The Book of Lost Friends: A Novel (24 page)

“Don’t reckon there’s much way we could help you,” I say, so’s he’ll know I don’t believe it.

“Relay to the employer of your friend that I’ve a fine hand with a team and am troubled none by the risk of freighting. If only he may lift me from my current difficulty without my neck in a rope.”

“They ain’t gonna turn no army horse thief out of jail.”

“There’s many a deputy can be bought.”

“I don’t know nothing about all that, either.” Can’t believe a thing coming from a Irishman, anyhow. Irishmen tell tales, and they hate my kind, and the feeling runs both ways.

“The three blue beads,” he tries next. “Heard you speaking of it, I did. Having tramped the Hill Country far and wide, I’ve seen such a thing. At a traveler’s hotel and restaurant down Austin way, just along Waller Creek. Three blue beads on a string. Tied round the neck of a little white girl.”

“A white gal?” I guess he ain’t figured out I’m colored and anybody with my grandmama’s blue beads would be, too.

“Red-haired, a bonnie little thing, but young. Eight, perhaps ten, I’d say. Serving water to tables outdoors in a courtyard under the oaks. I could take you to the place.”

I turn and go back to the bunk. “That wouldn’t be nobody I’d know.”

The Irishman calls out, but I don’t answer. He goes to swearing on his mama’s soul that he ain’t lying. I pay him no mind.

Before there’s even time for the soup to cool in the pot, the army’s come for him, anyhow. They drag him away, screaming so loud Missy covers her ears and crawls under the bunk in all the stink and mess.

The deputy shows up at our cell next, drags me out the cell door and there ain’t a thing I can do about it. “You’ll shut your yap, if you know what’s good for you,” he says.

The sheriff’s in the front room and I start to begging and telling him I hadn’t done anything. “You git,” he says, and shoves our poke into my hands. Feels like everything’s there, even the pistol and the book. “You’ve been hired for work that’s to take you out of my town. See that I don’t find your face here again, once J. B. French’s freight wagons leave.”

“But Mis—” I stop myself just short of saying
“Him. I got him to see after, the big boy that come in with me. He don’t have nobody else. He’s harmless, he’s just addle-headed and simple, but I—”

“You shut yer yap! Sheriff James don’t need no word from you.” The deputy kicks me hard in the back, sending me facedown onto the floor. I land on our pack and my knees and one elbow, then scrabble around to get up again.

“The boy is to be remanded to the State Lunatic Asylum in Austin,” the sheriff says, and the deputy opens the jailhouse door then kicks me into the street and throws our goods after me.

Gus is there waiting and helps gather up the poke. “We best git gone, before their minds go to reconsiderin’ on your release,” he says.

I tell him about leaving Missy, but he don’t want no part of that.

“Look here, Hannibal. It was all I could do to get
out. You start trouble, they’ll put you in again, and there won’t be no help for that.”

I stumble along, letting Gus pull me down the street. “Act right,” he says. “What’s got into you? You’ll have us both in the stew. Mr. J. B. French and his foreman, Penberthy, they don’t stand for no guff.”

I follow along, try to reason out what to do next. The town streets, horses and wagons, colored folks and white folks, cowboys and dogs, stores and houses go past my eyes all in a mix, so I don’t see any one thing. Then there’s the alley by the courthouse and Battercake Flats. I stop and look down toward the bluff, remember sitting right there, Missy and Juneau Jane and me, eating lunch from our poke.

“This way.” Gus nudges my shoulder. “Just down a bit in the wagon yard. They done packed up the one freighter, and the last of the crew is to ride up top of the load. We’ll join with the wagons from Weatherford and then leave southward from there. We ain’t got time to dally.”

“I’ll come on,” I say, and push the pokes into Gus’s hands before he can say no. “I’ll come on, but there’s something I got to do first.”

I turn and run, through the streets and the alleys, past yapping dogs and spooked horses at hitch rings. I know I shouldn’t, but I go back to the place where all the trouble started. Where Old Florida and the shoeshine boy work their business, near the bathhouse. I ask them of Juneau Jane, and they say they ain’t seen her, and so I hurry round the back. There, I stop and watch the workers come and go, hauling the water in and out in buckets.

A wide, round-faced colored woman comes out to take clothes off a alley line. She laughs and teases with some of the others. I move her way, thinking to ask her of Juneau Jane.

