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Nightmares can come true. On padded paws they prowl the dark corridors of your subconscious mind. As quiet as a ghost, they creep up while you sleep and can haunt you for the rest of your life.
Plagued as a little boy by bad dreams of a panther roaming the halls, I would sometimes wake up and cry out for my parents. Then, in late October of 2003, the recurrent dream became much more than a nightmare.
Looking back from 2073, in spite of the many years that have passed, I still recall what happened that night and the next morning in the Garden District of New Orleans.
~ ~ ~ "What's wrong, Joey, darlin'? Did you have another nightmare?"
I remember peeking out from beneath the covers. Momma's eyes were so intelligent and kind—as reassuring and soothing as her soft, Southern drawl.
Perched on the edge of my bed, she rubbed my chest. "Why son, you're tremblin'. Have you been watchin' that Animal Planet channel again? I'm gonna have to contact those people and complain about their violent programs."
"Momma," I protested, "I didn't watch any TV tonight." Her suspicions were well founded. Countless times she had caught me, wide-eyed, in front of the TV, mesmerized by programs featuring lions, tigers, and especially panthers.
"Maybe not tonight, you didn't, but you have, often enough. And those frightenin' images stay in your impressionable little head." Momma shook her finger at me a couple of times before gently poking me right in the middle of my forehead.
She slid off the bed, pulled my Spiderman sheets up, and tucked the blanket under my chin. "It's no wonder you have these nightmares, son. You're too young to know that what you see on TV is either staged for the cameras, or is happenin' in jungles on the other side of the world. You get your facts and fiction all mixed up. That's what causes these scary dreams." Holding my face between her soft hands, Momma planted a kiss on my cheek.
Old folks like me sometimes struggle to remember or identify people and places, but fragrances stay with us forever. I still recall the scent of gardenias in my mother's silky black hair as it cascaded around my face.
Normally, a few minutes of attention and a loving kiss were all I required, but not that night. As she straightened up, I reached out and caught the sleeve of her lacy nightgown.
"Don't leave, Momma. I wasn't dreaming. There really is a panther. It's black all over with big, green eyes. As green as... as yours." I stared, shocked by how Momma's eyes resembled those of the panther that frequented my dreams.
Momma stared back, her eyes narrowing. "You have green eyes, too, Joey," she reminded me. "Lots of people do."
"I heard it," I told her. "I don't think it wanted me to, but I did."
"Where were the noises comin' from?"
"From the end of the hall—near the bathroom, or Maw Maw's bedroom. I heard a growl."
The tiny night light plugged in above the baseboard next to my dresser glowed just bright enough for me to see what Momma referred to as "worry lines" forming above her thin, sculptured eyebrows.
"It stopped at my door and came in." I sat up and pointed, letting the covers fall to my waist.
The genuine concern on my mother's face worried me. She had never taken my nightmares so seriously. Tears welled up in my eyes as the fear that retreated upon her arrival threatened to come charging back.
My voice began to tremble and my breath quickened. "I heard it, panting, right next to my bed. Then it turned and went out, maybe to the den, or the kitchen."
Momma stepped over to my opened door, peered out into the dark hall, and returned to stand by my bed. Before saying anything, she took a deep breath and blew it out.
"Joey, did you see anything?" she asked. "Not in your dreams, Sugar, but after you woke up. Did you actually see anything?"
I ducked my head. "No." Embarrassed, I focused on the rumpled sheets and whispered, "I hid under the covers. I tried not to yell for you and Daddy, but—"
"But you got scared. And you still are, aren't you?"
"Well..." I shrugged.
Momma caressed my cheek. "Don't you be scared, little man. Your protection doll that Dr. Bayou made for you is sittin' right up there, on your dresser," she pointed. "And besides that, your momma and daddy love you so much, nothin' could ever harm you. Love is the most powerful force in the world—way too strong for any bad mojo. Don't you know that?"
Grateful, I nodded and lay down as she gathered the covers and tucked them back around me.
A tall, willowy woman, Momma bent and knelt next to me with fluid grace. "Do you need a story?" she asked, arranging her gown around her knees. "How about The Little Engine That Could, or maybe Cookie, the one about the little puppy?"
"No, that's okay. Daddy read me The Three Little Pigs."
