Washing windows across America: Cajun football
There are sounds like “booley-boo” and “yakkety-yak” peppered into their sentences. Damn if I’m not sitting with a bunch of real life Cajuns.
They looked not afraid or overconfident, but annoyed and burdened, as if they’d been walking around with pebbles in their shoes for some time.
By Ben Leroux
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
Three hours before kickoff time, the blank adolescent behind the counter at McDonald’s gives me mumbled directions to the high school football stadium. After dropping used wrappings and a copy of the Limestone Times sports section into the garbage, I get in the Plymouth and follow them. I’d been in Louisiana a day and hadn’t seen a bowl of gumbo or heard a word of Cajun French. Texas hadn’t been much better. There, I hadn’t found a bowl of Texas chili or a decent high school football game, which Texas was known for. My expectations of the country weren’t panning out.
The stadium parking lot is empty when I arrive, so I park in the shade, roll over onto my plywood bed, and sleep. The sleep is pleasant, and there’s a dream to it. It’s one of those rare surface dreams that is both relevant and non-cryptic. In this dream, the Plymouth cruises through bayou backroads stopping occasionally in front of clapboard zydeco taverns overlooking gator-infested swamps. Inside, they are dark and clammy and there is loud music from three-man Cajun bands. Gumbo and jambalaya are steaming from big pots and dark beer is being poured from kegs into frosty mugs for a crowd of hospitable Cajun and Creole mongrels. There is reckless dancing and wanton advances between the sexes, and the thing that strikes me most about this dream is that there is both smell and sound to it. There’s fiddle and washboard and laughing, and the smell of andouille sausage smoking over grills. I don’t want to wake, but near the end, I feel the eyes of a dispassionate Cajun family looking into my Plymouth. Muttering bad English and worse French, they gets an eyeful of me and walk off toward a football stadium.
Yawning, I rise and follow the family toward the football stadium. It is dusk now, and the lot is filled with buses, motor homes, cars, and footballs sailing through a smoky air that pulsates with zydeco music. I pay ten dollars at the gate, climb the stadium stairs, and take a seat on the second row, where I attempt to acclimate from my deep sleep. All I knew I’d learned from the Limestone paper. With a win, the home team clinched a league title, their only obstacle being a troubled team of underachievers from a town called Babineaux, which according to the paper had been reduced to 18 players by injuries and academic suspensions, was on a two-game losing streak, and were 20-point underdogs.
Once my eyes clear, I am able to focus and see across the field, the towering bleachers of the home side, crammed with rigid torsos of purple and yellow. It’s what I get for asking the directions from the pimpled burger-flipper. He’d sent me to the visitor’s parking lot. I get up to go over and join the home team, but am jolted back to my seat by grating electric guitar and the high-pitched war-cry of Guns-N-Rose’s “Welcome to the Jungle.”
The racket causes the scattered few of us on the Babineaux side to curl up and put our hands over our ears while from a corner of the stadium, in dark purple jerseys and gold pants, the Limestone Bengals emerge 50-bodies strong. They jog into their stadium businesslike and perfunctorily, and circle their glowing emerald gridiron to an ovation from their standing fans. They are enormous white boys that look to have been bred by NFL geneticists, then reared in weight rooms. Their uniforms, stadium, field, lights, and sound system seems excessive for such young men—too much for high school football. I decide I will be more comfortable on the Babineaux side.
While the Limestone practices kicking and passing, the men, women, and children of Babineaux begin slowly filling our side of the stadium, and in them I begin to make out the mixed features of French and African, and the skin in shades of everything from alabaster to anthracite. Their hair grows in waves, kinks, and mullet-tails dangling from the backs of the grubby ball caps. There are sounds like “booley-boo” and “yakkety-yak” peppered into their sentences. Damn if I’m not sitting with a bunch of real life Cajuns.
There’s something else about them though as they climb the stadium stairs and take seats. It’s in their eyes. It has something to do with the game yet nothing to do with football. I can’t quite make it out. I keep watching. It’s not the right kind of attitude for a town about to run into a football buzzsaw like they were. They looked not afraid or overconfident, but annoyed and burdened, as if they’d been walking around with pebbles in their shoes for some time. They had the look of a town come to witness a public execution. Had they come tonight for some kind of closure? Against the Limestone Bengals, who were now circling their field once more like regal robots, before pounding back into their locker room to Judas Priest?
The poor bastards. And where was their team?
