Big Sid Gremillion was placing the last bucket of paint on a long pole draped across Shashy Savoie’s bony shoulders when I opened the door of the hardware store. Big Sid inherited the store from his pa, Roy Lee, who'd run it for fifty-five years 'til he dropped dead behind the counter last June.
From heartache, sentimental folks like to say, that he couldn't compete with all the big chain hardware stores sprouting up all over the country, and it killed his spirit. Other citizenry in our small South Louisiana community said Roy Lee died because he was eighty-seven, and it was time.
"You sho' you don't want me to drive you out to Chane Swamp?" Big Sid was saying as he hung the bucket of chili pepper red paint into a notch on the bald cypress limb.
"Don't much lak ridin'," Shashy mumbled through full facial hair, ambling toward the screen door where I stood, flabbergasted. I held it open for the grizzled old legend as he turned sideways and crab-stepped past me.
I kept holding the door open, unmindful of the green-bodied flies swarming inside, watching Shashy disrupt traffic as he made his way down the street. It was a comical sight all right, old Shashy bent forward by the weight of the ten one-gallon paint cans, five on each side; their wire handles set in hewed notches.
Big Sid came to stand beside me and we both watched the old man, who was as mysterious as he was eccentric. "What's he gonna do, paint that old run-down shack of his?" I said, letting the screen door slap shut.
"If'n he do, Floyd, I like to see it, for sho'. He bought ten different colors; it'll look like hell." Big Sid laughed and picked up a fly swatter.
"You think them stories about old Shashy's got any truth to them?" I wanted to know, pulling a cold Royal Crown Cola from beneath large chunks of ice in the old-fashioned cooler. That's something you won't find in the big chain stores. Big Sid even had a portly pickle jar setting within easy reach of the table where the checker players sat.
"Don't know. If'n he do have treasure out there, I'd like to get to it. Ain't doing him no good, way he lives." He plucked a huge dill pickle from the jar and bit into it. It made a crisp, crunching sound and juice dribbled down his chin. Big Sid had those kinds of pickles, makes them himself.
Shashy Savoie had lived out in the Chane Swamp almost as long as anyone remembered. He just showed up one day and built a one-room lean-to on the edge of the swamp. He rarely came to town and, when he did, a person was hard-pressed to get anything out of him except grunts and nods.
Rumors about the buried treasure began soon after he showed up in our little town. The rumors became tales, and the tales became gospel. He was supposed to be one of the two men who had found the pirate Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure near the mouth of the Mississippi River over in Plaquemine Parish.
The story went that old Shashy murdered his partner, brought the booty here, and hid it in the muck and mire out there in the Chane. Many a man, and a few women, has been seen in the bogs searching for treasure by the light of a silvery moon. As far as I know, no one has found as much as one doubloon.
As the years slipped by, and bowling alleys and cable TV found their ways into our lives, everybody quit talking about Shashy's treasure. I used to think we talked about it because there wasn't much else to do.
"Shashy's coming in today got me to thinking," Big Sid said, chewing the pickle noisily. "He don't come to town 'cept bout once a year to buy paint and such."
He wiped pickle juice from his chin with the back of a pudgy hand. “Yessir, I'm thinking them buried treasure stories might just have some truth to 'em. That's why he gets all them cans of paint. He buries his gold in 'em and has to dig it up every so often and rebury it 'cause they rust, don't you know.”
"Maybe," I grunt, trying to sound disinterested. Fact is; his words were causing goose bumps to welt up all over my body. "Wrap up a pound of them ten-penny nails, I got some repair work Marselline's all in a dither for me to do."
Big Sid seemed disappointed I wasn't going to hang around and shoot the breeze like I usually did. He likes to sit in his old black rocker in front of the store's bay window and watch the ladies strolling by, entertaining me with vivid descriptions of their particular qualities, or lack of them.
I wasn't in the mood to girl-watch; other things were on my mind. When I got home, I had to park the pickup halfway down the block from our trailer because cars lined the driveway and the shoulder of the road.
Marselline, all three hundred pounds of her, sat queen-like in the swing I'd hung under the carport. You could usually find her there watching talk shows and learning how to hate me.
I built the carport to shelter the pickup from the sweltering, humid heat common in South Louisiana. It wasn't to be, however. Marselline grabbed it as a cover for her garage sales.
I call them garbage sales out of earshot of Marselline. I'd not go so far as to say I was afraid of her, but I'm not a large man, and the three hundred plus pounds she carries isn't all fat and blubber like Big Sid's.
"It's about time, Floyd." Her grating whine vibrated my eardrums like a tuning fork as I walked toward the clucking, scratching group of females pawing through treasures of junk piled atop tables under the lean-to where my pickup should be.
