In keeping with the Easter season, another excerpt from my novel Galilee. References to the character May will come clear at the end of the excerpt.
The Vidalia debacle spared Peter any more detours. He and George and the green Buick made good time through southwestern Mississippi, and then curled their way through back roads south to Bay St. Louis. It was a little after nine o’clock in the evening when they arrived. They drove the few blocks that qualified as its business district and came to a dead end at a peevish stretch of sand and the Gulf of Mexico. Peter turned off the car’s ignition and rolled down his window to the slap of surf in the dark. George, surfside, opened his door to let in the sea breeze, what little there was.
“Could a town be any deader than this?” said Peter.
“I’ve seen more action at the Blue Mountain when we’re closed for the night,” said George. He was bent over and scuffing the running shoes off his feet.
“Fancy a swim there, George?”
“Just a wade, my brother. Just a wade. How about you?”
They trudged through the sand down past a half dozen boats strewn in the sand like toys left in a front yard overnight, an attitude long lost to the bigger cities east and west of the little burg. The cuffs of Peter’s jeans were soaked in Gulf water before he remembered that he’d left his car keys in the ignition. George was peeled to his boxers and about to baptize himself another thirty feet out.
Peter walked back and sat down on the hull of a catamaran parked in the sand. He dug his toes in and watched George flailing out in the water like a whale calf cavorting for the first time without its mama. Even his twenty minutes in the wading pool had stirred up a fierce hunger in him all of a sudden. He wondered if they’d be able to find anything to eat, or if they’d have to drive east to Gulfport and the insomniac casinos.
George walked up and sat down on the other hull of the cat. He was still in his boxers, the rest of his clothes folded up under his left arm.
“Powerful hungry, Pete. Powerful. What do you think? Any chance of a place for food around here? What say we walk around a bit and see what we can find?”
“Would that be before or after you climb back into those clothes?”
East of the car seemed to curve into trees; west seemed more likely to have something up its sleeve, if only dimly. A quarter of a mile down the beach road, they walked up onto the grounds of Saint Stanislaus College for Boys, as proclaimed by a sign with an arrow pointing inland.
“Never heard of him,” said George. “Let’s hope he’s one of those hospitality saints.”
“What the hell saint wouldn’t be?” said Peter.
“Oh, I’ve heard of some nasties. It’s your ladies you’re more likely to count on. Some of the boys were just rodents.”
“Like you’d know,” said Peter.
An old man was sitting in a lawn chair under the covered porch of a building that looked like a wooden barracks that had seen better days. He leaned over a trio of kittens drinking from a saucer of milk. Smiled as the men walked up. What they took at first for a friar’s cassock was just a drab brown robe open to a massive belly and a pair of polka dot boxers. Big bare feet that looked sandblasted by years of combing the beach.
“Broke down?” said the man, in an accent that Peter placed as Polish, without really knowing how or why.
“Just hungry,” said George.
“You come to the right place, then. You know what the cats know, yes? Polycarp is big dinner.”
Confused, Peter said, “Not sure we were looking for fish—”
The bearish man roared his amusement, and clapped Peter on the back. “Ha! Not looking for fish. I like that. No, Mój Brat. Polycarp is not fish. Is my name. Means ‘much fruit.’ You like fruit, yes? Come, I have much to serve you. And don’t worry. For tonight, Polycarp can mean ‘much chicken fried steak,’ too.” He headed into the door behind him and then stopped and looked back, frowning. “You are Christians, mój brata?”
Peter and George looked at each other, not sure what answer would gain them admission. Polycarp watched their hesitation and again laughed his approval.
“Boys. Please, come in. If you are Christians, I am thinking I must make myself decent. Christs you are—I can see that, as are all travelers. My Lord would not care what his fool looks like, but these American Christians—so huffety they are. For you, I keep the dog collar off. Come.”
He ushered them into a gleaming kitchen that belied the rickety state of the building’s exterior. Big silver industrial refrigerators and stove, and polished pots and pans hanging from racks above their heads. Polycarp pointed to a large table and said, “Please, mój brata, sit.”
