Friday, May 15, 2020

The White Cadillac by Robert Funderburk

In god-fearing Louisiana, on the west bank of the Mississippi, fourteen-year-old Chris faces a tragedy and finds a true friend; by Robert Funderburk.

I grew up in Algiers, on the 'Point,' and when I played on the grassy slopes of the levee as a child, I would look across a half mile of rolling muddy water to the twin spires of the oldest cathedral in the country. To the left was the six-storied bulk of the Jackson Brewing Company, makers of Jax Beer. Both buildings were purposed as escape routes from the drudgery of the world. They were separated by: Jackson Square, with its piked iron fence and artists and entertainers and tourists; the horse-drawn carriages that clattered along St. Peter Street; and the bright endless span of eternity.

My first memories were of the smell of sweat and grease and Dixie beer, and my dad's calloused hands, as he held me in the garden behind our house. By the time I was five or six, my mother would send me around the corner to CJ's bar to get my dad's daily beer. It was never kept in the house, and I never saw him have more than one.

The three of us would sit on the brick patio with palm fronds rattling against the stone wall in the breeze off the gulf. The smell of jasmine and gardenia and my mother's roses would move in slow waves on the textured air of evening.

I suppose our talk ran to the small, unremarkable events of the day. That part is gone. What remains is the quiet joy we shared at the end of each day and the light in the eyes of my mother and dad when they looked at each other. At these times, I felt that nothing of the outside world could ever separate or harm us.



Father Nick stood at the microphone on the stage in his black suit and unpolished combat boots. He is five-five and wiry, one hundred forty pounds of strength and balance. His hair is also wiry, and it is dark and wild, like his eyes. He was closing. "I announced Your justice in the vast assembly; I did not restrain my lips as You, O Lord, know. Your justice I kept... Alleluia." He stood relaxed and smiling and watched us.

"Rise, children," Sister Theresa said, lifting her arms in front of her, palms upward, "and make your way quietly to your classes."

It was eight-thirty, and the morning assembly was over. We had been cautioned against the temptations of the flesh; exampled by the life of one of the saints (I could see an endless file of them stretching back through the centuries, in haloed postures of prayer, shunning even the bodily functions) and admonished to be proper little Josephs and Marys.

We would then make our scuffling, bumping, murmuring ways out of the auditorium to the classrooms. The lockers were in the hallway just outside, girls on one side, boys on the other.

I felt a delicate touch on my left arm and turned to see her, arms laden with books, making even the navy skirt and white blouse look regal. The blonde hair was long and as straight as an Indian's, and her eyes were big and dark and somehow out of place in the bright face.

"Thanks for the cinnamon roll," she said, "I didn't get a chance to eat breakfast this morning."

I looked from the eyes to her Cupid's bow mouth and felt my throat constrict and my knees going soft. I took a breath, folded my arms across my chest and leaned back against the locker, trying to look disinterested.

"Anytime. We always go there before school. The apple fritters are my favorite." Apple fritters. That's impressive, Chris. She'll swoon any second now.

"Maybe I'll try one. Would you mind if I met you there tomorrow?"

That moment is as clear to me now as the day it happened: at Holy Name of Mary in that crowded, noisy hallway, with a million dust particles dancing in the brilliant light streaming through the transom, and Becky's smile and the sweet feeling inside my chest that made me think life was too good to be true.



It was a ten-minute walk home from school, in the way fourteen-year-old boys walk anywhere. Across from Trupiano's Market and Deli, where my mother bought thin-sliced ham and Italian sausage and their crispy-chewy French bread, I could hear the jukebox through the screen door of CJ's and smell the hamburgers frying on the grill, as I passed the take-out window that opened directly onto the street.

I was thinking of Becky and the fragrance of her that morning when she had stepped close and straightened the collar of my shirt, and of seeing her at the bakery across from school the next morning.

When I turned the corner onto Pacific, I could see the levee four blocks away, where a nineteen-sixty-five spanking new Mustang was speeding along Patterson Street. The September sun had a July warmth as it struck the left side of my face and glinted off a white Cadillac, almost as long as the front of our house, parked on the street. The left front tire was turned outward and rested on the curb. Behind the steering wheel, a large man with curly black hair smoked a cigarette.

