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Last One Out Shut Off the Lights
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He asked me would you jump into the water with me
I told him no way baby that’s your own death you see
—Lucinda Williams, “2 Kool 2 Be 4gotten”
So This Is Permanence
For the first time since she gave birth, Sarah was left alone with her new baby. Her mother and sister—run ragged for two weeks seeing to duties that Sarah avoided by, say, hanging out in sitz baths for hours with a vampire novel—had escaped at last, back to work, back to high school. Ever since the later months of her pregnancy, after she had packed up the contents of her locker, turned in her textbooks, and left high school, apparently for good, Sarah had taken to her room, giving herself over completely to sleepless hours alone with the growing boulder of a belly and the strangely comforting idea that if only she were a spider, she might cast this thing off on a windowsill in a bundle of silk and let it hatch on its own. Her attitude after the birth was no better. But Sarah had promised herself and her mother that she would rally, and to her credit, she had successfully fed and changed the baby twice the afternoon before.
On Monday morning she heard none of her mother and sister’s bustle to tend the baby and get themselves ready for work and school, nor did she wake when her sister, on the way out, quietly opened the bedroom door and wheeled in the Pack ’n Play. Of course, they both fully expected Sarah to loaf in bed until the crying reached decibels impossible to ignore. But she did not. Only moments after her mother backed the car out of the driveway her alarm went off, for last night, in a sleepless agitation, Sarah had been inspired.
From her closet she extracted four wire hangers, and she took a roll of twine from a shelf in the laundry room. After some digging, she found pliers in her father’s neglected tool chest, which had once been so impeccably organized but now, not even a year after his death, wouldn’t close because of the odd angles at which the women tossed in the hammer, level, screwdrivers, and wrenches. Having laid the hangers, twine, and pliers on the kitchen table, Sarah took a peek at the Pack ’n Play. The baby was starting to stir. This was fine. She was expecting this. She knew exactly what to do.
In the hospital, the nurses had tried to teach her how to slip an arm under the baby’s bottom and up toward his head, how to grip the head gently but firmly, like an egg. At the time, she simply refused to learn, and this caused a stir among the nurses, who would wheel the baby in on a cart every three hours and fuss loudly enough for the good mothers up and down the hall to hear: Whose baby is this, young lady?
Now she scooped the baby up more or less as she had been taught, and clutched him awkwardly to her chest. Tightness spread through her breasts, this gravitational pull of milk to baby, baby to milk. She felt a fleeting impulse—like the one that compelled her sometimes at the grocery store to pocket a blossom-pink lipstick or a sequined headband—to lift her shirt over her breast and press her nipple to the baby’s mouth. It was mortifying and exhilarating, this feeling, and she would just as soon forget it.
Sarah clutched the baby tighter and poked a bottle of formula at his mouth. She whispered his name, which her mother had given because Sarah had not bothered to think of one, and leaned close to his head, smelling powder and a lingering stink from the diaper, and underneath all that, something almost nice, like her own hair when she had not washed it, or the foreign-familiar scent of another person that hid under perfume.
When he was done after only two ounces, she propped him up in his carrier, stationed him too on the kitchen table, and left the rest of the formula on the counter for later.
If Sarah had once been curious, it was so long ago that she hardly remembered what it felt like, or what she might have been curious about. The anoles in the camellia bushes? Penguins? She still loved music—that was a constant—but only in the way most teenage girls loved music, that is to say, enough to mold a flimsy identity from it, but not enough to pick up a guitar and search for chords or scratch lyrics on napkins at cafés. Certainly not enough—or in the right way—to beg her mother for lessons and her own instrument. Even if her parents would have paid for lessons. Which they wouldn’t have.
But where had everything else gone? To the top shelves and buried corners of closets, then to garage sales. Now recovered and laid out on the kitchen table, the remaining artifacts of Sarah’s dead interests were these: a shark’s jaw from a field trip to Galveston Island, a five-inch plastic penguin, a shoebox of rubber Smurfs. As a supplement to these things, Sarah brought out a stack of raggedy National Geographics.
The baby, she realized, could be her coconspirator. In the empty house, she could finally show herself, not only to herself but to this other creature.