I don’t even get near there before a man steps out on the gallery above. He tips his head back and blows smoke into the air from a cigar. It curls under the brim of his hat and slips away as he comes to the rail to tap ashes over. When he does, I see the melted scars along his face and the patch over his eye. Takes everything I have to turn around slow, not run, just walk. I squeeze my fists and hold my arms stiff and don’t look back, nor left, nor right. I feel the Lieutenant watching me.

No, he ain’t. No he ain’t,
I tell myself.

Don’t look.

I round the corner and break into a blind run.

It’s then I see that the side alley ain’t empty. There’s a man loading boxes on a pushcart. He’s tall and lean and strong built, dusky like the shadows that cover us both. I know the sight of him even in the half light. You don’t forget a man who’s come close to killing you, twice over. Who would do it now, if he got the chance.

I try to stop and turn back, but the wash water runs down the alley in a little stream. I slip in the mud and go down.

Moses is on me before I can get to my feet.



It’s Thursday again, and I know, without even the first glimpse through the trees, that Nathan’s truck will be parked in my driveway. My mind sprints ahead of the Bug, which is now sporting a new bumper, thanks to Cal Frazer, the local mechanic, and nephew of Miss Caroline, one of our New Century ladies. He loves old cars like the Bug, because they were made to be repaired and kept in use, not discarded in the trash heap after the digital clocks and automatic seatbelts die.

A city police car pulls out of its hiding place behind a billboard and trails me, and for once I don’t break into a nervous sweat about whether I’ll get stopped over the bumper issue. Even so, a mildly eerie feeling lingers as we traverse each curve together. It’s like a movie scene in which the local law and small-town powerbrokers are indistinguishable from one another. They all have the same goal. To stop anyone new from upsetting the status quo.

As much as I’d like to keep the
project quiet until it’s closer to fruition, it’s hard when dozens of kids, a group of senior ladies, and a smattering of volunteers like Sarge are running around town scrounging for everything from courthouse records, old newspaper articles, family pictures and documents to poster board and costume materials. We’ve hit the first week of October, which puts the Halloween date for our pageant less than thirty days away.

I stop at the end of my driveway, just to see who’s in the police cruiser, since it’s way out here beyond the city limits. The driver is Redd Fontaine, of course. As the mayor’s brother, and a cousin to Will and Manford Gossett, he claims everything as his jurisdiction. He drifts by in no particular hurry, looking past me toward my house.

I can’t help wondering if he’s scoping out Nathan’s truck. The Bug and I hold our position, seeking to block the view until the police car passes by, then we roll on in. My pulse steadies at the sight of khaki shorts and a camo green chambray shirt peeking through the oleander where the garden saint hides. I know the outfit, even before I see Nathan on the porch swing. As far as I can tell, he has about five daily uniforms, all of them casual, comfortable, and in tune with south Louisiana’s hot, humid weather. His style is a cross between mountain guy and beach bum. He does not do dress-up.

It’s one of the things I like about him. I’m not all that fashion forward, either, although I am trying hard to make a good impression in my teaching career.
Dress for the job you want, not the job you have
was the oft-given advice of college career counselors. I think I want to be a principal someday. It’s a new revelation and one I’m still growing into. Secondary education suits me in an unexpected way. These kids make me feel that I have a purpose, that getting up and going to work every day matters.

The Bug nestles quietly into its usual set of driveway ruts and sighs into silence as I turn off the ignition. On the swing, Nathan sits with one elbow comfortably propped, his fingers dangling. He’s focused toward the cemetery, his eyes narrowed so that I momentarily wonder if he’s catching a catnap. He looks…relaxed, unbothered and in the moment.

It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn from him, this living squarely in the present. I am a planner and a worrier. I torment myself by mentally replaying my past mistakes, wishing I’d been smarter, wishing I’d been stronger, wishing I’d made different choices. I live too often in the realm of
what if.
I also expend time and mental energy continually trying to anticipate what sort of crouching tiger might be hiding around the next corner. Nathan’s default seems to be to take life as it comes and contend with tigers if and when they appear. Perhaps it’s the result of having been raised in the mountains by an artist mother he lovingly refers to as a

I wish he would talk more about her. I’ve been seeking ways to understand him, but he doesn’t give out much. Then again, neither do I. There’s so little I can divulge about my family or my past that doesn’t veer too close to the things I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding.

The creaking porch steps snap him from his reverie. Cocking his head, he studies me momentarily. “Tough day?” he asks.

