That’s my wife in the photo above, and that’s the recipe she’s making: “Fancy Pants King Ranch Chicken Casserole,” from the Homesick Texan Cookbook. What occasions the making of the casserole was the sad news that TWK Klein has died. He had been suffering from the flu, and, weakened, had a fatal heart attack yesterday.
TWK — from his initials, “Thomas Wilmot Klein”; it’s pronounced “twick” — was a legend in our town, and a true eccentric. His late father was the Episcopal rector for many years. TWK was a gentle hellraiser, if such a thing can be said to exist. He’s also the father of one of my oldest and dearest friends, who is on her way home right now from London. Thank God she was home for Christmas, and got to see her daddy one last time. Everybody has a TWK story. One of my favorites is about the time back in the 1990s, when a fiery young evangelist moved to town and busied himself dressing like the Grim Reaper, for the sake of frightening people into salvation. The Grim Reaper used to go down to the river landing where the Delta Queen and other paddlewheelers would dock and disgorge Yankee tourists, coming to see our plantation houses. There was the Grim Reaper, there to warn them that they should repent, or get ready to bust Hell wide open. The Chamber of Commerce complained that the Grim Reaper was bad for business. The Mayor tried to get him to move on, because he was scaring the tourists. But hey, the First Amendment.
The Reaper rented a cottage from TWK. TWK may have been an Episcopalian, but he was also a good ol’ boy, and not into breathing fire and grim-reaping. He got word that his tenant had burst out of the woods one night, in death drag, and run upon a backyard event where the consumption of beer and boiled crawfish distracted the people from pondering their eternal fate. According to my information, TWK took the Reaper aside and told him that he, TWK, wasn’t trying to mind his business, but that running out of the woods at night dressed like the Grim Reaper was a good way to get your ass shot. The Reaper was trying to save souls, but TWK was just trying to save the man’s life.
I would have paid cash money to have heard that “Come to TWK” conversation with the Reaper. You know what? I bet you anything that the Reaper will be at TWK’s funeral, too, in street clothes, with an attitude of genuine respect.
Another TWK story: when the local doctor who had been the parish coroner forever retired, TWK ran for his office — and won. Then he discovered that he had to examine dead bodies, and be present to witness death-row executions at Angola. Oh, hell no! said TWK, and resigned after about a week on the job. The doctor came back, and all was well. “Wuddn’t that just like TWK?” people said.
Another TWK story: sold antiques for a while (our local magazine once wrote: “Longtime antiques dealer TWK Klein has a rather casual operation out of his home, the lawns of which sprout cast-iron garden ornaments like some upscale Sanford and Son setting, the interior stuffed with an eclectic collection of fine furniture, books, weapons, and smalls.” TWK had a good eye. You might not think it to look at him sometimes, especially when he had an entire can of snuff jammed into his lower lip. But TWK was savvy. Once he appeared on Antiques Roadshow with a pair of books, I think it was, that he had acquired from an estate somewhere. Turned out the books were very rare, and valued by the appraisers on the program at some enormous sum — vastly more than TWK had paid. What a lucky SOB that TWK was! My dad didn’t think so. “You think ol’ TWK didn’t know what he had there?” said my dad, who admired TWK’s country-boy cunning.
That was TWK. One more story. Ever heard of the New York painter Hunt Slonem? He’s a big deal. Here’s a piece the Times did on his Louisiana house a few years ago. Excerpt:
People come and go in the homes of the painter Hunt Slonem, both the quick and the dead. There’s the handyman, who’s brought a stray cat that’s been screaming its head off all morning; the antique picker who has spread his wares outside; the friends who have stopped by to visit Mr. Slonem in his latest acquisition, an 1832 plantation house called Lakeside, pink if you please, as surprising in this community of shoebox houses as an aged diva in a pink organdy dress at McDonald’s. Also as indifferent, inasmuch as a house can be indifferent, to the bruising of time.
The long dining room table is set with pink porcelain plates, a few of which have been over-set with paper plates. Lunch is Louisiana takeout: boudin sausage, pecan pie, a local desert called ooey gooey. The talk is of a portrait, just hung, of Catherine of Aragon.
