the Quarters, outside the little town of Loreauville. The Quarters were composed of cabins and shotgun houses that went back to the corporate-plantation era of the nineteenth century. Most of them were painted a yellowish gray and aligned in rows on dirt streets with rain ditches and bare yards where whites and people of color lived in harmony and seemed to enjoy the lives they had. On weekends the residents barbecued and drank beer on their small galleries, washed their cars in the yard, and flew kites and played softball in the streets with their children. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty. The Loreauville Quarters were a window into my childhood, a time when few people in the community spoke English and few had traveled farther than two parishes from their place of birth. It wasn’t a half-bad world in which to grow up.
But if I had come here for solace, my journey was in vain. The loss of my wife, my inability to accept the suddenness of the accident, the words of a paramedic telling me she was gone and they had done everything they could, his mouth moving like that of someone in a film with no sound track, I carried all these things wherever I went, my blood and mind fouled, the ground shifting, the realization at sunrise that her death was not a dream and she was gone forever, unfairly taken, her dignity and courage and spiritual resolve extinguished by a fool rounding a curve in a pickup truck, the accelerator mashed to the floor.
These thoughts robbed the light from my eyes, the birdsong from the trees, the sound of children playing in a park. Instead of the glory of the sunset, I saw beer cans and Styrofoam cups undulating in the shallows, a rubber tire submerged among the willows, a blanket of debris caught in the cattails, as viscous as dried paint skimmed off the top of a paint bucket.
I looked at the oaks, the moss lifting in the wind, purple dust rising from a cane field, Bayou Teche glinting in the sun like a Byzantine shield. La Louisiane, the love of my life, the home of Jolie Blon and Evangeline and the Great Whore of Babylon, the place for which I would die, the place for which there was no answer or cure.
The strange phenomenon about alcoholic abstinence is that while you’re laying off the hooch and working the program, your disease is doing push-ups and waiting for the day you slip. You can ease back into the dirty boogie or hit the floor running, but I promise you, the electric tiger, or your version of it, will come back with a roar.
I was old enough to know that insanity comes in many forms, some benign, some viral and capable of spreading across continents, but I believed I had just looked into the eyes of someone who was genuinely mad and probably not diagnosable, the kind of idealist who sets sail on the Pequod and declares war against the universe.
There’s a good few pharagraphs on Clete Purcel and with Lee Burke’s great lines of description.
Clete was one of the most intelligent people I ever knew, and one of the most humble, less out of virtue than his inability to understand his own goodness. He was so brave that he didn’t know how to be afraid. In the same fashion, he was generous because he cared little about money or social status or ownership, except for his Caddy convertibles. His physical appetites were enormous. So was his capacity for self-destruction. His father the milkman had taught Clete to hate himself, and Clete had spent a lifetime trying to unlearn the lesson.
The people who understood him best were usually in the life. Grifters, hookers, money washers at the track, street dips, Murphy artists, and shylocks respected him. So did uptown house creeps and old-time petemen. Button men avoided him. So did strong-arm robbers and child molesters; men who abused women or animals were terrified of him. When Clete’s anger was unleashed, he transformed into someone larger than himself. His fists seemed as big as cantaloupes, his pocked neck as hard as a fire hydrant; his arms and shoulders would split his clothes. He dropped a New Jersey hit man off a roof through the top of a greenhouse. He hooked his hand into a Teamster official’s mouth and slung him from a balcony into a dry swimming pool. He almost drowned a NOPD vice cop in a toilet bowl. He burned down a plantation home on Bayou Teche, fire-hosed a gangster across the restroom floor in a casino, pushed a sadist off the rim of a canyon in Montana, filled a mobbed-up politician’s antique convertible with concrete, went berserk in a St. Martinville pool hall and piled five unconscious outlaw bikers in a corner and would have doubled the number with a baseball bat if Helen Soileau hadn’t talked him into cuffing himself.
He was the trickster from folk mythology who flung scat at respectability. But he was a far more complicated man, in essence a Greek tragedy, a Promethean figure no one recognized as such, a member of the just men in Jewish legend who suffered for the rest of us. If there are angels among us, as St. Paul suggests, I believed Clete was one of them, his wings auraed with smoke, his cloak rolled in blood, his sword broken in battle but unsurrendered and unsheathed, a protector whose genus went back to Thermopylae and Masada.
Clete Purcel believed in straight lines. “Bust ’em or dust ’em” was his mantra. But there was a caveat. Clete was never what the Mob called a cowboy. He could be a violent man, but with few exceptions, his violence was committed in defense of others. Consequently, his greatest virtue became his greatest vulnerability, and his enemies knew it.
I thought that, one way or another, my life was moving away from the night T. J. Dartez died. I was wrong. Sleep is a mercurial mistress. She caresses and absolves and gives light and rest to the soul in our darkest hours. Or she fills us with fear and doubt and disjointed images that seem dredged out of the Abyss. If you’re a drunk, she can instill memories in you that may be manufactured. Or not. And clicking on a bedside lamp will not rid you of them; nor will the coming of the dawn. They take on their own existence and feed at the heart the way a succubus would.
Even before I went to Vietnam, there was a disorder in my head that I never understood. The catalyst, I suspect, lay in the unconscious. For me, the trigger always had to do with degradation of the body and the spirit, cruelty to animals or children, sexual assault, a man beating a woman, betrayal, lies that stole the faith of another.
I would see colors rather than people or the environment around me. My words contained little meaning, as though they were written on water and not meant to be understood. My intentions, however, were obvious. Without warning, I would try to tear someone apart, and I mean break bones and teeth and sling blood onto the walls and leave the object of my rage with a reservoir of fear he would never forget.
I never used a drop, but I owned half a dozen of them, taken from pimps, jackrollers, and smash-and-grabbers who turned over pawnshops. The serial numbers were acid-burned or ground off on an emery wheel, sometimes the trigger and handles reverse-taped so latents couldn’t be lifted from the frame. They were a cop’s get-out-of-jail card. They could have another purpose also.
That weekend, Southern Louisiana was sweltering, thunder cracking as loud as cannons in the night sky; at sunrise, the storm drains clogged with dead beetles that had shells as hard as pecans. It was the kind of weather we associated with hurricanes and tidal surges and winds that ripped tin roofs off houses and bounced them across sugarcane fields like crushed beer cans; it was the kind of weather that gave the lie to the sleepy Southern culture whose normalcy we so fiercely nursed and protected from generation to generation.
I could not sleep Sunday night, and on Monday I woke with a taste like pennies in my mouth and a sense that my life was unspooling before me, that the world in which I lived was a fabrication, that the charity abiding in the human breast was a collective self-delusion, and that the bestial elements we supposedly exorcised from civilized society were not only still with us but had come to define us, although we sanitized them as drones and offshore missiles marked “occupant” and land mines that killed children decades after they were set.