When you are a Black man in a blue Volkswagon with white knuckles on a gray steering wheel, the situation is likely to be serious.
“Driving while Black in Lofton County, VA is so bad that dozens of people got themselves killed trying to keep the records from coming out … drive too slow in a newish car and too many people start paying attention to you … drive too fast and they chase … gotta stay right at the speed limit and catch all the lights at the right spot.”
“Oh, come on, Jules – it can't be that bad in 2021!”
“Gilbert, Père and Jean-Paul almost got yanked out just going to pick up the car this morning!”
Gilbert Dubois tried his best to not stomp on the gas in sheer panic, but he could do nothing about the tightness that now ran from his hands through his wrists up his arms all the way to his shoulder. Every muscle in his body started to stand out.
Jules had been the Dubois family's prodigal son who had come home in a tidy way, but his brother Gilbert's homecoming process had been far messier.
The thing was, Gilbert had no money … and really needed a car. Everyone knew he had brought his cat, Achille, out of his escape from Miami, but he didn't even know how to begin to talk about who he had left behind. The last time he had tried a lie, his father had just about killed him without ever laying a hand on him.
“Watch it, Gilbert!”
The Volkswagon veered crazily across the road, nearly going off into the creek that was flashing blue in the sunlight, through the trees.
“Stop the car – give me the keys, Gilbert!”
The brothers changed seats, and Jules did not even have to ask why his brother was shaking … they had the same nightmares.
That spring-swelled creek was out of its banks and had caused Gilbert a flashback to the moment when his father had caught him and his brothers each trying to con the family out of its newfound money earlier that year. He shook harder remembered the recent video in which Captain I.C. Arus in nearby Big Loft had started a racist confrontation with Père Dubois. The Dubois patriarch, live, had made that man fall dead with a few well-placed words.
The flood tide was always ready, and just an hour earlier, Gilbert had run off into it again, head-on, no brakes.
It had all started with the honk of a horn, beep beep, but with soft taps like Louis Armstrong with the mutes on his cornet … even the way Jean-Luc Dubois drove still spoke of deep Black things in Louisiana.
“Maman! Your car is here!”
The family had been renting cars at need, but Père Dubois had become concerned about his wife, Ébène-Cerise Dubois, because of the number of trips for the household she was taking on foot daily. So, he had bought her a car, and if it had to be a little car, it had to be a classic little car, a cute blue Volkswagon Bug.
(The question of how exactly Père Dubois had gotten a new classic Bug in 2021 might have been Gilbert's first clue that all was not as it appeared … but he would realize that later.)
Maman Dubois came onto the porch – “Qu'est-ce que c'est? Ah! Merci! Merci!” – and she walked out swiftly while granddaughter Louisa ran out and they all started celebrating while Jules came from the backyard, spring onions in hand, to see the car.
Gilbert adopted the same unconcerned attitude that his cat Achille had … but as the rest of the family came back into the house, he said to himself, “I wish someone would buy me a car.”
Why? … that was Père Dubois, who had noted his son's sour attitude. “Ne vous embêtez pas à me mentir” … the warning that Gilbert should not even bother to lie came like the low, deep rumble of the Mississippi on the rise … it would be out of its banks any minute, and there was just time for confession before dying.
Gilbert blurted it all out, and Maman Dubois, who had sensed trouble and had turned back to try to help, all but passed out at the news. Père Dubois rushed to her and helped her to the sofa, and sat with her as she cried for a long time … but Gilbert knew her tears would send his father's anger over the edge.
“Jean-Paul,” Père Dubois ordered.
“Take Louisa for a long walk.”
After that, the flood tide came.
“How could you, Gilbert! How could you flee Miami and leave your woman and your twin babies behind? Is there any Dubois left in you? How can you stand here, alive, unconcerned, just casually living and eating and working and pouting about what you have lost for an entire year, and left your woman and your children in the danger you fled from? How? How?”
“Well, I didn't mean to, but I had to get out and they didn't know about Marie-Denise and the twins and I couldn't go to them because that would give it away and none of us would be safe and that's why I need the car because I meant to go get them but I didn't know how to ask because of this – I knew you would just blow up and wouldn't understand because you don't understand that everybody can't be you!”
Jules turned around and walked out the door, throwing his hands up into the air –“Why didn't he do his will before saying that part?”
Jules' concern was warranted. Père Dubois narrowed his eyes, and lowered his bass voice to that rumble of the Mississippi unbound, eating up land and flora and fauna and the bodies and souls of men, unsparing, unstoppable … .
“I most certainly know that you are not me. But I taught you everything you needed to know to become a man who could do right, to build a family the right way. Your excuse for rejecting all of that is just that you are not me? I would be ashamed of you, but you have fallen further than even shame can reach. I will try to find some pity instead, because you have lost all of my respect.”
The flood tide of the Mississippi rushed over Gilbert's soul, and the soul was about to leave his body – the water was splashing in his face – .
Jules had stopped the car by the side of the road, noticing that his brother was passing out. He had pulled out a water bottle and was splashing the water on his brother's face.
“I can't live like this – all my life I've never been able to be good enough for that man – .”
Jules poured the entire bottle all over him.
“Gilbert – snap out of it! It's not about you anymore! Don't you remember why Maman gave you the car keys?”
Yes – her soft voice had come into the flood, like the hand of a rescuing angel.
“Jean-Luc, s'il te plait mon amour, [please, my love] not so harsh … what is done is done, and he said he wants to go get his family. I have been praying that all our sons come home, and that at least one of them would settle down and give us grandchildren … to bear your name, Jean-Luc. God's ways are not our ways, for I would not have chosen this answer to my prayers, but we must accept it.”
And she had come and put the keys to the car in Gilbert's hand.
“You bought the car for me, Jean-Luc. This is how I am choosing to use it. It is mine, is it not?”
“It is, Ébène-Cerise. You may do as you will with it.”
She had smiled through her tears and kissed his cheek, and then lifted her face to her son.
“Go get my new daughter and my grandchildren, Gilbert.”
Jules had seen his brother staggering like a drunken man to the car after that – granted a reprieve, but still close to a complete breakdown, and so Jules had jumped into the car to help his brother make his most necessary journey:
“Gilbert, don't you realize … it's not even about our Père Dubois anymore … don't you know that now, you are Père Dubois, to your own family? You don't have to fail from here – just become who you are!”
That last sentence came a shout louder than Jules could ever make it.
Just become who you are!
Gilbert came bolt upright in bed, waking up still in the late spring of 2020 … with his children still in his fiance's womb, and she safely in hiding.
Gilbert got up and shook off the dreadfulness of his nightmare by rolling onto his knees as he shook … he had never really called on the Lord as a man, but it was time … and he was not turned away. He then got up, dressed himself, and went to his parents and calmly laid out the real situation. They embraced him.
“Everybody doesn't get the same start into a family because we are all sinners, Gilbert – yes, me too,” Père Dubois said. “But here is the thing about walking with God – He is a Father Who loves to redeem His family, and now, you are walking just right with Him, Père Dubois le Jeune!”
Père Dubois the Younger … that recognition from his father swept like the flood tide of the Mississippi upon the burden of Gilbert's lifetime of insecurity as a man, and carried it away.
After that, all else – marriage, establishing a home in Houston to work with brother Renè there in Dubois Spice Cabinet, and the dawn of fatherhood – would just flow, like the Mississippi, calm and deep and sure, for Gilbert Dubois was indeed his father's son, and very like him, after all.