Sunday, July 13, 2014

THE HEART IS SOMETIMES A LOUSY HUNTER

"The heart is forever making the head its fool.
François de la Rochefoucauld

WOULD that I was as careful with my heart as with my purse.

I remember well my first real crush - my first heartache. I'll not name her here. Far too many of my school friends read my ramblings. Some of the more astute may even guess her name. Suffice it to say her rejection - really I should say her rejections as I was never one to give up readily - finally left me agonizing in adolescent anguish. I was certain life as I knew it, all 12 years of it, had met its end. I could not, did not want to, live on.

I also remember that rare instance of kindness and wisdom from my mother. Seldom could I have described our relationship as one of "friendship". No! Mother was truly God-created specifically to rule our house with an iron fist. Seldom with a velvet glove. Now, to be clear, no one could doubt her loving intent or righteous admonition. She simply believed a parent had a distinct calling - to parent. NOT to be a "buddy". I cannot fault her for that. I'm fairly certain our society would benefit today from such a nostalgic notion.

My earliest dark days of romantic rejection, however, were filled with maternal compassion. "Let this be a lesson, baby... be very careful to whom you give your heart." And, "Time heals all things, Dennis. Even the heart mends although it may not seem so just now."

Sure enough, in short order, my heart was mended... and left with few if any notable scars to show for my love's rejection.

Yes, we all - or I would think most of us - were at some young age gifted with those words of wisdom, that cliché about giving the heart wisely and with great caution. But what about all of those other heart traps? Those many unexpected treacherous heart paths we encounter throughout our lives? Who warns us about those? Well... it may be a bit too late for some, but I am here to impart to you, those of you less experienced, some wise words of advice.

We've all said or thought, most likely many times, "I've got my heart set on .... " Ahh! There you go. Who, I ask you, ever told you to be careful where and on what you should 'set your heart'? Unfortunately and all too often we carelessly fling our hearts onto unsubstantial, unrealistic, and shifting shelves without giving enough, if any, thought to whether they are safe and secure. Let's see. Perhaps it all started with something like "I've got my heart set on a Ford Mustang convertable". Or, "I've got my heart set on being class president". Later, if we have been instilled with a sense of self reliance and responsibility, it may have been "I've got my heart set on becoming CEO, or Senator, Governor, President, or my company's number ONE sales representative". Or- should we be less inclined to work and more inclined to believe in Lady Luck - "I've got my heart set on winning the lottery". All worthy goals, perhaps. And - possibly attainable. But my point is...


  Who told us that our hearts can be broken by many things other than romantic misadventures?

And - shouldn't we have been told?? I have far more scarring on my proverbial heart from aspirations and dreams unfullfilled than from lovelorn mishaps.

And so, if it's not too late... if your heart remains fairly unscathed by unrealistic or unlikely aspirations... be careful upon what you set it. And, I speak from experience here, DON'T - even if your heart is set on it - spend your life savings on lottery tickets.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

THE TRAP-Emancipation Prologue and Chapter 1







The Trap - Emancipation
A Novel by
D. W. Headrick

Prologue
The candles were carefully arranged on a table fashioned from a massive and ancient black tree. Elaborate carvings of tribal rituals covered the table’s base. The table top was finely polished to a radiant ebony sheen that reflected candle and flame. Shadow spirits danced on the walls of the dimly lit and windowless room. Dark corners were left undisturbed by any hint of incandescence.
The white candle was used to invoke spiritual blessings, rest, and healing of mind and body. To oppose evil and banish its influence there was a black candle. These two were employed for the benefit of someone in need of help and protection. There was an orange candle. It endowed the old black woman with vision of what is and what would be. All three had been anointed from base to wick with aromatic oils that filled the small space with scents of jasmine, lotus, and lavender - each specifically and ritualistically formulated to facilitate and enhance its special purpose.
Also placed on the table were three smoothly carved wooden bowls filled with powders of mysterious constitution, a small colorful statue of The Madonna, and a photograph of a boy. The Woman was dusting the flames with powder while chanting ephemerally to the Holy Mother. After a few minutes she ended her liturgy by kissing the boy’s photograph, carried it across the room, and placed it on a shelf along with several other portraits of friends and family – young and old, dead and alive.






Excerpt from ‘The Memoirs of JJ Arnaud – Lessons Learned from a Friend’
“Charles Dickens may have famously written about the best and worst of times, but I have found that every man, from every generation, can convey that same sentiment about a day or a year in his life. Turmoil, anguish, hunger, and pain are often accompanied by the most triumphant and life-transforming events.”


