Ronald Lewis walked past one ruined cottage after another. Miss Hattie Guste's yellow bungalow with the gingerbread trim wore mildew like a three day stubble on a drunk man's chin. The Moseses' place seemed to have been dredged in slime like a piece of useless garbage. Miss Odette's immaculate cottage had become a spooky old hollowed-out skull. Miss Pie's swaybacked shotgun was knocked clean off its bricks so that the porch seemed to be kneeling in the mud. These were Ronald's sacred places, he now realized; he'd been in and out of these houses his whole life. Desecrated they were. Thoughtlessly trashed.
Ronald had seen bad luck before. Houses caught fire, men lost their jobs, children drowned in the canal. Each time, neighbors had given the stricken a bed for the night or a few dollars' help, offering strong backs and consolation. This time, though, bad luck had carried its bucket of bitterness through every house on every block, ladling an equal dose to all. How was anybody to rise out of it, with nobody left unhurt to lend a hand?
Ronald Lewis was fourteen years old, and he'd finally encountered a force of nature more powerful than his mom.
Rebecca Wright was born on the Abbey Sugar Plantation in Thibodaux half a century after emancipation, but not so you'd know the difference. She came up in one of dozens of identical unpainted shacks alongside a cane field, carrying water on her head from a communal pump and listening to her uncles being beaten for the crime of being too sick to work. She had her first baby, Walter, at thirteen, put him on her hip, and lit out for New Orleans. There, she married a quiet man named Irvin Dickerson and had four more children.
When Ronald was born to Rebecca's troubled niece Stella Mae in 1951, Rebecca took him, swaddled in a Charity Hospital blanket, and folded him in with her own born five, becoming the only mama he would ever know. She took him down to the tidy house Irvin had built her, across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Life across the canal was heaven for newcomers from the country. The lots were junglybig enough for chickens, pigs, and even horses. The streets were made of rolled pea gravel and crushed oyster shell: easy on bare feet. Neighbors understood each other. You took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church. No need for all that parading in the street like the city people and the Creoles on the other side of the canal. None of that fancy dressing up and drinking until all hours. It was the best of both worlds for Rebeccaa quiet country life right there by the good waterfront jobs. Irvin worked close by in the sugar factory. When a banana boat was in, the whole neighborhood smelled sweet, and it was bananas in the bread pudding, banana cream pies, and fried bananas for breakfast all week long.
By the time Ronald came, big brother Walter was off at sea with the merchant marine, but the compact house on Deslonde Street was still plenty crowded. Ronald shared a room with Irvin Junior and Larry; Dorothy and Stella shared one down the hall. When they got around the kitchen table every evening, it was all shoulders and elbows. They ate eggplants, corn, and tomatoes from the garden, and eggs from their chickens. Mama bought flour, rice, and grits by the twenty-five-pound bag and, for breakfast, baked biscuits this high before everybody got up; they'd sop them in cane syrup poured from big cans. Dorothy, thirteen years older than Ronald, had a good job by Lopinto's Restaurant and brought home sacks of fishbacks that still had plenty meat on them. The family would crowd into the kitchen late at night, rolling the fishbacks in cornmeal, frying them crisp, and sucking off the flaky white meat, while Mahalia Jackson sang from the radio.
Cousins showed up often from Thibodaux, looking for a better life in the city. Ronald knew times when five or ten might be packed into the house, covering the living room floor at night like dead soldiers, standing around the table at mealtimes, spooning up Mama's rice and gravy, and talking in plantation accents that struck his ear like music. They'd tell of hog killings, alligators long as Cadillacs, and hot pones sticky with molasses. Everybody would be shouting and laughing until Rebecca, standing over the stove with her spatula, hushed them all by snapping, "When I die, do not bring me back to that place."
Excerpted from Nine Lives by Dan Baum Copyright © 2009 by Dan Baum. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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