One afternoon, as Matthew Trahan and I sat in a boat and watched the corks at the ends of our lines bobble in the water from the movement of a light breeze, Matthew looked around as though he had misplaced something.
“What?” I said.
“You look like you want to say something.”
He reeled in his line and pulled up the bare hook that a turtle had cleaned without moving the bobber. “Goddamned turtles,” he said, and looked over at three of them—big red-ears—sunning themselves on a fallen tree that stretched out into the water.
He put fresh bait on his hook. As he stretched and pointed his rod behind him to get ready to cast, he said, “I’ve decided,” and as his hook hit the water, he added, “I’ve got to ask you for a favor.”
I waited for him to tell me what the favor would be. I must have waited too long because he turned toward me and said, “Damn it, Jules. Did you hear me?”
“I heard you. I was waiting for you to tell me what the favor is.”
“It’s simple. You shouldn’t have any trouble doing it.”
He looked away when he said that. I guessed he had already thought of some trouble that would be involved.
“You keep beating around that bush, you’re going to get lost behind it. What do you want me to do?”
He took a deep breath and held it while he studied the light movement of his bobber.
“Well? You gonna tell me before we get home?”
He turned on his bench seat to look straight at me. “When it’s my time, I want to be cremated. Finish me off in the oven.”
His words came in a rush, loud and angry, like he wanted to make sure God heard him. Most of the people who knew him, and especially his sister, Gertrude, believed Matthew had—they would say—“lost his faith.” I knew that not to be the case. Matthew had had much to grieve in the deaths of his wife and his oldest son, and for years his grief had seemed to find expression only in rage at God.
I said, “You serious?”
I don’t have a crematorium at my mortuary. I never expected to need one, or to be able to use one often enough to recoup the cost of building it. Most of the people who live in this small part of the world are Catholic. By most, I mean more than a mere seventy or eighty percent. They remember being taught that cremation is a deliberate affront to God and the Church, an attempt to refute the teaching of the general resurrection at the end of the world. When I do get a request for cremation, I take the body to the crematorium in Lafayette.
Matthew said, “Hell, yes, I’m serious. Throw me in the furnace and light the fire.”
“Don’t go sensitive on me. You’ve been handling dead meat for nearly thirty years, and—”
I didn’t let him finish. “You’re in a fine mood today. You let a turtle get you that way?”
“Make the damned fish bite and I’ll act nicer.”
The bobber on his line moved, dipped under the surface, and came back, and again. His line pulled straight for a second or two, then just as quickly went slack. The bobber sat up on the water. I know how he felt, and I was surprised he hadn’t said it—he certainly had many times over in the last thirty years: that Nature was God’s bitch with the sole intent of tormenting him.
This time, all he said was, “Fucking turtles.”
I agreed, “Fucking turtles.”
We sat quietly for a few minutes, until he said, “Seriously, will you do this service for me? I promise it’ll be the last thing I ever ask from you.”
I ignored his attempt at humor. “Sure, if you’re really serious.”
“Serious as I can be.”
I said, “Okay, but you put it in writing,” and when he looked at me, I added, “Like in a will, to make sure.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever you say. I’ll name you my Executor.”
I said, “Don’t do me any favors. You’ll mess up my retirement plans. Alice wants to travel.”
September is good for catching redfish. The weekend after Labor Day, we went west to Pecan Island and the marsh instead of south to the swamp. Fishing was good. We made our limit in less than a couple of hours. The game wardens allow each person in the boat to have only one red over twenty-seven inches long, and when I caught one—a beauty at twenty-nine and a quarter—I was ready to call it a day. Matthew had had a good day already, but he wanted to stay and try for a big one.
“Another twenty minutes, Jules, that’s all.”
I knew the twenty minutes could easily become an hour, but I had often enough asked for the same favor. I stowed my rod and sat back. A lone egret lit on the edge of the berm nearest us. Its long, white neck stretched as it picked at something deep in the grass. It looked up and swiveled its head around and stared intently at the edge of the berm. Then it took a couple of steps back. A moment later I noticed the slight ripple caused by the slow movement of an alligator. It moved suddenly at the egret, but the egret took a sideways step and suddenly rose into the air and was gone. The ’gator backed away and disappeared under the surface of the water without making another ripple.
Matthew had noticed the life or death dance of the bird and the alligator, and he said, “The ’gator jumped too soon.”
“He’s too young, but he’ll learn.”
In less than the time of a wink, Matthew’s pole bent hard. He jerked on it to set the hook in the fish’s mouth and began to work it in. I got out the short pole with the net and waited for him to bring his fish close enough to the boat that I could get it. The fish fought hard to escape the hook. As Matthew reeled it in to the boat, the fish thrashed around and went under us. I caught enough of a glimpse to see it was a good size.