"Start over there," Marselline shrilled, pointing to the I-beam I'd used to prop up the roof. "If it falls and hurts somebody they'd sue us for sure, and we’d lose all this." She spread her arms toward the weather-beaten trailer I'd bought when I was working offshore. It had been in a wreck and I got a good deal on it. Course, it needed repairs; something I'm still at eight years later.
Nodding at the love of my life, I found a ladder and went to work shoring up the ceiling. As I worked, I thought about old Shashy and his treasure.
By the time I finished the patchwork, the ideas I'd hatched were making me so nervous I sneaked into the trailer for a swig from the bottle of vodka I keep stashed behind the loosened ceiling by the door. Marselline’s a teetotaler. She quit drinking fifteen years ago, the day after we were married.
I never did understand that. When we were courting, she drank tequila by the shot with a beer chaser for as long as I wanted. I figure it was part of her scheme to snare me. I had a good job back then on the oilrigs out in the Gulf of Mexico. Course, by now I think she's decided I wasn't the catch she thought I'd be.
There wasn't anything in the fridge to chase the vodka with except the prune juice Marselline kept for her irregularity. I choked the vile stuff down to cover the smell. I know you're not supposed to smell vodka on your breath, but Marselline can.
I wanted a cigarette, but I gave up smoking for the apple of my eye. That's another thing. I don't recollect her allergies being nearly as sensitive to the smell of tobacco as it became soon after we were married.
Shashy Savoie's image floated into my thoughts. He was somewhere in the Chane running liver-spotted hands through Spanish diamonds and sapphires and . . . I realized I was sweating even as I stood next to the air conditioner. My palms were wet, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled as I conjured up what Shashy's treasure would look like.
Old Shashy wouldn't dare dig up his treasure in broad daylight, even in the middle of the swamp. Too chancy. One never knew if he was truly alone out there. It would have to be done in the midnight hour, and it would be tonight. Why else come to town for the paint cans?
When he thought it safe to transfer Lafitte's booty, I'd be there-waiting to relieve him of it. There was a treasure. I was as sure of that as I was that Marselline fantasized I was Tom Cruise when we did the dirty-boogie.
Besides, someone who knew how to admire the treasure should own it, not old Shashy. He lived like a river-rat when he should have been living in splendor. That's how I was going to live when it was mine. Without Marselline.
I'd take my treasure and run. I surely would. With that kind of money you could get away with anything. Change your name. Alter your looks. Anything! Women? One for every day of the year, including leap year. Beautiful, slim-bodied women who'd outdo themselves in their efforts to please.
Still sweating, I walked outside, wading through the knot of women mindlessly going through trash-treasures: picking up this piece of material, fingering that fabric, eyeing that can opener. Thing is, I never recall actually seeing anyone buying anything.
"Think I'll go see if the sac-a-lait's are biting, Marselline," I said. "I'll make a court bouillon if I catch any." Over the years, I’ve found using that excuse was almost a sure-fire way to get out of the house.
Sometimes I really went fishing, but mostly I shot the bull and girl-watched with Big Sid. Or maybe I'd stop by the library and flip through encyclopedias, dreaming of far away, exotic places I'd never see. Or use the time to read, while using the large dictionary when I ran across words I didn’t know the meaning of. Before going home, I’d stop by Privat’s Seafood Market and pick up enough perch to make the soup.
After putting my fishing pole in the back of the pickup, I left Marselline fanning herself in the swing drooling about the meal I would never fix for her. I aimed the pickup toward Chane Swamp and Shashy Savoie's pirate treasure.
At the end of the rutted shell road, the swamp began suddenly and thickly. If the light was just right and if you squinted your eyes toward a little used path leading into a thick cluster of oak and cypress trees-made all the more threatening by awkward, knobby vines connecting the trees with ropy, unfriendly things-you could barely make out Shashy Savoie's wretched lean-to.
I concealed the pickup behind thick palmettos and crept to the edge of the swamp, looking for a good place to watch Shashy's cabin. Later that night, under cover of darkness, the old thief would lead me to his paint cans filled with gold and silver.
He was a murderer too, if you believed the story about his partner. Worse, even, a thief stole to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, but Shashy had found Lafitte’s treasure and reburied it. What's the use of going to all the trouble to find it in the first place if you’re not going to enjoy it? It boggles the mind.
I'd enjoy it. Yes, indeed. If I didn’t relieve old Shashy of his treasure, he’d most likely die out there, and it would lie in the swamp a hundred years before anybody found it again. That wasn't going to happen. I had grand plans involving South America. Or France. My knowledge of Cajun French would make communicating with the Mademoiselles a chinch. Besides, the money would make communication so much easier. Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes! Finally, I would get to see all those faraway places I'd dreamed of.
