A Tante Lulu Adventure
Grand Central Pub/Forever
August 26, 2014
ISBN-10: 0446535761
ISBN-13: 978-0446535762

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Consider your tail feathers clipped, soldier...

Justin LeBlanc sat on the treatment table in the medical center at the special forces center in Coronado, California, waiting for the stern-faced doctor to give him the test results.

“There’s good news and there’s bad news, Justin,” Doctor Andrews said.

“Cage,” he corrected automatically. Cage was his SEAL nickname, a play on his Cajun ethnicity. He’d been so accustomed to it over the years, he no longer thought of himself as Justin.

“The good news, Cage, is that you haven’t blown your knees to smithereens. No fracture. No surgery. The bad news is that you have severe cartilage damage and some ligament inflammation.” The doctor placed x-rays onto the wall lightboard and went into a long explanation in medical jargon which translated to the knee being a hinge joint that can not only move backward and forward but can also rotate and twist, but his wasn’t doing diddly in any direction without a lot of pain and further abuse.

“What’s the bottom line, doc?”

“You’re going to have to wear a soft brace and engage in daily physical therapy for the next few months.”

“But I can remain on duty, right?”

“Not active duty.”

“Can’t you just zap me with a shot of Cortisone or a pain killer?”

The doctor shook his head. “Numbing the knee won’t cure anything, and a pain killer might fool you into thinking the joint can take full weight. You’ve already done damage by walking and running after you first injured yourself.”

“Hey, when you HALO jump into Afghanistan with a hard landing, you don’t stop and think, `Oops. Gotta slow down. Maybe the tangos will invite me to tea?’ You run like hell if the bad guys are on your tail.”

He wasn’t telling the good doc anything he didn’t already know. “Are you sure? I could continue therapy while on active duty.”

“I can’t in good conscience approve that. Why don’t you take a vacation, boy. Go back home to Louisiana and relax.”

Are you kidding? home? Hah! When snow falls on the bayou, maybe, that’s when I’ll return to my painful roots. “Not an option, doc.”

The physician gave him a knowing stare. Lots of SEALs had backgrounds they didn’t want to discuss. With a sigh of resignation, he said, “Okay, let’s take another look.” The physician removed the ice pack from his knee, which had ballooned to the size of a cantaloupe. “Let’s remove the fluids first.” With quick efficiency showing how often he’d done the procedure, he inserted a long-needled syringe into the knee.

“Hoooly Shit!” That hurt like a bitch, and he was about to say so, explicitly, when his superior, Commander Ian MacLean, walked in. Without thinking, Cage automatically attempted to rise to attention.

“At ease, lieutenant,” the commander said, watching as the doctor sucked out about a liter of water and was drilling for more. Or at least it felt like drilling. The pain was on a par with, oh, say a root canal without Novocain.

The doctor noticed his white-fisted grasp on the edge of the table. “Does it hurt?”

Well, duh! Just then, a Navy nurse stepped into the room, putting some gauze and tape on a metal tray. Lt. Susan Adler smiled at him, making it impossible for him to howl like a baby...well, impossible if he wanted a shot at getting a date with her again. They’d been out together last month, and it was an experience worth repeating.

Once she left the room, hips swaying, to the amusement of everyone in the room, including his dour-faced commander, Cage answered the doctor, “No, it doesn’t hurt. I bite my lip bloody for the fun of it.”

“Watch the attitude, LeBlanc,” the commander cautioned, “And lay off the nurses. You know the non-fraternization rules.”

“Lay?” He grinned.

The commander frowned him down, a particular talent of his. Then the commander turned to the doctor, “How bad is it?”

"“He’ll live,” the doctor said with dry humor.

Cage wasn’t laughing and neither was the commander.

“He’s gotta take it easy on that knee for awhile. With a soft brace and physical therapy, he should be good as new in three months.”

“One month,” Cage disagreed.

The doctor shrugged. “Maybe two months with diligence.”

Tapping a forefinger against his closed lips, the commander seemed to be considering all the options. “Okay, here’s the deal, master chief. Take off a few days, then report for a new duty billet on Monday.”

Cage didn’t like the sound of that. “Exactly what assignment are you giving me, commander, sir?”

