The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (11 page)

“Can be if you want it.”

“I’m
colored,
Gus. I’m always gonna
be
colored. Ain’t nobody will let me pile up a bunch of money. If I can get me part of a sharecrop farm, I’ll be doing good as to be expected.”

“Pays to do bigger expectin’, sometimes. My pa tolt me that once’t.”

“You got a daddy?”

“Not really.”

We’re quiet awhile. I travel down my own mind like a river, try to think of,
What do I want?
Try to draw pictures of a life someplace in the wild, far off in Texas. Or maybe up north in Washington, D.C., or Canada or Ohio, with the folks who run off from their marses and missuses years ago and took the Underground Railroad to freedom, long before the soldiers bathed this land in blood and the Federals told us we didn’t have to belong to nobody, not one more day forever.

But I do belong to somebody. I belong to that sharecrop farm and Jason and John and Tati. To tilling the land and hoeing the crops and bringing in the harvest. To soil and sweat and blood.

I ain’t ever seen some other kind of life. Can’t conjure what you never seen.

Maybe that’s the reason why, every time Mama calls to me in my dreams, I wake fretful and washed in my own sweat. I’m afraid of the great big
everything
that might be out there. Afraid of all I’m blind to. All I’ll never see.

“Gus?” I whisper it soft, case he’s gone off to sleep.

“Yeahhh.” He yawns.

“It ain’t you I’m mad at. It’s just things.”

“I know.”

“I’m grateful you went up to look for Missy and Juneau Jane. I’ll fetch you that dollar.”

“I don’t need it. Got the biscuits for my trouble. Them’s enough. I hope they ain’t dead—them girls.”

“I do, too.”

“I don’t want them hauntin’ after me, is all.”

“I don’t think they would.”

We go quiet awhile again. Then, I say, “Gus?”

“I’m sleepin’.”

“All right.”

“What’d you want? Might as well say, since you bothered me.”

I bite my lips. Make up my mind to toss something out, like a leaf into a river, never know how far the currents might carry it, where it might wash up on shore. “You do a thing for me when you get to Texas? While you’re traveling round looking for them wild cattle and such?”

“Might.”

“Anywhere you go, and you talk to folks—because I know you talk a heap—you mind asking them, do they know any colored folk, name of the Gossetts or the Loaches? You find anyone like that, maybe you could ask them, have they been missing somebody by the name of Hannie? If you ever find somebody who answers yes, let them know, Hannie’s still living back on the old place, Goswood Grove. Same as ever.”

Hope flutters up in the hollow of my throat, clumsy like something just born and trying to find its feet. I push it down hard. Best not to let it grow too much, right off. “I got people out there, maybe. In Texas and in the north of Louisiana. All us keep three blue glass beads on a string round our necks. Beads all the way from Africa. My grandmama’s beads. I’ll show you once it’s light enough.”

“Yeah, I reckon I could ask here and there. If I think about it.”

“I’d be grateful.”

“Them’s the saddest threesome of words I ever put my ears on, though.”

“What is?”

“Them words at the tail end of your story.” He smacks his lips, drowsy, while I try to remember what I said. Finally, he gives the words back to me, “
Same as ever.
Them’s three mournful bad words.”

We go quiet then, and sleep. First light shines above the cotton bales when we wake again. Gus and me come to at the same time, sit up and twist to see each other, worried. The
slap-slap
of the paddle wheel and the engine’s rumble is gone. The cotton bale above our heads shudders side to side. We both wiggle up on our haunches at once.

Except for fire, this is the thing that’s worried us most. Cotton don’t get freighted all the way to Texas; it gets brought out of Texas and south Louisiana and carried north to cloth mills. Sometime before Texas, our cotton palace is bound for an offload. We just don’t know when.

First night in our hiding place, we slept in shifts, so’s to keep an eye out, but we’ve turned lazy. Water’s been smooth, and the weather’s clear, and the boat passes by the towns and the plantations that have their own river landings along the way. Don’t even stop for folk that come out to their docks and try to wave her down to catch a berth upwater. The
Genesee Star
is loaded for the long haul. Just eats boiler wood, stops for reload here and there, and steams right on. Ain’t the normal way of the river, but it’s the way of the
Genesee Star.
She ain’t sociable and she don’t want to be troubled with new folks.

There’s something peculiar about this boat, Gus says. Something wrong. Folks talk in whispers if they talk at all, and the
Genesee
creeps along like a ghost not wanting to be seen by the living.

“We ain’t movin’,” I whisper to Gus.

“Wooding, I bet. Must be we come in at another farm landin’. Don’t hear no town sounds.”