I said, “It’s a big one. I think you got your twenty-seven incher.”
I leaned over the side and held the net ready. The fish came out from under the boat in a rush and jumped out of the water. If Matthew hadn’t set the hook hard in its mouth, he almost certainly would have lost it.
“I’m bringing it to you. Get it. Goddamnit, don’t lose it!”
I made sure to get it on the first try. Then I handed it over to Matthew as he handed me his rod to hold. He eased the hook from its mouth and laid it on the ruler we had marked on the top of the ice chest.
“Son of a bitch. Look. Twenty-six and a freaking quarter inch.”
He held it up to let the sun strike the rusty coloring of the upper body before he laid it on the ice and closed the chest. I expected him to take back his rod and rebait it. Instead, he sat down and started securing his gear and said, “It’s good enough. Let’s go in.”
“It’s a damned fine fish, Matthew.”
“Think Alice would cook it for us tonight?”
“If you ask her real nice.”
We stowed and secured our gear, and I turned the boat and started back to the boat ramp. It was about a ten-minute run going slow, and I didn’t see that we had to be in any kind of a hurry.
I like the marsh, even though it’s an hour and a half’s drive pulling a boat trailer on country roads to get there. The marsh creates a sense of openness that’s as different as can be from the closed-in atmosphere of the swamp, where we went to fish for sac au lait. The marsh is more like a lake, a wide expanse of brackish water with light currents that seemed to crisscross one another. The water could be gray or slightly green, but it never gets slimy green like the water in the stiller areas of the swamp. If someone man-sized jumped or fell out of a boat in the marsh, he’d be standing on a muddy bottom with water probably not above his waist. Still, he might get his toes pinched by a crab if he stepped in the wrong place, and he ought to figure out how to get back in the boat fast because the stories about the alligators and snakes in the marsh are not just stories. That young one we had seen frustrated by the flight of the egret might well grow to be twelve or fourteen feet long if a poacher didn’t get him first.
As we maneuvered around a berm, Matthew started to twist around one way, then another, as though he were searching for something. All morning he’d had a hard time staying focused on what he was doing. The signs for Matthew were always there: he reeled in his line to check the bait on his hook too often; he cast it out again in a slightly different direction; he asked me to move the boat to a different spot alongside another berm that looked exactly like all the others. He clearly had something other than fishing on his mind.
Now he called back to me, “You got the glasses?”
I said, “I didn’t bring them.”
Matthew raised an arm and pointed toward an area that was more open, less protected with berms, than where we had been. “Over there. Go over there.”
I turned the boat and headed in the direction he wanted to go. After we broke out into more open water, Matthew reached back and gave me the halt gesture with his palm, then shouted, “Stop! Stop here for a minute.”
I throttled down and held the boat at idle. We had moved to an area that was less protected than where we had been most of the day. The boat rocked in an easy motion from the action of the water, stirred by the usual late-afternoon wind. A massive pile of clouds, like mountains of cotton, had been building to the south of us over the Gulf. The edge nearest us had just begun to turn gray. I told myself to keep an eye on them. When they stack that high, the gray can turn to black in a hurry and bring rain in sheets. I wanted to make sure we could get back to the landing and haul the boat onto the trailer before getting caught in something nasty.
Matthew stood up in the bow and stretched as tall as he could, so he could look farther out. After a moment of gazing, he made a slow sweeping motion, with his arm extended and his palm down, as though he expected to smooth the wind-stirred ripples on the water. He said, “Here, Jules. This is the place.”
I knew what he meant. His wife, Angelle, had died here, in this water, in the worst storm in over a century, exactly twenty-two years earlier. Matthew had not accidentally, or even coincidentally, suggested we come to the marsh that day. His sense of a world ordered and driven by a malicious God didn’t leave room for chance or coincidence. Still, I waited for him to tell me why we were there.
“I want you to bring me here, Jules. My ashes. I want them spread out here. This is the place where my Angelle died.” He fell quiet for a long moment before he spoke again in a voice as soft and light as whispers in the confessional. “Can you do that?”
“Like I told you before. Put it in writing.”
I had no way of knowing, two years later, that when Matthew called and asked if I wanted to go fishing the next day, it would really be the last time he’d ever call me. I certainly didn’t know, and I am equally certain that Matthew didn’t know, that while he sat in his boat and drank a beer and fished for sac au lait, a piece of plaque would tear loose from an arterial wall and strike his heart with the force of a hammer. I will never know what might have happened if I had, in fact, gone with him that morning.
