Authors: Jeanette Baker
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Contemporary Romance, #Adult, #Sex, #Law Enforcement, #Man Made Disaster, #Land Pollution, #Water Pollution, #Radioactivity Pollution, #Detective Mystery, #Rural, #Small Town, #Suburban, #Urban, #Wilderness, #Louisiana, #Maryland, #Christianity-Catholicism, #Science-Marine Biology, #Social Sciences-Geography, #Fishing-Fresh Water, #Fishing-Salt Water, #Boat Transportation, #2000-2010, #1960-1969
Libby slowed to a walk. No one would mistake him. The man was born to the breed. She'd seen him first. It gave her a slight advantage. Mustering her courage, she approached the trawler. He was writing something on a tablet, completely preoccupied with his task.
“Hi, Russ,” she said softly.
He turned quickly. Black hair fell across his forehead and slate-blue eyes smoldered down at her. A variety of emotions played across his face, shock, pleasure, wariness. “Well, well, well,” he drawled, blowing a blue-tinted curl of smoke in her direction. “If it ain't Miz Libba Jane Delacourte in the flesh.” He drew out the word
until the very word itself sounded like an insult. “How are you, Libba Jane?”
“I'm doing well. How about you?”
He nodded. “Staggerin' blindly, as usual.”
“Are you back for good?”
“I think so.” His blue eyes were narrow, his mouth hard. “And you?”
“I'm not sure yet,” she said honestly. “I need a job and I have a daughter who's California-spoiled. Before I can make any permanent plans, I've got to convince her that Marshyhope Creek has potential.”
He whistled. “Times sure have changed, haven't they? Can you imagine our parents asking us if it was okay to move?”
His criticism stung. “That really doesn't apply. Moving wasn't even a possibility. Our families have lived here for generations.”
Russ hopped down to stand beside her. “Don't get your feathers ruffled, Libba Jane. Your mother's family isn't from Marshyhope Creek and every one of your daddy's brothers and sisters relocated elsewhere.”
She changed the subject. “I heard you were out West somewhere.”
He nodded. “That's right.”
“Why did you come back?”
“You do get right to the point, don't you? Same as always.”
“What did you expect?”
He stroked his chin, looked up at the sky and pretended to think about her question. “Well, the thing is, I don't know what to expect. There was a time when I knew you as well as I knew myself, or at least I thought I did. But that's long gone. So, as far as I'm concerned, you're a mystery to me, Libba Jane. When it comes to you, I'm startin' fresh.”
Libby swallowed. She deserved the sarcasm and the subtle tongue-lashing. There was nothing left to do but grovel. “I know it's late to try to make amends, but I'm sorry, Russ. I have no excuse for what I did to you. It was thoughtless and cruel. I hope you'll forgive me.”
He stared at her. “Did you practice that for long?”
Her lips twitched and then she laughed out loud. “I started when my daddy told me you'd come back to take over the business.”
“You're a terrible actress.”
“Thank God for that. At least you'll know when I'm telling the truth.”
He held out his hand and grinned. “Apology accepted.”
She took it and smiled. “I heard you're divorced. I'm sorry.”
“Thanks, but that's the best part. It was a mistake from the beginning except for Tess.”
“My daughter,” he explained. “She's fifteen going on twenty.”
Libby groaned. “I know what you mean. Wait until you meet Chloe.”
Russ tested the name. “Chloe. I like it. When will that be?”
“Whenever you like. She's adrift right now because she doesn't know anyone her own age. That'll change when school starts.”
“Careful, Libba Jane,” he warned her. “You sound like you're settlin' in.”
“Truthfully, I'd like to. I never did care for California. I'm glad to be home, but that's only the half of it. I need a job and I need to reach some kind of agreement with Chloe and her father.”
“What happened there?” he asked casually.
Libby shrugged. “Like you, I made a mistake. I was too young to know what I wanted.”
He studied her face. “You look exactly the same.”
“Thanks,” she said lightly.
“It isn't a compliment, Libba. Some things just are.” He changed the subject. “I'm sorry about your mama.”
“Thanks,” she said again. “She's much better than I expected.” She looked at her watch. “I've got to be going. Nice talking to you, Russ.”
“I'll be seein' you around. Stop in any old time. I'm back at Hennessey House. You know the way.”
