Photo: Lizz Sisson

Photo: Lizz Sisson

Lutie, Before

Louisiana, 1992

Lutie didn’t know for sure if she could catch a ghost, but she felt better about her chances with Baz at her side. Not that she was going to tell him, of course.

She’d been planning this the whole summer, requiring only two things to happen simultaneously: her father had to go away for a few days, and then someone else had to do something stupid, like choke on a chicken bone or walk into oncoming traffic.
On the seventh day of August her father left the house with a change of clothes in a bag, Sol tied to his side like a little raft. Two days later their closest neighbor, Old Robichaux, obliged with the stupidity.

When it came to ghosts, Baz scarcely paid attention, couldn’t tell they were around even when they were sitting right beside him, but Lutie had an idea about music, and so she asked him anyway. All he did was complain about the heat and the fact that she was making him come out into it. He hadn’t said no, though. He never said no, not to her.

Her t-shirt was a hand-me-down from Sol through Baz to her, and had been washed to a faint parchment gray, thin enough to read a newspaper through. Lutie wiped heat-sticky hands against it and thought maybe she was melting, dripping away bit by bit, not unlike the corpse in the crypt, or the land itself, disappearing into salt water beyond the levees.

Some not-so-recent storm had stirred up the cemetery, made a mess of the place. Lutie didn’t know which hurricane, their names all sounded like big-city dancers. Marble boxes lay scattered about, a giant’s birthday party gone wrong, some spun spell that changed the presents and the guests to stone, even the angels.

One looked down on her, calm chill face impossible to sex, its wings casting a sheltering shadow as though that might cool her, but Lutie didn’t think angels cared much about shade or heat, or mosquitoes or any of those other things that bothered humans here on Earth. Papa had said as much. Her father hardly ever talked about angels, didn’t talk about much, really, but the old domino players had told her that Aurie Sarrazin knew all there was to know about angels and devils and everything in between.

The statue’s shade was a happy accident, Lutie understood, geography and astronomy come together, not anything more than that. Better if dem angels don’t make notice of you, ma pousinette, Papa had whispered to her with a whiskery kiss after he’d overheard Maman at prayer, asking for angels to watch over her.

Baz squirmed beside her, scratching an itch along his spine on the corner of a broken marker. His shoulder blades stuck out like he’d been starved, which was crazy, because Baz ate like a big dog with worms. That’s what Maman said, anyway, and she was the one who portioned out the food. At this year’s Cochon de Lait Festival, Lutie had seen her brother eat three boudin sausages in the space of time it would take most people to wash their hands.

Lutie was sure Baz wouldn’t tell Maman about this, but that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t scare the ghosts away and call her stupid and a baby. Older brothers, even goofy ones like Baz, were made of certain stuff.

What, you like dem? he’d have said. You like dem ghosts, T-Lu? You wann’em round, you? For what?

Baz didn’t care at all that he couldn’t see ghosts, always said it was enough for him that Papa could, like he was glad Papa was around to put food on the table, or Maman was there to make it. The talent had skipped over him, which seemed to be A-OK by Baz, even if it gave Sol one more thing to lord over him. Everyone said that Sol was gonna be traiteur after Papa when he got trained up enough. Which left baby Lutie and she saw everything: angels, devils, and ghosts. Her father’s daughter, for all he noticed.

In the bright noon sun of high summer, the ever-present swamp water stank like peanut oil shimmering in a hot pan, just down from the cemetery, across the road, right by the house. Too hot even for water moccasins. Maybe too hot for ghosts. There weren’t many ghosts in most graveyards, because her father knew how to send the dead on the proper road home before it got to being about ghosts.

But Papa had gone to the Atchafalaya Basin, whistling in vexation because he didn’t like being away, would be gone for a week at least, he’d said. Papa didn’t like leaving Maman alone for that long, but the fishing money was good and Sol was old enough to help this season. Maman had been angry; she’d started talking to herself. Lutie knew Maman wasn’t really talking to herself because her mother had a secret, didn’t she? Maman hid it from Papa, and Sol hadn’t noticed and Baz couldn’t see.

Maman had a pet ghost and if she had one, then Lutie could have one too.

As a general rule, Papa didn’t leave his territory, but you worked when you could get it because taking care of the sick, laying down paths for the dead—being the local traiteur—paid nothing. Maman made some coin with her cards and tealeaves, but if there was real money-work to be had, that’s what Papa did, especially with three kids to feed. Besides, no one was needing his services in their own neighborhood, not even a cough.

