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Half of Paradise
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 23, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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HALF OF PARADISE
After the spring rains when the first hot days of summer begin, the inland waters of the Gulf of Mexico turn smoky-green from the floating seaweed, fading to dark blue beyond the sandbars where the great white pelicans dive for fish. On an island off the Louisiana coast there is an open-air pavilion among a group of cypress trees, and in those first wisteria-scented days of May one can sit in a wicker chair, drinking chilled wine, and listen to the salt breeze rustling through the overhanging moss, or just sit and watch the whitecaps break against the beach and disappear in an iridescent spray of foam.
Avery Broussard walked up the beach with his duffle bag over his shoulder and entered the pavilion. It was midafternoon and no one was at the bar. Two fishermen sat at one of the marble-topped tables. He drank a draught beer from a thick glass mug filmed with ice on the outside, and watched the fishermen hand-wrestle. One of them was a little drunk, and he laughed loudly and used a profane expression in French when the other man forced his hand down. Avery drank down the cold beer and ordered another. He counted the money in his wallet. He had fifteen dollars, enough to buy a bottle and get him home. He had quit his job on the oil exploration crew that morning, and he wanted to catch the afternoon launch to the mainland in order to be at the house by nightfall. It was three o’clock now and the launch left at four. He sipped the beer and looked out over the beach at the few palm trees and the sun bright on the water and the sandbars white in the distance.
Avery was through with oil crews. Six months ago he had signed on as a jug-hustler on a shooting crew that did offshore exploration preliminary to putting down a well. Later he became a driller’s helper. He got a pay raise, and he liked working on the drill better than pulling recording instruments out of the water ten hours a day with the sun hot on his spine and the skin on his fingers cracked and hard from being wet too long. But now he was finished. Life on the Gulf was fine, but he hadn’t returned home or seen his father in the six months since he had left, and he thought that he had gotten rid of the things that had made him leave. He bought a pint of bourbon and put it in his duffle to drink on the way home.
He walked slowly down the beach towards the landing. The sky was clear and the gulls dipped their wings and circled overhead. He wondered what his father would say when he saw him again. Avery had written home only twice since he started work on the crew. Several times he had wanted to write his father and tell him why he had gone, but he could never find the proper words. His father wouldn’t have understood, just as he didn’t understand when Avery’s older brother Henri had left. The father and the sons were apart in time. Avery hoped that now things could be different from what they had been, and that he wouldn’t have to go away anymore. It’s in you, he thought, like it’s in him. You don’t belong anywhere else. He cut the seal of the whiskey bottle with his pocketknife, peeled it back and unscrewed the metal cap, and took a drink. Generations of inbreeding have put it into your blood. The land, the house, the country around it, and all that goes with it is inside you.
He waited on the dock until the launch came. He went aboard and stood on the bow and leaned against the deck rail. The deckhands cast off the mooring lines and the boat headed for the mainland. Avery looked out towards the Gulf and saw the gray shapes of two oil tankers silhouetted against the sky; he wondered where they were going. Ahead lay the mainland, a long stretch of white beach with a heavy line of trees in the background. Off to the left he could see the salt marsh with its flat expanses of alligator grass and the blasted trunks of cypress trees half submerged in the water. A sailboat came out of the lagoon, tacking in the breeze. He took another drink from the bottle and turned his face into the wind. The air was fresh with the smell of brine. The whiskey felt hot inside him, and he was getting a good edge on. The boat churned inland and passed the sandbars and the salt marsh and neared the dock.
He put the bottle in his bag and walked down the gangplank after the boat landed. Several trawlers were tied up at the dock. The fishermen were spreading out their nets to dry. He walked up the landing, the duffle over his shoulder, past a few boarded shacks and headed down a gravel road that would take him to the highway. There was thick green foliage on both sides of the road and tall gray oaks with hanging moss, and the late afternoon sun cast dark shadows over the lane. He saw a nutria, like a huge rat, swimming in the irrigation canal beside the road. Two cranes flew up over the trees from the swamp, their wings gilded in the sunlight.