“I hope we beats the livin’ shit out these boys,” says a woman, filling two seats below me. She is charcoaled, rotund and gristly, and wears a red and black Babineaux Crows windbreaker. Cheerleaders, pep-squad girls, and other kids, who seem to be attracted to her, flock around. She puts a hand to her brow and shakes her head.
“I’m sorry, kids. There I go.”
“It’s OK, miss’Parnice,” two mocha-skinned cheerleaders coo while stroking her round shoulders. “It’s OK,”
“I know, but I told y’all to behave and there I go swearin’.”
Mrs. Parnice peels off her windbreaker and out fall big fat arms and huge breasts held intact by a red sleeveless sweater. She must be a school advisor of some capacity because as she surveys the stadium with a periscope-neck, she directs the leaders of certain student groups on positioning and behavior.
“And I’ll watch my mouth,” she says. “Lord know I will try.”
She stands and turns and scans the Babineaux crowd with hard eyes, as if searching for troublemakers and noting absences. Then her eyes fall on me.
“You a scout?”
“Where you from? La Tech?”
Mrs. Parnice doesn’t wait for an answer. She turns and faces the field, hands on her massive hips, and watches the Limestone Bengals come onto the field again, this time to Metallica, prancing provocatively, backpedaling with cleats tapping the sod like well-oiled pistons. They break into platoon formation and perform calisthenics, then with Marine-precision execute snapping agility drills. There is a collective groan from our side as they once again circle their field and file back into their locker room. Meanwhile, a squad of police officers walks across the field and takes position along the Babineaux sideline. A sigh of hateful irritation goes through the growing crowd.
“I don’t know why these motherf----,” Mrs. Parnice catches herself. “I don’t know why they hate us so much. They do this ever time we come here.” She looks at me again.
“They send you over? Limestone?” Anyone within earshot stops to look.
“I’m nobody,” I say. “Just here to see some football.”
“Yeah?” she says sitting down. “Well I hope you know, them cops is here to protect us-all from them-all. Not the other way around.”
For the next hour we sit and watch Limestone stretch and fine-tune for Babineaux’s massacre. Though Mrs. Parnice turns every few minutes to ensure decorum, the nettlesome hatred fermenting inside Babineaux grows. I ask the people on either side of me what the bad blood and the cops is all about. I even try Mrs. Parnice. But no one wishes to discuss it. Exacerbating all this is the fact that the Babineaux Crows are still nowhere to be seen, and no one really knows where they are. Rumors begin to circulate.
“They caught in traffic.”
“Stuck on the I-10.”
“Cops won’t let ‘em in.”
“There was a threat.”
“Keepin’em at a undisclosed site. For they safety.”
“I heard they at McNeese State.”
Mrs. Parnice turns on me.
“You from McNeese State? Who you here to look at? Butler? Cheesborough? You better watch Bedrau. He number 22.”
Mrs. Parnice grabs her ears and puckers as AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” roars through the stadium. She turns to see what we all see—that Limestone is back out of their locker room, but no longer warming up. They are on the field, lined up for the kickoff against a phantom opponent. The clock is set at twelve minutes, and the referees talk to the Limestone coaches while glancing at wristwatches.
Mrs. Parnice clutches her hands under her chin and trembles and starts to cry.
“Dear Lord, please don’t let us forfeit to these boys. Anybody but these boys, Lord.” Girls gather around and caress her back and shoulders and rest their sad heads on her meaty arms.
“It’s OK, miss’Parnice. It’s OK.”
Across the way, Limestone fans come to their feet when they see the referees coming onto the field, and their kicker placing the ball on the tee. The despondent heads of Babineaux fans begin to drop, and there is a feeling of gloom and embarrassment. I get up to find my way out, until I hear commotion from the top of the Babineaux side.
I fear for a moment that it may be the beginnings of riot, but it is too celebratory a commotion for that, with cowbell and air-horn, faces of hope, and people standing and watching a different corner of the stadium where, under the escort of four squad cars a basic yellow school bus appears, and drives onto the track.
Before the bus can stop behind the Babineaux end zone, lanky young arms of walnut, mahogany, yellow, caramel, and coal are reaching through bus windows, sliding them open. One by one, puffy black noggins begin poking out of windows and looking around. Through other open windows, sets of shoulder pads, helmets, and footballs are flying onto the track. Shirtless torsos then begin slithering out of windows and repelling down the side of the bus and onto the track. The bus door swings open and a coaching staff in red and black windbreakers sprints for the sideline, followed by the remainder of the half-naked Babineaux Crows.
