Trees lining the street bowed to the power of the Almighty come to see, up close, Baton Rouge’s Mardi Gras effort. Clouds genuflected deeply as a force baffling to the mind of mortal man swirled and swept.
My sister, a fury herself, bore down on her Popeyes two-piece chicken dinner without considering that the Lord had come specifically to smite her for eating red beans and rice at a fast-food restaurant in the heart of Cajun Country; some would indeed call it a sacrilege.
Even in the face of a meteorological clash between the convergent currents of revelry and austerity, the confluence at which Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday meet, my brother-in-law failed to verbally pry that fried chicken from my sister’s greasy fingertips. Metaphorically, cosmologically or practically speaking, this might be her last meal. She was determined to enjoy it.
“We’re under a tornado warning,” implored her husband. “Put down that chicken!” Being from Tuscaloosa, my sister, her husband and their three boys are tornado veterans. In light of that, my sister has become quite a sensible woman. She saw no logic in moving their sons, heavily draped in colorful Mardi Gras beads, from their booth next to a bank of plate-glass windows. Migrating toward the windows on the other wall promised them no advantage. So she chewed her chicken.
The afternoon sky turned a brackish green edged by a sulfuric-yellow illumination, like the Earth had turned upside down and dumped the Louisiana swamps into the bowl of the atmosphere. A stooped old woman wearing thick-soled shoes and a long strand of pearls shuffled into the booth next to theirs. Then she leaned over the seat toward my 5- year-old nephew, reaching out her wrinkled hand. In a thin, crackly voice, she said, “Jesus loves the little children. We’ll be OK, because Jesus won’t hurt these little children.”
He stared into her milky cataracts. Now, not even he can pinpoint the source of his horror: The ghastly aspect addressing him personally or the burden of whether or not the tornado touched down resting on his relationship with the Lord or the offense of being referred to as a little child. But his final ungluing can definitely be linked to the moment that the winds whistled a deafening timbre and the woman began singing, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of world, while his mother casually sucked down fried chicken and his father panicked.
Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight ... The child broke down right there in Popeyes – where his mother and father blasphemed the Cajun tradition – wailing, stomping, crying, shaking. A plastic grocery bag rose and spun and wagged by the windows. The woman amplified, Jesus loves the little children of world.
What twist of opportunistic metaphysical phenomena brought on this crescendo? Debauchery in the boulevards of Baton Rouge? Snubbing of real Cajun food? Refusal to acknowledge pending disaster? Foreboding of the season of penitence? What delivered them through this transcendent experience? Fried chicken? The little children?
Jesus calls the children dear, crooned the woman, coaxing the roiling weather back on its heels. The earth righted itself, draining the murky, black waters back into the Louisiana swamps. The heavens blued. My sister picked the last meat from the chicken bones. My nephew ran his wet nose up his sleeve. My brother-in-law babbled about the parades.
It was a perfect storm, one to beat the band. They were changed people. But the Popeyes folks sure would appreciate them keeping their coming-to-Jesus meetings confined to their basement in Tuscaloosa.