Comfortable Graves


"In the end only one thing really matters. The dead should count on resting peacefully. Everyone deserves a comfortable grave."

In Comfortable Graves we meet two lifelong friends, Clarence and Andre. Growing up in New Orleans, the boys have always had each other's backs. Andre helps Clarence get through middle school, high school, and college by writing his papers and doing his math homework. In return, Clarence, a good-natured, blue-eyed Creole, protects Andre from bullies in school.
As adults, Clarence and Andre find themselves in Poplar Grove, a small Mississippi town with a big problem: It's a town with terrible secrets, shocking scandals, and corruption at all levels. With Andre's intelligence and legal background and Clarence's generous heart and charisma, the men make a dynamic team, overcoming unimaginable bigotry and righting old wrongs.
Set against a backdrop of larger-than-life characters, sexual perversion, greed, murder, and political corruption, Comfortable Graves is the story of friendship, and the remarkable capacity devoted friends have to change people's lives for the better.

Chapter 1

REMEMBER THE CHOOSE YOUR OWN Adventure readers? They were adventure books like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, but these offered options as the plot developed. Do you stop or go? Ride a bike or walk? Stay indoors or out? Do you approach the person of your dreams? Should you stay with the same friends you have known forever or learn new things from intriguing strangers? Do you stay in the same comfortable neighborhood or risk moving to a new town? Every combination of choices the reader selects leads to different and unpredictable outcomes in the chapters ahead. The story’s plot always unfolds differently with each reading and each decision the reader makes.

Andre and Clarence read the books repeatedly, making different choices each time, trying over and over to create the perfect ending. Frustrated, they often tried to cheat the books, taking a shortcut by reading the final chapters first. Identifying the ideal ending in hind- sight was easy. Getting to it, however, was nearly impossible. Even with the best intentions, things always got screwed up along the way.

Andre and Clarence had been friends forever, from fourth grade to high school to college. In fact, it was hard to remember any time they were not friends.

Enos was the meanest kid at Hynes elementary school. He was named after Enos Slaughter, the Yankee outfielder in the 1950s. Enos had a system for stealing lunch money. His classmates were all expected to deliver their twenty-five cents to him before the morning bell rang. Back then lunch and milk cost a quarter. Enos sat on the school’s back steps, collecting quarters. Andre decided to make a stand and refused to turn over his money. “Lost it,” he told him. But Enos saw Andre eating lunch and was waiting after school. He hit him hard. Andre fell to the ground.

“You owe me fifty cents tomorrow!” Enos said. He kneed Andre in the ribs for fun.

The next day Andre again refused to give him any money. “I’m going to beat the crap out of you.” Andre understood that Enos would make an example of him but if he gave in, Enos would own him. Andre was not going to be a wimp. Enos raised his right fist behind his head to give his punch greater momentum. A new student stepped in front of Andre, blocking Enos.

“I don’t like you very much.” The new student was unafraid. He threw a right hook, a left hook, then a right uppercut. Enos was on the ground. His nose was broken and his jaw was wired shut for two months. He ate lunch through a straw.

“I’m Clarence. This is my first day at Hynes,” he said with a big silly smile.

“I’m Andre. Nice to meet you.” From that day forward Andre knew he could count on his new friend.

They grew up during a time when New Orleans was a remarkable place, rich in history and tolerance. It was a city where they felt safe and comfortable in their blue-collar neighborhoods with strong families. Desegregated public swimming pools were a popular escape from the intense heat and July humidity, although segregation was never a real issue since light-skinned, blue-eyed creoles like Clarence could easily pass for white. The lifeguards tried to keep boys and girls separated, but their inadequate efforts were no match for Clarence. Once he realized that everyone basically had the same objectives, he became unstoppable.

Andre remembered the day Clarence figured it all out. They were walking home from Hynes School and came across a porn magazine discarded in a drainage ditch. Clarence opened it to a random page and stopped; he had a puzzled look with one eyebrow raised and a big smile. “Andre, do you think they want it as much as we do?” he asked, pointing out a photo of a woman enjoying sex. “They must! They must!” he said, while enthusiastically showing Andre additional mag- azine photos proving his point.

