The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (7 page)

BOOK: The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel
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“Best git your missies on down the road,” one whispers when I climb off to lead Old Ginger through a space where two wagons been parked so narrow, there’s almost no way past. “Ain’t a place for them.”

“Ain’t my choice,” I mutter low. “Not staying long, neither.”

“Best not.” The man shifts empty barrels to let us pass. “Don’t let the moon find you and your missies out ’long the road, neither.”

“Stop dallying!” Missy Lavinia grabs the coachman’s whip from the seat and tries to reach the horse with it. “Leave my driver alone, boy. Move out of the way. We’ve business to attend to.”

The man backs off.

“Let the darkies get within five feet of one another, and all they want to do is loll around and chat,” Missy squawks. “Isn’t that so, boy?”

“Yes’m,” I say back. “That sure is true.”

For the first time, there’s a thrill in fooling her this way. She don’t have one thin idea who she’s talking to. Might be a sin to lie, but I take pride in it, of a sudden. I take power in it.

We come round some buildings that faces the river on one side. Missy Lavinia wants to go in the alleyway behind, so that’s what I do.

“There,” she says, like she’s been here before, but I got a sense she’s seeing all this for the first time. “The red door. Mr. Washburn’s shipping office is inside. He is not only an adviser to Papa in matters of law, and the superintendent of Papa’s land holdings in Texas, he is also one of Papa’s
closest
associates in business, as you may or may not know. Papa took me to dinner with Mr. Washburn in New Orleans. They spoke late into the night in the lounge after I was to retire to our hotel suite. I lingered a bit, of course, to listen. They being members of the same…society of gentlemen…Mr. Washburn committed to looking after Father’s intentions, should Father be unable. Papa later instructed me to seek out Mr. Washburn, if the need should ever arise. He will have copies of Father’s papers. Why, he most likely drew them up for Papa personally.”

I peek under my hat to gander at Juneau Jane.
She believing all this?
Her kid leather gloves finger the reins while she looks at that building. The big gray horse, he’s troubled by her worry. He twists his head back and nuzzles her boot, then nickers soft.

“Come along,” Missy pesters, and wants down from the carriage. I got no choice but to help her. “We can’t solve our trouble sitting here, now can we? You’ve nothing to fear, Juneau Jane. Unless, of course, you really
are
uncertain of your position, that is?”

The trouble-itch goes all over me. Missy’s rubbing that gold locket she’s had almost long as I can remember. She only does that when she’s fixing to hatch somethin’ awful bad. Juneau Jane best turn that gray horse the other way and spur him to a gallop. Whatever Missy’s got in mind to happen next, it ain’t good.

I barely hear when that red door creaks open. A tall, well-made man with skin a light shade of brown answers. I’d take him for the butler, but he ain’t wearing livery, just a work shirt and brown wool trousers that form over his strong thighs and dip into stovepipe boots at the knee.

He frowns and eyeballs us close, all three. “Yes’m?” he says to Missy. “I help you, Missus? Believe you must’ve come callin’ at the wrong door.”

“I’m expected,” Missy snaps.

“Hadn’t been told of anybody expected.” He don’t move, and Missy turns peevish.

“I’ll see your employer,
boy.
Fetch him for me, now, I say.”

“Moses!” A man’s voice calls from inside, quick and ornery. “Mind the task I’ve put you to. Five more men to crew the
Genesee Star.
Healthy with strong backs. Have them here by midnight.”

Moses gives us one last look before he steps back into the shadows and is gone.

A white man takes up the empty space. He’s tall and thin, hollow in his cheeks with a straw-colored mustache and beard that rounds down and circles the bony point of his chin.

“I’m expected. We’ve come to see a friend,” Missy says, but she’s rubbing her neck and sounds like she’s got cotton in her throat, so I know she ain’t telling the truth.

Stepping out the door, the man chicken-jerks his head side to side, checking the alley. Scars run over the left side of his face like melted candle wax, and a patch covers one eye. The good eye turns my way. “Our mutual friend specifically requested that only the two of you come.”

I squat down, checking the horse’s bad leg, getting myself small as possible.

“And we have. Why, other than my driver boy, of course.” Missy Lavinia laughs, nervous-like. “The road isn’t safe for a woman alone. Surely Mr. Washburn will understand.” Missy pulls her hands behind her back, pushing her bosom up to show it off, only she ain’t got much of one. She’s just square and straight, all the way up and down, big shouldered like Old Mister. “I’ve a distance to return home on the road yet and barely the daylight needed. I’d prefer to conclude our business as efficiently as possible. I’ve brought what I was asked to, exactly as requested…by Mr. Washburn.”

Don’t know if anybody else sees it or not, but Missy cuts a quick nod toward Juneau Jane, like
that’s
what she was told to bring—her little half sister.

