The Hallucinatory Fragrance of Benzene
AUTHOR FOUND DEAD ON RABBIT ISLAND
MC Zapata, local historian and author of a book on cannibalism, was found dead in his cabin on Rabbit Island. According to Cameron Parish Sheriff Alphonse Dinkheller, he had been deceased for at least a week. The sheriff noted that the crime scene had the worst stink he’d ever encountered. It was also the messiest, as dogs had torn through a screen and half-eaten the remains. The investigation is ongoing with all the windows thrown open.
In which Delilah dreams of flight to distant lands.
From the highway, our columned plantation house looks as grand as any in Louisiana, framed in full postcard fidelity by an alleyway of gnarled oaks that once led to an 18th century Spanish mission. The view speaks of old money and the white-linen culture of the Old South. But if you ignore the private residence sign and turn onto our shell drive, you’ll discover that the roadside impression was deceptive. First your suspension will rattle your teeth as you bump through potholes. Then you’ll worry at the rotted limbs dangling from the Spanish moss like the spears of car assassins. As you approach the house, you’ll see a jumble of frayed plantains on one side and a pink Cadillac and rusted Buick parked on the other, both unwaxed and bug splattered, and a boy’s muddy bike lying in the weeds of an abandoned flowerbed. You’ll note the plaster flaking from the unfluted columns, exposing what appear to be bones in its tabby interior. Looking up, you’ll see the cracked dormer windows, and one that’s gone altogether. If you come at dusk, you might witness a river of bats flying out. According to the local blacks, they’re the restless souls of my ancestors.
June says she’ll get those damn bats exterminated just as soon as she gets enough money. In the meantime we live in her glossy magazine fantasy of shabby chic — what snotty real estate agents call deferred maintenance, and what towns happily distant from Louisiana more accurately label condemned.
My boyfriend Tony is a roughneck, so he’s not the type to notice our recent difficulties, but his mother — whom I’ve never met — often sends him over with leftovers, apparently thinking we’re starving. Today it’s a damp manila bag of boiled crawfish. I look inside at the glistening red shells. Their long black whiskers seem to move about, giving me the creeps.
“You brought us a bag of bugs?” I ask.
“They’re crustaceans, Deli, not bugs.”
“I don’t care what you call them, I’m not eating them.”
“Everybody eats em.”
“I don’t. I don’t eat creepy crawlies from a ditch.”
“They grow in the rice fields. You eat rice, don’t you?”
Which is true, but I won’t give him the satisfaction. He goes on with his sales pitch, claiming they’re a freshwater version of lobsters. I tell him I’ve never eaten lobsters either, and he says crawfish are even better. Of course he’s a Cajun, and Cajuns are basically raccoons with culinary skills. They’ll cook anything that can’t run away fast enough. Finally he wears me down with whispered flattery in my ear — how brave I am to try new things! — and soon we’re on the rocking porch with the bag between us. A humid breeze flutters the screens as he flicks the shells onto pages of the Cameron Courier, the local rag that is otherwise useless and full of lies. I struggle with one but can’t even get the tail off. He demonstrates, but I pretend I still can’t do it.
“Will you peel them for me, Tony?”
“Really? You can’t do it?”
“Oh please, Tony.”
He peels one and holds it out, expecting me to take it, but I open my mouth like a pelican chick on the state flag. Tony laughs and drops it in, and I reward him with a grin. My plan is to make him my slave by the end of summer, to have him worship me like he worships those painted plaster statues in his church. That’s as fine a goal as any, don’t you think? To become a goddess?
We eat and Tony tells me about his family. It’s one of those Catholic no-birth-control families that can fill all the seats of a Greyhound bus. Totally beyond my experience. I tell him a story about my psychotic mother that should have elicited sympathy, but instead has him grinning. He wants to hear more, and as if on cue June comes out and begins her usual soap opera performance, chain smoking menthols while going on about our tragic descent into poverty. I say I have a math test tomorrow and Tony’s leaving at six in the morning, so can we talk about something else?
“Something less tedious?”
She asks if I have any idea how much the electric bill was last month.
“Fascinating,” I mutter. Tony winks as if she’s funny, but he’s not the one stuck with her every day.
“Sixty-five dollars!” June exclaims, and if she can’t get Bill Henry more business, we’ll have to turn off the lights and sit in the dark. I say we already do — the last bulb on the porch burned out a month ago and here we are, rocking in the dark like Baptists. June waves her cigarette as if this proves her point. She goes on about how tough it is getting Bill Henry clients and how near impossible to get his signature on legal papers with his one arm frozen up. Which is to be expected, as Papa may be the only attorney in the country conducting business from a mental ward. I say look at the bright side — we could sell his story for a lifetime supply of cocktails from Johnny’s White Camellia, with shrimp on toothpicks as appetizers. June stares at me as if considering this, then says over her dead body.
The breeze dies and now it’s stifling. We drink sodas with ice while June has a corn whiskey Sazerac from the pitcher she keeps in the Kelvinator, then another. Tony tells an amusing story about a despised safety inspector falling off the rig who gave everyone a safety award to keep quiet about it, but June’s mind is on some other planet. After a third cocktail her head begins to nod. The empty tumbler falls from her hand and clacks. She struggles to her feet, tells Tony it’s time for him to go home, then staggers into the house and goes upstairs.
