The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (5 page)

BOOK: The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel
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Again,
Animal Farm
offers points for debate, lessons to teach. I plan to spend next week lobbying Principal Pevoto for some kind of classroom literature budget. I need books, resources that might have a hope of drawing in the kids. Maybe something more recent, like
Where the Red Fern Grows
or
The Education of Little Tree.
A story with hunting and fishing and outdoor motifs, since most of my students, no matter which group they hail from, can relate to putting food on the table via the forests, swamps, gardens, and backyard chicken coops. I’m searching for connecting points, anywhere I can find them.

The Cluck and Oink, I realize as soon as my eyes adjust to the murky interior, is a hub in this town. All the demographics of Augustine—black, white, male, female, young, old—seem at home here in this sea of fried-food smells and scurrying waitresses. Women in impossibly bright dresses and flamboyant Sunday hats tend smartly dressed children at tables crammed with multiple generations of family. Little girls with feet tucked into Mary Janes and legs circled by lace-cuffed socks sit like fluffy cake toppers on booster seats and in high chairs. Boys in bow ties and men in suits of various vintages dating all the way back to 1970s plaid tell stories and pass plates. Conversation, cordiality, and an air of jovial companionship mingle with grease smoke and cooks calling out “Order up!” or “Hot bread! Hot bread!”

Laughter rings the rafters like church bells, constant, musical, the sound amplified by the rusty tin roof and showered down again.

Boudin balls—whatever those might be—seem to be the order of the day. I check out the picture on the menu board, then wonder what’s inside the deep-fried nuggets as platefuls move past, carried by fleet-footed girls in blue polyester uniform tops and jeans.

I’d like to try some, but I hear the teenager at the hostess stand, whom I quickly recognize as one of my students, telling a potential customer that the kitchen is thirty minutes behind on orders. I hope Councilman Walker’s grandson scored some takeout before the post-church rush.

I’ll have to wait until another time for a sample. Even if the kitchen weren’t backed up, I shouldn’t spend the money. I’ve burned through twelve boxes of off-brand snack cakes in my classroom since the Lil’ Ray M&M’s incident. My students constantly claim hunger pangs. I don’t know who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, and I haven’t asked as many questions as I probably should. Maybe I’m hoping that if they can’t be won with books, chocolate sponge cake and fluffy filling might do the trick.

I make my way into the cash register line, studying the pies in the glass case while I advance, one satisfied customer at a time, toward the African American woman at the counter, whom I hear others addressing as
Granny T.
White-haired with hazel eyes and the stocky look of many of the people I’ve met in Augustine, she’s decked out in a pink church dress and hat. She cuts up with customers as she flies through tickets, adding totals in her head, doling out lollipops to kids, and commenting on who’s grown at least an inch since last week,
I do declare.

“Benny Silva.” I introduce myself and she reaches across the counter to shake my hand. Her thin, knobby fingers compress my palm. She’s got a good grip.

“Benny?” she repeats. “Your daddy want a son, did he?”

I chuckle. That is the most oft-invoked reaction to the nickname my father saddled me with before deciding he didn’t really want me, after all. “Short for Benedetta. I’m half Italian…and Portuguese.”

“Mmm-hmmm. You got that pretty skin.” She narrows one eye and looks me over.

I offer, “Well, I don’t sunburn too much, at least.”

“Watch out,” she warns. “You best get you a good hat. This Louisiana sun, she is wicked as sin. You got your ticket so I can ring you up, sugar?”

“Oh, I didn’t eat.” I quickly explain the roof problem and why I’ve come. “The old white house out by the graveyard? I tried going by the real estate office yesterday, but the note says there was a medical emergency.”

“You’re lookin’ for Joanie. She’s laid up in the hospital up in Baton Rouge. Got misery of the gall bladder. Just get you a bucket of pitch tar and smear it round that pipe for the stove vent. On the roof, you know? Just smooth it on over the shingles in a good thick layer, like butterin’ bread. That’ll hold out the rain.”

Suddenly, I don’t doubt that this woman knows what she’s talking about and has buttered many a shingle in her day. She probably still could. But I’ve lived in apartments most of my life. I wouldn’t know roof tar from chocolate pudding. “I’m told the house probably belongs to one of Judge Gossett’s heirs. Do you know where I could find the owner? I’d just keep a bucket under the leak, but the thing is, I have to teach tomorrow, and I won’t be there to empty it. I’m afraid of it spilling over and wrecking the floors.” One thing the old house does have is beautiful cypress-plank flooring and timbers. I love old things and can’t stand the idea of letting them go to ruin. “I’m the new English teacher at the school.”