She held the penguin close to the baby’s eyes and wiggled it. “Emperor penguins are the largest of all the penguins,” she said. “And what’s cool is the lady penguins lay the eggs and then go off to sea and forget about them, but the daddy penguins stay and carry the eggs on top of their feet. You’d be in a heap of trouble if I was a penguin. Ha ha.”
She knotted a little noose of twine and slipped it around the penguin’s neck.
“And sharks!” she said, picking up the gaping skeletal jaw. “One day you’ll love sharks. One day, when you get a little older, we’ll watch Jaws.”
With no one to see and conclude that whatever she was feeling was not the right thing, or worse, that it was the right thing and she would be a good little mother after all, Sarah—she couldn’t help herself—kissed her baby on his smooth, round forehead and let him curl his hand around her finger. They held on to each other like that for a little while, and she thought that at last they had reached an understanding, come to an agreement.
By noon, the mobile was well under way. Sarah had manipulated the wire hangers until, all joined together, they formed an asterisk that could be hung from its center. She dangled the penguin from one arm of the asterisk, the shark jaw from the next. These she counterbalanced with a constellation of Smurfs carefully arranged on the opposite arms.
Still, there were gaps to fill. She turned to the old National Geographics. Most of the best pictures had already been plundered for school projects, but Sarah found that her aesthetics had changed. Whereas she once might have cut out the prettiest—seals, tigers—or else the most revolting—insects, innards—she now lingered on humans, masked dancers, totems, and statues, on faces reconstructed from prehistoric skulls and given intelligent, watchful eyes under their apish brows. She cut out the skulls and the faces, and the in-between stages of their restoration, and pasted them to pieces of the shoebox. As they dried, she attached these too to the arms of the mobile.
The baby had fallen asleep, and all around his carrier on the kitchen table and scattered across the floor were bits of paper and twine, small puddles of glue, and sharp little bits of metal that had snapped off the hangers. The mobile itself lay in a tangle in the middle of the mess. Sarah felt a little too focused, and a little gnawed; she was both the pencil and the teeth that chewed it. It would be good to have a cigarette, but there were none in the house, and she was just deciding that the baby would probably sleep through a ten-minute trip to the convenience store on the corner when she heard her mother’s car outside.
As soon as Sarah’s mother opened the door, her expectant smile—Where’s that baby? There’s that precious baby!—turned to horror. “What on earth?” she said.
Sarah wiped at the spilled glue with a ball of torn magazine pages. The baby opened his eyes and wiggled.
“Sarah, you left this out?” Her mother snatched the bottle of formula from the counter, de-nippled it and dumped the contents into the sink. “Sometimes I think you’ve got no sense. Did you remember to boil the water first?” She sniffed the empty bottle. “And this mess, you’re going to clean this up before you do anything else.” With her giant sack of a purse still on her shoulder, Sarah’s mother shook out a new trash bag and swiped scraps into it. “For goodness’ sake, Sarah. I can’t do it all.”
“Stop! I was making something,” Sarah said.
But there was no stopping her mother. Sarah’s projects—and there had been few—had always upset the equilibrium of their house, had always been a dreadful, galling inconvenience. Since Sarah’s father had died, her mother had been forced to get a job—her first and only job, ever—in the records department of the hospital, and her will to dominate the household had grown as a result, her home and daughters becoming more and more like unruly colonies in an overextended empire.
“Come on,” Sarah said to the baby. He was huffing and tossing his arms around, gearing up for a cry. Sarah gathered up the mobile and the baby carrier, and left her mother holding the trash bag.
In her bedroom, she hung the mobile from a blade of the ceiling fan and tried to distract the baby with it. The baby’s eyes opened and rolled, dizzy in his floppy head. He could not focus on anything for more than an instant of stupid amazement. Sarah realized with frustration that this was probably for the best. If she were one week old and had to look at that hideous spidery contraption hanging over her head at night, she’d—well, she’d scream, or puke, or piss her sheets. Maybe all three. Now, what kind of mother would inflict such a thing on her child?
Beneath Sarah’s bedroom window was a row of thick camellia bushes that she’d never believed she could jump into or over without hurting herself. They were a great deterrent, these bushes, and Sarah, in most things, was easily deterred. But on Friday night she decided she would do it. For the first time in her life, she would catapult herself over the camellia bushes—courage, courage—not for long, only to walk down to the convenience store for smokes: ten, fifteen minutes tops, because for Christ’s sake she just needed some air.
