The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (23 page)

BOOK: The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel
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Nathan’s sister is not buried there, I’ve noticed, but I haven’t asked why or where she is. Maybe in Asheville where they grew up? I suspect that the pomp of the Gossett family plot wouldn’t have suited Robin, from what little I know of her. Everything about that place is meant to provide some sort of immortality here on earth. And yet the Gossetts of old have not altered the terminal nature of human life. Like the enslaved people, the sharecroppers, the bayou dwellers, and the ordinary workingmen and women in the potter’s field, they’ve all come to the same end. They are dust beneath the soil. All that is left behind lies in the people who remain. And the stories.

I wonder, sometimes, as we wander that graveyard, what will remain of me someday. Am I creating a legacy that matters, that will last? Will someone stand at my grave one day, wondering who I was?

During our walks, Nathan and I have fallen off into deep conversations about the broader meanings of it all—in the hypothetical sense. As long as we don’t stray too near the topic of his sister, or the possibility of his visiting Goswood Grove House, he’s relaxed and easy to talk to. He tells me what he knows about the community, what he remembers about the judge, what little he recalls about his father. There isn’t much. He speaks of the Gossett family in a distant way, as if he is not part of it.

Mostly, I keep my history to myself. It’s so much easier to talk in the more abstract, less personal sphere. Even so, I look forward to our Thursday evening get-togethers more than I want to admit.

And now, here he is in the middle of a workday—a time when he would normally be out with his boat—to see for himself the topic I talk about most when we’re together. These kids, my job, the history. I’m afraid he is partially motivated by a need to learn more, in case this whole thing becomes a battleground with the rest of the Gossett clan, as he has repeatedly warned me it might. At that point, he’ll run interference or try to mitigate the damage or something. I’m not sure what.

“I don’t want to get in your way. I had to be in town today to sign some paperwork.” He pushes his hands into his pockets and glances toward the student horde, which is bunching up behind me like a marching band with a fallen majorette at the fore.

Lil’ Ray swivels to get a better view. LaJuna does, too. They’re like two plastic pink flamingos with necks curving in opposite directions, a question mark and a mirror image.

“I’ve been hoping you’d stop by sometime. To…see us in action.” I restart the forward momentum. “The kids have sifted out even more amazing information this week, not only through the books and papers from Goswood but from the city library and the courthouse. We even have boxes of family photos and old letters and scrapbooks. Some of the students are doing interviews with older people in the community, using oral histories. Anyway, we can’t wait to share a little bit of it with you.”

“Sounds impressive.” His praise warms me.

“I’ll show him round if you want,” Lil’ Ray is quick to offer. “My stuff is good. My stuff is
boss,
like me.”

“You ain’t boss,” LaJuna grumbles.

“You best just shut your big, nasty mouth,” Lil’ Ray protests. “You’re gonna get the Nativity Rule evoked on you, huh, Miss Silva? I think we should do some evoking right now. It’s been two times LaJuna’s disrespected me. Article Six—Nativity Rule. Times
two.
Right, Miss Pooh?”

LaJuna answers before I can. “What
ever.
It’s Negativity Rule, and
in
voked, idjut.”

“Oh! Oh!” Lil’ Ray bounds three feet in the air, lands in a knee-down half split, pops up, snaps his fingers, and points at her. “And that’s Article Three, Civility Rule. You just call me
idjut.
Dished out an insult instead of gave a civil argument. That’s against the Article Three. Right? Huh? Huh?”

“You dissed me, too. You said I had a big, nasty mouth. Which one of your lame rules is that breaking?”

“Time-out,” I snap, mortified that this is happening in front of Nathan. The thing about so many of the kids here—country kids, town kids, a sad majority of these kids—is that their norm is constant drama, constant escalation. Conversations start, grow louder, get ugly, get personal. Insults fly and then lead to pushing, shoving, hair pulling, scratching, throwing punches, you name it. Principal Pevoto and the school security officer break up multiple altercations daily. Broken homes, broken neighborhoods, financial stress, substance abuse, hunger, dysfunctional relationship patterns. All too often, children in Augustine grow up in a pressure cooker.

I think again about the world my mother came from in her rural hometown, the world she thought she’d left behind. But watching the young people here, I’m reminded of how much she unwittingly brought with her. My mother’s relationships with men were impulsive, careless, loud, and filled with volatility, manipulation, and verbal abuse that went both ways and sometimes turned physical. My interaction with her was the same way, a mixture of full-on love, habitual put-downs, crushing rejection, and threats that might or might not end up being carried out.

