What I’m Reading Now


Another in the series. As I was revising the reading list, I wrote in my journal, “If I don’t finish some of these soon, the pile will fall over and concuss me.”

Red Stick Men arrived when I met Tim Parrish at the Mark Twain conference. He started to explain what “red stick” meant. I replied, “I know all about le baton rouge. My dad grew up in New Iberia, and my grandparents from Abbeville.”

Tim’s version of the red stick goes back much further: “the name … is a French translation of the Native-American isti huma …, which was the name given the blood-stained tree trunk used as a tribal boundary. The original red stick was located on Scot’s Bluff, now part of the campus of Southern University.” Whose blood?

My version of le baton rouge, probably not true, came from the Tabasco plant on Avery Island. The managers gave the workers a red stick to hold up next to the ripening peppers. If the color matched, they were ready to harvest. The person who told this story said the managers (white “overseers”) didn’t trust the workers (black, of course) to know when a pepper was ripe. Me, I’d trust the judgment of the people who had actually been doing the work for years.

So before I even opened this brilliant collection, I learned something. And I learned far more as I read through the stories. There are tormented oil workers and ironworkers. Women worn down and standing up. Epic storms. So much fighting, including the kids — especially the kids of “Complicity.” So many truly frightened people. Outrageous amounts of smoking and drinking and abuse of every variety. I wondered again if there was something in the water – or the air – that keeps  all this stuff closer to the surface down on the bayou. Or as we began to call it, “the swamp.”

Favorite so far: “The Exterminator,” about a man with that job title. His ex-girlfriend asks, “ ‘Remember that night we were tripping on Scenic Highway by Exxon and you started yelling out the window they were burning up the world?’ ” Ah, yes.

I can hear the voices – southern but with a softness not found elsewhere. Even the Anglos have absorbed some Creole. Again, I’m learning more about Louisiana than I ever did from my father.

The epigraph is “busted flat in Baton Rouge.” They may be Kris Kristofferson’s words, but they will forever be in the voice of Janis, the white lady of soul.

Whose blood? Everyone’s.

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