October 21, 2008

Tending Graves, Smashing Idols







This is amazing and a little unbelievable. I am sitting in the lobby of a casino in Westlake, LA, which sits exactly in the spot where the old First Baptist Church stood in the 1940’s, when I sat in a pew with my grandmother and sister as a very young child. This was a hard-shelled Baptist town. Those old anti-gambling residents must be fidgety in their graves.

She sat me beside her in church at night and sometimes during the preaching I would fall asleep with my head against her shoulder or on her lap. Pat sat on her other side. The church then moved to a new building at the end of Goss Street across from Westlake High School in the 50’s and is there still. It’s a red brick church two blocks from Louise Lee’s small house at 533 Goos, where I lived with her and Pat until I was about nine. The old church, built of a darker red brick, sat here empty and forlorn for decades with the windows covered by plywood and a spider web over the door, and was still there when I fled Lake Charles in 1958. Mam-ma’s two-bedroom house on Goss Street originally sat by Westlake’s Main Street only a couple of hundred feet from where I’m sitting, until they built the Earl K. Long Bridge. A pylon of the bridge occupies the old site. When my grandmother had the house moved, I rode for a ways up the street in the living room in her rocking chair while movers hauled it to the spot where it still stands beside the Southern Pacific work track.

In the 1930’s, my Uncle Sherman told me once, “There weren’t any houses for sale.” My grandmother and George and her three children had been sharing a house with another family when this little one became available. They drew straws to see who would buy it and she won.

Back in those days illegal casinos appeared and disappeared with the reliability of elections along old Highway 90—only two blocks from here and nearly gone now. The highway ran through a swampy marsh of cypress trees where thousands and thousands of flamingos and cranes and every other kind of Louisiana waterfowl nested. When they took to the air the sky turned pink or white for an hour sometimes. They were uncountable and to my new eye an intricate wonder of life in motion. They haven’t nested here since the early 60’s; when monstrous pollution from Westlake’s oil and chemical refineries exterminated all life except, it was said, the muskrats, snakes and algae. For many years dead cypress trees were everywhere. Birds wouldn’t have anything to do with that swampy green chemical toilet of course, and haven’t been seen around Westlake in such numbers for so long that few people younger than me remember them. Now even the marsh has been filled in and a parking lot the size of the Bergen Mall in New Jersey is there instead, crammed with cars and trucks of refinery workers. The refineries are so numerous now that coming off the bridge at night is like seeing Las Vegas coming down from Hoover Dam.

I don’t call it a shame. It’s a crime.

Yes I’m an old man now and like many old men in all times and places I prefer it the way it was. People today take the refineries and casino for granted the way I took the birds and swamps for granted. Except for Main Street every road in Westlake was crushed clam shells. All paved now. The town has expanded like most others to the point where it is nearly unrecognizable to me. Budge’s Drug Store has been long gone, and the movie theater that stood empty for years has vanished like Houdini. There was a Flying A gas station on a corner and a feed store, and a small shaded trailer park where a green parrot was imprisoned in a bamboo cage. One day walking home from school—I went to grammar school barefoot in warm weather—I walked through that trailer park and stood looking at the parrot. I said, “Polly want a cracker?” The parrot said, “Why?” It startled me and I thought the bird actually wanted a conversation, but it didn’t say another word. The street had a small café and the Fran-Jan Shop, from where my grandmother’s close friend Mrs. Anderson supplied her with fabrics, needles, thread and other sewing and knitting necessities for many years.

I remember when she operated her Singer sewing machine with a foot-treadle and how happy she was when she converted it to electricity. She sewed a lot and created beautiful crochet and knitting that would earn thousands of dollars today. She had a sense of color balance you wouldn’t believe. But it barely supplemented the stingy pension she got from the government, her reward for my grandfather being shot twice in the “war to end all wars”. George Lee died of throat cancer in 1952. No one knew if it was the mustard gas he inhaled or the pollution he breathed while painting the giant smokestacks of these evil chemical companies and refineries which caused the cancer. His death when I was 11 broke my grandmother’s heart. Her grief nearly broke mine.

Today I drove from New Orleans to Westlake to fix up the graves of Louise Lee, my mother Mickey Mack and George Lee, who was actually my grandmother’s second husband and the brother of the first one, who had abused her. Mother’s and Mam-ma’s resting places have concrete covers about a foot-high, and George’s has only a small slab that is sinking into the ground. I got here late because I had to stop for supplies: a five-gallon bucket, a three-gallon plastic camp container for water, bleach, a new scrub brush, soap and a quart of quality high-gloss white paint. I also bought an entrenching tool so I can plant flowers. But planted flowers aren’t allowed. The lawn is neatly-trimmed St. Augustine grass.

