City of RefugeA Novel
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Tom Piazza
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061238611
Deep mid-August in the New Orleans heat. Not even much traffic a block away on North Claiborne, a Saturday afternoon, and the sound of SJ's hammer going in the stupefying thick air. SJ was almost finished framing the new shed he was building in his backyard. Wiring and Sheetrocking would be for after Labor Day. Way off in the distance, past the Industrial Canal and the reaches of the Upper Ninth Ward and the Bywater, the skyscrapers of downtown and the iridescent blister of the Superdome roof lay naked under the brilliant sun.
Out front, SJ's truck and his van sat in the curved cement driveway he had laid in front of his house (he had moved the structure back seven feet to make room for that driveway), with the magnetic sign on the door—New Breed Carpentry and Repair, and his phone number. It had been cheaper than getting it stenciled on the door itself, and it worked fine, he got calls off of it. He had, however, painted his own name in script on the front fender, the way the taxi drivers did, for an extra touch of distinction. Most of his work came from out in New Orleans East, a sprawling area of new houses and curving, landscaped streets in the subdivisions, reclaimed from swampland in the 1970s, where he could certainly have moved, if money were the only question and he had wanted to leave the Lower Ninth, which he didn't.
SJ's father had built his own house in a vacant lot on North Miro Street, five blocks away, when he came back from World War II, with two-by-fours and weatherboard and nails that he salvaged from all around and saved up by his mama's house. He pulled the nails out of scrap wood, carefully, or found them on the ground, and sometimes even straightened them if they could be straightened, one nail at a time. He kept them in what his mother called put-up jars, sorted roughly by size and thickness and purpose. SJ had kept that old house, although his father was dead and gone, and he rented it out to a widow lady. Sometimes when he wanted to get off by himself he would walk those five blocks to the old house and sit on the side steps and think.
He hammered some finishing nails into a line across the bottom of a small French cornice. He was trying something different with this shed, which he had seen in one of the books his daughter, Camille, sent him from North Carolina, something a little more decorative in a different way, not just utilitarian. His thin, ribbed undershirt, with thin straps over his shoulder, was soaked through with sweat, which glistened on his shaved head, shoulders and upper arms. Around his neck on a thin chain hung a St. Christopher medal. In his mid-fifties, SJ was still a powerful, compact man. He loved to build things, to work with his hands, and he loved to cook, especially outside, and he liked to read. After Rosetta, his wife, had died of an aortic aneurism six years earlier, he had read less and built more.
He would finish the line he was working on and then stop for the day and get some food going. He would go out to find Wesley later if he could; he had left his nephew to finish up a part of the job the day before and Wesley had left the tools sitting outside and SJ had come out in the morning to find them slick with overnight wet. He had wiped them down and put them in the oven to sweat them out, but he didn't understand that carelessness at all. His nephew was a smart young man, nineteen years old and teetering on the edge of some-thing anyone in the Lower Nine knew all too well. Lately he had been riding around at night on these motorcycles where you had to hunch way over, weaving in and out of stopped traffic. Where he got the money for the bike SJ didn't know and Lucy, SJ's sister, would not say. At least, SJ thought, they had the bikes to work on. Working with your hands kept you focused on the real world. Still, you could hit a pothole on of those bikes and end up in a wheelchair for life.
Two weeks earlier the police arrested Wesley for beating on his girlfriend. SJ had drilled into his nephew many times the importance of surviving the encounter with police when you had one. Wesley had a quick mouth and a mannish attitude, but he had done allright, at least he hadn't gotten the police mad, and SJ got the call from the jail at 3:30 in the morning and SJ and Lucy had to go down and get him out on bond and later on SJ had demanded an accounting from his nephew.
"Uncle J she slap me and I didn't hit her. I'm not lying." They were sitting in SJ's living room, the sky just getting light outside. Wesley had on jeans with the crotch halfway down to his knees, and an oversize T-shirt hanging out, and he had taken off his Raiders cap at his uncle's request. His reddish skin seemed to be breaking out, and his hair was uneven and untended. "Then she slap me again and called me a pussy. What I'm supposed to do?"
"Walk out the room, nephew. You already paying for another man's baby. How she going to respect you? You need to find a woman who gonna watch your back and not put a knife in it. It doesn't matter how good that pussy is, you got to stay alive."
Wesley looked up at his uncle then, sly smile, the charming look, "It is good, Uncle J."
SJ allowed himself a small laugh. He knew as well as anyone. He remembered one of the old blues records his father liked to play, something about "Some people say she's no good, but she's allright with me."