Joe's Treasure - first 22 pages
“That’s right. Joe and me was cell mates for a stretch, up in Terre Haute, Indiana. That’s were he come to tell me this piece of the story. “It ain’t the beginnin’, it’s just the part he told me one night after lights out. If you wanna hear the rest of it, you’re gonna have to go find Joe, git him to tell ya. But on that night, as the story was told me, if you’da come up on a kerosene lamp sittin’ on the ground, back in the woods, snug up to one of them bayous just north of Biloxi, you’da seen two men sittin’ on the ground, soakin’ wet, tied up to a tree, cussin’, pleadin’ and threatenin’ the one who tied ‘um up, who happens also to be the one this story belongs to. Anyways, it was right there in that old cypress swamp, where he took an ax to them two fellas. Chopped ‘um up. Not fast, but slow like, so they could watch. Said he wanted to make sure they stayed awake long enough to watch. He kept sayin’ that, so it musta been important. Then what he said was that he put the pieces into burlap bags, loaded the bags into the trunk of his car and carried ‘um off. Didn’t say what them two fellas had done but it musta been somethin’ bad. Didn’t say what he did after that neither. Only that wasn’t the reason he come to be there in the pokey. The both of us was servin’ time for robbery. That’s all. But Joe had a dark place in him, that’s for sure. And that’s all I know.”
It was a hot summer day. Already rained once and probably would again. Everything was wet, the air so heavy you had to work to breathe. That’s the way it is on the Gulf Coast. Clouds come in, it rains for a while, the clouds move on and the sun comes back out, heatin’ it up to where you think you’re in a hothouse.
A light breeze was moving the Spanish moss hangin’ from the trees and the marsh grass, growing in the muddy banks, on down into the brown water.
That’s me there, tuggin’ on that damn rope. If you’re wondering what a thirteen-year old white boy is doin’ on a black folk’s beach, well, in those days we whites could go just about any place we wanted. I’d found an old boat, half sunk in about two feet of water and mostly buried in the mud. So I’d strung a rope onto it and was up on the bank tuggin’ at it, but it wouldn’t give. Well, I’d be damned if I was gonna walk away from it. That boat had become part of my big plan.
Lucky for me, about that time Cole come along. Stick in one hand, burlap bag in the other, Cole, a year younger than me and black as the night, was slowly makin’ his way up the beach searching through the marsh grass for something. When he finally arrived to where I was tuggin’ on the rope, he sat down on the sand and watched me for a while, which irritated me some, since I was havin’ such bad luck with the boat.
“Whut you got on the rope?” he finally asked.
“Ain’t you got eyes? It’s a boat.”
“What's it doin' sunk in the water?”
“That's the way I found it.” I stopped tuggin’ on the rope, wiped the sweat from my brow, studyin’ the situation. Then an idea come to me.
“Help me git it out and you kin ride'n it.”
Cole set the bag and stick down, grabbed hold of the rope and together we commenced to pullin’. Slowly the little skiff started to slide free and up onto the bank. There it was. A treasure half full of mud, a couple of crabs, an eel and a hole in the bottom.
“Looks like we got us a boat,” Cole said.
‘This here's my boat!” I reminded him. “I found it so it's mine!”
“You said if I helped you git it out, I could ride in it.”
“You can ride in it...” I paused, navigating toward a better agreement. Then another great idea come to me. “But you gotta clean it out first.”
I sat down on the bank, pulled out the butt of a half smoked cigarette, and lit up. Cole reached into the boat and grabbed the eel behind the head.
“That's my eel cause it was caught in my boat,” I says to him.
“What do you want me to do with it?” asks Cole.
I took the squirmin’ eel from Cole, picked up his burlap bag and was about to drop the eel in when Cole knocked the bag out of my hand. I swung around, ready for a fight.
“Look!” says Cole, pointing down at the bag. Just about then, a dark snake slithered out and quickly disappeared into the grass.
“I catch snakes for the old Voodoo woman,” says Cole. “She pays a nickel a snake, a dime if it's poisonous. Now you owe me a dime.”
“Any more snakes in there?” I asked.
I picked up the bag, cautious like, looked inside, then dropped the eel into it.
“I’ll throw in them two crabs and we're even. But you still gotta clean out the mud.” Cole agreed, so I sat back down on the sand and watched as Cole dropped the two crabs into the bag and started in cleanin’ the mud from the boat.
