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Rae stared ahead without really seeing the faded blue paint on the wall of the dressing room. One hand was still on the phone, which sat on the table with her combs and hot curler. Her brother's voice, far away, had delivered the news that had not surprised her. Lucien was dead.
"Look here, if you want I'll let Buddy know you've got to cancel." Jamal, her drummer and best road partner, spoke in a voice filled with compassion.
"We just got one more song, man. It'll take no time and Kevin can start packing the bus while we're still onstage." Wesley, one of the guitarists, rubbed his top lip.
Jamal turned on him with a scowl. "You're one cold-blooded --"
"All I'm saying is we been on the road for four years with finally a solid rep. You know how this business goes, man. We can't get no name for not sticking through a job." Wesley did not back down from his position. He considered himself the only true businessman among them, though Rae's astute management had brought them this far.
"One song, Wes. Buddy isn't going to object under the circumstances." Jamal gave a grunt. "He's got a heart."
"Hey, I didn't say Rae shouldn't leave. Give me some credit. But --"
Rae held up a hand to cut off the argument. "I'm okay. And Wes is right, we got one more song, and I'm going to do it." She took a deepbreath before picking up a brush. She pulled it through her shoulder-length hair then pulled her hair all back into a long braid down her back.
"Rae, baby, you sure about this?" Jamal gazed at her with concern in his eyes.
"Yeah, I'm sure. Now go on, both of you. I'm fine." Rae met his gaze and nodded. With one touch to her shoulder, Jamal followed Wesley out.
Rae looked down at the phone again. Strange, this numb feeling. "I can do this."
She said the words to test her voice again, to make sure it was steady. But she also wanted to reassure herself that she had the strength to go onstage after that phone call. Singing a few notes, she cleared her throat. As she walked to the stage of the combination dance hall and supper club called Buddy's Blues Shack, Rae tried to conjure an image. None came until in a flash she realized she was humming a tune Lucien had taught her. Beautiful summer mornings while she trailed after him down at the river dock, he'd sing songs in a rich baritone. Songs about life, funny songs that made her laugh with delight. Lucien Dalcour was a mixed bag kind of man, with good memories jumbled with the bad. For too many years, the bad memories had ruled in Rae's mind. Now she would not have another chance to talk with him about the good times.
"I know y'all done had a rockin' good time tonight. We have been fortunate to have these fine performers with us, ain't that right?" Buddy Rolston, a short round man the color of ebony, shouted to the crowded nightclub audience. They clapped and yelled their agreement. "Just wanna tell Rae and the guys, you know you're always welcome back to Oakland, California. Now give up some love for the Bon Temps Band!"
The crowd erupted into a welcoming clamor as the band took the stage. Rae went to the microphone, her guitar hung around her shoulders. Rae saw a sea of faces watching her. She felt a wave of emotion. This was her life, one she'd carved out with sometimes ruthless determination. There were days when her music pulled her back from the deep valley of despair. How many times had she sworn to never leave the road until she was too old to move? Hundreds? Thousands? Yet in a split second of looking out, she was tired of it all.
"This last song is about hard times. Something we all been through, I guess." Rae's voice was soft, pulling everyone into the mood with her. She could see heads nodding in affirmation.
"But it's also about having the guts to make it when everybody says you can't. When folks say you're no good."
"That's all right now!" Buddy called from his favorite spot in the wings.
"Go on, babe," Jamal said from his place at the drums.
"It was written by somebody who knew a lot about hard times. Bear with me 'cause I haven't sung it for a long time."
Rae felt a rush of love for the band as they hit the beginning notes of the blues tune. Wes blinked at her with eyes shining, his hard businessman shell gone. He gave a slow bow of his head, a gesture of empathy and affection.
"So this is 'Can't Let It Get You Down' by my father, Lucien Dalcour." Rae closed her eyes. Lucien's smiling face was there, a color snapshot.
"My baby," Aletha murmured. She gathered Rae into her plump arms. "You had something to eat?"
Rae stroked her mother's cocoa brown face. Her skin was still supple despite her fifty years. Trust Mama Letha to think of comfort food. "I'm not hungry right now, Mama. Thank you."