My scheme had one little flaw. That I meant to steal old Shashy's treasure was one thing, but what to do with him was quite another. I'd brought the pickup's tire iron in case I had to . . . What? . . . Kill him? I'll be honest. I didn't know if I could actually hurt the old hermit.
But I was set on leaving the swamp with Lafitte's treasure so, in hindsight, I guess I was up to doing the nasty deed. This was about a new life here; a life only Shashy's gold could make happen.
I settled down among tall weeds to wait and quietly opened a can of Royal Crown Cola. The temperature was in the nineties and mosquitoes were already feeding off me. I'd come prepared though. I always keep a bottle of Marselline's Skin-So-Soft to cover my face and arms. It helped. I finished the Royal Crown and lay it beside the six-pack I’d picked up at the Stop-N-Rob. That was when I heard what sounded like an angry alligator thrashing about in the tall marsh weeds.
Big Sid. He looked like Hollywood's version of a big game hunter with short khaki pants and shirt, and a wide straw hat shading his face. He wore Cajun Reeboks-white rubber boots-like the shrimpers wear. Strapped across his back was a knapsack and he carried-in his hot, sweaty hands-a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.
"Big Sid," I whispered, hoping he'd hear me over the infernal noise he was making, and prayed Shashy hadn't heard either of us.
He stopped, raised the shotgun slightly. He began to speak and I waved my hands frantically, motioning him silent. Shashy's cabin wasn't fifty yards from where we stood.
"What you-" he began, walking toward me, shotgun pointing in my general direction. I could see that the safety was off. Jesus.
"What're you doing here?" he said, sounding like an alligator's hiss. Loud. Threatening.
"Question is, Big Sid," I shot back, resettling myself down among the tall reeds and motioning him to do the same, "what the hell you doing out here?"
He sat beside me, making more noise than he needed to make. The shotgun was pointed away from me but the safety was still off. I pointed that out. He clicked it on, reluctantly, it seemed.
"Uh, figured I'd try to bag a couple of poule deau's," he lied brazenly.
"With that?" I nodded at the 12-gauge. "There wouldn't be enough duck left to fricassee."
"Seems we both got the same idea," I said, grinning back. "I guess we'll have to be partners. Like they say, half's better than none. What you say, Big Sid? We gonna split old Shashy's treasure?"
“Yeah, you're right,” he said, tightening his grip on the 12-gauge. Great. Big Sid's got a shotgun, I have a tire tool. No contest. The look in his eyes did nothing to allay my growing fears. They were like pools of brown swamp water-distant, unfocused-a look I'd seen in the eyes of the criminally insane when I worked for the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Department before Marselline got me fired, but that's another story.
"Yeah," he said, lowering his voice to a moderate roar, "there'll be enough for both of us. What ya gonna do with yours?"
“Travel," I muttered. "Alone."
Big Sid stuffed a meaty fist into his mouth to keep the guffaw from escaping. "Know what ya mean," he finally choked out. His face, strawberry red, glistened with sweat. "Me, too."
"What about Ramona and the kids?" I had to ask.
Both fists were needed to squelch the bellow from escaping-a river of tears streamed down his fat jowls mingling with the sweat, his huge belly rolling like Terrebonne Bay in a summer squall.
A commotion drifted through the silliness of the moment, causing us to quit our foolishness. Peering through the jumble of vines and trees we could just make out Shashy's shadowy form as he left his shack and walked behind it, out of our line of vision. Quietly, we crept to a location where we could see.
What we saw was shocking. A long Quonset hut constructed from heavyweight green plastic sat twenty yards from the shack. A motor cranked, and a steady hum filled the air. Generator.
We stared at each other, flabbergasted. Neither spoke, but our eyes asked the same question. How the devil did the old hermit build that hut by himself, and why wasn't he living in it instead of the crumbling old shack? I chanced a whisper. "Maybe we'd better get closer and-" Big Sid shushed me, nodding toward the building.
Old Shashy was wobbling toward the Quonset hut carrying two paint cans. I looked at Big Sid. His small pig eyes, usually imbedded in the fleshy folds of his face, were protruding out as far as possible and still remain in their sockets. Shivering like I'd caught a chill, I watched Shashy enter the plastic building.
The treasure was inside.
We didn't have to bird-dog the crazy old coot into the swamp after all. He was getting ready to transfer the treasure that very moment. Later, he'd take it to its hiding place.
So he thought.
Me and Big Sid had other plans for it. I heard the safety click off on the shotgun. Oh, Jesus. Another chill passed through me when I realized Big Sid hadn't brought the weapon for show. That scared the hell out of me. I'd known the man all my life and I'd never seen that side of him.