Chapter 1
      The kitchen at Jesop Arnaud’s house was warm an hour or two every evening. Jesop had learned the art of heating up the evening meal at a very early age, and he had learned it well. He could even cook some if needed. Jesop was eleven – small in stature but with the tenacity and intelligence of a much older boy. He was handsome with large dark eyes and a winning smile like his father, full lipped like his mother. It was from his mother that he had inherited his slight build. Only a little over four and a half foot tall but big in spirit, Jesop helped around the house as best and as much as he could. One of things he could do is have supper ready when his momma got home from work.
      Jesop always felt a little guilty if he used the propane a while longer than needed for the cornbread, or the soup, or, when they could afford it, the occasional pot pie. But he so dreaded cutting off the stove and facing another bitterly cold January night wearing a heavy coat and huddling under blankets to stay warm.
      At last Leila Arnaud, his momma, would get home from work. Promptly at eleven-fifteen she would walk in, complain about the chill in the old house, and rush to light the space heater in the drafty parlor. Jesop, casting aside his blanket before she could see, would always assure her it “just wasn’t that cold”. He knew they didn’t have propane enough for another month, much less until spring, and there was no money for more.
      Once their late supper was finished and the dishes were washed, about midnight when Jesop was finally in his quilt laden bed, Leila would lie back in her warm bath and have a little time to reflect on her day, worry about tomorrow, and pray. Those scant minutes were seldom filled with happy or hopeful thoughts. Since her husband had flown the coop, her dad had died, and having no choice, she and Jesop had moved back to the farmhouse more than a year ago, good fortune had become long lost and barely remembered. Leila had been working breakfast and lunch at the diner since the December before, and then, after learning tips and seventy-five cents an hour wouldn’t allow for enough food, much less  utilities and gas for the old Ford, the following March she’d taken a job working the second shift position at the cotton mill. There she spent eight hard hours fighting with a big monster machine called the “spinner”. It spun the rough cotton fiber into threads that was used to weave denim. It was back-breaking work, hot, tedious, and left Leila covered in fiber dust. She never gave a thought to the cotton fiber she was inhaling or the damage it could do to her lungs. At least the mill paid a buck twenty-five an hour and with both jobs she could keep them from starving and pay the mortgage. She wasn’t sure where the next tank of propane would come from, but she knew they’d have bread and shelter, albeit not the freshest bread or most adequate shelter. She could have taken on the Sunday lunch shift at Mama Ruth’s, the diner where she served, and made a little more money - but Saturdays and Sundays were reserved for Jesop - and for cooking up meals for the coming week, cleaning, doing the washing, and all the chores of a single mother.
      This night, like most others, her thoughts were of Jesop and how unfair this all was. “It ain’t right! The boy is only eleven”, she cried out to God. “Only eleven, hungry, cold, and barely getting enough rest to make his way to school and home every day, much less have a boy’s life, a boy’s friends, a boy’s fun.” When they’d first moved here Leila had tried to get Jesop to eat early, before she got in from work, and go on to bed. She knew the six - or sometimes less - hours of sleep he was getting wasn’t nearly enough for a boy his age. But she also knew he was lonely and that he needed to spend some time with her. And so, against her better judgment, she had finally given in and agreed he could wait up nights for her to come home. That way they could dine together and visit awhile. Thank heavens he loves to read and enjoys playing his guitar along with the phonograph, she thought.  And he actually likes his studies. She was also thankful for the tall television antenna her papa had erected outside the house. At least poor Jesop has some things to keep him company, even if it’s not the best company.
       She hated being poor. Leila hadn’t even been able to buy Jesop the second-hand baseball glove he’d admired a few days before at the thrift store. Even though it was only a couple of bucks, they just didn’t have the extra money.  “Don’t matter, mom”, he’d said. “No one wants me on their team anyway.” And, sadly, she’d known it was true. She knew from the few taunting and bullying moments she’d seen and been told about by teachers and by Jesop himself that he was un-liked and unwanted at Harvestown Middle School. In 1965, Harvestown, Mississippi was a town of some affluence, and the poor - especially the poor colored, and the out-of-towners - all of which described her boy Jesop, were not so welcomed. Jesop Arnaud was too black for the white kids and too white for the few that were black.
      Leila never blamed God for her misfortune. She held no grudge against past or present contributors to her current state. She didn’t even, at least not often, blame Jesop’s absent and philandering father Eustis Louis Arnaud. Her sweet Mama, bless her soul, had tried to tell her the man was “good-for-nothin’”. Her Papa had once even slapped her face in hopes of making her come to her senses. Papa Josiah had exclaimed, “For Christ’s Sake, Leila, the man’s Catholic and half white - more white than Negro!”
      But Leila, like most people, was determined to go her own way. Trying to maintain a conciliatory tone in her voice, Leila said, “His momma was pure Negro, Papa, and who cares if he’s Catholic.  I was raised Methodist, I’m as Methodist as you and Mama, and I’m gonna stay Methodist!”
      All of this was taking place in the small kitchen as Mama Louise was preparing the evening meal and holding her tongue. She thought her husband was right, but she also knew how stubborn their daughter was and that continuing to berate her would do no good. She thought it most probably would only make things worse.
      Josiah Graves wasn’t going to give up easily. He loved his daughter and was convinced she was on the verge of making a mistake she would regret the rest of her life. “And there’s another thing, Leila!” said Papa Josiah. “We don’ even know who his papa be!”
      “It don’t matter none who his papa be. At least it don’t matter none to me.  And Eustis has a high school diploma and a year of college.  That’s more than any of us can claim! He’s smart, he’s handsome, he’s ambitious, and he loves me. And, Papa, I love him.”
      “He’s a loser and a highfalutin punk, Leila,” Josiah replied. “Just because he drives a fancy car and has expensive clothes don’t make him no good catch. Hell, you can spit shine an ole shoe till you can see your face in it, but that don’ mean it’s clean. I WON’T HAVE YOU WASTIN’ YOUR LIFE… and that’s the end of it.”
      And then, Leila Belle Graves did something she never thought she would. Leila raised her fist to her father and shouted into his face: “I love Eustis Arnaud, and I ain’t gonna hear no more bad talk about him – you hear me?”  That was when Josiah slapped his daughter - the one and only time in their lives.
      Mama Louise had been deep frying potatoes in a cast iron skillet and turning them with a spatula. “Josiah! Don’ you be puttin’ yo hand on our daughter ONE MORE TIME or I’ll be slammin’ this here hot spatula up against yo ugly cheekbone… you be hearin’ ME?”
      At that, Leila turned and ran to her room, crying. Later that evening Mama Louise stole quietly into her room.
      Mama Louise sat down beside the sobbing girl and when she spoke, she spoke quietly. “I ain’t sayin’ I’m in favor of you ‘n Eustis.  I’m thinkin’ you will mos’ likely have a hard time of it. But I’m sayin’ you gon’ do what you gon’ do, and I love you with my whole heart. That’s all.”  With that Mama Louise left the room without waiting for a word of reply from the young, beautiful, and pig-headed Leila. The subject was never brought up again. They moved off to St. Louis, and she became pregnant within a few weeks of the nuptials. Mama Louise unexpectedly got very ill, very quickly. She passed away from cancer before Jesop took his first breath. Papa Josiah Graves died from a bad liver after a ten year drinkin’ binge following Louise’s short-lived but painful fight with the invisible life-sucking disease. And then she and Jesop were left alone to fend for themselves. But still Leila refused to lay blame. Mama Louise had instilled a deep sense of personal responsibility in Leila and a belief that God’s way was to be accepted, no matter how hurtful or incomprehensible. She believed in nothing so much as the scripture that a person reaps what they sow, but this night, this cold, gloomy January night in the drafty old farmhouse filled Leila with a bitterness she didn’t even try to shrug away. It felt good, almost warming to hate Eustis Arnaud, to want to beat him senseless with a big board.
      When Leila was a child the farm had just begun to die, mostly because of Papa Josiah’s lack of farming skills and his obstinate refusal to rotate crops and invest in fertilizer. He had never wanted to be a farmer and took over after his father had died only because he had no good alternative. After Mama Louise passed away, Josiah gave up completely – not caring if the farm wasted away or not. Leila knew the one hundred and forty acres had once been fertile and prosperous with its quality sugarcane and cotton. The land, along with the very nice farm house, was a gift from a benevolent and Christian plantation owner that - at the bequest of his wife - had bought Leila’s great-grandfather, Joseph Graves, from a cruel slave master.  The slave, Joseph, had risked his own life when he saw the gentlewoman being harassed by a ruthless gang of thugs and had interceded on her behalf. They had beaten him half to death, but she had escaped unharmed. The charitable Colonel had subsequently freed Joseph in 1861. Although the house and farm had been legally deeded to Joseph, he was unable to take possession of his property in the midst of the Civil War. Joseph and his young bride Mariah fled north to wait out the turmoil. When the war ended and the 13th amendment was made the law of the land, they returned to Harvestown County and settled on their handsome homestead. The farm had been a source of family pride for a hundred years.
