The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
They married them young back then and always with an eye on adjoining acreage, so it was hardly surprising that Lizzard Patout knew, even before knowing who the female was to be, that he would impregnate her four times with four males in eight years—allowing a fallow year in between, which was sound, modern practice according to his agricultural course that came through the mail—one son for each farm bordering The Oaks, thus restoring the plantation to its original size. He never thought the small cane farmers on the north, south, east, and west might disappoint him by having only sons themselves. With church doctrine on his side and subtle hints as to his aim, they would, he knew, keep their wives in fold until the required daughters came, for he was, after all, of old family and the largest landowner in the parish to boot. He counted on Cajun greed. What he didn’t count on was his wife.
Josephine Celeste Minville, the only child of Judge Minville, married Lizzard Patout in her 16th year and straight away had three daughters, one of them with the harelip that ran on her mother’s side of the family, enjoyed two relatively uneventful years as mistress of The Oaks, during which time the harelip died, which people said was merciful because how would you ever marry off a girl like that, got pregnant again and died herself, leaving her husband with two girls and a brand new baby boy.
Old Man Patout was so put out with his wife that he swore he’d never marry again, and he was true to his word and never did.
For a long time after that we didn’t know if the bearer of the Patout family name would survive. He was a sickly, weak child. Doctor Perkins said he needed his mother’s milk. We’d just have to wait and see, which we did, and after a while, my, didn’t he come around and develop into a fine, handsome little boy.
The three surviving Patout children—Clotilde, Janice, and Richard—were left to their own devices and on their own they stayed, as Old Man Patout sank more and more into an alcoholic blur.
“I didn’t ax her for no girls,” he would often say to his booze and bourré-playing cronies in the back room of the grocery shack where they played afternoons. There by the still, brown water of the bayou that snaked through town and the outlying environs he’d rant, “I never axed her for them girls, me, and the boy, he’s a weakling, just like his mama.”
In the beginning of time for those three young children, born in a house that was the envy of everyone living in Belmont, and with all the money anyone could ask for, life—with the exception of having no mother—was as near to perfection as any child could want.
As in most ancient houses, there were intriguing nooks and crannies for the children to explore and an attic overflowing with old clothes, books, and toys. The garden also lent itself to games. Bamboo grew in thick curtains along the edges of the garden proper and shut out inquisitive eyes. Elsewhere it formed massive clumps with secret chambers inside. Only the Patout children knew the way through the dense, green, snake-ridden walls.
Flowers filled the garden throughout the year, even spilling into the ditches in Spring, but in Winter, the camellias—some as tall as the second story balcony—outshone them all. Even the names of the camellias delighted the children—Purple Dawn, Pink Debutante, Prince Valiant, Pink Perfection—so drawn apart from the ordinary world of lessons to learn, baths to take, and beets to eat twice a week for supper under the watchful eye of Mattie Belle Wooten, the old Black woman who had nursed their mother and stayed on to raise them after her death.
So the three children played in their garden, held trysts deep within the bamboo, used the blood-red petals of fallen camellias stuck with spit on their lips to play Ladies, on legs and arms for Doctor and Nurse, and then one morning, they awoke and found they were nearly grown.
Clotilde, Janice, and Richard Patout—fate hung their names together. Pronounced the French way, their names had a musical sound and went right well on a calling card, too. We were proud of our first family’s next generation. Who knows what they might have been if Old Man Patout hadn’t also noticed his children were almost grown, for he resolved to mend his ways and take them under control.
About this time oil was discovered in East Texas. People started pouring through town, coming from the East, heading for the West, going to get rich on the soggy Louisiana-Texas border. Just as in the days of the big migrations, some of them that were going didn’t make it, and settled down in the little byways and outbacks along the way. Belmont got some of them. They had names like Taylor and Davis, Smith and Crabtree, and belonged to religions called Church of God, Christian, Seventh Day, and Methodist. Up to then we’d only had a small Baptist mission that met every other Sunday in the back of the feedstore on account of Saul Robicheaux, he was the owner, got mad at Father Blanchard and went and joined the Baptists; an Episcopal Church, used as a stable by the Union Army during the Civil War; and, it goes without saying, St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
All of a sudden Old Man Patout got himself involved with a Seventh Dayer, and pretty soon she had him singing in the choir. He didn’t go near the bourré games or bourbon anymore, but the Seventh Dayer wasn’t satisfied with that, no sir. She was going to have those children in her church, too, come hell or high water, those children who had been baptized Roman Catholic and didn’t belong to her God at all. If she didn’t have better sense, Old Man Patout should have. Growing up free and independent as they had, neither Clotilde, Janice, nor Richard were about to be told what to do.
