Authors: Lisa Wingate
Down she comes, setting the book ahead of her, one shelf lower, one shelf lower.
The very last time she lays that book down, it pitches like somebody’s shoved it from behind, and off it topples. Seems like forever, it goes end over end through shadows and light, then hits the floor with a smack that rattles the room and races out the door.
There’s stirrings upstairs. “Sedd-ieeee?” Old Missus calls through the house, that screech cutting up my spine like a kitchen knife. “Seddie! Who is there? Is it you? Answer me this instant! One of you girls come lift me from this bed! Put me in my chair!”
Feet scramble and doors open overhead. A housemaid runs down the attic steps and along the second-floor hall. Good thing Missus can’t get up from that bed on her own. Seddie’s a whole other matter, though. She’s probably grabbing the old breechloader rifle right now, fixing to lay somebody under with it.
“Mother?” It’s Missy Lavinia’s voice comes then. What’s
doing home? Ain’t yet the end of spring term at the Melrose Female School in New Orleans. Ain’t even close.
Juneau Jane grabs that book and she’s out the window so quick, she don’t even remember to get her cloak. She don’t close the window, either, and that’s good because I’m bound to get out of here, same way she did. Can’t leave that cloak there, though. If Missus sees it, she’ll know Tati’s stitching and come asking
about it. If I can get it and close that window, kick the travel lantern under the desk, the rest might be all right. This library’s the last place they’d think of a thief coming. Folks steal food or silver goods, not books. Any luck, a few days might pass before the candle wax on the carpet gets noticed. Even better luck, the house help will clean it up without saying a word.
I stuff the cloak down my shirt, nudge that candle lamp with my foot, glance at the mess on the rug, think,
Oh Lord. Lord, Lord, cover me over.
I want to live some more years before I die. Marry a good man. Have babies. Own that land.
The house gets like a battleground. People running, voices hollering, doors slamming, commotion all over. Hadn’t heard that much racket since the Yankee gunboats first come up the river, shelling everyplace and sending us scurrying to the woods to hide.
Before I can get on the folding chair and jump through the window, Missy Lavinia’s right outside the library door. She’s the
one needs to find me here. That girl purely delights in the taste of trouble, which is the reason her papa sent her off to the girls’ deportment school in the first place.
I run back through the dining room, right past every door, because Missus’s latest manservant is coming up the gallery outside. I get all the way to the butler’s pantry, but there’s no time to open the little hatch to the ladder, so I just crawl in the cabinet on my hands and knees and pull the doors and huddle there like a rabbit in the grass. Somebody’s bound to root me out before long. By now, Missy Lavinia has spotted that open library window and maybe the wax on the carpet, too. They won’t stop looking till they find out who’s in here.
But after the noise dies down a bit, it’s Missy Lavinia I hear say, “Mother, for the sake of all, may we return to bed now? And please leave old Seddie to her rest. Don’t punish her for not waking. I troubled her already with my late arrival last evening. I’d left a book on the night table, and it’s fallen, that’s all. The noise only
to be coming from downstairs.”
Can’t guess how Missy don’t see, or smell, or feel the air from that window left open. Can’t guess how Seddie’s slept through all this, but I count it as a blessing and close my eyes, rest my head on the backs of my hands and say my thanks. I might live awhile longer yet, if they’d just all go back to bed.
But Old Missus is boiling hot, still. Can’t make out all the words that’re said after, just that there’s heavy discussing and carrying on awhile. Time it’s over, my body is cramped and aching so bad, I’m chewing on my knuckles to keep from moving and pushing on the doors. A manservant gets left up to keep watch, so it’s a long time before I gather together the courage to slip from my place, open the hatch under me, and go down the ladder to the basement. With the man still prowling the yard and the galleries, I don’t dare try to get out till day breaks and Seddie unlocks the doors out to the lawn. I just hunker down, knowing Tati’s probably in a fit of worry, and come morning, she’ll wake Jason and John and tell them what we done. Jason will be bad troubled over it. He don’t like anything out of place from one day to the next. All things the same, day after day, is his comfort.