Avery came out on the highway and hitched a ride with an old man in a vegetable truck. Riding along, he thought about his family, or what was left of it. His mother had died in childbirth, and his brother had been killed at Normandy. Now it was just his father and himself, and sometimes he wondered if it wouldn’t be better if they were gone, too. His family had lived for over a hundred years in Martinique parish, in the same house, on the same piece of ground which his great-grandfather had bought from the Louisiana government when he came from the West Indies in 1850. His great-grandfather had had a Negro servant who came with him as a free man into a slave country, and the two of them had built a sugarcane plantation that was later to become one of the largest in the southern portion of the state. When the War Between the States broke out, Avery’s great-grandfather had enlisted in the Confederate army, although he spoke only a few words of English, and was made a captain in the infantry; he and his servant were attached to the Eighth Louisiana Volunteers under General Jackson, and at the battle of Fredericksburg he was made deaf by the explosion of a cannon ball and was captured by the Federal army and imprisoned at Johnson’s Island for the remainder of the war.
When Appomattox came he and his servant took turns riding a half-starved mule through the bayou country and moccasin-infested swamps with nothing to eat except a sack of parched corn, until they returned to Martinique parish to attempt rebuilding what was left of their home after the fields had been burned, the stock killed, and the house shelled by artillery. During Reconstruction half of the land was lost to carpetbaggers, and the other half was left unplanted because there was no money to buy seed or to hire manual labor.
The great-grandfather was killed in a duel in 1870 by a Spanish aristocrat who made a profitable living as a scalawag and who had tried to buy the Broussard land at one-third of its value. Rebuffed, he had joined forces with the carpetbag government in an attempt to prove that Mr. Broussard was the leader of the night riders which terrorized the Negro voters. The Spanish aristocrat won his duel, but he was shot dead two weeks later on Rampart Street in New Orleans. A witness to the shooting said that a well-dressed Negro had approached the Spaniard, asked his name, then pulled a dueling pistol from his vest and fired from three feet. No one knew the Negro, nor did they ever see him again in New Orleans, but some believed him to be the servant of the man whom the Spaniard had killed in a duel sometime before.
Over the years the land was lost in pieces until Avery’s father, Rafael Broussard, owned only twenty acres of the original two-thousand-acre tract. Now there was no one left save Avery and his father and a Negro named Batiste who was the grandson of the servant the first Broussard had brought with him from the West Indies in 1850. The twenty acres of land was mortgaged, and it no longer produced enough cane to pay their expenses.
The truck stopped and Avery climbed down and thanked the old man. He started down the lane through the wood gate towards the house. The gate swung back on its hinges over the cattle guard and clacked against the fence post. He could see his father standing on the veranda looking out over the barren fields in front of the house. Mr. Broussard wore the same black trousers and coat he always wore when he wasn’t in the fields. His thin hair was steel-gray, and the red veins in his cheeks showed through his gray whiskers, and he had on a wide-brimmed planter’s hat that was slanted over his eyes. Batiste was sawing logs and putting them in a cord by the side of the house. The house was built in French colonial style with red bricks covering the bottom half of the building, and a balcony ran completely around the second story. The banisters on the veranda were broken, and the paint was cracked and peeling, the roof sagged in places, and the outbuildings had weathered gray. To one side of the house there was a pecan orchard, the trees barren and twisted like broken fingers held in the air.
“Hello, son,” Mr. Broussard said. “Hi, Papa.”
“I’m glad you came home.”
Avery looked about him and felt the emptiness of his home press in upon him.
“Did you quit your job?” Mr. Broussard said.
“Batiste said you would come home. All the time you were away he said you would be back. It’s been a little hard since you’ve been gone.”
Why does he have to talk like that? Avery thought.
“Aren’t you planting this year?” Avery said.
“I have to get some money from the bank.”
“The oil company owes me some in back pay. They’ll send it in a couple of weeks.”
“That’s fine, son. Maybe we’ll have a good year.”
Batiste came over and shook hands with Avery. His hair had begun to turn white, and his shoulders were bent; he wore suspenders and a collarless shirt, and the leather was cut away from the toe of one of his shoes.