"Come over here and give your tante some sugar." Tante Ina, round and the color of caramel, did not wait for an answer before gathering her up in a tight hug. Her father's sister was her favorite aunt. And the quintessential mother hen. "Get you a place, cher?"
"No, really, just give me a cola." Rae felt soothed at being fussed over by the two women.
They greeted relatives and friends paying their respects in the run-down Acadian style house where Lucien and Aletha had raised their three children. Aletha filled the house with delicious food she'd prepared at her home in New Iberia. Her second husband, George, had even accompanied her.
"Hey, baby girl. Don't complain when there's nothing left." Andrew, with a lopsided grin so like their father's, stuffed another mound of jambalaya into his mouth.
"Stop making a pig of yourself." Neville, the eldest of them, frowned at his younger brother in distaste. "Sheila, stop hitting your brother." He switched his attention to making one of his four children behave. Mumbling, he wandered off to separate the squabbling youngsters.
"Don't mind him, Andrew. He's just upset." Neville's wife, Trisha, tried to prevent hurt feelings.
Andrew gave a shrug. "I don't mind Neville, Trish. Don't know why he's so down. He..."
Aletha placed a hand on her son's shoulder. "Don't start nothing, Andrew."
"Now, y'all be nice." Tante Ina shook a finger at them. Neville had gone out of the back door and come back to the living room through the front door. "No, let him say what he was going to say."
"It's not like you gotta get all respectful now Daddy is dead. All but denied the man, the past ten years." Andrew pushed away the plate of food as though full. "Living in your big fine house on four acres with a stocked pond."
"I work hard and I'm proud of it," Neville shot back. "I want something better for my family."
They all fell silent, including a host of cousins nearby. After whispered comments, they withdrew from the gathering conflict and went out to the front porch.
What Neville left unspoken was how they had suffered because of Lucien's drinking and wild money schemes. The family never had enough. Lucien was a big handsome man the color of brown sugar. He never could really settle down to be a family man. For twenty years, Aletha stayed with him. But Lucien's wild rages finally drove her away. At the same time Rae left home to live on campus at college in Lafayette, Aletha left her first love.
Now with all these old wounds being opened, Rae wanted to run again. The way she had eight years ago. Once they were all so clear on how they felt about Lucien. Rae had seemed to side with Neville, yet deep down she felt gut-twisting turmoil about their father. Leaving Belle Rose to pursue a singing career had been her solution. Andrew's response was to endlessly make excuses for Lucien, while Neville soundly condemned all he represented.
"Oh, right. That big fine house we keep hearing about." Andrew waved a hand in the air. "So what?"
"Don't knock it. I mean, look at this place.And that tin box you live in isn't much better." Neville jerked a thumb in the direction down the road where Andrew lived in a small mobile home.
"Me and Daddy wasn't owned by nobody though. When we got tired of work, we'd take off for fishing. I'll never forget wasn't but a few months ago we was down at Mulatto Bend --"
"Did more drinking than fishing, I'll bet," Neville cut him off.
"Shut up, Neville!" Rae stunned them all by shouting. "And Andrew, Daddy wasn't perfect so quit making him sound like some lovable father from television." She rubbed a hand over her face. "I gotta get out of here."
"Now look what y'all done!" Tante Ina boxed Andrew's ears.
"Shame, Neville." She glared at the tall man as though he were ten years old.
"Hey! That hurt, tante." Andrew wore a pout.
"He didn't have no business saying..." Neville's voice went weak at the look of disapproval from both his aunt and his wife. "Sorry."
Rae crossed the porch in a long stride and jumped down to the ground. The sunlight of early spring splashed the leaves and road. She started off toward the worn footpath down to Grande River. Usually the splendor of a sunny day with blue skies in south Louisiana would comfort her. But not today.
"Raenette, wait for me," her mother called out. Aletha caught up with her. She squinted up at the cloudless blue sky. "Wanted me some fresh air, too."
"Sure you did." Rae glanced at her sideways.