Curled up in the dark, I wonder about the book Juneau Jane stole. That book got Old Mister’s papers in it? No way to know, so finally I rest my head on the soft cloak and let myself sleep and wake. I dream of climbing up the bookshelves myself, and taking one of them books from up top and getting my hands on our land contract. All our troubles will be no more.
The door’s getting opened when I come to. A slice of feathery light lays itself over the floor and the smell of morning seeps in. Seddie tells a yard boy, “Don’ you touch nothin’ but the shovel and the yard broom and the hoe. Every apple in the barrel been counted and every drop a’ molasses, and Irish ’tater, and rice grain, too. Las’ boy that try to dip in, he gone. Nobody ever see him no more.”
“Yes’m.” The boy sounds young. Old Missus’s got such a reputation, she’s running slim on choices. Has to take on babies nobody else will hire yet.
I lay up awhile before I stuff Juneau Jane’s cloak back down the front of my borrowed shirt and pull John’s field hat so low it bends my ears, and I work my way toward fresh air and freedom. Nobody’s near when I poke my head out, and so off I go. Takes a heap of
to walk calm ’cross the yard, just in case somebody’s looking out from the house. They won’t think a thing about a little colored boy moving about, slow and easy. But what I really want to do is run, go from cropper cabin to cropper cabin with the word that Missy Lavinia’s showed up from school. Must be a ill wind to bring her home, news of Old Mister. Bad news.
We croppers got to coop up together, have a meeting off in the woods, and figure our next move. All us got contracts and all us been depending on Old Mister to keep the promises that’s been given.
Time to put our heads to the problem.
No sooner does my mind start on it, than I make my way round the garden hedges, and hear voices. Two of them, down under the old brick bridge that was a fine thing long ago, before the Yankees toppled the statues and the rose trellises and butchered the Goswood hogs, then threw what was left of the carcasses in the reflecting ponds. The garden was too far gone after that. Hard times don’t leave money for fine things anyhow. Gate’s been shut ever since the war, the footpaths left for the wisteria and brambles and climbing roses to eat up. Poison ivy drapes the old trees, and hanging moss strings down thick as silk fringes on a ladies’ fan.
that bridge, except maybe boys gigging frogs or men hunting possum or squirrel for the supper pot? But it’s white-sounding voices. Girls’ voices, whispering.
I make my way through the brush and sidle closer till I can hear for sure. Missy Lavinia is clear as a smith’s hammer on metal and just about as pleasurable: “…haven’t kept your end of the bargain, so pray tell why should I?”
What in saint’s name would Missy come
for? Who’s she talking to? I settle real quiet near the bridge rail, point my ear.
“Our goal is selfsame.” The words are Frenchy-like, hard to make out at first. They run up and down quick as a bird whistle. “Perhaps our fate is in common, as well, if we are unsuccessful in our quest.”
assume we hold any similarities,” Missy snaps. I can picture them fat cheeks of hers puffing like the hog bladders the butcher men blow up with air and tie off for the children to play with. “You are no daughter of this house.
are the whelp of my father’s…my father’s…
“And yet, it is you who have arranged that I come here. Who have provided for me an entry to Goswood Grove House.”
They been…Missy did…
What in the name a
mercy? Missy was the one helped Juneau Jane get in?
I tell Tati this news, and she’ll say I’m storying.
why Missy Lavinia didn’t raise a fuss last night. Might even be why Seddie didn’t come out of her room, in all the ruckus. Maybe Missy Lavinia had a hand in that, too.
“And, for all my effort in assuring your passage here, Juneau Jane, I have gained nothing. You do not know where his papers are hidden any more than I do. Or perhaps you were lying when you said you could find them…or perhaps the fact is that
father lied to
” Missy’s low giggle follows on, them words savored like sugar crust in her mouth.
