…A Novella completed about 1970
by Russell B. Guerin
…following editing January 7, 2010
This story was written almost 50 years ago. It is fiction, a creation out of my imagination, but I find in current editing that dialogue, attitudes, and politics are very similar, then and now. Much has changed, but too much has stayed the same.
The county jail was under the same roof as the courthouse, to the rear of the building. When they arrived, a small crowd had already gathered. These were the courthouse hangers-on, that distinct segment of society which can be found in and around every small town courthouse: the unemployed and the elderly who pass days and years and lifetimes in gossip about small happenings; the would-be lawyers and politicians who seek to advise county officials as they pass through the corridors; the hero worshippers whose day is brightened if they can get a greeting in return for a "Good morning, Judge," or a "How you feelin', Mr. Baronne?…You lookin' good." These are the parasites of humanity, not vultures who would perform physical labor to eat carrion, but ticks who would suck the blood from a live, conscious, reflective creature. The self image of each of these was swelling now with fulfillment; tonight they could tell their children and grandchildren that they had seen the nigger brought in.
The crowd parted as if by a signal as the deputies approached with Emmanuel between. He felt the oppression as though it were a noxious gas in the hot, humid air, and heard the mutterings amid the sounds of tobacco chewing. Too ashamed to look up, he kept his head bowed and his eyes cast downward. Sweat burned his eyes and he tried to mop his brow with his shirt sleeve, but the handcuffs got in the way. It occurred to him that the onlookers might think he was crying, and he felt sick to his stomach.
Though he was the focal point of the throng that surrounded him, he was perhaps at that moment the loneliest man on the face of earth. In this solitude, he reflected on the forces that had brought him to Bridgeport, remembering vividly the slowness of the traffic that had led him to this juncture a few days before. He remembered as one who observes another from a distance. He was like another person, in another time, in another life….
Much had happened in the previous few days to bring him to this crucial point of his life.
Traffic was always slow and heavy on a Sunday afternoon. Because the read curved back and forth to follow the course of the bayou, he found few opportunities to pass. No need to hurry anyway, he thought. What he had come to visit surely had remained for twenty years, and would just as certainly remain for the balance of the day and perhaps as long as time would last. He was therefore a relaxed driver as he guided his car down the narrow, two-lane highway.
The scenery was neither better nor worse than he expected, and in truth, very little different was the panorama now from the image his mind brought forth from almost infant-stage recall of the small settlements strewn along the bayou, with their small wooden houses that seemed to be either almost completed, or almost destroyed by time. The marshes that separated the settlements had not changed, not in twenty years, perhaps not in twenty millenia.
His musings were suddenly interrupted by a shrill, mechanical scream that rose in pitch an octave or two and then trailed off, as his rearview mirror confirmed the presence of a police sedan. He pulled over to the shoulder as the police car swerved behind him and jerked to a stop. Two tan-uniformed deputies wearing side arms left their car and approached.
"What seems to be the problem, Officer?"
"You were driving too fast. Lemme see your driver's license."
"Excuse me, but I've just been following all the other traffic, which seems well below the posted speeds."
"Look, boy, niggers in this county are supposed to drive ten miles per hour slower than the white folks. Now are you going to show me that driver's license or don't you have one?"
He thought he had been prepared but he was not. Even if he had composed the words of a defense he would not have been able to utter them because of the lump in his throat. He swallowed repeatedly as he fumbled for his wallet and finally produced his license.
Snatching the card away, the deputy asked brusquely, "What's your name?"
"Just what it says on the license, Officer. Emmanuel La…."
"I'm not asking you what it says on the license. I can read. I'm asking YOU what YOUR name is."
"Where you from?"
"Where you going?"
"Bridgeport. I was born there. I'm on vacation and I'm going to visit my kinfolk and my mother's grave."
"You got a job in Atlanta?"
"I'm a teacher. Now on summer vacation."
"We going to give you a ticket for speeding. Court's not open today. Sunday. So you got to post a twenty dollar cash bond or spend the night in jail. You got twenty dollars?"
"Of course, but…"
"Hand it over and I'll give you a receipt. Be at the office of the Justice of the Peace in the morning at 9 a.m. for trial. Address in on the receipt." The officer seemed cold and matter-of-fact as he gave his parting instructions and wrote the receipt. It was as though all his actions and words were practiced repetitions.
Emmanuel LaFontaine resumed his drive southward. Good Lord, he thought, how must it be for those who live here? He had read about it. People had told him about it. His uncle, on his deathbed, had told him over and over again that this was not a suitable place for a colored man to visit.
In Bridgeport, Emmanuel inspected the accommodations at the local Negro hotel and chose instead to rent a mobile home in a trailer park. Weary from travel, he declined to attempt any contacts this evening in favor of a long night's rest.
When he arose in the morning, he was almost enthusiastic at the expectancy of firsthand experience with local justice.
The office of the Justice of the Peace was located in the county seat, in the court house. Emmanuel found his way to the room designated on his receipt and upon entering saw that it was a small courtroom. A flat-top table which served as the Justice's bench was at the focal point of several semi-circular rows of wooden folding chairs. The Justice had not yet entered the court, but there were seven or eight Negroes bunched together on the far left of the room. Two white men also occupied folding chairs and were seated on the right of an aisle. At a desk near the entrance was one of the deputies who had issued Emmanuel's traffic ticket. He addressed Emmanuel in a monotone.
"Lemme have your receipt and take a seat. You'll be called."
Emmanuel walked to the rear row of seats and sat down in the first chair to the right of the aisle.
Abandoning his monotone, the deputy pronounced, "On the LEFT side, all the way across."
Emmanuel cursed inaudibly, but moved.
Presently, a tall, stoop-shouldered man entered the room end proceeded toward the bench with long, quick strides. The deputy rose and shouted "Everybody get up. Court's in session."
The Justice of the Peace did not resemble the usual image of a judge. He wore no robes, and in fact no jacket. He had rolled the sleeves of his white shirt halfway up his arms, and his tie was tucked in his shirt. He spoke, however, with clarity and authority, and Emmanuel was at once somewhat surprised and relieved.
"Gentlemen, it's already a hot day and I don't expect it to get any cooler in here, so we'll get right on with it."
The white men seated on the wooden chairs laughed nervously. The Negroes made no sound at all. And the deputy laughed loudly.
"What's on the docket, Tick?"
Tick, the deputy, replied that the two white men had been drunk and disorderly in a neighborhood bar. The Justice gave them a choice of a fine or three days in jail and they chose the latter.
Next came a succession of Negroes, each of whom pleaded guilty to a minor charge and received a light penalty. It occurred to Emmanuel that there seemed nothing unfair about the way justice was dispensed, but he did wonder about the disproportion of Negroes and whites.
Emmanuel was the last to be called. Tick the deputy had risen and was announcing to the court, "Your Honor, this here man is charged with going forty-five in a forty-mile zone. He has posted a twenty dollar cash bond on account of he got no local residence. Name is… Emmanuel LaFontaine. Something else, Your Honor, he was sassy to …"
The Justice interrupted, "Hold on, Tick." Then, addressing Emmanuel, the Justice assumed an expression of deep curiosity.
"What's your name? LaFontaine?"
"Yes, Your Honor. Emmanuel LaFontaine."
"You don't look familiar, boy. You a stranger to this county?"
"Not completely, I was born here but moved away when my mother died. I was about five then."
The Justice suddenly became stern. "Boy, we don't appreciate strangers coming here and violating our traffic laws. My best advice to you is to head on back to where you came from before you get into any more trouble."
"But your Honor, I wasn't speeding. I was just following traffic when I was pulled over by this deputy and told that Negroes have to go slower than white folks. I…."
"I told you he was sassy, Your Honor,” injected the deputy.
"Look, Tick. I'm afraid I don't know what law 'being sassy' violates. LaFontaine, you're found guilty of speeding, your bond will cover your fine and court costs, so you're free to go. But we don't like loitering by strangers around here. Remember my advice."
Emmanuel was confused by the sudden change of humor of the Justice. As he turned to go, he overheard Tick saying, "You don't like those smart ones either, do you, Judge?"
And the Justice replied, "Damn it, Tick. You just stick to reading your cotton-picking speedometer and leave the judging to me,"
Emmanuel was still within earshot.
He could not dispel the feeling that the Justice had something on his mind, and considered approaching him on a personal basis but thought better of it. He had other things to occupy his thoughts, other wonderments, doubts of longer standing to be resolved.
First he wanted to visit his mother's grave. He remembered that it was not far from Bridgeport, that he had followed on foot the mule-drawn wagon that carried her body to its last, and perhaps first, resting place. Why did she die, he wondered. His image was that of a small, fragile woman, but one who was energetic and capable of much endurance and patience. Why did she die? His thoughts were not on a philosophical plane at the moment, but rather he pondered what had been the pathology of her death. On questioning his uncle over the years, he was usually told that "she got sick and died” but once his uncle had said that she had something inside her that no doctor could ever take out, that it was more in the mind and it grew until she worried herself to death. Emmanuel had never found out what his uncle had meant.
In Bridgeport, he inquired of the whereabouts of the colored cemetery, and was told that it was down the bayou road about two miles out of town where the bayou forked. He found the fork easily and remembered the oak grove that was one of the few elevated pieces of ground in the area.
The cemetery was not fenced and seemingly had no organized management. Weeds were tall in the patches of ground where sunlight could filter through the huge, moss hung oaks, and the arrangement of graves and tombs seemed to have very little geometric pattern. He had hoped to find a caretaker, but there was no evidence of one on the premises. He began his search grave by grave, tomb by tomb.
It was a dreary, nostalgic task, to walk among the nondescript markers of what must have been many nondescript people. He believed he recognized many of the names he read, but after a while he wondered whether it was only because there were so few family names among so many graves. Many of the slaves had taken the names of their respective owners, and there had not been too many plantations around Bridgeport.
One name he was certain he knew as he approached a small, neat tomb built above the ground of red brick and mortar. The tombstone bore the name of his infant playmate. Emmanuel had not even thought of Jeremy for a long time, but suddenly he could hear his little friend's hearty cackling as time for a moment lost its meaning and the years of separation melted away. Tears filled his eyes and he cried as he must have cried when his uncle tugged him by the arm and said, "C'mon, chile, you've got to tell Jeremy goodbye or we'll be missin' our bus to Atlanta." Jeremy had seemed all he had left after his mother died. Now he was dead – the tombstone said from the age of ten – and Emmanuel had not known. He felt that this was a privation, that somehow he should have known, and as though he had just awakened from a dream was startled to hear himself saying audibly, "Those sons of bitches. Those sons of bitches." This was a queer thing, he thought, because he did not quite know whom he meant.
Emmanuel came upon several markers bearing the name LaFontaine, and reasoned that those interred beneath them had probably been related to his father. But as he had never known his father, the remains of his father's relatives did not seem to interest him. The name he sought was Marie LaFontaine, but as he continued his search he became more and more aware that many of the graves were no longer marked. Some tombs were missing their headstones, others apparently had once had painted inscriptions rather than chiseled, and still others described their occupants only by first names, as though they were mementos to persons who had never fully existed. He hoped that his mother's tomb would be clearly marked.
