Most Holy Ghost

Friday, July 15, 2016

Down in the tail of the parish, where the bayou emptied all its secrets, I grew certain my grandfather lurked, waiting for me to find him. Since I’d only met him once before he disappeared, the odds were long that I’d ever catch his scent or follow his trail. Yet by thirteen, I was hell-bent to try.

Unlike most men in Acadiana, my papère claimed neither a medieval French name nor legal standing in any court. No paper certified his birth, no deed titled his property, and no child carried his name. He harvested no crop, from the land or the gulf, and never carried a wallet, much less cash. Sabine not Cajun, Pentecostal not Catholic, he stood on the other side of any wall. Yet for a while, as part-time minister and full-time traiteur, Rex held a world in his hands. He controlled the revival tent and the medicine cabinet. He ruled the roost and the range, cooking up food and faith in the same cast-iron skillet. He knew no rules and saw no reason to stay on one plot of land or in one kind of body.

His legend filled my head as I grew up, from the stories Mama told me at night. His restless eyes saw further than any man’s; his wild hair ran longer than any woman’s. His skin was dark as roux and rough as cypress. From Mama, I heard how he could raise a soufflé in the kitchen of a moving train and a spirit in the body of a half-dead man. From others, I heard how he could lift the blood in any woman and a flaming dove in the air. Then too, he could lie with steady eyes and summon hell on the dance floor with a fiddle under his chin.

In tale after tale, he’d vanish through the Vermilion into the mouth of the gulf, only to shift shape and reappear in a new body. One time: with a crew cut and clipped nails, he surfaced reed thin, clean-shaven, atop a gray mare. Another time: with a bushy ponytail and brawny arms, he showed a beard down his chest and trailed a mangy bluetick coonhound. Every time: a cloud of mist rose about him, the kind that blurred the horizon at the marsh and made dawn look like dusk.

To hear people tell it, my grandfather was a one-man band. His skin was a leather drum; his lungs were accordion bellows. He made music with nothing but a single cattail and a set of wet lips. What’s more, he wrestled a brown bear for breakfast and barbecued a green gator for lunch. He raised a wood-shingled home on the bayou in less than a month and took it down with hot breath and a match in one day. Afterward, he slept in a duck blind—or claimed to—hunted from a pirogue, and was seen indoors only if there was an open bar under the roof. The Last Outlaw, they called him.

The tales of Rex were sometimes comic, always strange. Once, a jealous woman paid him to toss a bag of gris-gris at Missy Possum’s Parlor of Beauty & Sociability. Prone to excess in everything, by the light of a full moon Rex covered the entire front porch of the little tin shack with gutted and plucked black chickens, plus thirteen bags of stinkweed. After cleaning the mess all the next morning, Missy set about rinsing, rolling, and drying her clients’ hair. But when the towels were lifted, two of the women found themselves as bald as the chickens Rex had hung from the porch, while one was left with a green tint on her hair no amount of bleach could lift or dye could cover. The green-haired woman kept asking everyone in sight how such a grand tataille could be let out of his cage. She seemed shocked that any man could find his way to a beauty parlor, much less tell the difference between peroxide and bleach, dye and lye. Yet the two bald women expressed no surprise at all. Each was already well acquainted with Rex’s voodoo spells, being joined with him still in a state of holy—and apparently illegal—matrimony.

When the deputy arrived with a warrant at Rex’s front porch, it took three men, a fishing net, and a tow bar from a pickup truck to haul him away. The women each raised an open mouth to the sky, sure this time he’d been nailed for good. Down at the station, though, the cops swore the net arrived with nothing but the smell of briny shrimp and empty pink shells. In the middle of the sea foam, there was a hind claw with a bit of meat stuck to it, though no one could say what kind.

Maybe that story, and the others, were meant as postcards from a world losing air. A world where living food petrified, untouched, and dying music echoed, unheard. If light was fading on Cajun men, it had burnt out—utterly and completely—on their darker kin, the mixed-blood Sabines, who only lived in folklore now. The Sabine legend was a gray monument razed by time, and my Sabine grandfather was left a relic. The more time accelerated, the more bizarre the stories ran, the more impossible and the less credible. The less holy, too. Who could have faith in a man charged with befoulment of beauty parlor water? Who could worship a giant man dragged away by three cops and a tow bar before shrinking to the size of a shrimp and slipping out to sea? Who could believe in a half-French, half-Indian all-powerful man who had finally and fully vanished, leaving not so much as a footstep or a fingerprint?

Or maybe the stories were cautionary tales. Don’t-Turn-Out-Like-That tales. After all, from my grandparents’ time to my parents’, both Cajuns and Sabines had turned themselves from one kind of people into another, speaking English instead of French, buying food from a shelf, clothes from a rack, leaving bayous and farms for cities and towns, counting bills in a wallet instead of points on a buck. Most practiced the same religion in the same church, but with less fervor and a low fire. Even then, they had to accept a new creed and throw off an old one, and they had to watch for the odd yearling with its head turned around backward.

