Henry, who everyone called Tahyo, was swimming in Jack Daniels by the time I left Laveque’s bar. Tahyo, meaning big, hungry dog in Cajun French, got the nickname as a boy because he went house to house looking for food and was the biggest kid my age. I knew Tahyo wouldn’t take the night easy, but my head was full enough of booze and I didn’t want to stay. I tipped my hat to my bleary-eyed friend, Joe, and walked home. The path was short, and I liked the dark south Louisiana night. It’s not that way now, but in 1965, the quiet was a salve.
That night when I got home, I was so sure that Tahyo would be a hassle that I didn’t bother to take my boots off and go inside. Instead, I tilted back in my chair on the screen porch and listened to my own breathing. A live oak arching over the front of my rent house made me think I would never want to leave, but I was aging out of sentimentality at a fast pace. Three cigarette butts lay on the wooden slats by the time Joe drove up.
“Podna,” I said when Joe rolled down his window.
“Tahyo’s at it again,” he said.
I hopped in the cab of his pick-up. Tahyo wasn’t our responsibility, but Geraldine, his wife, was. She hated her name, so we called her Gere. She was our touch stone and me and Joe loved her. When we were kids, we walked by her chain link fence as the sun set but before the mosquitos came up from the grass. Sometimes she would lay her book down and come over and talk to us. We found reasons to touch her. We walked with her to school and took turns carrying her books. When she handed them to us our fingers purposely glanced her wrist or her pinky finger.
We all came up together, but Tayho’s family was the poorest on our side of town, and that is saying something, because none of us had a pot to piss in, but Tahyo’s family was so lowdown they didn’t even have chickens or cucumbers on a vine. When Tahyo ran up to us, we ran away from him. By the time we were in high school, he didn’t run up to us anymore. We heard late night stories on our parents’ back porches about Tahyo’s daddy living in the bottle and losing any cash in his pocket at the Boureè table, then coming home and beating Tahyo.
When Gere delivered the graduation speech to our 1960 graduating class, Tahyo hovered in the back of the gym. Gere was something else, her eyes were as dark as her skin was pale; her hands moved as she talked as though she were creating a vision out of air. She was headed to LSU; she wanted to be a doctor. “Come to college with me,” she said to me, touching my arm. “You are so smart you could get a scholarship if you tried.” No one ever talked to me about college, just working the rice or laying road for a crew, but I smiled and told her I would.
How she ended up with Tahyo, me and Joe didn’t understand, but that summer after graduation we heard that a baby was on the way instead of LSU. Gere’s mama called the priest; Tahyo was going to become a husband. We stood at her chain link fence, and I told Gere stories about people going away to relatives up North until they had the baby, then giving it up. Joe told her when she came back, he would drive her to LSU himself. “Who would those relatives be?” she asked. “Where would that money come from?” She wasn’t trying to be mean; it was just the truth. Any relative we had was in a 10-mile radius. It didn’t matter anyway; that baby didn’t make it. “It’s blue,” the midwife announced to the folks waiting in Gere’s parents’ front room. But Gere was married in the church; she took the vow. “You made your bed,” her mama said.
Back then who you claimed and who claimed you mattered more than any dreams. In the end we claimed each other, and so we all stayed. Five years later we were like old pickups left in the mud under a sagging pole barn, unmoved but changed by the rust and the barnyard grass.
Me and Joe still met Gere at the fence of her house, but it was the one she lived in with Tahyo. We talked about the people in our town; we wondered who was running around on who. We talked about the state’s plan to build the interstate through our town; we wondered what would happen when the outside came in. Then Gere would go sit on her porch and read books she picked from the bookmobile. After she finished one, she would pass it to me. I read every book she got. I asked her why she liked the Bell Jar and she said that it was the first thing she read that made her feel less alone. It made me sad that she felt that way when we were right here.
That night after Leveque’s Bar, I didn’t need to ask Joe how he knew Gere was in trouble. He lived across the field from her house and kept an eye on her from a distance.
