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Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears: A Novel

Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears: A Novel

by Ken Wheaton

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Overview

A freak accident forces a New Yorker to return to Louisiana and confront her Cajun past

There is nothing more dangerous than a spooked rhinoceros. It is just before lunchtime when Huey, the prized black rhino of Broussard, Louisiana, erupts from his enclosure, trampling a zoo employee on his way to a rampage in the Cajun countryside. The incident makes the rounds online as News of the Weird, and Katherine Fontenot is laughing along with the rest of her New York office when she notices the name of the hurt zookeeper: Karen-Anne Castille—her sister.

Fifty years old, lonely, and in danger of being laid off, Katherine has spent decades trying to ignore her Louisiana roots. Forced home by Karen-Anne’s accident, she remembers everything about the bayou that she wanted to escape: the heat, the mosquitoes, and the constant, crushing embrace of family. But when forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she discovers that escape might never have been necessary.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781624672460
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ken Wheaton was born in Opelousas, Louisiana, in 1973. Raised Catholic and Cajun, Wheaton aspired to one day be a navy pilot but was sidelined by bad eyesight and poor math skills. He graduated from Opelousas Catholic School in 1991 and went off to Southampton College–Long Island University in Southampton, New York, intending to study marine biology. An excess of drinking and (again) a dearth of math skills led him to become an English major. From there he returned to Louisiana, where he received an MA in creative writing from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette). 

Wheaton is the author of The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival and Bacon and Egg Man, and is the managing editor of the trade publication Advertising Age. A Louisiana native, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Said Dave Barry of Wheaton’s second novel: “I had several drinks with the author at a party, and based on that experience, I would rank this novel right up there with anything by Marcel Proust.” 

Read an Excerpt

Sweet As Cane, Salty As Tears

A Novel


By Ken Wheaton

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 2014 Ken Wheaton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-3861-7


CHAPTER 1

Eleven in the morning on a Monday and it already promises to be a long week. Why shouldn't I spread the joys of my Facebook feed to my bedraggled coworkers?

I copy the photo and the caption on my screen, paste them into an email, pick a handful of lucky recipients, type in a subject line—"Try to top this one"—and hit send.

In the photo, the boy, three or four years old, I can't tell, has clearly just woken up. His blond hair, long and shaggy, sticks out in places. His right hand is balled into a fist and jammed into his eye socket, the universal gesture for "Christ, what time is it?" Still, his mouth is just beginning to curl into a sheepish smile, one that perhaps turns into a laugh. Because in his left hand he holds a dead squirrel by the tail. It's long—almost as long as the child's torso—and reddish. If I remember my Louisiana squirrels, this is a fox squirrel, a species that looks a little less like a rat than the gray squirrels in New York—but not by much.

The caption: Nonc' Charles brawt Tristan some brekfast in bed!! LOLOL!!

It's too good not to share.

"Why is that child sleeping with a rat?!? I can't unsee it. Ugh." This from Patrick, our assistant art director, born and raised in New York City and fearful of anything with four legs that isn't a cat.

My reply: "Squirrel season! It's in full swing. Fuzzy-wuzzy will be in a pot by the end of the day."

"That might be the first time I've seen brought misspelled that way." From Angela, the junior copy editor who is entirely too wrapped up in her job.

Reply: "Hey, they got three letters right. That's not bad for that part of the world."

"What a cute baby!" writes Molly, who's pregnant with her first child and so baby crazy she misses the point completely. "Who is he?"

Reply: "Hell if I know. A cousin or something? So many relatives popping out so many babies, I can't keep 'em straight."

For ten minutes we go back and forth. So what if we're in the production department of a weekly print magazine, an endangered species in a dying ecosystem? So what if our editors are sneaking off into meetings to examine the budget numbers and figure out how many people will be laid off this time around?

I'm wondering why Kelly, who typically shrieks loudly and laughs while typing her responses and thus alerts the bosses we're goofing off, is being so silent, when a new email drops into the squirrel call and response. I see the "From" line and my heart drops into my stomach: Kandrepont@la.charter.com. My older sister, Kendra-Sue. Her email rather than Kelly's must have autofilled.