The oldest faith Mama knew was in Rex. She’d seen him only half a dozen times since he was dragged away from her childhood, but she kept vigil every Sunday. Even though she pledged Catholic to marry a pure Cajun, for years Mama tuned into the “Most Holy Ghost Revival Hour” before donning a mantilla for high-noon mass. She clapped her hands like thunder and shouted a line or two of gospel, while letting her head snap from side to side. In those Pentecostal moments, she dropped the stern forehead, the worrisome brow. Her hair remained a dark corona, yet her whole face brightened. Either she summoned the past or she warded it off, I couldn’t tell which, but what seemed old and familiar to her looked new and fantastic to me. You could clap yourself into a spell? You could chant yourself into a whole other self?

Soon as the “Most Holy Ghost Revival Hour” ended, Mama shut it off with a determined click. Then she fixed one last bobby pin to the lace on her head, and fixed her face into the look of a Catholic parishioner.

Divine Redeemer, with its severe steeple and bishop’s throne, only ran by one script, with no claps and no chants and no one turning into anyone else. It had pipe-organ music, no rocking choir, and the priests wore starchy gowns and stiff lace, not open-collar shirts and belted trousers. Everyone ate pressed wafers and drank grape juice and walked in straight, orderly lines and sat in straight, orderly pews. No one, not one person, sweated. No one fell out of a seat or spoke a single word, except on cue and in unison.

“See,” Mama said. “How you look matters.”

I knew what she meant: the pews up front bore brass plaques with the names of attorneys, surgeons, politicians, and farm bureau chiefs. Men who ran the city and the parish, all of Acadiana and at least this part of Louisiana. All Catholic, Mama reminded me, and all in their pews every Sunday. No Pentecostal ever sat in the mayor’s seat. No Sabine ever rode on the king’s float at Mardi Gras. Not even my grandfather, not even with a name like Rex.

Mama nudged me into those lines, pressed my white jackets, knotted my blue ties, creased my short pants, and polished my black shoes. She combed my hair, sometimes ironing out stubborn curls with a hot clamp. Whether inside the Catholic church or outside the Catholic school, I looked ready for an official First Communion photo, even at the age of thirteen. All her grooming brushed away the Sabine, the coppery reds that ran from my papère to her to me.  Maybe I had none of my own father’s ashy blond hair, but—when kept out of the sun—my skin lightened enough to pass for full-blooded Cajun. Still, I knew I didn’t fit my skin, knew I was no straight, orderly Catholic boy.

Early one Sunday, Mama got a long-distance call and pulled not just the receiver but the entire phone with its coiling cord into the bathroom, where her sobs rang out against the porcelain and the chrome and the beveled mirror.

“Gone?” was all I could hear her ask. “How could he be gone? Gone gone gone?”

She stayed in the bathroom the rest of the morning, with water running and running, and I walked paces outside the door. Long after she put down the receiver, Mama kept talking in half-sentences and broken thoughts. At times, her voice sounded muzzled with a towel, then it exploded into a long chain of moans. Just before noon, the knob turned, and she stepped out with a different face, her brows more arched, her lips more drawn, and her eyes a blaze of shadow and light. She stood still for a moment with only her fingers shaking at her side. I wanted to link my hand in hers, but she looked past me to the opposite wall.  A picture hung there, her father in his Sunday revival finest, clutching a Bible in one hand and a set of beads in the other. His hair and skin glistening with sweat.

Right then, in the unlit hall without a radio or record playing, Mama raised her mouth to the ceiling and sang out loud. She clapped the beat then shouted the chorus to “I Married Jesus” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” As her voice rose higher, the specter of her father rose out of that picture and into the air before us, thin and gray and only barely visible. With Mama’s voice rattling the air, he jigged a leg and waved a stick to beat time. He didn’t look at either one of us. He just stared straight ahead, like a dead-eyed bogeyman. Yet he shook with secret life. For all I knew, if Mama touched his ghostly body, he might explode into song—just like that—with a flame dancing over his head.

Instead, he disappeared from the hall soon as Mama stopped singing and closed the door to her bedroom. When I looked back at the picture, my papère hadn’t moved, but the beads snaked around his hand now, and the Bible had cracked open, and his shoes hovered above the ground.

After that, the “Most Holy Ghost Revival Hour” fell out of rotation in our house, and Mama fell out of clapping and shouting, and sometimes fell out of high-noon mass. The house seemed to fill with invisible figures, and the church seemed to shrink everybody to a dot in an infinite line. Mama’s late-night tales stopped, and the TV grew louder in the living room, with laugh lines and canned applause, followed by breaking news and urgent forecasts. Papa worked in an oil refinery until long past dusk, ate from a cellophane-wrapped bowl Mama left in the microwave, then headed for his garage of solitude to sink his hands into a car engine or lawn mower.

