Terry Donohue is a writer and waiter from Red Bank, New Jersey. He writes darkly humorous historical fiction and lyric essays.
ESTEEMED MORTALS OF NEW ORLEANS
12 MAY 1919 Les, a powerfully built man of forty-four, fingered the notes to “Livery Stable Blues” on his Selmer tenor as he eyed the one-room roadhouse. The five-piece band played as though all of Dixieland was gaining on them, but the sea of black faces Les looked upon seemed to take little notice. Closest to the stage, two men studied their next moves in a game of dominoes as a waitress swatted away a woman’s hand. She had worked her hand up the back of the waitresses’ skirt. “You wanna get dragged outta here, girl?” the waitress said. “You go on grab your own ass.” Across the room, just at the entrance to the head, Tina Leroux slumped against a wall, her eyelids drooping, lost in a morphine fog. We may as well be playing to a grove of cypress, Les thought. Meanwhile those wops in the Dixieland Band are playing in New York. Pitiful. Just offstage, Scoot, the bartender, slinked up to Earl, the banjo player. He whispered in Earl’s ear and showed him a newspaper. Earl, still picking the banjo, glanced at the headline, then back at Scoot. The band played on. Pork Chop Willie’s was in the largely unmixed black neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward. The surrounding city blocks were comprised mostly of other bars, shanties, and chicken coops. The only white face one was ever likely to see was some Parrish patrolman, but as Les scanned the room, he focused on one that was definitely not that. Anna Schneider, a heavily pregnant platinum blonde, favored a hickory walking staff as she tottered up to the bar. She kept her eyes on its pine countertop until she was leaning on it. She balanced her staff on the bar and looked up at the barman, who was already staring back at her. “Tawny port.” The barman didn’t move. “You lost, miss?” he asked. “You need directions?” “No,” Anna said. “I need a drink.” Les continued to watch from the stage as the barman poured her a drink, leaned in, and muttered something in her ear. If she heard him, she gave no indication; instead drained the liquid in one gulp, placed it back on the pine, and tapped the glass rim with one finger. The barman refilled it. The song Les could’ve played in his sleep ended. There was a brief and polite round of applause that could just be heard over the conversations of the room. Earl glanced quickly across the room at the pregnant Anna, then walked to the center of the stage. “Fellas.” He addressed the whole band. He wore no expression. “Europe is dead.” There was a pause. “Jim Europe?” Willard on Tuba asked. He was a portly, biracial man with wild, tangled locks and a jolly face. “What happened?” “He got himself knifed,” Earl replied, as he turned the banjo across his chest. “His own drummer did it. Yesterday, in Boston.” “He was Ninth Infantry, like me,” Les said. “Different war is all.” The musicians all looked at each other, unsure of what such news meant to them. After a pause, Martin, the drummer, called out, “This one’s for James Reese Europe, y’all. ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ One. Two. Three,” and the band played on. Anna Schneider ordered another drink. Les continued to watch her. * * * Anna shed a single tear as she trudged through the muggy night towards the railcar stop. As she passed a one-room house on LaSalle Avenue, muffled voices came from inside. “I get up every day before you, goddammit!” a man screamed. “It’s my ass out on those roads, and you don’t know what work is, bitch!” “Playin’ spades ain’t work, mothafucka,” the woman retorted. Anna heard the faint clap of the man’s backhand connecting, then a pause. “Asshole! Get the fuck out my house!” the woman screamed. “Your house? YOUR HOUSE?” Drunk, sweaty, dehydrated and chafed, Anna kept her eyes on the dirt road as she walked in the middle of it. She knew the way to the trolley stop by heart. She ought to, after so many forays into the black section. What she didn’t know was what she’d been hoping to find there. The Lord is my shepherd, she thought. She rubbed her bulging tummy. I shall not want. She stopped in her tracks, just under a gaslight streetlamp. She clutched at her womb, squeezed her eyes shut, and shed another tear. I may not want, but I covet, she thought. Les stopped in his tracks when Anna did. She was illuminated in the street about fifty yards ahead of him. He leaned against the brick wall of a foundry, holding his shoes in one hand with his sax case slung over his shoulder. She stood still, hanging her head. Les wondered if she knew he was behind her. She looked up at the sky for a moment, then trudged on without looking back. Les followed. He stayed far enough behind her that she wouldn’t be able to see his face if she turned around, but close enough that he could hear her footsteps crunching in the thin gravel. A bloodhound bayed a block away. A drag queen silently watched Les from behind the screen door of a cathouse. Cicadas chirruped in the overgrowth in the alleys. The heat enveloped the two lonesome travelers. Les liked the heat. It reminded him of the charge on San Juan Hill in that summer of the previous century. He thought of the beginning of the charge, when he picked off the two Cuban sentries in quick succession, two shots each to center mass. They had dropped as though their ligaments had instantly disappeared from in between their bones, and they went crashing clumsily to the ground, as though all they had ever been were spindly stacks of limbs and fatigues and helmets, just waiting around for Les to snuff them out. And he had done it from a distance not much farther than the distance between him and Anna. He took his oversized, olive-drab handkerchief from his back pocket and mopped his brow. He thought of the Cuban from whom he’d taken the handkerchief; he was a boy, no older than seventeen. Les had leapt over the edge of a dune and landed on the boy’s bayonet, which had sunk into his shoulder. Les had not cried out, not even felt it, but had taken his own boot knife and slashed it through the boy’s cheek. The boy cried out, more in terror than pain, as though just having realized he was no longer home, on the family plantation, sitting cross-legged at the foot of his grandfather’s rocking chair, but had woken up in the middle of a pitched battle, with his arms pinned to the ground by Les’ knees, about to die. And die he did. Les plunged the knife into the left side of the boy’s chest, marring the blade on the fourth rib, and as the life rushed out of him, Les sunk the knife into his throat, and he felt the windpipe crunch with the consistency of a fresh persimmon. Sweat dripped from Les’ forehead into the dead boy’s empty eyes and the eyes did not move. Anna stopped at the corner of LaSalle Avenue and Grant Street, and Les, lost in thought, almost walked up to where she could see him. He hid behind a dumpster. After a moment, the trolley trundled by. By the interior lights, Les saw the black operator look quizzically at Anna. He was just barely able to hear her ask, “Gretna?” and then, “Elmira Street.” Anna stepped onto the otherwise empty trolley and it pulled off. Les stood and watched it go, then turned toward home. * * * Anna lay on her side in the dark of the bedroom with a pillow in between her knees and the blanket crumpled on the floor. She tottered just at the precipice of crashing drunkenly into half-sleep when she heard her husband’s footsteps on the porch. He was coming home from the night shift at the Grant Street Foundry, and Anna knew she wouldn’t sleep that night, but pretended to be anyway. Ed, a tall, wiry man, originally from Bessarabia, took his boots off in the doorway and stood for a moment looking at his still and silent wife. He strode to the bedside, picked up the thin summer blanket, and placed it over Anna’s legs. In the sliver of moonlight that came through the front window into their bedroom he could see the yellowed sweat stains around the armpits of her night shirt. He crept into the bathroom and splashed water on his face and under his arms, then pressed a towel to his face and ran a hand over his curly blond hair. The face that stared back at him in the mirror was haggard and