Exactly what Richard did, no one ever knew, but one day his father beat him up bad. Richard almost lost an eye on account of it. As soon as he got well, Richard was packed off to a military academy in Virginia, told to stay there, and not to write home.
But it was the girls who fixed Old Man Patout real good. One of them got pregnant and refused to give out with the father’s name. Of course, we didn’t know about it back then. All we knew was the Patout girls had suddenly disappeared. At first we figured they were off on retreat—nice, respectable Catholic girls were always being sent off on retreat as soon as they got their figures—but when they didn’t come back soon, we knew that couldn’t be where they went.
Finally, about eight or nine months later, Janice and Clotilde reappeared. They said they’d been in New Orleans staying with their cousins, the Minvilles. Seems Molly Minville was expecting and the doctor had made her stay in bed the whole time. Somebody had to cook and clean house for poor Charles.
Well, when most people heard the news, they said, “Why, how lovely for Molly and Charles. It’s nice she named the baby after you all.”
But when Hattie Leblanc heard about little Patout Minville, she got the funniest look on her face.
“Why,” said Hattie, “I was in New Orleans toward the end of Lent and I saw Molly in Kolb’s eating cabbage rolls with Charles. She didn’t look the least bit pregnant. She should have been showing by then.”
An ugly story began to circulate around town. In one version, Clotilde was the real mother of Patout Minville, in the other version, it was Janice. Whenever Molly brought the child home to Belmont for a visit, everybody would look real close to see which one of the Patout sisters he resembled, but with every passing year, Patout Minville looked more and more like his Uncle Richard, so we didn’t learn a thing from his face.
(Janice Patout was crazy about her cousin’s little boy. Patout Minville was a sweet child, but too easily led. The summer he turned 11, he and Pugie Reaux, a bad local boy, got caught by the police for stealing hubcaps. They wanted to make a stink bomb and needed the money for supplies. After that, Clotilde and Old Man Patout wouldn’t have him at The Oaks. Janice once went to New Orleans to see him, but after Molly died, she didn’t go anymore. She didn’t get along with Charles’s new wife, but that’s getting ahead of the story.)
Just about the same time, it must have been, when Janice and Clotilde came home, Richard Patout escaped from the military academy and headed south. He’d had no word from his beloved sisters in almost a year, a situation he must have found intolerable. He got within 20 minutes of The Oaks and didn’t see, or maybe was drunk, that the turn-key bridge was open, drove off into the bayou and drowned.
The next day the “Belmont Crier” said the car was stolen. If that wasn’t bad enough, they had to keep dredging the bayou for his body. It was nowhere to be found, Sherrif Breaux told everybody to be on the lookout for Richard, lest his body go on by.
“Look in the water lilies along the bank especially hard,” Sheriff Breaux said, “because in our experience bodies often get tangled up in them lilies.”
We looked and looked all week long, up and down the banks, but we never did find that body. It was hard on the children in town. They seemed to take a notion that Richard was going to turn up one day, just walk right out of the bayou dripping wet with an alligator-bonnet on his head, and try to touch them. You couldn’t drive over the bridge to get to the other side of town without all the children in the buggy screaming their heads off. To this day there’s more than one adult in Belmont who can’t stand to swim in the bayou because of Richard Patout still being somewhere down there.
That was really the beginning of the end of the Patouts as a family. Clotilde, she took the news hard. She loved Richard better than anyone in the world. He was her baby brother. She blamed his death on Janice, and Janice, she blamed Clotilde. She said Richard wouldn’t have been on the road that night if Clotilde hadn’t let her disobey their father and write to him.
Old Man Patout didn’t seem to know who to blame it on, but he never thought of himself. If anyone, he blamed the Seventh Dayer; he didn’t see her anymore. He started drinking again and playing bourré and hardly ever left the vicinity of The Oaks, lest Janice and Clotilde got the chance to come within a mile of a man. It was only when he was drunk after that and walked home from the grocery store late at night that you’d hear him sing those Protestant songs. He favored Onward Christian Soldiers and one about needing God every hour. He had a hard time getting through his days after his son was dead.