“He’s looking fine, ain’t he, Mr. Broussard?” he said.
“How’ve you been?” Avery said.
“Been waiting for you to come home. I didn’t have nobody to go hunting with.”
“We’ll go frogging tonight.”
“I reckon you grown into a man,” Batiste said. He was smiling with his hands on his sides.
“He looks older,” Mr. Broussard said.
Avery felt embarrassed.
“Yes sir, you grown into a man,” Batiste said. “It’s sure good to have you back. I ain’t had no fun hunting by myself.”
“We’ll get plenty of honkers this year,” Avery said. “Going to fix the blind up so we’ll be ready for them in the fall.”
Avery remembered when he and his father used to go hunting together. They would get up early in the morning and put on their waders and quilted hunting jackets. They used the outboard to cross the mouth of the river, and Avery would sit on the bow, letting the cold spray sting his face, and listen to the gulls that cry over the water before dawn. They would stand waist-deep in the freezing water, waiting for the ducks as they flew over the willow trees to feed in the rice field, then fire when the lead ducks dropped through the mist to land, he with the pump and his father with the double-barrel. The ducks would fold and fall heavily through the air, making a loud crack and splash when they broke through the thin sheet of ice. Avery would keep firing until his gun clicked empty, pumping the smoking shells into the water. The dogs would bark and jump off the levee into the reeds and swim towards the fallen birds. Then his father would break the double-barrel and wink at him as the empty shells plopped into the water. Keep shooting like that and we won’t have any birds for next season, he would say. They would wade to the levee and sit on the bank, drinking black coffee from thermos jugs, and listen to the geese honking in the marsh.
But that was then and not now. Mr. Broussard didn’t hunt anymore, and the double-barrel stayed over the fireplace. After his father quit hunting Avery went with Batiste, but it wasn’t the same.
“We’d better go in and have supper,” Mr. Broussard said.
“I’ll carry your duffle for you,” Batiste said.
Inside, Mr. Broussard and Avery ate at the kitchen table, which was covered with a red-and-white checkered oilcloth.
“How much do we owe the bank?” Avery said.
“There’s no need for you to worry about it, son.”
Why does he have to speak to me like that?
“How much is it?”
“Three hundred dollars,” he said.
“We can take another mortgage,” Avery said.
“Yes, we might be able to.”
“What do you say it like that for?”
“I’ll go see them about the mortgage tomorrow.”
“There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“I couldn’t meet the land taxes this year. The farm will go up at the sheriff’s tax sale unless I pay them soon.”
“My check from the company will pay the taxes.”
“It’s good of you to offer the money, but you know I didn’t approve of you taking that job.”
“There are all manner of men on those oil crews. You should always seek your own level in associating with people.”
“Those men are from a different background than you.”
“What difference does it make?” Avery said, and then wished he hadn’t.
“When you associate with people of a lower social class as an equal, they bring you down to their level. You don’t bring them up to yours.”
“All right, Papa.”
“I let you take the job because you were old enough to make decisions for yourself, but I never approved of it.”
“I’m not on the job any longer.”
“I know that, but you must always seek out your equals.”
“All right. I’m not going to work on any more crews.”
“I wanted to go to sea when I was a young boy, and my father wouldn’t allow me to. At the time I thought he was wrong, but as I got older I realized that he had done the right thing.”
“Let’s finish dinner, Papa.”
“Why did you take that job to begin with?”
“I thought I might like working on the water.”
“Try to understand, son. I’m not attempting to keep you at home. You can get a job in town or go to the college if you like. But you should do something suited to your background.”
“I’ll help with the farm this summer.”
“Would you like to go to the college? I had hoped you would.”
“Maybe next year.”
“There’s something else I’d like to talk with you about. When you unpacked your clothes I thought I saw a bottle. Are you still drinking?”
“Not too much. Just once in a while.”
“You’re older now and you make your own decisions, but I don’t like to see you drinking,” Mr. Broussard said. “It killed your grandfather.”
“I’m all right.”