"He did, huh?" My mother clucked her tongue. "I can't imagine how that violent tale ever became a bedtime story. But we all love a good pork chop or ribs, now, don't we?"
Momma reached out with mischief in her eyes. "Don't we looove our ribs, little piggy?" She tickled my ribs, laughing while I giggled and thrashed about beneath the covers.
Like a piglet, I squealed for mercy until she stopped, allowing me to catch my breath.
"You want me to sit here with you until you fall asleep?" she asked.
She began to hum. Her long, slender fingers combed through my thick hair, as black as hers, but cut short to keep it presentable.
With each passing minute I felt safer. And the safer I felt, the heavier my eyelids grew. Teetering on the brink of drifting off, a nagging question crept into my mind, as insistent as the alarm clock in my parent's bedroom across the hall that woke us all up each morning.
Interrupting my mother's wordless rendering of "Amazing Grace," I asked, "Momma, how could a panther get in our house?"
"Joseph Pierre Bergeron, there are no panthers in the New Orleans Garden District. What's been spookin' you at night is nothin' more than common house noises—pops and creaks, and my mother's snorin'.
"Her allergies flare up every spring. When she starts in sawin' those logs, Lord knows, she can snore loud enough to wake up everybody in the house."
Momma shook her head and pressed a hand flat against her chest. "Sometimes, she even wakes herself up. I bet you heard your Maw Maw, tonight, snorin' to beat the band. Maybe she woke up with her throat all dry and scratchy, and shuffled by your room in her bare feet, on her way to the kitchen for a drink of water."
I considered the explanation. "If you're right, Momma, she oughtta still be in the kitchen or the den. Nothing ever came back by my door. Ask Daddy to go see."
"Don't be silly, son. Your daddy needs his sleep."
"So do I," I insisted. "I can't sleep when I'm ascared." I sat up again. "What if it is a panther? It could pounce on us in our sleep!"
From the kitchen, we heard furniture, perhaps the breakfast table being shoved, followed by glass shattering on the tile floor.
I leaped into my mother's arms and held on tight.
She shouted across the hall, "Sidney! Sid, somethin's in the kitchen!"
Before my father responded, we heard what sounded like chairs tipping over, and a growl that couldn't be blamed on an old woman's swollen nasal passages.
"You and Joey stay where you are, Melanie," Daddy yelled. "And lock the door!" The commotion continued as Daddy sprinted to the kitchen.
I held on to Momma like a monkey to a tree in an earthquake, as she slammed the door and returned to my bed. We clung to each other as my father shouted above the crunch of splintering wood. "What's wrong with you? You got to control yourself. If you can't, you're gonna have to leave before you wreck the place!"
The beast responded with a threatening snarl, followed by a bone-chilling roar that resonated throughout the house. It sounded like some crazy biker had started up a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and twisted the throttle wide open.
Scared to death for all of us, I began to cry. Momma squeezed me so tight I found it hard to breathe. Pinned against her bosom, I winced with each violent thud and crash.
Based on where the noises came from, I knew the confrontation had moved out of the kitchen.
Daddy yelled, "Get away from my TV. Don't you rip up that couch!"
The entire house shook as the uninvited vistor slammed against a paneled wall, perhaps, I surmised, after hurdling our leather sofa and skidding on the den's hardwood boards.
"Oh lord, nooo." Momma moaned, reacting to the sound of more breaking glass as what had to be her favorite brass floor lamp tumbled over and smacked the floor.
In my mind, I saw the stained-glass shade shatter, spraying multi-colored shards in all directions. I imagined Daddy in his silk pajamas, bravely jabbing at the panther with the legs of a straight-backed chair from the kitchen, keeping it at bay like a lion tamer in the circus. The back door flew open and banged against the door stop as my father shouted, his voice strained and made raspy by fear and determination. "Go on, you! Go live in the swamp with the gators. That's where you belong, now!"
The big cat issued one final, deafening roar and bounded outside, into our private courtyard where my parents parked their cars. The ten-foot tall, wrought-iron security gate groaned beneath the panther's weight as it sprang to the top and vaulted to freedom.
