Ambition, like love, needs the light of day to flourish. If driven underground, it becomes mangled and distended. As a black girl growing up in the Louisiana countryside of the 1920s, Camille dreamed of moving to the big city of New Orleans, opening her own restaurant, and marrying a stranger. The big city turned out to be Los Angeles, or more specifically, L.A.'s misbegotten stepchild named Watts. The restaurant was reduced to the rectory kitchen at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, where Camille had been cook and housekeeper for some forty-odd years and twenty-odd priests. The stranger had come in the guise of Henri "T-Papa" Broussard, a light-skinned second cousin from her hometown of Grimelle who had known Camille from birth.
He had been dead for eight years and she had been alone for three. Those three had been marked by conspicuous and frantic culinary activity. God had given her a talent and talent begs to be shared. She was going to cook her way to heaven. For three years, she struggled to give form to unrealized ambition, which was pushing up inside her like fermenting dough. Of late, it had taken the form of meat pies.
Camille Broussard was known for her meat pies. Towers of golden crusts filled with spicy chicken stew. Pies that sat higher than most people's cakes. You could buy one for fifteen dollars and feed sixteen people with it. None of these sixteen would be hungry again until the middle of the next day and, even then, the memory of meat pie would lull them back into a worshipful stupor, sweet smiles bobbing upon succulent lips. Pies so good they could hurt a grown man and almost make him cry.
She would have to sell at least 389 of them at full price every year for the rest of her life if she ever hoped to retire. So far in the year 1984, she had sold sixteen. It was the end of February and Camille was discouraged. She set her sights on the week of Mardi Gras, when she planned to make a killing. She would mass produce pies by keeping the dough on ice, making big pots of chicken stew, lining up her tins, fashioning the crusts, and ladling in the stew. She considered charging a onetime inflationary price of twenty dollars per pie, but being a good Catholic, she settled on the usual fifteen (with no discount for bulk orders). She worked round the clock to get ready, forgoing sleep the Friday night before Lent due to a last-minute order from a suspicious-sounding carnival in Santa Monica.
The seven Broussard offspring were worried about their mother. Normally, they tried not to worry about anybody but themselves, and they tried especially hard not to worry about their mother, who still embodied the twin virtues of stability and nourishment. They were used to her producing copious amounts of food, but they weren't used to her hording it for profit. They had happily suffered through her gumbo phase--too expensive to make, too awkward to transport, but delicious if you could sneak a bowl--and had endured months of red beans and rice mania, finally discontinued but not before they had collectively gained forty pounds. Forbidden meat pies were an extreme form of torture; Camille's house was one big booby trap. To sit on a chair was to risk sitting on a meat pie. Impossible to sneak a bite without her noticing. Time for Mama to slow down, not speed up. Arthritis, swollen feet, high blood pressure, borderline blood sugar, boils, blisters, backaches, nothing gets in her way. They laughed when they talked about "Mama and her meat pies" but it was the nervous laughter of grown children who can't afford to worry.
Camille couldn't afford to slow down. Not if slowing down meant she would die as somebody's housekeeper. Cooking was one thing; emptying ashtrays was another. None of her children seemed prepared to support her in her old age. She was only sixty-seven. People her age could live to be a hundred. What she did with her spare time for the next thirty-three years was her business and hers alone.
At one time, she had had ambition for her children. But you can no more be ambitious for other people than you can be in love for them. It had taken her till now to face the hard truth that none of them were ever going to achieve her goals. She had a better chance of getting a meat pie to do her bidding than one of the Broussard children. The matriarch of a once-mighty tribe that had walked on water, she was now the aging figurehead for a horde of swamp dwellers. In less than a generation, they had fallen from kingfish to crawfish, up to their necks in the mud of disillusionment. Two unattached, three unemployed, four unholy, two unashamed, seven unhappy, and one quite unwell.
