The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel
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The first part of my plan comes clear. I slip from my hiding spot, step soundless on the ground, and move through the patches of shadow and moon to that camp.

I take the hat that dangles there, change it for the one on my head, and try not to think about if it’s thieving when you take somebody’s hat but leave your own in trade for it. In case Moses, or the scarred man, or his workers are still hunting me, I’ll look different when I get on the road tomorrow.

My fingers fly up and down my shirt, undoing the bone buttons. I slip it off and reach for the stranger’s white one before the mosquitos have time to get after me. The collar hangs up when I tug, and even though I’m tall, I have to jump to get it loose without tearing. The branch snaps back and pulls at the man’s camp shelter, and he tosses on his pallet, snorts and coughs.

I stay still as the dead, waiting for him to settle, before I throw my old shirt on the branch and run off half-naked, carrying his. I hunker down in a stubble field just off from the camps to get dressed. A dog barks in the woods, and then another with it. Then a third. They sing the long, wavering song of a hunt. I hark to the days when the overseers and the patrollers rode the night with their tracking hounds, chasing after the runners that tried to hide in the swamps or head north. Sometimes, the runaways got caught quick. Sometimes, they’d stay out there for months. A few never came back, and we hoped they’d made their way to the free states we’d all heard of.

Mostly, the runners got hungry, or sick with fever, or lonesome for their people, and they wandered home on their own. What happened then depended on their marse or missus. But if a runner got caught in the field, the patrollers would let their dogs chew flesh from bone before dragging whatever was left back to the home plantation. Then everybody, the field hands and the house girls and all the little children on that place, would be stood out to see the poor, tore-up soul and watch the lashing that was to come.

Old Gossett never kept a runner. Always said if a slave wasn’t grateful to be fed good and not worked on Sunday except during sugar season, and kept in clothes and shoes, and not sold off from their family, he wasn’t worth having. Nearly all of the Gossett help had been raised on the place, but the slaves that’d come from the Loach family as wedding gifts to Old Missus, they had different stories to tell. Their bodies spoke in scars, and the nubs of cutoff fingers and toes, and twisted arms and legs healed crooked after being broke. Was from them and others on plantations near Goswood Grove that we learned how other folks had it. Our worst worry day by day was to watch out for Old Missus’s bad temper. A life could be meaner than that, and many were.

I don’t want them dogs in the woods to get after me, and since I can’t tell what they’re chasing tonight, I figure I better hide up closer to town, maybe try to find myself a ride out on a wagon come morning. I could pay for it with the money in Missy’s reticule, but I don’t dare.

I ponder that, squatting there in the stubble while I button up the shirt placket. Tucking the hem over Missy’s reticule in my britches waist, I cinch John’s leather belt tight to hold it. Makes me shaped like a fat-bellied boy, which is good. Fat boy in a white shirt and a gray hat. The more different I look from before, the better. Now I just need to find a likely wagon and hide before morning, when that man sees the clothes he left to dry been traded out instead.

The dogs work closer and closer up the woods, so I cross the camp yard again, move near the river landing and listen at the men talking. I watch for just the right kind of wagon—one where the driver’s alone and the horses hadn’t been rubbed down and picketed, which means they’re headed for home at daybreak.

Light warms the sky by the time I find what I need. A old colored man guides his mules to the front of the line. The load in his wagon is covered over and tied down tight. Driver’s so crippled, he can’t hardly get down off the seat, and I hear him say he’s from a place upriver. When the workers untie the ropes, underneath the canvas is a fancy piano like the one Old Missus had before the war. It sings lopsided notes as the men take it down, and the driver limps after it up the boardwalk to the boat, bossing every step.

I start on my way toward that wagon, listening as voices mix with the noise of ropes whining and chains jangling and pulleys squealing. Mules and cows and horses kick and fret while the men make ready to load livestock. Right after that will come passengers, last of all.

Don’t run,
I tell myself, though every inch of muscle and bone inside me wants to.
Move like you hadn’t got a worry at all. Like you’re just here working the docks with all the rest. Easy-like.

I pass by a stack of empty crates, grab two and heft them on my shoulders, keeping my head down between. The hat slips low, so’s all I can see is the strip of ground in front of my feet. I hear Moses’s deep voice someplace nearby hollering out orders.

A pair of stovepipe boots stop in my path. I pull up short, squeezing the crates hard against my head.
Don’t look up.

The boots half turn my way. I tooth my bottom lip, bite hard.

“These’uns get took straight where you been told,” the man says. I catch my breath that it ain’t Moses’s voice and he don’t seem to be talking to me, then I check and see it’s a big white man, telling a couple stevedores where to haul some trunks. “Best be quick at it, or you’ll get you a ride on that boat. Wind up in Texas.”