The transformation from chaos to calm began when the screen door clapped shut and the back door slammed. Momma and I stared at each other as we listened to the neighbor's dogs. Judging by their frenzied howling, I supposed that the penned-up Dobermans either saw, or smelled the panther making its way east, on Laurel Street.
Momma kissed the top of my head and gasped, "Joey, you stay in your room 'til I say you can come out."
Rather than waiting for Daddy's proclamation of our safety, she bounced up, opened the door, and closed it behind her before racing up the hall. "Sidneeeey," she screamed. "Oh, my god, Sidney, are you okay?"
I stared at the door, itching to run after her. I would have, but hesitated, wondering, Could another one be hiding somewhere in our house?
I woke the next morning to find myself alone in bed, alive and unscathed. The previous night, after my parents assured me that we were safe, Momma sang to me for the better part of an hour, before lying down and holding me until I fell asleep.
Through the closed door, I heard my parents. Momma whispered, "Sidney, how are we gonna tell him?"
"We won't, "Daddy replied in a normal voice. "We can't, Mel. He's too young. He wouldn't understand."
Understand what? I sat up and tossed the covers aside.
Momma shushed Daddy and lowered her voice further, but not enough to keep me from hearing. I cocked my head to the left and listened hard.
"Tuat t'en grosse bueche!"
My mother spoke in what she and Maw Maw called Cajun French. I couldn't understand a word, but she sure didn't sound happy.
"I do not have a big mouth," Daddy shot back.
I jumped out of bed and swung my door open. Staring up, I asked, "What am I too young to understand?"
I'll never forget how Momma glared at Daddy before bending down so we could speak face to face. "Joey, honey, we didn't think you'd understand how we could be so careless. Yesterday, I left a window open in the guest bedroom to let it air out, and forgot to close it. That's how the panther must've got in." She shot an expectant stare at my father. "Right, Sidney?"
"Uh..." For a moment, Daddy looked unsure. "Right, Mel. But don't feel bad, honey. I mean, you couldn't possibly have known a panther would escape from the zoo last night and find its way to our window."
"Momma's sorry, darlin'." Her eyebrows arched. "Forgive me?" She bent to one knee, stretching her arms out.
In the middle of the hug, I asked, "Is Maw Maw okay?" and felt Momma stiffen. When she let go and stood again, I stepped back and said, "Maybe I should go see Maw Maw and let her know I worried about her. Don't you think she'd like that?"
"Your Maw Maw got up early this mornin', honey, and took a taxi to the airport. Said she couldn't take all this drama and wanted to go see her friend, Minerva Buzzard, in Savannah."
"She never told me," I complained.
Momma tapped her foot. I remember how, sometimes, when she got what I used to call "zasperated" with me, she would do that, rather than hold her breath.
"Momma and Daddy and your Maw Maw don't always share all of their ideas and plans with you, dear," she explained.
"We just get too busy, honey. And lot's of what's goin' on in our minds is about things little boys wouldn't be interested in, anyway."
"How do you know?" I planted my balled-up fists on my hips and tapped my foot, just like Momma.
She reverted to holding her breath and glanced at Daddy.
Daddy cleared his throat and said, "Son, we can discuss this later. You go pee, brush your teeth, and get ready to go out for breakfast."
"Why aren't we eating here?" I struck a stubborn pose, arms crossed over my chest.
"Because the kitchen and the den are a mess," Momma said. "We're havin' the place cleaned, and we're goin' out to find a new china cabinet and a floor lamp."
Hearing the sound of glass being swept up, I started for the kitchen. Daddy grabbed the collar of my pajama top, lifted me like a cat picks up its kittens, and spun me around. My legs and feet continued to churn as I hung in the air.
"Hold on there, little man."
"What?" Back on terra firma, I threw my head back and glared defiantly at my father, who at the height of six feet - seven inches, towered above me.
"The people helping us clean the house aren't finished. You might step on a piece of glass." Daddy lifted his size fourteen foot, removed his suede leather house slipper, and pointed at a nasty cut on his bare heel.
While inspecting his foot, I also noticed the back of my father's hand, wrapped in gauze, part of which had been stained brown with dried blood.
"Does your hand hurt?" I asked, reaching to pet his boo-boo the way my parents always comforted me.