What of Richard Patout then? That was all Belmont ever knew. He was born. Lived about 18 years. Stood about five feet eight inches, just like his daddy. Had black hair, olive complexion, and black eyes that sparkled with life, just like his mama. Was double-jointed in his left hand, was fond of sticking out his tongue and making it touch his nose, which he did at all the birthday parties from the time he was six to nine. And, he was gentle, has that been said? He was of a nature born sweet, gentle, and kind. Later on, after he’d been in the bayou some weeks and people got to grumbling because they still couldn’t find his body—people will turn on you if you give them half a chance—people said all that sweetness had been nothing but show. Richard was already drinking and messing around with girls as soon as he reached puberty, but you can put that down to guilt. We all felt we had let him down by not being able to find him in that coffee-brown water.
In 1926 Lizzard Patout, the last male bearing the family name, died and was laid out in his fourposter bed. The whole town filed by. He left The Oaks to his daughters with the understanding that the old plantation home would be burned to the ground upon their deaths. He didn’t want strangers living in The Oaks. He didn’t leave much money, his drinking and gambling had eaten it away.
Being too entangled in their perpetual squabbles to run the plantation together, Janice and Clotilde turned the land over to a tenant farmer by the time the great block of ice had melted under the old man’s fourposter. They kept two acres for themselves, upon which Janice grew vegetables and flowers, particularly daylilies, having a weakness for them, and Clotilde raised chickens and a cow. They continued to live in the main house—Clotilde on the left side, Janice on the right—but once business matters were attended to, they never spoke to each other again.
Shocked by their behavior, Father Blanchard, the well-meaning pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, tried to patch things up. The week after Old Man Patout’s funeral he went out to The Oaks and stood pivoting in the front hall, sending his appeal for rapprochement—on the grounds of their recent, mutual tragedy—into the right parlor and then into the left until the ancient Mattie Belle shooed him away saying, for she was a Baptist, “Father, Brother, whatever you is, you jus a lost ball in da high grass if you thinks you goin to change dere minds. Miss Janice, she say Miss Clotilde daid. Miss Clotilde, she say, likewise. Now, dats da sumpshun I’s goin by, and I ’vise you to do da same.” With that she slammed the front door.
It was not long before Father Blanchard, the Belmont merchants, the farmers and Negroes on the adjacent farms, in short everyone who knew the Patout sisters, realized the wisdom of Mattie Belle’s words. A few days after Father Blanchard’s visit, a truck rumbled out of town and took the dusty back road to The Oaks. It repeated the trip for the next three weeks. At the end of that time, the white-columned antebellum was stuffed to the breaking point with furnishings, linens, and utensils for two complete households. Buford Wooten, Mattie Belle’s son, added a lean-to kitchen on the back of the house to the left, installed a toilet and a claw-footed tub in an unused pantry on the right. Then he nailed shut the doors on either side of the long, central hall. From that time forward, neither woman touched what the other had touched, walked where the other had walked, ate where the other had eaten.
It was said in town that the only thing the sisters shared for the next 30 years was the prayer for a bolt of lightning to split the house in two, but God, puzzled over the sisters’ priorities—was it the blessing of the schism, or the saving of the carpenter’s fee which was earnestly besought—never got around to it.
Clotilde, she was the big one of the two. She wore straight, no-colored cotton dresses and smelled of Lifebuoy Soap. Her hair was pulled tight in a knot on the back of her neck. She had one of them kind of heads that’s flat in the back and she didn’t have buttocks neither. She looked more like a plank of pecky cypress than anything. And mean? She could make a hot pepper shrivel. But as mean-tempered as she was, she met her match in her sister.
Janice Patout didn’t look a thing like Clotilde. She was tiny and, without the sour expression of her face, she would have been delicately pretty. Her hair was curly, thick, and black to the day of her death. She wore it in plaits around the top of her head like a crown. She patted it gently throughout the day. She had been the most beautiful girl in the parish when young, people said, and Clotilde, though never a beauty, had been charming.
That’s hard to believe now.
* * *
In October 1960, Janice Patout died of the pneumonia that often kills old people during protracted illness. The death was a shock to no one. Janice Patout had been bedridden since August, after falling off the east veranda adjacent to her bedroom and breaking her right hip. The diurnal re-creation of the accident, attended by raging paroxysm, had carried the old lady through her last two months of life and into her grave mercifully self-recognizable. She died while her mind floated across the white chenille bedspread to that afternoon in August when she had been lying in her petticoat, face down across the bed, without bothering to pull back the spread, for Ruby, her maid, was going to wash it in the next load.
