It wasn't dreaming, because he wasn't in his bed and he wasn't asleep. He was in his chair, before the fire in winter, or before the screen door in summer, and it was always near midnight.
He was sleeping on the levee, during the flood of 1927, the way they had all curled in on themselves to keep warm there on the mud—even the grown men and women, if they were small and flexible. The big woman called Net couldn't sleep like that. She lay on her back, her stomach to the moon, and three children tethered to her by strong fingers in their hair or an arm over their bodies. Gustave watched them in the moonlight, like animal babies angling for food.
But there was no food, after three days. They had been working in the cane when the water came like a carpet unrolling before them. They carried only their hoes and lunch buckets.
His mother had been stung by something in the field the day before. A spider? Her ankle was huge and swollen. She stayed in their room to sleep. The water erased all ten houses near Bayou Becasse, farthest from the fields.
They waited for a boat. The water stopped rising about ten feet from the top of the levee. In the daytime, all they could see was the yellow-brown water, dirty and surging up near the people. The water slapped itself in wavelets and sucked on itself in circles. An entire world was under the water.
Far away, near the edge of sight, he saw two roof spires. The church and the school. The rest of the scattered houses of Sarrat and Bayou Becasse were gone. Oak and pecan trees showed only their crowns, branches laid like veins atop the water. Snakes waited in the branches, measuring the distance to the levee.
Gustave heard the voices: "I ain't eat no snake, me. Ain't no Indian. I want some meat but not no snake." It was not a dream, yet he was not awake. He slept in his chair, upright, before the open screen door.
On the levee, he had curled himself so hard against the cold he felt his backbone bend like wet willow. Dogs and cats covered their faces with their tails, but he had nothing. Just a shirt and pants dirty from cane. No lunch. He'd been hoping to share with someone. Two men sat on boxes, keeping watch. He didn't know them. They were from another place.
They were watching for a boat, for soldiers, for someone.
Sometimes a dead pig or cow floated past. The ears so small. The hooves like gray plates.
The phone was a black cricket in the kitchen, but by the time he realized it was not a cricket, and he'd gotten up from his chair and made his way to the back, the noise stopped. Gustave watched the phone's circular dial. His daughter, Glorette, always made fun of the phone, when she was young and had gone to the houses of school friends in Rio Seco, away from where they lived in Sarrat, the place he and Enrique had made here in California. Princess phones were pink and gold, she said. Wall phones were like house slippers.
Gustave leaned on the counter near the phone, in case it rang again. It would not be Glorette. His daughter had never called him, not in the five years since her mother died. He couldn't give her anything but money, and she only wanted money to buy drugs. But her son, Victor, may have called. In the moving every three months from apartment to apartment, just ahead of eviction, and in the way Glorette lived with thieves and fools, now and then Victor was hungry and desperate. Gustave had bought him a cell phone for emergencies.
He opened the lid on the pot of beans he'd made earlier. The beans breathed when he blew on them to see if they were soft. The hard seeds of beans and rice turned into food. The corn ground into flour for bread. He thought of his mother, standing over the embers of the cook-fire, making corn bread.
His grandson used to stay for a week or so with Gustave and his wife back when he was six or seven, when things got bad. Gustave could still drive, and he'd stop by the rented house and find the boy sitting in the kitchen with his schoolbooks and paper and a mask like Mardi Gras on his face, but not a smiling mask. Only his eyes moved. His mother had been gone all night. He'd eaten Corn Pops dry in a bowl, the yellow dust clinging to his lips.
Anjolie made corn bread every night. Cush-cush in the morning, the corn mush laced with molasses. And on Saturday, beans and rice. Meat attached to a bone. Rib meat.
Chicken backs. Neck bones floating like a puzzle on top of the water. His grandson would put the neck bones into his mouth and frown until Gustave said, "Fish them out with your finger, oui, they just the taste now. The meat cook down."