One corner of the graveyard appeared somewhat less forbidding than the rest. It was a shaded spot with no weeds where the ground sloped gently into the bayou and several patches of wild flowers swayed with the breeze. Emmanuel walked slowly to the source of the shade and coolness, a knobbed, ancient oak which could no longer support its sprawling limbs and allowed them to rest on the ground. He sat down and leaned against its trunk and began to mop the perspiration from his forehead and pondered that the earth must be salty with the sweat of Negro brows. He gazed wearily at the nearby tombs, his eyes coming to rest on a vase of roses that stood before a well-kept marble tomb. Its inscription read: “Tomb of the Servants of the Baronne Plantation.” This was followed by a listing of first names and dates of death. The last to be listed was "Willie – 1860." This was a curious thing: fresh flowers before a tomb whose last to be interred had died over one hundred years ago. Emmanuel arose and picked up the vase to examine the flowers. If he had not done so, he would have missed the small marble plaque which had been concealed by the vase. Carved in small letters was an obituary:
Marie B. LaFontaine
In Limbo she lived in Life,
The Dawn of her Light was Dusk.
A Spark that's fallen into Darkness
Now rests in Paradise's Sun.
Born June 12, 1921 Died March 28, 1946
His mind began to spin like a top. It was as when he and Jeremy used to clench their fists tightly at the ends of outstretched arms and close their eyes and turn endless revolutions until their bodies would drop to the ground while their minds would continue to whirl dizzily, giddily. But he was not now giddy. He was surprised and confused. Here lay his mother's remains, in a tomb that had not been used for generations before her, and in the company of servants of a powerful family which held a county under near totalitarian rule, a family which Emmanuel had learned to despise all the way from Atlanta. He was shocked to know that even in death his mother would have accepted a favor from the scourge of the Negro people of this county. He was astonished too at the thought of a poet among those many of whom must have been less than literate. As for the flowers, the day being June 13, someone had remembered her birthday only the day before.
Emmanuel removed one of the flowers from the vase and before leaving the cemetery, placed it, a white rosebud not yet in full bloom, at the foot of Jeremy's tomb. As he raised his eyes toward the road, he observed the deputies driving slowly by in the police sedan.
Emmanuel spent the next three days in pursuit of information about his mother. He visited with several people named LaFontaine, and a few proved to be cousins of his father. While they remembered his mother, they could tell him little more about his parents than he had already known through his uncle. His mother had one day appeared in Bridgeport as though she had been dropped from the sky. No one had known her before, and if she had disclosed her background to the colored people of Bridgeport, no one, not even her husband's cousins, remembered it. Within a short time she had become a school teacher at the Negro grammar school and was remembered as a much liked and respected teacher who worked hard at her job and other activities. She participated in church work and was a volunteer hospital worker when time permitted. Somebody said that as active as she had been among the Negroes of Bridgeport, she remained aloof, and no one really knew her. Perhaps it was because her blood was mixed; she was a quadroon probably, and it may have been that the loose caste system which exists among Negroes was observed in her interactions with her associates.
If her position in the hierarchy had been self appointed it was all the more surprising that she had married Emmanuel's father. He had been the janitor at the grammar school, a position which was one of the more respected among the colored, most of whom worked in the fields or on the bayou. But he had been a swaggering young buck who took advantage of his status and reveled in his comparative opulence, especially after he had married Marie. He died one night while carousing in a bar, a cane sickle having ripped open his abdomen.
No one whom Emmanuel questioned could render anything approaching a medical account of the cause of his mother's death. At best, it was recalled that after her husband's death she worked harder than ever but became increasingly detached. Gradually, it was said, she just withered away.
Emmanuel sought reasons for his own sudden departure from Bridgeport after his mother's death, but it was not likely that this could be explained by those whom he questioned. Almost without exception, each who remembered the incident at all sought the explanation from Emmanuel instead. All through the years, his uncle had told him simply that it had been "…time to leave that place, boy. There warn't nothin' left for us there but troubles."
On several occasions while driving around the settlement, Emmanuel had noticed the small Catholic church, an old weather boarded, weather beaten structure that rested on foundation blocks like most of the houses in the area.
Tonight there was a light in the cottage next door, which he assumed rightly was the rectory. His knock was answered by a priest, a white man.
"Good evening, Father. I would say that I am hoping that I am not disturbing you, but I am sure that I am. Could I visit with you for a few minutes, or perhaps I'd better make an appointment for tomorrow?"
"No, no. Come on in. I'm not doing anything anyway. My name is Father Melancon. What can I do for you? Do you want me to hear your confession?"
Emmanuel was pleased to see that the priest was a jolly, garrulous man. He had probably been a large man when he was younger, for he now appeared quite old and was somewhat hunched over. He moved quickly around his parlor, picking up a few papers and books and making room for his guest to sit down. It was evident that he had neither a housekeeper nor company very often, and the room smelled of cigar smoke. He continued to talk, apologizing as he moved around the room, and finally settled down to a stuffed chair after he had poured two small stem glasses of brandy.
"I hope you'll join me in a glass of brandy. I was just about to have one by myself. Now what can I do foryou?"
After Emmanuel had introduced himself, the priest proved that he could also be a good listener. Emmanuel briefly explained the purpose of his visit to Bridgeport and described the progress of his mission. Then he asked, "Tell me, Father, how long have you been here?"
"Ten years. This was not a regular parish, you know. There used to be a missionary priest, a Holy Cross father, who would make his rounds here, two Sundays a month. Kind of like an old circuit judge. It was pretty hard for him. And for the parishoners, too. Some of them never got into the habit of regular attendance at Mass and so forth. And about the time that the Holy Cross father died, the bishop wanted me to retire from my parish, put me out to pasture, but I had a little money saved, and asked the bishop to let me build my own rectory here, which he did allow."
"Ten years," Emmanuel echoed. "You wouldn't have been here long enough to have known my mother then?"
It was a rhetorical question and Father Melancon did not answer.
"Perhaps you can still be of some help to me, Father. I'd like to research your vital statistics records, if I may. Maybe I can find an entry for my mother's marriage. Her maiden name, maybe."
Farther Melancon hesitated.
"Is this out of order, Father? I assumed that they were public records and that I …."
"No, it's not that, but I wouldn't want you to be, well, disappointed, that's all. You know, even now, with a resident priest, the people of this settlement don't always bother with a ceremony. And years ago, when a priest would come here only occasionally…."
"I don't think that was the case with my mother, Father."
"Naturally not. Well, you're welcome to look through the books, if you want to come back another time. They're locked up in the vault, you understand. And it might take a lot of time."
"Of course, Father, I'll come back in the morning, if that's all right." They exchanged goodbyes and Emmanuel was on his way.
When he arrived at the rectory the following day, he found Father Melancon outside, tending a garden. He was dressed in old clothes and wore work gloves. At the moment he was in the process of cutting roses and artfully arranging a bouquet.
"Good morning, Father. I would not have suspected that you have such a green thumb." Emmanuel could not control his feeling that Father Melancon's garden was neater than his house.
Oh, it doesn’t really matter what color your thumb is, son. Flowers are part of God's world, and I've always felt that they'll do quite nicely on their own if we just give them a chance. You know, keep the weeds away, don't plant them too deep. Kind of like a person. He starts out with nothing but a wonderful capacity for development, a capacity to grow, to learn, to love, to become even more beautiful. Of course, I'm not sure that's theologically sound, what with original sin and all. But I know these rose buds don’t have any original sin. They're beautiful from the start. But then you didn't come here to listen to my talking about flowers. Tell you what, let me finish this arrangement to put on the altar, and then I'll take you to my study."
"You have a lovely garden, Father."
"I enjoy it. Especially the roses. I like to crossbreed them to see what I can get. What you have to do is to take a good and strong, healthy bush with good roots and cut off one of its branches. Then you splice a branch from a weaker, more delicate bush, and the roses produced are truly unique. They look delicate and beautiful, but have all the strength of the larger trunk.
Father Melancon finished his bouquet and led his audience into his study. The vital statistics ledgers were on top of a table. There were four of them: one each for Baptisms, Confirmation, Marriages, and Deaths.
"The listings are quite simple,” Father Melancon explained. "All in date order, of course. Well, I'll leave you to your research. If you want me for anything, I'll be in the church."
Emmanuel began with the record of deaths. It was not difficult to find the entry, as he knew from the obituary in the cemetery that she had died on March 28, 1946. The entry served, however, to do nothing more than confirm what he already knew. She was listed simply as Marie B. LaFontaine.
The record of marriages was next, and as he opened the volume he was conscious of the doubt that Father Melancon had put in his mind the night before. The doubt gave him a sense of challenge. The search proved a bit more tedious than the first, as no date was known. He began with the year 1939 and fingered down the columns name by name, and as he did so he had that strange feeling that he had done this and been in this same place before. Not coincidentally, the names were familiar and he was reminded of the many headstones he had read only a few days ago. Presently he found the entry, and he was relieved. It was dated January 12, 1940, and recorded the espousal of Alton Q. LaFontaine to Marie M. Brignac.
Brignac. There it was, but it told him nothing. Brignac, Brignac, he thought, but his mind was blank. He kept staring at the word and suddenly blinked, wondering whether there was something strange among all the familiar, often repeated names he had read and remembered. Certainly it had been written by the same hand that had recorded ceremonies page after page with that fine, clear script that is no longer taught in schools today. He was still curious as he closed the ledger.
Emmanuel found Father Melancon coming out of the church.
"Father, I'm happy to report that regardless of whatever my father did, he made an honest woman of my mother."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that."
Both men laughed good naturedly.
"Father, I do appreciate the help you've given me, but I'd like to know whether there would be anything in your records which would indicate where my mother had lived before she came here."
"Well, let me think." The priest thought for a moment, but said, "No, that might have been published in the banns, but they've been long since destroyed. Why don't you try the vital statistics records in the court house? It may have shown in her application for a marriage license."
As Emmanuel made his way up the bayou toward the county seat, he came upon a long line of cars stopped at a railroad crossing. They were waiting for a freight train to cross, and it seemed interminably long and was going at a snail's pace. He took his place in line, killed the engine, and glanced into the rearview mirror. He was annoyed to see a heavy white car glide around his own and proceed toward the front of the line. As it went by, he observed that it was a chauffer driven Continental, a blast of the horn by the chauffer attracted the attention of a signalman, who jumped into action and signaled the engineer in the distant locomotive. The train braked and skidded to a dead stop and the signalman uncoupled the car that had come to rest across the roadway. At another signal, the locomotive jerked forward and there followed a succession of jerks until the road was clear. The signalman motioned to the line of waiting autos to stand fast, and to the Continental to proceed. When it had cleared the tracks the rail cars were recoupled and the train resumed its former pace.
This could be only one man, Emmanuel thought, the man named Baronne, the king of the county, feared not only by Negroes but by his white subjects as well. The current one of a long line of political rulers, he was also the present head of the Baronne plantation, and as such, he controlled the destiny of the entire county. It was said that at least half of the population of the county was in some way dependent upon the Baronne family, either by way of employment, or renting of sections of farm land, or buying from one of the family's many retail outlets. This was an exaggeration, perhaps, but there was little doubt of his almost absolute political power within the boundaries of his county.
Over a course of generations, the family had formed a political dynasty whose credo was in two parts: first, integration of races is a crime against the natural law; second, the position of local government always takes precedence over that of the federal government if the two are at variance. The latter exists at the sufferance of the people, whose primary form of government is local.
Emmanuel wondered again, after the train had finally passed and he was allowed to proceed, how his mother came to be buried in the tomb of the servants of the Baronne family.
At the court house, he sought out the bureau of vital statistics and found a small room containing shelves of large, ledger-type volumes. A counter separated his side of the room from the side with the shelves, and on the counter was a small bell. As no other person was in the room, he rang the bell. Presently, from a rear door which was already open, there emerged a small, beak-faced woman who was probably in her mid-fifties.
"I'd like to know something about a marriage,” he began to explain, but she cut him short
"If you want a marriage license, that'll be in the department of licenses." She began to walk out.
"No. No, I'd like to look up a marriage that took place many years ago. You see…."
"You mean you want to research the records?"