gaunt, with sunken cheeks and bags under the eyes, but wore a look of contentment. He peered back into the bedroom at his sleeping bride, who’d been pregnant just longer than they’d been married. She had no parents to disapprove of the union. He and the child inside her were her only family. Ed intended to be the only family they would ever need. He took a bottle of ointment from the medicine cabinet and gently rubbed it on the second-degree scalding burn on the inside of his right arm. He got it at work two weeks earlier. All those Krauts he’d aced in the war hadn’t even managed to scratch him, but some unbearably tedious night-shift job had scarred him for life. It still hurt most of the time. He reached back into the medicine cabinet and took two sedatives, swallowing them without water. They helped him sleep through the insomnia, and the nightmares of being under shellfire again. He then went to the foot of the bed and crawled in next to his wife, planting a kiss on her cheek before he settled down. Anna knew Ed loved her. But would he forever? When she had this baby, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what a fool he’d been, where would lie the boundary of his wrath? And if she survived childbirth, and survived her husband’s anger, and survived her own guilt, what would happen when she had to face her own community? How could she? People in Gretna rarely even ventured into black neighborhoods, and certainly didn’t share accommodations with them. There were no miscegenation laws in Louisiana, but she and her baby would be pariahs nonetheless. An innocent child, who knew nothing but the newfound light, would be swaddled in bulrushes and set adrift on the Tigris. Anna waited for her husband to fall asleep next to her. Then she got up, crept to the bathroom, clutched the toilet and vomited. She fell asleep on the bathroom floor. * * * Les walked along Magnolia Street on the moonless night, hardly able to see the houses from the sidewalk for the utter darkness. Only the occasional streetlamp served as a guidepost for his walk. He held the envelope up near his ear, in between his index and middle finger as though it were a cigarette. When he reached the mailbox on the corner of Magnolia and Upperline, he took one last look at the letter, addressed to The New Orleans Sentinel, and dropped it in the slot. He turned right down Upperline and strolled along the residential street. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a pair of stray cats at the mouth of an alley. They stared at him, austere and independent, until he picked up a rock and hurled it at them. It struck the smaller one in the haunches, and the animal screeched as both cats ran off into the shelter of the night. At the middle of the street, he came upon an unlit bungalow. The screen door flapped open and banged shut against the doorframe in the hot spring breeze. The front yard was about the size of a large dinner table, and in the darkness Les could make out a sprawling bed of marigolds and a tall and regal sunflower that would have been vibrant in the daylight. A pair of leather shoes sat on the front stoop, underneath a plaque of a bearded monk holding a bluebird on his index finger. The inscription beneath read, “Saint Francis of Assissi, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” Les walked through the narrow passage between the side of the house and the unpainted picket fence into the backyard. On the rear windowsill, behind a pane of frosted glass, a single candle burned. A pile of rusty tools sat underneath the window. Les tried the backdoor, which was locked but flimsy. He took from inside his boot the same knife with which he’d killed the boy on the hill so many years before and slipped it into the tiny space in between the doorjamb and the door itself. He fiddled and twisted for a moment but made no progress. He looked at the tools, knelt down, sorted through them, and stood up holding a short but sturdy oaken log-splitter. He ran a finger along the edge of the iron blade. It was too dull to slice an apple, but it was heavy. He peered into the window with the candle behind it but couldn’t make out anything inside the house. Les shook his head, took a step back, and with a mighty kick just above the knob, knocked the door clean off its hinges. Les strode over the splintered door into the house and turned left through the first doorway he saw. As he entered the bedroom, a short and stocky white man, sitting upright on the edge of his bed, flicked on a bedside gas lamp and turned to look at him. The man’s wife held her hand in front of her face, squinting and half-blind in the light, her mouth perfectly round in a silent gasp of terror. Les swung the axe sideways at the man as he stood up, but the man bolted out his forearm to block the blow. The axe turned sideways in Les’ hands and the broad side of the blade caught the man in the side of the head. With a grunt he fell face-first into the corner of the wall and slumped in a heap behind the nightstand. Two of the man’s teeth skittered across the floor and landed under the bureau. Les turned to the woman, who held both hands up in front of her face, her eyes still unadjusted to the light in the room. “Non fare del male,” she cried. She began to roll over to get out of bed when Les aimed a mighty overhand swing into the center of her face. The axe split her lower jaw right down the middle and sprayed Les’ face and white undershirt with a mist of blood. Her hands shot directly out in front of her with her palms splayed outward as she lost consciousness, and they stayed in that position for a moment, as though she was a street preacher addressing her fawning congregation. Les stood still and watched as her arms slowly drooped to her sides, the gaping wound that had become of her face oozing dark venous blood onto her chest and into the bedspread. Her foot gave several involuntary twitches. Suddenly the man sprang to his feet, leapt over the corner of the bed, and caught Les in the jaw with the heel of his hand. Les staggered backward from the surprisingly strong blow. “Bastardo!” the man growled. “Ti uccidero!” He had a large gash in his scalp, the bright red wound visible through his curly mane of jet-black hair. Les dropped the axe and put his guard up. The man tried to stand ready to strike, but his legs were unsteady and his eyes unfocused. Droplets of blood fell from his head and tracked stains down the shoulder of his pajama shirt like cherry blossoms fluttering down on fresh snow. As the man tottered like a newborn foal, he dropped his guard in an attempt to keep his balance. Les aimed a mighty head butt directly into the immigrant grocer’s Roman nose, shattering the cartilage and spraying Les’ forehead with blood. He drove the man backwards into the bureau and slammed his head into the mirror. Shards of glass cascaded to the floor and sliced both of Les’ forearms to tatters. Les grabbed the man by the lapels and, sticking his leg out, whipped him to the floor with such force that the room shook and a framed portrait of The Madonna and Child fell off the wall and crashed to the ground. Les clenched his jaw and pummeled the side of the man’s face until he stopped moving. Then the room was silent. Les stood up, breathing heavily, and looked at the wounded couple. The two strangers in that room with him only went about their ordinary lives in benign obscurity, no more at home in America than Les was. He turned out of the room, down the hallway, and into the washroom. It was a room too small and cramped even to lay down in. He took a white hand towel from the edge of the wash basin and wrapped it around his left wrist, then took his olive handkerchief from his back pocket and wrapped it around his right. On the edge of the sink was a straight razor. Les opened it and examined the blade. There was a small burr on the edge. He took his shirt off and looked in the bathroom mirror at the large bayonet scar he’d gotten from the boy he’d killed in Cuba and the three smaller parallel scars lined up next to it. With the edge of the razor blade, he gave himself two more matching cuts. He walked back into the bedroom, rolled the unconscious man over onto his back, removed the man’s nightshirt, and put it on. The man whimpered and moaned very quietly until Les rolled him back over onto his stomach and cut his throat from ear. A great spray of bright red arterial spurt emanated from the wound, a fresh jet spattering across the floorboards with every heartbeat. Les walked over to the bed and executed the woman in the same fashion. In those spots Joseph and Catherine Maggio died and were found. The candle on the windowsill bore on the votive the same portrait of Saint Francis holding the bluebird. Les blew it out, put it in his pocket, and left. * * * NEW ORLEANS SENTINEL Evening Edition 14 MAY 1919 MURDERER FEARED LOOSE IN N.O. Ax-Wielding Madman Strikes Again