      Colonel Charles Montgomery Buchanan, a kinsman of the 15th President James Buchanan and the Graves family benefactor, was an extremely wealthy Southern gentleman whose great misfortune was a belief in the idea of Union unity - a concept not well received in the newly formed Confederacy. Col Buchanan had never been a supporter of slave labor and had hired field laborers to tend his sugarcane and cotton empire.
 The Colonel was believed to have vast investments in gold coins and precious gems. After his assassination by an unknown Confederate sympathizer in 1865, treasure hunters were frustrated in their efforts to find his cache. His entire family and household staff had been murdered, his extravagant home pillaged and burned to the ground. But the supposed treasure was never found. The legend persisted that it was buried somewhere on the vast expanse of plantation land, but for almost a century its discovery had evaded the most dedicated and stubborn scavenger.
      Very few black families chose to remain in, or return to, Harvestown County after the civil war, but, unlike the Graves, no other black families were proprietors of such a thriving farm. In the 1950’s, when Leila should have been attending school, integration of public schools had still been anathema in Mississippi. Even after so many decades there was little formal schooling available for Negro children and there were far too few “colored” kids in Harvestown to warrant a school of their own. Leila always said she didn’t really care and that she believed her Mama’s teachin’ of readin’, writin’, and arithmetic, with a fair share of religion, history and music thrown in, was more than sufficient. In truth, she always wished she had been able to get a real education.
      When the dashing and high school educated Eustis Arnaud from Lafayette, Louisiana drove up to the house in his expensive automobile he was looking for short-term work - just until he could earn enough to move on to St. Louis.  Leila Belle Graves was instantly enamored. Tall, light skinned, and incredibly fit, Leila had at first wondered what such a expensively dressed and refined white boy could possibly have wanted with her papa. Eustis realized most folks believed him to be Caucasian at first sight, and while he waited for Josiah to join them on the porch he gave Leila just enough personal history to substantiate his Negro roots.
        Eustis, also, was immediately attracted to the exceptionally lovely and gracious Leila Belle Graves. As much as he detested the back breaking field work under the scorching Mississippi sun, he soon came to relish the evenings spent on the porch conversing with the incredibly beautiful Leila Belle. He had never before considered marriage - and could not imagine a life devoted to fidelity - but the precarious circumstance he found himself in and his growing fondness for Leila were reasons enough for Eustis to give ‘settling down’ serious consideration. When he learned that she was the sole heir to the house and fertile farmland, he thought he had found a nice chunk of security for his future and he asked her if she would marry. The naïve and enamored girl unhesitatingly accepted his proposal.
       No one could have predicted the tragic events soon to assail the Graves family – Mama Louise’s death and the rapid decline of Papa Josiah’s mental stability. No one had known Josiah mortgaged the farm to support the excessive drinking and gambling habits he had adopted after Louise’s death and that had persisted until he had passed away a decade later. The discovery that after years of neglect and severe drought the land was wasted and the property was mortgaged had been ample incentive, Leila now believed, for her sorry husband to take off with the home wrecking Penelope Sweet. Leila wondered if the not-so-sweet Penelope knew her man had several other girls willing to keep him warm on cold St. Louis nights. She kind of hoped she didn’t know, not yet. Let her find out slow and painful like I did, thought Leila.
###
      Normally, way before two o’clock in the morning, Leila was restlessly sleeping. She had to be up, dressed, and fixing breakfast by five-thirty, wake Jesop to ready him for school, and get them both to town by six-forty five so she could get to the diner where she waited tables before seven. Thank heaven for the good Mrs. Emily Washburn that allowed Jesop to sweep her porch or tend to her winter garden of pansies, ornamental cabbage, and dill, or fetch wood for her fire every morning for an hour before school.
       Leila turned off the parlor lamp and snuggled on the settee, her usual resting place the last few months, but her mind wouldn’t shut down. She played a cat and mouse game with the sleep fairy and had just started to doze when she heard a rustling in the room. At first, thinking it was a product of her weary mind, she pulled her comforter over her head and tried to settle in. But then she heard it again. Somewhat startled, she quietly sat up and turned on the lamp. She saw a small black field mouse scurry under her Papa’s old arm chair and disappear. Oh, how she HATED mice. Field mice were bad enough in the fields, but the thought of a mouse in the house was unbearable. Leila, realizing she’d never catch the little vermin without a proper trap, decided to lie back down and sleep. Just then, already uneasy and squeamish, she was so startled she screamed when there was a loud knocking at her door. Leila screamed and exclaimed with alarm, “WHO IS IT?”
###
      Like his momma, Jesop hadn’t fallen asleep easily.  He wasn’t certain what was troubling him, but there - lying just outside his conscience grasp – he had an uneasy premonition.  Suddenly he knew what the matter was.  Daddy’s coming back, I can feel it, Jesop thought. I just know it. He’s on his way. There were many times Jesop seemed to ‘know’ things. He never really wondered ‘how or why’. The boy assumed everyone had the ability to feel what was going to happen from time to time.
       Jesop had known that in the other room his momma was not sleeping either. He could feel her thoughts stirring the cold moldy air like a psychic soup spoon.  Another of his gifts was the ability to discern other people’s moods. This was especially true with his momma. No matter how she tried to hide it, he could always tell when she was uptight, sad, or worried. Earlier, as was her custom, she had put one of her favorite records on the phonograph during their late night supper. While they made small talk about Jesop’s school day and Leila’s work day, Ella Fitzgerald crooned her campy jazz in the background. While sharing a good laugh over a trippin’ tale about a fat lady’s breakfast at the diner, Leila had lost her train of thought. For a moment her eyes had taken on a kind of foggy melancholy. Almost without thinking she got up from the table, walked across the room, lifted the arm from the album, and turned off the record player.  Jesop couldn’t help noticing his momma’s expression had changed from happy, to gloomy, to ticked-off in seconds.  It also didn’t escape him that Ella had just begun to sing what had once been of his momma’s favorite hits, ‘Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine’. She quickly resumed her kooky tale about the obese woman’s big breakfast - but with noticeably less enthusiasm. Jesop had no doubt that the music had stirred-up some unpleasant memories and that the troubling specter of his absent dad had wasted the rest of the evening.
      Jesop’s mind finally relented to an unsubstantial sleep. Nevertheless, it kept a hand on the door knob of wakefulness. He was jolted to full consciousness upon hearing a loud knocking at the front door followed by his momma’s scream and her startled “Who is it?” Adrenalin propelled Jesop up and out of bed in a snap, but he was just as quickly stopped in his tracks when he recognized the all-too-familiar, “Who’s yo main man, pretty woman?” greeting of Eustis Arnaud from the other side of the front door.
      Holy crap, Jesop thought. He’s here, he’s drunk, and shit’s gonna hit the fan. For the moment, and until and unless Jesop heard the sounds of a physical confrontation, he thought he’d best just stay behind his closed bedroom door.
###
      Eustis’ ‘Who’s yo main man, woman?’ instantly startled Leila into a state of manic delirium that was unmatched by the earlier encounter with the mouse or even the unexpected pounding on the door.  Spontaneously her hands became clammy, her heart pounding like a Count Basie baseline on speed 78 instead of the correct 33 1/3 RPM’s. “Crap”, she said aloud. “He’s back and he’s drunk”.
      “Woman, Sweet-Baby, ma chère, let me in. It’s cold out here” he pleaded in a pitiable tone and with slightly slurred speech.
      Leila stood several feet away from the door and raised her voice to answer Eustis’ plea. “DON’T call me ‘Sweet-Baby’ you poisonous python. I ain’t sweet, I ain’t your baby, and I ain’t lettin’ you in this here house! Go on back to your Penelope Sweet if you be wantin’ ‘sweet’.” 
      “Come on, Leila Belle. Let me in. I’m gonna freeze out here,” he whined.
      “NOT my problem”, said Leila, “I hope you be freezin’ your cheatin’ little wiener off.  And, I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna grab my Daddy’s shotgun and blow a hole clean through that door if you don’t leave – RIGHT NOW!” Leila glanced over at the rifle in the gun case by the fireplace and considered if she should, indeed, arm herself.