She blinks, blinks again, rolls her chin back in a way that makes me feel like someone has just made bunny ears over my head. “Oh,
you
are the Ding Dong Lady!”

There’s a snicker behind me. I glance back to see the surly girl who rescued the little grade-schooler on my first day. Even though she’s in class only about half the time, I have now connected her with a name—LaJuna. It’s pronounced as
La
plus the name of the month, but with an
a
on the end. That’s about all I know. I’ve tried to make headway with her during my fourth-period class, but the hour is dominated by football guys, which leaves girls, nerds, and assorted misfits with no hope of getting sufficient attention.

“You’d best quit feeding them boys cakes. Especially that Lil’ Ray Rust. That one will eat you into the poor house.” Granny T is still talking. Lecturing, actually. She’s got a craggy index finger pointed at me. “Children want to eat, they can get their skinny behinds up out of the bed and down to the school cafeteria in time for breakfast. That food is
free.
Those boys are lazy. That’s all.”

I give a half-hearted nod. Word of me has gotten all the way to the Cluck and Oink. I’ve been dubbed in honor of a snack cake with a name that makes me sound like a ditz.

“You let a child be lazy, he’ll grow up to be lazy. A young boy needs somebody to keep him in line, make him a hard worker. Back when I was a child, we were all working hard at the farm. Gals do the cookin’ and the cleanin’ and hire out sometimes, too, soon as they’d get old enough. Time comes to go sit at a school desk, eat food somebody
else
cooks up for us, we’re thinking we’re on a luxury vacation. That right, LaJuna? That’s what your Aunt Dicey tells you, sure enough?”

LaJuna ducks her head, reluctantly mutters, “Yes’m.” She shifts uncomfortably, pulling a sheet off her ticket pad.

Granny T is wound up now. “I’m her age, I’m workin’ the farm, or in the orchard, or in this restaurant with my grandmama. And I’m going to school, and hired out to one of the Gossetts to watch her babies after the school day and in summers. Time I’m eleven years old, younger than this girl, even.” Behind LaJuna and me, the checkout line is building. “By eighth grade, I’ve got to quit. Crop doesn’t make that year, and there’s bills to pay down to the Gossett Mercantile. No time for school. I was smart, too. But we can’t go live under a tree. Home might not be fancy, but that’s home and we’re glad to have it. Grateful for everything we got, all the time.”

I stand in stunned silence, letting that sink in. Just the concept of a kid…what, thirteen or fourteen years old…having to quit school to help earn a living for the family…it’s horrifying.

Granny T motions LaJuna to the other side of the counter, hugs her around the shoulders. “Now, this one is a good girl. Gonna do all right. What’d you need, darlin’? How come you’re standing here, not seeing to your tables?”

“I’m on break. Got my tables all taken care of.” LaJuna extends a ticket and a twenty-dollar bill toward the counter. “Ms. Hannah ask me to bring this up so she didn’t have to stand in line.”

Granny T’s mouth straightens. “Some people always got to have special privileges.” She processes the ticket and hands LaJuna the change. “You go give this back and then you have a break.”

“Yes’m.”

LaJuna slides around the corner, and it’s obvious that I need to move along, as well. Impatient noises and toe-taps have begun increasing among the customers behind me. On a whim, I spring for a piece of banana cream pie from the dessert case. I don’t need it. I shouldn’t spend the money, but it looks so good.
Comfort food,
I tell myself.

“That old house you live in,” Granny T offers as we settle up. “It’s been passed down since the judge died, like everything else. Judge’s two older sons, Will and Manford, got the Gossett Industries mill, the foundry, and the gear plant north of town. Judge’s youngest son died years ago, left behind a son and a daughter. Those two children inherited the big house and the land that would’ve gone to their daddy, but the girl, Robin, she’s passed away since—sad thing, her just thirty-one years old. Your landlord is her brother, Mr. Nathan Gossett, Judge’s grandson, but he won’t be fixin’ that roof. He lives down to the coast. Got him a shrimp boat. Leased out the Goswood land, left the rest to rot. That boy’s the rambling one. Can’t be bothered about none of it. Lot of history in that old place. Lot of stories. Sad thing when stories die for the lack of listenin’ ears.”