“He would not.” The girl’s voice rises high, takes on the sound of a child’s, then trembles and thickens when she says, “He would not fail to provide for me. Always it was his promise that he—”
to this family!” Missy shrieks, sending a blackbird to flight overhead. I start looking round for where I’ll go if somebody comes to see what’s the trouble. “You are
and if Father is gone, you are as penniless as you deserve to be. You and that wretched yellow woman who bore you. I almost feel
for you, Juneau Jane. A mother who fears you’ve grown prettier than she and a father who has tired of the burden you represent. Such a sad state of affairs.”
“You will not speak of him in this manner! He does not lie. Perhaps he has only moved the papers to prevent
mother from throwing them to the flames. She would then claim all the holdings derived of Papa’s family. With no inheritance left directly to you, you would be forced to forever do your mother’s bidding. Is
not what you fear? Why you have brought me here?”
to bring you here.” Missy’s soft and amiable again, like she’s coaxing a little piglet from the corner, so’s to string it up and cut its throat. “If you’d only been willing to
me where Father hid the papers, rather than insisting on being personally involved in looking for them…”
As if you could be trusted! You would steal the portion that is to be mine as quickly as your mother would steal what is to be yours.”
“The portion that is to be
? Really, Juneau Jane, you belong back in Tremé with the rest of the fancy girls, waiting for your mother to sell you off to a gentleman caller, so as to pay the notes coming due. Perhaps
mother should have better anticipated the day when my father would no longer be here to provide for her financing.”
“He is not…Papa is not—”
“Gone? Forever?” Missy Lavinia hadn’t got a note of sadness. Not for her own daddy. Only thing she’s hoping for is that what’s left of the plantation farms here and in Texas don’t go straight into Old Missus’s hands. Juneau Jane’s right, Little Missy would be under her mama’s thumb forever if that happened.
“You will not say these things!” Juneau Jane chokes out.
There’s a long spate of quiet then. Bad quiet that gives me the all-overs, like some evil’s come stealing up on me from the shadows. Can’t see it, but it’s there, waiting to pounce.
“Regardless, last night’s little exercise was a waste of time and considerable trouble on my part, bringing you here and ensuring your access to the library. Solving the matter will require a bit more travel for us, it seems. Just for the day, and after it’s done I’ll see that you’re provided passage on the fastest riverboat back to New Orleans. Delivered safely to your mother’s home in Tremé…to whatever fate awaits you. At least we’ll have settled the matter.”
“How can this be possible, that the matter might so easily be solved today?” Juneau Jane sounds suspicious. She oughta be.
“I know where we shall find the man who can help. In fact, he was the last person Father spoke to before departing for Texas. I have only to order a carriage for myself, and we will be off to pay him a call. It is all very simple.”
I think, squatting low in the thorn brush and the trumpet vines.
Oh Lord, oh Lord. Ain’t nothing simple about this.
I don’t want to hear anything that comes next. Don’t want to know. But wherever them girls are bound, if they’re after news of Old Mister or his papers, I got to get there, too.
Question is, how?
BENNY SILVA—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1987
Sunday morning, I wake in a head-to-toe sweat. My last-ditch rental accommodations offer only the barely there air-conditioning of an aging window unit, but the real problem isn’t this sweltering 1901 farmhouse; it’s the overwhelming dread squatting on my chest like a sumo wrestler. I can’t breathe.
The air is wet and muddy smelling, courtesy of a weak tropical depression spinning off the coast. The sky outside the bedroom window hangs close above the live oaks, pillowy and saturated. A drip that started in the kitchen ceiling yesterday plays a tinny tune in the largest pan I own. I’ve been by the office of the broker who rented the house to me. There was a notice on the door:
CLOSED FOR MEDICAL EMERGENCY
. I left a note in the drop box, but so far no one has come by about the roof. They can’t call, as my new home is phoneless at present. That’s another one of the things I can’t afford until my first paycheck comes in.