      Now Eustis was certain that Leila Belle Arnaud wasn’t about to shoot him, but her uncharacteristic tone did give him pause and a reason to re-think his strategy.  He might be high, but he had clear enough thought to realize his earlier expectations about how welcoming and forgiving Leila would be might have been a little optimistic.
      “Now, Leila, wait just a minute”, he tried hard to speak in a conciliatory voice. “The Leila Belle I know wouldn’t shoot anybody. The Leila I know is a good Christian woman that wouldn’t let any man or woman, regardless of their wrong doings, stand in the cold and freeze to death. S’il vous plaît, Leila, please, just let me in.  Hear me out, and if you still want me to leave I’ll boogie at first light.” 
       Eustis was right-on about Leila’s sense of right and wrong when it came to the Lord’s charity. She couldn’t, as much as she wanted to, let him stay out in sub-freezing weather. “I’ll let you in, Eustis. I’ll let you in outta the wind and cold. But I don’t intend to be listenin’ to a word of your bull, and you’re leavin’ as soon as God’s sunshine hits the roof of this house. You hear me?”
      “I hear you, Leila. I hear you and I’m not blamin’ you mon amour. Just please open up and let me in.”
      As she unlatched and opened the door, Leila said, “And DON’T be callin’ me ‘mon amour’ either. I am not your ‘love’.”  She backed up several steps and made way for her husband to enter with enough room between them that physical contact was impossible.
###