So Papa was away hauling up shrimp when Old Robichaux kicked the bucket—Baz’s words, not Maman’s. Maman didn’t put things that way, but she’d seemed interested in the death herself, waiting. Watching.

You sure didn’t hang onto a body in this heat. You boxed it, and fast.

In the bright washed-out noon, sky the same color as real lemonade, Lutie spotted Old Robichaux’s ghost, faint as a sinner’s hope. The ghost sat across from the stone angel, feet dangling from its own resting place, skinny old-man’s ass perched on the edge of the new cinderblock crypt. He’d died not thirty feet away, on the highway. The ambulance had taken him to the morgue, then brought him back here. Waste of gas, Baz had noted.

Robichaux’s ghost looked a little confused, but that was nothing new; he’d been plenty confused two days ago when he’d walked in front of one of those mini vans going too fast on its way north. Death apparently hadn’t made Robichaux any sharper, and Lutie was saddened for it. She’d been hoping that dying made you smarter. Maman always said it did.

Beside her, Baz shifted, moved like he was gonna bust out of his skin, start walking down the raised highway, just away, onto the next thing. Not so much annoyed as bored.

“Baz,” Lutie said under her breath. “Baz.” It was hard to get his attention when he had ants in his pants.

Bright greenblue eyes on her, unshorn hair matted to his forehead in the heat, white vest clinging damply to him. He smelled of goat. A smile. “Quoi?” Slow and long like he had a caramel melting in his mouth, sweet. Not bothered by his sister. Not bothered by the heat, by summer vacation winding down into its last weeks, school so far away it might as well be happening in the next century.

“Sing me a song,” she said, twisting a strand of hair fine and light as cornsilk around her finger, but keeping her eyes on the ghost, cause you sure didn’t know what those guys would do when you looked away.

“A song?” Baz repeated, tilting his head, brows rising, teeth gleaming briefly. “C’est trop chaud for singing.” Lutie knew it was all show. Might as well tell a fish not to swim.

“Is not, Baz.”

“Okay, Mademoiselle Je-sais-tout.” He took a breath, one hand coming up, pinching his nose. He didn’t look at her, his eyes were on the angel, Lutie realized.

Baz never did a single thing quietly, but especially not music. Their mother might hear him from her kitchen window, even way over here across the road, but it was a happy sound, nothing to worry anyone. Jaunty, an old song, one that Maman sometimes sang, which meant it was from way up north, in Canada, where she said it never got hot like this. Lutie knew the words, all of them. About being Acadian, losing your home, being put on a ship, destination unknown.

No time like now: her father was gone, Baz was singing, and Robichaux’s ghost happily swayed back and forth to the tune, waiting for a new owner like a dog at the pound. Lutie lay one hand on the ground, open and fingers splayed, like she’d seen Papa do. She closed her eyes. A bead of sweat splatted on the back of her hand. Concentrate. Call Robichaux over, bring him in. Bringing a ghost in was the opposite of what Aurie did. Her father sent them away, slid them off the leash with a gentle command.

The old man’s ghost came slowly to its feet, bones shaking beneath sloppy clothes, lines solidifying. To Lutie, Robichaux’s ghost seemed like the man always had, creepy and addled, and she could see clear through it to the moss-shagged cypress behind.

Baz, unaware of the ghost next to them, laughed through the chorus, tapped his heels against the dry ground, keeping rhythm, goosefleshed. He didn’t pay attention to things like a sudden waft of ghostcold, was too into his song. Papa had given Baz a second-hand fiddle a few months ago, and Lutie could tell her brother wanted it now, just to scratch out the tune. A fine singer, had been for as long as Lutie could remember, good enough now that people talked about it, and he’d be just as talented as a fiddler, no dumbass couyon needed to tell Lutie that.

The ghost’s face drooped, and Lutie could see how the bones of the left side were broken, smashed across the hood of an out-of-state vehicle in a hurry to get to town. Robichaux smiled and it was wrong. It occurred to Lutie that she should be scared. She hadn’t much liked the old man in life, and nothing had really changed about that. This guy’s gonna make a good pet?

For a moment, Lutie thought she saw something else move beyond Robichaux, but it was only the wind picking up again, shifting moss in the trees. Then it wasn’t, it was a shimmer, soft as milkweed silk drifting in the breeze, there if you didn’t look at it, gone if you did.

