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Authors: Louis Maistros

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The Sound of Building Coffins (27 page)

BOOK: The Sound of Building Coffins
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I reckon.

“’
Course ya reckon. Ready to go?”

I dunno.


I think yer mama be mad atcha more if you stayed here with no one to look after ya proper.”

I should wake her.


Madder still if you woke her, I reckon. She worked hard all night pleasurin’ them fraternity men. Needs her beauty rest is what.”

Well, I reckon.

“’
Course ya reckon. Let’s go. You kin ride on my shoulders. It’ll be fun.”

I reckon.

“’
Course ya reckon.”

Kin I git my buttons back?


Soon as we get there. Yer old buttons plus some new ones on top. But I better watch what I say though, cuz I don’t wanna spoil ol’ Dropsy’s surprise.”

New buttons?


I reckon.”

Shiny ones?


S’posed ta be a surprise. But o’ course they shiny. New, too.”

The buttons are a surprise?


I reckon. Ready ta go?”

I reckon.

“’
Course ya reckon. Now hop on.”

All right, Jim.

 

Chapter thirty-five

Lost Bayou

 

Algiers lay across the water, green and golden below a perfect sun kissing cornflower sky. Marcus Nobody Special stood alone on his special pier, not early to rise but late to bed. Out all night looking for his fish, and decided to stay for sunrise. From where the boys stood he appeared about six inches tall.

Carrying West the five blocks from Storyville had been no strain on the shoulders of Jim Jam Jump, who was thin but wiry and not easy to wear down. When the two reached the boardwalk Jim stooped down to pull West’s small body up and over his head, placing the boy gently on his feet.


Well, here we are, little fella. Helluva a beautiful morning, wouldn’t you say?”


Don’t see no Uncle Dropsy, Jim. Thought you said he here.” West could be very serious for a kid.

Jim just grinned. “Oh, he’s here, my good man. We got ourselves a secret place. Part of the surprise. C’mon.”

Jim ran ahead of West, southwards in the direction of Marcus’ pier. Marcus looked up at the two running children, shielding his eyes from the sun. West gave him a nervous wave.


C’mon, slowpoke!” Jim goaded with a whoop.

West picked up speed as Marcus returned the wave. The cautious hesitation in Marcus’ wave was barely perceptible, but West acknowledged it with mild relief. West watched as Jim jumped from the boardwalk and into the river. Miraculously, there was no splash. Carefully walking to the edge where Jim had jumped, West looked down.


C’mon, kiddo! It ain’t much of a jump. I’ll catch ya!” Jim hadn’t jumped into the water after all. He’d jumped onto a large sandbank about four and a half feet down. It wasn’t so much a sandbank as a tiny island, overgrown with saw grass, banana plants and other plant life lanky and wild. Like a little piece of bayou that had lost its way.


Uncle Dropsy! You there?” shouted West, still nervous. “
Uncle Dropsy!?


Hell, yeah!” Jim joined in, “C’mon out Dropsy! Just me and little West here, come for his surprise! C’mon out, pardna!”

Dropsy failed to appear—and neither Jim nor West noticed Marcus putting down his fishing pole to walk as quickly as an eighty-five year old man can walk down the length of the pier, toward the boardwalk. The pier went further south before it hit the boardwalk—momentarily reducing Marcus to five inches in height, had either of the boys looked up to see. Marcus’ shouts were too weak and too far to be heard over the constant, smooth applause of the river’s waves.


Well, my little friend, looks like yer old uncle done fell asleep. Can’t say’s I blame him—the two of us been up all night gettin’ yer surprise ready. C’mon and jump down here and we’ll surprise him first!”


Why don’t you go get Uncle Dropsy ’fore I jump. He’s real big and kin catch me good.”


Ah, c’mon now, West. Don’t be a little baby about it. I’ll catch you just fine. You ain’t no little kid anymore. Ain’t no baby.”