      Jesop wanted to crawl back into bed and cover up his head so he couldn’t hear. Jesop wanted to hold his ear to the door so he could hear every word.  Jesop wanted his daddy to go away.  Jesop wanted his daddy to stay and be good.  Jesop didn’t know what he wanted or how he should feel.  For some reason the young boy just wanted to cry.  For himself, for his momma, for feeling like a big baby - he wanted to cry.  Jesop just didn’t know what to do. All of his four foot and six inch frame and sixty-two pounds was shivering. He stood at the door in his “chickin’s” – the moniker his family used for long johns - his bare feet on the wood floor. The boy didn’t feel the cold, but he was shaking all over. He finally realized how badly he was shaking when he raised his thumb to his mouth - something he hadn’t done for five years or more.  He felt foolish because of this childish act and decided then and there to pull himself together.  He also decided he had no business eavesdropping on the private and sometimes heated conversation that was being held in the parlor.  And, he still wasn’t sure he wanted to know what his momma and daddy were saying. Jesop made his way back to his bed in the dark, switched on the bedside light, and thought that maybe he should try and read some more of his English assignment, Huckleberry Finn. He’d found he really liked Huck, and Tom, and Jim - especially Jim. In fact, a line from a recent conversation between Huck and Jim suddenly came to him - that part when Jim had said, “Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he TALK like a man? You answer me Dat!”  Jesop was older and much smarter than his years.  He wasn’t certain exactly why the escaped slave’s words so perfectly fit this occasion, but he knew they did.
      Jesop knew he couldn’t concentrate on the book. He decided to just lie down and try not to listen; and try not to worry; and try not to be afraid.  But he was afraid.  He wasn’t afraid for himself but for his momma. 
      Jesop loved his daddy.  He could never understand why Eustis had left them the way he did. Until he had taken off, Eustis had been, for the most part, a good father.  He was affectionate and physically loving to his son.  That was the way of Louisiana folk and Eustis was Creole from head to toe.  He called Jesop “mon petit garçon”, “my little boy”.  Jesop missed his daddy horribly, but he would never express this to his momma.  He knew what Eustis had done and how he had broken Leila’s heart.  And as much as he had wished his daddy would come back, he wished more that his momma’s heart would not be broken more than it already was.
      The noise from the other room had died down to a murmur. Jesop didn’t know if this was good or bad. Although he was sure he’d never sleep this night, he turned off the light and snuggled deeper into his feather mattress and under the quilt his momma told him was his grand momma’s work and Leila’s favorite.  His last unspoken words were words of prayer for his momma, and for his daddy, before the cherubim touched his eyes and moved him into a peaceful slumber. 
      Jesop never saw the small black field mouse that watched him, and he never felt the tears that ran down his little face while he slept.
###
     Eustis Louis Arnaud was the sort that could effortlessly adapt to any circumstance, in any place, at any time. His adopted mother’s husband once said of him he was like influenza – easy to catch but hard as hell to be rid of.  Knowing Eustis so well, it didn’t surprise Leila at all when he walked in, went straight to the kitchen, found a glass and some ice in the Frigidaire, and pulling out his pint, made himself a drink of whiskey and water. While making his way back into the parlor he stopped and turned the space heater on high, pulled off his boots, plopped down in her Papa’s arm chair, and began to warm his feet in front of the fire. All of this, Eustis did without another word. 
      “Jesop and I are about out of propane, Eustis.”
      “No worry, Ma BelleVotre homme principal, your main man, is here and I have money to buy more fuel.  And it’s cold in here, Leila Belle.  Why aren’t you using the fireplace?”
      Eustis’ impertinence was more than Leila could stand and she felt her cheeks flushing with anger. She had thought she’d keep her voice down so as not to awaken Jesop, but Eustis was draining her of all resolve to be civil.
      “TURN DOWN THE FIRE, EUSTIS! And I don’t care if you have your pockets full of money. I, we, don’t need you. And don’t think for one second you can buy your way in here. You are leavin’ – at sunrise, do you hear me? And, by the way, you smell like that cheap bar where you met-up with your Miss Sweet-thing. And quit it with the Cajun French crap.  It doesn’t charm me anymore; in fact I find it, like I find you, quite annoying. My Mama tried to tell me. My Papa did too. And there is nothing you can say, or do or…”
      “Leila, Leila calm down, ma chère. You are rambling. And, it’s not Cajun French. And, you will awaken mon petit garçon. Now let me light that fireplace and we’ll sort this all out? Oui?”
      “NO!” Leila heard herself scream the word and realized she really was out of control. “No”, she said. “You can’t light the fireplace, Eustis. If the fireplace could be lit, I’d have lit it long ago. The chimney hasn’t been cleaned in years and I can’t risk burning down the only home Jesop and I have. Let it be. You can warm yourself for a minute and then turn down the heater. And, there is nothin’ to ‘sort out’ Eustis Arnaud.” 
      “Merci, Leila Belle, thank you. And I’ll see to that chimney tomorrow before I leave. It’s the least I can do for your kindness."
      Leila sat down in a chair across the room so as to be as far away as possible from her husband. Looking over at the fireplace she felt a sudden longing for its warmth and an unexpected remembrance of days long ago when she and Papa and Mama would spend time in its glow - talking, reading the Bible, or listening to music on the phonograph.  She hadn’t realized how much she missed it, how dearly she’d love to have it again.
      Eustis couldn’t suppress the handsome, sly smile that women - and yes, that included his Leila - had succumbed to time and again.  He studied his wife’s face and saw Leila’s expression soften.  He felt what his mother called “dragon’s breath”, the blanket of animosity, lift just a little.  “And, chère, I will see what I can do about that broken window pane. The cardboard won’t keep out the cold, you know.”
      Leila knew what Eustis was doing. But she hadn’t had anyone to help in so long.  And the house was so cold. And, she knew Jesop - as good as he had been about it all -would love to have his daddy here a day or two. Oh, God, she thought, Oh, my God, what am I thinking?
      “I’m going to bed, Eustis.” Leila rose and headed for the stairs. “Obviously you don’t need to be told to make yourself comfortable. Just keep to yourself and don’t even think about taking one step up towards my room.” She knew it was cold upstairs, but given the choice of spending the night in a cold upstairs bedroom or down here with a man she neither trusted nor could stand the sight of, the chilly room upstairs seemed the better alternative.
###
      Jesop awoke to the familiar aroma of bacon and the almost forgotten smell of coffee and cigarette smoke. His momma didn’t smoke. She never drank coffee.  Leila had told him time and again that sadness and trouble was like a weight on the soul, while joyfulness and thankfulness allowed the spirit to soar.  And so why, Jesop had to wonder, did the knowledge that his daddy - his daddy he’d missed so much - was in the next room not make his heart race and his smile stretch from ear-to-ear while running in to greet him?  Instead his feet were stuck to the floor rendering him incapable of movement. Shouldn’t he be sprinting to the kitchen table - not bound by some invisible force? Edging slowly to the door Jesop stood for a while and listened for any hint of conversation… breathing as silently as possible.  He might have lingered longer had the mouse not scurried over his bare feet.
      Jesop’s scream of surprise and terror, his sudden backwards stumble, his crash into the nightstand brought both Leila and Eustis running. Tearing through the door, his momma and daddy were caught up in a primal mode that every parent experiences on far too many occasions when they fear for a child’s safety.
      Running to grab Jesop up into her arms, his mother asked, “Oh my God, baby … what’s the matter … are you ok ... what’s wrong?” Leila was almost delirious.
      “Garçon, mon petit garçon, what is it son? What’s happening?” Eustis was pumped - ready to defend and protect.
      Startled even more by his parent’s reaction to his frantic fear, Jesop wrangled free of Leila’s maternal clutch and jumped onto his bed balancing himself and screaming:
      “THERE’S SOMETHING IN HERE!”
      Leila, practically screaming herself asked, “Where, Jesop? What?”
      Eustis, sounding as fierce as he ever had and tearing around the small room, asked, “Something or someone?”
      There wasn’t any place for an intruder to hide. There was no closet, only a very narrow wardrobe packed with clothes, but Eustis powered opened the wardrobe door ready for anything. Leila and Jesop had boarded up the windows against bitter winter winds and the bed was too close to the floor for an adult to crawl under. Nevertheless, Eustis stooped and peered underneath.
      Just then, Leila let loose with a laugh that stunned both Eustis and Jesop.  It was a belly laugh, and under the circumstances it was obviously inappropriate.
      “WHAT, woman?  What is so damned funny?” Eustis was floored by his wife’s sudden change and jocularity.
      Holding her stomach with one hand and pointing back towards the open door and the parlor with the other, Leila stepped away from the bed.  When she turned back and caught sight of Eustis at the end of the bed and Jesop still wobbling and trying to maintain his balance on the mattress, she laughed even harder, doubling over and holding her belly with both hands.
