Page 200 of Creole Belle (Dave Robicheaux 19)

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I blame myself for what happened to Blue. I go out to the ocean in Santa Monica and think I see her in the waves. I never figured out why they did that to her. I never figured out anything. I let them put junk in my arm and abort my baby. I don’t know why I let that happen. I think it’s all on me, though.

Your friend,

Tee Jolie

The third card arrived the following day. It read:

Dear Mr. Dave,

I haven’t give up. I’m going to make it out here. You’re going to see, you. Tell Mr. Clete Gretchen and me met John Goodman and he looks just like Mr. Clete.

Good-bye until I write again,

Tee Jolie

The early mornings were grand. We ate breakfast at a buffet on the terrace and watched the pinkness of the dawn dissolve into a hard blue sky and a seascape flecked with foam. Throughout the day, the view from the terrace was wonderful, the coconut palms bending in the wind, the edge of the surf etched by starfish and conch shells, while seagulls wheeled overhead and the clouds sometimes creaked with thunder. As I looked at the turquoise brilliance of the water and the channels of hot blue that were like rivers within the ocean, I wondered if we had failed to give nature credit for its restorative powers. Those moments were short-lived. The truth was my thoughts about nature’s resilience were self-serving, because I did not wish to spoil the mood for everyone else by dwelling upon the sludge from the blowout that had fouled the Gulf of Mexico from one end to the other. Regardless of what either our government or the captains of industry had to say, I believed the oil was out there, meshed inextricably with chemical dispersants, hanging like carpet on coral reefs and on oyster beds and at depths that seldom experience sunlight. I started to raise the subject with Clete on one occasion, then let it drop. Clete was still Clete, but since the second shootout on the bayou, he had been unduly burdened and had become more insular and detached than any of us, gazing at images that perhaps no one else saw.

One morning after breakfast, I realized what was on his mind, and it was not the horrific death of Alexis Dupree. Clete had made friends with three Vietnamese children whose mother worked at the motel, and rather than go out on the charter boat with me, he had bought cane poles and bobbers and hooks and lead sinkers and a carton of shrimp and had taken the children fishing in the surf. He waded out with them and baited their hooks and showed them how to cast their lines above a cresting wave into the swell where schools of baitfish flickered across the surface like a spray of raindrops. To give the children better access, he carried them one

by one onto a sandbar where they could throw their lines into water that was deeper and a darker blue and held bigger and more exciting fish.

He was bare-chested and wearing his Budweiser shorts that extended almost to his knees, his love handles hanging over the elastic band, his porkpie hat tilted forward on his forehead, his chest and shoulders and back tanned and scarred and hard-looking and shiny with lotion, gold curlicues of hair pasted on his skin. He was carrying an iPod, the headphones clamped on his neck, “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys blaring from the foam-rubber earpieces.

I was looking straight at him from the deck of the motel, but I knew that in reality, Clete was no longer in Key West, Florida. Inside the driving rhythm of the Beach Boys’ music and the glaze of light on the ocean, I knew he had taken flight to a place on the opposite side of the world, where a young Eurasian woman was broiling fish for him on a charcoal blazer, aboard a sampan silhouetted against a red sun as big as China.

Unfortunately, his reverie and the tranquil moment he was enjoying would not last. The day had grown much warmer, and there was a smell like brass and electricity in the air, and to the south you could see a squall line moving toward the Keys. On top of the water, I could see the pink and blue air sacs of jellyfish, and triangular rust-colored shapes that at first I thought were remnants of the sludge that had floated east from the Louisiana coast. In actuality, I was looking at the leathery backs of stingrays that had been kicked toward the shore by the storm building on the southern horizon.

Within seconds, the waves had washed the jellyfish past the sandbar, encircling it, their poisonous tentacles floating like translucent string on the surface.

I wasn’t sure whether Clete knew the danger he and the children were in. I should have known better. Clete was cavalier about his own safety but never about the safety and well-being of anyone else. He picked up all three children, holding them high up on his chest, clear of the water, and waded through the jellyfish like Proteus rising from the surf with his wreathed horn, “Help Me, Rhonda” still blaring from the headphones. After he set them down on the sand, he told them all to hold hands as he led them out on the street where the ice-cream wagon had just stopped.

And that’s the way we dealt with the great issues of our time. Clete protected the innocent and tried to do good deeds for people who had no voice, and I tried to care for my family and not brood upon the evil that men do. We didn’t change the world, but neither were we changed by it. As the writer in Ecclesiastes says, one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. For me, the acceptance of those words and the fact that I can spend my days among the people I love are victory enough.


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