But now I realize that, even with the rocky, unpredictable home life I experienced, I was lucky. I had the benefit of growing up in places where people around me—teachers, surrogate grandparents, babysitters, friends’ parents—decided I was worthy of their time, their interest. They provided examples, role models, family meals at dinner tables, reprimands that didn’t come with a swat or a cutting remark or end in the questions
Why don’t you ever listen, Benny? Why are you so stupid sometimes?
People around me invited me into homes that operated on a schedule and where parents spoke encouraging words. They showed me what a stable life could look like. If they hadn’t bothered, how would I have even
known
there was another way to live? You can’t aspire to something you’ve never seen.

“Sixty-second quiet cooldown,” I say, because I need it as much as the class does at the moment. “Nobody say anything. Then we’ll analyze
why
this wasn’t a good conversation. We can also review the Articles of Negativity and Civility…if you want to.”

An exquisite silence follows. I hear leaves rustling, birds singing, a telephone line squeaking softly as a squirrel runs along it. The flag pops in the breeze, its metal hook tapping out an uneven Morse code against the pole.

These are glorious moments of peace that live in the shadow of Article Six, the Negativity Rule, and the prescribed punishment for breaking it. The students detest having to pay back each negative comment by offering three positive ones. They would rather clam up than compliment one another. It’s a sad reality, but I hope it’s making the point that negativity has consequences and a huge cost. Making up for it takes three times the work.

“All right, then,” I say, after thirty seconds or so. “Be warned. Negativity Rule is officially in effect. Next person to say something negative must atone with three positives. Shall we practice as a class?”

Replies come in droves.

“No!”

“Nope.”

“Miss Silva!
Pah-lease.
We get it.”

Nathan covertly catches my gaze, blinks with both surprise and…admiration? I feel slightly lighter than air, as if the murky Louisiana day has suddenly been infused with helium.

“I’ll start,” I tease. “You guys are so amazing. You are definitely, absolutely, positively among my six favorite classes.”

They answer with groans and exhales. I have only six class periods, even counting my planning period, of course.

Lil’ Ray hovers a big hand over my head as if he’s going to bounce me like a basketball.

“We’re number one, though,” skinny Michael argues. “ ’Cause we’re the best. Freshmen rule.”

I make the zipper sign across my lips.

“I could show your friend
my
project, too,” Michael offers as we start up the library steps. “Dude, mine’s
so
ace. I found my people all the way back to five generations. Daigre family’s got some crazy history. Nine brothers and sisters, born enslaved in West Virginia and they end up all over the place. Thomas goes with the Confederate army. Why? I don’t know. His sister Louisa, after the war is over, she gets married to the man who was her owner. Did they fall in love or did she have to do it? I don’t know. Like I said, my
Tales from the Underground
is ace.”

“Yeah, well mine’s so ace, it’s, like,
triple
ace,” Lil’ Ray claims, then senses the possible rub of the Negativity Rule. “I didn’t say his was bad, though. Just that mine’s ace. Hard-core, y’know? I got my people traced way back. I got stuff from the Library of Congress in my project.”

“My people were here before any of y’all’s people,” protests Sabina Gibson, who’s actually on the rolls of the Choctaw tribe. “I win no matter what y’all find out. Unless you got, like, cavemen in your papers or something.”

A battle of dueling ancestors ensues. It follows us past a lovely marble pedestal that holds the
AUGUSTINE CARNEGIE LIBRARY
sign, and up the concrete steps.

The group collects at the ornately molded doors, undoubtedly shiny brass at one time but now streaked with a sad patina of disuse. I shush the chatter before we head inside. I want the kids to practice reasonable library etiquette, even though the place will most likely be empty, save for our helpers from the New Century ladies.

Lil’ Ray protests in a whisper that it was his idea to show
the guy
his project; therefore, he should get first dibs on our guest.

The guy
doesn’t answer, but looks at me in a way that says he’s amicable to whatever we decide.

I realize I haven’t made introductions, and while a few of these kids may realize who Nathan is, most of them don’t know him. I introduce him, but as soon as I speak the name, the buoyancy of the group drops as if our collective shoes are slowly filling with cement. A silent undercurrent of apprehension stirs in our midst. A few suspicious glances slant his way, and a few curious ones. The Fish girl cups her hand and whispers in her friend’s ear.

Nathan looks like a man who would prefer to walk back down the steps, leave this town behind, and never return. But something stops him—the same something that has brought him here today.

I suspect neither of us knows quite what that something is.