As usual I had to ask directions to the cemetery. I never can find the place. I parked on a lane where I thought the graves were and frantically looked for them for 30 minutes as the sun sank before I found them. By the time I did my eyes were blinded by tears. Then I backed the van up, got the stuff out, mixed it and scrubbed and scrubbed the three graves to get the mold and mildew off. The more I scrubbed the more I wept and the faster I went. People in houses across the street who were watching me must have thought I was a crazy man. I couldn’t stop. I scrubbed them again and again, over and over again. The mold was worse on my mother’s grave. She died 16 years before her mother. Strangely, George Lee’s grave had no mold and only some mildew, but grass had grown over the edges so far that it looks like a child’s grave. The whole hour I worked I talked to them and to God, thanking Him again and again for putting my life in their care and for all the blessings I got from Him through them that I did not see or appreciate until after they were gone. I won’t write what I said because you’ll think I’m a madman. When I finished it was dark and I was exhausted. I sat on the ground a long time looking at the graves and finally the mosquitoes drove me off.

Then I drove over the bridge to Lake Charles looking for an internet café but couldn’t find one. The whole town is full of bars and convenience stores and the ordinary soylent green feeding troughs. Lake Charles has grown like a poisonous weed and looks like any other rich town in the South. Everything is manicured and prosperous-looking. There’s a 10,000-foot-high skyscraper off Broad Street belonging to one of the demonic super-banks. The Calcasieu Parish Jail where I languished twice is gone. They’ve probably outsourced the torture to a private prison entrepreneur in another part of town. Joseph’s Drive-in Restaurant that made the best hot dogs I ever ate for 20 cents is gone. Everything is gone that I knew, but the town has been a bone yard to me since 1958 anyway, and I don’t care. I can’t stand this town. Since I couldn’t find a place on my quick drive-through, I came back to Westlake, dressed to the nines in my van, polished my black shoes, and came into the casino bar to write and to install software for a digital camera I bought as part of this project and others that I have planned.

I tried to get a Coke but the line was so long I gave it up. Finally I went into one of the “boats” where the gambling tables are for a free Coke and got two small coffees instead. The frantic gambling reminded me of Caesar’s Palace, where I worked 14 months in the late nineties cleaning the casino, the hard-count, the soft-count, the main cage, the restaurants and 10 smelly bathrooms. If the service workers walked out on any of the casinos the doors would close in a day, or customers would be playing and eating in piles of garbage. That’s a fact. That’s the main reason rents are still fairly reasonable in Las Vegas. The businessmen-gangsters who own the casinos know that without a stable workforce, one with affordable housing and actual showers and kitchens, they couldn’t operate at all. But if ever they invent reliable robots to do it, most of the workers will join the million others now living under bridges in cardboard boxes, you bet.

After a couple of hours of writing I went to my van at the far side of the parking lot, put up the curtains, and tried to sleep. But visions of these dumbasses wasting their wages in a stupid casino, and the vanished birds kept me awake and finally I became almost enraged and started raving out loud about the stupidity of the whole damned money mad blob that devoured my childhood home. If I’d had a secretary or a tape recorder to take down my words I would have had a tirade that might get me elected President. So many people in this country are disgusted and enraged by this cancerous idiocy but just don’t have the words for it and feel powerless to change it.

You who know me know that I am pretty good at tirades. The fury of my vents make Hitler sound like an elementary school teacher, and it isn’t the Jews I would send up in smoke, but people like him and the friendly well-dressed Nazis who own many of our corporations and government.

By the time I had finished doing an Alexander the Great on all of Calcasieu Parish and had burned everything burnable and dumped every brick, curb, street, electric wire, machine and pipe into the deepest part of the Gulf of Mexico and had returned the land to the birds and alligators for safe-keeping, I was exhausted, and finally I slept.

I awoke refreshed and feeling good and drove toward Magnolia Cemetery and stopped in the Conoco station nearby for coffee. A pretty young woman with dark hair gave me a tentative smile when I entered and I gave her back a real one and said hello. I heard her return the hello as I headed for the coffee and when I returned to pay I saw her fear had been eased and she felt free enough to be friendly. She was alone in the store. We went through the hi-how-are-you-routine, and then because I felt so good I asked if she was a Westlake native. I think she said yes.

