The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (2 page)

This stump—this very one—was where the slave driver stood to watch the gangs work the field, cowhide whip dangling down like a snake ready to bite, keep everybody picking the cotton rows. Somebody lag behind, try to rest a minute, the driver would find them out. If Old Marse Gossett was home, they’d only get a little breshin’ with the whip. But if Marse Gossett was off in New Orleans, where he kept his
other
family everybody knew about but didn’t dare to speak of, then look out. The whipping would be bad, because Old Missus was in charge. Missus didn’t like it that her husband had him a
plaçage
woman and a fawn-pale child down in New Orleans. Neighborhoods like Faubourg Marigny and Tremé—the rich planter men kept their mistresses and children there. Fancy girls, quadroons and octoroons. Women with dainty bones and olive-brown skin, living in fine houses with slaves to look after them, too.

Old ways like that been almost gone in these years since Mr. Lincoln’s war ended. The slave driver and his whip, Mama and the field gangs working from see to can’t see, leg irons, and auction sales like the ones that took my people—all that’s a thing in the barely back of my mind.

Sometimes when I wake, I think all my people were just somethin’ I pretended, never real at all. But then I touch the three glass beads on the cord at my neck, and I tell their names in the chant
. Hardy gone at Big Creek to a man from Woodville, Het at Jatt…

All the way down to Baby Rose and Mary Angel. And Mama.

It was real.
We
were real. A family together.

I look off in the distant, wobble twixt a six-year-old body and one that’s eighteen years growed, but not so much different. Still skinny as if I was carved out of sticks.

Mama always did say,
Hannie, you stand behind the broom handle, I can’t even see you there.
Then she’d smile and touch my face and whisper,
But you a beautiful child. Always been pretty.
I hear it like she’s there beside of me, a white oak basket on her arm, bound for the garden patch out behind our little cabin, last one down the end of the old quarters.

Just as quick as I feel her there, she’s gone again.

“Why didn’t you come?” My words hang in the night air. “Why didn’t you come for your child? You never come.” I sink down on the stump’s edge and look out toward the trees by the road, their thick trunks hid in sifts of moon and fog.

I think I see something in it. A haint, could be.
Too many folk buried under Goswood soil,
Ol’ Tati says when she tells us tales in the cropper cabin at night.
Too much blood and sufferin’ been left here. This place always gonna have ghosts.

A horse nickers low. I see a rider on the road. A dark cloak covers the head and sweeps out, light as smoke.

That my mama, come to find me? Come to say,
You almost eighteen years old, Hannie. Why you still settin’ on that same ol’ stump?
I want to go to her. Go away with her.

That Old Mister, come home from fetching his wicked son out of trouble again?

That a haint, come to drag me off and drown me in the river?

I close my eyes, shake my head clear, look again. Nothing there but a drift of fog.

“Child?” Tati’s whisper comes from a ways off, worried, careful-like. “Child?” Don’t matter your age, if Tati raised you, you stay
child
to her. Even the strays that’ve growed up and moved on, they’re still
child,
if they come to visit.

I cock my ear, open my mouth to answer her, but then I can’t.

Somebody
is
there—a woman by the high white pillars at the Goswood gate, afoot now. The oaks whisper overhead, like it’s worried their old bones to have her come to the drive. A low-hung branch grabs her hood and her long, dark hair floats free.

“M-mama?” I say.

“Child?” Tati whispers again. “You there?” I hear her hurry along, her walking stick tapping faster till she’s found me.

“I see Mama coming.”

“You dreamin’, sugar.” Tati’s knobby fingers wrap my wrist, gentle-like, but she keeps a distant. Sometimes, my dreams let go with a fight. I wake kicking and clawing to get Jep Loach’s hand off my arm. “Child, you all right. You just walkin’ in the dream. Wake up, now. Mama ain’t here, but Ol’ Tati, she right here. You safe.”

I glance away from the gates, then back. The woman’s gone, and no matter how hard I look, I can’t see her.

“Wake up, now, child.” In moonglow, Tati’s face is the red-brown of cypress wood pulled up from the deep water, dark against the sack-muslin cap over her silvery hair. She slides a shawl off her arm, reaches it round me. “Out here in the field in all the wetness! Get a pleurisy. Where all us be with that kind of troublement? Who Jason gonna settle in with, then?”

Tati nudges me with the cane stick, pestering. The thing she wants most is for Jason and me to marry. Once the ten years on the sharecrop contract with Old Mister is done and the land is hers, Tati needs somebody to hand it down to. Me and the twins, Jason and John, are the last of her strays. One more growing season is all that’s left for the contract, but Jason and me? We been raised in Tati’s house like brother and sister. Hard to see things any other way, but Jason is a good boy. Honest worker, even if both him and John did come into this world a shade slower minded than most.