She had improvised maternity wear out of her death metal T-shirts, ripping them up the front and stringing chains of safety pins across the gap, then adding more pins as the months passed. It wasn’t a bad look, she thought. She took away some of the pins and put on one of these shirts, along with a gauzy black skirt and boots; her cozy old ripped-up jeans still wouldn’t close around her belly. After her sister had gone out and her mother to bed, Sarah brought the baby with her into the bathroom and spent an hour drawing cat’s-eye points of eyeliner nearly to her temples, blackening her lips, and teasing her indigo hair into a masterpiece of abstract impressionism, a blown-forward asymmetrical arch that plunged down into a jagged fringe over her right eye. She inspected herself in the mirror and found she looked like hell, in the best possible way.
What would her poor old father have thought? In the old days, he would have shaken his head, lit up another cigarette, and gone back to watching the TV. He might have said, as he had when she first experimented with eyeliner and lipstick, Has your mother seen that stuff on your face? And if it came down to it, if her mother made too much fuss, he might have done his fatherly duty and succumbed to the idea of a spanking, threatening Sarah without much conviction, as he had done once or twice over smaller transgressions. But she didn’t dress like that then. In the weeks before he died, when Sarah first turned up at the hospital looking like an imploded star, her father only winked at her as though they were sharing a joke and groaned for more Dilaudid. While her father was sick, sneaking out was never necessary; dressed any which way she wanted, she would simply exit by the front door, her mother too exhausted, too sad and distracted to do anything about it.
Back in her bedroom, Sarah put on some quiet music and painted her fingernails until the baby finally fell asleep. Just in case he should start to cry, she built a soft nest of blankets and pillows on the floor of the closet and nestled him into it.
Only ten or fifteen minutes, definitely no more than twenty.
She turned out the closet light and quietly closed the door.
She perched on the windowsill for a while, gauging the distance to the ground. Finally, Sarah gathered her skirt, launched herself over the tops of the bushes, and tumbled to the grass, bones atingle from the impact, as suddenly and bewilderingly free as a cat fallen from a balcony.
She heard the kids in the parking lot before she saw them, their loud country music and a girl yelling, “Hey, heeeyyy. Get off me!” A group of about a dozen were clustered on the bed, the roof, and the hood of someone’s pickup truck, like crows on a dead rhinoceros. Sarah scanned the group for her sister, and when she was sure her sister was not among them, she revealed herself in the buzzing orange light of the parking lot.
Normally she would have ducked under her hair and slid quickly past these kids. She knew them from school. She didn’t hate them, they didn’t hate her, but they didn’t know quite what to do with each other. After all, what could Sarah find to say to girls who went to church on Wednesday nights and then again on Sundays, who gathered every few months in front of the Walmart to testify and wash cars for Jesus? Mostly, though, she resented the way that, when pressed to be cordial, the perkier ones always tried dutifully yet warily to draw her out.
But tonight she was high on her daring. She felt a reckless urge to wander a frontier, hop a whaling ship. Short of that, she’d settle for climbing to the top of that truck and having a cigarette or two before she went home. So after she bought herself a pack of smokes, she lit up and squinted at the group of kids to find one she could casually flag down. There was among them one boy, Brent Stelly, who was sort of a floater. He was as likely to tuck in his shirt for a Wednesday-night church service with the Baptists—his family was French-Catholic, like Sarah’s—as to deck himself out all in black, plunge a safety pin through his earlobe, and spend the night wandering back roads with Sarah’s strange tribe.
“Sarah girl!” He leapt off the hood of the truck and jogged up to her, holding out his fist, wide silver rings on every finger. “Comment ça va, my cher-ree?” Seventeen years old and small, bouncy, Brent Stelly aimed to be everyone’s favorite uncle from the boondocks. He was the youngest son of a huge family of Cajun fishermen-turned-roughnecks, and he played it up, the wild Cajun, the swamp rat. His tongue rode its backwoods inflections like a bucking bull.
“Ça va, ça va,” Sarah said, blowing a stream of smoke. She smacked his fist with her own.
“Shoo,” he said and reached for the uppermost spikes of her hair. “Can I touch?”