Justin Bernard, the parish coroner, did an adequate, if cursory, autopsy on the table in the embalming room of my funeral home. Myocardial infarction, he said. He tried to make me feel better by saying I couldn’t have done anything to help Matthew. Death was practically instantaneous. Matthew probably hadn’t felt much pain at all. I thanked Justin for his services, even though what he’d said about Matthew feeling little pain seemed poor consolation. I’ve been in the funeral business long enough to know that, sometimes, poor consolation is all one gets.
Over the past ten years, Matthew had called often to ask (urge) me to go fishing with him. I often went, but this time I had to turn him down. I needed to oversee the funeral services the next day for Clarence Mouton, one of Kiffeville’s more colorful residents. At eighty-six years of age, Clarence had climbed a ladder onto his roof to patch a torn shingle. He missed the first ladder rung when he tried to get down and fell onto his concrete patio. Clarence had a large family, six siblings still living, seven children, eighteen grandchildren, and a handful of great-grandchildren. He had died four days earlier. The services had been delayed until out-of-town family arrived.
I also had an appointment that afternoon with the agent from a large corporation that had expressed an interest in buying my funeral home. When I mentioned the appointment on the phone to Matthew, he said, “You’re really serious about this?”
“More like curious, I’d say.” A definite yes or no was more of a commitment than I was ready to make.
“What will you do if you don’t have dead people to care for?” He kept his head down, but I could hear his smile. Like most people, he didn’t understand or want to know exactly why I did what I did for a living.
“I’ll find something.”
“I can see you’ve really thought this through.”
“Maybe, if they pay enough, I can build my own camp and just go fishing.”
“You already told me Alice wants to go traveling.”
I hung up the phone and looked at a small stack of file folders on my desk. Alice had prepared them for the man who was coming to investigate the business. They contained all the preliminary information that I thought a prospective buyer of the business might want to see. I started to reach for the folder on top and then stopped. I didn’t need to look at it again. I knew what was in it: spreadsheets detailing costs, accounts payable and receivable, inventory, etc. The numbers on the papers said what they said, and they weren’t going to change before tomorrow morning.
The phone rang again, just once, and I knew it was Alice calling to tell me that supper was ready.
The next morning, I woke early. Maybe that was because I had gone to sleep thinking about how much I wanted to go with him, which meant I would have to get up on the front edge of new daylight.
The wife wasn’t in the bed. I dressed in some knock-about clothes and found Alice in the kitchen, making the first pot of coffee for the morning. The pot sat in a pan of water on a low fire to keep it hot. The coffee that came out of it would be dark and thick and strong.
I said, “You better remember that those people coming to see us are from Illinois. They probably can’t take their coffee like we do.”
She picked up the pot and said, “I’ll thin it down.” After she poured my cup, she added, “Why are you dressed like that?”
“I’m going to the dock to see Matthew before he leaves.”
“What time are those people coming?”
“Not until ten. I’ll be back by seven, seven-thirty at the latest.”
She said, “You want some breakfast?”
“Not now. When I get back.”
When I went to the door to go out, she said, “Wait.”
I hadn’t noticed that Alice had started dripping a second pot fresh. When she finished, she poured the second pot into a large thermos, closed the cap, and handed it to me. “Take this to Matthew. It’s better than what he’ll get at the River Café.”
As I was closing the door behind me, she added, “Remember, I have to get dressed too. Be back by seven, like you said.”
I pulled the door shut so she wouldn’t hear me say, “Seven-thirty for sure.”
It took hardly ten minutes for me to back my truck out of the garage, then drive through the deserted streets, past all the mostly dark houses and St. Ann’s church, then down Front Street with the darkened store fronts on one side and the ten-foot-high seawall on the other. The only place that had lights on was the River Café, where fishermen and shrimpers and others who work along the river come for breakfast, drink coffee that looks like it would melt a spoon, and dread the heat.
Besides the river itself, the seawall is Kiffeville’s most distinguishing characteristic. It keeps the river from overflowing into the town during the spring and summer flood seasons, or when a hurricane drives the water in from the Gulf of Mexico, the way Audrey did back in June of ’57. The River is nearly a half-mile wide at Kiffeville. From here it flows through thirty some-odd miles of marsh and swamp to Atchafalaya Bay and then into the Gulf.
When I drove through the open gate in the seawall and onto the wharf, I saw Matthew standing in his boat. In the gray near-light under the scrims of fog hovering over the river, he looked like a shadow, spectral, leaning over and moving about. Summer rains upstream had raised the water level, and the boat rode only a couple of feet below the level of the wharf. A G.I. type five-gallon can (gasoline), two fishing rods, a tackle box, an ice chest filled with bottles of water, ice, and bait sat on the wharf.
Matthew looked up when I got out of the truck. “You’re just in time. Hand that ice chest down to me.”
