The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (10 page)

“Needed more than that. Unless you want it to leak again.”

“Well, no. I mean, of course not, but…”

“You’re looking to have a slipshod job done, I’m not your girl.” She sits back on her heels, regards me with her head tilted away and her eyes narrowed. “If we’ve got some other issue, spit it out. All this”—she swirls the hammer like it’s a plastic dinner fork—“squirrel trailing around is a waste of time. Something needs to be said, just say it. That’s how I operate. Other people don’t like it, that’s their problem.” A chin wag gives weight to the words. I’m immediately reminded of LaJuna. Tough shells must run in the family.

“The money.” She’s right, it does feel good to just put it out there. I motion to the nails and the shingles and so forth. “I can’t afford all this. I thought we were going to patch it a little until I could get in touch with the landlord,” which may not be anytime soon. Finding Nathan Gossett is like chasing down a ghost. I’ve also tried to reach his two uncles via the offices of Gossett Industries. The Gossetts and Gossett Industries have a thinly veiled aversion to outreach from school personnel, as such communications usually involve requests for grants, donations, and sponsorship money.

Sarge nods, then goes back to work. “Already taken care of.”

“I don’t want you to do it without getting paid.”

“Tracked down your landlord. Got the money out of him.”

“What? Who? Nathan Gossett?”

“That’s right.”

“You
talked
to Nathan Gossett? Today? Is he here?” A hopeful pitter-patter rises in my throat. “I’ve been trying to contact him—or either of his uncles at Gossett Industries—all week.”

“You’re not rich enough for Will and Manford Gossett to bother with, trust me.” There’s a chill in the summer air all of a sudden. She relents a little when she adds, “Nathan’s not so much of a jerk. He’s just…not into the whole Goswood thing.”

“Do you know where I can find him?”

“Not right now. But, like I said, roof’s taken care of.”

“How did
you
find him?” Good news about the roof, but I want the
man.
The book hoarder.

“I caught up with him at the farmers market. Goes there first thing on Thursdays. Brings a load of shrimp from his boat. Uncle Gable sells it for him.”


Every
Thursday?” Now we’re getting somewhere. “If I went next week, I could find him there? Talk to him?”

“Possible…I guess.” She pounds a nail, swipes another out of the box in one smooth motion, sinks it as well.
Blam, blam, blam, whack.
The sound echoes off toward the cemetery and the levee. My gaze and my train of thought follow it.

Silence draws me back. When I return to Aunt Sarge, she’s squinting at me. “My advice…leave it be. Less he’s bothered by it, less he’ll be thinking about kicking you out. Enjoy the fixed-up roof. Lay low.” She returns to her work. “You’re welcome.”

“Thank you.” I mean it with all sincerity. “Although, I’m going to miss the drip bucket thing. I was getting pretty good at timing it.”

A couple of nails escape the box and roll my way after her next grab. I stop them and drop them back into the box.

“He’s not going to give you a donation for…whatever it is you’re raising money for. Gossett family policy is that all requests go through public affairs at Gossett Industries.” Again, that sharp edge.

“I’ve heard. I’m not after money, though.” Just books. Books that are locked away in a closed-up house, decaying. Books nobody seems to want. Books that need a new home. And love. I’d tell that to Aunt Sarge, but I can’t take the risk of anyone warning Nathan Gossett about me. The best chance for victory is a surprise attack. “I only want to talk to him.”

“Suit yourself.” Her tone adds,
Your funeral.
She shifts another asphalt square into place. “Need to finish this up now. Got kids to watch again tonight while their mama’s gone to work.”

Blam, blam, blam, whack.

“Still sick?”

“Seems like it goes from one to the other.”

“That’s terrible. And right at the beginning of the school year, too.” I butt-scoot downward a bit to indicate that I really do plan to leave her to her work. I have a trek to make before dark, and with a possible line on Nathan Gossett, I’m feeling fairly psyched. “Hey, that reminds me. LaJuna’s been absent from my class all week. Is she sick, too?”

“Not sure.” Her tone lets me know I’ve strayed into uncomfortable territory. “LaJuna’s mama is a cousin-in-law to me…well, ex-cousin-in-law. Has three little kids by two different daddies, plus LaJuna from my cousin she dated in high school. If the little kids are sick, they can’t go to the sitter’s. LaJuna’s probably been home watching the younger ones.”

