Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Albuquerque Étouffée, 1962 - A Short Story

Albuquerque Étouffée, 1962
By Jeb Stewart Harrison

            By the time our Grandmother was in her sixties, her knuckles were the size, texture and color of unshelled walnuts.  “Leprosy,” our oldest cousin Boo Ray told us. “If she touches you, you’re done for.”
            Of course Grandmother had touched all of us many, many times, and had taken to touching us even more when she started going blind, which was another symptom of leprosy, according to Boo Ray. “It is the most contagious disease in the world,” he told us one afternoon while we were hunting lizards in the alley behind her modest single story house in Albuquerque. “We’ve probably all got it by now.”
            My sister and I had heard about the leper colony on Molokai. Our dad frequently did business in the Islands, so we had the opportunity to travel there from our home in San Francisco. Our cousins, mostly hailing from Louisiana and North Carolina, had never heard of Molokai or the leper colony. I told them that our airplane flew so low over the island in 1962 that we could see the lepers: loose, bloody ribbons of skin peeling from their limbs like raw bacon, holes in their skulls where their noses and ears used to be; hip bones, thigh bones, leg bones, arm bones, all exposed to the baking sun like so much road kill. It was difficult to tell if the lepers were blind from up in the airplane, just as it was difficult to distinguish between a white cane and a leg bone, but given Boo Ray’s diagnosis, we figured the Molokai lepers must have been blind as well.
            “Lucky for them,” our cousin May Bolling, second oldest, observed. “At least they don’t have to see how gross they are.”
            It was unusually warm, dry and dusty in the cinder-block alley, and felt more like May than November, even though the towering cottonwoods had dropped all their yellow leaves to the ground and now stood as white as bones against the cloudless cobalt sky. It had been so warm that the bluebellies were still plentiful, languishing on the sun drenched cinder blocks or in the cubbies doing their little push-ups, forked tongues darting out between their lizard lips. 12-year-old Boo Ray was showing us how to capture the lizards and pinch their tails off. The tails appeared to have lives of their own, once pinched, for they wriggled around in the palms of our hands for what seemed like a long time after we set the freshly tail-less lizards loose. “They’ll grow a new tail,” Boo Ray reassured us. “If we come to Grandmother’s for Thanksgiving next year, we can pinch their tails off all over again.”
            “Do lepers grow their noses back, or their ears, after they fall off?” my six-year-old sister asked.
            “Are you kidding?” Boo Ray cried. He grabbed my sister’s arm and pulled her over to a stack of cinder blocks, laid her hand on one, then brandished a Bowie knife. “If I cut one of your fingers off, do you think it would grow back?”
            “Mom!” screamed May Bolling, “Boo Ray’s got a knife!”
            “Shut up, crybaby!” Boo Ray snarled. “She can’t hear you.”
            My sister managed to yank her hand away and jam it safely into the front pocket of her jumper. Boo Ray closed the blade and popped the knife into the back pocket of his jeans.
            “If anybody tells, so help me, I’ll…I’ll…I’ll get grandma to touch you all over. The more she touches you, the faster you turn into a leper.”
            We hung our heads in resignation, for we all knew that Grandmother had probably touched each of us that very morning. Ever since losing most of her vision, she had used her hands to ascertain our looks. “Sit still, honey,” she might say as her bony claws explored our hair, our cheekbones, our noses, our ears, our eye sockets, our lips, our teeth (occasionally), our chins, our necks. Sometimes she would want to guess the identity of the grandchild she was groping, and sometimes, when she was in a playful mood, she would get silly. “Let’s see. Who could this be? I know! Roy Rogers!” Another day we might be Tarzan, or Shirley Temple, or Superman, or Howdy Doody, or even Trigger.  But now that we knew she was a leper, we were dreading her gropes, which, as Boo Ray had explained, would only expedite the onset of the terrifying disease.
            “But there is a cure,” Boo Ray whispered. He bent over and picked up one of the lizard tails. “If you eat the lizard’s tail while it’s still moving, you can’t get leprosy.”
            “Really?” cousin Raylene, asked. “How do you know?” 
            “I’m living proof,” he responded. “Grandmother’s been touching me for a lot longer than she’s been touching you, but do I look like I have leprosy?”
            We studied Boo-Ray in the stark desert light of the cinder block alley. He held out his hands, pulled on his ears and nose, even took of his sneakers and socks so we could study his toes. “What about your penis?” my little sister asked. He then unhitched his belt, dropped his jeans around his knees, fished his wiener out of his briefs and gave it a hearty pull.
            “Good as new,” he announced. “Go ahead, give Willie a yank.”