We crept closer. Big Sid gripped the shotgun tighter. Jesus. They'll come after you for murder-anywhere, anytime. You could never be safe. There were no statutes of limitation.
I touched his shoulder and he nearly screamed. He made little "humfing" sounds. I pointed at the shotgun and shook my head. He tightened his grip, clenched his teeth, and began a crouching, crunching march toward the green building.
I followed, a million thoughts fighting for dominance. Things weren't working out like I'd planned. Big Sid looked deranged and completely out of control. Too late, I began to wish I'd never heard about the treasure.
I had though, and I planned to make the best of a bad situation. I wanted that treasure-half of it, anyway. Big Sid broke into a loping half-run, his face slack, globs of fat jiggled as he ran. Slobber drooled from his open mouth, and the wet spot between his legs could only mean one thing.
I ran beside him, clutching my tire iron naively. Big Sid knocked the flimsy door off its hinges as he burst into the building. I had to wait until he was inside before I could enter. I saw old Shashy throw up his withered, ancient arms in surprise. His eyes; the only thing visible behind his beard, opened wide and remained that way even after Big Sid stumbled and accidentally-maybe-discharged the 12-gauge.
A large wet stain appeared and spread on Shashy's chest. I watched in horror as the old man staggered backward, opened his mouth to ask the question he would never finish, before crumpling slowly to the floor.
Big Sid leaped to his feet and began a rabid, futile search for the old man's treasure. As I watched him, I realized we had been fools of our own misguided imagination. There were no doubloons. Or silver. Or jewels.
Only the paintings.
That was what Big Sid had tripped over when he charged into the Quonset hut; a stack of unframed paintings setting in the middle of the floor. The room was so crammed with canvasses it was almost impossible to walk. Canvasses reached to the ceiling. Dazed, I forgot about Big Sid and old Shashy lying dead on the floor as I pulled paintings from the stacks to be immediately hypnotized by them.
Who would have thought ugly old Shashy could have imagined such beauty? The vivid, lifelike paintings were of many different subjects. Aqua green and frothy whites blended in a turbulent ocean scene in one; a dragonfly perched atop a bird of paradise, frozen in preparation for flight, the web-like crisscrossing pattern of its wings brought to life forever. A stunning painting of the pyramids. Another just as spectacular of the Eiffel Tower. A sad-faced clown peered up from inside an opaque square, glass prison cell. Paintings of every imaginable persuasion, capturing scenes from every corner of the world, filled the Quonset hut.
Old Shashy painted a world he could not-for whatever reason-live in. Instead of dreaming about faraway places as I had, he painted his. I didn't see Big Sid leave, and I was still sitting in the middle of the room, staring at the paintings when they came for me.
I’m on death row in Angola, Louisiana's State Penitentiary, hoping for a good word about my final appeal and Big Sid's a hometown hero. He told them I murdered Shashy. I couldn't convince them differently. After all, they found me with Big Sid's 12-guage, which I'd moved to get to the paintings, leaving my fingerprints all over it.
Big Sid told them I'd bragged about stealing the old man's treasure. He said he hadn't thought much about it until he noticed his shotgun was missing. So, he locked up the hardware store and went out to Bayou Chane to check up on the old recluse.
He said he peeked through the broken door, saw Shashy dead and me sitting in the middle of the room with the paintings. He rushed back to town, found Alonzo Picou, our town constable, and the rest-as they say-is history.
There was a big to-do over the paintings.
The old man's imagination and style shook the arts-and-croissants crowd to its foundation. They say Shashy's technique was a melding of the abstracts of Picasso and the post-Impressionist Dutch master, Van Gogh. No one ever found out where he acquired the canvases he painted on. Some were used more than once, old Shashy just painted over the original.
The colors he had concocted were-to hear those who knew such things-revolutionary. Although they were painted with common house paint, the shades conjured up by Shashy's mixing of colors resulted in the "oohing's" and "aahing's" of the art world.
I don't know about all that. All I know is that, as I gazed at the paintings, they struck me with a feeling of-belonging. It was as if the unusual combination of colors and the simple artistry of the man's work soaked into my very skin. As though I had become a part of the canvases. Experts have coined the phrase, sensory relief, to explain the phenomena.
Big Sid sold the hardware store and divorced Ramona. They say he slimmed down to a mere 250 pounds, is on a world tour showing Shashy's paintings to an awe-struck world, and being hailed as an art critic.
Marselline is a regular on the talk show circuit, sniveling to the world how insensitively she was treated during our fifteen years of marriage. The Abused Women of America embraced her cause and she's writing a book about her dreadful ordeal.
As for me . . . I await tomorrow's sunrise.