The Book of Lost Friends | Chapter 39 of 56

Author: Lisa Wingate | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 47990 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER 22

BENNY SILVA—AUGUSTINE, LOUISIANA, 1987

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 Underground 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 beatnik.

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 that 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 Underground 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?”

“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 Underground 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 Flashdance.

“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 Underground projects.

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 also 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.

The Fish family receives no kindness in the teachers’ lounge, either. White trash. None of those Fish kids ever graduate from high school, so why waste your time? was the exact quote. Sooner they drop out, the better. Just a bad influence on the others.

I offer up a smile. While Shad Fish, the next oldest boy in the family, is a bit more talkative, I wasn’t even aware this senior Fish kid knew my name. Gar Fish has never spoken in class. Not once. Most of the time, he has his forehead propped in his hands, staring down at the desk. Even at the library. As a student, he’s a complete slacker. He’s not an athlete, either, so there’s no coach defending his lack of academic effort.

“Hey, Gar.” The poor kid has sisters named Star and Sunnie, and a little brother named Finn. People poke fun at the names constantly.

I had no idea Gar worked at the Cluck.

“I been…I been writin’…on my project,” he says.

Knock me over with a feather.

A tentative glance flutters through the dark fringe of greasy, overgrown bangs beneath the Cluck ball cap. “Uncle Saul went over to the nursing home in Baton Rouge to say hey to Poppop. Me and Shad went on with him so we could talk to Pops, too. We don’t got any family Bibles or anything like that at home.”

He glances up self-consciously as the hostess seats new customers in the next booth. Gar shifts his back toward them before he goes on. “Pops told me some stuff about the family. They used to run a operation upwater from here. Biggest bootleggers in three parishes. Pops joined in at just eleven years old, after the revenuers took his daddy off. The family business got busted up after a while, though. Pops left home and went farther upriver to work for some uncles that had a sawmill. He remembers they had a room in the barn still with slaves’ chains in it. Way back when, they’d catch runaways in the swamp, take them off to New Orleans and make money from it. You imagine that? Poachers. Like huntin’ gators out of season. That’s what my people did for their livin’.”

“Huh.” On occasion that’s all I can say to the facts we’ve uncovered during our journey through the Underground project. The truth is frequently horrific. “The things we find in history are hard to understand sometimes, aren’t they, Gar?”

“Yeah.” His saggy shoulders slump. His eyes, a murky swampwater color, cast downward. There’s a fairly pronounced bruise under the left one—no telling where he got that. “Might can I start over on my project? It’s just that the Fishes do bad stuff and get in jail mostly. Maybe I can pick somebody out of the graveyard and talk about them? A rich guy or the mayor or something?”

I swallow the urge to get emotional. “Don’t give up yet. Let’s keep digging. Remind me tomorrow when we’re at the library, and we’ll work on it together. Have you looked into the other side of your family? Your mother’s side?”

“Mama got put in foster care when she was little, so we didn’t ever meet her people. They’re from around Thibodaux, I think.”

I shift uncomfortably in my seat, pinched by the thought of a child left unmoored in the world, at the mercy of strangers. “Well, all right, then we’ll see what there is to learn. We’ll start there tomorrow. With your mother’s last name. You can never tell where the—”

“Gold nugget might be unless you dig. Yeah, I know.” He finishes the class mantra the kids and I have developed.

“Every family has more than one side to its history, right? What was her last name? Your mother’s?”

“Mama was a McKlatchy before she married a Fish.”

Nathan sets down the butter knife with a clank, straightens a bit. “My mother has some McKlatchys in her family. Distant kin, but they’re all down around Morgan City, Thibodaux, Bayou Cane. We might be related way back.”

Gar and I both gape at him. I had no idea that Nathan enjoyed family ties around here on his mother’s side. Based on the descriptions of her as an outsider, I assumed she was from someplace far away. Nathan has an entire life south of here along the coast. A life with people in it. Kinfolk and family reunions.

“Maybe,” Gar says, as if he’s having a hard time processing a possible genetic connection to Nathan Gossett. “But I doubt it, though.”

