smiles and sticks his nose into the air. Then he looks back over to the brown dog. “Most dogs will run across the creek looking for the scent on the other side. That brown, he’ll look behind the logs, check the weeds.”

Suddenly, Grandpa whistles sharply and every dog in the yard comes running. They surround us. Their paws are muddy, but they don’t jump on us. I reach down to pet the brown dog.

“That’s pretty smart,” I say. “What’s his name?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Brownie, I guess.”

He kneels to pet the dogs and raises his coat sleeve to his face, wiping at his eyes.

“I suppose I’m entitled,” he says, more to the dogs than to me.

I have to stand to escape the smell of wet fur. The sky is gray and growling. I spot lighting on the horizon. Dette told me she once saw lightning break through a window and blow up a television set. How long do I give him before starting a conversation about the weather?

“You know,” he continues, “I cried when I realized that boy I’d been holding onto while we floated in the harbor…well, I was watching the Japs drop those torpedoes and talking away about how we were going to be just fine, they couldn’t fly around forever. I just looked into his face and I knew he was dead. I don’t even know what killed him, just the water I suppose.” The water.

I’m counting, waiting for the thunder.

He stands and squeezes my shoulder briefly. He is grinning. “Never cried for a rabbit, though.” Then he laughs, and I join him. Rain drops appear on my glasses.

“You know,” he says, “your grandma used to go hunting with us, just to watch the dogs run. Goddamn, Bernadette used to yell at those dogs: Go get’ em you bastards, get that bunny! She said, if the rabbit was so stupid as to run in a big circle, it deserved to be shot. As far as I’m concerned, smart rabbit, dumb rabbit, they all taste the same to me.”

“All right, Peter and Eugene, you two come in out of the rain with the rest of the children.” Aunt Alice is standing at the screen door. “You two should have something to eat.”

My grandpa walks toward the house and the dogs are wandering back into the yard, unconcerned. The sky blinks and flashes. Beyond the clouds somewhere the sun is starting to set. A voice rises above the murmur floating from the house; I hear my grandma’s name and then laughter.

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