"That's real nice, Katie-Lee. Real fucking nice. I don't even know where to start. You are fifty years old. A grown-ass woman, Katie-Lee. You are making fun of your family for being trashy and illiterate—and you don't even know who that kid is. By the way, that's one of your grandnephews. You might know that if you did more with your family than made fun of them on email and if you weren't in New York still acting like a teenage girl. Have a nice week, Katie-Lee."

I blink at the screen while resisting the urge to run or cry or puke—or to run from the office while crying and puking.

The email is a Kendra-Sue masterpiece. In half a paragraph, she's made me feel small, unclean, unworthy. She's shamed an entire office in New York. And by replying to all, she's also revealed two of my most closely guarded secrets: my age and my given name.

"We were just joking," I type. "Sorry," I add. I reply to her only.

She replies to all—which meant she took the time to copy and paste all the email addresses from the earlier exchange. "I guess I just don't get the NYC sense of humor. Whatever, Katie-Lee. I don't want to hear it."

To make matters worse, Patrick is unable to resist the urge to chime in. "Uh-oh. Katie-Lee's in troubbblllleee!"

A new email shows up. Kendra-Sue again, now targeting Patrick. "I don't know you, you don't know me. But you're not much better than she is, making fun of people you've never met."

"Well, it'd be pretty rude to make fun of the people I know," he responds.

I stand up from my cubicle and shout across the twenty feet of beige carpet that separates us. "Damn it, Patrick! Not helpful!"

"Sorry," he says, throwing up his hands.

"Says a lot about all of you, I guess," Kendra-Sue replies.

"Nobody type a single word," I say. "Not one word. Let it go."

This, I know, will be hard for them to do. To a person, we're all last-worders. But I can't have all of them piling on. Besides, they couldn't handle Kendra-Sue.

I throw myself back into my chair, wrap a strand of hair around my finger, stick it in my mouth and chew for a good minute before I realize what I'm doing. "Jesus, Katie-Lee," I say to myself. "Jesus, Katherine," I correct.

I look at my desk phone, expecting it to ring, Kendra-Sue on the other end boiling over. Silence. I dig my cell phone from my pocket. Nothing. I text her. "I'm really sorry, Kendra-Sue. Seriously."

Nothing.

And that sets the course for the day, the hours stretching, quitting time a door at the end of a hall that just keeps getting farther and farther away. My desk phone doesn't ring. My cell phone doesn't buzz with text alerts. No new emails or Facebook updates from Kendra-Sue. Just me and my guilt, building and building. I take an extra Lexapro just to stave off a panic attack. Wouldn't do to have a fit during our Monday afternoon meeting.

Six o'clock rolls around and I can't get out the door fast enough. The others watch me as I leave, not so much because of the earlier incident, but because this, this skipping out at the stroke of six, is frowned upon. The news calls! There are web stories yet to come as the reporters file at 5:55, leaving us their mangled pile of copy before heading out for the evening. With layoffs looming, this is daredevil action, just walking out at closing time.

I could tell them I'm too old for this shit. I could tell them that when I was hired, I was told that 5:30 p.m. was the end of the working day. I could tell them that feeling guilty is for families and that no matter what corporate America would have you believe, the only people safe when the budget hits the fan are the owners. I could tell them that I'm embracing my inner millennial. I could point out that all the women with kids get to leave whenever they want because a kid is sick or a kid's school is closed or there's a school play or a soccer game or just because the brat asked her to.

I guess I could point out that when I get home to Brooklyn, I can pull up the CMS and edit and post stories from the comfort of my couch.

But I have no intention of doing so.

No, my priority is getting to Grand Central, packing myself into a 4 Train and getting back to Cobble Hill. Maybe I'll get a bottle of wine and order Thai food. Or maybe I'll get a bottle of wine and order pizza. Or maybe I'll go to Bar Tabac and get a table to myself, eat French food and order a bottle of wine. The possibilities are endless.

