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Purple Cane Roadby James Lee Burke
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.
Twenty-five years ago the last adult members of the Labiche family to bear the name, a husband and a wife, filled themselves with whiskey and sleeping pills, tied plastic bags over their heads, and died in a parked car behind a Houston pickup bar. Both were procurers. Both had been federal witnesses against a New York crime family.
They left behind identical twin daughters, aged five years, named Letty and Passion Labiche.
The girls' eyes were blue, their hair the color of smoke, streaked with dark gold, as though it had been painted there with a brush. An aunt, who was addicted to morphine and claimed to be a traiture, or juju woman, was assigned guardianship by the state. Often Vachel Carmouche volunteered to baby-sit the girls, or walk them out to the road to wait for the Head Start bus that took them to the preschool program in New Iberia.
We did not give his attentions to the girls much thought. Perhaps good came out of bad, we told ourselves, and there was an area in Carmouche's soul that had not been disfigured by the deeds he performed with the machines he oiled and cleaned by hand and transported from jail to jail. Perhaps his kindness toward children was his attempt at redemption.
Besides, their welfare was the business of the state, wasn't it?
In fourth grade one of the twins, Passion, told her teacher of a recurrent nightmare and the pain she awoke with in the morning.
The teacher took Passion to Charity Hospital in Lafayette, but the physician said the abrasions could have been caused by the child playing on the seesaw in City Park.
When the girls were about twelve I saw them with Vachel Carmouche on a summer night out at Veazey's ice cream store on West Main. They wore identical checkered sundresses and different-colored ribbons in their hair. They sat in Carmouche's truck, close to the door, a lackluster deadness in their eyes, their mouths turned down at the corners, while he talked out the window to a black man in bib overalls.
"I've been patient with you, boy. You got the money you had coming. You calling me a liar?" he said.
"No, suh, I ain't doing that."
"Then good night to you," he said. When one of the girls said something, he popped her lightly on the cheek and started his truck.
I walked across the shell parking area and stood by his window.
"Excuse me, but what gives you the right to hit someone else's child in the face?" I asked.
"I think you misperceived what happened," he replied.
"Step out of your truck, please."
"My cotton-pickin' foot. You're out of your jurisdiction, Mr. Robicheaux. You got liquor on your breath, too."
He backed his truck out from under the oak trees and drove away.
I went to Provost's and drank for three hours at the bar and watched the pool games and the old men playing bouree and dominoes under the wood-bladed fans. The warm air smelled of talcum and dried perspiration and the green sawdust on the floor.
"Have any locals pulled in Vachel Carmouche?" I asked the bartender.
"Go home, Dave," he said.
I drove north along Bayou Teche to Carmouche's home. The house was dark, but next door the porch and living room lights were on at the Labiche house. I pulled into the Labiche driveway and walked across the yard toward the brick steps. The ground was sunken, moldy with pecan husks and dotted with palmettos, the white paint on the house stained with smoke from stubble fires in the cane fields. My face felt warm and dilated with alcohol, my ears humming with sound that had no origin.
Vachel Carmouche opened the front door and stepped out into the light. I could see the twins and the aunt peering out the door behind him.
"I think you're abusing those children," I said.
"You're an object of pity and ridicule, Mr. Robicheaux," he replied.
"Step out here in the yard."
His face was shadowed, his body haloed with humidity in the light behind him.
"I'm armed," he said when I approached him.
I struck his face with my open hand, his whiskers scraping like grit against my skin, his mouth streaking my palm with his saliva.
He touched his upper lip, which had broken against his overbite, and looked at the blood on his fingers.
"You come here with vomit on your breath and stink in your clothes and judge me?" he said. "You sit in the Red Hat House and watch while I put men to death, then condemn me because I try to care for orphan children? You're a hypocrite, Mr. Robicheaux. Be gone, sir."
He went inside and closed the door behind him and turned off the porch light. My face felt small and tight, like the skin on an apple, in the heated darkness.
I returned to New Orleans and my problems with pari-mutuel windows and a dark-haired, milk-skinned wife from Martinique who went home with men from the Garden District while I was passed out in a houseboat on Lake Pontchartrain, the downdraft of U.S. Army helicopters flattening a plain of elephant grass in my dreams.
I heard stories about the Labiche girls: their troubles with narcotics; the bikers and college boys and sexual adventurers who drifted in and out of their lives; their minor roles in a movie that was shot outside Lafayette; the R&B record Letty cut in prison that made the charts for two or three weeks.
When I bottomed out I often included the girls in my prayers and regretted deeply that I had been a drunk when perhaps I could have made a difference in their lives. Once I dreamed of them cowering in a bed, waiting for a man's footsteps outside their door and a hand that would quietly twist the knob in the jamb. But in daylight I convinced myself that my failure was only a small contributing factor in the tragedy of their lives, that my guilty feelings were simply another symptom of alcoholic grandiosity.
Vachel Carmouche's undoing came aborning from his long-suppressed desire for publicity and recognition. On a vacation in Australia he was interviewed by a television journalist about his vocation as a state executioner.
Carmouche sneered at his victims.
"They try to act macho when they come into the room. But I can see the sheen of fear in their eyes," he said.
He lamented the fact that electrocution was an inadequate punishment for the type of men he had put to death.
"It's too quick. They should suffer. Just like the people they killed," he said.
The journalist was too numb to ask a follow-up question.
The tape was picked up by the BBC, then aired in the United States. Vachel Carmouche lost his job. His sin lay not in his deeds but in his visibility.
He boarded up his house and disappeared for many years, where to, we never knew. Then he returned one spring evening eight years ago, pried the plywood off his windows, and hacked the weeds out of his yard with a sickle while the radio played on his gallery and a pork roast smoked on his barbecue pit. A black girl of about twelve sat on the edge of the gallery, her bare feet in the dust, idly turning the crank on an ice cream maker.
After sunset he went inside and ate dinner at his kitchen table, a bottle of refrigerated wine uncapped by his plate. A hand tapped on the back door, and he rose from his chair and pushed open the screen.
A moment later he was crawling across the linoleum while a mattock tore into his spine and rib cage, his neck and scalp, exposing vertebrae, piercing kidneys and lungs, blinding him in one eye.
Letty Labiche was arrested naked in her backyard, where she was burning a robe and work shoes in a trash barrel and washing Vachel Carmouche's blood off her body and out of her hair with a garden hose.
For the next eight years she would use every means possible to avoid the day she would be moved to the Death House at Angola Penitentiary and be strapped down on a table where a medical technician, perhaps even a physician, would inject her with drugs that sealed her eyes and congealed the muscles in her face and shut down her respiratory system, causing her to die inside her own skin with no sign of discomfort being transmitted to the spectators.
I had witnessed two electrocutions at Angola. They sickened and repelled me, even though I was involved in the arrest and prosecution of both men. But neither affected me the way Letty Labiche's fate would.
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