“BUD/S Instructor.”

BUD/S was the name given to the SEAL training program—Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals. West coast training was done here in Coronado at the Naval Special Warfare Center. All SEALs hated this particular rotation and would rather be out in the field. But to have to be drilling new swabbies for two freakin’ months...well, he’d rather be HALO jumping into tango land again.

“Or WEALS instructor.”

That was even worse. WEALS were female SEALs.

“Or maybe you ought to request a liberty and go home to Louisiana for a few weeks,” the commander suggested.

His skin went clammy at just the suggestion that he go home. He’d come so far in the past seventeen years. He was a medaled SEAL, recognized for his bravery and service to his country, respected by his comrades-in-arms, a friend to many. Hell, he’d even gotten himself a college degree. But just the thought of returning to his bayou roots caused his self esteem to tank. He was the no-good son of a convict father and drug addict mother. Bad seed, he’d been called, and would be, still. People on Bayou Black had long memories.

And there was another reason for staying away. Emelie Gaudet. Em. The girl he’d left behind. A girl who would be a woman now. A married woman, last he’d heard. How pitiful was that? Pining over a teenage crush, who probably had a passel of kids by now. Talk about!

“Thanks, but no thanks, commander, sir. I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy more than wiping swabbie noses.”

Everyone in the room laughed, except Cage.


Being a busybody ain’t necessarily a bad thing...

Louise Rivard climbed the steep steps of the bayou stilt house, huffing for breath. The twinges in her hinges creaked like a rusty door.

But then she got her first look at Mary Mae LeBlanc. Forget about hinges. Her good friend looked like her hinges done broke and she fell flat on her face. “Holy Crawfish, MaeMae, you look lak the tail end of bad times, bless yer heart. What happened?”

“I doan lak ta complin. Ya know what they say, the more ya complain, the more God makes ya live. I admit, I bin ailin’ a bit.”

Huh? Ain’t no bit about it, sweetie.

“Guess old age is catchin’ up with me.”

Or death. She gasped. What a terrible thing to think. I should bite my tongue.

MaeMae motioned for her to sit beside her on the porch swing. “Come, Tante Lulu, sit a spell.”

Not for the first time, Louise realized that everyone called her Tante Lulu, even folks who weren’t her kin, to the point that she thought of herself by that name now. And, actually, she and MaeMae would have become real kin if she’d married MaeMae’s older brother Phillipe Prudhomme before he died in the big war. Ain’t life funny?

MaeMae had said she’d been ailin’ a bit, but she’d lost at least twenty pounds since Tante Lulu had seen her last year, and gray wisps of curls framed her skull. Either she’d had her head shaved for brain surgery, or her hair was just growing back after cancer treatments. It couldn’t be some hot new hairdo she’d never heard about because Tante Lulu kept up on all the latest styles, being the great aunt of Charmaine LeDeux-Lanier, who owned a string of beauty spas.

And it wasn’t age, either. Tante Lulu had a good number of years on MaeMae, and she still looked good, if she did say so herself. Not every woman over the age of ninety could wear puce biking shorts with pink orthopedic shoes, she thought, glancing downward. Not to mention a t-shirt that proclaimed: “Growing Old Is Mandatory, Acting Old Is Optional.” Besides, MaeMae always took good care of herself. No way was her friend’s appearance caused by age.

Suddenly guilt struck Tante Lulu like a ten-ton barge....guilt that she’d neglected to keep in touch with her longtime friend. She kissed MaeMae on both cheeks before dropping down beside her. “Warm t’day, ain’t it? ’Specially fer February. Heard on the radio this mornin’ that it would be sixty five degrees.” It didn’t help that she’d worked up a sweat climbing those steps.

MaeMae nodded. “Feels more like ninety with all this humidity. The weather seems all screwed up these days. Mus’ be that globe warmin’ stuff.”

“Thass fer sure,” Tante Lulu agreed, but it wasn’t really hot, just unseasonably warm. Maybe MaeMae had a fever or somethin’. Tante Lulu pulled her Richard Simmons fan from her large tote bag and began to fan herself, more from nervousness than anything else.

MaeMae smiled. “Ya still hankerin’ after that exercise guy?”"