“What’s your name?”
“Cole. What’s yours?”
“Joe. Know what I'm gonna do with that boat? I'm gonna fix it up, git me a net and catch me some shrimp. Then I'm gonna sell them shrimp and buy me a real shrimp boat. Then I'm gonna catch a ton a shrimp and make me a million dollars.”
While I sat, dreamin’ about what all I was gonna do with the boat, Cole went right on cleanin’ out the mud.
“This here mud is the very same stuff the Lawd used to make man,” says Cole.
“How you figure that?”
“The Good Book. Ever read the Good Book?”
“Hell yes. My Daddy's a damn preacher.”
As Cole went on scrapin’ out the mud, he started to sing.
“Well, the Lawd he thought he'd make a man.
Dem bones gonna rise agin.
So he took a little mud, and he took a little sand.”
Cole held up two hands full of muddy sand and smiled real big.
“Dem bones gonna rise agin.”
And that’s how me and Cole met, some twenty years ago. Got to where you hardly ever saw one of us without the other. Didn’t mean a hill’a beans he was colored. Just didn’t seem to matter. Not with us, it didn’t anyways. But that changed. The fifties and sixties changed a lot of things. That’s when it got bad. But I’d already left Biloxi by then. Ran away when I was eighteen.
Twenty Years Later
Out the car window, a thick, green wall of trees passed by in a blur. The radio searched for something, but only finding bits and pieces of country music and lots of preachin’. Always lots of preachin’. Joe kept twisting the knob on the radio ‘til he found something he liked. Mick Jagger! Micky! Mic and The Rollin’ Stones! Oh yea, baby!
“Please allow me to introduce myself.
I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for a long, long year,
Stole many a man’s soul and faith.”
Behind the wheel, Joe looked thin and road-worn. A cigarette barely clinging to his lower lip.
“And I was ‘round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain.
Made damn sure that Pilate washed
His hands and sealed his fate.”
It was a hot summer day. Had already rained once and probably would again. So everything was wet, the air so heavy you had to work to breathe.
“Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess
But what’s puzzling you is the nature
of my game.”
Joe had a few more miles before he hit the coast, but he could already feel the pain in his joints from the humidity. He hadn’t been back to Biloxi since he left, twenty years ago. But he’d just got word his old man had died, so he guessed it was time.
“I watched with glee while your kings
And queens fought for ten decades for
The gods they made.
Woo woo, woo woo
Pleased to meet you.
Hope you guessed my name.”
The car was a beat-up Chrysler Plymouth Joe’d won in a card game. Not the restyled ones with the tail fins they come out with in the later 50’s. Those were nice. This junker was the one come out before that, for men who favored “solid engineering and low price” over design. Bread and butter cars, for guys working twelve to fifteen hours a day. The kind of cars you’d see lined up outside bars, after work hours, the owners inside having a cheap beer before dragging themselves home to the wife and kids.
“Just as every cop is a criminal,
And all the sinners saints,
As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer,
Cause I’m in need of some restraints.”
Joe never had any intention of returning to Biloxi. When he’d left, he was done with it. But even so, there was nights, laying in bed, sleepless nights, when he’d start in to thinking about things back home. Ghosts of the past, dried bones rattling around outside his window. Bones that didn’t wanna stay buried. He’d done good resisting it, least ‘til he got that telegram about his old man dying.
“So if you meet me, have some courtesy.
Have some sympathy, have some taste.
Use all your well-learned politesse,
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mmm yea”
Then the Plymouth started to slow up. Joe pumped the accelerator but it only choked and sputtered, sounding like Joe getting up in the morning, before that first cigarette.
“What’s my name, tell me baby,
What’s my name.
Tell me sweetie, what’s my name.”
Slower and slower. God damn it! Piece of shit car!
“Woo, who who, woo, who who,
Woo, who who, woo, who who,
Woo, who who, woo, who who,
The car rolled to a stop, lurched once and died. Joe sat there, weighing his options. Sweat rolled down his face, dripping off his chin. At least when the car was moving, there was a breeze. But now, it was just fuckin’ hot! Jungle hot! He’d almost forgotten how suffocating it could get down on the coast.
Just then, a Rolling Stones song came on the radio. Perfect! One of those moments where the music seems to have come to you at just that moment in time, to rub it in your face!