A numbness began in the pit of my stomach, and I felt it spread to my chest and arms and legs like thousands of tiny deaths beneath my skin. I sat on the curb with my books on the sidewalk next to me, tapping with a stick on a crushed Coke can that lay between my legs in the gutter. The shadow of a telephone pole fell across me from behind, stretched across the street and up and beyond a house, and when I stood I thought it was my own.

The Cadillac man stood next to me.

"Who are you?" I asked.

"John Gabriel, with the union," he said and put his arm around me. "Your daddy was a friend of mine." He picked up my books. "Let's go in the house. Check on your mother."

Inside, the doctor was coming down the hall from my parent's bedroom with sunlight from behind him glancing off the polished wood floor. He sat me down on the sofa, pressing my wrist with two fingers and said, "I've just given your mother a sedative. She'll sleep for awhile. Mr. Gabriel will stay with you until your aunt gets here." He looked at me closely and let go of my wrist. "Is there anything I can do for you now?"

"No sir. Thank you."

After the doctor left, Mr. Gabriel sat next to me on the sofa. I felt the springs give, then rise under me. "Chris, I want you to call me John. And don't worry, I'm taking care of everything," he said, while unbuttoning his collar and loosening his tie. "You just see to your mother."

"Where's my daddy? How come I never saw you on the dock?"

John took a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket and a silver lighter from his pants, lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it. He let it out slowly and said, "I spend most of my time traveling or in the office. Worked the docks eight years though." His eyes wandered about the room and rested on a picture of my parents. My dad was wearing his Army dress uniform. "We lost your dad this morning, Chris. These things happen. It can be a dangerous job."

His words had little effect on me. The sight of the white Cadillac had taken care of that.

"Maybe we should go out back." The smoker rose and walked toward the hallway.

On the patio, John settled into a slouch as though his news was a weight pressing him down. I sat in my usual place, although everything about this visit was as far from usual as I could imagine.

"We were breaking in a new winchman this morning, and the whip caught your dad in the back." The smoke from his cigarette was lifting in slim strands, disappearing in a slant of sunlight above his hair. "He fell between the dock and the ship. We looked for him until about an hour ago. Then I came to tell your mother."

John Gabriel stayed with me four hours that day, until my mother's sister arrived from St Martinville. We sat in the garden, John in my dad's chair, with the first fallen sweet gum leaves rustling on the bricks and the banana trees moving heavily in the slow wind.

"Your daddy and me started on the docks the same day, Chris." He coughed and lit a fresh cigarette from the one he had finished smoking. "I couldn't wait till the day I could get away from the bone-grinding work and into that air conditioned office. Your daddy didn't want nothin' at it. Said union politics, or any other kind, would sooner or later ruin a man."

That day John showed me another side of my father. The day faded into dusk, and the shadows of the tall, slate-roofed houses lengthened and covered the last scattered pools of sunlight in the garden while the smoker talked.

John stood up and walked to the back porch. He picked up one of my dad's scuffed work shoes and looked at it for a long time. "Your dad took care of his men. He never had a silent winch in his crews, so when layoff time came, his men were always the last to go."

My mind was drifting back to to those Saturday mornings my dad had to work overtime and let me go to the docks with him.

John placed the shoe back as gently as a supplicant at the altar. "I'd see him out there with that freezin' wind blowin' off the water and wonder why he didn't take this job. They offered it to him first."

"I don't remember Daddy ever talkin' about you," I said, surprised by the sound of my words.

"Noah didn't have much to do with me after I took the union job. I did some things he didn't approve of," John said through a veil of smoke before his face. "He was always loyal to the union though. I never could figure it out."

"Anyway, when your daddy made walkin' foreman, which meant he was in charge of work over the whole ship, that was as far as he'd go. All the big shippin' outfits wanted him 'cause he knew the work better'n anybody, and the men would bust a gut for him. But he didn't want no part of bein' a company man."

I watched John's face fall into shade as the sun dropped behind a rooftop. He looked directly into my eyes, then over at my dad's shoes on the porch, "The world can't afford to lose a man like Noah Barton."



The conversation hummed and roared around me and people stood and squatted and sat next to me; the flower scented women with soft hands would take mine and speak gently and the low growl of the men would float down on their whiskey-smelling breaths. The words held no meaning, as I sat on the soft flowered chair next to my mother in Mothe's Funeral Home on Valette Street, but the collective warmth and nearness of people inserted itself between me and that protean shape in the dark that waited, that I would face again and again.