“Doan matter how old a lady is, that boy kin still get the juices goin’, guar-an-teed.”

MaeMae rolled her eyes, like most folks did. They just didn’t understand her fascination. Richard was a hottie, no matter what anyone said.

“Help yerself ta some sweet tea.” A low table held a pitcher of tea, several glasses, and a plate of beignets. “The home care worker left it there fer my easy reachin’ before she left.”

Home care worker. That raised some red flags. “Mebbe later. Zackly what’s wrong, hon? And doan you be fibbin’.”

“Lung cancer,” MaeMae said, and quickly added, probably at Tante Lulu’s gasp of horror, “but I’m in remission.”

Tante Lulu tried not to show her dismay. The Big C was bad, but the Big C in the lungs was real bad. “That figgers, I s’pose. You were a smoker from way back.”

“Since I was sixteen, and I turned eighty-four on my las’ birthday. Lordy, Lordy, the time does go by. Remember the summer we went skinny dippin’ over on Lake Ponchartrain with them Dawson twins?” She started to chuckle, then burst into a coughing fit, ending with her wheezing heavily.

Remission, my patootie! “Shouldn’t you be on oxygen? One of the gals at Our Lady of the Bayou Church walks around with one of them portable tanks.”

“Mine is inside,” MaeMae said with a grin, her eyes shifting toward an ash tray and package of Virginia Slims on the nearby window sill.

Holy smokes! MaeMae was chugging down oxygen and still smoking. “Tsk-tsk-tsk!”

“Listen, smokin’ is one of the few pleasures I got left, and, besides, I cut back ta three a day now. And I doan ever do it near my tank.”

“Are you okay here alone?”

MaeMae stiffened with affront. “’Course I am. I been sick, not dead.“

Tante Lulu nodded, understanding only too well. Folks thought that because she was old she had one foot in the grave. She had news for them. There was lots of life in this old gal yet. Being over the hill was a heap better than being under the hill.

With a sigh, she glanced around the long porch that fronted Bayou Black, about thirty feet away, across a yard where several cats, at least three dogs, and a bunch of chickens roamed freely. One of those little midget ponies was tied up in a leanto. And she could hear animal noises from inside the house, too. “You still have all those critters you ’n Rufus rescued after Hurrycane Katrina?”

MaeMae nodded. “And more keep comin’.” She sighed. “Truth ta tell, dearie, they keep me company, specially since Rufus passed on. I miss the ol’ buzzard more every day. Some days it’s hard ta shake the blues.”

That alarmed Tante Lulu because she knew for a fact that MaeMae’s husband, Rufus LeBlanc, died almost six years ago, soon after the double disasters, Katrina and then Rita. The blue devils could cripple a soul, worse than any disease. “Animals kin be a lotta work.”

“Not so much. Specially those inside and the ones what can come up to the porch fer food and water. I gotta admit those steps are gettin’ hard, though.” She raised her chin defiantly. “I’ll get by, though. I allus do.”

“Mebbe I could send one of Remy’s boys over ta help.”

“No! If I cain’t get by on my own, well, let’s jist say, life wouldn’t be worth livin’.”

Now Tante Lulu was really alarmed. “Dontcha got no family left?”

“Jist my grandson Justin. And my younger brother Samuel.” MaeMae reached over and squeezed Tante Lulu’s hand. “Do you ever think about Phillipe?”

“Only every day.” Tante Lulu swiped at her suddenly wet eyes.

Phillipe, her onetime fiancée, had been MaeMae’s oldest brother by ten years. Samuel was two years younger than MaeMae. Two other siblings in between had already passed.

“Sometimes I regret not getting’ hitched before Phillipe was sent overseas. He wanted to, y’know.”

“Regrets are as useless as a sidesaddle on a hawg, sweetie.”

MaeMae noticed her tears and squeezed her hand again. “Samuel lives in Florida,” she said, trying to change the subject so Tante Lulu could get her emotions under control. After sixty-seven years, you’d think she’d have gotten over the man. “His wife Ethel died las’ year. We ain’t kept in touch much, but I hear he’s thinkin’ of movin’ back ta the bayou.”

“Mebbe Samuel...” she started to say.