"You don't live here, do you?"
"Then what business do you have with my records?" She assumed an air of proprietorship well practiced among many minor officials.
"Well, mam, I'm trying to explain."
"What is your name, please?"
"LaFontaine. Emmanuel LaFontaine."
"O.K. LaFontaine. Write me a letter stating your purpose and tell me what information you want. After I get your letter, I'll consider it and let you know."
"Mam, is this really necessary? I'm only going to be here a few days and it's just information about my mother that I'd like to see."
"Look, boy, talking back isn't going to help you get your information any faster. Now I've told you what the procedure is, and I don't have time to go over it again."
He persisted. "Aren't we talking about public records?"
"Man, they get smarter every day," she said, looking at the wall and seeming to address it. "I've already told you. Write me a letter."
She walked through the back doorway and left Emmanuel standing at the counter. He slammed his fist to the counter in frustration. His breath came quickly through his nostrils and his teeth were clenched as he walked out of the office.
In the hallway, he stopped for a moment, determined to do something but not quite having a direction. His eyes darted back and forth and as their movement stopped he read on the door across the hall: “Justice of the Peace. Simon Theriot.”
In three steps Emmanuel had entered the office, not bothering to knock. Simon Theriot was sitting behind his desk, studying some papers that lay before him. His eyes lifted for a moment as he recognized his intruder, then fell back to the papers. In another moment he was shuffling the papers together and still without looking up, he was saying, "Well, if you're going to come in, then come in and close the door."
Emmanuel closed the door.
"Mr. Theriot, I'm sorry to come barging in this way, but I've got to ask somebody something, and you're the only man I can think of right now to help me."
"You don't have another traffic ticket, do you?"
"No sir. I just came from across the hall, where I wanted to look up my mother's marriage in the vital statistics records, and I was told that I'd have to write a letter pleading my cause. Now are those records public information or not?"
"That's not my department, LaFontaine. Why do you come to me?"
"Well, the other day, in court, you impressed me as being someone who is … fair."
"Is that really all you want to know, LaFontaine? About your mother's marriage, I mean?"
"Yes sir, and you or anybody else can stand up right next to me while I look it up, if you want to."
Theriot stood up. "Well, let's see what we can do."
They walked across the hall together, and Emmanuel followed Theriot into the vital statistics office.
Theriot did not use the bell. Instead, he called out, "Mrs. Joubert? Mrs. Joubert, are you here?" He projected his voice through the rear of the office. Mrs. Joubert emerged, glancing from Theriot to LaFontaine and back again. "Mrs. Joubert, I think you misunderstood LaFontaine's request a minute ago. All he wants to do is look up his own mother's marriage."
She spoke sharply. "I was told to…" Now it was her turn to be interrupted.
"Oh come on now, Mrs. Joubert. His own mother. Look, if you're too busy, you just give us the book, and I'll stay right here and make sure that he doesn't abscond with county property or anything. O.K.?"
"O.K. Mr. Theriot, but this is your responsibility."
"What year do you want?" She still had not looked back at Emmanuel.
Theriot turned toward Emmanuel, who answered simply, "1940."
Mrs, Joubert was silent now, as she turned to the shelves and looked for the 1940 ledger. Finally, she selected one, glanced at the cover, and returned it to the shelf. Then she picked the next one and placed it on the counter. Emmanuel noticed that its cover was inscribed: "Marriages – 1940 – Negro."
Finding the entry was a simple matter. What he already had learned was confirmed, and there was more: Alton Q. LaFontaine, lifelong resident, this county, address Bayou Road, Negro settlement, Bridgeport, married to Marie M. Brignac, present residence Short St., Negro settlement, Bridgeport, former residence, St. "Joseph's Convent, New Orleans.”
Emmanuel was excited with the newly found link to the past, but it did not wholly preoccupy his thoughts. Something else, something vaguely familiar also caught his attention. Again he had a queer feeling about the manner in which the name Brignac had been written. Its letters seemed a trifle smaller than those of the rest of the text.
Emmanuel thanked the justice of the peace, who called through the open door, "O.K., Mrs. Joubert, you can come check that we haven't taken something that belonged to someone else, if you want to."
As they walked out to the hall, Theriot asked Emmanuel whether he would be staying long in the county. "I'm not sure," replied Emmanuel, "but I think I'll be driving to New Orleans in the morning." They parted after Theriot had accepted Emmanuel's thanks, and the latter made his way out of the building.
Emmanuel recognized the big white Continental parked directly in front of the court house. A crowd had gathered at ground level, around the steps of the building, and on the landing stood Baronne. His arms were flailing the air in powerful gestures, and in one hand was a political poster. He was delivering an impromptu invective against an enemy, the first man in many years to challenge Baronne's position as county president.
This was Emmanuel's first opportunity to observe Baronne at close quarters. What he saw was not particularly impressive at first: the man was of medium height, perhaps in his late forties or early fifties. He wore a white suit which was well tailored but could not disguise a lack of proportion between the man's hips and shoulders. All in all, he seemed a rather ordinary man, except for his face. It was screwed up with emotion, and his brow was an inverted arch pointing toward the bridge of his nose, his cheeks drawn taut and appearing inflexible, as though he had not smiled for a long time. His oration was forceful, but its content reflected a mind which would run headlong half the way toward an idea and then replace it with another thought, which in its turn would lack completion. These were thoughts born of anger, not of logic.
"You all know who this man in this picture is? He thinks he can beat me. He says he can give you better government. I'll tell you what kind of government he wants to give you. The federal government kind, that's what kind. Yeah. Who saw his picture in the city paper lately? Did you see it? Well, I did. Shaking hands with the President of the United States. And I'll wager that I know what they were talking about too. They were talking about how to put some anti-poverty apartment buildings south of Bridgeport. They were talking about how to send some federal referees – observers – down here to watch you cast your secret ballots. The next thing you know they'll be wanting to go into the voting booth with you. Anti-poverty. Put nigras in brick apartments. How many of you live in brick apartments? Put a nigra in a brick apartment and pretty soon he'll think he doesn't have to work like the rest of us. You all know what the Bible says. Man must earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. And who do you think will pay for all those bricks? You and I will, that's who. With our taxes! If there's any left anyway, after all the expenses of foreign aid and the Viet warn war. How many of you out there got sons army age? Or maybe sons already over there, thousands of miles from home? I tell you it's a conspiracy to take our strong, young people and indoctrinate them. It's a crying shame, I tell you. Whatever happened to our constitution? I don't know. If we didn't all, as citizens of this county and this state, have so much oil revenue tied up in an escrow account, I'd say let's get out of this union. With one hand the federal government holds out our money, and with the other hand they say they want to give us some, but there are always strings attached. Like the time when they wanted to finance an excavation of those Indian mounds along the bayou. Just a way to snuggle in a little closer. You know how it is. You let someone get in deep enough with you and pretty soon you've got yourself a partner. Yeah, you'd be holding hands with the federal government. Well, you know what I did with those Indian mounds? I sent out two or three county bulldozers and had them bulldoze them down. Can you picture this man in this poster doing something like that? No. He'd take that federal money and sell out half of your interest to the federal government. Pretty soon you'd find a nigra in a brick house next door. You'd find them taking over our schools, our churches, the churches you built with your pledges, not theirs. Tell you what I want you good folks to do. I want you to go around the county and wherever you find a poster like this one on a lamp post, or on a traffic sign, or obstructing the view on our highway, yank it down. Yank it down like I did this one. And if he puts them up again, I'll have him arrested for defacing public property."
As Baronne continued to shout, Emmanuel would have sworn that at times the speaker's eyes gave off a glint of red. The more he raved, the more he was transformed.
Possessed, thought Emmanuel, diabolically possessed.
New Orleans was a study in contrasts for Emmanuel. His first panoramic view came from a high bridge over the Industrial Canal. The canal is a link between two waters: on one side, in the distance, the brown-red swirls of the Mississippi currents; on the other, the green sparkle – of Lake Pontchartrain.
The drive through the city continued to disclose contrasts. He drove along wide avenues with tailored shrubberies, azaleas, candelabra, gardenias; he detoured through narrow, dirt streets, littered with trash and abandoned automobiles. He saw the magnificent, sprawling homes in the lake area, and the cramped wooden shotguns and the architectural creations called camelbacks. Approaching Canal Street, his course ran alongside twin rows of oaks planted years before to shade the horse-drawn traffic of the day. They were now being supplanted by huge stilts of reinforced concrete which were to support an overhead expressway.
Canal Street was wide and beautiful. Traffic moved freely to the downtown area, where office buildings and department stores flanking the wide boulevard gave Emmanuel an impression of manufactured cliffs built along side an engineered river of cars, buses, trucks, and streetcars.
A left turn at a sign reading "To Vieux Carre" brought him through one of the cliff walls and suddenly into a valley of single and double story buildings whose mixture of French and Spanish architecture told him that he was in the French Quarter. The building he sought housed St. Joseph's convent, which he had determined was located on Chartres Street.
Emmanuel became aware that the traffic over the cobblestone street was becoming jammed. Looking ahead, he could see that a tour bus which was unloading a group of tourists was parked on a diagonal to the curb and a truck was trying to get by. Behind the truck waited a horse and buggy whose driver was a very black old Negro wearing a top hat and a shiny suit of tails. The congestion being a good excuse for walking through the Quarter, Emmanuel pulled into a parking lot.
Although the weather was hot and the humidity very high, a soft breeze blew down the narrow streets, and the verandas at second storey level offered some shade to the pedestrian. The walk over the flagstone banquette was a pleasant relief for Emmanuel after his long drive.
He was a little surprised to see that the Quarter was as mixed as it appeared. Businessmen and Hippie coexisted in the same apartment building. Colored and white lived side by side. He assumed that this may have been so since Reconstruction, when some of the freed men moved from the cramped slave quarters at the rear of the patios to the more spacious quarters on the front side. Sadly, without laying blame, the thought how little mobility these people had had over the course of a hundred years: they had moved across a patio and succeeded in making the larger dwelling equally as cramped as the first. And there they remained.
After walking a few blocks, Emmanuel stopped to ask directions of a young colored boy who was slowly, laboriously scrubbing his front step, a wooden, box-like structure, with water, ground-up red brick and a hard bristle brush. Chartres Street, it turned out, was only one block toward the river, and St. Joseph's Convent was down a couple of blocks past the Cathedral.
The convent would be easy to recognize, he had been told, and it was. An imposing, large edifice of yellow stucco and soot-black shingled roof, it stood high over and a good distance beyond a red brick and mortar wall. Breaking the wall into two halves was a small, chapel-like building which was of the same type of construction as the convent. Heavy wooden doors, more like gates, stood open from the banquette and formed a passage through the chapel and into the courtyard. As Emmanuel entered, he was aware of the obvious antiquity of his surroundings. The chapel was not lighted electrically, but by the glare from the street and, with help from a burning vigil light, he could see a statue of the Virgin on top of a small altar. An empty priedieu was before the altar.
Passing through the chapel, he entered the courtyard and found an exquisite formal garden in which roses grew in a variety of kind and color. There were rose trees and rose bushes. There were climbing roses and hybrids, tea roses and red, yellow, and pink roses, all in a perfect symmetry of design, and there was balance in the colors.
The doors of the convent were closed, and Emmanuel knocked with a large iron knocker hanging on one side. His knock was answered by a nun dressed in a black and brown habit; a knotted white sash was suspended from the waist.
"Good afternoon, Sister. I wonder if I might visit with the … that is, your superior, well … I mean…." He wondered why he had always been a little nervous before a nun. He offered his name and a brief reason for his visit.
"That would be Mother Mary Veronica. Won't you come in and have a seat in the parlor?"
