I WAS SCHEDULED TO visit a convict in Huntsville at eleven A.M. But I didn’t show up until four in the afternoon because I idled away the morning in Hermann Park Zoo and also watched some boys play softball. I wasn’t looking forward to my visit with an inmate named Marcel LaForchette, and I was tired of evil and all its manifestations and our attempts to explain its existence. If you’ve ever dealt with evil, the real deal, up close and personal, you know what I mean.
How do you explain the Hillside Strangler or Ted Bundy? Childhood trauma? Maybe. When you read the details of what they did, you feel a sadness and a sense of revulsion that makes you wonder if we all descend from the same tree.
I don’t mean Marcel was a ghoul or he would sexually torture and murder a woman or girl the way Bundy did. Marcel was made out of different clay, I just didn’t know what. He was from the little town of Jeanerette, down the bayou from New Iberia, and came from a background not much different than mine, poor illiterate Cajuns like my mother, who worked in a laundry, and my father, who trapped and fished and racked pipe on the monkey board of an offshore drilling rig.
I graduated high school when I was seventeen. At the same age, in the same year, Marcel started a three-to-five bit in an adult prison for grand auto. When he was still a fish, he was cannibalized and made the punk of a half-dozen degenerates. You know what was oddest about Marcel? He never got tattooed, and this was in an environment where men wear sleeves from the wrist to the armpit as an indicator of their jailhouse mileage.
The other peculiarity about Marcel was his eyes. They were turquoise, the radiance trapped inside them so intense you couldn’t read them. His thoughts could have been ethereal in nature or straight from the Marquis de Sade, but few people wanted to find out. Marcel was a button man. When Marcel pushed the “off” button, the target hit the floor like a sack of early potatoes.
Twenty miles from the pen, on the two-lane back road, I saw a purple Oldsmobile make the curve behind me. I thought I remembered seeing it at the zoo in Houston, but I couldn’t be sure. I pulled in to a roadside park inside a grove of slash pines. The Olds passed me; its windows were tinted, the license plate caked with mud. Then a phenomenon occurred that I had seen twice before: A wide column of tarantulas crossed the road like a stream of wet tar in a creek bed. Years ago the tarantulas had come to the Texas coast on banana boats and spread inland, hence their presence on a state highway far from Galveston. Nonetheless, I wondered if I was watching an omen, one that meant no good would come from my visit with Marcel, a man whom I could have become or perhaps who could have dressed in my skin.
MY RELATIONSHIP WITH the assistant warden got me in, but it didn’t get me liked. Back then I didn’t have a good reputation, and I was late on top of it, and to make it worse, at least in terms of my conscience, I had lied and told an administrative officer I was investigating a crime in Louisiana and hoped to get some help from Marcel.
Two gun bulls brought him from the field in waist and ankle chains, and sat him down in a small concrete-floored room with two chairs and a wood table and a window that looked out on the Walls, the huge redbrick complex of buildings and ramparts that were an architectural emanation of the original 1848 structure. Both gun bulls were big men with big hands and wore coned cowboy hats, their armpits dark and looped with sweat, their thoughts hidden behind their shades.
“Sorry to make a problem for you guys,” I said.
One of them sucked a tooth. “We don’t have anything else to do,” he said. The door was constructed of both bars and heavy steel plates. He slammed it into the jamb and twisted a tiny key in the lock, a drop of sweat leaking from his hairline.
Marcel was wearing work boots that looked as stiff and uncomfortable as iron, and a dirty white pullover and white pants stained at the knees. He had a Gallic nose and a high forehead and sweaty salt-and-pepper hair; his body was taut as whipcord. He gave me a lopsided grin but did not speak. His eyes were unblinking, the pupils no more than small black dots, as though he were staring at a bright light.
“Why the chains?” I said.
“This is Texas, second only to Arkansas when it comes to the milk of human kindness,” Marcel answered.
“In your postcard you said you had a gift for me.”
“But you want something first?”
“Know what it’s like here when the lights go out? Show a li’l respect.”
I looked at my watch. “I want to get back to New Iberia this evening.”
He worked a crick out of his neck, his chains tinkling. “I’m doing eleven months and twenty-nine days, two jolts back to back. Follow me?”
“The judge gave me one day less than a year so I’d have to serve my sentences in a county bag that’s making money off the head count. Except somebody screwed up and sent me to Huntsville. My lawyer is getting me paroled. But I’ll have to do my parole time in Texas.”
“What does this have to do with me?”
“I want to go back to Louisiana. I want to go straight.”
“Maybe I could do security work. Or be a PI.”
“You were a mechanic, Marcel.”
“No, I got caught up in a gang war in Brooklyn. Then there was a li’l trouble in New Orleans. But I never clipped nobody for hire.”
“Why are you in chains?”
“A Mexican got shanked in the chow line. I was in the vicinity.”
“You didn’t do it?”
“I’d joog a guy when I’m about to go home?”
“Yeah, if he got in your face, you would,” I said.