New Dirt

New Dirt

New Dirt 1920 1440 CS Dewitt

“We’re going on a walkabout,” Dad said as we pulled onto the freeway. “Taking the long way.”

We’d taken similar rides before, hugging the coast of Louisiana on the pretext of checking out the various shipyards and ports between Houston and Fourchon, Louisiana. But this time around there was another reason for the scenic route, a pilgrimage of sorts.

Two weeks prior, I received a text message from my dad: “Jimmy’s time of death at hospice recorded at 1430hrs. May his soul through the mercy of God rest in Peace.” In many ways this came as a relief. Not to me, especially, having not interacted substantively with my grandfather for over a decade, but for my father, who, upon discovering his old man was dangerously close to being unable to meet his own basic needs, had marshaled the resources to feed, clothe, and bathe the man. Now, with responsibility for the man happily relinquished once and for all to God, my dad could rest easy.

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The last time we made this trip, a few months after the sister hurricanes of Rita and Katrina slammed bayou country, we’d taken a similar tac, east on I-10 just across the Texas border, to the other side of Sabine Lake, and then south towards Holly Beach. If Louisiana is a work boot—not like Italy, some fancy high heel, but a steel-toed Red Wing squelching its way east through the Gulf muck—we’d hugged the boot’s muddy-ass sole, the treads of which are two lanes of state highway where alligators are as likely as nutria to be road kill. Hwy 82.

As we hit the coast and cut east, we’d seen signs of the storm—cypress trunks stripped of leaves, saltgrass flattened by wind and floodwaters, mud flows over the road. An overturned car, belly-up in a ditch. The entire town of Cameron, Louisiana, a dozen miles from the border and a stone’s throw from the water, leveled—gas station, library, school, police station, convenience store, gone. Dozens of concrete pads with pipe poking into empty space remained, but no house, no trailer, no TV room, no couch, no kids room, no bunk beds, no books, no kitchen, no dishes. Empty space for such things, but no things.

We pull up to a long building, short end facing the water. A clean hole where water slammed through the wall, broken windows along the long walls, and a gaping, exploded mess of insulation, wood, vinyl, and wires on the lee side, where the water inexorably flowed. We took that drive in January and the storm had hit in September, and the destruction had barely faded.

That was over ten years ago. The boot’s sole has seen similar shit since. Cameron was leveled again in 2008. A church building is one of the few permanent structures, along with a handful of houses, standing on stilts, as if to get a better view of the next inevitable round of destruction.

We pull through Cameron with the windows up and move on towards New Iberia.

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In my earliest memory of Jimmy, I’m 10 or 11, maybe younger. We’re in a cabin in the woods on a pecan tree farm. Pecans are indeed harvested at times, but when the season is right it’s a dedicated deer hunting camp.

It’s 3am and Dad is making coffee. Jimmy’s baritone twang is deeper with morning crust and he directs my brother and me out of bed. “Come on, boy.”

We bundle up in oversized pants and coats, layered up against the pre-dawn East Texas chill, wet and penetrating. We’re given bright orange hats and rifles—.22 for me and .306 bolt action for my brother. He and my dad head right at a fork in the trail and Jimmy and I head left. A few hundred yards and we get to a small plywood shack.

“Wait here. Be quiet.”

Jimmy leans his rifle against the side of the shack and removes his tan deerskin gloves, tucks them in the back pocket of his jeans. He rubs his hands together to warm them up and leans in close to see a small rusted metal latch on the wall of shack. With a quick motion he flips the pin up and raises up a heavy piece of plywood, hinged at the top, revealing an opening in the wall almost the whole length of the structure. He gently leans the back on top of the building, careful not to drop it. I watch him work in the moonlight, his movements at once lumbering and surefooted. He grabs his rifle and opens the door, wordlessly motioning for me to follow.