“I ain’t dreamin’,” I say when Tati tugs me from the stump.

“Devil, you ain’t. Come on back, now. We got work waitin’ in the mornin’. Gonna tie your ankle to the bed, you don’t stop dealing me this night misery. You been worser lately. Worser in these walkin’ dreams than when you was a li’l thing.”

I jerk against Tati’s arm, remembering all the times as a child I wandered from my sleep pallet by Missy Lavinia’s crib, and woke up to Old Missus whipping me with the kitchen spoon or a riding whip or a iron pot hook from the fireplace. Whatever was close by.

“Hesh, now. You can’t help it.” Tati scoops down for a pinch of dirt to throw over her shoulder. “Put it behind you. New day comin’ and plenty to do. C’mon now, throw you a pinch your ownself, to be safe.”

I do what she says and then make the cross over my chest, and Tati does, too. “Father, Son, Holy Ghost,” we whisper together. “Guide us and protect us. Keep us ahead and behind. Ever and ever. Amen.”

I hadn’t ought to, then—bad business to look back for a haint once you throwed ground twixt you and it—but I do. I glance at the road.

I’m cold all over.

“What you doin’?” Tati near trips when I stop so sudden.

“I wasn’t dreamin’,” I whisper, and I don’t just look. I point, but my hand shakes. “I was lookin’ at
her.

CHAPTER 2

BENEDETTA SILVA—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1987

The truck driver lays on his horn. Brakes squeal. Tires hopscotch across asphalt. A stack of steel pipe leans in slow-motion, testing the grease-encrusted nylon binders that hold the load. One strap breaks loose and whips in the breeze as the truck skids toward the intersection.

Every muscle in my body goes stiff. I brace for impact, fleetingly imagining what might be left of my rusted-out VW Beetle after the collision.

The truck wasn’t there an instant ago. I’d swear it wasn’t.

Who did I list as the emergency contact in my employee file?

I remember the pen tip hovering over the blank line, the moment of painful, ironic indecision. Maybe I never filled in the space.

The world passes by in acute detail—the heavyset crossing guard with her blue-white hair and stooped-over body, thrusting the handheld stop sign. Wide-eyed kids motionless in the intersection. Books slip from a grade-school boy’s skinny arm, tumbling, tumbling, hitting, scattering. He stumbles, hands splayed, disappears behind the pipe truck.

No. No, no, no! Please, no.
My teeth clench. I close my eyes, turn my face away, yank the steering wheel, stomp harder on the brake, but the Bug keeps sliding.

Metal strikes metal, folds and crinkles. The car bumps over something, front wheels, then back. I feel my head collide with the window and then the roof.

It can’t be. It can’t.

No, no, no.

The Bug hits the curb, bounces off, then stops, the engine rumbling, rubber smoke filling the car.

Move,
I tell myself.
Do something.

I picture a little body in the street. Red sweatpants, too warm for the day. Faded blue T-shirt, oversized. Warm brown skin. Big dark eyes, lifeless. I noticed him yesterday in the empty schoolyard, that boy with the impossibly long eyelashes and freshly shaved head, sitting all alone by the tumbledown concrete block fence after the older kids had picked up their new class schedules and dispersed to do whatever kids do in Augustine, Louisiana, on the last day of summer.

Is that little guy okay?
I’d asked one of the other teachers, the pasty-faced, sour-lipped one who’d repeatedly avoided me in the hall as if I were giving off a bad smell.
Is he waiting for somebody?

Who knows?
she’d muttered.
He’ll find his way home.

Time snaps into place. The metallic taste of blood tightens the back of my mouth. I’ve bitten my tongue, I guess.

There’s no screaming. No siren. No outcry for somebody to call 911.

I yank the gearshift into neutral, engage the emergency brake, make sure it’s going to hold before I unfasten the seatbelt, grab the handle, and ram the door with my shoulder until it finally opens. I tumble into the street, catching myself on numb feet and legs.

“What’d I tell you?” The crossing guard’s voice is toneless, almost languid compared to the spiraling pulse in my neck. “What’d I tell you?” she demands again, hands on her hips as she traverses the crosswalk.

I look first at the intersection. Books, squashed lunch box, plaid thermos. That’s all.

That’s it.

No body. No little boy. He’s standing on the curb. A girl who might be his older sister, perhaps thirteen or fourteen, has him by a fistful of clothing, so that he’s stretched on tippy-toe, an incongruously distended belly hanging bare beneath the hem of his T-shirt.