“Maybe it’s in your blood. They say the odd generation gets it. Henri started drinking early, too.”
“A friend of mine left the bottle with me.”
“I hope I haven’t raised you wrong. I brought you up the same way I was brought up. That’s the only way I knew.”
Avery began to wish he hadn’t come home.
“I leave it alone now. I haven’t been tight since I went to work.”
“I want to believe that’s true.”
Avery felt guilty for lying, but he had learned long ago that it was better to tell his father certain things, whether they were true or not.
“You know how disappointed I was in you the night the sheriff had to bring you home from that bar,” Mr. Broussard said.
“That was a long time ago, Papa. Let’s don’t talk about it.”
“He had to carry you up the front steps.”
“Yes, sir, I know. I told you I was sorry for it.”
“Well, it isn’t worth talking about now. I just don’t want to see you let liquor ruin your life.”
Avery got up. “Batiste and I are going frogging.”
“Will you get rid of that bottle?”
“Good night, then.”
Avery put his dishes on the sideboard and went upstairs to get his flashlight and frog gig.
The next week Mr. Broussard paid the land taxes with Avery’s oil check and took out a second mortgage on the twenty acres. They bought seed, rented a tractor, plowed and planted. They worked hard, six days a week from dawn to nightfall, and Avery became aware of how badly his father had aged. Mr. Broussard was losing weight and his face became more drawn. He would not listen to either Avery or Batiste when they asked him to take things easier. He worked in his long-sleeve undershirt without a hat, and his face and neck became coarsened by the sun, and in the evening he went to bed right after dinner, sometimes with his clothes on. Once he stayed outside and continued working during a rainstorm. He caught a bad cold which almost developed into pneumonia. Three weeks later he was back in the fields. He did more work than Avery thought him capable of. Sometimes he spoke of the good year they were going to have, and how he would repay the bank and possibly improve the farm. Then during the next years they could repair the house (he never once considered living in another house), buy new farm machinery, and rent pasture land for the stock. The summer was hot and the rains were like steam, and the cane grew tall and purple and gold.
In September they began cutting the cane. They were working in the fields behind the house when it happened. Mr. Broussard stepped up on the running board of the truck to get into the cab, then suddenly his face whitened as he tried to hold on to the doorjamb, and fell backwards into the stubble and the broken stalks of sugarcane. He held his hands to his heart and gasped for breath while Avery tried to loosen his collar. Batiste and Avery put him in the cab, and the Negro folded his coat into a pillow. On the way to the house Mr. Broussard’s eyes remained glazed and staring.
That afternoon the doctor and the priest came. Avery stood on the veranda while they were inside. He looked off into the distance at the oil wells. The gas flares were red against the rain-clouded sky. Across the meadow a wrecking crew was tearing down the remains of the old Segura home. The roof was gone and the board planking was being stripped away with crowbars to be stacked in a large pile for burning. Two men were attaching chains to the brick chimney to pull it down with a bulldozer. A new highway was coming through, and a filling station was to be built on the site of the Segura house.
The doctor came out and walked past Avery to his car. Avery went inside and met the priest in the hallway. “Your father died in a state of grace,” the priest said. “He is in heaven now.” Avery went into his father’s bedroom without answering. The room was dark and smelled of dust. His father lay in the big mahogany tester bed with the ruffled and pleated canopy on top. Avery looked at the outline of his body under the sheet. He walked to the bed and pulled back the sheet. Mr. Broussard’s face was gray, and the flesh sagged back from the skull. The skin was tight around the eye sockets. He seemed much smaller in death than in life. Avery turned his head away and pulled the sheet over his father. He sat down in the chair and cried.
It rained the day of the funeral. It rained all that week. The freshly dug earth was piled beside the open grave among the oak trees. Water collected in pools and washed over the side of the grave. Batiste stood bareheaded in his only black suit with the rain streaming down his face. Avery watched the men lower the cloth and pine board casket with the pulleys. The priest read aloud from the book opened in his hands. Both of the gravediggers kept their hats on. The men from the funeral home coughed and sneezed and wanted to get out of the rain. A few people stood on the other side of the grave under umbrellas. Most of them were Negroes who had worked on the Broussard land in the past. The dye in the cloth on the outside of the casket ran in the rainwater.