The blind is the size of the bed of a Japanese pickup and the floor is covered with dead leaves and dried up pine needles. Inside are two metal folding chairs, the kind you find in a church banquet hall, facing the hole in the wall. “Gimme that.” I hand him my rifle and he props it up in the opposite corner.

“Sit down and be quiet.”

We wait in silence. I sit on my hands to keep them warm. I watch through the window as the pitch darkness gives way to pale grey figures and those figures become towering pines, as the black void between the pines gives way to a misty field, layered in a thick mat of fog. This layer slowly burns off, revealing a few hundred yards of short grass, shorn by deer jaws, until the thick pine forest takes the land back. As the fog fades, I see a jury-rigged tripod made with long metal tubes with a plastic bucket on top dispense corn into the field, and a young buck furtively inches out of the forest, into the field, out to the corn, its muscles tight and wet brown eyes wide. I sit on my hands as Jimmy silently raises his rifle, points the barrel out of the opening, and leans into the sight. I watch him slowly pull the bolt towards his face, clicking the gun into life. He inhales deeply and exhales slowly, a pillar of white smoke curling heavenward. Left hand supports the barrel, the right eases back the trigger.

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In New Iberia sugar cane moves everything around. In the winter the farmers light their fields on fire, clearing the old stalks away to make room for spring planting. They burn all day, sending pillars of gray smoke into the air, visible miles away. At night, the open flames cast an evil glow, visible from the highway behind stands of kudzu-encased pines. By December these fields will be tractor high and ready for harvest, but now these miles and miles of broken stalks, wet earth, ghostly flames and eye-watering smoke look more like Verdun than Vermillion.

On this walkabout we wind through New Iberia to Loreauville, a speck on a speck in the swamp, where my Dad’s family has lived for generations. We wind our way through the fields, eager for any diversion or excuse to dawdle before an unhappy funeral for an unhappy man.

We stop on a mud road alongside a fallow cane field, this one mercifully not on fire. Dad makes a business call and I wait in the car, listening to zydeco on the radio and watching him through the bug-greased windshield. He props one booted foot on the bumper and leans in on his elbow, his knee at a sharp angle. Classic DeWitt. He talks animatedly about boats and the accordion howls. I look out the window and see a small white wooden structure tucked neatly among the cypress trees. Little Helen’s Chapel.

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It’s unclear who owns the land on which Little Helen’s Chapel is built. It is likely not Ern’s land, but Ern is using it nonetheless. I have never seen Ern interact with anyone outside of our family, so I take it on faith that he is real and not a family myth come to life, a genetic hallucination made manifest by swamp gas or whatever mud magic has been kicked up by cane field smoke.  I take it on faith that he is an actual physical person, despite how improbable that is. Like his sister, my grandmother, Ern is slight, in slippers clocking in at just about 5 foot. In his platforms and toupee, closer to 5’4”. He wears quilted plaid work shirts and dungarees broken in by decades of labor, and he skips and flits around with kinetic movements more like a hunting dog on a scent than a hard-living octogenarian. On Sundays it’s polyester wranglers and ivory-snapped button ups, and slightly calmer demeanor, but his mind is always running. We call him Uncle Brother.

Twenty years ago, Ern, my grandfather’s brother-in-law, got a wild hair to build a chapel in the swamp across the creek from the east-most cane field. Its land too prone to flooding to be useful for planting, and it’s tucked away too far to be accessible to the modern machinery of a large farming outfit. So using heavy machinery largely borrowed from his neighbors, Ern erected a concrete and rebar bridge over the creek and commenced to loading up materials for a chapel. By the time the chapel was nearly complete a decade later, the neighbors complained that the bridge was in fact on their property. After a brief legal fight, Ern said, fine. With the help of his son and nephew, they had pulled up the bridge and, as a middle finger to the neighbors, moved it exactly 100 yards up the creek, just outside the neighbor’s border into more of a demilitarized zone.