Past the man, farther on toward the river, is Moses. He stands ramrod-straight under a hanging lantern, one tall boot braced on the boardwalk and one in the mud. His palm rests over the pistol holstered to his thigh while he points and yells and tells workers where to put the goods. Every minute or two, he steps up on the boardwalk and takes a wide look around, like he’s watching for something. I hope it ain’t me.

I move back as the two big trunks get pushed by, strapped on handcarts. A wheel slips off the cypress planks that’ve been laid over the mud, and the lift handle snaps in two, sending a trunk and the worker sidewards. Something thumps inside the box, hollow like a melon. A whimper comes, low, soft.

The big white man steps forward, holds the trunk from falling on its side. “Best take care,” he says while the stevedore gets to his feet. “Bruise up Boss’s new dogs, he’d be mighty displeased. Watch them wheels.” He puts a knee and shoulder under the trunk to help get it upright on the planks again. Just as he does, something shiny gold falls through a crack along the trunk slats. It snakes down silent and lands in the mud next to the man’s foot. I know what it is, even before the workers and the man move on, and I set down one of my crates and scoop up what’s been left on the ground.

I open my hand and, there in my palm, glittering in the gas lamp’s flickery light, sits the little gold locket Missy Lavinia’s been wearing since she got it for Christmas Day when she was six years old.

She’d be dead in her grave before she’d give that up.

CHAPTER 8

BENNY SILVA—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1987

The books keep me going. I dream of those books hidden away at Goswood Grove, of tall mahogany shelves with volumes upon volumes of literary treasures, and ladders reaching to the sky. For several days in a row, when I come home from school feeling discouraged by my lack of progress with the kids, I put on my duck shoes and make the trek down the farm levee lane, slip through the crape myrtles, and follow the moss-carpeted paths of the old garden. I stand on the porch like a kid before the Macy’s display window at Christmas, and fantasize about what might be possible if I could get my hands on those books.

Loren Eiseley, who was the subject of one of my favorite term papers, wrote,
If there is magic in this world, it is contained in water,
but I have always known that if there is magic in this world, it is contained in books.

I
need
magic. I need a miracle, a superpower. In almost two weeks, I have taught these kids nothing but how to bum cheap snack cakes and sleep in class…and that I will physically bar the door if they try to leave before the bell rings, so don’t try it. Now they skip my class altogether. I don’t know where they are, just that they’re not in my room. My unexcused absence reports sit unbothered on a massive stack of similar pink slips in the office. Principal Pevoto’s grand plan to turn this school around is in danger of falling victim to
the way things have always been
. He is like the overburdened character in Eiseley’s often printed story, throwing beached starfish back into the ocean one by one, while the tide continually deposits more along an endless and merciless shore.

With most of the classroom books now missing, I have resorted to reading aloud from
Animal Farm
daily. This, to high school kids who should be reading for themselves. They don’t mind. A few even listen, peeking surreptitiously from the battery of folded arms, drooped heads, and closed eyes.

LaJuna is not among my audience. After our hopeful encounter at the Cluck and Oink, she’s been absent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and now Thursday. I’m disappointed in a soul-crushing sort of way.

Across the hall, a substitute teacher screams incessantly during my readings as she attempts to control science room chaos. The science teacher who started the year with me has already given up and claimed she had to move home because of a flare-up in her mother’s lupus. She’s gone. Just like that.

I keep telling myself I will not quit. Period. I will gain access to that library at Goswood Grove. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but I can’t help believing that, for kids who are given so few choices on a daily basis, just having some could be huge. Beyond that, I want them to see that there is no faster way to change your circumstance than to open a great book.

Books were the escape hatch that carried me away during long, lonely times when my mother was gone. During the years I grew up wondering why my father didn’t want much to do with me, and the times I landed in schools where, with my wild black curls and olive-toned skin, I looked different from everyone else, and kids curiously inquired,
What are you, anyway?
Books made me believe that smart girls who didn’t necessarily fit in with the popular crowd could be the ones to solve mysteries, rescue people in distress, ferret out international criminals, fly spaceships to distant planets, take up arms and fight battles. Books showed me that not all fathers understand their daughters or even seek to, but that people can turn out okay despite that. Books made me feel beautiful when I wasn’t. Capable when I couldn’t be.

Books built my identity.

I want that for my students. For those lonely, hollow faces and unsmiling mouths and dulled, discouraged eyes that stare at me from the desks day after day.

The school library will not be a suitable source, even temporarily. The kids are not allowed to take books out because
they can’t be trusted with them.
The city library, housed two blocks from the school in an old Carnegie building, is slowly fading into oblivion. The good, fully modern, and well-equipped library is, of course, situated out by the lake, far beyond our reach.