      “WHAT???” Eustis was not amused and more than a little bewildered – as was Jesop.
      “You two”, she managed through her laughter. “You two in your chickin’s look like a plucked rooster and a scrawny baby bird.”
      “Pitié! Ce qui? WHAT??” Eustis was never a man of patience, and Leila’s outburst was testing what little he had.
      “It was a darn field mouse. I saw it run out the door.  It was in the parlor last night. Go get him, Eustis. You better be gettin’ your big gun out for such a fierce opponent.”  With that Leila began to roar again with almost hysterical laughter.
      “A mouse? It was a mouse?” Jesop felt himself melting into an unavoidable state of embarrassment. His sat down on the bed, his face flushing with shame. Looking over at his daddy, watching his countenance slowly morph from anger to amusement, Jesop wanted to crawl under the bedding and wait for them to leave the room.
      “I didn’t know”, Jesop said. “I didn’t see it.  It ran over my feet and around my ankle and I never saw what it was. It felt a lot bigger than a mouse.  I swear it did.  I’m sorry.  I really am.”
      Noticing that Jesop was on the verge of tears, both Eustis and Leila moved in concert to envelope the child in their arms.
      “Now don’t you apologize, garçon.  I hate those vermin too. Don’t you feel sorry for a minute,” said Eustis, trying hard to cover his amusement.
      “Oh, Jesop, I’m sorry”, said Leila, composing herself.  “Of course it frightened you. Why, I most nearly screamed when I saw it last night, and it didn’t come anywhere close to me – much less touch me.  It’s ok, baby.  It’s perfectly ok.  But… you two still look funny in your long johns – a mad plucked rooster ready to defend his little featherless chick from the fox in the chicken house.  I sure see why you’re maman called them chickin’s, Eustis.”
      Leila gave them a smile and a wink and, looking again at the two of them in their long johns, couldn’t repress yet another chuckle. With that, the three of them caught the laughing bug.  They lay back on the bed, held each other close, and it was as if they’d never been separated. Jesop was in heaven – it was wonderful.
###
      Jesop couldn’t remember when breakfast had tasted so good.  And he hadn’t been so warm in the old house for a very long time.  His curiosity about where his daddy had been and what all he had seen the last year while he was AWOL from his family was strong; but because Jesop was a boy with instincts far beyond his years he kept his many questions to himself.  Instead they talked about school, about how much work was needed around the old house, and about how much Eustis would like to take a trip to Louisiana next summer to visit Jesop’s grand-mère whom Jesop had never met.  He knew his grandfather had died a few years ago, and that his daddy had not been back to his childhood home in Louisiana for a very long time.  It hadn’t exactly been announced that Eustis was back to stay, but his parents seemed to be fairly relaxed and cordial to each other and there was some talk about the future.  Jesop took this as an unspoken affirmation that his daddy was there for a while, if not forever.  It was a really good breakfast.
      He knew it was a waste of breath, but Jesop had to ask, “Momma, please… can I please stay home with Daddy today? Please, Momma.  I can help with the chores and you know I never miss school and I don’t want to see Johnny Salk today, Momma.  He told me if he saw me today he was gonna kick my ‘half-breed’ ass, Momma. And Johnny’s two years older than me and he’s mean.  Please Momma, please let me stay home with Daddy… just for today. Please?”
      “Who the HELL is this ‘Johnny’ that’s threatening you, Jesop?” Eustis asked. “And I’m sure your momma agrees you don’t stay home from school because of some bully”.
      “No, absolutely not, Jesop. You mayn’t stay home. You’re already strugglin’ a little with your math and you missed two days last month with the stomach bug.  And, Eustis, you just don’t worry ‘bout no Johnny Salk.  You either, Jesop.  I spoke with Principal Sanders and he’s already spoke with Johnny’s Pa. And the principal has promised there won’t be no trouble.  Johnny’s all talk, Jesop, just like most bullies.” Leila stood and started clearing the table of the breakfast dishes.
###
      Eustis couldn’t bear the thought of his son being bullied at school.  He had never had to bear the horrible burden of discrimination.  His real mother, M’Lee Patrice, then M’Lee St. Martin, had been a maid in a French immigrant’s home – a wealthy financier and proprietor of a chain of Louisiana banks.  M. Philippe Lévesque III was a handsome southern aristocrat, one of the elite in Lafayette.  The beautiful M’Lee was enamored with her handsome and powerful employer and was powerless against M. Leveque’s secret advances.  Because of her strict Catholic upbringing and her devotion to her faith, M’Lee would never have willingly given herself completely to Philippe, but his patience wore thin. One night his drunkenness and passion got the best of him and his lust for the virgin girl overcame his self control. He took the helpless M’Lee by force.
       Their child bore a striking resemblance to his handsome dark skinned French father and by mutual agreement was raised by his Philippe’s cousin Mdm. Marie Arnaud and her husband André as their own. Although mulatto children were common in Louisiana, the lineage of the affluent was seldom questioned; Eustis’ olive complexion, thick wavy hair, and dark eyes were assumed to be purely of French origin. And it certainly helped that the Arnauds were first generation immigrants from Paris.
      Eustis knew who his real mother was, of course.  M’Lee would have subjected herself to death by the hands of Philippe’s family before she would have given up her baby complètement. It was the hardest thing she had ever done, but M’Lee had agreed to the terms of the adoption, certain that it was best for her child. Eustis would spend most of the year with André and Marie Arnaud, but would ‘vacation’ a couple of times a year ‘to France’.  In reality, on most of these vacations, he would spend time with his true maman in nearby Boudoin, La.  This arrangement worked out fairly well – although Eustis never really wanted to stay a week or two with the ‘coloreds’, until he was nearly discovered with his Negro family by a group of Lafayette sportsmen, a couple of whom were close friends of the Arnauds.  Eustis was fifteen at the time.  He visited his maman and her family exactly three times from then until his graduation from Catholic school when he was seventeen.
      Eustis never divulged his true paternity. And he never told even his closest friends he was adopted. Aside from the fact that he would never have wanted it known, he dared not.  Not only were M’Lee St. Martin and her family threatened with physical harm if he had, the Arnaud family and M. Lévesque threatened to expose Eustis as a Negro – and that was a destin indescriptible, an unthinkable destiny.  His adherence to the terms of the arrangement served him well until his father, M. Philippe Lévesque III, passed away from smallpox when Eustis was nineteen.  There was no provision for Eustis in the will; he was left penniless and M. and Mdm. Arnaud were happy to be rid of their charge.  They disowned him - using the excuse that he impregnated the sixteen year old daughter of an aristocratic French friend on a visit to Paris during one of the few times he had actually accompanied them.  Eustis had no idea if the girl was truly pregnant, and didn’t particularly care – but he knew it was a possibility.  He was forbidden ever to contact the French girl, her family, or his own adopted family ever again.
      Prior to his father’s untimely and unfortunate demise, Eustis had enjoyed the life of southern royalty.  His Catholic school was considered the best in Louisiana - aside from one other in New Orleans.  Extremely popular, he was handsome beyond belief and lavished with the trappings of the wealthy. He was an excellent sportsman and an above average student.  He was also a man of few scruples and was often, especially in a state of inebriation, overheard boasting about his very healthy sexual appetite and conquests. Eustis had been accepted as a student at Louisiana State University and had thought that, after university, he would have an easy life in the banking industry.  In addition to a lascivious nature, Eustis had other, more destructive vices.  Vanity reigned, but this was not particularly held in disdain considering his supposed lineage.  A thirst for fine wine - and other not so refined beverages - was a vice inherited from his father.  But he thought, as did his family and peers, that his most abhorrent personal deficit was his fondness for beautiful young girls of color. This too, he supposed, was a paternal gift, and he often threw up his father’s indiscretion with his mother when confronted about his preference for black women.  He could not lie to himself; he simply found filles de couleur far more provocative and interesting than Caucasian girls.
      When the funds for LSU were ripped away and Eustis was left homeless, he crawled back to Boudoin, the bayou, the Spanish moss, and his true maman, M’Lee Patrice. His ‘homecoming’ was mightily celebrated by his maternal family and friends, but he felt no hint of a celebratory mood himself.  He could not, understandably perhaps, imagine life in the Louisiana swampland. Although raised in the church, he could not tolerate the extreme Catholic extremism. And he could not bear, nor did he understand, how the practice of Vodun or ‘Voodoo’ spiritualism and Catholicism were so interwoven among the Cajuns. He thought it archaic and primitive. Its rituals and the ridiculous belief in magic and herbs and tonics that his grand-mère, Rosaline St. Martin embraced he thought ludicrous.  He cringed at and inwardly ridiculed Voodoo charms, omens, and incantations. He despised the ignorant bastardization of the beloved French language by the Cajuns. His thoughts for the entire stay at M’Lee Patrice’s centered solely on escaping the impoverished and ego debilitating life of colored Louisiana. It didn’t help - not one bit - that his maman still worked for the now hated and despicable Lévesque family. 