She picked up her pace, aware of his gaze on her back, conscious of her six extra pounds, willing her pounding heart and wobbly legs to respond normally. Did she want to see him again? Her pulse accelerated. He wasn't quite the same as she remembered. He looked like the old Russ Hennessey, but there was something more there, a sophistication, an absence of bravado, an honesty that appealed to her. He wasn't as model-beautiful as Eric, but to Libby he was better-looking in a rugged, masculine, take-charge kind of way. Russ Hennessey was the kind of man who would always be in control. Seventeen years ago his protective, alpha-male tendencies had rankled the young Libby Delacourte and she'd chosen a different kind of man, a man who believed a woman should shoulder her own burdens and half of his. Now she was of a different mind. It would be a tremendous relief to have someone take care of her once in a while.
There were a million questions she wanted to ask. Tracy Wentworth was one of them. She knew Russ would marry someone, but she never imagined it would be Tracy. The Tracy she remembered refused to swim in the bay for fear of ruining her mascara and wetting her hair. In school she'd been excused from physical education because her milky skin couldn't tolerate the sun. She was always leaving class to take some sort of prescribed medication for her delicate constitution. Personally, Libby thought she was a classic hypochondriac. She'd gone out with Mitch for a while and Libby had tolerated her in the spirit of maintaining a friendship with Russ's brother, but Tracy's cloying manners and pretentious attitude toward anyone who lived on the wrong side of the creek made it difficult. Libby was relieved when Mitch broke off the relationship and surprised to learn from Shelby Sloane that Russ had taken up with Tracy less than a year after Libby had left for California. It was almost insulting. Russell Hennessey had been a catch. He deserved someone infinitely more worthy than Tracy Wentworth. To his credit, the marriage had been a brief one. But there was a child. Libby sighed. A child meant forever, no matter how one wished it otherwise.
rusilla Washington shook the dirt from the plant in her hand and frowned. These budding sweet potatoes with their stunted stems and oddly shaped leaves were the least appetizing she'd ever harvested. Odd that they were so small when the ones she'd picked the other day were perfect. Hopefully, these plants weren't typical. Otherwise, if the crop continued to grow poorly and if there weren't more pregnancies in the migrant worker's camp she wouldn't be able to add to her nest egg this winter. She knew Verna Lee would take care of her, even take her in, if Drusilla was of a mind. The girl had a strong sense of family. But Drusilla had her pride and she liked her independence. She would stave off the day when she could no longer do for herself as long as possible.
She thought of the woman who had come to her the day before. The girl was young and very near her time. Her husband had promised Drusilla a healthy portion of his day's earnings for assisting at the birth. She could buy a week's worth of groceries with the money, maybe even a luxury or two she normally didn't allow herself, like a half dozen soft-shelled blue crab or a good ham with a bone in the middle. Her stomach growled. She folded her blanket and took down her umbrella. She would stop by the woman's shack just to be sure the herbs she'd given her yesterday were working their magic.
A low moan and the anxious black face of the young husband answered her knock. “She be at it since early mornin',” he croaked, rubbing his hands nervously on his overalls. “If I don' git to de fields, I won' be gittin' my wages.”
“You run along,” said Drusilla. “She don't need you now.”
With a nervous half smile, he took one last look at the woman moaning on the stained mattress and hurried out the door.
Drusilla found a bucket and walked to the outdoor pump. “Don' you be frettin' now,” she told the girl when she returned. “Ol' Drusilla goin' take care o' you. It won' be long now.”
She looked around. The sharecropper's shack was a temporary dwelling, clean but pitifully stark, designed to house the tide of migrant labor for as long as the harvest lasted. Pulling a handful of clean rags from the shelf, Drusilla sat down on the mattress and lifted the girl's gown to examine her. She was more than halfway there.
“There, there, chil',” she crooned as the girl cried out against the next contraction. “You doin' jes fine.”
Three hours later the child had still not come. The mattress was drenched with blood and sweat and the young woman had long since passed out from the pain. Drusilla's round face was shiny and giant wet circles stained the underarms of her dress. She was worried. Something was very wrong. Frowning, she thought back to her mentor, Minnie Hobbs. Only once had Minnie allowed her to turn a breeched baby. It was long ago. If only Drusilla could remember. For the space of time it takes to hear a heartbeat, she thought of calling Verna Lee, Verna with her college education and her knowledge of herbs. Just as quickly she disregarded it. Verna would insist that the woman go to a hospital, something the young family could never afford.
Her eyes lit on the large cooler that served as an icebox. Moving quickly, Drusilla opened the lid and found what she was hoping for. Breaking off a fistful of lard from the block, she warmed it on the hot plate in the corner before smearing it over her hands and up her arms clear to the elbow. Positioning herself on the mattress, she spread the woman's legs and reached into the birth canal with both hands and waited for the next contraction. It came quickly. Grimacing against the bone-crunching pain, she slowly, with painstaking care, pulled the infant free.
