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Purple Cane Road

Years ago, in state documents, Vachel Carmouche was always referred
to as the electrician, never as the executioner. That was back in
the days when the electric chair was sometimes housed at Angola. At
other times it traveled, along with its own generators, on a
flatbed semitruck from parish prison to parish prison. Vachel
Carmouche did the state's work. He was good at it.

In New Iberia we knew his real occupation but pretended we did not.
He lived by himself, up Bayou Teche, in a tin-roofed, paintless
cypress house that stayed in the deep shade of oak trees. He
planted no flowers in his yard and seldom raked it, but he always
drove a new car and washed and polished it religiously.

Early each morning we'd see him in a cafe on East Main, sitting by
himself at the counter, in his pressed gray or khaki clothes and
cloth cap, his eyes studying other customers in the mirror, his
slight overbite paused above his coffee cup, as though he were
waiting to speak, although he rarely engaged others in

When he caught you looking at him, he smiled quickly, his
sunbrowned face threading with hundreds of lines, but his smile did
not go with the expression in his eyes.  

Vachel Carmouche was a bachelor. If he had lady friends, we were
not aware of them. He came infrequently to Provost's Bar and Pool
Room and would sit at my table or next to me at the bar, indicating
in a vague way that we were both law officers and hence shared a
common experience.

That was when I was in uniform at NOPD and was still enamored with
Jim Beam straight up and a long-neck Jax on the side.

One night he found me at a table by myself at Provost's and sat
down without being asked, a white bowl of okra gumbo in his hands.
A veterinarian and a grocery store owner I had been drinking with
came out of the men's room and glanced at the table, then went to
the bar and ordered beer and drank with their backs to us.

"Being a cop is a trade-off, isn't it?" Vachel said.

"Sir?" I said.

"You don't have to call me 'sir'... You spend a lot of time

"Not so much."

"I think it goes with the job. I was a state trooper
once."  His eyes, which were as gray as his starched
shirt, drifted to the shot glass in front of me and the rings my
beer mug had left on the tabletop. "A drinking man goes home to a
lot of echoes. The way a stone sounds in a dry well. No offense
meant, Mr. Robicheaux. Can I buy you a round?"

The acreage next to Vachel Carmouche was owned by the Labiche
family, descendants of what had been known as free people of color
before the Civil War. The patriarch of the family had been a
French-educated mulatto named Jubal Labiche who owned a brick
factory on the bayou south of New Iberia. He both owned and rented
slaves and worked them unmercifully and supplied much of the brick
for the homes of his fellow slave owners up and down the

The columned house he built south of the St. Martin Parish line did
not contain the Italian marble or Spanish ironwork of the sugar
growers whose wealth was far greater than his own and whose way of
life he sought to emulate. But he planted live oaks along the
drives and hung his balconies and verandah with flowers; his slaves
kept his pecan and peach orchards and produce fields broom-sweep
clean. Although he was not invited into the homes of whites, they
respected him as a businessman and taskmaster and treated him with
courtesy on the street. That was almost enough for Jubal Labiche.
Almost. He sent his children North to be educated, in hopes they
would marry up, across the color line, that the high-yellow stain
that limited his ambition would eventually be bleached out of the
Labiche family's skin.

Unfortunately for him, when the federals came up the Teche in April
of 1863 they thought him every bit the equal of his white
neighbors. In democratic fashion they freed his slaves, burned his
fields and barns and corncribs, tore the ventilated shutters of his
windows for litters to carry their wounded, and chopped up his
imported furniture and piano for firewood.

Twenty-five years ago the last adult members of the Labiche family
to bear the name, a husband and wife, filled themselves with
whiskey and sleeping pills, tied plastic bags over their heads, and
died in a parked car behind a Houston pickup bar. Both were
procurers. Both had been federal witnesses against a New York crime

They left behind identical twin daughters, aged five years, named
Letty and Passion Labiche.

The girls' eyes were blue, their hair the color of smoke, streaked
with dark gold, as though it had been painted there with a brush.
An aunt, who was addicted to morphine and claimed to be a traiture,
or juju woman, was assigned guardianship by the state. Often Vachel
Carmouche volunteered to baby-sit the girls, or walk them out to
the road for the Head Start bus that took them to the preschool
program in New Iberia.

We did not give his attentions to the girls much thought. Perhaps
good came out of bad, we told ourselves, and there was an area in
Carmouche's soul that had not been disfigured by the deeds he had
performed with the machines he oiled and cleaned by hand and
transported from jail to jail. Perhaps his kindness towards the
children was his attempt at redemption.

Besides, their welfare was the business of the state, wasn't

In fourth grade one of the twins, Passion, told her teacher of a
recurrent nightmare and the pain she awoke with in the

The teacher took Passion to Charity Hospital in Lafayette, but the
physician said the abrasions could have been caused by the child
playing on the seesaw in City Park.

When the girls were about twelve I saw them with Vachel Carmouche
on a summer night out at Veazey's ice cream store on West Main.
They wore identical checkered sundresses and different-colored
ribbons in their hair. They sat in Carmouche's truck, close to the
door, a lackluster deadness in their eyes, their mouths turned down
at the corners, while he talked out the window to a black man in
bib overalls.

"I've been patient with you, boy. You got the money you had coming.
You calling me a liar?"

"No, suh, I ain't doing that."

"Then good night to you," he said. When one of the girls said
something, he popped her lightly on the cheek and started his

I walked across the shell parking area and stood by his

"Excuse me, but what gives you the right to hit someone else's
child in the face?" I asked.

"I think you misperceived what happened," he replied.

"Step out of your truck, please."

Excerpted from PURPLE CANE ROAD © Copyright 2001 by James
Lee Burke. Reprinted with permission by Dell. All rights

Purple Cane Road
by by James Lee Burke

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Dell
  • ISBN-10: 0440224047
  • ISBN-13: 9780440224044