Southern Legitimacy Statement: Because read beans and rice on Mondays. Because gumbo with the leftovers every other day. Because fishing isn’t about the fish until it is. Because spring means crawfish. Because grits. All the time grits. Because cutting grass for days. Because the fresh cut grass smell is worth it. Because I went to school where our football team’s fullback stood in head-to-heel camo smelling of deer urine and earth greeted me with, Travis, this mornin’, a nutria rat bout whooped mah ass. Because hot and bare-assed creek diving and stepping on an ice-cold spring. Because recipes are stories. Because my favorite story is my grandfather’s barbequed shrimp. Because lemonade and tea. Mostly tea and sweet. Because boudin. Because sausage period. Because I open the bedroom window and put a box fan in it. Because a self-made clearing in the canfield was the coolest hangout. Because I miss the stench of the cane mill. Because the Mississippi is ubiquitous as it is powerful. Because the Big Dirty. Because dirt comes in all colors. Because the seasons are defined by the type of hunting allowed. Because Bobby Hebert. Because game days are holidays. Because festivals always. Because good music. Really good music. Really good soul bearing foot tapping head nodding music. Because still dirt roads. Mostly, though, because family and legends and the purpose that lives after them.
Felix Kiger died in his sleep during the fall of ’98. When I heard, I was in my mother’s living room. My Aunt Moe’s voice came through the cordless, “Your Pa Pa died, baby.” Honestly, it didn’t feel like much. And it definitely didn’t feel like it was a beginning. More than anything else to me, Felix was simply my dad’s father. He wasn’t the kind of grandfather who called on birthdays or paid attention to baseball games or sent me a Hamilton when I made honor roll. He was like four in the morning – this thing that we know exists because we’ve met a handful of times, but most of the time we let it go without much worry or consequence. My grandfather and I slept through each other like 4 AM. So when he died, I hardly noticed. But just like if 4 AM were to go missing from the night, I started feeling this lost time in my breathing. In the way my bones moved against each other.
Three years later, on an airplane to New Orleans, before I would drive back to Baton Rouge and school and home, a grumpy old man – probably not as grumpy as I remember – was sitting in front of me ruffling his paper to compound the impact of his ruffled half-turned face to alert the cabin of his annoyance on account of the Saints fan who I was sharing beers with who was talking way too loudly about how Jim Haslett was just what we fuckin needed. About how Aaron Brooks was the quarterback of the fuckin future. About how Ricky Williams was going to stay healthy and lead us to a conference fuckin championship. This was, of course, before Haslett led us to 3-13 in the wake of Katrina. Before Brooks threw for more interceptions than he did touchdowns. Before Ricky Williams left football to get high and find yoga. This Saints true believer was speaking with the kind of conviction you get after three whiskeys in the terminal. I could hear the New Orleans in his R’s in the way he stressed the front end of words and phrases. Almost sounded like he was more Brooklyn than Fat City.
The attendant brought Football Guy and me another couple of Budweisers. I passed the cans from her, nearly dropping them into my lap. I’d just turned 21. She might as well have been handing me a couple of machine guns.
The loud football talker shook me out of my nerves. “Where ya from?” he asked – just as loudly as he had been going on about hating the fuckin Rams.
“Thibodaux.” The name fell out of my mouth like it’d been trained to do in response to that very question. I gulped. Not accustomed to drinking beer casually, and more accustomed to funneling booze down amidst booming music and cheers in the nights between studying and playing Tetris, I sipped the cold beer with effort.
“Ya don’t sound like ya from da Bayou,” he accused. “Ya parents from der?”
“I lost my accent from moving around,” I mumbled, “My mom is from New Orleans, and my dad is from Grand Isle.”
“My family goes fishin down der,” Football Guy said. I intuited that he was referring to Grand Isle – the small fishing island south of Louisiana. The only inhabitable island. The one that hasn’t been washed away. The island of my ancestors.
I nodded. And I thought about the last time I’d gone to the island. For my grandfather’s funeral. My dad had wanted me to speak. “You’re good at that stuff,” he’d said. So I’d spoken. And it was clumsy and impressive, just like you’d expect if you put a high school senior in a suit and asked him talk about the world with some modicum of reverence. I’d stood behind the lectern near the altar of Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church, and in front of most of the island’s inhabitants, I’d spoken cautiously into the microphone with importance – punching the consonants in a reverent tone the way I’d seen actors do it in the movies. I’d told parts of my grandfather’s story as I’d known them– more hearsay than eyewitness. It was the mythology of Felix Kiger, as it’d been conveyed to me throughout my childhood years as a bedtime story. Some kids got Robin Hood. I’d gotten Felix Kiger in a kind of ancient Greek heroic tradition that still clings to life in the South. I’d stood at the lectern – completely aware that I was not of that place – speaking about this community hero as if I was.
The grumpy old man from the front seat was looking at me. His eyes were wide-open and smoothed cheeks looks much less angry. “What’s ya daddy’s name?” he asked. It took me a moment to register that he’d asked a question, and that he was waiting for a response.
“Davis Kiger,” I told him.
