The First Letter of Saint Paul—September 3, 1979
Greetings, dear readers. Saint Paul here, back from a long, long offseason and a hot, hot summer. Your humble scribe is here to report that hope, yes hope, was strangled in the crib yesterday. They say it springs eternal and we can only hope so. Because no sooner does it spring up than it is mercilessly struck down. This was supposed to be the season. Our season. Well from what we saw yesterday, don't book your airfare to Pasadena just yet.
What was that foul-feathered fowl that feasted on Prometheus’s liver day after day? Surely it had to be a Falcon and Prometheus the original Saints fan. For like him, we are tied to the turf and it is the Falcon who devours us time and again. At least Prometheus stole fire. He had something to show for his suffering. What did we ever steal? We can’t even get a good spot on fourth-and-short.
All you numerologists out there, take heed of these numbers, for they do not lie. You don’t have to remove the aluminum foil from your trailer front-door window and re-fashion it into a hat to see the truth in these digits: 40-34. That is 40 for the filthy Falcons from Atlanta and 34 for our beleaguered Saints. Lest you suffer from amnesia as it relates to the 1978 season, allow me to refresh your memory. We played said Falcons twice, home and away, and the result was the same. Falcons 20, Saints 17. Now follow along here, even you spit-ballers in the back row, as I break it down for you. Two games last year in which the Falcons scored 20 points each. That adds up to 40. And two games where we came up short, mustering only 17 points. Two times 17 equals, carry the one, 34. 40-34. Yesterday’s final score! I think the mathematicians who win Nobel Prizes call that a proof. And it is proof that the Atlanta buzzards have our, er, number.
Here are some more numbers for you: 70,940 loud and rowdy souls watched the disaster unfold in the Superdome. The Saints set a club record with 509 yards of total offense. Chuck Muncie, Mr. Lightning, lived up to his name, unspooling an offseason of pent-up energy to rush for over 150 and throw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Wes Chandler. Saint Archie was efficient until late in the fourth quarter when, with the Saints threatening to finish off the Falcons, number 8 threw an interception instead. It cost us the game.
The offense was impressive. Unfortunately, the defense is still sunbathing at Pontchartrain Beach. That allowed the Falcons to roll up over 550 yards of offense and the additional six points that had their fans squawking while we were gawking. Coach Dick Nolan calls his defense the “Flex.” It looked like his players needed more classes in Flex education.
It took overtime for both teams to rack up all those yards. And the game ended in a way that even the cruelest script writer wouldn’t set to type: A grown man chasing after a football. There he was, our very own Russell Erxleben, watching a punt snap sail over his head like a bottle rocket on the Fourth of July. He turned and gave chase, smoothly scooped the pigskin, and then threw a beautiful spiral. Right into the waiting arms of James Mayberry, who scampered into the end zone to win the game. Sadly for the home team, Mayberry is on the Falcons payroll.
If you didn’t follow the Saints during the offseason, this is the part where I tell you that Mr. Erxleben, or “Thunderfoot” to his adoring fans, was our first-round draft pick this year. That’s right, we drafted a kicker in the first round, proving that we did not have to wait until the regular season to embarrass ourselves. If anyone had any doubt, Erxleben established that he was drafted for his leg and not his arm. Maybe next time he can kick it into the chest of the opposing player. With his leg strength, perhaps the force will knock the wind out of the player.
Different year, different game, same opponent, same result. Unlike Prometheus’s eagle, the Falcons don’t stop at the liver. They eat the heart as well.
September 6, 1979
“Man, he’s lucky!”
Down the bayou, that’s what they said when a roustabout lost a limb or ended up in a wheelchair because they were maimed on a tugboat or fell from an oil derrick.
“Yeah, he’s going to be rich now!”
“Dude is set!”
Perry had listened in silence when the guys in the shop said the same things about Casey. You trade in an arm or a leg, an eye, a few fingers, an eardrum, some bits of your spinal column, and it’s like you purchased the winning lottery ticket. Willie Wonka Chocolate Factory, here you come.
And for that, all the people of the parish could thank the personal-injury law firms. They were one of the few growth industries in Louisiana, the most invasive, proliferating species in the state next to the nutria. Same orange teeth. You had the lawyers, with their double-breasted, no-vent suits, and garish ties. They had their spotters and runners milling around every dock and yard from Cameron to Venice and everywhere in between. They had chain-smoking paralegals monitoring CB radio frequencies. So if a crew boat deposited a Jones Act seaman who set sail with both legs but was returning with one onto a Gueydan wharf, there would be a man lying in wait with a card and a packet of glossy materials.