The wild hair was just as likely the voice of God, but the end’s the same. Irregardless of bridge placement, neighborly feuds, or divine impetus, the man had erected an A-frame chapel of cypress and pecan wood, a modest structure made all the more impressive by the fact that one small-statured man, entering what should be the late autumn of is corporeal existence, had taken this plot of unused swamp land and laid a foundation above the mud, framed four strong walls, raised a beam to support a roof, shingled and sided the roof and walls to protect from inevitable storms, whitewashed the wood to protect from rot, hauled pews and an altar across a rickety rebar bridge, and in so doing offered his community a place where the physical meets the mystical, where prayers, which in this part of the swamp more resemble incantations or spells, can be delivered into the ether.

It started to mist rain as we gingerly cross the death trap of a bridge to pay Little Helen our respects. As we touch solid ground again, the property’s two Jerusalem donkeys—so name after black cross along their backs—and horse, Rosie, gallop over to greet us with hopes that we’re bearing treats.

Inside the chapel, we’re greeted by a statue of St. Michael, the Archangel, holding a spear in triumph with one foot on the neck of a winged demon. We stand in silence for a few minutes, meditating on the impossibility of it all. The weathered floor boards creak as I walk slowly up to the altar, which has become a resting place for intentions and donations. Handwritten notes with messages to God and dollar bills to sweeten the deal cover the solid wood table. I add a couple dollars to the collection, cross myself, and turn towards the door. Dad is seated with his eyes closed.

What does a man think about on the way to bury his father? My eyes burn as I open the double doors and walk out into the rain.

Back in the car, having somehow crossed the slick tetanus-bridge unscathed, we turn on the zydeco and head back up the mud road toward the main road. The rain began falling in thick droplets as we pulled back onto the main road toward the funeral parlor.

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Shortly after my dad left the bayou at the age of 17, the day after he graduated high school, not to return for over a decade, Jimmy started a new family. Children, grandchildren were borne on this new set of branches, growing mysteriously and akimbo from an otherwise familiar trunk. How a man so seemingly distant and emotionless could be blessed with two families always seemed strange. As we pulled into the empty parking lot of the parlor, I wondered who would pay their respects.

The last I heard of Jimmy, my dad had paid an unannounced visit and was shocked to find the man living in squalor. His wife, a decade his junior, had packed her things and gone, leaving a broken man to his own devices. As I understand, it was unclear when the man had last eaten, bathed, or spoken to anyone.

Dad took his father out to lunch at a cafeteria in town, a staple East Texas spot, and loaded his plate with chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables. Then they went fishing. And though Jimmy was too frail to hold the rod, being out on the water again renewed the old man’s spirit for a time. Before he left, Dad arranged for a caretaker to move in with Jimmy to cook, clean and make sure he didn’t fall. In a year he’d be gone.

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The funeral parlor was empty when we arrived.  Inside, a small room, paneled in wood veneer and carpeted in burgundy industrial carpeting, guests were asked to gather before the ceremony began at noon. Arranged in a semi-circle along the back wall are a half dozen easels holding portraits of Jimmy across the years. There’s black and white toddler Jimmy, wearing a cowboy hat and cap-gun holster. There’s 70s Jimmy, towering over a newish black Cadillac and his wife, achieving a tepid closed-mouth grin. There’s Huntsman Jimmy, kneeling with two hands gripping the antlers of a newly harvested 8-point buck, holding its nose-bloodied head aloft. There’s Fishing Jimmy, shirtless on a boat with massive rod and reel in one hand and the other holding the bitter end of a line on which a couple dozen redfish were displayed. His brother, his mirror in all ways except a broad smile, holds the other end. There’s Fancy Jimmy, posing with one cowboy boot-clad foot perched atop a prop wagon cart, knee at a sharp angle, against a marbled gray-back backdrop. It’s the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on him.

Other selections from this photo session could be found framed around the dim room. Jimmy with strangers. I studied the faces and looked around at the now bustling room. Incredibly, the figures from the portraits had come to life, talking and hugging each other around the room. Distant relatives from distant, unknown branches, slightly older, grayer, heftier versions of the portrait sitters from years ago.

