Page 2 of Dreadful Skin

But that wasn't what I heard.



I got an idea, though—one that made me want to find a teacher who'd show me the letters good enough to write them, and I'd write a book. Not a story book, and not a book for learning by, but a book for cooking with.



A woman told me there were opportunities for women who could cook. She said that without any slaves, the white women had to go into their own kitchens, and they didn't know what to do. They needed someone to tell them.




So I thought, I could tell them.



I could write a book and I could fill it up with my mama's recipes. I could put in the pies and the breakfast hash, and the right way to make grits without turning them soggy. I could tell them how to make chicken fry up nice and crunchy, but wet and dripping good in the middle. And maybe, if my grandmother was still alive down there, maybe she could tell me some of the ways they made food back in Africa, too. She didn't come from there, but her daddy did, and she used to say she knew. So I could ask her.



But I'd need to know my letters better, first.



And I got wind of a possibility. I heard maybe that if you could work a kitchen good, there were boats you could ride. You could work for the people on the boats, the ones that carried things along the rivers. People rode them like floating hotels.



Someone had to do the cooking for the workers. Someone had to run the kitchens.



It took me a year to work my way down to it. It took one more winter up in the city, and I swear, I thought I'd die.



I was aiming for the Mississippi River. I wanted to work one of the big riverboats that went back and forth, from the top of the country to the bottom. I thought that'd be grand, and I could work my way home while making some money.



It didn't work out the way I expected. I got my start farther east, on the Ohio River instead, and that was all right too, I thought. I'd get some experience on the smaller boats. It took me another year, but I found my way down to the Tennessee.



I found my way to the Mary Byrd.



I did the dishes there, and did some of the cooking too—though I had some help for that, a fat, quiet man with all the shine and color of boot polish. He never talked to me except to give me something to do, and I was all right with that. When first I saw him, I figured he was the kind of man who'll give a woman trouble if he thinks he can get away with it.



I been wrong before, though. He never gave me trouble.



He was a good cook, too; he made food like the kind my grandmother did. We always had potatoes, because they store pretty good, and he loaded them up with butter and sour cream if he had time to get them when we stopped. Over the stove he kept a cardboard box of salt and beat-up tin of pepper. Just these two things and the butter, and he could make a feast for a king. I swear, that man made cornbread fit to feed Jesus.



He deserved better than that boat, but I guess he had his reasons.



We all had our reasons.



* * *



The first signs of trouble came after supper, the first night we were on the river after Lenoir City. We'd picked up an extra passenger or two there, and some cargo that nobody asked about. I'd been doing this long enough then that I didn't ask. You just don't.



It looked heavy. The roustabouts who brought it onboard staggered underneath it. The hold was already pretty full, so they had to cram it on in.



Some of the hold was taken up with that woman's baggage, and I don't know what a woman like that would travel with. She was a nun, I think—the fat gambler, Mr. Cooper, he called her 'sister' every time he saw her. He said it like he thought it was a joke—like he knew something about her that made it funny.



I saw some nuns up in the city. They worked in a big walled-in building where people left orphans. I'd hear the kids playing on the other side of the wall, and I'd hear the teachers inside. I guess the nuns taught letters and numbers too, not just how to kneel right and say prayers. I'd sit on the other side of the wall and eat my lunch when I had some. I'd listen while they went over the letters. I wished I could see them, though. It would've helped. As it was, I didn't learn much.



Anyway, I knew a nun when I saw one, but something was off about her. She wore the little head covering like they do, and black dresses that were simple. But there was smartness to her and a fastness to the way she moved. She asked a lot of questions.



She asked them with a smile, and with a tilted down head that told you she was all kindness and don't you just know, she was only asking because she wondered—and it wouldn't hurt you at all to talk to her.



But she asked a lot of questions.



She made some of us uncomfortable, but whether that was because she was a Catholic, or a foreign lady, or just because she was an educated lady on a boat full of men who were themselves only half-schooled. . .I don't know. There were a hundred and one reasons for them to push her to the outside.



It turned out she was looking for something. And she was very, very close.