“I can’t get no satisfaction.
I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Joe cranked the car several times. Then he got out, popped open the hood.
“When I’m drivin’ in my car
And a man comes on the radio.
He’s telling me more and more
About some useless information.
Supposed to fire my imagination.”
The heat under the hood made the inside of the car feel like the inside of a refrigerator. There was no way he was gonna be able to do anything with it. So he slammed the hood closed.
“I can’t get no, oh no no no,
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say…”
Joe pulled a duffel bag out through the back seat window, set it on the ground and started to push the car off the road. It rolled down the embankment and came to rest in the ditch, running along side the road. Joe pulled a pack of Chesterfields from his sweaty shirt pocket, coughed, and lit up. The music was still blaring from the radio.
“When I’m watchin’ my TV
And a man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man
‘cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me.
I can’t get no, oh no no no,
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say.”
Joe picked up the duffle bag, swung it over his shoulder and started walking down the road, the music growing dimmer in the background.
“Cause I try, and I try,
And I try and I try.
I can’t get no, a no no no,
Hey hey hey,
That’s what I say.”
Dripping with perspiration, Joe walked down the main street of Biloxi, studying the old familiar landmarks of his youth, looking for a sign that twenty years had passed. But there wasn’t any. Seems time and progress had mercifully left the Gulf Coast just as sleepy and uninterested in the rest of the world as it had been when Joe left it. Down along the waterfront, shrimp boats still passed lazily back and forth between the beach and Deer Island, a tree-covered strip of sand, a half-mile off shore. Deer Island had once been much larger. Even had some folks living on it for a while. Before that, some Indians. But years of hurricanes had worn it down, like everything else.
As Joe made his way through the town, he stopped to watch several men with demolition equipment standing in front of the old Mason’s building. Just then, a police car pulled up and Joe started to walk on down the road. The police car followed him a short distance, then pulled up beside him and the cop sitting in the front passenger seat stuck his head out the window.
“You look familiar,” said the cop. “What's your name?”
“Delacruze. Joe Delacruze,” said Joe, as he continued walking.
“Well I'll be damned!” said the cop. “Joe Delacruze.” The car continued to follow Joe slowly down the street. “Sorry about your daddy. Too bad you couldn't make it back for the service. They was some folks there.” Joe didn't respond. “Not many. You had a sister as I remember. She didn't show up neither. I guess you're back to take care of things.”
“You been gone... what, fifteen years? Seems I heard you was servin' time up north. That true?” Joe didn’t answer, just kept walking. “That true?”
“What ever happened to that sister of yours?”
“They tearin’ that old Mason’s building down?” Joe asked, changing the subject.
“Yep. She's finally comin' down. Lot’a history.”
“Yea, lot’a history,” said Joe. “Clubhouse for cops on Tuesdays, Klan on Fridays. Same group of guys as I remember.”
“We got us a new meeting place if you're interested. Still on Fridays.”
Joe didn’t answer, just kept walking.
“Doctor says your daddy drank hisself to death.”
Joe stopped and turned to the cop car just as it sped up and passed Joe so close it nearly clipped him. Then it disappeared down the street. Joe glanced back at the demolition crew, still standing around. No one was ever in a hurry to get anything done. Why should they be? Besides you could die of heat stroke. The old Mason’s building would come down, sooner or later. That was for sure. Everything comes down, sooner or later.
Joe opened the door and walked into the small, front room of Daddy's run down, dirty, little shack of a house, the house he and his sister had grown up in. He tried the light switch but no power. He set his duffel bag down on an old couch and pulled back the curtains on the front window. There were piles everywhere, magazines, old newspapers, beer cans, wine bottles. As Joe slowly made his way through the little house, he imagined he heard the echo of children’s voices screaming and a man yelling. Not playful like, but screams of fear. Joe opened the door to the bedroom and the voices stopped. He found a baseball bat standing upright in a corner of the living room, picked it up, blew the dust off, turned it to where his name was cut into it and set it back down.
Joe walked out the front door, out onto the front yard and stood, remembering. He’d done pretty good with keeping his memories tucked away, back in that dark closet of his mind. But that’s the thing with memories. And when they come flying back at you, they can seem more real than they did in the living of them. So now, as one of those memories slipped out of the crack of Joe’s dark closet, he thought he heard a voice.