True to his name, fruit appeared first at the table—strawberries, mangoes, oranges, and pears. Then salad—hunks of romaine and tomatoes with crumbled gorgonzola. The good friar skipped the appetizers, but sat down to join them with his own plate-sized fried steak, smothered beneath a Gulf’s worth of cream gravy.
After a huge forkful of meat and gravy, he said, “In beginning, I’m not so sure why God calls me to this New World of Mississippi. Heat is beastly, beaches full of gamblers—what does this have to do with me, I want to know of God? I am none too pleased with my Holy Father, and then, about three months after my arrival, I am sent to McComb, Mississippi to pick up young boy who is terrorizing his town. Pyromaniac is the word, yes? He would set fire to his mother if he has half a chance. On ride back, hungry he is, tells me stop off at truck stop in Fernwood, just south of town. ‘Best chicken fried steak in the world, Father,’ he says to me. I don’t know chicken fried nothing from hole in wall, but I stop. By meal’s end, I am chicken fried convert, and he is chicken fried Christ convert. Never a peep out of him over here, never so much as a burning match. Not even as my acolyte will he so much as light the candles. Graduates first in his class here, goes on to Washington University up in St. Louis. Summa cum laude in mathematics. All glory to God because I get him out from under a stinking stepfather who beats him with three inch wide strap daily. And me, mój brata? All glory to God as I grow fat.”
George groaned and pushed back from the table.
“I’ve hurt myself, Father,” he said.
Polycarp beamed, pleased with his hospitality.
“Coffee, boys? Is mean coffee with chicory from New Orleans.”
Both men waved him off. Peter got up do the dishes. George dried, while Poly sat back with his bare feet up on the table and with a finger licked his plate clean.
The kitchen restored, Poly stood and said, “Now we swim.”
“We’ve already been out in the gulf,” said George.
“Bath water,” said the priest. “Come.”
At the deep end of an Olympic-sized pool, Poly tossed robe and boxers onto a metal bench. “No cheating, mój brata—it all comes off.” Into the water jumped the old grey whale. He was halfway down the length of the pool when Peter and George were stunned by the ice cold water they leaped into.
The travelers were blue after their ablutions, shivering in the night air. Poly was radiant. He herded them across the campus to his apartment in one of the boys’ dormitories. Not a peep down the long halls.
“Awfully quiet for a zoo full of boys,” said George.
“Spring break,” said Poly. “I run them all out of here, so I can have place to myself. Me and the cats.”
Inside the apartment, he tossed towels and blankets at his guests, then wrapped a beach towel around his enormous girth and flopped down onto a naugehyde recliner.
“So, mój brata. What brings you to the bay? I am not thinking you are here for St. Stanislaus. You look more like gamblers to me, but then there are no casinos here. So, what give?”
“We’re looking for a man,” said Peter.
“Police, mój brata? I’m sorry, boys, but you are not looking like policja.”
“No, no, nothing like that,” said Peter. “We’re looking for someone’s father.”
“Good Christian knows his Father is always with him. What’s to look?”
“Someone’s earthly father, Poly.”
George broke in on the theology lecture and said, “Know a Kyle Lewis, by any chance, Poly?”
Polycarp sat up in the recliner and started picking at the big toenail of his right foot. After peeling away a barnacled sliver and tossing it across the room, he said, “Kyle? He is good man. I see him at mass every Sundays. Which of you he is father to?”
Peter laughed and said, “Not us, Poly. A young girl, a little over two years old.”
Poly shook his head. “I am not knowing Kyle to travel the last couple of years, but you never know what is going on in breast of man. You want, I will take you to him.”
“A little late, eh, Poly?” said Peter. “We can wait till morning.”
“Better now, mój brat. Kyle Lewis is sowa. Night owl.”
214 Lambert Street was about a mile and a half from the campus, but Poly insisted on walking there, the better to digest the dinosaur-sized slabs of fried meat he had fed them. Peter and George put their traveling clothes back on; Poly cinched up his robe again and slipped into a pair of leather sandals. Two police cars slowed down at sight of the three pedestrians, but honked their horns and sped off when Poly whistled at them and shouted blessings.