The door opens wide, and the man disappears behind it. A sticky, pricklin’ cold goes all over me.

Juneau Jane ties her horse to the wagon but stands flat-footed in the street, her blue-striped skirt and white petticoats catching the wind and molding to the calves of her skinny legs. She threads her arms and crinkles her nose like she’s got a whiff of stink. “What is this that you have been requested to bring? How shall I be assured you have not offered compensation to Mr. Washburn as payment for a convenient lie?”

“Mr. Washburn needs nothing from me. Why, the man owns all of this.” Missy waves toward the big building and the river landing on past it. “In partnership with Papa, of course. I’d be most pleased to speak with Mr. Washburn alone, but then you’d have to trust that I will bring to you what information I am able to gather. If Mr. Washburn holds the only remaining copy of Papa’s papers, I could burn them right here in this building, and you would never know. I assume you’ll want to see for yourself. I won’t have you questioning me afterward. If you don’t come in, you must accept my word.”

Juneau Jane’s arms go stiff at her sides. Her hands ball into fists. “More freely, I would trust a serpent.”

“As I thought.” Missy holds out a hand toward Juneau Jane, palm up. “Then let’s go inside. We’ll do it together.”

Juneau Jane sweeps past the stretched hand, marches up the steps, and walks in the door. Last thing I see of her is that long, dark hair.

“Look after the horses, boy. Should anything happen to them, I’ll take it out of your hide…one way or another.” Then Missy Lavinia goes, too.

The red door swings closed, and I hear the bolt slide into the hasp.

I tie off the saddle horse, loosen the checkrein and the belly band a notch on Ginger, then find me a spot in the shade along the wall, wiggle into a empty sugar hogshead turned on its side, let my head fall back, and close my eyes.

The long night with not much sleep comes to catch me before I know it.

But so does the dream of the trader’s yard.

That tipped-over barrel turns into the slave pen where I’m carried off from Mama one more time.

CHAPTER 6

BENNY SILVA—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1987

The rain finally stops by the time I get home. Sloshing past the hidden garden saint and up the porch steps, I feel guilty for my slightly emotional phone call to LaJuna’s aunt, which I had to let myself into the empty school building to make. Aunt Sarge, whose real name I now know is Donna Alston, probably thinks I am a basket case, but in my own defense, rain was sheeting the school windows in blinding torrents. I could only imagine how much might be streaming through the roof at home, and how close it could be to overwhelming the capacity of my makeshift countertop reservoir.

To her credit, Aunt Sarge is as good as her word. She arrives right behind me, and we enter the house and check my catch pot together, then haul it out to the porch for a dump, before even making introductions.

“You’ve got a problem.” Aunt Sarge is all business. She’s a stoutly built African American woman with the look of a fitness coach and a military bearing that silently says,
Don’t mess with me.
“I can get out here tomorrow to fix it.”

“Tomorrow?” I stammer. “I was hoping to get it taken care of today. Before the rain starts again.”

“Tomorrow afternoon,” she replies. “Best I can do.” She goes on to tell me that she’s watching a relative’s children until then and has left a neighbor keeping them for a moment, so as to run down here.

I offer to sit with the children myself, even have them hang out there at my house if she will fix the roof.

“Two are down with strep throat,” she counters. “Reason why they’re not at the babysitter’s. And their mama can’t miss work. Jobs aren’t easy to find around here.” There’s an edge behind that comment, one that makes me feel like I’m being accused of something. Taking a job that could have been filled by a local, maybe? But I was a last resort for this position. A week before the start of school, Principal Pevoto would’ve taken anyone with a teaching certificate and a pulse.

“Oh,” I muse. “Sorry. I can’t take a chance of getting sick. Just started work.”

“I know.” She adds a rueful smirk. “One of the new victims.”

“Yeah.”

“Subbed at the school a couple times right after I got out of the army last spring. Couldn’t find anything else.” The comment requires no further elaboration. Her facial expression says it all. For an instant, the atmosphere between us feels almost collegial. I think she’s resisting a smile, but she says, straight-faced, “Just grab their heads and thump them together. Worked for me.”

My mouth drops open.

“Course they didn’t ask me back again after that.” She climbs onto the brick column at the bottom of the porch post, grabs the decking above the rafters, and does a chin-up, then hangs there a minute, studying the roof, before swinging herself easily back onto the porch. The landing is superhero worthy.

This, I register silently, is no ordinary woman. I get the impression she could smoothly vault herself onto the roof barehanded. I want to be like her, not some namby-pamby suburban knucklehead who knows nothing of roof tar.

“All right,” she says. “It’s patchable.”

“Will it cost much?”

“Thirty…forty bucks. I charge eight bucks an hour, plus materials.”

“Sounds fair.” I’m thrilled it’s not worse, but this is definitely going to cut into my classroom snack-cake funds. Hopefully I can get the roof money out of my landlord soon.