He was twenty-seven years old and he had a seventh-grade education, and he had never been more than sixty miles from his home. J.P. sat in the corridor outside the audition room and smoked cigarettes. The fans were off and he was sweating through his clothes. The Sears, Roebuck suit he wore was light brown, almost the color of canvas, and the sleeves and trousers were thread-worn and too short for him. Some people went by and he put his shoes under the chair so they wouldn’t be noticed. They were unshined and the stitches were broken at the seams. His polka dot clip-on bow tie was at an angle to his shirt collar. He took his guitar out of its case and tuned it again to pass the time. It was the only thing he owned of value. He had paid forty dollars for it in a pawnshop. It had twelve strings, and he kept the dark wood shined with wax. His fingertips were callused from practice.
He looked at the secretary behind the desk. She had on high heels and hose and a white blouse. She held her back very straight and her breasts stood out against the blouse. He thought how he would like to sleep with her. She went inside the audition room and came back out again.
“Mr. Hunnicut will see you now,” she said.
J.P. put out his hand-rolled cigarette under his shoe and placed the guitar back in its case. From the corner of his eye he watched the secretary sit down in her chair. Her skirt creased across the top of her thighs. He went into the audition room and saw a fat sweating man dressed in a white linen suit and candy-striped necktie sitting in a folding chair with a pitcher of ice water by his side. There were some other men standing around whom J.P. didn’t look at. The man in the linen suit filled his glass from the pitcher and swallowed two salt tablets.
“What do you do?” the man said.
“Play twelve-string guitar and sing,” J.P. answered. “I seen your ad in the paper about the talent show.”
“You know there’s an entrance fee of five dollars.”
“I give it to the secretary.”
“All right, go ahead. Sing.”
J.P. felt nervous. The other men were watching him. He thought they were smiling. He put the leather strap around his neck and began. He hit the wrong chords and his voice cracked. One of the men laughed.
“Shut up, Troy,” said Hunnicut, the sweating man in the white linen suit.
“I reckon I’m nervous,” J.P. said.
“Try it again,” Hunnicut said, bored.
Good morning, blues
Blues, how do you do?
I’m doing all right
Good morning, how are you?
When I got up this morning
Blues was walking round my bed
Yes, the blues walking round my bed
I went to eat my breakfast
The blues was all in my bread
I sent for you yesterday see me baby
Here you come a walking today
Yes, here you come a walking today
Got your mouth wide open
You don’t know what to say.
Hunnicut leaned his weight back in the wood chair and looked at him. He spit on the floor and took a drink of water.
Good morning, blues
Blues, how do you do?
I’m doing all right
Good morning, how are you?
J.P. finished and put his guitar back in its case.
“Do you write your own music?” Hunnicut said.
“That’s one of Leadbelly’s songs. I heard him once when he first got out of the pen.”
“He was in Angola. He’s the man that made a twelve-string guitar.”
“Here’s a card. It will get you in the door tonight,” Hunnicut said.
“Do I get my five dollars back?”
“No, you don’t get it back. Do you want to use one of the electric guitars tonight?”
“I don’t play on no electric guitar,” J.P. said. “It ruins the tone.”
“You got another suit besides that one?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing. It looks fine.”
“Let him wear a pair of overalls,” one of the other men said.
“Don’t mind Troy,” Hunnicut said. “He’s got a mouth disease. It don’t know when to stay shut.”
Troy was a member of Hunnicut’s show. He was from back-of-town Memphis, and he had black marcelled hair, sideburns, a high oil-slick forehead, and gold plating around the edges of his teeth. His lean jaws worked slowly as he chewed a piece of gum. The man with him was named Seth. He was tall and he had coarse brown hair like straw, and his face was scarred from smallpox. The skin was deeply pockmarked and reddened, and there was a scent of whiskey on his breath.
- On Sale
- Aug 23, 2011
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Hachette Books