The power is out. I realize that when I roll over and look at the blank clock on the nightstand. I have no idea how late I’ve slept.
I tell myself.
You can lie here all day. The neighbors won’t say anything.
That’s a little joke between me and me. A thin bit of cheer.
This house is bordered on two sides by farm fields and on the third by a cemetery. I’m not superstitious, so the proximity doesn’t bother me. It’s nice to have a quiet place to walk, where no one casts surreptitious glances my way, silently seeming to inquire,
What are you doing here, and how soon are you leaving?
It’s the general assumption that I, like most new teachers and coaches who join the staff, am in Augustine only until something better comes along.
The hollow sense of loneliness I’ve begun to struggle with is familiar, yet somehow it reaches deeper now than in childhood, when my mother’s flight attendant job kept her away four or five days out of seven. Depending on where we were living at the time, I stayed home in the care of sitters, neighbors, daycare providers, my mother’s live-in boyfriends, and a teacher or two who watched kids for extra money. Whatever worked, wherever we were. Extended family wasn’t an option. My mother had been spurned by her parents when she married my father, a
for heaven’s sake. It was an unforgivable affront, and perhaps for her that was part of his appeal, because, in reality, the marriage didn’t last all that long. Of course, my father was drop-dead gorgeous, so it could have just been a case of hot-blooded attraction that wore off.
All of my mother’s moving and repositioning and start-stop relationships gave me an uncanny skill in building a community outside the home. I was adept at ingratiating myself with other people’s moms, friendly neighbors with dogs to walk, lonely grandparents who weren’t getting enough attention from their own families.
at friend finding. At least I thought I was.
But Augustine, Louisiana, is putting me to the test. It calls up memories of my ill-fated teenage attempt to connect with my paternal relatives after they’d moved to New York. My mother and I were confronting issues we couldn’t surmount. I needed my father and his family to open their arms to me, take me in, offer support. Instead, I felt like a stranger in a strange land, and not a welcome one.
Augustine reprises that crippling feeling of rejection. I smile at people here, I get stares in return. I crack a joke, no one laughs. I say
I get grunts and curt nods, and, if I’m lucky, one-word answers.
Maybe I’m trying too hard?
I’ve literally learned more about Augustine from the residents of the cemetery next door than I have from its ambulatory, breathing citizens. To work off the stress of the day, I’ve taken to studying the raised crypts and aboveground mausoleums. The markers date back to the Civil War and beyond. There are so many stories hidden in that place. Women resting next to the babies they birthed, dead on the same day. Children granted tragically short lives. Whole broods gone within weeks of one another. Confederate soldiers with
emblazoned on their tombstones. Veterans from two world wars, Korea, Vietnam. It looks like no one has been buried there in a while, though. The newest grave belongs to Hazel Annie Burrell. Beloved wife, mother, grandmother, laid to rest twelve years ago, in 1975.
Plink, clink, plink.
The leak in the kitchen moves from soprano to alto as I lie there thinking that, with all this rain, I can’t even go walking. I am stuck here alone in this scatter-furnished house with only the basics—roughly half of the contents of a graduate-student apartment. The other half remained with Christopher, who at the last minute decided against our planned elopement and cross-country move from Berkeley to Louisiana. The breakup wasn’t all his fault. I was the one who’d kept secrets, who hadn’t told him everything until after the engagement. Maybe the fact that I’d held out so long spoke for itself.
Still, I miss being part of a duo in this plan for a new adventure. At the same time, there’s no denying that, after four years together as a couple, I don’t miss Christopher as much as I probably should.
The impending breach of my drip catcher distracts me from overanalyzing and nudges me from the bed. Time to empty the pan. Then I’ll get dressed and go to town, see who else I can call for help in getting the roof situation resolved. There must be somebody.
Through the haze on the kitchen window, I make out the shape of someone walking the cemetery lane nearby. I lean closer, clear a swatch with my palm, see a man and a large yellow dog. A black umbrella partially hides the man’s portly frame.