The wind is howling down Lexington, the first snowflakes flying sideways into my eyes as an early December storm settles over the city. I'm stuck behind two Connecticut types, waddling in their bad-fitting suits, talking loudly. "So much for Global Warming," one says. "I know, right?" the other responds. They'll be the first screaming the minute the thermometer inches over 75 and all that cholesterol starts leaking out of their pores.

After ducking into Grand Central, I find myself on a subway platform that is suspiciously uncrowded. A 4 Train pulls up almost immediately and it looks like a humane mode of transportation rather than something out of a Holocaust documentary.

I board the train, let the doors shut behind me and lean against them with a sigh. Escape.

Not quite.

To my left is a family of five, taking up the bench seats on either side of the train, a stroller in between them. The dad—a wiry thing in a Starter jacket and a wifebeater, a scrawny little shit with the sort of facial hair and ink-work that is cutting-edge fashion in trailer parks and meth labs across the country—is making a sandwich on the cup holder of the stroller. He drops a piece of salami on the floor, looks down at it and kicks it under the seat with the heel of his shoe.

"Papi," says the elder of two boys sitting across from him, "I'm done with this." He waves a Sun Chips bag at his dad, who takes the bag and throws that too under the seat. Where does he think he is, Coney Island? I half expect a seagull to swoop down from somewhere.

Many of us are watching, some even mustering the courage to shoot nasty looks at the family. Not this girl. I'm too old, too white, too chicken. Take your pick. I may be disgusted, but I know better than to get involved. Even if Papi were capable of shame, his wife has that look in her eyes, like she's just daring someone to say something to her man.

The woman standing next to me just might give Mami what she wants. She's dressed in a fire-hydrant-red pantsuit, topped off with shoulder pads and platinum hair, like she just escaped from 1989. I can feel her tensing up, steeling herself. Something tells me these are her people and she's embarrassed by what's going on. She's shaking her head and glaring at Papi. Once he notices, he leans back for a second as if thinking over his next move. Between Union Square and Brooklyn Bridge, obviously struck by inspiration, he yanks the baby out of its stroller, sniffs its butt and says, "Wooooooooo!" loudly before stripping her down and changing her shitty diaper.

He throws it under the seat.

"Ess-cuse me," the woman next to me says. "This is not your house."

He looks at her, she looks at him. The train falls silent.

"Whatever," he says, then picks up the diaper.

We pull into the Brooklyn Bridge stop, all of us slightly optimistic that a small battle has been won on behalf of civility. The doors slide open, Papi smiles at the woman next to me and, just before they slide shut again, pitches the diaper out onto the platform.

"Animal," the woman says.

"What you said, bitch?" says Papi's wife.

"You heard me," replies the woman. I have to give it to her. For a midthirties, professional in a lady suit, she has balls.

But Mami is having none of it. "You get a job in Manhattan, you think you better than us?"

A screaming match escalates, one so loud that at the last few stops in Manhattan, commuters on the platform don't dare board. As we leave Bowling Green and descend beneath the East River, Business Lady, having at this point given up all pretense, says, "See these poles? Guess your daughter better get used to 'em, because that's where she's gonna be in twenty years. Better hope she's not ugly like her Mami, cuz she sure won't make any money with a face like that."

Mami stands up and charges. Instinct takes over and I do what feels right, crouch into a squat and cover my head with my arms and hands. It never occurs to me to try to stop this fight, to stick an arm into this whirling dervish of Puerto Rican fury as it moves from our end of the train to the other, as older passengers cry out for peace and the younger passengers whip out cell phones and cry out for more. When we hit Borough Hall, I exit the train as soon as the doors open, leaving the fight, now in Round Two, behind me. After running up the stairs, I stand on the corner of Court and Joralemon, taking deep breaths. Snow is beginning to fall, fat clumps drifting down, already sticking to parked cars.

"Get a grip," I whisper to myself. "No reason to be upset." And there isn't. Not really. The fight was simply an occurrence. It had nothing to do with me. These things happen. But for some reason, I can hear Kendra-Sue's voice in my head, calling me a chickenshit, asking why I didn't say anything to Papi, why I didn't step in to break up the fight.