            We all declined to “give Willie a yank,” and decided that the lizard tail cure, or antidote, was at least worth investigating. Nobody thought to ask him how long he had been eating lizard tails, or if they had to be bluebelly tails, or questions about dosage, frequency and things we might have asked about normal medicines.
            Boo Ray pulled his pants up and said: “The key is you have to feel the tail wigglin’ as it goes down your throat. If it don’t wiggle, it won’t work, and you have to try again. Here, I’ll show y’all how it’s done.”
            We followed him slowly down the alley, on the lookout for bluebellies, until his hand darted out from his side and into the hollow of a cinder block. Holding the lizard in one hand he quickly pinched off the tail between his thumb and forefinger and held it up for us to see it curling and twisting like a tiny snake.  “Who wants to go first?” he asked.
            We cautiously looked at each other to see who might make a move. “Hurry up!” Boo cried, a strange, almost wicked smile forming on his beady-eyed face. “The tail is dying!”
            “You eat it!” my sister demanded.
            “Yeah, eat it yourself, since you like ‘em so much,” Jim-bob insisted.
            Boo Ray looked at the tail in this hand, then quickly threw it over the wall into a neighbor’s backyard. “Too late. It died.”
            “No it didn’t!” May Bolling screamed. “It was still wiggling! You’re just a big fat liar!”
            “Shut up,” Boo Ray said. “You don’t know shit, little fourth grader.”
            “Bad word, bad word!” Raylene shouted. “I’m telling!”
            Then, without warning, little Binx walked into the circle of older kids, a bleeding bluebelly gripped in one of his tiny fists, a drop of lizard blood on his lips and his jaw working as if he was chewing rubber.  “Oh lord,” cried Raylene. “Now look what you made Binxie do, Boo Ray!”
            “Spit it out, Binxie,” his older brother Jim-bob implored, reaching down and trying to grab him by his dirty t-shirt. But the four-year-old was too quick. In two shakes he had run down the alley and in through the back gate to Grandmother’s yard. The expected scream – it was hard to tell if it was Mrs. Bowman or Lily the maid – came moments later, and the next thing we knew Mr. Bowman had herded us into the backyard, where we were instructed to sit side-by-side on Grandmother’s picnic bench.
            Mr. Bowman, still dressed in his golf attire from the early morning match and subsequent lunch at the Albuquerque Country Club, was an officer in the U.S. Navy. My sister and me sometimes overheard our mother complaining that he often beat his kids. My mother also suspected that Chester Bowman sometimes beat up on his wife, Louanne, as well, but unlike previous get-togethers with the Southern clan, she wasn’t wearing the kerchiefs, sunglasses or long sleeved blouses that she sometimes donned to cover her bruises and scrapes.
            Now it looked like one of us was going to get a beating.  We could hear Mrs. Bowman with little Binx in the toilet, trying to get her son to barf up the lizard tail. “But mama!” we heard him cry. “I don’t want to be a leopard!” My sister and me hoped our parents would be back soon to protect us from Mr. Bowman, whose face was red as a radish with a big vein pulsating in his forehead clear up to his crew cut.
            Suddenly my sister stood up. “Uncle Chet,” she began.
            “Sit down young lady! You will speak when spoken to!” roared Mr. Bowman, raising his arm as if to swat her. But my sister did not sit down, nor did she shut up.
            “Does Grandmother have leprosy?” The rest of it spilled out of her: “Boo Ray said her knuckles are big and she’s blind because she has leprosy, and that if she touched us we would get it too. Then he said that if we ate lizard tails while they were still wiggling we would be immune.”
            She sat back down next to me, out of breath, while the rest of us stared at her in awe, wondering where she got the courage to talk back to Mr. Bowman, and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then we heard the familiar voice of our Grandmother behind us.
            “Chester? What’s going on out here?” she asked. We all turned our heads, all except Boo Ray, and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Mr. Bowman would not be beating anybody with Grandmother around. But our relief was short-lived, for she was coming our way, steering her walker over the threshold of the sliding glass door to the back yard, down onto the terracotta tiles of the patio, with her maid Lily, whose milk chocolate skin was covered with white blotches, (which Boo Ray had also identified as leprosy) guiding her by the elbow.
            We didn’t know what to think. If Boo Ray was right, the frail old woman in the black dress, the flesh-tone nylons, and the shiny black thick-heeled orthopedic shoes was about to start spreading her disease around the backyard, starting with Mr. Bowman, who went to take her by the elbow and help her to her outdoor chaise. Was Uncle Chet using the lizard tail antidote, or was he cursed to perish and rot like the rest of us?
            “Boo Ray,” Mr. Bowman began, “Did you tell the younger children that your Grandmother has leprosy?”