“Me neither.” Ain’t unusual for a boat to stop off no place particular to take on fuel. Swamp folk and farmers make their living woodcutting for the riverboats. White folk doing what used to be the work of gangs of slaves.

The cotton bales shift like something’s shoved them hard. The palace sways over our heads, two bales falling together, wedged shoulder to shoulder. “What if they’re taking on more than just wood, or bringing goods off the boat?” I whisper.

Gus casts a nervous look. “Hope they ain’t.” He wiggles to a stand, whispers, “We best git.” Then he’s headed down the tunnel.

I snatch up my hat, dig out Missy’s reticule, shove it in my pants, and start pushing and wiggling like a burrow rabbit with a camp dog at the door. Shucks and twigs pull at my clothes and slice ribbons in my skin while I struggle toward the clear, trying to hold up the walls as I go. Dust and cotton fills the air, falls in my eyes till I can’t see, clogs my nose so I can’t breathe. My lungs squeeze and I keep pushing on. It’s that or die.

Men outside holler and shout orders. Wood hits wood. Metal rings on metal. The floor lists sidewards underfoot. The cotton walls lean.

I hit the end of the tunnel and fall out onto the deck, half-blind and choking on the dust. I’m too turned round to even worry if anybody saw. Getting air again is all that matters.

The light outside is barely gray, the hanging lamps still burning. Men run everyplace, and passengers in deck camps scramble from their bedrolls and tents to grab buckets and carpet bags, smoking pipes and skillet pans that’re sliding downhill as the
Genesee Star
leans in the water. There’s too much fracas for anybody to notice me. Roustabouts and white men scurry with bundles, crates, and barrels on their backs. Bringing on a new load of cordwood, they’ve got the boat too overweighted on one side. On account of her shallow hull, she’s started to roll. She groans as she ticks another notch sidewards. The main deck goes anthill crazy, men and women snatching up pokes and dogs and children, screaming and yelling, livestock carrying on. Chickens flap in their cages. Cows bellow loud and long and slide against the cow pens. Horses and mules dig for footing on the deck boards and thrash the stalls and whinny. Their calls carry off into blue-white fog so thick you could scoop it with a spoon.

Wood splinters. A woman screams, “My baby! Where’s my baby?”

A boatman hurries by with a load of wood. I figure I’d best get out of here before he has a good look at me.

I move toward the stock pens at the middle of the main deck, thinking I’ll slip closer by the stalls where Old Ginger and Juneau Jane’s gray still are, and pretend I been sent there to calm the horses. But there’s so much commotion, I can’t even get near. I end up pushing myself against the rails on the shoreward side, figuring if the boat goes over, at least I’ll jump. I hope Gus is where he can do the same.

Just as quick as she started leaning, the
Genesee
lets out a heavy moan and rolls back upright in the water. Goods and people slide and clatter. Horses and cattle clomp and fuss. Folks rush to set the mess right.

It’s a while before everything quietens and the crew’s back to bringing wood up from the landing. Down on the riverbank, there ain’t much more than a little cleared spot along a wide sandy stretch. It’s piled high with cut wood. Colored roustabouts and even some passengers hurry up and down the ramp, moving the load onboard. Seems like they’re putting more weight on this boat than she oughta hold. They want her loaded down with as much fuel as she can carry. The
Genesee
ain’t planning on stopping till a ways upriver.

Might be you’d do best to get off now, Hannie,
I tell myself.
Here, and then follow the river back home.

Something hard and wet hits my ear so sudden, sparks bust out behind my eyes and my head rings like a church bell.

“Get to work, boy.” A voice pushes through the sound. A knotted hank of rope skims down my shoulder and leg and lands on the deck. “Tote wood. You don’t get paid to stand lookin’.”

Pulling my hat low, I scurry down the ramp and scrabble round with the others, tying bundles and toting them up on my back. I carry all I can. I don’t want to get whipped again.

The deckhand hollers, “Haul that wood! Haul that wood!”

Someplace above the ruckus, I hear Moses’s deep voice. “Even out the load! Step up, now, step up!”

I keep my hat low and move in a line with all the others. Don’t look at anybody. Don’t talk. Make sure nobody sees me in the face.

This’s a sign to you, Hannie,
I tell myself as I work.
You got yourself a way off this boat. Right now. You got a way to leave, go back home. Just duck into them trees.

Every trip down, I think,
Do it, now.

Every trip up, I think,
Next round. Next round, you do it.

But I’m still there, back on the boat when all the wood’s loaded. The
Genesee Star
looks like a pregnant woman overdue for the birthing, but she’s level in the water, at least.

