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Stay solid,

Poncho Gonzales

Tee Beau Latiolais was given a new trial, but before trial date Gros Mama Goula cut a subpoena server's face with a razor and fled New Iberia and the zydeco bar and hot-pillow joint she had operated for thirty years, and the prosecutor's office dropped the murder charge against Tee Beau. But some black people out in the parish said Gros Mama had the powers of a loup-garou, and had changed herself into ball lightning. They said when the fog was white among the cypress trunks, people would see a tangle of pink light roll across the lily pads and dead water and explode against the levee. The grass on the bank would be scorched black, and snakes would writhe on the baked dirt.

But Tee Beau was not one to stay locked in a bunch of mojo fear, or even worry any longer about the months of sexual humiliation and shame that Hipolyte Broussard had inflicted on him. He and Dorothea were married, and today she works as a waitress in a seafood restaurant out on the St. Martinville road. Tee Beau owns his own taxicab. On Sundays he drives Tante Lemon and Dorothea to church in it, and for some reason they look like triplets inside, all three of their heads barely above the bottom level of the windows. Sometimes they make a special trip past my house and leave me a fat jar of cracklins, what we call graton, made with ground-up Tabasco peppers, and the first bite is such a shock to my mouth that sweat runs out of my hair. But every time Tante Lemon gives me another quart, she pats my hand confidently and says, "You eat that, you, and I gonna give you mo'. Just like your daddy give me fish when I didn't have no food, me, I be comin' out and give you mo'."

Saint Augustine once said we should never use the truth to injure. So the edge of my coulee is lined with spaded-in holes that contain dozens of mason jars which one day an archaeologist will probably dig up and identify as artifacts used by an ancient cult in a corn-god burial.

This started out as a story about my own fear, or rather about a time in my life when, because of an injury, I was not sure who I was, when I had to wait each night for a protean figure of my own creation to define me as something weak and loathsome and undeserving of breath. Instead, it became a story of others, people I discovered to be far more brave in their way than I am. And I suppose that what I have learned is a lesson that the years, or self-concern, had begun to hide from me, namely, that the bravest and most loyal and loving people in the world seldom have heroic physical characteristics or the auras of saints. In fact, their faces are like those of people whom you might randomly pull out of a supermarket line, their physical makeup so nondescript and unremarkable that it's hard to remember what they look like ten minutes after they walk out of a room.

Kim Dollinger is the manager of Clete's Club on Decatur now, and Clete has a private investigator's license and an office two blocks from the First District headquarters. He's made enough money running down bail jumpers to pay off all his debts to Tony's old shylocks. He still tries to fight his weight problem by clanking iron up and down in the back of his office and jogging through Louis Armstrong Park in his Budweiser shorts and LSU football jersey, which the black kids from the Iberville welfare project treat like the appearance of a dancing hippo in the middle of their day. People in the Quarter say he and Kim have become an item, but probably not as Clete had expected. When we go out for dinner together she mashes out his cigarettes in the ashtray, cancels his drink order from the bar, and orders low-cholesterol food from the menu for him. But he doesn't complain, and his eyes are gentle when he looks at her.

Bootsie cut her losses and sold out her vending machine business to one of her former in-laws, and that December she and I were married in St. Peter's Church in New Iberia. We took Alafair with us to Key West, where the water is warm year-round, and the late-afternoon sun boils into the Gulf like a molten red planet. At night light-fish swim among the coral like electrified wisps of green smoke. In screened-in restaurants by the water's edge we ate big dinners of oysters on the half shell, fried shrimp, and conch fritters, and we trolled for bonefish in the flats and dove Seven-Mile Reef south of the island. At fifty feet the water was as clear and green as Jell-O, shimmering with sunlight, the sand as white as ground diamond, and I watched Bootsie swim deep into the canyons of fire coral, indifferent to the spiked nests of sea urchins and the dark, triangular shapes of stingrays. Her tanned body would be beset with bluefish; then she would kick her flippers, clouding the water below her with sand, and dispel them like a sudden shuddering of thin metal blades.

Minos persuaded the DEA to replace the boat I lost south of Cocodrie, and he said that actually the DEA was happy with the work that I had done for them, because Tony was gone and the man who had moved in on his action, one of the Houston crowd, had evidently been having an affair with Tony's wife. They spent a lot of their time quarreling, even throwing drinks at one another on one occasion, in public places.

But my financial debts are paid off, and I've given up law enforcement, at least for the time being. Bootsie and I run our boat-rental and bait business on the bayou. We barbecue chickens and links of sausage for midday fishermen, and we seine for shrimp out on the long green roll of the Gulf. It's still winter, but we treat winter in South Louisiana as a transitory accident. Even when the skies are black with ducks, the oak and cypress limbs along the bayou teeming with robins, the eye focuses on the tightly wrapped pink buds inside the dark green leaves of the camellia bush, the azaleas and the flaming hibiscus that have bloomed right through the season. South Louisiana is a party, and I've grown old enough to put away vain and foolish concerns about mortality, and to stop imposing the false measures of calendars and clocks upon my life, or, for that matter, upon eternity.

Sometimes in the evening, when I'm closing up the bait shop and my shoulder twinges from picking up crates of Jax and Pearl beer, when the wind lifts the moss on the dead cypress in the marsh and blows red embers from a burnt cane field into the darkening sky, I think of juju magic and gris-gris charms, I think of Tony and Paul, Kim and Clete, Dorothea, Tee Beau, and Tante Lemon, even ole Jess Ornella, and I have to pause, almost fearfully, at the beating of my heart. Then I see Bootsie and Alafair walk down from the lighted gallery to get me for supper, hand in hand through the pecan trees, and I turn keys in locks and Bootsie and I go back up the path, with Alafair swinging from our arms, our mismatched shadows fused into a single playful shape under the rising moon.


JAMES LEE BURKE is the New York Times-bestselling, Edgar Award-winning author of nineteen novels, including eleven starring the Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. Burke grew up on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast, where he now lives with his wife Pearl. They also spend several months a year in Montana.