Victor had called three months before. He had the flu, and his mother hadn't been home in three days. He had tests in school. Gustave found the apartment called Las Palmas, and brought money and medicine. TheraFlu and Advil. That was what his grandson asked for. In the cupboards, there were packets of noodles that looked like clumsy lace, and in the refrigerator there was soda. Gustave said, "Come and stay with me. Eat some meat and oranges. We get you a ride to that school, there."
His grandson lay on a mattress and said, "I'ma graduate in June. I can walk now. I'm cool. Grandpere. Thanks."
Gustave heard voices now through the open kitchen window, someone talking up the road near Enrique's house. The window was open to catch the cool night air. All the houses except Enrique's were three rooms, shotgun style, like Louisiana even though this was California. The scent of orange blossoms was stronger back here, closer to the trees. When Enrique had brought him here, in the winter of 1957, there were flowers and fruit on the trees at the same time. January. They picked the oranges the next morning and the flowers fell like white stars. Enrique said, "You can have that house, for when you bring Anjolie from Louisiana. When you marry her."
Gustave had eaten a plate of food on the porch that night, the way his own mother had at the end of a hot day when she couldn't stand being inside the two small rooms, one taken up with a stove that radiated heat, one taken up by their beds.
They used to eat their lunch in the cane field, because it was too far to walk home. They had bologna sandwiches on white bread, and his mother put seven drops of Louisiana Gold onto the pink moons of meat between the bread soggy from the heat. She put the tiny bottle back in the pocket of her work dress.
Gustave heated up a tortilla over the burner. Blue crown of flame in the dark. Black spots in a circle on the tortilla.
There were miles of groves—navel and Valencia oranges, lemons and grapefruit—around the city of Rio Seco when Enrique brought him here. The Mexicans had shown him the tortillas. When he first worked the groves, the Mexicans gave him burritos rolled tight like white pipes, hot from having lain on the truck dashboard all morning, baked by the windshield.
He ate the dry soft tortilla, tasting the burned marks. The old gas stove smelled like iron. His mother had sat beside him in the cane the day before she was stung, giving him part of her corn bread softened with cane syrup. His wife cried the first time she saw the blue flames and knew she didn't have to gauge firewood for cooking.
Gustave took a sip of rum from the tiny glass on the counter. Then he carried a handful of pistachios and stood by the screen, cracking the nuts, holding the shells in his palm. Enrique's boys were talking with some others, up at Enrique's wide porch.
The pistachios were green and pink and salty. Nothing else tasted like that. Gustave had refused to eat them the first time someone gave him a bag. A man grew them over in the next town.
When Victor came to stay with him for a few days last year, when Glorette was in the hospital with pneumonia, he would poke at the foods on the counter and say, "How you gon live on tortillas and nuts and coffee and beans?"
Gustave would say, "I made eighty, oui? I eat what I want. When you eighty, eat what you want. Cush-cush in the pot for your breakfast."
His grandson would pour sugar and milk on the hot mush and eat silently, his headphones buzzing as if insects were trapped inside his ears. When he was finished, he would say, "I ain't drinkin no coffee."
Gustave would say, "Oranges on the table. Eat one call it juice. Then I take you to that school, there."
He threw the pistachio shells into a bowl. He had never seen the boy's father. No one had.
Until he was five Gustave had known his own father, who was already dead by the time of the 1927 flood, shot in a bar fight in New Iberia. The men said his father had put his hand on a woman's rump and another man shot him.
He tried to imagine what had bitten his mother to make her ankle so swollen and red she couldn't leave her bed that morning, of the water. Bee or wasp—snakebite would have left marks. Spider? All the things in the cane field, hiding in the forest of cane stalks.
His own mother's ankle. The pigs' feet. Ham hocks. One ham hock could flavor a huge pot of beans, she said. Salted and dried and shriveled, and then floating swollen and revived on the surface of the simmering water. She'd extract every bit of flesh from the cartilage and skin and gristle.