“So am I, but I haven’t lived here since I was nine years old,” I said, paying. Spontaneously, I asked, “What do you like to do the most?”

“I read a lot,” she said without hesitation.

“What’s your favorite book of all time?”

“My favorite book? Oh I read so many books."

I figured I knew her then. I could see she had to be deeper than the ordinary and unique and somehow apart and she probably wanted to write them too.

“Quick now, don’t think about it. What’s your favorite book?”

“Bait.”

“Bait? Hmm. I think I’ve seen it. Is it about a girl?” That was a safe guess.

“Yes.”

“So you read a lot. Do you read really good literature?” I hoped she wasn’t like my youngest sister, who reads only that sick and careless romantic Danielle Steele crap you find in every drugstore.

“I don’t know. I just read so many books,” she said wistfully.

“I’m a writer,” I continued. “I’ve been writing nearly 50 years but I never sent anything out for publication because I wasn’t happy with any of it and I was afraid it would be rejected.”

She laughed in recognition of that and I knew I had her number. She wanted to write and probably had tried but couldn’t figure out exactly what she wanted to say, or maybe she was afraid she would hurt somebody.

“I have a blog now and it’s helped me a lot because it’s like publishing, you know? Do you have a computer?” She said she used the one at the public library. I know about that too.

“I just wrote a thing called Butterfly you might like.”

“I love butterflies!” she exclaimed. She pulled up her shirt to reveal a lovely diamond butterfly in the navel of her flat little belly. I laughed appreciatively and said I loved it, so she half-turned and pulled her jeans down a couple of inches and showed me another lovely butterfly tattooed to her right hip.

“That’s beautiful! You should read what I wrote. Do you have a pen and a piece of paper?” She produced a receipt from the machine and gave me a pen and I wrote it down and handed it to her.

“I might have a book you might like to read,” I said. “How late do you work?”

“Two.”

I asked where the secondhand store was and told her I was looking for a camera tripod. She said it was a block away on the same street. I had met the owner the night before in the same station.

“I’ll be back before two,” I said, leaving. We said goodbye and I drove to the store and pulled into the small parking lot but it was closed. I sat there looking at a giant poster in the window of one of the skeleton pirates of “Pirates of the Caribbean” with a knife in its bony jaw. I reflected on the pirate scene we’d just filmed in the old Canary Islanders’ camp south of Chalmette and marveled a bit at another “coincidence” and my own Simultaneity Theory. When I turned the key to drive away the battery was deader than the pirate.

“Okay God, I guess you want me to get a jump,” I said aloud. I went to the back and got the jumper cables I’d used twice in the last two days, and stood at the curb dangling them at the passing cars and trucks, trying to make eye-contact. After a minute of it I looked to my right and saw a new red pickup making a U-turn. I knew he was coming for me and went to the front and opened the hood and connected the cables before his foot hit the pavement.

“I knew somebody in Westlake Louisiana would stop and give me a jump,” I said to him with a big grateful smile. He smiled back and said. “They all die sooner or later.” His young teenaged daughter sat in the front seat watching. I turned the key again but it was too soon so I turned it off and let it charge. I told him I was back in Westlake to spruce up and paint the family graves and Doug Jackson liked that and told me it was a good thing. All of a sudden I started to like Westlake for the first time since 1958. He told me I could get a battery at Wal-Mart in Sulphur and gave excellent directions. The next turn of the key fired the van up and we shook hands and traded names and drove off in different directions.

I made the trip to Wal-Mart in ten minutes and thought about the books I have in the back but couldn’t think of one appropriate for her. I thought about it some more walking through the store. Wal-Mart’s batteries were so expensive that I headed back out and spotted a nice tripod for $20 and bought that instead. Three nice ladies at the cash register gave elaborate directions to an Auto Zone parts store about five miles away down old Highway 90. I pulled onto the old road and was delighted to see some of the old oaks still remaining that form a tunnel over the highway. One-by-one they have disappeared as businesses crawl over the beautiful flat land like some kind of inexorable crab eating everything in its path. Ah, why can’t they leave the trees alone and build around them? Why do they have to tear up every natural thing in the path of their money-hunger?

At Auto Zone I found a good battery for $30 less than the famously-inexpensive Wal-Mart that so many people despise for good reason, and a million others depend on desperately for money to buy food, shelter and gas. The clerk talked me into removing my battery on the spot because there was a $12 core charge. I was struggling with a half-inch nut when he came out for a smoke and pitched in. Can you imagine one of the black auto parts workers in New Orleans pitching in like that when there was nothing in it for him? Everybody I had run into except one casino worker had been white.