"Yeah," Daddy nodded. "But it's just a scratch. My foot hurts worse, which is why I'm asking you to stop running around barefoot, right now. You stay clear of the kitchen and den until we say you can go in there. Okay, buddy?"
I huffed dramatically. Craning my neck, I leaned to the left and attempted to peer around Daddy's long legs. Lying on the hardwood floor, just beyond the end of the hall, I spotted the top half of Momma's beloved brass floor lamp, minus the stained-glass shade.
"I wanna go see," I begged, knowing this would be my only chance to see the damage.
"No, Joey." Momma shook her head and pointed toward the bathroom door at the end of the hall. "Go get ready."
~ ~ ~ At Boudreaux's Breakfast Emporium that morning, I didn't allow my parents to do much more than pick at their eggs and hash browns, hardly affording them time to chew and swallow before I fired another question at them. I couldn't understand their explanation for why Maw Maw left without saying goodbye to me.
"Goodbyes are too hard for some folks," Momma told me. "Your Maw Maw didn't think she could say goodbye without breakin' down and cryin' her eyes out."
"When is she coming back?" I asked.
"That's up to her," Momma replied. "She may never come back."
"Why?" I couldn't believe my ears. "Doesn't she love us anymore?"
"Of course she does. It's..." Momma's eyes became damp. Tears puddled in the bottom of her eyelids and spilled over, dribbling down her cheeks. "When we get old..." She looked down and reached for the white paper napkin on her lap to dab at her tears.
When she raised her head, she stared across the table at my father.
He looked befuddled.
After blowing her nose, Momma said, "Sometimes it's better for everyone if we leave before someone gets hurt."
"Gets hurt?" This made no sense to me. "Who could get hurt?" My head swiveled back and forth between my parents.
Momma held Daddy in her gaze, applying her own, special pressure. "Sidney?"
Daddy set his yellow mug of Mello-Joy coffee down. He glanced at Momma, his bandaged hand, and then me. "You're too young now to understand, son. But the day will come when you will," he nodded. "The day will almost certainly come."
"Too soon, sweety," Momma assured me. "Way too soon."
We were interrupted by one of Daddy's fans. Balding, obese, and appearing to be about Maw Maw's age, he limped right up to our table using a black cane. Huffing and puffing, he patted my daddy on the shoulder with his free hand as if he knew him.
"Pardon me, sir, but aren't you Sidney Bergeron?"
I wrinkled my nose. The man smelled like cigarettes and sounded like he had gravel in his throat.
Daddy twisted around and smiled, "Yes, I am, but I'm having breakfast with my family and—"
"I don't mean to be rude, sir, but my two boys are your biggest fans. Could I get you to autograph a napkin for them?" The man drew a pen from his shirt pocket and held it out.
My father played basketball for the New Orleans Hornets. Before the start of the 2003 season he signed a five year contract for one hundred twenty-five million dollars. Interruptions of this nature were common everywhere we went.
Taking the pen, Daddy sighed and asked the man, "What's your name, sir?
"Nice to meet you, Leon. And your boy's names are...?"
"Kevin, K-E-V-I-N, and Kyle, K-Y-L-E. Can you make it out to 'My buddies, Kevin, and Kyle, the Hornet's number one fans?'"
"Sure," Daddy agreed. Poised to write on his napkin, he asked, "How old are your boys?"
"Thirty-nine and forty-two."
Daddy stopped and glanced up. "Thirty-nine and forty-two? They aren't boys, anymore. How come their papa, who needs a cane to get around, had to come get this autograph for them?"
"They said they didn't feel right about bothering you, but I told them you were a down-to-earth guy who wouldn't mind. They're sitting right over there, at that table." The man nodded in the direction of a nearby table where two big, dopey-looking guys in overalls sat with goofy looks on their faces.
Daddy chuckled and waved. When they waved back and grinned, he chuckled again.
The fat man pointed at me with his cane and asked, "Is this your little boy, Mr. Bergeron?
"That's my son, Joey," Daddy replied. "He just turned five, last month. And this," he placed his hand on Momma's shoulder, "is my wife, Melanie."
The man bowed slightly as if addressing royalty. "Good day to you, Missus Bergeron. I beg your pardon for this interruption. May I say, ma'am, that sure is a pretty blue dress you're wearing this morning."
