THE BENZENE CARNIVAL
—About the book—
In Louisiana, where raving insanity often passes for political genius, the once political Ternbuckle family has reached its nadir. The lands are gone, the plantation home is a wreck, and the family patriarch is committed. The three children seem normal at a distance, perhaps, but all suffer from the family curse. Delilah, who lives in a tragic Civil War past thanks to the journals of a long ago ancestor, has gained a (deserved) reputation for driving men to insanity with her songs. Pauli, the naďve middle child, desperately wants to see a naked girl so he can draw her picture, but goes about it wrongly and is sent to a reorientation camp for suspected homosexuals. And Cal, the youngest, so deeply believes he is a dog that the entire family comes to accept it. When Cal is kidnapped by Mormon cowboys, the family must come together to get him back, even as they wonder if their dog-boy wouldn’t be better off where he is.
I first heard of Louisiana’s blue-eyed and flaxen-haired tribe of cannibals in the courtyard of the Napoleon House. An acquaintance called me over where he was drinking with Harry Moralez — a French Quarter dive-dweller I knew by reputation as a promoter of ghost stories and dabbler in the occult. Harry was red-faced and talkative, and enormously fat — his mustache suggested Tennessee Williams, the rest of him a Volkswagen once owned by hippies. Over shrimp po-boys and Dixie longnecks, I told him of the book I was writing about a family of ne’er-do-wells in Cajun country. He listened in distracted fashion, then said he would help me as he could see I was struggling. He’d loan me some truly interesting characters — children he’d grown up with who were “actual aristocrats, not some damn coonasses” — and I could write a book worthy of the name. Or better yet, a TV movie!
I might have strangled him then, and maybe I should have.
His childhood compatriots had lived on an old cotton plantation in Cameron Parish. Dissipated remnants of the infamous Ternbuckle family, a name that meant nothing to me at the time. Long before the Spanish ceded the Sabine marshlands in 1819, the Ternbuckles had enjoyed considerable wealth and power. Unshaken by the Civil War and barely dented by the Great Depression, they were finally laid low by scurrilous rumors and ruinous lawsuits. Only, Harry said, the rumors were more than rumors. He began a meandering tale involving the aforesaid cannibals — the Cuatro Piernas — that had me pulling an earlobe, as I assumed it was so much hoodoo and claptrap for tourists. The bones of his story stuck in my mind, however, and some years later I managed to track down the children. They weren’t children anymore, being forty years older, nor were they institutionalized as I’d fully expected. But after several contacts over a period of years, I began to doubt my own sanity. For I came to believe their mad vision of reality, having seen it with my own eyes.
In which Delilah cannot escape her hated plantation and becomes the harlot of Bible camp.
Tony and I watch the fall of Saigon in the cool of Bill Henry’s study. An army in pith helmets and sandals marches smartly in the streets while a desperate mob of locals climb a ladder to a roof and squeeze aboard the evacuation helicopters. There’s such a crush that some dangle from the skids as they loft into the sky while loudspeakers blare “White Christmas” surrealistically in the heat.
I envy those refugees — those holding on, anyway. They’re whisked to an armada of ships to eat fried chicken and potato salad, then to big American cities where they’ll open restaurants and bars and dry cleaners. And they’ll get rich because everyone gets rich in America. Everyone except for yours truly trapped on Prosperity Plantation — a name that long ago became a joke.
Tony leaves at midnight. I go upstairs and throw myself into bed without bothering to undress. I dream of those evacuation helicopters landing on the highway, Tony and I running down our shell drive, then soldiers pulling us onboard.
“Anyone else?” a captain shouts over the engines.
“We’re the last,” I lie.
The turbine whines, the floorboard tilts and we loft into the sky. They whisk us to the Troubadour in Los Angeles where I belt out “Ball and Chain” and record producers press fat contracts into Tony’s hands, yelling his girlfriend is a born-again Janis Joplin.
But that’s just a dream, and as you may know, life crushes dreams underfoot like wayward ladybugs. Only money is important as money is the mother of all good things. I constantly scheme how to get it — enough to support us for years in some more temperate land where Louisiana is just a mosquito welt on the horizon. But my schemes go awry and thus here I remain, ball and chained to this hated plantation because I’m a third-generation pauperess and June won’t let me drive until I’m eighteen. She claims young women have twitchy limbs that cause them to veer off the road and plunge into the nearest body of water. I don’t bother arguing as her own twitchy driving will surely kill us all one day.
Mark my words.
A month passes. The gulf breeze dies and the sun swells dangerously overhead. Birds fuss in the shade of the oaks while clock hands turn so sluggishly you wonder if you are dead. I lie like a corpse on a beach towel next to the burned-up cotton field in a green bikini as my skin turns to bronze under its sheen of Coppertone. At night it fades to the white of a tombstone as I sweat in my great grandaunt Emma’s bed — a feather bed now salty and damp and filled with lumps. It smells of onions and I know June has stuffed them in the mattress to drain my color. I add this crime to my Book of Transgressions & Paybacks —
I’ve lost my tan again and June was in my room with an onion sack. Conclusion inescapable.