When the BP oil spill devastates the Gulf coast, those who made a living by shrimping find themselves in dire straits. For the oddballs and lowlifes who inhabit the sleepy, working class bayou town of Jeannette, these desperate circumstances serve as the catalyst that pushes them to enact whatever risky schemes they can dream up to reverse their fortunes. At the center of it all is Gus Lindquist, a pill-addicted, one armed treasure hunter obsessed with finding the lost treasure of pirate Jean Lafitte. His quest brings him into contact with a wide array of memorable characters, ranging from a couple of small time criminal potheads prone to hysterical banter, to the smooth-talking Oil company middleman out to bamboozle his own mother, to some drug smuggling psychopath twins, to a young man estranged from his father since his mother died in Hurricane Katrina. As the story progresses, these characters find themselves on a collision course with each other, and as the tension and action ramp up, it becomes clear that not all of them will survive these events.
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TOM COOPER has been published in dozens of literary magazines and journals, most recently in Oxford American, Mid-American Review, Gulf Coast, Boulevard, and Willow Springs. His stories have been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in New Orleans.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE TOUP BROTHERS
They came like specters from the dark maw of the bayou, first ghostly light in the fog, then the rasp of a motor: an aluminum powerboat scudding across lacquer-black water. From a distance the figures looked conjoined, Siamese twins. As the boat drew closer the bodies split in two under the moth-flocked floodlights. One stood fore, the other aft: the twin brothers Reginald and Victor Toup. When they were kids even their mother had trouble telling them apart. That was long ago, half their lives, and now their mother was dead. Shot through the temple in New Orleans's Roosevelt Hotel before their father turned the gun on himself.
Tonight they motored under a three-quarter moon, thirty pounds of marijuana hidden under a tarp in the bait well. Reginald trolled the boat and Victor crouched on the prow, surveying the bayou through night-vision binoculars. They'd made this run so many times they could tell you things about the swamp that no map could. You rarely came across anyone out here. Not after dark, not this far, not outside shrimping season.
This of course was the point.
A flicker of motion ahead drew Victor's eye. On an islet a half mile distant a small light bobbed and shimmied like fox fire before sputtering out.
Victor held up his hand and Reginald cut the engine and lights. They were plunged into dark, moonlight banded across the water, the only sounds the insects and frogs singing in full chorus, the soft slap of waves against the hull.
"What?" Reginald asked.
Victor said nothing. He peered through the glass and waited. Reginald stepped behind him, black rubber hip boots creaking. Side by side, the brothers' resemblance was uncanny. The same side-parted black hair and hard-bitten faces, the same mineral-gray eyes full of cunning. The same way of leaning slightly into the night, torsos angled stiff, like bloodhounds scenting a rumor of prey. But there were differences, slight. Reginald had the beginnings of a gumbo paunch but Victor did not. Reginald had no tattoos, but Victor had them on his arms and on the side of his neck: the head of a gape-mouthed Great White shark, a mermaid and trident, a spiderweb in the crook of his right arm, a black widow spider in the middle.
Any other differences between the twins a man would have to delve deeper than the surface to discern.
For a time nothing moved. Stars were strewn horizon to horizon, bands so tangled and thick they looked like white paint flung on a black canvas. Ursa Minor and Cassiopeia and Orion like puzzles you had to make out.
Victor shifted on his boots and adjusted the focus of the binoculars. The light winked on again, skeltering among the trees.
"Thinks we left," Victor said.
"Who?" Reginald asked.
Victor didn't answer, only watched. Anchored a hundred yards from the islet was a ramshackle shrimp boat, on the islet shore a beached pirogue and a Coleman lantern dimly glowing. A man in hip boots waded in the bracken, sweeping a metal detector coil over the ground. In his other hand was something that looked half scoop, half shovel.
The man heard something in his headphones and halted. He passed the metal detector coil a few times over the same spot and then dug for a minute with the shovel-scoop. He stepped to the shore edge and shimmied the shovel in the water and hunkered down, sifting through the dirt like a gold panner.
Victor lowered the binoculars and shook his head.
"Tell me," Reginald said.
"A guy," Victor said. "Digging holes."
"Fuck should I know? Burying his wife."
Reginald took the binoculars from Victor and squinted through the glass. "Got a metal detector," he said.
"Know him?" Victor asked.
"I've seen him. I think."
"Metal detector," Victor said. He shot a scoffing breath through his nose. "I've seen it all."
"What's he, with the oil company?"