He went in and had to wait only a couple of minutes before the same nun returned.
"Will you come this way, please? Mother Mary Veronica will see you now."
He followed the nun down a corridor and to an office, where another nun was sitting at a large, orderly desk. She invited Emmanuel to sit down and asked what she might do for him. He explained the purpose of his visit simply as a son's endeavor to ascertain more about his mother and her background. He said that he hoped that without too much difficulty perhaps he could research some of the convent's old files and records. The nun listened with empathy, and said that she would be happy to help, that the challenge of such research always interested her, and that it would be a good opportunity to test the record-keeping system of St. Joseph's.
"What was your mother's name, Mr. LaFontaine? And do you know her date of birth and approximately when she was here?"
"Yes, she was Marie M. Brignac. Her date of birth was June 12, 1921. But I'm not sure when she came here, and for that matter, I'm not sure when she left. I know that she married in January of 1940, and I suspect that she may have been here until shortly before then. She would have been only eighteen when she married."
Oh, that makes it even more exciting for me, because I've been here for over thirty years and it may be that I'll remember something about her after I've seen the files. But I must admit, the name doesn't ring any bells yet. Well, why don't we go right to the alphabetical index."
She got up quickly and walked down the corridor to an unmarked door, Emmanuel following closely behind. She removed from her sash a key ring with perhaps two dozen keys, and fished through them for a few seconds. After a couple of tries, she unlocked to door. Inside the room were several old wooden file cabinets, each drawer marked with segments of the alphabet. She chose the A-C drawer and began pulling up files just enough to read the tabs.
"Brignac, Brignac," she said enthusiastically. "Ah, here's one. No, that's Lucille. Here's another. No. Nancy. Oh, I remember her."
"Nancy, I mean."
"My goodness, Mr. LaFontaine, we don't have any more Brignacs. Of course, it could be out of alphabetical order.
The look of perplexity on her race revealed that she was beginning to have some doubts about St. Joseph's record keeping. She stared through the top pane of the room's single window for awhile, as though hoping to read a clue in the blue of the sky. Suddenly she turned to Emmanuel and blinked her eyes to refocus them.
“Is it possible that your mother was…could have passed for…. You see, at one time we had two divisions in the orphanage… and, well…."
"Could have passed for white, Sister? Yes, it's possible, but everything I know about her indicates that while she was, well, mixed, she lived like a colored person."
"I see. Well, let's check the other files anyway."
Emmanuel wondered at his attitude at the moment. As much as he wanted to find the file, he was nonetheless relieved when the second search produced nothing.
"I'm sorry, Mr. LaFontaine, but I really don't know what else to suggest. I wonder whether it could have been another orphanage, perhaps? Are you certain that it was St. Joseph's?"
"No, Sister. I can't be sure. All I know is that one day she appeared in the town of Bridgeport and she became a teacher there. She got married not too long after and her marriage records indicate that this had been her former address."
"Bridgeport. Oh, yes, that's where Father Melancon is now."
"Father Melancon? Yes, I've met him in Bridgeport. He helped me find my mother's marriage record at the church. Do you know him?"
"Oh, certainly. He was chaplain here at St. Joseph's for many years. The rose gardens in the patio were designed by him. But back to your mother. Bridgeport. Bridgeport." She was pensive. "And you say that she was a teacher?”
Again she sought a sign from the heavens through the top pane of the window.
"Baion! Marie Baion," she said excitedly. She was almost shouting the name as she again began pulling files. "Here it is! Your mother was not Marie Brignac. She was Marie Baion. Look, here's her date of birth. June 12, 1921. That's what you said, isn't it?"
"Of course, pretty little Marie. Oh, how well I remember her! Why, I had hoped she would become a nun. Father Melancon had counseled with her many times about her vocation. She always wanted to teach. But she left suddenly. And without giving us an address. I remember that somehow we found out she was in Bridgeport, and we tried writing her there, but she never answered, as I recall. And she being of age then, there was no way we could make her return to the orphanage. Why, she even left some things here and never came back to get them. It was all very mysterious, really. We all loved her, and I'm sure she loved us too. She took to her work cheerfully, seldom complaining. She was especially good with the young children, and sometimes we would let her teach the lower grades when one of the regular teachers was out for any reason. It was when you said that she was a teacher that I made the connection. It's sad to know that she had but a few years of life left after she went away. She was such a vital person. The ways of God are indeed strange."
She had been talking so fast that Emmanuel could not have asked a question had he wanted to do so. Even the discrepancy in his mother's name was held in abeyance. The fact was he was completely absorbed in the nun's reminiscences, as was she. It was as though he did not exist for the moment, so wrapped had she become in her recall of years past. All the while as she spoke her gaze was fixed on the still unopened file. Finally, she stopped herself, again becoming conscious of his presence. When their eyes met, Emmanuel was aware that hers were damp with emotion. Standing suddenly, she handed him the file.
"Here, I know you'll want some time to yourself to go through the file. I'll be back in a little while." She withdrew a white handkerchief from her sleeve as she left the room.
The bulk of the file consisted of school records, reports of health examinations, and records of religious training. The date order of the documents was inverted, as the records had been bound simply one on top the other. The last entry was dated July 10, 1939, and described the attempts made to find the whereabouts of Marie Baion, who had disappeared one night after a short period of emotional depression, during which she had confided to one of the nuns that she belonged elsewhere. The entry also contained an itemization of her belongings which she had not taken, including a Bible.
The Bible was mentioned again, in another entry dated June 12, 1939. This document read, "This being the 18th birthday and marking the majority of Marie Baion, and in accordance with the wishes of her deceased mother, today were given over to her possession the following items:
One silver rosary.
Nautilus Life Insurance Co. certificate of deposit #181 204, in amount of $500."
Emmanuel sifted through the many pages of school reports and the like until he came to the last document, which was really the first in date order. This was an account of how Marie had come to be a ward of St. Joseph's, that her mother, whose maiden name was Anne Baion, had died when Marie was eight years old. As Anne Baion had not married and the father of her child was not known, Marie had retained her mother's name. She had no known relatives, and her mother, who had discovered herself to be consumptive, had therefore beseeched St. Joseph's to care for her child.
As Emmanuel finished reading the last page, Mother Veronica was returning into the room. She appeared refreshed.
"Well, after all these years, I never dreamed that I would ever meet little Marie's son. How I've wondered what had happened to her! Have you finished with the file?"
"Yes, Sister, I have. You mentioned that when my mother left she didn't take some of her things with her, and I notice a listing of things in the file. I don't suppose that after all these years…." His manner was apologetic.
"Well, I'm sure you understand. Our usual custom when someone leaves is to hold her things for awhile, and then if they are not claimed, well, other children can use such things as clothes,"
He nodded in agreement. Then she continued. "There is one thing, however."
For the first time since she had returned, Emmanuel noticed that she was holding an old, leather-bound black book. "Is that her Bible?"
"Yes, it is. I hadn't mentioned it because I wasn't sure that we still had it. Normally such an item would have become part of our library, but it so happens that this was a King James version, and you know, we weren't so ecumenical in those days. It's been in the safe all these years."
She held it out to him, and as he accepted it he could feel that the leather had become powdery with age. He caressed it tenderly, lovingly, between the pink palms of his brown hands. Together the nun and Emmanuel began to walk down the corridor toward the big wooden doors. Each promised the other that they would meet again soon to exchange more memories of Marie Baion, and as they stood there, the setting sun cast its rays through a stained glass window over the doors. A prismatic array of colors was reflected on the white wall of the corridor.
It was becoming evening, but Emmanuel felt that the day was just beginning.
Driving back to Bridgeport that night, Emmanuel wondered whether he would keep his promise to Mother Veronica. Certainly there was more to learn about his mother, and he was particularly concerned with why her name had been changed from Baion to Brignac. This had occurred subsequent to her leaving St. Joseph's, however, and it was probable that all of Mother Veronica's memories would be of a sentimental nature and not too well attuned to his frame of consciousness at the moment. He thought about Father Melancon. But again, like Mother Veronica, he would remember Marie Baion, not Marie Brignac.
Passing through the county seat, he again heard the wailing of a siren. It was like an echo from a bad dream. Annoyed, he pulled his car to the curb as the deputy called Tick swung his patrol car behind Emmanuel's car. Tick swaggered as he walked over to Emmanuel and pulled his book of tickets out of his hip pocket.
Emmanuel spoke first. "Am I supposed to have been speeding again?"
"Hah. I like a little variety. Let's say you ran a stop sign this time. Gimme your driver's license,"
"But I haven't even passed a stop sign. I've been on the through street ever since I entered the county."
"You want me to put on the ticket that you don't even see the stop signs in this county? Whatcha think His Honor will think of that? Lemme give you a tip. Why don't you just turn around and drive out of this county and stay out?
“I’ll do that when I'm ready. Right now I have a job to do."
"A job? I thought you were on vacation. What kind of job?"
"That's my business."
"O.K., smart aleck. Then you'd better sign this here ticket. Read what it says on the back about how to pay it."
Emmanuel signed the ticket and accepted his copy. Tick departed without another word and Emmanuel resumed his drive along the bayou road that served as the main street of Bridgeport. It was about midnight, and the town seemed to have been put to sleep. His body was tired, and it too wanted sleep, and his emotion was a mix of anger, loneliness, and nostalgia. As he drove along, it seemed for a while that his car was motionless and the movement was instead in the dark silhouettes of houses and trade stores going by on the right side of the road and in the trawlers and luggers moored to the bayou bank on his left. He found himself counting the thump, thump, thump of the pavement separators passing beneath his car. Whether he or the world around him had been moving did not really matter, he thought, as he entered his trailer park and found his trailer.
He took his mother's Bible inside, thinking that he might page through it as he lay down, but before its covers were opened it fell heavily on his chest. He was asleep, still full clothed.
His awakening was like an explosion. Blinking his eyes in the glare of the light he had left on, he arched his back and threw his shoulders forward to come to a sitting position. The Bible tumbled to the floor and tripped a white-hooded, white-gowned intruder who had thrown his weight past the trailer door. He was followed inside by four other men in similar dress.
The first man spoke. "Stand up, LaFontaine!"
Emmanuel was already jumping to a standing position, but before he could gain his balance a fist came flying from the cover of a white robe and landed squarely on his mouth. He fell back heavily on the bed and at once sensed a sharp, burning pain in his lips and the taste of blood in his mouth.
"Stand up, LaFontaine." The voice was somewhat muffled behind the hood. Two of the other men were grabbing at his arms, pinning him to the bed.
Emmanuel would probably have been more frightened had he not been dazed by the blow in the face. As it was, he knew fear at this moment more than he had ever dreamed possible, and his body shook uncontrollably. Again he stood up, his arms still being held tightly by two strong men.
The muffled voice was asking, "Who sent you here, LaFontaine?"
Emmanuel swallowed and again tasted blood. He managed to say that nobody had sent him.
"Come on, boy. We aim to get answers out of you. Now what are you doing here?"
"I was born here. Moved away when I was small. Came back to visit my mother's …." He had to stop to spit out blood.
"Look, nigger, we know you been snooping. We know you been talking to people, asking lotsa questions. We know you been trying to get to see courthouse records. And we know you been to New Orleans. Now TALK. Did you go to the city to give a report to your headquarters?"
"What headquarters? I don't know what you talking about. I'm a schoolteacher in Atlanta. I…."
The interrogator hit him again, and Emmanuel fell backward onto the bed, and then limply slid off until his knees rested on the floor. He came to a kneeling position, balanced there momentarily, and when his head began to roll forward it was met by a blow from a knee coming up from the side. Darkness dimmed his awareness, not all at once, but as a television picture which has just been stripped of its energy converges upon itself and the blackness grows toward the center until there is no more image. He was unconscious.
