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After some self-doubt, I’ve decided to take the risk and write a story about a close-knit, eccentric farming family in Southwest Louisiana, The Pevetos, and how they interact with the town drunk family member Francis Peveto, when he claims to have been abducted by aliens in front of the local (white) Catholic church. The story is set in the town of Opelousas in 1976, where racial tensions become even more tense after a Parish Court desegregation order is finally being put to the test by the Catholic high school. Some of his family members believe Francis Peveto was actually abducted by the KKK, mistaking him for his outspoken, politically active younger brother Marcus, while some family members want to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life, and others want to have him committed to the psychiatric hospital in Jackson, Louisiana. Oh – and if you haven’t guessed it already, S.O.I.L. is the acronym for Signs of Intelligent Life.
The story titled S.O.I.L. has been swimming around in my head for a couple of years, a kind of social critique of race relations and religion in the South, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to put it on paper. So instead of writing it in my journal, I’ve decided to cast away my doubts and challenge myself by typing it as a series of blogs. It’s a bold experiment for me – and I hope enjoyable reading for you. You may want to visit this link often, because I will be updating “Part One” on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis until it’s completed and I feel free to move on to a “Part Two”. (If there will be a “Part Two”.)
S.igns O.f I.ntelligent L.ife (A Short Story in Serial Blog Form)
Part One – St. Landry Smote The Martians
“Who the hell is St. Landry?!”
It was nearly closing time at the fairly new TG&Y on a Sunday evening in mid-June 1976, and the question of a loud, drunken middle aged black man was the only sign of life in a sleepy Southwest Louisiana town called Opelousas, the parish seat of St. Landry. The shiny red and white lettered sign invited customers who either didn’t finish their shopping on Saturday, or didn’t have much to do on a Sunday that the Good Lord Jesus and Mother Mary would allow. Four people were inside the town’s five and dime.
A young white cashier was checking out items for an elderly white couple at one of the front counters. For some reason they are undisturbed by a middle aged black man stumbling around and smelling like the inside of a distillery. Not that the young clerk had smelled anything like this before, unless the inside of his father’s forbidden whiskey bottle counted. But in his 17 years of life in the sleepy Louisiana town, he had never seen a drunken man – not until he started working at the TG&Y two summers ago.
The Cajun teenager clerk Bobby George put the last of the couples’ items, a tube of Ben-Gay and a B.C. Headache Powder, on top in a paper sack, collecting their cash and handing them change. He tried to smile and wish his elder customers a good night, but a drunken Mr. Peveto cried out again-
“Who the hell is St. Landry?!”
Bobby was tempted to call the police to arrest this outrageous copper skinned Negro, but the store manager Mr. Gabriel forbid him to call the cops on Francis Peveto, even when he was visibly belligerent and aggressively friendly toward white patrons at the store Bobby’s friends referred to as “Turtles, Girdles, and Yo-Yo’s” .
Bobby’s father Henry George suspected Mr. Jean Gabriel was one of those liberal, nigger-loving bosses, especially since he recently hired an assistant manager who was blacker than the shoe polish Mr. George bought from the TG&Y with the family discount.
“Mr. P., I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”
The teen’s words wavered and slurred in a thick Southwest Louisiana drawl, similar to a Creole patois, but more “backwoodsy”, as Papa Peveto would say. His oldest son Francis, or Frank, the town’s publicly known drunk, was known as Mr. P to most of the good citizens of Opelousas – black and white. It was a dubious sign of the respect that comes with age, and not necessarily with good character or wisdom, yet regardless of color and station in Opelousas, he was always called Mr. P.
Mr. P. had never been violent before, but Bobby’s father warned him that even the most gentle of Opelousas red skinned and red blooded Negroes were prone to some kind of misbehavior, especially with liquor in them. Bobby never questioned his father in most matters of this nature, especially since Opelousas Catholic High School had recently been forced to admit Negro students and his father voiced his outrage to the yankee Dean of Students, Father O’Toole. Since their heated conversation, the usually friendly pastor and educator avoided eye contact with Bobby at school and at mass. Bobby never really liked Father O’Toole. He was one of those priests who tried too hard to be cool with the young parishioners. Bobby suspected that the priest was the class nerd, or the class fairy, in his Boston parochial school.
“Mr. P., I need to close the store and clean up now. You’ll have to leave.”
Bobby jingled the large ring of keys Mr. Gabriel entrusted to him until his return from an early Sunday supper with his new bride and in-laws from Lafayette, and stared at the scuffed white and gray tiled floor and sighed. It was the newly hired assistant manager’s night off, so it would take him at least an hour to close the store – tidy the shelves, and mop the floor after counting the registers – and this drunken old black man was causing him too much grief. Sometimes he felt sorry for Eugene Peveto, his friend and new classmate at O.C.H. The old drunk Mr. P. was Gene’s uncle, and an embarrassment for the good side of that family. Bobby’s father frowned upon his uneasy friendship with Gene since that battle against the school’s desegregation policy, but somehow the two teens spoke civilly to one another at school and would walk to the TG&Y after school to hang out. Gene and Bobby agreed that Mr. P. was a problem.
“That old coot Uncle Frank always cause trouble when he drinks. Uncle Frank was in WW 2 and even got him one of those Purple Hearts when he took some bullet from some Jap.” Gene almost seemed proud of the fact his uncle got wounded in war. “But now all he does is drink and turn my Aunt Eloise and my cousins beet red. My Papa wonders if he really got wounded in the head.”