The day had been extraordinarily hot, even for south Louisiana, and the bed had soon grown warm, causing her to turn her head restlessly from side to side, splaying the bedspread’s popcorn motif across her cheeks. She had just begun to doze when she was awakened by the sweet voice of Ruby’s child, Lily, coming through the screen door. The demented girl was singing “Tenting Tonight,” the song into which she habitually lapsed while invading Janice Patout’s prized daylilies, which grew in a crenulate border at the edge of the veranda.
The dreamy voice curled lazily on the ultima, emulating, to the old woman’s horror, the sensuous arc of the lanceolate petals over the child’s hands, as she slowly worked from blossom to blossom squeezing their beauty into her palms.
By the time Janice got through the screen door and onto the veranda, ten blossoms had been crushed, and Lily had retreated to the safety of the backyard chicken coop where her father, Willie Wooten, was lopping off a chicken’s head. The sight of the carefully-nurtured hybrids bleeding and transparent in the sun so enraged the old woman that she forgot about the three rotten floorboards on the edge of the porch. As she leaned over to count her dead, the boards gave way. She fell head over heels into the daylilies where she was forced to lie all night until the farmer, Alphonse Romero, passing by The Oaks the next morning, stopped on his way into town to ask if he could save the sisters the five-mile trip, and got scared out of his wits by a white claw looming in SOS out of a dewy clump of particularly brilliant “Fat and Sassy’s” growing in the side yard.
At the time people said it was downright mean of Clotilde not to have helped her sister. “Ain’t dat jus like er,” was the way they put it. Although the more charitable noted, to the intense irritation of those less so, that Clotilde had probably been unaware of her sister’s plight. They had not, after all, spoken in over three decades.
In the end, even those who blamed Clotilde forgave her, feeling she had atoned by having a stroke an hour after Janice died.
“Well, well, so she loved her after all,” they said. They wondered what would become of Clotilde, all alone and sick, stuck out there in that house with two kitchens. Her only living relative was Patout Minville, but he hadn’t been heard of since he was a child. He’d be middle-aged by then. Even if Clotilde knew where he was, she wasn’t likely to send for him.
While Doctor Rodriguez administered to Clotilde, Janice was taken from The Oaks and driven into Belmont for the last time. At Pellerin’s Funeral Home, she was embalmed, made up, and dressed; she went on view at suppertime. The next morning, as the sun climbed the sky and only distant rumblings warned of the shower headed that way, Janice was loaded into a long, silver hearse, and taken to the old city cemetery on the other side of the Southern Pacific tracks. No one was buried there anymore, but the Patout plot still held two empty slots.
A small band of people gathered around the cut in the earth and waited for Father Delcambre to arrive from the neighboring town, where he had gone to record “The Rosary Hour” at the radio station. Each man—there were no females in the burial party—wore workday garb as though, on the way home to lunch, he had suddenly remembered the funeral, detoured off Main, dashed over the weed-grown tracks, and pulled into the cemetery with a glance at his watch.
They had arrived nearly an hour ago and stood, more or less quietly, their natural small-town garrulousness dampered by hunger and the prolonged, midday acquaintance with the coffin, a burnished mahagony contraption with brass handles and, according to old-fashioned practice, a color-tinted photo of the occupant on the lid.
Sheriff Stanley Mouton—known by the diminutive, “Te Mouton”—stood at the gravehead, hands crammed into the pants pockets of his uniform, a dark brown and khaki affair. The sweat rings under each arm were outlined in white residue from bicarbonate of soda, which the sheriff tossed on his armpits each morning, standing nude before his full-length bathroom mirror.
“How could a man ax for anyting bettah?” he would often muse in the pre-dawn hours, setting the orange Arm and Hammer box on the back of the toilet. “You can wash wid it, clean yore teeth wid it, gargle wid it; it stops armpits from stinkin, likewise ice boxes.”
Upon returning from the bathroom, he would sit down on the edge of the bed, pull on his socks, turn to his wife, who lay under the pillows, and say, “Mais, Chat-te: Tell me, how could a man ax for anyting bettah?”
But at the moment his mind was pleasantly empty. He stood at ease among his fellow men and waited, one foot planted on the piled-up clods, while his gun protruded over the cocked hip and aimed inadvertently at Alphonse Romero, standing on his right.
Alphonse Leon “Tutie” Romero stood unaware of danger, his arms akimbo, shifting a splendiferous stomach on stubby legs, breeches tucked into cracked leather boots on which a lyrical, purple orchid and the name, “Tutie,” peeked out through a layer of mud.