His face morphed into one of recognition and ‘What are the chances?’ “I knew a Felix Kiger,” the old man said.
“That was my Pa Pa,” I said.
“He cooked for us at da fishin camp,” he said.
I was not impressed. Of course Felix Kiger cooked for this man’s family at the camp. He cooked for everyone. I’d heard for years about the politicians he’d cooked for. The college football royalty and the wealthy doctors. The fishermen hiding from their wives. The families on Easter holiday. And most notably, for Louisiana crime boss Carlos Marcello. So of course Felix cooked for this old man and his family at the fishin camp.
“Yeah,” I responded, “he was a cook on da island.” I surprised myself with the vernacular. I said on da island as if to prove that I was who I said I was. Travis Kiger. From Thibodaux, LA. Son of Davis Kiger from Grand Isle, Louisiana and Kathy Sweeney from New Orleans, LA. I live in Louisiana. I swear. I’ll show you my license. I’ll order a Bloody Mary next round. Spicy. And I’ll start saying da instead of the because that’s how we Louisianans do it. Just don’t ask me if I miss my Pa Pa, or if I could cook like him, or about the last time I went to the island.
“Felix was a good man, your Pa Pa,” he said, “Man, he was a pistol. I’m sure ya got some stories.” And he turned back around to his tray table – back to his complimentary peanuts and the scotch and water he’d ordered, and ruffled his newspaper – this time with finality.
The loud football talker asked me if I was in school. The conversation shifted to LSU football and Nick Saban. About how Nick Saban was just what we fuckin needed. About how Rohan Davey was the quarterback of the fuckin future. About how Josh Reed was going to lead us to a national fuckin championship. About how he hated the fuckin Gators. By then, I was barely listening. I rolled my head forward and back, checking in with empty eye-contact, to mimic authentic listening – the way I’d learned to do it in Interpersonal Comm – but my mind was already back with my grandfather, and the island, and the bayou, and the short time we’d spent together.
There was a reason I didn’t sound like I was from the bayou. And the reason changed as frequently as it came up. Sometimes I’d say, “I like words and the way they are supposed to sound.” And sometimes, when I didn’t want to sound like an asshole, I’d say, “I moved a bunch. I’m from a lot of places. I wish I still sounded like I was from someplace, though.” The latter would be the reason I gave in response to friendly inquisition while sharing a cigarette outside of a bar after drinking a bunch of beers. The honest one.
I was born in Thibodaux, LA. It sounds cool to say. Tib. Bod. Doe. The name made famous in Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” is French in origin, but when spit out by someone from the place, it sounds like a mythic foreign land of spiritual recovery existing in a Tolkien rip-off fantasy novel. The Doe is punctuated and the ending long vowel lingers in the air as an invitation. It says, ‘Go ahead. Ask me about where I’m from.’ It’s cypress knees and alligators. Zydeco and pain perdu. But by 10 years old and going to the movies without parents, mom had packed us up and headed to Mississippi to learn country living from husband number two.
By the time I shared beers with Football Guy when the grumpy old man in front of us on the plane turned around and dialed up a connection to my past in knowing the legend of my grandfather, I’d lived in seven cities, gone to three high schools in three states, and was attending my second college. And I desperately wanted to sound like somewhere. I was so far removed that I couldn’t even fake it.
But then I enrolled in Cajun French. Looking around my classroom that first day, the students all sounded as though they’d been planted, watered, and grown in the Bayou. I deduced that they were the people I must’ve shared classes with in my first years in Thibodaux. Those students made up the bare chested tackle football teams from the other neighborhoods that I played against in the field by that old house on Louisiana Drive. They must have taken my place during my vacancy from Catholic school. I felt at home. Like 4 AM almost existed again. I hadn’t thought about Felix Kiger in years, but the day after a plane ride into Louis Armstrong airport – what that old man had said got me thinking about my past, I sat in my Cajun French class and while Mme LaFleur reviewed her syllabus, I wrote:
Pa Pa, thank you for the letters.
Your handwriting is where I’m from,
Scribbling across in angles
And your R’s and S’s
Are my R’s and S’s
Grand Isle, thank you for my father
Cajun and proud of garbage summers
And working so hard
Your heart sweats meals for your grandchildren.
There is always fish
And if not
Fishing 3 AM quiet water smells like home
Even when I visit never.
I don’t know how this little piece of FREN 1201: Elementary Cajun French survived my yearly purging of notebooks and folders, but it was the beginning of a return to myself. A return of 4 AM and the time missed since the fall of 1998 and before. A return to something that was cut out of me by my parents’ second marriages and their squabbles over child support. By expanding families and unequal share-time as my dad moved across the country. Cut out by my circumstantial apathy toward the mythology of Felix Kiger – even as I was preaching his eulogy in front of a church full of strangers. A return in response to a calling that began with a stranger on an airplane who knew the legend of my grandfather. And before that with Thanksgiving of 1997: the last time I’d spoken to him. Felix. A folk hero that I couldn’t quite place and who I’d only seen through my father’s eyes. My father, who had idolized his father. And the gospel he preached. The gospel according to Felix Kiger.