Momentarily, I think of Principal Pevoto, and my stomach tenses up. I’ve worn out my welcome with him this week.
Your expectations are too high, Miss Silva. Your requests for supplies are outlandish. Your hopes for the students are unrealistic.
He will not help me track down the rest of my classroom set of
which have vanished one and two at a time, until we’re down to only fifteen copies. The science teacher across the hall found one stuffed in a lab drawer, and I rescued another from the trash can in the hall. The kids are actually stealing them so they won’t have to read them.
It’d seem oddly resourceful if it weren’t book abuse, which is wrong on so many levels.
The cemetery visitor looks like a book character himself. Paddington Bear, in his long blue raincoat and yellow hat. He walks with a stiff-legged limp that tells me he’s not Principal Pevoto. Stopping at a grave, he feels for the edge of the concrete crypt without looking, then slowly bends at the waist, the umbrella descending with him until he gently places a kiss on the stone.
The sweetness of his longing dives to a tender, bruised place in me. My eyes prickle, and I absently touch my bottom lip, taste rainwater and moss and damp concrete and the passage of time. Who’s buried there? A sweetheart? A child? A brother or sister? A parent or grandparent long lost?
I’ll find out once he’s gone. I’ll visit the stone.
I withdraw from his private moment and empty the drip pot, eat, dress, empty what’s in the pot again, just for safety’s sake. Finally I rustle up my keys, purse, and rain gear for a trip to town.
The humidity-swollen front door and I do battle when I try to close it after myself. The antique lock is especially cantankerous today. “Stupid thing. Just…if you would…just…go in there….”
When I turn around, the man with the dog is halfway up my front walk. Umbrella tipped against the wind, he’s hidden from view until he makes his way to the leaning cement steps. He feels for the porch rail hesitantly, and then I realize the golden retriever is wearing a harness and handle, not a leash. It’s a service dog.
A russet-brown hand skims the rail as owner and dog navigate the steps easily.
“May I help you?” I ask over the patter of the rain on the tin roof.
Wagging its tail, the dog peers up at me. Then the man does as well.
“Thought I’d come by and look in on Miss Retta while I was in the area. Miss Retta and I both worked in the courthouse with the judge years ago, so we’ve had acquaintance a long time.” He nods over his shoulder toward the graveyard. “That’s my grandmother, over there, Maria Walker. I’m Councilman Walker…well, former councilman, these days. Still a little hard to get used to that.” He offers a handshake, and, leaning in, I see cloud-rimmed eyes behind his thick glasses. He cranes to one side, trying to make me out. “How is Miss Retta getting on these days? You one of her helpers?”
“I…just moved in last week.” I glance past him, looking for a car in the driveway, someone he’s with. “I’m new in town.”
“You buy the place?” He chuckles. “Because you know what they say about Augustine, Louisiana. ‘You purchase a house here, you’ll be the last one who ever owns it.’ ”
I laugh at the joke. “I’m just renting.”
“Oh…well, good for you, then. You’re likely too smart for that kind of thing.”
We chuckle again. The dog participates with a soft, happy yip.
“Miss Retta move into town?” Councilman Walker wants to know.
“I don’t…I leased this place through a rental agent. I was just headed into Augustine in hopes of finding out how to get a roof leak repaired.” I check the driveway again, lean around my visitor, and look toward the cemetery. How did this man get here?
The dog moves a step closer, seeking to make friends. I know it’s against protocol to touch service animals, but I can’t help myself. I succumb. Among all the other familiar things I miss about California are Raven and Poe, the tabby cats who kept me in their employ before I moved. They, along with various human helpers, maintained the new and used books store where I worked for a little extra money, which mostly went back into books, anyway.
“Can I give you a ride to town?” I ask, although I’m not sure where I’d put Mr. Walker and his rather hefty sidekick in the Bug.