At eight o’clock this morning, the bodies of Joseph and Catherine Maggio were discovered, maimed beyond recognition, in the bedroom of their Upperline Avenue home. The rear door had been kicked off its hinges and the unfortunate couple had been bludgeoned with their own axe before having their throats cut. Mrs. Maggio’s throat had been slashed so deep, she was nearly decapitated. Parrish Investigators have no leads but believe it to be the work of a lone madman. The influx of young males into the city returning home from The Great War has broadened the scope of possible suspects. Investigators are also looking into the possibility that this latest killing in a grisly spate of murders is somehow tied to the criminal organization La Cosa Nostra. The public is urged to leave their doors locked at night and to bring in any unattended elderly family members. Anyone with information that could possibly be related to the case is urged to contact their local Parrish constable. * * * Les stood onstage at Pork Chop Willie’s the next night, wearing the nightshirt. Only two of the five buttons could be fastened and it left his midriff exposed as he blew into his horn, playing the notes to Jelly Roll’s “Michigan Water Blues.” The gauze-wrapped cuts on the insides of his wrists smarted as his forearms flexed on the keys. However, with a few gulps of brandy, straight from the bottle, the pain dulled. The bottle sat on the stool next to him. The crowd tonight was a little livelier. There were two couples dancing, although one included Tina Leroux, working on her next john. The eight people at the row of tables in front of the stage all watched, feet tapping, heads bobbing like pigeons, a few drunks clapping on one and three. The song ended, Tina Leroux kept dancing with her fingertips tucked into an old man’s belt, and the whole room applauded. A woman at the back of the room stood on a chair to applaud, and shouted, “Gimme some more, boys! Harder and faster!” A few people chuckled. “You charge less than Tina?” Earl called back. The whole room laughed. Martin hunched over his drum kit with glee and smacked the snare a few times. “She’d have to charge by the minute for you, pumpkin,” Tina said, flipping Earl the bird, but the band started playing again and no one heard her. Earl nodded to Les and grinned. Les stared back, seemingly ignoring his cue, but then hit the opening sax notes to “They Raided The Joint” without changing his expression. Earl cleared his throat, looked down at the floor, and kept picking the banjo. Europe’s body ain’t even cold, but he’d be rollin’, Les thought. Us playin’ cover songs for a house of hicks and hoes. He scanned the room, more out of boredom than paranoia, and wished the Army had let him stay. Droplets of blood from the two cuts on his chest soaked through the nightshirt he wore. The last few notes of the band’s last song faded off through the open windows into nighttime Dixieland when Anna Schneider walked in. The whole room was looking at the band now, whooping and clapping for what they of limited means knew as a good time. Anna waddled in, her pregnant belly leading the way, leaning on her walking stick, and plopped down on a stool at the bar. She paid the band no mind, and the crowd returned the favor. Martin and Willard on Tuba smiled and waved, basking in the coital afterglow of a successful set. Les stared across the room at Anna. Earl stared at Anna as well, then glanced back at the crowd and waved. “A’ight, thank you much, folks,” he called. “We’ll see y’all back here Friday eve.” He turned to the band. “Good set, fellas. ‘Scuse me.” He lumbered off into the crowd. Les continued to stare at Anna, then turned back to the bandmates, nodded, and went to put away his saxophone. “Hey, man, you okay?” Martin asked. “What?” Les asked. Martin pointed his drumstick at Les’ chest. Les looked down and saw the droplets of his own blood soaking through the light blue button-down shirt. “Shit so tight it’s squeezin’ the guts outta you,” Willard on Tuba laughed. “What happened?” said the drummer. “Same broken window that got your wrists?” He gestured to Les’ bandaged hands. Les gave a quick nod, slung his case over his shoulder, and started to walk away. He paused and turned around to grab the bottle of brandy from the stool, and saw that his bandmates were no longer smiling, but staring. “Hey, daddy.” Les bumped into Tina Leroux at the front of the stage. “I like the way you blow into that thing tonight.” She peered drunkenly into his face, her breath reeking of vomit and wine. Les looked over Tina’s shoulder at the lone white girl at the bar. She sat with her back turned, and Earl stood next to her. Les shook his head and looked back at Tina just as she grabbed his cock. “Scoot,” Earl called to the bartender, “let me buy the lady a drink.” The barman pulled the cork out of the port bottle and topped off Anna’s glass. Earl grinned. She didn’t look up. “Hey, darling,” he said. “Ain’t seen you for a while. Where you been hidin’?” Anna finished the glass of port in one gulp. “What do you want?” “Just a little of your attention, miss,” Earl replied. “Is that so much to ask?” “It is, actually.” “Well, the band is going on tour next month. I figured we might have one last little fling.” “You’re not going on tour. You guys aren’t even that good.” Earl signaled Scoot for a drink again. “Good enough to have impressed you a few times,” he said with a grin. Scoot refilled Anna’s glass and she picked it up and drained it before he put the bottle back down. She stood up and turned to face Earl. His smile dropped as he looked down at Anna’s bump. “It’s yours, Earl,” she whispered. Behind them, the bartender lifted the bottle of port to his lips and drank. * * * NEW ORLEANS SENTINEL Morning Edition 16 MAY 1919 To my Subjects, Do you see what you’ve made me do? Are you happy? I take no pleasure in this task with which I’ve been charged, but I am honor-bound to carry out this Purge of the modern Philistines. The Higher Law I fulfill has grown from our earth, sowed and fertilized from Tartarus Itself. The Law to which I refer states that those who Create must have the Right to Destroy as well. Our Society of Pimps and Charlatans has forgotten, or flouted, this Law. We need to be reminded, ungently, urgently, of our Humanly Duty to either Create or Submit to the Will of the Creators to Destroy. That, my friends, is where I come in. Of this City is demanded a Sacrifice for your Impudence and Plagiarism. I will fill my Amphorae with the Blood of the Philistines before my Duty to the Law is fulfilled, at which point I may rest. Or I may not. I have Created. I have also Destroyed. My extensive experience with the two made me the perfect candidate to Enforce the Ancient Law. I have Created Music, for the Mortals of my City to while away in Sedentary Frivolity their precious Time, and I have Destroyed opponents of America’s Imperialist Designs. For each of these Gifts, or Sacrifices, I’ve been rewarded by the Mortals of my City with Obscurity, Poverty, and Rejection. I’ve been rewarded by the Demons of Tartarus with Counsel and Favor. When I am going about my Ordinary Business of Creation, in Human Form, I am limited by the Laws of Man. I may not relieve myself at any restroom I wish. I may not, no matter how thirsty, drink from any fountain I wish. I may not travel by trolley in the comfort and style afforded white citizens, for fear of arrest. And if I were to succumb to the most Carnal Desires of my Human Form and take the women I wish to take, I’d be punished outside the very Laws of Man, and no Law would stop the Vengeance the whites would