He tried to imagine the buttocks of the woman in the bar. His father's hand on the meat. The bullet in his father's chest. His father had been twenty miles from the bayou, and no one had even known who he was. The body was kept in a morgue. A meat freezer. A man had told his mother two weeks later, but by then he'd been buried. So Gustave had to picture his father's face, frozen in a smile or shout or frown, and his hand, frozen in the shape of rounded meat, and his chest, with a small hole or large.
His own toes and tendons, when he took off the army-issued boots and lay in the field with the others. His daughter's legs, when they grew long and thin. Her dolls. The hair ornaments and beads and makeup and lotions and nail polish like spilled jewels on the dresser.
The voices floated down the dirt road toward his door. Two of Enrique's boys stood on his wooden steps. "Unc Gustave," one said, the two words flowing into one, the name they had always called him though their father was not his blood brother.
Pig blood on Enrique's hands.
"She's here," the son said. Lafayette, the older one, his forearms marked with white dried plaster. Gustave went out onto the steps.
"Glorette?" he said. There was no one else.
Lafayette lifted his chin. "Glorette. We brought her. She—"
Gustave knew. He breathed the sharp dust raised by their feet. Dry and June. No rain. The dust went inside him.
"Someone found her. Over there by the Launderland."
He closed the old screen door behind him, the hiss of the little pump latch, and they let him go first to see her body.
She lay on the couch in Enrique's big front room. Enrique's wife, Marie-Therese, was waiting for him. She was smoothing the small hairs like lace plastered down on Glorette's forehead.
His daughter was on her back. Her mouth was open. Her eyes were closed. Her hair was a tangle like black moss on the couch cushion. Her stomach showed ribs, under the bra she wore. Her skin was pale as raw pecans. She'd slept in the day and gone out in the night. She smoked the small rocks he'd seen. Like grit taken from a chicken's throat.
No blood, no marks, no cuts or bruises. Except three small black half moons at her collarbone. Like she had scratched herself.
Gustave touched her collarbone. The knob of bone where it had healed, after she'd broken it falling from an orange tree. He couldn't touch her hair. When she was fourteen, the flesh of her body had rearranged itself, and her eyes had grown watchful under the fur of eyebrows and eyelashes. Her hair had come out of the braids and plaits his wife made every morning, and she had coated her eyelashes with crankcase oil and painted her lips, and disappeared into her room. The fear of her beauty wound its way through his entrails. That was where he'd felt it. Inside the tubes that took food through his body.
The collarbone somehow announced her beauty, and the hollow at the base of her throat.
"Some man come up to her at the store ax again do she want to model," his wife would say. "Say she kind of small, but can he take her picture." She would catch her lip between her teeth and hold it until it looked like a staple mark left there. His own wife, with skin like corn tortilla, with hair braided high on her head in a crown, with a French grandfather from Bayou Becasse. She had been hidden in her own mother's house before, when men in cars, their fingers practicing how to pull and hold, came looking for her.
He had asked his wife if she was afraid of Glorette's beauty, and she nodded. He had asked her where she felt the fear, and she said inside the bones of her hips, where Glorette had rested so long.
When Glorette left, with the man who fathered Victor and then disappeared, Gustave had gone inside her bedroom, the first one back from the front. Her Barbies sat on the windowsill, their legs dangling into the air. His wife had bought the dolls for years, saying, "All the girls have them doll. Barbie and all them clothes. Got her own closet. Got bitty hangers inside, oui."
He picked up his daughter's hand and knelt beside the couch. The skin was not soft. It was not hard. It felt smudged. She had broken her wrist, too, and he felt the bones there. He had brought home from Kmart a long piece of plastic and attached a hose so that water ran in a stream. All these children—all these grown men standing on the porch waiting for him—threw themselves down the blue furrow and screamed. The bones were so small. "Calcium collects at the site of a break," the doctor had said, his eyes avoiding Gustave's blackened hands, thick with citrus oil and dirt and rind from the navels he'd crated all day.