I nod in agreement, feel the whip-sting of my own family ties flapping in the wind. I don’t know beans about my familial history and couldn’t recite an ancestral story if my life depended on it. I’ve always tried to tell myself I don’t care, but that statement from Granny T hits home. A blush creeps up my neck, and I hear myself blurt out, “Would you be willing to come talk to my classes sometime?”

“Ffff!”
Her eyes widen. “Did you listen at me while ago when I told you I didn’t make it past the eighth grade? You’ve got to have the banker, and the mayor, and the manager from the foundry come talk to these kids. Folks that’s amounted to much.”

“Well, just…please think about it.” An idea blooms in my head, unfolding as if by fast-motion photography. “It’s what you said about the stories. The kids should hear them, you know?” Maybe real stories from people around here would touch my students in a way that
Animal Farm
can’t. “I’m not having much luck getting them interested in my classroom books, and there aren’t enough copies anyway.”

“This school ain’t got nothin’,” a forty-something freckle-faced redhead behind me mutters, air whistling through a cracked front tooth. “Our boys got all the way to district last year, and they gotta wear cleats somebody else’s used before them. This school’s crap. School board’s crap, too. Them kids over at Lakeland school get everything, and ours don’t get squat.”

Something’s about to spill from my mouth that’s probably better left unsaid, so I just nod and take my to-go container. At least the football team has enough cleats for everyone. That’s more than I can say for books in the English room.

When I exit, LaJuna is settling herself on an overturned trash can near the side of the building where two guys in meat-spattered aprons squat in the shade, smoking cigarettes. LaJuna flashes a covert glance my way as I move past, then turns her attention toward a kid on a rust-dotted spyder bike, wobbling across the highway. He barely makes it into the Ben Franklin parking lot before a minivan zips past. If I’m not mistaken, he’s the little guy from the crosswalk incident. A city police car turns in, and I hope there’s a safety scolding in the making, but the officer seems more interested in my improperly parked vehicle.

I hurry through tiny rain lakes in the gravel, back across the grassy muck border and to my car. Pointing at the Ben Franklin, I give the officer the thumbs-up. He rolls down the window, rests a meaty elbow on the frame, and warns, “No restaurant parkin’ over here.”

“Sorry! I was trying to figure out where to buy some roofing tar.”

“No place open on Sunday for that. Blue law.” His eyes scrunch into his sweat-sheened red cheeks as he studies my vehicle. “And get a bumper on that thang. I see it like that again, I’ll write it up.”

I make promises I can’t afford to keep, and he leaves.
One day at a time,
I tell myself and hear the theme song from the TV show in my head. It was not only one of my favorites as a teenager—Valerie Bertinelli made being half-Italian look very cool, especially after she married Eddie Van Halen—that theme song has become my motto for this weird, transitional year.

The little boy splashes through the grassy strip on his too-big bike, lets it topple to one side, and skip-skids on the wet gravel until he manages a stop. Kicking a leg over the bar, he proceeds to the back of the Cluck. I watch as he talks through the screen, then gains a chicken leg from one of the workers, who quickly shoos him away. Off he trots, pushing the bike, chicken leg and handlebars all clutched together. The corner of the store building obscures my view, and he’s gone.

Maybe I should walk around there and talk to him about crossing streets.
I contemplate my new position as an authority figure. Teachers are supposed to look after kids….

“Here.” The voice startles me. LaJuna is standing on the other side of my car door. Three long, dark braids escape her hair band and bisect her young face. She lets them hang like the pickets of a stockade fence as she holds out a restaurant ticket, arm stretched as far as it’ll go. “Here.” Shaking the ticket, she glances uncomfortably over her shoulder.

She retracts instantly when I take what she’s offering. One hand braces on a skinny hip. “That’s my Aunt Sarge’s phone number and address where she lives. She’s fixing stuff at my Great-Aunt Dicey’s house. Aunt Sarge knows how.” She watches her muddy tennis shoes instead of me. “She could take care of your roof.”

I’m stunned. “I’ll call her. Thanks. Really.”

LaJuna backs away. “She needs the money, that’s all.”

“I appreciate this. A lot.”

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