Wriggling into jerseys and shoulder pads, tucking in shirttails, and slipping in mouthguards, all to the foot-stomping, cowbell-clanging, and air-horn blowing of their fans, seven Crows take the sidelines while eleven take the field. Coaches are still adjusting headsets when the referees sound their whistles. Babineaux’s return man, Bedrau, is still fastening his chin-strap when Limestone’s kicker sends pigskin into the lights.
Bedrau fields the ball and is immediately swarmed by purple and gold. For a moment he disappears. Then he ejects himself, and faking right then going left, he drops four bewildered Bengals to the grass and gains what little space he needs. Knees high, hips aswivel, he streaks into Limestone’s end zone and pandemonium erupts on the Babineaux side.
On the ensuing kickoff Babineaux levels Limestone’s all-state return-man and there is a tense hush from the Limestone side as he gets up slowly. Silently, I root for the kid to be unharmed. As a new Babineaux fan, I felt that if we didn’t anger Limestone early on, they might take it easy on us.
But someone on our side has a big mouth, “Stay down, son!” he yells to the fallen boy from the top of the bleachers. “Stay down!” There is riotous laughter until Mrs. Parnice turns and glares the man down with a wagging finger. The man looks down and sits, and the crowd quiets. In that man’s voice though, and in the laughter of the crowd, I could hear scars of the past—last year probably. I imagine it having something to do with a cross or a noose.
Whether through providence or adrenaline or both, the outmanned Babineaux Crows stand their ground, and with their quickness and flair, take advantage of Limestone’s unimaginative game plan. They overcome horrendous calls by referees, and at the end of the first quarter lead 17 to 7. They keep it up for the second quarter and just before halftime return an interception for a touchdown. Under police escort, they return to their bus ahead 24 to 7, with the Limestone side of the stadium eerily quiet.
During halftime Babineaux students shoot candy into the stands with an air-gun of some sort, and I watch carefully, hoping one doesn’t come my way. From the railing the Babineaux cheerleaders watch the Limestone flag corps perform to the “musical stylings of Mr. Paul Simon” as played by their xylophone-heavy school band. As yellow and purple flags twirl stiffly and out of sync, the Babineaux girls, out of sportsmanship, force their high, compressed bottoms to move to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Once the torture is over, they clap for Limestone’s girls and look up at Mrs. Parnice for approval.
“LSU,” Mrs. Parnice says, turning on me again, growling. “You here to look at Lafontaine.”
“I’m not a scout. Got nothing to do with any football program, alright?”
The words aren’t out of my mouth, when a package of M&M’s comes flying in my direction. Left-handed I reach into the aisle, paw the thing, snatch it out of the air, and reel it in like Jerry Rice. It gets quiet around me.
“It’s just reflexes,” I tell Mrs. Parnice, handing over the M&M’s. She gives me a huff.
“Now I know,” she growls lowly, ripping open the M&Ms with her teeth. “Now I know where I seen you. You coach over at Lafayette High School. Uh-huh. We play y’all next week.”
Satisfied, Mrs. Parnice swallows a mouthful of M&M’s, and turns around to see her team coming out of the school bus and taking the sidelines. Adoring little town boys come to the railing to get the attention of their heroes. The only reaction of Babineaux players is to look into the crowd and wink. They truly believe. On the other side, the Limestone battalion returns to the field with an urgent fear in their gait. The uneasiness can be seen even in the body language of their coaches.
But Limestone is an error-free machine with human tanks for running backs, and granite blocks for linebackers, and they start grinding away at the depleted Crows, whose seniors have to play both defense and offense. Playing as if they are the team that is in the lead, Limestone falls back on its trusty ground game and begins gaining a gradual, commanding momentum. They score touchdowns, and every three or four plays are aided by showers of penalty flags against Babineaux. Behind only 24 to 21, with five minutes left in the game, they advance to within twelve yards of Babineaux’s end zone.
“Aw hell, here we go again,” says Mrs. Parnice, trembling with her head in the crook of one of her leg-sized arms. “I’m sorry, girls. I didn’t mean to swear.”
“It’s OK, miss’Parnice,” say some clinging girls. “Hell ain’t too bad a word.”