Another ghost, and now Lutie was scared, because Papa said only the newly dead and the angry dead stuck around and Robichaux was the only recent death she knew of. Which meant this ghost was the other kind and she was only seven years old and that was far too little to deal with an angry ghost.

It didn’t seem angry, though, this other ghost, which had the form of a woman, Lutie could now see, a black woman with long hair in plaits, a dress that looked old-fashioned, but might not be. The two ghosts came closer, but not for her. Not because of her.

Baz kept singing, one hand slapping against his bare thigh in rhythm with his heels, nothing better to do than sing for the sheer joy of it on a day like this in the shade of an angel. She might be able to catch one ghost, but not two. Maybe if Baz shut up, they’d go away. Lutie tried to hush him, but stopping Baz from singing was a whole lot harder than getting him to sing in the first place.

The sun came out from behind a wisp of cloud and the whole cemetery lit up, bathed them in it, bleached out their features so that Lutie thought they might be scorched, might be reduced to ash. Baz’s eyes were closed and he sang on, one song after the other.

By the time Maman found them, there were more than seven ghosts gathered around. Lutie had no idea where they’d come from, because their father was a better-than-average traiteur, and there were no stray ghosts anywhere near his house. Aside from Robichaux, these ghosts weren’t from around here, and she’d never seen so many in one place. Her guess about music—about Baz—had been a good one.

Maman halted the singing with a sharp word. She was a woman who saw ghosts on the sunniest of days. There was no hiding what they’d done. What Lutie had done; Baz was oblivious. Maman stared around and raised her hand, words under her breath. The ghosts fled, melted into the earth, evaporated like a bead of sweat in the wind. Not gone gone, how their father did it, but away, out of sight. The sun returned behind its cloud and the day darkened, an out-of-control fire snuffed under a blanket.

“Basile Sarrazin,” Mireille warned, low. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe?”
Baz scrambled to his bare feet, brows knotting in confusion, swiping dried cemetery grass from the seat of his threadbare cut-offs.

“Nuthin’,” he explained, teeth gleaming against skin so tanned he looked like that smiling cat in the book Sol had read to her. Baz would try charm with Maman first, Lutie knew. “Je chante, c’est tout.” Innocent, but older than Lutie, and a boy; when it rained, Baz got wet first.

Mireille’s brows rose, and she crossed her arms beneath the dark sweat patch staining the yoke of her shirt. “Luetta? Dites-moi.” And her green eyes glided to Lutie, who flushed.

No point in lying.

“Je veux un fantôme, M’man.” She paused, knowing the power of what she said. I want a ghost, Maman. The next words part pride, part anger. “Comme toi.”

Just like you.

Maman didn’t talk about her ghost with Papa, never mentioned it. Her ghost was so difficult to see, even for Lutie. She thought that maybe Papa couldn’t see Maman’s pet, and that maybe Maman hid it on purpose. Laying ghosts to rest was more than Papa’s job, it was his calling. So Lutie had some idea what her words might start, a small one.

Mireille’s anger came first, or was the first thing Lutie recognized. If it was just Lutie who knew about the pet ghost, that was one thing. But Baz was there to hear what Lutie said. Baz would tell Papa all about the hidden ghost, no doubt about it. Maman grabbed Lutie’s upper arm in a grip like death itself and she dragged Lutie from the cemetery, told Baz to get to the room he shared with Sol and stay there until their father came home and she didn’t care if that meant days.

Maman had other plans for Lutie, and she was not sent into solitary confinement like her brother.

Mireille was ice to Aurie’s fire, always out of step in this slow southern climate, heavy with unshed rains and frogsong and heat. She said, disparagingly, that where she came from the word ‘traiteur’ meant a caterer, not some kind of fancy faith healer, some social worker for spirits. Mireille hated it here, and Lutie knew it.

Aurie would deal with Old Robichaux, would deal with the others, too, Maman said. Mais, we don’t stick around for it, she added.

By the time she’d gathered what Maman said she must—clothes, a doll, one storybook—the sunlight was slanting from the west, cutting across the kitchen table. It winked from where Maman had placed her wedding ring on a chipped saucer like a treat left out for some stray cat.

Maman turned over the Pontiac’s engine, naked fingers clutching the wheel like a lifeline. They were leaving Baz in the upstairs bedroom. They were leaving, period.

Read the rest of Deadroads

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