exact. This is my Station in Life. And this after I have Destroyed, and risked my Own Destruction, at the Whims of the Philistines in Power. I proved myself, overseas, Greater, but upon returning home was treated as Lesser. I am a Native Son of this Land, and yet I watch as the Fruits of My Creation are hoarded by Immigrants of a hue endemic to the Ancient World. This is how I see it. This is how it is. And the Philistines with the Boot on my Throat, these are the ones breaking the Law that I enforce in my Inhuman Form. I will pick them off one by one. But I’m also in a sporting mood, and wish to give the public a chance against my Inhuman Form. So, in keeping with the frivolity so yearned for by Our Fair City, I will take my Inhuman Form tomorrow night, May 17, and go prowling for more of these Philistines. To prove you’re not one of them, you must play jass music in your home. If I can hear you Enjoying, and Appreciating, the Fruits of my Creation, you will be spared the Fury of my Destruction. Do not try to catch or stop me, or I will Enforce the Law on you. God Keep Ye, Esteemed Mortals of New Orleans. The Axman * * * Ed Schneider sat up at dawn in his empty bed. He looked around the room and got up, clad only in his boxers. He walked into the kitchen to find Anna sitting at the table reading the newspaper. He stood behind her, rubbed her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. She craned her neck upwards and looked directly back at him into his eyes. The morning light shone on her fair skin, illuminating the fine, microscopic hairs around her arched eyebrows. Her eyes shone a sad, gray-blue. Anna’s eyes frequently reminded Ed of a thick plume of smoke rising from a synagogue he’d seen as a small boy. It was one of his only memories of his birthplace of Chisinau, and his parents had taken him to see a great fire billowing into the rainy morning sky as his neighbors, with all the pomp and exuberance of Mardi Gras, expelled the Jews from the city. Ed had not been able to grasp what was happening, only remembering his father saying something about “traitors” and “deicide,” and seeing a crowd of his gentile neighbors drag a limp teenage boy through the streets. His gaze had fixated on the inferno, and it was still the most awesome spectacle he’d seen. When Anna was depressed or anxious, her eyes resembled the smoldering ash of the house of worship; when she was angry, or in direct sunlight, they took on the combustive quality of the very flames of a town preying on scapegoats. Edward reached down and rubbed Anna’s stomach and smelled her hair. They sat in silence for a moment, then he took the seat across the table. He sometimes felt guilty for witnessing that pogrom during his childhood, although he’d taken no part and had been too young to understand the stakes. He tried ever since to always exercise a patience that bordered on total submission. “Have you seen this,” she asked him, gesturing to the unhinged letter on the front page of the paper. “I heard about it. Guys at work were talking.” He got up, picked up the coffee pot, and filled her antique teacup. “Turn the radio on,” she said. He stared at her for a second, confused, then walked across the room and turned the knob on the machine. Jazz music rang softly throughout the kitchen. He fetched her some heavy cream from the icebox and put it on the table in front of her, then took some cold oatmeal from the icebox. “In the guy’s letter, he said he would kill anyone not playing jazz in their houses tonight,” Anna continued, as Ed stuck a lit match into the coals of the stove. “Honestly, the guy sounds like a loon, whoever he is,” Ed said. “Only a loon would make a demand like that.” Anna sat silent for a moment. Then, as Ed was preparing to heat up the pot of oatmeal, she said, softly, “I’m scared.” Ed put the pot down on the counter, knelt down next to her, and embraced her. “Don’t be,” he whispered. “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” As he held her, he felt like she was in another room, an invisible chasm yawning between them. He’d felt this distance, simultaneously infinitesimal and infinite, many times since she became pregnant; he was hoping the baby would bring them closer together. He was already planning on having more children with her, hoping this one would be a girl, whom he’d name Lessa, and the next a boy with his name. He loved this woman and the unborn child so much it hurt, especially when he wasn’t near them. Her unspoken distance as of late, unmentioned by either of them but undoubtedly there, made him cling ever more fiercely to the bonds of this family unit. He wanted to clutch her very soul like a string of pearls, as though to guard against the outside world with all its darkness and uncertainty. He kissed her on her plump, smooth cheek. It gave slightly to the pressure of his thin lips, soft and dry as a button of dough. He stood up. “Besides,” he said, “you’re more likely to die of this flu going around. Just keep the doors locked and the music on while I’m at work, and don’t hesitate to get a patrolman if anything seems strange.” “Okay, sweetie,” Anna said, folding the newspaper back up. “You’re working the day shift today?” Ed nodded without looking back, stirring the pot of oatmeal. He would feed her and the baby the whole thing and go to work without breakfast. “I love you,” Ed said. Anna looked up and smiled sadly. A W.C. Handy song came on the radio. * * * Les wandered through bustling Bourbon Street at dusk. Around him, the drunken working-class denizens of the city jostled and toasted, enjoying the spring night. But there was a paranoid skittishness about their reverie. Les bumped shoulders with a black teen, and she turned to look at him, wide-eyed, and backed up a few paces before rejoining her group of friends. At the corner of Bourbon and Montmartre, five white businessmen in ties and straw boater hats swayed in rhythm to a four-piece brass band, all while looking over their shoulders and turning to face every adult man that walked behind them. The washboard player in the band paced back and forth as he played, and at one point stood staring down the mouth of an alleyway while still scraping his forks in perfect rhythm. Every few feet Les walked, he could hear another jazz tune playing from houses and barrooms. From the barrooms where the live music played, people peered out the windows and screen doors to monitor the foot traffic, and all of the Victriolas owned by the rich had the horns pointed out the front windows of their homes. The city was more alive than Les had ever seen it, but the celebration was more guarded and defiant than jubilant. Les happened upon a southbound trolley and stepped on. He gave the operator a coin and they nodded to each other. It was the same man who’d driven the trolley Anna had boarded to Gretna a week earlier. Elmira Street, Les thought, as he made his way to the seats in the back marked “Colored.” He’d left his saxophone at home, as he figured not only would the city be on the lookout for a black man, but a musician as well. They’d also find suspect with veterans, which could be dangerous for him, but the country had just wrapped up fighting the greatest war in human history. It would almost certainly never occur to anyone to investigate veterans of any war but that one. The trolley stood still for a few minutes, waiting for additional passengers. Despite all the foot traffic, no one else got on. The driver set off toward the black section of the Lower Ninth. Les looked out the window and saw all the people walking along the busy street with open containers of gin or port. There were a few brass bands playing plaintive funeral marches. Black or Italian women rode bikes along the sidewalk, coming home from jobs at the laundry. When the trolley came to a stop at the corner of Monfre Street and Garfield Avenue, Les made eye contact with a lone blues man, sitting on a milk crate. The man was the only person around, and continued to strum his five-string guitar to no one while he stared back at Les. Not all of these people on the streets could read, but they all knew what had run in the newspaper the previous day. They went about their usual business, for what else could they do? But now, Les had given their puny