MaeMae put up a halting hand. “No! Samuel’s long retired from the post office, and he nursed Ethel through years of Alzheimer’s. No way am I imposin’ on his twilight years.”

Twilight years? Tante Lulu liked the sound of that. “I’ve been tip-toein’ through the twilight a dozen years or more myself.”

“Hah! Fergit tip-toein’. You been jitterbuggin’, if all the stories I hear ’bout you are true.”

They smiled fondly at each other.

“Back ta yer grandson.”

“Did I tell you Justin is one of them Navy SEALs? He’s got so many medals he jist about sparkles. And he got hisself a college ejacation, too.” MaeMae’s skinny chest plumped with pride.

“Cain’t he come home and help?” As Tante Lulu recalled, MaeMae and Rufus had raised Justin after his father died in prison and his mother committed suicide when Justin was barely into his teens.

MaeMae shook her head vehemently which caused her breathing to increase. “He has his own life in California. He lives in Coronado near the Navy base. I doan wanna be a bother ta him.”

Tante Lulu narrowed her eyes at MaeMae. In her book, family was everything. “When was the las’ time the boy came home?”

MaeMae’s face flushed before she disclosed, “He ain’t been home since he was seventeen.”

Tante Lulu inhaled sharply with surprise, then exhaled whooshily with disgust. Sad, that’s what it was. By her reckoning, Justin must be close to thirty-five, not much older than her great-nephew Tee-John.

“I saw him las’ year in N’awlins, though, jist before I got my cancer diagnosis. He was there on some kinda Navy bizness. He’s a good boy. Allus was, even when he was runnin’ wild as a teenager. He calls me every Sunday night, and he sends money from every paycheck. Not that I need money. I do jist fine with Rufus’s pension and my social security.”

There was no excuse for the boy’s behavior. Family was the most important thing in the world. More important than careers, or money, or fancy medals, or any other blasted thing. To her mind, a boy who stayed away from home for seventeen years was lower’n a doodlebug. “The boy should be home.”

“Now, Tante Lulu, get that look off yer face. I’m jist fine here. I doan want ya doin’ nothin’ ta interfere. ’Specially, I doan want Justin knowin’ I been sick.”

“Whatever you say, chère,” Tante Lulu said, but what she thought was, Coronado, here I come.


I ain’t missin’ you at all...

Emelie Gaudet hot glued another layer of feathers resembling scales onto King Neptune’s mask and laid it carefully on a long table in her French Quarter studio. Beside it were two dozen other elaborate, very expensive, masks in various stages of production. Just before delivery, she would attach her signature silver tags, etched with her stylized name, Mardi Gras, and the year. They were in the shape of alligators in homage to her Cajun roots.

As expensive as her masks were new, the older creations had become highly collectible. One of her earliest from ten years ago had sold on Ebay recently for ten thousand dollars.

Besides that, she’d begun experimenting with porcelain Mardi Gras masks, the kind hung on the wall for decoration. They weren’t cheap either.

“Hey, Em, don’t you have to leave soon?” her partner, Belle Pitot, asked as she entered Emelie’s studio from the front showroom where she’d been arranging some costumed mannequins.

Five years ago, Emelie had purchased this shotgun house in the French Quarter with a legacy from her grandmother, enabling her to go into business with her good friend. Emelie made the masks, while Belle made high quality costumes. The bottom floor housed the retail shop for E & B, studios for herself and Belle, and storage space. Upstairs, which could be accessed from an interior, closed-door stairway at the front of the shop, or from exterior back steps, was her spacious apartment that opened on the back gallery from her bedroom to a lush, fountained courtyard, and from a salon/living room onto a balcony that overlooked the street in front.

In recent years, the pre-Lenten Mardi Gras balls had become even more popular than the traditional parades. In fact, New Orleans was now the number one market in the United States for formal wear, including floor length evening gowns. And, of course, exclusive costumes and masks.

There were six weeks until Mardi Gras, and they both had lots of work to do yet, but, glancing down at her wrist watch, she realized she had only two hours to get ready for her moonlighting job. Once a week, on Saturday night, she had a gig as a blues singer, something she did just for fun, certainly not for the money or fame. Besides, it was a favor to her grandmother’s friend Ella Pisano who owned the club, named Ella’s...what else? In these hard economic times, Emelie worked for cheap.

