She hid things from me when she was young. LaDonna was secretive about everything, whether it was important or not.
She was one of those young people who thought they'd invented sex. She hung around at the bar and met musicians—she was all ready to marry one of them before a word come out of her mouth about him. All that work to give my children an education, and they never finished.
She thinks she's a hard girl, but I know she's sentimental. She thinks she takes after her daddy, and she do—she's soft like he was. What could make a girl with a college education come back to run her father's bar like that? I loved him for his soft heart and I don't think bad of her for trying to be like him. Nor for hiding from me. Hiding was something I always did from my own mama. I know about hiding.
This is the first time I can recall knowing she was hiding something from me for my own good rather than for hers. I knew what the news had to be. A woman in her forties doesn't sleep when she has a secret, not like a girl of 20 trying to hide she's sneaking around. My daughter don't eat, neither. I knew she had to tell me, that I couldn't tell her I knew, and I just waited, my heart all laden with sorrow for my children. Sorrow for my boy, my darling David, who was surely dead.
Lord, my heart might stop on those words, even now after it's all a certainty and him properly buried. There's some way, I wouldn't be sorry if I had died when I heard, so that I would never have to think it again. There is something wrong with this world, a mother burying her child.
I'm sorry too for my girl, eating herself up inside, nothing but love for me, the complicated love a woman has for her old mother. I wanted to tell her, "And who raised you, now, that you think I'm suddenly so weak?" In what soil did she think she'd sprung. She didn't get this from her daddy. She must know he was a soft man, like her two husbands, both soft men.
She must think I'm old, to try to spare me this sort of news.
She don't know about my cousin, the one who died years ago in Mississippi when the Klan was killing any black man who might join the NAACP—anyone independent, any man of means. He broke ground for a house over there, aimed to build his own place, and a week later, they found his body in the road.
No one could call it a lynching when the police said it was a robbery. No one could prove anything. The police are never any help when it's a black man, and a lot of them were in the Klan at any rate. My mother's people still live in that part of Mississippi.
I'm not sure what she was hiding from me, what she thought it would do. The boy is still dead. There was no sparing me that, no matter how long she kept it hid.
The way LaDonna pronounces the words "my mother" is an argument that requires no verb. It's just the way Creighton says "New Orleans,"—weighty syllables that just prove his point. When she says "my mother," she believes she doesn't have to say why she decides what she decides—why she refused an autopsy for her brother Daymo.
I think of myself as a disciplined woman. The study of law should do that. There is no discipline sufficient to forcing Cray into the past tense. Eventually I'll be able to do it, to think about him without the air leaving my lungs suddenly, without the small, nearly inaudible gasp. I just have to steer my mind back to the problem of LaDonna's brother.
She's dancing in the second line after Daymo's burial and the trumpets are a judgment, battering her sad ears. The brass yells a bright defiance of death again, for every death is the promise of a resurrection. Except my own dear love, who lies full fathom five, bones of coral, food for the catfish, fuck you Cray, fuck you, you fucking fuck.
I start laughing at myself and then I'm crying a little, just a little. It is a funeral, after all. I denied Cray his second line. It's crazy to feel guilty. What would it be like for Sofia to have a second line for Daddy? My poor baby.
LaDonna starts to dance. She sways elegantly like a flower on a long stem. I can see her relief in every gliding step. Fuck you death, fuck you and the ugly horse you rode in on, we are going to dance this man to his rest.
This is why I do what I do. It's for justice, yes, but I have to remember that it's also for the families. Even though I couldn't persuade LaDonna to seek the truth of her brother's death, to press charges against the police department and the jails, the family has resolution. He's found, he's buried, he's gone home.
I wish I could persuade myself this was all we could do.
It's Monday afternoon at my mama's house, a week after Daymo's funeral. I'm just pulling my things together to go to the bar, when she said something that made me jump.
"I called my cousin Irene in Mississippi and she said we should call the newspaper."
"Mama. You want to go to the newspaper?"
"Did you see about the case of that old Klansman in Mississippi? I clipped the article for you."
"Forty years after the murder, the old man gets a manslaughter conviction. And what did the newspaper have to do with it?"