“What
sign
I
gave
you just now?” The crossing guard slaps a palm hard against the four-letter word
STOP,
then thrusts the placard within inches of his face.

The little boy shrugs. He looks more bewildered than terrified. Does he know what almost happened? The teenage girl, who probably saved his life, seems annoyed as much as anything else.

“Idjut. Look out for the trucks.” She shoves him forward a step onto the sidewalk, then releases her grip and wipes a palm on her jeans. Tossing back a handful of long, glossy dark braids with red beads on the ends, she glances toward the intersection, blinks at what I now realize is the Bug’s bumper lying in the street, the morning’s only casualty.
That’s
what I ran over. Not a little boy. Only metal and nuts and bolts. A minor miracle.

The pipe-truck driver and I will exchange insurance information—I hope it won’t matter that mine is out of state still—and the day will go on. He’s probably as relieved as I am. More, since he’s the one who ran the intersection. His insurance should take care of this. Good thing, considering that I can’t even afford to cough up my deductible. Between renting one of the few houses in my price range and splitting the cost of a U-Haul with a friend who was on her way to Florida, I’m tapped out until my first paycheck comes in.

The squeal of grinding gears catches me by surprise. I turn in time to watch the pipe truck disappear down the highway.

“Hey!” I yell, and run a few yards after it. “Hey! Come back here!”

The chase proves futile. He’s not stopping, the pavement is slick with the condensation of a humid south Louisiana summer morning, and I’m in sandals and a prairie skirt. The blouse I carefully ironed atop moving boxes is plastered to my skin by the time I stop.

An upscale SUV rolls by. The driver, a big-haired blonde, gapes at me, and my stomach turns over. I recognize her from the staff welcome meeting two days ago. She’s a school board member, and given my last-minute employment offer and the chilly reception so far, it’s no stretch to assume that I wasn’t her first choice for the job…or anyone else’s. Compounded with the fact that we all know why I’m here in this backwater little burg, it probably doesn’t bode well for my surviving the probationary period of the teaching contract.

“You never know until you try.” I bolster myself with the line from “Lonely People,” a hit-parade anthem of my 1970s childhood, and I walk back toward the school. Oddly, life is moving along as if nothing happened. Cars roll by. The crossing guard does her job. She pointedly avoids looking my way as a school bus turns in.

The Bug’s amputated limb has been moved out of the intersection—I do not know by whom—and people politely circumvent my car to reach the horseshoe-shaped drop-off lanes in front of the school.

Down the sidewalk, the teenage girl, maybe eighth or ninth grade—I’m still not very good at eyeballing kids—has resumed charge of the little crosswalk kid. The red beads on her braids swing back and forth across her color-block shirt as she drags the boy away, her demeanor indicating that she doesn’t consider him worth the trouble, but she knows she’d better get him out of there. She has his books and thermos jumbled in one arm and the mangled lunch box hooked by a middle finger.

I turn a full circle beside my car, surveying the scene, befuddled by its veneer of normalcy. I tell myself to do what everyone else is doing—move on with the day.
Think of all the ways things could be worse.
I list them in my head, off and on.

This is how my teaching career officially begins.

By fourth period, the mental game of
Things could be worse
is wearing thin. I’m exhausted. I’m confused. I am effectively talking to the air. My students, who range from seventh to twelfth grade, are uninspired, unhappy, sleepy, grumpy, hungry, borderline belligerent, and, if their body language is any indication, more than ready to take me on. They’ve had teachers like me before—first-year suburban ninnies fresh off the college campuses, attempting to put in five years at a low-income school to have federal student loans forgiven.

This is another universe from the one I know. I did my student teaching in an upscale high school under the guidance of a master teacher who had the luxury of demanding any sort of curriculum materials she wanted. When I waltzed in halfway through the year, her freshmen were reading
Heart of Darkness
and writing neat five-paragraph essays about underlying themes and the social relevance of literature. They willingly answered discussion questions and sat up straight in their seats. They knew how to compose a topic sentence.

By contrast, the ninth graders here look at the classroom copies of
Animal Farm
with all the interest of children unwrapping a brick under the Christmas tree.

“What’re we s’posed to do with
this
?” a girl in fourth period demands, her pert nose scrunching as she peers from a bird’s nest of perm-damaged straw-colored hair. She’s one of eight white kids in an overstuffed class of thirty-nine. Last name
Fish.
There’s another Fish, a brother or cousin of hers, in the class as well. I’ve already overheard whispers about the Fish family.
Swamp rats
was the reference. The white kids in this school fall into three categories: swamp rat, hick, or hood, meaning drugs are somehow involved, and that’s usually a generational pattern in the family. I heard two coaches casually filing kids into those categories while sorting their class rolls during the teachers’ meeting. Kids with money or real athletic talent get siphoned to the district’s swanky prep academy over “on the lake,” where the high-dollar houses are. Really troubled kids are shifted to some alternative school I’ve heard only whispers about. Everyone else ends up here.