He came back to his senses as a bucket of cool water was thrown in his face. The pain in his mouth and head was intense, and before opening his eyes he hoped that his assailants were gone. He was lying flat, face down, as he tried to push himself up. His hands felt cool earth and grass, and he realized that he was no longer inside his trailer. Blinking the water' out of his eyes, he could see by an eerie, dancing light that he was still in the trailer park. Several hooded men stood nearby, holding flaming torches made of swamp reeds. The smell of burning kerosene was pungent in his nostrils, and seemed to help revive him. Looking around, he could see movement by the windows and doorways of the other trailers. In some trailers, lights had been turned on.
The hooded men were also aware that they had observers, one of them shouting, "All right, all you blacks. Just don't you mind. Nobody's hurtin' you as long as you stay in them trailers. But the first one who comes out just might find himself getting' deballed."
The other hooded men laughed as the lights were extinguished and all the doors were slammed shut.
"My God," Emmanuel called out. "I'm one of you. Won't anybody help me? At least call the police?"
His appeal brought another round of laughter. One man laughed louder and longer than the others, and one of his companions slapped him on the back, Emmanuel thought that he had heard that laugh before.
Presently, several men emerged from Emmanuel's trailer carrying some of his belongings. He could not make out all that they had, but he could distinguish his briefcase, and it appeared that they had some stationery and notebooks. The first to come out of the trailer strode over to Emmanuel, who recognized him as the one who had questioned him and beat him inside the trailer. Emmanuel realized that this man's robe was distinct in that it was trimmed with a red border and it bore a crimson cross both in front and in back. There were also smudges of red near the bottom of his robe, at knee level, where Emmanuel's blood had splashed from his mouth when he was kicked.
Emmanuel took a deep breath and spoke first. "I don't know what you want from me or what headquarters you're talking about, but if you want to go through my briefcase and notebooks and whatever else you're stealing from me, go ahead. You'll see it's just like I'm trying to tell you, that I'm a schoolteacher from Atlanta. The papers you have are just some of my lesson plans that I thought I might work on while on summer vacation."
"Listen to me good, nigger. You’re about to tell me the truth. We know you from the federal gov'ment, but we want to know exactly what part of it and what you supposed to spy on white folks for." He stopped shouting at Emmanuel and directed his voice to two men who were not holding torches. "Brother Cliff. You search his car. These must be the keys. Brother Click. Get two brothers to give you a hand and come over here."
The second to respond, Brother Click, was the man whose laugh Emmanuel thought was familiar. "Whatcha need, Knight Klaxton?"
Emmanuel had noticed a similarity in their names. At first he thought of them as being spelled with the letter "C”, but he now realized that these must have been code names beginning with "Kl", as in "Klan". He reviewed them in his mind quickly. There was Brother Kliff. And the leader, Knight Klaxton. And Brother Klick, the one with the stupid, loud laugh. Klick. Of course, Emmanuel thought, that must be Tick. As he tuned in again to what the leader was saying, he heard him ordering Tick to get a long length of rope and a cat-o-nine tails from his car. Emmanuel's horror at the thought set every muscle in his body in motion. He scrambled to his feet, before he could get his balance and start running, he caught a boot in his groin, ills knees buckled, his back hunched over, and he collapsed limply. Almost paralyzed with pain, he prayed that he would pass out, but he did not. He just lay there, conscious, with his knees almost up to his chin and his hands gently pressing his scrotum.
Two men pulled him up by his arms and tied a rope around his wrists. The rope was then thrown over a branch of a large oak and was pulled taut from the other end. Several men dropped their torches and grabbed the rope to help pull Emmanuel's weight off the ground. He tried to keep his legs buckled over his groin, but they were too heavy, and he let them hang straight. The hooded men continued to pull until Emmanuel's toes were off the ground, then wrapped the rope around the trunk of the tree and secured it.
The leader was speaking again. "Brother Klark, you rip his shirt off his black back. Brother Klick, you get busy with that cat-o-nine tail."
Brother Klark obediently proceeded to pull Emmanuel's shirt by the back of the collar, gripping it with both hands and giving a quick yank. The cloth did not give immediately and the force of the pull caused Emmanuel's body to swing. At that moment Brother Klick was passing in front of Emmanuel with the cat-o-nine tails in hand. Emmanuel seized his one opportunity for revenge and in spite of the pain he threw his legs up, pulled back his knees, and then as though releasing a powerful spring, shot both of his heels into the middle of brother Klick's face. The man screamed as he went reeling backward. He hit the ground as his hands came up to his face, and by the torchlight Emmanuel could see blood streaming between Brother Klick's fingers.
Emmanuel's thoughts were as bitter as his words. "Ain't it a shame that we both bleed the same shade of red, Brother?"
Knight Klaxton was shouting again. "You're going to get it for this, LaFontaine."
"You trying to tell me I wasn't going to get it anyway, Brother?"
The leader picked up the cat-o-nine tails himself, saying to the others in general, "See if Brother Klick's nose if broke, which I reckon it is, and if it is, better get him to the hospital. You know what to tell them there."
Knight Klaxton walked behind Emmanuel, whose body was still swinging. No one spoke, the only noise being Brother Klick's groaning in the distance as two others half carried, half walked him toward the road. Then there came a swishing sound and Emmanuel felt the sting of the whip across his back.
"All right, boy. What's your specialty? Is it checking voter registration?"
Emmanuel did not answer. Again the sound of the whip.
"Is it housing for all those black bastards in this trailer court and everywhere else?"
Still he was silent. Again the whip.
"Maybe it's mixed schools. Sure, you say you're a teacher. You better answer, boy."
Emmanuel was gritting his teeth. Perspiration was rolling down his forehead, his nose, burning the cuts on his lip. "I've already told you the truth," he gasped. "I wouldn't know how to make up what you want me to say."
Emmanuel did not hear the swish of the whip this time, as Klaxton was still talking when the sting hit him. It hit him again, and again, and again. Knight Klaxton was taking to his job with vehemence and ardor.
"Did the N-double-A-C-P send you, black boy?"
"No. I'm not even a member."
Again the noise was followed by the pain, the swish by the sting.
"You belong to CORE?"
Emmanuel did not answer. Instead, he let his muscles relax completely and his head fall forward, his chin on his chest. His eyes were closed.
A muffled voice asked, "He dead, Knight Klaxton?"
"No. Just like a nigger to go to sleep when a white man's talking to him. Get some more water. Let's see whether he'll come around."
Emmanuel knew his only chance was to feign unconsciousness, and determined not to flinch or utter a sound if he could restrain himself. He was therefore prepared when he heard the swishing noise coming from the front, and though the stinging was like a dozen needles penetrating his skin, he did not wince.
"Never mind the water. He's out. Anyway, it's time to go home and hit the hay, Brothers."
Emmanuel hung still and silent as he heard the automobiles start up and drive away into the distance. He was afraid to give any sign of consciousness for fear that some of his assailants may have remained behind. Soon he heard the sound of a door opening from one of the trailers, then another and another and then voices.
"Lawd, Lawd, heaven he'p us.”
"Is he daid?"
"Gawd, no man should be beat that way."
Strong arms gripped Emmanuel around his hips and lifted him. He groaned as the tension was relieved from his arms and wrists and his body began to bend from the waist. Me opened his eyes and saw a tall black man cutting the rope from the oak trunk.
"Don't lay him on the ground. His back's all cut up.
"Here's a clean sheet. Lay him on this."
Emmanuel felt himself being carried gently to the sheet. He opened his eyes again and could see perhaps ten or twelve adult Negroes, gathered around him. Two of them held torches, still flaming, left by the intruders. There were both men and women, most of them dressed in underclothes or nightwear. A few children also looked on, their eyes wide and white, their lower lips hanging heavily and quivering below their open mouths. One of the adults was wiping Emmanuel's face with a cool wet rag,
"Heah, man, take some of this." A bottle of whiskey was put to Emmanuel's lips as someone raised his head. Emmanuel let some of the liquid flow into his mouth but the contact of the alcohol with his raw, split lip caused an instant burning and forced him to turn his head to the side. It did, however, clear his head, and he spoke and thought clearly for the first time since his rude awakening.
"Where were you all when I needed you? My God, I'm one of you."
"Rest easy, brother. You need us now and we're heah. If we'd a tried to he'p you befoah, someone might a got killed. Most prob'ly would've. Them kind don't have no mind to be stopped from doin' what they mean to, brother.
Poor bastard, Emmanuel thought. Poor, black, scared bastard. He probably does know.
Three days passed before Emmanuel felt strong enough to venture out of his trailer. His neighbors in the trailer park took good care of him, someone staying with him at all times. They bathed his raw back and kept his dressings fresh and moist. They fed him liquids in the beginning, mostly strong broths made by boiling down fresh vegetables.
Almost to a person, each of his nurses encouraged him to leave the area and go back home. Emmanuel argued the point, saying that he would go soon but that he was not quite ready. He asked why they did not take their own advice and leave the county, but invariably he was answered with a blank stare, as if it had never occurred to them before. "This is our home," they would say. "We got no other place to go, and besides, we all right as long as we keep in line."
During his convalescence, Emmanuel tried to piece together all that he had learned about his mother and how he had come to be born in Bridgeport. He felt that if he could discover why his uncle had brought him out of the area, he would also learn why his mother had moved here to begin with, but this avenue always seemed to be a dead end. It appeared that all those he had questioned either simply did not remember or simply never knew. As he pondered all the bits and pieces, the entire framework seemed like a long, undecrypted cipher system, a mass of known elements whose meaning was not known, groupings of facts which had no apparent relevance to each other, between which there must have been much more which had become garbled with time and would remain so. But Emmanuel sensed that he had a genuine message before him, something with a meaning other than that which his eyes could perceive, and he knew too that somewhere in the body of the garbled text was a way to break in, and so Emmanuel knew that he could not yet leave Bridgeport.
He pondered that sometimes when a message is garbled, the correct cipher, if known, would be the wedge with which to enter the message. One garble he was certain existed: Marie Brignac had been Marie Baion. And he remembered too the feeling of uneasiness, of doubt, as he had read the name Brignac in the records of both Father Melancon's church and the courthouse.
He would like to see those records again, he thought, and besides, he had to go to the court house to pay that damn traffic ticket.
Driving into town was difficult. He still ached from his bruises and it was painful to rest his back against the seat of the car. He was glad when he arrived at the court house.
Inside, he found the door with the inscription "Pay Traffic Violations here" and tried the handle. The door was locked. A voice behind him said, "Wednesday. Wednesday afternoon. This town closes down on Wednesday afternoon.” Emmanuel turned around to see Simon Theriot, who continued talking. "I heard you got another citation, LaFontalne." He paused as he became aware of the evidence of the beating in Emmanuel's still swollen and bruised face. Looking at Emmanuel quizzically, he asked, "You been in a barroom fight?"
"I wish I had been."
"Come on into my office." He began walking down the corridor, and Emmanuel followed automatically.
The justice closed the door behind Emmanuel and invited him to sit down. "Who did this to you, LaFontaine?"
"I think it's best if I just forget about it."
"Maybe so. Maybe it's best if you just leave town, too, but you haven't done that yet."
"Look, I know you mean well, but I'm just here to pay a ticket, not to file any complaints. Of no type, to nobody." Emmanuel added the last part of his statement as an afterthought, looking squarely at Simon Theriot.
The Justice appeared to read the meaning of Emmanuel's words and stared back. "I didn't say you were, LaFontaine. Anyway, when's that traffic ticket due?"