Part One: St. Landry Smote The Martians
Bobby remembers laughing with Gene about his uncle, but at this very moment, he is tempted to take a broom to the old Mr. P. and sweep him out of the store and risk Mr. Gabriel’s ire – or worse. The old drunk looked about 70, but was probably 10 to 20 years younger, and he couldn’t understand how he still managed to keep his farm. His only son Ephraim was more interested in becoming a lawyer thanks to advice of Mr. P.’s meddling younger brother Marcus Peveto, and no one else in the Peveto family seemed interested in farming anymore.
Most folks in town took pity on Mr. P’s wife, Mrs. P., a white-looking woman who some say – white and black married beneath her. She wasn’t used to a farming life, ‘living in the sticks’, being raised in town, and being married to a drunk made her a social outcast among the town folks she once called friends. But she always seemed to have enough money and enough sheer will power to see her family through. She hired migrant workers sometimes, who didn’t always speak English.
Mr. George disapproved of this practice, but Mrs. George would tell their son behind the old man’s back that the George family lost their farm because they refused to hire such help.
Bobby George would rather be tilling the soil and producing fine crops for the Farmers Market off the main Highway 49. He envied Mr. P. for his land, and despised the old man sometimes for not keeping what should have been his inheritance. Mr. P.’s inebriated presence in the five and dime only antagonized the young clerk who didn’t understand what would drive a once respected war hero – colored or white – to ruin his life, and attempt to ruin his children’s legacy of land, with liquor.
“Mr. P., please don’t have me call Mr. Gabriel,” the young man pleaded. “You’re gonna get me in trouble again with the boss, and I don’t want no trouble. Do you want me to call your folks?”
“I want you to answer my question, boy. You Bobby George, right?”
“Yes sir, I’m friends with your nephew Gene.” Bobby imagined his father cringing, him using the title of ‘Sir’ to address a black man, especially Mr. P.
“Can you tell me who St. Landry is? You in that integrated Catholic school. You should know who this parish is named for, Mr.Bobby. I reckon I should call you that, ‘fore your papa come in that white sheet and skin me alive. ”
Bobby laughed nervously.
Part One Con’t.: St. Landry Smote The Martians
“Ah, Mr. P. I know he’s some kind of saint from the 6th or 7th century. Can’t remember what he did to become a saint. We learned that in Catechism more than a few years back.”
Mr. P’s nephew would probably know all about the saints, Bobby figured, wishing he was there right now to escort his drunken uncle out of the store.
26-08-07 St. Landry Smote The Martians (Con’t.)
Gene was probably the smartest boy in their 11th grade World History class. He was good with recalling dates and who did what centuries ago – including the saints – and their teacher Sister Rosemary always seemed especially impressed (if not amazed) that he knew so much after attending Plaisance High School, the rural colored school less than 10 miles outside Opelousas. Bobby had to admit to his friend’s uncle that he hadn’t learned much about saints in a Catholic school.
“I bet Gene could tell ya what Ole St. Landry did, Mr. P. Your nephew is ’bout the smartest one in my history class.” Bobby jingled the ring of keys as he walked toward the mop and bucket and suddenly an idea rang in his head.
“Tell ya, what Mr. P. I’ll call him and he can come over and tell you. Maybe he can take you home. I hear his papa is letting him drive now that he’s getting his license soon.”
“Are you tryin’ to get rid of me Bobby George?”
Mr. P seemed to have a moment of sobriety in the midst of his drunken stupor and insistence to give the young store clerk a hard time.
“Ah, no, Mr. P. I’m just sayin’ Gene can tell ya what St. Landry did to have a parish named after him, and maybe he can give ya a ride home now that the store is closed. We can’t have you outside the store. Mr. Gabriel would never forgive me if you didn’t get home safe.”
In fact, Mr. Gabriel would fire anyone who left Mr. P outside to get arrested by Constable Bourgeois. A year ago this happened, and Mr. P was released to his younger brother all black and blue. It was rumored Mrs. P wouldn’t let him come back home for a week, and that was just after her good brother-in-law caused a mêlée outside the courthouse and jail house, about the desegregation order that was nearly 10 years on the books, but his son and other children in the city had no choice but to ride a bus to a school miles out in the country.
Signs Of Intelligent Life: Part 1 – St. Landry Smote The Martians (Con’t.) 30-08-07
“You call my nephew, and ask him. I don’t think my wife wants to see me right now. We’ve had words…”
Bobby cringed and picked up the mop and bucket to clean the front of the store. Maybe Mr. P would get the hint and clear out the front door, instead of following him to the back stockroom like last time. He hoped.
“She doesn’t believe that I was taken for a ride with a man who claimed he was St. Landry. We were on that space ship for what seemed like hours, and that man talked about everything the disciples did with Jesus.” Bobby’s jaw dropped at the same time the mop dropped to the floor.
Mr. P did not seem to be deterred by the teen clerk’s reaction. He continued to tell his tale.
“I swore – or maybe I shouldn’t swear no more… Man, St. Landry – if that was his real name – he even preached the Sermon on The Mount – mostly to the aliens. I’ve heard it about a hundred times in my lifetime, so I knew the words. After we landed and those aliens dropped me into malviValmont’s pond, I asked Miss Roseanne, his wife, if she could let me borrow her Bible. They are members of that colored protestant church just outside town and lucky for me they had one of those Holy Bible’s with the words in red, you know, the words Jesus spoke.”
© 2007 DIY Danna/The Surreal Estate of Danna Marrón Williams.