Like an early 19th-century poet, when I have melancholy moments and feel the world is too much for us and that late and soon we lay waste to our powers in getting and spending, I’m forced to pause and reflect upon my experiences with the dead and the hold they exert on our lives.
This may seem a macabre perspective on one’s life, but at a certain point it seems to be the only one we have. Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is. If there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning inside a basement that has no windows.
On a winter morning, among white clouds of fog out at Spanish Lake, I would see the boys in butternut splashing their way through the flooded cypress, their muskets held above their heads, their equipment tied with rags so it wouldn’t rattle. I was standing no more than ten feet from them, although they took no notice of me, as though they knew I had not been born yet, and their travail and sacrifice were not mine to bear.
Their faces were lean from privation, as pale as wax, their hair uncut, the rents in their uniforms stitched clumsily with string. Their mouths were pinched, their eyes luminous with caution. The youngest soldier, a drummer boy, could not have been older than twelve. On one occasion I stepped into the water to join them. Even then, none acknowledged my presence. The drummer boy stumbled and couldn’t right himself, struggling with the leather strap around his neck and the weight of his drum. I reached out to help him and felt my hand and arm sink through his shoulder. A shaft of sunlight pierced the canopy, turning the fog into white silk; in less than a second the column was gone.
Long ago, I ceased trying to explain events such as these to either myself or others. Like many my age, I believe people in groups are to be feared and that arguing with others is folly and the knowledge of one generation cannot be passed down to the next. Those may seem cynical sentiments, but there are certain truths you keep inside you and do not defend lest you cheapen and then lose them altogether.
Those truths have less to do with the dead than the awareness that we are no different from them, that they are still with us and we are still with them, and there is no afterlife but only one life, a continuum in which all time occurs at once, like a dream inside the mind of God.
Why should an old man thrice widowed dwell on things that are not demonstrable and have nothing to do with a reasonable view of the world? Because only yesterday, on a broken sidewalk in a shabby neighborhood at the bottom of St. Claude Avenue, in the Lower Ninth Ward of St. Bernard Parish, under a colonnade that was still twisted out of shape by Katrina, across from a liquor store with barred windows that stood under a live oak probably two hundred years old, I saw a platoon of Confederate infantry march out of a field to the tune of “Darling Nelly Gray” and disappear through the wall of a gutted building and not exit on the other side.
THE MAN I came to see was Fat Tony Nemo, also known as Tony the Nose, Tony Squid, or Tony Nine Ball, the latter not because he was a pool shark but because he packed a nine ball into a bartender’s mouth with the butt of a pool cue. Of course, that was during his earlier incarnation, when he was a collector for Didoni Giacano and the two of them used to drive around New Orleans in Didi’s Caddy convertible, terrifying whoever couldn’t make the weekly vig, a bloodstained baseball bat propped up in the backseat. Currently, Fat Tony was involved in politics and narcotics and porn and casinos and Hollywood movies and the concrete business. He had also laundered money for the Triads in Hong Kong and helped Somoza’s greaseballs introduce crack cocaine to America’s inner cities. In terms of territory, he had fingers in pies all over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida. If he had any sense of morality or fear about a judgment down the track, I never saw it.
So why would a semi-retired sheriff’s detective from Iberia Parish want to make a social call on a psychopath like Tony Squid? Simple.
Most investigative cops, often without knowing who Niccolò Machiavelli was, adhere to his admonition to keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Less simple is the fact that we share much of the same culture as the lowlifes, and we are more alike than different, and the information they give us is indispensable.
Fat Tony was sitting in a swivel chair behind his desk when I entered his office. No, that’s not correct. Tony didn’t sit; he piled himself into a chair or on a couch like a gelatinous heap of whale sperm thrown on a beach, except he was wearing a blue suit with a red boutonniere in the lapel. A sword with a scrolled brass guard in a plain metal scabbard lay across his ink pad. “I’m glad you could come, Dave. You never disappoint. That’s why I like you,” he wheezed.
“What’s the haps, Tony?”
“I’m on an oxygen bottle. I’m scheduled for a colostomy. I couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse that has an ATM. My wife tells me I got a serious case of GAPO. Otherwise, I’m doing great. What kind of question is that?” He had to catch his breath before he could continue.
“Want a drink?”
“No, thanks. What’s GAPO?”
“Gorilla armpit odor. You still on the wagon?”
“I’m still in A.A., if that’s what you mean.”
“The same thing, right?”
“Whatever. Take Clete Purcel to a meeting with you.”
“What’s Clete done?”
“What hasn’t he done? He’s a fucking cancer on the whole city. He should have a steel codpiece locked on his body so he can’t reproduce.”
“How can I help you, Tony?”
“Maybe I can help you. I heard about your wife.”