I’m instantly frustrated. “LaJuna shouldn’t be kept out of school so she can provide childcare.” I think of seeing her with the copy of
Animal Farm
tucked in her back pocket. “She’s such a smart kid. And it’s the beginning of the year and she’s getting further and further behind.”

Aunt Sarge flicks a glance my way, jerks her head down again, hammers another nail with gusto. “You people are all the same,” she murmurs with just enough volume that I can catch it. And then more loudly, “You ever notice that lots of kids don’t get what they deserve? LaJuna’s mama makes $3.35 an hour, sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms down there at Gossett Industries. That’s not even enough to cover food and a roof over their heads. You think LaJuna’s working at the Cluck so she can get money for the movies and popcorn? She has to help her mama pay the rent. All the daddies are long gone. There’s a lot of that around here. Black kids. White kids. Grow up the tough way, and then they start making it tough on themselves. Girls get pregnant young, looking for something they missed out on at home, end up left to raise babies on their own. I’m sure that’s not how it is where you come from, but that’s how it is for kids around here.”

My cheeks flame and my stomach turns inside out. “You don’t know a
thing
about where I come from. I understand a lot more than you think about what these kids are dealing with.”

But as I say it, I realize it’s my mother’s story I’m thinking of. I hate admitting that, even to myself, because it awakens old pain and tests the long-held resentments that have kept us apart for over a decade now. But the truth is, my mother conducted our lives the way she did because she grew up in a family that was like many of the families around here. No money for college, no expectation, no encouragement; neglect, abuse, parents with substance issues and not even a source of reliable transportation most of the time. She saw an ad for flight attendant positions. She’d observed that lifestyle on TV and thought it looked like fun. She packed a backpack and hitched a ride from a dying factory town in the hills of Virginia all the way to Norfolk, where she talked her way into a job.

The world she raised me in was light-years from the one she knew. Everything that went wrong between us, my own wounds and scars, and a dull haze of pain I habitually avoid looking into has blinded me to that fact for twenty-seven years. Now I can’t avoid the truth.

My mother changed her stars. And mine.

Sarge rolls a look at me. “I’m just guessing from the things you say.”

“Yeah, because we’ve had all these heart-to-heart conversations and whatnot,” I spit out. “You know all about me.” I crab-crawl to the edge of the roof. I’m done. She can take her crappy, judgmental attitude and stuff it.

I
know
stars can be changed. I’ve seen it.

The hammer echoes after me as I dangle one foot to test the ladder, then climb gingerly back down to the soggy grass, open the front door and ram my feet into my duck shoes, then grab the binoculars and a clipboard from the Bug and start off across the yard.

“House is unlocked,” I yell in the general direction of the roof. “Go inside if you need to. Lock it when you leave.”

For whatever reason, she has stopped to observe my exit, a shingle dangling between her knees. “Where’re you headed with those?” She motions to the binoculars and the clipboard, as if we haven’t just had words.

“Bird-watching,” I snap and start walking.

“Look out for coral snakes,” she calls. “That’s their territory back there.”

A shiver runs under my clothes, but I will not succumb to it. I’m not afraid of coral snakes. I laugh in the face of coral snakes. Besides, I’ve been over to Goswood Grove multiple times, and I have not seen a snake yet.

Even so, tales I’ve overheard at school sift through my mind. Stories of swimming holes, flooded rice fields, chicken coops, swamp boats, the dark spaces under front porches…and snakes. A little poem whispers as I walk. One of the country kids wrote it on a quiz paper in answer to a question about the most important lesson he’d learned from the daily reading of
Animal Farm.

How to tell deadly coral snakes from harmless milksnakes,
he wrote.
Red touches black, friend of Jack. Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.

That detail was nowhere in the daily reading, but it is good information to have right now, because my borrowed field glasses and I are headed for Goswood Grove, no matter what. Even from outside the window, I’m going to be able to make out the titles gracing those rows upon glorious rows of unused books.

Coach’s field glasses, Mr. Clipboard, and I are about to compose a shopping list.