Standing out in the yard, Joe turned back to the front door of Daddy’s old house in time to see Daddy coming out onto the porch, dressed in a suit, carrying his coat and a black bible, his shirt already soaked with perspiration.
“Les go,” Daddy said to Joe, now once again a thirteen year old, dressed in his Sunday best. “Sissy, les go!” Daddy shouted back into the house. “Gonna be late!”
Sissy came out the door and they started walking down the road. Sissy was Joe’s fourteen-year old sister. She was very pretty, but it was obvious she’d gone through a recent growth spurt by the shortness of her dress, which had seen better days.
“I don't think I care much for the way you're dressed,” said Daddy.
“It's all I got that fits,” Sissy replied, with just a touch of shame in her voice.
“You could let it down.”
“I done let it down three times. There ain't nothin' left to let.”
Daddy came walking up the road, followed a good ways by Joe and Sissy.
Two policemen were standing in the shade of a tree, drinking RC Colas, their patrol car parked at the curb. As Daddy passed them, one of the policemen spoke.
“Awful hot day for preachin' hellfire.”
“Why don't you give 'um a speech about somethin' cool like the South Pole,” said the other one.
“Yea, cool, white fluffy clouds,” said the first. “Or snow!”
“You boys are always welcome to join us,” said Daddy as he started to cut across and up toward the church building. Sissy and Joe were just getting to the two cops when the first policeman stepped out from the tree blocking their way.
“Hey Sissy. That's a pretty dress you got on.”
“Little brother, you're gonna have to keep an eye on that sister of yours,” the second one piped in from beneath the tree.
“Leave her alone,” said Joe, protectively.
“And what are you gonna do if I don't, fish-bait?” said the cop, menacingly.
“You mean shrimp bait, don't ya?” said the second and they both laughed.
The first cop stepped in close to Sissy and toyed with her hair.
“If I was to come pay you a visit, would you wear that dress for me?”
“Sissy, Joe... Come on now!” Daddy shouted from the door to the church.
Sissy and Joe maneuvered around the policeman and cut across toward the little church building where Daddy was holding open the screen door. Joe entered first. Then, as Sissy passed, Daddy half whispered.
“What have you been up to?” he said, scolding.
There wasn’t a thing about the exterior of the church that would lead you to believe it was a church at all. No stained glass windows or steeples or crosses. Just a screened door leading into a building that could just as easily have been a grocery store or a post office. The inside was no better at setting any kind of spirit. Folding chairs were lined up facing the front, which you only knew was front ‘cause that was the direction the chairs was facing. And there wasn’t a podium. But once the congregation arrived and the spirit took hold, the modest circumstances went unnoticed. Rather, they seemed appropriate in keeping all attention on the subject at hand. It was a revivalist style meeting. That meant, among other things, that the members called and sang out, as the spirit moved them. Daddy stood down front, speaking and moving about the room, bible in hand, as he struggled to put his thoughts across, aided by the constant vocal exchange going on between he and the members of the congregation. Joe and Sissy were sitting where they usually sat, on the front row, center, where Daddy could pull them up.
“Brethren, I don't know whether I'm gonna be able to preach on. I never know them thangs. But I pray I can say a few words and touch upon Heaven and immortal glory. Pray for me now while I stands in your presence, that the Lord will look down with His great power to move upon this little weak man that you're alookin' at.”
Daddy held his bible up above his head and continued.
“The earth itself is not so filled with golden veins and precious thangs as is the word of God!” said Daddy, building some momentum. “Many have eyes but do not see. They have ears but cannot hear. They have minds but know not where the treasure is hid.” Daddy started down the isle as he continued. “A man might pass over the place where a treasure has been hid. He might sit down to rest at the foot of a tree, not knowin’ of the riches hidden at its roots. God does not hide his treasures from men. Men themselves hide the treasure from their own eyes by the lives they live, so hard are they at seekin’ for earthly treasure, their hearts filled with selfish ambitions, for riches, honor or power. From them the treasures of His word are hidden. What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Holding the bible high again, Daddy upped the volume three notches and pressed on.
“The value of this treasure is above gold or silver! The riches of earth’s mines cannot compare with it! The depth sayeth, It is not in me; And the sea sayeth, It is not with me. It can not be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof.”
Joe, sat wide-eyed on the front row, caught up it the passion of Daddy’s words.
