The lyrics of a Cajun waltz may be dark as midnight with heartache and trouble, but still the music swings. The same goes for what happens after a shifty musician and a lonely shopgirl let destiny sweep them into an ill-suited marriage in swampy southwest Louisiana on the eve of the Depression.
Love doesn’t much figure between Richie Bainard and Esther Block. They build a business together while dreaming opposite dreams of fulfillment. But like a gumbo simmering with peppers and spice, desires finally come to a boil.
Three generations of the volatile clan grapple with the region’s economic struggles and racial tensions. The Bainard children, twins Bonnie and R.J. and their half-brother, Seth, pursue separate cravings for money, sex, and religion. The chase in each case runs off the rails thanks to an ex-marine with a soft heart and a brutish devotion, a dazzling young stepmother of mixed race and mixed motives, and a high school tart who proves tougher and truer than all of them. Ultimately it takes the mass devastation of Hurricane Audrey in 1957 to cleanse the reckless passions. The aftermath is painful but pure, like an old blues song that puts tears in your eyes while you dance.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
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By Robert H. Patton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Robert H. Patton
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Richie, Esther, Angel
Imagine the odds against a traveling musician from East Texas and the spinster daughter of an elderly French widower meeting across a store counter in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1928 and each thinking that here might be someone for me. But it happened.
Neither was much to look at. Richie Bainard's face was often in shadow under his wide-brim Stetson, and he carried himself with the twitchy presumption of an undersized bird at a feeder. Esther Block was blond as a Bavarian milkmaid and easily sixty pounds overweight, though her forebears were Jewish peddlers from Alsace-Lorraine with a long history of going hungry.
Being thirty-six and unmarried was fine by her but for her father's sighs whenever young couples browsed for cradles and nursing bottles at Block's Dry Goods on Ryan Street. In the years since Esther's mother died his desire for a grandchild had become a grumpy lament. Things took a pitiful turn when after a recent doctor's appointment he'd declared that his tacky heart was frail as paper and how sad it was that he wouldn't live to see his daughter become a wife and mother. Now whenever lone male customers came into the store, Esther found herself sizing them up like a judge at the Brahma bull competition in the Lake Charles country fair. The abstraction that filled her face at those moments was the first thing Richie saw after adjusting his squint from the bright morning outside. He tipped his hat blearily. "Ma'am."
"Miss," she corrected.
Richie had been fairly sober after last night's show. The damage came afterward at a house party whose tribal crush of dancing and moonshine ran past four A.M. He hadn't slept, the notion of this morning's errand nagging him as he'd scrunched on the seat of his Model T runabout. Finally he'd said screw it and driven around till he found a colored fry shop to kill time over coffee and waffles in wait for the shops to open. "Heard me a squeeze box first time last night," he said. "Was thinkin' I gotta get one."
"An accordion," Esther said.
"Place down the way said you had 'em."
"We do. A couple." There was a stack of straw boaters for sale on a table in the center aisle. An open umbrella hung upside-down from a crossbeam above it, neckties and kerchiefs draped over the ribs like harem veils. Esther possessed no eye for prettiness and had conceived the display for its efficient hawking of mixed accessories. Her father said it made his shop look like a Bourbon Street speakeasy, though positive receipts had calmed his complaints.
"Thing played louder'n a brass band," Richie said. "A hunnert frogs couldn't squash it."
"A hundred bullfrogs?"
"Ah," she said. "You mean Acadians."
"Bull's-eye. Barnful o' Cajuns ..." She glanced sideways as he spoke. A white-haired gentleman in a banker's suit sat on a rocker in the back corner. The chair's motion had slowed. "... dancin' like goddamn monkeys till the sun come up."
The old man snorted. "Acadian no French! We are French."
Richie looked over. "They talked it plenty last night. Talked and sung both."
"C'est patois. Illettré."
"Be nice, Papa." With age, Esther's father increasingly fell back into his childhood tongue, aggravating and worrying her in equal amounts. "They work hard, same as us."
The old man swatted the air. He was right about Cajuns insofar as their roots lay less in France than in French-speaking Canada, from where the British had expelled them as seditious vagrants in 1755. The reputation endured — how they kept to themselves, talked their muddy dialect, caroused like gypsies, and persisted in living like bucolic refugees rather than normal Americans.
Richie leaned over the counter toward Esther. "He okay?"