Then Mr. Slonem’s caretaker calls with word of an interloper: a voodoo head, or something that looks like one, has been found in the third-floor ceiling earlier in the week and tucked away in a kitchen cabinet. Mr. Slonem goes at once to retrieve the head, a mud-colored walnut-size carving of a skull, with a tiny straw hat and pointy appendages. Then he retreats to make a call.
You want to guess who the antique picker was? I can’t say for sure, but I have a pretty good idea. A couple of years ago, my wife walked into the Magnolia Cafe in town, and there was TWK, huddled up at a table with Hunt Slonem. They might have been talking about voodoo. I hope TWK told him about the Grim Reaper.
I might have some of the details on those stories wrong. Probably do. But that doesn’t really matter. It’s all part of the Legend Of TWK Klein. West Feliciana people, if any of you read this, and I’ve got something wrong, don’t you dare correct the record, unless I’ve accidentally underplayed TWK’s eccentric greatness. It is a sin to let the facts get in the way of a good TWK story.
So. Last night, when I got the sad news about TWK’s passing, I called my mother and father to tell them. As soon as I said the words, Daddy started sobbing, and that got me to crying. He didn’t know TWK all that well, but that’s not the point. TWK was one of those people that you can’t imagine not being around. He was such a part of the life of this place that it doesn’t seem possible that he’s gone. I’ve been crying on and off all day, just thinking about him, and how this shit just isn’t supposed to happen. Ruthie is supposed to be here forever. So is TWK. They all are. There’s a lot of people who, when they pass, it’s sad, but it’s normal. People like TWK and Ruthie die, and you wonder how solid is the ground you stand on. It’s not that they were exceptionally good or saintly, as much as they just … are.
This afternoon, Julie started making King Ranch Chicken Casserole for the Kleins, and had to go out to the store to get chicken. “Why don’t you make something easier?” I suggested.
“Because King Ranch Chicken Casserole is what you take to people,” said my Texas native wife.
I was telling a friend in Dallas the other day that in West Feliciana, folks go to church, but unlike what I saw in Dallas when I lived there, they don’t think a lot about doctrinal differences. Most folks go to the Episcopal Church (or the Methodist Church, or the Baptist Church) not because they agree with what those churches teach, necessarily, but because that was granddaddy’s church, and mama’s church, and that’s just how it is. The one thing everybody knows to do is that when somebody in the community dies, you bring a casserole. There’s your practical Christianity.
And from our kitchen, we take King Ranch Chicken Casserole. It’s a Texas thing. God bless Texas. God bless West Feliciana. And God bless TWK. He was a mess, but he was our mess, and his passing diminishes our place.
UPDATE: Julie said: “Why didn’t you tell them about TWK and the vampire kit?” Yeah, it’s a real story. I read about it in Country Roads magazine, but it’s not on their website. Our pals at Country Roads are finding a hard copy for us. But yeah, it’s a real thing from the 19th century. I think TWK sold it for a pretty penny.
Also, in the comboxes, reader Niall says:
For a moment I thought that green colander was a WW1 German “pickelhaube” helmet. I read too much history.
Oh, we got dat!
UPDATE.2: My pal Ellen Kennon, whose nephew was the Grim Reaper (he has changed his evangelical strategies since those days, Ellen reports), writes:
Another TWK story: When Shadetree was an antiques store, Twik was showing a gracious older Southern lady a rolltop desk. Unbeknownst to her, he had been using the paper cup in his hand as his chewing tobacco spittoon, and handed it to her to hold while he opened the rolltop. She looked inside the cup and immediately threw up!
Personally, I liked it when he kept a bunch of dogs in an old Mercedes in his yard. They’d bark ferociously scarring the heck out of you as you walked to his door.
Lastly, you are right about Twik being Hunt’s antiques picker. Hunt looked forward to seeing Twik’s latest wares every time he came in town. I still can’t believe he’s gone. He was truly one of a kind and will be missed terribly by many, but I’m sure he and Ruthie are having a high ole’ time together