I had to stretch down as Matthew stretched up to receive it. After a moment he secured the styrofoam chest, and we went on to do the same thing with the rest of the stuff on the wharf.
From habit I surveyed what he had in the boat. He looked up and said, “Checking on me? Are you worried I forgot something?”
“No, but it looks like you’re planning to stay a while.”
“I might. You never know, do you?”
“I didn’t look at my crystal ball this morning.”
“Think that may have been a mistake, considering that important meeting you got set up?”
I handed him the thermos of coffee and told him, “The wife sent this for you.”
“Good woman. A hell of a lot better than you deserve.”
I’ve never disagreed with him about that.
He bent down and rechecked everything before he asked, “Are you ready for them?”
I thought about how hard Alice and I had worked to be prepared for this day. “If I’m not, I’ll never be.”
“Have you talked money yet?”
“Not yet. They haven’t really made an offer. Like I said, it’s mostly just curiosity on my part.”
“When is he coming?”
“Around ten. I’ve got Clarence Mouton’s funeral at the same time. It’s going to be a big crowd. I tried to get in touch with the man—”
“What’s his name?”
“Ross. Earl Ross.”
“I’ll call you tonight, so you can tell me how it went.”
“I don’t know if we’ll settle anything today.”
“I’ll call you anyway. Tell Alice I thank her for the coffee.”
He sat down on the rear seat by the outboard motor, then looked out at the river and up at the sky. A small flock of clouds to the southeast moved slowly toward us.
I said, “They don’t look like they’ll make a problem for you.”
I stooped and untied the aft line and tossed it to him. Then I untied the bow line from the ring in the wharf and held it ready. He bent over and held a hand against his stomach. When he straightened up, his face looked strained.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I had too much coffee at the café. Hand me that line.”
He made another quick check of everything in his boat before he looked up again. There was a look on his face that he always got when he was trying to decide whether or not to say something. He raised one thick eyebrow and looked up to some point over my head. For a second I thought maybe he was just watching the clouds and wondering if he was going to hit rain.
I said, “What?”
He turned to me and shuddered before making a slow side-to-side motion with his head. “Nothing. It was nothing.”
“Yeah. Untie me. I gotta go.”
I unknotted the lines from the rings in the wharf and tossed them to him. He rolled them up and stowed them in the bottom of the boat, then sat again on the rear bench next to the outboard motor. He turned the ignition and revved the motor and made it roar three times. Finally he hit the throttle, and the boat bounced once against a piling, then leapt away from the wharf and aimed for the center of the river.
It was nearly full daylight by then. A wind had made a froth of little whitecaps on the water downstream. I watched him move at full throttle, pushed by a swift current toward the center arch of the railroad bridge. I thought I saw him turn to look back, and I waved. I want to believe he saw me.
The novel centers on the friendship of Mathew Trahan and Jules LeBlanc, a mortician and the narrator of the story. Jules’s interest in Matthew focuses on the extraordinary violence and tragedy that Matthew has experienced. Matthew’s wife died violently in a hurricane, and his eldest son died of an accident in the swamp. His response is primarily anger at God, or the Universe, or whatever is in charge of all things.
The two men are part of a group bound by the place where they all have lived most of their lives, and they are conscious of how the marsh and the swamp shape their world. Friendship with Matthew can be problematic, but Jules seems unfaltering.
Two women will be important in the novel. Gertrude, Matthew’s sister, is deeply religious and fights with Matthew over ritual and belief. She also takes care of his younger son, who has survived into adulthood. Alice is Jules’s wife. She supports his friendship with Matthew, although with some reluctance when she thinks about where they go to fish. She wonders why God ever created snakes, alligators, and mosquitoes. During the course of the novel she has a miscarriage, which provides Jules with his own reason to grieve.
The setting is Kiffeville, a small town on the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, but I play with geography. While some real place names are mentioned, looking for their connections on a road map would be futile. I try for what seems to me an honest realism, especially emotionally. I don’t favor verisimilitude. Too many actual facts seem often a distraction from the truth of the story, which lies in the emotional conflicts of the characters.
Part of the story involves larger questions for the characters. Matthew’s inner conflict, as Jules sees it, revolves around questioning faith, the purpose in life and of life, fate and determinism, and to what extent his life is driven by forces he cannot see or understand. Jules has the same questions, but his temperament allows him to accept the tragedy of others with a semi-conscious sense of the absurdity of it all.
Carl Wooton is a writer living in Nipomo, California. He has published four chapters of this novel as separate short stories in literary journals and/or anthologies. He is eighty-four years old, has retired (twice) after fifty years of teaching, and plans to continue writing as long as he remains present in this world. He has published more than thirty stories, poems, and critical essays in various literary journals. He is also the author of Harmony’s Song & Other Stories, a collection published in August 2018.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018