minds and fleeting lives the gift of a soundtrack. As the trolley trundled into the residential section of town, the houses shrank and the distances between them grew greater. The blazing late afternoon sun sank from the sky like a cruel overseer dismounting his horse and the day turned to twilight. At the corner of Monfre and Light Streets, Les leaned down and gently fingered the handle of the bootknife strapped to his ankle. He reached up, pulled down the chord for a stop, and brushed past the driver and off the streetcar. Les prowled the deserted streets of the working-class neighborhood, listening intently. The music was softer here, but every house jounced Jelly Roll or W.C. Handy. He was in a neighborhood that never have away from throwing a raucous block party in the dog days of the swampy summer, but tonight the inhabitants were in a mass quarantine in their homes. In the gathering dark, he happened upon a decrepit old shanty, dark and silent. The porch fell away on the left side, toward the front lawn, which was strewn with a few bricks and crumbles of mortar from the foundation. Through the front window, he could see, towards the rear of the living room, a gas lamp burning. He crossed the single step up onto the rotting wooden porch and tried the front door. It swung open with a grating creak. Les stepped inside. His footsteps clunked through the silent house in the dark, musty air. “Daniel?” he heard a feeble voice call from the back room. “Did you bring the paper?” Les knelt down, unsheathed his knife, and stepped into the living room. He stared at an elderly biracial woman, sitting up in bed. On a nightstand to her right sat the gas lamp and a small stack of newspapers, probably enough to keep her appraised of the events of the past week. On another nightstand to her left sat a pitcher of water and a glass, a bottle of codeine syrup, and a small radio. The woman stared at Les, unblinking, and raised a royal blue handkerchief to her face. She wretched and coughed into it, doubling over, then dropped the cloth onto the floor next to her. She looked back at Les. “Ma’am,” Les nodded. The woman didn’t break eye contact. She reached over to the bottle of cough syrup, pulled out the cork, and took a hearty slug. The mixture sent her reeling into another fit of coughing and sputtering. Les walked to the bedside, still holding his knife. The woman regained her composure and stared back at Les. Les reached into his back pocket, pulled out his own souvenir handkerchief from the war, and handed it to the woman. “Is it you?” she asked. “You’re him?” Les smiled. “How about some music?” The woman smiled back at him. She leaned over to the nightstand and switched on the radio. Les put the knife down on the nightstand and poured her a glass of water. “Thank you, young man,” she said. “I fear this fever will be the death of me.” “It won’t,” Les whispered. “I promise.” She drank. Les recognized the song playing softly through the radio. It was “Tiger Rag,” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A trilling, vibrant cornet solo by Domenick LaRocca filled the damp air between the two of them. The woman leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “I love this song,” she said. When she opened her eyes and looked back at Les, he was holding one of the cushions from her bed in his left hand. The woman smiled at Les one last time, just as he placed one hand behind her head and pressed the pillow into her face. The woman’s hands instinctually reached up and grasped Les’ wrist, pulling loose the bandages around his hand. He could hear soft, muffled grunts and gasps. He pressed a little harder and felt drool and phlegm drip from her chin into the palm of his hand. The woman began to lurch and flail feebly, but Les pressed harder still into her face. After a few seconds she stopped moving. Les pulled the pillow away and stared into her blank, open eyes. She looked like she had lived her full life with a burning question always at the front of her mind, and in those last moments had seen the unsatisfying answer. She’d died after finally getting the only thing she’d ever wanted and finding it as meaningful as the death of a mayfly. Tony Sbarbaro let fly one last roll on the snare and pounded the cymbal and the song ended. Les picked up his handkerchief from on top of the bedsheet and stuffed it into his back pocket. He picked up his knife from the nightstand, poured himself a glass of water, and drank the whole thing. He walked out through the front door and onto the darkened street, still deserted, and set off towards home. He lived four blocks away. * * * Earl came home after dark. He kicked off his ratty loafers at the entrance to his one-room house, pushed open the clapboard door, and lashed it shut behind him with a leather strap. He struck a match and lit the candle on the small table beside the door, and as the room lit up he saw his two cats stand up from their spots on the floor and sulk away. Earl walked over to the wash basin. There was a gray film floating on top of the lukewarm water. He swished his hand back and forth to disperse it, then splashed a handful on his face and dried off with the collar of his shirt. He scanned the silent room. Someone had told him to have music playing in his house to ward off the maniac prowling the city, but he had sold his radio to buy rye. He sat down on the edge of the bed and, reaching underneath, pulled out one of the bottles he’d bought from pawning the radio. One of his cats watched from under a stool across the room as he took two deep gulps back to back and lay back in bed. If I get taken out by the Mad Slasher, Earl thought, I at least ain’t gonna be sober for it. He picked up the older banjo he had leaning against the wall, the one he’d gotten as a boy, and strummed it absentmindedly. He took another drink. The cat continued to stare at him. He looked at a faded photograph tacked to the wall above his bed. It showed a tall and slender black woman, with a feather boa wrapped around her shoulders. She was turned away from the camera, looking back over her shoulder, smiling very slightly, as though trying not to. The bottom corner of the photo was obscured by Earl’s fingertip protruding across the camera lens. It was the only photograph anywhere in the house. Earl took another deep gulp and winced against his burning throat as he stared at the woman. * * * NEW ORLEANS SENTINEL Morning Edition 18 MAY 1919 NO MURDERS IN THE CITY Jass Music Blares Throughout, Axman Stays Home
Following the chilling letter printed in this publication two days ago, the city turned on its radios and the bands showed out in force last night. The mysterious Axman was nowhere to be found, sparing every inhabitant of the city. Police are still on the lookout for suspicious activity, specifically in the Ninth Ward and the Garden District. Anyone with information on Negro veterans of the War whose whereabouts are unaccounted for last Tuesday, 13 May are urged to contact local authorities. Parrish foot patrols have been doubled in the wake of the killings, and the public are encouraged to remain calm and stay in secured domiciles and well-lit areas until the suspect is caught.