Luckily, her studio was only three blocks from the restaurant, which specialized in Italian food, a change from the usual Creole or Cajun dishes famous in New Orleans. Her stomach growled, a reminder that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. She would have a plate of Ella’s crawfish gnocchi in red sauce after her performance, she promised herself. Her stomach growled again, this time in anticipation.

After a quick shower, an upswept hairdo, chandelier earrings, and a layer of makeup thicker than she usually wore, Emelie pulled on a pair of white linen slacks and black t-shirt. She would dress at the club. No way was she walking the French Quarter streets in a strapless sheath and stiletto heels, especially with her late night return. She’d be mistaken for a hooker with her figure, which had been likened to Marilyn Monroe, except for her black hair and height of five-foot-nine. The resemblance had been a bane, rather than a blessing over the years. Especially as a young girl, definitive curves were not the ideal.

Just before she opened the front door to leave, Belle called out to her, “I’ll lock up in a half hour, but did you check the mail?”

Emelie stopped and walked back into the show room, which was beginning to resemble a fantasy wonderland. Several mannequins were dressed head to toe in Mardi Gras regalia. Murals on the wall depicted a stereotypical Southern plantation house. There was even a fake live oak tree with hanging moss. On the counter, she saw a number of envelopes, including the one she’d been waiting for. Emelie’s heart skipped a beat. The return address said: “Doctor Charles Benoit, Southern Reproductive Services.”

“Chuck’s Sperm Bank?” Belle inquired, her right eyebrow arched with disapproval.

Emelie ignored Belle’s teasing nickname for the reputable, highly renowned clinic and nodded. Had she been approved for insemination by one of the candidates she’d chosen? Did the letter contain a specific appointment for the procedure? Was it possible she would be holding her very own baby a year from now? She held the envelope against her heart.

“Honey, you don’t know what you’re doing, taking on a child.” This from the single parent of thirteen-year-old twin boys, Michael and Max; she had a placard on her desk that read, “Mothers of Teenagers Know Why Animals Eat Their Young.” At the same time, her desk was cluttered with many framed photos of her little darlings from birth to Little League.

Emelie just smiled.

“I still say you should do it the old fashioned way.”

“Belle,” she sighed, “I’m almost thirty-four years old, I was married once, a long time ago—”

“So, ask Bernard.”

“If I didn’t want to remain married to Bernie, why would I want him in my life forever as the father of my child? Nope, I do not want the baggage of a man in my life permanently.”

“He’s not that bad.” Having never been married, Belle had long been hopeful that someday a Prince Charming would come riding his Lexus down Bourbon Street to sweep her off her feet. Unfortunately, lately, Belle was willing to settle for a good man with a pickup truck and a job.

“Furthermore,” Emelie went on, “I’m fulfilled by my mask-making career and singing sideline. I’m financially stable. I enjoy time out with a small circle of friends. I take the occasional lover.”

“Occasional is right,” Belle muttered. “You could be a nun, if you asked me.”

Okay, so Emelie hadn’t been in a relationship for two years. That was just another reason to seek alternative paternity, in her mind. “Hey, I’ve even made peace with my father for what he did seventeen years ago. There’s only one thing missing from my life. A baby.”

Belle just shook her head at her. “You’ve become obsessed with the idea.”

“No wonder! My biological clock feels like Big Ben these days. Tick, tick, tick! People probably hear it when I pass by.”

“I thought it was your stomach growling with hunger.”

“Honestly, I notice every baby I see on the street or at the mall. I stop at displays of baby items in store windows.”

“You even bought a baby name book,” Belle pointed out with a grin. “That’s understandable, but I still say you should have a baby the old-fashioned way.”

“Too complicated!” For some reason, a picture popped in Emelie’s mind of a long ago time when she’d thought differently. Of course, she’d only been sixteen to her boyfriend’s seventeen, but the big plans they’d made seemed silly now. They were going to get married, move to California, and have four kids, two boys and two girls. What they had been going to do for a living had never mattered then. They’d thought they were in love.