Marie-Therese said, "I know you, Gustave. I won't say it."
He nodded. She had been his wife's best friend. Her cousin. She wouldn't say, It's a blessing that Anjolie isn't here to see this.
But it wasn't true. Anjolie had known, the whole time, ever since Glorette had not wanted to go to school or walk to Rio Seco with the others. She was too beautiful, and no one would leave her alone.
That was how these women of Sarrat, Louisiana, had come to be here, on this land Enrique had bought in California. After the flood, when the cane was planted again and the houses had been cleaned of water trash and dead animals, and the people had come back to work, they'd had daughters. Mr. McQuine, who owned Bayou Becasse and Sarrat lands, had stalked them in the fields and dirt roads and woods. He was like a dog who'd tasted chicken blood, Enrique said.
Enrique Antoine had killed him, and Gustave had known, because Gustave had taught him everything. Ever since he fed him meat still smoking and half-raw on the levee, in the dark, Gustave had taken care of Enrique. Then, Enrique had taken care of Gustave.
Now Enrique said, "Let Marie-Therese sit with her," and he took Gustave's arm as if they were married and led him toward the barn.
Enrique's sons, Lafayette and Reynaldo, had parked their truck under the big sycamore tree near the barn. Enrique and Gustave sat at the wooden table where they worked on engine parts. Gustave picked up a new air filter from the bench. Glorette had put one around her throat when she was small and said it looked like a queen collar she had seen in history class.
"How you bring her?" he asked now.
Lafayette was thirty-seven, two years older than Glorette. He said, "The truck."
"How you find her?"
Lafayette nodded to the third man, the one Gustave didn't recognize. He wasn't from Sarrat.
"I found her in the alley behind a taqueria, Mr. Picard," the man said. "I'm Sidney Chabert. My papa used to work on your refrigerators and washers."
Gustave looked at the man's dark bare chest, his ribs, a name tattooed over his heart. "Who that?"
He said, "Who kill Glorette?"
Sidney squatted before him, forearms on his knees, and said quietly, "Mr. Picard. I knew Glorette way back in school. I saw her around the alley before. You know. I'm sorry." He paused for balance, and said, "I work at the video store, and I was walking home, and she was in the alley. First she was—she was waiting for some dude, looked like, near a shopping cart. Then her friend came by."
"Tall one?" Gustave said. His daughter had always run with a tall, dark, scar-faced woman, always friends with that one and never the other girls from Sarrat.
"Yeah," Sidney said. "They were talking in the alley. I mean, that woman was talking, and Glorette didn't say nothing. So maybe she was already—you know. When I went back out to the alley, no one was around, and Glorette was in the shopping cart."
"Who put her there?"
Sidney shook his head. "But I know who didn't do it. Them drug dealers didn't do it—cause they would just shot her, from a distance. That's how they do. They don't get up close and touch nobody. And I don't think some—customer—did it, cause he woulda left a mark. Maybe Sisia. Her friend. Maybe they had a fight. But the way Glorette looked—I think she smoked too much rock and had a heart attack."
Gustave watched Sidney rise and bend over as if he couldn't breathe himself. "Chabert. From New Orleans?"
Sidney sighed. "You know what? My papa was from New Orleans. But I'm from here. Rio Seco. We're all from here."
Gustave stared at him. Not a boy. A man. It was hard to see that sometimes. "Why you didn't call the police?"
Sidney threw back his head like he was studying the stars. But these young men didn't know the stars. Then he said, "I didn't want them to disrespect her. The way they would talk about her, poke around. They wouldn't care who killed her. So I took her to Lafayette and Reynaldo. They could take her home." He folded his arms and his daughter's name was gone. "But we could all get arrested. Me for sure. Moving a body. Suspicious. I need to get my ass home now. And I don't even know what you think."
"You touch her? Earlier?"
"Mr. Picard," Sidney said. "I always looked at Glorette. I ain't gon lie. Every brotha in Rio Seco looked at her. But I never touched her. I ain't had nothin she wanted."