"Everything! They would have let the murderer die of old age. They wanted to. You know what those Mississippi crackers are like. The newspaper pressured them into it."
"I read those stories. Edgar Ray Killen wasn't the only murderer, and the rest of them, the police, the Klan, got away with it."
"Irene says it's the only way to get justice. That's what she's doing. She's got a reporter from all the way over in Jackson, trying to find out what happened to Robert."
"Robert was my mother's first cousin, lived in Jefferson County. He got shot coming home from work one night. The family always thought it was the Klan."
"Why have I never heard this story before?"
My mother makes a ladylike approximation of a shrug.
"Mama, we know how Daymo died." Just about.
"You do? How do you know? I thought the police had no record." She's looking at me with scary focus. Oh, I do not like that look.
The doorbell rang and I jump up. "That's Ms. Bernette," my mother said. "I invited her by."
"Why did you…"
"I asked her to bring the files about your brother so that I could learn what you all did."
"Mama, I didn't want you to see…Hi Toni."
"Hi, LaDonna, Mrs. Brooks."
"Thank you so much for coming." My mother! Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
"It was not necessary," I say.
"I want to ask Miz Bernette about something," my mother says. Now she's assertive. Toni looks surprisingly glad to be of use.
"Please, Mrs. Brooks," she says.
"I want to talk to a reporter from the Times-Picayune about David," my mother says. "You've seen they are writing stories about all the suspicious deaths during the flood."
"I don't see what good that would do!"
Toni passes the folder. We each take a chair next to my mother at the dining room table. Now I understood why there was a lace tablecloth over the usual oilcloth cover. It seemed so incongruous in the heat, but my mother likes things to be proper.
Toni has to explain the trip to Texas and how she stole the citation the cop had written about Daymo from the police car. My mother nods.
"How did my son die," my mother started to ask, and I put up my hand.
"We don't know precisely, Mrs. Brooks," Toni says.
"In your opinion," my mother says, "In your opinion, would it be a good idea to talk with a reporter?"
"Yes," Toni says. "I think it would. I would like to see this story get out.
"You are not having my brother exhumed," I say.
"Exhumed!" My mother looks horrified.
"We could have had an autopsy," Toni says, "And that's probably what should have happened anyway, with a mysterious death in police custody, but we would have had to fight for it. I'm not sure at this stage whether it would make a difference. By the time we found the, the body, there was a lot of deterioration. I'm sorry."
My mother looks at the photograph of Daymo, the one I never wanted her to see, of his body, and gasps a little. I put a hand on her arm. She turns it over.
"I don't need any medicine," she says. "I'm fine." It's a lie. The worst has already happened and she will never be fine again. But her color is good and she's breathing normally. She collects herself. We both sit and watch her, as though our will can keep her whole. "Do we need an autopsy to find out what happened to my boy?"
"We have enough proof for a reporter, and it's not like this is going to go to trial. I can't be associated with the article… I have to be able to work with the police department to find other missing sons—people."
That slip told me something I hadn't heard in all of my conversations with this woman. Some people believe in laws or justice or the basic decency of human beings. I thought that was Toni Bernette. I had no idea—nor would I have cared, I think, until now—that she was in this for us, and not for an abstraction. I thought her look was pity or condescension. No, it was just the unfortunate white lady version of an expression of compassion or fellow feeling. Or perhaps now she has that fellow feeling, because of her husband.
My mother puts her hand over Toni's. "Thank you," she says. "I know you've had your own loss. Thank you for coming here today."
Toni, who managed to stay calm even when we were looking at corpses, tears up. "I'm sorry, " she says, and finds a handkerchief in her bag to dab at her eyes. "I know just who you should call. There's a city editor, Gordon Russell, a good friend of my hus—a good friend of mine. Wait—" She takes out her cell phone and finds the number, and then writes it on the back of one of her business cards. "Don’t tell him I said to call, though, all right?"
"If we mention you," I begin to ask, and she says, "It'll be fine, he's my friend, he'll call me for a quote."
"Can any good come out of this? I don't want the police coming down to harass my mother."
Toni nods. "I think it's the right thing to do," she says.