At the age of nine, a worldly child like West Bolden did not like being called a kid, much less a baby. “You catch me now, all right?”

“’
Course I’ll catch you. C’mon.” Jim stood with legs spread and arms wide, looking fit to catch a small horse.


All right then.” West stooped down and jumped, hands reaching out for Jim as he fell.

Jim jumped back and out of the way as the young boy touched ground, his feet slipping forwards in rough sand and landing hard on his backside. Jim Jam Jump whooped and yelled.


Hot damn, West, ya shoulda seed yerself! That’s about the funniest sight I seen in my whole dern life!
Ha!

West, embarrassed, got to his feet brushing sand from his clothes. “That was plain mean, Jim. Know what? I don’t think Uncle Dropsy’s here at all. I think yerra meanie and a liar to boot. I’m goin’ back to my mama.” West put his hands on the boardwalk, ready to swing his leg up and pull himself back up. Back on the boardwalk, West noticed Marcus had reached nearly ten inches tall, limping briskly in their direction.


Well, you go on and be a crybaby then, Baby Bolden. Some folks don’t even know how to take a joke is what. Sheesh.”


That joke ain’t funny. When someone says they’ll catch you, then they oughta.” West stood on the boardwalk looking down at Jim. “I coulda got hurt, then mama’d
really
get mad.”


Well go on then, Baby Bolden,” said Jim, with his hands raised in defeat. “Oh, now wait a minute…” Jim looked down. “I think you done forgot something. These yours, West?”


Hey gimme back my buttons!” West’s little face scrunched up in little-kid-rage.


Well, sure, West. I’ll give ’em back. But first you gotta catch me!
Scriminee hee hee hee
!” Jim wrapped his fist tightly around the buttons and pushed his way into the tall vegetation of the lost bayou, disappearing from view.

Tired and out of breath, Marcus was relieved to see West back up on the boardwalk. He stopped to catch his breath, wiped the sweat from his forehead and looked over towards the boy with a smile and a feeble wave. West waved back once more—but then, inexplicably (and to Marcus’ horror), jumped back down to the sandbank. The old gravedigger opened his mouth to scream as West disappeared from view, no sound of substance issuing from his beaten lungs. West was in grave danger, Marcus knew.


Give ’em back, they mine!” West shrieked as he pushed through leathery leaves and sharp, tall grass.


Gonna throw ’em to the catfish, Baby Bolden! Better move fast!” Jim’s voice was a disembodied taunt, invisible but close by. “
Scriminee heeeeee
!”

Dressed in knee pants, the saw grass chewed viciously at West’s ankles and legs as he pushed his way through. The sting of thin cuts and the feeling of warm sticky blood against his shins filled his eyes with blurry wetness. Stopping for a moment to investigate the damage, he put a hand towards a shin, which sent a tall, sharp blade of grass between middle and index finger, slicing the webbing of his hand with a shock of pain that barreled up to his elbow. No longer wishing himself brave beyond his years, West fell to his knees—sobbing like the frightened nine-year-old he was. West jerked his head around with wide eyes only to find green and yellow shades of swamp. This kind of fear was new to him, and for the first time in his life he considered the possibility of things more worthy of protection than shiny buttons. The revelation was cut short by a rustling sound from behind, a sound framed by labored breathing. Trembling, West turned to look.


You all right, boy?” It was the gravedigger, Marcus Nobody Special, fighting for breath with wide, worried eyes. He bent down to put a hand on West’s shoulder.

West sobbed freely now, no longer worried if anyone thought him a crybaby.


He got my buttons,” West said as he took Marcus’s hand. Marcus’ scraggly, noseless face was a frightening thing to most children, but, at that moment, West felt certain he’d never seen a more beautiful sight.


Don’t you worry ’bout that, little one. That mean white boy’ll get what he’s got comin’, sure enough. And you’ll be reunited with them old buttons before you can say bippity-bop.”

Marcus’ warm voice calmed West some, but when the old man reached down to take his hand, he never pulled back up—just kept coming.