CHAPTER 9

HANNIE GOSSETT—LOUISIANA, 1875

I stare off in the night, lay eyes on the water, deep and wide under the moon and boat lamps and shadows. Yellow and white. Light and dark. I pretend I’m back home, safe, but truth is this river’s carrying me deeper into trouble by the hour and by the day. Need to go back to my hiding spot for sleep, but looking out over the rails, all I can think is, the last time I was on a packet boat like this one was when Old Marse Gossett herded up a batch of us and sent us with Jep Loach to run from the Yankees, off to Texas. Chained one to the other, and half who couldn’t swim, all us knew what’d happen if that bloated-down boat hit a sandbar or a snag and went under.

My mama wept and cried out,
Take off the chains from the children. Please, take off the chains….

I feel her close to me now. I want her to make me strong. To help me know, was it right what I done when them two big trunks went up the bow ramp onto this boat, and I heard moanin’ inside? There was a clatter of men nearby, wrestling the last of the livestock—two teams of fighting, kicking, biting, squealin’ bay mules.

Three men, only.

Four mules.

I set down my empty crate, pushed Missy’s necklace deep in my pocket, and ran to take up the line to the last mule. Onto the boat I went with that mule, and there I stayed. Hid myself in a space twixt cotton bale stacks taller than two men. Prayed not to wind up buried alive in it.

So far, I ain’t.

“Mama…” I hear myself whisper now.

“Hush up!” Somebody grabs my wrist and pulls me hard away from the side rails. “Quieten down! Git us throwed in the river, you don’t shut yer yap.”

It’s that boy, Gus McKlatchy, beside me, now, trying to pull me back from the deck’s edge. Gus, who’s twelve or fourteen years old depending on which time you ask, nothing more than a ragged little pie-eater white boy from someplace back in the bayou. He’s scrawny enough he can slip between the cotton bales and hide away like I been doing. The
Genesee Star
is loaded to the guards, hauling freight and livestock and people. She’s a sad, battered old thing, and drafts low in the water, rubbing the shoals and the snags while she trudges her way upriver, slow and painful. Faster boats go by now and again and blow their whistles, passing us up like the
Genesee
is tied on at the banks.

The folk she’s carrying are of the sort to barely scratch up money for deck passage. At night, they bed down in the open, with the goods and the cows and the horses. Cinders and ash swirl down from the stacks of passing boats, and we just pray it don’t set fire to the cotton.

There’s only a few staterooms on the boiler deck for folks that can afford cabin passage. Missy Lavinia and Juneau Jane, if they’re alive yet, must be up there. Trouble is, there’s no way I can know. During the day, I can mix in with the roustabouts, who are colored men, but that won’t get me up in the passenger rooms.

Gus’s got the opposite problem. Being a white boy, he don’t pass for a roustabout, and he ain’t got a ticket to show, if he was asked. He moves round the boat at night. The boy’s a thief, and thievin’ is a sin, but just now he’s all I got to show me the way of things. We ain’t friends. I had to give him one of Missy Lavinia’s coins so he’d let me share the cotton bales. We help each other, though. Both know if you get caught for a stowaway, they throw you off in the river, let the paddle wheel suck you under. Gus’s seen it happen before.

“Hush up,” he says and tugs me back toward our hiding place. “You done gone soft in the head?”

“Come to do my necessary while it’s still dark out,” I say. If he decides I’m fool enough to get him caught, he’ll want shed of me.

“Use the slop jar, you ain’t got no more sense than to stand here a’gawkin off the edge like this,” Gus hisses. “You fall off into the water, and end up gone, then I got nobody that can go about this boat durin’ the day and be took for one of the workers, see? Elsewise, you ain’t no concern of mine. I don’t give a pig toe what you do. But I need
somebody
to sneak in the crew hall and brang me food. I’s a growin’ boy. Don’t like goin’ hongry.”

“Didn’t think of the slop jar,” I say of the old bucket Gus stole and that we stuffed a ways down the cotton bales from our hidin’ place. We got us a whole house set up under there.
The Palace,
Gus calls it.

Palace for skinny people. We tunneled it like rats. Even made myself a hiding hole for Missy’s reticule. Hope Gus ain’t found it while I’m gone. He knows I got secrets.

But I’m gonna have to tell him. Been on this slow-moving packet boat almost two days already and hadn’t found out nothing on my own. I need Gus’s thievin’ skills, and the longer I wait to ask, the more it’s likely something terrible comes to Missy Lavinia and Juneau Jane. More likely it is they wind up dead or wishing to be. There’s things worse than death. You been in slavery days, you know there’s things a heap less peaceable than being dead.