I think if there was a God, really a God like my grandmother said—and like the little red-haired nun believed—then he would have let her find it sooner. If she'd gotten her answers before that last night on the



Mary Byrd, then we might have found our separate ways home, or to whatever destinations we had in mind. We wouldn't have wound up where we did, lying down dead in burned-up clothes at the bottom of a river. The river washed us all clean. It washed us down to nothing but bones, and all our bones were the same.



Or that's just what I think. I been wrong, though.



* * *



As I told you, the trouble began after supper, as it's likely to do. Not all the strangers wanted to eat together, but there are always a few who like it—who enjoy the traveling, and like talking to all the strange new people you find on a boat, or on a road. These people find each other.



So over supper that night there was a handful of folks. The gambler was there, teasing the nun in a friendly way, and she didn't act like she minded it. There were three others, too—including the captain. We were anchored on account of the weather. It was pouring down outside and the water kept sloshing up over the decks.



Mary was riding low in the water, anyhow—because of what she was moving other than people. There was a lot of rocking, and since we were sitting low, the captain didn't want to rush it. I didn't want to argue with him, but I didn't like him being downstairs with no one at the boat's wheel, either.



That might have been silly, though. I didn't know enough about the way boats worked to know if it was bad of him to join us. I guess he could've had someone else up there helping him; I knew we had a roof pilot too, but I hadn't seen him around.



Could be the captain was just hungry.



Well, we fed him. He'd have had more room to eat if he hadn't drank so much. It made me nervous to watch him. This was the man who drove us down the river. Maybe he should've had a better idea when to quit pouring himself more, at least while other folks were watching.



I heard him talking to the other passengers, and they didn't mind him so they let him talk. His voice sounded like childhood to me. It was low and sleepy more often than not, and even when he drank wine he smelled like a cold southern drink served on a porch.



I had a feeling about him, like he'd been in the war, and it hadn't gone so good for him. But he was a man from south of the Ohio, so no, I guess it wouldn't have. I wondered how bad it'd been for him, but it wasn't my place to ask, so I didn't. He wore that old defeat all over him. He wore it like it was an important thing, or something valuable that he wouldn't let out of his sight. But it wasn't. And we all knew it.



"This is my boat," he told them around the table. "I've found a buyer, though. When we get to Chattanooga we'll stay a few days—and I'll hand off the boat, and I'll take my money. That'll be it for me, then. No more of this river business."



"Has it treated you so poorly?" The nun asked. Her accent was as heavy as his, but it came from somewhere father away. "You seem like a comfortable man. You've earned a life from the river, haven't you?"



"I have. I've earned a second life, Sister." They all called her Sister, except for once in a while, one of them would call her Sister Eileen.



Mr. Cooper pulled his pretty watch out of his pocket and checked the time. Supper was over and it might have been getting late, but that's not what he was thinking. He was wondering if it was late enough to bug someone into playing cards with him. But he was willing to wait until the nun left. I guess he thought it was being respectful.



The captain was too drunk to be any good for poker, but one of the other two men might have been dumb enough to take Mr. Cooper on. One by one they retired, though. And then the captain did too. He said he was going back to the wheel, like he was going to start moving again, but we knew he wasn't.



The rain was coming down hard, still. And he had too much wine in him to steer us anyplace at all.



The rain came slapping against the windows, where we had windows, and it came splashing down onto the deck and into the rooms where we didn't. Thunderstorms are easy enough to wait through, though. And it was warm. At least getting wet didn't mean freezing yourself to death, or losing toes. So I didn't mind the rain. I'd missed it, and I was happy to see it again.



"Can I clear these plates out for you?" I asked them, wishing they'd finish up. Mr. Cooper and the nun, as they were the only two left, they told me that was fine and they were mostly finished. But they stayed out there talking in a friendly way, and I thought it was funny that the two of them would be friends.



Doesn't the Lord frown on cards and dice alike?



III.



I will tell you how it happened.



It unraveled.



My given name was John Gabert, but I went by many others if the mood and fancy struck me. From time to time, the mood and fancy came in the form of police atten-tion, or in the stalking threats of mercenaries. Occasionally, it was a journalist—some ratty, tattered little man with a notebook and a pencil clenched between two fingers.



I could only give them what they didn't want. I could give them a name (not my own) and an ounce of respectability (borrowed or stolen), and I always had—at my immediate disposal—an alibi.

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