“But that’s not likely to be the last problem you have.” She squints upward, points out several places where water has dripped through and inked mildew-colored stains on the beadboard porch ceiling. “Only place this roof needs to go’s right over there.” She nods toward the cemetery. “Thing’s a better fit for a funeral than a prayer.”

I chuckle appreciatively. “I like that saying.” I’m a collector of creative idioms. I once wrote an entire graduate-level term paper about them. So far, Louisiana is a collector’s dream.

“You can borrow it. No charge.” A brow lowers and a hooded glance slides my way.

It’s easy to forget, when you’ve been hanging around the college English department for years, that people outside those hallowed halls don’t carry on conversations about idioms, or talk at length about the distinction between analogies and metaphors. They don’t debate the dividing lines while strolling along, lugging weighty backpacks or sitting in tiny apartments sipping cheap wine in thrift-shop stemware.

I survey the bowed, splotched porch ceiling, wonder how long it might be before this sort of thing starts happening inside the house. “Maybe I can get the landlord to put on a new roof.”

Aunt Sarge scratches the skin around her ear, smooths a few stray wisps into a short, slicked-back ponytail bun of chestnut hair. “Good luck with that. Only reason Nathan Gossett kept this house up at all was because Miss Retta was like part of the judge’s family. She was hoping to get back here after her stroke. Now that she’s passed and the judge’s passed, I can pretty much guarantee—Nathan Gossett would be just as glad to let it all fall in. Doubt if he even knows someone like you rented this place.”

My back stiffens. “Someone like me?”

“Out-of-towner. Woman moving in alone. This isn’t that kind of house.”

“I don’t mind it.” My hackles are rising. “I was moving with my boyfriend…fiancé…but, well, you can see it’s just me here.”

Sarge and I have another one of
those
moments. An instant in which some sort of line has been crossed, and we’re standing on the same side, strangely simpatico. It’s fleeting, like the sudden breeze that kicks up, carrying the scent of more rain. I cast a worried glance.

“That won’t get here for a couple hours yet,” Sarge assures me. “Be gone by tomorrow morning.”

“I hope my drip pan can hold off the tide until then.”

She checks her watch and starts down the porch steps. “Put the trash can under it. You’ve got one, right?”

“Thanks. Yeah. I will.” I’m not about to admit the idea never even crossed my mind.

“Be back tomorrow.” She lifts a hand in a manner appropriate for either a dismissive wave or flipping someone the bird.

“Hey,” I call just before she climbs into a red pickup truck with a ladder in the back. “How do I get to the judge’s house from here? Someone said it’s close enough to walk across the field.”

“LaJuna tell you that?”

“Why?”

“She likes to go there.”

“LaJuna? How does she get all the way out here?” My house is five miles from town.

“Bike, I imagine.” Sarge meets my curiosity with a wary look. “She’s not hurting anything. She’s a good kid.”

“Oh I know.” In truth, I haven’t a clue about who LaJuna really is, other than that she was nice to me at the restaurant. “It seems like a long bike ride, that’s all.”

Aunt Sarge pauses by her truck, studies me a moment. “Shorter by the old farm levee lane. Cuts across back there.” She nods toward the orchard behind my house and the tilled field beyond, where the crops are knee-high and bright green. “Highway goes around all the property that was Goswood Grove. The farm levee lane cuts right through the middle of the plantation, takes you past the back of the big house. When I was a kid, farmers still came and went that way to bring crops to market and their cane to the syrup mill, especially the old folks farming with mules, yet. Couple miles makes a big difference when you’re moving at two miles an hour.”

My mind hiccups. Mules? This is 1987. I’d guess Sarge to be only in her thirties.

“Thanks again for coming by so quickly. I really appreciate it. I can’t be home tomorrow to unlock the house until after school.”

She squints again at the roof. “I shouldn’t need to get in. Probably have it fixed and be gone before you get here.”

I’m a little disappointed. LaJuna’s aunt is perhaps a bit gruff, but she’s an interesting personality. And she knows things about Augustine, yet I get an inkling that she’s not exactly an insider, either. Her perspective could be helpful. Besides, I’d really like to make a friend or two here.

“Of course.” I try again. “But if you end up still being around when I get home, I usually brew some coffee after work. Sit out on the screen porch in back and have a cup.” It’s an awkward invitation, but it’s a start.

“Girl, I’d be up all night.” She opens her truck door. Stops one more time and gives me the same perplexed look I got when I asked Granny T to speak to my classes. “You need to lay off that stuff in the evening. Messes with your sleep.”

“You’re probably right.” Lately, I don’t sleep, but I blame job trauma combined with financial stress. “Well, if I miss you tomorrow, you’ll leave a bill for me? Or drop it by the school?”

