out my lunch. I didn’t touch the beets on the table, although the others did. The meat was tender, my spoon sharp enough to cut it, and the brown gravy was seasoned perfectly, leaving noneed to add salt or pepper to it; the same was true of the beans. For dessert we had banana-pudding flavored ice cream.
Mr. Patin, a short man of slight yet sturdy build, was a house painter and painted Mns. Doucet’s house in 1996; the two struck up a friendship. Both men enjoyed attending the horse races at Evangeline Downs on the outskirts of Lafayette. Mr. Patin had poor night vision and with his work night races were the only ones he could attend, so Mns. Doucet drove them in his new Dodge pickup.
The earlier tension I felt from Mr. Patin and Cowboy greatly diminished once I explained that I had family in Rayne, an aunt, uncle and a slew of cousins. But it was Mom’s maiden name, Felice, that endeared me to them. This newfound acceptance opened them up and Cowboy quickly shared with me that he had been a professional musician in the 1960s and 1970s, playing with local legend Happy Fats, who had an afternoon radio program.
Mr. Patin did not converse as freely with me. He did, however, speak French with Cowboy and Mns. Doucet. The rapid, smooth sounds of our mother tongue fired around the table. I only plucked out a few words and expressions, but I felt more at ease with them speaking French; it let me know they were comfortable with me. Mns. Doucet would stop periodically and fill me in on what was being said. He even took time to help me with pronunciation, and when I repeated something he taught me, out the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Patin smile.
Along with the French lesson, Mns. Doucet took great care explaining that Cajun was not the same as the French spoken in France, which is referred to as standard French, a label I can accept. Growing up, though, I heard standard French called “real” French, a label I cannot tolerate. Granted our pronunciation is not the same, we have many idiomatic expressions and words they don’t have in France, but we passed our language down by word of mouth; there were no grammar lessons or speech teachers working with us. And we were in a new land and not all of the old words were adequate to express the new flora, fauna, animals, foods: the marvelous reality of Alejo Carpentier’s Cuba on the bayou.
After lunch I took a picture of the men at the dinner table, all of them smiling shyly and wondering why I or anyone else would want a picture of them. Cowboy went to his bedroom for a nap and Mr. Patin returned to his house, a block away, to do the same. Mns. Doucet told him to come back that afternoon for coffee. Mr. Patin said he would and we shook hands, his eyes no longer glaring, but glowing at me.
“Don’t let me bother your routine, Mns. Doucet. If you want to nap, I can go.”
He shook his head side to side. “The last year I miss a lot of naps. My wife, they cut her leg off last August.” His voice trembled, eyes watered, and he ground the heel of his palm into his eyes. “Almost lost her. She was so bad. Couldn’t have salt, and the food don’t taste good, she don’t eat.”
A week later I called Mns. Doucet from my apartment in Memphis. He’d been to the doctor, and on the way home his truck had been rear-ended.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Hardy. Ought to bring myself to the retirement home and be with my wife.”
“You don’t need to do that, Monsiuer Doucet. You’re truck’ll be repaired. It’ll run like new.”
“I don’t know. Ought to bring myself to the retirement home. Die with my wife.”
“Don’t talk like that. Please, Mns. Doucet.”
“It’s the truth, yeah. Me, I got to go, Hardy.”
I called back two weeks later and was happy to hear his voice on the other end. He told me his truck made it out of the shop in less than a week; Cowboy had found work and his own place, and that evening Mr. Patin was coming over and they were going to the horse races. Glad to hear the good news, Mns. Doucet.