When we pulled up, I saw her on her front porch. Her light cotton robe, unsashed, flew up, her thick black hair, wild. She squinted into our high beams, and I could see Tahyo behind her with a shotgun in his hand. Gere looked exhausted, and I tried to seem assured, so I lifted my hand and waved. Tahyo was standing with an open shirt, his belt undone.
“Come on Geraldine, we don’t need these boys.” He turned into the house.
“They just came to check on things,” she said.
She walked inside and me and Joe followed. You would never had known they lived there for five years. One crooked picture of JFK and a lone crucifix hung above a gold vinyl couch.
“I said we ain’t got no need for you. Passè,” Tahyo said and gestured with his gun. His stance was firm, but his voice sounded caught in the back of his throat, muffled and indistinct.
She looked at us and whispered. “Since he got home from Leveque’s, he’s been talking about me leaving him.”
He waved the gun, never pointing it at us, but it was all me and Joe could focus on.
“He’s more harm to himself than us,” said Gere.
Joe took a step forward. “You sure as hell don’t treat her like you need her,” he said.
I moved toward Tahyo, and he turned and walked to the back of the house.
Gere whispered to us. “I want to leave him, I just don’t know how.”
I was about to tell her to leave with me, I wanted to tell her I had dropped a college application to a Texas college in the mail. Houston seemed so far away back then, but I wanted to tell her she could come with me, I would take care of things. That is when the shot rang out.
“Goddamn it,” Gere said.
We ran to the back of the house and blood pooled around Tahyo’s head. We dragged him to the cab of the truck, me and Joe on either end of his long, big body. The hospital was 20 minutes down the road in Eunice, the parish seat. Tahyo’s body folded on the floorboard; his head propped on Gere’s lap. I perched on the edge of the bench seat with my head out the window as Joe sped into the dark.
It’s never a good time to remember the past, and hurtling down the highway at 90 mph sure wasn’t the right time but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the time I asked Gere about Tahyo. “You don’t have to say,” I said. But she did. “I guess I thought he needed me, I guess I thought I could help.” She told me our senior year he hovered by her locker, and they started talking every afternoon after school. She said that Tayho cried and told her how bad he felt about his daddy. I couldn’t imagine Tahyo crying, I couldn’t see him as anything other than that boy wandering from house to house. She told me he talked about his solitude, his anger, and his shame about what he did to Melvin.
We learned Melvin’s name later, but when we were in high school, we all just said ‘that boy’ and everyone knew who we were talking about. Some Black kids from the other side of town came over the tracks. They were hanging with each other and probably didn’t even know they crossed the line, but Tahyo was wandering the tracks too. He told them to go back, and Melvin said no, so he beat the hell out of him. Melvin’s parents came across and asked that Tahyo be punished. I don’t know who they thought would listen. They were told to go on back, so they did.
Gere wondered if we had been kinder to him as kids his life would have been different. “But I was wrong,” she said. “No amount of care can make this better.” I asked her if she ever loved him. “No,” she said. “I knew walking down the aisle I didn’t love him, but what else was I gonna do.” Everything she told me I understood.
I pulled my head back in the cab of the truck. “He is still breathing,” she said. I looked over and saw that his eyes were closed.
Joe pulled into the emergency entrance, his breaks squeaked, but no one came running, so I picked Tahyo up from under his arms. Gere slid out from under him and ran to open the hospital door. Joe ran around to my side of the truck, grabbed Tahyo’s ankles and we carried him in.
We waited, the three of us, rust colored blood smeared across our clothes. When the surgeon came out and told us that Tahyo would survive, we breathed out in unison. “The site of injury was ear,” he said. “We won’t know how he will be neurologically, but his hearing is lost in the right ear.” We looked at each other; we really didn’t know what to say, what questions to ask. “Thank you,” said Gere. “Once he is awake, I will call y’all back,” said the surgeon. We sat back down, and Joe and I held her hands. I felt her wedding band, hard and loose. After a while she told us to go on home. “I’ll call mama to come in the morning,” she said. Even though her lips turned up they were unrecognizable as a smile.