Momma said, "Thank you." But the tone of her voice made me think she didn't care much for this man.
When I looked away from her and stared up, I flinched at Mr. Prejean's eyes, magnified by the thick glasses he wore. Squinting, as if to see me better, he said, "Joey, your daddy is the white Michael Jordan. Did you know that?" He paused for a second to catch his breath, leaned closer, and asked, "Do you know who Michael Jordan is?"
"No." I didn't like his eyes. I shook my head and stared down at the table. Momma and Daddy didn't normally allow me to talk to strangers. I sure didn't want to talk to this one. He made me feel like the three little pigs must have felt when the wolf spoke to them.
I squirmed in my chair as Leon rambled on. "I've never seen a man as big as your daddy, who can shoot and run like he does."
Turning back to my father, he said, "Mister Bergeron, the papers are right, you know? You move like a cat. When you were growing up, did you do special exercises, like Kung-Fu or Yoga, that might account for your agility compared to other big guys?"
Daddy finished signing the napkin and handed it to the man. "I suppose I just got lucky, Leon. Being tall and fast runs in my family."
"How'd you hurt—"
"Mr. Prejean, if you don't mind, sir, thanks for your support, but we need to pay our bill, and then we're going furniture shopping." Daddy smiled, reached out, and shook the man's puffy hand.
I recall marveling at how my father's bandaged hand dwarfed Mr. Prejean's. I glanced at my own hands and wiggled my fingers, wondering if they might be as big and long, someday.
On the way to the furniture store, Daddy claimed his injuries could have been a lot worse. I remember him saying, "I could have been killed, Mel."
"Oh, please, Sidney." Momma waved her hand as if to dismiss Daddy's comment. "You got in her way and got scratched. I've done worse to you in bed, lots of times."
Daddy got a funny look on his face and chuckled in a strange way, like he saw humor in Momma's words.
I recall being amazed that my mother knew the gender of our unwelcomed house guest. And, at the age of five, I had no clue as to why Momma might scratch Daddy in bed, unless by accident.
While I puzzled over those issues, my father went on about his encounter with the panther. "You weren't out there with me, Mel. Those claws could have ended my season, maybe even my career. Then where would we be?"
I couldn't understand why playing basketball meant so much to my father. And how come other people were so impressed by it? At that time, to me, basketball appeared to be little more than a fast-paced, confusing sport, played almost exclusively by giants.
Throwing a ball through a hoop looked like fun, kinda. I liked to roll and bounce the big ball around on the floor. But being vertically challenged, unless Daddy picked me up and held me way up in the air, I couldn't throw it anywhere near high enough to make a basket.
If my father hadn't been able to play basketball anymore, I imagined that he would find an even more universally admired vocation. Maybe, I mused, he could run an ice cream shop, and bring home a different flavor every day, or make ice cream, like Ben and Jerry's, and sell it to stores all over the country.
That idea made sense to me back then, and still does. Just about everybody loves ice cream, and you don't have to be tall or fast to eat it.
Looking back, how I wish the panther in the hall had injured my father enough to send him to the hospital and force his retirement. If we had been at the hospital, instead of eating at Boudreaux's that morning, things might have turned out so different.
Daddy took what he called a short cut on the way to Big Easy's Furniture Warehouse. We were twisting and turning through a maze of narrow, deserted streets in Momma's brand new, Porsche, SUV.
I remember my father saying how much he liked the car and bragging about not needing the GPS. "Those things are for tourists," he said. "I know this town like the back of my hand."
"Maybe so," Momma responded, not sounding like she really agreed. "But nice cars don't attract admirin' glances around here, Sidney. They attract car thieves."
We were stopped at a traffic light, about to turn onto another street, when a van banged into us from behind. I remember Daddy asking me and Momma if we were okay, and telling us to stay in the car before he got out to go talk to the driver that hit us.
The next thing I knew, a man wearing a yellow and purple ski mask yanked open the rear, passenger side door where I sat. He unbuckled my seat belt and shoulder harness, and lifted me out of the car in one easy motion.
While I squirmed and pounded my fists against the head and chest of my abductor, I heard my father shout. I caught a glimpse of him struggling with another man. Daddy had him backed up against the beat up van's grill, his hands on the man's throat, when a gunshot rang out.