I need to know what help can be found in the hoard at Goswood Grove. To that end, I have asked Coach Davis if I might borrow a pair of the binoculars they use in the announcer’s stand during games. He shrugged and muttered that he’d have one of the students bring them over after last period, but this being Thursday, he’d need them back by Friday for the football game.

Following the last-period bell, I diddle around my empty classroom until Lil’ Ray and the skinny kid with the always perfectly coiffed hair finally show up at my door. Michael, the other boy, is one of Lil’ Ray’s favorite toadies.

“Mister Rust. Mister Daigre. I’m assuming Coach Davis sent you with something for me?”

“Mmm-hmmm.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Because Coach has sent the boys, they are as meek as lambs and display good manners, to boot. Lil’ Ray apologizes for not getting here sooner. Michael nods.

“It’s all right. I appreciate the delivery.” They eyeball the snack-cake drawer, but I don’t offer. After dealing with these two knuckleheads desk wrestling and mouthing off daily in class, I’m shocked and almost peeved by all this politeness. “Tell Coach Davis thanks.”

“Yes, ma’am,” skinny Michael says when Lil’ Ray hands over the binoculars.

They start out the door, then Lil’ Ray snaps his head up like he hates to ask, but somehow he
must
know, “What’d you want them spyglasses for?”

“What do you want
those
spyglasses for?” I correct. “Remember, you’re in the English room, which means English class rules apply.”

Michael looks down at his feet, smirks my way. “Lil’ Ray and me are in the hall, though.”

Good gravy, this kid is quite clever. He’s been hiding that fact from me for two weeks. “I claim proximity,” I say with a smile. “Technically my territory goes to the middle of the hall all along this stretch in
front
of my classroom. The other side of the hall, now that is science room territory.”

Lil’ Ray grins and backs up two giant steps into the safe zone. “What’d you want them spyglasses for?”

“Answer a question in my class tomorrow—any one of the questions I ask about the reading from
Animal Farm
—and I’ll tell you after class…about the field glasses, I mean.” It’s worth a try. If I could gain sway with Lil’ Ray, I might start turning the tide. He carries a lot of clout in the high school social structure. “
Any
question, but you have to give a good answer. Not just nonsense to make people laugh.”

I dream of the day when an actual classroom discussion takes root. Maybe tomorrow will be the day.

Lil’ Ray cranes his head away, giving me the fish eye. “Never mind.”

“Let me know if you decide otherwise.”

They tromp off, jostling and laughing with the abandon of a couple of puppies turned loose in the hall.

I pack up my loaner binoculars and wait for four
P.M.
, the official teacher release time. The binoculars, my notepad, and I have a mission to accomplish, and aside from that, after several days of weather that remained too wet, Aunt Sarge is due at my house at four-fifteen to finally fix the leak around the stovepipe.

I have my keys in hand and I’m grabbing my loaded backpack when I turn from my desk, and, of all people, Granny T from the Cluck and Oink is standing in my doorway with what looks like a case of Mountain Dew on her hip. I suspect that’s not what is in the box, though, because her stooped-over frame supports the weight easily as she hobbles to the desk to deposit the load. She pulls out a note card with something written on it. A stern nod indicates that I should peruse the contents of the box.

I dare not refuse, and when I check, the interior is filled with what look like lumpy cocoa cookies, stacked in layer-cake fashion with sheets of waxed paper in-between.

“Quit buying Ding Dongs from the store,” she commands. “These’re Granny T’s ’nanner oatmeal raisin pooperoos. Easy to fix up. Don’t cost much. Not too sweet. Child is hungry, he’ll eat them. He’s not bad hungry, he’ll turn up the nose. Long as you don’t add more sugar. Keep them just a little sweet.
No
using chocolate chips in place of the raisins unless you’re doing it for a party. Never in the classroom, you listenin’ at me now? You
want
pooperoos that’re just good enough for a hungry child to eat. No better. That’s the secret, mmm-hmm?”

She extends the note card. “This here is the recipe. Easy. Cheap. Oatmeal. Butter. Flour. Bit a sugar. Raisin. Old, brown bananas. Ones so ripe, they’re squishy like mud and smell up the kitchen. Get them almost free, end of the fresh aisle in the Piggly Wiggly. Anythin’ else you need to know?”

I peer into the box, dumbfounded. After a full day at school my head is, as usual, pulsating and my body feels as if it’s been run over by a tour bus. My brain is sluggish in coming up with a response. “Oh…I…oh…okay.”

Did I just agree to bake cookies for these little hooligans?

