My father was waiting on a particularly unique customer last Thursday afternoon when I walked into Perlis Clothing on Jefferson Highway to pay him a visit on his birthday.
“Come to the back,” he motioned to me. “There’s someone here that I think you might know.”
I figured he would probably be measuring and suiting up some locally famous person — a judge, a college coach or a newscaster.
But on this particular day, he was fitting the legendary Ernest Gaines into a suit and tuxedo.
In his signature cap, I immediately recognized the famous author.
He shook my hand with a firm grasp and smiled. I froze. Sitting among the racks of pants was one of the most beloved and award-winning Southern authors of modern times.
Several of his books, among them “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Gathering of Old Men,” I had read and studied, highlighting some passages in yellow, throughout my college studies.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I told him. “I grew up reading your books.”
Meanwhile, my 10-year-old son, who was busily reading price tags and reacting to some high-end suits, flagged me down. “Mommy, mommy look at how much this suit costs,” he said.
“Shush, I’m talking to Ernest Gaines,” I told him.
“Who is Ernest Gaines?” he asked me, in front of Gaines’ wife, Dianne, who stood a few feet from her husband.
She smiled and assured him, “You’re too young right now, but you’ll read his books later.”
I hurried back to continue talking with the author. “Mr. Gaines, what new books can we expect from you?”
Two novellas, he told me, including “The Man Who Whipped Children.”
Growing up in Pointe Coupee Parish, he was raised by his disabled aunt, who though she could not walk, was serious about discipline, even if it meant whipping Gaines with a belt while she crawled on the floor to reach him.
I smiled, but Gaines gave me a firm glance and told me that her disability did not mean she could not catch him.
But Gaines said he never caught a whipping from the man who whipped children.
I was puzzled.
“Do you mean that parents scared their kids into thinking that some fictitious person would whip them if they didn’t behave?”
Gaines’ eyes widened.
“No,” he said. “There was a real man who whipped children.”
The disciplinarian in his Pointe Coupee neighborhood helped keep kids out of trouble and out of Angola prison, he said.
I didn’t have much time to ask him about his second novella about a Southern woman and her daughter, but he gave me some invaluable advice on writing.
“Read what you want to write about,” he told me.
I thanked him for his wisdom.
And he slowly walked to the parking lot.
Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.