My mother was drinking coffee from a thin white cup with a silver rim. She sat erect and held the saucer on her lap with her left hand. I thought she looked very pretty with her deep, sad eyes and her skin like pale marble. A tall woman with blue hair and a black mole on her wrinkled neck was talking to her. I looked from my mother to the coffin that was a metallic gray, the color of my father's eyes, draped with an American flag, closed and empty.



In the white glare of the cemetery, people dressed in black, and dark shades of blue and brown and gray, were crowded between the tombs. The priest was reading from a thin black volume. "May the angels take you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you on your way, and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem."

Light glinted from the coffin... empty. My dad swam with the catfish and the giant alligator gar, breathing water. Sleek as a porpoise he glided beneath the keels of the ships in the rich depths of the river, his bright hair nimbused in the dark, like cold white flames about his head.

"Let us pray. O God, by Whose mercy rest is given to the souls of the faithful, in Your kindness bless this grave. Entrust it to the care of Your holy angel, and..."

I wondered if Becky knew, if she had gone to the bakery the last two mornings looking for me. I wanted to breathe her into me; to feel her warmth and life; to have her reach up and pull away this cold shroud that smothered, that deadened.

"May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful, departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace."

"Amen," we all said in unison.

The priest closed the book, stepped next to my mother and placed his right hand on her shoulder, "You'd best be going on home now, Helen. Get some rest. There's nothing more to do."

"I will, Father. Thank you so much. It was a beautiful service." She took my hand, and we walked slowly along behind the last of the people leaving the cemetery.

"Honey, I know I'm going to expect a lot of you now that Noah's gone, but I'll try not to interfere in your life. You let me know if I'm too much bother."

I think that was the first time I saw her as someone other than my mother, the woman who cooked and washed my clothes and was always there to rub Vicks salve on my chest when I had a cold or bring freshly baked chocolate chip cookies to my room when I just had the blues. She was much more than just my mother. "Don't worry about that, Mama. We're gonna do just fine, and we're gonna have good times again, too."

On the way home, my mother sat in the front seat of the car with her sister, Jeannette. The Color Guard at the cemetery had been a surprise for me, then a source of pride. "I'm just beginning to know my daddy," I thought. "I'm just beginning to know."

We were passing antebellum and Victorian style houses whose deep red or gray or green roofs were baking in the September heat. They had second-story verandas and widow's walks, white latticework and Greek columns and long porches with marine grey floors, iron fences that were never quite plumb and live oaks whose roots had tilted the sidewalks at odd angles. I always liked to walk the old streets, on sidewalks that were broken and lovely and still held to their purpose.



That autumn seemed more of a long, wandering dream than life. My mother stayed in the house much of the time and seemed to sleep more and more. After school, I would go to the river and walk the levee for miles and the thin white light of summer turned gold as the sun slipped further south. The massive steel pylons that supported the bridge marked the halfway point, and I would sit under them and rest and listen to the roar of traffic high above the lapping of the waves at the river's edge.

This side of the Jackson Street Ferry, an abandoned wharf, hidden by willows, reached forty feet out into the river. The boards had turned shades of gray and charcoal and brown, and where nails and bolts had given way, I could look down to the muddy swirling of the current. At its end, the wharf formed a "T" and was covered by a rusted ochre-colored tin roof. There was a crude bench made of two-by-twelves nailed between the roof supports.

I would sit there after school and on weekends and look at the skyline of New Orleans beyond the bridge and at the ships from ports all over the world, and directly across to the Robin Street Wharf, where my dad had taken me on those Saturday mornings in another life. I would see myself perched high on a stack of wooden crates or bales of cotton, while he moved among the men seeing to the loading and unloading of ships.

That was in the daytime. At night, he would come to me in that murky, watery world, his hair blazing with light and my sorrow dying in the radiance of his smile. I would run toward him, toward the light and the burning away of sorrow, toward my father, who vanished in a bright vapor when I touched him. Each time I would awaken, startled by the pain of his death, with the weight of the night heavy on my chest and the slow, stale blood coursing in my veins.



On my first day back at school, I walked into Susslin's Bakery at seven-thirty. There were a few "Sorry to hears" and "How you doin's" from my friends, but the conversations were strained, and I knew it would take some time before they felt comfortable around me. After a minute or two they drifted off, and I was left at the counter looking at the display case.