Then he walked from the barnyard and headed out the narrow dirt road through the groves toward the canal, where Enrique had put a gate all those years ago. The canal bridge was the only way in or out of Sarrat, and the gate was locked. Only people who lived in Sarrat had a key.
"He gon climb out and walk back to Rio Seco," Lafayette said. "Man, that brotha was sprung on Glorette all his life, and he ain't talked to her but twice, he told me."
"Sprung?" Gustave said, watching the small figure enter the tunnel of orange trees.
"Serious love," Reynaldo finally spoke. "Like a disease."
Gustave drank some of the coffee from Enrique's old silver thermos. Sprung. That's what they called his daughter. Sprung for something that looked as inconsequential as oyster shell and entered her throat and lungs and brain to make the world look like—like what? What had that smoke done, all those years? He tasted the coffee. Dark, roasted black every morning when Marie-Therese moved the pan over the flames. The same way his wife Anjolie had done, even the week before she died. He had smelled these beans all his life. His first memory: his mother roasting the beans and putting one in her mouth, and Gustave tasting one and nearly choking at the burnt bitterness.
Enrique poured himself a cup and they waited. Gustave could hear Enrique's throat work.
Coffee beans and rice and sugar cane. What they had lived on in Louisiana.
Pig. Pig meat.
Gustave put his head down on his arms like a child, on the smooth, oily table. The smell of wood.
The woman named Net. Her body floating down the water with trees and snakes and cows and foam.
Enrique drank the last of the coffee and set his cup down so gently that Gustave heard the tap like a child's finger on the wood. The men waited. Gustave lifted his head and said, "I come right back. I try to call her boy."
He walked unsteadily to his house. He could feel himself leaning to the left. He needed a Swisher Sweet. Then the smoke would gather tears onto his face and hold them until they dried like spiderwebs on his cheeks.
The small cigar made the sounds of tiny coals glistening. Fire. The coyotes in the river bottom laughed their eerie song, so different from the night sounds of Louisiana.
The Barbie dolls sat on the windowsill with their tiny shoes, heels pointing down like needles. He hadn't wanted to live with anyone, to marry anyone, because then there would be a body someday. Enrique had known that. Gustave was near forty when Enrique told him about Anjolie, and he went to Louisiana to see her.
Now Glorette's body lay inside the house. The coyotes laughed again, maybe ten or twelve of them. What did they smell?
Night was when he'd killed the pig. He could smell the blood. The people left on the levee were starving. Meat had floated past for days, but nobody would touch it. The big woman named Net watched the babies cry and cry until the sound was like a saw rasping in the wood she cut up for a fire, and then the cries faded while their eyes grew bigger and sunk into holes in their skulls.
Skulls didn't surface until months after the water had gone down. The memory was eighty years old, and yet at night he could smell the water, and the sickly sweetness of unwashed bodies and death, and the blood in the smoke near him and Enrique. Enrique's eyes wide and flat and dull.
The soldiers had come. They pointed their rifles at the men and herded them into their boats, told them they were headed to weak points in the levee overlooking Mr. McQuine's plantation fields. They would fill sandbags all day and into the night, and then they could come back for Red Cross beans boiled with some oil and salt. That was what they left for the Negroes. That was marked on the boxes. Everyone knew what the N really meant.
The soldiers stood up in the boats like tall herons, one pointing his gun at Gustave's head. "That one ten or so. Worked in the field. He can work now."
The woman named Net pulled Gustave to her, next to her son Enrique. "Seven," she said. "Only seven."
The one man left behind was old, his legs thin and shiny, the skin stretched too tight over his ankle bones. He slept without moving.
The women broke up their chairs and lit the legs under the one huge pot. They waited for the men, who never came back.
The two soldiers who had stayed sat on the far end of the levee, smoking, talking to each other, their guns held loose and slanted. They'd told the women and old man not to touch the pigs, or any of the animals in the water.