      Every day before the sun even thought of rising, M’Lee Adrienne St. Martin - Patrice would leave for work.  Walking more than a mile into downtown Boudoin, she would meet up with other Negro domestics and ride a barely operational bus into Lafayette.  There they would be delivered to their respective employer’s homes to cook, clean, iron, mow, change diapers, and perform whatever other gruesome, menial, and wearisome tasks were demanded of them that day.  Eustis knew he should pity, and in no way envy, M’Lee.  But the idea that she had even the vaguest contact with his rich half-brother and half-sister in their lavish home irked him beyond words. 
      One day when M’Lee came home from work her son was gone.  He had taken off in his car, the only thing other than clothing, a couple of rings, and a watch he had retained from his prior life. There was no note, no words of thanks or regret.  There was simply no Eustis Arnaud or any of his personal effects to be found. Her heart was broken, but she was not surprised. She knew Eustis had hated it there.
###
      After the early morning meal, after Jesop had gone for his bath, Leila and Eustis’s conversation turned to more serious matters. Leila was much calmer than the previous evening, but she was not complacent. There were questions that had to be asked. There were honest and straight forward answers that had to be given.
      Eustis was intuitive enough to feel the mood change when Jesop left the room. He knew this was coming, and he was glad it had been delayed for a few hours. Leila was a good woman and he had been a real jerk. No, “jerk” was a ridiculously mild and unsubstantial description of what he had been, how he had treated his wife and son. He just wasn’t sure what the best way to begin was.
      Rising from the table Eustis gathered the remaining dirty dishes and walked into the kitchen. Leila could never remember her husband clearing the table before. He must be thinkin’ an about-face gesture or two will sweeten the bitter melon, thought Leila.
      Gazing out the kitchen window, Eustis sighed and his shoulders visibly drooped. “Jesus, Leila. This talk ain’t likely to be a lot of fun, is it?”
      Leila had been watching every movement, wondering how to start the difficult conversation. “Whatcha mean, Eustis?” she replied – knowing without a doubt what he meant. “What’s not gonna be much fun? And please don’t be usin’ the Good Lord’s name in vain.”
      At that Eustis turned and faced his accuser, only one of the victims his selfish and abhorrent behavior had garnered the last many months - years. He was momentarily stunned by her radiance. She hadn’t yet dressed or spiffed-up in any way, but she was ravishingly beautiful.
      Eustis couldn’t help remembering the first time he had seen Leila. She had been sitting on the porch swing reading a book - something by Mark Twain - when he pulled up in front of the house to inquire about seasonal labor on her parent’s farm. He’d thought then, as he thought now, she was the most spectacularly lovely girl he’d ever seen.
      “Dog take it, Leila. Why have you got to be so damn pretty? It’s hard enough to get to the heart of what I have to say without my thoughts being drowned in those eyes of yours. Look the other way or something, will you?”
      Leila stared right through him and said, “No way, mister. I don’t need to look at a good-for-nothin’ snake to know his words are lies. But, I want the snake to see me, to know what I’m NOT believin’.  I want the serpent to know I ain’t fallin’ for his bull.”
      Tant mieux, chère, it’s just as well. Maybe you will see some truth in what I say. But please, Leila. Please let me have my say without getting all bent out of shape and interrupting me every minute, ok?” Eustis walked back to the table and put both hands on the back of a chair unconsciously placing distance between him and Leila.
      “Fine, Eustis, but make it quick. I got just an hour before I got to be at work and I still got to get ready. So, git on with it.”
      Eustis took a deep breath to collect his thoughts, pulled out the chair and sat across from Leila, rubbed his face with both hands, and said a silent appeal to the Holy Mother that she would help him say the right things. He knew he had never needed heavenly intervention as much as he needed it right now. He felt like a defendant on trial for his life - facing a very critical judge.
###
      The average boy might not think taking a bath was particularly groovy, but Jesop’s morning bath had become one of his favorite things. Not because it washed away the boy crud, but because it drowned the chill, thawed what his momma called “brain sickles”. This morning, soaking in the hot water, he could think of little else than his overwhelming desire to stay with his daddy. He wasn’t one to pout when he didn’t get his way, but he really, really didn’t want to go to school. Not because he was afraid of the bully, Johnny Salk. Jesop thought what his momma said was true - Johnny was mostly all mouth and little else. But, Jesop was afraid. He was afraid his daddy would disappear again. What if he came home and Eustis was gone? He determined he would give it one more go round. Maybe, just maybe Leila could be convinced that this one day he could miss school. Not by nature a “scheming” child, this morning he knew he needed a plan. Maybe if he cried? Leila couldn’t stand to see Jesop cry and he knew it. He never, ever played that card – after all she’d had enough to deal with without adding to her troubles. But, maybe… just maybe… this time…
      Soaking in the tub and contemplating the possibility that his daddy might up and go away again, Jesop was embarrassed to find he didn’t have to feign the tears. They had snuck up on him like Jimmy or one of the other bullies often did at school, just appearing out of nowhere. He had never been a cry-baby. When his daddy had left them more than a year before, Jesop had cried in front of his momma only once.
      “When is daddy coming home, Momma?” he’d asked.
      “I don’t think your daddy is comin’ back, little one.” Leila had replied.
      And, with that, Jesop had burst into tears. His sight may have been blurry, but even through his weeping little boy eyes he could clearly see his momma’s suffering.  Nothing will break a child’s heart as quickly and teach a little one the meaning of “the blues” as readily as the dark reflection of despondency in a mother’s eyes. He determined right then that if he had to cry, he would cry in solitude. Alone.  Like now.
But Jesop was not alone. Although unseen, there was a silent witness to his distress.  A small ally that unbeknownst to Jesop, or to his mother, had been with the boy for more than a year.
###
      Eustis put on his most humble face and began his narrative.  “Chère, I will start from the beginning and tell you some things you never knew. Please forgive me when I speak about things you already know. Ok?
      “I’ve never been honest with you about my father, Leila…”
      “You… not honest? Well, that’s a surprise.” mumbled Leila.
      “Leila, I asked you to please let me speak without interference. I have a lot to say and not much time.
      “I’m sorry I haven’t told you, but I was raised with the threats of retaliation if I revealed my true lineage and I have never divulged this truth to anyone. My father’s name was not Arnaud. Nor was it Patrice, the surname name of my maman’s husband Charles. My father was M. Philippe Lévesque III.  M. Lévesque was a pompous Lafayette financier that owned several banks in various Louisiana parishes. My mother M’Lee St. Martin was a beautiful 16 year old maid in the Lévesque household when she was brutally raped by the much older M. Lévesque. When I was born my maman made an affair avec le diable, a deal with the devil Lévesque, that she would never divulge who my true father was so long as two conditions were met. These were the terms of that contract: First, I was to be raised with all the advantages of any of the other progeny of M. Lévesque. This was accomplished by my adoption by M. and Mdm. Arnaud, my father’s cousin and her spouse. Secondly, I was to be allowed visits with M’Lee, my maman, and I was to know she was my real mother. M. Lévesque agreed to these terms so long as she, and then later I, would swear on our lives - and those of maman’s family - we would never reveal that I was the son of that demon, Lévesque. And for that reason, we never have.”
      “You know what followed, Leila - that, I have told you.  I was disinherited by M. and Mdm. Arnaud for what, most probably, were false accusations - although I won’t swear to that. I had no choice but to leave Lafayette and move in with my maman, M’Lee St. Martin-Patrice. She was kind to me, she and my step-father, Charles Patrice. They never criticized my uppity ways or pointed out my many faults.  I know I was cruel to have left her without a word. I suppose it’s always been easier for me to run away than to do what is right, what is hard.
      “Leila, I know I have not been a good person and I don’t mean just since I met you and my son. I’ve drank too much, I’ve slept with too many women, and I have been ashamed of my Negro heritage. Oh, I am so very sorry about the way I’ve treated my dear maman, my wife, my son, and many others. I have been a selfish ass.”
      Eustis paused a moment to let his admission take full effect, searching Leila’s face for any hint – for the better or for the worse. He could see nothing.