The first time Clarence held a girl’s hand, he fell hard for her. He thought he had found true love until she had sex with some neigh- borhood boys she invited into her bedroom. “I don’t understand what you are upset about. We’re not married!” Clarence was devastated. But Andre predicted there would be more girls, and there were, many more.

As young teenagers one episode was most memorable. “I need you, buddy! Come quick!” Clarence said in a panicked tone. Andre drove the two blocks to Clarence’s house and parked in his driveway. The carport was on the right side below a bathroom window. The front door was open. Clarence climbed out the bathroom window and jumped onto the carpet roof.

“Keep the car running!”

Clarence ran across the carport roof and leaped to the ground. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Denise was a girl in the neighborhood. Her father happened to read her diary. He kicked Clarence’s front door in and was going from room to room looking for him. They were blocks away but could still see the angry dad on foot running after them.

“You little bastard. Come back here!”

Clarence suggested they go back and chase him around a little for kicks. He was always willing to do anything for love.

Three beautiful girls struck up a conversation with Clarence and Andre one Saturday afternoon in the French Quarter. Eventually the girls invited them to a cookout and party the next weekend. The tallest girl wrote the address and her number on Clarence’s arm with red lipstick. The party was not at their house. It was at the “Walking Man’s Friend,” a run-down used car lot on Canal Street, and it wasn’t a cookout. It was a hot dog boil! Andre smelled a rat. “It’s a setup. Those girls work for this car lot,” he explained to Clarence. “They’re paid bird-dog fees for everyone that shows up.” Clarence insisted on going anyway.

The salesman convinced Clarence to buy a 650-dollar Mercury, as- is with no warranty. “Look, the taillights work! Ain’t that something!” the salesman said. The car broke down before they got it home. The tow bill was $75 but Clarence was not angry. He was smiling.

“You rascal! You screwed that girl, didn’t you?”

Clarence did not answer Andre, but he kept smiling.

Eventually Clarence earned an associate degree in general studies from Delgado Community College. He was extremely smart, but not in the limited ways recognized by traditional classroom education. Over the years Clarence always found a way to make a good living.

He purchased two old shotgun homes in the TremeĢ neighborhood. They were both condemned and scheduled to be demolished by the city. Clarence dismantled the homes himself and sold most of the valuable antique architectural features. He kept the old cypress frame lumber and used it to make antique-type furniture. The tables, chairs, and desks sold well in various tourist shops on Magazine Street. He sold the two vacant lots to real-estate investors.

Andre finished second in his class at Tulane Law and became a lead litigator with Jones, Adams and Dunbar. His firm was one of the largest in New Orleans, with eighty attorneys on staff. He specialized in campaigns, elections, and politics. Some of Andre’s time was spent making sure Louisiana elections were honest and above board. That was a real oxymoron—honest Louisiana elections.

The truth was, Andre was hired by elected officials trying to make life difficult and expensive for opposing candidates. Lawsuits chal- lenging residency and campaign finance reporting would most likely scare away all but the most determined. He also enjoyed defense work. When a former governor’s wife accepted two hundred thousand dollars from a Japanese businessman, Andre handled the defense. He convinced a jury that the governor had no knowledge of the cash transaction. “If another man gives my wife a significant amount of cash, I want to know what is going on!” the US Attorney said in clos- ing arguments. The governor said he would prefer not to know. The ten men on the jury laughed and smiled in agreement. Andre won.

Andre said he was always amazed at the political skullduggery that took place in this state. But he didn’t complain because it was a very lucrative practice, and politicians always paid cash in advance. “No one accepts IOUs from Louisiana politicians,” he said.

Clarence and Andre made a good team. Andre helped Clarence get through middle school, high school, and college. He wrote his college papers and did his geometry homework. He worked with him to keep passing grades. Good-natured Clarence, on the other hand, was always happy to protect Andre from bullies and defend him. Clarence was a lover and a fighter. He’d had Andre’s back since fourth grade. It was a remarkable friendship.

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Comfortable Graves