“You out for the night?”
“I guess I’m out for a little while.”
Two of the girls slipped off the truck and strolled over to meet them. “Hey,” said one, languidly.
The friend went in for a hug that Sarah accepted stiffly and broke quickly. “How’s that new baby, sweetie?”
“Um, okay, I think. I don’t know. Fine? He doesn’t really confide in me these days.” Sarah felt the examining eyes of the girls prodding at her stomach, felt them lifting and dropping each tight, over-large breast. Or maybe, after all, they were only checking out her badass safety-pin chain mail.
“Are you coming back to school?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are you gonna do if you don’t come back?”
“I really don’t know.”
“So, what’s the bee-bee’s name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Quit pulling my leg.”
“I’m not pulling any legs.”
“Come on, Sarah, what did you name him?”
“I didn’t name him.”
“Well, he’s got a name, doesn’t he? What is it?”
The quieter one said, “I like your shirt.”
Stelly linked his arm through Sarah’s, pulling her toward the truck; some kids squeezed together to make room for the two of them on the hood. They smoked and watched cars pass on the strip, then pass again, and sooner or later turn into the convenience store and pull up alongside, honk, hoot, then return to the strip for a few more laps. When Stelly slid a flask of whiskey her way, without thinking overmuch about it, Sarah drank.
Fifteen or twenty minutes turned into almost an hour, and though a distant anxiety crackled in Sarah’s bones, she stayed, free from her mother’s say-so and the tyranny of infant. She listened to the kids bitch and laugh about the desolate crappiness of this place, none of them, not even Sarah, realizing of course that no matter what, no matter where, adolescent years were spent cruising a strip of one kind or another; that this nervous, dreamy pacing in the dark corridors of town, this poking around for surprises in dusty corners and sounding of walls for secret passages would come to nothing much, and ultimately a good many of them would relish the onset of complacency, would become dentists and dental assistants, or flunk out of dental school and become offshore roustabouts, real-estate assessors, and school-board clerks, would buy a large house on the lakefront or a small house in a neighborhood of elderly people, marry, go to church, have babies, baptize their babies, and many other common, decent things that now, in their restiveness, most of them, especially Sarah, would call giving in.
Sarah and Stelly reclined next to each other against the windshield. They smoked steadily and drank when the whiskey came around. One of the boys reached inside the truck and turned the radio up for an old country song they’d all heard since kindergarten, a slow and faraway goodbye song. On a hidden beach under a golden sun she spread a blanket that we laid down on and loved the world away. The kids passed the flask and sang and swayed arm in arm to the lovely, aching promise of nostalgia.
It was all very bizarre, and seemed more bizarre by the minute, that Sarah should find herself in the parking lot among these kids, especially when she ought to be home—and how very, very strange that she ought to be home doing the things she ought to be home doing. Her head drooped between her knees and she remembered the startled eyes of the creature that had been extracted from her numbed lower half barely two weeks ago. It made her giggle, the thought of herself in labor, the absurd lump of her belly, the rock-star paroxysms of her face, and the blessed disembodiment as painkiller after painkiller was pumped into her. It was a joy, sure, a relief to be at last free of the weight and movement inside her. Then that creature—and here she giggled harder—that strange, groping alien they laid on her chest and insisted was hers!
When Stelly leaned into her ear now and said, “How come you ain’t dancing, Sarah girl?” she could hardly stand it. She quaked with laughter in spite of herself, whiskey-warm and wild, until the talking around her, the boys’ teasing and the girls’ shouts, stopped altogether, and she felt Stelly’s arm snake around her shoulders and squeeze, then the welcome suffocation against his hard little chest, smelling first of cologne and then of human sweetness and heat.
One of the girls said, “Is she okay?”
A boy said, “I think she’s laughing.”
“Is she laughing?”
A hand touched Sarah’s back. “Are you okay, sweetie?”
“She’s okay,” Stelly said. Then he whispered to Sarah, “Let me take you home, chère. It’s time you went home.”
Sarah said to her knees, “Good God, I don’t want to go home. Take me somewhere else.”
They drove south. Each time they paused at a crossroads, Stelly asked, “Which way?” and Sarah answered, “Straight. Just drive.” After an hour or so, the flat, grassy pastures turned to marshes and canals, and they crossed one drawbridge after another until they finally reached the Gulf of Mexico.