CHAPTER 21

HANNIE GOSSETT—TEXAS, 1875

Missy Lavinia rocks on the bunk and cries and moans in the dark. She’s wet herself because she won’t use the slop jar in the corner, and carried on so much about it she retched up what was in her stomach, too. This whole low-slung jail building has gone to stinking. The night’s so still, no air moves through the window bars to take out the smell.

How’d I end up like this?
I ask myself.
Lord, how’d I end up here?

The man in the next cell complains of the noise and the stink and beats on the wall twixt us and tells Missy to quieten down, she’s near drove him crazy. Heard the deputies bring him in a couple hours past sundown—a liquored-up fool that’s got hisself in trouble for stealing horses from the army. The sheriff of Fort Worth is waiting for the army to come fetch him. He’s a Irishman, by the way he talks.

In the dark, I sit and finger the place on my neck where Grandmama’s blue beads should be. I think of Mama and how everything’s gone wrong since I lost the beads, and now maybe I’ll never meet her or any of my people again in this world. Lonely perches like a buzzard on my head. It pecks at my eyes so all I can see is a blur outside the window as the half moon blows its breath over the stars, dimming them down.

I’m the alonest I’ve ever been. Last time I was locked up was when I was six years old, after I told my purchaser at the auction sale that I was stole away from Goswood Grove. Even though I was just a child, alone and scared in that jail after being turned over to the law for safekeeping, at least I had the hope that Old Gossett would fetch me and find Mama and the rest.

This time, ain’t nobody coming. Wherever Juneau Jane is tonight, she don’t know what’s become of us. Even if she did, wouldn’t be a thing she could do about it. By now, trouble might likely have found her, too.

“You s-s-shut that clabberhead u-u-up!” the Irishman horse thief hollers. “Y-you quieten ’im dow…down, or I’m-a…I’m-a…”

I sit myself beside Missy in the dark, and my belly heaves at the smell of her. “Hush, now. You ain’t doing us no good. Hush up.”

I lean my head back and tip my nose up to get at the night air, and I try to hum the song the woman and the child sung outside the church in the swamp. I don’t sing the words, but in my mind, I hear them in Mama’s voice.

Who’s that young girl dressed in white

Wade in the water

Must be the children of the Israelite

Oh, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.

Missy curls herself into a ball and sinks her head down on my knee, same way she did when I’d crawl into her crib to shush her baby cries at night. Only time she behaved sweet like that was if she was scared and wanted somebody.

I stroke my fingers over her thin, wispy hair and close my eyes, and keep on humming till the song and night finally leave me….

When I wake up, I hear my name. “Hannie,” the voice is quick, a sharp whisper. “Hannie.”

I sit bolt up, listen. Missy stirs, but falls off my knee and back to her slumbering. The Irishman has gone quiet, too. Did I dream the voice?

The first, thin gray light sifts in the window. Dread comes with it. How long will they keep us here and what’s to happen after? I’m afraid to know.

“Hannibal?” The voice comes again. I know it then. There’s only one person who’d call me
Hannibal,
but that can’t be, and so I know I’m inside one of my waking dreams. Even so, I stand up on the bunk, wrap my hands over the bars, and pull my chin to the windowsill to look out. To learn what the dream has to tell me.

I see his shape, standing in the morning dim, holding the rope on a donkey with a two-wheeled wood cart hooked to it.

“Gus McKlatchy? From the boat?”

“Sssshhh! Don’t call any notice,” he says, but there ain’t another soul in my dream, except him.

“You come with a message for me? The Lord send you?”

“Well, I doubt it, since I ain’t got religion.”

I wonder, then, did they toss Gus off that boat sometime after me and the paddle wheel ground him under? Is that the ghost of Gus McKlatchy, standing there in his ragged shirt and floppy hat, knee high in the fog? “You a haint, then?”

“Not ’less somebody didn’t tell me about it.” He looks over his shoulders and sidles the donkey up close to the wall, then stands on the donkey’s back to get near the window.

“What’re you doing here, Hannie? Never thought to find you again, this side a’ the sod blanket. Figured you’s drowned in the river when that man, Moses, pitched you off’t the deck.”

My whole body shivers at the memory. I feel the water over my head, the big strainer tree pinwheeling along the river bottom, grabbing my britches and pulling me down. I feel Moses’s breath on my cheek, his lips on brushing my ear.
You swim?
“I got free of the wake and made shore. I don’t swim much, but I can swim.”

