Authors: Rachel Gibson
BLUE BY YOU
Most Sundays in
St. James Parish, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a sinner on his or her way to Mass, which was held at one church or another every half hour from seven in the morning to seven at night. While the rest of the state of Louisiana was famous for such trivialities as jazz, crawfish, and Mardi Gras, St. James Parish held the distinction of being number three on the list of U.S. counties having the most Roman Catholics.
Glory to you, Lord.
The parish was also known for Perique tobacco and three-hundred-year-old live oaks, trees draped with fingers of lacy Spanish moss. Mostly, though, it was known for the grand plantations dotting River Road along the Mississippi. Those antebellum mansions were a part of Southern history and brought in big tourist bucks.
Thanks be to God.
From the porch of the remodeled overseer’s cottage of Dahlia Hall, Blue Butler raised her Purple Jesus and drank straight from a Mason jar. The cold grape juice, ginger ale, and vodka cooled her throat and warmed her stomach. It was Sunday, and Blue treated herself to a Purple Jesus each and every Lord’s Day as her reward for a week’s worth of hard work.
The setting sun cast long, lacy shadows across the sprawling gardens of Dahlia Hall, while golden light splashed across the back of the big house. The plantation had been in Blue’s family for close to two hundred years. At one time, it had been one of the biggest sugar producers in the South, second only to Esterbrook Plantation, a few miles south on River Road. While Esterbrook might have produced more sugar back in the day, the big house had never been as elegant as Dahlia Hall, the grounds never as graceful. Dahlia Hall was a striking combination of the raised French Creole and Greek Revival styles, with two prominent staircases curving from the ground to the upper gallery and the fanlight entrance.
Esterbrook was just your basic classic Greek Revival. Square, with two wraparound galleries supported by numerous Corinthian columns. But one thing Esterbrook had over every other Greek Revival along the Mississippi was the sheer magnitude of the big house. It was so huge, it made people wonder if the original owner, Theodore Pennington, might have been compensating for something.
Quantity didn’t always mean quality, and as Blue’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, Dahlia Blue Toussaint, had always been known to say about a Pennington, “You can put a gold ring in a swine’s nose, but it’s still a swine.”
Of course, Great-great-great-great-grandmother Toussaint would have had a conniption at the very thought of one of
people slurping a Purple Jesus from a Mason jar. Blue was sure the first matriarch of Dahlia Hall would find her a huge disappointment. She lived in the overseer’s cottage, and her hair was a constant tangle of dark curls hanging to the middle of her back. Her feet were bare and her legs exposed in a pair of jeans shorts. Not only was she drinking spirits on the Lord’s Day, but she’d dribbled Purple Jesus on her thin white T-shirt. She was no Southern lady, that was for sure.
When Blue was growing up, her dearly departed grandmother had never hidden her disapproval of denim cutoffs, which she called “no ’count, backward-trash clothes,” but Blue had always loved the feel of worn-in denim and never seen the need to throw out a pair of comfy jeans because they had gotten a hole in the knee. She looked a mess today, for sure, but it was Sunday. Her only day off from Dahlia Hall.
Blue took another drink and looked out at the neatly trimmed hedges, intricate beds of flowers, sputtering fountains, and the statues in the parterre. It had taken five years and more money than she liked to count to restore the gardens at Dahlia Hall, and Blue liked to think that the next few generations of Toussaint women would understand that she’d done what she’d had to do to keep the plantation in the family. She’d grown up in the big house, but it was just too much for one person to maintain. Both physically and especially financially.
Great-great-great-great-grandmother Dahlia had died in a buggy accident before the War Between the States and had never worried about things like money and taxes. If the original mistress could have looked into the future at her beloved home, and seen flip-flop-wearing tourists tromping along roped-off areas, three times a day, six days a week, she would have headed for her fainting couch. Strangers staring at portraits and photographs of generations of Toussaints. Tourists traipsing through her bedroom, where she’d given birth to five sons and two daughters, only three of whom had survived to adulthood. It would have tipped her into an inconsolable swoon.
Still, this was a plantation that had been run by slave labor. Blue took another drink and rocked back in her old chair. She didn’t like to think of Dahlia Toussaint as a racist, more a woman of her times. There was no history that she’d had a mean bone in her body. There was no getting around the fact, as much as some families liked to hide from it now, that slavery had once been legal in the South.