At first, I performed my own disappearing act, into book after book, eating the pages for dinner, for lunch, for breakfast. Then I conjured my own tales of Rex. I mussed my hair in the mirror, loosened my tie and clapped my head with my hands, twisting my hips and singing to a transistor and the back of a brush. When no one burst through the door and whipped me with a belt, when no one hauled me by my hair to kneel on the kitchen floor, when no one—meaning Mama, only Mama—let loose a hot line of Holy Scripture over my head, I took it as a sign and shook all caution from my body. Crossing one leg over the other at the knee, dangling a wrist in the air.

Finally, I performed my own first spell as I rose out of Mama’s closet, wearing a cameo brooch on a belted jacket and a cloud of mousse in my freshly dyed hair. I kept my chin steady, or tried to, as I walked under the octopus-armed chandelier and across the shag carpet. The air was insulated with cotton, and all the furniture sat motionless, as if no one had sat down or stood up all day. Every surface of the house acted like a seal, letting not a single sound loose. Then I slid out a high-backed chair and took my place at the dinner table.

All at once, the silence broke and my mother’s hands flew at me. Her hands shook and clapped again and again, on my head, on my hot cheeks, on my neck and arms and legs and up and down my back, as I rolled onto the ground and she shouted a streak of words ripped not from the Bible or from any book I knew. The words smoked and steamed and rattled and burst around us until the TV sounded a news alert and the holy breath left my mother’s chest in heavy clouds. After each breath, I thought I heard her cry a name, her father’s name. That night, I awoke while walking in the middle of the hall, saying his name myself. What did either of us think he could do? What kind of prayer was his name?

If he’d been sitting at the dinner table when I twirled into view, Rex might’ve clapped his big paw on my back to welcome a fellow changeling, a fellow outlaw. Yet for unending days after, my mother wrung her hands and worried over a scourge even her holy father could never heal. He’d become a ghost, but her son was more haunting. Sure, her father had poisoned a beauty parlor and shifted his shape right out of her life, but her son dyed his own hair and painted his own face—along with the nails on his hand. Black eyeliner, black nails. And what kind of voodoo was that?

Afterward, I witnessed Mama’s own shape shifting, even more than it had before. She straightened her hair with fuming chemicals and ironed the stray curls around her ears. She avoided the sun, smeared a pale cream on her face, and rinsed her hair with lemons. She hung up her dotted cotton dresses and closed-toe shoes, and wore belted pantsuits, cork-wedged sandals and a silk headband. Her neck grew longer, like a swan, and the few dresses she wore rose well above her ankle now. She dangled a cigarette from her lips and a few swear words, too. She still flared her nostrils when I smudged ash on my eyelids, but she let me dress myself for school, for church, let me aim her hot dryer at my hair until it ran wild. Soon, her gospel albums were shelved, and she spun New Orleans funk on the turntable at night, singing the nonsense lyrics out loud while she waved her hands to the ceiling. During one song, she raised a fist and punched at the space where my father should’ve been dancing. Where some man should’ve been dancing.

Other times, though, she’d drop the diamond needle on a record, and her feet would come to life. A woman’s blue voice, gravelly and low or crystalline and high, testified about her troubles, and Mama rocked along—leg to leg and hip to hip—until her hands found their way to the kitchen where the healing happened.

She couldn’t summon her father back home, I knew, couldn’t raise his spirit anymore. Now that he was gone, there was no holy fire left. Yet with the crack of an egg and the twirl of a spoon, she whipped up a chiffon pie, a sheet of pecan pralines, a row of cream-filled éclairs. Or else beignets light as air. She knew every one of her père’s tricks in the kitchen, how to stir a gumbo without ruining the roux, how to cook a root to cure the flu, how to raise pockets of dough into hallowed pastries and holy clouds of powdered sugar. In the late afternoon, with the waning sun, with my father still away at work, Mama served gold-lined plates of treats to her only son. Any trespass was forgiven, any penance forgotten. Her every move in the kitchen was a religious rite. And I would lift my ears, listening to her tell stories and recite recipes, converted by each word into her apostle. The whole world had shrunk for her, I could see. The distance was short between a meal and a memory, but over time it also got shorter between grace and grievance. On the right rare night, Mama’s delicate fingers placed a gold-lined plate of goodies before my father, too, and his face beamed with light.

She conducted other kinds of healing. A soft pass with a cayenne poultice over my arm sealed a wound or erased a bruise, a gentle press on my forehead with a kerosene cloth lifted a rash or settled my nerves. When she told a wild joke or a madcap story, clouds of powdered sugar moved through the air like healing ghosts.

It was all a confection, her faith, and any shift in the ingredients could make it rotten or sweet. A phantom father. A make-believe husband, a son in makeup. A holy song no longer sung. Or a copper sheet filled with cutout shapes and a cast-iron skillet lifted over a fire. She was her father’s daughter but had her own secret name: Evangeline. She was the only heir to his power and the only testament to his legend. Crescent-shaped pastries, half-moon cookies, shell-shaped cakes, and there it was: a whole world in her hands.

Friday, July 15, 2016