“Well, I
knowed
that was you I seen get arrested yesterdey. You with some big, sapheaded white boy, but I couldn’t comprehend the
how
of it, bein’ as you got throwed from the boat back on the Red.” Gus’s voice gets louder as he’s more excited. He checks round and quiets again. “You was one lucky chap, by the by. Next night on that boat, I seen a man get pistol-whipped, then they slit his throat and tossed him off the back. Heard them say he was a Federal man and sniffing round their business. That whole boat was folk with Confederate leanin’s, if you know what I mean. Feller with the patch on his eye, they all called ‘the Lieutenant,’ like soldiers, like they don’t know the war’s been over ten years now. I kep’ myself hid all the way to Texas, and I was pleasured to take my leave of them, I will say.”

A knot ties itself in my throat. I’m not happy for where I am, but I’m grateful both Gus and me made it off that boat alive.

“I might could get you outta here, Hannibal,” Gus says.

“I’m glad if you’d say how. We’re in a mess. A pure mess.”

He stops to think a minute, rubs the thick trail of freckles along his chin, then nods.

“I got me a job on a freight wagon headed down through Hamilton and San Saba, all the way to Menardville. They’s some danger in it, Indians and sech, but the pay’s respectable good. I figure it’ll git me farther south toward where all them cattle been runnin’ wild since’t the war, just breedin’ and procreatin’ so’s all a fella’s got to do is catch ’em up and make his fortune. You can come on along, the two of us partner up like we talked about. I might can git the boss man to advance you the pay for freight drivin’ and bail you from jail, if you’s to sign on for the trip. They’re in sore need of drivers and guards. You handle a four-up heavy horse team all right?”

“Course I can.” I let my mind drift to the notion. I could leave Missy Lavinia and Juneau Jane to their own troubles and go with Gus and ask after my people wherever we land. Gus would, sooner or later, figure out I ain’t a boy, but maybe he don’t even care. I’m strong, and I’m good. I can do the work of a man. “Drive mule teams, horse teams, ox teams, a plow. Know how to tack a shoe back on a hoof, and spot the colic coming on, mend a harness, too. You could tell your boss man that about me.”

“I right will. As I made a mention of, there’s some danger in it, just so’s you know. Comanches, and Kiowas and all. Come down out of Indian Territory, and raid and kill some folks, then run back north, where the law can’t get ’em. You any kind of good shot with a rifle?”

“I am.” I been getting grub in the woods and the bayous at Goswood Grove for years now. Tati figured it was better to leave Jason and John to work the crop, since they’d be stronger. “Shot more squirrel and possum than you can count.”

“You shoot a man if you had to?”

“I guess I would.” But I got no idea. I think of the war. Dead men with faces gone, arms and legs and parts of bodies left like hunks of meat, floating on the river or being hauled home by friends or slaves for burial. Food for flies and worms and wild creatures.

“Best you be sure of it,” Gus tells me.

“I reckon I’d do what I had to. I’d do about anything to get free of this place.”

“I’ll work toward it,” Gus tells me, and I take that for a hope. A blessed assurance that, some way, my freedom is bound to come. “Meantime, I got something for ya.” He digs in his pocket. “Don’t know why I held on to it, ’cept you ’n’ me was travelin’ friends and maybe was to be partners in the cow business…before you’s shucked off’t the boat, that is. And I’d spoke that promise to you, that I’d ask after your people wherever the trail took me.”

He stretches his hand out, and snaked across that dirty white palm sits a hank of leather cord and three little round dots.

My grandmama’s beads, but how can that be so? “Gus, how’d—”

“That spot you’s expulsed off the boat, I fetched these up from the deck. Seemed the least I could do was let your people know what become of you, if I’s ever to happen on your people, that is. I been asking here and there, about folk name of Gossett, wears three blue glass beads on a string. Gus McKlatchy don’t go back on a promise. Not even to somebody who’s likely drowned and dead. But you ain’t dead now, so far’s the evidence would show at this present time, so these is yours.”

I take the beads, feel that his skin is sweaty and warm where I brush across it. My fingers curl over the beads.
Hold on tight, Hannie. Hold on tight, in case these could be a dream.

It’s too fine to be real, having the beads back after all this time.

“I been asking round for you,” Gus goes on. “About that Mr. William Gossett and that Mr. Washburn you made mention of, too. Didn’t learn nothin’.”

I hear him like he’s talking from the other side of a long field, acres and acres away.

I hold the beads to my face, breathe them in, roll them against my skin. I feel the story of my people. My grandmama’s story and mama’s.
My
story. A pounding grows in my blood and gets faster. It fills me and carries me up till I could spread my arms and fly like a bird. Fly right out of here.