In this school, the swamp rats and hicks sit in a cluster on the front left side of the room. It’s some sort of unwritten rule. Kids from the black community take the other side of the room and most of the back. A cluster of assorted nonconformists and other-thans—Native American, Asian, punk rockers, and a nerd or two—occupy the no-man’s-land in the middle.

These kids
intentionally
segregate.

Do they realize it’s 1987?

“Yeah, what’s
this
for?” Another girl, last name…
G
…something…
Gibson,
echoes the question about the book. She’s of the middle-of-the-room variety—doesn’t quite fit either of the other groups. Not white, not black…multiracial and probably part Native American?

“It’s a book, Miss Gibson.” I know that sounds snarky as soon as the words leave my mouth. Unprofessional, but I’m only four hours in and near the end of my chain already. “We open the pages. Take in the words.”

I’m not sure how we’ll make it happen, anyway. I have huge freshmen and sophomore groups, and only one classroom set of thirty copies of
Animal Farm.
They look to be ancient, the pages yellowed along the edges but the spines stiff, indicating they’ve never been opened. I unearthed them in my musty storage closet yesterday. They smell bad. “See what lessons the story teaches us. What it has to say about the time it was written, but also about us, here in this classroom today.”

The Gibson kid drags a glittery purple fingernail across the pages, flips through a few, tosses her hair. “Why?”

My pulse upticks. At least someone has the book open and is talking…to me instead of to the kid at the next desk. Maybe it just takes a little while to get into the groove on the first day. This school isn’t very inspiring, in truth. Cement block walls with peeling gray paint, sagging bookshelves that look like they’ve been here since World War II, and windows covered with some kind of streaky black paint. It feels more like a prison than a place for kids.

“Well, for one reason, because I want to know what
you
think. The great thing about literature is that it’s subjective. No two readers read the same book, because we all see the words through different eyes, filter the story through different life experiences.”

I’m conscious of a few more heads turning my way, mostly in the center section, nerds and outcasts and other-thans. I’ll take what I can get. Every revolution starts with a spark on dry tinder.

Someone in the back row lets out a snore-snort. Someone else farts. Kids giggle. Those nearby abandon their books and flee the stench like gazelles. A half dozen boys form a jostling, poking, shoulder-butting group by the coatrack. I order them to sit down, which of course they ignore. Yelling won’t help. I’ve tried it in other classes already.

“There are no right or wrong answers. Not when it comes to literature.” My voice struggles over the racket.

“Well, this oughta be easy.” I miss the source of the comment. Somewhere in the back of the room. I stretch upward and try to see.

“As long as you’ve
read
the
book,
there are no wrong answers,” I correct. “As long as you’re thinking about it.”

“I’m thinkin’ ’bout lunch,” an oversized kid in the annoying pileup says. I cast about for his name from roll call, but all I can remember is something with an
R,
both first name and last.

“That’s all you ever think about, Lil’ Ray. Your brain’s wired direct to your stomach.”

A retaliatory shove answers. Someone jumps on someone else’s back.

A sweat breaks over my skin.

Wads of paper fly. More kids get up.

Someone stumbles backward and falls across a desk, a nerd’s head is grazed by a high-top tennis shoe. The victim yelps.

The swamp rat girl by the window closes the book, lets her chin bump to her palm, and stares at the blackened glass like she wishes she could pass through it by osmosis.

“That’s enough!” I yell, but it’s useless.

Suddenly—I’m not even sure how it happens—Lil’ Ray is on the move, shoving desks aside and heading for the swamp rat section like a man on a mission. The nerds abandon ship. Chairs squeal. A desk topples over and strikes the floor like a cannon shot.

I hurdle it, land in the center of the room, slide a foot or so on the ancient speckled industrial tile, and end up right in Lil’ Ray’s path. “I said that is
enough,
young man!” The voice that comes out of me is three octaves lower than usual, guttural, and strangely animalistic. Never mind that it’s hard to be taken seriously when you’re five foot three and pixieish; I sound like Linda Blair in
The Exorcist.
“Get
back
in your
seat.
Right
now.

Lil’ Ray has fire in his eye. His nostrils flare, and a fist twitches upward.

I’m aware of two things. The classroom has gone deadly silent, and Lil’ Ray smells. Bad. Neither this kid nor his clothes have been washed in a while.

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