To get Gus’s help, I got to tell him the truth. At least most of it.

And probably spend another dollar, too.

I wait till we’re safe back in our cotton bale house. Gus squirrels into his sleeping place, still grousing about having to go get me.

I twist over on my side, then my belly, so’s I can whisper to him, but I smell that he’s got his feet turned my way. “Gus, I ought to tell you something.”

“I’m sleepin’,” he says, irritable.

“But you can’t let on to another living soul about it.”

“Ain’t got time for yer fool talk,” he snaps. “You gettin’ to be more botherment then a wagonload of two-headed billy goats.”

“Make a promise to me, Gus. Could be another dollar in it for you, if you can do what I’m asking. You’ll need that money after you leave this boat.” Gus ain’t as tough as he talks. Boy’s scared, just like me.

I swallow hard and tell him about Missy and Juneau Jane going into that building and never coming out, and me seeing them trunks hauled up the boardwalk to the docks, and hearing noises and the man saying it was a dog inside, and then Missy’s locket falling in the mud. I don’t let on that I’m a girl underneath this shirt and britches and I was Missy’s lady maid when I was small. Afraid that might be more than is tolerable. Besides, he don’t need to know.

He sits up then. I only know that because I hear him squeeze to his feet in the dark, turn hisself round standing, then wiggle back down twixt the bales. “Well, all that don’t mean nothing. How’d you figure they wasn’t just robbed or kilt and
left
in the building that one-eyed fella and that Moses fella watched over for that…who’d you say…that Washbacon man?”

“Washburn. And them trunks was heavy.”

“Maybe they done stole everythin’ what them girls had and put
it
in them trunks.” Right now, it’s clear enough, Gus knows more about bad men than I do.

“I
heard
something in that box. Thumpin’. Moanin’.”

“The man said the boss had him a new dog in there, right? How you reckon that noise
weren’t
a dog?”

“I
know
how a dog sounds. Been scared of dogs all my life. Got a sense when one’s near. Smell it, even. Wasn’t no dog in them trunks.”

“How come you’re feared of a dog fer?” Gus spits into the cotton. “Dogs is good to have around. Keep ya comp’ny. Fetch a shot squirrel or a duck or a goose. Tree up possum so’s you can git it for supper. Nobody don’t like dogs.”

“It was Missy Lavinia and Juneau Jane in them trunks.”

“So, wa’chew want I’s supposed do about it?”

“Use your thievin’ skills. Sneak up there on the boiler deck. Tonight. See can you find any sign of them in the passenger cabin or the staterooms.”

“I ain’t!” Gus scrabbles backward, out of reach.

“There’s a dollar in it for you. A
whole
dollar.”

“I don’t need me a dollar that bad. This trouble of yours ain’t
my
affair. I got trouble of my own. First rule a’ the river. Don’t get drowned. You’re caught sniffin’ round the first-class passengers, they shoot you,
then
drown you. You want my advisin’, I say keep to yer own bid’ness. Live longer thataway. Them girls shoulda thunk what they was doin’ before they done it. That’s what I say. Ain’t
yer
affair, neither.”

I don’t answer right off. This bargain with Gus needs to be worked careful, done in fine stitching a little at a time, so’s he don’t even feel the needle going in. “Well, you got a point. That
is
true enough about Missy Lavinia. She’s a haughty sort, anyhow. Thinks she can crook a finger, make the whole world do her biddin’. Spoilt from the time she was laying in the cradle.”

“Well, there you go, then. Right there.”

“But that Juneau Jane, she’s just a
child.
” I mutter it, like I’m trying to reason it for myself, not him. “Only a child in short skirts, yet. And Missy played a bad trick on her. Not right for something like that to happen to a child. One that’s a little girl yet.”

“I ain’t hearin’ you. I’m gone to sleep.”

“Judgment Day is to come for all us sometime. Some fine day, long away from now. Don’t know what I’ll say, standin’ before the throne, when the good Lord asks me, ‘Why’d you let something terrible happen, when you might’ve stopped it, Hannie?’ ” I’ve told him my name is Hannie, short for Hannibal, a boy’s name.

“I ain’t got religion.”

“Her mama’s one of them colored Creoles. A witch woman from down in New Orleans. You heard of them? Put curses on people and such.”