“You sure it’s okay to drop in on Mr. Lewis, Poly?” said Peter. “Seems awfully late.”
“If I know Kyle, he is sleeping over Bible.”
“Religious man,” said George. “That bodes well.”
“Bodes well for what?” said Poly. “Religious mens is often the worst. I got no time for religious mens. Kyle Lewis, he is good man.”
Lambert Street was a tiny cul de sac off Cedar Street, three or four cottages behind big hedges of legustrums. 214 was at the far end; not a light burned in the street or in any of the houses.
The yard in front of 214 was a veritable junk yard. Poly navigated its contents effortlessly, while Peter and George barked their shins several times from the street to the front porch.
As Poly pounded on the door, Peter hissed, “Dammit, Poly, there’s not a soul awake—”
“Hot damn, Polycarp,” said a ghost at the front door. “I was sleeping over my Bible. What the hell can I do for you, you old codger?”
“Not me, Kyle. These mens, they have news from your daughter.”
“Goddamn, now don’t that beat all, Poly. I told Kitty my answer was final. I ain’t sellin’ this house to her and Luke just so they can beat some goddamned tax when I croak.”
Peter cut in, “It’s not Kitty we’re here about, Mr. Lewis. As far as I know, you don’t know about this child—not yet, anyway.”
The big hoot owl in the giant pine tree behind Kyle Lewis’ house could have cut the silence that followed with its razor sharp talon. After a few minutes of silence, the ghost in the doorway blew out a long breath, with a tiny whimper tacked on at the end.
“Goddamn, Polycarp. So it’s come to this, has it? I always feared it would. Things has a way of coming back around no matter how far you run, you know that, you old snapper?” The man backed away from the doorway and said, “Sorry, boys. I’m being an awful host. Y’all come on in and take a load off.”
Peter blessed May and heard her laughter ricochet off the walls of his skull. He and George barked their shins a few more times into the house, and then followed Poly down the hallway into a kitchen where Kyle Lewis turned on the light. As Peter entered the kitchen and glanced at the man sitting at the table, he heard May laughing like a madwoman.
“I’ll be goddamned,” said Peter.
The old wrinkled man at the table, easily in his eighties and with an awfully precarious hold at that, nodded and said, “I know, I know. Don’t I know, boys. Y’all have a seat. Poly, you up to some coffee for these gentlemen? I think I’ve even got some of them vanilla wafers if you want to lay them out on a plate.” He nodded at Peter as he sat down and then looked George in the eye and started his confession.
“I know it wasn’t right, denying Krystal all these years. Her and that little redheaded baby, hell of course I could see she was mine, I had no call to deny the both of them. God knows I loved that woman ten thousand times more than that goddamned shrew I was married to, but Godamighty I was a small man in those days, oh so cowardly, and for a simple Mississippi country boy with not much to look forward to, I was making some damned good money over at the shipyard in Pascagoula. Christ, that money was better than I’d hoped to make in a lifetime, all because my daddy had the foresight to fill my head with everything he knew about electricity and welding. When I went home to Katherine all broke down and shameful and told her about that sweet little redheaded baby, she calmly stood up, walked into our bedroom and moved every last shred of me into the guest bedroom of our house, then walked back into the living room and in her acid bath voice proceeded to tell me that if I so much as breathed another word about that bastard child and her whore mother, she would have my job and my balls, and would make goddamned sure that I never worked above slave wages again for the rest of my life. Her daddy being one of the muckety mucks over at Ingalls, I knew she meant it, and could do it, too.”
Peter tried to cut in at this point, but Kyle Lewis cut back in first.
“The shame of it, boys, the godamighty sinful shame of it was that, beautiful as that little redheaded baby diamond was, and as sweet as that mother of hers was, I was too goddamned selfish and scared to call that goddamned woman’s bluff, to say to hell with her goddamned threats, I was a man and I wouldn’t take any of her bullshit, she could do whatever the hell she wanted, I knew where my heart and home was, and it sure as hell wasn’t here at 214 Lambert Street, but sweet Jesus, that just wasn’t me and that goddamned shrew knew it, she knew just what kind of a screwworm I was, and knew that, much as I may have claimed to love those two sweet gemstones, I was at heart a weak and selfish man, and I craved and lusted after Mammon way more than after the soft body of a sweet woman and her child.”