“Just in case you might be a relative,” Nathan says, “do a little digging into Augustus ‘Gus’ McKlatchy. The old aunts and uncles used to talk about him at the family reunions when I was a kid. There’s a good story there, if he’s in your family tree.”

Gar looks doubtful. “Hope your bread’s good,” he mutters, and shrugs, and then he’s gone.

Nathan watches him walk away. “Poor kid,” he says and looks at me in a way that silently adds, I don’t see how you can do this day in and day out.

“Yeah, I kind of know how he feels.” For some reason, maybe it’s the new revelation about Nathan and the Fishes, but more of the Mussolini rumors from my father’s family spill out. “It’s strange how you can feel guilty for a family history you didn’t have anything to do with, isn’t it? My folks finally divorced when I was four and a half, then my father moved back to New York City. We don’t keep in touch, but now I kind of wish I could ask him about it, find the truth.” I can’t believe I just said that, and to Nathan. With the Underground project invading so much of my mental space, family ties have been on my mind, I guess. The way Nathan’s sitting there listening, nodding attentively, makes it seem all right.

He hasn’t even touched the bread.

For an instant, I wonder if I could tell him the rest of it—everything. And if that wouldn’t matter, either. Just as quickly, shame rushes in, and I squelch the notion. It’ll change the way he thinks of me. Aside from that, we’re in a public place. I’m suddenly aware of how quiet the women at the table behind us are. I hope they haven’t been listening in.

Surely not. Why would they care?

I stretch upward a bit, and the blonde facing me lifts her menu, so that only her nicely highlighted hair is visible above the edge.

I push the bread toward Nathan. “Sorry. I don’t know how I got off on that topic. Dig in.”

“Ladies first.” He scoots the basket back, pinches the knife handle between a thumb and forefinger and offers it to me. “As long as you’re not a fiend on the jalapeño corn bread.”

I chuckle. “You know I’m not.” The corn bread is a takeout joke between us. I’ll get out the plain sixty-cents-a-loaf grocery store bread before I’ll eat corn bread. I know it’s a southern staple, but I haven’t acquired a taste for it. It’s like eating sawdust.

We settle into the bread plate. Corn bread for Nathan, breadsticks for me. We’ll split the rolls with our meal. It’s become our routine.

My gaze has drifted again to the women at the next table, when LaJuna comes by to take our order. She lingers afterward, the pencil dangling. “Miss Silva.” She’s one of the few who has not succumbed to calling me Miss Pooh. It’s her way of separating herself from the rest, I think. “Mama was supposed to come visit the other day and bring the little kids, so I could give my sister her birthday present and a cake Aunt Dicey and me made. But then we had to just talk on the phone, because Mama’s car has trouble sometimes.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I clench my fingers around the napkin in my lap, twist opposite ways and wring out my frustration. This is at least the fourth promised Mama visit that has fallen through. Every time it happens, LaJuna is bubbly with excitement during the anticipation phase, then retreats into herself when the plans end in disappointment. “Well, I’m glad you got to talk on the phone.”

“We couldn’t very long, on account of collect calls cost too much on Aunt Dicey’s phone bill. But I told Mama about my Underground project. She said when she was little, they used to say that way back, her great-great-great-grandmama had money and fancy clothes and she owned land and horses and stuff. Can I be her for my Underground project, so I can wear a pretty dress?”

“Well…” The rest of the sentence, I don’t see why not, never makes it out of my mouth. The bell chimes on the front door and there’s a sudden, palpable effect. The room feels as if the air has just been sucked out of it.

I see a woman nudge her husband and point surreptitiously toward the door. A man at another table stops chewing in the middle of a bite of brisket, sets down his fork, leans forward in his seat.

Across from me, Nathan’s face goes slack, then rigid. I glance over my shoulder, see two men at the hostess stand, their designer golf clothes out of place against the restaurant’s barn wood and tin interior. Will and Manford Gossett have aged since their portraits were hung at Goswood House, but even without the old photos and the family resemblance, I’d probably guess who they were, just by their demeanor. They move through the place like they own it, laughing, chatting, waving at people across the room, shaking hands.

They pointedly avoid looking our way as they breeze right past us and take their seats…with the women at the next booth.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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