As noon approached, the funeral director made the rounds quietly inviting those gathered to find a seat. Dad and I filed into the room where the service would be held. A dozen rows of pews faced a podium, decorated with a modest wreath of evergreen branches and white ribbon, and a portrait of Jimmy in cowboy hat cocked rakishly to the side.  Ushers brought out a set of metal folding chairs to accommodate the swelling crowd, but the stragglers had to stand in the back.

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“At this point I want to ask if anybody would like to get up and say a few words about our Jimmy,” the funeral director said, after welcoming the man’s friends and family and leading a short prayer.

I looked around the crowded room. Across the aisle sat a tight cluster of aunts, red eyed and mascara streaked. One blew her nose on a small length of toilet paper.

“I’d like to say something.”

I turned to see my cousin Colt, stolid jaw set firm against waves of tears crashing behind reddened brown eyes, standing up in a pew across the aisle. He reverentially nodded at Jimmy’s portrait as he made his way to the front of the room.

When he reached the dais, Colt pulled a folded sheath of crumpled loose-leaf from the inner pocket of his grey sport coat. The mother of pearl buttons of his dress shirt caught the fluorescents as he gathered himself, a row of full moons from his throat to his buckle.

“I just wanted to say a few words about my grandfather. Grandpa Jimmy. He was a great man. He was the kind of guy you could always just pick up the phone and he’d be there for you. Every time. I loved spending Saturdays with him just fishing and talking about life. He was a wise man. I remember—”

At this his voice cracked and he stopped. He put one strong hand up to his mouth, gently bit his fore-knuckle as he composed himself.

“I’m sorry. I remember one time I was having a rough time, man. I tell you, some of you might know, I got myself into a lot of trouble growing up. Don’t have to get into all that.”

He looked around and shared a sheepish laugh with his brother seated in the third row.

“Anyway I called up grandpa and he said, ‘You know what I think?’”Colt looked around the room and in chorus the group erupted– “Let’s Go Fishing!”

“Haha, that’s right. That catchphrase, boy. Miss hearing that.”

He went on.

“So we went fishing, out there, right out there. And I told him, ‘Man, what’s it all for?’ I said, ‘I look around, all my friends are running around, getting in trouble, wasting away.’ I told him, ‘I feel like a waste. And I feel like it’s not getting any better.’ I said, and I meant it, ‘I might as well just walk out into this water and be done with it all.’ I was at the end of the line. And I didn’t want to go on.

“And Jimmy, he looked at me and he said, ‘Boy… Don’t hide your gifts from the world.’” Tears streamed down Colt’s face as he took a beat to compose himself.

“He said, ‘The world needs you, Colt. Don’t hide. Go out there and share your gifts.’ I’d never had someone believe in me like that before. Someone who really believed I could do it, do anything, and in a way give me a chance.”

Colt stood still for and the room held its breath. “Thank you, Jimmy.” Colt looked up, pressed his palms together and raised them towards to the ceiling. “Thank you for everything.”

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My Dad and I pulled out of the parking lot in incredulous silence, Colt’s eulogy echoing in my mind. His was not the man I knew, aloof and distant. This man was open, insightful. Empathetic. I started missing a man I never knew existed.

“Your grandfather was a complicated man,” Dad said, eyes fixed on the road.

“It’s unreal,” I said, struggling. “Like he was a totally different person.”

“Sometimes,” Dad glanced over to the passenger side to make sure I was following. “Something’s got to die before something else can grow.  Your grandfather died a few times.” He eased into a right turn, working the wheel the heal of his right hand. I could never tell when he was full of shit.

“And each time he’d begin again, and something new would grow. New family. New work. He’d die and then begin again, every time. New dirt.”

New dirt.

Moments pass and Dad pulled into a strip mall parking lot and shifted to park.