When I extracted the battery he made to go back in the store and I told him to take it easy, I’d have a smoke with him. I lit up and he told me his back was bad because a pickup truck had broken a chain of the fork lift he had raised it with.

“It flattened me like a pancake and I have ruptured disks,” he said. I told him I hoped he got a million bucks for it.”

“No, I’m not like that. I don’t sue people.”

“Good God man! I would sue their ass off. A chain broke, and you are out here working as a clerk (it was his first day) and the company, did they pay your medical bills?”

“They didn’t pay anything.”

I was about to pull a Hitler again, but decided to shut up and took the battery out of his eager hands and carried it into the store and got my money, shook hands with this too-nice guy and took off back to the cemetery. First I pulled into the Conoco and crawled in the back and started moving stuff around so I could get at the books. And there it was a minute into the pile: Annie Dillard’s "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, andThe Writing Life” all in one big well-kept paperback volume.

Another woman was in the store so I got another coffee and when I returned to the counter I put the book on it and said I thought she would like this one.

“It’s different and looks hard but if you read it slow it’ll grab you,” I told her, “especially the last one, The Writing Life. This woman helped me with my writing,” I finished.

She thanked me. Her eyes shone at the book, so I took it back and asked her for a pen again and walked over to the other counter and wrote in the front:

“Nothing is insignificant.
Everything is connected.
I love butterflies too.”

And I signed my name and gave it to her, and seeing the other woman couldn’t hear me, I leaned over and looked her right in the eyes and said, “You are going to have a good life.”

When you’re old you have this privilege if you dare.

“I hope so,” she said.

Then I went and did the three graves. First I set up the new digital camera I had bought the previous day on the tripod and took pictures of before so I could do the after as I had it planned. I chopped the grass away some from George’s old grave and clipped it away from the other two. I took a wire brush to them all and scraped off the mold I had killed. I masked the stones with tape but the tape was old and wouldn’t go through my masker so I gave it up and cut them in freehand carefully like a Chinese calligrapher. I laid out drop cloths so nothing would get on the grass and went back and forth to my van ten times to get all the things I needed for a good paint job. The sun got hotter and noon passed and I drank water and took a few more pictures of the work-in-progress. I didn’t realize it was Sunday until I noticed other people in the old cemetery dressing up their ancestors and paying their own respects.

I had missed Mam-ma’s funeral because nobody knew where I was (Colorado) and had only learned about her dying three months later when I was in Florida running from a DUI in New Jersey. As I worked I talked to Mam-ma and Mickey and said the things I should have said when they were alive. I’d hardly known George but I forgave him for scaring me with that croquet mallet-chase and apologized for whatever I’d done that had made him so mad. For the life of me I could not remember what it was.

Mickey died 15 years before her mother. Her concrete was cracked and chipping along one side. It was like she was trying to get out, and I imagined that maybe she was still trying to get out of Louisiana just as I have been trying since 1957. Then I ran out of paint and had to drive back to Sulphur to get the same kind from Loews. When I finished about 3:30, I was so tired I felt like sleeping on the grass. But I loaded everything back and changed clothes in the van. I have some pretty nice clothes.

I put on the black shirt with hidden buttons and the black lightweight high-quality suit with black pearl buttons rimmed in gold, polished black shoes, and a new black top hat. No tie. Then I walked to a double-wide trailer nearby and an older woman emerged before I got there. I told her what I needed. Without hesitation said she would do it. I stood beside each grave while she pushed the button six times.

We talked a bit. She said “Oh yes, Mrs. Lee. I heard about her.” She pointed in the direction of my grandmother’s house. I thanked her and shook her hand as she gave me a nice smile and departed. I said a few more words to their spirits and to God with the hat in my hands, then changed clothes, and took off for Mandeville to help a lady fix up a house for her sick mother.

I’ve been painting for 25 years, and it was the best paint job I’ve ever done. When I have the time and more money I’ll go back and put a two-part high-gloss epoxy on them that’ll last 50 years. Then I’ll find an artist to put some red and yellow roses on them. That and living a better life is all I can give them now.

2 comments:

Wild Clearing's Blog said...

Lovely, lovely story, Mike ... W

Anonymous said...

WoW! I loved this story and the photos! LC

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