“Sunshine and I’ll sit here and wait for my grandson. He’s gone on over to pick us up some Cluck and Oink barbecue for the drive back to Birmingham. That’s where Sunshine and I make our place, these days.” He pauses to ruffle the dog’s ears and receives a wag of supreme adoration. “Had my grandson drop me here, so I could pay respects to my grandmother.”
He nods toward the graveyard. “Thought I’d walk over here and give my regards to Miss Retta, too. She was sure a friend to me after I stumbled in my ways—the judge was, too. Told me, ‘Louis, you better go be a lawyer or a preacher, because you like to argue your case.’ Miss Retta was the judge’s helper, you know. Many a wayward youngster, they took under wing. I spent a great deal of time on this porch, in my earlier years. Miss Retta helped me with my studies, and I helped her keep up the garden and the orchard. That garden saint still there by the steps? Nearly broke my back getting that thing in here for her. But Miss Retta said that statue needed a home after the library took it down. She never could turn her back on a need.”
I cross the porch and look into the oleander bushes and, indeed, encased in overgrown ivy and leaning against the wall, rests some sort of statue. “There it is, I think.” A sense of wonder strikes me, unexpectedly. My flower bed holds a sweet little secret. Garden saints are good luck. I’ll trim back the oleander when I get a chance, fix things up a bit for the old fellow.
I make plans in my head as Councilman Walker tells me that if I want to know
in Augustine, including how and where to secure help with a leaky roof on a Sunday, I should proceed forthwith to the Cluck and Oink and speak with Granny T, who will be at the counter now that church has let out. My rental house, he says, is most likely owned by someone in the Gossett clan. This land was part of the original Goswood Grove plantation, which once stretched almost all the way to the Old River Road. Miss Retta sold the land back to Judge Gossett years ago to finance her retirement, but was allowed to live out her days in the house. Now that the judge has passed away, someone will have inherited this particular parcel.
“You go on about your business,” he says as he settles on my porch swing with Sunshine at his feet. “If you don’t mind, we’ll wait here. We’re not bothered by the weather, us two. Into every life a little rain must fall.”
I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or Sunshine or himself, but I thank him for the information and leave him there in his coat and rain hat, his face turned toward the graveyard, his countenance undampened by the weather.
The rain does not seem to muck up the spirits at the Cluck and Oink, either. The tumbledown building, which sits on the highway at the far edge of town, looks like the result of an unholy mating between a cow barn and an old Texaco station, surrounded by their spawn of portable storage sheds of various sizes and vintages, some attached, some not.
The low-slung porch along the front is crowded with waiting customers, and the drive-through line, at 12:17 on a Sunday afternoon, stretches around the building and through the gravel parking lot, and blocks traffic on the right lane of the highway as people wait to turn in. Smoke belches from a screened area at the back of the building, where a crew scurries about like bees in a hive, tending a bevy of wood-fired cooking pits. Sausages, hunks of meat, and naked whole chickens turn on giant rotisseries. Flies dangle from the fascia boards in shifting black strings, climbing one over the other in hopes of gaining entry. I can’t blame them. The place smells delicious.
I park next door at the aging Ben Franklin five-and-dime, and slog across the wet strip of grass between the buildings.
“They’ll tow that car, if you leave it settin’ over there!” a teenage employee warns me as he rushes back from the dumpster.
“I’m not staying long. Thanks!” It registers that the other restaurant customers have steered clear of the Ben Franklin lot. Even in my short time in Augustine, I’ve heard kids at school regularly kibitzing about the police harassing them for hanging out around town, gathering for parties, and so forth. The perceived heavy-handedness of the local law, and who gets the worst of it, is a favorite topic of student conversation while they’re not listening to my lessons about
If they’d pay attention, they might spot parallels to the way this town operates in separate communities—black, white, haves, have-nots, backwoods kids, townies, and the landed gentry. The lines between them exist like an ancient but unseen network of walls, not to be crossed except through the necessary gates of commerce and employment.