“Know Your Rights!”
“Don't Settle For Less!”
The more successful of the breed would hand him a VHS tape with a grainy infomercial.
Twelve feet off the ground, Perry thought about this as he cat-walked just below the giant face of Jack Billiot. Jack Billiot—Justice for All, Not Justice for Oil. He had a cleft chin and a shock of black hair. Cobra eyes, stubbled cheeks. His billboards—and he had many—had his motto up top, his giant head in the center like the fifth president on Mount Rushmore, and his 1-800 number below.
It had to be close to one in the morning. There was no moon and slate clouds shielded the stars. A tar-black night and that was just fine for Perry who did not want to be seen. This whole situation was embarrassing, but he could carry the shame if no one found out. But if he got caught? Just the thought filled him with bile.
From his perch, if he followed the two-lane road into the distance, he could see a few lights at Pelican Drilling. There was no sound except for his breathing and the static of gnats and mosquitoes.
This particular billboard went up two weeks ago and it sent Richard Richards into a mouth-frothing rampage. He called Perry into his office to vent as soon as Perry stepped off the boat.
“Damn scum of the earth,” he had spat.
“The nerve of this guy. The unmitigated gall. He put it up right in front of our shop.”
He went on. These leeches were a direct threat to a healthy business environment. Pelican Drilling was a family and they took care of their own. If you got injured on the job, the company would provide you with fair and reasonable worker's compensation. If you found yourself disabled permanently—blinded in a freak sandblasting accident that no one could have foreseen—the severance package was generous. And should the worst occur? You fell down the well never to return. You were sandwiched between a barge and the rig and a rogue wave pancaked you and you sank into the murky depths of the Gulf of Mexico. Straight-up electrocution in the engine room. Hard hat no match for a falling traveling block. Well, the company would notify your next of kin and send a lovely bouquet to your funeral.
Richards had stood up from behind his desk as he pontificated to his audience of one. He shook his fist. He ran his hand through his hair. He sprayed spittle.
“Wrongful death lawsuits? What even is that? I thought you people were Catholic. No such thing as wrongful death. It is God’s will. God has a plan for all of us and his plan for Tom was that he gurgle his last breath in the mud pit while his coworkers were replacing the bilge pump.”
Richards slumped back into his chair. It looked like he had overdone it. He was winded. But he wasn’t finished, even if his voice was and the rest of his tirade came out in muted squawks.
“Jack Billiot. More like Dollar Billiot. That’s all this is about. Justice my ass. Making some bucks off another man’s misfortune. Shaking down the companies bringing jobs and uplift to these bayou people. I mean, what else they got? What else they going to do? Shrimp? Grow rice? Sugar cane? It’s pathetic.”
Perry had listened to the tirade standing at attention with the implacable visage of an Easter Island statue.
Perry was careful not to slosh gasoline on his steel-toe boots. It wasn’t easy carrying a five-gallon can up the billboard ladder. Perry had to grab each rung with his left hand, set the edge of the can on a lower rung, steady himself, then quickly grasp the next rung. It was slow going but he did it, carving a groove in his palm from his tight grip on the gas can.
“I want it gone,” Richards had told him. Perry ignored him. A few days later, Richards called him into his office. With a mouth full of roast beef po-boy, he bellowed, “Perry, I told you I wanted it gone. It’s still there.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to know. I just want it done.”
Perry let it sit, did nothing, drove by it for a couple more days. Then Casey lost his hand.
A car was approaching from the highway. Its headlights pierced the darkness. Perry froze. The car started to slow as it got closer. Perry crouched down like a baseball catcher, pressed himself against a giant “7.” His knees burned. He tried to hold his breath. He was exposed. He felt humiliated. The car pulled off the highway at the intersection, drove a short distance on the two-lane road, then parked half-on, half-off the road just past the billboard. Cop car. Perry could make out the unilluminated light on the roof. This is it, Perry thought. That cop is going to step out and shine a light on me like one of those Hollywood spotlights at a movie premiere. And what will he see? Not King Kong. A husband and father of two squatting like an idiot.
The driver-side door opened and Perry heard boots on asphalt as someone got out and started walking down the road. Perry’s heart thumped so hard that he was sure the cop heard it. Then the passenger door opened. Someone else got out. Perry heard the clank of an aluminum can hitting asphalt. He breathed slowly through his flared nostrils, careful not to make a sound. Then, in the stillness, the trickle of urine. A lot of urine. Minutes passed.