Granny T wags a craggy finger at me and purses her lips like she’s tasted vinegar. “Now, this here…” She circles her lecture finger toward the cookies. “This’s
your
job, next batch. I can’t be helpin’ you all the time. I’m a old woman. Got the trouble in my knees. Arthritis in my back. Bad feet. Still have my mind, but I forget it sometimes. I’m old. A crippled-up old woman.”

“Oh…okay. This was really a kind thing to do.” A lump rises in my throat and tears needle my eyes in a completely unexpected assault of emotion. I am not usually the crying sort. In truth, practically never. When you grow up staying mostly in other people’s houses, you learn to keep a polite lid on things, not be any bother.

I swallow hard. Think,
What is wrong with you, Benny?
Stop it.
“Thanks for going to so much trouble.”


Ffff!
Wasn’t any trouble,” Granny T spits out.

I pretend to be busy closing the box. “Well, I do appreciate it. A lot. And I know the kids will.”

“All right, then.” She points herself toward the door, her exit as self-directed as her entrance. “You stop feeding them kids Ding Dongs. They are just takin’ you for a ride. Strip you clean, like locusts in a wheat field. I know. Been a Sunday school teacher longer than you been breathin’ air. My departed husband led the choir sixty-nine years before traveling on to glory. Worked the restaurant in the day, practiced music at night and on Sunday. It’s no favor to any child, spoilin’ him. You want a cream cake from the store in a pretty little package, and you’re up big enough to mow grass, pull weeds, wash somebody’s windows, run the checkout at the grocery, you go get you a job, buy your
own
cream cakes. Only thing you get free, if you really
did
come hungry, is one old oat mash cookie. And that’s only so the mind ain’t in the belly. So it can
learn.
You get the chance to sit in a school chair all day, instead of working someplace, you are lucky. Blessed and highly favored. Children ought to appreciate it like we did in my day.” She proceeds to the door, still talking. “Spoiled. Spoiled on Ding Dongs.”

I wish I’d recorded every bit of that speech on cassette tape. Or better yet, VCR. I’d play it for the kids, over and over and over until something changes.

“Granny T?” I catch her before she makes her way through the door.

“Mmm-hmm?” She hesitates, lips puckered again as she cranes upward.

“Have you thought any more about coming to my class to talk to the kids? It really would be good for them to hear your story.”

Once again, she fans off my idea like a giant, annoying gnat. “Oh, honey, I ain’t got anything to say.” She’s quickly out the door, and I’m left with banana oatmeal cocoa pooperoos. Which is more than I had a few minutes ago. So, there’s that.

I’m also late to meet Wonder Woman and get my roof repaired. I put the new cookies in my Ding Dong security vault, otherwise known as the top file drawer, lock it, and hurry home.

Aunt Sarge is already on the roof by the time I pull into the driveway. There is a stepladder propped next to the porch, so I climb it and stand on the top step, my hands keeping balance on the roof, which is still at about the level of my front pants pockets.

I say hello and make my apologies for being late.

“Not a problem,” Aunt Sarge mutters around a nail protruding from her mouth like a cigarette. “Didn’t need you anyway. All the work’s outside.”

I perch there a moment, watching with no small bit of admiration as she slides the nail from between her lips and whacks it into a shingle with four efficient hammer strokes. A small package beside her appears to contain additional shingles, which worries me a little. There’s more involved here than just roofing tar, clearly. This looks costly.

The ladder wobbles underfoot as I hook a knee onto the roof. Fortunately, today is laundry day, and I have on my oldest pair of work slacks, which I’ve decided need to go into retirement anyway. I ascend with all the grace of a performing seal trying to mount a circus pony.

A bothered look flicks my way. “You got something else you need to do, no worries. I’m fine up here.” There’s a sharp defensiveness, as if she’s used to battling for the ground she stands on. Maybe it’s a military thing. An adaptation to surviving in challenging work environments.

I wonder if that’s true of the kids in my class. Could it be that their apparent disdain for me is nothing personal? The thought flutters around the edges of my mind, unexpected and appealing, a bit revolutionary. I always assume people’s behaviors are a reaction to something I’ve done, not that they’re just doing their thing.

Hmmm…

“Roof won’t leak when I’m through,” Sarge assures me. “I know construction work.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it for a minute. And I couldn’t tell one way or another, anyway. I have zero experience with roofs, other than living under one.” I crawl up and sit. This thing is steep. And higher than I thought. From here, I can see the entire cemetery and across the orchard to the farm field beyond. It’s quite a view. “Maybe if I watch, I’ll know how to fix it next time. But I thought we were only talking about putting some tar around the pipe or something.”

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