The dilapidated beach resort at this time of year was nearly empty and, except for a few small and widely spaced street lamps and lighted windows, entirely dark. Sarah and Stelly left their car on the road and their shoes under the porch of a deserted camp. The water was still warm and remarkably serene, the waves low, reticent; shouting and laughing, the two bared their legs and plunged in. They made more noise than the sea itself, and this seemed to Sarah a magnificent thing.
After a while, drenched to the hips, Stelly turned back toward shore. Sarah’s skirt was hiked up to her waist, waves splashed against her thighs. She tested each step with her toes and went on. A rig flickered in the far distance, so small, so isolated, that it might have been sparked by a fisherman’s Zippo. It would be easy, really, to keep wading toward that light.
“Don’t go too far,” Stelly shouted. “Hey!”
Miles from this beach, somewhere in the middle of that moving darkness, were men and women who lived their lives like Sarah’s father had, intermittently, two weeks on, two weeks off, napping on the couch or puttering in the house, yard, town for fourteen-day stretches, and just when the harder questions of living begged for answers, they were off again to the rigs, questions forgotten, decisions unmade. They were whisked away in helicopters to a place for which Sarah had no reference in her imagination. Not a trace there of family life, of children, no pictures or toys, no sentimental accumulations, the Gulf beneath and miles all around, reflecting only the rig, the night sky, and nothing of home.
“All right!” Any moment she could plunge into deeper water. “I’m coming back.”
Sarah and Stelly lay down in the sand, shoulder to shoulder, wrist to wrist, foot to foot, and shared their last cigarette, brushing fingers when they passed the butt back and forth, and lingering upon casual touches just past the point of necessity. This was the sign. It could be taken or left.
For the longest time, they just lay there and breathed.
At last Stelly said, “I seen Daniel the other day at that diner off the highway.”
“Yeah, he’s always there.”
“How come you don’t tell him—you know?”
Sarah put out the cigarette, stood and brushed the sand from her skirt and hair, which had wilted in the moist air and was clinging, sticky and limp, to her forehead and neck. “Hey,” she said, “want to hear my death rattle? I’ve been practicing, listen.” She let her head sag to her chest, and a ghastly, dry croak escaped her throat. “Ghhhhaaaaaah.”
“If the baby was mine,” Stelly said, “I’d want to know.”
She made the croaking sound again.
“I’m sure he can figure it out.”
“If it was mine, I’d want to do something about it.” Stelly reached for her foot and traced the tendons down to her toes and to her toenails, with their half-moons of chipped black polish. From his knees he tugged at her skirt, drew her down to him, and she was on her knees too then. She heard a rush in her ears, felt a pounding of waves on her chest when their noses touched. Stelly slipped a hand under her shirt, but Sarah grabbed that hand and held it; not so long ago, her breasts had answered even the slightest touch with a humiliating trickle of warmth. She buried her face in the soft nook behind his ear. She said, “Yeah? What would you do about it?”
“I’d—” He dug his fingers into her flaccid stomach. They crept under the waistband of her skirt as he kissed her neck, her ear, her mouth, as his other hand found its way again into her shirt, groped, caressed, and stopped. “Wait,” he said. He sat back on his heels. “Hold on. No.”
“God,” she breathed. She seized a handful of sand and threw it hard into the wind. She threw another, then another, and the fallout blew back into their faces.
“Quit it,” Stelly said.
Sarah did not quit it. Stelly turned away, shielding his eyes with his arm. “Stop!”
Sarah did not stop.
“I’m taking you home.”
