The Ink Well Prompt #14: Maman Dubois Hears the Train Whistle

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When she had been a little girl in the bayous of Black French Louisiana, Ébène-Cerise Chaminade asked her mother Émilie a question.

“Why do people not do what they know to do, when they know they have to do it?”

Maman Chaminade showed the soft and gentle smile she had passed on to her daughter.

“We are all human,” she said, “Think about when we were last in Baton Rouge, and saw the big railroad station and the tracks – are they laid out straight?”

“Yes, Maman, they are.”

“Do you think they go to the next station?”

“Yes, Maman.”

“Do you think everyone gets on the train on time?”

“No.”

“The tracks are straight and they go where they are supposed to go. Some people are running late, and have to catch the next train. Some people will have to walk beside the track, and follow it to the next destination. Some people will get angry and stay at the station, or even ride a train or walk off along the tracks in the opposite direction.

“That is why the world is the way it is, my daughter, because that is how people are, but do not worry. All those whom God has chosen will arrive at their destinations. Some will ride the train, obeying all the way. Some will start late, but they will catch the train later. Some will move more slowly, and walk beside the track. Some will start out trying to go in the other direction, only to find an engine on both ends of the train that will reverse all that they want to do until they start moving in the right direction. There will be hills to climb and valleys to pass through and bridges to cross for all of them, but all God has chosen will make it. Have no fear. Stay on the train and listen to the engineer – do what God has given you to do, and have no fear.”

Little Mademoiselle Ébène-Cerise Chaminade had cherished that memory … there were not train whistles to hear in the bayous, but she listened for them on the radio and thought of what her mother had said, and learned to stay calm and be patient as people moved along the railroad of life, at different paces, on different modes, going in different directions on different tracks.

By 2020, little Mademoiselle Chaminade had been Madame Dubois – Maman Dubois, family matriarch – for 55 years. With her husband Jean-Luc, she had 11 children, 40 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. The bulk of them were working in their third family business around food, in their third home state: Virginia.

La maladie, as the Dubois family parsed Covid-19, had provided them an outlet to provide food to ministries serving the needy and help their fellow restaurant owners with deliveries and partnerships with local non-profits – so, business was picking up as more and more people were out of work and pretty much confined to their homes except for essentials in Lofton County, VA.

In the quiet moments in the Dubois home between granddaughter Louisa having an idea and one of the food trucks arriving and needing to be loaded up again, Maman Dubois could often hear the train whistle … a freight train skirted the eastern edge of Lofton County, passing through southern Virginia on its way to and from North Carolina. She was glad to hear it, for she needed the reminder of her mother's teaching.

“A foolish son,” says the Scripture, “is the heaviness of his mother.” Of her 11 children, Maman Dubois had three sons who had decided to play the fool. It was not that they were not called to the restaurant business – it was that when the consequences of their prodigal lives had come due, they had decided to try to con the family's new money from its second business out of the family to shore up their positions. This betrayal had shattered their mother's heart.

Yet that train whistle kept sounding, and the Dubois family matriarch kept praying, during every moment when there was nothing else to think about, during those moments when there was nothing else she could think about while her sons Jules, Émile, and Gilbert were out being prodigal and la maladie gained strength. She prayed and stayed on track for her family as her mother had, providing them the calm, loving serenity they needed in the struggle of safely growing a business in such a time.

Then, one fine day, a Covid-19 scare had gotten son Jules back on track – he had repented and come on home, and had gotten his entire life together in a variety of different ways, while the lives of his two remaining prodigal brothers continued to spiral out of control.

One day, like hearing that distant train whistle, Maman Dubois overheard a heated telephone conversation between her son Jules and her son Gilbert:

“Who told you God was meant to be a Black man's slave any more than He was meant to be a White man's slave – this world system belongs to the devil and his children! If you love the world even while it is killing you, that's the family you belong to or want to belong to. It's killing you! Are you that loyal? Then go to hell with it! Go on!”

A pause, and then Jules was gentler, and his mother had to strain to hear:

“Sell it all, Gilbert. You can pay off everything. Sell everything you have, and get out of there. Look, mon frere, since when did le Bon Dieu let people carry their bags past the foot of the cross – ever? Remember that the rich young ruler had the same choice, and failed?”