Blue felt that history should be shown and talked about truthfully, which was why she’d had ten of the original sixty-three slave cabins restored, so tourists could see that part of American history. That life at Dahlia Hall had been neither Jefferson’s Monticello nor Tarantino’s
There were very few plantation homes in the parish still owned by an original family member. Dahlia Hall and Esterbrook, located only a few miles from each other, were two of the few. Esterbrook was not open to the public.
The plantation down the road was currently owned by one of the last in a long line of once-proliferative Penningtons. According to Blue’s accountant and high-school friend, Carolee, Kasper Pennington lived over in Jefferson Parish, but he was often seen at Esterbrook, restoring the big house. In St. James Parish, gossip was gospel, but since she’d seen more than a few construction trucks with his name splashed on the sides, she knew it was true.
Blue leaned down and set her jar on the wooden porch. She swatted away a fly from in front of her face and squinted her eyes against the setting sun. At a River Road Society meeting five years ago, she had heard all about Kasper’s return to Louisiana, his time in the Marines, and his construction company. The talk was that he began by rebuilding the Katrina-ravished lower ninth ward in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. Now he owned and operated several construction companies and hired a lot of former Marines to work for him.
That’s what she’d heard. That and other things, too. Flattering things about his career in the Marines and not so flattering things about his personal life. About his marriages–two of them—and divorces—two of them, too—and fondness for floozies. Young floozies.
Of course, Blue hadn’t actually
Kasper Pennington herself. Not for a long time. Not since he’d graduated from Sniper Scout school and was home on leave. That had been twenty-two years ago when his grandmother, Miss Sudie, had still lived at Esterbrook. Twenty-two years since she’d looked into his dark eyes from across steaming pots of crawdads and felt herself flush, scalded by his direct gaze.
There were some men your mama warned you about. Some
of mamas warned their daughters about. “Stay away from those morally corrupt and sugar-mouthed Pennington boys,” came the warning through the generations. Which, of course, only served to intrigue generations of daughters.
Daughters like Blue.
She reached for her Mason jar, and a flash of white just past the garçonnières caught her attention. Dahlia Hall was closed, the gates locked, and the security system in the big house set. Blue straightened and raised a hand above her brow. There it was again, in the shadows of the oak allee, heading toward the family cemetery. Not fast, but at a steady pace, as if slowed by age. Blue might have thought it the ghost of her dearly departed mamaw, Julia Toussaint-Butler, come back to haunt her, if it wasn’t for the church hat. Like the kind her grandmother had always worn to St. Philips, but grandmother’s hat had been black and covered in black netting, with a few tasteful feathers. The hat heading toward the graveyard was red. A mass of red netting and long feathers bobbing along. Grandmother would never have worn a red church hat.
Blue stood and moved to the edge of her porch. If not for the slow pace of the red hat, she might have been alarmed. She walked down the steps as the figure opened the old iron gate to the family cemetery. Blue picked up her pace and easily caught up with the woman in the hat. Osteoporosis stooped her shoulders like a turtle, and she pushed aside a feather bobbing in front of her face as she stopped in front of Blue’s grandfather’s, Sawyer Butler’s, weathered gravestone. Pappaw Butler had died in a hunting accident when Blue had been five, and she had little memory of him other than him laid out in his black suit and the white satin lining in his casket.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Dahlia Hall is closed to the public today.”
The woman turned and clutched her white blouse above her heart. “Lord-a-mercy, child,” she gasped. “You scared the livin’ daylights out of me.”
Deep wrinkles creased a pair of dark eyes made huge by a pair of thick glasses sitting on the woman’s thin nose. Red lipstick leaked into the fine lines around her mouth, and age spotted her hands. The thick braid coiled at the back of her neck had more salt than pepper.
“Can I help you?”
Her dark eyes narrowed as she studied Blue’s face. “Are you Julia’s girl?”
“No, ma’am. Julia was my grandmother.”
The woman blinked several times, as if it took her a moment or two to comprehend. “Oh.” Behind the thick glasses, her gaze narrowed further. “That would be right. Are you one of Elizabeth Ann’s girls or Skeeter’s?”
Sawyer III, or Skeeter, was Blue’s uncle. “Elizabeth Ann is my mother, but she lives in Panama City.” This woman obviously knew her family. “Uncle Skeeter lives in Baton Rouge.”
“That’s right, you would be Elizabeth Ann’s girl. Skeeter is as gay as a French horn.”