“That was rude,” I say.
Tony shrugs and says, “Wait till you meet my mother.”
I ask if I have to, hoping to put off that dreaded day as long as possible. But he nods as if to say, yes, you must meet her, and all the others.
That’s the trouble with beaus. They come with sisters and brothers and parents and their own badly-chosen friends. You can’t open a door to one without all those others squeezing past like a herd of cattle, leaving you not a moment of peace. Eventually they will trample you, even if by accident.
We listen for the sound of June’s bedroom door closing before going back inside to Bill Henry’s law office. It’s dark except for the TV that’s still on. I shut the door behind us and turn on the window unit, setting it on low so June won’t hear us burning her precious electricity, then whack the prehistoric Isabel sofa with my palm, jumping back from the explosion of dust. Tony, who sold used furniture one summer, says it isn’t dust so much as skin cells, and he’d rather sit on ten generations of “el Zaps” than breathe them. He goes on about field dirt being mostly skin cells and dinosaur poop, so I put a finger to his lips and a hand on his chest and push him down on the sofa. Soon we’re sprawled on the dust of my ancestors in the flickering light of the late-night news on the ancient black and white. We kiss while soldiers in pith helmets and sandals march smartly down a street. Tony’s hand slips under my shirt as refugees climb a ladder to a flat roof in our embassy compound. I undo buttons as they squeeze aboard a helicopter. There’s such a crush some dangle from the skids. A loudspeaker says the temperature is 105 degrees and rising, followed by a scratchy recording of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”
Tony glances at the screen. “It’s surreal,” he says as he rolls my left nipple between his fingertips.
“A hundred and five? It can’t be that hot.”
“It’s Vietnam, Tony. It’s hotter than Hades in summertime. It’s even hotter than here.”
“If it was that hot, those Sikorsky 34’s couldn’t fly, and those people would all be dead.”
Tony knows useless crap about Sikorskys because they ferry workers to the rigs, and there’s always a chance he might get dropped in the gulf. Now a figure on television drops and disappears behind a line of trees where smoke is coming up.
“That one’s fricasseed for sure,” I say with a voice husky from Tony’s nipple work, and he agrees.
I envy those people — those with enough strength to hold on, anyway. They’ll be flown to our ships to eat Kentucky fried chicken and French fries in a refreshing breeze off the South China Sea, then to big American cities where they’ll get rich because everyone gets rich in America. Everyone except yours truly, trapped here on Prosperity Plantation, a name that long ago became a joke. Now I hear creaking overhead, so I push Tony’s hand away and button up.
“Is she coming down?” Tony asks.
“Maybe. She can’t sleep when she gets going about money.”
Tony says it can’t be as bad as she lets on, and I say we can’t afford even a used color TV, and this old thing only gets the Lafayette channel because the antenna motor broke and June says she doesn’t have the lousy ten bucks for a service call. She says they didn’t have television growing up, so they had to rely on singalongs and Parcheesi for entertainment.
Tony says that’s ridiculous. People her age grew up with radio, and radio had far better programming than television. Like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade — you can still get them on a New Orleans station. As for the antenna, those rotaries aren’t hard to fix. He’ll get up on the roof when he gets back from his three-week rotation.
Three weeks without Tony. A lifetime.
June doesn’t come down, so we get serious on the couch, and at midnight the station signs off with the national anthem. We smooch at the front door until my knees get noodley, then Tony goes out to the grunting of frogs that sound exactly like pigs. I close the door softly and go upstairs to my bedroom where my five-year-old brother Cal is “powered-down” on the rug, which is more usual than not, then throw myself into bed without bothering to undress. I think of Saigon and those refugees crowding on rooftops, and soon I’m dreaming of evacuation helicopters landing on Chinaberry Road and soldiers yelling for us to hurry. I stumble over a grunting pig and Tony catches me. Propellers chop the stifling air and dust swirls as they pull us onboard.
“Anyone else?” a captain shouts over the engines.
“We’re the last,” I lie.
“What about the pigs?” Tony asks, and I yell you can’t escape the pigs if you take them with you. The turbine whines, the floorboard tilts and we loft into the sky. They whisk us to a music club in Los Angeles I’ve read about, where I belt out “Ball and Chain.” Uncle Mercury’s in the audience with the point of an ice pick buried in his forehead and blood dripping down.
But that’s just a dream and dreams are like bug splats on windshields. Only money is important as money is the harbinger of all good things. Like June, I’m constantly scheming how to get it. Not to save Prosperity, but to escape it to some cooler clime where rivers run clear rather than brown, houses are built on rock instead of mud, and you don’t need window screens to avoid a transfusion. But my schemes go the way of bugs on the highway, and thus I remain ball and chained to this hated plantation because I’m a third generation pauperess and June won’t let me drive until I’m eighteen. She claims young women have twitchy limbs that cause them to veer off the asphalt and plunge into the nearest body of water, drowning everyone in the car. She says she dreamed of a coffin floating down Bayou Larose and she’s convinced someone in the family will drown. She dreams of coffins and I dream of Uncle Merc, and a week later he’s found dead in the bathroom of his “hermitage” on Rabbit island. The tub is full and he’s slumped over with his head in the water and blood all over, so does that satisfy the prophecy? I won’t know until I ask Madam Lucrecia. She knows everything.
© 2021 Lou Dischler