I stand at the slats near the back, watch the men finish offloading sugar, flour, crates, and barrels of whiskey to pay for the wood. Last thing they do, before swinging in the ramp, is clear folks out of the way and lead two horses down. One sorrel, one silver-white.

Old Ginger and Juneau Jane’s gray.

Somebody’s decided not to carry them all the way to Texas, after all.

Go,
I tell myself.
Go now.

I stand there, froze up with the idea. No one’s round the shore that I can see. The only movement is the roustabouts, taking up the ramps. Might be, if I wait till the boat’s crawled her way off the sand, I can get a bucket or something to float me, slip into the water and kick hard toward land. The paddle wheel won’t be pulling so much while the
Genesee
’s building steam.

Might be I’ll end up dead, chopped to bits for the gators to make a meal on.

I try to decide while the
Genesee Star
works her way toward the channel. If I do it, will they just let me go or will they shoot me?

Before I can make up my mind, a big hand clamps over my shirt collar, pulls it up tight. I feel the tall, hard body of a man against me, warm and wet with sweat.

“You swim?” The voice is a brush of river mist against my ear, deep and moist, but I know it right off. Moses.

I make a nod, just barely.

“Then get off this boat.” Another hand comes up twixt my legs, and next I know, I’m sailing over the guards and through the air.

Flying free, but not for long.

CHAPTER 10

BENNY SILVA—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1987

Just as my hopes wane, I spot what I’m looking for. Mr. Crump, who runs the Thursday morning farmers market, has already informed me that he can’t exactly predict what time Nathan Gossett will show up here, but that I should watch for a blue pickup truck. A blue pickup truck has finally arrived, there are ice chests in the back, and the man driving is decades younger than the average vendor at the farmers market. I can’t believe my luck, and I need luck, because I am on a crunch timeline. I’ve begged the new science teacher across the hall to take my first-hour class in with his if I don’t quite make it to school before the first bell.

It’s already seven twenty-five. I have just over thirty minutes to get there. Week three of my teaching career has been slightly better than weeks one and two, and even a slim gain is progress. The pooperoos help. Hungry kids like them just enough to eat them. Kids who are not famished would rather avoid them. As Granny T promised, the cookies are cheap to produce, and the Ding Dong budget is way down, since I am once again its only consumer.

Something about baking for the kids engenders an underlying sense of goodwill. They’re impressed that I care enough to do it, I think. Either that, or they are intimidated by the fact that I am in communication with Granny T. I’m guilty of splashing her name around as an occasional power play. Every kid in town knows her. She’s part nurturer, part mob boss, and as the granddame of the Carter family of Cluck and Oink fame, she controls the local pipeline of smoked meat, boudin balls, and fifteen kinds of pie. She is not a person to be trifled with.

In fact, I wish she were standing here right now. She could probably accomplish this morning’s mission in five minutes or less. I ponder that as I watch Nathan Gossett unload a cooler and carry it in, exchanging a greeting along the way with an elderly man wearing a VFW jacket and overalls. The vendor, perhaps?

Nathan isn’t quite what I expected. Nothing about him speaks of money. I don’t know if that is intentional, or if this is laundry day, but the old jeans, cowboy boots, faded restaurant T-shirt, and baseball cap make him look as if he’s dressed for a morning of hard work. After a week and a half of getting the Gossett Industries runaround, I was expecting someone uptight, unfriendly. Perhaps haughty and self-absorbed. But he looks…approachable. Jovial, even. Why does such a person abandon a place like Goswood Grove, buy a shrimp boat, and leave the family legacy to rot?

Perhaps I’m about to find out.

I psych myself up like a wrestler ready to jump into the ring, then I lie in wait by the door of the long open-air barn, hoping he’ll come out alone. Vendors pass by, carrying stock to their booths. Fresh produce. Jams, jellies, local honey. A few antiques. Handmade baskets, potholders, quilts, and fresh bread. My mouth waters as precious minutes tick away. I’m definitely coming back here when I have more time. I am a flea market ninja. Back in California, I furnished our entire apartment with secondhand finds.

I’m antsy by the time my target emerges, then I’m annoyingly tongue-tied. “Nathan Gossett?” I sound as though I’m about to serve him with legal papers, so I stick out my hand by way of being friendly. He quirks a brow, but accepts the greeting with a grip that’s politely firm, yet not crushing. Calloused. I didn’t expect that.

