Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guest Writer: Mike Handley

Time to Go

It had been five years since Katrina drove Auguste Babineaux from his bayou home near Lafitte, La., to neighboring Mississippi. His only possessions packed into his then-new, crew-cab Ford -- bought outright with cash earned from skinning alligators in September and redfish and speckled trout the other 11 months -- he drove north to Meridian. There, he toiled alongside teenagers 20 years his junior, bagging groceries and selling 99-cent tacos.

His coworkers’ smooth faces bore no resemblance to the topographical map encircling Auguste’s tired eyes. They spent their paychecks on the accoutrements of youth, while his were cashed, the $20 bills stashed in a metal box under his F-150’s front seat, awaiting the day he could go back home.
Late in December 2009, sick of living amongst people who couldn’t understand his Cajun dialect, he drove south to Biloxi, figuring he’d find a job easily with the hordes of contractors still rebuilding the coastal city. That didn’t work out so well. Cooyons couldn’t even pronounce his name; called him R.G. (instead of Auggie). And they were constantly poking fun at his white rubber boots.

Auguste wound up with the perfect job, though, as a security guard -- a role without a language barrier. At night, he slept in his truck, which he could park at the job site next to the Isle of Capri Casino on U.S. 90, the main drag. By day, he sat in a dingy guard shack barely 18 inches wider and longer than the fluorescent green Port-a-John 10 yards away.

The little shack was okay, though. It had an air conditioner about the size of small Igloo cooler, an even smaller television and a book shelf full of paperbacks by John Lee Burke. He liked to pretend he knew the protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, because he’d poached ducks on Barataria Bay with cousins sharing that surname. He’d also spent time in New Iberia, where Burke’s Robicheaux was a detective.

The guardhouse sat at the gated entrance -- think chain-link fencing, not lions atop pillars -- to a 5-acre cement slab abutting the Isle’s westernmost parking lot, used mainly by brown-skinned staff. It was difficult for hotel guests to decipher whether they were looking at a casino cemetery or nursery because the half-built or half-destroyed buildings’ exposed steel beams were rusty, as if they’d been squeezed out of the Gulf of Mexico’s colon.

Auguste hadn’t intended to stay in Biloxi. After barely a week on the job, he’d wanted badly to keep driving to Lafitte. He held no illusion that his camp, accessible only by boat, had survived Katrina, Rita or Ike. Far lesser storms were capable of burying the highest and most well built homes there, even those stilted ones on the mainland.

Yessir, he wanted to go back, perhaps return to his former life as a gator and fish skinner. Maybe find that spit of land and rebuild his cabin, one boatload at a time. But the BP oil rig blew that spring, and the leak had poisoned Louisiana’s marshes.

Fishermen were leaving. Shrimp nets were rotting. Restaurants were closing. TV people were moving in, and residents were again moving out.

But they’d stopped the gusher a month ago, and no more oil was coming out of the hole in the bottom of the sea. Fishing bans had been rescinded. Television news folk were no longer showing clips of pelicans covered in what looked like milk chocolate.

Just as Auguste stepped out of his air conditioned vault and stared at the water, a lone shrimp boat glided past, blue wings folded, heading out to the Gulf. He flipped his Marlboro into the stout breeze and decided right then it was time to go home. No more shitting inside a green ammonia bottle for him, mon cher. Besides, it was September, and Louisiana’s month-long gator season had opened.

© Mike Handley 2010

Mike Handley of Montgomery, Ala., is a career journalist and artist. His musings can be seen at handlets.blogspot.com, his artwork at www.mikehandleyart.com, and he's a frequent contributor at the 6S and ThinkingTen websites.

14 comments:

  1. This, Mike, is beautiful - a tale of persistent hope told in words which resonate - for me as well as him, having been to Barataria, having seen the damage of Katrina and Rita - and in an image which shows the pain in the eyes of the man in the painting. Evocative and smooth - for me, one of your best.
    (I trust both are in the book?)

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  2. Remarkable story of dislocation, Mike, masterfully told. When the bright lights of televison are gone it'll be stories like this, that touch American heart-strings, that will carry the story forward into the future. We can't afford to forget this tragedy.

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  3. Mike, this was a detailed story of one of Katrina's transplants. The readers mind can see things clearly. No one will ever really know what those people had to endure, but you have given them a glance. I loved your portrait of Auguste. And this line was perfect (half-built or half-destroyed buildings’ exposed steel beams were rusty, as if they’d been squeezed out of the Gulf of Mexico’s colon).

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  4. Great Mike- Having travelled over to Biloxi recently, I can see the devastation and 'left behind' stories in your words- nicely told

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  5. Great character study that also captures some of the stubborn, simmering persistence of the land itself. Nicely done.

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  6. I loved every word, Mike. Loved the resolve underpinning it. Loved the painting of this man, his topographical face. Loved the writing - the soulful, deep, plaintive, wonderful writing. Loved the fact that this story chose you to tell it, because you were the perfect choice. Bravo, my friend.

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  7. I met the man represented in this painting, and I want to say what a fantastic likeness this is. The South is full of amazing stories, and this one joins the ranks with Tom Franklin's "Poachers" and Tim Gautreaux' "Welding With Chidlren." Bravo!

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  8. Your words paint as well as your hands. Beautiful job.

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  9. Very graphic picture of the situation and the individuals whose lives are still in limbo from Katrina and subsequent devastation.

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  10. Sir, what a finely detailed character sketch you have created. I have met and chatted with Auggie, I believe, after reading this. You crafted him with much care and dignity, and it reads in each word.

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  11. Stubborn survival is the greatest part of the human equation, Mike. I can't decide whether your paint or words are more prolifically poignant.
    Masterful job on both!

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  12. The call to go home, to those who are able, is powerful; it can't be denied. It exists all over. This story is specific to the Gulf Coast in its description, but the feeling evoked is that universal one. And it is strong, and so well written that the reader can find his or her home in it. That Mike deigned to grace it with one of his remarkable pieces of art makes it a triple threat--strong emotions, good writing, and poignant image. It doesn't get much better.

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  13. I don't know how I missed this one Mike, but you know I love it! Really well done!

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