“The freight wagons is going in the right gen’ral direction, see?” Gus talks on, but I don’t want him to. I want to hear the music in the beads. “Get there, find some work down thataway…Menardville, Mason, Fredericksburg, Austin City maybe. Finish saving up for us each a horse and tack. While we’re down there, I could help in askin’ after your people, if you desired it. Make some inquirin’ in places where it might be risky for a colored boy to be poking his nose. I’m a right good asker.
Ask not, get not,
that’s what we McKlatchys say.”

I roll the beads against my skin, breathe and breathe. I close my eyes and wonder,
If I wish it hard enough, can I fly through them bars?

A rooster crows far off, and someplace closer a bell sings to the morning sun. Gus grabs a breath. “I got to go.” The donkey grunts as Gus jumps down. “Best git on about my business ’fore somebody catches sight of me here. You’ll see me again, though. As I said, Gus McKlatchy don’t break a oath.”

I open my eyes and watch him leave, his head tipping back as he whistles a song into the morning dim. Bit by bit the fog off the river takes him over, till there’s just the tune of “Oh! Susanna” and clap of the donkey’s small, round hooves and the cart singing along with each turn of the hardwood wheels.
Sheee-clack-clack, sheee-clack-clack, sheee-clack-clack, sheee…

When even that’s gone, I fall back to the bunk and hold the beads in my fist and curl myself close to make sure the beads stay real.

Bright light pours through the window bars in squares by the time I wake again. It’s already halfway across the floor. It’ll go up the wall by sundown.

I open my hand and hold it high to where the light is warm and true. The beads catch sun and shine like a bird’s wing.

They’re still here. Still real.

Missy’s awake and rocking back and forth and making her noise, but I just scramble up to my feet and stand on the bunk and look out the window. Rain’s come sometime in the early hours, so I can’t see the tracks of a boy nor a cart, but I hold the beads in my hand, and so I
know.

“Gus McKlatchy,” I say. “Gus McKlatchy.”

Hard to see how a boy only twelve or thirteen years old can get us out from this place, but some days you take any hope you can find, even one as poor and skinny as that pie-eater white boy, Gus.

The day weighs a little less heavy on me while the squares of light trek over the floor. I think of Gus, someplace in this town. I think of Juneau Jane, who’s not even got a dime to her name. All our goods, except Juneau Jane’s lady clothes, stayed with me and now they’re gone with the sheriff. Our money. Our food and goods and the derringer pistol.
The Book of Lost Friends.
Everything.

Missy moans and holds her stomach, and goes to fussing long before the jail man comes with our bucket of pot likker soup and two big wood spoons. One time a day. One bucket. That’s all we get, sheriff said.

I hear the Irishman stirring from his bunk. He’ll go to hollering now that he’s woke up. Instead, as we eat our pot likker, he whispers, “Hey. Hey, you hearin’ me, neighbor? Hearin’ me now, are you?”

I unfold my legs and stand up stiff, then sidle forward a few steps by the wall, just far enough that I can see thick arms hanging out the bars, but he can’t see me. His skin’s red and baked from the sun. A fur of thick yellow hair covers over it, down to the knuckles. They’re the hands of a strong man, so I stay to the wall.

“I hear.”

“Who was it ye’d be conversin’ with outside this morn’?”

No reason to trust him, so I answer, “Don’t know.”

“McKlatchy, I heard him sayin’.” So, the man was listenin’ at us. “Good Scottish name, there. Friend to Irish folk, like myself. My dear mam, she was Scots-Irish, she was.”

“Can’t say about none of that.” What’s this man want? He plan to tell the sheriff on me?

“The two of ye help me away from here, lad, I’d be beholdin’. Be of help to ye both, I could.” The big hands turn a circle, hurried.

I stay to the wall, where I am.

“Some things I know,” the Irishman says. “The man ye seek after, Will’am Gossett. I met the man, indeed. Southward of here a distance, in the Hill Country near Llano town. Offered the man a fine horse trade when his own went lame under him. I could be takin’ ye to him, if ye’d help me gain my freedom. I fear your Mr. Gossett may run abreast of trouble, should soldiers down that way come upon him…as he was ridin’ one their horses when we parted. Warned him, I did, to trade the beast for another when he reached the nearest town. He wasn’t a man for listenin’. Neither was he a man for that Llano country. If ye’d help me get away from this place, I’d make it worth the while and aid in your searching. I could be of use to ye, friend.”

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