Marcus fell forwards and onto West, the two of them descending into razors.


That old gravedigger be right on two counts, West,” said Jim Jam Jump, still holding the large rock he’d used to hit the back of Marcus’ skull. “’Cause here ya are ain’t even said bippity-bop yet and reunited with yer precious button collection. And I
always
get what I got comin’. Just so happens on this particular beautiful morning what I got comin’ is two dead niggers—an old one and a baby one.”

Jim dropped the rock and grabbed West by both wrists. The saw grass didn’t cut West as Jim pulled him up. Saw grass only cuts when you move down into it, not when you lift up and away. Only sharp in one direction, like the skin of a shark.

After twenty yards or so, they reached the section of pebbly sand that faced Algiers, the same piece of beach where Typhus brought unborn babies for rebirthing. Jim pulled a length of packing twine from his back pocket, stood West up against a tall banana tree and tied the boy’s hands behind his back around its fleshy trunk.


Now about them buttons, little fella,” began Jim with a grin.


You kin keep ’em, Jim. You just go on and keep ’em. Just let me go, all right?”


Can’t do it, West. You oughtta know that by now.”


I won’t tell, I promise.”


Won’t tell? Well, that’s a different story completely then. Might as well just let you go if you ain’t gonna tell.” Jim burst out laughing, dancing madly in the sand, kicking little explosions of rocky white and broken seashells in the direction of Algiers. He suddenly stopped; smile gone, fishy eyes locked onto West’s. Took a step forward.


I’ll tell you what, West. I’ll let you go if you can answer me a little question. Just one question. You answer right, you go.”


Please, Jim. I said I won’t tell—”


Goddammit, shut up!
Like I could give a damn bout whether you’d tell. I ain’t no child and I ain’t no nigger. Who’d believe your word over mine, anyhoo? Nobody is who, and you kin bet ever’ goddamn shiny button on earth on it.”

West closed his eyes, imagined how it might feel to be brave in a situation like this. Trying not to cry, failing miserably.


Now, now, little fella. Don’t be so upset. I done made you a fair proposition, ain’t I?” The mock-tenderness in Jim’s voice gave West a sick feeling in his stomach. “Just got a little question for ya is all.”

West collected himself a little. “What if I don’t know the answer, Jim?”


Well, let’s just say you
have
to know the answer.”


I-I-I’ll try…”


Fair enough! Can’t ask for no more than that, West.” Jim took another step forward, bringing his eyes less than three inches from West’s. Jim’s lips pulled back over tightly clenched teeth:


Lakjufa doir estay?”

West just stared. “What’s it mean, Jim?”

Jim threw his head back in a howl. After a moment, he reached into his pocket to retrieve an assortment of shiny, colored buttons, holding them in open palm so West could see. Bending slightly at the knees, he crept towards West again;


Lakjufa doir estay? Lakjufa doir estay? Lakjufa doir estay?”


The answer to that question would be
yes
, pardna.” A deep voice came forward from the morass. “Yes, yes,
yes
. But you knew that, Jim. Dintcha know? ’Course you knew. Reckon you
did
know all along. Yes, indeed.”

West watched as Jim’s eyes widened, his lids raising high enough over eyeballs to make his lashes disappear entirely.


Yer late, Dropsy,” said Jim. “Told you to meet me here at ten. Can’t ya fallah the simplest instructions, now? I declare.”


Watcha doin’ with my nephew, pardna?”


It’s like I said, Dropsy. Moving up to the next level.”


Not with him. You want to move up, move up with me. I’m bigger than he is.”


Gotta be him, pardna. I got me a multi-purpose angle running here. You oughta know that. I always got angles runnin’ all over the damn place. That’s who I am.”


He’s just a kid, Jim. Ain’t sportsman-like.”


I thought about that, friend—and I appreciate your concern. But he’s bigger than a dog, just like a dog’s bigger than a rat. And then there’s the other angle on top.”

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