The Hallucinatory Fragrance of Benzene
Interview with Sheriff Alphonse Dinkheller
I’m pretty sure that old boy committed suicide. He had good reasons, in my opinion. But with the pack of dogs that got in and tracked blood and body parts all over, the coroner couldn’t say with certainty. So I ruled it an accident. Easier that way, you know. The Zapatas can be vicious in court. Not so much now, but in the past they went after anyone that criticized them. The family is notorious, and that goes way back. You’ve seen their plantation? No? You should go by there when you leave. From the road, the house looks as grand as any in Louisiana, with columns across the front and an alleyway of gnarled oaks that once led to an eighteenth century Spanish mission. You might think they got money from the looks of the place. But if you ignore the private residence sign and turn in, you’ll find that 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. As you approach the house, you’ll see a jumble of frayed plantains on one side and a pink Caddy and rusted Buick parked on the other, all dusty and bug splattered, and a boy’s muddy bike lying in the weeds of an abandoned flowerbed. If you’re brave enough to stop and get out, you’ll see the plaster flaking from the unfluted columns, and what appear to be bones in its tabby interior. Supposedly they’re the bones of cannibals. Yep, real cannibals that were buried there before the house was built. What else were they gonna do with the bones? Now, as I was saying, if you get out and look up, you’ll see the cracked dormer windows, and one that’s gone altogether. If you show up at dusk, you might see a river of bats flying out. According to the local voodoo people, they’re the restless souls of the family’s ancestors. Maybe so. And for all I know, even the live Zapatas might turn into bats at night. Nothing would surprise me.
In which Delilah dreams of flight to distant lands.
It’s getting dark as Tony drives up. When I open the door, he’s got a bag in one hand and asks if I know there’re bats in the attic. I tell him yeah.
“June says she’ll get them exterminated, just as soon as she gets enough money.”
Which means never, of course.
Tony’s a roughneck who always has grease under his fingernails, so he’s not the type to notice things like housekeeping and structural deficiencies, but his mother does. She often sends him over with leftovers, probably thinking we’re starving. He holds out the bag and I look inside at the gleaming red shells with black whiskers that seem to move about.
“You hungry?” he asks.
“Tony! You think I eat bugs?”
“They’re crawfish, Deli, not bugs.”
“I don’t care what you call them, I’m not eating creepy crawlies from a ditch.”
“They grow in 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 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, often about us. I struggle with a shell but can’t get the tail off. He demonstrates but I still can’t do it.
“Will you peel them for me, Tony?”
“Oh please, Tony.”
So 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 a little less odious?”
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 pulverized 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 tin 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