Then someone said: “Phew. I had to piss like Secretariat.” He cleared his throat loudly and spit.
“Too bad you’re hung like his jockey.”
“That’s not what your wife said.”
“Whatever. Let’s get outta here.”
The beams were still on, so Perry could make out the driver as he walked back to the car. Perry, despite screaming knees, relaxed. Crisis averted. But as his body lost its tension, one of his knees, overburdened by the duration of the crouching, gave on him. It banged the metal gas can next to him, which scraped against the catwalk grate. To Perry’s ears, that screech sounded like a banshee. Perry cursed in his head, squeezed his eyes shut, and held his breath.
Below: “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I didn’t hear it.”
“You didn’t hear it? Are you deaf?”
“I’m drunk. Is that the same thing?”
“Get your flashlight. Let’s check it out.”
The passenger belched. “Come on Bill. Look around. There’s nothing out here. Probably an owl or something. Let’s go back to the station before they notice we’re gone.”
“I heard something. I’m going to investigate.” And then Bill hollered, “Who’s out there?”
His partner said, “If someone’s out there, he ain’t going to respond.”
Bill ignored him.
Bill surveyed the area. His flashlight beam illuminated the distance in all directions. He walked past the car and toward the billboard. Closer. Closer. Closer until he was right underneath Perry. Perry recited the “Our Father” over and over in his head. The flashlight beam swayed to and fro. A mosquito landed on his neck just below his ear, tickled the skin, waited, waited, waited, and then bit. Perry didn’t move a muscle, didn’t make a sound.
The prayers must have worked because the beam, and Bill’s gaze, stayed low to the ground. Neither Bill nor his partner ever looked up into the eyes of Jack Billiot.
Bill said, “You’re probably right. Maybe something at Pelican.”
“Or the roux-ga-roux.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
As they drove away, Perry exhaled forcefully, rubbed his neck, tipped forward onto all fours, and watched his sweat rain through the grate. Thank you, Jesus. Then he stood up, grabbed the can, and poured gasoline along the length of the billboard, splashing it waist high and watching it run down the 1-800 numbers then trickle through the grate. He was careful not to splash any gas around the center pole with the ladder. He may not have gone to college, but he knew better than to turn his one escape route into a Roman candle. After he emptied the can, he surveyed the horizon, saw no movement, and dropped it off the side. It landed with a soft thud in the crabgrass. Perry reached into his front pocket for the box of matches.
A fuming Richards had him in his office the morning after Casey’s accident.
“It looks like he won’t make it as a concert pianist.”
Perry was stone-faced.
“Or even a steno pool typist.”
Perry looked at the ceiling.
“But at least he’ll be decisive. Not on the one hand, but on the other hand. Because he’ll only have one hand!” Richards guffawed alone. “Get it?! He doesn't have the other hand!” No reaction from Perry. “Never mind. I’m just joking. The kid will be fine.”
Richards then proceeded to curse Perry up and down like the worst Private First Class in basic training. “You get it done tonight or you don’t come back tomorrow. You got that?”
Perry said he got it. Softly.
Then Richards brightened. “You know I’ll take care of you, Perry. I always have. You know that. Just help me out here. Dollar Billiot’s smug face is giving me an ulcer wrapped in a cancer. Scratch my back, Perry.”
“Scratch my back, Perry, and I’ll scratch yours. I promise.”
Standing on the ladder, his head and torso above the catwalk like a prairie dog emerging from a hole, Perry struck the first match and flicked it right. It caught. He grabbed the two he was holding in his teeth and struck them together. He flicked those left and they caught too. Flames licked their way up the billboard quickly, consuming Jake Billiot’s face in an instant. Perry scampered down the ladder faster than one would think a man of his size could. He didn’t look up.
The bedroom was dark when Perry entered. He stepped gingerly to avoid waking Pam. Scratchy tube socks with toe holes on warm cement. The fan hummed and oscillated from its perch on the dresser. Perry stripped at the foot of the bed and crawled in next to Pam. He stared at the ceiling.
Pam nuzzled against him, draped an arm over his chest and, without opening her eyes, whispered, “Late night at the yard?”
“You smell like diesel. Everything okay?”
“Yeah. It’s gasoline.”
“You want me to fix you an egg?”
“No. I’m good. Go back to sleep.”
“Okay. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Perry put his hand over Pam’s and continued to stare at the ceiling. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, they settled on a brown splotch overhead, a fading water stain from the last hurricane. Perry fixed his eyes on the stain until his breathing slowed, his lids drooped, and sleep enveloped him.