Those cows and pigs and horses—Gustave knew whose they were, and so did everyone else. The men had known, before the soldiers took them away. He'd heard them talking up on the levee, with chairs and blankets and children piled around them, waiting for a barge to move them to dry ground because someone had gone past in a small pirogue and said the steamboats took only white people. The men couldn't pull out a cow still alive and bawling; they couldn't shoot a pig from the small bunch that had gathered at the far end of the levee, couldn't do the boucherie right there and feed all the people because that was stealing from Mr. McQuine or Msieu Armand, and the police would arrest them even if the animals had swum right out of their fences and would end up in the Gulf or die on the levee because no grass was left.
But the men were gone, and then the beans had been eaten and the people were hungry again. The two soldiers looked bored and afraid, but they ate something from their bags. Then they slept, sitting up, their white chins like stone in the hard moonlight off the water.
Gustave pulled the smoke deep into his lungs. The soft, soft lungs that filled with smoke, or water, or air, or nothing. The old man had died that night. When they rolled his body into a blanket and left it there near the boxes, Gustave found a hammer. He lay with it under his arm, and the next night he crept down the levee to the place where the pigs had gathered, and with the hammer he hit the small mud-covered skull of the one close to him. The pig was young, the size of a sack of rice, and it jerked and snuffled and squealed and then looked into his eyes. Black seeds. He hit and hit until the skull melted into the mud and the snuffling stopped and the other pigs screamed; he dragged the small pig behind him into the shelter of the weeds. He ran back to the levee camp and shook the huge shoulder of Antoinette.
The others just called her Net. Her apron had once been white and was now gray and brown and even red with blood, where one of her babies had a nosebleed from crying for too long. She was not soft. Her shoulder was hard like the pig's ham, the top of the leg.
Gustave said, "I seen your knife. I got a pig."
Crouched in the weeds beside him, she slit the pig's belly, and the entrails steamed until she threw them into the swaying water. Oil slicks washed past like islands of rainbow. Branches and roof shingles and sometimes a body, floating face down, brought to the surface by the air trapped under the shirt, like pillows sewn under the cloth. Only the back and shoulders and thighs showed. Dress or coat stretched tight.
Gustave watched the ribs. Net wrenched the knife into the side meat. "Them soldiers come back, they smell smoke. Hurry."
She chopped at the soft flesh and he held up the hams that were not ham yet. Ham was pink and feathery and salty. This meat was slippery, and somehow he could see through the thin parts to the bone.
Net cradled more bloody meat in her apron and headed up the levee to the embers she had never let die since the boat had dropped them there, on the narrow rise of land that looked like a long road. Gustave had tried to walk it once when the soldiers first left, but when he looked back and couldn't see anything of the people—Net's tignon like a puff of smoke rising from her head, the old man's white handkerchief laid on his forehead—he stopped. Ahead was nothing, only the levee thin and green, drowned trees on one side and brown water sliding past near his feet.
He washed his face now, in his kitchen, and leaned over the sink. Then he got out the piece of paper from the top drawer. The ten numbers. He dialed carefully, his finger barely fitting inside the circle, the metal pinching his skin. The cricket trill of ringing. Then a voice. "Hey."
Gustave said, "Hello. Victor. This your grandpere."
Then the voice said, "Gotcha. If you getting this message, you ain't getting me. Leave me the digits and I'll get with you when I can."
He walked back toward Enrique's house. The men were still at the table, waiting for him, their own cigarettes only red embers in the dark.
Was his grandson sleeping? Hungry? Where was he? In a car? Wearing his headphones? If he woke up and his mother wasn't there, it wouldn't be the first time.
Inside the house, Marie-Therese hadn't moved. Glorette's mouth and eyes were closed. "No purse? Nothing?" he asked, and Marie-Therese shook her head.