I take a deep breath. Hold it. Let it go. Only one thing to do.


The smell of the Brazen Head—old wood, spilled imported beer, a chafing dish of all-you-can-eat wings—has a calming influence on me. I grab a seat at the corner of the bar closest to the door, a sea of after-work defense lawyers separating me from the regulars at the other end of the room playing darts and slowly working their domestic beers. This corner has somehow become an unofficial safe zone for the few single women of a certain age who have the audacity, the daring, to venture out alone in search of a drink or two in a social setting without getting hit on.

"Hey honey, red wine?" asks Michelle, already grabbing the dusty bottle of Shiraz that seems to be touched only when I'm in the house.

"Jack Daniels, if you please."

"A David Allan Coe reference," she says, raising her eyebrows. That she knows this is one of the reasons I love this place. "Must have been a hell of a day."

"That it was."

She puts some ice in a glass and starts to pour. "Work?"

"Sister."

She stops pouring, as I figured she would, dumps the contents of the rocks glass into a tumbler and fills the thing up to the top. Michelle shares an apartment with her own sister.

"On me," she says. "I'll be back in a bit to talk."

She doesn't make it back. Not really. Between taking orders and chatting up sizeable tips from her male patrons, we manage only half sentences.

"Total bitch."

"Drives me crazy."

"Family."

"What are you gonna do?"

"Could just kill."

"Murder."

"How bad?"

"She told everyone at work how old I was."

"Just one second," Michelle calls to a guy at the end of the bar waving a folded twenty as if it were a dog treat and he was thinking, "Come here, girl. Come!"

"She did what now?"

I tell her, as quickly as I can, what happened. "That's a tough one," Michelle says, her Boston accent coming through. "I can see why she's pissed. But to play the age card. That's uncalled for." She pauses. "So, I gotta ask."

Years coming here and I've never slipped up on that one. And now she expects me to let it go just like that.

"Let's just say I'm old enough to use coupons at the drug store."

"Pfft," she says. "I've been doing that since twenty-five. C'mon."

I've already decided to tell her. Why not? I know how it's going to play out. She'll be shocked and go on about how good I look, how she never would have guessed and so forth. That will make me feel just a slight bit better about today, better than the Jack is already making me feel. Still, no reason not to make her work for it.

"Show me yours and I'll show you mine."

"Christ," she says. She looks around the bar, makes sure no men—or at least none that matter—are eavesdropping. "Thirty-three. Jesus year."

"Jesus year?"

"Year he died. Saved the world by thirty-three. And me?" She looks around the place. She's got other things going on—acting, comedy—but I understand all too well the panic that can start to take hold in the midthirties for those of us who haven't pursued a more traditional path through life. She pounds a shot to clear her head. "Now you?"

"Fifty," I say.

"Get the fuck out of here," she says. "No."

As predictable as it is, I get the warm fuzzies all the same.

"That makes me sick," she adds.

"What makes you sick?" A man's voice, just over my right shoulder.

Grayson, one of the bar's co-owners or partners or something.

"The usual," Michelle says, drying her hands on a bar towel and moving away. "What pigs men are," she says to us, before turning to the guy with the twenty and giving him a million-dollar smile. "Hey, hot stuff. What can I get for you?"

She lies so casually and so well, I can't help but be impressed.

Grayson straddles the stool next to mine. "Katherine," he says, leaning in to kiss me on the cheek. He looks down at the glass of Jack, my second one. "Well then. Man trouble, work trouble?"

"Little this, little that," I say, no longer interested in discussing it. I've chased it off for the time being. It'll all still be there for me to worry over tomorrow—enhanced with what will likely be a crushing hangover. The mission for the moment is to keep it at bay for the rest of the evening, maybe get drunk enough that I can rush around the corner, climb the stairs to my apartment and hop into bed before it all comes back to me and keeps me up all night. "You working tonight?" I ask, turning completely toward him, my knees bumping into his.

"Nope," he says.

"Good," I say.

Sometimes, thank God, it's easy as that.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Sweet As Cane, Salty As Tears by Ken Wheaton. Copyright © 2014 Ken Wheaton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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