“If that Juneau Jane gal’s a witch child, why don’t she fly
herself
outta that box? Come right through the keyhole?”

“Might be she can. Might be, she’s hearing us right now, listening at what we say. Might be she’s listening to see,
Do we mean to help her or not?
She dies, she’ll be a haint, after that. A witch-haint, clinging round our necks. Witch-haints, now them are the worst kind.”

“Y-you…now, you quit talk…quit talkin’ like that. Crazy talk.”


Drive
a body crazy. Them witch-haints will, sure enough. Seen it with my own eyes. Never let a body rest once they got their hackles up. Their cold hands wrap round your neck and—”

“I’m
goin’.
” I hear Gus stand up so quick that the cotton trash scrapes his skin, and he lets out a string of cusses under his breath. “Quit talkin’ yer crazyment at me. I’m
goin’.
And git my dollar ready.”

“I’ll have it when you come back.” Lord, I hope I didn’t just do to him what Missy done to Juneau Jane. “Be careful, though, Gus, all right?”

“Ain’t nothin’ careful about this en-
tire
thang. Foolishment, that’s what this is.”

He’s gone and I’m left there to wait. And hope.

I jerk at every little sound. It’s deep into the dark of early morning before I hear rustling in the cotton bales.

“Gus?” I whisper.

“Gus’s drowned.” But I can tell right off, his mood is good. He’s chewing on some biscuits he light-fingered up in the passenger cabin. He hands a piece over. It tastes good, but the news is bad.

“They ain’t up there,” he says. “Not where I can tell it, anyhow, and I done a right fine job of lookin’. Lucky somebody didn’t wake up and shoot me, but I’ll tell you one thang—the night before it’s time for me to hop off’n this boat in Texas, I’m gonna know right where to go lift me some fine goods. Before them up-deck passengers wake and find their watches and wallets and jewelry missin’, I’ll be long gone.”

“Best be careful about things like that. Ain’t right.” But Gus’s habits are the least worry on me right now. “Two big trunks can’t just disappear. Or two girls.”

“You said that one is a half-haint child. Maybe she done disappeared herself on purpose. You ever think a’ that? Maybe she disappeared herself, and while she’s at it, she disappeared the
other
girl and both them boxes. A half-haint witch child wouldn’t have no trouble doin’ that.” Bits of chewed biscuit and spit land on my arm. “That’s what I think’s happened. Makes passable sense, don’t it?”

I brush the food off, rest my head, and try to think. “They got to be here someplace.”

“Unless they’s dumped off the deck, miles back downwater.” Gus tries to share me another bite, but I swat it away.

“That ain’t right to say.” My stomach goes up my neck and burns.

“I’s just postulatin’.” Gus licks his fingers, carrying on, noisy about it. No telling all the places them fingers been since they last saw soap. “Reckon we best git a wink,” he says, and I hear him scuttle around into his sleeping spot. “Be rested up for when we make the turn off the Mississip’ onto the Red River. Point our noses toward Caddo Lake and Texas.
Texas,
now that there’s the place to be. Hear tell they’s so many cattle runnin’ loose since the war, why a man can’t help but make his fortune. And quick, too. Just gather ’em up, build a herd. That’s what I aim to do. Gus McKlatchy is gonna make hisself a rich man. Just need me a horse and a outfit and I’ll go round up them free…”

I let my muscles go slack, drift off from Gus’s talking, start wondering
where
Missy and Juneau Jane might be hid on this boat. I try not to think about trunks getting pushed off in the river, filling with water a little at a time.

Gus pokes me with his toe. “You listenin’?”

“I was thinkin’.”

“So, I’s just sayin’,” he talks drowsy and slow. “Might be a right pearly sit’ation if you come on to Texas with me. Be foreman of my herd I’m gonna gather. We rake in all that money, why then we’ll—”

“I
got
me a home.” I stop him before he can run on. “Got people waitin’ for me down at Goswood Grove.”


People
is overrated.” He makes a strangled sound and coughs hard to cover it, and I can tell I’ve poked someplace tender. I don’t say
sorry,
though. What I got to be sorry to a white boy for?

“Ain’t no place in the world like that for me.” I don’t even know the words are set in my mouth till I hear them. “No place where I’m gonna get rich for just chasin’ up a few cows.”

“There’s Texas.”

“Texas won’t be like that for me, either.”

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