Victor didn't answer. He unshouldered his semiautomatic Bushmaster and got the man's face in the crosshairs of the reticle scope. He looked in his late forties, early fifties. Deeply pocketed eyes, shaggy hair winged out from beneath a yacht cap. And look, he was missing an arm, in its place a prosthesis.
"Missing an arm," Victor said.
"I know who that is," Reginald said.
Victor asked who.
"The redhead? Crazy big tits. Got stoned at our place a couple times. Renee?"
"Reagan," Victor said. "Oh, yeah."
"Reagan. That's her daddy."
Victor lifted the rifle again and squinted through the scope, his finger resting in the curve of the trigger.
"The hell you doing?" Reginald said. He'd always been the more diplomatic of the two, Victor the more hotheaded. Maybe it was because Victor was the firstborn, the alpha, a full hour longer in the world than Reginald. This was one of Reginald's theories, anyway.
"Too close for his own good," Victor told Reginald.
"We'll talk to him."
Victor could squeeze the trigger right now and the man's life would be over in an instant. He'd done it before. Out here. But he lowered the rifle and said, "Luckiest day in his life, son-bitch doesn't even know it."
His arm was missing. Lindquist was positive he'd left it in his pickup two hours before. He wasn't in the habit of misplacing his thirty-thousand-dollar myoelectric arm or of leaving his truck unlocked, catchwater bayou town where everybody knew everyone or not.
A few other pickups sat under the bug-flurried sodium vapors. Nothing else but cypress lisping in the night breeze, a bottlefly-green Buick bouncing on the blacktop past Sully's bar. But Lindquist kept looking wild-eyed around the oyster-shell parking lot as if his arm had wandered off on its own volition. As if he might find it standing next to the blue-lit tavern sign, thumbing a ride.
Lindquist went back into Sully's. Sully was wiping the bar with a hand towel and peered over the top of his wire-frame glasses. At one of the back tables three men were gathering cards and poker chips, and they looked up too.
Lindquist stood in the doorway, lips pressed in a thin pale line, some dark emotion building behind his face like a storm front. "Somebody took my arm," he said.
"Took?" Sully said.
"Stole," Lindquist said. "Somebody stole my fuckin' arm."
A stymied silence fell over the room, for a moment the only sound the jukebox: a Merle Haggard song, "I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me," playing faintly. The men glanced at one another and shook their heads. Finally one of them, Dixon, began to laugh. Then Prejean and LaGarde, the two other men at the table. Their teeth flashed white in their sun-ruddied faces and soon the narrow pine-planked room filled with their laughter.
"Screw you guys," Lindquist said.
The laughter stopped as quickly as a needle lifting off a record.
"You joking?" Dixon asked.
Lindquist joked a lot, so it was hard to tell.
"Probably left it at home," Sully said.
"Like hell," Lindquist said.
"Call Gwen," LaGarde said. "See if you left it at home."
Lindquist stared stiff-jawed at LaGarde. LaGarde put his hands on the tabletop and looked down. Gwen was gone, had been for months. Most likely she was at her parents' house in Houma, where she usually fled when she and Lindquist were arguing. She always returned after a few days, but not this time. The men didn't know the full story, but the gist was probably the same. A quarrel about money, about bills, about their daughter, about God knew what.
Sully stepped from behind the bar and the men got up from the table. They searched under stools and chairs, kicked open bathroom stalls. Then they went outside and canvassed the lot. Lindquist stooped and peered under the trucks. Dixon went to the edge of the lot and passed his boot back and forth through the sedge. Prejean did the same on the other side. LaGarde walked out to the blacktop and looked in both directions.
Afterward the men stood under the sodium lights, batting mosquitoes from their faces.
"Why didn't you just wear it?" Dixon asked Lindquist.
"You wear it in this heat," Lindquist said.
Twenty minutes later the sheriff arrived. Villanova. He picked up his khaki cowboy hat off the passenger seat, got out of the cruiser, sat the hat on top of his mastiff head.
The men stared, faces malefic in the red and blue bar-light.
Lindquist told Villanova about the poker game, about how his arm was missing when he returned to his truck. Villanova fished a small spiral notebook out of his shirt pocket and scribbled down the names of the men who'd left earlier. Lindquist insisted whoever took his arm had to be a stranger. A lowlife drifter so drug-addled and devoid of moral compass he'd steal a prosthetic arm from someone's truck.
"And you're sure you didn't leave it home," Villanova said.
Lindquist narrowed his eyes. "You leave your arms at home?"
