As a native Californian, I unknowingly grew up in a rather safe and protected environment. While California may be “the land of fruits and nuts,” they were my fruits and nuts: I knew them, liked them, reveled in them.
Louisiana was a foreign territory, in more ways than one: parishes not counties, wet dripping weather, mold and ferns growing out of everything, giant cockroaches and palmetto bugs, and the smell of rot and decay… I just thank goodness for New Orleans, which had a yen for the unusual and made me feel more at home than anywhere else in the state. However, it was still in Louisiana. And the thing about Louisiana that was the most different, the most unusual to me, and which I did not expect, was the people. I met some very different and unusual people, some in a good way and some in a not-so-good way.
I have many Louisiana stories to tell, and a good place to start is with Viper. Viper was my neighbor. Of course, Viper wasn’t his real name, it was his nickname. He called himself Viper; his dog was named Viper; his truck was named Viper, and his favorite gun was named Viper. Needless to say, any conversations about Viper could get a bit confusing until you knew to which Viper he was referring…
The first time I met Viper was in the process of moving into the duplex next door to him when my husband and I moved out of married student housing at the university. Our new place had been empty for a week or so, I had just gotten the keys, and I was by myself taking over a load of household items in our pickup before the big furniture move on the weekend. When I arrived at the new place, two guys are hanging out on the front porch next door. As I unlock the door, they get up and come over to me. “hey,” one says, ” this place has been empty for awhile. We should check it out for you and make sure no one is inside.” I must have looked dubious, because the other one tells me “We’re cops.” With that statement, I open the door and let them run around the inside of the house to their hearts content. I stay safely outside, because my biggest fear at this point is them. Very shortly, they run out the door enthusiastically, jumping off the front stoop of three steps, and tell me the place is all clear. They introduce themselves, welcome me to the house, all of the little niceties of normal civilization.
I proceed to unload the truck and get things set up in the new place. When I am finished, the two come up to me and Viper, my new neighbor, asks, “Are you prejudiced?” I am not, and growing up the well-versed California girl, I go into my whole spiel, “of course I am not prejudiced, I treat everyone equally regardless of race, creed, religion, sex… Blah blah blah… ” I finish my diatribe with a smile, whereupon Viper says to me, “Oh, I am very prejudiced. In fact, my friends call me Little Hitler. ” And he disappears into his car and drives away leaving me with mouth agape and wondering what the hell have I gotten myself into.
In the years I lived in Louisiana, Viper was a neighbor for most of the time. He never ceased to come up with something new that would frighten or amaze me. People have asked much later, well, “Why did you deal with him at all?” Well, first of all, in Louisiana you do have to deal with your neighbors. There is a friendly facade that exists, which overlies dislike, disdain, or disgust. It does not do to fight this: it is too aggressively pretend nice and people often pretend to be even nicer when they don’t like you. The other reason is that it is not wise to anger a cop, especially in Louisiana. Especially when the cop tells you, in a very kind and endearing tone, that if you ever need someone killed or a body disposed of, to let him know and he will help take care of the situation. But only because he likes you. It is best to stay on the liked side of that type of relationship. I will say, however, that I never took him up on this offer, even though I did maintain at his request an up-to-date list of all his guns, their make, and serial numbers.
So, we were friendly. He would invite us outside to watch him work on his truck or talk about weapons. When I baked, I always took him a slice of cake, or biscuits, or pie. He, in his strange way, kindly reciprocated the food offerings by knocking on the door and handing over a box of instant pudding; he thought of me at the grocery, he said. So I made instant pudding with the $.59 box of powder using my own milk and took him an offering of that as well.
Viper did not like strangers in the neighborhood, and neither did his dog, Viper. Particularly if they were not white. Many a time I would look out of my second floor window because I heard loud voices only to see Viper frisking a black or Hispanic man who had the audacity to walk down our street and perchance even say “hello.” One evening I came home to find Viper the dog strolling back into his front yard, blood matted in his chin and a scrap of what appeared to be shirt fabric in his mouth. Viper the man, sitting on his front porch, begins laughing, and tells me that a black man was walking through the neighborhood and, when told by Viper to “take the position” against Viper the truck, began running away instead. Viper the dog, a healthy german shepherd, then took hot pursuit after the man and was just now returning. My immediate thoughts were to call the police, but those thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a police car across the street and the opening of the car door by one of Viper’s cop friends on meal break. Viper immediately began regaling his friend with the story of the evening and Viper the dog’s exploits. They laughed together as I shied away into the house, wishing I could get rid of the images in my head.
Viper the man often declared that Viper the dog only liked white people. But then, I found that this was a common claim among prejudiced white folk in the South. They would carry on about how smart their dogs were not to like people of different races, but, “goodness, no!” they never did teach that to their dog. “Precious Viper or Sweetums or whatever just knew the ‘anti-whites’ were not to be trusted. What a good dog,” The owners would say. I don’t know if the owners failed to realize that the dogs were just reading the body language and tonal qualities of their owners or if they were just trying to trick themselves into believing that the innocence of animals proved their disgusting prejudices to be somehow valid. Sad, nevertheless. In Louisiana, white children always asked us, when they saw our small and loving Boston Terrier, “Can I pet him?” while the black children would, without fail, ask, “Does your dog bite?” They had obviously encountered a lot more Vipers in their short lifetime than I have in mine.
As I mentioned before, I kept a list of Viper’s weapons for him. He wanted it to be nice and neat and he didn’t own a typewriter or computer, so he wrote it all down the first time on a piece of lined paper and sat next to me coaching me through his handwriting as I typed into the computer. Updates were easier, when he bought a new weapon or traded something for an upgrade. Of course, all this is not to say I never saw his weapons… I saw more than I cared to and knew more about them than I wanted to, as well.
He shared with me which guns he slept with and where they were placed on, next to, or under the bed and in what order he would rely on them if his home were entered or he was attacked. Whenever he got a new weapon he would also have a “show and tell,” inviting my husband and I out to sit on our small front stoop and look at the beauty and attributes of his new gun. Often, he would site the weapon at a car driving down the street or a passer-by walking their dog. He showed us the mechanics of making his semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon and exhibited the benefits of various gun-loading mechanisms. One day, he got fun new weapon, different than the normal guns: a crossbow! Excited, he brought my husband and I onto the front porch to show us his new toy. Sleek, all black, very mechanized. He slid a bow into the mechanism, aimed, and pulled the trigger. I watched as the all black arrow streaked through the air and speared the tree in his front yard, the arrowhead just peaking out of the other side of the 10 inch diameter tree. I think I gasped, but don’t really remember. He said, “It’s okay, I can get more arrows.” Thank god, we may have to kill an army of trees someday.
A part of Viper had a desire to educate the less worthy. When my husband’s graduate student friend decided to buy a gun, we trooped over to Viper to get his opinion on the new weapon and the ammunition. The gun wasn’t bad, he said, but the ammo purchased wasn’t very good. “Why?” we asked… And at that, he proceeded to take a bullet out of the box and popped it into his mouth. You could see the item rolling about his mouth for a bit with his tongue and jaw working, and then he spits something into his hand. There is the bullet in three parts: the bullet, the powder, and the casing. ” That is why I don’t like them. You can take them apart with your teeth.” I still don’t know what possessed him to ever stick ammunition in his mouth in the first place. I this some cop-specific type of bar trick, like peeling the label off of your beer bottle in one piece or tying the stem of the cherry in a knot with your tongue? I may never know.
Well, I think that is enough about Viper for now. I learned a lot from him, although I will say that a lot of what I learned from him I never really wanted to know.