George went for the interception this time, but Kyle Lewis left him in the dust, too.
“So, boys, I may be a puking old man with not much left to heave, but you tell me where that sweet baby is, and her mother too if she’s still living, and I’ll do all I can to make what I can up to her. A sniveling man likely can’t do much to make things right, but I’m happy to do something. Looks like Poly here hasn’t had me snoring over my Bible for nothing after all.”
There was a light in the man’s eyes that Poly had never seen before as he sat expectantly waiting his chance of deliverance from the two strangers.
Peter was torn between an inner seething with tendrils all the way across the Mississippi River to May’s scorched fiefdom and sweet sympathy for the old man’s hopeful desolation, a quandary that left him lockjawed at best. George, with nothing readily at stake in Peter’s mad quest, came to the rescue.
“Mr. Lewis,” he said, “I’m sorry to tell you that I believe we have a case of mistaken identity here.”
“No, no, boys, it’s okay, no reason to protect me now—”
“No, Mr. Lewis, you see, the man we’re looking for fathered a little girl just two years ago. He’s got the same name as yours, but I’m afraid this isn’t your baby.”
Poly watched the hopeful desolation on the face of his parishioner drain away to the pain he’d seen ever since the broken man first showed himself in the back pews at Stanislaus. He set a cup of coffee in front of the man and put his big beefy arm around him.
Looking at the old man’s face, Peter felt sufficiently dislodged from his anger at May to feel the sadness that was creeping back into the room.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Lewis,” he said. “I wish we hadn’t barged into your life like this.”
Kyle Lewis sat up straight in his chair and folded his hands around the coffee cup in front of him. Poly tapped him gently on the shoulder and stepped back away from the table.
“No, sir, that’s not the way we’re gonna have it,” said the old man. “That’s not it.” He stood up and gripped the back of his chair and said, “Y’all just wait right here a moment, if you would.”
He was gone from the room for about fifteen minutes. The men in the kitchen listened as he climbed the stairs to his second floor, then heard a large object being dragged across a floor. A couple of snaps opening sounded like the locks on an old trunk. Sounds of rummaging followed, and then footsteps down the stairs.
Mr. Lewis sat back down at the table and slid an envelope across the table to Peter. Inside was a lock of bright red hair and two old crumpled black and white photographs of a smiling baby. Clouded behind her on a couch was a young smiling woman as well.
“The hellbitch that ran this house got just about everything she could out of me that was worth saving, but she never managed to find these. It ain’t much, but it managed to keep a tiny part of me alive.”
Polycarp peeked over Peter’s shoulder and said, “That’s a Madonna and child, good Christian mens. Anyone can see that.”
Peter nodded his assent. “She’s a beauty alright, Kyle. She and her mama both. It’s a shame—”
“Shame is exactly what it is, boys. Godamighty shame.” The old man slid another envelope Peter’s way. A sturdy stack of crisp one hundred dollar bills lay under its flap. In all his days at Stella’s café, he had never seen such a stack.
“Ten thousand dollars for that baby when you find her father. You do that for me.”
“Kyle,” said Peter. “We can’t take this. You certainly need this more—”
“Son, I got no need of this. Look around you. I got no need of any of this. I’m heading out of here any day now, you know, boy? Got on my traveling shoes. What’s an old man got to do with such trifles?”
“Believe me, Kyle, this little two year old’s got all she needs.”
“Ain’t got her father now, does she?”
Flame burned Peter’s face. A firm hand gripped his shoulder.
“One thing I know of my brother here, good mens,” said Poly, “is that what he says he always means. There is no taking the money back. You must take it.” He picked up the envelope and slipped it into Peter’s shirt pocket. “Now, is time we go. Kyle, my brother, thank you for blessing us here in your house. I pray for you and your lost family. I think out on the world they are still loving you.”
“I doubt that, old Poly, but a man can dream. Y’all be careful out there, and drop me a line when that baby’s daddy gets found. You scare him up soon’s you can.”
