Years ago, in state documents, Vachel Carmouche was always referred to as the
electrician, never as the executioner. That was back in the days when the
electric chair was sometimes housed at Angola. At other times it traveled, along
with its own generators, on a flatbed semitruck from parish prison to parish
prison. Vachel Carmouche did the state's work. He was good at it.
In New Iberia we knew his real occupation but pretended we did not. He lived by himself, up Bayou Teche, in a tin-roofed, paintless cypress house that stayed in the deep shade of oak trees. He planted no flowers in his yard and seldom raked it, but he always drove a new car and washed and polished it religiously.
Early each morning we'd see him in a cafe on East Main, sitting by himself at the counter, in his pressed gray or khaki clothes and cloth cap, his eyes studying other customers in the mirror, his slight overbite paused above his coffee cup, as though he were waiting to speak, although he rarely engaged others in conversation.
When he caught you looking at him, he smiled quickly, his sun-browned face threading with hundreds of lines, but his smile did not go with the expression in his eyes.
Vachel Carmouche was a bachelor. If he had lady friends, we were not aware of them. He came infrequently to Provost's Bar and Pool Room and would sit at my table or next to me at the bar, indicating in a vague way that we were both law officers and hence shared a common experience.
That was when I was in uniform at NOPD and was still enamored with Jim Beam straight up and a long-neck Jax on the side.
One night he found me at a table by myself at Provost's and sat down without being asked, a white bowl of okra gumbo in his hands. A veterinarian and a grocery store owner I had been drinking with came out of the men's room and glanced at the table, then went to the bar and ordered beer there and drank with their backs to us.
"Being a cop is a trade-off, isn't it?" Vachel said.
"Sir?" I said.
"You don't have to call me 'sir' . . . You spend a lot of time alone?"
"Not so much."
"I think it goes with the job. I was a state trooper once." His eyes, which were as gray as his starched shirt, drifted to the shot glass in front of me and the rings my beer mug had left on the tabletop. "A drinking man goes home to a lot of echoes. The way a stone sounds in a dry well. No offense meant, Mr. Robicheaux. Can I buy you a round?"
The acreage next to Vachel Carmouche was owned by the Labiche family, descendants of what had been known as free people of color before the Civil War. The patriarch of the family had been a French-educated mulatto named Jubal Labiche who owned a brick factory on the bayou south of New Iberia. He both owned and rented slaves and worked them unmercifully and supplied much of the brick for the homes of his fellow slave owners up and down the Teche.
The columned house he built south of the St. Martin Parish line did not contain the Italian marble or Spanish ironwork of the sugar growers whose wealth was far greater than his own and whose way of life he sought to emulate. But he planted live oaks along the drives and hung his balconies and veranda with flowers; his slaves kept his pecan and peach orchards and produce fields broom-sweep clean. Although he was not invited into the homes of whites, they respected him as a businessman and taskmaster and treated him with courtesy on the street. That was almost enough for Jubal Labiche. Almost. He sent his children North to be educated, in hopes they would marry up, across the color line, that the high-yellow stain that limited his ambition would eventually bleach out of the Labiche family's skin.
Unfortunately for him, when the federals came up the Teche in April of 1863 they thought him every bit the equal of his white neighbors. In democratic fashion they freed his slaves, burned his fields and barns and corncribs, tore the ventilated shutters off his windows for litters to carry their wounded, and chopped up his imported furniture and piano for firewood.
Excerpted from Purple Cane Road by James Lee Burke Copyright 2000 by James Lee Burke. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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