Then things got loud again.

“Gilbert, make the move away while you still can – you are going to leave it all either way! You're living on borrowed time as it is, and that's before we even consider la maladie! Let it go, Gilbert – your life is worth more than that!”

By this time, Jules had come downstairs and gone into the windy yard, so his mother could hear no more, but she observed his unhappiness at the end of the conversation.

Three weeks later, the train came off the track.

“MASS SHOOTING AT A COVID SPEAKEASY IN MIAMI” said no headline in Lofton County, VA, ever, but the news was across the Internet, and the younger Dubois family members found out and all started calling Gilbert to see he was all right. No answer. Then, they all started calling Jules.

“Yeah, that's one of his clubs,” he kept saying, “and they keep saying the owner was the target.”

The younger Duboises had to listen through a day of horrors and do what their mother always did for them – specifically, Jules now learned what it was like to have a broken heart, and not dare break another's heart while deadly uncertainty remained. He could not burden his parents yet with the news until there was something conclusive.

It was midnight before a cousin sent another article with the key news -- “The target of the shooting was the new owners, who had just purchased the Hot Sauce Seven Club from its former owner, Gilbert Dubois” – and a text: “Call me when you've read this.”

“Are you sure he wasn't there?” Jules asked when he called.

“Yep, because he's over here, asleep on my couch. He literally got on the Greyhound from Miami to Baton Rouge one day before the shooting started.”

“Does he know what happened?”

“Yeah, he knows … some people told him that because he had just a little bit of honor and paid off all his debts, they were going to give him a chance to get out of town before Saturday.”

“Let him sleep. Tell him to call in the morning.”

As Gilbert's maternal grandmother, Maman Émilie Chaminade, had said, some people missed their train, but then caught it (or maybe the bus) later. Gilbert had fussed and swore at his brother that he wasn't going to sell out, that he was going to make it all work – but later had sold everything he owned, paid off all his debts to the dangerous people he owed them to, and run.

In the morning, Maman Dubois got up, found the water on for grits and coffee – Peré Dubois always did that for her – and got busy. It was Sunday: no work in the business. Peré Dubois would not allow his family to work seven days; they delivered two days of food on Saturday, and then rented out two of their trucks to their partners who delivered on Sundays.

Thus it was extra quiet around the house for Maman Dubois to hear her train whistles, and start praying, on a Sunday. Peré Dubois took extra time praying, and later they would walk over and join the perfectly socially distanced Good Neighbors Fellowship, which had always had outdoor services when weather permitted. But first, Sunday breakfast.

Jules came to breakfast with one arm around his elder brother Jean-Paul … both had not slept at all, but were at peace.

Jean-Paul Philippe Dubois, formerly of the U.S. Army and Interpol, also had been following the story of the shooting at the Hot Sauce Seven, and also had been waiting for the morning to get conclusive news. He too, while working on a project, had gotten the news around midnight that Gilbert was alive, and then found his brother Jules in a breakdown and learned the role that Jules had played and how he felt about “just barely getting right with the Lord in time to help Gilbert!” They presented all of this to their family, and the whole family had church right there, shouting and praising God.

Gilbert called in the middle of all that, and got caught all the way up. He did not intend to slink home in shame – still too proud – but finding out that he was still wanted and rejoiced over and loved from Earth to Heaven broke his pride all the way down. His father carried the phone over to the Good Neighbors Fellowship – “this is one of my sons we have been praying for, and he is found!” – and they all got caught up!

When a man's life is completely wrecked, and his pride is broken, all he wants to do is go to where he knows he will be the most loved. Gilbert quarantined in Baton Rouge for two weeks, and at the end of that time, his brothers Jules and Jean-Luc drove all the way down to Louisiana to get him. Peré Dubois was not home, away on a food truck at the moment they arrived at home, but Maman Dubois ran out and threw her arms around her son Gilbert, and she and all three of her sons wept there together, reunited.

That only left Émile Dubois, still prodigal … but his mother heard the train whistles, kept praying, and stayed encouraged.

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