On the walk back to Stanislaus, Peter slapped Poly’s arm with the envelope.
“Here,” he said. “I’m sure Stanislaus can do something with this.”
“What are you, evil mans? You hear brother Kyle. That is money for baby. You are nothing but steward, that is not yours to give.”
“I’m telling you, that baby has—”
A firm hand crushed Peter’s outstretched hand.
“Look here, little man. Don’t play around with old men’s dreams.”
Back at the campus, Poly headed up the stairs to his apartment.
Peter and George stayed behind at the foot of the stairs.
“Poly,” said Peter, “I think we’ll head on out.”
“What is this? Is very late, boys. You sleep in dorm, I make you big breakfast, big pots of coffee, you be on your way. Leave now is nonsense.”
Peter resisted. “Thanks, but no thanks, Poly. You’ve been a blessing to us, but I’m all rattled up and ready to go. I couldn’t sleep now if I wanted to.”
Dawn was just breaking when they pulled up to May’s rattletrap. She sat on the front porch, shelling peas into a big black pot. Sly grin on her face as the men walked up.
Peter dropped the envelope onto a crate beside her chair; it wobbled a Mason jar full of dark tea.
“What’s that?” said May.
“No call for fees. What’d you find?”
“Found an old man shipwrecked with grief. He wanted you to have this.”
“Gas ain’t cheap like it used to be, May.”
“That supposed to mean?”
“Was there a reason you sent us to the wrong man?”
She put a handful of peas in her mouth and crunched.
“Who said anything about wrong?”
“You were about forty years off the mark.”
“Man have a lost baby?”
“Forty years ago, the man had a lost—”
“Nuff said. What difference does the time make? Now pick up the money. What I need with money?” She looked out on her scorched earth like she was looking at Tara in all its glory. “God give me all I ever need.”
“He could at least have given you a few shade trees.”
“I got all the shade in my soul a child of God could ever need. Now pick up that damn money. It’s soiling my front porch.”
Peter picked up the money and stuffed it back into his pocket. He nodded to George and they stepped off the porch, heading back to the car.
A thrash of pea pods hit Peter in the back of the head.
“Just where the hell do you think you boys is off to anyway? You got a hot tip?”
Peter turned around. “I’m not interested in any more games, May. I don’t mind looking for this baby’s daddy—”
“The hell you don’t.”
“The hell I what? You send me off on a wild goose chase and you have the nerve to pretend to know what the hell is going on inside my head?”
“Who said anything about wild geese?”
“He wasn’t the man, May. He wasn’t—”
“Of course, he wasn’t the man, but your face is still burning.”
“Burning from what, pray tell?”
“From what the old man said.”
“Oh, you were there, were you? I didn’t notice you in the back seat.”
“Hell no, I wasn’t there. I ain’t got to be there to hear, now do I? You tell me what the old man said that burned your face.”
Peter turned to go. “I haven’t got time for this.”
The old woman growled, in the old grizzled man’s voice: “Ain’t got her father now, does she?”
His face flamed again. Why did this matter so much? He knew he wasn’t Darcy’s father, but something seared him to the bone that he somehow wasn’t getting full credit for it. He teared up, shamefully he thought, and looked off across May’s ashen hell of a plantation.
May’s voice turned soft as honey. “You boys need to come and sit a spell, let May pour you some of this here tea. Get out the sun, too. Gonna be a scorcher.”
They watched the clouds build up out of the south, black to match the landscape. The heavens broke around noon as they sat on the porch and soaked up the cool air.
“I never could do weather,” said May. “Gripes my ass to this day.”
Peter could feel the words buzzing around in his mouth like a swarm of bees. May clunked him with another shower of peas.
“But, I can sure do insolence in a man, when I hear it,” she said.
“I was just going to say—”
“Think I don’t know what you was gonna say? You need to get this straight: I may have sent you to another man, but I did not send you to the wrong one. You oughta know by now, God’s road ain’t always a straight one.”
“Nor May’s,” said an emboldened George, sitting bolt upright and shining from May’s black tea. He, too, was showered with a rain of peas.