“Do I look
bad?” Self-consciously, I snatch up fuzzy black curls and tuck them into the French braid that looked nicely professional this morning.

He gestures to the empty half of the swing like it’s a psychologist’s couch. “You look…worried.”

I shrug, but in truth I am nursing a worry and a little wound. “The approvals for the
project, I guess. I’ve described it to Mr. Pevoto a few times, but I’m not sure he’s really hearing me, you know? He just kind of pats me on the head and tells me to get parent permission forms signed. I’m still missing quite a few. My plan was to take care of a bunch of them at parent-teacher night. Eleven people breezed through my classroom. Eleven. Total. From five sections of class daily, averaging thirty-six kids each, I got three moms, one dad, one couple, one aunt, one court-appointed guardian, and a foster mom. Two grandparents. Most of the night, I just sat there in an empty room.”

“Awww, man, that’s rough.” His arm shifts from the back of the swing, and he pulls me into a shoulder hug, his fingers brushing the skin of my upper arm. “It must’ve stung a little, huh?”

“Yeah. It did.” I sink into the comfort of the companionable gesture…or whatever it is. “I had bulletin boards all made with their writing and some photos. I wanted it to be nice for everybody, you know? But it was just me and a platter of cookies and Hi-C…and tasteful fall-themed plates and cups. I splurged at the Ben Franklin. Now I won’t need to buy any paper goods for months.”

I’m aware that I sound like I’m fishing for sympathy, and I hate it but I guess that’s where I am at the moment. Parent-teacher night hurt and this…whatever we’re doing right now, feels good.

“Awww,” Nathan says again, with a friendly squeeze in the way of trying to buck me up. “I’ll eat some of the cookies.”

My head relaxes on his shoulder. It suddenly feels so natural. “Promise?”


“Pinkie swear?” I lift my free hand, then just as quickly let it fall. I used to do that with Christopher. Old habits. A specter rising up to remind me that tumbling into a new relationship to cure the melancholy of a broken one was my mother’s life strategy, and it never worked. Nathan and I are friends. We’re cohorts. It’s better to keep it that way. He knows that, which is why, even when I’ve tried to fish for information about his past, he hasn’t given it. I’ve even hinted that I’d love to see how things work on the shrimp boat. I’ve never been invited into that part of his life. Not even a peek. There’s a reason for that.

I pull away, regaining a safe distance.

He sets his hand on the bench between us, then moves it farther from me, resting it uncertainly on his thigh, lightly drumming his fingers. We watch a wren hop along the porch rail then flit away.

Finally, Nathan clears his throat and says, “Oh, hey. Before I forget, I wanted to let you know that I’ve told my lawyer to nix the land sale to the cemetery association, at least in its present form. Obviously, it’s wrong to start selling off cemetery plots where people were buried over a hundred years ago. The cemetery association will just have to find land for an annex someplace else. That means you don’t need to worry about the house. It’s yours, however long you want it.”

Relief and gratitude spiral through me. “Thank you. You can’t imagine what that means.” The revelation nudges me squarely back to a safer frame of mind. I need this house, and my students need the
project. And any stumbling toward a romantic relationship between Nathan and me could complicate all of that.

I turn and prop a knee on the seat between us, inserting yet more space, then move into conversation about the house. Sterile stuff. Nothing personal. We eventually trail off into the weather and what a beautiful day it is, and how it almost feels like fall. Almost.

“Of course, tomorrow it’ll probably be ninety-five degrees again,” Nathan jokes. “That’s south Louisiana.”

We commiserate over how strange it is to live in a place where the seasons are fluid, day-to-day. By now in Nathan’s North Carolina mountains, the slopes would be spatters of flagrant yellow and amber, amid the myriad greens of tall pine. Back in Maine, which was a favorite of my many growing-up places, the orchard stands and hayrides would be running at full steam, ready for the bumper-to-bumper traffic of leaf peepers viewing the maples, sweet gums, and hickories. Crystalline frosts would sugar the mornings, and the first snows might tease the tips of dying grass. At the very least, the air would carry the unmistakable hint of coming winter.

“I didn’t really think I’d miss having fall, but I do,” I tell Nathan. “But then I have to say, if you’re looking for some pretty impressive foliage, the gardens over at Goswood Grove are a good substitute.” I’m about to go on about the antique climbing roses that cascade over fences, rambling up tall trees and what remains of an old gazebo, which I discovered just yesterday on my walk…when I quickly realize where I’ve driven the conversation.