* * * The band sounded awful. Willard on Tuba had a swollen cut on his upper lip and could only blow long, soft melodic lines in the proper key. Earl kept missing his cues and losing the beat, as he’d spent most of the show staring at the floor or the wall with his back turned to the band. Les, for all the demands he made of himself, was so congested and short of breath, he could hardly play one disjointed and sloppy solo without getting so lightheaded he needed to plop down onto the stool next to him. Tina Leroux was so doped up she ended up passed out under a bar table, at which point two drunken patrons picked her up, carried her outside and left her in the gutter. No one paid the band any interest. Scoot charged them full price for every drink. “Y’all ain’t bringin’ no patrons through these doors tonight, see,” he’d told them. “Especially not blowin’ all them clunkers. You’re even scaring the moths away.” The band wrapped up their first set in front of a completely unresponsive audience. Les scanned the back wall for the pregnant white girl. She was nowhere to be found. “Man, we ain’t getting’ nowhere playing like this to a crowd like this,” Martin told the band as he twirled his drumstick in his right hand. “We best shape up, or we’re going the way of the pipe organ.” Willard on Tuba dabbed at his lip with a wet rag. “Man, I shouldn’t even be playing right now,” he said. “I was up til all hours last night, blowing into this thing to ward off the Axman. I had my fire poker on the table right next to me case he busted in, and I blew into this here horn til my lips split right down the seam.” Martin leaned in closer to examine Willard on Tuba’s injury. “Hurts like hellfire, I tell you what.” “What about you?” Les blurted out, staring at Earl. “Where are you tonight? I know you ain’t up on this stage.” Earl took a moment to realize he was being spoken to, then turned around and stared blankly at his bandmates. “Huh?” “Somethin’ on your mind, Earl?” Martin asked. “You’ve been missin’ cues like periods in a cathouse.” Earl shook his head. He took a deep breath and started to speak, but then stopped and stared silently at the floor for a moment. Then he stood up, took off his banjo, and dropped it to the floor. “I don’t know if I’ll ever put this thing back on, fellas.” He scanned the faces of his bandmates. They looked confused and startled. “Hey, man,” Martin said, “don’t talk like that, now. Nobody would get anywhere in this game if they just up and quit after one bad gig.” “I ain’t quitting,” Earl replied. “I’m just thinking there might be more to life than gigging. We fuck up tonight, oh well, we’ll be back here playin’ in a couple nights, anyway.” Earl stared out the window as he spoke to himself. “None of what we’re doing here matters.” Les gave a short, derisive laugh at this. Earl glanced over at him, then turned on his heel and wandered off to the bar. The band watched as he downed two glasses of rye back to back. Les plopped down onto his stool to save the joints of his knees, which were inexplicably aching worse than usual. He turned his face into the crook of his arm and gave a wretching, painful cough, coming up with a mouthful of phlegm. He lifted the hem of his shirt and wiped his nose. Not only was his chest congested, but his airway was so sore it felt like it was coated with hot tar. “No wonder you cain’t hit a note neither, Les,” Willard on Tuba said. “You sound like you’se coming inside out with that cough.” Les shook his head and wondered what city the Dixieland Jazz band was in that night. * * * Anna sat up at the kitchen table next to a bottle of bourbon, the bare bulb overhead providing the only light in the house. It was past eleven at night. She poured another drink into the teacup and fingered the Rosary in her hands. She was not praying, but fidgeting, trying to guard herself from the anxiety she felt about her husband coming home from work. She heard her husband’s clunking footsteps traverse the wooden porch, then stop as he knelt down to untie his boots. He placed his shoes just outside the door, next to Anna’s walking stick, and came inside. He smiled briefly when he saw her, but his face immediately fell. “What are you doing up?” Ed asked. Anna looked up from the table at his earnest yet harrowed expression. “Are you drinking? Give me the bottle,” he said, and strode over to the table. Anna gulped down the rest of her drink as Ed snatched the bottle from the table. He marched into the kitchen, put the bottle in the cupboard and slammed it shut. He returned to the living room and sat down across from Anna. “Why are you doing this?” “Because I can’t live with myself.” “Yes you can, sweetheart. The doctors told you some mood swings might happen.” “I’m not swinging, Ed. I’m pinned under a rock.” Ed reached across the table and took both of Anna’s hands in his. “We’ll be alright, as long as we stick together. We’re a team.” Anna looked down at the table, laughed, and shook her head. “Some team.” Ed scowled. “I work the night shift,” he said, trying not to lose his temper. “I’m working myself to the bone to carve a life for us out of granite, and what do you do?” He was shouting now. “Sit at home and drink! Do you have any idea what that could do to our baby?” “’Our baby’,” Anna repeated scornfully. She got up and walked into the kitchen. “Yes, our baby!” Ed shouted, following her. “My baby! My daughter! My son! Whatever it is, you have no right to jeopardize our child’s life like this! Especially with all the sacrifices I’ve made to make it happen!” He was standing right behind her now, shouting into her ear. She very calmly opened the cupboard, took the bourbon out, and drank straight from the bottle. She turned to face him. “I haven’t just been sitting at home drinking,” she told him. “I’ve been going to a roadhouse in the Lower Ninth Ward.” Ed stared, took a step back, put his hands on his hips. His mouth was agape. Anna sighed. “And it’s not our baby,” she said. “It’s not yours.” Ed continued to stare. He closed his mouth and clenched his jaw. His face was now contorted with fury. He balled his fists and closed his eyes. “No,” he growled. “Yes,” Anna whispered. “A black man named Earl. A musician.” She closed her eyes. She squeezed them shut. She shed a single tear. Ed was still and silent for a heartbeat, then leaned back and slapped her across the cheek with all the strength his left hand could muster. Anna staggered back and bumped into the kitchen counter, and Ed immediately followed up with a right cross directly into Anna’s nose. The immediate sting, the flash of stars she saw before her eyes, and the way her whole face swelled up with tears and blood, felt, at that moment, the most perfect and appropriate sensation, the culmination of the previous eight months’ guilt and shame, a reflexive and involuntary physical emotion, like the morning sickness she’d suffered since her own mortal sin began to grow inside her. She slumped to the floor and leaned against the cabinets, clutching her nose as it dribbled blood all over her nightshirt. Ed stood for a moment, breathing heavily, with his hands clenched, before he spun on his heel and left. On his way out, he flipped the living room table over, shattering the antique teacup Anna had been drinking bourbon out of and breaking the bulb overhead. The room plunged into darkness as Ed burst through the screen door and strode out into the night. Anna lay on her side in the fetal position, still clutching her broken nose. She savored the sting. Off in the distance, she heard Ed let out an anguished howl. * * * Les trudged from Pork Chop Willie’s that night, horn slung over his back, toward the northbound trolley stop. Every few houses he passed had jazz playing throughout, the inhabitants taking care that the music could be heard from the street. He reached the Gretna trolley short of breath and with aching knees and he stopped at the bottom of the steps leaning against the doorframe to catch his breath. After trying to fill his lungs a few times, he looked up into the face of the black teenage boy operating the car. He stared back at Les with a lazy eye, dumbly, expecting Les to hop on. “Midnight ride, mister,” the kid said. “Last one til four a.m. You coming?” Les hauled his hulking frame up the steps and plopped down in the first seat. He was the only passenger again. He pictured Anna’s hickory walking stick, heavily shellacked, with the ornate designs carved into the handle. He reached into his back pocket, took out his handkerchief, and coughed deeply several times. Droplets of pink mist soaked into the fabric. * * * Anna peeled the cold, wet washcloth away from her nose and looked at it. Deep red stains bordered by light pink saturated the cloth like a Bolshevik inkblot test. She dropped the cloth on the counter, walked into the bathroom, and switched the light on. She hardly recognized her own reflection. Her nose had swollen like a gray, rotten potato and deep purple bags framed the undersides of both her eyes. She bit her lower lip as she studied the damage, then flipped open the medicine cabinet it disgust. The pathetic countenance of shame and pain staring back at her disappeared from her sight and she was left staring at the bottles of ointment and pills upon the shelves, lined up like a jury of her peers. She took Ed’s sedatives from the chest and