"Oh, he's just getting on." Her dress collar was unbuttoned. A swell of flesh, possibly more fat than bosom, drew his eye down. He wondered if it was hard carrying that weight around. And he wondered how soft she must feel against you.
Leopold Block pulled himself out of his rocking chair. He was stooped but imperious in his charcoal suit, as if he wore this casket attire specifically as a dare to the reaper. He'd left Alsace-Lorraine as a boy after the province was ceded as war booty to the hated Prussians in 1871. New Orleans was a haven for French émigrés. There he'd got his start in retail and belatedly into marriage and fatherhood. But the city's rude vitality intimidated him, and he'd moved with his wife and daughter to Lake Charles on the benignly featureless coastal plain of southwest Louisiana. A rural backwater by New Orleans standards, Lake Charles was home to a small Jewish community that had worshiped at a Masonic lodge till Leopold and some fellow businessmen built Temple Israel near the middle of town. The structure's bell tower was felled by a hurricane in 1918. Subsequent years saw its congregation likewise cut down, members leaving or marrying outside the faith. The synagogue lacked a full-time rabbi now and offered only a puny remnant of Jewish sons to court his aging daughter. Leopold had abandoned his religious hopes and was ready to receive any man short of a criminal as a potential son-in-law. He said to Richie, "You purchase accordion."
"Thinkin' maybe. Course I don't know how to play it." Richie turned to Esther. "Can't hardly play guitar neither, but don't tell my band." He knew three chords total, and usually got so caught up in his vocals that he stuck with just one, damping the strings with his fingers and scratching along in rhythm.
"I'm not much for music," she said.
Two women entered the store. Leopold went to intercept them.
"Name's Richie Bainard."
He spun a finger around the room.
"Yup. Block's is me," she said.
"And Papa sweeps the floors?"
"He's the owner. Obviously."
"Be yours in time, though."
The tease went too far. "You want an accordion, we got 'em for sale. You wanna talk like a jackass, move along."
Richie took the jab in stride. He wasn't sure why she intrigued him; he never looked twice at the large girls in the bordellos. But no question this Esther had grabbed his attention. He was tired of hustling town to town with the Texas Ramblers, a cowboy trio of two guitars and a fiddle whose thirty-dollar bookings were getting fewer and farther between. Early success had bought him the Ford, but dry spells of late made the motorcar his home and bed, no money to spare for a room. He was open to alternatives.
Richie was twenty-eight. His father, a Houston oil speculator with grand ambitions based on blind luck, had bet all he had on a mineral lease near the Spindletop gusher in Beaumont. When the money ran out at a thousand feet down, he'd cleared his debts by selling to the fledgling Texas Fuel Company and persuaded his son to enlist with him to go fight the Germans in 1918. They went overseas as a couple of doughboys whose family patriotism was praised in the Beaumont Enterprise the day they shipped out. Only the son came back. Richie disembarked in Port Arthur under a serrated skyline of oil containers emblazoned with TEXACO in big block letters, his father's old well now one of the company's top producers. His next several years as an oil rigger deepened his sense that great fortunes had come out of his hide.
Prohibition enforcement, never rigorous, ran thin as near beer south of the Bible Belt and was all but a joke by the time you reached the Gulf. Noisy nights in the saloon gave rise to someone's observation that Richie could carry a tune. Two local players asked him to form a string band with them. They worked the East Texas boomtowns before venturing into Louisiana, where people went for music like nobody's business. Now more acts were crowding the circuit along with any number of pickup groups of family and friends. The Ramblers increasingly had to set aside their instruments for stints canning shrimp on the coast or working the sulfur mines along the state line. His bandmates talked about quitting the road and taking oil jobs back home. It was hard to disagree.
Leopold returned, leaving the ladies at the cookware table. He slapped his hands together. "Now we get accordion."
"See it first. Buy it maybe."
"Have special for you, make right here in Lake Charles."
"No," Esther said. "Show him the Hohner."
Leopold frowned. "Is German. Very bad."
"Papa! C'est faux."
With a petulant grunt Leopold fetched the Hohner accordion from a shelf and placed it on the counter. It was the size of a carpenter's toolbox. When he undid the straps that clamped shut the bellows it sprung open lazily, white and black keys on one side, multiple rows of pewter buttons on the other. "Lot bigger'n what I seen last night," Richie said.
"Acadian ones are smaller and noisier," Esther explained.
"That's what I'm lookin' for. Cajun style. Had the crowd goin'."