“I am so sorry to catch you when you’re in the middle of something else. I’ll make it quick, I promise. I’m the new English teacher at the high school here in Augustine. Benny Silva. I’m hoping my name rings a bell?” Surely, he’s picked up at least
some
of my answering machine messages, or seen my name on the rental contract, or the receptionist at Gossett Industries has relayed my request?

He doesn’t respond, and I rush to fill the awkward pause. “I wanted to ask you about a couple things, but mostly the library books. I’m struggling to get the kids interested in reading
at
all.
Or writing, for that matter. Less than forty percent of the students in this school read at grade level, and apologies to the late, great George Orwell, but one raggedy classroom set of
Animal Farm
paperbacks isn’t doing it. The school library won’t
let
the kids take the books out of the room, and the city library is only open three afternoons a week. So, I thought…if I could
build
a library in my classroom—a really outstanding, tempting, colorful, gorgeous library, now
that
would be a game changer. There’s power in allowing kids to
choose
a book, rather than having to take what’s handed to them.”

I pause—I have to in order to catch a breath—but I receive no input other than a slight tilt of his head, which I can’t yet interpret. And so I continue the frenetic, impassioned sales pitch. “Kids need the opportunity to try different things and get interested, be drawn in by a story.
Every
success starts with reading, even the scores on those hideous new state standardized tests. If you can’t
read,
you can’t understand the story problems in the math section or the science section, so it doesn’t matter how talented you
really
might be at math or science. You’ll get held back a grade. You’ll think you’re stupid. And that’s not even mentioning things like the PSATs and SATs and ACTs. How are kids supposed to have a chance at college or scholarships without good reading skills?”

It registers that he’s ducking his head, disappearing under the ball cap. I’m coming on too strong.

I wipe sweaty palms on the straight skirt I carefully washed and ironed and combined with heels for a professional appearance and a little more height. I’ve raked my wavy Italian hair into a slick French twist, added my favorite jewelry…done everything I could think of to make a good first impression. But my nerves are getting the best of me.

I take a breath. “I didn’t mean to run on. I was really hoping that, since the books are just sitting on the shelves—looking rather lonely, I might add—that you might consider donating them, some of them at least, to a great cause? I’d probably incorporate as many as possible into my classroom and perhaps exchange others with a book dealer I worked for in college. I’d be happy to do the sorting and consult you on everything as much as you’d like, either in person or over the phone. I understand that you don’t live here in town?”

His shoulders stiffen. Biceps tighten under suntanned skin. “I don’t.”

Mental note:
Make no further mention of that.

“I know it’s not the best approach to catch you off guard like this. I couldn’t figure out another way. I did try.”

“So…you’re after a donation for the library?” He tips his head up as if he’s anticipating a right cross to the chin. I am momentarily distracted. He has the most interesting eyes, sort of a seawater color that could be green or hazel or gray-blue. Right now, they reflect the Louisiana morning sky. Murky. Slightly cloudy. Gray and troubled. “Donations from the family trust are handled through community relations over at the company. Books for classrooms seem like a valid cause. That’s the kind of thing my grandfather intended the trust to support.”

“I’m so glad to hear you say that.” I sense two things. First, despite the town’s latent resentment toward the Gossetts, the youngest grandson comes across as a decent guy. Second, this conversation has darkened what was otherwise a perfectly good day for him. His demeanor has gone from cordial to cautious and somewhat broody. “But…I’ve tried to get a response from Gossett Industries. I’ve left messages until the receptionists know my voice. No response, other than ‘Fill out a form,’ which I did. But I can’t wait weeks or months. I have to figure out some way to teach these kids
now.
I’d buy books out of my own pocket if I could, but I’ve just paid for my move here, and I’m a first-year teacher, and I…well…I don’t have the extra cash.”

A blush starts around my ears and travels into my cheeks, then slowly paints the rest of my body sticky and hot. This is humiliating. I shouldn’t have to resort to begging in order to do my job. “And that’s why I thought, since all those books are just sitting there in the library at Goswood Grove, why not put some of them to use?”

He blinks, surprised, clenches his jaw at the mention of Goswood Grove. I realize he’s only now cueing in to what I’m asking. He’s probably wondering why I know about those books.

How much should I confess? I
have
been trespassing, after all. “One of my students told me about your grandfather’s library. Since I’m living basically next door, I did walk over and take a peek through the window. I didn’t mean to be invasive, but I’m a hopeless bibliophile.”

“You’re living next door?”

“I’m your renter.” He’s more detached from his holdings than I thought. “In the little house by the graveyard? Where Miss Retta used to live? I should have said that at the outset. I assumed you’d recognize my name. I’m the one Aunt Sa…I mean Donna took care of the roof emergency for.”