She laughed at the memory. It had been years since she’d even thought about Justin LeBlanc, hadn’t a clue where he was these days. Probably prison, which was the road he’d been headed on last time she’d seen him, thanks to her dad, the longtime sheriff of Terrebonne Parish. When she’d refused to leave with him, thumbing his nose at her father and the entire justice system, Justin had the nerve to swear that there would be snow on the bayou before he ever returned. As if it had been her fault! Later, she’d heard that he joined the Navy, but by then her life had changed immeasurably.

With a shake of her head, Emelie placed the unopened envelope back on the counter. Time later to angst. Should she or shouldn’t she?

After waving goodbye to Belle, she headed down Chartres Street, swinging her tote bag beside her. She had so much to be thankful for, even without a baby.

Life was good. Sometimes a little lonely, but good.


A Cajun hurricane hit the California coast...

“Holy moly! I ain’t seen so many hard man-tushies since you and me went ta that Chippendale show at the Moose Club in Baton Rouge. Remember that guy with the mustache who pulled you up onta the stage ta dirty dance with him? Whoo-ee!”

“Tante Lulu! Shhhh!” Charmaine LeDeux-Lanier cautioned her great aunt, peering right and left to make sure they weren’t overheard. “And, just for the record, that was fifteen years ago, long before I was married. I don’t do things like that anymore.”

Tante Lulu snorted her opinion. “Was that before or after you decided ta be a born-again virgin?”

Charmaine loved the old lady dearly, but after twelve hours in various airports, confined in an airplane, and then a taxi with her, she was pretty close to wringing a ninety-something-year-old scrawny neck. It was hard to know for sure exactly how old the dear old bat was since she kept changing her birth date, and the original records had mysteriously disappeared from the parish courthouse. Really, Tante Lulu would tax the patience of a saint, no matter her age.

Biting her tongue, Charmaine gave a “Whatever!” toss to her long black hair over her shoulder; it was a trick she’d learned years ago when she was Miss Louisiana, more years ago than she cared to admit. A woman could do or say just about anything, especially to a man, if she learned the hair toss trick. Her husband, Raoul Lanier...Rusty...for example, was always susceptible. Unfortunately, it didn’t faze Tante Lulu.

They were standing inside a big, black-tarp covered, chain link fence in Coronado, California, looking over an asphalt area that resembled a penitentiary yard surrounded by a quadrangle of low buildings, including the Navy SEALs special forces building where they had a scheduled meeting with the big kahuna. In the old days, before 9/11, visitors to Coronado could walk up to the fence and watch the SEALs exercise or run on the beach. Not any more. Security was way too tight. Terrorists would love to get a bead on one of these superheroes.

But she and Tante Lulu had been given clearance to enter the compound. On the concrete in front of them, scantily clad, sweating men were engaged in all kinds of tortuous exercises with logs, climbing nets, ropes, and tires. In the distance could be seen huge gray Navy warships in the waters near the Naval Amphibious Base at the other end of Coronado. In another direction was the red-tiled roof of the famous Hotel Del Coronado where movies had been filmed and the rich and famous dined; she’d promised Tante Lulu dinner there later.

On yet another side, beyond the buildings, was the icy blue Pacific Ocean that shimmered under a blistering sun, almost as pretty as the bayou on a summer morning. That’s where their attention had been riveted for the past ten minutes, watching about four dozen men wearing nothing but shorts and boots running along the beach.

And, yes, all of their tushies were fine.

With effort, Charmaine did her best to stop complaining for about the fiftieth time over playing shotgun to the Cajun loony bird. You could say it was another Tante Lulu Great Adventure, and, really, her heart was in the right place, bizarre as her schemes often were. In this case, she was bound and determined to bring a lapsed Cajun back to the bosom of his family. Justin LeBlanc didn’t stand a chance.

But why did I have to be the one who chose the unlucky straw amongst all my family members when it came to picking who would accompany the old lady on this hare-brained trip? Charmaine suspected that one of her LeDeux half-brothers had fixed the straws. They were devious that way.

“You’re always shushin’ me,” Tante Lulu complained. Apparently she’d been blathering on while Charmaine had been woolgathering. “Are you ‘shamed of me or sumpin’?”