They were so different. Rae had been her father's daughter from the moment she'd been born. Where Aletha was quiet and unassuming, Rae was brash. Rae resisted efforts to be babied, pushing out on her own. Aletha had many scares when she turned to find her little girl out in the bayous or on the river with children older than her or alone. Adolescence had been an especially turbulent time for mother and daughter. Rae was in constant rebellion, seemingly intent on establishing a reputation as "That wild Dalcour girl." They clashed frequently over Rae's behavior, the drinking and sneaking to bars. Yet somehow the rift had not been with her mother. Aletha understood her daughter better than anyone knew. Now Rae sensed her mother needed to nurture her.
"All them Dalcours, Cavaliers and Ricards coming out the woodwork." Aletha laughed. "Can't turn around without stepping on one of them."
"Uh-huh." Rae tried to smile, but could not summon up the energy. Her brother's angry words kept buzzing in her head. They walked on until they reached a curve in the river. It went through the small town of Belle Rose. They stood on a grassy bank staring at bateaux bobbing on gentle waves. Aletha looped her arm around Rae.
"Your brothers still got to work out what they feel for their daddy. Takes boys longer, just like we fought more. Remember?" Aletha gave her a tug.
"Thank goodness you never gave up. No telling where I'd be if you had. Daddy sure was no role model." Rae was not bitter, just able to see Lucien clearly. "You did good with all of us, Mama. Andrew could have slipped down further if you hadn't been there."
"He still might, Raenette." Aletha bit her bottom lip. "I'm scared he's gonna decide to take up where his daddy left off. And he's still drinking too much. Old man Ventre loves Andrew like he was his own boy, otherwise he would have fired him long ago."
"He's got to do it himself, Mama."
"Andrew ain't strong like Neville. Or you. He's beginning to talk just like Lucien about the old days." Aletha let go of Rae to cross her arms. She seemed to feel a chill in spite of the warm weather.
"Daddy never gave up on that, did he?" Rae looked at her mother. "He might have stopped talking about it so much, but Pawpaw Vince -- was never far from his thoughts."
"You know better than me." Aletha raised an eyebrow at her.
"When you came to visit two years ago when he had that mild heart attack, what did he tell you?"
"You know about that?" Rae was shocked. She had not mentioned their conversation to anyone, not even her close girlfriend Marcelle.
"Lucien told me." Aletha nodded at her. "Last few years, he kept in touch. Him and George even got on kinda good." She laughed when Rae's mouth fell open. "No reason why they shouldn't."
"Guess you're right." Rae shrugged.
In fact, George was like Lucien in some ways. Both men were quick to smile and forgive. George had the easygoing temperament of a man who was happy with himself. Maybe if life had been different for her father...Rae thought of her last talk with Lucien.
"But you got your own life. Don't rake up the past. Nothing you can do about it after all this time anyway. It's fifty years since what happened with your pawpaw." Aletha looked out at the river then down where it wound toward downtown Belle Rose. "Maybe not."
"He's gone, baby. Ain't one thing gonna make it right now." Rae did not know if her mother was talking about Lucien or Pawpaw Vincent. It did not matter. "I can't turn my back on him this time, Mama."
"You listen to me. Folks still get plenty nasty just at the mention of your pawpaw's name. Especially them Joves. Toya is big in town, like her mama was."
"Really? Toya always did like being a big fish in a little pond." Rae felt a flash of rancor at the mention of Toya's name.
"Take care of your daddy's business and get on with your life. Neville won't care if you sell the dance hall, and Andrew won't fuss when he sees he might get some money out of it." Aletha's voice took on an intense tone.
Rae looked at the rich green vegetation swaying in the river breeze. Yellow, red, and blue wildflowers bloomed. Even on a weekday afternoon, people fished from the banks or in small boats. There was a rhythm to life in this rural parish that had never left her. She could not stand the thought of leaving it again.
"Mama, I've been wandering all around trying to find myself. This is where I've been all along." Rae waved to several folks in a passing boat. "I'm home now."
Excerpted from Endless Passion by Lynn Emery Copyright © 2006 by Lynn Emery. Excerpted by permission.
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