            My sister, emboldened by Grandmother’s presence and obviously unafraid of Uncle Chet’s famous wrath, piped up immediately. “He did! And Miss Lily too!”
            “Julie, that’s enough,” Mr. Bowman began again.
            “What?” Lily hollered. “Leprosy? You think this here is leprosy?” She held up her bare arm, where we could see the strange splotches of white against her natural brown skin. “Well, I never in all my born days. Boo Ray. What have you been tellin’ these chillens?”
            Boo Ray, head hung low, declined to comment. But my sister was just getting started. “He said your skin, and Grandmother’s fingers, and her blindness, were all because of leprosy, and that it is the most contagious disease in the world, and that if either of you touched us, we would get leprosy, too!”
            At this, Grandmother and Lily burst out laughing. Even Mr. Bowman couldn’t help but smile a little. “Boo Ray,” Grandmother said, “you sure know how to spin a yarn.” Just then Mrs. Bowman walked into the backyard with little Binxie.
            “Well, if Binx ate a lizard tail, it seems to agree with him just fine. We’ll just keep an eye on him, watch for fever, hives, that sort of thing. But I think he’s gonna be fine.”
            “Well, at least he don’t have to worry about gettin’ no leprosy,” Lily said, and we all laughed, even Uncle Chet.
            The next day was Thanksgiving, and the weather turned so cold that snow was predicted for much of the desert southwest, including Albuquerque. The bluebellies were gone, so we played dodge ball in a vacant lot with some of the neighborhood kids, all of us bundled up in parkas, wool caps and mittens, until it was time to prepare for the feast. We all expected Boo Ray to be grounded or otherwise punished for the egregious lies he told the day before, but so far he appeared to have escaped the wrath of his father unscathed. We could see the knife in his back pocket, and my sister and I wondered if carrying a knife was something older North Carolina kids could do without getting into trouble. Still, Boo Ray was uncommonly quiet that day. We figured it was because one of the girls in the neighborhood had caught his eye, and the cat had, in turn, caught his tongue.
            When we were all seated around the children’s table, Grandmother usually joined us to lead the Thanksgiving prayer. But that night, with her and our parents gathered around, Grandmother told Boo Ray to lead us in prayer. When Boo Ray was finished praying for all of us, our president, our representatives, our senators, our service men and women, our teachers, our policemen and firemen, the poor people, the sick people, and all creatures big and small on God’s green earth, Grandmother said, “you forgot one special group, Boo Ray.” Boo Ray was looking up at the adults standing behind us around the table, obviously mystified, when my sister blurted out “the lepers, Boo Ray! You forgot to pray for the lepers!”
            “Oh, sorry,” said Boo Ray, uncommonly contrite. “Dear God, please help the lepers get their skin back. Please give them new noses, ears, fingers, toes, arms, legs…”
            “That’s enough, son,” said Mr. Bowman, who like the rest of us got the sense that Boo Ray was not nearly so compunctious about the lepers as he was about everybody else. The truth was, nobody in the room had ever seen a leper, or even a picture of a leper: not Grandmother, not the Californians, not the Louisianans, not the North Carolinians.
            “How about you, Julie? Didn’t you say you could see lepers from the airplane over Molokai?” Raylene asked.
            “No, I never did,” Julie quickly replied, bringing her little fist down on the table.
“He did,” she declared, pointing at me. “Not me.”
            “Aha!” Grandmother said. “So I guess Boo Ray’s not the only yarn spinner in the family after all!”
            I hung my head.
            “But there really is a leper colony on Molokai,” Julie quickly added. “And we did fly right over it.”
            I hung my head lower. We had never flown over Molokai. The closest we got to Molokai was the beach in Kaanapali, on Maui. I peered up through my thick eyebrows to see my Dad peering down at me, underneath his even thicker eyebrows. He wasn’t smiling, but he didn’t say anything either. Then my annoying sister started in again.
            “I have a question,” she announced. “If God loves us, then why is there leprosy?” The kids all groaned. We were done with the obligatory praying and hungry for Thanksgiving dinner. The adults were half tanked and, as far as we could tell, were not qualified to take on such philosophical issues.
            Then Raylene, one of our Louisiana cousins, said: “Duh, Julie. It’s the devil that makes diseases, not God. Satan and God have been battling it out from day one, from before the earth was even created. Sometimes the devil wins, sometimes God wins. Don’t you go to Sunday school?”