For a full minute she stared in horror at the creature she'd delivered. The baby's face, arms and legs were normal, but beyond that, Drusilla knew that in all her years as a midwife she had never seen anything quite like the tiny female lying in her lap. The infant was horribly deformed, with soft, purple, fleshy masses attached to her chest and abdomen that moved and pulsed like living things. A soft, mewling cry brought Drusilla to her senses. “Dear Jesus,” she whispered. “Dear Jesus.”
The woman on the mattress stirred but did not waken.
Drusilla looked at the tom body of the new mother. Then she looked down at the tiny monster she'd delivered. Life was hard enough for a young couple without this. It didn't take a prophet to see the future. If the child lived, the father would stay loyal for a while, averting his gaze from this thing he'd created, avoiding his wife in the superstitious fear that the two of them together would create another like the first. He would stay away for longer and longer periods of time, seeking work in nearby counties until finally it was easier to keep on going, to never return, to put this life and this woman and this child behind him forever.
The infant coughed and cried briefly. Drusilla made her decision. Quickly she stood and tied off the cord, wrapping the afterbirth in a towel-size rag. Then she swaddled the infant tightly in the brand-new receiving blanket she'd found on top of the dresser and sat down in a chair by the door. Crooning softly, she let the words soothe her troubled soul.
“Hush little baby, don't you cry,
Drusilla's gonna sing you a lullaby.”
Her fingers found the pulse fluttering in the baby's throat and squeezed firmly. Her eyes filled. She lost the words and hummed the next few lines. The child was still.
“Hush little baby, don't say a word,
Drusilla's gonna buy you a mockingbird.”
She looked down once more. Above the swaddled blanket, the baby's head was perfect, full and well shaped, the skin fudge-colored, the lashes long. Dr. Balieu would need to file a report. He wouldn't notice the faint purple bruises on the baby's throat, not when he saw the rest of her. She looked perfectly content as if she were sleeping, not dead at all. Looking at that precious face, Drusilla nearly forgot the atrocity beneath the blanket.
“Dear Lord,” she whispered, “forgive me, but life is hard enough for us colored folks. We don' need no more than we already got.”
The woman on the mattress woke and lifted her head.
“Where's my baby?” she croaked.
Drusilla tightened the blanket around the child and crossed the room to the bed. “Don't fret too much. She be with God.”
With a low moan the woman turned her face to the wall. Silent tears slid down her cheeks to mingle with the blood and stains on the now foul mattress.
Later, as Drusilla walked home in the drugging heat of a summer evening, she wondered if she'd taken on too much. The young husband, who wasn't more than nineteen, had shown an unusual maturity. His first concern had been for his wife, and the words of comfort that she heard him speak were exactly right. He'd insisted on paying Drusilla the agreed-upon fee despite her assurances that she never charged for stillbirths. Maybe the two of them could have managed the child after all.
When Drusilla tried to speak of her reservations to Dr. Balieu, he hushed her before she could explain.
“I don't want to hear another word about it, Drusilla. Sometimes babies die. These people don't lead the healthiest of lives. The poor child was dreadfully deformed. In my mind, dying early was the best that could happen to the infant.”
Still, the doubt lingered, and for the first time in years, she stopped by St. Jude's on the way home to light a candle and make an offering, the exact amount that the bereft father had pressed into her hand two hours before. She justified her visit with the knowledge handed down to all voodoo priestesses, that Christianity had its roots in the religion of the Dark Continent. She wouldn't tell Verna Lee. The girl didn't always see things the same way as Drusilla, especially when it came to midwifery. She thought her grandmother was too old. But who would service the migrant workers and other poor folks who didn't have insurance cards for big fancy hospitals? Those years in San Francisco had given Verna Lee a different perspective. She didn't always know her place. A black woman should know her place. Drusilla's head hurt. She rubbed her temple. The doctor said it would be all right. No need for Verna to know anything at all.
Libby had noticed the shop the first time she made the trip into town. It was so
Even the name, Perks, would have fit into the Santa Monica/Venice Boulevard scene. She turned the knob and pushed open the door. The jingle of bells greeted her. A large black man, whom Libby recognized immediately, stood at the counter deep in conversation with the woman behind the counter, Verna Lee Fontaine. Both turned at the sound of the bells.