Next to him stood Jerome Xavier Pellerin, undertaker and coroner, in shirt sleeves and a torn, straw hat festooned with multicolored fishing lures. He was at that moment eagerly smacking his lips and telling the man next to him about the report on the radio of fish biting off Pecan Island. He was not unlike the gaudy blue jay on a nearby live oak, poised for flight and screeching with ill temper at an ensnaring thread of Spanish moss.
“I tole Monseigneur to get his ass here by noon,” he shrieked. The lures danced on his hat, heliographing south to the bay.
The young reporter, to whom Pellerin delivered this reproach, grinned uncomfortably. Being Protestant and new to the area, he had not yet learned the proper response to the Cajun juxtaposition of sacred and profane.
“Mais, Pellerin, who you tryin ta kid, huh? You couldn’t catch a Spanish mackerel waitin wid his mouf open in yore own battub,” said Te Mouton.
The reporter laughed.
“No way you goin down for mackerel. We know bout you and dem Pecan Island gals. You goin after nooky,” said the sheriff. He winked at the reporter.
“Shut up, Mouton,” said the undertaker, laughing in spite of himself.
“Both of you shut up,” said Alphonse Leon. He was attending the burial for the sake of his old-time pal, Lizzard Patout, and his position, as closest family friend, weighed on him heavily. Holy Mary, Mother of God … dey don’t care, he thought. He finished the prayer, flipped to the next gutta-percha bead on his dead mother’s rosary, and looked around the group. “Yeah, dey jus come cause dey gotta,” he thought. Only the presence of the man standing on the other side of the young reporter puzzled him, but Pugie Reaux puzzled everyone.
Dressed in a red polo shirt, black and white plaid slacks, Pugie Reaux chewed a wad of Dentyne slowly in the corner of his left cheek, causing the muscles of his strong, square neck to ripple down the jawline and into the body of his shirt. Men, no less than women, were aware of Pugie Reaux’s exceptional good looks, which had only heightened with age, but he was a man of few friends. He lived in a wood frame house on the edge of town just past the dog pound and kept a collection of junk cars on his front lawn. It was whispered that Pugie had a second home, a shack on Pecan Island, and according to whom one asked, it was filled variously with fighting cocks, water moccasins, switch blades, machetes, erotic instruments, or poker chips. In town he was known as a self-styled detective. Nobody’d ever heard of a case to his credit, but his cold, handsome face was ever to be seen at fires and out on the parish backroads, where teenagers and cane trucks collided in bloody scenes each harvest. In short, wherever there was disaster, Pugie was sure to be there, chewing Dentyne and handing out crisp white cards with “Pugie Reaux, Licensed Detective,” embossed in gold.
As he stood and waited, his eyes worked over the group, his mouth twitching every so often, but not saying anything, just listening, chewing, and waiting.
Lightning cracked. Thunder rolled over the cemetery. The air smelled of rain.
Tutie the farmer lifted his eyes. He must remember to give Monseigneur something for prayers. Last year his tractors had been mud-locked in the fields five out of every seven days. When grinding season closed, half his cane was still standing in the fields. Another rainy harvest would ruin him.
“Ya’ll hear if Patout Minville’s coming back to live?”
“I was wondering why you showed up today, Pugie. Didn’t you cause Patout enough trouble when ya’ll were kids?” Tutie said.
“Well,” said Te Mouton, “if I was Miss Clotilde, all alone and ailing, I’d be ready to let bygones be. Wouldn’t surprise me none if she sent word to her ‘cousin’ to come on home.” He winked at the undertaker.
The reporter looked puzzled.
Pellerin put his arm around the young man. “You see, son, Patout Minville ain’t just her cousin.”
“Shut up, Pellerin.”
“Now Tutie, don’t get your bowels in an uproar. I’m just trying to help the boy. How’s he going to work around here without knowing some of our families’ histories. Son, everybody in Belmont’s kin to everybody else, sometimes in two or three different ways. That’s why you got to be real careful who you’re talking to when you call somebody a son of a bitch, you might be talking to his cousin.” Pellerin jerked his head in the direction of the coffin. “Now you take Miss Janice, or maybe it was Miss Clotilde, anyway one of them sisters was really Patout Minville’s …”
“That’s enough out of you, Pellerin. Tutie, keep your shirt on. Son, all you need know is Patout Minville is Miss Clotilde’s last living kin and he’s likely to inherit the place after she’s gone, what’s left of it anyways.”
“Is that a sure enough thing to go in the paper, Sheriff Mouton?”
“Go ahead and put it in if you want, kid; just don’t quote me.”