Gustave didn't even know where she lived. No address, no license on his daughter. He looked at her bare toes, her cracked heels. She'd walked enough miles, as if she lived in another time. The men had gathered around Lafayette's truck now. If they didn't go get Victor, and no one called the police, how would he learn about his mother?
Sidney Chabert might know.
They saw him walking along the road that led back into Rio Seco, and Gustave said, "Where his shirt, now?"
Reynaldo said, "In the back. He wrapped her up in it, when he was carrying her."
As Lafayette's truck came upon Sidney, he stopped and stared straight ahead, as if at a rabbit. He was afraid they didn't believe his story. He was afraid they would kill him. Rio Seco people knew Sarrat was another world. Some of them knew how Enrique and Gustave had gotten here, about the man they'd killed in Louisiana, from the stories Sarrat daughters had told to Rio Seco fools who thought the girls were country and pretty and light skinned and dim-witted.
Gustave was sitting in the truck bed, on a crate, his back to the cab. "Where she live now?" he called hoarsely to Sidney.
"Jacaranda Gardens," Sidney said. "That's what somebody told me."
"Show me where," Gustave said. "I want my grandson."
Sidney climbed into the truck bed, and Gustave threw him his shirt.
They were silent while the truck moved along the asphalt road toward the city. Only two miles. All the Sarrat children walked to school in Rio Seco along this road, and walked home, for years. Lafayette and Reynaldo had married Sarrat girls, but they lived in the city now. Only a few people were left in the ten bungalows along Gustave's street.
"You ever touch a dead body?" Sidney asked.
Gustave listened to the tires popping over fallen palm fronds. "Oui," he said. "Only one time. I was seven, and Enrique was three. Flood of 1927 come and kill everyone. Take my maman body and our house, and I never see her again. Some of us stay on the levee. High ground. About a hundred people, wait for days for a boat. Then soldiers come and take the men, say they have to work the crevasse. Where the water run into the farms. They point the gun for the men get in the boat, say, Time to work, nigger."
Sidney was silent.
"Then we have no food. We wait for the food, or the boat. One baby die, and then an old man. I touch him. We wrap him in blankets, and the baby, and we can't bury."
Enrique's head leaned against the glass of the cab window. His hair was flattened and gray. His son turned the wheel and the truck moved onto Palm Avenue, the main street, past the packinghouse where they delivered the citrus, and then into the business district, where markets and dry cleaners and taco places had darkened windows.
Gustave wanted to see the alley. Allee. A lane of trees that led to Mr. McQuine's and Msieu Armand's homes, the white homes with black shutters, behind the long allee of oaks.
"Tell Lafayette where you find her," he said, and Sidney said Spanish words to Lafayette through the cab window.
"El Ojo de Agua."
"What that say?" Gustave asked.
"The Eye of Water," Sidney said. "I don't know what it means. What they named the taqueria. Must be something from Mexico."
No shopping cart in the alley behind the taco place. The truck idled at the mouth of the dirt lane, the chain-link fence, the closed doors of buildings, the trash bin. Sidney said, "I took the cart to Sundown Liquor because I knew I'd see Lafayette and Reynaldo there."
His daughter's body floating in the cart, like a metal pirogue, down the dusty alley. His mother's body, floated from her bed to the Gulf. His father's body, buried before anyone knew who he was. His daughter, lying on the couch with Marie-Therese humming beside her, as if she were only napping. His wife, Anjolie, dead of a diabetic coma, lying in the cemetery at the edge of this Sarrat, inside the groves.
Sidney had done the right thing. The empty alley—no police would care, and the men who drive cars around the alleys to look for women like Glorette would find other women, her friend maybe, and only Victor would know.
Enrique said, "No place to die." His eyes were red and muddy when he looked at Gustave. Enrique said to Sidney, "You find her here? You ain't play with us? You ain't touch her?"
Sidney said, "I ain't lying. I found her right there." He pointed to a spot near some weeds, at the fence. "Her son came into the video store last month. Said they didn't even have a TV at his place, but he had to watch some history movie at his friend's house. I asked if he was okay, and he said you gave him a cell in case of emergency."
"I call. Nobody there."
Gustave looked up at the palms, electric in the moonlight. Sidney stared up too. He said, "You know why I took her? Cause I saw rats running across the phone wires, and I couldn't hang. No. I just took her."
Gustave said, "You did right. You take me to where she live. I tell her boy she called me, and I came and got her, and she died at home. On the couch. She just give out."
Enrique nodded. "Her heart just stop on her." He threw his cigarette butt into the dirt.
Gustave and Enrique and the others would build a coffin for Glorette, and they would dig the hole in the old cemetery where no one but Sarrat people came. Victor would say good-bye to her. The only church would be their words, the way it had been on the levee. Then Victor would sleep in her room.
Sidney took them to the Jacaranda Gardens apartment building, a few blocks away. The stucco walls were gray. The wrought iron railings were black. The windows were shuttered with old sheets and broken shades. The word PICARD was written in pen on the mail slot for number sixteen.
Gustave climbed the pebbled stairs slowly. The railing felt rough and pitted, as if someone had cooked on the iron. But he smelled no food here.
The door was flimsy when he knocked. He called softly, "Victor. Victor." But no one answered.
He pushed, and the catch on the door gave way. The lock had been broken many times. In the living room a futon lay in the corner near the heating vent. A glass-topped table and two chairs sat near the window. The Formica counter held nothing but Shasta cola and a plain paper bag. Inside were empty corn husks streaked with orange grease—tamales.
The bedroom door was closed. He went inside quietly, wondering, What if Victor has a gun?
But his grandson was asleep. His ears were covered with headphones, and his arms were tightly gripping something to his chest, under the blanket. Sharp corners. Maybe CD cases. A pile of books lay close to his head. The cell phone must be under his pillow, or his back, Gustave thought, and he sat down on the carpet.
A bowl beside him on the floor, a lone dried noodle like a worm trying to crawl up the side. Carpet with strands tangled and dirty like more worms. He would take Victor to his house, and Victor would hate it, and hate the oranges, and the beans. He would want hamburgers, and Gustave would buy them. He wouldn't say what he said last time. "I make my meat in fall, when Lanier bring me some pig for Marie-Therese freezer. We buy a whole pig. Not no piece of pink sponge in some plastic. Enrique and me have to have some good meat."
Net had carried the meat to her fire, laid it on a pan there, and when her baby woke she'd tied the baby to her breast, inside her shirt, to keep him quiet. But the soldiers smelled the smoke. The fat rising in the black. They came with their guns and said, "Where you get that meat? That a knife?" Net went toward them with the knife and they shot her. She fell into the water and went under, and only her broad back showed when she surfaced and floated away from the levee.
The other women screamed and screamed and the soldiers pushed at the people surging toward them. They didn't shoot again. Gustave pulled the half-burned meat from the fire and squatted near Enrique. He tore pieces from the ham and pushed them into Enrique's mouth, shielding him from the people. Enrique pulled at Gustave's hands, and he saw the blood glistening on his knuckles.
Victor's shoes, under the covers, made lumps like bread loaves. Gustave cupped his palms over his eyebrows, moving the loose skin there back and forth, like he always had when he waited, on the levee, in the barracks, in the cane fields.
His grandson slept like the dead.
Seventeen. Never had a job. Half grown. That was what the soldiers called the boys on the levee. "Take the grown ones. They don't want to come, get them half-grown niggers. They got small hands but they got two. Shovel take two hands."
He didn't want to frighten the boy. Something like seashells lay on the floor near the mattress. Gustave leaned down to touch them. When had he gone to the ocean? No—these were pistachio shells. A small bag, like you'd get at the liquor store. He held the shells in his palm. He could hear the engine of Lafayette's truck outside. He could see the palm fronds up close from this second floor window. Dates like small gold worlds, way too high for anyone to pick.
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