shook the bottle. Several pills rattled around inside. She poured the contents out into her hand and stared at the seven capsules, plastic sheaths filled with grayish-white powder. She put them all in her mouth, picked up a glass of water, and drank the whole thing. The bloodline would die with her. She walked into the bedroom and laid down in bed. * * * Les trudged along Elmira Street just before dawn. The whole neighborhood was completely silent, lit only by the glow of the full moon. He hunched over against the suddenly considerable weight of his tenor sax, scanning the front of each house as carefully as he could in the dark as he walked by. The moon had been so bright the night he and his fellow Buffalo Soldiers took San Juan, and he remembered standing watch on top of a parapet, his sharp young eyes scanning the distance. It was the first thing outside of New Orleans he had seen, and if the rest of the world was as fast-paced and exciting and challenging as what he’d seen that day, he figured he could make something of himself in this world after all. But then he’d come back, come “home,” as it were, to a country that felt more with each passing year like a prison. And real life was nothing like war, either. Anything didn’t “go;” no one walked you through the challenges and told you exactly what you needed to do to overcome them; your needs weren’t taken care of with no questions asked; and you were given none of the same considerations that the white soldiers you’d killed and died with were given. He’d spent two months at war, but it felt like he’d spent most of his life there, and he’d yearned for that thrill and freedom and guidance and glory ever since, and the rest of his life, before and since, was nothing more than an afterthought. The part of his life steeped in combat had pinpointed objectives: take that dune, take out those scouts, take the beach, take their fort. Take this island. Take it for America. He’d done all of that taking for the white man. And he’d spent the rest of his life trying only to take his own place in the world. Up ahead, he saw a small wooden house with a single light on in a room near the back. It was the only house on the street with any sign of life. Les walked up to it, massaging the cramp in his side, and saw a pair of work boots sitting on the porch next to a tall wooden hickory stick. * * * The first deep purple hem of daylight was appearing in the east as Earl reached the trolley. He put one foot on the first step and looked at the elderly driver. “You going to Gretna, old man?” Earl asked. The driver nodded without a word. Earl went to climb the steps, then thought for a second. “You had anyone else go this way tonight?” “I don’t know, man, this is my first ride,” the driver groaned. “Get on if you gettin’ on, already.” Earl sighed and climbed on. He passed an old white man in the first row. The man was leaning forward, barely conscious, with one hand gripping the pole. Earl took a seat in the back of the trolley. He had no wife, no girlfriend, no children. He had nothing that bound him in any way to this area. And yet, somehow, he felt this was his only home. He was approaching the age when it would almost be too late to settle down, and he’d never taken care of anyone but himself. He started to wonder if anything he did mattered. When he died, would he even have a legacy to speak of? Or might he as well never have existed at all? He wanted to do something that mattered for once. He wanted companionship and responsibility. He wanted an anchor. He wanted a family. He wanted a life. * * * Anna lay in bed on her back with her eyes closed and her hands folded across the bulge of her stomach. She was waiting for the release from the maelstrom her life had become, to be pulled above the wreckage she had made. She thought about her parents, her mother who had died giving birth to her, and her father who had been pulled apart by machinery at work when she was nineteen. Would she see them in the afterlife? Was she going to the same place? Was there any place to go? She thought of the unborn child that would die with her and for the first time in her life, she hoped not. She heard a thud out on the porch. She ignored it. Then she heard another thud and a grunt, and despite herself, and the minimal bearing whatever was happening had on what little was left of her life, she got up and walked to the front door. She opened the door and saw Ed, lying on his back, with his throat opened. He choked and gargled through his own blood, his mouth opening and closing, and his eyes wide with panic, staring directly into her own. His expression was not one of alarm, but of betrayal, and he and Anna both knew at that moment that she had put him there. The dark puddle of Ed’s blood pooled out on the wooden plank of the porch, then dripped through the cracks onto the ground underneath. Anna was about to scream when the blade of a hatchet smashed into her upper lip. It knocked out her two front teeth, and she staggered backwards into the room and fell onto the still overturned table. A large man’s frame appeared in the doorway. He walked slowly across the wooden floor and towered over Anna, holding the hatchet in one hand and a bootknife in the other. The moon shone through the doorway, and Anna couldn’t make out any features of the man’s face. There was only the complete blackness of the menacing hulk before her, intent on ending her. His breath came in shallow rasps, like the inhabitants of a city of phlegm were jockeying for position within his airways. He gave a loud, rasping cough through a tender throat and sprayed spit onto the floor beside him. Anna screamed, holding her hands up. Without a word, the man aimed a blow of the hatchet at her forehead. The dull blade smashed into her skull, fracturing the bones of her eye socket and opening up her scalp. The pain she felt at that moment was almost as immense as the panic, and as another blow connected with the swollen bridge of her once perfect nose, she lost consciousness and dropped into the sleep of the dead. * * * Gray darkness. Shadow. Whispers. The low, physical hum of opium coursing through forgotten limbs. Murmurs now. Indistinct. The formless undulation of movement just beyond the edge of consciousness. Anna’s awareness slowly spread back into her arms and hands. She wiggled the index finger she’d used to tap the rim of her port glass in Willie’s that night. That twitch was all she could manage. She lay still, exhausted, still practically comatose, as the soft, garbled sounds began to form into the occasional word, and then hushed conversations going on around her. “… stomach full of sleeping pills. Not enough to…” “Was she addicted?” “No. We think… possible suicide attempt… would’ve needed to take a lot more…” “… found by a man named Earl… Waiting downstairs for…” Anna fought her way through the warm, syrupy numbness of the painkillers to the surface. She weakly flexed her fingers and tried to open her eyes. Her eyelids were caked shut with mucus, but she managed to unstick one, then the other, and squinted through the daylight to see two people standing at the end of her bed. She gave a soft groan. “Mrs. Schneider,” came a man’s voice. “You’re awake.” “What happened?” Anna croaked. Her voice came out as a hoarse squeak and her throat was dry. “You’re at Charity Hospital,” the man said. “I’m Dr. Mariani. This is Nurse Fleming. What’s the last thing you remember?” Anna licked her dry, chapped lips and tried to swallow. “All of it,” she began. “I remember everything.” The two other people in the room were silent for a moment. Anna heard a door open slowly behind her, then shut softly. “You were attacked,” the doctor said. “You and your husband were attacked by a man with a hatchet.” “The Axman?” Anna asked. She squirmed feebly, trying to sit up, and opened her eyes a little wider. “What happened to Ed?” The two were silent for another moment. “I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “He didn’t make it. He lost too much blood and was found dead at the scene.” Anna didn’t cry. She didn’t react. She didn’t understand. She put her left hand up to her forehead and touched a thick patch of gauze that must have covered everything above her eyebrows. She gently worked her hand down