Lew Griffin is a survivor, a black man in New Orleans—a teacher, a writer, and an ex-detective. Having spent years finding others, he has lost his son—and himself in the process. Now a derelict has appeared in a New Orleans hospital claiming to be Lewis Griffin and toting a copy of one of Lew’s novels. Learning the truth is a quest that will take Griffin into his own past as he tries to deal with the present: a search for three missing young men.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The storm came in over the lake, bowing the shaggy heads of young trees and snapping branches off the old, blowing out of Metairie where the white folks live. In my own backyard a hundred-year-old water oak at last gave in, splitting in half as though a broadsword had struck it, opening like a book.
I sat with my back bent over the worn mahogany curb of the bar. A glass of bourbon sat before me, its outer surface smeared and greasy to the touch. A young roach circled water pooling about the glass.
Astonishingly, what had begun as a letter to an old friend, to Vicky in Paris, had become the opening pages of a novel. The first real writing I’d done in over four years, though a novel not so much new as reimagined. And so I had moved from lined legal pad and kitchen table to a long-neglected computer out here in the slave quarters behind the house.
I paused a moment, sipped at bourbon. It was midnight, it was raining. I glanced out the window and went on.
For a long time we were quiet. The man beside me raised his glass and drank. Traffic sounds fell from the freeway arching above us like a cement rainbow half a block away.
“Life is cruel, old friend, n’est-ce pas?”
His shoulders rose and fell in that peculiar shrug only the French, even Louisiana’s long-relocated French, seem able to bring off.
Boudleaux had come to tell me that my son was dead, needlessly, stupidly dead. Though in fact there had been no need to tell me. I had known from the way he entered, his pause in the doorway, light splaying its broad fingers on the bar, what message he brought. Probably I had known all along.
Again he shrugged. In the bar’s mirror, our two hands raised glasses, held them momentarily aloft. We watched as they moved towards one another. No sound: had they really touched?
It wasn’t bourbon in my glass, but non-alcoholic beer, Sharp’s. Four years since I’d done much real writing. Four years since I’d had a drink. Somewhere along the way, a lot earlier than I wanted to think about, alcohol’s smile had become a grin, then just bared teeth. Whole chunks of my life had fallen into that maw. Friends, intentions, memories, years.
“And nothing to help us but a few hard drinks and morning.”
He raised his hand for the barkeep.
Wind tore the door open then. Trailed by teenagers, a brass band playing “Some of These Days” passed in the street outside. The door swung shut. I heard the grill’s hiss from back in the kitchen, the click of billiard balls, automobile horns far away, a sports report from the radio beneath the bar. Upstairs, where there were apartments, a toilet flushed, and flushed again before its tank had a chance to refill. That sudden light had blinded us all. Now gradually the room, this stray, gray corner of the world, came back to us.
The phone rang.
I read the last line or two, keyed in ALT-F and S, and leaned over to turn down the volume on Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.” She a good ol’ gal, gonna lay there till Judgment Day. The computer chirred briefly to itself. Outside the window, a spindly orange spider coursed along a web that was visible one moment, invisible the next, as the spider’s motion carried it into and out of moonlight.
“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour.” A voice that sounded like a lot of my students. Young, not from New Orleans or the South, reluctant to release (in a way you sensed more than heard) the ends of words. “We’re trying to reach a Mr. Lewis Griffin. The author?”
“This is Lew. What can I do for you?”
“Excuse me, sir. You’re the one who wrote The Old Man?”
“I’m afraid so.” But it had gone permanently out of print, like many of our civil liberties, sometime during the Reagan-Bush dynasties.
“All right!” He turned to speak to someone, turned back. “This is kind of complicated.”
“Mr. Griffin, my name is Craig Parker. I’m a fourth-year medical student currently assigned to the emergency room at University Hospital.”
“That’s Hotel Dieu, right?”
“Used to be. Yes, sir. I guess people around here, lots of them, still call it that. What I wanted to tell you—Excuse me.” After a moment he came back. “Listen, this may be really off the wall, but we have a guy down here in Trauma One, a garbage truck backed over him. Driver says none of them ever even saw him. Hard to tell how much damage the truck did, anyway. He’d already been beat up pretty bad. Left there in the alley, the police figure.”