Nathan’s easy demeanor evaporates. He instantly looks weighed down. I want to apologize, but I can’t. Even that would point out that he’s got deep issues over the house and what will become of it in the long run.

His gaze strays in that direction. I catch the clouded look, privately kick myself.

“So…I could whip up some grilled cheese and tomato bisque for us. How about hot chocolate, since we’re celebrating fake fall and everything?” I’m like a football team, attempting a surprise onside kick to change the momentum of the game. “You hungry? Because I’m starved.”

His attention hangs divided a moment longer. There’s something he wants to say. Then the clouds part, and he smiles and offers, “Cluck and Oink would be easier.”

“Well, that sounds mighty fine.” My Louisiana accent is beyond pathetic. “You go grab us a side of pork, and I’ll throw on some jeans while you’re gone.”

We’re comfortably back to our usual Thursday night routine. Afterward, we’ll walk off the food coma with a stroll through the graveyard, commenting on ancient tombs and wondering about the lives they represent. Or we’ll walk the farm levee lane to get a view of the sunset across the rice fields, always carefully avoiding the portal to Goswood Grove, of course.

“Nah,” he mutters as we stand up. I’m suddenly afraid that he’s decided against dinner. “Let’s just go down to the Cluck and eat. You’ve had a tough week. No sense in you having to clean up afterward.” He must be reading the explosion of surprise on my face, because he quickly adds, “Unless you don’t feel like it.”

“No!” I blurt. But aside from his one library visit, which was just the kids and me and a few helpers, Nathan and I have kept to ourselves. “That sounds great. Let me do something with this hair real quickly.”

“To go to the Cluck and Oink?” His forehead twists into a bemused serpentine shape.

“Point taken.”

“You look great. Sort of Jennifer Grey in
Dirty Dancing
meets Jennifer Beals in

“Oh, well, in that case…” I do a nerdy dance move my colleagues in the college English department once affectionately dubbed
Big Bird on Ice.
Nathan laughs, and we proceed to his truck. On the way to town, we chat about nothing important.

Entering the Cluck and Oink, I feel a pang of self-consciousness. Granny T is behind the cash register. LaJuna brings our menus, offers a shy hello, and tells us she’ll be waiting our table.

Maybe takeout would’ve been a better idea. The library was one thing, but this looks too much like a date and sort of feels like one, too.

The girls’ cross-country coach is in the corner. She checks me out in a way that’s not friendly. She and the other coaches are annoyed with me. Some of the kids have been late for after-school practices because they’re busy working on their

Lil’ Ray emerges from the back room carrying a dish tub, spray bottles of pink cleaner looped over his belt like cowboy six-shooters. I didn’t even know he worked here.

He and LaJuna cross paths in the narrow space between the waitress station and the kitchen door. They jostle and tease and then, where they think no one can see, melt into full-body contact and a kiss.

When did that get started?

I feel like my eyes have just been burned.
No. Please no.

No more.

Heaven help me, I may not survive these kids. It’s something, every time I turn around. Some new pitfall, pothole, roadblock, poor decision, or act of pure stupidity.

Lil’ Ray and LaJuna are so young and they both have tremendous potential, but they’re also dealing with huge challenges in their daily lives. When you’re a kid in a tough family situation, you’re painfully vulnerable to trying to fill the void with peers. As much as I’m in favor of young love in theory, I’m also aware of the potential fallout. I can’t help feeling that Lil’ Ray and LaJuna need a teenage relationship about as much as I need five-inch stilettos.

Don’t read too much into it,
I tell myself.
Most of these things come and go in a week.

“So, I was thinking about the house.” Nathan is talking. I rip my eyes away from the scene at the waitress station and try to ignore the glowering coach, as well.

“My house?”

The question hangs in the air while the bread boy stops at our table with an offering that would smell heavenly under any other circumstance. He sets down a well-used plastic basket, then loads it with corn muffins, breadsticks, and rolls, then adds butter, honey-butter, and a knife.

“Hey, Miss Pooh,” he says. I’m so out of sorts, I haven’t even looked up and noticed that the bread boy is
one of my students. A shaggy-haired kid from the Fish family. The others classify him squarely in the category with
the hoods.
Rumor is, he smokes weed, which his family grows in fields carved out of the backwoods somewhere. Generally, he smells like cigarettes, especially after lunch.

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A Love Like This by Kahlen Aymes Copyright 2016 - 2024