Cliff Jackson's face lit up. “Libba Jane Delacourte. I heard you were back. Where have you been keeping yourself?”
“At home with my mother.” She shook his hand and nodded at the woman. “How are you, Verna Lee? Your shop is wonderful.”
The woman was obviously sincere. Verna Lee Fontaine lifted the corners of her mouth in a brief smile. “Thanks. What can I do for you, Libba Jane?”
“Iced tea would be nice.”
“I'm fresh out, but I'll brew some if you don't mind waiting.”
“Take your time.”
Verna disappeared behind the swinging doors that led to the kitchen.
Libby smiled at Cliff. “How have you been, Cliff?”
“I'm doing well, thank you. I heard about your mama. I'm sorry.”
“Thanks. Actually, she's much better than I thought.” She changed the subject. “I didn't realize you were back in this neck of the woods. I heard you're working for the EPA.”
He eased his big linebacker's body into a low chair. “I'm here for the summer setting up an office. There've been a few problems around this area of the bay.”
“What kind of problems?”
“Pollution, possibly even the subterranean wells, although I doubt it.”
Libby's intuition kicked in. “PCBs?”
Cliff hesitated. “I'm not sure yet. I haven't got anything that amounts to much. As far as I can tell the test results show sludge with residual toxic metals.”
Cliff shrugged. “Nothing specific. Mercury, lead, some chromium. Could be paint or plastics.”
“Are the PCBs high?”
“Not serious enough to terminate the fishing industry, but enough to cause an unusually high amount of asthmatic bronchitis, and skin conditions among the sharecroppers.”
“What about the contaminants?” Contaminants blocked testosterone and created alarming amounts of estrogen in animals dependent on the estuaries. But she doubted that Clifford Jackson or anyone else at the Environmental Protection Agency would willingly admit that connection.
“High enough. PCBs were banned along with DDT in the seventies, but chemicals still pollute hundreds of our waterways.”
“What about the human implication?”
“Those are still theoretical, howeverâ” Cliff shrugged. “No one wants to believe lower sperm counts and increased levels of prostate and testicular cancer in men and breast cancer and endometriosis in women could be the result of chemicals currently sprayed on crops, gardens and lawns all over the United States.”
“In other words, the most toxic chemicals known to man can be found on the shelves of local hardware stores. Does Dr. Balieu think the contaminants are in the fish?”
“That old quack? He could eat bad fish three times a day and never put two and two together.”
“Maybe not. But he's the only doctor we've got,” she said quickly. “Any rise in cancer rates, primarily liver or kidney?”
Cliff shook his head. “Not that I could find out. But there is something unusual in the oxidation levels around the creek.”
Libby felt her palms sweat, a sure sign of internal agitation. No one would come forward to substantiate it, but the link was there and it wasn't DDT or any other toxic pesticide found in manufacturing or farm runoff. Biological oxygen demand was always evident in areas where stored radioactive nuclear waste had leaked into the groundwater. Her dissertation was based on it. She'd seen the results in alligators in the Florida Everglades, herons from British Columbia and bald eagles from the Great Lakes regions. Nearly twenty years after the drums were buried, descendents of wildlife exposed to uranium were born apparently healthy, but upon closer inspection carried two sets of sex organs. Female gulls in California were sharing nests for lack of male mates, terns in New Bedford Harbor had bizarre sex organs and twisted beaks. The long-term effect on humans was horrifying to think about.
Slow down, Libby,
she told herself.
BOD doesn't always mean nuclear spillage.
“Have you heard about the unusual rate of leukemia?” she asked casually.
“That's why I'm here. Could be the runoff from farms along the Susquehanna.” Clifford stroked his chin. “Although a high biological oxygen demand isn't all that dangerous. Sometimes it's beneficial.”
“What about shellfish in local waters?”
“The supply is down. But that could be due to overfishing. We just don't know.”
Libby's mouth was dry. “Are you working on it?”
Cliff sighed. “I can't do everything, Libba. I need manpower. Right now there isn't any to spare.”
Libby took the plunge. “I'm available.”
“What about your credentials? Got any?”
“I'll admit to a few.”
“Do you need a job, Libba Jane?”
“I'd like a job and this is my field. I'd like to come home for good.”
“Are you staying?”
“I think so.”
“I need more than that.”
“You said you needed help for the summer. I can give you that and a few months more for sure. I can't promise full-time. I came home to be with my family. But a few hours a day would work for me. As for staying permanently, I'm not absolutely sure I can do that. I have a daughter. If she settles into school here, we'll stay. If not, I'll take her back to California.”