"We can order you a Monarch. It's the brand they like."
"From Germany," her father scowled. "Junk."
"Gettin' the idea you don't like Germans," Richie said to him. "I done my part, if it makes you feel better."
"Was a while ago."
"Not for him," Esther said.
"You kill Boche?" Leopold pressed.
"I did try."
Leopold returned the Hohner to its shelf. He pushed aside some boxes till he found what he was looking for. It seemed a child's toy, less than half the size of the Hohner, its cardboard bellows covered with burgundy cloth and boxed with varnished red pine, a row of brass-plated buttons on each side. "No German," he said. "America."
Richie asked Esther, "Why'nt you show me this first?"
"The Hohner costs twenty dollars, the Monarch sixteen, and we guarantee them both. This one's made local from scrap parts."
"Ten," Leopold said. "My cost."
"You mean it?"
"He does not," Esther said. "It's twelve dollars."
"Ten," Leopold insisted. "And tonight you dine at my house. We will discuss the dead Boche."
"Papa," Esther warned. "Ne soyez pas sournois."
His voice turned impish. "Je meurs, me rappelle?"
"You'll live forever."
"Il est beau."
The ladies from cookware approached, one brandishing a cast-iron skillet. Leopold said to Richie, "Come tonight. My daughter is superior cook."
Richie removed his hat, placed it over his stomach, and cocked his head toward Esther's pie face. "Bull's-eye."
* * *
More Than A quarter million French soldiers and civilians died as a result of Prussia's invasion of France in 1870. The carnage accounted for Leopold's vengeful joy in Richie's tales of fighting Germans on the western front in World War I. After Esther's meal of andouille sausage with peas and brown rice, the three of them passed the evening on the porch of the Blocks' dollhouse Victorian on the east bank of Lake Charles. Father and daughter listened as Richie deployed every tavern trick of witty narration he knew to describe a wartime experience that in reality had been six months of tedium and one morning of fright until shrapnel in his leg put him in a hospital where he convalesced through Armistice six weeks later.
Esther had changed to a sleeveless dress in the summer humidity. Her bare arms drew Richie's gaze like a magnet. She was no beauty, but her slender wrists and ankles refined the heft spilling over her chair into something classically ripe.
"Boche," her father mumbled sleepily. "Sauvage."
"Got him a one-track mind, huh?"
"Not always," she said. "There's the store. There's me."
Richie lucked into a perfect response. "Fathers fret for their daughters."
"You know from experience?"
"Not a bit. But what I seen, men want sons. Me, I want a lil girl. Way they love their daddies."
Leopold drowsed in his chair. Cicadas creaked in the trees at the edge of the property. A ruffle of moonlight glittered on the lake beyond. "I imagine that could be so," Esther said.
Leopold's breathing deepened. Richie perked his ear. "You hear that?" He went to the porch railing.
"There's your accordion."
The sound of the instrument floated bare on the breeze — someone playing in solitude before an open window in one of the cottages nearer the lake. It was reedy and alternately faint and full, like a city siren heard from a distance. Its underlying drone mingled with high notes in a melody more drifty than tuneful. "Remind me of France," Richie said. In Westlake on the far shore of Lake Charles, fires flickered atop the exhaust stacks of the town's chemical factory. "We heard it at night on the German side."
"Probably Hohner," she said. "Like the one today."
Her practicality popped his reverie. The accordion sound faded.
Esther's face had lifted to his with the same dull and willful combination he'd observed in the store that morning. I'm not much for music, she'd said. Factual, capable, steady — just what he needed in many ways. But looking down at her, he knew he'd end up mistreating her for being too boring, too nice, too fat. "Ramblers playin' Pinefield tomorrow," he said. That part was true. The band was opening for a local act at the Pinefield City Auditorium. "We get done, I'd like to call on you again." That part wasn't true.
"I'll be at Block's, same as ever."
"Maybe I'll know some songs on my new accordion."
"Either way, we don't take returns."
Her brisk tone almost turned him around. It was like a challenge, daring him to try and get her mind off commerce and onto unfurling her sweeter self. He shook off the notion. "Tell your daddy thanks from me."
Esther's expression didn't show her disappointment at Richie's noble exit. She would have liked him to make a pass, if only just to see, for her own curiosity, how she would have reacted.