“I appreciate your concern. I need to get back to New Iberia.”
“She got killed in an accident?”
“What, about three months ago?”
“Two years. She was T‑boned by a guy in a pickup. I’d rather talk about something else.”
He handed me the sword. “I got this at a flea market in Memphis. I asked an expert what it’s worth. He said he’d take if off my hands for three thousand. The real value, what is it?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You know about history, what the names of these places on the hilt mean, whether those places make the sword more valuable. What’s this Cemetery Hill stuff? Who fights a war in a fucking cemetery?”
The brass on the handle was engraved with the name of Lieutenant Robert S. Broussard, Eighth Louisiana Infantry. The base of the blade was stamped with the initials CSA and the name of the maker, James Conning, of Mobile, Alabama, and the year 1861.
“I did some Googling,” Tony said. “The guy who owned this was from New Iberia. It’s worth a lot more than two or three thousand dollars, right? Maybe the guy was famous for something.”
“You couldn’t find any of that on the Internet, with all the Civil War junk that’s on sale?”
“You can’t trust the Internet. It’s full of crazoids.”
I couldn’t begin to sort through the contradictions in what he had just said. This was a typical Fat Tony conversation. Trying to get inside his mind was akin to submerging your hand in an unflushed toilet. Outside, some black kids were breaking bottles with an air rifle in a vacant lot. There were concrete foundations in the lot without structures on them. A garbage truck was driving down a street, seagulls picking at its overflow.
“Is this about Clete?” I said.
“I got no problem with Purcel. Other people do. It’s true he took out that fat dick of his at the Southern Yacht Club and hosed down Bobby Earl’s car?”
“I don’t know,” I lied.
“Two weeks ago he did it again. At the casino.”
“No, the pope. Earl put his lady friend in the car, and suddenly, she’s sitting in a puddle of piss.”
“Why did you show me this sword, Tony?”
“Because the family of the guy who owned it lives in New Iberia. I thought maybe they’d want it.”
“What does any of this have to do with Clete and Bobby Earl?”
My head was throbbing. “It was good seeing you.”
“Sit down. I know what happened with your wife. No witnesses except the guy who killed her. He says she ran the Stop sign. They had to cut her out with the Jaws of Life?”
I could feel blood veins tightening on the side of my head.
“She died on the way to the hospital and got blamed for her own death?” he said.
“Who told you this?”
“Some cops. You got a dirty deal. Something ought to be done.”
“You need to disengage, Tony.”
“On top of it, I heard the guy tried to pump the insurance company. Shut the door.”
I leaned forward. “Listen carefully, Tony. My wife’s death is my business. You stay out of it.”
“Mabel, shut the door!” he yelled at his secretary. I raised my finger at him. I was trembling. I heard the door click shut behind me.
He spoke before I could. “Hear me out. The guy ran over a kid in a school zone in Alabama. The kid was crippled for life. You give me the nod, this guy is gonna be crawling around on stumps.”
“When did he run over a child in a school zone?”
“Ten, fifteen years back.”
“Where in Alabama?”
“What difference does it make? I’m telling you like it is. A guy like that has got it coming.”
He was like every gangster I ever knew. They’re self-righteous and marginalize their victims before breaking their bones. Not one of them could think his way out of a wet paper bag. Their level of cruelty is equaled only by the level of disingenuousness that governs their lives.
“I want you to get this straight, Tony. Go near the man who hit my wife’s car, and I’ll come looking for you, up close and personal.”
“Yeah?” He lit a cigarette with a paper match, cupping the flame.
He threw the burnt match into the wastebasket. “So fuck me.”
I stood up and pulled the sword halfway from its scabbard, then slid it inside again. The guard was brass, molded like a metal basket with slits in it. It was incised with the names of three battles that took place during Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, plus Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, and extended protectively and cuplike over the back of my hand. The black leather on the grip was both soft and firm, wrapped with gold wire. I replaced the sword on Tony’s desk.
“I think the Broussard family would be honored and delighted if you gave this to them.”
“I’m having a hard time processing this,” he said. “I try to be your friend, and you’re offended and make threats. If you were somebody else, we’d have a different outcome here.”
“So fuck both of us. Tell me something, Tony.”
“What? How you should get rid of terminal assholitis?”
“Why do you keep your office in a neighborhood like this?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It looks like a moonscape. In the next storm, it’s going underwater again.”
“I like to stay close to the people. On that subject, I’m backing a guy who might end up president of the United States. Want to know who that is?”
“Jimmy Nightingale. People have been talking political correctness in this country for too many years. There’s gonna be a change. Fucking A.”
“Somehow I believe you, Tony.”
And that was probably the most depressing thought I’d had in a long time.
From ROBICHEAUX by James Lee Burke. Copyright © 2018 by James Lee Burke. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.