“I know, I know. But why they hate us so much up here? Can someone please tell me why they hate us so much?” Mrs. Parnice’s pleas are answered by another downpour of yellow penalty flags.
“We can’t lose to these boys. We just cain’t,” says Mrs. Parnice as Limestone bores into the end zone and takes the 28 to 24 lead. The swagger of a league champion-to-be is back with the home team.
With three minutes left, the Babineaux Crows look to have little hope. They are an exhausted and worn team. But over the fatigue and the flag-littered field, they dig deep and begin making big plays that slice through minute openings in the seemingly impervious Limestone defense, and negate yards lost on penalties. If they are penalized ten, they gain twenty. If they are penalized fifteen, they gain thirty. They make spiteful first downs that send vindictive laughter through the Crow fans. With a little over two minutes left, Bedrau catches a long bomb in the end zone, and Babineaux regains the lead at 31 to 24.
With both sides of the stadium on their feet and two minutes on the clock, Limestone, aided by more penalties, plods downfield and swiftly pins the Crows up against their own goal line. With nothing but the formality of a final crushing touchdown remaining, they run a quarterback-keeper from the three-yard-line. Only this night, the quarterback gets separated from his blockers, and Bedrau and two other rangy jaguars use the opportunity to corral and gang-maul him. He loses the ball, and the Babineaux players recover it and raise it for their fans like a trophy.
Babineaux need only run a few plays for the win and the closure. 0Looks of relief are exchanged, and people are grinning and complete strangers are high-fiving me. Justice has been served. The thorn is nearly out of the paw, the pebble out of the shoe. Crow fans and Crow players begin to wave back and forth.
But we have forgotten about the referees, who really lay it on now, with piddling, nitpicky calls against the Crows. Boos start to break out, and the crowd grows defiant and restless as it looks as though Limestone will get another chance to score. The enraged Cajuns seem on the verge of charging the field, overtaking the police then going after the Limestone fans. I think about their culture’s rich history of recalcitrance and disobedience and don’t doubt for a minute they’d do it. They are very loud now. At some point though, their anger transforms into laughter, and some nearly cry as they hold their stomachs and stomp their feet in a chant.
“BO-RE-SARD!” it sounds like. “BO-RE-SARD!”
They are directing their chant toward the Babineaux bench where head coach Rich Bouressard is being restrained by three assistant coaches and four players while he reaches with clawed hands for the throats of referees, whom are all a safe distance away. In Limestone’s state-of-the-art lighting, a long purple vein bulging from Bouressard’s sweaty reddened neck is quite visible, as is the spit spraying from his mouth. The high-quality acoustics make the vilest of his expletives more than audible. It’s not until two cops come to assist, that Bouressard is contained. But by this time his boys, empowered by his tantrum, have swept into the end zone for another touchdown, and the win.
With the game technically over, Limestone tries for a symbolic last score. Sensing perhaps the volatility of the Babineaux fans, the referees make an absurd call against Limestone. The placatory gesture draws scornful titters, and Babineaux fans begin producing yellow flags from pockets, which they start throwing onto the field
“Keep yo damn flags!” they shout as one yellow flag after another lands onto Limestone’s pretty green field.
“Here go another one!”
“You cain’t stop our boys!”
“We don’t need no help from ya’ll!”
The referees clear the field of flags and the P.A. announcer warns our side that a personal foul penalty may be called. This only incites more laughter, quipping, and wisecracking from the Crow fans. It all ceases though, after Limestone’s big fullback, already signed with Auburn, lay groggily on the ground from a violent collision, favoring his rib cage.
Commendably, the Babineaux fans, who have been conditioned by Mrs. Parnice, remain solemn while the boy struggles to his feet. It shows good restraint and sportsmanship considering the bad blood. They are all respectfully quiet.
That is, except one woman who in the baritone of a wounded grizzly croons at the suffering fullback.
“Stay down, son! Stay down!” she yells.
We follow the noise to the railing. There, a heavy black woman in a red sweater is leaning over the steel piping, wagging a finger at the boy, arm flab swaying like a rippling suspension bridges.
“Stay down, son!” Mrs. Parnice sings. “Stay down!”
As the fullback is taken off the field, and the last seconds tick off the clock, the Cajuns of Babineaux stand for an ovation. I’m not sure if it’s for the well-being of that Limestone boy, for their own incredible team, or for Mrs. Parnice, but I join them. §
Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of his Washing windows across America series here: