Orleans. The name held no magic at first. I knew nothing about it, nothing other than that it was an escape. I was naïve. I was dumb. I was blind. The beat, the heat, the noise – that was all to come. Orleans, Orleans, Orleans.
I moved there from Mississippi when I was eighteen, an aspiring artist fresh out of high school. Desperate to leave the stifling monotony of my suburban home, I had applied at the recently opened University of New Orleans, packed up my things and travelled across state. I was not a rebellious or wild kid, but being on my own, being somewhere different, unleashed a certain fervour within me. Something began to pulse, under the surface.
On my first day of class the lecturer told us to go out that night and draw something, “draw anything.” I linked up with two other kids, a local girl called Judy and another newcomer, Robert, from Alabama. We strolled around the central part of town, eating po boys and searching for subject matter. The city excited me, and yet it was not so different to what I already knew.
We eventually settled in Lafeyette Square, and attempted to capture its beauty. I wasn’t ready to stop exploring, and when we were finished I suggested we head off in a different direction. Judy looked at me sharply. “Let’s not,” she said, her voice strange.
I frowned. “Why?”
“It isn’t…appropriate. Or safe.”
I looked at Robert, who shrugged, and dropped the issue.
The next night I set off in the ‘forbidden’ direction, intrigued by Judy’s insistence that we avoid it, and eager to find something worth drawing. I walked and walked, leaving the tidy townhouses and elegant eateries behind. I saw fewer and fewer people, and began passing bars that looked old and tired. Narrow, crammed shotgun houses lined the streets, and the smell of pulled pork drifted from the lunch bars I encountered. Cigar stubs littered the pavement, a myriad of browns.
When it dawned on me that the people I did see were not white, and had not been for a long time, I realised what Judy had been trying to say. I turned around and began to retrace my steps, but stopped when I heard the music.
It was a trumpet, and it was alive and angry, filling the air with a startling urgency. Enthralled, I started off in its direction. Moving down a side street, my eyes locked onto a squat brick building, with Big Al’s lit up on its front in neon green. I stumbled towards it and pushed open the door, and when I did it was as though I had stepped into another world. Everything hit me at once; the acrid stench of whisky and cigars, the haze of smoke clouding the room, the dim lights and packed tables, and above the chatter and the clinking of glass, the music.
It rose over the bustle, merging with it all to create an energy and passion that was foreign to me; the screech of the trumpet, the wild jangle of the piano, the solid beat of the drums. I was exhausted and exhilarated simultaneously, and unable to look away.
I could see the sweat on the trumpet player’s forehead, see the frown on his brow and the muscles on his forearms. The stomp of his leather shoes on the scratched wooden floor seemed to reverberate through my body, and then suddenly he stopped playing, threw back his head and howled. He began to sing, his voice rich and scratchy, not looking at the crowd but at something no one else could see. He wasn’t playing for them.
I stood in the doorway until the song ended, then staggered to the bar and took a seat. All of the warnings and the hate from my upbringing told me not to, begged me not to (this was wrong, this was sick, this was despicable), but I brushed them aside. Maybe, maybe. But at least I would know for myself, something I had never even considered trying to do, simply taking my parent’s, my teacher’s, everyone’s word without question. White people did not play music like that. White’s did not have that…that vibrancy. Maybe whites didn’t know.
“What are you doin’ here, son?”
I started from my musing and looked up. A stocky man wearing a cheese-cutter and a faded navy shirt rolled up to the elbows was eyeing me warily from across the bar.
“I’m just…” I swallowed. “Who’s that trumpet player?”
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s Willard. Why you askin’?”
“What’s your name, son?” He asked, frowning.
“Harrison, I’m Big Al.” He put a drink on the counter and pushed it towards me.
“What is it?” I asked.
I took a sip and grimaced. “It’s good.”
“Sazerac.” He stared at me. “You seem like an alright kid, Harrison, but I gotta ask why you’re here. You must know where you are. Not everyone here’s gonna welcome you, you know.”
“I know,” I said, nodding. “I’m an art student; I was looking for something to draw. I’m new in town and somehow I ended up out here, and then I heard the trumpet. It just…I just had to come in.”
“Yeah, Willard’s sure got somethin’,” he grinned. “I guess if you don’t mean any harm you’ll be alright. Just-”
‘Hey Big, come give a man a drink!”
Big Al sighed good-naturedly and left me to serve a man leaning dangerously against the counter. I saw him look at me strangely and say something to Big Al. Glancing at the stage, I saw Willard take a slurp from a whisky tumbler and laugh at the man on the drums. He waved a hand casually, then picked up his trumpet and burst into a shrieking, discordant melody, fragmented and harsh. It was perfect. Keeping my eyes fixed on the man on the stage, I picked up my pencil and began to draw.
I awoke late the next day, my head throbbing and my throat dry. Dressing quickly, I grabbed my sketchbook and headed to class. I listened absently while Professor Turner gave his lecture, focussing my attention instead on the drawing in my book. Capturing the vigour of Willard’s performance seemed to be a near impossible feat, and seeing my feeble attempt only instilled within me a greater urge to do just that. I ran my pencil around the edges of his silhouette, thinking back to the night before, to all that I had experienced.
Big Al had come back to me after serving a queue of customers, and commented on my drawing. “Not bad, son. You say you were studying the arts?”
I nodded. “That’s right.”
“And you ain’t from round here?”
“Willard might just like you fine, then.”
“I can meet him?”
“If you like. We’re old friends. The band usually hangs around here after their gigs.”
Unfortunately for me, the band did not hang around that night, but slipped out the back door while I chatted to Big Al. I told him I would come back the following evening, and he grinned at me and raised his hands. “If you think that’s a good idea, then alright.”
Whether I thought it was a good idea or not no longer mattered to me. I was already in, from the moment I stepped through the door, the moment I heard the feral cry of the trumpet. I was going back, and that was all there was to it. I had to see more; had to hear more. This world I was in today was so dull.
“Hey Harrison, what are you doing tonight?” Robert interrupted my thoughts, leaning over my desk.
“Going out…to a friends,” I replied hastily. Could I tell them? Probably not. Not Judy, anyhow. “Why’s that?”
“Judy and I were thinking we could go out for a drink, maybe catch a movie. No worries though.”
“Yeah, next time okay?” I smiled at him.
When I went back to Big Al’s that night, he greeted me warmly as I entered. “So you’re back.”
I grinned. “I’m afraid so.”
“Please.” I sat down at the bar. I had arrived earlier this time, and the place was less crowded, the stage empty. But there was still an undertone of energy simmering throughout the room, heaving expectantly. “Did anyone say anything to you about me?” I asked.
“Course they did. Nothin’ too bad, though. Mostly they’re just curious an’ wary, like I was.” He chuckled. “I told ’em you’re okay.”
“Thanks.” I took a sip from the drink he slid towards me. “Are they playing tonight?”
He jerked his head in the direction of the stage in reply, and I turned to see Willard and his band enter through a side door. They waved to Big Al, and he turned to me. “Come on.”
“What do you mean?” “Come and meet ’em.”
Standing quickly, I followed him over to the stage, where the group were busy setting up. I felt my heart quicken and my arms prickle. I was nervous.
“Willard, boys – this is Harrison. He’s an artist, and he’s taken a fancy to your music.”
Willard stretched out his hand and grinned at me, his teeth a brilliant white. “Good to know you, Harry. This here’s Ross, our pianist, and Smokes Jo, the drummer boy.”
I shook hands with him and greeted the group.
“So you’re an artist?” Smokes asked. He was a muscular figure, with a neatly trimmed beard and enormous smile. “What do you do?”
“Drawings, mostly black and white,” I replied. “I wouldn’t say I’m an artist, though. I’ve drawn most of my life, but not…properly.”
“If you’ve drawn most ’a your life I’d say you’re an artist, boy,” laughed Willard. “But that’s interesting. You any good?” I shrugged. “I don’t really know?”
“Maybe you should find out.”
“What are you doin’ here?” Ross asked. He was slightly built, and looked much younger than the other two, close to my own age even. His tone was distrustful, and he looked at the piano keys when he spoke.
“He was looking for things to draw, and heard ya’ll playing,” Big Al said before I had the chance. “And liked what he heard!”
“But why were you in this part of town?” Ross questioned.
“I only moved here last week,” I said. “I didn’t really know there were parts of town.”
“Where’d you move from?”
He sneered. “And you’re trying to tell us you’re here ’cause you like our music? Not ’cause you want to draw some pictures of black folks in a dirty bar, and use ’em to do good in your nice white school?”
I swallowed, taken aback. “Yes. I mean, I want to draw, but not for that reason. I want to draw something real, and…what you guys were doing was the realest thing I’ve ever witnessed.” I looked at Big Al for support. “I really do think your music is amazing.”
Ross eyed me suspiciously for a moment, but said nothing.
“Give the kid a break, Ross. Pretty brave, comin’ in here all on his own.”
“Brave! Stupid. Other way round, he wouldn’t be invited inside and introduced to anyone. Be lucky to make it out in one piece.”
“Enough, son.” Willard placed a hand on his shoulder. “They ain’t all cut from the same cloth.” He chuckled. “Just most of ’em.”
Ross grinned wryly and shook his head.
“So do we get to see this masterpiece you drew up?” Willard asked, taking his trumpet from its case, a battered mahogany box lined with faded red velvet.
“I haven’t really done much. I was hoping to draw some more tonight.” I admitted.
“Think we can allow that. If you show us after the show,” Smokes bargained.
I smiled. “Deal.”
The night passed in a blur of noise and colour and smoke, much like the previous one. I sat and listened to the band until they finished playing around one in the morning, paying little notice to the people coming and going, or staring blatantly at me from across the room. When I showed the group my sketchbook even Ross looked impressed. There were two drawings so far, both incomplete. The first was the sketch of Willard I had begun the night before, bending over his trumpet, his eyes closed and brow furrowed, the room a dusky black around him. It was very basic, but I thought you could see at least some of the passion in his performance.
The second drawing was of all three musicians, mid action. I had tried to capture the sweat on their arms and faces, and the worn wood of the floor they seemed to move with.
“These are good, Harry. Real good.” Willard looked at me. “You might just have some real talent, boy.”
I took his words home with me, and watched them circle about my head as I shuffled into bed, drained and content.
I returned to Big Al’s night after night, never losing the intrigue I had initially felt. My studies became second to my ‘forbidden’ excursions, and I felt as though I was living two lives; one of the privileged, sheltered white student, and the other the receptive, passionate free…person. I sat in class each day, drawing, listening, waiting for it to end. I saw Judy and Robert, and saw what my days could have been like had I headed Judy’s warning; saw me strolling with them after class, joking and laughing, oblivious to the real world that was out there, content in my little bubble of consumption and judgement and ignorance. When I entered the disarray of Big Al’s, I felt alive, and I knew that this was life, this was authentic and true.
It didn’t take long for me to slide into the world of the black New Orleans. I was surprised how quickly I was accepted, largely because I knew that what Ross had said in our first meeting was true – if it were the other way around, things would not be the same. Big Al made a show of treating me as his own, and I think I largely owed this acceptance to him. We developed a rapid friendship, such that he would let me stay after he had closed up, and ‘hang’ with him and the band. I loved these times almost as much as I loved listening to Willard. Even without the music and the crowds, there was still that atmosphere of vibrancy that I thrived on, and we sat around the table closest to the stage, drinking and smoking. Ross seemed to come to terms with me after the first week, and though he wasn’t friendly like the others were, he was no longer hostile. I would listen, enthralled, as the group recounted tales from their life, and laughed over shared memories. Big Al and Willard had known each other since they were kids, having both grown up in the same neighbourhood and gone to school together. They met Smokes on their first fulltime job, working construction around the city, and the three became fast friends.
“When did you open this place, Big Al?” I asked, swirling the ice around in my tumbler.
“Probably round about the same time you was born, kid!” He chuckled. “Near twenty years ago, now. My pa died and left me a bit of money, so I bought this place with that, and what I had saved up from construction.”
“Don’t let him fool you, though, he makes jack all,” Smokes said. “He only hired us ’cause he couldn’t afford any better.”
Everyone laughed, and Big Al rolled his eyes and jerked his head towards the bar. “Come an’ help me get us another round,” he said.
Ross followed them over to the counter, and I turned to Willard. “When did you start playing the trumpet?”
He whistled softly. “A long time ago. My uncle taught me when I was ’bout four years old. He took me in when my ’rents died, and showed me the magic. I grew up listenin’ to Louis, and when I started playing I knew I couldn’t go back.” He grinned. “My uncle was a drunk, but he knew how to play. I learnt a lot from him, before he passed on.”
“Is this what you do for a living?” I asked.
“If only, Harry. I’m still in the construction business; Smokes works at the docks. Ross is in his last year of school.”
“How did he become part of the band?” I asked, looking at the kid – because he was even younger than I had thought; he really was a kid – sitting atop Big Al’s bar.
“Kind ’a reminds me of you, actually,” he said. “He just wondered in here one night, came right up to the stage and asked if he could join us. Big Al told us after that he’d been hanging around for days, trying to get in.” He laughed. “Lucky for him, he had talent.”
I nodded. “Wow.”
“You ever played an instrument before, Harry?”
“Does a guitar in fifth grade count?”
“I suppose it does,” he chuckled. “Would you like to play the trumpet?”
I blinked. “Your trumpet?”
“I don’t see any others around, do you?” “I would like to,” I said in disbelief. I watched as he drew his trumpet from the mahogany case and wiped the mouthpiece with a handkerchief. He showed me how to shape my lips and make a buzzing sound, then explained matter-of-factly how to play several notes, before handing it over for me to try.
I was terrible at first, and caused quite a raucous at the bar, but after a few tries I managed to poorly replicate Willard’s simple demonstration. He clapped me on the shoulder and grinned. “Not bad for you first try.” Taking the trumpet from me, he wiped it again and began to play, a crooning melody at first, which broke into a jerky, excited chatter. Ross leapt off the counter and sat down at the piano, tapping his fingers over the keys hastily, watching Willard. Smokes joined them on the drums, and Big Al took a seat next to me.
“Why do I bother payin’ them at all, when they just play for free like this?” He asked, and I laughed in reply, taking out my sketchpad and beginning to draw.
As I spent more and more time at Big Al’s I drifted further from my daily life. The band and the bar had become like a kind of home to me; I felt more myself there than anywhere else. I drew, and I listened, and sometimes I played. I talked, and I witnessed, and I lived.
And then one day, Willard was killed, and everything changed.
I knew something was wrong when I arrived one night and the bar was shut. When I entered through the back door, I found Big Al, Smokes and Ross sitting at the bar despondently, no one speaking a word.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Willard?”
The energy of the room seemed dead, and I felt the aching of anxiety beginning to stir within me. Big Al was the one who told me. Willard had been working construction in a white neighbourhood on the other side of the city, one he had worked in before but not for many years. He had been stabbed three times, and his body dumped in a garbage tip in an alley.
I didn’t think it was true, because it couldn’t be true, someone couldn’t just be murdered like that for no reason. That wasn’t real, things like that didn’t happen.
I sat at the bar in silence with the three men that whole night, not a drop of liquor shared between us.
They tried to carry on, Ross and Smokes. Ross even sang a little, but it was no use. I tried to draw them, too; for weeks I tried. We didn’t really talk about it, just carried on with things, but to me the magic was lost. Willard had captured it; Willard had been it. He was the rawness of Orleans, the rawness of the world. The honesty. Without him, nothing was real. Everywhere I looked there was inauthenticity. The smiling postman, the pretty waitress in the diner down the street. The taxi drivers, the lecturers, the policemen, Robert and Judy. When I saw the rawness of Orleans taken away, taken in a careless act of mere minutes, I saw the world for the dishonest creature it was.
And so I drew, but I drew bluntly. I drew empty.
Written for a creative writing paper at The University of Auckland, 2013
Her name was Delilah Ward and she moved to Port Harrison, Mississippi with her mother in the sultry summer of 1965. I was eight years old, intrigued at the prospect of growing up and determined to be the best baseball player in class.
I first saw her on a Tuesday morning as I was walking to school, my skin already itching with sweat under the oppressive heat. She was standing at the gate of a little brown house, several blocks from the new subdivision my family had recently moved to. Here the houses were small and rundown, and the drought was even more noticeable because unlike our subdivision, no one came and watered the grass so there simply was none. She was looking out at the street with wide eyes as her mother plaited her hair. She was very pretty, with fine cheekbones and big doe eyes. Her skin was darker than mine, and I wondered why she looked so sad.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Henry Prince, what’s your name?”
Her eyes flitted to mine momentarily, but she did not answer. Her mother smiled at me strangely and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. I carried on my way.
When I came out to the play area at lunch there she was, sitting by herself and kicking her skinny legs gently beneath her. I walked over, tossing the baseball I always carried with me from hand to hand. “Do you go to school here now? I asked her. “I haven’t seen you before.”
She looked at me doubtfully.
“What are you doing by yourself?” I pressed. “Do you want to play catch?”
Still she did not reply, only stared at me in a curious and almost bewildered manner.
“How old are you?” I questioned. “I’m eight and a quarter.”
“My name’s Delilah,” she replied finally, smiling at me hesitantly. “I’m seven. And a half.”
“You just moved to Harrison, didn’t you?”
She nodded. “Mama said things are meant to be different now.”
I frowned, and was about to ask what she meant by ‘things’, when I heard my friend Mark Thompson calling my name.
“We’re having a game,” he yelled, jerking his head towards our makeshift diamond.
I raised a hand and turned back to Delilah. “You want to play?”
She shook her head hastily.
“Alright.” I shrugged. “Bye.” I jogged over to Mark, who was dividing the boys into teams.
“What were you doing talking to that freak?” He asked distractedly.
I just laughed.
“There’s a new girl at school, mother. Her name’s Delilah. She’s pretty.”
“That’s nice, dear. Is she in your class?”
“No; I saw her at break. She lives three blocks down, in a little brown cottage.”
“Oh, how lovely. Eat your potatoes.”
“I think you’d like her mother, mother. She can do nice plaits, like you.”
“Is that so?” Mother smiled at me and nodded at the mound of mashed potato on my plate.
I frowned, prodding the pile of food absently with my fork. “Mark called her a freak today. I think he was joking.”
Mother’s head lurched up suddenly, and she looked at my father. “Henry,” she said, her voice strange, “you’re not to talk to her. Understood?”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Listen to your mother, Henry.” Father cut in, putting aside the newspaper.
Scowling, I finished my dinner in silence. I did not eat all the potatoes.
I walked Delilah to school the next day, curious to discover what was wrong with her. I found nothing, but that lunch break Mark did not ask me to play baseball.
The following morning, Delilah exited her gateway with clenched fists, smiling somewhat nervously.
“What is it?” I asked. “Do you have a test today?”
She shook her head and unfurled one of her hands, revealing a neatly woven bracelet of blue cotton thread. “I made it.”
A tentative nod.
“Gee, thanks Delilah! Put it on, will you?” I beamed. As we strolled down the footpath I caught her hand. “You’re my friend, okay?”
She nodded again, a brilliant smile splitting her face like two halves of an orange; bright and fresh and beautiful.
As we entered the school gates, two of my classmates ran past, knocking Delilah’s books from her hands and tripping me over. “Freak!” They yelled over their shoulders, and I got to my feet, puzzled. When I looked at Delilah, I thought I saw a gleam in her eyes.
Two days later, Mark called me over to his group. He looked at me strangely. “What’s the matter with you, Henry?”
“Me?” I asked, confused. “Nothing, I’m fine!”
“Where’d you get that?” He pointed at my bracelet, and when I shrugged, he laughed. “Henry.” An arm looped itself around my shoulder. “You’ve got to stop sitting with that girl.”
He sneered unpleasantly. “I know you’re only eight, but can’t you see?” His mouth tightened. “She’s a nigger. Filth. A nigger. Not for you, not for me, not for any of us. You see?”
I looked over at Delilah, sitting by herself with her arms wrapped around her bony knees, and then I looked around the yard and noticed for the first time that her skin wasn’t just darker than mine…it was darker than everyone’s. I turned to Mark. “But-”
“No.” He shook his head. “You stop now. Alright?” His grip tightened on my shoulders to the point of pain, and I winced. “Let’s play some ball.”
I allowed him to lead me over to the baseball diamond, glancing once more at Delilah as I walked away.
The drought carried on, seemingly synonymous to the confused heat I felt within me. Everywhere the ground cracked, the grass shrivelled and died.
I did not walk with Delilah anymore, and at school Mark watched me in a way that made me scared. She sat alone each day, her head resting on pulled up knees. I looked at the blue thread of the bracelet on my wrist. “You’re my friend, okay?”
And then one day she wasn’t there anymore, and as I was walking back from school I saw the blackened remains of the Ward house, an ugly skeleton with thick smoke rising into the sky. I ran home and asked mother what had happened, and she said that the Ward’s had moved back to where they came from.
As I walked past the house the next day, I stopped outside the gate and thought of Delilah Ward with her wide brown eyes, watching the road as her mother plaited her hair. Something began to hurt inside me, and I wheeled around, rushing back home and into my room. I pulled my old worn baseball mit out from under my bed and yanked the neatly threaded bracelet off my wrist. Stuffing it inside the mit, I shoved it back, to the farthest corner beneath my bed. Then I stood and walked back to school.
I never looked at that bracelet again.
Written for a creative writing paper at The University of Auckland, 2013
It is summer, 1956. I am playing pirates on the lake with Matchstick and Trev. It is hot, the sun gleaming down on the water, painting it gold. Our lives are about to change, but we do not know this now. And we do not know that this change, when it comes, will be indelible.
“Hey c’mon guys, gimme a go at being Captain Hook! I’ve been kidnapped three times now!” Trev complained, pulling the rope from around his wrists.
“Only ’cause you’re the easiest to catch!” I said, and Matchstick laughed.
“Aw, whatever then. I gotta get home soon anyway,” he sighed, his chubby cheeks swelling.
“Yeah, same here. You can be Hook next time Trev, alright?” Matchstick and I only teased him because he was a year younger than us, we having turned twelve a few months ago and feeling very high and mighty because of it. He was our best friend and it never meant anything.
“Yeah, yeah,” he grinned and picked up one of the oars, pushing it through the water. Matchstick took the other and I sat at the prow of the boat, watching the hands on my Mickey Mouse watch move slowly around. I had known Matchstick since I was a baby, and we’d been like brothers my whole childhood. His real name was Hugo, but we called him Matchstick on account of him being real skinny and tall, with a head of flaming red curls.
All three of us had been born in the small town of Helensdale, Georgia State. I always thought of the town as having layers, ’cause it was kinda divided in a physical sense. Helens Lake sat on the west side of town, bordered by the forest to the north and the big hills to the east. Atop these hills sat the wealthy residents of Helensdale. I called them the Vaults, ever since Pa told me as a young boy that they have so much money it fills up great big vaults in the bank. On the other side of the Vaults’ hills is the town square, the school and all the normal sort of houses like my friends and I live in. It’s not so bad, pretty tidy and all, and Matchstick only lives three places down from me.
Eventually the lake narrows and becomes Crown Creek, which curves round the town square area, separating the third and final layer from everything. This is known as the slums and the people who come from there, the Slummers. No one from our part of town goes over there as it’s in a pretty poor state and can only be reached by a little bridge anyhow, but one time Matchstick and I rowed further down the creek and got a good look at things. It wasn’t a nice sight, just a collection of run down shacks and folks walking round in dirty overalls and boots. All the Helensdale blacks live over there, but there are a lot of whites too and they’re treated just the same when they venture into town for necessities. Most of them work at the lumberyard, which is why they don’t have much money to get out of that place.
We were nearly at the dock, which is between Helensdale High and the Slummer’s side of the creek when I spotted a figure pacing past the school in the direction of the Vaults. “Hey guys, ain’t that Mister Werner?” I asked, trying to get a better look.
“You sure? Not like him to be on this side of town,” Trev said.
“Yeah, yeah it is him!” Matchstick waved, but the man didn’t notice.
George Werner was one of the wealthiest residents of the town. He was a lawyer, and worked in a nearby city on account of Helensdale not having its own law office. I’d only seen him a couple of times, but I knew his wife was mighty pretty, and his son, Michael went to school. He was a few years younger than us, but boy was he a snob! He was known for picking on the few slummer kids that managed to get into school, in particular a quiet boy by the name of Robert Bisby. I wasn’t a fan of his much.
After pulling our boat up onto the shore we strolled into town and parted at my driveway. I walked into the kitchen, where my mother was baking. My mother, she’s real pretty, and kind, too. “Christopher,” she said, and I knew something was wrong. Nobody called me that unless they were mad – I was Chace, ’cause of the speed my long legs gave me. “Christopher, there’s been an accident. Little Michael Werner…well, he drowned this afternoon.” She took a deep breath.
“Michael’s dead?” I couldn’t comprehend it. “But mother, I was just at the lake-”
“No,” she shook her head. “He was found down the end of Crown Creek. By the Slummers.” I thought of Mr. Werner, hurrying from that direction. He must have just found out. “Your father’s at the clinic now, examining the body.” She pulled me close. “Gosh, isn’t it terrible?”
My Pa was the only doctor in town, and he also wrote part time for the local paper, the Helensdale Headlines. He was well respected round here, but while mother was beautiful, he was something else. He wasn’t bad looking – pretty handsome, in fact – but he was a cripple. He fought in the War with his best friend, Matchstick’s dad John, but while John came out unscathed, my pa got shot in the kneecap, shattering part of the bone. He’s had a limp ever since, dragging his leg behind him a little. The kids at school make fun of him and I can only look away, my cheeks going red, ’cause I know they’re right.
When I came downstairs later that evening I heard mother talking to Pa, who must have just got home. Something about their hushed tone made me stop outside the living room and listen.
“-you must be wrong, Carson. It can’t be right,” mother was saying.
“I’m telling you, darling, Michael did not drown. There were bruise marks clear around his neck. He was strangled.” Pa said softly.
My eyes widened. Strangled? Murder? Here?
“No…not in Helensdale. That doesn’t happen…”
“I know it’s hard…we’ll get to the bottom of this. Marcell was with me and he’s already informed George and Elizabeth.” Marcell Bredson was the town sheriff and Trev’s father. Trev would find out about this pretty quick, but Matchstick had to know.
The next day the three of us met up at the school field during recess. “Did you see this?” Trev shoved a copy of the paper at us. Boy, seven, strangled the headline read. It wasn’t by pa – he didn’t write such blunt things.
“Already knew that, Trev,” I said.
“Read it! It says the Werner’s are accusing Joe Bisby of the murder! Pa talked to them last night and Mister Werner declared the body was near Joe’s, and he had a motive since Michael’s always bullied Robert!”
“Gimme that!” Matchstick snatched the paper from him, scanning it hurriedly. “Naw, I can’t read half of these words,” he complained.
School had been a flurry of whispers and gossip this morning, but I noticed I hadn’t seen Robert at all. When I mentioned this, Matchstick rolled his eyes. “Probably ’cause his daddy just killed someone, maybe?”
Trev frowned. “You don’t know that. That’s why it’s called an accusation.”
“Yeah, alright. Say, I wonder if we’ll get time off school if this thing really blows up?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Is that a good reason though?”
“School’s still school,” he replied.
That afternoon I noticed a strange car in our drive as I came home from school, a shiny silver 1954 Cadillac Fleetwood. I let out a whistle, and shut the front door behind me. As I walked into the living room a man stood up and turned to me. He smiled. “Hi there, son!” I thought I vaguely recognised him as one of the Vaults, Jonathon. He was movie star handsome and his wife was known for being unfriendly.
“Hello?” I replied, looking behind him to mother, who was adjusting her blouse. She stood, beaming brightly at me and brushing hair from her face.
“Chace, darling, how are you? Mr. McCoy here was just dropping off Caroline’s blueberry pie recipe for me.” She turned to him. “Thank you again, Mr. McCoy.”
“My pleasure,” he grinned and patted me on the head. “Goodbye, kid.”
“I thought you had football after school today, dear?” Mother said.
“Coach couldn’t make it,” I replied.
“Oh, pity. Would you like some lemon cordial?” We sat at the table and began a game of checkers. We were on our third match when pa limped briskly into the room. Now, he was a real level-headed man; he rarely raised his voice or cursed, but something in his stare told me he was mad.
“Carson, what is it?” Mother stood and went to him.
“You saw the paper today?” He asked.
“Yes. Bisby, well, I suppose we oughtn’t be surprised. If it was going to be anyone it was going to be a Slummer, and he had a motive.”
“Joe was egged and stoned on his way home from the yard today,” Pa said through gritted teeth. “Someone painted a slash of red on his front door.”
“Oh…who did it?”
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it happened at all.”
“But if he did it-”
“There’s no proof, Maria. No proof. This isn’t right. Just because he’s from the slums…” he took a deep breath. “I’m going to write about this.”
“Is that wise, dear?”
“It needs to be done.” Pa seemed to notice me for the first time. “Chace, son, sorry about that. I’m going to be writing tonight, but how about some catch tomorrow?” He smiled tiredly.
“Sure.” I shrugged.
The day after pa’s article was printed, I got cornered at school. I’d scanned the paper but hadn’t paid great attention. All pa seemed to write about was injustice and class, things I neither understood nor cared about. But three boys in high school, three Vaults, apparently did.
I was walking to form room when they pulled me into the corridor. “Saw your pa’s article,” one of them said, a big, burly boy named James.
“So what?” I said.
“So my daddy says he’s a Slummer-lover, as well as a cripple,” he retorted, and the others laughed.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Your pa better watch out. And so had you.”
“Aw, get outta here. I ain’t done nothing wrong,” I said stubbornly.
“Now you look,” he said, stepping closer.
Just then Mrs Stanley rounded the corner. “What’s going on here?” she asked.
“Nothing, mam,” the boys said, and left quickly.
“Were those boys bothering you, Chace?”
“Naw,” I shrugged, but that night while playing catch with pa I dropped my mitt and said: “some boys at school said you’re a Slummer-lover today.”
“They said what?” Pa frowned and sat down on the grass. After a minute, I sat down too. “Son, those boys are young. They don’t understand.”
“Why I wrote that article.”
“They said their daddy’s called you that, too.”
He smiled gently. “Their daddy’s don’t understand either.” He looked up at the slowly sinking sun. “There are people in this world, Chace, who don’t realise that we are all just that – people. There is no proof that Joe Bisby killed Michael, but the Vaults on that hill will jump to that notion straight away, because they view the Slummers as lowly, and themselves as better.”
“But they do have more money, and better houses and jobs,” I pointed out.
“That’s true,” pa agreed, “but does that make them better people? I don’t blame you for thinking that, growing up in this town. But it isn’t a person’s wealth or possessions, or appearance which makes them great, son. It’s the quality of their character and their attitude towards others.”
I nodded slowly. “Maybe I understand.”
“Good,” he smiled and scuffed my hair. “Let’s get cleaned up for tea.”
I awoke that night to the sound of voices coming from below. Looking at my Mickey Mouse watch, I saw that it was after eleven. Curious to see who could be calling so late, I padded downstairs and followed the sound to the closed door of pa’s study.
“I’m sorry, George – about your son. But I can’t take this,” Pa was saying in his mild tone.
“It’s a lot of money, Carson.”
“I can see that. But I won’t take it.”
“All you have to do is refrain from printing articles in that Slummers,” Mr Werner spat the word out, “favour – or print a retract, perhaps highlighting him as the murderer he is. Let the killer get his justice.”
I heard a chair scrape back. “George, it’s late. I appreciate the offer, but my mind will not change, not until there is proof in any case. Now goodnight.”
I ducked down the hall and up to my room before I was discovered, going over the conversation in my head as I drifted to sleep.
I knew something had changed when I arrived home from school the next day. Pa was home for a start, and mother was not. I found him sitting at the table, a tumbler of whisky in his hand and Elvis Presley playing on the radio. An envelope sat in front of him and when I entered he held it out to me. It was blank.
“Where’s mother?” I asked.
Pa sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. “Maria has moved onto the hillside,” he said.
“The hillside? What do you mean?”
“This is going to be hard to understand, Chace, but your mother has gone to live with Jonathon McCoy.”
“But he’s married.”
“And so is she. But your mother wants a better life.” He smiled wryly. “She left you that envelope.”
“Is this something to do with Mister Werner visiting last night?”
Pa straightened up. “You heard that?”
“Well, yes.” He sighed again. “Your mother hasn’t been happy for some time, son. She wants a better house, better things, and when she found out I turned down the money George offered me, it was her last straw.”
“So she’s gone.” I said flatly, looking at pa’s twisted leg, not feeling all that surprised. Mother was beautiful. When he nodded, I said: “why does Mister Werner want you to stop printing so much? Just ’cause Michael died?”
“It isn’t just because of Michael; this is bigger.” He pushed the drink away. “In a town as small as this one, son, a problem this big is like smoke in a sealed room. You can try and escape it, but it’s everywhere you go, and even if you find a bit of breathing space it’s still there, lingering in the air.”
I left the room silently, trying to understand what he meant. Upstairs I stared at the envelope and fiddled with my watch, deciding whether to open it or not. Finally, I did.
I am going away for a while and could not bear to say goodbye. I will not be far, and will visit often. Please try hard at school and be good to your father. I know you do not think the best of him, but he is a wonderful man. He never told you how he was shot in the kneecap, and he is so modest he asked me not to tell you either. Your father was wounded because he rushed back into battle to save Matchstick’s father John, who sprained his ankle sprinting to cover. Carson carried him around his shoulders, right to the edge of the battlefield where he was hit. He is a brave man, Chace, but he cannot give me what I need anymore.
I love you; I’ll be seeing you,
I read the note seven times before bed that night.
I had had two more close encounters with James and his friends in the past few days, each time being saved at the last moment by a teacher or the bell. When I was walking home from school with Matchstick and Trev one afternoon, I was not so lucky.
The day before, pa had printed another article, following the sheriff’s clueless search for the murderer and speaking out against the actions directed at the Bisby’s, whose windows had been smashed in. James held this out to me as he and his friends stepped from the shadows of a building. The street was deserted; a back road shortcut few knew about.
“What now?” I said, trying to act tough.
“…‘no human deserves this treatment, so why do some think it acceptable to do this to the Bisby’s?’” James read from the paper. “Your pa has gone too far. That cripple needs to be taught a lesson.”
I glared at him. Since my mother’s letter I had thought differently of pa. He had saved John, who I had always admired so much – he must be some kind of hero! And maybe I was beginning to realise that his articles were in some way heroic too. “Don’t call him that,” I said.
“Well it’s true, ain’t it?” The boy smirked. “He’s a cripple.”
“Yeah,” laughed one of his companions, imitating pa’s limp.
“That ain’t funny,” I said, stepping forward.
“Well, if you love your cripple daddy so much,” James said, “you must agree with his sick way of thinking.”
“Chace…” Trev said quietly, fear thick in his voice. They were all several years older and a lot bigger.
I shook my head. “Maybe pa ain’t wrong. Maybe you are.”
“I knew it!” James shouted, and in one quick move he grabbed me, pinning my arms back. I kicked and bit, but he was too strong, his grip never loosening. To my horror, his friends set on Matchstick and Trev, punching them in the face, the gut, kicking their legs when they collapsed. “You bastards, why don’t you hit me instead!” I screamed, and kept on screaming until they stopped, my friends unmoving on the ground.
“Oh, we ain’t going to hit you,” the voice behind me said, and he released me, his friends grasping one of my arms each. Smiling, he drew a switch knife from his pocket and flicked the blade out. My eyes widened.
“Are you crazy?”
He didn’t answer, simply advanced while I struggled. “Hold his face still!” His friends gripped my head tightly, and I watched as the knife came closer and closer, until it penetrated my skin, slicing from the corner of my eye down to my jaw. “Maybe now your pa will stop all this nonsense,” James chuckled, and the three walked off as I watched my blood drip from my chin onto the pavement.
Somehow the cut I received didn’t seem like a big deal on account of what happened to my friends. Matchstick came out of it black and blue with a line of stitches above one eye, but Trev broke two fingers and a rib, as well as being pretty badly beat up. After a few days my cut began to look a bit better, but there was no doubt that it would scar.
Pa didn’t write any more articles on Bisby, and the boys who hurt us went unpunished because of the alibis their families presented to the sheriff.
No hard evidence on the case had been found yet, and it looked like Bisby would be arrested soon if nothing was discovered.
Trev, Matchstick and I were lounging on the grass at the foot of the Vaults’ hill, by Helens Lake when we heard it. A scream, high pitched and long, followed by a bang. We looked at each other and took off running, up the hill to the house the noise had come from. The front door was open, so we walked tentatively inside and there, hunched over her husband’s body, sobbing, was Elizabeth Werner. A silver pistol rested on the hard wood floor beside her, blood seeping stealthily towards it.
Without a word, Trev and I sprinted towards town, me to pa’s clinic and Trev to the sheriff station.
Helensdale went into shock when Mrs Werner explained how her husband had always beaten her and Michael, one day losing control when his son accidentally scratched his car with a toy plane. He had strangled him and thrown him in the creek by the Bisby’s to frame Joe. Mrs Werner had been a wreck and had shot George after he nearly beat her to death, worried she would give him up to the sheriff. She was sentenced to a short term in jail and the house on the hill sat empty, watching over the town.
For a long time after we found Mrs Werner, Trev and Matchstick and I didn’t speak, I think not sure how to be normal anymore. I stared at myself in the mirror, my eyes tracing the deep, fine scar running down my face and thought back to that day on the lake, playing pirates in the summer sun. Looking away, I unbuckled my Mickey Mouse watch, glanced at it once, quickly, and placed it at the back of my cupboard under a box of old toys.
Then I shut the door and went downstairs to join pa for tea.
Written for a creative writing paper at The University of Auckland, 2013.