her face and felt her splinted nose. She blinked her eyes feebly, and looked up at the doctor, whom she could see clearly now. He was a tall, handsomely tanned man with bushy black eyebrows and thick stubble. He stared back at her. The nurse had disappeared. Anna’s hands crept over to her belly. It still bulged, but felt like it had some give to it. She knew immediately something was wrong. “My… my baby?” Anna asked, her voice cracking. She was now able to feel the death of her husband and fear for the future. Doctor Mariani looked over at the door and gestured to someone through the window. Anna heard the door open, then shut softly again. The nurse stood behind her, and she held out with both hands what at first looked like a bundle of cloth. It was perfect. Holy. The nurse placed the bundle into Anna’s hands and she cradled it. Its plump cheeks ran in perfect contours up to its tiny little nose, which was no bigger than a chickpea. The blanket was swaddled up over its ears and only the doughy folds of its chin and neck were exposed. The eyes were shut tight and the baby made tiny, faint snoring sounds. The child’s face was so at peace it looked as though a chorus of angels sang it a lullabye and Saint Brigid herself had nursed it. Anna ran the back of the index finger that wasn’t hooked up to an I.V. along the child’s perfectly smooth, pink cheek. “It’s a girl,” the beaming nurse told Anna. Anna shed a single tear. Then she shed another. Then, as she looked at this cosmic extension of her own being, of the moral continuation and the very redemption of her own soul, something dropped out of the bottom of her chest. She wept. Quietly, at first, but the tears flowed more freely. She tried to suppress her shaking so as not to upset the child, and she held the baby’s cheeks up to her face and baptized it with her own tears. Anna cried harder, sobbing in short, panicked gasps, drooling on her own chin, and yet somehow managed to smile through the tears. “We’ll give you a moment,” the Doctor said. He and the nurse left the room. Anna looked down at the child again. She used her drinking finger to gently pull away the cloth around the side of her daughter’s head. She would name her Lessa. * * * Anna woke up that night to a hand laid gingerly on her shoulder. She looked toward the bedside and saw a dark figure leaning over to the gas lamp on the bedside table, and when it lit she saw Earl, holding a finger to his lips. She looked to the foot of her bed and saw Lessa sleeping. The baby did not stir. “Earl, how did you get in here?” Anna asked, her mouth gaping. She stared for a moment, then instinctually hugged him around the neck. “How did you find me?” “Oh, honey, I was scared to death. I thought I’d lost you when I found you there,” Earl said. He hesitated a moment, then hugged her again, tighter this time. Anna closed her eyes and wrapped herself in his embrace. “I meant…” Anna whispered, “I meant, how did you know where to find me?” Earl pulled back and looked her in the eyes. “Scoot told me,” he said. “Scoot?” Earl then looked at the bassinet, stood up, walked over and knelt down next to it. He studied the baby for a moment, then looked back up at Anna. “I can’t believe you were the one who found me,” Anna said. She wasn’t looking up at Earl, but ticking off a laundry list of the facts of the situation to herself. “Why did you come back to my house? What were you going to do?” “This kid ain’t mine,” Earl said. “Huh? Oh, no, she’s not,” Anna said. “I’m sorry I did that to you. I guess that changes things, doesn’t it?” “’She.’ It’s a girl,” Earl said. He leaned down and planted a gentle kiss on the child’s forehead. He stood up. “No, honey. It don’t change a thing.” Earl walked to the bedside, gave Anna’s shoulder a squeeze, sat down in the chair next to her, and went to sleep. * * * Les woke up, blinked, and stared at the white tiled ceiling above him. He laid on his back atop a metal cot, smaller and less comfortable than the one he’d had at boot camp as a young man. He tried to look around the large, dimly lit room in the basement of the hospital he was in, but he couldn’t lift his head. Around him, he could hear other people, in all directions, coughing, moaning, whimpering. “Nurse!” the man next to him wailed. “Nurse! Help me!” The man coughed feebly. “Water!” Les thought of getting up off the cot and walking out, but there was no way he could stand up. His legs were wrenched together with cramps, he couldn’t feel his arms at all. He was so wracked with fever his head felt like it was a sizzling lump of pork fat in a pan. He was having such trouble breathing that he almost passed back out, and although his throat was swollen with thirst, he couldn’t swallow. He rolled over the tiniest bit onto his right side and felt that, in his sleep, he’d shit himself. “Nurse!” his bedridden neighbor wailed again. “Help, goddammit!” Les had never been any more religious than skeptical, but he wondered what his scorecard would look like. If the good Lord was anything like he was told He was, surely He had a keen enough sense of justice to reproach the world for elevating one set of population above the level of chattel and not another, right? Thou shalt do no murder, Les thought, plain as the sun. He’d always told himself the people he killed were to avenge the plight of his race and his countrymen, to right the wrongs done by the public and the nation. What have I accomplished, really, though? White folks still got they own sections of town, tidy and clean, and we all stuck in whatever slums are left over. The whites still looked down on him. Not enough to keep him from playing in their clubs, of course, but they’d only let him perform what they thought of as a minstrel show, and damned if they’d let him eat in full view of the public. Not only would they not take him seriously as a musician, but he wouldn’t live to see the day that they’d respect him as a grown man. And a billion blows of the axe couldn’t change it. Now seemed as good a time to dispense with illusions of righteousness as any. He’d killed those people because he wanted to. He had hate in his heart, and it had been there since before he went to war. He’d killed for the sake of killing. “Now, now, just lay back,” he heard a soft female voice coo next to him. “Drink slowly.” He heard loud slurping sounds, as though from a ladle, and then coughing and sputtering. Trickles of cold sweat dripped from Les’ brow and he could feel his heart palpitating. No sense trying to backpedal now, he thought. Face the music. The soft, poorly defined features of a white face with jet-black hair loomed in his blurry field of vision. Les glanced in the face’s general direction. “How are you feeling, my child?” the old woman asked. Les could only give a rattling sigh. He heard the splashing of water in a bucket on the floor beside him, and then felt the immensely comforting sensation of a damp rag on his brow. The cool water trickled past his ear and soaked into his pillow. The woman worked the damp rag across his chest, soaking up his cold sweat and some of the fever along with it. At that moment Les realized that he was shirtless, and that it wasn’t black hair on the woman’s head but the habit of a nun. The nun ran the cloth along the nine parallel scars on his chest, starting with the bayonet wound. He remembered how, after his company had taken the hill at San Juan, he had strolled down to the beach, sweaty and covered in mud and blood and sand and gunpowder. His wound only gave him a dull ache and he felt exhilarated and proud and tired all at the same time. He’d dived into the surf, the water warm and salty and invigorating, and the salt had made his wound sting as it cleaned him out. He surfaced and came up face to face with a white soldier, around his age. They both looked at each other, grinning, and the white soldier filled his mouth with the Caribbean and sprayed it into Les’ face. Les had laughed and splashed water back at the boy. He could hear the nun whispering in his ear, but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. “Shhh,” the nun whispered, “lay back. It will all be okay. You’ve lived a pure life, my child. You will soon be at rest with the Lord.” She placed her greasy thumb on Les’ forehead and anointed him.