“Of course not. It’s just that we’re here on the sufferance of Tee-John’s contact, who had to pull a lot of strings to get us an appointment. We shouldn’t call attention to ourselves.”

“Number one, if we doan wanna call attention to ourselves, how come you’re wearin’ those skin-tight leopard pedal pushers with high heels?”

“You’re criticizing my clothes? That’s like the gator callin’ the water wet!” Charmaine exclaimed with a laugh.

Tante Lulu wore her Dolly Parton blonde wig, wedgie sandals, and a sundress from the Wal-Mart Little Girl Bimbo collection that exposed about two thousand liver spots on her bare arms and shoulders.

“Are you saying I look like a bimbo?” Charmaine grinned.

“Darn tootin’, you do, Charmaine. Bless yer heart. Not that I’m sayin’ bimbo is a bad thing. Nosirree.”

Charmaine couldn’t help but smile. Everyone knew she relished being called a self-proclaimed bimbo, with class. Still, her great aunt had the subtlety of a horny bull in a field of pretty cows.

“An’ that shiny red lipstick yer wearin’, Lordy, Lordy, thass what Tee-John calls screw-me-quick lipstick.”

Charmaine sincerely doubted that her cop half-brother used the word screw. But that was beside the point. “It’s a new line we just started carrying in my beauty salons. I’ll give you some samples.”

“Number two...,” Tante Lulu started to say.

Charmaine forgot what number one had been. Following a conversation with Tante Lulu was like trying to catch popcorn over an unlidded popper.

“...any woman what’s been married as many times as you have, bless yer heart, kin hardly talk about hidin’ yerself under a bushel.”

“Huh?” Charmaine said, then shook her head to clear it. “You really shouldn’t be insulting my marriage, auntie.”

“What marriage are you referrin’ to, sweetie? You been hitched and unhitched four or five times, as I recall.”

“Two of them were to the same man,” Charmaine protested. “Besides, it turns out I was never divorced from Rusty the first time around. So, in a way, none of those other marriages and divorces counted.”

Tante Lulu rolled her eyes.

“Anyhow, what do my clothing or my marriages have to do with anything?”

“You’re the one what brought it up.”

“I did?” Popcorn, for sure.

“What difference does it make when we went ta that show, anyhow? Studs are studs, no matter what. And these Navy SEALs could make their own calendar, guar-an-teed. I’d buy one, fer sure.” She pressed her nose up against the fence. “Wish I had a pair of binoculars.”

“We’d probably be thrown in the brig as potential terrorists. You saw how hard it was just to get on this base.”

“Ms. Rivard, Ms. Lanier, the commander will see you now.”

She and Tante Lulu spun around to see a guy with one of those painfully short military hairdos in a khaki uniform addressing them. Painful to her, at least, as a hair stylist. His demeanor was serious, but his widened eyes took in her body, all in one sneaky sweep. Charmaine was used to that reaction from men and wasn’t at all offended.

When they’d first arrived, the receptionist in the special forces building told them the commander was delayed and they could wait in a conference room or go out into the yard and watch the SEALs in training. The red-faced sailor now led them inside the building to an office fronting the quadrangle where the SEALs were training. The plaque on the door said: Commander Ian MacLean, U.S. Navy, Special Forces, SEALS. Inside, an officer sat behind a desk. He was about forty with a receding hairline. Not unattractive, but too stern-faced for Charmaine’s taste.

The room was bare bones military utilitarian, except for a few photos on the wall and a bunch of framed motivational sayings, including the famous Navy SEAL one, “The only easy day was yesterday.” But there were others, like “Fear Is Your Friend,” "Seize the “Day,” or “The more SEALs sweat in peacetime, the less they bleed in war.”

Immediately, the commander rose to his feet. “Ms. Rivard. Ms. Lanier. Have a seat, please.”

“You kin call me Tante Lulu. Everyone does.”

The commander nodded, though Charmaine just knew there was no way in the world he was ever going to break protocol like that. And she could practically see the wheels turning in his head, as he took in all that was Tante Lulu, wondering what kind of lunatic he had in his office. That impression was heightened when his eyes widened on taking in all that was Charmaine, as well.

