We rode into New Iberia hungry. The recommended place was closed, so we doubled back to a drive-in selling boudin and cracklins and placed an order to-go. Boudin balls take some time to deep-fry, and thank the Lord they do, for there passed the best — certainly the realest — 20 minutes of the whole four-day road trip.
We posted in the shade near the order window to wait. Suddenly, a tumult of children appeared. A whirlwind, a cacophony, a clatter. Screaming and swirling, shrieking, snaggle-mouthed, arms akimbo. None older than nine. And one a baby. We caught a few names: Ronisha, Tyquan (so he told us, but the other children — all girls — called him Daddy), and, improbably, Maggie and Lucy, the placid seven month-old.
Lucy, slung astride a hip, kissed, cooed at, bartered over, wheeled about in her umbrella stroller unstrapped. She was unflappable, calm as an egg, utterly trusting, a diapered Buddha.
Daddy, a dervish, all karate chops and kicks, feinting and leaping. From nowhere he flourished a cardboard scimitar, dancing and slashing at legs until somebody slapped him in the mouth. Tears sprang to his eyes; he laughed.
A man walked up to buy a little snack. He scanned the crowd, stopping longest at Lucy: “That’s a baby. Who all these children mama?” And after a couple minutes’ wait: “This a whole lot of noise for one bag of chip.”
They screamed about everything. They screamed about nothing at all. ”I’m a break in yo house, go in yo window, and steal yo money and yo credit cards.” ”This yo pa-paw, yo ma-maw and yo daddy food.” (The age-old and serious) “Oooo, she said a bad word!” “Wha?!! Wha??!” Ti-Mama, armed with a curved stick, “Pow! Pow! Pow!” Maggie turned plaintively to us — strangers, but adults, and therefore privileged — and pleaded: “Can you get them to give me my food?” Our order at last arrived (six boudin balls and a Coke: $5) and, suddenly, they were gone.
There are children in my neighborhood, but they are never outside, never without their parents, never trek to hang out at the corner store. (To be sure, there is not one.) They do not dandle babies, much less push them about parking lots. They do not fetch dinner for the whole family. Maggie and her crew are not the children I would have if I had any. They know things that the children I know don’t. For example: what’s over on the next street; babies are sweet, but can stand a little handling; age equals rank; work out your beef, then keep it moving; you hit somebody, you gon get hit back. (Undoubtedly, they know darker things too.) I don’t countenance children running the streets, but these irrepressible little spirits were a joy. Loud. But a joy.