###
      Jesop had fallen to such a depth of thought in his warm tub, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t actually gone to sleep. If so, he couldn’t be certain how long he’d been there. Afraid he was late getting dressed, and without a thought of drying himself first, he jumped out of the water, splashing and dripping all over the bathroom floor. Jesop grabbed his bath towel, hurriedly toweled himself, and then knelt to soak up the wet mess on the linoleum floor. That’s when he found himself eye-to-eye with the mouse.
      The field mouse didn’t seem at all startled or squeamish. In fact, he cocked his head in a manner that suggested curiosity. Jesop knew it couldn’t be true, but he thought he discerned a smile on the little guy’s face. Or maybe a smirking look that could mean something like “Great job, Jesop. Could you have made a bigger mess?
      Cool beans thought Jesop. The mouse appeared so undaunted that Jesop slowly, guardedly reached out to see if he could touch him. At this, the wee fellow moved a step backward, but not with obvious alarm. When Jesop stood, the mouse slowly turned and squeezed through the small space under the door. Jesop was left with a combined sense of amusement and wonder.
###
      “I don’t mean to ‘interrupt’ Eustis, but please get on with it. I’ve got to get ready, drop Jesop off at Mrs. Washburn’s, and get t’ work.”
      “I’m trying to hurry, Leila. This ain’t easy, you know. And who’s ‘Mrs. Washburn’? And where are you working?”
      “We’ll get to all that. I work mornings at a diner and nights at the mill. Mrs. Washburn’s a friend, Eustis. She’s a very kind lady that watches our boy for an hour every morning and pays him for a chore or two before school. Now, please say what you have to say.”
      “Ok, ok then. Leila Belle, you know when I met you it was ‘love at first glimpse’. I’d never loved anyone before, and I’ve never loved anyone as much. Except, of course, for Jesop – and that’s different. The day you agreed to marry me was the day I’ll remember always as the happiest. And the day we actually stood in front of the Justice of the Peace and said our vows, I know that’s the day my life really began. I still love you, ma chère. More than the world.
      Eustis moved as though to touch Leila’s cheek, but she moved away. Dejected but determined, he continued with his narrative.
      ‘‘You know, Leila, I felt more at home in our little apartment in St. Louis than I’d ever felt anywhere, anytime before or since. We were in a city that didn’t seem to notice we looked ‘different’, you and me. Maybe once I accepted, for the first time, my ‘blackness’, it just showed on the outside, I don’t know. But I’ve got to say it was cool, it was really neat not to have to ‘pass’ as a white man.” Eustis couldn’t help but chuckle at his own words. They seemed almost silly and embarrassing. He stood and paced a while around the table.
      “Of course, it helped that I grew my Afro and stopped avoiding the sun. Why I’m darker skinned now in the middle of the winter than I ever was in Louisiana. I loved being ‘us’ Leila. That’s not why I cheated. I cheated because I had always cheated. I cheated because I didn’t know how to be faithful, and I sure as hell never had a role model that encouraged it. You understand what a horrible man Lévesque was. And my adopted father Arnaud was no better. He never accepted me and never wanted me around. I know that’s not an excuse. I know, Leila, I know. And I’m sorry as I can be. And I swear to God and before the Virgin, and Jesus, and all the Saints… I’ve changed.”
      “That don’t begin to explain why you abandoned your son and me, Eustis. How you could just leave us with nothin’ and nobody?”
      “I know, Leila I’m getting to that. Maybe I can find the words, explain without excusing. I’m going to try, chère.
      “Damn it! There’s that rodent just staring at us, Leila.”
      Leila looked around, but didn’t see the mouse. “Where, Eustis?”
      “He just ran under the couch. I’ll deal with him later. I’ll go into town and get a mousetrap when I get the other supplies I need to fix up this place a little.”
      “When did you become so ‘handy’, Eustis? I remember when I had to tighten the screws in the cabinet doors. You thought it was a ‘laborers’ job and beneath you.”
      Eustis recalled the story Leila had told him about the argument she’d had with her papa. “I guess I’m not as highfalutin as I once was, Leila.”
###
      In a boy’s mind, you can sneak up on anything. And so, Jesop thought if he was quiet enough, if he moved slowly enough, he could once again catch sight of his new friend. He wrapped the towel around his waist and very carefully eased open the bathroom door. He could hear his momma and daddy talking at the table, but his focus was on finding the mouse. But, there was no finding the mouse. Not in the hallway, not under his bed, not anywhere in this part of the house that he could see. If he knew how to ‘call’ a mouse, he thought, he would. ‘Here mousey, mousey’ like calling a cat didn’t seem right, or making kissing sounds or whistling like to call a dog. He thought he’d try a squeaky sound, really quiet so his parents wouldn’t hear because, he thought they’d think I’ve lost it. Maybe that would work?
      “Eeek, eeek, eeek. Here little mouse, here now.” But… no luck.
      Kind of giving up on the mouse, Jesop decided he’d better get dressed for the day. But, while putting on clean chickin’s, pants, shirt, socks, and finally his boots, he never stopped looking around for Mr. Mouse. Not paying close attention, he’d put his chickin’s on backwards, and the fly was on his backside. Later when he discovered his error and nearly peed his pants before he could rectify it, he wondered if maybe that’s where the term “ass backwards” had originated.  He had pulled the top of his long johns on backwards also, but that hadn’t caused a delay in the restroom.
###
      “When I lost my job with the city, Leila, and I told you I got work at that country club as a concierge, and I guess you can add that to your list of ‘lies my husband told me’, I never went to work at a country club. I did go to work, though. I got in with a bunch of druggies and pimps. I was right in the thick of it; smelling, using, pushing, and pimping.”
      “Shhh, Eustis. Keep your voice down. Jesop just walked through and into his room, real quiet like. I hope he didn’t hear. He sure don’t need to be hearin’ this kind of talk right now.”
      “Ok, sure, Leila. I’ll speak lower.”
      “And faster, Eustis. I’ve got to go. It takes an extra five minutes to drive to the other end of town from the diner to drop off Jesop at Mrs. Washburn’s.”
      “Ok, Leila. And I’ll take care of getting Jesop to school today. I’d like to.” Eustis said.
      “Anyway, that’s the real reason I had to leave, Leila Belle. I got bad into drugs and into debt with these lowlifes. I was being threatened and so were you and the boy. I know you always thought I left you for Penelope, but she never meant anything, I swear she meant nothing to me. She was the daughter of one of the drug bosses, and I thought I had to play nice with her, that’s all. And all this is the truth, Leila. My life was threatened and I thought that if I didn’t take off, we might all be killed. These were ruthless people I was indebted to, Leila.”
      “And all this is supposed to make me feel better?” asked Leila.
      “It’s supposed to explain, that’s all Leila. That’s all. I know I did wrong. I know what a fool I was. But I want you to know I’m here to be better, to be right. I’m off the drugs. I’m clean but for a little whiskey or such. I want us to be a family again, Leila. And, if you’ll give me half a chance and half again the time to prove it, I will. I promise. Please, Leila. Please just try and find it in that big heart of yours. Surely you can remember how much love we shared. Surely there’s enough of that left somewhere inside of you to just give me a few days to prove I’ve changed. Please, chère. You won’t be sorry, I promise you that.”
      “I don’t know Eustis. I just don’t know”.
      “And one more thing, Leila. Look!”
      With that Eustis walked over and retrieved a small black satchel he’d brought in the night before. Opening it he poured a large amount of cash onto the table. And it wasn’t $1 bills or $5 bills, or even $10’s or $20’s. No, it was $50 bills and $100’s. A big pile of them.
      “Sweet Jesus, Eustis. Oh, I’m sorry, Lord. I didn’t mean it. But, Eustis… what did you do? Rob a bank?”
      “No Leila, I didn’t. I saved up this money for us, chère. For you and for Jesop.”
      “How much is there, Eustis?”
      “Over five thousand dollars, Leila. This is more than enough to give us a new start. Here on the farm, if you want. We can go wherever and do whatever you want, Leila Belle.”
      “FIVE THOUSAND?? Five thousand dollars? Eustis, that’s more that a lot people make in a year!” You mean while I’ve been working two jobs and barely feedin’ us, you’ve been livin’ it up with this kind of dough. You’re a pig, Eustis Arnaud!”
      “But, Leila, don’t you see? You don’t have to work two jobs any more. You don’t have to work at all if you don’t want to. I’ll get a job and this money can go towards fixing up the house and into savings – for Jesop – for college. Or we can move somewhere else if you want. This is good, Leila. Good for you and for Jesop. You’re calling the shots, baby. See, Leila? I really want this to work!”
      Moving towards the stairway to go up and get dressed for work, Leila looked back over her shoulder at the table full of cash. “I can’t soak all this in all at one time right now, Eustis. And I still don’t know where all that money came from. And I still don’t trust you. We’ll have to talk about this later. I can’t just walk out on my jobs either. I’d have to give notice. And, I like my job at the diner. And… well, I don’t know. We’ll talk later, but I’ve got to get ready and go, right now. Thanks for taking Jesop to school. He’ll show you where Mrs. Washburn lives. Please stop by and let her know he’s okay and what’s going on. She’ll be worried if we don’t let her know.”
      Eustis was good with that answer. He was real good with it.