"I can take the fine and tell them tomorrow that you paid today. You got your copy of the citation?"
Emmanuel reached into his back pocket and withdrew his wallet.
"What's the matter? Lose something.'"
"Yes. I had checked my money after…the fight, but I guess I hadn't checked the compartment where I keep some papers. They're all gone. My identification cards, Social Security, driver's lic…."
"Don't you think you better tell me about that… fight?"
"No, I'd rather not."
Simon Theriot was obviously aggravated.
"Well, that's up to you. But one thing that's up to me, as Justice of the Peace of this town is to see that a man who's got no driver's license can't go driving around town. Besides, you can get your tail in a real crack if you get caught like that. What you better do, LaFont&ine, is give me the keys to your car and I'll impound it until such time as you either get a duplicate license sent here by your state or get one issued by our local sheriff's department, which isn't easy. I'm doing this for your own good, boy. It's for your own protection."
Emmanuel hesitated but knew that this was for his benefit. Besides, this man was the only official person he could trust in the county.
The Justice held out his hand for the keys, and reluctantly, Emmanuel handed them to him.
As he walked toward the trailer park, he thought about what a wasted day this was turning out to be. It was hot and sticky, the humidity being oppressively heavy as it can be in Gulf Coast towns. The pavement of the road was steaming and he found it less hot to walk some distance from the road. He felt that Simon Theriot would have driven him had he asked, but Emmanuel had not asked, and the Justice had not offered.
The turn of events involving the discovery that his driver's license was missing and the impounding of his car had for the time being caused Emmanuel to forget part of his purpose. For the moment he became absorbed with the immediate present: the heat, the sun, the sky. As he looked at the horizon, he realized why the humidity was high when he saw wide black clouds in the distance forming a striking contrast to the widely spaced white puffs overhead. A welcome, cooling rain was being blown in from the Gulf. It would cool his body, Emmanuel thought, and his mind and his spirits. Perhaps it could cool his frustrations and his anger, and for the second time since his return to Bridgeport he wanted to cry. The first time, he had wept for Jeremy, a little black bud that never bloomed. Or perhaps he had wept not for Jeremy but in frustration at his own inability to reconcile God's providence and man's circumstances. But he knew that if he wept now, he would be weeping for his own loneliness. He did not allow himself that relief.
The black clouds were clearly delineated over the marshes and oaks. As he pondered their blackness, he noticed the steeple of Father Melancon's church silhouetted against them and remembered that he wanted once more to look at the church records. He recalled also that he had not yet informed his mother's childhood confessor of his findings at the convent. As he quickened his pace he was reminded of the bruises in his body.
He found Father Melancon working among his roses.
The priest was on his knees, packing earth around the roots of a rose bush. He turned around just long enough to recognize Emmanuel.
"Well, I was beginning to wonder whether you were still around. How did you make out in the court house? Find anything else?” He did not wait for an answer, but continued to talk as he worked. "Just let me finish this last bush and then we'll go inside and you can tell me all about it. I've got to make sure these transplanted bushes are secure in the ground. You can see what's brewing in the weather, and sometimes it rains for several days in this area, you know. Rain is good for flowers, of course, but if the roots of the bush aren't secure, a long rain might just wash all the earth away. Then when the sun comes out again, they dry up and die."
Ending his discourse, Father Melancon stood up and brushed himself off. He looked at Emmanuel and studied his face for a few seconds, then went back to brushing the earth off his hands. "Let's go inside and have some cool lemonade."
Inside, the priest filled two glasses and handed one to his guest. “It looks as though you have been around," he said without looking at Emmanuel. "But then, I guess you'll tell me about it if you want to."
"It's a long story, Father."
The priest silently sipped his lemonade.
"I've been to New Orleans, Father. To St. Joseph's Convent." Emmanuel observed that the priest stopped sipping his lemonade and raised his eyes to view Emmanuel over the rim of his glass. "Do you remember Marie Baion? She was at the convent when you were chaplain there."
The answer came slowly. "Yes, I think I do."
"Marie Baion was my mother."
Emmanuel proceeded to narrate what he had found in the court house and his subsequent visit at St. Joseph's with Sister Veronica. Father Melancon listened intently, interrupting only to inquire of the health of Sister Veronica. Finally, when Emmanuel finished, his listener asked whether this completed his research.
"No. I'm trying to figure out why my mother, somewhere along the line, changed her name to Brignac. I was hoping, Father, that maybe you could give me a clue."
"Well, as you know, I've only been here some ten years, and I guess you already know about all I could tell you about Marie Baion's stay at St. Joseph's."
"I would like to see your records again, Father. The same entry I found the other day.” Emmanuel gestured across the room as he spoke. The vital statistics ledgers were still on the table where he had studied them before.
Father Melancon nodded, and as he sipped again at his glass he too gestured toward the books, the open palm of his hand upward as though to say, "Of course. Help yourself."
Emmanuel found the entry and studied it. The name "Brignac" did appear to be written in letters smaller than those of the rest of the entry. "Come see this, Father. Doesn't the writing of this word seem to be smaller than the other words? Don't the letters seem to be…well, condensed?"
The priest was looking over Emmanuel's shoulder. "Well,…perhaps. But what do you think that would mean?"
"I'm thinking that my mother didn't change her name. I think that it was changed in the records after she was married, maybe even after she died. I just don't know why."
He slept well that night, partly because of his fatigue from the long, hot walk from town, partly because the sound of the rain on his trailer roof seemed to relieve his loneliness. The rain had come while he was making his way to the trailer park from Father Melancon's, and was still falling in a steady drizzle when Emmanuel arose early the next morning.
As he brewed a pot of coffee, he wondered whether he could get a ride into town with one of the other trailer park occupants. It was frustrating to be without transportation ready at hand. He thought how the automobile had become like an extension of the human body, and felt that its loss was a privation.
His reluctance to ask his neighbors for a ride stemmed from a fear that they might not want to be seen with him outside the confines of the trailer park. He had no real evidence for this assumption, and certainly they had all been willing and helpful during his several days of recovery. It was simply that no one had offered to drive him anywhere, even though they must have realized that driving would have been difficult for him. He decided to ask around for an umbrella, hoping that someone would volunteer to drive him to town.
He was able to secure an umbrella only, not transportation. The walk through the rain, however, was pleasant and refreshing. It was uneventful, except for the long white Continental that passed him going toward town,
Baronne was coming out of the court house as Emmanuel was about to enter. Obviously annoyed at something, the white man was spitting out words with a characteristic vehemence, first to a subordinate on his right and then to one on his left. His brow was a constant, inverted arch of lines that bent toward the bridge of his nose, anger being carved into his expression as if sculptured in stone. His head seemed to bounce each time he emphasized a word.
Unconsciously, Emmanuel stopped and stared. When he reflected back upon himself, it was already too late. Baronne had fixed his attention, and his anger, on Emmanuel.
"And who would you be, boy? You that one I been hearing about who's been snooping around here acting high and mighty? Well, let me tell you one thing. I don't think anybody should ever be any place where he's not wanted. And you're not wanted here."
Emmanuel was not prepared for the attack, and said nothing. He began to walk around Baronne, toward the court house entrance. Baronne became furious and continued his invective, his words coming so hard that he was spitting saliva as he shouted.
"Wait a minute, black man. I haven't said our meeting was over."
"Pardon me, but we haven't had a meeting. If you know who I am and want to feel that we've met, that's your prerogative, but as for myself, I don't care to meet you."
Again Emmanuel made a motion toward the entrance, but Baronne’s two companions moved between him and the doorway.
Baronne spoke again, this time more calmly and deliberately. "Well, well, you are a high talking nigra, ain't you? Well, just hear this. I don't care how much schooling you got, or who you work for. A man is what he is, and he can't get to be something he ain't. That's the law of nature, boy, and you and all the light skins in the world can't change it. Nature puts birds of a feather together. A man's either white or he's black, and it don't matter how light his skin is. If he's got colored blood in him, then he's a nigra and ought to know his place."
"And what is my place, Mr. Baronne?"
"It's back wherever you come from. And if you get any notion about looking up any more records in this court house, you can forget it."
Baronne looked away from Emmanuel and addressed one of his companions. "Joe, get one of the county patrol cars and see that this man gets back home to wherever he's staying. And in the morning, see that he's packed all his things and gets across the county line."
Baronne left with the other man in the Continental. The man who was to be Emmanuel's escort proceeded to show Emmanuel a deputy badge and to tell him that he had orders and that he intended to carry them out. Emmanuel calculated that under the circumstances he would not be able to gain access to the records today, and therefore might as well accept transportation back to the trailer park without further argument.
He passed the early part of the afternoon in the solitude of his trailer, again recounting what had happened during his stay in Bridgeport. Certainly, he had learned part of the story of his mother, but what he had learned had had the effect of adding mystery. Before, it was as though he had been in a wide expanse of darkness, knowing nothing of his surroundings except that he existed among them. Now, he held a candle of soft, flickering light, by means of which he could detect vague silhouettes, half-images suggesting things of a deeper dimension.
By mid afternoon the rain had become only a drizzle, and Emmanuel decided to revisit the cemetery. With him he took the borrowed umbrella and his thoughts. Toward dusk, he arrived back at the trailer park and returned the umbrella with thanks and a goodbye. He asked the lender to communicate his appreciation to the other neighbors who had helped him.
In his own trailer, Emmanuel packed his clothes into his suitcase and gathered his other belongings. Before packing his mother's Bible, he pressed between its pages the remnants of a withered rose which he had taken from her tomb that afternoon. He went to sleep wondering what difficulties he would have in the morning in getting his car without his driver's license.
The deputy who had been assigned by Baronne to see Emmanuel out of the county arrived early. Emmanuel was waiting in the doorway of his trailer, watching the drizzle which had continued through the night, as the county car made its way among the oaks. He was curious about the presence of two uniformed deputies in the car with Baronne's man.
They parked close to Emmanuel's trailer under the shelter of an oak and all three got out of the car. Emmanuel picked up his things and prepared to go. As they approached, Baronne's man, in plain clothes, was walking half a step ahead of the two uniformed deputies. He was the first to speak.
"Emmanuel LaFontaine, I have a warrant for your arrest. You are charged with the aggravated rape of a woman in this county. My orders are to apprise you of your rights under the law and to take you to the county jail.” Emmanuel stood dumbfounded as the uniformed deputies handcuffed his hands behind his back and searched him. The man in street clothes proceeded to read from a document listing the rights of a person who is being apprehended.
In the car, Emmanuel was seated between the two deputies, who had maintained a cold silence from the beginning. As the car got underway, ha addressed himself to the driver.
"Look, man, just who am I supposed to have raped and when? I don't know what you're talking about."
"LaFontaine, I've already told you what my orders are. They don't say for me to discuss anything with you. Raping a white woman is about as serious as anything can be, and all I want to do is to get you to jail as soon as possible before any trouble starts."
"A white woman? Oh, my God." Emmanuel too became silent. In his confused state he found himself regretting a hundred things: that he had come to Bridgeport, that he had asserted himself to Baronne and others, that he had had any help from Simon Theriot, that his mother had allowed him to be born in this county, that he was a Negro. Unconsciously, he had been twisting his manacled hands and the movement had allowed the handcuffs to become tighter and tighter. The sensation of pain pervaded his other thoughts and brought his consciousness back to the real, present continuum. They had arrived at the jailhouse.
Emmanuel was escorted through the crowd rather hurriedly and brought into the jail house. Inside were a number of deputies and other officials, including Simon Theriot. A man who identified himself as the county sheriff again apprised Emmanuel of the charge and advised him of his rights.
"You got the right to have an attorney present when we question you. You can have an attorney that you select if you know any who would consent to represent you, or you can have one appointed."