* * *
A month earlier, a publicity photo of the Texas Ramblers had come into the hands of the promoter putting on the Pinefield show. They were posed beside Richie's motorcar, the band's name chalked on the spare tire along with the exchange number of the fiddler's mother. Worried that a strictly Cajun bill might not fill the place, the promoter had booked the Ramblers based on the cowboy getups they wore in the photo, big hats and chaps and tasseled vests borrowed from a high school theater's costume trunk.
Pinefield was far from the Ramblers' usual turf. The drive east from Lake Charles took half a day, the three men crammed in the Ford with guitars on their laps and duffels strapped to the running board. Their mood wasn't helped by the promoter complaining, when they got to the auditorium, that he'd expected them to perform in the Tom Mix outfits they'd worn in the publicity shot. Surveying their matching white shirts and white trousers, a spiffy look Richie had pressured the group to adopt to widen its appeal, he growled that tonight's crowd was expecting the Texas Ramblers so they'd best put some cowboy into their act. "We playin' more hillbilly now," Richie explained.
"Hillbilly? Y'all look like a damn glee club."
The other band members glowered at Richie. They'd hated the change of style. Right now he pretty much hated them.
The promoter lit a cigarette and exhaled with purpose. A sheriff's deputy stood at his shoulder. The young man's name was Hollis Jenks. He was muscular-stout with buzzed hair and a forehead broad as a tractor cowl. The florid bulbs of his nose and scalp suggested things cooking inside him. "Let's see how the show goes," the promoter said.
It turned out that most of the patrons had no interest in the opening act, preferring to picnic on the grassy lot behind the building until the headliner came on. Knowing they'd be facing an empty house freed Richie's mates to go hard on their pharmacy liquor backstage. Richie pushed through "John Henry" and "Wreck of the Old '97," but sloppy play behind him and no pretty girls in front made it hard to give a damn. When "Red River Valley" came around on the set list, he sang the chorus lyric, "and the cowboy who loved you so true," with a wink at the promoter watching in the wings, who understandably took it as snotty.
Applause came in pockets from folks who'd wandered in to find seats for the main performance. Richie knew he was done with the Ramblers before the clapping stopped. He slung his guitar over his shoulder and edged toward a side door on the calculation that letting his bandmates split tonight's meager take was a fair swap for leaving them flat. A rush of incomers swept him back — families with grandparents and little kids, teenagers in packs, couples out on the town and done up for Saturday night in clean shirts and stubby neckties, the gals in patterned frocks and shiny shoes, most of them chattering in the same French drawl he'd heard at the house party in Lake Charles. He retreated down the aisle to slip out the rear of the building, feeling now totally foolish in his soda shop whites. But curious about the cause of the fuss, he paused backstage to get a glimpse of the headliner.
The promoter should have known that Joe Falcon could sell out any venue in south Louisiana without help from of an out-of-state string band. Joe and his fiancée Cleoma Breaux, him on accordion and her on guitar, had recorded two sides for Columbia Records in a hotel suite in New Orleans last spring. Now every area jukebox featured the thirty-five-cent 78 of "Allons à Lafayette" and "The Waltz That Carried Me to My Grave," as did all the tumbledown households that had found dollars to buy a hand-cranked Victrola from the Montgomery Ward catalog or a Silvertone Super Deluxe from Sears Roebuck so they could hear Joe and Cleoma's Cajun crooning whenever they wanted.
Smoking cigarettes and sharing discreet sips from a flask, the couple looked like Jazz Age swells from New York or Chicago rather than the sharecropper and housemaid they'd been before social sing-alongs brought them together and led Cleoma to leave her husband and hit the road with Joe last year. He was Richie's age; his tailored suit and rimless glasses made him seem older. And Cleoma was nothing but cute with her red lipstick, black curls spilling out from under a slanted hat, and tiny feet in audacious heels that pushed her height to barely five feet, putting her eyes level with Richie's slack mouth as he stared at the couple.
It took him a moment to realize she was talking to him.
She continued in English, "You sung real good, we like so much."
Joe nodded beside her. "Mon amour was dancin', she was." Their accents were burred and smoky — Cajun accents, which next to Richie's Texas twang was like weathered driftwood compared to Formica.
"Nice o' you to say, pros like yourself."
"We play," Joe said. "It pay some, we happy."
Excerpted from Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton. Copyright © 2016 Robert H. Patton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Richie, Esther, Angel,
2. Bonnie, R. J., Alvin,
3. Seth, Delly, Audrey,
Also by Robert H. Patton,
About the Author,