“Come on,” Dad said. “Let’s eat.”

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I felt the butter-drenched air before I smelled it. Felt it clogging my pores before I took my first bite, before I first wiped the meat sweat from my brow. It seeped into my clothes so in the car ride home I wondered whether I’d been marinating in my own juice since the early dinner crowd.

We stepped out of the swamp air and into a room kept so cold by an overworked Rheem that condensed water is pooled at the base of the windows that face the parking lot.  A scuffed yellow “wet floor” cone gave fair warning to the people that this floor would not be mopped.  This floor that was otherwise somehow at once sticky and greasy.

The anteroom glowed orange. Food was kept in brushed aluminum trays in a long line, with regular intervals of heat lamp halos. Behind the line stood a contingent of apron-clad ladies, hair bundled in nets, gloves slick with grease and gravy. The food was beige, an endless stretch of various shades of tan. The only break from the beiges was greens—impossibly sharp-angled cubes of emerald jello, neon wedges of key lime, sickly browngreen beans wading in dappled greasewater. Every other pan was filled with some kind of brown—flaxen fried chicken thighs, tawny legs, golden breasts; milk-muddy gravy; pea gravel corn kernels. Fudge-tinged meatloaf capped with blood brown gravy, congealed into scabs the aproned ladies picked from time to time with a metal spoon.  Dinner rolls the shape and sheen of polished river stones. Even the floor, aged tile, burnt orange and thick with the collected crust of fry grease, mop water, and swamp mud, shone bright brown under the fluorescent lights.

The ladies loaded our plates with fried chicken and boiled vegetables and we each took a hunk of pie. We found a booth in the crowded room and sit. It’s 4:30.

Every angle of the circle of life is represented in the dining room. Diaper-clad babies slathered pudding across their faces and every surface within reach. More ambulatory children hopped chair to chair, avoiding the lava lake below, half-eaten chicken thigh in each slippery hand. The only teenagers in the dining room bused the tables, replacing butter grease with soap grease, each swipe of the rag further wearing down the table’s pink surface and revealing its particle board innards. Haggard moms and dads sipped Coke from small wet vats, deftly avoiding pudding smears and idly picking each bit of flesh from a glistening chicken carcass.

The overwhelming majority of the clientele, however, was closer to carcass than cradle.  The ratio of oxygen tank breathers to unaided is easily 3 to 1. Hard lives were evidenced through the hands. Gnarled bones, twisted joints, yellowed nails, the light of decades of southern sun sequestered in tissue-thin skin, waiting to be unloaded back into nature upon death and prompt burial, soon and very soon.

To a one, however, these geriatrics boasted age-defying hair. Ladies with perms that eclipsed the most towering meringue. Gentlemen with dense thickets of cane-oil tinged mops framing cement-gray saltwater-creased faces. Hair that spits in the eye of gravity, that tells time, that ol cuss, to sit on a tack, that pauses at the door of fate, thinks better of it, turns tail and says I’ll do it my own way, thank you. Hair that must be coddled, coaxed, covered in all conditions except climate-controlled, still, moderately humid.

We ate our chicken and thought about Jimmy.

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Dad and I fished Sabine Lake for a few hours in the late afternoon. We each caught half our limit of red fish before the tide started to shift and the fish moved on.

At the dock, Dad cleaned the fish as I rearranged gear in the truck to make room for the cooler. We stopped by the Texaco on the way inland for some ice and a couple Bud Light tall boys.

Dad pulled out onto the two-lane divided highway he’d driven countless times for over half a century. As the sun set in front of us, Midas catching hold of every inch of saltgrass and water, the towering spires of the refineries on each side of the road, the oncoming mud-splattered trucks of the graveyard shift, the Mobius strip of asphalt, Dad said, “Gimme one of those.”

We cracked open the tall boys and turned up the radio. We sat in silence as we made our way to the motel where we’d chase sleep before heading home.

Header photography © Elle Danbury.

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