            Julie blushed. She was probably about to say that we went to Catechism, not Sunday school, and probably something stupid like “Catholics don’t believe in the devil.” But she was saved when Lily and her extra helpers marched in with the first course of feast, which was far more southwestern than it was Deep South. Everything about Grandmother had become more southwestern, in an obvious and purposeful repudiation of her Baton Rouge heritage. She wore turquoise jewelry, decorated her house with Navajo rugs and paintings from Taos and Santa Fe, and had learned to speak passable Spanish. So, on Thanksgiving, there were no sweet potato cups, no cornbread stuffing, no green beans with mushrooms and bacon, and no butter rolls. Instead, Grandmother hired the locals to make Navajo flatbread, pumpkin empanadas, turkey in mole sauce, candied sweet potatoes and Mexican chocolate pecan pie, which everybody feasted on like buzzards to a fresh leper carcass. Everybody except Boo Ray and me who, after the prayer, had been relegated to sit alone in the kitchen with our own special dish: lizard tail soup.
            “Y’all go on. Take a bite,” Uncle Chet said, one big hand squeezing his son’s shoulder and one big hand squeezing mine, and none too gently. I kept expecting my Mom or Dad to burst in through the swinging kitchen door to save me, but from what I could see through the serving window to the dining room, they weren’t getting up. Still, it didn’t seem fair. I was only eight, and Boo Ray was 12. I wasn’t about to invite anyone to give my willy a yank.
            “Go on, boys. Y’all don’t wanna get leprosy now, do ya?” chuckled Uncle Chet. I sniffed at the steaming bowl of thick brown liquid on the table, then stirred it a little with my spoon to see if there were any lizard tails floating around. There was something that looked like lizard tails – little nubs about an inch long - but I couldn’t be sure because I’d never seen a cooked lizard tail before. It didn’t smell particularly bad, but it didn’t smell appetizing either, sort of like sweet mud. I looked over at Boo Ray, who was studying the liquid with equal intensity, then up at Lily, sitting on a stool by the refrigerator and watching us with a sly grin on her face.
            “You boys are real sissies, you know that?” Uncle Chet said. “Here, gimme that spoon. Hell, I have to eat far worse slop in the Navy than lizard tail soup.”
            I held my breath as my uncle picked up the spoon, dipped it in the soup, then held it under his nose. “Mmmm. Smells pretty good, I’d say.” Then, without hesitating, he opened his mouth, plunged the spoon in, yanked it back out and took a loud gulp. “Ahh!” he exclaimed. “That’s the best lizard tail soup I’ve ever tasted. Lily, you are to be complimented. Those must have been some nice, fat juicy lizards.”
            Now Lily was grinning and blushing, holding her speckled hand in front of her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.  Then my uncle picked up Boo Ray’s bowl of soup and started drinking right from the rim, slurping and gulping and slurping and gulping like he hadn’t eaten in a week. “Mmmm. This is delicious!” he declared.
            “Dad!” Boo Ray finally protested. “Give it back! I’m hungry!”
            By now I was convinced that either lizard tail soup had about as much to do with lizards as bird’s nest soup had to do with birds, or that lizard tails, like grubs in some African countries I had read about, were a rare delicacy. Then, just by chance, I noticed something on the floor, a salmon-colored translucent casing about an inch long. I couldn’t place it, but I was certain that it belonged to whatever the little inch-long critter was floating about in the thick, chunky, coffee-colored soup. Then I heard my father’s voice from the dining room.
            “Well, mom. I gotta say, I’m sure glad you brought a little Baton Rouge out here to Albuquerque with you. This is the best crawfish étouffée I’ve ever had.”
            When Boo Ray heard this, he jumped up and started beating on his dad, who started to laugh like I had never heard anybody laugh before, howling and cackling like a hyena. Then Lily started in, and, like the whole ruse had been in the works the all that day, all the adults in the dining room began laughing too. Then I heard Julie shouting “Hey! Hey! What’s so funny? What’s eh-two-fay?”
            Now our Southern cousins were laughing too. They were thinking Ha Ha! The California kids don’t even know what étouffée is! Then Boo Ray drained his bowl of soup, turned to me and said, “You won’t like the lizard tail soup, cousin. It’s not the kinda things you California kids would like.” Then he picked up my bowl, raised it to his lips, and started to eat–swallowing, chewing, gulping, chewing, gulping, and chewing some more–until he had drained the entire bowl.

            “Ahh,” he said, after he had finished. “Those were some mighty fine lizard tails. I can’t wait to have me another bowl.” Then we both got up, one of Uncle Chet’s big hands squeezing his son’s shoulder, and the other squeezing mine, and were marched through the swinging kitchen door back to the kid’s table, where my sister looked up at me as if I might throw up on her at any minute. Meanwhile the adults just kept on laughing and laughing, and for that moment it felt like we would all be immune to leprosy, glaucoma, arthritis, vitilago, and just about every other nastiness that the devil might wish upon any of us, forever. 

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