Mr. Susslin saw me through the swinging doors and walked out from the kitchen. He had skin like kneaded dough and his waistline spoke of years of sampling his products. A white apron covered his tee shirt and baggy khakis and his graying brown hair was as heavy and greasy as his pastries were light and fluffy.

"Sorry about your dad, Chris. You doin' okay? You look fine," he said as he put two apple fritters in a bag and drew a cup of coffee from the large silver urn. "Here's what you need, son. Make you feel like a new man."

Through the plate glass window, I could see Becky making her way across the street toward the bakery. "Excuse me, Mr. Susslin, I'll be right back."

"Sure, Chris. I was young once myself."

I met her out front on the sidewalk, took her books and opened the door for her. She glanced at me once, then kept her head turned away. Not another one. Not just a "Sorry, Chris," and back to the company of the fathered masses, the untainted two-parent kids. I put her books on a table next to the window and, as she sat down, returned to the counter.

"She's a real pretty girl," Mr. Susslin said, placing a carton of milk and a glass on the counter next to the coffee. "You be nice to her, Chris."

I laid two dollars on the counter, but he waved me off and walked back through the swinging doors.

Becky poured milk into the glass, while I stirred sugar into my coffee. The morning light made her hair shine like it had been polished, and shadowed the right side of her face.

She looked away from the khaki and navy and white clothed throng crossing the streets and milling about on the school ground, and directly into my eyes. "Chris, I'm so sorry about your daddy." (Here it comes, the "I'll be so busy this year. See you around sometime" story.) "I know you'll be busy this year, but maybe we could spend some time together. You know, just the two of us."

My heart rolled over in my chest like a playful puppy. "I think that's a great idea, Becky." Who said girls aren't smart?



The great ship plowed by on its way south, underneath the bridge, past the ruins of Fort Jackson and into the Gulf. I could see rust on its booms and stacks and men moving about on deck and "Helene" painted in black on the bow.

It was a Saturday afternoon in early October, and Becky sat next to me on my hidden wharf. The morning had been clear and crisp, but the wind shifted and cloud cover had moved slowly in from the southwest like a gray blanket being pulled across the blue dome of the sky.

"Is the roast beef po-boy all right?" Becky asked. She was dressed in faded jeans and a white cotton blouse and was leaning back against a post with her bare feet on the rough bench. It could have tasted like ground glass and motor oil and my answer would have been the same. "This is great. Best I ever had."

"I just love this place, Chris. It's like nothing can touch us here." She was looking out across the river toward the towering International Trade Mart and the French Quarter beyond. "All those thousands and thousands of people and nobody knows where we are; it's just perfect."

A curtain of rain had reached the mouth of the Harvey canal and was sweeping down the river toward us. The first heavy drops dented the river's surface from shore to shore and then it was on us, pounding the tin roof like shrapnel. A cold spray came blowing in, and I took Becky's hand and led her to the lee side of the shed. We sat on the floor, a quilt wrapped about us, and her hair soft against my cheek as she leaned against me.

"Well, maybe not quite perfect," I said, "Like right now."

"This is even better. I love the rain and the sound on the tin roof."

I tucked the quilt behind her back and held it round her with my arm. "You made these last weeks a lot easier for me, Becky. I don't know if I coulda handled it or not." I turned her face slightly with my fingertips and kissed her on the cheek.

"I wish I could take the pain away, Chris, but time will heal it. That's what my mother always says."

I couldn't imagine a hundred years doing that, but I tried not to think about it. "I guess you're right."

Becky sat straight with her ankles crossed, her face to the wind. "Chris, was your daddy saved?"

"What's that?"

"You know. Was he a Christian?"

I felt a little uneasy and didn't want to talk about this, but the concern in Becky's eyes kept me going. "He was brought up Baptist. Mama told me something happened that turned him against the church so he quit goin'. He'd go to Mass with us on Easter and Christmas, but that was about it." The thought hit me as I watched Becky tying a scarf around her hair that was whipping about her face in the wind. "You're not Catholic, are you? No wonder I never saw you at Sunday Mass."

"No. I'm Baptist, like your daddy was. My parents don't have much confidence in the public schools. That's why I'm at Holy Name."

"I was wondering where you got this saved business from."

"It's just trusting Jesus as your Savior, Chris. That's where the word comes from."

I looked out over the wind-swept water toward the Robin Street Wharf, a dim outline in the heavy rain. "I was baptized by the priest when I was two weeks old, had my first communion when I was six, and my confirmation in the sixth grade. As far as the church is concerned, I'm okay."