“If you desire to find the treasures of truth, you must dig for them as if you was diggin’ for a treasure hidden in the earth. Old and young alike…”
Daddy stood Joe and Sissy up and turned them toward the congregation.
“...old and young alike. Not to just read God’s word, but to study it, prayin’ and searchin’ for the truth, the same as if it was a hidden treasure. Our salvation, our eternal SOULS depend on knowin’ the truths in this book. It’s the Almighty’s will that we should have this.”
Daddy knelt down, facing Joe directly.
“When man is willin’ to be taught as a child, when he gives all up to God, he will find the truth. He will find his treasure. Are you willin’ to do that, son? Are you willin’?
Joe and Sissy were used to being involved in Daddy’s sermons. Since Mama died, Daddy had lost that “lovin’ feelin’” toward the Lord. His laying on of hands had not saved Mama’s life, which really threw Daddy for a loop, cause he was sure his faith was strong enough to accomplish just about anything. When you preach something year after year, you get to believing it, even if you didn’t to begin with. And Daddy had been preaching the power of faith healing as long as he had been in the business. So after Mama died, he took to the bottle. Meanwhile, preaching was the job that kept the family fed and so it had to go on, spiritual misgivings or not. What he lacked in faith, however, Daddy made up for in showmanship. When he first decided to use the kids, which he only did occasionally, he rehearsed them at home, so they would know what to do and when to do it. Every good performance is about timing, after all. And a good sermon was absolutely a good performance, bringing the audience along on a ride that would work them up to a spiritual frenzy, just in time for the passing of the tithe basket and the closing “amens” and “hallelujahs”.
“Are you willin’?”
“Yes sir,” said Joe.
Daddy wrapped his arms around Joe and the congregation chimed in with “hallelujahs”. Daddy gave Sissy a hug, then stood and spoke.
“Friends, how bad do ya wanna go to heaven? How bad do ya wanna please the Lord? Do you want to? Do you wanna serve the Lord? Do you wanna wholeheartedly serve him? That's the whole matter today.” Daddy handed his Bible to Joe and took both children by the hand. “As for me and my house, we'll serve the Lord, in the best manner and way that we know how. Brothers and sisters, the day will come for your redemption.”
Daddy sat Joe and Sissy back down on the front row. “There's a scripture that was on my mind a while ago... It's commin' back now... Oh little children! He that is in you is better than he that is in the world, for he that is of the world, they do speak the things of the world. Be he that is in the Lord, that is in you, oh my friends, he is speakin' the things of God! You know when things run through your mind, that it hinders you, then it's time to quit anyhow. Go ahead brethren and sing now.”
The congregation slid into an acapella song, which gave Daddy a chance to catch his breath.
“Ain't no need to beat around the bush about it. Everybody help sing now.”
Daddy looked down at Joe and Sissy. He was covered in sweat, soaked through and through, but it looked like he was crying, which didn’t hurt the performance none.
“You too, little sister. Sing away your sins. The flesh is weak, but the spirit is strong and that's the only thing lasts forever.”
“Little sister” assumed Daddy was preaching directly to her. You see, puberty was not coming easy for Sissy.
When Daddy began to notice her change, he became suspicious of her, since it was his belief, as was common, that the fall of Adam was the result of a woman. That it was the base nature of women to tempt men into evil ways. Which must have been a source of confusion to Sissy, struggling as she was to just grow up, without the burden of thinking she had something to do with the downfall of mankind.
Although Joe knew his father was battling a spiritual crisis, and a bottle crisis, he couldn’t help but think when Daddy started in preaching about how the flesh is weak, he was really talking about hisself and for that moment, he wasn’t just putting on a show. He was being as honest as any man can be, standing there in front of those people. And, for just a moment, Joe felt proud of his Daddy.
“Do you hear me? Gimme an Amen!” A few amens sounded from the congregation. “Again!” and there were a few more. “Louder now!” he shouted and sure enough, they started to really shout.
“How about you son? Let me hear you say it. The flesh is weak...”
“The flesh is weak,” said Joe and he meant it.
“But the spirit is strong...”
“But the spirit is strong.” Joe echoed back.
“And that's the only thing that lasts forever!”
“And that's the only thing that lasts forever!” Joe shouted, turning to the congregation, right on cue.
“Hallelujah!” shouted Daddy.
‘Hallelujah!” the congregation shouted back.