Blue crossed her arms beneath her breasts. She loved Uncle Skeeter and his partner of twenty-five years, Reggie. She opened her mouth to order the rude woman off her property even though she had always been taught to give deference to her elders.
“You are the spitting image of your grandmother,” she said before Blue could respond. “Julia was a beautiful woman. We had our come-out the same year.”
Blue dropped her hands to her sides. Perhaps the other woman was a bit senile and could be forgiven. “You and my grandmother were friends?”
“Hell no. We hated each other worse than wolf pizen.”
There was only one person on the planet Mamaw hated worse than wolf poison. And the whole parish knew it. “Sudie Pennington?”
She bowed her head slightly to the left.
Sudie Pennington? Here at Dahlia Hall? Blue could have been knocked over with a feather duster and was sure generations of Toussaints were spinning under her feet. Blue turned toward the big house and the road. She couldn’t make out a car from this distance, and she asked, “How did you get here, ma’am?”
Blue turned back. “Is the cab waiting for you?”
“ ’Course not. That’s too expensive. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I come to pay my respects.”
“Julia, of course.”
Blue shook her head as if to clear it. “You just said you hated my grandmother.” One of them was crazy as a bedbug, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t her.
“Doesn’t mean I can’t pay my last respects,” Sudie said, as if that made perfect sense.
“She’s been dead for five years.” Blue pointed to the granite weeping angel to her left, with her grandmother’s name inscribed in the base.
“I was directed by the Holy Spirit at Calvary Baptist a few Sundays back.” Sudie’s magnified eyes narrowed behind her glasses, as if she expected an argument. “Now scoot and give me a private moment. Your grandmother and I have some things to settle up before we meet again in front of God on Judgment Day.”
That’s right. Not only were the Penningtons sinners, they were
sinners. Blue wasn’t comfortable leaving Miss Sudie in her family’s graveyard, but who was she to argue with “the Holy Spirit?” Besides, what could one old woman with a bad case of osteoporosis do? “I’ll wait for you by the gate.”
“Fine. I appreciate it.” Miss Sudie moved to the stone angel as Blue took a few steps toward the entrance, then stopped. She couldn’t help herself, she wanted to hear what Miss Sudie had to say. “I never cared for you, Julia Toussaint. You always had your nose so high, you’d drown in a rainstorm, and I reckon you hated me with your last breath.”
Blue ducked behind her great-great-uncle Perkins’s massive headstone. It wasn’t really eavesdropping. An old grave marker could fall over on the old girl. Miss Sudie continued, “I reckon I gave you reason. I’m the one who started the rumor about your shoplifting cigars at the Jupiter Five & Dime when we were ten. It didn’t hurt your reputation none, but I am sorry.” She paused long enough to clear her throat. “I purposely took Levester Crump from you in the tenth grade. I knew you loved him, and I hinted that I’d have relations with him if he broke things off with you.”
Crump? Blue could have ended up a Crump? And who the heck were the Crumps?
“I didn’t have relations with Levester. I didn’t even like him, but I took him from you ’cause I was mad about the pregnancy rumor you started a week before the Crawfish Festival and ruined my chances at winning Crawfish Queen. Didn’t make what I did okay. I’m sorry about that, but you should probably thank me. Levester turned out to be a no ’count drunk.”
Other than the fact that the Penningtons and Toussaints were raised to dislike and mistrust each other, Blue never knew why her grandmother and Miss Sudie took the feud to a whole new level. Certainly never knew that her grandmother took mudslinging to that level.
“And you got Sawyer Butler. All the girls in the parish were crazy for Sawyer. I was crazy for Sawyer, too. Even after I married Harmon, who was a good man and treated me right, God rest his soul. Harmon traveled a lot, and while you were in Shreveport that summer before Sawyer died, I did have relations with your husband in that shiny red Coupe de Ville you used to drive to church on Sundays. I know I should be sorry, and I’m working on it. Just like I know you’re working on being real sorry about getting me banned for life from the Daughters of the Brave Confederacy. My great-grandmother was a charter member and surely rolled over in her grave that day.” She paused. “We did a lot of ripping at each other over the years, but when we see each other in God’s holy judgment, I don’t want earthly tribulations between us. So . . . I forgive you, Julia Toussaint. For everything.” She took a deep breath, then said, “You can come out from where you’re hiding behind that grave marker now. I’m done.”