At forty-eight, Yvette was a burned-out schoolteacher. Not as fried-to-the-bone as her brother Raymond, but in a far more dangerous line of work. Raymond was forty-six, sullen and unemployed, a longshoreman laid off after a fall. At forty-four, Louis was a born-again mechanic who only worked on Christian cars. His own car had holes in it. Anthony was a hotheaded cabinetmaker like his father. He was already forty-three but he had yet to finish an order on time. Marc was a thirty-eight-year-old architect with his own firm. Rumored to have money, but nobody had ever seen it. Couldn't name a building that bore his signature. Energy all expended on his rise from the ghetto. Didn't do a thing now but drive around in a convertible. In contrast to Marc, Joseph's life was an open book since he practiced it outdoors. A full-time alcoholic for the last ten of his thirty-four years, he was compensated at an extremely low rate. However not unlike Jesus, he could change water to wine and go without food for forty days and forty nights. Grace was the youngest of the Broussard children. She was twenty-five and a lesbian. An underachieving lesbian. Camille did not know any other lesbians, but she was sure there must be lesbians somewhere who could hold down a job.
Though her children were not especially driven, they were all born drivers. Los Angeles had done that to them. They were always going somewhere yet never quite arriving. When the Mardi Gras orders came pouring in, Camille decided to ask her children to deliver her meat pies. Driving was the one thing she could count on them to do. And she couldn't expect her customers to pick up their pies from her house on Compton Avenue, unless she was prepared to offer them a discount for coming to Watts.
It should have been a simple proposition. Anthony lived on the working-class side of Long Beach, so he could pick up the meat pies for the funeral home in Carson. Louis lived in the western ghetto of Crenshaw, so he could take the pies headed for the celebrity party in Baldwin Hills and the church dinner in Leimert Park. Grace could deliver the Santa Monica pies to the Carnival in Support of the People of El Salvador, which was happening near her apartment. And Yvette could carry the last of the pies to the St. Martin de Porres Mardi Gras Dance. Then Camille could go to bed.
A little after ten on the Saturday morning of Mardi Gras weekend, Anthony roared up in his Dodge Ram. The whole idea of an open house at a funeral home bothered him. Business couldn't possibly be slow, not with all the killings in the news, so he couldn't figure out why they needed meat pies to attract new customers. Camille said lots of small funeral homes were going out of business, but that didn't change the fact that death wasn't a carnival and "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry" wasn't a good slogan for an open house and Anthony had a china closet to finish. Those newlyweds had been waiting since October. Raymond could have delivered the pies. He lived in Long Beach, he was unemployed, he had time, but Camille hadn't bothered him because she said he was too depressed to be taken for a delivery boy.
Anthony stormed into the kitchen, his heavy workboots pounding the floor. "Mama, I hope you ain't givin' away these pies for free. How much you chargin'?"
"Fifteen dollars. Same as always. Don't scuff my floor with those dirty boots."
"You need to be chargin' twenty-five. When have I scuffed your floor? I know one thing: I ain't never seen nobody work so hard to give somebody else a way of makin' money. Some fools ain't got no better sense than to be havin' an open house in a funeral home need to pay extra. I hope you ain't givin' no discount."
"Nobody asked for your opinion." She turned away.
He could tell she didn't appreciate being reminded about her discounted bereavement pies and the scam that had been perpetrated on her by some Creoles in Burbank. She said she first suspected something was up when they ordered twenty pies for a funeral reception. Anthony had volunteered to deliver them; he knew his mother was happy for the extra two hundred dollars, even though it meant somebody big in Burbank had died. But a young man in a BMW had come to pick them up. When Camille found out the BMW belonged to restaurateurs who were reselling her pies under their own name, she cut off their supply.
Anthony himself had happened on their place when he was trying to deliver some furniture to the San Fernando Valley and took a wrong turn. Jacques' Fine Louisiana Creole Cuisine sounded like a safe place to stop and ask directions. He had never been to Burbank before and he was scared as any black man carting a truckload of finely crafted furniture around a strange white city. No matter that he had crafted it all himself, he couldn't prove it any more than he could prove his screwdriver wasn't a gun.