So, we left and got in Joe’s blood stained truck. “That son-of-bitch blew his ear off,” said Joe. “He couldn’t even figure out how to kill himself the right way.”
We drove down roads I knew like my own veins, past small homes in the center of rice fields, past barren sugar cane fields with fallow stalks, over a bayou on a makeshift bridge. We drove toward the rising sun and Joe dropped me at my house.
When Gere and Tahyo got back home, we didn’t see her out on her porch, we didn’t see her tending her tomato plants; we didn’t see her picking up a gallon of milk. I knew she couldn’t leave, but I couldn’t stay. So I left.
Joe started working for the refineries on the Texas-Louisiana border and once I finished college, I got on at an oil and gas firm in Houston as an analyst. Sometimes me and Joe would meet at Al-T’s restaurant off interstate 10 for a plate lunch. One day he told me that Gere ended up leaving Tayho. She went to the junior college in Eunice and became a nurse. Eventually me and Joe didn’t have much to say to each other anymore and Al-T’s closed.
I went to visit Gere years later. I didn’t know the roads that well anymore. They never did build that interstate, so the town dried up, just a state-run nursing home, a quick-mart, a diner, and a prison; the outside never came in and all my landmarks were gone. When I got out of my car in the parking lot, I saw her face in the window of the diner. She looked at me and smiled and I stopped short. A feeling of loss hit me, as though my life had been here all along, waiting, and I wasted all this time.
I managed one foot in front of the other and walked inside. She hardly changed, only a brilliant silver streak framed her face and made it even more translucent. I felt that I could see every day she ever spent in her eyes. I loved her still.
Gere worked at the nursing home and lived in a small home just on the outskirts of town. She told me she was a far cry from a doctor, but she felt called to help the older people pass their lives. I asked her if she still read much, but she told me the books made her feel less like herself now, more alone, so she doesn’t. She told me she works her garden and is a lay minister at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. We stayed through the afternoon and if I still believed in confession, I would say that the hours with her relieved me of my sins, the burden of my leaving. Before we left, we held hands across the table. I told her I was sorry it took so long for me to look her up. She told me that people say life is short, but she thinks it’s long and every day is a lifetime. She told me she was glad we had several together. She wished me well.
I didn’t ask her about Tahyo. I didn’t need to. One time when Joe and I met for lunch he told Tahyo’s story. “That old boy had his brain shook up after that gunshot but he got a job working the cash register at the gas station on the edge of town,” Joe said. “One afternoon two black men came in and Tahyo told them colored folk had to come in the back door. I guess that gunshot made him a time traveler, thinking he’s back in high school.” Joe told me it was all on a security camera. The men just looked confused and then Tahyo took out that same shotgun he shot himself with. He had it hidden under the counter. When he shot the gun, he fell back and hit his head on the edge of a steel cooler. The men called 911, but Tahyo passed on the floor.
Tahyo had a pauper’s grave marked with a cross. His name, Henry Thibeaux, 1942-1980 was all it said. I know because I went to the cemetery on my way back out of town. One thing I never told anyone, not even Joe, was that when we were in the third grade, I left a dog bowl with dog food by Tayho’s seat in the classroom. No one knew it was me, and everybody pointed and laughed. I can’t explain it. When you’re poor, sometimes all you can do to keep your head up is to believe you are above someone else. I don’t know if we were kinder Tahyo’s life would have better any more than I know if mine would have been.
I walked through the plots, saw my mama and daddy and brushed off their markers. I sat for a moment under an oak. The quiet was no longer a salve; it was a deafening sound that told me my penance for all I had done, all I had failed to do. I jumped up, got back in my truck, started my engine, and headed to Texas to live my life unclaimed.