Daddy staggered backward and stared down at his chest. A scarlet stain spread out from the center of his yellow polo shirt. I lost sight of him, as the man who carried me tossed me into the van through an opened, sliding door on the side. Unable to see either my father or my mother, I kicked and shouted at the kidnapper who blocked my escape.
Coming from the front of the van, a second and third gunshot caused me to flinch.
My mother shrieked, "Sidneeeeey!" Seconds later I heard a thunderous roar.
The man who stood in front of me disappeared, flattened by a blurry flash of black and blue. His terrified scream dwindled to nothing more than a weak gurgle, followed by silence.
More gunfire. More fearful cries. Not knowing whether I would be shot or mauled, I leaped from the van and raced for our car. Glancing back, I spotted my father and two other men sprawled on the asphalt.
One lay on his back, his face obscured by a ski mask, similar to the one worn by the man who grabbed me. A pool of blood spread out from beneath his head and neck.
I stopped and stared at the other man—a fat man, face down on the street, wearing overalls, with a gun and a black cane by his side. Mister Prejean. The glistening gore dripping from the gaping wounds in the back of his head made me wince and look away. I didn't want to see anymore.
Close to Momma's Porsche, I sprinted the last few feet for the opened door, climbed into the back seat, and locked myself in. Several minutes elapsed before I caught my breath and mustered enough courage to stare through the rear window.
What I saw made no sense at first. Wearing what looked like the blue dress that Mister Prejean had complemented, a huge panther hovered on all fours over my father's inert body. With its long, wide tongue, it licked his face the same way a cat might nurture her kittens. Snout and jaws red and slick with the blood of our assailants, the creature raised its head and stared straight at me. Instead of snarling, it uttered a sound that could only be described as a moan.
The beast rose and stood on its two hind feet. In shock, I shook my head and rubbed my eyes. When I opened them, I blinked in disbelief. Emerging from the bloody black fur, I saw my mother's face.
She shouted to me, her voice ragged with agony, "Don't look, sweetheart. Turn around." She waved with what still looked more like a paw than a hand. "Don't you look at this, you hear me?"
~ ~ ~ I forget so many things these days. Where did I put my keys and my phone? Did I take my morning meds? More often than I care to admit, I walk into a room and wonder what I'm looking for. But even after seventy years, I still remember my mother's blood-smeared, grief-stricken face.
Sometimes, when I gaze at my father's pictures, or his basketball trophies, I still weep like the little boy that lost his daddy so long ago. Time, the greatest predator of all, has taken my mother, my wife, and most of my children.
These days, I spend the majority of my time prowling through swirling fog and damp, tangled underbrush, stalking life's elusive memories. They taunt me. I come tantalizingly close, but my prey flutters beyond my grasp, receding into the mist like a butterfly on the wind.
On merciful occasions, I escape from this synaptic jungle's murky shadows. My green eyes squint, having grown unaccustomed to the light.
Sloping down to a wide river, a forgotten trail beckons. Along the riverbanks, a fat herd of eighty years lies basking in plain view. Bathed in brilliant sunshine, the details of my uncommon existence become as easy to spot and chase down as they were in my youth.
Over the past year, during my increasingly infrequent moments of clarity, I have labored to complete my memoirs. I hope they help my descendants better understand the challenges that are unique to our family.
I realize that my time has run out. I 've begun to lose control. If I stay any longer, someone I care for could get hurt.
Tonight, as I roamed the hallways of this old Garden District home, I scared my great grandson.
His mother told him he must have heard his great grandpa, snoring to beat the band. When she had trouble getting Sidney to go back to sleep, she brought him a small bowl of Bergeron's Cajun Praline ice cream, his favorite. Well, not just his. I'm proud to say it's the best selling flavor in the whole state of Lousiana.
I need to write a special note for little Sidney before I leave. I wouldn't want him to suspect that I left because I didn't love him or his parents anymore.
I am delighted to announce that World Castle Publishing has released one of my novels, The Falcon and His Desert Rose, in paperback and e-Book format. The first three chapters are offered on Amazon.com as a sneak preview, so that you, dear reader, may consider whether to add this tale to your literary collection. I invite you to visit the World Castle website, or you can order a copy from Amazon.com
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