I didn't say anything.
"It's pretty damn boring to be a spectator in your own life. What do you think?" he said.
"Bullshit. What do you think?" He hit me in the arm with his elbow.
I let out my breath.
"I'll give it some thought," I said.
"You want any help from our office, you've got it."
"All right, Minos."
"If the black kid's alive, I bet you nail him in a week."
"You know Boggs'll show up, too. A guy like that can't get through a day without smearing shit on the furniture somewhere."
"I think I'm getting your drift."
"All right, I'm crowding the plate a little bit. But I don't want to see you sitting on your hands anymore. The lowlifes are the losers. They get up every morning knowing that fact. Let's don't ever let them think they're wrong, partner."
He smiled and handed me a poor-boy sandwich. It felt thick and soft in my hand. Across the channel I could see the ridged and knobby head of an alligator, like a wet, brown rock, among the lily pads.
The next day I read all the paperwork on Tee Beau Latiolais and talked to the prosecutor's office and the detective who did the investigation and made the arrest. Nobody seemed to have any doubt about Tee Beau's guilt. He had worked for a redbone named Hipolyte Broussard, a migrant-labor contractor who had ferried his crews on rickety buses from northern Arizona to Dade County, Florida. I remembered him. He was a strange-looking man who had moved about in that nether society of people of color in southern Louisiana -blacks, quadroons, octoroons, and redbones. You would see him unloading his workers at dawn in the fields during the sugarcane harvest, and at night he would be in a Negro bar or poolroom on the south side of town or out in the parish, where he paid off the laborers or lent them money at high interest rates at a table in back. Like all redbones, people who are a mixture of Negro, white, and Indian blood, he had skin the color of burnt brick, and his eyes were turquoise. His arms and long legs were as thin as pipe cleaners, and he wore sideburns, a rust-colored pencil mustache, and a lacquered straw hat at a jaunty angle on his head. He worked his crews hard, and he had as many contracts with corporate farms as he wanted. I had heard stories that workers, or even a whole family, who gave him trouble might be put off the bus at night in the middle of nowhere.
Nobody doubted why Tee Beau had done it, either. In fact, people were sympathetic with his apparent motivation. For one reason or another, Hipolyte Broussard had made Tee Beau's life as miserable as he could. It was the way in which Tee Beau had killed him that had caused the judge to sentence Tee Beau to the electric chair.
It was misting slightly when I drove down the dirt road into the community of Negro shacks out in the parish where Tante Lemon now lived. The shacks were gray and paintless, the galleries sagging, the privies knocked together from tar paper, scrap lumber, and roofing tin. Chickens pecked in the dirt yards, the ditches were littered with garbage, the air reeked of somebody cooking cracklins outside in an iron kettle, which produces an eye-watering stench like sewage. On the corner was a clapboard juke joint, with tape crisscrossed on the cracked windows, and because it was Friday afternoon the oyster-shell parking lot was already full of cars, and the roar of the jukebox inside was so loud it vibrated the front window.
Tante Lemon's house was raised off the ground on short brick columns, and a yellow dog on a rope had dug a depression under the edge of the house from which he looked up at me and flopped his tail in the dirt. Flies buzzed back in the damp shadows beneath the raised floor. I knocked on the screen door, then saw her ironing at a board in the corner of her small living room. She stopped her work, picked up a tin can, held it to her lips, and spit snuff in it.
"They think they send you, I'm gonna tell where that little boy at?" she said. "I ain't seen him, I ain't talk with him, I don't even know Tee Beau alive. That's what y'all done to us, Mr. Dave. Don't be coming round here pretend you our friend, no."
"Will you let me in, Tante Lemon?"
"I done tole them policemens, I tell you, I ain't seen him, me, and I ain't he'ping you, me."
"Listen, Tante Lemon, I don't want to hurt Tee Beau. He saved my life. It's the white man I want. But they're going to catch Tee Beau sooner or later. Wouldn't you rather I find him first, so nobody hurts him?"
She walked to the screen and opened it. Her dress was wash-faded almost colorless, and it flapped on her body and withered breasts as shapelessly as rag.
"You going lie now 'cause I an old nigger?" she said. "You catch that boy, they gonna carry him up to the Red Hat, they gonna strap him down, put that tin cap on his little head, cover up his face with cloth so they ain't got to look his eyes, let all them people watch my little boy suffer, watch the electricity burn up his body. I was on Camp I, Mr. Dave, when they use to keep womens there. I seen them take a white man to the Red Hat. They had to pull him along the ground from the car, pull him along like a dog wrapped up in chains. Then all them people sat down like they was at the ballpark, them, and watch that man die."
She raised the tin cup to her lips and spit snuff in it again, then picked up her iron and began pressing a starched white shirt. She smelled of dry sweat, Copenhagen, and the heat rising from the ironing board. The walls of her house had been pasted with pages from magazines, then overlaid with mismatched strips of water-streaked wallpaper. The floor was covered with a rug whose thread had split like crimped straw, and the few pieces of furniture she owned looked as though they'd been carted home a piece at a time from the junkyard where Tee Beau used to work.
I sat down on a straight-backed chair next to her ironing board.
"I can't promise you anything," I said, "but if I find Tee Beau, I'll try to help him. Maybe we can get the governor to commute his sentence. Tee Beau saved the life of a police officer. That could mean a lot, Tante Lemon."
"The life of that pimp mean a lot."
"Hipolyte Broussard a pimp, and he was gonna make Tee Beau do it, too."
"I never heard that Broussard was involved with prostitution."
"White people hear what they want to hear."
"I didn't see anything like that in the case record, either. Who'd you tell this to?"
"I ain't tole nobody. Ain't nobody ax me."
"Where was he pimping, Tante Lemon?"
"Out of the juke, there on the four-corner," she said, and nodded her head toward the outside of the house. "Out in them camps, where them farm worker stay at."
"And he wanted Tee Beau to do it, too?"
"He make Tee Beau drive them girls from the juke down to the camp. Tee Beau say, 'I cain't do that no more, Hipolyte.' Hipolyte say, 'You gonna do it, 'cause you don't, I gonna tell your P.O. you been stealing from me and you going back to jail.' And it don't matter Tee Beau do what he say or not. Hipolyte keep making him feel awful all the time, sticking his thumb in that little boy seat, in front of all them people, shame him till he come home and cry. If that man ain't dead now, I go kill him myself, me."
"Tante Lemon, why didn't you tell this to somebody?"
"I tole you, they ain't ax me. You think them people in that courtroom care what an old nigger woman say?"
"You didn't tell anybody because you thought it would hurt Tee Beau, that people would be sure he did it."
It started raining outside. The hinged flap on the side window was raised with a stick, and in the gray light her skin had the color of a dull penny. She mashed the iron up and down on the shirt she was ironing.
"I can tell lots of things 'bout that juke up the four-corner, 'bout the traiteur woman run that place with Hipolyte, 'bout them crib they got there. Ain't nobody interested, Mr. Dave. Don't be telling me they are, no. Just like when I up in Camp I in Angola. On the Red Hat gang they run them boys up and down the levee with they wheelbarrow, beat them every day with the Black Betty, shoot them and bury them right there in the Miss'sippi levee. Everybody knowed it, nobody care. Ain't nobody care about Tee Beau or what I got to say now."