He cleared his throat and asked, “What can I do for you?”

“I need ta talk with Justin LeBlanc,” Tante Lulu said right off.

Charmaine could see the surprise in his eyes. “Cage?” he said before he could catch himself. “You know Lieutenant LeBlanc?”

“Yep. I came all the way from Loo-zee-anna, and I ain’t leavin’ ’til I’ve said my piece ta the boy.”

“The boy?” he sputtered. “Are you family?”

“Not exactly.”

The commander turned to Charmaine for help.

“My aunt is good friends with Justin’s grandmother. We need to talk with him about...well, something personal.”

“Does he know you’re here?”

“No, it’s a surprise,” Tante Lulu said.

It would have been a lot easier if they had Justin’s home address, but the only way they could have gotten that was to ask his grandmother, and Tante Lulu had been adamant that MaeMae not be alerted to their activities. Charmaine suspected that MaeMae had warned Tante Lulu not to interfere. Hah! That wouldn’t stop her determined aunt.

“Is this a joke?” the commander asked. “I swear, if Candid Camera or Funny Videos, or Punked! jumps out, someone is going to pay, bigtime.”

“It’s not a joke. We just need to speak with Justin. It won’t take long,” Charmaine pleaded.

“This is highly irregular. Strangers can’t just come here and ask to speak with one of my men.”

“What? You think we’re terrorists or sumpin’?” Tante Lulu asked, narrowing her eyes at the commander. “I doan even have my pistol on me t’day. They wouldn’t let me take it on the plane.”

The commander’s jaw dropped.

Charmaine groaned. Time to intervene before they got kicked out. “Justin’s grandmother is sick, and he needs to go home.”

Straightening with alertness, the commander asked, “How sick?”

“Very,” Tante Lulu said grimly.

“And Lieutenant LeBlanc is unaware of this family crisis?” he asked Tante Lulu.

“Clueless as a crawfish in a hurrycane.”


“Why what?” “I swear, you mus’ be thicker’n swamp mud, bless yer heart.”

The commander’s jaw dropped even lower. “I still say this is irregular, but...” He picked up the phone and spoke into the mouthpiece, “Petty Officer Farley? Would you come in here, please?”

When the same sailor as before came inside, the commander ordered, “Escort these ladies out to the grinder. Tell Lieutenant LeBlanc to take a break for the rest of the afternoon. Lieutenant Mendozo will cover for him.”

“Oh, my God!” Tante Lulu exclaimed suddenly and jumped to her feet, rushing over to a far wall where she was staring at a framed photo. To everyone’s dismay, tears streamed down her wrinkled cheeks.

“Ma’am?” the commander inquired with concern, going over to stand beside her. He must have been six foot two, at least. The top of Tante Lulu’s head came only to his chest.

“Thass Phillippe there.” She pointed to one of six men in bathing suits and flippers in a sepia-tone photograph. “My fiancée.”

“Your fiancée was on Omaha Beach?‒ the commander asked.

Tante Lulu nodded. “Yep. Phillippe Prudhomme.”

“This is remarkable.” The commander was no longer regarding Tante Lulu as crazy, but as someone worthy of respect. “Those frogmen were the precursors of today’s Navy SEALs.”

“Really?” she and Tante Lulu both remarked. It had never occurred to Charmaine that there was a connection, but it made sense. Both groups were sort of webfoot warriors.

“And Phillippe Prudhomme is famous among those of us who have studied Navy History.” He tapped a fingertip over one grinning sailor. “Prudhomme was awarded the Purple Heart and the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Tante Lulu nodded, wiping her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief she fished out of her bosom. "I have both of them in my hope chest."

A hope chest after all these years? Charmaine’s heart was about breaking.

Tante Lulu straightened and shook her head as if to wipe away the memories. “God’s will,” she declared, then turned to the commander and said, “When you gonna end that war in Af-ghanny-stan?”


“If I was over there, cher, I’d be teachin’ ’em how ta make gumbo, not war.”

“Ahem,” someone coughed behind them, and they realized that the sailor was still waiting to escort them to Justin.

Just before the door closed after them, Charmaine heard the commander mutter, “If the old bird was younger, she’d make a great Navy SEAL.”


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