Simon Theriot spoke up before Emmanuel could answer. "It's been a long time since I practiced law, LaFontaine, but I'll represent you at least for the time being, if you want me."
There were looks of surprise, almost disbelief, on the faces of all in the room. The sheriff, looking at Theriot, said, "This won't be appreciated…by a lot of people.”
Simon Theriot gave no sign of hearing the sheriff. "It's up to you, LaFontaine." Emmanuel nodded approval.
"When can I talk with the accused in private, Sheriff?"
"As soon as we've booked him and assigned him a cell.”
Emmanuel was ordered to remove his belt and shoe laces and was again frisked. An inventory was made of his possessions, including his suitcase and other belongings which he had packed before leaving the trailer. He was then taken to a private cell in the wing reserved for Negroes.
Theriot was allowed to enter a short time later. He did not speak until he was certain that the deputy who had admitted him was out of earshot. "LaFontaine, be honest with me. Did you do this thing?"
"Do what thing? Nobody's told me yet what I'm supposed to have done. Oh sure, something about raping a white woman, but then there was the situation a couple days ago when I was supposed to have run a stop sign on the highway, too. And everybody knows there's no stop sign on that road."
"Running a stop sign and aggravated rape are two different things. We're talking about a capital offense, you know.”
"Capital offense? I don't even know that a capital crime was committed. As far as I'm concerned, the crime itself was imaginary. When and where was this crime supposed to have been committed, anyhow?”
"There was a rape, all right. The girl is in the hospital. As soon as I heard about it I called the doctor, who is a friend of mine."
"And he confirmed that it was a case of rape? Not just some woman blowing the whistle because she's pregnant or something?"
"Yes. It was rape. The girl's parents found her walking down the highway at midnight last night. She's pretty badly beaten and her clothes were torn half off. By the way, LaFontaine, where were you last night?"
"Mr. Theriot, if you have any doubts about me, just say so and I'll get another lawyer."
"Don't be stupid, LaFontaine. Do you think I'd be here in the first place if I thought you did this thing? Now I'll ask again, where were you last night?"
"I came back to my trailer from the cemetery just before dark and packed. Then I fixed myself some supper and went to bed."
"Was anyone with you in your trailer?"
"No. Of course not."
"Did anyone see you at all?"
"Only one of the neighbors when I returned an umbrella I had borrowed. It was a little before dark."
"Great. You've got a lawyer who hasn't practiced in twenty-odd years and I've got a client that has no alibi."
"Well, I can only tell the truth. And if that girl will do the same then I've got no problem.”
"The girl can't tell the truth, LaFontaine."
"Is she going to die?"
"No, it's not likely, but the girl has had the mentality of an infant for years. She had brain damage when she was a child but developed normally physically. In fact she was an attractive girl and many people feared something like this happening for a long time."
"Good Lord. Whatever else I may be capable of, Mr. Theriot, I'm not capable of something like that."
"I know that, LaFontaine, but at any rate, she's no good to your defense."
"But she can't be bad for it, either. They can't prove me guilty in court of justice for something I haven't done. There's no way to prove something that didn't happen.”
"Tick, the deputy, said he saw you last night near a deserted barn down the road from where the girl lives. She lives on the dirt road running along the bayou, by the way, the road that runs past the colored cemetery." Theriot stared at Emmanuel and observed his reaction closely.
Emmanuel's voice was rasping. "Which side of the cemetery is that barn on?"
"Down the bayou from the cemetery."
"Then Tick is lying! That white trash is lying! I didn't go past the cemetery. Oh, that bastard. He's had it in for me since the first day I got here."
"Well, if he's framing you, LaFontaine, he's doing a damn good job of it. The sheriff went out to the barn and found some things. Pieces of the girl's clothing and… your driver's license."
"Heaven help me. But you know that I missed my driver's license several days ago. You could tell them that."
"You're right, up to a point. I could tell them that you told me your license was missing. But that isn't evidence that your license was in fact lost, that you didn't come across it again and then lose it.
"Well, where do we go from here?"
"I'm going to ask for a preliminary hearing. If they put Tick on the witness stand, we may be able to shake his story if we can show that he is prejudiced against you. Incidentally, I have a suspicion that you broke his nose."
"Yeah, I figured it was broken, but I can't even prove that I did it unless he admits in a courtroom that he's a member of a Klan group that whipped me half to death. But at the very worst, when it comes to his seeing me by that barn, it's his word against mine."
"Come off it, LaFontaine. With logic like that, you might as well plead guilty."
Simon Theriot continued to question Emmanuel particularly regarding his encounters with Tick, but also covering generally all Emmanuel's movements since arriving in Bridgeport. By early afternoon, Theriot left, promising to see his client again later in the day.
In the privacy of his cell, Emmanuel realized that the rain was still falling, and he remembered the crowd that watched him being escorted into the jail that morning. He could picture their somber faces as they stood there in the drizzle and under the dark sky.
As he lay on his bunk, the accusation of having committed a capital crime took on proportions all at once of a huge weight that pressed upon his physical being, and of an oppressive, thick mass that encompassed and confused his thoughts. It did not seem real, he thought. The circumstances, the whole chain of events that led to this moment, had to be unreal. But real they are. Real they are. His thoughts were shouting at him, and as though he were in a delirium, his consciousness took the form of a dialogue between a sense of reality and a searching spirit of hope.
It is real, it is real, said an inner voice.
He answered the voice. But they cannot punish me for something I haven't done.
But it has happened before. No one knows how many times.
Yes, I know, but they must prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did this thing. You can't prove to have happened what never happened.
But juries are known to have been in error before. They have been known to decide unanimously in error. And yet they thought – or said they did – that they had no shadow of a doubt.
I don't care. I'm not guilty! They can't kill me for this. Everything that's right won't allow it.
The law allows it.
The law is set up to protect the innocent.
And to punish the guilty.
I'm not guilty. I'm not. I'm not.
But in a court of law you might be. And the law punishes the guilty. They could kill you as a just punishment.
How could it be just?
If Justice convicts you, then Justice executes you.
Justice? Who is Justice?
And where does the State get the right to take my life? It's all wrong. I have a right to life!
Each of us under the State surrenders some of his rights to the State. We subordinate them to the common good.
Bullcrap. I haven't surrendered my right to life! In fact, I don't even have the right to decide on my own life. I have a right to life, but I have no right to kill myself. From what source does the State get the right to take my life?
The State gets its power from God. We were taught so, remember?
I can't swallow that. What is a State? A group of people with common goals and living within given territorial limits, is it a State?
Well, what about a few people, just a few, who claim some offshore island and declare themselves independent of all other States? Are they a State?
And at what point, then, does that state mystically receive its divinely given power to take a life, my life? Who determines the gift of a power so great that the state can act in error and still be in the name of Justice? Bullcrap!
What does it matter? It is the way it is.
The sound of rain was kinder to Emmanuel than his thoughts, and helped to pull him out of his delirium. Soon its sound had lulled him to sleep.
His emotional escape was brought to an end by the noise of a key turning in the lock of the cell door. Looking up, he saw a deputy admitting Simon Theriot and a tall, well dressed Negro. The Negro was about Emmanuel's age. He walked with an air of confidence and authority, almost cocky in his manner.
"This is Jim Washington, Emmanuel. He's a lawyer from New Orleans and he's here to offer the services of the American Minority Groups Union. I'm going to let you talk privately with him and I'll see you later." Simon Theriot walked away with the deputy, leaving the two Negroes locked in the cell together.
Emmanuel shook the cobwebs from his mind. "What group do you represent again?"
AMGU. The American Minority Groups Union, he said, producing a calling card from his pocket. "We're a national organization which lends assistance to members of all minority groups when they're in trouble. You have heard of us, haven't you, Emmanuel?"
Emmanuel admitted that he had not.
"Well, that's all right. The important thing is that we do exist and that I'm here to represent you. We're not that big an organization yet, but we're growing. And frankly, we hope to grow quite a bit in the next couple of months." He laughed heartily as though he expected Emmanuel to laugh with him.
"The next couple of months? I don't understand,” Emmanuel said.
"Sure, you're big print, man. You just came out in the news media this morning, and within an hour I had phone calls from Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. You see, National has been sort of waiting for a case to come up in a county like this, and…well, let's just say you'll have our whole organization behind you. By the way, can the local yokel be trusted?"
"The local yokel?"
"Yeah. Theriot. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have a local attorney at our table, it should be good publicity, especially since he's white, of course. Unless he can't be trusted.”
"He can be trusted, all right. Matter of fact, I had planned for him to handle my case unless he refuses."
"You don't mean by himself, do you? Why, I understand that he hasn't practiced law for years, except as a Justice of the Peace. You need us, man. You need all the support you can get. You need all the publicity we're going to give."
"Publicity? You think I want publicity? All I want is for my name to be cleared as soon as possible. I don't want publicity." Emmanuel was excited, angered by his visitor's condescension.
"But you're already getting publicity. We can't stop that if we want to. The difference is that right now you're just another black man who has raped…or been accused of raping…a white woman, but we are going to make you a symbol for all minority groups, black, Indian, Puerto Rican…that the whipping dog just won't stand up and take his whipping anymore. Man, you're going to be representing a cause!"
"I am not representing a cause. I'm representing me. I'm a person, an individual, not a minority group, I came here as one man minding his own business and if I have to go to trial, that's the way I'll go. I just happen to be black. And if it's because I happen to be black that I'm going to trial at all, then it's because the whole system is wrong. And if I go to trial as a symbol, as a minority group, then I'm just perpetuating the whole damn system. No sir. I'll fight this thing as one man, and when I'm cleared it won't be because I'm black."
"You talk about being cleared as though you don't know how the cards can be stacked, LaFontaine. You want me to tell you some stories about some representatives of minority groups? How about the Puerto Rican boy in New York last month? How about those three white boys in Mississippi a couple of years ago? They were white, but they got it because they were civil rights workers and therefore in a minority group."
"I'm sick of hearing about minority groups. There isn't a man in this country who isn't in some way a member of a minority group. That's what this country is supposed to be all about, but right now I'm not interested in the country. I'm just interested in me. And I'm certainly not interested in being a fund raiser for your organization at my expense."
"What do you mean? We don't even plan to charge you a fee."
Emmanuel put his head in his hands. He could no longer look at his visitor. "You just don't understand, do you? There are so many people who just don't understand."
"How did your talk with Mr. Washington go this afternoon?" Simon Theriot asked.
"I don't want him to defend me, if that's what you mean."
Theriot nodded. He appeared fatigued. "Look. I really don't have any news for you tonight. I just thought I'd stop in and see how you're doing before I wade home through the elements. It's still raining cats and dogs, you know."
"Yes, I can hear it."
"Is there anything you need? Toothbrush, soap, something to read, maybe?"
"Well, yes. There's an old Bible in my suitcase, if you could have that sent to me."
Simon Theriot got the Bible himself and then left.
Emmanuel had never been much of a Bible reader, but tonight he felt very much alone and thought that he might find solace in spiritual reading. Instead, however, he found a genealogy of his mother's family.
In ink turned brown with age, a family history leading to the birth of Marie Baion was written on the pages reserved for family vital statistics. It was in narrative form, and Emmanuel gathered that it had been written by his grandmother. The spelling was poor and here and there the English text was interspersed with French words, but he was finally able to discover some of the things he had been looking for.