“This is someone I know? He told you to call me?”
“No, sir, he’s not able to tell us anything. We’re doing what we can. But it’s not looking good.”
“Then I don’t think I understand.”
“Yes, sir. Well, as I said, it’s complicated. And a real long shot. Excuse me a moment, sir.” Someone close by him spoke insistently. He responded, listened, responded again. Then he was back. “Sorry. Things are pretty hectic down here. All we need now’s—Shit! Mr. Griffin, can I call you right back? Two minutes, tops.”
It was closer to twenty. I sat watching the cursor blink on the screen before me, checked out the spider’s catch, listened to Blind Willie, Robert and Lonnie Johnson—blues night on WWOZ. I thought about Buster Robinson, dead, what, ten, twelve years now? Singing the refrain of “Going Back to Florida” in a club on Dryades when a bullet meant for someone else dissected his aorta and left him suspended forever on the seventh. I’d learned a lot from Buster. A lot about the blues. Later on, more important things.
“I do apologize,” the young man, Parker, said when he rang back. “Here’s what I called about. The guy I told you got run over, worked over before that, he’s a John Doe. Brought in with no name or ID. Nothing. But afterwards one of the nurses thought to look through his clothes piled in the corner and found a paperback book in his back pocket. Looks like it’s seen hard times same as he has. That, or he’s had it awhile.”
“The Old Man.”
“Yes, sir. There’s an inscription on the title page. ‘To David.’ Then something in Latin—”
Non enim possunt militares pueri dauco exducier. The sons of military men can’t be raised on carrots.
“—and your signature.”
Two hands, one of terror, another of hope, tore at my heart. “Can you tell me what your patient looks like?”
“Afro-American male, probably late twenties. Six feet or so, I’d say, maybe just over, and lean. Athletic build. Brown eyes, hair cut short. Maybe with a knife, from the look of it. Clothes ill-fitting, much-used, but cleaned not too far in the past. From one of the churches or missions, maybe.”
I reached out to shut the computer off. This was one thing I could do. One thing in the world that I had control over. The computer asked was I certain this was what I wanted to do. I hit N.
“Would it be possible for you to come down here and have a look, Mr. Griffin? Tell us if you know him?”
“All right,” I said, with little idea which I wanted, to know him, not to know him. I again hit ALT-F and X. Then Y for changes, and Y again to confirm my intention to leave Windowland.
The computer beeped once, twice, blinked out at me, shut its systems down.
Growing quiet at the same moment WWOZ and its announcer fell silent between songs.
“Just come to the triage desk out front, right inside the doors, and ask for me, Craig. Any idea when you might be getting here?”
“Depends on the cab situation. Within the hour, anyway.”
“Great. We really appreciate this, Mr. Griffin. See you shortly, then.”
Music gave way to public-service announcements. A music-and-books raffle at the local Unitarian-Universalist church. A Celtic Weekend two weeks hence. Free AIDS testing.
I finished my glass of Sharp’s, looking out at the nebula of spiderweb floating aslant in the darkness, then at the photo on the wall across from the desk.
It was the only thing in the room hinting towards any effort at decoration. Richard Garces had given it to me: a snapshot he’d taken of LaVerne when they worked together at Foucher Women’s Shelter, a month or so before she died. She’d stuck her head in the door to ask a question about one of his clients and been trapped there forever. Smiling and at the same time instinctively trying to turn her head away. A Verne I’d not known at all, really. Richard’s lover Eugene, successful fashion photographer by trade, starving fine-art photographer by inclination, had cropped and enlarged the snapshot.
For ten years, so long and often that I no longer really think about it, I’ve told this story to my students, Michelangelo’s definition of sculpture: You just take a block of marble and cut away whatever’s not part of the statue.
That’s what our lives do. Wear away what’s not part of the sculpture. Pare us down, if we’re lucky, to some kind of essential self.
Or to some hardened, unconsidering icon if we’re not.
LaVerne and I had met when we were both little more than children and had gone on chipping away, sometimes together, sometimes apart, most of our lives. No one had been more important to me; my life was inexorably linked with hers. And yet there was no one to whom I had been less kind, no one, among the many I had hurt, whom I had hurt more.