He nods, as if I’m finally starting to make sense to him, but not in a good way. “Sorry. Yes. The place sat for quite a while after Miss Retta had her stroke. Her family must’ve finally gotten around to cleaning it out. I’m sure the agent thought she was doing me a favor by finding a renter, but the house wasn’t in any shape for someone to move in at this point.”

“Oh, wait. I’m not complaining. I love it there. It’s perfect for me. I like being out of town a bit, and the neighbors are so quiet I never hear them at all.”

He misses the graveyard joke at first, then his cheek twitches upward. “True.” But he’s fairly flat about it. “I want to make sure you’re aware it’s a short-term thing, though. The plans aren’t public knowledge yet, so I’d appreciate your not sharing the information, but you should know, since it affects you directly. The cemetery board wants to annex that piece of property. The sale won’t happen before Christmas, but after that, you’ll need to find a new place.”

Stress hits me with tsunami force, drowning the pull of curiosity, books for the students, and everything else. Arrange for a move in the middle of the school year? Find a rental in a town that has barely anything available, especially at this price? Transfer utilities? I’m instantly overwhelmed.

“It’s not possible for me to keep the house until the end of the school year?”

“Sorry. The commitment has already been made.” His gaze darts off evasively.

I push a palm to my chest to calm the sort of instant panic that always hit the minute my mother announced we were moving again. Having grown up somewhat transient, I’ve become an adult who values the nest. The home space is sacred. It’s the zone where my books and dreams and comfy reading chair live. I need the little clapboard house in the quiet field by the cemetery, where I can walk the paths or the old farm levee lane, breathe and restore and settle my head.

I bite back the sting, stiffen my neck, and say, “I understand. You have to do what you have to do…I guess.”

He winces, but I can see his resolve solidifying, as well.

“So…about the books?” I can at least try to strike that bargain, and I am running out of time to make something good come of this visit.

“The books…” He rubs his forehead. He’s tired of me, or of the situation, or of being asked for things. Probably all three. “The agent has a key to the place. I’ll let her know that it’s all right to give it to you. I’m not sure exactly what you’ll find in there, but the judge was a reader, and aside from that, he could never resist a kid selling encyclopedias, or
Reader’s Digest
subscriptions, or whatever. The last time I was in that room, stuff was stacked everywhere, and the closets were full of books still in the shipping boxes. Somebody should clean that junk out.”

I am momentarily struck silent.
Clean that junk out?
What kind of a Neanderthal talks about books that way?

Then I remember. “The real estate agent had a medical issue. She’s out of the office. There’s been a note on the door for well over a week now.”

He frowns, seemingly unaware of that fact. Then he reaches into his pocket, sifts through his key ring, and begins removing a key. He’s exasperated by the time it is finally loosed, and he extends it my way.

“Take any of the books you can use, and by the way, let’s just keep that between us. If you run across Ben Rideout mowing the place, tell him you’re there to sort some things for me. He won’t ask for details.” The hardening of Nathan’s demeanor is swift and definitive, gut level, like my panic over having to move. “Don’t send me lists. I don’t care. I don’t want to know. I don’t want any of it.” He blows past me, and less than a minute later he’s in his truck and gone.

I stand there, drop-jawed, gaping at the bit of patinated brass in my hand. It’s old-fashioned, like a skeleton key, but smaller. Scrollwork adorns the edges, and with its diminutive size, the key almost looks like something that would open a trunk, or a pirate’s chest, or Alice’s tiny entrance to the gardens of Wonderland. Slivers of murky morning sun slide over it, casting strange reflections on my skin. For an instant, I almost make out the shape of a face.

Just as quickly, it’s gone.

Fascination grabs me in an overzealous embrace, sweeps me off my feet, fills me with a greedy, ravenous hunger. It takes everything I have to keep from driving straight to Goswood Grove to see what this key might lead to.

Unfortunately, there’s the matter of dozens of kids expecting me to continue with
Animal Farm
…and to open the pooperoo storage drawer. With a little cooperation from traffic, I can still get there in time to meet my first-period class and properly start the day.

The Bug and I beat it back across town, dodging Gossett Industries pipe trucks and farmers in pickups. The replacement science teacher is more than pleased to see me when I sneak in the back door. The bell rings less than three minutes later, and kids flood my classroom.

Fortunately, my first-hour students are only seventh graders, so it’s a little easier to intimidate them into taking their seats. Once they can hear me over the din, I tell them that, after we finish talking about adverbs, I’ll read them a bit of
Animal Farm,
which is a book the high schoolers are using, but I know they can handle anything the freshmen and sophomores can.

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