He found that the earliest reference was to Marie Baion's greatgrandmother, who was recorded, without being named, as a slave woman of the Baronne plantation. Apparently in 1860, she produced a daughter, a product of the garconiere, fathered by the ruling head of the Baronne family. According to several references, it seemed that the child must have been very light in color. Probably to avoid a scandal, Baronne had settled a sum of money on the child and had allowed the mother to leave the plantation with her child, whom she had christened Adele Baion. She took Adele to New Orleans, where in post Civil War years she found it possible, with the aid of the money Baronne had given her, to obtain for Adele a basic education. Equipped with, this advantage, Adele became the common-law wife in 1884 of a Negro who had prospered during Reconstruction, and a year later gave birth to a daughter whom she named Anne. Adele used her newly found affluence to continue her education and refinement, and eventually sought also to use the advantage with which she had been born, the lightness of her skin. She succeeded in doing this, and in 1897, she chose to marry a white man named Aristide Broussard. In the process of crossing the color line, however, she had found it justifiable to desert her daughter, Anne. As Anne's father had died some years before, and as the marriage of her mother and father had never been legalized, Anne continued her mother's last name as her own. Disillusioned and suspicious, Anne made her own way from the age of twelve, and it was not until she was 35 that she had a child. The story recorded no information about the father of the child, and with an entry describing the birth of Marie Baion, Anne concluded her family history.
Theriot arrived early in the morning, obviously excited. "I think we've had our big break, Emmanuel, and we just might be able to nip this whole mess in the bud. Tick has bragged publicly that he saw you near the old barn."
"You mean that he's talking out of school? I don't understand the legal significance really."
"It's more that. What he's saying now is that he saw you driving your car to the barn."
"Driving?" Emmanuel shouted the word and his countenance brightened for the first time in many hours.
"That's right. Apparently he simply did not know that your car was impounded. And let me tell you something that you did not know, when I impound a car I do it right. I had your car locked up Wednesday afternoon in the possession of the Civil Sheriff. That means that it has been behind an eight-foot fence ever since. We can prove that Tick is lying."
Emmanuel was laughing now. "This is great. Just wonderful. Where do we go from here?"
"I'm trying to get a meeting together immediately of all interested parties, including the District Attorney, the Sheriff, and Deputy Tick. I think that when it becomes obvious that Tick is lying through his teeth we might be able to get these charges dropped."
As Theriot ended his sentence, a deputy unlocked the cell door. "The Sheriff says he’11 see you and the prisoner in his office now, Mr. Theriot."
Another deputy was waiting outside the cell, and the two jailers escorted Emmanuel and Simon Theriot down the corridor. In the sheriff's office were the Sheriff, the District Attorney, Tick, and – somewhat to Emmanuel's surprise – Baronne. Baronne spoke first, his voice reflecting his irritation.
"What's this all about, Theriot? I hear that you're going to save the county from a lot of embarrassment or something like that. If you ask me, this county is already embarrassed by some of the things you've done."
"Where is the Civil Sheriff?" Theriot asked.
"He's on his way," the Sheriff replied. "But I don't see what the Civil Sheriff has to do with a criminal case."
Emmanuel had been observing Tick since they entered the room. Unusually quiet, Tick was now beginning to fidget.
Theriot continued. While we're waiting for him, maybe Deputy Tick will tell this little group what he's been telling everyone else, including television cameras. Come on, Tick. Tell us what you said you saw Thursday night."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Tick said excitedly. "Any evidence I have I'll give to the county or in the trial, not to the defense."
"Don't be stupid. All of us already know what you've said. You've made a statement that you saw LaFontaine on the night of the rape near the old barn, right?"
Tick was silent.
"And you didn't say that you saw him walking there, did you? You specifically said that you saw him driving his car there. You even said that you knew the car well because in the line of duty you had been compelled to issue two traffic tickets to the accused, right?"
Tick was still silent. He glanced with a puzzled expression at the Civil Sheriff, who had entered the room as Theriot was talking.
Theriot addressed the Civil Sheriff. "Bob, would you please tell these folks how you got here?"
"I drove here from my office at the car pound. I came in the car belonging to Emmanuel LaFontaine. You told me on the phone that it could be returned to your custody because the owner had paid his fine and his driver's license had been located."
"When was that car impounded, Bob?"
"Wednesday afternoon, as your receipt shows. Here, look. The mileage at that time was 26,113. It now reads 26,114."
The Sheriff and the District Attorney gasped audibly. Tick moved his jaw as though to speak but no sound came out of his mouth. Baronne sat perfectly still, the ever present expression of anger remaining in his face.
Theriot suddenly shot his next statement in Tick's direction. "Maybe you'll tell us now how LaFontaine's driver's license came to be in the barn. Maybe you'll even tell us who really raped that poor girl."
Tick managed to form words with his trembling mouth. "Listen you nigger lover. You ain't going to turn this around on me."
"Just tell us why you've been lying, Tick."
Baronne spoke loudly, pounding his fist on the sheriff's desk. "Don't answer the bastard, Tick. Just you run over and fetch my son Broussard. I been meaning to make him Justice of the Peace for a long time, and I think that we might's well have a swearing-in right now, as soon as this ingrate here resigns."
Tick wasted no time in leaving for his errand.
The District Attorney addressed Baronne. "I think we should question that man, Mr. Baronne."
"You'll question him if and when I tell you to. Right now the first order of business says that we're about to get a new JP."
All were silent for a moment, until Emmanuel spoke softly. "How come your son is named Broussard, Mr. Baronne?"
"Don't you dare address me, you black bastard, especially about my personal family."
Emmanuel persisted. "It wouldn't have been a family name, would it, Mr. Baronne?"
Baronne pretended that Emmanuel did not exist.
"Would it have been a family name?"
Simon Theriot stared at the floor. His voice was soft and his words came slowly. "Yes, Emmanuel. It was a family name. Broussard's paternal grandmother was a Blanche Broussard."
Emmanuel was still staring at Baronne. "And would her father by any chance have been Aristide Broussard?"
"Yes." The answer came from Simon Theriot.
Baronne exploded. "How do you know all this, Theriot? And what the hell business is it of yours?"
Now it was Theriot who seemed not to know that Baronne existed. Emmanuel, who had not taken his eyes off Baronne for the last several minutes, rasped his words through clenched teeth. "You've got cocoa in your milk, cousin. You are a black, incestuous octoroon, and under the laws of your state you and your children are bastards."
The shock was paralyzing. Even Baronne's attention had been captivated by the intensity of Emmanuel's speech. Now, all he could say was, "What are you talking about?"
"It's all history, cousin. It's all written down for all to see. In fact, it's all written in the good book."
Emmanuel was emotionally drained as he looked through his small cell window at the townspeople going to church across the square. The rain had finally stopped and the sky looked as though it would clear. Simon Theriot was talking.
"Well, it's fitting that you should get resurrected on a Sunday morning."
"Do you really think it's all over, Mr. Theriot?"
"Well, one thing is sure. The Sheriff and the District Attorney would not have ordered your release if they had any doubts about your innocence. And of course the fact that Tick flew the coop just about condemns him."
"Do you think they'll catch him soon?"
"Probably. He couldn't have gone far. He's in a state of panic and he'll make some more mistakes.”
"What about Baronne?"
"Well, I hear that this morning he's in something like a state of shock. I even heard that the doctors are with him, and that he just mutters nonsense words, incomplete sentences about his loyal friends, the governor, his ancestors, things like that. Well, let's face it, Emmanuel, you really won that round."
"Somehow I don't feel that I really won anything. I don’t feel that I'm any bigger now than before. I just want to go back home and live normally again, now that I know who I am. By the way, I wonder if you'll tell me why you changed my mother's name to Brignac in the records."
"To protect the memory of my own father. It was he who concealed the fact that Blanche Broussard was a quadroon. He had been the keeper of the vital statistics at the time. I don't really know why he did it. Maybe for money. But at any rate it bothered him the rest of his life, and he had to have someone to confide in. So he let me help him carry his cross. It never bothered me too much until your mother moved here. I could tell by the way she moved into the colored community that somehow she knew – I didn't know how – but she lived and worked with a vehemence that demonstrated that she was a woman possessed of a mission. And I knew what it was."
"Father Melancon knows too, doesn't he?"
"Yes. After my father died, I had to share the secret too, you see. And so I told Father Melancon in confession. It was just a coincidence that he had known your mother at the convent."
"Who had her buried in the Baronne servants' tomb?"
"That was my father's doing. He felt that he owed something to your mother, and he just told Baronne that she had been a descendant of one of his servants, and Baronne agreed to her burial there."
"So Baronne never knew, never suspected anything?"
"No. All his life he thought he was as white as Father Melancon's purest roses."
The jailer turned the key in the cell door once again and entered, carrying a breakfast tray. His manner was friendly. "Here's your breakfast, LaFontaine. At least you gettin' another free meal on the county while waitin' for the release to come from the judge. Course, I doubt that you really of a mind to eat a lot of this here breakfast, what with wantin' to get out of jail and all that. Course, it is a good breakfast, them ham an' aigs, grits and all that French bread. This ain't the usual breakfast here, mind you, but the sheriff figured what with you not deservin' to be here an' all…."
Emmanuel chuckled at the jailer, as he watched him studying the tray. "I get the impression that you must have been on duty all night and haven't been home yet for your breakfast. That right?"
The jailer broke into a smile. "That's right, all right," he said, and all three men laughed.
"I tell you what," Emmanuel suggested, "I'm really not too hungry, so maybe we can share it. You got another plate?"
"Yes, sir, I mean, yes. I mean…." Again they all laughed.
As the jailer went to get the other plate, Emmanuel asked Simon Theriot whether he also was hungry,
"Not really," he replied, "but I might just have a piece of that French bread."
The jailer returned with the other plate and the release document as well. He handed the release to Simon Theriot. "Well, I guess this is what you all been waitin' for. By the way, LaFontaine, before you go, I jus' been wonderin' whether I ever did see you before. Is it true you was a boy here but never did come back until now?"
"Yes, that's true. I left as a small child and this has been my first return." Emmanuel divided the ham and eggs and then broke the loaf of French bread into three parts.
"That's funny," the jailer said, pondering his portion of the breakfast. "I woulda swore you looked familiar. Why, jus' now, the way you broke that there bread, there was something about you that I thought I recognized."
Simon Theriot broke into the jailer’s musings. "Well, here it is, Emmanuel. Your release. You're free to go now. Matter of fact, you are as free as you've ever been before."
"Perhaps more free than before, because now I know my past and I am no longer fettered by the mystery of it all."
They walked out together and picked up Emmanuel's possessions at the desk.
Outside, Simon Theriot offered to help Emmanuel carry his baggage to the car, but Emmanuel refused.
"No. I think you've done quite enough for me already. There's just no way that I can say how much I appreciate all you've done for me."
"Don't fret about it. Remember, you've released me from a burden I've carried for a long time, too. Goodbye, Emmanuel."
"Goodbye, Mr. Theriot. And God love you,"
The black man and the white man shook hands and parted. Emmanuel walked to his car where it had been parked the previous day and loaded his belongings. As he sat in the driver's seat, he looked through the windshield and noticed blue sky showing through the clouds for the first time in several days.
What a pretty sight, he thought. He wondered whether God’s justice might be prevailing over the will of man. His eyes searched the horizon for a rainbow. No rainbow yet, he thought. At least for the moment Nature is not separating its component colors. He inserted his key into the ignition switch, and again looking through the windshield, he saw the rainbow this time, bright and clear and distinct against its background. Disappointed at the symbol of the separation of colors, he cursed the weather that had been.
The instant he turned the key he was aware of a clicking noise and he thought the battery may have gone dead. His last consciousness was an awareness of an odor of something burning. The explosion was so instantaneous and so complete that he felt no pain and heard no noise as his very being was torn apart.
As the debris settled, a scrap of paper with ink turned brown with age drifted back to earth and settled ignominiously in the rubble.