The people at Jacques looked at him funny when he walked in wearing his workboots. These were not his people. He should have known by the "Jacques," the "Fine" and the "Cuisine" that they were those other kind of Creoles, beaucoup Frenchified and stuck on themselves. Had the nerve to say "Bonjour" when he walked in the door. Arrogant bastards were probably related to him in some twisted way. Pretended they didn't know where the Valley was. Made him so mad he decided to stay and sample the menu.
Five dollars seemed a bit steep for a slice of meat pie with salad, but he was looking forward to talking loud about how their meat pie couldn't hold a candle to his mama's. He swung one heavy leg over the back of their light cane chair and sat down with his toolbox, which he never left in the truck. When they brought his pie, he tilted his chair back and ate it with one boot propped up on the table leg. Cheap yard-sale furniture. But if this wasn't his mama's chicken meat pie . . . He almost fell on his head. If this had been L.A. he would have come up swinging, but it was Burbank so he just threatened to sue. If Camille had been a legitimate business, they could have sued for real, but she was bootleg. Her pies weren't certified by the health department. Strictly eat-at-your-own-risk. Hard to sue over bootleg.
"You carry those careful," Camille was saying. "They're not furniture you can bang around."
Anthony loaded up his truck and drove to Carson with the pies. He recognized the open house by the balloons tied to the fence. Folks had actually come out for the free limousine rides. He should have brought the kids. The meat pies were a big hit. A man from Nachitoches wearing white gloves had taken them and sliced them into sixteen equal pieces. Not such a bad place, Carson. Competitive prices. Beautifully crafted simple pine boxes for folks on a budget. Ever since they had gotten married twelve years ago, Kathleen had been bugging him to make a will. A simple pine box would suit him just fine. He would have to look into it.
At one o'clock that afternoon, Louis arrived at his mother's house in his rusty blue Toyota. It wasn't very hot but he was sweating. He had two rules in life. Never do any more work than you have to. Never buy anything unless you have to. Implied in the second rule was this common sense provision: Never buy anything you might die before having a chance to use. The first rule was belied by the fact that Louis spent countless hours in strenuous deliberations over how to get out of work and then many more hours trying to make it look as if he had actually exerted himself. He expended very little effort on his stated objectives as auto mechanic, father, husband, son, and Christian, but people who only knew him casually assumed he worked hard because he was always sweating. The second rule applied to everything from gasoline to jackets. Though this was Los Angeles, it still got chilly at night, and Louis was wearing the jacket Deborah had bought him before they got married sixteen winters ago. The jacket had holes in it just like the car, which had been given to him by a friend from Chicago.
"Now these five pies are going to the church," Camille was saying.
"What church?" Louis interrupted. The smell of the pies was distracting him.
"Greater what? I'm talking about Mount St. Virgin."
"Mama, you know that's not my church. I keep telling you I'm not Catholic anymore. I'm a true Christian now."
"What's that got to do with the price of meat pies?"
She had a point.
"Don't take less than seventy-five dollars," she continued. "Prepaid. If they don't pay up front, you turn around and bring those pies right back here. I can always freeze them. Cold cash. I don't want no check."
He looked at the pies. If he could just have a taste of that flaky pie crust. He didn't even need the chicken, just a little piece of crust dipped in some of the sauce.
"And bring me my money by the end of the week. Don't go spending it on lunch."
"Mama, have I ever spent your money?"
"I'm not going to dignify that with an answer."
The smell of the pies was overpowering, but Louis managed to make it to Exposition Park before he ran out of gas. He had only bought enough gas to get himself to his mother's house and not enough for the ride back. This realization threw him into a moral crisis. A good Christian should be better prepared. Well, he wasn't perfect, he was only saved. He had no choice but to shave a little crust from the largest pie in order to fuel his walk to the gas station. He hoped those judgmental Catholics at his former church wouldn't notice the missing piece of crust. He worked up a sweat just thinking about it.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Crawfish Dreams by Nancy Rawles. Copyright © 2003 by Nancy Rawles. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.