- "The stories in Last One Out Shut Off the Lights are stark and unflinching, though there is warmth and humor, too. The way bayous flow in both directions, these stories move from darkness to deep feeling and back again. There are also deeply sympathetic portraits of women who get left behind, hardscrabble ones and ones who were never allowed to believe so never really tried. Like a lovechild of Lucia Berlin and Walker Percy, this book is a lightning bolt of a literary debut, one that lights the sky, ignites fires, and changes all who behold it."—Adam Johnson, Pulitzer Prize winner for The Orphan Master's Son and National Book Award winner for Fortune Smiles
- "Soileau debuts with this collection of stories about her home state of Louisiana. Following a series of characters who struggle to stay rooted in an area plagued by hurricanes, pollution and poverty, it aims to capture the region, distinguished by its Cajun influence, with complexity and nuance."—Jennifer Day, Chicago Tribune
- "Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is a knockout. Stephanie Soileau conjures southern Louisiana in all its unlikely specificity, the tank farms and check-cashing joints, the mobile-home dealerships and chemical plants. Her characters are as complicated and surprising as your most impossible relatives---maddening, ridiculous, heartbreaking, heroic. I loved this book."—Jennifer Haigh, New York Times bestselling author of The Condition
- “Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is an evocative portrait of the last-chance towns of southwest Louisiana, where oil development, industrial pollution, dying wetlands, and the ever-present threat of devastating hurricanes have eroded their inhabitants’ sense of home. These eleven piercing stories feature indelible characters struggling to find a foothold in a world that is forever washing out from under them, people who must reckon with their ambivalence about belonging to a place so continually in flux.”—Amy R. Martin, Southern Review of Books
- “Soileau’s stories are distinct and imaginative... Her descriptions feel entirely fresh and relatable, inviting the reader to meditate on the dark forces of desire and futility that permeate our lives... Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is not just a tableau of hardship but also, perhaps, a love letter to Louisiana. Soileau’s characters cannot wait to escape, and yet they lean into the landscape’s familiar contours as a sort of comfort.”—Krista Karlson, The Sierra Club
- "A stunning debut from a writer to watch... Southwest Louisiana native Soileau portrays the beauty of her home state as well as the poverty, and her empathy and love for its people are evident."—Booklist (starred review)
- "These hilarious and heartbreaking stories follow outcasts of all stripes. What carries us through is Stephanie Soileau's remarkable voice---honest, bracing, and always emphatic---as she introduces us to these unforgettable characters and allows us to disappear a little into their lives. Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is a beautiful collection about the complication of home and the difficulty of belonging. I loved these stories."—Brit Bennett, New York Times bestselling author of The Mothers
- "Enchanting and so neatly planed they feel made by time, these stories mark the debut of a writer to watch."—John Freeman, Lit Hub, Most Anticipated Books of 2020
- "These warm-blooded, deep-feeling stories astound with their empathy, fervor, and unstoppable power. The characters here are shaped by their conflicting selves as much as by the terra firma of Louisiana, which comes across like no other place. This book resounds long after reading."—Ling Ma, PEN/Hemingway Award finalist for Severance
- “This is a complex and engrossing portrait of humanity as it exists in a place that is deeply affected by the exploitation of resources and people.”—Sarah Neilson, Shondaland
- “A love letter to Louisiana, Last One Out Shut Out the Lights is a collection of eleven quirky, personal, provocative stories with characters that may remind you of someone you know… Soileau paints a picture not just of a place, but of a people; where have they been and where are they going in an ever-changing world."—Ashley McLellan, My New Orleans
- "These marvelous, deeply engaging stories are fierce and yearning, glowing with Stephanie Soileau's compassion and wit and intelligence. Her characters are unforgettable, and their ambitions and passions and hurts crackle beneath the blazing lights of the Louisiana oilfields. This collection is an astonishing achievement. I will read every word this writer writes."—Kirstin Valdez Quade, National Book Award 5 Under 35 winner and author of Night at the Fiestas
- "Stephanie Soileau is a natural-born storyteller, and Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is flooded with heartache and soul and humor and wisdom. As one of her narrators says, Brace yourself now. This is an outstanding and wide-ranging collection, plain and simple."—Peter Orner, National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and author of Maggie Brown & Others
- "Stephanie Soileau is a brilliant writer---funny, fearless, generous, and wise---and Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is one of the most savage, heartbreaking, and powerful collections I've read in many years. I can't stop thinking about it. This book is a triumph."—Molly Antopol, author of the National Book Award longlisted The UnAmericans
- "Soileau's vivid debut collection delves into snapshots of rough-hewn Louisianan lives... Filled with dense disquietude, these tales portray lives that are wrung dry by relentless conflicts and challenges. The characters are markedly distinct among the stories... Soileau shines a memorable light on a lesser-seen slice of Louisiana."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jul 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown and Company