“Well, lookie here,” Pugie sneered. Monseigneur Delcambre was hurrying towards them, sidestepping graves.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen. Even men of the cloth have flat tires,” he said and smirked at his joke. His habit flapped, a black flag in the wind. He felt a drop of rain. “We’d best begin,” he said, his head darting into the Bible. The mourners tightened silently around him.
The words were said; the coffin lowered. The group broke up. Black men came out of the shacks nearest the cemetery, as soon as the white men had driven away. They carried shovels and one man a straw basket his wife had given him for collecting flowers from the graves. A wind chime tinkled on somebody’s porch. Quickly the men went to work. The last shovelful of dirt was in place before the rains came. The grave sank in places, but not too bad, considering the speed with which the job had been done.
That night on the front page of the “Belmont Crier” there was a notice edged in black: “Janice Patout, daughter of the late Lizzard and Josephine Celeste Patout, and long-time resident of this community, was buried today in the old city cemetery in the Patout family plot.
“The Lizzards and Patout families once had wide holdings in this parish, the land in sugar cane and rice. Miss Janice Patout, along with her sister, Clotilde, who is recovering from a stroke suffered yesterday just minutes after learning of her sister’s death, are the last direct descendants of Emile Lafayette Lizzard and Louis Henri Delcambre Patout, French explorers and first settlers in this area.
“As stipulated by the late Lizzard Patout, the old plantation house where the Patouts lived for a century and a half, will be burned to the ground upon the death of the last member of the family. Now, with the failing health of Miss Clotilde Patout, the fate of the old house, known as The Oaks (considered by Professor Ramos Quigley of the Department of Architecture, University of Southwestern Louisiana, one of the finest examples of early French colonial architecture), hangs in jeopardy. Reliable sources report, however, that Miss Patout may invite her cousin, Mr. Patout Minville of New Orleans, and his family to return to Belmont and live at The Oaks. It is to be hoped that the Patout Minvilles will be a comfort to Miss Patout, thereby speeding her recovery, and that the house may be saved in this manner.
“Miss Janice Patout was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the Confederacy, the Catholic Women’s Aid Society, and former president of the Belmont Garden Club, though she had been inactive in recent years. She left her large collection of Victorian hair jewelry to St. Peter’s Catholic Church.”
Though noteworthy, the jewelry left to the most prominent church in town was not the cause of the avid newspaper reading that went on in Belmont that night. The managing editor of the “Crier”—a big, red-jowled man with perpetually sprouting nostril hair (golden hair which supported the theory that a Scots regiment in full regalia had ridden down the bayou in confiscated pirogues during the War of 1812 and raped everything in sight on both sides of the bank—a spurious tale, no doubt, but revered for all that)—had, on first hearing of the Patout death, understood with his usual perspicacity the coming demand for his evening paper. He instructed his men to extend the run to three thousand on the day of the funeral and he ran the obituary on the first page, to the right of the Levine’s Shoe Store ad, and just under the bannerhead, consisting of a sheaf of sugar cane, a barrel of red peppers, a pile of rock salt, and the motto, “The Sweetest, Saltiest, Spiciest Spot on Earth.”
Ironically, Janice Patout would have credited the biographical particulars listed in her obituary—daughter of a wealthy landowner, a descendant of original settlers—as the preeminent qualifications for her exquisite exit from town, but she would have been wrong.
She went out riding under the bannerhead because, as the managing editor knew, she was a fixture in a sleepy little town with not much to brag about. Since people can not cluster around a gas pump without feeling that they somehow are not as good as we, the citizens of Belmont had long ago found that their greatest source of pride was not in their pepper and cane crops—many other towns in south Louisiana could boast of those—nor in their salt domes, which were actually nearer to another town—no, you will not find it on the map printed on the paper placemats that go down on the red formica table tops of Belmont’s only restaurant before the waitress comes back and bangs water glasses on the table and sulks as she writes up your order—but in the wealth of human eccentricity that thrived in their town. When Belmont’s favorite eccentrics die, they are not forgotten. Death merely allows for the embellishment of tales told on dead souls.
So it was with Janice Patout. Let her die feeling superior, but Belmont knew a naughty tale about her. That was the real reason she got her obit on the front page. The managing editor knew it too, and by the time the last newsboy had flag-tucked his papers, put them in his bicycle basket, and pedaled away, every newspaper in town was either sold or spoken for.
Martha Ellen Hughes’s novel Precious In His Sight will be published by Viking-Penguin in November. She grew up in New Iberia, Louisiana, and currently lives and works in New York. ©1988 M. E. Hughes
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.