Your thirty-thousand-dollar arm, he wanted to say. Without his wife's insurance from her job at the bank, Lindquist could have never afforded the prosthetic or the months of physical therapy after his accident. And even with Gwen's insurance, Lindquist had to pay fifteen grand out of pocket, money he put on a high-interest credit card he paid only the minimum on every month. A debt he'd take to his grave, but he couldn't exactly shrimp with a five-dollar hook arm from Kmart.
Villanova wrote something down. "You have the serial number?"
"The serial number?"
Villanova pinched the bridge of his nose. "The serial number for the arm, Lindquist."
Lindquist shook his head.
"Well, you can always call the doctor. Call wherever you got it. That might make sense."
The men scattered their separate ways, Dixon and Sully back into the bar, LaGarde and Prejean off to their trucks. Lindquist stood beside his truck door, jangling through a wad of keys. A full minute passed before he found the right one. Then for another half minute Lindquist jabbed the key around the lock, scraping metal. Finally he scrunched one eye closed and slipped the key inside.
Villanova watched from across the lot. "What you doing?" he asked.
"Like hell. You're drunk."
Lindquist squinted at Villanova, head listing as if to music only he could hear. "Just a little," he said.
"It's late, Lindquist. Get in the car."
For a time the men were silent as Villanova drove along the trafficless two-way. They passed a palmetto grove, a field of saw grass. A nighthawk winged across the moon, its silhouette like an emblem on a coin.
"Knock knock," Lindquist said.
"Still at it with your jokes, Lindquist."
"Loses an arm and tells knock-knock jokes."
"Anita big ol' pair of titties in front of me."
Villanova shook his head. The police radio popped and hissed with static.
"So you all were playing poker," Villanova said.
"What you think?"
Villanova kept both hands tight on the wheel, both eyes on the road.
"It's late, Lindquist."
Villanova didn't need to ask him for directions because he knew the way. He'd driven Lindquist home from the bar a few times because he was too wrecked to drive himself.
"You worried about the oil?" Villanova asked.
Lindquist said he was. Everybody in Jeanette was. Hell, folks were in a shithouse panic.
"Could be better than they're saying," Villanova said. "But I got a feeling it might be worse."
Soon Villanova bumped onto a gravel driveway that cut through wild privet to a brick ranch house with a gray-shake roof and satellite dish. A birdbath, its basin filled with scummy water and leaves, stood in a dead flowerbed.
Awkwardly, Lindquist reached his left arm across his lap and opened the door.
"You okay, Lindquist?" Villanova asked.
Lindquist stooped and looked into the car. "Yeah. You?"
"Yeah. Favor? No crusades just yet."
"Got your keys?"
"Check for me."
Lindquist took his keys out of his jeans pocket, jangled them, gave Villanova a thumbs-up.
"Still know how to use them?"
"So long, Villanova," Lindquist said. He shut the door and stepped aside as Villanova turned the car around. He watched the taillights jitter like fireflies down the driveway, one pair and then two and then one again when he squinted an eye.
Lindquist opened the front door, flicked on the light, sniffed. A sweet-sour stink, of rancid bacon grease and chicken fat, wafted from the kitchen. And the den was littered with grease-mottled takeout bags, empty beer cans, month-old newspapers still in their cellophane bags. Lindquist wondered what his daughter, Reagan, would think if she dropped by for a visit, what his wife would think if she came back.
Like that was going to happen.
He moved to pick up one of the bags but his arm wasn't there. He went to the kitchen and got an Abita out of the refrigerator and then he sat at the cluttered dining room table. Bills, all months overdue. Mortgage, credit cards, diesel, insurance. And books stacked four and five high: The Story of the American Merchant Marine. The Pirates Lafitte. The Journal of Jean Lafitte. The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans. Biogeochemistry of the Wetlands: Science and Applications.
Among the books were time-yellowed maritime maps as stiff as parchment, marked with red felt-tip pen in Lindquist's hieroglyphic hand. A metal detector lay across the table with its circuitry box open and its wiring sticking out. Gwen used to bitch when he left these things on the table, but now he could keep them where he goddamn well pleased.
Lindquist leaned on one ass cheek and took out a Pez dispenser from his pants pocket and flicked the head. Donald Duck spat out an oblong white pill: Oxycontin, whittled by Lindquist with a pocketknife so it fit perfectly into the dispenser. With the bottom of his Abita bottle he pummeled the pill on the dining room table until it was crushed to dust. Then he plugged a nostril with his forefinger and leaned over and snorted the powder, tipping his head back and rubbing the dust ...
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