“I’ll stick it in your screen door. Got no interest in that school.” She departs without further niceties.

I’m reminded that Augustine operates under some unwritten code I neither understand nor can communicate in. Trying to decipher it is like being tucked in the back bedroom of my father’s New York apartment, sitting on the edge of a daybed with my suitcase between my knees, listening as my dad, his wife, and my grandparents conversed in rapid-fire Italian, and wondering if my little half sisters, lying in their beds in the adjoining room, could understand what was being said. About me.

I push that memory aside and hurry back into the house, where I trade my work treads for the duck shoes I used on rainy college campus days. They’re the closest things I have to boots, and they will have to do. Hopefully, I won’t be wading through anything too deep in order to find this levee lane. I want to at least give it a try before the rain starts again.

Curiosity nibbles as I slog off across the backyard toward the overgrown hedges of oleander and honeysuckle that separate the house property from a small orchard and garden patch, and then the surrounding farm fields.

My shoes are wet inside and encased in five pounds of mud by the time I find a rise of ground that snakes along an irrigation canal. The farm levee lane, I’m guessing. The ghost of a wagon trail traces the top of it, but mostly it’s hidden beneath grass and autumn wildflowers.

A shaft of sunlight pushes its way through the haze overhead, as if to encourage me to follow. Live oaks shimmer in the golden glow, dripping diamond-like liquid from waxy leaves. Their gnarled branches clutch closer together, moss curtains swaying aimlessly beneath. In thick shadow, the road seems eerie, otherworldly, a passageway to another realm, like Narnia’s wardrobe or Alice’s rabbit hole.

I stand and peer down its length, my heart suspended in my chest. I wonder at the conversations this place has heard, the people and animals who have passed along this rise of ground. Who rode in the wagons that hollowed out the ruts? Where were those people going? What did they talk about?

Were there battles here? Did soldiers fire shots across this thoroughfare? Do bullets hide still, encased deep in the fiber and bark of these ancient trees? I know the cursory details of the Civil War, but almost nothing about Louisiana’s history. Now that seems like a deficit. I want to understand this reedy, marshy corner of the world that scratches its existence equally from land, and river, and swamp, and sea. My home for the next five years if I can figure out how to survive here.

I need more pieces to the puzzle, but no one is going to hand them to me. I have to
find
them. Dig them from their hiding places, from the ground and the people.

Listen,
the road seems to admonish.
Listen. I have stories.

I close my eyes, and I hear voices. Thousands whispering all at once. I can’t make out any single one, but I know they’re here. What do they have to say?

Opening my eyes, I push my hands into the pockets of my purple raincoat and start walking. The air is quiet, but my mind is noisy. My heart speeds up as I form plans. I need tools to understand this place, to make inroads here. Ding Dongs are tools. Books are tools. But the stories that aren’t in books, the ones no one has written down, like the one Granny T shared with me, like Aunt Sarge telling about farmers pulling wagons to market with mules: Those are tools, too.

Sad thing when stories die for the lack of listenin’ ears.
Granny T is right.

There must be other people around here with stories no one’s listening to. Real stories that might teach the same lessons I was hoping to bring out in literature. What if I could make them part of my curriculum, somehow? Maybe they could help me understand this place and my students. Maybe they could help my students understand each other.

I’m so busy walking and thinking, scheming and planning and crafting positive visualizations of how to make next week different from last week, that when I come out of my imaginary world into the real one again, the tree tunnel around the road is gone and I’m walking past an enormous farm field. I have no idea how far I’ve hiked. My mind hasn’t registered a thing.

On either side of the raised lane, neatly planted rows of what looks like spiky grass stand half submerged in water. The sunshine is gone, and the vibrant green seems startlingly bright against the cloudy day—as if I’m looking at it on a TV set and a two-year-old has been playing with the color knob.

I realize now what has stopped me in my tracks and awakened me. Two things, rather. One, I’ve apparently walked right past the judge’s place without noticing, because if I continue beyond this field, I’ll be in the fringes of town. Two, I can’t continue on at the moment. A log is blocking the trail ahead…only it’s
not
a log. It’s an alligator. Not a huge alligator, but big enough that it’s just sitting there, rather fearlessly sizing me up.

I fasten my gaze upon it, awed and horrified. It’s the largest predator I’ve ever seen outside a TV screen.

“I move him for ya!” It’s then that I notice, in the periphery, the little boy with the bicycle. His dirty shirt bears the evidence of the chicken leg spirited away from the Cluck and Oink earlier.

“No. No-no-
no
!” But my words have zero effect. The kid makes a run at the gator, pushing his bike like a ramrod.

“Stop! Get back!” I rush forward, with no idea what I plan to do.

Fortunately, the alligator is off-put by the brouhaha. It slinks down the side of the lane into the watery field below.

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