"I didn't mean to upset you, Chris," Becky said. She had her arms folded and was shivering slightly. "Just because your daddy didn't go to church doesn't mean he didn't make it to Heaven. I think you should know that."

Something I didn't understand had been playing around at the back of my mind, and I decided to let it out. "I could never be upset at you, Becky. You're the best friend I've ever had." I reached for her hand, and she came closer to me under the blanket.

Becky sat between my legs and leaned back against my chest with her head resting on my shoulder. My arms around her and her hands on top of mine. "Oh, Chris, I'll love you forever."

Somehow, even at fourteen, I knew forevers seldom lasted very long. "Becky, I want to talk to you about something. Something I don't understand."

"You can talk to me about anything, Chris. I want us to know everything about each other."

"It's about my daddy," I said. A sudden chill hit me that wasn't from the wind, and something dark pressed down on me as if trying to stop me from speaking. "About two weeks before he died, it was Saturday, and I was going to work with him. I got up about five-thirty. Daddy always got up at five o'clock, even on Saturday, and had coffee in the kitchen or sometimes out back if the weather was good."

Becky tightened her grip on my hands and snuggled against me.

That thing wanted me to be quiet, but I fought against it. "I was walking down the hall and I heard my dad talking softly, almost a whisper. He'd never talked this way to another person, not that I'd heard anyway. He sounded almost like a child, but not a child either; it's hard to explain 'cause my dad was anything but childlike. I stopped and waited until he finished whatever it was he was saying, and then I got this feeling that there was somebody else, no that's not right, some other - presence in the house with us." I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "This is as close as I can come to what went on that morning."

Becky turned her head to look at me. "Chris, you're trembling. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, sure. A little damp, that's all. Anyway, I went to the kitchen door and saw daddy sitting at the table. His Bible was open and his hands were laying on it and his head was bowed. Becky, do you think this really happened? Maybe I just dreamed it."

She squeezed my hands again. "I believe it did, Chris."

I don't think I could have continued if Becky hadn't been holding on to me. I don't know why, but it made a difference. "Daddy was just sitting there with a few tears on his face, and then he started to smile, not like something was funny, but like he always did when Mama told him how much she loved him." Remembering his smile that morning, I felt tears welling up inside me, took a deep breath and choked them back. "Then he looked at me, and his face was like I never saw it before, like something you'd see in an old painting, but that's not it either. I just can't explain."

Becky was quiet, and there was the sound of rain and the warmth of her hands on mine.

"He got up and walked over to me, and he was still smiling and there was - oh, I don't know - a kind of peace about him. Then he put his arms around me and gave me a big hug, he didn't do that much, and I could feel how much he loved me. I don't understand it, but I felt his love all through me. He stood back with his hands on my shoulders and laughed out loud and said, "I feel like celebratin', Chris. Let's take your mama out to Commander's Palace for supper tonight. How'd you like that?"

Becky's voice was soft and clear in the sound of the wind and the rain. "Your daddy came back to Jesus, Chris. Something made him run away, but he came back, and that's all that matters."

"I'm glad you're here Becky. I'm glad I told you this."

We sat and watched the rain on the water until the first glimmering of blue appeared beyond the long curve of the river. I didn't know what had happened to me, but the pain that had ripped at my chest was gone, and there was a lingering sadness that I could bear. Never again would I awaken in the night to that siren call from the river, that sweet and deadly voice that would draw me through the willows onto the wharf, that whispered dive, dive into me, into the bright soft flow of me and swim forever with your father!

Becky was warm against me under the blanket, and the sun had broken through and touched the willows. They were bending over the water's edge, their long dripping leaves shot with silver, like women come to the river to wash their hair.

3 comments:

  1. Very lyrical and poetic, the story drew me in to its ambiance. Very skilled story weaving the character of the boy and of the time and place...the feeling of time and place comes across clear and true.

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  2. The story really did a great job of describing the world that Chris lived in. It was enjoyable to picture the settings in my mind, especially in these times where we have to stay indoors. I also commend you on writing about faith without making it seem sentimental. Thanks.

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  3. A melancholy tale of a boy learning to deal with grief through faith and companionship. Very well-written, consistent mood and tone and pacing throughout. Soothing ending, left me feeling confident that Chris will be okay.

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